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The Usefulness of Pain: An Interview with Melissa Febos

I first read Melissa Febos while in my MFA program. Her memoir Whip Smart was next to the register of my local indie bookstore, and I picked it up while the cashier was helping the person in front of me. This was years ago, but I remember it well, because her memoir of her work as a professional dominatrix was unlike anything I’d ever read before. Her new book, Abandon Me, is a collection of luminescent autobiographical essays—stories about bonds that break, fierce love, and what makes a family, all shot through with art and passion. It defies easy description or categorization, and begs to be reread, to be unpeeled, layer after layer.

Jaime Rochelle Herndon: Abandon Me feels more “bare bones,” somehow, than Whip Smart. More raw or vulnerable. On page 196, you say, about Whip Smart: “By building a story, I could find a beginning, middle, and end.” Does this also apply to Abandon Me? Continue reading

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Non-Fiction by Non-Men: MariNaomi

Photo Credit: Jolene Siana

MariNaomi is the author and illustrator of Kiss & Tell: A Romantic Resume, Ages 0 to 22 (Harper Perennial, 2011), Dragon’s Breath and Other True Stories (2dcloud/Uncivilized Books, 2014), Turning Japanese (2dcloud, 2016), and I Thought YOU Hated ME (Retrofit Comics, 2016). Her work has appeared in over sixty print publications and has been featured on numerous websites, such as LA Review of Books, Midnight Breakfast, and BuzzFeed. From 2011-2013 her comics appeared as the column Smoke In Your Eyes on The Rumpus.

MariNaomi’s comics and paintings have been featured by such institutions as the Smithsonian, the De Young Museum, the Cartoon Art Museum, the Asian Art Museum, and the Japanese American Museum. In 2011, Mari toured with the literary roadshow Sister Spit. She is the creator and curator of the Cartoonists of Color Database and the Queer Cartoonists Database. She has taught classes for the California College of the Arts Comics MFA program, and is currently a guest editor at PEN America.

E.B. Bartels: How did you begin writing and drawing nonfiction? What attracted you to the genre?

MariNaomi: As a girl (as early as age five) I thought I’d grow up to be a novelist, and by age 21 I’d written two novels. I was determined to be a best-selling prodigy. Well, that’s not how things turned out, and I quickly learned that trying to get published is a different game than making up stories, and that I don’t deal well with rejection. After a particularly cruel comment from a publisher (“Who would ever want to read a book like this? It’s too depressing.”) I was shamed into novelistic silence, and I put away my typewriter (yes, both novels were written on typewriters!). Continue reading

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Non-Fiction by Non-Men: Eula Biss

Eula Biss is the author of On Immunity: An Inoculation, which was named one of the 10 Best Books of 2014 by the New York Times Book Review, and Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays, which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism in 2010 and was the winner of the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize. Biss’s first book, The Balloonists, was published by Hanging Loose Press in 2002. She has been the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Howard Foundation Fellowship, an National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship, and a Jaffe Writers’ Award. Her essays have appeared in The Believer, Harper’s, and The New York Times Magazine, among others. Biss holds a B.A. in nonfiction writing from Hampshire College and an M.F.A. in nonfiction writing from the University of Iowa. She teaches at Northwestern University and lives with her family in Evanston, Illinois.

BARTELS: How did you begin writing nonfiction?

BISS: I began writing nonfiction by writing poetry, which is nonfiction in the sense that it’s not fiction. I earned my undergraduate degree in nonfiction under the mentorship of three poets: Martin Espada, Deb Gorlin, and Paul Jenkins. I studied the tradition of prose poetry in college and I was writing what I called prose poetry by the time I graduated. I thought of myself as a poet, and my community was a community of poets—that hasn’t changed. My transition into writing essays was fairly organic. The prose poems I was writing gradually became longer and longer, and heavier on information. There’s a fine line, if there’s a line at all, between a 3,000-word autobiographical prose poem and a short personal essay.

BARTELS: I’ve heard your first book, The Balloonists, described as a book of poetry. But if the line is so fine, do you really see it in that genre? Continue reading

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The Literary Tourist Interviews Canaan Morse

Canaan Morse Invisibility Cloak translator Ge Fei

The Literary Tourist is a column of conversations between literary translators about newly released books in translation. This month Andrea Gregovich interviews poet, editor, and Chinese translator Canaan Morse. Canaan co-founded the literary journal Pathlight: New Chinese Writing as its first poetry editor, won the Susan Sontag Prize for Translation in 2014, and has published translations and book reviews in several international journals, both print and online. The Invisibility Cloak, a captivating experimental novel by Ge Fei, is Canaan’s first translated book.

Andrea Gregovich: The Invisibility Cloak feels unique to me—a Beijing-based freelance designer of custom sound systems for wealthy people takes a sketchy job that goes awry, and trouble ensues. Its narrative is a patchwork of classical music discussion, shop talk about audio components, and the political and philosophical opinions of various characters. Did you detect any literary influences when you were working on this book? Does it fit into any literary trends in China?

Canaan Morse: I’m so glad you asked this question, because my answer is a resounding “No.” While much of the earlier, experimental fiction upon which Ge Fei built his reputation is deeply (and clearly) influenced by American Modernism, his later fiction speaks with a much more individualized voice. This book in particular leaves an aesthetic impression unlike any other; its terse yet suddenly mellifluous narrative style and its embrace of suspense distinguish it clearly from all the English and Chinese literature I’ve read. Continue reading

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Non-Fiction by Non-Men: Elizabeth Greenwood

elizabeth-greenwood

Elizabeth Greenwood is the author of Playing Dead: A Journey Through the World of Death Fraud. She holds an MFA from Columbia University, where she teaches creative nonfiction. Greenwood grew up in Worcester, Massachusetts.

EB: How did you begin writing nonfiction?

EG: I began dabbling in nonfiction upon the suggestion of a favorite ex-boyfriend who liked my emails and urged me to try something a bit more ambitious. I blogged under a pseudonym for a while which was totally freeing. I’d always loved writing and revered books but had no clue how one went about becoming a writer, outside of academia. I was teaching English as a Second Language in the NYC public schools and wanted to make a switch, so I spent about a year asking everyone what they did for work and what they liked about it. Fortune smiled upon me when I was seated next to a woman at a dinner party who described her job as teaching writing at Columbia and taking classes, and getting paid to do so. Bingo. That was what I wanted to do.

EB: So you decided to pursue an MFA. But why nonfiction as opposed to fiction or poetry? Continue reading

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Interview with Belle Boggs

belle-boggs

The Art of Waiting is a hybrid memoir from Belle Boggs, author of the 2010 novel Mattaponi Queen. It tells the story of Boggs’s journey through infertility and IVF, but it also examines fertility, motherhood, and assisted reproduction, and how these fit into our society and culture. Drawing from medicine, theater, literature, personal experience, anecdotes, and biology, Boggs writes about motherhood in a smart, unsentimental, incisive way.

I knew from the moment I read about this book on a friend’s Facebook post that I had to read it. As a medical writer with a degree in maternal-child health and a background working in ob/gyn, and as a new mother who used assisted reproductive technology to conceive my son, I can tell you this: The Art of Waiting does not disappoint. Boggs’s prose is quiet but powerful, and she did her research in every way.

Jamie Rochelle Herndon: This is not merely a memoir; it feels to me like a cultural exploration/commentary/criticism, almost a sociological memoir, if that makes sense. What made you decide to write it like that, instead of a straight memoir? Continue reading

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