YOUTH FICTION AWARD
Would you like to pursue writing as a career? If not, is there something else you are passionate about that you can see yourself doing?
I’ve wanted to be a writer for as long as I can remember, but I’m open to other options, especially now that I’m in college. I’ve considered illustration, neuroscience, and even theoretical physics (that one was short-lived). Writing is my enduring interest, though. I’m going to pursue it, at least for the time being.
What or who is your inspiration to write?
When I’m feeling uninspired, I read Alice Munro, George Saunders, Karen Russell, or Lucia Berlin. They usually get my mind going. More recently, I’ve been reading Amy Hempel and Lydia Davis. I also keep a journal. I record basically everything that happens to me throughout the day. That gives me real-life inspiration to draw from. Sometimes, when I can’t think of anything to write, I go sit in the coffee shop near my dorm and write about the first person who walks in. That one is hit-or-miss. I recently wrote about a man who I watched dump an entire strawberry yogurt into his coffee.
Do you have a favorite line from a book or poem? What is it and why?
I like Ezra Pound’s short poem “In a Station of the Metro.” It reads: “The apparition of these faces in the crowd; / petals on a wet, black bough.” I’m not sure it’s my favorite, but it really struck me when I first read it in high school. I think about it often. The image feels true and unforced. It makes used to make me feel lonely, but now it brings tranquility. I think the best lines are the ones I can read in different ways as I get older.
Who are some of your favorite writers? How did they influence your writing?
I started writing Redwing Solitaire when I was living in New York City in 2006, and I was reading a lot of Deborah Eisenberg, particularly Under the 82nd Airborne and All Around Atlantis. Those stories killed me, I loved them so much, and I’m sure I tried to channel some version of her. I know at that time I was also reading and re-reading Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood, which is a book I still re-read from time to time for its sparkling poetic prose. And finally, as far as favorite writers, I should mention Robert Walser. Whenever I’m in between books, and feeling depressed because of this, I usually reach for one of his books and read a few of his crazy-injected, big-hearted mini-narratives, and I always feel better.
Did you have any wacky interests as a child?
Honestly I wasn’t very wacky as a child. I’ve grown wackier as an adult, but I’m the gray-flannel-suit-on-a-hot-day wacky, which isn’t very wacky, and more itchy. I think when I was four my parents got me a big kitchen play set. I don’t remember it at all, but supposedly I loved cooking for my parents (I was probably a better cook back then: more creative). But I don’t really consider that wacky. My brother and I used to play wiffleball in our back yard for probably six hours a day. We made up teams, and all the different players on each team. Sometimes we’d hit a foul ball into the neighbor’s yard and hit the neighbor’s seventeen-year old daughter who was sun-bathing. I remember one of Scott’s players was named Smelly Delly (I don’t know why I remember him over others). Again, that’s not so much wacky as boy obsessed by sports.
What are some roadblocks you face when you are writing, and how do you get past them?
Wow, that’s a good question. I hardly know where to begin. So many roadblocks! I recently heard poet Christian Barter talk about trail design at Acadia National Park, and how his favorite trails are often the ones that presented the most roadblocks and challenges, which I thought was great advice, if only in hindsight. But in the moment, when I run into a roadblock, I usually panic first. Then, I continue to freak out for a few days, think I’m done writing forever, I’m shit, dried-up, never any good. Then I take my dog for a walk, and have a margarita with my wife, who is a master cocktail maker and editor. She usually says some kind, smart things that I never would’ve thought about. Then I forget about things for a while, sleep, worry about money, tick check my dog, go to work. And then—presto!—when I sit back down to write, things don’t seem so bad, and I can usually find a way out. Usually.
EXCELLENCE IN PUBLISHING
Stop Here. This is the Place.
Susan Conley & Winky Lewis (Down East Books)
What is the most surprising thing you have learned about motherhood?
That everything is fluid. What you thought was THE secret elixir to solving for motherhood yesterday, has changed while you were sleeping and now you need to figure out another magic potion for solving your child. And maybe that’s the other thing I’ve learned: that there is no “solving” but only showing up and being a witness and a supporter from the sidelines.
What were some significant differences between writing in response to Winky’s photos and writing a piece entirely by yourself?
I think you mean writing in response to a photograph like I did in this book. When someone gives me something to write about: a place, a photograph, an old Ford truck, a hairbrush, it’s pure manna. I have the blueprint already before me: the thing itself. All I need to then do is riff around for ideas in response to the thing, which is exactly what I did in this book project with Winky Lewis’ photos. They were the very greatest jumping off point, because they took me to my childhood and got me to think about it and discover it as an adult.
When I’m creating by myself, I’m never really “by myself.” I am always a constellation of my experiences and the things themselves that have shaped me, and I carry that history with me and write it about in different ways again and again.
What is unique about editing a collaborative project? Is it harder or easier when there are two people involved?
A collaboration like this is such a joy: the conversations that ensued between Winky’s photos and my words were evocative and they taught me important things about world building on the page and about concision and economy. Our big editing rule in this project was no censor. So really the editing wasn’t a problem in any sense. We gave one another completely autonomy over their side of the street: photos and words, and then we just banished the censor and tried to let our imaginations go. If anything, having a collaborator is a bonus track, because it allows for someone else in the room with you when you are trying to cut pages and make the harder decisions about what gets to stay in the book….
BOOK AWARD FOR MEMOIR
Poor Your Soul
What is your favorite setting to write in?
It’s a four-spot cycle: sometimes in my office at home, with my dog Maybe snoring under my feet. Sometimes it’s at the kitchen table, closest to the coffee pot and food. Sometimes it’s in my bed, when my back hurts from sitting at a desk, and sometimes it’s at the Portland Public Library, when I have a deadline and have to physically remove myself from distractions, like doing the laundry, or napping.
At what point in a literary work’s creation do you create the title?
Usually at the very beginning of my project. Something in my subconscious just KNOWS what the essence of this book is supposed to be, and it just comes to me. Always in the beginning of the project, always.
Was there a section of Poor Your Soul that was emotionally difficult to write?
There is a chapter where I write about running away from home, and how much of a jerk I was when I was a teenager. I still feel awful about it, so it was difficult to confront my choices and behaviors, because I know the pain and heartbreak it caused my family. And it was a choice I made. But after I wrote about it, it became an apology, and made so many piece of my life make sense to me. But writing it was awful.
What did you learn about yourself through writing this memoir?
That I tried my best and still do. And that I’m too hard on myself often.