BOOK AWARD for NONFICTION (tie)
American Character (Viking)
What effect would you like your book to have on the American public?
American Character aims to save the republic, I guess I’d have to say! It presents a sound, historically-validated, intellectual foundation for what I think would be a super-majority political consensus on address the country’s challenges and maintain and expand our 250-year liberal democratic experiment. We’ve been polarized and stalemated for decades now, but it hasn’t always been so, and doesn’t need to be in future if one or another political formation would consciously develop a politics aimed at winning over a super-majority of our regional cultures (which I define and discuss in the book’s predecessor, American Nations.)
What were your interests as a child? Did they shape the writer you have become today?
My parents were writers and artists, so I guess I always had the idea I would write for a living. I didn’t quite intend to be a journalist, but looking back I guess the signs were there: I created my first handwritten weekly newspaper at home when I was 8 or 9, founded another via mimeograph machine at my elementary school, a third via photocopier at my high school, and worked for my college paper. And there was an 8th grade writing project that turned into a tongue-and-cheek parody of James Michener’s Chesapeake, but set instead in my tiny hometown in western Maine over three centuries. So maybe the idea of writing history was baked in somehow as well.
What are you doing when you are not writing?
We have small kids—7 and 1—so when not writing, reporting (for the day job or other publications), or speaking, I’m usually picking up toys, trying to get someone to bed or school, reading Harry Potter and Eric Carle aloud, or just trying to get some sleep.
BOOK AWARD for FICTION
Vexation Lullaby (Catapult)
Is there a character in your book that you relate to most, or that you created to resemble yourself? Peter Silver has a hard time making decisions–what to eat? what to watch? who to be? I am familiar with indecisiveness, though rarely crippled by it. Writing forces me to make choices, to commit to a path. I’d rather resemble almost any other character in the book, but it is what it is.
What advice do you give to your students about writing?
Get beyond the place you know. Accept that you’re bound to fail, then proceed. If nothing works, read something that A) inspires you or B) makes you rage. Coffee is good. When something works, celebrate it, but don’t let it go to your head.
How do you know when a novel is completely finished?
Read the thing out loud. If that doesn’t make your skin crawl, ask a friend to read it back to you. If the language can survive those tests, I think you’re done with it. I know some folks who insist that the best way to put a book to bed is to start another project. They may be right, but, like the Hair-of-the-Dog cure, most folks don’t have the stomach for it.
BOOK AWARD for CHILDREN’S LITERATURE
Baby Bear’s Not Hibernating (Down East Books)
Lynn Plourde (Illustrated by Teri Weidner)
Who is the first person to read your drafts?
My husband, always my husband. He’s an avid reader, also a former English teacher—so those help. But mostly, he knows me better than anyone else so he can tell if I’m play acting the role of author or if I’m writing with my own fingerprint and my own heartprint.
Is there anything difficult about writing children’s literature that people should know?
They should know it ain’t easy. It took me thirteen years of rejections before I ever got published, and I still get more rejections than acceptances even after twenty years of being published. The problem is it looks easy. A two-to-three page manuscript, 500 or less words—easy peasy, right? Wrong! The idea for a picture book (i.e. bedtime book, sibling rivalry) may not be new, but the angle of that idea, the voice of that story, the main character all need to be fresh and new. You can’t be the next Dr. Seuss. That’s been done. You can’t be the next Margaret Wise Brown, Goodnight Moon-er. That’s been done, too. Plus each word needs to be perfect—as much as possible. A novel is so long that it won’t live or die if some words here or there are “meh.” But a picture book, that will be read over and over (if you’ve done things right), needs to delight as much on the fiftieth reading as the first reading. Finally, as a picture book author, you’re second fiddle—get used to it. The reason people pick up picture books is because of the PICTURES, not your writing. If the illustrations do their job, then people will pick the book up off the library or bookstore shelf and read your words and hopefully enjoy them. But, even then, the focus is still likely to be on the illustrations. Illustrations have more power in picture books today than they ever have. I used to have picture books published that had 1,000 or 1,200 words, but not any more. Editors want minimal words, 200-300 if possible. They want less words so the illustrations are carrying more of the story. The less words an author has to use, the harder it is, the more perfect those words need to be. I struggle with this minimal word focus because I believe kids deserve words that delight as well as illustrations that delight. But it is what it is, so I try to write more with less. It ain’t easy.
What was your favorite children’s story as a child? Did it inspire you at all to write children’s literature?
I grew up as a reader, but of series . . . Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, Bobbsey Twins. Being a reader was important, but I was most inspired by stories told by my family. My family members were not readers and writers. They knew how to read and write, but they did so for mundane reasons like catching up on the news, paying bills, writing messages in cards. They didn’t read and write for the joy of it. But, oh my, the stories they told were filled with joy. I grew up across the street from my Mémère and Pépère so I had extended family around who told over-the-top, my-story-beats-your-story narratives when they gathered in my grandparent’s rumpus room or around the kitchen table as they played cards. I sat quietly at the corner of that table, rather than going outside to play with my siblings and cousins, and breathed in those stories. That’s when I learned the power of storytelling and that’s why grew up to be an author.
SHORT WORKS COMPETITION, POETRY
What do you think is the most important part of writing a good poem? How did you come to learn this yourself?
The volta or “the turn” is for me the most important part of writing a good poem. Without this shift point, i.e. this point of change, a poem loses meaning and risks failure. Kenneth Boulding in his work The Image states in so many words: no meaning, no change; no change, no meaning. Following Boulding, for a poem to have meaning, it must then conspire change, which it does via its volta, its turn. Hence, for me, the volta makes every poem a political poem. I first learned about the volta, of course, through studying Shakespearean sonnets where the volta occurs just before the final couplet and in Petrarchan sonnets just before the sestet. Then I became aware that each and every poem I love has a volta. The voltaic poem, and each poet and each poem do this so differently, moves toward its “turn,” reveals it, and takes it into final line/s, which doesn’t always mean resolve.
What part of a poem is the hardest to write? The first line, last line, title? Does it vary?
The hardest part of a poem for me to write also happens to be what I consider the most important part, the volta. But for me, the challenge is allowing the volta versus writing the volta. I believe any poem in the making is desperately seeking its apex. I am referring to that place in the poem where one or two lines break the trance, sweep off the ledge, or jump the cliff into the field of the unknown and unexpected, taking the whole poem into peak discovery. This can be terrifying. At this stage of poem making, most of us just have to get out of the way, suspend our fear, the critic, the perfectionist, our love affair with logic and linearity, or any other certainty-seeking saboteurs. “The turn” is bold, defies logic, loves nonlinear, reveres the chaotic, enjoys a mess, and seeks the unknown. Once I have “the turn” in hand, and you know it when you got it, not only is there great relief, but also most other parts of the poem, at least for me, fall into place.
Are there any parallels between poetry and architecture? What advice do you have for people who want to pursue two seemingly different paths?
As poet and architect, I view poems as literary architectures with accessible portals that open into unexpected habitations and inner terrains, and living architectures as poems. In architectural design, what we call the parti, “the big idea,” emerges quite magically, out of the corner of the eye. Just as the parti for the architect holds the whole idea of the building within it, so it is for me the same in poem making, by which the parti, perhaps a single word or color or feeling, holds the whole psychic field or the whole dream of the poem inside it including its volta. Once the parti is revealed, I unpack (or keep working) its dimensions and details into structure whether architectural or poetical, and, most importantly, the very process of discovery must be embodied within the thing itself so that the magic reverberates, evolves, and is discovered and experienced by the inhabitant upon each reentry or reread. In terms of writers pursuing two different career paths, my being an architect has nourished, offered crossing points with, and informed my poetry and vice versa. Managing and balancing a multi-dimensional life has been the challenge and has necessitated my structuring time with set boundaries, so that the day job or career path doesn’t overstep and consume writing time. So, I suggest staying connected with other writers through literary organizations and libraries; participating in workshops and conferences; forming a small, local weekly or biweekly writing group in one’s genre; establishing and inhabiting writing space wherever it might be; knowing the preferred writing time of day; and being persistent. I have to say though that I could live without architecture; however, I would die without poetry.
SHORT WORKS COMPETITION, NONFICTION
Margaret Newlin Rice
Do you have a funny or noteworthy story associated with your writing life?
George Plimpton and I were distant cousins and met at an Ames family reunion years ago. He put participatory journalism on the map, delving into specialized endeavors as a complete and often bumbling amateur. Subconsciously, I followed in his footsteps by chronicling the adventures of ten young women who hiked the entire length of the Appalachian Trail. I accidentally hiked the entire width of it a couple times in the process. With any luck, Trail Angel will hit the bookstores someday and do for my career what Paper Lion did for cousin George’s.
Is there a nonfiction book that has recently taught you something you did not know before? How did this surprise you?
Malcolm Gladwell surprised me by revealing exactly how many hours we have to put into writing (or hockey, or rock n roll…) before we’ve achieved mastery. 10,000? Yeah, thanks, buddy.
What person, place, or text has most influenced your writing?
Unlike my daughter, I’m not a huge fan of Stephen King’s fiction, but his nonfiction is another story. Whenever I find myself overworking adjectives and neglecting my verbs, among other things, I recall the many tips and tricks from his memoir, On Writing. I owe a heap of gratitude to my fellow U Maine grad, Mr. King, for helping me strengthen my craft. I’m also indebted to our other famous King, Angus, for jotting down Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers at an MWPA fundraiser and handing it to me. 10,000 hours. Holy cow, are we there yet?
SHORT WORKS COMPETITION, FICTION
Have you had any experiences with failure, as a writer, from which you thought you would not recover? What did that experience teach you? Did it make you a better writer?
The obvious form of failure for a writer would be rejection, but I’ve never had a rejection that felt like I couldn’t recover from. I don’t even really see that as failure, just as part of the process.
Oddly, the place that taught me to understand failure as a process—even more than my MFA program or the writing workshops I’ve attended–was a brew-on-premise called Barleycorn’s. I worked there when I lived in Massachusetts in my mid-20s, leading customers through the beer brewing and wine-making process. Step by step, I’d show them how to add water, grains and hops to kettles for beer, or grape must and yeast to fermentation vessels for wine, and then a few weeks or even months later they would come back to bottle their final product (random trivia: on bottling day, brewers shared with everyone. Winemakers never did, not once). It was a fantastic job for a lot of reasons. I got to hang out with people I liked a lot brewing and drinking beer, so it was hard to have bad days.
Professional brewers would often come and use the shop as a little experimental laboratory, the 15 gallon batches we brewed much more forgiving and cheaper than the hundreds or thousands of gallons they worked with in their breweries. They’d come to Barleycorn’s to try something new, some tweak to the common variables. Maybe they’d throw in jalapenos, or try bittering with a new hop varietal, or age their IPA recipe on coffee beans.
If I asked them how they thought it would turn out, they’d say “Good, I hope!” Usually, if they knew for sure that the beer would work from the start, they probably weren’t doing anything very interesting anyway.
At the end of the process there’d typically be something wonderful (these guys were pros, after all). But sometimes the beer just didn’t turn out the way they hoped. The brewers would take a sip and they’d nod, sometimes grimace, then they’d list off all the variables they could change to do better next time. Often it was something minor: the body might be too thin, so they’d add more malt, or maybe the bitterness was off-balance, so they’d try different hops. Sometimes it was a major change: maybe you just shouldn’t age an IPA on coffee beans.
None of that is really surprising. They’re professional brewers, so of course they’d break down their bad batches and try to improve. What was inspiring was seeing what the best brewers did. They’d take a sip and sometimes smile, then list off all the variables they’d change to do better next time. They treated their good and bad batches the exact same way: as another opportunity to improve.
Writing doesn’t seem that different. Sometimes things work out, and sometimes they don’t. There are always more ingredients and techniques, always more words to play around with. There are always opportunities to improve. Maybe the only failure that matters, maybe the only one that there’s any risk of not recovering from, is the failure to recognize those opportunities.
If you could get one message across through your writing, what would it be?
I don’t really think I have a consistent message. Every story deals in some oblique way with a concern I have at the moment, some idea or issue or question I’m preoccupied with, but that focus tends to shift from story to story.
I hope to God, whatever that focus is at the moment, it’s not too obvious. I hope first and foremost people read my work and think, Damn, that was a good story, and not Damn, that had a strong message. I’m a writer, not a preacher.
Do you have a favorite word? What is it and why does it appeal to you?
Not really, but I’ll say “bedtime.” I have two very active little boys, one of whom is sitting on my lap right now asking me a series of seemingly endless questions about the crow he can see from the window (“Can crows eat flowers? If a crow crashes into your window do you have to bring it to the doctor?”) and after their bedtime is when I get to spend uninterrupted time with my wife or, if she’s at work, when I get some quiet time to write.
JOHN N. COLE AWARD FOR MAINE-THEMED NONFICTION
Caught (Wrack Line Books)
Glen Libby with photographs by Antonia Small
What sparked your desire to write about your work in the fishing industry?
I grew up in Thomaston and spent a lot of time on the St George river river and the islands as a child with my parents. When my brother and I entered our teen years my father said ” I am going to buy you boys a boat and motor, you are going to go clam digging in the river and pay me back, it’s time for you to learn what hard work is all about.” I was 14, my brother was 12.
We continued to dig clams for many years and then we decided as a family to buy a fishing boat and fish for groundfish out of Port Clyde. This lead to a career fishing for fish , scallops, shrimp, and a brief bit of lobstering, clamming filled the gaps .
The independent life style ( being your own boss) always appealed to me so fishing , clamming , etc. was a good fit. The ability to make more by working harder was and still is very appealing to me. I did have a “real” job for 3 months one time during the winter for $2.60 per hour which was fifty cents above minimum wage. The company I worked for eventually fired all the other workers apparently determining that I was doing all the work just fine by myself and they were saving quite a bit on payroll, unfortunately for them they did not see fit to reward hard work , I never did get a raise and decided to go back clamming where I could make more in a day than I could in a week at $2.60 per hour.
It is safe to say that after being my own boss from a young age I was ” hooked” on fishing .
What is your favorite word to describe Maine?
What parts of nature inspire your writing most?
The parts of nature that inspires writing and everything I do is the realization of the absolute perfection that surrounds us and the quest to understand how it all came to be, how we fit in, and where this great adventure is headed. If I could only live for a million years or so I might be able to begin to have a very small beginning of an understanding of everything. I feel extraordinarily blessed to be here at all and to bear witness of the miracle of life in this little part of the immense universe.
Antonia Small, Photographer
What sparked your desire to write about your work in the fishing industry?
When I was 11 my family went back to my mother’s home town, Fairhope, AL, for her brother’s wedding. Within hours of arriving all the adults were talking about the “Jubilee.” My 11 year-old mind thought a jubilee sounded awfully exciting, like a carnival was coming to town. Turns out, a “Jubilee” on Mobile Bay, is all about fish. And time. And place. I spent every summer with my uncle and his bride from that first visit to my 17th summer; I got to see a lot of jubilees.
When conditions are right, the oxygen level in the waters of the bay go down driving flounder, crabs, shrimp, eels and other demersal fish to the surface in search of more oxygenated waters. They come to the coastal waters of the Eastern Shore of Mobile Bay, but the exact location can vary from miles to a few hundred feet. As I recall, the signs to look for were a flat calm bay and a gentle easterly breeze. Jubilee always happens in the pre-dawn hours, so you would note the sea and sky in the evening, on your way to bed.
My uncle would sleep in his cutoff blue jeans and a t-shirt. So would I. Sometimes he’d get a phone call in the middle of the night, “come quick, it’s here at my house.” Other times, he’d come back to fetch me from my bed, having made the trek down and back the 112 steps to the beach in front of his house and discover jubilee was at our front door. He shake me, “come on Toni Girl, it’s time for Jubilee.” I’d roll out, slip on some sneakers, grab a couple of galvanized tubs, a lantern of my own and follow Richard back across the lawn and down the 112 steps to the beach. My uncle carried the flounder spears, his own lantern, a garbage can, and, if were getting late (early morning), a cup of chicory coffee.
Once on the beach you would see lanterns up and down the shore, people coming down from the bluffs to harvest. Tying a rope to the bucket, you’d wade into the water, towing the bucket behind you, scuffling your feet to stir up the flounder – the sneakers were to protect your toes from the stacks of crabs. You could grab 5 to 6 crabs at a time and throw them in the bucket. Flounders would reveal themselves as they swam away from your feet; a quick throw of the spear would land them on the long line trailing behind. In no time you’d have breakfast, lunch and dinner caught, with some for your neighbors or family and friends. The hardest part of the job was carting everything back up the 112 steps to the house.
If there was dawn light in the sky, my uncle would make another pot of coffee and we’d go meet his father-in-law at the town slipway and trawl for shrimp for a few hours while the sun rose.
What is your favorite word to describe Maine?
Coastal Maine: salty. I don’t know the rest of Maine so well, or yet.
What parts of nature inspire your writing most?
The sea-infused relationships.
BOOK AWARD FOR NONFICTION (tie)
Modified (G.P. Putnam’s Sons)
What was the most surprising thing you learned about GMOs in your research for your book as well as after your diagnosis?
The surprising thing for me, once I got into this, was that the issue with the GMO as I saw it, was not so much about the DNA reassortment or labeling, even, but the chemical pesticides which are part and parcel with these crops. As you may know, the chemical pesticides are made by the same companies that engineer the seeds to be dependent on those very same chemicals…which is remarkably ingenious business. As I was researching the book, I became extremely concerned about how those chemicals are affecting our environment–the fact that they are now in our soil, water, air and that the use of pesticides has gone up, rather than down, as was promised by the biotech companies. (They also promised that GMOs would increase yield which has been another fallacy.)
So, when I realized how seriously these chemicals are affecting the ecosystem and, also, our children–causing anything from new childhood cancers, to learning disabilities, to endocrine disorders–I realized that the GMO was only the opening portal into a book that really became about pesticides and the government and big business and food and the land and water we all share. I learned, unfortunately, how our regulatory agencies have become corrupted and, ultimately, broken–totally unable to protect the American people in the ways they were first designed to do. Modified is a book of questions more than anything–a journey of one person, one mother, across the Great Plains, to Europe, to California where I asked experts, scientists, activists, beekeepers and government people questions about food and chemicals and bees and butterflies and children. My research brought me face to face with questioning what our core American values are in the face of such incredible environmental and health problems and I wondered if it was going to be possible to fix them.
Will all of your future writing have something to do with GMOs, the ecosystem, or the environment in general? Are you now focused on exposing the world to environmental issues through your writing?
This book was such a privilege to write–it’s a huge, unwieldy, important topic and it concerns something we all need: food. I felt it was my job to try to translate some of the arguments and science for the regular American person by introducing them to some of the characters in this discussion across this country, and in Europe. That said, it was also a huge challenge! It took me years, during which time I had one small child and got pregnant with a birthed a (non-sleeping) second. I’m not joking when I say that the book on top of mothering two little ones with a husband who worked full time to support us almost killed me! I was tired beyond belief and the grind of the book affected our whole family. BUT I was so lucky to have a husband who supported me and the incredible, sustaining pride of my eldest son.
This past winter, I decided to take a break from nonfiction until my kids are a little older. This kind of important and scientific book requires so much travel and time and hard work–it’s just antithetical right now to the kind of mother I want to be to my two kids.
Happily, I had an idea for a novel which I have been carrying around since 1998, if you can believe it! It’s a book I’ve wanted to turn to for so long, a story that has burned in me and for which I’ve filled many notebooks and saved so many little scraps of napkins and papers with notes and images and voices….carrying them around and stuffing them in a big folder under my desk.
These days, I get up at 5 and write for a bit and then turn to mothering. It is a balance that feels so happy for me right now–so lucky. Like a huge gift.
There are some very big and important stories about our environment that need to be told. I feel confident I will find a way to come back to writing about my deep environmental and planetary concerns, if I can bear the heartbreak of it. But for now, I am leaning into fiction and just really hoping that others will pick up my baton and continue to soldier forth, asking good questions and being willing to challenge their own preconceived ideas while they report.
What is the biggest difference between writing a memoir and writing nonfiction?
Nonfiction–especially if it involves science and history and medicine–just requires so much research. A memoir, my experience with writing Made for You and Me, is selective–you get to choose what you tell. My feeling with nonfiction is that you need to tell the whole truth–to the best of your ability. You are mandated to look at an issue from a variety of angles, and be honest and open to changing your own mind while presenting the issues in an clear enough way that your reader can make up his or her mind. In my case, I’d get into bed every night, hugely pregnant, with a big stack of scientific studies, agricultural books, gardening and tree books, science and business magazines… I can’t tell you how many times I fell asleep with a highlighter in my hand! When I was writing, I would work on the pages in the morning and then fact check and research and interview all afternoon long. Then come home, make dinner and put my eldest son to bed. Then fold laundry while watching a documentary and then, finally, get back to the research in bed. There were many late night interviews and emails and late nights where I would lie in bed and realize that someone had changed my mind about something. It’s just an enormous, weighty job, when you are writing about something so important, with such serious consequences. This, for me, is very different from the much more reasonable work of sitting down to write down one’s memories and ideas.
BOOK AWARD FOR ANTHOLOGY
Take Heart: More Poems from Maine (Down East Books)
Wesley McNair (Editor)
How do you pick the poems that go into your anthologies?
I’m drawn to poems that appeal not only to poetry enthusiasts but to readers outside of the poetry circuit. I look for a fresh language and approach, and for music. I want to feel the poet is paying close attention to each sentence as it unfolds line by line, and I want to be moved by the result.
What advice can you give new poets?
Be patient and humble in your craft. Robert Frost once said that “poet” is a praise word – that is, you can’t call yourself a poet, only your readers can do that. Becoming a poet will take your whole life. Read lots of poetry, including poems written by those who came before your contemporaries. This will allow you to step back from current biases and assess them. If you like a poem, ask yourself, “How did she or he do that?” – making the poem a lesson. Take special note of the poem’s intensity of language, its imagery and arc of action, and its way of saying by not quite saying. Memorize poems by a variety of poets – Keats, Dickinson, Whitman, Frost, Yeats, Dylan Thomas, Roethke, Plath, Rich, Oliver. Remember that when you learn a poem by heart, you put it in the place where poems come from. There’s no predicting how a memorized poem will influence you, but its impact on your development is bound to be important.
Is there a certain place or mindset you need to be in in order to write a good poem?
I have a cabin in the woods alongside Drury Pond where I write during the summer. I’m out there for two or three hours before breakfast at our camp, and sometimes I return to a project afterward on the camp porch. During the winter, I write on the small couch beside our kitchen table in Mercer. I always get my best work done in the early morning while my wife is still asleep and my two dogs stretch out nearby on the floor.
Do your poems come naturally, or do you have a process where you write and revise until it is perfect?
In his essay “The Poet,” Emerson spoke of a thought so profound it would create its own architecture. That’s the best definition of free verse I’ve ever read. The thoughts of poetry are always rooted in intuition and feeling, so I try to elicit those three things – thought, intuition and feeling – by starting a poem with a series of fragments: ideas, memories, sense details, associations. Next day, I go through my list and underline the hot spots. I may even try for more fragments. Eventually they coalesce into the subject of my poem, which often turns out to be quite different from the subject I started with.
BOOK AWARD FOR YOUNG PEOPLE’S LITERATURE
What effect do you hope this book has on college students?
I would love to see Wrecked spark honest, difficult, awkward conversations between young men and women about consent.
What do you think is the key to making a story as realistic as possible?
Most of my books are narrated in first person, so getting that voice “right” is really important. Additionally, dialogue is important. Young adult readers can sniff out an adult masquerading as a teen in a second, so I work hard to step into my “teen” self and find that authentic voice.
I also think doing your research and making sure your facts are solid is key. For example, before I could write the scenes in Wrecked where the students are questioned by the investigator, I interviewed lawyers and Title IX coordinators, and read multiple college handbooks and transcripts from interviews. The resulting scenes are all fiction, but rooted in what actually might happen in the real world.
Could you see yourself doing anything else but writing as a profession?
Oh, I wish I could! This is HARD. I just sent my agent the first chapters and a synopsis for my next book, which I am so excited about, and she basically said … meh. I did a little primal screaming in my office for a day, then we had a phone conversation and discussed what I need to revise before sending it on to my editor. So now I’ve got to change the last three months worth of work. I know that this is the “process,” and not wasted time, but sometimes I wish I had a job which didn’t involve so much of my heart and soul. The other day I was at the Natural History Museum, and there was a guy holding this long stick with feathers on the end, slowly and methodically dusting the plastic dinosaurs. For a moment I actually thought: “I want that job!”
But only for a moment.
BOOK AWARD FOR SPECULATIVE FICTION
THE TIME TRAIN (Medallion Press)
Eric M. Bosarge
Is there a joke that makes you laugh every time you hear it?
Absolutely. I just can’t remember which one. I occasionally show George Carlin clips in my classes–especially the bits where he makes comparisons or builds arguments with extended metaphor. Football vs. baseball is brilliant.
Did you ever think the stories you started writing at a young age would blossom into a writing career? Were there other professions that you considered or tried?
A teacher singled out my writing in fourth grade, singing my praises, and it was the first time I remember anyone telling me I was good at anything.
I kind of forgot about writing until I was older. I was going to nursing school when a co-worker asked if I was a writer. I said I liked to write. She said she’d love to read something I wrote.
I went home, thinking I’d dig something out of a notebook I’d scribbled in during high school study hall, but couldn’t find anything. I didn’t want to be a liar, so I wrote a new story and shared it with her. She went on and on about why it was good and what I could do better, and she became my first writing mentor. If it weren’t for her, I’d probably be pushing a med cart somewhere, not inspiring young people to write.
Were the stories you wrote as a child also sci-fi? Were there any books that inspired you to write in this genre?
I’m fairly certain my parents had to hide the Star Wars VHS cassettes so I would watch something else when I was a kid, but The Time Train was the first sci-fi story I’ve ever written. I actually thought of it as more historical fiction when I began. A hundred or so pages in I realized I had to incorporate the futuristic elements and really enjoyed imagining how our society could go wrong in the next hundred years, and what it would look like on a day-to-day basis to people who have little to do with the policies that shape the world.
I’ve had the pleasure of beta reading a few of J.M. McDermott’s novels, and in that process I fell in love with the way some of his characters felt so lost, chewed up, and beaten down by a future with no place for anyone but billionaires.
In a way, writing about the future is a sneaky way to critique what’s happening now, and I’ve never been less able to ignore the policies that will shape our future. I’ll be writing sci-fi for many years to come.
BOOK AWARD FOR POETRY
BOOKER’S POINT (University of North Texas Press)
Is there a poet whose form you admire most?
It’s hard to name one! I’ll name two. One is Seamus Heaney—for his voice and music; his wisdom and empathy; his engagement of culture, language, and land. And the second: As a kid, my dad introduced me to Wendell Berry, who became one of my formative influences. I admire how wholly he lives his work and vision, how eloquently and lovingly he celebrates the land and articulates how we can more compassionately live on/in/with it. I read his “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front” at my high school graduation, and it just seems to keep getting more and more relevant.
How do you know when you are done editing a poem?
Usually when I start a poem, I sense that there’s this something it wants to do or convey — some emotion or synthesis or rhetorical thing that I can sense but don’t really know and can’t articulate. It’s pretty ghostly, in the beginning. When that thing has finally materialized, when I’m finally like, Oh, so that’s what this poem is about, that’s when I know it’s roughed out ok. Then it’s looking to make sure each line, word, and sound is doing work toward that thing. When I can read through the poem and not hit too many wrong notes, or anything else that takes me out of the thing the poem is trying to do, I call it done. (You’ll notice I did not say “perfect.”)
Is there a poem or a line of poetry that you are constantly reciting in your mind?
It changes, but lately, times being what they are, I’ve found myself often with this line from Berry: “Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.”
BOOK AWARD FOR CRIME FICTION
STRAW MAN (Islandport Press)
In a mystery, how do you know when to reveal certain facts, or place certain events? Is there a chance that certain aspects of the plot will be ruined if something is out of order?
If a mystery is going very well, the facts and events will be revealed in a natural, logical, and suspenseful way. Because my protagonist, Jack McMorrow, is a crime reporter, his charge is to peel back the layers around a crime, and the plot progresses in a sort of narrowing spiral.
If I’m having trouble with a plot, I’ll go back to make sure I haven’t made a character seem too guilty too early, or created something that will tip both McMorrow and the readers to the solution too soon. It’s all about dangling clues, nuances, revelations in a way that tantalizes just enough to keep the story moving and readers fully engaged.
What are some of your favorite fictional mysteries that have either inspired or pushed you to write your own?
I was inspired early on by Raymond Chandler, Dick Francis, Robert B. Parker, P.D. James. But the author I have gone back to for inspiration for decades is John D. MacDonald. His Travis McGee series, set in Florida, is great writing and storytelling and has a healthy dose of cultural commentary. When I need to get fired up to write another book, I spend some time with McGee and I’m ready to go.
Do you think of the crime or the resolution first when starting a book like this?
I think of the situation first and the crime follows eventually. Often I don’t know which characters will survive the book until it’s well along. So generally it’s situation (where will I drop McMorrow?), crime (how would this situation unfold?), and resolution (who will survive, how will those survivors be affected by the events of the book?).
Of course, every book is different. I’ve had books (Damaged Goods) that was in my head in its entirety before I began writing. That one was one draft and gone. Others (Once Burned, comes to mind) I had to puzzle over all the way through. The characters kept surprising me, which is a good thing.
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. (Down East Books)
Susan Conley & Winky Lewis
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 (Soho Press)
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.