Faculty Spotlight: Katherine Towler

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Katherine (Katie) Towler is an author and creative writing teacher and currently a faculty member in the Mountainview MFA program. Her first book, Snow Island, was a a Barnes and Noble Discover Great New Writers title and her latest book, The Penny Poet of Portsmouth, was named a Best Book of 2016 by Entropy Magazine, Longreads, and Book Riot. She was kind enough to answer some questions about her books and her writing process, as well as give some useful advise for new writers.

—WL

When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?

Like most writers, I was a reader before I was a writer, and it was being a passionate reader that made me want to be a writer.  By the age of eight, I was spending hours on the couch reading.  My younger sister complained throughout our childhood that she couldn’t get me to go outside with her because I never wanted to put down the book I was currently reading.  Books were my refuge and my friends, my transport to other worlds, my window on what was possible in life.  With a good book, I was never alone.  Books made me forget the things that plagued me as a child, like gym class.  When I started writing, I found that writing was a similar experience of leaving common life behind and being absorbed by an act that felt so vital and alive.  I started writing poems when I was 10 and shortly after that began carrying a notebook around with me which was a writing journal of sorts.  When I was 13, I declared I was going to be a poet when I grew up, though I turned out to be more of a prose writer than poet.   

 

Who are some authors who have inspired you?

An early book that completely captivated me as a young reader was Jane Eyre.  I still love the Brontes.  I am inspired by much of what I read, including the work of my students.  It is endlessly fascinating — and challenging and inspiring — to see how other writers create real worlds and compelling characters, and how they use words.  I learn from reading as widely as I can (poetry, fiction, nonfiction) and encourage anyone who wants to write to do this.  You can learn so much from reading different genres and writers whose concerns are far from yours.  To further answer your question, some of the writers whose work has most stayed with me over the years and guided me are Willa Cather, Henry James, Alistair MacLeod, Edna O’Brien, Alice Munro, Virginia Woolf, Marguerite Duras, Edith Wharton.  And then there are the poets and memoirists, but I’ll stop with this fiction list.  

 

Your debut novel, Snow Island, the first book in a trilogy, tells the story of Alice Daggett, a sixteen-year-old girl struggling with the sudden death of her father. How did the idea come to you? Also, how long did it take to complete?

In the late 1980s, I spent a couple of months one spring living on my own on an island in the center of Narragansett Bay.  The year-round population was 125 people and 300 deer.  It was a strange little isolated community.  I was captivated by the place — how quiet and empty it was, and how nothing ever happened (except the arrival of the ferry and the mail).  I was particularly intrigued by the people who had chosen to live there, many of them clearly drop-outs from life as most Americans know it.  Today things are different.  You can be connected to the world via the internet from almost anywhere.  It’s harder to get lost.  But back then, the isolation on the island was real and profound.

            One of the people who most intrigued me was the woman who ran the island store.  She was also the postmistress and the manager of the water company.  She was a tough character in her seventies who had lived on the island her entire life and had managed to get married and divorced three times without leaving the place.  I wondered what she was like as a girl and what it was like for her to grow up in this insular community.  She became the inspiration for my main character, Alice Daggett, in the first volume of the trilogy.

            I started out writing a short story about Alice as a teenager.  I planned to write a collection of stories that would span the 20th century and have a running theme of the different wars and how the island community was impacted by them.  Alice couldn’t be contained to a short story, though, so I turned her story into a novel and then, having drafts of the other stories still hanging around, turned them into the next two volumes of the trilogy.  It took me eight years to write Snow Island.  I wrote a bit faster with the next two volumes, but the whole project, including publication time, took nearly 20 years.  I had no idea what I was getting myself into.

 

What are some of the lessons you learned completing that first book?

Probably the biggest lesson I learned was that it takes as long as it takes.  Each book has its own life, each writer her own process.  I revised extensively, often chapter by chapter.  The craft books I read back then all advised writing a complete draft straight through without stopping, but I was unable to do this.  I kept going back and making changes.  I couldn’t go forward until I had revised the first chapters over and over, and then I often had to go back and revise them again.  My writing process was my dirty secret.  I was so obviously, it seemed, writing a novel the wrong way.  What I realized eventually is that there is no “wrong” way, there is only your way.  Whatever it takes to finish your book is what it takes.  I learned plenty of other lessons from writing that first book about pace and voice and dialogue and structure, but the most important thing I ultimately learned was to trust my own process.

 

Tell us more about that writing process. Are you an outliner? Do you have an idea of how the whole story will go or is your writing more open-ended?

 My writing tends to be more open-ended.  I don’t outline.  I carry the idea for a story around in my mind for a long time.  The shape of it keeps morphing and changing.  I have a plot of sorts, though mostly what I have are a setting and characters.  These come first for me.  My writing has always been strongly rooted in place.  I need a sense of place to anchor me imaginatively and a compelling cast of characters.  I need to know my characters as real and complete and believable before I can get them to act.  Plot tends to be the last thing I think about.  

            With nonfiction, it’s different, of course.  If you are writing a memoir, you have the outline of the story given to you, but you still need to uncover the real story.  Developing voice and character (your own and those you may portray in the memoir) is significant work that must be done with a memoir as it must be done in fiction.   

Your latest book, The Penny Poet of Portsmouth: A Memoir of Place, Solitude, and Friendship, is about your friendship with the late poet Robert Dunn, as well as a meditation on an artist’s connection to a place. What led you to write this book?

Robert Dunn was an unusual character who lived most of his life in Portsmouth, NH.  He rented a room in a house close to downtown from an elderly woman and did not own a car, telephone, television, or, when they came along, computer.  He was a brilliant thinker, a wonderful poet, and a voracious reader.  He sold his little hand sewn books of poems on the street for a penny.  I got to know Robert, to the extent that anyone got to know him (he was a very private and somewhat solitary person), when I moved to Portsmouth in 1991, living by chance in the house next door to his.  I admired Robert tremendously for existing so completely outside the system.  His life was performance art of a sort.  He was one of the most principled people I have ever met.  He owned next to nothing and chose to live largely without money.  This freed him to devote his time to writing and reading and thinking. 

            At the end of Robert’s life, when he was critically ill, I became involved in helping to care for him.  The choices he had made, which I had so admired in the past, looked different now.  He was isolated and had no resources.  He was forced to rely on others when he didn’t want to.  For some reason, he relied on me more than anyone else and essentially appointed me his next of kin in Portsmouth.  I went through an intense experience of being with him when he was close to death, thrust into the role of a family member.  After his death, I needed to write about this experience in order to process it and understand it.

            As the book evolved, it became a book about me as much as it was a book about Robert and our friendship.  I ended up writing about the choices I have made as a writer and how Robert challenged me in my thinking about those choices.  I wanted, too, to write about Portsmouth, a city that has changed so much since the early 1990s.  Robert was emblematic of the “old” Portsmouth, a rough around the edges port town that embraced characters like him.  I wanted to capture that Portsmouth, the place I so loved before money and gentrification took over in a big way.           

 

As a writing teacher, is there any advice you would like to give students, something that they should always keep in mind while writing?

Don’t be in a hurry.  Let the writing take the time it needs to take.  Build in time for the work to evolve.  This may mean writing a draft of a novel, then letting it sit for a year before looking at it again.  Time spent thinking about a piece of writing, or not thinking about it at all, just letting it quietly percolate somewhere in the back of your mind, can be as important as the actual hours at the desk.  Not writing can be just as important as writing.  You want your imagination to remain nimble, capable of going to unexpected places.  You want to be able to surprise yourself and the reader.  If you force the writing, if you push yourself to finish that draft because it simply has to be finished by tomorrow, you can become too cramped in your thinking and, hence, in your writing.  Do everything you can to free yourself.  Maybe this means taking frequent walks, meditating, doing yoga.  Maybe it means taking trips.  Maybe it means having other passions that completely absorb you, so for days or weeks you forget the writing entirely.  Whatever it is, pay attention to giving yourself and your writing the freedom to grow and change, to go anywhere, to be fluid, to emerge.  Allow yourself to be anyone on the page.   

 

K. Towler [credit: JONATHAN WIGGS/GLOBE STAFF]

K. Towler [credit: JONATHAN WIGGS/GLOBE STAFF]

Last thing: Anyone who knows you, knows you to be a dedicated birdwatcher. How did you get into birdwatching and what do you love most about it?

I started paying more attention to birds when I went to Florida for the first time about 20 years ago.  My husband and I signed up for a bird walk at a wildlife refuge, thinking, sure, we like birds.  The guide put her two thousand dollar binoculars around my neck and said, “I want you to use these.”  Smart guide.  She knew that if I saw the birds through those brilliant lenses, I would be hooked.  I was.

            Bird watching is very meditative.  You walk slowly and must train your senses to be acutely aware of what is around you.  You must listen for the songs and watch for the slightest signs of movement in leafed-out trees.  When I go bird watching, I forget myself entirely.  It sometimes feels miraculous.  My petty complaints are gone, my stupid preoccupations, my doubts and regrets.  The endless clock of life, the list of things to be done, disappears.  Birding is similar to writing in many ways.  It’s entirely absorbing, a “flow” state at its best.  But birding takes me outdoors, something I find increasingly essential for my sanity these days.  It’s an antidote to all that time spent in my head writing.  For me a perfect day contains both — a morning at the desk and an afternoon out walking and looking for birds.  This makes me something of a renegade birder, since the best birding is often at dawn, and birders pride themselves on being out by first light, but I can get out early on the weekends when I take a break from writing.  Spring migration is currently under way, and I am watching a Baltimore Oriole through my kitchen window.  What a creature of exquisite beauty.  The number and variety of bird species is staggering. There are over 10,000 species worldwide.  I will never get to them all, but I want to see as many as I can. 

Faculty Spotlight: Jo Knowles

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Award-winning author and Mountainview MFA Faculty Jo Knowles has written several popular YA novels, including Lessons from a Dead Girl, Jumping Off Swings, and Read Between the Lines. Her newest book, Where The Heart Is, is set to be published in April 2019. She took time out from her hectic schedule to answer a few questions about her childhood, her career, and what motivates her.

—WL

You wrote that you grew up in a small NH town complete with all the trappings of farm life: dogs and cats, a chicken or two, horses, and a beloved pony (and here, being a city kid myself, I’m also imagining checkered tablecloths and sweating pitchers of iced tea, very-early mornings and muddy boots by the backdoor). How do you think growing up in that environment affected your outlook and your writing?

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JK— When you describe it this way, my life sounds so quaint! I guess in some ways it was. But underneath that, there was a lot of financial instability. The muddy boots were not fancy ones from LL Bean but most likely hand-me-downs times three. My parents ran a restaurant when I was young and it seemed they were always working and struggling to make a go of it. Then, there were various other business ventures my dad tried that didn't always pan out. As a quiet kid who observed and absorbed just about everything, I took on the worries of the people I loved. I don't know that what appears to be a simple life ever really is.

 

You decided pretty early on that YA (young adult) literature was the genre that most interested you. What was it about YA you found so appealing?

JK— Of all the literature I read, I find YA the most honest. I like words that bite and challenge and tell the truth. Realistic fiction for young adults is probably the most brave I've read. I also think it changes the most lives. I know it changed mine for the better. The books I read as a teen helped me be more thoughtful, have empathy for others, think more about people outside my own small world, and consider how to live more kindly and with more purpose.

How are you able to get into the minds of teens, both male and female, so convincingly?

JK— That feels like a heady question to answer. I try hard to be honest--as honest as the books that moved me as a teen were. That's the key, I think.

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Your first book, Lessons From a Dead Girl, the story about a challenging and somewhat fraught friendship, was published in 2007. How long did it take you to finish, from idea to completion, and what are some of the lessons you picked up along the way?

JK— It's been so long I'm not sure how long it took, but I'm going to guess it was several years from the start to the completion and sale. One editor who showed interested asked for revisions and provided encouragement over a two-year period, but ultimately she passed. There was a similar time table with the editor who ultimately bought the book and published it. So yes. SEVERAL years. But I learned a lot about revision in this process. I learned how to work with an editor, to process feedback in a way that kept the book "mine" even when massive changes were required.


Your books, filled with humor and pathos, explore some intense subject matters: abusive friendships, eating disorders, unwanted pregnancies, and more. How do you navigate these complex issues and distill them for your core audience of teens and pre-teens? Or is age even something you consider?

JK— I really don't think about the age of my readers. My goal is to tell a story as honestly as possible. Awful things happen to kids of all ages, yet until fairly recently, books for younger readers rarely reflected that reality. The real world is far, far more cruel than the world of fiction.

As both an established author and writing teacher, is there one mistake or area for improvement you see consistently in new writers that you would like to caution them on?

JK— I think sometimes people get ahead of themselves and get publishing on the brain before doing the necessary hard work. Like any fine craft, it can takes years to learn to write well and find your own unique voice. Subbing to agents for a six months is nothing. It's not unusual for 5-10 years to pass before a first sale! But I've seen so many students give up after sending things out for just a few months. This is a tough business and the only way to succeed is to keep working—whether that means revising and rewriting, or starting new projects while subbing out a current work. Always be writing and creating. When you need a writing break, read a ton, learn, get inspired, and get back to it.

Who are some authors who have inspired you?

JK— The most influential author in my early days was Robert Cormier. His books were achingly true. They made me feel less alone. He seemed to know and not be afraid of telling his readers what life was really like.

You’re a best-selling author, adored by young readers , so it’s obvious you’ve found your calling, but in a parallel universe somewhere, what would a Jo Knowles be doing if she had taken a different path?

JK— Haha. I love that you have such a view of my "success." I don't think I've ever seen myself that way! Someone asked me recently what the perfect life looked like and I guess I don’t really believe in perfection that way. I try instead to be grateful for the people in my life, the opportunities I have to do good work  (whether that's speaking with kids and hopefully inspiring them to be their best selves and help shape a better world for themselves, doing volunteer work, or writing stories I hope will resonate with kids who need them). I hope that in a parallel universe, I'm essentially doing the same thing, even if via a different approach.

credit: Twin State Derby/Lazy Lobo Photo

credit: Twin State Derby/Lazy Lobo Photo

Okay—and thank you for doing this—one last thing I just have to ask: Roller Derby?

JK— Yup!



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Thanks, Jo! And be sure to pick up her much-anticipated novel Where the Heart Is, on sale April 2, 2019.

FACULTY SPOTLIGHT: Richard Adams Carey

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Richard Adams Carey, or “Rick,” as we call him, is located in a town that is sandwiched between The Lakes Region and the White Mountains, which is probably where it got its name: Sandwich, NH. Because this interview was conducted bicoastal, me in Los Angeles, CA, and Rick in Sandwich, I imagine him sitting at his desk, allowing me to interrupt his “stubborn, maybe-it’ll-never-pan-out short story”—his words not mine—to answer questions for Assignment about his books, his writing and editing process, and more. 

—Jemiscoe Chambers-Black



Jem: Rick, you write both non-fiction and fiction. Is there a different writing process for writing each?

Rick: Not so much a different process as a different feel in the pit of the stomach. Nonfiction is always preceded by research into lives or subject matter where I know story material exists. In drafting I might have trouble finding the right way to tell the story, but I’ll know there’s a way—if not Plan A, then Plan B. In fiction, I’ll start with a character or situation and hope that these lead into a sequence of plausible events and a real story—with no guarantee that they really will, and it’s always a more tortuous first-draft process than in nonfiction. I think nonfiction is like jumping out of a plane knowing that somehow, sooner or later, your parachute will open; no such assurance in fiction.

 

Jem: To those of us students that have worked with you, you are known as a polishing technician. Do you edit chapter by chapter or write a large chunk before you start editing?

Rick: As people who have taken my revision workshop know, Kent Haruf is my hero. The author of “Plainsong” and other novels would sit at a manual typewriter with a stocking cap pulled down to his chin and type without peeking until he had reached the end of the story. Only then would he revise. Me, I can’t abide not seeing the words, and since I can see ’em, I can’t help fiddling with ’em as I go along. Which is too bad, because I can’t fiddle with real purpose and precision until I reach some version of the ending. So I try to write as much as I can before editing, but never write as much as I should. And that’s because first drafts are sheer drudgery for me. It’s only in editing and revising—when you know what the story is, beginning to end, and what it needs to shine brighter—that the glory is within reach.

 

Jem: This may seem random, but you lived a pretty nomadic life for a while. Also, worked a multitude of jobs. Did this have an effect on your writing, do you think?

Rick: I guess I have lived in a bunch of different places and done a bunch of different things—and sometimes I think that still wasn’t enough, because first-hand experience of any sort is so important in what a writer brings to the desk. On the other hand, you can’t go everywhere and try everything; duration and depth and commitment matter a lot as well in anyone’s experience of a given place or a certain relationship. It comes down to the right sort of balance, perhaps, given your subject matter. Some of us need to and should sail the world for material. But Emily Dickinson did just fine sailing around her room.

 

Jem: When you were contracted to write Raven’s Children, Against the Tide, and The Philosopher Fish, I’m imagining rough waters, rougher terrain, and deadly missions in pursuit of season hunting, fishing, and tracking the sturgeon and their mysterious golden eggs. Am I being too dramatic here? Since they were contract jobs, how long did you get to live the experiences and then write?

Rick: I think each of those books involved two-year contracts—so a year for the research, a year for the manuscript. And no, you’re not being too dramatic. Okay, “deadly missions” would be hyperbole, but in extreme environments you do gamble sometimes on the weather, and if your research touches on criminal activity, you do roll the dice on people sometimes. There were times when I got nervous, but only a few occasions when circumstances got more or less harrowing. In each case it ended well, so all’s well, and I so treasure the people I met and all that I experienced in doing those books.



Jem: You’ve written many things, but I wanted to ask you some questions about your book, In the Evil Day: Violence Comes to a Small Town. This book is a piece of narrative non-fiction, and spans twenty-five years, recounting the lives of the citizens in Colebrook, NH (and the towns surrounding it) that led up to August 19, 1997, when Carl Drega shot and killed four people. What made you want to write about this day?

Rick: After three books that required lots of travel and absences from home, I was ready for subject matter that was more local and also different from what I’d previously done. And with that incident, I was beguiled by the setting (the North Country’s a special sort of place), the intriguing people involved, and the rich narrative contours of all that happened that day, the intricate chain of events.

 

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Jem: Before writing this book, did you know how you were going to do that? Specifically, did you know that you wanted to show each person’s story: who they were, snapshots of their families, and past? If so, did you do this on purpose or did it show up organically?

Rick: I knew that in narratives of almost all mass-shooting incidents, the killer becomes the star of the story while the multitudinous victims are consigned to relative anonymity. Here, however, the killings were not random—each victim was targeted because of who he or she was—and there were only four of them. So I saw that this as a story in which, uniquely, each of the victims could share equal billing with the killer. With that sort of broad and mindfully balanced canvas in mind, I did indeed approach the story in the way you describe.

 

Jem: I have to agree that this worked because it showed how very connected this small town and the neighboring towns were, how even Carl Drega himself crossed paths with John Harrigan’s father. Were you at all surprised with this?

Rick: Drega did indeed cross paths with Fred Harrigan, but with hardly anyone else in the area outside of local government, the courts, and law enforcement. So as I got to know the North Country better, I found myself surprised in two different ways: first, that cranky loners such as Drega could be invisible to such an extent, more so than our obstreperous odd ducks in the rest of the state; and second, that for those not wanting to live under the radar, there were hardly any degrees of separation in these small and remote communities, that the connections are so very tight and intimate. This, of course, only aggravates the harm wrought by a mass shooting.

 

Jem: After reading your book, I know, because you point this out in your preface that you ran into several contradictory pieces of evidence. How did you combat that in your writing?

Rick: The narratives in my first three books were built out of a combination of the historical record and my first-hand experiences as I described unfolding events. In this book, where the event was already part of history, it was my task to fill in the gaps in the record by cross-referencing documents and interviewing witnesses. And because of the conflicts and contradictions I sometimes found, I learned what probably any historian knows—that writing history is a bit like sausage-making. You try to find evidence to resolve those conflicts. Absent that and needing to connect some dots, you go with what in your judgment seems more plausible, and you hope your biases aren’t distorting that.

 

Jem: What advice would you lend to any student or fellow writer when they meet this type of researching issue?

Rick: Enlist your subjects as proofreaders of your copy. Sometimes this is what provided the tie-breaker in regard to conflicting testimony. Much more often, though, it saved me from the sort of mistakes and misinterpretations all humans are prone to. The sausage could have been a lot funkier than it is.

 

Jem: When do you say enough is enough with research, and decide just to write?

Rick: With my first three books, I packed as much research as I could into a year, and then had a year just to write to hit my deadline. So it was decided for me, built into the contracts. With “In the Evil Day,” I had no deadline, since I was writing that book on spec. In a way, it was good to have no deadline. I had time to slowly build trust in the community and then to follow every lead. But the downside of that involved the sheer number of leads—it was such a complex event, with so many people involved, that I could have gone on interviewing forever. Earl Bunnell, the father of one of the victims, was the godfather of the whole project, and I very much wanted him to hold the finished book in his hands. When he died in 2011, that prompted me to finally pull the plug on the research and go with what I had. Even so, it was another four years until publication. All told, I devoted thirteen years to that book. That still astonishes me.

 

Jem: In your writing, it would seem, in my opinion, that you combine a fluidity of prose and a journalistic narrating style. Again, I wonder if this was done on purpose or if this came out organically?

Photo credit: Susan Carey

Photo credit: Susan Carey

Rick: Well, I guess it came about commercially. I began as a bad poet and always feeling guilty (in reference to my wife) about the amount of solitude that my writing required. I found I could assuage that guilt, though, if at least I earned some money. So I began by publishing humor, essays, and journalism in newsstand magazines. The twig just got bent that way, and it stayed like that as I began working on more ambitious stuff.

 

Jem: Well, it seems that your creative intent, commercial or not, has become even larger since I’ve heard talks of a movie option for In the Evil Day: Violence Comes to a Small Town. Can you tell me a little about that?

Rick: Island Pictures is a London-based studio that does the “Doc Martin” series on PBS and also does book-to-film adaptations. They’re thinking in terms of perhaps a feature film or perhaps a TV miniseries. Of course most of the time nothing at all gets done with a film option, but I’m optimistic about this one because the studio co-head and a producer have come to America and traveled up to Colebrook with me to meet John Harrigan and some of the other important people in the story. In December we’ll do it again to meet still others. They want to honor the tone and spirit of the book, and Jeezum, they know it backwards and sideways—better than I do at this point.

 

Jem: Okay, one last question; I promise. Rick, I wonder, when you first started out as a writer, did you see yourself one day becoming a teacher, a mentor, helping students master what you have mastered yourself?

Rick: Wow, I sure didn’t—because writing a good piece is so hard by itself, and then finding an audience even harder. I’ve had more good breaks than bad, but it’s still really, really hard to write a good story, whether fiction or nonfiction, and I feel like I’m even yet on the learning curve. Teaching in itself is a way of moving up that curve, though. I love working with people I like on behalf of a pursuit that I love, and there’s no doubt it’s made me a better, more intentional writer.


Jemiscoe Chambers-Black is a current degree candidate at The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.

FACULTY SPOTLIGHT: marcus burke

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MFA candidate Morgan Green interviewed Mountainview MFA faculty member and author of Team Seven: A Novel, marcus burke, about his education, writing, authors he admires, and future plans for the characters featured in his debut novel.

What’s the difference between a short story collection and a novel? Which one is Team Seven?

The difference between a short story collection and a novel are somewhat like this difference between sitcoms and movies. Sitcoms may return to a storyline but reserve the right not to do so, whereas with movies they have a grand continuity. When I first started writing Team Seven, I though it may be a linked collection but it became a novel. With a short story collection every story can generally stand in its own, so when characters return elsewhere in the collection their presence must be re-explained. Where with a novel it’s like taking down those partitions, and being able to write with the assumed knowledge that the reader is keeping track of the information being presented, so when things return or come back around there doesn’t have to be the same level of contextualizing.

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So, Team Seven was published back in 2014. Why don't you tell us a little more about what inspired you to tell Andre's story and how you came up with the title.

Team Seven came together very slowly, there are a few ways to answer this question. My original intent wasn’t to write a book but to do a homework assignment. It was early on during the fall of my sophomore year and I’d just become a creative writing major. And being intimidated of my new classmates a few weeks into the semester, I remember skipping an Intro to Fiction class. I was on the basketball team, it was preseason, and I probably did some sort of workout at the gym. I was yet coming into my studious ways. Anyway, later that day I saw a classmate in the training room and asked him what the homework was, he told me it was to write a first person narrative, and I did. Team Seven was written very out of order compared to the table of contents. The first chapter I wrote was, “The Big One-Two, which eventually became the novel’s fifth chapter. After I wrote that section, I then wrote the title chapter, Team Seven. The motivating idea in writing Team Seven was to get something not easily talked about off my chest. Another motivation for writing it was the enraging depiction of black men and women, and the black family, within mass media. I wanted to humanize a group of people that are generally pre-judged by society before opening their mouths. I wanted to give more voice to the group of folks that nurtured me as a child. They have valuable insights and valid stories if only given the platform, coupled with people willing to listen.
Aside from all that, I was a hardcore athlete growing up and I was, at a time, lumped in with the “bad kids,” and I know what it feels like, to feel locked out of school, and how fast a problematic educator can turn a student completely off to the idea of reading, and education. Never mind the idea of reading for pleasure. With my public education being so intensely Eurocentric, I was generally bored by most of the books I was given to read in school. It wasn’t until one summer during high school, while I was stuck in the house with sun poisoning, that I found The Coldest Winter Ever by Sista Souljah and read it cover to cover. That book felt like an olive branch into the conversation, so I wrote Team Seven as an olive branch for people that maybe don’t like to read books.

Where is Andre now? Can we expect a sequel? 

I’m working on the next novel now. It is a follow-up, but it doesn’t return to the dramas of Team Seven. There are things from Team Seven referenced but it’s a very different book. I’m still working with Andre and his family so some characters do come back. Team Seven is the second book in a trilogy, even though it was released first. I’m writing the trilogy out of order too, I guess. I published a chapter from the new novel in McSweeney’s this past spring.

How would you say your undergrad experience affected you as a writer as compared to grad school and what advice do you have for those who may have had similar experiences?

My undergraduate experience was helpful and damaging in its own right. My classmates were vicious initially until my professors praised my work. In my first workshop, I remember a girl writing me a letter telling me that she was a grammar and punctuation “elitist” and that reading my work was “thusly painful.” I sort of laughed and thought, who even uses the archaic word “thusly”? Anyway, being that I was a basketball player, I was accustomed to trash-talking being a part of competition and didn’t take the comment to heart. More than dealing with awkwardness in the classroom, dealing with an intense amount of racism came along with being a student on the campus of Susquehanna University. 
I was there for Obama’s first election and it was a crazy time. At night the locals would ride around campus in trucks, high beaming students of color, yelling racial slurs, and throwing stuff. That and countless other incidents occurred. It was a mess, really. With all the drama and fighting that came along with the existence of a black man on campus, I took great solace in writing, it was an outlet for a lot of angst. So I guess I’d tell other young brown writers studying at predominantly white institutions that are maybe feeling lonely, agitated and/or confused: your story is needed and valid. Seek community even if in small numbers. Keep on pushing until you find your folk. Hold onto your visions and your dreams. Your future audience needs your presence and example.
As for my time at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, it was a much-needed breath of fresh air. I was given time to read and to shape and define my own aesthetic, and I worked with an AMAZING cast of writers like James Alan McPherson, Marilynne Robinson, Peter Orner, Ben Percy, etc. It was an honor to study alongside so many writers that I admire and respect. My time at the Writers’ Workshop changed the trajectory of everything, truthfully.

What's your writing routine? You always say that everyone's processes often change, care to elaborate a little more on that?

Generally, I shape my writing around whatever’s going on in my life, which is why I say my writing routine is always changing. I’ve written at night, in the morning, afternoon—it just depends. I generally try to accomplish something each day in that arena, either reading or writing. Sometimes I’m writing more than I’m reading. Other times it’s the reverse. After I’ve written a lot, I need to step back and do some reading, it’s like going back to the well. Lately, I’ve been writing in long hyper-focus chunks of time, usually from mid-evening into the early morning.

What's the best thing you've ever gotten out of a workshop as a student? The worst?

The best thing that came out of workshop for me as a student was finding readers. It’s invaluable to have people you trust read your work and vice versa. Those are life-long friendships. Even if you don’t agree with the feedback or it’s hard to hear, it’s better received when you know there’s nothing but goodwill and integrity in the criticism. Even if I was in a workshop that did not consist of my ideal readers, I always thought it was interesting to hear how so many drastically different aesthetics were reacting to my work.

Photo Credit: Gordon R. Wenzel

Photo Credit: Gordon R. Wenzel

You've had a lot of success in your career so far from Team Seven, such as getting a starred Kirkus Review to publishing in McSweeney's, and it's clear that there's more to come. What do you think is the key to success and how do you stay humble? 

I’ve been blessed and pray there’s better ahead. I can’t say there’s any one thing to point out as a key to success. I’ve had to be persistent, resilient and faithful. When I started writing, it was a deeply personal thing that I didn’t even tell people about. I took my approach with basketball and applied it to writing. I became disciplined and put in the hours in order to give myself a chance. But I shouldn’t list those things as though l was given some secret formula or that the highlights of my writing career thus far have happened because of those things. Persistence, resilience and faithfulness, certainly helped, but there’s a lot more to it. There were a lot of people that helped me along the way. I had an amazing family, teachers, friends, and mentors supporting me. It doesn’t matter how long you’ve known somebody when they have good will and good intentions for you. I was hungry and took a lot of risks and certain things came together at crucial moments. Around year four of writing the book I just wanted to prove to myself that I could do it, that I could finish. 
I’m unsure of how to answer the part of the question about staying humble. It feels strange to try and qualify one's own humility and speak to it. More than anything, after I published my first novel, I had to decide what type of writer I wanted to be. I had to figure out what it is that I got and wanted to continue to get from writing, and what I wanted for my writing career. It took a great deal of soul searching to sort all that out, which is nice, I suppose. Well, I guess, all that is to say I feel most alive and at ease in my soul when I’m being creative and in the throes of working on a project.

What books are currently on your nightstand?

It’s beautiful to see so many black writers getting much deserved attention. I recently read two books that I enjoyed immensely, Naffisa Thompson-Spires’ collection, Heads of Colored People, and Kiese Laymon’s new memoir, Heavy. With Heavy, simply put, the book is amazing. That’s a brother that writes with a mind blowing amount of heart, courage, empathy and honesty. His work always inspires me to dig deeper. Alexia Arthurs’ How to Love a Jamaican, I’m really enjoying that at the moment. And I also have Ruth Joffre’s Night Beasts, Jamel Brinkley’s A Lucky Man, and Novuyo Rosa Tshuma’s House of Stone. I started it but had to pump the brakes. You ever start reading a book, like it so much you realize you’re reading it too fast and have to slow your roll? Sometimes I don’t want some books to end.


Morgan Green is a current degree candidate at The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.

FACULTY SPOTLIGHT: Justin Taylor

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Recently, Morgan Green interviewed Mountainview MFA faculty member and author of Flings, The Gospel of Anarchy, and Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever, Justin Taylor, about his latest project, as well as his new role as the Teppola Distinguished Visiting Professor.

What is your current book about?
My last book was a story collection called Flings. It came out in 2014. The stories weren’t connected, though a few characters popped up in multiple pieces. Right now, I’m working on a memoir, which still feels bizarre to me to say. I don’t want to get into too many details, because it isn’t finished yet, but it’s a book about my relationship with my father, who was an amazing but also difficult man. It’s also about my relationship to Judaism, which turns out to be equally complicated.

Credit: David Benhaim

Credit: David Benhaim

What’s your writing routine?
I don’t have one. I’m bad with schedules. But when I’m trying to really dig in on a project, I do find it’s good to write every day, or to write one day and edit the next, make sure the fire in the hearth doesn’t burn out, you know? I like to write in the mornings when I can, preferably before I’ve seen email or my phone or the internet, because my head is still clear. The best is when I’ve got like half a day to myself, say between three and six hours, and I can turn all the devices off, relax and read some poetry or something, let the urge to write build up a bit instead of having to scramble, and then I start when I’m ready and go until I wear myself out. That’s a best-case scenario, obviously, not the norm.

What authors do you admire most?
Denis Johnson, Joy Williams, and Don DeLillo are three big ones for me. Virginia Woolf, especially The Waves and To the Lighthouse. Saul Bellow. There are other authors who I have admired very much but no longer return to very often. Though I still remember what it felt like to read them and be blown away. I think it’s possible to love a particular writer, or a particular book, but then to hit the limit of what you can take from them and so you move on. Like a relationship that doesn’t end badly, it just—ends. So that’s one answer. Also, In the past couple of years, I’ve written critically on Percival Everett, Thomas McGuane, and Mary Robison, which meant I got to know their work extremely well. I spent between six months and a year with each body of work, and developed all kinds of ideas about how each writer works and what their strengths are. I’m a huge advocate now for Robison’s Subtraction, for McGaune’s novel Ninety-two in the Shade, and for Everett’s Erasure, Watershed, and God’s Country, just to name a few since he has written so many. I could go on but I probably shouldn’t.

What’s the best thing you’ve ever gotten out of a writing class or workshop as a student? The worst?
The best was probably learning to line edit. I had one professor whose aesthetic was severely minimalist, and who had also been a magazine editor for most of his career. He had no patience for redundancy, cliche, or self-indulgence. Every sentence had to earn its place, and it turned out that most of them hadn’t. There was a set of values and aesthetic biases behind what he was doing that are not necessarily universally shared, but they were worth understanding, and the practical skills he taught me, in terms of editing and self-editing and also in terms of not settling for the quick fix, have been invaluable ever since. Conversely, the worst workshop experience I think I ever had was with a different professor at that same school. Nice guy, smart guy, but he was lazy, so he smothered us in easy praise to mask the fact he wasn’t reading us closely or challenging us to be better. So you wound up with a genial workshop, and all these stories you thought were ready for the big leagues, and then you had to find out the hard way later that they weren’t even close. It was a lot of wasted time.

What is the lesson or piece of writing advice you return to most as an instructor?
I’m not sure who told me these things, or what was told to me and what I figured out for myself, but here’s my handy three-step process for revision:
    1) Write the first draft by hand
    2) After you type up that draft, print it out and do the next edit in hard copy again. Shifting between the physical and digital space helps keep your critical eye fresh, plus it forces you to type up every set of notes into the document, which effectively becomes another round of editing. (It also helps to read your work out loud.) Repeat this process as many times as necessary. 
    2a) Invest in a laser printer. It’ll save you money in the long run. 
    3) Never type up your edits the same day you make them. Leave a night’s sleep between marking up your printed manuscript and inputting those mark-ups into the computer file. This is how you avoid accidentally butchering your work because you were in a bad mood or the coffee was too strong.

So you’re a visiting professor at Williamette University, how did that come about?
I was nominated for a position that they have there, the Teppola Distinguished Visiting Professor, which is a one-year appointment that rotates among the various departments at the school. So the English department made a case to bring me in, and I guess we beat out the other departments and whoever they had nominated. This is a slightly more academic title than I usually end up with, but the work is about the same. Last school year I was the Artist-in-residence at the University of Southern Mississippi Ph.D. program (home, by the way, of the wonderful Mississippi Review) and before that I was the Writer-in-residence at the Butler University M.F.A. program in Indianapolis. So in one sense it’s pretty familiar territory, but it’s very exciting for me because I get to live at home in Portland instead of some random city, and because Willamette is a very special school. It’s the oldest school in Oregon, I believe, and it sits in the heart of downtown Salem, across the street from the State Capitol. It’s a gorgeous campus, and I’m optimistic about the upcoming school year.

You’re teaching a multi-genre introduction to creative writing, and a 19th century lit seminar on monsters. Tell us more about that. Also, what’s your favorite book from the reading list you assigned?
Yes, two classes I don’t usually teach, so it’ll be a real treat to workshop poetry and nonfiction as well. We’re reading eight or nine books in that class, including Mary Robison’s Why Did I Ever, Asali Solomon’s Get Down, and Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, but I might be most excited about Terrence Hayes’ American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin. It just came out and I think it will yield a lot of strong opinions and good discussions. The Monsters class was challenging to put together, and I’m a little worried I’m trying to pack too much in, but we’ll see how it goes. We’re doing a lot of Edgar Allan Poe, Robert Louis Stevenson, and Elizabeth Gaskell’s Gothic Tales. I found this great anthology that Italo Calvino edited called Fantastic Tales—it’s got Balzac, Dickens, Hawthorne, Le Fanu, and much more. Oh and we’re reading this wild little Swiss novel called The Black Spider, recently translated by Susan Bernofsky for NYRB Classics. I might name that as the favorite only because I have absolutely no idea what is going to happen when I teach it.

How do you balance teaching with writing? Do you feel as though teaching slows down the process at all?
I’m of two minds about this. On the one hand, sure, spending time doing anything other than writing is lost writing time. And sure, after a full day of teaching (or line-editing student fiction) you’re not going to be able to give your best energy to your own work. So on a day when a lot of teaching-work has to get done, it’s pretty likely that not much writing-work is going to get done. On the other hand, I find that working with students is intellectually stimulating and a lot of fun. You get to meet people at the moment when they’re finally getting the chance to focus on their life-long passion, and you get to help them on their way. It’s awesome to see students have breakthroughs, figure out how to finish a story, get published for the first time. So I guess the answer to your question is: Short term, yes, teaching can slow you down, but long term, it gives a lot more than it takes. And I haven’t even mentioned money. We’ve all got to earn a living somehow, and if I wasn’t doing this I would be something else, probably with longer hours and worse colleagues.

What’s more valuable in a workshop, praise or criticism?
Neither is all that valuable. Praise is always nice to hear, and it can be very useful for an aspiring writer to hear what is working. And of course we all need to learn how to take (and how to give) criticism. The piece wouldn’t be in the workshop if it was already perfect. But I think that “praise and criticism” is too often code for “good and bad,” which is just such an impoverished language for talking about stories. This isn’t like scanning Yelp reviews deciding where to go for pizza—oh it says the breadsticks were soggy, but the drink refills are free… Forget all that. More than anything else, what I want a workshop to do is tell the writer of the piece what we see in her piece—not what we feel about what we see, but literally: What is on the page? You can get a great argument going about a story just by asking the workshop, What did you think this was about? Or even, What happened in this story? You will get 10 different answers. When people summarize, paraphrase, or describe, they immediately reveal what they as readers thought was important. They reveal what they as readers forgot about or didn’t understand. So the writer comes away with a lot of hard data on the way she is actually being read, which tells her something about the distance between what she was trying to do and what she actually did. How she uses this information is up to her, but it’s a lot more useful than “I really liked the part with the ferris wheel but I was sad when the dog died.” Or worst, worst, worst of all: “I really related to this because it reminded me of myself.”

What are the top myths people have about the publishing industry?
I don’t know, maybe that it’s a strict meritocracy, which it isn’t? Or that there’s any kind of consensus on what constitutes “merit,” which there also isn’t? Every time you ask yourself the question, “How did [Bad Book X or Bad Story Y] get published?” the answer is really simple: Someone was able to convince someone else that it was actually good, and/or that a lot of people would want to buy it. Most editors do want to publish smart, challenging plotless novels and beautiful heartbreaking books of poetry that will sell 300 copies, but that desire is not the only thing, or even the main thing, on their minds. They can’t afford for it to be. And with magazines it can be even more complicated, because the editor there is probably also thinking about things like the news cycle, or how this piece fits in with the 12 other pieces in the issue, or what the other magazines in their competitive tier are also working on. None of this, by the way, is good news or bad news (though it is of course very annoying that Bad Book X got published, or that your story got rejected), it’s just true. So the best thing for a new writer to do is to try and understand this whole ecosystem, and imagine what that same world looks like from the POV of some of its other players: the agent, the editor, the assistant editor, the marketing team, and so on. Then you have to go and repress all that shit or you'll be too depressed to write anything—which is its own kind of challenge—but sooner or later the day will come when you’ll want to have access to all the information. It won’t make the process seem more fair, necessarily, but it will make it seem less random and insane.

Should students write with publication in mind? Why or why not?
No. It is one hundred percent, without exception, a waste of time and energy for this simple reason: you’re trying to imagine something that doesn’t exist. There is no such thing as “publication,” there are only publications—magazines, journals, websites, publishing houses—each with its own sense of identity, its own sense of what is important, or what kind of work it would like to be publishing. You might submit your story or your book to twenty places before it lands somewhere, and it’s impossible to write something that’s equally “for” all of them. At that point you’re writing the TV Guide. You don’t know who those editors are, or what they’re looking for, or how your piece might or might not fit into the particular issue of the magazine they’re putting together right now, or how your book might fit in with the two dozen other books currently on their publishing schedule. The only thing to do is do the best work that you possibly can, put it out there, and see who wants to give it a home.


Morgan Green is a current degree candidate at The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.

FACULTY SPOTLIGHT: Wiley Cash

Photo Credit: Mallory Cash

Photo Credit: Mallory Cash

MFA candidate Morgan Green recently interviewed Mountainview MFA faculty member and New York Times bestselling author of A Land More Kind Than Home and This Dark Road to Mercy, Wiley Cash, about his newest project: The Open Canon Book Club.

PHOTO CREDIT: MALLORY CASH

PHOTO CREDIT: MALLORY CASH

What inspired you to start this project? 
On a personal level, I was inspired to start this project from the anecdotal evidence of reading selections that book clubs offer me. I've visited with or spoken with members of so many book clubs, and all of them love reading: it adds joy, solace, and empathy to their lives. But more and more, book clubs I met were telling me about the writers they read, and those writers too often looked like me and hailed from the same region of the country I come from. These book clubs were basically getting the same slice of America every month by similar reading authors.

What was your first book selection and why?
I chose Crystal Wilkinson's The Birds of Opulence for several reasons. First, it's outstanding, and it's an ideal book club selection: an inter-generational saga with strong female characters and intense sense of place. I also appreciate that it is by and about African American women living in Appalachia. Hillbilly Elegy gave most Americans such a skewed image of the region, but Wilkinson's novel reflects Appalachia in a way that is just as valid as the personal experience JD Vance portrayed in his memoir. Hers is just more diverse and lacking in stereotypes of the place and its people. Finally, the novel is absolutely gorgeous. I finished a close reading of it a few mornings ago, and I wept. And I wept again each time I hugged my daughters and my wife.

What was the most challenging aspect of starting the book club?
The fear of taking on a new project. But I decided that I would be reading many of these books anyway, so why not do the things I would normally do - read author interviews and book reviews, pour through photo essays and articles, investigate the authors' lives and the regions they write about - and share it all with readers. Each month I'll host a live chat about the selection. This is something I would love to do about the books I read in my private life, so I'm excited to discuss a book with friends and strangers each month.

What have you learned so far from your experience in creating the club?
That being part of the resistance is often as easy and profound as putting a book in someone's hand.

Is there anything people might not know about the project that you want to share?
I want them to know that I'm not trying to save minority literature or give anyone a chance. Nearly all the authors I've selected are better known writers than I am, and most of them sell more books. They don't need my help. What I am trying to do is get books in front of readers who otherwise may not find them.

What are your opinions on climate fiction and do you think the books in your series could be considered as such? 
I don't have a lot of experience with climate fiction. This is a huge gap in my reading I need to investigate.

What other books are on your nightstand right now?
There There by Tommy Orange, Department of Speculation by Jenny Offill, and a bunch of bound manuscripts waiting to be blurbed.

What is the best piece of advice you’ve received as a writer?
Read more than you write.


Morgan Green is a current degree candidate at The Mountainview Low Residency MFA in Fiction and Nonfiction.