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.

AUTHOR SPOTLIGHT: Daniel Charles Ross

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Daniel Charles Ross is a retired U.S. Navy Reserve chief petty officer as well as a former military police investigator. He was also a student for a time at the Mountainview MFA program. His education and experience are both on full display in his debut novel, ‘Force No One,’ a military-thriller which he self-published in 2018. Daniel was kind enough to let me ask him about his new novel, his writing process, and tips he has for self-publishing.

-W. Leander

So, tell us a little about yourself. Where are you from?
I'm a Detroit boy living in Lima, Ohio--home of the nation's only remaining main battle tank plant. We moved here in 2006 when we had our third child under three, and we needed to live near grandparents, cousins, and babysitters.  I'm the oldest of seven--six boys and a girl--none of whom are writers but me. And the jury is still out on me.

Have you always wanted to write?
Writing is evidently imprinted in my DNA. In elementary school, I was drawing fake newspaper stories and layouts on large sheets of paper, complete with a comics section. In middle school and high school, I was always on the newspaper staff, ending up in my senior year as the co-editor of our bi-weekly paper and student literary magazine. I went into the Army not long after high school (since color TV but before the internet. Or cellphones.) as a military police investigator, and didn't write a word for seven years that wasn't a police report. But then the bug returned and I had a few pieces freelanced in the Army's European Stars and Stripes newspaper, and sold a fiction story to a men's magazine. That's when I decided to get out of the Army and freelance full-time. I didn't know then that the definition of "freelancing" was "unemployment without the tax advantages." But after a time, I was privileged to write on staff for Popular Mechanics, Motor Trend, and Car and Driver.

Congratulations on the publication of your new book. Can you tell us a little about it? And how did the idea come to you? Thanks! Force No One grew out of work that was to have been my Mountainview MFA thesis, guided along by Merle Drown and Rick Carey. Regrettably, I only completed the first year of the program when my VA edu-bennies ran out. But in that time--including wonderful feedback from the likes of Jo Knowles, Mark Sundeen, Ann Wertz Garvin, Diane Les Becquets, Amy Irvine, Craig Childs, Katherine Towler, and my amazing cohort--I got what I was there for: Affirmation, and actionable guidance. It's sort of a hybrid crime/military thriller with two overlapping narrative circles that come together in the last "act." A homicide in Detroit usually doesn't raise many eyebrows, but a victim is found with a business card from a Department of Homeland Security enforcement cell no one's ever heard of. FBI Special Agent Amber "Corvette" Watson and Detroit Police homicide detective Sgt. Tracey Lexcellent are a joint task force who catch the case. With a disgraced U.S. Army Ranger who can forget nothing and a black-budget CIA team in tow, they must solve the murder before terrorists parachute into open-air Comerica Park during the opening ceremonies of the World Series to blow themselves up and kill thousands on live television. Yes, of course it's fiction: I have the Detroit Tigers in the World Series.

What was your writing process like? How long did it take for you to write the book? Did you outline the whole story ahead of time?
I had a no-kidding important running start with the boost I received from my MFA year in 2015; there is no substitute for exposure to people who know more than we do, and I didn't know jack. I hammered away at it, in addition to writing other things that are still pending, but the constant novel revision and revisions of revisions drastically slowed my pace. Better to get it down first and then revise; I was "smoothing" as I went along, at least I thought. That was a monumental time-waster, when the real smoothing would come in later drafts. I wasn't an outliner, either, which I'm changing for the sequel. I "pants" it as if watching a movie unspool in my head, seeing the scenes that came one after another and just transcribing them. The fallout of this was having to go back several times to plant justifications for what I'd written much broader later in the narrative. I believe strongly in letting the story go where it wants, but I now believe that process wants adult supervision, too.

What was the path to publication like for you? Was it different from what you expected?
"Path to publication" is a fun term; yes, different than I foolishly expected. When I thought the mss was ready, the first agent I queried was a guy who reps a long-time, very successful thriller writer I read and admire. I thought, He must get what we're doing; surely he's My Guy. Following submission guidelines, I sent the Q-letter and the first five pages about 4:30 on a Friday. Before 6:30, he emailed me back from his phone asking for the full. Sheesh, I thought, freaking out, who says it's so hard to land an agent? I sent him the full--and he had it five months, finally declining in a thoughtful email the gist of which was he didn't connect with the characters. One hundred and three additional queries later, I formed a small press (ForcePoseidon.com) with Mike Hancock (09) to put out our work and that of our talented friends and equally under-represented authors. My thriller is the first "artisanal" result of this process and a proof-of-concept that seems to be working out well. We're reviewing additional projects for publication in the first quarter of next year.

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Now that you have completed your novel and published it, looking back is there any advice you would give to aspiring writers? Do the work first, the work being the writing. Finish it in the smooth in Word or Scrivener or in ballpoint on legal pads, whatever works for you, before you seek representation, if that's your goal. Only query once your work is final-final, because when that email comes back two hours after you sent in your Q, you want to respond instantly. If you decide to self-publish, you will still tweak and line edit (sometimes just for typesetting reasons) and maybe even make big changes once your words are laid into InDesign or Vellum, but don't hurry that process. Keep learning. And just write. Getting it down is the foundation of everything that follows. Edit ruthlessly, because that's what the gatekeepers (and readers) will do. That doesn't always mean "trim." When that first agent said he failed to connect with my characters, I plowed back in there and turned up the wick on almost everything. That mss submitted to him was 97,000 words. The novel on Amazon today (bit.ly/ForceNoOne) in print and pixels is 113,000. I expect the sequel, Force Majeure, to roll out at about 90,000 words.

As a self-publisher, do you have advice on that process? We've all seen self-published work that is, charitably, not ready for prime time. Simply uploading a Word doc to Amazon or IngramSpark or wherever, slapping on some low-resolution stock art, and pushing the Send button may be psychically satisfying to you and your mom, but few people who don't know you will respond that well. It just doesn't look like a professionally produced book. Our Force Poseidon was established to be as utterly professional as the Big Five, but with a broader view and less bureaucracy. I've been a writer, editor, photographer, and designer for decades, but we still sought input from beta readers and other pro-grade editors. That said, the editing, cover, and book design were ultimately my responsibility: My name is on the cover. If you don't have those skills, do not be shy about seeking help from professionals who will only make your work shine. If anyone has questions about the process of querying, self-publishing, or anything else, I can be reached at DCR@genuineDCR.com. I never close. Finally, have the confidence in your work that you want an agent or publisher to have. We're writers, creators, and self-doubt is encoded in us at the cellular level. The Mountainview MFA is one of the best ways to access the training and expertise from genuine, published authors who will make your journey better.


Daniel Charles Ross—DCR—attended Mountainview MFA in 2015. The thriller, Force No One, was to be his thesis. Visit his website genuinedcr.com.

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.

AUTHOR SPOTLIGHT: Kelly Stone Gamble


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Since graduating from the Mountainview MFA program in 2012, Kelly Stone Gamble has gone on to publish two novels as well as award-winning short fiction. Recently, she agreed to an interview where we discussed writing, publishing and her success as an author.  

So, Kelly, your latest novel, Call Me Daddy, is the second in a series featuring your protagonist, Cass Adams. Can you give us a little info on what the story is about? Also, how did the idea come to you?
In Call Me Daddy, Cass finds out she’s pregnant and isn’t quite sure how to deal with it, while Clay—the stable one in the relationship—finds himself struggling with “daddy” issues. I actually got the idea sitting in church one day while watching a new father proudly introducing his baby girl. And you could just see how terrified he was.

You write that the town of Deacon, Kansas, the setting for the Cass Adams series, is loosely based on your real-life hometown of Baxter Springs, Kansas. Is the character of Cass also loosely based on you? 
Ha! Not at all. I think there are bits of me in all of my characters, but I’m not about to tell anyone which bits that might be.

I am curious about your path to publication. What was the process like? And what lessons have you learned?
That’s a big question! I actually do an hour-long presentation on the publishing process I went through titled “Writing is the Easy Part.” Condensing that, I would say everyone has a different path. I had an agent, then I didn’t have an agent. I had a larger press interested in my book, but they wanted me to rewrite it from one POV (that wouldn’t have been my book). I finally found Red Adept Publishing, and I couldn’t be happier with them. There are many paths to publishing. Everyone needs to find what’s right for them and go for it!

Fill us in on your writing process. Do you have a set time that you like to write? Duration?
Not really. I write when I feel I have something to say. I’ll think of a good line, or a good scene for one of my projects, and I write it. Sometimes, it’s nothing more than that one inspiration, other times, I’ll start and continue writing for hours. I don’t work well when I say, “between 8 and 9, I’m going to write.” Because when 8 rolls around, I usually have nothing to say.

How long did it take you to write that first book?
17 days. I knew the story I wanted to write. It took me over a year to edit it, though. I actually got the idea for They Call Me Crazy sitting in the bar at the Mountain View Grand, watching an infomercial on koi ponds. I said to the bartender, Troy, “they look like graves,” and his response was, “it’s your story,” and from that moment, it was. Incidentally, Troy and I became good friends and he was a valuable resource, or you might say a muse, for me while writing the first two books. He’s in the acknowledgements of all three books in the Cass Adams series.

Do you find working off an outline helpful? 
No. I need to know where I’m starting and where I’m going, and then I write whatever comes to mind. I can edit it later, but getting the story down, and several great scenes is enough to keep me moving. It’s kind of like taking a long walk, half the fun is not knowing what you are going to see on the way.

Do you ever get writers block? If so, what did you do to combat it? 
I’m always writing something. It may not be on one project, in fact, I hit walls all the time. But when I do, I just put that aside and move on to something else. I have four novels in progress right now, and who knows which one I’ll finish first. Sometimes I’ll write a short story, or a poem, or an essay just to give my mind a rest from a larger project, and when I’m ready, I go back to one of the novels. So how do I combat it? I keep writing. 

What was the best piece of writing advice you ever received? 
Author Scott Phillips has given me several bits of advice, many I won’t repeat, but probably the one that sticks with me is “Write what you want. If the writing is good, it will find readers.” I think there are too many writers trying to focus on a particular genre, or trying to write “literary fiction,” when the reality is good writing finds readers. The tagline for the SNHU MFA program used to be “Go write your book”—not what someone else wants you to write or what you think will sell, but your book. It’s great advice.

The first book in the series, They Call Me Crazy, climbed up the USA Today bestseller list. That has got to be exciting. Have you given any thought to your books becoming movies or a TV series, as Hollywood seems to be constantly on the lookout for best-selling properties? If so, do you have a dream cast in mind? Any thoughts on who you would like to play Cass? 
I am talking with someone currently about movie rights but can’t say much more about it than that at this time. I can think of several who would be a great Cass—Winona Ryder would probably be my favorite. But definitely Larry the Cable Guy for Daze Harper!

Do you have more books planned for Cass Adams? 
The third and final book in the trilogy, Call Me Cass, comes out in 2019. It’s currently in the editing line at my publishing house, Red Adept Publishing. I have a Cass Adams short story, “A Crazy Christmas,” coming out in the anthology Tangled Lights and Silent Nights this Christmas. Additionally, I am publishing another short story, “Daze before the Storm,” which will be out prior to the release of Call Me Cass.

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What do you miss most about your time at Mountainview? 
What I miss are hugs from Merle and Rick and just listening to Craig talk. I miss Katie doing the Rock Lobster on dance night. I miss being part of a group of adults donning pirate hats and fake tattoos and rowboating to Smuttynose Island. I made friends in those two years that I’ll keep for a lifetime, and since then, have become friends with many students that graduated before and after me. I never could write much during residencies, I was there for experiences that would inspire me to write later. Being around others that had the same goal, to write a book, was a wonderful experience. A few years ago, one of the alums organized a retreat and it was wonderful to be a part of that community again. I’d love to see that happen at least every few years—maybe in the desert next time?


W. Leander 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.

"I Actually Knew Nothing About These People I Supposedly Hated:" An Interview with Adam Wilson

 "Mixing Station" - Catherine Elizabeth

 "Mixing Station" - Catherine Elizabeth

Assignment Issue #1 features the first published excerpt, titled "The Parentheses," from Adam Wilson's novel-in-progress. He is the author of the novel Flatscreen (2012) and the short story collection What's Important is Feeling (2014), the title story of which was featured in the 2012 volume of The Best American Short Stories. A recipient of The Paris Review's Terry Southern Prize, and a National Jewish Book Award finalist, Adam was recently named to Brooklyn Magazine's list of 50 Funniest People in Brooklyn. In this interview, we discussed his method for writing comedy and his use of 9/11 and the Wall Street crash as narrative backdrops.

To read an excerpt from "The Parentheses," click here.

- Daniel Johnson

In your story “Things I Had” from What's Important is Feeling, the protagonist, Sam, says of the two new friends he meets, Squirrel and Deep, that they "had words for things I’d wanted to name.” Has anyone told you that about your writing?

Adam Wilson:  Maybe this is a roundabout answer, but I tend to think of writing—and all art really—as a form of communication, an (ultimately futile) attempt to represent and articulate, through narrative and the manipulation of language, things that can’t otherwise be reduced or articulated or summed up. I often think of Raymond Carver’s story “Why Don’t You Dance,” about a couple who have a strange experience, and then find themselves unable to recapture that experience when they try to explain it to others. The story ends with the lines, “She kept talking. She told everyone. There was more to it, and she was trying to get it talked out. After a time, she quit trying.”  In a sense, I feel like those sentences aptly describe all of my characters, who are trying to find language to explain themselves and their worlds, and in so doing hope to begin to understand those things themselves. I’m not sure any of them ever succeed, but I think for a character like Sam in “Things I Had,” there is something really thrilling in meeting new people who open him up to a whole new language, a whole new way of cataloguing the world.

In Flatscreen, Eli describes himself and a bewintered New England as “ice-fucked.” All those hyphenated descriptions are poignant in the way they capture a generational vernacular.

AW:  I got really into the hyphen thing for a while when I was writing Flatscreen and some of the earlier stories, like “Milligrams”, which I wrote while I was working on Flatscreen. The idea was that these characters didn’t have the language to say what they were trying to say, so they had to try to make a new one. But yeah, my hope was that it would somehow represent the way certain kinds of media have altered the way we speak—in Flatscreen I was thinking particularly of television and film, but the Internet is certainly a huge part of it as well.

What do you find is the most effective (and what’s your favorite) vehicle for comedy writing?

For the most part I try not to think too much about it during the writing process. Comic writing comes very naturally to me—I tend to cover some pretty dark material, and my instinct is always to offset the pathos with humor--and the only time I really sit down and think about the jokes themselves is during the editing process, when I ruthlessly vet them for anything that’s not working or simply could be better, funnier. Mostly though, my editing process involves trying to make sure the story’s comedy doesn’t detract or overcompensate for the more serious stuff going on below the surface. I think my drafts tend to be much more joke heavy, and then I’ll have to go back and say, “Well that’s a sort of funny line, but what’s it doing in the story? Does it need to be there?”

Each of the stories in What's Important is Feeling has its own hierarchy wheeling onward in the background, but the protagonists tend to reside outside it. Do you tend to favor writing marginalized characters?

AW: Yes, I tend to be interested in characters who, in whatever local hierarchy they’re part of, they’re somewhere near the bottom. In part, I think it’s because it’s easier to root for an underdog; no one wants to root for the cool guy who’s having great sex all day and is happy with his job and his life. Where’s the conflict? It’s much more fun to root for the loser who means well.

Some of your supporting characters, like Kahn in Flatscreen and Felix from "What's Important is Feeling," tend to be vocal about their views on the hierarchies that marginalized them. How fun was it to write characters like this?

AW: Really fun. It involved a lot of reading aloud to myself.

Stories like “The Long In-Between,” “December Boys” and “Sluts” have real-world tension looming in the background of the narratives. How did you find that deepen the world, the characters?

AW: I think, in all those cases, it came about pretty organically in the sense that they covered topical ground that interested me personally. “The Long In-Between” is set during the 2006 conflict between Israel and Lebanon, but I wrote it during some of the more recent, ongoing drama regarding the IDF and Israel’s foreign policy. I think, more than anything, I wrote the story to try to assemble some of my own feelings about Israel, and my narrator’s mixed feelings on the subject really echo my own. I think I made the character female to differentiate her from me, but of all the characters in the collection I feel like she is, in some way, the most similar to my actual self.  I think it’s a very confusing thing right now to be a left-wing American Jew, and my hope was that, rather than push any political agenda, or come to any definitive conclusions about Israel, I could simply capture some of that confusion, and some of the frustration with the situation as a whole. “December Boys” actually came out of the novel I’m currently working on (excerpted here in “The Parentheses”), but then kind of grew into its own thing. I knew I wanted to write about the 2008 Wall Street crash from a number of different perspectives, and I thought it might be fun to try to figure out how a couple of young, laid off bankers might behave. In some ways, the major impetus for the whole project came from attending Occupy protests and proclaiming my hatred of bankers, and then realizing I actually knew nothing about these people I supposedly hated. I imagined what it would be like to be some twenty-three year old, straight out of college, majored in econ, got a job at Lehmann Brothers or wherever, and then suddenly find yourself unemployed and truly despised. What would that feel like? As for “Sluts at Heart,” I’d always wanted to write something about the Elvis stamp. The fact that there was a vote for whether we’d choose good looking, young Elvis, or sad, druggie, fat, old Elvis to be on the stamp seemed so absurd to me, so deeply American.

What was the single most important element that made What's Important is Feeling a cohesive collection?

AW: For a while I was really annoyed with people calling it a collection of "coming of age" stories, but after a while I realized it was true. They are all coming-of-age stories in the sense that, even in the stories that involve adult characters, they’re all stories about someone’s life changing after coming into close proximity with death.

For your excerpt in Assignment, "The Parentheses," the backdrop is New York just after 9/11. The event provides Wendy and Michael, on a second date at a Portuguese restaurant, with fodder for conversation. Do you think that happened for a lot of people, with their interactions with strangers, after the attacks? 

AW:  9/11 allowed people, particularly strangers, to become intimate in ways they may not have otherwise. There was a sense of people feeling bound together by the experience, and a very fleeting feeling that there was no longer room for the bullshit of small talk. At the same time, however, I feel like the characters in the story, Michael and Wendy, are kind of nervous to bring it up as well, nervous that they’ll somehow say the wrong thing, or that things will get too heavy for a second date. The fact that they ultimately seem to open up to each other, I think, is a testament to some kind of actual connection.

What was the inspiration for the scene?

AW: The scene with the music in the Portuguese place was partly based on an experience I had much later on, sometime around 2007. I was on a date in a Portuguese restaurant with the woman who is now my long-term partner, but who, at the time, was someone I had only begun seeing.  Suddenly, without us noticing, the restaurant closed, and we were the only customers left, and there was sort of a private party/jam session going on that we’d somehow ended up in. We got corralled into dancing and got very drunk.

The whole experience felt at once surreal and familiar; surreal because it was unexpected and dreamlike, yet familiar because it seemed like the kind of thing one heard about in romantic anecdotes about New York, particularly in certain kinds of movies, the kinds of stories that sound fake or unrealistic until they actually happen. And the experience sort of bonded us as a couple, it made us feel like things like that happened because we were together, that the combination of the two of us created some kind of spark that inspired these kinds of adventures. I think that was what I was trying to capture, and also this feeling, after 9/11, when people sort of just let go of formality a little bit. I wasn’t living in New York in 2001, but I remember coming to visit shortly after, and going to a bar downtown, and just getting into such intense and unguarded conversations with strangers I never would have talked to in a million years otherwise.

Can you tell us a little about Michael?

AW: Well, this section is a flashback, but in the present tense of the novel, he and Wendy are married and he’s a Wall St. banker who’s been skipping work to try to write a non-fiction book about Eminem. He’s an anxious, eccentric guy who I think really means well, but who makes a lot of bad decisions.

And Wendy?

AW: Wendy is also a really anxious person, and an over-thinker. These are qualities that she and Michael share and relate to in each other. But they deal with them in different ways, Wendy, by trying to control everything in her life, and Michael by trying to shuck responsibility. In a way this makes them both a good match and a problematic one. In many ways, Wendy is the novel’s anchor. A lot of the story centers around her job as a social media manager for brands.

I like the seamlessness with which you shuttle between Michael and Wendy’s points of view. Can you speak a little bit about writing the scene that way?

AW: My first book, Flatscreen, is told entirely in the first person from the perspective of a character with a very limited worldview, and so I knew that I wanted the next long project I worked on to be less claustrophobically contained to one character’s head. Michael and Wendy are the two main POVs here, but there are many others that pop up as well. It’s been really fun to write this way, a relief.

The Novel is Headed to Boca: An Interview with Joshua Cohen

"A Gym Window" - Catherine Elizabeth

"A Gym Window" - Catherine Elizabeth

Issue #1 of Assignment features a new short story by Joshua Cohen, “The Gymnics.” Cohen is the author of several books, including the short story collection Four New Messages, which was named one of the Best Books of 2012 by The New Yorker, and the forthcoming novel Book of Numbers, which will be available this June from Random House. He is a New Books critic for Harper’s. In this interview, he talks about the literature that influenced “The Gymnics,” as well as some of the research methods he employed for his new novel.

To read an excerpt from "The Gymnics" click here.

- Daniel Johnson

What does the title, “The Gymnics,” refer to?

Joshua Cohen: Style-and-themewise I was thinking of the Stoics, of course - of Aurelius’ Meditations, Epictetus’ Discourses. But the title comes from poetry, from Virgil in translation: The Georgics, The Eclogues (also called The Bucolics).

Are there any particular Aurelius maxims you like?

JC: The ones I like best I altered, or adapted, for use. Here’s one, though, that didn’t make the cut: “Men exist for the sake of one another. Teach them then or bear with them.”

"The Gymnics" is a story about a student who valorizes a writer and educator before acknowledging his humanity. Has this ever happened to you with an author or educator you've admired?

JC: Dickens's affair with Ellen Ternan broke my heart.

What are your thoughts on a reader separating a body of work or art from the body who created it?

JC: I cleave to the New Criticism, which isn't new anymore: author and authored are separate. "Phallacies" grow big and hard between them...

Did you research Silicon Valley for your new novel, Book of Numbers? If so, what were your research methods?

JC: I read, taught myself to code a bit. Lied to people who worked in tech, took them to dinner, went to their parties, and just generally haunted their lives.

A character in David Foster Wallace's unfinished novel The Pale King says that “dullness proves to be such a powerful impediment to attention,” and that the increasingly LED-screened world exploits this notion: “I can’t think anyone really believes that today’s so-called ‘information society’ is just about information. Everyone knows it’s about something else, way down.” Given that the Internet is the primary marketplace in the global information society today, what do you, way down, think it’s about?

JC: $$$$. And succedanea for same.

Where do you think the novel, as an art form, is headed?

JC: To Boca.

What are you currently reading?

JC: Jeff Nunokawa’s Note Book. Yoel Hoffmann’s Moods, translated by Peter Cole.