The Wing Thief: An Interview with Samantha Atkins

How did the concept for The Wing Thief come to fruition?

I’ve always loved anything fantasy-related and the idea of escaping into magical lands, whether through reading books or watching TV. As far back as I can remember, I’ve always had this strong urge to write and create my own world for others to escape into. Then one day, I came up with this idea of a flightless fairy living within a magical forest. The idea was so exciting to me! I began to think about what a magical forest might have living inside it, and I started creating my own magical creatures and imagining rules they might have to live by within the forest. It was all so much fun to write and, once I had the basic characters and rules in place, the story just took off from there. 

There are some fantastic characters in The Wing Thief; Grecko is a particular favorite of mine. Was there any character you particularly related to and enjoyed writing?

I agree—Grecko is my favorite character as well and I loved writing him! I think the character I most related to when writing, however, was Vista. I really wanted her to be a character that wasn’t the strongest, the bravest, or the most powerful and yet was vital to the story. I felt it was a strong message that you didn’t have to be anything other than yourself to be important. As a member of the LGBTQ+ community, that message means a lot to me, and I hope other readers can take it on board—that they can accept and love themselves just the way they are.

Letherea is such a beautiful, magical world. What challenges did you face when worldbuilding and where did you draw inspiration from?

I think I drew inspiration from the number of different fantasy books and TV shows I love to read/watch, such as Harry Potter, Narnia, Once Upon a Time—the list can go on for days! Being such a huge fan of fantasy, I tried to imagine a world that I would love to read about and hope that others might fall in love with it too. Some of the challenges that came from creating the world were things like making sure it had rules in place so that a reader could make sense of it. I decided to give each magical creature a job, for example, gnomes are “carers of the forest.” I found that once I gave the world rules and gave the creatures within it a purpose, it was much easier to make the world flow.

What is the overall message you hope readers will take away from this book?

 As I said above, I hope that readers can take away the message that it’s okay to be different and you don’t have to be anyone other than who you are. I believe the world would be a much happier place if everybody did this, as people put too much pressure on themselves these days to fit in.

What appealed to you about writing for young adults?

I think that it’s best to write what you know and my favorite genre to read has always been Young Adult. I’m now thirty-one and never stopped loving it! I think that Young Adult novels can be so powerful, uplifting, and enjoyed by such a wide variety of people. What’s not to love?

What was the best piece of writing advice you were ever given?

I think that my partner, Layla, gave me great advice and that was to just write what I love and never forget the reason I write in the first place—which is because I enjoy it so much. I’ve always tried to remember this when I feel any pressure—that no matter what happens, I absolutely love to write and create.

The Wing Thief was published by SmashBear Publishing, a young, independent publishing house. What do you think are the benefits of working with an indie publisher?

Personally, I really enjoyed working with an indie publisher. I found that, due to them being a smaller company, it felt very personal and as though I was really a part of the team. I had a group of editors and Loredana Carini, the founder of SmashBear, available to help me throughout the entire process. I was included in every aspect of the editing and publishing journey and grew very close to everyone I worked with. I really enjoyed the experience and can’t wait to work with them again!

What upcoming titles are you looking forward to this year?

I’m not sure about upcoming titles, but I’m currently doing the 52 Book Challenge 2021—which gives you fifty-two different prompts to expand your reading and explore different genres. So far, I’ve discovered so many amazing books that I wouldn’t normally have read, such as Where the Crawdads Sing and Billy Lemonade. I’ve also just started listening to The Lunar Chronicles and—being a Disney lover—am enjoying working my way through those!

After having successfully accomplished so much, what are your goals? What direction do you see your writing taking now, in terms of both craft and publication?

I’m currently working on the sequel to The Wing Thief, which I hope to have released in 2022. I also have an urban fantasy short story that is due for release through SmashBear sometime this year. It’s quite a different theme to The Wing Thief, and I really enjoyed the challenge of writing something new and exploring other genres. At the moment, I’m quite absorbed in the Letherea series, but I’m hoping to branch out and explore other genres and other styles of writing in the future. I already have an idea for an LGBTQ+ novel that I can’t wait to get writing once I’m finished with this one, so who knows!

6 Books Exploring Immigrant Identity

Writing is an excellent way to share our stories and comment on both the singular and universal aspects of the human experience. It can be a tool for healing, for exploration, and for self-expression. Authors who write about immigrant experiences comment on identity and its fluid-yet-constant nature. Discover six incredible novels exploring immigrant identity that we think you should leaf through!

Becoming Americans  

Becoming Americans is an edited collection of poems, stories, novel excerpts, travel pieces, diary entries, memoirs, and letters, spanning over 400 years. They explore a range of experiences about coming to America, including the reasons for departing from the authors’ home countries, various incidents and encounters while traveling to America, their first impressions of the country, and their struggle with the complexities of the new environment. This book is a beautiful glance into migration and American history.

Amazon.com: Becoming Americans: Four Centuries of Immigrant Writing: A  Library of America Special Publication (9781598530513): Stavans, Ilan: Books

Out of Egypt, André Aciman 

Out of Egypt is a delightful memoir that follows a Jewish family as they arrive in Alexandria. In it, André Aciman introduces readers to the people who shaped his life: “Uncle Vili, the strutting daredevil, soldier, salesman, and spy; the two grandmothers, the Princess and the Saint, who gossip in six languages; Aunt Flora, the German refugee who warns that Jews lose everything ‘at least twice in their lives.’” Aciman has written many memoirs, essays, and articles for a variety of publications. Born in Alexandria, Egypt, he now teaches literary theory, in both English and French, and teaches the works of Marcel Proust.

Thoughts Without Cigarettes, Oscar Hijuelos 

Thoughts Without Cigarettes is Oscar Hijuelos’ first memoir, though he has previously written many other award-winning novels such as Tale of Cuban-American Life and The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love. This book “introduces readers to the colorful circumstances of his upbringing.” Born in the 1950s to Cuban immigrants, Hijuelos’s inspiring story shows his evolution from a child to the successful writer he is today.

Thoughts without Cigarettes eBook by Oscar Hijuelos - 9781101528822 |  Rakuten Kobo United States

The New Kids, Brooke Hauser 

The New Kids is a collection of narrative journalism, which sets it apart from a lot of other first-person accounts of immigration and memoirs. The book documents a year in the lives of a group of teenage newcomers to America, and reflects “a multicultural mosaic that embodies what is truly amazing about America.” It shows the duality of a very “typical” experience at an American high school coupled with the unique experiences of navigating a new society and culture in the middle of adolescence.

The New Kids | Book by Brooke Hauser | Official Publisher Page | Simon &  Schuster

Ru, Kim Thúy 

A beautiful example of migrant literature, Ru takes its name from the Vietnamese word for lullaby. In French, the same word means “a small stream.” It also signifies a flow—of tears, blood, or money. Thúy’s book is every bit as poetic and image-rich as its title suggests. I have read this book in its original French and in English, and both versions are lovely, though they include different imagery and plays on words, depending on the language and its structure. In a series of vignettes, Ru takes readers on a journey from a palatial residence in Saigon to a Malaysian refugee camp to a new life in Quebec, Canada. “There, the young girl feels the embrace of a new community, and revels in the chance to be part of the American Dream.” Ru skyrocketed to the top of bestseller lists in Quebec and has been translated into 15 languages worldwide.

Ru | CBC Books

When I Was Puerto Rican, Esmeralda Santiago 

Esmeralda Santiago’s memoir, When I Was Puerto Rican, begins by describing her early childhood in rural Puerto Rico. This evocative memoir recounts various milestones in Santiago’s life, including tropical sounds and sights, learning how to properly eat a guava, tasting morcilla sausage for the first time, and learning the rituals surrounding ushering a baby’s soul to heaven. When she moves to America, she experiences a clash of Puerto Rican and American culture. Esmeralda and her 10 siblings must learn new societal norms, habits, and a whole new language. Her memoir describes the ways she took on a new identity after moving to America.

When I Was Puerto Rican: Santiago, Esmeralda: 9780201581171: Books -  Amazon.ca

In such a cosmopolitan, interconnected age, it is crucial to develop a greater understanding of other people, their experiences, and their culture. In my opinion, learning more about others teaches us a lot about ourselves and our own culture. These five books are a well-rounded, exciting place to start for those looking to understand a bit more about the immigrant experience, and cross-cultural practices.

The Black Iron Legacy: An Interview with Gareth Hanrahan

How did the concept for The Black Iron Legacy series come to fruition? 

I don’t know if there was a single core concept—it’s very much an agglutination of bits and pieces that have been floating around my head for a while. I knew I wanted to explore a dark, bizarre city. I like playing with ideas of strange architecture. I wanted to think about politics and beliefs and cultural forces, but I also wanted to write about monsters. So, I made a setting where the two concepts were one and the same. But for a long time, it was just eight or ten blobs of concepts that I liked thinking about. I had (or arguably have!) a lot of trouble writing a story—I can easily come up with setting material, background and secondary characters, but protagonists and story beats remain bugbears for me. So, I came up with a primary character who’d just charge ahead and explosively drive the story.

I wrote about 20,000 words without any clue where it was going, then a few months later came back to it and actually started planning a bit, building on the foundation I’d made.

The world within The Black Iron Legacy series is incredibly intricate and tangible. How did you go about worldbuilding and where did you draw inspiration from?

Worldbuilding may be a misnomer. The author and the reader only know one world—this one. It’s more like world deformation—if I add this concept, this nation, how does the world change? If I change this rule of reality, what happens? The world of the Black Iron Legacy is very, very vaguely based on nineteenth-century Europe, and a lot of the elements are drawn from our world and history. The city of Guerdon’s a combination of London, Edinburgh, New York, and Cork in varying degrees—there are kings and lords, but also parliaments and voting, churches, and monks. Most things work roughly like the reader already knows.

What you do, then, is take something that resonates with you, or that you need for the story, add it to the world, and think about how everything changes and fits together. The thing you add can be anything, as long as you do the work of supporting it and integrating it. You need to think about second- and third-order effects. For example, if you’re writing a world where, for example, the aristocracy are all werewolves, you’d need to think about how that ripples out into, say, medicine—if a werewolf can only be hurt by silver, is a silver scalpel the mark of a doctor to the nobility? Or inheritance law—can lycanthropy be transmitted by a bite, and if so, does that count as kinship? What happens around the full moon if everyone in charge turns into a ravening monster—does the whole society shut down, or are there seneschals and assistants in place who take over for a few days?

The inspiration can come from anywhere. You can draw on anything, add anything, as long as you convince the reader that it makes sense in context.

 Was there a specific character you found challenging to write or one you found particularly relatable?

In the first book, Professor Ongent was a bit hard to write—he likes talking and explaining things and knew far too much of the plot already. I had to keep shuffling him “off-screen” before he gave too much away. Rat’s always fun to write because it’s such an odd mindset—I either find myself rewriting a lot of his passages because they’re not ghoulish enough or disturbing myself when I reread and find I wrote some disturbing observation without noticing. So much of writing a character is finding their voice—some you have to look for, some pop up and demand attention.

What type of scenes do you most enjoy writing?

I can ramble about pseudo-history or other bits of background quite happily for page upon page, and that’s very enjoyable to write—possibly less so to read, except for a small minority of readers. I also really enjoy the latter parts of a book, when all the set-up is done and the plot and characters have their own momentum, and it’s less a question of moving pieces around and more about writing ahead of this runaway story. A huge part of the challenge of writing is getting to the point that the book starts writing—or at least suggesting—parts of itself for you. You realize that the apparently irrelevant stuff you tossed off in a random aside twenty chapters ago can be brought back and tied into the plot or that minor character you threw in for flavor can be reused in a later scene. It makes you feel very clever when the book starts fitting together.

There can often be pressure for a second book to live up to the hype of the first. Did you face any difficulties when writing The Shadow Saint (The Black Iron Legacy, 2)?

The Gutter Prayer (The Black Iron Legacy, 1) was written as a stand-alone novel, but the publisher asked for sequels. Fortunately, I’d ended on a sufficiently ambiguous note that there was plenty of scope for expanding the story. Honestly, the writing of The Shadow Saint was easier—I’m used to writing on contract, with deadlines and the (relative) certainty of payment. Writing The Gutter Prayer on spec, without any idea if I could sell it, was very much an indulgence for me—I was squandering writing time which could have gone to paying projects on something that might well have ended up languishing in the depths of my hard drive forever.

Hype wasn’t a factor—I had the second book ninety-five percent finished by the time the first one came out. You’re almost always working a book ahead.

With The Broken God (The Black Iron Legacy, 3) having just come out in May, are you currently working on the next book in the series, or have you got any new books in the works?

I’m working on a different novel series, planning book four, and doing lots of freelance game design. And, y’know, hiding from the global pandemic. It’s hard to find unencumbered time to write at the moment, but you have to teach yourself to snatch writing time in bursts and fragments. The world’s never going to co-operate with your planned schedule.

I’ve got another dozen or so ideas that bubble to the top of my mind every so often, although that doesn’t equate to a dozen or so books. I find that a book needs at least three really good ideas to stay afloat. 

How has your work as a game designer influenced your writing or vice versa?

A lot of the skills are instantly transferable—coming up with plots, descriptions, worldbuilding, prose. The challenge was changing my instincts, as there are a few places where what’s desirable in a game is actively harmful to a novel. Protagonists, for example—when you’re designing a game, you want to make the players the heroes, and you want to give them as many meaningful choices and options as possible so they make their own story. You might give the player some direction as regards playstyle and thematic inspiration—this faction is the fighty guys, this other faction is the sneaky guys—but you want to leave as much as possible up to the player. With a novel, you need a compelling, characterful protagonist, not a blank slate for the reader to fill in.

Who are some authors that inspire you and why?

In fantasy, Tolkien, obviously. Jeff VanderMeer. William Gibson. Tim Powers. Robert Holdstock. Claire North. I love Umberto Eco’s mix of academic rigor and playfulness, the delight of connecting and remaking ideas. Flann O’Brien, similarly. I’m also a big fan of John Higgs’s books, again for the surprising connections.

Is there anything you wish you could change about the publishing process within the industry as a whole?

If I could wave a magic wand, then I guess some level of transparency as regards sales figures and targets. It’s hard to know if a book is doing better or worse than expected, or even how “expected” is determined. I know there are other authors out there who can ignore all that and just concentrate on the writing, which is an ability I envy—it’s probably much more productive than obsessing over digital tea leaves in Amazon rankings.

After having successfully accomplished so much, what are your goals? What direction do you see your writing taking now, in terms of both craft and publication?

Right now, my short-term goal is just getting back to some sort of routine post-pandemic and post-young-children and then finding a sustainable balance between fiction and freelance game writing. Very few writers can afford to write fiction full-time, but I’m in the odd position of having a “day job” that’s also writing. It gives wonderful flexibility and it’s very rewarding, but there’s a lot of time management and creative exhaustion involved. I’m trying to work towards a situation where I can spend more time polishing and researching, as opposed to cramming writing into every spare minute. In terms of craft, I’m experimenting with feeding some of the skills I’ve picked up in novel writing back into game design, paying more attention to the emotional impact and dramatic tension of the stories that the game generates.

Graphic Memoirs: A Breakdown

Graphic memoirs are, simply put, short, true comics. In memoir style, they document true events in the author’s life through illustrated panels like those seen in comics and graphic novels. They tend to be shorter and less expansive than traditional memoirs, focusing on a specific event, relationship, or strict year range. The fusion between pictorial storytelling and nonfiction provides an accessible gateway for anyone...
Flaming fiddles, it looks like there’s a roadblock here! If you’d like to finish reading this piece, please buy a subscription—you’ll get access to the entire online archive of F(r)iction.

Recognizing Literacy as a Human Right

We at F(r)iction would like to draw attention to an oft-forgotten human rights issue near and dear to our hearts: literacy. While literacy has been accepted by organizations like UNESO as a fundamental human right, it has been challenged by others. For example, in 2018, a federal district judge in Detroit, MI ruled that literacy was not a human right. Fortunately, two years later, the US Sixth Circuit of Appeals remanded this ruling. However, the fact that such rulings even exist in this day and age proves there’s a larger issue at play—not just in the US where the trials took place, but across the globe.

Literacy is integral to engaging individuals in society, connecting them with others and allowing them to participate in significant sociocultural events, such as voting, in a global civilization that is increasingly text-mediated through the internet. As marked by numerous sources throughout the decades, learning how to read and write at a young age helps the brain develop and ensures that later in life, a person is able to consume key information during crises. According to sources like Concern USA, being literate also opens doors to a larger job market, and fosters better self-esteem and community health by empowering people and promoting interpersonal connection.  

Despite the abundant evidence of literacy’s importance, millions of individuals worldwide remain illiterate due to lack of resources and education. A study by the International Literacy Organization found that inadequate access to books in homes is the second greatest barrier to equity in literacy education. Organizations like UNESCO, Indigenous Literacy Foundation, and local libraries work to address this issue by raising awareness and promoting action by providing literacy programs centered around accessibility. However, with the COVID-19 pandemic, literacy programs that benefited students, young and old alike, are endangered. While several programs were able to switch online, many were canceled. One ProLiteracy survey found that 54 percent of literacy programs in the US severely lack additional funding and 50 percent said they did not have adequate digital material for instruction. Many students were not able to access the equipment needed to participate either.  

While many sectors of society are facing challenges due to the pandemic, it is vital to keep literacy in mind on this global day of recognition. The contested right faced challenges even before the pandemic, and obstacles are now further exacerbated. Our parent organization Brink Literacy Project recognizes the power of literacy to impact lives, allowing individuals to voice their own stories and communities to connect. To learn more about Brink’s literacy mission, check out our website

Book Review: All the Birds in the Sky—Charlie Jane Anders

Please note that this interview was originally published on our old website in 2015, before our parent nonprofit—then called Tethered by Letters (TBL)—had rebranded as Brink Literacy Project. In the interests of accuracy we have retained the original wording of the review.

Published January 26, 2016 by Tor Books.

(The following contains spoilers.)

At the beginning of All the Birds in the Sky, I was nervous that this novel would bore me. Protagonist Patricia Delfine, in the first sentence, finds a bird with a broken wing. This familiar trope caused me to slog through the first page until I ran into her sister Roberta—who “put frogs into a rusty Cuisinart” and “stuck mice into her homemade rocket launcher, to see how far she could shoot them.” If that isn’t strange and awful enough to compel a reader forward, the wounded bird talks back to Patricia by the third page, because apparently she is “a witch! Or something.”

It wasn’t long before I learned that Anders is kin to the Trickster magicians—one of the two parties of magic folk she pens to life—and that the novel is actually rather intriguing. Anders’s science fantasy novel starts off a bit Harry Potteresque, stomps on the breaks, and then shifts to a future, cli-fi apocalypse. All the while Anders toys with (and sometimes refreshes) familiar science fiction and fantasy tropes, such as the magic school, the doomsday machine, and artificial intelligence.

Laurence Armstead—Patricia’s confidant, enemy, and lover—balances Patricia’s magical mayhem with his peculiar science experiments. Throughout the novel the perspectives of these two characters dominate, building both tension and connection between their preferred means of power. Then Anders adds in a prophetic assassin, rocket scientists, terrifying relatives, a military reform school, not-too-proud witches and wizards, a plethora of hipster hangouts, and ethically challenged techno-geniuses to stir the pot.

The book follows Laurence and Patricia through three specific points in their childhood, adolescence, and young adult lives. Patricia grapples with the awakening and sudden deficit of her abilities until one fateful night she is invited to the magic school—re-emerging years later as a powerful, practicing witch. Laurence builds gadgets that are progressively more complex, ultimately attempting to create a machine that could act as a passageway to another habitable planet. Unfortunately, the interests of Patricia and Laurence are fated to be at odds and only the indestructible bond of love can overcome the division between them.

At times the novel is outrageous, at times funny, and oftentimes quirkily philosophical. But it is when all three of these things converge in Anders’s prose that the reader is seized by the novel. Like when Laurence is scolded by his parents: “When Laurence was old enough to do what he liked, he would be old enough to understand he couldn’t do what he liked.” Or this nugget of wisdom from Laurence’s AI CH@NG3M3 (later named Peregrine): “Society is the choice between freedom on someone else’s terms and slavery on yours.”

Overall, All the Birds in the Sky is anything but boring. The twisted tropes are entertaining and the story weird, sobering, and hopeful. Though you may find yourself annoyed with Patricia and Laurence as much as they are annoyed with each other, you’ll still feel compelled to root for their relationship and individual growth. Despite impending doom, Anders has written an enchanting tale of real love.

An Interview with Sari Wilson on Girl Through Glass: A Novel

I loved this book. I rarely interview writers anymore, but the moment this fell on my editor’s desk, I picked it up and couldn’t put it down. It’s so compelling.

Wow, thank you so much. That’s incredible. It’s what every writer dreams to hear.

It seems like you didn’t start out saying, “I want to be a writer.” You came from a different background. Talk to me about the transition into becoming a professional writer.

I always liked writing. I was good at it in school. I enjoyed it as a craft. But I was training as a dancer. I think that was my creative outlet and my identity for a long time. It really wasn’t until I left the dance world when I was about eighteen or nineteen that I became very serious about writing as a creative endeavor. So, I’ve had a really long apprenticeship. I think a lot of writers know from a very young age, on some level, that they want to be writers and so, in some way, are unconsciously training from a very young age. I think that I spent my twenties, and probably my thirties too, doing my apprenticeship. Luckily, I had some really great help along the way.

I got the Stegner Fellowship and then the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center Fellowship. So I had three years of writing fellowships. That time off from working—journalism in my twenties and educational publishing in my thirties—kept this apprenticeship going. I was very committed, always writing on the weekends, in the evenings, on my lunch breaks. And I published some stories along the way. What I’m trying to say is it has been a slow process for twenty-five years. I’m in my mid-forties now. And this book—I put everything into it. I wrote it in pieces through so many different parts of my life that it’s all sort of in there. Some people say to me now, “I can’t believe this is your debut novel.” But, in a way, it doesn’t feel like it because I wrote it and rewrote it so many times. I learned so much along the way.

I grew up on a dance background as well, and it was very strange to hear terms that I hadn’t heard since I was a teenager, like “pain is pride.” I think that a lot of young writers will get into writing and they’re happy to do the writing part, but when it comes to the revisions—the manifested pain of writing—they really shy away from that. Your prose is so sculpted, and it doesn’t read like a debut at all—you were definitely not afraid to get into the pain of writing. I wonder if that was influenced by your strong dance background because it was so perfect by the time it hit the page.

Your perspective is so interesting. It’s a very particular kind of training you receive as a dancer. That pride you are trained to take in suffering and pain, for better or worse, is really something that I think is hard to unlearn, or maybe impossible to unlearn. For me, the prose is hard. Maybe that’s the part where I feel comfortable with the discipline of writing. I don’t feel like everything I write has to be perfect. In fact, if there’s one thing dance did not help me with, it’s this idea that things have to be perfect. I had to really unlearn that because writing is so much messier. And it took me a long time to allow myself to fail and really write a bad draft, to be able to see it as a process. Dance, I think, is more performative. You’re working toward this single moment of performance. That correlation is not really one to one with writing, which I find so much more process-based.

To be able to have that pure moment where you are perfection on the stage is amazing. You never really get that as an adult.

My editor really understood that that’s what the book was about. It’s a moment of youth in which there can be this moment of transcendence through art, through movement, through creativity. It’s a very special moment, and if I were to have danced in my adulthood, I wouldn’t have been able to sustain that. It is a moment of youthful passion. And it could be dance, it could be a sport, it could be a passionate love that you have when you’re young that you can never quite recapture that level of pure passion. The giving up of that moment is explored through Kate.

One of the things I find so interesting about this novel is the difficult sides of dance that no one really sees unless you’re a dancer. Was it difficult as a writer to be that honest?

Getting to the emotional truth was hard. That’s probably why I would say this took me a decade or more. I kept having to put it aside and figure out where I was going. I had to work through a lot of emotional stuff to get to a place where I could be really honest. It helps that this is fiction. When I first started with the material, I thought maybe I was writing a memoir. So I tried to write about my own experience. But it really never took off. There just wasn’t a lot of energy in it and I finally realized that my experience in dance was A) not that unique, and B) not that compelling, dramatically. Yet there was something there that I really wanted to get to. So I actually decided I was going to interview girls that I had danced with when we were children. Some of them became professional dancers for a time; others left earlier than I did. It was really all over the board. And basically, this character, Mira, started to emerge. She took me to places that were hard to go to, and I felt like I had to be really honest with myself. She went to places where I did not go, and she has experiences I did not have. And they’re difficult. She has a difficult home life, she has both amazing talent but also a great innocence that costs her a lot. So yes, it was very hard. But I felt that the book demanded that. If I were going to write this book, that was what I was called to do: be very honest about my own experience only so I could be honest about her experience.

I’m so interested in the dual narrative that you set up. What was it like to approach this one craft from so many different angles?

I wrote the narratives separately. I wrote the Mira story first, all the way through. Then I showed it to some people in publishing, and there was a question whether it was YA because of the age of the protagonist. Around the same time, I had my daughter. So I actually had to put the book aside for a few years. But in those moments that I was able to write, like ten minutes here, fifteen minutes there, I was getting this other voice. This first person voice which became Kate. I showed it to my writing partner at the time and he was really interested in it. At a certain point I decided, like with the Mira character, this voice was kind of taking me. The interesting thing about her is that she’s not very likeable. I had to make a conscious decision to go with her even though the initial reads I was getting on her was that this is a difficult woman, she’s not particularly likable, and that could hinder possible publishing interest.

That’s a really brave move as a writer.

In a way, I didn’t have a choice because I learned by then that for me, as a writer, I needed to give myself over to these characters and this seemed like another one of them. So I took a few years and I wrote her whole story. But along the way, I did try to interweave it with Mira’s story. I had to adjust that a lot after it was written, but that was when I got excited because I thought, this is a book. I don’t know if it’ll ever be published, I don’t know if people will like it, I don’t know if it’ll ever see the light of day. But it felt like an actual book having these two narratives working off each other.

This was a very long writing process. How many years between the conception of the idea and seeing it in print?

I’m going to be honest: fifteen years. But I didn’t work on it all that time. The first glimmer of it was when I was all the way back in graduate school at Stamford. I sat down in a free writing session and I wrote the first scene in the book where these ballet girls are getting ready for class and they’re pulling on their tights and their leotards and their hairpieces and their elastics and the sort of uniform of the dance world. It’s like they’re getting ready for battle. That came to me pretty much unbidden, and I wrote that in one burst. And then I just cried. I didn’t know what to do with it because it was so different from anything I was writing at the time. I was writing mostly about men, about ex-patriots. I was reading all these ex-patriot writers, from Hemingway to Jean Rhys to Henry James. So it just seemed like everything that I wasn’t interested in. It was about girlhood, it was about youth, it was about New York City. I put it aside for years and I wrote short stories. But I just kept coming back to it. And then I would commit to it in spurts. For a couple of years I would really, really, really write… and then I would back off.

How did you go about publishing? You had written some short stories. Did you do the traditional querying an agent route? Or did someone find you?

At some point, I had 75 pages of the novel. I queried some agents and I got a good response. I felt encouraged enough by the response that I thought to myself, “I’m a slow writer, but I can invest in this project.” Then I published a story in AGNI and some agents approached me. But I didn’t have enough of the book. When I finally had a complete draft that I felt good about, I used all of my publishing and writer contacts. I got together a list of fifteen agents. I researched in Poets & Writers. I looked in the acknowledgments of all the books I had loved, and I made a chart. I made lists. I was very businesslike about it. I attached the first ten pages with my query letter, and I got a lot of interest. My agent is PJ Mark of Janklow & Nesbit who has helped the book immeasurably. I actually queried him blind. A wonderful woman in his office named Marya Spence first read the letter and loved the manuscript and she got it into his hands and then it happened very quickly. He pitched my book to me and I knew that he understood the book, he had a vision for the book, and it was very exciting. I feel very fortunate to have found somebody that I connect creatively with and in terms of an aesthetic vision. I worked with him for a year on editing and then he submitted. And again, I was lucky enough to have a good amount of interest and the book sold at auction to Terry. I met with Terry, met with a few editors, and I felt, again, as with PJ, very strongly that she really understood this book in a way that maybe even I, for all the years I had spent on it, didn’t. She had a vision for it. And I was honest with myself in the sense that I still needed more, the book still needed yet another round. It needed another hand. She had me mostly work on the Kate narrative. I rewrote that storyline. Even though it was an extraordinary amount of work, it felt necessary and I feel like the book is in its right, final form. I feel so fortunate that these two people were able to help the book find that final form.

After these fifteen years and so many drafts and visions, what does it feel like to hold this finished book in your hand?

At first it felt surreal. I never really thought that it would happen, even though I hoped and dreamed it would. But now that it’s been out about two months, I feel really gratified. I feel fortunate and very grateful that so many people are interested and seem to be compelled by the characters and the narrative and that it’s opening up a lot of windows for conversations about all sorts of things: parenthood, girlhood, art, the 1970s, New York City, identity. I’m just really enjoying getting to talk to people about the process and about the book because, for me, it was such a private experience for so long that was mostly an internal process. To be able to have it be externalized is a dream come true. It is very special and very moving.

We talk about what it was like to feel those moments of perfection as a dancer. How does writing this book compare to that kind of joy?

It’s very different, actually. When I performed as a dancer, it was truly an effervescent moment. When it all comes together and you’re being led by the movements and you’re connecting with the audience, it’s exhilarating. But it’s a moment in time that then is over. I think that’s why it’s so hard to capture dance on film. Because it’s really a performative art and to be in the audience is a cathartic thing. You’re experiencing with the bodies in space and time. But writing and literature seem to happen in a different space. It’s more complicated and these spaces can overlap and conversation can keep going over time and deepen. So it’s a different kind of culture. And it’s a different kind of performance. I guess I don’t quite know yet because it’s still early in this process for me. But it feels different and maybe even more gratifying. Because it’s not lost to time in that same way. I mean, that’s the beauty of a book, right? The book continues to exist even after writers pass on. And some of the books I’m sure you love and loved as a child, they were written a hundred years ago. Yet they continue to be new. That’s pretty special.

Undercurrents: An Interview with Justin Hocking

The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld is a multifarious work. From memoir to cultural analysis, history book to literary theory, and spiritual pilgrimage to political exposé, this book balances an extraordinary number of genres, subjects, themes, and narrative styles. Yet, at its heart, Wonderworld is about a young man finding his place in the world.

Why, as a writer, did you decide that it was necessary to tell “your story” through all these different lenses? Do you think you could have told the same story without these elements?

Well, the memoir was inspired largely by my preoccupation with the life of Herman Melville and the novel Moby-Dick, which is itself densely packed with multiple genres and varied modes of storytelling. It was a kind of postmodern book, before the term “postmodern” even existed—most mid-19th Century readers didn’t know what the hell to make of it, and it wasn’t until seventy or so years later that a wider audience recognized its brilliance. So I didn’t want to just imitate Melville, but I did allow myself to be inspired by his multivalent, digressive, collaged way of spinning a story. Technically, I suppose I could’ve just told my own story, without the other elements. But I think I’ve found my own voice in this braided form of narrative; I’m not sure there’s any going back to traditional, linear storytelling. Not for me.

Given your choice to include all these components, how did you ensure that they didn’t overshadow or distract from the central story? There are many fascinating plot threads—like the adventures of your aunt and uncle—that could have easily been shortened to mere sentences are expanded to dominate a good section of the book.

How did you decide how much of these elements to include?

What I love most about this braided, digressive storytelling style is the way it allows us to dive deeply into our own personal stories, while also weaving in news from the wider world. The story I tell in Wonderworld is deeply personal; I consciously braided in other elements as a way to give the reader some room to breath. I needed to get the reader (and myself) out of my head quite a bit, to avoid this sense of claustrophobia that can sometimes plague a memoir or any first person narrative. But to be honest, when I completed the first draft of the memoir, back in 2011 or 2012, it was over 460 pages. My agent was like, “Yeah, great, you’re on the right path, but there’s no way I can sell a book thi­s long and rambling.” The problem was exactly as you put it: all the digressions and experimentation were overshadowing the central, personal narrative. I’m fortunate to have a great agent and editor, and over the course of a couple years, they helped me tunnel in and chip away at all the extraneous stuff. I excised a good 200 pages or more—anything that felt like it would distract the reader too much from the central emotional trajectory.

Early on in the memoir, you address your obsession with motion, this insurmountable desire—nay, need—to stay in constant motion, either on your skateboard or your surfboard, perhaps in your entire life plan. How does a man so infatuated with speed and adrenaline fall in love with Moby-Dick, one of the densest works of classic literature?

In my estimation, Moby-Dick is one of the most action-packed, page-turning novels ever written, especially in the beginning. There’s a palpable sense of confronting nature in its most raw, dynamic and dangerous manifestation—the ocean—that is just thrilling. I can still pick up the book, flip to a random page, and feel completely transported. On a bit deeper level, Moby-Dick can be read as a monumental confrontation between action and contemplation. Ahab is all action and no contemplation; the First Mate, Starbuck, is the opposite. Ahab’s ceaseless, unthinking action is what brings down the ship. A balanced life requires both action and contemplation. A perfect day for me would be to spend the morning reading and writing, followed by intense physical activity—surfing or skating or swimming with friends—in the afternoon. I also have to admit that I really don’t love surfing or skating for the adrenalin, per se. The practices of surfing and skating are, for me, a way to mitigate the adrenalin and fear. On the best days, you reach a sense of timelessness and flow that have nothing to do with thrill-seeking. It’s more akin to art-making or writing.

Throughout the book, you visit various historical sites tied to Herman Melville’s life—his birthplace, his family estate, the New Bedford Whaling Museum, New York itself. These pilgrimages form narrative markers throughout the book, guiding your own story toward an Ahab-worthy descent or the possibility of salvation on the Rachel.

The visits are beautifully spaced, pulling the reader back into the frame of Moby-Dick at pinnacle intervals, as if each trip were meticulously scheduled at just the precise moment so that—when you did eventually write this memoir—your narrative roadmap would have all the right markers.

How intentional was this? Did you see the makings of this memoir (guided by Melville’s memory) before you began writing it and thus paid extra attention to these foray into the author’s past?

By the time I moved to New York, I’d already done a little writing about my pre-occupation for Moby-Dick. It was in a thinly veiled fiction story entitled “Whaling,” which eventually appeared in the anthology Life and Limb. But I honestly had no plans or intentions about writing a memoir on this subject, not at all. Almost the entire three years in New York, I was working on an entirely unrelated novel. Mostly I was just visiting all the Melville sites out of pure curiosity, and because I felt a little haunted by Melville’s struggles as a writer in New York, but also inspired by the fact that he never gave up, not even decades after the complete commercial failure of Moby-Dick. This period was also the height of the Iraq War, and I felt Moby-Dick had so much to teach us about the abuse of power, revenge, and the lengths America will go to secure our oil interest (whaling was, quite literally, the original “Big Oil” industry.)

After 30 pages of first-person narrative, your reader is shocked to turn to the chapter entitled, “The L Train.” Suddenly, our friendly narrator is replaced by the voice of an inanimate locomotive, speaking to a fictional passenger. Written in traditional theatrical format, the L Train opens a dialogue with the female passenger about a young man who rides on the train—you—and how terrible your fear of traveling under the East River has become.

This is not the only surprising narrative you employ. The entire book is sprinkled with sudden shifts in voice, including the frame of a third-person mental diagnosis and an entire flashback told in second person.

Where did the idea for this unconventional storytelling originate? How did you decided on these narratives specifically? Were there once more like these?

I love the way Walt Whitman, Melville and others incorporated into their narratives all the noise and manifold voices and ceaseless activity of New York City. The “L Train” chapter was my attempt to do the same. While writing this book, I was also thinking very consciously about the issue of narrative distance. This particular chapter chronicles something that’s difficult for me to talk about directly: my struggles with acute anxiety. So I wanted to give the reader, and myself as the writer, a little more distance from the narrator and his problems here. I was also inspired by a 90’s era film, called Naked in New York, in which Eric Stoltz plays a struggling writer who converses periodically with inanimate objects. I like the way it adds an element of the surreal to the narrative.

Writing a memoir is one of the most intrusive, petrifying—perhaps liberating—experiences any artist can undergo, especially if they are exploring a period of their lives when they were struggling. Most of The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld follows you through the most difficult moments of your life. You have mental breakdowns, suffer from an addiction to relationships, make choices that, frankly, made me want to throttle you. Yet, it is this bravery that makes the book so poignant, that makes the hope of your triumph so dearly desired.

How did you overcome the impulse to “fictionalize,” to use your power of the pen to sugar coat your own downfalls?

I’m glad that you wanted to throttle the narrator at times—I feel the same way! So much of the book was about interrogating my own flaws and shortcomings and poor decisions, especially in relationships. I really wanted to avoid the kind of memoir in which the narrator is continually victimized, but never really examines his/her own small contributions to the world’s misfortunes. This book was, in some ways, a way for me to take personal responsibility. But the process—especially now that it’s out in the world for everyone to read—has been really difficult at times. As David Shields writes, memoir is a genre in which the writer gets their teeth bashed in, so to speak. I think I just tried to tell the truth, on every page. I didn’t worry too much about appearing as a conventional “hero,” but at the same time I tried to consciously avoid hurting the feelings of anyone involved.

No matter how close your life flirts with catastrophe in the memoir, your reader never believes your white whale will drag you under. Certainly, if you are now narrating your story, you must have survived the eminent shipwreck and made it to shore safely. If we are ever truly worried, all we need to do is flip to the book back and read your bio, clearly telling us the results of many of the largest trials in the book.

Did you ever consider revising your bio or acknowledgements to hide the “end of the story” from your readers? Is that one of the reasons that your bio is so brief?

This is an interesting point, and one that I’ve never really thought about, to be honest. The bio is pretty brief, but I guess I could’ve further camouflaged the fact that I ended up in Portland. Hopefully the narrative is compelling enough to still hold the reader’s attention, despite the fact that they know some general details about my current life.

As many of our readers are also writers, I’m always keen to ask our featured writers about their craft. Tell me about your writing process. In Wonderworld you describe mornings hulled up in coffee shops, working on your novel, before an afternoon of surfing. Is this how you wrote your memoir?

I did spend thousands of hours in coffee shops, working on this book. There’s a particular cafe in my Portland neighborhood that has high countertops, where I can work while standing up. Writing is such challenging work; I find that utilizing different processes at different stages is extremely helpful. When drafting early material, I write in short, hour-long bursts, usually first thing in the morning. I also carry a small notebook around to jot down notes. I can work for longer periods of time once I transpose my handwritten first drafts onto the computer. During this phase, I need a lot of silence and solitude, because you never know what kinds of creative gifts you might receive if you’re paying close attention. Oddly, the gifts often arrive when you take a short break from the work, to make a sandwich or take a shower or go for a long walk. The moments when you have to drop what you’re doing and rush back to your computer to get a new idea or bit of dialogue down—those are what I live for as a writer. During the more advanced drafting and editing phases, I can write for hours and hours at a time. I was fortunate to spend a two-week writing residency at Sitka Center for Art and Ecology, where I worked ten or more hours a day to finish a first complete draft. It was arduous but exhilarating work.

Also, specific to this genre, how did you ensure that you were accurately depicting the events in your life? Did you keep journals of your time in New York? Did you spend countless hours on the phone with your old flat mates, taking notes as they recalled memories of your melancholy years?

I was certainly concerned with presenting an accurate portrayal. I spent hours and hours on the phone with my uncle, making sure I’d gotten down correctly the details of his exploits at sea, and his falling out with the Scientologists. I also write copiously and obsessively in journals; I mined those for quite a lot of material. I’m still close with my old flat mates from New York, but I didn’t really consult with them. As memoirists, we need to have fidelity to the truth and accuracy of details; I think it’s immoral and stupid to grossly fabricate the details of your life, as writers like James Frey did in A Million Little Pieces. On the other hand, we’re writing creative nonfiction, not journalism, and we’re drawing on memories, which are invariably fallible, so I do think there’s room for a certain amount of embellishment, especially when recreating dialogue that took place a decade ago. To me, this is all in service of striving toward the emotional truth of what happened.

Now that you’ve successfully published two books, what advice do you have for new writers trying to break into the industry?

I won’t sugarcoat the fact that it’s very difficult to break into the commercial publishing industry. However, in many ways, there’s never been a better time to be a writer. What I encourage my writing students to do is this: make the best work you can, and then play the publishing field at every level possible. Self-publishing does not have the stigma it used to—especially when you’re talking about zines, chapbooks, e-books, etc. Long before I got a book deal, I actually self-published an excerpt of Wonderworld, in a small chapbook with a letterpress cover. It was nice to have a physical chunk of the book out in the world, to begin the process of connecting with readers. Learning the traditional art of letterpress printing was fun and empowering. I think it’s increasingly important that writers learn some basic graphic design and layout skills, such as Adobe InDesign and Illustrator. I’m also intrigued by the possibilities for new modes of storytelling via social media, digital publications, as well as the possibilities for crowd funding via sites like Kickstarter.

While writing my memoir, I also sent individual chapters out for publication at literary journals. Of course, I got a ton of rejections. Fortunately, a great California-based journal named the The Normal School published a chapter called “All I Need is This Thermos.” In a stroke of amazing luck, a literary agent read this particular issue of The Normal School, and contacted me about developing it into a book. So you just have to put yourself out there; if you’re not getting consistently rejected, you’re not submitting enough.

Last but not least—yes, I promise I’ll stop after this one—what is the next step for you? Are you planning to finish the novel you were working on while you were in New York? Are you going to toss your pen away and spend the rest of your life on your surfboard? Will you start constructing the museum for the oil industry you so brilliantly hypothesized in your book (because I will definitely want to visit…perhaps just for the regal paintings of Dick Cheney hanging over a miniature oil rig)?

After running a small arts nonprofit for eight years, I’m transitioning out of the Executive Director role to make more time for my writing and teaching. I’m excited to work on some short articles and essays, but I also have a few more major projects on deck. I’m drafting a new, long-form nonfiction piece—possibly another memoir or essay collection—that goes further back into my childhood and early adult years. A short story collection is also in the works, plus a possible novel idea (although it’s completely different from the novel I was working on in New York). I’m also excited to continue teaching in two programs I helped launch: The Certificate Program in Creative Writing and Independent Publishing via the IPRC, and a new Wilderness Writing concentration in the Low Residency MFA program at Eastern Oregon University.

Quixotic Philosophy: An Interview with Antoine Wilson

Please note that this interview was originally published on our old website in 2015, before our parent nonprofit—then called Tethered by Letters (TBL)—had rebranded as Brink Literacy Project. In the interests of accuracy we have retained the original wording of the interview.

Oppen Porter, the protagonist of Antoine Wilson’s Panorama City, is dying. Currently he’s covered neck to toe in a white plaster cast, strung up in the hospital, waiting to take his last breath. But instead of enjoying his last few days with friends or his pregnant wife, Oppen is talking into a recorder, rushing to tell his unborn son the story of his life, his philosophy, and the strange events that led to him to Panorama City.

As he tells his son, Oppen’s story begins in Madera, where he enjoys a humble life, one well suited to a self-proclaimed “slow absorber.” However, when he comes home to find his father dead, Oppen makes a mistake that shatters this simple life. Instead of calling the police, he sets to work honoring his father’s wishes, burying him in the yard beside his late hunting dogs, Ajax and Atlas. This act, which sparked a great deal of controversy and government involvement, also gave Oppen’s aunt the ammunition she needed to declare him unfit to take care of himself. Convinced that his father let him “comport himself like the village idiot,” she insists that he move in with her and begin a life as a responsible member of society.

Thus begins Oppen’s quixotic quest to become “a man of the world.” Confronted at every turn by someone else’s philosophy—Paul Renfro’s search for original questions, the Christian Fellowship’s scripture, his fast-food employer’s “happy customers” policy—he navigates an unfamiliar world, often with laugh-out-loud results. As everyone tries to thrust their convictions onto Oppen, he proves that he is not nearly as impressionable as his plain speech leads them to believe. Balancing hilarious satire with the honest, insightful philosophy, Oppen shows us the world through fresh eyes, discovering both truth and ridicule through his gaze.

Just like Wilson’s protagonist, the language of Panorama City is simple yet pithy. Eschewing almost every grammatical marker save the comma, Wilson creates a story that is told rather than written, Oppen’s thoughts pouring into one another in an addictive flood of narration. Since the entire novel is “recorded” on cassette, we are also privy to wonderful verbatim conversations with those at the hospital, his sleepy wife occasionally popping in to make corrections or additions to the tale. These instances create a perfect anchor to the present, never allowing us to forget the fatal conclusion awaiting our narrator at the end of the recording.

It is with great excitement that Tethered by Letter’s recommends this unique novel. Simultaneously philosophical, satiric, and literary, Panorama City revamps the quixotic quest, creating a story that stands out as starkly as its six-and-a-half-foot narrator. Just like Oppen, Panorama City may struggle to find a place where it belongs—after all, it is quite different—but in the end, whoever settles down with it, will find a new love and an astute worldview within its pages.

Wilson on Panorama City

Changing gears from the dark themes of his first novel, The Interloper, Wilson wanted to try something new with Panorama City. Inspired by Don Quixote, he fell in love with the idea of “the big sprawling comic novel,” and decided to combine this idea with his desire to write a story that reflected his philosophical outlook. “I wanted to write a big, new, contemporary road comedy,” he explained, “which was not was Panorama City turned into, but that was always the emphasis.”

Just as Don Quixote meets new adventures on his travels, Wilson planned for Oppen, his main character, to encounter new characters on his quest to “become a man of the world.” Each of these individuals has a very defined philosophical outlook, which is where much of the satire comes to life in the book. Wilson explained that, “early on, part of what interested me, as a basis for a comic novel, was this idea of competing ideologies and people who define themselves by those philosophies and try to impose those ideas on others.” Thus, instead of encountering new lands, as Don Quixote did, Oppen is confronted by new outlooks, having to battle against their control with his mind rather than his sword.

With the comedic quest fixed in his mind, Wilson needed to construct his hero. When I asked what inspired Oppen’s unique character, Wilson explained that before he started the book—“when I had the ideas bouncing around in my head”—he essentially met the real-life Oppen: “He was very tall and he said that he had a lot of friends in a lot of different places and he asked if I wanted to be his friend. He had this really open, naive, friendly character. He was really there, physically walking down the street, and he was really the inspiration for Oppen.”

Although the inspiration for the theme and characters came easily to Wilson, he struggled initially with the voice. In early drafts, he toyed with different narrators, turning to a third-person storyteller since Oppen himself can’t read or write. “But then there was a point,” he explained, “where I realized that I wanted Oppen to tell his own story, and I wanted him to be telling it verbally…there was just something exciting to me as a writer to try to write something that’s spoken.” After making that crucial choice, he decided that having Oppen record his story on cassette tapes made the most sense. Yet, since this was a relatively experimental form, it took Wilson several drafts to balance all of the possibilities. For example, when he first started out, he said that he included a lot of background noises from the hospital in brackets: “it just got really distracting and they looked more modern than they were…little dazzlies dazzilies that needed to go away.” However, these “dazzlies” did give him the idea to record Oppen’s conversations directly with his wife, which make for some of the most interesting narrative passages in the novel.

Wilson on Writing

Over the four-year period Wilson wrote Panorama City , the novel changed immensely. “Early on,” he explained, “there was this huge road novel section where Oppen and Paul Renfro got into Renfro’s crazy car and they drove through Vegas, planning on going to the Institute for advanced study in Princeton.” He was full fifty pages in before he realized that it wasn’t working. “I tried to take the show on the road,” he summarized, “but it didn’t work out.”

This type of significant rewriting is not uncommon for Wilson. Speaking of his writing in general, he explained that “in the first drafts, after I have all my ducks in a row, I get to about one-hundred pages, and then I realize ‘oh, this is all coming apart,’ and then I do another draft, and I get to about 130 pages—or some reason, 130 is a big hunk for me—and then that one falls apart too…but then the third time, I had everything lined up….which is a really painful process to go through, but I think it yields something with texture.” In fact, Wilson spoke out against writing ‘just to get to the end’—without making sure the novel is working—even though he understands the urge: “It’s painful to create something out of nothing everyday so sometime it seems like a good thing to just get to the end. You think that if you do, you’ll finally have something….but usually it turns out that that thing is just going to end up being a deleted file.”

Panorama City was no exception to this rule. In fact, after working on it for two and a half years, Wilson end up “throwing away everything and just starting over.” He took a whole month off from the project all together, and then started again from scratch. “But you know,” he added, “it was those two years of accumulated knowledge and writing that allowed me to move through and write the manuscript in another few years.”

Excerpt from Panorama City

If you set aside love and friendship and the bonds of family, luck, religion, and spirituality, the desire to better mankind, and music and art, and hunting and fishing and farming, self-importance, and public and private transportation from buses to bicycles, if you set all that aside money is what makes the world go around. Or so it is said. If I wasn’t dying prematurely, if I wasn’t dying right now, I f I was going to live to ripeness or rottenness instead of meeting terminus bolted together and wrapped in plaster in the Madera Community Hospital, if I had all the time in the world, as they say, I would talk to you first of all about the joys of cycling or the life of the mind, but seeing as I could die any moment, just yesterday Dr. Singh himself said that I was lucky to be alive, I was unconscious and so didn’t hear it myself, Carmen told me, I’ll get down to so-called brass tacks.

First of all, ignore common advice such as a fool and his money are soon parted. Parting with money is half the pleasure, and earning it is the other half, there is no pleasure in holding on to it, that only stiffens the vitality, especially in large amounts, thought the world will advise you otherwise, being full of people who would make plaster statues of us. Second, I haven’t made knowledge of life yet, I’m only twenty-eight-years old, when you get to be my age you’ll know how young that is, and if you’re a man of the world by then I salute you, the road isn’t’ wide or straight. Everything you need to know is contained in my experience somewhere, that’s my philosophy, but I’m afraid you’re going to have to make the knowledge out of it yourself. The world operates according to a mysterious logic, Juan-George, I want to illustrate some of its intricacies, so that you can stand on the shoulders of giants, not, as Pal Renfro used to say, the shoulders of ants.

For the first twenty-seven years of my life nothing happened to me. I rode my bicycle into town every day from our patch or wilderness, I rode into Madera and asked my friends if they had any work of me, everyone called me Mayor, even Tony Adinolfi, who was the real mayor, called me Mayor. Then came my so-called mistake…

The History of Pressure and Heat: An Interview with Naomi Benaron

Please note that this interview was originally published on our old website in 2015, before our parent nonprofit—then called Tethered by Letters (TBL)—had rebranded as Brink Literacy Project. In the interests of accuracy we have retained the original wording of the interview.

In Naomi Benaron’s debut novel, Running the Rift, Jean Patrick sees the world through a lens of science. He understands the anatomical effects his Olympic training has on his muscles, the instantaneous velocity of rage that erupts when his heritage is insulted, and the pressure and heat that threaten to break his country in half. Yet, surrounded by his single-minded coach and his humorous university friends, these tensions seem to him only a distraction from his training, from the bright future he is working toward.

However, as racial tensions escalate, the political pressure in Rwanda proves too great. Like the springs he studies in physics, his country is suddenly stretched too far, and the volatile relationship between the Hutu and Tutsi finally explodes. Torn now between his father’s dreams of peace of the reality of war surrounding him, Jean Patrick races against the destruction, realizing that his livelong Olympic training might be the only thing that can save him.

With quotes taken from both the Hutu power newspaper and radio station, Running the Rift creates a riveting plot centered around the historical events that took place in Rwanda. Brimming with vibrant characters that inspire both laughter and tears, Benaron’s novel delves into one of the most horrifying moments in human history and, with incredible courage, unearths the beauty beneath the rubble.

It is with great conviction that Tethered by Letters recommends Running the Rift. Following the scientific laws that Jean Patrick so loves, this novel in motion stays in motion until the very end. Without a single lull, the momentum of the plot continuously gains power until the reader cannot turn the pages fast enough. And when the book is closed for the last time, the reader is left reeling: struck by both the horror of genocide and the unbelievable courage of those who survived it.

Benaron on Running the Rift

When I asked Benaron what motivated her to write about a runner in Rwanda, she told me about watching the 2000 Olympics. During the wild card swimming heat—“for people who would never in a thousand years qualify for the Olympics”—one young African stood out: “He practically drowned for the first 100 meters, but he just kept going,” she explained, “I was so impressed with his heart and it just stayed with me.”

This idea initially took the form of a short story set in Burundi. Then, in 2002, when Benaron made her first trip to Rwanda, new inspiration began to take root at the moment that she fell in love with the country’s rolling hills from the airplane window. With awe lacing her words, she spoke of the wide-open smiles of the people and the way they opened their homes to her, sharing their food and their stories. The pivotal experience that propelled her to write about the genocide was not listening to the people’s stories, but instead dipping her feet into Lake Kivu. While walking along the shore at daybreak, she felt something beneath her bare foot. Bending down to investigate, she realized that she had stepped on a bone, a human bone. Soon on her hands and knees, she found there were bones everywhere in the sand. She realized instantly that they were the remains of the victims of the genocide: “I held these bones in my hands and I thought these aren’t just bones; these are stories, and they are stories that will never be told unless someone else gives them voice.”

This moment launched Benaron onto an eight-year journey writing Running the Rift. Originally, she had planned to finish her short story about the Burundian swimmer and then embark on the harrowing task of writing about the Rwandan genocide. But once she had visited Rwanda, she struggled to imagine Burundi, a country she had never visited. After she started her MFA, it finally dawned on her: “You’re an idiot!” she declared, “You’ve been to Rwanda. Why don’t you just change the story to Rwanda? Take out the swimmer, make him a runner.” The change from swimming to running was also incredibly apt, for Benaron herself is an avid runner. “In order to represent a character, I really need to live, breath, and inhabit their souls and their hearts,” she explained, “So running was easier for me.”

Now with a stronger understanding of her characters, she began the historical research into the genocide. When I asked how she dealt with such dark material, Benaron shook her head softly, confessing that it was exceptionally difficult. “Sometimes I would be writing and I would need to take a break. It wasn’t just that I would get stuck as a writer; I just couldn’t deal with it anymore…there would be days where I just walked around shell-shocked. I couldn’t take in what I was reading or seeing.”

Benaron went on to tell me more about the history she uncovered, both of us struggling to conceptualize the horrors. I sat speechless as she spoke of attending the genocide conference in Rwanda: “They have a week where pretty much everything in the country stops and you go to services where people bear witness and give testimony and remember their families who were killed…That for me was such an emotional experience. I mean, I felt traumatized just from that.” She went on to explain that people there would suffer what is known as traumatisé, “where you slip through the cracks of the present and go back.” Throughout the conference, Benaron watched as people fell to the ground screaming and covering their heads. A friend translated for her, explaining that “they thought they were back there and they were saying ‘don’t kill me, don’t kill me. Don’t kill my family!’” While these horrors certainly stayed with Benaron, she was even more moved by the people she encountered there: “How people survive that is beyond me.”

Drawing on the strength of the survivors she met, Running the Rift is driven by characters brave enough to dream of something greater: of happiness and triumph. It was through these characters that Benaron distanced the narrative from the horrors that culminated in Rwanda. Setting the characters’ journeys against the genocide lends their ambitions a greater validity, the power of dreams salvaged from the waste of so many lives.

Benaron on Writing and Publishing

In 2008, after years of writing, Benaron finally finished Running the Rift and submitted it for the prestigious Bellwether Prize for Fiction, a literary award specifically directed at works that address important issues of social justice. Admitting that her earlier version wasn’t “nearly as good,” Benaron was very thankful that she didn’t win in 2008, and she got to go back to Rwanda one more time, inspiring two more rounds of serious revisions before she submitted again. In 2010, her hard work paid off and she was honored by winning the Bellwether and the publication with Algonquin Books.

Even though Running the Rift has been in the bookstore for less than two months, she is already immersed in her next novel—a story of a Jewish holocaust survivor coming to grips with her traumatic past through her relationship with her granddaughter. I asked Benaron why she chose to write again about such a horrifying time in human history. “I think it’s just who I am,” she explained. Her mother had lived through the Holocaust, and trying to understand what she had gone through was a “formative experience” for Benaron. “In a lot of ways, my writing is trying to come to terms with my mother’s legacy.” Furthermore, Benaron believes in literature’s ability to unveil important truths about the human condition. She talked at length about how grateful she is to Barbara Kingsolver, the founder of the Bellwether, for her dedication to promoting fiction that addresses important social issues and to her publisher, Algonquin Books, for choosing manuscripts of “substance.”

Curious as always about how different authors approach their craft, as the interview drew to a close I asked Benaron about her process as a writer. She summed up her process in one word: “schizophrenic.” Having both an “obsessive compulsive” and a rather impulsive side, her “process is always trying to combine these two parts.” In her new book, she told me that she is trying to be less meticulous, reminding herself that very likely the paragraphs she continuously rewrites won’t make it into the final copy. To break this cycle, she’s planning on writing the first draft all the way through so she knows exactly what research needs to be done and she can give a complete version of her novel to her agent—who is constantly chanting “new book please, next book please” whenever they speak.

Along with her vow to overcome her perfectionism, Benaron also advocates the importance of running as a writing tool. “I have some of my best ideas when I’m on a run,” she explained, adding that taking long jogs away from the bustle of the city always helps her clear her head and battle writer’s block. For those who aren’t keen to pound out their thoughts in running shoes, she offered the following two writing tips: “never lose faith and write from the heart.” These ideas, she says, were instrumental throughout her experience with Running the Rift, confessing how much self-doubt she struggled with about tackling both an entire culture and exploring such an important historical time. “But for every time I said ‘I can’t do it,’” she concluded, “I said ‘I have to do it’ one more time.”

Excerpt from Running the Rift

Mama picked up Papa’s journal and held it out to Jean Patrick. Since Papa’s death, it had remained open, as he had left it. “Take it.” She removed the pen and closed the book.

Jean Patrick took the journal and pen and went outside. Opening to a random page, he tried to read what was written, but it was too dark. What he needed from his father was a clue, something to help him fit the fractured pieces of the afternoon together.

Before his first day in primary school, Jean Patrick had not known what Tutsi meant. When the teacher said, “All Tutsi stand,” Jean Patrick did not know that he was to rise from his seat and be counted and say his name. Roger had to pull him up and explain. That night, Jean Patrick said to his father, “Dadi, I am Tutsi.” His father regarded him strangely and then laughed. From that day forward, Jean Patrick carried the word inside him, but it was only now, after the windows and the rocks, after the insults, that this memory rose to the surface.

The first stars blinked sleepily from the sky’s dark face. The generator at Gihundwe intoned its malarial lament. If Jean Patrick had powers like his namesake, Nkuba, he could have breathed life into the inert pages, sensed the leather skin stretch and grow into a man’s shape, felt once more his father’s strong, beating heart. Instead he dug the pen into his flesh until blood marked his palm.

Fibs and Wiggles: An Interview with Dan Josefson

Please note that this interview was originally published on our old website in 2015, before our parent nonprofit—then called Tethered by Letters (TBL)—had rebranded as Brink Literacy Project. In the interests of accuracy, we have retained the original wording of the interview.

Dan Josefson’s debut novel, That’s Not a Feeling, is an unsettling book. Set in Roaring Orchards School for Troubled Teens, the novel forces us to navigate a murky world of disorder, one without objectivity, clear-cut heroes and villains, or even a reliable narrator. The characters—students and staff alike—are deeply damaged, often comically so, and the school meant to heal them seems much more likely to deepen their issues. With a Catch-22-eque flare for satire, punishments and prizes are handed out with no perceivable logic, “therapeutic methods” seem more like torture than treatment, and the strange rules that control the school are so absurd the reader—and the characters—can only laugh.

In this world of chaos, it seems only fitting that our narrator, too, would be unstable. After two attempts to commit suicide, Benjamin’s parents send him to Roaring Orchard, but, compared to the other students and teachers, his troubles seem insignificant. If anything, Benjamin tries to act more damaged, just to fit in. However, what is most unique about Benjamin is not his past, but the way he chooses to narrate it. Throughout the novel, he is so impressionable and timid that his voice comes across as a distanced, third-person narrative. We don’t even realize that Benjamin is telling his story until a sudden emergence of “I” slices into the text. What is even more troubling is that Benjamin often narrates events, feelings, and thoughts he could not possibly know, showing us early on that we cannot trust everything he tells us.

Our narrator is not the only character we are hesitant to trust. His closet friend—and eventual love interest—Tidbit, is a chronic liar; the headmaster, Aubrey, could easily be branded as a deranged egomaniac; and half the students and staff are utterly delusional. These elements create a plot that often has us laughing, shaking our heads at the ridiculousness of the situation our characters find themselves in. However, just like in Catch-22, there are also troubling moments when we recognize that these sorts of things actually happen, where our humor hardens in the realization that we are laughing at ourselves, at insecurities, fears, and hopes that reside in all of us.

It is without hesitation that Tethered by Letters recommends That’s Not a Feeling. Not only is this novel a humorous narrative adventure, it’s also deeply moving, subtle in its approach, and beautiful in its execution. Roaring Orchards might be a world without objectivity, without clearly defined lines and roles, but sans those limits, Josefson has painted a vivid portrait of human frailly and perseverance, one that makes us question what breaks us, what heals us, and what makes that journey worth it.

Josefson on That’s Not a Feeling

One of the most unique aspects of That’s Not a Feeling is the setting, Roaring Orchard School for Troubled Teens. At first glance, the school is a strictly organized institution, run so efficiently that both the teachers and students exist in a soft equilibrium. However, as we delve further into that world, we realized that if there is equilibrium, it is a deranged one, if it is organized, that system is built on chaos.

When I asked Josefson where the inspiration for this setting arose, he explained that he had once worked at a similar institution. Fascinated by the conflicting elements at play—especially ideas of authority—Josefson wanted to create a similar “dystopian” world with Roaring Orchard. This setting also presented him with the perfect mixture of serious and hilarious, where he could write about characters confronting their inner demons with a good does of contradictions and absurdities thrown in to lighten the mood.

At the root of Roaring Orchards is Aubrey, the headmaster. Although Josefson stated that he constructed this character to uphold many of the “classic villain characteristics,” he also wanted him to be just as convoluted as the school he runs. At times ruthless, at others shockingly caring, Aubrey is the force that keeps Roaring Orchard functioning, if not functioning chaotically—which seems to be the way he likes it.

Because there is nothing black and white in the world of That’s Not a Feeling, it seems only appropriate that the narrative too denies the reader any sense of objectivity. Pulling on traditional ideas of the unreliable narrator, Josefson explained that he wanted there to be doubt in the readers’ mind as to the validity of what was being reported. Josefson achieves this by having his first-person narrator, Benjamin, narrate moments, feelings, and thoughts he could not possibly know. When I asked Josefson about this fascinating technique, he explained that he didn’t always have Benjamin masquerading as a third-person narrator. Instead, in the first draft, the story was told purely through an omnipotent third-person. It wasn’t until the revisions that he started to consider books like A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter, where the first-person narrator essentially pretends to be a distanced, objective narrator, only to reveal suddenly that he is in fact one of the characters.

Although the “sneakiness” of this interested Josefson, the way the style reflected Benjamin’s personality was the real appeal. “Benjamin’s personality is really like a blank slate since he is so self-effacing,” he explained. As a result of his timidity, his narration is almost completely void of personal opinions, giving the illusion that he is the distanced third-person narrator he appears to be. Only in moments when he directly refers to himself—usually from the perspective of the present moment when he is writing his story—do we get any feel for Benjamin as a person. However, these moments are so rare that, even hundreds of pages into the novel, they still shock the reader..

Josefson on Writing and Publishing

Josefson started That’s Not a Feeling in 2001, while he was studying for his MFA at the University of Nevada. When I asked him to explain his general process, he told me that he started writing the novel in the middle—with the escape from the school—not realizing it would in fact be the moment that closes the book. Following this pattern, Josefson didn’t write the chapters in order of sequence. Instead, he’d write whatever moment inspired him and then went back afterward and pieced these scenes together, creating an outline and conforming the sections to it. Of course, this meant that he had to do a great deal of cutting and adding filler sections. Laughing, Josefson confessed that “it wasn’t very efficient,” but, in the end, he’d pieced everything together just right…even if it took him six years.

Once he completed the novel in 2008—using an early version of the draft as his thesis for his MFA—he began the arduous hunt for representation. He wrote his query letters, he polished his chapters, he sent them out to every agent he could find…and nothing. Then he started targeting smaller presses, with the same result. It wasn’t until 2011, when an intern at Soho press pulled his chapters out of the slush pile, that his dreams of publication finally came to fruition. His editor, Mark Doten, quickly discovered just how unique and brilliant That’s Not a Feeling is and, a year later, Soho published Josefson’s debut novel.

Hearing this incredible story, my first question was simply how he survived it, how he never lost hope. Smiling humbly, Josefson told me about how supportive his friends, teachers, and other writers had been of the novel, how this helped him weather the sea of rejection. Starting a new novel, he added, also aided him greatly while he marketed That’s Not a Feeling, allowing him to keep his focus on his craft.

When I asked him if he ever considered giving up on his first novel, shaving it in drawer somewhere and focusing on the next one—as many writers have done—he shook his head. “I felt like I had to get it out there,” he replied.

Even with a publisher backing him, he was still one step away from “getting it out there;” he still needed to work with his editor at Soho. The two major issues were balancing so many characters and speeding up the first fifty to eighty pages. In this aspect, Josefson felt exceptionally blessed. He gushed about how wonderful his editor is and how helpful he was when they tackled these issues.

As the interview drew to a close, I asked—as I always do—if Josefson had any advice for our many aspiring writers at TBL. Reflecting on his own experiences, he advised that once you complete a manuscript, “don’t limit yourself to the big guys…do everything: agents, little presses, journals that will publish your chapters.” He spoke at length about small presses and literary journals, how smart and inspiring the people who work there are—he was talking about TBL, right?—and how much better his hunt for publication became when he made this switch, not only because Soho eventually published his novel, but because he was able to interact with young, inventive, and passionate people that reminded him of why his novel was worth fighting for.

Excerpt from That’s Not a Feeling

Tidbit crawled into a spot large enough for her to lie down, between the stems of two bushes whose branches had grown into one another overhead. She could see the Mansion’s front lawn and the valley beyond it. The sun hung over the hills, dripping heat. A brown Oldsmobile Cutlass she didn’t recognize was driving up the school’s gravel driveway, making a buzzing sound.

It was parked in the carport next to the Mansion, facing the girls. A scream escaped it as a door opened and a woman climbed out, and was silenced when she swung the door shut. New Girls stopped what they were doing to look out across campus at the car. The scream erupted again as another door opened. A man exited the driver’s seat slowly and again, like in a cartoon, the scream was gone when he closed the door. The couple climbed the front steps and, after taking one long look back, entered the Mansion. It was an intake.

Tidbit couldn’t tell whether she heard muffled screaming still coming from inside the Cutlass. Another dazzling wave of energy was seeping through her. She stared at her hand drawing circles in the dust. Tidbit used to tell me how much she hated her hands. Except for the bloody bits where she bit them, they were completely pale, even at the end of the summer. Worse, they were so swollen that her knuckles just looked like dimples, and they trembled from the Lithium. It was what it did to her hands that made Tidbit want of get off the Lithium. But Dr. Walt always said maybe.

Tidbit turned to see Carly Sibbons-Dias crawling toward her in the narrow space between the wall of the Classroom Building and the back of the shrubs. Carly squeeze into Tidbit’s space beneath the junipers and collapsed next to her.

“Hi, Tidbit,” she said. “Found the razor?”

“Nope.” At home Carly had worn her hair dyed black, but no one at school was allowed to use dye, so in the weeks since her intake, her blond roots had begun to show in the thick stripe down the center of her scalp where she parted her hair. Everyone said it made her look like a skunk but up close, Tidbit thought, it didn’t really. “How’re you feeling?”

“Okay.”

“Anything yet?”

“Nah. You?”

“My vision’s kinda messed up,” Tidbit said. “I keep seeing tiny, tiny little blackbirds hopping from branch to branch in these bushes, but when I look they’re not there.” This wasn’t exactly true, but when she said it, it felt sort of true. “You see anything like that?”

Carly just sighed and looked where Tidbit was looking, at the brown Cutlass by the Mansion. She thought she saw a silhouette move inside it. Carly edged forward so she could see the car better. Maybe the Dexedrine was messing with her vision. “You think Bev just took the razor blade?” she asked. “Is she a cutter?”

“Everyone’s a cutter,” Tidbit said. “Have you seen her belly?”

“Did she do that to herself?” Carly spat in the dirt. “Shit. She didn’t do that with a razor, do—”

Tidbit help up her hand to quiet Carly.

She heard something from inside the car now, a distant wailing. There was thud, then another, a banging that was getting louder and slowly gaining speed. The sunlight reflecting off the windshield trembled with each thud, and with each Tidbit could just make out the sole of a shoe hitting the inside of the glass. Then two soles, kicking the windshield together until the shatter-proof glass began to spiderweb. Finally the kicking became bicycling, one foot after the other. The girls could hear the screaming with perfect clarity as two grey-green sneakers kicked the crumpled window away.

After a few moments, a group of staff members and Regular Kids ran out of the Mansion. They opened the front doors of the car, which I hadn’t bothered to lock, dragged me from my parents’ car and held me down on the ground until I stopped yelling. It took five of them to hold me, though I’m not all that big. Then they led me up the Mansion steps and inside.

“Holy shit,” Carly said. “Finally something cool happens at this fucking place.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah,” Tidbit said.