A Word About Writing

An Interview with Bill Roorbach, by Heidi Sistare

Bill Roorbach is a lot of things: novelist, essayist, father, screenwriter, and naturalist. Most of all, he is someone who finds, writes, imagines, and tells good stories. His most recent novel, The Remedy for Love, is a love story set during an apocalyptic snowstorm. He also wrote Life Among Giants, which is in development as an HBO series; Temple Stream, winner of the Maine prize for nonfiction; and many others. I spoke with him about his blog, writing for television, and advice for new writers.


An Interview with Jynne Dilling Martin, by Tom Haushalter

“Maybe, pilgrim,” begins the first poem in Jynne Dilling Martin’s marvelous debut collection of poems, We Mammals in Hospitable Times, “if I permit you to sleep on my floor tonight, tomorrow / every house on this block will burn to the ground except mine.”

In no more than two lines has Martin offered us shelter in her midst, only to show us come morning the neighborhood is gone. And that sets the tone and the stage for a trek of epic consequences, through Martin’s kaleidoscopic lens to scan this already fallen world, clutching “armfuls of leaves…a rare glass paperweight collection, a cat who, like you, will never die.”

mammalsThe earth is screwed, scientists agree, but spin its perils into pulsing, painstaking poems like these, and you realize we—we mammals, down to the last flaring of the last polar bear’s nostril—pilgrim, we’re already over. Except Martin, who would be as if Laika, the Soviet space dog, watched overhead as all gave way to the rising tides.

Despite line after line stringing together one unforgettable image after another—“we wipe reindeer hair from our eyes, / the glaciated passages too dazzling to see quite clearly”—Martin, who has served as an Antarctica writer-in-residence, can’t just let this cosmic neighborhood smolder without answering to the sorcery with which she has begun to rebuild it in her dazzling poems. So I sat her down for a talking to.


An Interview with Sharon Erby, by Celia Johnson

In 2011, Slice published a short story called “Night Dogs” by Sharon Erby. It is a powerful piece that, in just a few pages, will transport you to rural Pennsylvania. So, of course, we were thrilled when we heard that Erby had written Parallel, a collection of linked stories, all set in Timmons Mountain, the same backdrop as “Night Dogs.” I spoke with Erby about her characters, her creative process, and where she writes, and it all comes back to the region she calls home.


An Interview with Cheryl Strayed, by Whiskey Blue

Reading WILD for the first time, I wondered, Why can’t Cheryl Strayed be everyone’s mother? There’s a wisdom – a tough, deeply loving wisdom – in every sentence of Strayed’s book, which of course is an exploration of Strayed’s loss of her own mother. In the film by director Jean-Marc Vallee, Reese Witherspoon plays a bereaved Cheryl setting off on a life-changing hike along the Pacific Crest Trail. Much like in the book, the film’s protagonist confronts grief and hopelessness (not to mention danger) with a most human mix of gusto and desperation. As Strayed explains in this interview, WILD is about bearing the unbearable, which seems like an impossible task in terms of writing (not to mention surviving). Here I talk to Strayed about WILD’s transition from lived experience, to book, to the film adaptation that succeeds in paying tribute to the agony and brilliance of Strayed’s life-changing story.


An Interview with Mallory Ortberg, by Celia Johnson

Imagine your favorite character was handed a cell phone. Now she can text her crush, her best friend, her enemy… And so it goes in Texts From Jane Eyre, by Mallory Ortberg. Sherlock Holmes reaches out to Watson from a drug den. Scarlett O’Hara sends inappropriate sexts to Ashley. Some of the most famous and beloved interactions from classic literature are reimagined as sequences of texts in this hilarious collection. As Rachel Fershleiser observed, “This is the smartest, most highbrow, most sophisticated literary book that will ever make you pee yourself in public.” I spoke with Ortberg about the best and worst fictional texters, writers who make her laugh, and more.


An Interview with Jo Ann Beard, by Heidi Sistare

Jo Ann Beard is best known for her essay, “The Fourth State of Matter,” published in the June 24, 1996 issue of the New Yorker. It is an extraordinary telling of a 1991 shooting in the University of Iowa physics department. But Beard’s work is striking because of the uniqueness of her focus, not the drama of her subjects. She wants her students to learn that “as a writer you have to notice everything.” It’s a lesson she teaches in everything she writes. I spoke with Beard about facts, painting, and (accidentally) Texas gun laws.

When people talk about your writing they almost always bring up the boundary between fiction and nonfiction. Is this boundary important to you? How would you define it?

In some of my work that boundary has been permeable. I don’t care much about that as an issue, for me or for others, though I do care quite a lot about the truth-factor in my own work, if not the fact-factor. If there is such a thing as factual truth (there isn’t) (or maybe there is), the whole point of memoir is to be subjective, so it’s all irrelevant anyway and it’s hard enough to get the work done at all, without having to interrupt the process of not writing by thinking about what the work is. In fact, I would love the luxury of sitting back and deciding what to call something—fiction or nonfiction—besides unfinished.

In an interview for Switchback you said, “My past is light, though; I’ve written it into submission.” Can you explain what you meant? Does this still feel true?

I think it’s self-explanatory if you read the question the interviewer asked.

Why do you write?

I mostly don’t. I mostly teach, at my own school and at other schools. Right now I’m on a strangely-patterned bedspread in a small Texas town, with a computer on my lap and a continental breakfast on the table next to me. By that I mean American Continental: a styrofoam cereal bowl of Cheerios and a styrofoam cup of tea. The bedspread pattern is a jungle, blue-green fronds with tan coconuts interspersed. No monkeys, sadly. I have two hours before I need to shower up and go see the Texas college students, so I actually do have time to write, but I’d rather do this interview. And I just spent some of my interview time looking up Texas gun laws—I was afraid this was one of those states where people can bring their guns everywhere they go, like service dogs. I still don’t know, because I got bored trying to understand the doublespeak and the strange Wikipedia chart of what kind of gun is allowed where, etc. What’s a ‘long gun,’ for example, and a ‘black powder’ weapon? It all sounds more like re-enactment than enactment, which I guess is encouraging.

Before you wrote you studied painting. Are there any tools that you took from painting to use in writing?

First and foremost, I learned procrastination from my painting career. Also, how a story has to have layers of meaning. I remember once one of my teachers, during a critique, saying about a series of paintings I had made over a frantic weekend, big wild eleventh-hour-fueled things: “This looks like the product of one weekend of painting.” That was his entire critique and I still remember exactly the feeling of it—of having offered something that was all surface, no depth. A couple of us had a drink with him afterward, at the Foxhead in Iowa City, and he kindly bought me a beer and a basket of popcorn but never said another word about those paintings. It was the most valuable lesson I ever learned as a student, and therefore everything about it is amplified in my memory, from the turp-smelling sprung couch in the critique room to the layer of greasy fuzz on the Foxhead hanging lamps; everything, that is, but the paintings themselves. In the end, nobody could teach me how to paint, but John Dilg taught me something invaluable about art.

What do you hope your students learn from you?

That as a writer you have to notice everything, from the bars of hotel soap that are suspiciously Saran-wrapped to the sad lack of monkeys on the bed, to the way the Texas light at dusk is like steeping tea, an image taken from Christian Wiman’s “The Limit”. That metaphorical meaning is what separates art from the rest of writing. That it’s okay to not take it seriously, but if they don’t the most they will get for their trouble is a basket of popcorn. Which was stale.

Are there certain books that you pick up when you’re working on a new project? Or, are there particular authors or books that inspire you every time you read them?

There are certain short stories I read over and over, for the pleasure and the requisite pain. Just one example: I like Chekov’s “Gusev” for the singular, exalted moment when he twirls in his shroud to the bottom of the ocean and is unwrapped by a shark.

What are you working on now?

A narrow nonfiction book.

Author photo by Jennifer May Lores.

Jo Ann Beard is the author of The Boys of My Youth, a collection of autobiographical essays, and In Zanesville, a novel.

Heidi Sistare writes from her home in Portland, Maine, where she attended the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. You can view her published work on her website: www.heidisistare.com.