Author Spotlight: Beth Colburn-Orozco

Beth Colburn-Orozco earned her MFA in fiction from Southern New Hampshire University in 2013. She lives in Southeast Arizona and teaches writing at the University of Arizona and composition at Cochise College.picture for Amoskeag

Amoskeag: In your story, Stolen Grief, your main character, June copes with the death of her husband by stealing sentimental objects from each of her friends. As upset as they for losing these things, June continues to steal from her and never confesses. How did she get to that point in their life? Why does she see the world the way she does?

Beth: I wanted to explore grief. How does someone fill the void after losing their spouse? I don’t think June sees herself as a theif, rather she finds solace in taking things. The items calm and ground her. As the story progresses we learn that she is stealing these things for Edward. It keeps him alive in a way that may not make sense to the rest of us.

Amoskeag: Your story starts with a description of the teardrop ruby earrings. What is their significance and what made you start here?

Beth: Beginning in a scene was important to me. Watching June navigate her first night out after her husband passes away seemed like a good place to start. She is with friends at a dinner party. It is something she has done a hundred times, yet without her husband, she is lost. The brilliant red of both the ruby earrings and the strawberries appear bold against such an ordinary setting. If she is caught with the ruby earring there is no denying what she did.

Amoskeag: Did you see the ending coming, or did it suddenly surprise you? How did you prepare for it?

Beth: I rarely see the endings to my stories. The characters guide me through. In an earlier draft, June comes clean and gives back the things she has stolen. I had envisioned that ending before I began writing the story, but June wasn’t ready to that. Sometimes our stories, like our lives, are not tied up in a nice bow. I was surprised to see that June had not reconciled with her grief. I still wonder if the ending works.

Amoskeag: Is your character’s view of the world reflective of the way you see the world? Or were you surprised by what they saw? How they felt?

Beth: I grew up in the suburbs outside of Milwaukee where people belonged to tennis clubs and country clubs and where families vacationed in Florida in the winters and “up north” in the summers. I always felt on the periphery of that kind of lifestyle. I think people looking in thought we all had it together. But that wasn’t the truth at all. My best friend’s father committed suicide. Another friend’s mother embezzled money from a school district and they had to move. A friend of mine was killed in a car wreck, another on a motorcycle. I had boyfriends who did a lot of drugs and drank themselves silly and girlfriends who got hit by the boys they loved and went into the city for abortions. June is in there somewhere. A woman with a seemingly perfect life until it isn’t perfect anymore. The question is, what do you do then?

Amoskeag: June has a lot of built up frustration and nobody quite understands her. “Please Melissa, I wanted to say. Leave me alone. This isn’t something a stranger or pills can fix. I miss your father. That is all.” How did you construct the language of the piece? How did you come to hear and record the feelings of your narrator?

Beth: The language for this story was fun to immerse myself in. This is how the people I grew up with spoke and how they spoke was a reflection of who they were. Like everyone else, their beliefs and ideas about the world were closely tied to language. Earlier I mentioned that people went “up north” for the summer. These two words might not have much meaning at all for someone who did not grow up where I did. Or, depending on where they are from, may have an entirely different meaning. For us, going “up north” meant you would be staying in either some huge mansion your family had on a lake in places like Door County, Rhinelander or Hayward or spending two weeks at a resort where kids had free rein. Language and feelings are intertwined. Using this same example, if someone less fortunate said they were going up north, we pitied them. This meant they would be camping in a tent and eating out of a cooler.
June’s frustration comes from the fact that her life fit the mold. She had it all, but then her husband dies. The people in her circle don’t want things to change so the pressure for her to act “normal” is too great and she finds an outlet. Instead of screaming, “I can’t handle this!” she quietly implodes and steals from her friends.

Amoskeag: June reflects on the relationship Rose has with her husband and the photographs taken from their Hawaii trip. She says, “I need to go to Hawaii where I would never look at a sexy younger man to fulfill my desires because my husband did that. Edward did that.” Why does this line matter in this piece?

Beth: We learn so much about June in these lines. She loved her husband dearly. But we also see the fissure of her grief begin to expand. “Edward did that” is finite. Edward took care of her. He would have never done anything to disappoint her and she’s angry because he’s gone. What she is really thinking about Rose is, “You have everything and you’re screwing it up.”

Amoskeag: How do you feel when a piece gets accepted and readers that you don’t know are now going to complete the story that you worked so hard at to shape?

Beth: I think it’s wonderful. I want people to bring their own “up north” to my stories. I so appreciate when a reader writes and tells me they were surprised at an ending or want to know what happens next. My characters remain alive and vibrant if readers are wondering about them and are caring about them.

Amoskeag: What’s next for you as a writer?

Beth: Right now I am finishing the final draft of my novel, “At River’ Edge” which I hope to find a home for. I am also working on a collection of memoir stories about living in Latin America and a few short stories that are in various stages of revision. My big project is organizing the Cochise Creative Writing Celebration that takes place here in Arizona at the end of March. I’m meeting incredible writers and learning so much about putting together this event, I seem to have little time for anything else. It’s the journey, not the destination, I imagine.


Author Spotlight: Allan Gurganus

This Author Spotlight interview was featured in the Spring 2012 issue of Amoskeag, titled Amos Interview – Allan Gurganus. Photograph courtesy of Roger Haile.

Ayana Mathis Interviews Allan Gurganus:

Iowa Writers Workshop, January 2010.

The Midwestern winter is doing its worst—everything is brown, everything that isn’t brown is gray, and all of it is covered in ice. It’s my second semester, I’m feeling a bit demoralized (what am I doing? What’s my book about? Do I have a book? Argh, if only I’d become an accountant!). Enter Allan Gurganus. Passionate, unconventional, funny (so very funny), smart as all get out and one of the most generous teachers I’ve had the privilege of learning from. Paris Le Monde called him, “A Mark Twain for our age,”. The late, great John Cheever declared him “the most technically brilliant and morally responsive writer of his generation.” Heady stuff, and yet the man that I encountered had that rare ability to bring an entire classroom to knee-slapping belly laughter and simultaneously offer wisdom about writing, and life, that I won’t ever forget.

 January 2012

Two years later it is my great pleasure to interview Allan Gurganus, to have another opportunity to learn a little more from (and about) one of our American masters. Without further ado a conversation about identity, “compassioning” and good ol’ storytelling, with Allan Gurganus.

 Amoskeag: I want to begin by talking about the ways, in your work and elsewhere, that people immediately define themselves. There are obvious labels: White, Latino, black, gay, straight, Northern, Southern, Californian, etc. How have the ways you identify yourself created imperatives in your fiction?

Allan Gurganus: Literature is a back-stage pass (“I’m with the banned”). It’s a license to bridge all incidental racial-sexual-identifiers, important as those seem to us. Especially those of us proudly belonging to one or several discredited minorities.

On becoming a poet or novelist, the laws of privilege happily reverse. Aside from Edith Wharton, I can’t think of a great American writer from a truly upper-class family (no money woes ever). In fiction, the more races, classes, sexes and bankruptcies you belong to, the luckier! . . . My own outlaw status is central to my ethos. It’s the core outsider energy of my writing. “Rage” is considered unhealthy. But what about the Rage to Protect!

 Amoskeag: How else do you identify?

Allan Gurganus: How about Genus and Species? As living walking-around citizens with access to mirrors, naturally we first notice our colors, our most externalized sex gear, any native-dress or regional disguises. But there are interior claims far more basic than whether we came off God’s conveyer belt as a Plain or Peanut M & M!

Being living suicidal entities on a planet we’ve helped self-destruct, we might first list ourselves as “Mammals”. I mean this. In a strange way, the thing an artist most seeks to create on the page is energy, identification as another sentient valid Animal. It is helpful to think of your main character as preeminently a beast.

Too often we stop at being middle-class; we write too often about people who talk far better than we do. They can usually be found on couches, in bad marriages with loud ironic TVs blaring pointed counterpoint. Z Z z z . . .

We forget about living and breathing and fighting for life. We are living such insular coddled lives. I mean, even those of us who, in our imperial USA, today feel ‘poorest’. Six million children died of starvation last year.

So my first goal would be, I guess, not to write just Gay Bisexual fiction, much less White fiction, but One True Animal Tales.

Amoskeag: But how do you get the Animal back into, say, a Novel of Manners?

Allan Gurganus: Well, maybe creating an animal-worthy narrative means bombarding your reader with a trustworthy batch of absolute sensations–hot and cold, hunger, sexual craving, intense sounds, unrepeatable colors.

This usually means inventing a credible first-page threat or danger.

I love the chaotic opening of “Anna Karenina”. The head of the household has seduced the children’s French nanny, his wife is sobbing, the religious servants are quitting, the children (quick to scent disaster) have gone feral. In comes Aunt Anna and, within days, she has made sure the nanny is sent packing and paid off, she has renewed the bruised marriage, has combed and calmed the children. And, having seen her save her brother’s household, we must soon watch her savage then sacrifice her own forever. But how we love her merely twenty pages in! Tolstoy teaches us how–by so fervently doing it himself.

It’s only when we feel some such generous . . . being at the center of the fiction that we come to care a bit. Once a living force is created pictorially and tonally, once we have put a real toad in the imaginary garden of written symbology, secondary issues of gender, race, nationality pertain less. Personal music has ascended to something known to us all. What’s required is an absolute identification with another life expressed in a music built to match that life.

I am nominally a gay man and former Navy veteran, a blue-eyed Protestant right-hander of a certain age and size. But, in imaginative fiction, such categories matter only insofar as they allow me egress into others’ lives. Only then might I come correctly ethically back into my own.

Amoskeag: Fiction is a sort of heightened state that the writer convinces us is natural. This is managed by the oddness of narration and by all the ways time can pass.

I want to talk a bit about how time gets altered and manipulated in fiction generally and in yours in particular. As the writer of both short stories and a very long novel—time management must have been crucial, could you speak a little about the ways you’ve used time in your work.

Allan Gurganus: Time, so good at using us up, must be rigorously used back!

I do have a blind-faith in chronology. That literally means “clocklogical”. Being so mortally subject to it myself, sometimes I want hacksaw-revenge on it.

Still, when in doubt as a writer, we’re probably best advised to tell events in the order of their happening. Only later might we come back and do what Pinter did in “Betrayal”. Tell a love story in reverse order. Run the romance from a terrible divorce backwards to the ideal couple’s first sight of each other. W.S. Merwin wrote, “No story begins at the beginning. The beginning does not belong to knowledge.”

Time in a short-story makes one surgical strike. Time in a novel is more rat-nest cumulative. A novel testifies to the durability and necessity of communities over time. A story believes, as someone very young and correctly romantic often does, that one moment in life can change you forever . . . Yes, I think people are changed and damaged by single events. But, unless you booked passage on the Titanic, no single one of those usually becomes the summa of your lifetime.

I am now sixty-four and I have had more than a few lovers and many many chances to begin again. Thirty of my friends died of AIDs in the 1980’s but I somehow live to tell the tale, mine and theirs, mine in and as theirs. I have matured (or devolved) into a longer-winded parenthetical writer. So the novel seems my likely final workshop-cave and cozy tomb.

Amoskeag: I want to talk some about “White People”. As I read, it seemed that issues of inclusion or exclusion, based on identity, were extraordinarily important. In a story like “Minor Heroism” or even “Blessed Assurance” those issues are easy to see. But I think they’re also present in “Condolences to Every One of Us” or “It Had Wings’.  . . . The characters are ostensibly within the main, but are written with such detail and compassion and that the reader comes to understand they are struggling with being who they are. Could you talk a little about the humanity and complexity of your characters?

Allan Gurganus: “Compassion” literally means “To Suffer With. To Pity”.

But, from the fourteenth to the nineteenth century it was actually a verb: “When he fell ill, I compassioned him.” Curious how, as the twentieth century arrived with its greater need for mass compassioning, the word retreated to a noun!

I guess all Fiction intends to return `compassion’ to being an active verb. How? Well, we invent characters that are as secretly typical as they feel unique. We subject them to play-miseries they either survive or succumb to. In this way, we create a puppet world, a desktop try at getting things right, at finally understanding.

I’ve never believed in a conscious caring God. But that hasn’t prevented my trying to show how such a One might spend His workdays. Justice. I get to reinvent Justice every morning. (Even if it’s only meted out to certain written puppets).

Amoskeag: There is such music in your language. . . . Popular consensus is that southern writers are at the top of the heap when it comes to musicality in prose. Can you talk a little about rhythm and sound in prose (for those of us who were born north of the Mason-Dixon?)

Allan Gurganus: The surest shortcut to one’s own music (the only kind that counts) is reading your work aloud a lot. Every sentence of every draft. I myself sometimes forget. But you, Ayana, certainly do this and understand the principle in your supremely aural work. The first time I read you, I tried to go find you, physically. I simply wanted to see how such a set of ears actually LOOKED. Reading aloud alone, one soon hears every clunker or grace-note. Ears’ll tell you what, in your sentences, is dry cornstarch, what’s hot honey.

As for musical prose hitting only below the Dixon line: Some scholars think the Southern accent came about when working class whites heard French spoken around the homes of courtly

Lord Proprietors. In imitation of gentility, farmers tried slowing down their own diction. The Southern Accent might’ve started as a Scotch-Irish stab toward the sonorous eventuality of French.

Some claim August’s blinding heat hobbled the speed of Southern speech. Others say that, given our region’s numbing summer humidity, the single physical activity least likely to make you faint is: talking while sitting down. Long ago we made that our Olympic event.

Where I got born, there lived smart uneducated men and women who were–like blind Homer, led singing from house to house–good for little else but telling. They’d grown famous for certain tales and these were requested again and again as from some jukebox. “Bill, tell B-23. About the Widow and her Only Hog Left? YOU know.”

So, yeah, I do think writing Southerners are luckier than denizens of, say, Ohio. (But then Toni Morrison turned out okay.) Southerners know what a Story is before they’re taught to read and write.

Of course, every strength carries its peculiar in-built disability. Southern musicality, if allowed free reign, can come unmoored from any sense of humor. It can run clear away with us. Unfelt, it creates a Language solely in love with and listening to itself.

Amoskeag: I’ve had the enormous pleasure of hearing you read your work aloud, and it really is like watching a one-man-show. Complete with accents and dramatic pauses, the whole theatrical nine yards. That same drama is there on the page. It seems to me that story-telling is not as prized at it once was, sequences of quiet subtleties between characters are replacing big dramatic action (as if writers feel they have to choose between complexity/sophistication and a dramatic narrative arc). I really miss a good story. How important is story-telling?

Allan Gurganus: Henry James laid out our trade’s holy motto: “Dramatize, Dramatize, Dramatize.” And yes, he needed all three iterations. One is for the dramatic circumstance of the novel as a whole, one is for the tension of a particular scene, and the last reminds us how an individual gesture within that scene must have its own particularizing contradictory force. (i.e.: An established klepto goes back to the store to return a stolen object, only to be arrested as, for a first time, she’s finally doing Right, poor thing. Dramatize.

Ironic modern hipsters speak of Story as if it were some postdated archaic form. Like the making of mead (Viking-fermented honey). Wrong.

Everything goes out of style except Once Upon A Time. Narrative is the atmosphere we gulp all day. Story is the dynamic force, and sculpting it our formative crucible. I recently reread Hardy’s great novel “The Mayor of Casterbridge”. It opens with a man, woman and baby, dispossessed, walking country roads without prospect of shelter or hope of destination. In the first twenty pages, the man has, at a county-fair’s gambling tent, put up his wife and child as collateral. He loses them both. Another fellow, the winner at cards, simply leads them away.

The rest of the book involves and investigate this drunken lapse. By giving ourselves over to such a seemingly simple situation and to Story, we gauge how much we’d willingly sacrifice for the people we love most. It’s one of the great openings…For me, the nineteenth century is the true goldmine of full-bore unembarrassed narrative invention.

Young writers sniff at Story at their own peril. Without an arc, a loop, some unifying question and line, you are writing sentences that have all the value of some stranger’s shopping list…. [And] When I say `Story’ I mean `A Situation of Tension Bound for Inevitable Showdown’. All chess games start with pawns and end with Check. Without Story, a described character has no purpose and must exist in print with all the in-urgency of a driver’s license detailing (“Brown, Blue, Male, 5’11’’). With Story, we find out what a man might do to save his family or, of course, to lose them on a single awful hand of cards.

Amoskeag: You offered a great bit of advice to young writers–make sure there is something funny on each page. . . . I wonder if you can talk a bit about ‘writing funny’, particularly about that balance between the comic and the dramatic that we see in your work.

Allan Gurganus: I think people are born funny, or, alas, not. Sometimes you are around someone who looks and smells okay but you sense that something ails them, something is off or lost. You want to sniff them like some two-week old carton of milk. Then you realize they slid from their poor Mommas without a sense of humor! And no operation can open the sweeties up and stuff one in. There are writers like this and you must literally run from them.

If you cannot get a driving license without being able to parallel park, the same should go for writing a novel if you cannot tell a joke. Shakespeare and Chekhov—for me the greatest of all literary strivers—are our most dimensional comic writers. Yes, with tragical tendencies. . . . Hamlet’s killing the eavesdropping Polonius (disguised as one too-lumpy tapestry) is a comic scene gone rancid, wrong. Even Hamlet’s four-act inability to do a damned thing—all the while muttering self-loathing admonitions to himself—is pure Adolescence and therefore hilarious. If with last-act consequences most dire.

But on the page, one must always be funny about something. Otherwise it’s just a Neil Simon series of pranks going off like mousetraps in a row. Humor outranks (outlasts) mere jokes. Humor is a way of seeing human falls as the inevitable side-effect of human stances.

When in fiction, a really good laugh arises out of bad bad pain, a double and triple echo is achieved. When a written giggle turns midair to some war-whoop or sob, you’re creating something life-like, Baby. Then Humor ascends to the condition of human seriousness; the rerouting of pain to wit then quickly back, replicates our up-and down human condition itself.

Amoskeag: The act of writing is pretty tragicomic itself. Where do you find the stamina to keep working over a career that has spanned decades?

Allan Gurganus: Well, not to brag, but: I am five months away from getting Medicare. Plus I can be secretly petty and, even after getting one line of Facebook fan mail, sidestreet vain. I am still stung by even social slights. Like Tennessee Williams “I understand everything but intentional cruelty”. I write daily despite, not because I have four books in print. They mean four less chances to get things right TODAY. I’ve spent that many old-dog’s new tricks. I must now find new ones suitable for right now.

Oh, yeah, and sometimes I’ll get locked into a spell of silliness when, however hilarious, everything goes meaningless as defacing graffiti sprayed in a language I cannot read. Other times a black hole finds my home; it adds extra-planetary weight to washing any plate, completing any errand. It slows my sense there’s anything’s left on earth of novelty, sweetness, value.

With so much gear and power at hand, I get to wake early. I umbilically re-attach myself to this old desk. I hope today’s hours here will finally grant me the clarity of a worthy new tale. I press everything hard into the writing. But I also quite literally `take my Time’. With both hands, greedy that way.

I seek to create a story’s required color be that a ‘slate-gray’ or maybe more a ‘taffy-white’. I want to keep finding the will to narratively charm, beguile and cajole always at just the right time. I keep admitting my own mortality one guffaw per page.

I long to imagine one more fiction others might find worthwhile. And then, once it’s been sent out aloud to other members of our herd, I want it remembered.

—Tell me true. Is that too much to ask?

Amoskeag: Surely not. Thank you.

Allan Gurganus: I thank you. We have wound up places I didn’t know how to find before, and could never get back to again.

Author Spotlight: Marco Bisaccia

Our last entry from an author of the 2011 Spring Edition of Amoskeag is Marco Bisaccia. Marco discusses his thoughts and ideas on writing and specifically his short fiction piece, “Walking.”

Marco Bisaccia is a Massachusetts native and has spent most of his life there. He has worked in several fields, including politics and education – as a high school English teacher. He did some time in the UMass Amherst MFA program before moving to teaching. In the past he has written newspaper feature pieces and articles on education. While fiction writing is not a full-time occupation at the moment, he continues to work toward a collection of short stories. Insofar as New Hampshire connections go, he is working to finalize a story rooted in a 1988 presidential primary campaign he worked on in the Granite State.

Amoskeag: Your work, “Walking,” was featured in the 2011 Spring edition of Amoskeag. Tell us a little about the story behind this piece. How did it come about?

Marco Bisaccia: Well, the short answer is that I don’t know for sure, but I know a few things from the story’s history. I needed to complete a piece for a UMass fiction workshop class and was blocked – and a bit desperate. So I sat with my pen until something happened – the something that still escapes me. The events of the piece are not mine or those of anyone I know, so I think this story is particularly open to whatever interpretation the reader will make of it. Certain scenes and items certainly come from my adolescent and young adult days. Playing poker with friends, for example. I’m not sure why the style came out so spare (aside from influences like Raymond Carver) but perhaps it had to do with the process of eking something out of a dry well.

Amoskeag: How and why did it take this final form?  What were the changes and drafts it went through?

Marco Bisaccia: The odd thing is that “Walking” changed very, very little from the original draft – a level of revision I’ll likely never see again. I wrote the draft in two sittings, and it never varied much at all from 1500 words.  I workshopped the piece at UMass and returned to it several times, making a few – very few – word changes and edits.  One was to change the title, which was originally “Franklin.” Strange as it might seem, “Walking” never went through any major changes. It just never seemed that additional content or revision would improve the story.  By the time I submitted it to Amoskeag I had long stopped rereading it and considered it absolutely finished… which made it embarrassing when I discovered a few grammatical errors in my manuscript. 

Amoskeag: Why do you write?  What made you want to pursue writing professionally?

Marco Bisaccia: I write because I have so many stories – in every sense of the word – bouncing around my skull, and have an almost visceral drive to express them. I was a voracious reader as a kid and grew into an excellent writer, but somehow never became an English major. After college, as I worked at a few things for a living and little more, I started transforming my internal narratives into short stories. I’ve stayed with that genre because it works for me; while I yearn to write a novel I haven’t found one in me yet. I want to write for a living because, for one, it beats the hell out of anything else I can think of, and it’s work that is entirely in my control (except for that publishing thing). No one submits raw material and directions to an artist. It’s all up to me.

Amoskeag: What tips and suggestions would you give to aspiring writers?

Marco Bisaccia: Every writer has his or her own way of doing it, but I’ll share some of my approach and perspective. I’m one of those writers who has to force himself to sit down and do it; I have to fight my inclination to put other things first and imagine great, irresistible ideas will pop into my head – and drive me to my desk. Sit down and write; starting is the hardest part, but just start with something; then one sentence leads to another – and the fiction brain starts working. Some say writing fiction is 90 percent perspiration and ten percent inspiration. That may be extreme but I agree with the point. Revising several times is critical; it is a major part of writing. Revising many times improves a story until it’s ready for others’ eyes, at which point I ask a few trusted readers to beat up the story. Good readers start with the effect you are trying to achieve, then critique from that perspective. It may be hard to take tough comments, but we need people to speak honestly; loving compliments help little. Many writers let a piece rest a while once it reaches a certain point. I generally know when I’m too close to a story, when it’s no longer fresh and I’ve lost critical perspective. I’ve put aside stories for weeks, months, even years.  A story dropped in frustration can turn out to be good material a month or year later. It may need final work, or be the basis for an entirely new take. Don’t throw anything away. And find what works for you.

As for idiosyncrasies, I write by hand first. Then at some point I start typing, so I’m already doing a first edit. There’s something about pushing a pen across paper for the first draft; it’s largely about avoiding what many writers like: the ability to easily move, change and cut words, sentences and paragraphs. That’s too much self editing for me. It cripples the flow of ideas; I want to lay down the essence of a story as it first appears in my mind, then start shaping it in stage two. I also amend manually on each hard copy. Keeping hard copies of drafts/versions guards against computer loss (or deletion!). Never continuously overwrite the same file.

Amoskeag: What are you currently working on?

Marco Bisaccia: Several short stories. I jump back and forth as I get new ideas for these tales bouncing around my head. I am trying to write fiction with more humor; I want a lighter feel, a more relaxed tone. But it’s not coming easily; I keep rereading drafts and finding that they have less levity than “Walking,” which is hardly a knee-slapper. Right now I’m working on my well-aged and revamped New Hampshire saga; a story set on a fictionalized island in Maine and in a fictional town in New England; and one about a repressed, forlorn woman – told by her. The jury is out on whether I can really write in a woman’s voice, and as for getting humor into that one…  Two of my current pieces are already at least twice as long as “Walking.” And I am writing this very second, though I like to think of this as nonfiction.


Author Spotlight: James Black

Amoskeag’s third author spotlight interview is with yet another contributor to the 2011 Spring Edition. In the following interview, James Black discusses the story behind his wonderful piece of short fiction entitled “[sic].”

James Black is recently possessed of a master’s in contemporary writing, and considering pursuit of a PhD. His fiction has been published in The Wisconsin Review, Redivider, Spindrift, The Palo Alto Review, Willard & Maple, and Natural Bridge.

Amoskeag: Your work, “[sic],” was featured in the 2011 Spring edition of Amoskeag. Tell us a little about the story behind this piece. How did it come about?

James Black: I was discussing with a friend the importance of names. His stepfather’s birth certificate provided only “Baby Boy” as his first name, and we were laughing over some official mail that had arrived for him from the state Health & Records department, addressed to “Baby Boy.” I suggested that it would be unfortunate, annoying, or potentially hilarious to discover that one’s own birth certificate were somehow irregular. I asked my friend if he’d seen his; he asked if I’d seen mine. Oddly, neither of us had. While I couldn’t find mine, my friend did find his and, to his chagrin, he had discovered an irregularity: for the entirety of his life, he’d been misspelling his middle name “Allan” as “Allen.” While this wasn’t such a big deal, I was left pondering the possibility of one’s whole life being thrown into upheaval by some similar, but more grievous, discovery. “[sic]” grew from that seed.

Amoskeag: How and why did it take this final form?  What were the changes and drafts it went through?

James Black: The actual story itself is the result of my many, many problems with America’s seriously flawed health care system—a system which contributed in a number of significant ways to the simultaneously too-speedy and too-slow death of my mother from metastatic colon cancer. Many countries have heroin clinics for terminally ill cancer patients; after a while, morphine doesn’t cut it when it comes to the pain, and heroin makes things much easier. The US has, for years, aggressively refused to establish such institutions. This is, of course, a tragedy and, as a result, I got to watch someone I loved die in abject agony.

A few years later, my home city of Rochester embarked on a series of ill-advised ventures to build a ferry to Toronto, and watching each iteration of the project fail was morbidly fascinating. I needed a reason for my protagonist to suddenly require a birth certificate he hadn’t previously seen and a trip across the border to acquire heroin for a cancer patient accomplished that without—to me—feeling contrived.

Amoskeag: Why do you write?  What made you want to pursue writing professionally?

James Black: The second part of this question is easier to answer than the first. I write professionally because it’s the one thing I’ve found that makes me feel even remotely contented, happy, etcetera. Who could ask more from a job? Most of my life has been spent doing work that I find degrading and disappointing. Someone once said something like “writing is something that is for a writer more difficult than it is for anyone else.” I find that to be true. But writing is also, for me, the one thing worth the effort.

Why it’s worth the effort has to do with interiority. Douglas Coupland’s Microserfs defined interiority as, more or less, the feeling of “getting” someone or being “gotten.” Feeling like someone is inside your head—in a good way. Vonnegut said loneliness is the worst disease by which humanity has been stricken. I’m not sure it’s a disease with a cure. But reading something well-written makes a person forget that fact for the length of the piece. A good book is easier to find than a “soulmate,” and less risky than a fistful of Xanax.

Amoskeag: What tips and suggestions would you give to aspiring writers?

James Black: Learn to cope with perpetual failure. There are months where I receive a letter a day telling me someone clever enough to edit a literary journal thinks I’m not good enough. If that bothers you, you’re going to have a serious problem. I’ve been rejected hundreds of times in eight years of submissions. But I’ve also been accepted many places, and there’s nothing like the feeling of knowing that soon people you will never meet will be reading your work and, hopefully, feeling that interiority—my favorite stories seem to “get” me, to understand how existence feels to me, and when people read my own work, I hope that at least a few in the audience will feel “gotten.”

Other than that, the two pithiest pieces of advice I’ve got are simple. 1) Write stories you would want to read. 2) Writer’s block is a myth invented to excuse laziness—you can always write; your product may suck, but you can write. With enough editorial attention, you can turn terrible sentences into stalwart and worthwhile ones. Sometimes you’ll just build slowly. Writer’s block is as silly and romantic a notion as the idea that artists must be penniless and depressed.

Amoskeag: What are you currently working on?

James Black: At the moment, I’m three stories shy of releasing a second collection (my first is self-published and can be found on my website, And the piece I’m currently working on is one which, as I mentioned above, seems to require slow building. In this piece, there’s a labyrinth that won’t quit growing, a computer-illiterate professor learning how to navigate Facebook so he can check in on a student’s welfare, cats chatting about the color of their new collars, and an airplane full of people who are all absolutely sure that they’re the center of the world. So, we’ll see how that comes together in the end.


Author Spotlight: Richard Dokey

For our second Author Spotlight, we would like to introduce an interview from another contributing author to the 2011 edition of Amoskeag.

Richard Dokey received his degree from U.C. Berkeley. He is an avid fly fisherman who ties his own flies. He has traveled from Chile to New Zealand in search of rainbow and brown trout. His stories have won prizes. They have been cited in Best American Short Stories, Best of the West and have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. They are also included in national anthologies and texts, as well as in major regional collections. “Pale Morning Dun,” his last book of short stories, published by University of Missouri Press, was nominated for the American Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award. His work has been quite favorably reviewed in newspapers and periodicals from coast to coast. He is also the author of several novels, the most recent of which is “The Hollywood Cafe.”

Amoskeag: Your work, “Stuff,” was featured in the 2011 Spring edition of Amoskeag. Tell us a little about the story behind this piece. How did it come about?

Richard Dokey: My mother’s death some years ago brought home to me the story which all who are left behind must face: what to do with the “stuff.” I saw that the real story, though, was not about things, but the disparate life which each character brings to the story. This is the true “stuff” that can not be given away. Each one’s experience is an artifact which is solely his own. The tragedy of this awareness for the narrator at the end is that the two brothers are irreparably apart, have lived in such separate consciousness and experience that not even a mother’s death can bring them together. They are condemned. They have not even lost the same thing.

Amoskeag: How and why did it take this final form?  What were the changes and drafts it went through?

Richard Dokey: Nothing was different from what transpired. The story “wrote itself” out of the death of my mother. “Stuff” went through no drafts, if one means by that the writing out of the story and then another writing and rewrite of the story to “get it right.” I don’t work that way. I rewrite heavily as I write, covering each handwritten page with erasures and corrections and taking notes as I go along. I hack through the jungle of language, and the way must have the sense of inevitability. I often know the end of a story as I begin, and then it is a question of climbing the mountain through the jungle to discover the way to the top. I know that I’ve done it right when I understand that there is only one ending, and I have found it.

Amoskeag: Why do you write?  What made you want to pursue writing professionally?

Richard Dokey: I write because I must. I felt the compulsion when quite young. It has never left me. I translate my experience of life through writing because writing is how I understand what I have lived. The word “professionally” is confusing. Writers, I suppose, are sparrows or hawks. Sparrows get comfort from flying together. They fly the same way and in formation. What they write is the same. How they write is the same. Hawks fly alone. It makes no difference that all do not understand. Hawks write for the one, true reader, who is also a hawk, at rest somewhere, leaning against his own solitude.

Amoskeag: What tips and suggestions would you give to aspiring writers?

Richard Dokey: That’s easy. Read. Read the best writers. If you’re a novelist, the best novels. If you’re a short story writer, the best short stories. Stay away from sparrows. Read everything. Philosophy. History. Psychology. Economics. Poetry. Everything. Travel. Look and listen. It’s not about you. It’s about what is and what you can see. How you see becomes the uniqueness of what you can say. The easiest thing to do is to write bad poetry. Bad poetry is about how I feel and what I think. But it’s not about me. A great poet writes one book, and it takes him a lifetime to write it. Forget yourself. Kill your vanity. Ignore rejection. And never quit.

Amoskeag: What are you currently working on?

Richard Dokey: I’ve put together a new collection of short stories, which is seeking a publisher. I have a new novel. My passion, though, is short fiction. I’m usually working on a story or working at working on a story. The only pain, apart from your regular, every day pain, is to be working on nothing. It’s hell waiting for the beginning to begin. The only ending, after all, is the one, true end. Then others will deal with my stuff. I hope they never finish.


Author Spotlight: Philip Dacey

To kick-start Amoskeag‘s author spotlight series we asked Philip Dacey about his poem, Against Rushing, featured in the 2011 Spring edition of Amoskeag. We then followed up with some questions about writing and Dacey’s current projects.

Philip Dacey, a native of St. Louis, is the author of eleven books of poetry, including entire collections about Gerard Manley Hopkins, Thomas Eakins, and New York City; his latest are Mosquito Operas: New and Selected Short Poems (Rain Mountain Press, 2010) and Vertebrae Rosaries: 50 Sonnets (Red Dragonfly Press). A college teacher of writing in Minnesota for thirty-five years, he moved to New York City in 2004 for a post-retirement adventure.

Amoskeag: Your poem, “Against Rushing,” was featured in the 2011 Spring edition of Amoskeag. Tell us a little about the story behind this piece. How did it come about?

Philip Dacey: The idea contained in the second stanza was something I had heard years earlier, and it stayed with me; it seemed both witty and probably true in some ways. I perhaps envied that kind of insouciance – I who always tend to get to an appointment early. The idea kept returning to me and seemed to ask for a context. So the poem was my answer. Possibly, too, my living in Manhattan, on the Upper West Side, a couple of blocks from Broadway, created the need for a response in some way to the fast pace all around me every day. The fourth stanza certainly owes something to Roethke’s “Worm, be with me, this is my hard time.”

Amoskeag: How and why did it take this final form? What were the changes and drafts it went through?

Philip Dacey: Over the years I’ve done a lot of poems that are like musical variations on a theme, comprised of a series of short, independent sections that are united only by the theme or motif they all share. Because the poem is in sections, I’d say silence has a place in the poem, surrounding each section and letting it resonate. And silence would be to speech what stillness would be to rushing. So the form in some way was dictated by the content.  Given the form, the drafting had mostly to do with searching for possible variations, condensing material into haiku-like nuggets, then selecting the best and arranging them. Nothing very technical or instructive in this case.

Amoskeag: Why do you write?  What made you want to pursue writing professionally?

Philip Dacey: To my surprise, I began writing poetry at a difficult time in my late twenties when I was a bit lost as to direction and goals; in retrospect, I’d say poetry came to my rescue, even though I had always seen myself as a fiction writer, despite – I realized later – not being very good at it. So although it’s corny to say so, I have to say poetry chose me, rather than the other way around. From browsing in the Stanford library – I was in graduate school when I began writing poetry – I knew of the Beloit Poetry Journal, so I sent one of my first poems there, and their acceptance of it plugged me into my professional life. So I owe much to poetry and continue trying to serve it, though my joke – not a joke? – is that if I truly wanted it to serve I would stop writing and just read the great dead.

Amoskeag: What tips and suggestions would you give to aspiring writers?

Philip Dacey: First, I’d say don’t believe in writer’s block. To believe in it means it’ll be a self-fulfilling prophecy. In fact, it takes only a pencil and a piece of paper to write. Put down whatever comes to mind. There’s of course no guarantee it will improve on the blank page, but then there’s never a guarantee of that, not even when one is supposedly inspired. As Isak Dinesen said: “Write a little every day, without hope, without despair.” Bill Stafford had the right idea: “How do I write so much? I lower my standards.” Of course, he had very high standards and was being wry; but I think he meant that he gave himself permission to fumble along – “scribble” is the word I like – until he hit a vein that had promise. I would also add: don’t be afraid of using traditional forms. Why not use all the tools in the toolbox?

Amoskeag: What are you currently working on?

Philip Dacey: I’m currently putting the final touches on a book manuscript that collects the poems I’ve written and published over the years about Walt Whitman. I also keep a lot of poems-in-progress going, so I’m always turning to one of those, besides beginning new poems. I have other collections out looking for homes at publishers: including a miscellany and a book of love poems. I believe in being prolific – encouraged students to be “fecund.” The more we write, the greater the chances are we might get lucky – luck often being triggered by hard work – and write something that merits an audience.  I’m just finishing a poem about Chiquita – the banana people – and their collaboration with Columbian death squads.