Thursday, February 4, 2016

Writers in the Spotlight: Susan Tepper

Welcome, Susan Tepper! Thank you for taking the time to answer a few questions. I am eager to discuss your new flash collection, dear Petrov, launching February 2 by Pure Slush Books. Congratulations on the new release!  I can’t shake these stories. They’re haunting and masterfully written.

The narrator in your book often writes to Petrov in a manner that depicts her reverence for the natural world and all its strange magnificence. Were there specific places that inspired these vivid descriptions?

ST:  To my mind the natural world is a spectacle that is unsurpassed.  I feel it in the everyday, and also when I see it in the great art of the museums. I’ve travelled extensively since I was a kid and I think the natural world, the varying countries, invaded me.  There was no particular place for this writing.  Other than what my mind perceives as old Russia.
In many ways, your narrator is as mysterious as Petrov himself; the complexity of their relationship steers the line toward larger, philosophical questions and examines the complexities of love and longing in a delicate but powerful way. I wonder how the concept of this book originated. Did you begin writing these stories with the narrator in mind, or with Petrov in mind? 

ST:  One day I sat down blank at the screen and Petrov emerged.  Or, should I say the narrator who loves Petrov emerged first.  The stories began after one of the worst personal times of my life.  My mother who is elderly had an apartment fire.  I moved in there, and lived with her under those conditions, putting the place back together and helping my mother get well.  It was grueling.  I never stopped working unless it was meal time or bed time.  I went about the tasks without any conscious awareness of my own personal suffering.  In a sense I became a soldier with a job to do.  I had no help, no doors opened from adjoining apartments to lend a hand.  Then a few days before I was to return home, I was assaulted in a Post Office by a deranged woman.  Again, people heard my screams and no one came to my aid.  Petrov, I believe, sprang from this feeling of intense aloneness.  After those experiences, my unconscious mind decided to set the story in war time.
The individual stories in dear Petrov, as well as the collection as a whole, allow the reader a certain amount of freedom to attach meaning or expand on the narrator’s exploration. As a teacher, this struck me as the sort of text that would be good to teach because I imagine it evoking lively discussions in the classroom. Was this intentional?

ST:  This is good to hear.  But nothing was intentional.  Each piece was written from the place in my brain that writes poetry.  In fact, the collection has been termed cross-genre by some people, since segments have been published as both poetry and fiction.
Which piece was written first, and how did the larger story collection evolve?

ST:  Dear Petrov was the very first story, and published by Cheryl Anne Gardner in her zine Apocrypha and Abstractions.  Then I wrote Floods which Richard Peabody took for Gargoyle.  The work seemed to flow out of me, nearly every day.  It was an outpouring of the pain and emotions I kept hidden from my mother during the fire.  I had to get her back on her feet so I couldn’t indulge myself.  I often write things that have no basis in reality, but come from an emotional stem in my brain that holds things.  (I wish I could release easier, it would make my life better!). 

Thank you so much for indulging me, Susan. Now for the writing practice questions… What attracts you to the flash fiction form?

ST:  Actually I’m attracted to all forms of writing.  I love the long flow of novel, and have written several which are not yet published.  Flash fiction is fun because you can get it all done in bite-sized pieces and it’s challenging.  I love a good challenge.

Who and what inspires you to write?

ST:  Jen, nobody inspires me to do anything.  I’ve always been intensely stubborn and self-motivated.  Plus I have a high interest level, a curiosity that doesn’t quit.

Do you ever get blocked creatively?

ST:  Nope.  I like to talk to people.  I like hearing their stories.  I like telling mine to them.  Writing is an extension of that.
Do you ever use prompts?

ST:  Only if someone presents them in a journal challenge that could lead to publication.  But on my own, never.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received (writing related or no)?

ST:  A brilliant man once said the following to me:  “It doesn’t matter whether you win or lose as long as you don’t quit.”

Thank you so much for taking the time to swing by. I would love to know what you’re working on currently, and where readers can find your work.

ST:  I’ve written some short stories that have been picked up for the spring.  One is coming out in Thrice Fiction Magazine, it’s pretty wild and entirely different from ‘dear Petrov’. I’m also going to start a revision on a novel that’s been pending for a few years.  That should be fun, I’m really looking forward to re-working that one.

Susan Tepper is the author of five books of fiction and a chapbook of poetry.  Awards include Second Place Winner in story/South Million Writers for 2014, and 7th place winner in the Zoetrope Contest for the Novel, 2006.  She has been nominated multiple times for the Pushcart Prize, and once for a Pulitzer Prize in fiction for her novel ‘What May Have Been’ (co-authored with Gary Percesepe).  Tepper writes the column ‘Let’s Talk’ at Black Heart Magazine where she also conducts author/book interviews.  FIZZ her reading series at KGB Bar, NYC, is ongoing these past eight years.  

Thursday, January 28, 2016

The Slope of a Line

My current writing is tackling everything leading up to this scene, and everything after it:

(New fiction in Litbreak)

New interview coming up soon! And maybe some thoughts...

Monday, January 18, 2016

The Migration

A new story is up at Midway Journal Volume 10, Issue 1. Thanks to Editor, Ralph Pennel, for posting my work. I completed the draft for this one at The Art Farm (keeping my process transparent since 2009) and revised it last year. 

Saturday, January 9, 2016

Writers in the Spotlight: David Atkinson

Featured today is writer David Atkinson, author of Not Quite So Stories. I dug right in with David about the writing process and how his book came to be. Hi David, welcome to the spotlight! 

I'd like to begin with a simple question: Writing fiction is hard. Why do you do it?

Writing fiction never seemed that difficult to me. Writing it well is more difficult, but certainly more forgiving than having to get facts right like in nonfiction. I write a lot of nonfiction as a patent attorney, and that's definitely a lot more pressure. Writing fiction seems like such a vacation after a day full of patents. I can't think of any other way to live life, without that dreaming.

I like that perspective. Thinking of fiction in that way, as a vacation, seems to turn the concept of "the work" on its head. When did you know you wanted to be a writer, and who/what were your early influences/inspiration?

It must have been before I could remember. Writing simply seemed like something people did. My parents were big on literature of all kids, taking me to the library all the time, fascinated with writers like Tolkien, Hunter Thompson, Hemingway, Harper Lee, and so on. Because of them, I could read chapter books by the time I started kindergarten, at least as far as I remember. They got me going and introduced me to all kinds of influences.

What's the last book you read?

The last book I read was Wake by A.T. Grant, but that will probably change by the time I finish these questions, certainly by the time anyone else sees this interview. I typically read about 200-300 books a year so this kind of question ends up being a little time sensitive.

That's a lot of books! I envy you. I am a slow reader, and I struggle to keep up with my to-read list. 

How did Not Quite So Stories (Literary Wanderlust, 2016) come together? Did you write these stories with the intention of compiling them?

At some point in the process I did. Some of these stories predated the idea for the collection though, they were simply odd stories that I wasn't sure what to do with. I think the first may have been as far back as a decade ago. I came across books by Etgar Keret and Amelia Gray though, and the idea started coming together in my head. Then I wrote stories with this collection in mind, actively pursuing it. Still, even at that point I was simply going one story at a time and seeing if the collection was where I would end up.

I'm a huge fan of short stories and often prefer the form to the novel (as both a reader and writer). Having just finished Not Quite So Stories, I identified one of the major reasons for this: I love infiltrating lives and getting to know characters by way of a specific and often outlandish situation. I also love stories that I can read in a single sitting. Your stories were great fun to read, incredibly imaginative and diverse, yet they all had a way of grabbing me immediately. 

This excerpt from "Cents of Wonder Rhymes with Orange" begins with a shot of adrenaline: 

"The young blond man in the wrinkled oxford shirt dashed across the tile of the elevator lobby. Hurrying, his hands juggled a laptop satchel, a dry and folded umbrella, and a lumpy plastic grocery bag. Lunging for the elevator button before managing to stop, the sole of his cheap dress shoe slid out from under him and he slipped quickly, and clumsily, to the floor."

Equally gripping, is this very different opening from "Home Improvement," which immediately made me wonder about how our character would reconcile his seemingly mundane day with this remarkably strange situation: 

"I think it was a Tuesday when my house left me. Gone when I got back from the updated SEC filing requirements seminar in Akron. There I was, fresh home from the hustle and bustle of the city, only my home wasn't there."

No matter the topic or character, I found myself immersed in your stories immediately. How do you come to your openings? Do you usually begin at the beginning, or does the beginning tend to happen for you, as it does me, after the rest of the story is complete?

I usually end up approaching each story a slightly different way. Some I just sit down and start exploring, some I outline and/or free write or note take heavily before starting, and some I write over and over in my head before sitting down with pen to paper. Still, I usually do try to write a full draft from beginning to end, if possible, when I do sit down to draft. Of course, it’s an iterative process after that. I write freehand first and then type. That gives me a round of tinkering right off the bat, see how things sound and feel. I’ll often have many rounds after that, often reading aloud. I may start with that first sentence on paper, but it will likely get tinkered afterwards. I’ve tinkered with quite a few openings in the stories of this collection to get more zing in them. However, there were a few stories in here, as I remember it at least, that started as an opening that flashed into my head and only later did a story grow from that.

What is your writing process/routine?

I tend to tell people that I don't have a process or routine, but I don't think that's completely accurate. I think I actually have a hundred different little processes. Sometimes I sit down and just start writing, other times I outline extensively and free write, while still other times I write a story for months in my head before ever setting a pen to paper. I blog at least daily so there's that, but the individual pieces I work on seem to each carry their own process that I have to follow. I just get an idea what that is and conform accordingly. I'm not exactly in charge, but it works so I don't worry about it too much. As long as I keep working it's probably all good.

Do you ever find yourself creatively blocked, and if so, how do you find your way through?

I don't remember ever really feeling blocked. Sometimes I won't feel any momentum on a particular project, but usually another one feels like it's building up steam and I can switch over. Sometimes I do feel worn out and take a break, but that break usually involves reading, reviewing, blogging, or something like that. There always seems to be something going.

You don't seem to favor one point of view over the other in this collection. Do you consciously set out to write a story from a particular point of view, and if so, what makes a story right for a first/third person narration?

I operate a great deal of the time from instinct. When I get the idea for a story, a lot of parameters for approaching it often come with…as if they’re simply conditions I have to follow for writing the story. Point of view can sometimes be part of that, though I have changed a story before when it just wasn’t working under one point of view and found it to work much better under another. I think this all comes under the larger scope of psychic distance as opposed to only point of view. The big question is where does the reader need to be. Sometimes they need to be focused in on one character to be moved the maximum amount, at varying distances (outside the character while looking at them, spoken to by the character, in the character’s conscious thoughts, in the character’s mind prior to consciousness coalescing into conscious thoughts, etc.), and sometimes a bigger picture is needed. I think it all depends on how the story needs to make the reader react and how the point of view and psychic distance will affect that. Trying to be a little more concrete, sometimes a story doesn’t work unless the reader has a little estrangement, separation, from a character and so third is needed. Other times, I need the reader to have a more personal connection to the character and use first instead. I don’t think there’s necessarily a point of view from which a story has to be told, but they way point of view can be used to affect how a reader will feel while reading is another tool at a writer’s disposal.

What is the most important part of a story?

It seems like the most important part of any story is whatever isn't working at the time. If it's non-functional, then that part is critical. I suppose I mean that they all seem equally important, though I do have a bias towards stories having particularly good endings. The end is where it all has to come together to really soar, the last word. If everything else is great and the ending is only average, I'd likely end up assessing the story as average as opposed to the other way around.

Do you ever use prompts?

I've used them from time to time, but not heavily. Usually I'm already driven towards so many projects that I don't have enough time to check out prompts that I might like to work with. Midnight Circus often gives prompts for the themes their issues are based around and I've gotten significantly interested in a few of those. Ended up with a few good stories that way. I'm also messing around right now with Flash-Nano (flash fiction's answer to National Novel Writing Month) and have been messing around with the daily prompts Nancy Stohlman has been posting with some pretty good (in my mind at least).

What is your favorite prompt?  

I don't really track prompts after I've used them, so I'll have to pick something recent. I got into the one Nancy Stohlman put up for day 1 of Flash-Nano (Write a story that takes place in a car), not so much for the prompt itself but more because I knew this was going to involve a Ferris Wheel and Henry Kissinger demanding to know what I'd done with his Chevy convertible.

Many of the characters in Not Quite So Stories are hit with the unexpected; something happens that breaks them free from routine, if momentarily. I like the contrast this creates, especially because it seems that the most unprepared and unlikely characters face the most outlandish external circumstance, adding comedy to your knack for suspense.  This made me think of the Tolstoy quote: "All great literature is one of two stories: a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town." Do you believe this is true of your fiction? Do you believe it's true of fiction in general? 

I think it is, but I think that can be deceptive. The human mind works well with patterns and we can make something fit a framework if we want it to. I mean, aren’t all people on a journey of some kind? Isn’t story something that grows out of a happening that changes the routine of some character or another? That would seem to make it that you could fit almost any story into either or both of those categories whether or not it is really accurate as intended. Since stories for the most part seem to involve a change of some kind, it seems as if the above breaks down into a character going to look for something that will be a catalyst for the change or the catalyst arriving without them having to look. I think you could stretch that to cover almost any situation.

What advice do you have for other writers?

Write, read, and try to be a decent human being while doing the previous two. I think everything else will work itself out if those three things can be managed. There are so many ways up the mountain, I think any advice more specific than that would need to be individually tailored so much that I shouldn't even offer it. If something works for you, keep doing it. If it doesn't work, you should stop doing that. The trick is figuring out whether it's really working or only seems to be and you can't see how it isn't.

What is the best advice you ever received (on writing or anything)?

I think the best advice I've ever been given was more of a witty observation rather than advice. It was from my favorite professor in high school, Mr. Eck. I didn't even have Mr. Eck for a real class, just study hall. I was talking to someone in the hall, doubtlessly something quasi intelligent and angst ridden. Mr. Eck overheard as he was walking by and said: "David, you are such a self imposed outcast." I think of that statement regularly.

What are you working on now?

I'm always working on something. I've got various projects I'm still tinkering with as I try to find them homes (a novel about an endless series of apocalypses, a realistic novel about a character trying to live within the impossibility of his own conceptions about life, an essay book about the original 8-bit NES Legend of Zelda, and so on). If you mean more immediately, I'm working on a series of flash pieces that is much more absurd than I've ever really done…and may one day also end up as a collection (perhaps titled Roses are Red, Violets are Stealing Loose Change from my Pockets While I Sleep?). 

David Atkinson

Given David's author shot, a good prompt this week might be to imagine all that goes on while you sleep. Write about a character's life, and this character is someone who wakes when you rest and rests when you wake. Write for ten minutes. Go!

Monday, December 21, 2015

A Week of Observations: Part 6

The holiday parties have begun, the baked goods are everywhere, the politics blather on, and the lights/blow-up snowmen that freak out my dog are adding color and cheer to our neighborhood. I love this time of year. Here are a few observations from the last week:
  • A weak stomach may mean longevity in a culture of over-eating the inedible
  • Physical talents, such as acrobatics, should not be shared at holiday parties
  • Cactus lights will always make me smile
  • We need an underground movement of those democratic voters in stoplight-red states to move to the swings for a time
  • When you get your twentieth recall notice, it might be time to look for a new car
  • The tiny living movement has taught me smart utilization of space - wow do I have a lot of space! 
  • The non-poet can foster her appreciation for poetry to great reward
  • If you're crafty, you can save a shit ton of money during the holidays (I am not)
  • Good intentions lead to good results, but the timing is always a bit different than expected
  • If you can't sleep, don't try to sleep; get up and do something (this is my latest insomnia strategy, and it's working out better than anything else I've tried)
  • People who don't like dogs probably won't like me
In lieu of a prompt: Enjoy family. Read, reflect, live life! 

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Writers in the Spotlight: Erin K. Parker

Hi, Erin!

Welcome to Literary Exhibitionism. You recently released a short story collection, The Secret and the Sacred, with Unknown Press. Congratulations! I want you to know that I devoured it over vacation. 

Thanks, Jen.  I am so pleased that you enjoyed it. 

I noticed that all of the stories in your book, with the exception of “The Photo Album,” are told in first-person narration, creating an intimate feel, as though your narrators are confiding in the reader. Did you set out to achieve such a confidential tone, and how do you decide what point of view you adopt when writing your stories?  

Image result for the secret and the sacredSome of the stories were written in the third-person, and even published that way originally in other publications.  But when Bud Smith, at Unknown Press, read the collection, that was the first note he gave me:  to try telling these stories in first-person in order to create a more intimate, confessional collection.  I did some rewriting, and I had to agree.  It did dial the book in a little tighter, so we went with it.

How long did it take you to write this collection?

It took a few years because I didn’t originally set out to put together a collection.  I was fortunate to start getting work accepted by various publications, and Bud Smith would occasionally tell me that he liked my work and to let him know when I was ready to put out a collection because Unknown Press was interested.  I worked on it very slowly, but steadily, for a couple of years – there were a lot of other things going on which took priority.  At one point, I sent a lot of the stories to Bud so he could see if there was enough for a solid collection that he’d be interested in.  Once I got his comments, I had a clearer direction on where to go with it.  When I saw them all together, I liked the intimate tone, the confessional theme of the stories, and felt they could stand together.  I suddenly realized that I really did have a collection.  There were all these moments or situations where the character stops and looks around and sees clearly what is going on in her life.  Where the only thing to do is to keep going.  Just keep walking.  Either walk away from something or walk toward something else.  The cover art is perfect for the book.  It’s a photo by Brooke Shaden, a very talented photographer who let Unknown Press use her art for my book.  I absolutely love the cover.

I too love the cover. It really introduces the writing well. When did start writing fiction?

I started when I was young, maybe 6 or 7.  I wrote quite a bit growing up – journals, stories and poetry.  I’ve always loved language so much, and have always been an avid reader too.

Who/what inspires you?

I am greatly inspired by authors like Mark Helprin, Margaret Atwood and Hemingway.  They are masters of the art of storytelling and the use of the sparest, most perfect combination of words.  I am really  inspired by art and design.  Stories I see visually can often open a path for the words to come.

Do you ever find yourself blocked creatively?

I do, but not for long periods of time.  I have found that the way to get unstuck is to look at art, design or to pick up a book and start reading.  This helps me get going again, it shakes things loose.  My career is in design, so I can’t afford to panic when I get blocked creatively.  I figured out a long time ago that creative inspiration can be found in so many places, and sometimes it’s just a matter of relaxing and opening up to other mediums.  Get quiet and stay open.  Also, I don’t treat creativity with any kind of reverence, so it isn’t bigger than me.  It’s a puzzle I want to put together, and the trick is to stay open so I can see the pieces.

What is your favorite prompt?

I had never used prompts until I worked with Kyle Schruder and Robert Vaughan for a piece that I was submitting to Lost In Thought.  Kyle sent me a group of photos to choose from to use as a prompt.  I was drawn to a photo of a young woman standing on the street, dressed for work, holding a coffee, and looking completely overwhelmed.  Her whole story came to me right away:  she had just left home and moved to her first apartment.  She had a futon and was hoping to save up for a real bed.  She had an entry level office job that she was excited about.  She was getting used to her new life, finding her routine which consisted of stopping at the neighborhood coffee shop in the mornings on the way to work.  She looked forward to going grocery shopping because it was still so new and it made her feel like she was an adult.  At the same time, she was terrified of messing up at work and afraid of her car breaking down because she didn’t have enough money for a car repair.  You know, that kind of thing came to me, I could see her whole life in that picture.  I remember what that was like and I just started writing.  That story became "Red Velvet Couch."  I will definitely use pictures as a prompt again.

Can you describe your writing routine?

I don’t really have a writing routine.  I write when I can’t stand to keep the story inside anymore.  The lines start screaming to be heard and I have to get them out.  That’s the best feeling in the world.

How many revisions do your stories undergo?

Not very many.  I rework the details or the rhythm of the lines quite a bit when I am done, but the bulk of the story is fairly close to how I first write it. 

Any advice for beginning writers?

When you are ready to submit to places, it’s better to have a pile to choose from, so just keep writing.  Also, once you find someone’s piece that you like, read their bio to see where else they have work.  That will lead you to find new publications where you might want to submit.  At the beginning, it’s almost like a scavenger hunt!

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received (writing or no)?

To write things that I would want to read. 

Thank you so much for taking the time to swing by Lit Exhibit, Erin. I would love to know what you’re working on currently, and where readers can find your work.

Thank you so much for this interview, Jen!  I am working on new flash fiction pieces and short stories for the next collection.   I can be found at

Prompt: Based on Erin's answers, let's write an ekphrastic piece of flash fiction based on a photo -- either one you own or one on a post card (there are great ones at bookstores). Find a photo, set a timer, and go! Let us know how it goes.   

Monday, November 30, 2015

A Week of Observations: P5

I hope your Thanksgiving was fantastic. My husband and I managed to travel to Ohio to see my grandmother, to Michigan (for the OSU v Michigan game), to Windsor, and back in four days. Here are a few observations from the week:
  • Canada is cold in late November.
  • It's not a good idea to open an umbrella in a casino, even if you're just walking through.
  • If someone aggressively sells you an umbrella, it will probably do this: 
  • Due to the fact that my husband ran into them in Japan, and we ran into them in Toledo, Ohio, I'm thinking there's a 20% chance that you will run into Exodus in any given hotel restaurant.
  • At any given Thanksgiving celebration, the stuffing should be positioned at least two places down (beyond arm's length) from me.
  • There is nothing like connecting with family, even if for a short time.
  • Ohio in late November is cold.
  • Being the opposing team fans at a big college football game may get you flicked off by an eight-year-old. 
  • Airbnb can be fantastic, as can shepherd's pie.
  • In November, Michigan is cold.
  • Anyone who goes to Ann Arbor should try Zingerman's sourdough. 
  • The year moves fast.
  • A real vacation means blocking email, and a real vacation is nothing short of bliss.
  • There's never enough time with family.  
  • Vacations do not always equal sleep.
Prompt: Go to a competitive sports event you wouldn't ordinarily attend and sit on the opposing side (no home games). The conversations get interesting and are often quite fun. If you can't make it to an event, try to think worst case scenario and write a short story. Twenty minutes. Go!  

Happy Holidays!!