Tag Archives: fiction

Poets in Pajamas Presents Samantha Edmonds TONIGHT!

Poets in Pajamas, a Live-Stream Reading Series by Sundress Publications
Presents Episode 43: Samantha Edmonds

Do you enjoy live poetry? Are you looking for a relaxing way to spend your Sunday night? Don’t want to travel far or change out of your comfortable PJs?

Well look no further! Poets in Pajamas is a live-feed online reading series presented by Sundress Publications. We bring live poetry, complete with Q&A and poet interaction, to you. We don’t ask you to dig out a scarf, no, we welcome you as you are and bring the poetry. Won’t you join us? We often draw a diverse audience from around the world and we’d love it if you, too, were there.

Our next reading is scheduled for Sunday, November 18th, at 7PM EST, featuring Samantha Edmonds. On behalf of Sundress Publications, Anna Black will host.

Samantha Edmonds is an MFA candidate at the University of Tennessee. Her fiction and nonfiction appear in Black Warrior Review, Pleiades, The Pinch, Indiana Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and elsewhereShe currently lives in Knoxville, where she serves as fiction editor for Grist and as the Community Outreach Director for Sundress Academy for the Arts.

Samantha Edmonds at The Billfold

Samantha Edmonds at Ravishly

Samantha Edmonds at McSweeney’s Internet Tendency

Samantha Edmonds at Boston Literary Magazine

 

Anna Black received her MFA at Arizona State University. Black is a twice awarded Virginia G. Piper global teaching and research fellow. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the anthologies We Will be Shelter and In Sight: An Ekphrastic Collaboration, as well as the journals 45th Parallel, Bacopa Review, Wordgathering, the American Journal of Poetry, and New Mobility among others. In addition to hosting PiP, Black is the staff director at Sundress Publications.

 

The readings occur on PiPs Facebook page every other Sunday at 7PM EST/4PM PST. The selected poet will read for about 15 minutes, and will then open the floor for an additional 10-15 minutes to receive questions from the audience.

 

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Call for Submissions: Authors of Out-of-Print Books

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At Doubleback Books, we believe that out of print should not mean out of mind. Although other publishers rescue works that have fallen into the public domain from obscurity, few reprint books from small, independent presses that have folded during the twenty-first century and (often through no fault of their own) left new, exciting books to go out of print before their time.

If you are the author of a book that has recently gone out of print because the press closed, we want to read it. We are hosting an open reading period through August 2018.  Authors of works that have gone out of print due to the closure of the original press may submit full-length or short books, including novels, novellas, chapbooks, short story collections, poetry collections, essay collections, and memoirs. Editors may also submit out of print manuscripts their presses published before closing. To be eligible, works must have been both published and out of print after 2000.

Accepted manuscripts will be released as free downloadable e-books on the Sundress Publications website. Previous titles include Karyna McGlynn’s Alabama SteveJehanne Dubrow’s The Hardship Post, and Virginia Chase Sutton’s What Brings You to Del Amo (forthcoming).

To submit, email the following to doubleback@sundresspublications.com:

  • Your manuscript(s) in .PDF or .DOC format
  • A brief cover letter in the body of the email telling us a little bit about your work and yourself, and noting the genre of the manuscript
  • The name of the manuscript’s original publisher
  • The name and contact information of the publisher’s former editor-in-chief, if available.

Please note: we do not republish translated work or previously self-published work.  

Doubleback Books is an imprint of Sundress Publications. More information at http://www.sundresspublications.com/doubleback

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2018 Chapbook Contest Winner

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Katie Burgess’ Wind on the Moon Named Winner 
of Sundress Publications’ 2018 Chapbook Competition

Sundress Publications is delighted to announce the winner for our seventh chapbook competition, Katie Burgess. Her chapbook, Wind on the Moon, rose to the top among many other outstanding works.

Stacey Balkun, Chapbook Series Editor of Sundress Publications and author of Jackalope-Girl Learns to Speak, had this to say about the chapbook:

“The stories in Wind on the Moon fit together seamlessly, creating a world that’s as real to us readers as it is enchanted with love and grief. Katie Burgess uses playful form Katie Burgessand familiar tales to distill the most complex family dynamics: a daughter reckons with her mother meeting her lover in the language of a math textbook. Adam and Eve become a husband and wife who ‘always did encourage each other’s bad behavior.’ In the final story, the act of writing conflates with the creation of the universe, our narrator critiquing the work of a god: ‘I liked how in your first draft everything revolved around the Earth. That makes a lot more sense if the people there are going to be important.’ And Burgess shows us the importance of all people, encouraging empathy and the desire to get to know every character, every person, no matter how insignificant they may seem at first. Burgess writes with an honesty so clear it aches. Wind on the Moon is one of those books you can’t wait to share with everyone you love.”

Katie Burgess holds a PhD in fiction from Florida State University. She lives downwind of a mayonnaise factory in South Carolina and performs with Alchemy Comedy Theater. She is also editor in chief of Emrys Journal.

It is also our pleasure to announce that Amy Watkins‘ Wolf Daughter was selected for publication. We were thrilled by all the great works submitted this year and would like to thank everyone for participating.

Other submitted Chapbooks of Note

Finalists
Rachel Federer- Lunar Fragments for the Scorpion Child 
Gail Griffin- Virginals
Jayme Russel- Threadbound
Amy Watkins- Wolfdaughter*

Semifinalists
Rachel Heimowitz-The Story of Dark Matter
Jed Myers- The Wire Said
Sara Ryan- but pink but want but blue

*Also selected for publication

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Sundress Academy for the Arts Seeks Readers for Award-Winning Sundress Reading Series

safta logoSundress Academy for the Arts Seeks Readers
for Award-Winning Sundress Reading Series

The Sundress Academy for the Arts (SAFTA) would like to invite writers to read as part of their 2018 – 2019 reading series. Since 2013, SAFTA has hosted poets and prose writers as part of their award-winning Sundress Reading Series in the heart of Knoxville, TN, just miles from the Great Smoky Mountains. An extension of Sundress Publications and the Sundress Academy for the Arts, the Sundress Reading Series features nationally recognized writers in all genres from around the US while also supporting local and regional nonprofits. The deadline to apply is June 15, 2018.

We are currently curating our fall and spring reading series schedule. Our readings take place monthly on Sundays at 2PM at Hexagon Brewing Company. To apply to be a reader, please send 6-8 pages of poetry or 8-15 pages of prose, a 100-word bio, and CV in the body of an email to Erin Elizabeth Smith at erin@sundresspublications.com.

We will make every effort possible to contact those chosen by July 15, 2018. While we are currently unable to pay our readers, authors are given a discount on future SAFTA residencies and are encouraged to sell their own books and merchandise at the event.

Find our more or to view some of our past readers and schedules, visit us at www.sundressacademyforthearts.com.

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Summer 2018 Fiction Writing Retreat

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Sundress Academy for the Arts Announces
2018 Summer Fiction Writing Retreat

The Sundress Academy for the Arts is thrilled to announce its Summer Fiction Writing Retreat, which runs from Friday, June 15 to 17, 2018.  The three-day, two-night camping retreat will be held at SAFTA’s own Firefly Farms in Knoxville, Tennessee.  This year’s retreat will focus on generative fiction writing and include two break-out sessions, “Conflict and POV as Perspective” and “Writing the Travel Narrative,” plus discussions on kicking writer’s block, publishing, and more.

A weekend pass includes one-on-one and group instruction, writing supplies, food, drinks, transportation to and from the airport, and all on-site amenities for $250.  Tents, sleeping bags, and other camping equipment are available to rent for $25.  Payment plans are available if you reserve by April 17, 2018; inquire via email for details.

The event will be open to writers of all backgrounds and provide an opportunity to work with many talented, published fiction writers from around the country, including Mary Miller and Jeanne Thornton.

unnamed-1Mary Miller is the author of two collections of short stories, Big World (Short Flight/Long Drive Books, 2009) and Always Happy Hour (Liveright, 2017), as well as a novel, The Last Days of California (Liveright, 2014), which has been optioned for film by Amazon Studios. Her stories have appeared in the Oxford American, Electric Literature’s Recommended Reading, McSweeney’s Quarterly, American Short Fiction, Mississippi Review, and many others. She is a former James A. Michener Fellow in Fiction at the University of Texas and John and Renée Grisham Writer-in-Residence at Ole Miss. 

Jeanne Thornton is the author of The Black Emerald and thornton_author-photo_smallThe Dream of Doctor Bantam, the latter a Lambda Literary Award finalist for 2012. She is the co-publisher of Instar Books and the creator of the webcomics Bad Mother and The Man Who Hates Fun. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in n+1, WIRED, WSQ, CURA, and other places. She lives in Brooklyn. Find her online at:  http://fictioncircus.com/Jeanne.

Space at this workshop is limited to 15 writers, so reserve your place today at:
https://squareup.com/market/sundress-publications

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The Sundress Academy for the Arts (SAFTA) is an artists’ residency that hosts workshops, retreats, and residencies for writers, actors, filmmakers, and visual artists. All are guided by experienced, professional instructors from a variety of creative disciplines who are dedicated to cultivating the arts in East Tennessee.

Web: http://www.sundressacademyforthearts/                     Facebook: SundressAcademyfortheArts

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The Sundress Reading Series presents Chris Barton, Gwen E. Kirby, and Pamela Schoenewaldt on May 6

The Sundress Reading Series is excited to welcome Chris Barton, Gwen E. Kirby, and Pamela Schoenewaldt to the May installment of our reading series! The event will take place 2-4 p.m. on Sunday, May 6, at Hexagon Brewing Co., located at 1002 Dutch Valley Dr. STE 101, Knoxville, TN 37918. The Sundress Reading Series is free and open to the public.

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Chris Barton‘s work has appeared in Hobart, Entropy, Word Riot, Funhouse, Potluck Mag, and elsewhere. He was the winner of the 2013 undergraduate creative writing award from the University of Tennessee. He currently works at two cafes, helps with his roommate’s monthly open mic poetry event, & lives in a blue house with three cats in Knoxville, TN.

 

 

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Gwen E. Kirby‘s stories appear in One Story, Guernica, Mississippi Review, Ninth Letter, SmokeLong Quarterly, and elsewhere. Guest editor Aimee Bender selected her story “Shit Cassandra Saw . . .” for Best Small Fictions 2018 and her story “Midwestern Girl Is Tired of Appearing in Your Short Stories” won the 2017 DISQUIET Literary Prize for Fiction. She received her MFA from Johns Hopkins University and her PhD from the University of Cincinnati. Starting in the fall, she will be the 2018-2019 George Bennett Fellow at Phillips Exeter Academy.

 

PamelaPamela Schoenewaldt is a historical novelist and a USA Today Bestseller whose work has been translated into four languages. She was short-listed for the Langum Prize in American Historical Fiction. Her short stories have won international awards. She was the UT Library’s Writer in Residence and is in the East Tennessee Writers Hall of Fame. Her one-act play in Italian, Espresso Con Mia Madre, was performed in Naples, Italy. She taught writing at the University of Maryland European Division, and UT. She lives in Knoxville with her husband, Maurizio Conti, a physicist, and dog Jesse, a philosopher. Her most recently completed novel is set against the backdrop of the 1919 Knoxville Race Riot.

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Interview with Bernard Grant, Author of Fly Back at Me (Sundress 2017)

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Author of two prose chapbooks, Bernard Grant is a doctoral student. In this interview, Bernard talks about the beginnings of Fly Back at Me, good books to read, and his favorite part in the process of writing. You can read Bernard Grant’s e-chapbook, Fly Back at Me, with Sundress here!


Tierney Bailey: The opening words of Fly Back at Me are “A storm is coming.” Bubbling barely under the surface in the collection of stories is a connection between actual, literal storms and the terrible things people perpetually do to hurt each other—beginning with a lie told at a lake and ending with the cycle of sexual abuse in this particular family. Can you tell me just a little bit about how this connection was formed in the process of writing the chapbook?

Bernard Grant: I’d like to, but I can’t. Writing can be such an intuitive process it’s hard to describe how connections are formed. Most I can say is that things happened in revision, after I noticed patterns in earlier drafts, and then followed them.

TB: I know you’ve written about very similar stories to those in Fly Back at Me in your published nonfiction essays, but there’s a certain staccato rhythm in reading the stories of Fly Back at Me and an obvious, deliberate use of wording which would seem to very nearly poetic in nature—what drives you to write these narratives in connected vignettes rather than out-and-out poetry or even a longer, single story?

BG: Thank you for reading my essays. The biggest challenge of writing these stories was the voice. I had never written extensively in a child’s voice, and since all but one of the stories are in first person, I spent a lot of time listening to children speak. I also read some stories from child protagonists, but mostly I read narrative poems while I worked on this manuscript.

I think the short-short form lends itself to poetic language. I’m not a poet, so it never occurred to me to write these as poems. I had intended to write this as a longer story. After about nine pages, the story fell apart. I took a look at my own essays and realized how fragmented they are, how poor my memory is, and realized I couldn’t write a linear story from life. So instead of playing with a different form—like switchback style—I decided to try out flash, and the decision worked in my favor.

TB: Your previous chapbook, Puzzle Pieces, is very similar to Fly Back at Me in that it is composed of stories meant to be sparse of words for the reader to actual consume and strung together to create a whole story. How did the simple act of creating that chapbook influence the writing for Fly Back at Me?

BG: I actually wrote Fly Back at Me before Puzzle Pieces, which was composed of previously published micro essays that I assembled into a manuscript. Fly Back at Me was more difficult as I wasn’t just assembling a manuscript from completed material.

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TB: In “Big,” a moment that filled me with so much dread while I read the chapbook on the train occurs—“[Uncle Walter] pats my butt, squeezes it, keeps his hand there. His callouses are warm and rough.”—but doesn’t come to a “pay off” until the last short story reveals the abuse hiding there in plain sight. Did the chapbook always piece together like this in your head to culminate in the reveal of the abuse or did that happen as you pulled the stories together?

BG: No. Not at all. That came through revision. I see a pattern and I complete it. I think the manuscript was supposed to originally show a year in a child’s life, revolving around the death of his grandmother, his mother’s overprotection, and the anger that fuels his behavior, as seen in the opening story, which is meant to serve as a prelude. A reader commented on the pattern of dangerous men that surround the boy, and it was clear that I needed to follow that. Almost inevitably, I’ll draft a lot of material, and the piece or pieces take their own direction. Revision is my favorite part of the writing process, in part for this reason.

TB: The age old question of process must always come up. Writing every morning, night, or using music or not using music. While writing, what rituals do you perform?

BG: Before I started PhD school, I wrote everyday, usually in the morning, and a little at night if I had the energy. I’m a morning person for the most part. Now I write when I can find the time and energy to do so. A few days a week, I have intense short sessions anywhere from half an hour to an hour. Two hours if I’m lucky.

TB: What was the last really good book you read?

BG: Howard’s End by E.M. Forster.

TB: What would you recommend as a must-read for other writers?

BG: James Baldwin’s Another Country and Rebecca Solnit’s A Field Guide to Getting Lost. Oh, and Notes from No Man’s land by Eula Biss. Also, Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge.

TB: Many writers I know always have a huge list of projects they want to eventually produce. What project are you working on next?

BG: I just finished a manuscript of novel-in-stories. I’m currently working on a semi-autobiographical novel (my dissertation) as well as a collection of essays. Over the summer I started playing around with the idea of ghost stories. So far I’ve only drafted two stories. It’s not going well but it’s fun.



Bernard Grant is a doctoral student at the University of Cincinnati, where he is a Yates Fellow. He has received fellowship and residency support from The Anderson Center, the Jack Straw Cultural Center, Vermont Studio Center, Sundress Academy for the Arts, and Mineral School.He’s the author of two prose chapbooks, Puzzle Pieces (Paper Nautilus Press) and Fly Back at Me (Sundress Publications), and his stories and essays have appeared in or are forthcoming in Crab Orchard Review, New Delta Review, The South Carolina Review, The Chicago Tribune Printers Row, Day One, and many other venues. He received his MFA from Pacific Lutheran University and currently serves as Associate Essays Editor at The Nervous Breakdown.

Tierney Bailey is a Libra, a lover of science fiction and poetry, and studies Korean in her spare time. Amongst her pursuits, Tierney is currently the production editor at Redivider Magazine and a copyeditor at Strange Horizons. As a graduate student at Emerson College, Tierney is studying publishing in the Writing and Publishing program. True to her Midwesterner roots, Tierney still smiles upon the slightest bit of eye contact, makes small talk in lines and elevators, and exclaims “ope!” with barely any provocation at all. If you can’t find her on a train somewhere between Providence and Boston, she can easily be found screaming into the void on Twitter as @ergotierney.

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Interview with SAFTA Fiction Retreat Leader, Mary Miller

 

The Sundress Academy for the Arts is thrilled to announce its Summer Fiction Writing Retreat, which runs from Friday, June 15 to 17, 2018. The three-day, two-night camping retreat will be held at SAFTA’s own Firefly Farms in Knoxville, Tennessee. This year’s retreat will focus on generative fiction writing and include two break-out sessions “Conflict and POV as Perspective” and “Writing the Travel Narrative,” plus discussions on kicking writer’s block, publishing, and more.

A weekend pass includes one-on-one and group instruction, writing supplies, food, drinks, transportation to and from the airport, and all on-site amenities for $250. Tents, sleeping bags, and other camping equipment are available to rent for $25. Payment plans are available if you reserve by April 17, 2018; inquire via email for details.

The event will be open to writers of all backgrounds and provide an opportunity to work with many talented, published fiction writers from around the country, including Mary Miller and Jeanne Thornton.

What are some of your hopes for this year’s SAFTA retreat?

I’m excited to be a part of SAFTA! My hopes for the retreat are simple: to share knowledge and have a good time.

You’ve been published widely, and your works have received great acclaim. In between writing your short story collections, you also wrote a novel. How did these experiences (writing the novel vs writing short stories) differ? What did you find gratifying or frustrating/liberating or constraining about the two?

My novel is similar to my short stories in a lot of ways. For one, it’s a very short novel, around 67k words. It’s also narrow in scope, taking place over a four-day period of time and told from the perspective of one person. I don’t have any interest in writing a multi-generational epic told from numerous points of view. Perhaps that’ll change one day; there was a time when I didn’t think I would write anything other than slightly fictionalized stories from a middle class white woman’s perspective, which isn’t the case anymore.

This is to say: I didn’t find writing that particular novel frustrating. More generally, a story should be as long as it needs to be and I try to remember that.

You unabashedly write about controversial issues in your work, and your characters are both relatable and real. How do you think this might inform your teaching when you work with other writers?

I don’t think of myself as writing about controversial issues or being unabashed or anything like that. I try to be as honest as possible and tell the truth (from my narrator’s perspective). I don’t think there’s any reason to write if you aren’t willing to do this. As far as how this might inform my teaching: I’ll always push writers when they need to be pushed, but I try not to do it in a pushy way.

What/whom are you reading now?

Right now I’m reading two story collections: Jenny Diski’s The Vanishing Princess and Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women. I’m actually rereading the Berlin because I’ve assigned it to my students.

I was going to say that both of these books were published posthumously, but I just googled it and the Diski collection was originally published in 1995 in the U.K. but is just now available in the U.S. So sort of posthumously? They’re both brilliant. I wish I’d found these writers decades ago.

What’s next on the horizon for you? 

I finished a draft of a novel recently and need to start editing it soon. Right now I’m working on an essay about Jason Molina, a musician that more people should listen to/know about (I also love living people!). I’m enjoying writing flash fiction again, too. It’s so gratifying to write a draft of a story in a very short period of time.

We have one full scholarship available for the retreat as well as limited 20% scholarships for those with financial need. To apply for a scholarship, send a packet of no more than (15) pages of prose along with a brief statement on why you would like to attend this workshop to Erin Elizabeth Smith at erin@sundresspublications.com no later than April 10th, 2018. Winners will be announced in late April.

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Submissions Now Open for 2018 Chapbook Competition

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Sundress Publications is pleased to announce its fourth annual chapbook contest. Authors of all genres are invited to submit qualifying manuscripts during our reading period of January 15th to April 15th, 2018.

We are looking for poetry, fiction, nonfiction, or any combination thereof. Manuscripts must be between twelve to twenty-six (12-26) pages in length, with a page break between individual pieces. Individual pieces may have been previously published in anthologies, print journals, online journals, etc., but cannot have appeared in any full-length collection, including self-published collections. Both single-author and collaborative dual-author manuscripts will be considered. Manuscripts must be primarily in English; translations are not eligible.

The entry fee is $10 per manuscript, though the fee will be waived for entrants who purchase or pre-order any Sundress title. We will also accept nominations for entrants, provided the nominating person either pays the reading fee or makes a qualifying purchase. Authors may submit and/or nominate as many chapbook manuscripts as they would like, so long as each is accompanied by a separate reading fee or purchase/pre-order. Entrants and nominators can place book orders or pay submission fees at our store.

The winner will receive a $200 prize, plus publication as a beautiful full-color PDF available exclusively online for free. Runners-up will also be considered for publication.

This year’s judge will be Wren Hanks. Hanks is a trans writer from Texas and the author Wren_Headshotof Prophet Fever (Hyacinth Girl Press) and Ghost Skin (Porkbelly Press). A 2016 Lambda Emerging Writers Fellow, his recent work appears in Best New Poets 2016, Gigantic Sequins, Jellyfish Magazine, The Wanderer, and elsewhere. His third chapbook, gar child, is forthcoming from Tree Light Books in 2018. He currently lives in Brooklyn.

All manuscripts should include a cover page (with only the title of the manuscript), table of contents, dedication (if applicable), and acknowledgments for previous publications. These pages will not be included in the total page count. Identifying information should not appear in any part of the manuscript. Authors with a significant relationship to the judge (friends, relatives, colleagues, past or present students, etc.) are discouraged from entering.

To submit, attach your manuscript as a DOCX or PDF file along with your order number for either a Sundress title or the entry fee to contest@sundresspublications.com.

Simultaneous submission to other presses is acceptable, but please notify Sundress immediately if the manuscript has been accepted elsewhere. Multiple submissions are allowed, but a separate entry fee must accompany each entry. No revisions will be allowed during the contest judging period. Winners will be announced in Summer 2018.

 

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AWP Roundtable: Journalism Skills for Fiction Writers

Joan Didion, Maya Angelou, Alex Haley, Stieg Larsson, Charles Dickens, Edna Buchanan, and Mark Twain (among many others) created memorable fiction largely as a result of the skills they honed as reporters. Journalists churn out hundreds of words every day (without the luxury of waiting for inspiration), write to a word count, write to deadline, learn to work with editors, and develop an eye for extraneous words, authentic dialogue, and telling details. They also tend to have pretty solid grammatical skills and a keen sense of story. Is it any wonder they often make brilliant novelists?

A reporter’s toolkit can help novelists and storytellers of all kinds write gripping first lines, create memorable characters, and imagine authentic worlds in their fiction. There are stories in the world far more important—and far more interesting—than those drawn merely from our own experience. With global tensions intensifying, it feels urgent to tell stories that reach beyond our own borders and engage us with both the broader world and other humans.

 

Jennifer Steil (Moderator): Why don’t we each start off by talking about how the skills we acquired as a journalist are reflected in our own fiction writing?

Jo Piazza: Speed is the first thing that comes to mind. I started out as a newspaper reporter for the New York Daily News right before the Internet completely changed newspapers forever. But even when I was on a daily deadline instead of an hourly deadline I was still crunched to churn out clean, well-crafted copy on tight deadlines.

The Internet has only made those deadlines faster. What that means is that I have never had the luxury of fretting over my words. I just had to write. I do the same thing with my fiction writing. I can get a first draft on paper fast as hell. Then, once the whole thing is written, I take the time to go back and massage it and make it beautiful. I credit my work as a reporter for never getting writer’s block. I laugh when people talk about writer’s block. Who has the time for it?

My work as a journalist has also taught me to take meticulous notes. I used to carry three or four reporters’ notebooks with me all the time to write down my interviews. Now I carry much smaller notebooks that can slip into my back pocket. I am constantly writing down descriptions of things or bits of dialogue and then stashing them away as inspiration for my fiction.

Tom Zoellner: I believe the top trait demanded of a reporter is the ability to listen. You must ask probing questions and not accept superficial explanations. You must develop the ability to understand inference – to understand what is left unsaid. The art of writing fiction is about “listening” to your characters as though they were interview subjects.

Michael Downs: What Tom said is really important – for journalists, novelists, everyone. There’s a quote from Gabriel Garcia Marquez – another journalist/novelist – that I often mention to students in which Marquez chides interviewers for relying too much on technology and recording devices and paying attention only to a person’s words. But those things, he says, don’t “hear the beating of the heart, which is the most important part of the interview.” He’s talking about empathy, and I think journalism teaches that. Journalism helped me become a person who knows how to pay attention to another person. It’s empathy, it’s listening, it’s openness to the world and experience. That was a great gift.

But as for skills, I’d say the ability to research and report have primarily helped my fiction writing. I’ve set a lot of my work in other decades – my forthcoming novel is set in the 1840s, and it’s about the early days of anesthesia. It took a lot more than Google to understand the world and the science and my characters’ lives. I had to know where to search, how to search, and why to search. Journalism taught me a lot of that.

Sophfronia Scott: At both Time and People magazines I frequently had to write short articles, like 500 words and less. Those short articles still had to be packed with information and the prose had to pop. Writing like that taught me to respect words. Every word has to pull its weight when you write short, every verb has to be on target. I’ve carried that respect into my fiction writing. My novel may be over 100,000 words but none of those words are throwaway words.

Jennifer Steil: You’ve all made really important points. Like Jo, I don’t have time to sit around waiting for inspiration. I’m very good at writing to deadline. I also carry a notebook everywhere because if I don’t write down a thought the minute I have it, it floats up into the ether. My experience scribbling interviews in my reporters’ notebooks, making sure to record the exact words, was terrific preparation for writing convincing dialogue. Reporting also brought me in contact with people I would never otherwise encounter or get to know. They made me aware of very different lives, different stories. Perhaps among the most important things I learned as a reporter was how to ask questions of the world and how to listen closely to the answers.

My journalism background is also entirely responsible for my career as a novelist. Before 2006, I had written many stories and one entire novel, but none of them felt urgent. When I moved to Yemen in the summer of 2006, I finally found a story worth telling. I became the editor-in-chief of a Yemeni newspaper, which was the hardest and most fascinating thing I had ever done. It felt urgent to tell the world the stories of my reporters, to tell the world that Yemenis are nothing like their portrayal in the media. Thus my first book ended up, to my surprise, being a memoir. After publishing a work of nonfiction, it was much easier to sell a novel. I already had an agent, an editor, and a publishing track record.

 

Jennifer Steil (Moderator): If you were teaching a masterclass in using journalism tools for fiction writing, what one journalism tool would you teach, and how would you do it? What have students or colleagues really responded to?

Michael Downs: I’ll return to what Tom and I alluded to above: the interview. Becoming a good interviewer requires that you as a writer learn how to move from an answer to a question, to discover in an answer a new question –and isn’t that the direction literature takes? Also, interviewing skills help at parties and receptions and the like. Strangers, it turns out, are more interesting when you ask them interesting questions.

Sophfronia Scott: I would teach the power of detail. We tend to think of description as telling what something or someone looks like—his hair was gray, the sky was blue. But I would teach to choose detail that does more, detail that tells you someone’s situation or state of mind or provides a stunning contrast. I once reported a story about a middle school age student who took a knife to school in her backpack with the intention of harming her teacher. My editor wanted me to try to find out what else was in her backpack: pink lip gloss? Math homework that had been left undone? A crumpled bus pass? She wanted to play off that contrast of a violent instrument placed among a pre-teen’s school things. Detail is so important. I would want students to open their eyes to see more than what they may be taking in now.

Jennifer Steil: Absolutely. That’s a terrific example of evocative detail, Sophfronia.

One exercise my students consistently find useful is a lede-writing exercise. While there is a lot more to writing a good book than crafting a riveting first sentence, a riveting first sentence never hurts. I talk about 13 different types of journalistic ledes, giving several examples of each type. (Many of my favorites come from Pulitzer Prize-winning Edna Buchanan, who wrote memorable ledes such as, “Bad things happen to the husbands of Widow Elkin” and, “His last meal was worth $30,000 and it killed him,” but I also include examples from novels, such as, “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet,” from Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng.) After we read dozens of brilliant first sentences and learn something about what makes them work, I ask my students to interview each other and write a profile of their partner, starting with one of the lede types we discussed. They do not need to stick to the facts (fiction writing!) but can freely spin off from the material. The interview is just a starting point. Students always come up with some great stuff. Even seasoned authors have let me know they went home and rewrote the first sentence of their book after this particular lecture.

Jo Piazza: Writing on deadline. I guess it’s something I can’t emphasize enough because I keep mentioning it. Right now I’m working on a very quickie project for my publisher. It’s a 75k word novel, and I need to bang it out in about three weeks. Yeah, an entire novel in three weeks. The exercise is daunting every day. I go through the complex emotions one usually experiences writing a novel over the course of a year or two in a single 24-hour span. While you’d think this would dull my writing skills, it has actually done the opposite. It’s forcing my brain to work in different ways. I’m doing a constant sprint now instead of a marathon, and I think the exercise will serve me well on my next big book project. I think reminding people that time is a luxury is really important.

Tom Zoellner: This one is hard to pull off in the classroom except by exhortation, but what helps journalism immeasurably is the simple act of “showing up” – traveling out to see the coal mine, the hospital, the city council chamber, the family home. You are exposed to ten thousand sensory elements and organic connections – the grist of life – that you would never get from reading about it or a phone conversation. Establishing a physical presence first in the places where we seek to create literature is a journalistic habit that fiction writers would do well to imitate.

 

Jennifer Steil (Moderator): How do you encourage other writers to think beyond their own lives and experiences?

Jo Piazza: I tell everyone who wants to be a writer to set a writing goal every day and make sure to meet it every day for the next month. Mine is between 1,000 and 3,000 words depending on what I am working on. You’d be amazed at how many people come back to me and say they didn’t make it even three days. That’s when I remind them that writing is hard. It’s a craft. It’s a habit. It takes real work. I think from the outside writing looks really easy. Everyone thinks they can be a writer. But when it comes to putting pen to paper on a regular basis (I still say that because I write almost everything long-hand before I type it out) the reality is very different.

I tell people to talk to as many people as possible in a day, but to make sure they’re really listening. Writers are essentially thieves, stealing bits and pieces of other people’s stories and dialogue. I’ve gotten some of my best dialogue from Uber drivers around the world. It’s the listening that is key…and the writing things down. You will tell yourself you will remember something and 99 percent of the time you won’t.

Tom Zoellner: I have never bought into the idea that writers of an assigned gender, race, religion, geography, class, etc. should be confined to only writing about their “identity” (however and by whomever that is defined). Journalism is an excellent way to break those boundaries and establish some empathetic projection – paradoxically enough, through dispassionate observation – with people who live in far different circumstances. And another paradox: getting out of your neighborhood is at once an act of hubris and an act of humility.

Jennifer Steil: I’ve always told young writers that the best thing they could do for their writing is to move somewhere that makes them profoundly uncomfortable and that challenges all of their assumptions. Such a situation is bound to force people to think outside of their own small worlds, from a less nationalistic and more global point of view. It also leads to interesting adventures and relationships, all splendidly rich writing material. One exercise I like to do with students is to have them write a travel story about their home town. Where’s the best pizza place? Where is the best place to throw a birthday party? Which bars would you recommend? What is the town known for? It gives them new perspective to have to describe it to a stranger.

Sophfronia Scott: I tell my students that creativity playdates are just as important as the time they schedule for writing. In fact, their writing time could be difficult and fruitless without them. If they find they are spending much of their writing time staring wordless at the screen or blank page, they’re in need of a creativity playdate. I say if you’re looking for a story idea, ride the subway a few stops or go sit in a park and pay attention. Your next character might step on at West 66th Street, or stroll past you wearing a top hat and walking a fluffy Scottish terrier sporting blue booties on its paws. I know my writing eye is awakened every time I travel the 65 miles south to New York City and take in the energy and movement of a different environment. Suddenly my senses have new sights, sounds, and smells to process. Really the best way to get outside of yourself is to open your eyes and start looking around.

Michael Downs: Creative playdates. I love that. I hope you don’t mind, Sophfronia, if I borrow that one.

This question of moving beyond personal experience is so important, especially for younger writers. Too often they don’t have enough narrative distance from the particulars of their own experiences to be cold about them. A newspaper columnist from California once wrote in Best American Newspaper Writing how he always wrote hot and edited cold. I tell that to my students, but they still often can’t find their way to that cold phase regarding their own experiences.

So I encourage several strategies: change the setting or change the genders of the characters. Change their ages. One thing that often works is to get them to see their particular experience in terms of its abstractions (their experience involved betrayal, or failed hope, or the strange comedy of grief). Then, they imagine a situation different from their own particular experience, but one that allows them to write about those same abstractions. So rather than the profound betrayal they felt in a love affair, they write instead about a betrayal in a workplace having nothing to do with love. That way they still write about their life experience, but the particulars belong to someone else’s life.

 

Jennifer Steil (Moderator): Do you still work as a journalist? How does that affect and fit in with your fiction writing on a day-to-day basis?

Sophfronia Scott: I write essays and opinion pieces for publication, but I don’t work as a reporter-type journalist anymore. I focus on my own writing now but the lessons I learned from journalism are still within me and at use every day. How could they not be? I wrote many stories, under deadline, for years and years. It’s imprinted in me at this point.

Jennifer Steil: Sometimes. I like to do freelance work when I can, it brightens up my brain. Working to a tight deadline and word count focuses me. I no longer work full-time as a journalist, largely because I find that if I am writing all day long for a paper or magazine, I don’t have the energy for my own fiction work at the end of the day. I’m better off bartending.

Michael Downs: Like you, Jennifer, I find it difficult to balance the two. It’s an analogy that dates me, but I find it’s like Bo Jackson or Deion Sanders trying to toggle between baseball and football. They’re both sports, but they require such different skills and world views. In my case, journalism is about the rush, the deadline, the ability to learn enough that I can simplify what’s complicated. Fiction, though, is more like method acting. It demands that I be quiet and go deep and concentrate, to take what might seem simple and complicate it. But I love and honor both disciplines and their crafts.

Jo Piazza: I do. Up until I had my baby six months ago I was still working full-time as a journalist and writing books on the side. Now I am focusing mainly on books and baby with some freelance assignments. I typically reserve a couple of hours every day to do the fiction writing regardless of what my full-time job looks like, be it editor of a website or a magazine or being a mom like it is right now. But I follow the quota more than I follow the time limit unless I am editing, then I can edit for about eight hours straight. But when I am in creation mode once I am done with that word count I let myself be done for the day. Sometimes I am finished in a half hour and sometimes it takes five hours. My husband is very used to me saying “I have one hundred more words…I can’t do anything until I get one hundred more words.”

Tom Zoellner: I am far more a journalist – by habit, training, and a liking for paychecks – than I am a fiction writer. But I find I am drawn to write fictional characters that embody a certain reserve and clinical distance resembling that of the journalist’s prose. A refusal to participate in the depths of life in favor of observation, much like the existential ambivalence of the protagonist of Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter. This is a dilemma that we don’t much like to talk about, and one whose best expression is through fiction.

____

 

Michael Downs’s debut novel, The Strange and True Tale of Horace Wells, SurgeonVersion 2 Dentist, is forthcoming in May 2018 from Acre Books. His other books include The Greatest Show (Louisiana State University Press, 2012), a collection of linked stories, and House of Good Hope (University of Nebraska Press, 2007), which won the River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize. His recent nonfiction has appeared in AARP: The MagazineBaltimore Style, and River Teeth. A former newspaper reporter, he has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Maryland State Arts Council, and the Mid-Atlantic Arts Foundation. He lives in Baltimore’s Hamilton neighborhood and teaches at Towson University.

JoPiazzaJo Piazza is an award-winning journalist and best selling author of both fiction and non-fiction. Her novel, The Knockoff, with Lucy Sykes became an instant international bestseller and has been translated into more than seven languages. Jo received a Masters in Journalism from Columbia and has written for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, New York magazine, Marie Claire, Elle and Salon. Her latest novel, Charlotte Walsh Likes to Win, will be published by Simon & Shuster in July 2018. She currently lives in San Francisco with her husband, son and their giant dog.


Sophfronia Scott is author of the essay collectionLove’s Long Line, from Ohio State SophfroniaScottUniversity Press’s Mad Creek Books and a memoirThis Child of Faith: Raising a Spiritual Child in a Secular World, from Paraclete Press. She was a writer and editor at Time and People before publishing her first novelAll I Need to Get By (St. Martin’s Press). Her latest novel is Unforgivable Love (William Morrow). Sophfronia teaches at Regis University’s Mile High MFA and Bay Path University’s MFA in Creative Nonfiction. Visit her website, www.Sophfronia.com.


Jennifer Steil
is an award-winning author and journalist. Her novel, The Ambassador’s JenniferSteilWife, published by Doubleday in 2015, won the 2013 William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition Best Novel award and the 2016 Phillip McMath Post Publication book award. It was shortlisted for both the Bisexual Book Award and the Lascaux Novel Award. Jennifer’s first book, The Woman Who Fell From the Sky (Broadway Books, 2010), a memoir about her tenure as editor of the Yemen Observer newspaper in Sana’a, was praised by The New York TimesNewsweek, and the Sydney Morning Herald. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune chose it as one of their best travel books of the year in 2010, and Elle magazine awarded it their Readers’ Prize. National Geographic Traveler included the book in their 2014 recommended reading list. It has been published in Australia, New Zealand, Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, Turkey, and Poland.

Her freelance work has appeared in the Saranac ReviewWorld Policy Journal, The WeekThe Washington Times, Vogue UK, Die WeltNew York Post, The Rumpus, TimeReaders’ Digest Version, Irish National Radio, France 24 (English), CBS radioand GRN Global Reporter Network Service.TomZoellner


Tom Zoellner
is an Associate Professor of English at Chapman University and the author of four nonfiction books, including the recently published Train as well as A Safeway in Arizona, Uranium, and The Heartless Stone. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, Slate, Time, Harper’s, Men’s Health, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times and many other places.

 

 

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