Finding the Final Sentence: A Conversation with Carolyn Forché

* This interview was conducted at the Miami Book Fair in Miami, Florida on November 19, 2023. The interview has been edited for length and clarity. The interview concerns the memoir What You Have Heard Is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance (Penguin Press, 2019), a 2019 National Book Award Finalist.


Chelsea Alice: Something I love about your memoir What You Have Heard is True is how present we are in the moment with you as we’re reading. Could you talk about what that process was like for you to write in that way?


Carolyn Forché: I wrote four versions of this memoir. And the first two, I just completely had to tear apart and put away. They weren’t what I wanted. I didn’t know what I wanted, but I knew what I didn’t want. And I realized, after I’d written the other two versions, that I wanted to bring the reader with me on the journey. So, I made a decision that I would never let the reader know more than I knew in any moment. I tried not to interrupt the dream of the experience by intervening and making commentaries from my present self. I tried to recreate my twenty-seven-year-old self and reenact the journey with Leonel [Goméz Vides] and everything that happened along the way. I included all of her confusions and guesswork and misgivings. I wanted the reader to feel what it was like to go through that particular transformation, that education.


It helps, when you’re writing a book-length work of prose, to make decisions that give you some boundaries about what you will and will not be doing. For example, that decision helped me enormously. And had to do with pacing. I decided not to write long, sustained narrative chapters. I decided to write almost prose poems and self-contained units of prose. I was then able to move them around, where they would appear, so that, for example, the book doesn’t begin with the doorbell ringing. The story begins with the doorbell ringing, but not the book. I include a scene from well into the experience as the beginning. Once you get through that, those first two pages, the doorbell rings, and you’re following the journey as it unfolds.


Chelsea Alice: How was it for you to revisit all of those memories?


Carolyn Forché: Those were the two most vivid years of my life because of the heightened emotion I was feeling while I was living them. I’ve learned since that memory registers more deeply and indelibly when the experience is accompanied by an intensity of feeling. I had that, but for years I put it off. I didn’t want to write the book. I knew I had to write it someday. I promised I would, but I always told myself I wasn’t ready. I just didn’t know enough yet. The war was still going on, and I wanted to be careful. I always had a reason. The real reason was that I knew I was going to have to relive the experience. And I knew that it was going to be hard to do that, especially after Leonel died. It was going to be painful.


I didn’t know anything about writing prose, and I didn’t know about structure. I loved writing sentences, and I would write sentences and polish them because I was a poet. I was used to polishing things and writing short things I could work with in an intense way. And this was a 400-page sustained work. For me, the process involved getting rid of the first braided narrative because it shouldn’t be braided. With the second narrative, I took out even more. Then I had to amplify and include things that weren’t yet there. By the fourth version, I tried to recreate myself as I was then and not as I am now. All of my impatience, my stupidities, and my petulance and arguing with him, all of that had to be there. I had to show my flaws because I did not yet know what I know now.


And I wanted to capture Leonel because he was a remarkable, intriguing, amazing, mysterious, terribly funny guy. He’s alive in that book. You really meet him as he was. And, for me, that is the book’s best accomplishment. Over the years, Salvadoran students, at universities at which I taught, would ask me to tell them what happened. Their parents had brought them to the United States and wouldn’t talk about it with them. Parents didn’t want to talk about the horrors of that time. I don’t blame them, but the kids wanted to know. So, the other reason to write this was to tell the Salvadoran students some of what their parents went through in those years.


Until I wrote the last sentence, I worried I wouldn’t be able to accomplish the portrait, you know, that the book wouldn’t be good enough and that I would never finish. I took a writing residency for two weeks, and I gave myself a deadline: finish the book in two weeks or put it in a box and admit I couldn’t write it. The second to the last day before I left, I found the last sentence.


Chelsea Alice: I’d like to ask about “The Colonel” because that was a poem that someone recommended I read before I went on a trip to Peru. I read it on my way down, and the poem resonated with me. On my way back, six days later, I reread it, and it was very different that time. The poem resonated with me in a more powerful way, having experienced Peru.


Carolyn Forché: I understand.


Chelsea Alice: I wondered when you wrote that poem in relation to these four different versions of the memoir.


Carolyn Forché: I finished that poem in 1978, decades before the memoir’s first version, before any version. I wrote the poem to capture the details of that evening because I thought, well, this will be for the prose book someday I will write. I intended it to be a paragraph. Then it got mixed up with my poetry manuscript. And a poetry mentor of mine told me I had to leave it in the poetry manuscript. So, this thing that I wrote to be prose wound up as a poem, accidentally. And it was published everywhere, that poem. I decided not to put it in the memoir because it already had a life of its own. But I put a little passage that alludes to the poem and has Leonel tell me something more about that night, so there’s something of the poem in the book, but not the poem itself.


Chelsea Alice: How has the completion of the memoir impacted your life now?


Carolyn Forché: It’s very interesting questions you’re asking because you consider the same things I think about it. You’re asking me what I would ask myself. I didn’t know how it was going to feel to finish the book, but, finishing, I felt lighter. The whole story was now outside of me, not inside of me, and I didn’t have to carry it around anymore. It has a life of its own in the world. It lives in a book, and the book will outlive me. It took fifteen years to write, and I was scared all the time that I wouldn’t be able to write it. I’d wake in the middle of the night thinking about it. It was an intense fifteen years.


I was relieved when it came out. And I didn’t anticipate that. It hadn’t occurred to me that I would be relieved.


Chelsea Alice: Has the book been published in Spanish?


Carolyn Forché: Yes, there is a Spanish edition. It’s published by Swing Capitan [Capitán Swing Libros: Madrid, Spain]. It’s a beautiful translation. [The Spanish title is Lo que han oído es cierto.]


Chelsea Alice: I’m interested in translations in general. I like to interview translators when I can because the difference culturally and linguistically is beautiful, and I love to see that bridge. This is such an impactful memoir, and I’m curious as to what you think the cultural impact for readers will be here versus in El Salvador.


Carolyn Forché: Salvadorans who’ve read it have been wonderful. Those I’ve talked to feel that a part of their history is now out in the world. They’ve been very supportive of me writing this. They recognized that I wasn’t trying to be Salvadoran, and I wasn’t trying to be something I wasn’t. This is the account of a North American young woman encountering their culture. And I love so many people in this book. Those who are in the book were like, How did you remember all of this? Because when they read it, they remembered it, and they were happy.


In North America, I get different responses sometimes. They’re very nice, very good responses. Sometimes people say: “I don’t understand. Why wouldn’t you just have gone home right away when it got dangerous? Why did you stay there?” And I’m not going to be able to explain that. I’m sorry, but I wouldn’t have dreamt of leaving. I didn’t even want to leave when I left. I went kicking and screaming.


Everybody wants to be safe, as though that’s the most important thing. There are cultural gaps there. But that was the one question that North Americans had most often. That, and: “Why did you trust this guy? You didn’t even know him.” That was the other question.


Chelsea Alice: Taking a leap of faith is not a big part of American culture anymore.


Carolyn Forché: No, not anymore. People are skittish. They’re worried. And they regard other countries as dangerous.


Chelsea Alice: As dangerous and not their problem.


Carolyn Forché: Right. And when Americans travel, even to Western Europe, they’re scared. I’m much more scared in the United States than I am in most places. We have the guns and the mass killings and the craziness, which you don’t have in many other countries. You worry about pickpockets in Paris. You worry about machine guns in American cities.


Chelsea Alice: How was your experience different with the memoir versus everything else you’ve written?


Carolyn Forché: I’ve written since I was nine years old. I have lots of notebooks, lots of poetry. I’ve published five collections of poetry, and I’ve published plenty of essays. But the memoir was, of course, the most challenging, the most sustained, my first book-length prose work. And I’m writing a second that has nothing to do with this subject. This next one is about friendship and poetry, and a lot of it takes place in central Europe, where my family is from.


Chelsea Alice: And is this nonfiction?


Carolyn Forché: Yes. It’s nonfiction again. I would love to try a novel someday.


Chelsea Alice: I want to talk about your experience with the Spanish translation. How much of an active role did you take?


Carolyn Forché: None. I was surprised. When I’m translating the poetry especially, I get all kinds of questions from translators. With the memoir, they didn’t get in touch with me, and I worried about that because the translators were not Salvadoran.


Chelsea Alice: This was in Spain.


Carolyn Forché: Yes. I worried that they might not get the flavor of the culture, the special qualities of Salvadoran culture because, as you know, every country in Latin America is distinct, and all are distinct from Spain. So, I worried about that, and I wondered whether they would understand all of the terms. As it turned out, I had nothing to worry about. I opened the book, and it was my dream Spanish. They caught the tone, voice, everything. They were professional. They didn’t make any mistakes.


The book is now being translated into Mandarin in China. I can’t imagine how the Mandarin will be. I’m just hoping they find an equivalent way of conveying this memoir.


Chelsea Alice: I’m interested in the cultural reception in China as well.


Carolyn Forché: China’s changing now. I don’t know how it will be. I wonder how they’ll respond to it. It was a twelve-year civil war that was beginning as I left El Salvador. Twelve horrific years, but also twelve years in which people opposed a dictatorship collectively. And there was a lot that was very moving about that. What I was trying to show in my memoir is what led up to this civil war and why it was inevitable that they would take the action they took.


Chelsea Alice: When I was growing up, when they taught us about World War I or World War II, they said, “Oh, well, this world war started because someone shot someone else.” And it’s like, really?


Carolyn Forché: Right. No, no.


Chelsea Alice: There has to be more.


Carolyn Forché: They leave everything out. They like that. They like that assassination in the carriage, you know, they like that. But that’s not why wars start. That might be the last thing that happened before a formal declaration, but that isn’t why.


Wars are distinct. They’re not alike. They feel alike in their suffering. In a certain period, they feel alike in the kind of munitions that are involved. But they’re about failures, really, a series of accumulative selfishness, accumulative intransigence and stubbornness, and accumulative unwillingness to respond to the pain of others. I’m describing Salvador specifically.


A sense of uprising doesn’t come from nowhere. People don’t leave their countries, leave everything behind, the graves of their parents, everything, easily. They don’t make the decision to walk through Mexico to our border easily. This is their last resort, the last thing they can do.


People don’t take up arms against their government lightly either. It’s very dangerous. It’s a process. There are many factors, and it isn’t fun. It’s not. Imagine what it would take to do something like that, and you’ll understand how complicated it is to come to a decision like that, a grave, consequential decision. These things are complex, and they happen for a long time before they burst into our awareness. They don’t happen overnight, ever, though they seem to. We love to say, war broke out. It’s a strange expression, when you think about it, like describing the weather. That’s not what’s happening.


Chelsea Alice: In my experience growing up, any time we watched a film or read a book about the Cold War, the stress that you feel watching or reading those stories that you can’t quite pinpoint the reason for, that’s often due to the setting, the time period. Living through such times reminds me of your memoir and the years leading up to war.


Carolyn Forché: They’re stressful. You feel it. Right now, we’re in that kind of period. We’re in a period of foreboding. Something worse might happen, we suspect. And we don’t know what. But the future doesn’t look terribly bright.


Carolyn Forché is the author of five books of poetry, most recently In the Lateness of the World(Penguin Press, 2020), a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, and also Blue Hour (2004), a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, The Angel of History(1995), winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Award, The Country Between Us(1982), winner of the Lamont Prize of the Academy of American Poets, and Gathering the Tribes (1976), winner of the Yale Series of Young Poets Prize.

She is also the author of a prose book, What You Have Heard Is True: A Memoir of Witness and Resistance(Penguin Press, 2019), winner of Juan E. Mendez Book Award for Human Rights in Latin America and a finalist for the National Book Award. Her anthology, Against Forgetting, has been praised by Nelson Mandela as “itself a blow against tyranny, against prejudice, against injustice.”  She was one of the first poets to receive the Windham Campbell Prize from the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University, and in 1998 in Stockholm, she received the Edita and Ira Morris Hiroshima Foundation for Peace and Culture Award.


Interview with Mark Powell, Author of Hurricane Season

Hurricane Season is a noir thriller about fighting and addiction, prison and drugs; but more than that, it is a love story set in the carnage of an America wrecked by inequality.


Hurricane Season was published by Shotgun Honey Books in October 2023. To purchase Hurricane Season, and support Orlando local bookstore Zeppelin Books, click here.


Below is an interview with Mark Powell, author of Hurricane Season, and Blake Sanz, a fiction writer teaching in the MFA program at the University of Central Florida.





SANZ: At the heart of this novel is Shy, a young Florida woman who emerges out of poverty and obscurity to become a UFC fighter, and who attains some fleeting level of greatness in mixed martial arts. This passage, early in the book, struck me:


Professional fighting is a world of misogyny and expensive t-shirts, of collapsed sinus cavities and unhappy boys. But it is also a world of the occasional genius, someone who seems to have sprung from the skin of a Grecian Urn, nervous system as hair-triggered as a peregrine. That was Shy.


What interested you about writing this world and such a fascinating character from within it? What was involved in becoming well-versed enough in that world to feel confident in depicting it as you do?


POWELL: Fighting is something that has fascinated me (and that I have dabbled in) all of my adult life. There are many activities (for lack of a better word) that are both brutal and beautiful, and thus representative of the complexity of being alive in this world. But I don’t know of any that make that paradox so starkly alive and immediate. I wanted to sit with that, particularly since–at least as I see it–the job of fiction isn’t to smooth over moral complexities but to dig into them. I also wanted to sit with the idea that there are far more brutal aspects of the world around us. Perhaps, though, they aren’t quite as visible. Which, I think, speaks to a willful blindness on our part.


SANZ: As a newcomer to Florida, I found myself taken by the deftness with which you depict so many areas of this state in so many detailed and interesting ways. From ramshackle houses on the Saint John’s River to the workout scene in Miami, from political fundraisers at wealthy politicians’ homes to the drug-addled regions of rural central Florida, and from rare books shops in Winter Park to small-town churches, the state itself works on your characters in profound ways. What do you see as the connection between the places these characters inhabit and the changes those characters undergo?


POWELL: I spent eight years in Florida, and I think there’s a way in which those of us not born there see and experience the state a bit more intensely than native Floridians. People sometimes talk about Florida as this strange otherworldly place–and I get that. But, in truth, Florida is simply an intensification of the greater United States. Different cultures, different geographies, ridiculous wealth abutting shameful poverty—it’s all on full display. My sense is that living in such a place has a similar effect on us humans. Florida may be the geographical equivalent of what the theologian Karl Rahner called “limit states”: moments, and places, as the case may be, where human behavior moves toward extremes. It’s also possible I’m imagining all of that and just spent my time there drunk on all that sunlight and chlorophyll.


SANZ: The narrator of Hurricane Season spends many pages invisible to us, focusing largely on giving us the story of other main players: Shy the fighter and Thomas Clayton the drug-addicted doctor, in particular. Eventually, though, the narrator tells us the story of how he came across these and other characters—through teaching writing in a prison—and also describes various versions of this story that he considered telling. How did you land on this writer character, Jess, as the point-of-view character, and what did you feel he afforded the narrative that other points of view might not have?


POWELL: I didn’t want to tell the story like this. It felt cleaner to simply tell it in alternating third person points of view, and I had plenty of readers who told me as much. But the more I’ve written, the more I’ve gotten interested not just in the stories we tell but why we tell the stories we tell. Why do some stories or moments or experiences linger in our minds while others don’t? The story the narrator tells shouldn’t hold such power over him, yet it does, and he needs to find out why. If, as Joan Didion wrote, we tell ourselves stories in order to live, it seems equally relevant to examine which stories we tell ourselves. That was my hope with the narrator.


SANZ: Various characters have moments of solitude and quiet that seem elevated, somehow important to them and to our sense of their otherwise chaotic lives. I’m thinking, for example, about Doc’s routines in prison, which include reading philosophy and contemplating Kafka’s mandates to quietness, and also about the narrator’s romanticizing of his time in Thomas Merton’s monastery in Kentucky. Could you describe the importance of making space for quiet moments in a novel filled with intense moments of big action and dire consequences?


POWELL: So much of the book is physical—fighting, training to fight, Doc’s addiction, Doc’s violence—I wanted some balance to such. I didn’t want the book to be a thriller or crime novel that was all gas from the first sentence; rather, I wanted something that balanced the idea of an inner and outer life. And, of course, something that considered the notion that our distinction between the two may be no more than a false cultural inheritance.


SANZ: The novel depicts various forms of drug addiction in a contemporary setting. What are the challenges of representing lives altered by drug use on the page, and to what extent were you aware of writing toward or away from preexisting notions a reader might have about the various cultures of drug use and distribution that the novel portrays?


POWELL: Any book about opioid abuse is in danger of great cliché. But so too is any love story. Or any prison story. Or any whatever else. I hope I’ve taken situations we generally encounter in the abstract—statistics about overdoses or incarceration or what have you—and made those particular. I didn’t want to write a book that put forth the notion that “this is what drug abuse looks like” so much as I wanted to say “this is what drug abuse looks like in this particular place, to this particular person, in this particular moment.” I hope that specificity, that granularity of detail, humanizes the characters since it’s harder to condemn people, harder to damn them when you know them.


SANZ: Hurricane Season feels literary and reads like a thriller. Did you consider the notion of genre as you wrote this book? Do you hope the book will be read as coming out of any particular literary tradition?


POWELL: I certainly wanted a noir feel, but, more than that, my hope was to write a book that moved quickly plot-wise without sacrificing too much character or intellectual depth. My models for this are the great short novels of Joan Didion. Didion is rightly lauded as a writer of nonfiction, but I’ve always felt she was grossly underestimated as a novelist. She wrote serious meditations on politics and power but somehow packaged them as political thrillers. The writers I find myself returning to do the same: Robert Stone and Denis Johnson. Dana Spiotta and Francisco Goldman. I once heard the great Bob Shacochis say he wrote thrillers for people “paying attention.” I aspire to the same.


SANZ: You invoke Don DeLillo with your epigraph: “If you think the name of the weapon is beautiful, are you implicated in the crime?” How is this book in conversation with that question?


POWELL: When you write about suffering, when you write about people who have been exploited by large structural systems as well as by each other, you like to think you are writing against such, that you are part of a sort of resistance standing for basic human dignity and against faceless, soulless, aggregated power. But I think one has to be mindful that in exposing suffering or exploitation that you aren’t also participating in it, that you aren’t wallowing or glorifying. This is another way in which fighting lays bare the truth of the world, the way it can be both beautiful and abhorrent at the same time. There are times I’ve watched fights and thought, as Joyce Carol Oates put it about the third Ali-Frazier fight, that I was watching the analogue to King Lear. There are other times I’ve watched fights and thought, as Shy thinks late in the book, I was watching two poor kids trying not to die. An honest book about fighting, an honest book about anything, I suppose, has to be willing to sit with the moral paradoxes that exist around and within us. Which means acknowledging that we are all deeply implicated in suffering.


SANZ: In how you pace action, you often toggle between scenic detail and a quickening of action via summary, all while keeping us bonded with the consciousness of the characters whose actions you describe. I’m thinking particularly of this paragraph:


Her mother died on the tenth of May and was buried two days later across town in the great retaining pond that was Memorial Gardens. Shy stayed alone in the house for several days but this was not a good thing. She let her phone die, got distracted and left the refrigerator door open, the lights on, and the food she never ate forgotten and dissolving on the shelves.


Here, we pass over a death and a funeral with style and grace, but we also get a scenic sense of Shy’s emotions in the week thereafter. This fluidity, this ability to dip in and out of days and into moments is a hallmark of how the book moves. Can you speak to your instincts for when to zoom in on action and when to zoom out, and how and when one versus the other (or both) seems like the right way to tell part of the story?


POWELL: I think a lot about how time compresses into realized precise moments and how it expands and slips by us, both in fiction and life. My usual sense is that if you want a reader to simply know something, you tell it as economically as possible. But if you want the reader to feel it, you have to slow time and show it in a scene. When to do which, though, is a tricky matter. No one is better at this than Alice Munro, and I’ve tried to read her in such a way that I absorb some of her technique. It hasn’t worked, by the way. But I do think that the more I’ve read her, the better intuitive sense I’ve developed of when to move quickly and when to linger.


SANZ: What did you think this book would be about when you started it, and how much did your idea of the book change over the time it took to complete? What core ideas carried through the drafts to the final version, and what new ideas emerged?


POWELL: Hurricane Season began as two distinct books. I had written a short story for Hunger Mountain about Shy, and I felt like there was more to say. At the same time, I was still haunted (I guess haunted is the word) by the years I’d spent teaching at Lawtey Correctional in North Florida. I thought maybe that was a different book. Then interesting parallels, interesting connections between the two stories, kept popping up (or maybe I kept imagining them). I was sensing some thread between the idea of addiction (and pain management) and fighting (actively seeking pain). Whether I was hoping or imagining these, I don’t know. But without fully realizing it, I began to merge the two stories. And the deeper I got, the more I felt like one complimented the other so that only together would each be fully realized. That was the idea at least. But as Denis Johnson put it, writing a novel is like trying to cross a large ocean in a small boat. Success is making it across, even if you don’t make landfall where you intended.


Mark Powell is the author of seven novels, including Lioness, Small Treasons–a SIBA Okra Pick, and a Southern Living Best Book of the Year–and Hurricane Season. He has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Breadloaf and Sewanee Writers’ Conferences, and twice from the Fulbright Foundation to Slovakia and Romania. In 2009, he received the Chaffin Award for contributions to Appalachian literature. He has written about Southern culture and music for the Oxford American, the war in Ukraine for The Daily Beast, and his dog for Garden & Gun. He holds degrees from the Citadel, the University of South Carolina, and Yale Divinity School, and directs the creative writing program at Appalachian State University.


Interview with Melanie Bishop, Author of “Home for Wayward Girls”

Melanie Bishop is the author of Home for Wayward Girls, winner of the 2021-2022 Jeanne Leiby Memorial Chapbook Award. Home for Wayward Girls is narrated by Amelia, a young girl, and follows a family during a tumultuous time as they open their home to a couple of girls who are in need. As Amelia’s family takes in these girls, she explores what it means to be a female growing up in the South. 


Below is an interview with Bishop and Nicole Neece, a PhD student in the University of Central Florida’s Texts and Technology Program.




NEECE: In a 2013 entry on your website, you note that you went through “at least three, and at most ten, drafts of every story” in your larger short story cycle, Home for Wayward Girls, from which the title story, and the contents of this chapbook, emerges. What element(s) did you find yourself revisiting most during your revision process? 

BISHOP: While the chapbook published for the Jeanne Leiby Award contains only one short story, the entire story cycle in the question goes by the same title and contains eight stories, just under 200 pages. So, in most of what we discuss here, I’ll be referencing the short story, “Home for Wayward Girls,” with brief mentions of other stories in the cycle.


A few years into marketing this book, I started to see it as more of a cycle than a collection, and I wondered if it might be more marketable as such. When reseeing the book as a cycle of connected stories, many things needed attention: the adherence to some central notion; the sequence; the overlap; the characters who appeared in multiple stories requiring consistent names throughout; and I had to think about whether every story was earning its keep, contributing something new to the whole. As a collection, the book was a finalist in two contests at that point, under the title The Kind of Girl I Was, but, as a cycle, I chose “Home for Wayward Girls” as the title story because it felt more inclusive of girls—not just girls like myself and my sisters, my friends and my mother—but stories about a larger experience of southern girlhood. Once I let that title inform the whole, I nixed a couple of pieces of flash fiction and another story that no longer fit. So changing to a cycle caused the most revision.


Then there are the usual revisions to individual stories. Each time you go through a manuscript, as you aim to be more concise, you find things to cut and places where there’s a better word or phrase for what you’re trying to say. You find places where a chunk of dialogue could be trimmed. You find ways to “arrive late and leave early” to your scenes, finding more spark in a dialogue exchange by cutting the first and last lines. Over many years of writing these stories, each one went through several drafts—just round after round of fine tuning. What happens in each story did not change.


There was one story that escaped revision: “Taking Care of Calvin” (coincidentally published by The Florida Review in 1990) was a story I barely touched. One draft, one day in MFA workshop, and maybe three word changes, and the story was done. Most writers will agree, this is rare.


Which wayward girl came to you first? Did the characters form around certain circumstances or relationship dynamics you wanted to explore?

The title story lived in my head for a long time before I tried writing it, and during that time, I just thought of it as “the story about Marie.” Marie was the real-life family friend who did my mother’s hair, who moved in with us, who was the inspiration for the character Renee and for the whole story. So, she was the first wayward girl. But, the narrator, Amelia, based loosely on myself at age twelve or thirteen, was the sponge, absorbing everything she could about growing up female, and about waywardness. The characters and the circumstances and the dynamics were all drivers of the tale.


Has the archetype of “the wayward girl” evolved over time? Do you believe that the wayward girls of 2023 are different from the ones in your story?

One would hope that by 2023, there would be no girls deemed “wayward,” that the moniker is archaic and has gone by the wayside. It’s one of those terms, like spinster, that has no equivalent for boys or men. Yet, though we may no longer use the term, girls’ behavior will always be judged differently than boys’.


In Sarah Perry’s brilliant memoir After the Eclipse, about her mother’s brutal murder, Perry relates family history, including the story of her maternal grandfather’s rape conviction. The time period was the late 1950s, and the girl he raped was his own thirteen-year-old daughter, the oldest of ten children in that family. While her father, her rapist, served less than five years of a ten-to-twenty-year sentence, the daughter, an innocent victim, was sent away to a “School for Wayward Girls.”


Perry notes that her grandmother visited the husband in prison regularly, but she never once went to see the daughter. When Perry asked why the victim was sent away, an aunt said, “People just wanted her out of there. People thought she’d done something wrong.” Throughout Perry’s memoir, we see that being pretty makes a girl fair game. Pretty girls are asking for it. Pretty girls make certain men crazy; and when men assault these girls, their crimes are considered, at least partially, to be the girl’s fault. She shouldn’t have been so enticing and she shouldn’t have been there, available and accessible. The takeaway: by merely existing, the girl has done wrong.

In Home for Wayward Girls, the cycle, this gender inequity shows up in other stories in the characters of the mother and her daughters and their peers.


I consulted with historian Mary E. Odem, Associate Professor Emeritus at Emory University, about her book Delinquent Daughters: Protecting and Policing Adolescent Female Sexuality in the United States, 1885 – 1920 (University of North Carolina Press, 1995). Regarding those decades, Odem says:

“Delinquency was defined in sexual/moral terms for girls and not for boys. Girls were far more likely to be apprehended and punished for sexual or moral offenses, typically behaviors that weren’t considered crimes in the adult criminal code—staying out late, having sex, running away from home, hanging out with sailors, etc. Further, when girls were apprehended for shoplifting, they were given pelvic exams to see if they’d been sexually active and could then be charged with that. Boys, on the other hand, were usually apprehended and punished for behavior that was considered a crime—theft, burglary, assault, rape. The law did not specifically define delinquency differently for girls and boys, but the way the law was carried out did: the police, judges, reformers, etc., saw delinquency differently for boys and girls” (Odem).


While Odem’s research stopped at the 1920s, she notes that much of this thinking continued well beyond that point:

“In the 1970s, significant reforms of the juvenile justice system led to a reduction in the prosecution of girls for moral offenses, and in the extreme gender discrimination in how delinquency was defined. But the thinking around girls and sexual offenses no doubt continued in some way” (Odem).


Odem said that the places where girls were sent were often called Reformatories, but also a Home for Wayward Girls or Home for Delinquent Girls.


For fiction writers, the wayward girl is the interesting girl, the one whose combination of circumstances and personality cause her to confront the world, with or without fear. I think of Amelia in “Taking Care of Calvin,” the night she gets her mother’s car stuck in the ditch; and I think of Larissa in the title story—barefoot and braless, running in the dark toward the Mississippi River, cops in pursuit. Among them is the same cop who will later become Renee’s boyfriend and will initiate Amelia into the world of adult love and longing.


How difficult was it to find the right approach for Floyd’s predation? You blend the foreboding threat of sexual misconduct with innocent teenage romanticism so realistically. How did you navigate finding the right tone for depicting Floyd?

How do you find the right tone for any character doing anything they shouldn’t do? Characters misbehave all the time. I think I just tried to make it seem, to him, normal, or like he thought he was doing the girl some kind of favor, initiating her. I think it’s common—if you were to ask random women if they ever had an older guy come on to them inappropriately—that most women have a story about this. At least one.


When I was fourteen, there was a youth pastor who started a romantic relationship with me. And when I was sixteen, and we’d moved to New Jersey, a man was driving me home from babysitting his kids, late at night, when he passed up my street and took me to a dead end, turned off the car, and tried to kiss me. I screamed. He backed off and drove me home, giving me his card as I got out of the car, saying I should call him if I ever wanted to cut school and meet him in the city for a movie. He actually said if I wanted to “take in a flick.” This became a joke between me and my older sister: Take in a flick; then you can take in my dick. We were disgusted by this, and the joking was a way to combat the ever-present fear of being female, and of being overtaken.


As for Amelia in the story, I think girls that age are craving romance and touch and experience. And even when it comes in a way the girl would not have expected, would not have desired, it’s still a first kiss. There’s a physiological response–arousal–that happens despite the accompanying fear, awkwardness and the sense that what’s happening is wrong. It can be very confusing for the young person.


There are several pop culture references scattered throughout the story that help to establish the era. What was your process when it came to deciding what pop culture references to incorporate?

All the pop culture references occur naturally in the time period of the story. There really weren’t any choices to make; this was just the stuff of that era. Playboy Magazine for example: at our house, these weren’t hidden, but were just on the table by my father’s recliner. We were not forbidden to look at them. Curiosity was okay in our house, even encouraged. I think it was somewhat acceptable, then, for men of a certain socio-economic status to subscribe to Playboy, like it was an alternative to straying from your marriage. The Beverly Hillbillies was a show everyone knew, and board games like Candyland and Chutes & Ladders—these could be found in any home in our neighborhood.


The fifty cents per hour pay for babysitting was the sorry rate the whole time I babysat, from ages thirteen to seventeen, in the early 1970s. The musical references came right out of the stack of albums in my sister’s room. She was the only one with her own record player, and the only one of us with a collection of albums. That sister was the most assertive among us about who she was and who she was not. And her music was a big part of that. Who you listened to, what bands, what radio stations, what concerts you’d attend, these things were crucial and added up to who you were aiming to become.


What was it about the late 1960s/early 1970s period of history that felt the most fitting for this story?

I think probably it was that cusp of the women’s movement, when we were still mired in previous views on girls and women and what they could and could not do. But we were seeing a tiny window open. Each girl/woman in the book is in a different stage of what women could expect of themselves and of each other. There’s Renee who, while only five or six years older than Noreen and Gina, missed the onramp to feminism. There’s the pregnant sister who will sacrifice her teenage years to become a wife and mother. The women’s movement will skirt by that sister in the same way it missed Renee. So, in terms of why this time period is fitting, it was a very charged time to be a girl. Which kind of girl were you going to be? Were you riding that wave of the Women’s Movement or not?


How does the Southern setting inform the girls’ situation? Or does it? If this could happen anywhere, what makes this depiction uniquely Southern?

The South is key. The South is where girls, growing up, are always told to smile, to act nice, to focus on being pretty, to let men do most of the talking and heavy lifting. In the South I grew up in, girls weren’t supposed to make waves.


Extreme example of this: In my early twenties, living in Austin, Texas, I was on a crowded city bus at the end of the day, and a man took the seat next to me. He kept pressing his leg against mine. I was trying to ignore him, looking out the window, but when I glanced at our laps, so close together, I saw that he had his hand down his pants. He was masturbating. I didn’t move, didn’t say anything, just froze. To call him out on this errant behavior would’ve caused a scene and I didn’t want to embarrass the man. That is some heavy duty, deep indoctrination on Southern courtesy there. It was better, I thought, to endure this myself than to put the man through anything that might shame him. Don’t make waves. I sat as close to the window as I could get, and when my stop came, I got off the bus.


Much later, in my mid-thirties, I relayed this story to a therapist as an example of ways I’d allowed myself to be mistreated by loved ones and by strangers. The therapist told me that the story was such a common one, experienced by so many women, that another therapist she knew was compiling an anthology, and it was going to be called The Man on the Bus. I’m not saying this didn’t happen in other places besides the South, but my reaction was a distinctly Southern female reaction.


This story, Home for Wayward Girls, could’ve taken place in another state, region, or climate, but not knowing what it was like to grow up in those places, to be a kid, then a young adult, in those environments, I wouldn’t be able to write that story. I am a product of the American South, as are all of these characters. My family moved from New Orleans to Bergen County, New Jersey, when I was a senior in high school, and some of the stories in the cycle take place there, after that move, but they’d never be called regional or specific to that area. Those stories often explore feelings of dislocation after having moved from New Orleans.


Many of the girls and women in this story find comfort in the sisterhoods of their found or chosen families. Where did the inspiration for this dynamic come from?

Marie, the real-life person who inspired the character of Renee, came into my life around the time my oldest sister left to have a baby. I didn’t realize it at the time, but she filled a huge hole left in our family, especially for me and, I think, for my father. For the time we were so close, she was my found family. Sadly, as I moved deeper into teendom, self-absorption, and maybe waywardness, I outgrew the friendship and lost track of her. But she was memorable. She was “Morning Glory.” And I always knew I’d write her into immortality one day.


To learn more about the Jeanne Leiby Chapbook Award, click here.

If you would like to purchase a copy of Home for Wayward Girls, click here.


Melanie Bishop is Faculty Emeritus at Prescott College in Arizona, where for 22 years she taught creative writing, and was Founding Editor, and Fiction/Nonfiction Editor of Alligator Juniper, a national literary magazine, three-time winner of the AWP Directors’ Prize. Her young adult novel, My So-Called Ruined Life (2014) was a top-five finalist for both the John Gardner Award in Fiction and CLMP’s Firecracker Awards. Bishop has published fiction and nonfiction in The New York TimesGlimmer TrainGeorgetown ReviewGreensboro ReviewFlorida ReviewVelaEssay DailyNext AvenueCarmel MagazineHuffington PostNew York Journal of Books, and Family Circle. Currently, Bishop teaches occasional classes for Stanford Continuing Studies, and offers instruction, guidance and editing through her business, Lexi Services. “Home for Wayward Girls” is the title story of her short story cycle. For more, visit: 




Interview: Dantiel W. Moniz



In Milk Blood Heat, Dantiel W. Moniz populates the state of Florida with characters as distinct, flawed, and capable of beauty as the peninsula itself. Writing about fraught relationships of all sorts, set against the heat and humidity of North Florida, Moniz builds out complex emotional challenges—ensnaring characters in the grips of loss, deceit, indecision, violence, revenge—and each time forces us to see them as whole people, rendering a startling and affecting portrait of Black femininity that holds nothing back and demands our attention. The Florida Review asked Dantiel about getting honest about the human body, the rise of “Florida lit,” and what it means to write against national perception.


Milk Blood Heat was published in 2021 by Grove Atlantic.


Steven Archer for The Florida Review:

The first and last stories, “Milk Blood Heat” and “An Almanac of Bones,” feature friendships scrutinized by disapproving parents on the basis of difference, cultural and otherwise; the former others the white family, the latter othered by the white family, and both protagonists grapple with seeking in their friends’ families what they lack at home. Could you share a bit about what that dynamic means to you, from a cultural perspective? Did you mean for these stories to be inverses/ bookends?


Dantiel W. Moniz:

It makes so much sense that I write about grappling with whiteness in the ways these characters do in both of these stories, as I feel I’m still in the process of unlearning so many conditioned thoughts and habits that have rooted within me just by being alive in America. If you grow up anywhere in the world, and in the particular brand of it that this country produces, you are steeped in whiteness from birth, in every facet of life, explicitly and implicitly, and that invisibility can be one of the most dangerous parts. The ideology and systemic privilege of it (or the disadvantage of its lack), and the internalization of its supremacy, both in desire and repulsion. I think Sylvie (the protagonist of Almanac) falls a little more into this latter camp. While she absolutely uses Kit and her family as a measuring post in some ways, she also inherently understands that what she has, though viewed as lesser than, is powerfully her own, and having that normalization would actually be the lesser thing. I don’t think anyone’s work has to “deal” with the idea of whiteness (though I wish more white author’s works would), but right now, it’s still a project of mine. I want to make its effect on the lived world, the macro, micro, and everything in between, a little easier to see.

“An Almanac of Bones” was written before Milk Blood Heat was ever conceived of, so there wasn’t any conscious creation of echo, but definitely after having completed drafts of each of the stories that would make the collection, I noticed there was a lot of mirroring happening throughout, in these two pieces and beyond. I always knew I wanted Almanac to close out the book, but it was only due to both my agent and editor’s insight that I realized MBH should open it. I love cyclical stories, so I’m glad it worked out this way for the collection as a whole.



You write about bodies in such a refreshing, fascinating way, leaning into honest renderings of the human body without resorting to the gross-out. I’m thinking specifically of “Thicker Than Water” and its exploration of scent—discharge smelling of egg, armpits of onion or celery. How important was this choice to you, especially with your women protagonists? How did you go about it from a craft angle?



But bodies are gross sometimes! And I think if we were more honest about this, or at least more willing to admit this as human, we would all be better off. Women are conditioned to uphold the importance of being clean and sweet 24/7. It’s almost like I came into the world knowing I needed to be mindful of how I looked, how I smelled, even how I tasted; it’s an absurd pressure to put on a human body, which is generally unconcerned with anything other than its survival. And sometimes, those necessary functions are anything but pretty, the same way grief can be unpretty, anger, wanting. These rigid standards also make it harder to lean fully into pleasure. At the beginning of dating my husband, when we were 19 and 20, I remember him making this joke like, “Whenever you’re in the bathroom for a while, I’ll just tell myself you’re taking a long pee,” and I corrected him immediately, saying, “No, I’ll be taking a shit. Just like you do.” And though that was something I might not have ever said in previous relationships, I’m glad I did, because it’s so important to be able to take something for its fullness. It’s the only way to really love someone. It’s the same for my work. I have to let the characters be full in order to be real, and I especially wanted to honor that for the women and girls who people my collection. From a craft perspective, I’m thinking less about “how not to gross out my reader” and more how I think of crafting sentences and images in general: how does this sound, what’s the rhythm of this, and does it hit on the larger idea I hope to convey?



So many of these stories feature moments of consumption as catalyst, catharsis, or climax—the blood rite in the title story, the octopus in “Feast,” the snails in “The Hearts of Our Enemies,” the bone fragment in “Thicker Than Water,” milk from a distant mother in “An Almanac of Bones.” Could you touch on how this motif found its way into your work? What draws you to write about eating, feeding others, being fed, especially when it comes to ingesting weird, weaponized, or non-food items?



This is a beautiful question. I don’t think anyone’s ever asked this before. So much of my writing comes from an instinctive place. It’s often hard for me to see what’s coming up until I have it all in front of me, so I’m not sure, in its creation, why this element came into the work. But this question makes me realize, I am interested in how we nourish our bodies, or starve them. What we put into ourselves and what becomes us. With Feast, there was definitely this Phoenix choice, of wanting rebirth, a new opportunity to start fresh, and often we can’t have that if we’re clinging onto a damaged foundation. This motif kind of reminds me of the Tower card, which can be scary in a reading, but it really means transformation, if you’re willing to let go. With food, there’s also this element of connection; it can be a love language (which is why it’s so savage when it’s used as a means of revenge). Even the blood pact in MBH is about transformation. Let me become a little more you. Let us be the same. What we eat, who we feed, and what we desire in that feeding, can say a lot about a person or their world.



While perhaps the most intense use of food and eating comes in “Exotics,” I wondered more in this case about how form and genre served the piece; it is the shortest piece in the collection, as well as its only speculative/ fabulist piece, and is arguably the most direct in its portrayal and exploration of the interaction of Black and brown people with excess, privilege, and sacrifice. What went into the inclusion of this piece in the collection? Could you talk about distilling one of the collection’s more subtle running threads in this way?



Definitely one of the moments in my writing where I had to pause and think, Am I allowed to do this? Fun fact, there was actually another story in the book that I cut, that I think would have been described as speculative, and I wonder if it had stayed in, if people would have accepted Exotics as a necessary part of this book more readily. Probably not though—I’ve witnessed that people thrill to be snobby about mediums they perceive as genre. I think what lends this piece a lot of its speculative coloring is that I’m doing directly what I’m doing more subtly in every other story in this book—examining capitalism, race, class, consumption, how we cannibalize youth, and our complicity in these systems—which makes it feel surreal. I think people often don’t want to look at these things in their own lives and neighborhoods, so it makes it particularly unpleasant to have to in this way. For me, this story belongs in this collection. It’s right at home.



The stories in your collection feel distinctly Floridian, and yet often get away with not name-dropping the specific areas in which they take place. What aspects of the Florida landscape, culture, and experience felt most important in capturing such an authentic portrait of life in the northern part of the state?



I am a person who situates herself through landmark and memorization. I very rarely know street names and my sense of direction is…not the greatest. Mostly because I’m focused on other things and when I’m really present where I’m at, more ephemeral elements come to me. Like noticing the color and quality of light or how tree bark feels under my palm (if you have ever walked somewhere with me, you know how often I stop for trees). So being super specific about names and buildings or even particular cities wasn’t a priority for me. I was most interested in capturing the quality of heat of my state, its presence and aliveness, and how it enacts on the characters. That type of omnipresence becomes a mood.



On a related note, so many of these characters come to life as vivid, well-realized, believable members of assorted Black and Hispanic demographics without being explicitly tethered to one background or another, even when one could hazard a guess using markers like the fish dreams in “Necessary Bodies” or the refrain of “por la sangre” in “Thicker Than Water.” Was this ambiguity a conscious choice? Did you find yourself writing with specific groups in mind, even if they were ultimately unnamed?



In my work, I’m writing mostly around Blackness and its intersections. I was born a writer, it’s natural to me, but it took me a very long time to begin writing stories about characters that shared aspects of my identity. And once I understood I could do that, it opened up so much for me. I had been reading books all my life that characterized certain people only by their exclusion from whiteness, which itself was allowed to remain invisible. “The girl walked into the room” vs “The Black girl walked into the room,” and that being the main point of distinction visually or otherwise, like once you say that one thing, you should be able to see her. And I suppose readers could, if they had in their mind some catchall for Blackness. Even when I didn’t have the vocabulary for why, that used to upset me. So in my work, I don’t feel I have to be explicit in that way. My characters’ Blackness is not the biggest thing about them, though it does shape and direct their experiences.



Last Spring, Milk Blood Heat was taught as part of a graduate course on Southern, Appalachian, and Florida literature at UCF, alongside the work of writers such as Steven Dunn, Jesmyn Ward, Leah Hampton, and Carter Sickels. What does “Florida literature” mean to you, as part of, or removed from, “the South”? How do you see your work in conversation with this emerging literary canon, and how might you hope to see that canon expand?



This breadth of writers is so interesting, especially when you consider that each of the regions that make up what people consider “The South” is diverse and face the challenges that come with their particular national perceptions. Like, what Leah has to deal with in people’s discrimination against Appalachia, or Jesmyn Ward writing about Mississippi, is different than what I deal with in the perception of Florida, but they all stem from the same place—ignorance or indifference about the intentional repression or resource-stealing/shuttering from these places. What I’m excited for in the expansion of the canon of Floridian literature is the same thing I’m interested in for my human characters—a chance to explore its wholeness. To allow stories of people there to be as common as stories of people wandering around New York or other bigger, better regarded coastal cities. There are people trying to thrive even in the chaos of that place, and those people and their stories matter, regardless of its governance.



Beauty and hostility appear in equal measure throughout Milk Blood Heat, in your portrayals of girls, women, mothers, siblings, and marriages, certainly, but also in your portrayal of Florida is a whole. Kids die at pool parties and nearly drown at the beach. Aquariums and museums full of nature and discovery are host to historical horrors, Klan activity, fiery destruction, black holes. Massive diversity and divisive politics; abundant wildlife, dyed water, pollution. With Florida being so often the butt of the joke, a shorthand for all things backwards and dangerous, did you feel at all compelled to temper or reclaim Florida’s image through your writing? Did any part of this book come out of a desire to engage with national perception?



Absolutely. I think this question and the last are connected. And yes, I wanted to reclaim and to assert, but not to paint some idealized picture of Florida, but to show it for what it is, honestly, its dark and its light. I didn’t grow up with the perception that my state was literary or that any writing of artistic merit might come from where I was from. I grew up thinking I might never leave my city, let alone my state, but what that means is, everything I am now started as seed in that place, even though I wished to, and did eventually, leave. And what I and other artists, thinkers, and creators there have to say is valuable. I think its especially critical now, in light of all the legislation that’s being put in place to stop people from doing just that—from learning, feeling, thinking and most of all, connecting. That scares the people in power. So I hope, in even a small way, my work might encourage someone who might not be encouraged otherwise because they’d been overlooked.



I was delighted to read, in your previous interviews, what a big influence film and television are in your approach to writing. What are you watching these days? Do you think film and TV are given a fair shake in literary or academic spaces?



So here’s a fun thing I learned recently about symptoms of anxiety—you have a higher tendency to re-watch instead of starting something new. It makes a lot of sense to me on that level, the comfort of the familiar, but also for me, there’s the chance to analyze the same slant differently now that I know the story; even through the expected I usually come away with something new. Some always rewatches for me are Mad Men, Insecure, Veep, The Florida Project, and right now I’m rewatching Castlevania during flights. But I have been watching new shows and films too. Bones and All, both seasons of White Lotus, season 2 of Russian Doll, the latest of The Crown. These works offered exactly that slice of human emotional fragility and darkness that I come to the page for. In the summer of 2021, after stumbling upon Season 20 of Survivor and never having seen a single episode before, I started streaming from season 1 and now I’m on Season 41. Another thing I’ve learned is that I don’t really believe in this idea of trash tv. Like the Real Housewives of Atlanta is not supposed to be like Sharp Objects, although they both revolve around how women position themselves in power within their communities and families using socialized tools. I’ve learned so much about performance, conditioning, and gaze from reality TV, so I think it’s less about what you consume but how you consume and metabolize it.

To that point, I think more literary and academic spaces are making the explicit connection between these art mediums, and there’s definitely more attention paid to the writing that goes into image-making because there’s such an overlap between literature and adaptation. I’m actually teaching an undergraduate course on image this semester, teaching two books (We the Animals and The Virgin Suicides) and their film counterparts.



Is there one piece of writing advice—something you hold dear, or perhaps tell your students—that you might share with us here?



The writer Naomi Jackson once told me, “If someone can’t see where you’re going, they can’t help you get there.” Write for yourself and remember to protect that beginning space that’s just you and the work. It’s so important to get intentional about what the work is and what you hope to move toward before a community of writers can be useful to you. Be open to critique (this is so important) but remember you only have to take what resonates. And the best way to recognize that resonance goes back to understanding your intentionality for the work. One more thing—remember to play in your writing, remember you like this.


Interview: Talia Lakshmi Kolluri



Kolluri’s touching and exquisitely crafted story collection invites readers to imagine the lives of animal characters. Themes of trauma and grief, of time and friendship intersect as the unique voices Kolluri builds for every narrator embrace the mystery and estrangement of animal lives with magic and wonder. The Florida Review asked Talia about the process of making unreal things feel real, the art of crafting non-human voices, and the potential of fiction to address the climate crisis.


What We Fed To The Manticore was published in September 2022 by Tin House Books.


Fernanda Coutinho Teixeira for The Florida Review:

The book features a variety of animal-human relations. Some are on the more positive end of the spectrum, like Hafiz and the donkey and the pigeon and the Toy Man. But we also see the pain humans can inflict in animal lives, such as with the poachers in “May God Forever Bless The Rhino Keepers” and the boat in “The Open Ocean Is An Endless Desert.” So I’m curious about how, when approaching an animal’s perspective, you decide what kind of role humans will play in the story.


Talia Lakshmi Kolluri:

When I was writing this collection I made a deliberate choice to decenter human perspectives, so I always began writing each story with the idea that the animal experience would always be primary. But the crucial foundation upon which all of these stories rest is the fact that humanity has impacted every ecosystem on the globe, even in places where we have yet to travel. So in that sense, humanity has played a role in every one of these stories. But when I wrote humans (or humanity’s impacts) directly into a story, their portrayal was more likely to be negative when I was portraying a human system, and the human role was more likely to be positive when I was writing an individual human character. I think lots of individual people can be very compassionate stewards of nature. But we live in a world full of systems that are destructive and this is ultimately what I wanted to call attention to.



Some stories, like “The Dog Star Is The Brightest Star In The Sky” and “The Hunted, The Haunted, The Hungry, The Tame” focus on relationships and bonds between animals of different species. How do you set out to define these relationships, and how do you keep them from coming across as too “human” while also keeping the reader emotionally invested.



Early on in my process, I worried a lot about writing characters that came across as too human. Anthropomorphizing animals has long been viewed with varying degrees of skepticism and occasionally perceived as unserious. I wanted my characters to be believable. And while I love reading work that uses animal narratives as an allegory for a human situations, I didn’t want my work to be read that way. I also did not want my inter-species relationships to be viewed as superficial or cute. I wanted them to have emotional depth and nuance the way all of my own relationships do. Ultimately the best way for me to achieve this was to do solid foundational research in animal behavior and use that to shape how my characters behave. I kept their senses and general actions as close as possible to what I could learn from research. And when it came to the emotional texture of relationships, as long as I could keep their reactions within the framework of realistic animal behavior, I felt they could be believable.


But also, as I continued writing, I stopped worrying about my characters and their relationships seeming too human. In the wild world, a lot of different species interact and have lives that overlap. In some cases they have a history of collaboration, in others they may have a more neutral but regular interaction, and in some they have a mutually beneficial co-existence. In all of these cases, I have a hard time believing that animals don’t notice each other. And if they notice each other, perhaps they have significance to each other. Often when we describe something as human, it’s because we assign emotion to a reaction or interaction, and emotion is something that we are reluctant to assign to animals and instead hold only for ourselves. But why is that? I suspect we might be the only species that stubbornly insists that we are not animals at all, but are instead something above and apart from animals. But it just isn’t true. We are animals too. And if we respond to our surroundings and our interactions with emotion, and we assign meaning to things, then other animals probably do something similar.



The spectrum of climate change is present in the book, like in “The Dog Star Is The Brightest Star In The Sky.” How do you view the role of literature in the ongoing political conversation surrounding this topic?



I’m glad you asked this because I feel it is absolutely vital that literature directly bear witness to the astonishing uncanniness of the climate crisis, that is in fact becoming the ordinary texture of all our lives. For many of the years that I was writing the stories in this collection, I thought about Amitav Ghosh’s The Great Derangement. Ghosh writes broadly of the ways that contemporary literature, and fiction in particular, has failed to reckon with the climate crisis and the colonial history that lit the first spark of the crisis itself. Despite it being a pervasive and escalating part of our reality, it is primarily addressed in non-fiction work, and when it is included in fiction, the very real features of the climate crisis are often deemed too extreme and too unbelievable to be included in fiction intended to depict reality. Instead, it is categorized as something more like science fiction. In other words, unbelievable because it couldn’t be real. This isn’t to say that science fiction doesn’t show us aspects of our reality, or that our futures don’t eventually converge with things we once imagined to be impossible. But Ghosh’s point is that the impacts of the climate crisis are being felt right now, and despite that, fiction that describes it plainly has been treated as deviating from reality.


Early in the book he writes, “[i]n a substantially altered world, when sea-level rise has swallowed the Sundarbans and made cities like Kolkata, New York, and Bangkok uninhabitable, when readers and museum-goers turn to the art and literature of our time, will they not look, first and most urgently, for traces and portents of the altered world of their inheritance? And when they fail to find them, what should they—what can they—do other than to conclude that ours was a time when most forms of art and literature were drawn into the modes of concealment that prevented people from recognizing the realities of their plight?” I read this passage and felt as though he was writing directly to me, and telling me that my desire to write human impacts from inside the minds of creatures who have no agency over what humanity does, was a worthwhile artistic pursuit.


I think that confronting the climate crisis through fiction has the potential for magnified emotional resonance. I can read books and articles about ecology, and the science of climate change. I can watch the news and see the real-time impacts of droughts and superstorms. But all of these pieces of information will come to me from a distance, filtered through a medium that tells me that none of this information really applies to me. If I am watching coverage of a flood from my untouched home, then no matter how much empathy I purposefully cultivate in myself there is still some distance between me and the crisis because it is not, in fact, happening to me. But here is where fiction offers an opportunity. If I read a story where the characters face some aspect of the climate crisis, and I do what I always do, which is imagine myself as one of the characters, then suddenly the crisis becomes real. Because although it is not actually happening to me, the experience of imagining that it is creates an emotional response that brings me closer to the experience of the events themselves. I am less removed. My perception is less sterile. Instead of being reminded that it is not happening to me, I am instead reminded that it could and it might. And this difference is important because a person that does not see a vast distance between themselves and the climate crisis is a person more likely to be inspired to take action.



Two of my favorite stories, “What We Fed To The Manticore” and “Someone Must Watch Over The Dead” employ, in addition to the animal perspective, elements that veer on the fantastical and mythical. What is the process to incorporate those elements in your work, and to decide when you’ll take a more realistic approach as opposed to a more magic one?



I think my default way of writing is to write in a more mythical style. That’s what came to me naturally for most stories. But I found that some of them needed to be rooted in reality more than others, so in a practical sense I found myself having to deliberately incorporate realistic elements, instead of the other way around. I also find that myths, and fairy tales, and stories from various religious traditions are where animals stories most often live. I think the human heart hungers for magic, and there is truly something magical about wild spaces. Animals and birds and sea life are all so fantastical when I think about them long enough! I did find that I was more likely to discard mythical elements when I included human characters more prominently. Perhaps that’s because humanity holds a little less magic for me. Animals are still such a mystery to me and in mystery lies wonder and enchantment.



Time is a recurring theme in some of the stories. In “The Good Donkey” you have a stunning scene of a drone attack that is rendered in the style of a rewind; “A Level Of Tolerance” is all about a wolf stuck in a time loop. What fascinates you about playing with time in your writing?



Time is a tricky thing, isn’t it? I have noticed that the older I get the more I am aware of how elastic time is, how it speeds up and slows down according to how I feel, and how my perception of time has changed over my life. I also know that while time can be measured, it isn’t as rigid as we make it out to be. For instance, the time at the bottom of the Mariana Trench does not pass at same speed as the time at the top of Mount Everest. The other thing I think about often is how through memory and imagination, we are often traveling through time. If I recall a conversation from last week and I spend part of my day thinking about it, what time am I living in? Is it today? Have I returned to last week? Is it both? What if I’m imagining something three months from now? What time am I living in then? And what does trauma do to our perception of time? For those who suffer from post-traumatic stress, the memory of a traumatic experience can often feel as though it is happening again, in the present, in real-time. And this feeling can occur over and over. And perhaps after trauma, there remains the desire to undo the traumatic event. I wanted to find a way to convey the way that time is elastic, and also the way elastic time can bind someone in place when something painful happens.



In your author’s note, you frame the notions of wildness and tameness as matters of dependence and communication. How did this influence your approach to dialogue in the book, and the process of finding each animal’s voice?



I used this framing most often to imagine how well my point of view animal understood human life and all of its features. The closer an animal was to humanity, the better they understood human speech, human objects, and human choices. Perhaps the closest to humanity is the donkey. He began as a working animal but ultimately became more of a companion to Hafiz. In my mind this meant that the depth of their emotional connection would allow them to communicate directly. I also think that we are more likely to make an effort to communicate when it’s necessary and I imagine it could be the same with animals. But I don’t know that my ideas about interspecies communication had any real influence over how each character’s voice emerged. In a lot of ways, characters and personalities emerged organically. To me, writing fiction is a lot like playing make-believe. In each instance, I was pretending to be all the animals in every story, in pretty much the same way I would play all the characters in a game of pretend when I was a child. I think the difference here is that I could make all of the characters feel real to myself because I had a fuller understanding of their environments and how their senses worked. When I was small and I pretended to be a lion, for example, I understood what they looked like, and had an idea of how they walked and a superficial idea of what they did. But I had no real understanding of lion pride social dynamics, or what animals they had to compete with for food, or whether their habitat was dwindling or not. I just really wanted to be a lion. Now, I can take that same desire and fuel my game of pretend with a full spectrum of animal and habitat facts that I have gathered over the years, and maybe this is how the animals voices find me.



I’m impressed by how evocative and memorable the titles in this collection are. How is your process for choosing a piece’s title? Is it usually something you come up with in the beginning of the story or after finishing it?



I wish I had a process, but in most cases, the title arrives fully formed at the beginning and haunts me until I write something. Usually it ends up representing an idea that the whole story crystalizes around. In several of my stories, the title ends up embedded somewhere in the text, probably because they’re so linked to something I’m trying to communicate. The one exception is “A Level Of Tolerance,” which is a story I really struggled to find a title for. Instead of being haunted by a potential title, I was haunted by several lines that are now in the story. So, when I first wrote it, I gave it a working title of “832F” which is the identifying number of the wolf that inspired it. But my first readers had a really hard time connecting the title to the story and it seemed out of place to many of them, so I felt I needed something different. I ended up pulling the phrase “a level of tolerance” from a document that talked about wolf culling and discussed the idea that culling is used to bring wolf populations to “a level of tolerance,” meaning a level that the human population is willing to tolerate. I felt that phrase was a very sterile and detached description of how to think of an endangered animal population. I used it because I don’t feel very detached and emotionless when I think about the possibility of wolf extinction. Instead, I feel devastated. I thought the contrast was interesting, so I used it as the title.



In the end of the book, you include sources related to every story. When writing about animals, how important is it to you to make sure you’re adhering to their biological realities? Is there any example of a story in which the science made it difficult for you to write out your ideas for the characters?



It was incredibly important for me to make sure I was writing my animals as accurately as possible from a biological perspective. I am asking readers to take a series of very large imaginative leaps with me. I am asking them to believe that animals can tell stories, that they have their own mythology, that they can commune with the dead, that they are chased by mythological creatures, they can talk to people, and they exist outside of time. I am trusting the reader to take these leaps with me. But if I am asking them to jump, I must give them a firm foundation to leap from. I wrote a lot of unreal things, but I want them to feel real. And if they’re going to feel realistic, they need to be grounded in facts that can be verified. I want readers to wonder if vultures actually can understand how their carrion lived through eating. I want them to wonder if whales really do live inside a song net. But a reader may not ask these questions if nothing in the story feels believable. This is not to say that fully fantastical stories are not wonderful, because they are! I love stories that lean all the way into the miraculous and strange. But if there’s nothing concrete for me to hold onto in a story, then I understand it as something wonderful that will never be real. I wanted my stories to include the possibility that everything in them could be true, which I think comes from knowing that some of the things in them are true.


However, the story where I struggled with this the most was “The Open Ocean Is An Endless Desert.” Whales are amazing, and fascinating, and strange, and completely unlike humans in an astonishing number of ways. But the difference between whales and humans that was hardest for me to grasp was how precise their hearing is underwater, and how imperfect mine is. When I was writing this story, there was one afternoon where I jumped in a pool with my spouse and had him talk to me underwater to see if I could understand him. All I could hear were indecipherable noises enveloped in a strange echo and even though I saw where he was, I couldn’t hear exactly where the sound was coming from. I had to return to research to learn more about whale ears and whale communication and how they sing to each other over distances before I could come up with a way to describe their lives and community. But I’m glad I did because as much as I loved whales before, I am so much more in awe of them now.



Interview: Kristin Keane



In An Encyclopedia of Bending Time (Barrelhouse, April 2022), Kristin Keane (whose fiction, “The Thin Line,” recently appeared in The Florida Review) pushes the boundaries of craft as she struggles with the loss of her mother, which she refers to as ‘disappearance’ in the narrative. Here, she implores the unanswerable question: How can we hold onto what is no longer physically there?


In a wildly unique and tender craft choice, born of her childhood memory of the World Book Encyclopedias tucked in her family home, An Encyclopedia of Bending Time is written as a hermit crab memoir with alphabetized entries—much like that of an actual encyclopedia, complete with «SEE ALSOS » at the end of each entry, suggesting the cyclical and perhaps neverending aspect of grief. Keane indicates each of these vignettes weaves in complex concepts of grief, time travel, identity, and the limits of science.


Told in reverse, and encompassing aspects of the ocean, tides, quantum mechanics, and even pop culture like Alice in Wonderland and Quantum Leap, this is a masterfully organized, deeply felt narrative held together by the tenuous strings of love, memory and consciousness.


Keane artfully employs the often tricky second person narration, in a sort of ekaphrasic encylopedic letter to her mother, allowing the reader an intimate glimpse at the mother-daughter relationship; together we witness an achingly sharp loss and confusion, transforming a personal experience into the universal.


As a writer intrigued with the concepts of grief, motherhood, and unconventional narratives, this title captured and endeared me to Keane’s work, her ingenuity, and her sense of hope.


Leslie Lindsay for The Florida Review:
An Encyclopedia of Bending Time is a stunning yet heartbreaking exploration of love and sorrow, endings and beginnings. It’s about boundaries and expression. The cover embraces all of that: a flatlay depiction of an actual encyclopedia, a rose, leaves, a moth, and octopus tentacles. Can you share a little more about those images, please? How you see them as representing the text? The symbolism, if you will.


Kristin Keane:
When we explored cover ideas, we spoke about the idea of using a meta image—one with an actual encyclopedia displayed in some kind of way. Shanna Compton executed the stunning design which depicts some of the most important symbology in the text such as the octopus, the rose, the moth. Alone, they each have relevance to different aspects of the story I’m telling about my life with my mother, but together also convey some of the broader questions and concepts the text wrestles with: How can grief be contained? How can loss, a thing which feels so out of control and unbounded, realize a kind of structure? My mother loved roses and preserving flowers, artifacts representing a specific time that dry out, wither and die, yet still hold shape. The moths appeared at the window the night my mother died, unable to cut through the boundary of the screen that borders the room and the night. The octopus is a motif I return to again and again, an image I conjured in my mind long before my mother was gone; trapped in my memory and in the text in a way, but also functioning to stretch and hold together the actual and figurative past, present and future versions of us. On the cover, all of the images are reaching beyond the limits of the book, as I do, throughout the text. The images I think cohere the conceit of the story which circle around the borderlines of science, memory, divisions between the living and the dead, but also around that which cannot be restrained—love and time.


I’m fascinated and awed by linked collections, mostly because this is how humans think. An Encyclopedia of Bending Time is told in a cyclical flow-of-consciousness, and sometimes in fragmentary form. To me, this seems organic. But it also speaks to the idea of an encyclopedia, the “See Alsos.” In that sense, this becomes a sort of endless narrative. One could continually flip pages, reading every “See Also” over and over and over. Was that your intention? The idea that grief never really goes away?


Kristin Keane:
One of the features I loved most about The World Book Encyclopedias I reference reading as a child in the book, were their “See also” refrents, a structure which enriches the reading and learning experience, but also makes clear just how circuitous and unending that process is. This became a handy device throughout the book to both weave entries together and serve as a call-back to material that was explicitly and implicitly linked. In this way, as you point out, it does become possible to read it in a choose-your-own-adventure fashion as a never-ending interpretation of loss. One of the reasons I selected the encyclopedic form was because of this possibility, but I’d say more as a gesture towards underscoring the effect of loss, than as an actual suggestion for consumption. The story arc flows a bit untraditionally as I play with ideas of time-inversion and the dissary of grief, so I would worry that skipping around in the entries might create a sort of further scrambling effect that would confuse story lines and also introduce the possibility of missing material since not every entry has referents at its conclusion.


Your mother loved the sea and she is represented in a beloved photograph at the end of the book. What I like about this is exactly how you describe it: the sea is always changing; it’s never the same. The waves, that sand, the rock, even the color, shifts as does time. You liken this to the concept of photography, that a photograph of an individual can capture them at that moment, and while a photograph is enduring, the tangible form shifts. Same with taxidermy, another ‘entry’ in the encyclopedia. Can you expand on those concepts, please?


Kristin Keane:
As I decended into an obsession with time, it became clear I had spent so much of my life observing my mother’s own preoccupation with it. Her interest in science fiction, time travel, taxidermy, and the afterlife all became entries in the book because they connect me very really to her as well as the process of trying to reach her again. Yes, I conjure the sand, sea, color—things that can shift with time, just as my experience with loss will. But I also conjure artifacts which are time-defying: photographs, taxidermy. It’s very interesting to me how we’ve engineered ways to paralyze and freeze these things which transform in ways that are so very out of our hands. The sea changes but you can preserve it a certain way, at a certain moment in time. The same is true for encyclopedias. The image of her we used in the interior back cover, another gift the Barrelhouse design team conjured, in some ways is the central image of the text for this reason. I write about how much this picture means to me, but also how very hard it is for me to look at. In some ways that is a central concern of the book: observing even when it can be so hard to. I wanted to break time—I still do. I’ve tried to look at these artifacts in the same way she does at the sea in that photograph, to make sense of the impossible reality that she is not here anymore.


In terms of the second-person POV, which I happen to love, but some may find disorienting, ‘tricky’ or a ‘bold choice;’ I found refreshing. It speaks to the idea that we don’t really know what we’re writing about until we write it, that experimenting with this form is a way to determine where we’re headed. You artfully take that POV and shift the structure even more: an encyclopedic letter to your mother. You mention about ‘writing [your mother] into you,’ as a way to observe, to pay attention. In a sense, that’s what text is—a weaving, as in textiles. Can you share a bit about your craft decisions?


Kristin Keane:
My original intention with this project was a purely personal one: to write my mother letters before she left this dimension. I had collected ideas on little post-it notes in the period before she became really sick, one being ‘encyclopedias’ as they’d been such a central text and artifact of my early life with her. She died before that project had the chance to realize itself, and when I returned to the notes, I began thinking about the possibility of attempting to write to her as a means for understanding what had taken place instead. So, I considered that post-it in another way: an encyclopedia had personal meaning, was structure-laiden, and fit the criteria of attempting a communication with the dead (e.g. explaining concepts to someone who might no longer understand them). It seemed like a vessel full of craft possibilities. Like you, I think second-person at times can be tricky to execute effectively, but certainly because of this project’s origins, choosing any other perspective would have resulted in an emotionally flattening effect. One of the central conceits of the book is pushing against the limitations of science, knowledge, and intra-dimensional boundaries—all of which in my view meant I needed to hold her very close in order to interrogate the questions I put forward. I made the decision then, to address the possibility of her directly, by speaking to a disappeared version of her. I think writing in first or third person would have erased and diluted the intimacy that second person created.


One of the themes that emerges is your struggle to understand time and what reality is now that your mother has “disappeared.” You explore quantum theories and other ways to study to the mind to dip into this realm. An alternative Kristin Keane emerges, Alice in Wonderland comes along, so does Scott Bakula as Dr. Sam Beckett from the television series Quantum Leap, but also Freud and Barthes, among others. Did you find these constructs helpful as you pushed through the pain of grief? What did you learn about yourself in the process?


Kristin Keane:
I had so many questions after my mother died and turning to thinkers and artifacts I’d been long preoccupied with brought comfort. I discovered the memory of objects and images from my early childhood and adolecence could be suddenly interrogated in new ways, carrying different meaning in her absence. The same was true in the case of some of the thinkers and works I bring forward as they too became imbued new significance, helping me to fortifiy my questions and also provide lanes for my examinations. In the case of Quantum Leap, for example, where before I saw only a story of time travel, was so clearly a tale of grief. With Alice, I became more drawn towards the focus on her bent reality, and the story’s preoccupation with limitations. These were interesting and meaningful exercises. I’ve been asked many times if I found the process of writing the book to be healing. Grief is as unique as fingerprints, and for me personally, the answer to that question is very firmly, no. My current belief is that I won’t be healed from this experience, something I learned in wrestling with myself on the page. I sometimes get the feeling that response might seem frightening, but that answer is the result of a lot of mental work I’m grateful for. It turned out I was in some cases, not asking the right things. How will I get over this ? became, How can I learn to exist in a space where there will always be a shape of emptiness ? In writing, I moved from wondering when the sorrow would lift, to understanding it wouldn’t. I know how sad that sounds, but I see this as a silver-lining as the state of understanding for me in this case, feels much more relieving than sitting in wonder. Alice, Scott Bakula’s Dr. Sam Beckett, Mourning Diary—and others—helped me make sense of myself and my experience. At a craft level, it became intriguing to me to encounter, question, and process them on the page. This book is as much about my experience with loss as it is about observing it. In a way, that feels more important and retaining tp me as a person, than searching for a space in the continuum where I am divided from my mother, but totally healed. At least, that’s where my thinking resides at in the present moment.


I want to end on the concepts of hope and love, how maybe these are the great connectors—that our love is the strings that bind, keep us tethered in this cosmic twist of fate. What can we learn about beautiful endings ?


Kristin Keane:
I love this question so much—not what can we learn from them, but about them. In some ways, this question starts with sensibility as I think of beauty relating somewhat to satisfaction, which might be counter to other’s relationships to this word. This also depends on one’s conception of endings! This might mean ‘tidy’ or ‘complicated’ or something in between, depending on one’s preference for resolution. As a reader or viewer, I usually don’t need to be relieved of worry to find something beautiful at its conclusion, but in the experience of losing my mother, worry and questions were all I found in her death. I knew in embarking on this project that the ending couldn’t be neat because that quailty was so entirely untrue to my lived experience. My mother talked often about hope when she was sick, and we spent a lot of time dreaming that each new intervention would work to somehow change the anticipated outcome. All of my hope centered on her staying alive, which meant I suppose, that when she died that state dissolved. I could never have guessed how much I’d continue to cling to that word in the wake of her death, how I would come to desperately hope we’re wrong about the life/death continuum. That’s what this story became about for me: that there is not an end, that I hope for our dimensions to somehow dissolve to cease the missing. It’s pushed me to think differently about the possibility of upending what a conclusion even means. That possibility is very beautiful to me.


Keane is the author of the novella Luminaries (Omnidawn, 2021). Her work has appeared in The Normal School, The New England Review, Electric Literature, and elsewhere. She is a doctoral fellow at Stanford University where she researches the teaching and learning of literacy.



Interview: Jill Talbot













Jill Talbot’s A Distant Town was the winner of our 2020-2021 Jeanne Leiby Memorial Chapbook Award. (Available for purchase here!) Nicole Neece and Mirek Stolee, PhD candidates in UCF’s Texts and Technology Program, asked Jill questions about her process, themes, prize-winning entry, and what makes for a standout submission.

The Florida Review:

A Distant Town explores the role of written letters in human life from multiple angles. “No Return Address” takes the form of a letter, and you even pull one of your epigraphs from a letter sent by Joyce Johnson. What draws you to the letter as a literary form?


Jill Talbot:

The distance a letter implies, but also the intimacy of it, the way a letter often details a yearning or communicates a desire or a decision. The delay of it—those days or weeks between dropping a letter into a mailbox or through a slot at a post office and the day it arrives. The imagined moment of that letter being read. But also for the recipient, seeing the handwriting on the envelope, the anticipation of opening it and unfolding the pages—the tangible experience. Recently I re-read the letters my maternal grandmother, who passed in 1995, wrote to me during the last good years of her life. Holding and reading those pages brought her back, her loneliness, her love for me, the disappointments in the way she lived her life.



Distances between people, places, and times are central to many of the stories. The title A Distant Town implies a distance between the setting and the reader. Do you feel that, in writing these stories, you’ve left the themes you’re writing about in the past? Is this “town” now distant from you, the author?



I selected “A Distant Town” as the title story because like the first-person narrator in that story, all the characters in these stories are working to get to or away from some place so that they can feel settled, mostly within themselves. When I wrote the ending of “A Distant Town,” the moment when the blue-black haired narrator hits another car while in reverse, I hoped the reader would realize that the “different town” she had planned, that secret she keeps to herself that night at Applebee’s, has now become a distant one, because she’ll have to deal with the damage and the money she planned for the leaving will now go to repairs or insurance. Also in the way she’s going backwards, away from what she desires is something so many of these characters have in common—like Alice Sanders in “Rumor,” who can’t keep away from daring herself in that “side-of-the-highway dive,” or the man in “Railroad Blues” who carries the letter of the woman who left in his wallet. Then there are the characters who exist in a distant town, like the woman in the final story or how M writes a letter from “a restaurant along 380.”

As for me, I’ve always been drawn to distance, to the idea of elsewhere, and I don’t think I’ll every lose that. In my essays, I’ve written about how I carry distance inside me and how I chase the distance. Writing these stories, creating characters who struggle with addiction or missing or unrequited love allowed me to push those ideas into more dangerous or desperate or even dark places.



The box is a salient image throughout several stories. A box implies containment: a division between inside and out. As you show, a box can contain potent memories. It also seems that many of the characters find themselves in a box that they cannot escape. What was the process of character construction like?



What a great question! You’re excellent readers. The inspiration for the box is autobiographical. I once lived with a man who kept a taped Priority Mail box in his closet, and I never saw him open it, and I never asked about it (or don’t remember doing so). I used that man as a starting point in crafting Earl, the man who wrote the letters in the opening story, “Desert.” The letters haunt he woman who’s unwilling to let them go. Then there’s the mystery of the abusive boyfriend’s box in “A Distant Town” and the way the first-person narrator packs boxes before (trying to) leave town. I think of the boxes as metaphors for the weight or the secrets that the characters carry, and in that way, there are, as you point out, boxes that close characters in, or off, and the literal box of a prison cell or addiction or even the way missing someone can keep a character so within themselves they become a closed box to others. Before I had the Johnson line as an epigraph, I had one from Jackson Browne’s “Bright Baby Blues”:


“’Cause I’ve been up and down this highway

Far as my eyes can see

No matter how fast I run

I can never seem to get away from me


No matter where I am

I can’t help thinking I’m just a day away

From where I want to be”


Jake Wolff, the previous Editor in Chief of your wonderful journal, told me the lines needed to be cut or replaced due to potential copyright fees. But Browne’s lines are still behind the characters and their relationship to boxes—they’re all carrying something that’s heavy in them. By the way, I’m listening to Jackson Browne as I answer your questions.



“Railroad Blues” contrasts with the other stories in its three-part structure and its hypothetical refrain of “let’s say.” What drew you to employing these stylistic changes and placing the story where it is in the collection? Do you see it as a turning point in the work?



I’ve always been drawn to metawriting, so the “let’s say” refrain is intended to create the idea of a writer working through a story, imagining how it would go, where it would go, but in conversation, as if the reader is helping to write the story, too. Those moments when the writer/narrator identifies the words for things, like allow and surrender, it’s a call to the ways we, as writers, have to choose the words that will best convey our characters, how we work to get the right words to describe them physically, as well as their interiority.

I’m also drawn to the triptych form as a writer and reader—using the form allows me to set up three major movements, and in this story, the man’s walk to the “Railroad Blues,” the time spent in the bar, and his leaving the bar and walking home. Readers don’t know until the final section that the trip to the bar was more than the usual end of the day beer, it was to get that record from the jukebox.

If I structured the collection toward an arc of characters moving from stasis to moving on or breaking free, “Railroad Blues” would be positioned before the final story, “Purgatory,” but the worlds my characters inhabit—their lives rarely move in this trajectory—so I wanted the collection to reflect that.



There’s a strong musical undercurrent that weaves through the stories. How did songs contribute to your writing process? Did you find yourself trying to choose which song belonged in which moment or did the songs contribute to building the scenes?



It’s funny that I just told you I’m listening to Jackson Browne while writing these answers, because I think answering interview questions is writing, too, and I need to get in the mood of the stories, the collection. When I write essays, I usually listen to Phillip Glass, but if I need grit in my work, regardless of genre, I turn to Jackson Browne or Waylon Jennings or the classic country songs that appear in these stories. In writing these stories, I chose the songs to help build scenes, the sensory details of those songs for those familiar with them, and the lyrics as reflections of the character’s states of mind. That’s why I created the playlist for A Distant Town, as an accompaniment to the stories, including all the songs mentioned in the chapbook, but also bonus tracks for the songs I imagine these characters sing in the bar, in the post office, on the long drives.



What advice do you have for hopeful entrants to our 2022-2023 Jeanne Leiby Memorial Chapbook Award?



In my experience as the judge for this year’s contest, I was impressed by the submissions that had cohesion, either in their themes, locations, or characters, as well as submissions that reflected a writer’s care in selecting the best piece(s) for the submission. Like they really thought about it, you know? The work felt balanced in some way. In my experience as the writer of a winning chapbook, I can tell you that I looked back at my Submittable “Declined” section and discovered I submitted this collection to a different journal’s contest in 2020, and it was a finalist. (Why didn’t I resubmit to a different contest right away?) I also submitted an essay collection to this very contest that same year and was a semi-finalist. As writers, we’re often told to keep sending the work out, but we (meaning me) get distracted or forget or get down on ourselves and think, yeah, I should give up on this one. Don’t! Someone will read your work and realize it’s what they didn’t even know they’d been wanting to read.



Interview: Bud Smith


Author Bud Smith’s recently released novel, Teenager (Vintage, 2022), creates its own absurd and passionate world. The book follows two teenagers in love, Kody Green and Teal Carticelli, who travel across the country to flee their violent pasts and find their own American dreams. The book is both beautiful and violent, both absurd and very real. It features passionate characters who livedifficult lives and seem to have the best view of the stars when they’re knocked down by life.

Bud Smith’s repertoire of publications is lengthy and diverse. He has published a memoir, Work (Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2017), and two short story collections, Doublebird (Maudlin House, 2018) and Or Something Like That(Unknown Press, 2012), and a poetry collection, Everything Neon (Marginalia, 2013), and two novels F250 (Piscataway House, 2015) and Tollbooth (Piscataway House, 2013). His short stories have appeared in The Paris Review, Smokelong Quarterly, Hobart, Wigleaf, and other journals. He lives in Jersey City and works in heavy construction, a profession which he is quite proud to represent. He is known for his blue-collar lifestyle and writing while in the trenches, punching out incredible short stories on his phone while on his lunch break.

In a conversation over iced coffee and follow-up emails, we talked about how absurdity in fiction can be used to abstract our lives and help us deal with our problems, and how it’s a key ingredient for imagining something better.

Denise Robbins for The Florida Review:

With all the crazy shit going on right now, it’s almost nostalgic to read a story about two violent teenage kids committing crimes for love. Many people think of fiction as an escape from the absurd. But when reading your work, it’s more like an escape into the absurd. How have you used fiction to process the absurdity of life?

Bud Smith:

Since the dawn of time, there’s always been crazy shit afoot. Life is just as absurd as it’s ever been. The science is correct, and the math is correct too, but people skew facts, it all gets blurred and harder to believe. If I switch on any news channel, I’m being told or sold an unbelievable story. At least with straight fiction, I choose the flavor of the skew and blur what I’m in the mood for. I use art to turn down the noise on everything else.


How did the story Teenager come to you? Where did it begin?


I was at a poetry reading and the event organizer asked me to read something. So I wrote a quick poem on a napkin. I was thinking about this boyfriend shooting his girlfriend’s parents and them going on the run together. It started from there, as a poem. And I just kept thinking about it, and eventually, it became a short story, which I remember beginning after waking up on my friend’s couch—the kid who shot his girlfriend’s parents on the lookout on top of a water tower. But for what? And it wouldn’t leave me alone. To find out, for myself, it then became a novella, and then further investigation turned it into a novel.


 How did the story change in each iteration?


It deepened every time—became darker. Less hopeful. It became more realistic and more troubled in each draft. Trouble for the characters and their situation, and the gravity of their reality.


So it made you feel less hopeful each time?


It made me feel more balanced each time. In the initial drafts of it, there was more of a “love overcomes everything” attitude. I think that’s still in the book, but in reality, there are many things that love cannot overcome.


Although in total, the novel was absurd, it still felt more realist than most of your short stories. I’ve also noticed that your other previous novels seem more realist than absurd. Is that an accurate depiction — that your short form fiction veers more to the absurd and your long form fiction stays more grounded?


I start somewhere absurd and surreal because that’s how my imagination works. Over time and many drafts, I think out and apply logistics to my little cartoon. It has other dimensions to it. My shorter, surrealist stuff is some of my favorite work, probably closest to a dream I had. I wouldn’t change it. I wouldn’t develop a story called Tiger Blood into a 300-page book, because I said everything I meant to say in 1500 words. Magic or laws of physics, whatever works, I don’t care.


Is there a physical limit to absurdity and surrealism? Is that the reason why it’s strongest in your short fiction?


When we look at our own lives, often we can’t abstract our own problems. But when we can do that, something bigger than us happens and we get to laugh at it. The author Tim O’Brien says, sometimes there’s no way for anyone to understand how something momentous feels to an individual except through abstraction. He has a story he tells about being at a seminar and telling the audience his child’s first words were quoting Macbeth. And someone in the audience called him out on it, “There’s no way his first words were ‘a tale told by an idiot, signifying nothing.’” And he says something like, “You’re right, they weren’t his first words, but how can I ever explain to you how they made me feel if it wasn’t something that amazing? To you, it’s just a baby talking, but to me, it was doing this incredible thing that could never happen.” That’s how it feels sometimes to be alive, and to capture that in fiction, you don’t have boundaries. It’s okay if I lie, that’s the point. But we’re trying to convey something more than just the straight truth. I’m trying to elicit a feeling. That’s the goal. To elicit a feeling larger than life, and sometimes we go into the woods to get there, we’ll lie in the lie of the lie.


I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how absurdity can be found in the mundane because I’m reading Catch-22, where these characters are dealing with extremely banal issues, like parade contests and mess hall seating arrangements, while they’re in the middle of a war and could die any day. You also do a great job of this in your story “Gling, Gling, Gling,” where a man gets hit by a car and, dying, wants only to go on his errands. I think often about how, even in times of crisis, we want so badly to keep things normal and to follow our little routines we’ve created for ourselves. It takes a lot to shock someone out of that. Are you trying to shock people out of what they expect when they read this?


No, not at all. This is just how my imagination works. I usually don’t think about that kind of stuff when creating, I’m just trying to keep myself interested. I tell a story to the best of my ability. Anything can happen in a story. If something is anarchistic in content or form, it stays recklessly interesting to me.


Everything in Teenager certainly is interesting. Yet probable. Yet the sum of its parts — the way everything fits together — kind of brings it back to the absurdity level. Was that something conscious to you, for everything to seem realistic, or are you trying to acknowledge that the story is not real? 


I just watched Texas Chainsaw Massacre before I came here. Everything is completely plausible in that film if you look at it in one light. And everything is a total implausible nightmare if you look at it in another light. It’s how you want to interpret it and how you’re feeling about it. Has a lot to do with how stories are presented. The folk tale John Henry vs. the Steam Drill. There’s not a guy literally racing a railroad steam driver, but of course, there is.


What other books or stories have influenced your attitude towards surrealism in fiction?


Don Quixote, Epic of Gilgamesh, The Odyssey, Arabian Nights, The Divine Comedy, the Old Testament, Hamlet, lots of other Shakespeare plays, Beckett’s plays and the novel Molloy, the Brothers Grimm Fairytales, on and on. Those are some of the most influential stories ever told and to read them and study them, you can’t help but see how they have been retold and reinterpreted time and time again in contemporary forms, which got compressed in the work of Donald Barthleme, Amy Hempel, Lydia Davis, on and on. Everyone should read the author Ben Loory, he’s an incredible storyteller.


You mentioned Bonnie and Clyde. If this story follows a Bonnie and Clyde-like structure, were you trying to turn that on its head, or did you think about that at all?


I was a junior in high school when the Columbine school shooting happened. The copycats are still caught in that cycle of violence. I learned in that same high school that Manifest Destiny was this glorious thing. From sea to shining sea. Then I went to a different classroom where the teacher had served in Vietnam, and he told us not to believe everything our government said to us, what our school books said. Teenager is a story about young people breaking away from their families, and from society. A very old story that becomes new again each generation, across the world.


Do you have personal experiences with violence that drew you to this story or these characters?


Anyone paying attention knows there is brutality all around, often behind closed doors, people being abused by loved ones, assaulted physically and sexually, emotionally, and it goes on for a time, until a person pushed too far, lashes back, and is taken away by the police. If there is a gun in the home where this abuse is taking place, sometimes it is used to end the abuse one way or another. You hear about it on the news. You hear about children taking those guns into schools. People getting shot in church. A friend of mine put a shotgun in his own mouth and pulled the trigger. Another friend of mine was shot by a friend of his, a drunk police officer. It went unreported, and the limp has almost gone away. Another mass shooting. This one sounds similar to the previous mass shooting. Missiles fly across the TV and explode in the dark. I’m not sure who is at war. Hospitals become rubble. It’s all so incredibly overbearing. I am surrounded by it wherever I go, but I have to look elsewhere. I wrote about these characters because they are in love. I am looking for love. But every love story— if you are telling the whole story—is a tragic story, with its own fair share of atrocity.


The main character Kody is quite violent. He also suffers from a brain injury. Is that a signal that this is not ‘okay’? Do you worry about his violence being accepted? Or glorified?


The violence in the book is somewhat glorified. And I don’t think that his brain damage causes him to become violent. He just never had anyone to show him the way the world could be. He’s all alone, his ideas got misconstrued. He had no support system of people who love him and explained things. Teal is the first person who loves and believes in him, but she’s still completely aware that he’s a fool, and he thinks the same thing about her in a way. We’re just dealing with average people of average means who didn’t really have love in their life and got led astray. 


Kody is not a sympathetic character at the beginning. You start the book on a very shocking and surprising note, and then over the course of the story, I learned to love Kody and the way he saw the world. This seems like the opposite of most ‘unsympathetic character’ stories like in Breaking Bad, where you start out sympathizing with him and then see him descend. But here you start at the low point. Was that intentional?


I thought of Kody as a person who didn’t really have much of a chance to begin with. He doesn’t have far to fall. When you don’t have people who love you when you’re a little boy, and the best he had is his stepmom, Rhonda, who’s a slight friend but didn’t love him fully. It’s not far to fall when you’ve not been properly loved and nurtured. Usually, people make their futures in a way, but when something’s written out for you like that you have a much harder road.

Walter White from Breaking Bad is a character who had a lot of things going for him, and he squandered his own life—even before the cancer. He’s a miserable, washed-up guy. I’d rather read about somebody full of passion, even if that passion is misplaced. As an artist, it’s smarter for me to have passion for the story being told. So that’s why I’m interested in Kody and Teal. They’re two really passionate people. I don’t think I could write a book about someone like Walter White, who feels robbed, who’s dissatisfied, and hates his own life before he even gets cancer. He’s already dead before he has it. Those kinds of characters very rarely move the needle for me. I’m more interested in Levin from Anna Karenina, this person so imbued with life. And Don Quixote, who is on this wayward mission because he wants to make a difference.


 If reading about violence can inspire violence, can reading about something better help imagine it into existence?


An individual is just that, an individual. Free will belongs to each and every person currently drawing breath. That said, many people are trapped in invisible systems of control that takes great power to break out of. Pearl clutchers, and satanic panic Finders, and video-games-made-me-do-it, or Holden-Caulfield-loaded-my-gun theorists, are missing the point that we are in the middle of a great bubbling, melting, swamp of joy and pain, and our stories that we have been telling each other since we first created our languages have been inside us since the very beginning of our consciousness, and they aren’t getting any more wicked or twisted than they ever were. All our stories have ever been is a mirror held up to our culture and our place in it. If we are frightened by the stories we are telling, it’s because we are appalled by the world we’ve collectively created, little village to little village, slowly netting out to be the entire surface of this earth. Yes, a person has the power to hope for something positive, and they have the power to make that tiny positive thing happen in their home. They can share it with their family. Their family can share it with their neighbors. Their neighbors can share it, and so on.


Did you start writing surrealist work when you felt stuck in life?


I’ve never felt stuck in life, and I’ve always told my stories with a heavy mix of surreal and real. I believe they belong together, and I don’t see much of a distinction between those modes of storytelling. The object is just to convey a feeling. Storytelling is already a hallucination, is already asking someone to step inside a dream with you and accept the dream. The earliest stories I was taught as a child were fairytales. A lot of them had some kind of lesson that was supposed to help a person navigate the worst perils of life, and find the rewards of that same life. If the story had to do that with a talking wolf, then it did it with a talking wolf. If Shakespeare had to send the ghost of the father to the parapet walls to send a warning, then so be it. If a poet has to be taken on a tour of Hell to find his way back to his true love, then the whole story becomes a metaphor we can use to make sense of our problems. I want to read something that is going to elicit some strange surprise in me. When it happens through abstraction and bent reality, brushing up against the proposed real world, and its supposed laws of order. There isn’t anyone to grant your magic wish at the actual supermarket, but really, there is. You’ve just got to ask around, ask the right questions. The genie can be behind the deli counter or stocking the yogurt, or any of the shoppers, it could even be you.


You are so frigging optimistic. I got this feeling also when reading your memoir, Work. Just seeing what writing and art has been able to do for you and your outlook on life. If people are feeling depressed about the state of the world, what can they do?


Refuse to be idle. Even if you have to go forward in your lowest gear. Seek out people and places that do not seem ruined by impending doom. You can have fun, I’m saying, I’m advising, I’m begging. I’m begging both you and me to go have fun. It’s better to go outside and find it. The sun lights it up easier than any electric lamp can. But sometimes this fun cannot be seen in ordinary moonlight, and in those cases, I recommend a bonfire.


Okay, I’ll have a bonfire. So there’s a narrator in Teenager who’s not Kody but has a lot in common with Kody. The narrator also has a lot in common with you—having a sharp eye that takes in only beauty. The narration seems to get more frenetic and beautiful as the story goes on, as the end is in sight. There’s a passage I want to quote:

That night, they closed the door and listened to the mules bray in the starlit yard. Dead Bob could be heard out in the living room, strumming a guitar, singing in a sonorous voice, evil sounding, and eerie gloom to it.

“He’s out there singing murder ballads.”

“Well, not to us. Not about us.” Teal called through the wall, “Bob?”

He kept strumming. “Yessssss?”

“Do you know any love songs?”

The minor chords switched to major and the same song carried on, but right there in the middle there was a turn, a new verse, his voice changed and rose in pitch and became saccharine and the miserable characters in the song canceled revenge and made amends, the knife was pulled out of the heart and the blood was wiped off the blade, the wound closed up and the wrong itself rewound like wire on a spool so the wrong was never done and the people were kissing in the daffodils, bluebirds swooping all around them and never a better match ever made in the history of the world.

“Thank you, Bob,” she said.

It makes me feel like the narrator is saying to the reader, “I choose to make you sympathize with my characters and agree that their lives are beautiful.” Is that what you’re saying here?


When things are desperate and dark, to survive, sometimes we focus on the sublime and the beautiful. That’s a lot of people’s experience in life—to transcend bad things that happened or are happening to them, they embrace anything that can give them a transcendent feeling. Drugs, sex, religion, music, climbing a mountain or two, whatever it is, they’re trying to find some escape from the bad things happening to them. I think my characters, hopefully, will always be like that. Looking to break away from pain, and seeking a cherry on top, even if they are absolutely fucked. Life and death is unpredictable. I hope the characters I write about will always get swept away, and sweep us all away with them too.

Twitter:  @Bud_Smith


Interview: Kim Adrian


Kim Adrian is the author of The Twenty Seventh Letter of the Alphabet: A Memoir and the editor of The Shell Game, Writers Play with Borrowed Forms, an anthology of hybrid essays (both University of Nebraska Press, 2018). She has published two books of lyric criticism: Dear Knausgaard and Sock, which is part of Bloomsbury’s Object Lessons Series. Her essays and short stories have appeared in AGNI, Tin House, O Magazine, The Gettysburg Review, among others. She has taught creative writing at Brown University and Grub Street.


The Twenty-Seventh Letter of the Alphabet is an unconventional, wildly disturbing, and hugely innovative book. It is an intimate portrait of family dysfunction, addiction, and mental illness that grabs the reader immediately. The story is told in razor-sharp vignettes—what Adrian refers to as a “glossary,” saying it’s a “reckoning, a love letter.”


Adrian has a gift for pinpointing—and extracting—precise, emotionally potent stories from her experiences and those of her family. Each fragment in The Twenty-Seventh Letter of the Alphabet is crisp and wide-eyed and seamlessly provides a subtext of the story, almost a meditation on the structure. Here, she imposes order on a rather chaotic upbringing by assigning a letter to each snapshot, while simultaneously developing compassion for herself—and her mother.


As a daughter of a severely mentally ill mother myself, I felt a particular kinship with Adrian. While conducting this interview, we exchanged emails in which Adrian shared, “The whole time I was writing [The Twenty-Seventh Letter of the Alphabet], I had this feeling of wanting to connect to other individuals who’d grown up in similar situations—kind of like ‘ghost siblings.’” As I read Adrian’s account, this was palpable. It was remarkably validating—yet disturbing—to read of some of the uncanny similarities between our experiences.


Both Adrian’s mother and mine were sexually abused as children. Both married young and had children before their twentieth birthdays. Adrian and I are both firstborns. We each have a younger sister. Both of our mothers were diagnosed with a slew of psychiatric disorders and spent considerable time in psychiatric hospitals. Our mothers both had a penchant for sewing, shredded our father’s suits with shears, had issues with their teeth, and felt the government was “out to get them” or the phone was “bugged.”


“It can feel so isolating to grow up with a parent with mental illness, especially when you don’t understand that they’re mentally ill,” says Adrian. “The world just feels so squishy and unpredictable.” And she’s right, especially about the unpredictability, the isolation.


Leslie Lindsay for The Florida Review:
The title, The Twenty-Seventh Letter of the Alphabet, sort of intimates this idea of a glossary, but it’s more than that. We don’t immediately know what the book is about. The title doesn’t give anything away. Until the mid-nineteenth century, the ampersand was considered the twenty-seventh letter of the alphabet. It wasn’t a sound unit, but a word—and. As a reader, I felt we were continually marching on, starting with A and ending with XYZ . . . &. There was a clear-cut path, maybe even a sense of urgency or doom. Can you talk about that, please?


Kim Adrian:
I’m glad you felt a sense of urgency. That’s part of what I was going for. Because The Twenty-Seventh Letter of the Alphabet isn’t just about my relationship to my mother, and my experience of her mental illness, but also about a feeling of compulsion—the compulsion to tell this story. At the same time, I had no idea how to tell it, because storytelling had always been my mother’s domain. She’s a highly verbal person, a real magician with words. When I was a kid, I often felt incapable of expressing myself because she somehow managed to define my reality, my experience, with her words. She did this in a colorful and confusing way. I try to describe this in a few entries in the book, for example, the one called “Ice-Skating,” where she narrates how she thinks an ice-skating outing I’m about to go on will unfold from my point of view. It was uncanny when she did this. I could almost feel myself getting erased. The Twenty-Seventh Letter of the Alphabet came out of a deep need to articulate my own experience using my own words. But readers who looked at early drafts always said the same thing: “You’re not in it.” It was so frustrating. Now, looking back, I think I was just so used to sublimating my own experience—when it came to interactions with my mother—that I did exactly the same thing when I tried to write about our relationship. I somehow went underground. When I finally found the form of the glossary, it opened everything up. Tackling the story in bits and pieces let me access my own experience in a very immediate way. It’s a lot easier to keep your voice present for the length of a fragment than it is for a long narrative line. With the glossary structure, I was suddenly able to tell the story. And the pressure that had built up inside me over the years of writing prior to landing on the glossary form, that pressure comes across, I think, in that sense of urgency.


I find the linked collection—the glossary of fragments—endlessly fascinating. It allows a good deal of freedom, while affording a sort of distillation. One can shine a light on specific moments without necessarily needing to create connective tissue between them. It’s precise and expansive. Would you agree? What did you find liberating about this form—what was challenging?


For me, the glossary structure removed the necessity to “tell a story” in the classic, conventional sense (which in any case never sat right with me in regard to this particular material). To create a classically linear narrative would have been to betray the confusion inherent in the experience I was writing about. But there’s also something intensely intimate about fragments. A fragmented text enlists a reader’s participation in a very real way. Readers have to connect the dots, create that “connective tissue” in their own minds. I don’t think that’s asking too much of a reader. Engaged readers actually enjoy being challenged. Fragmented texts offer something almost like a mystery to solve.


The book moves largely chronologically, but not entirely. I’m sure the structure required a bit of thought and experimentation. It’s flexible: events can weave in and out. Did you impose/assign letters to the vignettes first, or write and then piece together?


I’m glad you brought up chronology. There are actually three chronological strands moving through the alphabetical arrangement. The first is pretty basic, just the chronology of my growing up; the second unfolds in the “present day” —my current interactions with my mother, and my own domestic life as a mother of two young children; the third—which is a bit rougher—tries to trace my mother’s childhood and give insight into her family of origin. It took a lot of refining of entry titles to work it all out chronologically because, with this structure, the chronology obviously also has to be alphabetical. Some of the entries happened to land right where they needed to be, but others required some shoe-horning. Take “Ice-Skating,” for instance, which I just mentioned. That’s a perfectly fine title for that entry. I used it because the Letter “I” is exactly where that entry needs to be in the flow of the chronology. But it’s not a very poetic or evocative title. Originally, I think I called it “Tall,” which has much more emotional resonance with the material. So, yeah, I shoe-horned some of the headers, and lost some of the original poetry or power of my first-choice titles. But that seemed like an okay price to pay for the overall glossary structure, which has its own metaphorical value.


At one point in the story, your mother says something like—and I’m paraphrasing—“It’s okay. You can write about me. I know I am your material.” What was the emotional process of writing like for you? Were there things you feared putting in the memoir?


There were lots of scenes and details that I worried I shouldn’t put into this book: my mother’s “booger board”; my father stabbing a man; my mother throwing me on the ground or across the room when I was little; my father beating her unconscious in front of me. The Twenty-Seventh Letter of the Alphabet took me twelve years to write, on and off, mostly on (though in a quasi-paralyzed state). Part of that long gestation period, that quasi-paralysis, had to do with what I was talking about before—the drive to tell this story coupled with an inability—or, perhaps, an unwillingness—to tell it in a conventional way. But the other thing that slowed me down was worrying about spilling so many shameful family secrets. It seemed obvious that my words might hurt people—my parents—but that was confusing, because I only wanted to reveal things that were part of me, part of my history, my lived experience. I know a lot of writers come down on the other side of this decision. They reconcile themselves to holding off on writing a story like this until their parents are dead. But I went the other way. The fact that my mother said that she knew she was my “material,” and I could write about her if I wanted to, meant a lot to me at the time. It was very generous of her, in a sense. But even these words made me feel trapped, because when she said them, I realized I didn’t want her to be my material forever. I wanted to get this story out and be done with it. More than that, I didn’t want her to be the one to tell me what I could and couldn’t write. In the end, I had to give myself permission to tell the story. And, actually, that was probably the hardest part of all.


Has your mother read it?


When it came out, I told her not to read it unless she was seeing a therapist, which she wasn’t, and still isn’t. At the time, she said that she wouldn’t ever read it because she didn’t want it to damage our relationship, and I thought that was smart. But since then, she’s said a few things in ways that seem informed by what I wrote in the book. So, I think she probably has, and just hasn’t told me.


I felt the way this story was told, it mirrored a real relationship; we got to deeper wounds as we spent more time with you, your mother, father, sister, even your husband—the characters—in this memoir. There was a slow peeling back of layers. Plus, the structure lends to the episodic aspect of mental illness. Can you talk more about that, please?


I’m so glad you felt that way. One thing I struggled with at the beginning of the writing process (and by that, I mean the first ten years—ha) is something I see a lot of my memoir students struggle with, too, and that’s the almost irresistible urge to say all the important stuff up front, especially about very complicated characters. One of the reasons I had such a hard time getting past the first fifty pages or so of the early drafts was because I was trying to show my mother in all her complicated glory, all at once. My mother can be incredibly selfish, cruel, really abusive, gas-lighty, manipulative, and, frankly, gross, but she can also be the opposite of all these things: empathetic and sensitive, elegant, funny, creative. She’s a great reader. Super smart. Super insightful. And she’s a fabulous cook and gardener. If her spirit hadn’t been so deeply damaged by the sexual abuse she suffered as a child, I think she would be doing amazing work in this world. Because, despite everything, she is one of those extra-alive kind of people. Unfortunately, because of her trauma and mental illness, she winds up bending most of her formidable energy toward destructive ends. In any case, back to your question . . . When I started writing this book, I tried to get all of that kind of information about her on the page, right away. I described my mother more or less the way I just did, though more elaborately. I figured that, in this way, I was being fair to her character. But writing like that is simply doling out information. And information doesn’t convey a sense of lived experience. Figuring out how to let the characters in this book, especially my mother, unfold in their own time, over the course of sentences, paragraphs, and pages, was a steep learning curve for me, but it was very liberating, once I got the hang of it. I was able to let the prose be more gentle, less rushed, less informational, and, most importantly, I think, non-judgmental because I wasn’t summing anybody up, or quickly sketching anyone with editorializing strokes.


I think it’s important to talk about personal mental health, too. You’re an avid yogi (another similarity we share), plus you knit, bake, and write. You must maintain your own artistic development, your own . . . can we say, sanity? Did it feel important for you to let the reader into that part of your life?


I knew I had to show some of those self-help activities on the page in order to be a reliable narrator. Because it’s happened so often, in “real life,” that when I get to know someone new, and eventually tell them a story or two from my childhood, they almost inevitably express disbelief. “But how did you get so normal?” is the usual question. Billions of hours of yoga, is the answer. Also, some fairly manic knitting and baking. And, let’s not forget, bubble baths. It sounds so ridiculous, but bubble baths have been very healing for me. I wanted to show at least some of that activity, even though, on some level, I feel embarrassed by it (thus the entry title “Embarrassingly Large Collection of Self-Help Books”). But you can’t come out of a childhood like mine, or maintain a relationship with a mother like mine, and just “be normal,” whatever that is. Healthy-ish. You have to work on your own mental/emotional state, and I have. I do. It takes a lot of time, a lot of energy. It also takes a certain amount of anger. And a certain degree of selfishness, to be honest. There’s an avid edge to these activities, at least when I do them. I’m not the world’s most peaceful, copacetic person. But I strive to be peaceful and copacetic. LOL. It’s how I funnel a lot of the ragged, sad, frightened energy that still circulates inside me into something more or less positive. I actually learned how to do this kind of work from my mother, who’s always been big on “self-improvement.” Not so much with things like yoga, but she’s constantly making all these little micro improvements to everything in her life—from jerry-rigging the bird-feeder in some ingenious way to trying to straighten out her crooked pinkies with popsicle sticks. There is, of course, a tremendous difference between doing these kinds of practices in the spirit of self-improvement versus doing them in the spirit of self-acceptance. It’s only when I understood that difference that I started healing in a real way. Unfortunately, I don’t think my mother’s ever quite grasped the distinction, which breaks my heart.


I want to end on hope. Because there’s so much of that within these pages, too. The last two years have tested us all—in different ways—and really, at the end of the day, what gets us through is cookies and warm socks. And a good book. Maybe a lotus blossom from the muddy depths of a lake.


Your phrasing is interesting, the way hope gets entangled with comfort in that question. Which I get. Hope can be as much of a comfort as warm socks and good books and cookies, all of which I love. But frankly, these days, my relationship with hope feels pretty strained. I find myself seeking out more . . . prickly . . . forms of comfort, too. I’m reading Theodor Adorno, right now, for instance. Minima Moralia. It’s excruciating, honestly—it’s just so painfully insightful about the pathological structures of the capitalist, consumerist system in which we’re all so deeply embedded. I know I was just talking about bubble baths. And I’ll never give those up. Not if I can help it. I read Adorno in the tub. But hope and comfort feel very—I don’t know—cheap, these days? Everything just feels so dark. Because of Covid, yes, but also the war in Ukraine, the environment, the extremism everywhere you turn, the way democracy seems to be evaporating in front of our eyes. One of the reasons I wrote this memoir is because I think mental illness isn’t given enough attention, considering how prevalent it actually is. It’s not treated with enough honesty or seriousness or urgency. And without those things, a bad situation won’t improve, no matter how hopeful we may be. Without those things, hope is just a fantasy. Collectively speaking, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that humanity is dealing with something that looks a lot like mental illness writ large. We’re suffering. And the planet is suffering because of us. Hope sounds lovely, but far away. All I can manage, at the moment, is to try to be more honest and serious and urgent about the things I would someday like to be hopeful about.


Interview: Annie Kim


Kim, Eros Kim, Cyclorama


Annie Kim’s second collection, Eros, Unbroken (2020), is the winner of the 2019 Washington Prize and follows her debut collection, Into the Cyclorama, winner of the Michael Waters Poetry Prize (Southern Indiana Review Press, 2016) and finalist for the Foreword INDIES Best Poetry Book of the Year. Her poems have appeared in such journals as Beloit Poetry JournalThe Cincinnati Review, Four Way Review, The Kenyon Review, Narrative, Plume, and Pleiades, as well as on The Slowdown podcast. The recipient of fellowships from the Virginia Center for Creative Arts and Hambidge Center, Kim works at the University of Virginia School of Law as the Assistant Dean for Public Service and teaches public interest lawyering. She is also a violinist, and as poet, she has collaborated with composer Aaron Stepp. This interview took place over email.


Rebecca Morgan Frank for The Florida Review:

In Eros, Unbroken, the preface poem, “Confession,” introduces us to two characters in this collection: Scarlatti and his friend Farinelli, a castrato. What drew you to these two figures as subjects?


Annie Kim:

One day I was listening to a Scarlatti album by pianist Anne Queffélec. I’d always thought of Scarlatti’s sonatas as these tiny, quick, chandelier-like things. But as I listened to the rollercoaster of emotions in the second piece on this album, the K.27 sonata, I was struck by how stormy and personal it felt. I was hooked.


As I Googled away, I learned that no one knows much about Scarlatti’s life. But I did find page after page about his friend, the singer Farinelli. Like a lot of promising young male singers at the time, Farinelli had been castrated as a boy to preserve the beauty of his voice. He went on to become the preeminent opera singer of his day. It’s hard to picture now, but castrati in 18th-century Italy were like K-Pop royalty. These boys were groomed for years to become the next big thing. Eventually, then, after a successful career on-stage, Farinelli met Scarlatti in the court of Philip V, where Scarlatti had been working as a music instructor to the princess. Farinelli was hired by the queen to sing each night to her mad husband as a form of musical therapy.


As you can tell, there’s plenty of drama here already! In a strange way, though, that drama seemed like the perfect counterpart to the story I was starting to write about my own life. I had been working on emotionally raw poems about my early relationship with my father. Writing about the body—my body—as the object of violence was something I’d never done before. Not fun. Locating an analogue of sorts in Farinelli made me feel better, more connected. The two “Castrato” poems in my book, then, emerged from my efforts to imagine Farinelli as a boy sacrificing his body for his music.



In “Uses for Music,” you begin, “Because there is no soundtrack for the brain. / Because nothing has the beauty of a cage / you can enter when you want and leave behind.” This collection is steeped in music, from musical terms to musical forms and instruments (including the body.) What is your own background with music?



My musical background is pretty typical for an Asian American—I started playing violin in grade school, took lessons, did youth orchestras. Then, after a 13-year hiatus, I started playing again in a local chamber orchestra around the same time that I began my MFA writing program. Performing music has always given me a crucial emotional outlet. Now, those emotions are performed, as the quote from “Uses for Music” acknowledges. But those performances are still cathartic and restorative.


I think my musical experience also affects my everyday writing in subtle ways. It definitely informs how I think about progression or development. Playing Western classical music allows you to absorb musical structures like sonata form, theme and variation, preludes and fugues. These are all about creating patterns and then disrupting them. And, at the most basic level, you’re always moving between the poles of tension and release because you’re always driving toward resolution. Fast then slow, loud then soft. While I’m not consciously thinking about any of these musical strategies when I’m writing, they’re somewhere deep in my bones, in my inner ear.


Music also took on a major role in Eros, Unbroken. At a symbolic level, the body of the violin—my violin—became a metaphor for my own body. Both bodies can be violated, broken, and, fortunately, mended. In fact, I was practicing one day while writing this book when the soundpost inside my violin came loose from its upright position. Though the soundpost is just a tiny wooden stick, no bigger than a dowel, it’s essential to creating the violin’s voice. That dislodging felt terrible but revelatory—it was the necessary snapping that has to happen when you start grappling with old traumas, as I was.


I was also obsessed with trying to convey musical counterpoint—multiple notes, multiple voices—in words. It’s not really possible. But in the long sequences in the book (“Violins: Violence” and “A Hysteresis Loop”) and, most visibly, in “After Sonata Form,” I tried to suspend and juxtapose voices so that the reader could “hear” the first line still ringing a little even when the second line comes in.



Your poem “Confession” even ends with the definition of counterpoint. Can you say more about engaging in this sort of poetic counterpoint with the collection’s larger narrative threads? Did this affect the overall shaping of this book?



Yes, and in every possible way! At its heart, counterpoint is about having your cake and eating it too. Two voices carry on simultaneously, going wherever they want but moving in ways that create productive tension and contrast. I was convinced I could find a way to counterpoint my autobiographical story with the Farinelli/Scarlatti one despite how crazy that seemed. I won’t lie—there was a lot of cursing.


Creating counterpoint with these two lines meant that I had to think hard about how to sequence the poems in the book. Certain material had to be introduced at particular points for narrative reasons. At the same time, I found that simply alternating story lines in an A/B/A/B fashion didn’t work. After a million different mash-ups and months of trial and error, I landed on a rough order that zigzagged between the two stories at moments that made emotional and dramatic sense. And, of course, a year after that first draft, I switched things around again!


Counterpoint also made me focus on how to make each story line stylistically distinctive. This was hard because the poems in the autobiographical strand ranged a lot in form. For instance, I had multi-page sequences composed primarily in short-lined, irregular stanzas, alongside a number of more traditional one-page poems. The Farinelli/Scarlatti pieces I decided to set as letters and dialogues. While I didn’t attempt writing in an archaic diction, I did use loose blank verse to give them a bit more cohesion.



Can you talk a little bit about your path to becoming a poet? When and where did you first come to poetry?



Though I read poetry here and there throughout college, I didn’t try to write it until I was nearly thirty. I was practicing law. I was unhappy. I thought a lot about whether I wanted to have kids and decided that I didn’t. Late one night while I was having trouble falling asleep, I went downstairs and wrote a sonnet because that was the only poetic form I knew. It was a bad sonnet. But writing it felt so good! I started reading poems, writing poems, and then went to a few writers’ conferences where I met some wonderful teachers like David Baker. I eventually bit the bullet and applied to the low-residency MFA program at Warren Wilson College which, miraculously, let me in. I was so new to writing that it hurt. After graduating, I still felt adrift and unsure of myself, as many people do.


Really, it wasn’t until I stopped practicing law and started working at my alma mater, the University of Virginia School of Law, that I finally had the mental space to write well. Working with students taught me how to be more open, vulnerable, and emotionally expressive—all of which helped my creative work.



You not only have a background as a lawyer, but in fact also serve as a dean in the Law School at the University of Virginia. Do you find that this background, with your training and experience in legal rhetoric, influences your approach to poetry, particularly your poetic arguments and structures?



All law students go through a writing boot camp when they start school. In that boot camp, you’re drilled on how to structure your writing, sentence by sentence. There’s even an acronym for how to organize your paragraphs called IRAC or CRAC. It goes like this: Issue (or Conclusion) – Rule – Application – Conclusion. Legal writing forces you, then, to get to your point quickly, signal where you’re going, and build in explicit transitions.


So when you consider how much poetry relies on intuition, surprise, jump cuts and leaps, you can imagine what it’s like for lawyers to write poetry! At the same time, all that focus on structure and argument probably forced me to be more critical of my writing than I would otherwise have been. Does this statement make logical sense? If it doesn’t make sense, does it still belong here?


These days I’m much more interested in loose poetic structures than in arguments. Structures that progress and resolve, sometimes narratively, but not always in fully explicable ways. How does an extended image, for instance, complete the “argument” of a narrative passage, for instance? How do tonal shifts and modulations “argue” different stances of the speaker? I love to see how poems can quickly and stealthily open up the infinite gray space within any subject.



The longer poem “Violins: Violence” feels like the heart of this book—this is a poem that wrestles with difficult material in part by seeking ways to connect the words themselves, as well as through dialogue with Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations. What are the roots of this poem’s engagement with this particular text?



I was still working as a lawyer when I first read the Meditations. Though I liked my job, I got easily frustrated by people. It was comforting to read the inner musings of a man who had legitimate reasons to be stressed out (he was Emperor!). The form of the Meditations—serial, fragmented, often intimately voiced—reminded me why journal writing and, really, all forms of writing to yourself, can be powerful.


The text came to mind also because I was doing a lot of self-talk throughout the book, channeling the second-person voice. “Last night you dreamed again / about your father,” was one of the first fragments I wrote in the second person that eventually coalesced, with other bits, into “Violins: Violence.”  And the Meditations, of course, are written mainly in the second person, including the passage at the start of Book Two quoted in this poem:


When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous, and surly. . . .


That second-person pronoun creates such an interesting and productive distance between the speaker and the self. It doesn’t exist when we simply say, “When I wake up in the morning, I should tell myself…” It acknowledges a legacy self. A self that can be interrogated, grieved, and consoled.



One of the highlights of this collection is the series of Eros poems strung throughout the book. The imagery in these poems, among others, appears almost painterly. What role, if any, does visual art play in your writing: where do you turn to for visual inspiration or connection?



Like a lot of poets, I love visual art—its freedom and wordlessness. And sometimes I even try to write poems about art in the ekphrastic tradition. These are mostly terrible. For instance, I think I’ve attempted once a year for the past ten years to write a poem about Bernini’s massive sculpture, The Ecstasy of St. Teresa. Ditto for some seaport paintings by Claude. These poems fail because there’s no way to turn a bridge into a tambourine—one art doesn’t translate into another.


But I’m always interested in the poem as a vehicle for seeing. Writing imagery, for me, is like sticking my head under the black cloth of an old-school camera. Relaxing and absorbing, all at once. Until you mentioned it, though, I hadn’t noticed how much the Eros poems grapple with seeing. How much they want to touch. Eros isn’t about having, after all; it’s about wanting. Maurice Merleau-Ponty has a beautiful essay, “Eye and Mind,” in which he says that seeing “is to have at a distance.” To enjoy a “strange possession.” The painter’s work, then, is to make visible what the eye sees but cannot hold. The poet does that, too, but also tries to make visible what can’t be seen. To suggest the fine tissue layers of memory, thought, and feeling.


As for the art I go to for inspiration, I’m a sucker for Byzantine and early Renaissance religious painting. I love busy triptychs. Goldleaf. Virgins wearing angular blue robes. The summer light of Claude Lorrain. The wintry light of Hendrick Avercamp. All of Velázquez, Lucas Cranach’s Judiths, Klimt’s landscapes, Courbet’s life-sized Burial at Ornans, the abstract paintings of Richter in which you can occasionally glimpse a stream in the woods.



What poem or collection of poems do you find yourself returning to across your life as a poet?



Oh, so many books by Frank Bidart! Especially his chapbook Music Like Dirt, which is both searing (like all his work) but also enormously generous. I could name more collections, but I hate it when people cheat on questions like this. Okay, I’ll cheat just a little: every year I read a poem by John Donne called “Hymn to God, My God, in My Sickness.” It’s about trying like hell to calm one’s fears about death. And it contains some of the most moving metaphors I’ve ever read: Donne surrendering his body as an instrument to be “tuned at the door” so he can become God’s “music.” Though I’m a staunch agnostic these days, I grew up in the evangelical tradition. Something about Donne’s struggles with faith in this poem and in the holy sonnets pierces me every time.



If you were to build a poetic family tree, who are some of the writers you would be sure to include?



In addition to Bidart and Donne, I’d add my former teacher Rick Barot, Robert Hass, Anne Carson, Susan Stewart, and Tomas Tranströmer. From the twentieth century and earlier, Zbigniew Herbert has meant a lot to me (Mr. Cogito!), as has Elizabeth Bishop, Horace, and Rilke. On reflection, I see that this tree of mine is pretty old and overwhelmingly white. Sadly, it doesn’t include many wonderful poets—including many poets of color—whom I love and respect. But the poets I’ve named are the ones who nourished and challenged me when I was just starting to write and whose words continue to vibrate in my subconscious.



Is there a third collection of poems in the works? What are you working on now?



Something is in the works, I hope! The pandemic unleashed a lot of prose in me, for whatever reason. Some of the new pieces I’ve written seem to fit squarely in the prose poem tradition. Others are more like short fables. In many of these I’ve been trying to foreground the artifice of poetry, the “so what?” of poetry. And letting humor come in. So maybe these pieces will pave the way for a hybrid collection at some point.


In a completely unrelated project, I’m toying with the idea of writing an opera libretto based on Eros, Unbroken. I’m taking a class offered by the Seattle Opera (one gift of the pandemic!) that’s sparked my interest, and I’ve been talking with my friend, composer Aaron Stepp, who has more experience with this than I do, about how we might write a chamber opera. Whether or not we’re able to actually do this, I just love thinking about the narrative and other creative challenges that would come with this project.