Interviews

An Interview with Tatiana Ryckman

TWO TWENTY-SOMETHINGS TALKING ABOUT TATIANA RYCKMAN’S TWENTY-SOMETHING

In this interview, Michener Fellow and Issue 2 author Vincent Scarpa talks to The Austin Review's Managing Editor Tatiana Ryckman about her new chapbook Twenty-Something published by ELJ Publications.


Vincent Scarpa: Tell me a bit about how this collection came to be. How long had you been sitting on these stories? Did you gather them feeling that they were in some way, even indirectly, in conversation with one another? What was the process like of getting the manuscript accepted and published?

Tatiana Ryckman: I was very lucky because the press approached me and asked for a manuscript, so getting it published was disorientingly easy. In its final draft, this collection is the best possible version of my master's thesis, but initially, once accepted, I kept thinking about Woody Allen at the beginning of Annie Hall saying, "I wouldn't want to be in a club that would have someone like me for a member.” I reread the work I'd sent in with complete horror and started to slash away at stories and lines, writing new stories, replacing and revising. Imagining someone paying money for the book (and actually reading it) made me feel a little ill and slightly more objective about the the whole thing.

VS: One of the thematic elements at work here, at least to this reader, is the relationship between disguise and vulnerability. The protagonist in "Getting to Know You" asks her lover to put on a mask, saying, "It's easier this way." The mask is a disguise, of course, and yet this feels like a way in which this couple can be transparent about their needs. Similarly, Clarice, in the title story, is a nude model for a community art class, something that could easily—and quite rightly—be interpreted as the height of vulnerability. And yet, by taking her clothes off in front of strangers, she is also made able to hide certain other parts of herself from those who know her. [I'm thinking here of the great tableau vivant scene in Edith Wharton's House of Mirth.] I wonder if you could talk a bit about that duality between concealment and exposure--what about that seems interesting to mine in your fiction? And do you think it at all mirrors the process of writing itself?

TR: ”The relationship between disguise and vulnerability" sounds much more attractive than my sister's reaction to the manuscript when I asked her if it was too “man-hatey." She said, "It's not man-hatey, but it does seem like you are harboring some gender identity issues." Which I admit is a reaction I sort of enjoy. I suppose I believe we're all wearing disguises most of the time, to the extent that a literal mask can sometimes feel like a more accurate representation of who someone is than the way they present themselves to lovers or friends or family members. Learning to filter one's thoughts and expressions is a pretty basic part of audience awareness, of growing up, and of communicating. The story “Twenty-Something” specifically attempts to embody this the idea of dual selves. Of becoming an adult without feeling like it. Of being told you can be anything you want to be and then being disappointed by your own choice.

VS: One of my favorite sections in the book is the pseudo-fan-fiction that reimagines the relationship of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. What prompted that? [Beyond creating the conditions wherein we could imagine Richard Burton having "the enormous cock of a horse."] 

TR: There was a reading series in Austin called "Five Things,” where the organizers would select five writers and a theme and give each writer an assignment the week before. I happened to be in the "Elizabeth Taylor's Husbands" edition, and was lucky enough to get Richard Burton as my assignment. Most of what I remember from the reading is Lesley Clayton saying, "Diamonds are forever," over and over, to great comedic effect.

VS: Talk to me about the origin of "Heat Bringer," which is both the collection's strangest and most recognizable story at once. Do you think it's true that, through the evocation of the surreal, the writer is presented with an opportunity to achieve an even more precise human truth?

TR: The origin of “Heat Bringer” is a t-shirt I stole from my high school boyfriend, which a coworker of mine was incredibly envious of. One fateful day I didn't turn it inside out before tossing it in the laundry and the Heat Bringer washed off forever. This story is a sort of tribute to that t-shirt. Maybe I should have lied to sound more intelligent? Should have said something like, "Through the absurd character of the Heat Bringer I explore our natural fear of death and the true significance of self immolation. The scorpions represent religion's role in secular media and the virgin clearly represents the afterlife, where we will all be born as furious Bringers of Heat."

But ultimately, yes, I do think a writer can sacrifice reality for truth. Some to greater effect than others. 

VS: Which writers do you admire? Which writers do you turn to for instruction? Which writers do you avoid?

TR: I adore and aspire to write like Lydia Davis, Russell Edson, and James Tate. I choose to believe that I am just the right kind of obsessed with The Great Gatsby, and I learn something new every time I read that book. I've also been hugely influenced by Miranda July, Dawn Raffel, Clarice Lispector, and Micheline Aharonian Marcom. I tend to avoid bestsellers with the belief that anyone famous enough to sell books probably doesn't get edited enough.

VS: What are you working on now, and where can anyone interested in reading Twenty-Something go to purchase the book?

TR: I’m currently writing poems and reading nonfiction. A palate-cleanser, I guess. If someone wants to read Twenty-Something they can steal a copy from my trunk, find it at Farewell Books in Austin, or at Powell's in Portland. Of course it's also on the internet, so no matter where you live it's available at Amazon and on the press's website.

Q&A with Eric Shonkwiler

Photo by Sabrina Renkar

Photo by Sabrina Renkar

The Austin Review: If you were reviewing your own work, how would you describe its style or point of view?

Eric Shonkwiler: I’ve heard it said by others, and would have to agree with the “stark and poetic” description of style. If you really made me sit down and review my own book, I’m afraid I’d end up tearing it apart. That’s probably not unique to me, though.

TAR: Who are some of your favorite contemporary authors?

ES: Marilynne Robinson—I am remarkably excited for her new novel, Lila. You can guess I’m a big fan of Cormac McCarthy, which is true. Some of the newest authors and works I’ve read this year have also become some of my favorites. Schuler Benson just had a new collection out, and it’s as grungy, scary, and powerful as anything I’ve read in recent years. Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped and Salvage the Bones ruined me. On a lighter note, Tom Williams’ new novel, Don’t Start Me Talkin’, was the most fun I’ve had reading a book in a long while. Louise Erdrich is guaranteed to bowl me over. I’m also an admirer of Charles Bowden, who just passed away. His work about the border made me reconsider the way a writer ought to rail against the world.

TAR: What classics do you most identify with?

ES: Identify is a difficult word. I’d like to take it easy and say that I identify with Hemingway’s novels, and while I enjoy a number of them immensely, I don’t know that I really identify with them entirely. One book, and protagonist, I can likely identify with entirely is The Odyssey, and Odysseus. I feel like I’m taking ten years to get home, myself.

TAR: What book do you feel embarrassed never to have read?

ES: I am woefully under-read when it comes to Russian literature. I have read not a scrap. Name a Russian classic and I haven’t read it, and am embarrassed to say so.

TAR: What were the main challenges you faced in bringing your first novel—Above All Men—to life?

ES: It was a long process, and the main challenge was likely one of attrition. I wrote the novel relatively quickly, but it took years to get it into shape, and even more time to find a proper home for it. All that time passing, it was hard to keep my spirits up, and there were a few days along the way in which I considered abandoning it as a project.

TAR: How did your experience getting an MFA influence you and your writing?

ES: Aside from the normal gifts of an MFA—getting the time and money to write—I came away from UC Riverside with a stronger faith in myself, and my idea of my own writing. The workshops there—and this will sound bad, but I don’t mean it to—really ground down at what I saw Above All Men as being. I stuck to my guns for the most part, but the influences that changed AAM in the workshop were influences and changes that were, eventually, cut out of the final product. That may seem like a poor or misguided workshop experience, but I don’t think it was. I think it’s necessary to test yourself that way. And of course, a number of other workshops helped build and whittle at AAM in a positive way, and I left UCR with a few professors I hold up as mentors.

TAR: What advice do you give other writers about how to market a first novel?

ES: The best advice I can give is to try to be everywhere. You never know what one person is going to see, and how that one person might change how your book is received. I’ve been all over Facebook, Twitter, Goodreads, and a number of journals. On top of that rather wide net, I’ve taken AAM on the road, and toured cross-country, which I’m about to do again, from September to October. That’s one of the more fun things you can do in promotion of your book. I’ve met a lot of great people on the road, and am sure to do so again.

TAR: If you were told you couldn’t write anymore, what job would you pursue and why?

ES: Probably some sort of law enforcement or investigations job. It would be challenging, and it would be helpful to society. That’s a lot of what I look for out of writing.

TAR: When you think of Austin, what comes to mind?

ES: A flood of food trucks and good vinyl wash over me when I think of Austin.

TAR: Answer the question you wish we had asked.

ES: I am working on a new book, as a matter of fact. I’m shopping my second novel as we speak, and getting started on my third.


Eric Shonkwiler has had writing appear in Los Angeles Review of BooksThe Millions, Fiddleblack, [PANK] Magazine, Midwestern Gothic, and elsewhere. He received his MFA in Fiction from University of California–Riverside where he was the recipient of the Chancellor’s Distinguished Fellowship Award, and is a regional editor for Los Angeles Review of Books, as well as a former reader for [PANK] and former Editor-in-Chief for CRATE: The Literary Journal of UCR. Born and raised in Ohio, Eric has lived and worked in every contiguous U.S. time zone and finds himself on the road as often as not. He is the author of the critically acclaimed debut novel, Above All Men, released in March from MG Press, and chosen as a 2014 Midwest Connections Pick by the Midwest Independent Booksellers Association. You can find him at ericshonkwiler.com.

An Interview with Owen Egerton

By Peter McCrady

In case you haven't heard, Owen Egerton is a bit of an Austin icon, and he’s at the heart of the city’s literary scene.

The author and comedian easily embodies the sly juxtapositions that make Austin the weird city that it is, and the city has embraced him. With his numerous gigs and projects, it might seem like Egerton was born to write, and according to him, you would almost be right.

Egerton said the idea to be a writer started early for him. He remembers working on his first play when he was in the second grade.

“I was that kind of kid that made my younger sister and my neighbors be in plays and coming up with ideas for worlds that I wanted to create,” Egerton said.

He also remembers the first real lesson he learned about writing in the fifth grade when trying to cope with his grandparents’ dog being put to sleep.

“I scribbled this first person story from the point of view of the dog on his last day alive, and I remember walking away from that story feeling better but with no answers,” Egerton recalled. “That was the first lesson for me. I will find a form of expression or release, but I will not find answers.”

Writing was something that stuck with Egerton through high school and college, increasingly becoming a more important part of his life.

In an effort to devote more of his time to his craft, Egerton decided to forgo rent by pulling a bit of a Kerouac and purchasing a 1970s Volkswagen Camper and traveling around Austin and some of the western states.

“I would shower at Barton Springs in the morning and abuse coffee shops with free refills,” Egerton said.

To keep the tank filled, Egerton did comedy gigs in the evenings.

“Comedy comes naturally to me. It is my fallback. It’s just my personality,” Egerton said. “I was a middle kid with two older brothers and a younger sister. It was a big enough family that I think to make myself heard, comedy was the angle.”

During this time, Egerton was able to finish and self publish his first novel—the work that led him into the world of screenwriting. The novel was optioned by a filmmaker who was interested in turning the work into his first feature film. Egerton was able to work through a screenplay, learning the structure and the process of adapting a novel to a different creative format.

Egerton then transitioned from his comedy troupe to working with friends on more screenplays, eventually selling scripts to the likes of Warner Brothers, Fox, and Disney.

“I continue to struggle through novels and screenplays and sometimes a bit of a living,” Egerton said.

And when he says struggle through novels, what he means is that he has written three novels including Everyone Says That at the End of the World; The Book of Harold: The Illegitimate Son of God; and Marshall Hollenzer is Driving. He also is the author of a short story collection titled How Best to Avoid Dying, as well as a contributor to Salon and the Huffington Post.

The humor of writing

If his time on the comedy circuit is not enough of an indication, Egerton is funny. Both in his writing and in conversation, he can keep a person laughing. But his comedic nature was not always something he wanted to include in his style.

“When I was first writing—when I was younger—I was making an effort to not use comedy. I didn’t want to write funny stories. I was a serious writer. But as time went by, comedy would keep slipping in . . . and I made peace with that.”

For his writing, Egerton finds that humor can act as a way to lower the reader’s guard so ideas and themes can be experienced in an unexpected way. Humor deepens a reader’s relationship with the work and the topic.

“Humor can kind of come in and mix up that formula and surprise us,” Egerton said. “It can make us laugh out loud—suddenly announce ourselves vocally. It can make us have a physical response that we don’t necessarily want.”

Much like the way tragedy can open up a person, humor can also crack a person’s heart to let new emotions get through.

“Humor usually comes in best when it comes through a character’s voice,” Egerton said. “People are just funny. They just are. So that’s often where I find it, and then often in situations that are pushed just slightly extreme.”

Comedy is not the only style that shapes Egerton’s writing. He said all the different styles he works in, from screenwriting to novels to improv to articles, intermingle with each other.

“Screenwriting has—especially the screenwriting I do for Hollywood—taught me a tremendous amount about structure and narrative arcs,” he said. “Using that to inform my novel writing has been helpful.”

In the end though, it is still the struggle of the novel that fully engrosses Egerton’s interest.

“The novel is my favorite format,” Egerton said. “Screenwriting is something I really enjoy and the structure of it is really fun, but often a screenwriting assignment feels more like a job. It’s with novels that I wrestle with who I am and what life is. For me, novels don’t pay that well, but I sure do love writing them.”

Egerton is currently in the revision process for a new novel, working to pitch a sitcom, and recently finished a successful Kickstarter campaign with his wife to fund the writing of a “craft” book. If that’s not keeping him busy enough, he still has the numerous events that he hosts and organizes including the One Page Salon.

The Austin-centric lit scene

“The lit scene in Austin is pretty inspiring,” Egerton said. “There’s a lot going on here. There’s always been a cool literary scene here, thanks to The University of Texas, thanks to a creative community, thanks to being the spot in Texas where so many people who love to create and be in music, art, or literature kind of gravitate to.”

Even though Austin started with a strong foundation in creativity and the arts, there is still a sense of the literary scene growing here in the city through both readers and writers. Egerton credits the many creative writing programs offered through local universities as well as quality journals and presses, including A Strange Object, American Short Fiction and The Austin Review, that are using the city as their base of operations.

Even with all this creativity swimming through the streets of the city—its heritage and new horizons—Egerton feels that Austin has yet to settle on its own distinctive style.

“I’m thrilled to say there’s not [an Austin voice],” Egerton said. “The reason is because Austin thrives on variety. Variety is a great way of making things pop, more than everyone subscribing to one particular Austin aesthetic.”

Egerton sees this type of freedom as a positive trait for Austin and indicative of the culture as well. He said publishers like A Strange Object are publishing high-quality content in a beautiful format that allows the work itself to find its own market, rather than pandering. And this freedom extends outside of writing to other artistic formats including film.

“If anything, I would love Austin to be known for having this wide variety,” Egerton said. “Of having this surreal fantasy fiction mixed with Cormac McCarthy’s dark Western-type fiction to having everything in between. I like the idea that those types of voices can be in the same room talking to each other.”

Egerton said there is a lot of benefit to this community of writers and readers. This collective literary culture allows writers to grow and “cross-pollinate” with one another.

But not all is paradise in this Central Texas oasis. The laid back and welcoming atmosphere of Austin can also hinder creatives. Egerton stressed that Austin is a great place to find other writers to talk to, but not to mistake talking about writing with actually putting pen to paper.

“I love Austin. I would choose to live in Austin over Los Angeles or New York,” Egerton said. “But there is something that Austin creatives could on occasion learn from L.A. [and New York]. You actually have to do what you’re talking about . . . When you’re in more cutthroat communities like Los Angeles, you better turn off the phone, open up the computer, turn off the Internet, and type and type and type.”

What separates Austin from other large creative hubs is the kindness that allows for more collaboration and support. This collaborative culture creates a unique vibe for Austin in the creative world.

“I think it has something to do with the feel of Austin,” Egerton said. “I think occasionally on the other coasts, there is a mentality that there is a gold nugget on the top of the mountain and we’re all scrambling up to try and get it and cling to it. In Austin, there’s a bunch of people saying why don’t we each build our own mountain and then we can all hang out together.”

As Austin’s lit scene continues to grow through all its milestones and struggles, Egerton hopes it can keep its weirdness.

“I love the idea that Austin would encourage risk-taking in literature,” Egerton said. “I would like Austin to be known for risk in literature.”

Getting your fix

As the literary community grows in Austin, the opportunities to be involved with that group of people also are growing. Egerton encourages word-lovers to attend readings, find independent workshops to expand their craft, browse local bookstores, pick the brains of the people manning the counters at local book stores, subscribe to journals, and to just soak up the Austin atmosphere at the nearest coffee shop.

“I love our coffee shop culture,” Egerton said. “You have all these great public spaces, these public living rooms, where people are hanging out working next to each other. It can either be really distracting or incredibly exciting.”

A more off-the-wall resource that Egerton has found for writers and creatives is the city’s improv community.

“I know a number of different writers who have benefitted from taking an improv course.” Egerton said. “It frees them up from the feeling of permanence when you type a word and encourages some of that creative risk-taking.”

But for the capital city, the best things writers and readers can do is keep it local.

“Read local writers,” Egerton said. “It’s fun for a young writer to meet the person who’s written a book. . . . The opportunity to sit down with a writer you admire and hear their thoughts on writing is pretty fantastic.”

In Austin, you can get that experience just by offering to “buy the author a beer.”


To stay up on everything Owen Egerton is getting mixed up in, visit his website at www.owenegerton.com.

Q & A with Issue 2 Cover Artist Jennifer Balkan

We are delighted to present the artist who has generously allowed us to use one of her paintings for the cover of upcoming Issue 2 of The Austin Review: Jennifer Balkan.

Pictured above is the cover, including back (at left), spine (middle), and front (at right). Jennifer's oil painting, entitled "Birds," forms the front cover, and sections of its background have been reproduced and stitched to form the back.

Jennifer is a long-time Austin resident and regularly participates in the popular East Austin Studio Tour. Her unique, beautiful portfolio can be viewed at her website here, along with her biography and information about art classes she leads from her studio. We are grateful for her generosity and proud to work with her.

Q&A

The Austin Review: When and how did you become interested in painting?

Jennifer Balkan: I have drawn all my life and poked around in my grandmother's oil paints as a child but didn't truly become turned on to paint until 2001. I had treated myself to a trip to Europe upon finishing my PhD in sociology. Upon seeing tons of master paintings, which I had seen only in books, I felt a compelling urge to learn how to paint.

TAR: How would you describe your artistic style or point of view?

JB: I consider myself to be an expressive representational painter; that is, I paint recognizable things with loose, thick, colorful strokes. I am always striving for abstraction in that I choose to break up the form into its constituent shapes and allow them to tell the visual story.  

TAR:  Who are some of your favorite contemporary artists, or artists who have influenced you the most?

JB: Lucian Freud, Wayne Thiebaud, Jenny Saville, Ann Gale, Oskar Kokochka, and Chuck Close

TAR: If you couldn't paint for a living, what would you be doing?

JB: I think I would be a neuroscience researcher. My undergraduate degree was in behavioral neuroscience, and I continue to be smitten by understanding how our brain determines our behavior.  

TAR: What is it like being an artist in Austin? Has it changed in the last few years?

JB: Being an artist in Austin is quite lovely. I'm surrounded by so many creative people. Austin has a strong visual arts community. I wish only that we had major museums like in Houston or Fort Worth. I would love to be able to take a lunch break and go see how John Singer Sargent solved a problem. The community has gotten bigger over the years and more attention is being paid to the visual arts by the city.  

TAR: Who are your favorite authors?

JB: I don't know if I have favorite authors, but I certainly have favorite books. Here are five that I can think of:
    1.  The Age of Insight: The Quest to Understand the Unconscious in Art, Mind, and Brain, from Vienna 1900 to the Present by Eric Kandel
    2.  Geek Love by Katherine Dunn
    3.  Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy
    4.  A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
    5.  The Art Spirit by Robert Henri

An Interview with Jac Jemc, Author of My Only Wife

An Interview with Jac Jemc, Author of My Only Wife

At this year’s AWP conference in Seattle, we passed booth after booth of beautifully decorated books. Yet, none held our gaze longer than the black-and-white patterned cover of Dzanc Books’s My Only Wife, which—after a quick and enjoyed read—proved to be so much more than a pretty face. A finalist for the 2013 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction and winner of the Paula Anderson Book Award, My Only Wife is a pristinely crafted and poetically told love story. The Austin Review was honored that the acclaimed author, Jac Jemc, agreed to give us a few moments of her time.

The Interview

The Austin Review: When did you first begin writing? 

Jac Jemc: The story goes that when I was in third grade, I told my teacher that someday I'd write a hundred-page book, so I've always been interested in writing, but I didn't start to take writing more seriously until college. 

An Interview with Austin's Library Director, Brenda Branch

An Interview with Austin's Library Director, Brenda Branch

No one is more excited than the staff at The Austin Review about the new central library being built in downtown Austin. It will serve as a centerpiece for arts and culture and propel us further along the path of becoming a world-class literary city. To learn more about the library, and other exciting plans, we decided to chat with Library Director Brenda Branch. We thank her and her entire team for all the great work they are doing for our city.   

The Interview

The Austin Review: You are Austin's fourth Library Director. What does a Library Director do day-to-day?

Brenda Branch: Serving as Austin Public Library Director is the best job on earth. I get to combine my passion for literacy and my love of books to help library users connect with the materials and information they need to improve their lives.

An Interview with the Publisher of sunnyoutside, David McNamara

In preparation for our upcoming table-sharing at the AWP conference in Seattle, we asked editor David McNamara of sunnyoutside, a small press located in Buffalo, New York, a few probing questions. We figured if we’re about to be in the trenches together, we ought to get to know one another. We are honored that their books will be displayed next to The Austin Review at the conference, and you can find them at table Q9.   

The Interview

The Austin Review: What was your experience with writing before starting the press, and what made you want to go into publishing?

David McNamara: My younger self fancied himself a writer and I studied writing at university and the Poets’ House in Ireland. I got published a little bit here and there, and even did some spoken word stuff, including performing live on an NPR affiliate and at Lollapalooza one year. 

An Interview with Cari Luna, Author of The Revolution of Every Day

An Interview with Cari Luna, Author of The Revolution of Every Day

The Austin Review was honored to get a few moments of Cari Lunaʼs time for an interview. The author of The Revolution of Every Day shared her wealth of knowledge on the New York homesteader movement over drinks in a quiet Portland coffee shop, as she moved skillfully between sending kids to school and stealing a few hours to work on her next great novel.

The Interview

The Austin Review: The writing in Revolution of Every Day is described in a few reviews as “gritty,” yet it strikes me as amazingly clean. And to an effect--not just the stylistic juxtaposition with the content—but as a big arrow pointing to the fact that the characters whose minds we pass in and out of arenʼt dumb just because their living situation is unorthodox. They arenʼt uneducated. And they donʼt fit stereotypes of squatters. Can you talk about your influences for the book and your stylistic choices?

Cari Luna: The choice of the word “gritty” has jumped out at me too, because I donʼt necessarily see that. I think [reviewers] are trying to find a way to talk about the squatters and describe them, and itʼs more about the subject matter than the writing.

Inspiration wise, stylistically? I wrote it over a period of six years, and there were a lot of varying influences in that time. In terms of philosophy, the title, 'The Revolution of Every Day,' is a hat-tip to the situationist text, The Revolution of Everyday Life. The situationists were Anarchists in the French uprisings of ʼ68, and [the book] was written by Raoul Vaneigem.

The squatters in New York were a very diverse group with different reasons for squatting. Those who squatted for political reasons, many of them, were inspired by the situationists. At the actual historical eviction of May 1995--the eviction the novel is inspired by--one of the protest signs held up was “long live the revolution of everyday life.” When that came up in my research it gave me goose bumps. I was like, “Yeah, thatʼs it!” and that felt like a major key to understanding the political aspect of the story as well: What are these people doing and what are they looking for? And what the hell is “the revolution of everyday life?" So I read [the book], and it had a huge influence on how I saw the motivations of the characters, so I tried to bring that in, too.

An Interview with Blogger and Writer Ann Morgan

An Interview with Blogger and Writer Ann Morgan

The Austin Review stumbled by chance onto British writer Ann Morgan’s internationally celebrated blog, A Year of Reading the World, in which she documents her experience reading one book from every United Nations-recognized country within a year. Her blog rose to such success that she is currently at work on a book based on her experience, expected to be out in 2015 and published by Harvill Secker. Ann holds an M.F.A. from the University of East Anglia and is also at work on a novel. Blown away by her story, we reached out to her for an interview, to which she kindly agreed.

The Interview

The Austin Review: When did you first begin to blog?

Ann Morgan: I started in 2011 with a blog called A Year of Reading Women where I was reading only women writers for a year.

TAR: How did this lead to your blog, A Year of Reading the World?

AM: It was a chance comment from a blogger in the U.S. that made me think about what world literature I read. I always thought of myself as a very cultured person, but when I looked at my bookshelves I realized that there seemed to just be American and British writers on there. I decided that I would spend a year exploring world literature by trying to read a book from every country in the world.

An Interview with Lorin Stein, Editor of The Paris Review

An Interview with Lorin Stein, Editor of The Paris Review

Since he became editor in 2010, Lorin Stein’s name has become synonymous with the renown and success of The Paris Review. Mr. Stein is the third editor at the journal, following Philip Gourevitch and founding editor George Plimpton. Previously, he was at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, first as an editorial assistant and then as senior editor. He has degrees from Yale and Johns Hopkins, where he also served as a teaching fellow. Novels edited by Mr. Stein have received the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, among many other honors, and his translations and other works have appeared in some of the most prestigious publications in the world.   

I have met Mr. Stein and several of his co-workers on a few occasions for readings and events that coincided with trips to New York City and was immediately struck by their easygoing conversation and social generosity, which is shown in the interview below. It has been our honor to discuss The Paris Review’s new office, their talented staff, and the cultural flux brought on by technology.

On Kevin Sampsell's "This Is Between Us"

On Kevin Sampsell's "This Is Between Us"

Sometimes I feel like I’m reading in fiberglass. Restless itching and sick of everything. But I love this book like a school girl loves a fresh-faced Math teacher. Blindly. 

It’s hard to know what to call Kevin Sampsell; a novelist? Memoirist, editor, curator of books, reader? He is all of these things. And perhaps this is why it’s hard to know what to call his new book, This is Between Us. A novel, sure, but the story is built from individual moments like bricks, like flash, like poetry, and calling the book fiction feels like a cop-out. There’s something too nervously real about the beautifully complex five years of relationship Sampsell’s characters are mired in to give it such an easy label. 

Sampsell’s phrasing and imagery never fall short of wonderfully surprising or equally heartbreaking. When asked about the influences for his poetic writing in This is Between Us, Sampsell said, “I like poetry that is emotionally jarring. I think Ghost Machine by Ben Mirov was one of the first in a newer wave of poetry books that I loved in the past few years. There was also Coeur de Lion by Ariana Reines, which felt eviscerating to me. Discovering Sharon Olds was a beautiful and important moment as well. There was also Dan Magers, Emily Kendal Frey, Dorothea Lasky, Gregory Sherl, Diana Salier, and most recently, James Gendron. I love how these poets craft lines that whisper and sting and bloom, all at the same time. I love how poetry, more than prose, uses unconventional language and imagery to create a mood that was not there just a few words before.”

An Interview with Domenica Ruta, Acclaimed Author and Michener Center Graduate

An Interview with Domenica Ruta, Acclaimed Author and Michener Center Graduate

Introduction

The New York Times has praised Domenica Ruta's memoir, With or Without You, as an "intensely philosophical memoir" and "a luminous, layered accomplishment."

Ms. Ruta graduated from Oberlin College and received her MFA degree from the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin. She was a finalist for the Keene Prize for Literature and has been awarded residencies at Yaddo, the MacDowell Colony, the Blue Mountain Center, Jentel, and Hedgebrook.

The Austin Review first met Ms. Ruta at the Texas Book Festival, following a panel discussion she held with fellow Michener graduate Fiona McFarlane and moderated by Michener Director James Magnuson. Later that day, Ms. Ruta performed a reading for Austin's first Lit Crawl event and graciously agreed to the interview below.

Interview

The Austin Review: If you were reviewing your own work, how would you describe your style of writing?

Domenica Ruta: If Anne Carson and Euripides had a violent, transgressive affair, Domenica Ruta would be the deformed bastard of their poetic union. (By the way, I think my writing is nothing like Anne Carson, or Euripides. I was thinking in the realm of fantasy reviewers. Except reviewers don't exist in my fantasies, so . . .)

An Interview with Celebrated Author Ben Fountain

Ben Fountain is the bestselling author of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, a novel which was awarded the National Book Critics Circle Award for Fiction, named a finalist for the National Book Award, and selected for Austin’s 2013 Mayor’s Book Club. Ben’s previous work, the short story collection Brief Encounters with Che Guevara, is similarly acclaimed. For these works, Ben has received a Pen/Hemingway award, the Barnes & Noble Discover Award for Fiction, and a Whiting Writers’ Award, among many honors.

Before becoming a full-time writer, Ben practiced law at a large firm in Dallas, where he lives today with his family. Ben’s unique and impressive ascent to the highest levels of American literature is documented in several interviews, such as those published here and here.  

In October 2013, at an event sponsored by the Austin Public Library Friends Foundation, Ben signed copies of, and read from, Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk to a capacity crowd at Austin’s Faulk Library. It was at this event The Austin Review met Ben and learned firsthand of his generosity, enthusiasm, and support for literary journals.

While Ben was working briefly in Austin on his next project, he gave the interview presented below to The Austin Review. We are honored to have his name grace our publication.

Interview

The Austin Review:  If you were reviewing your own work, how would you describe its style or point of view?

Ben Fountain:  Overtly political, in the sense that it deals with individuals trying to carve out space for a measure of decency and autonomy. As part of that, they're trying to figure out why the world is the way it is, or at least their own little part of it.

An Interview with Oscar Casares, Acclaimed Writer and Director of The New Writers Project

An Interview with Oscar Casares, Acclaimed Writer and Director of The New Writers Project

Oscar Casares received a Master of Fine Arts degree from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop in 2001 and is now the director of The New Writers Project, the Creative Writing program in the Department of English at The University of Texas at Austin. He’s also the award-winning author of Brownsville, a collection of short stories, and the novel Amigoland. He has published other works in The Iowa Review, Colorado Review, Northwest Review, Threepenny Review, Texas Monthly, and other publications.

Oscar recently sat down with The Austin Review to talk about his approach to writing and how he left a successful career in advertising to become a full-time writer and professor.   

The Interview

The Austin Review: What do you try to accomplish as you edit your own work?

Oscar Casares: I think there are a lot of things that are going on. But really when I’m going back through a story, I’m asking myself is this something I want to read. There is an old adage that you write the kind of book that you want to read. And, for me, having started off as a non literary person, a non reader, there has to be something that compels me to sit down and not walk away from a book. So that’s a constant. I’ve got to be engaged by the material, not just writing it, but as a reader somewhere down the road.

TAR: In some of your other interviews, you compare your writing style with the art of verbal storytelling. Can you explain that process?

OC: It doesn’t particularly matter if the reader picks up on this, but, for instance, in my novel, and a good part of my story collection, the characters in my mind as I’m writing are actually speaking in Spanish. Now, as I hear them in Spanish, I’m obviously writing them to an English speaking audience, and in many cases a monolingual audience. So there’s a little bit of Spanish in there. It’s in there when there is no other word that I find that would work as well and that’s appropriate. 

I hate when somebody just throws Spanish in a work just to buy some street cred or whatever. I absolutely detest that. But, so I’m hearing it in Spanish, and I’m writing it in English, and somewhere between those two I have to negotiate the bridge. Am I being true to the way it was said? The syntax and all? And does it read well? If I do that—if I transcribe what I’m hearing—does it read well? In some cases it does, and in some cases it’s a little bit awkward, and in some cases I’ll say, “Well, that’s fine.”

An Interview with the Lovely, Yet Deceased, Unica Zürn

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It is difficult to interview Unica Zürn. A German surrealist who spent the majority of her productive life in Paris living with her lover Hans Bellmer, Zürn is best known for her anagrammatic poetry, her automatic drawings, and her two major works of fiction, The Man of Jasmine and Dark Spring. Zürn was also the model for Bellmer's photography, where she posed nude, faceless, and tightly bound with string.

The difficulty in interviewing Zürn comes not from any language barrier, nor from the surrealist penchant for speaking in nonsense, imagistic sentences or through absurdities, nor even from the fact that Zürn has been dead since leaping from a window in the fall of 1970. Zürn is particularly hard to interview as she seems to enact in each motion and sound the major concern of her writing: the incommunicability of the pain and emotion of everyday life.

THE INTERVIEW

Charlie Geoghegan-Clements: I first encountered your anagrammatic poetry when I was a teenager. I had no idea what the poems were about, but there was something important in reading the lines over and over, almost an incantation. Do you feel like the poem made into and out of an anagram in some way represents the inability of language to convey feeling?

Unica Zürn: Zürn turns from the window where she had been sitting on her knees, chin on her opened palms, looking out at the street below, and crosses her short arms in front of her torso, twisting them helically and ending so that her hands meet at the palm, holding one another, closed at her chest. She nods expectantly at a notebook on my desk. I bring the notebook and a pen to her lap and she writes, "I invented a secret language nobody can read except me. Careful, careful, you never know what might happen! There are probably enemies out there who would cruelly oppose my love."

CGC: It does seem that, within language, meaning become hopelessly muddled by the limited means we have to express ourselves. Your poetry seems to be making a kind of joke out of the poetic form, as if you are asking “Why not make the constraint of language explicit? Why not make a kind of game out of our difficulty?”

UZ: Zürn sighs, untangles her arms, and stands. She uses the pen to draw a series of boxes on the cream-colored linoleum floor. She hands me back the pen and then proceeds to hop from box to box in circles around the room, not ever landing outside of a box.

CGC: In the English speaking world your two longer works of semi-autobiographical fiction, The Man of Jasmine and Dark Spring, are read as studies into the darker sides of obsession, creativity, sexuality, and sadness. Do you feel that, while writing these books, you were continuing a project of exploring the limits of language to express strong emotions and did the subject matter itself force the change from verse to prose?

UZ: Zurn returns to the notebook and writes, “In those books I opened out, forming a shining star made of countless new arms and legs and necks and heads; I became a beautiful, flower-like monstrosity.” Zürn continues to move from box to box around the room but is now taking large, balletic leaps rather than frog-hopping. She is not remotely graceful or flexible, but the movements are much less childlike, and much more fluid. With each leap Zürn lets out a high moan.

CGC: That seems almost like a reflection on collaboration. Much has been made of your work with your lover Hans Bellmer, what he called “altered landscaped of flesh.” You both previously had an interest in the erotic and fetishistic so it follows that when together those themes are more strongly expressed. Was your work particularly collaborative, or was he more of a director to your model, tying you up as he saw fit?

UZ: In the notebook Zürn slowly writes, “We invented a howling theatrical language through which it became possible to express the grief of the whole world, a language understood by no one but the two of us.” She sits down on the floor with her legs in front of her, moans as before, and pulls the stocking of her right leg upwards at the knee, making the fabric covering her calf and unshod foot become tighter. To signal the end of the interview she parts her thighs and lowers her head so that, from the front, her face is obscured, and only her hair visible, making some kind of mask hanging limply over the rest of her.

This fictitious interview is not complete fiction. All quotes were taken from Zürn’s work:

Zürn, Unica. Dark Spring. Cambridge: Exact Change, 2000.

Zurn, Unica. Man of Jasmine and Other Texts: Impressions from a Mental Illness. London: Serpant's Tale, 1994.

 

An Interview with New York Times Bestselling Author Jonathan Evison

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Jonathan Evison is nothing if not a humble man with a heart (and brain) made for writing novels. He’s just won the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Award for the second time, and has published three acclaimed novels: All About Lulu, West of Here, and most recently, The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving. He is also the Executive Editor of the online magazine, The Nervous Breakdown. His passion for indie bookstores and love for beer definitely make him a guy you should get to know.

THE INTERVIEW

The Austin Review: I’ve read over and over that before you published All About Lulu, you worked every odd job imaginable and wrote six novels that were never published. That must have required an intense degree of focus, determination, and self-clarity. What kept you writing? Have your writing practices changed since you acquired an eager audience?

Jonathan Evison: Yes, six novels, a faux memoir, and a collection's worth of stories, to be exact. The bottom line is, I was never writing with publication as the ultimate end. Of course, I wanted to share the work, but the truth is, I was compelled to write because the activity served a function in my life, namely, to give order to the bio-chemical chaos that is my mind, and to become a more expansive person through the empathic window that writing narratives offers. This is what allowed me to keep going in the face of constant rejection. I had to write, and I will continue to write, whether or not anybody sees fit to publish me, for the rest of my days. 

I'm a better person because of writing-- a better husband, a better father, a better friend, and generally a more sympathetic person.

My writing practices have changed, but not because I have an audience, rather because I've got kids, and 90 to 100 travel days a year. I've had to learn to be a lot more resourceful with my time management, and learn how to write in fits and starts, carrying a notebook with me everywhere I go, texting myself bits of inspiration, and yes, even writing in my sleep.

TAR: What led you to write your first novel?

JE: I was in love with novels from the age of eight or nine. I inhaled them. At nineteen, I had to try writing one. So, I sat down in earnest and wrote one, convinced with every ham-fisted metaphor and grandiose turn of phrase that I was a literary genius. Needless to say, I was not. I was a clown, a caricature, a complete parody of myself, unintentionally, of course. By the time I was finished, the fourth wall had crumbled completely, and I was writing a novel about a nineteen-year-old guy writing a novel. I physically buried the thing, fortunately, so no record of it exists.

TAR: And yet you kept on writing. What was the moment like when you first heard that one of your novels was selected for publication?

JE: I don't recall it as a moment, rather as an unfolding of correspondences over a period of weeks. I do recall the first time I held All About Lulu in the form of a bound book. I was down at my local indie bookstore, Eagle Harbor Book Co., and the buyer at the time, an old friend named Jan Healy, came running out onto the floor saying: "Look what arrived this morning!" Turns out, the booksellers had their hands on it before me. And speaking of independent booksellers: God love them. I owe a large degree of my success to their passion and enthusiasm for the word.

Booksellers do many things that search engines do not, and cannot.

TAR: How so?

JE: In myriad ways. Indie booksellers (and librarians) really start the conversation (and perpetuate the conversation) about our literature. They see it before anybody else, sometimes up to a year before it is released to the public. And for low wages, simply out of a love of literature, they champion the beleaguered authors of the world, and build the groundswell that becomes the bigger cultural conversation. They are mavens, tastemakers, and gatekeepers. We all saw how the music industry suffered when the little record stores started disappearing. We don't want that to happen in the book world. Hell, B&N is a tragic figure at this point.

Americans really need to start equating value with something other than savings, than money period.

TAR: The dissolution of the literary world would truly be a tragedy for our society.  As a respected voice in the literary community, do you feel an ethical responsibility to influence people's value systems for the better?

JE: Well, I certainly don't want to browbeat anybody. The soapbox isn't my thing. But if I can open some eyes using the benefit of my experience, sure, I'll run my mouth for what I feel to be the greater good. For instance, I think it's important that various sectors of the book world get on the same page in the name of preservation. But I have to say that I think ethically (or politically) influencing people overtly is not a function of the novel. The novel as political polemic is nothing but dogma. The novel, like any persuasive argument, should present both sides of any political or ethical story. This is a moral imperative, the way I see it.

The goal for me is not so much to educate, as to arouse curiosity in the reader, thus putting the onus on them to identify their own moral vision.

TAR: I’m also curious about your role as an editor. How did your involvement with The Nervous Breakdown come about?

JE: Truth be told, I do very little substantive editing at TNB, or anywhere else. Really, I'm more of a producer and connector. I do curate the national bookclub, but other than that, Brad Listi, and the many talented section editors do the heavy lifting. My association with TNB stems from my friendship with Brad, which started in the early days of social networking. Brad's podcast, Other People, is fantastic, by the way.

TAR: I have to admit, the name “The Nervous Breakdown” is pretty catchy. You’ve talked about how writing has helped serve a great purpose in your own brain functioning. What are your thoughts on the relationship between creativity and mental illness?

JE: Madness yearns for articulation, that much I know. Also, the chemically imbalanced mind seems to forge connections where the "normally" functioning brain does not see them. So, the urgency is there, and the potential to illuminate something totally unique is there, but I guess it all depends on the pathology. Mania like mine is pretty straightforward:

I live in a hopped up world of awareness where the world is spinning fast, and ideas are cycling fast, and I'm often talking and listening at the same time.

Writing (and beer) allow me to slow this world down, to plumb the depths of it, and most importantly, to focus with an intensity that my otherwise spinning mind does not allow.

TAR: That leads nicely to my final question. What is your beer of choice?

JE: I prefer malty to hoppy, so I drink a lot of Bass, Samuel Smith, and Guinness.