Archived entries for 2 or 3 questions

Quickie Q & A with failbetter Author Grant Ginder

We try to be a full service journal over here at failbetter, anticipating your wants and needs as readers before you are even wanting or needing. That’s what 2 or 3 Questions is all about–and now, it’s Grant Ginder’s turn in the hot seat.

Grant Liz_Resized1) Which has been better for your writing: Being a speechwriter, working for a literary agent, or teaching expository writing?

They’ve all been good for my writing in different ways, to be honest. I think speech writing was the first job that taught me the importance of narrative — how a story, or the sense of an arc, is necessary to draw in an audience. And also, obviously, the importance and ability to write in different voices that speech writing teaches is invaluable when it comes to creating new and distinct characters. Still, though, when we’re talking about what’s been better for my writing, I’ve got to say being a literary agent (as much as I’m loathe to). In many ways, it was a wholly depressing job; seeing how the sausage gets made, so to speak, can be devastating. That said, I read a ton, and a lot of that reading was from potential clients. I very quickly gained a sense of what I responded to as a reader, and as a writer — what got me excited, so to speak — and (more importantly) how to incorporate those elements into my own work without sacrificing my nature as a writer.

2) Where did the awesome image that the excerpt ends with come from?

I’m assuming you’re talking about the house built out of records, right? Really, I think it came from a few places. For starters, I’m sort of obsessed with memory (as this excerpt, and the rest of the book for that matter, shows), and the physical traces of memory. I’m also really interested in jazz. I don’t know anything about it — I mean, absolutely nothing — but I’ve always had this sort of visceral response to it, so the prospect of doing a little research on the topic was exciting (the fact that Wylie Avenue in Pittsburgh used to be such a hotbed for music made it that much more fun to research). So, right: the two threads sort of came together into the idea of records, of vinyl. And I got to thinking: Okay, what could Alistair, the grandfather, do with these records to preserve memory, or to use memory to protect it from itself, and the idea of a house built out of records struck me.

3) How does being from Orange County inform your writing and your existence?

Well, Tamra Barney and the rest of the cast of Bravo’s The Real Housewives of Orange County regularly read and edit my work. Also, whenever I go home to visit my parents (I’ve lived on the east coast since I was 18), I always get sand in my laptop (I write on the beach). I’m kidding about all that, of course. Orange County is a place with (probably rightfully so) a lot of negative stereotypes: plastic surgery, suburban sprawl, a fuckload of foreclosures, etc. It’s also, of course, a very beautiful place. And I guess it was interesting growing up with that tension — that idea that beneath such a beautiful place was all this hilarious (and sad, maybe) absurdity. But I think you can find absurdity anywhere, if you look hard enough. I mean, I suppose it says something that when I turned 18 and went off to college, I got the hell out of Dodge and haven’t moved back. Still, at the end of the day, I think I’d be lying if I said Orange County has had this drastic impact on my existence and my writing. If anything, I look at it with this sort of comfortable ambivalence.

On influence and craft: 3 questions
for Anthony Carelli

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Anthony Carelli’s first book Carnations was published in 2011. Currently he’s a Hodder Fellow at Princeton University.

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In an article in a Princeton magazine, US 1, you mention Hart Crane as one of your favorite poets. Is there a specific poem that inspired you to write the way you do now? Do you remember the first time you came across Crane’s poetry?

“To Brooklyn Bridge” is the Hart Crane poem that has most captivated me. I wonder if it is also the poem that has most inspired me to, as you say, “write the way [I] do now”. Looking back at the Proem this evening I notice that the petitioning of the Bridge in the poem’s last two lines, “Unto us lowliest sometime sweep, descend / And of the curveship led a myth to God” would have been a suitable epigraph to my book Carnations.

In my puzzling quest to write poems Crane has been more my guiding star than my captain; I don’t really know how to take instruction from him; I don’t know how to glean strategies of craft from his impeccable poems. Crane’s is the highest pitched lyric my ears are capable of hearing. I stare up awestruck into his poems and wonder “How could mere toil align thy choiring strings!” which is a line of baffled praise that Crane utters at the marvel of the Brooklyn Bridge. In fact, if I were asked to name one aspect of Crane that has most determined my path, it would be his orientation as a poet of praise. My poems tend to be praise poems, too.

I began reading Hart Crane in earnest in September of 2001 because one evening my teacher Philip Levine said the dead poet’s name. I’m sure Levine had much more than a name to say – I know Crane is one of Levine’s favorite poets – but I don’t remember exactly what Levine said that so turned me on. All I know is Levine said Crane’s name and I went out soon thereafter and bought a paperback copy of Crane’s complete poems. The Proem happened to be the very first poem in that paperback edition. When I started reading the book I found the poems to be both intoxicatingly exquisite and utterly incomprehensible. Those years I was living in Brooklyn and I would often take my Crane book to the Brooklyn Heights promenade, in Crane’s old neighborhood, and read the Proem while standing in the very spot Crane stood when he conceived of the poem, looking out along the Brooklyn Bridge as is spanned the East River and landed in Manhattan. I would try my best to figure out how Crane translated vista and vision into those marvelous words.

Along those same lines, do you feel that the poetry that influenced you as a beginning writer (whether it’s Hart Crane or other writers) is still as inspirational at this point in your career? If so, what made it “stand the test of time” for you, but if not, what changed in your connection to the poem or poet?

The poets – Jack Gilbert, Seamus Heaney, D.H. Lawrence, Hart Crane, Elizabeth Bishop – that strongly influenced me at the beginning of my career continue to influence me now. I can’t get enough of them. I read them all the time. Though I don’t know any of them personally, these poets have become something like my poetry friends. They are the crowd I hang with. I look to them for guidance. I feel safest when I’m in their midst. Yet I have no idea what makes a poem or poet retain my attention over many years.

Your biography on Memorious mentions that you graduated with your MFA from New York University in 2003, and your first collection, Carnations, was published in 2011. Once out of your graduate program, what was your writing routine like, if you had one at all? Did it change over the years?

Between 2003 and 2007 I lived in no single place for more than six consecutive months. I lived in various homes in Wisconsin, New Jersey, and Georgia, and twice spent extended seasons in South America (primarily in Paraguay, and Chile). I worked odd jobs, including a stint at a golf course in Madison, Wisconsin and at a seaside boardwalk t-shirt shop in Wildwood, New Jersey. During that time my writing routine was as varied as my environs. I was writing plenty but most of what I wrote was wild and pretty terrible. Over those years I kept in constant mail correspondence with the poet friends I had met in graduate school. Along with letters sharing details about my nomadic life and whatever books I was reading I would enclose poems, hoping for (and often, weeks later, receiving) my friends’ thoughtful feedback.

At the very end of 2007 I gathered my wild unfinished poems and settled in Brooklyn. In addition to working at a savory pie shop, I joined a poet gang called Freshkills and with the help of the other Freshkills poets I began finishing poems. I finished the bulk of my first collection while writing with them.

In your time working towards Carnations, how did you arrange your life to make sure your writing was still important? Has your writing routine changed at all since the publication of your first collection? If you could create an ideal location and atmosphere for writing (a white sand beach on the Gulf Coast… Paul Muldoon’s posh living room…) what would it be?

I don’t know if I ever arranged my life in a way to, as you say, “make sure [my] writing was still important”. I just try my best to find a sustainable (here I’m speaking in terms of personal economics rather than ecology) lifestyle that allows me as much time as possible to write. But within that framework my writing routine changes every day. This was true before I published Carnations and it continues to be true today. I have no notion of an ideal location and atmosphere for writing. Well, I like a roof above my head, and I like having ready access to my books, but beyond that I don’t demand much of my environs. I write in all different corners of whatever house I find myself in. I write standing, sitting, and lying down. But mostly, alas, I don’t write. I read and fuss and play and drink coffee.

…or are you happy to see us?
2 questions for Etgar Keret

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Etgar Keret is the acclaimed author of several wonderful and widely translated short story collections, children’s books, graphic novels, TV scripts, screenplays, and more. He’s also the newest member of the failbetter family, via his short story “What Do We Have in Our Pockets?” And while we’re on the subject:

Rumor has it that you wrote “What Do We Have in Our Pockets?” because your friends were asking you what’s in your pockets. Can you tell us if this is true? Has anyone offered any interesting guesses, as to what you’re carrying around in there?

I do carry a lot in my pockets. I’m a person who loses anything that isn’t a part of him, so either I glue stuff to the back of my neck, or put it in my pockets.

And what is in your pockets?

A huge hope for a better future (that’s why they are bulging) and some other stuff too: lots of keys, though in many cases I’m not sure which doors they open, and a lot of folded pieces of paper. Some of them are ideas for stories, others are phone numbers of people I’ll probably never call, not to mention a lot of taxi receipts that never got to my accountant. If he reads this: Eitan, would it be OK if I just mail you my pants? It would be much easier than going through them myself…

“Disaster” and beyond: 1 question
for Donald Illich

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Donald Illich is the author of “The Mistake” and “The Talent,” both of which are live today on our site.

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It’s been more than five years since we published your poem “Disaster.” What have you been up to since, and how has it affected your work?

In the last five years I’ve been trying to publish a book of poetry, as well as poems in general. I’ve been much less successful on both fronts than I’d like. I’ve gone through several different styles beyond the “surreal” one that “Disaster” represents, though maybe that style is what I’m best at. I keep at it because poetry is incredibly important to me, and I’m not going to give up on it. I’m really happy that failbetter has taken my work, because I see it as a good omen for this year in my publication efforts (though I just got rejected for a book prize).

An actual experience, and then a poem:
1 question for Damian Fallon

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Damian Fallon’s poem “Bats” is live now on site.

And about those bats?

This poem was based on an actual experience. I live in Brooklyn, close to Prospect Park, and one summer day friends and I picnicked there until well after the sun set, and there were honest-to-goodness bats whirling around above us. Once we realized what they were, we were surprised, although we shouldn’t have been. It’s easy to forget that the borough, like all urban areas, was once forests and meadows and streams.

I inadvertently write about animals quite a bit, but I wouldn’t say I have a sentimental attachment to them or to bats in particular or to nature in general. But I do have respect for them. It’s common to romanticize nature and animals, to yearn for a kind of back-to-the-land-ness, but I remind myself that nature is brutal, that it would kill us (surely me) if we weren’t careful, and that animals (probably) don’t care about us one way or another.

While thinking about this question, I could only recall that I often saw bats as a kid at my grandparents’ home, on their property that was surrounded by farmland in then rural Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Naturally, in those days, bats scared me, a sense that was only heightened by the cemetery that was across the street from their house. When bats flitted about in the darkening sky, it signaled to me that it was time to stop playing outside and go inside to eat dinner, surrendering the night to these creatures.

My grandparents are gone, the house is still in the family, but the man who owned the farm sold it off many years ago. Soon after, housing developments and a law school were built, which now completely surround the property. As I write this, I’m getting a kind of evil pleasure in thinking that bats are frightening suburban children and law students returning to their cars after evening classes, making their presence known, reminding them of what the place used to be.

One thing, another, or perhaps both:
1 question for Alissa Fleck

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Alissa Fleck’s poem “Honeymoon Period” is live today on our site.

Why, we wonder, is she not a painter?

Well actually I am a painter. I’ve made about three paintings in my lifetime and they form a triptych of sorts. Each of the three paintings is a replica of the same photograph of my boyfriend and me, each lacking in any nuance (any nuance is purely accidental, or borne of a loss of interest in finishing that particular painting.) I presented the triptych to my boyfriend for Christmas, and only afterward realized how intensely creepy it was to present him with the same image of us, peering somewhat terrified out at the camera (I don’t know—that’s what happens with paint), obsessively painted over and over again. So that was sort of the birth and death of my painting career.

Anything for a Laff: 2 questions
for Marjorie Manwaring

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Marjorie Manwaring is the author of “Snow Day,” “Where Sadness Comes From,” and “Musée Mécanique,” about the last of which:

Your poem “Musée Mécanique” captures the sense of wonderment and playfulness a kid must have felt, walking into a penny arcade, and seeing its hand-made, mechanical, silent movie-thrill games, back when they were the going thing. What’s the penny arcade of now – and would you write a poem about it? And If someone else writes a poem about it, decades from now, what will play the role of Laffing Sal – and what will be the new Mystic Ray?

As for what might be the “penny arcade” of now—well, when I was a kid, we still had pinball machines, which seem like first cousins to the penny-arcade games, and then most of those got replaced by video games—and I’ll admit, I never got that into those. (My brother and I got “Pong” for Christmas one year—that and a few games of Pac-Man and the occasional car-racing game in a cramped anteroom while waiting for a table at a pizza parlor are the extent of my video-game know-how.)

I still like the pinball machines—the noise and sound and feel of them, the atmosphere of being in a dark space with the lights blinking and zinging and the sound of the pinball rolling… And I know there is cool stuff out there like the simulation games and all that, but they are just something I haven’t felt compelled to try. And now it seems like most people play at home or on a laptop or phone—although I know there are places like GameWorks, but (surprise!) I haven’t been there, either. So, one thought is that the penny arcade of today is a place like GameWorks or a kid’s laptop or other device. And I probably wouldn’t write about those because I don’t know that world and don’t get inspired by it. However, I think that even the computer-literate kids of today are drawn to the whole dizzying, over stimulating, deep-fried-fat spectacle that is a carnival or a fair or an amusement park. And, there are still the simpler closer-to-home (timeless?) pleasures—kids still seem to enjoy getting gum or prizes out of gumball machines at the grocery store. They still seem unable to stop themselves from coveting the cheap plush toys in those crane games strategically placed at burger and pizza joints. Call me nostalgic, a Luddite, a fuddy-duddy, but I think there is something quite satisfying and pleasurable about inserting a coin into a machine and hearing the giant jawbreaker roll down the chute or manipulating the crane’s claw so that it latches onto the ears of a stuffed Piglet. And I have, and do write poems about that world.

lovecalcWhat might the new “Mystic Ray” be? The machine I write about in the poem is at Musée Mécanique in San Francisco. It tests your “love appeal” by asking you to place your hand on a metal plate, which contains a hand-shaped depression that is dotted with small pin-sized holes, no doubt a way to evaluate your life line and the like. I was pretty sure there had to be an app for something like this but not owning a Smartphone, I didn’t know for sure. (Yeah, you knew that was coming. And no, I don’t still use a modem or a rotary dial phone.) Of course Google can come to the rescue, and, sure enough, here are just two examples of what is available: LoveCalc for Android—”The most complete and accurate love compatibility calculator”—and Name Match 2011—”Calculate whether two people fit together based on first names. Based on an ancient Scandinavian love formula.” All this just in time for Valentine’s Day!

And finally—Laffing Sal. She, like the Mystic Ray, is housed at the Musée Mécanique, and you can watch her on YouTube. The placard that lies at her feet inside her glass encasement tells us that she “has made us smile and/or terrified children for over fifty years. Bring history to life with the investment of 50 cents.” First let me say I don’t think it’s only children she terrifies. Second, I think Sal taps into what Freud called “the uncanny,” that feeling of unease when something is life-like but not alive—or is it? We experience dissonance in watching this oversized, slightly creepy, jerky-motioned likeness of a woman belt out her hysterical and contagious laughter; it leaves us a little off-kilter (but in a good, roller-coaster, Chucky-movie kind of way), as do many of the other automata and mechanized dioramas in the museum. Being fond of many things vintage and antique, I like to think that Laffing Sal and her ilk will continue to hold sway over those who meet them. Perhaps the Mystic Ray can tell me if I’m right.

Stumbling around in darkness:
2 (or 3) questions for Jennifer Clark

Jennifer Clark, whose poems we feature this week, lives on the Mount of Moon.

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mich_handWe love the playfulness of “A Concise History of Michigan Cartology,” and its picture of Michigan as an open hand, with lives written into it. And we wonder, does Kalamazoo lie along the palm’s life line, love line, or somewhere else?

Kalamazoo hovers near the arc of everyone’s life line. Because Kalamazoo sits on the palm’s lower west Mount of Moon, we are a visionary people, blessed with the gift of imagination. For me, Kalamazoo is a fusing of several lines. I left this city for a decade but the gravitational force of its seasons, its lakes and streams, and its earthy people tugged me back. Kalamazoo is tangled into my life and fate lines. My greatest loves reside here. My writing material springs forth from this fertile place.

Can you tell us something about the inspiration for “Gay in the Age of Copper“? And why, in a poem about living a certain way, the focus on burial, and the dawning of a darker age after?

This piece was inspired by the recent discovery made in Prague. Archaeologists unearthed remains of a 5,000 year-old male skeleton. The way in which the individual was buried—like the women of that time—led archaeologists to conclude that the gender identity or sexual orientation of the person was other than a heterosexual male. Whatever the case, care was taken in this burial and suggested, at least to me, that the ancients respected different lifestyles, and may well have been more enlightened than people today. If so, we did enter a darker age as we slipped through the bronze, iron, and middle ages, and somewhere along the way we lost this ability to love in a much bigger way.

Or maybe it’s just that when it comes to writing poetry I often stumble around in darkness. This approach causes me to brush up against things I might not otherwise touch.

The hunger, and the knife: 1 question
for Carrie Shipers

About that brother-sister thing in Carrie Shipers’s new poem “Appetite“:

“Appetite” starts off in something like familiar fairy-tale territory, but in the woods things take a violent turn. Tell us about bringing to the surface the brutality that seems to lurk in every such story.

I’ve always been interested in what happens after the official story ends, how people cope with the repercussions of strange or traumatic experiences. When Hansel and Gretel escape the witch, it’s supposed to be a happy ending, but I found myself wondering how they, especially Gretel, who’s responsible for the witch’s death, might have been affected. In this poem, Hansel’s downfall is that he really hasn’t changed: he’s still the greedy little boy who likes to eat. Gretel, on the other hand, has learned perhaps too much from her captivity: she knows that sometimes, drastic action is required to ensure survival. And on a lighter note, I like that she’s handy with a knife, a quality she and I have in common.

Tolstoy, Gogol, and me: 2 questions
for Fred McGavran

Fred McGavran is the author of Dead Soldiers by Nikolai Gogol, currently appearing in serial form on our site.

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Tell us what drew you, in your roundabout yet clearly adoring way, to Gogol – and to rewriting Gogol, after a fashion, in something like the language of Tolstoy?

mcgavranI discovered Gogol years ago when I was reading the nineteenth century Russian novelists. His novel Dead Souls, a satire about a man buying up the names of dead serfs while they were still on the tax roles to amass a phantom estate and obtain a mortgage loan, is a masterpiece. Then I read The Collected Tales of Nikolai Gogol, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonosky, and learned that Gogol was the inventor of the Russian short story. In particular “The Overcoat” intrigued me, because of the moving portrait of the clerk Akaky Akakievich and the almost magical ending where, robbed of his precious overcoat, Akakievich “was fated to live noisily for a few days after his death, as if in reward for his unnoticed life.”

I thought it would be fun to write a story using the conventions of the nineteenth century Russian novel in English translation. Originally I conceived it as a literary forgery, but no one can forge Gogol. So, instead of mimicking him, I adopted somewhat similar descriptions of the Russian landscape and people, at the same time not hesitating to criticize society to the extent a nineteenth century Russian author was free to do so. Gogol may be more our contemporary than Tolstoy, because Gogol saw the absurdity of the social structure while still delighting in it.

Your fiction is of a different, more traditional sort than almost anything else we’ve run. That’s one of the things that drew us to it – and we are particularly taken by your gradual development of your story and introduction of your characters, and your limpid, clear prose. What writers do you take as your models, in the area of style? And do you see your style as a reaction against that of many contemporary writers, who aim less for clarity and complexity, than for immediacy and flash?

I relied on my memories of Russian literature in translation in particular and nineteenth and early twentieth century literature in general. Henry James had the leisure and the sensibility to describe an English lawn, and Tolstoy the ancient oak Prince Andrei saw as he lay wounded. Both used such descriptions to drive and give depth to their stories. Amy Hempel and Ann Beattie are not so inclined to linger. When I took Robert McKee’s Story Seminar, he said that the only reason to write a “period piece” or historical script was to get at emotions that we cannot express with contemporary characters. Similarly, by writing in a more expansive style about early nineteenth century people, I discovered that I could cross the divide set between us by the First World War and modernism to develop characters and express emotions not easily accessible today.

Currently I am reading Ann Beattie’s The New Yorker Stories and The Collected Stories of Deborah Eisenberg and wonder if I can finish them. The characters and situations and emotions become indistinguishable when read side by side, as I am doing. I can’t remember any one story by either author, but I can remember several by Gogol, Tolstoy, and Chekov. In addition to vivid characters and language, their stories have plots. Without any action to maintain the reader’s interest, much contemporary literature has flat lined, allowing the bored reader to wander off to other media for the pleasures short stories once offered.

Most of my writing, however, is not like this novella. For many years I was heavily influenced in both style and content by Ambrose Bierce, Peter Taylor, Jorge Luis Borges, W. Somerset Maugham, and a host of American and English authors who wrote between the First World War and the Vietnam War. I will leave it to the reader to judge whether the novella shows the influence of any of the nineteenth century Russian authors I so admire.



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