Tag: interview

A Conversation with Richard Burgin

A Conversation with Richard Burgin

Interview by Nathan Leslie Richard Burgin is a giant in the world of literary fiction. The author of three novels and nine short story collections, Burgin is also the publisher and founder of the acclaimed literary magazine Boulevard. In addition, Burgin has produced several interview […]

A Conversation with Tom Bissell

A Conversation with Tom Bissell

Interview by Ron Riekki David Foster Wallace lives on in the heart and mind of Tom Bissell. It makes sense that the Wallace biopic, The End of the Tour, had shooting locations in Grand Rapids, Grand Haven, and Muskegon, Michigan. I have always seen Wallace […]

A Conversation with Laura Lee Smith

A Conversation with Laura Lee Smith

Interview by Nathan Leslie

Laura Lee Smith has written two novels—Heart of Palm (2013) and The Ice House (Dec. 2017). I discovered her work through her story, “Unsafe at Any Speed,” which appeared in Best American Short Stories 2015. Her work was also included in New Stories from the South 2010: The Year’s Best, and has been published in New England Review, The Florida Review, Bayou Magazine, and Natural Bridge. She also contributes to Swamp Radio and works as an advertising copywriter. I like the fresh honesty of Smith’s work, as well as her outstanding characterization and sense of place.

Nathan Leslie: Hi, Laura. First of all, thank you so much for agreeing to chat for a bit. I really enjoyed reading Heart of Palm. As many have remarked upon before me, your sense of place in this novel is wonderful. Can you talk about Utina and what instigated you to set your novel in this town?

Laura Lee Smith: Thanks, Nathan. It’s great to chat, and I appreciate your comments. The town of Utina is a fictional place…sort of. It’s definitely inspired by a region near my home in St. Augustine called Palm Valley. The backstory that I gave to Utina is the backstory of Palm Valley—which was known for the harvesting and sale of palm leaves, as well as the production and sale of moonshine. I took those pieces of historical fact and used them to create a backdrop for my fictional town. The word Utina is a name I stumbled across when reading about Palm Valley’s history. Utina was a Timucuan tribal chief. Somehow these elements came together in my mind and created a canvas on which to paint the story. Utina kept me grounded—it was fortuitous and helpful that the setting came together so early in the development of the novel. Each day I simply had to “go” to Utina in my mind and see what was happening there.

NL: I also love the way you capture small-town life in Heart of Palm. Did this come from lived experience or your imagination, or some combination of the two?

LLS: I live in a small town, but the town I imagined in Heart of Palm is even smaller, even more tightly wound. Using a very confined place was useful. It enabled me to ensure that the characters were continually running into each other and creating conflicts for each other. It’s amazing how much really happens in a small town. When I walk around St. Augustine, I actually know many of the people I see, and much of the time I know their stories, their aspirations, their pain. I think I’ve used this expression before: this is a town where every day is a page in a story.

NL: I notice a substantial amount of history involved in this novel, especially early on. Did you do much research for this novel?

LLS: Much of the backstory for the town of Utina springs from recorded history involving this region. The palm trade, the moonshine, the development of the straight segment of the Intracoastal waterway—these were several historic elements that were lining up quite nicely and providing a solid backdrop for a contemporary story. I don’t think I set out to do a great deal of research, but along the way, I found myself reading more about this part of Northeast Florida to ensure that I was making accurate assumptions about the things that made up the town’s collective past.

NL: The story “Unsafe at Any Speed” in Best American Short Stories 2015 was one of my favorite stories from that collection and very different, in some ways, from Heart of Palm. Tell me about the backstory behind this story. How excited were you to be selected for inclusion in this prestigious anthology?

LLS: As you can imagine, I was absolutely thrilled to learn of the story’s inclusion in BASS. A writer’s dream! I remain very indebted to the editors of the New England Review, who originally published the story, and to one of my heroes, T.C. Boyle, for including it in 2015’s BASS. The story behind the story was this: I was leafing through a coffee table book on notable retro cars, and I came across a photo feature on the Chevrolet Corvair. I was immediately thrown into a memory: when I was in my early twenties, I nearly bought a used Corvair, but I was talked out of it by my father, who was fretting about the car’s safety record. As a fiction writer, I’m always looking for desires to hand to my characters. I want my characters to want something. When I thought about how badly I wanted that car, and how it stung to be denied it, I realized I had a strong emotional motivation and could craft a believable desire for a character out of it. And somehow Theo emerged, and somehow all his dissatisfactions became crystalized and focused on that car. If only he could get the Corvair! He seems to think it will solve everything. So I put him on the road to get the car, and I followed him to see what would happen. It was a fun story to write.

NL: Do you feel as if you gravitate more toward short stories or novels when you are sitting down to write? Or both?

LLS: For the past five years, I’ve definitely been focused on novels. I’ve written two now and am starting the third. They take so much emotional and cognitive energy that it’s difficult to compartmentalize time or resources for short stories while I’m immersed in a novel. Everything that feels like material becomes absorbed into the longer work. For instance, I create a character and start to think about how he or she could drive a short story, but then I think: wait! That guy/girl can work very well as an addition to this scene of the novel. So the novel consumes almost everything. But that said, I’ve also had a lot of other things competing for mental energy—raising a family, working, living regular life. I guess every writer’s fantasy is to have this beautifully organized and unfettered life in which you can move from one creative project to the next and give each one pure, focused energy. It hasn’t happened for me that way yet. Maybe someday. For now, I’m working on book number three, but I hope to generate some new short stories very soon as well.

Forthcoming Dec. 2017 from Grove Atlantic

NL: I was reading a bit about The Ice House on your website. The description sounds fascinating. What can you share with us at this point?

LLS: The Ice House is a story of a man who is afraid he’s going to die. I was in a library one day, and I came across some discarded notes; it looked like they were written by a student while studying for a class. Scrawled across the top of one sheet of paper was this: “The passion that inclines men to peace is fear of death. – Thomas Hobbes.” It stopped me in my tracks, and off I went to go read some Thomas Hobbes. That statement had everything I needed: character, motivation, plot. I immediately envisioned a person who was afraid of death, desirous of making peace with someone important, who sets out on a quest to achieve his goal. I tried to keep that statement as my guiding principal throughout each draft of The Ice House. Johnny MacKinnon gets some scary news; his life may be in danger. He has unfinished business with a beloved son with whom he has had a falling out. He better make it right now, or he won’t get another chance.

NL: Will you be doing many readings in support of this book? Do you look forward to readings?

LLS: I look forward to “visits.” I hope to get the opportunity to visit with readers—whether at reading groups or bookstores or other venues. One thing I learned after Heart of Palm came out is that I don’t enjoy reading from my own work, and I don’t think an audience really connects very much with an author who just stands and reads. To me, reading is a very personal, quiet thing. I don’t like being read to, and I don’t like reading aloud. That’s just me, I guess. But what is really wonderful, and what I hope to be able to do as much as I can, is visit bookstores and reading/writing groups and just talk with people. Sometimes people are interested in knowing how a writer puts a story together, and that’s always great fun to talk about and it generates an interactive conversation, rather than a static reading. So, yes! I hope to do many visits and presentations in support of the book, but I’ll stop short of calling them “readings.” Maybe I’ll read a page or so, and then we’ll all have a chat and learn about each other.

NL: Back to Heart of Palm for a bit. You have a great ear for dialogue—which always rings true in the novel. Do you have a recommended technique for writing such realistic dialogue?

LLS: Well, eavesdropping, of course. If you’re a writer, anything you hear becomes potential material, not just in terms of content, but in terms of form, as well. The more you listen to people talk, the more you become familiar with patterns and tics of human speech. People drive in circles when they’re talking. It’s fascinating. You’re in a coffee shop, for example, and you’re listening to the couple next to you. She says “Did you call Bobby like you said you would?” He says, “This coffee’s cold. This always happens to me.” Little stuff…but you develop an ear for the way people answer each other or the way they avoid answering each other, and you start to see ways to use the idiosyncrasies to develop character.

NL: The secondary characters in Heart of Palm are also quite rich. Are there particular characters from Heart of Palm you would like to spend time with if you could?

LLS: Well, Biaggio has always been a bit of a hero of mine. Rock-solid, kind-hearted, affable. Arla calls him a prince, and I do think he’d be a very soothing spirit to have around. Maybe one day I’ll write a bit more about him. He has a lot of backstory to explore. Then there’s Bell, who represents the next generation of the Bravo family. She’s growing up in a different Utina than her parents and grandparents. Her story would be fun to revisit, as well.

NL: There is a blurb from Richard Russo on the paperback edition of Heart of Palm. I find his work to be tremendous and yet somehow underrated on some level. Are you a fan of Russo’s work?

LLS: Absolutely. The first time I read Empire Falls I was weeping, on two levels. As a reader, because I felt so connected to Russo’s characters and their stories. And as a writer, because I was so blown away that a writer could create such an expansive, meticulously developed world within the pages of a book. Then I picked up Nobody’s Fool and had the same experience all over again. He’s truly a master. I’ve met him a few times and I have a picture of myself standing with him—I look a little bug-eyed and manic in the photo. I keep it anyway.

NL: What else are you reading these days?

LLS: Finishing up Michael Chabon’s Moonglow, which was a gift from my son. Chabon does more in a sentence than most of us can do in a chapter. I also recently read Brad Watson’s Miss Jane—stellar. I’ve been reading a lot of Florida nonfiction because in the next novel, I’m headed back into small-town Florida territory, and I need to brush up on the intricacies of this crazy state. The book I just finished writing (The Ice House) is set in Jacksonville—a decent-sized city—and Scotland, so it’s been a while since I’ve written about some of the things in rural and small-town Florida that I have always found so compelling. It’s good to be reading about palmetto scrub and oak canopies and mosquitoes again.

NL: Are you working on any new short stories or other projects? What else do you have on the horizon?

LLS: Other than the new novel I’m beginning to sketch out, I have some older short stories that have been in a drawer for a while. I’m going to dust them off and take another look.

NL: Thanks so much for taking the time to chat with me! It was a real pleasure.

LLS: Nathan, many thanks! This has been a privilege. I’m very appreciative.

Visit Laura Lee Smith online.

A Conversation with Stacey Davis, Filmmaker

A Conversation with Stacey Davis, Filmmaker

Interview by Nathan Leslie Stacey Davis is the screenwriter and producer of The Sibling Code, a short film that appeared in 2016.  The film, directed by Roberta Munroe, features Amy Hill, Jonathan Lisecki, and Amy Okuda. Stacey is also an entertainment and intellectual property lawyer […]

A Conversation with Patricia Colleen Murphy

A Conversation with Patricia Colleen Murphy

Interview by Elizabyth A. Hiscox Elizabyth A. Hiscox interviews Patricia Colleen Murphy about her award-winning collection, Hemming Flames. This interview was conducted through email by Elizabyth A. Hiscox, who is the author of Inventory from a One-Hour Room. She served as Poet-in-Residence at Durham University […]

A Conversation with John Dufresne

A Conversation with John Dufresne

Interview by Nathan Leslie

John Dufresne is an outstanding writer of novels and short stories who has long resided and taught in South Florida (he teaches at the MFA program at Florida International University in Miami). The author of six novels—among them Louisiana Power & Light; Love Warps the Mind a Little (both New York Times Notable Books of the Year); Deep in the Shade of Paradise; Requiem, Mass.; No Regrets, Coyote; and I Don’t Like Where This Is Going—Dufresne also wrote two short story collections: The Way That Water Enters Stone and Johnny Too Bad, as well as three chapbooks: Lethe, Cupid, Time and Love; Well Enough Alone; and I Will Eat a Piece of the Roof and You Can Eat the Window.

Personally, I am also a fan of his two books on writing and creativity: The Lie That Tells a Truth: A Guide to Writing Fiction and Is Life Like This?: A Guide to Writing Your First Novel in Six Months. Dufresne offers extensive wisdom for the beginning and advanced writers alike. I have used The Lie That Tells a Truth in my creative writing classes—students find it quite useful.

More recently, Dufresne has been branching out into the world of mystery writing. John was one of the thirteen authors of the mystery novel, Naked Came the Manatee. His short story, “The Timing of Unfelt Smiles,” was included in Miami Noir and in Best American Mystery Stories 2007. Another short story, “The Cross-Eyed Bear,” was included in Boston Noir and Best American Mystery Stories 2010.

But that is not all—Dufresne has also written drama and screenplays. His full-length play, Trailerville, was produced at the Blue Heron Theatre in New York in 2005. He also wrote the screenplay for the award-winning short film, The Freezer Jesus. He co-wrote the screenplay for To Live and Die in Dixie with Don Papy.

Of Dufresne’s latest book, I Don’t Like Where This is GoingKirkus Reviews wrote: “Readers who love to rummage cluttered desks, attics, and basements will have a heyday picking through the details in Dufresne’s big box emporium of a novel.”

I was honored that I recently had the opportunity to chat with John Dufresne.

Thank you again for agreeing to chat for a few minutes. John, the last time we chatted (in this capacity) was about ten years ago now. Since that time, you have written Requiem, Mass., among other books. Did you enjoy really immersing yourself in Massachusetts, fictionally speaking? It must have been a kind of fictional homecoming for you.

Well, yes it was. I love going back home imaginatively and revisiting the places that are sacred to me—as places of childhood often are. The primal landscape of childhood that shapes us as it shapes the characters in our stories. “You write from where you are,” William Stafford reminded us. I am who I am because of where I grew up and when I grew up there. Place shapes the writer and it shapes the writer’s characters. There are landscapes of memory and there are landscapes of imagination. And for me, in the case of Worcester (Requiem) Mass, they are the same.

Wiley “Coyote” Melville is another new figure in your oeuvre (No Regrets, Coyote and I Don’t Like Where This is Going). What inspired you to conjure up this wildly imaginative character?

I was asked to write a crime story for a collection called Miami Noir. I hadn’t written crime before and I knew very little about police work, so I gave my central character, Wylie, a job I was more familiar with—a therapist, whose job it is to help people tell their stories so they can make sense of the world. He set up shop and people in trouble came to talk with him. I gave him a connection to the underworld of South Florida through his pal Bay. I thought, What’s the worst crime one could commit?, and decided on infanticide. And so we began.

Speaking of imagination, yours is a fertile powerhouse. You emphasize the idea in your “teaching books” that the imagination needs regular exercise so that it stays sharp. Were you always so imaginative as a child?

I don’t know that I was any more imaginative than any other kid. I did have a couple of serial narratives going when I was seven or eight or so in which I was the central character. They both took place in my neighborhood. In one I was the leader of a band of good guys with white hats and spirited horses. Cowboys on Grafton Hill in Worcester, Mass. The only real horse we ever saw on the Hill was the ragman’s nag, whom we loved to pat. Every night in bed I continued the story from where it ended when I had dozed off the night before. I did this for years. And during the day, I was thinking of what I would now call plot points and creating new characters. The other narrative was similar with me as a sports hero. Whenever I heard sirens I imagined the house the fire trucks were heading for and the people trapped inside the burning house and how they would be saved. Or not.

With The Lie That Tells a Truth you have instructed many thousands (millions?) of aspiring authors—not to mention your teaching proper. How does it feel to be such an influential teacher of the craft of fiction through this terrific book?

Thank you for the kind word. I am simply trying to share with beginning writers some strategies that work for me, believing they can help others. I think learning the process of writing is more than writing any single successful story. I love the act of writing. I consider writing stories a privilege and a gift. To be able to sit in a room and make up worlds and the people who live there—what could be better? I get to think about what’s important every day. I want to help some other people discover the joy of discovery and creation.

I’m sure you have heard from many readers of The Lie That Tells a Truth. Have you received specific memorable feedback about The Lie that Tells a Truth from teachers or students that is worth mentioning? 

I do hear from teachers who use the book and I’ll sometimes get some exercise samples that their students wrote—very gratifying. A poet wrote me recently, told me she finished her poetry collection with the help of my book—and later sent me an autographed copy.

How does your teaching inform your fiction and vice versa?

It only helps. Every reading and every discussion of a story helps me see how stories work or don’t work. Including my own. We’re all apprentices in a craft where no one is a master—I think Hemingway said that. This is the craft so long to learn. I always feel better at the end of class than at the start. I always feel like rushing home (which is actually impossible on Biscayne Boulevard) and getting back at whatever it is I’m writing. To be honest, there are moments when I would rather be learning about my central character’s secrets than reading a story about goblins with swords, but I know I’ll learn something about setting a scene, let’s say, in the goblin story that will be valuable to my students and to me.

Your work has such a rich sense of place. Can you talk a bit about the roots of this interest in your fiction and why this is so important to your work? Sorry, I know this question is as broad as the side of a barn.

Every story has to take place somewhere. The setting of a story colors the people and events in the story and shapes what happens. Place connects characters to a collective and a personal past, and so place is the emotional center of story. And by place, I don’t simply mean location. A location is a dot on a map, a set of coordinates. Place is location with narrative, with memory and imagination, with a history. We are who we are because of where we grew up and when we grew up there. I like to think that my story could not have taken place anywhere else than where it did. In that sense, place is character, I suppose.

I think of your fiction as very textured. Your characters always have such a rich backstory, for instance. How do you develop this richness in your characters? Why do you think this particular aspect is so important to your work?

I spend a lot of time writing about my characters, all of them, in my notebooks, and only some of the details make it to the page in black and white, but all of them help me to know the characters. I believe that every character in my stories is the central character of his or her own story, and though I can’t write all those stories at once, I do like to suggest what the individuals’ stories are.

Toward the end of Deep in the Shade of Paradise, you have this wonderful squiggly line diagram of plot, providing counterpoint to Freytag, Barth, Burroway. Earlier in this great novel, you write, “There’s always at least two stories, the one you set out to tell and the one you discover along the way; the one you know about, the one you don’t.” Your work seems to embrace the squiggly line, no?

Oh, yes! I begin not knowing where I’ll end up, and not invested in any particular outcome. I have a character, I give him trouble, and I muddle ahead and see what happens. I think writing should be an act of discovery. Wondering what’s going to happen to my darlings today is what brings me to the writing desk. I follow every digression, every accident to see where they lead—some lead to dead ends, but that’s fine with me. This is not an efficient way to write, I know, but it works for me. Of course, I get in trouble this way. I was on page 250 or so in Coyote, and I realized I didn’t know who killed those five people we saw in Chapter 1. I thought, So this is why noir writers make the big bucks—they have to write a novel but they also have to solve a crime. I had to go back and find the culprit and then revise.

I bumped into you at AWP a few years back. The AWP conference is so packed with thousands upon thousands of writers now. However, I worry about the possible dearth of pure readers (who don’t necessarily aspire to write themselves). Do they still exist?  

That’s a great question. I run into writers in my undergrad classes who are eager and determined to write but when I ask them who they read, I find out they read very little. They are intrigued by narrative, but they like their narratives to be visual. The fantasy and sci-fi TV shows and movies are more appealing. I don’t know how we’ll be reading and writing our stories—on our iPhones, computers, Kindles, or in or on whatever other technological miracle is in the offing— but we will be reading and, specifically, reading or watching stories. And someone will have to write them. We need them to make sense of our lives and of our world. Lack of narrative sense leads to anxiety, and anxiety leads to damage. We have to tell our stories; we have to see our lives reflected in stories. Our fiction will certainly reflect the social networking, cyber culture we’re living in because that culture is shaping us.

You’ve also recently embraced publishing some shorter works via e-book format (The Cross-Eyed Bear, Iffy). Were you happy with the way they turned out? Do you think more and more authors will take up the mantle of this particular method of distribution?

Any way to get your stories out there is fine with me. There’s a new app for phones called Great Jones Street that has started publishing lots of stories every day. I think it’s wonderful and they have done a few of mine—some previously published, some new.

Are there particular literary magazines (new or old) that you always look forward to reading?

The Paris Review. The New Yorker. The Rumpus. The Florida Review. The Florida Book Review. New York Review of Books.

Do read your reviews these days? I know many authors prefer not to, one way or another.

I do read reviews and I take them to heart. And then I end up being unduly elated or unduly sad.

What is forthcoming from you? Tell us about new Dufresne work on the horizon?

I’m working on two books about writing: one on flash fiction, another an illustrated guide to writing fiction—Evan Wondolowski is doing the illustrated part. And I’ve started a new novel, which will not be a crime novel. Right now I see it as a father-son story.

Discover more about the work of John Dufresne.

A Conversation with Allan Peterson, Author of Fragile Acts

A Conversation with Allan Peterson, Author of Fragile Acts

Interview by Cynthia Hawkins For Prick of the Spindle, Vol. 6.2, June 2012 My introduction to Allan Peterson came with a pair of poems published in Prick of the Spindle, Volume 5.2. “Memory comes with its own gauze curtains and hazy furniture,” Peterson writes in […]