On Writing: Donna Talarico of HippoCampus Magazine

Donna Talarico is a writer, an editor, and the founder/publisher of HippoCampus Magazine, an online journal dedicated to "memorable creative non-fiction." This summer, she has been working on the first ever HippoCamp, a three day writers' conference in Lancaster, PA. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Wilkes University. I first met Donna at Lancaster Story Slam, where she occasionally tells stories, and wanted to learn more about her writing, and current projects. Jim: What do you love about the creative non-fiction genre?

Donna: I love true stories. I love getting to know people. Don't get me wrong: I also love imagined worlds and people and storylines. But there is something ifferent about reading a story when you know it's true. Writers are sharing moments, often deep, dark and troublesome--and that rawness and honesty really brings reader and writer closer together. CNF writers are letting people in--and that is brave. Of course there is lighter nonfiction as well (not every memoir is about revealing some deep secret or getting through a rough time), and reading about those everyday moments, those stories too strange to be true, are kind of like sitting around with old childhood or college friends recounting the time we "couldn't believe this happened to so-and-so." I enjoy writing nonfiction for these same reasons. It's just, well, real!

Jim: Was their a certain piece of creative non-fiction that first hooked you?

Donna: In college, as a communications major at Wilkes University, we took a senior research methods course and I think this is where my love of personal stories began. We did an oral history project, and we also read a few ethnographies. So it was more on the journalism end, but my love of nonfiction just grew from there. One book in particular from that class, Tell Them Who I Am: The Lives of Homeless Women by Elliot Liebow, got me hooked on learning more about 'everyday' people, and it also inspired the desire to tell other people's stories -- which I did for many years as a features writer. On the memoir side, it was Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs. That book is what made me want to write a memoir.

Jim: You've been writing a memoir "Door to Door," about the trials of constantly moving and dealing with stepfathers during your childhood. What's the status of the project?

Donna: The first draft was my MA thesis. Then I polished it as my MFA final project. After working on it---on and off--for a solid three years throughout graduate school, I let it take a break. I queried agents, and was thrilled to get interest in my story and requests for partial manuscripts. However, with no bites after sending the first few chapters, I realized the story might not be there yet. So I workshopped parts of it the past few years and received some great help from my local writing group. After letting it simmer for a bit, I'm ready to dive into revisions later this summer. My MA mentor, Beverly Donofrio, wrote her book during grad school too -- but it did not come out until years and years later (Riding in Cars with Boys.) From Bev, I learned that I needed more reflection time on my life--not the draft, but my actual life--to see what my story really meant, what it was trying to do. And I think I know now. But it took time to go deeper.

I should add that I got reunited with a "character"-one more pivotal than I thought-- in the book which changed my perspective (in a very good way). It will be a better story because I let it sit. It will be a better story because I grew as a person and continued living that life I was writing about. (I put character in quotes back there because, well, the people in my book are real, and that's something to get used to--to just think of them as character so you can be more objective.)

Jim: Can you describe what makes a submission to HippoCampus stand out in a crowd?

Donna: I've got to feel something. Or laugh. Or both. If I get chills, if I get misty-eyed, if I get angry at or fall in love with a character, if I want to go research a place or topic covered in the essay or memoir excerpt, if I'm still thinking about it the next day. We publish such a range of material that there isn't really a set "HippoCampus story" but we know it when we see it. We're publishing true stories by real people so we want our readers to care about the writer, the situation. It has to matter to the greater audience, not just the writer.

Jim: HippoCampus Magazine is coming up on five years. How has the magazine evolved?

Donna: Wow. That's such a good question. We've grown by leaps and bounds in submissions, readership and the amount we publish each month, but we've really stayed consistent with our product so there hasn't been a big evolution from that standpoint, but there has been amazing growth. The conference and other live events and some new complementary initiatives will help us evolve into new spaces and places. ven though a lit mag is a labor of love, I treat it like a business, not as a hobby or a "side project" so that has helped shape our direction.

Jim: I'm looking forward to HippoCamp 2015, especially hearing Lee Gutkind and Jane Friedman speak. I know this is the first HippoCamp you have coordinated. What are you most excited about?

Donna: I'm most excited about bringing an online publication to life, and about bringing a set of people together, most of whom don't know one another, to one place to learn and share with one another. And leave knowing new people and new things. Right now this idea, these plans, they all exist in our heads and on paper -- but they will soon come alive, and that is exciting. To see an idea come to life.

Click on the links to learn more. Read about Donna Talarico's writing at her website. Read HippoCampus Magazine or check out the speakers and the schedule for HippoCamp 2015, being held in downtown Lancaster from August 7-9.

On Writing, Preservation, and Andy Wyeth: Catherine Quillman

Catherine Quillman is the author of several books covering regional culture, including 100 Artists of the Brandywine Valley, which showcases painters and sculptors. More recently, Catherine co-authored (with Sarah Wesley) Walking the East End: A Historic African-American Community in West Chester, PA. Catherine spent several years covering the arts and culture scene for the Philadelphia Inquirer, and she is known for advocating for the preservation of historic structures in West Chester. In addition, Catherine is an artist herself. She had a piece of artwork recently featured on the cover of Philadelphia Stories. I’ve known Catherine for a few years but wanted to learn more about her roots, her interests, and her upcoming projects.

Jim: Your books, whether 100 Artists of the Brandywine Valley, or Walking Uptown (which you co-wrote with Sarah Wesley), or Between the Brandywines are about the local area. Did you grow up in or near West Chester? If not, where are you from?

Catherine: Ironically, considering I write about local history, I'm from the planned city of Columbia, Maryland. When I think about it, I must have been history-minded back then because I saved the poster from the city's first anniversary - it's a very 1960s design and was silk screened by hand! I remember I pulled the poster out of a trash can and biked home with it at the age of 7 or so. It's now hanging in my laundry room. (May be I should sell it on eBay!)

Jim: Walking the East End, your first walking tour book, is a fascinating look at the East End, the historical African-American neighborhood in West Chester. How did you and Sarah come to collaborate on this project?

Catherine: I met Sarah when she worked as a receptionist at the Chester County Historical Society (CCHS) and I covered art/history with the Inquirer. Remarkably, this was way back in 1995. She had just finished a walking tour of the same area. The artist Mark Cole drew illustrations but the booklet was never published. Fast forward to 2010 and I was looking for a short project to do. I remained friends with Sarah and knew that she didn't like leaving her East End booklet languishing in the proverbial drawer.

Fortunately, we had an added incentive because I was able to get a grant from the Leeway Foundation. The writing of that grant made me realize that Sarah had a lot of material but the draft wasn’t yet focused on the East End as the birthplace of Civil Rights activist Bayard Rustin. Rob Lukens, the president of CCHS, later came up with the idea of having a book signing on the 50th anniversary of the 1963 march on D.C. which Rustin famously planned ( and introduced Martin Luther King's "I have A Dream" speech.)

Jim: What's something about the Chester County Art Scene that you think would surprise most people?

Catherine: Well, if you are only vaguely aware that there is an art tradition known as the Brandywine Art Tradition, you might be surprised about the number of professional artists here. I could have written a book titled 150 Artists of the Brandywine Valley and still had more artists to spare! You might also be surprised to know that "nontraditional" artists now outnumber the artists who paint traditional watercolor or oil landscapes. The Brandywine Tradition, dating back to the late 1800s, is a realist based movement, in case you wondered.

Jim: I understand you interviewed Andrew Wyeth a few times. Can you tell us about a memorable moment from one of those meetings?

Catherine: Well, first off, any encounter with Wyeth was memorable! You may remember that he painted his model Helga in secret for 15 years and then became America’s best-known reclusive artist. He just hated answering the same question over and over again: did he have an affair with Helga? That became known as “THE question.”

I remember my editor at the time thought I should pull a “Barbara Walters and ask THE question in an off-hand way, as we were walking the grounds of Wyeth’s property and looking, for example, at the millrace. I doubted that I could arrange that – it was hard enough getting an interview – and sure enough I was glad that I even got a chance to speak to him alone, at his house in Chadds Ford.

Alone is the operative word because Wyeth actually greeted me at the door himself (I was expecting a maid) and sat down next to me on a loveseat. He may have wanted to be near the two tape recorders I had running on the coffee table, but still it was a little disconcerting since he had a way of studying your face when you were asking him questions (truly a portrait artist).

Years later, I discovered that I wasn’t alone with Wyeth that day. His biographer Richard Meryman, said he was there that day, sitting in the kitchen. He joked that he was jealous since I was allowed to use a tape recorder whereas he was first banned from using one.

A few years before Wyeth died in 2009, I traveled all the way to Maine on a magazine assignment and he changed his mind about the interview. Or rather, he wanted me to “come back another time” or wouldn’t’ I prefer to interview “his son” meaning Jamie Wyeth? I think he was just tired because this was after his two-city retrospective. Anyway, we were suppose to meet in a restaurant, which is a terrible place for an interview but I suppose he didn’t want me taking a rowboat out to his private island.

I remember that the magazine piece was about a collection of Helga drawings that were being sold, and I carried a stash of copies so that I could show them to Wyeth and he could have a visual reminder. The restaurant was a tucked-away old tavern so it seemed like I was going to make some sort of spy top-secret exchange - the drawings for Wyeth’s memories. It’s a shame he canceled - it would have been fun telling him that. He enjoyed the idea of secret encounters!

Jim: What's your next project?

Catherine: I like to have several projects going at once, mainly because the creative, personal ones take longer with no immediate income. Also, my business, Quillman Publications, gets various commissions. Most recently, I was commissioned to write an illustrated history of "Johnstown," the historic Italian-American section of Downingtown ( and home of the annual frog dinner for those in the know!) Also, I'm finishing a book on an antique ice tool museum on the edge of West Chester. (It was closed in the winter; go figure as they say.)

I'm also helping an 80-something artist with the third edition of his watercolor book, A Watercolor How-to : Tips and Techniques My Instructor Never Taught me. As its title suggests, it's a fun book! You can see it on my web site too ( www.quillman-publications.com).

My long-term projects include a children’s book on a 19th century tavern and a YA (young adult) novel on the poorhouse. I know - every writer has a children’s book idea - but I continually get help from the Highlights Foundation. You may recall the name from the Highlights magazine everyone read in the dentist’s office but the foundation now includes a publishing house and workshop retreat place at their headquarters in Honesdale, PA.

I attended a workshop last summer and literally a pair of bears and their cubs showed up the morning the New York literary agents arrived! The bears hung out in the word garden -- which had words like “Inspire” and “Creativity” written on stones you could re-arrange like those little word magnets you used to see on people’s refrigerators.

Anyway, I highly recommend the Highlights Foundation if you are interested in children’s books. It’s like joining a long-term support system once you attend your first workshop.

Jim: You are known for being an advocate for the preservation of historical buildings in the borough of West Chester. How did your passion for preservation begin?

Catherine: I think I became “known” in an official way in 2013, when I received a “preservation service award” from the West Chester Downtown Foundation, mainly for documenting the East End.

As for the “beginning,” Inquirer policy probably would have prevented me from speaking out at borough meetings (even though I’m a resident), but I have been thinking about preservation at least since I covered West Chester’s Bicentennial in 1999.

In the last few years, I have drawn more and more on my research (including vintage postcards) in my preservation efforts. In fact, I joke that people must see me as the “100 year-old woman” because I seem to know so much about the historic streetscape and the former uses of buildings.

I call it my occupational hazard as the de facto town historian - I know how many architecturally important buildings we have lost. Sadly, it’s been a lot and makes me think of the expression “demolition is forever.” I’ve read old newspaper accounts of events like the demolition of the Market Street train depot and the Warner Theater, and I see the same story again and again. There’s always a line that the building is “an eyesore” and the borough needs blank-blank for what we now call a “revitalization” project. In a recent Main Line Today magazine story, a friend and fellow historian had the perfect quote. It was “some say you can’t save everything. But if you start with that position, you won’t save anything.”

Lately I’ve heard a new line and it’s related to what I call the “Super-Size-Me” trend of small towns. They say that West Chester has already changed dramatically and we need new buildings to accommodate more people. So I think my “passion” is really a sense of urgency on my part.

Without mentioning specific projects, I think we have lost the idea of adaptive reuse – it’s either razing the building and maybe saving the façade. At many borough meetings, I feel I’m in a “the Emperor has no clothes” scenario because only a few people consider the historic streetscape. I should clarify: With the exception of Market Street (designed originally for a market house), West Chester was built to have small-scale streetscapes and through the decades, developers have retained that for the most part. Today, when a change is made, the new structure dominates - it looks urban, massive or like a soundstage for My Fair Lady to me. Hopefully, the borough’s new comprehensive plan will serve as some kind of protection for the historic character of the borough’s downtown areas and we’ll have more zoning “overlays,” as they call them, to control growth.

Jim: Thanks Catherine!

Catherine's books can be purchased at AMAZON. To learn more about Catherine's work, and to see a photo of her with Andrew Wyeth, click here.

On Writing: Interview with Curtis Smith

Curtis Smith's latest book is a simple and beautiful collection of essays called Communion. His stories and essays have appeared in over seventy literary journals, and his work has been named to the Best American Short Stories Distinguished Stories List, The Best American Mystery Stories Distinguished Stories List, and the Notable Writing list of The Best American Spiritual Writing. I first met Curtis at Rosemont Writers Retreat and have become enamored by his beautiful prose, and his quiet dedication to the craft of writing. Curtis is a graduate of Kutztown University (Woot!) and lives in Hershey, PA with his wife and son.

Jim: There is so much I enjoyed about your essay collection Communion. The pieces are so quiet and personal. Did you set out to write an essay collection or was it only after submitting pieces that you realized you had this running theme?

Curtis: I didn’t set out to write a whole collection—that said, I tend to write in cycles, and most of the book was written in a span of about two years. This is my second essay collection, and I’ve discovered a different voice and tone in my nonfiction—and it’s a voice that’s seeped into my fiction as well. So I believe the style and tone provides a sense of unity.

The main running theme I imagined was observing my son leaving the self-centered awareness of a child and entering a more complex, scarier world of adulthood, a place where he realizes he isn’t the center of things and that the world can be filled with forces both wonderful and frightening. And this witnessing allows me to explore my own fears and joys through the lens he’s offered.

Jim: The book cover evokes Catholic traditions but the essays are really about Communion in a larger sense, how grace fills our lives in small, often ordinary moments. Are there any essayists or perhaps other writers who you think inspired you to write about this topic?

Curtis: I can’t say there were in particular—but I think there’s a lot of literary writing that deals with grace—with the communion of one’s awareness and the greater world that surrounds us. That said, I’d say in terms of tone and mood, I’d like to think my work lands within the realm of Joan Didion. I appreciate her work’s sharp images and the sense of passionate restraint.

I tend to write in streaks—I’ll write stories for six or so months, then return to a novel, then to essays. It’s just the way my mind seems to work—and the back-and-forth allows me to return to projects with a different perspective. When I’m in an essay writing mode, I find myself reading a lot of poetry. I enjoy the sparseness and beauty of poetry, the way so much is said with such economy. I’m no poet, but I hope that vibe finds its way into my work.

Jim: Being a father is one of life's greatest joys and you capture it beautifully. Has your son read the essays yet? If so, what does he think?

Curtis: He’s read sections—but not the whole thing. He’s OK with it—at least for now. I’m careful to tell my story—not his. I always want to respect him and his journey. I do my best to be as honest and truthful as possible when commenting on the things he’s said and done. I hope when he’s older he’ll see it the same way.

Jim: I read an interview in the Triangle where you discussed retirement from teaching. Is that coming soon or were you speaking about something farther on the horizon?

Curtis: I’m retiring this year. I graduated in 82 and started teaching right away. For the past 33 years I’ve been with the same district just outside Harrisburg. It’s been a good journey—and I’m incredibly thankful for all I’ve been able to do here. Turning 55 and having 30-plus years helps with the equations that impact one’s retirement. I’m going to do some adjunct work—I’m looking forward to that. I’m excited to start a new chapter—but I will also miss the work that has helped define me all these years.

Jim: You attended Kutztown University just a few years before I went there. What do you most vividly recall about your time at K-Town? And did you have an English or writing professor who inspired you?

Curtis: I grew up in the Philly area, so Kutztown, with its farmlands and buggies, was a bit of a shock, but I had a great time there. I played a lot of Frisbee, and I spent a lot of evenings in the library—kind of a weird combo, when I think of it. I was a special ed major, so I didn’t have too many English courses—but one of my freshman classes was with Harry Humes, who is a really wonderful and widely published poet. I’ve followed his career—he deserves some wider recognition.

Jim: Nice! One of the transcendent moments in my life was when Harry Humes entered on the first day of Creative Writing Class and read a Raymond Carver's "Why Don't You Dance?" I really enjoyed Communion and I know the Brandywine Valley Writers Group is looking forward to having you chat about the craft of writing. Thanks again!

Curtis: Thanks Jim.

You can order a copy of Curtis Smith's essay collection Communion directly from AMAZON.

On Writing: Andrea Kiliany Thatcher

Andrea Kiliany Thatcher has written The SFP LookBook - New York Fashion Week Spring 2015 Collections for Schiffer Books. Morgan Beye was the photographer for the project. I first met Andrea through Twitter, check her out at @shinyandrea, and then through Chester County Book Company where she works part-time managing social media. Andrea works full-time at Schiffer Books, bringing her experience in fashion, beauty and social media to their team. The book launches on Saturday, May 16th with a party at Nich, a specialty boutique in West Chester, PA. I wanted to learn about this book and Andrea's experience in pulling this project together. Jim: Can you tell me a little bit about the process of creating The SFP LookBook

Andrea: The process for The SFP LookBook was really a process I like to think I've perfected over the years as a blogger, except this time I was able to create a more lasting product. It began a few weeks before fashion week as I and my photographer went to the design studios of a few designers to ask about and photograph their creative process, model castings, run of show decisions, etc. Then during New York Fashion Week we really documented every part of the process from the hair and makeup, details shots of the clothes and accessories from backstage, and of course the runway and street style. We really talked to everyone along the way - the designers, their PR teams, makeup artists, nail artists, hair stylists, clothing stylists, accessories designers, show producers, journalists and fans. Typically I wrote all this up daily for online outlets like TheFashionSpot.com and Papierdoll.net but this time I brought all that research back after fashion week and began the rigorous process of putting it all into a book. Our director of photography Morgan Beye edited and pre-selected photos for me to choose from to represent each show and look and backstage moment. I transcribed all my interviews so as I got to each designer's section I'd have everything I needed to pull from available. I'd say the book came together in about three weeks of constant writing and photo editing on my and Morgan's part. Then it went to our talented designer Danielle Farmer, and went through the copy editing process and all that. Then finally off to the printer!

Jim: What was your favorite moment from covering the fashion show? 

Andrea: I think my favorite part for this book was visiting the designers studios in the weeks before the collections showed. That's something I never got to do before and visiting their personal creative spaces was really inspiring.

Jim: Who are some of the designers you focus on in the book? 

Andrea: The designers that we went to the atelier with were Bibhu Mohapatra, Angel Sanchez, Carmen Marc Valvo, K Nicole - a local Philly design duo - and Novis. Carmen Marc Valvo was the first designer to grant me a backstage interview my first time covering fashion week so it was exciting to call on him again for featuring in this project and a more extended interview.

Jim: Can you tell us something that happens behind the scenes that people might not know?

Andrea: I think people would be surprised by the amount of down time, with models just scrolling through their phones or reading real books - I see it a lot - or a hurry up and wait kind of situation. I also think people would be surprised how down to the wire it gets. Bibhu was telling me about putting different panels of a dress together the morning of the show, after having sent them overseas for delicate detail work. There's adjustments and fittings going on right up until the girls walk out.

Jim: Would you tell us a little bit about Shiffer Publishing? What types of books do they focus on and what is it like to work there? 

Andrea: Schiffer is a niche publisher out of Lancaster, PA. It's mostly non-fiction and Schiffer Fashion Press is an imprint of the company that publishes this book series as well as other fashion and accessories titles. The company started out doing a lot of antiques and art books, and now we're branching out into more pop culture and contemporary design books. It's neat to work at a company where I get to go to New York often and cover fashion week, but at the same time most days I'm driving out to "the book farm" in Lancaster to work.

Jim: For those of us in the area, can you tell us about your book launch? 

Andrea: The book launch is going to be really fun! I've worked at Chester County Book Company in one role or another almost since I've lived in West Chester, and they'll be doing the book sales at the event. It is being held at Nich Boutique in West Chester, I know the owner Kristy - who has another location in Collegeville as well, through some fabulous fashionable friends. You can get an outfit styled from their affordable, trendy selection, and you can get a flash tat to wear out that night! Another Schiffer author Ady Abreu, who wrote Dare to Bake which will also be available at the event, is making cupcakes. And we'll have some light fair and Doc Magrogan's signature sangria. And a Phoenixville salon who works with all the fabulous ladies I know in the P-Ville area will be doing a braid bar. It's from 1 to 4 p.m. so you'll be all ready to go out to dinner after!

Meet Andrea on Saturday, May 16th at the launch party at Nich Boutique, which is located at 29 S. High St., West Chester, PA. You can also order the book through AMAZON.

On Writing: Interview with M.M. Wittle

M.M. Wittle appears to dabble in everything. She writes plays, poetry, fiction, and non-fiction. She recently published 3 Decades and I'm Gone, a non-fiction chapbook based on the loss of her parents. Her plays have been produced at various Play in a Day festivals in the Southern NJ theatre community as well as her play, "Family Guidance" had a reading at the Walnut Street Theatre. Her most recent full length play, "Ghost Lights" will be at the Luna Theatre in May. She is the creative non-fiction editor for The Fox Chase Review and an adjunct professor as well as a Literacy Coach in Camden, NJ. I first met Michelle at Rosemont Writers Retreat a few years ago and wanted to see what she is working on now. Jim: Out of all the writing you do, is there one genre you are most passionate about?

M.M.: I think plays are the easiest for me to visualize, flash fiction would be the next passion. I do my best work when I have to be contained in a smaller form.

Jim: 3 Decades and I'm Gone is a very personal look at suffering, survival and healing and you use poetry, prose and pictures in the book. Tell me how the project came about.

M.M.: This is a funny story. The poetry came first and my idea was to just have the poetry as a chapbook about loss. Then the bat came into my apartment and I started researching what bats symbolize. When I saw bats take one's grief I thought that was interesting but didn't really pay it any mind. When I was in therapy and found out grief is a step in the grieving process, the book came into formation. I know there were some things I still couldn't fully talk about but poetry made it easier because that was just an image. Some pictures said things I could never fully explain. And the flash creative nonfiction made telling the story easier because I only had to spend time in that memory for 1,000 words.

Jim: Can you tell me about the Play in a Day concept and how often you've done it?

M.M.: The play in a day concept is I have 12 hours to write a play with my characters and props dedicated to me and then the director and actors have 12 hours to put the show on. I've done this for about 2 years and have written about four ten-minute plays. There is another Play in a Day festival coming in April or May and rumor has it the performance will be at Stockton University.

Jim: So working on these short plays and flash fiction, do you consider yourself a minimalist?

M.M.: I never though of it that way. I just like the challenge of the forms and how specific the word choices have to be when writing in the smaller forms.

Jim: Can you tell us about an incident where you received writing advice that was meaningful to you and what that advice was?

M.M.: When I was a full time teacher, I stopped writing. I felt like I had to spend my time really focusing on my students and their education. I didn't know how to balance teaching and writing. However, I had a friend say to me after I complained that I had nothing new to say no one can tell a story the way I can tell the story. Then J.C. Todd kicked me out of poetry class because she knew I was writing around the poem instead of writing the poem. Her instructions were to write everything about the poem I had in my head. That helps me a lot when I am trying to find my way into a story.

Jim: Did J.C. physically kick you out of class? That sounds like tough love! It sounds like good advice though.

M.M.: She didn't physically kick my shin but she did tell me the poem I wrote wasn't what the real poem was about. Then she told me to go into an empty classroom and just write. J.C. Todd is one of my pillars of writing. I knew she would be the only one to teach me how to write poetry and she still inspires me today. In a post script to this story, the poem still hasn't been written yet.

Jim: Can you tell us about your new full-length play "Ghost Lights" that is being produced in May? What is the play about? And as the playwright, how much do you get involved in the production once it is on paper?

M.M.: "Ghost Lights" is my homage to the theatre. When I worked in a theatre in Philadelphia, I became curious about ghost lights and there place in theatre history. The play was once just a 14 page act and now it is a full 90 minute production. The play looks at all the cliches and wonders of the theatre. It was such a joy to write and I'm grateful to Haddonfield Theater Arts Center for the opportunity to write the play for their adult theater class.

Scott Laska asked me if I wanted to write a full length play for his adult class and I jumped at the opportunity. I attend class most nights and listen to the actors play their roles. Some of the choices they made influenced how I shaped the play. It was a really spectacular experience to build this show for them.

Normally a playwright writes the play and if the play goes to a reading or workshop, he or she gets to do rewrites based on what the playwright hears. With this experience, I worked with the director Benjamin Sterling Cannon, and the actors on a weekly basis. It was so wonderful to be able to rewrite the play weekly and really watch it take shape.

Jim: Sounds awesome. Good luck with the play!

M.M.: Thanks!

Learn more about "Ghost Lights," which is being performed at The Luna Theater, 620 S. 8th St., Philadelphia, PA on May 9th. Order M.M. Wittle's book by clicking here.

Eric Smith discusses Inked and the Philly Lit Scene

Eric Smith appears to be always running through Philly. He has written The Geek's Guide to Dating and co-founded the popular website Geekadelphia. When not writing at a city cafe, organizing the Philly Geek Awards, or emceeing a local story slam, Eric is making books shine for the independent Philly publisher Quirk Books. He has just published his own YA novel, INKED, and agreed to answer a few questions about writing, tattoos, and all things us literary types like to geek out about.

Jim: Tell us about your new YA novel INKED.

Eric: Sure! INKED is a YA fantasy novel that takes place in a world where, once you come of age, you're forced to get magic tattoos that tell the world what you're best at. It marks you, and you're destined to do that thing for the rest of your life. Farmer, soldier, whatever. The story centers around a teenager that doesn't want his future set for him, and the misadventures that happen as a result.

Jim: What inspired you to write about tattoos? Was there a flash where you said, "this would be a cool story?"

Eric: A friend of mine is a tattoo artist, and when he was working in Philadelphia, he made a comment about all his tattoos. On how he'll be a tattoo artist forever, because of the way he looked. It was a joke, but it got me thinking a lot about that idea. It sort of spiraled out from there.

Jim: Are you inked?

Eric: I am! Quotation marks on my wrists, and Jules Verne-inspired tattoos on my left arm. When I was a kid, his books were the first ones I really fell in love with. Despite how my mom feels about the tattoos, they are kiiinda her fault.

Jim: Where can we find INKED?

Eric: It's a digital exclusive release with Bloomsbury, under the imprint Bloomsbury Spark. It's available via all major eBook retailers. You can pick it up on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, iBook, etc. An audiobook will also be coming out in the next few months via Audible.

Jim: How would you describe the Philly literary community to someone new in town?

Eric: Very warm and welcoming. I feel like everyone is eager to connect with one another, and just as eager to celebrate the success of each other. Folks like Lillian Dunn at The Apiary are always trying to pull people together, and super editor / writer Sarah Grey always seems to have a great networking event going on. Once you catch wind of something happening, go. Meet people. When you're in, you'll never want to leave.

Jim: You've written The Geek's Guide to Dating and co-founded the popular website Geekadelphia. What advice can you share on embracing our inner geekness?

Eric: Hm, I guess to just let that geek flag fly, you know? You never know where your passions are going to lead you. No sense in bottling them all up. Embracing and promoting all the geeky things I care about led to so many great things in my life. Awesome friends, a platform that helps launch my career in publishing, first real book deal and an agent... just do it!

Jim: I know you've hosted a First Person Arts Story Slam and judged last year's Grand Slam. Is there a most memorable story you've heard at a storytelling event?

Eric: You know, it's hard to think of one specific story, but I can tell you my favorite storytellers. I cannot get enough of Marjorie Fineberg Winther. My goodness, that woman has me in tears every single time I see her. She's hilarious. I also adore any story that my friend Andrew Panebianco tells, whether its on stage at a First Person Arts event or at happy hour. He's one talented guy.

Jim: One envisions Quirk Books being a truly hip company. Can you give us a glimpse of what it's like to work there?

Eric: It's one awesome hub of creativity, that's for sure. A group of really passionate people working on projects they adore day in and day out. We have a lot of fun bringing our fun books into the world. It's like one big happy geeky family, that place.

Jim: Not to rush you, since INKED has just debuted, but do you have ideas on your next writing project?

Eric: Well, I've been fussing over a sequel manuscript. I definitely pictured Inked as a series. So, lots of editing to do there, as I work to get it into shape. Right now, that's it.

Thanks for having me, Jim! :-)

To learn more, and to check out upcoming INKED events, check out Eric Smith Rocks! You can download the book from Amazon by clicking here.

Books on my Christmas Wish List

It's Thanksgiving morning, so time to make my Christmas wish list! Here's the books I'm hoping to find under my tree this year, along with a list of books I recommend with some tongue-in-cheek suggestions on who might enjoy each book. MY WISH LIST

imagesRedeployment by Phil Klay - My friend Eli, a former Marine, read this short story collection over the summer and highly recommended it. Having just read Tim O'Brien's classic The Things They Carried in the past year (an amazing collection), I'm anxious to see what direction Klay takes. Klay won the National Book Award for fiction this year, and short story collections don't win that often.

imagesStation Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel - I picked up Emily's first novel for my wife a few Christmases ago, and then was lucky enough to meet Emily and get her second novel when she did a reading at Steel City City Coffeehouse in Phoenixville. When my friend Pat told me he enjoyed her new post-apocalyptic novel, I placed this on my list. Emily was nominated for a NBA this fall also.

imagesThe Mom Squad by Christine Weiser - Christine, one of the co-founders of Philadelphia Stories and the author of Broad Street, recently published this novel about a stay-at-home mom who uncovers corruption at Philadelphia City Hall. If you read her previous novel, you know Christine writes fast paced plots with humor. The cover is reminiscent of Charlie's Angels, so you know this has to be fun.


Here's some of the books I enjoyed this year, with a humorous note on who the book might make a good gift for:

2903a3a42a1e4a0f316013844df1f86aThe Blessings by Elise Juska - This fractured novel follows members of the Philly-based Irish-American Blessings family through their lives. Beautifully written, Elise captures the small sad moments in their lives as well as the pivotal family events. Recommended for your Irish-American Catholic friend or relative who grew up in Northeast Philadelphia, particularly if they still attend church.

photo-26Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk by Ben Fountain - I know this satirical novel was on my list last year and I love it enough to still recommend it. My book club hated it, a very literary friend hated it, but my Aunt Peggy thought it was hilarious. The plot is set on Thanksgiving day, at the Dallas Cowboys game, as a platoon of soldiers are being celebrated for a firefight they survived in Iraq. This novel has tons of expletives, and I found myself laughing and in tears, often in the course of one paragraph. Recommended for that macho friend or relative who loves reading The Onion and drops the occasional F-Bomb.

lifedrawing3DLife Drawing by Robin Black - This is a dark and quiet novel, set in Bucks County, PA. The antithesis of Billy Lynn's Long Walk. A woman and her husband, both artists, struggle with their marriage when a neighbor moves in next door. Recommended for that brooding, self-reflective serious middle-aged bookworm.

CannedCanned!: Artwork of the Modern American Beer Can by Russ Phillips - This beautiful coffee table book explores the craft beer scene's revival of beer cans with photos of craft beer cans from every region of the country. From Phoenixville's Sly Fox Brewery to Wild Onion Brewery's, we see how craft beer is marketed with colorful images of everything from beautiful women to Grateful Dead logos. Recommended for that friend who you always meet at Victory, Side Bar or TJ's or your buddy that works in graphic design.

imagesThe Spirit of Gin: A Stirring Miscellany of the New Gin Revival by Matt Teacher - I reviewed this comprehensive gin guide for the Town Dish this fall and I've been a bit obsessed with this book ever since. Matt Teacher provides gin recipes, gin history, and insights into famous gin bars and distilleries. Not only is this book fascinating to read, but it makes a great reference guide and looks great sitting on your coffee table or on your wet bar. Recommended for that person who is always pulling out a new bottle of liquor and mixing drinks when you visit.

unnamedWest Chester Story Slam: Selected Stories 2010-2014 - I recommend this because it contains 40 true stories told by people who have become friends over the past five years. Several stories are hilarious, such as Luke Stromberg's story about a missing wheelchair and Kevin Ginsberg's story about getting lost in Camden. Others are touching, such as Karen Randall's Lettuce story and Jessica Kupferman's remembrance of her mother. Recommended for that relative who is always telling good stories, or that buddy you always discuss The Moth or This American Life with.


10670103_10204953133365665_7366139958525587162_nCommunion by Curtis Smith - I saw Curt read an older essay of his at the Rosemont Writers Retreat this summer, and it was awesome. I later read another essay he wrote on Faith and enjoyed that as well. As someone who grew up Catholic, I think this collection will resonate with me. I love the fact that Curtis and I both attended Kutztown University also. Unfortunately, Communion won't be released until Spring 2015. Maybe in my Easter basket?

What books are on your Holiday Wish List this year and what do you think I missed?

What is "Books in Bars?"

BIBWhen my friend Linda Ortino and I started discussing holding an event at her family's bar/restaurant, Ortino's Northside, I thought we should try something different. QVC viewers will recognize Linda. She was a QVC model for many years (See her photo from a Nolan Miller show below!) and is now an on-air guest with a variety of products. She was always a blast to work with in the studio. I haven't seen Linda in years, so I'm excited to visit! Anyway, you might be asking, but what is "Books in Bars?"

"Books in Bars" is simply a happy hour for people who enjoy reading books. Think of it as a networking event for book readers - in a bar! You won't have to listen to an author read. No highbrow literary diploma needed. Did I mention the event is held in a bar? Just enjoy happy hour specials while discussing books with other avid readers. Meet other book lovers and learn about their favorite books, authors, and genres. You may walk away with a larger "To Be Read" list.

For the Sunday, November 9th event, the Ortino family is generously offering a 1/2 price appetizer menu, 1/2 price Margaritas, and $3 Craft Draft Specials. Ortino's Northside is located at 1355 Gravel Pike, Perkiomenville, PA. Books in Bars will run from 3pm - 6pm. Their phone number is (610)287-7272.

Each Books in Bars event will feature two writers with recently published books. On Sunday, November 9th, the writers will my friend (and former QVCer) Robb Cadigan, who is the author of the popular novel Phoenixville Rising. I'll have a few copies of Shoplandia, my novel inspired by QVC. Yeah, you can buy a book if you would like, but there is no pressure. Writers happen to enjoy talking about books in bars.

Books in Bars will be an occasional series. We have chatted with bar owners about holding possible future events in Phoenixville, West Chester, and Media. To sign up and receive email notices about upcoming Books in Bars events, click here. Also, if you are on Twitter, reach us at @BooksInBars.

Here's a photo of Linda (center) all ready for a Nolan Miller show.


Writer's Digest quotes my #nanowrimo advice

Are you doing #nanowrimo this year? I've participated in National Novel Writing Month twice over the years and blogged about the experience back in 2010. In their latest issue, Writer's Digest quoted me about the experience, which is kinda cool. On newsstands now! If you'd like to read my entire post blog post about #nanowrimo, click here. If you are hunkering down this November to partake in #nanowrimo, good luck! WRITERSDIGEST

Philadelphia Inquirer reviews Shoplandia

Screen shot 2014-10-01 at 10.21.47 PMThanks to the Philadelphia Inquirer for their recent review of Shoplandia. The online version of the article was titled: 'Shoplandia': Delightful exploration of the glitzy, manic world of home-shopping TV. Holly Love's review ended with this gem: "Despite a smiley-face ending, this novel is worth its weight in all the gold, silver, and crystal jewelry now on clearance prices until midnight. Give me 10,000 copies. I'd gladly give it a go selling them on QVC myself." You can read the full review by clicking HERE.

My One Question for David Lynch

IMG_3270Okay, total geekboy moment for me tonight. Film director David Lynch returned to his college stomping grounds - Philadelphia - for a retrospective. Lynch attended the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts several decades ago. I was lucky enough to sit in the second row of the Prince Music Theater where he was interviewed before a screening of his film Lost Highway. During the interview, he took questions from the audience, so I asked him, "Can you tell us about how your time here in Philly influenced your work, and what you think of the city now?" Lynch responded by recalling a building near his apartment that was completely covered in black soot. He then said, "Every place had a kind of a mood but swimming in the atmosphere was huge fear and a chance for big violence. There was a feeling of corruption, there was a feeling of despair, there was feeling insanity. And it all sort of swam together. Now the city seems much brighter and cleaner and more ordinary to me."

Directly after my question, David Lynch was asked about how he ended up with a role in Louis CK's show Louie.

IMG_3286"I think there were about fourteen people ahead of me for that role, and they all turned Louie down. Louie wrote me these letters, and I turned him down a couple of times, and he wrote beautiful letters, and then I read the scripts and the scripts were really great - really great - and Louie said they came pouring out in one continuous waterfall. I was really impressed. I didn't want to do it because it's a very frightening thing to act and I don't like to travel too much and he got me to go from LA to New York and go into a hotel and act, so he is a pretty incredible guy."

One more note: I'm pretty happy that I refrained from blurting out that I had gone to see Blue Velvet alone on Valentine's Day the year it came out and the cashier slipped me a candy heart with my change which was strange and I sat in the Roxy Theatre in Philly and almost walked out at the first set of disturbing scenes but then ten minutes later I was laughing hysterically at the famous Dean Stockwell party scene and then ten minutes later I was sniffling as Jeffrey Beaumont lay battered in his room and that I left that movie theatre that day in shock and had to walk across the city back to my apartment at 9th and Lombard, which was the most frightening experience in my adult life.

Yeah, so I'm pretty happy I refrained blurting all that out.


Pop Culture Tonight


I was thrilled to be interviewed recently by Patrick Phillips of the syndicated radio show Pop Culture Tonight. It turns out Patrick is a fan of QVC, and often has it on his television while working. We had a fun time chatting about real life in a shopping studio and some of the funny moments in the novel. Pop Culture Tonight is a unique show that interviews people from all aspects of pop culture. It was cool to see he had recently interviewed Lloyd Schwartz of the Brady Bunch, Alfred Molina, Marc Somers, and even Marion Ross of Happy Days fame!

Pop Culture Tonight airs in Detroit, Michigan's WROM Radio, KAZI 88.7, and Independent Talk KFNX 1100. The show can also be listened to directly from the Pop Culture Tonight website. My interview should be available in a few days. Thanks Patrick for having me as a guest!

If you are visiting my website after listening to the show, check out the menu above and click on Studio Photos to see some of the celebrities I've encountered through the years. If you are looking to pick up a copy of SHOPLANDIA, here's a link to order from Amazon. Do you want to give that home shopping fanatic friend of yours a gift? Personalized copies can be ordered by clicking here.

Screen shot 2014-08-27 at 1.52.19 PM

Robin Black's Life Drawing: A Review

lifedrawing3DLet's consider MAA: Middle Age Adult novels. Robin Black's new novel, Life Drawing, is a quiet, but powerful novel about marriage and the attempt to recover from betrayal. The story revolves around a couple striving to go the distance in their work and life. They are married and in their late forties, she (Gus) is a painter and he (Owen) is a writer. They live an idyllic life in the country, and they are now more passionate about their work than each other. When a new neighbor moves in across the way, their quiet lives are more than shaken up. At the core of the novel, which is written in the first person from the wife Gus's perspective, is her conflicted feelings about an affair she had years ago. Consider this passage where she reflects:

To what exactly had I felt entitled with Bill? There is an answer: Joy. Not happiness, which by that time seemed a fantasy one had to agree to give up in order to keep from going mad. By forty, is there anyone who hasn't had to recognize that happiness, as understood by youth, as illusory?"

And later, she reflects:

The betrayer doesn't get much sympathy, not even from herself, but it is in fact a heavy weight to have hurt someone you love, and it can be difficult even years later to detect any impermeable boundaries around the damage you may have done.

Gus's reflection on the affair, along with a visit from the daughter of her love, stir up the pot. When the neighbor's daughter comes to stay, and develops a crush on Owen, the strings of this novel are pulled taut. I loved the conversation between the couple on their ride to Cape Cod, where Gus declares:

"Great. I'm the chauffeur and she's the inspiration."

There's more than the affair swirling around in this novel. Gus works to bring WWI soldiers back to life through her art, and her frequent visits with her ailing father provide texture to the discourse on memory of one's loves. Robin Black is an eloquent writer and Life Drawing is a page turner with a tragic ending.

The Evolution of Shoplandia's Book Cover

Graphic Designer Larry Geiger has designed the covers for all of Oermead Press paperbacks, as well as the graphics for West Chester and Delco Story Slams. One of the joys of collaborating with Larry is watching his creative process, and his sense of humor that comes through in early cover ideas. photo-62When it came to SHOPLANDIA, Larry read several key chapters and we brainstormed ideas over a few months. We discussed images - televisions, remote controls, shipping boxes, a tight shot of a show host with a lapel mic, helicopters, dogs, etc. We talked in-depth about the spirit of the book, which is about employees pursuing their version of the American Dream while working at a home shopping network. How does a book cover capture the humor, the mayhem of a live 24/7 television studio that reflects American society?

Usually around 10:30 at night, I'd receive a text from Larry with an image of a book cover. He was mocking up covers in almost stream of consciousness and he'd text me a new cover every ten or fifteen minutes. I'd text back a first impression - often "ha!" or "funny!" Here's a few of the book covers that Larry created during the process.

ShoplandiaBookCover5_5x8_5_Cream_290 copySHOPLANDIA is humorous novel told through stories, filled with surreal moments in a fast-paced setting. It's an American novel also, and the studio is definitely a circus-like setting. The title alone does not convey this is a story about a home shopping channel. People might think it is a novel about a shopping mall so in the end we concluded we needed a television at the center. Larry's creative ideas and our fun discussions during this time was such a joy, and on the day we decided to go with the final version, poet Virginia Beards sent me her quote for the back cover.

"Jim Breslin viscerally knows the dynamics of a three-ring circus played out on the rotating stage of a 24/7 shopping network. They're all there--stars and has-beens, pretty pitch women, sad clowns, roustabouts, network lions and wolves. Both moving and entertaining, Shoplandia mingles the humor and pathos inherent in the big tent of our consumer obsessive culture." - Virginia Beards, Exit Pursued By a Bear and Others

When I read Ginny's quote, it paired perfectly with the design! If you'd like to read reviews on Amazon, (or even add your own!) click here. You can find SHOPLANDIA at IndieBound, Chester County Book Company, BookPlace, and Main Point Books. If your local bookshop doesn't have a copy, they can order a copy.

To learn more about Larry Geiger's creative visuals, click on Larry Geiger Design.

Shoplandia Summer

EARLY REVIEWS FOR SHOPLANDIA, the new novel by Jim Breslin, are in. ShoplandiaBookCover5_5x8_5_Cream_290 copy"With a tone and style reminiscent of George Saunders and situations that would feel right at home in a Don DeLillo novel, the stories collected in Jim Breslin’s Shoplandia offer an engaging and informed behind-the-scenes look at the home shopping industry." - Marc Schuster of Small Press Reviews. Read the full review here.

“Breslin’s choice to set the stories within the television shopping network corporation is one of the most refreshing and strategic narrative moves I have experienced in a long time.” – Jillian Benedict, Turk’s Head Review

You can read Jillian’s entire review by clicking here.

"Shoplandia reveals the absurd world of home shopping networks with rollicking humor and gusto." - James Esch, Turk’s Head Review

photo-59“Compelling and poetic, Shoplandia’s stories have all the insight and complexity of the best novels. Breslin gives us a thoughtful meditation on consumerism and the American Dream.” - Terry Heyman, Greetings From Insanity

“Jim Breslin viscerally knows the dynamics of a three-ring circus played out on the rotating stage of a 24/7 shopping network. They’re all there—stars and has-beens, pretty pitch women, sad clowns, roustabouts, network lions and wolves. Both moving and entertaining, Shoplandia mingles the humor and pathos inherent in the big tent of our consumer obsessive culture.” - Virginia Beards, Exit Pursued By a Bear and Others

"Drawing from his experiences in TV production, Jim Breslin's Shoplandia immerses the reader into that wild and weird world. This collection sizzles and pops, particularly in "Laugh Track," where Breslin's evocative storytelling about the seamy side of the television industry is so potent that you can almost smell it. - Josh Goller, The Molotov Cocktail

But wait, there's more! Check out the reviews posted on Amazon and Goodreads. Have you read SHOPLANDIA? Enjoy it this summer and join the discussion!

The Ghost Chile or Trick or Treating?

photo-17As I've talked with friends who have recently read Shoplandia, it's been fun to note which chapters have resonated. Early on, the chapter "Pepper Man," where Warren's life is changed after he eats a ghost chile handed to him by a motivational guru, appeared to be a favorite. Recently though, a few friends have mentioned that Chapter 11, "Day of the Dead," where producer Dottie experiences a rather catastrophic shift on Halloween night, was surprisingly emotional. One friend told me she cried as she read that chapter on the beach. Hearing that these stories connected with readers in different ways has been really fulfilling. If you've read Shoplandia, I'd love to know which chapter you enjoyed the most and if a chapter left you hanging. Did a favorite character emerge or was there a character you hated? I've appreciated the public notes so far on Amazon, Goodreads, Facebook and Twitter, and the private notes through personal conversation, email, and messaging. Thanks so much.

If you've not read the novel yet, you can read an early version of the chapter called "Damn Yankees" as it was published in Turk's Head Review. Shoplandia is available at Chester County Book Company (West Chester, PA), Main Point Books (Bryn Mawr, PA), BookPlace (Oxford, PA), and online at IndieBound and Amazon. There's also a link to order direct from Oermead Press.

Also, for those who are on Goodreads, we're doing another giveaway of three copies of Shoplandia. Click here to enter.

Is YA Like Mac and Cheese?

I once heard a comedian joke, "I don't understand the allure of skiing. I mean you put these slippery things on your feet and slide down the mountain. Try putting skis on and NOT sliding down the mountain, now that's a challenge." That's kind of how I felt while reading John Green's bestselling Young Adult (YA) novel The Fault Within Our Stars. Try writing a love story between two cancer-stricken teenagers that doesn't make readers cry, now that's a challenge. I just finished the novel last night and am strictly in the "it's okay" camp. John Green is a likable guy with a huge following. I like his Youtube videos, and admit I'd watched a few videos before I realized he was an author. While I didn't hate the novel, it didn't wow me either. Okay, a tear may have fallen, but this novel didn't stir up the emotions of many, many of the books I've read over the years.

Like any novel that becomes a huge financial success, the detractors have come out of the woodwork. Slate Magazine ran a piece recently where writer Ruth Graham derisively stated that adults should be embarrassed to be caught reading YA novels. The article can be found here.This article created an immediate backlash on Twitter, with people defending the YA genre. My favorite quote from this debate came from author Jennifer Weiner who, when asked why she would defend YA, tweeted, "First they come for your YA and then they come for your chick lit." Hilarious and true.

So here's my take. For me, reading YA is like eating Macaroni and Cheese. I've known many kids who grew up on a diet of mac and cheese, it is one of the few things they will eat - and they eat bowls of it. My son was an example of this, but now his palate has matured. As a college junior, he has developed a more adventurous appetite and turned into an opinionated "foodie." As an adult, I enjoy mac and cheese occasionally. It's a comfort food.

Our reading choices are similar. Is there a lit pyramid like the food pyramid? I tend to read short stories about suburban angst - and have to break out of my habit to read other stuff - non-fiction, poetry, chick lit, YA, etc. Do you have a favorite genre and have to "flex" your reading habits to try new genres? Anyway, I've had my fill of mac and cheese for the year, though maybe next summer I'll have another serving.

On Writing: An Interview with Meg Pokrass

When the writer Dinty W. Moore recently asked on Facebook who comes to mind when one thinks of Flash Fiction writers, the name Meg Pokrass was near the top of the list. Meg appears to have an obsession with this form of fiction, which is often considered to be any story less than 1,000 words and is sometimes tagged as prose poems. Meg and I first crossed paths on fictionaut.com a few years ago, where flash is fairly popular genre. Her flash pieces called "The Serious Writer" had me cracking up. In addition to being published in over 150 journals, Meg often drives engaging conversations about flash fiction through her Facebook page. She has a sense of humor also, often referring to her alter-ego agent as Peg Mokrass. I wanted to interview Meg about her writing, her influences, and her thoughts on the genre itself. Meg lives in San Francisco and her latest collection, "Bird Envy", is available through the Harvard Bookstore. Jim: What’s your definition of flash fiction?
1378788_10204018533408357_4020769808589480367_nMeg: Honestly the answer to this question is boringly simple, so I'm going to have to make it boringly simple. It is a story which is under, 1,000 words. Some stories are more like prose poems, or could be called prose poems. Some are more narrative, and feel more like fiction. "Flash Fiction" is a broad label for short form writing. There are many different ways to write flash. But the universal understanding of it always boils down to a story under 1,000 words.

Jim: Why does the form appeal to you?

Meg: I have always found myself stuck on certain parts of longer writings, just hopelessly in love with sentences as much or more than reading an entire novel. When reading novels, I'll read a brilliant paragraph or page a hundred times. Sometimes I get stuck and can't move on. This is how I fell in love with the form. I find a huge world inside of small moments, and observations. I always have.

Jim: I'm enjoying "Bird Envy". These pieces are little gems where I can read one piece and savor it for a few hours, then read another piece. How do you recommend reading flash?

Meg frontCover-1 (final)Meg: I'm glad you enjoyed "Bird Envy" Jim. I recommend reading flash just the way it feels right to. For some people they prefer to digest a bit at a time. Others, it seems, need to read a book straight through and then reread certain pieces later. I feel that reading flash fiction is similar to reading poems. It is hard to take in too much at once. For me, if a book of flash is meaty, the way it should be.. like poetry, it is best to read bits at a time.... to put the book away and return to it later. I don't see any reason to read the pieces in order, though many authors would disagree. One of the nicest compliments about my writing I've received came from the poet Bob Hicok, who said he could open my book "Damn Sure Right" and start anywhere, that his eyes would get caught on words and sentences, and his mind would eagerly hop all over the pages (these were not his exact words, but that was the idea, and it meant the world to hear it).

Jim: You joked on Facebook recently about the flash fiction community being incestuous. Can you elaborate?

Meg: Hm. It is a sensitive and complicated matter. I was disturbed, about 4 years ago, starting out as an online flash fiction editor and writer, about elitism within the flash fiction community— how you always saw the same names in flash magazines, and how closed a community it felt. Because I was new to it and was getting published a lot, I encountered hostility from existing writers, there was a feeling of territorialism which I ran into deeply the more I was published. There were private virtual offices, and I was shut out of the most important flash feedback/writing group. At this point, I was developing doubts about being able to have my work published or read because of the shut-out. What seemed to bother my colleagues the most was that I was comfortable about the concept of promoting my own work. I felt I had to do so, having no advocates. I had to be my own agent, if you will. You have to understand, back then, if a flash writer, for ANY reason, got on the bad side of a flash fiction magazine editor, it could end your publishing career.

With that worry, I created a writing community on Facebook, in which I did the opposite of what was being shown to me by the insiders. I believe I helped to open up the genre to new writers of the form, bringing in anyone who wanted to try hard, giving them prompts and so forth. Not shutting people out. I have, along the way, developed a community with heart. I am very proud about learning from what happened to me and doing something to help change things, instead of being muted.

The good news is that, these days, instead of 7 flash fiction magazines in existence, there are hundreds. Nobody has this kind of power anymore. And though you still tend to see the same names, the same "cool writers" if you will, and "hip" magazines to be published in, it is a more open playing field. There has been progress.

Jim: In this world of short attention spans, do you think flash fiction is on the brink of finding a larger audience?

Meg: It seems to me that flash fiction publications are multiplying in droves. Even some of the stodgier, more traditional print magazines are accepting submissions for flash fiction. I do not believe its growing readership is the result of short attention spans so much as the mobile device revolution and how perfect the form is for an e-reading experience.

Jim: Where's it happening for flash fiction now?

Meg: Flash fiction is being taught in MFA programs and it appears to be gaining slow but steady recognition as one of the most vibrant current forms among academics. The reality of flash fiction’s internet explosion can no longer be denied, so writing students are naturally studying it. There was a great panel about teaching flash fiction in the classroom this year at AWP, 2014. The panel was created and moderated by Sophie Rosenblum, co-editor for NANO Fiction, and I felt so fortunate to attend it. Flash fiction is rapidly gaining popularity in academia. It is an amazing time to be involved in the form!

Jim: You are just starting the New Flash Fiction Review? Can you tell us about it?

Meg: Kirk Nesset, one of my favorite writers and teachers of the short form and I are doing this together. Our first issue will include new work by Gary Lutz, Steve Almond, Chuck Rosenthal, Sherrie Flick, Robert Scotellaro, Molly Giles, Pamela Painter, Natalia Singer, Sean Lovelace, Tom Hazuka, Randall Brown, Cooper Renner, Matthew Fogarty, Leonard Kress and more wonderful, amazing flash fiction writers. The response to this issue was overwhelming. We feel proud and lucky!

Jim: Tell me more about your novella in flash that's coming out this fall.

Meg: "My Very End of the Universe: Five Novellas-in-Flash and a Study of the Form" will include novellas-in-flash by Chris Bower, Margaret Patton Chapman, Tiff Holland, and Aaron Teel as well as essays on the craft of creating the novella-in-flash. I have loved the Rose Metal Press for years, it is a dream to be included in a book like this.

Jim: Tell me about your screenwriting project.

Meg: I am not allowed to say much about this yet. But, I can say that two years ago I was commissioned to create a piece with veteran screenwriter Graham Gordy, an original screenplay. I have had the time of my life. We are about finished with it now, and I’m crossing my fingers that we will see it completed as a film. I learned so much by working with Graham Gordy, enjoying it so much it did not feel like working. I could do this foreer. The last five years have been the most creative and happiest years of my life so far.

You can pick up Meg's latest collection of flash fiction "Bird Envy" at the Harvard Bookstore. Follow Meg on Twitter or Facebook or check out her website, MegPokrass.com.