On Writing: David Eric Tomlinson's The Midnight Man

David Eric Tomlinson's debut novel, The Midnight Man, centers around the brutal murder of a basketball player in Oklahoma and those involved in both the victim's life and the murderer's life. The story contains a diverse and vibrant cast; a Choctaw Indian who is a public defender, an African-American nurse, a white real estate developer, his wife, and his paralyzed brother.  David weaved in real life events from the mid-90's to capture the time period as the characters face their own "disappointments, hopes, and fears." 

I first interviewed David in 2011, shortly after he started pursuing writing full time. That interview can be found here. I was thrilled to see David's novel debut and wanted to follow up to learn what's transpired in the past five years and the process that led to publication. 

Jim: Congratulations on the novel David! So what was your first inspiration for The Midnight Man? Were you working on this when we last chatted in 2011? 

David: I was working on the book then. I spent about five years drafting the many versions of THE MIDNIGHT MAN, and 2011 was right in the middle of that time.

My first inspiration for the story came when I was running on the treadmill, at home. I was looking out the window, daydreaming about this book I wanted to write, my first, and suddenly an image came to mind: someone running along the railroad tracks bisecting downtown Oklahoma City.

I'd been wanting to tackle something ambitious - a big novel about the 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building - but didn't know where to start. This character running along the railroad tracks wound up being my main protagonist, the Choctaw Indian public defenderDean Goodnight. I had pages of notes already, but no entry into the story itself. Everything grew from that image of Dean running. What was he running from, and why? Answering those questions got the ball rolling.

Jim: When we last talked, you were experimenting with "old school" writing, using a typewriter. You had also dropped Facebook and it looks like you may have now dropped Twitter. How much did you use the typewriter in the end, was it more of an inspiration than a long-term tool? What was your process and how do you practice your daily discipline? 

David: My process is basically to wake up, take my kids to school, and then spend several hours writing. If things are going well, I'm working on my laptop or computer. If not, I'll switch to the typewriter, or write longhand in a notebook, just to jolt my brain into a different state. More often than not, this causes something to fall out onto the page. After that, I'll read for awhile, then walk to the gym. It's during this walk that some magical eureka moment will often solve the intractable problem I've been wrestling with all morning. In the afternoons, I do some editing or, if I have it, consulting work (for actual money), before setting out into Dallas traffic to chauffer the kids all over the metroplex: basketball or ballet or volleyball or summer camp, whatever the season requires.

For me at least, social media is destructive to the kind of contemplative state of mind that writing requires. At the same time I quit Facebook, I gave up my iPhone, so I've been using an old-school flip-phone for six or seven years. This is a source of endless amusement to my daughters, friends, and family members. I'm that guy in Starbucks who is sitting there, drinking coffee, perhaps reading, and not looking at his phone, like a psychopath.

For a long time I was using Twitter, but after the election I gave that up, too. I watched a fascist tangerine with attention deficit disorder use Twitter as a vehicle to the presidency, which permanently ruined the allure.

Jim: There's no doubt social media has become more distracting than ever in the past few months. You're living in Texas now, but I see you did grow up in Oklahoma. Were you living in Oklahoma when the bombing occurred? 


David: I had taken a year off from college and was living there in 1993 and 1994. But by 1995 I was back in California. My dad, though, was working in Oklahoma City at the time. The day of the bombing, he was parking his car, nine blocks away, when the explosion occurred. Fortunately, he was three levels underground, and thought the bomb was an earthquake. Others weren't so lucky.

Jim: I enjoyed your opening scene of the Globetrotters basketball game with Curt Gowdy announcing. Had Gowdy announced such a game? 

David: Gowdy was in Oklahoma, announcing sports, for a time. It's sort of where he got his start. But I don't think he ever announced a goodwill game between Oklahoma A&M and the Harlem Globetrotters - at least not that I found in my research. That scene was entirely fictional, and there to set up the major themes running throughout the novel, race being one of the most important. But also the relationship between Ben and his big brother Cecil, and the way sports often transcends, if only momentarily, even the most stubborn political divides.

Jim: Do you have any insights on the process to publication? Once your novel was accepted, did you have many revisions and how hands on was your editor? 

David: I feel incredibly lucky to have found an agent and a traditional book deal, coming from outside the MFA system. The process was incredibly difficult and, at times, disheartening. That being said, I believed 100% in the manuscript I was querying, which made it easier to persevere through the rejections most of us receive on the road to publication.

The first thing I'd say is to have a perfect, polished manuscript. To do that, you need to read every day, write every day ... and identify a mentor. I found an experienced editor, Alan Rinzler, who read my work and offered the necessary critical input it required. Before querying, I'd rewritten THE MIDNIGHT MAN four times, over a period of five years, so the manuscript was pretty tight. But after signing with my agent, Eleanor Jackson, she had me rewrite it once more. Every time I revised, the book got better. So, based upon the advice of the publishing professionals you encounter along the way, be willing to revise, revise, revise. 

We had several near misses at the big publishing houses - editors who liked this story but then had to defend it in the all-important editorial meeting. Two editors wanted to make an offer on THE MIDNIGHT MAN, but were overruled in editorial, both times because of my lack of platform. So the second piece of advice I would give is to network with other authors - at writing conferences, at local readings, at your MFA program, etc. And not the cheesy, paper-thin social media networking that so many of us do. Instead, cultivate real, lasting friendships with authors who will be willing to read and blurb your work. It can tip the scales in your favor when a publisher is deciding whether to make an offer.

Finally, don't be afraid to promote yourself. I put together an aggressive marketing plan, cold-called authors to get cover blurbs, and eventually my agent found an editor who believes in THE MIDNIGHT MAN as much as I do - Ben LeRoy, at Tyrus Books, which was just acquired by Simon & Schuster. By the time the book deal was signed, the manuscript required very little editorial - a thorough copy edit and we were ready to go.

Jim: Great advice for all those writing and looking to publish. One last question, how has is felt in the months since publication? Have you jumped right back into writing? What are you working on? 

David: Things have been going well! This is my first novel, so I'm new to all of this.

This first month has been exciting. We had a great review in The Dallas Morning News. It came out on the eve of the book launch party, and the reading here was packed. The bookstore, The Wild Detectives, sold through all of the books. 

I've also been to San Diego, where I read at Jim Ruland's irreverent reading series "Vermin on the Mount", and to Minneapolis, where I read to a total of three people. I took them out for burgers and beer to discuss the book, as it seemed more appropriate than addressing rows of empty chairs. I'm focusing the rest of my tour in Texas and Oklahoma, a few appearances and book festivals throughout the year, all within driving distance from Dallas.

If I go a few days without writing, I begin to get cranky and tense, which I guess is a good sign, because it keeps me working. I'm about two hundred pages into a new novel, which I've been working on for over a year. It's about a veteran who runs an experimental suicide hotline for other veterans.

Jim: Thanks David! 

David: Thank you so much Jim for taking the time to interview me! It has been a pleasure.

David Eric Tomlinson's The Midnight Man can be found on Amazon or at your local bookshop. Learn more about David at DavidEricTomlinson.com

 

Richard Yates Biography is Honestly Tragic

A Tragic Honesty” started off slow, but about a third of the way in, once Richard Yates sets out on his writing career, the biography soared with detailed accounts of his life that often sad, sometimes funny, and always insightful.

The author Richard Yates wrote nine books, most notably the American classic “Revolutionary Road,” but also the well received novel “Easter Parade” and the exceptional short story collection, “Eleven Kinds of Loneliness.”

Yates suffered for his work until the end. Even though “Revolutionary Road” is now considered a classic, sales were poor upon its initial release. Yates often subsisted on advances for his next book, and when the money ran out, as it often did, he was forced to take jobs teaching or writing PR copy, screenplays, or speeches. Through his life, which consisted of two marriages and several other romances, Yates consistently consumed vast amounts of alcohol and struggled with frequent mental health issues.

The writer's life held some amazing twists and turns. At the Bread Loaf Writers Conference in 1962, the drunken Yates climbed onto the roof and loudly proclaimed he was the Messiah. Aghast conference attendees watched as he was led away in a straightjacket. A year later, the novelist William Styron was asked to recommend a speechwriter for US Attorney General Robert Kennedy. Styron recommended Yates for the job, and when Styron called Yates about the position, Yates replied, “I don’t even know if I like the fucking Kennedys.” Yates got the job, and four months in, after the security clearance research revealed his recent hospitalization, Bobby Kennedy personally questioned Yates about his mental issues but agreed to keep him on as a writer.

Yates also spent time in Los Angeles writing screenplays for Roger Corman and John Frankenheimer. Yates bounced around the country throughout his life; Iowa, Kansas, Los Angeles, New York, Boston, Alabama, all in attempts to pay his child support and rent while carving out time to write his next novel. He was also physically ill throughout his life. Yates was a chronic smoker - and throughout the biography, his fellow writers and family recalled his constant coughing fits and how his lips were continually dry from the combination of ant-depressants and alcohol.

The biography is filled with anecdotes about his unruly behavior while drinking and pursuing women, but there are also stories about how desperate his friends were to get him the help he sorely needed. At one point, friends tried to admit Yates into a mental facility. After the administrator realized Yates had no money for the stay, the administrator claimed they had no beds open and wouldn’t accept any more patients. Exasperated, the friend pushed a wheelchair with the sedated Yates down the hall and, when nobody was looking, abandoned the writer in a janitor’s closet.

All through the years, the legacy of "Revolutionary Road" continued to grow amongst those in the literary community. While Yates was never as commercially successful as many of his peers, his writing found a cult following amongst the next generation of writers. Yates was well accepted among many famous writers, most notably Styron and Andres Dubus.

The research that went into this biography is amazing. Much of Yates' life made its way into his writings, and the biographer notes which characters were inspired by family members and friends and often gets their reaction to the realization they had been written about.

As he grew older, Yates doubled down on his writing. He lived in squalor above a Boston pub and focused on cranking out novels and short stories. Blake Bailey's writing is detailed and easy to read. I definitely recommend "A Tragic Honesty" and would also suggest reading "Revolutionary Road," "The Easter Parade," and "Eleven Kinds of Loneliness."

Storytelling: Jennifer Marshall of This is my Brave

Jennifer Marshall is the co-founder of This is My Brave, a national storytelling series dedicated to discussing mental illness. Jennifer was diagnosed with Type 1 Bipolar Disorder in 2006 at the age of 26, and was hospitalized four times in five years. Writing about her life with a mental illness has helped her healing process, and This is My Brave's mission is "to end the stigma surrounding mental illness by sharing personal stories of individuals overcoming mental illness" through storytelling and other art forms. You can read her blog Bipolar Mom Life or follow her on Twitter at @Bipolarmomlife. She lives outside of Washington DC with her husband and two children.

Jim: I love the idea of This is My Brave. Can you tell us a little about how your personal journey with Bipolar Disorder led to the the creation of this event?

Jennifer: This Is My Brave was born from my personal experience of opening up about my bipolar illness on a public platform. After going through four psychiatric hospitalizations for manic episodes - two during the years I was having children - I wanted to make something good come from the pain and suffering I had endured. When my second child was almost one, I started writing a blog I titled Bipolar Mom Life. I wanted other young women to find my story when they typed in "bipolar" and "mom." I wanted them to know that they weren't alone, that they could get well, and that they could make their dreams of having a family come true if they put the right plan in place. I wanted them to learn from my story and find hope.

But I wrote anonymously at first. My parents and husband were worried about stigma. I was more interested in allowing people to really connect with my story, and knowing my name was part of that, I thought. My mom warned that other mothers at my kids' schools may not want their kids to play with mine if they know I have bipolar. My dad was concerned about future employment. They asked my purpose in putting my story out there. I told them I wanted to help people and if just one person was inspired to not give up because they read my blog, then I will have succeeded. Their combined pressure for me to remain anonymous remained strong, so I kept writing under a pen name.

In 2013 I attended a memoir writer's conference in Seattle (Cheryl Strayed was the keynote - love her!) and was deeply moved by all the people I met who were so open about their lives and their writing. It was at that conference when I received a call from an editor of a website I had recently written a piece for. She loved it and wanted me to write more for them, and they'd pay me. I was thrilled and decided I was ready to stop hiding. When I got home from the conference my first piece for WhatToExpect.com went live with my name on it and my disclosure of my bipolar illness. The piece ran also on the homepage of AOL.com and I received an outpouring of support from people online and in person thanking me for sharing my story. In return many opened up and shared theirs. I felt a tremendous weight lifted off my shoulders, like I could finally be myself to everyone. Bipolar isn't all of who I am, but it is a part of me and it's something I have to manage every day. I needed to be able to let that part of me out.

Months later I had the idea to launch a theater production. I wanted to give other people a platform - similar to the one I had when I opened up - to stand up and share their story of overcoming mental illness through poetry, original music and essays. I met a woman who would become my co-Founder, Anne Marie Ames, as together we shared a mutual passion for doing something to end the stigma. We launched a Kickstarter and raised over $10k in 31 days to fund our first show.

Jim: I thought the analogy of "coming out" that you used in your essay at the debut event was excellent. Has it been a challenge to find storytellers and artists willing to openly discuss their mental illness?

Jennifer: Yes and no, but for the most part, no. The reason I say yes is that we always have folks who sign up for auditions and then cancel at the last minute or don't show up. I think the fact that it does take a certain amount of bravery to put yourself out there and allow yourself to be vulnerable enough to share your story so openly. Especially when it comes to mental illness because there are so many elements of the various conditions which are not understood. But the more we share, the more people have the opportunity to learn and the more we're able to break down the stigma surrounding common conditions like depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, PTSD and more which many people suffer from in silence.

Jim: As an event organizer, I know it is hard to choose just one, but has there been one particular story told at This Is My Brave that you think captures the project?

Jennifer: The diversity of stories, viewpoints and creativity is what makes This Is My Brave what it is: a platform for individuals to share their stories of overcoming mental illness. But if I had to point to just one story, I'd have to say Danielle Fiorello from our New York City production this past October captured it all. The feeling of vulnerability when she first started out at the podium, her unbelievable story of why she is here today, and the beauty and inspirational message of her artistic talent as a singer/songwriter. She brought down the house in NYC as the last cast member to perform that day, and she continuously reminds me what an extraordinary experience it was to be in the show, a familiar echo among our This Is My Brave alumni.

Jim: Wow! Thanks for sharing Danielle's story. And thanks for the interview! I look forward to seeing you again this year at HippoCamp Writers Conference.

Jennifer: Thanks Jim. Looking forward to August! 

If you would like to learn more about upcoming events or just want to watch more stories, check out This is My Brave.

On Writing: Matthew Kabik

Matthew Kabik is the founding editor of Third Point Press, an online literary journal that debuted in early 2015. Matt and his team strive to insure that some of the stories featured in each edition of the journal are from each of the “three points,” specifically, writers in Lancaster, York, and Harrisburg, PA. Matt describes his own writing as “PA Gothic,” and he has been published in several journals, and has been nominated four times for the Pushcart Prize. I met Matt in January of 2015, and have been intrigued by his social media posts where he occasionally wrestles with the existential questions all writers face; questions such as: Does a writer’s work matter? Does anyone care about my voice? Is writing worth it? Matt holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Arcadia University. You should follow him on Twitter at @mlkabik.

Jim: Let’s get right into it. Does a writer’s work matter?

Matt: I think a writer's work absolutely matters, yes, but it depends on who's asking that question, and who they are asking it to. I think that if you hone that question a bit, you can get widely different answers, and to me the answer depends entirely on that.

If you asked, for instance, if a white CIS male's writing mattered, I would say maybe. Maybe even no. Reason being that it seems that group of people, myself included, doesn't really have to try terribly hard to be published. That voice is a dime a dozen, and so often shared and commented on that I can't really care if I ever read another white CIS guy's writing.

That's not to say that there aren't great writers out there who fit that profile. There are. Hundreds of them. Maybe thousands, but I think it's also true that there are others who can tell just as good a story and are pushed out because of how easy it is for a white man's writing to be put in the front.

If you asked if a person of color's writing mattered, I'd say probably, maybe even yes. If you asked the same about a woman's writing or a refugee's writing or almost anyone who wasn't so typically part of the canon, I'd lean much harder towards yes. Reason being that if we're going to get the same quality of stories from everyone, we might as well get it from some of the people who, traditionally, have not had the chance or audience to tell it.

I'm making big generalizations here, of course, which I have to do with such a broad question, but I think it's part of the formula that stopped me from writing fiction: over-saturation of white, straight privilege + the idea that I should be aware of that privilege and not try to take advantage of it + a personal belief that one should write to be read = a writer's block that's lasted for almost a year, now.

I guess another way of looking at it is whether my writing matters, which knowing full well the impostor syndrome we all have, and knowing I'm my own worst critic, I'd say no. No, my own writing isn't really changing the world nor is bringing about any sort of meaning to people outside of a very small sphere, so no. Nope.

Jim: Can you talk a little about how Third Point Press pushes for diversity? Are you happy with the diversity of submissions?

Matt: We have tried a few ways, and I don't know how successful they are. The first thing we did was make our submissions anonymous to our readers and editors (only I would know the names and bios of who submitted). We did that for an issue with the thought that in not knowing names, we would only choose the best.

Well, that's some limited thinking, we discovered. You can't push for diversity and be passive about it. So while our readers are still reading submissions blind, our editors now have access. We are working on ways to ask diverse groups to submit, and trying to create a safe space for people to submit. It's not quite soliciting from diverse voices, but more so about making sure we're not seen as yet another publication that leans towards the all white, all male side of the publishing world.

So far we've done well. At my last count we had more female (female based on name, not on self-definition) submissions, and we've published folks from backgrounds that aren't ours. It makes for some great pieces that lend themselves to ideas that I haven't ever come across, or perspectives that are only shown through one lens.

We're considering asking submitters to include any personal information they'd like to share during the submission process--not so much to choose one person over another based on background, but so that we have a better idea of who we're publishing--and making sure that we aren't only publishing a single group over anyone else. I know that can sometimes strike people as wrong, but it shouldn't. We're not aiming to not publish anyone, but we do want to see who we are publishing in each issue, and how well we're doing at crawling outside of ourselves and our own cultures. We want to have a place for everyone to be seen.

Jim: I love the “We Need Diverse Books” movement. I’m not optimistic the big publishers will do much, but I hope the diversity discussion spurs on a new DIY movement. We’re fortunate to be in a time where publishing online and on-demand is an opportunity for marginalized writers. Do you have thoughts on where this is heading?

Matt: I think you're right in being excited but wary that big publishers will be slow to catch on (big organizations are always slow on things like that). I am sometimes scared of how loose publishing seems to be - in that the gatekeepers, and in this case I mean people who separate good work from everyone publishing everything -  are easily able to be ignored, but it's also kind of exciting that we can ignore them. So I waffle: I like that more people are able to publish more stuff, but I'm scared that if everyone publishes everything, it'll become so hard to read the really outstanding work. That might be an unrealistic concern, though, so I don't stay up at night worrying about it.

I agree that on demand and DIY helps marginalized writers, but just as anything else, it doesn't guarantee that marginalized writers will be read or promoted. Again, it comes down to passive v. active effort. It's great that we can get folks published (or they can publish themselves),but it's only through active engagement that we'll be able to get more marginalized voices to the eyes of readers. Publishing on demand and self-publishing are only as good as the marketing and promotion behind them.

Jim: Agreed. So let’s circle back to your writing. At one point this year you mentioned you were taking a hiatus. Are you writing at all these days?

Photo Courtesy of Michelle Johnsen  

Photo Courtesy of Michelle Johnsen

 

Matt: Up until last night around 11pm, I would have told you I hadn't written since April of this year. However my mom got me a mechanical keyboard that feels and looks like a typewriter, and that kinda begged for me to try at least something.

But yes, I've taken a hiatus and maintained that hiatus in my writing group/creative work for almost a full year. I wrote one flash story in that time period that was picked up by NANO Fiction, but nothing else--ideas or otherwise--came to me. It's a weird feeling and a weird place to be, and I don't quite know the cause or the reason it's hanging around for so long.

What I will say is that it's kinda liberating. There was such an emphasis on production in my MFA and such an overall push for writers to always write that stepping away from it felt a bit like getting away from a thankless job. I enjoy the break. I enjoy not caring about whether I'm producing anything. It's nice to have that stress go away.

Jim: Can you recall the moment where you first thought, “I want to be a writer.” Were you influenced by a specific work or author? Related: What writers have inspired you the most?

Matt: I wrote since I was very young--poems in elementary school and middle school, and short stories in high school. I think decided I wanted to pursue writing sometime around my sophomore year of college, or at least pursue it seriously. Before that point it was just a way to be withdrawn and longing towards those I thought attractive and a great way to impress other thick-frame glassed students.

I think Kerouac really made me fall in love with writing, which is funny considering that I don't know if I could stand him, now. I bet it was a mix of reading stuff outside of the high school canon and the escapism of someone who was able to document a life outside of those walls.

The writers that inspire me the most now are Laura van den Berg, Lydia Peelle, Chealsea Laine Wells, Kelly Link. So many others I'm probably forgetting. Really I read lots of short stories in different online mags and what-not, and sometimes it can be just a single story from an author I never read that stops me in my tracks.

Jim: We started this interview on a serious note but let’s end talking about something fun - the Adult Spelling Bee Fundraiser. I had so much fun participating this year. For those who haven’t heard of it, can you tell us how it started and how you use the funds?

Matt: It started with Erin Dorney and Tyler Barton, who created the adult spelling bee to help fund The Triangle (which was interested in literary events in Lancaster and beyond). When Third Point Press was only an idea, they allowed me to tag along and get some of the funds from that first spelling bee to help get set-up.

Essentially it's just a fundraiser that's supposed to be very fun. We don't take it very seriously and, if everything goes right, the people participating aren't taking it seriously either. We use the funds to pay contributors for as long as we can, pay for submission tools like Submittable, and for upkeep of the website. It's certainly not enough to cover all of that (most of Third Point Press is funded by me, directly), but it does offset expenses and gives the staff a reason to have some fun.

Jim: Thanks for taking time to answer interview questions!

Enjoy excellent prose, poetry, and artwork at  Third Point Press. Learn more about Matt's writing at Matchstick Circus. Follow Matt on Twitter at @mlkabik

On Writing: Kathleen Frazier

Kathleen Frazier's new memoir, Sleepwalking: The Mysterious Making and Recovery of a Somnambulist, was just released in early September. The memoir explores her dangerous and chronic sleepwalking episodes and the psychological causes behind them. Kathleen first started writing about her episodes as part of sense memory exercises she was doing at The Actor's Studio in New York City, and then wrote an essay in Psychology Today. I met Kathleen at HippoCamp 2015, where she read from the memoir. The whole room was holding their collective breath as she vividly described one dangerous sleepwalking episode.

Jim: Hi Kathleen. Can you tell us non-actors a little more about what sense memory exercises are, and how that led to your writing?

Kathleen: Sense memory exercises are part of "the method". This way of working originated with Stanislavski and The Moscow Art Theatre in Russia in a move away from declamatory acting towards a more realistic style. Members of the Group Theatre brought it to the United States. The Actors Studio, under of the direction of Lee Strasberg, was where the work really took hold.

The exercise that I used and then wrote from is called affective memory in which an actor explores a particular event in their lives using their five senses to recall, almost re-experience the details. We stay away from describing feelings in this particular exercise and yet they rise authentically in our acting. When I transcribed the work to paper the writing was both sensorily rich and the voice was very much of the age of my memory.

It was my mentor, Ellen Burstyn, who pressed me to write this way about my sleep disorders and circumstances surrounding them. She thought it would help me to recover my health by turning my experiences into art and she was right. The more I wrote, the better I felt.

Jim: At what point did you realize you had a memoir on your hands?

Kathleen: I realized it right away but I felt such shame about the sleepwalking, sleep terrors and resultant insomnia that I couldn't share the work beyond my close circle of friends and fellow artists. A few agents were courting me but I had to put the project on the shelf and turn my attention to fiction. Funnily enough, all of my protagonists are sleepwalkers!

Sadly, it wasn't until 2010 and the death of a young art designer in New York City, Tobias Wong, that I was able to find my courage and tell my story. He suffered from chronic and violent sleepwalking and sleep terrors. His death was ruled a suicide but it most probably occurred in a sleepwalking state. I wrote an essay about my experiences and recovery that got published in Psychology Today. It caught the attention of Jill Marsal of Marsal Lyons Literary Agency. We began working together and she sold my book to Skyhorse Press.

Jim: How many years did your sleepwalking episodes run for?

Kathleen: From adolescence until the age of 30 when I had a severe accident that brought me into recovery – which is not uncommon. All told over 20 years. It's a long time without good shut eye. I was exhausted all the time which affected every aspect of my life, most especially my work and personal relationships.

Jim: I saw you recently read from your memoir at This Is My Brave, the live storytelling event which focuses on mental illness and is produced by our mutual friend Jennifer Marshall. How was the event?

Kathleen: It was a wonderful storytelling event with a packed and very enthusiastic audience at Hunter College's Kaye Playhouse. We performers either lived with mental illness ourselves or love someone who lives with mental illness. It was a stigma-busting show. I have family members with schizophrenia, alcoholism, PTSD, and most of us in my family have suffered with sleep disorders of one kind or another. One in four Americans have mental illness and the show proved to me, once again that community cures. Participating also pressed me to realize that, in addition to being an advocate for mental health, I am a sleep activist – an advocate for healthy sleep as a basic human right.

Jim: Which do you prefer - acting or writing?

Kathleen: This is a tough one, Jim! It's like making me choose between my children! I love acting and I feel it really saved my life when I was a young woman. Coming together with kindred spirits to bring stories alive on the stage and screen is magical. Yet, with writing I don't have to wait to be cast in order to create. I love becoming immersed in whatever story I'm making effort to bring to life on the page. As you know, my writing sprang from my acting, and I love to read my work aloud in front of an audience – it really informs my writing – so for me they are very intertwined. The funny thing is, since my memoir came out I've been getting the itch to act again. More will be revealed, as my father used to say.

Jim: You mentioned earlier that you write fiction. Just wondering - what's your next project?

Kathleen: I haven't yet decided where to turn my attention next in regards to my writing. I have an idea for another nonfiction – also to do with sleep – much more to do with my recovery, which would include collaborating with a series of specialists. Or I might return to my historical fiction which has also been calling my name... Selkie Girl is inspired by my paternal grandmother who came from Ireland to America at the turn of the last century. The protagonist, Molly, is a young girl of 15 whose mother apparently committed suicide on the day she was born by walking into the sea. She was a single mother and ostracized by her small village in Ireland. The orphaned girl becomes ostracized also. One dear older villager, a midwife and healer, comforts Molly when she is 7 by telling her that her mother did not commit suicide but was in fact a selkie who had found her seal skin and therefore had to leave her, she had to go back into the ocean. The Celtic selkie story usually follows a female seal who sheds her skin. She is a shapeshifter and takes on the human form of a beautiful woman. She suns herself on the rocks by the sea. A man sees her, falls in love and steals her skin. She then must go with him. He hides her sealskin and she is his prisoner really until the day she finds her skin somehow at which point she must follow her true nature and return to the ocean. The daughter turns out to be, of course, a sleepwalker. It's the way she processes her trauma. I hope the story is, in turns, both magical and psychologically provocative.

Thanks for asking that question, Jim. In answering it I think it's become pretty apparent which project holds the greater piece of my heart.

Jim: Thanks so much Kathleen. Good luck with the writing and acting!

Kathleen: Thanks Jim!

Learn more about Kathleen Frazier on her website and pick up her book Sleepwaker: The Mysterious Makings and Recovery of a Somnambulist on AMAZON. 

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.

OTHER RECOMMENDATIONS

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.

COMING IN 2015

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.

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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.

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Pop Culture Tonight

Pop-culture

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.