Interview with Poet Lesley Wheeler, Author of Radioland

A much-decorated poet and academic, Lesley Wheeler’s accolades include a Fulbright scholarship, an NEH grant, the Barrow Street Poetry Prize, the James Tiptree, Jr. Award Honor List, and publication in many prestigious journals, including Poetry and Slate. She teaches English at Washington and Lee University and is an active member of the WOM-PO Listserv, an email discussion group for women poets that’s been around since before blogging and social media overtook online community platforms like Listservs. Her third book of poetry, Radioland, came out in October 2015. In spite of her rise to fame in recent years, Lesley remains a warm and generous correspondent. She took the time to answer some questions about her latest book, the po-biz, and the difference between writing and publishing.

Cover image of Lesley Wheeler's third book of poetry, Radioland
Radioland, Lesley Wheeler’s third book of poetry

You’ve gotten a lot of recognition for your work in the past few years. How have these changes in your career affected your writing?

It’s funny how happiness works—successes don’t warm you for long but difficulties worry you constantly. The life change came with my first two books, Heathen in 2009 and Heterotopia in 2010. Suddenly I felt able to call myself a poet. After the Barrow Street Press Poetry Prize, people seemed to take my work more seriously. The judge, David Wojahn, is highly respected by other writers, and that made a difference. “Fulbright” is a magic word—as well as representing an amazing opportunity—but I won that for scholarly, not poetic, research. My scholarly credentials remain fancier than my poetic ones and the two networks have surprisingly little overlap. In fact, having a foot in both worlds invites suspicion from both sides.

Continue reading “Interview with Poet Lesley Wheeler, Author of Radioland”

Interview with Nicci Mechler of Porkbelly Press

Chapbooks and zines from Porkbelly Press arrive tied in pastry string with a handwritten note from the editors thanking you for supporting small presses. The chapbook I purchased — Blood Knot by Suzanne Rogier — evokes a similar handmade detail, both in the object and the poems they contained. I spoke with Porkbelly publisher Nicci Mechler about the press and its creations.

What inspired you to start the press? Is there a story behind the name?

Photograph of Blood Knot by Suzanne Rogier, a chapbook from Porkbelly Press
Blood Knot by Suzanne Rogier, a chapbook from Porkbelly Press

Porkbelly Press came a year after our literary magazine, Sugared Water. I’d worked on lit mags for years, and produced zines, and my chapbook collection was growing. It seemed a natural progression to try out a chapbook line, to use my book arts and love of lit to craft some beautiful chaps. Porkbelly exists to boost the signal.
We make our home in Cincinnati, Ohio, not too far from the banks of a pretty fantastic river. Back in the days when the fathom was where it’s at, and people yelled stuff like, “by the mark twain!” (even Mark Twain himself), our architecturally-gorgeous (and besotted of beer) little burg ferried out a whole heap pork belly. We were big on pig. You can still see the evidence in 1) the city’s consumption of breakfast sausages (like goetta), and 2) the pig art and statuary all around town.

Naturally, we took that delicious callback to days gone by and smashed it into a press name; pork belly became Porkbelly and a press was born. In the words of one delightful Irishman, our “rather portly winged pig [is] a symbol of hope if I ever saw one.” Well, yes. Hope and bacon. (No bacon is harmed in the production of these chapbooks.) Continue reading “Interview with Nicci Mechler of Porkbelly Press”

Interview with Carolina de Robertis, author of The Gods of Tango

In her new book The Gods of Tango, bestselling author Carolina de Robertis weaves together a story addressing the issues of race, class, immigration, and sexuality as beautifully as the tango weaves together the music of Argentina’s many immigrant communities. In language musical and brutal by turns, de Robertis tells the story of Leda, a young Italian immigrant who passes as a man in order to pursue her dream of becoming a tango musician. Along the way, we learn the back stories of many other characters and the obstacles they overcome — or fail to overcome — as their lives intersect with Leda’s. de Robertis took some time out of her busy schedule to talk with me about her work.

Image of a woman with long hair and red lipstick wearing a red sleeveless shirt.
Carolina de Robertis, author of The Gods of Tango

What inspired you to write this book and what sort of research did you need to do to write it?

I began with the seed of my own great-grandmother’s immigration experience, from Italy to Argentina. I quickly saw, however, that from that seed I wanted to grow a much larger story, not only about the great migration of that time to South America, but also about the rich cultural history of the tango’s origins, and about female transgression into an underworld of men.

I did a huge amount of research. I scoured libraries and bookstores, read piles of books in English, Spanish and Italian (badly), walked the streets of Buenos Aires and Montevideo and Naples and my ancestral village in Italy, took tango dance lessons and violin lessons, and consulted with all sorts of experts, from musicologists and musicians to friends on the transgender spectrum. Continue reading “Interview with Carolina de Robertis, author of The Gods of Tango”

Interview with Tawnysha Green, Author of A House Made of Stars

Cover image for A House Made of Stars by Tawnysha Greene
A House Made of Stars by Tawnysha Greene

A mother wakes her two little girls in the middle of the night and hustles them into the bathroom where they lock the door and hide in the tub. Outside, heavy thuds reverberate. “We’re practicing for an earthquake,” she tells her daughters. And just as Californians go about their lives on unstable ground, so does the family in Tawnysha Greene’s A House Made of Stars. Greene uses spare, concise language to tell their story with devastating clarity. In spite of its oppressive atmosphere—or perhaps because of it—the novel includes moments of sublime beauty. Greene took a few moments to talk with me about her book.

The narrator of your novel is a young girl of about 10 years old. Why did you choose to tell the story through her voice instead of an adult character?

I chose to make the narrator of A House Made of Stars a young girl because in doing so, I could use a simpler, more honest mode of storytelling. There are so many issues addressed in this book—poverty, illness, abuse—and I wanted to convey these issues in the most direct way possible. Children are far more honest than many adult narrators and can be acutely aware of their surroundings, so I decided that I needed a younger protagonist if I wanted this same kind of directness in my narrative. Continue reading “Interview with Tawnysha Green, Author of A House Made of Stars”

Interview with Alexandra Delancey, Author of Lesbian Romance Always Her

Always Her, by Alexandra Delancy
Always Her, by Alexandra Delancy

Alexandra Delancey’s novellas Always Her and Me and Her chronicle the love story between newly-out Elise and ultra-cool tomboy Jack. I caught up with Alexandra recently to talk with her about her characters, her craft, and the business of publishing in the age of e-books.

Your characters are well-drawn and idiosyncratic, especially some of the more minor ones like Tatiana, Christie, and Alyssa. How did your own experience of the lesbian scene inform these characters?
That’s really nice to hear. I didn’t base any of them on individual people that I know, but I wanted to reflect the experience of being in your early twenties and being gay, or thinking that you might be gay, and the insecurities and preconceptions that sometimes accompany it. I spent my twenties discovering the lesbian scenes of several countries, and they all have their own norms and cliques. They can be frustrating at times, but they’re a lot of fun too. What I’ve always loved about the scene is that it gives you an opportunity to meet a much broader cross section of people than you otherwise might, so I tried to make my characters diverse in order to reflect that.

Tell me more about how the characters of Jack and Elise evolved.
I like writing tomboyish characters. Continue reading “Interview with Alexandra Delancey, Author of Lesbian Romance Always Her”

Interview with Andrew Himes, author of Sword of the Lord

Publishing houses have been complaining about losing money since the dawn of the printing press. For about that long, authors have been complaining about how hard it is to make it into print. Many more authors make it into print only to see their editions languish on the discount table. That’s because publication isn’t the same thing as marketing, and publishers don’t always have the budget or the inclination to market every book they put out.  So it’s often up to authors to market their books themselves. And herein lies the rub. In general, the qualities that make someone a great writer — especially of non-fiction — aren’t the same qualities that make someone great at marketing their work.

That’s where I’ve been particularly impressed by Andrew Himes. I first became aware of his work with the Voices in Wartime project, which is how I ended up on his mailing list and heard about his book The Sword of the Lord, ready for wide release on May 15, 2011. This is a book that manages to make history personal. Himes, whose grandfather John R. Rice was founder of the Christian fundamental newspaper Sword of the Lord, combines his own personal story with that of his ancestors, creating a seamless picture of a people forged in strife and trauma and adamant in their beliefs in the face of historical pressures. A more in-depth review is forthcoming.

Given my own personal journey around matters religious and spiritual, I think it a ringing endorsement that Himes could make me see this particular religious group — one which tends to demonize people like me — in a spirit of compassion. Himes’s sense of compassion, as well as his willingness to engage in a meaningful email correspondence, is what won me over to him as a person and not just as an author. He agreed to answer a few questions for me:

Frances Donovan: I can tell that you researched this book very thoroughly. Can you describe your research and writing process?

Andrew Himes: I decided from the beginning of researching and writing that the stories and references in the book needed to be beyond dispute. So you might disagree with my analysis of conclusions, but you should still feel confident that the narrative is a truthful and accurate recounting of history. So I read and annotated almost 250 books in order to write my one book, and I read countless articles and posts and historical documents online. I visited the archives of The Sword of the Lord newspaper several years ago to get copies of a number of specific issues I was interested in, and read four biographies of John R. Rice, two of which are unpublished dissertations, and I delved into Rice family archives in the possession of various family members.

Finally, I showed various drafts of the manuscript to several family members, including my mom and all of my aunts — the daughters of John R. Rice – plus my sisters and brother and several cousins, and got extensive critical feedback. I had hundreds of hours of conversation with various church historians, professors, and pastors so I could deeply understand the historical and religious issues I was writing about.

My writing was a process of exploration and transformation. I had no plan in the beginning other than to use the story of my life and my family’s in order to illuminate the story of fundamentalism. So I followed one story or book or historical incident to the next, almost as if I was using stepping stones to cross a shallow pond, but without knowing where the next stone would be until I was ready to step on it.

Frances Donovan: The ending chapter gives us a sense of your own spiritual and political journey. You talk about trading one kind of rigid belief system for another, and it’s obvious both from the overall tone of the book and from your grandmother’s example that compassion is an important spiritual value to you now. Can you tell me a little more about your own spiritual beliefs and practices today?

Andrew Himes:  Compassion is absolutely at the center of my own spiritual practice, and I’m aware that I inherited this focus from both my granddad and my grandmother, as I recount in the book. And compassion is not merely a feeling. It’s an action. The Latin from which the word comes means literally “co-suffering,” and if when we are in deep communion with someone else who is suffering we are driven to act in order to relieve the other person’s suffering. So the very heart of the gospel as we have it presented in the New Testament is Jesus’ admonition to love your neighbor as yourself. Love is a verb. Compassion is an action.

Frances Donovan: Do you think there is a difference between religion and spirituality? How would you describe that difference?

Andrew Himes:  Wow! That’s a question that might require several thousand books to answer. .I suppose the crucial distinction is that spirituality describes the path of an individual towards salvation and enlightenment, while religion is a communal and community-based response to the fundamental questions of human existence, including the existence of God, the meaning of life, and the moral foundations of life. I believe that every single human is built to be both spiritual and religious and connect with the notion of God, a mystery much bigger than our individual lives, the idea and reality of God a mystery beyond anything any of us can imagine or understand. Even people who claim to believe in no God are nonetheless driven to ask these big questions about the meaning of life, the meaning of death, how to understand their connections with other humans, and how they might be held accountable for their actions.

Frances Donovan: It was especially engaging following the thread of your own ancestors’ story within the greater context ofAmerica’s political and religious movements. Is it possible to relate their story to the challenges faced by Muslim Americans in this day and age?

Andrew Himes:  My ancestors came to America fleeing religious persecution, political oppression, and economic disaster. They came to find a new world where they could live in freedom and thrive by taking advantages of new opportunities. The same story can be told of countless new immigrants to the United States, including Muslims from many countries. The faith of Muslims is no more alien to the dream of America than was the faith of my ancestors. We all share in this dream of freedom.