Category Archives: People I Know

Intermittent Visitors: Simon Kewin

Engn Cover 528 x 800   Simon Kewin was born and raised on the misty Isle of Man, but now lives and works deep in rural England. He divides his time between writing SF/fantasy fiction and computer software. He has had around fifty short stories published in a variety of magazines and anthologies, along with a similar number of poems. He has a degree in English Literature from the Open University.

He is currently learning to play the electric guitar. It’s not going that well, frankly.

He lives with Alison, their two daughters Eleanor and Rose, and a black cat called Morgan to which he is allergic.

 

What is your writing process?

I write every day, although it can be tough fitting that in and around everything else. Some days I only manage 30 minutes. If I don’t manage any I start to get antsy. I’ve basically gotten used to grabbing any time I can here and there and my family are very good at giving me a little space. I envy madly those people who can spend all day writing, but on the other hand there’s nothing like knowing you’ve only got very limited time to focus your mind. If I did have hours and hours each day, it would be interesting to find out how much more I write. One day, that’s something I shall discover…

 

What’s some writing advice you’ve received, that works for you?

I’m wary of writing advice, I have to say, because I find it tends to make me think I’m doing lots of stuff badly and that’s a creativity killer. The most basic advice for any writer is to read a lot and write a lot and I don’t think you can go far wrong with that. And then just be true to yourself. And, yes, the adverb thing. I do find it useful to think about my next idea/chapter/scene when I’m not writing and then, when I do sit down, I know where I’m going to start. Even just the first sentence will do. Then I’m not faced with a blank page and that little blinking cursor…

 

Can you say a little bit about the genesis of your most recent book?

Engn is a kind of fantasy book—although it has no magic or fantasy beasts in it. It’s a sort of alternative-world steampunkish sort of book. One or two people have compared it to Gormenghast, and that’s something that pleases me beyond measure. As to its genesis, it was basically the collision of two unrelated ideas. I find a lot of stories start like that: what happens if I take this idea and this idea and smash them together? So, I had the idea of a vast, steam-powered, city-sized machine that people live and work within. It is huge and incomprehensible and strange. It seemed like it could be a pretty good setting for an adventure story. The other idea was to do with being true to youthful ideals. I imagined two young people making promises to each other about what they’re going to do with their lives and the question becomes, do they remain faithful to that or do they move on?

 

How much research do you do?

Very little. I write mostly fantasy and SF because you can just make it all up. I will obviously check facts where I need to. With Engn, there’s quite a bit of stuff about steam engines and the like and, while it is a made-up (probably impossible) world, I did try to stick to realistic details for the machinery. My father, as it happens, is an engineer and knows a lot about this sort of thing. He spotted only one mistake, to do with a soldering iron, which I was pleased about…

 

Have you had to sacrifice anything in the rest of your life to write?

Time, money and helpless animals. I’m kidding about the last one.

 

Why do you write?

I don’t know. It’s just what I do. My question would be why don’t some people write?

 

This interview is part of Intermittent Visitors: a multi-author blog tour.

Intermittent Visitors: Lucas Stensland

FunAgain   Lucas Stensland’s most recent book is Fun Again, a collection of short poems from Yet To Be Named Free Press (UK). In 2011 he co-authored my favorite thing (bottle rockets press), which was shortlisted for the Touchstone Distinguished Book Award. He is the co-founder of Montague Street Journal: The Art of Bob Dylan and author of the novel Name Your Poison. He lives in Brooklyn with his cats Delia and Sadie.

I was delighted to get to interview Stensland, who I know from his submissions to 7×20 (which I used to edit). And I blurbed his book! I said, “Stensland writes with an unerring ear for the rhythms of marriage and breakups. His haiku are fierce, uncompromising, and will inspire you to read them aloud to the stranger sitting next to you at the bar. Pointed and funny, these short poems don’t spare anybody, including the poet, from his sharp wit.”

 

Can you say a little bit about the genesis of your most recent book?

I submitted some poems about a year ago for consideration in an anthology Yet To Be Named Free Press was doing about, I think, mental health issues. Brendan Slater, its editor, rejected all of my poems, but said he enjoyed them; they just didn’t fit the tenor of the collection. I believe he singled out the below as ones he enjoyed.

I’ve always had
the same penis
she’s had others

and

one night stand
two
too many

He asked if I’d be interested in putting together a proposal for a book of humorous short poems. It grew and shifted direction from there.

Though in the end the book morphed into a sort of chronology of breaking up and drinking through long and wasted years, I tried to maintain a droll tone—especially with riffraff poems, the stand-alone jocular ones that didn’t further the narrative. The end, in a way, is upbeat—but I wanted to avoid any kind of disingenuous statements of eternity: that life will now be free of strife. Fun Again isn’t about twelve-stepping, getting sober or finding true love. It’s just about a struggle to have and be fun again.

 

What is your writing process?

I used to carry tiny notebooks with me, in my back pocket or bag. I was a lot more prolific when I did. It stopped a few years back when I got a smartphone. Now I write in its notepad app. With my phone I look much less pretentious when writing in public, but I write far less. My smaller turn-out isn’t entirely blamed on my adoption of the smartphone, but writing with pen and paper was more enjoyable and yielded greater results. I liked having a history of all my drafts in tiny notebooks. But I got lazy and now just phone it in.

 

Which writers inspire you?

I like simple, direct writing. My taste in literature is pretty stereotypical for my demographic. I’m fairly certain thirtysomething men living in Brooklyn are issued Bukowski and Carver books by the State Department. And I fall in line. As for Carver, I always preferred his Gordon Lish-edited works. In college when I read Carver’s “Fat” and got to the unexpected end (“‘My life is going to change. I feel it’.”), I understood I was reading something special, something that didn’t leave me cold like all that magical realism or Milan Kundera or Tom Robbins. I never cared for Bukowski’s poetry, but I loved his novels. The end of Women where he feeds the pregnant cat influenced me a lot; it was subtle and organic, and it did not draw attention to itself in a precious literary way.

 

This interview is part of Intermittent Visitors: a multi-author blog tour.

Intermittent Visitors: David M. Harris

  David M. Harris spent twenty-five years working in publishing in New York, then threw it all over to go to graduate school and become a teacher. He got an MFA in fiction, then threw it all over to write poetry. After living in and around New York City all his life, he threw it all over to move to Tennessee to get married. Now he has a wife and child, a varying number of dogs, cats, fish, and chickens, and a 1972 MGB roadster. Along the way, he picked up some work in film production and some credits as a writer: a published novel, two produced screenplays, a weekly column that ran for about a year and a half in the local daily newspaper, a few short stories, a collection of essays, and a few dozen poems published in places like The Pedestal, Labletter, Pirene’s Fountain, and the anthology 140 And Counting.

 

What is your writing process?

My writing process has evolved considerably over time. When I was writing my first novel, I set my alarm an hour earlier, and devoted that extra hour to writing every weekday on my computer. I also wrote when I got home from work, but most of the good stuff, it seemed to me, came in the morning, when I was fresh and hadn’t already spent the day working on other people’s novels (I was, at the time, an editor for a book production outfit, Byron Preiss Visual Publications, who had also commissioned the novel I was writing). Since then I’ve gotten an MFA (and, curiously, an MGB), switched my emphasis to poetry, and shifted to writing by hand. I do most of my drafts with a fountain pen in a small notebook (they vary, but about 4″x6″), and wherever I happen to be with enough time to write. I carry a portable office in a plastic clipbox, or sometimes just the pen and notebook. I would probably get a lot more done if I had a particular time for writing every day, but I am lazy and undisciplined by nature. Once I’ve got a draft I like enough, I type it into the computer, and edit on printouts. Then, for poetry, my writing groups are an essential step for me so I can do final (there may be several rounds of “final”) revisions.

 

What’s some writing advice you’ve received, that works for you?

Sarah Schulman, who was my advisor for two semesters at Goddard, once said in a letter, “If it doesn’t hurt, you aren’t doing it right.” Oddly enough, I got the same advice from my friend Carter Stevens, former publisher of the S&M News. But Sarah was talking about finding the difficult emotional truths of each scene; don’t stop until you’re reaching something that part of you doesn’t want to reveal, and then reveal that.

 

Can you say a little bit about the genesis of your most recent book?

My wife kept noodging me to put a book together, and a woman out in Cookeville (TN) posted a call for submissions for a new press, St. Murgen’s press, specializing in chapbooks by Tennessee authors. So I put together a small manuscript and sent it out, and she accepted it. Unfortunately, she almost immediately ran into various problems and shut down the operation after one book. My book would have been her second. At any rate, I then had the manuscript ready when Unsolicited Press posted its call for manuscripts on the Speakeasy, and they also accepted it to be their second book. There’s no particular theme to the book, though; it’s just a bunch of stuff I’ve written, with a fairly broad range of subjects and styles.

 

Do you think writing helps you to understand more about yourself and the world, or is advancing as a writer more about learning how to communicate the things you already know?

I’ve always been pretty glib. Good sentences have never been my problem. Working in publishing (which I did for about 25 years), I always saw writing as something that almost everyone did. So I started doing it. Most of what I wrote (other than cover copy and suchlike) was pretty awful because, even though the sentences were good, there wasn’t any heart; blood on the page, as I’ve come to call it. Writing was a mechanical process, aimed at getting published rather than at learning anything. It wasn’t until after I left the business and went to Goddard that I learned about putting real heart into my good sentences, and that’s what I’ve been working on ever since. When I write non-fiction, as I still do sometimes (I published a chapbook essay collection some years ago: Democracy and Other Problems), I’m trying to understand some aspect of the world outside me. My poetry is sometimes external, but even when I’m writing about, say, the 9/11 attacks, it’s to understand my own relationship with that subject. Of course, since I’m also trying to universalize my feelings, I hope it will speak to others and their connections with each other and the world, but if I don’t get my own blood on the page (there’s that phrase again!), I won’t touch anyone else. None of this applies to light verse, of course.

 

Which writers inspire you?

Over the years a lot of writers have inspired me in different ways. In 1976 I rather unexpectedly found myself as the agent for the estate of P. G. Wodehouse, and decided I ought to get familiar with his work. I’ve been reading him regularly since then (many books more than once), and I’ve tried to catch some of his pure joy in language. He’s a good balance for the pretentiousness of a lot of my other answers here, too (or the rest of this one). I read a lot of Anthony Trollope, too, from whom I get an understanding that (despite my professional background in science fiction) real life, real people, are really the only subject worth writing about. Even if you set a story on Mars or write a poem (as I have done) about Disney princesses, everything has to be grounded in real life to say anything interesting. Even Wodehouse is, ultimately, grounded in real life. Among poets, Donald Hall currently inspires me most directly. I read his poems and make notes for poems that I want to write. From Auden I learned about using everyday language. And I learn something just about every week from the poets I read on my radio program (Difficult Listening, WRFN, www.radiofreenashville.org, Sundays, 10 to noon Central Time). I read someone new every week, and learn something from most of them. I also learned a lot about poetry from Tom Disch, whose use of forms helped convince me that formal poetry is not dead, and whose friendship gave me a lot of confidence as a writer. Let’s include Damon Knight and Jane Yolen, too, as friends who had faith in me even when I had considerable doubt.

 

Why do you write?

I’m not at all sure why I write. Oh, I suppose I have something to say that no one else is saying, although I’m not sure that’s enough of a reason to write and try to get published. And I do write, at least in part, to try to get published. It’s still some small thrill to see my work out there where people can see it, a validation and a massage for my ego. And, of course, it was what all my friends did when I was in publishing. Now it’s what many of my friends do in the world of poetry. After all these years, it’s nice to find something I’m reasonably good at (I was a pretty decent editor, too, though), and at which I can get better with some work. But I don’t have that drive that sends me to the desk every single day. I don’t feel incomplete if I haven’t put words on paper each day. I do keep getting ideas for poems, though, so I might as well keep writing them.

My mother was a dancer. She studied with Martha Graham and performed professionally with a couple of other moderately well-known companies. She also played the piano. My father painted as an amateur (he studied at the Art Students League in New York, where he met Sammy, later Zero, Mostel) and worked as a photographer for the Associated Press. By the time I was born he had given up playing the mandolin, although he still owned one. My sister took piano and guitar lessons and studied acting at the Neighborhood Playhouse, eventually winning awards for her work with community theater. I was no good at music (lousy voice, no gift for piano, clarinet, guitar, or recorder, all of which I studied at some point), couldn’t draw worth a damn, and couldn’t remember my lines when I acted. So I had to become a writer. Fortunately, I’m better at writing than I am at all the other stuff.

 

This interview is part of Intermittent Visitors: a multi-author blog tour.

Intermittent Visitors: Mary Alexandra Agner

  Mary Alexandra Agner is the author of the poetry collections The Scientific Method (Parallel Press, 2011) and The Doors of the Body (Mayapple Press, 2009), as well as Olivia & the Experiments, short stories funded by her Kickstarter backers to subvert scientist stereotypes with LEGO fanfic.

Her work has appeared in Astropoetica, Eye to the Telescope, Goblin Fruit, inkscrawl, poemeleon, Stone Telling, Strange Horizons and other magazines too numerous to name (a complete list is here).

Her advanced degrees include Earth & planetary science and creative writing. She is a freelance science writer working with Under the Microscope, Argonne National Laboratory, and other markets.

1. What is your writing process?

Idea descends, put words on paper, revise until better.

Getting ideas does really feel like walking through a mess of insects while I’m in web mode: they just come from the air. I usually can’t start on one until I have a phrase or a voice saying something; it’s always the sound of the words that gives me the energy to break into writing.

It takes a lot of practice to keep writing once the voice or sound have spun themselves out, but if I know that the piece isn’t done, I just switch into writing down what *should* be going on, questions if I’ve got nothing else. And when I say a lot of practice, I mean years of it. This is the disheartening part because it’s like the Muse, should you believe in her, has glanced out the window, taking her gaze off of me, training wheels all gone, and wouldn’t it be easier just to fall off?

I rely entirely on my ear to tell me when a piece has been sufficiently revised: I read and re-read listening for unpleasant jangles. And then re-fashion the sound of the jangles.

 

2. Can you say a little bit about the genesis of your most recent book?

Olivia & the Experiments has two sources, a personal one and a public one.

I was intrigued by the new LEGO line of blocks “for girls” because one of the characters has an inventor’s workshop and I desperately wanted her to be the kind of girl who did real science with it while wearing pastels and hair ribbons.

The public source are my Kickstarter backers, who funded me to write four stories about Olivia doing real science showcasing that many traits typically considered feminine are a strength in science, such as communication and collaboration.

Additionally, the backers dictated the science in the stories as well as who made cameo appearances. Olivia has a run-in with an NMRI machine, gets up close and personal with an onion nuclear membrane, resurrects Dorothy Hodgkin’s Nobel-prize winning work, and solves a puzzle with a only a telescope and clear seeing.

 

3. Do you think writing helps you to understand more about yourself and the world, or is advancing as a writer more about learning how to communicate the things you already know?

I have learned the hard way that “no surprise in the writer no surprise in the reader” is true. I often think of interesting things to say but I have found that while they may feel like conclusions, I need to write *from* them into I know-not-what. Into the surprise. Writing clarifies things for the writer—not necessarily the things it communicates to the reader!—but the writer must learn from that act, not just regurgitate.

 

This interview is part of Intermittent Visitors: a multi-author blog tour.

Intermittent Visitors: David C. Kopaska-Merkel

David C. Kopaska-Merkel is a prolific science fiction poet whose work often appears in 7×20 and Strange Horizons, among other places. He edits Dreams & Nightmares, where he also has a blog. Many of his books can be purchased from the Sam’s Dot Bookstore and from Smashwords.

 

1. What’s some writing advice you’ve received, that works for you?

Would you think less of me if I admitted I rarely listen to advice? It’s true. But one can’t help hearing things. One piece of advice I’ve received, that I almost never remember to use, is to read my work aloud to myself before submitting it. It’s a shame I don’t do this more, because when I have done it I felt it made my poems more concise and gave them more punch. It’s even more odd that I don’t use this technique with every poem, when you consider that I have been writing technical presentations (about geology) since 1981. For most of that time I have practiced aloud and reaped the benefits. My talks have gone from incoherent to less incoherent.

One piece of advice I have taken and use all the time is to put away a piece of writing when I finish it. Best to put it away for a least a day or two and then read it again. It allows one to be a lot more objective about the strengths and weaknesses of a poem. And it often makes obvious what needs to be changed and how.

 

Can you say a little bit about the genesis of On the Brink of Never?

What is there to say? I was just enchanted by all the hoopla about the Mayan prediction of the end of the world. The idea that the world contains people who believe this kind of thing is mind-boggling. I had the same thoughts about the Y2K “disaster,” although in that case at least there was some small reason to be concerned. I published a chapbook at the time called the “Y2K Survival Kit.” We were driving across country and I heard a DJ offering to give away what he called a Y2K Survival Kit: a roll of toilet paper and a book of matches. That called for a chapbook! This time, somebody in my writing group, the Musers, I honestly don’t remember if it was me, suggested that we do an anthology of apocalyptic poems in conjunction with the end of the world according to the Mayan calendar. I guess we all felt about the same way about those people who believed the prophecy was accurate. We sure will have egg on our faces if it turns out to have been correct!

Some of the poems are set before the Apocalypse, some during, and some in the aftermath. The rest is history. Most of these poems had been written before we decided to publish the chapbook, and some of those had been published in one place or another. Armageddon is a popular theme, no question.

 

doing double time

 

1. poetry on paper money

Do you remember I bought you
      that little designer cactus?
the flowers were faces and the roots were
motile—
when you left I forgot to water the plants.
The cactus pulled up stakes and went looking on its own
now the damn things are everywhere
and that ain’t funny.

 

2. shorts impede communication

sharpening files she discovered evidence
of hanky-panky at the Texas plant,
Burial of drums
and bribing of inspectors
with the usual tight pants and bulging
      briefcases.

The company had bought protection,
Lawyer’s privilege, paper shredding, blackmail, and bribes;
When the file-clerk threatened to defect
The boss’s son cut her up.

They sealed her in some drums—
buried her and all the files
where the sun don’t shine.

 

3. a nasty habit

But the kid developed a taste for it,
hacking apart low-life scum and finally
some nuns—a real mess.
He went from asset to liability
to asset again in 0 to 60
out by the abandoned mine
where the walking cacti went to earth back in ’06.

 

4. when it hits the can

A mind-blowing smoke if you can catch them,
but when the gas-tank blew it took the mine with it—
methane makes a dandy charge,
and some of the drums shot more than a mile high.
They never found the kids who’d been tokin’ cactus near the entrance,
but it’s amazing what you can dig out of a 55-gallon can.

 

Originally published in “Beam Me Up” podcast, 2009.

 

Southern writers often seem to get lumped together into a single category, as though geography were all that’s needed to understand their work. Can you comment on what it means to you to be located in Alabama, both for your own work, and for its reception outside the region?

I don’t really know what people think about Southern writers. I assume that there really is prejudice, and there are assumptions, about Southern writers. I don’t recall facing this personally. Perhaps I’m not important enough in the literary scene to even be thought about in that context. I suppose there is some similar geographic prejudice among those who read science fiction poetry. However, in this smaller and more close-knit group of fans who are writers and writers who are fans, I think who you are is more important than it is in the much larger world of mainstream fiction. That said, I have to admit that I often think to myself, imagining people are judging me for my geography, “but I’m not really a Southern writer.” I know I really should be thinking something a lot more like “does it matter where I live?!”

As for the effect on my work of where I live, it certainly has influenced the backdrop of my writing. The flora, the topography, the climate, those show up in my work. Write what you know. I know kudzu. I have not lived in a desert, but I love them, and have spent time there. So that shows up in my work too. I don’t think that I particularly address southern themes. If I wrote mainstream poetry, most of the poems would be about what I see, what I do, what I see other people do. I write science fiction and fantasy poetry and, although people are people, in this genre a lot of what we write is about strange settings, strange events, and unusual technology. I don’t try to pull insights about the human condition from the contents of my mailbox, although I admire people who can do that successfully. Instead, I imagine the mailbox on another world and go from there, or something along those lines.

 

Do you think writing helps you to understand more about yourself and the world, or is advancing as a writer more about learning how to communicate the things you already know?

For me, writing has had its biggest effect on my ability to communicate. At least, this is true for fiction and poetry. With regard to science writing, there’s nothing like trying to explain something to teach you that you don’t understand it yet!

 

This interview is part of Intermittent Visitors: a multi-author blog tour.

Some of them, often the best of them, will go undercover—wear suits and carry briefcases, returning to their writing desk only after the sun has gone down and the city has gone to sleep.

Last Sunday I went to see Reverend Father Ernesto Cardenal Martínez read at Vanderbilt. I don’t speak Spanish, so I had to rely on the translations, which is always a bit dodgy with poetry. If you watch the video linked above, you’ll see he read a number of poems including “Gazing at the Stars with Martie” (not sure I have the name of his friend right), “White Holes,” “On the Banks of the Ohio in Kentucky,” “The Cell Phone” and “The Origin of the Species,” after which his latest book is named. The video is worth listening to – don’t know if it’s worth watching, so you could probably just minimize it and multitask. Best line (from memory): “The canonization of John Paul II goes against Darwin’s theory. It is not an evolution but a retrogression.”

In other news, this week was administrative professional’s day, which is what they’re calling secretary’s day now that we’ve collectively decided that “secretary” is demeaning (news in 2020: “administrative professional” now considered demeaning). In honour of my extreme awesomeness, my boss-doctors at the hospital got me a gift card to an online bookstore which shall remain nameless in a pointless attempt not to increase their market share. I got almost everything on my wishlist, and the bulk of it arrived today, including After the Ark by Luke Johnson, who is one of my P&W Speakeasy peeps as well as being a tremendous poet. Plus I got Turko’s Book of Forms, which I’ve been coveting for awhile, and a bunch of Robin McKinley (fantasy) and Jennifer Crusie (romance) books, and Joey Comeau’s One Bloody Thing After Another, which I finished yesterday and which is really fantastic and disturbing, as you might guess from the lesbian young adult romance vs chained-up monster mother plot synopsis.

The couch caught a number of Estelle Markowitz’s tears, just as earlier in the day it had absorbed Jack Green’s, and the day before, Roger Barber’s. Over two decades so many tears had landed on the couch, the cushion was shot through with salt. In the summer, patients experienced a mysterious burning sensation on the backs of their exposed legs, but they never bothered to mention it. At $180 an hour, it didn’t seem worth mentioning.

Read “Couch” by Rachel Maizes.