Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Q&A with Author Neal P. Gillen, "Rendezvous in Rockefeller Center"






Rendezvous in Rockefeller Center is the newest novella, play, and short story by Neal Gillen. Author of twelve books, Mr. Gillen is a longtime friend, former board vice chair and benefactor of The Writer's Center. He sponsors the McLaughlin, Esstman, Stearns First Novel Prize that highlights a new novelist and up-and-coming talent ever year. We caught up with Mr. Gillen to learn more about his new work. What we got was a true gift -- a personal look into the mind and perspective of an accomplished wordsmith.


TWC: Your new story, Rendezvous at Rockefeller Center, is a novella, a short story, and a play. What brought you to sharing your story in all of those formats? Is there one you think works best?



NG: First of all, I thank The Writers’ Center for its dedication to the written word and for its availability to those in the Washington DC region who have found that inner spark to tell a story, be it be theirs, that of their family, or a work of fiction that their life experience, a particular person or event, or maybe a story that has inspired them to write.

In the case of Rendezvous in Rockefeller Center, it was the experience of an old friend, considerably embellished, that motivated me to write the short story that was published by the Veteran’s Writing Project in its literary review O-Dark-Thirty. Once it was published, I heard from a number of people that they wanted to know more about the characters. After some thought, I decided to expand the story and bring out the emotions of the characters as they dealt with the complexities of their lives and their real feelings for each other after many years of separation.

I had never written a play, but I felt that would be an appropriate vehicle to bring the characters to life. After four workshops with Richard Washer, I completed it and sent it around to other writers and playwrights. I ended the play leaving the audience wanting to know more, but I left it up to them to determine what that might be.

The more I thought about it and as others did, including my editor, Barbara Esstman, and my wife, Mary-Margaret, I agreed that there was more to be told, especially the conflict that had to be dealt with, so I began anew and wrote the full story as a novella that ends leaving the reader wanting to know more, but as in the short story, I leave that up to the reader.

As to which form I like best? I like all three forms, the short story, the play, and the novella. I found the progression of the story in each format challenging. Each is a different medium and perhaps serves a different purpose. The play is perhaps the most interesting format because as Richard Washer would say, “It’s only a blueprint.” Unlike the short story and the novella, in the play the actors will interpret the story, give it life, provide meaning, and bring out the true emotions felt by the characters. I have yet to see that, but I hope to do so.





TWC: How has your writing changed from your first books to now? Where can you see that you've learned and grown?



NG: I started with fast paced thrillers that became more involved with the emotions of the characters with each new story. After eight of them I completed a memoir that I had started on when I first began to write. That was a new challenge, contacting people, extensive research on events that had happened 50-years ago, bringing forth old emotions, failures and challenges. It was difficult to do. I migrated from thrillers to memoirs to short stories to where I am now. It’s an evolving process.


I think my writing has grown, but I leave it up to the reader to make that determination. Here’s a long answer of what I have learned:

In brief, my fiction comes from my imagination and life experiences. I grew up in a large extended Irish family in New York City in a multicultural and crowded neighborhood in the days of radio and lengthy stories at the kitchen table from aunts and uncles, the aunts having the best stories. Their stories had all the necessary arcs and conflict that moved them along. It was the same for the radio programs we listened to. You hung on every word. You could see the characters through the voice of others along with the setting, and the dialogue was priceless. And of course, the stories were all enhanced by the tellers. It was an art form that I was exposed to as a toddler.  It encouraged me to read.


In constructing fiction you can wing it and develop it as you move through the story letting the characters lead the way. To make it more believable, however, you have to research the subject matter. The setting for your story has to be realistic. You want the reader to feel that he or she is part of the story -- the setting will do that. You have to nail down the time frame of the story and the events of that period to put the story in its proper context. If it’s a thriller or a crime story you must either know from your personal experience or learn about police, military, CIA, FBI or foreign intelligence operational procedures. You must also know about weapons or maybe explosives. Getting the details right is critical to the credibility of your story and you as an author.


In essence, fiction is a highly creative process as opposed to non-fiction, where it’s all about digging through news clippings, other books on the subject, and correspondence. It’s all about interviewing the subjects of the story or those close to it -- a constant process of getting the basics of the story together before you start writing it. It’s a difficult, tedious and a time consuming process if you are going to get it right. It’s a totally different process from fiction, where your imagination creates the story. But like fiction, you must use the facts you have assembled to put life to the characters and make the story flow.


The same is true for memoirs. You have to search your mind -- get your mind to open up in a honest way. You must get at the truth. You have to search through personal and family records, diaries or date books and telephone logs (if you keep them), photo albums, correspondence, and news stories -- virtually every written thing that you can locate to help you jog your memory and to unearth concrete facts essential to your story. Your memory might be excellent, but it may be hiding something that subconsciously you don’t want to come out. You have to dig down deep even though you’re reluctant to do so. You have to contact and question others, who were there, about their recollections of your story. It involves tracking down people -- old friends, co-workers, relatives, former spouses or significant others, children, even people you might not like or haven’t talked to in years. You have to consider their memory of things -- their views on the matter at issue. And should they differ with your memory, you have to reconcile any differences.  
Most importantly, for the memoir to be honest and true to the story, you cannot sugar coat it. You have to forget about hurting the feelings of others or even embarrassing yourself and your family. You have to provide your reader with your true emotions and the emotions of others to make the story work. You must get at the truth.


If your father was an SOB or your mother was unloving -- that’s part of the story and must be told. Told in such a way to let the reader know how you felt at the moment and how it affected you then and perhaps now. For example, were you, as a teenager, intimate with a girl who became pregnant or if the reverse is true did this intimacy result in your pregnancy? The reader wants to know your emotions when you learned of this situation as well as the other person’s emotions. Was it just your secret? How did you handle the situation? Did the parents find out? Who else knew about it? How did they react? The reader wants to know what was going through your mind and how you dealt with the situation. The same is true if someone close to you died in an unfortunate accident or was murdered. Perhaps a parent or spouse walked out on you. Maybe you were homeless. How did that affect you and the friends and family of the deceased?  

Memoirs are rife with emotions. Few people’s lives are a bed of roses, and should that be the case, no one wants to read about it. Readers want to know about the thorns in the rosebush.
We have all known good and bad times in our lives. We have all been tested. The reader wants to know how you passed or maybe failed that test. They want to know how you became who you are.


Summing it all up, I have written fiction and memoir. It’s a different discipline with memoir being the more difficult in my view.






TWC: What are the most compelling characteristics about the main character(s) in Rendezvous? How do you bring them to life in the story as part of your craft?



NG: The strength of the female character is most compelling. The story uncoils the mysteries of life, love, and lost opportunity. She is a rock who nurtured a young man unsure of himself only to have him abandon her and take flight into the military and lead an indifferent and insecure life.  He acquires wealth, but is unfulfilled. She moves on in life, raises a daughter and starts a successful business. Her life has meaning and purpose, but deep down there is an emptiness. By chance, some 35-years later, they Rendezvous in Rockefeller Center, where in their tense and revealing meeting she repurposes their relationship and changes his life for the better. Simply put, she’s strong, he’s weak but basically good but unmoored and still seeking direction. Her revelation and strength begins to finally get him there.






TWC: When did you know you were a writer? What really "flipped the switch" for you?



NG: Reading two books a week for most of my adult life convinced me that I could do this. As a lawyer, I was always writing, but it was a different style: state the issues, explain them, and summarize why your argument should prevail. It was brief and to the point. I knew that I could do it, but I needed guidance from others. The Writers’ Center provided that along with introducing me to a legion of capable writers who were willing to offer advice about the basics of telling a story. I had the stories. What I lacked was the techniques to tell those stories.






TWC: What advice do you have for budding writers? Anything to share with established writers?

NG: Anyone reading this obviously has an interest in writing. To those budding writers I would say, keep at it, don’t be discouraged, follow your gut, take your time to get it right, and ask for advice. To established writers I would say what they already know, that the times and the methodologies of publishing and marketing are no longer subtle, they are changing at warp speed and you have to adapt to that change.






TWC: What is the most underestimated component of a short story? What makes or breaks it for you?




NG: This is the most difficult kind of writing. You must grab the reader in the first sentence or two and tell your story in short order. How to be brief, concise, and thorough in a few words is
a daunting task. Driving the story from the beginning is perhaps the underestimated component. Another factor is how you resolve the conflict. On the other hand, as I did in the Rendezvous in Rockefeller Center short story, you can leave it to the reader to resolve it.

I cannot define what makes it or breaks it for me, be it the traits of the characters or the plot or theme of the story. I get an idea and I begin to write. I may get it right in one shot, or I might stop and wonder why it’s not working. Who can tell on any given day? It’s a process that’s not always satisfactory, but when it clicks, nothing is more intellectually rewarding than to know that you have created a story.







TWC: How do you write good dialogue? What's the secret?

NG: I was raised in a verbal society, so that has never been a problem for me. Dialogue is listening to or having a conversation. I put myself in the shoes of the characters and the emotions of the moment and it usually flows.





TWC: You weren't always a writer. You're a veteran and have worked all over the country. How has your life experience shaped your writing? How could a new writer conceptualize of their life as an augmentation to their stories?

NG: True, I’ve lived a full and well-travelled life, had a successful career, served in the Navy, and have a wonderful family, but it is through my reading that I have learned to write. The life experiences expose you to situations and people that make for good stories. If you haven’t been anywhere or lived that long, then write about that place and the people you have met in your life where you’re from. You can take ordinary lives and create an interesting story, be it in a farming community, a fishing village, or a small university town. A lot goes on behind closed doors and there is always conflict within a household or a community as well as rich characters waiting to be defined.




TWC: Where can we find your book?

NG: It can be found on Amazon or through my web site: www.nealpgillenbooks.com

Saturday, October 21, 2017

“Tiny People in Epic Spaces”: Poet Lore’s Cover Photographer Shares her Process

“Tiny People in Epic Spaces”: Poet Lore’s Cover Photographer Shares her Process

by Sarah Katz



Since 2002, executive editors Jody Bolz and E. Ethelbert Miller have curated the literary work of each book-length issue of Poet Lore, America’s oldest poetry journal. Once the poems, essays, and reviews are all in place, a critical facet of their work is finding the perfect cover image—a photograph that both suggests the discoveries that writers make between the journal’s covers and stands alone as a compelling piece of art: a photograph that asks its own questions and makes its own claims.

The breathtaking image on the cover of the journal’s latest issue (Fall/Winter 2017) was taken by photographer Ariel Body in an iconic location called “The Wave” in Coyote Buttes, Arizona. Each wave of canyonland is as uncanny and vivid as something painted by Salvador Dali’s hand. The photograph is a sublime portrayal of a desert setting—one that, on the one hand, humbles and energizes, and on the other hand, intimidates and threatens. As a point of entry to the new issue’s poems, it resonates with themes of place and displacement: border crossings both literal and figurative.

Curious to learn about the image’s back story, I asked Body to share her path through photography. Body, who is a climber and a self-described “adventurer” herself, said she has long been enthralled by the concept of “tiny people in epic spaces.” Photography, for her, serves “as an avenue to travel”—to “expose viewers to places and ideas they may have otherwise missed.”

“Working as a self-employed visual communicator over the past decade,” she said in an email interview, “I have had the flexibility to work and shoot in over a dozen countries and experience some truly unique places (including shooting a sled-dog race in back-country Alaska, an adventure project in Chile, a real-estate project in Mongolia, a sports project in Australia, and recently, an adventure travel project in Kenya.”

The cover photo on Poet Lore’s latest issue is one of her earliest works, taken when she had just obtained her first professional camera and was seeking a highly coveted permit to hike in The Wave. (She has been unable to obtain a permit since her visit a decade ago.)


Body took the above photos during the same trip to The Wave as part of her study.


“This particular photo was part of a photographic study emphasizing place.... [T]he goal was to create a set of images that fully encompass the space.”

Asked why the theme is important to her, Body said: “I think a lot of times places aren't as spectacular in photos as they are in real life, so I'm totally drawn to this method as a way to show that juxtaposition and really emphasis the relationship of people in these spaces.”

To see more of Ariel Body’s work, visit her website.

Ariel Body is a desert-dwelling photographer, graphic designer, and coffee drinker. With a goal of working, climbing, and skiing on every continent, she continues to design and shoot projects around the world. She is currently self-employed as a freelance visual communicator, exploring innovative ways of visual storytelling. Her photos have been featured in print magazines and online.  

Friday, October 20, 2017

Q&A: “Sortilege in Strawberry Fields” by Mihaela Moscaliuc

Q&A: “Sortilege in Strawberry Fields” by Mihaela Moscaliuc



To celebrate the Fall/Winter 2017 issue of Poet Lore, available to order from The Writer’s Center e-store, the Poet Lore editorial staff is spotlighting the work of contributors. This installment is one in a series of Q&As with contributors, conducted by Managing Editor Sarah Katz.

SORTILEGE IN STRAWBERRY FIELDS
by Mihaela Moscaliuc
~unu~

(Watching Tess in Romania, 1986)
The close-up hints lips will unseal.
Will it drift toward or will she?
Her neck inches forward
as if nudged by breeze. Lips part,
the quiver so intense the camera misses it.
Eyes follow Polanski’s long shot
but I cling to the strawberry
suspended a wisp away from Kinski’s lips.
Quick as a striking match, Alec’s fingers snip
the stem, lob the raw red forth.
She tears flesh apart, the fragrance amped,
perhaps, by the flame of her own tongue.
I trap the heat between my ribs,
harness it to daydreams. I char
the secret files that chart our most intimate
routines, singe the tongue of the headmistress
who shames me for red-staining my lips.
When classmates start diving off top-floor balconies,
I cleave to the colossal strawberry,
force its seeds into narratives.
~doi~
Pregnant through the open market, she wanted to bury her face in the fragrant mounds. Women would hiss and whisk her away. Thank God for quick fingers. On the way home, she’d fish them out of the bag bloated with dill and parsley, stuff them in her mouth whole, ecstatic. You liked them too. I could tell by the kicks. If only strawberry seeds were all one needed to grow prescient or promiscuous. Wives’ tales.
Still, she fears my strawberry birthmark,
sin she transposed onto my skin
as I rubbed my way out.
~trei~

Did it drift toward or did I ?
Tess: I would rather take it in my own hand.
Alec: Nonsense.
Why spill the juice, leave fingerprints?

His wife leads me to a patch she’s known since childhood
on a steep incline below the woodlands.
We’ve come here barefoot, barehanded,
left pans of morels simmering in the house we rent in the village.
Our bodies nestled in wild grass, she teaches me
to eat the ripest off the stem, without touching—
says this way you become one with them,
says this way you’ll recognize the truly sweet,
says he cares deeply for you, my husband.
~patru~
In Dürer’s Mary and the many animals, the infant inspects the strawberry plant that landed in his hands, possibly a gift with moral lesson, or just pure distraction. Eve’s son more than Christ child, he doesn’t see five petal wounds, triptych leaf, globule of unadulterated blood.
He’ll pull at the red bell, try to bring it to his mouth. Thick volume on her lap, Mary’s content something keeps him occupied. These days she rarely finds time for her favorite books.
~cinci~
No harvesting of strawberries, Virgil warns children. The cold, evil serpent hides nearby
I thought I was practicing vigilance, learned songs that kept snakes away. Still, he came to breakfast, slathered his toast with strawberry jam, drank mother’s milk. He taught me secret languages, how to slither through cracks, how to feign stillness.
~sase ~
When I wouldn’t bleed and wouldn’t bleed
I feared a life of weighing strawberry flats in the communist co-op. Grandmother’s divination undammed the menstruum.
Lucky this one time, she warned.
~sapte ~

Ovid sings its virtue as nourishment that needs no cultivation. Nonsense. To protect the beds from pill bugs, I half-bury popped cans of Bud.
~opt~
The strawberry of The Hungry Bear, hyperbolic as Bosch’s in The Garden of Earthly Delights, enchants my five-year-old every night. The little mouse, afraid the hungry bear will steal his giant red ripe strawberry, cakes it with dirt so it resembles a hill, chains and padlocks it, adds glasses and moustache for disguise. He sweats, he agonizes. Nothing to do, the narrator suggests. Eat what you can and give away the rest.
My son feels for the mouse. He thinks up other ways of concealing the strawberry from the hungry bear. I tell him the bear too is hungry. He doesn’t know enough about the bear’s hunger to care. He wants the mouse to never let go. He can get more from Costco, he reassures himself as the story ends.
He can’t, I insist. The Costco ones they taste nothing like the strawberry the mouse wants all for himself.
My son cries inconsolably. I cry too, but I don’t take it back.

~nou ~
Romania, 2011
About a third of Romania’s workers have migrated west for work, leaving children in the care of relatives, neighbors, or older siblings. Regardless of whether they work as aides for the elderly and infirm, in construction and on docks, they are known as “strawberryists” since most resort first to— or fall back into—strawberry-picking as means to support themselves and their families back home.
They found him dangling from the horsewhip,
strange fruit with note pinned
to the stem of his body: I’m sorry
we’re parting upset, Mama.
Strawberries snatched you away,
you said, for the love of us, to end the wanting,
and their ripeness must have sweetened your days.
Here they’ve stretched and stretched,
so I’m bringing you back.
Tuck me in the earth as you did in bed
and make this an excuse to stay.
I left Ana my sword. It works only
on dragons visible to strawberry orphans.
I got stronger, as you foretold,
but sadness crowded me this way,
that way. I leave you a nice selfie
in my phone. Please return the horsewhip
to the Gypsy boy at the end of the street.
He let me borrow it for nothing.
Sarah Katz: In her introduction to a portfolio of your poetry in the new issue of Poet Lore, Kimiko Hahn describes your work as "an apt response to what the French feminists challenged us women to do decades ago: Write the body." This approach is evident to me in your six-page poem, "Sortilege in Strawberry Fields," in which you begin with the opening of the 1979 film, Tess. The main character, Tess, (played by Nastassja Kinski) and the strawberry suspended in front of her mouth by Alec d'Urberville (played by Leigh Lawson), is the object of the speaker's attention. The first section ends on an ominous notestrawberries are at once an object of lust and as a tool and/or medium for violence:

She tears flesh apart, the fragrance amped,
perhaps, by the flame of her own tongue.

trap the heat between my ribs,
harness it to daydreams. I char

The secret files that chart our most intimate
routines, singe the tongue of the headmistress

who shames me for red-staining my lips.
When classmates start diving off top-floor balconies,

cleave to the colossal strawberry,
force its seeds into narratives.

At this point, the poem has shifted its energies from focusing on the actress's actions to the "I" that is engaging with the actress on the screen: "I trap... harness," "I char... singe the tongue," "I cleave…." To me, this shift signals that the speaker, as Hahn has suggested, is using the body of the actress to relate her own physical experiences as a woman who craves ownership over her bodyif these are the right words. And as that last line promises (“I cleave the colossal strawberry, / force its seeds into narratives”), strawberries become multidimensional over the course of the poem: first as a symbol of empowerment; then as a trap for women and economic trap for Romanian workers; then as a forbidden fruit, as an unfairly stolen fruit, as a dead, lynched body. It is an urgent and cogent undoing, I would say, of strawberries, which are typically thought of as fruits of romance and desire.

So, finally, my question: What is it about the form of the long poem that supports your effort to "write the [woman's] body"?

Mihaela Moscaliuc Thank you for this insightful and beautifully articulated question.
Although I was not consciously responding to feminists’ challenge that we “Write the body” or trying to produce or engage with l'écriture feminine, I see now how that must have been part of what I was doing in “Sortilege in Strawberry Fields.” It feels so gratifying to have readers and critics who understand your work in ways you don’tor didn’t without their aid. Perhaps Julia Kristeva, Hé1ène Cixous, Luce Irigaray, and Judith Butler, in whose writings I immersed myself for a while, were prodding me on as I kept writing myself in and out of that ‘original’ strawberry you mention.
The Tess D’Urberville scene referenced in the opening section of the poem recalls one the most disturbingly pleasurable memories of my adolescence. In retrospect, I see it as a first encounter with/experience of jouissance, though I wouldn’t be able to explain why or how. Perhaps that’s why the poem emerged—out of this inability to make sense of the experience, as an attempt to recreate it rather than explain or theorize it. Your comments on the use of diction that juxtaposes pleasure and violence is right on. I remember staring at the strawberry suspended between Tess’s slight open lips and Alec’s fingers and wanting that big old communist cinema screen to freeze. It was my first encounter with the erotic, but what I was experiencing was complicated and confusing, fraught with intimations of aggression, violence. I fed on that tension and turned that erotic charge into a tool-weapon that helped me navigate various personal and social situations. In communist Romania, this was a time of escalating deprivation, oppression, and censorship. Women’s bodies were surveilled and policed.
As you so aptly point out in your question, in this poem the strawberry becomes an extended metaphor that shifts and changes meaning as it attaches itself to other memories, ideas, images. I’m reminded of Cixous’s statement, somewhere in "The Laugh of the Medusa" (1975) that a woman’s “libido is cosmic, just as her unconscious is worldwide.”
I hadn’t planned to write a long poem, but as I finished the first section, I realized that I was not done—that every strawberry I’d seen, tasted, or fantasized about carried the traces of that “original” one, and that my subsequent experiences with eroticism and violence might have been shaped, whether I'd known it or not, by that first encounter. Perhaps in some ways this is a poem about untranslatability as well. So much of what I see in a strawberry is bound to my particular experiences with particular contexts (including life in communist and post-communist Romania).  
I am grateful to Kimiko Hahn for inspiring me, through her own work (and her use of the zuihitsu and the haibun) to experiment with longer, unruly cross-genre forms.   

MIHAELA MOSCALIUC was born and raised in Romania. She is the author of Immigrant Model (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015) and Father Dirt (Alice James Books, 2010), translator of Carmelia Leonte’s The Hiss of the Viper, and editor of Insane Devotion: On the Writing of Gerald Stern. She teaches at Monmouth University in New Jersey.