Thursday, May 26, 2005

Matthew St. Amand

Hello teenagers. I've got another great interview here for you today. It's going up a day early in the hopes that everyone (including me) will be starting the long holiday weekend early tomorrow. So today I bring you:


Novelist, poet, short story writer, essayist, reviewer, interviewer, and blogger, Matt St. Amand is one of the more successful writers working today. His newest release is a hilarious and unique collection of correspondence, writings, and transmissions from one of the hardest working guys in the literary world. It's called Homunculus, and it's kept me up laughing many nights.

On Matt's interesting, extensive, and dynamic website, you'll be find plenty of information and links to his others writings. Among them is his brilliant collection of short stories, As My Sparks Fly Upward. Evocative, emotionally compelling, and beautifully crafted, this collection showcases Matt's range as an artist. Whether he's writing about a first romance, a chance encounter with a Vernor's can that spins horribly out of control, or a pilgrimage in Dublin, he commands your attention and often holds your heart in the palm of his hand. A couple of stories from this collection can be found online, including "Grudgingly" in FRiGG, and "And the Rocks and Stones Shall Sing" in Opium.

Forever & A Day is a collection of poems inspired by an ex-girlfriend's younger sister who got pregnant at an early age. Matt's poetry shows off a cadence and connection closely affiliated with rock-n-roll lyrics. In other words, it's amazingly hypnotic and readable.

His novel, "Randham Acts", has been acquired by Better Non Sequitur and is slated for release in late 2005 or early 2006.

His blog, Inside the Hotdog Factory, is a hilarious peek inside his everyday life – the life of a writer trying to make it.

Without further ado, Matthew St. Amand.

1) Who are some of your favorite writers, and how do you think they’ve influenced you?

Bob Dylan’s lyrics opened me to the idea that there’s more to language than literal meaning—there are considerations like how certain words sound together; stringing together disparate images, as he does in his song “Tombstone Blues”:

“Well, John the Baptist after torturing a thief
Looks up at his hero the Commander-in-Chief
Saying, ‘Tell me great hero, but please make it brief
Is there a hole for me to get sick in?’”

The legendary comic, Lenny Bruce, also really inspired me. Not only by his humor, but the way he deconstructed moral problems, situations, and reconstructed them in a slightly altered way, highlighting the absurdity of our belief systems. For instance, he spoke a lot about “my right, your wrong,” and how a guy he knew received a medal for killing twenty Italians during WWII, and received a life sentence for killing one Italian in Brooklyn after the war. Or, speaking about the Civil Rights Movement during his 1961 Carnegie Hall performance, he compared the prejudice blacks suffered with that which Christians once suffered at the hands of the Romans—being fed to lions. Lenny’s comment on this was “There’s a quanitative difference between being refused the right to service and being served as refuse.”

Other artists whose work inspired me are Thomas Wolfe, Salvador Dali, Anne Sexton, Sylvia Plath (her prose, only!), Tim O’Brien, Jonathan Lethem, Frederick Exley, Mark Twain, and Johnny Cash.

2) What do you think is your greatest strength or asset in your writing? Your biggest weakness or flaw?

My greatest strength is writing dialogue. Readers tell me that how my characters speak and interact strikes them as completely realistic. My flaws and weaknesses are many—I’m ego/ethnocentric, my work can quickly veer into the self-indulgent.

Susan's note: I've never noticed his work getting self-indulgent, so he either doesn't publish those pieces or he re-works them before I've seen them

3) You’re a born and bred Canadian, and you’ve lived overseas in Ireland. How do you think this affected your prose writing and poetry?

I don’t consider myself a “Canadian” writer or an “Irish” writer. My stories are more about human experience than geography. Living away from North America showed me there is a whole universe of ideas and experiences different from what we take for granted as “normal.” While filling out job applications in Ireland, a clerk asked me if I had a “biro.” I had no clue what this person was saying. Turned out a “biro” is their word for a pen. Living in Ireland allowed me to indulge my propensity for eavesdropping on others’ conversations. I can’t help myself, I’m always doing this. But in Ireland the conversations were worth listening to—the Irish are the best speakers you’ll find anywhere. All of this has helped me—hopefully—move well beyond the pedestrian in my writing, striving for language that is outside of the normal course of zombified discourse that fills up daily life.

4) Your stories seem to have such a genuine and “real” quality about them. Even your poetry is completely readable and relatable. Do you feel it’s important to start off with seeds of truth and real-life scenarios?

As a kid, I hated reading. The idea of books bored me terribly. When I finally came around to enjoying books, and ultimately to writing, I never lost touch with that kid who hated reading. Every time I sit down to write, I’m always answering the question “Who gives a shit about this?” In order to get started, I do need to begin with a real-life scenario, or an idea easily spun-off an actual situation. This doesn’t mean my work is patently autobiographical; I’d make a lousy journalist. It’s not long before I’m making stuff out of the air, stringing together multiple partially-real situations together to form my fiction. And always, always, always, the kernel of the idea has to be fascinating, to hold something close to obsession in it—whether it’s the best man in my story “Best Man” about to watch his friend marry a girl he thinks is dead wrong for him, or making a pilgrimage to Bono’s estate in County Dublin. There has to be a substantial hook in the idea to keep me going.

5) You separate yourself from many modern writers because your stories are rife with emotion. Now, when I say that, I don’t mean that they’re sappy or overplayed. But that you have actual plots where things happen, but I also connect with the characters and can understand them and sympathize. Is this something you strive to achieve with your work, or does it come naturally?

Emotion is the blood that brings a story to life. If we don’t care about what a character is going through—whether that character is up to his/her neck in shit due to their own poor judgment or simple bad luck—that story won’t interest readers. For me, I focus so much on the emotional aspects of my stories because I am, in a way, creating alternate realities I wish I might have lived, or am glad I never lived. It’s hard to say how “naturally” this comes to me because I work very hard on ensuring the emotions evoked in any given story are real. Sometimes that means taking a story in a direction I don’t want it to go in—like the ending for my story “Hadley.” I hated writing that ending, but it was the only one that worked. Anything else would have been false.

Susan's note: "Hadley" is one of my favorite stories of Matt's, and he's right. The ending was probably very difficult to put on paper, but it's so truthful that it resonates very deeply and was definitely worth it.

6) Stock question: Dinner with anyone, dead or alive. Who is it?

Lenny Bruce at his favorite Hollywood Chinese restaurant.

7) What is the mystery/enigma/riddle of Xavier Lipshitz and Zemhep Co Group?

Rather than a riddle or mystery, I think that Xavier and ZemhepCo Group, in fact, dispel mystery and enigma. For instance, there is no cadre of billionaires running the world, nor does the Bildenberger Group, Trilateral Commission or Commission on Foreign Relations have any special powers or agendas. It is ZemhepCo Group pulling the strings behind the scenes in world events, affecting everything from the price of socks at Wal-Mart to the number of dead in any of the world’s current wars.

That great quote from the film The Usual Suspects, in which Kevin Spacey’s character says, “The greatest trick the Devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist” was written with Xavier in mind.

The Lipshitz dynasty is a Twentieth Century monstrocity, imposing and invisible as those crystal towers that loom on the dark side of the moon. It casts no shadow, but is as insidious as UV rays on our economy and our lives. Through a series of mishaps and unfortunate coincidences—involving the harassment and kidnapping of several of my family members—I was at one time enlisted as biographer of Xavier Lipshitz. A commercial belljar has been placed over me until I complete the work. When that will be is still unknown, even to me.

8) Publishing is a tough gig, and you’ve found ample success already. What, for you personally, is the most difficult part of the whole game, and what’s the most rewarding aspect? What’s the accomplishment you’re the most proud of to date?

The most difficult part of writing/publishing for me is gauging the effects I’m trying to elicit from readers without running to my outside readers with every paragraph I write. Showing partially finished work to be people has never been a good move, at least for me. Invariably the feedback I receive involves gaps in the story that will be filled in later on. It’s best just to complete a work, and then let people near me read it. So, trusting my instincts and third eye are paramount—and difficult.

The accomplishment of which I am most proud is probably seeing my first book into print. After years of rejection slips and self-doubt, it was truly a surreal moment to finally hold a copy of my book in my hands. And receiving reader feedback has also been quite satisfying. You have to understand that for the first five years of my writing career, I received on average 100 rejection slips a year. In the fifteen years I’ve been writing and submitting my work, I would conservatively estimate that average has held up. But once some of my work began making it into journals and zines, and my book was released, I was amazed to receive positive feedback from readers. I’ve never been able to reconcile editors’/publishers’ near-seamless distaste for my work with the warm reception readers have given my stories and poems.

9) You’re also extremely funny, especially when something is stupid or annoying, you’re great at finding the joke of the ludicrousness of the situation. Do you enjoy writing “funny” as much as writing more serious themes? And which do you think is more difficult to pull off?

I really enjoy writing satire and burlesque pieces. It’s taken a mighty long time to get to a place where I’m able to do it with any consistency. It’s much harder than it seems because the first impulse in writing humor is also the worst impulse—leap for the obvious joke. Sure, you’ll get it, but you have to ramp-up all over again and leap for the next obvious joke. The comedy that works best for me is rife with subtle humor with a few set-piece jokes strewn about like landmines. I’ve been a comedy aficionado since I was a child, particularly a fan of George Carlin and Lenny Bruce, whose humor worked so much better for me than the lame, piƱata-bashing humor of David Letterman or Jay Leno, for instance. Carlin and Bruce had a point of view, a whole absurd vision under which any aspect of life could be placed and its ludicrous aspects revealed. The Jay Lenos of the world leave me flat. Listening to them is like trying to make a meal out of a bad of chips. So, with my own attempts at humorous writing, I aim for the territory blazed by Carlin and Bruce, where jokes resonate like echoes, where even untintentional humor fits in. That’s been some of the most satisfying writing I’ve done.

10) I usually only ask 9 questions. But you’re special, because you’ve done so many interviews yourself. Among the luminaries you’ve interviewed are Gary Britson, which can be found in your current release, Homunculus, Paul Toth, author of Fizz, and Yourself. So. You’re kind of an expert. So since this is all about me in the end, how’d I do with the interview?

You’re an amazing interviewer! There’s something artistically nourishing about answering your questions, they are so well conceived, and pointed at corners of my work I haven’t given much thought to. You’re a writer’s-reader, if that makes sense, and a fine author, too. Feedback and interest from you rates so much higher on my unscientific scale because you’re a fan and creator of solid work. Kudos from you are gold dubloons. Thanks for your support and interest in my work!

Susan's note: How could I NOT personally like a guy with a silver tongue like that? But professionally, his work is worth all the praise it gets.

Friday, May 20, 2005



Ballerina, arthritis advocate, fiction writer, blogger and reviewer Renee Nicholson knows her way around the arts. Instead of dosing out the cursory "what a good read" and slapping a starred rating as a shortcut on her reviews, Renee has the ability and insight to delve inside a book or story to understand its construction, themes, and underlying meanings. The effort and care she employs is not only a boon for the writers, but also potential readers. By thoughtfully and gracefully articulating the gestalt of the work, it allows readers to connect beyond the superficial level, and paints clear pictures for potential readers to accurately gauge interest levels.

What she does with her reviews is very similar to creating an entire fiction story – or performing a ballet. It's graceful and artistic, and though less abstract in some ways, it's a form of dialogue – a forging of a connection and informing the world-view of others.

The same could be said of her blog at, where she's a featured writer. Her blog, Life with RA, is an unflinchingly honest, brave and heartfelt account of how living with Rheumatoid Arthritis affects, changes, and shapes her life. The RA ended her ballet career, but you can see that same strength and artistry at work now in her prose. Ballerinas are known for their grace, and after reading just a few of Renee's entries, you can see that emanating not only from my style on the page, but also in how she relates to life. But what's often overlooked is the grit and determination, the fierce toughness that the dancers need to have to persevere and succeed in their field. It's both a physically demanding and emotionally testing arena. Renee succeeded there. And it's that same stunning combination of grace and grit that now touches her writing.

Her short story "My Darlings" can currently be found at The Cerebral Catalyst. Several of her reviews can be found at The Beat. Among them are: The Evil B.B. Chow and Other Stories by Steve Almond , Iconography: A Writer's Meditation by Susan Neville, Freeways & Aqueducts by James Harms, and Candy Freak by Steve Almond.

Renee is starting an MFA program at WVU this fall, she'll be doing book reviews for Chelsea Magazine and I suspect we'll be hearing much more about her before long.

1) Who are some of your favorite writers, and do you think they've influenced you?

This is the question that could potentially go on for ever. But I'll try to make it reasonable. The first would have to be Susan Neville, whose books include both short fiction and creative nonfiction: The Invention of Flight, In The House of Blue Lights, Indiana Winter, Fabrication, and Iconography: A Writer's Meditation. I could tell you about all her awards and such (like the Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction), but that's really only the credentials folks look for when they don't look at the writing. Susan rescued me in many ways, and she probably never knew it. She was my first creative writing teacher and mentor, and the great thing about her is that she treated her students' work with the care and attention she treats her own work. It's such a gift. From her I learned about dialogue and pacing. She used to say, "No one directly answers a question. A woman tells a man she wants to talk and the man asks her to pass the pizza." She also was always giving me books to read - it was great. She gave me Susan Minot's book of short stories, Lust and Kathy Aker's Portrait of an Eye. She was the first to suggest to me that I could, and maybe should, be a writer.

Then there is the poet John Hoppenthaler. Now, I don't write poetry, but poets have influenced me greatly because of their attention to line and language. Prose can be lyrical like poetry and reading John's poetry is a lesson in what makes language deeply musical and enchanting. His poems have a flowing narrative through them that seems to capture the best of good writing, irrespective to genre. Plus, John is a great friend, he's a rock. He continues to be a supportive friend and mentor. And he appreciates good food and good wine! An excellent combination. In his book Lives of Water the poem "Telling Tales in a River Town" is dedicated to me.

Another poet is James Harms, who is the Director of Creative Writing at WVU. He's a big part of the reason I'm going to West Virginia, along with two other short fiction writers, Gail Galloway Adams and Mark Brazaitis.

I'm a huge fan of Steve Almond's work, both his collections of short fiction and his non fiction book, Candy Freak. I think that Almond's work often gets glossed over as just being sexy or just being funny, but there's much depth in his characters, who are often confused and conflicted because of the weird, often paradoxical culture we live in. The sense of frustration, a quiet, under the surface kind of angst, makes his work compelling to me. I think there are definitely parallels between his work and John Cheever's short fiction. A Cheever story, to me, is a pure short story the way it should be done. Favorites include, "The Swimmer" and "A Sutton Place Story."

I would be remiss if I didn't include Michael Martone in this list. His work is so indicative of place, especially The Flatness and Other Landscapes, one of my favorite books of non-fiction. He has the ability to put you in a setting and allow you to experience it in tangible sensory details - not just sight, but smells and tastes and sounds. He's genius that way.

There are so many others, but these have to be at the top of the list.

2) What do you think is your greatest strength or asset in your writing? Your biggest weakness or flaw?

I'll start with flaws... Yikes. Biggest flaw has to be lack of attention to plot. My plots are thin and often shallow. I wish I was better at plotting, but the truth is my plots fall down. I also cannot spell worth a damn, and grammar is crappy. But many writers seem to put these on the flaw list; I believe it's just a mechanical thing that sometimes gets in the way of creativity... but then you need to polish the mechanical stuff to let the artistry shine through. I always recommend finding someone who is a kick-ass proofreader. My husband does this for me - he's a CPA and very detail oriented. Without him, my stuff would look just horrible, full of mistakes and misspellings.

Strengths is harder to say. Sometimes I think I write with a strong sense of place, other times character. I do think that there is something pushing my writing, something authentic. To me, being true to the story is paramount. So, if I'm writing about a character who is a ballet dancer, it's got to be true to that world, or if I'm writing a story that can only take place in a certain locale, the details of that place have to be dead-on correct. So, even if the writing isn't perfect, it's authentic.

3) You were a ballerina which is also an intensely creative and talent-oriented art, but it's also very physically and mentally and perhaps emotionally demanding. In comparison to writing, which (ballet or writing) do you find overall most challenging and which most rewarding?

Wow, what a question! And a fair one too. Working in two very different art forms gives you a kind of perspective that can be both expansive and limiting. Ballet is physically and emotionally demanding, but there is an element of imitation that limits one's own creative impulse. As a dancer, you recreate steps in choreography that have been handed down through generations. You try to bring something to it, but ultimately you are a variation on a theme. In writing, your net is cast over everything - anything is possible, and everything is potentially material. I've found the discipline of dancer has carried over to my writing and has helped to shape and focus my efforts.

Writing is rewarding because of process, while dance is rewarding because of performance. The challenges are so different that it's hard to say which is the most challenging.

An interesting aside about the two art forms - both come with a lot of rejection. Many writers I know think that the rejection from writing is tough. It is, I suppose, but compared to ballet, where the feedback is immediate and often exceptionally personal, the rejection from writing seems much easier to swallow. I mean, no editor has asked me to stand up and read a piece, only to tell me my prose is great but I need to shed the extra pounds of baby fat.

4) You write fiction and non-fiction and also do in-depth book reviews. Does working in one field help strengthen you in others, or does it make it more difficult? (Like, does analyzing someone else's fiction help you structure yours? Or is it difficult to switch gears and move between the different forms? )

I like the freedom to switch around in genres... and certain pieces feel like they can be fictionalized while others feel like they should be true stories. The stuff I write about having RA (rheumatoid arthritis) for instance, needs to be told as truth in order to be authentic. At least to me. I often write stories about ballet, which I usually fictionalize. Some of the stories incorporate my experiences, but also and often things I've witnessed in that world. So I tend to fictionalize so that I can combine these elements and feel that it, too is authentic.

Now, reviewing is the best thing I've done for my writing, because everything I read is teaching me something and writing the review requires me to articulate my thoughts about it. But I'm in a different mode when writing a review - like a detective figuring out a mystery, I'm trying to piece together what the author is doing in a work. I like the critical side of things because it is forcing me to learn about the aesthetics of writing... it's like the barre work in ballet, where you warm up and perfect the basic skills that allows you to be a performer. Looking at another's work in a way that allows you to understand their choice, see their aesthetics is great mental calisthenics.

5) In one of your blog entries, you talk about how you were very nervous to reveal to your then boyfriend that you have rheumatoid arthritis. It worked out extremely well considering you're about to celebrate your fourth wedding anniversary. Do you ever have this same hesitant and nervous feeling about "revealing yourself" through your writing? And do you think it usually works out just as well if you take that same leap of faith?

Heck, I'm worried and nervous about everything I write. But revealing myself, especially personal things can freak me out. But it's also strangely relieving, like, okay, if I can write about that then I can sleep with a clear conscience. And at some point I think you have to reveal yourself to be an artist or a writer or really just a good person. I think people connect to those people who can talk about the tough stuff without being fluffy or disingenuous. Really, life is this giant leap of faith. People look for this thing called "security" but I'm not sure that true security exists. No one can predict the future. Really, the best security is to take the leap of faith each day on yourself. And, as my granddad back in West Virginia always said, "It's a great life if you don't weaken." And that's true.

6) Stock question: Dinner with anyone, dead or alive. Who is it?

My grandmother, Opal. She was diagnosed with liver cancer when my mom was pregnant with me. The doctors told her she wouldn't live to see me born and she told them oh yes she would. And she died a little under two months after I was born. The doctor's were stunned. I like to think she passed on a bit of that volition to me. I've got loads of questions for her, and if I had the chance, I'd have her make her famous fried chicken and wax nostalgic for a while.

7) What's the best taste of summer?

Anything on the grill! Burgers, brats, BBQ chicken... and ice cold beer. Or a crisp wine. And ice cream, chocolate. MMMMMM... I'm hungry already.

8) Other than fiction writing, what's the biggest lie you ever told?

I consider not telling the full truth the worst kind of lie and I used to not tell people about having RA. I was completely embarrassed about it. So I would just say "My knee hurts" or something generic. After spending most of my life in ballet I thought it was shameful what was happening to my body. But when you don't come clean with stuff like that, it gets at you. And, things really changed when I met Matt, my husband of 4 years this June 2nd. He just didn't care that I have RA - not in a bad way, but it didn't change how he felt about me as a person. I felt sort of freed by it, and then I told everyone about it, without the old stigma.

I also used to lie about eating, back in my ballet days. It's fair to say I was borderline anorexic, as were most the dancers I knew. But now I LOVE to EAT! My God, what was I missing!

9) If you had to choose -- what was your single favorite ballet performance? And what so far is your single favorite writing-related accomplishment, and how do they compare?

My favorite ballet performance had to be my first Nutcracker. I was seven and was a mouse. The first time on stage was completely magical... it's a natural high and I knew I just had to have more. I've played almost every role in The Nutcracker since but it never compares to that first time.

My favorite writing-related accomplishment is being accepted into the program at WVU and getting the teaching assistantship/scholarship. I surprised myself with that one. Although I don't think everyone has to do an MFA to be a great writer. They come in all forms and all backgrounds. For me, this was just a sense of right place and right time. I wanted to work and be mentored by certain other writers and I thought that this was a sign that they wanted to help me.

Really, they can't compare. It's like comparing Robert Frost to Thomas Pynchon - they just aren't doing the same thing. But I've met some truly wonderful people in both the ballet world and writing world, and honestly, it's the friendships that mean the most to me. That's the heart of it - good work, good friends.

Thursday, May 19, 2005

Good Reads

Ok teenagers. Tomorrow we'll be having another writer spotlight and this one will be with Renee Nicholson. In case you care to brush up ahead of time though, she's just had a story pubbed at The Cerebral Catalyst. It's called My Darlings and it's fierce and fab. (and it's now officially time for me to stop watching ANTM)

Another splendid read I ran across this week is by the multi-talented and multi-wonderful Beverly Jackson. It's called The Day Room and it's up as part of The Absinthe Literary Review's Eros and Thanatos issue. (I would LOVE to get into that issue of that mag, and I'm so jazzed for Bev for doing it. Trust me, I've tried and didn't make the cut. Her story most definitely fits the bill and is well deserving of being there. But I'm still jealous as hell!)

In the non-fiction vein, excellent book reviewer Steve Hansen has a new book review posted at Small Spiral Notebook. It's of Bee Lavender's Lessons in Taxidermy.

Monday, May 16, 2005

2005 Moondance Film Festival

And we're back to me again.

My short story "I, Candy" won the short story category at the 2005 Moondance Film Festival. (!!!)

If you're so inclined, you can read the story at Write This.

Biff Mitchell in Projected Letters

Funky cool and super-sized talent Biff Mitchell has two stories up in the new issue of Projected Letters. This seems to be a good new literary 'zine, and Biff's stories up there are "The Nickel" and "Fishing the Moody River" from his wonderful short story collection Surfing in Catal Hyuk.

Bif is a remarkably talented writer with a diverse range. He's had three novels published, The War Bug, Team Player, and Heavy Load. All three mix humor with action -- and plenty of assorted weirdness. One thing's for sure, you've never read anything even remotely close to one of Biff's novels before. The mix of wit and literary skill -- and weirdness -- can summon correlations with Tom Robbins and Christopher Moore. But his plots are fresh and he goes to completely different places than either of those writers. Team Player is a hilarious and satirical look inside the IT industry. He also has a couple of novellas available as dollar downloads: Smoke Break and The Baton.

So here's a good chance to check out his style at Projected Letters and see if you aren't down for him. You won't be disappointed.

Friday, May 13, 2005


Not only does he have one of the coolest names for a writer ever – Tripp Reade, don't you just love that -- Tripp is an incredibly talented writer who lives in Durham, NC. I first ran across his work on the Zoetrope Virtual Studio when I read his story, "Memoirs of an Atomic Insect." I was instantly hooked by his sublime fusion of humanity and the surreal. After that, I began to actively seek out more of Tripp's fiction, and I was delighted to find a diversified approach to the stories themselves, but a steady and generous spirit as the connecting tissue.

If you're looking for street cred, he's got plenty. A chapter from his novel-in-progress won a 2002 North Carolina Writer's Network Blumenthal Award, and he subsequently read that chapter at the NC Literary Festival. He was also part of a successful panel at the 2004 South Carolina Book Festival. His work can be found in magazines such as Sandhills Review, Timber Creek Review, and Spout.

You can check out some of his fiction online at these links:
Before the Plunge at Slow Trains
She Was at Write This
One Coat at Dead Mule

He is currently working on a collection of related short stories that showcase and celebrate his beloved Durham, NC. What pulls the stories together, other than the setting, is a seemingly small and common twist in one of the character's life. This event ricochets around, and we see its ripple effect upon other characters – some of them seemingly unrelated to the initial progenitor of the karma, and sometimes decades after the initial event. But what keeps the reader fascinated is not just the common thread, but Reade's uncanny ability to make all the characters visceral, vital, and vivid on an emotional level.

Q & A With Tripp Reade

1) Who are some of your favorite writers, and do you think they've influenced you?

First there were comic books. Hundreds and thousands of comic books. Next big discovery: mythology, particularly those old stand-bys, the wanton Greeks and the gloomy Norse. Once upon a time, I could tell you the name of every least godling, troll, and dryad. Up to this point, though, no single writers of note, just a great avalanche of stories. The first writer I encountered who had an impact on me was Tolkien. Man, I read and re-read those books, a whole world I could fall into again and again. Then, in chronological order, and appearing with the regularity of signposts, Mark Twain, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Virginia Woolf, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Harlan Ellison, Alice Hoffman, Charles Dickens, Lee Smith, Jill McCorkle, and Thomas Pynchon.

While I absolutely believe these, and other writers to a lesser extent, have influenced me--really, how could they not, unless I managed to forget about them as soon as I read them, internalizing nothing--I see no obvious resemblance between my writing and theirs, though perhaps resemblance is easier to detect where the pure storytellers are concerned, more so than with the post-moderns: I'm fond of irony, but rarely, if ever, use it in my own stories.

2) What do you think is your greatest strength or asset in your writing? Your biggest weakness or flaw?

Let's see. I've a pretty good grasp of viewpoint and pacing, and can turn a clever phrase. Though I don't use a great deal of description, I think what I do use is quite satisfactory. Oh, and I can do funny. However, you asked for greatest asset or strength, so let me anticipate the next question and say I can slip my feet into near about anyone's shoes. The flip side of this empathy is that it remains to be seen if I can write a truly despicable or just plain old snake-mean character.

Ah, but weaknesses, where shall I begin? I write long, and can take forever to get where I'm going. As a result, I too easily contract a bad case of narrative impatience, which is the tendency to hurry through a story and which results in a simplistic structure. I under-utilize narrative summary, which often results in a story neatly penned by the Aristotelian unities. Prior to 2003 I almost never fully engaged with emotion in my writing, preferring to get by with cleverness and humor, such as they were, but that weakness seems to have been adequately addressed.

3) You seem to be able to climb inside a character's skin to really let the reader connect to them emotionally. Is this something that comes natural, or do you work at it to cull this sympathy/empathy? Also, do you ever feel that you should pull back so you don't overplay your hand?

<>I alluded to this somewhat in my answer to the previous question. I've always been extremely sensitive to what other people must be feeling, to their difficulties and sorrows, and when I was growing up felt that, for a boy who loved to play sports and hurl himself through the woods in all sorts of dangerous games and adventures, I was ridiculously prone to tears. However, and for reasons that would take far too much time and webpage real estate to fully explore right now, I didn't feel this inclination was sufficiently masculine, so I very effectively suppressed it. And then in 2003 I changed--more precisely, 2003 hastened a transformation that had been taking place in fits and starts over a number of years--and this change radically affected my fiction. The stories written on either slope of that dividing year can only with some effort be attributed to the same person.

So yes, it comes to me naturally, and yes, I had to work at it. I'm pleased with the stories that have resulted. They don't seem overly sentimental, which might easily have happened. I've always been wary of writing in such a way that everything is obvious, the sum total of a story's meaning right there on the page and therefore lacking complexity. Though this approach, too, has its pitfalls--it can result in a subtlety that verges on opacity and confusion--in this case it has served me well by keeping the stories from becoming maudlin.

4) You're good at capturing very evocative details without losing the forward momentum of the story. Is it a balancing act to get those details on the page without wandering off on tangents?

Again, I alluded to this in my answer to the second question. At the drop of a hat, I'll wander off on a tangent! You should see what happens when I try to write a novel; they turn into these marathon journeys of tangent-chasing. Short stories are how I hope to become a more disciplined writer, and this is why my descriptions may seem spare: I've become ruthless in the way I limit them. With such Draconian measures in place, I search hard for the best details possible.

5) Your stories are mostly set in the Carolinas and you seem to have a genuine love for the area. What are some of the best things about that area that are unique to it?

I've been hung up on the word unique in this question. There are lots of friendly people here in Durham and in North Carolina, but that's true everywhere. The barbeque is delicious, but I've had just as good in other places. There are tree-shaded streets in my city that are perfect cathedrals of lovely green light, but, again, that's not unique to Durham. We're basketball crazy, but so are Indiana, Kentucky, and Kansas. Downtown architecture is wonderful 1920s-era Art Nouveau, but so is the architecture of many other downtowns, I'm sure. The smell of tobacco still lingers in the heart of the city, even though the leaf is no longer traded and processed here, and that may be unique: it's such a toasty, golden aroma.

In the end, maybe it's all in how the ingredients are mixed, so that all of the above, and a thousand other everyday wonders, combine to make this place, my city, unique. No two places will use the same recipe, thank goodness. For this reason, just about every town and city I visit feels like a place I could fall for, but Durham is where I grew up, and so it's the place I love best.

6) Stock question: Dinner with anyone, dead or alive. Who is it?

Please don't make me do it. I'm terrible with this sort of question, terrible, as a rule, with any attempt to pick my favorite anything, if that hasn't become groaningly obvious by now. See, I might say something underwhelming like, my paternal grandmother. In fact, I am going to say exactly that. I'm fascinated by hidden histories, the kind we lose when people who aren't famous and who never wrote a memoir, die, and everything they knew or felt or dreamed dies with them. I've thought of a million things I wish I had asked her ever since she died in 1996, so, absolutely, a long, twenty course dinner with her would be perfect.

7) What's the best smell of summer?

Again with the "best of" questions! Okay, when I was a kid, if I wanted to smell summer, meaning the beach, I simply had to twist the top on a bottle of suntan lotion and breathe deeply. I still do that, too. That's right--Coppertone functions as my Proustian madeleine. But maybe that's the most evocative smell of summer, rather than the best. Okay, here it is: magnolia blossoms or honeysuckle. Don't force me to choose.

8) Other than fiction writing, what's the biggest lie you ever told?

And they just keep coming, these questions, don't they? The biggest, and longest running lie, I ever told, was when I convinced myself I wasn't flunking out of college my first semester. A three and a half month performance that called on all my powers of invention, rationalization, and self-delusion. I even went and took exams for classes I hadn't attended since the first week of school! I was almost genuinely shocked when the dean called me into her office to tell me I was an academic failure. Yeah, that was a humdinger.

9) You read at the NC literary festival. What did you read? Were you nervous before you started and did that subside? Do you have a southern accent when you speak?

A chapter from what I call, with equal parts fondness and exasperation, my perpetually in-progress novel, won an award. In addition to some money, I was asked to read this chapter at the 2002 North Carolina Literary Festival. Here's the cool part: I used to be very shy, but as the years passed decided not to be shy any longer. So perhaps I was a tiny bit nervous--Will they laugh in all the right places? and that sort of thing--but more than that I was excited. I still like to have some water handy, though, in case cotton mouth should strike.

Not much of a Southern accent, no, at least not much of one according to non-Southerners. They may be expecting something more dramatic and twangy, though, because when I hear my voice on a tape recorder or answering machine, I think I sound very Southern. Anyway, certain words out of my mouth can tend to have luxurious vowels, and if I'm around more pronounced accents for any length of time, my own will thicken.

Writer spotlights

So, as I'd previously stated, to make this blog about something, I'll be having short profiles on writers I enjoy with links to some of their work and often a short q&a.

Before we get to that, I'd like to explain why I'm doing it. Fred Schoeneman suggested in his blog that this is a bad idea because writers are boring. While Fred is generally correct about such things, and while I respect his opinion, I'm going to see if it works out anyhow. Cause Fred suggested I interview other folks, like hookers and croupiers. I may, in the future, attempt this. However, there's a small hitch with actually doing that. This is because whenever I hang out with hookers, all they want to talk about is if I'll buy them a drink (I usually do) and can they have some of my money (they generally can't because I have none if I'm sitting at a bar instead of gambling) and then they try to bum cigarettes from me and that's when I get pissed because I don't like to share my cigarettes. (I don't know why, ok? I just don't.)


As for croupiers and dealers, they're also difficult to interview because generally all they want to do is get done with work and get the fuck out of the casino so that they can go hang out with hookers.

Ahh, that's not fair. That's not true at all, really. Dealers aren't like that.

They just want to get the fuck out of work so they can go hang out with the cocktail waitresses.


I'll have some dealer and hooker features on here in the future. Why don't you drop me a line if you have any specific interest you want to know about.

But for now, we'll start with some interesting writers.

The first victim is the marvelously talented Tripp Reade, and that's coming right up.

Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Cue the Van Morrison

It's a marvelous night for a moondance...

Great news. Three of my short stories are finalists at the 2005 Moondance Film Festival.

The stories are:
I, Candy, live at Write This
Shuffle Up (And Deal) live at Word Riot
Neon Nights, live at Ruthie's Club

I'm very amped. Wish me luck!

The first rule of blogging... don't talk about blogging and instead find something to blog about.

This puts me in a strange little predicament. As a writer, you'd think I'd have plenty to jot down here. Ironically, I don't!

But I do have a pipeline to some cool and talented people, so I'm gonna tap into that for material.

One of the things I've been most grateful for in recent months is the response and support I've gotten from some of the people in the writing community. People I already knew, and people that I've just met have been extremely generous to me in helping me get some exposure and word out about my books. (24/7 and Trattoria, lest you forget for a second that I'm selling something here.)

So, since I have this immense arsenal of interesting talent at my disposal, I'm going to infringe on them even more!

Once a week (hopefully) we'll have a little feature here where I'll profile a talented writer. We'll have links to their work and a short little q&a with them.

I think you'll enjoy it.

Thanks for stopping in.

Thursday, May 05, 2005

The Beat

And we're back to me. The cool online magazine The Beat was kind enough to post an excerpt of my book, 24/7. It's also got a way cool intro by Renee Nicholson that says things that make me swoon to read them. If you put "Chuck Palahniuk" anywhere in connection to my writing, I about die of happiness. (And I'm sure that somewhere, someday, when Chuck Palahniuk sees the references he'll want to die, too. Ahem. Not of happiness.) Anyhow, it's all right here: Renee's intro and excerpt at The Beat.

A few words about The Beat: They feature short stories, reviews, poetry, and terrific links. It's a very cool place that's probably too classy for me. But I'll gladly bask in it!

A few words about Renee. She's a former ballerina who was diagnosed with Rheumatoid Arthritis. She's recently begun political advocacy work and she keeps a blog about her adventures which is well worth checking out. It can be found here: Life With RA. She also writes fiction and regularly does book reviews for The Beat. She's sharp and insightful and she has an uncanny connection and ability to see inside the work she tackles. Here's a few samples of her reviews:
Steve Almond's The Evil BB Chow

James Harms' Freeways and Aqueducts

Thanks to both Renee and The Beat.

Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Sin City

This isn't a pimp for my books, but instead what I'd like to talk about a little bit is the movie Sin City.

So, yes, I'm a little late with this, but since I just started my blog, cut me some slack.

I love Robert Rodriguez flicks. When everyone was swooning over Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean a couple summers ago, I was swooning over him in Once Upon A Time In Mexico. That flick was more my speed: faster, flashier, nastier. The Mariachi series rocked. Admit it, even Spy Kids was a good flick. And Clooney was at the apex of his hotness in From Dusk Till Dawn. I just dig Rodriguez.

And it doesn't hurt that he gives Mickey Rourke work.

Oh, I can feel the chill and nearly hear the snide comments on the tip of your tongue about Rourke right now.

Yes, yes, he's fucked up his face. Yes, yes, he's a baaaad boy who threw away his Hollywood career. (the horror! To DARE to do something you WANT to do instead of just Be Hollywood.)

But have you seen Sin City?

It's a faithful adaptation of Frank Miller's graphic novels, certainly. Some would call it slavish. So what. It's disgustingly violent, and I suppose maybe even a bit vapid. But know what? It's also GOOOD. And it's different. It was so completely different from the routine slop I've been seeing at the movies lately that it was beyond refreshing. It was riveting.

And Mickey Rourke was outstanding. His face was covered by a mask, but every once in a while I'd catch a glimpse of a close-up of his eyes. That's enough. That's all he needs. That and his voice in this flick. It's getting rougher and lower with every picture now, but there's something still insanely libidinal about the guy.

I know what you're thinking. You're thinking, "Yeah, but behind that "ugly mask", his face is all fucked up anyhow." Yeah, well, maybe. He doesn't look like he used to. He's gotten older and he's gotten roughed up in the ring and supposedly from plastic surgery and maybe booze or something. I don't know. But here's the point: I don't care. That's right. I. Don't. Care.

I don't give a fuck what you think he looks like (or doesn't look like anymore.) That charm and that spark and that, that -- libido of his. It still WORKS. Some stars have talent, some have looks, and some have the X factor. Mickey had looks, and I think he's still got plenty of talent, but he's also still got that mystique IT, X, je ne sais quoi, VIBE about him that comes across onscreen.

I love that Robert Rodriguez gets that. And I love that he gives work to his little dog, too.

I just wish there were more of them out there. Guys like Rodriguez who're willing to give up thier membership in the Director's guild to make something they believe in. Guys like Mickey who're willing to give up the Star's life for something he believed in. Guys like this who get together and give us something unique and unexpected and shocking and BOLD and gorgeous and grotesque and provocative.

Even though it's built with technical prowess and manipulates cutting edge, stylish excess, Sin City is more than the sum of those parts. It's something where you can still see the spark and gleam in the eyes behind that thick mask.

Hello and welcome

Hi. I'm Susan, and this is my blog. We'll see how this works out. I'm not very talkative, but maybe I'll enjoy talking to myself like this.

So, some basics:
I'm a writer and I've got a couple of books out. You can find plenty of information about them on my website: But, for quick basics, the first one is titled 24/7 and it's set in Las Vegas. It's chick lit, but a little rougher and much more sexually charged than most chick stuff. Sexy, pulpy, Vegas. That's what it's about. It's from Zumaya Publications, and is available atAmazon.

The second book is Trattoria and that's a little tamer, a romantic comedy about a family who works at a restaurant together. It's from Mundania Press, and is also available at Amazon.

In case it's not obvious, I would love it if you'd buy my books.

In case it's not obvious, I'm not very talented at the "soft sell".

Anyhow. What else?

Oh. I'm running a contest. If you buy my book, 24/7, and then send in a brief essay about why you want to go to Las Vegas, you'll be entered into the contest where the grand prize is a free trip to Las Vegas. All the details and info are right here: Las Vegas Vacation Essay Contest. So. Buy my book, send me a few words, and someone will be in Vegas. Good luck.

In case it's still not obvious, I'm sure I'll be plugging all of these things plenty more in the future. But now that that's off my back, I'm going to relax and (hopefully) find some different things to talk about.

Thanks for stopping in.