Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Mark Wisniewski talks about his brilliant new novel WATCH ME GO, and so much more

With a stellar quote from Salman Rushdie himself, Watch Me Go, by Mark Wisniewski, is as tense as it is disturbing. His other works include Show Up, Look Good, and Confessions of a Polish used Car Salesman. He's also the author of the collection of short stories, All Weekend With the Lights On. (Great titles, right?) I'm thrilled to have Mark here. Thank you, Mark.   

What sparked the writing of Watch Me Go? What idea was haunting you that pushed you forwards?

The notion that someone like Deesh could simply be trying to survive economically--then become imprisoned and hated because his friendships and efforts to merely earn rent backfired--struck me as the underpinning of a potentially tense, suspenseful, and even horror-laden novel. Back when I was in academia, I experienced a chain of events along those lines. A situation like that can, despite your best intentions, keep getting worse, and the number of wise choices available to you keeps diminishing while the stress keeps building. And at some point you know you're in for hell yet you still hope--but trying to fight back or leave simply makes matters worse. In Deesh's case, he is black, and some people out there will always hate him because he's black, and that's an imprisonment he'll never escape--and that horrifies me.

The novel is just gorgeously written, and is being called a literary crime novel--which I love, because it elevates the genre, or perhaps, creates a brand new one. Can you talk about thi

Watch Me Go
took twenty-five years to write and publish, so there were countless drafts and revisions, so in theory--mathematically speaking--it should be five times as polished as a novel that took five years? And yes, that math does assume an oversimplification of how writing works, but there's also a certain logic there, no? Anyway Deesh's and Jan's diction is fairly off-the-street, which some readers would call "anti-literary"--so I'm glad you found some beauty there--that is, in the way they talk.

So much of Watch Me Go is about forgiveness, fate, race and justice. I wonder if you can talk a bit about this, as well.

I didn't want only to show the horrors of racial and economic injustice. Certainly I wanted to show those horrors--because I think people should quit denying that America's suffered significant backsliding when it comes to race and justice. But I also wanted to show that maybe there's something you and I could do to fight those horrors today. In my mind, WMG says we could do what Jan and Deesh (the two narrators) did: listen well, and then, when someone is listening to us, tell our truths as candidly and relevantly as possible.

What kind of writer are you? Do you have rituals? Do you have to drink ten gallons of coffee or have music playing? Do you outline?

I'm a binge-writer. It's either up all night writing or off at the racetrack playing. And writing requires that I drink much coffee. And I play music, often loudly. Often the same song or CD over and over. And yes I do outline, am a big believer in outlines, but not necessarily from the very beginning. At the beginning, particularly when the narration's in the first person, I write freely to help myself hear a narrative voice.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

My next novel. Because for a while there, it was just something Penguin Putnam wanted me to do--but now it's one of those stories in me I need to get out.

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?

Who's my long shot in today's 9th at Aqueduct?

Jane Hawley talks about The Suitcases of San Leon, how she writes, why it's great to live with another writer, and so much more

Jane Hawley is a hoot. I met her through my good Facebook friend, Nick Belardes, and quickly learned that anyone Nick adores, I'll adore, too. She's currently pursuing an MFA in Fiction at Texas State University, where she serves as the managing editor of Front Porch Journal. Her nonfiction has been published in both The Pinch and Memoir Journal. “The Suitcases of San Léon” is her first published work of fiction, and it's extraordinary. I'm so happy to host Jane here!

So tell us about your story in Day One--and what does it feel like to see it in there?
In “The Suitcases of San Léon,” an empty bus pulls into the depot station. As the workers clean the bus, they find evidence of the passengers’ presence—the urine-soaked seats, the human remains, and the luggage that, along with the passengers themselves, will never make it to their final destinations. The workers understand that the disappearance of the travelers is linked to the drug cartels. The men are tasked with deciding what to do with the suitcases and the moral implications of protecting themselves through silence or risking their lives to speak up as witnesses to the violence. It developed out of an article I read nearly four years ago about a massacre of forty immigrants who were pulled off a bus on Mexico’s Federal Highway 101. People only noticed something had happened once their suitcases started piling up in stations around Tamaulipas.

I’m so thrilled to have my work appear in Day One and now as a self-titled Kindle Single. It’s difficult to make a living as a writer and Day One is one of the best paying magazines out there for emerging writers. The editor, Carmen Johnson, was wonderful at working with me to strike balance between my vision for the piece as an author and how readers would receive the story. I also love the cover design by Michael Hirshon. It’s really incredible to see how an artist visually translates the emotions of your story.

What kind of writer are you? Do you outline things out messily, or not at all? Do you believe in the Muse?

I usually have an image or a character and a distinctive setting in mind when I start a story, but I have no idea what’s going to actually happen so I don’t outline plot until I’ve already written about half of the story. My best work usually comes from asking myself a moral or existential question in conjunction with the images I’m thinking about—that usually provides enough of an engine to the story to propel the writing forward. I do believe in the Muse, but I don’t believe she’s fickle. She’s always there somewhere inside me, though there are times when she speaks more softly so I have to tell myself to clear out some mental space to hear her when I’ve let daily anxieties take over my mind. I’m most creative when I’m alone, or at least when no one is talking to or around me. I guess you could say silence is my muse more than anything else.

What's obsessing you now and why?

I’m not supposed to be obsessed about anything right now other than my novel, but I’m already thinking about multiple story ideas to work on next so I’ve been allowing myself to do a tiny bit of research about the young Russian women fighter pilots who chased the Germans back to Berlin during WWII. They were called the “Night Witches” because their planes were old crop dusters that made a whooshing noise that reminded the Germans of a witch’s broomstick flying overhead. I also read some of Wendy Lower’s recently released Hitler’s Furies: German Women in the Nazi Killing Fields, which made me think about what women’s roles have been regarding violence and war both in the past and the present and how those roles have been possibly underrepresented in literary fiction.

Your story is so incredibly haunting that I wanted to know what it was like for you during the writing. Was there a moment, when everything changed or surprised you?

I had to think about how to tell the story I wanted to tell for a long time. I read a newspaper article years ago about the San Fernando massacres that took place that began with an image of the unclaimed suitcases piled up at bus depots across Mexico. I knew immediately that I wanted to write something about these suitcases. Who did they belong to? What happened to their owners? What happened to the suitcases themselves? I wanted to thread this mystery throughout the story, but I also wanted to meditate on how a community under extreme pressure responds to violence. That’s why I decided to write in the first person plural ‘we’ voice of the bus depot workers.  It’s a less common point of view and also one that I’ve always loved to read because there’s automatically a communal aspect built into the story. It was choosing this point of view that changed the story for me. The tone became more elegiac and guilty. The focus of the story shifted from the fear of the cartels to the moral implications of trying to maintain the routines of your daily life when there are so many people dying around you.

You're partners with another writer--do you trade pages, give advice? What's that like?

I’ve met so many writers who vehemently claim that they could never be in a relationship with another writer but then complain about how their partner never truly appreciates their work or—gasp!—doesn’t even like reading. Having a partner who’s another writer can be difficult—we both get moody or anxious or argue with each other or ignore the housework, and our financial situation can be precarious because we’re both writers. However, I’ve never met someone I can more deeply connect with on an emotional, intellectual, and artistic level. He respects my artistic process and knows how important writing is to me and I do the same for him. We share all of our work and often read to each other or discuss writing problems on a daily basis. He’s more open to sharing early drafts and letting me make suggestions early on in the process. I have a harder time letting mine go until I feel like I’ve incubated the story for long enough. He’s also a more prolific writer than I am so he’s constantly motivating me to write. I think I’m a better writer and person because of him and I hope he could say the same about me.

What question didn't I ask that I should be mortified that I didn't?

You can order “The Suitcases of San Léon” (for only $1) from Amazon here:

You don’t need a Kindle to read the story, just a Kindle app that you can get on your phone or tablet (for either iPhone or Android). Instructions are available for Android here: And for Apple products here:

Emma Hooper talks about Etta and Otto and Russell and James, and so much more

Not only has Emma Hooper written a sparklingly original novel, but she is also a musician who performs as a solo artist in the hilariously named Waitress for the Bees. Her novel, Etta and Otto and Russell and James is a dazzler, and I'm honored to host her here.
A musician, Emma performs as the solo artist Waitress for the Bees and plays with a number of bands - See more at:
A musician, Emma performs as the solo artist Waitress for the Bees and plays with a number of bands - See more at:

I always want to know what sparked a particular book? What was the question that haunted you?

I think the question that drove a lot of this book was “Why not?” Why not walk 3,000 miles? Why not go find the caribou? Why not make paper maché animals until all the space in your yard and heart is filled up? These Why Nots are what built the story. First them, and then their partners, the just-plain whys. Okay, there’s no reason why Etta can’t walk all the way to the ocean one way or another, now we need to figure out why she’d want to... It was like a persistent three year old asking why? why? why?  I suppose that’s a bit of a cheeky answer, because that’s, I imagine, how most every story is made, but, still, in this case, that’s what happened, my imagination said:

Why not have a character walk across Canada?

And my brain replied: 

No real reason why not… now tell me why she would want to…?

And so on.

This is your debut, and it’s an astonishing one. What was it like writing this book?  What kind of writer are you? Do you make outlines? Do you have rituals? And do you already have something else you are working on?

Writing this book was very… sporadic. I’ve got three other jobs, as a freelance musician, an academic at Bath Spa University and a violin teacher, so the writing of this book took place in all the little gaps and spaces in between other things. Lots of writing on the train! (I’m actually writing these answers to you on the train right now… :) ). 

I don’t make outlines, I prefer to start each writing session having no idea what’s going to happen next… keeps things interesting for me, and I think the spontaneity allows for a more vibrant, living story. I do have a lot of organising ‘helpers’ tacked up around my desk and office though. For this book I had a big piece of paper with the names and birthdates of all of Otto’s siblings, for example… .

Because my writing takes places at all sorts of different times and in all sorts of different places (sound-checks for gigs are another good place to squeeze in a couple hundred words…) I don’t have straight-forward writing rituals. (Though I’m envious and in awe of authors who do.) I do have a few portable rituals though; listening to music is one of these. If I’m having trouble getting my head into the writing space I’ve got three or four musicians whose work I know puts me into the right zone; I’ll pop on some headphones and sink into writing that way, often.

And yes! There is something new I’m working on… it’s a new novel set in a tiny fishing island outpost off the coast of Newfoundland (which is itself off the eastern  coast of Canada). It’s got mermaids and sea monsters and a lot of rain in it. I’m fairly in love with it at the moment...

I love the whole idea of the persistence of love and memory. Otto struggles remembering the war. Russell, his friend can’t forget a particular woman. And Etta needs to see the ocean. hoping she can remember to come back.  Can you talk a bit about memory and its relationship to the book, please?

In Etta and Otto and Russell and James I wanted to explore memory as it pertains to and shapes our ideas of identity. Our sense of self is built out of these stories we tell ourselves about ourselves in the past, and sometimes these stories and memories can get so heavy that they stand in the way of who we want to be or could be now. Etta needs to rewrite her memories so that they are hers and not overwhelmed by Otto’s. Russell needs to let his go so that he can move on and out and away. 

Etta is 83-years-old and one of the most alive characters I’ve read. Tell me how you went about crafting her. 

Well, Etta and Otto are both loosely based on my maternal grandparents. My grandpa did come from a farm family of 15 kids and his hair did go white after his trip to the World War Two front, and my grandma did teach in a tiny prairie school. Many of the recipes included are her own as well. Of course much of Etta’s character is fiction too; I think she is who I want to be at eighty-three.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Sea monsters! Both real and mythical. The giant squid is particularly fascinating; I was recently at a film festival where I got to be in a room with one of the only two people ever to have seen a live one. Ever! He said it was shining gold in colour. Amazing. I love that there are these real life magical things still being discovered and explored.

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?

Hm… lots of people ask: “what actually happened at the end of Etta and Otto and Russell and James.” But I believe pretty strongly in Barthes’ idea of the death of the author (as in, interpretation is the key to truth in art, not authority authority), so I wouldn’t have answered anyway. So I guess that’s the question I’m glad you didn’t ask… 

As for what you should have… maybe what’s for lunch? Because I think that’s an excellent question and I do not know the answer, but wish I did...

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Growing up in Soviet Russia, moving to the US, dealing with a Soviet mother, writing and so much more: Elena Gorokhova talks about her blazingly entertaining memoir, RUSSIAN TATTOO

My grandparents were from Russia, something I am always very proud about, and I studied Russian for about 5 years, long enough to learn how to say "I like cucumbers" and "Where is the dog?"  I was also completely blissed when my novel Pictures of You was translated in Russian! Anyway, all things Russian fascinate me, including Elena Gorokhova's exhilarating new memoir, Russian Tattoo, which follows her wonderful debut, A Mountain of Crumbs, which was about growing up in Soviet Russian in the 60s' and 70s'.

Elena Gorokhova was raised in Leningrad, now St. Petersburg, a Young Pioneer with a red kerchief tied around her neck and a dedication to the Motherland.  But then she felt the siren song of America and begin to learn English, much to the displeasure of her iron-willed mother. Leaving for America was even more terrifying (and yes, it involved KGB), and America, the Great Unknown., gradually becomes the Great Opportunity.

Thank you so much Elena for coming on my blog. спасибо!

I  always want to know what sparked a particular book.  What was the question haunting you that drove you to write?

This book is my attempt to figure out the complex and complicated relationships to the people who are, or were, close to me: my first husband, my mother, my sister, my daughter.  It was also an attempt to understand my connection to the two places I’ve called home: Russia and the U.S.   Like all immigrants, I live with my soul split in half.  The longer one lives in an adopted country, the deeper one’s roots grow into the foreign soil, so the wound of the internal divide begins to scab over with time.  But the scar of exile will always remain.

Your book is strange and fascinating and eerie.  Can you talk a bit about the difference between what you thought America might be and what it really was?

I had very few expectations when I came to the U.S. because there was no information available in the Soviet Union about the West.  Everything I came across in my first few weeks here – from eating a hamburger to looking for a job – was unexpected and unknown.  I had no idea how to take a bus; I had never seen a multiple-choice exam; I couldn’t buy a pair of shoes.  I was an alien, and I felt like one.  America might as well have been Mars, or any other place where no one I knew had ever set foot.

Not only did you give birth to a daughter but your mother came from Russia to help care for her, and stayed on for 24 years.  Can you talk about what that was like?  Did seeing her reactions make you remember your own, or were they very different?

My first husband thought I wanted to leave Russia to flee communism, while in reality, I was running away from my mother.  My mother was the mirror image of my motherland: overbearing, protective, difficult to leave.  I knew if I had stayed, I would forever be a child, living with her in the same apartment, for years obediently spooning the borsch she had left under a pot warmer.  When my daughter (her only grandchild) was born, my mother came to help and stayed.  Then my older sister came for a visit, and she stayed, too.  We were all together again, with my mother ordering me to eat soup and wear a hat, just like back home.  It was a difficult and almost surreal time: my mother functioned as she did back in Russia, and my growing daughter, born in this country, did things that an American child would do.  I felt like a buffer between the two worlds, the place where the old and the new collided – so I constantly felt bruised.  It took me awhile – probably way too long - to realize that I was trying to control my daughter the same way my mother had controlled me.  I told my daughter what she should read, eat and study, pummeling her with unsought advice.  I realized I was turning into my own mother I’d tried to escape.

What kind of writer are you?  Do you outline?  Do you have rituals?  Do you wait around for the pesky Muse?

I don’t outline, and I don’t have rituals.  I simply chain myself to a chair in my home office.  I sit there in front of my computer and wait, and once in awhile something happens.  I type words on the screen, and if words don’t come, I just sit and look outside onto my neighbor’s lawn.  Children walk back from school.  The neighbor comes out and tosses a ball to his dog.  I wait and then the pesky Muse may feel sorry for me, and I may type a page or two, so that the next day I have something to go back to.  Anything is better than a totally blank page.  For me, revising is bliss when I have something to revise.

What’s obsessing you now and why?

Two things: a new project based on my sister’s life and the state of contemporary Russia.  The former is a project I’ve always been interested in: the fate of an actress in a dictatorship (my sister was a well-known theater, film, and radio actress in Soviet Russia).  I’ve been fascinated by the process actors go through in creating a role - the real make believe, as opposed to the phony make believe we all had to live by during communism.  We pretended to believe in our bright future, which was completely fake – while Russian actors lived their roles, believing in what they did, creating the truth.

The latter obsession is trying to understand the delusional patriotism and pathetic gullibility of the people living in my motherland who applaud its massive disinformation campaigns and its alternate moral universe painstakingly created in the past 20 years by Putin and his cronies.  I will always remain Russian, and it is depressing to be a witness of how the cynical, revanchist KGB gang has taken over my country so deliberately and so completely.

What question didn’t I ask that I should have?

Maybe the question of the language I chose to write in.  I only write in English.  It is my second language, and because I came to this country as an adult, I will always speak with an accent.  What I don’t know is whether I write with an accent.  It took me a long time to learn to write in English.  When I arrived here, for several years I read nothing in Russian, writing down snippets of good American writing in a special notebook I kept on my desk.  Now I read in both languages, but I only write in one.  It feels as if there were two brains in my head, a Russian one and an English one, and they function independently.  There is no crossover.  There is no translation going on between them.  Translation is a highly professional skill, and I am not very good at it.  My Russian brain does the speaking: with my Russian friends and sometimes with my daughter.  My English brain takes over when it comes to writing.