SEVEN QUESTIONS FOR THE WORKING WRITER: JANE SMILEY by Jenna Leigh Evans

Jane Smiley

Jane Smiley is the author of two short-story collections, five works of nonfiction, and over fifteen novels, among them Moo, The Greenlanders, Some Luck, A Thousand Acres — which received the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and was adapted into a film of the same title — and the novella The Age of Grief, which was adapted into the film The Secret Lives of Dentists. She has won an O. Henry Award and a Pen USA Lifetime Achievement Award.

Jane Smiley! Do you ever publish your work without compensation or for a nominal fee? If so, why, and how do you feel about doing it?

Not really, until I met Ariana Huffington, and started blogging on the Huffington Post in 2005. I wrote a fair number of pieces opposing every single eyeblink of the Bush II administration, for which I thank Arianna. I needed to get it off my chest. My other work has been paid for, for which I am very lucky!

Does your craft alone provide you with a livelihood?

Yes.

If you have to hold a day job to supplement your income, or just make a living at all, do you feel you have as much time as you need to write?

I like teaching. I taught at Iowa State from 1980-1996, and I started teaching at UC Riverside this year, because they talked me into it. I am quite fond of my colleagues and students, and I think it is a terrific program.

How do you know for sure when something in your work still needs another revision?

Instinct (mine and my editor's, though we sometimes don't agree).

When revising something in your work, how do you know for sure when it’s truly time to stop?

When I just can't stand it any more.

Do you feel that being a writer was a choice or a calling for you?

Both. I don't understand the difference, really. I have always been one of those dedicated readers who just had to try it for herself.

BONUS ROUND FOR PURE PLEASURE: What book did you probably read too young and it therefore haunted you forever after?

Black Beauty.  I wrote an introduction to it a couple of years ago, and was amazed how I wept once again at what happened to Ginger. It is such an interesting book, and Anna Sewell was such an interesting person. I am glad I read it when I was a kid, but it was much more real and affecting that, say, “Hansel and Gretel.”

 

 

 

 

 

SEVEN QUESTIONS FOR THE WORKING WRITER: LAUREN GRODSTEIN by Jenna Leigh Evans

Lauren Grodstein

Lauren Grodstein

Lauren Grodstein is the author of five books, including the Washington Post Book of the Year The Explanation for Everything and A Friend of the Family, which was a Washington Post Book of the Year, a New York Times bestseller, an Amazon.com Best Book, a January Magazine Top Ten Book of the Year, and a New York Times Editor’s Pick. She has been nominated for a Philolexian Prize and a Columbia University Award for literary work. Her YA novel Girls’ Dinner Club (published under the name Jessie Elliot) was nominated as a New York Public Library Best Book for the Teenaged.

Lauren Grodstein! Do you ever publish your work without compensation or for a nominal fee? If so, why, and how do you feel about doing it?

I do publish my work without compensation, and sometimes am even offered compensation that is never actually paid (!). I mostly feel fine about that, since I honestly enjoy writing and don’t consider it a chore, unlike other tasks that I also dont get paid for (i.e. doing the laundry, changing the sheets, wiping off whatever sludge was on the bottom shelf of the fridge).  I also generally get exposure when I work without compensation, and that does have some value to me.  But mostly, I like to write and I like to share what I write, and sharing it often feels more important to me than money.  That said, I would never write something I was uninterested in or didnt feel like writing unless I got paid for it.

Does your craft alone provide you with a livelihood?

My craft provides me with an uneven income stream.  Some years I make enough to theoretically support myself at an almost middle-class wage.  Other years I make much less — enough to cover a few family frills, but no more.  Ive had about two years, in fifteen years of selling novels, that Ive made what I consider a lot of money.  This amount would not seem like a lot to, say, John Grisham, but to a midlist writer it felt very exciting.  I remember spending ninety dollars on a watch one time and thinking oh yeah Ive hit the big time.

If you have to hold a day job to supplement your income, or just make a living at all, do you feel you have as much time as you need to write?

I do have a “day job, but its a wonderful day job, in part because it requires me to write.  I direct the MFA program at Rutgers-Camden, where I also serve as an associate professor of English, and in order for me to get tenure I had to write a novel.  Therefore, I was encouraged to set aside time to write, all while being paid a steady income.  And I used that time profitably and was, and remain, grateful to have had it.  Even now that Im expected and encouraged to produce.  My Rutgers schedule can be quite demanding during the semester, but I have a good break during the summer to write, and Im often able to work during the semester if I get up early and head up to the attic before the emails start rolling in.

How do you know for sure when something in your work still needs another revision?

I assume that everything I write — even everything I publish needs another revision.  The question is: can I still see whats needed?  I take everything I write as far as I can, and that often requires dozens and dozens of revisions, rewrites, cross outs, and do-overs. 

When revising something in your work, how do you know for sure when it’s truly time to stop?

Once I’ve read something to the point where I have it memorized, where I cant even see the words on the page anymore thats when I know that Im done.

Do you feel that being a writer was a choice or a calling for you?

I’m not a particularly spiritual person, and I dont believe in callings, necessarily, but I do know that Ive always loved making up stories and characters.  When I was a kid, before I could write, I would draw people on pieces of my moms sketch paper and tell their stories out loud.  Once I was finally literate, I wrote stories all the time on scrap paper or on my little word processor (a sort of advanced typewriter that I was very proud of in 1991).  So if Ive been called to anything, its writing, and Im so grateful I have a life that allows me to do it and even occasionally be recognized for it.

BONUS ROUND FOR PURE PLEASURE: What book did you probably read too young and it therefore haunted you forever after?

Do you know that great book Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark?  Remember the one called The Hook, wherein a mass murderer with a hook for a hand tries to kill people in their cars?  And then one time a woman is going home and when she opens the door she sees a bloody hook stuck to the car door?  To this day, I still check my car door for bloody hooks and feel relieved when I dont see any.

SEVEN QUESTIONS FOR THE WORKING WRITER: MINDY HUNG by Jenna Leigh Evans

Mindy Hung

Mindy Hung

Mindy Hung IS the author of Trip. Her essays and articles have appeared in SalonBitchThe New York Times, and other publications; her short fiction has been published in Joyland Magazine, PANK, and The Toast. She HAS BEEN A NEW YORK FOUNDATION FOR THE ARTS FICTION FELLOW. HUNG also writes romance as Ruby Lang www.rubylangwrites.com. She can be found at www.mindyhung.com or on Twitter @MindyHungSpace.

Mindy Hung! Do you ever publish your work without compensation or for a nominal fee? If so, why, and how do you feel about doing it?

I get paid to write essays and reviews. I usually receive nominal fees for fiction. I like getting paid—yes, I do! But literary work—like dick—is abundant and low-value. Sometimes, I’ll send a few tiny stories out into the world for free, and I’m happy for the opportunity to be read.  With certain kinds of work, that’s the best one can do for it.

Does your craft alone provide you with a livelihood?

I work as a freelance health and science editor, so, no, the craft alone doesn’t keep me in kale and yoga pants. The one period in which I was able to work without interruption on my own projects was 2010, when I received a New York Foundation for the Arts fellowship. I was able to draft a novel and several short stories, and I will be forever grateful to NYFA for giving me that year.

If you have to hold a day job to supplement your income, or just make a living at all, do you feel you have as much time as you need to write?

There is never enough. Between the day job and life, I don’t feel like I have as much time as I need to work on stories (or to sleep, for that matter). I’m lucky that my spouse shoulders more than his share of child-rearing and that he encourages me to write more and freelance less. But I feel guilty when I don’t contribute to the household coffers, though, so I try to freelance, cook, play with my kid—and write (and sleep).  That said, I still manage to find time to goof off on Twitter.

How do you know for sure when something in your work still needs another revision?

If I still retain some sort of misty fondness for something I’ve been writing, then maybe I haven’t worked on it enough. I usually keep at something until I’m heartily sick of it. Like, I really, really loathe a lot of my work at the time of publication. (And then after a few months, I become more sanguine again. So.) 

When revising something in your work, how do you know for sure when it’s truly time to stop?

If I start getting confused with earlier versions—if things stop making sense when they once did—then it’s probably time to back away.

Do you feel that being a writer was a choice or a calling for you?

I wish it were a calling. I wish that a deity would blow into a conch and officially decree that my writing was essential to the world. I wish that every time I had doubts, I’d look up and flocks of birds would fly in a formation to make the words, Write, Mindy, write! For me, writing is a choice—every day it’s a choice.

BONUS ROUND FOR PURE PLEASURE: What book did you probably read too young and it therefore haunted you forever after?

I read a (Sydney Sheldon? Judith Krantz?) novel when I was twelve and it had the phrase, “He finally understood what fucking was,” and I think about that at least once a week even though can’t remember the title or author of the book. That’s what haunting is, isn’t it—when the spirit of the past hovers over everyday life? Also, I started reading the short stories of Mavis Gallant when I was sixteen and I knew they were perfect without being able to articulate why. I still can’t quite do it; her prose is like glass and when you try to touch it, it smudges. Certain phrases from her stories float up to my mind all the time. When I’m making breakfast, I’ll think of her description of “eggs fried to a kind of plastic lace.”

 

 

 

SEVEN QUESTIONS FOR THE WORKING WRITER: BRIDGET BIRDSALL by Jenna Leigh Evans

Bridget Birdsall

Bridget Birdsall

BRIDGET BIRDSALL IS THE AUTHOR OF ORDINARY ANGELS AND DOUBLE EXPOSURE, WHICH IS CURRENTLY A FINALIST FOR A LAMBDA LITERARY AWARD. SHE IS AN EDENFRED FELLOW, THE RECIPIENT OF THE MARGE CHANDLER SCHOLARSHIP, AND A FINALIST FOR THE ROOM OF HER OWN FOUNDATION’S GIFT OF FREEDOM AWARD.

Bridget Birdsall! Do you ever publish your work without compensation or a nominal fee? If so, why, and how do you feel about doing it?

Yes, I published my first novel, Ordinary Angels, through CreateSpace in 2011. After my editor at FSG was let go and Front Street Press, where I had a potential two-book contract in the works, closed their doors, I had to make some tough choices. My son reminded me that I had promised to publish a book by the time I was fifty. He was the one who’d encouraged me to self-publish. Out of three books that were ready, I chose a coming-of-age novel, which reads more like a memoir, which it is. In fact, it is my story. I liked the idea of independently publishing this particular book, because then I could control its distribution. Moreover, my mother had threatened to “sue my ass off” if I wrote anything about our family, and she had sued one of my brothers, so I took her threat to heart. The costs to me were strictly personal choices I made to create the best product I could create. I hired a developmental editor and a book designer, spending about three thousand dollars, give or take.

Does your craft alone provide you a livelihood?

No. I hope someday it will. Over the years, I’ve had all kinds of jobs to pay the bills. I’ve managed a community center, sold real estate, been a marketing and sales consultant, a retail store clerk, taught in high schools as a visiting artist, and at various colleges and universities, most recently at UW-Madison’s Division of Continuing Studies. It was nice to have a regular salary and I loved working with students, but the climate and culture was such that I was unable to share my gifts with the world—which is what I believe we are all here, ultimately, to do. As writers and artists, we have to find ways to support ourselves in the material world. The main thing I’ve had to work hard to change in my own psyche is the false belief that “artists starve,” which is what my father told me at a young age. As artists, we live in a world that needs our gifts, talents and perspectives more than ever. As for me, I’m currently looking for work that nurtures my creative life, a “B” job. Not because my Dad was right — though in retrospect I’m grateful he pushed me to get a business degree — but because I need a paying job to support my writing. I recently met with a nationally-known writer who was supported by her partner for fifteen years, until thirty books later when she began to realize a profit. Now she makes a decent income: a third from books sales and royalties; a third from speaking engagements; a third from teaching and consulting other writers. I would compare it to the NBA — it’s a great dream to have, a fabulous goal to shoot for, and just maybe some of us will make the cut, but we would be one of the fortunate few.

If you have to hold a day job to supplement your income, or just make a living at all, do you feel you have as much time as you need to write?

At the beginning of each week I map out a time plan. I take a big orange marker and set appointments with myself at every possible writing opportunity. This can be anywhere from a fifteen-minute slot, to a four-hour chunk of time. I also occasionally do retreats where I take myself away to quiet place, especially when I’m revising. Often when I’m off by myself I write, sometimes nonstop for a day or two. So I guess it is not about having enough time, but more about making time. We spend our time, energy and money on what we value, and I value every minute I have to write.

How do you know for sure when something in your work still needs another revision?

I know when two or more individuals, usually in my writing group, tell me: “This part of the book isn’t working for me.” If I get five different ideas that are different, I take what I like and leave the rest, but if more than one person says the same thing, I pay attention.

When revising something in your work, how do you know for sure when it’s truly time to stop?

A wise woman writer once said 80% is good enough! The truth is, I am always seeing opportunities for improvement in my own work, even if it’s already been published, so all I can do is settle for making it the best I can make it. Then I must let it go and trust it will do what it is supposed to do in the world. Of course, my hope is that whatever I write will find its readership, that it will make a difference in their lives. I believe books can change lives, even save them. A book changed my life forever (see question seven).

Do you feel that being a writer was a choice or a calling for you?

Both. I believe I was called to write by some kind of GOD / DOG with a weird sense of humor. Some higher Source that graced me with severe dyslexia, so that I would have to consciously chose to practice my craft and ask for help and stick with it, no matter what. This meant being teased about not being able to read, feeling dumb, like I would never get it, and, as I embraced the writing life as an adult, putting myself and my work out into the world. Through countless rejections and disappointments and frustrations and near misses, this went on for years and years and years, and yet: I am never happier than when I am writing! Time falls away. I become completely absorbed in the moment. I become one with my story and my characters and the page — it’s an amazing high.

What book did you probably read too young and it therefore haunted you forever after.

The book that changed my life was The Sojourner, by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. It was not a children’s book, but I read it in sixth grade. I’m not sure how it ended up in my hands, but by then, I was devouring books at a rapid rate because I had FINALLY learned to read. It opened up a whole new world for me. It connected me to other souls, fictional souls, people who were twice my age from a different time and place, but who felt like I did. They too, had experienced the same bottomless pit of grief and confusion that I’d had when my brother died. They understood what it meant to be different or lonely, to doubt that God existed and still notice beauty, to love the natural world, and to long more than anything else in the world to feel valued and loved for who they were. Most importantly, they were inherently trustworthy, because though they were secretly tucked inside the pages, they were vulnerable and real and honest about the existence of both good and evil in the world.  

Here’s an excerpt, though I recommend reading the whole book to really get the impact of this page, which is toward the end, where after many years have passed the two brothers are together, again. Ase / Asahel’s brother Benjamin is dying:

The gaunt face turned to him. The unshaded light was pitiless on the sick eyes.

A voice croaked, “Asahel?”

“Benjamin—”

He took the withered hand.

“I was afraid—you wouldn’t come in time.”

“Have you had a doctor?”

“No use. I’m finished.”

The eyelids closed. They were parchment thin.

“The light hurts.”

Ase turned it out. He sat on a straight chair close beside the bed. The hand groped for him and he held.

“Asahel, I’ve always missed you.”

“I never knew. I’ve never been done missing you.”

”I have to tell you things Ase, You tell me first. I’m so tired.”

“What do you want to know, Ben?”

“Your family. You’ve done well?”

Ben’s voice was now familiar.

He said, “No Ben. I failed.”

“Tell me.”

He could tell it in the dark, one old face not having to see the other.

He began, “One child was good. Her name was Dolly. She died when she was six.”

Ben said, “I remember. You wrote me. Mother killed her.”

Ase withdrew his hand, because it was trembling.

“No, Ben, I never wrote that.”

“You didn’t need to. I knew. I knew Mother better than you did.”

“Was she always mad?”

“Always.”

He could ask it, the unaskable, knowing the answer, he could say it, the unsayable.

“She was evil, Ben, wasn’t she?”

“Always evil. Go on, Ase.”

 The Sojourner, by Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings

 

SEVEN QUESTIONS FOR THE WORKING WRITER: DONOVAN X. RAMSEY by Jenna Leigh Evans

Donovan X. Ramsey

Donovan X. Ramsey

Donovan X. Ramsey is a journalist who has written for outlets including The Atlantic, The New Republic, Gawker, MSNBC.com, Talking Points Memo and Ebony Magazine. He is an Emerging Voices Fellow at the think tank Demos.

Donovan X. Ramsey! Do you ever publish your work without compensation or for a nominal fee? If so, why, and how do you feel about doing it?

Yes. I think a journalist, like any other professional, should do some work pro bono. So, if there are struggling outlets I believe in, I'll contribute and not ask for compensation. And not that it's all charity. There's a part of me that also wants to stay connected to small, community media just to be a part of those conversations. It's a win-win. I will say, however, that I really do resent being asked to write for free. I'd rather offer my services.

Does your craft alone provide you with a livelihood?

I'm very lucky to be able to support myself in New York City on the money I earn as a writer. Sometimes I remind myself of that fact when I need a little pick-me-up. It wasn't always that way, though. When I finished grad school, it was hard finding a job writing. Freelancing scared the shit out of me, so I sorta waded into it by taking gigs that were related to media. One of the most productive and lucrative things I did was worked as a part-time editorial assistant for other journalists. I researched TV segments — stuff like that. It was a great, safe way of making money and further developing journalistic skills while I was struggling to launch my own brand.


How do you know for sure when something in your work still needs another revision?

I don't think one can ever really know when something is ready. And I don't really believe in “service to the piece.” As a journalist, I write in service to the reader, and the public conversation around a topic. So, I really try to advance a piece to be as accurate as possible, and to release it into the world while it's still relevant.

When revising something in your work, how do you know for sure when it’s truly time to stop?

The filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky famously said, "I am like the rain: I go where I'm needed." It's a little grand-sounding, but that's how I try to approach my work. I feel like everything has a window when it's most relevant, most powerful. For me, as a writer whose work is designed to inform people about what's going on in the world, I think a lot about timing — what people need, and when they need it. I guess, in that way, I feel a lot like a chef. You want to prepare the best meal possible, but you also don't want the food to spoil or the eater to starve.

Do you feel that being a writer was a choice or a calling for you?

It was one hundred percent a calling. I always knew I wanted to live a life of public service, but I thought for a long time that I would become a civil rights attorney. I started as a political science major in college and interned at law firms up until sophomore year — the whole bit. But journalism found me, and it fit so well. It really is at the intersection of my talents, interests, life experience and — I think — is how I have the most impact in the world. So, yea, it's a calling. The feeling of peace I get when I've told a story well and it's out there impacting people is out of this world.

BONUS ROUND FOR PURE PLEASURE: What book did you probably read too young and it therefore haunted you forever after?

The Autobiography of Malcolm X. Without a doubt. There was a community center near my house as a kid, and they had one of those boxes where you can take a book or leave a book. I loved that box as a kid and really started hoarding books from that point. One day, there was a paperback copy of the Autobiography of Malcolm X in it. I was drawn to the book because the cover was beautifully illustrated and Malcolm had an "X" in his name. My middle name is Xavier, so I was sold. Then I read the book, and he outlines this arc of his development from boy to troubled youth to gangster to prison to minister and it was riveting. I'm still riveted by it.

 

SEVEN QUESTIONS FOR THE WORKING WRITER: COLLIER NOGUES by Jenna Leigh Evans

Collier Nogues

Collier Nogues

Collier Nogues is the author of The Ground I Stand On Is Not My Ground, which was selected as the winner of the inaugural Drunken Boat Book Contestand On the Other Side, Blue. She also co-edits poetry for Juked. She is a fellow of the MacDowell Colony, the Ucross Foundation, the Vermont Studio Center, and Fishtrap. In March 2016, her bilingual digital collaboration with poets Jhave Johnston and Mei Kwan Ng will launch in Hong Kong, where she also hosts an English-language poetry craft talk series CALLED RAGGED CLAWS.

Collier Nogues! Do you ever publish your work without compensation or for a nominal fee? If so, why, and how do you feel about doing it?

I was paid for poems in a journal once. I always just assumed I shouldn’t expect to be paid for them, and then I got a check, and it was wonderful. Then I got paid for a reading, which made me feel like a boss. I like getting paid! It doesn’t happen often. Books are a little different, but not much. I got paid $800 for my first, and the prize money for the Drunken Boat Contest was $500, which mostly disappeared into author copies so I’d have some to sell at non-bookstore readings. The lack of money in poetry means that acts of buying poetry become very important—it means a lot to someone (to me!) to buy her book. If you buy an early-career poet’s book and tell her what you like about it, or you buy it at a reading and you ask her to sign it, her goodwill toward you is going to last forever. And poets use other currency with each other: it means a lot to show up to someone’s reading, to repost good news on social media, to send a note saying you loved someone’s work, to curate reading series for touring poets. That’s the upside. I like that a lot about being a poet. Not so much the no money. I’m thinking about this more lately, partly because of Jessica Piazza’s Poetry Has Value project, and I’ve been following some Facebook threads about whether writers should be paid for book reviews, etc. As an editor at a journal which doesn’t pay, I’m thinking of ways we might change that—even a nominal payment would make me glad.

Does your craft alone provide you with a livelihood?

Not remotely (see above). I’ll be starting a fully-funded PhD program at the University of Hong Kong in September, though, so my academic research and writing will provide me a livelihood for four years. After that, who knows. In the spirit of Ann Bauer’s Salon article about writers disclosing the ways they actually afford to write, I should also note that my husband teaches at a university here in Hong Kong, and it’s his supplementary insurance that gets my teeth cleaned, and his salary that made it possible for me to take my current part-time creative writing job instead of finding something I liked less but was full-time.

If you have to hold a day job to supplement your income, or just make a living at all, do you feel you have as much time as you need to write?

I teach creative writing in an MA program, and I do freelance tutoring via Skype in creative writing and college application prep, so the day jobs are several. The time I have to write expands and contracts with the rhythm of my workload, though not in the way I first expected. When my schedule is busy with freelance work, especially during college app season in the fall, I get writing done much more efficiently, in the early morning before my paid work. When my schedule is more flexible, or emptier, I get less done, which is not a paradox I’m happy with, but there it is. “Enough time to write” appears to equal “two hours I’ve fought for.” If it were the writing earning me paychecks, I wonder how that would change things.

How do you know for sure when something in your work still needs another revision?

With my new book, which is erasure poetry, revision works differently than with conventional poems. There’s a limited palette of words to work with, so revision is creative in some surprising ways. I might start out with a rule about only using words that are full words in the original text, but I’ll get halfway through the poem and want the line to say something specific. So then I’ve got options to make it happen: I might find a slight rephrasing possible, and go with that, or sometimes I just say to hell with the rule and start breaking apart words, spelling out the words I wanted the poem to include. Or when I need it, I’ll make punctuation out of other letters (“g” works well for commas in most fonts, for example). There will be trouble spots I return to over and over, and I’ll weigh how far to push the material text so I get what I want in the poem. Whether the poem is an erasure or a more conventionally-written poem, there are usually some trouble spots I can’t solve. So I always feel I could revise, even if I can’t figure out what, exactly, needs to be done.  

When revising something in your work, how do you know for sure when it’s truly time to stop?

If I would rather start a new poem, that’s the sign—new poems are hard, hard, hard, way harder than fiddling with poems-in-process. Wanting to start a new one instead means I’m sick of the old one and it’s time to leave it alone.

Do you feel that being a writer was a choice or a calling for you?

Definitely a choice, though I’d loved reading and writing since I was small. I didn’t major in English at college, and after college I fell into jobs doing production work at advertising agencies (using Photoshop, InDesign, etc.). I did want to write, though, so I took writing workshops at NYU’s extension and at the New School for a couple of years, and during that time my mom had a relapse of breast cancer. It was only after I took time off work to be with her that I decided to apply to MFA programs. It was a complicated choice: my mom’s illness was part of it, because I was living my normal desk job life alongside this intense, hospital-frequenting, caregiving life. Writing became necessary in a way it hadn’t been before. But I also really wanted to get away from advertising.

BONUS ROUND FOR PURE PLEASURE: What book did you probably read too young and it therefore haunted you forever after?

The Clan of the Cave Bear. Friends and I in eighth grade used to sit around reading the dirtiest parts to each other, and I’ve still got them memorized. Though I guess I can’t say I read it too young—that book is perfect for your early teens. The sex is the selling point, and it’s crazy, made-up-sacred, sort-of feminist sex. It was good for me. Give it to your daughters! And your sons!

 

SEVEN QUESTIONS FOR THE WORKING WRITER: JEN DOLL by Jenna Leigh Evans

Jen Doll

Jen Doll

Jen Doll is the author of the memoir Save the Date: The Occasional Mortifications of a Serial Wedding Guest, which was just released in paperback. She's the managing editor for Mental Floss magazine and has written for The Atlantic, Cosmopolitan, Glamour, Marie Claire, The Hairpin, New York magazine, The New Republic, The New York Times Book Review, AND The Village Voice, aND OTHER PUBLICATIONS. 

Jen Doll! Do you ever publish your work without compensation or for a nominal fee? If so, why, and how do you feel about doing it? 

I have. Especially when I was first starting to submit stuff online, and the stuff was going to places I really loved, and what I was writing was also something I just really wanted to write. So it was more I guess for the joy of writing and to get some eyes on my work, which is a certain kind of payoff for sure. And later, for book promotion, inevitably you end up doing stuff you’re not getting paid outright for, but it’s your book, so you’re going to do whatever you can to get the word out there. But, I do kind of think about writing for free the way I think about women not revealing their ages. If no one wrote for free, surely business models and compensation would have to get better, right? (And if all the awesome women who happen to no longer be in their twenties admitted that, the world would stop assuming we are “over” or “less valuable” at a certain age?)  Maybe! I dream.

Does your craft alone provide you with a livelihood? 

Yes, though it is a combination of book writing, freelance magazine and web writing, and an editorial contract with Mental Floss, where I write and edit. I feel super lucky that I get to do all of those things, and have cobbled together this weird freelance life that offers a lot of variety. It’s also why you shouldn’t just quit your day job, though, unless you have a couple different irons in the fire. There are months that I’m crossing my fingers waiting for paychecks, and that’s never fun. 

If you have to hold a day job to supplement your income, or just make a living at all, do you feel you have as much time as you need to write? 

This is the problem! Right now the stuff that gets my most immediate attention tends to be deadline-driven, and also whatever people are wanting from me via email. I’m trying to work on another book (this one a novel) and it keeps getting short shrift, which I justify, sort of, by saying I’m thinking, even if I’m not writing. But just thinking isn’t going to get a book done. I always want more time.

How do you know for sure when something in your work still needs another revision? 

If I hate it? But, truly, I think at some point things just feel baked. Or, simply, I have to turn it in, and then luckily there is often a smart editor pushing me to make it better. But most things get to a point there they feel DONE, or at least like you need someone else to weigh in, and a little break, and then to work on it more. With books, the publisher wrenches it from your hands at some point, which is both terrifying and a bit comforting. You have to stop revising at some point!

When revising something in your work, how do you know for sure when it’s truly time to stop? 

Perhaps it never is, but deadlines, money, and when you’re more excited about the next thing and ready to move on.

Do you feel that being a writer was a choice or a calling for you? 

Both! Partly because I started in other jobs (I was in advertising for a year after graduating college). And for a long time I was more involved in the production side of magazine-making, the process and copy editing and getting stuff done, than I was in purely writing. But the writing was always what I wanted to do. I just had to figure out a way to get there. It helped when, in 2008, I got laid off (twice) and suddenly blogs were a thing and I could write stuff that shockingly, people might read, even if it wasn’t my “job.” So I actively chose to do it, but I don’t think I would be as happy if I hadn’t, so maybe it’s a calling, too.

BONUS ROUND FOR PURE PLEASURE: What book did you probably read too young and it therefore haunted you forever after? 

The Clan of the Cave Bear! It was sooooo sexy. I didn’t understand much about it but I knew there was SOMETHING GOING ON. I should re-read those books.

 

SEVEN QUESTIONS FOR THE WORKING WRITER: MAC McCLELLAND by Jenna Leigh Evans

Mac McClelland

Mac McClelland

Mac McClelland is a journalist and the author of the acclaimed recent release Irritable Hearts: A PTSD Love Story and For Us Surrender is Out of the Question: A Story From Burma’s Never-Ending War, which was a finalist for a Dayton Literary Peace Prize. She has written for Rolling Stone, Mother Jones, the New York Times Magazine, WIRED, REUTERS, the New York Times Book Review, and Sunset, among others; her work is anthologized in the Best American Magazine WritingBest American Non-Required Reading, and Best Business Writing. McClelland has won awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, the Hillman Foundation, the Online News Association, the Society of Environmental Journalists, and the Association for Women in Communications. She will be appearing at the Bay Area Book Festival in Berkeley, California on June 6 & 7. 

Mac McClelland! Do you ever publish your work without compensation or for a nominal fee? If so, why, and how do you feel about doing it?

I don't ever publish for nothing, and only once — pretty recently — did I publish for a nominal fee. In that case, I did it because I knew the editor extremely well, and the website he worked for garners monster traffic, so it was definitely done more for eyeballs than for money. And then it did get a lot of traffic. And then it continued to bother me that I'd done it, because a website with a lot of money and a lot of traffic should well compensate the people who help bring them that traffic. 

Does your craft alone provide you with a livelihood?

I write full-time and write only, yes. I wish I had something profoundly useful to say about how to make that happen, but all I can speak to is that in my case, it was a matter of starting from the bottom — at an internship — building up clips, aggressively pursuing a book project at the same time, parlaying that into a staff writing position, in which I built up more clips, and more recognition. Now, I have more offers for work than I can take, but I made huge sacrifices of time and money to get there, which I think a lot of people do. 

If you have to hold a day job to supplement your income, or just make a living at all, do you feel you have enough time to write?

N/A. I'm a very lucky girl. Although I also currently live in North Carolina, where you don't really have to make that much money to thrive.

How do you know for sure when something in your work still needs another revision?

When editors tell me! Everything I've ever written has had keen editors on it. Not that I always agree with them — there are times when I override their comments or fight to keep something in its original form. But knowing when that's appropriate and when it's not is mostly a matter of my gut. At this point, I can feel in an instant whether my reaction to an editor's comment is, "Yes, you're exactly right" or "No, I think you're wrong about this." And usually it's the former, anyway. 

When revising something in your work, how do you know for sure when it’s truly time to stop?

I think that call relies heavily on guts, too. After I've finished writing something, I read through it, making changes along the way. Then I read through it again, perhaps doing the same. On usually the second or third (or maybe fourth or fifth) read-through, even if I still make a few changes here and there, I finish and think — or more accurately, I feel — "good." And I don't question that. I turn it in.

Do you feel that being a writer was a choice or a calling for you?

Oooh, that's a good question. A calling. I got lost when I was five years old because I wandered away from my family while writing a story in my head, and even as an adult, post-grad school, with no conscious idea of what career I wanted to pursue or what my professional life would ever look like, I made a series of choices that brought me to this place: I went to Asia because of an ill-defined obsession. I became obsessed with a story about a war there, I applied for a magazine internship, I wrote a book about that war... Everything unfolded from there. I worked my ass off, for sure, but I had no idea what the ultimate goal was, and it wasn't until I got here, guided by hunches and wild decisions, that I realized this was it.

BONUS ROUND FOR PURE PLEASURE: What book did you probably read too young and it therefore haunted you forever after?

It could definitely be argued that I was too young to read Anais Nin when I started picking her up off my mom's bookshelf at maybe ten years old or so, but I certainly wasn't haunted by it. Inspired toward a full and gorgeous and independent and sensuous life, though, sure. 

 

SEVEN QUESTIONS FOR THE WORKING WRITER: STEVEN SEMKEN by Jenna Leigh Evans

Steven Semken

Steven Semken

Steven Semken is the founder of Ice Cube Press. He is also the author of Pick-Up Stick City, Kansas Book Award-winner The Great Blues, The Tin Prayer, Moving with the Elements, River Tips and Tree Trunks, and Soul External: Rediscovering the Great Blue Heron. He will be appearing at the North American Review Bicentennial Conference in June, the Final Thursday Reading Series at the Hearst Center for the Arts in September, and the Iowa City Book Festival this fall. Visit icecubepress.com.

Steven Semken! Do you ever publish your work without compensation or for a nominal fee? If so, why, and how do you feel about doing it?

I do some of everything—from fee to free. Although, in my mind, all my writings, from tweets and ad copy, to books and even my notes when doing public speaking, are done with the goal of hoping to increase my audience and therefore earn my keep. I don't expect riches, but believe authors should expect a lifestyle equal to that of the middle class, which gets harder and harder all the time. I am not ashamed to earn money through writing. Words and creativity are the skills and products I have to offer.

Does your craft alone provide you with a livelihood? 

Over the last 20-plus years I've figured out how to transition from having day jobs in addition to doing work in the publishing/writing industry to just working full-time in that industry. I feel it's important to tell people about this slow transition — not to show off, but to prove that all the people telling you the arts & writing can't become "real" jobs are wrong.

If you have to hold a day job to supplement your income, or just make a living at all, do you feel you have as much time as you need to write?

Kind of a tricky question: When you work full-time, you thirst for writing time. When you work part-time, you think you'll suddenly have time to write, but it still seems lacking. The one time I was a writer-in-residence I found it remarkably productive. The hardest thing, no matter the situation, is finding a way to fully immerse in the writing. This is what I miss the most. Now that I work with all parts of writing — editing, design, acquisition, sales, marketing, etc —I am saturated in writing as never before; however, never have I been asked more if I find time to write myself. It's slow going. But I find helping writers succeed more rewarding than I thought it would be.  

How do you know for sure when something in your work still needs another revision?

There are a variety of triggers: do the words match the subject, is the pacing just right, do the sounds of the words go together the way I like. I think most writers would tell you they are never as sure as they'd like to be. At one moment you feel done, but pause anywhere and revision kicks in. As a publisher, I’m surprised when someone feels as if four revisions is some monumental task they've accomplished. My normal response to this is basically, "sounds like you've at least started." There's a reason not everyone writes a book — it's incredibly hard to even write poorly. 

When revising something in your work, how do you know for sure when it’s truly time to stop?

I would have a hard time telling you I ever finish anything completely. I sometimes think this is why it feels everything I write is only a variation of what I’ve written already. When I do stop (for publication) it's because I've changed the same thing back and forth several times. In fact given enough time I'd probably even revise this answer on into infinity.

Do you feel that being a writer was a choice or a calling for you? 

Certainly I've made the choice to become a writer, but some other force seemed at work making sure I made this choice (a.k.a. calling). Despite being in low-level reading groups; even though I was sent out of the room to be tutored in vowels and sentence structure as a grade-school child; told writing was not a "real" job over and over and over ... writing and I made a pact at some point, in spite of the odds. To somehow create writing that is then purchased and read by others seems a perplexing, at times impossible, yet remarkably worthy goal to try and achieve. 

BONUS ROUND FOR PURE PLEASURE: What book did you probably read too young and it therefore haunted you forever after?

Trout Fishing In America by Richard Brautigan. His use of form and subject matter was so interesting and unique he really encouraged me. He provided proof that the ideas and thoughts I had regarding writing, which teachers told me weren't "correct," were actually worth exploring.

 

 

SEVEN QUESTIONS FOR THE WORKING WRITER: ALIX OHLIN by Jenna Leigh Evans

Alix Ohlin

Alix Ohlin

Alix Ohlin is the author of The Missing Person, Babylon and Other Stories, Signs and Wonders and the novel Inside, which was shortlisted for a Scotiabank Giller Prize and a Roger’s Trust Fiction Prize.  Her work has appeared in Best American Short Stories, Best New American Voices, and Best American Non-Required Reading.  Her story “The Brooks Brothers Guru” was recently published as a Ploughshares Kindle Single: http://tinyurl.com/oeljv9o

Alix Ohlin! Do you ever publish your work without compensation or for a nominal fee? If so, why, and how do you feel about doing it?

I have done this a few times, usually because I want to support the person or organization asking for work from me, and it feels like a form of good literary citizenship.

Does your craft alone provide you with a livelihood?

No, and yes. I don't make a living from publishing books.  But I do teach writing, and I consider that to be part of my craft—it arises from my writing life and feeds back into it, so my livelihood and my identity feel inextricable.

If you have to hold a day job to supplement your income, or just make a living at all, does it leave you enough time to write?

I'm fortunate with teaching, in that I can write in the summers and during the winter break.  It's maybe not quite as much time as I would like, but I also really need the structure and community and everything else that a day job provides.

How do you know for sure when something in your work still needs another revision?

I always feel like my work needs more revision.  I endlessly put it down, let it sit for a while, pick it up again.  I have worked on stories after letting them languish for five, ten years.  Very rarely there's a "Eureka!" moment when I feel that I've solved whatever particular puzzle that draft presents.  More often I feel like I've exhausted all my possible ways of re-imagining the draft, and am craving the shiny excitement of the as-yet-unwritten thing.

When revising something in your work, how do you know for sure when it’s truly time to stop?

Sometimes I get to a place where I feel like I'm revising laterally—going sideways rather than forward.  I'm writing new scenes that are just alternate versions of previous scenes, writing new backstory that simply replaces what was already there.  Revisions can also get increasingly minute and typographical: putting in commas, taking them out.  At a certain point you just have to let go.

Do you feel that being a writer was a choice or a calling for you?

I'm uncomfortable with the word calling, or any phrase that hints at a kind of mysticism or romanticism that is assigned to the writer's life.  I became a writer because I love to read books, because I had the privilege of a family and an education that nourished that love, because I was stubborn enough to refuse to do anything else.  Is that a choice or a calling or some entirely different thing?

BONUS ROUND FOR PURE PLEASURE: What book did you probably read too young and it therefore haunted you forever after?

I found a copy of Couples by John Updike on my parents' bookshelf at a tender age.  My mother caught me reading it and just said, "I think you should read some other Updike instead of this," which was so gentle and kind.  I don't know if the book has haunted me, but I've always had a hard time reading Updike and it's probably related.

 

SEVEN QUESTIONS FOR THE WORKING WRITER: CHITRA DIVAKARUNI by Jenna Leigh Evans

Chitra Divakaruni

Chitra Divakaruni

Chitra Divakaruni is the recipient of a Distinguished Writer Award from the South Asian Literary Association, a Cultural Jewel Award from the Indian Culture Center in Houston, and a Light of India Jury’s Award for Journalism and Literature. She is the author of Mistress of Spices  (an LA Times and Seattle Times Best Book of the Year), Arranged Marriage: Stories, which won an American Book Award, a PEN-Oakland/Josephine Miles Literary Award, a Bay Area Book Reviewers Award, and was shortlisted for the Orange Prize; THE  INTERNATIONAL BESTSELLER Oleander Girl, which WON THE PREMIO SCANNO AWARD IN LITERATURE, One Amazing Thing, INTERNATIONAL BESTSELLER Palace of Illusions, Vine of Desire, Neela: Victory Song, The Unknown Errors;of Our Lives, Sister of My Heart, And others. She HAS ALSO AUTHORED tWO children’s books and four books of poetry, including Leaving Yuba City: New and Selected Poems, which won an Allen GinsbErg Poetry Prize and a Pushcart Prize. Divakaruni’s short fiction has appeared in O. Henry Prize Stories and Best American Short Stories; her chamber opera, River of Light, was performed by the Houston Grand Opera in 2014 And will BE PERFORMED IN OAKLAND  ON NOV 14-15, 2015. HER LATEST NOVEl-IN-STORIES, BEFORE WE VISIT THE GODDESS, WILL BE RELEASED in APRIL 2016. Visit chitradivakaruni.com. 

Chitra Divakaruni! Do you ever publish your work without compensation or for a nominal fee? If so, why, and how do you feel about doing it?

I do this only if I’m asked to contribute to a nonprofit venture, where they are raising money for a good cause.

Does your craft alone provide you with a livelihood?

Yes. (But then, I live simply.) I also teach at the University of Houston.

If you have to hold a day job to supplement your income, or just make a living at all, does it leave you enough time to write?

Teaching and writing at the same time is always hard. I set aside a couple of days for writing only – these are days I don’t go in to the campus.

How do you know for sure when something in your work still needs another revision?

It is hard to know this. I share my work with a writers’ group, and that is very helpful. My group gives me very good feedback. I recommend a writing group to all writers. With Skype etc., it’s so easy to do this now.

When revising something in your work, how do you know for sure when it’s truly time to stop?

Again, this is hard. It helps to show it to someone. While revising, I make a list of all the things I need to improve. When I’ve addressed all of them, I back off.

Do you feel that being a writer was a choice or a calling for you?

It was a calling, as I was not satisfied doing anything else. I felt my life was kind of tasteless. When I started writing seriously (which was after I’d finished all my formal education and was teaching already), it was very exciting. I felt my brain came alive in a whole new way. That’s how I feel even now, even though writing is really hard sometimes, and it’s frustrating when I get blocked.

BONUS ROUND FOR PURE PLEASURE: What book did you probably read too young and it therefore haunted you forever after?

Lord of the Flies. I read it in maybe eighth grade. I was too young for it, and totally horrified at the evil core that is uncovered in humans once the controls are removed. It disillusioned me terribly. That book still bothers me.

 

SEVEN QUESTIONS FOR THE WORKING WRITER: NATALIE EVE GARRETT by Jenna Leigh Evans

Natalie Eve Garrett

Natalie Eve Garrett IS AN ARTIST AND WRITER WITH several regular columns on The Hairpin, including a food column called Second Breakfast (previously Disgustingly Good). She is the editor of THE upcoming The Artists’ and Writers’ Cookbook (Powerhouse books, 2016).

Natalie Eve Garrett! Do you ever publish your work without compensation or for a nominal fee? If so, why, and how do you feel about doing it?

Yes, I do. I feel good about it when I admire the editor and the publication, although of course getting paid is a wonderful thing. Sometimes I’m willing to compromise.

Does your craft alone provide you with a livelihood?

I take care of my kids (age two and four) full-time, and also try to work part-time. So, things are definitely lively! — but I’m not currently earning a livelihood through my craft.

If you have to hold a day job to supplement your income, or just make a living at all, does it leave you enough time to write?

My time is very fragmented lately — minutes here and there.  So, it’s not enough time for me to do much writing or painting of my own. Instead, I’m putting together a book called The Artists’ and Writers’ Cookbook. It’s a collection of stories and recipes from beloved contemporary artists and writers, inspired by a gem of a book from ‘61. It’s such a privilege to work with all of these amazing people! I never want it to end.

How do you know for sure when something in your work still needs another revision?

My work always needs revision. Haha. But it’s true! After a certain point, though, I just let go. Writing for the Internet has helped me with that. I’m worse with paintings – I have a habit of painting over everything, and then pining for them later. I've also starting making lots of quick countertop paintings out of yogurt, molasses and Sriracha in the past couple of years. There are no revisions with yogurt! 

When revising something in your work, how do you know for sure when it’s truly time to stop?

At some point I get used to the rhythm of the words (or colors or ingredients), until eventually it feels like—for better or for worse—it was always meant to be that way.

Do you feel that being a writer was a choice or a calling for you?

For me, the medium is less important than trying to make something new; I start to ache when it’s been too long. So—I’d say it’s a calling that I chose.

BONUS ROUND FOR PURE PLEASURE: What book did you probably read too young and it therefore haunted you forever after?

I can’t think of a good book-haunting, so instead I’ll share this: As a kid, I remember watching an episode of “The Twilight Zone” in which faces emerge from cracks in the walls of a woman’s bedroom. Did you ever see that one? My childhood bedroom had curved walls and multiple types of patterned wallpaper, and every night thereafter I was sure that the faces in the walls were finally coming for me.

 

 

 

SEVEN QUESTIONS FOR THE WORKING WRITER: JOHN RECHY by Jenna Leigh Evans

John Rechy

John Rechy

John Rechy is the author of fifteen works of fiction and nonfiction, including City of Night, Numbers, Rushes, Bodies and Souls, Marilyn’s Daughter, The Miraculous Day of Amalia Gomez, Our Lady of Babylon, The Coming of the Night, The Sexual Outlaw, Beneath the Skin, The Life and Adventures of Lyle Clemens, and the memoir About My Life and the Kept Woman. His essays and literary reviews have featured in The Nation, The New York Review of Books, The Los Angeles Times, The L.A. Weekly, The Village Voice, and The New York Times, among others. Rechy is a National Endowment of the Arts fellow; he is also a recipient of a Bill Whitehead Award for Lifetime Achievement, and was the first novelist to receive PEN USA-West’s Lifetime Achievement Award. 

John Rechy! Do you ever publish your work without compensation or for a nominal fee? If so, why, and how do you feel about doing it?

I do, but don’t tell anybody, okay?  If doing it without remuneration means reaching readers who otherwise wouldn’t be reached, yes, indeed, I would and have and will.

Does your craft alone provide you with a livelihood?

Some years, yes, it does provide, since royalties are paid erratically.  When you have a book out, then money comes—but not always.  The pleasure in writing is the very act of writing, of setting down your thought, creating art, doing away with reality and producing, instead, remarkable fiction—or nonfiction.  (I think all so-called "nonfiction" writers are great liars.  Memory is the most unreliable of all sources, and we write from memory). 

If you have to hold a day job to supplement your income, or just to make a living at all, does it leave you enough time to write?

You try to make sure it does.  Many well-known writers teach; I’ve taught all over the place, UCLA, USC-Occidental; lectured on writing at Harvard, Yale, etc.  I’d say that’s the best area to explore.  It can be very creative. Good teaching is rare, alas, especially in the area of writing.  

How do you know for sure when something in your work still needs another revision?

If you wince when you’re reading through something you’ve written, then it needs revision.  I usually go through at least seven—often more—drafts before I consider a book ready to send out.  I’ve on my seventh draft right now with my next book, Island! Island! — which I call “a true fiction.”

When revising something in your work, how do you know for sure when it’s truly time to stop? 

I keep writing even when it’s in “unchangeable galleys.”  You know when it’s snatched away from you (by the publisher, that’s best).

Do you feel that being a writer was a choice or a calling for you?

I don’t like “mystic-y” attitudes about writing; e.g., the existence of “writer’s block” (there ain’t no such thing; you just sit down and write, that’s all). Okay, so:  “A calling?”  Hmmmm.  All I know, for myself, is that I started writing when I was about eight years old.  Have to write—the first book I ever finished, Pablo! , written when I was eight, is finally being published after I mentioned it at a University talk.

BONUS ROUND FOR PURE PLEASURE: What book did you probably read too young and it therefore haunted you forever after?

So many, really. Writers often are dishonest about influences, mentioning writers that sound good, leaving out real influences, like, for me, comic books, movie serials, movies—and books ranging from Joyce’s Ulysses, a favorite, to Forever Amber, another favorite.  I learned from both….and—Don Quijote, Nightwood, Remembrance of Things Past, Winnie the Pooh, Faulkner, Aphra Behn (check her out, please), Emily Bronte, Thomas Bernhardt, Pale Fire—AND (ALL writers have to add this):  “And, of course, Shakespeare.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

   

 

 

 

 

 

SEVEN QUESTIONS FOR THE WORKING WRITER: CAROLE MASO by Jenna Leigh Evans

Carole Maso

Carole Maso is the author of Ghost Dance, The Art Lover, Ava, The American Woman in the Chinese Hat, Defiance, Mother & Child, and The Bay of Angels. Her work has also been published in several anthologies, including Tasting Life Twice: Literary Lesbian Fiction by New American Writers; Aureole: An Erotic Sequence, Every Rule: Essays on Language, Longing, and Moments of Desire; The Room Lit by Roses: A Journal of Pregnancy and Birth; Beauty is Convulsive: The Passion of Frida Kahlo; and Tolstoy’s Dictaphone: Technology and the Muse. She has been awarded a Lannan Literary Fellowship, two National Endowment of the Arts grants, a New York Foundation for the Arts grant, and a W.K. Rose Fellowship in the Creative Arts.

Carole Maso! Do you ever publish your work without compensation or for a nominal fee? If so, why, and how do you feel about doing it?

Yes I do publish my work sometimes without compensation or for a small honorarium or advance. Many of the most interesting small presses and journals cannot afford to pay except in issues or small change or subscriptions or infinitesimal advances.  I am averse to the idea of literature as a product or a commodity because it places grave limitations on what is possible. I am not writing to get rich, I am so that I might be free.   

Does your craft alone provide you with a livelihood?

No, my craft in no way provides a livelihood.  

If you have to hold a day job to supplement your income, or just make a living at all, does it leave you enough time to write?

I teach at a university, but only one semester a year, which allows me eight months in which to do my own work.

How do you know for sure when something in your work truly needs revision?

It has not yet satisfied me sufficiently. There is still something, in the distance to be met.

When revising something in your work, how do you know for sure when it’s truly time to stop?

 Knowing when to stop entails experience, heart, humility, vision and instinct. 

 Do you feel that being a writer was a choice or a calling for you?

 I never had a choice.   

 BONUS ROUND FOR PURE PLEASURE: What book did you probably read too young and it therefore haunted you forever after?

 The Happy Prince by Oscar Wilde.

 

 

SEVEN QUESTIONS FOR THE WORKING WRITER: CHERRY SMYTH by Jenna Leigh Evans

Cherry Smyth

Cherry Smyth is the author of the novel Hold Still and the poetry collections When the Lights Go Up, One Wanted Thing, and Test, Orange. Her work was selected for Best of Irish Poetry 2008 and The Watchful Heart: A New Generation of Irish Poets. Smyth’s poems and short fiction have been published in anthologies and journals such as Blithe House Quarterly, Velocity, The North, Magma, Chroma, The Anchor Book of New Irish Writing, Poetry Ireland Review, and Hers: brilliant new fiction. She also writes for visual art magazines, including Art Monthly. She is currently a Royal Literary Fellow. See cherrysmyth.com.

Cherry Smyth! Do you ever publish your work without compensation or for a nominal fee? If so, why, and how do you feel about doing it?

Someone said recently, “If you’re not paying for it, you’re the product.”  We all have to do bad work for something and good work for nothing.  We have to make a living and also to create/sustain a critical context.  I co-edited Brand Literary Magazine for five years without pay because I believed in the unique cross-genre platform it built.  Other writers believed in it enough to contribute without fees. Most of my creative work is published ‘gratis’ – how Latin ennobles this self-exploitation!  I don’t publish nonfiction without a fee.

Does your craft alone provide you with a livelihood?

Having worked as a lecturer in Creative Writing for eleven years, livelihood both endangers and enlivens my “craft.”  On a good day I feel excited and privileged to teach the thing I love: to be paid to share Rilke’s Ninth Elegy or a Lydia Davis short story – what could be better?  Having been rescued by writing and reading so many times, there’s pleasure and purpose in passing on that lifeline.  Bad days are admin days, policy meeting days, marking-papers days.  Institutional service can be draining.  The trick is to allow yourself to learn as you teach.  Be taught.  (Not taut.)

If you have to hold a day job to supplement your income, or just make a living at all, do you feel you have as much time as you need to write?

It’s hard to clear my mind when I’m teaching.  When there’s time, there’s no spaciousness.  I need to leave the city, go offline for at least five days to regain the elasticity of language that is deeply my own.  Working in language can instrumentalize it.

How do you know for sure when something in your work still needs another revision?

When lines are working, they hum or sing.  If they don’t, I work till they do.  Sometimes you hope that the singing lines can carry the ones out of tune, but in print, the out of tune are the loudest.  Very occasionally I can still find myself editing during a live reading from a published book.  But over-editing can kill the suppleness of breathing space.

When revising something in your work, how do you know for sure when it’s truly time to stop?

I sleep on it and if there’s no word or phrase waking me up in the night, it’s ready.

Do you feel that being a writer was a choice or a calling for you?

Writing is hard, especially when you’re not doing it.  I want to give it up.  I haven’t written for weeks.  It’s foul and I didn’t choose it. As a calling, it’s temperamental – perhaps more of a whispering: “You better write or you will disappear.”

BONUS ROUND FOR PURE PLEASURE: What book did you probably read too young and it therefore haunted you forever after?

There were hardback books on shelves in the lounge and paperbacks on top of my parents’ wardrobe.  There I found Jacqueline Susann’s Once is Not Enough.  I was about thirteen.  I flicked till I found the sex scenes and read them over and over again.  I know the character was called January.  I seem to remember her touching her own nipples.  Did she start her period as she climbed out of a public swimming pool?  I remember the heat and enthrallment of reading in the locked bathroom.

SEVEN QUESTIONS FOR THE WORKING WRITER: FRANK DELANEY by Jenna Leigh Evans

Frank Delaney

Frank Delaney

Frank Delaney is the author of fifteen works of fiction, among them the novels Shannon, The Matchmaker of Kenmare, The Amethysts, and the bestsellers Ireland, Venetia Kelley’s Traveling Show, and Tipperary. His nonfiction work includes The Celts, which he also adapted into a BBC miniseries; Simple Courage: A True Story of Peril on the Sea, and the critically-acclaimed James Joyce’s Odyssey.  He has worked extensively with the Folio Society on such collections as The Folio Book of Irish Short Stories, The Landleaguers by Anthony Trollope, The Go-Between by L.P. Hartley, and Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson. His screenplay credits include the 2003 Masterpiece Theatre adaptation of Goodbye, Mr. Chips. Delaney’s podcast, “Re:Joyce,” is a weekly five-minute deconstruction, examination and illumination of Joyce’s Ulysses which HAS BEEN DOWNLOADED OVER 1.5 million TIMES. You can find out more about his AUDIOBOOKS, e-books, podcasts, and more at frankdelaney.com.

Frank Delaney! Do you ever publish your work without compensation or for a nominal fee? If so, why, and how do you feel about doing it?

Sometimes I work without getting paid, usually for some good cause or other. But I don’t see many carpenters making free tables, restaurateurs handing out free meals as a matter of ordinary business, or lawyers going overboard with their pro bono. Since Internet newspapers and magazines first began to make an impact, there seems to have been an impression that writers don’t need to be paid, or get paid very little — which is perhaps not the case for the people who own the online newspapers and magazines: do they fail to draw salaries? Not to pay writers, in other words, taking advantage of aspirants or amateurs desperate to get into “print," signifies disrespect and a lowering of cultural values. Yes, of course, there will always be people who will write for nothing — but will they always be the best writers?

Does your craft alone provide you with a livelihood?

I’m a fulltime writer — I live off what I write. Sometimes it’s an outstandingly remunerative profession, sometimes not. If you want to be a fulltime writer, be prepared to condition yourself to repeated disappointments, but if the dream is true — go for it; make yourself into a fulltime writer and you will become one, and since it is such a lottery of a world, you don’t know how lucky you might strike it. But it will, largely, be luck. Remember too — there are those who are natural writers, and those who want to be writers; those who love writing, and those who are in love with the idea of being a writer, and the proportion is roughly 5% to 95%. 

If you have to hold a day job to supplement your income, or just make a living at all, does it leave you enough time to write?

Doesn’t apply — but I could see myself doing so; I’d simply make time to write — mornings, nights, stolen lunchtimes, weekends. As I did in the past.

How do you know for sure when something in your work still needs another revision?

My gut tells me. As does whatever experience I can call to mind. Reading aloud tells me too. Be sure of one thing, though — it is all revision, and for me that is the pleasure. I don’t enjoy writing a fraction as much as I like re-writing!  

When revising something in your work, how do you know for sure when it’s truly time to stop?

Again — gut. But there never is a time to stop. If I take down from the shelves a book that I wrote ten, twenty years ago, the first thing I see is the text that I wish to rewrite. On every page!

Do you feel that being a writer was a choice or a calling for you? 

No choice. Nothing else could or did fit me. It was simply a matter of knowing since about the age of nine that a writer was what I was going to be when all the dust of my life had settled and I could see my own horizons.

BONUS ROUND FOR PURE PLEASURE: What book did you probably read too young and it therefore haunted you forever after?

Great question: Lamb’s Tales from Shakespeare. I was hooked and therefore done for. Or Hemingway — For Whom the Bell Tolls. Gone with either or both, I was forever after haunted and my life had been decided. 

SEVEN QUESTIONS FOR THE WORKING WRITER: ELIZABETH McCRACKEN by Jenna Leigh Evans

Elizabeth McCracken

Elizabeth McCracken

Elizabeth McCracken is the author of Here’s Your Hat What’s Your Hurry, a Library Association Notable Book; The Giant’s House, which was a finalist for the National Book Awards, L.L. Winship/PEN New England Award-winner Niagra Falls All Over Again; An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, and Thunderstruck & Other Stories, which won a Story Prize. She has received grants and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment of the Arts, the Liguria Study Center, the American Academy of Berlin, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study.

Elizabeth McCracken! Do you ever publish your work without compensation or for a nominal fee? If so, why, and how do you feel about doing it?

I do, all the time!  A lot of great literary magazines pay, well, pretty badly, but the magazines themselves are wonderful.  Maybe it helps that these days there aren't very many big magazines that pay for fiction: if you want your work published well, you might not get paid much.  I also have been known to write essays for nothing.

Does your craft alone provide you with a livelihood?

No. There was maybe one year I earned a living from writing alone.  Otherwise I've worked as a public librarian or a professor of creative writing.  

If you have to hold a day job to supplement your income, or just make a living at all, does it leave you enough time to write?

No.  I wish I could say otherwise.  I mostly write on summer break, though sometimes when the stars align I write and teach the same semester.  

How do you know for sure when something in your work still needs another revision?

The answer is always, always. That is, when I'm composing, I exist in such a state of hubris that I believe everything is perfect, genius, immaculate.  The minute I pause I see the work as the narrative Swiss cheese it is.

When revising something in your work, how do you know for sure when it’s truly time to stop?

Usually it's because I have lost heart, and can't imagine making it better.

Do you feel that being a writer was a choice or a calling for you?

May I answer, a mental disorder? OK, that's an exaggeration, but it feels not quite voluntary, in the best and worst way.

BONUS ROUND FOR PURE PLEASURE: What book did you probably read too young and it therefore haunted you forever after?

Oh, what a great question!  There must be dozens.  I remember being very upset by the Roald Dahl story "Royal Jelly," and Thomas Tryon's novel The Other.  But the books with adult content that wormed their way into my head are The Book of Lists and The People's Almanac, which had all sorts of naughty details in them.  And, of course and always, Valley of the Dolls.

 

SEVEN QUESTIONS FOR THE WORKING WRITER: YIYUN LI by Jenna Leigh Evans

Yiyun Li. PHOTO CREDIT: Roger Turesson

Yiyun Li. PHOTO CREDIT: Roger Turesson

Yiyun Li’s debut short story collection, A Thousand Years of Good Prayers, won a Frank O’ Connor International Short Story Award, a Whiting Award, a California Book Award, and a Guardian First Book Award; her second collection, Gold Boy, Emerald Girl, was a Story Prize finalist. Her novel The Vagrants was shortlisted for an International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award, and her more recent novel, Kinder Than Solitude, won a Pen/Hemingway Award. She is a MacArthur Fellow and a recipient of The American Academy of Arts and Letters’ Benjamin H. Danks Award. Li edits the literary JOURNAL A Public Space.  For more information, visit www.yiyunli.com.

Yiyun Li! Do you ever publish your work without compensation or for a nominal fee? If so, why, and how do you feel about doing it?

Yes, sometimes I do. Of course in an ideal world, one wishes that a writer's work and time is acknowledged. On the other hand, writing is something one does for love, so in the end, if there is something I can get out of a piece of writing—a thought, or even a sentence—I would think it's time well spent. 

Does your craft alone provide you with a livelihood?

Writing alone does not provide me with a livelihood, alas. I suppose it is still a dream for me to be able to do so! However, I always remind myself that anything one does for a livelihood will be helpful for writing. I was a scientist before turning to writing, and considered that a good experience, from which I learned discipline and how to dream realistically. 

If you have to hold a day job to supplement your income, or just make a living at all, does it leave you enough time to write?

There is always time to write, as there is always time to read. However, is there enough time? Never. But that seems a problem for everyone, so it's like bad weather: one can complain about it or one can endure it. 

How do you know for sure when something in your work still needs another revision?

Everything I write needs revision. I think it is about knowing on what level: some stories I have to dismantle entirely and salvage what I can; some need restructuring or rearrangement; and some stories I do more of a local revision, to replace a bad sentence with a good sentence. 

When revising something in your work, how do you know for sure when it’s truly time to stop?

Two things may happen: the work starts to feel tired (not me, but the work), and that's a warning sign—more revision may take life out of it; or, the revision leads me so off-track that I have to stop and acknowledge that the track may have to wait for another story. 

Do you feel that being a writer was a choice or a calling for you?

A choice, I think. 

BONUS ROUND FOR PURE PLEASURE: What book did you probably read too young and it therefore haunted you forever after?

Turgenev's prose poems. He wrote them toward the end of his life, and I read them at twelve, and they cast a long, melancholy and fatalistic shadow, which might not be a good thing for me. 

 

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SEVEN QUESTIONS FOR THE WORKING WRITER: GABRIELLA PAIELLA by Jenna Leigh Evans

Gabriella Paiella

Gabriella Paiella

Gabriella Paiella has written for The Daily Beast, Gawker, Lucky Peach, The Toast, Gothamist, and The Baffler. She is a senior editor at Maxim.

Gabriella Paiella! Do you ever publish your work without compensation or for a nominal fee? If so, why, and how do you feel about doing it?

When I first started freelance writing while holding down a day job, I did work for free a few times. I felt okay about it because I didn't have any bylines and it helped me accrue a couple so that I could go on to write for other publications. That said, I wouldn't do this anymore, nor do I recommend other young writers do it. If you don't value your time and your work, nobody else will.

Does your craft alone provide you with a livelihood?

Yes, I'm very fortunate to have a full-time writing job. When I had a day job and was writing on the side, it definitely didn't. But it was worth working at it to get there, even if it felt incredibly frustrating and hopeless at times. I also live in New York where everything is marked up by 7000 percent, so that's a choice I made and have to live with. (I also can't drive and love it here, so my choice was pretty much made for me.)

If you have to hold a day job to supplement your income, or just make a living at all, do you feel you have as much time as you need to write?

When I had a day job, I started waking up around 5 a.m. or so to get writing done before work. Let me be totally clear: I am not a bright-eyed, bound-out-bed-with-a-smile morning person. But I realized I was way more productive than I was at the end of the workday, when I was totally burnt out. Nobody will ever feel like they have enough time to do the thing they love the most; the trick is to just make the most of the time you have.

How do you know for sure when something in your work still needs another revision?

When I'm reading it back to myself and screaming. 

When revising something in your work, how do you know for sure when it’s truly time to stop?

When my deadline has arrived.

Do you feel that being a writer was a choice or a calling for you?

A choice, but if I'm being completely honest with myself, I know I can't do much else.

BONUS ROUND FOR PURE PLEASURE: What book did you probably read too young and it therefore haunted you forever after?

Oh, this is a tough one. I was a precocious little brat and I volunteered at my local library so I was always sneaking books and flipping straight to the sex scenes. The one I always remember is a YA book about a mermaid, and she's thinking about how much she wants to have sex, so the image the author conjures is squid depositing sperm in each other. I still think about that squid sperm and shudder. 

SEVEN QUESTIONS FOR THE WORKING WRITER: MYLA GOLDBERG by Jenna Leigh Evans

Myla Goldberg

Myla Goldberg

Myla Goldberg is the author of Bee Season, a New York Times Notable Book AND FINALIST FOR A HEMINGWAY FOUNDATION/PEN AWARD WHICH WON a Borders New Voices Prize, a Barnes & Noble Discover Award, AND AN NYPL Young Lions Award; Wickett’s Remedy, and The False Friend. Her short stories have appeared in Harper's, New American Writing, and McSweeney’s, among others; She also reviews books for the New York Times and Bookforum. OTHER SHORT STORIES, AS WELL AS INFORMATION ON HER BAND THE WALKING HELLOS, CAN BE FOUND AT MYLAGOLDBERG.COM

Myla Goldberg! Do you ever publish your work without compensation or for a nominal fee? If so, why, and how do you feel about doing it?

If I'm asked to participate in something that I think is really cool, or for a good cause, then I'll jump on that wagon, but it's got to be a situation where I immediately feel moved to do it.

Does your craft alone provide you with a livelihood? 

It did for about six years after I hit the literary lottery with Bee Season, which was something I wasn't expecting to ever happen and have no expectation will ever happen again.

If you have to hold a day job to supplement your income, or just make a living at all, does it leave you enough time to write?

Over the course of many years, I have managed to cobble together a fairly stable spectrum of teaching work that leaves me enough time to write.  It doesn't always work out: there have been seasons where, on one extreme, I haven't been sure how we'd make it through (my husband is a cartoonist, and we have two kids, and we live in Brooklyn) or, on the other extreme, there's been too much teaching to get any writing done—but for the most part I am able to strike some sort of balance.

How do you know for sure when something in your work still needs another revision?

When it doesn't sound right to my ear, or when I give it to a reader and they come back with questions they wouldn't be asking if I'd done my job right.

When revising something in your work, how do you know when it's truly time to stop?

When it sounds like music and the questions a reader comes back with are the ones I was hoping the work would spur them to ask.

Do you feel that being a writer was a choice or a calling for you?

Aside from a short-lived desire to dig up dinosaurs when the brontosaurus still was one, being a writer is all I have ever wanted to be. 

BONUS ROUND FOR PURE PLEASURE: What book did you probably read too young and it therefore haunted you forever after?

The Exorcist.  I was a horror buff at a mind-scarringly young age.