INTERVIEWS


by Susan Tepper

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Pat Pujolas is the author of jimmy lagowski saves the world (Independent Talent Group, 2012). Nominated for a XXXVI Pushcart Prize, Pujolas has also been published in Outsider Writers, Connotation Press, Jumping Blue Gods, and ManArchy magazine. He’s credited with two episodes of MTV’s animated series “3-South.” (from Goodreads)

Susan Tepper: Your book cover immediately captivated me. I thought of those ‘protests’ outside the NY Public Library on Fifth Avenue, years ago, where a dummy with a similar head piece was displayed to bring public attention to human rights issues in third world countries. What is the metaphorical significance of this ‘covered head’ for your book?

Pat Pujolas: The cover of jimmy lagowski saves the world (Goodreads, Amazon) was designed by Steve McKeown, who insisted on reading the entire manuscript before he began creating the art. In his words, “The image of the inhaler represents all of Jimmy’s insecurities/awkwardness/life barriers. It replaces his head because that’s either how Jimmy sees himself or how he feels the world sees him.”

Pukolas_coverAs the author, I chose that particular design (and image) for similar reasons: as you mentioned above, the replacement of the human face and/or head is a powerful metaphor for dehumanization. In this case, Jimmy imagines himself as a monster or an alien who must hide behind a mask. Note too, the placement of Jimmy on the cover; he is quite literally being marginalized (or oppressed) while the book’s title represents “the weight of the world” pressing down on him. I love it.

 

BOOK EXCERPT:

Two days before he was scheduled for jury duty and/or to commit suicide, Jimmy Lagowski received a postcard in the mail; the handwriting was feminine, in red looping ink, with no return address. All it said was, “Jimmy Lagowski, have you saved the world yet?”

ST: This novel startled and amazed me. It’s quirky-quirky. Characters appear in early chapters, do their thing, disappear, only to reappear as an important part of previous character’s life but at a much later date. It’s most definitely what Malcolm Gladwell has termed “The Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon,” meaning (I think) that if you get enough people-connections, the variables can become practically infinite in terms of who has intersected with who’s life. You pulled it off flawlessly in this book.

PP: Thank you. That’s definitely a theme here. And unfortunately, those intersections can result in positive or negative outcomes. The tragedy at the center of this novel is an accident, the result of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. And so I wanted to create a scenario equally “accidental” where the result is positive, and deeply rooted in what makes us human beings. With 7 billion people in the world, it’s easy to feel insignificant at times. But as Gladwell theorizes, with all those people interacting with one another, paths begin to overlap, and stories begin to emerge. Sometimes, those stories give us that wonderful human invention we call hope.

ST: So would you say that Jimmy Lagowski (or jimmy lagowski as in lower case for your book’s title)— would you say he is the Kevin Bacon of this book? Overall, what makes Jimmy tick?

PP: Jimmy is definitely the Bacon, but so much more! He’s a lightning rod, a catalyst, and he might just be our next prophet. After all, he does speak to the sky (and in Chapter Four, “the sky” speaks to him).

What makes Jimmy tick is a tougher question. He is an anti-hero, and as such, is motivated toward inaction rather than action. I believe his greatest desire is to escape: from his appearance and from reality. If you asked Jimmy though, he would probably tell you that his greatest desire is to find Dagmar again. She represents his life before the accident, before our collective innocence was lost, and therefore she embodies that same escape.

ST: Did you story-board this novel in order to keep the characters in a type of ‘return/comeback’ placement, or did you keep it all in your mind and just let it spill out?   Your characters drift in and out so effortlessly, as if you know them and their situations personally.  It’s impressive.

PP: For longer works I like to create the outline and structure first; this novel was a challenging and complex idea to execute. From the beginning I envisioned the plot structure as a rope with frayed ends and a knot in the middle. The frayed ends represent the different voices/people coming together for the trial (the knot), then going their separate ways— for better or worse. Over the previous few years, I also had amassed a collection of voices in my head; when I looked around that fictional jury box, I imagined a face for each voice, then a character, then a history. The hardest part was deciding which parts NOT to tell.

ST: Which character (s) did you miss most of all when the writing was completed? And why? Because I could see you have so much empathy for all of them, despite their human flaws.

PP: Of course it would be Jimmy Lagowski. For 18 months I had the amazing opportunity to live through him, think his thoughts, feel his pain. I would like to be there to see the look on Jimmy’s face when we tell him that we found Dagmar. That chapter is still un-written; the message here is one of imperfect or fractured hope. And, besides, as Jimmy would tell you, “The best stories are those left unfinished.”

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 Susan Tepper has authored 5 published books. The latest is a novel in stories called The Merrill Diaries, from Pure Slush Books. She is a named finalist in storySouth Million Writers Award for 2013, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in fiction (2010), and nine times for the Pushcart Prize. Tepper is a staff editor at Flash Fiction Chronicles where she conducts the interview series UNCOV/rd. www.susantepper.com

by Aliza Greenblatt

Mark_Noce

A Technical Writer by day and a novelist by night, Mark Noce also finds time to write flash fiction. While his short pieces tend to be contemporary fiction, his novels consist of historical thrillers set in eras ranging from Medieval Wales to Caribbean piracy to the American Civil War, just to name a few. He loves reading, writing, traveling, gardening, sailing, and spending time with his family at home in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Aliza Greenblatt: According to your blog, you write historical novels and contemporary short stories. How do you pick which time period to base your novels in? When you first started writing, did you begin with novels or short stories? What drew you to flash fiction?

Mark Noce: I love writing novels! Needless to say, I have so many ideas for books that I really wonder whether I can get them all written in one lifetime. When it comes to picking a time period or setting for a book, I actually prefer to try and write a single opening line first, and then let that tell me what kind of story I should write. It’s a bit of a chicken-and-egg conundrum, but it works for me. However, novels take a long time to write. In contrast, flash fiction gives me a wonderful release, because I can complete a single story within a day or two. It’s really satisfying to see a 1,000-word piece of fiction come to fruition while the inspiration is still fresh in my mind.

AG: When you sit down to write a new story, what is your process like?

MN: It’s funny. There’s what I want to write, and what I actually write. I often think I’ll write a story about a subject I just read in a book or in a movie I saw, and then all of the sudden I’ll come up with an opening line for an entirely different story. I’ve learned not to fight it, and simply go with the flow. The story that comes out effortlessly in that first draft is the one I stick with to the end.

AG: This piece, to me, was a retelling of the Sir Gawain and the Green Knight legend. It was also a lot more interesting because instead of being themed around chivalry, it was about facing your fears. Was that your intention? Why did you decide to make the two main protagonists kids?

MN: Meet Me at the Waterfront is definitely inspired by Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, which in turn is inspired by the Celtic Irish legends of Cu Chulainn (which predate it by at least a thousand years). So when approaching such an old and revered tale, I had to put my own modern twist on it. I’m fascinated by myth, and I think childhood stories show myth in a revealing way. As children, our schoolyard encounters seem like epic events that we often forget or dismiss as we get older, but I believe such moments in our lives hold a power and a wisdom about who we really are underneath. The protagonists in this story needed to be children, because as kids we’re much more willing to accept the inexplicable elements of life that we often try to rationalize or ignore as we turn into adults.

AG: The main conflict of the story was about the appearance of bravery versus being afraid, but accepting the consequences anyway. Why did the narrator decide to stand his ground even though he was certain he was going to die?

MN: That’s hard to answer in a few words. I could write an entire essay on the hero’s motivations, but that’s why I like stories. In fewer words, I can give you the whole gist even though it may not be as direct as a series of longwinded statements. Why do we do anything? It’s simply in our natures, it’s who we are, and what we want. I don’t think the protagonist himself knew he would stand his ground until he actually did it. As the saying goes, it’s in the abyss that we find ourselves.

AG: What were some of the challenges of writing this story? What, if anything, did the flash format simplify? Do you have any favorite parts?

MN: Writing flash fiction has definitely sharpened all of my writing in general. In order to get under the 1,000-word limit, I have to slash anything unnecessary and still maintain the core of the story. As a novelist, it’s a truly invigorating experience, testing my abilities and helping me to get to the heart of the story with an immediacy that all good stories should have.

AG: What other projects are you currently working on? Are there other stories of yours, either upcoming or published, that you can point readers to?

MN: Oh, yes! My next flash fiction piece, Chronicles of the SFPD, comes out on June 21st at Every Day Fiction. In addition, I’m revising my next historical thriller entitled Between Two Fires, which you can learn more about here. If you like what you’ve seen of my work so far, please check them out. Thanks!

AG: Thank you very much for taking the time to chat with us. Best of luck with all your writing endeavors.

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Aliza profile-pic-2

Aliza T. Greenblatt works in a firmly non-writing field when the sun is up and writes under a desk lamp at night.   Fueled by a sheer love of books and a tyrannical imagination, she writes the stories that appear over her morning coffee and won’t leave her alone until they are put down on paper.   She writes, raves, and blogs at http://atgreenblatt.com. and on Twitter  @AtGreenblatt

by Susan Tepper

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Doug Holder is the founder of the Ibbetson Street Press of Somerville, Mass. . He teaches writing at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston and Endicott College in Beverly, Mass. Click here to learn more about Doug.

Susan Tepper: If I were to choose a painter analogous to your poetry, and your writing sensibilities, it would be Edward Hopper.

Doug Holder: Hopper would be a good choice. It seems a lot of his characters are “Eating Grief” and often experience that sweaty dark night of the soul.  I have also admired the work of Lucien Freud and his unsettling nudes. Many of my poems deal with a sense of alienation, and my characters aren’t ones that wrestle with suburban angst—or whether they will able to convert that farmhouse in Connecticut into their dream home. They ain’t pretty, they ain’t in vogue, they ain’t hip, they usually are not young… The poet Philip Larkin is another hero of mine—as I feel I bring the same down-at-the-heels sensibility to my work.  I loved his poem (“They fuck you up, your mum and dad”) and so many others.

 product_thumbnail.phpST: Cutting right to the chase—”Eating Grief at Bickford’s” (which you aptly dedicate to Allen Ginsberg) is a place I recognize, too, like the old Horn and Hardart eateries that populated NYC, back in the days. This poem is all part of a lost dream, isn’t it?

 “There are no places anymore / Where I can sit at a threadbare table / Pick at the crumbs on my plate / And wipe / The white dust / From my pitch / Black shirt. /… “

DH: Yes the Automat—I used to go there with my grandmother as a little boy—loved the little windows that you opened for your pot of baked beans or chicken pot pie. Places like these were also havens for down at the heels poets and writers—Both H and H and Bickford’s were mentioned often in Beat Poetry circles because you could nurse a cup of coffee, write, talk or kibitz for hours on end and oh of course it was cheap. I used to see many characters in places like these that I was fascinated by… The muttering, pea-soup stained, ketchup sandwich denizens who lived on the fringes.  This was all grist for my mill. And the dream to a great deal is lost. I have been interviewing folks from the Chelsea Hotel in NYC, and this famed bohemian flophouse—that housed such folks as Patti Smith, Gregory Corso, Thomas Wolfe, to name a few—has been gutted of its artwork and the remaining tenants are being slowly weeded out. So the old Bohemian NYC seems to be a vanishing distant dream.

ST: I’ve known you for nearly a decade and I know some things about your life, your cat, have met some of your family, etc.  So when I read your funny and satirical poem titled “You know it is tough being a writer”, well, all about you kind of got summed up.  The poem begins:

“Even when I was born / My father called / Me a treasure / And tried to / Bury me. /…”

DH: Well you know life can be nasty, brutish and short. And this is very much so for the writer. Most of us don’t make a living at it, reviews are hard to come by and when we do get them at best there is faint praise—we do it because we love it. So the poem, with a Henny Youngman flourish of corny jokes maps out the life of a struggling writer. The cheap flats, the rejection of the mandarins (oranges), and so on and so on. Because life is tragic and comic…and yes wonderful too!

ST: Agreed. Tragic and comic and wonderful. I love how you find the humor in the pit, it’s the only way to get through. You happen to have a great sense of humor. On average, do you think poets tend to wallow in the muck more than, say, fiction writers?

DH: I read somewhere that of all writers poets have the shortest lifespan. I mean look at Plath and Sexton—they used to discuss who would commit suicide first. And when Plath beat Sexton to the punch—Sexton wrote a poem about being pissed off at this and how she was jealous of Plath. The old joke is: a man meets a poet at a cocktail party. The man asks the poet what he does for a living. ” I am a poet and I am going to commit suicide.”

Hell I don’t know if we are more morose—I mean there is no shortage of fiction writers who wallow in the muck. As a whole I think we think a lot—ruminate—look at our navels.. and stare into the abyss—this can make you morose.

ST: I write fiction and poetry, about 50/50. I find that I have to be in a certain emotional mindset for the poems to come out. Poet Simon Perchik always says to me: writers are working things out. By that he means personal things, troubling things. Yet he has a great sense of humor, as do you, Doug. Here is a poem of yours that exemplifies your way of looking at life through a glass not-so-darkly. You titled it “Father Knows Best–Mother Does The Rest (from the TV show)”. And it begins:

The bland tyranny / of the cardigan sweater. / His smile / creased in brutal condescension. / Mother corseted in apron strings. / …”

It’s droll, it mirrors that TV mode of the fifties time period, and it’s funny. Personally, I have never been a fan of men’s cardigan sweaters. Kind of creepy.

DH: Yes… there was something mesmerizing about the show. Robert Young’s tight-smiled patriarch—the doting mother—the dancing dog—Bud’s greaser’s look—the only totem of rebellion around. But you could feel the tension just below the broad lawns and narrow minds of the suburbs. I grew up in the suburbs of Long Island, NY, and I found it stifling. It was a very materialistic culture, competitive and conformist. I was a fish out of water there. I was like a Collyer Brothers hermit—reading the stacks of newspapers in my bedroom—like some old man. I was drawn to the city, it’s variety and its anonymity.

ST: Well I’m glad you didn’t stack to the ceiling zillions of newspapers and periodicals like the Collyer brothers. Or, did you?

Also check out:

Boston Area Small Press and Poetry Scene
Ibbetson Street Press
Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer 
Ibbetson Street Online Bookstore

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 Susan-Tepper200wSusan Tepper has authored 5 published books. The latest is a novel in stories called The Merrill Diaries, from Pure Slush Books. She is a named finalist in storySouth Million Writers Award for 2013, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in fiction (2010), and nine times for the Pushcart Prize. Tepper is a staff editor at Flash Fiction Chronicles where she conducts the interview series UNCOV/rd. www.susantepper.com

 

by Aliza Greenblatt

Daniel Zundi

Daniel Zundl writes horror, science fiction and other speculative fiction. He lives in northern New Jersey with his wife. In addition to his current career as an immigration attorney, he was a pyro technician, a grounds keeper and a video store clerk. In addition to writing, his hobbies include hiking, fishing and hunting.

Aliza Greenblatt: So if my research is correct, I believe “Digital Commute” is your first publication. Congratulations! How does it feel to be a published writer? How long have you been writing stories?

Daniel Zundi: Yes, this is my first published work. To be honest, it feels a little surreal. I got the news that my story was selected for publication the day before I was getting married, so it was pretty much one of the best weeks of my life. I’ve been writing fiction since I was eleven or twelve. Kind of an embarrassing story, but my first works were writing fan-fiction for a friend’s newsletter. I found I enjoyed it so much I just kept writing even after everyone had lost interest in the newsletter. When I first started writing I never thought about publication, I did it because I found catharsis in the narrative process. Things in a story don’t happen by accident, nothing’s random. I like that.

AG: When you sit down to write a story, what is your process like?

DZ: Process is a very generous term for my writing style. Usually, I get an idea followed by a manic burst of creative energy in which I write as much as I possibly can in one sitting. Then, bit by bit, I flesh out the skeleton of the idea until it can stand on its own. I usually ask one or more friends to read it, use their notes to make changes or argue with them about why I don’t think it needs to be changed (and then make the changes they suggested anyway). Afterwards, I let it sit for a day or two and re-read it. If I still like it after all that I start submitting it to various venues based on the content of the story.

I think that the most important part of the writing process for me is fleshing out the bones of a story. A good concept is important, but for me turning that concept into a story is difficult, it requires a flash of inspiration. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had a great idea but I couldn’t make the characters come alive or turn it into a narrative.

AG: On your  blog there is line which I love: “I think that all great stories start, in some degree, as an escape from the ordinary, a way of looking at the world around you and seeing something bizarre and interesting.” What were the seeds that started this story?

DZ: My wife provided the seed of this story. We were talking about teleporters and she said the word “digitizer,” which I think is from the Tim Allen movie Galaxy Quest. But it occurred to me that if a teleporter existed it would have to compress the information of the thing it was transporting into a form that could be used by a computer, namely binary. I also knew that audiophiles prefer analog formats, especially records or reel-to-reel tapes, because the analog form contains more information than the digital. I wondered what the rounding off of a person might be like. The fact that my daily commute was a little over an hour a day gave me the idea to explore the concept through the everyday user, a lawyer like myself.

AG: The theme of this story is  captured in one line: “A million inconsequential advances added up to an unrecognizable future.” Do you see this happening with some of the technology we have now? How?

DZ: Absolutely. For example the communication industry has changed the entire shape of our society, from the language we use right down to the way we walk down the street. Even the physical landscape has changed; the mountains near my home town are lined with cell towers. We’re living in a world where connectivity is the norm and solitude is strictly for the eccentric.

Cell phones for example have become the mechanism through which people digitally commute. In my parent’s generation, if a person wasn’t at work they weren’t accountable to their bosses. Now, if my boss wants to reach me he can call me, and if that doesn’t work he can text or email me. I no longer have an excuse for not being reachable. I’m not necessarily saying these advancements are bad, they allow me personally to keep in touch with people I haven’t physically seen in years, but I do think that depending on how a given technology is used it can be a force for good or ill.

AG: As I read the story, it occurred to me that the pieces the narrator lost of himself were things he might have lost anyway as he aged. But in this case, the change happened much more rapidly. Do you think the narrator will learn how to cope without his missing pieces? Would anyone believe him if he tried to explain?

DZ: Wow, that’s a complicated question. I wonder to what degree the narrator’s losses are real or just imagined and if those that are real can be attributed to the teleporter instead of the inevitable march of time. I guess that doesn’t really answer your question. I think it will be very difficult for the narrator to cope. To some extent everyone struggles with aging and losing their abilities, it’s the struggle against time that keeps the anti-aging industry in business.

The narrator’s problems are more serious because, even if just in his own mind, he has only himself to blame. He saw that things were changing, he knew from his phone call to the company that he would lose parts of himself, yet he continued to teleport. When he looks in the mirror and sees an unfamiliar face looking back at him it will be difficult to blame anyone but himself and guilt might be the hardest thing he has to face.

Whether people will believe him is another complicated question. How do you prove you can’t taste a particular flavor anymore? I think a portion of the population, namely those without teleporters, would be more inclined to believe him, if simply because they think the rich are getting their comeuppance. At the same time, I think people who just bought a teleporter would be reluctant to believe him. Trying to convince someone of something subjective is practically impossible

AG: What other projects are you currently working on? Are there other stories of yours, either upcoming or published, that you can point readers to?

DZ: Well, to be honest with you I have ADD so my attention is usually split between a number of endeavors. Right now I’m editing a manuscript for a novel, writing the first draft of another, I have two completed stories I’m shopping around and a half dozen other stories I’m in various stages of writing and editing. Other than Digital Commute, I don’t have anything else your readers could view right now. However, I will post any updates about my writings on my blog.

AG: Thank you very much for taking the time to chat with us. Best of luck with all your writing endeavors.

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Aliza profile-pic-2Aliza T. Greenblatt works in a firmly non-writing field when the sun is up and writes under a desk lamp at night.   Fueled by a sheer love of books and a tyrannical imagination, she writes the stories that appear over her morning coffee and won’t leave her alone until they are put down on paper.   She writes, raves, and blogs at http://atgreenblatt.com. and on Twitter  @AtGreenblatt

 

by Susan Tepperif

Alison McBain lives in Connecticut with her husband and two daughters. She has short stories forthcoming or published in SpeckLit, On the Premises, and the anthology Fundamentally Challenged. You can find out more about work and read her blog at alisonmcbain.com.

The Maybe Baby
by Alison McBain

The fetus is abnormal, they told Katie. No blame on you, the doctors reassured her. Faulty wiring, some problem with connection.

She sat there, blank, as they rambled on with praise for her one healthy child. Not safe at her age to conceive, of course. With eyes dripping sympathy, the words they did not say out loud: her problem, not theirs. Ultimately, when she didn’t respond, they used the “A” word.

“No,” she told them. “Thank you,” belatedly.

Tom wouldn’t be bothered, she thought as she drove home. Sad voice, but transparent with a lack of catastrophe. What was one person’s end-of-the world meant nothing to another. “Bills to pay,” he’d tell her. “Mistakes are expensive.”

Feelings marked out in cash. Just like the doctor: nothing wrong with him. It was her complication, her fault.

She pulled into the driveway through a litter of unraked leaves, the tires crunching them like small bones. The babysitter was waiting for her. The girl popped gum and checked her black fingernails as Katie counted out bills. “Thanks, Mrs. J,” she said.

Katie’s daughter sat on the floor, playing quietly with puzzle pieces as the teenager left. None of the puzzles were complete anymore–they were all missing something vital.

She sat on the couch and looked outside the window at the grey clouds rushing towards culmination. Sometimes, she wished for thunder and lighting, not just the peace of rain. A simple lapse. Maybe the storm tonight would wash the air clean again.

***

Susan Tepper:  Your story ‘The Maybe Baby’ asks more questions than it answers, which is a sign of compelling fiction. Do you think the husband will at some point come to understand his wife’s feelings?

Alison McBane: Through no fault of his own, I believe it would be hard for the husband to empathize with his wife’s feelings. Understanding has become a casualty of their long relationship, of lives lived side by side for so many years without much overlap.  If a tragedy overwhelmed her husband, would she be able to support him how he needed?  I think the answer might be the same.

ST:  Do you picture the husband capable of loving the baby, assuming it does arrive into this world?

A.M.B.:  If the baby survived, I think there would be love on Tom’s part.  In the story, there is no indication that his wife thinks he is a bad father, just that his problem – and his wife’s – might be in expressing love in a healthy way towards each other.  They can’t empathize with each other, and part of the fault seems to be communication.  Katie imagines how a conversation with Tom might play out, but she doesn’t actually have the conversation.  It stays internal, and thus remains wholly in her control.

ST: In this story you’ve created an immediate dramatic conflict, and also, in such a short writing space, you’ve created a strong sense of place. I feel her ‘aloneness’ as a physical space within and surrounding her. For me, it becomes the essential ‘place’ in the story. Do you think the husband has this alone space, too, or does he fill it up with ‘male things’ to escape what is pending?

A.M.B.: They approach the same situation from opposite perspectives, so while the husband is aware of a lack in their relationship, he probably wouldn’t see it as coming from within.  Whereas Katie has created a complete internal landscape, her husband occupies a more practical world, where a problem is only a problem because one hasn’t looked hard enough for a solution.  Problems to him aren’t internal, but external, and so can be solved with external things.

S.T.: Thank you, Alison, for your clear and frank answers about your story plot.  It’s a subject that carries a lot of heat both politically and morally. And probably will continue to do so for some time to come.

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 Susan-Tepper200wSusan Tepper has authored 5 published books. The latest is a novel in stories called The Merrill Diaries, from Pure Slush Books (http://pureslush.webs.com/store.htm#916515853). She is a named finalist in storySouth Million Writers Award for 2013, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in fiction (2010), and nine times for the Pushcart Prize. Tepper is a staff editor at Flash Fiction Chronicles where she conducts the interview series UNCOV/rd.  www.susantepper.com

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