Essay Press Digital Chapbook Contest

September 28, 2015 § 1 Comment


Essay Press Chapbook ContestEssay Press is now reading for its first digital chapbook contest. Submissions are open until November 1st, 2015, with elections will be made by January.

Judges include Essay Press authors Dan Beachy-Quick, Rosebud Ben-Oni, Amaranth Borsuk, Julie Carr, Mina Pam Dick, Jennifer Kwon Dobbs, Joe Harrington, Lily Hoang, Krystal Languell, David Lazar, Shane McCrae and Jessica Smith.

Each of these 12 judges will select one digital chapbook for 2016 publication. Each judge will write an introduction to his/her selected work. Essay Press will then release a new winning chapbook each month in 2016.

The Press particularly welcomes “manuscripts that extend or challenge the formal possibilities of prose, including but not limited to: lyric essays and prose poems or poetics; experimental biography and autobiography; innovative approaches to journalism, experimental historiography, criticism, scholarship and philosophy. Simultaneous submissions, multiple submissions, collaborative manuscripts, digital and hybridized text/art manuscripts are all encouraged.”

The ideal manuscript will run roughly 30 to 50 pages, though no manuscript will be denied consideration on account of being too short or too long. The reading fee is $8.

For guidelines, visit

How to Cure Writer’s Block in Two Simple Steps

September 28, 2015 § 9 Comments

Kelly Sundberg

Kelly Sundberg

A post from Brevity managing editor Kelly Sundberg:

I was coming down from a year of successes, and every time someone asked me “how’s the book coming along?” I felt like a failure. What had my minor successes gotten me?

Writer’s block.

I’m a single mom, and most parents have the “hunger”—that urgency that precipitates twelve a.m. writing sessions and random, text-free, MS Word documents titled “Essay about Ghosts in Astoria, Oregon” that are then saved in a folder labeled “Ideas” and never opened again. The hunger is good. The hungrier the mom, the more she’ll write. Hungry=output.

But my hunger had been eclipsed by fatigue. In addition to solo parenting, I work a lot, which I wrote about here.

In August, I went to a writer’s retreat in Ghost Ranch, New Mexico that was sponsored by the A Room of Her Own Foundation. I was the recipient of their Courage Fellowship, which is awarded to a survivor of domestic violence or sexual assault, and AROHO’s generosity put me in the same place as 119 other women. My Meyer’s Brigg score has me at 51% extroversion and 49% introversion. This means that I’m the type of person who hides in her room for the first couple of days, then is dancing topless around a bonfire by the end. On the second day of the retreat, I texted my best friend “I’m not having the worst time of my life, but close.” By the end of the third evening, I was blissfully sitting in the middle of a stone labyrinth under the Milky Way and asking the heavens what I needed to know for my future.

Yes, my conversion was that quick.

Although I abandoned organized religion years ago, my first job was in a bookstore that had a little, stone fountain tinkling on the countertop, Tibetan wind chimes, and an entire section dedicated to natural healing. When I graduated high school, the women I worked with gave me a set of Runes, and twenty years later, those Runes still sit in a bowl in my living room next to a bundle of sage. I have a history of appropriating religions that I don’t fully understand, so was I using this labyrinth correctly? Probably not, but I’m no stranger to sitting in nature and asking the heavens to speak to me (I spend my summers working in the wilderness for the US Forest Service), and although the heavens have never responded, my subconscious is pretty good at piping up with something adequate.

This night, my subconscious said to me, “Kelly, you have to know that your value is more than whether or not you’re in a relationship.” Actually, my subconscious was simply repeating what my therapist had said to me a few days earlier (she’s good!), but I hadn’t been able to hear her then because I hadn’t yet had the quiet in my life to listen.

Those words were important to me as a person because I’m a survivor of domestic violence, but those words were important to me as a writer because I finally knew how my memoir needs to end. As much as I want it, my memoir doesn’t end with Ryan Gosling moving into the house next to mine, working shirtless on a barn that he’s converting into an art studio, then holding a boom box up outside my bedroom window and saying, “Hey girl, how about I turn this studio for one into a studio for two?”

Realizing how my memoir needs to end (with me alone, yay!) was the first step towards getting over my writer’s block, but there was another step; I also took a master class with Joy Castro where she gave us writing prompts. I didn’t think I needed writing prompts; I mean, I was already ¾ of the way done with my memoir. Then she gave me the prompt that finally broke through my block.  She said, “Write about the most hurtful thing that anyone has ever said to you.”

Immediately, one sentence stuck out. It was my father saying “I just don’t know what to believe” in the days after I left my ex-husband. I wrote that sentence down, and as I surreptitiously brushed away tears because I refused to be that woman who had come undone in workshop, I realized I couldn’t write my memoir without writing that sentence. It’s not easy writing about family, and I’ve avoided it, but if I want to write this book, I have no other choice.

As Joy might say, I have to write what scares me the most.

When I returned from the retreat, I talked to my agent, and to her great relief, I told her that my block had been rooted in my inability to write about my parents. She was sympathetic, but all she said was, “I could have told you that. Now let’s get to work.”

And we have.


So here are the two easy steps to getting over writer’s block:

  1. Sit in a stone labyrinth under the Milky Way.
  2. Take a master class with Joy Castro.

If those options aren’t available to you, I have two more:

  1. Find some time for quiet in your life.
  2. Write what scares you the most.


Kelly Sundberg’s essays have appeared in Guernica, Slice Magazine, Denver Quarterly, Mid-American Review, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. Her essay “It Will Look Like a Sunset” is included in Best American Essays 2015, and she had a “Notable” essay in Best American Essays 2013. Sundberg is a PhD student at Ohio University, a solo mom, the Managing Editor of Brevity, and she divides her time between Athens, Ohio and living off the grid in backcountry Idaho.

Lack of Apocalypse

September 24, 2015 § 13 Comments

3f1eae6279768ca1cb1237af7851fa58Like many of our readers, I’ll give up my paper books when you pry them from my cold, dead hands. I love them like I love the Oxford comma. I fill my shelves with books I adore, books I might like to read someday, and books so multiply-read I can open them at random, enjoy a section over lunch, and reshelve them without feeling incomplete.

The projected digital apocalypse worried me as both reader and writer–would having my book on paper no longer be an option when the time came? Was I just silly, as a constant traveler, to resist loading up a Kindle with everything I could possibly read on the train? Was I contributing to the coming devastation by downloading Harry Potter 7 to my phone and reading it under the covers, squinting at my close-held phone through one un-contact-lensed eye?

Apparently not.

The New York Times reports that digital sales have slowed sharply, falling by 10% in the first five months of 2015. Readers–even young digital natives–go back and forth between devices and paper. The American Booksellers Association counts more independent bookstore members in 2015 than they had five years ago.

Digital’s still strong–the statistics don’t include cheap, plentiful self-published e-books, and Amazon’s unlimited-e-book service is somewhere in the mix–but it’s nice to know print isn’t going away any time soon.

Check out the New York Times’ article here.


Allison Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Her latest essay, “Write About Indians” is part of Drunken Boat‘s Romani Folio this month.

How Many Drafts Must a Writer Draft?

September 21, 2015 § 26 Comments

I'm pretty sure you're supposed to be writing right now.

I’m pretty sure you’re supposed to be writing right now.

How many drafts must a writer draft

Before you call it a book?

How many times must you read the text

Before your editor looks?

Yes, how many times should it be revised

To get a reader hooked?

The answer my friend is seven.


Last week I was invited to speak to Wrimo India, a group of participants in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) who formed their own writing support group on Facebook and also do in-person meet-ups to write, talk writing, and write some more.

We met at a coffee shop in Mumbai and live-streamed the chat through Periscope so non-local writers could join in and ask questions. One of the best questions, though, was after the camera was turned off:

How many drafts do I need to write before hiring an editor?

First, let’s deconstruct. Not everybody needs an editor, so let’s look at this question as:

What kind of shape does my book need to be in before I spend money or use up favors to get outside feedback?

Many writers finishing a book for the first time don’t yet have a method of working their way through subsequent drafts. Where do you start? How can you tell what needs fixing? How do you know if the book is even worth another draft?

As a freelance editor, I see a lot of the same issues in everyone’s essays, stories, memoirs and novels. Technical issues like wrongly formatted or too many dialogue tags. Voice issues like inconsistent speech or characters who sound the same. Point-of-view issues like head-hopping or characters being able to see or understand things they don’t have access to. As an editor, I can note these issues for authors who want to fix them, or address them myself for authors who want to throw money. But most of these issues can be found and reworked by the author before they spend money on professional editing or use up a “please give me feedback on my manuscript” favor. It’s time-consuming and thinking-intensive, but it’s not a secret or a talent–it’s a skill anyone willing to go through seven drafts can acquire.

Here’s the seven-draft method:

The Vomit Draft: get it out get it out! It doesn’t matter if all the words are spelled right. Don’t worry about complete sentences because. Sure there’s a plot hole big enough to drive a truck through, and in the second-last chapter you realized you really do have to put Aunt Nancy in this book. Just finish. If you hit a place where you don’t know what to write, put in a placeholder like “NEED SCENE WITH MOM HERE SOMETHING HUMOROUS,” or write about the scene that belongs there, like “That time I was in the kitchen and Steve touched the stove and I just knew we were going to break up because of the way his fist wrapped around the salt shaker.” Then let the manuscript sit for a week.

The Story Draft: take a look at the manuscript, and for each scene write one sentence about what happens in that scene.

While driving home from a wedding, I find a stray dog.

I take the dog home and keep her over my girlfriend’s objections.

My girlfriend demands I choose between her and the dog.

I go get a haircut.

During this process, you’ll discover any places that the plot doesn’t make sense, is missing a big event, has a random extra scene (why the haircut?) needs another character to show up, etc. This is also the time to fill in any placeholders from the first draft. Revise the manuscript accordingly and let it sit for a week.

The Character Draft: For each character, go through the book and read only their parts. If this is a memoir, this is the time to make sure the protagonist’s actions and reactions seem motivated and urgent. Make sure the characters only know what’s in their heads and only see what they can actually see. For example, four-year-old child-you can’t see the top of the kitchen counter. Adult-you can guess at other people’s thoughts but not omnisciently know them. This is also a chance to go through the dialogue, character by character, making sure that each person sounds like themselves, and that it would be pretty clear who is speaking even without dialogue tags. If you’re writing fiction, you may discover that a character needs more on-page time in the book. Revise, let sit.

The Technical Draft: Working chapter-by-chapter, does each chapter end with both satisfaction and forward motion? Does each chapter start with a compelling action or image? With each scene, have you gotten in as late as you can and still set the scene, and have you ended the scene as early as you can and still have it feel complete? Are there extra words? Sentences that don’t make sense? Refine your authorial voice in this draft. By now you should know what you want to say–this draft is about how to say it. It’s also useful at this stage to do a search-and-find for -ly and remove unnecessary adverbs; to eliminate as many “was verbing” constructions as you can, and check on words you know you overuse. Revise, let sit.

The Personal Copyedit: Not to be confused with an actual copyedit, this is an easy draft. Run spellcheck with the grammar turned on. Print out the manuscript and see what shows up when you’re turning a physical page. Read it out loud and catch errors that your eyes got used to on the screen. This is the be-kind-to-your-reader draft. Yes, it’s still a work in progress, but you want it to be a pleasant experience for the next step…

The Friend Read: Sometimes called a beta read. This is where you exchange manuscripts with a writer pal, or call in favors from the people who keep offering to read your book. It’s best to arm your friend with some specific questions: Did the story make sense? Where did your attention flag? Which character do you want to see more of? Was anything distracting from the main story? When you get their comments back, try to get them in writing, even if that’s you taking notes while they talk. Do not defend your book. Do not assume they missed something. Set the notes aside for a couple of days and then go back and see what rings true when your feelings have cooled down. Revise accordingly.

The Editor Read: This still doesn’t have to mean forking out cash. This can be the first time you send it to your agent, if you’re working with an agent. This can be exchanging manuscripts with someone you know to be harsher or more technically-demanding than the previous reader. And yes, it can also mean hiring a professional editor or writing coach. But this is the draft where it’s worth either spending money or calling in a big favor (and you’ve been reading for other people as much as you can this whole time, right?) Before you send it out, read it one more time yourself. Knowing that a big read is imminent, more issues will stick out to you.

These seven drafts are often more than one draft each. You might do three Story Drafts, or two rounds of Friend Reading. Some drafts take days, some take weeks or months. You might backtrack and revisit the Technical Draft after doing an on-paper Personal Copyedit. Let it sit for as long as you need to between drafts. And for at least a couple of drafts, print it out, edit the manuscript on sloppy, satisfying paper, and retype the whole thing so you can feel the flow.

I’ve found this method to work for everything from essays to full-length memoirs and novels. If you try it, let me know how it goes. And if you’ve got a different method or a variation, please tell us about it in the comments.


Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. If you’d like to watch the 25-minute Periscope video, we also talk about writing books set in cultures foreign to your own, common technical mistakes, how every book is a mystery, and what to do if your book gets banned. (We get started about 2 minutes in, and please note this was extemporaneous, taped on a phone, and in a coffee shop.)

On Travel Writing: Kevin Oderman and the “Trance of Culture”

September 14, 2015 § 3 Comments

Kevin Oderman’s book of literary travel essays, Cannot Stay: Essays on Travel, is a lyrical and meditative examination of place, culture, individuality, and community. Brevity Managing Editor Kelly Sundberg sat down with Oderman to talk about his travel essays, life abroad, and how travel both expands and contains his world.

Kelly Sundberg: You’re an essayist, but you’ve also published novels, as well as literary criticism. I’m always curious about people who switch back and forth between genres. I wonder if your writing in other genres informs or influences your literary essays?

Kevin Oderman

Kevin Oderman

Kevin Oderman: I don’t think so, not much, anyway. If anything, the influence has been in the other direction. I haven’t written literary criticism recently, but the criticism I wrote back then was already leaning towards the essay. I gave up on criticism not from lack of interest but because I found the language of criticism literally nauseating. I couldn’t read it, I didn’t want to write it. I began to grind my teeth. One day I realized I was done.

That said, most of my criticism addressed modern and objectivist poetry, and my interest in poetry profoundly influenced my practice in the essay. It trained my ear. It schooled me in structural strategies. And, in Cannot Stay, you’ll notice modern poets get a few quotations and allusions.

KS: What about your novels White Vespa and Going, which, like Cannot Stay, are about life abroad?

KO: Living abroad, traveling, both experiences simplify our lives. At home, the web of our social life, work life, of our responsibilities, even our amusements and pleasures, all conspire to complicate our experience. However good the life, it distracts us. Traveling we (can) leave much of that distraction behind. In the simpler world of traveling, experiences come to us one at a time. So they register more clearly. And there is more time to mull, to consider the kind of surprising connections that, for me at least, often lead to an essay or a story.  Occasionally even to a poem. I get back to first questions, questions about how meaning is made and sustained.

Oddly enough, perhaps, something similar happens in writing about travel or the expat life.  Much of the clutter of living disappears; it’s easier for me to arrive at clarity and, I probably shouldn’t say, to approach mystery.

KS: Many of these essays take place in non-Western countries. I’m always nervous to represent countries outside of my own experience. As an American writer, I worry about perceiving other cultures through an Imperialist lens, but you skillfully avoid that pitfall. How do you manage the balance between observer and participant?

KO: Well, not going to be possible for me, or you, to avoid being an American traveler, and traveling I’m reminded that I am American far more than at home, when it often slips my mind. But I don’t travel to judge other cultures; I’m there to learn, always to learn. And, frankly, it’s hard for me to imagine feeling superior about being American. Our culture, our popular culture at least, seems to have just floated away from the actual experience of living. I often think of what James Agee called, in his “Knoxville, Summer of 1915,” “the mean goodness” of our living, as an expression of the very things we’re in danger of forgetting. It’s easier for me to recall such things traveling in cultures richer in “mean goodness” than our own.

KS: How would you define the word travel? What do you want your readers to take away from this book in regards to how they view travel?

Cannot_Stay_CoverKO: Travel can mean many things, many of them good, admirable. I hope in writing about how I travel I haven’t denigrated any of those good ways, anyone else’s good reason for going.  Which acknowledges, I guess, that not everyone travels for an admirable reason, as anyone knows who has seen a Western man, often an old man like me, with a local girl on his arm.

That said, I don’t think of travel as vacation. I feel vacant enough without taking a vacation. I travel hoping to get further in, to find in the world and myself a common humanity. I travel to awaken from the trance of our culture, the trance that leads us to assume that our ways are the ways. To travel is to know, to feel, that our ways are our ways and that’s all. I consider it a good trip if I suffer as much “culture shock” coming home as going.

And I travel for beauty, to be undone by beauty. Just for the oh of it. To be always alert would be to see beauty everywhere, I suppose, but, fallen as we are, the beauty that is always there is just more available traveling. And I want it.

What do I hope readers will take away from Cannot Stay? Encouragement.

KS: As much as Cannot Stay is a book about travel, it is also a book about home, and even on a more micro level, about the body as a kind of home that we carry with us at all times. I love the lines,

 “And I like to think that it’s as a metaphor for our life together that a field of fireflies appeals to us, a starry night, the twinkling of city lights out the window on a long flight home. What we feel then, I think, is nostalgia, not for a home lost, but for a living world.”

You’re also a solo traveler in many of these essays, yet there is always a sense of community, and of a search for community. I’m having a difficult time formulating an actual question here, but I’d love to hear more of your thoughts on these subjects.

KO: Often, most often, my wife declines to travel. We have had good trips together but she generally prefers home to what for her is the anxiety of traveling, and if she’s not going, I prefer to travel alone. Traveling with a partner or a friend, though it’s counterintuitive, is often isolating. To attend to your companion you attend less to the world you’re traveling through, to the people you meet, and, just by being there, your companion fulfills social needs that would otherwise push you to make contact in what is to you a strange world, to find if not community what you have in common with people who might seem, at first, very different from the people you left behind at home. We all thrive and suffer. Easy to know this intellectually, but good to feel it down to the bone.

KS: What’s next? Writing project? Life? Travel?

KO: Although I’m still traveling, I don’t seem to be writing about it. Perhaps I’m only on hiatus and will one day return to travel writing, but recently, and slowly, I’ve been finding my way into what for me is a new kind of essay, meditative, quietly lyric, incorporating images (for instance, “Not Sleeping, Yet” in Green Mountains Review. And for years I’ve felt a swelling in my imagination that I hope will prove to be a novel and not an aneurysm. Do we ever really know where life is taking us?


Kevin Oderman‘s first literary book was a collection of essays, How Things Fit Together (winner of a Bakeless Prize in nonfiction). Subsequently, he published an expatriate novel, Going, set in Granada, and a second expatriate novel, White Vespa, set on the Greek island of Symi. Twice he has lived abroad as a Fulbright Fellow. He taught Modern American Poetry as a Senior Lecturer at Aristotle University in Thessaloniki, Greece, and then American literature to M.A. students at Punjab University in Lahore, Pakistan. He is a Professor of English at West Virginia University. Cannot Stay collects essays on travel written over the last fifteen years.

Kelly Sundberg’s essays have appeared in Guernica, Slice Magazine, Denver Quarterly, Mid-American Review, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. Her essay “It Will Look Like a Sunset” is included in Best American Essays 2015, and she had a “Notable” essay in Best American Essays 2013. Sundberg is a doctoral candidate at Ohio University, a solo mom, the Managing Editor of Brevity, and she divides her time between Athens, Ohio and living off the grid in backcountry Idaho.


The Numbers of the Day

September 11, 2015 § 26 Comments

Author Photo-Larger B&W-2014A guest post from Steven Church, marking the day:

The date was Sept. 11, 2014 and I’d just left the Prospect Park Zoo in Brooklyn after watching the 11:30 sea lion show. Not far away, across the Hudson River, in Manhattan, thousands of other people were celebrating the 13th anniversary of the attacks on 9/11. Celebrating is not the right word. Remembering. Grieving. Thinking. Trying to contain it in some way. And if collective thought has a weight, like barometric pressure, it seemed as if I could feel the memories hanging in the air that day like a rain that wouldn’t fall; people were quieter, the world a little slower and more patient, perhaps. Or maybe this is just the meaning I stitched to that day in the fabric of my memory.

After the zoo, I walked down and around the block, past the Brooklyn Library with its impressive edifice, and found a café where I could have a beer and a pork sandwich and use the café’s free wi-fi service to catch up on my facts about Prospect Park.

Many people remember, for example, the “Miracle on the Hudson,” on Jan. 15, 2009 when Captain Chesley Sullenberger successfully landed US Airways flight 1549 on the Hudson River after slamming into a flock of Canadian geese shortly after take-off from LaGuardia Airport.

Not as many people, perhaps, remember that the geese had come from Prospect Park. And fewer people know that “snarge” is the word for the residue left on a plane or in its engine after an encounter with a bird. I didn’t know this, or that snarge can clog an airplane engine and, if there’s enough snarge, it can disable the engine permanently. Nor did I know that, one year later, in response to the snarge-related Miracle on the Hudson, federal authorities would authorize the capture and gassing of 1,235 Canadian geese in New York City parks, four hundred of them alone from Prospect Park. Authorities also suffocated 1739 goose eggs by coating their shells with corn oil.

I sat in that café and read the stories and did the math and thought, that’s a lot of dead birds. In all 2,974 geese or eggs were exterminated during the program. Next I looked up the official number of dead in the 9/11 attacks: 2996. A difference of twenty-two. The dead geese alone, if we assume an average weight on the low end of seven pounds, would weigh 8,645 pounds, or almost four-and-a-half tons.

A woman sitting across from me was reading a medical terminology textbook, scribbling notes, and occasionally talked to herself, mumbling the music of her discipline. She existed there, in the bustling middle of this world, and seemed to be studying for a test.

This world is full of tests, I thought, and troubling facts that can’t always be calculated, tallied with numbers in the margins. I thought about the weight of grief and the weight of loss and about the other side of miracles. I thought about my children, 2,922 miles away and how, the day before, my son had texted me to tell me that his bus was running late, expecting me to be there for him, and how I had to remind him that I wouldn’t be there, that his grandparents would pick him up.

“I’m in New York,” I said.

“Oh, right. I forgot,” he said, pausing for a moment. “You’re just usually here.”


That day, thirteen years ago, isn’t even a word. We don’t have language to contain the loss. We can barely name it, label it, or control it.

That day is a number. A collection of numbers. Code for a loss we cannot fully calculate.

Numbers dead. Numbers wounded. Numbers gassed or greased. Number of years at war. Numbers saved. My son, thirteen years old now, has never lived in a country that wasn’t at war.

That day in 2014 I felt the sinking weight of all the numbers that define us—phone numbers, social security numbers, confirmation numbers, account numbers, PIN numbers, patient numbers, and mileage numbers.

After lunch, I stopped to sit on a bench in the Brooklyn Botanical Garden. Briefly, reluctantly, the cloudy quilt of sky opened up and rained, but only for a few minutes, just enough to break the grip of humidity over the city. The people picnicking on the lawn had just started to scramble for cover when the rain seemed to rise back up into the clouds and hang in the air like a beaded curtain, waiting to part again and finally, softly fall.


Steven Church is the author of four books of nonfiction, most recently the collection of essays, Ultrasonic. His work has been published in Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, Fourth Genre, River Teeth, and elsewhere. He’s a founding editor of the literary magazine, The Normal School, and teaches in the MFA Program at Fresno State.

An Interview With Hardy Jones on People of the Good God

September 10, 2015 § 2 Comments

In People of the Good God, Hardy Jones explores a search Hardy began in his twenties to better understand Cajun identity and how Cajun culture evolved into the present day.  Hardy combines memoir, food writing, travel writing, and music writing in his book, and Constance Squires discusses the process of bringing so much history and cultural texture into one work in this interview:

Constance Squires: Hardy, I am always interested in tracking what feels to me like the motivating impulse in a book—what drove you to write it.  There’s a great sense of personal awareness in these essays and the sense of your own journey is a strong structural principle connecting them.  How would you describe your motivating impulse for this collection?

Hardy Jones

Hardy Jones

Hardy Jones: The motivating impulse was a self-education on Cajun history and culture, and as I discovered this information, then the writing began to focus more on me and my place in the culture. While I did some work via traditional research outlets, my greatest pleasure came from going into the field. I wanted to talk to Cajuns who were from a French-speaking world and compare and contrast their lives to my primarily English-speaking world. In this manner, the interviewees became mirrors for myself. In addition to educating myself, early on I saw my purpose as bringing Cajun history and culture to readers. This purpose guided me through the early drafts, but as I began the final revisions I wanted the book to entertain and be artfully written. Hopefully these different purposes melded in the book.

CS: This may be a related question.  Which essay came first?  How did it come about and how did you begin to realize you had a collection’s worth of questions to answer about your own background?  Was it a piecemeal project or did you know early-on that you were working on something larger?

HJ: The essay that came first was “I Got Me a Baby Bull,” which also my first attempt at writing creative nonfiction. I wrote that essay in a workshop I took from Randall Kenan in the MFA Program at the University of Memphis. Initially, the essay was simply written to fulfill an assignment. But the essay received praise from my classmates and professor. At the time, I wrote fiction set in Louisiana using Cajun characters, but those stories were not nearly as strong as this essay. After writing “I Got Me a Baby Bull,” I began focusing on essays about Louisiana and fellow Cajuns. By the time that semester ended, I had an idea for the book that became People of the Good God. As the semesters unfolded, I realized that I would be able to use this manuscript for my thesis. Once that realization occurred, the project truly came together.

CS: As a fiction writer, you know how delicate a matter it is to insert backstory into a narrative.  How to give the necessary exposition without derailing the forward motion of the story?  What’s the right balance?  I felt like you were using those skills in these essays in how you provided the necessary historical background without letting it overtake the essays.  Was this a struggle? How did you decide how much history to cover? Were you ever tempted to provide footnotes?

HJ: Balancing backstory with the forward flow of the essays was always problematic, especially in the book’s middle essay “Rendez-vous des Prairie Cadiens.” That essay is set in the Jean Lafitte Cultural Center, so my task as author was to write about the place—which has great exhibits on Cajun history and culture—without boring the reader with a static essay. To make the essay more kinetic, I included flashbacks to family stories or experiences in my life to make the information from the Cultural Center come alive—supporting the abstract with the tangible. Midway through writing the book, I considered footnotes. In one way, footnotes would have been an easier way to provide historical information. However, I enjoyed the challenge of placing historical information in the essays, while maintaining an entertaining voice in the writing.

CS: Do you think you’ll ever use any of these stories about your ancestors for fiction?  Is there historical fiction about the Acadian migration, or about Cajuns hiding in the swamp to avoid fighting in the Civil War, or translating French during World War II, in your future?

HJ: A decade ago, I started a novel based on Grand-grandpere’s experiences hiding in the swamp during the Civil War. I don’t have many stories about him, so I was creating a story based on a diaphanous figure. I only got a few pages into that story. But I do plan to return to it. Normally, when I write long fiction, I use more “real life” details to build the fiction upon. An example is my mom; she was the basis for the mother character in my novel Every Bitter Thing. As far as some of the other material, I don’t have any plans to fictionalize them. At this point, I feel as if most of that material has served its purpose as nonfiction. But I know better than to say never.

CS: I loved that the essays had elements of the detective story about them.  You were trying to determine the truth of certain apocryphal stories—was Grand-Grandmere a Cheyenne from Indian Territory?—and the way you proceeded to weigh the evidence was engaging.  Did you deliberately organize the essays around these mysteries-to-be-solved?

HJ: In a sense, yes, I did design the collection around mysteries to be solved. The first half of the book deals more with family and my personal experiences, the middle essay is a synopsis of Cajun history via the Cultural Center, and the subsequent essays deal with other Cajuns’ experiences in the middle and latter part of the 20thcentury. Once the collection had explored some of my questions in the first half of the book, I thought the rest of the book should incorporate others, thereby showing the variety in Cajun culture as well as similarities that run through all families.

CS: What has been the response to People of the Good God from the Cajun community?  I would think they’d love it.

HJ: I have heard from some Cajun readers and one Acadian, and I was anxious to hear what they thought. As an author, it is one thing to place myself on the page, but writing about a culture casts an even wider net. But I am glad to report that I have heard comments such as: Reading the book reminded me of my life. As a memoirist, hearing readers say that the work reminded them of their lives is one of the best compliments to receive.

CS: Finally, I fell in love with your mother reading this collection.  She’s a character all the way through, and the essays really feel like an homage to her in many ways.  Can you talk about her influence and the role she played in these essays?

HJ: I like your phrasing, “an homage” to my mom, because in a sense the book is. Teasing out her history, I learned my own. As I mention in the book, her stories were my introduction to the culture, and as I wrote the book, she was present for some of the interviews. On a practical level, she helped me with some family history or putting me in contact with those who could help. Plus, she allowed me to use her gumbo, catfish coubillion, and chicken fricassee recipes. In the final revisions, however, is when I began questioning some of Mom’s stories about when she met Dad, why and how she left her first husband, why she returned for her other children; when I began working on those questions I feared that I might make Mom unsympathetic, but I felt that those questions added a layer of tension to the writing that the book originally did not possess. In the end, questioning some of Mom’s stories was necessary for me as an individual, a son, an author, and for the book.


Hardy Jones is a two-time Pushcart Nominee, author of the novel Every Bitter Thing, and the memoir People of the Good God. His creative nonfiction has been awarded two grants. His short stories have appeared in the 2009 Dogzplot Flash Fiction Anthology, The Best of Clapboard House Literary Journal, Southern Gothic: New Tales of the South, and Summer Shorts II. He is the co-founder and Executive Editor of the online journal Cybersoleil, and he is the Flash Fiction Editor for Sugar Mule. Dr. Jones is an Associate Professor of English and the Director of Creative Writing at Cameron University. He splits his time between Lawton, Oklahoma and Si Sa Ket Province Thailand. More information on Hardy Jones can be found here.

Constance Squires’ first novel, Along the Watchtower (Riverhead) received the 2012 Oklahoma Book Award for Fiction and her second novel, Live from Medicine Park, is forthcoming. Her short stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Guernica, Shenandoah, The Atlantic Monthly, This Land, The Dublin Quarterly, The Rolling Stone 500: Better Writing Through Better Music, Arcadia, and elsewhere. Her nonfiction has appeared in The New York Times, Salon, The Village Voice, Largehearted Boy, and on the NPR program Snap Judgment. She teaches Creative Writing at the University of Central Oklahoma.


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