An Interview with Rachel Starnes, Summer Writing Retreat Instructor

“Writing has always been my way of figuring out what I think, and the genre of nonfiction is such a wide open place for exploration.”

-Rachel Starnes

Rachel Starnes is the author of the critically-acclaimed memoir The War at Home: A Wife’s Search for Peace and Other Missions Impossible. She received her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from California State University, Fresno and her BA from the University of Texas. Her essays have appeared in The Colorado Review, Front Porch Journal, and O Magazine. Born in Austin, Texas, she has lived in Scotland, Saudi Arabia, Florida, California, and Nevada, and is currently on the move again with her husband, two sons, and a puppy.

Rachel is teaching a class called “Exploring the Essay: Building the Essential Foundation for Short and Long From Nonfiction” at the 2018 WLT Summer Writing Retreat. Read the interview below and visit the class page to learn more.

Scribe: Your class explores the many forms the creative essay can take. How could writers unfamiliar with the nonfiction genre benefit from your class?

Rachel Starnes: This class will give a good intro to the wide and varied landscape of contemporary nonfiction. It’s a broad genre with a lot of potential and growth right now, and I plan to hit the high points of its development going all the way back to Michel de Montaigne. The goal here is to convey what a dicey proposition it’s been, historically, to say we’re going to write about “the truth,” whether it’s a chain of events that took place, an encapsulation of one particular moment, a portrait of another person’s life, or someone’s own lived experience.

Scribe: Even for the most personal of essays research may be required. How does an essayist go about researching their own life or memories?

RS: We’ll talk a lot about primary sources — photographs, diaries, interviews, artifacts — and their limitations. There are a lot of tools one can use to get at the “truth” of a situation, but the goal here is not to compile a court document or a definitive record. This kind of writing is as much about process as it is about answers. Often, the most interesting parts of the work are the parts where the details refuse to come into focus. Leaning into that, exploring why certain parts are unclear, allowing for alternate viewpoints or competing narratives— those are research methods as well, and often lead to enhanced narrative credibility and a more interesting, multidimensional story. I think a lot of nonfiction writing is about knowing what conversations need to happen off the page, or when to confess to your uncertainty about something and create space in the narrative for possibility.

Scribe: What are the essays or memoirs that have had a big influence on your own writing?

RS: Joan Didion’s collection The White Album and her memoir The Year of Magical Thinking, James Baldwin’s essay “Notes of a Native Son,” and Mary Karr’s memoirs The Liars’ Club, Cherry, and Lit immediately come to mind. I was blown away by Leslie Jamison’s collection The Empathy Exams, Rebecca Solnit’s collection Men Explain Things to Me, and Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich’s The Fact of a Body. I’m excited to be discovering new voices I love all the time.

Scribe: As a writer, what was it that attracted you to the nonfiction genre?

RS: I’m drawn to the idea that there are things we don’t say, either because it seems too hard or it’s considered taboo. I think the true stuff of life often exists in those conversations we’re afraid to have, or the parts of life that have left us tangled up or with the vague feeling of “this keeps happening to me and I don’t know why.” Writing has always been my way of figuring out what I think, and the genre of nonfiction is such a wide open place for exploration. I also think that the more we explore our own areas of contradiction, uncertainty, or discomfort, the more we widen the frame for others to do it as well.

Scribe: What’s the most valuable lesson you’ve learned from teaching nonfiction?

RS: That the old saw is accurate: truth is stranger than fiction. I’ve learned that the people around me are an inexhaustible source of stories. Also, that there’s hope in the idea that a lot of our stories, while fascinating and unique in the particulars, are universal in their themes.

Thank you, Rachel!

For more information on the Writers’ League of Texas 2018 Summer Writing Retreat, click here.

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An Interview with Stacey Swann, Summer Writing Retreat Instructor

“The discussions and exercises we do can be just as helpful to the writer who has already written several novels […] as the writer who is on their first novel attempt.”

— Stacey Swann

Stacey Swann’s fiction has appeared in The Bridport Prize Anthology 2017, Epoch, Memorious, Versal, Covered W/ Fur, and other journals. A past Stegner Fellow, she teaches with Stanford University’s Online Writer’s Studio and in their Novel Certificate Program. She is contributing editor at the literary journal American Short Fiction.

Stacey is teaching a class called “The Fiction Hatchery: Moving Ideas to the Page Through Characterization, Plot, Setting, and Theme” at the 2018 WLT Summer Writing Retreat. Read the interview below and visit the class page to learn more.

Scribe: What was the greatest challenge you faced in starting your own novel?

Stacey Swann: For me, as I began my first novel, my greatest challenge was overcoming my fear of the size of the project. Before that project, I had only written short stories. The idea of writing hundreds of pages around a single idea seemed so daunting. I had to have faith that, if I just kept writing, more ideas for the plot would start to appear. I think that’s why, as a teacher, I’ve become such a fan of different kinds of foundational work at the beginning of project. It helps generate those ideas even before the bulk of the drafting begins, making the length feel less intimidating.

Scribe: In your class, you will discuss how to start a new writing project. What, in your opinion, is the best way to get started?

SS: I always tell my students that the best way to go about a project is the way that feels right to them, specifically. I know that sounds vague! But the fact is that writers all have very different processes, and there is no one right way to finish a novel or a short story. Some writers love to draft with no set agenda and want to surprise even themselves when they write. Other writers really need the structure and scaffolding of an outline, even if it is a very vague and sketchy one, to help them at the beginning of the project. You have to observe your own reactions as you write and hone in on the things that seem the most fun and the most rewarding to you as you work.

Scribe: Not all writers sit down and figure out their stories’ conflicts before they start. How important is the early story-mapping process?

SS: As I mentioned above, there’s a portion of writers that like the conflicts to reveal themselves as they draft the scenes, rather than knowing the conflicts before they begin. But even for those writers, having a general sense of the direction they are heading initially can really help with momentum. Doing that foundational work doesn’t have to mean mapping out the exact events that your characters will grapple with. It may just mean knowing the general type of conflict. For example, in my own novel, I knew some of my characters would be grappling with whether they could forgive a loved one for infidelity. But I didn’t know the exact type of infidelity when I began writing, or what the motivations for the characters were. Those things only solidified for me as I actually began drafting.

ScribeYour work has appeared in numerous anthologies and journals. Would you say that story development is just as important for shorter pieces as well as novel writing?

SSAbsolutely! Whether you are writing a four page short story or a four hundred page novel, thinking deeply about your characters and what’s at the heart of the project—why it’s important to you, the writer—not only can make the drafting an easier process, it can also deepen the complexity and depth of the finished project.

Scribe: What level of writer is your class best suited for?

SS: One of the reasons I love the Fiction Hatchery class is that the format can work for writers of every level. The discussions and exercises we do can be just as helpful to the writer who has already written several novels and/or short stories as the writer who is on their first novel attempt or is trying their hand at a short story for the very first time.

Thank you, Stacey!

For more information of the the Writers’ League of Texas 2018 Summer Writing Retreat, click here.

Meet the Conference Faculty: James Melia

“I don’t differentiate between ‘debut’ or not when I’m considering a work.”

-James Melia

Every year, the Writers’ League of Texas brings a faculty of close to thirty agents, editors, and other industry professionals to Austin for its Agents & Editors Conference. As we look ahead to the 25th Annual A&E Conference, taking place June 29–July 1, 2018, we’re happy to share Q&As with some of our faculty here.

An Interview with James Melia

James Melia previously worked at Doubleday before joining Flatiron Books, where he edits and acquires upmarket commercial fiction, narrative nonfiction, and pop culture. Notable books he has edited include The People We Hate at the Wedding by Grant Ginder (an Entertainment Weekly Summer Must-Read), James Rebanks’s The Shepherd’s Life (which was named one of the top ten books of the year by Michiko Kakutani), and Marc Maron’s Waiting for the Punch. In 2018, James will publish Ron Stallworth’s memoir Black Klansman, the basis for the forthcoming film produced by Jordan Peele and directed by Spike Lee.

Scribe: How would you describe your personal approach to working with an author?

James Melia: Each author (and book) is different. I will say that editing a book is an incredibly personal experience between author and editor​. It’s what I love most about my job. Before we move on to marketing and publicizing the book, it’s just this special thing you and the writer are working on — bouncing off ideas, drafting new chapters, trying a new perspective or tone. Whatever the work might need. My job as an editor is to be the author’s biggest fan, but that also comes with wanting the work to be the best it can possibly be.

Scribe: What do you look for in a debut author?

JM: ​I don’t differentiate between “debut” or not when I’m considering a work in terms of what I’m looking for content-wise. I want whatever I’m reading to totally grab me​ and get my heart racing. There is no better feeling than opening a manuscript and knowing by the end of the first page that you have something special in your hands, something you just want to push into the hands of others and say, “Here. Take this. Read it now!” That’s what I’m always looking for.

Scribe: If you could give writers one piece of advice, what would it be?

JM: ​If you’re not enjoying the writing of it, people probably aren’t going to enjoy reading of it. Follow your instinct and passion.

Scribe: Has there been a project you took on because there was something special or unique about it, even though it wasn’t like projects you usually take on?

JM: ​I’m still pretty young in my career, so I’m pretty game for new challenges. But, I did discover a novel through Instagram once.​

​It was self-published, and I just clicked the link on this stranger’s bio and started reading the book. It immediately drew me in — sort of a millennial Brett Easton Ellis. I’m lucky enough to work for two great publishers that let me buy it, and just this past week the New York Times Book Review ended their review of it with the demand of, “You must read this now!” I think it’s important to think outside the box and test the limits just a bit, now more than ever. The book is called Into? by North Morgan. Follow the Times’ advice and read it now!

Thanks, James!

Click here and here to read our 2018 A&E Conference agent & editor bios.

Click here for more information on the 2018 Agents & Editors Conference, a weekend long event in Austin, TX (June 29-July 1) that focuses on the craft of writing, the business of publishing, and building a literary community.

Meet the Conference Faculty: Vivian Lee

“Ultimately, I am here to protect the author’s voice—what I fell in love with in the first place.”

-Vivian Lee

Every year, the Writers’ League of Texas brings a faculty of close to thirty agents, editors, and other industry professionals to Austin for its Agents & Editors Conference. As we look ahead to the 25th Annual A&E Conference, taking place June 29–July 1, 2018, we’re happy to share Q&As with some of our faculty here.

A Brief Interview with Vivian Lee

Vivian Lee is an editor at Little A, Amazon Publishing’s literary fiction and narrative nonfiction imprint. Her list includes Matthew Salesses’ The Hundred-Year Flood, Viet Dinh’s After Disasters (PEN/Faulkner Finalist), Harold Schechter’s Hell’s Princess, Naima Coster’s Halsey Street, and Natalia Sylvester’s Everyone Knows You Go Home. She graduated from the University of California, Irvine with a BA in Literary Journalism and from the New School University in New York with a MFA in Creative Writing (Non-Fiction). For Little A, she is interested in language and character-driven literary fiction dealing with relationships and identity. For nonfiction, she is looking for personal memoirs, investigative journalism, and anything in popular science. In both genres, she is interested in the intersection of race/class/gender/ethnicity (etc).

 Scribe: How would you describe your personal approach to working with an author?

Vivian Lee: Of course, every author and every story is different, so different approaches work for different writers. However, one thing never changes: this is a partnership. I am always deeply honored whenever a writer trusts their work with me and so I take what I do very seriously. Even before acquisition, I talk to a writer to make sure we’re on the same page: does my vision for this book vibe with the author’s vision? Ultimately, I am here to protect the author’s voice—what I fell in love with in the first place—while also making sure the language, the characters, the plot, and the tension are all there to make it the best book it can be.

Thanks, Vivian!

 

Click here and here to read our 2018 A&E Conference agent & editor bios.

Click here for more information on the 2018 Agents & Editors Conference, a weekend long event in Austin, TX (June 29-July 1) that focuses on the craft of writing, the business of publishing, and building a literary community.

Meet the Members: Amber Royer

Writing forces me to keep learning, face new challenges (every novel’s a unique puzzle to build and solve at the same time), and grow as an empathetic person every time I look through a new set of eyes.

-Amber Royer

A member of the Writers’ League for three years, Amber Royer lives in Dallas.

Scribe: In what genre(s) do you write?

Amber Royer: I write comic space opera, which means it’s science fiction where character development trumps everything else. I’ve also dabbled in writing about time travel, virtual reality, lovesick AIs, and robot dogs.

Scribe: What author would you most like to have a drink with, and what’s the first question you would ask them?

AR: Mark Twain. His travelogues are both hilarious and personal (though no one seems to know — or care — which parts are actually true). I would ask him what it was really like to travel in the late 1800’s and what real events were too weird, sad, or boring to put into the books. I love to travel, too, and I think it would be amazing to take one of his books and go some of the same places to see how the world — and people’s perceptions of it — have changed. I play around a lot with history in my own writing, and in the “Chocoverse” (the universe for the book I have coming out this summer) there is a race of long-lived aliens where individuals alive in my protagonist’s time could have overlapped the later years of Twain’s lifespan.

Scribe: If you were stranded on a deserted island, what book would you want to have with you to keep you sane?

AR: The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. That way I could just read back over the descriptions of the Guide’s cover: large friendly letters that say Don’t Panic. Because I have no idea how to build a boat or a short-wave radio. So if I’m on a deserted island, I’m pretty much doomed. Wait. Can I change my answer to a guide on how to build boats and short-wave radios out of driftwood and coconut husks?

Scribe: What have you learned from your association with the Writers’ League?

AR: How many amazing writers there are in Texas — and how supportive they are of each other’s goals.

Scribe: Where do you see your writing taking you (or you taking it) in the future?

AR: My debut novel has just been released, with a second one to follow next year. I’ve also got a couple of other projects in the works. They all have one thing in common: a sense of fun, while playing with standard science fiction tropes. Hemingway said, “We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.” Every writing project makes a writer stronger, and I’ve got quite a few stored safely out of sight on my hard drive. I’ve been teaching Creative Writing for about a decade now, and I’ve learned something from each of my students. Writing forces me to keep learning, face new challenges (every novel’s a unique puzzle to build and solve at the same time), and grow as an empathetic person every time I look through a new set of eyes. Writing helps decrease stress and increase mental agility, so I see it as helping to keep me balanced.

Scribe: Here at the Writers’ League, we love sharing book recommendations. What’s one Texas-related book that has come out within the past year that you couldn’t put down? 

AR: I write science fiction, but I read in a number of genres, and when I think Texas writers who use Texas as a setting effectively, the China Bayles mystery series by Susan Wittig Albert comes to mind. China owns a herb shop in rural Texas, so she’s alert to Texas plants in her surroundings – and they often serve as clues. This series is a cosy where you are guaranteed to learn something about botany. I’m a few books behind, but the twenty-sixth in the series just came in April.

Scribe: Is there anything else about you that you would like to share with the world? An opportunity for blatant self-promotion! 

AR: My debut novel, Free Chocolate was released on June 5, 2018 from Angry Robot Books, and the launch party is on June 7 (that’s tonight!) at Interabang Books! Telenovela meets Space Opera in a galactic battle to control the only thing Earth has that a hungry galaxy wants: chocolate. Bo Benitez, former paparazzi princess and daughter of Earth’s most famous celebrity chef, gets caught in the middle. Barnes and Noble’s SFF blog named it one of the top 25 SFF debuts to watch in 2018.

Thanks, Amber!

If you’re a Writers’ League member and you’d be interested in being interviewed for our Meet the Members feature, email us at member@writersleague.org for more information. It’s a great way for other members to get to know you and for you to share a bit about what you’re working on!

An Interview with Christine Butterworth-McDermott, Summer Writing Retreat Instrustor

Poetry is about finding the right detail to say what you want to say. It’s about finding a unique and memorable way to make the mundane or everyday vivid.

— Christine Butterworth-McDermott

Christine Butterworth-McDermott is the founder of Gingerbread House Literary Magazine, an online journal that focuses on work with a magical twist. A graduate of Purdue’s M.F.A. program, her first book, Woods & Water, Wolves & Women was published in 2012, and her second, Evelyn As, about Gibson girl Evelyn Nesbit, is forthcoming from Fomite Press. Her poems, stories, and essays have appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Beloit Fiction Journal, Cimmaron, The Normal School, River Styx, and Southeast Review as well as other journals and anthologies. She has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and a Rhysling award, and received two honorable mentions in the Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror. She teaches courses in poetry at Stephen F. Austin State University, which has the only BFA in Creative Writing in the state of Texas, with her husband, writer John A. McDermott.

Christine is teaching a class called “Please & Thank You: Crafting Poems that Express and Explore” at our 2018 Summer Writing Retreat. Read the interview below and visit the class page to learn more.

Scribe: What’s the most valuable lesson you’ve learned from teaching poetry? How has this affected your own writing?

CBM: Teaching teaches me something new every year. Several years ago, I met a student who changed my craft. I was a teacher who was very interested in poems with obvious clarity and narrative. A young man in my Intermediate Poetry class, Tyler, wrote in a  profoundly different style—but there was no denying his talent.

I had a choice to either force him into doing what I wanted or to open myself up to trying to help him make the best poems he could in the way he wanted. We have an undergraduate program at SFASU in which the culminating project is a book-length work, and I was extremely honored when a year later Tyler asked me to be his thesis advisor, because he trusted I could help him be a better poet. His exploration of elliptical imagistic poetry in that collection was instrumental in my trying out that form shortly after.

This form turned out to be the right one for a book of poems I’ve written called Evelyn As, which will be published next year by Fomite Press. I wanted a fragmented image-based form which utilized white space to capture the emotional brokenness of Evelyn Nesbit, a model at the turn of the century, who had a series of traumatic relationships. So, my students teach me as much as I might teach them, and they keep me open to new avenues of seeing the world.

Scribe: Who are the writers that have had the biggest influence on your own writing?

CBM: Perhaps the first writer I ever fell in love with was F. Scott Fitzgerald. One of my favorite sentences of all time is the second sentence of Chapter Three of The Great Gatsby: “In his blue gardens men and girls came and went like moths among the whisperings and the champagne and the stars.” If that isn’t poetic, I don’t know what is.

I loved all of the British Romantics as an undergraduate student, but my senior year I discovered Modernist poets like Wallace Stevens and William Carlos Williams. I’m obsessed with fairy tales and Victorian fiction, both of which are highly symbolic. I devour the work of Alice Hoffman, and I love the femme fatale genre novels of Gillian Flynn and Megan Abbott. Still, while I wrote poetry from the time I was eight, I didn’t study it as a craft until graduate school at Purdue University, where I was getting my degree in fiction. In order to teach an Intro to Creative Writing course, I had to sit in on a class taught by the poet Marianne Boruch. A fabulous poet herself, she was the person who introduced me to Jorie Graham, Mary Oliver, and the contemporary poetry world. She was an incredible teacher and her students responded to her in this amazing. That, along with the insistence of sentence level beauty from my fiction mentors Bill Stuckey, Chuck Wachtel, and Patricia Henley, shaped me as a writer and a teacher. I also began publishing more poetry than fiction.

As I began teaching, I discovered that I really loved Philip Levine, whose work about working class Americans was accessible but profoundly well-crafted. I admire the current work of Dorianne Laux, Kim Addonizio, and William Brewer, whose debut collection I Know Your Kind knocked my socks off. Jamaal May’s Hum, Aimee Nezhukumatathil’s At The Drive-In Volcano, Ross Gay’s catalog of unabashed gratitude, and Ada Limón’s Bright Dead Things are all books I revisit again and again.

Scribe: You talk about using poetry as a form of gratitude in your class description. Can you give an example of one of your own poems that does this, and how you approached writing this poem?

CBM: The concept really comes from an interview with Ada Limón. In it, she says, “I’ve always been a fan of that saying that there are really only two prayers: thank you and please. I’m not a praying person, but I think that same quote can work for poetry. . . I want my poetry to connect to people and truly affect them. I want my poetry to help people recommit the world we are living in, to the ugly mess and beautiful strangeness of it.

This struck a chord with me. I was thinking about how often I wrote from a place of pain. I was seeing a lot of the same from my students. Reading Limón’s interview, and Bright Dead Things, made me reevaluate this idea. What if we could approach poetry from this place of “thank you” or “please”?  I thought it might open up more opportunities for us as writers. It might open us up to joy and recovery.

This is a relatively new concept for me, so I’m still working on poems in this vein, but an older poem I’ve written, “Dead Girls, Not Ours,” has these qualities as both a please and a thank you. It was published in Cider Press Review. I wrote this poem after a friend of mine responded to a poem about dead girls, which was profoundly disturbing to her. I wanted to capture the fact that you have to have hope in the face of fear. I wanted the language to be beautiful, but also capture the feeling of the “ugly mess,” as Limón puts it.

Scribe: Writing poetry requires a much different mindset than other long-format genres. How would you say writing poetry might benefit a novelist or nonfiction writer?

CBM: I actually think that the mindset isn’t that different. Poetry is often a work of nonfiction, but plenty of poets write from personas. Personally, when I’m working on a collection I try to link poems as I go—I try to think of a subject matter that ties together, images that repeat, similar emotions from poem to poem, so that in some ways poems become “chapters” to a larger “story.” Even if you don’t work with deliberate ideas of connection, poetry is about finding the right detail to say what you want to say. It’s about finding a unique and memorable way to make the mundane or everyday vivid. Those are skills that also benefit prose.

Thank you, Christine!

For more on the Writers’ League of Texas Summer Writing Retreat, click here.

Meet the Members: Terry H. Watkins

“Writing tends to be such a solitary pursuit that it is important that you find your tribe, a community of which you can be part.”

-Terry H. Watkins

A member of the Writers’ League of Texas for two years, Terry H. Watkins lives in Austin.

Scribe: In what genre(s) do you write?

Terry H. Watkins: I write literary fiction.

Scribe: What author would you most like to have a drink with, and what’s the first question you would ask them?

THW: I have to confess that I feel that the author has given me everything I need or deserve right there on the page. The questions I’m left with at the end of a book are really more about me, my reaction to the book than they are about the author. Of course, I’d love to dish with Dorothy Parker or ask George Eliot what it was like to defy convention in such a rigid time.

Scribe: If you were stranded on a deserted island, what book would you want to have with you to keep you sane?

THW: I think I’d have to fall back on the classics, Austen or Bronte. On the other hand, maybe I’d go with poetry; Neruda or Oliver, perhaps Olds.

Scribe: What have you learned from your association with the Writers’ League?

THW: It is a wonderfully supportive group. I was at the Agents and Editors Conference last year and everyone was just so nice! They all listened kindly to me talk about my book, answered all my questions, and were just lovely! Writing tends to be such a solitary pursuit that it is important that you find your tribe, a community of which you can be part.

Scribe: Where do you see your writing taking you (or you taking it) in the future?

THW: It’s about to take me to Ireland for research on my second book!

Scribe: Here at the Writers’ League, we love sharing book recommendations. What’s one Texas-related book that has come out within the past year that you couldn’t put down?

THW: I’ve been rereading Larry McMurtry. His books have just been reissued in e-book format so I can have all of them with me anywhere. I think he’s the best writer about Texas there is, whether he’s writing history, contemporary, or essays.

Scribe: Is there anything else about you that you would like to share with the world? An opportunity for blatant self-promotion!

THW: My debut novel, Darling Girl, will be published in October 2018. You can find more about me on Facebook, my website, and my two Blogspot pages: terrywatkins.blogspot.com and terryhwatkins.blogspot.com. I’m still trying to learn how to navigate the social media maelstrom!

Thanks, Terry!
If you’re a Writers’ League member and you’d be interested in being interviewed for our Meet the Members feature, email us at member@writersleague.org for more information. It’s a great way for other members to get to know you and for you to share a bit about what you’re working on!