Monday, June 18, 2012

Considerations of Location on the Writing Process: An Interview with Amanda Bales. May 2012.

Writing Nonfiction Worthy of the Literary Magazine: The Interview

With great pleasure, I interviewed Amanda Bales recently. Even though I've spent some time working with Amanda, and we've had plenty of conversations during recent months, I was surprised at how little I knew Amanda Bales as a writer. Before the interview, I spent a few hours reading some of her recent publications (please see any links where available) and it really made me question how well I knew my colleague. Our conversations start with recaps of Umbrella Factory tasks, and they oftentimes end with the state of affairs in the literary world. The impetus for the following interview is a reaction to the lack of publishable nonfiction submitted to Umbrella Factory Magazine. The supposition is that if the editorial staff at UFM conducts interviews with writers, principally with writers of nonfiction, the UFM nonfiction department will grow. Since I had never conducted an interview before, I logically started with a writer who I felt could help me learn the process of the interview. I also chose I writer I greatly admire.

Considerations of Location on the Writing Process: An Interview with Amanda Bales. May 2012.

AFI: Thank you for participating in this interview.

Amanda: First of all, let me just say that you are forever professional and kind and polite and I endeavor to be more like you in such matters. Now, let’s rock.

AFI: Typing your name in the Google Search bar pulls up an Amanda Bales who has written across the web. Aside from the journals you list in your bio, someone interested in reading your work can find you at Nashville Review, Northwind, Umbrella Factory Magazine and NAP Books. Assuming that you will publish more and more of your work, what implications do you think a permanent archival of the above said pieces will have on your career? In short, are you proud of your published work now and do you expect to be in the future?

Amanda: Typing my name into Google brings-up a whole lotta stuff about a girl who ran track for Missouri and was really good at it. (Brief, weird story: There was a girl in my MFA program at UAF who ran track for Kansas, and Amanda Bales was her arch rival. When she saw my name on the incomers list, she thought that really fast girl from Missouri had now followed her to Alaska and would start besting her marathon times. When I arrived, she was more than relieved. I will never best anyone’s marathon time.)

Now, because I am who I am, and because life is what it is, I cannot work off of an assumption like the one you state above. Let’s shove it aside and focus on the “in short” part of the question: Are you proud of your published work now and do you expect to be in the future?

If I was not proud of what I have written, I would not submit it. I hope with all my hope that life somehow allows me to continue writing, and that I continue to develop as a writer, and alongside this hope is one that wants to be recognized for my efforts in whatever way possible.

AFI: For a moment, let's talk about your poetry. Your poem “xylem/deployment” appears in Nashville Review. Some tags associated with this particular publication are “Okie Writer,” “Ireland,” and “Fairbanks, Alaska.” In reading your bio, we know that you currently reside in Oklahoma and that you received your MFA at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks. Being as well traveled as you are, how much of your travel experience translates to what you write? How much of “xylem/deployment” was influenced by location, and was that location of the poem's inspiration different than the location of poet at the time of writing it?

Amanda: Oh, let’s NOT talk about my poetry. I’m more uncomfortable discussing this than I would be if you asked about my menstrual cycle. I can and will speak about a specific poem, though, with that I’m okay.

So, “xylem/deployment” ….I have no idea where the “tags” you’re discussing come from…Google? Is this a Google thing? “Okie Writer” I guess is because I’m from Oklahoma and write about it sometimes. I think this tag exists because it is something my friend Brooke Sheridan uses when she talks about me, probably because she is especially fond of my folksiness and “Okie” manages to convey this.

Fairbanks, Alaska is where I learned how to write, though I primarily studied fiction while I was there, and the place itself certainly has no direct relationship to this poem.

Ireland has nothing to do with this poem directly, though the genesis of it can be found there.

I lived in Ireland for about half a year and found myself writing poetry after a very long hiatus. I guess it’s the ghost of Yates or something, I’m not sure. Anyway, some archeologists were railing against the draining of bog lands for agricultural use and had gotten permission to go in and salvage as many of the preserved tree trunks as they could find.

I’ve always found the idea of what remains after we are gone to be a compelling one, and the fact that dendrochronologists can read a tree’s rings and tell us about thousands of years of time is beautiful to me. It’s such a solid thing, much more solid than a book or a poem or a statue or a carving. Tree rings are maps of the world that extend long before us and will continue long after us.

Anyway, I read or heard the phrase “cellulose vessels” and thought it gorgeous. I wrote it down.

About a year later, I was at the Kenyon Review Workshop (I call it Writer Camp) and a gorgeous (in both physical person and soul) writer named Sejal Shah used xylem as a metaphor for a person’s inner strength. I liked this, I wrote it down.

Back in Oklahoma, I met quite a few people and families affected by various wars. These were mostly bar conversations, but I wrote down what I could. Also in Oklahoma, at my current residence, there is a pin-oak strung with plastic seed tubes. Song birds skirmish there. I wrote a short description one day.

Then, sometime later, I was digging back through old journals and saw “xylem” and “cellulose vessels” and the description of the tree, so I read as much as I could find about xylem (like, Wikipedia reading, don’t give me a great deal of scholarly credit here). In research I found more gorgeous words like “cavitation” and “tracheid.” I discovered that tracheids are like human arteries; cavitation is like an embolism.

Take all of this, shuffle it around in my brain somehow, and get this poem from pieces found in Ireland and Ohio and Oklahoma.

AFI: Some of your recent fiction has appeared in online journals, “The Caretaker” in Northwind and “Another Kind” in Umbrella Factory Magazine. Locale, place and space seem to be a big part of each of these stories. How much thought goes into a story's setting? How much does a specific locale drive the plot of a piece?

Amanda: I never really understand the first question. The only answer possible is: a great deal. More than I ever put into any other aspect of my life.

For the second, I would say that location places pressure on a character, and pressure is what allows us to explore that character, and the plot of each story is a result of how each character handles pressure.

AFI: “Striation” seems to be the newest publication of yours. This story comes to an emotional point quickly, as fiction should, what was the inspiration for this story? Was it written in a flash of divine inspiration, or was a laborious process of revision? If the former, what was the initial spark? And if the latter, how many edits did it take to come to the “Striation” we read?

Amanda: Last question first: I have no idea how many edits. I don’t keep track of things like that. Do other writers keep track? Do people have, like, hit counters for their work? I edit until I think it’s done. Then I put it away for a while, then I come back and edit some more, and I repeat this for a long time.

Also, I’m not certain Striation is a story. I don’t know what it is. A reviewer called it a poem and I thought, “huh, maybe.” I think it’s successful at whatever it is, so I’m okay with not really being able to name it.

As for how it came about: This character and her mother and the image of the small bottles of sand throwing rainbows over everything was a very small part of a much longer story I wrote that was received as poorly as any story I have ever written. I think someone actually threw it on the ground during a workshop. Other people refused to make eye-contact with me while we discussed it. Only one person liked it, and this person LOVED it, and this person was a poet, which told me something about the strength of image/metaphor verses the strength of character/plot in that story.

I put it away for a while. I went back and culled from it the language I really liked. I started to wonder about exploring this relationship solely with the image of those bottles and not worrying about anything else.

Then I worked on it for who-knows-how-long.

AFI: Moving on, and perhaps staying a moment with this notion of location, I curious about your short story “Striation.” I have to know, where were you living when you wrote this short-short story? The idea of faded family wealth as a Connecticut beach house overlaid on an adventurous Colorado Rockies bicycle trip is fabulous. Equally as fabulous is the idea of striation, which we normal hear in terms of receding glaciers. How much of the title is allegory?

Amanda: Hmmm….allegory….I kinda hope not. Not a big fan of allegory, which is more a result of my being alive in contemporary times than anything else, I know. Well, that and being forced to read Pilgrim’s Progress several more times than I wanted to read it (which probably would have been zero, even though I know it is an important book and I am glad to have read it, which is one of the many reasons I am thankful to educators who forced me to read things I did not want to read).

I guess I’ll let other people decide if they think of the title as allegory or not. My goals for titles are simple. I try to express the story’s content without making a terrible pun.

I wrote that first, terrible short story when I was in Alaska, so it’s interesting that you think of glaciers, but when I hear “striation” I think of sedimentary rock, and the place I most associate with rock like this is Colorado, where I lived for a time, and where my hikes often included gorgeous striated rock formations. The Connecticut beach house connection was a process of elimination. I wanted to juxtapose the rough, wild nature of Kate and her mother’s softer, old-world self, so it needed to be an East Coast place with a beach where some faded wealth families haven’t been completely run-off by the glittery new-guard. Never actually been to Connecticut, by the way, I had to survey friends who know that world.

AFI: Have you read Colette? I'm big fan of Colette. “Striation” reminds me of Colette's “The Other Wife” mostly because of the brevity that speaks volumes. If you become canonized and it was “Striation” that carries your name into American Letters, how would you accept that? You are currently the fiction editor at Umbrella Factory Magazine, and a college instructor. Do you think that any of your current or future students as well as the writers who submit work to you should read “Striation,” more than anything else written by you before taking your class or submitting to your magazine?

Amanda: Never read Colette, though I will certainly do so now. I thank you for the compliment.

As far as being canonized or whatever, I really don’t think about that kind of thing. Don’t get me wrong, I think about what I would say if I got to have lunch with Alice Munro. I think about who I should thank on the acknowledgments page of my first book. I am not without ego or aspiration.

But as far as who winds-up being studied or who gets famous or whatever, I think it’s a pointless exercise. There’s just too much beyond yourself that something like that relies on. Too many variables. I just read the novel Stoner by John Williams. It is a heartbreaking, gorgeous book, and almost no one talks about it, even now. But if I ever write anything on-par with Stoner, you can call me one happy gal.

I work. I work hard. I work to the best of my talents and abilities. This is all I can do. I am happy doing it.

Should my students or submitters read “Striation” and get some idea of what I like? Well, it’s always good to read an editor’s work, but what I can produce isn’t the limit of what I like in literature. I freaking love Calvino. No one ever guesses how much I love Calvino. It’s pretty easy to read what I write and guess O’Connor and Munro and Larry Brown, but this doesn’t mean I only read and enjoy these folks. I will never write like Calvino, but I do really, really love his work.

And, as far as Umbrella Factory stuff goes, I’d say it’s probably a bad idea to read some small, lyric thing like “Striation” and think that’s what we publish, because we don’t. Umbrella Factory existed long before I joined the work crew, and part of their long-standing mission is to publish lengthy, fully-developed fiction. I don’t even think we accept anything under 1,000 words.

As for my students? I would say my students can look at that piece and see an example of what I mean when I discuss concrete language, but I teach undergraduates, typically freshmen and sophomores, so I would never try to impose a kind of style on their work. Those classes are as much about exploration and empathy and encouragement as anything else.

AFI: NAP is a wonderful publication. They seem to have a handle on good writing and their layout is very accessible to readers. How was your experience at NAP?

Amanda: NAP is a wonderful publication, and my experience with them was lovely. For starters, they CALLED to accept “Striation,” which is just about the best thing ever. Much celebratory accordion playing ensued after that phone call.

I think I have two things I want from a journal: that it treats myself and my work with respect. For me, this means answering any questions or discussing edits I might have, which NAP did, ever-so-graciously. For my work, this means presenting the words in a striking way and producing a good-looking journal. Again, NAP managed this in spades. The issue is beautiful, especially in the PDF form.

AFI: With the shift nowadays to online formats and your involvement in online journals what do you expect will happen with future writers/poets?

Amanda: I have no idea what will happen in publishing. Isn’t this the big question for our time? Much more savvy and intelligent people than I can debate this. As they do so, I’ll be in some vaguely sketchy rent house in some place or another, writing.

Amanda Bales hails from rural Oklahoma and resides there once again. Her work has been nominated for the Best New American Voices series and has appeared in such journals as Bateau, Painted Bride Quarterly, and The Southern Humanities Review.

Anthony ILacqua believes in the independent press, small or large, as the best representation of modern literature in America and the ideal place to connect well developed readers to the best writing available.

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