Monday, December 17, 2012

Waiting for Life in Tucson, Arizona. Part the Last.

The State of Kansas and other unmapped places, an interview with Julianna Spallholz. December 2012

We went to the aquarium in Denver to see the sights. We wandered through the exhibitions of theoretical marine life of the Colorado River from the top of the continent to the Gulf of California. It was May of 2008. Julianna and Scott were just pushing through Denver on their way to New York. They were on their way from Tucson in search of new memories. They were doing, that summer what Janice and I would do years later: an odyssey to the northern climes and parenthood. It was a warm day in Denver, all those years ago, and the aquarium was a fun diversion.

When I consider all the growth as writers that both Julianna and I have experienced since that day in May 2008, I am simply astounded. Her book The State of Kansas which was released in December of 2011 is a great point of fact. This book is a delight to read. As I read these short and very short fictions I moved through the spectrum of feelings. There were the sad feelings, then there were chuckles and there were the sudden alarms of the bizarre, the macabre or the tense. And then I think, I know this person. I know this writer. And this writer is a dear friend. A dear friend who has at times guided me, encouraged me and dared me. She's taught me a thing or two as well—I did get a lesson in second person narration, as you will see in the interview below.

AFI: First of all, thank you for participating in this interview.

Julianna: You’re welcome. And thank you for asking to interview me.

Available at
AFI: I suppose the question of the hour, what do you think of The State of Kansas? The book was released last December, so you've had a year with your first book out in the world, do you feel differently about the book now than you did a year ago? Have any readers contacted you?

Julianna: I suppose, yes, I do feel differently about the book now than I did when it was published a year ago. But the real difference was in how I felt about the book when it was published a year ago versus how I felt about the book when I finished writing it. The book was written very slowly over a six-year span, was finished a year before it was accepted for publication, and was accepted for publication more than two years before it actually materialized. So, like, a child who was born the year I wrote the first part of the book was almost ten years old by the time the book came out.

Some readers have contacted me. I’ve had great receptions at the readings I’ve given, and a handful of lovely reviews. And the book elicited some nice solicitations from a few excellent journals, like Indigest, Free State Review, and Nöo. I’ve really appreciated all that, especially because I’m not all that great at reaching out and marketing myself. The book has taught me that about myself. The book has taught me that I am a very slow writer and that I am a lazy and/or insecure self-promoter. The book itself, though? I like it. I still like it. It’s a lot stranger, I think, than I thought it was. And sadder. And it’s about as funny as I thought it was. The funny parts are my favorite parts.

AFI: Going deep into the past, when did you first decide to be a writer? Was there an “a-ah” moment? Do you recall the title of your first short story?

Julianna: I wrote my first short story for 9th grade English, and my teacher read it out loud in class because it was so f-ing good. It was called “Priorities,” which was a terrible title -- I’ve never gotten any better at titling, incidentally -- and it was about a nerdy junior high school girl who blows off her loyal-to-the-end best friend because she is tricked into thinking the coolest kid in school likes her, but of course it was just a trick, and then she’s humiliated in front of the cool kids and also feels like a big jerk because she was mean to her best friend.

I don’t think I ever had an a-ha moment about wanting to be a writer. I just had a series of moments where people told me I was good at writing, and I realized that I liked doing it. During my formative years I really wanted to be a Broadway musical theatre actress. But by the time I got to college I had somehow switched that to the more practical pursuit of becoming a writer of fiction and poetry. That was sarcasm.

I still want to be as good, as natural, as unburdened a writer as I was in the 9th grade. I’m not saying that to be quaint. I really mean it.

AFI: In your early writing days, who were you reading? I mean, who were your earliest influences?

Julianna: In high school I loved Salinger and Hemingway and John Densmore’s -- the drummer of The Doors -- autobiography, Riders on the Storm, as funny as that is. In it it said that Jim Morrison loved some poem called “Howl,” so then in college I became mesmerized by the Beats and William Blake. I also studied some postmodern philosophy in college, which had a profound effect on my thinking. It made me not trust words or men … though they remain two of my favorite things.

The Catcher in the Rye is probably still officially my favorite book.

AFI: Salinger is one of my favorites too. Have you been to the state of Kansas?

Julianna: No. I feel bad. Though I realize that Kansas does not give a rat’s ass whether I go to it or not.

AFI: I have a fascination with location (space, place) and the writer's process. For instance, John Steinbeck is one of my favorite writers and so much of his writing is location important. That said, In reading The State of Kansas, the reader finds many physical, geographic locations. In “Arizona,” we meet Ruby Jetts and and cabinets. Of course, Arizona comes up later in “A Brief Introduction to Downtown Tucson, Arizona.” We also get some great New York locations: “Neighborhood” and “The White Cat.” Then there is an idea of the woods, ominous woods really in “Woods,” “Doctor,” and “Village.” How influential have the places you've lived been to the settings of these stories? Do you write about these places while you're currently living in them, or do you write about them in a sort of retrospection? How much do the locations drive the process of the story? And do you think you could write such a piece as say, “Arizona” and remove setting and title and keep the flavor?

Julianna: Location dominates a lot -- far too much, in fact -- of my thinking. I’ve moved a lot in my adult life. I don’t seem to be a settler, though I’d like to be one, and I feel a particular pressure to find the right place to settle, since I now have a child. I’m always painfully aware of where I am. I’m always critiquing my environment and am almost always dissatisfied, even angry with it, in the ways it inevitably disappoints. So location influences the subjects of my writing tremendously. In a piece like “Arizona,” I think the title could be removed and the story would stand, but I wanted that title because for me the piece is almost like a confrontation with the place. In it, the narrator ends up drunkenly and angrily kicking a cabinet. The anger there is not, of course, in reality, Arizona’s fault, but the circumstances that made the narrator angry could not have happened anywhere else. I wrote it while I lived in Arizona.

There’s a great essay I teach by the late Harry Crews, called “Why I Live Where I Live,” and in it Crews explains that he lives in Gainesville, Florida, because the city is the correct distance from his hometown: just close enough and just far enough away to allow him to write about where he came from. I, in turn, have realized that I can write about anywhere from anywhere, while I’m there or not there, right now, or later, or whatever. All I need is privacy, quiet, and time, three things that are difficult to come by. On those rare occasions that I have those three things, I don’t give a damn whether I’m in a mouse-infested basement in the North Carolinian woods or the freezing laundry room of my rental, back again in dreary January upstate New York. I have managed to work in these and other immediate makeshift environments.

AFI: The use of second person narration. “Your Maid in Real Life,” “Adult Matters,” and “Thanksgiving,” are examples of this second person narration. Many of your stories feel like they directly address someone(s), was this an intention, or just the flow of the story?

Julianna: Oh, yes, a personal address was intentional. But if I may -- those pieces are actually written in the first person. The “I” protagonist is present in all of them. In a true second person piece, the “you” actually is the protagonist. Not to get all English teacher on you. And you are not the first person (seriously, no pun intended) to interpret those pieces as second person. They are very accusatory, a direct and intimate coming-to-terms between speaker and addressee. The first-person speaker becomes almost invisible in the presence of the one to whom she is speaking. Those pieces were among the most satisfying to write in the book.

AFI: Thanks for setting me straight.  Short (and very short) fictions. How did you get into this type of writing?

Julianna: When I started my MFA program, I intended to write a novel, but it wasn’t going well. All my attempts were drippy and unfocused, and I was wasting time. I got sick of it, reached deep into my frustrated soul, and blasted out a bunch of really short explosive fictions that began and ended in less than one page. I was about 23, so most of them were about feeling emotionally cheated during 23-year-old sex, but the form was what was important. I hadn’t before then heard of anything resembling “flash fiction” or “micro-fiction” or “short-shorts” or whatever they were calling it, but after I started writing this way, my then-boyfriend (a poet who was studying at The New School) gave me Lydia Davis’s Almost No Memory, and I took it to the Cedar Bar down there near Union Square in NYC, and drank vodka gimlets alone of a spring afternoon, and felt quite ecstatic indeed. I had an orange scarf in my hair. That’s one of my favorite memories.

AFI: Beautiful memory, scarf, vodka and all. Again, with the brevity of the pieces in The State of Kansas, how long does it take to refine these stories? Specifically speaking, “ Adult Matters,” “Jump,” “Trunk” and “Recess” are very small yet have impact. Properly speaking, these pieces have all the elements that fiction should have and are well developed. What is the process? Does each draft get smaller than the last? Or do these short fictions pour out of you already refined?

Julianna: The easy answer is that the shortest pieces start out small and usually get smaller. I have done things like switch “the” to “a” and back again to “the,” over and over again for like a year until I feel sure. I take words out then put them back in. Now and then I write something longer, then realize that most of what is there is useless blah blah, that what I’m really trying to say can be said very succinctly. I don’t want to waste people’s time. I only want to use more words when the story I’m telling asks for more words. I enjoy using more words, though, too, when the occasion is right. Sometimes I wish I could loosen up more often.

AFI: It's no doubt that I loved reading The State of Kansas. When can I expect the next novel?

Julianna: Thank you. And I don’t know. I have a lot of unfinished work sort of waiting, a lot of “the’s” that maybe should be “a’s.” I’m slow at this. I haven’t found another way. I have a lot of very short fictions hanging out, and I’ve also been writing some essays about being a teenage failed theatre hopeful. My dream is to accomplish a novel, but this may be akin to dreaming that I get to make love to Morrissey on a moonbeam.

AFI: You have an impressive list of publications, Cranky, Trickhouse, Denver Quarterly, etc., which journal (or experience) stands out in your memory as being exceptional, either good or bad? They all seem to have a great web presence. Have these online magazines helped you with the sale of your book? How much exposure do you think these online magazines have given you as a writer? Incidentally, has a beautiful look. Do you have future plans for your website? Do you think a writer in today's Internet dependent world should have and maintain a website?

Julianna: Such good questions about the publishing world. Perhaps my favorite journal publishing experience was with Caketrain, which is a print journal and press. I think this was my favorite because they published my story, “The White Cat,” -- which was my first post-MFA attempt at longer short fiction -- and they answered my submission in less than 24 hours, which is essentially unheard of for any journal, and especially for a journal of their quality. They publish some top-notch writers, and I felt honored that they felt so sure about my story.

My friend Jennifer Whittingham, who is a graphic designer based in Vermont, designed my website, and also designed the cover of The State of Kansas, which I think is gorgeous. She and I are in conversation about plans to eventually gussy up the website, though sometimes I don’t think I’m a good candidate for having a website at all. Having a web presence suggests that one is always present, and I am not always present, nor do I want to be. For me, writing is very private and, as I’ve mentioned, very slow. I’m in my mid-thirties, which is either oldish or youngish depending who you talk to, but my attitude about the internet and technology in general is that I would like it to lay off. It creates a lot of pressure. Of course I know that GenPop’s website helps with book sales … of course I know that being able to order books online from Small Press Distribution sells more small press books … and I know that this is a good thing. But writing a book and selling a book, to me, are different considerations, and I think that an artist’s ever-presence online might muddy the sincere origins of sincere work. Of course I can speak only for myself. It’s a complex issue, and a new one. Everyone has to find her own place within it.

AFI: You teach, and your students are lucky to have you. What is your advice to young writers out there? Is there advice different than the sort of advice you might give one of your students? Do your students read your publications? If so, what kind of feedback do you get?
-Julianna Spallholz

Julianna: Now and then I am approached by a student who wants to be a writer or a musician or a filmmaker or a painter or what have you. Usually these students know somehow that I’m a published writer, and they think this is somewhat exotic. To anyone who truly wants to spend their lives making art, I tell them not to stop or fade away just because making art is inconvenient. I tell them to read the biographies of the artists they admire, to know that these artists come from many different situations, many of them difficult, many very difficult. I want them to see that these artists worked hard. I tell them that they should expect to do the same. The world isn’t set up to make things easy for artists of any kind. If you have to support yourself, and/or support a family, then you have to expect to burn the candle at both ends.

AFI: Anything else I should know?

Julianna: I guess just that I really appreciate your taking this time with me, and really admire all the work you do as a writer and as a supporter of other writers. You’re a better man than I. But then, I am not a man.

AFI: It's been my pleasure Julianna, it really has. Thank you for your time.

Julianna: Thank you.

Julianna Spallholz has collaborated and performed her short and very short fiction with musicians, visual artists, a DJ, and a chef. She teaches writing and English in upstate New York and is at work on a second collection of short fictions.
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. His novel Dysphoric Notions is available at Ring of Fire Books

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