Monday, May 26, 2014

An Exuberant Rebel Life of Its Own: An Interview with Sophia Ballou

The collaborative project at Sophia Ballou has been one of the most rewarding facets of my career as a writer. Sophia Ballou has been elemental in my process during these last few years. It began on a sunny day in April, 2010 in the dingy basement of Hooked on Colfax when Corrie Vela and I first talked about writing and the Internet. If you have been following my blog during these months, please note that this also marks the beginning of Anthony ILacqua. The subsequent conversations are still coming to fruition. She has generously given me a forum for my writing over the years; a place for my writing, my novel Sand and Asbestos, some short fictions, chapbooks and poetry. It's also noteworthy to mention that the first day Corrie and I got acquainted, we watched the news on the bar's TV. Some jackass told the news than his young son was in the upper-atmosphere inside a UFO looking balloon. It was a surreal experience, watching the newscast, and it's been a bit surreal ever since. 

An Exuberant Rebel Life of Its Own: An Interview with Sophia Ballou

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

SB: You’re welcome! Thank you for interviewing me. I was really moved when I read these questions. I was sitting in a conference room taking a moment from an intense day to check my email. Somehow the questions made me a little weepy because I felt like your questions encompassed my multi-faceted life, which sometimes I don’t even understand, much less anyone else!

AFI: You and I have known one another for several years and it has been fun working together. Can you tell me about how Sophia Ballou got started? Where did the name come from? And how can you define the difference between Corrie Vela Ehler and Sophia Ballou?

SB: Sophia Ballou started while I was house sitting on Vine Street in Denver, in a house filled with books that was owned by an activist (who I knew very little) who was traveling. She needed someone to watch her house (and books) and I guess I got inspired. I remember I was reading Winston Churchill at the time, which incidentally, I am reading more of again.

The name came from Sophia – my great great grandmother on my father’s side, and Ballou, my grandmother’s last name (and the last name I was born with) on my mother’s side. My family has always been a mystery to me, and I felt like it was a statement about knowing these people that made my life possible. I’ve learned more about both of them since that time.

Corrie Vela Ehler is definitely me, Tor’s wife, Gabi’s mom, the girl who gets dressed up as an auditor and flies all over the country looking at banking transactions, the one that pays the bills so to speak. It isn’t as if I step into a literal alter ego to write, but I think it signifies for me personally that part of my mind that is creative, as opposed to extremely analytical. I’ve always struggled to balance these two sides of my life. I would love to throw down and do one or the other, but I find I can’t live without either one of them, so I do both.

AFI: It seems like music plays into your work. Much of your poetry feels lyrical, and occasionally you add music to your blog. What music inspires you? Do you listen to music when you write? Do you find your poetry lyrical?

SB: Absolutely. I am listening to music right now. Headphones are a key piece of my apparatus, I have about 8 pairs now, because that way at least one pair will make it into my bag. I go through phases with what I listen to. The past month it has been obscure British DJs on Soundcloud.

AFI: What was the impetus to start the blog at Sophia Ballou? What has been the biggest challenge during your time there? What has been the greatest reward? The two post I like the best are: “Commentary” from May 17, 2010 and most recently “Clandestine Behavior” from January 10, 2014. Can you give me some insight to these two posts? In your bio you mention “Southern Sleep” March 21, 2012 and the “Boomtown” Series from the fall of 2013 as your top posts. Why these two? I feel like these posts are a chronicle of what you see in your day-to-day world. They are insightful, beautiful and sometimes chilly. How much of these are inspired by your current work experience?

SB: I started the blog for an outlet as I remember, and never expected anyone to read it. I definitely hoped my mother would not read it. I had a list of people I hoped never actually found it, I think! The biggest challenge has been to keep writing.

I actually don’t remember exactly what “Commentary” was inspired by. I think it was over some frustration I was having with being a woman, the perceived way I was being held back. In retrospect of course, I’m only held back by myself and as far as I let myself be. “Clandestine Behavior” was part of a series I ran in January, under the heading of Wild Society. The Great Gatsby craze may have inspired that one.

"Southern Sleep" is the one thing I’ve written that can transport me back to the feel of that time and what I was writing about. I would go outside to have a cigarette in the parking garage of the hotel I was living at in Dallas and stand by the rail. It was always raining. If I looked down, there were these terrible patched streets below (“Streets are hieroglyphic paved, no one can read them except the rain”). If I looked up, there was a high rise with a mannequin torso in the window across the street, about 15 stories up. (“The high rise top window is lit neon blue, pink, a torso in the corner window”). The corner bar, was quite literally around the corner from the hotel, the famous Stoneleigh Ps, which has had (and still has) an exuberant rebel life of its own. If you ask where Stoneleigh’s is now, the locals say “Which one? The hotel or the pharmacy?” There are a bunch of unique old characters that have been sitting at that bar since the 60’s. Another story, down the line.

AFI: If we can diverge from writing for a moment, let's talk about your other life. In a phrase, how would you describe the work you do for a paycheck? It seems very high stress and analytically minded. How does this sort of work influence your writing? In the last 12 months, how many towns have you worked in? How many flights have you had? How do you think the hustle of daily life colors you as a writer? I mean, most people think writers or poets have an idyllic life where they tend garden flowers in the morning and compose words at their leisure. How would you describe your writing process?

SB: Officially, I am a Bank Secrecy Act and Anti Money Laundering auditor. Which means people run screaming when I approach. (in jest)  It can be stressful, because we work incredibly long hours, with sensitive material, deadlines, and spend a lot of time examining the law and how it is being implemented (or not) in American banking institutions. We deal with subject matter that includes looking for transactions or oversights in the system that may indicate drug money, terrorism activity, sanctioned country activity etc. We work with people who are working very hard to make the environment a better one, in the spirit and letter of the law, but it is difficult to have an auditor come look and pull apart your work, and I appreciate the energy that these people dedicate in my direction to let me do my job. I have only lived in three towns in the past 12 months, Sioux Falls South Dakota for five months, Denver, and Dallas for a month. The challenge of this is flying twice a week. I have lost count of the flights so this was a good question and I looked at it. I’ve been on over 50 flights in the last 6 months of work. The sleep deprivation is the hardest for me. Sometimes you get up at 3am and catch a 6am flight, to get to the office in a different time zone at 9am. Then you try to sleep in an unfamiliar hotel, and by the time the week is over you are exhausted out of your mind.

My writing sometimes sits dormant for some time because of all the travel. But when I am traveling I keep a word doc on my desktop and try to put down some words every night about the day. Sometimes it develops into fun stuff, and sometimes it simply is a journal that I’m pretty sure no one wants to read. (“I ate a sandwich. I’m exhausted, that’s it for now.”) Sometimes it’s better than that. Such as Hotel Heart, (My hotel heart is 100 years old and sleeps in hospital sheets/ I wake to the tribal wind talking about God and his devil/And the sound of the metal freeway/Only iron horses run the plains now.) which I wrote when the desire to crawl up the Sioux Falls hotel wall that I had been in for months was all I could think about. When I am at home, it is a bit more of a romantic process, I may actually pick flowers. Tor and I are passionate about gardening.

AFI: We've been in collaboration for a number of years. I'm very proud of our project together, and I think working with you has improved my writing, and my thinking. Thanks for including me.
There has been a few handles at Sophia Ballou over the years. Tell me where “Word Tribe” and “Wild Society” came from.

SB: I’ve always played around with the masthead [description] of it. Nothing will stick except for Sophia Ballou.

AFI: If Sophia Ballou could be anything, what would you like to see it be? What's the next evolution?

SB: I’d love to have a format like the New Yorker or Vanity Fair, where many people write about many things. If anyone wanted to do this with me I’d be game. I think finding someone like you Anthony who is completely self sustaining and running their own show and keeping the work coming, is difficult to find. It is easy to find people who say they want to collaborate; it is more difficult to find people who actually do collaborate. Enthusiasm backed by action, those are the people who would make the format I play with in my head, a reality.

AFI: Some of the highest viewed posts are ones that you shared from others: “Guadalupe is a Girl Gang Leader in Heaven “by Clarissa Pinkola Estes from December 4, 2012 and the two posts with Czeslaw Milosz from March of 2013 come to mind. How do you think the works of others fit into the overall feel of Sophia Ballou?

SB: Those are two writers that are extremely inspirational to me. Clarissa Pinkola Estes book Women Who Run with the Wolves changed my life. It’s a book that speaks to the essential parts of the human psyche that need creative expression without apology to those who perceive us as leaving an “appropriate” path. It helped me to embrace who I am, even without understanding exactly how being very creative and very analytical at the same time works out. I’ve recommended it and gifted that book to many other women. I’d give it to a man, but I somehow feel it would go unread because it says WOMEN in the title.

To Begin Where I Am was inspirational to me and I based on his writing. My husband is an immigrant, and I felt Czeslaw Milosz spoke beautifully to the refugee/exile state, which in my mind is applicable to situations other than geographical or political. I felt myself kind of a refugee when I left home, although I realize that I have no right to actually apply that word to my situation, being that actual refugees experience trials I can’t begin to imagine. I had no family support and I made my own way. I was very alone. It is remarkable to read someone or meet someone who understands the challenge this is. This was my strong connection when I met my husband, and also to this book.

AFI: I know from other conversations we've had over the years that you don't consider yourself a writer. Of course, I think this is crazy. I admire you and your work so much. I guess I have to just ask: why do you feel this way? What does it mean to you to be a writer?

SB: I am surrounded by writers that have spent a lifetime earning a PhD or Masters degree in writing. I guess I feel I haven’t earned it, because the process of getting this piece of paper sounds incredibly painful, and I have experienced no pain in the process.

AFI: Let's talk about your favorite writers. Who are your biggest influences? Who do you admire the most? Are there writers who you try to emulate? There are some wonderful writers in your circle, including your husband, Tor. Is there anyone in your circle who inspire you?

SB: I admire Anne Sexton because her writing is brutal. Charles Bukowski because he didn’t seem to care what anyone thought of him, or his writing. I got really inspired by Wallace Stevens a while back, for probably a somewhat odd reason. I was inspired by the fact that he spent most of his life working as an executive for an insurance company, but managed to win the Pulitzer Prize for poetry for his Collected Poems in 1955. I read Poetry Magazine and am constantly inspired by many writers there. I think the only person I try to emulate is Anne Sexton, not her style but honesty. I think she earned that through her incredible struggles with depression. I am thankful to not have to earn it in that way.

In my circle, Sara Veglahn is inspirational to me, mostly because she also never steers clear of subject matter that may be difficult for others to explore. My long time friend Paul Glader, formerly with the Wall Street Journal has been an inspiration to me. He writes on all manner of subjects, business, politics, and academics and is just one of the smartest writers I know. I admire both of them for their dedication to their life’s work.

AFI: If you had the time and the circumstances, what would you write? What's calling to you?

SB: I’m thinking about writing a little series called “Begin Again.” I haven’t written anything for the blog in a month or so, and it would be a fun way to re-start.

AFI: Thank you for participating. It's always a joy.

SB: You are awesome. Thank you for all of your continued support of my meanderings. I look back and can’t believe we’ve had collaboration for this long. It is something I am incredibly proud of.

Corrie Vela-Ehler lives in Denver, Colorado. She adores her husband and daughter, and is grateful every day for each friend and family member who has contributed to her happiness. As well as the cat.

Anthony ILacqua holds a Master of Fine Arts of writing at Goddard College. His third novel Warehouses and Rusted Angels is forthcoming from Ring of Fire Publishing in late 2014. His former novels, Dysphoric Notions (2012) and Undertakers of Rain (2013) are both published through Ring of Fire Publishing. His screenplays have been made into widely praised films at Rocket House Pictures where he directs as well as writes. He currently functions as editor in chief for Umbrella Factory Magazine that he co-founded in 2009. Meet Anthony at his blog:

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