Contributor Interview: Mary Christensen

As part of the launch of our Spring/Summer 2018 issue, Let Us Gather: Diversity and the Arts, we sat down with contributors to talk about their work in the issue and more. The following interview is part of this series. Please visit our website to see the complete list of contributors to Let Us Gather, to purchase the issue, or to subscribe.


Tell us a little about your work in Let Us Gather: Diversity and the Arts: what inspired it, how you came to write it, etc.

Both poems deal with the liminal space that comes with being multi-racial. It’s that feeling of “otherness,” of not perfectly fitting certain aspects of a race or culture, though your grandmother or first cousin might. Quite a few of my poems explore this. “Curating” looks at this through a made up scenario, while the fashion exhibit in “Out of Style” really did come to an art museum in Portland, Oregon, and my significant other really did take me to it.

Do you have a favorite line, image, or scene from this work?

Oh, this is hard. Both of these poems are ones that I’m very proud of, and they were staple pieces of my M.F.A. thesis. If I had to pick, though, I really do like the Trail of Tears painting scene in “Curating.”

What is your best piece of advice for aspiring writers?

Read. Read the genres you write, read the styles you write, read the genres you don’t write and the styles you don’t necessarily like. You’ll be surprised by what will inspire you or help better your skills, even if you just learn what you don’t want to do.

Tell us something fun, strange, or interesting about yourself. It can have to do with writing—or not!

I guess this isn’t too strange for writers, but I read my writing out loud as I go. I like to know how things sound not in my head, and this especially helps with editing. However, if you mumble to yourself in coffee shops you may get strange looks and people may not sit next to you. And here’s something not writing related: I’m really really into horror movies and for the most part, that’s pretty much the only genre I’ll watch.

What’s on the writing horizon for you/what are you working on now?

I’m currently sending out my chapbook manuscript, and am attempting to re-work my full-length manuscript.

Mary Leauna Christensen has lived in Southwest deserts and in kudzu-infested Appalachia and currently lives in the Pacific Northwest. She has an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from Eastern Washington University and is an assistant poetry editor for The Swamp. Her work can be found in Permafrost, Driftwood Press, and Glass: A Journal of Poetry, among other publications.

The Importance of Libraries to a Community

by Helen Patterson

By now many people are familiar with Panos Mourdoukoutas and his (since deleted) article, “Amazon Should Replace Local Libraries to Save Taxpayers Money.” In this article, Mourdoukoutas seems to misunderstand or misrepresent what libraries do. Modern libraries are not dusty book depositories sucking up taxpayers’ dollars and offering nothing in exchange. They provide community services and public spaces, connecting people to vital resources. As someone who works at the Tulsa City-County Library (TCCL), I see the ways the library constantly supports my community. Readers and writers have an obligation to support libraries for the good of their communities and themselves.

Although we live in a world that is increasingly connected and dependent on technology, many people do not have access to the internet—this could be due to age, income, or other life circumstances. Without internet, it can be difficult to access jobs, do taxes, or finish homework assignments. In most public libraries, including TCCL, wireless internet and free public computers are available.

In addition to internet access, TCCL has eBooks and digital audiobooks available to download. A library card allows you to learn languages with Mango Languages, take classes with, and study for your GED with Learning Express. We have dozens of academic publications and databases, magazines, and information about starting a business, running a non-profit, or applying for a grant.


Onsite, libraries offer classes, STEM workshops for kids, and free seminars that range from retirement to ancestry research. Libraries have reading programs and storytime for parents and children of all ages. They have book clubs and rooms available for community groups and non-profit meetings.

I love all these services, but my great love of libraries stems from their support of books and reading. Libraries host visiting authors and group discussions. Through libraries, communities can pool resources so that everyone can access more books, more perspectives, and more ideas than an individual could amass in a private library. Almost every author has a story of when they first encountered a library and fell in love with books. Without a space that displays and celebrates words and learning, how many fewer authors would we have? How many fewer people would consider writing a possibility?

I was heartened by the strong negative reaction to Mourdoukoutas’s article, because the feedback shows that communities have not given up on their libraries. The future is increasingly complicated and uncertain, and it is becoming easier to leave each other behind. As writers and readers, we have the opportunity to learn and to preserve knowledge. However, our primary responsibility isn’t to abstract ideas—but to people. We need to use the empathy, some of it even gleaned from books, to help others.

Libraries help us think about what kind of people we want to be and what kind of stories we want to tell—and what kind of stories we want told about ourselves.

Originally hailing from Colorado, Helen Patterson is a graduate of The University of Tulsa. She works at the Tulsa City-County Library, writes literary horror, and loves a wonderful Okie boy.

Contributor Interview: Sophia Stid, 2017 Francine Ringold Prize for Poetry Winner

As part of the launch of our Spring/Summer 2018 issue, Let Us Gather: Diversity and the Arts, we sat down with contributors to talk about their work in the issue and more. The following interview is part of this series. Please visit our website to see the complete list of contributors to Let Us Gather, to purchase the issue, or to subscribe.

Nimrod: “More Love,” “If You Are Tough Enough, Let the Thing You Love Rot,” “Rust Wilderness,” and “The Wait” all focus quite a bit on death and mortality. Were these poems all written near the same time as a result of a preoccupation with this topic, or do you find this is a recurrent theme in all of your poetry?

Sophia Stid: Mortality—an awareness of it, a grappling with what it means for our lives—is a persistent thread in my poetry, providing a skeleton or structure around which the body of each specific poem takes shape. Even when mortality isn’t literally in the poem, it’s there, I think—the same way that this is true of our lives. This contemplation of mortality is a part of one of my central questions as a writer—and as a person, really—which is, what does it mean to have a body? Our bodies are both fragile and strong, controlled by us in some ways but also completely outside our control. They make us vulnerable, and they also make us possible. They mean we will die, and yet they are how we live. We have a say, and yet we don’t, and that’s terrifying. Simone Weil says, “This world is the only reality available to us, and if we do not love it in all its terror, we are sure to end up loving the imaginary.” Or, as an elderly friend of mine—a fierce Mormon woman who could catch a rattlesnake with some rope and a PVC pipe—used to say, “I love mortality.” I’ve carried those words in some secret place ever since. I want to be able to say that and mean it, and I am writing my way towards that. Writing into questions of the body, or mortality, is my way of loving what is real. bell hooks speaks to this beautifully when she says, “Contemplating death has always been a subject that leads me back to love.”

NimrodWho are the poets and writers you find yourself frequently returning to?

Stid: Some of my touchstone poets are Marie Howe, Adrienne Rich, Carolyn Forché, Emily Dickinson, and Joy Harjo—I learn so much from returning to their work over the years. Recent books of poetry that I’ve returned to countless times are Carlina Duan’s I Wore My Blackest Hair, Eve L. Ewing’s Electric Arches, and Molly McCully Brown’s The Virginia State Colony for Epileptics and Feebleminded. I keep Virginia Woolf’s A Writer’s Diary on my desk—her books are very important to me, particularly On Being IllThree Guineas, and To the Lighthouse. I find myself often seeking out writers who work across boundaries of genre, and particularly love Claudia Rankine, Anne Carson, Joan Didion, Maggie Nelson, Terry Tempest Williams, and Rebecca Solnit. Recently, I’ve been coming back to notebook-style work that engages with the visual and the physical—especially Derek Jarman’s Garden, Anni Albers’s On Weaving, and the notebooks of Gerard Manley Hopkins.

Nimrod: What’s your revision process like?

Stid: My revision process is revising itself this year, as I move from spending a lot of time in M.F.A. workshop to revising more on my own during the third year of my program, a year without workshop. I’m finding that revision for me is really a process of discernment or learning to listen. I get quiet and slow. For me, learning to see revision as another facet of writing itself, instead of an external after-the-fact process imposed on the writing, was a really crucial shift that empowered me to feel more at home in the return to my work. (I know that for some writers the exact opposite is true and it’s important to separate writing and revision as much as possible! I love how Richard Hugo points out this contrary nature of writing advice in The Triggering Town: “You’ll never be a poet until you realize that everything I say today is wrong. . . . It may be right for me, but it is wrong for you.”)

Nimrod: What tips would you give to new or aspiring writers?

Stid: This is possibly a very strange answer to this question, but something I really believe in is the importance of finding a physical practice that helps you learn to listen to your body—to listen to yourself. An important part of my writing practice is getting really sweaty in the gym once a day in workout classes with hilariously intense names. I know this isn’t possible or desirable for everybody, but it works for me. Discerning with my body in a really literal way—am I in the right form, is this weight too much, do I need to push myself harder or to be gentler with myself today—has helped me learn how to honor my own instincts. And even though writing can be very cerebral, poetry has always felt physical to me: rhythm, breath, image. Poems live in the body. And, finally, I’ll end with a quote from a letter Audre Lorde wrote to Pat Parker in 1985, advising her as Parker began a year off to write. This is some of the best writing advice I know—and said more beautifully than I could ever say it: “Beware all that hatred you’ve stored up inside you, and the locks on your tender places.”

stid headshotSophia Stid is a writer from California. Currently in the M.F.A. program at Vanderbilt University, she has received fellowships from the Bucknell Seminar for Younger Poets, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and the Lannan Foundation. Her poems appear or are forthcoming in Image, Beloit Poetry Journal, Hayden’s Ferry Review, Ninth Letter, DIAGRAM, and Crab Orchard Review, among other publications.


Contributor Interview: Jacqueline Alnes

As part of the launch of our Spring/Summer 2018 issue, Let Us Gather: Diversity and the Arts, we sat down with contributors to talk about their work in the issue and more. The following interview is part of this series. Please visit our website to see the complete list of contributors to Let Us Gather, to purchase the issue, or to subscribe.


Tell us a little about your work in Let Us Gather: Diversity and the Arts: what inspired it, how you came to write it, etc.

I have been an athlete for as long as I can remember. I swam in elementary school through high school. In the water, I felt strong and untouchable. Only out of the water did I feel the tension between my identity as a woman and a competitive swimmer. Moments with coaches over the years left me with a grimy feeling, something amorphous I couldn’t quite identify. I wrote this poem while taking a poetry workshop at Oklahoma State University, where I am working toward my Ph.D. in Creative Nonfiction. Janine Joseph, my professor, and my peers in workshop were instrumental in helping me clarify form and themes in revision.

Do you have a favorite line, image, or scene from this work?

The memory of a coach pulling me aside to examine girls’ legs to see if they had shaved or not is one that haunts me. At the time I explained the moment away by telling myself that analyzing competitors was part of competitive athletics, but, as I insinuate in the line “my name a singling out / my name a sin,” I now feel deeply uncomfortable about what happened.

You were a finalist in the Francine Ringold Awards for New Writers, which means that this is one of your first pieces of published work in your genre. How long have you been writing, and what did being a finalist in the competition mean to you?

I started creative writing during my undergraduate years, and since then I have earned my M.F.A. from Portland State and am working toward my Ph.D. I used to write poetry a lot in college but hadn’t returned to the genre until last year. I can’t tell you how much I love reading poems that sing on the page and reverberate through me. Being named as a finalist in the competition, especially for a poem that means so much to me as an athlete and a writer, was a true honor.

What is your best piece of advice for aspiring writers?

One of my favorite professors once told me to “treat writing like a job,” and I have followed his advice ever since. I wake up at 4:44 every morning to write, and I’ve been in that practice for years. Carving out writing time and honoring that commitment is what has helped me develop most.

Tell us something fun, strange, or interesting about yourself. It can have to do with writing—or not!

I once ran a marathon alone around town as a means of celebrating my 25th birthday. And I ran a personal record!

Jacqueline Alnes is a Ph.D. student at Oklahoma State University. When she’s not writing, reading, or teaching, she enjoys long distance running and baking way too many cookies.

Walking and Thinking, Thinking and Walking

by John Coward

I walk to find out what I think. I walk to contemplate, to muse, to explore, to be in nature, to be in the world. This is not an original idea. In fact, I adapted (read: stole) this idea from the novelist and essayist Joan Didion, who once said, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking.”

Didion has it right, but I want to extend her notion to the act of walking as a creative process. I argue that there is something mentally freeing about the act of physically passing over the earth, simply putting one foot in front of the other. Walking, in other words, can spark images and foster juxtapositions, the contrasting ideas that lead to original thoughts, new ways of perceiving the world.

There are many examples of walking and writing in literature (think of the poetry of Wordsworth and Whitman, or the naturalist John Muir) but I want to consider the 17th-century Japanese poet known as Basho, who wandered the countryside in search of spiritual awakenings. After a fire destroyed his house in 1682, Basho began a long walk, collecting material for a new poetic form known as haibun.

The Poetry Foundation describes haibun as “a hybrid form alternating fragments of prose and haiku to trace a journey.” Beyond the form, haibun involves images that work on two levels. The external images are those observed on the physical journey; the internal images are those “that move through the traveler’s mind during the journey,” as the Poetry Foundation puts it.

I don’t read Japanese nor have I visited the places Basho walked and wrote about. But I embrace this idea—walking and thinking, thinking and walking, observing the moments that can lead to deeper experiences in the world.

The idea is to approach a kind of revelatory mindlessness, an experience similar to haiku, a poetic form without symbolism. Haiku is simply “[l]ife as it flows,” according to David Shiller, author of The Little Zen Companion. Shiller continues: “There is no egotism [in haiku] either; haiku is practically authorless. But in its preoccupation with the simple, the seemingly trivial stuff of everyday life—a falling leaf, snow, a fly—haiku shows us how to see into the life of things and gain a glimpse of enlightenment.”

I love this focus on the “seemingly trivial,” small incidents and movements that can be significant. I like to think that some journeys—some steps along the path—can open our minds and bodies to something richer and deeper, even if we don’t glimpse enlightenment.

In Tulsa, an oil-born city designed for cars, walking often seems an oddity. In some neighborhoods it’s difficult to walk very far because of traffic or lack of sidewalks (or both). Given this environment, it’s hard to wander like Basho or even walk down the street to buy a loaf of bread. Besides, in twenty-first century America, we all believe we have far too much to do. No mindless wandering for us.


But when it’s possible to slow down, walking can give the mind a way to escape the routines of daily life and push through to something more profound. Walking can give us time to imagine and create something new and beautiful and a space to work through ideas—even to solve problems. Walking is not a panacea, of course, but it can move us forward.

As with many things, the first step is often the hardest.

John Coward teaches media studies and journalism at The University of Tulsa. He is a member of the Nimrod Advisory Board and the author, most recently, of Indians Illustrated: The Image of Native Americans in the Pictorial Press (University of Illinois Press, 2016).

Photo by Morikawa Kyoriku (1656-1715) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons



Contributor Interview: Sandra K. Barnidge

As part of the launch of our Spring/Summer 2018 issue, Let Us Gather: Diversity and the Arts, we sat down with contributors to talk about their work in the issue and more. The following interview is part of this series. Please visit our website to see the complete list of contributors to Let Us Gather, to purchase the issue, or to subscribe.


Tell us a little about your work in Let Us Gather: Diversity and the Arts: what inspired it, how you came to write it, etc.

Years ago, I was driving through rural Minnesota and spotted a sign for Kanaranzi, an unincorporated town that’s home to about 70 people. I immediately loved the sound of it, Kan-ar-an-zi, and I knew someday I’d write a character who carried that name—and that somehow, some way, she’d be intimately connected to a small and overlooked place. I have a terrible memory, but for whatever reason, I never forgot Kanaranzi.

Do you have a favorite line, image, or scene from this work?

The whole story sprouted from the first sentence. I’d been toying for months with the idea of a small-town girl who made it really, really big, and then one afternoon, I just heard it: “We know Kanaranzi Kimball won’t come to the Waubeen Annual Kanaranzi Kimball Day, but every year we plan as if she might.” From there, I had to figure out who KayKay was—and, perhaps more importantly, who was the person still in Waubeen who kept waiting/hoping for KayKay to come back?

You were a finalist in the Francine Ringold Awards for New Writers, which means that this is one of your first pieces published in this genre. How long have you been writing, and what did being a finalist in the competition mean to you?

I’m so grateful to Nimrod and to the Francine Ringold Awards for selecting this piece as a finalist. I’ve been a writer for about a decade, mostly as a higher-ed marketer. In 2016, I left my cubicle to become a freelancer in Europe, and I also began working more seriously on fiction during that time. In fall 2018, I’ll embark on an M.F.A. in creative writing at the University of Alabama, and I submitted this story as part of my application. I wouldn’t have felt as confident about doing so without the nod of support from Nimrod on this piece.

What is your best piece of advice for aspiring writers?

Writers write. Nothing else makes you a writer — and nothing else can strip that identity away from you. I recently heard Chris Abani put it perfectly: “You have to write yourself into writing.” Don’t get too caught up in the “aesthetic” of being a writer, and accept that rejection is a huge part of the process. Just keep telling stories. That’s all there is to do.

My site is

Sandra K. Barnidge is a Wisconsin native and holds an M.A. in journalism from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She’s a freelance writer in Tuscaloosa, Alabama.

Contributor Interview: Lucia Galloway

As part of the launch of our Spring/Summer 2018 issue, Let Us Gather: Diversity and the Arts, we sat down with contributors to talk about their work in the issue and more. The following interview is part of this series. Please visit our website to see the complete list of contributors to Let Us Gather, to purchase the issue, or to subscribe.


Tell us a little about your work in Let Us Gather: Diversity and the Arts: what inspired it, how you came to write it, etc.

“At the Music Conservatory” was inspired by my childhood piano lessons at Illinois Wesleyan’s conservatory program for children. The presence of our mothers at these music classes gave an added dimension of social consciousness to these weekly gatherings. Adult feelings of competition and social status colored the way I saw my peers. I wanted to explore these tensions in Part I of the poem, then show in Part II how the conflicts evaporated when we seven little girls were all onstage together making music, having wrested control from the mothers. My feelings of inadequacy or social inferiority disappeared when it was my turn to wield the baton for our practice concert sessions. There’s a clear change of style and tone in Part II that underscores the sense of mastery and power.

Do you have a favorite line, image, or scene from this work?

I do. It occurs in Part II in the extended image of the sailboat, the shape the baton traces in the air with four-four time. “I draw the stick through the air, / fill the sail, keep us afloat. / I am skipper of the sloop.” The narrator speaks of her turn at the podium as being in on a sense of “wonder.”

What is your best piece of advice for aspiring writers?

There is material for poetry in anything that moves you. Write about it, and keep working on the piece until you’ve found the form and the voice it should take.

Tell us something fun, strange, or interesting about yourself. It can have to do with writing—or not!

Though my first name is Italian, all I can claim of Italy is days spent writing poems at a castle in Tuscany and evenings before dinner playing bocce ball on the castle lawns. Weekend trips to Siena and Assisi, where I got lost in both.

What’s on the writing horizon for you/what are you working on now?

My second full-length collection of poems will be published in 2019 by FutureCycle Press. At present I’m thinking about ways to frame a new poetry project—poems that may one day be the core of another book or chapbook.

Lucia Galloway has published three collections of poetry, Playing Outside, Venus and Other Losses, and The Garlic Peelers, which won the 2014 QuillsEdge Press chapbook competition. She was a winner of Rhyme Zone’s 2014–15 Poetry Prize and has poems in a variety of journals and anthologies, including Mid-American Review, Tar River, New Verse News, and Wide-Awake: Poets of Los Angeles and Beyond. Galloway co-hosts “Fourth Sundays,” a reading series in Claremont, California.

Listening to Annie

by Adrienne G. Perry

In 2017, Annie Proulx gave a talk on writing to the University of Houston’s Honors College. Members of the UH community, local writers, and fans made up one part of the audience. The other portion was a local high school’s English and creative writing classes. The high schoolers sat toward the back of the room. Deference? Coolness? Under the direction of their teachers? Whatever the case, Proulx addressed a number of her remarks to these young writers directly, a gesture that came across as generous and, like Proulx, utterly lacking in pretension. What would this down-to-earth, suffer-no-fools writer say during the next hour?

Rather than give a craft lecture, Proulx spoke about writing more generally, offering some of the wisdom gathered during her decades of penning novels, short stories, and journalism. Handing it down with a “take what you like and leave the rest” attitude, Proulx said a lot, of course, but here is what I heard.

Writing is physical; that’s part of its pleasure: Find a nice pen—a pen that feels good in your hand and writes well. Move it across paper that also feels good to write on. The pen and paper don’t have to be fancy, but they should bring the writer satisfaction. Seeing words appear in your hand across the page, even if trashed later, is a basic unit of the writer’s joy. Move. Walking remedies several writerly ailments—from suffering writer’s block to throwing ourselves at a story’s problem without finding its solutions. Go for a stroll. Think things over, or not. But something might come up as you gaze at live oaks or kick rocks down the sidewalk.

Walking in the Woods

Make art: Each day, work to create at least one sentence so beautiful it’s like sculpture.

Writing takes time (like, a lot): When working on “Brokeback Mountain,” Proulx wrote for consecutive long stretches (more than eight hours at a go, I’m recalling) for a number of weeks. Not everyone can throw themselves at a story in the same way, but hearing how much time writing Proulx took was both humbling and heartening.

The eager looks on the students’ faces, their jotting down of notes, indicated they were, just like me, learning from Proulx what they needed to. I know this is true for me because I regularly return to that talk. Yesterday, I received a rejection for a short story. My first thought was self-defeating. (No surprise.) My second, chosen thought was, “The story probably needs more time.” This morning, an idea for an essay popped into my head during my walk. A sentence so fine it’s like sculpture? I haven’t written one of those today. But, dear Annie, I have pen and paper, and the day is not yet through.

Adrienne G. Perry grew up in Wyoming, earned her M.F.A. from Warren Wilson College in 2013, and is a Ph.D. candidate in Literature and Creative Writing at the University of Houston. From 2014–2016 she served as Editor of Gulf Coast: A Journal of Literature and Fine Arts.  Adrienne’s work has appeared or is forthcoming in Copper NickelBlack Warrior ReviewIndiana Review, and Ninth Letter.

Contributor Interview: Sandra Hunter’s Trip Wires

Sandra Hunter’s “Angel in Glasgow” (Hunger & Thirst, Vol. 57.1) was a finalist for the 2013 Katherine Anne Porter Prize for Fiction, and her “Finger Popping” (Awards 39, Vol. 61.1) won second place in 2017. Her recent fiction collection, Trip Wires (, was co-winner of the 2017 Leapfrog Fiction Contest and a Foreword Reviews Book of the Day on June 13, 2018. Associate Editor Cassidy McCants spoke with Hunter about the collection upon its publication this summer.

McCants: Trip Wires takes us all across the globe. Did you plan this in putting together the collection, or did the stories just happen to lead you all over?

Hunter: The stories originated from responses to news reports and articles. So, I’m driving along and listening to a report about Voces del Secuestro in Bogota, Colombia, a radio station specifically for the kidnapped (

And that sparks something: what is it like to be kidnapped? One minute you are walking along a road, buying groceries, coming home from dropping the kids off, and the next moment all of that is wrenched away, and you don’t know if you will ever return to the life you once had. And that leads to other questions: what is this life we have? Are we entirely determined by environment? Adaptation is frequently non-volitional: does that change the essence of the person or merely bring fortitude, etc., to the surface?

I worked in Kenya for two years, from 1983-85. It changed my outlook forever: I realized I wasn’t British. I realized I was capable of recovering from being very ill. I realized I had no idea what poverty really looked like. I realized I didn’t need most of the material things I’d taken for granted. I realized I DID need good batteries—and Mars Bars! For many years afterward I was deeply affected by this two-year contract. But over time some things have changed: I have far more shoes than I need. Is this laziness or forgetfulness or adaptation to a material culture? On the other hand, I still know I’m not British—and not from any one culture or country. I’m still deeply affected by poverty and social injustice. One of my more recent stories addresses the rape crisis of young girls in India.

Sometimes stories spring from rage. For example, I read a story on the civil war in Southern Sudan, and I can’t fathom the losses of those internally displaced and the stampede of refugees as a result of abusive counterinsurgency responses, often unlawful.

That resulted in two stories: “Brother’s Keeper” and “Angel in Glasgow.” You’ll note that the stories range from 2006 to 2015. I gradually recognized that I tended to write from the viewpoint of a child or young person. Voilà—a theme, hence the collection!

Maybe I’m drawn to international stories since I am also international: Anglo-Indian, Sri Lankan, Portuguese, Dutch, Scots. The stories that compel me are usually on the edge, in a liminal space where tension exists. That’s the most exciting place for me: this tiny evanescent moment when anything can happen.

Writing about these characters is a small response to social injustice—but it’s something. And I feel compelled to do it.

McCants: Speaking of “Angel in Glasgow” and “Brother’s Keeper”—both stories are very dialogue-heavy. Is dialogue something that comes to you immediately when you’re developing a story idea, or do you discover it as you go, after getting to know your characters?

Hunter: Dialogue: this is probably the first story element that arrives. The characters start talking to each other, or the protag starts talking to herself—or the reader—and the story develops from there. This technique often propels plot, tension, conflict, etc. However, there have been times when dialogue doesn’t work this way.

In March I was at a residency (Hawthornden Castle in Scotland) working on a novel. The characters did nothing BUT talk. They were engaging and lovely but I became quite exasperated with them—why couldn’t they do something? They were at college, after all—there were so many things for them to do. I suggested a few ideas: dancing, pizza party, getting locked out, playing beer pong. They just weren’t interested. I was about to throw the 185-page manuscript out and start again when we had a round-table reading at the castle and people seemed to like it. So I dialed back on being so damn pushy, and the characters came up with a swim meet, learning how to rap, visiting Watts Towers, going to an art gallery in Camarillo, engaging in a street beautification project, etc.

Ultimately, I’m at the mercy of the characters to begin with.

With short stories, the arc must be firmly and rapidly established. Even if the story is dialogue-driven, there must be a clear sense of progress. However, dialogue-driven novel chapters can, as I’ve mentioned, lead into the Slough of Endless Dialogue. I haven’t yet worked out how to quickly extricate everyone from that, but I’m working on it!

I also love stage and film for dialogue—and the silence around dialogue (which good writers provide). I learned about the space around actors from Ann Bogart’s SITI Company. I went through their Suzuki and Viewpoints training in L.A. many years ago, and they taught me how language shouldn’t be impeded by the tendency for the body to be self-conscious. I was writing plays at the time, and that impacted me considerably.

McCants: Do you have any characters who’ve lived at length in your mind, who won’t leave you alone, but either haven’t made it to the page or are too mysterious or flighty to capture? Or, focusing on this new collection in particular, any characters that particularly frustrate or excite you?

Hunter: There is one character who made it into a short story—her name is Gul and she was 13 at the time of the story. I loved her to bits. Her voice still rattles around my head. I tried writing a sequel where she takes her father around the racetrack on her motorbike, but somehow it didn’t work. Perhaps one day I’ll know how to write it.

In Trip Wires, the stories tend to stop without definitive endings. That’s how life is and how the stories work best, I feel. But that doesn’t stop me wondering about what happens to the characters. I love Hunri-Howri in “Where the Birds Are,” but he’s so elusive. I know he’s not going to make it, but I so hope he does.  Will Elijah make it back to the Southern Sudan and will he find his brother (“Brother’s Keeper”)? What will Asal do now that she knows her husband is dead and she’s alone in Los Angeles with her small son, Nima (“15 Minutes”)? Will Minoo make her way in Glasgow (“Angel in Glasgow”)? And will Marta and her family (“Borderland”) survive? And what kind of heartless person writes characters into such horrible situations and then leaves them there?!

One character who I actually loathe is in a novel-in-progress. Her name is Aunt Glory and she’s a monster. I can’t wait to get back to her once I’ve finished the next novel.

McCants: How does your process for novel-writing differ from that for story-writing?

Hunter: Short stories usually come quickly. They jump out of the gate and I do my best to keep up. The stories do occasionally “stick” and I leave them alone for a day or so. Various things will bring me back: a dream, an overheard conversation (I’m a shameless stealer of dialogue), a billboard, a book title. Very often poetry will lead me in, so I have a stack of chapbooks and collections on my desk: Ilya Kaminsky, Mila Cuda (youth poet laureate for L.A.), Adam Zagajewksi, Safia Elhillo and—new to me—Donna Stonecipher. Dipping into these is like suddenly swimming in a new current. I’m forced to slow down (or sometimes speed up) and turn language over so that I’m hearing it differently. Rhythm is vital—sometimes more so than content.

Novels, however, are a different beast. I’m not a plotter but I do need to know the shape of the piece: Where are we going to end up? What’s the most important conflict/s for this/these character/s and is it/are they resolved (and they don’t have to be)? Sometimes I have the answers clearly—and sometimes those answers are wrong! Even so, it helps to have that focus; otherwise it can be like the hundred-meters race for those with no sense of direction. My wonderful mentor and friend, Mark Sarvas, taught me to review each chapter for plot, tension, conflict, character. Now I keep a table and review those points for each chapter. This works best after the first draft—although I have to admit, I’ve become a compulsive checker.

Novels are also more physical for me. At some stage (usually going into the second draft), I’ll print everything out and spread it around my workspace, with yellow stickies containing two-line synopses on every chapter. I’ll print out and pin up my table as well so I can check as I go. I’ll walk around the chapters and see if they might be reordered/removed. At this point the through-line of the novel becomes a lot cleaner.

By the way, Scrivener, an excellent writers’ software, is invaluable for an editor, too. Because you write in scenes, not chapters, you’re forced to stay focused.

McCants: What about fiction is most valuable to you—and what about it is important for our world today?

Hunter: The core interest that drives both my short and long fiction is social injustice. Sadly, history has repeatedly proved that we can rarely look to government to redress these wrongs, and governments can only be galvanized into action after exhausting efforts—Martin Luther King’s fight for social justice and the decades-long struggle to end apartheid in South Africa are two examples.

Also, in today’s Western world, many consider gaming and social media essential parts of daily life. Real-world life can be displaced by maintaining a social media presence or developing second-world avatars. We’re becoming socially blinkered.

We can argue that fiction does the same thing. Some fiction provides pure escapism—also necessary for beach or “downtime” reading. But, for me, literary fiction is an incredibly important medium for raising the visibility of social justice abuses. Some choose activism, philanthropy, and volunteer work. I raise my voice in stories.

It isn’t enough to report these issues: We have journalists to do that. The point is to get people to think about social injustice, to discuss it and, perhaps, be inspired to work towards change.

I look for writers who do that and who also take risks, like Ingrid Rojas Contreras, Jo Ann Beard, Meliza Bañales, Marisa Silver, and Lidia Yuknavitch. These writers are fearless. They also draw on the heritage of the courageous writers before them: Nella Larsen, Zora Neale Hurston, James Baldwin, Virginia Woolf, Yukio Mishima—and, standing on their shoulders, create something vital and compelling, just as our daughters and sons will stand on our shoulders and do the same. Just as I hope my daughter will do—and already does in her Gender Studies major at college.

xkhkxc3pnhjzqmzlbacrSandra Hunter’s fiction won the 2017 Leapfrog Press Fiction Contest, the 2016 Gold Line Press Chapbook Prize, the October 2014 Africa Book Club Award, and the 2014 H.E. Francis Fiction Award, and has received three Pushcart Prize nominations. She is a 2018 Hawthornden Castle Fellow and was the 2017 Charlotte Sheedy Fellow at the MacDowell Colony. Her books include Losing Touch, a novel (July 2014), Small Change, a fiction chapbook (June 2016), and Trip Wires, a short story collection (June 2018). She teaches English and Creative Writing and runs writing workshops in Ventura and Los Angeles, California. Favorite dessert: Salted Caramel Insanity (that’s not its name but it should be) from Donut Friend.


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Contributor Interview: Andrea Jurjević

As part of the launch of our Spring/Summer 2018 issue, Let Us Gather: Diversity and the Arts, we sat down with contributors to talk about their work in the issue and more. The following interview is part of this series. Please visit our website to see the complete list of contributors to Let Us Gather, to purchase the issue, or to subscribe.


Tell us a little about your work in Let Us Gather: Diversity and the Arts: what inspired it, how you came to write it, etc.

I went to an art show, and the artist had a series of paintings he made with nail polish that dripped down the paper—some colors ran down straight, others swerved. I already knew, from painting, that colors sometimes behave differently. They vary in how fast they dry. But here the difference in their movements became apparent. I wrote the poem a few months later while at a residency in the north Georgia mountains.

Do you have a favorite line, image, or scene from this work?

“how a color learns its language”

What is your best piece of advice for aspiring writers?

Live, travel, love, do stuff. Get in the habit of paying attention.

Tell us something fun, strange, or interesting about yourself. It can have to do with writing—or not!

The first time I drank alcohol was during a 6th grade field trip to the beach. I blacked out while swimming. When I came to, on an exam table, post stomach-pumping, my homeroom teacher stood by me, worried, and asked if I needed anything. I slapped him and said, “I want soup.”

What’s on the writing horizon for you/what are you working on now?

I’m working on a new manuscript and translating selected and new poems by a brilliant Croatian poet, Marko Pogačar.

My website is

Andrea Jurjević is a poet and translator from Rijeka, Croatia. Her first poetry collection, Small Crimes, won the 2015 Philip Levine Prize, and her translation of Mamasafari, a collection of prose poems in Croatian by Olja SavičevićIvančević, is forthcoming from Lavender Ink / Diálogos. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia, where she teaches at Georgia State University.