Interview with Jenny Lowman

Interview by Jonathan Kemmerer-Scovner, Writer

Jenny Lowman is a true advocate for literacy. She has worked in the nonprofit arena of Philadelphia for over 15 years, having served as the executive director for the West Philadelphia Alliance for Children (WePAC), promoting childhood literacy in Philadelphia public elementary schools through reopening and staffing libraries, and prior to that, as an attorney at Philadelphia’s Education Law Center.

Currently, she serves as a school board member in the Cheltenham School District and, along with several others, has founded the Philadelphia Alliance to Restore School Librarians (PARSL), a grassroots organization dedicated to returning certified school librarians back to all schools in the School District of Philadelphia.

Do you remember the first book you read that made you love reading?

It was this little Richard Scarry book from my public library growing up, On the Farm. It was a little square, maybe 3 x 3 inches. I loved that book so much that my parents bought it from the library; I still have it to this day!

My mom was an English teacher, so I was surrounded by books my entire life, classic literature all over the house. 1984, Great Expectations, The Count of Monte Cristo… At some point or another, she’d taught them all. I always had access to books, and I could read whatever I wanted.

That’s how this all started for me, just having access to a wide range of books, and not being told what I could or could not read.

You attended public school growing up?

Yup, all the way. There weren’t a lot of other options in the Lehigh Valley, where I’m from.

I remember our elementary school was a relatively new building, and they’d somehow forgotten to plan for a library, so they had to create one out of the janitor’s storage closet, this small, windowless room that had maybe six shelves and a few tables – but we had a librarian.

My middle school, though, had a big library that we used a lot, and my high school did as well. We learned the card catalog, micro-fiche, the Dewey Decimal system… all that wonderful stuff. It wasn’t until I was a senior that we had a computer lab for the first time.

The role of the public school librarian has evolved a lot since those days.

Definitely. Librarians are still there to make the world open to children, that part hasn’t changed, but today their role is even more important, because they’re teaching digital media literacy as well. They’re teaching children how to be good and informed consumers of information, to not just find a source, but to discern between sources. If there isn’t a certified librarian who’s learned those skills themselves, students are really missing out.

That seems like an enormously useful skill to have in this day-and-age. There are lots of adults I know who could’ve used that.

The librarians I’ve been fortunate enough to work with through PARSL describe their libraries as safe spaces, which is also something that’s evolved. There are just so many more issues kids today struggle with, and there are amazing books available to address them. Books that explain disabilities such as autism and dyslexia, books about grief and loss, books about gender identity, all kinds of books to help children understand the world around them. All of these are things that librarians today bring to bear.

In my own school district, the librarian at the middle school has turned the library (called the Learning Commons) into an incredible space with an amazing collection that she’s curated with an impressively diverse selection. She also started a Project Lit book group that had over 90 students participating, the last time I checked.

It’s a real holistic approach. It’s the concept of providing “Mirrors, Windows and Sliding Glass Doors,” first identified and described by Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop in 1990. You want children to be able to read things that reflect who they are, that show them something else, and then provide a door that they can walk through into a different world.

Oh, I like that a lot.

I work with one retired librarian who says that what people don’t realize is, especially for elementary school librarians, they’re the only person in that building who sees a kid from Kindergarten to 5th grade, and in the case of a lot of Philadelphia schools which are K-8, they know these children for nine full, consecutive years.

All of these reasons are why it’s so heartbreaking that over 50 school districts in Pennsylvania currently don’t have any librarians at all.

How did this become an advocacy issue for you?

From working at the Education Law Center. I’d seen how disparate and inequitable the funding for public schools in Pennsylvania was, how some school districts would have all these amazing resources for their students and others had practically nothing. Money really does make a difference. It’s a tremendous injustice for schools not to be able to afford basic instructional services like school librarians to educate their students.

What exactly is the current status of the libraries in the School District of Philadelphia?

Currently, there’s one full-time equivalent school librarian working in the district, which means there are 3 to 4 school librarians who work part-time in a few buildings. One librarian for 113,000+ students in 217 buildings. This is down from 176 school librarians for about 230 buildings in 1991.

So from 176 librarians down to 1. Got it.

Dr. Constance Clayton, who died recently, was the district’s superintendent from 1982 to 1993. She’d made it a priority to have school librarians in as many district buildings as possible. She’d understood that the only place many of the district’s students were going to have access to books to take and read at home was at school.

What happened to erode that?

Unfortunately, Dr. William Hite, who was the district’s superintendent for a decade up until 2022, appeared to have no use for school libraries or librarians. He seemed to have convinced himself that the school district didn’t really need them or else they were a luxury the district couldn’t afford. He would say things like, Teachers have classroom libraries, kids have access to plenty of books. But he didn’t seem to have any understanding of what school librarians actually do, or what students were missing by not receiving instruction from them.

But the loss of school librarian positions really started back in the late 1990’s, when Dr. David Hornbeck was superintendent of the district from 1994 to 2000. Dr. Hornbeck had recognized that the district needed more money from the state to provide its students with an adequate education, but then-Governor Ridge refused. While Dr. Hornbeck was fighting for more state funding, he switched the district over to site-based budgeting. Meaning, the district gave each school a certain pot of money, then central administration would say to the principals, essentially, Here’s all your money, budget accordingly.

Of course, the money was never enough, and with so many other positions and programs, librarians just slowly got phased out. That’s how we found ourselves in this situation.

And the district still uses site-based budgeting! That’s why PARSL is asking that any funding for new librarian positions come out of the district’s central budget, so that principals don’t need to choose between funding a school librarian or an assistant principal’s position, for instance.

But are the libraries themselves at least still accessible to the children?

Usually not. If a school had a library at one point, then that room has either been repurposed or is locked and is simply off-limits.

That’s heartbreaking!

It is, and we need people to know about it. PARSL met a few months ago with someone from the Free Library of Philadelphia, and I expressed my frustration to them that more organizations which are concerned about improving childhood literacy in the city aren’t standing up and saying, ‘And part of this is having an actual, functioning library with a certified school librarian in every public school!’

There are some schools – mostly K-8 buildings – that have other organizations which come in and run their libraries for them, like Historic Fair Hill. They now operate four school libraries in North Philly. The Friends of H.A. Brown School is reopening the library in that school. The John B. Kelly School has a very active volunteer-led library program. All told, there are about 30-35 elementary schools in the district which have functioning library programs, although they don’t have certified librarians leading those programs.

When I worked for the West Philadelphia Alliance for Children (WePAC), that was (and is) WePAC’s primary objective, to reopen libraries in K-8 schools in the district using volunteers. WePAC currently operates volunteer-run libraries in 13 district schools, which is a huge accomplishment for the current staff and volunteer crew. I actually started out with WePAC as a volunteer in the library at the Blankenburg School. I loved reading to the kids and helping them pick out books to take home. I also wished the library could be open more than twice a week so that all kids in the building could take advantage of it – not just kids in the lower grades.

What kind of things would you do for WePAC?

When we were reopening a library, before we could do anything else, we had to weed through the library collection, because some of the books were ancient.

There were some that were moldy and waterlogged, and others that were sexist, racist and just flat-out wrong on a variety of topics. It was a real snapshot of a period. For example, I found a book from the 1950’s about friction. You might wonder how a topic as benign as friction could possibly be problematic, and then you open the first page: “Mother creates friction when she washes a pan! Father creates friction when he walks home from work and wipes his feet on the door mat!”

Then there were the books from the 1970’s that you could tell were really trying so hard to be progressive and inclusive, like, “Look, Lucy learned how to fish, just like her brothers!

Then there were all the great relics we’d come across.

One had a card catalog which was so beautiful and in such great shape, we left it there because the kids would have otherwise never seen one. I remember going through the drawers of this beautiful, wooden desk and found what must have been some of the last, stamped cards from books that had been taken out. It was so cool, but also so sad, like, Oh, this was once a functioning library.

Then there were other obstacles that had occurred during the pandemic, not the least of which was that the district had taken some of their federal money and used it to paint a lot of their library spaces, which is great… Except when they did this, they took all the books off the shelves and then threw them back on. In no order. Whatsoever.

Oh my god, that sounds like a librarian’s nightmare.

Oh, it was a total nightmare for anyone who values organization in the slightest. There were four or five schools with WePAC-operated libraries in that situation, so you’re talking a massive, massive undertaking for a small, volunteer-driven organization.

But the larger issue was that this was just too important an aspect of what should be key part of a child’s educational experience for the School District of Philadelphia to continue to, essentially, rely on the kindness of strangers, as it were.

Also, even in the best-case scenario pre-COVID, most WePAC-run libraries were only open two or three days a week, maybe for four or five hours per day. Some of them were just one day a week for a couple of hours. So, when I say we were working to ‘reopen the libraries,’ that’s the most we could have hoped for. It was far from ideal, even if everything had been going our way.

What do the schools in the districts have to say about it?

Oh, there’s schools that want it, they desperately want it.

They tell us that the only reason they don’t have librarians is because they can’t afford them, that they’re not getting the money they would need from the state. Which is most definitely true, but every school administration sets its priorities, and the School District of Philadelphia could have made it a priority to return librarians to its schools, but they chose not to.

But what really motivated me to start thinking strategically about this issue was when the Philadelphia Inquirer published an article in October 2021 about a dedicated English teacher at Building 21, a high school in Philly, and how he had started a library on his own in the school with the help of his students, and how much the students loved the library space. In response, I wrote a Letter to the Editor which said that, as moving as that story is, the real issue is the lack of school librarians in the district. Yes, it’s wonderful what this amazing teacher has done, but it shouldn’t be necessary. Just like the volunteer-run libraries, it’s not sustainable and it’s not providing students with an educator trained in helping students learn to think critically, analyze information, and evaluate online sources – just a few of the skills taught by today’s school librarians.

The Inquirer printed it, and then several women reached out to me separately to let me know they were with me one hundred percent on this, and wanted to know what they could do to help fix this situation.

That was the beginning of the Philadelphia Alliance to Restore School Librarians (PARSL)

One of them, Deb Kachel, happened to be someone that I had already known a little from working at the Education Law Center. She’s a retired school librarian and is currently an online Affiliate Faculty member for Antioch University Seattle. She is also highly respected researcher in the field and has been a long-time member of Pennsylvania School Librarians Association’s (PSLA) Advocacy Committee. Right before COVID, PSLA had organized a rally on the steps of the School District of Philadelphia’s Administration Building at 440 North Broad with the teacher’s union for just that reason, to get attention to the fact that there weren’t any librarians in Philadelphia schools, and that this absolutely needed to change.

The second woman who reached out to me was Corinne Brady, the leader of a volunteer library program at the John B. Kelly School in Germantown. She told me she had two retired school librarians for volunteers, and they were running it more or less like a school library should be run. Which is great, except that Corinne understands that to ensure a functioning library for future Kelly students, the school needs a librarian in place.

The third woman was Dr. Barb Stripling. She is the retired director of school library programs in New York City, a past president of the American Librarians Association, and professor emerita with Syracuse University’s School of Information Studies. So, impressive credentials.

She’d already been working to rebuild the pool of school librarians in New York, but when she moved to Philadelphia, she could not believe the librarian situation here.

And then Deb Grill reached out. Deb is a retired Philly school librarian who experienced the phase-out of librarian positions in the district first-hand. For 34 years, she held positions in the Philadelphia School District as a reading teacher, certified school librarian, literacy coach and new teacher liaison. Deb has been a long-time advocate for better public schools for all children in Philadelphia as a member of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools (APPS).

Our core committee consists of the five of us. We had our first Zoom meeting in March of 2022 and didn’t know if anyone else would even show up, but we ended up having 85 people join.

What steps have you been taking?

Well, we wrote to the superintendent and to the district’s governing body, the Board of Education, but never heard back. We wrote again. Nothing. Again. Nothing. We weren’t certain where to go.

Then a friend of mine, Maura McInerney, who is the legal director at the Education Law Center and who was on one of the committees that the new superintendent had formed to help create his strategic plan for the district, found herself at a meeting with him, and she went up to him afterward and told him he needed to start getting librarians back in the schools.

He walked her down the hall and gave her to his chief of staff, Sarah Galbally, who then met with PARSL in June 2023.

We laid out for her what we thought needed to happen, a graduated plan of returning librarians to schools.

Around the same time that we met with Sarah, we published a white paper – and we shared it with Philadelphia state legislators, city council members, candidates for office, District staff and other stakeholders. Over the summer and this fall, we’ve met with dozens of people about this issue. One state legislator, Representative Tarik Khan, who represents the Roxborough and East Falls areas of Philadelphia, has taken a particular interest in this effort, and we are working with him on two proposals, one at the state level and one at the local level, to restore school librarians to some schools in Philadelphia and around the state.

There’s also this federal grant that comes around every year, the Laura Bush 21st Century Librarian Program, which exists to fund projects that will grow more school librarians. So, we said, “Hey, School District of Philadelphia, you really should apply to this!” and, the district agreed! In September, PARSL’s Core Committee worked with the district’s Office of Grant Development to submit a request for funding to support the planning work needed to return school librarians to the district. As part of the process of preparing that proposal, the district has now identified a point person for this librarian restoration work, which is something we had been asking for since we started reaching out to the district.

And how exactly does that happen?

Well, the first thing that needs to happen is to develop a pipeline to get a pool of certified school librarians. Basically, there’s two ways to become a certified librarian in Pennsylvania, either you’re already a certified teacher and you take a PRAXIS test in library science, or you could get your Master of Library Science. But, either way, you first need your teaching certificate to become a certified school librarian, because librarians are first and foremost educators.

We’ve got to create a way for people interested in becoming school librarians to get that certification. Right now, we don’t have that, because Drexel had been the university that used to have that, but then they shut that certification program down when Philly stopped hiring school librarians. There’s still a master’s in library science program at Drexel for academic librarians, college level librarians… but not for school librarians.

Next, we must assess the status of library spaces in all district schools, because we know for a fact that some of them do have library spaces that are functional, particularly those supported by Historic Fair Hill, WePAC and certain “Friends of” groups and Home and School Associations.

Then there’s the budget situation.

How much money are we talking?

If certified school librarians were to fall from the sky tomorrow, we estimate it would take about $22 million to put one in every building in the district.

That may sound like a lot, but in the grand scheme of things, in a budget that’s already several billion dollars, it’s not that much. For a district where the primary goal is to improve the reading levels of its students, it makes both academic and economic sense.

We’re trying to get them to see that this is a really good investment, because there’s a ton of research from multiple library impact studies that show the direct correlation between having school librarians and an improvement in students’ academic achievement, particularly on reading tests, surprise, surprise. That’s what, in part, sparked the interest of the state rep we’re working with is.

The other thing that I think finally got us through to the district is that the superintendent, Dr. Watlington, has said he wants to make Philly the fastest improving school district in the country. So, we said, okay, well if you want to do that, you’d better get up to speed with this issue because DC is adding back librarians in every one of their schools. Boston is doing the same thing. So is LA. So is Clark County, Nevada. So is Minneapolis and New York City.

Are you saying Philly is in last place?

Yes, in terms of large urban school districts with any school librarians at all, I think it is fair to say that Philly is in last place. I think that was the other thing that got through to the district and the powers-that-be.

Have you thought about getting in touch with the writers for Abbot Elementary?

People have tried that!

There was one episode that really got some retired school librarians going on Twitter. The main characters were having a professional development day in their school’s library, and there were all these nice books on the shelves and these librarians tweeted at the show and at the actress Quinta Brunson and Shery Lee Ralph, who’s married to Philadelphia’s State Senator Hughes, ‘This is not realistic. You need to do an episode on how this really is.’

We keep trying to draw attention to the situation as best we can. We are persistent yet encouraging. We’ve said to the district, “You can make this a huge win. You can make this happen. It’s going to take years because it took years for all the librarians to disappear, but you can do it.”

It strikes me as you’re telling these stories, that for the most part, everyone you talk to is nothing but enthusiastic and positive. Where’s the resistance coming from? Is there a villain?

I’m not sure I would say there is a villain per se. What I’d say is that there have been decades of state underfunding and the resultant lack services in the district, that it’s hard for people to believe that things can change for the better. It will take time and effort to manage those changes, but they can happen through creative thinking, collaboration, and perseverance. Because like I said, many principals really want this. Administrators want this. Parents want this. The people in the district’s grants office, they were like, You don’t have to convince us, we want this to happen!

The powers that be in the district, in the city, and in the state have to understand that school librarians are not a luxury, they are a necessary component of an adequate K-12 education, and they need to be funded as a matter of equity.

To learn more about PARSL’s work, please visit our website or our Facebook page at If you are interested in volunteering with PARSL – and we can always use PARSL – please sign up at or email

An Interview with Michael Brix, Executive Director of Tree House Books

From left to right, Jonathan Kemmerer-Scovner poses with Michael Brix,
Executive Director of Tree House Books.

by Jonathan Kemmerer-Scovner

I came to the edge of Broad Street, Temple University at my back, then crossed from one world to the next. It was an unseasonably hot and sunny afternoon. Down Susquehanna Avenue, a group of people were browsing through a small cart filled with books and I knew I was headed in the right direction.

I walked through the front door and into a small space overflowing with books, tall shelves which lined the walls. Salman Rushdie and Philip Roth immediately jumped out at me and I flipped through Goodbye, Columbus while in the room next door, a teacher helped children with their reading.

I put the book back just as Michael Brix, Executive Director of Tree House Books, came down to meet me.

Do you remember the first book you read that made you love reading?

The Chronicles of Narnia. My mom read that to us before bedtime. That’s always my go-to answer for that question.

I also loved the Beverly Cleary series with Beezus and Ramona, as I was also a pest. And I read a not insignificant amount of Hardy Boys mysteries that had been my father’s.

Coming down here, I realized I still think of you primarily as the head of the Yes! And… theater camp, even though that’s been five years ago now.

Yeah, that was actually the second nonprofit I’d founded. The first was The Simple Way, a community in Kensington that deals with direct relief, taking people to the hospital, providing food and clothing… It was out of that organization that the idea for a theater camp grew, because we’d partnered with UrbanPromise in Camden and a few other organizations to run a summer theater program for kids. So Yes! And…, as we called it, spun off into its own nonprofit, and that’s what I did for the next 20 years.

The entire time, however, I knew that if Yes! And… was going to continue, it needed to have different leadership that would allow it to grow beyond its founders. That was always the hope. So we worked at raising someone up internally, while at the same time I’d begun looking for different opportunities.

That’s when I found Tree House, which fit my skillset perfectly.

In what way?

All the work I’ve done in my life has had social justice as its focus. The Simple Way did it one way, Yes! And… did it a different way, and with Tree House Books, literacy is the focus. All of those things are very much connected, and that was the core reason why I felt comfortable coming here, because it spoke to that passion. The passion for social justice, and the passion for community.

For example, when we talk about expansion opportunities, we’re not talking about taking the Tree House model and bringing it to West Philly or some other neighborhood. No, we’re talking about how to grow deeper roots right here in this community, here in North Philly. That idea resonated with the leadership here, so, like it or not, that’s what they were getting with me.

How long was Tree House Books around before you came on board?

Since 2005. It was the brainchild of folks from the Church of the Advocate, a community staple here in North Philly. At the time, the Church of the Advocate had a Community Development Corp given to it by the city of Philadelphia. They wanted to use it to invest specifically in this corridor of Susquehanna Avenue.

So at the beginning, it was just a used bookstore, but then neighborhood kids started coming in and hanging out, and they developed an after-school program. They purchased the building next door and outfitted that storefront, which is where we now do our K-8 and teen programs, and all of our summer camps.

The Church of the Advocate had quickly realized that a used bookstore just wasn’t the economic engine they thought it would be. It would have closed really quickly if they’d kept it going, so they wisely pivoted to this nonprofit model, and all the classes and other activities grew organically out of the relationships between the bookstore and the people in the neighborhood.

But it’s still such a great space for a used bookstore, I see a lot of my favorite writers. I can tell just from a glance that you manage the selection seriously.

 Absolutely. We have books for children, teens and adults, and back behind us, there’s a section focused on African-American literacy – black authors, black characters, black stories – because that’s what serves this neighborhood. We want to make sure that we’re constantly stocking and featuring those titles. That’s something that we feel sets us apart.

That, and also the fact that all the books are free.

And when did you… Wait, what?

All the books in here that you see, everything on our shelves, it’s all free.

People can just come in here and take whatever books they want?

Absolutely. All told, we distribute about 88,000 free books a year. But that’s not just through this space. We also have bookshelves in area rec centers, apartment complexes and other places. We then go around on a regular basis, restocking and refreshing as needed.

Then there’s our bookmobile, the Traveling Tree House, which makes over 20 stops a week at daycares and festivals, Smith playground… they just park somewhere and put up a sign that says FREE BOOKS!

We have so many different programs, like Words on Wheels, wherein we deliver new books right to kid’s homes three times throughout the summer. Then there’s our online Book of the Month Club that people can sign up and read along with Kai. Last month, she was able to do an Instagram live interview with the author of the book, so it’s really fun and engaging.

Also, once a year, we have an event that we call Philadelphia Literacy Day, which is a whole street festival. We close down the block, invite a bunch of authors to come out and sign their books, which we then give away.

So this whole neighborhood is just overflowing with books.

One of the coolest things about this organization is that it grows just by listening to the needs of the neighborhood, but our primary mission is to ensure that people have books in their homes.

I often reference this 2019 article from Social Science Research Journal entitled “Scholarly culture: How books in adolescence enhance adult literacy, numeracy and technology skills in 31 societies.” It shows that, globally, children who are around books show an increase in their overall literacy rates, which then impacts other learning metrics.

So there have to be books in the homes that kids are interacting with. In this neighborhood, that just wasn’t necessarily the case. The impetus then became to make that happen.

Where do the books come from?

All sorts of sources, book drives, individuals, organizations, local authors… People can buy new books from our wish lists at local bookstores, kids’ books at Harriett’s and adult books from Uncle Bobbie’s. Books and Stuff, which used to have a brick and mortar store in Germantown, has also been a good partner, as well as Hachette and Quirk Books, which also bears fruit in the form of book donations. We always try to stay local, though, and away from Amazon.

We’re a part of Read by 4th, which is the overarching literacy collective in Philly, but we’re most closely related to the Book Bank, and they’re awesome. They get a lot of books out to teachers and other professionals, to help build their classrooms. They operate out of Martin Luther King Jr. High School, and Anne’s been doing that work for years, it’s a passion project of hers. I love what they do and how they do it.

So once we get the books, we then weed out any badly treated ones. As I said, we’re careful about curating books that our community needs and wants. For example, when the Traveling Tree House goes to neighborhoods that are primarily Spanish-speaking, then we need to be able to feature Spanish language books.

That’s great that you’re partnering with so many local bookstores. It seems like some of them might be upset that you’re essentially giving away the merchandise.

It’s definitely something that I stress out about, but in general, I think book lovers are a special breed of people and they get what we’re doing. We’re part of the Philly Bookstore Map Project, and I told them, we’re not really like the rest of you, but almost all of them understand that we’re mostly serving just this neighborhood. We’re not out to undercut anyone, and sometimes we can even help out.

For example, if people want to buy us new books, we have a special online-store set up through Harriet’s. She holds on to those books, which we then pick up and give away. That’s a way we can divest from Amazon and support a local business at the same time.

Wow, that’s really smart.

A lot of the stuff we do is organic. It really comes from the passions of the staff. The Book Swap festivals, for example, were my Managing Director of Programming’s brainchild. We do four of those a year, people bring books to swap, and there’s a DJ, sidewalk games, vendors… It started out as just this great pilot idea, and now it’s a major part of what we do.

But ultimately, as I said, what makes us really unique is that we’re here in North Philly. We may have all these connections and support initiatives all throughout the city, but our community outreach is located right here.

Are there plans to keep expanding?

I can’t reveal too much, but we’re looking to renovate a property in this neighborhood that we’ll be able to move into, and our hope is that we’ll then be able to serve as many as three times the amount of people than we do now.

The people I’m working with in terms of fundraising are telling me that we’re in our silent phase, which is ridiculous, because I can’t stop talking about it.

Tree House Books is located at 1430 W. Susquehanna Ave. They can be reached at 215-236-1760 and Click here to donate!

An Interview with Jennifer Rieger


Jennifer Rieger is a public educator and college professor in the Philadelphia area. An advocate for her students and graduates, she dedicates her time to empowering others through reading, writing, and acts of love. Jen has been honored with the Franklin Institute 2020 Excellence in Teaching Award, the 2021 Philadelphia Phillies All-Star Teaching Award, and was a semi-finalist for the Pennsylvania Department of Education Teacher of the Year. Along with a nomination for the 2020 Pushcart Prize for Literature, she’s also been published in Chautauqua Literary Journal, Wisconsin Review, BUST Magazine, Philadelphia Stories 15th Anniversary Anthology, among others. Jen holds an MA in English Literature, an MFA in Creative Writing, and spends her free time bragging about her son, students, and thousands of graduates.


Social Media:

Instagram/Twitter: @MsJRiegs




To purchase:

Minerva Rising



Curtis Smith: Congratulations on Burning Sage. I really enjoyed these essays. Can you tell us about the book’s journey and how you ended up working with Minerva Rising?

Jennifer Rieger: Thank you so much for the opportunity! I would say that the Genesis point of the book was with an essay called “The Meantime.” I had not been in my MFA program for long, and to be quite honest, I started the MFA as more of a pastime. My son had just left for college, and there I was, this 38-year-old empty-nester wondering what was in store and if I could use some of my newfound freedom to revisit, as Cheryl Strayed calls it, the “ghostship” that drifted away eighteen years before. I desperately wanted to be a writer when I was younger, but as a young mom, teaching seemed to be the more stable path. Two decades and a Masters in Literature later, and I was sitting in this MFA Creative Nonfiction Workshop class with Anne Kaier writing about stigma, and those two decades of studies, and teaching, and motherhood just poured out of me. I had never written anything of substance in such a frenzy before. That first piece was called “The Meantime”—because that’s what all of those years felt like. Who knew that little essay would get published and start a brand new journey for me. Little by little, I started connecting and crafting those years in journals, during weekends, holidays, summer breaks. What started out as a manuscript called The Meantime transformed into Burning Sage and became my MFA thesis, and I submitted it to Minerva Rising when they publicized their memoir contest. The rest has been a whirlwind of decision making, editing, pandemic delays, imposter syndrome—you name it.


CS: Was it always creative nonfiction first for you? Or did you start your creative work in fiction and then find yourself drawn to CNF? Do you find writing both fiction and CNF helpful? How would you compare their toolboxes? Their processes?

JR: I actually started the MFA as a poet. It didn’t take me very long of workshopping peer pieces in my cohort to realize I was severely out of my league. (Laughs) Everything I wrote turned into these prose poems that grew longer and longer. The charade had to end. However, with that, this lovely sense of self-actualization resonated—I did indeed have a story to tell. I just had to finally give myself the space and freedom to admit that mine was worth telling. I was also grateful for those poetry workshops and continued to take them. My prose grew sharper, more lyrical. My favorite poet is Sylvia Plath, and I’m drawn to her poetry much more than her prose; however, I teach her novel The Bell Jar and each time I read it, I am in awe of how cadence and melody slips into each scene, each description. (What I would give!) So, I try. I dabble. With each poem I write, I ask myself, what is the story behind this? What is deep inside of me that I’m veiling in metaphor? How can I rip off the bandage and dig into the story? It’s scary. And it’s beautiful. Having said that, there are things in life that I find much too painful for prose—some things that I’m not yet ready to bring to the world of storytelling. And that’s when poetry is there for me.


CS: I’ve been talking to my students recently about access points and how we initially find our way into our holidays and summer vacations pieces. Did you have a go-to access point in these—memory, concepts, images? Or was each piece its own journey?

JR: Curt, I just wrote. (Laughs) At first, anyway. Every spare moment I had, in the creative writing class I teach at Upper Merion or when gridlock turned the Schuylkill into a parking lot, I bled into my journal. But after awhile I started seeing these patterns. When I wrote about the strong women in my life (typically my grandmothers) they would invariably match up with student stories that stuck with me. In the early part of my MFA, I just tried to get the stories down to see where the writing took me. After some workshops with CNF writers like Jillian Sullivan and Kristina Moriconi, I began honing in on images—a mink coat, a bundle of sage, a spot of blood—and I let the image propel me forward. There’s piece in my book called “The Fix” that started out as a story of a fairly introverted boy who used to sit in this tattered, old blue upholstered office chair in my classroom and share joys, fears, anxieties, past hardships—everything in need of purging from a high school senior’s mind. It was a sweet story of our unlikely little friendship; but his wasn’t the only story that chair held, and he wasn’t the only student to give me purpose. I expanded the piece to what I had buried deep down, to what the blue chair represented, to why those kids were such a “fix.” I cried the whole time I wrote the first edition, and the whole time I transformed it thinking about all the different definitions of the word fix and how I fit into each one.


 CS: We first met at Rosemont’s MFA program. Deciding whether or not to pursue a MFA is a decision many writers face. What did getting a MFA do for you as a writer? What advice would you offer anyone who is considering attending Rosemont or another MFA program?

JR: I know there’s a lot of controversy as to whether writers need an MFA. I get it. But every writer is different. Personally, I would not have sharpened my skills, learned the rules of getting published, participated in public readings, or had any kind of writing network had it not been for my cohort at Rosemont. There’s an accountability and comradery that comes with the right MFA program. Carla Spataro, the director of the program, has been able to create this kind of environment, and I’d still be scribbling in my journal without it. My advice? Do some soul searching and some research. Are you self-driven? Do you have time in your schedule to actually be self-driven? I find life to be mentally exhausting and needed an instructor assigning work to me and giving me feedback. Some might not need that.


CS: I have two questions about structure. The book is divided into five themed sections. Was this idea with you from the start? Or did you find yourself with separate pieces and then discover these currents in them? What do you think this organization brings to the book? And second, a number of the essays begin with an epigraph of one form or another. At what point in the process did these come into play? Were some part of an essay’s origins? Or did you find yourself discovering what the piece was about as you wrote and then finding an epigraph that fit? What role do you think these epigraphs play for the reader?

JR: By the time I wrote the title piece for the book I started to see and understand, like a sage plant, my own growth process that brought me to that place. The story of “Burning Sage” brought me to that reckoning—it’s letting go of three students who showed up in my class at just the right time, at the peak of my career. My son was in college at that point, I became Department Chair, felt confident teaching my Advanced Placement course, and I was writing again after two decades of fragmented thoughts. I knew then it was my peak, my own personal blooming, and I still know that now. The story examines that cusp in life—that jumping point—and how we handle it. I’m not sad about it anymore, because like the sage, I was taken from Bloom to Burn. It was and still is a new place for me to lay bare everything I learned and use it to the best of my abilities. Don’t get me wrong though, I don’t confuse this place with some kind of personal teaching Nirvana. I might have the experience of a veteran teacher and the wherewithal to be assertive in life, but I make mistakes on the daily and have a great deal more to learn. I love that. My kids teach me that every day.

Concerning the epigraphs, those didn’t come into play until the very end. I’ve been fascinated by Medieval mystics and visionaries for most of my adult life. I was researching some of the writings of Hildegard of Bingham, and interestingly enough for an 11th century nun, she loved to study infection, psychology, and human sexuality and explore natural remedies for both minor and severe ailments.  I came across something she said about sage:

Cur moriatur homo, cui salvia cresit in horto?

Why should a man die, whilst Sage grows

in his garden?

This not only became one of the two main epigraphs of the book, but also inspiration for further medicinal, spiritual, and historical study on this magical little plant. The more I learned, the more I understood how all these facts about sage could provide me with the access points I was seeking. And they made sense. There’s so much in nature that corresponds with the human condition. It’s amazing how often we either forget that or ignore it.


CS: As someone who taught high school for many years, I really enjoyed your essays about teaching. I think it can be a challenge for someone who edits or teaches writing to go home and then shift into creator/writer mode. Has this been a challenge for you? Or do you find inspiration in your work that carries over to your writing desk?

JR: It’s more of the latter, I think. To be quite honest, there was quite a bit of time when I thought I settled as a public educator. I had essentially given up on my dream because I chose to have my son at 19, and I thought teaching was the perfect career for mothers. (What a cruel myth!) But I look back at that girl wondering if circumstances were different, what would she even write about? Don’t be mistaken, I know there are many young writers out there with an expansive world view and lives rich in stories. I just wasn’t one of them. Having my son, and in turn, becoming a high school teacher, have been the greatest blessings of my life. They’re the ones who taught me what love, compassion, and sacrifice really are. And in each piece I write, I’m writing a love letter to them. So really, I’m not a writer who teaches. I never have been. I’m a teacher who, because of these kids, happened to find her voice.


CS: I felt like many of the pieces had you considering the world from your different roles—daughter, granddaughter, wife, mother, teacher—and all these perspectives gave the book a kind of cohesiveness, almost like it was more a memoir than a collection of essays. Did this ever come to mind as you were putting the manuscript together?

JR: I think part of what creates the “unconventional” in the subtitle of the book is that all of these identities blur. We don’t have to be constrained to little compartmentalized boxes. Society has blurred lines by putting greater expectations on everyone, so how can we possibly live inside such confinement? I was a daughter to my grandmother, a sister to my son, a student to strangers, a granddaughter to my professor, a mom, aunt, sister, counselor, social worker to my students—these roles blend because life has become exceedingly complicated… and these essays blend too. This was not at the forefront of my mind while writing it, but now, I see it. I think this whole beautiful and aggravating project of mine became a quest for an answer. Who the hell am I? And while I’m all of those identities, I know the real answer. I’m a teacher—a teacher who accidentally and begrudgingly fell in love with this frustrating job that I was supposed to have all along. A teacher who desperately wants to exist in a magical world of reliving the most beautiful and meaningful parts of life twice. But since she’s not magic, she has to settle for writing about them instead.


CS: What’s next?

JR: More of this journey, Curt. I’ll teach until they peel me off the floor.

Curtis Smith’s last novel, The Magpie’s Return, was named one of Kirkus Review’s best Indie Picks of 2020. His next novel, The Lost and the Blind, will be released in late spring 2023.

Push to Publish 2020 Interview: Alison Lewis

Alison Lewis

This year’s virtual Push to Publish Conference will include all of the great tips, trends, and connections that writers have gotten from this popular, in-person event—but now from the comfort of your home. Below, we talk with Alison Lewis, the editor-in-chief and publisher of Frayed Edge Press. Alison will be participating in Push to Publish as a speed date editor.

PS: Tell us a bit about your background and what you’re doing now.

AL: I’ve always been a voracious reader and have multiple English degrees. I’ve worked professionally as a librarian and a college professor, but I’m happy to be doing all publishing-related things now. At Parlew Associates, I help provide editorial and pre-press services for authors and publishers. I find it gratifying to fill in gaps for small presses that need extra help, and to aid authors in improving and professionalizing their work. As publisher and editor for literature at Frayed Edge Press, I’m excited to work directly with authors whose work we believe in, and to see their manuscripts grow into fully-formed books that they can be proud of.

PS: How did you get into publishing?

AL: I started out in publishing by helping out a friend who founded a small academic press. My background in English and attention to detail proved to be useful and I started getting paid for my work. In 2015, I co-founded a company to expand upon what I was already doing, and to provide services to other publishers and directly to authors. Three years later, we started Frayed Edge Press in order to publish the kinds of work we were most interested in.

PS: What trends are you seeing in the publishing industry?

AL: The dual trend of consolidation and expansion: fewer “big” publishers consolidated at the top, and more small presses, “indie” publishers, and self-publishing authors expanding at the bottom. The continued dominance of Amazon as a gatekeeper for publishing, while at the same time there is an increasing number of interesting alternatives to Amazon springing up. The saturation of the market and the ubiquity of electronic tools and the internet making pirating rampant both impact the ability of publishers and authors to be paid fairly for their work.

PS: How do you think the publishing industry has changed since the pandemic?

AL: We’re scrambling to find new ways of promoting books as in-person readings and author events are largely impossible right now. There has also been a negative impact in terms of bookstores and distributors losing business, or going out of business entirely. Many publishers have cut back on the number of titles published and/or slowed down their production schedules. On the more positive side, there’s still a healthy interest in reading and I’ve personally felt more of a need for reading as a means of “escape” these days. A lot of people stuck at home are in need of a good book!

PS: What do you think writers should avoid when approaching editors or agents?

AL: Avoid sending proposals for works that fall outside of our submission guidelines. When you send something that is in a genre we don’t publish, or that doesn’t meet the criteria for a particular series, you are wasting your time and ours. Avoid sending writing samples that haven’t been at least minimally proofread. No one expects a manuscript to be “perfect,” but multiple glaring errors show a lack of care and are a red flag for most editors and publishers.

PS: What other advice do you have for writers looking to get published?

AL: Be patient. Try to find the publisher that’s the right “fit” with your work. Know that rejection of your work is a necessary part of the business and often is reflective of factors other than its intrinsic merit. Keep writing, seek out helpful feedback, and continue to grow and improve as a writer.


Push to Publish 2020 Interview: Jackie Karneth

Jackie Karneth

This year’s virtual Push to Publish Conference will include all of the great tips, trends, and connections that writers have gotten from this popular, in-person event—but now from the comfort of your home. Below, we talk with Jackie Karneth, a literary publicist at Books Forward. Jackie will be speaking at the panel Marketing & Promotion for Authors.

PS: Tell us a bit about your background and what you’re doing now.

JK: I began working as a publicity assistant at JKS Communications, which has since rebranded as Books Forward to better reflect our company’s mission of elevating voices from a diverse community of authors. Now I’m working as a publicist, partnering directly with publishers and authors to promote books of all genres, including short stories and poetry.

PS: How did you get into publishing?

JK: I started my publishing journey early on, while in college. Originally, I’m from New Hampshire, and I always imagined going to a university in the Northeast before I discovered a unique publishing program for undergraduates being offered in Nashville. I joined the program and had the valuable opportunity to learn from industry professionals about every step in the publishing process, from writing a book to promoting it.

PS: What trends are you seeing in the publishing industry?

JK: Certain genres will of course have their moment in the spotlight with libraries and readers each year, with some genres peaking in popularity at unlikely times. Library Journal recently reported how, interestingly, horror and dark fiction is in very high demand at the moment. Some Barnes & Noble stores that had ditched their “Horror” sections reported that they plan on bringing them back, and new genre-specific imprints are being created to fill the demand. And as someone who just finished reading Carmen Maria Machado’s horror-memoir mashup “In the Dream House,” I definitely agree that the genre seems oddly appropriate for the time, as we’re all coping with, and learning from, our sense of fear.

PS: How do you think the publishing industry has changed since the pandemic?

JK: Some challenges lie in the fact that this fall will be a fully-booked publishing season, and large, traditional media outlets won’t be able to cover more books in light of the exceptional number of releases. While the competition is strong in that regard, there are also a lot of opportunities unique to this moment that are exciting and worth pursuing! Now is a good time to promote ebooks and audiobooks especially. Working on your social media presence, and focusing on interaction is also key. Launch celebrations are taking place virtually, of course, and virtual events with two authors in conversation are quite popular. Libraries have also been making the shift to virtual, and many now offer readers’ advisory programs, book clubs, and special events with authors through Facebook Live and other platforms.

PS: What other advice do you have for writers looking to get published?

JK: My advice would be to begin thinking about publicity early on in your publishing process. Every book is unique, and I believe that every book requires a unique publicity plan. In order to determine which approach will work best for you, take the time to weigh out your options and goals – both short term for this release and long term for your author brand. You should aim to set yourself up with a strong foundation to grow your brand and readership not only for your book’s release, but also for the months (and years!) to come.


Push to Publish 2020 Interview: Kelly Andrews

Kelly Andrews

This year’s virtual Push to Publish Conference will include all of the great tips, trends, and connections that writers have gotten from this popular, in-person event—but now from the comfort of your home. Below, we talk with Kelly Andrews, the editor-in-chief of Pretty Owl Poetry. Kelly will be participating in Push to Publish as a speed date editor.

PS: Tell us a bit about your background and what you’re doing now.

KA: I’ve worked in academic publishing for the last 10 years in various roles, including as an Assistant Managing Editor, a freelance copy editor, and a writing coach. I founded Pretty Owl Poetry in 2013 with two other editors who have since left the journal, and in the years since then we’ve grown to a staff of 8. My role for Pretty Owl is that of Editor in Chief and I oversee all aspects of the journal production and staff. In 2016, I received my MFA in poetry from the University of Pittsburgh. I currently work as a consulting editor for a nonpartisan public policy research firm.

PS: How did you get into publishing?

KA: For my undergrad, I studied Journalism, and I was very interested in working for the media as a reporter or editor. I thought this was the most practical way I could use my writing and editing skills. Before college, though, I had been studying poetry with Susanna Fry, a writer who was based in Philly for many years. With her encouragement, I took creative writing classes and really started to identify as a poet. After college, I took the first publishing job I was offered as an editorial assistant for a nonprofit and continued pursuing poetry in my spare time. This led to me pursuing an MFA in poetry from the University of Pittsburgh and starting Pretty Owl Poetry. I love the publishing industry and hope to continue working in it for as long as possible.

PS: What trends are you seeing in the publishing industry?

KA: There seems to be more acknowledgment of the need for diversity, equity, and inclusion in the publishing industry and a lot of journals and presses are taking the right steps to make this happen. We’re constantly evaluating our practices and thinking about the need for change within our own publication and hope this trend continues in others.

PS: How do you think the publishing industry has changed since the pandemic?

KA: The obvious change is the move to online platforms for things like poetry readings and workshops that would traditionally take place in person. I welcome this change as it’s allowed us to have more opportunities to feature writers all over the U.S. in online readings and I’ve had the personal opportunity to take classes with writers who I wouldn’t otherwise.

PS: What do you think writers should avoid when approaching editors or agents?

KA: The quality and fit of a person’s work will be the most important factor when an editor decides to accept or reject your submission. I would avoid trying to sell yourself when approaching an editor. Focus on the quality of the work you’re creating and this will be what leads you to successful publication.

PS: What other advice do you have for writers looking to get published?

KA: Read past issues of a journal before submitting your work. So many journals vary in style in what they accept. You want to make sure your work would fit in with that style before taking the time to prepare and send your submission.


Push to Publish 2020 Interview: K.L. Walther

K.L. Walther

This year’s virtual Push to Publish Conference will include all of the great tips, trends, and connections that writers have gotten from this popular, in-person event—but now from the comfort of your home. Below, we talk with K.L. Walther, the author of If We Were Us. Walther will be speaking at the panel The Publishing Journey of a Debut Author.

PS: Tell us a bit about your background and what you’re doing now.

KLW: I grew up in an old (but not haunted) farmhouse in Bucks County, Pennsylvania and am the oldest of three children. I played ice hockey from elementary school through college, and graduated from the University of Virginia. Right now, I am revising my second young adult novel and drafting my third!

PS: How did you get into publishing?

KLW: I have always loved to read, and took a creative writing class in college on a whim and discovered I had a passion for creating characters and telling their stories.

PS: What trends are you seeing in the publishing industry?

KLW: In the young adult genre, there is a true call for diverse characters and stories, and that makes it exciting for both writers and readers! Romantic comedies are also on the rise, since everyone loves a hopeful and feel- good story.

PS: How do you think the publishing industry has changed since the pandemic?

KLW: I know most editors are currently working remotely, along with book conferences and events being moved to virtual formats, so reaching readers has changed. Social media is now more important than ever. My own publisher does a wonderful job hosting Instagram takeovers and book clubs to spotlight our work.

PS: What do you think writers should avoid when approaching editors or agents?

KLW: Don’t immediately pitch your book when approaching an agent or editor in person at a conference. Play it cool. If you follow them on social media, or if you read an article about them, or read a book by one of their clients, those are great icebreakers. Pitch them your book when you are scheduled to pitch! If you weren’t able to get a slot, you can always query them later and then use your conversation as a way to personalize your letter. If you do have a pitch appointment, be prepared to talk about your book, and if you need a script, that’s okay! Agents and editors understand it can be nerve wracking. They will ask questions, but you can also use the opportunity to ask them your burning publishing questions too. They love talking about books and the industry, so take advantage of the face time.

PS: What other advice do you have for writers looking to get published?

KLW: You need discipline, tenacity, and a thick skin, since chances are, you will receive more rejections than requests. Be open to other viewpoints, directions, and perspectives. Don’t lose sight or be deterred from your goal! I know that sounds cliché, but if you really love your writing and believe in it, the hard work is worth it.


Push to Publish 2020 Interview: Gabriel Cleveland

Gabriel Cleveland

This year’s virtual Push to Publish Conference will include all of the great tips, trends, and connections that writers have gotten from this popular, in-person event—but now from the comfort of your home. Below, we talk with Gabriel Cleveland, the managing editor of CavanKerry Press. Gabriel will be speaking at the panel Publishing Opportunities for Poets.

PS: Tell us a bit about your background and what you’re doing now.

GC: I am a poet with an MFA in Creative Writing from Pine Manor College with years of service in the field of caregiving for people with increased physical and/or psychological needs and the current Managing Editor of CavanKerry Press.

PS: How did you get into publishing?

GC: After 5 post-grad years of trying and toiling in unrelated and aforementioned fields, I joined CavanKerry during a period of transition with a referral from the head of my MFA alma mater, working as an assistant to the other staff, especially Publisher Joan Cusack Handler. It has long been my pursuit to apply my studies practically, and I adopted the role with a fervency that allowed me to quickly take on more responsibilities, and… here we are!

PS: What trends are you seeing in the publishing industry?

GC: I don’t have a thorough answer for this. We are a tiny, independent, nonprofit press, so our scope is limited, but within our own organization, we have consistently pushed for community involvement and equity among readers, writers, and industry as a whole. With a mission of publishing work that is accessible and understandable to all adult readers, as well as a requirement that our authors give back to their community with multiple free outreach programs a year, we have been setting the bar higher and hoping to establish that trend in the wider publishing world.

PS: How do you think the publishing industry has changed since the pandemic?

GC: During the pandemic, obviously a lot has transitioned to digital and, where possible, publishers are pushing more virtual editions of their books, but it seems that physical books haven’t received the death knell that some expected. Rather, the pandemic has highlighted the resilience and innovation of the industry as a whole to serve their clientele with the emergence of new online retail outlets and more remote events.

PS: What do you think writers should avoid when approaching editors or agents?

GC: I can’t really speak to the agent side of things, but when approaching editors, I think writers should pay close attention to meeting the needs of the editor/publisher they are seeking to work with, while retaining their own voice. The English language is nothing if not full of cracks and made of rubber, and there’s a lot that can be accomplished within a publisher’s constraints to craft a work that presents the individual’s world in a genuine, tangible way. When working with an editor on a project that’s slated for publication, especially if that editor is established with the publisher who will be releasing the work, the writer should keep an open mind when receiving feedback. A good editor will sharpen the blade rather than seeking to replace it, and while the process can be a challenge, having the patience to consider the guidance of an editor as valid and possible for improving the work as a whole can really draw more poignancy out of a manuscript while remaining true to its initial intent.

PS: What other advice do you have for writers looking to get published?

GC: It’s trite, but read from a variety of presses to learn their aesthetics, as there’s no hard and fast rule for what the publishing world as a whole is looking for. That said, contrast in your manuscript is important. Sparks of light, hope, or humanity can make a bleak collection of work more palatable, while also making the depths of that collection that much more impactful. Likewise, a narrative devoid of struggle, pain, or obstacles will at the very least come off as unrealistic and at worst be seen as nothing more than fluff.


Push to Publish 2020 Interview: Lawrence Knorr

Lawrence Knorr

This year’s virtual Push to Publish Conference will include all of the great tips, trends, and connections that writers have gotten from this popular, in-person event—but now from the comfort of your home. Below, we talk with Lawrence Knorr, the founder and CEO of Sunbury Press. Lawrence will be participating in Push to Publish as a speed date editor and speaking at the panel Querying Your Book Without an Agent.

PS: Tell us a bit about your background and what you’re doing now.

LK: I am the founder and CEO of Sunbury Press, Inc. We have been in business for 16 years and have over 400 authors and 800 titles under managements. We publish in a variety of categories under 10 different imprints, producing paperback, hardcover, electronic, and audio books. Our books are sold worldwide.

PS: How did you get into publishing?

LK: I wanted to publish a family history and didn’t want to pay someone else to do it. I learned a lot of lessons along the way including that I loved publishing books.

PS: What trends are you seeing in the publishing industry?

LK: Audio is on the rise. Amazon is dominating more than ever.

PS: How do you think the publishing industry has changed since the pandemic?

LK: Independent bookstores are really struggling under COVID. EBooks have made a rebound, but Amazon is getting more of than revenue.

PS: What do you think writers should avoid when approaching editors or agents?

LK: Avoid being shy—get right to the point—have your elevator speech ready to go. Avoid presses or agents who do not represent your category. Avoid being disappointed when being rejected. Keep plugging away!

PS: What other advice do you have for writers looking to get published?

LK: Publishers have to perceive the book will sell well enough to cover costs and make a profit—though they sometimes invest in emerging authors whose second or third books might be the moneymakers. Authors remain at a disadvantage because of the sheer number of authors they are competing against. Try to limit that field by knowing how you fit in—find a way to stand out and be unique—or be like someone who sells really well.


An Incandescent Coming of Age


Erin Eileen Almond headshot

Erin Eileen Almond


— Former Philadelphia Stories Nonfiction Editor, Julia MacDonnell talks with Lanternfish Press author Erin Eileen Almond.


Erin Eileen Almond’s debut novel Witches’ Dance, just out from Philadelphia’s Lanternfish Press, is as riveting and intricate as the Paganini violin solo for which it is named. It’s one of those ‘curl up in a chair’ with tea or wine kind of books, the type the author herself, in a recent interview with Philadelphia Stories, said she loves to read.  Thanks to its trio of main characters, Witches’ Dance is rich and edgy, and interwoven with enough suspense and sex to keep the pages turning.

Hilda Greer is an incandescent teen-age violin prodigy, as passionate as she is confused, torn between her love of classical music and her desire to become a rock star via the heavy metal band Devil’s Advocate.

Her beautiful, narcissistic mother Claire is a dance teacher whose career as a ballerina was cut short by early motherhood.  Claire, who subsists on cigarettes, merlot, and a string of lovers, has raised Hilda alone after her jazz guitarist husband departed for the West Coast with one of his own young students.

Finally, there is Philip Manns, a virtuoso whose career as an internationally acclaimed violinist was ended by madness, in particular by an episode during which he believed that he’d become Paganini himself, the 19th century Italian virtuoso. Eventually Manns, reduced to teaching at the fictional Cambridge Conservatory, becomes Hilda’s teacher and mentor, with the alluring and troubled Claire forever hovering nearby.

In lustrous prose, and alternating among the points of view of Hilda, Claire, and Philip, Witches’ Dance ponders artistry and madness, and the tenacious if evanescent connections between creativity and insanity.  Its publication is the culmination of 10 years of hard work for Almond, a decade during which she not only rewrote the novel ‘from scratch at least three times,’ but also gave birth to her three children, the youngest now in first grade.  Not surprisingly, she put the novel down for ‘long stretches of time.’

“A more reasonable person might have just moved on to a different project at that point,” she says, “but I couldn’t seem to shake these characters and this story. I needed to write this book.”

Witches’ Dance reflects Almond’s own intense artistic journey, and her transformation from musician to writer.  She began playing violin in elementary school, switched as a teenager to heavy metal guitar, but, ever ‘obsessed with virtuosity’, returned to violin, eventually matriculating in violin at the Hartford Conservatory, planning a career as a performer and teacher.

“That experience was very eye-opening for me,” she said, “and essentially confirmed what I’d long suspected – that I just didn’t have the talent, or maybe even the confidence, to really go for it as a professional musician.” Hence, her creation of the unforgettable Hilda, whose labile emotions find their truest expression in the music she plays.

“The story really began with Hilda, my teenage prodigy…” who, Almond speculates, represents “my own grief at realizing that I would never be a professional violinist.”

Christine Neulieb, editorial director at Lanternfish Press said, “I was captivated by the character Hilda: the conflict between her fierce desire to be a rock star and her prodigious talent at classical violin; her strained relationship with her immature mother; the bewildering vortex of inspiration and insanity she encounters in her violin teacher. In the midst of all this she has to sort out where to pin her self-worth as she finally comes into her own. I was rooting for Hilda from page one.”

Almond recently answered some questions about her writing life, about her marriage to another writer, and about publication by a small independent house, Philadelphia’s Lanternfish Press.


JM: If Witches’ Dance is an indication, your knowledge and love of music is a major force in your life. When or how did you realize that writing, not music, would be the focus of your creative life?

EA: Music has definitely been a big part of my life for a long time! I started playing the violin in elementary school … and I studied it pretty seriously until I got to high school and gave it up for heavy metal guitar. (My parents were duly horrified.) But, even as a terrible lead guitarist for bands with names like The Virgin Saints, I was obsessed with virtuosity. And eventually that obsession led me back to the violin, because violinists – especially Paganini who was obviously a big inspiration for Witches’ Dance – were the original rock stars.

After I dropped out of the conservatory, I enrolled in classes at my local community college. And that experience was eye-opening for me in a different way, because although I’d always known that I wanted to write a novel, no one had told me that you could go to college to study fiction writing.

JM: When or how did you know that novel writing would be the best expression of your creativity – assuming, from the quality of Witches’ Dance, that it is? 

EA: Well, unless you count the terrible poetry that I was filling up notebooks with for most of my teen years, the novel was the first literary form that I ever tried to write. (I wish I could find and thank Donna Garden, my high school English teacher, who so sweetly read the chapters of my first novel attempt, ripped out of a spiral bound notebook, and encouraged me to keep going!) I adore short stories and poems and memoirs and essays, but I’m at my happiest as a reader when I’m engrossed in a long, complicated, and well-written novel. So, I always knew that, if I were trying to write the kind of book that I would most want to read, it would be a novel.

JM: When you first set out to write a novel, what did you think becoming a novelist would be like?  What do you think about it now that you have been published? Does the reality match the fantasy?

EA: Back in my earliest days of fantasizing about being a published novelist, I had a very old-fashioned sense of what it would mean to be putting books in the world. I assumed that it was the perfect profession for an introvert because I could just write the books and not worry about having to go out in the world and promote them. That would be someone else’s job. (You can stop laughing now.) But I realized that wasn’t the case long before I published Witches’ Dance.  Even though I’m still more comfortable alone in a room with my characters, than I am with public speaking, I’ve grown to love that part of it, too.

JM: How did you find the experience of submitting it to agents and publishers?  What can you tell us about Lanternfish Press?

EA: I was lucky in that I connected with my agent, Danielle Bukowski, of Sterling Lord Literistic pretty quickly. I found her online and submitted to her because she listed Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke as one of her favorite novels and it’s also one of my very favorites. Danielle really understood what I was up to in Witches’ Dance and was able to suggest some very smart revisions before she submitted it to editors at major publishing houses. But, even though it found a couple of editors who really loved it, those editors weren’t able to sell it to the marketing teams at their big houses.

At that point, since I had already started my second novel, Danielle and I talked about whether I was going to put Witches’ Dance on hold and maybe try to sell it as a second novel or submit to smaller independent publishers. And I’m so glad that I decided to search for an indie press because Lanternfish Press has been such a great home for Witches’ Dance. They’re interested in literary works that also includes elements of speculative or sci-fi fiction, and they’re not interested in playing it safe or mimicking the trends of the big presses. I’ve been super impressed with all of the books they put out and am so grateful that Witches’ Dance is in such good company.

JM: Can you tell us a little about your writing process – like, when do you write?  All on computer or some handwriting?  Do you share your drafts with other writers?  Who first gets to read your work in progress? 

EA: Well, I can give you my ideal process and then I can tell you what it’s really like on the ground… ideally, I would write every day, first thing in the morning, before my mind gets distracted by all the mundane logistical tasks that I have to deal with as a parent and homeowner. But, of course, before I can even sit down at my desk, there are three kids to get off to school and there are definitely days when, despite my best intentions, a kid stays home sick, or there’s a doctor’s appointment, or the car breaks down… But that’s the struggle for everyone, I think, even writers who aren’t parents have to figure out how to fit in their creative work in between the work that pays the bills and taking care of their loved ones. My guiding principal is to get to my fiction writing as early in the day as I can because by the time the kids go to bed at night I need to fill the well, and I’m only good for reading, not writing.

I do a lot of handwriting in journals when I’m developing an idea – that feels more conducive to the kind of loose, dreamy thought that works for me at that point in the process – but then I’ll move to my laptop when I’m ready to start composing scenes. I definitely outline before I begin, although that outline constantly morphs when I’m working on a first draft.

After Witches’ Dance, I swore that I wouldn’t show a novel draft to anyone until I had a first draft done, but then I almost immediately went back on that promise to myself early on in the process for my next novel. It’s just so hard to know that you’re on the right track once you get deep into a new project, and I’m really lucky to have a handful of writer friends whose opinions I trust and respect. Sometimes all you need is a little encouragement – yes, this is a viable project – and sometimes it helps to have someone point out an obvious flaw, early on, before you’ve spent four hundred pages writing yourself into a corner.

JM: Your husband Steve Almond, the original Dear Sugar, is a well-known writer of fiction and journalism.  What’s it like to live with another writer?

EA: Ha – how much time do you have? It’s amazing to be married to another writer because no one understands the struggle like someone else who’s in it, too. But it’s also difficult because we’ve often had to negotiate – this was especially the case when our older kids were babies – who gets to write and who has to be the support person holding down the fort with the house and the kids. And because Steve was (and still is) the more established writer, as well as the writer whose work actually pays our bills, I’ve often felt guilty about prioritizing my own, mostly unpaid, work. That’s changed a bit in the past couple of years – putting out my first novel, definitely helps, but I’ve also started taking on manuscript consulting and publishing non-fiction pieces, and so now I’m learning how to balance creative work with what Steve calls “money-work,” too.

We’ve also had to learn how to be good readers for each other – we’re constantly sharing and discussing our work – and that was harder for me in the early days because I had a much thinner skin. I’ve learned that, for me, it’s better to show Steve work when I’m pretty sure that it’s done, whereas he’s more comfortable letting me see his prose much earlier. But the overall dynamic between us is extremely supportive – we’re definitely each other’s biggest fans. And I know that when I’ve written something that Steve really likes that it’s got to be good, because he’s a tough critic, and he’s always given me his honest opinion.

JM: How do you manage all those amazing characters in your imagination with all those actual characters – a husband and three kids!! – in your home? Any tips on how to shut off the creative flow and transition from writing fiction into being a mom?

Well, I would say that, for me, the difficulty is the other way around – it’s much harder to shut off the mom-brain and focus on my characters and my creative work! I mean, the kids’ needs (and sometimes the husband’s – ha!) are so immediate and tangible, whereas the characters, well, let’s just say that no one’s going to starve if I don’t make it to my writing desk on any given day. That’s another reason why I really try to prioritize doing my creative work as early in the day as possible, because once I’m ticking through items on my to-do list, it’s really hard to shut that off and connect to those dear people who exist only in my imagination.

But there are practical reasons to prioritize creative work, too – because I’m much more pleasant to be around when I’m working on my fiction. That is a real, tangible need, for me, at least, to feel creatively alive and effective in that way. And when I feel that I’m neglecting that part of myself I can become irritable and short-tempered and just, in general, unpleasant to be around. So, in a way, making sure I have time to do the creative work that feeds my soul also makes me a better parent and partner.

JM: What do you hope readers will take away from reading Witches’ Dance?

EA: I hope that readers will come away from the book curious about classical music – if they don’t love that music already! – and also of course, the violin, which is one of the reasons why I included a list of recommended recordings at the end for all of the major pieces mentioned in the book. I also hope readers appreciate the complexity of what all my main characters are up against: Hilda, in her quest to establish her own artistic identity, Phillip, in his struggle with the double burden of virtuosity and madness, and Claire with her maternal ambivalence and broken dreams.

JM: What do you love (are most proud of; most satisfied with) about your debut novel Witches’ Dance?

EA: The best part of the whole experience of putting Witches’ Dance into the world has been to connect with readers. There were many moments when I doubted it would ever see the light of day as a published book. Not because I didn’t think it was worthy of being published, but because I have enough writer friends to know how subjective the gatekeepers often are, and how difficult the publishing process can be. It’s very, very satisfying now to hear from readers who’ve enjoyed Witches’ Dance and who connect to the characters and their struggles.

Witches Dance Cover image


Excerpt From Witches’ Dance by Erin Eileen Almond

Paganini. What do you think when you hear that name? If you know classical music, if you’re lucky enough to be a fan of the violin, you might think of the Italian virtuoso Niccolò Paganini (1782–1840), widely recognized as the father of modern violin technique. You might know that Paganini was the first instrumentalist to tour widely as a solo act. You might have heard the legends about how he sold his soul to the devil. Or how, mischievously fueling those rumors, Paganini arrived for his concerts in funeral carriages, dressed all in black. None other than Goethe saw Paganini perform in Hamburg in 1828 and swore he saw a little man standing in the shadows to the left of the violinist, directing his fingers and bow. But because you belong to the modern age, an age in which devils have become passé, or at least predictable, it’s possible you prefer a scientific explanation for Paganini’s ability to play three octaves across four strings in a single hand span. Well. There’s always Marfan Syndrome, a genetic disorder that often afflicts its sufferers with long fingers and extreme flexibility.

But say you are none of these things. Not a twenty-first-century reader, not a casual admirer of the violin. Say, instead, that you are Phillip Manns, a twenty-three-year-old savant about to solo with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Say you are at the end of a long tour, run-down, ready to return to New York with your manager, Anna Zedzevsky, for a well-earned rest. Say you hate the guest conductor, Georg Domini, an arrogant prig who interprets according to whim and who wears entirely too much product in his hair. Say that tonight’s program is Paganini’s Concerto no. 1 in D Major, and you are considered the world’s greatest interpreter of Paganini.

In that case, the year must be 1984. And although your given name is Phillip Manns, you must believe, despite how crazy it sounds, that you are Niccolò Paganini, or at least his reincarnation. It is your greatest pride, and your greatest secret—you’ve told only your manager, and she’s warned you not to tell another soul.