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.



Interview: Steve Almond

Steve Almond pic

Steve Almond, the author of nine books of fiction and nonfiction, and a slew of DIY books with varied subjects, served as the final judge of Philadelphia Stories’ 2011 Marguerite McGlinn national fiction contest and was keynote speaker for that year’s Push to Publish conference.  The prolific Almond describes himself many different ways: ‘troublemaker’ and ‘American freak’ on his website; ‘heartbroken lefty’ and ‘failed novelist’ in lectures and conversations. His self-branding suggests a writer determined to chart his own path – and a look at his ever-growing oeuvre confirms the suspicion. Those familiar only with Almond’s prize-winning short story collections, God Bless America and The Evil B.B. Chow, might not realize the breadth of his work, which ranges from the exquisitely literary to the overtly political and profane. His publishers have included big profit-makers and small indies, among them Random House, Algonquin, Grove Press, Mariner Books, Melville House, Lookout Books and now, for Bad Stories, Red Hen Press, a stellar not-for-profit indie based in Pasadena.

In the early years of his career, he originated an advice column called Dear Sugar for Stephen Elliott’s The Rumpus.  He handed it off a few years later to his friend Cheryl Strayed.  This was before the monumental success of her memoir Wild.  Almond and Strayed, ‘great pals,’ have since created the ‘radically empathic’ podcast Dear Sugars and, based upon it, The Sweet Spot column in the New York Times.  Connecting this work to his other writing, Almond says, “When we tell bad stories, we get bad outcomes, whether in our personal or political life.”

Almond, one of three sons of two psychiatrists, grew up in northern California but moved east for college (Wesleyan) and has stayed east ever since. These days he lives just outside Boston with his wife, the writer Erin Almond, and their three young children. He insists he has never had a master plan for his career. “I’m just trying to tell the truth about the stuff that matters to me the most deeply,” he said. “Most days I think of myself as a failed novelist. But it’s probably more accurate, and merciful, to say that I’m a short story writer who avoids writing novels by chasing his obsessions.

He recently answered a few questions for Philadelphia Stories:

PS: What compelled you to write Bad Stories instead of a million other things you could write have written about after Against Football?

SA: I come from a family that has always been politically active. My grandparents were members of the Communist Party. My parents were activists in the civil rights and peace movements. I was raised to believe that we have a moral duty to fight for social justice. Literature does that work, by enlarging our moral imaginations. But the 2016 election revealed a darkness in this country that terrified and confused me, and it was one that I had to try to understand before I could move on. In that sense, I really didn’t choose to write Bad Stories. The book chose me.

PS: What have you learned during your cross-country tour in support of the book?

SA: Mostly that citizens of good faith are much less interested in how we got into this mess and much more fixated on the question, “Who’s going to save us?” My response is to say, as gently as I can, “Hey, stop expecting other people to save us. The point of the book is that we’re going to have to save us.” I wrote the book so people would understand the forces that led to the 2016 election, and thereby feel less confused and distressed. But we’re living in an historical moment where the news cycle is so full of corruption and cruelty that people are in this state of perpetual distress and exhaustion. What’s really happening is a struggle of faith. People need to recognize that the fate of American democracy depends on them becoming active as citizens, giving time and money and passion to candidates and causes devoted to social and electoral justice. That requires people to shoulder the burden of hope, to believe they can make a difference.

PS: What has given you hope since the book’s publication?

SA: The idea that some Americans have responded by refusing to lose faith, and by converting their anguish into action. I’m thinking of the teachers in Arizona and West Virginia and Oklahoma who organized and demanded a livable wage. And the teenagers in Parkland who stood up and demanded that politicians be held accountable for supporting the gun lobby. And the huge numbers of citizens who have become more politically active, whether by running for office or simply getting off their couches and taking action.

PS: Which of the bad stories has continued to play out most vividly since the book’s publication?

SA: The bad story that the Cold War Is Over and We Won, I guess. It’s become obvious that Putin controls our president, inasmuch as our president can be controlled. Putin saw that America was vulnerable to bad stories. He saw that our democracy was fundamentally much weaker than we ever realized. Our media was so driven by profit that they could be enlisted to act as his press agents in smearing Clinton, that right wing media would also spread his propaganda, and that Americans were so apathetic that barely half of them would bother to vote. This is putting aside the revelations of attempted collusion and criminal conduct. Putin could see that Americans had grown lazy and disinterested, that millions had been indoctrinated by propaganda, that they would vote for a demagogue out of blind tribal loyalty and/or misogyny and/or racial resentment and/or gullibility. He saw the American empire as far more vulnerable than we did. He was right. That should trouble us more than the collusion itself.

PS: What can concerned readers of your book do to make things better?  What should they read or listen to?

SA: I’d recommend changing your media diet, both for your mental health and so that you’re not supporting those programs that convert news into entertainment. Support organizations such as ProPublica and the New Yorker that do in-depth reporting on what the current administration is doing to place corporate interests above human interests. Stop watching the shows that feature pundits yelling at each other and focus on the voices that help connect the dots between corrupt business and corrupt government. And more than anything, take some kind of action rather than simply complaining to like-minded folk. For me, this has meant doing house readings and fundraising workshops. There’s no shortage, in terms of what we can do. And we should, because our kids and grandkids will want to know what we did.


Julia MacDonnell (Chang) has lived many lives, among them, urban homesteader, circus performer, modern dancer, waitress, anti-war activist, newspaper reporter, college professor, and ‘gluer’ of velvet boxes on a production line in a rosary bead factory. MacDonnell’s second novel, Mimi Malloy, At Last!, was published by Picador in 2014, and chosen as an Indie Next selection by the A.B.A.  It was released in paperback in 2015. Her first novel, A Year of Favor, was published by William Morrow & Co.  Her stories and essays have appeared in Ruminate, Alaska Quarterly Review, North Dakota Quarterly and many other publications. She is the former nonfiction editor of Philadelphia Stories.









An Interview with Philadelphia Writer Larry Loebell

LoebellPhiladelphia writer Larry Loebell, who placed third in Philadelphia Stories’ 2015 Marguerite McGlinn Fiction Award for his story 49 Seconds in the Box, has just published a collection of novellas. Titled Seven Steps Ahead, it is his second collection of stories in as many years. In a recent interview, Loebell described these works of fiction “as a total DIY project,” despite the many accolades he has earned during his long career as a playwright, a screenwriter, a dramaturg and a teacher of dramatic writing at both the University of the Arts and Arcadia University.

Loebell is a four-time recipient of the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Playwriting Fellowship, and a 2006 recipient of a new play commission from the National Foundation for Jewish Culture. For more than a decade he has been writing a play called Living News which is performed during the school year at the National Constitution Center.

Loebell has just finished a novel, Tough Girl in the Jam, set in the world of professional roller derby.  He has also written and directed a low budget feature film, Dostoyevsky Man, loosely based on Notes from Underground which was a “Fringe First” in the 2012 Philadelphia Fringe Festival.  His full-length plays include  Pride of the Lion; Memorial DayThe Ballad of John Wesley Reed, which was premiered by Theatre Catalyst in Philadelphia; Girl Science, a featured play at the first Earth Matters on Stage Festival in Arcata, California; and La Tempestad, produced at the Ohio Theater in New York City. La Tempestad is also anthologized in Playing with Canons: Explosive New Works from Literature by America’s Indie Playwrights. Among Loebell’s career highlights are a “Best New Play” Barrymore Award nomination for House Divided.

How do you describe your new collection of novellas? Who should read it?

Seven Steps Ahead is a set of love stories, though not all of the happily-ever-after variety. As far as who should read it, Seven Steps Ahead is adult fiction. The characters include a former hippie medical doctor, a sixties radical hiding in the underground, a chess playing open marriage/polyamory advocate, and an actor turned folk singer. All of the stories are about the coincidences that lead people into relationships, and the forces that threaten them.

Why the novella instead of the short story? Or the novel, for that matter? What is it about the form that appealed to you?

One answer is that I was working my way up to a novel. I put out a book of short stories (The Abundance League) in 2016. The novellas came next. I needed to write novellas to convince myself I could sustain the longer form. But there is another answer. I really love the form. It’s a comfortable length for me, and I suspect I will return to it. There’s enough room to stretch out, but there’s also the requirement to be efficient. With the novella, the challenge is to tell a story that’s as expansive as a novel, but in a shorter form.

You have written in many forms, including for the animated program Rugrats. Which form is your favorite? Which is the most challenging?

My favorite is always the thing I’m working on at the moment. I’m really loving writing fiction right now. Rugrats was a sort of fluke in my writing career, a kind of one-off gift. It’s fun to be associated with something that so many people have seen, but it’s hardly the most important thing I’ve done. I’ve been writing a character-driven museum stage show for the past twelve years for the National Constitution Center about the human impact of Constitutional issues. Tens of thousands of people have seen that show, compared to the probably millions who have seen Rugrats on TV. Smaller numbers have seen my plays or read my fiction. Very different challenges, and very different rewards. But sitting at my desk while I am working, I experience similar levels of agita and pleasure trying to make whatever I’m writing work. I despise every project equally when I am struggling, and love each one unequivocally when I’ve completed it to my satisfaction. I feel lucky to have had as long and varied a career as I have had.

How does your long career in dramatic writing and dramaturgy impact your fiction?

Several of my plays and some of my fiction are based at least in part on actual events and therefore require looking at the facts behind those events. My entire dramaturg career involved working with living playwrights on new plays. One part of that job was helping playwrights with research. Another part was essentially editorial, diving into the text and asking questions about character, plot, and themes. Being a dramaturg taught me to ask those questions of myself.

Formally, playwriting has certain challenges that are different than fiction writing. There’s no omniscience on stage, for instance. Depending on the narrative style, in fiction a writer might have expanded options. But formal problems have always seemed to me to be simply puzzles to solve. The harder issues are creating worthy characters and stories, revving them up, and getting good conflicts going. That is pretty much the necessity in every story-telling form. I suppose it’s fair to say that since playwriting preceded writing fiction for me, the impact is that I learned how to do those things first writing drama.

When you get an idea for a story, how do you know what form it will end up in? Do you know before you begin writing?

In the years when I was most actively writing plays, I thought as a playwright, and my stories formed around the formalities and limitations of stage writing. Now that I am writing fiction pretty much exclusively, I am thinking about how my stories and characters activate in fictional forms. I feel this is a sort of necessity. To move forward, I have to know something about the genre I am going forward in. So, I suppose the answer to the question of whether I know the form before I start writing is: yes. But I will tell you that the novel I have just finished started life as a play. For many reasons, it was very unlikely to get produced (very large cast, difficult technical requirements) so it made sense to me to write the second draft as a novel. It feels much stronger to me as a novel than it ever did as a play.

Why do you write?

The answer to this question at this point in my life is different than it was when I was younger. When I was younger, I wrote with a kind of mission. I thought I had things to say that were important, and I was interested in a career as a writer with all of the things that brought: engagement with an artistic and literary community, an audience, and perhaps having enough renown to earn a living at it. So, when I was younger, in addition to liking to write, I wrote with some idea of personal and worldly utility in mind. These days, I write because I write. I don’t choose it or un-choose it. It is simply what I do. It is part of my life’s order. I get up in the morning, I walk my dogs, I eat breakfast, and when I finish, I go to my desk and write. I have made some promises to myself about the amount of work I want to finish over time. But I am not driven by those earlier expectations anymore. Why do I write? I guess the answer is I like it. I think it’s hard to keep at it as long as I have if you don’t.

What advice do you have for beginning writers?

The most useful advice I have to offer is really the same advice I got from my best teachers: Write all you can. Try not to get discouraged when it isn’t going well. Kick all the censors out of your head, especially the ones you feel you might have to answer to: parents, family members, partners, lovers. Read a lot. Don’t fetter your imagination by worrying about what should or should not be your subject or your voice. Do your due-diligence when you research. Abandon research before it overwhelms you. Write what you imagine, not what you know.

Seven Steps Ahead is an Amazon publication. Why did you go this route? How has it worked out for you? Would you recommend it to other writers?

One of the reasons I stopped writing for theater is that I am very impatient. I want the road between finishing something and having it out in the world to be a straight line. Theater is slow, and often convoluted. The process of getting a play on stage at a professional theater can be excruciating – going through a development process, waiting for acceptances by theater companies, waiting through the casting and rehearsal process – and I say this having had five of my full-length plays produced within a year or so of their completion. Early in my theater career, I self-produced two shows. I did this because I was impatient, but also because I wanted to understand the process. I learned a great deal doing that, not just about the business side of theater, but also about what lands and what doesn’t when you’re writing for stage. I learned about audience reaction, about the role and job of critics, and about why some playwrights say no play is every finished. I loved the scrappy company of actors and technical folks I put together to do those pieces.

If I had been younger when I returned to fiction I might have gone a more traditional route getting my work published.   There is a real value in having organizational support, though my well-published friends tell me that book publishers are doing a lot less in the way of support than they used to. My later plays were all produced by Equity companies with decent budgets and marketing people, which meant that more people saw them, more critics wrote about them, there was a more significant response.

But I’m pretty sure that only the luckiest or the most blessed writers get book deals at sixty-five years old, which is how old I was when I published The Abundance League. I was not really all that excited about waiting around to see if I was among their number. I wasn’t sure, when I published my story collection how it would do with readers or critics. Because I had the skills and tools to publish it myself (and I didn’t really want to risk any money) I used Create Space to produce the book and then published through Amazon (under the Blue Footed Books imprimatur.) I know there are people who have big issues with Amazon. But it cost me nothing to produce the book. I knew that sales would be modest, though I have to say that the collection exceeded my expectations. It and the novellas are pure DIY projects.

What is your next project?

The novel that I am finishing is set in the world of women’s professional roller derby and is about sacrifice.


Julia MacDonnell (Chang) has lived many lives, among them, urban homesteader, circus performer, modern dancer, waitress, anti-war activist, newspaper reporter, college professor, and ‘gluer’ of velvet boxes on a production line in a rosary bead factory. MacDonnell’s second novel, Mimi Malloy, At Last!, was published by Picador in 2014, and chosen as an Indie Next selection by the A.B.A.  It was released in paperback in 2015. Her first novel, A Year of Favor, was published by William Morrow & Co.  Her stories and essays have appeared in Ruminate, Alaska Quarterly Review, North Dakota Quarterly and many other publications. She is the former nonfiction editor of Philadelphia Stories.