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.


Molly Peacock Interview

Interview Introduction:

Molly Peacock Low RezThe astonishing literary life of multi-genre writer Molly Peacock proves that creativity can do better than survive the meager soil of its birth:  It can go on to flourish, restless and varied, finding and, when necessary, generating its own nourishment, even amid the noise and violence of contemporary life. Peacock’s new poetry collection, The Analyst, her seventh, just published by W.W. Norton, explores her 40-year long relationship with her psychoanalyst, one that began when Peacock, in her early 20s, fearful and floundering, arrived in New York City to begin her career as a writer and teacher.  Her analyst’s stroke at 77, and the analyst’s subsequent loss of memory and language, but her pivot toward painting as a means of self-expression, triggered Peacock’s collection.  With exquisite lyricism, stunning imagery, and sly wit – the hallmarks of Peacock’s oeuvre – The Analyst offers a luminous meditation on their rare and ever-evolving relationship.


Among other accolades, Oprah Magazine has just chosen The Analyst as a ‘must read’ book for 2017, noting its ‘bittersweet pleasures’ and the way that Peacock, in its 100 pages, brings readers “into the consulting room with her— first supine on the couch, then free to sit up and face the analyst, not as a patient but as one person to another.”


Peacock Norton Analyst coverThe Analyst is Peacock’s 11th book, but demanding attention too are the deep resonant pleasures of her memoir, Paradise Piece by Piece, first published in 1998, and perhaps more relevant today.  (Available now as an eBook.)  Peacock describes it as a memoir of her decision to remain childless, but I (having read it many times and taught it in graduate classes on the memoir) see it as a gutsy portrait of the artist as a young woman, in the crazy swirl of ‘60s and ‘70s, finding her way out of a dysfunctional (and at time violent) working class family and into international recognition as a woman of letters. It is also, by the way, a delicious recounting of her love story with her husband Michael Groden, a James Joyce scholar and author, (Ulysses in Focus; Ulysses in Progress) now a distinguished professor emeritus at Western University in London, Ontario.  They’d first connected in junior high, but did not see each other for decades, not until after Peacock’s own first successes and Groden’s emigration to Canada.


Peacock, who has edited The Best Canadian Poets in English Series since 2008, recently published two other books of prose, notable not just for the originality of their contents, but also for the beauty of the books themselves:


The Paper Garden:  An Artist Begins her Life’s Work at 72 (Bloomsbury 2012) recounts how Mary Delany, back in 1772, hurled herself out of grief over her second husband’s death, by creating a new art form: mixed-media collage. Over the next decade, Mrs. Delany produced 985 botanically correct, breathtaking cut-paper flowers that are now housed in the British Museum. The book contains thirty-five full-color illustrations of them. A New York Times book review said Delany’s story ‘abounds with energy as Peacock brings her alive. Like her glorious multilayered collages, Delany is so vivid a character she almost jumps from the page.’


The other is Alphabetique: 26 Characteristic Fictions (McClelland and Stewart, 2014) in which Peacock writes flash fictions for the letters of the alphabet, creating personas, provocative and droll, for each.  These magical stories are accompanied by stunningly vivid collages by the artist Kara Kosaka, with whom she collaborated on the book, so that words and images have a lovely, fairy-tale like synergy.  Upon publication, Amazon called it ‘the most gorgeous gift book of the season.’



Recently, after a launch for The Analyst at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, Peacock, who will serve as Poet Laureate at the West Chester Poetry Conference in West Chester, June 8-10, generously agreed to an in-depth electronic interview.


Your career has been long and varied as poet, memoirist, performance artist, editor, teacher and advocate for the importance of literature in daily life. What has surprised you most about your own career?


What has surprised me most is the variety itself. In my twenties, I only wanted to write poetry.  But as I went on in life—could you say, as I grew up?—and lived both in Canada and in the United States, I discovered that I had a much more restless imagination.


Having created a particular and lovely niche for yourself in American letters,  I’m wondering if you started out with a goal or a grand scheme of how you wanted your writing life to turn out.  Are you surprised by where you’ve ended up?  


There’s that word “surprise” again!  Yes, I had a grand scheme at age 30: five or six  books of poetry, and maybe a book or two of short stories.  That seemed like a lifetime of writing to me, a working class girl with a full time job. But the creation of a life is very much like the creation of a poem.  You turn within your limits, and you discover connections you never thought were there.


How about a botanical explanation?  Plants have dormant nodes  on their stems, and that allows them to respond to changes in environment.  Change or damage to one part?  Then another part starts to grow.  And I think that’s what happened to me.


Each time my creativity began to shift, I panicked.  Each shift threw me back into psychotherapy. Was I destroying myself as a poet when I began to write prose?  Wrecking my career when I moved to Canada?  Abandoning my writing when I performed in The Shimmering Verge, a one-woman show?  Bewildering my audience when I started writing about late-life creativity in The Paper Garden.  Now, at my age, almost 70, I see how they are all part of the same tapestry. The examined life helps create the artist’s life.


Can you pinpoint a couple of pivotal moments that moved you in your writing from one place to another?  (i.e. maybe the move to Canada?  Your marriage?) And tell us why you think it happened?


My binational life definitely inspired my memoir.  To marry, at 45, my very first serious boyfriend from high school, then to move to another country, Canada, where he had emigrated, suddenly gave me a kind of quiet time.  In my husband’s house in London, Ontario, I began to teach myself how to write prose.  My marriage forced the issue of children.  But I had chosen not to have children, even to the point of having a tubal ligation.  With the time to write, and the reason to write (since my then-new husband agreed with my choice) led me to the memoir.


In Canada, many authors write both poetry and prose.  We have lots of models for viewing ourselves in a more protean way.


After years of being married to Michael, and observing him as he tracked down scholarly clues—something of no interest to that 30 year-old young woman who only wanted to write poetry—I decided that facts and metaphor could comfortably live side by side. This led me to dare to write biography.  Having a world-class researcher available for 24/7 queries (and soothing my daily nervous breakdowns in frustration at the world of information) also helped!


Your memoir, Paradise, Piece by Piece, tells the story of a young woman transcending her highly dysfunctional family to become, at an early age, its sole survivor.  How did the writing of this book impact the other parts of your writing life?  


What amazes me is that Paradise, Piece by Piece is still so meaningful to readers.  My memoir made me realize that my so-called chosen life was the result of social forces.  As a younger writer, I wrote about my own life.  Understanding that my life had a shape led me to a deep interest in the shapes of the lives of others.  This propelled me toward biography.  I have to mention my Fellowship from the Leon Levy Center for Biography at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York.  That year to write and learn was a life-changer for me, and, posthumously, for Mrs. Delany, the amazing woman who invented collage at the age of 72 in 1772.


The Analyst seems to me to be a return to your work as a more traditional poet after the successes of Alphabetique and The Paper Garden.  How long were you working on it?  When did you conceptualize it?


My long-time therapist had a stroke in 2012 and closed her practice.  Though I had finished our time of analysis, we had check-in appointments for decades and were very close.  When I thought she would die, and that I would never see her again, I was catapulted into a strange grief-with-gratitude state.  Poems poured out of me.  But she survived!  Her memory was blasted, though, and she reached out to a me that had existed years before, in the recesses of her long-term memory.  We began a new post-therapy relationship.  I then had the privilege of watching the person who helped me claim my life as a writer reclaim her own life—through painting.  She cannot read.  She had to relearn what a key was, to relearn how to lock a door!  But those nodes of growth I was talking about worked for her.  Her girlhood talent for painting has rescued her.  The minute she got out of the hospital she began to draw.  And draw away from her previous life.  And draw herself into her coda.  I wrote the poems obsessively from 2012 to 2015.  And then, as it became clear that I had to return to my life, and that she had made a small, peculiar, but vital life for herself with a lot of professional and family help, I stopped, and realized I had a book.


In general, how does a poem, or any other new work, begin for you? Can you describe, briefly, your writing process?


I am writing all the time, either in my head, or on paper.  New ideas burgeon, and they are kind of in the back of my mind.  I am relaxed about this.  I know new ideas will come.  It’s one of the pleasures of a long life of writing.


What success has been most meaningful to you?  


My greatest successes are my relationships.  I have a remarkable forty-two-year friendship with the poet Phillis Levin (Mr. Memory and Other Poems; May Day).  We have seen every poem the other has written over all this time.  My relationship with my husband began when we were thirteen years old.  We are able to keep great solitudes in our marriage, solitudes that hold our creativity apart, yet hold our personalities together. My relationship with my former analyst began when I was 26 and continues, despite her stroke and move across the country, to this day.  I can barely define it, even though I wrote a whole book of poems about it. These relationships feel like art to me.  In each one we are, together, writing the book of two strangers becoming more and more familiar.  Yes, I am thrilled by each writing success as it happens.  And probably the New York Times Book Review of my second book of poetry, Raw Heaven, is the most significant success.  That landed me on the map of contemporary American letters, and from then I have had a place.  But my ever-changing relationships, with growth rings for their years of development, are like great trees in my life.


How do you juggle (balance) your dual citizenship?  Has Canada given you something that the United States did not?


I speak here as a dual citizen: Canada supports me in a way unknown to American writers.  There are many different sorts of grants, for one thing, but, vaster, Canada is a deeply literate country.  School teachers are paid as well as professors.  It does not cost a fortune for a great university education.  The CBC, where people still speak in paragraphs, is a national government-run enterprise, lifting the level of discourse daily.  Every day in The Globe and Mail there is a personal essay by a Canadian citizen.  On the subway you might see poor people, but you do not see people in need of health care.  It is a nation that, whatever its problems, subscribes to the notion that we must take care of one another.  My husband, a nine-time cancer survivor, is alive because of the Canadian health care system.  I am in awe of my good fortune in Canada.


And yet…


I am equally an American.  It is the place I was born, and New York City, the place where I came of age as a writer, still draws and excites me.  There is a self-starter mentality that I love—it helped propel me through my life.  I always get new ideas the minute the plane lands.  My mother the small businesswoman, my grandfather the general store owner—their bootstrap stories are a deep part of my history, as well as the working class alcoholism and drug addiction that plagued my father and sister.  Each year my husband and I teach at the 92St Y Unterberg Poetry Center in February and March, and we are always thrilled to be back among our friends in New York.  It’s an almost cellular response.


I vote in both countries and I work hard to support my candidates.  I exist both in a flexible parliamentary system, and with the strange inflexibility of the electoral college.  I would say that the United States is the country of my youth.  But Canada is the country of my age—and, perhaps, my wisdom.


Advice for young writers?


Yes, you have the time to write.  Yes, you can write with a full time job, sick parents, a puking dog and children with head lice.  I dare you to write fourteen lines of poetry or prose in 45 minutes.  Just about everyone has 45 minutes in a day:  15 minutes in the morning and 30 minutes at lunch.  Women!  Keep your writing in your purse.  Don’t reach for that brochure in your dentist’s office waiting room:  read your favorite writer—you.  Get out those drafts  from your bag and revel in your own ideas.  That will get you to the next line, the next sentence.


What can we expect next from Molly Peacock?


I’m working on The Flower Diary, a biography of an amazing floral still life painter, Mary Hiester Reid, born in Reading, PA.  She attended the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, met and married a Canadian painter, ran away to Europe with him, then returned to his home in Toronto to make a career.   A married artist!  And binational…. Do I hear an echo?


From The Analyst by Molly Peacock, published by W.W. Norton and Company




Two days after your stroke, they hold out the crayon
you vigorously reject.  Four days on

without language,
you do what you loved before language:

pick up a pencil and draw.
“Do you know how much raw

rejection you take?” you asked me
one of the times we thought we’d ended therapy,

then said your Radcliffe professor taught
your studio class: all drawing is thought.

But to you, abstraction was lying.
All you did was draw your father failing,

then dying. So when that man stalked to your easel
to deliver his raking critique,  you walked

away from the studio—not to touch
a brush for 30 years.  Brushes

you exchanged for words,
drawing from what you heard,

the lines of your patients’ inner lives, teasing
out patterns for the easing

of the raking, no, aching you saw.
So draw,

as I was drawn to you
as you drew me to you,

till I could walk away
as you now draw away.


Robin Black Interview

Robin Black, this year’s final judge for the Marguerite McGlinn Prize for Fiction, and keynote speaker for Philadelphia Stories’ 2016 Push to Publish conference, seemed to burst, fully formed, upon the national literary scene with the publication of her story collection, If I loved You, I Would Tell You This. The book earned Black rave reviews, comparisons to Alice Munro, and the consensus that an important new literary voice had just emerged – basically from nowhere.

Literary cognoscenti in Philadelphia knew otherwise, for Black, who’s lived here all her adult life, and raised her family here, had been charting her own quiet but determined path in local writing groups for many years, creating for herself, before and after earning her MFA in the Warren Wilson low residency creative writing program, a loyal and supportive writing community. Nobody who knew Black then was surprised when, in 2008, in an event as rare as the sighting of a white peacock, Black’s collection of eleven stories triggered a bidding war among major New York publishers with prestigious Random House the victor.

A bidding war for a story collection by an unknown writer! Incredible!

Four years later, Black, followed up If I Loved You with her radiant novel Life Drawing, an unflinching and fraught examination of a long marriage, damaged by infidelity; threatened from both within and without. Like If I Loved You, Life Drawing garnered stellar reviews, international publication, and enviable sales, thus confirming critics’ predictions that Black’s was a significant new literary voice.

“I am anything but a haphazard writer,” Black said in a recent interview with Philadelphia Stories. The process Black described is very much like what Louise DeSalvo has articulated in her eponymous book, The Art of Slow Writing. “Often stories take me many years,” says Black, noting that she has dozens of unfinished stories languishing on various hard drives. “And I revise endlessly…every word is considered many times.” Like Munro, Black completes only one or two stories a year. She spent four years on a novel that she eventually trashed. But the final story she wrote for her collection, A Country Where You Once Lived, as complex and multi-layered as a novel, took her only eight months. “That was short!” she said.

For Black, stories “usually begin with some random thought about an interesting situation. Or about a dilemma someone might find themselves in. The truth is, at the time I start typing, I am working with next to nothing, and very often the original spark is gone long before the story is complete.”

Black’s recent successes have come to her as a ‘late bloomer.’ She did not begin publishing until after she’d mostly raised her three children. In an essay in Crash Course, her just published collection of craft and personal essays, she describes a 15-yearlong period, from 1987 to 2001, during which she not only didn’t write but did not read fiction. Reading fiction, she theorized in the essay, “became too painful to me, too much of a reminder of what I’d been unable to do.” In retrospect she realizes that she didn’t abandon “the joy of reading fiction” because she had a “houseful of children” and the many responsibilities bound to running a household, but more likely because she had, at that time, abandoned her deepest ambition, writing books. By the time Black finally turned to writing seriously, she was obsessed “with worries about being an unfashionable writer. I knew that my work …was neither edgy nor, in the most obvious senses, unconventional. These worries slowed me down.”

A ‘turning point’ story for her, and still one of her favorites, is Immortalizing John Parker, a 34-page tour de force meditation on identity, love and betrayal, loss and forgiveness, as experienced by a septuagenarian painter, Clara. She’s commissioned to paint the portrait of an elderly man who might be sliding into dementia. “He’s lost and growing more lost by the moment,” Clara thinks while pondering the ‘dullness’ of his face. “That’s what the eyes of her painting will show, she hopes, a man in the process of becoming lost.”

Black says she wrote Immortalizing John Parker “in a spirit of self-acceptance…very early on in the process of writing that story I explicitly gave myself permission to channel my inner sixty-five year old British woman.” That story taught her, she says, that she must tell the stories she has to tell and must tell them in her own way. “We are who we are, which means we write what we write.

Such turning points, the writer wrestling with subject matter and style, Black notes, “may have to be engaged over and over and over again.” Salvation or, at least satisfaction, comes from “realizing that you are writing for those people who like and relate to and respond positively to your work, and emphatically not to try to get every reader out there to love your work…Knowing that, believing it, helps a lot, though the fantasy of universal love is a sneaky one, and a resilient one too.”

Like Munro, Black rarely strays far from home and family life. “I never set out to center my stories around the home, but that’s where I was then, and I wasn’t the sort of writer to reach way outside my own experiences in that way.”

Black’s abiding fascination with marriage, she says, is “ a subset of a fascination with all relationships. But maybe what interests me most about marriage, and not only between a man and a woman, is the free will …you can’t choose your family. But you do choose your spouse – sometimes more than one spouse, if the first choice, or the second, is wrong.”

Many writers are smart about romantic relationships, but few manage the rare wisdom Black offers in her consideration of marriage: “Anyone with any years at this will tell you, it’s not always easy. All relationships change over time. One party may change dramatically, but in the traditional marriage model, that isn’t supposed to result in changes in closeness or in the basic structure of the relationship. That means that marriage asks a lot of us as we grow through life. It asks that we accommodate changes in our partner and also that we balance our own changes with the needs of our partner.”

She also points out that marriage is a relationship “in which there is a single, generally agreed-upon form of disloyalty: sexual straying. It’s hard to think of another relationship we have that has so obvious and singular a line that can’t be crossed. For literary purposes, that’s one of the reasons that betrayal stories (and my novel is one) are so tempting to write. There’s a crisis that we recognize as universal in traditional monogamous marriages. So what happens if that line is crossed?”

‘What happens’ after infidelity is the concern of Life Drawing and several stories in If I Loved You. The challenge for Black has been to write ‘a new story’ about this ancient and universal story. “How do you do so without either romanticizing the notion of marriage or denigrating it?” she asks rhetorically. The answer can be read in her stories and her novel.

It wasn’t until Black was about halfway through graduate school, and had had a few published pieces, that she began to think of herself as a writer. “But in retrospect I was wrong. I had been a writer for years by then, because I had been writing. Like many people I felt insecure and looked beyond my own commitment for some kind of official right to the word. But I believe strongly that everyone who writes, who devotes themselves to it in whatever time they have, who cares about it, is a writer.”

Her recent publishing successes notwithstanding, Black says her most rewarding professional experience so far has been teaching. “It is a wonder to have books published and have them read, and it’s amazing when a review is a rave – which doesn’t happen every time, for sure! But there is nothing like getting to teach. The pleasure of helping people who so, so want to get better at this, understand a new concept, or take a leap forward in their work, is just incomparable.”


Julia MacDonnell’s second novel, Mimi Malloy, At Last! was published by Picador in 2014 to widespread praise in national media. The paperback and a German-language edition were published in 2015. Her first novel, A Year of Favor, was published by William Morrow & Co. Julia is the nonfiction editor of Philadelphia Stories.

Interview with Author Gary Lee Miller

Museum of the Americas, Gary Lee Miller’s debut story collection, published in 2014 by Fomite Press, ponders love and longing and loss and redemption through the experiences of highly unconventional characters, the kind of people who, says Miller, “nobody pays much attention to.”

Steve Almond called the collection, ‘vivid and arresting.’ The stories, he said, “have a gentle fabulism that grows darker as Miller plumbs the human psyche.” 

Miller’s new short story “The Salted Leg” appeared in the Winter 2015 issue of The Missouri Review and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. He’s currently working on a novel, which he hopes to complete in September during his second residency at the Byrdcliffe Artists Colony in Woodstock, NY.

Miller grew up in the 70s and 80s, in Eldred, Pennsylvania, a tiny town of about 800 that sits along the Allegheny River, in what he recalls as ‘a storytelling culture.’

“My dad was a drinker and when I was five years old I was sitting next to him at the bar drinking orange pop, listening to all the hunters, fisherman and factory workers tell their stories. Storytelling was a big part of life there and these guys had it. They had timing, they knew what to tell and what not to tell.  They had irony and description.

“I sat and listened to them and it was fantastic. I ended up going to college to be a wildlife biologist but I was terrible at math and chemistry.”  Miller, who worked to pay his own way through college, struggled for three years before dropping out because he ran out of money.  “I was living in upstate New York and couldn’t find a job… I didn’t know what to do. My roommate said, ‘Look, you don’t have to be in college to learn stuff. Go to the library and read books.’”

Miller took that advice, going through the fiction section in the local library book by book.

“I loved it. Within a few months I was writing. I came back as a senior, changed my major to English. I did the entire English major in a year. I got straight A’s…I had a teacher who said, ‘You know you have a little talent and if you work harder, you can do something with it.’ That guy, that one person, was the first person in my life to say, ‘You can do something. You’re a good writer.’”

Miller went on to earn an MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts in Montpelier where he resides with his partner and his teen-age daughter.  Miller says he has had great teachers, Steve Almond and Ellen Lesser among them, but he credits his writing passion to ‘growing up in a culture with people who loved to tell stories.’

Many of Miller’s stories are set in rural Pennsylvania.  His story ideas “come from things  I’m obsessed with or things that happened to me. I don’t ever really tell a straight story of something that happened to me … I just take a little kernel of it and create a completely different story.”

In the title story, “Museum of the Americas,” which displays curated samples of earth, ‘I was driving through Vermont and decided to take a back road. I drove by this place and there was a sign that said ‘Museum of the Americas’. There were two cars sitting out front and I thought, ‘What a bizarre thing, a Museum of the Americas on this little tiny road in the middle of farm country.’ I made a promise to myself that I’d never go and see what was inside. I’d just make it up.”

In the resulting story, Tom Grant owns a decrepit and mostly forgotten museum displaying, in rows of Bell jars, earth samples from all over the Americas that he inherited from his father. He also inherited a set of rigid ‘Christian’ values and terrible memories of abuse. When an elderly couple visits the museum, on a mission to connect with their dead son through a particular earth sample, Tom’s carefully constructed world begins to collapse. Tom at first refuses them, but their quest eventually forces him to confront his own shortcomings and longings.

“In His Condition” explores the emotional and psychological ravages of alcoholism as the narrator, on a seven-week long bender, ponders his uncle’s addiction and that man’s recovery through his devotion to collecting butterflies. He is home, in the house where he grew up, searching for his own “saving thing” as his mother, downstairs, calls doctors and “drunk farms”, hoping to find a placement for him.

Several of Miller’s stories, set so carefully in place and time, edge toward the magical, while others, including Night Train, Killing Houdini and Certain Miracles weave lyricism into traditional realism and historical events. Afficionados of short fiction may detect whiffs of Russell Banks, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Denis Johnson and Daniel Woodrell in the work of Miller, but Miller offers a bit more lyricism in his prose, along with a tad more tenderness in his resolutions.

Even so Miller’s route to publication was full of disappointments and rejections.  Before assembling his story collection, he’d written two novels and signed with ‘a very high-powered New York agent, top of the line.’

“He looked at me and he said, ‘Gary, I’m going to tell you something right now. There is going to be a happy ending to your story. These books are going to be published.’”

For two years the agent did everything he could to “make it happen but he couldn’t…That was a devastating time. I didn’t write for another two years.”

Finally, he sent one of his novels to Fomite Press, a small publisher in Vermont that describes itself on its website as “a post-capitalist operation in which the authors get almost all profits, and Fomite gets little or nothing beyond expenses. We have no plans to make money with the press, only to serve the writing community by bringing out high-level literary work and making it available.”

The publisher, Marc Estrin, got back to Miller quickly.  “He said, ‘You’re a good writer but I don’t like this book…Do you have anything else?’ I sent him my story collection and a day later he emailed me back and said, ‘I love this book and I want to publish it. Will you please let me publish it?’ I said yes.”

With his first collection published and a novel in its final stages of creation, Miller has this advice to young ambitious writers: “Don’t wait for the world to tell you when you’re a writer, just write. Start writing, send your stuff out. Form relationships with magazines and with other writers and read all the time. You can’t be a writer if you don’t read. Find a book you like and try to figure out how it works. Go through the book, write all over it, make notes, and underline sentences you like.

“Persist, don’t give up, just keep writing and don’t ever be afraid. Find a newspaper, find a blog that will let you write for them and get your work out there. Just start being a writer. Say it now, say you are a writer right now and be one. That’s number one. And persist is number two. Every minute you’re not writing, somebody else in competition is.”


Profile: Emily Rose Cole, Poet

Emily Cole is this year’s winner of the Sandy Crimmins National Prize in Poetry. She was kind enough to sit down with us and answer a few questions about her process, plans, and love of poetry and music.


Congratulations on winning the Sandy Crimmins National Prize in Poetry for your poem, Self-Portrait as Rapunzel. Can you tell me about what inspired you to write this poem?

Thank you! “Self-Portrait as Rapunzel” is, in many ways, a family poem, so it’s mostly inspired by my relationship with my mother, and, of course, from the fairytale itself. However, one of the poem’s most direct influences is the book The Unexplained Fevers, by the wonderful Jeannine Hall Gailey. The book features a lot of Rapunzel poems and I was reading it just before I drafted my own Rapunzel poem. My poem is not a direct response to any of Gailey’s, but there’s definitely a visible influence.


I thoroughly enjoyed the language of Self Portrait as Rapunzel. I found it playful, yet challenging, and enjoyably metaphorical, but without sacrifice to narrative. When you write, do you tend to focus on any one particular aspect over another? Whether it is tempo, sound, story, structure, etc.?

Absolutely. Before I was a poet, I was (and am still) a musician, so the music of language is always the first thing I focus on when I’m writing. One of my favorite things about poetry is the way poets pay such careful attention to sound in their language. Sound is always one of my first considerations. Narrative though – that’s harder for me. Much of my work has to go through a lot of drafts before I can tease out a consistent narrative. Fortunately, Rapunzel lent itself very well to narrative, since the poem is partially modeled on the fairytale.


When did you first discover your passion for poetry?

This is a hard question to answer! I’ve loved reading poetry since I was a small child and I’ve been writing it for as long as I can remember. I was always writing poetry during free writing time in elementary school, and all my study halls in high school were more devoted to sonnets than to textbooks. I didn’t really become serious about writing poetry until my last year of college though, and now that I’m in an MFA program, I can’t imagine doing anything else.


If you could control the affect that your work has in the reader, what affect would that be?

I’m a firm believer in the power of art – any kind of art – and its ability to inspire empathy in its readers (or viewers, or listeners). I think that poetry, given its compressed nature and attention to beautiful language, is perfect for showing us reflections of ourselves and helping us empathize with one another. So that’s what I’m going for when I write: I want to inspire empathy, or, at least, powerful emotion. Ideally, that emotion will lead readers to produce some art of their own.


As both a poet and a songwriter, how do your approaches differ in respect to each medium?

I adore both mediums, and they definitely inform one another – my musical knowledge helps me with sound and rhythm and narrative tension in my poems, and my background in rhyme and meter are invaluable in my songwriting. However, I think of these two mediums as very distinct from one another. I like to think of poetry as something closer to a two-dimensional medium and music as more three-dimensional.

In poetry, I’m concerned with sound and line breaks and the way it looks on the page, but all I have to worry about is words. In songwriting, though, I have to think about lyrics, melody, layering and arranging the other instruments… It’s a very different thought process. I think that, in general, lyrics are easier for me to write because I usually build them around a backbone of melody and I don’t have to worry so much about the individual sound structure, since the music and phrasing is generally more important. That’s the wonderful thing about songwriting – poetry is pretty static unless you change the words, but music can be rephrased and reshaped; it’s different every time.


What are your plans after completing your MFA at the University of Southern Illinois?

My long-term goal is to become a creative writing teacher. This year, I have the privilege of teaching one section of Introduction to Creative Writing and I absolutely love it. First though, I need to work on my poetry thesis. I’ll be entering the final year of my MFA next fall, which means I’ll need to produce a book-length thesis. I haven’t quite decided on the exact shape of the book yet, but it’s likely that “Self-Portrait as Rapunzel” will be included!

Local Author Profile: Lisa Scottoline

Killer Smile, Lisa Scottoline’s eleventh novel, has already been chosen as Main Selections by both Literary Guild and Mystery Guild. It will also be featured in Doubleday Book Club, Quality Paperback and Book of the Month Club. Philadelphia Stories talked with Lisa about her life as a writer, and what it means to be a writer from Philadelphia.

What was the inspiration for your latest crime novel?
My inspiration for Killer Smile came when my father, who was terminally ill, called me over. He said he had two important things to give me. One was the deed to the family cemetery plot, and the other he said was the last of the family secrets. He handed me two booklets covered in pink paper. They turned out to be my grandparents’ alien registration cards. It was then that I learned an important piece of U.S. history, and a very personal piece of my own family history.

During WWII, as many as 600,000 Italian Americans were forced to register as enemy aliens, and thousands more were relocated, and even interned. In Killer Smile, lawyer Mary DiNunzio sets out to get reparations for Amadeo Brandolini, an Italian American who committed suicide while interned during World War II. Mary discovers that Brandolini did not actually commit suicide, and she is determined to find justice for him.

Can you tell us a little bit about your writing process?
The truth is that I don’t write with an outline. When I have an idea, which is only once a year, I go ahead and write it. I let the story develop as I write it. Even I am not always sure which direction it will take.

Did you always want to write?

No, I loved Perry Mason, and always wanted to be a lawyer. I practiced law for several years, but at the same time I was a bookaholic. Eventually I traded one passion for another.

How did you become a professional writer?
I was working as a litigator at one of Philly’s most prestigious law firms, when the birth of my daughter coincided with a divorce. I wanted to stay home to raise my daughter, but still needed a way to pay the mortgage. At the time, Grisham and Turow had come on to the scene, and it occurred to me that there was no one writing from the female perspective. I lived off credit cards for several years, and wrote while my daughter slept (which wasn’t much). I had finally just taken a part-time job as a law clerk when my first book, Everywhere That Mary Went sold to HarperCollins.

How does the Philadelphia area influence your writing?

All my books are set in Philly. I love Philly for its neighborhoods, dialects and heavy dose of reality, and thought it would be terrific to put it on the literary map. The law was also born in Philly, so what better place to set legal fiction books?

Can you offer any advice to young writers?
Just to go for it! I believe everyone has a story in them, and they should never be discouraged to put it on paper.