Interview with Mari Christmas

This week we chat with writer Mari Christmas, who will be doing a reading at Portneuf Valley Brewery, Thursday, October 18, at 5:00pm. We hope you can join us!

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  1. How did you get your start in writing?

MC (Mari Christmas): Through a lot of false starts. The first was in high school, after reading Kurt Vonnegut – even now I think it’s impossible to read him without thinking he’s having a lot of fun. I had struggled with writing for so much of my early education (I failed every state-mandated writing test to the point where I had to sit in a special classroom writing five-paragraph essays on my favorite day of the week, and other horrible mind-numbing, deviant-building stuff). I wrote my first short story soon after that, using what I learned from reading Vonnegut. Then, my mother, even without reading my story or telling me, sent the piece off to the National Young Arts Foundation (they were having a short story contest for high school students – and my mother wanted desperately for me to go to college but didn’t think anyone would take me). It was a draft, and it received honorable mention! I think we were both equally surprised, especially when they sent me money. After that, I quit, totally, until I was halfway through undergrad. By that point I had built up all this internal pressure inside myself, and it was too overwhelming. It took me another five years to get over that.

  1. What influences your writing? Specific writers? Environment? Current events?

MC: Everything. I’m always listening for and seeking material. It’s a good way to be in the world, always listening, mining for another vein. Sometimes I listen to story podcasts or to lots of older novels using Librivox. I get into moods. I do a lot of walking around. I surround myself with books that I want a particular story to sound like – just to get that voice in my head. I’m drawn to writers who talk frankly, who write clean, strange sentences (Grace Paley, Etgar Keret, Nick Flynn, Jerzy Kosinski, J. D. Salinger, etc.). Not to mention, a lot of my personal anxieties play out while I write. Tom Waits talks about following the sound of the sound, but I wonder if I am, instead, chasing a feeling down, trying to get my hands on it so I can turn it over and really look at it.

  1. Do you find that there are recurring themes or questions that your work explores?

MC: I’m interested in the end of things (death, marriages, relationships) – like really, what happens afterwards? How do we go on? We always seem to. Overall, I work in two modes, one more serious than the other. It’s been a good balance, and I need both – the light and the dark. At the moment I feel I am in some sort of transition-period in my writing. I don’t know what it means yet.

  1. Is it difficult to wear both the editor and writer hats?

MC: Editing (whether for an issue or through teaching) other writers has served me well – and as a result I’m particularly brutal with my own edits and appreciative of receiving criticism from other editors. It’s about shaping material rather than saying that a sentence was “bad” or “good” or fixing grammar. If a section or sentence is not serving the rest of the narrative, it can and should go. End stop. Everything should be in service of the voice, the story – and usually I am at the point where I am desperate for feedback because I’m at the end of my own rope. So yes, editing has helped me get to that place where I’m absolutely looking for fresh horses, and by the time I ask a friend or colleague for comments, I’m totally on-board and grateful and willing to try whatever might get a story back on the trail. I also really trust a good reader and editor. They honestly have better things to do, so if they reach out, I really listen.

  1. What is some of the best writing advice you have been given?

MC: It’s more an exercise – one that I was taught early in my MFA by the amazing Valerie Sayers at the University of Notre Dame. I didn’t think it had such a profound effect on me until I noticed I wrote much better after having done this for a full semester. I use this in all my classes. It’s so simple and easy: basically, every time you read a book/story/whatever, you must write down the sentences that you love or find technically helpful. I’ve done this for years now, and when I can’t think, I go back and use them as templates.

  1. What are some of your favorite literary journals?

MC: I’m a huge fan of Joyland, Fence, The Literary Review (TLR), n+1, Cosmonauts Avenue, and, of course, the Paris Review. While I read a lot of established journals, newer journals take more risks so I love reading what they have to offer. I also love to look at the winning entries for contests judged specifically by writers I admire. Most journals hand those stories out for free online.

  1. Outside of writing, what are some of your hobbies?

MC: I draw. I love making and touching things with my hands, and I really want to get into woodworking. Last winter I started cross-country skiing. I need solitude to hear myself think. I like the winter, it feels like a hobby – liking winter – especially if you were raised in the south.

  1. What would people be surprised to learn about you?

MC: I don’t play board games.

  1. If you could have dinner or drinks with anyone in the world—dead or alive—who would it be and why?

MC: Hands down, I would love to meet a dead Grace Paley. I bet she would offer a good perspective of the after life.

  1. Finally, can you tell us about any projects we can expect to see from you in the future?

MC: I’m currently rewriting a book draft. Let’s hope it’s that.

FILM REVIEW: Ari Aster’s Hereditary

Ari Aster’s Hereditary is family drama with a splash of King Paimon. Hereditary does utilize those familiar horror tropes (everything aside from cheap jump scares), but given this family drama first, horror film second, Aster manages a creepy film revolving around the mysterious past of Annie’s recently deceased mother and grandmother to both Charlie and Peter.

By mentioning King Paimon I fear I’ve let the demon out of the closet and spoiled the surprise, but what makes Hereditary a successful horror film is Aster’s ability to first focus entirely on the family and their relationship with one another then slowly erode that bond due to character flaws and apparent superficial coincidences. The obvious cultish undertones does not result in predictability.

The story takes place somewhere in rural Utah and within a single household. By cinematic design, the film’s mise en scène simulates the types of Annie’s interior/exterior miniature model building, suggesting that they themselves are influenced/molded by a higher power, which is evident by the deceased grandmother’s lingering presence. The film shifts perspectives from Annie, the mother, to Charlie, the reserved daughter, and finally to Peter, an anxious and disillusioned teen. By changing focus, unearthing the differences in these character’s relationship between one another, and slowly heightening the demonic/cultish forces at play, the film creates an unpredictable storyline with unpredictable characters.

The dysfunctional family drama can easily be overplayed within Hereditary, but as an audience member the horror is heightened once you realize you are rooting for and against characters that are and are not entirely to blame as they become second victims of past and present demonic rituals. While watching Hereditary you are unaware of the pillory you are caught in and unaware of the film’s slow burn towards an unforgettable climax that will make you question: who in the hell is King Paimon?

Review by Richard Thornell

FILM REVIEW: Gaspar Noé’s Enter the Void

Gaspar Noé’s film Enter the Void is not for the faint of moviegoers. The story revolves around an estranged relationship of brother-sister, Oscar and Linda. At a young age they were separated due to a tragic accident resulting in the deaths of both parents, which forced the two children into separate lives of foster care. Flash-forward several years, these siblings finally reconnect in neon-lit Tokyo, Japan, where Oscar has established a livelihood of drug dealing. This is largely backstory that is interwoven throughout the film, leaving the rest of the story to develop from the fly-on-the-wall perspective of Oscar. This part of the story is ambiguous in that it’s unclear whether Oscar is experiencing an intense DMT trip or is in fact stuck within a metaphysical state brought on by his recent death or both.

Enter the Void explores a number of things all at once: the complicated and oddly sexual relationship between brother and sister, escapism (drugs and sex), complicated forms of affection, reincarnation (The Tibetan Book of the Dead). This combination results in a (I’m not kidding) visual hallucinogenic cocktail that leaves audiences pinching themselves out of reassurance that they themselves are not high.

This being a visual medium, one would ask themselves how can Gaspar Noé create a film without it appearing as an impenetrable Magic Eye image with an even more impenetrable storyline?

I can’t help but remember Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey with Dr. Dave Bowman’s still image wrapped in spectrum, reacting to the void of unknown, frightening the experience.  Enter the Void is that experience. A film that doesn’t allow you the pleasure to stop mid-scene for a moment of explanation for the story will evanesce the moment you fight it. How does one get out of it? How does Oscar escape? How does Linda live? How does one watch such a film?

Review by Richard Thornell

 

 

 

 

 

Meet Visiting Writer Matthew James Babcock

Editor-in-Chief Anelise Farris had the opportunity to chat with our upcoming visiting writer Matthew James Babcock. An instructor at BYU Idaho and an accomplished writer, Babcock will be at Idaho State University from February 7-9, 2018. Please see our calendar for an event schedule. Meanwhile, check out the Q&A below!

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  1. When did you realize that creative writing was more than simply a hobby?

I’m not sure I want writing ever to become more than a hobby.  I think the moment I start thinking about writing as something that others have invited me into a certain professional class to perform, I’ll probably be sunk as an artist.  My favorite pieces are those I wrote largely because I wandered into some subconscious stream and thought of publishing only as an afterthought.  Rather than in some ordained or professional class, I think writers belong in the ranks of public servants, the civil servants of language, the slingers of soup kitchen metaphor, the volunteer fire departments of tragedy, longing, and amazement.  I wrote a book on a minor American poet named Robert Francis—mostly because a study on his life and oeuvre was long overdue—and he gave himself the title “Wordman.”  I’d rather see the world populated with wordwomen, wordkids, and wordmen before I see it glinting and gaudy from another round of coronations, especially among writers.  It can be slippery trying to stand your whole life on the ivory tower.

  1. Who are some writers who have influenced your own creative style?

I think influence is mostly subconscious, so it’s hard to say.  And it’s hard to answer this question without flattering yourself.  Styles I’ve admired and still admire: Whitman, Dickinson, Wallace Stevens, Faulkner, George Eliot, Virginia Woolf, and more contemporaneously, Tim O’Brien, Peter Davis, Amy Newman, Tony Hoagland, Brian Doyle, Anthony Doerr, and most recently Meghan O’Gieblyn.  All these people have astonished me, and I think rather than say they’ve influenced my style—which even as I write it sounds humongously arrogant. I’d have to say they’ve absolutely amazed me and shown me what language can do if you get out of the way and let it fly.

  1. What is your writing process like?

In between.  On the fly.  In transit.  I’ve never had the luxury of any kind of garret or coastal lighthouse or bunker.  I don’t come from a family of writers, and so I’ve had to learn to take my writing with me and finish things flopped on the living room floor after a board game, or sprawled on the couch after a diaper changing or dissertation chapter.  The year my wife and I got married (young, in college), she still had a year to graduate, and so I had this one long delicious year during which I worked about four jobs but basically dropped by the public library, walked around town, and tapped away on my Gateway 2000 computer.  And then when we had three kids, she went to New York with all three to visit her family, and I was left with just the dog and three weeks, and I think during that time I wrote an entire fiction manuscript because I had the time.  But apart from those two brief periods, I’ve been scratching out word after word, line after line, mostly with paper and pad that I carry with me to middle school choir concerts and basketball games and piano recitals.  Sounds tragic, I know, but I’ve found those mundane settings capable of setting of some inner fireworks when you aren’t expecting it.  So always have your writing materials with you.

  1. What are some of the challenges/rewards of being a writer who works in multiple genres?

Well, you never succeed and you never fail.  You never get bored, and there’s always somewhere else to go and something new to try.  Writing is your endless smorgasbord.  I work in multiple genres mostly because I teach multiple genres, and I teach multiple genres because I’ve never felt completely at home in just one.  I was talking to one of my colleagues recently about his fiction writing, and he in turn asked about my writing projects, and when I couldn’t really tell him what I was working on, he said, “You’re a dabbler.”  At first, I bristled at this label, but immediately afterward, I thought, “Hey, I like that.”  Kind of like Yankee Doodle.  It was meant as a slur, but it became a badge of honor.  I wear the dabbler bandolier with a bit of a swagger nowadays.

  1. Is it challenging to balance teaching and writing?

Always.  But some of my best writing moments have come from teaching.  First off, in my first creative class, twenty years ago, one student raised his hand and asked, “What have you written and published?”  Fresh out of grad school, I had little to say, although I had published a smattering of droll drivel in obscure journals. But that sent me back to my office, and I started writing every day on my lunch hour, which has produced four published books (criticism, poetry, and nonfiction) with two books of fiction to follow and maybe a few stragglers in my twilight years if my eyesight holds out.  One student who failed freshman English three times but then passed it on his fourth try with me wrote a narrative that used such an inventive structure I stole it and modified it to write a longer piece of fiction, “Impressions,” which is in one of my upcoming collections.  During a routine discussion on narrative tense and perspective in another composition class, a student raised his hand and said, “Who’d want to write a story in future perfect tense?” (Future perfect is actually a mood, technically, and not a tense, one of my grammarian friends reminds me).  But I went back to my office and started writing “Future Perfect,” a mini-novella about four generations of an Idaho family, and their different paths toward finding a better tomorrow.  This also became the title story in a second fiction collection that will soon be released.  Here’s Wally Stegner: “To conform to the mores of the pedagogical profession, grind over comma faults and agreement errors and faulty parallelism during working hours, and yet keep close and inviolate a certain artistic integrity which labors to learn the craft of writing. . . . [N]o matter how hard the apprenticeship in pedagogy for the average man, it can be withstood, and it cannot ruin him as an artist.”  I’m not sure I’m withstanding teaching the way Stegner puts it here, but I have found that if you don’t try to keep them separate endeavors, writing and teaching do feed off one another.  Time, of course, is the issue.  There’s never enough while you’re doing both.  But I’ve also found that if I share what I’m writing with my students, it infuses our efforts into a kind of camaraderie, and that keeps me going in both fields.

  1. What are you currently reading?

Mostly Swift for a major author’s course.  I want to try to understand satire because I think there’s an undercurrent of satire in some subterranean cavern in me, and I’ve yet to tap it.  But also The Pushcart Prizes.  The Pushcart Prize anthology is always my big Christmas present to myself.  I just finished the last Best American Essays (and the two best, ta-dah!, awarded by me, are Greg Marshall’s “If I Only Had a Leg” and Meghan O’Gieblyn’s “Dispatch from Flyover Country.”)  George Singleton’s comic Southern fiction has left me dancing in circles, particularly his story “Staff Picks.”  But nobody is going to beat Anthony Doerr in my lifetime.

  1. If you could meet any writer (living or dead), who would you like to have a chat with?

Orwell.  Defoe.  Jane Austen.  Whoever compiled the New Testament.  And Robert Francis, the subject of my book, a writer I feel like I know but was never able to meet.  I was lucky enough to sup on Sushi with Brian Doyle before he died.  One of the most spiritual experiences I’ve had is listening to Doyle read “Leap” from a student’s cell phone while he walked around and around one of our campus chapels.  When I met Tim O’Brien and Anthony Doerr, I just started babbling like a teenage crush.  It’s hard for me to be around writers I really admire, probably because I’m constantly robed in the fog of my own inadequacies.

  1. What is something people are surprised to learn about you?

I have taught myself to ride a unicycle, juggle, and breakdance.  But I can’t repair cars, and most household appliances are safe in my presence.

  1. What is the best writing advice you have ever been given?

Read then write.

  1. What words of wisdom do you have to share with aspiring writers?

It’s going to take your whole life, but what better way to go?

 

Katie’s Pick of the Month

51o3-Q6v3LLOver break, I read Somewhere Inside by journalists Laura Ling and Lisa Ling. It is an autobiography written by sisters, telling of how Laura was arrested in North Korea and Lisa worked tirelessly to bring her home using all her media and political contacts. The story is told in alternating perspectives, which makes the storytelling really interesting.

The story itself was an interesting read given the current political tensions between the United States and North Korea. And it was fascinating to hear an American’s perspective on the inner workings of North Korea that we never hear about. I would recommend this book to anyone even remotely interested in North Korea, international relations, journalism, or just a really great book that explores the importance of connections and relationships.

Meet Poetry Editor Katie Damron

Anelise Farris had the opportunity to chat with Katie Damron, the new poetry editor for Black Rock & Sage. Katie reveals what her biggest fear is, how she spends her free-time, and who she’d like to invite to a dinner party. She also offers some great advice for aspiring artists and art enthusiasts. Check out the Q&A below!

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  1. What three traits define you?

Imaginative, open-minded, and sophisticated.

  1. What’s one thing you couldn’t live without?

My iPhone! I know that sounds very millennial and material, but I use my phone for instant communication with friends and family, and I couldn’t live without having that.

  1. What is your greatest fear?

Outer space! It’s vast and volatile and extremely unknown to us. And once you’re up there, it’s hard to come home. Movies about space give me anxiety!

  1. Where is your favorite place to be?

I don’t know if I have a favorite place to be, but I definitely have favorite people to be places with.

  1. What is your favorite thing to do?

I love to write and cook…and I love being with my friends and family.

  1. Where is the best place you have ever visited? Why?

I recently went to San Francisco for the first time, and it was so great! I loved the city and the people I met there. It’s unlike any other place I’ve been.

  1. What would be your ideal career?

I would love to do creative work for a magazine. Being a creative director with writing responsibilities at a fashion or lifestyle magazine would be my dream job.

  1. What is your favorite book, movie, and band?

My favorite book and movie is The Godfather. (Seriously, if you haven’t read The Godfather, you are missing out on the best book!) And my favorite band is Bleachers.

  1. What is something that might surprise us about you?

I love hockey! I don’t like to play, but I love watching the sport. My favorite team is the Philadelphia Flyers.

  1. What is your favorite quote?

“Life is a flower here, a flower there, but rarely a bouquet.” (Not sure who said this…)

  1. If you could have a dinner party with ANY three people (dead or alive), who would they be and why?

Ashley Ford is this super cool writer based out of NYC, but she’s from the Midwest. She has the most interesting perspectives on race, travel, mental health, social media, relationships, creative processes, money, etc. I’d love to meet her.

Shonda Rhimes. That woman is a creative genius and I want to know everything about her creative process.

Nina Garcia was the creative director at Marie Claire magazine for a long time, and I fell in love with her aesthetic and voice in her writing. Now she has taken the job as editor-in-chief at Elle, and I can’t wait to see what she does there.

  1. If you had to eat one meal every day for the rest of your life, what would it be?

I love BBQ food, so if I had to eat BBQ for the rest of my life, I wouldn’t complain.

13. If Hollywood made a movie about your life, who would you like to                   see cast as you?

Kate Mara! We don’t look anything alike, but I love her acting style and she’s a very elegant woman.

  1. If you were an animal what would you be?

Probably an alligator. They live in warm tropical places and are very fierce.

15. If you were stuck on an island, what three things would you bring?

My best friend! Matches. And a boat to get home when I’m ready to leave.

  1. If you could have a superpower, what would it be?

I would choose invisibility. I’d use the power to avoid waiting. For instance, if I were invisible, I could walk to the front of the line at Disneyland.

  1. What kinds of hobbies and interests do you have outside of work?

I love to cook; I watch an embarrassing amount of makeup tutorials; and, more recently, I’ve been doing some outdoorsy things and learning to love them.

  1. Where do you see yourself in 5 years?

I’d like to move out of Pocatello and experience a different area. Hopefully I have a job I love! And hopefully I still have time to write.

  1. Do you have any favorite literary magazines/publications that you’d like to give a shout out to?

Subtropics is a pretty cool lit mag I picked up last semester and have enjoyed.

  1. Do you have any advice for aspiring artists and literary magazine editors?

Be patient with yourself! Everyone is constantly learning and evolving, even the experts.