Category: Interview (Page 1 of 7)

TCR Talks With Ephraim Scott Sommers

by Leni Leanne Phillips

My friend Linnette and I stopped in at a local brewing company for lunch a while back. While we waited to be seated, we perused a wall of live music posters from the venue’s earlier days. One of the posters was from Siko’s Paint the Town tour a dozen years ago—the first and last national tour of a popular local band featuring frontman Ephraim Scott Sommers.

“Whatever happened to them?” Linnette asked me. “They were really good. I always thought they’d make it big.”

“The lead singer got a Ph.D. in English,” I told her. “He’s a writer and a professor at a university.”

“Hunh,” Linnette said. “I guess that’s another way to go.”

Ephraim Scott Sommers, author of Someone You Love is Still Alive

Today, Ephraim Scott Sommers is not only a creative writing professor, but a poet, a singer-songwriter, and the author of two books of poetry, The Night We Set the Dead Kid on Fire (Tebot Bach Press 2017)[1], winner of the Patricia Bibby First Book Award, and Someone You Love is Still Alive (Jacar Press 2019)[2], winner of the 2019 Jacar Press Full-Length Poetry Book Contest. He’s also written a memoir, We Kneel at the Church of Each Other, which he is currently submitting for publication.

I recently had the opportunity to catch up with Ephraim Scott Sommers and to get his thoughts about life after Siko, the differences between writing poetry and writing music, and creating a life in the arts.

The Coachella Review: You have a new book of poetry out, Someone You Love is Still Alive. Your first book, The Night We Set the Dead Kid on Fire, has strong themes of growing up, the places we grow up, the disillusionment of growing up. How is this new book the same or different?

Ephraim Scott Sommers: In the first book, the poem “Shotgun Christmas” begins with the line, “If you don’t believe in heaven, / what then is holy?” I think that first book felt almost like a catalogue of damages that I’d been through growing up in a small, violent farm town in California. And many of those poems are trying to search for something to hold onto and make meaning out of despite all of that wreckage. The first book explores the meaning of that question but never really answers it definitively. The second book, in my opinion, is more hopeful because I land on this ultimate discovery: no matter how shitty the world is or has been or will be, someone you love is still alive (your lover), and you better lean into that love because that’s the ultimate source of meaning and joy in your life. I also like to think of the first book as looking at the past and the second book as looking at the present.

TCR: Describe a typical day for you. Do you have a daily or regular writing practice?

ESS: I’m currently teaching fully online at my university, so this means that I work from home all day, and though I’m grateful for the opportunity to remain out of the reach of COVID-19, this does present challenges. Most of those challenges, for me, are mental, so I have to get out of the house and exercise (biking or jogging) for at least ninety minutes every day, or I’ll go insane. I wake fairly early, work on grading/teaching until about 2 p.m. Then I try to play guitar and write for about two hours. Then I get my exercise, come home, cook dinner, and try to turn off my mind. I consider myself lucky in that my occupation feeds into my art. The students in my classes influence me with new ideas all of the time.

TCR: That segues into my next question. How do the people you surround yourself with make you a better writer?

ESS: As a musician and a writer, it’s always helped me to try and get in a room with people who are vastly better than me, because they can teach me so much more than I’m capable of teaching myself. That’s why a writing workshop and an MFA program is such a hot commodity, because you get a professional writer facilitating the group, and you get to bounce your work off of several other sets of eyes and ears. During my own education, I usually found one or two people in every workshop that I felt were really good critically. And that is something that is so hard to find. In a classroom full of opinions, I’d always try to pay attention to those few people who I could tell weren’t trying to make the poem I’d given them into their own but were instead trying to help me achieve my own vision.

TCR: Now that you’re no longer a student, how do you replicate that?

 ESS: Obviously, after graduation, you can’t always take those people with you because life happens. The place I tried to get to is where the voices of your best editors are having a workshop in your head when you set out to edit. You can hear them making those critiques. You might have one focused more on the level of line and language. You might have another who is really great with narrative. The more experts you can work with, the more you can kind of eat their critical style and use it for your own. Now, though, in 2020, the thing is, I don’t really hang out with other writers, and I’ve always felt a bit ambivalent about that. Of course, it helps to be able to talk with other people about writing, but I’m also a rugged individual when it comes to art making. I don’t want to do what everyone else is doing. I don’t want ever to be in a place where I feel like I’m falling prey to any kind of group think or writing about some subject in a certain way because it’s in fashion or being published. I grew up around musicians and blue-collar people, so I’ve always felt a bit like a fish out of water in academia. No artist gets to decide where they come from, but I’m grateful for all of the people who aren’t artists that are my friends, because each of them has an interesting story to tell and each of them can make me laugh. I’m grateful for academia, but it can get insular and snobby when it’s at its worst, and that’s always made me uncomfortable. I say I don’t hang out with other writers, but the thing is, I hang out with writers all the time through their work, and at the end of the day, what you need is a really good library, time to write, and the drive to continue to make art even if you know it’s not going to make you a bunch of money. Community is great and much needed, but you also have to get your ass in the chair and write and write and write. That’s the hardest part.

TCR: What kind of advice would you give to someone who wants to live a life in the arts?

ESS: The best advice I can give is to treat every single other artist (in every single genre and medium) in the world as a part of your community. Find something to learn about every single piece of art you come into contact with, every performance. Support other artists. If you love their work, praise them. Build a community of artists in your hometown and cultivate it. It’s much more fun to celebrate the successes of your contemporaries than it is to get angry. I like to view art as a party where everyone is invited. It’s a waste of time to get jealous or to covet someone else’s artistic achievements. The true artist is only ever in competition with themself.

TCR: You’re a musician, too, and a singer-songwriter. How is writing a poem different from writing a song, and how is it the same?

ESS: The major difference between songwriting and poem writing is that there are many more aspects at play in a song than there are in a poem. I have to think about feel, rhythm, chord changes, and structure before I ever even think about lyrics. Then I have to think about the vocal melody over the basic song structure I’ve begun to whittle out, and it’s then that I begin to think about the lyrics. If it were a poem, I could just sit down and begin to write, but a song requires me to navigate much more information at the same time. There are just more balls in the air by nature of that medium.

TCR: When you get an idea, how do you know whether it will be a poem or a song?

ESS: I’m a writer of momentum, so I like to give myself absolutely day after day to whatever larger project I’m working on. Any stray ideas, any stray thoughts, any reading, any craft books or interviews or videos, all of my creative thinking on my long walks and bike rides is working toward the completion of this larger project. I’m currently working on my second solo album, so that means I’m working at the craft of songwriting five days a week. This is a monumentally difficult process, but what I love about throwing yourself absolutely and totally toward a larger project is that you start to butt up against your own limitations, your own tendencies, and it can allow you to take corrective measures to begin to fix your weaknesses (as a writer we might call these tics), because when you’re at it day after day, you become better able to recognize them.

TCR: Favorite dead poet?

ESS: It would be a tossup between Whitman, Larry Levis, and Philip Levine.

TCR: I’ve wanted to ask a songwriter this question for a long time, and to be able to ask a songwriter who is also a poet and a literature professor is even better. In 2016, Bob Dylan was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature for his songwriting, “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition.” Some writers, like Joyce Carol Oates, thought it was appropriate. Oates said Dylan was an “inspired [and] original choice. [H]is haunting music [and] lyrics have always seemed, in the deepest sense, ‘literary.’” Others weren’t feeling it. Novelist Jodi Picoult asked whether this meant she could win a Grammy now. Do you have any thoughts about this?

ESS: To those who were upset with Dylan as the choice for the Nobel, I would say this: I dare you to find a living contemporary writer whose influence is more wide-reaching than Dylan’s on American and International Culture. I love literature, and I love to protect good art, but people getting upset about Dylan sounded kind of petty and jealous to me. Dylan is such a titan and so inculcated into our everyday lives that it would be nearly impossible for you to be an adult and to never have heard one of his songs or his lyrics (even if covered or recited by someone else). His work in traditional forms is astounding. His ability to change stylistically over decades is never before seen. His complete body of work is voluminous. His understanding of how literature and music have intertwined historically is brilliant. And he is still making new music! I think Dylan knows, too, that as creators, we should always be leery of awards and prizes anyway. Instead, we should all just keep throwing ourselves more deeply into art making. Again, in my opinion, getting upset or jealous about prizes and awards is a waste of time and effort that could be better spent making better art.

TCR: You were the lead singer for Siko, one of the most popular bands on California’s Central Coast, when you were still in high school and throughout your undergraduate years. You’re a talented musician and singer. Your band toured nationally. What was that like creatively?

ESS: Thanks so much for your kind words about Siko! Playing original music in a band is one of the most unique creative experiences I’ve ever been a part of. As a writer, imagine how hard it is to just to finish a story you’re working on, or a poem, or an essay all by yourself. Then imagine that you’re writing that story or poem or essay with three other people collaboratively, each with equal say but with a little bit different taste and tendency. It’s difficult, of course, but it’s also much more rewarding to create something new with your friends, to see people dancing and having a good time to that new thing, and then to take that on the road to new places and new cities. We were together for eight years, and to see that thing we’d built grow over time, to watch it improve each of us as musicians and as recording artists, was awesome. I learned so much about art-making, about the value of community in artistic communities, and about the business side of art-making from that experience.

TCR: You could have gone a different way, a way that some might consider more tempting insofar as fame and fortune. But at some point, although music is still a huge part of your life, you decided to pursue an education and a career focused on writing. How did you come to the decision to pursue writing as a career versus pursuing music as a career?

ESS: I’ve noticed that, sooner or later, if you’re trying to make art into a living or into a business, you will run up against what I call “the gap.” In music, there is this absolutely gigantic gap between the types of bands who play regionally and who might do some occasional touring and the bands who are actually making a living out of playing music (and do not have to work other jobs). You might also call it a recording contract or major label support, but that gap in music for me seemed insurmountable at the time, in 2008, and I realized that I needed a backup plan. I’d always loved writing, and I thought that if I got my MFA degree in poetry at San Diego State University, it would allow me the ability to teach when I got out, and it would also help me get better at songwriting. While at grad school, I continued to play shows with Siko, I recorded a solo album, and I moved back to San Luis Obispo in 2011 after graduation, but for all sorts of life reasons, the band didn’t play much after that. I felt that I could work hard enough to be successful in the field of poetry if I was willing to sacrifice comfort, so I moved to Kalamazoo in 2012 to get my Ph.D., not knowing a single person in all of Michigan. At the end of the day, I don’t think fame and fortune in music was ever on the table for me, and when I thought about it realistically, I wanted to find a career that would allow me some financial security while still allowing me the time and space and support to pursue my creative interests. Being a creative writing professor offered me that opportunity, and it’s only now, after all this time, after having published two books of poems and gotten a job that I love doing, that I’m trying to put enough songs together for another solo album and starting to put together a band. I’m excited to begin that process again. I like the process. I like throwing myself into the work.

TCR: What are you listening to these days?

ESS: I’ll list a few musicians who’ve had a really profound influence on me recently: Tyler Childers, Lake Street Dive, Morgan Wade, the Marcus King Band, Phoebe Bridgers, Jason Isbell, and Sturgill Simpson.

TCR: What are you working on now?

ESS: I finished a memoir (We Kneel at the Church of Each Other) and have been submitting that for publication to presses and prizes with no word back yet. Also, I hope to have a new album written and hopefully recorded by next summer.

TCR: Any last words you’d like to share with our readers?

ESS: I’ve gone the last four weeks without social media of any kind (other than Facebook Messenger for music booking), and I recommend a social media cleanse, especially if you’re into making art. I’m surprised at the way [social media] had kind of altered my thinking about things, how it found its way into my dreams, and the ways in which it could deeply affect my personal emotional life. I feel much better so far without it. I hope you will too! Other than that, thanks so much for reading!

You can keep up with Ephraim Scott Sommers at his website: ephraimscottsommers.com.


Leni Leanne Phillips is a writer based in San Luis Obispo, California. She is pursuing her MFA at the University of California at Riverside’s Palm Desert MFA program in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Rumpus, the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Coachella Review, and elsewhere. Leanne is currently at work on her first collection of short stories and a memoir in essays based on her experiences growing up in California. You can find her at lenileanne.com.

TCR Talks with Michael Scott Moore

by Matt Ellis

As a writer, Michael Scott Moore has covered the gambit of disciplines. As a freelance journalist, Moore has worked for the American and German press, covering a range of topics from theater, travel, politics, science, and Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or outlets like Spiegel Online (now Der Spiegel), The Atlantic, The New Republic, the Los Angeles Times, and many more. Though his novel Too Much of Nothing was his first long-form prose, he is best known for his creative nonfiction work, which has involved traveling the globe to rough and violent areas. For his surfing history, travel, and lifestyle book Sweetness and Blood, Moore journeyed from the birthplace of the sport in the islands of Hawaii to Germany, England, Japan, Cuba, Indonesia, Israel, and Cuba. In 2012, during a Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting grant research trip to Somalia, Moore was kidnapped by Somali pirates. He wrote about his captivity and the people who held him hostage in his award-winning memoir, The Desert and the Sea: 977 Days Captive on the Somali Pirate Coast. Moore graduated from the University of California at San Diego with a degree in German literature. He speaks, reads, and writes fluent German and holds dual U.S.-German citizenship. In addition to being awarded the Pulitzer Center grant, Moore has been honored with Logan and Fulbright fellowships for nonfiction and MacDowell and Yaddo fellowships for fiction. Since the release of The Desert and the Sea, Moore has been a featured speaker about his capture, PTSD, and violent threats to journalists.

Author and Journalist Michael Scott Moore

In August 2020, I connected with Michael Scott Moore via FaceTime to discuss his approach to writing in so many different forms, experiences working as an editor and journalist for both the American and German press, covering stories in austere and violent places, cancel culture, and threats to journalists’ well-being and credibility.

The Coachella Review: Coming from California, you’ve been all over the place. How did you go from Redondo Beach surfer to author and journalist?

Michael Scott Moore: Surfing was never my career. It only occurred to me to write a book about surfing after I moved to Berlin, shortly after the release of my first book [Too Much of Nothing], and realized how many people outside of California liked to surf. I noticed that Germany had a surf scene, and I thought, well, that’s interesting. How did that get there? That was the beginning of Sweetness and Blood. It occurred to me that all these places, all these countries that had a surf scene, also had a story behind how it got there. So, I simply took some journalistic skills and applied myself to that question. I went to Israel, which was in the news around the same time for a cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian surfers. I wrote about the surfers in Germany. I’d already been to Indonesia. Then I went to Morocco. It occurred to me that I could build a book by going to a few more countries. By then, I was already writing for Spiegel, so the notion of writing about another country and inquiring about the culture and how something like surfing might have clashed with it didn’t seem too unusual.

TCR: I was amazed by the rapport and confidence you were able to build with people, like Amat and Haji in Sweetness and Blood, people who usually would be at complete odds with talking to an American. How did you learn that? 

MSM: That was a question of just being friendly and calm. I got to know Amat first, and he was just a very easygoing guy. Once we established a relationship and I spent a couple of days with him, I asked to talk to a few more people in his village. He called in a few people, including Haji, who happened to be not just a devout Muslim, but possibly a radical one. It was hard to tell, but that was just the feeling I got from him. It’s not that I felt in danger, it’s just that it was a particularly sensitive time to be traveling in Muslim countries.

TCR: Definitely. And in The Desert and the Sea, when you write about challenging one of your captors in Somalia about female circumcision not being in the Qur’an—I was taken aback.

MSM: By that time, I had been a hostage for a couple of months, and I found I could be friends with the lower-ranking guards. I think on that particular day, they had actually let me out of my room to sit in the sun on the deck of the room where they were holding me. They started by being nice to me, so it was already a little bit more relaxed. I felt like I could ask them a sensitive question.

TCR: You started writing theater reviews in the United States and then moved [to Germany] to work for Spiegel. How did you approach your work in Germany?

MSM: I was writing a theater column while I wrote my first novel, Too Much of Nothing. My marriage fell apart and, in effect, so did my whole life. I decided to do something very decisive. I wasn’t going to stick around in San Francisco while my ex-wife and my best friend got married. I knew it was cheaper to live in Berlin than in LA or New York. I established a new life in Germany, which turned out to be a great idea. Within a few months, I was working for Spiegel in Berlin. I was using aspects of myself that I hadn’t used in California at all, including the language and using my German passport. And that’s the paradox. I went from moving to Berlin, to feeling nostalgic about California or wanting to surf, to really becoming curious about this aspect of surfing and then writing Sweetness and Blood.

TCR: It seems that German and American audiences would have distinct tastes and expectations. Was there an adjustment period, or did you have to change your style and approach?

MSM: First of all, I couldn’t be as personal as I was in San Francisco, where I was writing a theater column in very much my own voice. A little bit caustic. A little bit funny. And in Berlin, at least, I started with just straight news. I did quite a lot of editing for the [Spiegel Online] website before I did any writing, but I think the first feature I wrote was based on some reporting I’d done in California [on] intelligent design [school curriculum controversy over courses in alternatives to evolutionary theory M.E.]. The story came to a head with a trial in America right around that time, so I banged that story into shape. With that, I could use my own voice a little more, rather than just writing straight news, and it had an effect. The intelligent design people, who were not very honest, had to answer that article. That was very satisfying. Germans don’t necessarily need all of the things that American readers need in a feature. When we wrote and edited features for Spiegel, we didn’t always worry too much about a lead. But, when we were writing for English language readers, we would try to restate the piece so that it did have a lead. First of all, it was an international audience, so you couldn’t assume that people knew things. Writing for a local audience in San Francisco, you assumed a certain number of shared values.

TCR: Were there any hard lessons learned in the early days writing in Germany?

MSM: No, it went well. I mean, when I first landed in Germany, I was just teaching English, so that was kind of a drag. I think what happened was that I wrote a feature about neo-Nazis for Salon very early on and the editor of Spiegel noticed that and took me on. The thing about that is, to Americans, a piece about the resurgence of neo-Nazis in Germany might seem like a very natural piece. But my German friends were like, ‘Oh Jesus, that’s such a cliché.’

TCR: There’s a growing cancel culture in America of people not only voting with their wallets but boycotting as well. Having traveled extensively and worked in the international press, do you think that’s an American phenomenon? Does that exist in other places?

MSM: It definitely exists in other places. But I always thought that one of the good things about America was that it existed less. And by the way, it has traditionally existed more on the Right, no matter what people say. Why it has become so popular on the Left? I don’t understand. But there was recently a story about a singer in Nigeria who said the wrong thing about Mohammed in a rap song and he’s going to be put to death. We don’t have anything like that, but the relative atmosphere of freedom is one thing that’s terrific about the United States, and I don’t see why anyone, especially those who call themselves liberals, would want to see that go away. Republicans love to bash people on the Left for cancel culture, but it’s always been worse on the Right. The ideological width, let’s say, within Republican circles has always been a lot stronger. I don’t see why the Left needs anything like that at all. We’ve really had a wonderful number of decades where thought could really grow freely in the United States, and there’s no reason it shouldn’t continue.

TCR: That’s an important distinction when looking at those issues from a global stage perspective, where a person can literally get killed for their expression, like in the Charlie Hebdo case. (The office of French satire magazine Charlie Hebdo was attacked twice, a 2011 firebombing and 2015 deadly shooting, by Muslim extremists over their cartoon depictions of the Prophet Muhammad). But there’s also been a lot of conversation about writing ‘the other’ in areas like YA fiction and when American Dirt came out last year.

MSM: It’s really interesting to read interviews from other generations. There was an interesting interview with Faulkner where he says a writer shouldn’t have any fences at all. It should recognize no restrictions on imagination. That said, I did just teach a seminar at Columbia, and obviously this came up. It’s not bad to have a high bar for writing characters who are not like you. If you’re going to do it, you have to do it well. Frankly, the true rules of writing a living character should be a lot more demanding, a lot scarier to the average writer than an uproar on Twitter.

TCR: That’s true. The process should be uncomfortable, right?

MSM: It should. Rules should be hard. But nobody should be canceled just because they were the wrong race and wrote about a certain ethnicity. That’s an aspect that seems worrying, but I think most of the controversies have also been about the quality of the writing.

TCR: You’ve written fiction, nonfiction, and worked as a journalist. How do you move between these different styles?

MSM: To me, it’s a spectrum. A continuum. I want to continue doing them all. But it is a different way of using your head, so I try to dedicate one day to fiction or nonfiction. I’m working on a couple of projects right now.

TCR: How do you choose what you are going to follow next?

MSM: It’s the project that builds momentum. It announces itself. For example, the novel I’m working on was already going by the time the last book [The Desert and the Sea] came out, so there was no question.

TCR: With the Desert and the Sea, you ended up being the subject of your own writing. Has that experience changed your approach with other projects?

MSM: Not necessarily. That was not the point with that book. But I had certainly written nonfiction from my own point of view before. In essence, it was like the travel writing in Sweetness and Blood, but it had to be more personal memoir and that was the difficult part of that book. I’d never written a personal memoir before. Although I knew exactly what had happened in Somalia, dealing with that material wasn’t as difficult as trying to figure out how much of my own life to bring into it. How much was enough? How much was too much? I had to balance this personal memoir with writing a worthwhile journalistic book, too.

TCR: You have worked to bring a lot of attention to violent threats to journalists worldwide. Have you seen any changes since you started?

MSM: If anything, it’s gotten worse in America. Luckily, the tenor has eased off a little bit. When I first started to talk about Somalia, a little bit before the book came out, which was even before Trump got elected, we started seeing pictures of people at rallies with t-shirts that said, ‘Rope. Tree. Journalist [Some Assembly Required].’ That was a really new atmosphere in America, and thankfully it hasn’t developed into anything as scary as it sounded. But that, as well as the recent police attacks on journalists trying to cover [Black Lives Matter] protests in the streets, these are new developments. I don’t know if young people can quite understand that. I’ve just written an essay about this, which should be out by the time this interview is published, but the Trump rallies really did remind me of the neo-Nazi rallies that I attended for that first article in Germany. The energy was the same. The attitude against journalists was the same. That’s when I realized we were dealing with something really remarkable in the United States.


Matt Ellis is polishing his reading glasses and sharpening his pencils—look for his review of Michael Scott Moore’s new book, coming to The Coachella Review in 2021. In the meantime, follow Michael Scott Moore on Twitter for updates and to watch for links to his short stories and essays, including his essay on the changing atmosphere of journalism discussed in the interview.


Matt Ellis is a retired Army officer serving as a security expert in Guatemala. Over the years, he’s been a HUMINT officer, counterintelligence agent, linguist, diplomat, musician, and Christmas tree trimmer (the machete kind). He’s a freelance reviewer for Publishers Weekly and was the staff screenwriter for Pacific Rim Media. His short fiction has been published at Thought Catalogue. He holds an MS in Information Security from the University of Maryland Global Campus and is studying Fiction at UCR Palm Desert’s Low-Residency MFA program in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts. Find him at www.letswriting.com.

Photo Essay: Solitude & TCR Talks with Photographer Mahayla Rheanna

PHOTOGRAPHY by Mahayla Rheanna
Model Esther Aliah
Interview by Leni Leanne Phillips

An interview with the photographer, Mahayla Rheanna, follows below, after her photo essay, “Solitude,” featuring model Esther Aliah. Jump to Interview.


Solitude: An Essay in Photographs

by Mahayla Rheanna

All images copyright © 2020 Mahayla Rheanna. All rights reserved.


TCR Talks with Mahayla Rheanna

by Leni Leanne Phillips

I recently had the opportunity to chat with emerging photographer Mahayla Rheanna about her photo essay “Solitude,” her beginnings as a photographer, and her plans for the future.

The Coachella Review:  How did you become interested in photography?

Mahayla Rheanna: It started when I received an iPhone 4s for Christmas when I was eleven years old. I tried to take artistic selfies, but I never showed my face, so I decided to take pictures of my friends at school and post them. They were not high-quality pictures, but the positive responses I got from my friends and friendly kept me motivated. For my thirteenth birthday, my mom gave me my first digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) camera. I picked it up and haven’t put it down since.

TCR: I’m interested in what you say about getting started with an iPhone. Today, most people have a phone or other device with which they can take photographs, and with the use of filters, even hobbyists can turn out some fantastic photographs. What do you think is the difference between someone who takes pictures as a hobby and a professional photographer?

MR: People have always said I have a unique eye when they look at my photography. This year, because of the pandemic, I started doing FaceTime photoshoots, and I came to the realization that it doesn’t matter what camera or device you use. I did two photoshoots and created two videos using my laptop, my phone, and FaceTime. Many hobby photographers can turn themselves into professional photographers if the people around them like what they see.

TCR:  What do you like most about being a photographer?

MR: The attention. As someone who struggles to approach new people, I find that with a camera in my hand people gravitate toward me whether they want to be photographed or are just curious about cameras. Being on a college campus, I took advantage of how many people love to be photographed and began making money with my photography my freshman year.

TCR: What does photography do for you?

MR: Honestly, it reminds me that I am good at something. I never thought I was good in school, and photography is one thing that I not only taught myself, but I have been successful in earning income from it. Even though I am not studying photography in school, it is much more than a hobby to me.

TCR: What is your college major and what do you hope to do with it after you graduate?

MR: I’m a neuroscience and psychology major focusing on mental health and disorders. I am not entirely sure what I want to do after I graduate, but I am interested in working with adolescents.

TCR: How has photography influenced you as a person?

MR: I have always struggled talking to people, especially those who are my age. Photography has given me the confidence to approach people and ask them if they want to create some cool work with me. Many of my friendships have begun in this way, and if I did not have photography in my life, I don’t think I would have met so many amazing people.

TCR: Is there a specific theme that flows through your work?

MR: Recently, I’ve asked myself that, because my goal is to develop a unique voice through my photography so that eventually people will see my photographs and recognize them as my work. Currently, I would say the theme I’m exploring as a photographer is juxtaposing locations that are not necessarily beautiful with beautiful people and beautiful fashion. I’ve shot in parking lots, closed ice cream shops, bathrooms, libraries. My favorite photoshoot location was an abandoned pool.

TCR: What inspires you?

MR: I have these visions in my head that are so vivid, and whether they are dreams or daydreams, I always write them down and try to recreate them and live up to them. I am constantly inspired by everything I come across, the most ordinary things, and I love to take that and create work that is uncommon. When I was in the car one day, I drove past the location I used for this particular photoshoot, and I knew that I had to shoot there. The outcome was better than the vision in my head.

TCR: Is there a story you had in mind when you took the photographs in this photo essay, “Solitude”?

MR: Well, I’m a fan of allowing viewers to use their own perspectives and imagination. But the main vibe I was going for was this discovery of beauty within emptiness. The location is near where I have been in quarantine which also happens to be my childhood home. And for twenty years I’ve driven past that location and never thought twice about it until I was stuck there. While I was out there, I realized how happy I was, not only because I was finally taking photographs after three months of not being able to, but I just enjoyed walking around and looking at something that felt so familiar to me.

TCR: Do you make prints of your photos or are they strictly digital?

MR: I’m currently working on growing my digital platform, but yes, I would love to start working with prints and plan to do so in the future.

TCR: What kind of photography do you see yourself doing in the future?

MR: Definitely fashion photography. I see fashion as a form of art, and I love taking that next step and combining fashion with other things to create a new piece of art. I especially love when I can style my own photoshoot because I feel closer to the work and can make it my own entirely, so that I am more visible and more recognizable in my work.


Mahayla Rheanna has created images inspired by music, fashion, and the world around her for more than eight years. From taking pictures on her iPhone at school to learning to shoot film and even snap FaceTime photos, she is a proud self-taught photographer sharing her craft. With every new photo shoot, she learns techniques that will perfect her art and one day enable her to reach a broader audience. While studying at Syracuse University focusing on a Neuroscience and Psychology degree, Mahayla uses her free time to meet other students through photography and to work on artistic projects for social media. She continues to grow her platform on Instagram at @mreh.00 and on her website at mreh-photography.com.

 

Esther Aliah is a student, artist, and organizer from the Bay Area. She is a junior at Occidental College in Los Angeles, majoring in Psychology and Black Studies. She is particularly interested in the intersection between mental wellness and social justice and hopes to find ways to destigmatize neurodivergence and provide more resources in bipoc communities. In her free time, Esther practices photography, painting, and other artistic media as a means to center mental, emotional, and spiritual wellness. She shares her art pieces as well as resources for Black wellness on her social media and other platforms, including on Instagram at @estheralia.

 

Leni Leanne Phillips is a writer based in San Luis Obispo, California. She is pursuing her MFA at the University of California at Riverside’s Palm Desert MFA program in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Rumpus, the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Coachella Review, and elsewhere. Leanne is currently at work on her first collection of short stories and a memoir in essays based on her experiences growing up in California. You can find her at lenileanne.com.

 

TCR Talks with Joe Meno

by Matt Ellis

It’s a presidential election year, a time when we are bombarded by political hot button issues from every social and mainstream media outlet with superficial sound bites that often offer little substance but ask us to take sides nonetheless. Immigration ranks among the top. If you want to be better informed about the immigration issue, you need look no further than bestselling author Joe Meno’s debut nonfiction book, Between Everything and Nothing: The Journey of Seidu Mohammed and Razak Iyal and the Quest for Asylum.

Meno is a fiction writer and journalist who lives in Chicago. He is the winner of the Nelson Algren Award, a Pushcart Prize, and the Great Lakes Book Award. He was a finalist for the Story Prize. The bestselling author of seven novels and two short story collections, including Marvel and a Wonder, Hairstyles of the Damned, and The Boy Detective Fails, he is a professor in the English and Creative Writing Department at Columbia College Chicago. His nonfiction book, Between Everything and Nothing, which follows the lives of two asylum seekers confronting the perils of the U.S. immigration system, was published in 2020.

Meno took a break from pandemic-driven planning for his first ever all online curriculum—he normally teaches in person at the English and Creative Writing Department at Columbia College Chicago—to FaceTime with me about what drove him to veer from his fiction roots and the challenges of tackling such a complicated topic. But as our TCR readers know, it all starts with the story—so buckle up—this is going to be one hell of a ride:

Both of them keep walking, searching for the lights of the border. The land glistens before them but the border is nowhere in sight. They glance at each other, knowing they are lost, but all they can do is put one foot in front of the other, marking their way through the deepening drifts.

Just before Christmas in 2016, Ghanaian refugees Seidu Mohammad and Razak Iyal waded out into a Minnesota snowstorm in the dark of night in search of a flashing light they were told would guide them to what they hoped would be a final safe haven—Canada. Though both men were from the same Accra neighborhood of Nima and had made similar pilgrimages from Brazil, through Central America, and into Mexico to seek asylum in the United States, they’d met only hours before, the only two black men at the last bus stop before the border. They had spent years running for their lives. In Ghana, Seidu faced prison and a lifetime of brutality or death for being gay, and Razak’s stepbrothers were waiting to kill him over the rights to a small parcel of familial land. In the United States, instead of finding protection, they were thrown into privately-owned prisons like criminals; Razak wouldn’t earn his release for over twenty months. Ultimately, their asylum petitions were denied and they were left to choose between a possible frozen grave on a trek to Canada or a one-way ticket to an assured hell back home. Their gamble on the blizzard eventually led to the protection they sought, but they both lost parts of themselves along the way.

 My first question was probably the most obvious: “How did you find this story and why haven’t I ever heard it?” Meno tells me it had been covered by the major media outlets, but only briefly. A few months later, a friend of his, an Eritrean refugee turned film and television producer, asked him to meet with the two Ghanaians, who were making a name for themselves as outspoken immigration activists in Canada. Meno agreed to interview them for an essay or an article. “When you do an interview,” he says, “you usually spend five or ten minutes feeling each other out and build rapport before you hit the record button. But even before I could throw out a softball question or establish some atmosphere, Razak just launched into telling this story about the two of them crossing on foot through the snow, losing their gloves and their hats, and about the searchlight on the US border facility. For five hours, these two men told this story in overlapping and different segments—why they left Ghana, traveling through South America, and being in detention. I almost forgot to hit record.” Razak’s narrative about his impressions of immigration while waiting at the Panamanian-Costa Rican border were particularly transfixing:

It was also infuriating that among the cacophony of so many different languages, so many different cultures, the pervading distance, the relentless uncertainty, all of it made clear that so many people from across the world were fleeing their homelands, had chosen to give everything up, under threat of life and limb. What did it say about how the world, how these distinct nations organized themselves? How could so many people be so unhappy as to risk their lives in exchange for a chance of some other way of living? Was the world really that broken? He shuddered as the answer seemed to appear in the line before him.

When Meno returned to his hotel room to comb through the recordings and his notes, he quickly realized this story needed more attention. The Ghanaians immigration experience went beyond revealing the dangers of the rain forest and roadway predators; their hardships continued long after they arrived at the U.S. border. Though the asylum system that abused Seidu and Razak preceded Trump’s inauguration, it was only getting worse. “[The Trump administration implemented] draconian immigration policies, from enabling ICE officers to go into churches and hospitals, to having Customs and Border Patrol officers misinform people who came to apply for asylum that they were no longer accepting applicants.” Meno’s tone goes from incensed to somber. “I grew up in a working-class family and went to college and was able to build a life. I felt so deeply ashamed and embarrassed by what had happened over those [first] few months.” He told me that he returned the next day for another marathon interview session and formed a partnership with the two refugees to give their voices another platform.

One of Joe Meno’s biggest successes in Between Everything and Nothing is his adaptation of fiction-inspired structure to reveal two separate but parallel journeys as a series of staggered vignettes woven into the spine of the narrative until the point where their paths converge near the end: lost in a blinding borderland snowstorm while running from where we usually expect an immigration story to end. I ask how was able to find such a creative way to organize such a complicated story. “I was trying to capture what it was like to sit with those two men on that first day,” Meno admits. “They spoke for about five hours, moving back and forth through time, and then moving back and forth between [themselves]. That experience felt so powerful.” He started by exploring a multitude of nonfiction books to find the best way to handle two complicated stories over a period of years and across several continents. His first approaches were more linear, staying with a character for fifty to seventy-five pages and then switching, but this process seemed too jarring and prone to a repetition of similar experiences along the well-worn immigrant routes.

Ultimately, he chose to focus on the bond these two men formed in that frozen crucible, caught between America and Canada, and then fanned out to explore their individual stories in short chapters. “Once I arrived at that, I was like, that’s literally how they told the story to me.” We both laugh at the irony of toiling so long over structure only to return to the most natural and original form. Through all the experiments and permutations of the book, though, Meno knew that the last leg of the journey had to be the cornerstone of the story. “How they described it is still one of the most harrowing depictions of anything I’ve ever heard someone tell me. It felt like it captured everything about the tragedy of immigration at this moment in the United States.”

As a security expert working in Guatemala, a major weigh station and starting point along the most traveled routes, I am constantly exposed to the dangerous realities of the immigrant exodus. However, it is Meno’s deep-dive exploration of the overburdened asylum system that I found most chilling, a process intended to protect the world’s most vulnerable. A system where judges are too buried to fully understand the cases, pro-bono means thousands of dollars in fees, and lengthy detentions mean high profits for the privately-owned, for-profit prisons: “Over the past two decades, the asylum process in the U.S. has slowly become its own inviolable system, an abstract nation unto itself, an invisible country nearly impossible to escape.

“I felt like, as an American, I should be better equipped,” Meno said as we were wrapping up the interview. “I should have some knowledge about what was going on in the name of the country in which I lived.” From the first day he met Razak and Seidu and heard their stories, Joe Meno felt he had to do something. He is a writer and that is where his power lies. Mission accomplished. Inside Between Everything and Nothing beats an activist’s heart seeking positive change by providing knowledge. And we should, as Americans, feel the weight of the dark realities of our immigration system, one that has been plagued with problems for decades, not just the last presidential term. To do otherwise would be a contradiction to our collective identity, something Meno sums up best with the following:

The United States has a complicated legacy when it comes to the issue of immigration. By its very nature, it was a nation conceived by people who were migrants themselves—human beings willing to risk everything they had in order to search for something better. It has always been a nation of ceaseless movement, of people pursuing that which has yet to appear.

Between Everything and Nothing will prove to be an eye opener for most and a rude awakening for some.


Matt Ellis is a retired Army officer serving as a security expert in Guatemala. Over the years, he’s been a HUMINT officer, counterintelligence agent, linguist, diplomat, musician, and Christmas tree trimmer (the machete kind). He’s a freelance reviewer for Publishers Weekly and was the staff screenwriter for Pacific Rim Media. His short fiction has been published at Thought Catalogue. He is studying Fiction at UCR Palm Desert’s Low-Residency MFA program in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts. Find him at www.letswriting.com.

TCR Talks with Billy Lombardo

By Collin Mitchell

I call writer Billy Lombardo at his home in Chicago to talk about his novel, Morning Will Come. “How’s the summer been?” I ask him.

“I’ve been doing some weird work,” he says, going outside to talk. His dad recently moved in due to COVID-19 and it’s a full house.  He pauses and I can hear his dog barking from inside. “Stuff I didn’t expect to do.”

Lombardo’s voice is distinctive, like listening to David Sedaris on audiobook. We talk about teaching, especially teaching fiction to teenagers online. “They’re high energy kids, self-directed and brilliant and all of a sudden whatever plans they had are cancelled,” he says about student life during a pandemic. After twenty-five years, Lombardo recently retired from his career at The Latin School of Chicago so he could put more time into Polyphony Lit, a literary magazine he founded, as well as focus on his own work. To date he’s published two novels, Morning Will Come and The Man With Two Arms, and a short story collection, The Logic of a Rose.

When I ask him about his writing process, he answers without hesitation: “Absolute discovery. I love that. I started writing something the other day and I never got to the thing I wanted to write. I had a couple thousand words before I was even coming close to this thing I sat down to do.”

“Which wasn’t even the thing you were thinking,” I say.

He laughs. “Yeah, it almost never happens that way.” The pattern of discovery is echoed by the publication history of Lombardo’s haunting novel, Morning Will Come. The book began as a loose collection of short stories before his editor, Gina Frangello, encouraged him to combine them into a single story. Personal experience, a friend’s estranged marriage, and grindstone imagination gathered the disparate threads into something self-contained. “How was that?” I ask. “Stringing them together?”

“There was a lot of styling that I had to do with the stories to get them all together. I knew what it was to raise boys and I knew what it was to raise them in a difficult marriage and that thread was my own grief that I spoke about in this other way.”

Grief in Morning Will Come pivots around the disappearance of Isabel, the teenage daughter of Alan and Audrey, the novel’s protagonists. With busy careers and two young boys to raise, their unrecognized pain turns into a weight that’s left to hang in their marriage. Lombardo’s world lingers in the strange uncertainty of living with someone you thought you knew. “We never talked,” Lombardo says about his relationship with his ex-wife. Their former marriage is the inspiration for many of the novel’s scenes. “There were weeks on end after our son was born that my wife was suffering from something that she couldn’t talk about.” It was frustrating, he tells me, not being able to help. “So, I started to imagine a narrative around it.”

Lombardo depicts the fallout between Audrey and Alan with a curiously light touch, exploring the distressing shapes resentment can take in a marriage. So much of the novel is about trying to be seen and failing, not finding the voice to make yourself heard. Lombardo excels in bittersweet reflection.

“That’s what I feel like we do as humans,” Lombardo says. “If we’re lying with every breath and we’re not able to tell the truth for whatever reason because we don’t have the capacity to do it or we don’t know it or we bought the lie about it. If my wife isn’t talking to me I have to figure it out. If she’s yelling at me because I left the door open again, what’s behind that? Or is it some other thing? And you have to imagine what it is. So that’s what these characters are doing too and I just gave them the ability to talk.”

As a teenager, Lombardo wrote poetry. Later, in his late twenties, he started reading at the Green Mill, a jazz club in Chicago. “It was highly narrative and unschooled for the way poetry goes,” he says about his work at the time. “But when you did something right on stage, the place just kind of shut down. You could hear the cigarette ash drop and it was amazing and I just wanted that to happen every minute of my life.” Later, he met Chicago writer Stuart Dybek at a literary festival. They shared many of the same memories of Bridgeport, the Chicago neighborhood where Lombardo grew up. “He said, ‘Where did you live?’ And I told him I lived in an apartment above Dressel’s Bakery,” Lombardo recalls. Dybek knew it well. “I just felt that it gave me a kind of permission to write and because my work was so highly narrative it lent itself to short stories.”

Lombardo’s poetry spoke to a memorable yet “squandered” boyhood in Bridgeport. “I was just figuring out the language to put to my life,” he says about writing and what led to his embrace of fiction. A lot of this personalization is evident in Morning Will Come, which is as much an homage to the day-to-day in Chicago as it is a love story. There’s a moment of self-discovery on the bus, twilight walks for ice cream, and the lyrical interplay between a family and their city. Many of the novel’s specific incidents—a man’s fall from a high-rise, a stolen backpack—were told to Lombardo by a friend. “I realized that I wasn’t tethered by real occasions in my life,” Lombardo says about the process of writing Morning Will Come. “I could stray from the facts, and then I started figuring out something about truth and fiction, like these are just real truths, and they wouldn’t even be things that happened to me, and I would be weeping as I was writing them because of this truth that I had gotten at somehow.”

So much of the novel is about recognition and the biting realization that a lot of it, especially for women, hinges on appearance. Lombardo tells me he challenged himself to write physicality in a way that never describes the body. I ask him about writing female characters. “It’s hard, right?” I say. “Especially when you’re writing about relationships, to avoid describing something physical.” Lombardo agrees.

“Part of me feels like I nailed it, that I got at something that’s sort of universal in everyone and then someone else will read it and say that girls don’t think that way. And I don’t know if I buy that. I just feel like if you can’t get into someone’s head that’s not you, you have no business writing fiction. So, I don’t know if I ever feel like I have to apologize for it. I do feel like I can take credit for it if it works, but I’m also okay with coming up short.”

We go back to talking about the discovery process, the strange things that come up when a writer is in the middle of it. “I think that’s why I started the magazine, to give people [the opportunity]. There’s nothing like it once you’re able to sit down and write,” he says about getting a thought on the page. “You’ve helped someone name something and I just feel like one of the greatest joys of my life is just nailing something that you feel is perfectly languaged somehow. If someone else feels it and you move them in some way, that to me is like, wow. But I’m not thinking about that when I’m sitting down. I’m my first reader right? I want to move myself.”

Lombardo has another call coming in that he needs to take. I thank him for writing the book. “It’s beautiful,” I tell him, and we hang up.


Collin Mitchell is a student in the UC Riverside Low Residency MFA program and the author of The Faithful, a historical biography of the opera composer Giuseppe Verdi. He lives in Palm Desert with his wife and son.

TCR Talks with Caroline Leavitt

by Anna Reagan

Caroline Leavitt is wearing some bitchin’ earrings. Or piercings. I cannot tell. And it fits her laid-back style and her chic, unaffected black curls. Later, I ask her about them, and she tells me that she does have piercings, but what I saw were her headphones because her coma medication screwed up her hearing. Oh.

Leavitt, affable and frank, has experience with these questions. After giving birth to her son, Leavitt went into a medically induced coma for weeks and had five emergency surgeries, until a specialist finally diagnosed her with an extremely rare blood disorder. Those sacred first weeks with her newborn were stolen from Leavitt, who can still be triggered by the trauma of her coma 20 years on. With her new novel, With or Without You, she wrestles with her own experience and takes on the mystery of the human brain locked in a coma.

With or Without You opens with Stella and her—on the surface—deadbeat longtime boyfriend, Simon. Simon coaxes Stella into some, let’s say, reckless behavior so she will chill out on her usual argument about wanting a kid and get excited about the prospect of going on the road again with his band. The next day, Stella falls into a coma. The novel, like life, goes on. It follows Simon, Stella, and Libby, Stella’s stern doctor. The two women were friends and coworkers when Stella was a nurse and before Simon took her away from that independent life. The reader is surprised by the amount of action Leavitt is able to pack into a novel where the central theme and action revolve around a comatose woman. Unlike Leavitt’s own experience, Stella is able to remember everything, from her time in the coma until she comes out of it. She can hear her mother talking to her. Can sense Simon’s presence. It’s jarring at first for the reader to lose Stella at the very beginning of the book, but isn’t that just like a coma? Losing someone suddenly and spookily? Though Stella is chained to her hospital bed, “[s]he isn’t afraid anymore. That surprises her.” When Stella wakes up from her coma, she is not a totally different person, but she does wake up to a brave new world where she can shine brighter than before and the people in her life have come together in unexpected—and in some unwanted—ways.

As Stella, who is cognizant, lies in her bed while in her coma state, she thinks of love and her parents’ love and the universe—things one might contemplate while trapped. Leavitt shows the way a coma patient takes stock of her own life; it is not just the coma patient’s loved ones who reevaluate everything.

Stella keeps her memories while appearing to be gone:

‘God,’ someone says. She doesn’t recognize the voice. Stella stopped believing in God when she was twelve. It wasn’t a difficult decision. Back then, her parents worshipped only each other. They called each other five times a day. Stella couldn’t remember being taken to the zoo just by one parent, or to the beach; even when a story was read to her, it was always both of them. One night, she had heard them talking and her mother calmly said that having Stella had been a mistake, and when her father didn’t jump right in and tell her she was wrong, Stella froze. ‘I mean, I love her,’ Stella’s mother had said. ‘I am so glad she’s here, but think how much easier things might be.” Stella, terrified, wondered if any moment she might just die and go to heaven, and if so, what would that be like? The next morning, she made the mistake of asking her mother where heaven was, and her mother laughed and said, ‘Heaven is your father.’ All Stella could think was that heaven didn’t include her.

The past and present rub up against each other in disorienting and poignant ways. What would we remember if we were trying to figure out the state of our existence?

My interview with Leavitt didn’t take place at the Plaza or Barney Greengrass in Leavitt’s home base, New York City. It was a Zoom meeting because—well, you know why. But even with that remoteness, Leavitt and I have the bond of the disorienting experience of having your life ripped away from you. After suffering a near-fatal horseback riding accident, I know all about being hospitalized in a blur and out of control. I understand Leavitt’s frustration that no one was willing to talk to her about her coma after she was out of the woods. Leavitt admits writing this book was, for her, catharsis, even after having written another novel, Coming Back to Me, about a woman in a coma who, like her, did not remember any of her time when she was out of it. Her agent told her she couldn’t write a book about the same thing: “This is going to be different. This will be about a woman who remembers everything and maybe I will be able to process things through her. It was actually that catharsis.”

With or Without You is a quiet novel, and not only because its leading lady falls into a coma. It subtly asks what you owe your loved one when they are out of commission for an indefinite amount of time. Do you betray them when you live your life without them? To what extent are you allowed to go on with your life? And what happens when they return? Are you the one to blame for abandoning or growing apart from the blameless?

Longtime lovers, Stella and Simon’s competing visions for life after forty are coming to a head. Simon had wanted to leave Stella before she fell into her coma. But Leavitt is not unsympathetic to Simon. He is in an impossible position. Leavitt’s characters bloom before the reader. That is not to mean they flourish, but they become more real as they are faced with the reality that goes along with an extreme trauma. The reader can sense where the plot is going, but that is because of the inevitability Leavitt deftly sets out for her characters.

I ask Leavitt if she ever went looking for her own medical records. She must be curious? But she didn’t. Partly because of bureaucracy, she says, but also because she asked herself, “‘Do I really want to do this? What if I find stuff where they made mistakes which they could have …?’ I decided to let that lie.”

But that doesn’t mean she isn’t learning more about what happened to her. She explains: “Before COVID my husband never really talked about it, but he said to me, ‘I am feeling the same amount of dread I was feeling before, when you were in the hospital.’ My first reaction was, ‘Oh my God this is the first time you’ve talked about it, tell me more!’”

Leavitt and I talk for a few minutes about how we understand one another. I tell her I had so much bitterness and moments of self-pity after I was hospitalized. She was given memory blockers, whereas my adrenaline blocked out my memories. Leavitt lights up when talking about the brain. One of her favorite stories is of a man who woke up from a coma able to speak Mandarin fluently. She was given the green light from a friend who works in neurology, she says, to write about what happens to a coma patient who wakes up.

I ask her, at the end of the day, what she wants people to take away from With or Without You. Leavitt mulls it over. “For anyone who has had some trauma, you can create new memories that will supplant the old ones. The saying is ‘we all contain multitudes’ and from a brain-chemistry point of view it’s true. Your brain neurons are firing all of the time and you can change. And I find that really amazing and really hopeful.”

And in these times, it really is.


Anna Reagan is a born and raised Los Angelino. As a “suit,” she has worked at places such as TMZ, Chelsea Lately, the Huffington Post, ABC Family, and the United Talent Agency in their Media Rights department but now she wants to be a “creative type.” She is a Medieval England enthusiast and a Real Housewives franchise amateur historian. She is an MFA Candidate at UC Riverside’s Palm Desert Program working on a Historical Fiction novel set at the beginning of the Tudor Dynasty.

TCR Talks with Deb Olin Unferth

by Matt Ellis

Deb Olin Unferth is the multifaceted and award-winning author of six books, including her memoir, Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War, and the acclaimed graphic novel, I, Parrot. She is a Guggenheim Fellowship recipient, the winner of three Pushcart Prizes, and a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist. Her work has appeared in GrantaHarper’sMcSweeney’s, and The Paris Review. Unferth’s most recent novel, Barn 8, follows two egg industry auditors and a legion of unbalanced activists as they attempt to pull off the greatest hen heist in history. Back in late March, she took a break from interviews about the Coronavirus outbreak to FaceTime with me about her latest book, her relationship with revolution, writing in a variety of forms and media, and releasing a book just ahead of a pandemic.

The Coachella Review: How did you come up with the idea for Barn 8?

Deb Olin Unferth: I got this image in my mind of chickens leaving a farm and it just sort of arrived to me in whole. Nobody really likes factory farms, not even the people who own them and run them. Nobody wants to put millions of animals into little tiny farms. I realized that I knew absolutely nothing about the egg industry, so I decided to do some research. Farmers or people in the egg industry wouldn’t talk to me as a layperson. But suddenly, when I became a journalist, when I approached Harper’s Magazine and asked them if I could write about the egg industry, they were willing to talk to me. I learned a ton researching that piece.

TCR: In Barn 8, like in Revolution, you were able to present complicated and polarizing social and environmental issues without coming off as heavy-handed or dogmatic. How did you strike that balance?

DOU: It wasn’t easy at all. I’m a vegan, so I already have an opinion about it. At first, I put so little in because my goal was art and not to preach at anybody. I thought it would be fun to try to write something where people who usually say that chickens are kind of stupid, and “who cares about chickens,” would suddenly, by the end of the book, find themselves rooting for the chickens and caring about them and being horrified when certain things happened. I thought that would be a really fun challenge. At first, I had nothing in there about how chickens are treated, or almost nothing. Then my editor, as we were working on later drafts, urged me [to] put in a little. I did and found that a little went a long way. Even if I just added a few sentences or, sometimes, just a word here and there, [it] created a whole image. But now that I’m out in the world talking about the book, people keep asking me questions about it and now I sound like a raving lunatic vegan activist militant. What can I do?

TCR: In Barn 8 and Revolution, the central social issues always hold importance, but you take a humorous approach to both sides.

DOU: I feel if you can get people to laugh, they’ll follow you almost anywhere. So, if I could get people laughing about these farmers or about these activists, then they’d be willing to follow me into this weird idea of them stealing all those chickens.

TCR: I also sense some parallels between who you are in your memoir Revolution and the Barn 8 newbie activists, Jamie and Cleveland. Are you reflected in any of the characters?

DOU: It’s hard to write without putting a little of yourself in there. I didn’t do it purposefully, but probably there is some. There are similarities between Jamie’s storyline and the storyline in Revolution. You leave home and strike out into the unknown. Then these two young people come up with some weird cause they want to follow for reasons that might be a little bit suspect but become a little bit clearer as you go on. You just kind of watch the changes in the people. There’s probably a little bit of Jamie in me. She’s a little more badass than I am.

TCR: You spent time in Central America during three different wars. Did any of that influence the way you approached Barn 8?

DOU: Before I wrote Revolution, I tried to figure out how to write about that experience. I didn’t want to write a memoir about being in Central America because I’m not from Central America. I felt like it was their story to tell, so I resisted it for a long time. I wrote a different novel about being in Central America that never got published. I might have sent it out to a couple of places, but I never really tried to get it published. Then I wrote a bunch of nonfiction essays about Latin America, especially about these revolutionary priests from the eighties, but none of it was very good. It was all pretty bad. It all felt a little bit phony. It wasn’t until I switched to writing the memoir that I felt like—this is my voice. I want to write about this. That’s the book I want[ed] to write and I was happy with how it turned out. But then I had this novel that was written about running around Central America during a revolution. It was a spy novel called These Priests. I wound up taking some of the chapters from that book and adapting them for Barn 8. For instance, there’s a security guard who was left on an abandoned farm at the end of the book. That was originally supposed to be the last CIA agent left in Nicaragua or El Salvador. It was now the year 2000 and everybody had left, the war was over, but they forgot to call him home. So, he was still there reporting and nobody was paying any attention. That was from the original story. I thought it was sort of funny and I lifted it and put it in [Barn 8].

TCR: Your voice and tone reminded me a lot of the gallows humor in anti-war books written by veterans like Catch 22 by Joseph Keller and Hocus Pocus by Kurt Vonnegut. Was that a style you always had?

DOU: I love that book, Catch 22. I love Kurt Vonnegut. I think the last time I seriously read Kurt Vonnegut was when I was a freshman in college. I think that was the end of me and Kurt Vonnegut. All through high school, I read Vonnegut. I’m sure his voice was internalized. Catch 22 is a classic. It’s one of the best books about war ever written. I love that book so much. So, yeah. Absolutely. It also has a number in the title.

TCR: You have a huge cast of characters and a nonlinear narrative that ranges from prehistoric times to millennia beyond humans. At one point, you were able to drive a mob point of view of more than 100 activists. How did you establish a structure and pacing with a storyline that was so complicated and often chaotic?

DOU: It was not easy. I had all of these different things I wanted to do, but I also wanted it to be easy to follow for the reader. I didn’t want it to be one of these avant-garde, difficult slogs to get through. I wanted it to be like, if you were just reading it, you could just be flipping through the pages quickly and be like—Oh god, I can’t believe she just did that. And you flip through a few more pages and—No, she’s not doing that. I wanted there to be one central event. They’re going to steal all these hens and empty this barn. I wanted the whole book to be circling around that one twelve-hour period. So, you’re leading up to it and then you’re leading away from it and you’re going into all these different minds: all different people and animals and even the air at one point. You’re seeing the air and what it’s doing. It’s all circling around like a cubist portrait. You could go way far in the past from when chickens were just evolving or you could go way far in the future, you know, twenty thousand years from now. But ultimately, it’s all just about that one little twelve-hour period.

TCR: You were able to provide a great deal of important information about Big Ag and chickens as a species, but it never felt like a data dump. What was your approach to blending that into the story?

DOU: My rule about putting research into a book, or anything just about, is it always needs to have more than one purpose. You can’t just put in a sentence of research just to give information to the reader. It also has to be there to develop characters or to show something about the setting that’s emotional, not just—this is the setting. If someone is seeing the setting through their eyes, then it’s supposed to be telling me something about the character—how they view the setting. Information is a tool, like research is a tool in a text, and it can’t be used only to convey specific facts. I wanted people to learn information, but first and foremost, I wanted to tell a rocking story.

TCR: One of the most astonishing points in the story and in “Cage Wars” was how the undercover investigators had to become adept at tasks they sought to abolish. To be above reproach and suspicion, they had to be model employees, and after their careers were over, they weren’t really qualified to do anything other than farm work. How did you discover that?

DOU: I did a huge amount of research and met all of these undercover investigators. I spent months interviewing them and watching their footage. I got fifty hours of footage of what they did. There were a couple I really got close to. One lived closed to me and so we hung out. Another I texted with for months, like fifty times a day. He was a cross-country driver for Amazon. He was in the truck all day and I was watching this footage. I really tried to get to know him and he explained a ton to me. I also got to know a couple of directors of undercover investigators. I did a huge amount of one-on-one conversations. Before it was published, I showed it to someone who was an activist and knows a lot of the people. She said, “You got it, that’s exactly what they’re like.” So, I feel really good about that. It’s rough. They’re kind of a mess.

TCR: During your research what surprised you most?

DOU: The farmers surprised me the most because I’d been vegan for a long time. I’d had this image of farmers as these evil people who just want to hurt animals. I first started getting to know them when I went to an egg conference because I couldn’t figure out how to get in contact with them. It’s not like you can just look them up online. It’s really behind a wall. So, I was doing all of this research online, just trying to figure out how to get in touch with one of them. I guess I’d looked at so many egg sites that I ended up on some kind of list. This window popped up and it said, “Do you want to go to an egg conference?” But you had to be in food service or something like that. So, I just presented myself as a faculty representative from food service at Wesleyan University, where I was a professor at the time. I didn’t really lie. Not too much. I went and I met all these farmers. They were really nice people. We had a ball. We had so much fun. Once they found out that I was writing this book and I was writing an article for Harper’s, they changed their tune and were not nice to me. But before then, they were really nice people and they don’t hate chickens. They like their chickens. This is just what farming has turned into within our culture for all kinds of bad reasons. They’ve followed it and are trying to make a living.

TCR: You’ve done everything from investigative reporting, essays, short stories, fiction, memoir. You have an acclaimed graphic novel—I, Parrot. How does your approach change with the styles and genres?

DOU: I try to have my voice in everything that I do. I tried to have my voice even in that investigative reporting piece, to the extent that I could. That’s the unifying feature. I like form. I like trying all different kinds of things. I feel a little old now, but I wish I could try movies or podcasts or something. I feel I’m really missing that element. Everything I do is writing. But I like trying different forms. It’s fun. It’s an experiment. It’s a challenge. I like learning a lot about each form and then seeing how I can disrupt it. When I wrote Revolution, I read a huge pile of memoirs. I thought so much about how I would like to add to the form. I didn’t just want to write any old memoir. It was the same thing with both of my novels. I wanted to approach them with daring and a disregard for the norm in some way.

TCR: Barn 8 was released only a few weeks before the COVID-19 crisis hit North America. How have you and your publisher had to adjust to this unprecedented situation since the release?

DOU: It was pretty intense because I’ve been working on this book for a very long time. There was a lot of build-up to it. I had this big tour planned that I’m supposed to be on right now. That was nineteen events in different cities all over the country. The whole thing fell apart. I did my first event here in Austin, but already it was hitting, and then every single event was either canceled for us or I just decided to cancel it. So, I’ve been sitting in my house and doing a lot in the backyard. I had two days that I felt really grief-stricken because I did work so hard on the book and there was a lot of build-up to it. We got great pre-publication reviews. The first couple of days after the book was released were really good, and it went into reprint in two days, then everything collapsed once this hit. Everything fell apart. I had two days of just darkness and grief. Then I watched John Oliver on HBO. He was saying that everyone lost something right now. Everyone is losing something big. Let’s all just sit and just have a moment of grief for the thing that we’re losing right now. I thought, here is my moment of grief and I’m having it now. Then he said, “Get back to work. Now we have a world to take care of.” I’m trying to have that attitude now.


Matt Ellis is a retired Army officer serving as a security expert in Guatemala. Over the years, he’s been a HUMINT officer, counterintelligence agent, linguist, diplomat, musician, and Christmas tree trimmer (the machete kind). He’s a freelance reviewer for Publishers Weekly and was the staff screenwriter for Pacific Rim Media. His short fiction has been published at Thought Catalogue. He holds an MS in Information Security from the University of Maryland Global Campus and is studying Fiction at UCR Palm Desert’s Low-Residency MFA program in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts. Find him at www.letswriting.com.

Related Post: Matt Ellis’s Book Review: Barn 8 by Deb Olin Unferth

TCR Talks with Leslie Jamison

A fearless essayist, Leslie Jamison revels in viewing life from as many angles as possible. Combining memoir with journalistic reporting, she is adept at telling stories that reveal the ways in which we relate to one another.

In her 2019 collection of essays, Make it Scream, Make it Burn, Jamison explores yearning and obsession, loneliness and broken relationships. The book’s title captures her intent to probe the deeper meanings behind ordinary life. As she explains, “For me, the notion of making life scream is less about pain and more about urgency. It’s about finding a kind of primal cry inside the ordinary house, the ordinary marriage, the ordinary morning. It’s about looking at something so closely that you feel it starting to smolder under your gaze. It was what I wanted to do in this book: Make life scream. Make it burn. Make it funny. Make it strange. Make it sing.”  [1]

In the collection, Jamison describes a solo whale wandering through the North Pacific and details the digital devotees who subscribe to Second Life, an online platform. She chronicles the life of a Civil War photographer and depicts the artistry of a Californian who photographs the same subjects over a period of twenty-five-years. In the book’s concluding chapters, Jamison scrutinizes events from her own life including eloping to Las Vegas, becoming a stepmother and giving birth to her daughter.

The themes echo Jamison’s previous work in which she investigated concepts related to emotional connectedness. Her first novel, The Gin Closet, recounted the story of a young woman who connects with an estranged aunt and discovers that they share a history of addiction and difficult relationships with men. The novel, published in 2010, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize

In her best-selling 2014 collection of essays, The Empathy Exams, Jamison explored her personal experiences with illness and injury while examining poverty tourism, phantom diseases, street violence and incarceration.

In 2018, Jamison described her personal journey through alcoholism and recovery in The Recovering: Intoxication and its Aftermath. The book also includes the stories of other literary figures who have suffered from alcoholism including Raymond Carver, Denis Johnson and Jean Rhys.

A prolific writer, Jamison’s work has appeared in Best New American Voices 2008, A Public Space, Black Warrior Review, The New York Times Magazine, Harper’s, Oxford American, Virginia Quarterly Review and The Believer. She is the Director of the non-fiction concentration in writing at Columbia University’s School of the Arts and serves as a columnist for The New York Times Book Review. Jamison earned an MFA in fiction from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and has a Ph.D. in English literature from Yale University.

The Coachella Review: Please tell us how you chose the title of your book, Make it Scream, Make it Burn.  In what ways did you intend for this title to tie together the essays you have included in your collection?

Leslie Jamison: The title comes from an observation the poet William Carlos Williams made about the photographs of Walker Evans—that his photographs “make reality scream,” by which he meant, I think, that he was able to look at ordinary lives, ordinary people, ordinary moments, and find something urgent and illuminating inside of them. That’s what I want the essays in this collection to do, whether they were personal or critical or reported—to gaze at life and find urgencies hidden in plain sight: the pulsing contractions, the surprising sources of light.

TCR: Within Make it Scream, Make it Burn, you organized your essays into three topic areas entitled:  Longing, Looking and Dwelling.  What are the themes that you wanted to explore in each section and how do they relate to one another?

LJ:  The three sections are partially organized in terms of their angles of approach: the essays in “Longing” are largely reported, those in “Looking” are critical—everything from travel writing to photography criticism—and those in the final section, “Dwelling,” are much more personal. That said, I also hope they compose a kind of collective narrative arc: they start by examining what it means to long for things that are far away—past lives, an elusive whale known as the loneliest whale in the world—and end up examining how we relate to what’s close, rather than what’s far away: our families, our spouses, our children, our banal, daily routines.

TCR: The essays included in this collection were formerly published in other venues. In what ways did you revise the essays in order to explore the meta-themes that you wanted to include in this book?

LJ: Once I gathered the essays together around the core themes of the book—longing, haunting, and obsession—it was incredibly exciting to figure out how to dig deeper into the inquiries of each one, to find the additional layers of meaning that were waiting to be excavated. For example, I was able to revisit one essay about reincarnation that had been published in Harper’s magazine and ask the much deeper questions lurking inside of it: What does reincarnation suggest about our notion of the self? What does believing in reincarnation ask us to believe about identity? How are ideas of un-originality that reincarnation makes explicit—when it proposes that none of us are new!—connected to ideas of resonance and interchangeability that show up in twelve-step recovery? How did my own life in twelve-step recovery shape the ways I approached that piece as a journalist? When I revised the piece, I got to engage with all these questions that had been lurking in the margins.

TCR: In several essays, you reference the tattoo on your arm which reads “Nothing human is alien to me.”  How does this tattoo relate to how you view your role as a writer?

LJ: As a writer, I believe in trying to examine the complicated humanity of any given subject—and the complexities of any given situation—rather than reducing anyone or anything to a single note, or making them a piece of evidence serving a pre-existing thesis statement. And I find that one way to keep excavating a subject’s complicated humanity is to understand their humanity as not entirely unrelated from my own. That said, I also believe in minding the gap between my consciousness and anyone else’s: I can’t fully understand what anyone else thinks or feels, and there’s an important humility in recognizing that. So I see my tattoo as a constant reckoning—a tension—rather than the answer to a question, or a simple guiding moral imperative.

TCR: In the second section of the book you explore issues regarding the relative objectivity of writers and the extent to which art risks becoming exploitation rather than witnessing.  How do you view your own work along this spectrum?

LJ: The version of honesty I’ve always been most interested in—as a writer, and a human being—involves confessing, excavating, and exploring my own biases and investments, rather than pretending they don’t exist or trying to banish them to the margins. So I guess I’d say I believe in scrutinizing my own subjectivity rather than trying to achieve an impossible objectivity.

TCR: Several of the essays in Make it Scream, Make it Burn, explore the ways in which narratives are generated in response to specific landscapes.  In what ways, do you see a relationship between our emotional states and the way we view the space around us?

LJ: Yes, many landscapes are important in this book—from investigating the residue of the Sri Lankan Civil War in Jaffna to analyzing the architecture of the Las Vegas strip—and I think landscapes can be important ways of investigating emotional experience in several senses: our responses to landscapes can often be illuminating portals into our interior lives (what are we drawn to, what do we shy away from, where and how do we experience comfort and discomfort) and thinking about our experiences in terms of landscapes also invites a reckoning with the body as an important component of experience: what information is being gathered by our senses, and how does it shape and illuminate our emotional states?

TCR: In your essays you reference your journey to achieve sobriety.  How has your recovery experience influenced the topics you choose to write about in this collection and your two other published books, The Recovering: Intoxication and its Aftermath and The Empathy Exams?

LJ: I’d say that drinking and sobriety have been shaping forces in all four of my books. My first book, The Gin Closet, is a novel that is largely structured by the ways in which two different women relate to drinking. It’s a book about addiction with very little recovery in it, which makes sense—I didn’t have much experience with recovery when I was writing it. My next book, The Empathy Exams, was hugely shaped by my experience in twelve-step recovery—and the ways it was asking me to relate to the lives of strangers, to witness the complicated humanity inside each one—but I didn’t write explicitly about recovery within it. That came with The Recovering, an examination of the relationship between addiction, recovery, and storytelling that weaves together my own personal experience with literary criticism, cultural criticism, and reportage. That book rose directly out of my fears that sobriety would somehow kill my creativity—it was an attempt to explore the ways that recovery could actually inspire a new kind of creativity.


Kaia Gallagher is working on a memoir called Return to Estonia, which explores her connection to her Estonian heritage. She is an MFA graduate at the University of California–Riverside’s Low Residency program.

[1] Canfield, David, “Leslie Jamison previews new book Make it Scream, Make it Burn in exclusive essay.” Entertainment Exclusive, January 14, 2019. https://ew.com/books/2019/01/14/leslie-jamison-make-it-scream-essay-cover-reveal/.  Accessed 12-18-19

TCR Talks with Maggie Downs About Her New Memoir, Braver Than You Think

By Pallavi Yetur

When we first meet Maggie Downs in her debut memoir Braver Than You Think: Around the World on the Trip of My (Mother’s) Lifetime, her mental state is immediately established from the image of her shuffling through the Cairo airport in flip flops, her sweatshirt hood pulled over her head, and her body hovering between sleeping and waking because, “Sorrow does that.” Incidentally, travel can do that too, and Downs’s memoir tells a story of both.

Ten years ago, Maggie Downs quit her newspaper job and set off on a yearlong trip around the world. As she traveled from Peru to Bolivia to Uganda to Thailand, her mother’s mind and body were succumbing to Alzheimer’s disease back in the US. The trip is initiated when Downs, underwhelmed and disengaged with her job and life, decides that she must live because her mother can’t; because her mother gave up dreams of seeing the world to tend to her parental and familial duties. Downs asks herself: “By confining myself to this cubicle, wasn’t I making the same mistake my mother made?” In this state of suspension between doubt about her future and certainty of her mother’s, she found the reasons to travel: “to see what I was made of, to discover how strong I could really be, to live out the dreams of my mother.”

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TCR Talks with Lexa Hillyer

By Lindsay Jamieson

Lexa Hillyer is not only the author of the poetry collection, Acquainted with the Cold, and four Harper Collins YA novels: Proof of Forever, Spindle Fire, Winter Glass, and, her most recent, Frozen Beauty, but she’s also the co-founder of Glasstown Entertainment. While pursuing her own writing career, Hillyer and her partner, The New York Times bestselling author, Lauren Oliver, transformed their original publishing collaboration, Paper Lantern Lit and e-book publishing imprint, The Studio, into Glasstown; Hillyer remains at the helm. As their mission statement reads, “Glasstown Entertainment is an all-women, 360-degree media and content company based in New York and Los Angeles, dedicated to powerful, relevant, voice-driven story-telling across multiple platforms including book, film, and television.”

The Coachella Review recently sat down with Hillyer to discuss her fifteen-year career in publishing, the evolution of Glasstown Entertainment, and her latest novel, Frozen Beauty, which was released in March of this year.

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