Category: Interview (Page 1 of 2)

Winter 2017

Photo Courtesy of Fox Colton

Rachael Warecki
Fiction Holy Land

Emily Rapp
Nonfiction Conversion

Tatiana Forero Puerta
Poetry Denny’s Grand Slam Special

James Croal Jackson
Poetry | Mid-December

Kathy Rucker
Drama Beautiful Scar

Anne Falkowski
Nonfiction | Robbie

Douglas Wood
Fiction The Barn

Barbara Westwood Diehl
Poetry | Red Princess

John Patrick Bray
Drama | Fix

Christina Cha
Nonfiction Raped and Murdered

Gillian Lee
Poetry How to Become a Poet

Jeremy John Parker
Fiction | At the Speed of Light

Tamra Plotnick
Nonfiction | Barbie and Gandhi Sitting in a Tree

Janet Reed
Poetry | Blue Exhaust

Jodi Adamson
Poetry | Six-Word Stories

Rachel Joseph
Drama | And This Before Leaving

Renee Winter
Nonfiction | And Away She Goes

Jay Shearer
Fiction | Little Resurrection Machines

Marie-Andree Auclair
Poetry | Mummy

Anne Babson
Poetry | Regina

Kelly Shire
Nonfiction | The Great Unknown

Megan Stielstra
Interview | TCR Talks with Megan Stielstra

The Coachella Review is a literary arts journal published by the University of California, Riverside–Palm Desert Low Residency MFA in Creative Writing & Writing for the Performing Arts.


The Coachella Review Interview with Megan Stielstra

by: Gina Frangello

I feel what could be described as an inappropriate amount of pride in Megan Stielstra. Stielstra was a student (not my student) in the Fiction Writing Department of Columbia College Chicago when I was just beginning my teaching and editing careers, and at that time, the nearly-a-decade age difference between us seemed, as it does with very young people, enormous. Still, it was already clear that Stielstra was a storytelling powerhouse. Just get her into a room—an auditorium at Columbia’s fabled “Story Week” or the dark basement of a bar—and she would, with her words, her voice, her sheer physical energy, bring the house down. I once saw her tell a story while “Living on a Prayer” blared in the background, and what would have, in the hands of just about anyone else on the planet, seemed potentially ridiculous, instead was transformed into a live wire of emotion (albeit not one devoid of intentional comedy). To hear Stielstra on a stage is to recall Cixous:

She doesn’t “speak,” she throws her trembling body forward; she lets go of herself, she flies; all of her passes into her voice, and it’s with her body that she vitally supports the “logic” of her speech. Her flesh speaks true. She lays herself bare. In fact, she physically materializes what she’s thinking; she signifies it with her body…she inscribes what she’s saying, because she doesn’t deny her drives the intractable and impassioned part they have in speaking. Her speech, even when “theoretical” or political, is never simple or linear or “objectified,” generalized: she draws her story into history.

I was, at that time, editing Other Voices magazine and was honored to publish a very early story of Stielstra’s (was it her first? Dear Reader, let’s say it was her first!), which was about The Incredible Hulk. What I mean to tell you here is that Stielstra was—and is—a force of nature. Not quite a magical realist, not quite a stand-up comic, not quite a spoken word poet, not quite an actress, she embodied—in nakedly revealing essays and short stories—all of these elements seamlessly.

I don’t remember how long ago it was that Stielstra invited me out to First Slice Café in Chicago to pick my brain about…more or less how to be a woman, a mother, and an artist simultaneously, while also teaching, while also caring about the world outside the “room of one’s own” to which writers were supposed to aspire. Stielstra was the wild antithesis to such an ideology, her work and life utterly and unabashedly intertwined with community. I know my daughters—now poised to enter college—were still quite young; I don’t think my son was yet born. If I had any wisdom to impart to Stielstra, it was probably nothing more complex than Don’t stop. The danger for women, for mothers, as I saw it then and now, was usually the Stopping. If I had anything of use to say to Stielstra, I hope it was keep telling stories. It was, I hope, don’t let anyone convince you that you need to be more like a man—in other words less interconnected—for your work to be ‘important.’ What I hope I said more than anything else is don’t let anyone convince you that abandoning your art for the sake of taking care of others is what makes you selfless or a good person, because your art—because stories—take care of the entire world when we need it most, and are as much a gift as any other form of nurturing and love.

In the years since then, Stielstra has gone on to publish a book of short stories (Everyone Remain Calm) and two essay collections: the break-out Once I Was Cool and now much-buzzed and acclaimed The Wrong Way to Save Your Life. She put one of the largest storytelling collectives in the country, 2nd Story, on the literary and theater map. She is raising a young son who is smarter than most of the people running our government. When my own life was coming unraveled a few years back, and I went to Stielstra and sat on her porch and asked her advice, I know the unconditional support, both personal and literary, that she offered me felt as much like coming full circle as anything ever has. There is nothing quite like the feeling of seeing a young writer you once mentored grow into the kind of mentor you wish you had had yourself when you were young, and still haven’t outgrown. There is nothing quite like the feeling of seeing a once-promising young woman bloom not only into being one of your favorite storytellers, but also one of your favorite humans.

If you don’t know how incredible Megan Stielstra is yet, where have you been hiding? Read her words, which she was generous enough to share with us here. I promise you that you will fall in love.

The Coachella Review: The overarching theme of your essays is fear and the overcoming of inaction due to fear, which is very different from eradicating fear itself, which is impossible. Your essays seem to echo very much the old wisdom that bravery isn’t a lack of fear but acting with consciousness and trying to do act and create change despite fear. Right now, we are in a climate where women are, in unprecedented numbers, overcoming an entire human history of fear to launch a revolution of naming sexual predators. Can we talk about how this is a direct response to the Trump presidency, and how this “starting now” from thousands of women touches on so many issues raised in The Wrong Way to Save Your Life? How do you feel about this current movement? And where do we go from here?

Megan Stielstra: I keep thinking of this poem by Muriel Rukeyser:

What would happen if one woman told the truth about
her life?
The world would split open

The Access Hollywood tapes came out a little over a year ago. My eight-year-old son came home from the playground and asked what pussy meant. He asked why anyone would want a man like that to be in charge. He asked why I cried when I read my students’ essays, and I told him a partial truth: “The writing is so good it makes my heart hurt,” because the full truth was too much to bear: the majority of them were writing about sexual assault, memories they’d been carrying for years or months or minutes brought screaming back into the forefront of their lives. I’ve been teaching creative nonfiction for twenty years, and I long ago lost count of the young women and queer and gender nonconforming people who have trusted me enough to put their hearts on pages and hand those pages to me saying please, please, please don’t tell because they don’t trust the systems that are supposed to—not protect them. We shouldn’t need protection. We should be able to walk down the street or into the classroom or boardroom or bar or park or grocery store or anywhere without needing a bodyguard or a wing person or a knife in our goddamn pocket, and I am one hundred percent behind sharing our stories whenever and however it feels right to you because I believe this is a vital part of the messy, complicated, deeply personal and ongoing healing process and, like we’re seeing now, systemic change that is desperately long overdue.

I keep thinking of this speech by Janet Mock:

Telling our stories is a revolutionary act.

We were supposed to have class the day after the election. I emailed my students and said they didn’t have to come, but I’d be there if they wanted to join me. They did. All of them. There were two guys and they each brought in something for the women in the class. Thirteen cupcakes. Thirteen flowers. Their first thoughts were of these thirteen women and the stories they’d written about assault. That moment, on that day, was important for me in thinking about why I keep writing and teaching. Stories matter. They help us see each other.

I keep thinking of this tweet by Zerlina Maxwell:

I want to send words of support to all of my fellow survivors. This is a difficult, albeit necessary moment in our culture. I hope everyone is taking care of themselves.

I’ve written through some of my own stories about assault in The Wrong Way to Save Your Life. Others I’ve written just for live readings, because, for me, there’s a safety in performance; I don’t have to think about certain ex-boyfriends or colleagues reading it wherever the hell they are now. Others I’ve written about and no one has seen it but me. Others are still locked up in a dungeon in my head because I’m a woman in fucking America and this shit hurts. I’m thinking about how we take care of ourselves. I’m thinking about raising a son. I’m thinking about male entitlement and my own accountability: I recently found out that a friend of mine has been accused of assault by multiple women. I’m dealing with my own rage and devastation around this but I want to say unequivocally that I believe these women, and I stand with them, if they’ll have me.

TCR: Possibly my favorite passage from your book reads as follows: “I’ve always engaged with the heart as a metaphor: a desire, a thing to survive, to heal from or shoot for. Now I know there’s nothing more real. We walk through the world at its leisure. We’re here at its mercy and with its blessing. At some point, we have to ask ourselves how we want to live.” For me, that last line in particular was everything. It’s everything. I don’t think a day has gone by in years that I haven’t felt like I was making that decision—how I want to live—renewing that decision.

MS: That line was one of those Holy Grail-sort of writing moments where the words are a complete surprise. You see them appear on the screen while your fingers are typing and it’s like, This. This is what I have spent two years and 30,000 words trying to find. It’s from an essay about me and my father; he’s a big game hunter in Alaska, and he has a heart condition, and he’s up in the mountains for weeks at a time and I’m down in Chicago freaking out about his health. I started the essay with a question: Why does he keep going up the mountain? which I abandoned immediately because it was boring as hell. He goes up the mountain because he loves it. The end. Essay is over before it begins. A better question—one that gave me something to dig in to—is this: What do I do with my fear of him going up the mountain? In the end, that was the question behind the whole book.

What do I do with my fear?

That’s what we’re all trying to figure out, right? What do I do?

Quick sidebar: if you’re stuck right now in your own work—banging your head against the wall because it isn’t working and you want to gauge out your eyeballs—it might be useful to consider: Am I asking the right question?

I was already dissecting deer hearts at that point (those of you who haven’t read the essay are like what in the hell). I wasn’t sure why yet, but it felt right, and to my dad’s credit, he went along with it. He supports me completely, even when I’m doing things that are batshit crazy. I’d text him that I needed more hearts, and he’d FedEx them frozen to Chicago, and I studied all these charts and diagrams trying to figure out how they worked, and then I’d cut them up and write about it. And in the process, I figured out a few things about the heart as a metaphor and the heart as a throbbing, pumping organ that allows me and you and those we love to, quite literally, live or die.

Writing this essay was an exercise in trusting my gut. I had no idea where I was going, let alone how it would end, which at the time felt terrifying because usually I write from accepted pitches where I’ve already thought through the angle and word count and intended audience and and and. I kept thinking of this line a teacher would say to me in grad school: “I don’t know what I think until I see what I say.” I tried to find its source, and—forgive me—I’m going to geek out for a second:

O’Connor: “I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.”

Faulkner: “I never know what I think about something until I read what I’ve written on it.”

Albee: “I write to find out what I’m thinking about.”

Mailer: “I don’t know what I think until I write it down.”

Mantel: “I have no idea what I’ve written till I read it back.”

Didion: “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, what I’m looking at, what I see and what it means. What I want and what I fear.”

And my personal favorite: Season 7, Episode 20 of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Sunnydale’s gone to hell, the Apocalypse is hours away, Buffy’s thiiiiiis close to giving up but then Spike shows up to give a pep talk and profess his undying love:

BUFFY: What are you trying to say?

SPIKE: I don’t know. I’ll know when I’m done saying it.

TCR: What has been the hardest moment of reckoning for you with embracing your transience and, instead of reacting to that with nihilism or despair or carelessness, instead deciding with deep consciousness how you want to live?

MS: I do react with nihilism and despair and carelessness. I do hide in bed with the cover over my head. I stare hopeless and zombie-like at Twitter, and drink too much, and cry my face off, and go to the axe-throwing place down the street, and then I get up and get moving because I have shit to do and a kid to raise and people to show up for however I can.

The first few drafts of everything I’m writing right now is WHAT THE FUCK IS EVEN HAPPENING, repeated ad nauseam. I don’t show that work to anyone, in part because it’s shitty writing but mostly because it’s not the contribution I want to make to literature, to our cultural conversation. I want to talk about hope and action and fight and imagine and try and right now that’s hard as hell because I am furious, often stupefying so. I imagine, with alarming frequency, throwing my laptop into the sea. I imagine, with alarming frequency, throwing myself into the sea. I need to get that fury and mess and @#$*& out of my body so I can come back with writing that matters.

When I ask myself how I want to live, I come back with this: kindness over fear.

The hardest thing is when I fall short of expectations or fail to, let’s say, walk my own walk. Some books that have helped me in these moments: Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay, The Misfits Manifesto by Lidia Yuknavitch, Abandon Me by Melissa Febos, Love and Trouble by Claire Dederer, and Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things. They give me space to fuck up. We need more stories like that, more books and films and television and space for all people, I think, but women especially, to be complicated and imperfect and idealized and up on a goddamn cloud. I will fall off the cloud. I will fall off the pedestal. I will fall on my ass and then I will get back up because right now, I can. There have been times—I’m thinking specifically of the first few years after my son was born, when I was on the ground with postpartum depression—that I could not physically and mentally get up. Other people got up then. They fought and taught and tried and helped. I can do that now. Others can’t, for their own unique reasons. They have to take care of their families, their health, or it’s straight-up dangerous for their bodies in our current political climate in ways it isn’t for me with the various privileges I have in this world so I will get up, I’m up, I’m here.

Jesus, we need each other. We’re trying to remake the world.

TCR: You write about your young friend Sophia, who is very sick, and I was kind of thrilled to hear that the most frequent interview question you get is “How is Sophia?” Empathy runs more deeply in people than we often cynically think, but also, we know from actual scientific studies that literature increases a person’s capacity for empathy—that reading literally makes us feel more deeply, widely, and inclusively. How is Sophia?

MS: Sophia is five and a half years old now and fighting a bitch of a brain tumor. Since the book came out, I’ve received hundreds of emails from people asking about her health. Thank you for reaching out. Thank you for caring about this little girl and her family who I love so very much.

You can read more about her story here, and I wrote a longer follow-up essay for Tin House during Childhood Cancer Awareness Month. The truth is that only four percent—four percent—of federal dollars spent on cancer research goes to childhood cancers. These kids, with their not-yet-fully-developed bodies and not-yet-fully-developed brains, are being treated in ways that have only been tested on adults. Sophia just finished a fifty-two-week regiment of Vinblastine, a chemotherapeutic that was isolated in 1958 for Adult Lymphoma. And no one knows what’s going to happen. Not with the tumor, not with the side effects. And then there is the current instability of health insurance in this country, which could be a death sentence for anyone, let alone our kids.

I’ve talked about this in every interview. You hand me a mic; this is what I’m going to talk about. I will write essays until my fingers fall off which, yes, is not going to cure cancer, but what if? What if someone reading this, right here/right now, just inherited a million dollars and decides to help? What if some senator on the fence over this deathtrap of a tax bill hears me yelling across the internet and is like, huh, maybe I shouldn’t vote to cut the insurance that funds a five-year-old child’s lifesaving chemotherapy? What if I shouldn’t vote to cut billions of dollars from Medicaid? What if I shouldn’t cut the CHIP program which supports nine million children? And what if—what if—enough people reading this storm the town halls of their state representatives? What if we explode the phone lines, so fucking sorry, Alexander Graham! What if we try?—Jesus, we have to try, we have to, this is my family.

But even if it wasn’t—I want to be a person who cares not only about my family, but everyone’s family. Not just my kid, but everyone’s kids. Kids who are sick. Kids with incarcerated parents. Kids at the mercy of gun violence. Kids fleeing violence in Syria, in Gaza. Queer and trans kids. Kids who need us.

TCR: How do you feel about the current sentiment I sometimes hear being expressed in these problematic times that writing isn’t the same as “activism,” and that writing fiction or memoir during this catastrophic moment feels “self-indulgent”? Acknowledging that social activism is a wide thing and in no way is being a writer mutually exclusive with other forms of activism, what is the relative importance of literature and art in politically tumultuous times when lives are at active risk all around us?

MS: For me, activism is fighting for policies that recognize our equal humanity. Literature shows us that humanity. We need it. We need it desperately.

I grew up in a very small, sheltered town in Southeast Michigan. The world came in through the library, the newspaper, the television, the radio. It came through Toni Morrison and Dorothy Allison and PJ Harvey and Venus and Punk Planet and a gazillion others. I am here—the woman and human and mother and writer and teacher and everything else I am—because of the stories that I’ve read and heard and lived. I’m grateful to writers for the work it took to share those stories and—this is really important—I’m talking about as-of-yet unpublished writers, too. I work in both traditional and nontraditional classrooms across Chicago and the artists in those spaces have absolutely influenced who I am, what I fight for, how I write and teach and parent and vote.

Think about the art and ideas we’ve missed out on because these young artists were told their work didn’t matter, that it was “self-indulgent”? It’s infuriating. If someone says that to you, you may tell them to go straight to hell. Better yet, save your energy and walk away from them as fast as possible. Surround yourself with people who show you that your work has value and, at the same time, challenge you to make it better.

Whose first drafts arent self-indulgent”? Mine certainly are! And then I work my ass off to make it better. Real talk: you’ve got to put in that work. But don’t let anyone tell you your work doesn’t matter.

It does. We need your voice.

I keep coming back to Adichie’s Danger of a Single Story: “…show a people as one thing, as only one thing, over and over again, and that is what they become.” There is single story told about mental health in this country. There is a single story about motherhood. There is a single story about my city: our violence, but not the ongoing systemic racism that causes it; our violence, but not what local organizers and community members are doing to fight it; our violence, but not our joy. I hope my work pushes back. I hope you’ll read the many, many artists pushing back that together take us closer to the truth about these incredibly complicated and deeply personal topics that—as I sit here writing and you sit here reading—are being legislated by people who have no fucking idea what our experiences are and aren’t doing the work of listening.

The first thing an activist will tell you: listen.

Which is another way of saying: read.

Read widely. Attack your bookshelf. Do all the writers there look like you? Do they all have a similar lived experience or point of view? A question I ask myself on repeat: what voices are missing? In my personal reading, on my syllabus, at the tables where I’m sitting, in the classrooms and boardrooms I’m affiliated with? The last ten articles you clicked on social media—who wrote them? Where are you getting your ideas about what is true? Who else should you be reading to better see and understand our world?

This, for me, is literature as action. We need it along with everything else: voting and teaching and conscientious parenting and organizing and imagining and raising and ass-load of money and putting our bodies in the streets and, right now, calling our senators ten times a day and begging them not to kill us and our kids and our neighbor’s kids and everybody’s kids.

The place where I first learned about “everybody” was the library.

Still is.


Gina Frangello is the author of four books of fiction, most recentlyEvery Kind of WantingandA Life in Men. You can read more of her work at 


TCR talks with Samantha Irby

By: Dein Sofley

Samantha Irby unwittingly began her writing career to impress a dude. This was 2009, when MySpace was the thing. Her little posts entertained him. They dated, and when that thing came to an end, with the encouragement of friends, she launched her blog about the “dumb stuff that was happening to me every day,” Bitches Gotta Eat.

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TCR Talks with Ben Blatt

By: A.M. Larks

In his latest book, Nabokov’s Favorite Word Is Mauve, Ben Blatt uses his data journalism skills to tackle writing’s lingering questions and examine adverb usage, gender pronoun tendencies, reading levels, and writers’ favorite and fallback words.

Although Blatt uses statistical analyses to show that writers generally follow their own writing advice, word counts grow in size after the first publication, and co-authors rarely get equal title space on book covers, his work isn’t a math book disguised as a creative writing book. Blatt uncovers interesting insights into style and writing tendencies by looking at rule breakers and followers, including best sellers, critically acclaimed works, and fan fiction, to give the reading public and would-be authors a comprehensive view of what writing looks like by the numbers.

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TCR Talks with Jean Hastings Ardell

BY: Nathania Seales Oh

In Making My Pitch: A Woman’s Baseball Odyssey, Jean Hastings Ardell co-authors the deeply moving memoir of Ila Jane Borders, a woman shattering gender stereotypes in a male-dominated profession while navigating her secrecy, shame, and eventual acceptance of her sexual orientation.

Throughout the book, Ardell points to transformative moments of struggle in Borders’ life: as a child at home and in the church, as a young woman on the baseball field and in male locker rooms, and at a Christian university where she played before being signed to play professionally. There are moments of levity alongside anecdotes of profound loss and rejection that show the reader Borders’ path to authenticity and success.

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TCR Talks with Gayle Brandeis

By: Angela M. giles

I am not sure when I first became aware of Gayle Brandeis and her work. It was a few years ago, and truthfully, it was the story of her mother’s suicide that drew me to her. There is a strange bond between survivors of suicide, a shared understanding of that particular kind of loss and the way in which our kind of grief is often messy. I read a few of her essays online and was hooked. I poured through whatever I could get my hands on by her, and her poetry is amazing, by the way. I knew she was writing a book about her mother’s suicide, and whereas saying I was looking forward to it sounds a bit morose, I was. So, when the opportunity to speak with her about writing the book was presented, I was thrilled. It turns out, Gayle is as brilliant and kind in person as you hope she is, and she has an amazing ability to distill grace from even the most painful moments.

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TCR Talks with Helena Echlin and Malena Watrous

By: David Olsen

When I found out that Helena Echlin and Malena Watrous, two instructors I’ve taken classes from at the Stanford Online Writer’s Studio, were collaborating on a YA novel, I was curious about their work. When I heard what their book was about, I was even more intrigued. A book about “mean girls with superpowers,” sounded entertaining and original. The protagonist, fifteen-year-old Laurel Goodwin, wakes up to find her older sister, Ivy, missing from their shared bedroom and is forced to team up with mean girls from Laurel’s high school to find her.

After reading the book and seeing all the amazing reviews online, I caught up with the authors, who graciously agreed to do a brief interview for The Coachella Review.

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TCR Talks with Melissa Febos

by dein sofley

In her new memoir, Abandon Me, Melissa Febos explores the legacy of her two fathers: her birth father, a Native American, with whom she reconnects over the course of the book, and the father who raised her, a sea captain.

Sections weave her quest together with moments taken from her childhood through escapist tendencies that manifested in sexual obsessions and a drug addiction in her young-adult years and into an obsessive love affair with a married woman that triggers Febos’ fear of abandonment. Historical tidbits expand the narration along with digressions into texts ranging from Homer and Jung to the film Labyrinth. The book confronts the legacy of addiction, the traumatic “legacy of abandonment, of erasure” that was Febos’ birthright, and considers the forces that command utter devotion that can both destroy and redeem us.

Febos is the author of the critically acclaimed memoir Whip Smart. Her essays have appeared in publications like Tin House, Granta, and the New York Times. She’s on the board of directors for VIDA: Women in Literary Arts and teaches writing at Monmouth University and the Institute of American Indian Arts. She lives in Brooklyn.

THE COACHELLA REVIEW: When I first read the title of your memoir, Abandon Me, it seemed like a dare. What was your intent in choosing the title?

MELISSA FEBOS: The title came to me suddenly; it wasn’t something I considered with intent. Usually, a title is the last thing I add to a piece of writing, but with this book, it came to me before I’d written the book. I suppose there was a lot of intention in it, but not of my conscious, thinking mind. It felt like a message from the deeper regions of my intelligence and imagination. The dual meanings arrived more as an instruction for how to direct the book. The title suggests the place I hoped to arrive at by the end of the writing process, and indeed, it was. That is, I wanted to move—both within myself and within the book’s progression—from one definition of abandonment to another. Perhaps the dare that you felt was a dare I made to myself, an entreaty to transform abandonment from a fearsome thing to a sought thing, a thing one might demand, through the alchemy of writing. So, I think the title helped guide me in some ways, like a lighthouse or North Star.

TCR: Portions of your memoir appeared as essays in various publications before the book was published. Was the aim of your essays to amass a collection and create a memoir?

MF: No. For a while, I was simultaneously writing the essays and ruminating on this book (for which I already had a title, written on an index card and tacked on my wall). About four essays in, I realized that they were the book. There was some repetition in the essays that I thought would be redundant in a book (if I ever thought about it), though it turned out that part of the book’s work was to examine particular events from multiple perspectives, to highlight the prismatic nature of pivotal moments and the multiple narratives we can build around them. I still consider the book an essay collection more than a memoir—the pieces are discrete, especially in terms of form, though I do think they cohere into one complete thing.

TCR: In the book, you seamlessly mingle your ruminations with astronomy, psychology, mythology, history and analyses of pop culture. Ferdinand the Bull, Jung’s Red Book and the film Labyrinth figure prominently. Many of your references circle around and through the larger story, bending time and elucidating overarching themes. What was your process in writing, researching and incorporating such a broad range of outside sources that you assembled into a cohesive narrative?

MF: The integration of outside sources was an organic process, and not one that I planned. The process of writing is also that of thinking, for me. I don’t quite know what I think about a subject until I write about it. It’s difficult for me to “think” abstractly, difficult for me to progress through ideas. I have to materialize the process somehow, and writing does that best. This book is, among other things, a record of my contemplation of a set of experiences and ideas: different concepts of “love,” identity, addiction, attachment, abandonment, and so forth. I had some urgent questions that were prompted by my own choices, such as: How could a person so versed in psychology, with so many years of therapy and recovery under her belt, have gotten embroiled in such a harrowing and compulsive, such an “unhealthy” love affair? Or, why had I never been curious about my birth father until I was thirty-two? Why this lifelong tendency for self-erasure through substances, people, and even stories? And how had building narratives been a survival tool, and also a way to hide from truths I feared? Since childhood, I have looked to texts for answers to my biggest questions. Books have always felt easier to ask than people. Unlike people, I am not beholden to them. They have no reaction to my confidences. I can put them down or return to them at any point. And they are consistent, even if my interpretations change over time. The questions I needed to answer in this book were so vulnerable. I had a lot of shame about the choices I’d made, ways that I’d behaved toward other people and myself. So, I went to my texts. Most of the sources that I bring into Abandon Me are old confidants—books or films or thinkers that I’ve consulted for a long time. I did some, but not a lot of research into new sources for the book. If the incorporation of those texts didn’t feel germane to the story, I wouldn’t have included them. But because it was so much a story about seeking insight, it felt very natural.

TCR: In your memoir, you wrote that “Books were my obsession, but music more succinctly captured emotion than any combination of words I found.” Do you listen to music when you write? Are there certain artists or albums that you listen to, to evoke a certain era or emotions when you’re writing a given topic?

MF: I do. I almost always listen to music when I write. Usually, I’ll find a handful of songs whose emotional tenor really matches that of the piece I’m working on, and then I’ll listen to them over and over for the duration of writing it. Sometimes, for an important scene, I’ll just play one song on repeat while I write it. The music works as a kind of emotional metronome, and helps me stay focused on the feeling that I’d trying to nail. It also helps me to easily re-enter the piece, or the scene, on a different day, or on an airplane, or in a café or a waiting room. Music helps me create a private space that I can enter and work, no matter where I am.

TCR: As a writer, writing her life experience, how do you maintain the emotional distance required for you to sustain objectivity of your subject matter?

MF: Oh, I don’t think I do. Objectivity is a fantasy! No one is ever objective, least of all about themselves. And in a significant way, I didn’t have much emotional distance from my subject matter, either. One of the primary storylines in the book is that of an intense love affair, and I wrote the majority of the book while I was still in that relationship. I consider this now, in hindsight, and it shocks me a little. Because I, too, have talked about the importance of objectivity and emotional distance to my students, as surely your teachers have. But I also know that this was the only way for me to write this book.

I think part of what we mean when we say “objectivity” and “emotional distance” is simply that our perspective has changed in some fundamental way. And sometimes that change can happen very close to an experience. It keeps changing, yes. And I’m sure I could write the story of that relationship with a more layered perspective from a farther vantage point. But that is not the book I wrote. And it isn’t the story I wanted to tell, either. I wanted that story to be primarily concerned with the immediacy of it all—I wanted to capture the blistering heat of it, the madness, the small ways that I abandoned myself over and over until the only thing left in my life was her. In a pragmatic way, I needed to be close to the experience so that I could remember it. I have a terrible memory! I take notes on everything I might write about, because I so quickly forget.

More importantly, the story I wanted to tell was of the trance of that love, the elaborate illusion of it. And so, in retrospect it makes sense that I wrote much of it from inside that dream. Because once you leave an experience like that—which is essentially an altered state, a different kind of reality with its own laws and logic—it’s hard to understand or even quite remember what being under the spell felt like. I think it’d be much harder to write a convincing portrait of it. You know that scene in Labyrinth where Sarah eats the poison peach and goes to sleep and she’s in this beautiful dream about a masked ball, and she’s in a beautiful dress, dancing with David Bowie as Jareth the Goblin King? And then she realizes that she’s dreaming and she smashes the mirrored wall with a chair and the whole beautiful scene flies into shards and no longer exists? Well, it’s like that. If you’ve ever been in an incredibly fucked up, addictive, myth-building, relationship, you’ll know exactly what I mean. And if you haven’t, well, I hope you escape that particular fate. I think I do, anyway. My point is, to free yourself from that dream, you really have to smash it. And once your denial is gone, it’s gone. You can never go back. It’s like any addiction. Once you look at the truth, you can’t un-see it. And the time when you lived in the dream seems unbelievable, your past self like a zombie whose logic you can’t fully enter any longer. The most accurate portrait of that time I could have written was from inside it, and so I’m glad I did. And there was a change in perspective, a dramatic one. I stopped writing the book for a few months and I lived it. And then I knew exactly how my book ended.

All of that said, I do think it helps a story to have access to a greater spectrum of understanding than is possible from inside an experience, or even shortly after it. The other half of Abandon Me, fortunately, is about my childhood. And it’s been a long time since then, so I had access to a greater range of insights, if not the same degree of detail that the more present timeline had. I’m not sure that either narrative thread would have worked alone. The childhood material was rich with reflection, but needed the immediacy and conflict of the love story to galvanize it. And the love story was relentless and vivid, but needed the insights that the childhood sections illuminated in it as anchors.

TCR: Jung posited a realm of the mind, sometimes conscious often not, called the shadow. He thought that the function of the shadow was to shut away thoughts, memories and feelings that we had forbidden to consciousness for one reason or another. My understanding is that all of BDSM involves explorations of parts of ourselves that we may have previously been aware of only in deep shadow, possibly buried beneath experiences of trauma and/or feelings of shame. From your experience as a dominatrix could what’s considered kinky merely be a desire to reunite with a part of ourselves that was lost in the shadow? Do you think that acting out sexual fantasies can provide another form of reclamation of forbidden feelings and foster healing?

MF: Yes. Though I don’t know if all BDSM involves that. I mean, insofar as everything we do does. I think we are always being driven by these shadow parts, often more so for their hiddenness. We fear them, and so avoid them, and so have little insight into the ways that they govern us. Freedom lies in facing them. So, I think any process that includes facing the parts of ourselves that we fear, or feel ashamed of, will be healing, will enlighten us. This is one of the reasons that I write. It is the primary way that I face my own shadow parts. It’s possible, even, to think of all human relationships as opportunities to do it. I love all of Jung’s writing about the shadow self, and to some degree think of my whole life as a long series of efforts to illuminate my own shadows. Through BDSM and my work as a dominatrix, the process of recovery, finding my birth father, and living through this painful relationship. I have often had to go to dark places to find those within me, to draw out their hidden parts. And writing is the way that I process those experiences, the way I come to understand their meaning.

TCR: In a New York Times interview you said, “So much of this book is about the prismatic experience of being seen, about how excruciating it is and how starved we are for it—especially those of us who have an instinct for secrecy.” The act of keeping secrets requires omission. Like the labyrinth that Sarah ultimately created to solve, as a child you used to take objects from your house, bury them in the yard and then hide the very elaborate maps you drew pinpointing the locations of your treasures. Do you think that the proclivity for secrecy is a necessary act of individuation that leads to the inevitable “discovery that we are irredeemably alone in certain respects…” as psychiatrist R. D. Laing once wrote? Might the secrets we keep map our own transformation?

MF: It’s so interesting that you describe the labyrinth as Sarah’s creation. That is essentially how I came to see it, as I wrote that essay, but I don’t think I ever say it so directly. I mean, that’s a long chain of things to think. I’m not sure that progression is always, or even often true. Secrecy is certainly a natural and important stage of development for children (Jung also writes a lot about this), but I’m not sure that it always leads to revelation of our aloneness. I’m not sure that’s even true for me. Secrecy was an acute form of aloneness, yes. I love the idea of our secrets mapping our own transformation, and I do return to my own early instincts for secrecy a lot in my work. My secrets have mapped my transformation, yes, though I am very secretive! I’m sure unsecretive people have other habits that can be traced to decode some foreshadowing of their transformations. Here is what I think: we do build our own labyrinths, or choose them. We find ways of surviving the catastrophes that life deals us, and those survival mechanisms often lead us into the labyrinth. Secrecy is among these, for me. Letting go of them has been a big part of finding my way out. And the terrible beast that I face in the center, that fuming minotaur, is always me.

TCR: Writing has provided a way for me to express the things I’m too scared or not yet ready to say out loud. How has publishing your secrets affected your personal relationships and your relationship to writing about your life experience?

MF: That is too big a question to answer here. Or rather, it is too big an answer. I would need your whole journal for that, and the next issue, too. I will say this: I, too, began writing because it felt like the safest place, the only safe place, to put words to some things. And finding that tool saved my life. I mean that literally. I think I would have overdosed, or been killed, or killed myself, or at least been consigned to live a kind of walking death, had I not found I way to whisper the truth to myself.

And publishing those truths has also saved me, in a different kind of way. It has brought me closer to other people. Strangers, sure, but more significantly, the people I love. It has forced a kind of honesty that I am rarely brave enough to attempt in any other way. Intimacy is born in this risk. To be seen, you have to be seen. It is that simple. It is a terrifying exchange. Or, it requires what often feels like a terrible risk, a risk whose stakes might break you. And I won’t soften it: there have been moments when I felt like it did break me, exposing my most frightening truths, my most vulnerable self, and the consequences of that. But it has been worth it, entirely. I cannot recommend it highly enough. If the cost of intimacy is brokenness, then I will pay it again and again. We don’t know our own resilience until we survive, again.

TCR: In your memoir you wrote, “Sometimes you have to break your own heart to mend it.” You also thanked Amaia for enabling you to see the importance of belonging to your story in your acknowledgements. Do you think that longing begets belonging? Could you please speak about your experience of breaking your own heart?

MF: I don’t think that longing begets belonging, necessarily. I wish that it did, for all our sake’s. But maybe I do think that healing your own heart necessitates breaking it. So much of our suffering springs out of attachment—all of it, the Buddha would say—out of our devotion to a particular ideal, the object of a lover, a self-conception, money. We worship so many things that aren’t real. We are always chasing the stories of our childhoods, trying to correct them. This striving, chasing, and longing is a kind of love, or resembles something we call love. And to be free of it, we have to let go of that love. We have to stop believing that our lover can save us, or complete us, or make us happy. We have to smash the precious ideas of self: our victimhood, our self-hatred, our resentments. We hold these things closer than many things we supposedly “love.” And I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that it breaks our heart to let them go. In many ways, Abandon Me is that story. It is a story about all the things I held precious, that I worshiped even when they poisoned me, or isolated me from others, or prevented me from belonging, that I had to let go so that I could be free. So that I could finally sit down inside my own story and inside myself and claim all of it, including the parts that I had rejected or feared or abandoned. That feeling of belonging? I had not known it before.

TCR: I once read that desire is life’s longing for itself. Your efforts in unraveling your identity through writing may include, as you wrote, the desire “to be known perfectly, as only a creator could know us.” After all of your struggles with various addiction, fearless self-searching, yielding to your feelings and scrutinizing over the details of your life, do you believe that it’s possible for any of us to be fully known?

MF: No. I don’t believe that we are knowable in a way that matches that particular desire. I don’t believe that the “self” is as solid a thing as we like to believe. Insofar as we can meet that desire to be known, to be unconditionally loved and seen, I think we must do so ourselves.



Dein Sofley teaches refugees English in the sanctuary city of Chicago. She earned her BA from Columbia College Chicago and is currently pursuing her MFA in fiction from UC Riverside’s low-residency program. Her work is forthcoming in Writers Resist

TCR Talks with Ragnar Jónasson

By David M. Olsen

On a recent visit to Reykjavik, Iceland, I found a great little bookstore in the downtown area. Eymundsson was a three-story establishment with a coffee shop on the third floor. I sought out the section by Icelandic authors and came across an impressive display for Ragnar Jónasson and his Dark Iceland Series. I knew that Nordic noir was very popular throughout the European zone, so I purchased a copy of Jónasson’s bestseller Snowblind. I read the first chapter that night, and tore through the rest of the book in a few days. Needless to say, it’s a gripping read. It tells the story of Ari Thor, a rookie police officer in an isolated Icelandic village investigating the mysterious death of a writer. After I finished it, I emailed Ragnar to see if he would be interested in doing an interview, expecting never to hear back. To my surprise, he responded, so I asked him a few questions about his books and his writing process over email.

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TCR talks with Zoe Zolbrod

BY tracy granzyk

Zoe Zolbrod’s memoir, The Telling, was published in May of 2016, and it will undoubtedly remain a “go to” book for both survivors and family members of those who have experienced childhood sexual abuse. In The Telling, Zolbrod comes to understand and accept the grey her own experiences have equated to within, while at the same time gives readers an example of how trauma and tragedy might be assimilated and used to empower one’s self. Especially poignant and game-changing in the memoir are her experiences as “Mama Bear”; a new parent with an immediate need to protect not only her children, but all kids from suffering the same experience she did. While Zolbrod never takes refuge in the title of victim, her honest pain exposes the depth to which she is still able to feel, never seeming to shut off and others out as a result of what was done to her.

As a writer, Zolbrod’s voice is both authoritative and accessible, and the narrative flows smoothly through different time periods of her life. She serves as both teacher of topic and craft by threading four Research Shows chapters within the story’s framework, allowing her to break off from the narrative, which she described during our conversation as a respite from the emotion inherent in diving back into such a painful experience. As a person, Zolbrod’s warmth and kind soul are what I was first drawn to during the interview that follows.

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