Tag: interview (Page 1 of 2)

TCR Talks with Stephen Graham Jones

by Matt Ellis

I think we can all agree, 2020 has been an absolute dumpster fire. But it has been one hell of a year for Stephen Graham Jones and his horror novel The Only Good Indians. The success of the novel is no surprise coming from a prolific author whose honors include the Texas Institute of Letters Award for Fiction, the Independent Publishers Award for Multicultural Fiction, a Bram Stoker Award, and four This is Horror Awards. Jones has also been a finalist for the Shirley Jackson Award and the World Fantasy Award. I recently chatted with Stephen Graham Jones about the hidden dangers of live book events, challenging social stereotypes in fiction, crafting horror, and his recent contribution to the Marvel Universe. BEWARE: You may never look at a novel or a restaurant menu in the same way again.

Stephen Graham Jones, author of The Only Good Indians. Photo Credit: Gary Isaacs.

The Coachella Review: The Only Good Indians has had a fantastic release. How has the pandemic changed the experience?

Stephen Graham Jones: The big difference, of course, is no in-person events. I’ve had just one with a lot of masks and social distancing. It’s kind of a bummer to miss out on packed bookstores and venues, but at the same time, I get done with a panel or a reading and I don’t have to get on a bus or a plane or a train. I just turn my camera off and I’m home. That’s really nice. My favorite part is I don’t have to go to strange restaurants. I despise strange restaurants.

TCR: I never thought of that as a downside to a book tour.

SGJ: It is for me. I only like to eat off of menus I’ve already eaten off of, which is problematic because I don’t get to go to new places, but I’m happy with that.

TCR: The Only Good Indians’ depiction of contemporary Native American identity in horror is being compared to Jordan Peele’s Get Out. What are your thoughts?

SGJ: I’m thrilled with it, of course. I think two people kicked the door open for that—Jordan Peele [Get Out] and Victor LaValle, with The Ballad of Black Tom. They legitimized being who you are and not having to be somebody else to do horror. People keep telling me that The Only Good Indians is pushing back against this or that. It is, but I don’t have an agenda. When I write fiction, like all of us, I want to write real characters. In order to write real characters who are American Indian, built into that process is both pushing back against and having fun with some of the dominant stereotypes and issues. I do wade into some of that territory, but it’s all in the service of having real people as opposed to having an agenda.

TCR: Mongrels made a powerful statement about being poor in America but in a more general sense. Did you find yourself taking a different approach with The Only Good Indians?

SGJ: To me, it was the same as Mongrels. I was actually a little concerned that I was going to get called out for Gabe [The Only Good Indians] and Darren [Mongrels] being cut from the same cloth. They are similar characters to me. When I went to the people in my life on whom I base characters, Gabe and Darren are based on the same person. But did I have a different approach? I think I did in the sense that I knew that if I’m talking about racial stuff, people are going to react to it differently than they will talking about the working class or poverty level America. I had to account for that. As for how it changed the story, I’m not totally sure.

TCR: You seemed to delve a lot deeper into the backstories of the characters in The Only Good Indians. In Mongrels, you focused on why the characters moved from place to place but provided little info on, are they really wolves, or aren’t they?

SGJ: In Mongrels, the way they throw everything into the car and move to the next town, that was just my own childhood. So, there was that kind of ambiguity between ‘are they wolves, are they not wolves,’ which was what I was trying to explore—were we wolves as I was growing up? Or were we what America would have considered werewolves.

TCR: One powerful section in the novel was when the older Blackfeet set up the first sweat for a teenager and showed the differences in generational identity. The boy tells them that no one says Indian anymore. The characters also consider Hollywood depictions of their culture and lives. African American comedian W. Kamau Bell has a whole routine about loving the Dukes of Hazzard as a kid and later realizing why his mother didn’t like it. Did you have similar revelations in your life that came from the pop culture you grew up with?

SGJ: The Dukes of Hazzard was one of them. I have a model of the General Lee and I was so happy when I found that years and years ago, but then growing up, I realized, dude, that has a Confederate flag on it. That isn’t something you want to display. It’s very conflicting because I feel I used to want to be Bo more than Luke, because I thought Bo had more fun. But I think it’s like that with everybody and all of the media you consume before your defenses are up. It becomes part of your core identity. You can’t really shave that off. You can only try to press it down.

TCR: Was The Only Good Indians a story you carried with you for a while?

SGJ: No. I owed Ellen Datlow a novella after Mapping the Interior. I sat down to try to write one and wrote a novel and I was like dang. Then I sat down after that novel and tried to write a novella and wrote another novel. I thought, do I not know how to write a novella anymore? Then I wrote the first part of [The Only Good Indians], ‘The House that Ran Red,’ and got to the very last line and felt it was a fitting cap to the novella. I heard a whisper in my head of another line that could open it up into a novel, and it made me sad because I wanted to write a novella. I texted my agent and told her that I had just written this thing. I could keep it as a novella, or I could let it open up into a novel. What should I do? She wrote back and said novels sell better, so make it a novel. As for how the idea came, I was in my living room up on a fourteen-foot ladder trying to mess with a lightbulb that wouldn’t behave, and I looked down through the blades of the ceiling fan. I got to thinking about flicker rates and how it takes twenty-four frames per second to make the illusion of motion. I thought, what could I be seeing through the blades of this fan? Then the whole premise of the novel popped into my head about an elk that’s come back. Then I had to ask myself, why does the elk come back? I had to come up with all of that backstory.

TCR: A typical approach to horror seems to be a white guy who encounters something strange and the first hurdle is overcoming disbelief and skepticism. But some cultures deal with the supernatural and death in a vastly different way. If my Panamanian wife saw a ghost, the burning sage would come out immediately to cleanse every corner of the house or she’d find some spiritual help. Some of your characters seem to accept the supernatural at face value. Was there anything within Blackfeet culture that changed your approach?

SGJ: I didn’t even think about that. I guess it’s just the way I think. Whenever someone’s supposed to be at my house at eight thirty at night and they’re not there and it’s nine fifteen, I don’t think that they’re at another thing or they had a flat. I think the aliens got them. That’s definitely what happened. When they show up, I’ll say, ‘I thought the aliens got you.’ They’ll laugh. But I’m not joking. I think that’s why my characters are probably so accepting of unusual explanations because it’s completely rational to me. And Lewis, he’s propelled by guilt, and that pulls his defenses down quite a bit.

TCR: Speaking of Lewis, the tension seems to rely on points of perspective and leaps of logic more than red herrings or jump scares. Do you find those techniques more effective?

SGJ: On the page, yeah. As you know, it’s hard to do a jump scare on the page because the reader controls the pace. If the reader controls the pace, it’s hard to surprise them. I’ve tried it a couple of times, but I don’t know if it worked. In the novel or on the page, dread and misdirection are your best weapon. That’s what the first section of the book is driven by.

TCR: Some authors pride themselves on their gore factor and how you shouldn’t eat before reading their books. You seem to stick with a less-is-more approach with your kill scenes.

SGJ: You’re right. I think less is more when you’re talking about gore. Think about Texas Chainsaw Massacre. We don’t actually see the hook go into that girl’s back, we just see her on the way to the hedge and we hear the sound. When that stuff blooms in the reader’s head, it tends to plant itself deeper into their experience. You have to put some of those gore moments on the page, for sure. I try to dilate the moments and slow down time. Then I try to activate more than one sense. Maybe not go crazy with all five at once but come at it from two or three different angles when time is sliced really thin.

TCR: You’re not a Saw series type of person?

SGJ: I love Saw. I’ve got the first seven in my study. I love them, but I watch it like this [partially covers eyes with hand] because I get grossed out.

TCR: You play a lot with moral ambiguity. I wasn’t sure who to root for at times and what was justified.

SGJ: Definitely. That’s why I wanted to play with the slasher. I love slashers, but often they are too clear about good and evil. But what if the slasher, the spirit of vengeance, was sympathetic? What if we understood why she’s doing this? What if the victims weren’t all bad? What if we liked them? I thought that would complicate things in a productive way. The trick I did with what feels like second person but is dramatic monologue was to create a unique perspective on the page. On the screen, one of the core components is what I call ‘slasher cam,’ when you’re looking through Michael [Meyers’s] eye holes, or you’re looking through the bushes. He establishes the stalking and breathing presence. It’s an effective technique that’s been going on since giallo [early Italian-produced thriller genre], maybe longer than that in horror. But you can’t do that on the page. If you break section to go to the killer’s point of view, then that section break signals to the reader that we’re going to the killer’s point of view. You’re not surprised by it. To do slasher cam on the page, I’d switch from third person to what feels like second person without section breaks and try to pull it off without people calling foul.

TCR: Killing children and animals, especially pets, can really bring the ire of a reader.

SGJ: For sure. The last slasher I did, The Last Final Girl, starts with a decapitation or near decapitation. But within a page or two, there’s a guy trying to cut a living horse’s head off with a broadsword. I thought that would be where people who aren’t into that can go ahead and pull their escape lever. If you’re going to do that kind of stuff, do it early, so people have a way out.

TCR: There is definitely some of you in this book. Is that a natural inclination?

SGJ: I think the reason I do it is that, with my very first novel, The Fast Red Road, I had no idea how to write a novel whatsoever. I just knew I needed a lot of pages and I had no idea how to cross them. As you know, writing a novel is about writing twelve pages and hitting a wall that you don’t know how to get over, under, through, or around. But since I was on a first deadline for that novel, instead of kicking back and thinking about what comes next, I pulled a piece of my own life out and fit it on the page and changed the names. I got through the novel supplanting the empty spaces with my own life and it worked out all right. That also blueprinted and conditioned me toward that for everything I write. That’s how I get through it and make things real.

TCR: So, do you dog-ear pages?

SGJ: I will dog-ear pages. I prefer to stick something in there. I know Lewis is harsh on people who fold the pages. I’m not like that. However, I wouldn’t fold someone else’s pages. 

TCR: Oh, that’s where you draw the line? How far did you get into the backstory of the fantasy series Lewis lent out to Shaney?

SGJ: Just as far as what’s on the page. Initially, I didn’t even plan on there being any real story to the novels. But it turned out that I could use the fantasy novels to trace the mechanism of [Lewis’s] thinking, what was possible to him. He was used to the fantasy novel as a template for what he suspects is going on.

TCR: Basketball plays a significant role with the characters and relationships. How did that come to be?

SGJ: I had a novel come out in 2003, The Bird is Gone, and I planned on having one big section being called by announcers at a basketball game. I found out quickly that I’m terrible at giving dialogue to announcers. I don’t know how to make it interesting. Maybe I have a different skill set now, but I still don’t know how to make two people talking about a basketball game interesting. Then four years later, with Ledfeather, I thought, I’m going to do basketball now. I rigged everything to end with a really important regionals game with one guy rising to make a shot that everyone was hanging on. I got there and it was boring. Then I put everybody in a car to drive back home and the ending of the novel presented itself. I was totally surprised and blindsided, just lucky. Those two novels told me I can’t do basketball on the page in an interesting way to the reader. Then I tried it again in The Only Good Indians, and I think the reason it worked was that during those previous novels, I was still playing ball all of the time. Soon after Ledfeather, I blew out my knee and had to do months of rehab. Then I ruptured my Achilles twice in a row from playing basketball. It was putting me into rehab too much and taking away my writing time. I had to quit playing altogether, not even free throws anymore. I think because I wasn’t playing anymore, I could properly mythologize the basketball scenes because my heart still wanted to play so bad. I had to take the shots on the page.

TCR: Certain characters visualized the outcomes of their situations through what would be in the news headlines later. How did you come up with that?

SGJ: Randomly, really. Lewis was actually the first one to think like that. Ricky’s section in the prologue didn’t use to be at the beginning of the novel. It used to start with Lewis up on the ladder. I needed a way for him to be critical of himself and that was a nice and obvious way. I think that headline thing, to some extent, is something I’ve always done. So, it is just a way for me to infect people with my ridiculous way of thinking.

TCR: The Only Good Indians is like a masterclass of melding different approaches and bending the rules. You go from extremely limited point-of-view shifts to opening up wider and going from strict third person and then adding in dramatic monologue.

SGJ: I think what gave me license to go from really tight over Lewis’s shoulder to a build that allowed me to go from chapter-to-chapter with different people and then also embed that second person slasher dramatic monologue was simply the sections. In the first section, I stuck to the over-the-shoulder or in-his-head method the whole way through. Once we got through that and the filter of the newspaper [article excerpt], we’re reborn into a different section going into the sweat lodge massacre. Then things branched out, going into Denorah’s head and then Gabe, Cass, and then Elk Head Woman. That was what I took as my license, anyway. I couldn’t have done it without the section breaks. I think that the newspaper article was somehow a tunnel or a sluice or a waterslide that delivered you there.

TCR: How has being a teacher grown or changed your writing?

SGJ: Being a teacher, I always find myself articulating this technique or prescribing this rule. It’s not just in the boundaries of class that that stuff holds true. I feel that I’m being dishonest with my students if I don’t hold myself to those structures, the laws we lay down in class. “Laws” in quotation marks, because there are no real laws in fiction except for, like Mark Haskell Smith says, ‘Don’t be boring.’ I feel like when I’m writing, all of my workshops are standing around seeing if I’m going to do something that I told them not to do. That makes me a better writer. Hopefully.

TCR: Yeah. I was going through your book looking for your use of ‘as.’ (Check out Stephen Graham Jones’s excellent article ‘As I Lay Mostly Dying‘ on Lit Reactor.)

SGJ: Every once in a while, I want to do an ‘as’ construction. Then I think one of my students is going to draw a triangle over it.

TCR: Speaking of Mark Haskell Smith. He isn’t an outliner. Are you?

SGJ: No. I never have any idea of where I’m going. I just write the first sentence and let it turn into a paragraph and let that turn into a scene, to a section, chapter, and then a novel.

TCR: Marvel comics recently announced an Indigenous Voices project “to explore the legacy and experiences of Marvel’s incredible cast of Indigenous characters.” How did your collaboration in this project come about?

SGJ: They emailed me and Darcie Little Badger and Rebecca Roanhorse and asked, ‘Do you want to do this?’ Of course we all jumped at it because who doesn’t want to crawl into a Marvel character and write their story? I’ve done comic books and I teach comic books and I read comic books all the time, so it was no great strain. I’m already looking at the thumbnail sketches of all the layouts and the characters. Everything has come together nicely. I’m doing Silver Fox. She was Wolverine’s first kind of wife/girlfriend. They lived in a cabin up in Canada and it was a happy time for Wolverine. This [storyline] talks about Silver Fox just before that, a blank space in the Silver Fox mythos. We know nothing about Silver Fox, so I thought I’d tell a little bit of her story. It comes out in November if I’m not mistaken.

You can (try to) keep up with Stephen Graham Jones at his website: demontheory.net.

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 Rick Moody


Rick Moody, the award-winning author of The Ice Storm and Garden State, shares the true story of the first year of his second marriage in The Long Accomplishment: A Memoir of Hope and Struggle in Matrimony. A recovering alcoholic and sexual compulsive with a history of depression, Moody is also a man in love and the divorced father of a beloved little girl.

He emerges from a complicated past into a second marriage. This union is strengthened by confronting new challenges—miscarriages, the deaths of friends, and home invasions.

The Coachella Review: Can you give our readers a brief synopsis of The Long Accomplishment?

Rick Moody: It describes, more or less, the first twelve months of my marriage to visual artist Laurel Nakadate, and all of the things that happened to us in that year, many of them rather hard. Infertility treatments, lost pregnancies, suicide among friends, death, dementia among our parents, crimes committed against our persons and our property. It tries to arrive at a celebration of committed-ness, despite all the hardship.

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TCR Talks with Rene Denfeld


The Butterfly Girl is Rene Denfeld’s second novel in the world of Naomi Cottle, a private investigator who is drawn to cases of missing children. Naomi’s knack for finding these children has earned her the name “The Child Finder,” but her need to pursue them stems from the one cold case in her own life: the missing sister she left behind when she herself escaped captivity as a child. When Naomi sets aside her work to finally find her sister, she meets Celia, a lonely homeless child abandoned to the streets. Celia is running from her abusive stepfather and hiding amongst butterflies, her imagined guardians and the only place she feels safe. Naomi and Celia continue to collide throughout a shocking series of events in Naomi’s search.

Denfeld’s own experience as a homeless teen has led to an incredible life of advocacy, from her career as a public defender helping victims of trafficking, to her life as a foster mother of twenty years. Denfeld is no stranger to the hardships of abandoned children, and she cares for her characters as fiercely as she cares for those off the page who turn to her for aid.

Denfeld has written a tense, page-turning, crime novel that leaves readers feeling connected to her characters and their stories in an intimate way. Naomi and Celia dig through their haunted pasts, even while they uncover the truth of the present. The Butterfly Girl is a book that lingers, alive with hope as much as it is streaked in sorrow. Denfeld and I spoke about the importance of how we fictionalize trauma, the way she discovers her stories, and the beautiful and inspiring life she has led that motivates her writing.

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TCR Talks with Rachel DeWoskin

By Gina Frangello

The versatile writer and former actress Rachel DeWoskin—a member of my Chicago writing group since we were set up on a “blind friendship date” by our mutual close friend Emily Rapp Black—was born in Kyoto and raised in Ann Arbor, Michigan. After studying English and Chinese at Columbia University, DeWoskin moved to Beijing to work as a public-relations consultant and ended up all but accidentally becoming a Chinese TV star and sex symbol on the blockbuster nighttime soap opera Foreign Babes in Beijing, which was watched by approximately 600 million viewers. Following this heady and surreal experience, DeWoskin returned to the United States in 1999 and returned to her first love—literature—earning a master’s degree in poetry from Boston University. Her memoir, Foreign Babes in Beijing: Behind the Scenes of a New China, was published by W.W. Norton in 2005; Paramount Pictures purchased film rights and the project is currently in production. DeWoskin has since become the author of five novels: Big Girl Small (FSG 2011) Repeat After Me (Overlook 2009), Blind (Penguin 2014), Some Day We Will Fly (Viking 2019) and Banshee (Dottir 2019). DeWoskin, whose mannerisms are gracious and intense in equal measure, is, in addition to her writing, a devoted mother of two, married to the playwright Zayd Dohrn, a morning exerciser, a fierce friend, and the core creative writing faculty at the prestigious University of Chicago. Who better to dissect the complications and contradictions of a woman, like Banshee’s Samantha Baxter, who “has it all” than DeWoskin, who is both extraordinarily productive while leading an intimate family life?

It was my pleasure to discuss Banshee with Rachel over an email exchange conducted while we were both traveling like maniacs over the summer. Further, as a breast cancer survivor myself, the publication of Banshee feels watershed to me. Transcending facile “sick lit” portrayals of virtuous heroines and “feminist outlaw” labels that eschew serious examinations of women’s own culpability, DeWoskin presents instead a ferocious, lyrical, highly skilled tightrope walk of one woman’s simultaneous emotional disintegration and sexual awakening in the face of a dehumanizing medical industrial complex and a lifetime of seeing male colleagues “getting away” with behavior she would never have considered prior to staring her mortality in the face. What results is one of the most complex, morally ambiguous and intimate stories of body and women’s (still) societally sanctioned roles I have read in recent years. It was my great honor to read and blurb Banshee prior to its publication, and it’s even more exciting to share my conversation with Rachel DeWoskin with TCR readers.

–Gina Frangello 

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TCR Talks With Lyz Lenz

by Leni Leanne Phillips

Author Lyz Lenz’s marriage ended after the 2016 presidential election. Lenz voted for Hillary Clinton, and her husband voted for Donald Trump, and although this wasn’t the reason for the divorce, it was a catalyst after years of signs that Lenz and her husband were different people.

Lenz’s first book, God Land,[1] is part investigative journalism and part memoir. A resident of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, Lenz writes about Middle America and how it is changing, particularly with respect to faith and church. At the same time, the book tells the story of Lenz’s life after divorce and her own journey as a feminist and a woman of faith.

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TCR Talks with Tim Murphy

By Scott Stevenson

Tim Murphy is the author of the novel, Christodora, longlisted for the Andrew Carnegie Medal.  It was also named a Best Book of the Year by The Guardian and an Amazon Editors’ Top 100 Books of the Year.  As a journalist, he has reported on HIV/AIDS for twenty years.

Correspondents is his follow-up to Christodora and was an Amazon Best Book in May 2019.

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TCR Talks With Michele Filgate

By: Felicity Landa

Shortly after Michele Filgate’s deeply personal essay about her relationship with her mother was published on Longreads, it went viral. “Our mothers are our first homes, and that’s why we’re always trying to return to them,” she begins in her poignant and moving piece. In her essay, Filgate breaks her silence to tell the story of why her relationship with her mother is so painful.

“I wrote this essay because I felt like we couldn’t have this conversation in real life,” she tells me during our interview. In doing so, Filgate unearthed a community of people who also had stories about all the things they couldn’t talk about with their mothers. “Knowing that something can speak to a stranger and make them feel less alone, and really resonate with them—that’s the power of words,” she says. The overwhelming response to Filgate’s words gave her the idea to compile an anthology named for her original essay: What My Mother and I Don’t Talk About.

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