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Andrea Hairston, a professor at Smith College, will be the morning keynoter at tomorrow’s WriteAngles conference. She was interviewed by Jean Marie Ruiz.

When and how did you know that you were a writer?

When I was growing up in the 50’s I intended to be a theoretical physicist or a mathematician. But I come from a family of storytellers, big talkers, and tall tale tellers. Nobody in my family ever knew when to shut up. In college on the way to a physics major, I shifted to theatre and writing and directing plays. I love the theatre and the possibilities of live performance, yet there were always stories that I wanted to tell that called out for a different form. So in 1995, I decided to become a novelist.

How do you first conceive of your novels and plays? Do they start with an abstract idea, a character, a setting, a memory, a “what if?” question, or . . .?

I start with an idea or a question or characters talking to me. A poem.

What made you decide to write your first novel, MINDSCAPE?

Actually I wrote several novels before MINDSCAPE. In 1995, I decided to write science fiction and fantasy novels while a guest professor teaching African American Women’s Theatre at the Universität Hamburg. I wrote WILDERNESS, an unpublished novel, and then in 1999 I started MINDSCAPE, a story in the same world as WILDERNESS. I had been to conferences in Germany and the US where so many people were eulogizing Africa, proclaiming her demise, mourning the impossibility of any sort of African survival. Africa had to become European as quickly as possible – dump African languages, spiritual traditions, etc.

Also a mathematician said to me, “What difference does it really make that we losing indigenous languages in America? Sad, but what do they offer us? No future in those languages.”

I wanted to imagine something else.

The colonized enter science as refugees from their magical worlds – prisoners of superstition, hostages of the colonizer, slaves of the master narrative. Modernity and post-modernity, although products of colonialism, displace the colonized to the past, to history, to people who once were whole and have now been shattered by their backwardness, their poor competitive adaptation, their lack of science and democracy, their inept economics. The colonizers have consumed the colonized and define the future. So caught up in the past, still trying to survive history, how can the colonized imagine a future? How can a future be imagined that contains the remnants of their broken spirits? This is the kind of challenge I like as a writer.

How do science and art and imagination intersect in your work?

I am everything I am all at once. My writing reflects that.

What is your latest creative project?

THE MASTER OF POISONS – a novel which I just sold and should be coming out soon! Also, Episodes From the Continuing Drama of Cinnamon Jones: Scientist, Artiste, and Hoodoo Conjurer, a play. I’ll be presenting a reading of the play 7:30, November 30, at Smith College.

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Jennifer Browdy, Ph.D. is a professor of comparative at Bard College at Simon’s Rock, focusing on global women’s literature, spiritual ecology and social and environmental activism through the arts. She will lead a workshop on purposeful memoir at this year’s WriteAngles conference next Saturday. She has written the following account about her writing.

Since the 1960s, it’s been common knowledge that the personal is political – meaning, what happens in our personal lives is shaped by the larger social politics of our society, and our choices as individuals can in turn affect the political landscape.

When I woke up to the climate crisis, the environmental crisis and the Sixth Great Extinction, round about 2011, it became clear to me that a third “P” was needed: the personal is political and is also planetary.

We live our lives enmeshed not only in a social landscape, but also in a physical landscape, and how we live our individual lives affects the well-being not only of other humans, but also of all the myriad interconnected living beings on Earth.

It was a big wake-up call, to understand that all the effort I’d been putting towards human rights and social justice would be moot if our climate was wrecked, our food chains destroyed and our Earth poisoned, looted and denuded of life.

In 2011, I had already been working on my memoir for three years. It was a memoir, I thought, about growing up with privilege, and about having my eyes opened as a young adult to the suffering of others. It was about awakening to the importance of being an ally to those with less social power.

Once I became aware of the environmental crisis, I understood that there was a whole huge realm of suffering that was even more dire, and more in need of solidarity and alliance.

Who would speak for the truly voiceless in our human-dominated planet – the birds and the bees, the whales, and the coral reefs, the trees and other plants that make the oxygen we all need to survive?

My memoir shifted as I began working to understand how it had happened that I, such a “nature girl” as a child, had been socialized into forgetting all about this essential dimension of our lives. I realized that the way the planetary had receded into the background in my own life was replicated a billionfold in the lives of most people on Earth.

Working on my memoir helped me to see that what we need, as individuals and as a global society, is to bring the personal, political and planetary into alignment – meaning, we have to understand how our personal choices are shaped by and affect both the social and environmental landscapes in which we live.

This profound interconnection is expressed by the Buddhist concept of “inter-being.” We “inter-are” with everything else on the planet. The Western attitude of individualism, separatism and exceptionalism is an illusion bred by the arrogant thinkers of the so-called Enlightenment, which was in fact the beginning of a 500-year period of gathering darkness, leading us to the crisis moment we face today.

No matter what you think your memoir is about, we have all, inescapably, been part of the political and planetary patterns of our lifetimes. I was born in 1962, the year Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was published, just after the Cuban Missile Crisis, and just before the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr., John F. Kennedy, Bobby Kennedy and Malcolm X. I was too young to understand the tumult around me in my early years, and yet these political and planetary happenings shaped who I would become.

Purposeful memoir that aligns the personal, political and planetary is not only concerned with the past, but also with the present as a springboard to the future. We take stock of our life histories, as individuals and as members of various Earth communities, in order to envision how we can take what we’ve learned, share it with others through our writing, and move into the next stage of our lives with the explicit goal of, as I put it in my memoir, “doing hope with others”: thriving on the personal, political and planetary levels.

This kind of memoir is a slow, deep, grounded form of activism, and I believe it’s just as important as marching and shouting and signing petitions. The more of us who take the time to do the deep work of understanding our own life histories and how our individual lives have intertwined with the larger human and non-human communities on the planet, the stronger we will stand as Gaian warriors who fight for Life.

At this year’s WriteAngles conference, I’ll be leading a workshop in purposeful memoir that will invite participants to align the personal, political and planetary in their own life experiences, beginning with childhood and adolescence. How have our lives have been shaped by the families, communities and places we have lived? How can we use purposeful memoir as a springboard to launch us more intentionally into the thriving future we yearn for?

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Jupiter’s Slut will be moderating this year’s panel on Writing About Sex. She was interviewed by Joan Axelrod-Contrada.

Why did you become a writer? When did the writing bug first bite you?

I’ve been a writer since grade school. I published a chapbook of poetry in high school. I got an MFA in creative writing after my daughter went to school. Every working woman faces the life/work balancing act. Sometimes I’ve been able to write more than others, but it’s always been a passion. However, I was scared I couldn’t really make a living writing. I’ve done everything from cooking on sailing ships to teaching mathematics. I’d planned to invest in enough real estate that I wouldn’t have to depend on my writing income. When I was getting close to forty I realized my someday was always in the future, like chasing a rainbow. I decided to start living my life as a writer now. That changed everything.

You’ve had quite the varied background! How did you get started writing about sex?

The biggest surprise that came out of my MFA was a love of non-fiction writing. I’d never tried it. It sounded dry and I didn’t think I’d like it. I was so wrong. My creativity spikes when confined by strictures of nonfiction. I had tried my hand at everything from poetry and short stories, to novel writing. I’ve always been drawn to write about what is most beautiful, most mysterious, or most painful. For me, sex was a mix of all three, but I was particularly interested in figuring out why it was such a painful part of my life. I didn’t think it should be. I didn’t want it to be. My work falls under the category of memoir, but it’s more nonfiction than most. I write to a central question, using my life like a research project. I spent an entire year researching Masturbation Monday before I started writing.

What are you trying to accomplish with “Masturbation Monday”?

With Masturbation Monday, I’m putting all the new age and self-help rhetoric about self-love and self-acceptance to the test. All my life I’d believed I had loved and respected myself. But I was suppressing the parts of myself I was scared of. My sexuality was so crippled, I couldn’t even masturbate without feeling guilty and selfish. I felt judged, even alone in my bedroom. The book was an exercise in asking, what if I accepted myself unconditionally? I recorded my successes and failures in ways that make me laugh. Laughter is a powerful dispeller of shame.

Tell us about your pen name Jupiter’s Slut.

Jupiter’s a planet associated with expansion, growth, insight, learning, honor, and hope. I thought of myself as a slut before I even lost my virginity. It’s a packed word that holds a lot of baggage for people, myself included. Now when I use the word slut, it embodies an acronym I made up. S.L.U.T = Shameless Luminous Untamed Truth.

What’s the best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?

“Butt in chair.” That was advice from Jane Yolen, an incredible children’s writer. The advice holds for all writers. You must sit down and write.

What are you working on now?

I am currently working on a few projects. I’ve got them lined up like a race of turtles. One almost ready for an editor, another in the free-write phase. Another is out being shopped around. This week I’ve been working on a keynote address and on a book on spirituality. My religious upbringing was a big part in why I shut myself down sexually at a young age. I didn’t realize I’d shut down spiritually too. Once I started freeing my sexuality, my spiritual life started flooding back in. I didn’t want it, but there it was. Now I wouldn’t wish the joy and peace away now. I love it, but I do find talking about spirituality even more embarrassing than talking about sex, and every bit as personal. When we talk about deep self-love and acceptance we really are talking about spirituality. Masturbation Monday is about that, within the realm of sexuality, where most of us haven’t seen models for self-acceptance. When I set myself on a path of investigating my sexuality, I was also investigating my spirituality, I just didn’t know it yet.

You’ll be moderating this year’s panel on Writing About Sex. Can you tell us a little about what you’re planning?

In the wake of the #metoo movement, it’s clear that silence around sex leads to an environment where victims are more easily victimized. Speaking and writing about sex in ways that steers clear of shame isn’t just good writing, it’s a cultural imperative. This is an opportunity for writers of any kind to hear from experts on writing about sex.

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Randy Zucco will be at this year’s conference for pre-scheduled meetings with writers. He was interviewed by Jim Barnhill.

What is Levellers Press?

Levellers Press is a full-service publishing house. With the consolidation of major publishers over the years, the increase in online buying, the means of production at our workplace, and one visionary co-worker/owner, Levellers Press was launched about nine years ago. It is a 100% worker-owned press that was spun off from Collective Copies, a thirty-five-year-old print house in Amherst and Florence, Massachusetts.

Levellers Press, like most presses, takes book submissions from authors. We publish all genres. When a book is selected, a point person is assigned to that author. We then work with the author to choose a layout, design, paper, cover finish, etc. that our author will be happy with. We have proofreaders on staff and fee for service proofreaders that we work with. We have several graphic designers on staff who will work on the cover design.

When the title is ready for production, our Amherst print and bindery facility takes it from there. There are close to two hundred years of experience represented in our print/bindery team. After the book is complete, we host a book launch party with the author. The book will go on sale in our stores, our online store, on Amazon, and in select local book stores.

How does Levellers Press decide what books to publish?

When books have been submitted, the title is reviewed by the designated team, non-fiction or fiction. We are currently reviewing our submission process for poetry which to this point has been only through an open reading period. We will also use outside readers to gauge reactions to a potential title. Titles do need to be agreed upon by the entire team.

As you know, we have also received a number of submissions through the WriteAngles conference meetings. DIRT ROAD TO DEATH by you (James H. Barnhill) was selected and published in June of 2018 as a direct result of an author/agent meeting. BAD SLEEP by Siegfried Haug will be out early next spring and was also received at the 2017 WriteAngles conference.

What kind of books is Levellers Press looking for?

When we started, we were primarily a non-fiction, local history press. Since then, we added a poetry team, through our Hedgerow Book imprint, and a fiction team. Our only requirement is that our authors be local. Local is relative in these times, but there is something pure about meeting face to face with our neighbors and community. But, I’m sure if Stephen King knocked on our door, we’d answer!

How do I submit a book for possible publication by Levellers Press?

All inquires are to be submitted to levellerspress1@gmail.com. Submissions will be reviewed by committee.

What does it cost me to publish a book with Levellers Press?

That is the beauty of publishing through Levellers Press. There is no direct cost to the author. We invest the time and money on your behalf in hopes that it will be recouped in the initial print sales. There are some authors, however, who have chosen to use other graphic design firms for cover design and layout. These agreements are usually negotiated and will result in out-of-pocket costs for the author but naturally reduce the start-up cost of the book.

What makes Levellers Press unlike most publishing houses is that once the title has broken even and start-up costs have been met, the author and Levellers Press split royalties after that point 50/50. The author retains the copyright for her or his title.

Can I self-publish a book through Levellers Press?

Levellers Press is Levellers Press and does not offer self-publishing. However, we do have another wing of our book operation, Off the Common Books, which is purely for self-publishing. The big difference with self-publishing is that the author foots the bill for all design work, print and bindery production, ISBN registration, etc. However, the author owns their book outright and all sales are the author’s. We do offer to sell the book in our stores, webstore, etc. for a transaction fee to cover logistics.

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Sacchi Green lives in western Massachusetts, with occasional forays into the real world. She’s published scores of short stories and edited sixteen anthologies, eight of them Lambda Literary Award finalists, and two of them Lambda winners. Lately she’s blended the erotica genre with speculative fiction, her first love, whenever possible, and will even have an entire superheroine novel, SHADOW HAND, out next year. She will appear on the panel Writing Sex, moderated by Jupiter’s Slut, who interviewed her.

How did you come to writing erotica and editing?

In my early teens, I became a fan of science fiction. I was a big reader as a kid and always thought I’d be a writer. In those days you could even make a living at it. However, that wasn’t really the reason. Maybe it was my idea of some sort of immortality, like Jane Austen. But what I did was raise a family and have a business, and so forth, still thinking I’d do the writing sometime.

Suddenly, in my fifties, I thought, wait a minute, if I don’t start now it’s never. So I started writing science fiction and fantasy short stories. I had some moderate success in anthologies and magazines. Then I saw a call for submissions for Best Lesbian Erotica, which had started in 1996. I thought, “I can do that.” My first erotica story appeared in it in 1999.

What’s been your experience writing erotica?

Many of my science fiction and fantasy stories had a lesbian undertone. I already had some experience in story structure, from science fiction and fantasy, and when my erotica story was accepted the editor said, “Yours is so different!” That wasn’t necessarily true as I went along, but the Best Lesbian Erotica series has always had good stories.

I hate to say this, but a lot of people still view erotica as having no plot. They just will not read it. There’s this attitude. There are some award groups where it’s hard to even find judges for erotica.

Do you think a woman writer of erotica is seen differently from male writers who write about sex?

Women writers are perceived differently in general. How many women writers still use just initials? In erotica right now, though, there is a huge market for gay male erotica written by women. Women like to read it. Whether many males like to read it is a different question. It grew out of the same thing that Fifty Shades of Grey grew out of, fan fiction.

As an editor, how do you approach helping people write sex better?

There are technical points, such as, make sure you know where everyone’s appendages are, so they aren’t trying to do things they couldn’t be doing, because it throws people out of the story, and you don’t want to throw them out at that point.

Another thing is vocabulary. Every now and then, someone will starting using a word that hasn’t been used before in that context, like delve. It’s not great, but not too bad, until everyone does it. Avoid overworked words or tropes. If you really notice other people doing it, it’s been done too much.

What are three of your best tips for writing sex successfully?

1. It’s a huge mistake to think of a sex scene as a single obligatory lump of action inserted into your story. Don’t think of it as a separate thing. Focus on your characters. You know what they do in certain circumstances. What do they do in this circumstance?
2. When it comes to building toward sex scenes, foreshadowing is like foreplay.
3. Sex has accumulated so much baggage in our culture that “dirty” words can carry an erotic jolt of their own, positive for some people, negative for others. You can’t predict how each reader will react. All you can do is be familiar enough with your characters to know whether they’d say (or even think) “cunt” or “pussy” or “vulva.”

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We have added Ashley Lopez to our line-up of literary agents who will attend this year’s conference. She replaces Julie Stevenson.

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Lisa Taylor will be on the panel titled She Did What? Weaving the Elements of Fiction into a Story. She was interviewed by Ellen Meeropol.

Why did you become a writer? When did the writing bug first bite you?

I began writing at age 12 (sixth grade). We had a poetry lesson in Miss Van Dyke’s class and I wrote a poem called The Storm. The last lines were: The storm was a menace/it made the ships tilt/but as for the sea/it felt no guilt. She put my poem up on the bulletin board and told me I was a poet. I continued to write regularly in my journal after that. I went on to win first prize regionally and nationally in the National Scholastic Writing Awards at age 17. It was another teacher, Mr. Lyons, who entered my poems in the contest. If not for these dedicated teachers encouraging me, I’m not sure I would have continued. I was late to publish and late to give my writing the energy it needed. In my last career (before adjunct work), I was a grant writer and writer-in-residence in schools. I also taught in the creative writing department of an arts magnet high school. I’m grateful every day that I made the decision to go back to school and get my MFA fourteen years ago. The mentors I had and the relationships I made continue to enrich my life.

For you, what’s the most rewarding part of being a writer? The most frustrating?

There is no feeling comparable to being in the “zone” or having a good writing day. I don’t believe in writer’s block but there are definitely days when words flow easily and days when it is a struggle. Writing is like breathing for me; I have to do it. The most frustrating part of being a writer is the marketing, submitting to magazines, and lining up events. I love doing readings, panels, or workshops; I just hate organizing them. I prefer to promote other writers. Those of us who publish with small presses take on a lot of the marketing. We do it because we believe that writing needs to be in the world and we want these literary presses to survive. I know my publisher (Arlen House) puts nearly everything back in the press so my success will ensure another worthy writer can be published.

How do you balance writing time, with the rest of your life? With political activism, the need to earn a living, the need to stay sane in a crazy world.

Finding time for writing is necessary. I’m in the process of developing a daily discipline after finishing the book, but activism, family obligations, and my teaching all take time. One thing that helps is to remind myself that writing is a form of activism. Words are powerful and they are one way we can move a culture forward.

At this year’s conference, you’ll be on the “She Did What? Weaving the Elements of Fiction into a Story” panel and will be focussing on plot. This is a craft element that many writers have trouble with. Can you explain to us how you approach plot in your stories?

I struggle with the idea of plot as somehow separate from character. In my fiction, plot is character. A character voice comes to me and I follow it down the road, into the coffee shop, or up the mountain. My process is all about character. If I cannot hear a character’s voice, I don’t have a story. I trust the character to reveal the complications of his or her life. Of course I throw obstacles in the path but only after I have developed the character voice. One rule I teach my students is that a character must somehow change by the end of the story. I also teach that emotional truth rules over literal truth – that is, it must feel authentic even if it is preposterous. Rising action, falling action, denouement, and resolution can be subtle. Some stories play out backwards. Some characters end up worse off because of the action of the story. What is important is that protagonists are altered in some way.

I’ve had the pleasure of reading your new collection of short stories. Tell us a bit about the collection, and about the title, IMPOSSIBLY SMALL SPACES.

IMPOSSIBLY SMALL SPACES was born out of the idea that many of us periodically find ourselves in tight spots, literally or figuratively. In the title story, Hildy locks a man in an airplane bathroom because he interrupts her while she is vaping. The confinement is symbolic of her emotional state, her feeling of being trapped in her life after her mother’s death from alcoholism. The varied characters that embody my stories often create obstacles for themselves or they rail against the obstacles imposed upon them by the world. In BABY ANGEL, a girl is chosen by a pre-adoptive family only to be returned when the supposedly infertile foster mother becomes pregnant. Enid displays lasting damage but also resilience, and humor. I am drawn to non-conforming characters and unconventional solutions to the problems they invite. I also fly a lot, which might explain why airplanes are featured in this collection.

You write both poetry and fiction. How do you decide what form an idea will take?

Currently I am dwelling exclusively in the world of fiction. Maybe it is the landscape of the country that has led me deeper into my imagination. I don’t go back and forth between fiction and poetry though I admire writers who can do this. Occasionally a situation will warrant a poem but that is rare these days. I do believe that my training in poetry has made me pay attention to detail, image, and metaphor. I also favor stories that open to a larger truth at the end. This probably comes from my love of poetry. I honor white space and believe that what you don’t say is important too.

What are you working on now?

I’ve returning to the novel I’ve been working on for three years. It came out of a short story in my GROWING A NEW TAIL collection. I knew this character had a great deal more to say. I’m currently on the third draft of the novel. I continue to write short stories and I have also written creative nonfiction, mostly personal essays. A couple of these have been published in online magazines.

How can we find you online?

You can find me on Twitter @dreamingchange, Instagram, Facebook, or my website. I hope to see you at a reading or event.

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