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Deborah will be a panelist on the historical fiction panel. The interview was conducted by Wendy Vowell.

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

When I was a kid, definitely. It just felt like a natural extension of reading.

What’s your writing process like?

Fairly structured. I get up, head to a coffee shop, and do my best to write for five hours (five pages when I’m drafting, whatever comes first). Research is a favorite part of the process for me and can over-absorb me, so I’m finding I have to schedule it. Sometimes I set my alarm.

What are you trying to accomplish as a writer?

A big question! I can only answer it one book at a time, and each has a different trajectory, a different destination.

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

I think it was Jane Yolen who prescribed somewhere, “butt in chair.” A variation on “you can’t ‘find’ time to write; you have to make it and then guard it.”

What are you working on now?

A book of linked short stories about P.T. Barnum (or some of the people whose lives he touched) for a YA/crossover audience.

You’ll be a part of the Historical Fiction panel this year. Can you tell us a little about what you’re planning?

I think one focus will be the way I try to reach back with all five senses . . . and some strategies for doing that.

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John Robison will be participating in the Memoir panel. He was interviewed by Kate Hartford, who has edited the interview for length. For more about his book SWITCHED ON: A MEMOIR OF BRAIN CHANGE AND EMOTIONAL AWAKENING, see excerpts from NPR’s Fresh Air interview of John and Alvaro Pascual-Leone by Terry Gross on the research in transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) that formed the basis for the book.

 

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

I don’t think that I would say that the writing bug bit me. I have always communicated my ideas through written words. As an autistic person, I have often been disabled in my ability to engage people face to face because of my limitations [in] reading body language [or] expressions and my unexpected responses to other people’s language. But in the area of written communications, having practiced it for a long time, my ability is the opposite of disabled. It’s far better than the average person’s. For me, communicating in written form is simply maximizing what you’re good at, and minimizing your disabilities, not a bug at all.

When I was in my thirties, I began to feel like I should try and give something back for younger people who were coming along, like me, who had had bad childhoods. At first, I started talking to young people about growing up in bad circumstances. Then when I learned that I was autistic, which was when I was forty years old, for the first time in my life I had a nonjudgmental explanation for why I was this way. I realized there were millions of other young people just like me. And I began talking about that. So that generated such a tremendous response, that I thought well there must be people that would be benefiting from this message all over, not just in Western Massachusetts. My brother [Augusten Burroughs] had written a story about our lives, RUNNING WITH SCISSORS, that had turned out to be a fairly big hit, and I would go to events when my brother was around here, and a great many of the questions were people asking what about the autistic brother – who was, of course, me. I decided that I should write my story in book form, rather than just telling the people in local elementary schools and such. LOOK ME IN THE EYE was the first effort I ever made to write a book. That’s what it sprang from, it was just a realization that there were a great many people who would be likely to benefit from the story about an autistic person who grew up and did okay because so many of the books about autism are frankly really bleak and clinical and depressing. And I thought that an autistic person should be able to tell a better story than that.

LOOK ME IN THE EYE was really meant as an entertaining life story that illustrated the life of an autistic person, but people very quickly took it to be a book about autism, to be like a guide about autism, not a memoir – and it really was never that. And that’s what prompted me to write BE DIFFERENT, which is a guide for autism. I never tried to write books before doing those, so that was something I came to late in life, but I had been practicing writing in the context of my cars and such for quite a long time before that.

What’s your writing process like?

I just write things when they need to be written. There’s a constant demand on me to write things. Today I’m writing accounts of the automotive projects that are in our shop. I have an idea that I should write an article about how they might change ADA therapy for autism, because I saw that that was a very contentious topic at the federal autism meeting last week, and people have been commenting on it still on Twitter and such to me. So, I see things that need writing, whether for work or for autism advocacy or whatever, and I write them.

That’s not all I’m engaged in. I’m engaged in photographic art and discussions of photography, and in history and genealogy and other things, and [on] those things, I do communicate with all those people through writing. I also communicate with photographic imagery, but most of the communication is in written words.

What are you trying to accomplish as a writer?

Well, I started out trying to be successful creating things that would be useful to people, whether those were musical instruments, or restored or repaired cars, or pictures put on billboards or walls, or books that people would read and take some benefit from. I wrote things that were viewed as doing those things successfully.

I view [my books or my writing] as having a purpose; they’re not really just to be entertaining. I thought LOOK ME IN THE EYE would be an entertaining story of my life, but specifically to people who were affected by autism. I felt that those people were likely in need of an entertaining story because the stories they had before were very bleak and depressing, and I thought somebody should paint a different picture of life for autism. And that was a very definite purpose; it wasn’t just for fun.

I’m not really an artist with these written words; I’m much more of a tradesman. I think that you have people at these writing conferences, those people [who] are aware of subtleties and language and turns of phrase, and so forth. I don’t really have a sense of that, I just think that you have to be able to explain things in a language that people understand. That means that you have to be adept at using common words. Because sometimes I am in government meetings (you know I’m on the autism committee in Washington) and I listen to scientists and government bureaucrats using these complex terms, and I think to myself: I’m an educated person, and I don’t understand what they’re saying. And I’m supposed to be a specialist in this. What is the average person on the street going to make of it? I think they’re going to make of it that it’s gobbledygook.

You have to be able to explain any issue that you want to communicate about in a language that will be understandable for 6th graders – if you haven’t done that, I think that you’ve failed in your job as a communicator. A lot of college faculty, a lot of educated people lose sight of that basic truth, that when you use words that people don’t understand, or you use them in ways that people don’t expect, they are not impressed with your language skills; they think you’re a fool, or they just turn away from you. I’ve always had that in mind in communicating, and I think for that reason my stories are simple and direct and easy to understand. Because I’m autistic, there’s not perhaps a lot of subterfuge or fine art in them. I think that some people appreciate that. Other people probably think it’s simplistic and stupid, and that’s okay. But I think that’s the essence of communicating stuff successfully, more than the art of it. It’s got to be told in a straightforward way that anyone understands.

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

I’m not really sure what to say to that. My mother [also a writer] and my brother would both say to me: show things with illustrations in writing, not just tell them. So I learned to describe things in scenes, as opposed to just stating the facts. I think that that contributes to storytelling as opposed to logical recital of facts. And it makes it more interesting.

You might be asking if there’s some kind of one-line bit of wisdom that people could take away. And I just don’t know that there is.

I don’t really think of myself as a writer. I think being a writer is an ability I have that I have to have to practice my trades: I’m a restorer of cars, and an artist with photography, and I’m an advocate for autistic people and people with developmental differences, and I’m successful at doing those things to a significant degree because I can communicate the written words about what I believe in.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a story about autism in the southwest Pacific, and whether the original navigators who colonized Tahiti, Hawaii, and the other islands were enabled by being autistic, and therefore autism was a key human ability in the colonization of the southwest Pacific. So Hawaiians and Tahitians today owe their ancestry on those islands to the ancestors of the autistic kids that we now see.

And I’m working on a story about autism and life in the 17th century in the establishment of British North America.

I’m working with a screenwriter at Focus Films on a film adaptation of the SWITCHED ON book.

I always have things that I’m writing; I write some thousands of words of stuff of all kinds every week. I don’t at this moment have another book in mind, but my agent and publisher think I’m certainly capable of writing more books. I guess that’s probably true.

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Michele Barker, who publishes under the name M. P. Barker, will participate in the historical fiction panel. She was interviewed by Wendy Vowell.

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

When I was a kid, I wrote stories to entertain myself and my siblings. I loved to read, and it seemed very romantic to write novels and get them published. Then I put aside fiction writing for many, many years, thinking how unlikely it was that I’d ever get published. (Besides, I was very good at beginning stories, but not at ending them!) But all of my jobs since college have required some sort of non-fiction writing, so I kept on writing—not always exciting stuff, but it was still writing.

I didn’t return to writing fiction until I was in my thirties, when I was working as a costumed historical interpreter at Old Sturbridge Village. That job allowed lots of time for musing in between talking to visitors and working on projects, so I began to get story ideas and write them down. This time, I wasn’t thinking so much about getting published as just writing as a hobby. I took some classes and joined a writing group just for the fun of it. Then a combination of the social history I’d learned at Sturbridge Village and an 18th-century document I discovered while working in the Springfield History Museum archives inspired my historical novel A DIFFICULT BOY. With lots of encouragement from friends and family, I turned my unwieldy (and very scary!) 700-page manuscript into a manageable—and eventually publishable—novel.

What’s your writing process like?

It’s pretty random. I’ve been in various free-writing groups that used Pat Schneider’s Amherst Writers & Artists technique. I often use the free-writing exercises to play with characters and situations—that’s how my first novel evolved. I tend to be a seat-of-the-pants kind of writer. I don’t really know where a story is going (or even if there’s a story at all!) until I have several dozen pages stacked up. I don’t write in a linear way, but tend to hop around a lot from one part of a story to another as I go. My characters tend to lead me, rather than the other way around, so I have to follow them for quite a bit before I know what they’re going to do!

What are you trying to accomplish as a writer?

Good question! I think mostly I’m just trying to figure out who my characters are and how their stories end. I don’t sit down at the beginning of a story with a plan to explore a theme or teach a lesson—I just kind of throw things against the wall and see what sticks.

As a writer of historical fiction, I enjoy exploring the lives of ordinary people in daily life situations, rather than major historical figures and events. I like learning about both the differences and similarities between past and present and sharing what I find, so that the past doesn’t feel like such a foreign and distant place to readers. I hope readers will come away from my books feeling they’ve lived in and can better understand the era they’ve visited in the story.

I hope readers will be able to identify with my characters while seeing that those characters aren’t just modern people wearing funny clothes and living without indoor plumbing. While my character’s thoughts and beliefs might be very different from ours, they grapple with many of the same problems and cherish many of the same things that we do today.

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

Persistence pays off—sometimes even more than talent!–whether it comes to research, writing, revising, or getting published.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a historical novel that involves a sea captain’s wife and daughter during the 1840s and 1850s, after the captain is lost at sea. In the wife and daughter’s journey to self-sufficiency, they blossom as artists and question their roles as women in Victorian society.

You’ll be a part of the historical fiction panel this year. Can you tell us a little about what you’re planning?

I’m intrigued by the idea of “alternative truth”—not in the sense that there are conflicting “truths,” but in the sense that there are a lot of levels or facets to the truth that we rarely get to see. For me, exploring alternative truths is a good way to describe the sort of stories I write. When studying history, we may forget or ignore the stories of ordinary people, whose experience can be quite different from that of the famous people who star in our history books. Those ordinary, daily-life stories—those “truths”—deserve to be told and can show us how “big-picture” historical events affected folks who were much like us, and can make it easier for us to picture what our own life might have been like in the past.

Also, the idea of “alternative truth” kind of captures the way we sometimes think history is fixed and unchanging, but in reality what we know (or think we know) about the past constantly changes as new research unearths new information. Think, for example, about the way King Richard III has been reassessed, thanks to the efforts of persistent researchers and also of historical novels like Josephine Tey’s THE DAUGHTER OF TIME and Sharon Kay Penman’s THE SUNNE IN SPLENDOUR. So many of the things we once thought were “truths” about the past have been supplanted—and will continue to be–by newer, (hopefully!) more accurate truths

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Richard will be a panelist on the memoir panel. He has provided the following text of this exchange with a long-ago student of his; the questions and responses pertain to his first memoir, HALF THE HOUSE. Additionally, Richard was interviewed by Amy Grier about both HALF THE HOUSE and his later memoir, LOVE & FURY, for Solstice Literary Magazine.

Where did the impetus come from for you to write your memoir? What motivated you?

For me, it was, or at least it seemed to me to be, a do or die call to understand the roots of my own profound unhappiness. All I had ever wanted was to write, and now I knew what it was for: to help me re-member what had been dismembered by trauma and grief and miseducation and silence. I am not afraid of the word “therapeutic” and do not see it as a slur: telling stories has always been the way human beings make meaning. It took me 17 years to write HALF THE HOUSE, mainly because I wanted to turn painful experience into art, not just ink, but also because any first person account honestly told requires the piecing together of what shards you discover. It is an excavation and must be done delicately.

While you were writing, did you worry about others’ feelings?

Yes, yes, of course. That comes with the territory. But a writer cannot owe silence to anyone. You use your best judgment, try to treat people honestly and with empathy, and the rest is the demand to get at the truth of how things were, how they worked, the interplay of character, culture, and history as it shaped your own life.

How did you maintain your courage as you progressed?

I had two other writers with whom I shared drafts. Mostly they were to assure me I wasn’t being merely narcissistic, or insane to think that this would be of interest to anyone but me.

What did you do to nurture yourself through the pain of writing?

I quit boozing and went into intensive therapy.

When you finished, did you feel different?

I felt very proud of it, frankly. It had been a long hard labor.

How did you feel about publishing your story?

I wrote it to publish it. I think writers, storytellers, poets, etc. are an organic vocation found in every culture, like healers and teachers and hunters and farmers. A teller without an audience is one hand clapping.

How did you feel after your work was published?

Exhilarated. Reviews were good. And the people in my family who I cared about were all proud of the book. Even if they didn’t always come off as saintly in it.

Did you feel it was worth it?

I didn’t have a choice except to give up. As I said all I ever wanted to do was write. I couldn’t write much of anything else until this book was in the world.

And then, of course, there is the book’s history. As you no doubt know, it became a notorious book because it resulted in the arrest of a serial predator in my hometown.

And any other thoughts regarding what you went through and how you kept going?

I’d refer you to the two essays that stand as Afterwords to the New Rivers Press edition.

And also to my essay “Backtalk”.

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This year’s conference is all about connecting local writers with local resources for writers. As an alternative to meeting with a literary agent, attendees may choose to consult with a representative from Levellers Press, one of the fine small presses of Western Massachusetts.

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melaniebrooksThe following interview was conducted by Liz Bedell, moderator of the Truth and Lies: Telling Our Stories in Memoir and Autobiographical Fiction panel at this year’s WriteAngles conference.

 

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

For as long as I can remember, story has been the tether that keeps me grounded in my world. I grew up with three brothers. As the only girl, I was just a little bit on the outside. Separate. We were a family of readers, and I learned to read early. I soon discovered that the land of books opened a space where I could connect to other girls like me. Find some sisters of my own. Actually belong. So, I read. A lot. I was drawn to series like Nancy Drew, Little House on the Prairie, Anne of Green Gables, and The Chronicles of Narnia that let me latch on to beloved characters and follow their lives beyond the borders of a single book. I went through a horse phase during my preteen years and read anything about horses I could get my hands on. I attached to particular authors – Beverly Cleary, Road Dahl, Judy Blume, Lois Duncan — and consumed everything they’d written. When I wasn’t reading, I was often imagining stories of my own. Intricate scenarios unfolded in my mind and built the platform for my play. Sometimes with friends, sometimes on my own, I became the fictional characters I loved so much, acting out their lives, continuing from where the books left off, developing my own sequels to their stories. I’d lay out the groundwork for a scene — details of setting, backstory, conflict, character, even wardrobe – before doing anything else. Without ever actually putting pencil to paper, I was learning to write. And without knowing how vital it would be down the road, all of this early reading was teaching me the comfort and companionship of words. I was a good writer in high school, but I never considered it as a career. I came from a family of medical professionals, so that path was on my radar. It wasn’t until college, when I took a creative nonfiction writing class — a class that offered me my first real exposure to the transformative power of giving words to experience – that I recognized writing was something I wanted to do. It took me twenty more years, though, to commit to it as a career.

What is the most rewarding part of being a writer? The most frustrating?

The most rewarding part is recognizing that the stories of my experiences have the power to connect to others, that they aren’t just about me. When a reader says, “Yes, me too!” I feel like maybe I’ve helped someone feel a little bit less alone, and that makes the risk of exposure that comes with the territory of writing nonfiction feel a little bit easier to bear.

What’s most frustrating is the ongoing self-doubt that lives inside me no matter how many stories I write, how many pieces I publish. I still feel like an imposter. I still sit in front of that blank computer screen wondering what makes me think that my words matter, that my experiences are so unique that they should end up on the page. It’s the battle I fight all the time.

Can you tell us about your forthcoming release?

WRITING HARD STORIES: CELEBRATED MEMOIRISTS WHO SHAPED ART FROM TRAUMA (to be published with Beacon Press on February 7, 2017) profiles my conversations with eighteen memoirists, including Andre Dubus III, Joan Wickersham, Mark Doty, Marianne Leone, Richard Hoffman, Edwidge Danticat, Michael Patrick MacDonald, Richard Blanco, Abigail Thomas, Sue Silverman, Kate Bornstein, Jerald Walker, and Kyoko Mori. I wanted to hear from them about the psychological journey of diving into their darkest of memories and what it felt like to put words to those experiences. These conversations are intended to encourage all writers as they work through their challenging stories. They also provide readers with intimate glimpses into the lives of the authors they love.

What inspired it?

When I began my MFA in creative nonfiction in January of 2013, I decided to start writing about a family story that I’d held very close for almost twenty years – living with the secret of my father’s HIV infection when, in 1985, he received tainted blood during open heart surgery. For the ten years before his death in 1995, I lived a hard silence that has had a lasting impact. Stepping into that experience was much more difficult than I’d anticipated. I was caught off guard by the emotional toll it took on me and often found myself paralyzed by it all. It led me to ask some painful questions: What does it take to write an honest memoir? And what happens to us when we embark on that journey? Would I be able to manage it? I decided to seek the guidance of other memoirists who’d done the hard work of shaping their hard experiences into memoirs in hopes of finding the courage to write my own.

You’re sitting on the Truth and Lies: Telling Our Stories in Memoir and Autobiographical Fiction panel at this year’s conference. Can you tell us a little bit about what you’re planning?

The challenge for most memoirists is portraying our experiences as authentically as we can. Often, that forces us to walk a delicate line between what might be considered “factual” and what we consider the truth of our own stories. And sometimes those things feel contradictory. The questions we have to ask are: How do we capture the truth of our experiences and the legitimacy of our own memories without distorting the facts to the point where we are lying about what happened? And what actually constitutes a lie? For me, writing about experiences from my childhood has necessitated that I fill in some of the blurred edges that surround my memories. I’ve recreated dialogue that feels true to the events, but may not necessarily be the exact words spoken. I’ve described settings the way I remember them, but there’s no guarantee that I’ve gotten all of the details factually correct. But I’m confident that I’ve captured the emotional essence of the experiences. My hope is that our panel opens up a discussion with our audience about how to navigate those tricky areas of recreating the past as honestly as we can.

What are you working on now?

I am completing my memoir, A COMPLICATED GRIEF (working title), that explores how the ten years of keeping the secret of my father’s illness and the specter of disaster that inevitably loomed ahead defined my life. The complicated nature of his disease and the grief of his death have had an indelible impact on me. Writing my memoir is an attempt to understand that impact. My sense of self, my worldview, my faith, and my family are among the threads that weave this story together. I am in the process of completing the proposal for this book in hopes of putting it in the hands of my agent in the next month.

Is there anything you would like to add?

Writing is hard work. It challenges us to enter uncomfortable territory and face ourselves and our experiences honestly. Though the writing part tends to be solitary, dealing with the emotions it stirs up need not be. The more support we have from other writers along the way, the more we enter into dialogue about the writing journey with others who are traveling the same road, the less daunting the process becomes.

For more information, visit Melanie’s website. Her photo: Helen Peppe Photography.

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dianagordonThe following interview was conducted by Joan Axelrod-Contrada, moderator of the Are You Ready? Submitting to Literary Journals panel at this year’s WriteAngles conference.

 

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

I wrote as an early teenager. I remember a long extended poem, “Black Jack,” in rhymed couplets about the riderless horse that followed JFK’s caisson, empty boots turned backwards in the stirrups to indicate a fallen leader. Freshman year in college I took my first creative writing class and was the only student ready with material. I’d never had any work critiqued before, and the professor used my sonnet to prove that the sonnet was dead. I’d also written a quirky short story about a date where the boy confessed he was Jesus, and the professor said the author was psychotic – at least that’s what I heard. I knew that wasn’t true and only thought, alarmed, I’m going to flunk creative writing. So I dropped the course, and went on to have a music career that took all my time and artistic energies. Years later, when I returned to writing, I finally honored the fact I’d been creating sonnets and short stories on my own when I was so young, and finally affirmed the sonnet is not dead!

What is the most rewarding part of being a writer?

Re-reading and revision. That’s where a writer gets to marvel at what’s been created where nothing existed before, to enjoy what is, and then make it shine and bring it to its true self.

The most frustrating?

How hard it is to face the everydayness of the blank page.

Can you tell us about your latest release?

I’d like to tell you about what is poised, making the rounds in the hands of a wonderful agent at top publishing houses. Though no one has bitten yet, there has been a lot of praise. It’s a novel called GEOGRAPHY, about a family-less boy struggling to find home in the far northern islands of British Columbia in the 1960’s.

What inspired it?

The stories of men I’ve known who had difficult upbringings, foster care or abuse, and rather than blame their past, grew up to create the world as it should be. I started writing a composite account of their fictional childhoods, intending to write about heroes, but GEOGRAPHY became its own story.

You’re sitting on the Submitting to Literary Journals panel at this year’s conference. Can you tell us a little bit about what you’re planning?

Submission is either daunting, if you haven’t done much of it, or odious, if you’ve done a lot. I know that as moderator it’s your hope that we give folks a leg up on the process. With special dispensation from the conference, I’m also sitting in on the afternoon panel called How To Stop Warding Off Poems and Learn to Love Them. Patricia Lee Lewis, Doug Anderson, and I will be talking about the difficult, obscure poems, how we’ve learned to enter them; we’ll be leading the group in a what we hope will be a revelatory experience with a short, difficult poem.

What are you working on now?

I’m currently juggling. Poems. 30 poems in November for The Center for New Americans. And the prequel to GEOGRAPHY set in Seattle 1925-1946, about the life of a prostitute – but whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably not like that. And a short story about a boy trying to get in between his mother and their neighbor as the adults are on the brink of an affair.

Where can we find you online?

I have a website for my editorial services. Or Google D M Gordon and Diana Gordon, (though there’s a Canadian Diana Gordon who writes poetry and paints).

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