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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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Please see our agents page where we have just added Samantha Fingerhut of Compass Talent.

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We have a new flash memoir, by Opal Gayle, who has contributed “Stay Tuned”.

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Joy Baglio will be presenting a workshop at this year’s WriteAngles. She was interviewed by Joan Axelrod-Contrada.

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

I’ve written for as long as I can remember and have known since early childhood that that’s what I’ve wanted to be. My sister and I grew up surrounded by the most magical collection of children’s books, all curated and read to us on a daily basis by my mother. I have several early memories: Before I could write, I’d dictate stories to my mother, who’d scrawl them in notebooks for me. Later on, I’d make my own “books” and illustrate them. I remember one was called HORSE OF THE MOUNTAINS, about a horse who goes rogue and forms a community of woodland animals on some remote mountain. Another was about my cockatiel, Emily, from her point of view. I also remember telling scary stories on the morning bus ride to school, at first to my sister, then to what turned into almost the whole bus. I’d make them up on the spot, and some of them were really good! I actually wish I could remember them now. I’d leave the story hanging when we got to school and continue the next day. As a child, I also made these ridiculous goals for myself: “Be published before age 18” which, thank god, I’m so grateful I didn’t succeed at!

I think the real reason I’m a writer today is that it’s the best way I know to express what sometimes feels like a very mysterious kind of creative energy, that, in my case, often reveals itself in the form of strange scenarios, philosophical musings, verbal fragments, flashes of scene, what ifs, and other stuff of story. I was always a visual artist in high school and college, but somehow I couldn’t express the same ideas through that medium (despite really loving it). Beyond all this, there’s the sheer thrill of being inside of a story I’m excited about – there’s nothing quite like it.

What’s your writing process like?

I’m a really chaotic writer, for better or worse. My process is both immensely exhilarating, and at the same time hair-pulling in its frustration. I tend to have a lot of ideas and often am working on many different projects at once. Sometimes, I’ll be deep in the weeds of my novel, when I’ll get (quite literally) flashes of images from other shorter stories and I’ll go back and forth between several different documents. While this seems confusing, it actually allows me to advance several pieces at once, while also letting me shift focus if I’m blocked on a particular piece or just not excited to work on a certain story that day. It also allows the requisite space from each piece which I find so invaluable for gaining a degree of objectivity.

Since I’ve been so novel-focused lately, my process has taken on a lot of consistency. I find I need to work on the novel as often as possible in order to keep the momentum going. Mornings are best, when my mind hasn’t encountered anything else yet, and I try to start as early as possible and go for several hours, sometimes longer. I use placeholders all the time when I write, and I give myself permission to be absolutely messy (which can be hard for someone as prone to obsessive organization as I am)! Since my novel is so research-heavy, I have to be on guard that this doesn’t become a clever form of procrastination. I’ll often find myself down some rabbit hole of marine biology (because of my novel’s subject matter) if I’m not a little strict with myself. Though in general, I find the constant flux between generative writing, outlining, and research to be a really productive way of working for me.

What are you trying to accomplish as a writer?

Stylistically and thematically, I’m interested in “distortion…to get at truth,” as Flannery O’Connor has said: The idea of creating “imaginary gardens with real toadstools.” The more I write speculatively, the less patience or tolerance I have for gimmicks or for weird for weird’s sake. I’m interested in a metaphorical layer of truth that can only be gotten at through slightly altered scenarios and realities that push us outside of our expected ways of seeing the world and its situations. I’m endlessly inspired by my heroes, Angela Carter, Karen Russell, Aimee Bender, Kelly Link, George Saunders. I love how deeply philosophical they all are, how poignantly they get at issues so relevant to us while also inverting and shaking up our way of seeing these very things, and often doing it with such humor, wit, and ferocity of language.

Ultimately, I’m interested in telling the best stories I can. I want to write works that are enjoyable, that hook readers and reveal something to them that’s true, meaningful, hopeful, and a little transcendent.

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

This is difficult, since I’ve been so blessed to work with so many amazing authors from whom I’ve learned so, so much. I would say the way Rebecca Makkai has explained the role of place as a force that can put pressure on characters, spurring them into action, has been pretty liberating for me and really revolutionized how I view narrative. Dorothy Alison’s Tin House essay on “Place” has also stayed with me and is similarly filled with nuggets of absolute gold about the way place can work for and shape story. What feels most relevant to me now, though, is Aimee Bender’s advice on following your own excitement – otherwise the writing will be dutiful. This idea has really impacted me and helped me get back in touch with that part of myself that is just really, really excited about certain kinds of stories. It’s that obsessive, raw excitement that I’m so interested in following, and that most often leads me to my best writing.

What are you working on now?

I’m completely consumed by my novel-in-progress, HOW TO SURVIVE ON LAND. It’s growing out of my short story of the same name (which was the runner-up in Ploughshares’ Emerging Writers’ Conference in 2016 and published in New Ohio Review the same year). It’s a totally enthralling project for me, because I’m so deeply invested in this family and have been for years, since I began the story in 2013. It follows the struggles of two half-mermaid sisters coming to terms with their own strangeness and dual-identities, largely in the wake of their mermaid mother’s return to the ocean (and consequent abandonment of the family). There’s so much marine science, so much about the ocean, the Pacific Northwest, specifically the Aleutian Islands (did you know that’s the site of one of the most diverse deep-sea coral reefs in the world?) and I’ve been doing a lot of research as I write. I’m aiming to have a first-draft done by summer 2018 which feels completely doable, since I already have a strong sense of the story and the major narrative arcs. Hopefully I’ll be doing a lot of research-related travel in 2018 as well (grants pending)! Outside of that, I’m also putting together my first short story collection as well as working on a handful of flash fiction pieces.

You’ll be presenting about flash fiction and nonfiction at WriteAngles this year. Can you tell us a little about what you’re planning?

Absolutely! I love flash fiction, and I love talking about it with other writers. The thing about flash is that it has, in many ways, led me to my voice, to what I’m most interested in. It’s literally made me a better writer and is an amazing form for emerging writers – or any writer, really: In order to do it successfully, you must fully understand the core of your story. There is no room in a flash piece for the extra meandering that longer forms allow, or for what Robert Bausch calls “dailiness” or “verisimilitude for its own sake.” The techniques of writing publishable flash fiction are really the techniques of powerful self-editing and the ability to get to the core of the piece and strip away everything inessential. It’s also an amazing form for those trying to achieve publication for the first time, as so many journals are now publishing flash, and my own experience – and that of many other emerging writers – is that it’s a great way to get noticed by top journals, or any journal for that matter. It also offers a tremendous boost in morale to writers who are laboring on longer works and need the satisfaction of completing a piece, however short.

At the conference, we’re going to be talking about the mechanics of some truly masterful and breathtaking flash pieces (you will come away with a great little packet) and work to understand how these pieces are functioning and to what effects. We’ll touch on the market, publishing, specific journals, and we’ll be doing a writing and brainstorming exercise that’s lots of fun! A big question at the heart of what we’ll be discussing is how can the flash form really help you become a better (and more publishable) writer? Because it absolutely can. But you have to be willing – and there’s something very paradoxical and Zen about this – to risk losing everything, to chop whole sections that you love from your work. It’s such a meticulous form – in many ways very unforgiving – but it can be quite liberating the more you practice it, as well as genuinely miraculous and transformative.

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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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Breena Clarke is this year’s featured after-lunch speaker.  She was interviewed by Liz Bedell.

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

Firstly, No biting, especially not insects. I come naturally to writing I would say. I have always been inspired by books, since my very first trip to the public library. These buildings in my childhood in Washington, D.C. were pleasant places. I majored in theater, acting at Howard University and I wrote and directed and performed plays. So I’ve always felt like a writerly person. But the thing or series of events that made me into a committed, daily, working writer began with the early death of my son, Najeeb. Motivated to record all of his life that I could remember, I began keeping small notebooks capturing thoughts and observations. A friend said that writing is like a muscle. The more exercise it gets, the stronger it becomes. I suppose I exercised my writer’s imagination through these books that I still have and that have never actually served any purpose other than as personal writing. The important part is that I began a training regimen for my mind. I consumed the good books written by others and launched into my own inquiries. I set aside time for writing, for developing an idea.

What is the most rewarding part of being a writer?

Non seriously, but with humor at self: Reading what you’ve written a few days earlier that reads well and you think, “Hey, this girl is good, who is she?”

Seriously, but not wanting to sound self-satisfied: When someone comes up to you and tells you how moved they were when they read your work or heard you read. This is the moment of greatest satisfaction for me. It comes right before the “hey, who is this girl?” moment.

And the most frustrating part of being a writer?

I don’t know that yet. I haven’t gotten there yet. My mind is still sharp, and my energy is good, so I feel productive as a writer. Productivity relieves writerly frustration for me.

Can you tell us about your most recent novel? What inspired it?

I was inspired to write ANGELS MAKE THEIR HOPE HERE by an interest in imagining the lives and community of people living outside the strictures imposed by racist white America. It’s set in mid-19th century New Jersey. Loosely based on the so-called Ramapo Mountain people, who were said to have been a tri-racial maroon community in the mid-Atlantic region, the people of Russell’s Knob privilege no color above another. And though they are insular, they welcome those who escape from oppression in the white towns. I enjoyed speculating on this somewhat utopian vision of racial amalgamation rather than separation. The novel has at its climax the horrible events of the New York City Draft Riots (July 13-16, 1863). I’ve written about Russell’s Knob on my blog.

You’re the afternoon keynote speaker for WriteAngles. Can you tell us a little bit about what you’re planning?

I’m recently very interested in speculative fiction. I’m not a fan of science fiction, but I’m intrigued by the ways people write about the future and the past, what they imagine. I’m also very excited by some millennial writers who are speculating about a world without white privilege. I’m going to share my thoughts on that topic.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a group of short stories. I hope to collect and publish them. I’m calling them “curiosity tales” because each story has an unexpected or curious narrator or it relates unusual events.

Is there anything you would like to add?

For the past five years, I’ve been co-organizer of The Hobart Festival of Women Writers which takes place in September in Hobart, New York, the book village of The Catskills and the reading capital of New York State. We’ve hosted about eighty published women writers in all genres who’ve offered readings and workshops. We’ve forged friendships and working relationships and created a platform for women writers.

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Registration will begin Sunday, Oct. 15, at 10:00 a.m., and continue until a few days before the conference.

If we sell out before that we will make an announcement.

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Announcing agents!

We are still at work lining up literary agents for our upcoming conference, but are happy to announce the two agents who have confirmed their participation. See our Agents page for full details about Amaryah Orenstein and Jennifer Udden.

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Randy Sue Meyers will give the morning keynote talk.

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

When I was a kid, nothing was better than listening to my Aunt Thelma’s stories. She’d take humiliating, awful situations and transform them to eye-popping, comic-tragic tales. Her pain was our gain.

As a child, I made twice-weekly trips to the library. Writers were gods, purveyors of that which I needed for sustenance. Food. Shelter. Books. Those were my life’s priorities.

As an adult, I still feel that way. I’m constantly foraging for books that offer glimpses into a character’s psyche, that go deep enough to make me part of the choir, saying, “Oh yeah, me too, tell it, writer. True that, uh huh.”

And I wrote—the bug hit me early—but without discipline—and I became a writer both early and late, publishing (co-authoring) my first book in my twenties and my first novel in my fifties, when I stopped living drama and began writing it. As a writer, I’ve learned that reaching deep isn’t always comfortable. (My daughters will read this! My husband will think I’m portraying him!) But I push myself to write with a knife held to my own throat, so that my work will hold as much emotional truth as possible.

What is the most rewarding part of being a writer?

Writing transmogrifies fact into fiction, and that remove helps me understand the world around me. Writing forces me to look at angles I hadn’t previously considered and opens my mind. I used to play a song for my daughters, from FREE TO BE YOU AND ME, that swore that crying got the sad out of you. That’s kind of what writing does for me—it gets the sad, the mad, and the glad out of me. Writing calms me. Writing excites me. Writing sorts out my world.

And writing lets me tell stories. Just like Aunt Thelma.

And the most frustrating part of being a writer?

There is no doubt, for me, it’s the business end of the work.

Much is out of a writer’s control when working with a publisher, from pricing the e-book (publishers will want it as high as possible, while you may want it bought more widely and thus priced lower.) It’s often difficult to get to agreement on covers. Marketing budgets are almost nil, and that’s frustrating. One can go on and on, but, for me, the distribution network, the editing, macro and micro, the copy-editing, all of that is incredible.

Another problem is the ease people have in reviewing one’s book online, as for every generous terrific review, there can be someone who just wants to slam you—and their words live in perpetuity. I wrote about how to work with one’s hurt feelings in Soothing Words for Bad Reviews.

Can you tell us about your most recent novel? What inspired it?

THE WIDOW OF WALL STREET tells the story of a family caught in the before, during and after of a Ponzi scheme, told from two points of view: A man with a criminal hunger for wealth, and his wife, who’s unknowingly building her life, her marriage, family, and even friendships, on disappearing sand.

When a scandal unfolds, criminal and otherwise, I wonder two things: What was the self-told story the perpetrator believed that allowed him to hurt so many people? What does it do to his family?

When Bernie Madoff’s crimes came to light, I wondered what it would be like to be his wife and wake up one day to find that your entire life was built on air. When Governor Elliot Spitzer was discovered transferring money to a prostitution ring, I could only imagine the pain for his family. Every crime has multiple victims—including the family of the perpetrator.

Writing this novel allowed me to explore both sides by inhabiting the points of view of the victims and the accused. I have always needed to understand life from as many angles as possible.

You’re the morning speaker for WriteAngles. Can you tell us a little bit about what you’re planning?

Every writer takes a different path to publication, but most require talent mixed with patience, and a willingness to work hard, revise, and then work more. My journey to launching my debut novel, THE MURDERER’S DAUGHTERS, involved knowing when to hold them and when to fold them, a nonfiction book, three agents, and six novels.

How long does it take to be published is a question often asked, and one I’ll always answer honestly. For me, the journey included a homemade MFA, perseverance, and facing up to my obstacles and then removing them best as I could.

That’s the soundbite for my talk: a revelation of my blistered path to publishing my first novel at the age of 57.

What are you working on now?

My next book is due to my publisher in December, so I’m racing the clock on revision. The novel tells the story of two women who differ culturally, racially, and vocationally, coming together in what they think will be a battle against weight, but which ends up a battle in the war against women— in that arena where everyone hates a fat woman— as they are challenged to see how far they will go to be thin.

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We are ready to announce our program for the conference this November.

We have yet to line up all the literary agents but will let you know as soon as they are confirmed. To get that announcement, be sure you have subscribed to our site. You will receive an email when we make the announcement.

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