Sunday, September 21, 2014

Writer on Writer: Sarah Shotland Interviews Colleen McKee

Last week, Colleen McKee interviewed Sarah Shotland about her new novel, Junkette. This week Sarah interviews Colleen about her 2013 book, Nine Kinds of Wrong (JK Publishing, St. Louis). Colleen's book defies publishing conventions by putting fiction, poetry, and memoir all between the same covers. The unifying factor instead becomes the author herself, and her restless journey between cities, lovers, friends.


Sarah Shotland: Public transportation pops up again and again throughout Nine Kinds of Wrong. As someone who loves to write while riding public transportation, I'm curious if you also like to write while in transit? And what about public transportation inspires your work?

Colleen McKee: I’m blind in one eye. I have never driven a car in my life. That’s good because I spend every possible moment of my time that I am on public transit writing. Public transportation makes you get up close and personal with people you wouldn’t choose to know. In St. Louis, where I’m from, only the poor, disabled, and those with DUI’s ride the bus. Some of those buses are rip-roaring insane: people trying to sell you stolen socks, expired transfers, ripped-off movies, marijuana, Jesus Is Lord, candy bars…trying to get dates, trying to get you to be their 'ho…Lord have mercy, you name it. And all the while it stinks of piss. (I have a poem about the 70 Grand that appeared in my chapbook A Partial List of Things I Have Done for Money.)

Here in the Bay Area, almost everyone rides the BART train (Bay Area Rapid Transit). It’s this fascinating cross-section of our society, which is made up of thousands of different international, sexual, political, and artistic subcultures (plus yuppies). Add to this the very wide availability of potent drugs. And the fact that there’s at least one festival happening every day, so the chances are high you’re going to see someone covered in feathers, glitter, and not a lot else. Any writer should be able to get at least one poem off the BART every day—as long as her eyes aren’t glued to her phone. My bag is always full of postcards with drafts of poems on it. Maybe one day I’ll become the Premier Poet Laureate of BART.

Sarah: Can you talk a little bit about why you decided to include fiction, memoir and poetry in your collection?

Colleen: After Nine Kinds of Wrong came out, a successful writer told me, it was a terrible mistake that I had put these three genres together, that it made the book unmarketable. He said bookstores wouldn’t know how to promote it. But other writers say to me, “Wow, you can do that? I didn’t know you could get away with that. You’re lucky.” Readers who aren’t writers don’t comment on this at all.

I’ve always wanted my books to be fiction, poetry, and memoir mixed. My two chapbooks, My Hot Little Tomato and A Partial List of Things I Have Done for Money, were also a combination of poetry and prose. And within those books and chapbooks are a few stories that are hybrid forms, such as the poem “A Partial List of Things I Have Done for Money,” in which some of the lines are almost as long as paragraphs. It’s important to me to be able to mix these forms within a collection because I have some poems that I think of as sisters to certain works of memoir or fiction. For example, “What We Had Instead of History,” a poem, has much the same tone and topic as “How to Steal a Book.” They’re both sad, bratty pieces about being a juvenile delinquent. “How to Steal a Book” is a hybrid—it’s memoir with one stanza of a poem in the middle.

Sarah: How do you decide what material to present in a specific genre?

Colleen: It was more about atmosphere and intuition than genre. I knew it would be a grimy, sexy urban book, and that I would put in some more writing about Miko that hadn’t made it into my last chapbook, A Partial List of Things I Have Done for Money. (Miko was a close friend and old flame who killed himself in 2008.)

Sarah: What are the major differences you see between forms?

Colleen: For me there are no meaningful distinctions between these forms except, memoir should be true! In my work, line breaks are just a rhythmic device, like punctuation or a paragraph break.

Sarah: In "The 59 Cent Pad of Paper" you write (of a man in a mental institution): "What did he need from the paper? What could the paper give that man, who couldn't eat oatmeal without supervision? Each drug store pad of paper was a bird with sixty wings, all flapping at once. With each mark, he drew the wings closer to him, if only for a few scrawling seconds." I'm curious. What do you need from the paper? What does the paper give you?

Colleen: It is possibly a terrible, terrible weakness that I cannot understand the contents of my mind without a piece of paper to sort it all out. But often I am left with not understanding but only a sorrowful wonder. Or maybe just a feeling that whatever lonely wayward thing was gnawing at my heart has gone to sleep, at least for a while.

My experience of my life is very fragmented. I moved around a lot. I’ve cared for drifters and fools and friends who died young. I want a way to remember.

Sarah: I'm interested in the fine art of "perhapsing" in memoir. In the essay, "The Devil's Fruit" you explore your parents meeting. This essay reminded me a lot of Sharon Olds' poetry, specifically the poem "I Go Back to May, 1946." How do you deal with writing about events that you couldn't witness and how they affect your life?

Colleen: I think the only two stories I’ve written that I called memoir or nonfiction that I didn’t witness were stories my mom told me, “The Devil’s Fruit” and “The 59 Cent Pad of Paper.” My mom is a wonderful storyteller. In “The Devil’s Fruit,” I thought I was being accurate, but then Mom told me, “I didn’t meet your dad at high school. I met him at the Hamburger Doodle.” Even when I wrote a memoir about something I had lived through, “The Unbreakable House,” I made a mistake. The essay was about this all-metal house I lived in when I was eighteen. I wrote that it was gray, and my sister corrected me: It was baby blue! I remembered it as gray because I was so depressed when I lived there. So our memory quite literally colors our perception. As Borges wrote, “My memory is porous and the rain gets in.”

Yet I respect veracity, even if we can only approach it. The distinction between memoir and fiction is important to me: the author has an obligation to accuracy if she’s going to call it memoir. Ethically, she really has to try her best to be truthful. The only time I fudge is with dialogue because that is hard to remember verbatim, and memoirs that are light on dialogue can get dull. But even when I make up dialogue, I try to be close to what that person probably said. Maybe I write that my mom said, “Well now, I reckon she got a wild hair up her ass,” and what she really said was, “Oh Lord, what’s she hootin and hollerin about now?” Either way, it’s the sort of thing my mom would say, and they mean about the same. James Baldwin said, “I want to be an honest man and a good writer.” I’ve considered getting this tattooed on my arm.

Sarah: Your book swings between encounters with intimate lovers and intimate strangers. Where do you see the connection between these two kinds of encounters?

Colleen: Well, lovers can be strange, and strangers can certainly be intimate! Especially here in the Bay Area, where strangers can just let it all hang out. This is a place where newspapers are full of serious debates about whether it is permissible to be nude in a public plaza if you haven’t brought your own towel to sit on. But even more shocking to me, as a Midwesterner, are the things people will just tell you at a party, on the street. This is an endlessly fascinating place, to the point where it’s a little overwhelming. I have been writing a lot of poems lately about people on the train, on the street, parades, how the individual (including me) relates to the crowd or to intense strangers. Maybe my next book will be called The Teeming Masses: Insects and People on the Street. (I like insects, too. I write a lot about them.) It’s important for a writer to be willing to look closely at anyone with a gaze that is compassionate and curious—but also you have to watch your back. That’s a mixed urban feeling which is uncomfortable in life, but that tension can be interesting in writing.

James Joyce said, “To be is to live in mystery, not in understanding.” Sometimes I have written about lovers in an attempt to understand them, but probably my better love poems are the ones that were written in appreciation of their mystery.

Sarah: If I had to pluck an overarching theme from your book, I would point to grieving and loss. In addition to the characters and people you explore in the book, your "Thanks" section includes four RIPs, and the dedication includes an RIP. In "Real as a Loaf of Rye" you write: "When did it stop feeling strange to be haunted?" How does your work commune with the ghosts in your life? Do you feel an obligation to write for those who cannot read your work?

Colleen: Yes, a lot of RIP’s! In the last six years, in addition to losing my grandparents, I lost five friends, four of whom died young. Miko died of suicide. Roger was just found dead in his office, and Ray had the date rape drug in his body. Roger was a junkie and Ray was gay. My suspicion is, therefore, the cops didn’t care about them.

Do I have a responsibility to write for the dead? I don’t know. I believe we should remember the dead. That’s human. As a writer, I never feel I’ve fully engaged with a story or a memory until I’ve written it down. Do I have a responsibility to remember the dead the way they’d want to be remembered? If I only wrote about Miko in a way that I was one hundred percent certain he’d appreciate, I wouldn’t have written a word. He went in and out of the closet; he was moody; he drank; he was beautiful and sweet and my lover and my friend. I hope when I’m dead, people will remember me as I really am. I don’t want anyone to say, “Colleen was an angel.” I’d rather they said, “Colleen could really be a bitch. She could work your last nerve. But we had a lot of fun, and she wrote some good stories.”

Sarah: One of the most intimate portions of the book involves Miko. As readers, we meet him in the memoir section of the book, but we continue to explore your relationship in the following section of poetry. What was the process of writing about him? How do you revise and edit work that is so personal?

Colleen: What was the process of writing about Miko after his death? It was pure torture. But it was something I had to do. I wasn’t capable of distracting myself from the pain, so I wrote through it, every day. I was on a poetry postcard list—I sent a postcard every day to one of these people on a list. I was sending these depressing poems mostly to strangers! I can’t say if it was therapeutic. It was necessary. After Miko died, most people wanted to talk to me about it, a lot--for about two weeks! Then no one wanted to talk about it. There was a sense I was “dwelling” on it if I talked about him (or just burst out crying in public). But I needed to talk, and also, I needed to talk to him.

I don’t know how I edited the work about him. I did something that felt too hard for me to do, and somehow I’m still here.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Writer on Writer: Colleen McKee Interviews Sarah Shotland

For the latest Writer on Writer interview, I paired Colleen McKee and her book Nine Kinds of Wrong (JK Publishing, 2013) with Sarah Shotland and her new novel Junkette (White Gorilla Press, 2014). Today Colleen interviews Sarah about Junkette. Set in hurricane-season New Orleans just before Hurricane Katrina, Sarah's poetic novel Junkette follows the day-to-day of post-college bartender Claire and her addict friends, whose lives seem already underwater. Come back next week when Sarah interviews Colleen about Nine Kinds of Wrong. Colleen's unique book bears witness, haunts dive bars, and remembers long-lost lovers or cities through a combination of fiction, poetry, and memoir.


Colleen McKee: Writing a novel seems like a big and scary thing to do, especially a first novel. What compelled you to write this novel? How did this process start for you?

Sarah Shotland: I started writing Junkette in 2006, about a year after Hurricane Katrina. I was living in China and I didn’t know Mandarin well at all and I didn’t have many people to speak English with. One of the beautiful things about living in a place where I didn’t speak the language was that all the peripheral noise of advertisements, passing conversations, radio, television, billboards was silenced. I had the chance to really quiet the outside world and listen to what was happening in my own mind. And because I spent a lot of time alone, and in silence, I had a great need to communicate. So I wrote. And because I had a lot of time, I was able to write about 400 pages in the span of about nine months.

Colleen: People associate drugs with excitement and glamour. Claire is a sexy girl with a sexy job in a sexy town. Yet Junkette depicts some aspects of her life as being unglamorous: some passages are gross, and she complains at one point that the routines of being a junky are boring, that she’s hooked on rituals that are sometimes comforting but sometimes just dreary. How do you think about the poles of glamour/anti-glamour in this book?

Sarah: I think most of Claire’s life is unglamorous. From the very first page of the book, she’s trying to get out of town. She gets lice, she’s broke, at one point she vomits because she smells so bad. Addiction is an incredibly boring experience. It’s endless repetition. The chaos that surrounds addiction can sometimes be seen as excitement or adventure, but the realities of supporting an addiction are tedious, exhausting and demoralizing. I hope I didn’t glamorize any of that. But, I do think there are times when I romanticize or glamorize New Orleans. I was really missing New Orleans when I was writing the book, and I think that means there are times when I glossed over some of the city’s less glamorous realities.

Colleen: I had problems with drinking and coke in my youth, and like Claire, my circle of friends were bound together by drugs; most of these friends were men. It would be an understatement to say their intentions toward me were not always honorable. The same could be said of some male characters in Junkette, yet Claire doesn’t seem much to relate to the other women in her world. Would you like to say anything about the dynamics of power and gender in this novel?

Sarah: Claire’s surrounded by men. Part of my choice there was a reaction to Junky, by William S. Burroughs (and to a lot of drug literature). In the traditional drug narrative, a man is at the center of the story. Women are martyred wives and mothers whose lives are destroyed by the men who define them, or they’re temptresses and whores who lead men into self-destruction. I wanted to play with that dynamic and flip it a bit. I wanted Claire to be the center of the book’s universe without making the men into the same kind of flat characters women are sometimes turned into. I think Claire’s relationships with men are complicated. She can see that she’s giving away a lot of power, and yet she keeps engaging in these relationships. But she also makes really self-serving decisions. So men’s intentions towards Claire aren’t all honorable, but neither are hers.

Colleen: I like the title. It reminds me of Smurfette, in a sick funny way—just as Smurfette’s the only female in a world of men, Claire is somewhat isolated from other women as the main players in her life are male junkies. Of course the title also reminds me of Burroughs’ Junky. Would you like to say anything about the title?

Sarah: I love Smurfette, and I love thinking of Claire as a tiny blue creature! And yes, I was definitely playing on Burroughs with my title.

Colleen: Do you think addiction fiction or addiction novels are their own kind of genre or tradition? This could be a lens through which people read Junkette. How do you feel about that?

Sarah: Definitely, and I hope people who love reading addiction novels will find Junkette.

Colleen: New Orleans is in itself a powerful character in this novel. Why did you choose to set Junkette there?

Sarah: When I started writing the book, I’d just moved away from New Orleans. I don’t feel like it could be set anywhere else. I was also really frustrated with New Orleans constantly being defined by Katrina, so I wanted to write a book that was set pre-Katrina. I tried to include as many places that no longer exist post-Katrina, and really paint a picture of a particular time in the city.

Colleen: Many novels about young women are coming of age stories, and they follow the traditional narrative arc of the Bildungsroman (literally, “a novel of building character”). The Bildungsroman shows how the female character’s childhood affects her young adulthood, and after going through some crisis or challenge--which is resolved by the end of the book-- the character has passed through the frightening transition from girl to woman and she’s clearly reached the other side. But this novel is very focused on Claire’s present life and her immediate future. How did you make the decision to not include much about Claire’s upbringing, or even her recent past?

Sarah: Addiction is really complicated, and I think too often it’s presented as being caused by something. A traumatic childhood, a destructive relationship, poverty. I wasn’t that interested in exploring why Claire is an addict. I was just interested in how she experienced it. Because the book is written in first-person, I didn’t think Claire would reflect that much on her own past; she’s caught in a very present-moment experience that means she can only really respond to the immediate problem she’s facing. I felt having her reflect a lot would be inauthentic and move into some dangerous territory of trying to explain away her choices.

Colleen: Junkette’s structure also resists tradition. You use often very short sections, definitively broken with typographical symbols. To me, this results in an intriguing sense of time being fragmented, highlighting this moment, then this moment. Do you see it this way? How did you decide on this form?

Sarah: As I was writing Junkette, I read Mary Robison’s books One D.O.A., One on the Way; Subtraction; and Why Did I Ever. Robison uses really short sections—she says she writes her novels on individual index cards. I really fell in love with her work. As soon as I read her, I knew Junkette had to be written in tiny sections.

Colleen: Claire makes a lot of lists. Some are poetic, some funny, and they are interspersed throughout the book in an intriguing way. Would you like to say anything about the list form and how you use it in Junkette?

Sarah: I think Claire’s really seeking order. Her addiction is a way of ordering her life. Her lists are a way of ordering her life. I secretly want to be a poet, but sadly, I am very bad at writing poetry. Lists are about as close as I come.

Colleen: What moved you to co-found Words without Walls (which, to use your words, “brings creative writing classes to jails and rehab centers in Pittsburgh, PA”)? Would you like to say anything about these students?

Sarah: I’m motivated by a lot of factors in my work with Words Without Walls. We have a huge problem with locking people up in this country. I’m not a lawyer or a politician or a social worker. I would be very bad at all those things. I’m a writer, so I try to do things with writing that address problems in our society. My students in jail and prison are just like all my other writing students: some are incredible writers, some aren’t that great, some don’t care at all about publication, some want an audience. But I think the act of writing is useful for everyone. Writing allows for reflection, reimagining, empathy, self-expression, spiritual engagement, fantasy, escape from and engagement with your self and your circumstances. The feedback I get from my students in Words Without Walls ranges from Writing changed my life and I’ll never be the same, to It was a relief to have a class every week that got me off the housing unit. I consider both and everything in between to be a success. What is somewhat different from my other students is an inability to deal with writerly bullshit. They aren’t at all interested in the professionalization of creative writing and the nonsense that comes with it. That means I have to bring in only the very best writing I can find, the most necessary pieces, and that brings me a lot of joy.

Colleen: You also work with students in the MFA program at Chatham University. This seems like it could be a very different experience than working with students in jails and rehab centers. How would you compare working with these two sets of students? In what ways are they similar, and in what ways are they different?

Sarah: I really enjoy teaching in both environments. I also work with kids, which is another variation on teaching. I’d say working in a university, I really get to geek out on the minutia of writing. People can get a lot of pleasure and meaning out of an hour long discussion on point of view in an MFA class. With kids, I get to do a lot of creative, imaginative exercises and I get to see huge improvement in a really short amount of time. In all my classes, my favorite part of teaching is bringing in a story I love and seeing students discover it for the first time. I will never forget the teacher who introduced me to Margaret Atwood and Joan Didion. When I get to teach those writers, I feel really honored to be part of that ripple effect. With my students at jails and prisons, I get to remember why I started writing in the first place—to make sense of my self. I think the mixture of the environments is why I can stay enthusiastic about teaching. I get to meet lots of different people, and I feel really lucky that my jobs all entail reading and writing and talking about reading and writing. It’s a pretty wonderful thing to do for work.

Colleen: You’ve worked in theatre. Sometimes novelist/playwrights’ novels feel a lot like theatre—heavy on dialogue, light on introversion. Junkette doesn’t feel theatrical, though. Do you feel like writing plays has influenced your fiction writing and vice versa, or do they feel like two very different worlds?

Sarah: I think writing for the theater has helped me with plot. In the theater, everything is scene. If nothing happens, there’s no play. So that’s really helpful to me as I write fiction, because in prose, I naturally tend to write a lot of introspective reflection, which can end up moving very slowly. I love writing for the theater because playwrights really have to give their work away to other artists, and then we get to watch it become itself. In fiction, the writer ultimately has a lot more control of the final product. But I will say that I tend to write a lot of monologue in my plays, so first-person fiction isn’t too far a stretch from that.

Colleen: Who and/or what are your biggest literary influences?

Sarah: Here’s my literary dinner party: Joan Didion, Anne Sexton, Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison, Maria Irene Fornes, Sarah Kane, Mary Robison, Kate Chopin, Jean Rhys, Lydia Davis, Claudia Rankine, bell hooks. I also love Kenneth Patchen, Etheridge Knight and Walt Whitman (I don’t want to leave out the dudes.) At our dinner party, we’d drink cheap beer and fancy whiskey and I’d make tacos.


Don't miss the next installment, due approximately Monday, September 22: Sarah Shotland interviews Colleen McKee about Nine Kinds of Wrong.

Find Junkette at White Gorilla Press here: 

Find Nine Kinds of Wrong here:

Click the Writer on Writer tag to read past interviews in this series.