This is an episode from the podcast The Nuts and Bolts of Writing. In this episode, Imelda Wei Ding Lo interviews author Tejaswinee Roychowdhury about themes in her writing, her inspirations, and how her legal studies and practice have influenced her approach to writing. Tejaswinee is a writer, poet, artist, and lawyer from West Bengal, India. Her fiction and poetry have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and her work is published or forthcoming in Dreich Magazine, Muse India, Paddler Press, Amity (Hawakal, 2022), The Unconventional Courier, Roi Fainéant, Taco Bell Quarterly, Kitaab, and more. She is also the founder of The Hooghly Review,a literary magazine. To learn more about Tejaswinee Roychowdhury, visit her website.
Imelda asked Tejaswinee the following questions in this podcast episode: 1) What were you inspired by when you wrote your story for The Unconventional Courier, “Where Does The River Go?” 2) What books and themes inspired you the most as a writer? 3) You are a lawyer (as am I). Has your legal practice and studies influenced your approach to writing? If so, how? 4) What kind of stories do you plan to write in the future? Will you be publishing any books?
Imelda Wei Ding Lo is the co-host of the Nuts and Bolts of Writing podcast, the co-founder of The Unconventional Courier, a writer, an artist, and a game developer (Fortunus Games). She’s written two graphic novels—Sam in New York and The Book of Joel—and her work has been published in Victoria Literary Festival’s 2019 short story anthology. To learn more, visit her website.
We’re also very excited to share an interview that dives deeper into the work Imelda Wei Ding Lo has done. This interview was conducted via email by our blog editor, Brennie Shoup.
Brennie Shoup: You co-host the podcast The Nuts and Bolts of Writing. What made you want to start this podcast? Are there certain things you look for when you choose to interview a writer?
Imelda Wei Ding Lo: I wanted to start this podcast because I (and the co-hosts, Tete DePunk and R.N. Roveleh) wanted to learn more about other writers and how they approach writing.
As we discovered while working on our own stories, writing can be a lonely journey, especially when you’re waiting to submit novels and short stories to publishers and zines. Most publishers and zines require works to be previously unpublished, so you can’t post your work online for people to comment on.
This means you can only talk about your work with a small group of friends. We wanted to expand that group of friends beyond the three of us to a wider range of people so we could avoid the “echo chamber” effect.
BS: You also co-founded a literary zine, The Unconventional Courier. What made you want to start your own magazine?
IWDL: We started this magazine because we wanted another way to connect with other writers. We wanted to read other people’s writing and also ask them questions about the writing process. Our zine has a section called “Talking Heads” where we ask our submitters questions about writing, such as “How important are themes to your writing?” or “Which movies or books inspire you the most?”
BS: You have two graphic novels—Sam in New York and The Book of Joel. How would you describe your own writing? Do you find yourself linking writing and visual arts often?
IWDL: I would describe my writing as introspective. It’s also a work in progress. I am constantly learning from others (through the podcast and the zine) and also from my “real” (non-creative) life. I put a lot of myself into my characters, so, in a way, my characters are a way for me to digest what’s going on in my life.
Yes, I have always linked writing and visual arts together, ever since I was a child and teen. I grew up as a huge fan of manga (Japanese comics), and I loved how many of the stories combined dialogue with striking visuals. To this day, the manga Oyasumi Punpun by Inio Asano is one of my favorite works. It is just as “literary” to me as giants like Philip Roth and Orhan Pamuk.
BS: Do you feel like your background as a game developer influences the other aspects of your career—either your writing or your work on The Nuts and Bolts of Writing or The Unconventional Courier? If so, how?
IWDL: Game development was really a hobby for me. I never worked in or studied game development and I don’t have a solid grasp of programming, but I did create some interesting visual novel segments back in 2019 by teaching myself Python.
I haven’t had the time to make games recently, but I would say that my interest in game development has helped me think more about the bigger picture. When creating a game, you can’t afford to spend all of the time on the dialogue or art assets—you have to think about the structure, the user interface, and the user experience. I’ve been applying that to my art and stories, and it’s really helped me structure my works better. As I’ve learned, it’s very important to create stories with an audience in mind. Otherwise, you run the risk of creating a bloated work that is hard for the reader to understand and appreciate.
Congratulations to Tara Ison on her new novel At the Hour Between Dog and Wolf, published by Ig Publishing. Set during World War II France, the story follows Danielle, a young Jewish girl. After her father is killed, she’s forced into hiding as Marie-Jeanne, a Catholic orphan, in a small farming village. Although she only pretends to be Marie-Jeanne at first, the line between Danielle and her false identity begin to blur, even to herself: “But now the Marie-Jeanne me and the Danielle me have to be crossed over and doubled together all the time… I’d hate to get stuck this way forever, just because I blinked.”
While At the Hour Between Dog and Wolf carries considerable commentary about fascism on the global scale, the story truly shines as a slow, personal descent into what fear—and the promise of safety—can do to someone. With dazzling prose and deeply nuanced characters, Tara Ison’s novel offers both horrific tragedy and the possibility of redemption.
Told from the perspective of a young Jewish girl grappling with identity, Ison’s timely book considers that moment between dusk and night, the almost imperceptible shift into darkness, both political and personal, as it exposes the high cost of accommodation of evil and bigotry. Provocative, vivid, and affecting, this novel will inspire important conversations that we all need to be having now.
EJ Levy, author of The Cape doctor
Tara Ison is the author of The List (Scribner), A Child out of Alcatraz (Faber & Faber, Inc.), a Finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize, and Rockaway (Counterpoint/Soft Skull Press), featured as one of the “Best Books of Summer” in O, The Oprah Magazine, July 2013. Her essay collection, Reeling Through Life: How I Learned to Live, Love, and Die at the Movies, was the Winner of the PEN Southwest Book Award for Best Creative Nonfiction. She earned her MFA in Fiction & Literature from Bennington College and has taught creative writing at Washington University in St. Louis, Northwestern University, Ohio State University, Goddard College, Antioch University Los Angeles, and UC Riverside Palm Desert. She is currently Professor of Fiction at Arizona State University. To learn more, visit her website.
At the Hour Between Dog and Wolf is a thrilling novel, not just as a splendid read but as a deeply resonant work of art driven by the central yearning in the greatest literary narratives: the yearning for a self, for an identity, for a place in the world. Tara Ison has always been a writer I’ve ardently admired. Here she is at the height of her estimable powers.
Robert Olen Butler, Pulitzer-Prize winning author of A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain and Paris in the Dark
To purchase At the Hour Between Dog and Wolf, go here.
We’re also very excited to share an interview that dives deeper into Tara Ison’s book. This interview was conducted by our Blog Editor, Brennie Shoup. Please note that the transcript has been edited for clarity.
Brennie Shoup: Hello, everyone! I’m Brennie, one of the blog editors for Superstition Review this semester. And today, I’m going to be interviewing Tara Ison about her new book At the Hour Between Dog and Wolf, which details the life of a young Jewish girl—Danielle—during the German occupation of France. Tara is the award-winning author of a variety of books, short stories, poetry, and essays. We’re really happy that you agreed to do this interview. I’m personally very excited to see what you have to say. And is there anything you’d like to add, Tara?
Tara Ison: I just want to add—thank you, Brennie. I really appreciate you doing this, and I love Superstition Review, and we’ve been working together all semester. And you’re just an absolute joy, and you’re a gorgeous writer. This is really lovely—to be able to discuss with you. Thank you.
BS: Awesome! Thank you—I really love the book. I’m really happy that I get to know more about it, so… let’s get in. Our first question is—what was your inspiration for the central idea of the book? Specifically, the psychological transformation of Danielle from a young Jewish girl—basically telling lies to keep herself safe—to, as the cover says (or the back of the book says), a “strict Catholic, an anti-Semite, and a fervent disciple of fascism”?
TI: That’s a big arc to take a character, and that’s exactly what I was interested in—in trying to explore this story. I didn’t set out to write a political novel, although, in recent years, the theme of the rise of global anti-Semitism and fascism has become disturbingly timely. But at the time, that’s exactly what I was interested in: how do you take a vulnerable mind and… I think we’re all vulnerable—to some degree. But here is my character: she’s twelve years old. It’s World War II, and she is put in a position of… She was raised a rather privileged, sheltered little girl in Paris with her parents, and the war starts. Her father is killed. And her mother takes her down to live on a farm with a Catholic family and take on the persona—in hiding—as a Catholic orphan. And that’s an enormous amount of pressure to put on someone, especially an adolescent, I think.
Because, at that point, the sense of self and sense of one’s own identity… It’s still forming; it’s still fragile. And she’s told, explicitly, “If you make a mistake, the police are going to come kill all of us.” So we’ve got an adolescent mind—which I think is already in a state of vulnerability—but you pile on top of that the idea of what is at stake here if you make a mistake. And she does need to survive, and I think this is how it happened. I think, if you take a vulnerable mind and you manipulate them and indoctrinate them the right way—the leaning toward an idealogy that makes you feel safe, that tells you you’re going to be safe. That tells you, ultimately, that you are one of the better people in the world, better than a lot of those “other kinds” of people. I think, [that] can be extremely seductive. And Danielle, primarily out of fear, buys into that ideology—initially it’s just a game of pretend. But she does buy into that ideology and gets lost in the new identity and lost in that ideology. So, yeah, by the end of the novel, she has been transformed into a completely different person.
BS: Yeah, yeah. For sure, and I think—I don’t know—it was so tragic to read. In a really good way, in a really beautiful way. It’s tragic. I think it’s important.
And so, for our next question: What kinds of research did you do to get the details of the book accurate? Was there any research you did that you wanted to include but couldn’t figure out how?
TI: I love this question because Brennie and I are in a class together right now—that I’m teaching—called “Research-based Fiction.” And it’s a topic that I absolutely love from a craft perspective. I love research—I always joke—partly because it’s a great excuse not to be writing. But [I love research] because of what you can discover in the process. Even if you think you have a vague idea of something, as you start doing the research, if you’re open to it… If you go into research thinking, “Okay, I need to learn this one fact that I don’t know,” I think that’s a mistake. I think if you go into research being very open-minded about “I don’t know where this is going to lead me or what I’m going to discover,” you can really discover treasures that can help shape the narrative, that can help develop character. I think it gives your character a frame of reference. It gives you information on the life they live outside the limited parameters of the story that you’re telling. And I think all of that goes toward shaping and developing three-dimensional characters.
It also gives you a language—a lexicon. Because the world we live in, or the job we have, or the society, or the religion, or the hobbies, or whatever it is… Brings us into a world with a very specific sort of metaphorical lens through which to view the world. And a vocabulary. And that kind of attention to language, I think, can create a lot of texture in the prose. Because it is the character’s frame of reference and it’s the way the character thinks. But I think, very critically, it can help you avoid cliché because a character can be expressing thoughts, emotions, philosophy, feelings, whatever… in a way that’s really, really specific to the details of their own personal experience. So it keeps you away from the more generic, “war is bad” and “love conquers all.” It can really be more grounded in characters’ experience that way.
BS: Yeah, yeah, and if it’s okay, I have a quick follow-up question. So, earlier, you mentioned you were interested in the sort of psychological aspect of the book. Did you do any research into psychology, into that sort of field?
TI: Yeah, you know, I didn’t do specific reference into, you know, what we would colloquially call “brainwashing” or the sort of Stockholm syndrome of people who are basically isolated with their oppressor, and, ultimately, as a survival mechanism, begin to identify and bond with that person. I didn’t do a lot of research into that.
I did do an enormous amount of research into the experience of hidden children during World War II. And no two stories are the same. Some children were put into hiding as infants, and never knew any other family, any other life. And at the end of the war, if they were fortunate enough to have living relatives, who, at that point, wanted to take them back, that’s a certain kind of trauma for that child. A lot of it had to do with the specific circumstances: the age of the child when they went into hiding, the circumstances… Some people were put into hiding into a relatively safe, comfortable existence. Some were put into hiding where they spent four years living in a closet, and I mean that very literally. So there’s so many different stories. And it is a fictional story—I’m not telling the story of one actual person—but I really wanted to honor the experience by understanding the range of experiences and the trauma that so many children went through. And the lingering trauma that they have had to grapple with after the war.
And, of course, this is still going on: displaced people, displaced children, refugees. This is not a phenomenon that only existed in World War II; it still exists.
BS: Well, thank you for that—that’s very interesting. So for our third question: Danielle—or Marie-Jeanne (or, as I always said in my head “Mary Jean,” very Americanized), as she thinks of herself then—does something, at the end (I don’t want to spoil it) many would consider unforgivable. What made you decide to create such devastating consequences for her transformation?
TI: I love that you said that because one of my concerns when writing this novel was that it wasn’t devastating enough. That the choices she makes, and the decisions that Marie-Jeanne makes, lead to some bad things happening, but I was worried the novel wasn’t big enough. We’re mostly limited to the village where she lives. I was worried there wasn’t enough drama or enough big war stuff happening in the novel. But my instinct, again, was to make this a very internal, psychological novel. So I hope—it sounds like I hit the right balance.
Yeah, some of the decisions she makes, and the choices she makes… I think she has to face a reckoning, and I’m a believer in story pushing a character to a point of reckoning. What has happened in the story, what has befallen this character, that changes them irrevocably. And I wanted, first to Danielle, and then Marie-Jeanne, to be confronted with the consequences of some of her actions and some of her decisions in a way that would really force a reckoning, where she has to really take a look at what she has become and who she has become at the end of the novel.
BS: Well, for me as a reader, I was devastated by the end.
TI: [Laughs] It’s like again, good! I’m glad, great.
BS: Well, I think, as you mention, I could tell that it was an intentional devastation, like a good catharsis, when you see someone fall and try to get back up from that. I was very sad, but it was really good.
So, for the fourth question: The title of your novel is especially striking. As it’s explained in the book, it refers a specific time of dusk when you can’t easily distinguish dog from wolf. I love that you used it as a metaphor for basically the entire novel, but what mad you decide that it was something to focus on or include?
TI: I think… I love the title, too, I have to say. It’s long; it’s unwieldy. No one will ever be able to remember correctly. Someone searching for the book will end up, you know, “Dog books?” I stuck to my guns on the title because, as you said, I think it works on multiple levels. I came across the phrase—it’s entre chien et loup—between dog and wolf—is a French, idiomatic expression. And it means dusk or twilight. And I don’t know where—I wish I could remember what I was reading or when it happened, where I came upon that phrase, but it sort of clicked in my head.
You and I have talked about this a lot in class—metaphor can’t function as metaphor unless it first works at the literal level. It has to be organic; it has to make sense. Otherwise, you’re trying to impose poetry onto something. And it absolutely works. There’s a very literal, realistic moment early in the novel, where she and her father are walking through the streets of Paris at twilight, and he points to the sky. And [he] says, “Okay, we’re between dog and wolf at this hour, so look at the sky. And I want you to tell me the exact moment when day changes to night.” When, as you said, the dog becomes the wolf. And she’s not able to do it. There’s no exact moment you can pinpoint. And yes, I wanted that to be psychological structure of the novel—is that those tiny, tiny, tiny gradations of shading that lead my character from light to dark. I love that title, yeah, thank you.
BS: Yeah, I do, too. Once it was in the book, and knowing the premise, I was like, “Wow, this is doing so much work for the book on multiple levels.” I love it.
So, for our fifth question: Danielle’s transformation from a spoiled—or, as you said, privileged—lifestyle to a “peasant’s,” as she calls it, lifestyle is very difficult for her at first. What considerations went into depicting the different classes, or these two different class specifically, in the book?
TI: It was certainly easier, for me, to identify with Danielle’s world in the earlier days while she’s still living with her parents in Paris. Only child—I’m not an only child—but she’s an only child, rather pampered and over-privileged. She’s Jewish, but leading a secular life, as do I. Her father’s an academic. So there’s books everywhere in the house, and she develops a love of reading. So I can really relate to that twelve-year-old Danielle.
And then when she goes to live in the countryside, with, as you say, people she considers “peasants…” They’re farmers; they live in a tiny little village. They’re Catholic. She’s so disdainful of them. She thinks they’re ignorant and dirty, and their house, to her, is a hovel. She doesn’t understand how people could possibly live this way. But now she has to. And an aspect of the arc I wanted Danielle to experience was a growing appreciation for the hardness of this life. These are people who live off the land. If they don’t grow it or make it, they can’t eat, they can’t have clothes, they don’t have a house… And it’s incredibly hard work. And initially, she’s never worked a day in her life. She doesn’t know how to wash a dish.
But over the course of the story, as she bonds with this family, who have taken her in, and also as the scarcity of life in France during WWII increases… You know, very difficult to get food, very difficult to get clothing. The French had quotas of everything that had to be sent to Germans. Their milk, their vegetables, their animals, their meat… France was slowly being starved to death by the Nazi government. And Danielle has to really start working hard if she wants to eat. And she really, I think, grows to appreciate the life these people are living, and how hard they work—but also what they’ve done for her.
You know, initially, she’s so disdainful of them, but as she bonds with them, as she gets older, she wants to help take care of them the way she feels they took care of her when she was little. She doesn’t see it that way at first, but a few years down the road, she wants to take care of them. And that means taking on a lot of the responsibility of the household because these people are getting older. So, the paradox is, in a way… yes, I know she’s becoming an anti-Semitic fascist, but, in a way, she’s also becoming a better person because the values of the simple life, of hard work, of family, really start to mean something to her. Does that address the question?
BS: Yeah, I thought, even as I was reading, that it was an interesting dichotomy between how loving she was to these people. And, to be clear, I liked the family; I felt it was a very honest depiction of, of like a Catholic family, although I’m not Catholic… But I thought it was interesting that love was growing, even as her fear fueled how much she hated “the other,” as you said.
TI: It’s a complicated position for her to be in.
BS: And then… The book is from Danielle’s point of view, but you also include excerpts from her school assignments. This, to me, felt like a clever way to show readers how much she has to lie to keep herself safe, especially in the beginning. I think one of the excerpts is the beginning pages. So what gave you the idea to do this, and are these assignments based on real ones you found in your research?
TI: Um, no, no. They’re entirely invented, but they also feel perfectly normal and natural to me—that [at] the beginning of every school year, the kids are required to write a little essay. The novel is told in five sections, and a school assignment begins each section. How you’re describing it is exactly what I was hoping that they would do. Which is to act as markers for Danielle’s transformation because, in the first one, there’s the school assignment where she’s, as Marie-Jeanne, having to pretend, is talking about her wonderful life, with her uncle and aunt, who took her in, and she loves life on the farm with them. Everything is just wonderful. The assignment ends, and it immediately goes to Danielle’s voice basically saying, “This is all such a joke. This is some stupid assignment that I have to write for my new school here.” Again, she’s so disdainful of it.
So the distance between what she’s presenting in the assignment and the contrast between the real Danielle when we move into her narrative… It’s mean to be black and white in the first section. But as the sections go on, that dichotomy, that juxtaposition, becomes smaller. And in the beginnings of sections four and five, there’s no distance at all between the voice of the young woman—the teenager—writing the school assignment and who she has become. They become absolutely sincere and authentic. And I wanted to calibrate the novel, so each one of those five school assignments made really clear to the read—because they all jump forward in time a little bit—where we’re at with her transformation.
BS: Yeah, I agree. I thought that the assignments, you know, they must have been authentic. I was very much like, this feels like an assignment that a teacher would’ve given. And I think, at least for me, they do exactly that: marking her transition. And then, so this is our final question: Do you have anything you’re working on now? What’s new?
TI: [Laughs] I’m tired! I’ve been working on this novel for so long. You know, granted, I’ve done other projects, other books… I’d put Dog and Wolf down for a couple of months, maybe a couple years, but always go back to it. At this point, I’m really working on some new short stories. You know, a novel is so massive and overhwhelming, and as Henry James said (although I think I’m misquoting): “A huge, shaggy beast.” That there is something really lovely about returning to the form of the short story and being able to get my arms around it. A little bit, you know, in a different way than trying to manage the scale of the novel.
So, yeah—I’m working on some short stories, and I’ll see. I’ve got a couple of ideas for another novel, but I think it might be a little while before I’m up for it.
BS: That’s fair. I mean, I’ve never written a novel, certainly. And I struggle enough with short stories. Thank you so much, again, for agreeing to do the interview! I loved your answers.
TI: I love your questions, Brennie! This was fantastic. Thank you.
BS: Thank you. Well, it’ll go up on our blog and our YouTube page, so thank you so much!
At turns hilariously absurd and gut-wrenchingly heartfelt, Terese Svoboda’s Dog on Fire, published by the University of Nebraska Press, defies genre. Svoboda juggles comedy, mystery, tragedy, horror—and masters them all. The book follows a recently-divorced woman grieving the mysterious and early death of her estranged brother. Her unusual circumstances lead her to move back to her small Midwestern home town, where everything and anything she does creates ripples of rumor. There, she confronts perilous Halloween parties, Jell-O inventions, guns, grave-diggers, and, of course, dogs on fire.
With rich prose more reminiscent of poetry, Svoboda’s characters burst from the page. One “harbors streaks of shyness the way bacon is streaked, between boldnesses,” while another drags “nothing out of this primordial water and [tries] to turn it inside out, into a something.” They’re as compelling and unforgettable as they are human.
At its heart, though, Dog on Fire is about two women struggling to find themselves—and overcome their mistrust of each other—when someone they love has died and their worlds seem to be falling apart.
Tense, poignant, urgent, and at times scathing, with Dog on Fire Svoboda has performed the astonishing dual feat of writing what could be called a contemporary Dust Bowl Gothic novel and creating a pitch-perfect work depicting the feelings of rage, grief, and isolation that come with losing a loved one. Without a doubt, Dog on Fire is Svoboda at her finest.
Rone Shavers, author of Silverfish
Terese Svoboda has written 20 books—including Cannibal, which won the Bobst Prize and the Great Lakes Colleges Association First Fiction Prize, and Tin God, which was a John Gardner Fiction book Award Finalist. She has won the Iowa Prize for poetry, an NEH grant for translation, the Graywolf Nonfiction Prize, a Jerome Foundation prize for video, the O. Henry award for the short story, and a Pushcart Prize for the essay. She is a three time winner of the New York Foundation for the Arts fellowship, and has been awarded Headlands, James Merrill, Hawthornden, Hermitage, Yaddo, McDowell, and Bellagio residencies. To learn more, visit her website.
Dog on Fire is a blisteringly perceptive novel about grief, secrets, and the intractability of love. The mysteries surrounding one man’s death, narrated alternately by his sister and his lover, yield no easy answers in this haunting and darkly witty reckoning.
We’re also very excited to share an interview that dives deeper into Terese Svoboda’s book. This interview was conducted via email by our Blog Editor, Brennie Shoup.
Brennie Shoup: In your novel, only one character—Aphra—is named. The rest are given titles or referred to by their familial role. Could you discuss why you chose to do this?
Terese Svoboda: I like to think by not naming the characters, the reader identifies more quickly with them, has no Jane or Edward that he despises that might stand in the way of relating to the character’s predicament. Besides, naming suggests a familiarity that isn’t there, especially at the beginning of a book. You’ve just been introduced and you’re plunged into a narrative-of-no-return? There’s resistance. Aphra is named so as not to confuse the two female voices but I could have done without hers too—my fifth book of fiction, Pirate Talk or Mermalade, uses only unnamed voices in the 18th century—but to police that is a lot of work, and too arch for Dog on Fire.
BS: What were your inspirations for this work? Do you have any other authors or creators you look to when you write?
TS: A dead brother was the main inspiration, and how his epilepsy and death affected the (much camouflaged but emotionally true-in-the-book) family. I’m originally (and still) a poet and that’s where most of my influences lie, where words and emotion drive the narrative as much as plot—with poetry’s emphasis on accuracy and conciseness thrown in. I’ve always loved Russell Edson’s surreal prose poems. In prose, I would’ve liked to have written Self-Portrait in Green by the French writer Marie Ndiaye.
BS: Many of the themes in this book revolve around family, gender, love, hate, and abuse. Could you talk about what drew you to these themes? Did you have a hard time interweaving these themes, or did they seem naturally drawn to each other when you wrote?
TS: The world of family, gender, love, hate, and abuse—that’s the stuff of most novels! And you really can’t have one without the other. But I never think about themes. That’s for you, the critic. The sentence is my guiding principle, and seldom do I imagine much beyond it. If a theme coalesces around a group of sentences, that’s great. Words pack so much connotation that it’s enough to get out a sentence, let alone a theme.
BS: In this novel, you don’t use quotation marks for dialogue. You also go between Aphra’s point of view and our main narrator’s point of view. How did you decide to write the book in this way?
TS: I never use quotations marks for dialogue in my fiction. I don’t like to clutter up the page with a lot of symbols—they’re like cymbals to me, clanging away to remind the reader, This is speech, when sometimes speech is half-imagined. A writer should be deft enough to manipulate the syntax to show who’s speaking.
Aphra’s point of view came late in the book’s revisions, in response to an excellent reader’s review. I’m hoping Aphra offers additional information and complexity to the plot, and another point of view makes the narrator’s perceptions more credible. I feared that a new reader might not be able to shake off pre-conceived notions about someone of a certain size without listening to her side of the story.
BS: Do you have any novels or other projects you’re working on?
TS: My eighth book of fiction, Roxy and Coco, about two harpies-turned-social-workers who now and then off abusive parents, will be published by West Virginia University Press next spring—and I’ve just won a prize (I’m not supposed to say which for another month!) for a collection of stories called The Long Swim that will also come out next spring. My second memoir, Hitler and My Mother-in-Law is, at the moment, longlisted for possible publication. When it rains, as in NZ, it pours. I am particularly grateful to university presses, especially the University of Nebraska Press that has published two of my novels and reprinted another two.
But stand back! My drawers are deep—I have two more collections and three more novels needing homes, and I’m very excited about a new novel manuscript I’m working on called Goose Girl.
Congratulations to Kelly Gray for her upcoming memoir Tiger Paw, Tiger Paw, Knife, Knife, published by Quarter Press. Filled with beautiful prose, each story twists and recurs back on the stories told before it. Gray expertly blends themes of love and abuse, birth and rebirth, and death and life. Her words are complimented by Holly L’Oiseau’s stunning illustrations.
Some of the works within Tiger Paw, Tiger Paw, Knife, Knife spark like tiny flashes of brilliance—as in “The History of Flowers that Eat Meat.” Only a page long, this surreal piece depicts a strange sort of growing up. In the short space, a single word holds dozens of meanings: “I am bog blossom pretty, which is to say, not at all. My skin is fly paper sticky and boys think it’s honey.”
Other, longer works burn more slowly but are no less rewarding. In “Serenade Switchblade,” Gray artfully describes a relationship that descends from teenage infatuation to terrible violence. The last, powerful sentences of the piece grip the reader and won’t let go: “It tasted like the moment before you scream because I am prettier dead than any poem you’ll ever write.”
Kelly Gray (she/her/hers) lives in Northern California on unceded Coast Miwok and Kashaya Pomo land. She writes about what she knows or is trying to know; parenting, eco-grief, mental health, dead things, monsters, prophetic animals, relationships to self and others, and rural life. To learn more, visit her website.
To purchase Tiger Paw, Tiger Paw, Knife, Knife, go here.
We’re also very excited to share an interview that dives deeper into Kelly Gray’s book. This interview was conducted via email by our Blog Editor, Brennie Shoup.
Brennie Shoup: Tiger Paw, Tiger Paw, Knife, Knife is described as a “folk-told” memoir. Could you discuss what inspired you to write a memoir in such an unusual way?
Kelly Gray: I have always found genres to be containers that don’t fit my writing. The separation of fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction (which can hold memoir) seems unnecessarily clinical to me. I hope to have a level of fluidity within my work which represents my beliefs around connection in the world. I want to share my stories while being real about the people in my life. When appropriate, I want to honor and protect other people’s experiences but still be able to say these are my origin stories, this is where I come from.
When I say folk-told, that is a nod towards all the storytellers before and after me, as well as the characters within the stories. Folk-told is my acknowledgment that we have these experiences together and I just happen to be the writer this time. For instance, in Sylvia, I was drawing from my work as an abortion and birth attendant watching families grapple with loss and the logistics of death, but the character Sylvia was coming up through me and my own witnessing of an infant’s death and my desires to be held more fully by my community. The life of Sylvia and William come from a careful folding in of years of experience and influence, told through the lens of fiction, because that is how we get to the fox, which is probably the truest-to-my heart part of that story.
BS: Your memoir blends humanity with nature, often through surrealism. Could you talk about why you chose to do this?
KG: It’s less of a choice and more of an acknowledgment of how I absorb the world. Specific images will take up in my body as I am move through the world. My writing process is often an act of personal translation, from imagery to sentences to stories. My first drafts are my attempts to understand myself—I am learning as I go. The act of revision is when I begin to mold what I’ve learned and through sound and syntax and sometimes trajectories, I get to relate it to others. It comes out as surrealism, or speculative, or fantastical. But I think it’s just where my brain is blooming pictures.
As far as the nature aspect, it may reveal as much about the reader’s place in the world as mine. It’s what I am looking at every day. If you don’t see it as much, maybe it stands out more in the stories. As I write this, I am looking at a wall of trees, and the creek below my house is so loud it sounds like a storm. I can see a raven on a tree and above that, in the sky, a kettle of turkey vultures are out warming their wings after weeks of ravaging rain. This is just what I see, and as a naturalist, I have learned a langue that allows me to name what I am paying attention to.
BS: The title itself—Tiger Paw, Tiger Paw, Knife, Knife—is eye-catching in its specificity, especially with the repetitions. Why did you choose this title for your memoir?
KG: I wasn’t intending to do this initially, but tiger paws and knives come up in several stories, starting with Frank the tiger cutting off his own paw in the face of domesticity. That is the overarching theme of the book: how much we are willing to cut out to find our more authentic selves? For me, apparently, it needs frequent repeating in my life. The titles ends up being a mantra of sorts.
BS: Many of your smaller prose pieces deal with both love and abuse, as in “Coyote Story” and “Switchblade Serenade.” Could you discuss how you balance these themes as a writer, particularly in such short spaces?
KG: This book was always more about the impetus for change as opposed to the change itself. In “Switchblade Serenade,” the main character had to die and be dead for some time before she realized she had been tricked into foregoing love by little affections. Of course, the reader sees it. The reader is like, “Sweetie, this is a horrible situation for you, you should bounce.” But she doesn’t—she stays. I think that is relatable because many of us are in a collective holding pattern with abuse right now.
Abuse is complicated because it’s often shrouded in kernels of what we need for survival. An abuser can make you feel good or can provide you essentials like shelter or income. You may not think you can provide these things for yourself, and sometimes that is true. For instance, this is why we must look at the housing crisis when we are talking about domestic violence, or why union busting tactics often include things dispensing really great benefits in the face of a mounting campaign. My writing is as much about the misconceptions of personalized love as it is about systemic abuse, because what I am really talking about is getting rid of what we don’t need, and that is hard to do when it feels so good, or is legitimately something that you need, such as a parent.
Writing is always an act of self-love because as writers, we are saying I am worth listening to. At the beginning of any piece, no matter how small the work, we have an invisible contract with our reader that says I am taking up this space and that requires some amount of self-love. From there, we can explore all the places love doesn’t exist, and I think the reader is able to go along for the ride because it is story, as opposed to living it or witnessing it in real time. The readers understands that at some invisible yet foundational level, love is beaming up through the work. Love makes writing about abuse palatable whereas the craft makes it engaging.
Coming in April 2023, The Veil Between Two Worlds, published by She Writes Press, is Christina Vo’s debut book and memoir. With a matter-of-fact and poignant voice, Vo lets readers peak behind the words to glimpse her life. With the loss of her mother at a young age—and a distant father—Vo details time spent trying to heal and find a place she can call home. She draws readers in with her keen descriptions of what “home” is or can be—both as a physical space and an emotional/spiritual one. Vo writes that home is “a place we find within ourselves—warm, comforting, and nurturing.”
The memoir itself recounts Vo’s journey with one of her closest friends—David—as they go on a roadtrip together from San Fransisco to Santa Fe. While they travel, Vo thinks back on her life and what has led her to this point. Ultimately, Vo’s memoir is a deep, hopeful contemplation on how lives intertwine.
Christina Vo is a Vietnamese-American writer. She has worked for international organizations, including UNICEF and the World Economic Forum, in Vietnam and Switzerland, respectively. She also owned and operated a floral design business in San Francisco. She has degrees from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the London School of Economics and Political Science. She lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico. To learn more about her and keep up-to-date on her latest works, visit her website.
We’re also very excited to share an interview that dives deeper into Christina Vo’s memoir. This interview was conducted via email by our Blog Editor, Brennie Shoup.
Brennie Shoup: You’ve done a lot of traveling, and you’ve lived in a number of countries, including the USA, Switzerland, and Vietnam. How have these experiences contributed to your writing? How do you see your writing in a global context?
Christina Vo: Yes, absolutely—I believe that our sense of place, where we’ve lived, the people we’ve met, and where we call home (can be multiple places actually) have an impact on who we are and who we become. I lived in Vietnam on three separate occasions in my twenties, and as I mention when I speak about a forthcoming project related to Vietnam, living there shaped my adult identity. I didn’t graduate from college and move to a city like San Francisco or New York; I went to Hanoi. At that age, meeting and working with people from all over the world, made me realize—there’s no ONE right way to live one’s life, and I think that ultimately shaped how I thought about my whole life and career—that it didn’t have to be linear. It didn’t have to look like anyone else’s. So yes, my perspective and my writing is inevitably shaped by my travels; however, I think the theme of place really comes in more with my second book.
In regards to how I see my writing in a global context, I remember a friend of mine, who is a Vietnamese writer, told me that if I started off with the Vietnam story, I might be pigeonholed as a writer who can only write about Vietnam. Of course, I don’t entirely believe that’s true; I feel as artists, writers and creators, as we continue to live, we will evolve. However, those words did stick with me. I specifically see The Veil as a story mainly for women who are navigating their paths, so that’s how I connect it to a global context, even though obviously, depending on where a woman is living in the world, she will face different challenges.
But at heart, we all, whether consciously or not, go through the life questions: Why am I here? Why do I hold these wounds? What is stopping me from living my full expression of myself? How do I define myself, beyond the societal expectations of who I should be? And, how do I express the fullest version of myself? Essentially, I see that these questions, which drive this first body of work, are universal to some extent.
BS: You mention creativity and expression in your memoir. When did you know that you wanted to write as a part of your creativity? Have you ever experimented with other art forms, such as drawing or painting?
CV: I believe creativity and expression is fundamental to who we are as human beings navigating this earthly world. In large part, I would classify The Veil as a spiritual memoir, so I feel that it’s natural that creativity and expression come up and through the book as a theme.
I have always been drawn to writing but never really claimed it until the pandemic, and until I really sat down to finish this memoir. Writing has always called to me, even when I was a teenager and facing the death of my mother. I remember something within me saying, “Write this now. So that you can remember it.” Of course, I didn’t, but the things that are truest in your life will always find a way back in your life. And what I’ve learned is that you have to claim them or there will be this quiet dissatisfaction which might eventually consume you.
I have dabbled in other forms of creativity, from trying to create a sustainable handbag line while living in Vietnam and also working with local craftspeople in developing countries to bring their wares to market. I also often worked on small projects helping with interior decorating throughout my career, and of course, started blogs that I also stopped after some time. In my mid-thirties, I ran a flower design business. I was pretty much self-taught, but working with flowers was a huge part of my creative life and healing (and another long topic entirely). It was beautiful—and incredibly challenging—to work with flowers on a regular basis. It taught me a lot about the natural process of life and the powerful lessons of Mother Nature herself.
BS: The Veil Between Two Worlds deals a lot with loneliness vs. connectedness. Did you notice whether any of your topics influenced the form or shape of the book itself? If so, how?
CV: Thank you for mentioning that and for picking up on that theme of loneliness vs. connectedness. That’s actually probably one of my lifelong dilemmas that I came to this planet to grapple with. Bear in mind that The Veil was written during the pandemic, so I also believe the external factors of all of our lives (and the inevitable loneliness of social distance) was pervasive through the writing process.
I had wonderful developmental editing support for this book and also benefited from a six month memoir writing class I took during this time. When I started I didn’t really know what it was about, I didn’t know the arc, and while the book covers a period of my own life between 40-42, a time of deep spiritual transformation, I didn’t want to tell the story chronologically, so it weaves in and out of that period of time and also has a heavy backstory with the interactions with my family.
So, yes, I think that topics did inform the shape, as when we’re experiencing something in the moment, it’s also inevitably related to something else in the past. For example, let’s say we’re facing an ending or a break-up of some sort, we will feel the pain of that experience but it might also trigger something that happened in the past, even a childhood experience. I do believe that is probably what unintentionally shaped the way this story is told—the moving between time, and as referenced in the title, between worlds.
BS: Do you have any other pieces you’re working on?
CV: Yes, I’m working on two larger bodies of work—both of which I’m really excited about. One is what I call an intergenerational memoir, which I’m collaborating with my father on. It’s about our very different relationships with Vietnam. For him, leaving the country he loved and lost at the end of the war, and for me, Vietnam was really where I became an adult in my twenties, having lived there on three different occasions. I feel it’s a beautiful book because it touches on universal themes—intergenerational trauma, father-daughter relationships, immigration and reverse migration.
The second body of work is similar to the first memoir loosely based on my life, but I suppose it would be classified as auto-fiction or a semi-autobiographical novel. I’m really excited about this one because it focuses more on being a woman in the world today and grappling with identity, balancing the masculine/feminine within, and very similar to my own character—being a woman that’s not shaped by society (even though to some extent we all are) but by that I mean, not living based on other people’s expectations on how we should live.
Winner of the Kore Press Institute Poetry Prize, Jessica Lawson’s new poetry collection Gash Atlas is both beautiful and devastating. Combining sexual violence, history, and the speaker’s own complicity, Lawson creates a twisted mirror of our own world. Suffusing this world is the figure “Christopher Columbus,” a villain personifying a long legacy of colonization and current political terror. Columbus’s lines are filled with haunting references: “there is no turning the globe can make away from me… The fake news says there is no / oxygen in space, but anywhere is breathable if you know who to pay.” This is a collection that lingers.
Gash Atlas gives us a map of words—the physical and philosophical language—to navigate a visceral reckoning. History and the present move insidiously through bodies that serve as “soft / places to plant menace.” There is relentless difficulty, complexity, setbacks, toughness, rage. There’s hard humor alongside the exhaustion of everyday fear. Actual and symbolic horror, borne and delivered through the tender precarity of motherhood and violently performative femme-presence, show us the unsustainable cost of institutional force. How intimate it is, how prevalent, how invasive even to one’s own private thoughts—“I have a fantasy of lying down in snow and not being.” Jessica Lawson’s poems, images and stagings take the pulse of existence and offer a bold, intimate conversation that shows us just how close we—humans—are to the ultimate wreck, if we continue charting our world according to the persistent peril of ignorance.
Khadijah Queen, author of I’m So Fine: A List of Famous Men & What I Had On
Jessica Lawson’s work has appeared in TheRumpus, Entropy, The Wanderer, Cosmonauts Avenue, and elsewhere. Gash Atlas is her first book. To learn more about Lawson, visit her website.
Behind every great man/ is too much forgiving/ and an awl of blood” writes Jessica Lawson in Gash Atlas, a collection that erodes the statue Christopher Columbus has erected like a gash in each subjectivity colonized by powerful men. Lawson has given us poems that strike a balance between daring to ask the urgent questions and posing them with the care of one who knows how language often operates as a colonial mode.
Raquel Salas Rivera, author of lo terciario/ the tertiary and while they sleep (under the bed is another country)
We’re also very excited to share an interview that dives deeper into Lawson’s collection. This interview was conducted via email by our Blog Editor, Brennie Shoup.
Brennie Shoup: What inspired you to create Gash Atlas?
Jessica Lawson: I had multiple moments of inspiration, or at least motivation, that defined this project for me. The first was the 2016 election, which transformed my previous plans to write a manuscript about maps into a project that was much more directly political. I began to accrue poems about the terror of that current moment, as well as the violent histories informing it. The character of an antagonist emerged, who would later become Christopher Columbus. Then a second defining moment came, this time more quietly but perhaps more powerfully. It was when I realized that my book wasn’t just, or only, about Trump, but was about the complicity of my own speaker in the violence he was performing. The book didn’t really come together for me until I did the difficult work of problematizing the voice through which the book itself is coming, letting the book question its own speaker. The book and its composition, in real time, became about strategies for fighting against a system that imbues one’s own subject position. It’s why I gave the book an epigraph that came from a protest slogan by liberal white women, and attributed it to Columbus. My book is about maps, about violence, about Trump, and about white womanhood, and I realized each of these through the act of writing it.
BS: Your collection includes what’s been described as visual and poetic “maps.” Would you be able to discuss why you used the forms you did in this collection?
JL: Visually experimental literature is something I’ve been passionate about for a long time, and is reflected in a lot of the work I’ve already published. I think there is sometimes a misconception that visual literature, or experimental literature more broadly, is necessarily apolitical, and I’d love to see that change. Visual and hybrid poetry gets associated with a messed-up school of poetic elitism that uses “experiment” as a way of looking down upon any readers who can’t (or don’t wish to) understand it. And while there are absolutely writers who create experimental literature that way (those are the boring ones), there is also a rich history of activist writers who use experimentation to activate their texts and their readers, jolting us out of our seats by demonstrating that this is not business as usual. So, that’s a big part of why the forms of these pieces are so important to me. Sometimes, the political needs of the time necessitate breaking away from the forms we’ve inherited. Sometimes, when the world feels like it’s breaking apart, the pages and words need to break with it.
BS: Gash Atlas examines both past and present atrocities, with a particular focus on Christopher Columbus. Could you describe what your research process looked like?
JL: I was researching for this book long before I ever knew I’d write it. I remember years ago learning that Columbus was a terrible navigator, that he thought that the globe was shaped like a pear (or breast) rather than a sphere, that he wholly mistook the place he landed for an entirely different continent. I didn’t know I’d ever be using those bits of information to write poems, but once I decided to include Columbus in the book, this entire set of trivia flooded back in. From there, most of the other research had to do with the present moment I was writing in. I wrote about the United State’s opposition to the U.N. resolution banning the death penalty for homosexuality as it happened. I felt like my book wasn’t just reaching back into a history I’d already learned, but sprinting frantically forward after history as it was happening. The very last poem I put in the book, days before my draft was due to my press, responded to the January 6 attack on the Capitol. I was scared as I wrote it, both about what had just happened, and about having to let go of the manuscript before Trump left office. In a way, it feels like he never did.
BS: Do you have plans for future poetry collections or novels?
JL: I’m currently working on a second book of poems (though, like Gash Atlas, it includes hybrid elements that sometimes complicate its status as poetry). It’s about the body’s relationship to money, sexuality, and trauma. I’m getting pretty far along: the structure is falling into place, and a substantial portion of the poems have been written. Now I’m working on making the space to really look at it and push it toward completion (which is a challenge to do while I’m teaching four classes and raising three children). I’m excited and scared about it, which makes me think I’m where I need to be.