Tag Archives: writing about family

An Interview with Steve Adams

17 Sep
Steve Adams has won multiple awards for his writing, most recently a Pushcart Prize for his memoir, "Touch."

Steve Adams is a writing coach has won multiple awards for his stories, plays, and essays, most recently a Pushcart Prize for his memoir, “Touch.”

Steve Adams lives in Austin, Texas, where he is a writing coach. His memoir, “Touch,” appeared in The Pushcart Prize XXXVIII. He also has been published in Glimmer Train, The Missouri Review, The Pinch and Notre Dame Magazine. His plays and musicals have been produced in New York City.

To read Adams’ essay, “Waiting Till the Wait Is Over” and an exercise on directing the reader’s gaze, click here.

In this interview, Adams discusses writing for an imagined audience, shifting POV without knowing it, and circumventing chronology.

Michael Noll

You make an interesting nod to the reader at the beginning of the second paragraph: “People who have issues with hunting do not understand hunting as I experienced it.” Did this line always exist in the essay, or were you anticipating something about the particular audience for this particular magazine—that readers might have issues with hunting?


Steve Adams

I did not write this essay for that particular magazine, but wrote it, as I do most of my pieces, because a story or essay idea came to me. Afterward I try to find a home for it. That particular line was for my imagined audience while writing it. I’m a liberal, but I’m also a liberal from Texas with a hunting background, and posts from friends on Facebook and elsewhere in social media are not always forgiving or understanding toward hunters. I have a paranoid vision of a reader out there who’s screaming “Bambi killer!” at me. And though I happen to be one, I haven’t hunted since I was a teenager. So I placed that line there to try to buy time from that reader, to establish the possibility that there might be more going on with hunting, at least under proper conditions, than just slaying animals.

The original concept, before I even knew an essay would come from it, occurred in a random conversation at a party in 2002 when I was finishing up my MFA at The New School. I’d developed a reputation for being a guy who produced pages (whether good or bad) regularly, and classmates began asking me for advice along those lines. Writing’s tough for everyone, but I had no idea of the degree that a lot of otherwise gifted writers struggle to simply get words to the page. I’m a writing coach now, and I realize The New School is where I began coaching writers. Anyway, this friend and I were talking in 2002—I specifically remember we were standing a door frame leading to a living room—and somehow via the conversation (thanks, Rebecca!) we discovered that I wasn’t just a natural at producing pages, but that I’d had perhaps the best training possible for such work, and at a very formative age. It was a huge “Aha!” moment for me. Then maybe three years ago I came across the crazy/stupid/wonderful German word “sitzfleisch,” which describes the same capacity, namely being able to keep your butt (or your sit-flesh) in a chair and see a project through to completion.

Michael Noll

You also make a cool chronological move: telling the history of your experience with hunting from first grade to age 14 and, then, shifting back in time (“But I’ve jumped ahead. I want to go back to age 5.”) This seems like a move that many writers could borrow since chronology can be such a trap. We get caught in it and can’t escape, which limits our ability to make sense of events (a process that tends to be circular, not straightforward). How did you find this strategy? Purposefully or through happy accident?

Steve Adams

Good point regarding chronology. I worked with those sentences quite a bit trying to get the passage to feel “right.” First I listed a brief sequence of events, then circled back through expanding on them, and then told the reader I wanted to stop and go back and explore the larger meaning, the larger story they tell. I didn’t decide on that technique beforehand, but tried to follow what the essay seemed to want at the time, which is what I always do if I can. By the circling, as you noted, I think I was instinctively trying to circumvent being locked into strict chronology. I wanted the reader to pull up at that moment, to look back and instead of seeing those moments as separate and linear, to see them as a whole. I also wanted the reader to stop and consider what it might mean that as a child I carried a lethal firearm beside my father and knew full well it was lethal, as well as that if I did something really stupid I could accidentally take his life. He gave me an enormous responsibility by putting a gun in my hands, but also a staggering trust. The gesture carries immense personal weight for me.

Michael Noll

Steve Adams' essay, "Waiting Till the Wait Is Over," is a meditation on hunting and writing and the surprising connection between the two.

Steve Adams’ essay, “Waiting Till the Wait Is Over,” is a meditation on hunting and writing and the surprising connection between the two.

I love your shifts in perspective. For example, you start one paragraph like this: “Picture me beside him, our feet hanging off the platform’s edge.” And the very next paragraph starts this way: “Here is how you manage your presence on the deer blind.” This is the sort of thing that would seem to be forbidden by workshop teachers, but it’s really effective in drawing in the reader. Do you have a particular strategy for switching POV?

Steve Adams

I don’t have a particular strategy so much. And frankly, I wasn’t even aware I’d done that until you brought it up. But I went over that passage a lot, and again, in a focused creative state trying to make it “right.” And I just made that move and worked with it, much as a painter might intuitively decide their painting needs more yellow in the upper right hand corner, and without analyzing why (“why” doesn’t matter as much as “what”), does the work of adding it in. I was keenly aware of how the words sounded. But looking back and putting on my analytical goggles, I think part of my attempt was to break up the narrative flow. Like in the passage above where I break up chronology, I wanted to get the reader to slow down and consider not just the facts of this child’s experience (freezing, feet going to sleep, nose running, unable to move except in the smallest and smoothest of increments), but the fact that this particular child raised in this particular tradition wouldn’t even think twice about such discomforts, thereby (hopefully) causing the reader to frame them and that unit of thought as a whole unto itself that would connect to the discipline of writing.

Michael Noll

The essay is about the writing process, which is surprising given that it’s published in a general-interest magazine, not one aimed solely at writers. Is that why the writing aspect of it doesn’t appear until the end? Were you trying to draw the reader in with hunting and then make the connection with writing after the reader has bought into the story you’re telling?

Steve Adams

Notre Dame Magazine is an interesting hybrid sort of magazine. It’s general interest and focuses a lot on work from Notre Dame alums, but also has a section toward the back called Crosscurrents devoted to more personal essays. They’ve racked up a number of “notable” mentions from the Best American Essay series, and I know of one essay that was published in the series in 2013. My essay went in their magazine almost as-is. I’ve just placed a second piece with them so clearly we’ve got a sympatico relationship happening. They don’t shy from a piece that has a spiritual or ethical component (and not just Christian), and there’s definitely a strain of spiritualism through my essay and the next essay they took.

More than anything with this piece I just wanted to find a way to connect hunting, once I realized the impact it had on my life, with the discipline of writing. By my way of thinking, done right, both are spiritual disciplines. Both demand patience and endurance and usually a degree of hardship before you experience a shift in perspective. And I believe my instinct with this piece was to establish hunting as such a discipline first and foremost, then take a quick dip into meditation, and finally do that swoop into writing at the end, hopefully bringing it all together in a single gesture.

September 2015

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

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An Interview with Will Boast

27 Aug
Will Boast's memoir Epilogue was called "hands down the most moving book I’ve read this year" by Anthony Marra.

Will Boast’s memoir Epilogue was called “hands down the most moving book I’ve read this year” by Anthony Marra.

Will Boast was born in England and grew up in Ireland and Wisconsin. His story collection, Power Ballads, won the 2011 Iowa Short Fiction Award. His fiction and essays have appeared in Best New American Voices, Virginia Quarterly Review, Glimmer Train, The American Scholar, and The New York Times. He’s been a Stegner Fellow in fiction at Stanford and a Charles Pick Fellow at the University of East Anglia. His most recent book is the New York Times bestselling memoir, Epilogue. He currently divides his time between Chicago and Brooklyn, NY, and is currently a Literature Fellow at the American Academy in Rome.

To read the prologue to Boast’s memoir Epilogue and an exercise on framing chronology, click here.

In this interview, Boast discusses structural challenges of memoirs, writing dialogue from memory, and using concision to handle emotion.

Michael Noll

One of the challenges for memoir writers, at least in some memoirs I’ve read, is that they get trapped by chronology. They have something they want to talk about or some particular story to tell, but that thing or that story isn’t enough to fill an entire book. And so, at a certain point, the book moves into “and then this happened and this.” That isn’t the case for this book, and it seems, in part, to be due to the structure you chose, which is centered more on thematic units than chronological ones. Did you always have such a structure in mind? How did you discover it?

Will Boast

I agree. A strictly chronological telling is very tempting for writers starting on any story, whether nonfiction or fiction. And sometimes it does work. But, in memoir anyway, it can be deadening. Too much of life is mundane to just make it “and then and then,” and very few, if any people, have real experiences that naturally take the shape of a good story. So you splice and rearrange and follow patterns rather than doggedly follow a timeline. Sven Birkerts’ The Art of Time in Memoir is very good on this subject.

Every book finds its own shape, but memoirs seem to present special structural challenges. I often say that, If fiction is the art of invention, memoir is the art of arrangement. Honestly, only an enormous amount of effort and trial and error helped me move forward. But I did have in mind, through many drafts, an emotional progression. That, more than anything, was my guide. It’s difficult for me to talk about themes, because I think those only become truly clear in nearly the final drafts. Certainly, I thought about ideas I wanted to express in the book. But more often than not, I found that they dropped away in the long process of revision, and that the ones that stayed became so tightly wound into the story itself that I almost hesitate to call them themes now.

Michael Noll

The book contains so much loss, but you write mostly about living in the aftershocks of the loss and only a little about the loss itself. For example, you cover your mother’s death in a single paragraph. Was such concision always part of your sense of the book? Or did you write a great deal that you ended up cutting?

Will Boast

I wrote an incredible amount that I ended up cutting: several very long drafts and many, many alternate versions of each chapter. A certain concision, even reticence, ended up becoming part of the way the book handles emotion. At times I found that passages that had once sprawled over pages could be condensed into single sentences, and gain in power because of it. That’s actually quite a realization, that editing out whole episodes of your own experience can help the whole cohere. At first, it all seems important. But then you start to see the most relevant through lines, and they begin to guide you.

Michael Noll

Will Boast's memoir Epilogue describes a family tragedy and revelation the force Boast to reconsider his definition of family.

Will Boast’s memoir Epilogue describes a family tragedy and revelation the force Boast to reconsider his definition of family.

One of the questions that memoir writers face is how to handle dialogue, how to write spoken lines that are only half-remembered. So, I’m curious how you handled these conversations. For instance, you talked on the phone with your dad on the day that he died. During the call, you were, as you write,”hungover and pissy about being woken early,” which would seem to not lay fertile ground for remembering. How did you approach recreating this conversation for the book?

Will Boast

That phone call I do remember pretty vividly. Even though my brain was a little addled at the time, it’s simply one of those conversations you can’t forget, even if you wish you could. There are several instances of that in the book. There were also moments where, later in the timeline of the book, I actually thought to take notes, so that helped in places.

But you’re also right to wonder how much of actual speech can be remembered. I don’t think that many people who’ve written memoir would claim to recall verbatim who said what and when. And, really, that isn’t the point of memoir. No one has tape recordings of family dinners from twenty years ago. It’s important to understand that memoir is not simply a transcript of what happened. It’s not even simply remembering things. (If it was, it would be rather easier to write.) There’s a necessary process of distillation. Every single person, after all, says the same things over and over again. Our little refrains are a huge part of who we are. And those I find very easy to recall with great accuracy. So some of the dialogue you see in the book is made up of those things that were said habitually, day after day, dinner after dinner, fight after fight, bad joke after bad joke.

Michael Noll

At times, you mix present action (for instance, preparing for your father’s funeral) with memories from childhood (giving your father a knife that you prized so that he could sell it). Is this mixing simply the result of your imagination and unconscious churning out material? Or the result of something more logical and planned?

Will Boast

Memory is not linear. Though we always live in the present, our minds are constantly casting into both the future and the past. In a way, I think of the stuff of memoir as being that which is so constantly on our minds that it keeps intruding on and interrupting the present. (This is the definition of trauma, I think.) The process of drafting, then, should be in part associative. This moment recalls another moment. Some of this just happens in the notebook. But, by the final drafts, yes, everything is intentional and very carefully planned.

August 2015

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

An Interview with Sarah Smarsh

13 Aug
Sarah Smarsh is a Kansas native whose essay,

Sarah Smarsh is a Kansas native whose essay, “Pride, Poverty, and Prejudice in Kansas” examines the relationship of political power and poverty.

Sarah Smarsh is a Kansas-born journalist, public speaker and educator. Her writing has appeared in Harper’s, The Believer, Creative Nonfiction, The Guardian, Guernica, and The New Yorker. Her forthcoming book, In the Red, combines memoir, literary reportage, and social analysis to examine the life of poor and working-class Americans as seen through the lens of Smarsh’s own turbulent upbringing in rural Kansas.

To read Smarsh’s New Yorker essay “Poverty, Pride, and Prejudice in Kansas” and an exercise on raising the level of analysis in an essay, click here.

In this interview, Smarsh discusses strategies for beginning essays, the challenge of explaining complex and technical material, and the delicate balance of writing truthfully and respectfully about family.

Michael Noll

I love the way this essay begins, with the story of a vandalized ATM that you encountered in Italy. It’s vivid stuff, but it’s also from 2001 and set in Europe; the essay that follows explains a 2015 Kansas law. This makes me curious how you approached the problem of introducing this essay. It’s about a law, which means you’re tasked with explaining something dry and convoluted. Did you sense that, without some striking imagery at the beginning, readers might not follow you through the details of the law?

Sarah Smarsh

Thank you for the good words.

The essay’s opening isn’t quite what journalists call an “anecdotal lede,” starting with a quick story to humanize an issue and grab the reader’s attention. But while nothing happens in the opening, the image has the tangible components of a real person interacting with an environment in a way that is metaphorically rather than directly tied to the story’s news component. As poets and photographers know, a poignant, true image cuts as deep into the psyche as story. When I was a nonfiction professor I’d do close-reads of essays with students and then have them close their eyes. I’d ask them to picture the contents of the essay, write down the first image that came to mind, and then go around the room reading their answers. Almost every time, most answers were the same; some visual had been most searing for everyone.

The bloody ATM jumped into my mind after I started working on the essay. I’d thought of it a few times in the past fourteen years, but it was deep in my memory files. At first I wasn’t sure why or how it was relevant, but I trusted that if my brain had made the connection, readers’ would too. I researched the political protest that was cause for the ATM’s vandalization, and it turned out to involve the Bank of Rome funding the arms trade. A long leap from welfare allocation in Kansas! In an early draft I referenced that bit of global economic history to demonstrate the power of banks—they control not just poor people’s pocketbooks but international warfare. But what was more relevant to the essay was why the image had stayed with me: my relationship to the ATM as a cold, inhuman middle-man between me and scarce money, as Kansas legislators now stand between poor citizens and their funds.

I could have opened with a modern-day image of a Kansas welfare recipient at an ATM, but I was more interested in digging into the symbol of what these machines represent to us as a culture. (My editor wisely struck from the piece an overwrought description, “robotic foot soldiers for plutocrats,” which I’m happy to exhume here.) One of my favorite things about nonfiction is that one needn’t contrive or strategize real-life metaphors. They materialize on their own, from the actual, if you’re paying attention.

Michael Noll

The details of the law pretty complex: understanding them requires understanding not just the wording of the law but several types of financial transactions: ATM fees and food stamps. Explaining this stuff would seem to require a skill set that is completely different from those used to describe animal guts smeared on an ATM. How did you convey the basic info about the law and the transactions to readers who likely have only casual knowledge of such things?

Sarah Smarsh

Writing what I like to think of as literary nonfiction about wonkish topics takes a lot of work because I myself only have casual knowledge of them before I dig into the research. This essay had about thirty footnotes linking to public documents for the New Yorker’s fact-checkers, and I consider this light work since I didn’t conduct interviews (though I did make a few calls to verify this or that). In that process, one can get hung up in red tape very easily. Having reported on municipalities, laws, cops, public schools and other bureaucracies from hell for many years, I’m confident that some of that confusion is by design; in this piece, for example, I had to consult several state sources to figure out what private financial company holds a contract to administer welfare funds, since its umbrella corporation has factions and subsidiaries legally referred to by different names. Once I have the info, though, I have a pretty easy time describing it. What would I need to know in order to understand the gist? Whatever the answer is for me, it’s the same for the reader. A harder task is knowing where to stop. An earlier version of the ATM piece had a sizable tangent on the rise of electronic debit cards in public assistance programs, along with numbers from other states demonstrating the enormous amount of public money that now ends up as private-bank fees.

You’re right, though, that two different writerly sensibilities are in play with this and many of my essays. I remember attending an Investigative Reporters & Editors conference in New York in 2000 when I had an internship in the news unit of the NBC affiliate there, and being struck by how razor-like the reporters’ minds were in cutting straight to one particular narrative within a story. My brain is more of an artsy-fartsy thing that relishes how everything is connected to everything. I like to juxtapose and suggest expansive ideas rather than directly explain hard facts. Maybe my upbringing is why I can put on a reporter hat all the same. It was not an environment that indulged in daydreaming and philosophizing. “Cut the bullshit and get to the point,” my grandma might say.

Michael Noll

I’m a huge fan of James Baldwin, and so I was happy to see the reference to him later in the essay. I was also surprised. You make a jump from the specifics of the law to a broader discussion of the particular costs of poverty. Did you always know that such a widening of the essay’s frame would happen, or did you stumble upon it during the writing process?

Sarah Smarsh

When an editor asked me to weigh in on the new law, it had already been covered elsewhere. I knew right away that what I could offer that other stories hadn’t was a big-picture understanding of why this abstract discourse about laws and ethics might matter to a woman living in poverty—how a policy plays out at the ground, and even how it feels to be affected. I’m careful to not speak for anyone but myself, but yes, I immediately saw the law as springboard to a broader experience rarely represented first-hand in the media.

Michael Noll

At the end of the essay, you describe your childhood experience of using a free-lunch card in school and how embarrassed you were. You also mention at the beginning of the essay that your family was eligible for welfare but, out of pride, didn’t apply for it. This gets at a tricky part of writing about family and, more broadly, experiences that you share with others. How you do you accurately write about stories that may still evoke strong emotion, even embarrassment, in others while respecting their feelings?

Sarah Smarsh

Sarah Smarsh wrote about the prevalence of poor dental care in impoverished families and the shame it brings in middle-class society.

In her essay, “Poor Teeth,” Sarah Smarsh wrote about the prevalence of poor dental care in impoverished families and the shame it brings in middle-class society.

However simple and factual a statement, so much context often is missing by necessity of length or keeping momentum. My family didn’t apply for benefits out of pride, yes, but probably for a lot of other reasons—lack of information or access and so on. We also managed to be employed in manual and service labor; what if we hadn’t had those skills or the health to perform them? Regardless, we might have made a comparable income—when factoring in income tax—on public assistance, but to us that was unthinkable. When I was writing the story, my grandma confided in me that she had in fact received public benefits in the 1960s. That was long before I was born and Reagan started yapping about “welfare queens,” but it’s still a small piece of my family’s survival story. I then wrote the following, that didn’t make the cut in the final piece:

To suggest that recipients would be able to splurge under such constraints even if they wanted to is to cast every impoverished Kansan as the dastardly welfare queen of lore. This sneer from the capital is not lost on the poor, who in my considerable research would rather have a job with a living wage than a “handout.” Only as I was discussing this story with her did my grandmother—who, like myself and our whole family spent much of her life doing manual labor, juggling at least two jobs and turning clever frugality into a satisfying art form—admit that she briefly went on the dole as a teenage mother with a newborn to feed in the early 1960s, when her abusive husband went AWOL from the Army and their military payments stopped. “I’m ashamed to say it,” she told me. She only took assistance for a few weeks after giving birth; then she fled her husband for another state and went—by grit and by choice—off welfare and onto a factory floor. There, she made enough to pay for rent, baby formula, gas to get to work and a babysitter who lived in her apartment building with padlocks on the doors. With what remained, she calculated, the most filling meal available was a frozen chicken pot pie, and she ate exactly one per day for months—a story I share not to tug heartstrings but to demonstrate the resilience and ingenuity of people so often categorized as “lazy.” Where I’m from, there is no more hurtful word, and to demoralize our poorest citizens, as the new welfare-restrictions does, is not just bad form but bad economic strategy.

Since I was writing about my family as I was growing up, it’s accurate to say my family “didn’t apply,” but there’s a bit more to the story. I accept these limitations of writing as we all must—you will never write the whole story, I used to tell students—but I try to include brushstrokes that suggest whatever nuance I don’t have room to describe at length.

Nuance is often at the heart of a subject’s experience in reading a piece. I’ve been written about only a handful of times, and I know it’s not an easy thing. I always try to put myself in my subjects’ shoes and consider their experience as important as my own—especially when it comes to matters as sensitive as class. But I think there’s a way to go right at the truth, however painful and ugly, and still respect all involved. I try to do that by writing from a place of “we” rather than “me” and “them”—not just in matters of family but politics and all else.

Clear communication with people about the contents and intentions behind a piece of writing goes a long way in softening the experience of being turned into subjects or characters. I messed up on that once as a young writer doing a cover story for an alt-weekly, and though the story was factual, it was unnecessarily traumatic for the subjects (and, thereby, since these things matter to me very much, for me). Sometimes investigative reporting requires sly maneuvering for the sake of revealing corruption or being a “watch dog” for democracy. Even with more personal stories I’d never share a draft for someone to review. But my writing often intersects with vulnerable populations—say, a teacher who could get fired for sharing her opinion or a guy whose small-town banker could turn him down for a loan because he talked to me about his poverty. So I try to be as upfront as possible about what’s going down with a story.

At the most personal level, I tell my family about writing projects that mention them and give them an opportunity to say, “no.” I’m grateful that they never have. They aren’t a crew that’s sitting around offices reading online think pieces, and perhaps I could let publications slip by without their knowledge, but I offer to share them. They don’t always read them, which is perfectly fine, but I want them to know there’s this thing in the world that has appropriated, channeled and hopefully honored their energy. I would never not write something that felt essential to me because someone told me to keep my trap shut. But something that leaves a loved one vulnerable without her blessing will never be essential to me.

Occasionally something I write stings them, and that’s probably inevitable. Last winter I told my grandma that an essay I wrote about dental health as class signifier was on some fancy best-of-the-year lists. She said, “Well, I guess now the whole world knows I have false teeth.”

In this ATM piece, I describe myself as “the first member of my household to finish ninth grade.” My mom told me she was “taken aback” reading this, as she left school after eleventh grade and got her G.E.D. I explained that I was describing my grandparents, with whom I lived permanently from age 11 to 17, though I often spent weekends and summers with my mom. In a family and class where “household” can be complicated, to me that grandparents’ farm unequivocally was my “household,” with a grandpa who quit school after sixth grade to work the family farm and a grandma who left in ninth grade to wait tables. “I know, but people won’t know that,” Mom said. And she’s right; most readers would assume I was talking about my parents.

Furthermore, the sentence, while accurate and succinctly effective in conveying my life experience to readers, does a disservice to my grandparents; in the seventies my grandma got a government grant to attend “business college” and admirably worked her way into the Wichita court system, where she served as a probation officer for many years. Most readers probably picture a very different person when they picture a “high school dropout.” Meanwhile, my mom had her IQ tested when I was a kid, and it’s statistically probable that she’s considerably smarter than the vast majority of New Yorker readers.

Mom, it turns out, didn’t care about the majority of readers. She cared about her close friends, all former co-workers in the real-estate industry, who might click the story from my Facebook page and think she left high school at an earlier grade than she did, or that she’d been a poor student, or that she’d not actually gotten her G.E.D. She’d just been through the most harrowing, near-death cancer battle of her life, so knowing I’d written something she found misleading and painful was brutal. I asked the New Yorker if we could tweak the sentence, but it would’ve required some hullabaloo, potentially including an asterisked explanation of why the change was made. Mom had said not to make a fuss, so I offered to instead provide public clarification somewhere in the future. Thanks for the opportunity to do that here. This is the only time in the course of many thousands of words written about my family that a small quibble has arisen, so I’d like to think we’re doing pretty good.

There’s a famous book by Janet Malcolm about these things, and I got to ask her some questions once in New York. She’s a goddess on earth who rightfully tired of having this line referenced twenty years ago, but I disagree with her provocative opening statement about a journalist’s work being morally indefensible. A blanket statement that journalism is inherently jacked-up strikes me as a dangerous carte blanche for those tempted to use their subjects in callous ways. Welp, regardless of how I conduct myself, journalism is shady, so might as well trot this starving child out for a Pulitzer and then hit the road back to New York! For me the ethical quality of a piece of writing falls along a continuum like any other human action. In my experience, the care you put into it is never lost.

Michael Noll

Here’s a political question: The essay is about a controversial law in Kansas, a state where the governor has introduced all sorts of controversial legislation. He’s now massively unpopular, and yet I’m not sure what will happen in the next election. In the recent past, when Republican governors and candidates have veered too far to the right, Kansans have elected Democrats (Joan Finney and Kathleen Sebelius). But, this is a state that has a long history of political extremism and a Democratic party without any infrastructure. I’m curious how you’d read the state’s political tea leaves. Do you think it will move back toward centrist politics? Or are there enough voters with an extremist conservative ideology to keep pushing the state further to the right?

Sarah Smarsh

Brownback enacted his far-right policies in his first term and managed to get re-elected in a close race. He is uber-conservative for ideological reasons that appeal to some voters, and his very wealthy supporters in Kansas are uber-conservative for fiscal reasons that by most economic estimations hurt voters. That has been a perfect storm for pushing state policies destructively far to the right.

Out on the streets in Kansas, though, as in all places, you’ll find a diverse spectrum of political views not represented by the stories out of our infamous legislature. Historically that sort of divide between people and government leads to an extremely pissed-off populism. Pissed-off populism is what Kansas was founded on, in fact; the state’s early years were all about abolition, women’s rights, workers’ rights.

I’m a good enough student of Kansas and life to know there’s no predicting where state politics will go. But there are many new bipartisan movements and organizations afoot within the state that share a goal of repairing and preserving Kansas’s historically good outcomes in health, education and other public systems. Kansans are switching parties, getting involved in ways they’ve never been. Our former insurance commissioner, elected as a Republican, boldly fought on behalf of the Affordable Care Act in an extremely inhospitable administration. For all their Midwestern reserve, and whether they got themselves into this mess or not, Kansans are pissed off. I’m a fifth-generation Kansas farm kid and can tell you this: My grandpa didn’t blow up very often, but when he did, you’d better run like hell.

August 2015

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

An Interview with Syed Ali Haider

29 Nov
Syed Ali Haider

Syed Ali Haider’s essay about food and religion, “Porkistan,” was published at The Butter.

Syed Ali Haider was born in Pakistan, grew up in Florida, went to college in Minnesota, and finished his degree in Texas. He lives in the Texas Hill Country, where he writes, teaches, and cheers for the Detroit Lions. His work has appeared in Glimmer Train, vandal, and Mary: A Journal of New Writing. His essay about bacon and Islam, “Porkistan,” was published at The Butter.

To read “Porkistan” and an exercise on using sensory details, click here. In this interview, Haider discusses the challenges of describing religious confusion and writing about family and the way that telling a story to a live audience can help shape its written form.

Michael Noll

The descriptions of food in this essay are really great. You capture the essence of bacon. the sound of it cooking in its own fat, the look of it. You write that after you tried it for the first time, you “wanted to lick the greasy paper towel.” You also capture the weird grossness of turkey bacon (“salted rubber tires”). Finally, you make a really interesting statement when talking about the food of South and Central Texas, comparing it to the food of Pakistan: “Carne Guisada Con Papas is Aloo Gosht. Aloo Qeema is Picadillo Mexicano.” Food can sometimes be a difficult thing to describe: our sense of taste doesn’t correspond neatly to adjectives. Was it difficult to put your love of bacon, disgust at turkey bacon, and appreciation for Tex-Mex into words?

Syed Ali Haider

I think it’s difficult for me to put nearly anything into words because I’m such a stickler about precise language. But when it comes to writing about food, I think I have an easier time than with anything else because I think about it so damn much. Seriously, I am nearly always thinking about food, reading about food, talking about food. And when I was growing up, bacon was such a constant obsession of mine, that it was so much fun to write about at length. Earlier drafts of the essay were much more focused on bacon that it read like a cheap David Foster Wallace knockoff. But, yeah, because food occupies so much of my time and thought, it was the easiest part of the essay to write. Everything surrounding food was much more difficult because I had to explain how religious confusion feels. I had to somehow put into words the moment your family is ready to disown you and everything that is going on in your head and your body. Bacon tastes smoky and salty. It has texture. It’s crunchy and chewy and fatty. But how does it feel when your mom tells you she won’t see or speak to you? What does that feel like? That’s much more difficult.

Michael Noll

This essay started out as a story told to a live audience. I’m curious how much you had to change the story to adapt it to a written form. Was there a significant difference between telling and writing this essay?

Syed Ali Haider

I think that because of the way Story Department was framed to me—tell us stories about your mom!—the stakes were lower than when I’m writing. I’m much more comfortable with oral storytelling. Because I can talk for days, and I don’t nitpick and stress about sentence structure and the precision of language and all that. I gave myself permission to just talk. Because I wanted it to sound like a conversation, I wrote a loose outline and allowed room to just freestyle and flesh it out on the spot. This might make some people really nervous, but it removed the possibility of me forgetting lines or anything like that. I rehearsed it four times, and each iteration was drastically different. And when I got up and told it to the audience, it was a whole new beast. Sort of stand-up routine/storytelling. Mike Birbiglia-esque. Telling the story to a live audience sort of activates all these devices we have as natural storytellers. You very quickly get a feel for the room and what sort of things are and aren’t working. When a joke bombs, you feel it. The silence of the room is so awful. You’re standing up there thinking, “I thought that was going to be hilarious.” So you get this instant feedback that you don’t get when you’re writing. When you’re telling somebody a story, you’re forced to cut out all the uninteresting parts that don’t really pertain or aren’t important to what you’re trying to say. Unless you’re just completely ignoring the look on the other person’s face in which case you’re going to miss most of that and tell a really long and boring story and completely lose the person’s attention. I think that’s what live storytelling did for me. Forced me to think about the audience and their attention. How can I tell this story in the best way so that they’ll keep listening to me. And the feedback I got that night was so positive that I wanted to keep that voice and sound in the essay. I wanted it to more or less be as direct an adaptation as I could get. There’re pieces that I culled from an older essay of mine and fit it in, but for the most part I wrote down what I remembered telling at Story Department.

Michael Noll

Syed Ali Haider's essay about food and religion, "Porkistan," appeared at The Butter, the new online journal edited by Roxane Gay.

Syed Ali Haider’s essay about food and religion, “Porkistan,” appeared at The Butter, the new online journal edited by Roxane Gay.

This is a wide-ranging essay. It’s about your relationship with your parents, especially your mother. But it’s also about religious belief, persecution based on religious and ethnic stereotypes, food, and creating a mixed identity—one that is part one thing and part another. I’m curious how long it took for this essay to find its structure. How often did you wade into this material before finding the right way to begin?

Syed Ali Haider

When I wrote the essay two years ago, it was more about me and my love of food. But when I told the story at Story Department, I opened with a story about my mom that is essential to understanding who she is. She’s at JFK and accosts a Delta Airlines lady and is nearly arrested for climbing over the counter. It’s such a bizarre story that all these years later, I’m still baffled that she did that and I wonder if I made it all up. I love telling this story about my mom because she’s so whackadoodle but also equal parts graceful and wonderful. The story comes back toward the end of the essay because I understand her and the story in a whole new way. She’s this totally fierce protector of her kids and is willing to look silly and risk arrest if her kid isn’t allowed on an airplane. In telling this story and focusing on my mom, I realized that her story and my story are so similar, which is why sometimes there’s so much tension between us. She grew up with the same religious confusion that I did except mine was so entirely food-centric. So everything just clicked and I realized that she was the missing piece to the whole thing.

Michael Noll

This is an essay about your religious beliefs, practice and identity, but it’s also about your mother’s conversion to Islam. That conversion is essential to understanding your own, not least because it led to your being born. But, it’s also someone else’s experience, not your own. Relationships with parents can be a touchy subject, especially for writers. Was it difficult to write about this part of your mother’s life? How did you approach telling the story of her conversion?

Syed Ali Haider

Yeah, this was an extremely difficult piece to write. When I told the story, it was a one-off thing, so I didn’t have to worry about my mom reading it, but when I sent it to The Butter, and they published it, it was suddenly out there for anyone to read. The strange thing about this essay is that it pivots on this secret—that I’m not a Muslim or at least that I don’t really know what I am—and the necessity to continue lying to her to maintain our relationship. But I still have this responsibility to tell her story in a way that honors her experience. So in trying to honor her, I asked her a lot about growing up and what that was like, and she was really open about it with me. I’m not sure what her reaction to the essay would be, but I tried very hard to write a piece that respects her and shows her how much I love her because I don’t want people to read it and think she’s a horrible person who disowns her kids. Like yes, that threat was there, but it’s like a fucked up love thing.

November 2014

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

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