Author Archives: valfiora

Repost of Kate Asche’s 2011 Interview with Brenda Miller

BMillerAbbGr2Brenda Miller was the first creative nonfiction instructor featured in the Master Teacher Weekend Workshop series, and she’s returning to facilitate another workshop in Sacramento June 21st & 22nd. She’s the author of three essay collections: Listening Against the Stone (Skinner House Books, 2012), Blessing of the Animals (Eastern Washington University Press, 2009), and Season of the Body (Sarabande Books, 2002). She has also co-authored the craft texts Tell It Slant: Creating, Refining and Publishing Creative Nonfiction (McGraw Hill, 2012) and The Pen and The Bell: Mindful Writing in a Busy World (Skinner House Books, 2012).index Her work has received six Pushcart Prizes. She is a Professor of English at Western Washington University and serves as Editor-in-Chief of the Bellingham Review. Her website is

For more information about Brenda Miller’s upcoming workshop June 21-22, visit:

Brenda, we are so looking forward to welcoming you to Sacramento. I get the sense that you do a lot of teaching and writing in the community. I wonder if you might speak for a moment about how all that started for you, and what you love about talking and working with readers and writers outside a traditional academic setting?

I’m looking forward to visiting Sacramento, too! I love working with writers in the community, precisely because they are usually in a class or workshop for the love of the craft itself, rather than to fulfill a requirement. Passion, vulnerability, and genuine curiosity—these are the qualities that seem to emerge most strongly in community workshops, as well as a wide variety of life experience. It doesn’t take long to develop a sense of common purpose and respect, and so the work becomes energizing for everyone.

When you come together with a group of students in a workshop, what approaches do you use, and why?

I do some icebreakers that help us understand immediately why we are there, who we are, and what we bring to the table. If we’re workshopping previously written pieces, I like to have a conversation with the writer that explores craft issues the writing brings up for all of us, not necessarily to simply “fix” the writing at hand. We are acting as advocates for one another.

Turning to your own work now: this summer, you enjoyed the release of a collection of your selected essays, Listening Against the Stone. Congratulations! How does it feel to have a “selected” out?

It’s wonderful to have a collection out that so fully articulates the central concerns of my work over the years—how my spiritual life has shifted and evolved. When I was putting the collection together, I was surprised to see the new narratives that emerged by putting older essays with newer essays. I also was quite happy to have my six Pushcart-Prize winning essays all together under one roof!

I spent some time today rereading my notes on your work (I recently re-read and taught Season of the Body) and reading some of your past interviews. I love what you said last year, in conversation with the L.A. Times, about writing about things you notice in the world and in life: “I had to learn to find an external to focus on in order to allow my emotions to surface.” I am hoping you might unpack this concept a bit. What kinds of things count as “external” for you? What is it about things external that brings your deeper emotions forward?

I think this is a central concept for successful creative nonfiction, and I speak now as a writer, teacher, and editor. With personal nonfiction work, it can be tempting to write directly about the “big” things that have occurred in our lives and how we feel about them. But almost always these kinds of works become too “self-centered.” It can be difficult to fully include the reader. By starting instead with small, concrete details in the external world, we find our way to the truth of our lives in a more literary—and more universal–way.

For instance, one of the pieces in Listening Against the Stone is called “Dirty Windows.” In it, I start with the mundane observation about how a sunny day in Bellingham, WA (a rare occurrence!) lights up all the streaks and smudges on the windows, as well as revealing all the pet hair on the floor. This detail leads me to meditate on the way I’ve always longed for light that is more “forgiving,” which, of course, turns the essay into a small piece about what allows us to forgive ourselves. I started that piece with my students in a community workshop, and it was completely unexpected; I didn’t plan to write about that topic; I started merely with the external observation. That’s also what makes starting with the external more effective: we haven’t necessarily planned out what we want to say, and so the revelations come as a surprise for both writer and reader. Whenever I share that piece at a reading, I connect immediately with my audience, who nod their heads as they recall the dirty windows in their own lives, and who then are willing to go along for the ride as we head into deeper territory.

Brenda, you have said before that once a writer locates his/her material, “you have to be willing to get some distance from it and see it as just that: material. You have to work like an artist and sculpt it into shape.” I could see this being read by some as a license to secretly bend verifiable facts in service of a personal truth. How do you locate the harmonies between the constant “flux” of truth (as you’ve called it) and the demands of verifiable facts that integrity requires we acknowledge?

I don’t worry too much about shaping a piece for literary effect, as the truth I’m after is not necessarily a factual one. I wouldn’t make up whole events or significant details, but I have no problem re-creating a scene that I might remember as only a flash of memory. Often, I will cue the reader in to these lapses of memory and allow the reader to follow along as I play. For instance, the word “perhaps” is a workhorse in my lexicon, as is “maybe” and “I like to imagine…” The use of the present tense for childhood memories is also an excellent way to signal that you are not “reporting” events, but re-creating them.

I’ll sometimes tell my reader when I’m totally wrong; this happens in the essay “Blessing of the Animals,” when I remember incorrectly how my childhood dog Sheba died. I start with the phrase “For some reason, I remember….” Then re-create the scene. In the next paragraph, I tell the reader my memory was incorrect and give the factual version as reported by my mother. In this case, I leave in the incorrect version in order to make a point about memory and about how erroneous memories sometimes reveal more about ourselves than “real” memories.

Your writing has such a polished surface that, at first, it seems that it must be simple, straightforward. In fact, it is incredibly layered—elements play with and against and alongside each other in ways that are intricate yet also very inviting to the reader. How do you balance those energies—the impulse to layer and weave with the impulse to reach outward to the reader?

When I’m layering a piece, it’s happening very organically, in that I feel as though I’m simply following imagery and language where it will take me. As I am following language, a certain insistent theme will arise. Once I know that theme, I can go back and revise to highlight that theme and the connections throughout, as well as edit out sections that are no longer relevant. In this way, I allow the reader to follow a map, with certain phrases or images leading the way. The reader becomes involved in putting together the essay too, so it becomes a collaboration between reader and writer (or between the reader and the text).

I am interested in what you said in another previous interview—that when you’re drafting, “if it’s something that will lend itself to research, it’s nearly always going to end up in a braided form so that I can play cool images and facts against one another.” This comment made me wonder: When you sense that you’re writing something that doesn’t want research added in, what kinds of forms most often present themselves?

Short forms—pieces that are small glimpses or interludes. But sometimes research comes into those pieces as well. The braided essay also works without research; one of the central pieces in Listening is called “The Burden of Bearing Fruit,” and it follows a central narrative line of me having the Rainier Cherry tree in my backyard cut down. Once I knew I was writing about trees, I wrote a lot of sections about trees in my memory, especially falling trees. The narrative of the Rainier Cherry threads throughout the piece, creating a “plot” that holds all these different memories, which then become more about creating family as a single, childless woman. The phrase “the burden of bearing fruit” takes on a layered resonance in this context: the cherry needed to be cut down because the fruiting trees do not survive as long as those that are merely ornamental; and the narrator has not yet borne fruit in the traditional sense, but is finding her own form of abundance.

What are you working on at present that most excites you and/or most challenges you?

I’m putting together a fragmented memoir that is currently called “The Single Girl’s Guide to Remodeling: Dispatches from a Life in Progress.” (the title essay is a sequel to “The Burden of Bearing Fruit.”) The challenge is fitting all these small pieces together in a way that makes sense, as well as interspersing longer essays in different forms. I’m afraid it will feel like too much like a mish-mash of disparate pieces. But then again, life itself often feels like a mish-mash of disparate pieces, so maybe it’s really a brilliant strategy!

kateKate Asche, M.A., writes poetry, essays and short stories. She’s a creative writing teacher and literary community builder. A graduate of the UC Davis Creative Writing Program, she was a finalist for the 2011 Audio Contest at The Missouri Review. She has published poetry in Bellingham Review, RHINO, Confrontation, Late Peaches: Poems by Sacramento Poets (2012 Anthology) and elsewhere. Her creative nonfiction appears in Under the Gum Tree. She received two Elliot Gilbert Prizes in Poetry and an Academy of American Poets Award.

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April at Stories on Stage: Peter Orner and Naomi Williams

Bringing back TWO Stories on Stage favorites!

Selected stories from Peter Orner’s new short story collection

Last Car Over The Sagamore Bridge

read by Tim Kahl


Naomi Williams’

Tsunami Debris

read by Kelley Ogden

Friday, April 25, 2014

Doors open at 7, readings begin at 7:30

Peter Orner color

Peter Orner’s latest short story collection, Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge, was a New York Times Top Ten Book of the Year and a Wall Street Journal Favorite Book for 2013.  His novel Love and Shame and Love was a New York Times Editor’s Choice book.  The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo, set in Namibia, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award. Orner’s first book, Esther Stories was a Finalist for the Pen Hemingway Award and was re-issued in April, 2013. Orner’s work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, The Paris Review, Granta, McSweeney’s, and Best American Stories. He also writes the Lonely Voice column for The Rumpus, an on-line website.  Born in Chicago, Peter Orner lives in San Francisco and is a Professor at San Francisco State.

Tim Kahl

Tim Kahl is the author of Possessing Yourself  (CW Books, 2009) and The Century of Travel (CW Books, 2012). His work has been published in Prairie Schooner, Indiana Review, Ninth Letter, Notre Dame Review, The Journal, Parthenon West Review, and many other journals. He appears as “Victor Schnickelfritz” at the poetry and poetics blog The Great American Pinup and the poetry video blog Linebreak Studios.  Tim’s involved in numerous other creative ventures: if you’re curious click, here He is Vice-president and events coordinator of The Sacramento Poetry Center, and has appeared several times at Stories on Stage.

Naomi Williams

Naomi J. Williams’ first novel, LANDFALLS, a fictional retelling of the 18th-century Lapérouse expedition, is due out in the spring of 2015 from Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Her short stories have appeared in numerous literary journals, including A Public Space, One Story, The Southern Review, Ninth Letter, and The Gettysburg Review. She’s been nominated for the Pushcart Prize five times and won once, and received an honorable mention in Best American Short Stories. This month’s story, “Tsunami Debris,” appeared in the Bridport Prize anthology in 2012. Naomi blogs about writing, reading, and life in general at

Kelley OgdenKelley Ogden is a Sacramento performer, writer and theater producer. She works primarily with KOLT Run Creations, the acclaimed fringe theater she co-founded with wife Lisa Thew. A multiple Elly Award winner, Kelley has performed in theaters across the country, most notably in Chicago, where she earned Chicago Theater League awards for her classical and Shakespearean work. Kelley is delighted to collaborate with Stories On Stage in their fifth season.

At the Sacramento Poetry Center

1719 25th Street, Sacramento

Doors open 7PM, readings begin at 7:30

$5 donation

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March 28: Here Comes Queen Sugar!

Stories on Stage is back with a powerhouse lineup!

Selections from Bay Area author Natalie Baszile‘s debut novel

Queen Sugar

read by Diana Cossey

and Ruth Blank’s short story

Lotus Garden

read by Blair Leatherwood

Sacramento Poetry Center
1719 25th Street (@R)
Donation: $5
Doors open 7PM


Natalie Baszile holds an M.A. in Afro-American Studies from UCLA and is a graduate of Warren Wilson College’s MFA Program for Writers, where she was a Holden Minority Scholar. An early version of Queen Sugar won the Hurston Wright College Writer’s Award and was a co-runner-up in the Faulkner Pirate’s Alley Novel-in-Progress competition. Excerpts were published in Cairn and ZYZZYVA . Her non-fiction has appeared in The, Mission at Tenth, and in The Best Women’s Travel Writing. A former fiction editor at The Cortland Review, Natalie is a member of the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto and lives in San Francisco with her family.

Diana Cossey

The multitalented Diana Cossey’s passion for music and theatre has made her a familiar figure to Sacramento theatre-goers and music lovers. She played Truvy Jones in the 2011 Celebration Arts Theater production of Steel Magnolias, and she has been an active member of the River City Chorale for the past twenty years. She’s been blessed to perform her music in Italy, Croatia and Brazil, and has appeared in David L. MacDonalds’ Best of Broadway and Family Promise. This will be Diana’s third appearance at Stories on Stage.

Ruth Blank

Ruth Blank’s short stories have been published in Ploughshares and Huffington Post 50 Fiction. She recently retired after eight years as CEO of the Sacramento Region Community Foundation.  Prior to working with the Foundation, Ruth was Comcast Cable’s Regional Senior Vice President for Central California. She has also owned and operated a restaurant and gift shop in the Sacramento/San Joaquin Delta.  Ruth currently serves on the Board of Directors of the Squaw Valley Community of Writers and Capitol Public Radio.

Blair Leatherwood

Blair Leatherwood is pleased to return to Stories on Stage.  He is a Sacramento-based actor with over forty years of experience, most recently with the Sacramento Theater Company (It’s a Wonderful Life: The Musical, Pride and Prejudice, A Little Princess), and also with Capital Stage, Sacramento Music Circus, and many other theaters.  He is currently in rehearsal for Hamlet at the Geery Theater, and will be a company member with the Livermore Shakespeare Festival this summer.

peggi-woodPeggi Wood is the casting director for Stories on Stage. She is a writer, a producer for community theatre and film, and the director of social media for the Actor’s Theatre of Sacramento and Celebration Arts. She is the executive producer, co-writer and series producer of The Wolves, an urban psychological horror series created by Anthony D’Juan. Actors interested in reading at Stories on Stage should contact her at

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April 25th at Stories on Stage – Peter Orner and Naomi Williams

Bringing back TWO Stories on Stage favorites!

Two stories from Peter Orner’s 

Last Car Over The Sagamore Bridge


Naomi Williams’

Tsunami Debris

Peter Orner color

Peter Orner’s latest short story collection, Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge, was a New York Times Top Ten Book of the Year and a Wall Street Journal Favorite Book for 2013.  His novel Love and Shame and Love was a New York Times Editor’s Choice book.  The Second Coming of Mavala Shikongo, set in Namibia, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award. Orner’s first book, Esther Stories was a Finalist for the Pen Hemingway Award and was re-issued in April, 2013. Orner’s work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, The Paris Review, Granta, McSweeney’s, and Best American Stories. He also writes the Lonely Voice column for The Rumpus, an on-line website.  Born in Chicago, Peter Orner lives in San Francisco and is a Professor at San Francisco State.

Naomi WilliamsNaomi J. Williams’ first novel, LANDFALLS, a fictional retelling of the 18th-century Lapérouse expedition, is due out in the spring of 2015 from Farrar, Straus & Giroux. Her short stories have appeared in numerous literary journals, including A Public Space, One Story, The Southern Review, Ninth Letter, and The Gettysburg Review. She’s been nominated for the Pushcart Prize five times and won once, and received an honorable mention in Best American Short Stories. This month’s story, “Tsunami Debris,” appeared in the Bridport Prize anthology in 2012. Naomi blogs about writing, reading, and life in general at

At the Sacramento Poetry Center

1719 25th Street, Sacramento

Doors open 7PM, readings begin at 7:30

$5 donation

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Join us as we celebrate the beginning of our fifth season with NY Times best-selling author Marisa Silver

Friday, January 24, 2014, 7:30PM

(please note the date. It’s one week earlier than usual)

Marisa Silver, author of NY Times best-seller Mary Coin 
will be joined by Pushcart Prize nominee Charlene Logan Burnett

Featuring “Three Girls” from Marisa Silver’s
acclaimed short story collection Alone With You 
read by Elizabeth Holzman and Charlene Logan Burnett’s
“Buster Divaggio Returns” read by Steve Buri

Sacramento Poetry Center

1719 25th Street(@R)
Donation: $5
Doors open 7PM


Marisa SilverMarisa Silver’s most recent novel,  Mary Coin, is a New York Times Bestseller and was included on NPR’s and the BBC’s list of best books for 2013. Her novel, The God of War, published in 2008, was a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for fiction. Her second collection of stories, Alone With You, includes the O. Henry Prize-winning story “The Visitor.” Her fiction has been published  in The New Yorker numerous times, and included The Best American Short Stories and other anthologies. There’s lots more: check out her website


Elizabeth Holzman is excited to become a part of Stories on Stage.  She is a Sacramento local and has worked within the community at Big Idea, Resurrection and Kolt Run theatres.  She can currently be seen romping around Northern California with the B Street Theatre School Tour.  She has always had a profound respect for the authors and playwrights who give her something to say and experience.

Charlene Logan Burnett

Charlene Logan Burnett  earned her M.F.A. in Playwriting from UC Davis. Her fiction and poetry has appeared or will appear in Animal, Menacing Hedge, RHINO, Weave Magazine, WomanArts Quarterly and other journals. She is on the editorial board of A Cappella Zoo. She is a recipient of a MacDowell Colony fellowship and a nominee for a Pushcart Press Award.

Steve Buri Steve Buri is an actor, director, and writer who has appeared with Ovation Stage, Lambda Players, Garbeau’s Dinner Theatre, Bob & Ro Productions and Closet Door Theatre Company. He will be appearing in Resurrection Theatre’s production of The Book of Liz this spring, and was recently featured in Sam Shepherd’s Buried Child at Ovation Stage. Steve studied acting in Chicago with Steppenwolf and at The Second City.

 The casting director for Stories on Stage is Peggi Wood. If you’re an actor and interested in reading, contact her at

Stories on Stage is looking for good stories! If you’re a Sacramento-area “emerging” writer with a 2500 to 4500-word story that reads well out loud, send it to Only your very best work, please!


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G.S. Sharat Chandra Prize Winner Lauren Cobb Brings Boulevard Women to Stories on Stage

Friday, November 29th, 2013, 7:30PM

G.S. Sharat Chandra Prize winner Lauren Cobb
joined by emerging writer Michelle Woods

Lauren Cobb’s “Boulevard Women” will be read
by Stories on Stage favorite Gay Cooper

Michelle Woods’ “Dirty Water” will be read by Alana Matthews

Sacramento Poetry Center
1719 25th Street (@R)

Donation: $5


Lauren CobbLauren Cobb’s fiction has appeared in literary journals including the Beloit Fiction JournalArts & Letters and Green Mountains Review. Her fiction awards includeAnother Chicago Magazine‘s Chicago Literary Award and second place awards from the Southern California Review and Puerto del Sol. She grew up in California, earned a Ph.D. at the University of Georgia, and lives in northern Minnesota, where she’s currently working on a literary mystery novel. Her short story collection “Boulevard Women” is the winner of the 2013 G.S. Chandra prize for Short Fiction

Gay CooperGay Cooper is thrilled to be returning to Stories on Stage. She is an actor who has worked with many theater companies in town, including Resurrection Theater, Big Idea Theater, Kolt Run Creations, and California Stage. She has also worked in commercials and industrial films. She has always been drawn by the magical alchemy of actor and writer in creating a storytelling experience that is rich and compelling.

Michelle WoodsMichelle Woods has published short stories and creative non-fiction in the Blue Moon Review and the Sacramento News and Review and was a finalist in the “Focus on Writers” contest. She enjoys experimenting with different genres and is currently writing an urban fantasy set in mid-town.

Alana Mathews 1Alana Mathews is a graduate of Spelman College. She has appeared in several productions with Celebration Arts and received an Elly nomination for Best Lead Actress for her role of Marta in Sorrows and Rejoicings. She played Martha in Joe Turner’s Come and Gone at the Sacramento Theatre Company. A former Deputy District Attorney, Alana is now Senior Staff Counsel with the California Energy Commission.



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Megan Cummins Interviews March SoS Emerging Writer Alex Russell

Alex Russell lives in Davis and is at work on both stories and a novel. His work has appeared in the Georgetown Review, where he was a finalist in their annual magazine contest, and in the Atticus Review. In 2012 he was also a finalist for the Tampa Review Danahy Prize. Alex graduated from the MA program in creative writing at UC Davis in 2012, the year following my graduation from the same program. Alex interviewed me for the January installment of Stories on Stage, and we thought it would be fitting to reverse roles for Alex’s Stories on Stage debut.

Alex writes with sharp imagery that never gets in the way of the forward momentum of his stories. We sat down at Peet’s in Davis and talked about his novel-in-progress and his short story “Fire,” along with imagery, nostalgia, family, and future goals. Here are a few of the things Alex had to say.

There’s a careful attention to detail in your writing that leads to stunning images. They lift the writing off the page and make it tangible and devastating. I was wondering if you could talk about your process with your imagery, if you have one, or how imRussell-photoages work for you as you write?

Images to me are the primary drivers of a story in a lot of ways. I don’t know if this method is a great thing to do as a storyteller, or if it’s native to storytelling, but I don’t usually start writing with a scene. My stories begin with an image. I believe in John Gardner’s advice about “The Waking Dream,” the idea that the writer should never put anything in that pulls the reader out of the dream state of reading. I’m also very visual anyway, as most people are, but images are the things that anchor me to a story. There is a pressing issue to put an image into words when I write. Recently, I started a relatively new process to approach starting the story “Fire.” I wrote a series of daily scenes, and this story grew out of a scene of a kid trying to light a fire in the fireplace and being unsuccessful at it. I picked this scene and asked questions of it.

Another thing I’m very interested in is the way a metaphor shifts over narrative time, the way it takes on different meanings as a story changes. Sometimes the metaphors work and sometimes they don’t. I try not to assert too much control over images and metaphors, so they can grow naturally. If I stay out of their way, I can assert control and craft over other areas.

I feel a strong sense of nostalgia in your writing, as though for the characters, the present isn’t living up to the past. I was wondering if you had any thoughts on how nostalgia works in your writing?

Very transparently, one of my primary hang-ups just walking around is my nostalgia for the past. That’s my primary occupation. Talk about existential angst, that’s it. I try not to sweat on it too much, but the book I’m working on now is very much about the past and about the way the past holds sway over the present and prevents us from accessing the present, prevents us from accessing a more natural version of who we are as individuals because of the weight of having to carry all this stuff – trauma, hardship. We define ourselves in those ways when sometimes it’s just not true anymore. This manifests differently for everyone. I don’t understand how it works or why it’s that way.

Similarly, families are having trouble relating in your writing. There’s an emphasis on the fact decisions have been made by the characters that can’t be undone, and the effects are far-reaching. This is important to your work in a thematic way. What is the role of family for you in these pieces?

It’s a hobbling thing to write about families. What I’m writing about now has to do with what is noble about our pasts and our presents. Just because you were there for your past doesn’t mean you really know what it was or is. What I’m finding in the process of writing my novel is that heaping on details doesn’t bring us closer to understanding. I don’t think it has anything to do with volume of stuff. I think it’s something else. I know it sounds like I’m pursuing philosophical ideas but I’m really just chasing images. But it’s interesting to think about all this stuff.

A lot of your characters are builders, men who work with their hands. This is an interesting contrast – building physical structures while other parts of their lives seem to crumble. Do you have any thoughts on the juxtaposition?

Well, this could be kind of a shoddy metaphor if I let it get too simple. But I know the construction world. The house in my novel, I did the plumbing. It took me eight weeks. There’s a lot of metaphor in building. I’m interested in the more subtle metaphors too. I’m interested in the way the capitalist structure inflects that metaphor. This is serious money, not just guys getting together to build a house because they want to. At the same time I set my novel right at the cusp of the collapse, when guys were getting laid off. There’s this larger hand coming out of nowhere, there’s nothing that they can do about it. I’m interested in what happens to characters in that situation. It’s why I set it right at 2008.

If you could pick out a few of the most important things you’ve learned about writing in the past few years, what would they be? What are your goals for the future?

I think there’s an important transition that happens when you realize you’re no longer writing just personal writing, that your work should be bigger than personal writing. Because you could sit in a room and write all this stuff and make it almost like therapy. It’s one thing to write and try to achieve an emotional realness to something you’ve experienced personally – not necessarily even for a therapeutic purpose. But there’s a difference between that and writing that will get at something in the world that other people or you don’t understand yet. A perfect example that comes to my mind is George Saunders, who I think gets at the realities of the world that we all know but haven’t seen put in a certain, more visible way, while at the same time engaging us on a deeply emotional level. That’s what I aspire to, to pursue those types of issues that have huge sociological repercussions, repercussions in every way. That’s what I’m working toward – something larger that I don’t understand yet.

Megan Cummins’s fiction has appeared in Freight Stories and Issue 17 of A Public Space. She attended the University of Michigan and the MA program in creative writing at UC Davis. She is a past contributor to Stories on Stage.

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Valerie Fioravanti tagged for The Next Big Thing Blog/FB Series

What is the title of the book? 

Garbage Night at the Opera, after the first story in the collection.

Where did the idea come from for the book?

Garbage Night at the Opera slowly came together while I was busy writing two other books. I had been working on a novel and a collgnatofrontection of travel stories in grad school, but was slowly accumulating these stories about life in Brooklyn and Queens, the kind of native New Yorkers who live outside the cultural fantasy image of what life in NYC is about.

What genre does your book fall under? What is the one sentence synopsis of your book?

Garbage Night at the Opera is linked short stories, which means the stories are inter-related, with characters reappearing in major and minor roles. It’s roughly 30 years in the life of one extended family as their neighborhood loses the factory jobs that supported them, languishes for a generation, then gentrifies beyond their means.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript?

Short story collections tend to emerge over time, meaning that you don’t simply group the first ten stories that you write together. There are stories in my second collection that were written years before some of the stories in my first. It’s a matter of fit. Garbage Night at the Opera focuses on one family in Brooklyn, and the consequences of a community being dislocated from its primary means of support. The collection I’m working on now, Bridge & Tunnel, is mostly set in Queens, although work—particularly the Manhattan commute—is once again a central theme.

What inspired you to write this book?

In some ways, it was an homage to my mother and her close-knit family, because Greenpoint was their home and they loved it unconditionally, idealistically. She died while I was in the third year of my MFA program. Some of the characters in the book have that same love for the neighborhood. Others do not.

What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest?

I’ve been told it reads like a novel. If you liked Olive Kitteridge, you might enjoy Garbage Night at the Opera.

Who is publishing this book? Are you represented by an agency?

BkMk (pronounced Bookmark) Press of the University of Missouri-Kansas City published the book December 2012. Garbage Night at the Opera won their yearly book prize, the G.S. Sharat Chandra Prize for Short Fiction, in 2011. I do not have an agent.

Where can I buy your book?

Here are links to Amazon & SPD Books, but your favorite locally-owned bookstore is always an option.

My tagged writers for next Wednesday are:

My fellow Chandra Prize winners Laura Maylene Walter (2010) & Lauren Cobb (2012), Kate Hill Cantrill, Renee Thompson,  Jodi Angel & Adam Russ. Thanks to Rus Bradbird, author of Make it, Take it for tagging me.

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Lori White Interviews Master Teacher & April SoS Featured Writer Nancy Zafris

Nancy Zafris is the author of the story collections The Home Jar & The People I Know and the novels The Metal Shredders & Lucky Strike. Nancy is currently the Series Editor for the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction and was Fiction Editor of The Kenyon Review. She has also taught for the Antioch University low-residency MFA program in LA. Find out more about Nancy at

Nancy will conduct Master Teacher Weekend Workshops in Sacramento April 27-28th & Los Angeles/Westwood May 4-5th. She will be the featured writer at Stories on Stage April 26th. For more information about the workshops, visit

What can participants expect to accomplish over the two days of this workshop?

First, I want to focus on generating original work which we then analyze and use as another catalyst for more work.  Second, I want to talk about putting a collection together — some practical advice.  I feel in a unique position to do this since I’ve not only published two collections but I’m the series editor of the Flannery O’Connor award for short fiction and so I see many, many collections and I can actually tell quite a bit just by their table of contents. So we’ll talk about that.  Third, each participant will also have a previously written story critiqued in class.  We’ll devote a shorter amount of time than usual so that we don’t take up 6 hours of class time.  I’m also scheduling individual conferences before and after the class, and during the 90-minute lunch hour. I’ll skype with those I don’t get to individually during those two days. Basically, I’ll do homejarwhat’s necessary to give each writer complete feedback on his or her story.

So the participant can expect something a little bit different from the regular workshop.

Yes. Quite a bit different. It’s not static. We don’t “workshop” stories per se. I treat the stories before me as if I’m an editor at a publishing house and I need to get this piece ready for publication. If someone wants their 85-year old grandmother to be a pothead who supplies her grandson’s friends, I’m not interested in hearing from the other writers that their grandmother would never do this and that grandmothers in general would not. The question is not, Why can’t this work? The question is, What needs to be in place to make this work? It’s high energy, rigorous but supportive, and I think it’s fun.

In the workshops I’ve taken with you before, you use prompts

Yes, I like prompts. I use prompts at the Kenyon Review summer workshop. Prompts really get the creative juices flowing. But I’m careful about what prompts I use. I like them to have an inherent structure.

Are they for long or short pieces?

Because of time limitations, they are mostly for short shorts. But I’ve recently devised some for longer pieces. Those I try out myself to see if they work.

Do they?

Two of them I tried out resulted in stories that are included in my new collection, THE HOME JAR. I think one story is pretty easy to spot. It’s a numbered story. The other might not be so easy to find.

Why is the story numbered?

The numbers function as space breaks and time jumps. One of the biggest issues in my workshops are stories that span a lengthy period of time. The writer begins to summarize rather than dramatize. So I tried to figure out something that allows for a time span but also ensures that each discrete moment is dramatized. I think you published the one you wrote using this structure.

Yes, in Spittoon (

We were next to each other, I remember. I had done a micro fiction piece that came from another prompt.

That story of mine spanned several years. Why can’t stories span a lengthy amount of time?

They certainly can! They simply can’t be summarized. This is where Aristotle’s unity of dramatic action comes in. He says the dramatic unit should not be longer than 24 hours. Oedipus Rex takes place in a day.

But I’ve read stories of yours that last much longer than that.

Yes, absolutely. I have a story in the collection that goes from the early 1930s to the late 1990s — over 60 years. And I recently went back to check on these stories because I had given advice to someone that his stories had this time and summary problem we’ve been talking about, and I started to feel like a hypocrite because, I was sure, my stories did not have this unity of action. So I went back and checked the stories in this new collection and except for that numbered prompt story, I was surprised that they all took place in a 24-hour period, even the one that spanned 60 years.

So you’re talking about “the fish” now.

Yes. That’s my way of talking about the unity of action. Some teachers use the fish structure to illustrate subplots. I use it to illustrate what I’ve begun calling the top story and the bottom story. The top story is basically the plot or the story you’re feeding the reader (and that one is short), and the bottom story is the real story (and that can be as long as you want).

And you’ll be doing the fish in the workshop.

Oh yes. And I’ll probably assign a couple of stories to read beforehand that illustrate this structure.

I can say that learning this structure really helped me with my stories.

And it’s meant to help, not to dictate, because every writer is different. You in particular, Lori, thrive on structure, it really releases your creativity. And I believe you’ve published several pieces from the workshop. I guess over 50 stories coming out of my workshops have been published.

You’re currently the series editor of The Flannery O’Connor award for short fiction. Before that you were the fiction editor of The Kenyon Review. How has that influenced your teaching?

It’s made me approach stories initially from a technical angle. That is, I’m in the position of judging them and it means for the stories that they will be published or not published.  That’s a big deal.  I try to approach the story without any of my own desires or projections.  I let the story be.  It tells me its own terms. If it violates the very terms that it has proposed up front, then the story stops working, technically, the way it should. So in teaching, it’s somewhat the same. I don’t want to tell people what to write; I simply want to figure out a way to make it work. I’m very against making the story “smaller” in order to make it work. I like ambitious, layered stories, and I think ambitious stories can have more things “wrong” with them and still work. I’m not a big fan of tidiness. Tidiness is its own sort of summary for me.

Lori White’s latest story will be published this spring at The Journal Online.  Other stories have appeared in Kenyon Review Online, The Kenyon Review anthology Readings for Writers, apt, and Necessary Fiction.  She teaches English at Los Angeles Pierce College and lives with her partner and their three dogs at a fire station in the Los Padres National Forest.

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Alex Russell Interviews January’s Emerging Writer Megan Cummins

Megan Cummins builds stories about kids and adults that anyone can feel and understand, in prose that is beautifully transparent until an occasional simile drives such clarity into an image that you have to stop and see how it was done. She is currently working on a novel, often while riding the train from her home in Sacramento to her job at a union office in the East Bay where she keeps the books.

Megan completed her MA with the graduate Creative Writing Program at UC Davis in 2011, when I was finishing up my first year there. Her short fiction has appeared in Freight Stories, and is forthcoming in A Public Space. We met for this interview at Old Soul Co. in Sacramento, where the barista there knew everything there was to know about the tea industry, and explained it to me in the time it took him to brew me a cup. Megan agreed he was astounding.

 It seems that many of your characters are girls right on the cusp of adulthood, right at that pivotal moment, but also in environments in which they don’t recognize the danger around them. Could you talk about that?

Until about five years ago I was always writing about characters that were older than I was. Eventually I sort of realized that I didn’t really know the characters I was writing. Not that I can’t write about characters who are older than I am and not be convincing, but now with my novel it’s more interesting to me to write about kids. They’re in conventional places like suburbia, or in families or relationships that might not be stable but aren’t necessarily violent or anything like that, but there is always this underlying danger that I think comes from them not knowing themselves. As far as where that comes from in my life, maybe it’s from being young and not really feeling like I’m adult yet even though I am and have the responsibilities of an adult.

In the novel you’ve been working on, I noticed that the present narrative seems to center on a major event in the past, almost as if that event is still determining their lives even as adults. What drew you to that structure?

When I was at the Tin House Writers Workshop the summer between years at Davis, something all the teachers there seemed to say was to put a short clock on your story, the shortest clock possible. And I’ve never been able to do that. Even my short stories span at least months. I’ve never been able to put short clocks on my stories. It’s not my natural inclination. I always feel like I have to draw from something that happened in the past. But by the end of the story I want the beginning to somehow read differently in light of what’s happened.

When we were in school, we had what now seems like this unlimited amount of time just to focus on writing. What has the transition into the post-grad world been like?

I know at Davis that technically you were hired at 20 hours a week for TAships, and right now I work 20 hours a week for work.

But those are real hours.

You’re right. Those are real hours, so it’s vastly different in that regard. Also, even if I was really busy with grading and Lit classes and other obligations, everything I did in some way went back to Literature. It went back to reading and writing. So all these different things I was doing were somehow informing each other in a way that my work now doesn’t. I really love my job now. The people are really great. I’m the bookkeeper so it’s entirely the opposite. I’m doing numbers. So I don’t have this atmosphere where everything I do is related to reading and writing. That was amazing for those two years. Now, in some ways it’s kind of nice. I write on the train on the way to work and when I get there I don’t think about anything related to my own writing for however many hours I’m there. In some ways that break is kind of nice, but ultimately my work habits feel more scattered now. I try to stick pretty strictly to writing on the train, and then writing at home the days that I don’t work. Even if that’s more consistent it feels kind of fractured, because it’s not part of this bigger writing environment, or haven that I feel like we had. But I guess you have to grow up sometime. I’ve put it off longer than most people. In the end I think it’s a necessary experience but it’s definitely a different one.


Alex Russell recently completed his MA in creative writing at UC Davis. His work has appeared in the Atticus Review, and in The Georgetown Review. He lives in Davis with his wife and two dogs.

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