MFA, Creative Writing, 2002
image by Jocelyn Mettler
You were recently named the Hallowell Professor of Creative Writing, effective fall 2014 to spring 2016. Could you tell us a bit more about that?
The Hallowell Professorship is funded by the generous contributions of a local family here in Fresno and designated to retain and support accomplished faculty in creative writing. It provides me with a course release each semester, which gives me some much-needed time to write.
Your latest book, a collection of essays entitled Ultrasonic, was released December 2014. How would you describe the book to potential readers?
That’s always such a hard question for me to answer. Here’s something I wrote about it before:
Ultrasonic is a collection of linked essays that explore how sound can be used to search for deeper meaning beneath the surface of everyday life. Delving into questions of identity, family, fear, loss, and the politics of space, the book becomes an idiosyncratic exploration of identity amidst the cultural noise of contemporary life in America. Each chapter operates both as an independent essay and as an echo chamber for larger ideas, and it gazes at our human predicament through such varied lenses as trapped miners, stethoscopes, racquetball, language, loitering, violence, Elvis, and the music of torture. Weaving narrative and thematic threads into a richly layered collage-like tapestry, Ultrasonic functions as a sound map of my consciousness and as a lyrical memoir of fatherhood.
How would you describe your writing process? Any particular rituals or magic involved?
No magic or wizards or superstitions, and the process has been slightly different with each book. The common denominators are waking up early, usually by 6 or 6:30 every day, if not earlier, and spending time in front of the page or computer screen. Some people spend 8 hours a day being an accountant or a used car salesman because that’s their job. Writing is one of my jobs, one that pays very little and is full of a lot of rejection and alone-time and bad clothes. But I also love it, which means it never feels like work even if it is a lot of hard work most of the time. I also always have several projects going at once—often three or four essays and at least one or two books—all of which are at different stages of completion, allowing me to bounce between the generative rush of new material and the hard slog of line-editing or the existential crisis of wholesale revision.
What are you currently writing? Reading?
I’m currently working on a couple of other nonfiction projects. The first, a memoir or “very long essay,” will be released next year by Dzanc Books and is focused on the line between human and animal, between civilized and savage, and how those lines are blurred when humans have intimate and violent encounters with apex predators. More specifically it uses the story of David Villalobos, who jumped into a tiger cage at the Bronx zoo in 2012, as a touchstone for exploring the personal, cultural, and historical legacy of people who “jump into the cage” with predators, including human predators. Another project focuses on the human and natural history of Parkfield, California, population 18, the Earthquake Capital of the World. This tiny town in the Cholame Valley is surrounded by more seismic sensing equipment than anywhere else in the country and is a kind of living laboratory for USGS efforts at “capturing” a big quake because this stretch of the San Andreas experiences more frequent large earthquakes that any other stretch of the famous fault-line. It’s also home to a number artists, eccentrics, and entrepreneurs.
You co-founded the acclaimed literary magazine The Normal School (!) and currently serve as a Nonfiction editor for them. What inspired you to do such a thing and how did you make that happen? What advice would you have for anyone wanting to do the same?
The Normal School, which is starting our 8th year of publication, began in Fort Collins, as an offshoot of the post-graduate writing group, The Minions. The founding members of the magazine were all part of the writing group, which was started as way to provide a forum for writer-driven feedback and discussion on work-in-progress, but which evolved into something more, a kind of collective and collaborative creative effort that resulted in “themed” public readings, a collaboration with artists, and even a chapbook publication. When I moved first to Rhode Island and then to Fresno to teach in the MFA program, Matt Roberts moved to Arizona, and Sophie Beck was still living in Denver, so the core of the group scattered. The magazine was a way to continue working together and collaborating creatively. We’d all found great support and inspiration in the collective experience and we didn’t want it to die. We also found a lot of literary magazines didn’t pay a lot of attention to nonfiction and, the three of us having turned to writing primarily essays and reportage-based pieces or criticism, wanted to create a magazine that we’d like to read. The goal from the beginning has always been to create a kind of ongoing conversation about form, genre, style, and the other “norms” of literary publishing. As far as advice goes, I’d suggest learning all you can from Stephanie G’Schwind and then teaming up with Sophie Beck. Honestly, it’s that simple. You can’t find a better teacher of literary publishing than Stephanie. Sophie is equally amazing and The Normal School would not exist, much less be as cool and fun and original, if not for her hard work and dedication. I guess I would also suggest doing a LOT of research first and figuring out how you’re going to get your magazine into the hands of readers BEFORE you decided to print your first issue. It’s also vitally important that you trust your partners and team-members, that you can argue and disagree and still be friends and colleagues; and I believe the most successful and interesting magazines are the product of a guild of artists, designers, editors, managers, and writers. I remember John Calderazzo telling our class once that we should look around the room at our classmates. “These aren’t just your classmates, these are your future colleagues,” and I can tell you, some twelve years later, that is absolutely true.
As an editor of a literary magazine, what advice do you have for writers submitting their work?
I think my advice follows the old cliché: read the magazine first before submitting. Understand how your work fits into their aesthetic. Submit only to magazines you respect and that you would want to read. Aim high and collect your rejections with pride, but don’t ever let them make you quit. Pretty much everything I’ve ever published has been rejected at least once. Also don’t be afraid to talk to editors at AWP or other places, and be nice to those editors. The writing world is frighteningly small sometimes and a little kindness and respect goes a long way. And it bears repeating, make sure your pieces are free of mechanical errors; also the old adage, “less is more” definitely applies to cover letters.
How does being a writer influence the way you teach writing?
I guess that’s a hard question to answer because it’s difficult for me to separate the two sometimes. I’m not an English literature scholar. I was a philosophy major and I got my MFA in fiction. I’m barely a scholar of nonfiction. All I really care about and what I teach my students about is the craft of writing. I’m not terribly motivated by macro-level considerations of subject matter or theory, but very much interested in the micro-level choices of craft that a writer makes on the page, and then how those choices impact meaning-making in an essay; and of course many of these considerations come directly from own successes and failures in writing. Sometimes lesson plans are really just ways for me to work out some issues I’m having in my own work, but more often I find that I get very excited about the careful, micro-level dissection of craft choices that my students make and I will spend a great deal of time and energy exploring the various possibilities and choices available at any given moment in one of their essays.
How does being a writer influence the way you live?
I don’t know for sure. I mean, I can’t really imagine living and not being a writer. It’s just how I process the world. Writing, in addition to being how I think about and make sense of the world, is also a source of a great many meaningful relationships, and has provided me with all kinds of opportunities I might never have otherwise had—whether it’s teaching in Spain, Mexico, and Scotland or interviewing geophysicists, seismologists, and eccentrics who live in Parkfield, California, the Earthquake Capital of the World, writing gives me license and motivation to explore, research, read, and talk to people. It allows me to indulge my curiosity and obsessive nature, and sometimes it gives me a good excuse to travel.
How did your time at CSU prepare you for the job, the life you have now?
I learned so much at CSU about the craft of writing, lessons I still use today in my own writing and teaching, it would be difficult to enumerate them all. But I also learned how to develop the habit and discipline of writing. I ended up being a pretty awful fiction writer, but I wouldn’t trade those lessons I learned from Steven [Schwartz] and Leslee [Becker] for anything. I know it greatly influenced my nonfiction writing in many positive ways. And I was glad I had the opportunity to take two workshops almost every semester in both fiction and nonfiction, where John [Calderazzo] introduced me to a whole new world of writing and to books (like Bernard Cooper’s Maps to Anywhere) that changed my life and I still teach today in my own classes.
What do you consider to be your greatest accomplishments (both personally and professionally)? How did your experience in the English Department help you with these achievements?
These questions are hard . . . I mean, I don’t know that I’ve achieved my greatest accomplishment yet and I guess I try not to think that way. It sounds like I’m writing my own obituary. I’m very proud of all my books and I’m especially fond of the most recent one, but I’m not done writing books and I think, as a writer, you kind of always have to think your next one is going to be your best one. I’m proud of my students and like to think I have a positive influence on their writing. My kids are amazing and I’d like to think their accomplishments reflect well on me in some way, but they’re also these incredibly bright and talented individuals who often excel and succeed independent of my influence.
Here’s something: not long ago, I fixed our broken clothes dryer without cursing or throwing things and that felt like a pretty great accomplishment. I’m not sure my experience in the English Department helped me fix my dryer or raise my kids, but it certainly greatly influenced my writing and teaching in very positive ways.
What did you like about the English program? Why did you choose to study here?
I loved my time at CSU and still consider it “home” in many ways. The MFA program was nothing but supportive of me and my stubborn insistence on combining the study of fiction and nonfiction into one MFA degree. I loved and respected the faculty and I found that my fellow students were incredibly smart, driven, and deeply influential in my own work. The atmosphere when I was there was competitive but supportive and I needed that. I loved the opportunities I had to be involved with OGSW and The Colorado Review and other elements of the writing community.
Do you have a favorite or funny story from your time with the English Department?
Too many to list . . .
Was there a specific class, professor, advisor, or fellow student who made an impression on you, helped you, or inspired you when you were at CSU in the English Department?
All of them . . . Ok, sorry. But that’s like asking me to single out my favorite family members. I’m still friends and colleagues with a great many of my former professors and fellow students. Obviously, given my commitment to nonfiction writing and teaching, my classes in nonfiction there were extremely influential and inspirational; but I can say the same of just about every class I took. I’ve taken a little bit from all of my teachers (both professors and fellow students) and tried to incorporate it into my own teaching and writing process.
What would you like to tell prospective or current CSU English Department students?
Go to all the readings and workshops and craft talks by visiting writers. Get involved in the writing community. Work on the Colorado Review. But always make writing your first priority. Set goals and create a schedule around your writing, NOT your teaching or whatever else you have impinging on your time. You will NEVER again have the time and focus you have in graduate school. One faculty member (who shall remain nameless here) told me once, “You’re here to write. If that means you have to be a bad teacher sometimes, so be it.” . . . this is coming, of course, from an award-winning professor, but it has stayed with me to this day and something I tell my own students. You only get three years there. Use them wisely. And be a good literary citizen. It’s OK to be jealous of your classmate’s success . . . for like a second . . . then you need to turn that into respect and support.
What are your hobbies or special interests, what do you enjoy doing with your free time? What do you love? What are you obsessed with?
I’m lucky in that writing allows me to indulge a great many of special interests and obsessions. I get to write about the apocalypse and ethical theory, 80’s pop culture and the history of stethoscopes, Elvis Presley and racquetball . . . and, I suppose like any writer, I love reading. I read constantly, in a variety of forms, consuming all kinds of news and culture and literature. I like good food, good beer, good bookstores, and traveling to places that have those things. I like rummage sales and thrift stores and doing arts and crafts with my kids. I love dioramas. And I get really into sports sometimes, often as a way to disengage from email and Facebook and teaching; mostly I’m obsessed with college basketball and the University of Kansas. I read the KU basketball website every single morning. But recently I’ve also found myself briefly obsessed with Wimbeldon, the World Cup, and the World Series. Oh, and I love naps. I really think more people in this country should embrace the daily nap, or the siesta, as a much more sane way of existing. I think if more people napped regularly there would be a lot less pain and suffering in the world.
If you had to give up writing, teaching, and editing, but could be anything and do anything you wanted, what would that be?
Well, I would never give up writing . . . I’m not sure I’d ever want to be anything other than a writer. It would be fun to learn how to cook better, maybe take some sculpture classes. If I could do anything, I guess it would be to write all the time, without worry of money, maybe in France or somewhere different every year where I didn’t own a car and could find really good cheese. Or I’d own a bookstore/bar that served craft beer and was filled with a curated collection of good new and used books and literary magazines and locally made beef jerky; and we’d feature readings by writers from around the world and, in the mornings maybe after I’d gotten in a few hours of my own work, we’d put together the next edition of The Normal School magazine, that other thing I was supposed to give up for this question . . .