Ruth Harrison


Because a few questions can offer endless insight, I'm happy to present Fast Five —  interviews with great writers.

Ruth Harrison was born in Kansas, grew up in Colorado, and has lived in Oregon since 1950. She is a retired professor of medieval literature (teaching at Portland State University, Linfield College, and Oregon Coast Community College) whose poems have appeared in regional, national and international publications. She is author of two textbooks, three chapbooks, and seven poetry collections. Noting her value to the writing community, the Oregon Poetry Association, the state’s oldest and largest poetry organization, recently honored Harrison with a lifetime membership.
You primarily write in traditional poetic forms. Is there a particular form you favor, and why?

Well, the sonnet — because it is old and mossy, and lovely in its song-like qualities, hallowed by time — and by users like Shakespeare and Keats, leading the way. And the villanelle, which I attempted as soon as I learned its name (in a college class), in part because it sent me looking for a poetry handbook, which led me on to many other forms; and in part because it's a challenge to make the required repetitions not thud on the ear, not seem repetitious and boring. And the triolet because its repeat lines are not so many as the villanelle's, and because it's small and must convey its impact in a short space . . . There are many many short forms Madelyn Eastlund's Poets' Forum had introduced me to, that I have enjoyed no end. The cresset comes to mind for its lovely symmetry and slight rhyme requirements, just enough to make a poet work to get the exactly right word to make meaning and to suit the formal requirement. The struggle is good for us as writers and as craftsmen. And I enjoyed trying a form Lew Turco told me about, the rubliw (named, I think, for Richard Wilbur—?), that he and his fellow poets have enjoyed playing with at Iowa and later.
At what age did you begin to write poetry, and how has your writing changed over the years?
I was told I made verses from about age two, but of course was not yet writing, just making. And I made an occasional attempt in school years, fifth and sixth grades, and so on. Then a few efforts in high school and college classes have survived . . . some college efforts made it into a college anthology. My teaching years mostly put an end to the writing, because teaching is so all-consuming, but sometimes when my students were busy with an in-class writing project, I sat writing also, to add to the work-filled intense quiet atmosphere as much as anything. But I didn't give it concentrated attention until I retired from my final teaching position, in 1994.
You formed Tuesday, a writing group that has met every week for over 20 years. How has the group influenced your writing life?
Tuesday has been a singular blessing. It carries an automatic weekly deadline to have material ready for the next meeting; it encourages revision and craftsmanship; and it takes the loneliness out of the writing life. It provides a first audience for untried work, in an unthreatening setting — a good testing ground.
What’s the best writing advice you’ve received (or given)?

Keep writing.

Will you please share a favorite poem from your new book, West of 101.
This is one many hearers or readers have liked [in unrhymed iambic pentameter]:

Night Lights

It’s 2:13 and she is not asleep
but trying. She’ll go warm herself some milk,
sit with the quiet, and look across the waves,
inhale the pine tree scent, and pause before
returning to her bed . . .   Take Christmas in:
plug in the lights, enjoy the silence, night,
the distant sound of surf, here near the glass.

The pane exhales a cool light essence, fresh
against her face.
She seems the only one
alive, awake here long before the dawn,
and watching the deep waves she knows are there
only because it’s west— that's where waves are.

Across the black . . . nothing alive in sight.
And moments pass in solitude and dark

But now a spark appears and disappears,
appears again. A crabber out there in
December’s endless night, his worklights bright.
On impulse, she unplugs the Christmas tree
and plugs it in again, to say hello
to light that speaks to her across five miles.

Three times the light blinks back, and she repeats
her greeting to the worker in the cold
before the boat is hidden by a surge
and swell of waters.

She lets go that breath
when light appears again, and sparks in sign
of living presence in that larger earth
the darkness opens.
A repeat flash says:

We’re all right here because the land is there
And every soul’s alone, but that is how
life is for all of us who’ve had the luck
to be born, and will have the luck to die.
We know you’re there, the only spark in sight
this holiday. And thank you for the light.

- Ruth Harrison



Margaret Chula

I love that mad scribble . . .

and then, sliding different words

across my tongue until it finds 

the perfect sound.

Because a few questions can offer endless insight, I'm happy to present Fast Five — interviews with great writers.

Margaret "Maggie" Chula has been writing and teaching haiku and Japanese poetic forms for over 30 years. She is the author of seven poetry collections, and her haiku have appeared on Itoen tea cans in Japan, on a construction site for the new transit line in Portland, and on billboards in Tokyo train stations. She frequently collaborates with artists, musicians, and photographers, and currently serves as president of the Tanka Society of America, and as poet laureate for Friends of Chamber Music in Portland, Oregon.

Your short form poetry has earned numerous awards and recognition. What is it about the short form that draws you?

My love affair with haiku and later with haibun and tanka began when I lived in Kyoto ("Tranquility and Peace Capital"). For 12 years, my husband and I lived in a traditional Japanese-style house. Built after World War II from low-quality materials, there was a thin line between outdoors and indoors. Every winter mice nested in the closet. In rainy season, centipedes scuttled across the walls. Summer brought moths doing their frantic dance inside paper lanterns. For a few weeks one autumn, a weasel made his nightly visit to the garbage can in the back hallway. Tanuki (raccoon dogs) and a red fox frolicked in our moss garden. Our back door opened onto a rice field where we observed the rice cycle: flooding the paddy, planting rice shoots, cutting the rice in autumn, hanging the sheaves on bamboo poles to dry, and the final winnowing. Even in winter the fallow fields had their own beauty, filling with snow like a scene from an old woodblock print.

This awareness of seasonal changes is very Japanese. It’s expressed in every aesthetic from tea ceremony to flower arrangement and, of course, in poetry. Honest, direct, and profound, haiku suited my lifestyle of simplicity—living so intimately with nature!

The university where I taught English and creative writing had an extensive collection of English-language poetry. At this avant-garde university, several Japanese professors at Seika had studied abroad and met beat poets like Alan Ginsberg and Gary Snyder (who both came to lecture while I was there). The library also had English translations of the great haiku masters: Basho, Buson, Issa, and Shiki. I read all of R.H. Blythe books, copying down my favorite haiku in a notebook. There is something about transferring poems to paper that makes them come alive and be a part of your own experience.

Eventually, I began to compose my own haiku. Even with my busy teaching schedule (12 classes a week), I designated one day a week as a writing day. Hopping on my 50cc motorbike, I’d head up to a temple in the mountains for inspiration. I especially liked the winter months when I could be alone (Japanese hate the cold). Sitting on tatami and drinking green tea while watching snow fall on the garden, I’d fill my notebook with haiku.

I wrote in seclusion for a couple of years until I was introduced to an American poet who had lived in Kyoto for 30 years. Edith Shiffert and I met regularly for lunch or coffee at a kissaten or at one of our houses to share both our lyrical poetry and haiku. Sometimes we’d go on an excursion and write haiku together. Edith is now 98 and still lives in Kyoto.

After all this background, I would simply say that, for me, a haiku is like a drop of dew containing a single moment of beauty, a reminder of the transiency of our lives. The longer five-line tanka reveal our deep connection to nature as we live our lives filled with desires, loss, love, and continual change. Haibun invite us to tell stories in prose, interspersed with haiku, which surprise us with the unexpected. After 33 years, these Japanese poetic forms continue to entice and intrigue me.

Some people say "first thought best thought." Others edit a piece into place. What is your writing process?

First, and most importantly, I try to be true to the experience. Haiku and tanka bloom from a moment of revelation. Whether it’s a spiritual awareness or just seeing something familiar in a new way, I jot down the words without judgment. Because haiku and tanka are so short, it’s easy to roll the words around in my head, say on a walk, and come up with a satisfying order. Over the years, I’ve become more alert to moments of synchronicity—both profound and humorous, such as

         all at once
        peony blossoms drop
        clap of thunder

As haiku poets (or any poets for that matter), we need to be aware of the natural world—not only through observing it through a child’s eye, but by understanding the characteristics of flowers, birds, animals, etc. As Bashô said: Learn of the pine from the pine, learn of the bamboo from the bamboo. The enjoyment of this peony haiku is enhanced by knowing that, in Japan, it’s a rainy season flower. The peony’s delicate petals and fragrance are welcome in this month of heavy humidity and heat. All at once can mean both both suddenly and that peony petals fall at once, a characteristic of this flower. Both the petals falling and the thunder booming outside offer a moment of synchronicity. I actually laughed out loud when this happened: those delicate blossoms making such a loud noise when they tumbled onto my desk.

How much did I edit this one? Not much. Most likely, I took out a few articles or adjectives. In such a short form, every word must contribute to an image, mood, or action. The verb, especially, needs to be strong, both in sound and effect. Rearranging lines is essential in order to have that aha at the end. One great thing about haiku is that, by using a few well-chosen images, there is no need to explain or embellish.

What is your favorite poem in your latest book, Just This. Why?

The tanka in Just This express our endless states of longing (evoked by fragrance), loneliness caused by what’s been lost or never was, and memories passing away or forgotten. In the final section, as at the end of our lives, there comes an acceptance of things just as they are.

Just This is dedicated to my mother. Tanka about her final days thread throughout the five sections. Here are a few of my favorites:

Vicks VapoRub
the smell of Mother in winter
her hands rubbing
my small chest back and forth
deeper into my heart

         winter afternoon
        mother and I sort through
        her jewelry box—
        accepting baubles
        just for their stories

the hollow stems
of summer daylilies
pull out with ease
Mother has fallen
and broken her femur

New Year’s Eve
my ninety-year-old mother
puts rollers in her hair
first red camellia
unfurls in the snow

and the one I often end my readings with

this morning
pale white light
shines through the window
it’s snowing again
and Mother is gone

Let’s talk about creative crossover. You’ve collaborated with an artist on a project about Japanese internment camps, have performed a one-woman show about Japanese poets, and currently serve as poet laureate of the Friends of Chamber Music (Portland, Oregon) for which you have written over 40 concert-inspired poems.
How do these collaborations influence, enhance, or challenge your writing process?

I have to admit that I’ve become a collaboration junkie. Why limit yourself to one art form? Whether it’s a one-woman show combining costumes and Japanese music with poetry or writing poems to an artist’s work, or composing poems at a chamber music concert, this blending of the arts excites me.

Here’s what I wrote in my book What Remains: Japanese Americans in Internment Camps, a seven-year collaboration with quilt artist Cathy Erickson:

Collaboration is like a mirror that shows
each artist not just a mimicry of her work but reflects
a subtlety that she was not able to see before.
The words of the poem allow the quilt artist to look deeper
into the fabric of her creation to see the layers
that were not visible before. For the poet, words
take on texture, color, linear rhythm—a rhythm
of lines and shapes rather than iambs.
The sum of the piece becomes more than itself.

My approach to writing the poems to Cathy’s quilts was to follow the aesthetics of the Japanese style of painting called haiga. Hai is translated as poem (as in haiku) and ga is painting. Haiga, then, is a painting accompanied by a poem. The best-known example would be a hanging scroll of a sumi-e ink painting with a poem brushed vertically in calligraphy. What is the relationship between the painting and the poem? Rather than merely describing the artwork, the poem in a haiga shifts away from any obvious interpretation and invites the viewed to appreciate the visual image in a new way. A successful haiga creates a synergy where the interaction between the artwork and poem generates yet another level of interpretation and enjoyment. Often where one art form ends, another begins. There is a dialogue between the two forms. Both have a visual quality spoken in two different languages.

This is how I approach collaboration, whether working with a musician, a dancer, a photographer, or an artist.

You are an accomplished writer, poet and literary leader. What do you know now that you didn't know when you first started writing?

I didn’t know how this passion to write would continue to grow over the years — how it would become such an essential part of my life. I love the blessing of inspiration (even when it comes at 2am), that mad scribble of words and phrases, and then the process of moving lines around, finding the perfect adjective, sliding different words across my tongue until I find the perfect sounds.

When I moved to Portland in 1992, I didn’t realize that I would find such a supportive, nurturing poetry community. I have been sustained and enlivened by the members of my two poetry groups: the Pearl Poets and Word Sisters.

Bonus Question: I’m a word collector and urge others to keep a running list of favorite words. What are your favorite words?

I like words with interesting sounds, like peripatetic
the s’s: clouds, solace, shadow, caress, susurration

and a new favorite borborygmos (loud rumbling, gurgling, and tinkling noises heard in intestinal activity).



Auburn McCanta

Welcome to Fast Five: short interviews with my favorite writers. Life may be short but who doesn't have time for five questions?

Auburn McCanta is an award-winning writer, poet, journalist, and advocate. Surviving a brain tumor nearly 20 years ago inspired McCanta to write her first novel, All the Dancing Birds.

In the story, Lillie Claire Glidden is unraveling. She knows she’s in trouble when she finds her wallet and keys deep in the refrigerator. Not even her favorite red wine can dull the pain of the dreaded diagnosis: Alzheimer’s.

Told from Lillie Claire’s perspective, All the Dancing Birds offers beautiful and terrifying insight into the secret mind of those touched — and ultimately changed — by the mystery of Alzheimer’s disease.

I’m intrigued with the genesis of this novel: your brain tumor. Can you give us a bit of backstory?

I’m a brain tumor survivor of eighteen years. I still remember how my hands trembled in my lap as I received the initial kick-in-the-gut diagnosis that I had a tumor, a little larger than a golf ball, squatting deep and ruinous inside my brain. I was then given the unpleasant task to prepare for a number of terrifying outcomes, each one more frightening than the one before. In the world of brain tumors, full recovery is generally the last item on a long list of other more probable and very unkind possibilities. Nevertheless, with a gifted surgeon, a great deal of love and support and the luck to have inherited my grandmother’s stubborn Irish streak, I was given the gift of a shiny new life.

During the months following surgery, I taught myself to walk again, to talk again. To live again.

It seemed only natural after surviving a brain tumor, that I would develop a keen interest in other brain diseases as well. As time went on, I spent many years with family members and friends who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. After my own experience as a brain tumor patient, it dawned on me one day—like lightning in a bottle—that I retained the ability to think, even when it wasn’t clear to anyone else. I compared my early days following brain surgery, when I was unable to intelligently communicate, to the latter days of my loved ones with Alzheimer’s, who were equally unable to communicate. In recalling how difficult it was to locate and form words (a condition called, aphasia), it occurred to me that even in my darkest times, when my reasoning was skewed or my thoughts were slow in forming, I nevertheless retained the ability to think—however narrow those thoughts might have been. I retained a lively imagination and, even when I felt jumbled with medication or all those blind alleys I wandered through within the quiet of my mind, I still never stopped thinking. Similarly, I’ve watched dementia patients, silent and sometimes unapproachable, light up whenever someone might simply stop, take their hand, look into their face, and croon a soft hello.

It’s the notion that thought does not cease—regardless the circumstance—that I wanted to fictionalize.

I believe insight and knowledge is as possible through fiction as it is through clinical and nonfiction studies, that fiction teaches and illuminates and clarifies in different ways. A story can surprise and educate in creative ways; it can let readers explore difficult subjects through imagination and storytelling.

Statistics can be so clinical. You managed to turn dramatic data (5.5 million people in the U.S. with Alzheimer’s!) into a personal story that is both moving and illuminating. How were you able to capture the inner life of this disease of deterioration?

Alzheimer’s disease has been described as a rabbit hole into which entire families fall but, unlike Alice, there is no return to normal.

There is no single look to Alzheimer’s, just as there is no particular demographic that is either susceptible or immune. For those with Alzheimer’s, every place from which to be productive and giving, to be restored, to be welcomed, to be themselves, to give physical expression to their changing personalities, is removed. These are, quite simply, people slowly deprived of their unique humanity.

Although I allowed Lillie Claire’s thoughts to incorporate intelligent and robust language until the end (obviously, I took a great deal of literary license), she wanted it that way. Characters are like that for writers—they can be pushy! Lillie Claire wanted her story to be written as if she were fully able to speak into to the heart of each reader. She wanted everyone to know that even when she was silent, or had thoughts that didn’t exactly capture reality, or when she appeared not to have thoughts at all, she was still able to feel pain and joy. She was always able to think something. Researchers and caregivers confirm that even in the final days of Alzheimer’s, there is still a thread of connection to thought and feelings. Discomfort can be felt. Loneliness is an emotion still available to a dying patient, even when that person is otherwise silent on the issue. If All the Dancing Birds is able to communicate the concept that we remain thinking individuals until the end, then I’ve done something good to help promote human communication when all evidence points otherwise.

All the Dancing Birds is the story of one woman’s long and wrenching struggle with Alzheimer’s, but it also strikes me as a novel about empathy. Each of the main characters – son, daughter, caregiver, even Lillie Claire herself – respond differently to Lillie Claire’s declining health. Was this an intentional path while writing the book?

I’m most proud to have taken a task that was said to be impossible and create a work of imagination, illumination and creativity. Finding the interior of Alzheimer’s disease was more than imparting clinical information—it was like grabbing hold of a sticky bee’s nest and coming away without getting stung. Giving readers the information that thought continues even when words are gone could only have been told by my spunky Lillie Claire who allowed me to pile every uncomfortable aspect of Alzheimer’s on her small shoulders. She never whimpered that I’d given her too much, and for that, I’m proud of her and proud of me.

When I was diagnosed with a brain tumor, I quickly found that there were as many different responses to me as there were stars in the sky. Each of my children found the path that was most comfortable for them to confront a frightening diagnosis given their mother. I called out the memory of my children as I allowed Bryan and Allison to form their responses. I also gave Lillie Claire the gift of her own response to her failing mind and crumbling body. In their own way, even John Milton the Cat and the dear little patio birds responded to Lillie Claire’s progressive changes. As odd as it might sound, as the author, I even gave myself an opportunity to change along with Lillie Claire.

I love that your main character is a writer and poet. Were you, like Lillie Claire, shaped by literature?

When I was just four, I became sick with Rheumatic Fever. At the time, treatment was paired with strict bed rest in hope that a common outcome of heart valve damage could be avoided. My mother sat with me every day for six months, teaching me letters and words and a love for literature. Not content with “See Spot Run,” my mother encouraged me to read large and impressive stories. So, at four and a half, I was reading everything I could find. We wound our way through Grimm’s Fairy Tales and Br’er Rabbit, Alice in Wonderland and the Little House books. We read Nancy Drew. We read The Golden Book of Poetry.

Books have always been how I link myself to this often confusing world. Words give wings to those who read.

Your novel was many years in the making. When we met (at the 2008 Pacific Northwest Writers Association conference) your novel had already seen several drafts, and you had experienced encouragement followed by discouragment. How did you maintain the heart and drive to see the book to print?

During times when life interfered with active writing, I nevertheless kept a running story in my head. Sometimes months would go by when I was unable to devote time to writing, but those seemingly dry periods were still rich with what I call “head writing.” During those times, I imagined my way through the lives of each of the characters. Without writing down a word, I found intimacy with each person—Lillie Claire, Brian, Allison, Jewell, even a cashier in a small super market scene. I knew what each character wanted to say and how they wanted to tell their story.

Every step of the way, it seemed I met resistance to tell the story of Lillie Claire from a first person perspective. I was discouraged by many “professionals,” with admonitions that a story presented from inside the mind of an Alzheimer’s sufferer was impossible.

I thank each person who hammered away at how “unrealistic” it was to continue with such an improbable story. Being dissuaded and discouraged by others allowed me to become steel, to write with the heart of a lion, while still floating like dandelion seeds on a summer breeze. I love every person who said I couldn’t because in the end, they gave me the gift of “I did.” Writing All the Dancing Birds was a daily practice of love, a story both soft and big, a moment for me to have a conversation with every person who has ever been sick, or is with someone who is sick, or who may become sick one day. It’s a story for all, but I hope it speaks only to you.

Bonus Question: I’m a word collector and urge others to keep a running list of favorite words. What are your favorite words?

My first favorite word is “You,” followed (in alphabetical order) by,

cherish – What a beautiful word, meaning to hold one dear.

defenestrate – meaning to throw out of a window. Writers often consider doing this to our manuscripts when we struggle with a scene.

diaphanous – pretty and evocative, like the texture of light hovering above water.

eponymous – The word just floats off the tongue, doesn’t it?

flapdoodle – Who wouldn’t laugh over this word?

propinquity – proximity or nearness. This word reminds me of how we need to stay close to one another, and always be glad for our connections.

writer – well, of course.



Mindful Writing in a Busy World

Writing serves a purpose greater

than the product alone; it becomes

a spiritual practice, a way to connect

ourselves to that "presence,"

however it manifests in our lives.

Because direct questions offer endless insight, I'm happy to present Fast Five — short interviews with my favorite writers. Life may be short but who doesn't have time for five questions?

Holly Hughes and Brenda Miller are writers, friends, and authors of The Pen and the Bell: Mindful Writing in a Busy World. Both are accomplished: Holly is a poet, professor, and editor of the award-winning anthology Beyond Forgetting: Poetry and Prose about Alzheimer's Disease; Brenda is editor of the Bellingham Review, and a Pushcart Prize-winning author who teaches at Western Washington University. And both are deeply introspective writers who believe that "writing can be a rich, active form of paying attention to the self and the world."

I'm intrigued by, and appreciative of, the letter writing practice that led to the creation of The Pen and the Bell. What prompted your correspondence?

Holly: That was one of the wonderful serendipities of this collaboration, as we really just fell into it. We’d drafted an outline with chapters then met to discuss our plan. At the end of our session, we decided it looked too formal for the organic process we’d envisioned, so we decided to continue to correspond by letters (via email) instead. Thankfully, we both had a sabbatical that fall, and so the timing was good. Within a few months, we were both loving the correspondence — I was always delighted to find a “Letter from Brenda” in my In Box — and we quickly recognized that our letters were becoming the book we’d envisioned.

Brenda: Yes, serendipity is the right word, because the idea seemed to just arrive — to materialize as a message to which we both said, “of course.” And once we started writing, it was so much fun that it was actually hard to stop. I think I wrote three letters in the first week!

In the introduction you write that it is important to "carve out space for writing in a world crowded with distraction." In a few words, how does one master this seemingly impossible feat?

Holly: It’s hard to answer this in a few words — we share many specific strategies in The Pen & The Bell — but the premise of the book is that by combining mindfulness practice with writing practice, it’s more possible to carve out space and time; the two practices can work synergistically to support each other. For example, by meditating or reading a favorite poem aloud (contemplative reading) before writing, you can more quickly enter a creative state — where the more authentic writing comes from. Other than that, we give suggestions for taking whatever time you have — at a red light or walking to work—to breathe deeply and re-connect with yourself throughout a busy day — and these small mindfulness practices allow us to bring more of our undistracted selves to the page.

Brenda: It’s really about learning to write more quickly — not spending time “thinking” about writing or agonizing about it, but simply writing, even if you have just a few minutes. We give you lots of prompts — in the book and on The Pen and the Bell website — that can give you places to start. It’s also a matter of prioritization: really getting a sense of why writing is important to you, and forming a community (a community can consist of even just one other person) that helps you value this priority.

What did you gain in the process of writing this book, and what do you hope readers will experience? (I cheated, that's two questions!)

Holly: I’ll address the first question. I think we wrote this book for ourselves — we’re both teaching writing full-time, seeing first-hand all the distractions that we and our students face on a daily basis, distractions that sometimes keep us from writing. As the letters evolved, it became clear that we were letting our creative muse help us find strategies that felt in keeping with both the challenges — and the deeper core values — of our own lives.

Brenda: Yes, and we hope our readers will experience the same thing: some support for their creative lives, an excuse or opportunity to slow down and remember what it feels like to focus in a deeper way than our hectic lives (and minds!) sometimes allow.

I like your idea that "contemplation is an active practice." For you, which came first: writing or mindfulness?

Holly: For me, writing came first, as I’ve been writing in a journal since I was a kid. They both came together twenty years ago when I was working as a mariner on the water in Alaska. Looking back, I view that time — what I called “wheelwatch practice” — as a form of mindfulness practice. I began attending meditation retreats and receiving formal instruction about 12 years ago. I became particularly interested in mindfulness practice after reading several books by the Vietnamese monk Thich Naht Hanh and was lucky enough to attend a week-long retreat at Deer Park Monastery in California when he was in residence.

Brenda: I’ve been writing since I was 7 years old, so I guess writing came first! Though children do seem to be naturals at contemplation as well; they can focus a long time on insects, animals, blades of grass. . . I was always kind of a moody child — quiet, introspective — and so perhaps those two modes have always coincided for me.

I'm a collector of words. What are your favorites?

Holly: What a fun question, Drew! I must admit it’s difficult to choose; there so many words I love, both for their meanings and their sounds, their feel as they roll off your tongue. But here are a few of this week’s favorites: waterfall, bumblebee, pomegranate, bladderwrack, stipple.  (The last is from a favorite Hopkins’ poem, Pied Beauty, that has many more great words).    

Brenda: delicious, marble, agile, welcome, pineapple (I don’t know if they’re my favorite words, but they popped around in my mind while I pondered your question. Plus, I’ve been on a pineapple-eating kick lately, and the word just makes me feel happy.)



Stefanie Freele

I like to make the middle

something sassy and meaty. 

I like to make a fine ending

that swoops.

Welcome to Fast Five — short interviews with my favorite writers. Life may be short but who doesn't have time for five questions?

Stefanie Freele's stories and flash fiction can be found in Glimmer Train, Quarterly West, American Literary Review, Pank, and many other literary journals. Her collection, Feeding Strays, was a finalist for both the John Gardner Binghamton University Fiction Award and the Book of the Year Award. Her stories have been twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She recently won the Glimmer Train Fiction Open, and her second collection, Surrounded by Water, will be published in May 2012. In addition, Freele is the Fiction Editor at the Los Angeles Review.

How did you come to writing?

As most writers, I have always loved reading. I never knew that I could become a real writer though until I decided to go for my MFA at the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts: Whidbey Writers Workshop. Up until then, I thought there were readers, people who journaled a bit and then some very gifted folks over there that created their wonderful writing for us readers. Somehow a little whisper: write, grew to a yell: WRITE! and one finished story led to another led to a collection.

Your work is wonderfully distinct. Feeding Strays, a collection of 50 short (and short-short) stories, was a finalist in two prestigious contests, and has been described as loopy, sensitive and "full of strange, original invention." How do you describe your writing content and style? 

I don't know if I can describe it, I may be too close to my own writing, it is like trying to describe yourself. I don't know if I could do that either. I like to not waste much time falling into the beginning, I like to make the middle something sassy and meaty, I like to make a fine ending that swoops. Okay, I'm being silly there, but truly, it is difficult to dissect one's own writing.

Some people say "first thought best thought." Others edit a piece into place. What is your writing process?

Usually a little something nags at me along the way, something someone said, or something I observed and it nags enough that I finally get down to write about it. The little something then somehow births a story. I don't truly know how it works, but for instance, the last story of Feeding Strays, called "Every Girl Has An Ex Named Steve" began from two incidences.

One: I found myself saying just that to a friend when we were dog walking, "Every girl has an ex named Steve" and immediately knew I needed that line, and extra proud because it came from myself and I didn't need permission to swipe it.

Two: I witnessed a teenager in a banana suit standing outside a store while stiffly handing out coupons. I'd never seen a more miserable looking fellow. He oozed misery. He hated that banana suit body-cast more than he hated anything else in his short little life. I was watching youthful disillusionment happening right before my eyes. I felt achingly painfully sorry for him.

Thus, the first line of the story, "We tell her not to date a man in a banana suit."

I edit later when I think the story is told. Then, I use a different part of my brain, one that organizes and chops and perfects.

As the fiction editor for the Los Angeles Review, what do you look for in a story? What do you love to see, and what makes you cringe?

Cliches make me cringe. Overused plots make me wilt. Flowery self-important writing makes my face do the just-ate-a-lemon. Over-reliance on dialogue has a confusedly queasy affect on me and I have been known to drift off during weighty segments of backstory. I love to see more humor, more wacky, more real crisis and conflict, more creative plots.

You are an accomplished writer, reader, poet and editor. What do you know now that you didn't know when you first started writing?

I did not know I would meet so many talented and genuine authors. I've had an enormous privilege, by being both the Fiction Editor of the Los Angeles Review, a former submissions editor with Smokelong Quarterly and speaking at various conferences, where I've been introduced to some beautiful and amazing writers. When you get a signed book from an author you've just met and you go home and love the book, that is a wonderful feeling. I thought being a writer would be very lonely, very isolated and curmudgeonlike but it doesn't have to be.

And, although I knew I loved words, loved stories, loved to read, I didn't know how much that love can just keep growing until you just want to shout about it. But, shout not too long, because hey, I've got a pile of books to read.

Bonus Question: I'm a collector of words and often have my students collect words, too. Do you have any favorite words?

The other day someone used the word bombastic and I found myself in love with that word. I don't think I've ever said it aloud, however I'm going to attempt to insert it somewhere, either in a story, or in an accusation. I really want to tell someone they are being too bombastic. And, I want to be right about it.