An interview with novelist and short story writer Laura van den Berg

Laura van den Berg is a short story writer and novelist known for her collections What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us and The Isle of Youth, as well as her debut novel Find Me, which was listed as a “Best of 2015” by NPR, Time Out New York, Buzzfeed, and others.

Portrait of the author (Taken from the UConn Creative Writing Program Facebook).

Portrait of the author (Used with her permission).

This interview was conducted in the fall of 2015, while I was in a creative writing class with that had read and reviewed Find Me. Meeting the author of a book you’ve been poring over is always surreal, but on top of that I had been selected to have a one-on-one tutoring session with Laura van den Berg. Part of the deal was that I would also attend a dinner with her, and at that dinner my professor (who is also the Associate Director of Creative Writing) prodded me to ask for this interview. She had mentioned it months ago, but I thought it was just a nice idea, not something that would actually happen. I suddenly regretted wearing a shirt I was only 80% sure no one could tell was stained. I hesitantly asked, and although Ms. van den Berg looked at me curiously, she almost immediately said yes, she’d love to sit for an interview. We met the next day, after the tutoring session, and it was clear I had never interviewed anyone before. She was at ease, however, joking around and giving me some advice before we started. Much later, long after the interview had been completed and she had flown back home, I found out that it is customary to arrange interviews at least a month in advance, usually through an agent, and this only heightened my sense of gratitude for her graciousness.

Carleton Whaley: You mentioned at your reading last night that you only started writing in college, which is admittedly a lot later than some. Can you say how this has affected you, what kind of place it’s put you in?

Laura van den Berg: Just to clarify, you mean how has it affected me to start writing later?

CW: What I mean is, do you think it puts you in a different mindset than other authors?

LB: I actually think that’s an incredibly interesting question, I don’t know if I have a great answer for it. Every writer has their own trajectory, so like I mentioned at the reading last night, if you asked the same question to twenty different authors, you’d get twenty different answers. I know some writers who were writing when they were practically toddlers, and some who didn’t start writing until they were in their 40s. I find that the trajectories can be so incredibly varied, that to me my path doesn’t seem like a particularly strange one. Starting to write in college is still relatively early. It’s not like waiting until middle age and then starting to write. I think for me the bigger divide is actually my reading life. Not only was I not writing as a younger person, I wasn’t reading either. I think that one of the consequences of that is that it was something I was very self-conscious about. I know that everyone has gaps in their reading, but I knew mine were a lot greater than most people’s. So when I was in graduate school I felt, appropriately, that I had a lot of catching up to do. There’s a self-consciousness around that, but also it was really good, because I was super motivated not only to do as much of my own work as I could, I was also motivated to read read read read read. Poetry, nonfiction, fiction, story collections, novels; I just wanted to know. Another thing, and this is something I’ve started to think of more recently, I have met some writers who I think books and literature were a kind of solace and safe place as children, and who really had that experience of disappearing into books as kids. You talk to them and you can sort of tell that the majority of their energy put into the world, as a person, is sort of directed toward that imagined sphere. Not having that until I was a young adult, I think I’m very aware of the larger world. And I don’t mean the larger world in some grand way, but I’m not someone who thinks—I mean, being a writer is a crucial part of my identity, and I think I would become undone if I couldn’t write, and certainly if I couldn’t read, but I’m not someone who thinks that what you put on the page is the only thing that matters. I want to have contact with the physical world and sort of cultivate a meaningful lived life alongside a meaningful writing life.

CW: That’s really interesting, because something I noticed while reading Find Me was that as much as a lot of the book is in Joy’s mind, there’s this sense that the geography around her is so important to the structure. I’ve been trying to figure it out, actually.

LB: Yeah, and this came up a little bit last night. I feel that growing up in Florida, with such a pronounced sense of place, place is so important to me. Even if it isn’t named, it’s physical and it’s pronounced. I was thinking in Find Me, specifically, especially in the two different parts, apart from the basic differences in plot, the aspiration was in part to create a world that was more closed, cloistered, and isolated, both psychologically and literally. Even in the pallet in Part One there’s a lot of silver and white and gray, sort of monotone, and you’re in the Midwest, which is of course landlocked. Also I think that it’s nodding more to genre in more explicit ways, in terms of the genre of dystopia and even that of horror—you know, you have this hospital where malevolent things might be happening. And the intention in Part Two was more to disrupt and challenge some of what had been built in the first part. You now, they were designed to oppose each other in some respects. I think you get this sort of looseness in the second part in terms of plot and also Joy’s voice. She gets angrier, and there’s more color. But to get back to your question about geography, they’re also moving toward the coast, toward water, and for me that has some more openness to it in terms of psychological connotations. Winter is fading, and they’re moving to a place of warmth. The idea of starting in a landlocked placed and moving toward the sort of warm, coastal edge felt to me like an important part of Joy’s trajectory.

CW: Having finished it recently, and just hearing that—it just makes so much sense. And you talking about genre brings me to another question. Some of the criticism that I’ve seen of Find Me has been from people who sort of qualify themselves by saying how well they know dystopian fiction. Their comments range from people saying your book doesn’t line up with the genre to people saying, paradoxically, that it’s just another dystopian novel. I guess I’m just wondering; how would you answer that?

LB: It’s been really interesting to see the divide between review coverage. Between reader reviews on sites like Goodreads, for example, versus paper and magazine reviews. I got one very bad review, and everyone gets a bad review, from NPR, who did not like it at all. I mean, it was a really odd book in a lot of ways, so I had no idea what people would think of it, and what reviewers would think of it, so I was really excited and relieved to see that by and large the review coverage was really positive. It even made me think about the book in new ways—it wasn’t just dumbly positive reviews. Anyway, a lot of the conversation around the novel was very gratifying in that regard. And so with Goodreads reviews, if you sort of line up reader reviews next to critic reviews, you’d see that the reader reviews are much more critical. I think you find that one of the tricky things about writing a book that seems like it has a sort of genre premise is that it pulls in people who normally read in that genre, people who think “Oh, I love science fiction,” or, “I love dystopias.” And in my case, it’s not that. The book is more about Joy’s strange, sometimes violent trajectory through the world. It’s not really a dystopian novel in the traditional sense of the word, in that the dystopia sort of fades into the backdrop. And I think that’s actually a common thing. The good thing is that having a book that appears to belong to a genre, but doesn’t, can pull in readers to your work that wouldn’t normally read it, or might not have seen it otherwise. And if they connect, that’s amazing. But it can also pull readers to your work who are hoping for your book to be something that it just is not. People who come to my book hoping for an engrossing, labyrinthine science fiction plot are gonna be super disappointed. Someone who comes to it with a contagion-esque or epidemic standpoint, looking for what would actually happen during an epidemic or crisis, is gonna be disappointed. Anyone who goes to Threats for a Gone Girl-esque book, where everything is tied up in this amazing way at the end, is gonna be super disappointed. But I don’t know that it’s necessarily my job to respond to criticism, whether it’s from a professional critic or a reader. I think anyone who connects to the book, who connects to the world, who connects to Joy, is the right reader. You can’t write for every reader. I’m glad you got it, I’m glad you read it, it’s obviously still good for my book sales, and I’m glad you gave it a try. It just wasn’t for you, and that’s ok.

CW: I think that’s a really great way to look at it, without getting too emotional. I mean, I was reading the criticism and I was getting mad, so…

LB: Yeah, yeah, yeah. You know, I think sometimes you see the divide there, on Goodreads, and Amazon too, but I think people who review on Goodreads do it more and get really into it. It’s very interesting to see the divide between books that do well critically and books that do well—I mean, there are books that appeal to both professional critics and readers, so it’s not to say that books are one or the other, but there are definitely some that critics will love, and they’ll say “this is the best/most innovative thing ever” and readers will say “this is the biggest piece of shit I’ve ever encountered.” So I think it’s more that people who review books for a living are used to reading a certain kind of fiction, like people who review more experimental fiction are used to reading experimental fiction. And then someone reads a review in the New York Times and they see this review for this kind of fiction they’ve never read before, and they read it and think “this is not at all what I was expecting!” I think the easy thing for writers is to just be really snobby about things like Goodreads, and just say “Well, they’re just a bunch of idiots,” and I don’t really like that. I think anytime literature elicits an impassioned response from someone, even if it’s a negative response, I think that’s ultimately not so bad.

CW: I definitely understand. So, this is back to starting out, who were the first people you gravitated toward, as far as literary influences? And would you say those have remained somewhat constant, or have you drifted?

LB: Well, I didn’t know anything about fiction, or contemporary fiction, so I just read whatever my professor handed to me. Some early people, for sure, were Amy Hempel, you know her story “In the Cemetery Where Al Johnson’s Buried,” is still one of my favorite contemporary short stories; Laurie Moor was a big one; Charles Baxter; Richard Bausch; Alice Munro; Edward P. Jones, a lot of people we would consider to be contemporary classics in short fiction; Jim Shepard, you know, the contemporary canon for short fiction, and so that was my reading life for a long time. But there were two big turning points for me after that. The first is when I started reading things that were departing from realism. Things that you’d call magical realist, or fabulist. And also people who approached realism in very different ways. You know, Joy Williams is one of my favorite living writers, and most of her work is in more or less of a realist vein, but often feels very surreal, so it’s like her realism feels very different from Richard Ford, who I also love. His collection, Rock Springs, is really amazing. Flannery O’Connor is a really great one too. But definitely reading people who were departing from realism was just really exciting for my brain. And then the second point was reading, or learning to read, a lot of literature in translation. One of the most important classes I took while in grad school was a class in the contemporary French novel, and it was just a totally different vision of how the novel could operate. It opened up all these avenues of structure.

CW: You’re starting your new novel, right?

LB: Yeah!

CW: Do you have a go-to process for coming up with ideas, or are there certain habits you fall into when creating new work?

LB: I don’t have too many novel ideas, and I’m sure you’re like, “You just finished your novel and you’re already working on a new one, so that’s not quite accurate,” but actually this new one grew out of a short story I wrote a few years ago. In the summer of 2012, I wanted to continue along with the characters, which hardly ever happens with me and short stories, but I just had that impulse. So I just wrote a really messy draft of a novel, and then I put it away. And then I sold my second story collection, and Find Me, so I needed to work on those books and sort of go through the publication process. But I was interested to see what would happen when I put it away: would I just forget about it? Or would it stay with me? And it did. I found that I was longing to go back to it, but having the time to think about it was really helpful, because I found that I couldn’t just continue with the story. I had to keep the characters and the place, but chuck everything else. I thought about it all the time, and finally in the fall of 2014, I think, I did go back to it in a really serious way. And I’ve written some short stories in the interim, but that’s pretty much what I’ve been working on since.

CW: We talked a bit about this at the reading, but do you find generating ideas for short stories easier?

LB: I don’t really think in terms of generating. It will be interesting, because I think after this novel it will be a while before I write another novel, because I don’t have a single, solitary novel idea, or even close. Not even vibrating on the outskirts. So I’ll have to see if I’m more proactive about generating story ideas. I think I sort of only want to work on something if I feel compelled in that direction. And I don’t mean “it comes to me” like the Muse visits, but I think I’m waiting for those moments where I see, hear, or feel something that really catches my attention in a particular way. And I think that’s where ideas come from. It’s not so much me sitting down and thinking “well, what if I wrote a story about this, or a story about this,” it’s more about really trying to be attuned to the world, and seeing what comes back.

CW: I think that’s really interesting, because I’m constantly having ideas and trying to write them down, but I don’t stick with it.

LB: Yeah, and I know a bunch of writers who are very conscious in giving themselves assignments and exercises to get at new ideas, so everyone is very different in that way.

CW: So, Salon Magazine—and I’m sure you get this all the time—Salon Magazine called you “the best young writer in America.” What was it like to hear that?

LB: I mean, it was very kind, and it was the day before Find Me came out, so it was very exciting. And obviously it’s a great joy, a great privilege to put a book out into the world, but you know you’re nervous too, so that comment would have meant a lot to me in any context, but particularly right before the book came out. At the same time, it’s not something I would take literally, and I would not suggest anyone else take it literally either. There are about 200 people I would put ahead of myself. And certainly, when you put something online you’re thinking, “What will encourage people to click this link?” and “Best Young Writer in America” encourages more than “Interview with Debut Author.”  So I don’t know if Salon meant it to be taken literally either. But it was great for the book, and it was exciting, but I wouldn’t for a moment internalize it at all. The one downside, and it’s not a real downside (this is like the world’s smallest violin territory), but it definitely does invite people to say (like on Goodreads) “This is definitely not the best young writer in America.” Which is kinda funny. So it’s interesting to see how it really does bring out that contrarian response. As soon as you say “this is the best” their inclination is to demonstrate how it is, in fact, not the best.

CW: Do you think that since then there’s been more pressure? I mean, I’m just imagining myself in that situation, and I don’t deal with pressure well, so—

LB: Well, I mean, there wasn’t any pressure because the book had already been written and published, so you can’t do anything to it after that. Your job is essentially over, so I was doing the book tour and readings, and chances are that wasn’t going to impact the book’s life in a really significant way. So then it was just in the hands of the gods, you know what I mean? And you don’t know where it’s going to be reviewed, or how people will review it, and there’s not a blessed thing you can do to control that either. So I think there wasn’t a lot of pressure, because the part of the process you can control is over.

CW: Is that title something that pops up still? That was earlier this year.

LB: Yeah, publishing is funny because it has a very short memory. It feels like it was a while ago, but it was only in February, like, it was this year, it’s not like it was three years ago or something, but it feels at once very recent and very, very far. It comes up, it’s something that people ask me about, because it was such a bold statement, and people wanted to know what its impact was.

Carleton Whaley is a senior English major at the University of Connecticut, and has the privilege of working with the Long River Review as Creative Nonfiction Editor.

Deciphering DIAGRAM with Ander Monson

By Allison McLellan and Alexandra Cichon

Screenshot of DIAGRAM's website

Screenshot of DIAGRAM’s website

DIAGRAM is an online magazine that, as its name suggests, stands out in the unique use of obscure diagrams and schematics accompanying written works displayed in refreshing, innovative ways, including fiction, poetry, and comics. Although the magazine stands out by charging new ground, I find I cannot try to sum it up any better than the editor’s words themselves: “DIAGRAM is an electronic journal of text and art. As our name indicates, we’re interested in representations. In naming. In indicating. In schematics. In the labeling and taxonomy of things. In poems that masquerade as stories; in stories that disguise themselves as indices or obituaries.”

The editor is Ander Monson based out of Tucson, Arizona. When asked about the publication, his laid-back attitude in his responses (he describes himself in his editor bio simply as “a super-cheap date”) emulates the same tone that shapes DIAGRAM’s sardonic and light-hearted humor. Outside of DIAGRAM, Monson also edits for the website Essay Daily and the New Michigan Press and he has authored six books and the website . The Long River Review was fortunate enough to be given a few of his spare moments to look into how he has developed DIAGRAM over the years.

1. How did the magazine begin? Was it a tumultuous beginning or smooth sailing?

It started in 2000 after I came off a stint editing Black Warrior Review. It was kind of half-assed, as most things begin, but almost immediately it seemed to strike a chord. I’m still not sure why.

2. What inspires DIAGRAM’s unique layout?

I don’t think the layout’s all that unique, though maybe I’m understating what it is we do: I mean, it’s modeled after principles of classical typography and design, particularly as seen in print publications from, like, the 19th century. I suppose that does add up to a unique aesthetic, at least in terms of online magazines, which tend to be more forward-looking. We are in terms of the work we publish, but not in terms of the design. We’re not the only ones, though: Public Domain Review and McSweeney’s come to mind.

3. What have been your biggest challenges working with DIAGRAM?

Two come to mind: one is keeping on top of it, month after month, year after year. We’re in our sixteenth year at the moment, and have never missed a publication date. That takes some dedication. The other, maybe more concerning, is keeping track of the editors and magazine as it’s gotten bigger. Our stated goal is responding to submissions in two months, which we hit maybe only 60 percent of the time, I’d guess. It’s hard to keep all our editors on task when I don’t see most of them often, if at all. So finding and managing people is a big part of it.

4. How do you promote and distribute your publication?

As we are online, distribution is just putting the issues up on our website. As for promotion we don’t do a lot of that, honestly; we have a Facebook that one of our editors tends and a Twitter that one of our editors tends, and that’s about it aside from putting calls out for submission periodically for our contests, and running notices and doing interviews at times via Poets & Writers and so forth. Then there’s AWP, which is our only yearly real splash-out.

5. What are your do’s and don’t’s for submissions?

Read the magazine, and if you like it, submit work. That’s about it. There’s not a lot of mystery. I’d say 25 percent of our submissions are by people who have obviously never even read the magazine, which remains baffling, since it’s all online and free. I guess read the guidelines, too, which everyone says, but everyone says that for a reason. It takes us a lot of time to read and respond to submissions, so spending a couple minutes looking at what we’re asking for (and not) seems like the minimum price of admission (especially since we don’t charge a reading fee).

6. Which submissions are more difficult to choose, diagrams or text?

Text. Diagrams (we get many fewer since most of our diagrams are discovered and selected by our editors in Goodwills and garage sales and university libraries) are easy. It’s usually an obvious yes or an obvious no. Poems and essays and such are much more time-consuming and occasionally psychologically difficult.

7. Do you ever choose the schematics based on the written pieces you’ve chosen first, or vice versa, to reflect a certain mood?

Yup, though we don’t tend to do super-thematic issues, we usually have about 30 pieces and maybe 15 diagrams in the hopper in any given issue, and the issue gets assembled out of that. Occasionally there are exceptions for our sound issue (which had sound-themed diagrams), and for the erasure issue we’re going to do in late summer.

8. Is humor an important part of the magazine?

Yeah: I think it’s obvious that we’re more than occasionally interested in publishing things that are funny (humor’s one of the outcomes of divorcing diagrams from their contexts, oftentimes). But it’s also the case that we rarely publish things that are only funny.

9. Was there ever a moment where the magazine was close to not picking any diagrams for a specific issue/vice versa, not picking any written pieces?

No, mainly because we have about nine months worth of backlog for accepted work: the average time between acceptance and publication is six months, probably, which means we don’t read for individual issues: we just accept work, so there’s never a time when there’s not a mass of excellent work we’ve selected, awaiting an issue. Diagrams are a little trickier, since those come in more sporadically. I have a huge collection of my own (which about 60 percent of the diagrams we use come from), and the rest are found by editors and like-minded diagram lovers, but still there’s a pretty good backlog for those too (intentionally).

10. What is your take on online vs. print magazines?

I like them.

11. Do you think written art could exist without physical art (drawings, paintings, diagrams, etc.)?

Sure, but I think it would be lonely and impoverished.

Allison McLellan is an English major, Communication minor on the poetry panel of the Long River Review.

Alexandra Cichon is a senior studying English at the University of Connecticut. She is on the poetry panel at the Long River Review.

Keeping a Beginner’s Mind: an interview with Dave Mercier

by Carleton Whaley

Dave Mercier is the creator of the comic Mercworks, a weekly webcomic strip. He has self-published two collections of his comics, Mercworks: The Joy of Despair and Mercworks: The Cure for the Human Condition.

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“Coffee” by Dave Mercier. Used with permission from the artist.

Carleton Whaley: So I guess I’ll just start off with a basic question about Mercworks. How long have you been making it, exactly?

Dave Mercier: I got a notification from Tumblr a few days ago that it’s been five years.

CW: Congratulations!

DM: Thank you!

CW: What made you start it?

DM: Well, there’s a couple reasons why I started making this thing. I had gone through a breakup with a girl I had been dating for five years, and I realized that I had put a lot of how I defined myself into that relationship, and I realized that I didn’t have an identity anymore, except that I called myself an artist. Only, I didn’t make anything, so I was a pretty poor excuse for an artist in that regard. So I said, “Well I gotta start making something,” and I started making drawings, just single panels and whatever I thought of. I don’t really know what made me start making them into comics. I think people on the internet laughed at them and I thought “oooh, attention.”

CW: Were there comics that you found inspirational? Were you always an avid comic reader, or did things just happen?

DM: In retrospect, I was. I’ve never liked comic books or super heroes, but I loved Calvin and Hobbes and Peanuts. I was just thinking about this the other day. My parents tried to get me to try all these different things when I was a little kid, and I have this very vague memory that they wanted me to try gymnastics, and although I did gymnastics for a while I can’t remember any of it except that there was a giant snoopy mural on the wall—that’s the only thing I can remember. So that sort of thing was an indicator, I think. For a while I didn’t think that people could actually do that sort of thing.

CW: What, the idea that it’s already been done?

DM: No, it was more like I thought all the things that I like just came from God or something. I didn’t know where they came from.

CW: So was it a simple transition into webcomics—just the natural progression from print to web? Or were there specific webcomics that influenced you to choose that medium early on?

DM: I didn’t really follow them before I started. I had seen Nedroid and followed that, and eventually I started to really enjoy K.C. Green’s Gunshow. But starting out, I don’t think I read anything. I was totally, totally disconnected from it. And I hadn’t read a comic in a newspaper in years either, because it was in newspapers I suppose. I don’t know, I guess it’s just always been in me. I did make little comics and stuff when I was a little kid, so I think it’s just where I defaulted to.

CW: Well here you are now with a second book out.

DM: Pretty good, right?

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“Grace Under Pressure” “by Dave Mercier. Used with permission from the artist.

CW: It’s fantastic, by the way. So, this is the second one you’ve done through Kickstarter. What are some of the good and bad memories from that?

DM: I almost had a nervous breakdown with this last Kickstarter; it was torture. It was hell, I don’t know what it was, but—ok, Kickstarter is a great platform. It’s great for realizing ideas. It’s just that, with the funding for the second book it was almost a 1-1 ratio comparing it to the first book. The experience was the same, but my expectations were higher, because I had two and a half years more experience. I felt my work was that much better so my expectations were almost double what I wound up achieving. So part of the torture of that was the imaginary goal in my mind not being met and it was pretty devastating. I almost stopped making comics. Since I came out with the first book, I looked at everything I made and said to myself, “Well this is going in my second book, so it has to be good.” When I was making the first book I didn’t know I was making a book. It was just stuff that was funny to me. So I put all this pressure on every single thing that I had done for two years, and then I wanted people to appreciate that, and psychologically it hurt me that I didn’t think that they did. And that’s not fair. Most of my problems with the second Kickstarter were my own. That being said, all my experience from the first Kickstarter made the whole process, like mailing rewards and stuff, a breeze. I knew how to deal with the printer, I knew how to deal with shipping stuff, I have my own little workstation, I’m using stamps.com. For the first one, I was hand writing every single address on every single package, because, I don’t know, I just didn’t want to use my printer? I don’t know!

CW: How do you feel about the new book?

DM: I really, really, really like the new book. But when I compare it against the first book, maybe some things in the first book are funnier. Maybe there’s some better content there. I fell into a bit of a trap, it was all part of the same creative thing, where I thought that I knew how to do this. I had this idea in my head, like “this is how I make comics.” But that is a big monster, a dangerous monster against your creativity, because instead of trying to think of new ways to reinvent yourself, to reinvent your stuff to make sure it works, you’re just doing what you thought worked before. And in some ways that can feel less honest. And that’s not to say the second book sounds dishonest, what it means is that the stuff that’s good is very good, and the stuff that isn’t, well it’s a better quality—let me try to explain. The first book, the shit that was bad, was shitty, terrible right? And in this book nothing is really that bad. But the stuff that’s really good in it maybe isn’t as good as the rare things that were really good in the first book. That’s how I’ve come to see it. I wasn’t willing to take risks.

CW: I mean, the Pyramid Man was a really big risk.

DM: I don’t know how well that one panned out, but I’m glad that I did it. It was a good risk, and I did other stuff, like Hitler, but only when I was feeling safe. When you’re feeling safe as a creator, that’s probably when you’re making your worst work. On the other hand, I’m feeling safe right now because I’ve been taking risks constantly since with the Webtoon stuff. Just trying to branch out and not do the same thing. It’s hard after five years. I’m becoming more willing to have what’s called a beginner’s mind. Every time I make something new I want it to be fresh, as if I had never made a comic before.

CW: Along with trying new things, something I’ve noticed is the content of your comics change. Starting off, you had this cast of characters who were modeled off of yourself and close friends, but as it’s progressed you’ve gone into new characters, sometimes one-off or extra characters, and even parody now. Do you find that you have a preference? Or do you just try to move away from whatever you feel comfortable with?

DM: Because they’re based on real people, and I don’t even see those people often, it feels disingenuous to use them most of the time. And I could make up stuff, but it never feels right. If I had started with completely fictional characters, I don’t think I would have this problem. But what I started thinking about when I was marketing the Kickstarter was, “What is Mercworks about?” Ostensibly it’s about Dave. But that’s not true. The more I thought about, the more I looked through my old comics and stuff, I realized that Mercworks is about other people, and how I don’t understand them. And figuring that out was huge for me, because it’s not about writing for characters.

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“Novel” by Dave Mercier. Used with permission from the artist.

CW: So, Kickstarter is a trend among webcomic artists, that’s kind of their method of publishing. Do you think there’s a reason for that?

DM: I think there are a couple of reasons. First of all, it’s hard to get published. Webcomic artists tend to have a very “do it yourself” mentality because that’s what it takes to start one, and that’s what works for us. Trying to find an agent or a publisher to give you a shot is difficult, and a little mysterious to be honest. I don’t even know where I would start. Also, if you want your book to be carried in stores, you have to already have the book. So you sort of need to have a track record before you can even get a publisher. So it’s a good way to do it yourself and have that track record without having to chase down a publisher. We have the audience already, so we just do it. Another thing is conventions. You can make a lot of money there, because you have the book with almost no start-up costs, and now you have about a thousand books that you can sell for twenty dollars or so.

CW: Along with conventions, I’ve noticed that a huge part of webcomics is the community around it. Not only the community of other artists, but that of fans who can comment immediately, rather than write in or send a letter. How do you think having that community has influenced you as an artist?

DM: Well, feedback at conventions is great, because people either come up and talk to you and tell you they’ve been fans for years, or they just don’t talk to you, which is awesome. On the internet, everyone has an opinion, and you need to hear it. They feel certain that you need to know what they think. It helped me, starting out, because I had a lot of very supportive people commenting. But going forward, it has been to my severe detriment, like I’ve gotten in fights with people. Not that bad, but I just feel attacked. And it’s always over something stupid, like someone saying “I don’t think this is funny,” and then me responding, “Well, maybe you’d like one of my other comics?” And then like a hundred people start telling me that I’m bad, and then I feel over my head. So that might be the problem with having a sort of medium sized brand rather than a small one. So the internet has been great for me in that I got my audience there, and positive feedback is what kept me going early on. And it’s still great to get positive feedback, but I don’t pay as much attention to it as I used to, because it can hurt me if I’m not careful what I choose to look at.

2013-03-04-therapy-FINAL

“Therapy” by Dave Mercier. Used with permission from the artist.

CW: You recently started a Twitch account, made videos on YouTube, and you’re on Patreon. Does it get difficult juggling these social media accounts?

DM: Shit yeah, dawg! Diversification’s the name of the game, son! OK, you can’t count on money from ads, you can’t count on money from books, you can’t count on money from YouTube, you can’t count on money from patrons, you can’t count on money from donations, but you can count on money from all of those places. Say I run out of books, I can still count on all of these other sources of revenue, so it’s a good thing to have. As far as feeling like I’m juggling, I mean, I have to have office hours for Twitter. That was a big reason I think I lost some of my audience, because I stopped posting to social media. I just got real sour for a while, I don’t know why, but it turns out that that’s a huge part of this industry. Communicating with fans and with your audience is huge, so I have to force myself a lot of the time to make a joke on twitter today. It doesn’t seem like a lot, and I haven’t done it in a while, but it makes a difference. It’s one of those parts of the job where I like it when it works, and I don’t like it when it doesn’t work. But I have to do it, regardless.

CW: If you could give advice to new or younger creators, what would you say?

DM: Just make stuff. Don’t worry so much. Well, that’s tough, because I day don’t worry if it’s good, but you kind of need to pay attention to what you’re doing that’s good. Maybe don’t worry if your stuff is good enough for your impossible standards. And don’t let yourself think that you know. Stay a student. It’s easy to get stuck in the idea that you know how to do this. That’s what I was talking about with the beginner’s mind. In many ways it’s been more challenging to continue making things than it was to start. Making stuff is hard, it’s overwhelming, but then you have to keep making it, and it has to be different every time. And you’re going to think you’re running out of ideas, but there are infinite ideas out there. Just put the Fonz in there or something. It’ll be hilarious.

Carleton Whaley is a senior English major at the University of Connecticut, and has the privilege of working with the Long River Review as Creative Nonfiction Editor.

On Reading More Slowly, Child’s Play, and Understanding Languages:

An Interview with Susan Stewart (2015)

Susan Stewart –  American poet, Princeton professor, Genius Award recipient – visited UConn as our 2015 Wallace Stevens poet on April 1st. I had the opportunity to ask her a few questions on her work and influences. Through her answers, I came to a greater understanding not only of her work, but of poetry at large.

1) One strand in your book Red Rover is concerned with play and the language of childhood games. Since you mentioned at your reading that you started writing poetry as a child, I wonder if those games played a part in your early poetry as well? Are there forms, subjects, or styles from your first writings that you still return to?

This is an interesting question; I don’t believe I wrote poems based on children’s games consciously until I wrote Red Rover, but I’m sure the structure of games [with rules, fixed beginnings and outcomes that could be described] influenced my sense of literary form. And as well the structure of play [open-ended, fantasy-laden, solitary, or built with other children] helped me, as it helps everyone, enter imaginary worlds. The repeating circles of games and ongoing linear forms of play seem to run beneath many of our ways of understanding and shaping our worlds. The first poems I wrote and remember came as I learned to read and were, I’m sure, responses to reading. I was especially taken by Beatrix Potter and Robert Louis Stevenson–for, although I certainly didn’t have words then to describe it, their syntax, diction, and sense of rhythm enchanted, and still enchant, me. And, re Stevenson, I always have loved travel literature: an early book about Eskimo fishermen and Richard Halliburton’s Book of Marvels were great favorites. In adolescence, like many young people, I wrote poems as a way of understanding my feelings, but I also had teachers who helped me try to make those pieces into works of interest to others.

2) You’re a noted translator of Italian poetry. How does your understanding of Italian influence your writing in English? Do you speak any other languages?

I don’t believe that I am a noted translator: I’m much more of a translator by happenstance. And in fact I try to keep my own poetry away from my translation projects, for to translate involves coming very close to the intention of the original poet and letting go of one’s own preoccupations and tendencies. I don’t mind translating when I’m not in the thick of my own poems, but working in French and Italian [and I also worked with a Hellenist to translate some Euripides years ago] involves coming into a whole different sense of sound and rhythm and meter and syntax–one that really isn’t of much formal use to an English language poet. The Italian poets I’ve worked on most intensely–Alda Merini and Milo De Angelis–have very strong poetic personalities and sensibilities that are entirely their own. So influence is problematic.
I have studied French and Spanish from my high school years and can read French fairly well and Spanish a bit. My French accent is quite poor–I suspect because my beloved high school French teacher may have spent little more than a semester in France and I have never lived in France more than a few months at a time. I learned the Italian I have [which is far from fluent] as an adult. A branch of our family lived in Firenze for many years and I have Italian nieces and nephews; I also attended the Urbino Semiotics Seminars a number of times as a young scholar and I taught in a summer graduate program in Rome for ten years. In that period I developed many Italian friendships, especially in Rome. I like to translate with poet and writer friends who are native speakers of Italian and, in a kind of circle, to help them as well translate English into Italian. Working this way gives us a chance to talk about our understandings of our languages and to make a stronger work than any of us could make alone.
3) What are some of the energies or emerging trends you find most noteworthy in contemporary poetry in English?

 I can’t describe energies or emerging trends without thinking of the work of individual poets. I do think that we no longer have such bifurcated poetry worlds as, to be simplistic, we once had both in the U.S. [the academics vs. the Beats; the new Formalists vs. L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E] and in England [Cambridge vs. just about everyone else]. The poetry scenes are vibrant and intellectually diverse. I edit the Princeton University Press series, with an open submission period in May of each year, and I’m always struck by the originality and intensity of the best manuscripts I receive. Many contemporary poets are interested in using traditional forms and inventing new forms, writing about experiences that previously were invisible, exploring diction and modes of address, and constructing books that are coherent on the level of the book as a work of art. These are promising developments.

4) In an interview with the University of Pennsylvania, you said that your goal as a poet is to “get people to read more slowly and to reread, and read a whole book and go back to the beginning to see connections.” How do you try to achieve this goal?

This is difficult to summarize, but I try to let my poems have an effect on first reading that is changed by further reading–the predominant narrative might be undermined, or an allusion might open up to include multiple allusions, or a later poem in a book could provide a shadow of, or gloss upon, an earlier poem in a book. I always am exploring how I might do this, writing poems in pairs and sequences, building relations between works, and I learn a great deal from the techniques of novelists and other artists. The fundamental structures of lyric– recursive and circling; argument-laden; musical; self-citational–often are a great help to the construction of poetry books.

Nikki Barnhart is Interviews editor.