Jim Zorn’s depiction of an abusive father and husband in “The Three Arujos.” Shinelle Espaillat’s painfully moving portrayal of a mother-daughter relationship in “That One Bonnie Raitt Song.” Estha Weiner’s wordplay in the poem “Cleavage.” Vincent Tomeo’s life-altering experience in “Remembering Irvington House.” These were just a few of the reading selections from Volume 9 presented at the Scarsdale Public Library last Thursday evening. Also sharing their talent and creativity were poets Anthony DeGregorio, Anthony Murphy, and Tony Howarth, and fiction writers Susan Moorhead and Reyna Marder Gentin. Don’t miss our next reading at the Larchmont Public Library, one week from today, on Sunday afternoon, October 29!
What motivated you to write the story “Chase Faustman Turns 27”?
I read the biography of Kurt Cobain and one of the most powerful moments in the book for me is reading his suicide letter. Everyone was trying to interpret it, but no one could get a handle on it. It was this aspect of his overall story that really intrigued me. What if the only reporting on someone is their suicide letter, but you can’t speak to them? You’d have to rely on what they wrote. I always found that mysterious and intriguing.
Does it relate to anything in your life?
When I first wrote it and shared it with friends and family to read, the first question they would ask me is if everything was OK. I had to assure them that it wasn’t supposed to be semi-autobiographical at all. But, some traits of Chase’s personality do have some truth. Sometimes, I feel—and I think most writers feel this way—a little powerless, a little lost when you’re writing a piece and you have bad days when it’s not working. You feel like, “Oh my God, why am I doing this? Why did I decide to do this rather than get a normal job?” Sometimes thoughts like that pop into your head when you’re trying to immerse yourself in the writing. However, it’s not autobiographical.
What inspires you to write?I always liked to write when I was younger. I used to write little kids’ books and kept them to myself. I never let anyone read them. I didn’t do much writing in college, but read lots of books. But by 2012, I started to think if I wanted to write I bet I could put something down on paper. I was always a deep admirer of those who found ways to channel their creativity. After college, I tried to find my way to do that. I wrote some incomplete screenplays, but as I was writing them I realized I wasn’t enjoying them, wasn’t getting anything out of them and wondered why. It occurred to me that screenplays that aren’t produced are like well-drawn blueprints. You can’t really enjoy the blueprint. You need to see the finished product. With short stories, once I was done editing them, that’s a finished product, and even if they are never published, I’d still get some satisfaction from them. Once I figured that out, I just kept writing short stories. This is the first time I’ve been published in a major book.
What writing rituals do you have?
I do like to sit down in isolation, where I don’t hear noises or anything that can disturb me, and I listen to instrumental music while I’m writing. There can’t be any words; just music. When I wrote “Chase Faustman,” I listened to Sidney Bechet and Explosions in the Sky.
What motivated you to write this poem?
My writing is rooted in history. I enjoy creating characters and their individual voices grounded in specific moments in history. This particular poem was loosely inspired by the story of Ruby Bridges, one of the first African-American children to attend an all-white elementary school in the South. I remember seeing a photo of Ruby for the first time—I think Ruby was only six when she first attended an all-white school in Louisiana. (Ruby Bridges was the first Black child to desegregate an all-white school during the New Orleans school desegregation crisis in 1960). I remember seeing this black-and-white photograph of Ruby where she was dressed very prim and proper and I just imagined what it must have been like for Ruby’s mother the first morning that she was supposed to send her child to school. It literally sent chills down my spine. Just imagine getting your child dressed in the morning knowing that your child would be subjected to threats and possible violence. So in this poem, I wanted to create the juxtaposition of the ordinary moments between a mother and child on a typical school morning with this particular extraordinary moment in history. I think sometimes when we read history, we’re focused on the facts and the statistics, but I just want to highlight the human element in this poem.
Is there something that made this story a bit personal? Does it relate to anything in your life?
I’m a Pakistani American married to an African American, so my children are bi-racial. I’ve always been very interested in the Civil Rights Movement; it’s an area of history that has drawn me. Lately, I find myself revisiting this period in our country’s history because of the current political climate. With the election of Barack Obama, many people in America thought we were suddenly post-racial and had finally transcended our painful past. The last election cycle, however, shows how much work still needs to be done so that people of all backgrounds can truly understand one another. Looking back at our country’s history is necessary because it shows how important it is to never forget what transpired here.
Do you write in other genres?
Sometimes I like to write sequence pieces where the same character is featured in a collection of poems. I like using shifting perspectives and featuring the voices of different family members situated in different periods of history and then trying to find a string that connects them. My work touches on history, but also family dynamics. My mother emigrated from Pakistan in her 30s when I was very young and that’s often a topic in my poems. She passed away many years ago but I find myself going back and imagining what it must have been like for a single woman with young children to come to a country so different from the one she was born in. The simultaneous fear and hope of the immigrant experience is a topic that emerges in many of my poems. During the past presidential campaign there were so many negative images of immigrants and the multitude of perceived threats they represent to the American life. This made me re-examine my own family history and write about a very different immigrant experience than the one presented by the current administration.
What are your writing rituals?
Before I begin writing, I like to read out loud for 10 or 15 minutes. I don’t read for content at this moment but rather to hear the music in the language. I usually read poetry, but occasionally, it will be short stories. The lyricism of the words will often trigger my own writing. It puts me in the right frame of mind. I usually do this in my bedroom when the house is quiet and the kids are sleeping.
Kally Atkins is a former practicing attorney and currently a writer, wife, and stay-at-home mom of two kids.
When my story, Fusion, first appeared in The Westchester Review, I never expected to find the vibrant local literary community that this magazine pulls together. Like many writers, most of my writing life is spent alone with my notebooks and my laptop behind the closed door of a paper-filled office. But during The Westchester Review readings, I had the opportunity to watch the expressions on real faces as I introduced my short story to a crowded room. I had the privilege of meeting a woman who shared her own story of recovery with me, just as powerful as the tale I told in Fusion. I met writers at all different points of their careers, those who had published time and time again, and those like me, who were just starting to get their names out there.
In a world that is frequently vast, nameless and existing mostly in cyberspace, we often lose the ability to shake the hands of people we’re trying to reach. Last week, in the warmth of the timeless reading room at the Warner Library in Tarrytown, I had a glimpse of a different era before the Internet and Kindles, where people heard their stories directly from each other.
Someone once asked why I write, and a satisfying answer was at first elusive. My gut responses were disconcertingly utilitarian.
“I write for work,” I stammered. “I write for fun.”
Eventually, I found an answer I liked. “I write because I want to,” I said. “I’ve written for almost as long as I can remember.”
I remember in second grade walking home for lunch, icicles hanging from my nostrils in the frigid Wisconsin winter. I would sit at the kitchen table with my mom. A steaming bowl of Campbell’s tomato soup rested in front of me, and the gooey-good aroma of grilled cheese filled the house.
After eating, Mom would prompt and I’d compose. “A little cat sat,” she said.
“In the garden out back,” I answered.
In sixth grade, I dictated a short story about a voyage to Pluto as Mom plucked away on Dad’s old college typewriter, a manual Smith Corona with the sleek design of Mid-century Modernism. And in ninth grade, reading over a short story for a contest, Mom suggested revisions, still encouraging and prompting all those years later.
These days, Mom doesn’t advise and consult as much. She’s still great at catching typos and grammatical errors, but her memory isn’t what it used to be. She finds following the arc of a story increasingly difficult. It might be Alzheimer’s, but we’ll have to wait and see, the doctors advise.
I wrote “The Gardener” for Mom. I wanted to explore the fragile nature of memory and friendship in the midst of a possibly devastating disease and the potential loss of self.
“The Gardener” is the story of an older woman, Grace, and a young man, William. He keeps mostly to himself until he meets Grace in front their condo building, at the rocky outcrop where the condo driveway meets the street. Grace, whose memory is flagging, has been planting flowers. But someone keeps ripping her plants, her “babies,” from their beds. When William comes to Grace’s aid, something deeper takes root. In Grace’s words, “A flower can change the world.” And it does.
This story changed my life, too. Neither the story nor the characters are much like Mom and me. But in writing it, I found some comfort and solace. Memories are born every moment. Even when they’re ripped away from one person, they’re being planted with someone else. I wrote “The Gardener” to make memories. It’s what gardeners do.