Roddy Ryall on "Chase Faustman Turns 27"

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.

Kally Atkins on writing "September 10, 1963: Birmingham, Alabama"

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. 

Interview with Harriet Shenkman

Westchester Review: What motivated you to write the poems “Spokes of Despair” and “It”?

Harriet Shenkman: For “Spokes of Despair” I was motivated by things I had seen repeatedly in the news – all of those situations where someone unexpectedly did some horrific thing that people who knew them never expected them to do. It struck me as that very old saying that the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. It’s the sense that we don’t know people, that we don’t know what they carry with them, the sadness and despair. And then you have a child who will take a gun and kill people and the parents say, “I just never expected him to ever do something like that.” And I believe them. I think often despair is very private and people don’t realize it.

 TWR: Your writing is very spare but very poignant. Do you write only poetry or do you write prose as well – and why did you select poetry to deal with these topics?  

I also write prose. I was writing a novel, but after a while I turned to poetry, which to me is a quicker and easier form. Not that poetry is that easy, but I found that I had a flair for it and realized that my poems were being published. I’m still writing my novel and am actually finishing it now. But there is some relationship even though they are different forms. They are related in that they have an acuity for language. There is a sensitivity to language and to honing things down to their essentials, especially in poetry.

TWR: Do you typically write about current events?

HS: No, whatever strikes me. My book, Teetering, is more personal. The chapbook that I published was about my own personal experience growing up with parents who were immigrants, and what they went through. But then I branched out to things that kind of strike me as being remarkable and essential.

My other poem, “It,” was more personal: how we learn about sex. My mother never said a word to me. I think in my generation parents generally never said anything; you just sort of learned and passed it along on the street. That was my experience, and as an aside, I recently re-connected with a friend from elementary school who reminded me that I had told her about “it” around the age of nine and apparently traumatized her. Then I thought of my daughter. How did she learn about “it” and was I as silent as my mother was? I wasn’t quite as silent. I had a picture book that I showed her so I was a bit more open, but still pretty quiet.

TWR: What was the writing process like for these two poems?

HS: There are a lot of revisions to whatever you write. There may be geniuses who can just write it out and that’s it. But I find revision is central. There’s so much to poetry in terms of lyricism, the form, the words. There are lots of essential ingredients. And then there’s a lot of revision. I took some classes at the Hudson Valley Writers’ Center with Jennifer Franklin, the coordinator and a very fine poet. I enjoyed working with her and she wrote the blurbs on my book and knows my poetry well.

TWR: Are you a prolific writer?

HS: I wouldn’t say that, but at least ten different publications have published at least one of my poems. I was also poet-in-residence at Boomer Café, an online site for which I submitted one poem a month. I like poetry, but my first endeavor was the novel, so I’ve gone back to that. I’m hoping that it will be published.

TWR: What writing rituals get your juices flowing?

HS: Finding the space and the time to get into the zone is the challenge. I’m not someone who can write while sitting at a café or with noise around me. I need solitude and quietness to get into a frame of mind to write. I don’t have an office. I write on the kitchen counter and I stand. Writing is very intense and if I sit my body stiffens, so I’m better off standing. That’s why a higher kitchen counter is better and allows me to burn more calories.

Andi Rosenthal: A Woman's Point of View

Andi Rosenthal is the author of three poems in Volume 9 of The Westchester ReviewJephthah’s Daughter, Lilith, and Orpah.

The Westchester Review: What motivated you to write about this trilogy of biblical stories from a woman’s point of view? 
Andi Rosenthal: I’ve always been fascinated with women in literature, especially when they don’t have a say in what happens to them, as when their story is told from another point of view, which is most of the time male, or third person omniscient. I’m very curious to hear their side of the story. When we don’t have that available to us – whether it is literature, or the Bible, or other accepted works – we think what we read is the final story. Sometimes we have to write their say, their point of view, into being. That was ultimately my motivation.

TWR: How did you select these three women? Why was the Bible your source?
AR: It’s really a combination: partly familiarity with their stories because I actively study Torah at my synagogue, and because in doing so I struggled with their stories. The more I got to know these women, the more I felt connected to them and felt a sense of unfairness in the way they’re portrayed in the Bible. Of course, in Lilith’s case, she’s not even in the Bible – she doesn’t even make it in to the final draft. She’s strictly an apocryphal character: the alleged first wife of Adam, who is banished to roam the spirit world in darkness because she speaks for herself. She’s not interested in being talked down to or commanded. So that’s what we know – or think we know – about her. I’m sure she would argue that portrayal of her identity if she could.

Orpah was the sister-in-law of Ruth. In the Book of Ruth, it was Ruth who speaks that very beautiful passage to their mother-in-law, Naomi: “Where thou goest I shall also go. Thy people shall be my people and thy God shall be my God.” This scene takes place after both Ruth and Orpah are widowed, after Naomi’s husband and two sons perish in a famine. Ruth chooses to stay with her mother-in-law, and Orpah, in turn, remains silent and goes home to her own mother, to her own people. For that alleged sin she is condemned in biblical literature for having turned her back on the Israelites. The name Orpah means “the back of her neck.” Ruth is the ancestor of King David, and Orpah is considered to be the ancestor of Goliath, the mother of monsters. I’d like to think she had a very good reason to go home, and it is a shame to see her condemned throughout history for her choices. What could be more human than just wanting to go home, especially after losing the love of her life?

My third story, Jephthah’s Daughter, is one I have struggled with for more than 20 years, probably because there’s such a close resemblance to the story of the binding of Isaac – in both stories two fathers are sacrificing their children. But in Jephthah’s daughter’s case, no angel comes to save her. When Abraham is about to raise the knife to kill Isaac, an angel yells, “Abraham! Abraham!” as if to bring him back to his senses. In Hebrew, Jephthah means “the one who releases,” yet there is no release for his daughter. We don’t even know her name or any details, like whether there was even the possibility of an angel that she could have called on to save her. This idea of having no name and not knowing the name of one’s God, or one’s rescuer, is one I have struggled with for so long. I just don’t know, nor can I imagine, what the author was thinking and why this is included in our holiest book.

TWR: You’ve taken a very assertive, feminist approach to these stories. Do you think you were taking a risk in writing what some people may think is blasphemous?
AR: Maybe. You’re always taking a risk when you start questioning the Bible, or any status quo for that matter. I was raised Catholic and converted to Judaism in my 30s. I chose to convert because Judaism is my heritage on my father’s side. I was always curious about what had taken his family off the path that so many take such care in following. And of course, one of the great joys of converting to Judaism was learning to question. I always want my writing to pose more questions than it answers and give readers the opportunity to take a deeper look and decide for themselves what is going on in the story and whether they themselves have a different interpretation based in their own life experiences. In Judaism there is also a literary tradition called midrash, which is very often a rewriting from a different point of view, or taking another angle into a story.

TWR: What inspires you to write?
AR: Two things: I’ve belonged to an informal writing group in Westchester for 26 years (and still I’m considered one of the new kids). We meet once a month. My fellow writers always inspire me to write – mainly because I know I have to show up with something to read. As a very famous paperweight says: The deadline is always an inspiration. So is knowing that I work with a group of writers that I trust. We say to each other, “If you take the criticism, you have to take the praise.” They are amazing writers and they inspire me to be better. My other inspiration was an English teacher in high school who really believed in me and gave me the confidence to be a writer. I would not have been able to do this if it were not for him.

TWR: Do you have any writing rituals?
AR: There is almost always coffee involved. I like to write at Panera Bread in Mt. Kisco, at a quiet table in the back. They are very friendly to writers. To be in a noisy environment helps me put up what I call “the invisible wall,” and for whatever reason, I work more efficiently when I am surrounded by activity. I wrote my entire novel, The Bookseller’s Sonnets, which was published in 2010, sitting at the back table in Borders in Scarsdale. But since that’s gone, and I haven’t found a place near me that I am comfortable writing in, I often drive from New Rochelle to Mt. Kisco to be in my happy place.