An Interview with Jennifer Margulis

Jennifer Margulis, Ph.D., is a former Senior Fellow at the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University, is an award-winning travel, culture, and parenting writer. Her work has appeared in many of the nation’s most respected and credible publications, including the New York Times, the Washington Post, and Smithsonian Magazine.

Her book, Your Baby, Your Way, was just published in paperback. We checked in with her this week to find out more.

EB: Scribner recently released the paperback version of your book: Your Baby, Your Way. I can’t help but notice the new title. It’s no longer The Business of Baby. Why the title change? Are you aiming for new audiences?

JM: The publisher’s marketing team decided to change the title to give the book a fresh and more accessible feel. About 4 million babies are born every year in the United States, so we wanted to appeal more to first-time moms and dads.

EB: What else is different in the paperback?

JM: It has a completely different introduction, which is friendlier and more mom-to-mom than in the hard cover version. The content is also revised and the research is updated. You may have noticed, too, that the baby on the cover is turned vertical instead of horizontal. Same baby, different orientation. The thought on that was to make the book more appealing and less daunting.

EB: I know that your book has evoked strong feelings. Were you surprised?

JM: One Cornell University trained M.D. contacted me through my website to say she bought 14 copies of the book and that she was making it required reading for all her pregnant patients. I’ve also had moms tell me it was the best book they’ve ever read. Then there are the naysayers on the book’s Amazon page. One reviewer hated it so much his suggestion was to shred it and use it in the hamster cage. So, yes, the book has evoked very strong reactions!

I present information about the overuse of C-sections and the harms of the birth dose of the Hepatitis B vaccine. Readers who had C-sections they really did not need seem to have one of two responses: kill the messenger (me) and trash the book or feel totally empowered by having their eyes opened to a maternity system that puts profits over people and find the support they need to have a gentler, more evidence-based birth the next time.

EB: Getting the word out about books takes a lot of effort. What did you find was the most successful author-marketing tool?

JM: Good question. I’ve worked hard to build social media platforms. Your Baby, Your Way’s Facebook page has about 6,700 likes on it. I have over 750 followers on Pinterest, and strong networks on LinkedIn and Facebook. (Your students and colleagues are welcome to connect with me, by the way.) But what is the best way to translate those numbers into actual book sales? I don’t market my book to my readers and followers because marketing makes me cringe (and my book is about why we should not be trying to sell new moms and dads things but rather be educating them about best practices for healthy outcomes.)—but I do provide them with excellent content on-line and hope their interest will lead them to read the book.

Market researchers say being on NPR is a great way to sell books, as is being mentioned by popular bloggers, especially when they recommend your books. When a popular L.A. blogger did this interview with me, we saw a mighty spike in book sales. I am often invited to speak at conferences and we’ve sold out of books at this one and this one (the profits benefited the conference organizers, not me), so public speaking is very effective too. Word-of-mouth is also tremendously important. If you like a book, recommend it to a friend or write about it on Facebook and chances are your friends will want read it. Here are 7 ways to best support a friend who has just published a book.

EB: You’ve got a new project started. Can you tell us about that?

JM: I’m teaming up with one of the country’s foremost pediatricians to write a book that will revolutionize children’s health in America. We’ve had a very exciting couple of weeks when the book attracted a lot of attention among New York publishers. I’m not at liberty to reveal the details but I will be soon. Check back with me in a couple of weeks!

EB: What is your writing schedule like? You always seem busy, with interesting projects.

JM: I have an office with a treadmill desk so I am always standing and often walking (s-l-o-w-l-y) as I work. My best writing time is in the morning. The earlier I get started, the more productive I am during the day. I like to work from 8:30 to noon, take a break for lunch, and then put in two hours in the afternoon if my brain is still working.

EB: Any advice for aspiring non-fiction writers out there?

JM: We could spend the next hour talking about this, Ed, but here are three pieces of my best advice to get non-fiction writers started: 1) Read like a writer. If you want to be writing for newspapers, pitch the ones you read every day, since you are their audience and know what their readers are looking for. If you want to write books, read as much as you can and analyze the ones you like to figure out why you like them and what the authors are doing right. Then emulate them in your own work. 2) Be professional. Take writing seriously and be businesslike in all your dealings. Don’t ever write for free. Always meet your deadlines. Address editors you do not know formally. Dress up. Don’t wear jeans and a T-shirt to interview a source. 3) Join ASJA and attend their annual conference in New York City. You have to apply to get in and you need to have clips, so this can be a good goal for the aspiring writer.

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

JM: Always a pleasure.

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Grad School: An Interview with Matt Kent

Matt Kent is a 2014 graduate of Southern Oregon University; he is studying higher education administration at Old Dominion University and is the Assistant Hall Director for the Virginia and Ireland Houses at ODU.

EB: What is your graduate program like? What courses do you take and what sorts of things are you reading?

MK: I am in a Higher Education/Student Affairs Master’s program; the focus of my graduate studies is on practical experience and therefore we are required to complete several internships and maintain a graduate assistantship outside of the program while working on our classes. The classes I take have a focus on student development and politics, trends, and issues in higher education. Most of my classes are a blend of the psychology, sociology, and education disciplines. I take classes like Contemporary Issues in Higher Education, The Contemporary College Student and Diversity, and Student Development theory. Much of what I read comes from the Chronicle of Higher Education and then academic journals in the education and psychology fields.

EB: How has your experience so far shaped your career goals?

MK: As far as the master’s program, it is designed so each student is currently working in the field they intend to work in post-graduation. For example, I want to work in Residence Life and Housing, and I have a graduate assistantship as an Assistant Hall Director as well as a summer internship at Sonoma State University as a Summer Area Coordinator. The program puts a heavy emphasis on students having opportunities to apply what they learn in real world situations to prepare them for those first full-time staff and administrative roles. As a graduate of Southern Oregon University’s English department, I feel that I was extremely prepared for the writing intensive work that I am asked to do as a graduate student.

EB: What is the most rewarding part and the most challenging?

MK: The most challenging part of graduate school would be balancing the actual coursework with the job and the internships, all of which is required. It’s very easy to put more of your time and attention into your graduate assistantship and completely let school slide. Much of the assignments consist of reading 10-50 pages of academic writing or working on a group project outside of class, and so it is easy to let these assignments pile up. Staying motivated and engaged can be challenging.

One of the most rewarding parts is interactions with other students and faculty in your program. Every member of my cohort is extremely passionate about students, student affairs, or higher education as a whole and that shared passion is really exciting. We spend a significant portion of class-time discussing various issues and policies and being a part of that discussion is extremely rewarding. Another aspect of my program that I find extremely rewarding is the real-world student affairs experience that I get through my experiences in my assistantship and in my internships.

EB: What’s been your focus and how has grad school changed you?

MK: My personal focus has been on gaining the skills and knowledge I need to work in and make change in student affairs. I have spent a great deal of time learning and applying student development theory through my courses and assistantships. In addition, I have done some research and presentation-work on First Generation Students and their adjustment to college. Grad school has really helped me to widen my focus and expose me to a variety of different issues.

EB: Any advice for students considering going on for more school?

MK: DON’T DO IT!—Just kidding. My advice would be to understand what you are looking to gain out of that experience, understand what you need in a school and graduate program to be successful, and to be prepared for feelings of intense burn-out. I remember while I was in my last year of undergrad, my classmates would talk about how tired we were, how ready we were to be done, and then jokingly compare how long we had experienced “Senior-itis.” That feeling of burnout only intensifies in graduate school; it’s less of getting out and it will go away, and more understanding how you need to motivate yourself while doing the work and the studying. And choose a program that is cohort based—your peers will be your best support network.

EB: What’s next for you?

MK: I am currently finishing my first year of grad school—I will graduate in May of 2016. I’ll be looking for a full-time hall director position, ideally on the West Coast.

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

MK: My pleasure! Congratulations Class of 2015!

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Grad School: An Interview with Brystan Strong

Brystan Strong is 2013 graduate of Southern Oregon University; She works at the Jackson County Library Services and is completing a Masters in Library and Information Science at San Jose State University.

EB: What is your graduate program like? What courses do you take and what sorts of things are/were you reading?

BS: My graduate program is a distance learning program, so it takes place completely online. It is a combination of email and forum discussions, video lectures, and video conferencing for live presentations. I am currently going for my MLIS (Masters in Library and Information Science) with a focus on Public Librarianship and more specifically Teen/YA programming. Most of what I am reading is academic articles from journals such as Youth Library Journal, ALA (American Library Association) and a lot of teen/tween lit. Although the majority of the classes I take revolve around teen/YA programming, I’ve also taken courses in history, database building, cataloging, and library management.

EB: How has your experience so far shaped your career goals?

BS: I’ve always known that I wanted to work with teens outside of a traditional school environment, but now I am looking at other environments even outside of a traditional library setting. I’m looking at careers in Juvenile Detention Centers, or youth centers.

EB: What is/was the most rewarding part and the most challenging?

BS: The most challenging part is definitely the fact that it is online. I don’t know what my classmates look like, what my teachers look like, and there isn’t a specific time that I have to go to class so I have to be very on top of my game and my time management. Also, completing group projects when everyone in your group is in a different time zone is very difficult. However, overcoming these obstacles, hearing praise from teachers, finishing projects are all very rewarding.

EB: What’s been your focus and how has grad school changed you?

BS: When I was getting my undergrad, I was focused on how what I was learning, what I was doing, could help make me a better person. The question was “how can this make me, a better me?” In graduate school it has shifted to “how can what I am learning here help me to help other people?”

EB: Any advice for students considering going on for more school?

BS: Be confident. I notice that at this point in my education, my professors expect me to act like I am already a professional in this field. I have to write with a lot more academic confidence, and own whatever I say. There isn’t much room to be wishy-washy. Be confident in what you know, be confident that you can learn what you need to know, and be confident in what you produce.

EB: What’s next for you?

BS: Right now I am working 2 jobs and going to school full-time. Thankfully, one of my jobs is in a library, so my goal right now is to be able to get out of retail, whether that is by getting a second library job or increasing my hours at my current library job. I also want to continue my research into alternative youth library programs.

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

BS: You’re welcome

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Grad School: An Interview with Zeke Hudson

Zeke Hudson is completing his MFA in creative writing with a specialization in poetry at Boise State University. He is a 2011 graduate of Southern Oregon University.

EB: What was your graduate program like? What courses did you take and what sorts of things were you reading?

ZH: I’m trying to think of the best way to answer this hydra-headed question. I just finished a Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing (poetry) at Boise State University. But here’s the thing: there is currently no standard set of requirements for a creative writing MFA.

If you want to go down the MFA path, you’ll come across a few different options. First, there are low- and full-residency programs. At the low residency programs, you do most of your work from home, and then you can fly or drive to wherever your campus is–maybe across the country?–once per semester to work in person with your professors and cohort. At full residency programs, you physically attend classes like normal.

Second, there are academic and studio programs. Academic programs require significant coursework, usually in the English department, and are essentially a Master of Arts in English with an extra year’s worth of courses devoted to craft. Studio programs require little (if any) work outside of workshops and other craft-related courses.

Third, program lengths vary. The shortest MFAs can be completed in a year, whereas the longest can take four. Most programs take two or three.

Fourth, different programs take different approaches to workshops and craft instruction. The most traditional programs tend to give prompts for writing, while the more progressive schools rarely ever give prompts, allowing students to find or better hone their own styles.

In the end, I went for a three-year, full residency, academic MFA with almost no prompts. If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t change a thing. I keep in contact with hundreds of other MFA students around the country, and from what I can tell, I’m more satisfied with what Boise State has offered than almost anyone else. The cohort here is small, allowing only two or three students per year, so things generally don’t turn clique-ish and everyone has plenty of time to respond to each other’s work.

What I read at Boise State largely depended on the classes I took. Most workshop classes assign a book of poetry per week with the occasional essay thrown in. Writing, editing, and responding to classmates’ work comprises the majority of work in those courses. Literature courses tend to have more substantial reading loads of a book per week plus several articles or chapters of theory and criticism. My favorite courses were the mandatory Form & Theory seminars which were populated almost exclusively by poetry MFA students. Because it would be ridiculous to expect graduate students to read manuals about how to write poems (e.g. “this is how to effectively enjamb a line,” or “have you considered using an em dash?”), our Form & Theory reading was by far the most challenging. Beyond a few books of poetry, we spent most of our effort working through philosophy and literary criticism centered around a few common poetic themes (i.e. death, love, beauty), which led us to perennial academic all-stars such as Aristotle, Longinus, Burke, Kant, Hegel, Derrida, Gadamer, and so on.

The point is, poetry and criticism were built into the course requirements, but everyone’s welcome to take as many literature courses as they desire to get a taste of Gothic, Victorian, or Renaissance literature. I don’t know why you’d want to pick those over any of the other great offerings, but I guess some people are into those sorts of things.

EB: How has your experience so far shaped your career goals?

ZH: I still hope to teach, though my heart isn’t set on it. And that’s a good thing in this job market. However, what I found most surprising is that I have very little desire to research or teach literature exclusively. I figure literature doesn’t happen in a vacuum, so the most engaging courses were the ones with a significant theoretical, historical, or cultural component.

I’ll apply for PhDs next year, and when I do, I’ll be applying in the field of American Studies instead of English, literature, or writing.

EB: What is/was the most rewarding part and the most challenging?

ZH: It’s hard to pick a most rewarding thing. Above all, I’d say the most rewarding part was defending my thesis and hearing my thesis referred to as my “book.” I’m leaving school with most of a book! Having a ready manuscript is the first real step toward a life as a writer, right? Now I have one.

The most challenging this was uh. Well, probably a tie. Time management was difficult. Remember that old triangular graphic that says “College: sleep, homework, social life. Pick two”? A graphic for graduate school would be a far more complex polygon–maybe an octagon–with things like sleep, homework, social life, teaching/class preparation, grading, attending important program functions, etc,. but then the instructions would still be like, “pick two, and expect to cry about it.”

Not whine. Cry. Real, legit tears.

But you get used to it.

The other challenging thing was teaching. At Boise State, MFA students teach as many as two courses per semester (1/2 teaching load), and we teach three different classes. As with almost every school, graduate teaching fellows are given only a couple weeks of instruction about how and what to teach. And it’s not so much that we get instruction so much as we get tossed into the deep in and are told to swim. And bored, judgmental little 18-year-olds are the sharks infesting the pool. Learning how to teach while developing lesson plans, coursework, and syllabi is probably the hardest thing to do in the first year.

EB: What’s been your focus and how has grad school changed you?

ZH: My focus? You mean like what did I study? Poetry.

I’m not sure how much grad school changed me. At least, I don’t think that most of the changes I’ve made are a direct cause of my coursework or studies. I remember when I first applied to grad school, before even hearing back from schools, I decided that it was time to be responsible. I started dressing better, cooking more elaborate meals, cleaning more often, and being generally more responsible. Basically, I decided that it was time to be an adult.

But grad school? It definitely taught me how to more effectively budget my time.

EB: Any advice for students considering going on for more school?

ZH: Oh man. Yeah. I have so much advice. I know this has already been long-winded, but this is probably the realest part.

You have to want to be there. You have to love what you’re doing. Believe me, if your heart isn’t in it, you’ll never make it. It’s a lot of work–much more than a full time undergraduate course load, and a little bit more than an undergraduate course overload. Factor in teaching and it can be brutal (until you figure out how to manage your time). If you’re going to school for something in the humanities, you can’t count on your degree leading to a job, so learning should be its own reward.

Really research the schools you want to apply to. I cannot emphasize this enough. You should be at least a little bit familiar with the faculty, the course offerings, and the academic climate. Definitely talk to students who are currently attending programs you’re looking into. Remember, it’s important to know that you’ll get along with your professors and peers.

Don’t apply to a school only because of its name or reputation. Don’t mortgage your happiness for academic success. Find a place where you’ll be a good fit. From what I’ve seen, people who are unhappy with their programs but who try to stick it out because they think it’ll be worth it or impressive almost always drop out.

Depending on your degree, you might be in a place for anywhere from two to seven years. Make sure the school is in a location that you’d be happy to call home for a good while. You have to actually live there, you know.

Especially if you have a small cohort, try not to sleep with anyone in your program.

Pack light. Call your parents. Eat your vegetables.

EB: What’s next for you?

ZH: I need a little breather. I’m taking a year off to send out poems and my manuscript, plus my friend and I are starting a literary journal, and I’ve begun writing for a sports blog, so I’ll be keeping my hands in the literary world.

After my break, the plan is to apply for an American Studies PhD. I’ve already done most of the research, plus I have a draft of my writing sample and statement of purpose, and most of my letters of recommendation have been written. No last minute stuff for me!

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

ZH: Thank you!

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Grad School: An Interview with Ariel Jackson

Ariel Jackson is a 2012 graduate of Southern Oregon University. She received an MA degree from UC Davis in Linguistics in 2014.

EB: What is your graduate program like? What courses do you take and what sorts of things are you reading?

AJ: It was a linguistics program. We read some theoretical linguistics, some sociolinguistics articles, some anthropology books, interesting stuff really.

EB: How has your experience so far shaped your career goals?

AJ: My career goals are slowly being firmly settled but I did learn the theoretical frameworks that are being used in the linguistics world and a bit about the world of academia and publishing.

EB: What is/was the most rewarding part and the most challenging?

AJ: I really did enjoy teaching, not only the students but I had one classmate who was a TESOL student (teaching English to speakers of other languages) so she was a very proficient ESL teacher but she knew very little about theoretical linguistics, and because I had taken a grand total of two linguistics classes, decided that I could explain things better than the professors of the prereq classes we both had to take. That was almost more challenging than the students. It could have been because I had to teach her higher level material, or it could have been that the students who thought “dear God I have no idea what’s going on” mostly realized this and came to my office every week but she would sometimes call me and say “explain this concept in 2 hours because I have to turn in this assignment or teach it,” and that was challenging. There was a lot of swearing at articles at 4 AM. But once we got through it and saw the light in her eyes that she understood it, it was really quite exciting, and that was rewarding, to know that I really could teach. (I also learned the value of office hours. I realized how bored I was when no one came to my office hours, and how frustrated I was when students complained about not understanding after not going to someone’s office hours. To every professor, I should have gone to your office hours.)

EB: That’s funny. What’s been your focus and how has grad school changed you?

AJ: My focus was morphophonology and I wrote a thesis on Australian nicknames, but I’m not sure if that’s what I wanted to study forever. It furthered college as a “figure things out for yourself” experience. The MA wasn’t really so different from the BA for me except you taught, and got an office, and were aware of people going to conferences.

EB: Any advice for students considering going on for more school?

AJ: It’s not that scary. The professors and fellow students were very friendly and tried to make me feel welcome. the classes have fewer checks of “do you get it?” and at least in the linguistics department the grade was based on one paper and one presentation so I wasn’t expecting that. Start your papers early! If you haven’t done that in college and got by, they’re bigger and nastier and there usually two or three of them, so really, start them early.

EB: What’s next for you?

AJ: I’m not sure, though I’m really getting into Celtic languages and I’d like to go to Wales and find out more.

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

AJ: You’re welcome.

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Grad School: An Interview with Tara Thomas

Tara Thomas received her B.A. in English from Southern Oregon University in 2012. She is a second year Ph.D. student in the Department of Literature at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where she studies Victorian-Edwardian literature and queer cultural studies.

EB: What is your graduate program like? What courses do you take and what sorts of things are you reading?

TT: The Department of Literature at Santa Cruz encourages us to do innovative, interdisciplinary, and comparative research. This results in cross-disciplinary collaborative research clusters and cutting-edge dissertation projects that usually develop as a result of our coursework. We all start out doing about two years of coursework and teaching in order to introduce ourselves to new theories and literature. I’ve taken an eclectic mix of courses: “Worlding Marco Polo,” “Greek History and Tragedy,” “Feminism and Posthumanism, and “Poetics of Empire,” to name a few. These seminars tend to focus on theoretical texts, which we sometimes read alongside primary texts. For example, I’ve read Bhanu Kapil Rider’s Humanimal with Donna Haraway’s When Species Meet and Gustave Flaubert’s Bouvard et Péchuchet with Frederic Jameson’s The Political Unconscious. Aside from our coursework, the program gives us plenty of pedagogical training. I am a teacher’s assistant for one class per quarter and have taught Jewish literature, Shakespeare, nineteenth-century British, and writing intensive introductions to literature. Each term, I take two seminars and work as a teacher’s assistant, so between attending lectures, grading, reading, and the occasional conference or guest lecture, grad school is a full-time job.

EB: How has your experience so far shaped your career goals?

TT: I have always wanted to teach—I studied English Education at SOU and taught ESL in Ecuador before pursuing a Ph.D. in literature UC Santa Cruz—so it was a matter of figuring out what kind of teacher I would be. Working as a TA has helped me to confirm that I want to teach at the university level. Getting students excited about learning is really rewarding. Today, I helped them understand how Herodotus’s Histories can help us to see the relationship between literature and ideology. Although my students arrived disgruntled for having to read ‘some old history book,’ they left chattering about the essays they now want to write. Graduate school has helped me to confirm that I want to be an academic, because of the emphasis on research and academic service, as well as pedagogy. Developing my research interests into both a short-term and career length research trajectory has also helped me envision making the jump from Ph.D. student to professor. Also, academic involvement in Senate subcommittees and associations in my field, like the Dickens Project, has made me realize that academia is my career choice. I have come to view my career goal—becoming a professor—as not only a career goal but also a lifestyle: vacations now become time to work on fun research projects.

EB: What is/was the most rewarding part and the most challenging?

TT: The first years of graduate school seem difficult: I remember weekly reading lists consisting of a thousand pages of dense texts, gigantic seminar papers, and professors asking questions that challenge my preconceived ideas. At times, it can feel like the plethora of knowledge you’re learning is washing over you without much retention. For me, the epiphany that all of your hard work is developing into a substantial project makes the moments of struggle worth it. For me, the realization happens while conducting and presenting research. Last summer I spent three weeks at the Bodleian Library and afterward attended a few conferences. It was exciting meeting some of the scholars whose ideas has informed my own, and who were interested in the research I was in the early stages of working on. These trips are one of the best parts of graduate school because not only am I researching and presenting, but I’m also meeting and making friends with scholars in my field. Although I haven’t officially started, I expect the process of writing the dissertation will be rewarding as well.

EB: What’s been your focus and how has grad school changed you?

TT: I entered grad school with a focus on British women authors and a vague interest in post-colonialism and queer theory. The faculty and theoretical texts I have been working with at UC Santa Cruz have helped me think more intellectually about the literature with which I work. I began grad school wanting to work on late-Victorian to Modern women authors but not knowing what my intervention would be. Now I am working on queer theory and culture in relation to British women writers. After two years at Santa Cruz, I have discovered my niche, although I am still constantly developing it—last month a read a transformative book, this month I decided to learn Latin, both of which I expect to play a substantial role in my dissertation.

EB: Any advice for students considering going on for more school?

TT: Start talking to your faculty mentors about graduate school now. They will be able to give you advice on how and where to apply, and will be the ones writing your recommendations. My undergrad advisor helped me revise my application essays. Research the schools you’re applying to as thoroughly as possible, and take note of what interests you (Is it the professors? The program? Funding or research opportunities? Their library?). Establish relationships with faculty before you go so that they can advocate for you during the admissions process. It is helpful to know with whom you want to work before you arrive. You might also email current graduate students more candid questions to get a sense of what their experiences have been like so far. When you are accepted, go to the prospective student visiting days. I didn’t decide to choose Santa Cruz until I’d visited campuses and met with faculty.

Once you’re there, remember to be confident and stay focused. Even if you don’t feel ready early on, make commitments: apply for conferences and fellowships, so that you can start forming your project early. Setting short-term goals for yourself (finishing coursework, presenting at a graduate student conference, visiting the nearest archive, forming a writing group) will assist you in achieving long-term goals. Also, come prepared but be ready to change. Coursework is a transformational experience, and I have a lot of friends who changed their research track after taking an inspiring course. Use seminar courses as a way to experiment with your research and as a way to forge relationships with faculty with whom you’d like to work. Take as many seminars and independent studies with them as possible, and don’t feel shy about having them read drafts of your writing.

EB: What’s next for you?

TT: After this term, I am planning on spending the summer in the U.K. I received the Anne and Jim Bay Fellowship in Victorian Studies to present my current project at the “Victorian Modernities” conference in Canterbury and to conduct archival work at the British Library in June and July. Afterward, I plan to enroll in a summer Latin intensive course at King’s College, University of London. I will be writing a journal article based on this work and reading a lot of Victorian-Edwardian literature for my Qualifying Exam, and attending the Long-Wide Nineteenth Century and Dickens Universe conference in Santa Cruz this August. After my Qualifying Exam in April, I’ll begin writing my dissertation.

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

TT: You’re welcome.

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Grad School: An Interview with Jayla Rae Ardelean

EB: What was your graduate program like? What courses did you take and what sorts of things were you reading?

JA: My graduate program was amazing because I was constantly challenged, whether that was academically, mentally, or emotionally. I think about 99% of grad school is keeping your shit together, and the other 1% is where the learning happens.

I took a lot of reading courses where we studied nonfiction pieces ranging from micro essay length (750 words) to typical essay length to entire book length works. Often, 250-400 page books would be assigned to read over the course of one week, in multiple classes. Get ready.

I also took a workshop course every semester where we reviewed and critiqued each other’s work. This is where the emotional challenge often occurred.

EB: How has your experience so far shaped your career goals?

JA: My program absolutely shaped my career goals. I had the opportunity to work for the literary journal affiliated with CSU, Colorado Review, where I gained the skills necessary to work in a career related to publishing. If I had not had this opportunity, I don’t know if I would have left this masters program with a tangible career goal (other than—of course—to continue writing my ass off).

EB: What is/was the most rewarding part and the most challenging?

JA: The most rewarding part was to have my thesis accepted by the graduate school because they rejected it three times due to “marginal errors.” I also found it rewarding to read my work aloud at several events. One of them was in a dimly lit bar.

The most challenging aspects were revising my thesis (a collection of essays) and keeping sane for the last two years while working, taking classes, and writing my thesis all at once. Picking yourself back up after breaking points is not always easy, but when you do move on after having significant moments of stress, you can pat yourself on the back.

What’s been your focus and how has grad school changed you?

JA: My focus was to write in and learn about the genre, creative nonfiction—which was not always an easy exchange: “Do you like, write about facts… creatively?” Grad school has solidified my disinterest in a life of perpetual academia. I think I am finally done being a student.

EB: Any advice for students considering going on for more school?

Understanding what you’re committing to is essential. But sometimes hearing that “grad school is really difficult” won’t fully sink in until you’re in it yourself—and that is totally okay. Know that the challenges you experience may not be the same challenges others have experienced, and making it all your own can be just as rewarding as earning the degree.

EB: What’s next for you?

JA: I am pursuing a career in publishing, hopefully in a literary journal venue. I will continue to submit essays to literary journals for publication, get rejected, get rejected some more, and then hopefully eventually get published. More than once, please.

Thanks for talking with us.

JA: Thanks for that letter of recommendation for grad school, Ed!

Jayla Rae Ardelean holds an MA in creative nonfiction from Colorado State University. Her two dachshunds are the loves of her life, but literary geniuses are welcome.

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An Interview with John Hough, Jr.

John Hough, Jr. is a graduate of Haverford College. He has been a VISTA volunteer, a speech writer for Senator Charles Mathias of Maryland, and assistant to James Reston at the Washington Bureau of the New York Times.

Hough is the author of six novels, including Seen the Glory: A Novel of the Battle of Gettysburg, winner of the American Library Association’s 2010 W. Y. Boyd Award, and three works of nonfiction. He lives in West Tisbury, Massachusetts.

We talked about his latest book, The Fiction Writer’s Guide to Dialogue: A Fresh Look at an Essential Ingredient of the Craft, recently released from Allworth Press.

EB: Tell us a bit more about your background as a writer and teacher.

JH: Writing is the only thing I’ve ever wanted to do, unless you count my boyhood ambition to be a big league baseball player. I published my first book when I was 22, a nonfiction account of my year as a VISTA volunteer in Detroit, and the books came at fairly regular intervals from then on, though I tend to be longer between books, having suffered some terrible dry spells, than many writers. I had married and settled on Martha’s Vineyard when a successful writers workshop here on the island came to my attention. I was between books, and to help make ends meet, I began offering classes in creative writing in our living room. Later I was recruited to teach plot, character and dialogue at seminars in Chicago and on Cape Cod for doctors and lawyers who wanted to write novels, put on by an organization called SEAK. I’ve also taught frequently in the adult education program here on the Vineyard.

What prompted you to write this book? Were there things you wished you had known when you began writing?

JH: I was asked to write the book. A SEAK client who had attended a seminar I gave on dialogue later published a book of his own, and he recommended me for the job to his editor. I’d been teaching dialogue for years and thought a book on it would be easy. It was harder than I thought; I knew bad dialogue when I saw it, but I didn’t always know why it was bad. Writing the book forced me to discover why, and explain it—to present the writing of good dialogue as a technique, which I think it is.

EB: I had always thought that fiction writers got their best dialogue from listening to people talk. But it’s more complicated than that, isn’t it?

JH: When I teach dialogue, the first thing I say is, dialogue in fiction is not at all like dialogue in real life. In real life we digress, we ramble, we elaborate needlessly, we use three or four words, three or four sentences, where one would do. Dialogue in fiction has to be tight and to the point—relentlessly so. The trick is to make it sound real, sound natural. Having said that, I would never tell a writer not to listen to people talk. It’s where we get idioms, everyday usage, the interesting turn of phrase. It’s where we get the feel of how people talk. But we aren’t, as I say in the book, stenographers. We’re rewrite men—we take what we hear and condense it, make it compact. We give it shape and cohesion.

EB: You talk about bits of dialogue from all sorts of writers. How did you go about collecting the dialogue you wanted to use? Are you a dialect hoarder?

Collecting examples for the book was the most fun part. Naturally I chose books and short stories that I love, and I was careful to keep a gender and ethnic balance among authors, which was easy. I went for what I hope is a delightful variety, from Melville and Twain to Elmore Leonard.

You seemed to be having a lot of fun writing this book—not in a jokey sense, but in the sense of sharing an enjoyment in good writing. Should writing be fun?

JH: It certainly can be. There’s all the difference, though, between “fun” and “easy.” I’m suspicious of writers who write 10 or 15 pages a day; I think they’re having too much fun. Hemingway wrote two and a half hours a day and said he was “empty” when he’d finished. I know that William Styron, who composed in longhand, wrote three or four pages of legal tablet a day, never more. Graham Greene never wrote more than 500 words at a sitting. “There is nothing to writing,” Hemingway famously said. “All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” But no writer ever took more pleasure in his or her work than he did.

EB: I was fascinated by your discussion of voice as physical description. What did you mean by that?

JH: No character in literature is more alive and vivid than Huckleberry Finn, and yet Huck never tells us what he looks like. Students are surprised when I tell them that there’s no physical description of Atticus Finch in To Kill A Mockingbird, because they can see Atticus so clearly. Why? Because there’s character in his speaking voice, as there is in Huck Finn’s–a ton of character–and it prompts an image in our imagination. It’s a vivid image—face, bearing, even body type. There’s a brightness in Huck’s face of intelligence and slyness. He’s agile, mentally and physically. Atticus’s face can only be gentle, wise, touched faintly by melancholy. How much physical description to provide, or how little, is of course up to the writer—do you want to direct the reader, or leave it mostly, or entirely, to the reader’s imagination? The more I think about it, the more I suspect that there’s no better way than dialogue to create a character in the mind’s eye of the reader. Faulkner almost never describes his characters physically. Nor do Joan Didion and Cormac McCarthy.

EB: Is there a single most common problem with fictional dialogue?

JH: Yes: the absence of tension. Overt hostility aside, it’s difficult to define what comprises tension in dialogue. In the book I hit on the idea of suspense: neither the reader nor the characters should know, exactly, what is going to be said next. If you can anticipate the gist of a speech, then the tone or wording of it should be somehow unexpected. The idea of tension in a scene between friends or lovers who aren’t quarreling seems counterintuitive, but without tension, any narrative goes slack. It becomes uninteresting. Your characters, if only in some small way, have to keep each other, and the reader, off balance. Keep the reader wondering what will be said next. Keep your dialogue direct and economical. Dispense with the pleasantries we use all the time in real life. Nothing kills tension like “please” and “thank you.”

EB: As a linguist, I was fascinated by the discussion of dialects, accents and vernacular language. You describe it as setting speech to music. Can you elaborate for our readers?

JH: It didn’t occur to me until I was writing the chapter on accents and the vernacular that the only regional American accent that is regularly evoked in our literature is the southern. In print, Didion’s Californians don’t sound any different from John Cheever’s New Yorkers, or Anne Tyler’s Baltimoreans. A southern accent, of course, is more pronounced and distinctive than any other, and southern writers from Faulkner to Lee Smith color their dialogue with it, so that we never forget, linguistically, where we are. The “music” I spoke of resides not so much in pronunciation—Lena Grove says “sour-deens” for “sardines” and “fur” for “far” in Light in August—as in the arrangement of words along the line, which I compare to musical notes. Smith never alters the spelling of a word, as Faulkner does occasionally, but you can hear the elongate vowels and softened consonants of her Virginia hill people in the construction of their dialogue—the way Smith puts their words together, the way the words play out. Throw in a dash of vernacular and the occasional syntactical oddity, and there’s country music in every line.

EB: You list some great lines of dialogue in your book. Do you have an all-time favorite? Or a couple of favorites?

In the book I listed the line from To Kill A Mockingbird that gives the novel its title, but there’s another line in the book that moves me even more. Tom Robinson has just been convicted, and Atticus has tried to comfort him and is now making his slow way down the aisle of the courthouse. His children, Jem and Scout, have watched the trial from the balcony, where African Americans are required to sit. This is from the novel, narrated by 12-year-old Jean Louise, or “Scout”:

    “Someone was punching me, but I was reluctant to take my eyes from the people below us, and from the image of Atticus’s lonely walk down the aisle.

    “Miss Jean Louise?”

    I looked around. They were standing. All around us and in the balcony on the opposite wall, the Negroes were getting to their feet. Reverend Sykes’s voice was as distant as Judge Taylor’s:

    “Miss Jean Louise, stand up. Your father’s passing.”

Thanks for talking with us.

JH: A pleasure.

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An Interview with Ray Rhamey

Born and raised in Dallas, Ray Rhamey studied at the University of Texas-Austin before embarking on a decades-long career in advertising and marketing communications and a stint as a scriptwriter in Hollywood. Today he lives in Ashland where he devotes his energy to book editing and book design ( and writing (

Rhamey is the author of three novels The Summer Boy, a novel of Texas; Finding Magic, contemporary fantasy; and The Vampire Kitty-cat Chronicles, a humorous spoof of the vampire myth as told by a cat. He has also recently published a guide to writing fiction and we sat down on the internet to talk about Mastering the Craft of Compelling Storytelling.

EB: Tell us a bit about your background in writing and editing.

RR: Even though my major in college was psychology, my first job was writing programmed learning training materials (about insurance policies—what a thrill!). I moved from that to a long career in advertising as a copywriter and creative director. Advertising is a great place to learn the discipline of using language in the most effective—and concise—ways possible. But my nature is that of a storyteller, so I left that to try screenwriting. There was a learning curve, though—screenplays target 120 pages, a page a minute in movie time. When writing my first script I found I was almost halfway through the story on page 6. Oops.

Then I moved on to long-form fiction, and have written a few novels. I was in a critique group in Seattle when the members started asking me to edit their novels. I moved from that to freelance editing, and now have clients all across the world thanks to the Internet. I still work on my own fiction, though.

EB: Who is the book for? What readers did you have in mind?

RR: Mastering the Craft of Compelling Storytelling is based on material I created for my blog on the craft of writing, so it was intended for all writers of fiction. I’ve found that the book works for many levels of skill. The focus on craft is good for giving beginning writers tools to use and grow familiar with—a number of editors have recommended it to their clients. But experienced writers also gain insights and stimulation that helps their writing. I know one author who reviews the book before self-editing to be reminded of the things that are so easy to overlook. I must say that I’ve read some bestselling authors that would have benefited from applying a few of the lessons.

EB: What skills does a good editor need?

RR: I don’t think of skills so much as talents, or affinities, plus knowledge—an eye/ear for language is first and foremost, but editors differ in how they can best apply that ability, and that’s why there are several “kinds” of editors. Here are the three basic types as defined by the Northwest Independent Editors Guild:

    Developmental Editing
    Developmental editors help you develop your project from an initial concept or draft, and can consult with you before the writing even begins. Developmental editors can help plan the organization and features of your project. They may make suggestions about content and presentation, write or rewrite text, do research, and suggest additional topics for you to consider.

    Substantive Editing
    Substantive editors work with you once you have a full text. They will help you get it into its final form, which may involve reordering or rewriting segments of it to improve readability, clarity, or accuracy. If you’re a fiction writer, a substantive editor can alert you to inconsistent character behavior or speech, help you adjust your language to your desired audience, and make sure your story has believable dialogue and a plausible plotline.

    Copyeditors work with your text when it is in final or nearly final form. They read each sentence carefully, seeking to fix all errors of spelling, punctuation, capitalization, grammar, and word usage while preserving your meaning and voice. With your permission, they may rewrite tangled sentences or suggest alternative wordings. They can ensure that your text conforms to a certain style; if your project includes elements such as captions, tables, or footnotes, they can check those against the text.

    Basically, I’m a substantive editor, although I do intensive line editing and am a pretty good copyeditor. For all of my life I’ve had a talent for language and how to use it for the best effect.

EB: What’s the hardest part of editorial work?

RR: For me it’s maintaining a tight-enough focus to spot the tiny shortcomings (comma faults, verb tense, point of view shifts, etc.) as well as the gross, and this is especially difficult if the writing is good. I’m a reader first, and a clean, smooth narrative just pulls me into the story. In my Seattle critique group I never saw anything wrong with the first read of Lynn’s writing. I soon learned that I had to read it a second time before I could see weaknesses. That wasn’t true with the other writers in the group, although they were talented.

And there are times when a writer produces what Elmore Leonard calls “the parts you skip.” I’ll know I’ve hit a patch of that when my eyes start to glaze and my attention wanders. I have to stop for a while and build up enough energy to stay with it. Long flashbacks and detailed description can do that to me. It would help if authors read their work aloud—at a reading in Jacksonville recently an author read a section heavy on description out loud. Moments later she commented that as she was reading she was wishing it would get on with what was happening in the story. She should have done that before publishing the book—or used me as her editor.

Another challenge is to get enough distance to see the story and its paths as a whole in order to understand where it strays or where it’s weak. I read each manuscript three times, and then let it sit in my mind for a few days. It can take a period of “back-burner” reflection to put my mental finger on where the story itself needs work. Sometimes I see structural problems, but primarily it’s where a story deviates from course for a little side trip into material that doesn’t impact the story and slows pace. I exercise the delete key a lot.

EB: What should writers expect from an editor?

RR: First of all, honesty. I try for a pleasant keyboard-side manner, but I don’t pull punches. And a professional writer should be able to handle constructive criticism. An editor also needs to respect the writer’s voice—the biggest sin is to rewrite to make a narrative read as the editor would like it to. Expectations also depend on the type of editing being done—non-fiction is quite different from fiction. Because I also write novels, my edits of fiction are informed by having had to solve some of the problems my clients face, and I can bring that kind of creativity to the coaching and suggestions I make. I have restructured novels and sometimes suggested new endings (which were adopted). The goal is to help the writer make the best of her story.

EB: Is there a single most common problem with fiction manuscripts?

RR: What I see most often are stories that take way too long to get going. Opening pages and chapters are weighted down and slowed by backstory, set-up, and exposition. I deal with that every week on my blog, Flogging the Quill, where I and my readers critique opening pages. Fiction, in my view, needs to begin with something happening. You can weave in backstory and other information as the story takes place; never stop it for what is commonly called an “info dump.”

EB: You mention that it’s important for a writer to inhabit a character’s point of view. Why is that?

RR: I think a writer’s goal is to give the reader the experience of the character. How are you going to understand—and then show—a character’s experience unless you see what’s happening from the inside? The inside of a character—the hopes, goals, fears, flaws—is what drives the action, the plot. In the book I talk about how to use “experiential description,” which is description of place, people, things, or action that is colored or flavored by the character’s personal filters. For example, an objective description might be: The peanut butter sandwich was slathered with a thick layer of grape jelly. A diabetic allergic to peanuts might see it as: Globs of deadly grape jelly smothered a layer of poisonous peanut butter that lurked, ready to attack.

EB: I enjoyed the examples you used to illustrate the importance not just of precise language but of the right kind of precision. For example, your opening discussion of adverbs was very illuminating. Can you encapsulate that for our readers?

RR: There is a meme amongst fiction writers that adverbs are “bad.” A number of bestselling writers preach to avoid them. In considering the use of adverbs in my own fiction, I saw that there were times when they were weak and to be avoided, but there were also times when they strengthened the narrative. The weak use is when adverbs modify a weak verb in a feeble attempt at description. For example, “walked slowly” is poor description when a strong verb can do much better, eg. strolled, or sauntered, or ambled.

On the other hand, I’ve found that adverbs can add nuance and flavor to description when they are used in conjunction with adjectives—they can contribute to the characterization of a character.

For example, this description is clear: He found Emmaline to be cheerful and proficient.

But a couple of adverbs can characterize the person who thinks this: He found Emmaline to be annoyingly cheerful but pleasingly proficient.

Now we can see the person considering Emmaline as a bit of a curmudgeon yet an appreciative perfectionist, all due to the inclusion of those adverbs. In short, avoid adverbs that modify verbs, consider using them to modify adjectives.

EB: You also do book design. What makes a good cover design?

RR: I look at the primary objective for a book cover as being to help the title give the potential customer a sense of the story. It should add emotion, meaning, or intrigue to the words. Of course, as it does that it also has to be eye-catching. It needs to signal what genre the story is. And, in these days of tiny thumbnails on web pages, be understandable at small sizes—what works on a bookstore table often doesn’t on a web page. Book design also includes the design of the interior pages as well.

EB: Are there differences between book designing for ebooks and print books?

RR: Regarding the cover, not in my view. Pretty much all book covers are now presented on web pages, so they need to past that thumbnail test. The design of the interior of the book, however, differs from print to ebook. Most of my clients do both, so I start with the print version and distill the e-versions out of that.

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

RR: My pleasure. There’s nothing I like to talk about more than writing.

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An interview with Amy MacLennan, poetry editor of the Cascadia Review

Amy MacLennan has appeared at the San Francisco Lit Crawl, the Petaluma Poetry Walk, the San Luis Obispo Poetry Festival, and the Windfall Reading Series in Eugene, and Cody’s Books in Berkeley. She has taught poetry workshops through the Sequoia Adult School, Oregon Poetic Voices, the Oregon Poetry Association and at the Northwest Poets’ Concord, written for the 2011 Poet’s Market, and published two chapbooks–Weathering (Uttered Chaos Press, 2012) and The Fragile Day (Spire Press, 2011)–with a third on the way. She is the poetry editor for the Cascadia Review.

EB: Tell us about the Cascadia Review?

AM: Cascadia Review is a regional, online literary magazine started by Dana Guthrie Martin in 2012. We have three issues each year (Fall, Winter, Spring), and we feature thirteen to twenty poets and artists over the course of two or three months.

EB: The Review seems to be about more than just poetry.

AM: Dana’s vision is to showcase work from the Cascadia bioregion, which includes all or part of California, Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana, British Columbia and Alaska, along with fragments of Nevada, Wyoming and Yukon. Current or former residents are eligible.

EB: As a poetry editor, what do you look for in work?

AM: This is always the hardest question to answer. I look for imagery that is unexpected. I want fresh diction. I want unusual syntax that still makes sense. Exceptional use of assonance and consonance will always score bonus points for me.

EB: Do you make editorial suggestions? What’s the submission process like for poets?

AM: We occasionally make suggestions to poets. I generally suggest tightening. The submission process is pretty straightforward because we use Submittable.

EB: How did you become a poetry editor?

AM: I started judging small poetry contests about ten years ago then became a managing editor for The Cortland Review around the same time. I’ve guest edited and acted as a reader for print and online journals as well. I became a first reader for The Washington Prize (a full-length manuscript contest) in 2011, and I joined Cascadia Review a few years ago reading then becoming the editor.

EB: What do you enjoy most about editing?

AM: I am so happy when I can share work that I believe in. I’ve published, nominated, selected, and advanced work that I truly believe everyone needs to be reading, and I’m so pleased to be a part of that process.

EB: What advice have you got for aspiring poets and writers?

AM: Read a lot. Write a lot. Repeat. Follow the rules. Break the rules. Repeat. When you’re sharing your work, don’t take negative criticism personally. NEVER take rejection personally.

EB: What do you do when you are not editing poetry?

AM: I do freelance writing and editing along with social media consulting. I do consultations and editing on poetry manuscripts. I recently had a book accepted by MoonPath Press in Kingston, WA, for release in early 2016 (The Body, A Tree), so I’m tweaking that manuscript.

EB: How come we say “poets and writers”? Does that mean poets are special kinds of writers?

AM: Poets are special kinds of writers. (This is where I laugh a little bit.) Line breaks, use of sound, heavy imagery, and compression are the keys.

EB: Thanks. Happy poetry month!

AM: You too!

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