An Interview with Ellie Alexander

Ellie Alexander is a Pacific Northwest writer who loves testing pastry recipes. Her work (as Kate Dyer-Seeley) has appeared in The Columbian, The Vancouver Voice, Seattle Backpacker, Portland Family Magazine, and Climbing Magazine.

EB: How did you decide to set Meet Your Baker in Ashland, with an Oregon Shakespeare Festival subplot?

AE: My family and I used to come to Ashland for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival growing up. It’s such an idyllic setting. One of the things that I find unique about it as a setting is that there are almost two towns within Ashland. Visitors travel from all over the globe to catch a production at OSF, but then when the theater is dark for the season Ashland becomes a small town again. I think that makes for a very rich setting—there are always new characters rolling in to shake things up, or to kill off.

Shakespeare sets the ultimate stage for drama. I enjoy weaving in quotes from the bard and details about the history of the theater. And Ashland has so much more to offer from its gorgeous parks and hiking trails, to its thriving art community, surrounding wineries, farms, the Rogue River, Mt. Ashland. I could go on and on.

EB: Can you tell our readers a bit about your background?

AE: My degree is in speech therapy. I worked in an early invention program for years before shifting my focus to writing full time. In college I minored in creative writing, but I didn’t know what I wanted to write. I wrote a lot of horrible first drafts that ended up in the recycling and I read everything that I could get my hands on from literary fiction to sci-fi to non-fiction and historical fiction. In hindsight that time was invaluable to me.

Aspiring writers often ask me for advice and the first thing I tell them is to read. You can’t be a writer in my opinion if you’re not a reader first.

I freelanced for a while before taking the plunge into writing fiction. I wrote for a variety of magazines and newspapers. That experience helped strengthen my writing. I worked with editors who gave me feedback and suggestions to tighten my story. I had to meet deadlines, and finesse a story arch. My speech therapy background also come into play. When I’m writing dialog I will go to a coffee shop or a park and take extensive notes on how people are talking—all the nuances of their speech—just like I used to when I was working in the field. I hope that it makes the dialog in my books very believable.

EB: Did you grow up in Ashland? Is part of the book at all autobiographical? Are you Jules Capshaw? Are you a baker? Was your father a Shakespeare buff?

AE: I grew up in Vancouver, Washington. I came to Ashland frequently with my family and on school field trips. Yes, my dad is a Shakespeare buff. He taught high school honors English and introduced me to Shakespeare at a young age. One summer my parents threw a Midsummer Night’s Eve party, where everyone came in Elizabethan costumes and were assigned roles. I was Peaseblossom. I spent weeks making a fairy dress with my mom. My dad spent weeks crafting an authentic menu. In addition to his literary knowledge he’s an incredible cook. In fact a number of his recipes appear in the books, like his recipe for Chocolate Hazelnut Torte.

My mom got me hooked on mysteries at a young age. We would walk to the local library each week and I would return with a stack of books to devour. She was also an amazing baker. There would always be homemade pies, cookies, and cakes waiting for my brother, sister and me when we got home from school. Many of her recipes are in the books as well, like her Raspberry Danish.

Like Jules I love to bake. After I hit my word count, I’ll spend time testing recipes in my kitchen. Food is such a love language and I think she and I both show our love for friends and family through food. However she’s a trained pastry chef. I’m not. She’s also much more romantic than me.

She has just returned home to Ashland after spending the last ten years working as a pastry chef on a cruise ship. She’s left her husband on the ship and is coming home to mend her broken heart. I love writing Jules. She’s a romantic—blame it on the name—but despite the fact that her heart has been broken she’s not broken. I think that’s an important distinction.

EB: How has Ashland changed?

AE: It’s changed over the years, but the core downtown plaza still feels much the same to me. That’s a good thing. When I was working on Meet Your Baker, I interviewed a number of business owners and they talked about the ebb and flow of tourists in town. Longstanding businesses do well and can weather the off season, but many small business owners shared that some of their friends and colleagues have opened businesses at the start of the season with no plan for the slower winter months and have ended up having to close their doors.

I appreciate that downtown is still predominately small businesses. There’s so much gentrification that’s happening in the Pacific Northwest, and it would break my heart to see that happen in Ashland.

EB: Meet Your Baker is a cozy mystery. What’s the attraction of that genre to you as a writer, and in your opinion, to readers?

AE: I got hooked on cozies mysteries with Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden. One summer in early high school I read all of Agatha Christie’s books. Cozy mysteries are escapism at its best. They take readers on a quest to figure out whodunit, with a dash of romance and plenty of page-turning twists. They’re typically light reads without gratuitous violence, featuring amateur sleuths who stumble into solving a mystery while going about their everyday lives. The reader has the same opportunity as the sleuth to solve the puzzle. I think that’s one of the reasons the genre continues to be so popular. Even though cozy mysteries are lighter reads they’re still cerebral. You have to use your brain to piece all of the clues together. That’s my favorite part of writing mysteries—I want to keep the reader guessing all the way up until the very end.

I also read them like travelogues. I’m a sucker for anything set in the English countryside. That’s my goal in writing this series—to give readers at taste (pun intended) of the Pacific Northwest. I’ve received email from readers all over the country who’ve had said they can’t wait to visit Ashland now that they’ve read the book. That’s the best compliment I could ever receive.

EB: Meet Your Baker is the first in the series and the next is coming out this very soon. What happens in A Batter of Life and Death?

AE: In A Batter of Life and Death Jules is going to be competing in a television bake-off, Take the Cake. The Pastry Channel is in town to film the popular competition that pits top chefs against each other in a culinary challenge. She’s a bit camera shy, but the top prize is $25,000 and Torte is in desperate need of new ovens so she agrees to compete. Just as she starts to feel more comfortable in the spotlight, one of her fellow contestants is discovered buried in buttercream. Of course Jules is on the case and in the mix for murder!

I’m so excited about this next installment. Readers are going to get to know Jules and the team at Torte a little better and there are some delicious recipes that I can’t wait to share.

EB: You are a full-time writer. What’s your writing life like? Any tips for aspiring writers?

AE: I do my best work in the early morning hours. I write a minimum of 2,000 words every day. That structure works for me. Then in the afternoon I get outside and go for a walk or hike, or spend time in the kitchen testing new recipes.

Before I start writing I sketch out the story. I know exactly what every character is hiding and lying about, what red herrings I’m going to use to throw readers off the scent of the killer, and who the killer is. After I’ve made my initial sketch I write a thirty page outline. From there I start working on the first draft. I don’t do any editing as I write. Instead I keep notebooks next to my laptop to jot down things that I need to change or come back to. Once I have a complete first draft I print out a copy and set it away for a few weeks or more. I find that having some distance helps tremendously. After I’ve taken a break from it I’ll go back over it and incorporate all the notes I made along the way. It usually takes me at least two or three more drafts before it’s ready to send to my editor.

As far as advice goes—read! I know I already said it, but it’s worth repeating. And write daily. I think new writers sometimes believe that they have to wait for the muse to strike. I used to think that too when I wrote all those terrible first drafts, but what I’ve realized is that the discipline of sitting down and writing every day makes you a better writer. Or at least able to hit word count. Set a daily writing goal. Writing is like any muscle in your body. If you don’t use it, it’s not going to get any stronger.

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

AE: Thanks so much for having me!

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An Interview with Mary Norris

photo by Josef Astor

Mary Norris began working at The New Yorker in 1978. She has written for The Talk of the Town and for on a wide range of topics and recently published Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen (Norton).

Originally from Cleveland, she now lives in New York.

EB: I really enjoyed Between You & Me and loved the way you were able to bring drama not just to the work of copy editing but to the English language itself. All my copyeditor friends are reading it. What prompted you to write the book?

MN: That’s so nice! Thank you. The original impetus for the book was a blog post defending New Yorker commas that I was asked to write for The New Yorker’s Web site. I’d been writing for decades, and this post, In Defense of Nutty Commas, got the largest readership I ever had. So I wrote about other facets of New Yorker style (the diaeresis, doubled consonants), and about pencils, and the response was such that it occurred to me that there might be some interest in a book on the subject. The subject itself—language, really—had never drawn me before, but, with some thirty years of copy-editing experience, I found I had a lot to say and that I held strong opinions.

EB: It occurs to me that you must have had to be extra careful proofing the book. Did you worry about that at all?

MN: Oh, yeah. The publisher provided a copyeditor, I read the proofs three times, my boss at the magazine read the proofs, a production editor read them, and still mistakes snuck in. In retrospect, I wish I had hired a fact checker.

EB: Copyeditors are a special breed. What sort of person is attracted to the work? And do you find yourself editing things in your time off? I know one copyeditor who mentally rewrites billboards.

MN: There is no denying that attention to detail is an asset in a copy editor. So I would say that it attracts fussbudgets and neatniks. But, beyond being detail-oriented, a copy editor is someone who loves words and has a good facility with them, whether it’s for foreign languages or crossword puzzles. Some can’t turn it off and mark the mistakes in everything they read. I have learned to let go. It’s not that I don’t notice mistakes or odd choices in punctuation—I just don’t correct them.

EB: You talk about some of the great reference books that copyeditors use. Do you have a top three?

MN: Are you counting dictionaries? Because that’s the top reference: the Merriam-Webster Collegiate Dictionary, or the online version of the unabridged dictionary, which is available by subscription. (There’s a free one, too, but it has ads.) For basic grammar and typography, Words Into Type has everything you need. And if you want to go deep into the usage wars, Garner’s Modern American Usage will keep you occupied. It’s more accessible (and American) than Fowler’s.

EB: And what do you read for fun?

MN: Fowler’s! Seriously, I can’t stop buying usage guides. I like things that are funny—one of my favorite books is John Kennedy O’Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces. I liked Lucky Jim, by Kingsley Amis. The best writers have a deep vein of humor running through everything they write. Ian Frazier is funny, and so is John McPhee. I like Patrick Leigh Fermor, who wrote about travel in Greece and Eastern Europe—I find him transporting. I have a huge collection of books about the sea and about ancient Greece that I am saving to read in retirement.

EB: You seem to have a very sensible attitude about the flexibility and fluidity of language. Do copyeditors get a bad rap among the general public?

MN: Yes, there are some rigid types, some who are very literal-minded (I am like that myself—it’s an occupational hazard). I have friends who are copyeditors manquées or wannabe copyeditors, and they cannot resist pointing out my mistakes. It is not an endearing trait, and I have made an effort not to cultivate it. If I am flexible, it’s largely because I’m a writer myself, and I try to give the writer the benefit of the doubt.

EB: I have to say I loved the discussion of the hyphen, which has always been a favorite punctuation symbol of mine. Do you have a favorite punctuation mark?

MN: I’m glad you liked the hyphen chapter. I was surprised, in the end, to feel that it is the heart of the book—maybe because compounding depends more on judgment than on rules. I like the dash myself. It’s versatile—you can write a whole sentence within a sentence if you set it off in dashes—and eloquent, and it works well in informal prose—letters, e-mails. The ellipsis is growing on me . . .

EB: What’s up with The New Yorker and colons, by the way? I often see them where I might expect a semicolon.

MN: That’s something I’m not aware of—or wasn’t until you pointed it out. I think there are too many semicolons in The New Yorker. There certainly are instances where I vacillate between a semicolon and a colon, but I think if I wasn’t sure I’d use the semicolon. Either one could be replaced by a dash!

EB: If there was one thing you could change about the English language, what would it be?

MN: I think I’d go back to thou and thee. Wouldn’t that be nice, to have a special word to use in a tender relationship? When I speak Italian (which I don’t do very well), I never use the formal “you”—I address everyone in the familiar. Italians are very nice about it.

EB: Any advice for today’s English majors who aspire to copyediting?

MN: I would say pay attention to the details in everything you read, just to see how various publishers do things. Stay flexible—if you get a job in Canada or in the United Kingdom, you’re going to have to accept their conventions. You don’t need to be dogmatic about a house style outside the house. Give the writer the benefit of the doubt. And try to keep the big picture in mind. I say this because I have been warped by years of copy editing and have a habit of focussing on the details without being able to discern the larger pattern.

EB: Finally, any predictions about the longevity of the diaeresis?

MN: It’s lasted this long! I would say that when the current generation of copy editors passes away—the baby boomers—the diaeresis will melt into the past, and nobody will even notice that it’s gone.

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

MN: My pleasure. Thank you!

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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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