An Interview with Debra Gordon Zaslow

Debra Gordon Zaslow is the author of Bringing Bubbe Home, a Memoir of Letting go Through Love and Death, the story of her 103 year-old grandmother’s final months.

Debra Zaslow is a professional storyteller, writer and teacher whose stories have been published in anthologies that include the Cup of Comfort series, Chosen Tales, Stories told by Jewish Storytellers, and Mitzvah Stories. Her story, “Diving for Love” was a finalist in the Redbook Magazine “Your Love Story” contest. She teaches storytelling at Southern Oregon University, and her CD, “Return Again: Stories of Healing and Renewal,” combines personal narrative with Jewish folktales. You can visit her website at:

We sat down to talk about Bringing Bubbe Home.

EB: I really enjoyed Bringing Bubbe Home. Before reading it, I was worried that the story would be depressing but you managed to make it quite uplifting. As a writer, how did you make that happen?

DZ: My goal was to make the story as real and accessible as possible. That meant turning notes (from a journal I kept during Bubbe’s visit) into scenes. I used sensory imagery and dialogue whenever possible. Some of the images were not pleasant, since this death was a visceral decline, along with bodily fluids and odors, but I didn’t want to “whitewash” the true experience. However, keeping it real meant including my feelings and observations, which were often humorous, and therefore lightened the mood. Plus, several scenes where Bubbe and I sat in quiet moments and talked were simply moving and uplifting in themselves. Death has a way of stripping away whatever is not important, so you can focus on what’s really there between people.

EB: Any tips for aspiring memoirists?

DZ: I think it’s important NOT to try to be deep and meaningful. Starting out with an agenda to impart wisdom can really kill a narrative. You simply tell the story. The deeper you go into the scenes with specific details, realistic dialogue, and characterization, the more the metaphors and meaning will emerge and take a shape of their own.

EB: I wanted to ask you a bit more about craft. In addition to being a writer you are also a storyteller. How does your expertise in the art of oral performance inform your work as a writer?

DZ: Unfortunately, not as much as I’d hoped. People assume there is a natural crossover between oral storytelling and written work, but they’re actually quite distinct. In writing you can’t employ the tools of facial expression and body language that a storyteller uses, so you have to develop the craft of revealing emotion, gesture, and expression with words alone. After my first draft of Bringing Bubbe Home, I realized I wasn’t as good a writer as I wanted to be, so I went to an MFA in writing program (Vermont College of Fine Arts) to improve my writing enough to do justice to this important story.

One thing that does crossover, however, is a “sense of story.” Years of feeling audiences’ reactions have given me a sense of what is a tellable story—how to dramatize conflict, move the plot along, and create satisfactory resolution. But, what works orally still has to be converted to a more descriptive language when it’s written down.

EB: You talk about your grandmother as “outliving her personality.” I thought that was a nice way of expressing things. Can you talk a little about that?

DZ: My grandmother had always been a difficult, negative person. She was born in the 1800’s in Russia, and her mother beat her constantly. She grew up to be a tough survivor, who was not pleasant to be with. By the time she came to my house at 103 years old, her mental faculties were declining along with the rest of her body, and her crusty covering of negativity began to slip off, revealing a more luminous core. The caregivers had a hard time believing she was once a negative person.

I realize this does not happen with all people who live that long. In fact, sometimes at the end of life, whatever fears and anxieties are present, can solidify and worsen. I think for my grandma, it was a combination of being in the right place at the right time. She had lived alone till she was 101, then after being put in a nursing home against her will, she had been declining with poor care. When we brought her to our home, she was surrounded by love and comfort, and was old enough to have forgotten what she was angry about.

EB: The memoir developed from journals you kept. When did you decide to write the book?

DZ: I knew immediately after my grandma died that I wanted to write a book. People had always said to me “You should write a book,” but I never had anything I wanted to write about. Now I knew I had something to say, and six months of journals to go from. The journaling was a way to keep sane under all the stress, and to keep track of what I knew was a “big “ experience. Eventually the scenes in Bringing Bubbe Home evolved from the notes I’d scribbled down during her visit.

EB: You intersperse the story of your grandmother’s last days with stories of the past, your childhood and hers. How did writing the book help you?

DZ: I wanted to put the experience of being with Bubbe for the last months of her life into context to who she had been, and who she was to me. I began writing stories from her past and my past, which is of course, our shared history. It was emotionally very difficult to write the stories of her abuse, and how that abuse trickled through the generations in my family. It took me sixteen years to complete the book! Ultimately, though, it not only deepened the memoir, but it allowed me to see my own life in a clearer context.

EB: You talk a lot about your family in the book, which is set in the late 1990s. Were they involved in the writing process? Did you share the drafts with them as you wrote? How did they like the book?

DZ: My family endured not only the months with Bubbe, but also my immersion in the writing process for many years! I didn’t share much with them during the process because I was committed to writing what I felt was the truth, without their input. I write very honestly about the difficulties inherent in dealing with death in the middle of family life, including how our teenagers were somewhat resistant to the whole process. In the beginning I was angry with my husband because I felt abandoned by him when I was overwhelmed with caring for Bubbe. Part of the arc of the story was my realization (after spending months facing the family history) that my abandonment issues stemmed from my mother, not David.

I let David read a draft a few years before it was published just to make sure he was ok with my honesty about our relationship. Fortunately, he was a really good sport about it. Now that he’s reading the final product, he sees himself as a “wisdom character,” who acts as a foil to me as the stressed-out narrator. My daughter, who is a better writer than I am, gave the book a thumbs-up. My son is reading it now, and he says it’s very emotional to revisit those early teen years.

EB: This is very much a Jewish story, with religious details and filled with Yiddish and the immigrant voice of your grandmother, but the themes are more universal. As you were writing it, how did you imagine your audience?

DZ: I pretty much imagined my audience was me—female, Jewish, Baby boomer. But, now that the book is out, I’m surprised how universal the appeal is. People who are not Jewish relate to an immigrant grandparent, no matter where they came from. And men are loving the book, too. Everyone seems to be moved by the honesty with which family life and the dying process are portrayed.

EB: Despite the serious topic, there were some very funny scenes in the book also, especially the reminiscence when your mother and her friend Ruth are psychoanalyzing the neighborhood. Have you considered writing humor?

DZ: I can’t help writing humor, because I see the ridiculous side of everything. I think good memoir looks at all facets of the story. My mother happened to be a suburban, white-collar alcoholic, but she had a singular style. I’ve learned from storytelling that audiences love to laugh, and most experiences have funny moments, even if only in retrospect. The audience is more willing to go deep with you into pain and poignancy, once you’ve gained their trust with laughter.

EB: You include book group discussion questions. Do you have any thoughts about the different experience of reading the book alone versus discussing it in a group?

DZ: There are three book groups reading “Bubbe” right now (one in Ashland, one in Corvallis, and one in Baltimore) that I will meet with soon. When I give talks or readings, the discussions afterward are always lively and compelling. The book brings up many questions, particularly for readers who are facing decisions about an elder in the family. Often people are eager to share their experiences and thoughts about the recent death of their parent or grandparent. As Baby Boomers age, death is becoming a more accepted topic. This book is perfect for a book group discussion, since it brings up these very topical issues in an unflinching way.

EB: Thanks for talking with us.


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An Interview with Kit and Cat Seaton

Kit and Cat Seaton are sibling storytellers collaborating on the graphic novel The Black Bull of Norroway. Based on a classic fairy tale, The Black Bull of Norroway is the story of Sibylla, a nine-year- old whose life is forever changed by a forest witch who tells her that she will become the bride the Black Bull of Norroway. As things unfold, Sibylla comes to terms with a fate she’s not sure that she wants.

Kit Seaton, the older sister, is an artist living in Savanah, Georgia, where she teaches as Savanah College of Art and Design. She has an M.F.A. from the University of Hartford and has maintained her own webcomic, Eve of All Saints, since 2011. Cat Seaton is a playwright and storyteller living in Portland. She has a B.A. in English & writing from southern Oregon University. Cat writes the script, and Kit transforms them into sequential art.

We talked about Kit & Cat Comics and The Black Bull of Norroway.

EB: First off, are your names really Kit and Cat?

Kit & Cat: We actually get this question a lot. No, Kit and Cat are not our real names, but we’ve both been going by our respective nicknames for over ten years now. Kit was starting college and I was starting sixth grade, and both of us encountered several other students sharing our given names. So we nicked them, completely independently of one another, and found out after the fact.

EB: Is this your first creative collaboration?

Kit & Cat: It’s the first collaboration we are presenting to the public, but we’ve been meaning to work together for years.

EB: What is Kit & Cat Comics?

Kit & Cat: Kit & Cat Comics is the name of our studio. We just thought the consonants in Kit, and Cat, and comics made for a much nicer flow than a sussurous “Studio” at the end would have. Plus, we really do intend to make primarily comics. It’s run by my sister and myself, with Kit doing all of the art, and me doing the writing.

EB: The first comic is called The Black Bull of Norroway, which is an adaptation of a Scottish fairy tale. How did you come to choose that?

Kit & Cat: When Kit was in her graduate program at Hartford, she began a project using East of the Sun and West of the Moon. At that time, she approached me with the idea of creating an adaptation. We’ve both always shared a love of fairy tales, fables, and storytelling. I agreed, of course, but when I looked into it I discovered the tale had already been adapted a number of times.

It just so happened that I was taking a storytelling class around the same time, and so I had been reading a lot of fairy tales. The Black Bull of Norroway was one of those, and I realized it was a very similar tale. It had all the aspects that made East of the Sun and West of the Moon so palatable to us: strong female lead, magic and adventure, enchantment, themes of truth and illusion…and of course…gigantic animals. I approached her with the idea of using Black Bull instead, and it clicked with her immediately.

EB: Tell us about the main character Sibylla?

Kit & Cat:When we begin the second chapter, Sibylla is a moody seventeen year old girl. She’s living all by herself in her family’s house, her sisters have gone off and married other people, and she’s been left behind. And part of her is fine with that, but part of her is really discontent.

What we tried to do was, we worked really hard to turn the classic fairy tale into a Bildungsroman. So, we start with Sibylla as a young child, and really try to introduce her strongest character traits right off the bat. She puts on a brave face, she refuses to back down, she has this need to be first and to be right… but we also see her age, see her grow up, see her loneliness. We see her run from a lot of things, instead of facing them. She’s very non-confrontational in spite of her bravado, so we come to understand that Sibylla really only puts a brave face on things. She doesn’t know the true definition of courage.

As the story progresses, we get to see her grow up.

EB: Do you have a target audience in mind?

Kit & Cat: Really firmly in young adult, I think. We do deal with some darker themes, but what young adult novel nowadays hasn’t dealt with that?

EB: Have you always been interested in the graphic format?

Kit & Cat: Yes. Even when we were younger and still living at home, every story we’ve ever told or planned out has been meant for a graphic format.

EB: And how do you collaborate? What’s your process?

Kit & Cat: Because we, unfortunately, live the entire width of the country apart, we spend a lot of time on the phone. We’ll call each other up and talk about things. I’ll have an idea and I’ll ask Kit about it, and she’ll give me her feedback. Or I’ll send her a thousand emails in a day, “Kit I was thinking for this moment make sure…,” or “Kit, what if we did this?”

We are constantly sending each other works-in-progress and asking for feedback. It’s this strange combination of doing the work apart, since I script and she draws, but constantly inviting critique from the other.

I have to admit, most of the reworking happens in the writing stage, since it’s easier for me to change the direction of the story there than it is to force her to draw something over, but we’re both really open to changes and suggestions from the other person. I guess that’s the main thing. Our process demands us to be open and honest with each other at all times.

EB: Any thoughts on why the fairy tale is such an enduring and popular form?

Kit & Cat: Because people love stories, and these are stories that have been told around the fire and passed down, and have been honed and sharpened for generations. They’ve been distilled into their purest forms and characters; they take larger themes and cut them into parts, make them palatable, give us hope that we too can deal with those issues. To use a quote I’m sure we’ve all seen a thousand times: stories don’t tell us monsters exist, they tell us monsters can be beaten.

There are exceptions, of course. Some fairy tales end badly for everyone involved. But for the most part, I feel that fairy tales offer us a light to shine inside of ourselves. They help us illuminate the darkness within us, so that we can parse it out, and understand what makes us human.

EB: What’s next for Kit & Cat comics?

Kit & Cat: Well, Black Bull of Norroway is going to span a few years time. While we have the story plotted, there’s still a lot of writing and a lot of drawing left to do. We have some really great things far, far on the horizon, but Black Bull of Norroway sort of represents our past and future right now. It’s no small project. It will span three books, in all likelihood. It’s quite a commitment.

EB: How can readers subscribe?

Kit & Cat: Readers can find us on Patreon ( if they’re interested in supporting the project! Patreon users receive advance pages, as well as exclusive content, and subscriptions start as low as $1.

The webcomic is also available for free at and , with weekly updates that happen on Fridays. The entire first chapter is already available to read, so people will definitely be able to whet their appetites on it.

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

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An Interview with Alice Hardesty

Alice Hardesty is a poet and social activist living in Portland.

She is also (as Alice H. Suter, Ph.D.) an audiologist specializing in the effects of noise on hearing. She has worked with the Environmental Protection Agency, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, helping to develop criteria and set standards for noise exposure.

She has a BA in religion from American University, a master’s degree in deaf education from Gallaudet University, and a Ph.D. in audiology from the University of Maryland. She makes her home in Portland.

Alice and her late husband Jack Hardesty lived in Ashland for many years, where they both served on the city council. We talked about her recent book, An Uncommon Cancer Journey: The Cosmic Kick That Healed Our Lives, the story of Jack Hardesty’s amazing cancer recovery.

EB: What motivated you to write the book? Had you been thinking about doing this for a long time?

AH: I thought about writing a book like this back in the early 1990s, not long after Jack was completely well. Actually, my first thoughts were to write something to help spouses and other caregivers of cancer patients. But my busy consulting practice and natural tendencies toward procrastination got in the way. Then, after taking a couple of writing classes from Oregon poet and memoirist Judith Barrington, it became clear that the memoir was the way to go. It’s really an adventure story, with cancer, healing, travel, marriage, art, food, and psychic experiences all thrown in.

EB: You talk about cancer as “the cosmic kick that healed our lives”? What do you mean by that? You are not talking about a cure for cancer.

AH: Certainly not a cure for cancer, but I think a better word is healing. The cosmic kick is how Jack expressed his gratitude for the cancer. He called it his “Cosmic kick in the ass.” I know it sounds outrageous that anyone would talk about cancer with gratitude, but Jack knew that it enabled him to wake up, face his demons, and change his life. Nowadays people talk about “post-traumatic growth,” in which the trauma can be very positive if people are willing to learn from it.

This “cosmic kick” was beneficial for me as well since I learned a lot from the many healing experiences we shared, especially from the intensive psychotherapy. I doubt if our marriage would have survived if we hadn’t had that kind of help, and I doubt if we would have undergone that kind of rigorous therapy together if the cancer hadn’t pushed us into it.

EB: It seems that there are four main characters in the book: you and Jack, your marriage and his cancer. Which was the hardest character to write and which was the easiest?

AH: Good question — I had to ponder it. I think the hardest character was the marriage and the easiest one was the cancer. The cancer was in the form of a stubborn tumor, which grew and shrank in response to treatment, then grew and shrank again, and finally disappeared. Each time it came back, it was another “cosmic kick,” as if it was telling Jack, “You didn’t get it the first time, dude? Well, then we’re going to have to kick you again!”

The marriage was a character that insisted on my attention. In fact, the marriage was often in my face when I wanted to write about something else, but I felt that ignoring it would be less than authentic. This is perhaps why I procrastinated for such a long time.

EB: During this journey, you and Jack experienced American and European medical treatments, counseling, and alternative therapies as well. What conclusions come to mind about the various approaches?

AH: Until fairly recently, the only approach to cancer treatment in the U.S. has been chemotherapy, surgery, and radiation —i.e. poison it, dig it out, and zap it completely or the damned thing will grow back. The European treatment Jack received a the Janker Klink in Bonn was basically the same approach, but with different chemicals and the addition of ultra-sound therapy, which was experimental at the time. Neither of these treatments worked, although Jack felt very strongly that they bought him time, after which he could try the many gentler approaches we found out about. Although both of us were turned off to conventional medicine for quite a while, we eventually returned once we found holistic doctors. But in the 1980s it was either one or the other — conventional or alternative.

I am very pleased that most big cancer centers now offer complementary approaches as well as the traditional ones and encourage their patients to try healing methods like acupuncture, meditation, nutrition, exercise, and, most importantly, counseling. Although some doctors refer to the “spiritual” aspect, they usually stop there. They would still be amazed and most likely skeptical about the extraordinary encounters that Jack and I had, although these experiences may have been critical to Jack’s healing. The fact that Jack labeled the cancer’s kick “Cosmic” attests to his belief that both the cancer and his healing were somehow related to a transcendent grace. I share that belief.

EB: I always enjoyed working with Jack and was impressed with the way you captured his voice. Did that come easily or did it require several tries to get right? In other words, was Jack an easy character to write?

Jack Hardesty in 1980

AH: Jack’s voice was pretty easy to capture since I know it so well and it stays with me. I didn’t use as much dialogue in the early drafts, but once I started adding dialogue, his voice appeared naturally. I would say he was an easy character to write, and I enjoyed having him with me during the process of writing and editing. The exception was certain parts of the story involving alcohol, which were difficult to write.

EB: You have also written technical materials and poetry. How is memoir writing different?

AH: Memoir writing is very different and my editors helped me in that regard. My technical writing is dryer, more careful, with longer sentences, no setting of scenes, and no dialogue. The memoir is also careful, but in a different way. I was careful to provide historical and factual accuracy, but the thread of the story and the development of the characters was my main interest. Poetry is a different animal altogether because of the use of metaphor and flights of imagination. However, I can see certain similarities between all three. My style has always been rather spare. I don’t indulge in techno-speak, and I don’t write long, obscure poems. I’ve always liked clarity and that goes for the memoir as well. I don’t get wordy.

EB: Tell us a bit about Bacho Press?

AH: Once I finally had a draft of the memoir I decided to self-publish rather than go through the hassle of finding an agent and a commercial publisher. Since this was my first book (other than technical monographs and reports) I didn’t have a reputation as a writer. Also, my editor told me that self-publishing was easier and more satisfactory than it used to be. Currently, more books are published by individual authors than by commercial houses.

So I used CreateSpace, which does a nice job and is easy to work with. Then I found out that I could name my own publishing company whatever I wanted to, and who could be more deserving than my dog, Bacho! (His name is pronounced like the composer with an “o” on the end.) Bacho has had a cancer challenge of his own, is now completely healed (although minus one eye), and is a living, breathing example of the lust for life. It also happened that no one had claimed as a domain name, so we grabbed it.
The next publication from Bacho Press will probably be a chap-book of haiku called “Walking with Bacho,” in the tradition of the old haiku master Matsuo Bashō. In the mean time, I hope people will subscribe to my newsletter through Bacho Press to follow my blogs on various aspects of healing.

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

AH: My pleasure.

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Literary Ashland Radio for September: Mary Maher

Mary Z. Maher

This month’s guest on Literary Ashland Radio on KSKQ is Mary Z. Maher. She is professor emerita at the University of Arizona in Tucson and the author of Modern Hamlets and Their Soliloquies, Actor Nicholas Pennell: Risking Enchantment, and Actors Talk About Shakespeare.

Together with Alan Armstrong, she has just published a book called Oregon Shakespeare Festival Actors: Telling the Story, in which they interviewed a baker’s dozen Oregon Shakespeare Festival actors talking about their process, preparation and experiences performing Shakespeare.

Upcoming events in the Rogue Valley

On Oct. 17 Mary Maher and Alan Armstrong, will talk about their book Oregon Shakespeare Festival Actors: Telling The Story, at Weisinger’s Wintery at 6 pm.

On October 23rd Chautauqua Poets and Writers presents acclaimed poet Mary Szybist at 7:30 in the Mountain Avenue Theatre at Ashland High School.

Michael Niemann

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An interview with M. J. Daspit

M. J. Daspit is the author of the recently published Lucy Lied (Fireship Press, 2014), set in 1870s Monterey.

She was born in Princeton, New Jersey, graduated from Cornell University and worked as the managing editor for The Writings of Henry D. Thoreau in association with Princeton University Press. Afterwards, she joined the Navy and served in the antisubmarine SOSUS community and the Navy Recruiting Command. Her Navy service included two tours in Monterey. She is the author of Rogue Valley Wine, coauthored with winemaker Eric Weisinger (Arcadia Publishing, 2011), and she is working a forthcoming collection of short stories, The Little Red Book of Holiday Homicides.

M. J. Daspit and her husband, Gary Greksouk, live in Ashland. We sat down t talk about Lucy Lied.

EB: How did you come up with the idea for Lucy Lied?

MJD: During my career in the Navy I had two tours of duty in Monterey and fell in love with its natural beauty. I soaked up some of its Alta California history and stumbled across the story of Matt Tarpy, the last man lynched in the county. It was that tale of vigilante justice that started me plotting. Somehow I wanted there to be more to the story than just a dispute over land that resulted in this man’s shooting his neighbor’s wife and being hanged for it. I reverse engineered the lynching story as one thread of a plot binding together three main characters involved in the proverbial love triangle.

EB: The title is Lucy Lied. But Lucy doesn’t speak so can you elaborate a bit on how she lied?

MJD: Readers will find that the title is ironic, because all the characters in this story lie, but only Lucy is called out for it. Her lie is a key issue in the unfolding of the plot, so I won’t say more for fear of spoiling the impact for people who haven’t read the book yet.

EB: I was impressed with the language of the book—the period dialog of course but also the exposition seemed to put us in Monterey of the 1870s. What sort of research or technique did you use to get the feel of the language of the time?

MJD: That’s a wonderful compliment coming from a scholar of language. I used as much primary source material as I could find, chiefly microfilms of the Monterey newspapers going back as far as 1874. These are available at the Monterey Public Library. The flavor of the news writing helped me develop an ear for the speech of that time. The ads, editorials and news pieces helped me put authentic topics of conversation into my scenes. I also read Robert Louis Stevenson’s book about Monterey titled The Old Pacific Capital, which he wrote based on his sojourn of several months there starting in 1879.

EB: This seems to me to be very much a character-driven story. Could you imagine writing this set in the present day?

MJD: I think of Lucy’s situation as a victim of domestic abuse as being readily translatable to the present. You need look no further than the scandal swirling around NFL player Ray Rice’s treatment of his fiancée, now wife, Janay Palmer to realize that her plight has been played out continuously from Lucy’s era up to modern times. Doc’s psychology, that of a man who never felt loved by his mother and develops a deep-seated misogyny as a result, is also still with us. Clancy, as the hero of the piece who does an unpopular job and earns the animosity of many townsfolk, is the classic Gary Cooper type. I think if he could be found in our day he would be employed by a rapacious mergers and acquisitions firm. He’d be blamed for laying off lots of employees in acquired companies, but behind the scenes would actually be cutting the best deals possible for their severance packages. He’d be the fall guy for some criminal corporate malfeasance. Yes, it could definitely work.

EB: You include a lot of interesting period history in the book—Chinese culture, the bigotry against the Chinese, legal issues, faith healing, medicine, 19th century superstition, and more. It must have been quite a research process. Can you tell us a bit about that?

MJD: I got just about all of my information about the Chinese in Monterey from a terrific history, Chinese Gold by Sandy Lydon (Capitola Book Company, 1985). The sources for information on nineteenth century medicine are numerous: books accessed through the medical library at the University of California, San Diego; articles available online; and the direct help of Dr. Terry Reimer, Director of Research at the National Museum of Civil War Medicine. The Kings County, CA web site has detailed information on the conflict between grangers and the Southern Pacific Railroad that culminated in the Mussel Slough Incident. The thing about research, as you know, is that one source leads you to another and on to another, so it’s like wandering through a fantastic garden without a map. Great fun.

EB: There is a love triangle among Matt Clancy, the eviction agent, Jason Garrett, the doctor, and Lucy Talbott, the widow of the murdered man. Did you have a favorite character as a writer?

MJD: I loved writing Doc because his psychology is so complex. On the surface he’s a witty, likable fellow but under the skin he’s stone cold, petty and without any sympathy for his fellow man. I tried with all of the characters to set up ironies that would keep them from being stereotypes. Doc is supposed to be a healer, but doesn’t quail at murder. The buddy banter between Doc and his boon companion artist Adrian Fiske humanizes him, but his treatment of women is at odds with his amiable side. As the villain of the piece he had to be the equal opposite of Clancy, so he had to have his own powers of attraction and the ability to act decisively. He was a creative challenge.

EB: What was the most challenging thing about writing the book?

MJD: The ending. Without a doubt. Again, I don’t want to give away the climax, but I will say that doing what I did to Clancy broke my heart.

EB: Can you tell us about your next project?

MJD: I’m gearing up to write a sequel to Lucy Lied, one that reveals where our redhead washes up and leads on to a happy ending.

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

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Literary Ashland Radio Interviews Tod Davies

Last week on the KSKQ radio version of “Literary Ashland” Michael Niemann and I interviewed Tod Davies. You can listen here. Tod Davies is the author of Snotty Saves the Day and Lily the Silent, both from The History of Arcadia series, and the cooking memoirs Jam Today: A Diary of Cooking With What You’ve Got and Jam Today Too: The Revolution Will Not Be Catered.

And don’t miss our radio roundup of future literary events in southern Oregon, including

the latest on the Weisinger Family Winery has begun a monthly series of literary presentations featuring authors from the State of Jefferson, Friday Words and Wine. Next up: M J Daspit reads from Lucy Lied on September 19.

on September 5 from 7-8, Bloomsbury Books in Ashland, will host a reading by Port Townsend poet and memoirist, Sheila Bender, and Jonah Bornstein, of the Ashland. Sheila’s memoir, A New Theology, explores poetry as a path to healing from loss. Rumor has it that Jonah will unveil a portion of a memoir-in-progress.

Friends of the Ashland Public Library invites you to a reading by Peter Sears, Oregon Poet Laureate on Friday September 12 from 7:30-9pm in the Ashland Public Library. Free and open to the public, Sears will read from his book, Small Talk: New and Selected Poems published by Lynx House Press in 2014. Chautauqua Poets & Writers invites you to a workshop by Peter Sears, Oregon Poet Laureate called “Ways of Revising” Saturday, September 13, 2014, 9:30 to 11:30 am at the Ashland Public Library. The Cost: $20 and it’s limited to limit: 20 participants.

And don’t forget the Ashland Book and Author Festival, September 20 at the SOU Hannon Library.

We’d like to recognize the passing of Kay Atwood who died on May 26 this year in Ashland, Oregon. Atwood was much loved for her scholarship and writings on regional history. Her many works include Illahe: the story of the Rogue River Canyon, Blossoms and Branches: A Gathering of Rogue Valley Orchard Memories and Mill Creek Journal, a history of Ashland, Oregon. Atwood’s last work was Chaining Oregon published in 2008.

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An Interview with Mary Z. Maher and Alan Armstrong

In their just-released book Oregon Shakespeare Festival Actors: Telling the Story, Mary Z. Maher and Alan Armstrong interview a baker’s dozen Oregon Shakespeare Festival actors talking about their process and telling some behind the scene stories as well.

Mary Z. Maher has a PhD in Performance Studies from the University of Michigan, and is professor emerita at the University of Arizona in Tucson. She has written Modern Hamlets and Their Soliloquies on an AAUW fellowship, Actor Nicholas Pennell: Risking Enchantment at a residency at the Centro Studi Liguri in Italy, and Actors Talk About Shakespeare (Limelight/Applause Books). She was in the NEH seminars directed by Bernard Beckerman and Michael Goldman at the Folger Shakespeare Library and was a researcher on the Time/Life BBC’s The Shakespeare Plays series. Maher has interviewed Kevin Kline, Kenneth Branagh, Derek Jacobi, Stacy Keach, Zoe Caldwell, Martha Henry, Ben Kingsley and Simon Russell Beale, among others.

Alan Armstrong has PhD in Renaissance literature from Cornell University and served as Director of Shakespeare Studies at Southern Oregon University from 1986 until 2008. He has also been a senior scholar for the National Endowment for the Humanities national institutes for college professors at the American Shakespeare Center in Virginia and Shakespeare’s Globe Theater in London, dramaturg for seven Oregon Shakespeare Festival productions and co-editor of the journal Literature and History.

Oregon Shakespeare Festival Actors: Telling the Story is available from Wellstone Press.

EB: How did you come up with the idea this book and why did you call it Oregon Shakespeare Festival Actors: Telling the Story?

AA: Mary has done a couple of interview-based books, and once she retired to Ashland, it was natural to think about one on OSF actors. Conversations with actors had always been an essential part of the Shakespeare Studies programs I directed at SOU, and I had published interviews with Dan Donohue and Robin Goodrin Nordli. We kicked the idea around for years before the right moment—when we both had time to pursue the project—finally came. The main driver of the project, of course, was the fact that we have an extraordinarily large and talented company of actors here in Ashland, some of the best in the country. They deserve more recognition.

MM: My philosophy about titles is that they should be straightforward and should duplicate the inquiry that is going on in the mind of a Googler or an Amazon searcher: “Okay, I want a book where actors are talking about performing Shakespeare.” How about Actors Talk About Shakespeare (the title of my third book). There. You got it. Done. Actors say frequently, “My job is to tell the story.” So the actor’s goal in life can be found in the title of our book. I submitted several ideas and Alan arranged them into one neat and comprehensive title, Oregon Shakespeare Festival Actors: Telling the Story.

EB: How did you pick the actors to focus on? It must have been difficult to choose?

MM: One would think so, but it wasn’t. We’d both flirted with this book idea, and when push came to shove, we decided to meet for coffee on the Starbucks on campus, and each was to bring a list of a dozen actors. It was astonishing how close we were. Even wilder was that we split the list in seconds, and both of us were happy with our choices. There are always a couple on your partner’s list that you were drooling to interview, but life being what it is–full of surprises–sometimes you stay jealous, and sometimes you say, “Whew. Glad I didn’t get that one.”

AA: Mary remarks in our introduction that choosing the actors was easy, in the sense that the lists we brought individually to that discussion overlapped so much that we could agree on a final list. But it was hard to settle on any list of a dozen actors, knowing that there were dozens of others we’d be just as eager to include. Practical considerations also narrowed the field. It made sense for me to interview actors I had worked with and known, in some cases for decades. We wanted a mix of veterans and new faces, and of different kinds of actors. Some of the actors we admire hadn’t been doing Shakespeare recently, or were leaving the company, or were busy with other projects. Any OSF playgoer who reads the book is likely to say, “Why isn’t X here, too? What were they thinking?” I would, too—but we couldn’t do a 600-page book. What we could do is make sure that at least twelve of those beloved actors are there, in print, forever.

EB: Who did you have in mind as the audiences for the book? OSF afficionados? Students training to be company actors? Theatre historians?

AA: All of the above. But playgoers were first in our minds. OSF has such a large and loyal and knowledgeable audience that we felt sure they would want to read a book like ours. The actors we interviewed are not just respected but loved; they have followers, who are eager to know more about their stories and their skills. At the same time, since conversations with actors have been part of my classes and symposia and NEH institutes here since the 1980s, I was very conscious of the book’s value for teachers and students—especially theatre arts students. The actors’ chapters are full of hard-earned, practical advice to those just beginning in the profession, about learning lines, building a character, handling Shakespeare’s verse, etc. And for me, the interviews are also an important contribution to theatre history. Theatre is still an ephemeral art. Any evidence that we can preserve of how theatre is made—especially the direct testimony of the actors at its heart—is priceless.

MM: This question answers itself once you have to write a book proposal. It is the premier question every writer needs to clarify at the outset of the project. Our book proposal lists as potential readers novice and wannabe actors, master actors, teachers of actors, Shakespeare buffs, retired teachers (of both theatre and literature), and those many dedicated patrons who visit the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Defining that audience also conveys a sense of the local-ness of this project. It might not sell well in New York, could pick up a few buyers at Utah Shakespeare Festival, but the truth is that our audience comes to us from the West Coast, the fans that frequent this festival. They’ve had favorite performances for years, and now that their children and their children’s children also visit the festival (or already live here and reap the benefits of fantastic artists like Michael Hume or David Kelly or Barry Kraft teaching at the high school and SOU), they are eager to hear from these gilded actors who strut and fret their hour upon the stage. The entire theater community benefits, and the actors benefit because there is now a documented career for a dozen of them, their own story told. Of course we as authors benefit—not just from the quality of the information these artists provide but from the imagination and breadth of experience they offer in the book.

EB: The interviews give a sense of just how hard the OSF actors work in preparing their roles. Were there some common themes that you identified in their process?

MM: Absolutely. We asked about training and early mentors and how each actor got the acting bug, which varies from actor to actor, something I’d noticed in my other books about Shakespeare in performance. Topics that came up regularly were how each actor handled memorizing the lines (which is vastly different if the play is by Shakespeare or by Schenkken); the amount of research done and what kinds–travel, books, film and TV-watching, seeing other actors’ versions played. Several reported on the three different performance spaces at the Festival and handling each one, also referencing directors, lighting, stage, and costume designers and valued colleagues. Most of the actors had a bias against miking the stages, a revealing dialogue, with facets I’d never thought through.

I hear lots of variety in these actors’ methods of preparing a role. This subject also has a time factor, e.g., what did the actor do in his/her earlier days; and how does s/he do it now. Role preparation depends on one’s perspective and ideas, and most importantly of all, on the playwright. Ours is a Shakespeare festival, one with a very high caliber of master actors at work with years of fruitful experience in performing classics. That is the foundation stone and true power of OSF. You don’t find this quality of acting talent across an entire cast or across the U.S.

Who could have imagined the tutorial power of Will Shakespeare? As I sat in The Cocoanuts for the fourth time this season, I couldn’t help thinking about three of our actors–Bedard, Kelly, and Tufts—as they dished up truly divine madness onstage, yet were propelled with a legacy of performing the King of Navarre and Launcelot Gobbo, Richard II and Benedick, Henry V and Puck!

AA: One common theme: there’s no single path, not just one right way, to become an accomplished actor. Each story is different, and even individual actors use all sorts of different techniques, depending on the role—whatever they can find in their toolbags to do the job. All our actors all talked about how they marked up scripts, researched a role, memorized lines, built a character, worked in the rehearsal room, spoke Shakespeare’s language, dealt with the physical demands of acting, met the vocal challenges of the Elizabethan Theatre. And on some of these points, they disagreed completely. Some actors like to have every line memorized when they walk into the first rehearsal; others don’t, because it constrains their choices. Some like to do a lot of external research for a role; others find that a distraction from the script.

All our actors talked about what it meant to be part of a repertory company, what made an ideal director, what kind of training young stage actors need (but increasingly don’t get), what opportunities when seized made all the difference to their careers.

EB: I understand there are some never-before-told behind-the-scenes moments. Can you share one or two?

AA: I’ll defer to Mary here.

MM: Once you accept that Ashland is a small town, you remember Shakespeare’s advice on this subject: “Open your ears; for which of you will stop the vent of hearing when loud Rumour speaks?” “If false or true, I know not.”
That’s telling my story and I’m sticking to it.

EB: Mary has done earlier books interviewing actors. How are the interviews in this book different from the usual question and answer format?

AA: We started out in the conventional way, with a loose set of questions (focused especially on actor process), which we expected to be part of the book. But the interviews themselves made us start doubting the wisdom of the traditional format. Each of us, independently, remarked that our questions actually seemed to interrupt the flow of the interviews and disrupt the actor’s train of thought—not always a straightforward track, but always an interesting and illuminating one. I mentioned one day that all that was really required of us, at this stage, was to turn on the tape recorder and let the actors’ words flow. That’s an exaggeration, of course, but Mary and I both learned as we went along not to worry about “getting through our list” of questions so much as turning to them as prompts when the vein ran dry. But that didn’t happen often. Somewhere in the midst of our interviewing I ran across Holly Hill’s Actors’ Lives, which prompted us to wonder whether we, too, couldn’t in some way sieve out the questions and keep only the answers. Eventually, that’s what we did, by crafting the interview material into chapters or essays in the actor’s voice. That required cutting and some re-arranging—nobody’s conversation is perfectly linear and thematically organized—but the result was something that expressed better than a Q&A format what actors actually had to tell us about how they do their jobs.

MM: I’ve never used the question-and-answer format in any of my books because that method never tells the full story.

I’ve interviewed a number of hallmark actors–Kevin Kline, Derek Jacobi, Ben Kingsley, Kenneth Branagh, Stacy Keach–but I’ve never felt that a book about the subject of performance was comparable to the kind of feature you see in The Sunday Times Magazine. For one thing, the language actors use when talking about process is esoteric and abstract and often needs clarification for a reader who likes to explore this subject. The material needs context and framing throughout the chapters. People assume that an author does this very simple thing: asks people questions; writes the answers down. That part is actually the simplest and the most fun but far, far away from an effective, finished product.

I’ve used a number of formats, and I think Actors Talk About Shakespeare and Modern Hamlets and their Soliloquies guide the reader carefully through the interviewee’s methodologies and choices, but those books took years to write. There is a phrase you will hear once an actor has outlined how s/he actually works, how s/he completes the job: “That’s my aesthetic.” This pronouncement already tells you that there are several ways to shape a performance, and that each individual actor has figured out what works for him/her. As an interviewer, you accept that and you honor all those methods. In the actors we chose, the performance is proof of the actor’s process.

EB: Can we hope for more interviews in the future, perhaps a sequel?

MM: One hopes so. It really is too soon to tell.

AA: Certainly there are many more OSF actors whose voices and stories should be heard. But at the moment I’m satisfied to have had a part in capturing twelve of them. I’ve got other projects in the fire now—an essay related to the book, about using contemporary actors as evidence; an essay on doubling of roles in The Comedy of Errors; and another on Prospero’s hat. But first I’m going to spend some time in my kayak.

EB: What surprised you most in the course of the interviews?

MM: I was surprised and delighted at how many actors responded positively. Not just in terms of all of the individual personalities that a company brings to the table, but the eagerness with which each spoke, and how freely they wanted to share their work creating characters–the whole idea of process within the actor’s art form. These are consummate artists and wonderful story tellers. Even their most outrageous moments onstage were often divine inspiration. We sought to capture both the artist and the artist’s voice, which was truly the crux of the project and demanded discipline, judgment and many conversations about what would work in the book.

Two other story tellers, actor Stacy Keach, an alumnus of OSF, and playwright Robert Schenkkan surprised us both with lovely testimonials for the book’s cover.

AA: Not so much what the actors had to say—because I’ve worked with all but one in the rehearsal room, so I went into the interviews knowing something about them and about their processes, and that’s what we wanted to share with our book’s readers. What did surprise me was their saying that they rarely got the chance to really talk, reflectively and candidly, about how they do what they do. They talk to groups of playgoers or students about their roles, or about the plays they’re in. But the invitation to speak directly about the mysteries of their craft, to try to explain what happens when they’re up there on stage, and all the preparation that goes into making it happen—that’s an opportunity they really welcomed. And that confirms my original conviction that each of these actors is a kind of neglected treasure. As a Shakespeare scholar I’m conscious of the gaps and omissions in our knowledge of how Shakespeare’s plays were acted originally. I hope these interviews will make it easier for someone a hundred years from now to understand the theatre that existed in this moment in this place.

EB: What was the writing and planning process like?

MM: Frankly, we just dove in. I know 10 minutes into an interview whether or not the information is rich, like running your fingers through gold coins. All of these were.

In retrospect, we could have been a bit more cautious about stylistics from the get-go. But Alan turned out to be the Mastermind of Proofreading and shepherded that whole phase through the mire. You never forget that you learn how to write a book by writing the book.

We were forging a new process in removing the authors from the story on the page. That meant we were learning as we journeyed through our own process. Some actors were surprised to see that they were the single public voices in the book. But our outside readers adapted very quickly and with positive responses, so we were relieved that it was working. That did not, however, eliminate our own learning curve—but it certainly sharpened it.

AA: Long, sporadic at first, and always invigorating. We figured out the details, solved the problems, as we went forward. The last six months have been the hardest, pushing toward publication. Earlier, the interviewing was certainly time-consuming, 3-4 hours with each actor (never failing to appreciate that 3-4 hours of their time was a greater gift to us). Transcribing those interviews was incredible donkey work. Imagine how long it would take just to get down correctly the 30,000 words of one interview—and each of us had six to do. My wife, whose sociological research involves a lot of interviewing, kept asking me why I didn’t just pay someone to do the transcriptions. But the kind of intense listening I had to do just to get the words down is what really got the interviews—and especially the actors’ voices—into my head. And that’s what I needed for the next phase, which was arduous in a different way: distilling those 30,000 words into the 7500 or so that would represent, e.g., Danforth Comins. Our focus on actor process guided our choices in this phase, but it was still hard to cut the interviews. I can assure you that Danforth didn’t speak 22,400 boring or irrelevant words to me, words that I could just throw out without thinking. At each stage of editing, pruning was hard, because we had to sacrifice good stuff—e.g., Danforth’s account of his film work—in the interest of even better stuff, like how he prepared to play Hamlet for the second time. When we thought we had done this job as well as we could—at around nine or ten thousand words per interview—it turned out that we were really just beginning the hard work of editing. It took several more rounds of agonizing edits to make the chapters that you’ll find in the printed book. It was a challenge to keep seeing the interviews with a fresh eye, to imagine yourself a reader coming to each chapter for the first time.

EB: Do you edit each other’s work? Fight over commas?

AA: We did read each other’s interviews and make suggestions, but I don’t think either of us is dogmatic enough to have started a comma war. We’re both professionally trained to recognize that grammar and punctuation and syntax and style are often about conventions and preferences, not absolute rules. So we expected that our “rules” and preferences would differ, and that Mary’s interviews would have a different style of punctuation from mine (how much we used dashes or semicolons, or how we chose to emphasize words—italics? boldface type? capitals?). We were able to negotiate conspicuous differences, thinking mostly about how our choices would affect readers. No accent mark in Moliere, for instance, or footnotes, or citations—it’s an informal book. What made editing easier was a special circumstance of this book: we weren’t trying to impose our individual styles and voices. What we both were trying to do was to capture the actors’ individual voices—their rhythms, their vocabularies, their conversational styles. That goal trumped grammar and punctuation. We didn’t want to be “correct”; we wanted you to hear those voices in your head as you read the interviews, as we heard them when the tape recorder was rolling. I realized just now that I was starting to channel Jonathan Haugen there, except that he would have said: “We didn’t want to be correct. #%$!@&* correctness! Who cares? We just wanted you to hear those voices.”

MM: We fought over virgules (Alan won) and we fought together for colons, which neither of us won.
And yes, we edit one another’s work. You really have to, or you lose perspective if you only write in your own little cubbyhole all year long. I value Alan’s suggestions very much, and I suspect I am a different kind of editor to him than he is to me. I am sure that we both benefit greatly from one another’s point of view. The editing process is hugely long and complicated, and we pride ourselves on having a sense of decorum and even a sense of wonder about the quality of the material we got in interview.

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

AA: Thanks, Ed—always a pleasure to talk with you.

MM: Thanks.

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Literary Ashland on the radio

Robert Arellano, Ed Battistella and Michael Niemann at KSKQ

Last week Literary Ashland teamed up with KSKQ community radio in Ashland to broadcast the Literary Ashland radio show. A monthly round up of literary events in the Rogue Valley together with an interview. Our first guest was Robert Arellano, a 2014 Literary Arts Fellow and author of Curse the Names and several other books.

Listen to the first show here and find out about Arellano’s “Dinner at Omar’s” and more:

Robert Arellano at KSKQ

Some of the upcoming events are:

•Ashland Book and Author Fair, September 20 at SOU’s Hannon Library (application deadline August 1)

•Friday Words and Wine (3rd or 4th Friday of the month) with Molly Best Tinsley, Broken Angels, Aug. 22

•Barking Moon Farm in the Applegate is hosting a benefit reading with a lineup of 14 writers on August 16th reading short selections from their work. All proceeds will go to Rogue Advocates, a local organization dedicated to preserving open space and productive farmland.

And congratulations to our friends in the mainstream media. The Medford Mail Tribune finished first in General Excellence and won 29 other awards in the Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association’s 2014 contest. The Mail Tribune‘s sister publication, the Ashland Daily Tidings, claimed eight awards in the daily division of 10,000 circulation or less.

At the control board

On the air

Photos courtesy of Maureen Flanagan.

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An Interview with Michael Baughman

Michael Baugman, with his grandson Billy and a zombie friend

Michael Baughman, a freelance writer, has contributed to Evergreen Review, Sports Illustrated, National Wildlife, Honolulu Magazine, and many other publications. He is an emeritus professor of English at southern Oregon University and the author of Boat: A Memoir of Friendship (Arcade Publishing, 2012), A River Seen Right: A Fly Fisherman’s North Umpqua (Lyons Press, 1995), Mohawk Blood (Lyons Press, 1995), and (with Charlotte Hadella) Warm Springs Millennium: Voices from the Reservation (University of Texas Press, 2000). His latest book is Money Sucks: A Memoir on Why Too Much or Too Little Can Ruin You (Skyhorse Publishing 2014).

EB: Why did you write this book? Did you have a particular goal or audience in mind?

MB: Unless I have an assignment from a magazine or newspaper, I never have an audience in mind, so I suppose that makes most of my writing largely self-indulgent. For me writing books is a way to force myself to deal with an idea, an issue, a problem, a place. The goal is to produce something that seems to make sense, to clarify something, to work as writing. The typical American obsession with money – making it, spending it, wasting it – has fascinated me since I was a child.

EB: You also wrote Money Sucks for your grandson. What was his response when he read it?

MB: My grandson Billy called me from Denver late one night to tell me he’d read the book straight through and liked it very much. We’re close, so of course he wouldn’t have admitted he didn’t like it, but I believed him.

EB: What do you suppose shaped your attitudes toward money the most—having enough or not having enough?

MB: Three things come to mind:

I think a frantic quest for money ruined my father’s life. He was a successful businessman who, despite his success, was never satisfied. He could never stay in the same job, or town, or house, or apartment very long. When I was a schoolboy between the ages of ten and seventeen we moved from Pennsylvania to Texas to California to Hawaii and back to California again. But he never found happiness, or even satisfaction, and smoked and drank himself to death at age sixty-one.

At Punahou, an expensive private prep school in Honolulu, I established friendships with many boys and girls who were either born rich or became rich, and these friendships have lasted more than sixty years. Some of these men and women are fine people, but I’ve seen nothing in any of them that suggests they’re more satisfied with their lives than most middle-class people I’ve known. In fact, the miseries of the rich are often phenomenal.

After dropping out of college I bummed around the country: forty-eight states in a year-and-a-half, working odd jobs and sometimes homeless. True poverty is horrible, but I found that so-called working class people often seemed like more substantial human beings than the very rich.

EB: One lesson of the book is that there is more to a good life than money. How would you characterize a good life?

MB: As I tried to suggest in the book to Billy: live in a place you want to be, and do work you truly want to do. The Hawaiian beachboys I knew growing up were the happiest group of people I’ve ever seen.

EB: What should we be teaching about money in the schools? If you were designing a personal finance curriculum, what would it be?

MB: I’m not sure exactly what we should be teaching. What I am sure of is that what Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in Democracy in America remains true today: “As one digs deeper into the national character of the Americans, one sees that they have sought the value of everything in this world only in the answer to this single question: how much money will it bring in?”
So I suppose schools should expose students to such sentiments, and the exposure should lead to serious discussion and thought.

EB: I once heard someone characterize having too much concern for money as hoarding. Would you agree?

MB: I’ve known money hoarders, such as the couple I call “The Texans” in the book. They hate to spend it, but they love having it. That strikes me as a form of mental illness. Also in the book, I quote a retired CEO who surprisingly admits that the pay received by CEOs is obscene, and that competition is at the heart of the grotesque ratio between CEO compensation and average worker pay. If the boss at Corporation A gets twenty million a year, the boss at Corporation B wants twenty-five. That’s a form of mental illness too.

EB: Have you heard from any of the folks you profiled? Rich and not so rich? What did they think?

MB: I’ve heard from some of the not-so-rich. They were all right with the book. I sent the retired CEO a copy, but, even though I quoted him accurately, I never heard back from him. That doesn’t surprise me.

EB: It was interesting for me to learn about your work as a professional writer for Sports Illustrated and other publications. How is that writing different than the academic writing that we teach students?

MB: I was a Special Contributor at Sports Illustrated for several years, and wrote mostly on outdoor and environmental subjects. I think I was covering significant material that SI readers wouldn’t normally have been exposed to. Nowadays the magazine is pretty much for hard sports only. I don’t like to distinguish between different kinds of writing. All writing should be clear, economical and well organized, and it should deal with a significant and/or interesting subject.

EB: You also spend some time in the book discussing sports and athletics. What is their role in education?

MB: I played major college football, and I don’t have anything good to say about big-time college sports in general. Just as there are fine people among the rich, there are fine young men and women among college athletes – but the sports programs at the big schools are ridiculously overemphasized. I don’t see how anybody could deny it. And here we are back with money. Look what happened at Penn State. The sexual abuse of children was tolerated for years because of the money earned for the school by the football program.

EB: You are officially retired from academe, yet you continue to write. Does one ever retire from being a writer?

MB: I can’t not write, and I’ve been writing more than ever since I retired. It’s a necessary part of the day for me, as necessary as anything I do.

EB: What’s your next writing project?

MB: I have a novel coming out next spring, tentatively titled Growers Market. It’s about combat veterans growing illegal marijuana, with many subplots included. I’m working on another novel now, and also on an Afterword for a new edition of A River Seen Right.

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

MB: Trying to answer questions about my own work gives me a better understanding of what I’ve done. Thank you.

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An Interview with Diana Maltz

Dr. Diana Maltz is a specialist in late-Victorian literature and culture. She has been a professor at SOU since 1999 and served as Chair of the Language, Literature, and Philosophy Department. Dr. Maltz received her BA in Literature and History from Bennington College, and both her MA and PhD in English from Stanford University. In addition to about twenty published essays and articles, she is the author of British Aestheticism and the Urban Working Classes: Beauty for the People, 1870-1914, published in 2006 by Palgrave Macmillan. She is recently back from a UK-US Fulbright Fellowship in England and we sat down to talk about her new book, a critical edition of Arthur Morrison’s A Child of the Jago, published by Broadview Press this past fall.

EB: What is A Child of the Jago about?

DM: This Victorian novel tells the story of Dicky Perrott, a boy growing up in the Jago, a squalid, impoverished, violent slum, based on the notorious Old Nichol in London’s East End. Dicky acclimates to the ethics of the Jago and becomes a skilled thief, working for the neighborhood fence and dreaming of his ultimate ascent into the High Mob. But he also has leanings toward respectability, and these are cultivated by the local priest who would save him from Jago ways.

EB: How did you get interested in Morrison?

DM: I was lucky enough to study Morrison’s Jago and some of his short stories as a grad student in the mid-1990s. Peter Miles’s excellent paperback edition of Jago had just come out through Dent/Everyman in 1995. I like to think my cohort was the first generation to read Jago in a classroom setting. Everyone was very struck by the novel. Several friends from that class teach it now that they are professors.

EB: So you committed yourself to a critical edition of it. What is a critical edition, exactly?

DM: In a critical edition, an editor frames the original novel with a critical introduction, a timeline of the author’s life, footnotes to clarify terms in the main text of the novel, and a bibliography of recommended readings. Sometimes editors include maps and illustrations. If the novel is written in a dialect unfamiliar to the general reader, the editor might add a glossary, as I did. An editor of a critical edition also works to even out variations in spelling or correct typos through “silent edits.”

Many of us are familiar with the Penguin Classics editions from college: these are standard critical editions. However, the Broadview Editions are special because the end of each edition includes cultural appendices, which are excerpts from relevant texts written around the same time as the novel. These include reviews of the novel, but they also extend to thematic writings beyond it. Depending on the novel, you might find a mix of religious tracts, medical treatises, or parliamentary reports, just to name a few.

For A Child of the Jago, I built up a selection of appendices relevant to slum life. I underlined the topics that haunt the novel and that preoccupied Victorian social reformers seeking to cleanse and reform the city: eugenics, hooliganism, women’s sweated labor. I also documented late-Victorian efforts in cultural philanthropy – that is, efforts to teach slum-dwellers higher values and tastes. These charitable schemes are parodied in the novel.

What in particular prompted you to develop Jago as a critical edition?

DM: I started teaching it my first year at SOU in 1999. By then, the only available edition was the Academy Chicago edition, which is very bare-bones: no footnotes, no appendices, only one map, a very short biographical introduction, and a short bibliography of recommended readings at the end. I started bringing in my own additional texts to class as teaching supplements: photos, maps, non-fictional testimonies about the neighborhood. These would later form the basis of some of the cultural appendices of my edition.

It seemed the natural next step to write to Broadview and ask if I could do an edition of the novel for them.

EB: Who is the audience for the work? It seems ideally suited for classroom use.

DM: Yes, Broadview Editions are marketed as teaching editions, primarily for the undergraduate classroom. One of the most positive aspects of the experience was that SOU awarded me a President’s Mini-Grant through which I was able to hire an SOU student, Carly Dreyfus, as an editorial assistant. Carly was a tremendous help. She gave me insights into what modern student readers would want footnoted and what they would find interesting as appendices.

EB: How does A Child of the Jago compare with other slum literature?

DM: We can situate A Child of the Jago in a couple of literary and social contexts. It frequently gets allied with the late-nineteenth-century literary movement called Naturalism, famously advanced by the French novelist Émile Zola. Zola was interested in the dire combination of industrial urbanism, poverty, addiction, and violence. He framed Naturalism as a kind of literary science that sought to represent the lowlife methodically and objectively.

But Morrison was himself very resistant to being pulled under the umbrella of any one movement. In fact, my edition includes his Preface to the Third Edition of Jago, where he upbraids a critic H.D. Traill for labeling him as a “Realist” and for then saying his Jago is too foul to be genuinely realistic. Morrison found himself at the center of a public debate – trying to defend his creative practices as an artist while also asserting the truthfulness of his representation of the Old Nichol slum.

In the 1890s, there was also a small school of writers who were experimenting with writing phonetically on the page in order to recreate Cockney speech. They included Morrison, Somerset Maugham, Rudyard Kipling, and other authors who are largely neglected today, such as Edwin Pugh, William Pett Ridge, and Richard Whiteing. Morrison also tends to get paired with the English novelist George Gissing because both wrote on London poverty, and certain aspects of Morrison’s Jago resonate with Gissing’s earlier novel The Nether World (1889).

EB: What was the most challenging thing about preparing the work?

DM: I was intent on selecting appendices that professors would really want, and so I sent out a survey to about 20 people who teach the novel. I included my provisional table of contents in the email, urging colleagues to suggest additions and also replacements for my original texts. Everyone had new appendices to suggest, but no one questioned my original choices. So the appendices ballooned. At one point, I had written introductions to about 40 of them, and then I bit the bullet and emailed my editor to ask what my allotted word count was for that section of the book. I had more than double the permitted word count! So I spent a very dark January hacking away at my sources and reducing the appendices to 20 sources.

But in the long run, it was a very good thing that I did ask people, since I arrived at more diverse and interesting selections than I would have on my own. Professor-friends gave me permission forego more predictable, canonical sources in order to make space for lesser-known writers. I have more texts by women than I originally included. I have two excerpts from the oral history of Arthur Harding, a gangster and ex-con who had grown up in the original Old Nichol slum. The Hardings were a notoriously powerful local family, something like the feuding gang families of Ranns and Learys in the novel.

EB: Tell us a bit about Arthur Morrison. He seems to have been quite a colorful character—a journalist, novelist and art collector. He even wrote detective fiction—he’s been compared to Arthur Conan Doyle.

DM: Morrison was by all accounts a shy, reserved person who kept a low profile. He grew up in the respectable working class in Poplar, East London: his father, an engine fitter at the docks, contracted tuberculosis and died just before Morrison turned eight. Morrison’s mother then took on the management of her mother’s sewing goods shop (“haberdashery” in British English). Morrison went to local schools and, as a teenager, left school to work as an office boy for an architect for the London School Board. He rose to the status of Third-Class Clerk before he left in 1886. His next job was as a secretary to the Beaumont Institute, which administered the People’s Palace, a philanthropic cultural center in the East End. While working for the People’s Palace, Morrison served as sub-editor of The Palace Journal and published short sketches there about London life.

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Morrison’s biography for the modern reader is his reticence about his working-class roots. When Traill and others questioned his representation of the Jago, he might have silenced them by asserting his identity as an East Ender, but he did not. In my book introduction, I suggest at least a couple of reasons for his reserve. First, his home neighborhood of Poplar was at least a 45-minute walk from the Old Nichol. So Morrison never identified with his Nichol subjects at all, but positioned himself as an observer, recording their ways almost anthropologically. Morrison’s further silences and prevarications in other contexts — during author interviews and census investigations — indicate a general reluctance to confess his working-class origins. But we shouldn’t consider this mere snobbery on his part: it was the survival strategy of an author trying to make his way in late-Victorian culture. He had a wife and child at home, and, given that he was a self-employed writer, his class position was a vulnerable one.

He had begun his writing career by contributing columns to magazines. To be a good journalist and earn a living by his pen, he had to be versatile. The detective fictions you mention were a lucrative venture, especially since he began his most famous series, the Martin Hewitt stories, in the wake of Sherlock Holmes’s descent over Niagara Falls. He did so at the urging of his editor, who saw there was a new gap in the market. His detective fictions have a following among readers today.

Morrison had grown up close to the docks of East London, where curio shops sold items from the Far East. He collected prints and paintings from Japan long before they were valued as rarities. He eventually gained prominence as an authority of Asian art, especially after publishing The Painters of Japan in 1911. The sales of his collections were the basis of his fortune – not his royalties from fiction writing. He worked as an art consultant (and unofficially as an art dealer) long after he ceased writing slum fictions.

EB: Was Jago controversial? Well-received?

DM: The novel was controversial and well-received. It went through several editions relatively quickly. But the critic Traill was not the only one irked by Morrison’s representation of the Jago. Morrison’s fictional slum is the site of vivid brutality, with spontaneous outbreaks of large-scale gang violence. Crowds rampage through the streets brandishing street railings and pokers as weapons. Women and children join in the fighting. One female character gnaws the napes of her victims like a dog; another uses a broken bottle to slash the face of her enemy. The actual residents of the Old Nichol slum and several philanthropists and school administrators at work there took umbrage at this portrait of their district as a zone of barbarity. Morrison’s friend and mentor, the local minister, Rev. Arthur Osborne Jay, felt compelled to back up Morrison’s claims in a letter to the press. It had been Jay who invited Morrison to visit the slum in 1894 and who urged him to write on it. In my footnotes, I trace places where Morrison seems to draw on Jay’s own published writings for statistical information and anecdotes.

The verdict today is that Morrison was selective in the facts that he appropriated for the book. It is true that there were terrible street fights and clearly some historical figures were violent alcoholics whom the locals feared and avoided. Like Dicky, children did steal tobacco off the back of vans (“van-dragging”). But Morrison omitted the presence of civilized institutions within the boundaries of the slum: a savings bank, a cloth warehouse, schools, chapels, and a strong network of charitable organizations serving the community. One philanthropist provided children with country holidays away from the city. There was an active association for tenants’ rights, which sought to expose absentee slumlords. Morrison ignores all of these in order to portray the slum as hopeless and impermeable by the wider society and, in some scenes, he represents the inhabitants as unselfconscious, atomistic, and avaricious.

In her excellent history of the Old Nichol, The Blackest Streets (2008), Sarah Wise also notes that by the time Morrison arrived on the scene to research and write his novel, demolitions had already begun on the slum and the social fabric of the neighborhood had been transformed. Original residents had moved away and squatters had arrived from other parts of the city to camp in the buildings about to be torn down, in the hope that they could get compensation from the London County Council. So, in essence, Morrison was recording a moment that had already passed into history.

EB: I know that the book has a lot of interesting slang.

DM: Yes, this novel is unusually immersive: it pulls you into its own universe because of the intensity and allure and comprehensiveness of the Jagos’ language. My students talk about getting “into it.”

For instance, in one passage in the book, the High Mobsmen have gathered to lay odds on a neighborhood fistfight, and the locals identify each Mobsman by his crimes: “Him as done the sparks in from Regent Street for nine centuries o’ quids” [the man who stole the diamonds from Regent Street for £900]; “Him as done five stretch for a snide bank bill an’ they never found the oof” [the man who served five years in prison for a counterfeit bank check and they never found the money]; “Him as maced the bookies in France an’ shot the nark in the boat” [the man who swindled the bookmakers in France and shot the informer in the boat (probably the channel boat back to England)]. These lines are pretty intensely Jago and denser than most. But it is almost uncanny how only a few pages into the book readers almost-unconsciously acquire enough fluency to read along in a gallop (although the footnotes help!).

One of the great early lines in the novel occurs when Dicky’s mother warns him that if he steals, he will be arrested and sent to prison. He dismisses her, saying, “It’s the mugs wot git took” (it’s the fools that get caught).

While I was working on the edition, I used to joke that I was “in the Jago,” and like Dicky, I might never get out. But one of the pleasures of being in the Jago was that I had people to talk to who were just as absorbed in the book as I was. My editor in Canada and I never met, only communicated by email, but I loved that someone else was deep in details of the novel with me and wanted to produce the best possible edition of it.

EB: Can you tell us more about the slang?

DM: Many of the 600+ footnotes define Cockney terms and thieves’ cant in the novel. I am going to leave you with a few words and phrases to share with friends in the hope that we will all be talking broad Jago one day.

    Peter-claimer: a thief who steals luggage from train platforms
    Snidesman: a counterfeiter
    Lob-crawler: a thief who robs the cash register
    Click: robbery
    Yannups: money
    Hook: a pickpocket
    Toy and tackle: a watch with its chain
    Pogue-hunter: pickpocket dealing in purses
    To flimp: to steal by having one person bump into the victim from the back, while another robs him from the front
    In stir: in prison
    To cut one’s lucky: to make a getaway

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

DM: Thank you.

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