An Interview with Joe Biel, author of A People’s Guide to Publishing

Joe Biel is a self-made autistic publisher and filmmaker who draws origins, inspiration, and methods from punk rock. He is the founder/manager of Microcosm Publishing and co-founder of the Portland Zine Symposium. He has been featured in Time Magazine, Publisher’s Weekly, Art of Autism, Utne Reader, Oregonian, Broken Pencil, Punk Planet, Bulletproof Radio, Spectator (Japan), G33K (Korea), and Maximum Rocknroll. He is the author of A People’s Guide to Publishing: Building a Successful, Sustainable, Meaningful Book Business, Good Trouble: Building a Successful Life & Business on the Spectrum, Manspressions: Decoding Men’s Behavior, Make a Zine, The CIA Makes Science Fiction Unexciting, Proud to be Retarded, Bicycle Culture Rising, and more.

He is the director of five feature films and hundreds of short films, including Aftermass: Bicycling in a Post-Critical Mass Portland, $100 & A T-Shirt, and the Groundswell film series.

The Journal of Adolescent & Adult Literacy described Biel as “not trained in pedagogy.” He lives in Portland, Oregon and his work can be found at

Ed Battistella:
What is A People’s Guide to Publishing?

Joe Biel: After twenty years of publishing, I met Sidnee Grubb, who is one of the smartest and most promising young people that I’ve ever met. In fact, she’s two months younger than Microcosm! She completed an internship here and asked what to read to further her publishing education. I thought long and hard about this and ultimately felt like all of the books were outdated, too academic/jargonified, or promising to teach how to get rich quick on Amazon. It made me really sad to think that if I was getting started today—despite millions of books in print—there wasn’t a single definitive book written about publishing written in plain language. So I wrote one for Sidnee because I saw so much promise in her.

EB: What prompted you to write the book?  There is plenty of nitty-gritty detail—about covers and book design, margins and printers, sales, contracts, fulfillment and more.  But you also talk about having a mission and a vision. How important is that?

JB: Around the same time that I met Sidnee, I had just read Publishing for Profit, which is truly an excellent book. Unfortunately, if I hadn’t been publishing for 20 years, there is no way that I could have made sense of what the author is saying in it. It’s very complicated. I wanted to make publishing sound as simple as possible. Publishing is very contextual and there are many moving parts but very little changes quickly and I feel like there is still great opportunity—more than ever—for new small presses to thrive and carve out their own microcosms. And I think you’re astute to notice that mission and vision is why small presses and midlists are growing and thriving now while the market share of the majors is shrinking. There is a strange aversion to having politics in publishing as the rest of the world is increasingly politicized. I think this is a tremendous misstep.

EB: You mention something called “long-tail development”.  What is that?

JB: After overprinting, the number two mistake that I see in publishing is creating a book that will appear outdated in a few months or a year. Most book sales resemble a half sine wave and the greatest sales are in the first three months with sales hovering around zero after a year. Small presses shouldn’t be publishing current events books like Fire and Fury. We need to be focusing on evergreen books that will be just as relevant in two years, five years, and two decades. Another trick here is to publish books that you can introduce to multiple markets, from trade to gift to special sales to mass market to international to digital. If you follow my advice and ensure that there is sufficient interest and lack of competition, it’s very easy to launch a series of long-tail titles that sell each other.

EB: You also discuss the future of publishing.  How do you see that? What’s the role of small independent publishers?

JB: This is about the cheeriest news that I found in all of my research: the future of publishing belongs to the small press. If you pick a niche that isn’t occupied following my formulas, there is tremendous room to grow and own that platform. From all of the data it appears that the role of major houses will increasingly become solely about buying rights for books that are already successful and outside of the bounds of a midlist or small press. Increasingly, the role of the small press is to take chances, do interesting things, create trends, and change the world.

EB: You’ve been in publishing now for almost twenty-five years.  What’s your favorite thing about the business? Your least favorite thing?

JB: I still really enjoy group development sessions and editorial meetings. I involve the whole staff, including the warehouse and the warehouse workers always have the best editorial, marketing, and development ideas. I do find the increasing volume of paperwork and corporatization as well as the resulting demands of the industry to be tedious, pointless, and migraine inducing. When I was a kid I hated corporations because I was a punk rocker and that was en vogue. Now I have substance and specifics that I can point to explain how those has effectively crippled the industry across Sidnee’s lifetime.

EB: If you were to give new publishers one word of advice, what would it be?

JB: Develop.

EB: Thanks for talking with us. I’m looking forward to using the book with students!

JB: Wonderful! Thanks so much for believing in this book! We had to delay publication three times because I kept missing my deadlines. I was too busy publishing!

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Women in Writing and the Literary Arts Gap, a guest post by Kelley Lusk

Kelley Lusk is a McNair Scholar majoring in English with a minor in vocal music at SOU. Kelley anticipates graduating magna cum laude in June 2019 with plans to teach English as a foreign language abroad.

Women in Writing and the Literary Arts Gap

The experiences of women, historically, have always been shaped by their gender along with the intersections of their class and race. By the 19th century, the concept of reform for white women became a salient topic in everyday urban life and journalism. Due to the shifts in views during this time, women began to take on larger roles in society outside the sphere of the home and project their voices through their writing. Throughout the progression of women’s writing from the 19th century to the present-day 21st century, women writers have always been subject to unethical and oppressive male critiques and a disproportionate lack of representation compared to their male counterparts. Since the 19th century, women writers have gained more respect and recognition, however, they are still subject to male criticism and gender inequality within the industry.

When considering women’s rights movements, it’s important to review the first female social reform that took place near the end of the 19th century. According to Sally Ledger, in “The New Women: Fiction and Feminism at the Fin De Siecle” the concept of the New Woman is a term that emerged during the turn of the century, and refers to an independent woman seeking radical change and pushing the limits set by the male-dominated society. More specifically, a woman with multiple identities, “She was variously, a feminist activist, a social reformer, a popular novelist, a suffragette playwright, a woman poet; she was often a discursive response to the activities of the late nineteenth-century women’s movement” (Ledger 1). The New Woman writers used their voices to incite changes in the unjust position of white women in society. Even though this first wave of feminist activism began as an abolitionist movement driven by the black women’s collective feminist consciousness – the New Women writers agenda excluded black women. The movement concluded with the suffragists’ successful passing of the Nineteenth Amendment; this amendment won white women the right to vote.

An example of a 19th century New Woman, is Fanny Fern, an American novelist and columnist who confronted issues of women’s rights and male domination by using humor. Fanny Fern was the pseudonym for Sara Willis, but also the name that she began to go by in everyday life. In her work Critics and Male Criticism on Ladies Books, she satirically criticises male authors and their the unjust and damaging criticism towards women authors (Lauter 2468). Eventually, gaining the respect of the male critic, Nathaniel Hawthorne, who in 1830 stated in his work Mrs. Hutchinson, “The hastiest glance may show, how much of the texture and body of the cisatlantic literature is the work of those slender fingers, from which only a light and fanciful embroidery has heretofore been required, ” hence arguing that for women writers, there had been no change in their status and writing since the 17th century (Howell 23). While Fanny Fern was one of the most powerful female writers of the time addressing gender inequality issues, it was largely only accessible for the white middle class woman.

In 1861, Harriet Jacobs published Incidents of the Life of a Slave Girl, under the pseudonym of Linda Brent. This work addresses her experiences of sexual exploitation, mistreatment from slave owners, family relations, and her journey to freedom for herself and her children. The pseudonym was used in order to appeal to the white audience, and to hide her identity. Keeping her identity hidden was necessary due to the fact that she was subject not only to male criticism, but criticism from the entire white population. As Howell explains, “For most women writers at the time, the mere act of ‘picking up a pen’ held a great significance, but Jacobs challenged what was feared in order to reveal the corruption…” (24). For all women writers during this time, including Fanny Fern and Harriet Jacobs, the use of a pseudonym was common practice, but while they used feminine pen names for different reasons, other women authors felt obligated to use masculine pseudonyms in order to gain recognition. For instance, Louisa May Alcott’s Little Woman, was published under the ambiguous pen name A. M. Barnard in order to be taken seriously. Mary Ann Evans published her work Silly Novels by Lady Novelists, under the pseudonym George Eliot in order to distance herself from her critiques that call out fellow women writers for their formulaic romance novels.

By the 20th century, Karen Oosterhous a publisher at Firebrand Books explained the real reason that keeps women from expanding outside those expected genres, such as romance, “…the old cliche goes that women write romance novels and books about cooking and men write spy thrillers, and if women want to succeed at least financially, they often are forced to stick to that field” (Foster 30). The lack of representation of women in any other field except romance and cooking made it difficult for women to break out of of those genres. Oosterhous also explained that reviewers only want  to review books that they believe are of interest to their readers. This is problematic because not only are a majority of reviewers male, which automatically creates a bias, but reviewers also tend to “shy away from books that may be controversial or that relate to only a segment of the population. I think that books like that, books about feminist or the gay experience, have something for everyone, but many reviewers don’t think so” (Foster 54). These magalized stories, such as the gay experience or stories of different cultures and people of color, haven’t been taking seriously by the majority audience, which only leads to further marginalization. This, in part, could be helped by the reviewers expanding beyond the norm. Reviews are very essential for books and authors, especially ones being published by smaller presses (Foster 33). Today, the amount of competition out there is intense, and simply having a quote from a major reviewer, like the New York Times, can set a book apart from all the others.  

However, it is also important to acknowledge that during the 20th century some of the greatest advancements in the feminist movement were made because of women authors like, Simone de Beauvoir, Sylvia Plath, Maya Angelou, Audre Lorde and Virginia Woolf, just to name a few. In “Publishing the Patriarchy: Reviewers in the White, Western Tradition Still Exclude and Trivialize Women Writers,” Chloe Foster explains that “In 1929, Virginia Woolf, the emblematic face of the female literary triumph, set out to unearth the reasons why her generation and the women before her, did not practice the craft of writing” (Foster 30). What she along with many other feminist have concluded is that “…women were prohibited from entering traditional male institutions and were regulated to childbearing and rearing, and because of this, women could not penetrate the elite world of the male literary property” (30). Because women were only represented as, and taught to be, domestic, they weren’t allowed any room to believe they could be capable of more. Further, not having anyone like yourself represented in a field that you are interested in, leads one to believe that someone like yourself is not fit for that position.

By the end of the 20th century, 1998, the groundbreaking article, “Scent of a Woman’s Ink: Are Women Writers Really Inferior?” by Francine Prose, exposed the gender disparities in journalism and explained the harm that male critics have had on women writers. For instance, Norman Mailer in 1959, on his “expansive confession of gynobibliophia: ‘…I can only say that the sniffs I get from the ink of the women are always fey, old-hay, Quaintsy Goysy, tiny, too dykily psychotic, crippled, creepish, fashionable, fridged, outer-Baroque, Maquille in mannequin’s whimsy, or else bright and stillborn’”(62). This attempt, and attempts like Norman Mailer’s, sought to place women outside the literary field altogether. It is still not a wonder why writers like George Eliot, George Sand and the Brontes felt the need to hide behind their male pseudonyms. Edith Wharton, a Pulitzer Prize winning American novelist, who in 1930 was subject to criticism by the male critic, Ludwig Lewisohn who stated, “‘wars and revolutions, cataclysm and catastrophes of man and nature leave her hopelessly a lady’” (Foster 32). Regardless of Lewisohn’s criticism of her “triviality”, Wharton remains one of the great 20th century American writers. Prose explains that women writers used the domestic scene to symbolize larger issues, and that male reviews simply could not get past the literal interpretations (Prose 63). In the early 1970’s the feminist authors, “Susan Brownmiller and Nora Ephron held the first organized protest against the representation of women authors in the New York Times Book Review. The two made an appeal to editor Max Frenkel, but nothing came of it” (Gender Disparity and Book Reviews 1). Prose revealed that by 1997, the disparity and representation for women still was a problem in the New York Review of Books. That year they were recorded printing only ten books of fiction by women, and twenty five books of fiction by men (Prose 62).

 By the beginning of the 21st century, 30 years after the first protest organized by Brownmiller and Euphon took place, more results of the New York Times Book Review were exposed by Paula J. Caplan and Mary Ann Palko; between 2002-2003, they found that “out of 807 books reviewed, only 227, or 28%, were authored by women. Of the 775 reviews only 265, or 35%, were by women reviewers” (16). Following these results, in 2009 the VIDA: Women in Literary Arts was launched in the UK and in 2010 was launched in the United States. VIDA is a literary research organization whose mission is to “increase critical attention to contemporary women’s writing as well as further transparency around gender inequality issues in contemporary literary culture” (Gender Disparity and Book Reviews 1). Since their initiative, in 2010 proved men take up most the space in literature, gender parity has become more and more possible with each passing year. In the most recent VIDA count in 2017, Amy King and Sarah Clark, the board of directors, found that of the 15 main publications in the VIDA count, only 2 publishers published 50% or more women writers than their male counterparts. Five others represented between 40-49.9% and the undeniable majority, 8 of the 15 failed to publish even 40% by women writers (King and Clark 1).

In 2015 the radical/liberal feminist “‘…Carol Anne Douglas, suggested that women’s books do not receive much attention because they focus on ‘soft subjects’ that men are not interested in’” (Gender Disparity and Book Reviews 1). This essentialist remark had many people questioning what is considered a “soft sobject?” Romance, nostalgia, sex, motherhood? To trivialize these topics as “soft” simply indicates that they are not understood. Women today are grappling with being put into a separate category all together with the arising “women’s literature” or “women’s fiction” genre. This issue comes up throughout many industries, for instance in athletics, women are often referred to as “women athletes” before simply an “athlete.” “The Second Shelf: On the Rules of Literary Fiction for Men and Women” in the New York Times, Meg Wolitzer addresses the instability and the controversiality of the “women’s fiction” genre and the rise of the “American Women Novelist” category. While searching online in Amazon, Wolitzer first came across the “Women’s Fiction” category that listed authors like Jane Austen, Toni Morrison and Louisa May Alcott, and notes that the occasional man like, Tom Perrotta who was listed, solely because he writes about relationships (Woltzer). Woltzer further explains that “…lumping together of disparate writers by gender or perceived female subject matter separates the women from the men. And it subtly keeps female writers from finding a coed audience, not to mention from entering the larger, more influential playing field” (Woltzer). Labeling topics like, relationships, as “women’s fiction” furthers a binary and insinuates that relationships or other related topics perceived as feminine, should have nothing to do with men. When considering the category “American Novelist” which only lists male authors, there is a subcategory labeled “American Women Novelist,” this subcategory was created by librarians. It is librarians job to categories in order make searching as easy as possible. However, moving women to a subcategory only isolates women novelist from the larger category and “others” women novelists altogether (Woltzer), as well as disregards any other gender from the larger category. Woltzer explains the “The Second Shelf” as the process of women authors being categorized as second best, while “The Third Shelf” affects people who are marginalized even more, such as women of color and people who identify as non-binary (Woltzer).

The development of the modern novel used to be largely viewed as a male occupation. Today, we see many more women addressing topics on nationalism, politics, war, and immigration than ever before. The author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie for instance has become an intersectional feminist icon who in The Thing Around Your Neck (2009), writes about the relationships between men and women, parents and children, in Africa and the United States. In the current political climate “amid the #MeToo era, we must ask if abuse and bigotry are anything but the norm in the world of American arts and letters” (King and Clark 1). The 19th, 20th and 21st centuries have had similar concerns regarding male criticism and gender inequality within the publishing and reviewing industry, and while these concerns are being taken more seriously and gender parity is becoming more possible. The rise of media has created different issues of concern for the present-day women writers. These present-day issues have arised due to deep history of popular beliefs about women, who historically, were forced into those categories to begin with. In order to move forward we need to, like Foster states, “Rather than trying to prove that women are equal, we should just assume it” (34).

Works cited

Caplan, Paula J., and Mary Ann Palko. “The ‘Times Is Not A-Changin'”: Your Impression of the ‘New York Times’ and Other Prestigious Book Review Publications (Present Company Excluded) Is Correct: The Women Are Missing.” The Women’s Review of Books, vol. 22, no. 2, 2004, pp. 16–17.

Foster, Chloe. “Publishing the Patriarchy: Reviewers in the White, Western Tradition Still Exclude and Trivialize Women Writers.” Off Our Backs, vol. 37, no. 1, 2007, pp. 30–34.

“Gender Disparity and Book Reviews: the VIDA Count” Jstor Daily, 2015,

Howell, Samantha. “The Evolution of Female Writers: An Exploration of Their Concerns from the 19th Century to Today” University of Hawai’i at Hilo, Vol. 13, 2015, pp. 23-26.

Lauter, Paul. “Fanny Fern, Immanuel Hawthorne.” Heath Anthology of American Literature: Volume a and Volume b, 7th ed. vol. B, no. l, 2013.

King, Amy and Clark, Sarah. “The 2017 VIDA Count” VIDA Women in Literary Arts, 2018.

Leger, Sally. The New Women: Fiction and Feminism at the fin de siecle. Manchester University Press, 1997.

Taylor, Ula. “The Historical Evolution of Black Feminist Theory and Praxis.” Journal of Black Studies, vol. 29, no. 2, 1998, pp. 234–253.

Woltzer, Meg. “The Second Shelf: On the Rule of Literary Fiction for Men and Women.” The New York Times Sunday Book Review, New York, 2012.

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An Interview with Christina Ward, author of American Advertising Cookbooks

Christina Ward is an award-winning writer and editor. She is a featured contributor to Serious Eats, Edible Milwaukee, The Milwaukee Journal/Sentinel, Remedy Quarterly, and Runcible Spoon magazines. She makes regular guest food expert on television and public radio and in 2017 published Preservation: The Art and Science of Canning, Fermentation and Dehydration with Process Media, Inc.
Her second book, American Advertising Cookbooks: How Corporations Taught Us To Love, Spam, Bananas, and Jell-O was released in January of 2019.

Ed Battistella: Congratulations on American Advertising Cookbooks, which I am really enjoying. How did you get interested in the history of promotional cookbooks?

Christina Ward: I’m the Master Food Preserver for my county; which means that I’m charged by the State to teach the most up to date scientifically proven methods of food preservation. I’m also a book collector with a love of history. All my interests began to converge during the research of my first book, Preservation-The Art and Science of Canning, Fermentation, and Dehydration.

My research into the history of preserving food leads me to the very interesting (to me at least—and now I hope readers!) place in American history where technology, food, immigration, and marketing all came together to create and define American cuisine. Promotional cookbooks represent the culmination of all those influences in a neat, garishly printed booklet.

EB: I was also fascinated by the role of home economics. What’s the story there? How did education and domestic science affect taste-making?

CW: The birth of Home Economics was a tangent of the Suffragette movement of the late 1800s that was, interestingly, heavily influenced by a very conservative cultural Protestantism. The women who advocated for equality made the case that the “domestic sciences” were of the same value as chemistry or biology. In an age where there was just the barest of understanding of food science and where women were barred from studying in universities, domestic science became a way for women to become both educated and independent.

Because the curricula were developed by a small group of foremothers who agreed on techniques and recipes for the most nutritional cooking, a sameness was spread across the country. At the same time, printing technologies advanced to allow for cheap and accessible books. Any home economist worth her salt and with a smidge of regional fame soon wrote a cookbook. This too helped spread recipes and ideas about what a “proper” cook should be doing in the kitchen.

EB: A lot of the food you mention I recalled from my youth, but I totally missed ham banana rolls. Can you explain the rise of bananas.

CW: Bananas tell a great story. They’re a relatively “new” food and wholly brought to consciousness by advertising. All food processing companies in the 1930s hired the newly minted domestic scientists to concoct recipes featuring their products. United Fruit just did it very very well. Ham banana rolls were introduced in 1941 (I think!) and featured a couple of food trends of the time. Firstly, white sauces!

In the first part of the 20th Century, starvation or at least the fear of it was very real. Food supplies were dependent on mostly local purveyors while the financial collapse of the 1930s meant people actually starved. Paramount to food educators was increasing the total caloric intake of workers. (How different we are today!) The solution to boosting the Kcal of any and every dish is slathering it with a flour-based cream sauce or better yet, cream and cheese sauce! Sliced ham was a cheap protein and bananas were the star of the recipe, and voila! Ham banana rolls. The actual recipe has its roots in Pacific island cooking where pork served with plantains is found.

It also pays to remember that just because these recipes appeared in an advertising cookbook, doesn’t mean that they tasted good or people adopted them! For every successful Green Bean Casserole (invented by Campbell’s Soups) there is a stinker of a recipe; those are the ones that tend to bring us a laugh.

EB: Is there a particular food that in your mind typifies the role of advertising and advertising psychology in developing our tastes. Do you have a favorite example?

CW: Orange juice! It’s about 100 years from its introduction to the national markets via advertising and how many generations consider it a morning staple. Why? Sunkist, a company that began as a consortium of Florida orange growers, worked very hard to create advertising that touted the health benefits of drinking the juice of oranges. Why not eat the whole orange? Because it was cheaper to extract the juice and can it than the cost of shipping fresh oranges.

EB: Why are we so easily manipulated by advertising, do you think?

CW: Advertisers were the first to adopt and adapt the new-fangled psychological theories of the early 1900s—the ideas of subconscious and motivation—that could not just make a product stand out but create actual demand. There is something about the human psyche that wants to want. Advertisers play upon that aspirational need.

EB: I was struck by the wonderful images in the book. Where did you find them all?

CW: So many cookbooks! I’m a collector, and I was lucky enough to inherit my mother-in-law’s pristine collection of advertising cookbooks. She didn’t keep them as a collection per se, but as a Depression-era housewife hung on and used those cookbooks throughout her life. I’m even luckier in that she kept them in meticulous condition. These are, with a few exceptions, printed on flimsy paper with cheap inks and processing. They were intended to be used and not really kept for over 70 years.

Those formed the bulk of the images in the book. I have a few friends who share my fervor for advertising cookbooks who lent some gems for scanning.

EB: You have a collection of cookbooks. Can you tell us about that?

CW: Cookbook collectors are sub-species of bibliomaniacs! I collect them first and foremost because I love them. But deeper than that, cookbooks are history. The story of what we eat and why is fascinating and informed by so many different events; cookbooks reflect an ideal self, that one cook’s vision of a perfect America in each and every volume.

EB: What was the most surprising thing you learned about food and marketing?

CW: The most surprising thing would be how short our cultural memory is. Recipes that many folks think were invented by grandma came from an advertising cookbook. Interestingly, recipes in and of themselves cannot be legally copyrighted, so publishers tended to pass along and tweak a core group of recipes. If you look at the bulk of the cooking from the 1930s to the 1970s, before Julia Child brought French techniques back to American kitchens, there is a sameness in most of the dishes. That sameness comes from the standardization of processed ingredients.

EB: Where can readers get ahold of your book?

CW: Publisher Process Media is an independent publisher with international distribution, which means that every indie bookseller in the US and Canada can get it for you. Larger shops like Barnes & Noble and of course, Amazon, both stock the book.

EB: You’ve also written about canning, fermentation, and dehydration in your 2017 book Preservation. Any future food-related projects on your plate?

CW: I still teach classes! It’s fun to lead a group of people in community food preservation projects. I get a great deal of pleasure from seeing people ‘get’ it and then take those new found skills home. As to writing, I’ve got a few new projects, but I’ll hold off talking about them until they’re closer to completion; I’m a bit superstitious that way.

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

CW: Thank you for the opportunity to share my crazy obsession!

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An Interview with Sam Anderson, author of Boom Town

Photo: © Jeff Bark

Sam Anderson is a staff writer for The New York Times Magazine.

An award-winning journalist, he has been a book critic for New York Magazine and a regular contributor to Slate. He lives in New York.

Boom Town, published in 2018 by Penguin Random House, is his debut novel.

Ed Battistella: I really enjoyed Boom Town. You’re an Oregonian, originally, so what prompted you to write a book about Oklahoma City?

Sam Anderson: Thanks! You’re right — people often assume only an Oklahoman would write a book about Oklahoma, but I had zero connection to the place. I grew up in Oregon (born in Eugene, college in Ashland) and also Northern California; since then I’ve lived in Louisiana and New York. My interest in Oklahoma didn’t start until 2012, when the New York Times Magazine, where I’m a staff writer, sent me to OKC to write an article about its new basketball team, the Thunder. The team had just made the NBA Finals on the strength of its three very young superstars: Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, and James Harden. So I went out to write about the relationship between this small city and its big-time sports team.

I’ve been waiting my whole magazine career for a subject to force me to write a book about it — and to my surprise, Oklahoma City turned out to be it. The place swept me away. There was this mixture of epic history and huge personalities and a unique landscape. I spent as much time as I could there, and everywhere I looked the connections and themes and material deepened. It became a magical project that consumed my whole life.

EB: After reading the book, Oklahoma City seems like an old friend to me, though I’ve never been there. Was part of your goal to make the city a character itself?

SA: I’m glad to hear it. Yes, the goal was to tell the whole story of this city, from the moment of its founding to today. Historically speaking, it’s a ridiculously young city — it was founded in 1889 — so I felt like I could get my arms around that whole history. By the end of it, the reader should know the place inside and out — not just the big flashy news events (the 1995 bombing, the rise of the OKC Thunder) but the low times and the boring times. This gives context to what those big flashy news events actually *mean* to the city.

EB: You’ve worked most of your career as an essayist and cultural critic. What was the experience like of doing a non-fiction book?

SA: It was exhilarating but also very, very hard. As I said before, I’ve been waiting for many years for a book project to come along and sweep me away. All of my writing heroes (John McPhee, Annie Dillard, Janet Malcolm, Joan Didion, et al.) have written great nonfiction books. So I knew I’d tackle one eventually. But it was a slog. I took an 8-month leave from my job at the Times Magazine to try and bang it out — those were very long, strange days: I’d wake up at 5 in the morning and go to my office and write for 8 or 10 or 12 hours. After all those months, I had some of the core parts of the book written — but there were still many years to go. My original deadline was one year. In the end, it took me more than five. There was a lot of agony. But I was lucky to work with a great, great editor at Crown, Kevin Doughten, and the project became a deep collaboration with him. And I’m really proud of the finished product.

EB: Basketball and the Oklahoma City Thunder play a part in the recent history of the city—you call it a purloined team. Reading the book, I had the feeling that your book was organized a bit like a basketball game—that you were passing the ball along among interesting topics and characters—Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, Gary England, Wayne Coyne, and others. Was that in your mind as a structural device?

SA: That’s fascinating. No! I didn’t think about passing a basketball around as a structural device. But that is pretty accurate. The structure was really hard to work out and developed through trial and error over years of writing. I tried to impose various structures (for a short crazy time I thought about organizing it based on the underground architecture of a prairie dog colony) but in the end decided that the book should find its own shape, exactly like OKC did in 1889 — which is to say, it should be a ridiculous pile of chaos that eventually, against the odds, found equilibrium. Which I think is an accurate description of the book.

EB: One of the themes of the book seemed to me to be the idea of process—in characters like Sam Presti and Angelo Scott. You seem to be portraying Oklahoma City as the tension between orderly process and booming exuberance.

SA: Yep, you got it. From the moment of its conception, the place has been on the brink of spiraling out of control. And there have been these key figures who have stepped in, at crucial moments, as master organizers and held everything together. Presti with basketball, Angelo Scott as a settler who kept the place from exploding into civil war, Clara Luper as a Civil Rights hero who integrated downtown. My goal was always to find those master organizers and show them battling the chaos of their moment. Then of course the city would produce some other kind of chaos that had to be overcome, and someone else would have to step in to deal with it.

EB: Can you tell us about the title? The book seems to resonate with booms, literal and metaphoric.

SA: Yes — the place started as a literal “boom town,” a patch of prairie suddenly overrun with people looking to make a fortune. Since then it has bounced up and down on the boom and bust economy of the energy industry. It gets rich overnight, then poor overnight. So the notion of a “boom” runs through the history of the place, literally and metaphorically, in important ways and trivial ways. Russell Westbrook, the basketball star, used to scream “BOOM!” every time he made a three-pointer. And that’s all before we get to the defining trauma of OKC: the 1995 bombing of the federal building in the middle of downtown, an explosion that killed 168 people and scarred just about everyone in the city for generations.

EB: What surprised you the most in doing the research?

SA: There is a section of the book called “Operation Bongo” that contains the most surprising research discovery I’ve ever made, or (I’m convinced) ever will make. I won’t spoil it here, but it’s a bizarre connection between Seattle and Oklahoma City from the 1960s — it seems to foreshadow OKC taking Seattle’s basketball team 40 years later. It’s like a Borges story. My jaw dropped. I couldn’t have invented it if I tried.

EB: Any plans to take on another city?

SA: Nope. I’m happy having done this one city. Now I’m back to writing magazine articles, waiting for the spirit to move me for my next book project. If it’s another city, I guess I’ll have to write about another city.

EB: Thanks for talking with us. I really loved the book.

SA: Thanks so much!

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Clive Rosengren and Sharon Dean Interview Each Other

South Dakota native Clive Rosengren is a veteran actor with stage, screen and television credits that include the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival, Ed Wood, Twin Peaks, and Cheers. He is the author of four novels featuring actor/private investigator Eddie Collins: Murder Unscripted, Red Desert, Velvet on a Tuesday Afternoon, and most recently Martini Shot.

Sharon Dean grew up in Chelmsford, Massachusetts, received a PhD from the University of New Hampshire, taught at Rivier University in Nashua, New Hampshire. Having written four academic books as a professor, she has reinventing herself as a writer of mystery novels. Her thought provoking whodunits featuring literature professor Susan Warner include Tour de Trace, Death of the Keynote Speaker, and Cemetery Wine. Her most recent book is Leaving Freedom, a tale of a writer’s spiritual and personal journey from Massachusetts to Florida to Oregon.

Clive and Sharon are members of a writing group in Ashland. Literary Ashland asked them to interrogate each other about their work and writing process. Enjoy this innovative double interview.

Sharon Dean: Clive, how did your background as an actor benefit your writing? Were there any habits you had to overcome?

Clive Rosengren: One of the characteristics of the novels I’ve tried to accomplish is to have Eddie with one foot in the PI business and the other foot in the Film/TV business. So having spent 18 years in Hollywood in and around lots of sets gives me the opportunity to rely on personal experience. Habits? Trying to keep from being too cynical about the whole Hollywood circus.

Sharon: You situate Eddie so well in a Hollywood you know. Have you ever thought of bringing him into rural South Dakota where you grew up? What kind of challenge would that present?

Clive: As a California licensed private investigator, Eddie Collins wouldn’t be able to ply his trade in another state, but would have to be considered an amateur sleuth. I don’t see him going that route, at least for now. And except for some cousins, I don’t really have ties to South Dakota anymore. However, back in October, the recovering actor in me fell off the wagon and worked on a small, independent film project up at Hyatt Lake in the mountains above Ashland. While there, the germ of an idea popped into my head that would find Eddie—possibly as a favor to a director friend?—participating in a small film, during which something happens that would lure him into the need for a PI, and take him out of the confines of Los Angeles. Stay tuned.

Sharon: What’s the easiest part of writing for you? The hardest?

Clive: Easiest part? Dialogue, without a doubt. Hardest? Hmmm…probably forging a plot.

Sharon: What motivates you to keep writing in an era when so many good novels like yours don’t get the notice they deserve?

Clive: Well, first of all, thank you for the generous comment. Since the creative urge of my acting career has become almost a rumor, I’ve found it necessary and enjoyable to fulfill it with the writing. I didn’t venture into this arena with the intent of making a lot of money or becoming a best seller, but what keeps me motivated is a character I like (and am still learning more about) that I can put into the entertainment business which I’ve essentially left behind.

Clive Rosengren: Sharon, your first three novels dabbled in crime and mayhem, so what made you want to stray from that milieu in your fourth book? 

Sharon Dean: Leaving Freedom bridges the gap from my academic career to my foray into fiction. I wanted to write something like it before I got caught up in my Susan Warner mysteries. My scholarship involved writer Constance Fenimore Woolson, who traveled from Ohio to Florida to Venice as she became one of the leading novelists of the nineteenth century. She had a fraught relationship with her sister and was a caregiver to her mother.  I wanted to use these relationships to create a novel. When I started, I thought I might have my character Connie to go to Venice and jump out a window onto the pavement by a canal as Woolson did. But this felt too extreme. So I decided to bring my character to Oregon, especially to Ashland with a side trip to Rajneeshpuram. It was time for me to write about places beyond New England. Woolson, by the way, also generated my idea for Death of the Keynote Speaker

Clive: In the book you’re working on now, you’ve gotten back on the path of murder and mayhem. Your protagonist in this book is a librarian. Any thoughts of embarking on another series with this character? 

Sharon: Yes. Three, possibly four, books in this series. As a librarian my character, Deborah Strong, can move around. She’s in New Hampshire right now and will have to be in places that I know well. I’m thinking some kind of library retreat, still in New Hampshire–a locked room setting similar to what I did in Death of the Keynote Speaker; New Orleans where her friend Rachel lives and which I know from when my son lived there; Ashland, which I know better and better every day. A series will evolve as it will.

 Clive: Do you do a detailed background on your characters? Or do you pattern them after people you have known?

Sharon: People equate me with my character Susan Warner because she’s a retired English professor. They equate her daughter, Erika, with my daughter. The first name initials don’t help. They share some of our characteristics but they are not models of us. I’m finding that I need an image of a character as a starting point and I often find that image in someone I know or have seen. For my new protagonist, Deborah Strong, I found a model in a candid photo in my daughter’s year book. Right look, right era for the backstory of the novel. There the resemblance stops. The characters take on lives of their own as my novels develop.

Clive: As far as you’re concerned, what is the primary benefit of belonging to a writers’ critique group? Is there something about belonging to a writers’ critique group that doesn’t work for you?

Sharon: Our writer’s group is exactly what I need to improve my writing. The twenty page submissions every two weeks helps me stay disciplined. We all write different kinds of mysteries: noir, PI, cozy, international thriller. Reading and responding to different styles stretches us. Leaving Freedom branched away from what is technically a mystery genre, and I appreciated how everyone stuck with me through what is the longest novel I’ve written. The group works because we’re honest with each other. I’m pretty tough-skinned, so I always appreciate critiques. A group where people are afraid to criticize or can’t accept criticism would be disastrous for me.

Ed Battistella: Thanks to both of you!

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An Interview with Kayla Bush

Kayla Bush is a 2013 graduate of Southern Oregon University with degrees in English and Theatre Arts. She taught in China from 2015 – 2016.

Ed Battistella: Tell us about the program you taught in?  How did you find it?  What was the application and training process like?

Kayla Bush: The program I taught in is called EF for English First. It’s an international company with schools in several countries. They have their own teaching books, lesson plans and style already laid out. They are an after school, weekend and summer/winter break type of English school that is an extra addition to a child’s primary schooling. The student range in age as young as 3, up to 18, though the older students are more rare. A family friend had mentioned it to my boyfriend who was looking at working abroad, so he looked into it and found an application online. The application process was simple enough, they required a 4 year degree, but it didn’t have to be in English. They asked for pretty basic information with an attached resume and then it mostly came down to the interview, which was interesting. They send you an excerpt from one of their teaching lessons and ask you to prepare a type of lesson for the interview, which ends up being you pretending your interviewer is a child student, complete roleplay situation. It was a bit awkward and the lesson was out of context, but they give feedback and have you try again adjusting to what advice they gave you. 

EB: How did you get interested in teaching abroad?

KB: I’ve always loved traveling, so when the opportunity for this job presented itself I saw it as not only a way to travel and see a part of the world I might not normally, but also a good opportunity to see if teaching was something I was actually interested in.  

EB: Did you experience any sort of culture shock?   

KB: There was definitely a level of culture shock involved. I’d traveled before, but never to China. I knew ahead of time what type of things to look out for, but I was exposed to quite a bit on my first day. My visa was delayed so I arrived the week after the rest of my group and was thrown in to house hunting and training almost immediately, whereas the others got a bit of sightseeing and cultural introduction. I settled in pretty quickly overall, but did experience some homesickness. 

EB: What was the experience of managing a class like?

KB: This was probably the most difficult part for me. I realized it was super important to establish ground rules on day one and not to start out too soft, because if I did the kids would just walk all over me and it could be a real challenge to control. Especially because the classes I taught were after school and weekends, so to the students it’s more like a fun extra curricular than mandatory schooling. 

EB: Did you have much experience communicating with English language learners prior to going abroad?

KB: Not specifically. I have some friends that were exchange students, but we didn’t ever talk much about their English learning process. The program I taught with though had everyone take a week long TEFL course before we started at our schools, so we got some training on what to expect and it was tailored specifically to Chinese students and their tendencies. 

EB: What was your most surprising experience?

KB: Hmmm… most surprising? Probably the fact that I bought a scooter to ride to work when I didn’t take the subway. I loved it, and it was a lot faster, but like the locals I didn’t wear a helmet and in reflection I’m grateful to have not seriously injured myself. It was a great experience though because scooters are a big part of living in Beijing and I feel like I really got a true Chinese city experience by doing it. 

EB: Is there anything you wish you had known or known more about before you started?

KB: I wish I knew more about the structure of the program I was teaching in and what is was actually like. The videos they sent out weren’t really an accurate representation of the environment. I also wish I knew more about the Chinese business model, their way of achieving success and the expectations in the workplace. Though where I worked had a lot of Western business influence, there was still a very particular way they wanted you to teach your class, the energy you bring to the room and the way you manage a classroom. There were Open Door class at the end of each course where the parents would watch you teach and see their kids speak English. It’s a fun idea for them to see progress, but they also fill out feedback forms for the teacher. In order to move up and be promoted you have peers watch you teach and give you feedback which they give to the Director of Studies who ultimately decides your score, which affects your pay. It was a really interesting system that I had no idea about going in. 

EB: How did the experience of teaching abroad influenced your career plans?

KB: So far it hasn’t influenced my career plans much, but it has definitely given me something on my resume that every employer wants to talk about. It doesn’t matter what field the job is in, employers want to know about the experience and what you’ve taken from the experience in terms of cultural awareness, adaptation, diversity and understanding. It’s been a really great tool for me in that regard. 

EB: Were you able to learn much Chinese?  Had you studied Chinese before?

KB: I had a friend who lived in Beijing previously and she taught me some key phrases. Otherwise, I didn’t know any Chinese. I’d studied Japanese in school, so I could read a few choice words, but it didn’t help me at all in speaking or listening. Ultimately I didn’t learn as much of the language as I could have, being in an English teaching environment, most of the Chinese local teachers wanted to practice English, my expat friends spoke English and we were told to only speak English in the classroom to create a fully immersive environment. So if you really want to learn the language you have to hire a Chinese tutor and spend the time and money really learning it. Some of the local teachers will agree to be a language partner, but that can be difficult to arrange. I learned enough to travel, eat, get directions and haggle, which was pretty good. I didn’t end up hiring a tutor, but I had friends who did and they learned a lot. 

EB: Any suggestions for others considering teaching abroad?

KB: Do it if you can. Don’t believe the stereotypes about how the children of that culture are going to act, because it’s probably not accurate. And really do your research about where you want to go. Make sure it’s a country you will enjoy being in, and a program that makes the process easy for you to get there and live there. 

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An Interview with Kayla Rapet

Kayla Rapet, 2012 graduate in English, received her Master’s degree in education in 2015. She is the Minority Outreach Programs Navigator for the SOU School of Education.

Ed Battistella: Tell us about the program you taught in? How did you find it? What was the application and training process like?

Kayla Rapet: My husband and I taught at Avalon Academy in South Korea. We went through Adventure Teaching–a group we would highly recommend. They guided us through each step of the process so that we knew exactly what we were doing from the first day we applied to the day we landed at Busan National Airport.

EB: How did you get interested in teaching abroad?

KR: Well, I learned that I could travel, gain invaluable teaching experience, and earn a salary generous enough to put a dent in my college debt; it’s just such an enticing opportunity. I can see why it’s becoming so popular.

EB: Did you experience any sort of culture shock?

KR: I did. It was subtle, to be honest, but it was present. In fact, I didn’t actually realize that I’d experienced it until I returned home to Oregon. Once I got back into my groove, I remembered what vitality felt like. The thing about culture shock is that it can be really sneaky. For me, everything about my life abroad required effort. I spent so much time processing information that I was constantly worn out. The little everyday things that I took for granted in the U.S. became magnified in a foreign environment. From processing language on street signs and menus to adapting to a new food culture (and thinking about how to communicate clearly and respectfully to strangers, interpreting social experiences with my boss and colleagues, setting up and managing bank accounts, finding clothes in my size, paying bills, grocery shopping, and so much more), you name it–it all required double the energy.

EB: What was the experience of managing a class like?

KR: Being in a hagwon, an academy, is a bit different from mainstream public education. My class sizes were small; sometimes I had classes with only one student. Most of my students came from affluent backgrounds, had parents with high expectations for academic achievement, and had ten to twelve hour days between school, music lessons, English academy, and any other extracurricular activities they were involved in. I found that my students had a lot in common, including their skill levels (as students were placed in courses based on their language needs rather than their ages), which made scaffolding a nearly seamless process.

Overall, my classes were wonderful. My students were curious, silly, witty, endearing, and sometimes even a bit mischievous. I felt pretty lucky to work at Avalon with my particular group of kids and colleagues.

EB: Did you have much experience communicating with English language learners prior to going abroad?

KR: I really didn’t. I had volunteered in an ESL classroom for a few weeks as part of my practicum, but that was about it. My husband and I started an online TEFL program before leaving for Korea. We were able to complete the 300-hour training over a couple of months. The program was really pretty affordable and I felt that I was able to use a lot of what I learned. That’s something else I’d highly recommend.

EB: What was your most surprising experience?

KR: That would probably the day three business men approached me in the street and asked for a hug. I obliged until they asked me to kiss them. It was really quite strange. That being said, it was such an isolated experience (you asked for the most surprising!).

Most favorably, I remember my trip home from our vacation in Seoul. We decided that we wanted to head home on one of the earlier trains, so we asked to switch out our tickets. When the teller said he had a “standing” ticket, I naively thought it meant someone else had cancelled and left the tickets available for next departing train (in retrospect, my interpretation didn’t make a whole lot of sense). I was rudely surprised. We found ourselves literally seatless on the train, standing for five and a half hours. Needless to say, I was extremely put off by the discomfort of it all. So there I sat, grumpy and unappreciative. Eventually I decided to sit on the floor. A few stops later, a team of elderly folks flooded the standing section, squishing me, unapologetically, into a corner. And just as the steam started flowing from my ears, a woman sat down on the floor beside me, smiled kindly, and offered me half of her persimmon. In that tiny moment I was brought back into myself, realizing I had missed the adventure of our adventure. My sense of humor arrived shortly after (and, not surprisingly, I survived).

EB: Is there anything you wish you had known or known more about before you started?

KR: No, I wouldn’t say so. I’m really glad we went when we did. My husband and I (engaged at the time) were only twenty-three when we left for Korea. I think reaching outside of our comfort zones was one of the greatest gifts we could have given ourselves at that age.

EB: How did the experience of teaching abroad influence your career plans?

KR: Early on, my time in Korea solidified my desire to become a teacher. Then, once I started my graduate studies, those experiences became a reference point that ultimately helped me discover where my strengths and areas of need were. While I did end up changing career paths, I know that, if and when I go back into teaching, my time abroad will provide a solid foundation for further growth.

EB: Were you able to learn much Korean? Had you studied it before?

KR: I am the worst at learning foreign languages. I’m excited by the dynamics of language, the linguistics and the grammar of it all, but my command of any second language I’ve ever studied is pitiful, quite frankly. With the help of a tutor, I was able to learn just enough survival Korean to make everyday life a bit easier. I highly recommend that anyone living abroad learn the primary language of the country in which they live. If you happen to struggle with foreign languages like I do, my best advice is to stumble through it with the best sense of humor that you can muster.

EB: Any suggestions for others considering teaching abroad?

KR: If you do decide to teach abroad, ask lots of questions before you go, while you’re there, and when you return home. Let your curiosity be your guide– and you will never cease to be surprised.

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An Interview with Amy Anne Layton

Amy Anne Layton is a Library Circulation Assistant at Simmons University Beatley Library. A 2016 graduate of Southern Oregon University, she taught in France from in 2016 to 2017.

Ed Battistella: Tell us about the program you taught in? How did you find it? What was the application and training process like?

Amy Anne Layton: I taught through TAPIF—the Teaching Assistant Program in France. It employs and salaries over 1,000 French majors to help teach English abroad in France for seven months. I found out about this program through the French program at Southern Oregon University. Normally, at the end of our time there, we’re required to either work at an internship abroad for 10 weeks minimum, or something equivalent to that.

TAPIF required letters of recommendation on the topic of your French education, a written sample of our French, and our University transcripts, among other information such as passport information.

Training took place twice, in which every assistant in a district met at a centralized location to learn about French bureaucracy, documentation, school rules, and government, among other societal things we might not have learned about in school. The second training focused on creating lesson plans for younger and older students.

EB: How did you get interested in teaching abroad?

AL: In all honesty, my interest in teaching abroad paralleled my interest in graduating with a degree in French culture. It was essentially required for me, so I had no choice but to get excited!

EB: Did you experience any sort of culture shock?

AL: I think I would be lying if I said yes. The biggest shocks that came to me were more based on the fact that I lived near a city than anything else. I’d never taken public transportation before, nor commuter trains, and there were a lot of other big firsts that I hadn’t experience prior to living in France. After my initial Oh God What Did I Just Do reaction during my first night abroad, it felt like I was on vacation, and then I felt like I was at home. French folks typically have some understanding of English, and everyone there showed me such great kindness, so it was easy to just fall into step!

EB: You had studied French before going. What has the experience like of living in France?

AL: Absolutely incredible. There is still not a day that goes by that I don’t think about or wish that I was living in France still. In all honesty, and in retrospect, I think that French Amy is the best Amy to have so far existed. Being so far removed for seven months from all you’ve ever known is a frightful experience, but it’s one that helped me center myself and realize just how proud of myself I should be.

In terms of the language—I lucked out. I had fantastic professors to teach me French, and it certainly helped that my roommates in France knew English and were able to help me process my thoughts when I was trying to speak French. Not only that, but I was happy to visit some French exchange students from the prior year at their towns, where their families introduced me to classic French films (without subtitles!), their families, and ways of going about life.

EB: What were people’s attitudes about English and learning English?

AL: My students’ attitudes were about the same as those learning a foreign language in high school here in the United States. The ones who were more proficient and fluent were typically in other advanced classes and had more opportunities to visit England than those who were only interested in learning the bare minimum to pass. In France, I think it’s safe to say that those who know and had an affinity for learning English were viewed as more privileged than those who had a harder time.

EB: Did you have much experience communicating with English language learners prior to going abroad?

AL: None at all! I had the wonderful opportunity, however, to work with Professor Margaret Perrow for an independent studies class in which I analyzed various struggles and eases English language learners had in regards to learning English.

EB: Is there anything you wish you had known or known more about before you started?

AL: Yes. If you’re a woman going abroad by yourself, people are going to love the fact that you’re foreign. Especially men. Watch out for them. I thought men were terrible when we spoke the same language, but they go above and beyond when there’s a language barrier and you’re on their playing field. I was in a generally safe area and spent much of my time alone, but men will take advantage of the fact that you don’t perfectly speak their language. They will take advantage of the fact that you’re alone and newer to the area. Use your best judgement, use your instincts.

That isn’t to say that every single French man is terrible, however. Two drove me to my Airbnb when they saw me struggling with my suitcase. Another showed me around Montmartre. One cashier engaged me in conversation every time I went to the grocery store. There are kind people out there. But there are also scammers, creeps, and your every-day dudes who think it’s okay to harass you. Their behavior is never okay, but if you’re empathetic and sensitive and a little shut-in like me, it’s necessary to grow a thick skin, and fast.

EB: Any suggestions for others considering teaching abroad, especially in Europe?

AL: Money is sadly still a necessity in this world. TAPIF encouraged us to have at least $2000 prior to taking off for our assistantship—it’s enough to hold you over until your first paycheck.

Airbnb is your friend! It takes a while to find a place to live, especially if you get placed in a smaller town like me. Airbnb can help take a lot of stress off of you when scouting out apartments and rooms.

Take advantage of cheap travel tickets! Visit your friends, go to different countries!

Do touristy things. Have no shame. Buy the best champagne when you go out, get the best seat available for the opera. This is your time, and you should use it however you want to.

And ultimately? Have a blast.

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

AL: Of course! Thanks for listening.

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An Interview with Madison Huson

Madison Huson is a 2017 English graduate from Southern Oregon University. She is in the JET program in in Miyoshi, Japan.

Ed Battistella: Tell us about the JET program you teach in? How did you find it? What was the application and training process like?

Madison Huson: I found this program while I was attending my local community college in California. I was always interested in other cultures and a majority of my free time was devoted to researching the best and easiest way I could go abroad after community college. I stumbled upon the website of the Japan and Exchange Program (JET). JET program participants are appointed an assistant teaching position in any of the 47 prefectures for a period of one to five years.

The application itself is a lengthy process. Applications open every year in October, are submitted in November, and the email notification for an interview comes in January (I received mine in January from the Portland consulate, but some consulates vary on the specific timeline). Interview results come in March or April. Great, you’ve been accepted! However, you still don’t know where you’ll be living, that comes between May and June. I was notified of my placement in Miyoshi-shi (city), Tokushima-ken (prefecture), Shikoku in May.

After all of that waiting, you are sent to Tokyo for a three day orientation. The consensus from all of the fellow Assistant Language Teachers (ALTs) was that the seminars and the crash course approach to teaching English as a second language was not very helpful, but instead, it was the networking that was worthwhile. We were able to meet people from all 40 participating countries in the JET program. I met the only Danish participant from this year and met many people from Trinidad and Tobago. I was promised a spot on the bedroom floor of a woman from New Zealand if I ever wanted to visit the region in Japan that was about to become her new home.

EB: How did you get interested in teaching abroad? You previously taught in Korea, right?

MH: Initially, I was not interested in teaching. I have known ever since I was an elementary school student that I would major in English in college, so the question I grew up hearing was: “Oh, so you are going to be an English teacher then?” I wanted so badly to prove to everyone that English majors can do so much more than be confined to the path of becoming a teacher. However, teaching English as a second language was the gateway to going abroad. My university, Southern Oregon University, had a two month summer program in South Korea. It was part English teaching and part study abroad. I taught a beginning and an advanced class for one month at the university. I was nineteen years old and I didn’t know anything about Korea or teaching. Luckily, the students were more concerned with going out for meals and drinks after class than they were with my teaching ability. After my experience there, however, I wanted to continue teaching abroad.

EB: Did you experience any sort of culture shock teaching abroad?

MH: Most things I experience, I wouldn’t call a “shock.” Things just happen and I say “Huh, that is different.” Recently, I was at an enkai with the teachers at my school. An enkai is essentially an “eat and drink as much as you want” party with your coworkers. They are very common in Japan and usually, my school has them to welcome a new teacher or celebrate big events at the school. Various types of food are ordered and shared between everyone and the teachers usually tell me the names of the dish if they think I have never tried that specific thing before. This time, a small plate is set down in front of me by the server and I know I have never seen that food before. The teacher across from me says “That’s….. Shirako. Do you know what it is? Do you want to eat it?” Her tone was a bit hesitant and she doesn’t speak any English, so I thought I’d better Google shirako for curiosity sake. I found out that shirako is “milt,” or fish semen. I said, to myself, “Yeah, I’ll pass on that one.”

The only thing I can honestly call culture shock is how discipline is handled in Japan. It is not uncommon to hear teachers screaming at the top of their lungs at students. I was teaching a class for the 7th graders when a few boys decided to giggle and tease some of the girls when they stood up to share what they wrote. The teacher heard their laughter and immediately exploded. She threw all of the student’s belongings on the floor and got directly in his face to scream louder than I have ever heard a teacher yell before. I was asked to leave the classroom for the rest of the period. Another teacher heard the screaming and she very softly told me she was sorry for what happened. I had to rush to the bathroom because I couldn’t sit at my desk like nothing had happened. I was very shaken and in tears over the whole event. However, for the boys, that type of behavior is sadly fairly normal, so they didn’t even flinch or seem visibly shaken like I was.

EB: Had you studied Japanese and Korean before you travelled? Were you able to acquire the languages?

MH: When I went to Korea, I did not know any Korean. I had just finished one year of learning Japanese. I was only there for two months, so I mostly only learned how to say the basics: good morning, hello, please, thank you, and water.

Coming to Japan was different because by the time I arrived here, I had taken two years of college level Japanese, but had a year gap between graduating and arriving here. I definitely lost a majority of my vocabulary and realized I had never had a natural conversation in Japanese until I was in an izakaya in Tokyo and a full table of drunk salarymen started a conversation with my friends and I. After living here for a month, I felt like I was rapidly improving. I am still better at listening than speaking, but I can usually convey what I mean. These days, I’ll have a conversation with someone and only realize later that it went as smoothly as it did.

EB: What was the experience of managing a class like?

MH: On the JET Program, I am an Assistant Language Teacher, so I am always accompanied by a JTE (Japanese Teacher of English) in class. I have three JTE’s that I teach with. As far as lesson planning, it varies between JTE. For the 3rd year students (freshman), I plan and teach the entire 50 minute lesson with the teacher there to provide translation help. For the 2nd year (8th grade) classes, I help with the normal classroom routine of singing a song and doing a word test, and then I am responsible for a 25 minute activity. For the 1st year classes (7th grade), I only plan lessons when the teacher asks me to prepare something specific, otherwise I just participate in her lesson.

EB: What has been the most fun?

MH: The best part about this entire experience is interacting with the students. When I first arrived, they were very shy and scared to talk to me. I began very enthusiastically waving at every student until slowly, they all started waving back. Now, I even have what I call “waving wars” with students in which both of us try to out wave the other, always very enthusiastically and with smiles. I also roam around through the halls during lunch time and talk to as many students as I can. This is my favorite time all day.

Recently, I have started playing sports with the students during lunch. I convinced a group of girls to let me teach them to play soccer and they told me that there are no junior high girls soccer teams in all of Tokushima prefecture. After playing a small game, lunch was ending and they decided we should race back into school. After our race, we were changing back into our indoor shoes and one of the girls said “We thought you were a very beautiful girl before, but now you’re cool!” I jumped on the chance to express to them that girls can be beautiful AND cool. Girls can play soccer. Girls can do anything. I got a big, enthusiastic “thank you” and a wave goodbye as they ran back to class. I am grateful for my chance to expose these students to not only native English and American culture, but hopefully act as a role model for these young girls in a society that is far too concerned with beauty standards and gender roles.

EB: Is there anything you wish you had known or known more about before you started?

I did extensive research on teaching abroad and this program in particular, so I don’t feel there is anything that made me say “I wish I had known that before now.” I also exist in an almost constant state of confusion anyway because I am surrounded by a language I am not fluent in and certain cultural differences in the workplace are difficult.

EB: How has the experience of teaching abroad influenced your career plans?

MH: I definitely want to become a teacher when I return home. Teaching abroad hasn’t influenced my teaching plans, rather it has influenced how I plan to teach. Teaching abroad is both extremely rewarding and challenging. Being a teacher at a school where every single student is Japanese and they share the same culture made me realize how important it is for students in the U.S to acknowledge their everyday opportunities at school to learn about other cultures.

Students at schools in rural areas have to actively seek out cultural exchange, or in the case of my job, they have it come to their school. I have made a point of teaching the students about “American culture” and what that means to me. To me, the “American culture” I can identify with is exclusively West Coast based. I taught an entire lesson on Hispanic Heritage Month and explained all of the ways that my life in California was shaped by being surrounded by Mexican culture. I told them that California, and many of our cities names, comes from Spanish. I asked the students if they thought anything in Japan came from a Hispanic or Latin language. Most of them said no, so I showed them a list of words that originated from Portuguese and some of their desserts that came from Spain and Mexico. I ended the lesson by playing some music in Spanish and I heard them humming the songs in the halls for the rest of the day. This lesson, almost entirely about Spanish, remains my best received lesson as an English teacher at this school.

Being in a school environment that has little opportunity to be exposed to various cultures during the school day has made me believe it is very important that my future students in the U.S realize their chance to learn about many cultures from their classmates. My hope is to teach tolerance and empathy along with the normal school subjects.

EB: Any suggestions for others?

MH: Do your research on finding a teaching program that sounds right for you, in any country. Say yes to things you would never do in your home country. Saying yes has gotten me to eat fantastic meals at hidden places, go to a weekly karate class, practice Japanese archery with my students, and many more things. My last piece of advice is that it is perfectly acceptable to commit to teaching abroad for a short time. The JET program is up to five years, but you can spend an incredible, life changing year teaching English in Japan and when the year is up, you will go home. Do not be fooled by those who say you won’t get the full experience in one year because you are the person who decides how you will spend your time in your new home.

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

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An Interview with Kevin Boringot

Kevin Boringot teaches at Jeomdong Middle School in Gyeonggi Province, South Korea. He graduated from Southern Oregon University in 2016 with a degree in English Education.

Ed Battistella: How did you get interested in teaching abroad?

Kevin Boringot: I became interested in teaching abroad because I thought it would be a wonderful way to combine my passion for teaching with the opportunity to travel and explore new places and cultures.

EB: Tell us about the program teach in? How did you find it?

KB: I currently teach with the English Program in Korea (EPIK). It is a government funded program, and I found out about it on Google when I was searching for teaching jobs overseas.

EB: What was the application and training process like?

KB: The application process was quite lengthy and competitive. I had to get an application form from their website and fill it with a lot of information about myself, my education history, work history, etc. I also had to attach a sample lesson plan about a topic of my choosing. Afterwards, I had to do a Skype interview with a person from the program. The interviewer asked me questions such as why I wanted to go to Korea, why I wanted to teach English, what my teaching philosophy is like, and how I would handle living overseas and deal with culture shock. I then had to get a comprehensive background check from the FBI and prepare a lot of documents for my recruiter such as an apostilled copy of my diploma, recommendation letters and a set of sealed college transcripts. After months of waiting, keeping in touch with my recruiter, and sending documents, I eventually got approved and had the opportunity to apply for my Korean work visa. The application process took almost half a year, so it’s important to try and apply early and be on top of all the required documents. The list of required documents is clearly detailed on their website, so all that is required is for the applicant to be proactive with the application process.

If everything goes well and the applicant finally arrives in Korea, EPIK kindly provides an orientation program that lasts for about a week and a half to ease the new teachers into their new lives in Korea and the expectations required of their new positions as Native English Teachers (NETs) in Korea. The orientation program includes lessons that go over working conditions, contract stipulations, Korean culture and basic Korean language lessons. There are also some cultural days and field trip events during the orientation to allow the new teachers to relax and get a taste of Korean culture and life. I found the orientation program to be very valuable, and it helped me ease into my new job. I felt very prepared afterwards, ready to take on day one of my teaching career.

EB: Did you experience any sort of culture shock teaching abroad?

KB: Definitely. I think working overseas come with its fair share of culture shock. Korean culture is quite collectivist, so my individualist American tendencies were out of place; however, as time goes by, I’m becoming more accustomed with Korean culture, so living here is becoming more comfortable.

EB: Had you studied Korean before you travelled? Have you been able to learn much about the language?

KB: Prior to my going to Korea, I have briefly touched Korean. I wasn’t conversational by any means; I just knew very basic elementary phrases to help me get by.

Nowadays, I would say I’m nearing lower intermediate level. I’m able to express myself more freely, but my lack of vocabulary still renders me unable to fully express my mind and feelings. I usually take Korean classes every weekend, so I’m making some progress.

EB: What’s been the most interesting experience so far?

KB: My most interesting experience so far is just surviving alone in a completely different culture and environment. It’s tough, and at times, I want to give up and go back to the comforts of home and the familiar. However, for some reason, I keep sticking it out, and I just signed a renewal contract for another year here, making the next school year my third school year here in Korea. Living overseas definitely makes you think, makes you more open-minded, and makes you more understanding of the bigger picture of the world and what it means to truly be a global citizen. There are just some things you can never experience living in the comforts of your own country.

EB: What are you learning about why people want to study English?

KB: With the interactions I’ve had with my students ranging from elementary, middle, high, and all the way to adults and seniors, I’ve come to understand that it differs from person to person. Learning English is highly valued here in Korea, for it means that more doors will be opened for them. Some of the big companies here such as Samsung and LG require its employees to have a certain score on English ability tests such as the IELTS or the TOEFL in order for them to be hired. Understanding of English gives people here a competitive edge in university admissions and in the job market. If it’s not for school or job purposes, many Koreans enjoy traveling overseas, so they learn English in order to have a more convenient time during their travels.

EB: How has the experience of teaching abroad influenced your career plans?

KB: Currently, I enjoy the career path that I’m in. I’ve come to understand that teaching non-native speakers is totally different from teaching native speakers, and this fact comes with its challenges, but it makes me happy to know that I’m here helping and making a difference in the lives of students who truly want to embrace English and how it can help their lives. With this in mind, I’m currently planning to pursue higher education, acquire a master’s in Applied Linguistics, and eventually teach at the university level.

EB: Any suggestions for others thinking about teaching abroad?

KB: I say do it. Even if you don’t plan on sticking it out and making it a lifelong career, just one year teaching and living overseas can greatly benefit and impact your life. You will experience many things. There will be positives and negatives, but I believe that at the end of the day, you will look back during your time doing it and you will say that it did make a difference, not just for you, but for the students that you’ve helped along the way.

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

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