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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An Interview with San Mouy

San Mouy is a 2017 graduate of Southern Oregon University. He teaches English in Daegu, south Korea.

Ed Battistella: Tell us about the program you’re teaching?

San Mouy: So right now I am a foreign English teacher at a private school (Hagwon) in Daegu, South Korea. I signed a one-year contract with the school to teach students between 1st-8th grade, and sometimes teach adult classes at night. The lessons are relatively simple. They are taken directly out of English workbooks designed for young learners, with the main focus on short sentences and new vocabulary. The higher-level classes are essentially the same, however, there is more reading and a higher level of comprehension required. As for the adult classes, there is a workbook, but it is mainly used to keep a conversation going between the students and the teacher. My goal for the adult class is to help them become comfortable speaking English and help them learn new words and slang that they may not know already. The young learner and middle school classes take spelling tests and listening tests every week, and after each lesson I have to set up a game that covers the lesson for that particular day. That basically covers everything haha

EB: How did you find it/ What was the application and training process like?

SM: I found a teaching abroad website searching on Google. While teaching in Korea wasn’t my first choice (I applied to teach in Cambodia with Peace Corps,) after seeing some of my other classmates on Facebook teaching abroad in countries like Japan or Korea, I decided that I should try applying to those places as well. With numerous websites looking for English teachers abroad, I didn’t have as much trouble finding one, more so finding a location that I felt would be most comfortable living in for a year or so. Also, most overseas public English teaching jobs require additional documents (such as a TEFL certification) to be considered. And while I didn’t have that when I was looking for potential jobs in Korea or Japan, the positions available to me were further narrowed down. In the end, I got in contact with a recruiter after applying at travelandteachrecruiting.com, and I am very grateful with the job that I have.

The application process was fairly easy. After reaching out to travel and teach, I was guided by a couple recruiters that made the whole process less stressful. While there was a list of requirements that I had to have in order to continue with the hiring process, I knew that I would have to obtain everything on the list on time in order to truly be considered for the position.

Of course, though, obtaining everything meant spending a lot of money. I had to pay off a certain about of student loan debt in order to receive my Bachelors degree in the mail, I had to get a passport, fingerprint scan, FBI background check, Sign up for an online TEFL class, official notary to notarize all of my documents, extra passport photos, etc, which in total was upwards of 3k before even signing my contract. Getting everything took me almost ten months, but once all that was done, and as the deadlines for available positions came nearer and nearer, my recruiter set up three interviews for me to work in Korea; one in Daegu, one in Pohang, and one in Dejong. While two of the three wished to have me sign a contract, I felt Daegu would suit me best and decided to work there. Once I arrived in Korea, I met up with my Foreign Manager for the Hagwon and he helped me get set up in my apartment. I started training the next day.
Training was fairly simple, I would observe the other foreign teachers teach in class, take notes, and prepare to do what they have shown me for one or two classes while they observe and take notes on me. After the week of training, I was assigned my own teaching schedule for the semester and sent on my way. I still feel like I am learning how to be a better teacher everyday, so training for me is to be a better teacher than I was yesterday.

EB: How did you get interested in teaching abroad?

SM: I love traveling and thought teaching abroad would be a great opportunity for me to use my degree and to travel both at the same time. And after seeing how much fun my friends and classmates were having teaching abroad, it really made me decide that there wouldn’t be another chance like this than now.

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

SM: So far, the hardest part for me is to confidently order something on the menu or talking to anyone else in Korean. Haha Not really culture shock, its more a being aware that I am the foreigner in their country and need to accept that.

EB: Had you studied Korean before you travelled?

SM: Not a single day. In fact, I have yet to study any Korean seriously other than a couple of words since I have been here (about three months). Only because I plan on taking a Korean class that will show me everything I need to know about reading, writing, and speaking Korean soon.

EB: Have you been able to learn much Korean?

SM: I literally know less than 10 phrases and/or words

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

SM: I wish I knew exactly how much money everything was going to cost me before taking that plunge. I knew that if I started to complete the requirements, but didn’t go through with everything, then I would have wasted a lot of money for nothing. At the same time, moving to another country takes a lot of money to get settled in. I’d say that in total, getting everything set up to sign a contract and getting situated in Korea cost me almost 5k (including paying off bills back in the united states). Other than that, I am truly loving every day knowing that I am an English teacher in another country. I feel like a tourist exploring the world, while at the same time saving money and doing a job that I am happy doing.

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

SM: I knew that teaching abroad would be a huge career change for me and feel like I will be doing things like this for at least the next 5-10 years. Its very rewarding to be able to travel and teach haha.

EB: Any suggestions for others thinking about teaching abroad?

SM: Honestly, the best advice I would give is to plan out where you want to teach, and then dig deeper to see what that place is like, and then save save save money. Be prepared to jump through a lot of hoops, sign a lot of papers, and follow a lot of orders.

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An Interview with Laura Payne

Laura Payne, a 2017 graduate of Southern Oregon University, is an Assistant Language Teacher in the JET Programme in Shimane, Japan.

You can follow her blog at Ms. Payne In Shimane

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

Laura Payne: I work with the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program. I first heard about it through a brochure I found at a Japanese cultural event in Portland, and I applied for it during the senior year of my undergraduate studies. The application process took about six months from when I first applied to when I was accepted. It included sending in a paper application, letters of recommendation, and a written essay. In addition, I had to go to an interview at the Japanese Consulate in Portland. My first month or so in Japan was spent settling in and preparing for the job. I spent two days in Tokyo at a general orientation and participated in another two day orientation once I arrived at the prefecture I had been assigned to. I also met with the teachers and principals of the schools I was going to work with.

EB: How did you get interested in teaching abroad?

LP: In my junior year of college, I studied abroad in Japan for six months. During that time, I took on a part-time tutoring job and volunteered with the university’s English Salon. I really enjoyed the experiences of meeting new people and helping them learn a new language. I had already realized by that time that I wanted to be a teacher, but after studying abroad, I could see myself teaching English in Japan. I thought I could learn so much from the experience, and after I went back to the U.S., I immediately wanted to go back to Japan. From there, I remembered the JET Program and decided to apply.

EB: Did you experience any sort of culture shock?

LP: Nothing related to a difference in culture, but definitely something related to a difference of language. One of my favorite things to do in the U.S. is browse around a library and check out whatever book happens to catch my eye. I can’t do that in Japan, though. Most of the books at the library closest to my apartment are, of course, in Japanese. I use Japanese books as language study tools sometimes, but I don’t know enough Japanese yet to just relax into a story like I do when I read a book in English. There are some English books at the library as well, but that section is only made up of one set of shelves. None of the books in this section are current, and those books that belong to a series are often missing a volume. Experiences like this are difficult for me because in the U.S. I read so much, but in Japan, I’m partially illiterate. I’m trying to learn more Japanese to work past this.

EB: You had studied Japanese before. Did that help? What new things have your learned?

LP: Yes, knowing Japanese has helped me a lot. The JET Program doesn’t require you to know Japanese, but having a basic knowledge of it has helped me to be much more present in my everyday life. I can have conversations with staff members other than the English teachers at my schools. If my students don’t understand when I try explain something in English, I can switch to Japanese. Moreover, I can explore the area I live in knowing that I can handle all of the basic interactions I’ll run in to. In short, knowing Japanese has helped me to get more out of the experience of teaching abroad than I ever could have only knowing English.

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

Interesting because I’m actually not in charge of managing a class. I team teach classes with Japanese teachers of English, and they’re the main teachers in charge of the classroom. Also, I don’t go to the same classes every day, so most of what I do in the way of managing classes involves matching the style of the class and the teacher I’m currently with. In quieter classes, this might mean just following the lesson plan. In noisier classes, this might mean encouraging students to stay on task. In every situation, I try to get to know the English teacher and the students I’m working with as best as I can so that I can play whatever support role they need me to.

EB: What was been your most rewarding experience?

LP: Just getting to know my students day by day and helping them with their goals has been a great experience. So many of my students are funny, charming, upbeat individuals who can light up a room just by being present. Sometimes, I get the opportunity to help with extracurricular activities like coaching students who want to participate in English speech or recitation contests. I always love opportunities like these, because I’m so proud of the time and effort students put in to practicing, and I’m so happy for them when their hard work pays off. Now that I’ve started my second year teaching in Japan, I’m starting to see some of my students grow as they move on to different grade levels. All of this is incredibly rewarding because I know that every one of my students has their own dreams for the future, and I love seeing them try to figure out how they can get closer to those dreams through school.

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

LP: Since coming to Japan, I’ve decided that I want to earn a graduate degree in teaching English as a second language as well as a Secondary Education Language Arts degree. I’ve discovered that I really enjoy teaching English as a second language, and I want to keep doing it. I also think that the fact that I have experience learning a second language in a foreign country will help me serve students in ESL classes well. In addition, because of the experiences I’ve had here and the people I’ve met here, I want to keep a connection with Japan for the rest of my life. My ultimate dream is to work in a school with a Japanese sister city so that I can continue helping with international education programs.

EB: Any suggestions for others considering teaching abroad?

LP: If you think teaching abroad is something you would like to do, I can’t recommend it enough! Do some research on different programs and countries and find a way that’s a good fit for you. I’m sure you can find one.

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

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An Interview with Edward TW Pay

Ed TW Pay teaches at the Aidi International High School in Beijing, China. He is a 2015 graduate of Southern Oregon University.

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

Ed Pay: I teach year 7 and year 8 ESL-F for a large international school. The application process was very straightforward. I had two interviews, and needed to bring reference letters from my previous school.

EB: How did you get interested in teaching abroad?

EP: I had been working as a bartender, which was interesting but unfulfilling. I missed academic life, and I had taught karate for years. I wanted to teach in some way again. I saw an ad for EF (Education First). They run training schools across the world and they fly in foreigners to teach for years.

EB: Did you experience any sort of culture shock?

EP: I did. It was an enormous shift, from the size of the city, social norms, hygiene, pollution. Everything was jarring.

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

EP: Next to none.

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

EP: Bring more western cold medicine and money!

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

EP: I plan on doing this for life now. I’ve applied to some masters programs to get a 2 year degree in TEFL and I’m looking at starting my Delta as well. It’s a great life.

EB: What are your students like?

EP: My students are all from low English proficiency educational backgrounds. Our middle school (part of the pre k-12 school) is streamed into high vs low levels. I teach the low level. Their ages range for year 7 from 11-14, and my student base universally comes from incredibly privileged backgrounds. The school charges tens of thousands of US dollars each school year, so the behavioral, educational, interpersonal skills the students can have are often rooted in this “golden child” mind set. About 70% of our student base are boarding students from other provinces. They can struggle immensely with the pressures to conform and being away from their families, especially if they were sent away for seemingly abhorrent behavior (fears of sexuality were prevalent among parents last year though that seems to be changing now).

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

EP: I have learned some Chinese. I am unfortunately, a bad foreigner who primarily associates with foreigners or Chinese people with strong English levels. My Chinese is best described as “survival level.” I had not studied any Chinese before coming.

EB: Any suggestions for others considering teaching abroad?

EP: Do your research. Find out as much as you can about the companies, and see what people say, or aren’t saying. I was forced to sign at my last job a non-defamation disclaimer, meaning I can’t comment on the more negative parts of that training center.

New arrivals should always bring more cash than they need, and they should think critically about how tight visa regulations can be, and the penalties of switching to a new job.

Above all, practice cultural tolerance and relativism. Be gracious and flexible and remain both upbeat and adaptable.

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

EP: Take care professor.

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An Interview with Wallace Stroby

Wallace Stroby is an award-winning journalist and the author of eight novels, most recently the stand-alone thriller, SOME DIE NAMELESS.

His debut novel THE BARBED-WIRE KISS, was called “a scorching first novel” by The Washington Post and two of his novels GONE ‘TIL NOVEMBER and KINGS OF MIDNIGHT were picked as “best Books of the Year.” by Kirkus.

Stroby is a lifelong resident of the Jersey Shore, a graduate of Rutgers University, and was an editor at the Newark Star-Ledger for 13 years.

Visit his webpage at wallacestroby.com and follow him on Twitter at @wallacestroby.

Ed Battistella: I’ve been a big fan since I read THE BARBED-WIRE KISS in 2003. How did you get started as a novelist?

Wallace Stroby: I spent 23 years working at daily newspapers as a reporter and editor, but writing novels was always a goal, for as long as I can remember. I wrote my first three novels while working full-time at the Newark (N.J.) Star-Ledger. After taking a buyout in 2008 – along with half the newsroom staff – I was able to start writing full-time.

EB: Reading SOME DIE NAMELESS, I couldn’t help but think of Ray Devlin as a Travis McGee-type character — although maybe a bit tougher. Has McDonald been an influence?

WS: I think John D. MacDonald has been an influence on most American crime writers. His novels, especially the McGee series, are seminal works of American crime fiction. I burned through almost all of them from ages 14 to 20. McGee and Ray Devlin from NAMELESS don’t actually have much in common, except for the fact they live most of the time on a boat, which was my direct homage to JDM and the McGee books. I wanted Devlin to be a character who was off the grid, so putting him on a boat seemed the best way to do that, and give a hat-tip to MacDonald’s work at the same time.

EB:
What other writers have influenced you?

WS:
That’s a long and ever-changing list. I was an avid reader from a young age, so I read everything I could get my hands on. As far as crime fiction, early on it was MacDonald, Dashiell Hammett, James M. Cain, etc. Then, in my later teen years, Lawrence Block, Donald Westlake and their contemporaries, all the way up to Charles Willeford, James Crumley, Elmore Leonard and James Lee Burke. I always go back to Leonard, even now. Not only was he a master of pace and dialogue, but you could always feel the sheer joy of storytelling in his work as well.

On a more subtle psychological level, discovering the work of Patricia Highsmith was a revelation to me, especially her Ripley novels. Outside of the genre, there are a lot of writers whose work I love but could never hope to emulate – Tom McGuane, Lorrie Moore, Andre Dubus, Larry Brown, Flannery O’Connor, Yukio Mishima and many others.

EB: Did your journalism background at the Asbury Park Press and Newark Star-Ledger influence your writing or your style? Or your writing habits?

WS:
There’s definitely a skill set you learn at newspapers that comes in handy in writing fiction. The ability to organize material, write fast and tight and take a practical approach to the work are all invaluable. I think it also makes it easier to take editing and criticism. Editors in the publishing world tend to be concerned about your feelings, and try not to be too harsh. In newspapers, not so much. Deadlines are deadlines, and there’s always another one coming. No one cares about your feelings.

EB: You’ve been out of journalism for a time now. Are there things you miss?

WS:
Yes. I miss the people. I miss the buzz of the newsroom, and the mutual working toward a common goal. Writing is by its nature isolating, and that’s been the biggest challenge for me. I worked with a lot of smart and talented people – especially at the Star-Ledger – and I miss that interaction. Social media helps, but it’s not the same.

EB: I’ve enjoyed the Crissa Stone books. I was wondering if it was difficult to write a female protagonist like Stone or Sara Cross in GONE ‘TIL NOVEMBER?

WS: As with any character, you have to find a way inside their hearts and minds, regardless of their race, age or sex. You can always find some common ground. I’m not a female professional thief, but there are traits Crissa and I share – hypervigilance, a desire to re-invent ourselves – that I can use as touchstones when writing about
her.

I think the other key to writing female protagonists is to have a female first reader who can straighten you out when you go awry. Sara Cross from GONE ‘TIL NOVEMBER is a single mom. At the time I wrote that book, my editor, agent and first reader were all single moms, so I had some invaluable input from those sources. On all the Crissa books as well.

In the context of crime novels, I generally find it more interesting – and challenging – to write about female characters. Here’s a bit of behind-the-scenes trivia: I’d originally planned to alternate writing books about Sara Cross and Crissa Stone, which is why I gave them reverse initials – SC and CS. But once I started writing about Crissa, she took over.

EB:
You come up with some great bad characters—notably Morgan, the enforcer, in GONE ‘TIL NOVEMBER. What’s the key to making a believable bad guy?

WS: Again, getting into their head and into their skin. I try to be as empathetic with my villains as with my protagonists. Everybody has their reasons, and everyone’s been formed by unique circumstances. Lukas Dragovic in SOME DIE NAMELESS does some terrible things, but he also has some legitimate gripes. Every villain is the hero of his own story.

EB:
What are you working on next?

WS: Another stand-alone suspense novel, but this one a little more compact. With SOME DIE NAMELESS, I wanted to expand the scope, with different situations, locales, backstory, etc. This one’s much more intimate.

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

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An Interview with Kit and Cat Seaton about The Black Bull of Norroway

Kit and Cat Seaton are sibling storytellers collaborating on the graphic novel series The Black Bull of Norroway. Based on a classic fairy tale, The Black Bull of Norroway is the story of Sibylla, 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 is an artist living in California, where she teaches as California State University-Fullerton. She has an M.F.A. from the University of Hartford and has been illustrating and publishing comics online since 2011, including The , Otto the Odd and the Dragon King, Eve of All Saints, and AFAR. Cat Seaton is a playwright and storyteller currently living in Morocco. She has a B.A. in English & writing from Southern Oregon University. Cat writes the script, and Kit transforms them into sequential art.

Ed Battistella: Congratulations on the Norroway series and on Book 1: The Black Bull of Norroway. It’s a great work, artistically and literarily. How did this project get started?

Kit and Cat Seaton: Really, this project has been in the works since we were kids. We’ve always had a dream of working together, and telling stories together, and so if you want to get back to where it started, that’s it. This particular project came out of a class assignment for Kit. She had asked me to write a script for a children’s book mockup, originally she wanted to do East of the Sun and West of the Moon, but we saw it had been adapted several times already. This was back in the winter of 2013. I had taken a storytelling class the previous spring, and encountered The Black Bull of Norroway. It was a similar tale, but one that had not seen the same level of popularity. At first I suggested that script, but quickly realized it would be far longer than the 40 page book Kit was aiming for. We decided to go the route of the webcomic instead, and launched in October of 2014.

Ed Battistella: Sibylla is adventurous, tough and snarky, but also capable of being surprised. What sort of comic heroes or fantasy heroes influenced the two of you growing up?

Kit and Cat Seaton: A lot of our primary influences came from the media we consumed from the late 90s to the early 2000s. We’re going to give titles instead of particular characters in most instances, because it was the works as a whole that influenced us and left a lasting impression. So, to start with the things we have in common, because usually whatever Kit watched, I had to watch too: Constantine, particularly Tilda Swinton’s Gabriel, The Labyrinth, The Dark Crystal, The Last Unicorn, The Neverending Story, The Lord of the Rings, The Abhorsen Trilogy by Garth Nix (Sabriel was our babe), A Wrinkle in Time, The Thief of Always, Sailor Moon, Inuyasha, Cowboy Bebop, X/1999, Trigun, FLCL, Neil Gaiman’s work (Sandman, Coraline), the list goes on. Kit felt particularly influenced by Jeff Smith’s BONE and by the work of Satoshi Kon (Paprika and Paranoia Agent in particular). For me, Harry Potter of course, and the Gemma Doyle trilogy by Libba Bray. Things that were a little dark, that had a little magic, that had complex and interesting characters who often had flaws they couldn’t overcome.

Ed Battistella: I’m always fascinated by the process of visual story-telling and I know that writer-artist teams work in various ways—some from a synopsis where the artists tell the story and the writer adds words later, some where a writer blocks out the story in detail, some where there are sketches and back and forth. What’s your process like?

Kit and Cat Seaton: We spend a lot of time on the phone. Literally hours on the phone. We talk about our characters and their personalities, their strengths and weaknesses, their wants and needs. We talk about the plot and where it needs to go, and what difficulties we’re facing, or what areas might be problematic. We talk about everything. After that, I write the script—my main jam is playwriting, so they look a lot like play scripts—and send them on to Kit. Kit begins to break down the scenes into pages, usually 5-7 panels per page. First she figures out how much dialogue can fit comfortably, combined with the action, while leaving a good hook at the end of each page. Then she does maybe grids or layouts, planning out several pages in advance, and really looking at her beats. These are tiny thumbnails, just to begin to visualize things. I pretty much give Kit the script, and trust her to do what she’s going to do. I trust her implicitly. We both know where our main talents are, and we both trust the other person to carry their weight in their respective areas. We’re in constant communication the whole time, so it’s really like we’re working side by side, despite how far apart we might actually be.

Ed Battistella: Any major story telling disagreements or are you consistently of one mind?

Kit and Cat Seaton: Because of the process, if there’s a sticking point, we talk it out. Usually I’ll notice something isn’t quite working, and I’ll bring it to Kit in the first place. Because we’ve done so much talking and brainstorming beforehand, we know what direction the story needs to take even before we begin to get it down on paper.

Ed Battistella: A question for Kit: who are some of your artistic influences?

Kit and Cat Seaton: If I’m looking back, of course what was mentioned in our previous answers. Other influences include Arthur Rackham, Harry Clarke, Edward Gorey, Bill Waterson… I think I’ve gotten to the point where my work looks like my own work, but that’s it adopted a lot from a lot of other people’s work.

Ed Battistella: What’s planned for future volumes?

Kit and Cat Seaton: The next two books will complete the fairy tale, as well as take it on a dark and twisty turny road, where we really get to see Sibylla come into her own. Understandably, we can’t talk about that content too much.

Ed Battistella: A question for Cat (and Kit): what did you read fantasy and fairy tale wise that influenced the series? The Scottish tale of the Black Bull of Norroway of course, but what else?

Kit and Cat Seaton: Oh boy. So again, that giant list above. But also, the Time Life books, Andrew Lang’s books, Yeats, just all the fairy tales in general we’ve consumed over time. Grimm’s, of course, the HBO series Jim Hensen did… The Storyteller, it was called. We both loved fairy tales and folk tales as children, so we actively sought them out.

Ed Battistella: Your publisher is Image Comics. How did that relationship come about?

Kit and Cat Seaton: That came about through an established relationship Kit had with them, from her work with Leila del Duca on AFAR.

Ed Battistella: Tell us about the video content and about the marketing campaign.

Kit and Cat Seaton: We don’t know much about the video thing yet, but for marketing we’re working in tandem with Image comics. We’re sort of playing it by ear, but they seem to have a pretty solid plan.

Ed Battistella: How can readers get the Norroway series?

Kit and Cat Seaton: Readers can pre-order from local bookstores and comic shops, they can request their libraries to carry it, they can also pre-order online from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other large retailers. We highly recommend supporting local businesses and libraries!

Ed Battistella: Thanks for talking with us.

Kit and Cat Seaton: Thank you!

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An Interview with Vince Clemente and Adam Cornelius on THE PALINDROMISTS

Vince Clemente is an award-winning documentary filmmaker whose first film, The World of Z, took the audience on a powerful four-year journey into the eccentric life of manic-depressive outsider artist known simply as Z. The film went on to win awards and play at several festivals.

Adam Cornelius has been making films full-time since 2007. His first feature documentary, People Who Do Noise, played at festivals, museums, and galleries all over the world and is largely considered the foremost documentary on the topic.

Clemente and Cornelius co-produced the documentary, Ecstasy of Order: The Tetris Masters, which won the audience award at the Austin Film Festival and premiered at the International Documentary Festival Amsterdam, the largest of its kind. They are currently completing a documentary called The Palindromists.

You can check out the trailer here.

Ed Battistella: Tell us about your documentary project, The Palindromists.

Vince Clemente and Adam Cornelius: This documentary delves into the never-before-told history of palindromes, from the words of gods, to witchcraft, and all the way up to a secret palindrome competition held between the Enigma codebreakers at Bletchley Park during WWII. And of course it mainly follows the greatest Palindromists as they prepare for the World Palindrome Championship held by Will Shortz.

Ed Battistella: How did you get interested in palindromes?

Vince Clemente and Adam Cornelius: Palindromes have always been cool to me. It wasn’t until I had a chance meeting with 2012 champ Mark Saltveit that I discovered you could actually write your own and even compete in a world championship. I became extremely curious about the topic and shortly after we started working on the documentary.

Ed Battistella:
What is the World Palindrome contest?

Vince Clemente and Adam Cornelius: The World Palindrome Championship is run by none other than Will Shortz. Will invites all the top palindromists from around the world and he gives them various prompts or constraints from which they have to write a brand new palindrome within a certain time limit. Prompts like; all words have to have at least 4 letters, use the letter X and Z, or the palindrome has to be in the form of a haiku. The palindromes are then read to an audience of nearly 600 people and the winner is decided by audience vote.

Ed Battistella: Are there criteria for a good, or winning palindrome?

Vince Clemente and Adam Cornelius: Hmm. That’s a tough one. Every palindromist has his or her own style. Some like long ones, some like poetic ones, some like short ones. For a crowd vote, I’d try my best to write palindromes that were short and punchy or palindromes that use big words while still making sense. The goal in writing a palindrome is not only that it obviously be a palindrome, but also that it be written in a way that makes perfect sense, uses correct grammar, and could possibly pass for a normal phrase or sentence used in conversation.

Ed Battistella: Your documentary features some interesting folks, including Will Shortz, Weird Al Yankovic, and Danica McKellar. Do palindromes attract a certain types of individual?

Vince Clemente and Adam Cornelius: In the filming process we noticed most of the palindromists love some kind of math or computing. I feel it’s really just people that are curious about language and love puzzles. What’s great about palindromes is that they fall somewhere between a discovery and a creation, in that in some way they seem to be already there within our language waiting to be discovered, but still represent an original creation, just like any work of art.

Ed Battistella: Do you have some favorites? I’ve always liked guru rug, but there is a nearby town called Yreka which was rumored to have a Yreka Bakery, which I thought was fascinating.

Vince Clemente and Adam Cornelius: I heard the Yreka Bakery was closed and trying to sell the rights for some crazy amount, like 500k. Which has to be a reasonable price, right? A lot of my favorites are Jon Agee’s: “Mr Owl ate my metal worm,” “Go hang a salami I’m a lasagna hog,” “Dr. Awkward,” and “Mr. Alarm.” Recently I came across “Too bad I hid a boot,” which gave me a chuckle. For me it’s all about the quick fun ones that conjure up some kind of ridiculous image in your head.

Ed Battistella:
Can you give us a few more details about the release of the documentary?

Vince Clemente and Adam Cornelius: Our hope is to get the film done by the end of the year and run it through the festival circuit. Then of course phase two will be to win the Academy Award for best documentary!

Ed Battistella: Don’t forget we have a great film festival here in Ashland, so maybe we’ll see The Palindromists locally.

Vince Clemente and Adam Cornelius: That would be amazing. I really just want everyone to see it. We basically spend the time to become experts on a subject so that everyone else can get the big picture in just the time it takes to watch the movie. Hopefully it will inspire a new appreciation for palindromes and expand the hobby beyond our tiny circle of experts.

Ed Battistella: Is there a thank you palindrome? In any case, thanks for talking with us!

Vince Clemente and Adam Cornelius: Our IndieGogo campaign is currently offering a Thank “ewe” perk. Unfortunately palindromes don’t always cooperate! Thanks again for featuring us. Don’t forget to visit thepalindromists.com to stay up-to-date on the film’s release, and in the meantime, you can pre-order the DVD, Poster and more through our Indiegogo crowdfund campaign.

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An Interview with Amira Makansi, author of Literary Libations

Amira K. Makansi is the author of LITERARY LIBATIONS: What to Drink With What You Read. She is a graduate of the University of Chicago and spent her first few years out of college working in the vineyards in France.

With her mother Kristina Makansi and her sister Elena K. Makansi, she is the co-author of the dystopian SEEDS series, written under the pen name K. Makansi.

Amira is now a full-time writer based in Ashland and you can see her at book launch events at Bloomsbury Books on September 6 (7-8 PM) or at Irvine & Roberts Winery on Sept. 4 (5:30-7:30 PM).

Ed Battistella: I really enjoy Literary Libations—I virtually guzzled the book. How did you ever come up with the idea for a book pairing great literature and good drinking?

Amira Makansi: While I was working at a California winery called Peachy Canyon, I spent a lot of time climbing around in barrel stacks for days on end. It was mindless, solitary work that left plenty of time for thinking. During one of these periods, I started brainstorming what wine styles I would drink with certain genres of literature. Rosé with romance novels, for instance. Petite Sirah with thriller and suspense novels. It occurred to me that this concept would make a great blog post, so when I got home, I jotted it down. The post went live the next day, and I got a really positive response from my readers. A day later, my dad called me and said, “Amira, that post was funny. Have you considered writing more pairings like that?” It was then that the idea of one day turning it into a fully-fledged book materialized, and voila, the seed took root.

EB: How did you choose the books to include? You’ve got a lot of my favorite books and some really intriguing pairings.

AM: I could spend hours answering this question, because there’s a myriad of different reasons why each book was included. But the basics are: I wanted to have something for everybody, which meant touching on many different genres. I wanted to have roughly the same number of books in each genre. And I wanted to include women and writers of color where possible. After that, I just had to fill out each genre. I did have a few rules: 1. No books by the same author. (Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky are the only exceptions.) 2. No books published within the last ten years. (Again, there were a few exceptions—I think the most recent book I included was published in 2011.) 3. The book had to be both well-read and well-known within the genre.

EB: I was nodding in agreement with the pairing of The Metamorphosis with absinthe and the pairings for The Fellowship of the Ring, Cider House Rules, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Dracula, The Shining, and many more. By some took me by surprise. How did you happen to come by the pairing of A Confederacy of Dunces with Budweiser? That seemed so right, and sad at the same time. But I was also intrigued by the pairing of Lady Chatterley’s Lover and Oregon Chardonnay. Can you elaborate on those two?

AM: Oh, yeah! I love those two pairings. In fact, I’ll be discussing the pairing of Lady Chatterly at the book launch party at Irvine & Roberts on September 4. (Which anyone and everyone is welcome to come to, by the way!) When I think of A Confederacy of Dunces, I think of quintessential, old-school Americana. I also think of hot dogs, because we all know how Ignatius loves his hot dogs. (The scene where he eats all the hot dogs at the stand he’s working is one of my favorites.) From a personal perspective, hot dogs make me think of baseball, and baseball makes me think of cheap American beer. They’re all intertwined. I like to imagine Ignatius on the streets of NOLA somewhere with a hot dog and a bottle of Budweiser in hand.

As for Lady Chatterley, that book is so seductive, so subtle, so intricate. There are layers of power—the dynamic between men and women, between the aristocracy and the working class, between the opening doors of sexuality and the cloistered Victorian attitude. To me, Oregon Chardonnay represents all those layers. A tug in one direction, an opening in another. Conflict, power, and balance. California Chardonnay, by and large, is a little too voluptuous to fit these needs. And Burgundy, by contrast, is often quite austere. We need something in the middle—something with tension, precision, and sexuality—to meet Lady Chatterley. That’s where Oregon Chard comes in.

EB: What was the toughest book to pair?

AM: Oh, man. There were some that were really challenging. By and large, the classics sections were pretty straightforward. I finished those first. By contrast, I agonized over Infinite Jest. I really wanted to get that one right, because I love the book, but it’s so massive. How can you come up with one single drink to fit that book? That’s why I ended up with Pinot Noir, in the end—because it, too, is so versatile, so adaptable. (At least in the glass—out on the vine is a different matter!) Brave New World was tough. I’m still not sure I got that one right. The pairing works, but could it be better? Absolutely. I think the hardest pairing in the book was The Left Hand of Darkness by Ursula K. Le Guin. It didn’t open itself in any clear way. It’s so foreign, so speculative, that there wasn’t much connection with our world, no easy way for me to link it to something drinks-related in our universe. I’m pleased with the pairing I chose, but that one could go in so many different directions.

EB: I imagine you’ve read all the books, but have you tried all the drinks? Or do you have a team of drinkers working for you?

AM: Actually, it’s the reverse! I haven’t read all the books (at least not cover-to-cover), but I’ve had almost all the drinks. I’d read, I think, a third of the books I selected for inclusion prior to starting work on Literary Libations. The ones I hadn’t read, I checked out from the Ashland library (thank you, librarians!), but I was operating on a relatively short deadline, so I didn’t have the opportunity to read them all. I made sure to read the first fifty pages, and then, depending how hooked I was, I either finished the book or skimmed the rest.

But the drinks—I’ve had a lot of drinks in my life. I’m the kind of person who likes to experiment, so I’m always trying new things. Not to mention I’ve been working in food and beverage since I got out of college. (That’s nine years now.) There are a few drinks I haven’t had, though: Mamajuana is one, and baijiu is another. I haven’t ever tried recioto della Valpolicella, which is the pairing for Romeo and Juliet. But it sounds amazing. And I haven’t ever had a blue cosmopolitan, which goes with Storm Front by Jim Butcher. I hope to never have a Knifey Moloko (A Clockwork Orange) or a Pan-Galactic Gargle Blaster (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.) Both of those sound terrible!

EB: There were some drinks I had never heard of, like the Corpse Reviver and the Olive Oil Martini and Mamajuana. How did you find all these? Do you have a favorite? And thanks for the various recipes! Now I can make Butterbeer.

AM: I would say my favorite discovery from the writing process was the Olive Oil Martini. That drink is amazing! It’s astonishing how the addition of something so simple like olive oil can change a classic cocktail so dramatically. I’m not a martini drinker, but those few drops of olive oil change everything for me. But like I said above, I like to experiment. My favorites change yearly, even monthly. These days, when it comes to wine, I’ve been in love with dessert wines: eiswein, Sauternes, tawny port. A whiskey sour with lime and egg white is my standby cocktail. And on the beer side, I’m still on the roller coaster of sour beers.

EB: Reading the way you describe wines and beers and the way you describe prose, I am beginning to think the language used has some intriguing parallels. What do you think?

AM: Absolutely. That’s quite intentional. I’ve spent most of my career in wine, from restaurants to distribution to production. And I think one of the barriers to understanding wine—one of the most misunderstood things in the world—is that folks are afraid they’re not using the right language, the right words to describe what they’re experiencing. The corollary to that is a pretentious insistence on using only proper language. I want to break away from that. In Literary Libations, and in general, I try to use emotive, evocative language to describe sensory experiences, because sensory experiences are deeply emotional. We form deeper memories when they’re associated with a strong scent or taste, whether pleasant or unpleasant. And emotions are very sensory. Vivid memories are often accompanied by strong scents, flavors, or sounds. And that’s another part of the reason why I think books and drinks go so well together: when the flavors complement the reading experience, your experience of both the book and the drink becomes so much deeper.

EB: You covered the literary canon and then some, from the classics to mystery, fantasy, scifi and young adult, but of course you couldn’t mention everything. But I’m wondering, just off the top of your head, what would you pair with The Oxford English Dictionary?

AM: Off the top of my head? Beer fermented with wild yeasts; sour beer. Language is a wild thing, constantly growing and evolving in ways we can’t predict. So are yeasts. I’m sure brewers and dictionary-writers could spend a fair bit of time chatting about the pleasures and challenges of cataloging and utilizing a thing that is so diverse and unpredictable. And I, for one, would like to be drinking something that celebrates that diversity while reading through the dictionary.

EB: Tell us a little about your background and other interests. Have you always been a writer?

AM: In some ways, yes; in others, no. I was a writer when, at nine years old, I penned a thirty-page handwritten (in glittery green gel pen) fanfiction of Brian Jacques Redwall series, about a group of mice and rabbits living together in the woods who were occasionally terrorized by a large cat. I was a writer when, in fifth grade, I typed out a fifty-page Harry Potter fanfiction narrated by Fawkes the phoenix and his experiences with Moony, Wormtail, Padfoot and Prongs.

But reading—and writing—fell by the wayside in high school and college, when reading for pleasure seemed more like torture after spending hours and hours poring over scholarly papers or books for school. Even after I graduated college, I felt like I had to ease back into reading books. It took another two years before I was reading again for pleasure.

But in 2012, by the time I’d started reading again, the Muse was close at my heels, this time in the form of my mom, Kristy. She’d had a dream she felt compelled to turn into a story. She asked my sister and I what we thought—and we loved it. Then she asked us to pitch in and help her write the story. Ten months later, we had a book on our hands. That was the genesis of the Seeds trilogy, and the book we’d written together eventually became The Sowing.

EB: I understand you are from a family of writers. How’s that?

AM: My parents have been writers for as long as I can remember. My dad’s had a number of short stories published—he’s the true “literature” nerd in our family. I have distant, toddler-style memories of opening drawers and finding pages of my mom’s work-in-progress novels—she loves great literature as well, but doesn’t shy from action and adventure, either. When she invited me to help write her dream into a story, I felt compelled. That’s when my sister and I got into writing as well.

EB: You also have a book series called The Seeds Trilogy. What’s that about and what drink would you pair that with? (I had to ask!)

AM: Ha! You’re not the first one to ask, but I haven’t quite found an answer yet. If I had to answer off the cuff, I would say, a shot of high-fructose corn syrup. Our book is all about agriculture, food, and farming: from the dangers of genetic modification (which isn’t intrinsically bad, but certainly can be) to how food chemistry can affect brain chemistry. High-fructose corn syrup kind of embodies all the terrible things about large-scale agriculture. It’s an useless product that was turned into a fattening, mind-altering food (sugar makes you crave more sugar), the result of artificial surplus of corn that was created when agricultural subsidies met a highly profitable cash crop—and, subsequently, genetic modification. If there were a way to distill the message we’re trying to pass along into a single drink, it would be the dangers of stuff like high-fructose corn syrup.

EB: Thanks for talking with us. Cheers.

AM: Thank you for these fantastic questions, and for all your support and enthusiasm. Cheers, indeed!

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An Interview with Tod Davies, author of Report to Megalopolis

TOD DAVIES is the author of The History of Arcadia series: Snotty Saves the Day, Lily the Silent, The Lizard Princess and now Report to Megalopolis: The Post-modern Prometheus, which Kirkus Reviews called “A philosophical fable.”

Tod Davies is also the editor/publisher of Exterminating Angel Press and Exterminating Angel Magazine. She lives with her husband, the filmmaker Alex Cox, and their dogs in Colestin, Oregon.

Tod is also the author two cooking memoirs Jam Today: A Diary of Cooking With What You’ve Got and Jam Today Too: The Revolution Will Not Be Catered.

Ed Battistella: Report to Megalopolis is book four in The History of Arcadia series. Can you give our readers a quick orientation to the world you’ve created in Snotty Saves the Day, Lily the Silent, and The Lizard Princess?

Tod Davies: Arcadia is a land surrounded on three sides by a huge, technocratic, decayed, and power hungry world. How does it maintain itself and evolve? Or does it go under, swallowed up by the greater power? That’s what we’re exploring in all of the books. Arcadia was literally formed by someone discovering who they truly were—and acting on it. The first three books are about how the characters struggle to preserve the values that make Arcadia what it is. The fourth book, though, is told by a character who despises those values, and seeks to replace them with an imperial structure based on the rule of the powerful—with himself at the top, of course.

EB: Readers can read Report to Megalopolis without going back to the earlier books, it seems to me. Did you have this in mind as a stand-alone tale?

TD: Yeah, absolutely. Actually, I like to think they’re all stand-alone books—but there’s a rhythm, and maybe some more deep satisfaction in reading all of the books. The same heart, from multiple points of view. I love writing that. Why do individuals think/feel/see the way they do, so differently about the same landscape? How does that interact with other viewpoints to form our collective story? What is the responsibility of the individual doing the seeing, and the acting that comes out of that seeing?

EB: The subtitle is “The Post-modern Prometheus.” How much was Frankenstein on your mind as you were writing Aspern Grayling’s story?

TD: By the last few drafts, completely. It’s weird, hardly anyone notices that Shelley’s monster is the sympathetic one—denied love, denied warmth, denied common humanity. Then he turns against all love, warmth, humanity. We see that happening in our own world when we objectify our fellow human beings, turning them into statistics. Like the historian who said that things are getting better because, percentage wise, fewer people are being tortured and murdered than ever before in history! Wonderful news. What he doesn’t mention is that the numbers are astronomically higher than in the past. But since populations have grown, the percentage is less. You think all those people, our fellows, being tortured and murdered don’t have an effect on the rest of us? Dream on. You know the joke about the kid who’s on a beach littered with thousands of stranded starfish? He doggedly throws them back, one by one, when some guy mocks him—“What good is THAT doing?” Kid just heaves another one in, and says, “It did some good to THAT one.” Arcadia means to build a pattern out of that vision.

EB: There seem to be other dystopian and fantasy influences as well. What other works inform the story, do you think?

TD: Oh, Ursula K. LeGuin’s Earthsea tales, of course. All her work is about the treasure of being human, and the responsibility to support our fellows in their human needs and values. C.S. Lewis, same reason, and for his principled love of fairy tales. Tolkien. His yearning for a more human world is palpable. Octavia Butler’s Kindred. Her understanding of the suffering that comes from trying to be more than human—how it leads to being worse than less. Proust. His whole oeuvre is one long fairy tale, about the transformations that happen to human beings, and how we’re blind to them—as if they’re formed in a world outside of our blinkered vision. A world like Arcadia, in fact.

EB: Traditional fairy tales, before they were Disneyfied, had a lot of brutality and ruthlessness. Was Report to Megalopolis a bit of an homage to the origins of the genre?

TD: Oh yeah. More than an homage, I like to think it’s in lineal descent! Fairy tales talk about who we really are. I mean REAL fairy tales. For example, “Donkey Skin” is about a father preying on his daughter. There are predatory fathers everywhere, probably without letting themselves be conscious of what they are doing to their daughters. Fairy tales have known about a father’s incestuous preying on his daughter for centuries. But it’s only coming out now into our common discourse. Woody Allen would not have surprised the tellers of fairy tales. Neither would Report’s Pavo Vale and his desire for his own granddaughter. A very fairy tale subject.

EB: Report to Megalopolis has a lot going on and the narrative captures Aspern Grayling’s confessional voice and his emotions as well, which I imagine was a challenge to craft. What was the most difficult part of writing this book?

TD: Oh gosh. The memory of it is still raw. The most difficult was letting his real pain break through. Man, that was tough. I think that if you read an earlier draft, you’d know I was trying then for a lighter, almost cardboard villain, touch. But the more I wrote, the more I suffered, and the more I knew I was suffering his pain at not allowing himself to be human. That’s happening everywhere, you know. It was happening to me when I was writing the earlier drafts without wanting to go deeper. People deny their humanity because they think that makes them ‘good’ or ‘successful’, or at the very least, comfortable, and then when it pains them, they blame those they have refused connection with—Aspern’s tortured love for Devindra is an example of that. His twisting and turning to get away from any self-knowledge that would force him to understand who he truly is. That he is as weak and subject to human laws as anyone. Contempt is a powerful defense against one’s own weakness. But that defense causes unlimited suffering. And I realized with this book that was what I was writing about, and will write about: how we defend against our own vulnerabilities, and in fighting them, destroy what happiness we, and others, could have. What a godawful waste.

EB: Pavo Vale, the monster, is misogynistic to say the least. Was this aspect inspired or spurred along by the #MeToo Movement?

TD: It’s funny, you know the RESIST image that Mike Madrid created for the earlier books—that was way before the #Resistance movement, but totally in tune with it. Same with the #MeToo movement. All of Arcadia, in the very first book, is formed by a horrible little boy realizing he has given up all his female values to ‘succeed’. And the #MeToo movement is about not having to harden yourself against the sufferings of your sisters in order to get ahead in the pecking order that, up till now, was unconsciously and exclusively built with solely ‘male’ values: dominance, hierarchy, power plays, endless growth. You had to pretend you weren’t being abused if you wanted to get ahead. That’s over now. Arcadia is fighting that battle against Megalopolis. Softness, kindness, commonality: these are not weaknesses. These are strengths.

EB: You teased us with hints about the Evolutionaries. What can we expect in book five of The History of Arcadia series?

TD: Isabel the Scholar kept talking to me, and coming into Report when I least expected it—the voice of the younger generation, the new Evolutionaries, who are forming a new pattern and a new story in the hopes that will preserve and expand the values of Arcadia. Revolution doesn’t work. It needs the opposing side to exist, inevitably strengthening what it fights. The only hope, my young characters feel, is a leap in evolution. And Isabel is a scientist of evolution. I love her. She is my heroine, even though her dearest friend Shanti is the glamorous one. Shanti knows Isabel’s worth. And Shanti and Isabel are going to be grappling with the next great problem Arcadia faces after Pavo Vale has invaded: how to make human what has been created to be inhuman. Which is the problem we all face. Yep. We all face that problem now. I’m thinking of asking Mike Madrid, who does all the Arcadian artwork since the second book, to change the RESIST image to PERSIST.

EB: Can you tell us a little about the artwork that accompanies the book?

TD: Mike Madrid, who does all the Exterminating Angel Press design, as well as being one of its authors (The Supergirls), has done the illustrations for the last three Arcadia books. I can’t say enough about Mike—he always comes up with design ideas that push me to go further, even when I’m writing the earlier drafts. A good example of that is the Luna deck. He’d come up with a few Luna cards, and the next thing I knew, the Luna was a huge part of Arcadian culture. We needed an appendix to discuss it, written by Devindra Vale!

And in this book, my own dear husband, the filmmaker Alex Cox, drew a few maps as if he were Aspern sketching them out—I think they help orient the reader. I’ve always been blessed to have great collaborators nearby.

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

TD: Thank you, Ed. And, speaking of great collaborators, thank you for being an essential part of the fast evolving literary world here in Cascadia.

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