An Interview with Sandra Scofield

Sandra Scofield is the author of seven novels, including Beyond Deserving, a finalist for the National Book Award, and A Chance to See Egypt, winner of a Best Fiction Prize from the Texas Institute of Letters.

She has written a memoir, Occasions of Sin, and a book of essays about her family, Mysteries of Love and Grief: Reflections on a Plainswoman’s Life. She is also the author of The Scene Book: A Primer for the Fiction Writer and in the fall Penguin will release her book The Last Draft: A Novelist’s Guide to Revision.

We sat down on the internet to talk about her new book of short stories, Swim: Stories of the Sixties, just released by Ashland’s Wellstone Press.

EB: Swim is a trilogy of stories about a twenty-something woman who negotiates dangerous travel—hitching, crashing at the ranch of a bullfighter in Mexico, and with two young soldiers on leave in Mykonos. How did you come to write the stories?

SS: Each one began in a different way. All took years of brooding, sketching, writing, fussing. Still, I think a story always starts with an image or impulse you can’t escape. In the case of these stories, those images became part of who I am, and as I slipped into old age I saw my young self with great empathy; I wanted to figure her out. A friend had saved my hundred+ letters to her during the 60’s, and in 2005 she gave them to me. (I’m going to be posting some on my website starting in July: They are packed with detailed observation and also with a naive, passionate, earnest scavenging for stories. In my letters–and they are long–everything is a story. I was keeping a journal, writing those letters, and, I think, memorizing a lot of life as I lived it. I can’t say what a gift her stewardship and generosity is.

More specifically, I’ll tell you that “Swim” began as an extension of my Mykonos notes that I brought back; I worked on them in 1968, when I was studying theatre in Illinois. Some years later I tried a story. But it wasn’t until a few years ago that I picked up those old efforts and saw what the story was, and that the soldiers’ stories were the vehicle for it.

“An Easy Pass” was clearly an outgrowth of the dozens of letters from Mexico, full of detailed observations, and also an almost hysterical fascination with bullfighters (especially the young beginning ones). I had done a lot of what I think of as “younger” Mexico stories. They are archived. I did one a few years ago for Image, too.

“Oh Baby Oh” was in a way the most personal of the stories, because it arose not just out of some experience (none of the stories are “true”) but some thread of resentment toward a whole string of young men who wanted to advise me on how to be a better person.

In the last couple of years I found myself going back to the stories, fussing with them, and, if I can say this, falling in love with them in a way I never have with a story before. I longed to see them between covers, and I asked Jonah to read them and tell me what he thought. His enthusiasm was such a relief!

EB: The main character, who is called Baby, keeps a writer’s journal and carries a copy of The Stranger. It makes me wonder what pieces of your own experiences might be reflected in her stories—and how she is like the younger you?

SS: Well, sure, I kept a journal and carried Camus around. (I just read Alice Kaplan’s Searching for the Stranger, a kind of biography of The Stranger; it’s a marvelous read.) And I had a “fall” when my hair was growing out. (Ouch.) I hitchihiked from NYC to SF. I don’t think I was capable of just being, just doing; I always had to interpret life, day to day. At the heart of all my ruminations was my conviction that no one understood me, which is probably true, since I didn’t either. Guys either liked me or couldn’t stand me, based, I think, on my own attraction to them. If I didn’t like a guy–jocks, slick guys, big shots, etc.–I was snotty. I felt that all relationships, friendships, however short or long, were my choices. I didn’t think I was pretty but I could get a guy talking about things he’d never thought about before. And I was joyful, eager. I didn’t expect anything in return; sex was never a negotiation in my mind. I suspect I shocked a lot of boys–well aren’t they boys, in college?–because I also brought a lot of joy, a sense of fun, a freedom to sex and friendship. I was never seduced; nobody could make me do what I didn’t want to do before they even thought of it. I felt superior but on the other hand I was kind of generous. I wasn’t looking for any kind of attachment. I lived with someone in Chicago because I was broke, but regretted it. I wouldn’t say I had a real boyfriend, a real lover, until I met my first husband in a crazy sort of accident in Ithaca NY. I was in an acting troupe at Cornell, and Al had come to see an old Coast Guard buddy who lived in my house. We were like magnets. My whole life went off-track and it was years before I had any kind of stability, but those years with him were the electrical storm of my life. I wrote about him in Mysteries of Love and Grief, which is made up of essays, and he’s the basis for “Fish” in my novel Beyond Deserving, which was a NBA finalist, but mostly I’ve kept him to myself. For one thing, I’ve been happily married since 1975 to a man I wouldn’t dream of writing about. I wouldn’t want to analyze us or betray his privacy. And I think my stories are all far in the past. My present life is totally mundane, happily so.

EB: Many of the characters—not all, but many, seem on the verge of losing their innocence and learning to make their way in the world. For me, Baby seems most aware in the middle story, “An Easy Pass.” What trajectory did you in mind for the order of the three pieces?

SS: I knew “Swim” was last because I wanted its ending to end the book. The other two? I agree about your assessment, but I had “An Easy Pass” first until Jonah suggested we switch the first two stories. I took his advice and came to agree completely.

EB: The prose of the stories is taut—and especially the sentences, which ironically reminded me of Hemingway. Your sentences create a unique, almost aerobic, pace to the stories and I found myself wondering about the craft of these. Do you sometime revise a sentence several times until it feels just right?

SS: I think the story is in every sentence. And every sentence leads to the next. It’s slow work. Deliberate, and largely aural. Remember I’m of an age of reader who grew up on long novels with beautiful prose, lot of winding sentences in some, taut in others. I would never think of Hemingway as kin to me, but I adored James Salter’s work and feel he had an influence on me. As did Camus. Mavis Gallant. Jane Bowles. Jean Giono. Robert Stone. Rebecca West. And remember I grew up Catholic–boarding school Catholic–and language was a huge part of the practice of Catholicism, and of expectations of Catholic school students.

EB: I was intrigued by the stylistic choice you made not to signal dialogue with quote marks or italics. That seemed to signal remembered speech to me, or some attempt to disorient the reader. Did you have something particular in mind?

SS: You seem to have identified my intention well. In a way, everything is a dream, a fiction; the stories are outside of time; in another way, Baby doesn’t connect with anyone, and dialogue is connection. I certainly wasn’t trying to be precious or anything; it just felt inevitable and right.

EB: The nineteen sixties seems to be perpetually interesting to readers—both those who lived them and those who know them from history. What is the attraction of the sixties?

SS: It’s wild, isn’t it! All of a sudden, SIXTIES books–from the New Yorker, from the New York Times, and others. I just got the New Yorker one and am reading James Baldwin, whose great essay, “Letter from a Region in My Mind” blew the lid off the staid New Yorker. I guess there are lots of us with roots in that time. I also think something about the awful politics right now sends us back to the conflicts and inventions of the sixties. It was exciting to be young then, and scary, too. Baby, of course, isn’t involved.

EB: Looking at the cover art. “The Weight of Water,” by southern Oregon artist Abby Lazerow reminded me that you are also a painter. Is your painting like your writing?

SS: Ed, that is a wild question. I’ve never considered it. Maybe. I don’t follow many rules, but I spent a couple of years learning them. I’m more interested in color than in form. I like certain kinds of precision, and then I love wildly free gestures, too. Every painting is a discovery. I have an idea, I might even be working from a photograph, but no painting ever turns out like something I imagined or planned. Don’t misunderstand: I consider myself to have a lot of deliberateness, of control, but I like to break it open at some point. I’m much influenced by British Modernists like Ben Nicholson, Christopher Wood, Joanna Carrington, Mary Fedden, Margaret Mellis. Lots of wit and freedom and interpretation of what is apprehended. I’m making a second trip to St. Ives to paint in October, and will do a workshop on the Modernist landscape.

I started so late, I had to make a choice: settle on a style and try to get deft at it; or widen my range, and reach for discovery, luck, freedom. So now that I think about it, I’d say I’m a hell of a lot more controlled as a writer than as a painter. But as a writer, I’m still not willing to follow many rules. And by the way, one thing I love about painting is that THERE ARE NO WORDS.

EB: You are also coming out with a book The Last Draft about revision. Can you tell us a little about that?

SS: December, from Penguin. It would have been dead in the water if I had called it: Sandra’s Poetics of the Novel, but that’s a lot of what it is. It’s what I’ve learned the hard way. Nobody taught me to write a novel. I never took a novel workshop or class. I don’t have an MFA. I learned to write by reading, by writing, by revising. So I decided that if the world needed anymore writing books, one would be on revision of the novel. I think of myself as speaking one to one to the reader, a kind of coach and cheerleader; I mean to be encouraging and demystifying, but I’m also serious. There’s a lot in that book. It’s really step by step how to describe what you wanted to do in your first draft, and how you tried for it; how to analyze what’s strong and what’s not in that first effort; a deepening of your vision and your sense of direction; a plan for redoing or integrating old material with new writing. It all comes from my teaching and analysis of how my instruction and exercises and guidance worked. Kisses to my students! Someone could sort of whip through the explanations and exercises and do a revision. Or someone who really wants to be a writer could use it as a guide to a whole journey of learning. Janet Burroway very generously said of it, “We need this book.” I guess that’s what I thought, after over twenty years of working with aspiring novelists. Now I’m trying to write a new novel and all I write rings in my ears! It’s helpful, yes; it’s also humbling. Writing a novel is huge and hard.

EB: Any final words of advice for writers?

SS: I don’t know that this is advice, but I want to say that not everyone is going to write a bestseller and even a big house paying a lot can’t make it happen very often. The work of writing is going to be happy if it makes you happy to do it. What happens next is a big duck shoot. With “Swim” I knew I wanted to work with Jonah because I knew he loved my writing and these stories and I knew we would be a great team. I chose to publish with a small press without trying for a big one, and it’s been more fun, more productive, happier than any experience I’ve had in publishing. I hope readers will buy my book and tell others about it but I’m not putting a kid through college on the proceeds. If we made a little money I’d probably do another book this way. More Stories from the Sixties, anyone?

EB: Thanks for talking with us. It’s good to have you back in the area.

SS: This is so nice. I think what a writer really really wants is for someone to want to talk about her stories!! So here we are.

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Rhoticity within American English a guest post by Zachary Cagle

Zachary Cagle is a senior at Southern Oregon University, where he will be graduating this spring with a degree in English. After graduation, he plans to pursue a career as a writer, and this essay is his first published piece.

Dating back to the 15th century, non-rhotic speech (a variety of English in which /r/ is not pronounced unless followed by a vowel) originated in Southeast England in a handful of Old and Middle English words. By the seventeenth and eighteenth century, the postvocalic /r/ began to be deleted systematically, and by the 1790’s, postvocalic /r/-less pronunciation became common within London; although, it wasn’t until the early 19th century that this Southern British pronunciation became the British prestige standard and, subsequently, a fully established non-rhotic variety. However, due to the rising popularity of the /r/-less pronunciation in the early seventeenth century, as the English began to immigrate to America the majority of settlers came from areas of non-rhoticity. Ergo, the areas of Boston, New York, Richmond, Savannah, and Charleston all became /r/-less, with the only exception being Philadelphia. Consequently, the majority of the Northeastern and Southern areas of what would later become the United States of America were largely influenced by this non-rhotic variety, which ultimately became the accepted standard and remained so until the 1940’s. In essence, the end of World War Two triggered a shift in prestige from non-rhotic to rhotic speech within American English, resulting in a transition from /r/-less to /r/-full speech within the North and later the South due to a variety of socioeconomic/regional factors.

In contrast to the adoption of the British English non-rhotic standard in the seventeenth century, the change in prestige that occurred after World War Two was a result of the declining influence and prestige of England in America. This change in prestige, rather than evolving slowly over many generations, was abrupt, occurring first in the North with the South following suit shortly after, and resulted in a loss of the /r/-less pronunciation within three generations. However, the social motivation behind this transition differed between the Northeastern and Southern populations. In the North, this realization of the rhotic norm occurred within the upper middle classes and was, therefore, a case of change from above, whereby r-lessness received a negative connotation and consequently low social evaluation. Whereas in the South, due to a history of /r/-less speech gaining prestige among the upper classes with the spread of the plantation system from 1750 onward, the change to /r/-fullness was and is, consequently, a case of change from below – both below the level of consciousness and moving from lower to higher social classes.

The question, therefore, is: how did this transition occur systematically and, secondly, how did such drastic change occur in such a short span of time? Two studies – one conducted by Crawford Feagin on the dynamics of sound change within the South, and a second study conducted by Thomas Schönweitz on the role of gender and the postvocalic /r/ in the South –provide answers to these questions. And, despite focusing primarily on the loss of the postvocalic /r/-less pronunciation within the Southern United States, they nonetheless provide insight into some of the factors that likely played a role in this transition within the North as well.

In the study titled “The Dynamics of a Sound Change in Southern States English: From r-less to r-full in Three Generations,” Feagin examines the changes that were taking place in the realization of /r/ within the community of Anniston, Alabama. Using the interviews of ten informants “divided by age, sex, social class, and – for the older informants – urban/rural” (Feagin 130), Feagin deconstructs the linguistic ordering of change – i.e., the /r/-shift – and examines it for four linguistic environments representing the various degrees of rhotic speech (three vocalic environments, one postvocalic), after which he extracts and analyses all words containing potential /r/ in said environments. For example, “Environment 1. Stressed vocalic r followed by a consonant as in work, person, university, Environment 2. Stressed vocalic r in word-final position as in fir, her, were” (132-133), etc. In essence, Feagin’s findings corroborated the former prediction by linguist C.J. Bailey regarding language change:
Change appears – variably – first in restricted environments, begins slowly, then simultaneously speeds up and expands to more and more environments, going to completion in first one environment then another, until the change has gone through all linguistic environments for all members of the community (qtd. in Feagin 132).

Accordingly, Feagin identifies four stages regarding the degree to which an individual integrates rhotic pronunciation within their own speech: “Stage 1. No vocalic or postvocalic tautosyllabic r at all, Stage 2. Low occurrence of r in Environment I, stressed vocalic r followed by tautosyllabic consonant, with even lower rates of r-occurrence in Environments III and IV, Stage 3. Categorical pronunciation of r in Environment I, with rapidly increasing proportions elsewhere, Stage 4. Nearly 100% r in all positions” (137). These stages illustrate the way in which the transition from /r/-less to /r/-full speech occurs systematically.

Before delving into Feagin’s analysis of the social ordering of change, it is important to first address the study by Schönweitz, titled “Gender and Postvocalic /r/ in the American South: A Detailed Socioregional Analysis.” In this study, Schönweitz looks at the correlation between sex, ethnicity, age, education, social status, and region with regard to an individual’s level of tendency towards standard pronunciation features within speech. In essence, Schönweitz set out to determine whether the general consensus regarding these traits, which is prevalent in the results of various small studies conducted in the past, holds true for all of the Southern states, and whether /r/-fullness is observed in a variety of social groups in all the Southern regions concerned. These characteristics are highlighted in a study conducted by Levine and Crocket (1966):

Women, young people, the newer residents, and higher status persons take the national /r/-norm as their speech model, while the linguistic behavior of males, older people, long term residents, and blue-collar respondents is referred to a southern prestige norm – the /r/-less pronunciation of the coastal plain (qtd. in Schönweitz 260).

Furthermore, most studies also showed that those with higher educations tended to be /r/-full, that the higher the social class the more likely for individuals to be /r/-less, and that whites tend to be more /r/-full when compared to blacks.

Utilizing information on more than 100 words and phrases collected from more than 1,100 interviews of informants, which was conducted during the late 1960’s and throughout the 1970’s for the Linguistic Atlas of the Gulf States (LAGS: a linguistic map describing the dialects of the American Gulf states), Schönweitz used multiple programs to analyze the data in order to determine if the characteristics of rhotic pronunciation were an atlas-wide phenomenon; i.e., a pattern seen throughout the majority of the Southern states and, therefore, not confined to the restricted environments of previous studies. It was discovered that some of the overall patterns found in the LAGS area – regarding the aforementioned social factors – are not present when the data is broken down by sector; however, this doesn’t mean that they didn’t still have a considerable role within the transition, such as the case with social class. In other words, some social factors may not be atlas-wide according to Schönweitz analysis, but they still played a significant role within the transition from /r/-less to /r/-full speech within both the South and the North. Therefore, these findings should be taken with a grain of salt. Nonetheless, Schönweitz analysis found that only sex, ethnicity, and age showed consistent atlas-wide patterns with regard to rhoticity and the pronunciation of /r/. The results of the study are as follows: females are more rhotic than males, whites more than blacks, and young more than old.

In relation to Schönweitz findings, Feagin’s analysis of the social ordering of change provides some insight into how this transition occurred so rapidly and why it was, and still is, characterized by the social factors illustrated by Schönweitz and others. In one southern family studied by Feagin, the grandmother showed 0% /r/ pronunciation while the grandson showed 91%; however, interestingly, they were both from the upper classes. According to Feagin, there are a variety of factors that likely contributed to the rapid transition, which emanated from the general trend regarding the change to rhoticity, especially within the South; that is to say, “the change began in the urban working class…spread out to the rural working class and welled up socially to the upper class teenagers” (Feagin 138). Given the level of prestige associated with /r/-less speech within the South, the transition originated with teenage girls in the urban working class, which, as Feagin points out, adheres to the normal pattern in developed countries in the west with regard to language change. However, the conclusion of World War Two brought prosperity to the South and, subsequently, new opportunities that gradually influenced speech through social change. And when these effects became prominent, it sparked a rapid transition from /r/-less to /r/-full speech due to the fact that this transition – as a result of a variety of social factors – now had influence on the upper classes. Accordingly, Feagin postulates that there were four factors that likely contributed to this rapid change: a rise in association of /r/-lessness with femininity; the amount of contact between whites and blacks decreased; an increase of mixing with people from other areas; and more travel, which exposed children to a larger variety of speech.

Looking specifically at the factor of ethnicity, Feagin suggests that “Southern White /r/-lessness might have been reinforced by the /r/-lessness of the large black population” (Feagin 139). In essence, prior to World War One Southern upper-class children had close relations with blacks due to their presence as servants within households. However, after World War Two “contact with blacks was curtailed, both because of black migration to Detroit and other Northern cities and because of the institution of minimum wage laws” (140). As a result, the majority of children studied during this period were almost 100% /r/-full, while those who still had black servants were noticeably more /r/-less.

In looking at these studies, it becomes apparent why any remaining non-rhotic speech within American English is currently typically found amongst older Southern and Northeastern speakers, and even then only in a few select areas, with the exception of a few dialects from New England, Boston, Main, New Hampshire, and Rhode Island. In essence, the current nature of non-rhotic speech within American English is due to the fact that this transition began amongst the youth – largely due to a variety of social factors that arose at the end of World War Two, as aforementioned. However, one question remains: Why then is non-rhoticity a staple feature of African American Vernacular? In short, according to a study by John Myhill, much like how the rise of /r/-full speech had ties to the relations between blacks and whites, the retention of non-rhoticity among African Americans is directly correlated to their level of integration and association with the white community. Hence, the more interaction between African Americans and whites the lower the probability of /r/-deletion, and vice versa.

While the topic of Rhoticity and the transition that occurred may seem daunting and overly complex due to the myriad of factors at play, in the end, they are merely a handful of interworking socioeconomic/regional factors that had the combined effect of bringing forth a transition from /r/-less to /r/-full speech. This transition ultimately emanated from a decline in England’s influence and prestige within the United States at the end of World War Two. And, consequently, a shift in prestige occurred that swept the Northeastern and Southern United states, which was a change from above in the North and below in the South with regard to the factor of socio economic status and the realization of the rhotic norm.

Works Consulted

    Elliott, Nancy C., A Sociolinguistic Study Of Rhoticity In American Film Speech From The 1930S To The 1970’s. n.p.: Dissertation Abstracts International, 2000. Art Full Text (H.W. Wilson). Web. 12 Mar. 2016.

    Feagin, Crawford. “The Dynamics Of Sound Change In Southern States English: From R-Less To R-Ful In Three Generations.” Development and Diversity: Language Variation across Time and Space. 129-146. Dallas: Summer Inst. of Ling. & Univ. of Texas at Arlington, 1990. MLA International Bibliography.
    Web. 12 Mar. 2016.

    Lass, Roger (1999). “Phonology and Morphology”. In Lass, Roger. The Cambridge History of the English Language, Volume III: 1476–1776. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp. 56–186.

    MacNeil, Robert, and William Cran. “Toward a Standard: Putting the “R” in “American”” Do You Speak American? New York: Doubleday, 2005. 49-87. Print.

    Myhill, John. “Postvocalic /R/ As an Index of Integration into the BEV Speech Community.” American Speech: A Quarterly Of Linguistic Usage 63.3 (1988): 203-213. MLA International Bibliography. Web.
    12 Mar. 2016.

    Schönweitz, Thomas. “Gender And Postvocalic /R/ In The American South: A Detailed Socioregional Analysis.” American Speech: A Quarterly Of Linguistic Usage 76.3 (2001): 259-285. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 12 Mar. 2016.

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An Interview with Michael Copperman, author of Teacher: Two Years in the Mississippi Delta

author photo: Ed Croom

From 2002 to 2004, Michael Copperman taught fourth grade in the Mississippi Delta through Teach For America. Today, he teaches writing to students from diverse backgrounds—primarily low-income and first-generation college students—at the University of Oregon. Michael also frontlines The Oregon Writers’ Collective, which fosters a vibrant writing community where emerging writers can connect with one another, discover audiences, and develop their craft.

His writing has received awards from the Munster Literature Centre, the Oregon Arts Commission, Oregon Literary Arts, and Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, among others. Some of the places his work appears include The Sun, The Oxford American, Guernica, Creative Nonfiction, and Copper Nickle.

Michael’s recent memoir Teacher: Two Years in the Mississippi Delta illuminates his experiences teaching in rural black public schools in Mississippi, depicting clashes between educational ideals and realities. Mario Alberto Zambrano (Lotería: A Novel) called the book “heartbreaking and crucial,” and Katie Williams (The Space Between Trees) called it “a work of tremendous skill, honesty, and heart.”

Allie Sipe is a senior at Southern Oregon University who will graduate at the end of June, after which she will teach in Rhode Island through Teach For America.

AS: Tell us a little about your background. How did you come to serve as a corps member for Teach For America in the Mississippi Delta?

MC: I graduated Stanford, where I’d been a college wrestler and also the chair of the Hapa Issues Forum, a multiracial Asian-American advocacy group—that is, I was driven and social justice oriented.  TFA sounded like a good next step, a worthy cause.

AS: Can you talk about translating your experiences with Teach For America into writing a memoir? What did that process look like?

MC:  It took me many, many years to write well about the experiences—I needed the clarifying distance of time to be able to reflect and reckon with what the experience came to mean.  I wrote long emails to family and friends when I was there which was valuable source material—and I wrote many of the pieces of the memoir discretely, publishing piece by piece.

AS: Did you discover anything intriguing or surprising about your time in the Delta when revisiting your experiences to write your memoir?

MC: I found that while I thought I was full of regret and guilt, what I was finally experiencing was longing to be back there with the kids I taught, who I cared about so much that I had been unable to let go of.  I found out that perhaps I had been a good teacher after all.

AS: When reading your book, I was particularly struck by the gap between educators’ idealistic goals for students and the incredibly difficult realities those students endure. At one point, you refer to this as teaching “children with so much promise and so little opportunity.” Can you speak a little more about that?

MC: I went to Mississippi imagining that I could remake the world—take the burden and consequences of slavery and racism and segregation and poverty and create justice, which is to say, give deserving children a chance to learn and so realize the American dream through education.  That proved far more difficult than I knew, as teaching is an art, and while what teachers do does resonate out of sight, it does so invisibly through years and years.  I left believing I’d failed.

AS: One of my favorite parts of your book was reading the notes that students wrote to you and left in your mailbox, as well as reading the poems students wrote in class. Especially in the poetry assignment where students used metaphors to write about their past, present, and future, students’ authentic voices came to life. Why was poetry such an appropriate vessel for students’ voices and stories?

MC:  Those kids, who spoke AAVE in the particular Delta variation of Southern idiomatic English—well, they had style and verve and an ear for rhythm, and they knew the world they inhabited, which was rough and bleak at times, but also beautiful, and richer for the intensity of their experiences.  Their voices were dazzling because poetry freed them from the burdens of grammar conventions which were not native, and because poetry, when freed from the stuffy halls of academia, values life and affirms it, raw and vital and present.

AS: Near the end of your book, you write that, “Teach For America’s merit is that it bridges the gap between worlds.” After reading your book, your work now as a professor at the University of Oregon who works with low-income, first generation students seems to be a commitment to this work of bridging gaps. How would you say that your experiences with TFA in the Delta inform you as a writing teacher today?

MC: The lessons I learned in Mississippi are the lessons I relearn today, again and again, in teaching students who have often come from difficult backgrounds—not to make assumptions, but to listen.  To value students’ experiences and try to make them matter in how learning happens, so that one’s identity is not erased.  Patience, compassion, kindness.

AS: Do you have any advice for emerging teachers and writers?

MC: Teach with passion—if you don’t care, why should your students?  Write from the heart—puffery, tricks, and cleverness don’t hold up, but the truth does, even it is itself insufficient.

AS: Thanks so much for talking with us.


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An Interview with Jan Wright

Jan Wright is the founder and director of Wright Research and Archives, the archivist for Harry and David in Medford, Oregon, and the former Director of the Talent Historical Society. She is the author of Images of America: Talent (Arcadia, 2009). She is working on a book project to be titled Imperfect Apostle John Beeson, Advocate for Native Americans.

EB: Can you tell our readers a little bit about John Beeson?

JW: Injustice made John Beeson squirm. When he saw something that inflicted pain or wrong on any group of people, particularly the American Indians, he took action. Regardless of the personal consequences to himself or his family, he went straight to the source of the problem and confronted politicians, Indian agents, volunteer Indian fighters, newspaper editors and unfeeling ministers. His fire kept a smoldering camp of Beeson haters who belittled him and his mission whenever they could. Somewhat of a mystic, he fell into Spiritualism and was visited by ghostly messengers who guided him from beyond the grave.

EB: How did you get interested in his story?

JW: I resisted John Beeson for years. I was more attracted to telling the locally significant story of his son, Welborn Beeson, as it unfolded from his amazing diaries. Of course, Welborn wrote about his father’s whereabouts in the east and what he said about the father son relationship fascinated me. My research trips to New York, Illinois and DC turned up so much information about John Beeson that I gave way to the story that had a more national appeal and was so intertwined with the fate of Native Americans.

EB: Beeson wrote the Plea for the Indians in 1857. How was that received?

JW: Written after he was forced to leave Oregon, a Plea for the Indians launched his long career as an advocate for the Indians. He used the book effectively as an introduction to the the East Coast lecture circle. To the city dwellers, he was considered a credible witness of the far west experience but generally the people of the West, derided and condemned him as too soft on “savages.” He eventually became a reliable speaker at suffrage gatherings, abolitionist meetings, churches, government councils and as a form of entertainment with a troupe of Indian singers. One of his speeches in Buffalo, NY was attended by President-Elect, Abraham Lincoln, on his way to his own inauguration. After Lincoln moved to the White House, John Beeson, was invited as a guest to deliver his Indian message along with his favored Indian songstress, Larooqua.

EB: He returned to Oregon later. How was he received by his family and the community?

JW: After being gone for 8 years 8 months and 1 day, John returned (in 1865) to his family on Wagner Creek near present day Talent, Oregon. It was not an easy adjustment to be once again in a rural setting with farm work to do. He was used to crowds of people paying to get in to see him, to making appeals before Congress, to organizing peace groups at the Cooper Union in New York, but on Wagner Creek he was a farmer behind the plow like the rest of his neighbors. His attempts to give lectures in Jacksonville and Ashland were not well attended and though people tolerated his presence, he was out of his element and not generally respected.

His wife, Ann, died while he was home but she only wanted her son, Welborn, to be at her side. John was in the field plowing corn and was unaware of her death until he saw the neighbors gathering at their home to prepare her body for burial.

In the fall of 1867 John left for the East Coast again, hoping he could still be of use to the Indians on a national level. He was 77 years old and nearly deaf on his final return to Oregon in 1880.

EB: His life—and his story–seem to be very relevant today, I think. What connections do you see to current affairs?

JW: He told the truth as he saw it, blew the whistle when he had to, and was willing to stand alone to face his enemies. He envisioned an America that stuck to its stated values and principles and engaged in a non-stop quest for justice as a full-time occupation. He lived on the stranger’s dime, traveled in stage coaches, trains and on foot to school houses, churches, state houses, mansions and cabins to organize a national movement to seek a better outcome for the Indians. His story was a microcosm of what was going on all over America. He walked up the steps of each state capitol, each neighborhood, and visited each congregation with the news of the day and with the same old story. He wore the mantle of leadership without seeking exorbitant compensation. That kind of leadership is manifest in today’s organizations (such as Indivisible) that keep the pressure on local representatives to mind the will of the people. Beeson’s struggles show us that each generation adds a personal narrative and a new baseline from which to start but each has to vigilantly improve the workings of democracy and combat greed, corruption and racism.

EB: There must be some interesting local sources on Beeson in the Talent and Southern Oregon Historical Society archives. What sorts of material are you finding?

JW: The Welborn Beeson diaries are the single most outstanding source of information about the Beeson family and the historical, social and political events in Southern Oregon. They span the years 1851-1893 and began when the Beeson’s still lived in Illinois. The diary was tucked away at the University of Oregon Special Collections until 2006 when the Talent Historical Society had them microfilmed and repatriated to Talent.

Southern Oregon Historical Society has a photo album which includes some photos of John Beeson and his family and copies of correspondence from friends and relatives. The living descendants of John and Ann Beeson are very much engaged with the progress of the book and have shared family photos and archived information.

EB: Are there important sources about Beeson elsewhere? I understand he lived in New York for a time.

JW: British born John and Ann Beeson arrived in New York in 1830 on the ship Samuel Robertson. John who had been trained as a confectioner in England, followed that occupation in Ithaca and Troy, NY until the family moved to Illinois. I have visited the New York state archives in Albany to do research on the Beeson family and have been in contact with the New York Public Library and the Cooper Union to obtain more information about John while he lived in that state.

I also visited the site of the farm in Illinois where Beesons lived for over 20 years and corresponded with the family who live on that property. My sister and I did extensive research at the courthouse in Ottawa, IL and elsewhere to document that portion of their lives. Newspapers from Maine to Rhode Island, from New York to Philadelphia, from Minnesota to Illinois and of course, Oregon all have multiple articles about John Beeson’s lectures and performances, his resolutions and petitions.

EB: You’ve launched a kickstarter campaign to support the research project. What was that experience like?

JW: The Kickstarter experience has changed the way I view the book. When the campaign ends on June 12th, I will know precisely who my audience is. I feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude and responsibility to make the book meet expectations and to follow the truth with accuracy and finesse. From the Mayor of Talent to a widow lady in Ashland, from my former boss, to my own children, people have come through for me and joined in the dream to resurrect John Beeson’s voice. I acknowledge that my journey has been a bit backwards, that the cart is before the horse when I talk about a book that does not yet exist.

In a sense, I am taking up my mission in much the same way as John Beeson did by asking for financial help to relieve me of the worry of earning my daily bread with a 9-5 job while I write the book.

Community support has made me a bit nicer and more disciplined and made me more likely to support others in their dreams as well.

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

JW: It’s been a pleasure. Thank you.

Posted in Interviews | Comments Off on An Interview with Jan Wright

An Interview with Allison Brennan, a guest post by Kelly Brennan

New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Allison Brennan believes life’s too short to be bored, so she had five kids and writes three books a year. She’s currently writing two series–the Lucy Kincaid thriller series about an FBI agent who believes the rules are there for a reason, and the Maxine Revere cold case mystery series about an investigative reporter who believes the rules are meant to be broken.

Her upcoming release SHATTERED brings her two series characters together for the first time.

Allison lives in Northern California with her family and assorted pets.

Kelly Brennan is an Interdisciplinary Studies major emphasizing in English and Graphic Design at Southern Oregon University.

KB: How did you decide to make a career in writing?

AB: I’ve always wanted to be a writer. When I was 13, I read THE STAND by Stephen King and wrote him a fan letter. I told him I wanted to be a writer “when I grew up.” He sent me back a post card that said, “If you want to be a writer, write.” It took me years before I understood what he meant.

Life happened. I dropped out of college and got a job in the California State Legislature. I got married, had kids, had a career. After my son was born in 2001, I reflected that I was over 30, unhappy in my job and dissatisfied with my life. I read 77 books (all fiction) while on maternity leave and remembered my dream of being a writer. Two books in particular inspired me – THE THIRD VICTIM by Lisa Gardner and THE SEARCH by Iris Johansen. I gave up television for three years and wrote every night from nine until midnight. It took mey five manuscripts before I found an agent who then sold my book in a three-book deal. I quit my day job and never looked back.

KB: You’ve written thirty books in several series—how do you keep all the series and characters straight?

AB: Short answer: I don’t. I’ve made several mistakes over the course of my longest running series (the Lucy Kincaid series now with 12 books.) I’ve inadvertently changed minor details in the physical description of my characters (Lucy’s brother has had three different eye colors!) and another minor character started out as a Marine vet and is now an Army vet.

I wish I had kept a “book bible” as one of my writer friends calls it. Essentially, a journal of all characters and basic physical description and backstory. I don’t mess up my main characters – they feel very real to me, so even if I don’t mention something, I already know it. But the minor characters? Yes, I’ve made mistakes.

Recently, I finished writing SHATTERED (on sale August 22, 2017) which is a cross-over book starring my two series main characters. Before I wrote it, I re-read several scenes from previous books to make sure that I got certain details right. This was crucial because the book is about the twenty-year-old cold case murder of Lucy Kincaid’s nephew when he (and Lucy) were only seven. I knew readers would remember the details because it was a turning point in Lucy’s life, so I had to make sure that I didn’t get something wrong.

KB: Is there a theme that runs through all your work? Justice, perhaps?

AB: Yes, probably justice. I don’t write with a specific theme in mind, but my books always have a happy (or bittersweet) ending. I think in life we often see that justice isn’t served. That the bad guys get away with awful crimes and innocent people suffer. While people suffer in my books (otherwise I wouldn’t be writing crime fiction!), the bad guy always gets what’s coming to him. My mother pointed out that I kill off all my bad guys at the end of the book. That’s not completely true … but it’s mostly true. 🙂

Another theme that shows up in most of my books is the idea that we’re not an island. My main character often feels that they are the only person who cares about solving a specific crime, or that they can do it by themselves. Over the course of the story, they realize that they are not the only person that cares, and that sometimes they need the help of others to save the day – that asking for help is not a crime.

KB: You seem to have a lot of fun writing, sometimes even putting real people in the books. Tell us about that.

AB: Yes, I love writing. Doing what you love as a way to earn a living? There’s nothing better.

I don’t put real people in books per se, but there have been times I’ve used people’s names. I’ve done a lot of charity fundraisers (for example, the Sacramento County Friends of the Library) where patrons will pay a lot of money to have their name in a book. I don’t use anything about them, just their name, and they have to sign a disclaimer. For example, one person became an underage prostitute; another became a cop; and friends of the family became victims of a serial killer.

I did, however, use traits of my brother-in-law Kevin Brennan as the basis of creating my serial killer in THE HUNT. I interviewed Kevin as research – he’s a wildlife biologist, and my killer was a wildlife biologist. He helped me make my bad guy very realistic, and gave me some great technical and geographic information that helped my good guys identify and stop the killer. Kevin also helped with my book CUTTING EDGE that started with research ducks being released by eco-terrorists, ultimately threatening an entire species.

KB: What sort of research goes into the books? Do you have FBI or police consultants?

AB: I love research. Other than the actual writing, research is my favorite part of writing!
I extensively research for all my books. I learned the hard way in one of my earliest novels that getting the details right is important not just for me, but for reader enjoyment. (I got a medical detail wrong and several nurses emailed me about the same error.) I have several friends who are in all areas of law enforcement who I can call upon at any time, which is my primary source of information. I have a library of more than fifty books about crime, the criminal justice system, forensics, and criminal psychology. I’ve toured the morgue, viewed an autopsy, been on ride-alongs with local law enforcement, participated in the FBI citizens academy, have been a role player in numerous FBI-SWAT training exercises, and participated in the Writer’s Police Academy where I was invited to speak about how to research when you’re not an expert on anything.

While researching STALKED, for example, I visited the FBI Academy at Quantico and toured the facility. This was my second trip east for research purposes. I was able to walk around the campus, question the media representative, talk to some of the recruits and trainers, watch drills, and learn as much as possible about what it’s like to be an FBI Agent-in-Training without actually going through the process. All this helped immensely in writing a story about a murder at Quantico.

One of my favorite research books is BOOK OF POISONS put out in the “Howdunit” series by Writers Digest. I’ve used it extensively, and recently have been perusing it to find the perfect weapon to kill someone slowly.

KB: What do you enjoy most about writing, or about being a writer?

AB: This is a surprisingly difficult question to answer. It would be easy to say, “I love writing” because it’s true, but that’s not really an answer. I love creating a story filled with characters that readers can believe—at least for a short time—actually exist. My favorite fan letters and reviews will say that I kept them up until the wee hours of the morning. That makes me feel like I’ve done my job – that I’ve given someone a reason to keep reading past their bedtime.

KB: What’s the worst part of being a writer?

AB: Sometimes, the stress of life makes writing next to impossible. Whether it’s worries about finances, or health, or my kids – if I have a major issue to deal with, creativity takes a backseat. When I have a deadline, this is doubly stressful because I know I HAVE to write to meet my deadline, but the situation makes it impossible to focus and create. Anytime you make your living through the creative arts, outside pressure can have a devastating affect on the end product. I think this is why many creative people develop chemical dependancy (drugs or alcohol) because sometimes to push aside the personal conflicts the creative person uses artifical solutions. In the short term it works. In the long term, it creates even more problems.

KB: How do you juggle five kids while writing full time?

AB: I have worked full-time since I was 20 years old and dropped out of college. There are many working mothers out there – women who work 9-to-5 or more—in order to provide for their family. Writing is my job – it’s how I make my living. And while in some ways it is more demanding and stressful than when I was working 9-to-5 in the Legislature, I have more flexibility. I can, for example, take a few hours off to go on a field trip or drive a kid to practice. I make up the writing time at night or early in the morning.

I would much rather have flexibility than to be stuck in one cubicle for eight hours straight.

KB: What is the editorial process like for you? What kind of feedback is most helpful?

AB: I have been blessed with great editors.

My first editor, Charlotte, taught me the most – she taught me how to self-edit and how to recognize story flaws. She made me a better writer. I’m with a different publisher, but the editorial process is similar: I write a good book. My editor reads the book and asks questions about the character and story that help me revise my book into something much, much better.

The editorial process is not really a simple process. To create a book worth publishing, I go through several steps:

    1) I write the first draft. This is my “sloppy copy” – because I don’t plot, this is basically a rough draft that I also keep notes in. Meaning, if I don’t think something is working I might write notes to myself to look at certain scenes or threads.
    2) My rewrite. Though I edit as I write, when I get to “the end” I will go back to the beginning and do a more thorough edit/rewrite and address any major story problems I can see.
    3) I send this next draft to my editor. She sends me notes, sometimes with the manuscript attached, and I then revise the entire book.
    4) Copyedits. Most of the time, I only go through one round of editor revisions before the book goes to copyedits. This is the stage where the copyeditor conforms the book to house style, identifies any grammatical issues, and queries potential plot problems. (For example, in my first novel I had a character exit the same scene twice!) I get to review the copyedits and make any additional changes. I might tweak the book a bit – word choices, trimming repetition, etc. I might add/delete a scene but not any major revisions.
    5) Page Proofs/Galleys. The revised copyedits go back to my publisher to be set for print. I get a set of proofs before they go to print. This is where I look for minor errors (mostly in typesetting) or tweak content to make it as strong as it can be.

KB: What are your favorite books/writers? Who inspires you the most?

AB: I read a lot of mysteries growing up. I was born in 1969 … we didn’t have a Young Adult genre. The YA section was a mere shelf in the library. I started with Encyclopedia Brown and moved on to Trixie Belden then Two-Minute Mysteries and Nancy Drew and then my mother’s Agatha Christie collection. When I was 13 I read THE STAND, my first Stephen King novel, and never looked back. King is the master of character and suspense … few have come even close.

As an adult, I’m most inspired by Lisa Gardner, J.D. Robb, Michael Connelly, Lee Child, and Ray Bradbury. FAHRENHEIT 451 is still one of my all-time favorite books. Though I write crime fiction that focuses on the thriller elements of writing, my dream is to write a utopian/dystopian series. I have always been drawn to the “what ifs” in the world around me.

KB: What advice do you have for aspiring writers?

AB: My advice changes with my mood. The first bit of advice? Write what you love. Never write to trends because by the time you’re done, the trend will have passed.

Posted in Ideas and Opinions, Interviews | Comments Off on An Interview with Allison Brennan, a guest post by Kelly Brennan

In Defense of Valley Girl English, a guest post by Reilly Nycum

Reilly Nycum is an English and History double major in the Honors College at SOU.

In Defense of Valley Girl English: I’m, like, so totally gonna ace this paper.

When one hears Valley girl English, the eyerolls almost become audible. Images of skinny girls prancing around in short skirts at the mall are instantly conjured. In the early 1980s, musical artist Frank Zappa released “Valley Girl,” a song depicting stereotypical Valley girl English, thus forever immortalizing the term for users and listeners alike. In the song, Zappa chants “She’s a Valley Girl / And there is no cure” as a high-pitched voice whines about her superficial life in the Valley: “Like, OH MY GOD! / Like-TOTALLY / Encino is like SO BITCHEN” (Zappa). Zappa’s easily recognizable depiction of Valley girl English, the term specifically prescribed to the dialect spoken by those living in and around the San Fernando Valley, resonates with listeners in several ways. People attach a stigma to Valley girl English to such an extent that most seem to revile the dialect and label its distinctions as bad habits. Many fail listen past the parodies and satire to pay attention to what is being said. However, the characteristics of Valley girl English, such as vowel shifting, the quotative and non-quotative like, slang, and uptalk demonstrate the assets of a legitimate dialect that is spreading throughout the nation.

The vowel shifting observed in Valley girl English represents a change in language observed in many other American dialects. In a study conducted at the University of California, Berkeley, linguists noted that back vowels are shifting forward in Valley girl English, “front vowels have raised variants in some phonological environments and lowered variants elsewhere” (Bucholtz et. al 125). This vowel shifting has also been observed in dialects in Philadelphia and Detroit (125). Though other dialects are experiencing a vowel shift, people connect the change with Valley girl English. For instance, in “Valley Girl” Zappa satirizes the vowel shift in words such as “super” or “totally,” pronouncing them by fronting the /o/ sound. Do You Speak American?, a book studying various dialect trends across the United States, expands on the UC Berkeley findings by explaining how this vowel shift and other vowel shifts are a part of a larger trend in the United States: “These linguists also found some chain-shifting of vowels resembling William Labov’s Northern Cities Shift around the Great Lakes—black sounding like block” (MacNeil and Cran 161). Characteristics of the Northern Cities Shift, first defined by linguist William Labov, began far before the creation of the Valley girl dialect (38). When characterizing Valley girl English, it remains important to recognize that the vernacular borrows from the vowel shift but does not represent a completely new change in the language. Vowel-shifting, while an important trait in the Valley girl dialect, is not unique to the vernacular despite its cultural association.

The term like, often looked down upon as a meaningless interjection used by the younger generations, also did not originate from Valley girl English. In an article titled “Like and Language Ideology: Disentangling Fact From Fiction,” Alexandra D’Arcy, a professor at the University of Canterbury, calls attention to the myths surrounding like and concentrates on its tangible usage in the language (D’Arcy 386). D’Arcy systematically breaks down various stereotypes surrounding like, including the erroneous belief that the practice began with Valley girls (391). By analyzing many different speech patterns, D’Arcy gathered that the frequency of like usage does not correlate with the beginning of Valley girl English but only heightens with the advent of the dialect (405). Moreover, she points out that the term “Valley Girl” did not even come into existence until the 1980s: “Stated differently, outside its local milieu, “Valley Girl” was not an active model for association, linguistic or otherwise, until after 1980” (404). The assumption that like began with the Valley girls contradicts the fact that the use of like as “discourse marker, a discourse particle, and an adverb of approximation” came into existence far before the creation of the Valley girl dialect (405). In addition, D’Arcy’s identification of like as containing much more meaning than an empty conversation filler or a verbal tic shows the true range of expressions like has in the language. Her analyses also reveal that like has set significations that set out rules of when to use like or not (395). Instead of viewing like as a signal of uncertainty D’Arcy calls to mind that linguistic trends almost always have hidden rules that outsiders do not understand. Although the myths surrounding like attach original usage and a pointless meaning to Valley girl English, there is no logical basis for that assumption.

The use of quotatives such as be like, say, and go, carry a similar connotation as like but have a different purpose. Three scholars from Cornell University studied the phenomenon of be like as a way for speakers to introduce both “inner monologue or direct speech” to add a certain level of emphasis depending on usage (Blyth, et. al 215). After leading a study examining the dialects of a diverse group of people, the researchers came to the conclusion that “be like is functionally versatile and therefore may have more staying power in the lexicon” (225). Without an understanding of the intricacies of quotatives such as be like, listeners misunderstand the intention behind them. They only hear phrases unfamiliar to their vernacular and associate the change with a degradation of the language by younger generations. As with like, the quotatives be like, say, and go do not correlate with the advent of Valley girl English. In fact, some scholars classify the usage of be like as a convergence between Black English Vernacular and White English Vernacular (216). Additionally, say and go offer a much more complex range of expressions than outsiders generally apprehend. Outside listeners often think that go is a synonym for say and fail to see the difference between the two. Scholars notice that “the use of go correlates with only the dramatic use of historical present and direct speech” (216). Although many non-speakers identify the uses of these quotatives as a demeaned and illogical use of the language, the quotatives signify far more to speakers who comprehend the particulars of their vernacular.

Slang also plays a large role in distinguishing Valley girl English. Terms such as those used in the influential 1995 film Clueless characterize the vernacular in the eyes of those who hear and speak it (MacNeil and Cran 157). Although movies and television do not change people’s speech, Clueless does seem to influence Valley girl English, especially in relation to slang, and may act as an exception to this rule (157). Linguists Robert MacNeil and William Cran endeavored to catalog Valley girl slang by conducting a study on teenagers from Irvine (159). After giving the teenagers cameras to record their speech for several days in both personal and formal environments, MacNeil and Cran asked the teens to help them compile a dictionary of the terms they used throughout the footage (159). In this dictionary, MacNeil and Cran notice “Ten of the twenty-two expressions listed above are borrowed from black talk, or, as a student called it, ‘the ghetto fab vernacular that many teens use today’” (161). Just as with the quotative be like, slang terms get appropriated in the Valley girl dialect. This carrying over of linguistic characteristics complicates the current opinion on Valley girl English. Much of the vernacular does not show any original movements in language; however, the dialect does call to attention the changes that are happening. While many correlate slang terms and other linguistic trends to the creation of Valley girl English, this may only be due to the massive media coverage of the dialect.

Uptalk, much like other language developments related to Valley girl English, tends to be overexaggerated by the media and thus labelled as yet another horrible trend led by the younger generations. James Gorman coined the term uptalk in a 1993 New York Times article titled ON LANGUAGE; Like, uptalk? (Warren 6). According to Gorman, uptalk is defined by a rising intonation at the end of a sentence that transforms the sentence into a question (Gorman). Although Gorman correctly defines uptalk, his further account of the trend reveals his bias against the tonal shift: “Nobody knows exactly where uptalk came from. It might have come from California, from Valley Girl talk … Some twentysomethings say uptalk is part of their attitude: cool, ironic, uncommitted” (Gorman). While it seems extremely doubtful that “young twentysomethings” consider uptalk as a part of their “cool, ironic, and uncommitted” attitude, Gorman’s comments certainly reflect the popular perception of uptalk. People interpret uptalk as an act of doubt and stupidity, characteristics also imbued onto Valley girl English. Gorman states later in his article the idea that “Uptalk won’t be uptalk anymore. It will be, like, American English?” (Gorman). While Gorman does not condone the spread of uptalk, he hits on an interesting aspect of the trend. Uptalk is spreading amongst all genders, ages, and areas. While people regularly connect uptalk with Valley girl English, uptalk extends into many other dialects and languages.

People tend to instill negative implications on uptalk, in part due to portrayals in the media and articles like Gorman’s; however, it remains a lasting and prevalent trend. In a book titled Uptalk by Paul Warren, an Associate Professor at Victoria University, Warren thoroughly investigates the mechanics behind uptalk as well as the media’s depiction of the shift. In a sample examining 182 media portrayals of uptalk, Warren noted “a sizable minority (78) were clearly negative or condemning of uptalk … If speaker sex was mentioned, then it was almost always to indicate that uptalk was a typical female trait” (Warren 129). The way the media depicts uptalk creates a general distaste for the intonation which fosters an unhealthy view of the quickly spreading trend. The misrepresentation of uptalk as being a feature only found in young, female speakers shows misrepresentation of a trend that is used by many different types of people, including men and the older generations. While Warren did notice that females and younger people tend to use uptalk with a higher frequency, men and older people use uptalk far more than most people acknowledge (111). Furthermore, rather than defining uptalk as a feature of indecisiveness, Warren suggests that it may indicate “openness, only in this case they are inviting the listener to participate in the conversation, or to indicate their understanding of what has been said. It is used to share information rather than to tell (or to question)” (188). Warren’s findings on the intentions of uptalk challenges negative views on the trend and give a less biased perspective on uptalk as a whole. The confusion around the purpose of uptalk and its association with a small subset of speakers severely understates the real impact of uptalk on modern dialects and people.

Despite the fact that the California dialect finds representation in many songs, movies, and television shows, relatively few scholars have studied the range of dialects in the area. Carmen Fought, a professor of linguistics at Pitzer University, was the first to conduct a study in 2002 to help gain clarity on the dialectology of California (Fought 113). In her study, Fought handed 122 respondents, 112 of them from California and therefore included in the analysis, a blank map of the United States (114). She told the respondents, students in an undergraduate linguistics class, to mark the boundaries between where they thought people starting speaking distinct dialects (114). The methodology that Fought utilizes in her study acts as tool for linguists to help them understand not only how people distinguish different dialects but also how they perceive their own dialect. After examining the maps she received, Fought noticed that “California is associated with good English, but never proper … It seems that California is a state caught between a general aura of desirability and a specific association with negative linguistic stereotypes” (133). The slight distinction between ‘good’ and ‘proper’ reveals the confusion Californians feel about their dialect. Additionally, in perceptual dialectology it has been found that people rate California very highly in respect to ‘correctness’ or ‘politeness’ but rate the Valley Girl dialect as a signal of low intelligence (127). While Californians have the same “local preference factor” as others, they do not see their dialect as something that could be considered ‘correct.’ Although Fought’s study operates under the constraints of a small sample size, the results reveal a significant aspect about the biases Californians hold about their own speech patterns.

Other studies have been conducted since Fought’s that reveal information about the way Californians and non-Californians view dialects. In a study published in the Journal of English Linguistics titled “Hella Nor Cal or Totally So Cal? The Perceptual Dialectology of California,” undergraduate field workers at UC Santa Barbara used the blank map methodology with an included survey to help distinguish how people see their home state’s dialect as well other dialects (Bucholtz et. al 329). The survey also asked respondents to identify the places they thought spoke the best and worst English (329). The results generally showed a high degree of salience in the Los Angeles region, most likely due to the fact that the largest group of respondents identified the Los Angeles area as their home state (338). Researchers also documented that while nonresidents thought they had a greater degree of confidence when labelling California, their responses reflect biases found in the media: “Nevertheless, this higher degree of salience does not necessarily lead to a higher degree of accuracy in the perceptions of nonresidents, which focus on the most stereotypical and highly visible aspects of California’s language and culture” (349). Even if people live and grow up around those who speak Valley girl English or other well publicized California dialects, they still carry the prejudice reflected in popular media about the dialect. Still, despite this data people are still inclined to rate California as speaking ‘good’ English (348). This study and others reveals the role of perceptual dialectology in revealing the perceptions people hold due to the vast influence of media and other cultural phenomena.

The way people think about Valley girl English finds a basis in many facets of popular culture. Popular culture, however, tends to overstate the qualities of Valley girl English and transform the vernacular into something inexorably linked to materialism and superficiality. This presents many issues when attempting to understand the dialect because it fosters an inherent predisposition against its characteristics. In addition, this prejudice causes people to understand Valley girl English as a dialect only spoken by a certain type of person, the Valley girl. This simply does not account for the wide usage of the facets of Valley girl English, such as the quotative be like and uptalk. While one may feel that Valley girl English sounds ‘dumb’ or ‘air-headed,’ its features are not unusual and may even be appropriated from other vernaculars. Furthermore, the changes observed in Valley girl English are growing increasingly apparent in other dialects across the United States. When people dismiss dialect patterns as purposeless and annoying, they fail to recognize the ways in which people utilize the patterns as a valid way of communication. Studies on Valley girl English offer a glimpse into an important dialect trend and call attention to the generally one-sided view of the vernacular in popular media.

Works Cited

    Blyth, Carl, Sigrid Recktenwald, and Jenny Wang. “‘I’m Like, ‘Say What?!’: A New Quotative in American Oral Narrative.” American Speech, 65.3, (1990): 215–227. JSTOR. 19 Feb. 2017.

    Bucholtz, Mary, Nancy Bermudez, Victor Fung, Lisa Edwards, and Rosalva Vargas. “Hella Nor Cal or Totally So Cal? The Perceptual Dialectology of California.” Journal of English Linguistics 35.4 (2007): 325-352. Web. 19 Feb. 2017.

    D’Arcy, Alexandra “Like and Language Ideology: Disentangling Fact From Fiction” American Speech, 82. 4 (2007): 386-418. Web. 20 Feb. 2017.

    Gorman, James. “ON LANGUAGE; Like, Uptalk?” The New York Times. The New York Times, 15 Aug. 1993. Web. 19 Feb. 2017.

    Fought, Carmen. “California Students Perceptions of, You Know, Regions and Dialects?” Handbook of Perceptual Dialectology, Volume 2, edited by Daniel Long and Dennis Preston, John Benjamins Publishing Company, 2002, pp. 113-134.

    Hinton, Leanne, Birch Moonwomon, Sue Bremner, Herb Luthin, Mary Van Clay, Jean Lerner, and Hazel Corcoran. “It’s Not Just the Valley Girls: A Study of California English.” Annual Meeting of the Berkeley Linguistics Society [Online], 13 (1987): 117-128. Web. 28 Feb. 2017.

    MacNeil, Robert, and William Cran. Do You Speak American? Harcourt, Inc, 2005.

    Warren, Paul. Uptalk. Cambridge University Press, 2016.

    Zappa, Frank. “Valley Girl.” Ship Arriving too late to save a drowning witch, Barking Pumpkin Records, 1982.

Posted in Ideas and Opinions, Language | Comments Off on In Defense of Valley Girl English, a guest post by Reilly Nycum

It’s All about Class, a guest post by Laura Payne

Laura Payne is a senior at Southern Oregon University, majoring in English Education, minoring in creative writing, and studying Japanese independently.

It’s All about Class: The Americanization Movement’s English Education

The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries cultivated a boom in English as a second language teaching methods throughout the United States. Various institutions hoped that the learning of a single language and ideology would promote a sense of unity and national identity among the country’s increasingly diverse population. However, the methods employed to teach non-native English speakers at this time defined the English language not simply as a form of communication, but as a tool for imperialism and a justification for extreme nativism. At this point in history, the Americanization Movement transformed English education and the language itself into a controversy that helped to shape ethics in language education.

Education, like any tool, garners different connotations depending on its vision and use. According to author, Tim William Machan, English education “has been among the most consequential and controversial of the domains that define English in the language’s original and expanding homelands” (Machan 213). This statement especially applies to the education of Native American children during the Americanization Movement because the reasons behind their English education transcended straightforward language learning. For Native American students, mastery of English defined their level of civilization in the eyes of the United States (235). In 1880, the Board of Indian Commissioners asked, “If the common school is the glory and boast of our American civilization, why not extend its blessings to the 50,000 benighted children of the red men of our country that they…may…speedily emerge from the ignorance of centuries?” (222). Additionally, after an 1887 report mandated that English be the only language spoken in Native American boarding schools, Commissioner John Atkins commented that learning English was the first step towards “teaching the Indians the mischief and folly of continuing their barbarous practices” (224). In other words, a Native American child speaking their own language in the late nineteenth century was associated with inferiority and savagery because this was how white Americans in the late nineteenth century viewed Native culture. However, because white Americans spoke English and viewed themselves as civilized, they reasoned that an ability to speak English was a marker of a civilized person.

Attitudes similar to those towards educating Native American children in English persisted in the education of immigrant children. Immigrants newly arrived to big cities were often stuck in low-paying jobs that offered little chance for social advancement and lived in poor, linguistically isolated neighborhoods where exposure to English was rare (Machan 242-243). As a consequence, early twentieth century Americans judged immigrants’ living standards and language ability as indicators of flawed character and genetic inferiority rather than results of various social structures (242-243). Therefore, teaching American ideologies and the English language to both adults and children was considered a patriotic duty because it would protect the United States’ supposed “purity” (Kraver) and prevent immigrants from changing the United States (Kraver). The main goal of immigrant education at the turn of the century was homogeneity; specifically a homogeneity based around the values of the Protestant Anglo-Saxon middle class (Kraver).

However, despite its widely acknowledged importance, English as a second language teaching methods severely lacked the innovation necessary to fully grant students a mastery of English. In some cases, teachers in ESL programs were not career teachers but housewives, factory mechanics, and other U.S. citizens who became ESL teachers to fulfill what was considered a patriotic duty. Also, teachers in ESL programs, especially those meant for immigrants, were discouraged from developing their own lesson plans and pedagogy in favor of subscribing to scripted, standardized lesson plans (Ray 15-16). A series of ESL teaching manuals published in the early twentieth century required teachers to recite lesson plans scripted “down to the sentence” (22). Classes scripted through such manuals might assume a teacher’s inexperience and dictate a lesson consisting of no more than ten different sentences with accompanying body language. For example, a lesson plan might instruct a teacher to say, “I walk to the door,” and “I turn the knob,” while performing the action the sentence refers to (24). One manual in particular only encouraged teachers to adapt their lessons to their students’ needs towards the end of ten different units (24-25). Linguists and historians speculate that, while intentions may have been good, the effect of lessons such as these were created to the end that students could perform domestic and technical duties while largely remaining in subservient social positions.

Indian boarding schools especially demonstrate language education that ultimately ensured students would remain subservient. For example, one grammar written specifically for the teaching of Native students emphasized vocabulary more than syntax or any other aspect of English. Also, boarding school English lessons at large relied heavily on rote memorization and recitation. While such methods can help to improve the English of a student who is already familiar with the language, evidence suggests that Native students who were completely unfamiliar with English developed gaps in their knowledge because of their schooling. Several late nineteenth century students of Indian boarding schools have been quoted writing letters with sentences such as, “I suppose you think I ought very good English speak by this time, but I cannot very well yet. I know a great many words, but not how together to put them,” (Machan 230). In addition, while standard American common schools at the time centered English lessons around topics such as civic duty and morality, Indian boarding school lessons tended to focus more heavily on manual labor (236). A spelling lesson for a first grade girl, for example, consisted of words such as, “clothes, soak, wash, rinse, tubs, iron,” and “starch,” (237). Ultimately, though, the greatest disservice done to Native students through boarding school English lessons was the isolation they suffered after leaving school. In some areas, the only people students knew who they could speak English with were teachers from boarding schools and other students (237). As Machan writes, this invited students to “join a group that didn’t exist” (237) and marginalized them when the purpose of their education had been a promise for elevation. In the case of Indian boarding schools, English was a marker of isolation rather than civilization.

In contrast to the effects of the Indian boarding schools, the Americanization of immigrant children and their families through English was somewhat successful because immigrant communities were allowed to participate in their own education. Whereas Native children were forced to leave home and attend segregated boarding schools, immigrants in large cities had slightly more options; particularly where the education of adults was concerned. In 1890, college-educated middle class Protestant reformers helped to establish settlement houses; facilities in poorer immigrant communities that attempted to bridge the gap between immigrants and the larger society through education (Salomone 28-29). Granted, settlement house education possessed flaws such as patronizing lessons that reminded adult students, “In America “We sit down at the table. We take our napkins. We eat slowly,” (Kraver). However, from a linguistics perspective, the fact that settlement houses offered certain classes specifically for adult women greatly increased the likelihood that immigrant children and the immigrant community at large would eventually master English.

According to Robert MacNeil and William Cran in their book, Do You Speak American?, when and how a language changes is driven by women. MacNeil and Cran write, “Young women are always alert to novelty in fashion, but certain young women are willing to embrace it sooner, and some have the natural authority to induce others to follow,” (Cran, MacNeil, 42). In other words, because women are more likely than men to be aware of and accept social trends, they are the most likely candidates to be the first to expand a trend to other people; especially if a woman is in a position of some influence. For example, mothers have a position of influence over their families. Reformers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century feared it would be impossible to fully educate immigrant children in American customs and language “if in the evening they returned to an ethnically isolated community and a home where the heard no English,” (Salomone, 28). Providing classes for women in settlement houses theoretically puts the immigrant community in a better position to learn English as a whole because influential women learning English will impart the language to others outside of ESL classes.

In addition to success through including influential women in the Americanization process, immigrant communities found success in Americanization by participating in the process as communities. In her book, True American: Language, Identity, and the Education of Immigrant Children, Rosemary C. Salomone writes, “Immigrant middle-class organizers…established community centers staffed by foreign-born social workers and educators. The idea was that those who shared the immigrants’ language and culture could best be entrusted with brokering and implementing…assimilation,” (29). In other words, even though immigrants were forced to assimilate in custom and language to survive in the United States, the construction of exclusive community centers allowed them to dictate the best methods for assimilation while maintaining their ethnic identities. Whereas Native students in boarding schools became physically and linguistically isolated from their communities, immigrant communities were allowed to grow stronger together both in English and their unique ethnic identities.

It is difficult to draw ethical lines around the enforcement of language education. Often, language is a tool for enforcing a colonizing power and the best-intended pedagogies for language education may strongly perpetuate the oppression of a people. However, based on the history of immigrant and Native American education in English, it appears methods exist in which communities of people truly can be elevated through language education rather than suppressed. The history of the Americanization Movement stands as a lesson that in order to effectively integrate a community through language, that community must have its own agency; agent powers must allow target groups their own spaces and their own decisions in language learning. Only then can language define itself as a uniting force.

Works Cited

    Cran, William and MacNeil, Robert. “Changing Dialects: Dingbatters Versus Hoi-Toiders.”Do You Speak American? Orlando, Fl: Harcourt, 2005. 40-43. Print.

    Kraver, Jeraldine R. “Restocking the Melting Pot: Americanization as CulturalImperialism.”Race, Gender & Class; New Orleans 6.4 (1999): n. pag. Race,Gender & Class, 31 Oct. 1999. Web. 18 Mar. 2017.

    Machan, Tim William. “English in the Classroom I and II.” What Is English?: And Why Should We Care? Oxford: Oxford UP, 2016. 212-68. Print.

    Ray, Brian. “ESL Droids: Teacher Training and the Americanization Movement, 1919-1924.”Composition Studies 41.2 (2013): 15-39. Web. 18 Mar. 2017.

    Salomone, Rosemary C. “Education for Americanization.” True American: Language, Identity, and the Education of Immigrant Children. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard UP, 2010. 23-30. Web. 18 Mar. 2017.

Posted in Ideas and Opinions | Comments Off on It’s All about Class, a guest post by Laura Payne

An Interview with Lance Olsen, author of Dreamlives of Debris

photo credit: andi olsen

Lance Olsen is the author of more than 20 books including eleven novels, one hypertext, critical studies, short-story collections, a poetry chapbook, and two anti-textbooks. His work has appeared in such places as Conjunctions, Black Warrior Review, Fiction International, Iowa Review, Hotel Amerika, Village Voice, Time Out New York, BOMB, Gulf Coast, McSweeney’s, and Best American Non-Required Reading.

He is a Guggenheim and an N.E.A. fellowship recipient and teaches at the University of Utah.

We recently talked about his forthcoming book Dreamlives of Debris.

EB: Dreamlives of Debris seems to me to be in part a book about bodies. What prompted you to write this particular retelling of the story of Theseus and the Minotaur?

LO: The central point of view in Dreamlives of Debris lies with the Minotaur. We’re not talking about a monster with a bull’s head and human’s body here, though, but rather a little deformed girl whose parents hide her away at birth from public view in the labyrinth below Knossos.

She calls herself Debris, and possesses the ability to hear/see/feel the thoughts, memories, desires, pasts and futures of others throughout history, from Herodotus to Silk route traders to Borges, Derrida, and Edward Snowden. In fact, she can’t stop herself from channeling those voices. That’s the problem.

Her body, then, becomes a kind of living instrument through which time and others travel. That may sound like a science-fiction trope. But her state is also a metaphor for our Heraclitean bodies, how they are portals through which we are in good part constructed by temporality and the voices of strangers.

I’m also deeply interested in our culture’s notions of monstrosity: What does such an idea mean, and what does it reveal about what our society must repress to remain whole?

EB: It seems to me that there is a special value to retelling myths in that it both challenges the myths themselves and challenges contemporary mythologies. Is that part of what you had in mind here?

LO: Absolutely. Rewriting is a form of re-righting, bringing essential narratives into a contemporary key, because through retellings we un-tell, compose our present rather than perpetuating someone else’s past, interrogate the assumptions behind received narratives, recast them so they continue to mean for us.

By doing so, we remind ourselves that there are always other ways to narrativize our lives, which is to say other ways to live them, than the ones we’ve been taught.

EB: In Dreamlives of Debris you seem to be defying the reader to keep up, and the text sent me to Wikipedia more than once. How should readers approach the book?

LO: When I begin composing a work, I often ask myself what its central metaphor is, then follow that down through overall structure all the way to word choice. Here that metaphor is the labyrinth.

I laid out Dreamlives myself in InDesign, as interested in building a novel as in writing one. Every page is a perfect square loud with white space. Each represents a different room in Debris’ labyrinth. And each arrives without a page number, so it’s easy to become disoriented, lost, as a reader, just as Debris and her victims become disoriented, lost at the level of narrative.

Because the novel arrives with no conventional location markers, the reader may feel a bit freer to jump around, begin to think of reading as a mode of choreography, a way of being in the world, taking various paths as the mood strikes, for as long as the mood strikes, and then perhaps wandering off in a different direction.

Another way of saying this: Dreamlives is, I hope, both an estrangement of the reading process and an invitation to read widely, freely, wildly, thinking of the novel as one part of a larger textual constellation (including, say, Wikipedia, other tellings of the Minotaur myth, a dictionary), whose dots one can join in a multitude of ways.

EB: Can you tell us a little about how you balance the experimentation and the quest for revelation — or truth — in your work?

LO: I’m a subscriber to Roland Barthes’ observation: “Literature is the question minus the answer.” So the kind of writing that excites me most isn’t that which presents a truth (I might call that propaganda) so much as that which presents a problematics, both at the stratum of form and theme, meant to challenge us to see and feel and think in unusual, complex, and — all going well — illuminating ways.

Truth suggests a telos, an end, a point of arrival, a product. I guess I’m more interested in the journey through the unending labyrinth.

EB: In Dreamlives of Debris you comment on grammar and language quite a bit, saying for example that “grammar is by nature a category of error,” that “people put too much faith in grammar” and that “language is a proliferation of distance,” and at one point referring to a chamber that “stank language. Vowels, mostly.” How do you feel about grammar and language?

LO: We started off talking about Dreamlives as an investigation of bodies, of embodiment, which is definitely the case, yet in my mind the novel is equally an investigation into the problem of language —a problem that has dogged theory for the last hundred years plus. The more philosophers and writers have tried to tackle that idea, whether Nietzsche, Wittgenstein, or Derrida, the more language has come to seem slippery and gorgeous and a system that is both profoundly flawed and beyond which we cannot think.

The question only gets more fascinatingly complicated when we ask precisely what the relationship between language and the body is. These days theory tends to privilege the latter, but of course we can’t think the body without language, nor can we think language without the body.

Debris understands this at a cellular level.

EB: I was struck by the name Debris, so I did a little googling and found that there are people named Debris. What do you make of that?

LO: I had no idea! I’m without words.

EB: Your work is known for rebelling or resisting the concept of genre. What do you think of genre?

LO: Genres are a series of reading codes we’ve been taught to recognize. They allow us to have relatively predictable, comfortable relationships with texts. But those that I respond to most are the ones that destabilize our reading experience in various ways, including by fusing and confusing genres, or trying to work outside them altogether.

Experimental narrative isn’t just another genre like, say, detective fiction or romance, in other words. Rather, I think of it as a possibility space that invites us to move beyond categorical thinking.

EB: You’ve been a writer for some time now. How has your notion of innovation evolved?

LO: I guess a good way to put it is this: none of us are the same readers at forty we were at fourteen, or at sixty we were at six. So what constitutes the concept of innovation will change for each of us over time, depending on what we’ve read, how we’ve lived, how we’ve changed (I wouldn’t quite say “evolved,” which might connote progress for some), how we’ve been educated, even where we’ve inhabited. So one person’s mind-bending experimentation may be another’s ho-hum status quo.

I suppose, given my own set of circumstances, my tolerance for what some might call extreme texts has gone up.

I’ve grown immune, perhaps, to many species of the infection.

EB: How does your approach to writing affect you as a reader? What do you think about when you read other people’s work? And who do you read?

LO: I think of writing as a mode of reading, reading as a mode of writing. Both are extraordinarily active practices, interactive ones, ones that are continuously in motion. That’s what’s tremendously exciting for me about sitting down with a book or before my laptop.

Samuel R. Delany once observed your writing is only as good as the best book you’ve read within the last six months or so. I like that thought. It motivates one to read widely, both across time and space.

So, let’s see, how to comment on who I read. Well, maybe emblematically. In the last week I’ve read a couple really amazing books: for fun, China Miéville’s The Last Days of New Paris and Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts; for teaching Anne Carson’s Nox and David Clark’s hypermedial piece 88 Constellations for Wittgenstein. I’ve just started Carlos Fuentes’ Nietzsche on His Balcony.

And I find the ongoing conversation with my students continually energizing. This week in my graduate Experimental Forms workshop, for instance, one of them has produced a digital interactive fiction that keeps unwriting itself, while another has built an art book, based on a Mayan creation myth, that opens up, page by page, into a colorful three-dimensional flower as you read it.

That’s the kind of work that makes me want to get back to my desk as soon as possible and start writing — like our lives and aesthetics depended on it, which they do.

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

LO: Thank you! What a pleasure.

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An Interview with John Enders

John Enders is a freelance writer, photographer, and journalist with interests in blue-water sailing. international business, foreign policy, wine and exotic travel. He worked as a reporter and editor for the Associated Press, and served as the editor of the Ashland Daily Tidings and as the executive director of the Southern Oregon Historical Society.

In honor of the centennial of Ashland’s Lithia Park, Enders has released his book Lithia Park: The Heart and Soul of Ashland. Enders’ great-grandfather, Henry G. Enders was on the first Parks Commission.

EB: What prompted you to write this book on Ashland’s Lithia Park?

JE: In a conversation two years ago with Bruce Dickens, then-superintendent of Lithia Park, it became clear that a history of the park had never been written. When I started looking at it, I realized it was very timely, with the 100th anniversary of the park’s dedication coming up in 2016.

EB: How did you go about researching the history of the park? Did you run into any difficulties?

JE: First, I read everything I could find about the park. Marjorie Lutz O’Hara, Ashland’s longtime resident historian, wrote a pamphlet on the park’s history a number of years ago, and there were a couple of other short pieces published in various places. The biggest difficulty I had was convincing the Ashland Parks Foundation board members that it was a worthy project. That was difficult to understand, frankly. It is a fundraiser for the foundation.

EB: What does the park’s history have to say about the values of Ashland, then and now?

JE: The park is the centerpiece of the town. It says, very clearly, we value and appreciate open spaces, natural beauty, and conservation.

EB: What was the most surprising thing that you learned?

JE: That a group of 60 Ashland women were instrumental in convincing the men who ran the town that creation of the park must happen.

EB: I understand that the park’s design was innovative for its time. How so?

JE: The central portion of the park was designed by John Hays McLaren, the long-time superintendent of Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. And he was heavily influenced by his mentor, Frederick Law Olmstead, who had been instrumental in creating New York’s Central Park. The central idea of their park philosophy was simple: parks should be made for and accessible to all people, and should bring nature into the city. Throughout history, parks had largely been for the rich.

EB: How has the park shaped present downtown Ashland, good and bad?

JE: I see no downside. The park has been a central part of the town since it first was dedicated in 1906. The Ashland plaza is immediately adjacent to the entrance to the park, and visitors and locals alike use the park heavily for all sorts of activities. The idea that the city should have an permanent tax levy to fund parks, and that an elected parks commission should be in charge – independent of the city council – was a revolutionary concept.

EB: If things had gone differently with the park, what would Ashland be like today?

JE: A huge political struggle surrounded the first years of the park’s formation. The commercial club, the predecessor to the Chamber of Commerce, and others wanted to build a large, privately-operated “resort” in the middle of the park. Another faction, including my great-grandfather Henry Enders Sr., insisted that the park should remain in public hands and that private, for-profit activities in the park should be severely limited. The 100-acre park would not exist today if the first group had won the day. It was a brutal battle. One of the reasons I loved doing this book was the role my ancestor played as one of the first park commissioners.

EB: What other projects are you working on?

JE: I am a bit of a fanatic regarding the history and politics of Latin America, and as a journalist I lived and worked in South America for several years. I’m working on a book on the last days of Ché Guevara, who was killed in Bolivia in October 1967. It’s a collaboration with a Bolivian colleague and the Bolivian army officer who captured Ché. I’ve also got a couple of fiction projects underway.

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

JE: My pleasure, Ed.

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An Interview with Victor Lodato

Victor Lodato is a novelist, playwright, and poet. His first novel, Mathilda Savitch, was called “a Salingeresque wonder” by The New York Times and was on the “Best Book” lists of The Christian Science Monitor, Booklist, and The Globe and Mail. Mathilda Savitch won the PEN USA Award for Fiction and the Barnes & Noble Discover Prize.

Victor’s second novel, Edgar and Lucy, was published this week (St. Martin’s Press). Lena Dunham calls Edgar and Lucy “profoundly spiritual and hilariously specific” and Sophie McManus lauds the “tender, funny, living immediacy of its characters.”

Victor is a Guggenheim Fellow and the recipient of fellowships from The National Endowment for the Arts, The Princess Grace Foundation, The Camargo Foundation in France, and The Bogliasco Foundation in Italy.

His work has been published in The New Yorker, The New York Times, Granta, and Best American Short Stories. A recent essay was published in the “Modern Love” column at The New York Times.

Originally from New Jersey, Victor lives in Ashland, Oregon and Tucson, Arizona.

EB: Tell us a little bit about your background. How did you find your way to writing?

VL: As a kid, growing up in New Jersey, in a working-class Italian-Polish family, I was the odd duck, writing poetry and melodramatic skits that I begged my older jock brother to perform with me. When I went to college (the first person in my family to do so), I entered a fine arts program, to study acting. After college, I was an actor for years. Often, though, I found myself being cast in plays that I didn’t really care for (for instance, a stint as Nicky the warlock in a revival of the 1950s Bell, Book, and Candle). Eventually, I decided to try my hand at writing some one-character plays for myself. Over a six-year period, I wrote and performed seven one-man plays, supported in part by a Solo Theater Artist Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. It was a busy and intense time, but, ultimately, I burned myself out. I’m basically an introvert, fairly shy, and after years of doing these shows, I realized that I felt much more myself when I was writing the pieces, rather than performing them. I stopped acting and became a playwright—and then, twelve or so years ago, I switched paths again. I wrote my first novel—Mathilda Savitch—which was published in 2009.

In regard to the multiple genres I’ve worked in, I used to feel that it was the moody, somewhat depressed Polish boy in me that wrote the poems, and then the more hot-blooded Italian boy that wrote the plays. But, in writing fiction, I feel like those two sides of me collaborate. Fiction seems to allow me to incorporate the various aspects of my nature into a single undertaking.

EB: I was really captivated by your first book, Mathilda Savitch, and by the wild combination of world-weariness and innocence that the title character brought to the narration. How did you capture such a voice?

VL: Mathilda’s voice just arrived in my head one morning with incredible force and clarity. And though the first words seemed a bit ominous (I want to be awful. I want to do awful things), I knew that they weren’t coming from someone evil, but rather from a child—a willful adolescent refusing to be contained. I really can’t begin any piece of writing without this deep connection to a voice. With Mathilda, I felt from the start that I knew her in my body, in my breath. Where such voices come from is one of the mysteries of the writing process, and one that I tend not to question.

EB: In some way that book seemed to be an allegory of the experience that young people—and all of us—had with terrorism. Is that part of what you had in mind?

VL: I started to write Mathilda Savitch in September of 2002, almost exactly one year after 9/11. The first few months of writing, I wasn’t thinking—at least not consciously—about terrorism or tragedy or grief. I didn’t know what the story was. I was simply following the voice of this young girl, who at that point was still a stranger to me. Over time, though, I began to see that Mathilda and I had a lot in common. Whereas I began the novel one year after 9/11, the story of the book begins one year after the death of Mathildaʼs beloved older sister, Helene. Terrorism hovers in the background of Mathildaʼs world, as well, and I can see now that by borrowing this child’s voice, I was able to address my own fear and confusion and sadness about 9/11 in a very open and innocent way. It was liberating to write in the voice of a child, from the perspective of someone who is still learning the world and interpreting its complexities for the first time. I think, in some ways, grief turns everyone into children: innocents standing before the incomprehensible.

EB: In Edgar and Lucy, your new novel, you tell the story of death and tragedy in an Italian-American family in New Jersey and young Edgar’s surreal path out of childhood. This seems to be a novel about what is real and true, and in which none of the characters are clear-cut. As a writer, you seem to be pushing us out of our comfort zone but holding our interest at the same time. What’s the key to that balance? For me it was in the small, familiar details of description.

VL: You always want there to be some kind of suspense in regard to what will happen next, or even in regard to understanding the motives or morality of the characters. I think at the core of all writing and reading is mystery—the ultimate mystery being, who are other people? One writes—and reads—in an attempt to answer this question, or at least to get closer to an answer.

Ultimately, I want to write stories that have transformative power—for the reader, for the characters, for myself. I guess I’m a romantic in that I want to read and write books that will change me, change my life. I like books that are grounded in emotional truth, but that can also feel mythic. Of course, I never think about myth at the front of my brain while writing. It’s more something I feel in my gut—a sort of physical sensation, a sense that this story is a matter of life and death. In Edgar and Lucy, the hero of the story is really Edgar. And his power isn’t physical strength or even overt bravery, but rather this sort of uncanny ability to love ferociously and to offer kindness in the most unlikely situations, and to offer it to people who don’t seem to deserve it. It’s funny, writing this book I realized how strangely rare real kindness is, when it’s the simplest thing in the world and should be so easy to offer. And I guess if I’ve woken up from a ten-year dream of writing this book into a world in which there is suddenly so much unkindness, then I feel good about putting this love story into the world at this particular moment. Because, ultimately, that’s how I see this book—as a love story. And not just one story, but a number of love stories that are all connected to each other. It took everything I had in me to write this book. I don’t take fiction writing lightly. I really do believe that fiction, both the writing of it and the reading of it, is a very civilizing thing. In it, there’s the possibility of learning to love people who are nothing like you—and that’s where the miracle of art happens, and you change.

EB: I wondered if the crispness of the characters in your novels—Edgar, Lucy, Mathilda—comes from your being a playwright. How do you see the two styles of writing as coming together in your work? Was it difficult to write a longer piece or did you find that freeing?

VL: Certainly, writing from voice and character is an extension of my work in the theater. When I write, I actively feel myself taking on the characters, performing them, really, while I work. I never write without talking to myself, without speaking the words out loud as I put them down.

I guess one could say that the medium of theater is fate, while the medium of fiction is memory. I try to bring into my fiction some of the danger of theater, to create narratives that, even as they describe the past, are somehow infused with a present-tense theatricality that raises the stakes of the emotional transactions.

One of the things that I love about writing novels is the freedom to let the story unfold over a greater length of time. In a play, the magic circle drawn around the characters has to be much tighter. When crafting a play, I invariably find that I write more scenes than I can actually use. In a play, too much extra material, too many diversions, can be fatal, especially if these things impede the sense of inevitability, the sense that we are witnessing characters caught in the wheels of fate. And while a novel’s power can be reduced by excess baggage, as well (and, in writing mine, I do think I apply my playwright’s habit of precision), the form is clearly a roomier one—one that allows the characters to have a few more detours of thought and situation. And, having fallen so deeply in love with Edgar and Lucy and Mathilda, I thoroughly enjoyed being able to give them a more generous life.

EB: I was struck by an early scene in the book where Edgar’s teacher is encouraging students to draw bananas and wine glasses, but Edgar wants to doodle instead. Does writing have a doodling aspect to it?

VL: I love this question. As Edgar says: drawing is when you have to make a picture of something that’s in front of you; doodling is when you just make stuff up. And writing, for me, is much more like doodling—at least in the beginning. I never work with a plan or an outline. For me, a first sentence is often like a crazy blob of paint that my subconscious throws down on the page—and then I work from there toward a greater understanding of the picture. Often, the first few paragraphs are a kind of free association—which I follow in an attempt to discover what’s really on my mind. I like to stay dumb as a writer, especially in the early stages of creating a story. I’ll trip myself up if I try to control things, or pretend that I know more that I really do.

EB: As a linguist, I feel compelled to ask about the names of your characters: Edgar and Lucy Fini, Mathilda and Helene Savitch. These are not your usual Ashleys and Michaels. What’s the role of characters’ names in fiction?

VL: To be honest, I usually just stick with the first name that pops into my head for a character. Only rarely do I question this impulse and change the name. Edgar was born to me as Edgar—the same for Lucy, the same for Mathilda. Even if a name seems a bit odd, I just go with it. And then of course sometimes the name leads me to understand more about the character later. When I landed on the name Edgar, it made me question who had given him this name—a question that ended up revealing some things to me about his father. Also, the name Edgar seemed sort of “gothic”—and maybe that encouraged me to lean into some of the more gothic elements of the story.

I do think, in many ways, that this book is a true gothic, in that it’s about Edgar and Lucy’s complicated connection to the past, and there’s definitely a sense of the past as a source of malignant influence. And of course all of this is happening in an updated version of the ruined castle, which is the dilapidated Fini house, certainly a haunted place. While working on this novel, I sometimes imagined a playful subtitle: Edgar and Lucy, A New Jersey Gothic—and this actually gave me permission to go with a more heightened kind of storytelling, and not to be afraid of the emotional temperature of the book—which gets pretty hot, at times. I was often sitting at my desk, shouting or laughing or crying. I can only imagine what my neighbors must think.

EB: Thanks for talking with us.

VL: Thank you, Ed, for asking such good questions!

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