Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Guy Delisle: Graphic Memoirist

My first problem: what noun do I use to show what Guy Delisle does?

He's a writer. That much is true. "Memoirist" is also apt but he describes himself as an autobiographer, which is sort of ironic that he more often seems to say "autobiography" and French is his first language.

But along with text, he draws. "Graphic artist" sounds a little commercial to me but I'm naive in these matters. "Comic book artist" seem to suggest he does fiction like X-men and Archie. "Cartoonist" seems to relegate his work on Sunday mornings. Maybe he's a little of all of these things. Graphic memoirist? Perhaps that will have to do for now.

Last night I braved impending storms and huddled into the back stacks of Magers and Quinn (standing room only) to listen to Guy Delisle give a reading as part of his Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City book tour (his first, he explained as he "signed" my book). Every so often, Eric and I are able to carve out a little time so that I can attend a reading. It keeps the literary mojo intact and reminds me of the world. And that there is one. There are already two inaccuracies in this blogpost. The first: Delisle didn't technically "read." He gave a slideshow presentation and regaled us with tales of his worldly travels (nice for me who was looking to be reminded of a larger world) and his career as an animator and writer. The second: he didn't so much just "sign" my book as he branded it. See below (he drew that with a sharpie while I watched).

Before I continue, a disclosure: I loved Jerusalem: Chronicles from the Holy City.


Which brings me very quickly to one of the main points of Delisle's talk. He mentioned several times that he was creating autobiographical travelogues because he could place himself at the center of the story and thereby be upfront about the subjectivity of his experiences and observations he was making. ("I just observe. I don't judge.") And at the end (jumping ahead here), someone in the audience asked Delisle how he felt about drawing himself in his books. He admitted that he didn't like doing it at first but it had to be done. I thought "Yes!" Other people too have anxiety about whether and how to write from the first person experience -- and perhaps especially when trying to write about other cultures. But in Delisle's books, none of this anxiety appears on the page. Although, how he depicts himself has certainly changed.

As a young drawer (draw-er, not the place where you keep your socks; not quite the right noun yet), he was a contributor to the French comic magazine Lapin. He was encouraged to draw in different forms, not just little stories but reportage and even recipes. He showed us his "recipe," which was really about his dad teaching him how to cook his favorite bachelor meal: canned spaghetti in the oven. "When it goes 'clank,' it's done! And -- my father's favorite part -- only a fork to clean!" he explained his utterly charming French accent. (He's a French Canuck but has lived in France long enough to have a French accent which means that when he returns to Canada everyone explains to him what maple syrup is.)

Delisle's presentation was a meta-anthropological talk. Delisle led us through his process of creating each of his books by sharing his observations of life in the various places he's lived and written about and drawn including Shenzhen, Pyongyang, Burma, and Jerusalem (his wife is an administrator for Medecins Sans Frontiers). And so we were telescopically viewing the lives of people in these war and dictator torn areas through his graphics while also seeing into the world of a graphic memoirist. He took notes everyday that he lived in China (Shenzhen: A Travelogue from China) in 1997. He used wax pencils because the smudging conveyed the smog of China. But as the days grew hotter, the wax got meltier so that by August he couldn't draw at all. One scene he was able to convey was waiting in line at the bank where, if he didn't stand directly behind the person in front of him, another customer would jump in line in front of him. If he just hesitated before speaking to the teller, he risked being interrupted.


He was in Pyongyang (Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea) pre 9-11 when it was, as he describes it, sort of a forgotten country. He'd heard it was very Orwellian there, so he'd brought a copy of 1984 in his suitcase. When it got searched, the North Korean officials asked what it was. "It's just a book," he explained. "I felt really bad." He didn't feel fear that he'd be punished, he felt concerned that he'd offended the people working in the airport. This respect for other people's circumstances and cultures is one of the things that makes Delisle's work vital and (I hate to use this word again but) charming. He isn't a journalist or activist or, as he pointed out, an expert. He's just a guy traveling and living places and interacting with people and making observations. Of course, these observations aren't objective. But no experience is.


Delisle pointed out the ways in which some of the places he's lived are living in a different era. The girls in North Korea wear their hair in a 1950s style. "They wear skirts and socks. Yeah," he explained. "Nothing is very sexy there." Jerusalem -- with it's many ethnic and religious groups and political complexities -- proved to be a place that put his abilities to explain and describe the context to the test. Although he does so deftly by looking at something as simple as shopping. Looking for diapers on a Friday in Jerusalem? All the Muslim shops are closed. The Jewish shops in the settlements are open -- but do you want to support the settlements? Looking for a six pack of beer? Christan stores are closed Sundays and the Muslims don't sell alcohol. And in one page of graphics and words, Delisle has begun to untie the cultural knots. The last question of the evening was about how he worked with translators (he writes in French). Because he can speak the language, he works very closely with the English translator -- going back and forth to find the precise words and phrasing -- until they have a solid translation (which the book is -- while reading, I double-checked to figure out whether it was the original or a translation). And while Delisle doesn't have any input into the process with other languages, the German translator works from both the English and the original French to get his text as accurate as possible. I found it fascinating that this other translator would be working from two texts -- like some sort of linguistic alchemist. But, of course, the pictures remain the same.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Writer's Space: Jane McLoughlin

There's a little bookstore on the other side of South Minneapolis called The Wild Rumpus where chickens peck freely and cats loll between stacks of books on the front window display. The front door has a child-sized door within the adult-sized one. Needless to say, Little A loves it and when I tell her that we're going to the bookstore, she asks, "tiny door?" Yes, A, tiny door.

We visited there a few weeks ago. I usually have a moment or two of chicken-centric toddler distraction to glance at the narrow adult bookshelf, but generally I am shepherding A from child's shelf to child shelf and trying to keep her from choking the poultry. Once, she went to pet a cat, which was oddly convulsing on the floor and proceeded to puke right at her feet. Now, A crawls around on the floor saying, "I cat! I cat!" and then making gagging motions before announcing, "I choke!"

But I digress.

During our last visit, I was looking for a novel to pick up. I wanted something easy and fast-paced, something that would be a break from the heavy memoirs I've been reading lately. It had crossed my mind that perhaps the next title would be something young adult. It had been a while.

So while A found another family of little girls and a read-a-loud grandmother to temporarily latch on to, I took advantage and perused the young adult area. I was not disappointed. I found a pile of At Yellow Lake on a table -- a book, I later found out, wasn't available anywhere else at the time. I love these moments of happenstance. I love it when I pick up a book at a store and the first few paragraphs suck me in -- even with my kid bothering another family in the background -- and I realize that I have to take it home and read it.

At Yellow Lake, by Minnesota-born, UK transplant Jane McLoughlin, tells the stories of three teenagers -- Etta, Jonah, and Peter - who meet each other at a cabin on Yellow Lake in Wisconsin. Some would say they were brought together by fate or by some mystical power. I would not be one of those people. In a way, each was driven away from their homes by their dysfunctional parents. It is because of these fictional parents that I will probably make my teenaged children read these books. "See?" I will say, "At least I'm not dating a violent creepoid like Etta's mom or denying you your heritage like Jonah's mom or remaining distant and aloof after the death of your other parent like Peter's mom." Hopefully these things will be true, in part, because I will still be happily together with a very much alive co-parent.

Again, I digress.

At its surface, this story is about both the trials of these teenagers and the violence that meets them at the cabin. But at its heart, it's about relationships between peers. I had a few moments of thinking, "Wait, these kids have only known each other for a day and they're already immersed in all this drama and emotions." But, then I remembered what it's like to be a teenager, how relationships, especially in emotionally intense situations, unfold like the fast-forward button has been hit. As she tells the story from each of the main character's point of view, McLoughlin manages to capture both the specificity of their stories and voice and the universality of being a teenager.

McLouglin returned Stateside to launch her book and I was lucky enough to have a brief email correspondence with her about the writing life.

Why did you choose Minnesota and Wisconsin for the setting?
The setting was the real starting point for the book. I’m from Minnesota, and my family has a cabin in Wisconsin, which was built by my grandfather in the 1930s and 40s. The cabin has always felt like my spiritual home, especially since I’ve moved so far away from it, and thinking about the notion of “home” is what sparked my initial ideas. Having said that, the woods are darker and denser in the book, the fictional cabin is more remote than the actual one, the setting is much less sinister tin real-life, thankfully!

When I picked up At Yellow Lake at The Wild Rumpus, I was particularly struck by Etta's voice -- which is in the first person. The other two characters' chapters are in third person. What made you decide to approach each character in these different ways?
I have to admit that I never actually decided on this approach. I just couldn’t make the boys work in the first person, and I couldn’t make Etta work in the third, so that’s the way they were written. I was quite worried that this might be problematic for readers (as well as for editors and publishers!) but so far, this hasn’t been the case.

I've come across writers who are anxious or uneasy about having a central character be of a different background (such as age, gender, race, socio-economic status) from themselves. Did you have any reservations about writing Jonah's story given that he's a teenaged, Native American boy? How did you overcome them?
I have felt very anxious and uneasy about the issue of cultural appropriation, but Jonah’s background was so integral to the story that At Yellow Lake couldn’t have been written without including him. Because the story came from a specific setting—a plot of land on a lake in Wisconsin—and sprang from a specific set of questions—whose land is this, anyway—Jonah had to be part of the story. When I started to think about At Yellow Lake, I was struck by the cruel irony that the place I’ve always considered my spiritual home was, in fact, stolen from its original inhabitants. So the cabin at the lake reflects history in a way, becoming a contested site, with both Jonah and Peter (whose grandfather built the cabin, and who is at the lake to honour a request by his dead mother) both claiming the place as theirs. And, of course, the writing process makes a character come alive, so Jonah is, to me, just Jonah, and one of my three “kids”, none of whom have lives that are anything like mine.

I'm an associate editor at the website Literary Mama and as a mother myself, I'm particularly interested in how the writing life effects motherhood and vice versa. Did you write even when your children were little? Now that they are grown, do they read your writing as you're working on it or do they have to wait like the rest of us? Did you have any reservations about what you were writing because you have children? Or, conversely, do your children influence your writing?

I love this question! I actually started writing when my son, Sean, was born, almost 24 years ago. My first published story was sold before he was a year old, and my second story was published shortly after my daughter, Hannah, was born 20 years ago. This shows how unproductive I was in those years--I think it took me about a year per 1500 word story! So writing was a huge part of my role as mother. I have some great pictures of baby Hannah sitting on the kitchen table next to my old manual typewriter, munching on a manuscript. I also remember racing home to write if baby Sean fell asleep in his stroller while we were out, and getting up at the crack of dawn to write before they woke up. It’s interesting that I started At Yellow Lake when my kids were 16 and 19. I started teaching and had stopped writing for a few years, but my children (as well as my husband) were very happy with my “return” to writing. Hannah was probably the first reader of At Yellow Lake, although she hasn’t read the entire book yet, and Sean had this wonderfully calming phrase—“You’ll do it, Mum”--that kept me going when the writing was hard and the initial rejections rolled in.

What are you working on?
My latest book is still in the very early stages. It’s written, but my agent has just submitted it, so I don’t have much to say about it at this point. It’s another stand-alone YA book, set in the US, about a troubled British boy who uncovers some disturbing secrets when he’s sent away to stay with his aunt in a small Iowa town. Hope it sells!

Can you describe where you write? (The space, your routine, any nicknacks you have to have nearby, anything that makes your space unique, etc...)

You would be very disappointed in my space, Rhena! It’s just a desktop computer on a cluttered table in the corner of the dining room (which also serves as clothes drying area, cat feeding area, the place to stack old newspapers and books...) There are some pictures of the lake on the wall, though, as well as a lovely photo of my dad, who died 20 years ago, standing on a beach near my house in England. Dad’s picture may be inspiring me, but nothing else about my writing space does, except for that the fact that it is “mine”, and I’m very grateful for the time that I have to spend there.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Honeybee update.

The bees are flying. And if you look very closely at some of these pictures, you might be able to see little yellow-ish sacks of pollen on the backs of some of their hindlegs. See them? Although, that might also be sawdust, which apparently some bees were mistaking for pollen in these last weeks of winter, when it was warm enough for them to fly but hadn't been warm for long enough for the trees and flowers and plants to be producing pollen and nectar. But they're only nibbling at the pollen patty that we put in their hive, so they must be getting something from somewhere these days.

Little A is obsessed with the bees right now. Whenever we come and go through the backyard, she says, "Oh, bees wake up!" or "Oh, bees sleepin'" depending on whether they are out of their hive or not.

We spend what feels like hours -- but is more like minutes -- drawing bees on the blackboard and on the sidewalk.

"See?" I tell her. "The bees go to flowers and get nectar and pollen and then they take it back to their hive and they make honey!"

This gets repeated many times a day. It's sort of a "story" for her and it serves to assure me that keeping bees in the backyard is helping her learn something. Something about production? Or supply and demand? Or the natural world? Or the cycles of the seasons? Well, something more than just this:

Whenever I get close to the hives without a bee suit on -- such as when I took the pictures above -- Little A tells me "Be really careful. Stand back. Like me. Bees get in your face. Stand back. Like me. Like me!" And eventually I must respond to her commands and move to the other side of the yard with her. She hasn't yet been stung -- we don't think, anyway -- but she knows from our own warnings that we need to be cautious around the bees. Respectful.

The other evening when we were drawing the bees on the chalkboard and when I got to the end of my explanation of how they make honey, A turned to me and said, "Share?"

"Yeah," I said, half-laughing. "They sort of share with us."

"And we sort of just take it from them," I said under my breath.

It's a tricky dynamic, I suppose, and not one I'm likely to get into with a two year old. We sort of help the bees, but mostly we just contain them, and they're really industrious so they make a lot of honey -- more than they could ever eat -- and so we take the "extra." (Or we plan to -- we'll have to see how they do this year.)

But she's just two and we're talking a lot (A LOT) about sharing these days, so the lessons about symbiotic versus parasitic relationships and insect self-awareness and top-down and bottom-up power structures are going to have to wait.

In the meantime, we'll eat honey. Fingers crossed.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Outdoor Ickiness

Winter in Minneapolis has disguised itself as spring, even summer, under billows of warm air. There has been no hunkering down. We've fled indoor confinement for the open space of our sidewalks and yard. Little A and I have been on the search for outdoor activities. We're willing, sort of, to get a little messier, to change our clothes more than once a day, to sit on warm concrete and rocks, and to put ice cubes in our beverages.

Last week I came across a toddler activity that involved freezing prehistoric critters (plastic, not, you know, created from DNA captured in amber) into blocks of ice and letting your kid free them with toothbrushes and spoons and plastic knives and water and paintbrushes and their own ingenuity. These, like many toddler activities found on beautiful blogs full of long-haired gender-neutral kids or sugar and spice girls and snakes and snails boys, are the sorts of things that the mental picture of myself aspires to do. See -- they aren't even things that I aspire to, they are things that my aspirational self aspires to.

It's warm in Minneapolis -- but not ice-block paleontologist warm -- so I opted to create our excavation site out of gelatin. Messy enough to be relegated to the outdoors but not cold enough that I'd have a "the time my toddler got frost burn in 70 degree weather" story.

My idea would be that I could plop her down on the lawn where she'd spend hours carefully extracting small plastic animals from the gelatin I'd made the night before. She giggle at her own amazement and problem solving skills while I sat in the sun with a novel and iced tea. Afterwards, she'd be messy and sticky, but happy and I'd be clean and relaxed. I'd dunk her in the tub and she'd play with her newly rescued animals and then sleep soundly upstairs while I crocheted an afghan. Oh, aspirational self and your mental images: one day you will be brought down to reality.

I successfully created the mold the night before (OK, fine, I had to stay up an extra thirty minutes past the last episode of Friday Night Lights that we'd watched in order to set the animals in gelatin that was firm enough that the animals wouldn't sink but not so firm that it would crack.) In the morning, after Little A's dad went to work, I set out the gelatin on a cookie sheet with plastic and wooden spoons and knives and forks, pointed my kid in the right direction and sat back.

"Oh!" she said. She rubbed her hands gingerly across the slimy mass. "It's cold! Animals stuck in there!"

"You wanna get them out?"


"Look. There are knives and spoons and forks you can use to get them out."


"Not too sharp. You can use them."

She stabbed a knife into the mold.

"Sit your lap."

"I'm just going to sit over --."

"No! Sit your lap!" OK, I thought, just get her started on it and then you can sneak off.

She sat in my lap. We stabbed at the gelatin together, her hand wrapped around the tiny pink handle and my hand wrapped around hers. Gradually, a chunk of gelatin containing the sheep slipped off.

"You can use your hands," I told her, holding the blob out to her.

She poked at it with her finger tip. "You do it!"

I sighed and reluctantly pulled dots and dabs of the clear stick substance off the sheep.

"Look! It's free!" I said.


"Do you want another one?"

"You do another one."

"You can use the spoon while I use the knife."

"You do it."

Remember the novel I was going to sit back and read? Remember my glass of iced tea? Remember my sticky, messy, happy kid? Yeah, so do I.

The truth was that she ended up sitting on my lap the whole time. We poked and picked at the mold. We freed animals together, which we were both excited about. She wiped her hands on her dress a lot. I mostly used the tips of my fingers to poke and prod.

My kid, I realized, just doesn't really like to get messy. I thought this as I washed her new animals and my hands in the sink. I wonder where she got that from? Is it just genetics or is it because she's watching me not wanting to smash my hands into the gelatin, wanting, rather, to sit back and read a novel while she gets messy and I don't.

Afterwards, most of the animals free and only the last few stiff legged and frozen in the messy globs, Little A sat on the back step and lined up her animals next to her. She picked up a tiny, rose-colored octopus and tried to rock it in the crook of her arm. She might not like to get messy, but at least she can find affection for even the most cold-blooded of plastic animals.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

My MINE! Phase

For a day or so, two-year-old A has been dragging around a copy of Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale and insisting, "My book."

The first few times she declared it "hers" and started paging through it, my husband and I were charmed and our thoughts, comments, and questions showed it.

"She's so advanced!"

"A real feminist!"

"What do you think the impact of the first person point-of-view is on the reader-narrator relationship?"

Mostly A responded with "My book!"

We've been struggling a little with the whole notion of "mine" these days. I heard an Early Childhood and Family Education teacher once say that the "mine" phase was a necessary evil to get to the sharing stage. After a whole day of "My coat! My foot! My dog! My potty!" I find the "mine" phase mostly just evil.

The worst, perhaps, are the public "mine" meltdowns.

A and I make two or three visits a week to our local food co-op. (I know, food snobs. Feel free to hate us.) She genuinely seems to look forward to these trips. Mostly, her enthusiasm is because of the "tiny cart," as she calls the child-sized metal contraption that she gets to push around the store. I consider this these carts to be a blessing (I need to get her excited for our semi-weekly trips) and a curse (I spend much of my trip herding her along the aisles and making sure she doesn't ditch our tiny cart-full of food when she realizes there are samples available in the cheese department).

But the real problem with the tiny cart occurred the first few times I let her use one. At first, when she realized we had to leave it near the front of the store and could not bring it home with us, she was mildly bereft. "My cart," she mumbled as she watched from over my shoulder as it disappear behind the sliding doors.

"It belongs to the store," I explained. She was easily talked off the ledge. That time.

The next time, however, we returned the tiny cart to the otherwise empty corral just in time for another little boy to lay claim.

"My cart!" A screamed. She arched her back. She struggled against me trying to physically calm her with my arms already loaded with groceries.

I was confident that most of my fellow food snobs heard her scream all the way to the car. In a quieter moment, away from the immediacy of the cart and the food co-op and the little boy who had "taken" "her" cart, I tried to explain that the carts belong to everyone.

"We take turns," I explained because taking turns is something that she seems to understand better than "sharing." Taking turns is immediate, concrete. Your turn. My turn. Your turn. My turn. Whereas "sharing" is so abstract. Do we use it at the same time? Who does it really belong to?

After a few more trips to the co-op (during which she didn't have to witness someone actually taking "her" cart) and a few more calm, away from the moment discussions, ("If you want to use the tiny cart, you can't cry." "The cart is for everyone." "We take turns.") it finally seemed to sink it.

"Tiny cart," she'd say. "Take turns. No cry." And she seemed fairly happy about it.

But now I had this Margaret Atwood book to deal with.

One afternoon, I went to pick it up off the counter near where she was enjoying a snack.

"My book!" she declared and pulled it from my hands.

"No," I sighed. "It's Mama's book," as I reached for it.

"Mine!" she demanded in that terrible nasally, whiney, bratty voice.

It's that voice. It's that voice that does it to me.

"No. It's Mama's book."


It was the voice. It was that I just wanted to put the book away so that it would be on my adult bookshelf (and I don't mean "adult book" in any kind of pervy way) and not buried under nonsensical picture books in which animals talk and everybody spends way too much time counting and talking about colors! It was many things. But mostly, and I'm not happy to admit it, it was not one of my finer parenting moments.

"Look, Ada. It's Mama's book. You don't even have money to buy books. In fact, you can't even read it, much less get the subtleties of Atwood's style and message."


"NO," I exclaimed. And, no, I don't know why I didn't just let this go. I was turning into some sort of a toddler myself, desperate to lay claim to everything in my small, small kingdom. "This is Mama's book." I gave up on trying to actually put it away. "But you can take a turn with it."

"OK!" she exclaimed, her emotional state flipping like a coin tossed in the air.

"OK," I said. I walked away as she was commenting "birds flying!" as she looked at the cover illustration.

No, I thought. Those are the hats that the women have to wear in the story. You don't know anything about that book, do you? But later I realized that Atwood does call them "wings."

Had I won that argument? Had she learned something about what is and is not hers? I'd like to think that, if nothing else, she might have learned a little something about our separateness. When she was a newborn, I fretted over whether she would "bond" to me, if she would "attach" enough. But now there are days when I worry over her separating from me, over having boundaries between us. I want her to know she is her own person and, just as importantly, I am my own. We must, after all, go through this mine phase in order to understand sharing with each other. I want her to know that her body is hers and my body is mine. That my thoughts are mine. And hers are hers.

And that book, Goddamit. That book is mine.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Harried Housewife Bread

I've long had this vision in my head that I'd be the sort of woman who woke up early to bake bread, whose house would smell warm and doughy, who would always serve floury goods from scratch to unexpected (and expected) guests. I felt I should have some sort of innate mother earthiness that would tie me to women all over the world who rise with the sun to put on the rice, roll out the tortillas or injera, or fry the dough. But as romantic as my imagination can be, I like to sleep in.

And so that vision has largely remained where it belongs: in my head.

Until, that is, I came across this recipe (via pinterest) for a super simple crusty and yet soft bread baked in a cast iron pot. It's so easy, even I did it.

Here's the rundown (more details including lots of pictures and advice on how to make it fancier and what types of pots to use on the link above):

whisk together 3 cups flour with 1 3/4 t salt, 1/2 t salt in a large mixing bowl
add 1 1/2 cups water, stir (in my case, have your two year old help pour and mix because that way she won't pull all the tupperware out of the drawer and will enjoy the bread more the next day because she made it)

cover with plastic wrap, set aside for 12 to 18 hours

(This is the part where my husband, who used to do yeast-related research, gets all dubious and starts asking me what temperature it has to be because yeast grows best at 30 degrees and then he gets all science-y and loses me. And I have to tell him, "Just have faith. We'll see what happens," and this makes me actually feel sort of mother earthy and wise.)

preheat oven to 450 degrees and put your cast iron pot in for 30 minutes
pour the dough onto a heavily floured surface, cover with plastic wrap

place dough in EXTREMELY hot pot, cover with lid, bake for 30 minutes

That's it!

Mine didn't rise quite as much as the one at Simply So Good, but it was still delicious. I only let it sit for about 12 hours, so next time I might give it a few more. Also, the yeast I was using might not have been up to par. I'd like to give it a shot with at least some whole grain and, of course, try the suggestions on the website of different cheese and herbs.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Writer's Space: Cris Beam

I am obsessed by the spaces in which writers do their work. I'm going to feed this obsession by posting regular (short) interviews with writers about their latest projects, their future projects, the writing life, and, finally, where they create and craft.

I emailed a few times with Cris Beam, about her thoughts on writing, publishing, and memoir. Beam is the author of Transparent: Love, Family, and Living the T with Transgender Teenagers, the young adult novel I Am J, and most recently, the memoir Mother, Stranger. Falls the Shadow: The Crisis of American Foster Care will be coming out next year. (In the interest of full disclosure, Beam is a fellow Columbia MFA graduate).

I am interested in all the alternative presses and ways and means to publication that are available (and becoming available) right now. Mother, Stranger was published by The Atavist, an on-line publisher of extra longform nonfiction. How did you decide to go with Atavist? How has your experience publishing through this venue been so far?

CB: It’s been a really exciting journey. I like that the Atavist publishes super long-form journalism, because these are the kinds of pieces that are especially tricky to publish. They’re too long for magazines, too short for books, and yet writers themselves love doing these stories—we have all the room we need, to be as lush and creative or nuanced and complex as we need to be, and readers can feel that pleasure. Still, I was reluctant at first to go with an electronic publisher because I have always been loyal to real paper books and literary journals, and didn’t want to sell out on the form I love the most. Then I read all the work that the Atavist had produced, and I saw the way they foregrounded the narrative of each of their productions—all of the multimedia enhancements were just that, enhancements—and I thought it would be interesting to stretch, and to work with a team. I’ve done radio stories before, and really appreciated what music and ambient sound and so on can bring to a written story, and I found that the multi-dimensionality of Mother Stranger was really beautiful. The production people there are so talented.

Mother Stranger is rich and dense. There hardly seems to be a moment or word out of place and yet the material is so complicated that I'm sure this could have easily been a much longer work. How did you make the decision to keep it limited to a shorter work?

CB: It may still be a longer work one day. I’ve written much more than I published with the Atavist, but honestly, it’s such vulnerable material, it was a relief to be able to publish a shorter work to sort of test the waters. I could see how it was received, and see how I felt about that reception, before I go on one day to write further about my childhood and life.

How did writing Mother Stranger change how you view yourself as a mother?

CB: It didn’t, not all that much. At least the writing itself didn’t change my self perception in that regard. When my mom actually died three years ago, I felt a sense of relief and a deeper connection to my daughter, because there was no longer this fantasy that my mom would suddenly literally reappear and somehow wreck everything I had built. I don’t actually talk to my daughter that much about my mom; for her, I think, I exist mostly for her alone. And that’s okay. I like that I can give her a sense of security.

Your work includes YA fiction, nonfiction, memoir, radio and even erotica. Can you share any quirks, habits, or tips that you have as a writer?

CB: Like most of us, my writing life probably looks pretty boring from the outside. I’m usually working on more than one thing at once, or at least thinking about my next project while finishing something up. I write in the mornings, usually, and force myself to get out two pages a day when I’m working on a book. In the afternoons, I edit something that’s at least a few weeks old, to give the newer material time to breathe. If I edit something that’s too fresh, I end up shredding it beyond recognition.

I'm fascinated by writing spaces. Describe where you write.

CB: I love this question! I live in a loft with my partner and two cats and two dogs—it’s essentially one big open room, with animals running everywhere, so visually, it’s too chaotic to sit on a couch with a laptop and write. So we built two half walls in a corner and made me a little office, which I love. I have a big wooden desk in there, and an electronic piano to fool around on when I get stuck. It’s like a happy cave.