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.


  1. Great interview, Rhena! Cris, I need to check out your work. I've started hearing about Atavist, as well, so I need to learn more. Thanks for this!

  2. So many interesting on-line publishing going on right now. I'm often dubious about electronic books but it's so easy to read on my phone while I lie down with my daughter and wait for her to fall asleep.