A Writer’s Insight: An Interview with James Scott

James Scott’s story, “With Your Own Heart upon Your Bed,” appears in the spring 2016 issue of The Southern Review. Interview conducted and condensed by The Southern Review/LSU Press marketing intern Megan Feifer.

Megan Feifer: What inspired you to write “With Your Own Heart upon Your Bed”?

James Scott: I think the first thing was the realization that the generation that had been through Vietnam could have grandchildren who were in the armed forces. The Vietnam War has loomed so large in our culture that to have it so far in the past was a shock to me.

The second thing was an article (a very small article that I have never been able to find again) about the taking of a palace by U.S. forces. The thought of those exhausted soldiers in that opulent surrounding stayed with me.

Writing this story was a way of processing that information, the oddness of those things, and others, of course, but those were the initial sparks.

MF: The title is interesting in relationship to the theme of in-betweenness present in the story. Can you discuss the relationship between the title and the deferred state of being the main character experiences?

JS: The title comes from Psalm 4:4: “Stand in awe, and sin not: commune with your own heart upon your bed, and be still.” It’s aspirational, though, to be able to do so, whether in prayer or meditation or even at the end of a long day.

In the story, it’s always out of reach, partially because the concept of “your bed” is a complicated one for the main character, as it is for a lot of people. “Home” is a relative term, and none of the places the main character has been really satisfy what one would think of as a space of comfort and safety, the kind of place where such stillness would be possible. He’s in between, always, reliving his grandfather’s war, whether he wants to or not; experiencing his parents’ failing career, but not being present for it; fighting in a war where he’s apart from the others; and coming back home to a place that has changed. Nothing is his. He doesn’t know who he is, and so he’s following in the footsteps of someone that doesn’t want to be followed.

The awkwardness of the phrase struck me and made sense for this world. I’ve spent a lot of time really breaking it down, and the more you do, the stranger it becomes.

MF: Was the continuous shift between historical and contemporary settings essential for the story? What were some of your initial thoughts about this temporal shifting when writing the first few drafts, and how did the timeline finally coalesce?

JS: I hope so! I think it follows the dislocation of the character. The timeline is one of the things that fell into place right away. I always knew I wanted to flip back and forth, and the timing of it came naturally (one of the only things that did, honestly, in a story where I felt unsure of my footing for a long time), though some of the pieces changed. I like the idea that this is how his brain works; if asked to relate the events of this story, this might be how he would go about it.

MF: Would you situate this story within the genre of veterans’ literature? Is there controversy around whether or not nonveterans can write this type of conflict narrative?

JS: I’m not a veteran, so no. In terms of putting a story, any story, anywhere, it’s not really my place. Those kind of overarching questions are too overwhelming in the process of writing and editing, especially when you’re dealing with things that people experienced and experienced so recently that the emotions are raw and the psychology is so tangled.

I will say I tried everything I could to get things right, and I had a couple of veterans look over the story, and I took their comments as gospel. At no point did I say, “Well, right or wrong, it’s good enough for me.” The details I used were somewhat sparse because it was the feeling I was chasing. I hope I came close to the heart of it.

I think that there is some controversy about conflict narrative, though I haven’t followed it. I read Kevin Powers’s The Yellow Birds and Phil Klay’s Redeployment, though not until I’d completed many drafts of this story, and thought they were both incredible books. I understand both sides of it. It’s impossible to argue with, “I was there,” but I also believe that there shouldn’t be a line drawn in the sand in terms of what people can and can’t write about. Although one has to earn the ability to do so. I hope I did.

MF: Tell us about your podcast “TK with James Scott.” Why do you think it’s so important to host conversations that focus on the intimate reading and writing practices of fellow authors?

JS: Whether it’s the story or the podcast, we all want to know we’re not alone. As a writer, especially as a newer writer, I often didn’t know where to look for information and I didn’t know who to model myself after. In a lot of ways, I’m talking to that earlier version of me. The conversation is an attempt to make a connection between writers and readers that hopefully provides reassurance that there are lots of us out there and everyone approaches the craft and the career in different ways.

However, for the majority of writers, there’s a flash of interest in your work when you have a book out (hopefully), but once that noise fades, the world can be awfully quiet, and the muscles that you’ve newly acquired doing readings and talking about the book atrophy. I want to talk to people in those quieter moments, in the in-between phases.

I’m a few episodes in, and I hope people enjoy the conversations whether they know (or like) the writer or not, and whether they’ve read the book or not. I try not to spoil anything, as I’m not really interested in relaying the plot of the book, but it’s the deeper truth of the thing that I’m after.

James Scott is the author of the novel The Kept. His short fiction can be found in One Story, Ploughshares, and American Short Fiction, while his nonfiction has appeared in The New York Times Book Review and Boston Magazine. He lives in Massachusetts.

Megan Feifer is a doctoral candidate in English with a minor in Women’s and Gender Studies at Louisiana State University. She received her MA from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in English (Modern Studies). She is the cofounder and president of the Edwidge Danticat Society.

Posted in Web Interviews | Comments Off on A Writer’s Insight: An Interview with James Scott

Jessica’s Rambling Thoughts about Spring 2016 and the New Issue of The Southern Review

My trip to Home Depot to buy yet another weed trimmer tells me a year has passed and it is a new spring. My luck with trimmers is comparable to my luck with computers: I need to replace one pretty much every year because somehow I’ve managed to render mine inoperable. An overgrown yard (granted, it’s only about 100 square feet; it’s a city yard) isn’t the only unkempt area in or around my house, though. Having recently returned from AWP, my desk, tables, and bookshelves are filled with books and manuscripts I’m eager to get to at some point, as well as poems and prose to edit for the summer issue.

AWP was wonderful for me this year. In addition to spending time with writers I like as writers and as people and chatting with many other people for the first time, I attended some stellar panels. The three that knocked off my emotional socks—and that I think everyone should definitely watch if AWP offers videos of them on their site—were the tribute to Phil Levine and the two panels on Larry Levis which featured the documentary film from Michele Poulos, A Late Style of Fire, and the release of The Darkening Trapeze: last poems, edited by David St. John and published by Graywolf Press. The Darkening Trapeze has five poems that we were fortunate to run in our Levis feature last spring, a feature which also included poems by Phil Levine, David St. John, Peter Everwine, and several other writers touched by the web of Levis. Many of the conversations I had this year in L.A. were about the Levis panels and his writing in general. His work positively impacted so many poets and continues to do so. Everyone I talked to who loves his work inevitably said something to me like: “Have you read ______? I, mean, wow, isn’t it great?!” And I either agreed on the spot or read it when got home and thought, Yes, this is great, maybe a new favorite.

Which leads me to the spring issue for this year, filled with many terrific works, maybe even some new favorites. The issue opens with three poems from Jim Whiteside, who makes his second appearance in our pages. “Disguise Game” is a brief poem that uses ambiguity and imagery to reveal the layers of memory and self that can never be defined absolutely. The speaker says, “ . . . I wake / in the forest dreaming of the forest, studying the lake // reflecting the trees.” Who or what is dreaming and reflecting? Everyone and everything, all of it connected and yet tenuous. In such shifting uncertainty of self and perspective, the poem puts forth: “I’ve played this game before, / the one that goes, I’ll be the wolf, and you be // the sheepskin I hide in.” Is that not every one of us? So brilliantly and succinctly presented. Jim’s other two poems, “Judith Mountains” and “Immutable” are tributes to the painter Devin Leonardi, and each is moving without possessing sentimentality.

The issue closes with two thoughtful, metaphysical poems from Sharon Olds: “First Breath” and “Pine Tree Ode.” The notions that we are dying as soon as we are born and that we were and again become “star stuff,” as Carl Sagan asserted, unfold beautifully and send us out of the issue with plenty to contemplate. However, between these sets of poems are many other gems, including Jay Rogoff’s “Seventeen at Last,” which uses the villanelle form, in part, to develop its story of Giuseppina Bozzacchi, the ballet dancer who died on the morning of her seventeenth birthday on November 23, 1870. Ange Mlinko returns with two vivid poems, “Cooked in Their Own Ink,” after Derek Mahon’s “The Banished Gods,” and “Nights Are Short but Evenings Come Twice,” in which, during a powerful storm, the speaker must “turn the handle that resembles a key / and watch the filaments of a hurricane lamp / glow like an arachnid spliced with an isotope.” I recall well from my own childhood of hurricanes and hurricane lamps the distinct motion and sound of turning the key and lighting the lamp, yet I never thought of the spot-on image of a spider until I read the poem.

The issue is filled with much more terrific poetry and prose as well as visual art by Sarah Williams, whose nightscapes make me think of Edward Hopper without the people. Kirstin Allio is back in our pages, with the essay “Buddhism for Western Children,” which ties to her story from our autumn 2012 issue, “Buddhist Tales for Western Children.” There are poems that comment on race in America, historically and presently, by Anna Journey, Laura Kasischke, and David Hernandez, who reads one of his featured poems, “Murmuration,” in our audio gallery. Other works featured in the audio gallery this season include two poems from slam poet champion Sam Sax, a poem about basketball from Robert Cording, a pantoum from Denise Duhamel, a poem inspired by a conversation with her young daughter by Maggie Smith, and four short poems from Jill Osier. There’s also short fiction by Osama Alomar, translated by C. J. Collins, stories by Rachel Yoder and David James Poissant, and an essay by Beth Ann Fennelly.

Well, it looks too wet outside to cut the grass this evening, after all. Which is just as well. It’s Friday. Time for some fun. This weekend, we’re in between music festivals in New Orleans, but there’s a puppetry fringe festival and a poetry festival from which to choose. My parents are taking my daughter to the Irish, Italian, Islenos parade in Saint Bernard Parish, where I grew up. I’m not sure why these groups have now combined their parades into one, maybe it’s more convenient to block the streets one time rather than three. Regardless, it’s going to be a party and food will be thrown (yes, they throw food!) and grandfathers and granddaughters will dance in the street. These are the things that poems and stories are made of.

Posted in Jessica Rambles | Comments Off on Jessica’s Rambling Thoughts about Spring 2016 and the New Issue of The Southern Review

March 2016 Newsletter

Read the March 2016 newsletter here.

Posted in News | Comments Off on March 2016 Newsletter

See you at AWP!

awpFor readers and contributors traveling to Los Angeles for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference, here are the details about The Southern Review at #AWP16.

Bookfair: We are located at booth 1205, just to the right of the main entrance (map view). We’ll have subscription specials (including a free The Southern Review notebook for subscribers) and half-price back issues. Our editorial staff will be working the booth to answer questions about the journal.

Panels: Coeditor and prose editor Emily Nemens will participate in the panel “Women Who Edit: Literary Journals” (R212) on Thursday, March 31, at 1:30 pm in room 405 of the convention center. Many, many contributors are participating in panels as well; search for your favorites on the interactive schedule to find details.

Readings/Signings: Our contributors are reading far and wide at this year’s conference and across Los Angeles. Check out the schedule for a complete list of events. Signings right next door, at the LSU Press booth (1203), include The Southern Review contributors Margaret Luongo (3:30 pm on Thursday, 3/31), Bobby Rogers (10:30 am on Friday, 4/1), David Kirby (1:30 pm on Friday, 4/1), James Davis May and Tara Bray (both at 3:00 pm on Friday, 4/1). Also, Emily Nemens will be reading at the Third Annual Rock and Roll Reading, Saturday, April 2 at 4:00 pm at the Echoplex (1822 Sunset Boulevard).

Twitter: We will be tweeting from the conference! Please follow @southern_review and @emilynemens and watch for the #AWP16 hashtag.

Posted in News | Comments Off on See you at AWP!

A Writer’s Insight: An Interview with Carrie Brown

This is the third installment of our series of web interviews with The Southern Review contributors.

Carrie Brown’s essay “The Art of Losing: A Letter to My New Colleagues at Deerfield Academy” appears in the winter 2016 issue. You can listen to an excerpt of it here. Interview conducted and condensed by The Southern Review/LSU Press marketing intern Megan Feifer.

Megan Feifer: In the last section of “The Art of Losing: A Letter to My New Colleagues at Deerfield Academy” you write: “In our new house, the things of the world will rearrange themselves into new tableaux, new demonstrations teaching us how to love the world.” Can you tell us about the newness of life for you since you wrote this letter?

Carrie Brown: In Cynthia Ozick’s essay “The Shock of Teapots,” she writes, “This is what travelers discover: that when you sever the links of normality and its claims, when you break off from the quotidian, it is the teapots that truly shock. Nothing is so awesomely unfamiliar as the familiar that discloses itself at the end of a journey. Nothing shakes the heart so much as meeting—far, far away—what you last met at home. Some say travelers are informal anthropologists. But it is ontology—the investigation of the nature of being—that travelers do. Call it the flooding-in of the real.”

That phrase—“the flooding-in of the real”—describes exactly what I have felt in the months since our departure from Virginia. What seemed vital to us as we were leaving Sweet Briar was the past—every object we packed, every encounter, every walk seemed to speak to us of the past. At Deerfield, perhaps because we have no past here, it is the power of the present I feel most fully: the changing quality of the light from morning to night and season to season over the marsh across the street from our house; the nearby presence of the rivers—the Connecticut and the Deerfield—in whose fork we live, and which overflow their banks after high rains, flooding the fields, huge mirrors for the sky. These things are new to us, and we take them in like travelers trying to understand where they find themselves.

Yet the familiar is equally arresting. The business of reassembling the contents of our household in a new place has been like piecing together something broken into many shards. It is impossible to reconstruct the original object—too many pieces have been lost, the form is not the same—so instead the fragments are rearranged to make a new shape. Seeing familiar objects in unfamiliar tableaux—a table, a lamp, and a bowl, for instance, keeping unusual company with one another—still gives me a jolt of surprise, even after several months. (How long does it take before something becomes so familiar that one ceases to see it?)

When we left Sweet Briar, I saw things with the intensity of someone who knows she is leaving. Everything shimmered with our history there. At Deerfield, I am a traveler, and every view, every object—familiar or new—even the observation of the day’s quotidian rituals—making tea, brushing one’s teeth and gazing at oneself in the mirror—has the power, as Ozick says, to “shock.”

MF: Throughout the process of packing and readying yourself for leaving, you intimately describe how “. . . the past [begins] speaking, a babble of voices, light out of the dark.” When you started the letter did you imagine that writing it would result in this deeper meditation on time, memory, and loss?

CB: When I began writing the essay, I did so in the grip of pure feeling, in the grief we felt over our departure. I wrote only to catalog the itinerary of that departure, as a diarist might record the day’s weather and what is had for supper and what work is done or friends seen. To write down the experience of those last days and weeks was to preserve them, and I had the sense of wanting to do that. That is to say: I was not writing purposefully at a thematic level but was impelled only by feeling, by the urgent desire to say what had happened, and to describe how we made our way through what we understood to be our remaining time in that place. I was if not stopping time then trying to slow it down. But writing is necessarily an act of consideration and reflection, and eventually those feelings became organized in my mind around exactly the forces you name—time, memory, and loss—forces that act upon all of us. Gradually the storm of feeling was given shape and thereby became artful. (As V. S. Pritchett said, “It’s all in the art. You get no credit for living.”) Though the essay is a personal one, in which I describe something particular to me and my life, I began in it to look outside my own experience; that’s something else that happens when we write, I think—we make connections that bind us up into the human community more fully. We begin to ask questions that allow us to place ourselves and our experiences in a larger context.

MF: In the letter you reference several examples of ritual and memorialization. For example, you talk about the ceremony of “present[ing] daisies at Daisy’s feet” and the tradition of “artful relation” practiced in vanitas art. Do you see your letter as engaging in similar forms of ritual and memorialization?

CB: Interesting question. Letters are—in themselves—a kind of ritualistic practice, I suppose. We begin with a salutation, we offer information or express emotions or thoughts, we close with our name and some expression of feeling—love, regret, in sympathy, with gratitude, etc. Like a ritual with many stages, letters often belong in a sequence, too—they are exchanged and go back and forth and form a conversation. Absent the conceit of the letter, the essay would be less intimate, I suppose; I began with the notion of an audience (something I never do as a fiction writer), and I was aware when writing it of leaning toward those listeners with a kind of familiarity, even though they were strangers. Also, the essay is a kind of obituary to a time and place; in that way it is an act of memorializing.

MF: You conclude that “the art of losing isn’t hard to master. . . . But if there is an art to it, I wish someone would tell me what it is.” What have you learned about losing? Is it really an art one can master? What has this experience clarified for you in terms of loss?

CB: The experience of loss takes place at many levels—emotional, psychological, and absolutely physically. The body knows something has been lost and says so in its own language. Is there an art to losing? And is it an art that can be mastered? I suppose writing about something one has lost is part of the art of it. Certainly there’s an art to surviving loss, I think. (One hopes to do it gracefully.) The experience of being severed from a place I loved and where I felt at home has made me more aware of the strange human capacity to merge—and to want to merge—with a physical landscape in a way that is almost bodily. The human story is rich with myth about the ways the physical world is alive—trees and rocks and rivers run through with intention and identity, presences we can feel around us. When I walk around Deerfield now I am aware — perhaps in a way I might not have been before—of who preceded me here, of what the trees have seen, and of some speechless connection between the physical landscape and the human world.

MF: According to the Sweet Briar English Department website you are returning to the college to resume your position of Banister Writer-in-Residence. Congratulations! How does this make you feel? What are some of your reflections as you begin packing up, once again, and readying yourself for a return?

CB: The college’s ability to recover from the blow dealt to it by the effort to close it has been nothing short of miraculous. We never imagined that we would be able to return, and we are very glad to be going home. Since learning we could return, I have been thinking about the Deerfield community, the early settlers here who tried—on several occasions—to establish themselves here, the bloody contests between those who wanted to stake their claim to this particular part of the Connecticut River Valley. We do not easily relinquish our hold on a place. Preserved in one of the museums here is a door scored with hatchet marks from one of the battles between the Native Americans in the area and the settlers. In the cemetery is a mound, the burial site of those who lost their lives because they wanted to stay. The urge to stay is at least as powerful as the urge to go.

Carrie Brown is the author of seven novels, mostly recently The Last First Day and The Stargazer’s Sister, as well as a collection of stories, The House on Belle Isle. The recipient of numerous awards, she lives in Massachusetts with her husband, the novelist John Gregory Brown, where she is the Wilson Fellow at Deerfield Academy.

Megan Feifer is a doctoral candidate in English with a minor in Women’s and Gender Studies at Louisiana State University. She received her MA from the University of Wisconsin–Milwaukee in English (Modern Studies). Her teaching and research interests include Afro-Caribbean diasporas in the U.S. and postcolonial literatures and theories. She is the cofounder and president of the Edwidge Danticat Society and volunteers with the organization Other Worlds.

Posted in Web Interviews | Comments Off on A Writer’s Insight: An Interview with Carrie Brown