Hybrid (kitchen/language/literature) spaces: a conversation with Matthew Baker


(LSU Press, 2018)

We are navigating a tight kitchen. Matthew Baker is peeling sprouts off potatoes that have been aging on the counter. He’s planning to make corn chowder. I’m pouring baking soda into a measuring cup. When he reaches for a knife, I am using it to chop garlic. The pot I’ve put out to boil water for my pretzel rolls, he places a square of butter in for his soup. We move in sync and completely out of tune. We’re wearing pajamas. We’re wearing pajamas because we’re both writers who work from home, and also, we live in that home together. Much before our co-habitation, we interrogated one another at an artist residency in Vermont. Ever since, we’ve bombarded each other with questions, sometimes in a hybrid of languages. We are not strangers to inquisition, and Baker is no stranger to formal experimentation, as his debut novel, If You Find This (Little Brown, 2015), a middle grade mystery about familial love and redemption, infuses mathematics and musical notation in the prose. Three years later, enter: Baker’s debut collection. Hybrid Creatures (LSU Press, 2018) is a four-story collection, each of which is told partially in a hybrid language: HTML, mathematics, musical notation and formal logic. I first read the book in an earlier draft in PDF form. Now there is a box of paperbacks from the publisher in my living room. The conceit of Hybrid Creatures is that there are some human experiences that can only be communicated through hybrid tongues. Here, as the author’s partner, now acting as formal interviewer, while cooking alongside him, I will try to do something similar.

JA: Most evenings, when we sit down to talk, we begin with the directive: Tell me a thing or en français: Dit moi un chose, so this shouldn’t be such a leap. Tonight, tell me a thing about the inception of Hybrid Creatures. From writing the first story, did you know you were going to sculpt a collection of hybrid pieces?

MB: (meticulously chopping potatoes in quarters)

My last semester of college, I did an independent study on comics and graphic novels, which got me thinking a lot about different storytelling mediums, and the types of storytelling maneuvers that you can only do in certain mediums. For instance, a really obvious example in film would be how you can switch back and forth between color and black and white, like in The Wizard of Oz, or even Schindler’s List. Or in comics and graphic novels, the types of maneuvers that Chris Ware does with stories told in diagram form. So, I was thinking a lot about that, and about prose, and trying to think of storytelling maneuvers that only prose writers can do.

JA: (watching pretzel rolls as they rise underneath oiled plastic wrap)

That shift into color in The Wizard of Oz is something so particular to the medium. It creates an emotional experience that works solely because we can experience an altered perception of the world visually. I’m wondering about the forms you chose for the stories in Hybrid Creatures. How did you decide which hybrid language was going to go with which narrative?

MB: (plops quartered potatoes into pot)

Well, I didn’t really. I started with the languages. Before I wrote the stories in the book, I wrote a collection of prototype stories, and in each of those, that was all there was, the artificial language, and then I would design the story around that—but I wasn’t satisfied with the prototypes. I wanted to find some way to write stories that not only would use artificial languages from these other fields, but that would incorporate artificial structures from those fields too. So, when I wrote the final stories—the stories in the book—I started with the language, then I chose a structure, and then I designed the entire story around that.

JA: So then the characters in the book, or at least the protagonists or narrators, became people who had a need for that language, or who had an ability to communicate in that language?

MB: (adding butter to sautéing potatoes)

Yeah, the narrator or the protagonist of each story was determined by whatever the lexicon of that particular story was going to be—someone who would speak that language, and who might interpret their experiences and understand their world through that language, and through the corresponding artificial structure.

I like that we’re doing this while we’re cooking, but I also wish that we could just look at each other while we’re talking.

JA: (walks over to stove, stares at Baker)

In contrast to those complex structures, I was struck by how traditional the stories themselves were. It felt almost like an equation—if you had equally complex narratives, in addition to the experimental forms, maybe the stories wouldn’t work.

MB: (stirring sautéing potatoes)

That wasn’t a realization I made until after I had written the prototypes. One of the prototypes was this story published in Conjunctions called “Proof Of The Monsters.” Not only was that story experimenting with the linguistics of formal logic, but it also was randomly written in diary form, and then it also had these speculative sci-fi elements—it was just too much. There was too much happening. So, that was a lesson I learned from writing that story: I needed to simplify things.

When I first started seriously writing, one of my writing mentors was the poet Jack Ridl. You’ve never met him. He’s this kind, wise old poet. After spending three semesters together, the final thing he said to me about my work, the one lesson he wanted me to take away was: If you are going to do a weird thing, only do one weird thing at a time. He probably phrased it much more articulately than that, but that was the gist of it and that was what I took away.

JA: My mentor, Elissa Schappell said something similar about how to balance language and action—the necessity to lower one when amping up the other.

MB: (adding water to pot)

Only do one weird thing at a time was very important advice for me as a writer—in some ways it was the key to figuring this project out.

JA: I have to ask about the mathematics story, “The Golden Mean.” I find that story to be the strongest in the collection, for several reasons, but one being that there is an emotional honesty and vulnerability that is enormously affecting. As you know, I write from experiences that very much look like life, situationally, although my characters are always fictively constructed. You have a very similar familial makeup to the protagonist in “The Golden Mean” in that you come from divorced parents and move between two families. What happens when we write from life?

MB: (laughs and turns the intensity of the stove burner up)

That’s a brilliant question. Can I respond with a question of my own: Is this all the corn we have?

JA: (grabs stool and heads to cabinet)

I believe so, but let me check—oui, mais we have two cans of black beans.

MB: Merci beaucoup, we don’t need them.

JA: Bien. I didn’t forget my question. And don’t forget to warn me when it’s time to start boiling pretzel rolls.

MB: Parfait, we aren’t quite there yet.

JA: The mathematics story—

MB: (adding corn to pot)

Right. When I wrote my children’s novel, If You Find This, I deliberately wrote a book about a dying grandfather as a way to try to process the experience of losing my grandfather. The process of writing that book was therapeutic for me. But for “The Golden Mean,” it wasn’t about trying to figure out anything for myself—it was about trying to express, the best that I could, what it’s like to be a person caught in the circumstance of existing in two families simultaneously.

JA: And you achieve that with the structural division. We feel the incompleteness. In your first book, even if you wrote it, in part, to process your grief, you were also able to intimately communicate the experience of loss to your readers. But here, I suppose what you’re saying is: the math story is less for you and more for us.

MB: Exactly. For me, this project was about taking these very familiar cliché storylines—having divorced parents, losing your spouse, having dementia—and attempting to find a way to make a reader truly feel those experiences. Trying to develop a storyline to use in conjunction with formal logic, for instance, I realized that writing about a character with dementia could potentially be very powerful, because for a character who thinks about the world in terms of formal logic, there would be nothing more devastating or world-altering than to lose the ability to think logically, in a clear sequential order.

JA: That devastation is palpable. It reminds me about what we were speaking about last night, the book and subsequent film Still Alice, and the play Wit. I think in all three examples, the third being Hybrid Creatures, there is a nuanced dimension of poignancy when the individual experiencing failing mental capacity identifies so deeply with their intellect.

MB: And of course, not everyone has a job that requires working with an artificial language or that necessarily shapes the way that you perceive the world. I think many people do experience this, though, across a wide range of fields. For instance, I have a brother-in-law who’s a chemist—maybe that’s a strange way to phrase it, because you know who my brother-in-law is, but for readers—

JA: He’s also very good at board games, but, yes, your brother-in-law, the chemist—

MB: I asked him recently how much his study of chemistry affects his everyday experience of the world. Like for instance, if he was cooking and he was caramelizing some onions and he had butter and sugar and salt and onions in a pan, was he thinking about the chemical reactions happening in the pan at that moment, as he was cooking, or was he just thinking about how good the caramelizing onions smelled?

JA: (hops onto counter)

I love that question.

MB: He said that the answer was both, that he’d be thinking about how good the caramelizing onions smelled, but that he’d be thinking about the chemical reactions happening in the pan too, and that to some extent he’s always thinking about it—that his knowledge of chemistry affects every experience he has. The first time I ever saw that phenomenon replicated in fiction was in the novel We by Yevgeny Zamyatin—have you read that?

JA: I have not.

MB: Oh, you need to read it. It’s brilliant—also, time to start boiling the pretzel rolls.

JA: (hops off counter and turns on oven)

On it. Now, I want to talk about the influence of research on your writing. I know you’re insatiably curious and your hunger for knowledge leads you to incorporate so much from the world into your work. The result is that it feels like you have an intimate knowledge of so many diverse fields—which is another way of saying, like I’ve often suspected, maybe you’re a robot—or another alternative: the internet has given you a way to be a specialist in everything.

MB: (stirring soup)

A lot of it is research. For instance, even though I studied music and knew how to read sheet music and music dynamics, I wasn’t intimately acquainted with the structure of a classical symphony and the structure of the different movements within a classical symphony. Nonetheless, it was important to me for “Movements,” the music story in the collection, that each of the four sections have the same narrative development as the corresponding movement would have in a traditional symphony.

JA: You do a lot of that work in everything you create, where you bury or embed things that an average reader may not pick up on. It seems deeply important to you.

MB: I love video games, and a wonderful and maybe unique tradition within that storytelling medium is the tradition of the Easter egg—hidden content, bonus content, that can be unlocked or discovered if you invest enough time in exploring the story. As a writer, I’m interested in trying to hide as many Easter eggs as possible in each of my stories, to make it as rewarding as possible for a story to be read multiple times—so that potentially, every time it’s read, the reader can make another startling and wonderful discovery. They’re usually in-jokes. Does that make any sense?

JA: (turns on burner for saucepan)

It makes complete sense. The veracity of your worlds comes through in all of your work. I keep thinking about the philosophy story and the conversations that take place throughout it in the background. It’s an interesting experience for the reader because we’re following a protagonist who is confused about where he is and who he is, and you’ve added all this external chatter. In a lesser narrative, that chatter might just be funny or mildly interesting, but here, the conversations feel inherently connected to the larger story.

MB: Well, this was a terrible idea, as usual—

JA: Interviewing while cooking?

MB: Well yeah, that, but also, I got this idea into my head that because “Proof Of The Century” was going to try to tell the entire story of a nearly hundred-year-old man’s life, and because it was also going to try to tell the story of an entire country over that same hundred-year period, I might as well, at the same time, try to incorporate every major subfield of philosophy into the story too.

JA: That is a terrible idea.

MB: So yeah, you’re right, those background conversations at the family “symposium” are meant to contribute thematically, in that these different characters—in a very casual, everyday, holiday get-together setting—are debating a wide range of subjects that philosophers have been debating for centuries. Ethics, aesthetics, political philosophy, etc. Maybe that wasn’t your question.

JA: (watches over saucepan as water begins boiling)

I’m not sure I asked one.

MB: Something else I can tell you about “Proof Of The Century” is that it was also important to me that the proofs in the story include all the basic maneuvers used in formal logic. In the same way that in skateboarding there’s this basic vocabulary of tricks or moves that you can do, in formal logic there’s this basic vocabulary of moves or tricks that philosophers use. Modus ponens, modus tollens, etc—they’re the ollies and nollies of formal logic. In thinking about the various proofs embedded within that story, I decided it was important to incorporate all of those maneuvers at least once—which, again, was a terrible idea, but I did it.

JA: (dumping baking soda into saucepan)

You’re you. Of course, you did.

MB: (staring into foaming saucepan)

That’s a fun reaction! If only the chemist could be here to see it.

JA: (begins dropping in pretzel rolls)

C’est le meilleur. I think we should talk about loneliness. Since language is the way we communicate, I’m curious how isolation features into the book. For me, the reading experience created a connection and sort of broke the individual isolation of your characters and I’m wondering if that was intentional—if you thought at all about the fact that language is the means through which we communicate and that your characters exist primarily in varying forms of seclusion.

MB: Well, for a character who thinks about the world in a hybrid language, who is fluent both in English and some artificial language like HTML, I think that can be isolating—in the same way that if you grow up speaking English and Mandarin, when you’re around people who only speak English, sometimes there will be things you want to express that are impossible to say.

JA: (places pretzel rolls on baking sheet)

And I felt like the hybrid languages were a way to express that which would previously be inexpressible.

MB: Yeah, I think for some of the things you could paraphrase it in English or try to find a synonym, but it wouldn’t quite be the same. You translate stories from French, and I know you’ve said that there are words and phrases in French that no matter how close you get to translating them into English words, sometimes you can’t quite capture the meaning. And that’s just as true for HTML, or music dynamics, or math notions, or formal logic, as it is for French and any other natural human language.

JA: In a way your hybrid languages feel like a form of abstract translation. Let me put these in the oven—

MB: I wonder if this is the first author interview ever to be conducted while both the author and the interviewer were in a kitchen cooking a meal together.

JA: Both in pajamas, bumping into each other in a tiny kitchen—actually, let’s talk about us. We sometimes communicate in a hybrid tongue.

MB: Yeah, in this apartment we primarily speak English, but we also speak in French and Spanish and Italian and now Japanese. But yeah, what’s your question?

JA: Well, talk to me about that. I know for me, there is an additional meaning in saying I love you in very rudimentary Japanese. The texture and emotional experience is different than expressing it in English.

MB: Tell me about the experience.

JA: (walks over to where Baker is searching the spice rack)

I think there is this idea that when I say I love you in Japanese, you’re the only person I’ve ever said I love you in that language to before, and it’s this created thing, learning Japanese together—there is an added level of intimacy, not just in its singularity, but in that it’s connected to a culture that means so much to you. Maybe it’s the same thing in reverse with French. Does that make sense?

MB: (holding cayenne)

Désolé, I need to get to the pot.

JA: Tu est le plus romantique. I guess what I’m trying to say is, until I thought deeply about your book and even about having this conversation, I always just took us speaking in those different languages as an aspect of our relationship. I didn’t necessarily sit with what it meant—with why we do it. Or with why it’s so meaningful.

MB: Well, when you speak two languages, say English and HTML, it’s limiting in a way, because most people speak only one of those languages, but it’s also liberating in that with certain people it allows you to communicate in a richer way, or to communicate more than you could communicate before. And when you speak multiple languages—if you speak, like we do, in English, French, Spanish, Italian, and Japanese—then it’s even more liberating because it allows us to say things that we weren’t able to say with English alone. Like I love you, or J’adore tu or Aishiteimasu. Even if they don’t come with subtly different meanings, eventually they take on subtly different meanings, in the same way that sometimes you want to say I’m hungry and sometimes you want to say I’m starving and sometimes you want to say I’m ravenous. I think it feels special and meaningful because it allows us to communicate even very basic things in a deeper, more nuanced way.

JA: I think your stories do the same thing. And I think, in many ways, the characters in your stories probably wouldn’t be able to express themselves without the accompanying languages—or their emotional experiences wouldn’t be able to be communicated without them—Let me just quick check on the pretzel rolls. They’re done!

MB: The soup is ready too.

JA: Parfait, let’s eat.

(walking over to table with soup and pretzel rolls in hand respectively)

MB: (reaching for a pretzel roll)

I’m very grateful to the editors, both at the magazines that originally published these stories and at LSU Press, which published the collection. The formal constraints for this project added a layer of difficulty not only for me but for the editors too. Oh, these pretzel rolls are a masterpiece!

JA: Merci beaucoup, I had to work with my own constraints because we ran out of yeast.

MB: Zut alors.

JA: In thinking again about constraints and experimentation, I’m wondering about Hybrid Fictions, the course you’re currently teaching at my alma mater, The Gallatin School at NYU. Aussi, the soup is trés bien.

MB: Merci beaucoup, Parfait. In Hybrid Fictions we exclusively read and write interdisciplinary fiction: fiction that incorporates subject-specific language, forms, and concepts from other fields of study. Biology, physics, etc. We’re writing stories in the form of architectural blueprints. We’re writing stories in the form of chemical compounds. So, it’s a workshop in a hyper specific subgenre of experimental fiction.

My students registered for this course voluntarily, of course, but still, sometimes these writing prompts make them nervous. I think it can be terrifying, as a young writer, to even conceive of, let alone to actually dare, to break from tradition and to try something new. I think another great fear for young writers is that, if they do attempt something new, that their work will be perceived as gimmicky. Which is a legitimate fear, of course. I try to emphasize that it’s not enough simply to tell a story through some new interesting lexicon, or language, or structure, or form—that it’s still crucial for the story to have an effect on the reader, emotionally and intellectually, and that ideally the experiment should be used to tell a story that’s only possible to tell in this new way.

JA: It isn’t enough to be flashy. It has to actually do something. It has to be affecting.

MB: (dips a pretzel roll into the soup)

To me, that’s the difference between a gimmick and a story that’s worth reading. There are people who write experimental fiction in which there’s absolutely no connection between the experiment and the actual story—the plot and the characters. It’s just an experiment attached to some random story. No matter how brilliant and innovative the experiment is, work like that doesn’t interest me. It’s like watching somebody who’s invented a rocket shoot a rocket into the air for no other purpose than just to show everyone that they can build a rocket. Just to make a loud noise. A bright light in the sky. The experimental fiction that I love, the experimental fiction that excites me, are experiments that are done for a purpose: writers who aren’t just shooting a rocket into the air to show off, but because they’re trying to put a satellite into orbit, or because they’re trying to land astronauts on the moon.

JA: It seems fitting for us to end with space. Both you and your stories are not quite of this world.


Jenessa Abrams is a Norman Mailer Fiction Fellow and a Columbia MFA graduate in fiction and literary translation. She has been awarded fellowships and grants from the MacDowell Colony, the Ucross Foundation, the Vermont Studio Center and Columbia University. Her writing has been published in Tin House Online, TriQuarterlyJoylandWashington SquareBOMB MagazineGuernicaThe Offing, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. Recently, she was named a finalist for Narrative Magazine’s 30 Below Contest and both Glimmer Train’s Very Short Fiction Award and Fiction Open Award. Her work was nominated for the 2017 PEN/Robert J. Dau Short Story Prize for Emerging Writers. She currently holds a research fellowship at the New York Public Library and is pursuing a graduate degree in Narrative Medicine at Columbia University.

Matthew Baker is the author of Hybrid Creatures, a collection of stories written in hybrid languages, and the children’s novel If You Find This, which was named a Booklist Top Ten Debut and nominated for an Edgar Award. His stories have appeared in publications such as American Short Fiction, New England Review, One Story, Electric Literature, and Conjunctions, and have been anthologized in Best of the Net and Best Small Fictions. A recipient of grants and fellowships from the Fulbright Commission, the MacDowell Colony, the Ucross Foundation, the Ragdale Foundation, Vermont Studio Center, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Blue Mountain Center, Prairie Center of the Arts, Djerassi Resident Artists Program, the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, he has also taught at Vanderbilt University, where he was the founding editor of Nashville Review.

The Mystery and Mythology of Found Audio by N.J. Campbell


Two Dollar Radio’s latest publication is hot off the press. Found Audio by N.J. Campbell is a Russian nesting doll of a novel with layers of mystery, mythology, madness, and suspense.

When three stolen audio tapes of questionable origin land on Dr. Amrapali Singh’s desk, along with a large sum of money to analyze them, she has two days to extract any clues as to the origin of the tapes and the identity of the unnamed journalist whose story they hold. Using her keen ear and expertise in antiquated audio formats, she transcribes the tapes, which form the majority of the novel.

From the murkiest bayous of Louisiana to the walled-in city of Kowloon to a chess tournament in Turkey, the unnamed journalist searches for the City of Dreams––a legend akin to El Dorado and the lost city of Atlantis. The clues to where this City of Dreams might be come sporadically, over the course of several decades, and each time he gets close to finding it, something mysteriously happens to affect his perception of reality. Whether under the influence of alcohol, mental illness or the energy-draining humidity of the bayou, our unreliable narrator is thwarted and the City of Dreams remains just that: a dream.

I read Found Audio in one sitting, completely engrossed in the story. Just as Dr. Singh was enraptured by the tapes, I, too, was Alice falling down the rabbit hole.

The novel is a brilliant work of metafiction, and the story within the story is as irresistible as gossip from a friend of a friend. The foreword and afterword are both in the form of letters written by the author, N.J. Campbell, which further add to the mystery by tinkering with the thread-thin line between the extraordinary and the realm of possibility.

There are degrees of truth in the otherworldly tales, which ignite curiosity and propel the reader deeper into the narrative. Found Audio reads like a modern-day version of “Kubla Khan,” where the fantastic is ever-present, just beyond reach.

Being the curious person I am, I Googled many of the myths and legends in the book and was amazed to find that many of them have been documented. The City of Dreams is a renowned myth, the walled city of Kowloon really was torn down in 1993 and The Turk was a chess-playing automaton from the 1770s, later revealed to be a hoax. I even found an obituary for an Otha Johnson in the Times-Picayune from 2003, which fits within the timeline and the location of the story. While his obituary didn’t mention him being a snake hunter, judging by the number of children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren he had, it sounds like he lived to be quite old, just like the Otha character in the novel.

While each of these myths may seem disparate on the surface, Campbell weaves them together with a deft hand.

“I remember things that interest me, and they inevitably show up in my work. Stringing them together is partly happenstance and partly planned catastrophe,” Campbell says. “What I mean by the latter is that I’m very critical of my own work. I don’t want to get bored with it, so I’m constantly trying to push myself to see what might come out of further exploration. If I think I can’t do something, I have to do it. And a lot of this stuff all being strung together is me just trying to see in what way something can or might connect to something else.”

As evidenced in Found Audio, Campbell has found that his best writing comes from challenging himself to write his characters out of seemingly impossible problems.

“My friend Joey said it best: ‘If you’re an artist and you can risk it, you have to. You won’t be able to back down.’ That’s really stuck with me. So, in many ways I deliberately try to see how far I can push my narrative––what if that character tells me to get lost? What if I paint myself into a corner I know I can’t get out of? I can always go back and tear up the floorboards, but I want to see what might happen if I build myself into places that look like dead ends.”

Some of Campbell’s best ideas have come to him while at his day job, which is working for a small university press.

“I am 0% involved in anything to do with the publishing process. I literally pack boxes, take orders, and buy shipping supplies. That’s it. But that gives me total freedom to think all day about whatever I want,” Campbell explains. “My body is absorbed in a mostly physical task, and my mind wanders. It’s been majestic. I’ve worked manual labor jobs most of my life to keep my mind rested in order to write.”

The mystery doesn’t end with Found Audio. His next writing project is in the works, though he’s not quite ready to share. “For some people I know, talking about what they’re working on is helpful, but for me it’s not. I get self-conscious and that’s a distraction,” Campbell explains. “I will say that I work very diligently and very deliberately, but I don’t talk about anything until it’s done.”

Mandy Shunnarah is a writer based in Columbus, Ohio, though Birmingham, Alabama, will always have her heart. Her creative nonfiction essays and book reviews have appeared in The Missing Slate, Entropy Magazine, and The New Southerner Magazine, where she won Honorable Mention in their 2016 contest. You can read more of her work at her website, OffTheBeatenShelf.com.


Haints, Horrors, and Hilarity: JD Wilkes on The Vine That Ate the South



Vine-That-AteIf you grew up in the rural South, you’ve probably heard tales of big cats, vampires, the Bell Witch, flesh-eating kudzu, and other terrors that go bump in the night. You may have even encountered some yourself, though probably not all in a single outing. Unfortunately for the protagonist of The Vine That Ate the South––and fortunately for us––he did.

Author JD Wilkes spared hardly a Southern folk demon in his debut novel, The Vine That Ate the South. It’s a Homeric tale of going into The Deadening, a patch of haunted woods in western Kentucky, in hopes of coming out not only alive, but with an adventure tale so heroic as to woo his One True Love away from his sworn enemy.

The ultimate destination of our unnamed hero is The Kudzu House, where legend has it an elderly couple was eaten alive by carnivorous kudzu and their skeletons can still be seen strung up by the hungry vine, like two burned out bulbs on a strand of morbid Christmas lights.

When the myriad of Southern haints and frightful creatures are encountered alongside the more corporeal menaces, like trigger-happy hunters and murderous Masons, you’re not entirely certain what’s real and what’s not––and that’s where the magic happens. Rather than a moonlight-and-magnolias glorification of the South, Wilkes shows just how fearsome it can be––literally and figuratively.

The Vine That Ate the South is not only suspenseful, but also uproariously funny. Whether he’s recounting a run-in with a lisping, overly eager pastor or remembering the day his girlfriend-stealing nemesis found his family’s “shit knife,” our protagonist is like that hilarious uncle who always tells the best stories, genuinely unaware of his natural talent for comedy.

The style and tone of the novel, as well as its deft storytelling, mirrors the music of the band The Legendary Shack Shakers, of which Wilkes is the frontman. With the band’s punk, blues, and rockabilly tunes, lyrics rife with apocalyptic Biblical references and Wilkes’ onstage persona as a Southern gothic preacher, The Vine That Ate the South is like a Legendary Shack Shakers show contained between two French flaps.

I talked to Wilkes about his writing process, his influences and his varied artistic talents.

Shunnarah: I so enjoyed The Vine That Ate the South. The story kept me turning pages well after I probably should’ve gone to bed. The novel reads like a bard finally wrote down the South’s oral mythic history. Were you conscious of that bard-like quality as you were writing? How do you think the oral tradition plays into Southern culture?

Wilkes: I wanted the book to read in a “high prose,” florid manner that mirrored the lushness of the Kudzu. The words needed to overwhelm you at times. But I also tried to cut it back and clear room––much like the characters do with their machetes––by allowing plain speech in spots. That way you hopefully get a nice balance of old-school verbosity and simple Southern humor and wisdom.

Shunnarah: I know The Vine That Ate the South wouldn’t be considered a humor book, but there were parts where I laughed so hard I couldn’t breathe. I’m curious to hear more about your thoughts on how humor factors into Southern culture and storytelling.

Wilkes: I think humor is or should be a part of Southern writing. Flannery O’Connor was satirical and humorous, of course. John Faulkner is a bigger influence on me than his brother William.

Irvin S. Cobb, from Paducah, Kentucky, is too. To write about a place with such an intense history, one must occasionally pop air into it. Levity is what keeps novels like mine from descending into depressing historical fiction or even horror.

Shunnarah: It seems like going exploring in the woods and seeing at least one big cat or mythical creature is a Southern rite of passage. I say that having explored some creepy shacks and seen a big cat or two myself. I’m curious to know if your own explorations and otherworldly encounters fueled some of the scenes in The Vine That Ate the South.

Wilkes: Yes, I also enjoy walking around in abandoned places in the woods, ha! Careful we don’t get shot!

One place nearby is an actual ghost town in the woods along Clarks River. It’s called Carter Mill (it’s talked about in the novel) and there’s nothing like letting your imagination run wild through all those old dilapidated timbers and tar paper. You can even make up your own stories about what happened there… mix it in with the truth a little. Let the storytelling take on a life of its own. It’s something I did as a kid and still do.

Shunnarah: I noticed that the unnamed protagonist calls his companion in adventure, Carver, “crazy” on several occasions. Though Carver is his best friend, he’s self-aware enough to know Carver has a few screws loose. As someone who calls the South home––but who has left, traveled the world, and come back––are there times when you feel like an outsider like the protagonist, too?

Wilkes: I think I’m secretly jealous of people like Carver, a simple redneck who can handle himself in any situation. He’s not that nuanced and he’s the absolute opposite of an intellectual. But it’s his ability to blend into the wild that makes the main character wonder if he’s just crazy… Carver even seems to be an extension of the terrible forest itself. But I see the character as less crazy and more visceral, even feral. A man in complete union with nature at its deadliest.

Shunnarah: Your first book, Barn Dances and Jamborees Across Kentucky, was a work of nonfiction published by History Press. Did you always know you wanted to write a novel at some point or was there something about writing Barn Dances and Jamborees that inspired you in that direction?

Wilkes: I never dreamed of really writing a novel. It was really all just a lark.

While on tour with my band in Norway, I cracked a laptop open for a light source while riding through a long tunnel in the mountains. I was homesick so I figured, “Hell… Why not start waxing poetic about Kentucky?” Those Arctic Circle surroundings might’ve inspired my slightly-Tolkienesque approach, though. It really looks like Middle Earth up there!

So I reckon I just started thinking about the lore of the South, as opposed to the Anglo-Saxon stuff that Tolkien studied. Thinking about how we have stories, too.

Shunnarah: In addition to writing the novel, you drew all the illustrations. And on top of that you’re an accomplished musician, both as a solo artist and as a member of multiple bands, most famously The Legendary Shack Shakers, and a filmmaker. How does your love of one inspire and influence the others?

Wilkes: All my pursuits are aimed at telling the same kind of story: epic southern mythology. So there’s always this overarching theme despite the varied media I dabble in. Each medium is just a different discipline that I have learned “good enough” to get the stories across to the public. The hope is that each and every creation will combine to form my own little universe, one that people will enjoy visiting from time to time.

Shunnarah: What’s next for you? I’m interested in any creative projects you’re working on, though I’m especially curious to know if there are more books in the works.

Wilkes: There’s a solo record in the works with some of the Squirrel Nut Zippers guesting. There will be another mural project or two––I just did a large painting for the historic Coke Plant in Paducah. And I’m always writing tunes for The Legendary Shack Shakers. New album comes out in April!

Despite the workload, I’m still vaguely entertaining Carver’s next move, way in the back of my brain. Wonder what he’ll do next …


Mandy Shunnarah is a writer based in Columbus, Ohio, though Birmingham, Alabama, will always have her heart. Her creative nonfiction essays and book reviews have appeared in The Missing Slate, Entropy Magazine, Deep South Magazine, and The New Southerner Magazine, where she won Honorable Mention in their 2016 contest. You can read more of her work at her website, OffTheBeatenShelf.com.



killerWhether she’s writing about the endless curiosity of the body, the challenges that accompany being a feminist who isn’t afraid to defend her autonomy, the humor of living in a semi-rural area, or the wisdom of dogs, Kimmy Walters will delight you.

Walters is young—26, to be precise—so Millennials especially will recognize themselves in Killer’s pages. Walters’ debut poetry volume, Uptalk, was published in 2015, also by Bottlecap Press. At this rate, poetry connoisseurs will have much to look forward to.

Walters’ is the kind of poetry you can’t help but want to read, even when you’re falling asleep with the bedside lamp on. It’s the kind of poetry you read aloud to your friends because you just can’t keep it to yourself. The kind of poetry you want to read at stoplights even though it would pain you to be caught in the midst of a poem when the light changes.

While some modern poets default to snark, Walters is confident enough in her poetry to let each piece speak for itself rather than forcing the reader toward a quick, easy, often moralistic conclusion. Killer asks the reader only to observe and acknowledge—what readers glean beyond that is entirely their own.

Though the entire volume is captivating, the standout poems are “Good Morning, I Am Not Going to Commit Suicide Today,” “Does Your Soulmate Speak English,” “Marrying a Husband,” “Poem About How Little Affection I Had for Him,” “Giving Blood,” “The Water Was Filled With Swans,” “People Person” and, of course, the namesake, “Killer.”

I talked to Walters about her writing process and how her life experiences have informed her work.

Shunnarah: One of the things I most enjoyed about Killer is that while your poems are flush with meaning, they’re also extremely enjoyable on the surface level. Was the accessibility of your work always important to you? Did you ever have a memorable moment of throwing your hands in the air in frustration while reading a poem and think, “What does it all mean?” and vow not to make anyone do that?

Walters: Thank you! I’m not sure I ever consciously decided I wanted my writing to be accessible–I just didn’t have any interest in writing anything super opaque. I don’t get frustrated with needlessly complex writing so much as I get disinterested. I start looking around like “What else is going on?” I’m not going to spend a lot of time with a page that’s not really trying to communicate with me, and neither are most people.

Shunnarah: In the poem “Killer,” for which the collection is named, you speculate there may have been a killer who previously lived in your residence. Have you learned more about the house’s history since writing that poem?

Walters: I just looked up the house that poem was based on in Google Street View and there is a single black folding chair on the porch. Seems ominous…

It’s possible a killer lived there. That whole town was haunted as hell. One time my roommate and I slept downstairs in sleeping bags so we could try to get an overnight audio recording of the upstairs ghost. It was inconclusive.

Shunnarah: A number of the poems in Killer have a dark, subtle humor that is rendered sublimely in the text. I also noticed the recurring theme of dogs, creatures who manage to be simultaneously sage and goofy. Tell me more about your sense of humor and how it has developed in your poetry.

Walters: I’ve been depressed for a large portion of my life, and I dealt with it by constantly telling myself jokes. For a long time I thought that’s what everyone’s interior monologue was like. My sense of humor comes from years and years of trying to distract myself from being sad.

Shunnarah: You studied linguistics in college—deviating from the more common path of studying English literature or creative writing. Tell me more about how the study of linguistics gave you insight into language and influenced your poetry.

Walters: I didn’t have a lot of direction when I entered college, but the adults around me warned me against pursuing an English degree because they thought I wouldn’t be able to get a job. (I later found that it’s not easier to get a job with a linguistics degree, and a lot of people don’t know what linguistics is.)

It’s kind of an accident that I ended up with this degree, but it was a good course of study for me. I’ve always been interested in what language is capable of, its history, and how it changes. Studying linguistics definitely encouraged me to be more playful with language. The first thing you get taught in an introductory linguistics class is that you need to stop being such an asshole about language, which was true for me and probably all of my classmates.

Shunnarah: You’ve talked extensively about your use of social media as a poetic medium—namely making poetry out of the tweets from the now defunct horse enthusiast bot account, @horse_ebooks—so here’s the obligatory social media question. Many fans of your poetry found you via Twitter and Tumblr. Do you think blogging and social media, particularly Twitter because it requires brevity, have helped guide people to modern poetry?

Walters: When I was a tween, the thing to do at my school was to keep a blog, so I’ve been writing online for about 13 years. Connecting with people online is easier and makes me less anxious than trying to meet people other ways, and the way I’ve connected with people is by sharing writing or art.

Over the years I’ve had a lot of practice creating things that I want people to see. I took to Twitter quickly because I’m usually brief anyway. Twitter’s character limit is a constraint on writing the same way that the rules of haiku are. I mean, like anyone, I’ve tweeted “who up?” but hella old poems essentially boil down to “who up?” too. It’s one of the Big Questions.

The internet is a buffet and I am going hog wild on it. It’s so easy to sample things—I read articles online about subjects I’d never think to actually buy a book about. That may be where some of the interest in poetry is coming from. Someone who’d never browse the poetry section of a bookstore might have a poem come across their feed on Twitter or Facebook and find that they like it. Then they’ll come across a tidbit about food science or body language and like that too. We take in so much information; some of it’s gonna be poetry.

Shunnarah: Killer is your second collection of poetry, the first being Uptalk, which was also published by Bottlecap Press. In what ways have you evolved as a poet from Uptalk to Killer?

Walters: I think I was more focused while writing Killer, and generally had a better idea of what I was doing. I felt more confident writing, because I knew that people had responded positively to my work, and made quicker, less self-conscious decisions. The style is similar, but tighter, I feel.

Shunnarah: What are you working on now?

Walters: I’m figuring that out! I’ve just been writing poems and waiting for some theme to hijack my life so I can write another book.

Mandy Shunnarah is a writer based in Columbus, Ohio, though Birmingham, Alabama, will always have her heart. Her creative nonfiction essays and book reviews have appeared in The Missing Slate, Entropy Magazine, Deep South Magazine, and The New Southerner Magazine, where she won Honorable Mention in their 2016 contest. You can read more of her work at her website, OffTheBeatenShelf.com.

[INTERVIEW] Chloe Caldwell on I’ll Tell You In Person

Publisher: Coffee House Press in collaboration with Emily Books
Publication date: October 4, 2016
Number of pages: 184
Price: $16.95



With stories about growing up and fearing growing old, friendships and friend foibles, the intimacies of obsession and the intricacies of depression, I’ll Tell You In Person is an essay collection as vulnerable as it is blunt. Chloe Caldwell’s sharp wit and keen powers of observation are in full force in her newest book.

Caldwell takes readers on an odyssey through turbulent formative years of heroin, binge eating, Craigslist dating, the loss of a close friend, coming out, living in Europe, best friends, ex-friends, relationship blunders, encounters with celebrities, and all the experiences of youth that make us who we are. I inhaled Caldwell’s essays with unusual quickness—losing track of time, forgetting the presence of people around me, being fully present and absorbed in a way that only the words of a gifted essayist can produce.

I’ll Tell You In Person chronicles young adulthood with aplomb. Though it can feel as if the reader is meant to recall her own adolescent calamities and stack them up for comparison, this collection isn’t some righteous manifesto. There is no moral to the story because, as seasoned writers know, stories don’t need morals.


I talked to Chloe about her book and the challenges of writing personal essays. (This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.)

Mandy Shunnarah: I have to start off by congratulating you because I read I’ll Tell You In Person faster than any book in recent memory. One of the elements I most adored about the book is that you’re deeply self-deprecating without being overly critical or judgmental of yourself, and without apologizing. I got the sense that writing about your past heroin addiction, binge eating, masturbation, job woes, and nearly over-drafting your bank account to impress a millionaire celebrity was cathartic. Tell me more about your writing process and the emotional pilgrimage of writing this book.

Chloe Caldwell: Thank you! I’m touched you felt that way. The essays all came to be in different ways and times. “Yodels” I wrote back in 2013 for The Rumpus. “Soul Killer” I sent to Salon that same year because I had no money and $150 was a lot for me. Same with “The Laziest Coming Out Story.” So half of the book was already written without being considered a book. I began putting the essays together and then added five new ones over the course of 2014-2016.

I don’t know if it gives me any sort of relief or catharsis at all. The tough thing about this book was I was super broke during the process of putting it together, and submitting it to publishers. It’s stressful to work on a book without money, because to have time, you need money. It was difficult for me to sit and work on essays when I knew I should be working at my dad’s music store for money or catering or finding more teaching jobs.

MS: With I’ll Tell You In Person being your second collection of essays, how did you find yourself evolving as you explored more facets of what it means to grow up?

CC: It’s hard to talk about this stuff, it’s so ephemeral. I’ve always been smart in spite of my stupid choices and have been hyper-aware enough to know I could only make ridiculous decisions before I got older. And now I am older. It’s a creepily acute feeling I have at thirty, both like a child and a grown woman. My life is unconventional in the sense that I documented my wilder years. It’s not that I did anything more interesting than anyone else, it’s just that I have it out there in the form of a book. I feel myself evolving in many ways—I’ve always been into growth and therapy, etc., but I like to keep some of my evolving private.

MS: You share very openly in your work, though it sounds like people are always wanting more. What’s that like? How do you separate yourself from your work and maintain a personal life as a personal essay writer?

CC: I share openly in my work and in my life as well, mostly. But my essays are by no means my life story. There’s a ton I haven’t written about. The essays are just what I thought would be entertaining or enjoyable for a reader, what I had ideas for. People are definitely always wanting more and it’s a slippery slope. Luckily, I have an awesome therapist who used to work in publishing in NYC and knows a lot about the writer lifestyle, reads my books, and is familiar with the “scene” and the authors and books I mention. She’s helped me create clear boundaries around a lot of this stuff.

As Maggie Nelson says, “I don’t worry about people who ‘think they know me’ because, not to sound flip, they just literally don’t.” I’m paraphrasing, but I feel the same way. I have a private life just like everyone. I just write about certain “slices of life” if you will excuse that horrendous expression. “Prime Meats,” for example, is about something I did ten years ago. So I don’t feel super close to a lot of the essays in the collection.

MS: You seem at peace with your younger self, and I get the feeling that’s something a lot of people wish they could do. How did you get to that point? Was it a difficult place to reach when, as a writer of personal essays, you’re inevitably reaching into the past?

CC: Well, I don’t think I thought of it as a point to get to or a place to reach, which helps. I guess it’s just part of my make up, and comes naturally to me, which is why I ended up being a personal nonfiction writer—a lifestyle most certainly not for everyone. I did some weird shit in my youth, but who doesn’t? Plus, it got me to where I am: healthy, with books published, a job I love. My life is filled with the classes I teach, so I’m constantly reading personal essays of other people’s mistakes, so to me, it’s the new normal.

MS: The title harkens an intimacy that’s present on every page. Considering how I inhaled the book it almost feels strange that you’re not actually my real life best friend telling me these stories in person. Are these essays stories you did tell people in person before writing them down?

CC: No, they weren’t. I was just texting that phrase to my friends/family all the time about small things, like what I felt about a movie I’d just seen or whatever. I felt limited on text message and email and many of my close girl friends live in cities across the country from me, so I liked saving up anecdotes until I saw them in person and we could chat over glasses of wine. I liked the conversational tone of it for a book title, so it stuck. None of the essays aside from “Hungry Ghost” are exactly riveting stories or anecdotes. That’s why I say in the opener that I don’t necessarily have “good stories.” I’m more the kind of writer who tries to make narrative out of nothing.



Mandy Shunnarah is a writer based in Columbus, Ohio, though she calls Birmingham, Alabama, home. She writes personal essays, book news, and historical fiction. Her writing has been published in The Missing Slate and Deep South Magazine. You can find more of her work at her website, offthebeatenshelf.com.

“I had to write about what I was seeing”: a Conversation with Jeff Condran

–Interview by Jason R. Poole


Jeff Condran and I first met in his Intro to Fiction course at the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. We’ve kept in touch over the years, during which Jeff has co-founded Braddock Avenue Books, published a story collection, A Fingerprint Repeated, and also his debut novel, Prague Summer. Jeff now teaches Creative Writing at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

Jason R. Poole: Both your short story collection and your novel share focal points in the post-9/11 intersection of Arab and American cultures. What drew you to this subject matter?

Jeff Condran: In the fall of 2001, I was teaching at La Roche College in suburban Pittsburgh. The college offered a scholarship program called Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth) by which students were brought from “conflict and post-conflict nations” to study in the United States. And so my classes were filled with 18-25 year old Arabs from all over the Middle East—Palestine, Jordan, Saudia Arabia, Yemen.

It was a life-changing experience to walk into class on that Tuesday in September and discover a group of what had been generally untroubled expatriate college students who were excited about being in America and see them utterly transformed. Now people saw them as the enemy or, if not, at least the sudden spokespeople for all of Arab and Islamic culture. It was a horrible position for them to find themselves in. The FBI came on to campus and interviewed many of my students, asking them questions like, “Is Osama bin Laden your uncle?” and, later, arresting and detaining those they perceived as having violated various aspects of the Patriot Act.

I felt I had to write about what I was seeing.


JRP: Prague Summer has its origin in one of the stories from your collection. What made you decide to explore the story at greater length? What was that process like? Continue reading

The Lightning Room: Blog People

[PANK] Interviews Editor Diana Clarke is a facilitator of the unexpected. She is a brilliant asker. Her approach both to writing and to conversations with other writers is vivid and curious, articulate and pointed. The fiery result of this approach comes across not only in her interviews, but also in her other work – including her film reviews, her writing about urban space and culture and her work translating Yiddish women poets. The stories she tells – and the ones she draws out of her subjects so deftly – are deeply dimensional.

Below, Clarke talks Lolita, lightning, pleats, vulnerability and Yiddish.


–Interview by Temim Fruchter


1. Many of us are scattered across the country and only know one another, and our writers, from the internet. Where do you blog from?

Mostly I blog from coffee shops. I find I can do the work much better–much truer, with more presence and intention–away from my home. My favorite cafe in Northampton, Massachusetts, where I’m living these days, has huge windows and great people-watching. I love sitting in the ambient communal energy, able to be still because of all the motion around me.

2. Okay, maybe this is a cheating question, but here goes: What is your dream question, the question you’d want any interviewer worth their salt to ask YOU? Continue reading

The Lightning Room with Tyrese Coleman

Tyrese Coleman’s compact, powerful story “How to Sit,” from the March/April issue, contains three generations of women, explosive in their anger and love. Below, Tyrese talks pride, beauty, and the stories we carry in our bodies, our bodies carry into the world.


–interview by Diana Clarke


1. The narrative voice in “How to Sit” is so raw, furious and vulnerable, in particular where you describe how the grandmother’s “toenails are close to my leg. They are daggers. And if they were attached to her fingers, and if she were forty-seven and not sixty-seven, she would use them to scratch my face for pitying her.” How did you write into that place of anger and imminent violence?

I was mad, spitting mad, about a situation that I could not control when I wrote this. And in trying to understand who and what I was mad about, I considered the idea of being so frustrated that physical violence, down right fighting, is the only possible release in some cases.

But, what brings a person to that level? I personally feel it’s the failure to meet your own expectations. A woman like the grandmother in “How to Sit” is not a person used to being suffered. She was a star! And the worst thing that could happen to a woman so fiercely independent, to the extent of debilitating selfishness, is to be caged or told there is anything at all she cannot do. Pride causes that. Pride and having certain expectations out of life. And when the realization happens that, despite the visceral desire to change the situation, you are trapped and now, indeed, you are someone to be pitied, well, there is nothing left to do with your arms and legs and nails, but to scratch and fight, to show whoever it is that thinks they know you better than you know yourself, enough so that they have the audacity to pity you, that you are still someone to be reckoned with. Continue reading

The Lightning Room with Jenny Xie


–interview by Diana Clarke


Is it too much to say that Jenny Xie’s story “Wendy Beside Herself,” Wendy finds herself even as she loses her own arm? Of course it is. Wendy doesn’t find herself—none of us ever do. But, in Jenny’s words, “our remembrance of loss is an acceptance of that fissure; it becomes a part of our architecture.” The search, the gaps, is all there is.


1. The opening line of “Wendy Beside Herself” does such interesting things with time. By writing “Three years after Wendy Tsai loses her right arm…” you situate the reader in a present informed by loss. Before we know anything about Wendy, we know what she is missing—and even though the loss happened three years ago, the news of it is delivered in the present tense. How do losses shift and change with age? How do we integrate them into our sense of self?

There’s an element of traumatic loss that always remains incomprehensible. I think it’s our tendency to return to a moment of loss in an attempt to understand it, but it’s an intellectual and emotional orbiting that never really brings us closure. As we change and age, our remembrance of loss is an acceptance of that fissure; it becomes a part of our architecture.

2. Just looking at your story, I was struck by the form, the em-dashed dialogue tags rather than more standard quotation marks. That formatting made each piece of speech visually startling, an upset to the urgent, visual descriptions in the rest of the piece. What inspired you to shape dialogue in that way? Continue reading

The Lightning Room: Blog People

When Temim Fruchter began writing her monthly column Between the Bones for the [PANK] blog, she described “[m]y blunt grown-up pancake feet, with their no arches, my feet with their chipped red polish, my feet like a golem’s – ungraceful stones, impostors in shoes.” This former drummer for the Jewish feminist punk band The Shondes maintains historical immediacy and bodily consciousness in this edition of our series of interviews with the blog people, who keep the [PANK] internet chugging and full of poetry.

Interview by Diana Clarke

1. Many of us are scattered across the country and only know one another, and our writers, from the internet. Where do you blog from? 
I blog from a house on the edge of a forest in Washington, DC.

2. In what ways is a blog person like a bog person?  Continue reading