Salt Houses author Hala Alyan talks Immigration Through Poetry and Her Upcoming Collection of Poems


Hala Alyan is an award-winning Palestinian American poet, novelist, and clinical psychologist and most recently, the author of Salt Houses (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017). But after the long-form fiction, Alyan’s already back to working within poetry, a place she knows well–past collections include Atrium (2012), winner of the 2013 Arab American Book Award in Poetry, Four Cities (2015), and Hijra (Southern Illinois University Press, 2016), winner of the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry.

I talked to Hala about the work, its thematic concerns, and her poetic process.

Laura Metter: Why poetry after a novel?

Hala Alyan: These pieces came organically after I was finished with Salt Houses and had sent the novel off to my publishers for editing. I wrote many of them during a trip to Marfa, Texas last year. I don’t usually plan which genre follows the other; actually, most of the time, I’m working on several projects at once. It helps me stay excited about what I’m working on.

LM: Is there a connection between these poems and your novel?

HA: My new collection is a meditation on the transforming landscapes of womanhood, wifedom, loss and exile. To a certain extent, both the collection and the novel use language as a cultural vehicle of sorts, trying to create a dialogue between two worlds: my American existence and my Arab one, exile and the rebuilding of life in its aftermath.

LM: What went into your process of selection or sharing?

HA: They were painful ones to write, but completing them felt particularly cathartic. Given the legacy of immigration and war in my ancestral homelands, I wanted to share poems that examine that migration, both literally and emotionally.

LM: How do these poems connect to yourself?

HA: They were all written during my actual twenty-ninth year, which was a strange and difficult and marvelous one. In many ways, this collection is my most honest, the one in which I am most transparently myself.

LM: Is there a theme?

HA: If I had to pick one, it would be—the creation of home when all one knows is exile and flight.

LM: What were some of your biggest challenges getting this book finished?

HA: In terms of Salt Houses, I would say discipline when it came to editing was particularly overwhelming. I would keep losing interest and want to start writing something new. I have the easiest time with the “freeflow” part of the writing process, and am most stumped by editing, rereading the same passages over and over. I get so bored…

LM: What helped you finish this collection?

HA: I was lucky enough to secure a couple of residencies over the last year that gave me enough time and space—not to mention access to nature and inspiring artists—to put the final touches on the manuscript.

LM: Do you see yourself continuing more with novels or poems?

HA: Hopefully both. The one thing I’m really excited about experimenting more with is non-fiction, especially personal essays.

LM: What do you want your audience to take away from this collection?

HA: Honesty requires a little fear, at least the way I do it. I’m hoping readers can recognize the truth in these pieces, that they felt urgent and necessary to write. Also, I hope I’ve done the narrative of immigration—as I experienced it in my family—justice.


Laura Metter is a young fictionist and poet based in Greenwich, Connecticut. Her poems and essays have appeared in Adanna Literary Journal and The Artifice among other magazines.


Below is an excerpt of Hala Alyan’s forthcoming poetry collection:


Dirty Girl


See, I knew I’d make my mama cry if I stole the earring and so into my pocket it went. I asked America to give


me the barbeque. A slow dance with a cowboy. Pop goes the grenade. Pop goes the Brooklyn jukebox. Give me male hands, oleander white, hard, earnest, your husband in the backseat of his own car, my jeans shoved down, the toxic plant you named your child after, a freeway by the amusement park that jilted girls speed across, windows rolled down, screaming bad songs at the top of their lungs.


After the new world. Before the New one. The Peruvian numerologist told me I’d be trailed by sevens until the day I died.

Everything worth nicking needs an explanation: I slept with one man because the moon, I slept with the other because who cares, we’re expats, the black rhinos are dying, the subway pastors can’t make me tell the truth. Tonight Z isn’t eating and five states away

I’m pouring a whiskey


I won’t drink.


I count the green lights. Those blue-eyed flowers your father brought when I couldn’t leave my bedroom. The rooftop, the weather, the subway empties its fist of me, the red salt of my fear. A chalky seven stamped on the pale face of the sleeping pill.                          What I mean to say is


I’m divisible only by myself.



Gospel: Texas


Poison ivy I

never got. My grandmother


asking the Burger King cashier

for pommes frites.


First shooting

star. First silverfish. First carrot


in snowball. Kansas on the

weekends, the blade


of I-35. Permission slips.

My mother


dressing me as a

pilgrim for a school trip.


Arabic word for girl

longer than


English word for

no. First valentine card.


First grasshopper.

The seventeen windows


of that simulated

colonial town,


peering in every

single one. Pretending


the air we churn

is butter.



The Female of the Species


They leave the country with gasping babies and suitcases

full of spices and cassettes. In airports,


they line themselves up like wine bottles.

The new city twinkles beneath an onion-moon.


Birds mistake the pebbles of glass on the

black asphalt for bread crumbs.




If I drink, I tell stories about the women I know.

They break dinner plates. They marry impulsively.


When I was a child I watched my aunt throw a halo

of spaghetti at my mother. I’m older than they were now.




In an old-new year, my cousin shouts ana bint Beirut

at the sleeping houses. She clatters up the stairs.


I never remember to tell her anything. Not the dream

where I can’t yell loud enough for her to stop running.


And the train comes. And the amar layers the stones

like lichen. How the best night of my life was the one


she danced with me in Paris, sharing a hostel bed,

and how sometimes you need one knife to carve another.




It’s raining in two cities at once. The Vendôme plaza

fills with water and the dream, the fountain, the moon


explodes open, so that Layal, Beirut last daughter,

can walk through the exit wound.

Unraveling Trauma and Title IX: An Interview with Sarah Cheshire


I don’t know what the other entrants’ chapbooks in the 2017 Etchings Press Chapbook Contest were like, but I know Sarah Cheshire’s win for Unravelings was well-deserved.

After becoming romantically involved with a trusted creative writing professor and mentor, “Jane Doe” is forced to recount the details of the relationship––including its varied manipulations and abuses of power––for a Title IX investigation. Unravelings is a fictionalized memoir in the sense that names, locations, and other identifying information has been obscured for privacy reasons, though the Title IX proceedings Unravelings describes mirror what Cheshire herself experienced as an undergraduate.

At only 51 pages, Unravelings is the epitome of “though she be but little, she is fierce.” Through primary source documents like texts, emails, and Title IX reports, as well as lyrical verse and prose poetry, Unravelings guides the reader into the complicated truths between confidant and abuser, victim and survivor.

As a cord of twine unravels, it becomes frayed––so too does this story as it progresses. Paragraphs lead to speculation and ask unanswerable questions that boil down to how did we get here? Each time, the reader is brought back to center through vibrant repetition and verse––almost like a prayer for understanding in the labyrinth of institutional bureaucracy that oversees even the most intimate matters.

In this way, the chapbook is both a literal and metaphorical unraveling––one that resolutely echoes the thought patterns and stages of grief felt when healing from trauma.

I talked to Sarah about the writing and healing process.

Mandy Shunnarah: I appreciate the use of screenshots––like the texts, Facebook messages, and emails––and the official-looking Title IX documents. Tell me about your decision to add in those elements rather than making the chapbook text-only.

Sarah Cheshire: As a part of my writing process, I spent a lot of time re-reading old emails and text exchanges between myself, Professor X, and others implicated in the story, trying to reconstruct what happened and how it felt. I was really just trying to jog my memory, but found that these documents in and of themselves told a story.

Much like the experience itself, the social media exchanges were fragmented and nonlinear; oscillating rapidly between moments of clarity and moments where logic seemed to be suspended. There was a frenetic, yet poetic quality to them that conveyed the state I was in that year almost perfectly. I also think that, as collected “evidence,” these screenshots provide a bridge between Doe’s memories and the story the institution is trying to tell. They were the last thing I included, but ultimately I think they are what ties the piece together.

MS: What challenges did you face in the writing process?

SC: Going into my M.F.A. program, the situation I wrote about in Unravelings was still very fresh in my conscious. Whenever I would sit down to write, I would still feel like I was writing under the critical eye of the man who evaluated my creative work throughout college; whose mentorship both sculpted my creative voice and ultimately undermined the confidence I held in that voice.

This might sound melodramatic, but throughout my process of writing Unravelings I kept thinking of a line in one of Virginia Woolf’s essays: “Killing the Angel in the house [is] part of the occupation of a woman writer.” To Virginia Woolf, the Angel in the House represented the pressure women writers face to write the versions of themselves that men want to read, rather than their true selves. To me, the Angel in the House was the looming feeling that I was still writing to appease my college mentor’s toxic gaze. I knew that I needed to, metaphorically speaking, “kill” this gaze in order to reclaim my own voice.

Unravelings was the first piece I completed as a graduate student. It was a very hard piece to write, partially because the events of that year still felt so convoluted in my mind. Basically, I wrote it because I felt I wouldn’t be able tell other stories until I’d fully unraveled this one.

MS: I found it interesting how, despite Professor X taking advantage of Doe, she protects him in the Title IX proceedings. Statements that might identify him are redacted at her request and she requests an informal investigation, rather than a formal one. Often trauma victims’ actions are misunderstood––can you talk more about that element of the story?

SC: Well, this was a man who dragged me through the mud, but who I was also in love with. He was coming from an incredibly traumatic past, which he shared with me privately (in retrospect this was also a violation of boundaries) and which added an extra layer of nuance to my perceptions of him.

I included redacted moments (which, in the text, mainly consist of striked-out but still legible details about his past) because, rationally, I knew that his past shouldn’t excuse his behavior but, in the moments where I was asked to hold him accountable for this behavior, I still felt an emotive need to contextualize it. I knew that he really fucked up, but we had also seen each other in incredibly vulnerable moments and I still felt a sort of convoluted tenderness towards him.

Essentially, I think I defended him because I was having a hard time reconciling his abuses of power with the tender moments that we shared, both in intimate spaces and in our writing. I am told this is common amongst survivors. Sadly, I think many survivors end up justifying the actions of abusers because they have seen the goodness in these people and want to believe that this goodness still exists, even when it’s being shrouded by anger or violence or manipulative behaviors. I believe that trust and emotional sensitivity—the ability to, as Rihanna would say, “find love in a hopeless place”––are beautiful, radical qualities that a lot of survivors possess.

In the feminist utopia of my dreams, these qualities would be celebrated. It’s only when others exploit them, and we find ourselves searching for ways to love those who continue to hurt us, that they become curses. Ultimately, I think this was my problem; why I ended up protecting him. I truly believed that he was better than his actions and he just needed more time to prove it. I believed this until his actions subsumed me, and my own story got lost inside of his.

MS: As I read Unravelings, I got the impression that formal proceedings like Title IX ask things of abuse survivors that are often difficult or impossible to give––such as linear memories and externally identifiable examples of gaslighting, for example. Based on your own personal experiences and the research you did for Unravelings, do you think Title IX effectively seeks justice for victims?

SC: This is a complicated question; one that I actually find myself grappling with often when thinking about Title IX, as well as the court systems, the police, and other forces survivors are told to appeal to when seeking justice.

Over the course of my four years in college, Title IX saw many positive reformations. I witnessed huge strides in the extent to which survivors have been able to access certain forms of justice through the institutional apparatuses in place, mainly due to the tireless activism of campus survivors and the founding of advocacy organizations such as KnowYourIX. This it is not to say there isn’t a huge amount of work left to be done; I find it nauseating that, in the year 2017, we are still seeing cases of women dropping out of school and even taking their own lives because the system has failed them.

In my case, however, I actually felt like the Title IX system was working to the best of its ability—I was treated with humanity and validation by the officers involved, and for the most part, felt agency over how the process played out. My issue isn’t with Title IX per se, but with the task that it holds people to; the task of creating clarity in narrative, when stories, trauma, and people themselves are innately so very messy.

Something I thought about a lot while writing the book was the notion of grey matter; the spaces between black and white, right and wrong, good and bad. In my opinion, the most genuine stories come out of these grey spaces. These are the spaces of nuance. The whole purpose of a formal Title IX process is to weigh evidence and determine which side of a story is “right” and which side is “wrong.” This need for clear delineations of truth inherently puts survivors of trauma at a disadvantage because in moments of trauma, it is common for linear memory to become disrupted.

I also think that the way that these systems box people up in their individual sides of a story can inhibit perpetrators from engaging in the deep critical self-reflection necessary to truly hold themselves accountable for their actions––and, ultimately, to rectify and change. But I’m less concerned about them.

I think justice means different things for different people. I, personally, don’t feel like justice, on a fundamental level, would have been served simply as the result of him “getting in trouble” for his actions. Maybe this is because of some lingering twisted desire to protect him, or because, if I’m being completely honest, I partially blamed myself for how everything unfolded (and still do, which I’m working on). But I like to think that I feel this way because something in me resents the notion that the messiness of stories and human emotions can be resolved simply by weighing facts and legislating right and wrong.

I think that Title IX is necessary in that it holds institutions accountable to survivors and is effective when implemented correctly and compassionately. But I also think punitive models of justice have their limitations. If we’re ever going to see shifts in sexist paradigms, we need to find additional ways to hold people accountable for their actions, ways that give space for healing, restoration, and consciousness-raising rather than just punishment and deterrent.


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 Citron Review, The Missing Slate, Entropy Magazine, and The New Southerner Magazine. You can read more of her work at her website,

The Personal, the Political, and the Musical: An Interview with Hanif Abdurraqib on They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us


To say Hanif Abdurraqib writes about the music that’s the soundtrack to our lives is an understatement.

They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us is the first essay collection from Abdurraqib, who is a music columnist at MTV News and a poet whose work includes the collection The Crown Ain’t Worth Much from Button Poetry. Whether it’s Marvin Gaye, My Chemical Romance, Chance the Rapper, Carly Rae Jepsen or Nina Simone, Abdurraqib is writing about the music that makes sense of the world and validates the experiences of those who suffer most when the world is doling out its pain.

The essays in They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us are a forthright look at life at the intersection of music, race, class, and culture. A Springsteen concert opens the door to a meditation on Michael Brown. Putting Nina Simone vinyls on the record player gives way to a discussion on how black people’s stories are taken from them by white hands. Listening to My Chemical Romance’s The Black Parade on the tenth anniversary of its release leads to a discussion on death, grief, and hope in the dark. Future’s recent albums ask listeners to consider the kind of breakup-induced heartache from which it feels impossible to fully heal. A look back on years of Fall Out Boy shows stirs a contemplation on friendship, suicide, and living on your own terms. A ScHoolboy Q show explains how a word can be violence on one tongue and deep companionship on another, depending on the color of the mouth that said it. A Cute is What We Aim For show ponders misogyny and the feeling of having grown up when the art you once loved hopelessly stagnated.

These are not essays on background music or classical tunes praised in the ivory tower of academia. Abdurraqib writes on a breadth of musical taste that is wide and varied, yet all of it is accessible and modern––likely artists Millennials grew up listening to or currently have on their iTunes playlist. Abdurraqib is taking the music many already enjoy and asking us to consider its more profound implications. Readers are asked to investigate the ways in which music shapes and informs our lives.

This essay collection is not for white readers in the sense that it doesn’t pander to them. There are essays on experiences that white people will never know firsthand––like the terror of being pulled over by police because you supposedly look like a criminal or the sanctuary of black churches. For white people, the essays are a necessary trojan horse: it sells them what they want––music writing––but it gives them what they need––social justice.

I talked to Hanif about writing, music, and black joy.

Mandy Shunnarah: What I love about your essays is that they live at the intersection of the personal, the political, and the musical. It’s clear the essays span over the course of several years, so I’m curious what the trajectory of your writing was like. Did you start out writing music essays and incorporate your story and issues of social justice over time? Or have you always blended the three?

Hanif Abdurraqib: I think I’ve always been interested in how the personal can work its way into a narrative without (hopefully) overtaking a narrative. I say personal and don’t simply mean the actual body––but also the emotions, interests, feelings that rest in the interior of the personal. I’m not really setting out to get people to believe what I believe. Rather, I’m trying to get them to find something new and unique in music. Perhaps risk seeing it as something greater and seeing where their own personal narratives might align within the songs they love. So I guess I’ve always blended the three, but I’ve never really imagined it as blending as much as I’ve imagined it as a different way of viewing a landscape I love looking out onto.

MS: Your taste in music is eclectic and it’s clear your ear is keener than the casual listener. How did you become interested in a wide range of artists? Are there genres you feel like you’re only just dipping your toes into?

HA: I grew up in a house with a lot of music, and so I kind of developed my ways of hearing and listening at an early age. It’s a bit of a stretch to say that I grew up in a “musical family”––it’s not like my siblings and I were in a band––but my father played instruments around the house. I had a brief and unsuccessful stint as a trumpet player.

But more than that, I listened to music that my parents carried with them into the house. Jazz and soul and salsa and funk and songs from South Africa. I am the youngest of four, so I got to absorb all of the music which trickled down from my older siblings. My older brother and sister would introduce hip hop to our house, sure. But also, since we were children of the 90s, I got exposed to grunge, metal, and classic rock––all of which allowed me a path backwards, so that when I was old enough to start charting my own musical tastes, I was doing it with a working knowledge of the past, and I’m always so eager to dig out the tasty and unique parts of history resting underneath a recording.

I want to know about what happened to Fleetwood Mac in between Rumours and Tusk. I want to know about Nick Drake’s brilliant burst of output and then his mental and emotional decline. I watch The Last Waltz once every single year and mostly just for the way the camera picks up Mavis Staples whispering “beautiful….” after the Staple Singers join The Band for a stirring rendition of “The Weight.” I see a whole story in all of those moments. I’m listening to the actual music, sure. But I’m also interested in filling the spaces that simply listening sometimes doesn’t afford a listener.

When I was a kid, my brother and I used to sit in our room with a tape-recorder boombox, and we’d listen to the radio all day long, back when folks had to listen to the radio all day to maybe catch a song they loved once or so every six hours. And when the song we wanted to hear came on, we’d rush to press record on our tape recorder, and rip it right off of the radio. And there was that burst of excitement––hearing this thing you’d been hoping to hear and rushing to capture it. It felt like the slow opening of a gift that ended up being exactly what you wanted, every single time. I’m trying to capture and maintain that kind of excitement about music. I’m trying to carry that with me, even when I have the weight of so many other things to compete with.

MS: Out of the hundreds (thousands?) of concerts you’ve been to, if you could only pick one to see again, which one would it be and why?

HA: Oh, I think probably one of the early Fall Out Boy shows that I write about in the essay “Fall Out Boy Forever” in the book. Likely the 2003 Halloween show they did in Chicago at some shitty venue where the stage collapsed.

It was such a fascinating moment because I don’t think I’ve ever had a moment like that again, where I’m watching the turning point for a band happen in real time. My pals and I had been going to their shows since about a year earlier, when they started playing to tiny crowds and were getting heckled endlessly. The Chicago emo/pop-punk scene was at an interesting place in 2002-2003, because a lot of these dudes were just coming out of MUCH more hardcore bands, and the transitions for some of them proved to be difficult. Fall Out Boy was kind of a band without a country, largely due to Patrick Stump’s distinct singing. They were too pop for the hardcore scene, but definitely too difficult to access for the pop scene. It took about a year for them to get traction, but when they did, they really took off.

That Halloween show was the one that really turned the corner for them. I remember it well because shit got so crazy that the stage collapsed and they had to stop playing. Pete Wentz was used to wading out into the crowd and getting this mostly lukewarm reception, but that night when he walked out into the crowd, kids were jumping on his back, tearing at his shirt, grabbing his head. It was wild. There were almost 100 kids packed into a room that maybe only should’ve held 70, tops. You could see on the band’s faces that they had no idea what was happening. In a way, Fall Out Boy was born that night. Since I’m pretty disconnected from the band in its current state, I’d love to see that one more time.

MS: Some of the most poignant essays were those talking about the myriad ways joy is ripped from black people by white people and the systems of oppression they created. In addition to celebrating black musicians, which you did beautifully in They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us, what are some of your favorite expressions of black joy?

HA: The way my friends sing the words to the songs they know and then make up the rest. The opening moments of a spades game––that first hand, when anything feels possible. The old black woman at the eastside market I go to from time to time who looks me up and down and says it’s good to see you, baby, and I know she means it. The way a joke can echo through a group text and shrink distance. The grease that lingers on the hand and then perhaps upon the fabric of pants after dipping fingers into the Popeyes box. The way the clock pushes past midnight on a Tuesday and I look at my watch in a city that is not my own and insist that I have to go to sleep, and the people I love will give me a hard time until I am leaning over, wrecked by laughter, no longer tired.

I don’t know. I think in order to talk about the lack of joy as a type of violence, you have to know the architecture of joy itself, and realize how precious it is when it is in arm’s reach. I think you have to accept the many forms it takes. These days, I’m interested in the joys that are pre-existing, already waiting for me to slide into. I’m trying to remember those best and not take them for granted.

MS: Since your last book was a collection of poetry, I’m curious about how you balance your poetry and your essay writing.

HA: I imagine everything as a poem, some blooming wider than others.


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 Citron Review, The Missing Slate, Entropy Magazine, New Southerner Magazine, and Deep South Magazine. You can read more on her website,

Appalachia, noir, and fishing: an interview with David Joy



I read a lot of crime, but few novels impress me so much that I find myself still talking about them six months after turning the last page. David Joy’s The Weight of This World belongs to that small group. While the combination of grit, superb storytelling, violence, and beauty make this novel a must-read, Joy is also a pleasure to talk to, so I decided to dig a little deeper into some of his passion, his writing, and books in general. Here’s what he had to say.

GI: The Weight of This World is beautifully written, but it’s also packed with enough brutality to satisfy fans of horror fiction. How do you achieve such a wonderful balance?

DJ: As far as balance, I think that largely comes from the writers who most influenced my work. I remember the first time I read William Gay’s short story, “The Paper-Hanger,” which is one of the most disturbingly violent stories I’ve ever read, but I was blown away by the beauty of his prose. There are lines in that story where he’s describing a murdered child in a freezer, lines like, “Ice crystals snared in the hair like windy snowflakes whirled there, in the lashes,” where Gay is very deliberately creating that play between beauty and horror. I think ultimately he’s doing this in order to make the violence more palatable. If you can achieve the right balance you can coax a reader through all sorts of darkness.

With the comparison to horror, I think that boils down to the realism of the violence. I don’t hold back or shy away from presenting something exactly as it is. There is no grace in dying. I don’t live in some fantasy world where people double over from gunshots and writhe then still like the old cheesy Westerns. At the same time, my work certainly isn’t gratuitous. There is a very real danger in sugarcoating violence, in repeating that John Wayne bullshit that glorifies and dismisses the act of killing as something trivial and easy. This isn’t violence for violence’s sake. I’m making very deliberate choices. In Where All Light Tends To Go, I had an eighteen-year-old narrator who was ill equipped for the violence he found himself surrounded by. I wanted the reader to experience what’s happening with the same sort of shock as the character. With The Weight Of This World, that novel is very much a sort of treatise on violence. I want the reader to walk through the blood. I want to force them to confront it and to ask big questions.

I think Dave Grossman’s On Killing is one of the most important books ever written about violence. Everyone should read that book, but especially anyone who is going to write about violence and the act of killing. Anyways, there’s a passage early on in that book where he writes, “They are things that we would rather turn away from, but Carl von Clausewitz warned that ‘it is to no purpose, it is even against one’s better interest, to turn away from the consideration of the affair because the horror of its elements excites repugnance.’ Bruno Bettelheim, a survivor of the Nazi death camps, argues that the root of our failure to deal with violence lies in our refusal to face up to it. We deny our fascination with the ‘dark beauty of violence,’ and we condemn aggression and repress it rather than look at it squarely and try to understand and control it.”

That’s why it’s so important to present violence in all its horrible ugliness, because only through capturing that reality can we start to have real, meaningful conversations about it.

GI: There is enough great literature coming from Appalachia to keep readers away from New York white-rich-straight-male-finds-himself-in-Brooklyn narratives for years to come. What is your role in that movement? Do you even consider it that?

DJ: Michael Farris Smith and I have talked about this a lot, about the void that was left in the South over the last few decades. We lost so many writers in just a few short years—Barry Hannah, Larry Brown, William Gay, Eudora Welty, Harry Crews, Tim McLaurin. I think if there is a movement, that’s what it’s a reaction to; it’s a matter of doing our damnedest to fill that void. When it all boils down to it, those are the writers who influenced me most. I’m rooted in writers like Ron Rash, George Singleton, Lee Smith, Daniel Wallace, Brad Watson, Jill McCorkle, Silas House, Tommy Franklin, and so on. I think for all of the writers who’ve emerged out of the South and out of Appalachia over the past five or ten years, those are the people whose footsteps we’re following. You come out of a place like this and whether you like it or not you stand within a shadow. You stand in a shadow cast by everyone before you and all you can hope is that your work lengthens it, that at the end of the day your work adds to that conversation.

GI: You’re a mountain man and I’m from a barrio near the beach, but it seems like we both grew up surrounded by struggle and a rich storytelling tradition. How does that upbringing shape your prose now?

DJ: I very much ascribe to that Cormac McCarthy belief that, “The core of literature is the idea of tragedy.” I think bearing witness to struggle can, as hard as it is at the time, make for damn rich ground to mine. We’re not talking about not getting the car you wanted for your sixteenth birthday, or having to hold off a few months to get the latest iPhone. We’re talking about missing meals, about deciding whether you keep the lights on or buy a few groceries. We’re talking, as Rick Bragg once put it, “about living and dying and that fragile, shivering place in between.” That’s pay dirt for a writer. And coming out of a storytelling tradition like the South for me, or Puerto Rico for you, I think puts us at a tremendous advantage. I can’t imagine growing up in a place where story didn’t matter. What a horrible, horrible life that would’ve been.

GI: Your career took off pretty quickly. This makes newbie authors look up to you and ask for help, tips, blurbs, and probably a connection. How do you deal with this?

DJ: I’ve been incredibly fortunate both for the success and for the support from fellow writers. The hard truth is that there are plenty of writers a lot more talented than I am who haven’t gotten their shot, and quite possibly never will. I have no idea what makes certain books take off. There’s really no rhyme or reason to what makes a bestseller. Part of it is timing, sure, but then I think about a book like Megan Abbott’s You Will Know Me last summer. Flat out that was one of the top two or three novels that came out last year. It was that good. Period. Even more it was about a gymnastics family and it released a week before the Rio 2016 Summer Games Olympics. Talk about timing. By all reason that book should have been in the top five NYT Bestsellers. Who the hell knows why it wasn’t? And that’s not to say that book wasn’t well received, because it definitely was, and rightly so, but I have no idea why some books take off and others don’t.

As far as other writers, I’ll never forget what it was like when that first novel was coming out and I got a blurb from Daniel Woodrell. I mean I idolize him. To think that he read my work still boggles me, and he didn’t have a reason in the world to do it aside from kindness. Another one is Ace Atkins. I think he’s one of the most talented writers I know. I respect the hell out of him on the page, but even more so as a man. He could call me right this second and ask anything of me and I’d be there. I owe him that much. I feel that way about Ron Rash, Tawni O’Dell, Frank Bill, Mark Powell, Michael Farris Smith, Silas House, George Singleton, Megan Abbott, Donald Ray Pollock, Eric Rickstad, Reed Farrell Coleman who are all a hell of a lot more talented than me and were kind enough to read my work and support what I was doing. I know what it’s like to not have an audience, to not have any work out there on the shelf, and I’ll never lose sight of everyone who supported me. I carry that with me and I carry that forward. Bottom line is that if I can help someone I help them because that’s the way this thing works.

At the same time, it’s rare anymore for me to go a day without someone I’ve never met asking me to read something. There are nine books sitting beside me on my desk right now that people sent me to read. So the truth is there comes a time when you have to say no and I think that’s a hard balance to find. I think it’s hard for most writers to say no, because most all the ones I know and love and respect are first and foremost damn good people when you get to the heart of it.

GI: Fishing is at the center of your life now. Every fisherman in the world has a different answer for this, and I’m curious about yours: what is it about fishing that keeps you going back for more?

DJ: Maybe the most beautiful passage I’ve ever read on fishing came from Alex Taylor and I can’t remember if it was in one of his stories or from his novel, The Marble Orchard, but he wrote, “There was now in him the desire to wrangle one thing out of the dark waters and have it leap and fight and finally be subdued by his hand. Because there is a kind of faith with fishing. It is the belief that the brevity of all things is not bitter, but a calm moment beside calm water is enough to still the breaking of all hearts everywhere.”

I think it’s exactly that and it’s always been that even when I was a kid. It’s chasing the same thing that Buddhists are chasing through meditation, it’s that moment of absolute thoughtlessness when everything else disappears and all that is left is the present. For me, I have a hard time reaching that place any other way so I’ve devoted a great deal of my life to being next to water. That’s the only place where I feel at ease. Fishing has always been my center.

GI: There is no fiction like that found in the “true” stories told by fishermen. What’s the most outstanding/memorable/incredible fishing tale you’ve heard?

When I was a little kid I used to always get up early on Saturday mornings and watch all the fishing shows—Roland Martin, Hank Parker, Bill Dance, The Spanish Fly with Jose Wejebe, Walker’s Cay Chronicle with Flip Pallot—but I remember one time when I was really little seeing this documentary on PBS about a noodling tournament in Oklahoma. It was the first time I’d ever seen anyone grappling catfish. People in my family jug fished and ran trotlines, and I’d caught plenty of catfish on rod and reel, but I’d never seen anything like that. I remember this one fellow on there saying you never knew exactly what might be in the back of one of those holes. Might be a catfish. Might be a snapping turtle. Might be a snake. He told how his brother stuck his arm in a hole once and a beaver got ahold of him and gnawed his forearm down to the bone clean up to his elbow.

Anyhow, there was a father and son fishing together and the boy might’ve been seven or eight years old, but they waded up to a hole and the father stuck his arm back in there and felt fish. The problem was that the hole was too deep and he couldn’t get back far enough for the fish to latch on. So this man took his son and shoved him down in that hole feet first and all of a sudden that boy got to screaming and hollering and the man dragged him out and that catfish was latched onto that boy’s legs. I’ve never seen anything like it. Here’s this father shoving his little boy down in a hole for a thirty, forty pound flathead to bite down on his legs. I just laid there in awe watching it, and I’ve never been able to shake that image in all the years since. Long story short, think long and hard before you go getting in a fistfight with an Okie.

GI: Your work is character driven, but there’s also a lot of attention paid to the beauty of each sentence, the cadence of each passage. How much of that comes out naturally and how much is editing/rewriting?

I think the ear for it comes naturally, at least for me. I hear a good sentence in the same way Thelonious Monk heard rhythm, or Dave Brubeck heard scales. Now I’m absolutely tone deaf when it comes to music, but I have a natural ear for language. Ron Rash talked one time about loving the way vowels and consonants rub up against one another. In the same way, I think I’m drawn to sound more than anything else, and that’s probably why I read so much more poetry than fiction. As far as writing it though, I don’t think that comes naturally at all. That’s very much a matter of shifting phrases, changing words, cutting articles, playing with things and tinkering with a sentence until there’s music. It takes a lot more work for me to construct a sentence than it does for me to recognize when one is working.

GI: Appalachian noir. Rural noir. Country noir. You fall into all of them and yet your work is clearly David Joy noir. Do you pay any attention to labels?

There’s a danger to labels that I think has led writers like Daniel Woodrell to distance himself from terms like “noir.” For too long merit has been measured by wine sniffing, elbow patch wearing, shiny shoed academics who turn their noses up to any label other than “literary.” Anyone with half a brain can recognize it’s snobbish bullshit. To dismiss someone like Ursula K. Le Guin under the guise of science fiction, or to dismiss a writer like Stephen King as a genre writer, that’s the danger of labels. Benjamin Percy had that great collection of essays last year titled Thrill Me where he did a wonderful service in addressing a lot of these issues. I think we’re starting to move away from that trend, and that’s a wonderful thing. I was on a panel with Megan Abbott in France last fall and she said she believed crime fiction had become the new social novel and I completely agree with her. So I guess what I’m saying is that as readers we need to be sure that we’re not carrying any sort of bias in regards to those labels. The book must stand alone.

At the same time, I’m not one to shy away from labels. I think my sentences stand for themselves and so if someone wants to talk craft we can talk craft. I like the idea of noir, especially as an emotional description capturing a sort of shadowed mood cast over a story. Benjamin Whitmer had a great essay a while back where he talked about the idea of redeemable characters and happy endings being a fairly new construct in regards to literature. Hollywood endings always hit me as such a cop out. So when a term like noir is used correctly I’m really grateful as a reader because it tends to point me in the direction of something I’ll probably dig. I also recognize that my work isn’t for everyone. I want to go to the darkest places imaginable and search out some small speck of humanity. I think it takes a brave reader to go to the places I want to take them. I hope there’s a payoff for venturing into the dark, and, for me, I believe that there is. Only through heartache and suffering do we arrive at any sort of philosophical awareness, and, in the end, that sort of revelatory moment is what makes it worthwhile.

GI: There’s a lot of misunderstanding when it comes to Appalachia, and part of that can be blamed on books that take place there and don’t understand the place, the people, the culture. Now that everyone writes about everything and everywhere, do you think authenticity still matters?

DJ: When I think of the truly great books, the truly great writers, I can’t think of one who wasn’t deeply rooted to place. James Joyce traveled all over Europe. He wrote Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake while living in Paris. But could you imagine him having not written of Dublin? You know, he said, “I always write about Dublin, because if I can get to the heart of Dublin I can get to the heart of all the cities of the world.” Joyce’s idea that, “In the particular is contained the universal,” is exactly what Eudora Welty meant when she said, “One place understood helps us understand all places better.” I don’t want to live in a world where Faulkner didn’t stick to Mississippi. I don’t want to live in a world where Ron didn’t write of Appalachia. Those books are sopping wet with place. I think there is an incredible beauty in knowing a setting as deeply as those writers knew theirs. I think you can sense that connection on the page just as I think you can sense when someone’s bullshitting. There’s nothing worse than reading a book and having the language ring untrue. As soon as I hit that place in a book, I’m done. I’m not reading any further. Toss it to the fire. It’s kindling.

If the details aren’t right the reader will never buy the big lie. So whether the writer’s of that place or not, it goddamn better feel authentic.

GI: Your Twitter feed is a great place to find great authors other than yourself. Any names/books you’d care to recommend here?

I think it’s rare for me to find a book that I absolutely love, especially a novel. So I wind up rereading a lot more books than I do finishing something new. I go back and read Jim Harrison and Larry Brown and Cormac McCarthy. Recently I reread Benjamin Whitmer’s Cry Father. I’m obsessed with Daniel Woodrell and Donald Ray Pollock. As far as novels I’ve read this year that I loved, I really enjoyed stumbling onto your work. Zero Saints is a wonderful read. I think the best novels to come out this year were Michael Farris Smith’s Desperation Road, Steph Post’s Lightwood, and Mark Powell’s Small Treasons. Frank Bill’s got a new one titled The Savage that’s coming out this fall and it’s brilliant. I think the best story collection I’ve read this year was Scott Gould’s Strangers To Temptation. I thought that book was wonderful, kind of like if George Singleton had written a season of the Wonder Years. I think more people need to be reading Robert Gipe, Crystal Wilkinson, Charles Dodd White, and Sheldon Lee Compton.

But I’m going to do this a little differently than most novelists and name five or six books of poetry I’ve fallen in love with this year. One of my favorite poets, Tim Peeler, has a new book out titled L2, which is a sort of linear, novel-esque story told through poetry and I loved that book. Gritty as hell and just damn beautiful. Another one of my favorite poets, Rebecca Gayle Howell, has a new book, American Purgatory, that’s incredible. I think she’s one of the most powerful poets at work. If you haven’t read her already, read her collection Render: An Apocalypse and you’ll fall in love. Recently, I read a beautiful book by a South Carolina poet named Kathleen Nalley. The title is Gutterflower and it comes out some time in September, I think, but her work has really stuck with me. I stumbled onto a poet named Adrian Matejka and read a book of his, The Big Smoke, which was sort of the story of the boxer Jack Johnson. A wonderful press, Hub City, put out a book by Ashley M. Jones’ titled Magic City Gospel, and there’s a poem in there titled “Sammy Davis Jr. Sings To Mike Brown, Jr.” that will wreck your world in fourteen lines. Lastly, I finally got my hands on Ray McManus’ Red Dirt Jesus. I’ve always loved his poetry, especially the poems in his book Punch, but Red Dirt Jesus was one of those books I found at the right time. I was finishing my next novel, a book that’ll come out next year called The Line That Held Us, and I read a poem of his called “Missing Curfew” and as soon as I read it I knew the final image of the novel, I knew how I wanted the last words to sound. I have Ray to thank for that.

The Lightning Room With Chris Speckman

Interview by DeWitt Brinson


Consider the gnat as large as a relationship and a clue as pleasurable as it is rich. It is in the bondage of form we find Chris Speckman unrestrained. Check out Last Words for Larissa in our May issue.

 1. How difficult was it to make the actual crossword puzzle?

 It was extremely difficult. I almost gave up several times. I started out working with a few free crossword puzzle design programs that were really glitchy and not at all intuitive. I eventually just made a blank template and did the rest by hand.

 2. Did you start with the words or clues?

The words. I can’t imagine starting with the clues. I had some ideas for puzzle words that seemed emotionally resonant, and a basic idea of what the clues might be for those words. But that process got abandoned quickly when I figured out how hard it was to make real words fit on the grid. It never occurred to me that filling in the blanks for a crossword puzzle would be even more difficult without any clues to follow. As soon as I managed to fill in the puzzle, it was set in stone—I didn’t have the patience to tweak it. Changing one word forces you to alter eight other ones.

What was cool about having the puzzle set first was how it impacted my storytelling. It was sort of like working with a fixed poetic form. I knew the first line of the story needed to use the word “gnat.” So that forced me to consider all the possible permutations of the word and all associations I had with the word prior. I ended up stretching language in ways I never would have considered without the self-imposed restrictions. Continue reading

The Lightning Room With Dawn Sperber

Welcome  to the Lightning Room, where DeWitt Brinson & Simon Jacobs take turns asking PANK authors extremely difficult questions about their work.

 “Our Master of Psalmody,” by Dawn Sperber, appeared in our February issue. Below, Simon talks with Dawn mutable pronouns and religious ecstasy.


1. I’m really curious about the origins of this piece – what possessed you to write it, or what was the first image or phrase that struck you and had to be written down?

I actually wrote the first draft of this story when I was 20, almost half my life ago. I’d picked a handful of words from the dictionary to write about (neuter, psalmody, saffron, glissando), and as a result, this weird story pushed out of me. I loved it back then, but it was more like a story seed. A couple years ago, I opened a box of old writing and found it inside. I still felt the story, so I decided to refine what had inspired me.

I’ve always felt that the sacred parts of life don’t stay in cordoned-off areas, and the idea that God disapproves of sexuality sounds like a set-up for self-deceit. Instead of trying to control our passions out of existence, it seems only natural to look for balance with who we really are and find the divine in every aspect of life. This is one of the reasons established religions make me nervous. If we’re going to find balance in our crazy selves, shouldn’t we start out being as honest as possible? To me, Lee embodies a lot of the messy sacred richness that doesn’t fit in prescribed boxes.

2. I love the casual shift between Lee’s gender pronouns in this story. It creates an indeterminate yet mythic figure, with this mysterious yet subversive power. Who is your favorite person to hear singing?

Mm, it changes. I get song crushes and haunt certain songs for weeks, knowing I shouldn’t fixate, that it’ll weaken a song to hear it too often, but I love being in love. Those song crushes end up fueling a lot of my stories. Some recent ones were sung by The Civil Wars, Anais Mitchell, and Jeff Buckley. Continue reading