The 5-Question [Author] Interview: Alan Jacobson

There’s so much that goes into writing a strong novel that the dangerous part, early in your career, is not knowing what you don’t know.

I found that I could improve my craft by not only reading the stellar books but also by reading the crappy ones.

—Alan Jacobson

Alan Jacobson is the award-winning, USA Today bestselling author of 11 suspense/thriller novels, including two successful series (Karen Vail series and the OPSIG Team Black covert ops novels). His books have been translated internationally, many have been named “Best of the Year,” and several have been optioned by Hollywood.

Jacobson’s twenty years of research and training with the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Unit, DEA, US Marshals Service, SWAT, NYPD, Scotland Yard, and the US military bring unparalleled realism to his stories and characters. His series have been raved about by readers of all walks of life including law enforcement officers, real FBI profilers, and Navy SEALs.

Meredith: Is fear ever an issue, like does your creativity measure up?

ALAN: I’ve been writing fulltime for 22 years, and early on in my career, I did wonder about that. And that was honestly a normal thing because although I was well schooled and knew good writing from bad, that’s very different from writing a full-length novel that engages the reader, captures and holds her attention for 400 pages, that features deep and satisfying characters, and features dialogue that advances both story and character.

There’s so much that goes into writing a strong novel that the dangerous part, early in your career, is not knowing what you don’t know. Did I measure up? Was the secret sauce in thinking up good plots? Or memorable characters? Or both? If both, how did longtime authors do it—and keep a healthy balance so one doesn’t dominate the other?

As I read more and as I wrote more, I fell into a rhythm as to what constituted an engaging read—and how to create it for myself. I also discovered that just because a book was published did not mean it was exceptional, or even good. A lot of the published novels—from major publishing houses—were disappointing, and I came to learn that I could do a whole lot better. In essence, I found that I could improve my craft by not only reading the stellar books but also by reading the crappy ones.

That fear that you mentioned subsided and eventually vanished. By the time I started writing “The 7th Victim” (the first in the FBI profiler Karen Vail series and my third overall), I knew I could write with the best of them. No more fear.

UnknownNow, that said, fear does still come into play in one other aspect of writing: not making my deadline! It drives me to keep on schedule, to stay focused and on task.

Meredith: In his book, The War of Art, Steven Pressfield writes, “Resistance has no strength of its own. Every ounce of juice it possesses comes from us. We feed it with power by our fear of it.” It’s kind of a corollary to that line in the Eagles song, “Already Gone”: “So often times it happens, that we lives our lives in chains, and we never even know we have the key.” What’s your take?

ALAN: I think it’s possible for people to create their own obstacles and barriers to success—and creativity. For some, it’s ingrained in our personalities, our worldviews, to be able to pick ourselves up when the times are tough, when things are not going our way. Others don’t have that capability but they can be
motivated, through counseling or other external means, to find the path, find the key to unlock those chains that the Eagles referenced.

Writing is full of pitfalls that can cause obstacles and barriers. Rejection is part of the recipe of success. Almost every successful author I’ve ever known experienced rejection before overcoming it and getting their agent, or first contract, or significant sales. Those who are persistent, who have it within or otherwise find their keys, are often the ones who make it.

Meredith: If conflict is an essential part of every good story, what would you say the running conflict in your life is, the one that keeps your writing and creating at its peak?

ALAN: The drive to always be better, to find new and fresh ways of telling a story, of stressing my character. When my publisher asked me to make Karen Vail a series character because they’d had such a dramatic response to The 7th Victim, I resisted
because I knew colleagues who’d become stale and bored writing the same character book after bookSpectrum_Alan Jacobson. I vowed that’d never happen to me because if I’m bored with what I’m writing, the reader’s going to be bored reading it. And I’d never put out a substandard book because my name’s on the cover—and my reputation is worth everything to me.

Each one of my novels excited me, and that’s a prerequisite for writing it. If it’s not working, I trash it and move on to another idea. It’s only happened to me once, and it was fairly early in the process, but I’m proud to have stood by my principles and started back on square one. It was the right decision.

So if you could call that an inner conflict, of pushing myself to do better and fresh and different, that’s what drives me year after year, book after book.

Unknown-1Meredith: Do you actively seek ideas, or is your style to wait and see what crosses your path?

ALAN: I never have to actively seek ideas or wait for things to cross my path. I’ve been fortunate to never have a shortage of story ideas. That said, I always have my eyes open. A friend of mine, author John Lescroart, posted something recently about writers always working…they’re either writing or thinking about writing. That’s certainly true in my case—ideas come to me at the strangest of times. I walked into my office one morning right after finishing Velocity (Vail #3), intending to start on a book in my OPSIG Team Black series. The thought “Karen Vail on Alcatraz” popped into my head and I brainstormed on the idea. Over the next few days I kept adding to the outline until I was so excited by it that Inmate 1577 became the next book I wrote.

Other times ideas come to me while working out—I don’t consciously think about it, but it just happens. Those are my creative times. I keep my iPhone within arm’s reach and when an idea strikes—it can be an idea for the book I’m currently writing or something completely new—I dictate the note so I don’t forget it. I then continue to work on it as it develops over the next several weeks. If it’s a Karen Vail story, I’ll run it by one of my two FBI profiler friends to get their take. If it’s an OPSIG idea, I’ll pitch it to one of my special forces contacts.

I currently have several ideas percolating for both the Karen Vail series and the OPSIG Team Black series, waiting in queue to be written. Since it takes me a solid year to research and write a novel, I’m stacked up for quite a while!

Meredith: Writing—or the dream of calling oneself an author or writer—seems, for many, to have this highly addictive, seductiveness about it. Like: Iʼd really be someone if I could write. Or be a writer, author, etc. But itʼs not writing that imbues itself with these characteristics, itʼs the person. Why, do you think, itʼs such a seductive slope?

ALAN: I can see that. And for me, the writing part is what I truly love. I get grumpy when I’m not writing. Of course, the reality is that writing is only one thing we do as authors. The business end actually consumes more time; it encompasses everything from working with your publisher, promoting your books, dealing with your agent and entertainment law attorney or website designer, posting on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, attending conferences, traveling to the locations where my book is set…or following up with my research contacts to ask questions to make sure I’ve got my information correct. Then there’s working with my editor, and copyeditor, and proofreader. There are a million things to manage. As shocking as it may seem, although writing is the most time-consuming part, it’s but one piece to that puzzle called a novel. So it’s very easy for this seductiveness to get lost in all the minutiae, bogged down by the day-to-day business requirements. Depending on what point I’m at in the cycle, it sometimes requires a Herculean effort to get my writing in each day.

For me, the seductive slope is Hollywood. I’ve had several books optioned for film and/or television, and came close twice—very close once—when we were several weeks away from filming The 7th Victim for TNT, which I was co-producing. The problem is that it’s easy to expend a great deal of time and creative energy working toward seeing your book hit the screen—only to have the plug pulled in the eleventh hour due to unrelated things that emerge at the worst possible times. Such influences are out of your control—and when they hit, you realize you could’ve written an entirely new novel during the time you expended on what turned out to be a dead end. And suddenly you have nothing to show for that wasted time. To me, that’s one hell of a seductive slope…because it never stops calling.

Connect with Jacobson on the web at, on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

[Thank you, Alan!]

The 5-Question [Author] Interview: Sam Apple

“I’m amazed by how often I’ve struggled with piece of writing only to return to it months, or even years, later to find that it all comes together with little thought.”
—Sam Apple


Sam Apple’s first book for children, The Saddest Toilet in the World, was published this month. Apple is the author of Schlepping Through the Alps and American Parent.  His work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The New Republic, Wired, The Los Angeles Times, The Financial Times Magazine, ESPN The Magazine, The MIT Technology Review, The New Yorker (online), McSweeney’s, and, among many others. He was a finalist for the PEN America Award for a first work of nonfiction. Apple teaches creative writing and science journalism at the University of Pennsylvania. He was the founder and publisher of The Faster Times.

Meredith: Writing—or the dream of calling oneself an author or writer—seems, for many, to have this highly addictive, seductiveness about it. Like: I’d really be someone if I could write. Or be a writer, author, etc. But it’s not writing that imbues itself with these characteristics, it’s the person. Why, do you think, it’s such a seductive slope?

SAM: I’m not sure I know the answer to the question, but I think it touches on an interesting phenomenon. It seems to me that lots and lots of people want to be authors, but I’m not so sure that lots and lots of people still want to read books. I’m not sure how the seductiveness of authorship has survived the diminishing role of literature in American life, but I suppose I’m glad that it has survived

Meredith: Writing [or maybe, revision?] is [generally] solitary. Selling is not—selling as in marketing, promo. How do you help them make peace with one anther inside you? Or do they?

SAM: I don’t think they ever do quite make peace inside of me. I know plenty of great writers who are extroverts, and they tend to do a fantastic job of publicizing their work. But I’m more of the stereotypical quiet, standing-alone-by-the-appetizers type of writer. I try to promote my work on social media, but I always feel a bit self-Sam_Apple_Jewish_Writers_You_Wish_You_Knew_About_2.09.12_-_6876738965conscious about it. What’s interesting, I think, is that I find it hard to be open on social media, and yet my shyness doesn’t prevent me from writing very personal things in my books. I think book writing creates a safe distance between me and my audience (or, at least, gives me the illusion that such a distance exists), whereas the immediacy of social media collapses that distance.

end or foe?Meredith: When you sit down to write, are you in charge? What I mean is this: are you the scribe or the master creator? Both? Neither? Sort-of corollary: would you describe your mind (in terms of writing) as a fri

SAM: I am definitely not in charge, and I think that the less in charge I feel, the better my work turns out. I suspect a lot of writers feel the same way.  I’ve long been fascinated by this phenomenon, but what struck me more recently is that if I’m not in charge when I’m writing, I’m probably not in charge when I’m not writing either, as I don’t think conscious control is the sort of thing one can turn on and off. So, thinking about this question had made me deeply skeptical of the entire notion of free will.

Meredith: Can somesaddest-toilet stories not be found? Why/why not?

SAM: I’m not entirely sure, but I do think that many stories need to percolate for a long time to before they’re ready to make it out into the world. I’m amazed by how often I’ve struggled with piece of writing only to return to it months, or even years, later to find that it all comes together with little thought. I suppose this touches on my response to the previous question.

Meredith: Homeostasis is a concept I learned on my first day of graduate school. It means the desire to revert back to the familiar, for things to remain the same. As a writer, how do you remedy this type of stagnation which can thwart creativity? Or, do you believe there’s a time for it?

SAM: Another interesting, tough question. I think there’s only so much you can do to fight the homeostasis, and many of my favorite writers tend to hit the same notes over and over in their books — Philip Roth and George Saunders come to mind. But one of the very nice things about writing is that there aren’t many drawbacks to taking risks in your work. The worst that’s going to happen is that you waste your time, or perhaps end up with a bad review. I always encourage my writing students to experiment with different genres and themes.

I’m reminded of a bit of wisdom I picked up from the memoir of the great fiction editor, Ted Solotaroff. While driving with Bernard Malamud at night, Solotaroff was struck by Malamud’s cautiousness behind the wheel, and by how this caution stood in stark contradiction to the risks Malamud took in his work.  Solotaroff never forgot the lesson: caution in life; daring on the page.

[Thanks, Sam!]

The 5-Question [Author] Interview: Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell

“I always ask myself if that part of my story will harm others and if so, is it necessary for the story’s lesson…”
—Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell

Kerri Fivecoat-Campbell
is a journalist and author living her dream life with her husband and 5 dogs in a 480-square foot cabin in the Ozark Mountains. Her memoir, LIVING LARGE IN OUR LITTLE HOUSE is published by Reader’s Digest. One of her mottos: Living Large is a state of mind. She blogs at


Meredith: Given your affinity for large lives in small spaces, this question feels apropos: When you’re in love with a particular idea so much, how do you know when enough is enough—for example, words in a sentence, a line in an essay, a chapter in a book (memoir)? Corollary: how do you find the focus when the focus is…your life?

KERRI: This was actually the hardest thing for me. I met my future agent in 2011 and wasn’t able to develop a book proposal for the story until 2014. At that point, the story was still changing and evolving and I also couldn’t put a finger to the takeaway. Luckily, my agent believed in my story and was patient with me until I felt I could bring that story to life. Once I felt I had the life lesson I needed to learn to put together a memoir; she then guided me in creating a proposal and a book she could sell. As it turned out, my story, as well as some of the others I tell in the book, continued to evolve even after the book was supposedly finished.unnamed-1


Meredith: Is waiting the hardest part for you—particularly waiting for a response from the outside about an idea, a piece of writing, a body of work? If so, how do you temper your anxiety? If not, how do you put it in perspective when something feels so personal and dear to your heart?

KERRI: I do not like having to wait on others to do things in general in my life, I like to be in control, so yes, I would say waiting is a hard part of the writing life. The best way I’ve found in my freelance life to get over the anxiety is to develop an idea, send it off and move onto the next project. I see so many young freelance writers agonizing over a pitch they sent to their dream publication, or a pitch that is dear to them. If they keep that up, they’re going to have very short, anxiety-fueled lives. My motto is to put it into the universe, follow up in 7 to 14 days and if I still don’t have a response, re-pitch to another publication and think of something else for that dream publication. I use the motto I try to use in other aspects of my life: Let it go. Everything in its own time.


Meredith: Corollary to the above: How do you keep the faith—or whatever you call it personally—when acceptance doesn’t seem to be coming?

KERRI: Oh, if I had a dollar for every time I look at my calendar, see I’m not making my financial goals for the next month and feel like a complete failure, I could stop pitching tomorrow and really live the dream, which is to write only what I want whenever I want! I have to remind myself that I’ve always manage to find the next assignment, even if it’s just enough to keep me going until the next month. If I need a reminder of how far faith in myself has brought me, I take my dogs for a long walk in our woods—you can never think life isn’t going your way while walking in the woods. However, if that doesn’t work, there’s always chocolate.


Meredith: When you find yourself scared and paralyzed, either of something you are writing, of revealing yourself through the work, or for any other reason, how do you start moving again? And by moving I mean forward, not backwards, as in retreating?

KERRI: I think anyone who writes essays or memoir, particularly in this day and age of judgmental and cruel online bullying, is brave. However, sometimes I do feel like some of the superpersonal confessions some writers are engaging in these days may be detrimental to them, or maybe to even society in general, in years to come. That remains to be seen. That being said, I think all of us as writers have a personal responsibility to be true to ourselves and our story. There are some things in my book that sometimes haunt me in the middle of the night about how that part of my story will be received. I think there are instances where you may have to retreat. I always ask myself if that part of my story will harm others and if so, is it necessary for the story’s lesson, not to mention putting me at risk for libel. That’s where a good editor comes in, to help guide you in telling your story or advising you to take a different approach or even removing it all together.

Meredith: You’re an accomplished journalist, so tell me this: what is it that many of us misunderstand about telling a story? About finding hooks in a story? How did you learn to master your understanding of storytelling (article writing, memoir writing) in terms of understanding what a story is supposed to do. Please share.

KERRI: Well, first of all, thank you for the compliment. I was actually a business school graduate who had a deep love of journalism from an early age. But because I went to business school, I had to spend a lot of time learning and honing the craft, but that unconventional route worked in my favor. Unfortunately, I believe our society is in one of those periods in which people don’t appreciate the value of journalism in a free society. They’re drifting away from the meat of the story and looking for the sensational headline that gets them to click on that site. My high school journalism teacher, Patrick Bosak, who, in my mind, will always be the most wonderful teacher I ever had told me on my first day of class that drawing your reader in with a compelling lede is the most important part of your story, but you have to also know how to keep them engaged by telling them why this story is important to them. These sensational headlines oftentimes fail to deliver the meat.

News hooks aren’t always sexy, they’re not always sensational. They should be something that interests the public and also informs them. Whether I’m writing a news story or writing an essay or memoir, I’m constantly asking myself, “What is the takeaway, what can I help my reader learn or understand and what makes it relevant to their lives?”

[Thank you, Kerri!]

The 5-Question [Author] Interview: Jen A. Miller

“I like being slightly uncomfortable when I’m writing about something….It forces me to dig deeper and learn more than I’d probably ever use in the piece.”
— Jen. A Miller


Jen A. Miller is author of Running: A Love Story. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Philadelphia Inquirer, Runner’s World, espnW, Allure and SELF. She lives in Collingswood, N.J. with her Jack Russell Terrier Emily.


Meredith: Homeostasis is a concept I learned on my first day of graduate school. It means the desire to revert back to the familiar, for things to remain the same. As a writer, how do you remedy this type of stagnation that can thwart creativity? Or, do you believe there’s a time for it?

JEN: When I’m bored with work, I know I need to shoot higher. Before I even had the idea for Running: A Love Story, I wrote a travel guide about the Jersey Shore, and then I updated that book three years later for the second edition.

It was great! The books were fun and interesting, and lead to a lot of work that spilled over into my freelance life. I was known as Jersey Shore Jen for a while.

But it got a little staid. While things are always changing down the shore (especially after SaIMG_0163ndy), I could only write so many travel guides. When I was offered the opportunity to update the book for a third edition, I had a choice to make. It would have been relatively easy money, but I wasn’t excited about doing it. I had gotten comfortable being known as the Jersey Shore expert, but I started to feel hemmed in by it too.

I turned down the offer, and started talking about writing “the big book.”

It was a huge risk: professionally and personally, especially when writing is the thing that pays your bills. The path to book publication, even if you’ve written books before, can be an onerous one – not even including the idea! There’s writing the proposal to get the agent (I represented myself on my first two books), picking the agent, writing the proposal to sell the book, picking the publisher. One book project that I was told was a sure fire hit didn’t happen. That was a major blow, and it took me a while to try again. I’m glad I did.

When I reach that crossroads of do I stay or do I go now, I think about times when I took the shot and made it, and what a difference it’s made in my career today. Have I missed? Sure. But I don’t even remember all of those misses. So I take the shot.


Meredith: How do you block out the chatter—yours and everyone else’s?

JEN: Sometimes it’s a matter of putting in your headphones, putting your head down and writing away. If I’m overwhelmed bIMG_3874y something, I’ll physically move locations, whether that’s to my bedroom, where I have a writing surface; to my mom’s sunporch; or even to a hotel. I wrote big chunks of Running: A Love Story while locked away in hotel rooms overlooking the ocean.

On a bigger level, though, I need to block out a lot of noise about trends, the writing industry, etc. Those things are important, but if I read every single piece about how freelance writing is terrible, how publishing is terrible, I wouldn’t have even started. It can be overwhelming, which is why running (and when I’m not training for a race, hiking) is so key to me. It hits pause on everything, even if it’s just a half hour or an hour, and makes everything not seem so bad. Of course that’s when I get some of my best ideas too.

I’ve taken a lot of long road trips too, that have had nothing to do with writing projects. They’ve helped take me out of my environment for a while, take me to somewhere new. When I’m back, I’m refreshed.


Meredith: When you’re in love with a particular idea so much, how do you know when enough is enough—for example, words in a sentence, a line in an essay, a chapter in a book (memoir)? Corollary: how do you find the focus when the focus is…your life?

JEN: I can’t agonize over something forever, so I use deadlines to make me wrap things up. From the time I got the book offer for Running: A Love Story to when I turned in the final chapter of the manuscript was five months (that may sound short, but I had been working on the book for nearly a year before it sold). I also turned in the chapters on a rolling basis so that I was just about done with some of the early chapters two months after I sold the book.

Not everyone works this way. I do because I know that with long deadlines, I won’t work on it, and if I hold onto something too long, I’ll start picking at it, which can make it worse. Not to quote Frozen, but sometimes you really do need to let it go.

And if I’m at the end of my writing rope – with books or articles – I usually send it to my editor and say “tell me if this is finished.” Sometimes they see that it’s done – or not done – and I don’t. That’s why I’ve worked hard to build and maintain relationships with editors who are OK with that. It’s lead to some of my most popular (at least as they tell me) New York Times pieces. It’s so key to have that other person keep you in check.


Meredith: The screenwriter, author and therapist, Dennis Palumbo, has a quote at the very end of Writing from the Inside Out, from Shunryu Suzuki: “In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities; in the expert’s mind, there are few.” There is this collective sense that experts are better, but perhaps, in a roundabout way, what it suggests is that more power comes to the beginner, because the beginner sees hope and has no expectations. Like, if you’re going to be an expert, be an expert in being a beginner/newcomer. What’s your take?

JEN: That’s interesting. When I wrote the Jersey Shore book, a criticism I sometimes heard was that I shouldn’t be allowed to write the book because I didn’t live there. I think that’s one reason I should have written the books. I’d been going to that area of the country since I was a baby, so I knew enough so that I wasn’t parachuting into the place, but I had enough of that visitor wonder and curiosity that I wasn’t skipping obvious things. When some locals read the books, they told me that they learned things about shops or buildings or landmarks they passed every day that they never knew.

I like being slightly uncomfortable when I’m writing about something – and that applies to article work too. It forces me to dig deeper and learn more than I’d probably ever use in the piece. It keeps me from being lazy.


Meredith: What was the single most debilitating self-imposed rule you had to abandon in yourself and your writing—the rule that you thought made you feel safe and in control but actually didn’t—before you could put yourself on the page? How did you let it go—or maybe you didn’t?

JEN: Way back when I started out as a freelance writer, I told myself I couldn’t fail. On a macro level, that was “fail as a writer.” On a micro level, that was “fail in getting this assignment; fail at getting this interview,” those kinds of things. I quickly realized, though, that failing was OK. Not trying would have been a whole lot worse. And when I failed, I assessed what happened, and learned from it too.

I still trip up on this occasionally. I was 25 when I became a full time freelance writer, and I had much lower overall life costs then. If I failed, I could have slipped back into an office job. I don’t know anyone who would hire me know. Even though I’m further advanced in my career, that idea of failing is still there. I temper it by having some what I call “gimme” work. It’s not the most exciting stuff, but it pays the bills, and it allows me to take those chances I still need to take.

Visit Jen at


The 5-Question [Author] Interview: Nora Baskin

Measuring ourselves against those we admire and aspire to be is what making good art is all about.
I reach as high as I can.
—Nora Baskin

Nora Baskin is an award-winning author of books for children and young adults. She has written more than a dozen books, most inspired by her life events growing up. Her newest book is Ruby on the Outside. Her next book, Nine, Ten: A September 11 Story will be released later this year. norabaskin.comauthorphoto

Meredith: Taking the stance that creativity is a natural state, why do we get stuck? 

NORA: I don’t think we can get “stuck.”

Creativity can happen all the time, in every possible way. When we write, draw, dance, what we think while we walk in the woods, sing in the car, play the guitar all alone in the hallway. What does get in the way is when we try to force our creativity into a form that we think we can “sell” or will get us praise; when we worry about what someone else will think about our work.

Creativity is a natural state. It is free flowing and constant.

That is not to say there isn’t an external aesthetic by which to measure the results of our creativity. I am a believer in educated, thoughtful criticism. Society needs a measure by which to place art in time and history; to judge what is good, what is relevant, what is meaningful. (Note that sometimes it takes years for this to happen, often long after an artist is dead)

RubyOnTheOutside_1But actual creativity (not to be confused with the ART that is produced) is a constant. It’s always there. It’s a matter of separating heart and mind, those nagging voices in your head that can get in the way. It keeps us from getting out Ann LaMott’s “Shitty first draft.”

Meredith: The Talmud  (in one way or another) says that “Every blade of grass has its Angel that bends over it and whispers, ‘Grow, grow.’ Do you have a personal interpretation for what this means to you as a writer?

NORA: As a matter of fact, I do. I tried to get published for nine full years, meaning nine years of sending out my work and often coming home to a mailbox stuffed full of self-addressed stamped envelopes with my handwriting! (From the days before email, of course.) It was hard to keep the faith, so to speak. After a few really difficult rejections and disappointments, I decided to just write the story I had always wanted to write but everyone in my life had told me “get over.” It was the story of my mother’s suicide, not exactly the stuff of a middle grade novel. But I had just read an award-winning book called “Belle Prater’s Boy,” which had a similar topic and was told in a poignant but hu
morous style. I could do that!

I didn’t care if anyone bought it or not, if anyone wanted or liked it. I wrote it for me, and I used everything I had learned over the last nine years. It sold to the very first editor who read it.nine ten rev front cvr

I dedicated the book to my mother, because it was the worst thing in my life that became the very thing that made my greatest dream come true. I’m not sure there was any angel involved, but maybe.

Meredith: How do you block out the chatter – yours and everyone else’s?

NORA: I am alone a lot. And I walk in the woods with my dog a lot. That helps.

I also grew up in a home of artists. Success in my family was never about money. It was always about artistic integrity. I greatly admire artists who have come from banker-type families. Their journey is harder. They have a system they have to buck. I didn’t and for that I am grateful. And poor. 🙂

Meredith: A kind of corollary to the above question: When you write, do you keep your eyes on your own paper, so to speak? In other words, have you mastered the art of non-comparison (to other writers)?

NORA: No. And I don’t think you should. Measuring ourselves against those we admire and aspire to be is what making good art is all about. I reach as high as I can. I read books I consider to be of the best literary standard, and I try to learn from them. If I get even halfway there, it’s something, right? My goal as a writer is to continue to get better and better. I set higher and higher standards. My goal is to be embarrassed to read my work from ten years ago (this I’ve certainly achieved.) Of course, what one considers good is personal and objective. There is not one single work of art that every single person agrees upon. And thank goodness for that.

Meredith: How do you know when to stop? Either when it’s complete/done or when it’s never going to be complete/done? Have you ever been sad to have moved away from a particular work?

NORA: You’re right. It’s never done but at some point it goes to print. I’ve been back and forth with my editor, copy editor, and proofreader. It’s good to have other people make that decision. I try never to read my work once it’s published. I always want to change something.

I’ve seen friends of mine who mark up, change, edit their hardcover books for readings. I get such a kick out of that because I know how they feel. I’ve had my dad come to my house and cut up his old paintings.

I guess that’s what it is to be an artist.

[Thank you, Nora!]

The 5-Question [Poet] Interview: Patty Seyburn

“I believe that the body knows something that intellectually, I can’t access.”  
—Patty Seyburn


Patty Seyburn has published three volumes of poetry. Her third book, Hilarity, won the Green Rose Prize given by New Issues Press (Western Michigan University, 2009). Her two previous books of poems are Mechanical Cluster (Ohio State University Press, 2002) and Diasporadic (Helicon Nine Editions, 1998) which won the 1997 Marianne Moore Poetry Prize and the American Library Association’s Notable Book Award for 2000. Her poems have appeared in numerous journals including The Paris Review, Poetry, New England Review, Field, Slate, Crazyhorse, Cutbank, Quarterly West, Bellingham Review, Boston Review, Cimarron Review, Third Coast, and Western Humanities Review. She won a 2011 Pushcart Prize for her poem “The Case for Free Will,” published in Arroyo Literary Review. She holds an MFA in Poetry from University of California, Irvine, and a Ph.D. in Poetry and Literature from the University of Houston. She is an Associate Professor at California State University, Long Beach. Patty Seyburn’s official website: click here.

[Note: bolded text is my emphasis; these passages really spoke to me {m}]

Meredith: I was trained as a therapist and as a result was trained to strike a delicate balance of letting the client guide the session but also encouraging growth and change. There are, however, times when the therapist, in order to help the client move forward (or deeper), must raise issues to keep the process from stagnating. How do you see this playing out for the creator/writer? For you?

PATTY: My first instinct is to question whether the poem is the therapist or the client…

Frost wrote, “Like a piece of ice on a hot stove, the poem must ride on its own melting.” For a while, early in the poem’s life, it rides on its own melting. And then, it stops, and it’s not always evident what is next. Is it done? Possibly. To stay with Frost – is it a fork in the road, “two roads diverged”? Probably. At that point, I try to look at what the poem wants to say. Some people will tell you that they never do that, that in the course of writing, they never think about ideas, like William Carlos Williams: “No ideas but in things.” I grant that the consideration of meaning (that’s an obscenity for some poets) must come later in the process, or you end up guiding thUnknowne poem to “say something,” though it’s probably more like “say anything.” I don’t really want my poems to say anything. They represent me out in the world. They are often not autobiographical in terms of narrative details, but they certainly speak to how I think. They don’t have to say whatever is “the right thing” (not that I know), but they can’t lie.

Of course, the poem can’t say: here’s what I want to talk about, but I don’t know how, or, are you still mad at your mother? In a way, however, it does just that, if you ask nicely. The way to do so, for me, is by scrutinizing each line, and trusting that when the language merits attention in the mouth and body, the content has something to offer. I trust the ear. I trust that catch in the stomach when I hear a C major 7th chord (think of the song, “Misty”). ”). I believe that the body knows something that intellectually, I can’t access.  When I manage to craft a strong line, then I have to take seriously what it says, though I’m not always happy with that, because it reveals something about me to myself that I may not know (and like), or may not know (and not like), or may know (and not want to admit). I think a good therapist does not let you lie to her or yourself – or that’s the goal. When you write a poem you are proud of, it does the same: it reveals you to yourself, and also, to others. Though, ultimately, it’s a less private affair than therapy, if you publish.I beli

Meredith: Homeostasis is a concept I learned on my first day of graduate school. It means the desire to revert back to the familiar, for things to remain the same. As a writer, how do you remedy this type of stagnation which can thwart creativity? Or, do you believe there’s a time for it?

PATTY: If the familiar is defined as a poem that I already know how to write, which is to say, I have already written, then I have limited interest in returning to that technique or strategy. What thwarts the seeming ease of this response is that, to some degree, once I have written a poem, I no long know how to write it. Each poem makes different demands, and just because two poems may seem to share a form, or a rhetorical approach, does not mean that they have anything else in common. I can read Phil Levine’s What Work Is (the collection, and the poem, itself), over and over, and though many of the poems are visually similar, their internal moves continue to surprise me. As well, once I have a little more distance from a poem, I truly don’t know how I did what I did.

I’ll admit, I have a few poems that I wrote recently and am wondering how I could employ that strategy again, because I like these poems and think their approach to the subjects worked. If I go back farther, for example, to my third book, wDSC_0916-1ritten from about 2001-2005, I have no idea how to write these weird little semi-surrealist, image-driven sort-of lyrics. If I go back to my first book and look at personae poems written in the voices of unnamed or unsung women from the Hebrew bible, I think, wow, how did you do that? Then I was working with Richard Howard, one of the great poets/critics/translators of the 20th-21st century, and he championed those poems, which, no doubt, inspired me. I truly have no idea how to write those, anymore. Not a clue. So, for me, while the familiar has no theoretical attraction, in practical terms, I don’t even know how to get back there. “You can’t go home again,” wrote Thomas Wolfe. One’s poems each provide a temporary home, and you can’t go back to any of them. Sigh. A lot of lonely wandering with clouds for company.

Meredith: I once heard Ira Glass, host of This American Life, say:  “Keep following the thread where instinct takes you. Force yourself to wait things out.” Does your writing require a lot of waiting?

PATTY: Whereas I value patience in the writing of poems, and in life, as well, I am less interested in waiting for “the muse,” and I try to teach my students not to value that idea. “Instinct” is a tough word, in relation to poems. Actually, I don’t really understand it, in relation to poems. I trust my instincts (sometimes) about people, about situations. When I write a poem, it’s not instinct at play. It’s language, which contains music, idea and image. It’s not a guessing game. I don’t “wait” for something to happen, in order to write a poem. I observe the world; I take in, ingest, inhale as much as possible, and I trust that what I take in has some resonance, in on the same frequency as something else that matters to me. I don’t wait for inspiration, or for the mood. Having a family and a job precludes what could be interpreted as the passivity of waiting. I think the idea of “forcing – waiting” is an interesting dichotomy. When I have time to write, I write. If I can’t write, I read. Sometimes I’ll read first. I imagine he’d say I was being ornery, but I’ll admit, I cherish urgency more than patience. I don’t do much yoga.

Meredith: How do you not hold on so tight to a piece of writing that isn’t working (that you wish would work) and let go so you might discover what will work?

PATTY: I have had to school myself in editorial brutality and trusting in the editing wisdom that comes with time. Generally, when I revise a poem into oblivion (as I did just the other day), and it’s taken up a great deal of my time (of which I do not have much, being a mom and a professor at Cal State Long Beach), I know that all I can do is put it away, put it away, put it away. Sometimes I will tape or pushpin it above my desk, so there is a constant passing flirtation with the poem. But since I am the being with consciousness and agency, I can choose to not walk by, and sometimes, I will do that, too.

I was watching that movie about Stephen Hawking last night, and it occurred to me that I should try to reread A Brief History of Time, though I remember finding it impenetrable when I first bought it. Now I think, if 10 million people bought it, and at least some percentage of that managed to get through it, I should give it another swat. I say this because in my own life, the relation of poetry to time maintains a strong attraction and equal elusivity, and I constantly address the issue of time in my poems. It is the only entity that can give you a completely honest assessment of your work. A friend can’t. A critic can’t.  Both may want to be candid, but their own proclivities in large and small terms inhibit that possibility, well-intended or purposeful as it may be. Allowing the poem to brew, to stew in its own juices, invariably calls attention to what demands to be changed. And sometimes, the result it: get rid of me. But keep a few good lines – and those germinate a poem that has not entered that futile realm. I should not even say “futile,” because if that enterprise generated a few good lines, or helped me understand language a little better, then time was not wasted. But the truth is: you have to be willing to “waste time.” Many people think writing poems is a waste of time, anyway. May as well indulge them.

As for the brutality of editing one’s own work – Australian poet Les Murray was the first to say to me: “Sometimes you must kill your darlings.” (Apparently, this quote has many possible sources – Oscar Wilde, Eudora Welty, G.K. Chesterton, Chekhov, and Arthur Quiller-Couch in his Cambridge lectures “On the Art of Writing.”) Whoever said it first – it made sense to me. I recognize that sometimes what I feel is the best line in a poem might be the worst. On the other hand: don’t be a fool. Maybe it is the best, and the rest of the poem needs to step up.

In order to access the cruel inner-editor, I read the poem aloud. I ask it questions – usually when driving, alone. I pretend that I’m interviewing the poem, or (how narcissistic will this sound?) interviewing myself, about this particular poem. On the radio. No one wants to sound like an idiot on the radio, and I’ll usually end up talking to myself about where the poem wants to go and should go, but is not going, and making self-demeaning comments that, fortunately, no one is there to agree with. Then I go home and try to make the poem behave. I love the tension of the editing process. It’s a struggle, a wrestling match, a prize-fight with each poem. I don’t always win, but then, you could say, who is the winner? Is it better if I win or the poem wins? Does the poem want to write itself out of existence? Am I holding on too tight? Ultimately, I am the judge of the poem’s success. The poem cannot say: I’m done. Put a fork in me and send me to The New Yorker.

Meredith: The artist, Juan Gris, said, “You are lost the instant you know what the result will be.” Many would find this counterintuitive, believing it’s actually better to know where you are headed. You?*

PATTY: Poetry distances itself from expository writing by not being goal-oriented. In a piece of persuasive writing, for example, to be effective, clear logic must be in place, and contribute to the result, the summative moment. In contrast, each line of a poem must strive to surprise the reader, while, at the same time, not seem utterly random. One of the many fashions in modern poetry is what Tony Hoagland calls the “skittery poem of our moment.” In a smart essay examining this trend (yes, poetry has trends! It’s just that no one makes any money off of them), he writes, “Systematic development is out; obliquity, fracture, and discontinuity are in.” The skittery poems don’t come naturally to me, but I have written some, particularly when I feel my mind working in perhaps too linear a fashion. Who determines the boundaries of “too”? Me. I love a good narrative poem, and that must move through time with some sense. I don’t want to herald discontinuity to excess, which I see in poems where I feel the writer does not bother to wonder why certain images or moments that seem to have no relation to one another belong near each other in the poem. I think those poems lack rigor, and I think the poet should work hard for the reader’s time and attention.

I never know where a poem is headed when I’m working on it. Never. I do not have a point to make, ax to grind, etc. It’s not that I don’t like points. Did you see that movie, “Planes, Trains and Automobiles”? Steve Martin says to John Candy, a character whose stories never seem to go anywhere: “And another thing: have a point!” I could relate to that. But that’s different than knowing where the poem is going. My poems usually swerve a few times and end up concerning themselves with a completely different issue, or focused on an image or piece of language that I did not see as vital, earlier in the poem’s development.

I grew up in Detroit. I like driving. I like the swerves. And as I get older, I trust the swerves. I used to fear them more – would the poem resume its course? Did the poem need a course? As the poem strays farther and farther from “the interior” (I always think of Joseph Conrad when I use or read that term), and the connection between the initial impulse to write the poem becomes more and more attenuated, it’s easy to get nervous. I think of that Dave Matthews band song that I listen to as I run: “Where are you going?” We are conditioned to desire and maintain direction, and in life, that seems to be, for the most part, how one makes headway. In a poem, it’s the opposite: trusting that there will be a result, but not writing toward that result, and even keeping yourself from knowledge or suspicion of that result. You don’t want to see a light at the end of the tunnel. You want to catch one of those peripheral lights, like the ones in that vision test (that increasingly, I fail. I invent them).

When I asked Patty what she doesn’t usually get to squeeze into a conversation she said: Let’s see: well, I have a strong affection for kitsch, which probably contributes to the “soup” of my poems, but when they enter the realm of cliché, I drop them like the worst old boyfriend. I even had to look up kitsch to explain this: “art, objects or design considered to be in poor taste because of excessive garishness or sentimentality, but sometimes appreciated in an ironic or knowing way.” I am exhausted of the snarkiness of irony, but it remains part of my personality. A good example of kitsch is the lava lamp. I love lava lamps. Some people like them ironically, but I like them genuinely.

One more thing: I am incessantly moved by displays of genuine effort – remember that Olympics commercial in the ‘70s when you see Olga Korbut’s face as she pulls her body, against laws of gravity, up over her head on the balance beam? That made me cry. If I saw it now, I would weep. Finally: I am unmoved by children’s talent shows, though I have children, adore my children, and am fond of talent. I think they should be called “variety shows.” There should be a bar. If I go on more about this, I will sound mean, and I think mean people are tedious, so I’ll stop there. Also: I hate Ron Howard movies.

[Thanks, Patty!]

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