Q and A with Howling Bird Press Author Jean Harper

What is it about writing that energizes you?

What I appreciate most about writing is that I always discover something new in the process. Whether it’s a brand new idea that starts a new project, or a revision of an ongoing project, or an idea that wakes me up in the middle of the night for how to resolve a writing problem, I am always learning something new. New about the world, myself, ideas, the human condition. Writing is a way in to all of that.

What are common traps for aspiring writers?

I think this really varies writer to writer, but I see some commonalities among my students. For instance, believing in “writer’s block” seems to trip up many aspiring writers. I personally do not believe in “writer’s block.” I might have at one time long ago, but a stint in writing on deadline for a local newspaper cured me of writers block forever. There’s really no such thing, in my opinion. There may be problems writers face—like, how to describe that person, that moment in time; or, how to shoo away all the distractions in life to get some quiet uninterrupted hours at your desk; or, how to write about a very difficult experience—but those are problems that are solvable. I think if aspiring writers thought not of “blocks” but rather of “solvable problems” it might help.

Another trap is worrying too soon about publication. I have a friend, a dear friend, who is writing a memoir. Someone in our writing group suggested she get an agent, and find a publisher, now. I shook my head: No, not yet. You haven’t even figured out the arc of the story yet. Write the memoir first. Then worry about the agent, the publisher, publishing. Just write.

Another trap, and this is corrosive, is envy. Someone somewhere is always going to get a prize or a publication or a review that you don’t get. That’s just life. If you constantly compare yourself to the next new writer, you’ll eat yourself up with envy. Don’t do it. Applaud everyone’s success, and get back to your desk.

What is your writing Kryptonite?

I had to look up what Kryptonite does! “Deprives Superman of his powers.” Hmm. I don’t think I have a writing Kryptonite. That doesn’t mean I’m Superman (or Supergirl), not at all. What it means is that writing is how I think about the world. I’m constantly writing inside my head, casting experience into sentences. I may be sitting in a meeting looking attentive about whatever my department chair is talking about, but really I’m writing a scene for my novel, or revising a sentence, or turning a word over in my mind, like a cool pebble inside my mouth. Writing is just who I am. Nothing can deprive me of that power.

What other authors are you friends with, and how do they help you be a better writer?

Oh, so many writers, really. I have two wonderful poet friends I met some years ago at a writing workshop, and we stay in touch by email, getting together in real time and space as often as we can. We send each other drafts of writing, sometimes just fragments, sometimes the whole thing. And we just talk about life too. The frustrations of getting it all done, what we are reading, recipes for all those tomatoes we’ve grown.

I have another writer friend who is very strategic about her career as a writer; she is probably about twenty years younger than I am, and I just watch in a kind of wonder at her energy and determination. I take a lot of inspiration from our friendship, and she kind of views me as her academic mentor. It’s a really interesting relationship.

And there are writers out there who I have met, who are kind of giants in their genre (I won’t drop names); I’ve learned something so very valuable from the “famous writers”: the best writers are often the most generous of human beings, willing to help in so many ways— making connections, championing your work, encouraging you to keep going, to keep writing. If I ever become a “famous writer” I shall use these wonderful human beings as my model. There is no place for arrogance in writing, only generosity.

Do you want each of your books/stories to stand on their own, or are you trying to build a body of work with connections between them?

Very good question. I think my first and second book are linked, but they each also stand on their own. I am very interested in a number of intersecting subjects: women, the Midwest, courage, kindness, and, of course, horses.

The two projects I’m working on now are 1) about women and courage; 2) about horses and a girl and courage. So I suppose there is a connection between all of this.

Did publishing with Howling Bird Press change your writing process?

I think a lot more now about the internal design of a piece. The editors working on Still Life with Horses were so acutely aware of how various parts of the story fit together (or didn’t) and made the book so much better by their attention. I think about this a lot more now as I revise, which is really a gift.

What have you done since you won the Howling Bird Press prize?

I have been working on two writing projects: One, a nonfiction narrative about five generations of women in my family, going back to the wife of a whaleship captain in the mid-1800s. And, two, a novel set in Kentucky in the 1970s about a young girl and her father and their hopes pinned on a racehorse. I’m really enjoying working on the novel. It’s a delightful departure from nonfiction. The joy of inventing is delicious.

What did you do with your first advance?

I don’t remember, honestly! I probably did something horse-related. I currently have a Welsh Pony/Quarter Horse cross who is just amazing. I might have bought him a present, maybe a new saddle pad. Or, more likely, I put the advance in the bank!

As a writer, what would you choose as your mascot?

My father lived the last ten years or so of his life in a large apartment overlooking a turn and pool in the Assabet River in Concord, Massachussetts. The view from his window was so lovely, and Dad was always especially thrilled to see the resident Great Blue Heron wading and feeding in that pool. He took, literally, hundreds of photographs of that sinuous bird. My father loved photography, birds, science, nature, gardening, physics, music. Everything. He was curious about the world and delighted by all of life. Dad died in 2016, and when I see a Great Blue Heron now, I think of my dad.

What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?

For the horse novel, I spent several years making trips to Kentucky, hanging around race tracks, talking to horse people, watching races, and training sessions, and just absorbing as much as I could. And, of course, reading a lot, and widely.

For the nonfiction narrative about the women in my family, I made a number of research trips to New England, to archives and libraries that had all kinds of holdings, from whaling logs, to letters my great great grandparents had written, to photographs. And, reading everything I could get my hands on.

I also take the advice of Nathaniel Philbrick who has said “You have to buy the books.” So, I have a really incredible library of books. I think every writer should. And not Kindle or e-book versions. Books. Things you hold in your hand, turn the pages of. There’s a tactile experience there that helps with memory and imagination. I say this anecdotally, but I suspect there are studies too.

What did you edit out of your book, Still Life with Horses?

I edited out things that were too self-absorbed, maudlin, maybe motivated more by reprisal than art. For me it was most important to tell a balanced story, not one that cast me as a victim-turned-hero and anyone else into a villain. That’s not really how real life works, most of the time. We’re all a lot more complicated than that. I wanted to honor that complication, reveal it, share it.

Do you read your book reviews? Why or why not?

Sure, I read my book reviews. And I remember that behind every review there is a person, with their own idiosyncratic points of view, or dislikes, or preferences. That person also may or may not care about trends in writing. That person may or may not be drawn to the subject matter. I read the review, and put it away, and that is that.

Do you hide any secrets in your books that only a few people will find?

There’s really only one “secret” and it’s not really a secret. The end of the book, the very last scene, is a reference to a gorgeous poem by James Wright, “The Blessing” that beautifully describes an encounter of the speaker of the poem with two ponies in a field. The poem ends as one of the ponies walks over to the speaker:

For she has walked over to me
And nuzzled my left hand.
She is black and white,
Her mane falls wild on her forehead,
And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear
That is delicate as the skin over a girl’s wrist.
Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
Into blossom.

And Still Life with Horses ends like this:

The horse lowers his great head, and flows softly on my outstretched hands. The faint trace of whiskers on my skin, the warm living breath. A blessing. It feels like that. Exactly like that.

I worried a little that this might be too obvious, but only one person (a horse lover, and a poet) has caught it . . . that I know of. For me, the story had to end that way. I adore horses, all horses, and have a vast respect and deep admiration for horses’ ability to truly see people for who they really are. Horses never lie. They always tell the truth. I aspire to be that clear myself.

Still Life with Horses is now available on Amazon as an e-book. Check it out here.

Q and A with Howling Bird Press Author KateLynn Hibbard

What is it about writing that energizes you?

Three things come to mind, one of which is sort of selfish—that feeling you get when you’re in “the zone” and everything else falls away—it’s just you and the words and the pleasure of creating something that sings. The second is the people you meet—for me, as a writer in community with other local writers, writers I’ve studied with and learned from in the past, as well as a teacher of students who are eager to learn more about the craft. Third is the pleasure of knowing that someone who doesn’t know you or anything about you may pick up your book or hear you read from it and have that unmistakable zing of recognition, of connection. That’s golden.

What are common traps for aspiring writers?

Being in too much of a hurry. Yeah, I know, we could all die tomorrow (more true now than the last time I said that, I’m sure . . .) But so many writers want to send things out immediately after writing them without giving them time to breathe and reveal more of their nature. Closely related is the desire to publish without the desire to read the published work of other writers. Writers who do this are depriving themselves of a way to learn more about how to get their work out into the world, and they are depriving themselves of the chance to be an actual part of the community of writers, who read every chance we get. A third trap that I frequently see in students is a reluctance to revise, which is closely related to the first trap. Revising takes time—words need time to sink in. It’s true that you won’t have that rush of initial creation you got from your first draft, but you’ll have something different that you will probably come to appreciate over time if you stick with writing.

What is your writing Kryptonite?

Lack of focus and an urge to do household tasks or work related to the courses I teach during the time I have set aside to write. Not even setting the time aside sometimes, to be honest, and then being surprised by how little work I have produced.

What other authors are you friends with, and how do they help you become a better writer?

I have been part of an ongoing group of writers for maybe fifteen years now. Current members are Morgan Grayce Willow, Rita Schweiss, Elissa Cottle, and Rondi Atkin. We meet monthly and read each other’s work and appreciate and critique and laugh and recommend books to read and support one another through challenges, both those related to writing and other things. Kate Kysar was a part of this group for a number of years and is still a good friend. Other writers I have met through taking classes and/or doing readings together and consider friends include Kris Bigalk, Paige Riehl, Michael Kiesow Moore, Michael Walsh, Tony Plocido, Tish Jones, Andrea Jenkins, John Medeiros, Steve Healey, and Heid Erdrich. Influential friends from my graduate school years at the University of Oregon are Susan Rich and Phil Memmer, as well as my teacher/mentors Garrett Hongo, T.R. Hummer, and Dorianne Laux . All of these writers have helped me learn how much I still have to learn, and encouraged me that it is worth it to try. Now I’m afraid I’ve forgotten someone, so please forgive my lapses in memory.

Do you want each of your books/stories to stand on their own, or are you trying to build a body of work with connections between them?

The first two books (Sleeping Upside Down, Silverfish Review Press, 2006, and Sweet Weight, Tiger Bark Press, 2012) are connected to some extent by their focus on love, self-discovery, and relationships, as well as a poetic approach that tries to heighten the tension inherent in oppositions, and in some cases, to challenge the way we conceive of things as opposites (male/female, queer/straight, for instance). Simples, which HBP so wonderfully published in 2018, is a complete ringer—it is historical poetry based on the lives of women of the Great Plains around the turn of the twentieth century. I don’t know why that happened. That’s what you get for majoring in history and creative writing, I guess. My fourth book, which is not really a book yet, will likely be more like the first two, dealing with age and the body and pushing against oppositions.

Did publishing with Howling Bird Press change your process of writing?

I don’t know if it changed my writing process, but it made me much more aware of all that goes into the editing process. I’m so grateful for all the energy and expertise and care I received from the student editors and of course the amazing Jim Cihlar.

What have you done since you won the Howling Bird Press prize?

Well, life pretty much has gone on as it had before. I teach full time at Minneapolis College, and in addition to that, I’m trying to write more poems for another collection. I’ve also done some fun readings to promote the book, as well as co-teaching a workshop at the Ghost Ranch education center in New Mexico, entitled “The Poetry of Stone,” where class members wrote poems and learned how to do stone carving for a week. I am giving a socially distanced reading later this month at an artist’s salon called “The River’s Edge” in Minneapolis, and I’ll be appearing in an online reading sponsored by the Syracuse, New York, Downtown Writer’s Center in October.

As a writer, what would you choose as your mascot?

This is a hard question. I think some kind of perennial Midwestern plant, like bee balm, that blooms profusely for a few months, then dies back and goes dormant for half the year, but during that time, rich things are fermenting beneath the snow.

What kind of research do you do, and how long do you spend researching before beginning a book?

Simples took me about twelve years from its conception to its completion. My initial inspiration was a bit I heard on The Writer’s Almanac about the great locust invasion of the 1870s. That sent me down an insane rabbit hole of books about locusts, about Minnesota history, about women and settlement on the Great Plains, about Native people’s role in helping settlers and how they were displaced by settlers. I read a manuscript at the Minnesota Historical Society on a woman missionary in Northern Minnesota. I read prayer books and Bible verses. Eventually, based to some extent on my reading, the focus of the book became how women coped with the exigencies of life on the prairie. I can’t really recall a time when the research stopped and the writing began—both activities fed off of each other. I did have to make myself stop researching periodically, because it is sometimes tempting to think that because you have read so much, you have written an equal amount, and that, of course, is not the case.

I also do brief research for non-historical poems, which usually involves a short dive down the Google hole.

What did you edit out of this book, Simples?

I don’t think I actually took any poems out, but I was helped immensely by the suggestions I got about reordering the collection. I also changed the point of view of one or two poems based on editorial feedback, and added some end notes to make the historical context clearer for readers.

Simples is now available on Amazon as an e-book. Check it out here.