Burlington Book Festival

Interview: Bethany C. Morrow

The Burlington Book Festival lands in Burlington, Vermont, on October 12 to 14, with an amazing lineup including Mary Jo Bang, Dan Chiasson, Maria Hummel, Mark Leyner, Bethany Morrow, and Sharon Olds. This is the last in a series of four interviews in celebration of the Festival.

Bethany C. Morrow is the author of the debut novel, MEM, published by the wonderful small publisher, Unnamed Press. Publisher’s Weekly describes MEM as “ambitious and insightful, raising questions about memory, trauma, and humanity.” Morrow was an Indies Introduce Debut Author selected by the American Booksellers Association. Originally from California, she currently lives in upstate New York.

Thank you, Bethany!

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Literary North: Tell us a little bit about your writing process.

Bethany Morrow: I think my writing process adapts to each individual project, but there are some places where I start. The transition from thinking about writing something (which is a step in the writing process) to literally writing about it requires, for me, a first line; an inciting incident, or reason the story is starting now; a character I know (or think I know for now); a sound (as in a song that matches the emotional tenor of the character or incident or); a climax.

Once I have those things I write a first chapter, which tends to be establishing, so it's not very long. Like introducing yourself before you start blabbering on to someone who doesn't want to know you, lol. And then I see what I've learned from that introduction, and go back to thinking. Once I know the next few steps, I start writing toward the end of the first act, at which point I stop again and go back to thinking because things organically develop and I want to write the story not the story that first appeared in my head if it isn't true anymore. The process goes a bit like that through the climax, until I know how it ends.

LN: What influences have helped shape you into the writer you are today?

BM: A reader might be a better person to answer that. I can only say what meant a lot to me as a young reader/writer: Christopher Pike, Lois Duncan, Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton, The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and everything by Toni Morrison (especially up through Love, since that's when I was rabidly reading and rereading her, including essays and interviews).

LN: What was the kernel of the idea for your novel, MEM? What inspired you and influenced your writing as you worked toward its completion?

BM: The kernel of the idea was making cloning more interesting than I find it in real life, lol. And then determining that the most interesting person in that world would be such a clone, but one that doesn't match her intended purpose, and because there's an expectation on her to prove her humanness, she has such a shallow pool of "respectable" identity expression while others who are never questioned are free to be inhuman. 

LN: What brings you joy?

BM: My son, of course, before everything. The right words. A sound too perfect to be translated into words. A shared happiness.

LN: What was the most memorable thing you read in the past month?

BM: I started reading What It Means When a Man Falls From the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah, and from the first page, the gasp I made at the end of the first story, it's just intoxicating.

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Interview: Mary Jo Bang

The Burlington Book Festival lands in Burlington, Vermont, on October 12 to 14, with an amazing lineup including Mary Jo Bang, Dan Chiasson, Maria Hummel, Mark Leyner, Bethany Morrow, and Sharon Olds. This is the third in a series of four interviews in celebration of the Festival.

Mary Jo Bang is the author of several books of poems, including A Doll for Throwing (Graywolf Press, 2017), The Last Two Seconds (Graywolf Press, 2015), The Bride of E: Poems (Graywolf Press, 2009), and Elegy (Graywolf Press, 2007), which won the 2007 National Book Critics Circle Award in Poetry and was a 2008 New York Times Notable Book. She teaches at Washington University in St. Louis.

Of A Doll for Throwing, Publisher’s Weekly says, “Bang’s impeccable collection reads as a ‘circular mirror of the social order,’ reflecting the historicity of our current moment with wit, subtlety, and grace.” And The Washington Post writes, “Mary Jo Bang bends and tosses ideas as easily as one would a Wurfpuppe, a flexible doll created by Bauhaus artist Alma Siedhoff-Buscher that always landed with grace when thrown.”

Thank you, Mary Jo, for your wonderful answers to our questions!

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Literary North: Tell us a little bit about your writing process.

Mary Jo Bang: My writing practice changed when computers replaced typewriters. When I began, I kept notebooks or wrote on loose sheets of paper—when the poem felt resolved, I would type it. Now, I usually compose a poem on the computer and print it out when it feels somewhat settled. I then mark changes on that piece of paper and eventually go back to the computer and make more changes. I repeat that cycle for anywhere from minutes to weeks or months. Because it’s far easier to make changes on the computer, compared to retyping a poem from start to finish, I think the process of composing remains fluid for longer.

There is also the fact that when I began writing, I had the luxury of sitting in front of a blank piece of paper for hours or days, never knowing whether it might become something worth saving. I’m busier now and also clearer about what I want to say. I can’t imagine sitting in front of a piece of paper for days. I may not write as often but when I sit down to write, I write (meaning, I type what I write on a keyboard).

LN: What influences have helped shape you into the writer you are today?

MJB: I remain influenced by Samuel Beckett, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Sigmund Freud, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, Jean Toomer, Gertrude Stein, early Eliot, my friends, my teachers, my students, The New York Times, New York City, the Surrealists, Baudelaire, Dante, Shuzo Takiguchi, every painting I’ve ever seen, my erratic brain, etc.

LN: Your most recent book of poems, A Doll for Throwing, was inspired by the Bauhaus school, and photographer Lucia Moholy. Why did you decide to write about this subject? What inspired you and influenced your writing as you worked towards its completion?

MJB: As always with inspiration, one sees or hears something, or one entertains a thought, and then there’s a next seeing or hearing or thinking. It’s all very messy and unpredictable at the beginning, but, at some point, you begin to shape whatever you’ve taken in by combining it with your pre-existing obsessions and preoccupations. In this case, I saw a rather non-descript photograph by Lucia Moholy in a museum and became curious about her name. I knew of Laszlo Moholy-Nagy—the famous Bauhaus Master-teacher and visual artist—and wondered whether she was related. I learned that she was his first wife and that she had taken most of the iconic photographs of the early Bauhaus buildings and workshop products but that those photographs came to be associated not with her but with Walter Gropius, the founder of the Bauhaus school and design movement. Her name had been all but erased from history. I felt, as a woman who has worked to establish herself as an artist against some odds (working class background, years of single parenthood), an odd kind of kinship. I eventually immersed myself in the history of the Bauhaus and used that place and era as an imagined stage from which I then wrote about my own experience of being a woman and an artist in the present—as well as my own experience of being a photographer, before I became a poet.

LN: What brings you joy?

MJB: So many things! Right now, translating Dante’s Purgatorio into colloquial English. For me, translation is similar to working an endless crossword puzzle. I never tire of it. If I could, I’d give up sleeping for it, however, whenever my disembodied mind attempts to do that, the body that houses my brain puts its foot down and insists I go to bed.

LN: What was the most memorable thing you read in the past month?

MJB: Khadijah Queen’s I’m So Fine: A List of Famous Men & What I Had On, a delightfully subversive book of prose poems. She uses a fever-pitch stream-of-consciousness approach to construct brief narratives about growing up in Los Angeles. The poems play with received notions of celebrity, masculinity, femininity, fashion, film, and family (to name a few). The book becomes a ‘joiner’ collage of snapshots, each featuring another glimpse what it’s like to be alive in America in the present! It’s smart and funny and like nothing else you’ll read.

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Interview: Rick Kisonak

The Burlington Book Festival lands in Burlington, Vermont, on October 12 to 14, with an amazing lineup including Mary Jo Bang, Dan Chiasson, Maria Hummel, Mark Leyner, Bethany Morrow, and Sharon Olds. This is the first in a series of four interviews in celebration of the Festival.

To kick things off, we interviewed Festival founder, Rick Kisonak, who lives in Burlington. You may know Rick from his work as a film critic for Seven Days. We’re grateful to Rick for bringing such a wonderful group of authors to Burlington and for his support of Literary North.

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Literary North: What’s the history behind the Burlington Book Festival? Have you been involved with it since it began? How has the festival changed and grown over the years?

Rick Kisonak: I lived in Boston and worked at the Phoenix at a point in the late 70s and loved going to the Boston Globe Book Fair. I couldn't believe the number of personal heroes it was so ridiculously easy to meet and engage there—P Donleavy, Tom Wolfe, John Updike—it was crazy.

In 1981, I moved to Vermont to work at Burlington's Vanguard Press (the weekly from which Seven Days descended). That's where I began my illustrious career as a professional film critic. One morning in 2004, I woke up with a thought: Hey, the Queen City has a festival for everything: food, jazz, crafts, art, beer, you name it. But it did not have a literary festival. I ran the idea by a few cultural movers and shakers, who all loved the notion, and put on the first one the following September. Galway Kinnell, Grace Paley, and Russell Banks were among the headliners. We were off to a good start.

Since then, the Festival's reputation has spread throughout the literary world. I was stunned, for example, when I called John Irving one day, Richard Ford on another, and was told they'd heard great things. That kind of thing helps lure world class artists. Of course, Lake Champlain doesn't hurt.

LN: What Festival events or authors are you particularly excited about this year?

RK: Everyone who's coming this year is a rock star, among the most accomplished at what they do. The poem Sharon Olds has in this week's New Yorker is spooky good. Dan Chiasson is the magazine's poetry critic and a really fine poet himself. He's promised to read a collection I wrote in my twenties and tell me whether I should have chosen a completely different life path. I feel bad for him but he's an extremely nice guy. I suspect he's going to say film critic was the smart move.

Mary Jo Bang appeared years ago and became a friend so it will be wonderful to see her again. It's going to be a particular thrill to meet Mark Leyner. I've been an obsessive fan since the 90s when My Cousin, My Gastroenterologist and Et Tu, Babe were the biggest books in the country. Just a dizzyingly inventive mind.

LN: How do you choose the authors for the BBF?

RK: That's the part of the job I find most fun. It's a combination of choosing from among the writers who've gotten in touch to say they'd like to come and tracking down authors whose work I personally enjoy. I'm not a big fan of meetings. Never have been. My management style is more or less dictatorial. Which works fine since I'm my only employee.

LN: What sets BBF apart from the other literary festivals in New England?

RK: Lake Champlain?

LN: What was the most memorable thing you read in the past month?

RK: A movie script Mark Leyner wrote for a streaming giant (we've become e-mail pen pals). I can't share much in the way of details but am happy to report his mind just gets more dizzylingly inventive by the day. That Sharon Olds poem was pretty mind blowing too. Can't wait to hang with her.

Rick Kisonak, by Ed Koren

Rick Kisonak, by Ed Koren