Leigh Statham, a writer who has served on South 85 Journal‘s staff, is currently touring with her new YA book, Daughter4254, which will officially be released by Owl Hollow Press on November 7. We caught up with her for a few minutes for a sneak preview of the book and some insight into her motivation for writing it.
What was your inspiration for Daughter4254?
My inspiration came from a lot of different sources. I’m a big fan of classic dystopian literature (especially The Giver and Fahrenheit 451) and Chinese history. The Cultural Revolution, in particular, blows my mind. This was a period when the government, or more specifically, Mao Zedong, decided that all art should “serve the people” which quickly translated into “serve the state.” Many great artists were ridiculed and great works of art and literature were gathered and destroyed. It’s a crushing story and one that China openly regrets now. As a creative person, I’ve often wondered what it would be like to have your life’s work be illegal. Fast forward to American culture today and the educational budget cuts that force public schools in the poorest areas to cut funding for the arts at all levels of childhood development, and we’ve got a much quieter, however equally nefarious situation on our hands. I think it’s important to express in any way we can how important the arts are not only to our children but to humans in general. I chose a futuristic novel.
How do you feel this book reflects socially prevalent opinions of art and artists?
I hope it reflects them closely. I tried to highlight the feeling I think every creative person gets in their gut, that desire to create and appreciate and be a part of something meaningful, even if you don’t know what that something is going to be. Although the “Leaders” in my book don’t allow anything that isn’t of use to the community (harkening back to the days of Mao) I don’t think that’s a far cry from the powers that be today, especially in the US. With more and more emphasis being placed on physical accomplishments and STEM, art, music, literature, and even quality cinema are suffering for lack of respect. I’m not against sports or science, of course. But I think a truly healthy society incorporates all aspects of learning. It doesn’t take much research to discover the benefits of an arts-rich education. The greatest scientists all had creative outlets as well as scientific pursuits. You have to be able to think creatively in order to problem solve, and that’s where all great STEM advancements come from. You can’t nurture those kinds of talents using only one side of a child’s brain.
Would you say your characters are symbolic or realized? What I mean by that is, do you formulate characters based on ideals and values you want them to represent or are they based on archetypes of human character?
When I sketch a character, I start with an archetype, then I add all the layers. For Daughter4254, I began with your basic misfit and then tried to add layers. I don’t ever think about a character representing any one ideal or value, per se. I try to make my characters as well-rounded as possible. They have ideals they aspire to, but a lot of times they are far from achieving those ideals. Sometimes they aren’t the people they think they are. Sometimes they just aren’t good at communicating what they want. In Daughter’s case, she doesn’t know what she wants, she doesn’t even know if it exists, she just knows she wants more and she feels like she needs to fight to find that something. Her story ultimately ends up being a sort of hero’s journey gone wrong.
How does this book differ from your previous book in terms of your writing process?
My previous books are historical fiction in a steampunk setting. I did a lot of research on French Canadian immigrant history and piracy for those books. It was a lot of fun to let my imagination run wild while framing the facts of those stories. I was writing specifically for a younger teen audience and mainly to entertain and inform. Not many people are aware of the true story of The Daughters of the King. Kids are always surprised to hear that the basic foundations of the novels are true. For Daughter4254, I was writing from the gut. Again, it’s a completely fantastic dystopian setting that I have complete control of, but it was more of a visceral experience. All of my books deal with death and loss and coming of age, in a way, but Daughter4254 is a much more serious study of what our world might become if we continue devaluing the arts at the rate we are now. As far as actual process goes, whereas the other books came together quickly. Daughter4254 has taken nearly a decade of writing, rewriting, and deciding on exactly how the story is best presented. I finally settled on an alternating flashback style as a nod to the fact that hindsight is 20/20. We won’t know what we’ve lost until it’s gone.
Daughter4254 delves into the intricacies of a mother-daughter relationship, can you talk about your inspiration for that theme; is there a personal narrative behind it?
Ahh… now we’ve come to the really hard question! Yes and no. I think every child feels the weight of their parents’ expectations most of their lives. My mother and I have a rocky relationship at best, but I still find myself wanting to please her. Daughter’s motivation for a lot of the choices she makes is to make her mother proud. There is something timeless about that. I know very few people who can honestly say they aren’t trying in some way to get their parents’ approval, even late in life, even when it doesn’t make sense, even when they are dead and buried.
Did you set out to explore this theme, or did it emerge as you were writing?
I try to let my themes emerge as I write. I concentrate primarily on character, plot, and setting. After all, my goal is to tell a good story. One of the last things I do before I send a book to my agent is to look for any themes that are emerging. If there is something there that is strong and begging to be pulled out, then I take it by the hand, spread it through the book, and dress it up a bit. I don’t think I could ever force a theme. It would probably come out feeling insincere and hollow. Themes have to be born naturally or for me, they ruin the story.
What do you read when you are working on a piece of fiction? Do you take the read everything or read nothing approach when it comes to influence and inspiration?
I’ve tried both methods, and for me, what works best is read everything, especially in the genre that I’m writing. I used to be afraid that I would accidentally rewrite what I was reading, or that my work wouldn’t be as original or might somehow be contaminated by someone else’s work. But I find exactly the opposite to be true. First of all, you can’t claim to be an artist if you never let yourself be inspired by other artists. Second, you need to know what’s being done in your field. What’s selling? What’s amazing? What’s not so great? Working under a rock is no way to work. Third, even if your plot matches that of a bestseller that you stumble across, chapter for chapter (true story, happened to me once) no one else is going to write it the way you write it. Your voice is uniquely your own, and it’s better to know that book is out there and to be familiar with it than to have your agent school you on it! Trust me on this one. Some of the greatest writers of our time base their novels on classic works or works they admire. The more you dig into your own creative dirt, the more of your own flavor will shine, and in time you will have a completely original piece.
What most excites you about Daughter4254? What should readers be anticipating?
In my wildest dreams, I’m hoping to start a creative revolution, complete with hashtags and bumper stickers and spontaneous works of sidewalk chalk art and impromptu public poetry readings. In reality, I’m extremely pleased with the work Owl Hollow Press did to make this book beautiful on the inside and out. There are all kinds of beautiful touches through the book, the chapter headings, the inside flap. I’m in love with the actual physical copy. I am also excited to share with readers my view of how bad it can get. That probably sounds crazy, but that’s what literature is for, right? To give you a glimpse of what’s possible, be it good or bad. Sometimes you have to look the bad in the face in order to appreciate the good. Make sure to plan a cultural outing as soon as you finish reading. Support your local artists, musicians, and writers. Go see indie films and make a little art yourself. God knows we need it now more than ever.
About the Author
Leigh Statham was raised in the wilds of rural Idaho but found her heart in New York City. She worked at many interesting jobs before settling in as a mother and writer. She now resides in North Carolina with her husband, four children, eight chickens, a fluffy dog, and two suspected serial killer cats. She is pursuing an MFA in Young Adult literature with Converse College and has served South 85 Journal as a Fiction Editor under the name Gwen Holt. She is also the winner of the Southeast Review 2016 Narrative nonfiction prize for her short story, “The Ditch Bank and theFence Line.”
About the Interviewer
Mel Sherrer is a performance poet and teacher living in San Marcos, Texas. She is the Managing Poetry Editor for South 85 Journal.
Featured Image Photo: A crop of the cover of Daughter4254Read More »
Katie Piccirillo Sherman
During this past Converse MFA summer residency, nonfiction mentor Jim Minick asked students to write a letter revealing a secret they’d never told anyone. Minick provided a number of samples, one of which was written by all-star nonfiction student Cinelle Barnes. Cinelle’s “Letter from an Undocumented” was relevant and timely. Thoughtful and heartfelt. Within it, she discussed her time as an undocumented resident and her battle for citizenship. In the interview below, Cinelle talks about that assignment and how it inevitable lead to her memoir, Monsoon Mansion, to be released in 2018.
S85: You’ve mentioned that your letter lead you down the path towards your memoir. How so?
CB: “Letter from an Undocumented” was nominated for the Journal Intro Award in 2013. It didn’t win and was never published, and so I explored what could be done to fix it. With the help of my MFA mentors, Jim Minick and Dan Wakefield, I found that my true writing voice and style were not coming through for “Letter” because there was still much to be hashed out from events preceding my years as a new immigrant. I remember Dan saying, “This isn’t done. It’s not ready to be written because there’s something else that needs to be written.”
At first I thought that writing “Letter” was such a waste of time and emotional energy, but now I understand that it had to happen. Some things you write because they’re meant to be shared publicly; other things you write to get around to the things that are meant for publishing. “Letter” was my jumping off point, and I think every creative nonfiction writer needs one. We’re all tip-toeing around THE story, and we need these little tippy-toes to inch us closer to the heart of memory and meaning.
S85: Surely you had other secrets to tell. It’s likely though that this was the most obvious and the most difficult. What made you take the leap to write about something so personal and impactful?
CB: I was in a safe space. Living as an undocumented makes you feel like you’re always being watched. But in Jim Minick’s nonfiction workshop, I met the kindest, most generous and loving people. I’ve been lucky to be a part of such amazing workshops, from my Converse College MFA group, to my Kundiman and VONA families.
S85: Was there a particular scene within the book that was more difficult than others to write?
CB: Everything was difficult to write. Every chapter involved an event that has led to my having PTSD. It was all also really difficult in that I was trying to push myself artistically in a way that I had never done before. I didn’t want to just write a trauma memoir for the heck of it, to glorify or exploit my most hurtful experiences or violence in general. I had this grand desire of creating art, of making beauty out of my ashes. For that, I had to train myself to think harder, to write descriptors with better precision, to use my training in dance and music to benefit my writing rhythm and cadence.
S85: What advice do you have for students who are also writing about a difficult subject matter?
You’ll be surprised at how many family members will cooperate and want to be interviewed. My father felt so much pride talking about all his experiences. My sister did, too. There were a few topics that were hard to talk about, but after my dad had his stroke, I remember him thanking me for having documented the good and the bad. He could’ve died or lost all his memories, but I had them recorded somewhere. Whenever it was time to get information from him again, I put on my journalist hat and forgot that he was family, that I knew the man. To me, whenever the voice recorder was on and the steno pad was out, I was no longer Cinelle, the daughter, but was Cinelle, the researcher.
S85: For fiction writers, it’s all about revealing a truth within a lie but within creative nonfiction, you’re recounting actual memories. What is the hardest thing about that?
CB: Memory can fail us. I had to do so much research to tell the story fairly and completely: vital records, photos, interviews, history books, newspapers, etc. The research itself was easy. It was in the discovery of what I didn’t already know that I cried the most. It was in the secondary trauma of reliving the darkness that I thought I would break. I had to go into intense therapy while writing the book, and I’m thankful that I did. If for anything, writing Monsoon Mansion has given me the chance to heal from memories I had repressed.
S85: Was there initially a layer of fear that held the writing back? If so, how did you overcome it?
CB: There was some fear but a lot more faith. I am also surrounded by people who never fail to pray for me, send me encouraging messages, and remind me of the power of the written word. Literature is a communal act. A writing mentor from VONA, Elmaz Abinader, once told me, “You can live a quiet life or you can do the work.” I definitely would rather do the work.
S85: You now have a very creative daughter. If you were writing a letter to her, what advice would you have for surviving a tumultuous (and somewhat anti-immigration) administration?
CB: The day Trump was elected, she ran to our bedroom saying, “Who won, Mama?” I remember telling her that he [Trump] did, in fact, win, and that I had cried about it through the night. She asked me what we would do and if we would be okay, and I told her that as long as we knew who we were, and as long as we could express ourselves, we were going to be alright. The day DACA was repealed, I explained to her what it meant for some friends and family members. She asked me what we could do to help them, and I said, “If we have to adopt every one of them, we will.”
I think raising her to have a generous, fearless spirit is the best I can do. To some degree and in a way that is not psychologically damaging, we keep her abreast of the country’s political state. It’s important to trust her intelligence and to ask her what she thinks. That way she’ll always know that her opinion matters. And the next best thing is for me to encourage her writing, drawing, and painting. It’s good for her own mental and emotional health.
About the Author
Cinelle Barnes is a creative non-fiction writer and educator from Manila, Philippines. She writes memoirs and personal essays on trauma, growing up in Southeast Asia, and on being a mother and immigrant in America.
In 2014, she was nominated for the AWP Journal Intro Award for Creative Non-Fiction, and in 2015 received an MFA from Converse College. She was part of the inaugural Kundiman Creative Non-Fiction Intensive in New York City and is an alum of the VONA/Voices workshop for political content writing at the University of Pennsylvania. Barnes was a presenter and panelist on Diversity in Literature at the Creative Writing Studies Organization Conference in 2016 (Warren Wilson College, Asheville, NC).
Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Literary Hub, South85, Skirt!, West Of, Your Life Is A Trip, the Piccolo Spoleto Fiction Series, Itinerant Literate’s StorySlam, and Hub City Press’s online anthology, Multicultural Spartanburg.
About the Interviewer
Katie Sherman is a freelance journalist in Charlotte, NC. She is currently pursing an MFA degree at Converse College. She has an affinity for Southern Gothic literature, cider beer, Chicago, and morning snuggles with her girls — Ella and Addie.
https://youtu.be/aw2WvKWNoq4I RitualMy expectation is to rise
with a Texas dawn ripping my eyes
open like a sweaty Sunday shirt.
I expect the complaints of abused bones
creaking in marriage
I expect the ache of every hour ago.
But then –
The burden of the day unfolds
There are rings of dried coffee
in your abandoned mug
like those of a newly fallen tree
I know how many sips you took this morning
how many steps through the door
before kicking off your shoes
whether you went for the mail
or finger-raked your hair
or if you rushed out –
forgetful and frantic.
I know which thing you forgot.
These are sacred pieces of a story
I’ve loved in re-telling
Each time I grow younger.
You starting your day, in ways
RemainsHow old is the oldest thing we own?
Is it something we’ve collected
Something made by our overlaying hands
an heirloom tucked away, coveted
knick-knack on a bottom shelf
something made of clay or glass?
Is it the memory of a friend – we’ve loved and lost
Is it that ancient between us?
Is it lasting?
What is our dusty relic
which calls to us
Come inside – home.
Whatever it is – left when you’ve gone
a scroll, a scar, a microchip, a pile of dust and ash
leave that to me
Mel Sherrer completed her MFA at Converse College in Spartanburg, South Carolina. She uses her Southern roots and knowledge of sonic aesthetic to create poems which have personal reverence for place, time, and societal evolution. Mel has been performing poetry for more than ten years. She is currently the Managing Poetry Editor for South 85 Journal, and she regularly interviews writers for our blog. She lives in Las Vegas, Nevada, where she is an avid performer, angler, and Nerf collector.
Liz Valvano, bassoon, is beginning her Doctorate of Musical Arts in double reed performance at University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She completed her Masters in Music at Texas State University, woodwind performance under the tutelage of Daris Hale and Dr. Ian Davidson May 2017, and her BA in music and chemistry at Hollins University in May 2015, studying under Danny Felty of the Roanoke Symphony Orchestra. Currently, she performs with the UNLV Symphony Orchestra and Honors Graduate Wind Quintet.
South 85 Journal is launching a YouTube Channel to help us promote contemporary literature. Starting October 9, we will release one video poetry reading a month. To get everyone excited (and to test some features), I created this video announcement:
Now that I have thoroughly embarrassed myself, I’ll return to hiding behind my computer – as long as you will take a moment to make sure you don’t miss any of our readings. You can subscribe to our YouTube Channel or blog or follow us on Facebook or Twitter.
Also, don’t forget to submit poetry, creative non-fiction, fiction, and visual art before November 1 to be considered for our next issue, which comes out December 15, 2017. For more info, visit https://south85.submittable.com/submit.
I look forward to seeing you online!Read More »
Caitlin Hamilton Summie’s short story collection, To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts, was released by Fomite in August. We sat down to talk to her about the writer/promo balance, novels vs. short stories, and the importance of place. Read on!
S85: How do you navigate being both a writer and a promoter?
CH: I have to fit my own writing in to my days, as I always have had to do, whether as a student or a publicist. I make time at night, on weekends, on a lunch hour.
Also, I don’t discuss my writing with my clients, unless they bring it up. Once or twice, I shared an experience I had. But when I’m working, I’m focused on promoting their work, and I keep a division in my mind. That is their time, for their work.
S85: Given your career as a publicist, how does the commercial or critical success of a particular piece impact your personal opinion of the piece and your writing as whole?
CH: Every year, there are beautiful books, small press or big house, which never receive the notice they deserve. It has been that way since the beginning of my career, and it will be that way long after I stop working. There are simply too many books. I am heartened by the wonderful critical reception my own writing has received, and I am glad it has received notice, given the tough fight small press titles have to get any attention. I love my book, and I would love it even if no one had noticed it. I’d have been disappointed in the market and book world if there had been no coverage for it, but I would not have been disappointed in my book.
But having it recognized is wonderful.
S85: In terms of fiction, what would you say are the fundamental differences between a fiction novel and a short story? What makes a great short story?
CH: That’s an interesting question for me because so many of my stories involve decades, whole histories, so for me, short stories don’t have to be a slice of life experience. They can be their own whole worlds. In my writing, it really comes down to length (some of my stories are long) and to finishing the rest of the story. For instance, I write some stories that link, so a novel will allow me to finish these characters’ stories. I am in fact one draft in on a novel-in-stories that includes three stories from my collection.
S85: What encouraged you to delve into writing and compiling your collection of stories To Lay to Rest Our Ghosts; what was the book’s genesis?
CH: The book began 25 years ago, when I was pursuing my MFA. Eight of the ten stories were written back in 1992-1995, then taken out, dusted off, and submitted with some minor edits. The last two stories were started after the program ended but took a long time to write.
Fomite editor Marc Estrin asked in 2015 if I had a collection. I told him thank you but no. It was so cool to be asked, but I didn’t think I had anything. But in June 2016, I submitted a story called SONS that was accepted for publication. After that, I thought, “Why not look?” I pulled out my stories, saw I had ten, and contacted Marc. Ten seemed a solid number of stories to have in a book.
S85: Your stories have a very strong conveyance of location. Do you have any devices or methods for creating that intense rendering of geography and landscape?
CH: Well, I guess the answer is no. I think I am just particularly attuned to weather and landscape, to place, so they become part of how I see things.
S85: Are there books, short story collections in particular, which you are currently reading or have read that inspire you to write?
CH: No, though there are lots of writers in lots of genres I admire. I write because I feel compelled. That is always the way it has been, from when I was very, very little. My mom tells me that I used to bring her scribbles before I knew how to write letters. I would want her to read my stories. So I have been eager to tell stories since the beginning.
S85: Would you say your approach to writing is practical or purely artistic? Under which circumstance do you find your writing most fruitful or closest to your personal vision for your work?
CH: I write when I can, not on a schedule, so I consider myself a Carpe Diem writer. I find a moment or an hour or a few hours, and I go for it. I write whatever I want. Stories, novel, picture book, poems. I recently had a poem published, which was quite exciting. I hadn’t had poetry published since college. But I also give myself time in terms of years. I work, I have kids, I have volunteer responsibilities. It is a delicate balance—pursuing my writing career. I’m not sure when I best achieve my goals, but I believe it is when I trust my instincts and don’t overthink things.
About the Author
Caitlin Hamilton Summie earned an MFA with Distinction from Colorado State University, and her short stories have been published in Beloit Fiction Journal, Wisconsin Review, Puerto del Sol, Mud Season Review, and Long Story, Short. She spent many years in Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Colorado before settling with her family in Knoxville, Tennessee. She co-owns the book marketing firm, Caitlin Hamilton Marketing & Publicity, founded in 2003.
About the Interviewer
Mel Sherrer is a performance poet and teacher living in San Marcos, Texas. She is the Managing Poetry Editor for South 85 Journal.
Featured Image Photo: A crop of the cover of To Lay to Rest Our GhostsRead More »