Anita Felicelli & the Development of the Short Story


By Sarah Luria

Anita Felicelli’s debut short story collection, Love Songs for a Lost Continent hit shelves Oct. 1, 2018, marking the third short story collection from Stillhouse Press and Felicelli’s first foray into full-length adult fiction (she is also the author of the young adult novel Spark Off You, a collection of poetry, and a children’s book). Recently, I spoke with her about how she constructed this wild narrative — replete with elements of the fantastic and recurring characters — and where she draws her inspiration from.

  Love Songs for a Lost Continent  by Anita Felicelli

Love Songs for a Lost Continent by Anita Felicelli

SARAH LURIA: You chose to feature some characters in several different stories throughout this collection, creating a powerful connective tissue that runs throughout the collection. Did you plan for the characters to reappear and change when you set out to write this book, or did that come later? What effect do you think this has on the overall narrative?

ANITA FELICELLI: I didn't have a plan for characters to reappear and change because I wrote a number of these short stories over a period of years without knowing whether they would coalesce into a collection. Every once in a while, I'd realize I wanted to write about a character that had already appeared in another story. For example, “The Logic of Someday” was a story I wrote much earlier than some of the other stories. The protagonist of that story saw her boyfriend's mother, Maisie, in a very specific, negative light. But a few years later, I had questions about Maisie. Until I imagined myself into her life and perspective, I don't think I'd fully thought through how years of poverty might harden a person. That imagining led to “The Art of Losing.” And later I realized that a minor reference in Wild Things was actually to Susannah's son, Jude. I hope that looking at the same characters from different perspectives and at different times allows the collection to feel kaleidoscopic, intuitive, and surprising. I didn't want to create the linear experience that you get from many novels in stories like “A Girl's Guide to Hunting and Fishing,” as enjoyable as I've found such experiences. Rather, I wanted the collection to have an echo of the pleasurable wildness that I often feel in real life, encountering someone from our past who exercises his or her agency, and turns out to be completely differently than what we might have expected.


“I hope that looking at the same characters from different perspectives and at different times allows the collection to feel kaleidoscopic, intuitive, and surprising.”


 Anita Felicelli (Photo By Amy Perl).

Anita Felicelli (Photo By Amy Perl).

SL: Obviously, as an author, you draw inspiration from your own life experiences, but are any of these stories loosely autobiographical, or inspired by actual events?

AF: None of the stories can be described as loosely autobiographical. However, many grew out of an autobiographical seed or actual events I heard about that sparked my imagination. It will probably sound like a weird coincidence, but I've known more than one mother of a son like Drew in “The Logic of Someday” and “The Art of Losing” and what it's like to parent a child with severe ADHD and conduct disorder who deals drugs. Although I'm a mother now, I've also experienced infertility like the narrator in “Rampion.” I've done many, many different kinds of day jobs, including criminal defense work and writing for a hedge fund, and my close encounters in these lines of work color the plots of “The Logic of Someday,” “Once Upon the Great Red Island,” and “Swans and Other Lies.’”

SL: Many of these characters oscillate between extremely hopeful and extremely cynical world-views. What was it like to move back and forth from the darker moments in this collection, and those which feel more uplifting?

AF: I think the radical shifts you notice follow my own train of thought, and my own experience of the world as a place of infinite variety and range—somehow both absurdly wonderful and deeply horrible at the same time.

SL: Several of your stories, like “Deception” and “Rampion” ring with a sort of mythical, adult retelling of a childhood fantasy story. What fantasy stories were most influential to you as a child, and did any of them serve as inspiration for the stories in this book? How did you come to embrace the magical or fantastic in your writing?

AF: I was a voracious reader of fantasy and magical stories as a child—it's cool you picked up on that. I loved Madeleine L'Engle's time series: A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door, and A Swiftly Tilting Planet. Other early favorites were The Chronicles of Narnia, the Andrew Lang fairytale books, Zilpha Keatley Snyder's books that toggled between realistic stories about make-believe and full-on fantasy, Lloyd Alexander's The Chronicles of Prydain, and the Amar Chitra Katha comic books that retold Hindu epics and myths. “Rampion” is a retelling of Rapunzel from the witch's point of view. “Deception,” about a young woman who marries a tiger, is partly based on a folktale similar to Beauty and the Beast that appears in multiple regions of India in different forms. “Once Upon the Great Red Island” is partly based on Malagasy folklore.

I'd written in a barebones minimalist style about subtly strange events or characters as far back as high school. A lot of the American writers I was reading back then were influenced by Raymond Carver and John Cheever and so I thought you had to carve the writing down for it to be “good.” As an English major, I'd focused on British literature, however—Shakespearean plays, Tristam Shandy, Wuthering Heights, The Mill on the Floss, Vanity Fair, Bleak House, and Sense and Sensibility. I always assumed that was the kind of fully realized fiction weighted towards the real, but playing with form or coincidence, that I might one day write. I came to embrace the fantastic again after becoming a recluse due to a devastating, disabling event in my late twenties. I didn't think I would ever recover from what had happened to me. Outside of my day job, I barely interacted with other humans, and instead for almost six years, I spent my free time hanging out with my two corgis and reading from the read-lists that my now-spouse Steven emailed to me from afar. These were lists populated with authors like Adolfo Bioy Casares, Silvina O'Campo, Victor Pelevin, Italo Calvino, Franz Kafka, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Bohumil Hrabal. I later discovered Helen Oyeyemi's and Kelly Link's fiction. Reading these masterful magic realist authors from all over the world made me realize that writing further into the realm of the fantastic didn't have to satisfy an escapist impulse, but was more like digging into a deeper reality.


“Reading these masterful magic realist authors from all over the
world made me realize that writing further into the realm of the
fantastic didn't have to satisfy an escapist impulse, but was more
like digging into a deeper reality.”


SL: Your stories offer many different characters, with varying points of view. What kind of audience do you think this collection might most appeal to?

AF: My hope is to appeal to open-minded readers who genuinely value pluralism and the full possibilities of the imagination. Hopefully that doesn't sound ridiculous.

SL: One of my favorite lines from this book is: “Something about the hungry way he was looking at her from under his long lashes made her feel like he was drinking her down.” You write passion so well. What advice do you have for aspiring writer looking to write compelling, realistic romance stories/scenes?

AF: I try to come at passion a little slant. Whenever something is erotic, I find that there are a lot of other complicating feelings there, too. Often those are feelings that might challenge a cohesive sense of self. So, I try to reveal vulnerability or humor or even the slightly dangerous feeling of an erotic encounter rather than present a conventional wine-and-roses romance. When I do hit more in the wine-and-roses register, I try to subvert that energy through later plot points.

SL: Your last book, Sparks Off You, was a YA novel—obviously quite different from this collection in both tone and structure. What were some of the major differences in language, story development, and character that you see between writing YA and adult fiction?

AF: There's a quote by Madeleine L'Engle: “You have to write the book that wants to be written. And if the book will be too difficult for grown-ups, then you write it for children.” I'd originally planned Sparks Off You to be an adult novel about teenage characters, in the vein of Ian McEwan's The Cement Garden or J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, but many drafts later I realized it was YA-like, possibly because I was 24 when I first believed I'd completed it, and my teenage years weren't very far behind me. The prose in Sparks was poetic, sometimes purple, but over the years, I trained that out of my prose voice because I came to believe it distracted from the story. My dear college roommate is a commercial YA author, and I think the bigger difference between our approaches is not the YA-adult audience divide, but that she is very focused on story and plot, and I'm focused on language.

As for character, although there are gigantic differences between my life and the artist protagonist in Sparks (my mother is alive, for instance), I gave that protagonist my personality and perceptions. In contrast, I've never written a character in adult literary fiction who is consciously based on me. The older I get, the more I believe that other people are much more interesting than I am.

SL: Lastly, your book deals a lot with the tangled relationship between identity and the lives we live. Looking back on yourself as an early writer, what writing advice might you give to a younger Anita Felicelli?

AF: Oh, this is a difficult one. I was just at my parent's house and stumbled across a middle school literary magazine for which I served as fiction editor, and read three of my poems in it. I was an extremely sensitive teenager with a dark mind, but the one thing that got me through adolescence was that I had been absolutely certain from the age of five that I could be a fiction writer as an adult. So, I wouldn't want to disrupt that huge, early confidence in my identity as a writer. I think it would have shocked me to know how long and how hard I would work as a fiction writer over the next decades. I didn't understand that a creative path is much, much harder to achieve anything in than a law job or corporate job is, perhaps especially for people of color who have an unusual perception of the mainstream culture and are actively trying to make a space for their perceptions that doesn't exist already. One story I wrote in a college workshop, “Wild Things” didn't find a home in the '90s, but a few years ago, a revised version found a home with a journal that didn't even exist when I'd written the first draft. So, I think my advice to young Anita Mohan would be to hold onto that confidence in your work—believing that your fiction is important when nobody else does is what allows you to persist through the weird looks, the lack of interest, and the pitying or discouraging remarks from those who are on more straightforward paths. I was raised in a home where external validation was very important. I used to feel really deflated by rejection letters even if they were handwritten and included praise and it would take me a little while to recover and steel myself up to submit again in spite of my cocky, outsize belief in myself... I'd advise Anita Mohan to place less value on external validation and submit more frequently. With very frequent rejection, a thicker skin naturally grows and your odds of being accepted increase.


“With very frequent rejection, a thicker skin naturally grows and your odds of being accepted increase.”


sarah.jpg

Sarah Luria is a sophomore at George Mason University.
She is majoring in English, with concentrations in Linguistics and Writing and Rhetoric. She likes to write screenplays and the occasional poem, and is most inspired by writers like David Foster Wallace, E.E. Cummings, and Anne Sexton.
Hoping to pursue a career in book editing, she is inspired by
an editor's ability to shape a book into something amazing.

A Conversation With Anne Panning


By Sean van der Heijden 

 Anne Panning (Photo By Michele Ashlee)

Anne Panning (Photo By Michele Ashlee)

Anne Panning is the author of a bold and brilliant memoir out today from Stillhouse Press. Dragonfly Notes: On Distance and Loss dives deep into the sudden loss of her mother, becoming a moving portrait of loss, love, and what it means to be a family. I sat down with Anne to talk about her writing process, what dragonflies mean to her, and more.

SEAN VAN DER HEIJDEN: There are so many signs throughout the book that seem to be from your mother. It built a wonderful tension between the idea that “everything happens for a reason,” and this terrible tragedy that is difficult to fit into that mantra. I would love to hear your thoughts on this duality. Which side do you tend to lean towards now? How did the loss of your mother challenge your belief that there is a reason behind everything? 

ANNE PANNING: I am, at heart, a hardcore realist. I’m normally quite skeptical and leery of anything that cannot be proven. But grief has softened me a lot, made me open to things far beyond me, and for that I’m glad. When I found an old-fashioned sewing book right in the middle of the sidewalk after my mom died, I knew it was a sign. And after things like that kept happening, I began to accept these signs as gifts. I think they happen a lot right after someone dies. They’ve slowed down over the years, but they still happen for me randomly. This past year on Mother’s Day, a book my mom had given me fell right off the shelf in front of me. How could that not be a sign?  The other parts of the memoir, though—the medical parts—are where I kept to hard facts and science, so I like to think there’s a balance there.  

SV: It’s common for memoirs to not use dialogue as much as novels. The same is true here, and yet your dialogue is so realistic that it puts us right in the scene with you. When and how did you decide to use dialogue over prose? 

AP: I think my background and training as a fiction writer has made me especially fond of dialogue. Dialogue makes things clip along in a dynamic way that straight narration cannot. Also, so much of being Minnesotan involves not really saying what you want to say but hoping other people will understand anyway, so dialogue is particularly compelling to me when I write scenes set in Minnesota. It’s all about intensely nuanced, subtle subtext. Also, I consider dialogue as part of setting in that it helps give readers the true flavor of a place.   

SV: There is a lot of wry humor in here. For example: the “skeptical” rooster that you find and put on display. How did you choose to balance the humor with some of the more serious topics in the book? 

AP: I’m so glad you said that because one of my main goals when writing this memoir was to plunge into a lot of the dark humor my family is prone to. So many grief memoirs I read after my mom died were wonderful and beautiful but never hit on the dark underside of humor that rides beneath most tragedy. My family is funny. They’re quirky, sarcastic, no-bullshit people who can find the weird humor in almost anything. The grave-digging scene was something I worried might be too dark, but I included it because it really illustrates how our family faces hardship.  

SV: I was fascinated by the format of your book. It seems both a collection of essays and a continuous memoir at the same time. Each chapter could stand wonderfully on its own, and yet together they weave a beautiful tapestry of everything that you and your family went through. I would love to hear your thoughts on how you formatted and structured everything. 

 "Dragonfly Notes" is available now from Stillhouse Press.

"Dragonfly Notes" is available now from Stillhouse Press.

AP: Putting this book together, structurally, was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done as a writer. I can’t tell you how many times I spread the sections all over the floor of my study, trying to find patterns that made sense while also creating suspense and tension about my mom’s health issues. Whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, you have to give readers a reason to turn pages or they’ll simply stop reading. In the book, you know right away that my mom died, but what I tried to do was pull readers along to find out how she died, how everything went so wrong so many times over. Eventually I started to see three strands of a braid emerging: 1) my mom’s health issues and eventual death; 2) the many surprising things I learned about my mom after she died via her mementoes, letters, and journals; and 3) my own life and landscape as a parent negotiating my way through grief, from afar. At first I had the sections numbered, like chapters, but during final revisions, I gave each section/chapter a title, which I think makes it feel, as you said, like both an essay collection and a memoir.  

SV: A lot of the imagery here is based in the past—photos, letters, memories, etc. While this is common after a loss, often so many flashbacks are difficult to pull off in literature. How did you choose to balance the past and the present? 

AP: I think grief, in and of itself, is one big giant flashback. All the things you miss, all the memories of the good and bad times, the way the person laughed or teased or talked. In this book, though, a big part of the story was discovering who my mother really was, not just as a parent, but as a young woman, a student, a daughter, a friend, a newlywed. I felt like all the boxes of memorabilia she left behind became a puzzle that I tried to piece together. There are admittedly pieces missing, and I can’t tell you how many times I wanted to pick up the phone and ask her questions while I was writing this book. That’s part of what I love about creative nonfiction: the opportunity to imagine into the past, present and future by using “maybe,” “I wonder,” or “perhaps.”  


"Most of a dragonfly’s life is spent as an underwater nymph, small and drab, hidden from all the beauty above water. That hit me hard.  I suppose if you really break it down, dragonflies symbolize the fleeting nature of our lives, how temporary yet beautiful our time is here on earth."


SV: Dragonflies are obviously an important symbol in your book. Could you speak a little bit more about how you started associating them with your mother? What other importance do they hold to you? 

AP: Years ago, when my Aunt Sandy died, my mom’s sister, there were a lot of dragonfly connections surrounding her death. It became part of our collective family story, and so when my mom died, the same thing began happening. I ended up doing voluminous research on dragonflies, to help me contextualize this symbol in the book. One of the most surprising things I learned is that when you see a dragonfly in all its full, colorful, splendid glory, it’s at the very end of its life cycle and facing death within a week or two. Most of a dragonfly’s life is spent as an underwater nymph, small and drab, hidden from all the beauty above water. That hit me hard.  I suppose if you really break it down, dragonflies symbolize the fleeting nature of our lives, how temporary yet beautiful our time is here on earth.  

SV: The subtitle of your memoir is “On Distance and Loss.” Could you expand more on how the physical and emotional distance between you and your mother evolved following her passing? 

AP: As soon as I graduated from high school at age seventeen, I left my hometown and never lived there again. After that, I moved to places not just far away, but sometimes oceans and continents away: The Philippines, Vietnam, Hawaii. I had never traveled as a child, and felt I had so much time to make up for. But after a while, I started to understand there was a great cost to that kind of distance. I missed a lot of important, key moments in my family’s lives. I became a separate entity from them, a satellite orbiting around them but not with them. Now that I’m a parent, I can see how hard this must’ve been for my mom. She was a homebody who was happiest when we were all around. I always figured I’d have more time to spend with her later, trips I might squeeze in when I wasn’t so busy, when the kids were older, when things were calmer. It’s painful to think that I was living all the way in Vietnam during the months right before her death—all that time lost that I could’ve spent with her, if only I had known.  

SV: On a similar note, what would you say to people who are experiencing a similar loss to that of your own? 

AP: Know that people, even people who love you dearly, will forget about your loss pretty quickly. It’s just the nature of life, especially for those who haven’t lost someone near and dear to them. Try not to be hurt by this, even though it can feel lonely. I think people are a little afraid of someone who’s experienced great loss. They want to support you but they really don’t know what to do or say. Grief, therefore, becomes a private affair. Let yourself suffer and cry and do as little as possible for as long as you need. After my mom died, there were days when I would lie rolled up in the quilt she made me for my wedding and just stare out the window for hours.   

SV: Location plays an important role in your book, aside from just separating you from a lot of your family. You’ve spent a lot of time in both the Midwest and Upstate New York. How have these locations shaped you as a person and a writer? 

AP: I’ve always considered Minnesota my true home. Even though I haven’t lived there for decades, Minnesota lives in me on an emotional, visceral level—the buttery light, the creamy hotdishes and pan-fried sunfish, the utter no-nonsense quality of the people. There’s a humility and kindness to the Midwest I haven’t found elsewhere. Even though I’ve lived in Upstate New York for twenty-one years, it still doesn’t hit me on a deep-down writing level very often. I think that’s always going to be Minnesota for me. 

SV: A lot of your chapters, including the very first one, end in mini cliffhangers of sorts. In just one line, you can take such a sharp turn and startle with your subtle, emotional impact. A lot of writers find ending chapters and books to be the most difficult part. How do more impactful endings factor into your book and your writing process? How did you decide on what would be the last lines? 

AP: I think part of that “mini cliffhanger” technique you mentioned comes from writing a lot of flash nonfiction for magazines like Brevity and River Teeth, which are both in the 750-word range. I love the challenge of that much compression and story in so little space. I think writing in flash form helped me write endings that are short and concise but that in a larger manuscript can serve as springboards to the next section while still providing closure to the previous one.   


"My hope is that after reading my book, people might become more cautious about trying new ‘amazing’ medical procedures right after they come on the market. Wait. Research. Proceed slowly. Get second opinions."


SV: Your memoir raises awareness of the dangers of the surgery that your mother went through. Do you know if it is still being performed today? What else would you like people to know about it? 

AP: Shortly after my mom’s death, the mesh product used in her surgery was taken off the market. At this point, there are class-action lawsuits popping up all over the place about it. One of the things I learned during this whole, horrible ordeal was that medical devices don’t have the same stringent, long-term testing requirements that medications do. There are loopholes for getting a product fast-tracked with little to no studies done. If I let myself think about this too much, I still get very angry, so I try to let it go. My hope is that after reading my book, people might become more cautious about trying new “amazing” medical procedures right after they come on the market. Wait. Research. Proceed slowly. Get second opinions. 

SV: Last one! Stillhouse is honored to add your memoir to our collection of intimate, daring books by fantastic authors! What made you go with a small, independent press?  

 Panning and Stillhouse Director of Media & Marketing, Meghan McNamara at AWP 2017 in Tampa, FL.

Panning and Stillhouse Director of Media & Marketing, Meghan McNamara at AWP 2017 in Tampa, FL.

AP: All my books have been published by small presses, and I couldn’t be happier about that.  Being published by a small press is like gaining a lifelong friendship. I love the intimate, personal way I’m treated, and how small presses welcome writers’ input at every step of the process. In the short time I’ve worked with Stillhouse Press, I’ve gotten to know a wonderful web of writers, editors, artists and students who have made me feel welcome and valued. Also, small presses champion all their books because their lists aren’t so overwhelmingly long; they also keep your books in print long after any commercial press would. Because they aren’t driven and pressured by the need to make huge corporate profits, they often take on books that don’t fall easily in the mainstream, whether it be content or form. For me, it’s absolutely been the way to go. 


Sean_portrait (1).jpg


Sean van der Heijden is pursuing his MFA in Creative Writing at George Mason University, where he focuses on short stories and is currently working on a novel.
When he’s not reading or writing, he likes to watch movies, travel to as many places as possible, and obsessively stop to take photos of nature.

So you have a manuscript...

by Stefan Lopez


What does Stillhouse Press look for in a manuscript? What’s the common thread running through space age romance, paternal combustion, plantation poetry, and disability care reform?  

“We want something unpredictable, bringing a new experience to the table.”  


In celebration of four productive years of publishing, we’re releasing a series of interviews with members of Stillhouse Press, from submissions and acquisition, from cover design to release, all to shine a light on the publication process.  

Aryelle Young is Stillhouse Press’ current submissions editor, and one of the first to have a say about what gets published. She works with all the submissions, assigning them to teams of readers, reading through reader reviews, going back to the manuscripts themselves, and sending promising pieces up the editorial ladder. 

Marcos L. Martínez is the next link in the manuscript chain. An alumnus of George Mason University’s MFA Creative Writing program, Martínez is one of the founding members of Stillhouse Press, and serves as the acquisitions editor. 

Choosing a manuscript is a daunting task. Even small publishers get a sizeable amount of submissions. “We had contest submissions open for a couple hours, and we got five manuscripts in that time alone. I haven’t been here that long but I’d guess that we get well over a hundred manuscripts a year,” says Young. 

It’s an especially formidable number, when considering that Stillhouse publishes an average of two titles annually. The judging process must therefore be thorough.  

 “A lot of what I’m doing right now is outreach at things like conferences and readings, to keep an eye on authors we are interested in. I also work with our other editors on manuscripts that we think have potential,” Martínez says of his role. 

Each manuscript sees multiple rounds of vetting from teams of volunteer readers—largely sources from George Mason’s MFA , BFA, and English programs—who read the manuscripts on a deadline, give each one an individual score, and then discuss the assigned manuscripts together, comparing reactions.  


For prose, Stillhouse asks its readers to look for the classic staples of good writing, such as dynamic characters, interesting subject matter, and powerful language. The factor they most heavily weigh is the author’s competence and voice: “We look for strength of writing and a good clear voice,” Young says. “A few mistakes aren’t a big deal as long as we can see a writer’s vision coming through in the manuscript.”   

“Strong voice can mean a variety of things,” says Martínez. “Think of it as having a distinct personality and a unique sense of writing. A narrative that’s distinct or unique, or a unique type of storytelling, like hybrid works.”  

He uses Mark Polanzak’s POP! as an example: “What really fascinated us was that it was a memoir that included moments that were obviously fiction. The opening was really eye-catching. Polanzak’s father disappears in a literal puff of smoke.”  


As for Poetry, Stillhouse wants something that can’t be easily fit into a simple stylistic label.  

“We’re looking for something that pushes the envelope, not just transcendentalism or romanticism or love poetry," Young says. At the same time, it can’t be completely divorced from developments in the wider world of poetry. Quite the opposite: “We want something that’s part of the contemporary conversation.”   

“Our most recent poetry publication, [Carmen Gillespie's] The Ghosts of Monticello was actually submitted in our nonfiction contest,” says Martínez.  

Once Aryelle and her team find a prospective manuscript, it is then opened up for discussion by all of Stillhouse’s editors.  

“Generally, we all get together at a big table. We talk about what we think are the manuscript’s pros and cons. Does it fit our vision? What kind of marketability does it have? What are some of the challenges does it present? The decision to publish has always been unanimous,” says Young. 

Even after the unanimous vote is received, the process is not over. A proposal is sent to board members. 

"If they give the okay, we talk to the author and see if they’re willing to work with us."  

It’s a complex process, which takes plenty of time and effort, and according to Martínez, “in the best circumstances, the timeframe from submission to acquisition takes six to 12 months. From acquisition to publishing it takes, at the very least, a year.”  


So what should prospective authors aim for? 

Aside from writing well, don’t put too much in the cover letter. “It isn’t a make or break factor.” Young says, “The shorter and more concise it is, the more likely it’ll make an impact. Don’t take the mystery out of reading your manuscript. We want it to grab us as we read, not have it laid out before we even start.“ 

Martínez suggests expanding your efforts outside of your writing. “It’s really important for authors to engage with their community, and find a base with other authors and peers… Often we write in isolation, and that’s an important process, but you need to build a network of people already interested in your work.”  

In the end, they both suggest patience and perseverance. “The publishing process normally takes a long time. Just because you didn’t get a response, or got rejected, doesn’t necessarily mean that your work is bad. Keep writing, and keep submitting.”  

"Keep writing, and keep submitting."


stefan headshot 1a.jpg

 

 

 

Stefan Lopez has an internship with Stillhouse Press,
a Bachelor’s Degree in English from George Mason University,
and a head full of empty.

Hope, Grit, and Resilience: The Inspiration Behind Dan Tomasulos' American Snake Pit

By Tyrell Jordan

 "American Snake Pit" will be released May 1 by Stillhouse Press. 

"American Snake Pit" will be released May 1 by Stillhouse Press. 

Daniel Tomasulo is a man of many degrees, from his MFA in creative writing—which helped him write his way through his forthcoming memoir, American Snake Pit —to his work in the field of positive psychology. 

But while his knowledge and experiece are captivating, it’s the stories of his patients that show the true value of his work. 

I was nervous at the start of our phone call, but the tone of Tomasulo’s voice is friendly and warm, and my feeling quickly changed. He is, after all, a psychologist by trade. His job involves setting people at ease. 

American Snake Pit is the story of the disregarded souls who ended up in his care after Staten Island's Willowbrook State School for people with intellectual disabilities closed its doors for good in 1987. The book details his struggle to give voices to those who could not advocate for themselves.


Tomasulo’s voice is friendly and warm... He is, after all, a psychologist by trade. His job involves setting people at ease. 


I was curious about who he would like to meet with again, if he had the chance.

"Jake," he answered easily.

Jake was an austistic savant, who Tomasulo worked with during his time at Walden House, an experimental, community-based home for the intellectually and mentally handicapped that he helped established in the 1980s, and one of the first of its kind. Jake's ability to memorize information systems—most notably the Manhattan phone book—and recall it from memory at will made his intellectual disabilities difficult for the state to classify. 

“He was fascinating person," Tomasulo told me. "He had many abilities, as well as disabilities."

The way he described Jake made it seem like his disabilities, while handicaps, were also the underlying foundation for his remarkable abilities.  

Tomasulo’s purpose for writing this book is something I haven’t encountered with other authors: “I’d like [people] to have more compassion for [those] with disabilities… and to have more hope in their own lives,” he said. “I’d want people to realize that despite the situation, the people of Willowbrook have lived meaningful lives. They are exemplars of hope—and inspiration for us all.” 

This compassion and understanding is the driving force behind his work—giving a voice to those who otherwise did not have the ability to tell their stories. 

“Unlike the Women's Liberation Movement, or the Vietnam War, or the Civil Rights Movement, this group didn’t have an author," he said. "This became my mission—to help tell their story.”  


Unlike the Women's Liberation Movement, or the Vietnam War, or the Civil Rights Movement, this group didn’t have an author. This became my mission —
to help tell their story. 


But Tomasulo couldn’t tell his patients’ stories without first telling his own. While Walden House helped save many living with severe handicaps from a life of institutionalization, in many ways, it also saved Tomasulo, giving his early life as a psychologist its focus. 

 Tomasulo, reading from his collection in early March at The Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference in Tampa, Fl.

Tomasulo, reading from his collection in early March at The Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference in Tampa, Fl.

As a writer myself, I have chapters of my novel that I enjoyed writing, and those that were difficult for me to write. This was true for Tomasulo, as well. 

“The chapter on my moving into the boarding house was difficult because it was the end of my relationship and I had run out of money—a very low spot in my life,” he said. “But maybe because of the difficulty, it was also the chapter that had the most humor.” 

It took him the better part of ten years to write his reflection on his time at Walden House, but while some of it was painful, much of his writing is infused with humor. “The chapter back with Jake was really fun to write because I was able to recall all of his antics,” Tomasulo said. 

He acknowledges that helping people communicate beyond their disabilities takes a certain resilience of spirit, and he hopes that’s something more people will understand by reading his memoir. 

“I’d like [people] to have more compassion for people with disabilities—especially with intellectual and psychological disabilities,” he told me. 

Thirty years after the closure of Willowbrook State School, there is still much the general public doesn’t understand about the treatment of those with severe intellectual disabilities, but Tomasulo’s American Snake Pit is a step in the right direction. 


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Tyrell Jordan is a freshman at George Mason University,
seeking his BFA in Creative Writing. He has written a novel and is currently at work on its sequel, both of which he hopes to have published.

Questioning the Past: An Interview with Carmen Gillespie

By Caitlin Herron

 Carmen Gillespie’s  The Ghosts of Monticello , the third book of poetry from Stillhouse Press.

Carmen Gillespie’s The Ghosts of Monticello, the third book of poetry from Stillhouse Press.

Carmen Gillespie gladly finds time to discuss the importance of questions and [re]creation of historical figures. These ideas are central to the evolution of her latest poetry collection, "The Ghosts of Monticello: A Recitatif" (October 2017), winner of Stillhouse Press' 2016 Poetry Contest.

Despite a busy week taking care of her 10-year-old and the close of George Mason's annual Fall for the Book festival, Gillespie found some time to speak with me about her inspiration for her new book and what brought her to this moment in her writing career.

Although she has always written poetry, and can’t imagine her life without it, Gillespie says her love of the form has been deeply intertwined with her academic pursuits over the last 15 years. “In academics, I tend to focus on black female writers. There is so much that is still covered that needs to be excavated,” says Gillespie, English professor and director of the Griot Institute of Africana Studies at Bucknell University and the author of several books of poetry and critical works.  

Part of what motivates her work in both poetry and Africana studies are questions, she says. “Sometimes poetry and academics have the same questions but not the same answers, and sometimes poetry is more effective at answering them.” 

This was certainly the case while attempting to answer some of the central inquiries about the life of Sally Hemings, Thomas Jefferson, Martha Jefferson, and others featured in her collection. Primarily, Gillespie wanted to explore the idea of whether or not Hemings had any agency in her story, especially in her relationship with Jefferson, the third president of the United States, with whom Hemings was thought to have had six children. “I can’t believe that every encounter she had with Jefferson was about violence. My understanding of human beings is much more complicated than that, so that is what I wanted to explore,” Gillespie explains.

 Stillhouse authors Douglas R. Dechow, Carmen Gillespie, and Anna Leahy, with Acquisitions Editor, Marcos L. Martínez at George Mason University's 2017 Fall for the Book festival. 

Stillhouse authors Douglas R. Dechow, Carmen Gillespie, and Anna Leahy, with Acquisitions Editor, Marcos L. Martínez at George Mason University's 2017 Fall for the Book festival. 

But she did not stop with Jefferson. Gillespie also wanted to expand upon what Hemings' relationships might have been like with others on the plantation, given her position as both a slave and the lover of such a powerful character. “So many people have said so much about Jefferson, but it was interesting to me to focus on her other relationships with her mother, Martha Jefferson, and her half sister, and how that dynamic would work if they were to have a conversation,” says Gillespie.

She sees her collection as a dynamic story, and one which she hopes “makes the link between our contemporary situation and the paradoxes of the past.”

Interestingly, this questioning of the past in Gillespie's collection is formed by language that was originally written to be sung on-stage. "The Ghosts of Monticello" got its beginning as a libretto for an opera performed at Bucknell University, where Gillespie enjoyed engaging with the actors and musicians. “I am inspired, energized, and sustained by theater, dance, and music performances,” she says, noting that when composing something for people to sing versus developing the structure of a collection, the writing can be quite different. 

For those thinking about writing fictionally or poetically about history, Gillespie offers some choice advice. First, she says, research is critical. “If you are going to write about something that actually happened, it is really important to know your subject well... People are often afraid to do that research, and think it will inhibit the imaginative experience, but I don't find that to be the case.” Second, she emphasizes how important it is to be “an observer of human experience and understand how people interact.” Says Gillespie, “Ask the questions: what does it mean to experience grief or lose a child? Once you start thinking about these things, the characters speak to you rather than you having to create them.”

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Caitlin Herron is the events intern for Stillhouse Press.
She will graduate with a BA in Writing and Rhetoric in December 2017.  
She also works part time in Parks and Recreation for Fairfax County.