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.

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. 


tyrell.JPG

 

 

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.

The Road Less Traveled: a Visit With Porochista Khakpour

by Leslie Goetsch

Khakpour currently lives in New York, where she is Writer in Residence at Bard College.

Khakpour currently lives in New York, where she is Writer in Residence at Bard College.

Born in Tehran and raised in California, the enigmatic and seemingly enchanted Porochista Khakpour has crossed the country and beyond in pursuit of the writing life. As she says in her essay, “My Life in the New Age” (Virginia Quarterly Review, Summer 2016), “I always liked the road less traveled.” One of Khakpour’s latest stops was Fall for the Book’s New Leaves Writer’s Conference March 21, where she spent the day and night as a visiting writer.   

The Last Illusion , Bloomsbury, 2014

The Last Illusion, Bloomsbury, 2014

Khakpour kicked off the first day of the conference with a reading from her latest novel, The Last Illusion (Bloomsbury, 2014). She began her reading with a discussion about the medieval Persian epic, the Shahnameh, which serves as the inspiration for The Last Illusion. Khakpour’s retelling of the legend centers on the character Zal, a child of the “wrong color,” whose mother raises him in a cage, along with her other “darlings,” birds. These two passages from Khakpour’s novel demonstrate her range as a writer. The first offers a daring, poignant scene in which Zal is cursed by his suicidal mother; the second a humorous view of Zal as he approaches adulthood in early 2000’s New York, where he takes a job at a pet store and falls in love with a canary.  (Zal’s story is also the inspiration behind the three striking feathers tattooed on Khakpour’s right hand and wrist, and although she makes it clear her mother would prefer the tattoo removed, it’s hard to imagine her without this physical reminder of how writing has directed her life.)

As part of her visit, Khakpour also spent time conferencing with MFA students about their work, offering suggestions and a personalized reading list, as well as advice on how to navigate the writing world. Despite battling a recurrence of Lyme Disease (precipitated by a car accident late last year), Khakpour’s energy never flagged. She was funny, smart, nurturing, and constructive as she discussed her writing, assuring students that there is, in fact, a life after the MFA and opened herself up to questions.

Porochista Khakpour appears 3 in from the left; Leslie Goetsch appears 3 in from the right.

Porochista Khakpour appears 3 in from the left; Leslie Goetsch appears 3 in from the right.

Khakpour’s struggle with illness is the subject of her next book, Sick (forthcoming in 2017). Sick is a real-time recount of Khakpour’s ongoing struggle with Lyme Disease, including her difficulty finding a diagnosis, exploring treatment options, and her determination not to let the physical symptoms of the disease interfere with her writing career.  While she has published many nonfiction essays and reviews, this will be her first full-length nonfiction work. During a question and answer session with the author, Khakpour explained that she first became interested in the project because she felt her experience could help others suffering from the disease. Interestingly enough, Khakpour says she originally wanted to publish a pamphlet that could be distributed to hospitals and doctors’ offices, though her publisher inspired her to turn her reflections into a memoir.

The subject and style of Sick are a significant departure from the magical, moving fiction of The Last Illusion, but as her reading at George Mason revealed, Khakpour is a storyteller whose spirit and insight marks all of her writing. There is little doubt that when the memoir debuts next year, it will make for a powerful and affecting read, and greatly add to the ongoing conversation about Lyme-related illness.


Leslie Goetsch is an MFA student at George Mason University. She is the author of Back Creek (Bancroft Press, 2008), a coming of age novel set in rural Virginia.


 

The "Process" of Grief: POP!

By Mark Polanzak, author of Stillhouse Press' first memoir, POP!

Drag Me to Hell  (2009)

Drag Me to Hell (2009)

If you've seen Sam Raimi’s comedy-horror film Drag Me to Hell, you'll understand my writing and grieving process pretty well. The main character, Christine, finds herself cursed and goes to a medium for help. The medium channels the dark spirit haunting her into a goat in order to slaughter it and rid Christine of the curse. There are parallels between Raimi’s film and my father’s death, and subsequently my writing about it years later. But although there is a proper process for channeling spirits, there isn’t a prescribed path for grieving. And instead of a goat, there’s my first book, POP!.

As a bereaved seventeen-year-old, I didn’t want to go through the grieving process. Not because I didn’t want to admit that I had lost my dad—though that was in there—but because it seemed really, really difficult and complicated. I didn’t want to cross the Rubicon that separates blissful teenage naivety and experienced young adulthood. I was having enough trouble learning the mitosis cycle and how cosine waves worked; I would surely botch the task of grief. But of course you can’t refuse to grieve. It’s autonomic.

One important thing I learned about grief is that there is no standard process. You can’t do it wrong. The order of grief operations we’ve all heard about—denial, anger, acceptance, and stuff—isn’t real. The person who conceived of it flat out made it up. But I didn’t know this between the ages of 17 and 21, which messed me up. I thought there was a right way to grieve, and so my sadness and sacredness and confusion and anxiety—all coming at me out of order and without warning—were compounded by a sense of self-castigation that I wasn’t doing it right, wasn’t being serious and dedicated enough to the process of grieving. I had no control over any of it. It owned me.

POP!,  Stillhouse Press, March 2016

POP!, Stillhouse Press, March 2016

The process of writing my very personal, if-not-exactly-memoir, POP! mirrors my discoveries along the path of grief. After two years of writing fabulist, fantastical, magically realist, and absurdist short stories in my MFA program at the University of Arizona, I thought it was time to write a magical, fantastical novel. It seemed really, really hard, but I did it anyway. I began a book (it was about a stick figure). And pretty quickly, I hit an enormous problem in the story (big shock—the character was flat). I abandoned it after a year. I concluded that I was not ready to write a book, not there yet. So, I stopped trying.

I thought that there was a certain way a book was supposed to look sound, arc, unfold, and there was a way a writer wrote a book—through diligence every single day, working through scenes, developing characters, constructing plot and making the setting just so—I knew I couldn’t be working on a book when I began, at first haphazardly, writing what would become POP!. I wrote unlinked vignettes in a notebook, wrote a scene four different ways, drew characters and then redrew them, stuck them where they didn’t belong, and never gave a thought to the elements that I believed all real books needed.

But that’s just it: there is no proper way to write a book. These vignettes, fragments, character morphs, and all the rest eventually presented themselves as parts of a single organism that was steadily growing together. The pieces I had simply thought of as good practice for a big project began to come together, to brush up against one another, until one day there was a whole. The ending scene reached back and connected to the beginning. I had done it without really knowing it. I had written a book.

The book is about my father’s death, its many meanings and effects on me as a son and a writer, and on my mom and my brother. Yet I was never sad while writing it; I was in the medium’s trance. I was excited and energized to be writing something personal, something that broke the rules of how I felt I was supposed to write. I am sad now when I read sections of POP!. I channeled my grief into the book. It no longer possesses me. I can kill the goat or keep it.


Mark Polanzak is the author of the forthcoming hybrid memoir, POP! (Stillhouse Press, 2016) and several short stories. Despite his conclusion that there are no rules in grieving or writing, he is currently writing a fictional rule book on etiquette. Read more about Polanzak here.

Source: http://www.stillhousepress.org/pop

Writing From a Place of Understanding

By Linda Prather

“Who is the crafted person on the page? Is that person as well-rounded as the narrator? What is the intention of this piece?” Rachel Louise Snyder asked fellow writers last week during the second installment of George Mason University’s Visiting Writers’ spring workshop. Snyder, a recently tenured professor of Literature at American University, focused on the craft of the personal narrative and crucial concepts for memoir writing, specifically dual narration and intention, during her April 16 workshop.

Source: American University Faculty Pages

Source: American University Faculty Pages

Snyder, who also works as journalist and has traveled extensively, often explores themes such as struggle, survival and social justice in her writing. She writes both fiction and nonfiction and is the author of two books, What We’ve Lost is Nothing (Scribner 2014) and Fugitive Denim: A Moving Story of People and Pants in the Borderless World of Global Trade (W. W. Norton 2009). With regard to structure, Snyder says, fiction and nonfiction can develop quite differently. According to Snyder, fiction lends itself more to discovering the structure of a piece as evolves, whereas with nonfiction, it's important for writers to have some general idea of structure before embarking on the composition process.

Snyder draws her lessons in craft from a variety of sources, including author and poet, Grace Paley, who often doesn’t quite bring her stories full circle. By veering off course near the end, Snyder says, Paley’s stories are both surprising and memorable. During her workshop, Snyder also shared a “fill-in-the-blank” mantra for writing nonfictionthe thing about (subject) is (what)?which she learned from fellow journalist and This American Life host, Ira Glass. If you can’t succinctly fill in the blanks then you don’t have your story clear enough in your mind, Snyder said, adding that the best nonfiction essays present an essential question with which the writer is grappling and that answering it is often beside the point.

What We've Lost is Nothing , Rachel Louise Snyder (Scribner 2014)

What We've Lost is Nothing, Rachel Louise Snyder (Scribner 2014)

Snyder's more informal lesson took place in my car, as I navigated rush hour traffic, heading north on Chain Bridge Road. We were on our way to dinner at Dolce Vita in Fairfax when the conversation turned to the query letter and how a writer gets her nonfiction placed in such prestigious literary publications as The New York Times and The New Yorker, both of which have featured Snyder’s work. Here’s the formula that Snyder shared for shaping the ideal query letter:

  • Paragraph 1: Write a brief narrative illuminating the issue that you plan to explore.
  • Paragraph 2: Explain why it matters. Why tell this story at this moment?
  • Paragraph 3: What are experts saying about this topic? Are there statistics you can site? Who will you interview?
  • Paragraph 4: Why are you the best person to tell this story?

Herein lies the real value of the Visiting Writers program, as highlighted by Snyder’s impromptu lesson: the opportunity to chat informally with published authors outside of the classroom, to gain insight from an established author that students can then apply to their own writing lives. Now, for that query letter...


Linda Prather is a nonfiction candidate in George Mason University's Creative Writing MFA Program and is slated to finish her masters in the spring of 2016. She has lived in Northern Virginia for the last eight years.