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.


 

A Lesson in Tension

By Suzy Rigdon

Leslie Pietrzyk  is the author of the novels  Pears on a Willow Tree  (Harper Perennial, 1999) and  A Year and a Day: A Novel  (Harper Perennial, 2005). Her collection of linked stories,  This Angel on My Chest  (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015), was the recipient the Drue Heinz Literature Prize. More here: http://lesliepietrzyk.com/

Leslie Pietrzyk is the author of the novels Pears on a Willow Tree (Harper Perennial, 1999) and A Year and a Day: A Novel (Harper Perennial, 2005). Her collection of linked stories, This Angel on My Chest (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015), was the recipient the Drue Heinz Literature Prize. More here: http://lesliepietrzyk.com/

Compelling writing is about tension, Leslie Pietrzyk told graduate students from George Mason's MFA program during her Visiting Writers workshop in early February. Invoking the hallmarks of Alfred Hitchcock, Pietrzyk gave the example of film: if the audience sees a group of people on a train and then it explodes, we are surprised, Pietrzyk said. However, if we watch a group of men playing cards on the train and beneath their seat, visible only to the audience, the bomb counts down the seconds, we are hooked, our hearts racing.

Pietrzyk knows tension. Her fascinating collection This Angel on My Chest (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015) revolves around a single theme: in each of the stories, a woman’s young husband dies unexpectedly. From the very start, we know the direction each story will take; yet we read all sixteen stories, waiting for each discovery, anxious to see how the widow(s) will react. With each new tale, we grieve or laugh or shout alongside her.

If we see the bomb ticking away, we will sympathize. We will feel connected to the character, to their struggles. We become invested.

For Pietrzyk's craft workshop, I chose to work on a piece that had already earned a handful of rejections from literary magazines. Turns out the problem was pretty straightforward: I had pulled a punch in my story, springing a revelation on readers just as it had been sprung on me during the writing process. But readers don't like to be surprised, Pietrzyk said. They feel duped, tricked, like in The Sixth Sense when Bruce Willis' character finally discovers he was dead the whole time. It’s better to give more information to the reader up front, rather than surprise them later. If we see the bomb ticking away, we will sympathize. We will feel connected to the character, to their struggles. We become invested.

This Angel on My Chest , University of Pittburgh Press, 2015

This Angel on My Chest, University of Pittburgh Press, 2015

In Pietrzyk's story “I am the Widow," the title sets up the tension well. Widow is a strong word—evocative. Even before we start reading, we feel we know this woman. We become settled in our expectations, so even as the widow mentally (and seemingly irrationally) lashes out at the friends and family during her husband’s funeral, at the mementos they drop into his coffin, we stay with her. Her pain and anger makes us hurt, too.

Pietrzyk is a master of her craft. She tells stories in the second person, transforms narrative into lists and indices of foods, a quiz, and even a 40-page craft lecture told from twelve different perspectives. She builds stories from the point of tension. As she explained during her craft seminar, tension has to come somewhere between the external story (i.e. the plot and action), and the internal story (the emotional life and motivations of characters that ultimately create conflict). Even when writing in the most unconventional of ways, Pietrzyk succeeds at this.

At her reading, Pietrzyk told a crowded room of writers and readers that her self-challenge while writing This Angel on My Chest. was to feature at least one hard truth about herself as a woman, a writer, a wife or a widow in each of her stories. She considered releasing the book without giving readers the truth of her inspiration, but ultimately decided she needed to. Although she hopes readers don’t get wrapped up in looking for the factual truth in her stories, this knowledge creates a different type of tension.

Good analysis and good writing both stem from the same place: asking questions. How do you begin to revise a story you’ve spent weeks on, one that has already been rejected a few times? Think about the tension, Pietrzyk recommends. What kind of story do you want this to be? What do you want the reader to care about? Everything needs to lead toward something, she said. And in This Angel on My Chest—as in all of her writing—everything does.


Suzy Rigdon is the author of Into the Night (Spencer Hill Press, 2014), and has also been published in The Albion Review and Word of Mouth Literary Magazine. She is a second year MFA candidate in fiction at George Mason University, where she is the Marketing Director for the Fall for the Book literary festival. To find out more, visit her website at suzannerigdonauthor.com or follow her on Twitter @SuzyRigdon.

Risk and Obsession: A Craft Talk With Jericho Brown

By Frank Harder

For Jericho Brown, poetry is laced with doubt. The poet should remain vulnerable, frightened even, in the midst of writing. Each line break drives the poet further into uncertainty. Ironically, Brown feels most whole when thinking in lines. The process he suggested to young poets during his April 21 Visiting Writers craft talk at George Mason involves listening and riffing, relying on reflex and intuition. With this musician’s curiosity, sounds grow to have personality. For Brown, music and aesthetics—an appealing voice, tone, or arresting image—supercedes meaning. He might tell you a poem “needs more bass,” though he’d be pressed to tell you what exactly that means.

Photo Credit: Stephanie Mitchell, Harvard Staff Photographer

Photo Credit: Stephanie Mitchell, Harvard Staff Photographer

Brown, a name which is currently buzzing in the small but fervent poetry world, is a recipient of the Whiting Writers’ Award and fellowships from the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University and the National Endowment for the Arts. An associate professor in English and creative writing at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, Brown is the author of two books: the musically-driven Please (New Issues 2008), recipient of the 2009 American Book Award for Poetry, and The New Testament (Copper Canyon 2014), which recently won the 2015 Ainsfield-Wolf Book Award and received high praise from Library Journal, Coldfront, and The Academy of American Poets.

The New Testament , Jericho Brown (Copper Canyon Press 2014); winner ofthe 2015 Ainsfield-Wolf Book Award.

The New Testament, Jericho Brown (Copper Canyon Press 2014); winner ofthe 2015 Ainsfield-Wolf Book Award.

Brown’s advice to young poets was both energetic and organic during his craft talk. He selected readings from two of his essays, pausing only to clarify where his opinions on a subject had changed or complicated, and followed by opening himself up to our nervous questioning. It was this openness that kept us rapt in attention, the air of tension that characteristically surrounds a celebrity poet of Brown’s stature quickly dispelled, and the conversation livened. Listening to him speak, I sensed that the personal lies at the crux of Brown’s craft, even if the personal is a performance. Performance is closer to the self that one might think, as it keeps the speaker vulnerable in relation to his audience. “The artist’s answer is always risk,” Brown said in a tone of amused experience. “Faith keeps us breathing.”

For Brown, uncertainty drives the process. Take his poem spoken in the voice of Janis Joplin, “Track 5: Summertime” from Please. The lines “So nobody notices I’m such an ugly girl/I’m such an ugly girl” didn’t initially come to him direct from the mouth of Joplin. Rather, they were lines he could eagerly get behind, but had to figure out who might say them. As chance would have it, he had Joplin on his mind. Brown’s collage-like process of sorting through lines can be obsessive, and in describing it, he inadvertently answered the one question that many writers fuss over: “Do I need to write every day?” Brown does, he acknowledged, though he distinguished between writing something every day from writing a poem every day. In a span of 3-5 years, he said, you’re bound to write about only a limited amount of obsessions. Books can arise from bringing together these obsessions, attending to and even fostering them.  “Be complete in what you want to do and go all the way,” Brown said.


Frank Harder is a graduate student with George Mason University's Creative Writing MFA program, where he studies and writes poetry. He grew up in northern New York and currently lives in Fairfax, VA.

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.


 

James Thomas to Mason MFA: “Get In, Get Out”

By Brittany Kerfoot

James Thomas, editor of the Flash Fiction and Sudden Fiction volumes of very short stories, was on campus March 24 sharing his advice with George Mason University MFA students on the form of flash fiction and several readings from his newest addition to the short fiction family, Flash Fiction International (W.W. Norton 2014) which hits shelves April 13.

Thomas, who completed his own MFA with Bowling Green State University in Ohio, opened the workshop with a reading from “A Fable," a story from the inaugural edition of Sudden Fiction (Gibbs Smith 1983); “The young man was clean shaven and neatly dressed,” Thomas read, the description a stark contrast to Thomas’ own thick, graying beard, gold necklace, and brown suede vest and T-shirt. His demeanor was laid-back and he was immediately approachable, frequently cracking jokes and encouraging conversation within the group.

As the afternoon moved on, Thomas proved to be a wealth of knowledge, detailing the appeal of short fiction (or “subway fiction,” as he put it): “People can get to know a character and even see that character change in a short amount of time, like during a subway ride." And with readers’ attention spans seemingly getting shorter and shorter, micro-fiction is increasingly growing in popularity. For those looking to try their hand at writing a very short story, Thomas advised that “flash fiction relies heavily on tension and metaphor. You can have a story without a conflict, but you can’t have a story without tension.”

Thomas read several stories from other volumes he has edited, all with an apparent shared theme: suicide and death. “We are as interested in sex and death in fiction as we are in life,” he said. “It’s something we’re both obsessed with and something we fear.”

Flash Fiction International , Ed. James Thomas, Robert Shapard, Christopher Merrill (W.W. Norton 2014)

Flash Fiction International, Ed. James Thomas, Robert Shapard, Christopher Merrill (W.W. Norton 2014)

When asked what advice he would impart upon aspiring writers, he had several shades of wisdom, including perhaps the most painfully obvious one for any young writer: “Chain yourself to your chair, because almost anything can tempt you away from writing.” Thomas warned about the importance of perseverance and, as most writers can attest, the necessity of revision: “It’s all about going there, doing it, and revision, revision, revision. If you feel you’ve got it on the first draft, you don’t.”

After a quick break for a bit to eat and a smoke, Thomas’ more formal reading began. Following a short introduction from friend and fellow writer Alan Cheuse, Thomas read from his newest collection, which he co-edited with Robert Shapard and Christopher Merrill. One of the stories he read detailed an insomniac who can’t sleep even after he commits suicide, while another, “The Light Eater” followed a woman who eats light bulbs to summon home her lost lover. Most of the pieces contained elements of magical realism, a genre that seems to be making a popular comeback, perhaps especially with the short form.

Thomas concluded the reading, quite appropriately, with a quote from Raymond Carver’s wise advice for short story writers: “Get in, get out. Don’t linger. Go on.”

Go on, indeed.


Brittany is a third year fiction candidate in George Mason University's Master of Fine Arts program, where she also teaches English Composition, Literature, and Creative Writing. Her work has previously appeared in Paper Tape Magazine, Driftwood Press, Four Ties Review, and Cactus Heart Press. She resides in Washington, D.C. with her fiancé and their many pets.

An Afternoon With Lucas Mann

By Emily Heiden

Lucas Mann wears a humble smile as he passes out a story he wants us to read.  It’s not one that he has written – this particular piece is about a journalist who endangered his life during the Vietnam War in the name of a new kind of reporting. We discuss the ethics of such a piece and what it means to immerse oneself in a specific place in order to write about it.

Mann too has immersed himself in this way, except that his place was a small town in Iowa, where he watched a lot of men play (and lose) a lot of baseball, and sometimes he dressed up in a giant suit as the team’s mascot, ‘Louie the Lumberking’.   

Class A: Baseball in the Middle of Everywhere,  Lucas Mann (Vintage 2014)

Class A: Baseball in the Middle of Everywhere, Lucas Mann (Vintage 2014)

He talked with us about this type of reporting, or nonfiction – about “showing up somewhere and simply not getting turned away” – and what kinds of projects can take shape when writers are allowed to stay and really come to know a people and a place. Mann’s book, Class A: Baseball in the Middle of Everywhere (Vintage 2014), is a lovely example of what can emerge from hunkering down and observing a subject until a writer finds the story; that team, those men, that place.

Class A is an explication of what Mann observed in Clinton, Iowa: men imported from around the world to play baseball in one of the lowest-level leagues that exists; the people who populate the stands; the workings of the town itself.  It shows us an enigmatic factory on the edge of town that emanates a terrible smell, the train-cars filled with tons upon tons of corn being shipped out of the Midwest for processing and livestock feed, photos of players’ girlfriends – who the men call a “blessing” – and other instances of surprising humanity that tug at the heart.     

I learned a lot from Class A, from Mann’s decision to begin in medias res, in which he “enter[s] his torso” (code for pulling on his mascot outfit to become Louie the Lumberking) to the effective portraits he paints of both people and place.  His writing – and his teaching style – captured even this decidedly non-baseball-loving reader’s attention.


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Emily Heiden writes creative nonfiction at George Mason University, where she also teaches composition, creative writing, and literature classes.  She will graduate with her Master of Fine Arts degree this spring.  She holds a Master of Arts in Teaching from the University of Iowa and a Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of Connecticut, which is her home state.