‘From These Ashes’: an interview with author Tamela Ritter

From These Ashes I met Tamela Ritter about 10 years ago, in a writing group called Pencils! which met in a Barnes & Noble in Connecticut. We were allowed to bring five pages and read them aloud. The first thing I ever heard Ritter read was a scene featuring an injured young man, with no memory of his identity but a unexplained knowledge of how to survive in the wilderness.

I listened intently to the story as the young man patched up his injuries with only a tee shirt and river water purified in beer cans and then… Ritter’s five pages were up and I wanted more.

More is here! It took a decade, but Ritter’s first novel, From These Ashes, was published by Battered Suitcase Press in March. It features the boy without a memory — Tim — his sister Naomi, and their struggle to find a home, themselves and each other in the American northwest.

It’s a marvelous book, and I’m not just saying that because I’ve been wanting it to be published for 10 years. It’s got everything: a coming of age story, family drama, Native American culture, cults and beautiful language. Do yourself a favor and check it out.

On Tuesday I sat down to a g-chat interview with the author herself to talk about the book, her life as a writer and what being a newly published author is like.

This is a two-part interview. When you get to the end, click the appropriate link to go to page two.

Editor’s note: The following interview was conducted over the internet and has been edited. Typos have been corrected, and for the sake of clarity, some sections of the interview have been moved around.

About the Book

A.J.: So, Tamela, you’ve just published your first novel, “From These Ashes.” What has your first month as a published author been like?

Tamela: Sort of crazy. Two weeks ago today I was constantly going to Amazon and looking for myself just to make sure the book stayed there and it wasn’t a dream. Since then it’s just been so many levels of awesome, terrifying and surreal.

A.J.: So you’re not still constantly checking Amazon now? Because I wouldn’t judge you if you were.

Tamela: I’ve curbed the instinct and now it’s only a daily thing, not an hourly thing. It doesn’t change much there after a while, yeah?

A.J.: Well, the reviews will be coming in now. That’s something that changes for a while.

Tamela: That’s exciting. I love seeing what people’s reactions are, what resonates with them, what sticks. It’s always so different and random. People have been nice to it so far, both there, on Goodreads and in my life. It’s good to hear, and will help beef me up for when people who aren’t related to me read it. 🙂

A.J.: So before we go any further we should probably talk about your book itself. Can you tell me in 25 words or less what your book is about?

Tamela: A brother and sister’s journey to find themselves and each other. Shit, that’s only 11… hold on… A brother and sister and their journeys of discovery as they search for each other and a place to belong. Or something…

A.J.: Great!

Tamela: I liked what you said in your review about a sister who can’t speak and a brother who can’t remember. I will be stealing that from now on, fyi. 🙂

A.J.: That’s cool with me!

Tamela: Do you ever read reviews and wonder where these people were when you were trying to come up with the summary of your story?

A.J.: All the damn time.

A.J.: Your story starts in this very interesting place, with a teenage Naomi – that’s the sister – writing her story in a cult recovery center. And you find out in the opening chapter that she and her brother Tim are Native American and that Native American-ness is a big part of the plot. Why did you choose to incorporate those two elements: cults and American Indians?

Tamela: Haha, I just answered this question in the only other interview I’ve ever done. Now here I am already repeating myself. Lets see if I can jazz it up for you.

Neither of these elements were going to be a part of the story if you can believe that. I never in a million years thought I’d be writing about Native Americans because for so long, my own status as one has been something that I knew was true about me, but never knew what it meant to be Indian. I am Cherokee on my mother’s side. My mother comes from a very troubled family and I believe that she attributes some of this to “being Indian” so all I know about it is from my grandmother, Naomi. But, like I said, troubled family, so we didn’t spend a lot of time with her, but what I remember is how proud she was of her heritage, how tightly she held onto it and also it seemed to me that she held my brother Tim up and loved him just a little bit more special because of all of us, he looked the most Indian.

So, when it came time to explain why my character Tim was so special, it just came to me that he should be Indian. It all came from there.

A.J.: You know, I always knew that your brother Tim was the reason why the brother in the story was named Tim, but I didn’t know where the name Naomi came from.

Tamela: And the cult was a bit like that too… actually the cult was entirely the fault (or credit) of NaNoWriMo [National Novel Writing Month]. I needed a crisis, a conflict and I had this guy (Larry) and I didn’t know what to do with him as there was no way I was going to make my story about evil step-fathers. And it just came to me and for me, they both tie together because for me both are about finding a place to belong.

A.J.: I want to ask a little more about the Indian aspect of the novel. Did you do a lot of research into tribes and reservation life?

Tamela: I did do a lot of research… but I also did a lot of living around reservations, having friends in reservations and absorbing as much as I could with no other reason besides that people fascinate me.

A.J.: When did the story in “From These Ashes” first occur to you, and how?

Tamela: At first it was bits and pieces, stories I wanted to tell, like about my brother’s death, writing exercises that got away from me, and then I started to notice that all the stories had the same protagonist and they all sort of looked like my brother in my mind. It was right around this time that I first heard about NaNoWriMo the first time and I thought, ‘What a perfect excuse to make something of this.’

A.J.: That was in 2003?

Tamela: 2004

A.J.: I read it back then, and I remember it being a great novel. But it was a little different. How has the novel grown since 2004? What’s changed?

Tamela: Man, sometimes, like when I read through it after I’d made the first round of edits with my editor everything seems different than it was, but other times I look at it and see hardly any changes. Well, except the first chapter. The first chapter had always been a mess and stayed that way for a long time. I just didn’t have any ways to fix it back then, didn’t have the skills required, but when that came in place (many, many years and attempts later), everything else were such easy fixes it felt it had always been that way.

A.J.: It’s a story that goes to some dark places. Did it always?

Tamela: Um… yeah. Dark places are sadly sort of my thing. I mean, like everything else, I didn’t set out to tell a story that would rip out my heart as I wrote it. I never set out to tell those stories, they just sort of happen to my fiction.

Man, makes me sound like I had no plans whatsoever… which I guess is sort of true. Still…

A.J.: You’ve got a lot of complicated characters in this book; not all of them are great people but all of them are sympathetic. Who was the most difficult to write?

Tamela: Hmmm, tough one. I guess the hardest and the one I was most terrified of not getting right was Virginia, the mother. For a very long time she was just “the villain” and I did very little to flesh out how or why. Then I overcompensated and tried to give her a shit ton of back story (which was why my first chapter was always such a mess). It wasn’t until we get to The Way and I started exploring other aspects of her, that I started to see how I could flesh her out without having to give her whole life story. I just had to keep remembering, no one’s the villain in the story of their own life. And just like her children, she was searching for something too.

Next section: About the Author

‘Good Things’: An interview with author Nick Knittel

good things, nick knittel, New Rivers pressI expected someone older when I met Nick Knittel. It was 2009 and Knittel was part of my second-ever workshop at Fairfield University’s low-residency MFA program. He’d submitted a story about two little boys who’d lost their mother. Because the story featured a compassionate father, that’s kind of who I expected when I checked in on Enders Island.

Instead I met a young man, just out of undergrad, who could write a mean piece of short fiction.

Two years later, Knittel won our MFA program’s inaugural book prize (judged by poet Charles Simic) for “Good Things,” a collection of deep, quiet short stories. The book was released by New Rivers Press in October 2012. Now that first story I read – the one about the grieving little boys – is available for all to read, along with nine others.

This past Monday, Nick and I caught up to g-chat about “Good Things,” writing and what it’s like to publish for the first time.

Editor’s note: The following interview was conducted over the internet and has been edited. Typos have been corrected, and for the sake of clarity, some sections of the interview have been moved around.

UPDATE: This is a three-part interview. When you get to the end, click the appropriate link to go to page two or page three.

Fact and fiction.

Nick Knittel, Good Things, New Rivers Press

Nick Knittel

AJ: Nick, I know you from spending about 50 days over the course of two years on an island with you and 100 other writers, but my readers don’t know you… yet. Can you tell them a little bit about yourself, like where you’re from, what you like to write and the name of your book?

Nick: Of course!
Well, I was born and raised in Cincinnati, Ohio, where I lived for most of my life.
Most of my work is based on memories or experiences from my own life, which has resulted in a strange Frankenstein-kind of fusion of fact and fiction, something that I particularly enjoy, but can be kind of hard to write, since it becomes a weird way of exposing yourself as a writer to your audience.

AJ: The work in your book, “Good Things” is really interesting; most of the stories are quiet and deep, sort of Jhumpa Lahiri-ish, but I guess I never would have thought that a lot of them come from your own life. You use so many different kinds of narrators; the work never comes across as autobiographical at all. Can you give me an example of a story that fuses fact and fiction?

Nick: I would hate to say exactly which portions of the stories are directly related to me, but I’ve found that no matter how hard I try, some part of me ends up in the finished product.

AJ: That’s fair.

Nick: Right, and I think you would agree that it’s a trait many writers share. It’s almost impossible to separate one from the other in some cases. But I’ve found that the genesis for a lot of stories come from something that I’ve experienced; a moment with someone, or a phrase that was used, or a quick image that I remember from a kid, it all factors in one way or another. Many of the stories in “Good Things” stemmed from specific images that I had from high school and early college.

AJ: Okay, so you were the first winner of our MFA program’s book prize and Charles Simic judged that prize. One of his comments, I seem to remember, was that you seemed so young to be able to write stories like this. And I know you probably get this a lot, but that was my first impression when I met you at the MFA too. How do you manage to inhabit the wide range of characters you create? How do you get into their heads?

Nick: Funny story.
When I first gave my parents a preliminary copy of the book, my mother pulled me aside after she had read it and asked (very sincerely) “Is everything okay? Are you alright?”

AJ: Wow.

Nick: I thought it was funny at the time, but I’ve noticed that people have also done the same thing when I’ve brought up the book to family and old friends, people who might not have been familiar with the stories.
Because honestly, I’ve had a fine life. Normal parents, normal upbringing, suburbia and everything that entails, but like you mentioned, the stories and people I’m interested in are a little different.

AJ: Would you be able you sum up in a few words, the sort of story, character or struggle that attracts you?

Nick: A lot of the characters in “Good Things” are a little bit broken, a little bit sad, but even though they may be alcoholics or whatever on the outside, there’s a sadness inside that seems universal to me. Everybody wants to feel needed, everybody wants to feel loved, and often those urges are what drive people to do the things they do, whether good or bad.
I think that everybody believes they are capable of being a “good” person, but the struggle to get there can be long and hard, and that’s what interests me the most.

AJ: Was it your idea to name the collection “Good Things?”

Nick: Yes, it was my idea.
One of the main stories is entitled “Good Things” and I felt the struggle of the main character seemed to sum up the general quiet mood of the collection of stories, and also a little bit of its darkness.

The short form.

AJ: Everything I’ve ever read of yours has been short fiction. What about the short form appeals to you?

Nick: I guess I’ve always been really worried that I’ve overstayed a welcome.

AJ: Really?

Nick: Haha, a little bit!
I find that usually when I’m writing, I get a little concerned if I don’t have an exit plan. The story may last, 10, 20, or 30 pages, but I always have an idea for when I can make my escape.

AJ: That’s wise.

Nick: But that being said, there are many stories that don’t benefit from the short form. Sometimes you need to expand and keep creating.

AJ: Have you ever wanted to try a longer piece of work?

Nick: Yes, I’ve actually started something new that doesn’t seem like it can be contained in such a small number of pages. I know you have some experience with novels and novellas, but this is brand new territory for me, and absolutely nerve-wracking.

AJ: You can still have an exit plan for a novel! John Irving can’t even start writing until he knows how it’s going to end. But I digress.

Nick: Oh of course, but I have no idea what my ending is.
Not that I usually have a cut-and-dry exact moment for my stories, but I don’t even have a feeling for this, which is really weird.

Next section: Working with a student press and being published

Quitting with a capital Q: an interview with Cordelia of Cordelia Calls it Quits.

Cordelia Calls it Quits

Cordelia, calling it quits, in the panda hat she’s made famous.

Two Novembers ago, I stumbled onto a blog post that spoke to my soul.

Someone called Cordelia was finding National Novel Writing Month to be a challenge; though she had no trouble plugging along at work she hated at the office, she had a difficult time sitting down to write her novel, even though she loves to write.

This was a dilemma I could relate to.  I clicked through and discovered Cordelia Calls it Quits, a blog that turns the old saying “Quitters never win and winners never quit” on its head. Cordelia’s been on my blogroll ever since.

Cordelia’s philosophy is simple: she’s quitting the things she doesn’t want. Things like debt, a job that’s not right for her, letting other people get on her nerves, and her own tendency to want to be the office wunderkind are all on Cordelia’s list of Quits.

Last Friday, I caught up with Cordelia to g-chat with her about her philosophy, freelancing, and how her life has changed since she started her mission to Quit. Below is the interview, which is divided into three parts with page breaks. Click through, and enjoy.

Editor’s note: The following interview was conducted over the internet and has been edited. Typos have been corrected, and for the sake of clarity, some  sections of the interview have been moved around.

Calling it Quits

AJ: So, let’s talk about your blog. Some of my readers know about your blog, Cordelia Calls it Quits, but some don’t.
Can you describe your blog in one sentence for those who haven’t checked it out yet?

Cordelia: Sure. CCIQ is about my attempts to make my life better by getting rid of the things that don’t matter, in order to make more room for the things that do.

AJ: I’ve been following you for, I think, two years now. I think I found you on the front page of WordPress one day, and I was intrigued by the stapler graphic and the title, so I clicked over and was hooked by your posts and your writing style. But CCIQ had been pretty established by then. When did you start the blog?

Cordelia: My first post was in November 2010, so two years ago now.
(How did THAT happen? It feels like yesterday!)

AJ: Wow. So tell me – back in 2010 what specifically did you want to quit? What I mean by that was what made you say, “That’s it. I’m quitting. And I’m going to record it in blog form”?

Cordelia: Well, the blogging idea had kind of been percolating for several months. I first found “the blogosphere” after reading The Happiness Project, then going to Gretchen Rubin’s blog, from which I suddenly found myself exploring this entire new world online of people who were trying to make big changes in their lives–just like I wanted to. My job was obviously the biggest Quit, the underlying Quit driving the whole blog. That was the one thing that most severely needed to be changed, in order for the rest of my life to get in shape. The decision to actually start my own blog, though? It was honestly one of those, “ah, why not try it?” kind of things. I’d been reading so many other people’s blogs, and I’d been longing to get back into writing, so I figured, what did I have to lose?

AJ: The blogging form has turned out to be a very successful format for you. You’ve got a pretty big base of subscribers, don’t you?

Cordelia: To my amazement, yes! I have about 245 email subscribers and 250 through feedburner.

AJ: That’s awesome!

Cordelia: I just broke the 600 mark on Twitter, which still kind of baffles me, lol. No, actually…just checked and it’s nearing 700 now. (Again, how did THAT happen?)

AJ: Probably they’re all drawn to your mission of quitting the things that don’t matter in life.

Cordelia: I was definitely surprised by how many people that message resonated with. There are so many self-improvement blogs out there, but something about the idea of “quitting” things really draws people.

AJ: You frame quitting as being a very positive, subversively cool thing to do.

Cordelia: “Subversively cool”…I like that. I may steal that. 🙂

Next section: The Quits.

The short form: An interview with the editors of ‘Spry,’ a new literary journal

Linsey Jayne and Erin Corriveau, founders of Spry Literary Magazine.
(Photo by James McCready.)

On Monday, I had the pleasure of g-chatting with Erin Corriveau and Linsey Jayne, the founders of Spry, a brand new literary journal.

I know both Erin and Linsey from our MFA program, and I was intrigued by their mentions on Facebook and Twitter of a new literary magazine dedicated to brief literature.

As someone who naturally writes short, I really wanted to find out more, and so I asked them for an interview. After g-chatting with them for an hour, I’m excited about their project, which will showcase short, powerful pieces of writing, and I hope all the writers who read this blog will be as well.

Below is the interview, which is divided into three parts with page breaks. Click through, and enjoy!

Editor’s note: The following interview was conducted over the internet and has been edited. Lols have been removed, g-chat typos have been corrected, and for the sake of clarity, some  sections of the interview have been moved around.

(Also, the ladies make reference to a “Third Semester Project.” That’s an academic project that Fairfield University makes its MFA students do in order to obtain their degree.)

What is Spry?

ASpryJ: So tell me about Spry. What distinguishes Spry from the other journals out there? What’s your vision for this publication?

Erin: Well, Linsey and I both studied “short” or “brief” literature during our third semester projects and we also really respect how well words are used when the space is limited. I’d say that what distinguishes Spry from other journals is the dedication we have to concise yet well-done writing.

AJ: So all the pieces in Spry are going to be super-brief?

Linsey: Yeah, we want to reward the bravery and power and experimentation that exists in shorter forms.

Erin: Ditto to LJ, that being said though….We’ve seen a lot of poetry that is concise to a fault (even though I wouldn’t really want to put it that way) I think we have a lot of poets sending us work that is quite sparse… While we don’t want epic poems, we also aren’t only searching for haikus.

AJ: That’s pretty cool. For short-form work, I’ve seen a lot of flash fiction journals, but not so many cross-genre journals dedicated to the short form. You’re accepting a few different genres, right?

Linsey: We sure are! We’re accepting submissions in creative nonfiction, short fiction, flash fiction and poetry.
Sorry. Flash anything, not just fiction.

Erin: Yes, and…. flash creative nonfiction too.

On Brevity:

AJ: This might seem like a silly question, but what’s the difference between flash and short fiction or non-fiction? Is there a word count cutoff? How does it work?

Erin: We had many discussions about this.

Technically Linsey is the expert here. I can say, though, that for our journal, fiction and creative nonfiction must be under 2500 words for the “normal genre” and then for the Flash category, all fiction and creative nonfiction must be under 750 words.
I don’t know if Linsey wants to speak more to how we came up with those numbers or anything, but I can say there was a lot of discussion…. and also a lot of forgetting what number we chose.

Linsey: I can if you’d like – in my Third Semester Project, I studied the superfine lines that exist between prose poetry and flash fiction (and flash fiction / short fiction), and while more often than not this is something that is dictated by the presentation of content, most publications seem to consider flash fiction as being around 750 words. Sometimes it’s a bit longer, no longer than 1,000 usually. So since our passions were driven by the shorter, more agile work of the economy of words, we stuck to the shorter end of that spectrum. And when I say flash fiction, again, I just mean flash prose.

Next section: Submitting to Spry, Issue One and Naming Spry

The G-Chat Dispatch

You ever find yourself g-chatting* with a master?

You know what I’m talking about; you find yourself in a chat with someone who is really good at chatting; you just know that he or she cut their teeth on AOL Instant Messenger in school and has been honing those skills  – like Rocky, running up the stairs – by texting, ever since he or she got their first phone. I’m talking about someone who has a firm grip on grammar, an internal library of pop culture references and an impeccable sense of comic timing. Someone who combines the skills of typing, spelling and linking into one magical chatting skill set. Someone who is ready for the chatting Olympics, except that there isn’t one.

Sometimes I’m just sad that certain g-chats can’t have an audience. I was sad like that tonight, but then I realized that a chat can, in fact be witnessed by everyone, thanks to the miracle of blogging.

So without further ado, I present to you a new feature that I hope to post every few weeks: The G-Chat Dispatch. The first one is with MFA colleague Kate Gorton of Curses in Cursive. Kate is one of those people who has mastered the English language just so that she can smack it around and make it give her its lunch money. It’s only fitting that she’d kick off this series. Below is a short but sweet chat I had with her this evening.

It was prompted by my away message today: Meeting a very close friend’s baby today. Cue Elton John singing The Circle of Life.

8:04 PM             Kate: does your status mean you’re going to Simba that baby?
                             as in, hold  him/her out over the savannah? cuz…i approve.
                             …as long as all of the zebras and wildebestes bow.
                             me: I was going to do that, but I couldn’t find some guy to
                             sing “Naaaaaaaaaasivegna” or whatever it is.
8:05 PM             Kate: goddamnit. they should be on retainer.
                             me: You know, I’ve Simbaed every cat I’ve ever owned.
                             Kate: pshh, if you don’t, it’s just a waste of a cat.
8:06 PM             me: For serious. And everyone knows that cats loooove that.
                             Kate: it’s only their favorite thing. after baths and crinkly
                             plastic bags
                              me: And oral hygiene.
                             Kate: duhhhh
8:07 PM            okay. this 30 page paper is not going to write itself 🙂 Tty!
                             me: Laters!
*”g-chat” is Google’s chat program, if you’re not chat-savvy.