Wednesday, July 25, 2018

Chella Courington: A Feminist, Fearless Voice

An Interview with Chella Courington
by Gwen Dandridge

With a Ph.D. in American and British Literature and an MFA in Poetry, Chella is the author of six poetry and three flash fiction chapbooks. Her flash appears in numerous anthologies and journals, including SmokeLong Quarterly, The Collagist, Gargoyle, and The Los Angeles Review. Originally from the Appalachian South, Chella lives in Santa Barbara with another writer and two cats. Her flash trio “Love Triangle” was published in Volume 1 of the Santa Barbara Literary Journal, which is available on Amazon here.

Chella is a gem of a person. I met her years ago. Though I had been writing for a decade or so, her class was my first foray into college writing classes. Since then I’ve been fortunate in attending a number of her classes. She’s an instructor whom you can return to over and over and always be assured of picking up more insights into the writing process. Chella not only instructs but she inspires. She’s the embodiment of a strong woman who knows her strength and can therefore teach with compassion and understanding.

Gwen: Thank you for doing this interview. It’s a gift. A rare opportunity for me.

Chella: I’m very happy to be talking with you.

Gwen: I know you’re from the Deep South, and I’m curious how it shaped you.

The South has always been a place where it’s better to be living outside of it. I think [it gives you] the sense of going to the darkest place and not avoiding it. I grew up near the Appalachians near Scottsboro [where racial violence was commonplace]. So on the one hand, I wanted to get out of that rural area, but at the same time I loved my family, adored them. So there was a conflict.

Writers like Hardwick, Falkner, and Tennessee Williams had the same feelings about the South that I do. Living there made me aware of voice, and I think that’s one of the stronger things in my writing.

Gwen: How has your writing evolved over the years?

Chella: I’ve become a little more subtle, my language more tuned. I try to get language to work on subtle levels. I always struggle with that. I have a tendency toward narrative but when I’m working on poems, there’s a point where I’d like to be more like James Dickie.

So I think over the years it’s evolved, worked away a little bit from narrative.

Gwen: You like to combine language and story, but within that, how important is accessibility of meaning in poetry? Should one have to work hard to understand a poem or should the meaning be clear?

Chella: I think somewhere in between. If you’re interested in the complexity of story I think you need to challenge yourself as a reader. You need to work, go back and reread it. Toni Morrison is a perfect example of that. You don’t just read it like a quick novel, you have to think about it.

Gwen: Has being a writing professor changed your understanding of what it takes to be a writer?

Chella: I know that I struggle like everybody else: today I’m not a writer, tomorrow I’m a writer. When older students come into writing class for the first time, you can just see the way they struggle to get their story. They can write a draft but those students are aware of good writing and use of language. I help to develop it.

Playing with the language is so important. Narrative and story are important. Having the language work on a lot of different levels is important. Leaving gaps for the reader to fill in, not telling the reader everything.

Gwen: What do most well-written poems have in common?

Chella: They have heart and intellect. They get to those dark places and reveal. It’s uncomfortable but you work with it. That’s the beginning. A lot of it is aesthetic. I have a certain taste, I like a certain musicality and what is popular now is a cacophony of voice.

Gwen: What is hardest thing to teach new writers? What is the easiest?

Chella: The hardest is to get writers to go to that place they don’t want to go to.

The easiest to teach is to just sit down and write. That’s why I always begin each class with free writing, just five or ten minutes, don’t edit…that’s the easiest to teach. If they get into the habit of writing, some things become a lot easier. Then when they sit down to a blank screen they don’t freak out. I have a tendency to obsess over every word and you just have to get past that.

Gwen: What are the most common mistakes of beginning writers?

Chella: I don’t think a lot of writers I see are readers. You have to read, even if you’re reading journals. You’ve got to read to understand whether or not you’re interested in pleasing an audience or just yourself. Realize you’re not working in a vacuum, you’re not remaking the wheel.

There are writers who aren’t interested in audience, they’re writing for their own pleasure. But even so, you should be reading to get a sense of word, story, what’s going on. It’s informing yourself. Writers need to be readers. There are great online journals. It’s an alternative way of showing how words work, because if you’re involved in the language and the narrative, the technical things like structure work into your system.

Gwen: Is there a subject you return to again and again to write?

Chella: I write a lot about female sexuality, issues that women face. I think the personal is political. You have to balance the language and the message and I think that’s a problem with political writing, it sounds like a rant and it loses its appeal and freshness. I’m always returning to woman-centered stories. As I’m working through these myths, I’m looking at those women whose stories weren’t told because women weren’t telling the stories. For instance in Greek mythology, I can imagine Leda having a relationship with the swan. She could’ve had a satisfying relationship with that swan.

I’m concerned with the marginal: female sexuality and point of view, concern with how women are treated. I’m a white, privileged woman. I haven’t been consistently overlooked, though I have been sexually harassed and abused. So I’m pretty careful about my voice. I don’t try to enter the voice of others.

Gwen: What’s the wildest adventure you’ve ever had?

Chella: Well, when I was 22 I graduated from college and [my roommate and I] were backpacking in Valencia, Spain. We were ready for a hotel. We stayed in a place that wasn’t terribly expensive. Staying in the same hotel was the famous ballet dancer Nureyev. People were sitting outside his room, waiting to see him. I put on my dress, put my hair in a bun, and I came out, and saw his valet leave the room. I grabbed a tray, put a glass of water on it, and knocked on his door.

“Who is it?” He cracked the door and I shoved my way in and caught him wearing his BVDs. So I just walked to the table and put the water down. He ran to the bathroom and was saying, “I know you don’t work for the hotel.” I didn’t get his autograph, but I got his glass. I still have that glass. I loved it. Then finally the guy I was dating at the time got us tickets for Swan Lake in Atlanta. We saw Nureyev and Fontaine in their last tour.

Gwen: Any forthcoming or in-progress novels, poems, books, etc.?

Chella: A series of poems, the retelling of the woman’s story in myths. I’m just beginning actually. Leda, Medusa, Circe. I’m just getting pieces out now. I think the #metoo movement gives energy to this. But actually I’m working on a series now retelling some of the great myths. Writers have done that for as long as they’ve been around, but you always have a different story to tell. Circe or one of the sirens is what I’m going to be working on next. Right now I’m working on Medea. Medea kills her children, but there was a retelling of that by Rachel Cusk, and she made a choice that Medea doesn’t kill her children. [Cusk] raises the question of abandonment, why men throughout history have been able to abandon their children, but women have not.

Plus I’ve been writing some poems about the situation of all these kids and babies [children from Mexico being held at the border]. We have all of these disrupted separated families. There are all these stories…that’s much more difficult for me to work with.

Gwen: Is there anything you’d like to add?

Chella: For me, writing is a process. I’m an interior writer. I love the process of writing and I really don’t think too much about audience. I do at some point, but I enjoy sitting in the bed writing. That’s still my favorite place to write. I put on my ear phones, write and enter a whole other world. I try to write in the morning but actually late at night is my optimum time. Lately, I’m up until 2 or 2:30 writing. I’ve always loved the night. I love the feeling of isolating myself.

Ted [her husband] is my first and last reader, and I do trust him. If anything I’m a little short-sighted when it comes to my own stuff. He’s good on dialogue. So even if I’m doing something like a poetic monologue, you want it to sound like dialogue, and he’s really good at that. I do need deadlines. I love creative challenges. The month of November we’re going to write a poem a day. I enjoy flash fiction and short writing and I’m sure my poetry strongly influences how I approach flash because I approach it much more like prose poetry.

Gwen: Thanks so much for speaking with me today.

Chella's three flash pieces "Dinner Parties Where Place Cards Leave No Choice in Seating," "The Skin’s Reflection," and "Narrative Risks" are to be found in Volume 1 of Santa Barbara Literary Journal, available here.

You can visit Chella's author site here.

Gwen Dandridge is a writer of young adult and middle grade novels. She is also a lover of golden retrievers, maker of excellent pastries, breads, and funky art. You can visit her website here.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Magali Michaut: The Siren

An Interview of Magali Michaut
by Silver Webb 

Paris-born singer-songwriter Magali Michaut first appeared on the Amsterdam songwriting scene in 2014, recorded and released her 2016 debut ‘Bonjour’ CD, and has since toured ten countries including festival appearances in Denmark, Estonia, Greenland, The Netherlands, and Sweden. Writing in both French and English, Magali accompanies herself on piano, guitar, and ukulele. The lyrics of her song “Ma petite chanson parisienne,” co-written with Patrick Rydman, are featured in the Lyrics section of Volume 1 of Santa Barbara Literary Journal, available here. She recently took an hour out of her California tour to speak with me.

Sitting on an old stone bench with Magali in the Santa Barbara Rose Garden with croissants and tea, she is hiding behind the rim of her hat and dark wavy hair, with an indirect gaze that reveals very little. Perhaps it is shyness or perhaps it is simply what she prefers. I am normally quite good at intuiting a person’s thoughts and feelings, mapping their intentions and capacities. But Magali is the shadow of a cat, disappearing around the corner. And I imagine that, as she reads this, her lip will twitch in amusement rather than puzzlement, and she still will not reveal herself. But I can tell you that I’ve only met her twice, two years apart, and both times she was wearing purple pants and a black hat. Possibly the same purple pants and black hat.

Tour clothes aside, Magali makes songs that are nothing short of a siren’s call, at times so heart-rending I can’t bear it. Her voice is something you might hear calling from the ship’s edge, midnight shimmering on the water, and a pale limb rises through it, beckoning you. Dive in, follow, leave the world of men, and go below. See what is there. Will you find your way to the surface again, or are you lost? A soft voice, pixie precise fingers on the guitar, lyrical violin, and then a flowing wave of piano… Magali spins small magic, quiet magic, the kind you lose your way in. It is not flowery or weak-minded or any of the other unfortunate stereotypes that come with the word “feminine,” but her music strikes me as implicitly feminine. Which should not suggest that her mind doesn’t work very much along lines of logic and math, because it does. Her training as a classical musician leaves little room for romantic notions of composition. By feminine I mean only that the music is a complex spiral not eager to reveal itself… She is not standing on a stage with an electric guitar, straining her throat to tell you in short, brutal rhymes exactly what she wants (sorry, Mick Jagger, you have your time and place).

The Copenhagen Songwriters Festival, DK has said that “Her voice & songs evoke late night conversations in dark Parisian cafes.” If that is so, I have been going to the wrong cafes in the wrong country. I would say that her songs are more an invitation into the heart of a songstress who will reveal herself only here, only in music. In this way, she reminds me of Lhasa de Sela, a gypsy witch who will break your heart in a million pieces with one quietly sung lyric. (If you don't believe me, listen to Lhasa's album The Living Road.)

Am I being dramatic? Possibly. Forgive the writer’s imagination. I’m sure Magali curses when she burns toast and trims her toenails just like the rest of us. But for the sake of this interview, let’s say she is a siren, and her EP Bonjour collects four remarkable songs (“Ma petite chanson parisienne,” “Background Pain,” “Alpha Bravo Charlie Hebdo,” and “I Wish”) that I can play on repeat and spend the afternoon feeling transported to another realm, one that is away from the mundane and toward the magical. She describes her musical genre as “folk chanson,” mixing French and English and even a few drops of Dutch or Danish together effortlessly.

Her childhood in the suburbs of Paris was “happy and carefree,” and she began learning the violin at 8. “It was a hobby. I took ten years of music education and playing in symphony orchestra. I like the period from the romantic to the 20th century, around 1800-1950; composers like Beethoven, Debussy, Ravel, Sibelius, Fauré, Brahms, Mahler, Tchaikovsky or Rimsky-Korsakov.” I can’t prove it, but I suspect that Magali easily could’ve ended up with her violin at Carnegie Hall. Yet that was not the road she took, and her instruments of choice for performing are guitar, piano, and even the ukulele.

I feel the ukulele must be the key to all of this. A woman trained in classical music, but able and likely to pull out a ukulele and pluck a quirky tune on it. Eccentric, eclectic… a balance to the serious woman in front of me, who admits, “It’s true, yes. I’m an engineer by training in computer science. I did a Ph.D. in France in Bioinformatics. I worked and lived three years in Toronto. Then I moved to Amsterdam and started to work on cancer genomics. I’m actually working with data, so all day in front of my computer mining data generated by biologists or clinicians, trying to understand and make models.”

I wonder aloud why it is that I know so many engineers who are also musicians, as you might think that the two things are not compatible.

“I’ve heard people contrast being a scientist with being creative," Magali says, "which is a misinterpretation of what a scientist is. Because you need to be creative to be a scientist. You can study music in a mathematical way, in a sense, when you look at chords and how everything relates. And maybe it’s different parts of the brain but complementary.”

Although she had performed in the past as a violinist, while living Toronto, she “started to write songs in a challenging period to express some difficult emotions and take a guitar and write songs. I really didn’t think I would perform them. And it wasn’t possible in the beginning because I would start crying after two sentences. But after I gained some distance from the songs, in Amsterdam, I started to think it would be nice to perform, and there was an opportunity of an open stage. So I started to play out, and get even more interested in songwriting and going to song workshops and trying to improve my work.”

I ask, partially tongue-in-cheek, if she can write songs when she’s happy, as so many singer-songwriters take heartbreak as their daily bread.

“Yes, I can write songs when I’m happy. There are ways to get into a song. It’s also work and craft, not just crying on the couch. But sometimes people ask me if I’m okay when they hear my songs. [The songs] are a way to handle emotions. But it is true that the most driving force for me is a strong emotion that I’m processing.”

Magali is quite active in performing and I ask her what she likes about it.

“What I like is the connection with the audience, sharing emotions essentially. When someone comes up to me after a concert and tells me, 'That song made me cry,' I think it’s fantastic that the emotions I had when I wrote the song were shared in this way.”

“How important is writing in your creative process?” I ask.

“Especially in the beginning I would start with the words. There are some songs where I had a little music and started with the feeling and put some words to it later. But more often than not, there is something I want to say, and then I try to put some music to it. What’s also interesting is that I’ve been doing a few co-writing retreats, so that helps to explore other ways to write. Writing with someone else, you have to communicate about how you’re going to do the songs. One day maybe we start with words, then melodies. So we have different jumping-off points. That encouraged me to try other ways to jump into a song.”

Her song “Ma Petite chanson parisienne” is a co-write, in fact, and the song of hers I know best (It’s featured in Volume 1 of SB Lit Jo and co-written with Patrick Rydman). It is a wry, joyous bicycle ride through Paris that is, for lack of a better word, jaunty. Magali says, “The song was a co-write with Patrick from the 2015 Listening Room Songwriters Retreat in Copenhagen. We started with melody. We’d listen to each others different melody ideas and go from there. Patrick was intrigued by one of my melodies and that’s the one we used. He is super experienced, so he took his guitar and played chords with the melody. And based on that happy, jumping melody, we discussed what we were doing. We were in Paris, biking, and that’s how the song started. We had the song in about half an hour. We moved well on the bike.”

What else can I say about Magali? Her favorite drink is tea, she is an Aries in the European zodiac, and she was born in the Chinese year of the dog. This might suggest someone with a pioneer’s spirit, someone who is both welcoming of people yet wary, skeptical even. Someone who appears delicate but is, in fact, quite strong.

Her dream is to record a full-length album, and when that happens, I will be the first to buy a copy and become lost in it.

You can find Magali's lyrics in Volume 1 of Santa Barbara Literary Journal on Amazon here.

You can visit Magali here.

Monday, July 16, 2018

The Poetics of the Other: Ron Alexander

An Interview of Ron Alexander

by Stuart Orenstein and Silver Webb

We sat down with Ron Alexander at his home on a sunny afternoon for a lovely lunch and warm conversation. Ron is a mostly retired psychologist, long-term AIDS survivor, and a celebrated poet who lives in Santa Barbara with his partner Gary R. White. Ron contributes to the Santa Barbara Literary Journal as the Poetry Baron, SB Lit Jo's ambassador to both Santa Barbara and the larger poetry communities. You can find the first volume of SB Lit Jo on Amazon here.

Stuart: Have you always been creative?

Ron: I was drawing when I was really young. I enjoyed drawing landscapes on large sheets of paper. In the fifth grade, I was friends with a couple of very smart, creative guys, one of whom was a pianist. Chris talked us into changing the lyrics of songs he knew, including Blue Moon—which I did not know—and we devised a new song. As I remember, it was about standing alone, waiting for a ham sandwich. From then on I started thinking about lyrics. Always intrigued by words, by art, by images, somewhere in there was a seed, a germ, and by college I was writing poetry, keeping a journal, making little books of poems for friends. After college, I returned to show a composition professor some of my work. I do not recall anything she said—probably faint praise—but whatever it was, I didn’t write any poetry for another twenty-five years.

Stuart: When did you say to yourself, I’m a poet?

Ron: My “Im a poet” moment was much later, 2009, at 60. Testing positive for HIV in 1987, I finally received an AIDS diagnosis in 1996. But new drugs and regimens were just coming out and I started to feel better. My best friend, David Bennet, said, “If you’re not going to die, you should write.”
He had an idea for a plot about a person with AIDS. We developed a second character and wrote it together, each taking one of the two main characters and writing their alternate chapters. David, a nurse by profession, was to have helped me die, but he developed cancer 14 years ago and now, the tables have turned, as AIDS has become a very treatable disease and cancer still rages. We are intending to publish our novel in the coming year.
I finally began to write poems again in a Creative Writing class at SBCC under Terre Ouwehand in 1997. With David's prompting, I began attending writers conferences, but must confess, I attended the fiction workshops in the mornings, then sneaked away to the poetry workshops in the afternoons. One teacher at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference was Perie Longo, who I consider my mentor. Perie is a local poet, teacher, and former Santa Barbara Poet Laureate. She started me seriously writing poetry again at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference in the early 2000s. In 2007, my mother died, and in 2009, my father passed, both of whom I expected to survive me. I started going to Perie’s grief/writing group and writing a poem every week. Soon I was writing more on my own as well as in the group. At a Summer Workshop with Perie, Carol DeCanio told me about the SB Poetry Series and invited me to read. I read for the series in October 2009, and it was then I finally said to myself, “I guess I’m a poet.

Silver: When you write a poem, do you start out with an idea?

Ron: I try not to start with an idea where I presume the ending. That rarely works.  But there’s something that happens when you put pen to paper without expectation. The connection between pen in hand and some other part of you just creates. I’ve seen it in the kids I work with, as they come up with the most amazing images and startling ways of putting words together. I think the idea for me, and maybe most writers is to stop the editor inside and just let the pen do its work.

Silver: You are a very deep person, although you have a good sense of humor.  Is all of your writing humorous?

Ron: Parts of life are hard to make funny, like this winter's local fire and flood disasters. Overseas, I think of gay people in the Middle East being thrown off buildings. In Nigeria homosexuality is illegal and there is no punishment when LGBTQ people are killed for being who they are. There are gay people applying to the state department from Nigeria who are being denied asylum by this administration. They are sent back to Nigeria, and I find it impossible to make that funny

Stuart: Have you published a poem chap book?

Ron: I haven’t but I’m in the process of culling through and editing work I’ve already written to put together a chapbook. And now that I’m saying that to you and this is going to be published, I will really have to do it! But first I have to clean my office! (laughing) I’m not an organized person, and there are many undated versions of poems, hard copies of some and multiple digital copies, and I have to look through all of that and decide which ones still stand.  It will be an adventure.

Stuart: AIDS has been a big part of your life?

Ron: I was first involved with AIDS from the perspective of having therapy clients with HIV and AIDS from very early in the epidemic. Besides just trying to stay alive, one of the biggest issues is and has been the loss of so many friends, and now, the question of what do you do when you realize you are not likely to die of AIDS? If you didn't plan on losing your hair, getting arthritis, a knee replacement, diabetes from the HIV meds, and all the various ailments that accompany aging. How do you manage that? And, more recently, realizing my generation was decimated, and so many people don't know that many of us are still here, having survived into poverty, having given up on a career, on life, in some cases
The history of the LGBTQ communities coming together with our allies in those years, of fighting prejudice, of standing up against the talk in the 80's about bringing the Japanese internment camps like Manzanar back into use as an HIV/AIDS camp, of quarantining PWAs (People with AIDS) there, talk of tattooing people with HIV/AIDS. People who did not live through the AIDS Crisis years have no idea of the insanity with which the country met AIDS.  
The fact that I will be 70 next year and still here feels utterly unbelievable.

Silver: You married your longtime partner, Gary, five years ago. What that like?

Ron: After same-sex marriage became legal, we weren’t in a hurry to get married. Gary was attentive to the adage, “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.” He was concerned about how marriage might affect our relationship, which is and was sound. But I wasn’t as swayed against the idea as Gary was, and over time I wrote him several poems asking him to marry me. For me it was a romantic idea. But he always demurred, and I would agree.
Finally, there was another impetus. Gary works at UCSB, which provides my health coverage, and the powers that be decided the University wouldn’t pay for domestic partners anymore. If we wanted coverage for both of us, we would have to pay or get married. At that time, we were at a retreat for gay men in Malibu, towards the end of a week, slow dancing on the last night, and had been talking about the University's push for us to marry. Gary finally said, “So I guess we should get married.”
I didn’t say a word. I waited. I had labored over two poems in preceding weeks, and I was not going to let him back us into marriage. Finally, when he actually said the words “Will you marry me?” I said yes.
In October 2013, we were married at the top of the county courthouse with 20 friends and family, a few tourists and a busload of fifth-graders on a field trip as our witnesses. Gary and I wore flowered shirts, bowties, and lei's, handmade by our Best Man, Kerry Tomlinson. David was our Maid of Honor. Well, if you can't play with gender roles in a gay wedding, what's the point of having one? 
Among all these fifth-graders there was a girl who asked Gary, obviously dressed for something, what was happening.
We’re getting married,” he said.
She asked, "To who?" and Gary pointed to me.
The teacher immediately started pulling the students together, “Okay kids, time to go!” As if two men getting married was somehow contagious. In any case, she was not going to have her students witness a gay wedding on her watch. It was as if she thought we were celebrating a satanic ritual, perhaps sacrificing a goat.
That kind of absurdity is a huge piece of what goes into my poetry. When you find yourself the “other” because of age, color, gender, disability, sexual orientation, or for some other reason, you get a different perspective of the world. Everyone around you sees what's happening as normal, but you can’t. And, in contrast, what you see as normal, others see as subversive.

Silver: What is at the heart of your relationship with Gary that it has lasted this long?

Ron: I would say it was built on low expectations (laughing). I met him in a Nautilus—a gym now closed for decades—and I was very attracted to him, but he was ostensibly straight. I didn’t know it then, but he was a therapist also. After not seeing him at the gym for a couple years, I started in a 3-year training group, learning about Gestalt psychology. By chance, in our introductory meeting, there he was, sitting across from me. Only when that was over in 1988, did we get together. 
Neither of us had high expectations for it lasting because I had just tested positive for HIV. AZT, the first and only treatment at the time, had just come out, but people were dying right and left. We both thought I was going to die soon, I figured within a decade, certainly by the millennium. I thought he was fearless, or crazy, to get involved with a man with HIV. I kept thinking, he’s going to try this "gay thing" out and then he’ll look for a “real” boyfriend. Although, he kept saying, “I’m not going anywhere,” I didn’t believe him.
It took me ten years to realize he was going to stick around. In that time, we grew to appreciate each other without a lot a baggage hanging on the relationship. There were no long-term plans or expectations. We didn’t get any more long-term than, “Where are we gonna go on vacation this summer, if I’m still alive.” Now, this year, we’ve been together 30 years. We have a house with a long-term mortgage.

Silver: You’re happily married, so the familiar poetic trope of romantic disappointment isn’t an option. What do you focus on?

Ron: Even my funny poems—and I have a lot of them—are really trying to find a way to laugh about things. Aging, for example. I thought I would die young and make a stunning corpse. I didn’t think I’d have to deal with aging. But, like anyone my age, I’ve had a host of medical challenges related to aging. I try to find humor in the things that disturb me.

Silver: As part of the queer and AIDS communities, you’ve known a lot of people who have passed. Do you feel them present in your writing?

Ron: Very much so. Yes, I feel an obligation to live, really, to live fully. So many of their names, even more so, their stories have been forgotten. So many people today have no sense of what the 80s were like, it was what I imagine a world war felt like, where you would hear constantly about friends, neighbors who have died. I contemplate not just my own mortality and appreciation of life, but all the people I’ve known and loved and lost.

Stuart: Thanks so much for speaking with us, Ron.

Ron: You’re very welcome.

We're pleased to have also featured three of Ron's poems here on the blog. Scroll down to see them or click on the title: 

Ron’s work has appeared in journals including Arts & Understanding, Askew, Solo Novo, and Lummox3, as well as several anthologies, such as A Bird Black as the Sun: California Poets on Crows & Ravens, and To Give Life a Shape. One of four of his poems in a recent anthology, Poems 2 F*ck 2“Zebra," inspired a short film of the same name by Paul Detwiler, which has been shown at LGBTQ film festivals in North and South America, Europe and Asia.

The first issue of SB Lit Jo is available on Amazon here.

Stuart Orenstein
Stuart Orenstein's short one-act play “I Do-nut Think That’s A-Muse-Ing” was published in Volume 1 of the Santa Barbara Literary journal. He got into writing plays via his second career—acting. He has been acting on stage and screen (Please see his IMDB page for some of his credits) since 1990. He retired from his first career (clinical psychiatry) in 2007. His second path towards writing comes through his being a life-long learner. Currently he is in his 39th year of school, his 27th year of higher education. It is through Creative Writing classes that he has started to write.


by Ron Alexander

'''Now that John is feeling better, 
he has realized that AIDS 
has destroyed his life,''
 said Dr. Howard Grossman.”
David France, New York Times, October 10, 1998

The sign says the wolverine
weighs but thirty-five pounds
and will take on grizzlies
            over a kill.

But that’s hardly the whole story.
You have to chase it over sharp
            granite talus,
through the manzanita
scrub, grab it by the tail
and wrestle it down the mountain.

your hands on those jaws.
            Squeeze your fingers
between its teeth.  Pry that feral
mouth open.  Start with one foot—
then push the other in. 
Climb down its fetid gullet
among the shards of bone
and clumps of sticky
            matted fur.

            Tight quarters.
Just to get comfortable enough to rest,
you have to curl up tight like when
you were a babe in your father’s arms.
Only then can you pause,
take a breath,
            plan a future.

© 2009 Ron Alexander, originally published in ASKEW Poetry Journal, (7) Winter/Fall 2009

Ron is a mostly retired psychologist, long-term AIDS survivor, and a celebrated poet who lives in Santa Barbara with his partner Gary R. White. Ron contributes to Santa Barbara Literary Journal as the Poetry Baron, SB Lit Jo's ambassador to both Santa Barbara and the larger poetry communities. You can find the first volume of SB Lit Jo on Amazon here.

Bad Dream

by Ron Alexander

The dream swats me
wields a green willow switch
wakes me
whacks my thighs shoulders
gnaws at my ankles
drives splinters under my eyelids
spits vile names from its little yellow mouth.

I outmaneuver it in the grocery store
hiding next to the dryer sheets
which make my skin crawl—
something insidious about their claim
Eliminates Static Cling.
But at what cost?

When I get home
it waits by the kitty door to the kitchen
now peering out a window in the stereo cabinet
or there on the panini press
pretending to ignore me.

© Ron Alexander 2011

Ron is a mostly retired psychologist, long-term AIDS survivor, and a celebrated poet who lives in Santa Barbara with his partner Gary R. White. Ron contributes to Santa Barbara Literary Journal as the Poetry Baron, SB Lit Jo's ambassador to both Santa Barbara and the larger poetry communities. You can find the first volume of SB Lit Jo on Amazon here.

I'm Not Going to Clean My Room Anymore

by Ron Alexander

I’m not going to clean my room anymore.

I’m not going to clean the house.
It’s a waste of time
to wash clothes and dishes

when tomorrow they’ll just be soiled again.
I have better things to do.
I have appointments To miss
and people to flee.

I have worries to ruminate over and over and
over and a computer to keep
on life support.
I have an overgrown garden that demands ignoring,
a faithful lover who requires avoiding,
petulant gods that must be denied
and two demanding
calicos that tolerate none of the above.

To procrastinate, to do it well
takes effort and commitment.
To put off the essential,
to focus on the inconsequential
is an art not lost on me.
But I will excel.
I will decide not to decide,
and pursue the life I was born to live.

I will spare my heirs the burden
of a long obituary,
too many accomplishments to list.
I will leave this life undone, unnoticed,
unaccomplished at the meanest
tasks and enter eternity peacefully,
blissfully laid out in my sleek
stainless steel coffin.

Mourners will ask, “Did he ever finish
anything? that novel?
that poem?
that sentence?”
Devotees will find inspiration in the works
I never produced,
the autobiography unwritten
and I will pass into oblivion except, perhaps,
in the heartless ruminations
of those damned cats.

© 2011 Ron Alexander, originally published in 20 Years of A&U, an anthology of writing by people affected by HIV and AIDS, (Black Lawrence Press)

Ron is a mostly retired psychologist, long-term AIDS survivor, and a celebrated poet who lives in Santa Barbara with his partner Gary R. White. Ron contributes to Santa Barbara Literary Journal as the Poetry Baron, SB Lit Jo's ambassador to both Santa Barbara and the larger poetry communities. You can find the first volume of SB Lit Jo on Amazon here.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Bryan Titus: Big Heart, Big Voice

Interview with Bryan Titus 
by Laura Hemenway

Photo by  Bryan Toro

Connecticut transplant Bryan Titus arrived in Santa Barbara several years ago, and hit the ground running. The gravelly voiced songwriter is one of the hardest-working musicians on the Central Coast…playing diverse venues from wineries to the world-famous Lobero Theatre. In fact, on July 18, his Trio will be opening for Paul Thorn at the Lobero! His song "Lightning" was featured in Volume 1 of the Santa Barbara Literary Journal, which is available here. I met up with Bryan at Santa Barbara’s Handlebar Coffeehouse, where we had a great conversation about his early influences, his songwriting process, and his inspiration to keep writing.

LH: What kind of encouragement did you get, in your early life, to be a creative person?

BT: It was part of our family culture. My mom was a singer, and my dad was a classical violinist. My father kind of insisted that I start playing the violin at age 4. So I was classically trained on violin. But music came to me as something that was my own when I went through adolescence, when I was 14 and I picked up a guitar, like many boys do, and started writing songs about girls. (laughing)

LH: So, your parents were both classical musicians?

BT: Yes. But my dad did branch out and played some bluegrass later in life. He joined a band that was all bird watchers. They would only play songs about birds. Bluegrass songs have a lot of songs with birds in the titles and the lyrics… the whippoorwill is the harbinger of doom, and the bluebird represents happiness, robins signal spring; there’s a lot of bluegrass music that has bird imagery in the lyrics. So their repertoire was all songs about birds. They’d play “Go tell Aunt Rhody, the old grey goose is dead,” and “Redwing,” “Grey Eagle Hornpipe,” “First Whipoorwill,” tons of old-timey music that had to do with birds, and they’d go around and play at different Audubon clubs, and different conservation benefits. …

LH: Did you have siblings who were involved in music, as well?

BT: My brother played the piano; and he’s the first dude that introduced me to the blues. Some of my favorite moments in my musical self-discovery were because of my brother, Jeff. He’s 8 years older than I am, and we have another brother who’s 8 years older than he is. So the age gap between us is wild, and for me, it’s like having a crystal ball, I can see myself aging 8 years in the future, 16 years in the future, like “Oh, that’s what I’m gonna look like when I’m 56!” (laughing)

My brother Jeff graduated from college and went off to teach English in Japan for a year, and he left his drafting studio (he was an architect) set up, and that’s where I started drawing, and listening to this box of tapes that he had left behind, which was full of good stuff, like the Clash, and John Lee Hooker, and Jim Morrison and the Doors greatest hits, and Jimi Hendrix…just tape after tape after tape. That’s when I got deeply interested in what people were saying in their songs. I didn’t really think of myself as a songwriter yet, at that point, but I was starting…and learning “okay, this is the kind of voice that I love…this thick, throaty, raspy. bluesy voice…I’ve got to figure out how that’s happening”…I don’t know if that’s genetic or luck, but I somehow ended up with having that kind of a voice.

LH: Tell me about your first music teacher.

BT: The first music teacher that I remember was an amazing woman named Connie Satler. She was a weird bird; an old hippie kind of a lady. They lived on a farm. The farm had sheep and horses, and it was out in a really rural part of Connecticut called Moodus. Moodus is a local Indian word that means something like “Strange sounds in the hills.” Moooooodus…you could think it has something to do with cows (laughing), but, there’s a lot of limestone in Connecticut, and limestone, under the proper conditions will melt away, and that’s how you get stalactites and stalagmites. And when it melts away, you end up with these caves, or fissures in the sides of hills. And just like blowing over the mouthpiece of a flute, the wind would come over the hill in a strange way and create this kind of “wooooooooo” kind of a sound. So that’s where that came from.

I used to love going there. She taught Suzuki method, so I would just listen to her play things, and then memorize it and then play it back. I didn’t really learn how to read music until I went to Berklee School of Music. She was a cool teacher. I remember being like 8 years old and having my first crème de cassis and soda, which as you know is a liqueur…I must’ve been especially annoying that day, and she needed to mellow me out or something (laughing)

LH: So, it was a good experience.

BT: Good and bad. I really didn’t like the rigidity of classical music, and I had tremendous amounts of social anxiety growing up, so being put in front of a room full of people at a library, next to a piano with some person playing the piano that I’d never seen before and never rehearsed with before, was pretty traumatic…

LH: In a recital situation?

BT: Yeah, and I basically refused to do recitals after that. I felt like my heart might actually explode out of my chest I was so nervous and so scared…

LH: What about in high school? Were you involved in music then?

BT: I sang in the church choir as a kid, until my voice changed. And then after it changed and kind of settled, I realized, after listening to those tapes in my brother’s room, that I could sing rock n roll. My best friend in high school, Matt Zimmitti, played guitar. And next thing you know, we were playing in a band together. We started out by learning the popular grunge rock n roll songs of the day, by Nirvana, and Red Hot Chili Peppers, seasoned in with the Classic Rock that everybody loves, at every age, like Bob Dylan, and a little Zeppelin, and maybe some Doors . And we put our band together, and I started writing some original songs at that time as well. Matt would come up with a cool guitar idea, and then I would sing a melody over it, and then put some stream of conscious lyrics to it…We wrote in his basement, in 1991…when I was 14 years old. Some of the songs actually kind of stand up a little bit. I mean I didn’t have anything TOO important to say…at this point, I look back on them and say “Yeah, you were 14. You didn’t like school, huh?” (laughing)

LH: What was the name of that first song?

BT: I can’t think of it exactly, right now. I think it was “Nothingness” or something like that. It was about unrequited love; typical 14–year-old themes. But the funny thing was, when I was 14 years old, I sounded like I do now. But I was 130 pounds and 5’6”. (Brian does an impersonation of himself at that age) You know, kind of like Eddie Vedder and Scott Wyland from Stone Temple Pilots, and Anthony Kiedis from the Red Hot Chili Peppers…those were the people who were popular at that time, and when I realized that I could hit those notes and had that tone, I was just like “Oh! I’m gonna DO this!”

LH: So, note-reading wasn’t really essential at this point?

BT: No, not until I got to Berklee College of Music.

LH: What kind of songwriter do you think thrives at Berklee?

BT: I think the most important thing with Berklee is, that Berklee is exactly what you make of it. If you know what you want, and you’re willing to work for it, you can make incredible progress there. I think that Berklee would be good for any songwriter, as long as they’re willing to really do the work, and be open to it. You definitely learn through classes like Song Survey, about different forms you can take; you learn how to write formulaically, there, but you also learn how to break those rules, and you’re given permission to do those things that are exciting to you.

I’m really glad that I went there, and I actually fantasize about going back. Because I already did go back once. I went there when I was 18,…and then back when I was 22, and I’d like to go back now, in my 40s.

LH: Speaking of education, didn’t you just get back from a songwriting retreat? What do you think is the value of a songwriting workshop or retreat?

BT: I think that every opportunity that you can find, to foster your creativity, should be taken advantage of. I’m so glad I went on this retreat; it was amazing. But, it was very difficult. Songwriting, and telling personal stories can be really challenging, and scary. To be emotionally available and vulnerable in front of other people and with other people, is a very scary thing to do,

One thing I’d never been super comfortable doing was co-writing, and that was a big part of this particular retreat. We co-wrote every day with new partners…strangers, that we hadn’t met before, and had to be really open with, and challenging, and polite, but not a yes-man. If you had a better idea than your partner, you had to figure out a way to tell them so. And maybe not hurt their feelings too much, hopefully. You were there for the sole purpose of writing a good song, not coddling someone, so finding that way to work with people is really challenging, but it was so rewarding. The retreat was 4 days long, and we did 3 co-writing sessions that were each 3 hours long.

LH: How does your life experience inform your songwriting? What life experience most informs your songwriting?

BT: I’m really grateful that my dad was a college professor, and he would teach abroad for a year at a time, and so our family lived in Cambridge, England, when I was 2 years old, and in Kyoto, Japan, when I was 6 years old. When I was 2 years old, obviously I was just a baby, so I don’t really remember much of that, but when I lived in Japan, I was in 2nd grade, and I went to a public Japanese school. I was the only white kid in the entire school, and I didn’t speak a word of Japanese on the first day of school. And it was an incredibly difficult and strange experience, but by the end of that year, I didn’t want to come home, and I had a whole group of friends there.

Basically, being in that situation gave me a sense of “otherness” that made me feel different. It gave me the opportunity to see that there are a lot of different perspectives. I think that has informed my songwriting and given me that ability to kind of step out of myself and imagine what life is like in someone else’s shoes.

LH: What part does “Place” play in your creative process? Or does it?

BT: Physical location?

LH: Yeah.

BT: Right now it plays a lot, because I’m in this tiny apartment that I can’t stand, and I don’t have a designated place to write, so it’s really difficult to work in my current situation.

But, that being said, I love Santa Barbara, because Santa Barbara has afforded me, for the first time in my life, the opportunity to be a musician and nothing else. I’ve always had other jobs everywhere else I’ve lived, but here In Santa Barbara I’m making enough money performing that I can pay my rent. My rent is too high. It’s crazy here!

LH: But yet, there are places to perform. It’s like a double-edged sword.

BT: Exactly. I love it here. The fact that I’m able to play 4 to 5 gigs a week and get paid for it, without having to drive like 5,000 miles a week is pretty amazing. We do have a tourist economy here, so we have a lot of people coming through, so that gives me the opportunity to play for new people every week, , and people keep buying our CDs! I remember even 5 years ago people were looking at me like “you want to make CDs? What are you, crazy?” We still sell the crap out of them.

LH: But part of it too, is, I think, that your sound is unique, here.

BT: I think it matches here. The sound I have didn’t match an urban environment, so living in LA didn’t work for me. People move to LA when they’re like 22 years old, not when they’re 30, like I did. So I was already too old for being there. My contemporaries had been there for like 10 years. They were not people I had access to, so I was playing music for people who weren’t interested in what I was doing.

Here, it’s a different story. People here love songs about cowboys and the plains and the mountains , because they’re here, seeing the beauty of our physical landscape, which I love. For me, as an active individual, that’s the other thing. I need to be able to go out and hike and get into the hills and get away from people and places, to write. So that’s another reason Santa Barbara has been so great for me, is I can go drive 10 minutes away, and I’m on top of a mountain, looking out over the whole city and imagining what people are doing, and it just lets my imagination run wild.

LH: What’s your favorite part of the creative process: crafting a song, performing a song, or recording a song?

BT: Actually, I love recording. Because by that time, you’ve gotten the song, you’ve done all the hard work, getting the song just right, everything’s in place, you’ve done the pre-production. I love to perform in the studio, because you have this team of people around you, the engineers,that are making the perfect environment for you to do what you need to do. Does it sound just right? Is the guitar too loud? Can you hear your voice okay? Everything is focused…maybe this is a little narcissistic of me, but everybody’s paying attention to me! And giving me exactly what I want! Because I’m the one that’s about to do the thing. And then, when you put it down, and it feels good; it’s awesome.

LH: Do you have a favorite venue that you’ve played?

BT: I’ve got to say, it’s the Lobero Theater, here. It’s pretty much the best place I’ve played. It’s such a beautiful venue, and it’s such a historic place. I’m a sucker for places that have good vibes and juju and all that stuff, and if there’s a place in town that has it, that’s it.

LH: Do you like playing to that size venue?

BT: I’m not sure that the music that I write, up to this point, is “big stadium music.”

The Lobero is a 600-seat venue, and we’ve played to it when we opened for Albert Lee and when we opened for White Buffalo. It was pretty full. And it’s a seated venue. I feel like people were there to really listen. It was so exciting, because that was one of my first goals, when we moved here, was “I’ve gotta figure out how to get on this stage, somehow.” And it happened.

LH: Can you point to anything that sustains you on a daily basis; something that keeps you coming back to write, again and again?

BT: I’m lucky that I have a partner in my life who is extremely supportive and a constant source of inspiration, my wife, Katie. She’s part of the reason that I do what I do. It’s probably annoying for her, but a bunch of my songs are written about her, and sometimes when she’s in the audience, I sing them to her.

I also think that songwriting, for me, is a compulsion. It is also my identity at this point. If I lost that, it would be like having a limb cut off. If I wasn’t able to sing, or play, or be creative in that way, I would still have other outlets, but the biggest one would be missing. And I would feel really bad. So let’s hope that doesn’t happen! (Laughing)

LH: What subject(s) can you give advice about, to creative people?

BT: Advice to musicians in general…would just be, if you’re going to be a performing musician, treat it like a job. And understand that you are in the customer service industry. You are not a rock star. You are a waiter. You are bringing people music. So be humble. Be nice. Be good-hearted.

And be willing to please people. If people don’t want to hear your songs and they want you to play a cover song, play them a cover song. We’re in the entertainment industry, not in the “bolster my own ego” industry. Now, hopefully, you’ll get to the point where your songs are the songs that are being asked for. That is the most awesome compliment, when somebody asks me to play one of my songs for them. I’m blown away, that’s awesome. I feel really lucky to have gotten to that stage. But yeah. We’re in the customer service industry. And if you don’t have happy customers, you’re not going to have a job. You’re going to be playing for yourself, by yourself.

And then, find the people that make music with you well. There are certain people that you just click with, and you need to find those people. And if somebody in your band isn’t clicking, then even if they’re good friends, you’ve got to find a way to say “Hey man, it’s just not working out.” You only have a certain amount of time, so make the best of it.

LH: Thanks, Bryan.

BT: Thank you, this was so fun!

You can read Bryan's contribution to Santa Barbara Literary Journal in Volume 1, which is available an Amazon here.

You can listen to “Lightning” (and other songs from Bryan’s most recent EP “The Road”) here.

You can find out more about Bryan’s music, new, and performance dates here.  

Monday, July 2, 2018

Ted Chiles: The Accidental Novelist?

An Interview of Ted Chiles
by Christine Casey Logsdon

"I like microeconomics, which is about a person who has to make a decision and then they are faced with constraints of income and circumstances and then how do you make the best choice? I think that’s fabulous training for being a writer, because that’s all writing is. A character is faced with constraints, and they have to make a choice. If they weren’t constrained, they would just do whatever they want, and that’d be boring as Hell.” –Ted Chiles

Ted Chiles contributed “The Incidence at the Church in Alabama,” “An Unexpected Talent,” and “Lighter Than Thee” to Volume 1 of the Santa Barbara Literary Journal, which is available on Amazon here. He and his wife, Chella, have lived in Santa Barbara, CA for the last 17 years, but have strong roots in the American South. “The Incidence at the Church in Alabama" is a flash fiction piece about longstanding tensions in a ladies church group, leading to, what else?, a knife fight. Malice simmers among the sweet potato casserole and okra, highlighting Ted's ability to use sophisticated, well-crafted language to tell darkly humorous stories.

CL: Tell me about “The Incidence at the Church in Alabama,” which happens to be about two women, and which I found to be incredibly authentic.

Ted: (laughs) It’s about an incident in Alabama that happened in my father’s hometown, which is also my wife’s hometown, Albertville, Alabama, on top of Sand Mountain. I embellished it completely, but the result is that one of the women, one who picked up a knife, was kicked out of the church. My sister-in-law thought that the woman didn’t really threaten to cut her, so my sister-in-law took her up as a cause and I heard a lot about this. I knew some of the people involved, one of whom has since passed away. I didn’t know the person who picked up the knife. But it’s within my experience.

CL: So you lived in Alabama?

Ted: For 12 years. I taught at Auburn University in Montgomery. My wife, Chella, taught at Huntington College. That’s how we met. But as it turns out she was very good friends with my cousins, had grown up three doors down from them and two doors down from where my grandmother lived at the end of her life. She probably met me when we were young, but we don’t have any memory of it.

CL: Where are you from originally?

Ted: Originally I’m from Akron, Ohio—rubber capital. I lived there until I went away to college. After I graduated college I started a PhD program in Economics at Rice University in Houston—I lasted a year, they just kicked my butt. I was unprepared for the work required. After I received an MA in Economics from the University of Akron, I got a teaching gig in Bradford, PA, the home of Zippo lighters and Case knives. When I was there, my college said they’d put me on tenure track if I’d go get a PhD, so I commuted from Bradford to Penn State for a couple of years.

CL: I was raised the South, myself. Your story rang true on every level.

Ted: Thank you. I’m very lucky in that my wife’s has a PhD in British and American literature. When she was at Santa Barbara City College, she got an MFA in poetry. She’s much more published than I am. She’s published tons of poetry. She’s published like eight chapbooks. She’s published a novella. I’ve got a great first reader—and I’m her first reader, so it works out.

CL: What motivated you to get your MFA?

Ted: Part of my desire for the MFA program was that I’d started a novel and I was kind of stuck. I’d taken a ton of short-story workshops and flash fiction workshops, because I'm a nerd. What do nerds do when they want to learn something? They go to class. I did the Southern California Writers Conference and met Marla Miller. I said, “My wife thinks I have a good voice, but she’s my wife. Maybe she’s just being nice to me. What do you think?” Marla says, “Oh, no, you’ve got a voice.”

She suggested that I try the Santa Barbara Writers Conference. I went to it for three years, and I really enjoyed it. I particularly enjoyed the pirate workshops, but initially I went in for non-fiction. I wanted to be a humorist writing about my golf game. When I said “golf,” people heard “goth,” and imagined I was going to write about people in black with piercings. No. Golf. The reason I got into writing was, I was playing golf with my friends at Ojai, and I got the shanks. I couldn’t get rid of them. I would go to the driving range and try these different tricks you use. My wife, who believes in journaling, said, “Why don’t you write about it?” So I did, then I forgot about it and pulled it down a few weeks later and edited it. Did some rewrites. We were driving cross-country and at my friend Kevin’s, a tennis and golf buddy from high school, probably my best friend. Chella found this on my computer and said, “What is this?” and I said, “It’s what you told me to write.” Then she asked if she could read it and I said, “Sure.” Then she said, “Can I read it out loud?” and I said, “Okay,” at which point Kevin laughed so hard that he fell out of his chair. So I decided that I was going to become a golf writer.

CL: And this from the guy who doesn’t like writing non-fiction?

Ted: I started writing these little columns about my golf game and golf. Chella suggested that I attend the Southern California Writing Workshop and see what people think. I got some positive reinforcement, so I did it again. The first year I went to the Santa Barbara Writers Conference, I did it at Westmont. I was in the non-fiction, comedic world. Between the first and the second Santa Barbara Writers Conference, I decided I wanted to write fiction. I used to say, “Fiction is easy, you just make shit up.” I regret ever having said that. (laughs)

One of my first stories was called "The Kims," based on the zero sum game theory; you know, if one person wins the other loses. They were real estate agents, and whenever one sold a house, that person got taller and the other got shorter. It’s interesting—there was a real moment there for me. I sent the story to a very glossy magazine having a contest, Canteen I think. The deadline passed and I didn’t hear anything, so I submitted to something called "Anemone Sidecar." It was accepted an hour and a half later. The editor was in the office, doing an e-bay auction. She read it right when it came in, and accepted it immediately. Then Canteen wrote back and said they’d like to publish my story, but they were only going to publish if they didn’t mention it was published online. I thought about it and said, “No, I can’t do that.” What’s that old saying? You dance with the person you brought to the prom? So I said no, and Canteen published it anyway. One time in my life I did the moral thing, and it worked out.

So I went to the Santa Barbara Writers Conference for two years at Westmont, then they kicked us out, probably because of the cigarette butts and wine bottles. The third year was at Fess Parker. I took the story, "The Kims" and a story called "Knife" that I’d taken the year before. I did Shelly Lowenkopf’s pirate workshop, and Katharine Ryan-Hyde’s workshop. I read a story called "Diminishing," and it’s based on the diminishing margin of utility, that the more you do something, the less value it has to you on the margin. I’ve never published this one. In Katharine Ryan-Hyde’s workshop, after I’d read about half of it, she said, “Wow. That’s literary, but I don’t mean that in a bad way.”

That really struck me as odd. I’m married to somebody with a PhD in literature. I was beginning to have literary pretentions. I wanted to write literary fiction. I’d gone to a Tom Jenks workshop. He used to work at the Paris Review, and he’s edited most of the major literary figures in America. I wanted my fiction to be not just a good story, but I wanted the language to have a certain quality. I’d also already started going to the Tinhouse Writers’ Workshop because Amy Bender was up there. That’s when I decided maybe I needed to get an MFA.

CL: Did you consider your writing to be dark? The nature of life and death isn’t dark, is it?

Ted: My guilty pleasure is romantic comedies. Nice, happy endings: boy meets girl, they hate each other, all of a sudden they fall in love, you get a happy ending. Then on one extreme you have the John Irving approach to a novel where you have quirky characters, he makes you fall in love with them, then he does horrible things to them for 300 pages. That’s my take on him and his work. After Hotel New Hampshire, I stopped reading him.

Since I didn’t come from a literary background, I didn’t read a lot of literary fiction. I read non-fiction, I read a lot of mysteries, I read Stephen King. So when I came into that world, it just seemed that the difference between a movie and a film is the ending. Do we get a happy ending? Do we get a realistic ending? What’s a realistic ending? The person dies, and the survivor finds a way to deal with the grief, vs. the miracle cure?

CL: I wish I could remember the attribution, but one of the most charming things I’ve read about writing in the last year or two is this: “People overthink the difference between commercial and literary fiction, and it’s simple. The character always wants something. In commercial fiction, they get what they want. In literary fiction, they don’t.” (laughing)

Ted: That’s not bad. I once asked an agent at the Santa Barbara Writer’s Conference, from Harper’s (could have been The Atlantic), “What’s literary?” She said, “You look at the elements of what fiction does: there’s a style, there’s a story, there’s the meaning, characterization, and plot. Any good writing has to do all those things. Literary fiction has to take one of those things and elevate it above what’s necessary for it to work as a story. So, deep characterization—a deeper understanding of how the character became a character, or elevating the prose in some way….” That made sense to me, actually.

CL: What do you like most about writing groups?

Ted: I honestly think that every writer subconsciously knows the weak parts of their work, but they try to use some smoke and mirrors to fool themselves and the reader. If you have a good writing group, somebody’s going to see it. Someone’s going to point out, “No, this doesn’t work.” Even if it’s someone you don’t like, or whose work isn’t that great. They might be the person whose one-sentence comment gives you the new ending that makes the story work. I literally had workshopped a story with some really good people, and this one person’s one-sentence comment helped me find the ending and I got the work published.

CL: How often do you write? Are you driven to it?

Ted: When I was getting my MFA, I wrote on a religious schedule of so many hours a day. Now, I’m much more relaxed. Lately I’ve been working on a screenplay that I’ve adapted from a play based on my wife’s novella. We’re sending the play out; it was a semifinalist for a reading at the Gary Marshall theater in LA. My novella has been a semi-finalist in a bunch of contests.

CL: Is there anything you’d like to add that I haven’t asked about?

Ted: The only thing I would add is… occasionally you run into writers who don’t read. Honestly, I’m a nerd and I learn well in a classroom situation. I don’t think it’s necessary to go get an MFA. But if you’re going to be a writer, quit going to movies and read more. If you want to be a screenwriter, watch every damn movie you can. Now that I’m writing plays, I go to every play I can.

Ted Chiles came to creative writing after moving to California in 2003. With a Ph.D. in Economics, he taught Economics at the undergraduate and graduate levels. In 2013, he completed an MFA in fiction from Spalding University. Chiles' fiction has been published in print and online and consists of short stories and flash fiction. His style varies from realism to magical realism to speculative fiction. He also has published creative nonfiction, adapted a novella for the stage, and written two ten-minute plays, one of which was produced in Santa Barbara.

If you would like to read Ted's contributions to Volume 1, it is available on Amazon here.

Christine Casey Logsdon earned her degree in English Literature from UCSB in 1991, and owns and manages a technical consulting company. She has lived in Santa Barbara with her husband and extended family for decades, and edits both fiction and non-fiction. Christine writes fiction of all lengths, and is currently editing her contemporary Southern novel and a dramatic suspense novel.