On Writing: Donna Talarico of HippoCampus Magazine

donna-talaricoDonna Talarico is a writer, an editor, and the founder/publisher of HippoCampus Magazine, an online journal dedicated to “memorable creative non-fiction.” This summer, she has been working on the first ever HippoCamp, a three day writers’ conference in Lancaster, PA. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Wilkes University. I first met Donna at Lancaster Story Slam, where she occasionally tells stories, and wanted to learn more about her writing, and current projects.

Jim: What do you love about the creative non-fiction genre?

Donna: I love true stories. I love getting to know people. Don’t get me wrong: I also love imagined worlds and people and storylines. But there is something ​different about reading a story when you know it’s true. Writers are sharing moments, often deep, dark and troublesome–and that rawness and honesty really brings reader and writer closer together. CNF writers are letting people in–and that is brave. Of course there is lighter nonfiction as well (not every memoir is about revealing some deep secret or getting through a rough time), and reading about those everyday moments, those stories too strange to be true, are kind of like sitting around with old childhood or college friends recounting the time we “couldn’t believe this happened to so-and-so.” I enjoy writing nonfiction for these same reasons. It’s just, well, real!

Jim: Was their a certain piece of creative non-fiction that first hooked you?

​Donna: In college, as a communications major at Wilkes University, we took a senior research methods course and I think this is where my love of personal stories began. We did an oral history project, and we also read a few ethnographies. So it was more on the journalism end, but my love of nonfiction just grew from there. One book in particular from that class, Tell Them Who I Am: The Lives of Homeless Women by Elliot Liebow, got me hooked on learning more about ‘everyday’ people, and it also inspired the desire to tell other people’s stories — which I did for many years as a features writer. On the memoir side, it was Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs. That book is what made me want to write a memoir.

Jim: You’ve been writing a memoir “Door to Door,” about the trials of constantly moving and dealing with stepfathers during your childhood. What’s the status of the project?

Donna:​ The first draft was my MA thesis. Then I polished it as my MFA final project. After working on it—on and off–for a solid three years throughout graduate school, I let it take a break. I queried agents, and was thrilled to get interest in my story and requests for partial manuscripts. However, with no bites after sending the first few chapters, I realized the story might not be there yet. So I workshopped parts of it the past few years and received some great help from my local writing group. After letting it simmer for a bit, I’m ready to dive into revisions later this summer. My MA mentor, Beverly Donofrio, wrote her book during grad school too — but it did not come out until years and years later (Riding in Cars with Boys.) From Bev, I learned that I needed more reflection time on my life–not the draft, but my actual life–to see what my story really meant, what it was trying to do. And I think I know now. But it took time to go deeper.

I should add that I got reunited with a “character”-one more pivotal than I thought– in the book which changed my perspective (in a very good way). It will be a better story because I let it sit. It will be a better story because I grew as a person and continued living that life I was writing about. (I put character in quotes back there because, well, the people in my book are real, and that’s something to get used to–to just think of them as character so you can be more objective.)

Jim: Can you describe what makes a submission to HippoCampus stand out in a crowd?

12-IMG_1539Donna: I’ve got to feel something. Or laugh. Or both. If I get chills, if I get misty-eyed, if I get angry at or fall in love with a character, if I want to go research a place or topic covered in the essay or memoir excerpt, if I’m still thinking about it the next day. We publish such a range of material that there isn’t really a set “HippoCampus story” but we know it when we see it. We’re publishing true stories by real people so we want our readers to care about the writer, the situation. It has to matter to the greater audience, not just the writer.

Jim: HippoCampus Magazine is coming up on five years. How has the magazine evolved?

Donna: Wow. That’s such a good question. We’ve grown by leaps and bounds in submissions, readership and the amount we publish each month, but we’ve really stayed consistent with our product so there hasn’t been a big evolution from that standpoint, but there has been amazing growth. The conference and other live events and some new complementary initiatives will help us evolve into new spaces and places. ​Even though a lit mag is a labor of love, I treat it like a business, not as a hobby or a “side project” so that has helped shape our direction.

Jim: I’m looking forward to HippoCamp 2015, especially hearing Lee Gutkind and Jane Friedman speak. I know this is the first HippoCamp you have coordinated. What are you most excited about?

Donna: I’m most excited about bringing an online publication to life, and about bringing a set of people together, most of whom don’t know one another, to one place to learn and share with one another. And leave knowing new people and new things. Right now this idea, these plans, they all exist in our heads and on paper — but they will soon come alive, and that is exciting. To see an idea come to life. ​

Click on the links to learn more. Read about Donna Talarico’s writing at her website. Read HippoCampus Magazine or check out the speakers and the schedule for HippoCamp 2015, being held in downtown Lancaster from August 7-9.


On Writing, Preservation, and Andy Wyeth: Catherine Quillman

539178_10150646974301640_2108133034_nCatherine Quillman is the author of several books covering regional culture, including 100 Artists of the Brandywine Valley, which showcases painters and sculptors. More recently, Catherine co-authored (with Sarah Wesley) Walking the East End: A Historic African-American Community in West Chester, PA. Catherine spent several years covering the arts and culture scene for the Philadelphia Inquirer, and she is known for advocating for the preservation of historic structures in West Chester. In addition, Catherine is an artist herself. She had a piece of artwork recently featured on the cover of Philadelphia Stories. I’ve known Catherine for a few years but wanted to learn more about her roots, her interests, and her upcoming projects.

Jim: Your books, whether 100 Artists of the Brandywine Valley, or Walking Uptown (which you co-wrote with Sarah Wesley), or Between the Brandywines are about the local area. Did you grow up in or near West Chester? If not, where are you from?

Catherine: Ironically, considering I write about local history, I’m from the planned city of Columbia, Maryland. When I think about it, I must have been history-minded back then because I saved the poster from the city’s first anniversary – it’s a very 1960s design and was silk screened by hand! I remember I pulled the poster out of a trash can and biked home with it at the age of 7 or so. It’s now hanging in my laundry room. (May be I should sell it on eBay!)

Jim: Walking the East End, your first walking tour book, is a fascinating look at the East End, the historical African-American neighborhood in West Chester. How did you and Sarah come to collaborate on this project?

uptown-cover-2Catherine: I met Sarah when she worked as a receptionist at the Chester County Historical Society (CCHS) and I covered art/history with the Inquirer. Remarkably, this was way back in 1995. She had just finished a walking tour of the same area. The artist Mark Cole drew illustrations but the booklet was never published. Fast forward to 2010 and I was looking for a short project to do. I remained friends with Sarah and knew that she didn’t like leaving her East End booklet languishing in the proverbial drawer.

Fortunately, we had an added incentive because I was able to get a grant from the Leeway Foundation. The writing of that grant made me realize that Sarah had a lot of material but the draft wasn’t yet focused on the East End as the birthplace of Civil Rights activist Bayard Rustin. Rob Lukens, the president of CCHS, later came up with the idea of having a book signing on the 50th anniversary of the 1963 march on D.C. which Rustin famously planned ( and introduced Martin Luther King’s “I have A Dream” speech.)

Jim: What’s something about the Chester County Art Scene that you think would surprise most people?

Catherine: Well, if you are only vaguely aware that there is an art tradition known as the Brandywine Art Tradition, you might be surprised about the number of professional artists here. I could have written a book titled 150 Artists of the Brandywine Valley and still had more artists to spare! You might also be surprised to know that “nontraditional” artists now outnumber the artists who paint traditional watercolor or oil landscapes. The Brandywine Tradition, dating back to the late 1800s, is a realist based movement, in case you wondered.

Jim: I understand you interviewed Andrew Wyeth a few times. Can you tell us about a memorable moment from one of those meetings?

Catherine: Well, first off, any encounter with Wyeth was memorable! You may remember that he painted his model Helga in secret for 15 years and then became America’s best-known reclusive artist. He just hated answering the same question over and over again: did he have an affair with Helga? That became known as “THE question.”

I remember my editor at the time thought I should pull a “Barbara Walters and ask THE question in an off-hand way, as we were walking the grounds of Wyeth’s property and looking, for example, at the millrace. I doubted that I could arrange that – it was hard enough getting an interview – and sure enough I was glad that I even got a chance to speak to him alone, at his house in Chadds Ford.

Alone is the operative word because Wyeth actually greeted me at the door himself (I was expecting a maid) and sat down next to me on a loveseat. He may have wanted to be near the two tape recorders I had running on the coffee table, but still it was a little disconcerting since he had a way of studying your face when you were asking him questions (truly a portrait artist).

Years later, I discovered that I wasn’t alone with Wyeth that day. His biographer Richard Meryman, said he was there that day, sitting in the kitchen. He joked that he was jealous since I was allowed to use a tape recorder whereas he was first banned from using one.

A few years before Wyeth died in 2009, I traveled all the way to Maine on a magazine assignment and he changed his mind about the interview. Or rather, he wanted me to “come back another time” or wouldn’t’ I prefer to interview “his son” meaning Jamie Wyeth? I think he was just tired because this was after his two-city retrospective. Anyway, we were suppose to meet in a restaurant, which is a terrible place for an interview but I suppose he didn’t want me taking a rowboat out to his private island.

I remember that the magazine piece was about a collection of Helga drawings that were being sold, and I carried a stash of copies so that I could show them to Wyeth and he could have a visual reminder. The restaurant was a tucked-away old tavern so it seemed like I was going to make some sort of spy top-secret exchange – the drawings for Wyeth’s memories. It’s a shame he canceled – it would have been fun telling him that. He enjoyed the idea of secret encounters!

Jim: What’s your next project?

Catherine: I like to have several projects going at once, mainly because the creative, personal ones take longer with no immediate income. Also, my business, Quillman Publications, gets various commissions. Most recently, I was commissioned to write an illustrated history of “Johnstown,” the historic Italian-American section of Downingtown ( and home of the annual frog dinner for those in the know!) Also, I’m finishing a book on an antique ice tool museum on the edge of West Chester. (It was closed in the winter; go figure as they say.)

I’m also helping an 80-something artist with the third edition of his watercolor book, A Watercolor How-to : Tips and Techniques My Instructor Never Taught me. As its title suggests, it’s a fun book! You can see it on my web site too ( http://www.quillman-publications.com).

My long-term projects include a children’s book on a 19th century tavern and a YA (young adult) novel on the poorhouse. I know – every writer has a children’s book idea – but I continually get help from the Highlights Foundation. You may recall the name from the Highlights magazine everyone read in the dentist’s office but the foundation now includes a publishing house and workshop retreat place at their headquarters in Honesdale, PA.

I attended a workshop last summer and literally a pair of bears and their cubs showed up the morning the New York literary agents arrived! The bears hung out in the word garden — which had words like “Inspire” and “Creativity” written on stones you could re-arrange like those little word magnets you used to see on people’s refrigerators.

Anyway, I highly recommend the Highlights Foundation if you are interested in children’s books. It’s like joining a long-term support system once you attend your first workshop.

Jim: You are known for being an advocate for the preservation of historical buildings in the borough of West Chester. How did your passion for preservation begin?

Catherine: I think I became “known” in an official way in 2013, when I received a “preservation service award” from the West Chester Downtown Foundation, mainly for documenting the East End.

As for the “beginning,” Inquirer policy probably would have prevented me from speaking out at borough meetings (even though I’m a resident), but I have been thinking about preservation at least since I covered West Chester’s Bicentennial in 1999.

In the last few years, I have drawn more and more on my research (including vintage postcards) in my preservation efforts. In fact, I joke that people must see me as the “100 year-old woman” because I seem to know so much about the historic streetscape and the former uses of buildings.

I call it my occupational hazard as the de facto town historian – I know how many architecturally important buildings we have lost. Sadly, it’s been a lot and makes me think of the expression “demolition is forever.” I’ve read old newspaper accounts of events like the demolition of the Market Street train depot and the Warner Theater, and I see the same story again and again. There’s always a line that the building is “an eyesore” and the borough needs blank-blank for what we now call a “revitalization” project. In a recent Main Line Today magazine story, a friend and fellow historian had the perfect quote. It was “some say you can’t save everything. But if you start with that position, you won’t save anything.”

Lately I’ve heard a new line and it’s related to what I call the “Super-Size-Me” trend of small towns. They say that West Chester has already changed dramatically and we need new buildings to accommodate more people. So I think my “passion” is really a sense of urgency on my part.

Without mentioning specific projects, I think we have lost the idea of adaptive reuse – it’s either razing the building and maybe saving the façade. At many borough meetings, I feel I’m in a “the Emperor has no clothes” scenario because only a few people consider the historic streetscape. I should clarify: With the exception of Market Street (designed originally for a market house), West Chester was built to have small-scale streetscapes and through the decades, developers have retained that for the most part. Today, when a change is made, the new structure dominates – it looks urban, massive or like a soundstage for My Fair Lady to me. Hopefully, the borough’s new comprehensive plan will serve as some kind of protection for the historic character of the borough’s downtown areas and we’ll have more zoning “overlays,” as they call them, to control growth.

Jim: Thanks Catherine!

Catherine’s books can be purchased at Chester County Book Company or at Amazon. To learn more about Catherine’s work, and to see a photo of her with Andrew Wyeth, click here.

On Writing: Interview with Curtis Smith

Book_covers_communionCurtis Smith’s latest book is a simple and beautiful collection of essays called Communion. His stories and essays have appeared in over seventy literary journals, and his work has been named to the Best American Short Stories Distinguished Stories List, The Best American Mystery Stories Distinguished Stories List, and the Notable Writing list of The Best American Spiritual Writing. I first met Curtis at Rosemont Writers Retreat and have become enamored by his beautiful prose, and his quiet dedication to the craft of writing. Curtis is a graduate of Kutztown University (Woot!) and lives in Hershey, PA with his wife and son.

Jim: There is so much I enjoyed about your essay collection Communion. The pieces are so quiet and personal. Did you set out to write an essay collection or was it only after submitting pieces that you realized you had this running theme?

Curtis: I didn’t set out to write a whole collection—that said, I tend to write in cycles, and most of the book was written in a span of about two years. This is my second essay collection, and I’ve discovered a different voice and tone in my nonfiction—and it’s a voice that’s seeped into my fiction as well. So I believe the style and tone provides a sense of unity.

The main running theme I imagined was observing my son leaving the self-centered awareness of a child and entering a more complex, scarier world of adulthood, a place where he realizes he isn’t the center of things and that the world can be filled with forces both wonderful and frightening. And this witnessing allows me to explore my own fears and joys through the lens he’s offered.

Jim: The book cover evokes Catholic traditions but the essays are really about Communion in a larger sense, how grace fills our lives in small, often ordinary moments. Are there any essayists or perhaps other writers who you think inspired you to write about this topic?

curtCurtis: I can’t say there were in particular—but I think there’s a lot of literary writing that deals with grace—with the communion of one’s awareness and the greater world that surrounds us. That said, I’d say in terms of tone and mood, I’d like to think my work lands within the realm of Joan Didion. I appreciate her work’s sharp images and the sense of passionate restraint.

I tend to write in streaks—I’ll write stories for six or so months, then return to a novel, then to essays. It’s just the way my mind seems to work—and the back-and-forth allows me to return to projects with a different perspective. When I’m in an essay writing mode, I find myself reading a lot of poetry. I enjoy the sparseness and beauty of poetry, the way so much is said with such economy. I’m no poet, but I hope that vibe finds its way into my work.

Jim: Being a father is one of life’s greatest joys and you capture it beautifully. Has your son read the essays yet? If so, what does he think?

Curtis: He’s read sections—but not the whole thing. He’s OK with it—at least for now. I’m careful to tell my story—not his. I always want to respect him and his journey. I do my best to be as honest and truthful as possible when commenting on the things he’s said and done. I hope when he’s older he’ll see it the same way.

Jim: I read an interview in the Triangle where you discussed retirement from teaching. Is that coming soon or were you speaking about something farther on the horizon?

Curtis: I’m retiring this year. I graduated in 82 and started teaching right away. For the past 33 years I’ve been with the same district just outside Harrisburg. It’s been a good journey—and I’m incredibly thankful for all I’ve been able to do here. Turning 55 and having 30-plus years helps with the equations that impact one’s retirement. I’m going to do some adjunct work—I’m looking forward to that. I’m excited to start a new chapter—but I will also miss the work that has helped define me all these years.

Jim: You attended Kutztown University just a few years before I went there. What do you most vividly recall about your time at K-Town? And did you have an English or writing professor who inspired you?

Curtis: I grew up in the Philly area, so Kutztown, with its farmlands and buggies, was a bit of a shock, but I had a great time there. I played a lot of Frisbee, and I spent a lot of evenings in the library—kind of a weird combo, when I think of it. I was a special ed major, so I didn’t have too many English courses—but one of my freshman classes was with Harry Humes, who is a really wonderful and widely published poet. I’ve followed his career—he deserves some wider recognition.

Jim: Nice! One of the transcendent moments in my life was when Harry Humes entered on the first day of Creative Writing Class and read a Raymond Carver’s “Why Don’t You Dance?” I really enjoyed Communion and I know the Brandywine Valley Writers Group is looking forward to having you chat about the craft of writing. Thanks again!

Curtis: Thanks Jim.

You can order a copy of Curtis Smith’s essay collection Communion directly from Dock Street Press. Also come listen to Curtis discuss the craft of writing at the Brandywine Valley Writers Group meeting on Tuesday, July 21st at 7pm. The event is held on the second floor of Ryan’s Pub in West Chester, PA, is free and open to the public.

On Writing: Andrea Kiliany Thatcher

9780764349102Andrea Kiliany Thatcher has written The SFP LookBook – New York Fashion Week Spring 2015 Collections for Schiffer Books. Morgan Beye was the photographer for the project. I first met Andrea through Twitter, check her out at @shinyandrea, and then through Chester County Book Company where she works part-time managing social media. Andrea works full-time at Schiffer Books, bringing her experience in fashion, beauty and social media to their team. The book launches on Saturday, May 16th with a party at Nich, a specialty boutique in West Chester, PA. I wanted to learn about this book and Andrea’s experience in pulling this project together.

Jim: Can you tell me a little bit about the process of creating The SFP LookBook

Andrea: The process for The SFP LookBook was really a process I like to think I’ve perfected over the years as a blogger, except this time I was able to create a more lasting product. It began a few weeks before fashion week as I and my photographer went to the design studios of a few designers to ask about and photograph their creative process, model castings, run of show decisions, etc. Then during New York Fashion Week we really documented every part of the process from the hair and makeup, details shots of the clothes and accessories from backstage, and of course the runway and street style. We really talked to everyone along the way – the designers, their PR teams, makeup artists, nail artists, hair stylists, clothing stylists, accessories designers, show producers, journalists and fans. Typically I wrote all this up daily for online outlets like TheFashionSpot.com and Papierdoll.net but this time I brought all that research back after fashion week and began the rigorous process of putting it all into a book. Our director of photography Morgan Beye edited and pre-selected photos for me to choose from to represent each show and look and backstage moment. I transcribed all my interviews so as I got to each designer’s section I’d have everything I needed to pull from available. I’d say the book came together in about three weeks of constant writing and photo editing on my and Morgan’s part. Then it went to our talented designer Danielle Farmer, and went through the copy editing process and all that. Then finally off to the printer!

Jim: What was your favorite moment from covering the fashion show? 

Andrea: I think my favorite part for this book was visiting the designers studios in the weeks before the collections showed. That’s something I never got to do before and visiting their personal creative spaces was really inspiring.

Jim: Who are some of the designers you focus on in the book? 

andrea-thatcherAndrea: The designers that we went to the atelier with were Bibhu Mohapatra, Angel Sanchez, Carmen Marc Valvo, K Nicole – a local Philly design duo – and Novis. Carmen Marc Valvo was the first designer to grant me a backstage interview my first time covering fashion week so it was exciting to call on him again for featuring in this project and a more extended interview.

Jim: Can you tell us something that happens behind the scenes that people might not know?

Andrea: I think people would be surprised by the amount of down time, with models just scrolling through their phones or reading real books – I see it a lot – or a hurry up and wait kind of situation. I also think people would be surprised how down to the wire it gets. Bibhu was telling me about putting different panels of a dress together the morning of the show, after having sent them overseas for delicate detail work. There’s adjustments and fittings going on right up until the girls walk out.

Jim: Would you tell us a little bit about Shiffer Publishing? What types of books do they focus on and what is it like to work there? 

Andrea: Schiffer is a niche publisher out of Lancaster, PA. It’s mostly non-fiction and Schiffer Fashion Press is an imprint of the company that publishes this book series as well as other fashion and accessories titles. The company started out doing a lot of antiques and art books, and now we’re branching out into more pop culture and contemporary design books. It’s neat to work at a company where I get to go to New York often and cover fashion week, but at the same time most days I’m driving out to “the book farm” in Lancaster to work.

Jim: For those of us in the area, can you tell us about your book launch? 

Andrea: The book launch is going to be really fun! I’ve worked at Chester County Book Company in one role or another almost since I’ve lived in West Chester, and they’ll be doing the book sales at the event. It is being held at Nich Boutique in West Chester, I know the owner Kristy – who has another location in Collegeville as well, through some fabulous fashionable friends. You can get an outfit styled from their affordable, trendy selection, and you can get a flash tat to wear out that night! Another Schiffer author Ady Abreu, who wrote Dare to Bake which will also be available at the event, is making cupcakes. And we’ll have some light fair and Doc Magrogan’s signature sangria. And a Phoenixville salon who works with all the fabulous ladies I know in the P-Ville area will be doing a braid bar. It’s from 1 to 4 p.m. so you’ll be all ready to go out to dinner after!

Meet Andrea on Saturday, May 16th at the launch party at Nich Boutique, which is located at 29 S. High St., West Chester, PA. If you can’t attend the party, you can stop into Chester County Book Company and pick up your copy or order it online by clicking here.

On Writing: Interview with Noir Writer Philip Kerr

10857328_10153217413504648_5348156522957261372_oI recently interviewed British thriller writer Philip Kerr in front of a live audience at Chester County Book Company. Philip’s latest novel is the The Lady from Zagreb, and it’s his tenth Bernie Gunther thriller. Bernie Gunther is a private investigator who works to solve crimes which are set against the backdrop of the much larger crimes against humanity being committed in Nazi Germany. In these novels, Bernie often encounters top-level Nazis such as Joseph Goebbels and Reinhard Heydrich, and he finds himself trying to do the right thing, while also trying to survive. Publishers Weekly calls the series, “A searing look at the inhumanity of the Nazis.” The writer Jonathan Ames has called Philip Kerr, “the only bona fide heir to Raymond Chandler.” The Daily Beast wrote, “The Bernie Gunther books are the best crime series around today.”

Here’s some words of writing wisdom from Philip Kerr.

On where ideas for his novels come from:

“Sometimes it just seems as though books sometime arrive in your head and it’s almost impossible to try and second guess where they came from. There’s a painting by Rembrandt called Belshazzar’s Feast and you see this disembodied hand writing on the wall… and sometimes that’s what it feels like, there’s a disembodied hand that’s writing the books. I sometimes feel that the writer is the person who stays at home and the author is the person who goes on tour.”

On visiting a concentration camp to research:


“I very much believe it’s like being a method actor, you know, like Robert Deniro driving a cab around New York in order to make the film Taxi Driver, so I can feel it. So I stood alone in one of these cattle cars for about ten – fifteen minutes, just really trying to think myself into the situation of the people who were there… and got thoroughly depressed as a result, but that’s kind of one’s duty, one’s job really, because you realize that in order to write about this sort of thing you have a duty to be careful of the memories of the people who met their ends there. I strive for as much factual accuracy, but emotional accuracy too, because I think it’s really important that if you are going to write about this, you do it as well as you possible can and deal with it as sensitively as you can too.”

On the balance of writing about Nazi officers:

“I believe the only way to write about them is to encounter them as men and women first, to find their humanity, because the only way you can understand them and get under their skin to make them come alive as characters is to understand that at one stage they were normal people and it was a gradual process.”

On writing about women in his noir novels:

“The thing about the women in most of my novels is I like really intelligent women. I like women to be more intelligent than me, for instance, these are the women I’m particularly attracted to, like my wife for example, she is much more intelligent than I am. I can’t see the point in being attracted to people who aren’t more intelligent than you. For instance if you want to learn how to play tennis there’s no point in playing someone who isn’t any good, you want to play someone like John McEnroe, and you’ll maybe improve as a tennis player, it’s great to be with someone who is a sharp inquiring mind.”

On learning the craft of writing and inspiration from P.D. James:

“I think I’m still learning. The day you think you stopped learning, you might as well pack up. I still think my best novel is ahead of me – I sincerely hope so. In fact, I did an event with the late P.D. James, who at the time – I think Phyillis must have been 91 – and I said this, ‘I think the best work is ahead of me’ and she said, ‘I’m so glad you said that Philip because I think the same,’ and I thought great! Good for you! It’s fantastic! It’s actually really important to a writer. You can’t keep doing what you do without believing that the best is yet to come.”

IMG_5948Thanks to Chester County Book Company for hosting the Philip Kerr interview and asking me to play a part. As of this writing, they have a few autographed copies of The Lady from Zagreb by Philip Kerr remaining. Oh, and thanks to Robb Cadigan for the top photo.

On Writing: Interview with M.M. Wittle

wittleM.M. Wittle appears to dabble in everything. She writes plays, poetry, fiction, and non-fiction. She recently published 3 Decades and I’m Gone, a non-fiction chapbook based on the loss of her parents. Her plays have been produced at various Play in a Day festivals in the Southern NJ theatre community as well as her play, “Family Guidance” had a reading at the Walnut Street Theatre. Her most recent full length play, “Ghost Lights” will be at the Luna Theatre in May. She is the creative non-fiction editor for The Fox Chase Review and an adjunct professor as well as a Literacy Coach in Camden, NJ. I first met Michelle at Rosemont Writers Retreat a few years ago and wanted to see what she is working on now.

Jim: Out of all the writing you do, is there one genre you are most passionate about?

M.M.: I think plays are the easiest for me to visualize, flash fiction would be the next passion. I do my best work when I have to be contained in a smaller form.

Jim: 3 Decades and I’m Gone is a very personal look at suffering, survival and healing and you use poetry, prose and pictures in the book. Tell me how the project came about.

3decadesM.M.: This is a funny story. The poetry came first and my idea was to just have the poetry as a chapbook about loss. Then the bat came into my apartment and I started researching what bats symbolize. When I saw bats take one’s grief I thought that was interesting but didn’t really pay it any mind. When I was in therapy and found out grief is a step in the grieving process, the book came into formation. I know there were some things I still couldn’t fully talk about but poetry made it easier because that was just an image. Some pictures said things I could never fully explain. And the flash creative nonfiction made telling the story easier because I only had to spend time in that memory for 1,000 words.

Jim: Can you tell me about the Play in a Day concept and how often you’ve done it?

M.M.: The play in a day concept is I have 12 hours to write a play with my characters and props dedicated to me and then the director and actors have 12 hours to put the show on. I’ve done this for about 2 years and have written about four ten-minute plays. There is another Play in a Day festival coming in April or May and rumor has it the performance will be at Stockton University.

Jim: So working on these short plays and flash fiction, do you consider yourself a minimalist?

M.M.: I never though of it that way. I just like the challenge of the forms and how specific the word choices have to be when writing in the smaller forms.

Jim: Can you tell us about an incident where you received writing advice that was meaningful to you and what that advice was?

M.M.: When I was a full time teacher, I stopped writing. I felt like I had to spend my time really focusing on my students and their education. I didn’t know how to balance teaching and writing. However, I had a friend say to me after I complained that I had nothing new to say no one can tell a story the way I can tell the story. Then J.C. Todd kicked me out of poetry class because she knew I was writing around the poem instead of writing the poem. Her instructions were to write everything about the poem I had in my head. That helps me a lot when I am trying to find my way into a story.

Jim: Did J.C. physically kick you out of class? That sounds like tough love! It sounds like good advice though.

M.M.: She didn’t physically kick my shin but she did tell me the poem I wrote wasn’t what the real poem was about. Then she told me to go into an empty classroom and just write. J.C. Todd is one of my pillars of writing. I knew she would be the only one to teach me how to write poetry and she still inspires me today. In a post script to this story, the poem still hasn’t been written yet.

Jim: Can you tell us about your new full-length play “Ghost Lights” that is being produced in May? What is the play about? And as the playwright, how much do you get involved in the production once it is on paper?

M.M.: “Ghost Lights” is my homage to the theatre. When I worked in a theatre in Philadelphia, I became curious about ghost lights and there place in theatre history. The play was once just a 14 page act and now it is a full 90 minute production. The play looks at all the cliches and wonders of the theatre. It was such a joy to write and I’m grateful to Haddonfield Theater Arts Center for the opportunity to write the play for their adult theater class.

Scott Laska asked me if I wanted to write a full length play for his adult class and I jumped at the opportunity. I attend class most nights and listen to the actors play their roles. Some of the choices they made influenced how I shaped the play. It was a really spectacular experience to build this show for them.

Normally a playwright writes the play and if the play goes to a reading or workshop, he or she gets to do rewrites based on what the playwright hears. With this experience, I worked with the director Benjamin Sterling Cannon, and the actors on a weekly basis. It was so wonderful to be able to rewrite the play weekly and really watch it take shape.

Jim: Sounds awesome. Good luck with the play!

M.M.: Thanks!

Learn more about “Ghost Lights,” which is being performed at The Luna Theater, 620 S. 8th St., Philadelphia, PA on May 9th. Order M.M. Wittle’s book by clicking here.

Eric Smith discusses Inked and the Philly Lit Scene

timthumb.phpEric Smith appears to be always running through Philly. He has written The Geek’s Guide to Dating and co-founded the popular website Geekadelphia. When not writing at a city cafe, organizing the Philly Geek Awards, or emceeing a local story slam, Eric is making books shine for the independent Philly publisher Quirk Books. He has just published his own YA novel, INKED, and agreed to answer a few questions about writing, tattoos, and all things us literary types like to geek out about.

Jim: Tell us about your new YA novel INKED.

Eric: Sure! INKED is a YA fantasy novel that takes place in a world where, once you come of age, you’re forced to get magic tattoos that tell the world what you’re best at. It marks you, and you’re destined to do that thing for the rest of your life. Farmer, soldier, whatever. The story centers around a teenager that doesn’t want his future set for him, and the misadventures that happen as a result.

timthumb.phpJim: What inspired you to write about tattoos? Was there a flash where you said, “this would be a cool story?”

Eric: A friend of mine is a tattoo artist, and when he was working in Philadelphia, he made a comment about all his tattoos. On how he’ll be a tattoo artist forever, because of the way he looked. It was a joke, but it got me thinking a lot about that idea. It sort of spiraled out from there.

Jim: Are you inked?

Eric: I am! Quotation marks on my wrists, and Jules Verne-inspired tattoos on my left arm. When I was a kid, his books were the first ones I really fell in love with. Despite how my mom feels about the tattoos, they are kiiinda her fault.

Jim: Where can we find INKED?

Eric: It’s a digital exclusive release with Bloomsbury, under the imprint Bloomsbury Spark. It’s available via all major eBook retailers. You can pick it up on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, iBook, etc. An audiobook will also be coming out in the next few months via Audible.

Jim: How would you describe the Philly literary community to someone new in town?

Eric: Very warm and welcoming. I feel like everyone is eager to connect with one another, and just as eager to celebrate the success of each other. Folks like Lillian Dunn at The Apiary are always trying to pull people together, and super editor / writer Sarah Grey always seems to have a great networking event going on. Once you catch wind of something happening, go. Meet people. When you’re in, you’ll never want to leave.

timthumb.phpJim: You’ve written The Geek’s Guide to Dating and co-founded the popular website Geekadelphia. What advice can you share on embracing our inner geekness?

Eric: Hm, I guess to just let that geek flag fly, you know? You never know where your passions are going to lead you. No sense in bottling them all up. Embracing and promoting all the geeky things I care about led to so many great things in my life. Awesome friends, a platform that helps launch my career in publishing, first real book deal and an agent… just do it!

Jim: I know you’ve hosted a First Person Arts Story Slam and judged last year’s Grand Slam. Is there a most memorable story you’ve heard at a storytelling event?

Eric: You know, it’s hard to think of one specific story, but I can tell you my favorite storytellers. I cannot get enough of Marjorie Fineberg Winther. My goodness, that woman has me in tears every single time I see her. She’s hilarious.

I also adore any story that my friend Andrew Panebianco tells, whether its on stage at a First Person Arts event or at happy hour. He’s one talented guy.

Jim: One envisions Quirk Books being a truly hip company. Can you give us a glimpse of what it’s like to work there?

Eric: It’s one awesome hub of creativity, that’s for sure. A group of really passionate people working on projects they adore day in and day out. We have a lot of fun bringing our fun books into the world. It’s like one big happy geeky family, that place.

Jim: Not to rush you, since INKED has just debuted, but do you have ideas on your next writing project?

Eric: Well, I’ve been fussing over a sequel manuscript. I definitely pictured Inked as a series. So, lots of editing to do there, as I work to get it into shape. Right now, that’s it.

Thanks for having me, Jim! 🙂

To learn more, and to check out upcoming INKED events, check out Eric Smith Rocks! You can download the book from Amazon by clicking here.