Friday, 21 January 2022

An Interview with Kamyar Enshayan

Kamyar Enshayan will be the featured reader at the Final Thursday Reading Series on January 27 at the Hearst Center for the Arts. The in-person open mic starts at 7 p.m. Enshayan’s featured reading starts at 7:30. The featured reading can also be streamed live on Zoom. Click HERE for a link. 

Enshayan was born in Iran and came to the U.S. in 1978. He has worked to strengthen Iowa’s local food economy, directs UNI’s Center for Energy & Environmental Education, and has served on the Cedar Falls City Council. That varied experience serves as the backdrop for his latest collection of essays, My Citizenship Papers

 This interview was conducted by Jim O’Loughlin. 

Jim O’Loughlin: The essays, articles and speeches in My Citizenship Papers were written over many years to address a range of immediate concerns. What made you decide to put them all together in a book?
Kamyar Enshayan: I had been thinking about how to celebrate 40 years of living in the U.S., most of it in Iowa. And I wanted to do something to honor these years, the way I have been engaged, what I have learned, people who have been influential in who I have become. So the idea of putting a variety of short pieces together was one way; I also decided to go visit the teacher who taught me English in Hattiesburg, Mississippi 40 years ago. 

JO: This book was a project you did with the Youth Art Team. Can you say a little about their work and how you became involved with the organization?
KE: I have been admiring the work of the Youth Art Team for years. Through engaging the youth in the life and history of the local community in creative ways, the Youth Art Team is helping a generation appreciate and develop affection for the place they are growing up, learn who is who and what has happened here, and shape its future. That's the heart of education, and the heart of citizenship. The theme of Making Iowa Home grew out of collaboration with the Youth Art Team, and the young artists interviewed "new Iowans" in the community and learned about their life lessons. This resulted in two short books, one written and illustrated by the Youth Art Team, and the other a series of short articles by me, illustrated by a friend, also a youth artist. 100% of proceeds from the sale of the books support the work of the Youth Art Team. 

JO: I appreciate the care you use to find the right metaphors and narratives to communicate scientific concepts. Is that something you consciously try to do when writing for a general audience?
KE: Yes, scientists and engineers have a duty to translate what we know about how the world works in plain English, so that ordinary citizens can weigh in and expect that public officials make decisions based on evidence for the public interest. A strong democracy depends on making decisions in the public interest that are based on evidence rather than purchased political friendship. 

JO: While there are many reasons to be concerned about the state of the environment in Iowa and beyond. I’ve always been impressed by your optimistic approach. What gives you the most hope for tackling the challenges we have?
KE: The work of people before us inspires me: people whose sacrifices have brought us our civil rights, our right to vote, laws protecting air and water. My students and my co-workers inspire me; they want to see action, they want to see knowledge acted on, effective and equitable policies implemented. That energizes my work. They say that we already know most of what we need to know to act to solve major problems. I totally agree. Let's get busy.

Monday, 17 January 2022

FTRS Back for 2022

The Final Thursday Reading Series returns for 2022 on Thursday, January 27 with Kamyar Enshayan, an author and activist who currently directs the Center for Energy and Environmental Education at the University of Northern Iowa. Come to the Hearst at 7:00 pm for a live open mic preceding the featured reading, which happens both live and online at 7:30.  Click HERE for a Zoom link for Kamyar Enshayan's reading.

Tuesday, 23 November 2021

Pushcart Prize Nomination

Among the very few perks of being a small press publisher is that I get to make Pushcart nominations from the books I publish. This year, I'm pleased to nominate Robyn Groth's "The Magnificent Marjorie Nuhn" from Passion for Beauty: Marjorie Nuhn, Water Colorist.

Friday, 12 November 2021

An Interview with Gary Kelley

Gary Kelley is an artist and illustrator who has recently published his first graphic novel, The Moon of the Snow-Blind (Ice Cube Press) about the event known as the 1857 Spirit Lake massacre. Kelley will be the featured reader at the Final Thursday Reading Series on November 18 (**one week early due to Thanksgiving) at the Hearst Center for the Arts. The in-person event starts off with a creative writing open mic at 7:00. Gary Kelley takes the stage at 7:30. The 7:30 featured reading will also be live Zoomcast. Click HERE to register for the live Zoomcast.

This interview was conducted by Alexus Williams.

Alexus Williams: What inspired you to write this graphic novel? How did you decide to turn this story into a graphic novel rather than a conventional novel?
Gary Kelley: I grew up with that story and mostly in Algona, Iowa. So I grew up hearing about the story of Spirit Lake and Iowa history. Then there’s my uncle who taught me how to draw and was an art student in Minneapolis. He also had a lot of books on his shelves, and that’s where I found Abby Gardner’s autobiography. I also lived close enough to the Iowa great lakes and, the older I got, the more time I got to spend with family or buddies there. I always loved to get into the history, and I had been around all that stuff since I was a kid. Another thing, the same band of Dakotas as Inkpaduta, actually confronted some settlers in the town I grew up in, in Algona. That gave me even more interest in a story like that. Also, I am addicted to Native American history and Native American culture…that’s why I put that quote about there being two sides to every story in the beginning of the novel, we don’t always get their side of the story.

AW: Could you talk a bit about the title of the book? Does “snow-blind” refer to a person or people? Or is there more to it than that?

GK: The title came because I was so into Indian history, especially the Plains Indians. I read a couple of books on this story, and they’re usually titled The Spirit Lake Massacre, totally demeaning the Dakotas, but I wanted to show that there are two sides to every story. So, when I was doing some research on the Sioux Indians, I found they had their own titles or descriptions for every month. When I started going through the Sioux Indians and saw that the month of March is the “moon of the snow-blind” (moon of the = month of the, and snow-blind = March, so the title means “month of March”). I just thought that title was a little more interesting than "Spirit Lake Massacre." I wanted to remind people that they had culture too, so I didn’t want mine to have the same title. However, I did think it was important to have “spirit lake” in the “o” in the title on the book’s cover though.

AW: Having read the graphic novel, I noticed that everything is in black and white, is there a reason why you chose to have the story printed as such? If you did not have a choice in the matter (due to publishing costs), would you have chosen to print in color? Do you think color impacts the story?
GK: I definitely thought about that, but I haven’t been asked that before. First of all, I like to draw. I like to draw in black and white, composing in darks and light that black and white will give you. Number two, it would have cost the publisher a lot more money to print 175 of the 180 pages with a lot of colors or full colors. I didn’t think the colors in a story like that meant a lot to justify having them printed in color. I worked on that story off and on and worked on it for a lot of years. A lot of things are intriguing in black and white too—more clean and linear. I would guess that if that were a full color book, it would have to cost another 10 or 15 dollars. I’ve got another one (book) in the works with the same publisher right now, and I keep thinking, “well it would be fun to introduce color into part of the story…” Also, black and white composition, to me—whether it’s that book, or one of the ones in the works now—what really gets me into those stories and telling them visually is that I love to be able to read and see how the images match up and how they embrace the words or prepare you for the words on the next page.

AW: Do you see yourself creating more graphic novels that tell historical narratives? Do you plan on focusing on Iowa history if you do?

GK: If I was going into Native American history outside of Spirit Lake, I don’t know what I would do. The one I just finished, that’s at the publisher now, has nothing to do with Iowa or Indians or that history. It’s a story I heard on NPR, I heard it the night before Thanksgiving six or eight years ago, and I never forgot it. It was about two famous musicians (Robert Johnson, a blues master from the 30s, and Pablo Casals, a famous cello master from Spain), what really sparked me is that they had these really famous albums recorded the same week in history. I remember NPR talking about how the two musicians never knew each other. I thought it was a terrific idea because those two guys were classic musicians with no connections, but they had these great albums recorded at the same time. I saw this really great biography on Pablo Casals about what he had to deal with in Europe –with Hitler and Mussolini and how that affected him because Hitler hated him. Casals had to be careful to avoid a lot of things that were happening then…and I thought, “jeez, that was really interesting.” The book is titled, Bach and Blues. They (Johnson and Casals) had such dramatic life stories, and each one was so famous in their music and their careers. They had no idea who each other were, but they both recorded their most famous albums the same week in history (third week of November 1936). It’s at the publisher now, and I hope it’ll be out in May. The Waterloo-Cedar Falls Symphony will be doing a concert on that story in May and will have a cello and guitar on the stage. Also, Robert Johnson had to deal with racism down south in the 1930s. It was terrible growing up there and building a career. And Pablo Casals was in Europe, and he hated the Nazis and their culture and Hitler. All of this really made me think this would be a fun story to tell and a good concert–I think it’s only going to be 64 pages rather than almost 200 pages like Moon of the Snow-Blind.

AW: Did you think Moon of the Snow-Blind was going to be as long a story as it turned out to be?
GK: It’s the length it is because of the way I like to tell stories visually and how they match up or support the words on the pages–or how the words support the pictures. I try to make each page interesting to look at, from a point-of-view of each picture and doing my homework, doing my research. Or I find a story like that where I can use a lot of interesting visuals. It lets me go back to how my career started– as an illustrator. So, when I do my book, I can do 180 pages of that, which is really fun.

Thursday, 11 November 2021

Maribeth Boelts Zoomcast

 If you didn't get a chance to see Maribeth Boelts's Final Thursday Reading Series presentation, the Zoomcast is now available for streaming.

Sunday, 17 October 2021

An Interview with Maribeth Boelts

Maribeth Boelts,
 author of more than 40 children’s books including Kaia and the Bees and A Bike Like Sergio’s, will be the featured reader at the Final Thursday Reading Series on October 28 where she will read from several of her publications. One of her most recent stories stems from a memory of her son, Will, while the characters were created out of her grandson’s want for a story with a stickbug and a beetle—and so the Stickbug and Beetle story in The Purple Puffy Coat begins. 

The event takes place in the Mae Latta room in the Hearst Center for the Arts. A creative writing open mic starts at 7:00 p.m. (sign up to read your best five minutes of original work), and Boelts's featured reading will begin at 7:30 p.m. The featured reading will be Zoomcast live at 7:30 Central time. You can register for that HERE. 

The following interview with Maribeth Boelts, detailing her work in children's literature and her approach to writing, was conducted by Alexus Williams.

Alexus Williams: You have mentioned that you got involved in writing children’s stories after having your own kids, and now grandkids, but did you ever feel a calling towards children’s stories prior to that? If so, how did starting your own family change your feelings/motivation, if at all, for writing children’s stories?
Maribeth Boelts: I knew I wanted to be a writer when I was in second grade, and I lived for the creative writing blocks of time with zero instruction we were given in grade school. During high school, I wrote a little series of stories for children, and showed it to the old Catholic nun I had as an English teacher. She was enthusiastic, and that encouraged me. Once I graduated from college, and was teaching, I was constantly coming up with little stories and poems for the children I taught, and began to submit things to publishers here and there. My passion grew as we started having children, and we read countless stacks of picture books to them. That's when I quit my teaching job, and started exploring writing for children as a career. The motivation has always been there, really. I love children, and I've always been so curious about the stories that keep them turning the page or requesting multiple readings.

AW: Looking at the books you have written, you have certainly covered a wide variety of topics, settings, and characters. With that being said, where do you draw your inspiration from for these stories? Do you find your stories come from a place of necessity? (i.e. trying to explain certain concepts to your grandkids (or your kids when they were younger).
MB: For me, most of my stories begin with an "ache" of some sort-- a remembering of a childhood experience or emotion, that I sense has a universal thread in it. For example, a want that is out of reach. Or a common fear that requires some courage. Or a feeling of security and love that must have words wrapped around it. Or a friendship that asks for a selfless act. I try to be careful about teaching anything overtly, as children can sniff out a "good for you" book a mile away, but I do really like to get some discussion going with my books. 

AW: What is the writing process like for you? Also, when do you begin to consider what kind of illustrations should be included in the books?
MB: I try to write at least something every day, but when I have an idea that seems to hold some promise, I will let it simmer for a while. I tend to write a first draft quickly and with as little self-consciousness or inner critic as possible. Just write fast and get the bare bones story down. If it appears that it has enough substance to continue, I will begin to flesh it out. This is my favorite stage of writing... with the pressure of the first draft under my belt, and the luxury of having something concrete to work with as I continue. 
        In terms of illustration, I leave that in the hands of the editors and art department at the publishers. While I imagine what the illustrations could look like, and I "see" the story in my head as it unfolds, I have little to do with the illustration of my stories. The illustrator has the freedom to interpret my text just as I had the freedom to create it. 

AW: Have you considered writing other literature, like young adult literature? If so, what kind of literature crosses your mind? If not, could you explain why you would rather focus on children’s literature?
MB: I'm most intrigued by children's books, and though I do have a middle grade novel and will write more of those in the future, I haven't explored young adult literature beyond reading it. I find childhood infinitely interesting, and it remains a good challenge to write for this audience. 

AW: Looking back at when you first started writing children’s stories, what is one thing you would tell your younger self?
MB: Expect to be surprised by the stories that "catch" and the stories that go unnoticed, and keep writing.

Wednesday, 13 October 2021

Zoomcast of Hoing & Hileman

 If you didn't get to attend last month's FTRS reading with Dave Hoing & Roger Hileman (and musical guests), you can now watch the Zoomcast.