Sunday 7 April 2024

An Interview with Micki Berthelot Morency

April’s FTRS featured reader is Micki Berthelot Morency, author of the novel, The Island Sisters (BHC Press). Morency was born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, and currently lives in Florida, and she draws inspiration from her experience in her debut novel, which follows the varied life paths for four friends. Stacy Hawkins Adams says Morency’s writing “leaves you rooting for her characters as if they're your kin. Her vivid prose paints an unforgettable portrait of Haitian culture and customs, while imparting wisdom and gripping your heart.” 

The Final Thursday Reading Series takes place on April 25 at the Hearst Center for the Arts in Cedar Falls, Iowa. There will be an open mic at 7:00 p.m. (bring your best five minutes of original creative writing). Micki Berthelot Morency takes the stage at 7:30. The featured reading will also be simulcast on Zoom. Click HERE to register for a link. 

Interview conducted by Olivia Brunsting. 

OLIVIA BRUNSTING: While reading The Island Sisters I was touched by the friendship between the four main characters. Even though they bickered sometimes, they were always there to support each other. Did you always know you wanted four main characters?
MICKI BERTHELOT MORENCY: Yes. I did. Because the four characters are based on real women I knew as clients, friends, family members and people in my community. In fact, I had to be careful to disguise them physically and in other ways to avoid recognition from the real women. Writing a four POV book was challenging, but that’s the way I wanted to tell the story. So far, the praises from other writers are how distinguishable the women are from each other. 

OB: Why did you pick Haiti, Guam and St Thomas as settings in the book?
I was born in Haiti, so it’s my culture, and I wanted to portray the roles of women in that particular period in the country’s history in the book. I had the privilege of living on the islands of Guam and St. Thomas for some months, and I loved the people and the topography of both islands. I wanted to share some of it with the reader. 

OB: What inspired you to write The Island Sisters? What kind of feelings or thoughts did you want the readers to be left with?
I was inspired by the strength of the women who raised me: my centenarian grandmother, my mother, my aunties and all the Haitian women I grew up watching as they struggled to overcome a culture that condemned them when they came out of the womb a female. I wrote the book to give voice to all the women who told me, “No one cares.” I wanted to show them that some of us see and hear them, that we do care. I want the takeaway for readers to be that life is messy, that we do the best we can with what we have, and that our culture influences everything we do, so we all need an open mind to understand “others.” 

OB: You mention on your website that your own immigration experience has provided you with a lot of material to write about. How did that influence The Island Sisters? Did your work in transitional housing for abused women also influence the book?
Like the characters in The Island Sisters, I knew that higher education was going to allow me to be self-sufficient, thus having control over my life. It was hard to assimilate. I’ve encountered many obstacles, but I persevered because I didn’t allow myself the option to quit. Most immigrants like me leave their home countries with concrete goals, so they work hard to make them happen. After college I worked in the banking industry, but I found my calling in the social service sector. I’m an advocate for women and children. My work at the shelter was the most rewarding for me because I could see how I’d impacted lives with measurable results. I wrote the book for those women as well. 

OB: Without giving too much away, self-love is an important part of the book. What advice would you give to people who are struggling with self-love?
That self-love is not selfish. Once I learned to love myself, I experienced an abundance of love that I was able to share freely with others. People love their children, their romantic partner, their siblings…women seem to be wired to love everyone, and they leave themselves for las,t and by then the well is empty. Fatigue, stress, unmet needs, and expectations turn to self-loathing, and they buy into the belief that they don’t deserve love. My advice is start with yourself. Love all of you, and you will have plenty left for everyone else.

Wednesday 13 March 2024

An Interview with J. D. Schraffenberger

March’s FTRS featured reader is J. D. Schraffenberger, the author of the recent poetry chapbook, American Sad (Main Street Rag), which Dan O’Brien describes as “deeply moving, unnerving, provocative, darkly comic, and thoroughly recognizable.” His other poetry collections include The Waxen Poor and Saint Joe’s Passion. Schraffenberger is an editor of the North American Review and a professor of English at the University of Northern Iowa. Along with reading from American Sad, Schraffenberger will play songs on piano inspired by the poems, accompanied by Michael LeFebvre on vocals and Paul Conditt on saxophone. 

The Final Thursday Reading Series takes place on March 28 at the Hearst Center for the Arts in Cedar Falls, Iowa. There will be an open mic at 7:00 p.m. (bring your best five minutes of original creative writing). J. D. Schraffenberger takes the stage at 7:30. The featured reading will also be simulcast on Zoom. Click HERE to register for a link. 

Interview conducted by Tomiisin Ilesanmi. 

Tomiisin Ilesanmi: Many times, it is advised to detach the Artist from the Art to get an uninfluenced opinion. However, learning a little about the Artist can give a whole new translation to his Art. Tell us about your story. How did you first get interested in poetry?
J. D. Scraffenberger: I really like how you frame the question, Tomiisin. You’re right that we’re often cautioned against biographical interpretations of an artist’s work—for good reason. We might tend to conflate certain experiences or ideas with a writer’s own, which is not fair to the artist or to the work of art. Some works, however, can be illuminated by an author’s biography. For instance, the North American Review Press recently published a posthumous book of poems by Jason Bradford called Stellaphasia. Because many of the poems concern living with a disability, knowing that Jason was born with muscular dystrophy helps the reader to understand his remarkable poems. 

In my case, I think I was drawn to writing poetry early on because it allowed me to be playful. I grew up in a working class home. We lived paycheck to paycheck. Playing sports was more important than reading books. And yet, it was also a home in which humor, irony, wordplay, and linguistic cleverness of all kinds was valued. When we learn to write in other modes and genres (namely expository prose), it’s usually for the sake of clearly communicating some pre-existing message. Maybe we want to explain something, argue a point, convince someone you’re right. The virtues in these modes are (usually) clarity, focus, and organization. But poetry sidesteps these imperatives. You can write a poem for the sheer pleasure of the feeling of words in your mouth. Knowing this origin story of my own journey as an artist might not illuminate my work, but perhaps the reader will understand at the very least that my poems look askance at the virtues of expository prose—and sometimes they do much worse than that. 

TI: Poets are very particular about every word, line structure, or punctuation that goes into their work. As an editor yourself, how do you juggle the editorial and poet hat when writing? How has being an editor influenced your writing?
JDS: I’m glad you asked this question because I spend most of my days reading other people’s writing, often with an eye toward what needs to be changed or fixed. If you fetishize that approach to text, it can infect your very ability to enjoy reading! Being an editor, however, has done one very important (and positive) thing for me: it has reminded me that writing is a process, and revision is a vital part of that process. You’re right that as an artist particular words and punctuations are often meticulous, painstaking decisions, but I do always keep in mind that things could be otherwise. Maybe that’s the main lesson to take away from being an editor. If I were the kind of person to have a bumper sticker, it would read: Things could be otherwise. 

TI: You have referred to yourself as a print poet rather than a presentation poet. What do you consider to be the difference between both types of poets? 
JDS: I am so much more comfortable as a poet of the page rather than a poet on the stage. I have tremendous respect for slam and performance poets whose work comes alive in the moment and in their bodies. I am enough of a taciturn midwesterner that this kind of performance does not come very easily to me. I do believe poetry lives in the body (on the lips, on the tongue, in our bellies and lungs), but I tend to carry poetry around with me (my own and others) in less obvious ways. I know it’s a truism that “poetry is meant to be read aloud.” I challenge that notion, however, if “meant to be” means that I cannot be enriched and transformed by a poem in the privacy of my own head. 

TI: “American Sad.” What inspired the title of this collection?
JDS: The poems in this collection admittedly tend toward darkness and sadness. In an early poem in the book called “Time” I wrote the lines, “You can endure almost anything for a few minutes / But there’s a peculiar American sadness that lasts forever.” I am not someone who suffers depression or experiences chronic bouts of sadness in my everyday life. Most people would likely tell you that I’m actually a pretty cheerful person, even in the face of difficult circumstances. But we all experience sadness, usually as something to “get through.” I also believe that there is a sadness that hums in the background as a constant ambience in our lives. We may try to compartmentalize it, to repress it, to distract ourselves from it. Perhaps it is related to mortality, to a recognition and consciousness of the pain and suffering of others, of the various kinds of futility and hopelessness we feel on a planet that often feels doomed. I call this collection “American Sad” as a nod toward the various ideas surrounding the myth of the American dream and the grand promises that most of us eventually realize are lies. We remain tired, poor, huddled masses. 

TI: How do you hope people will benefit from reading this book?
JDS: My only hope for readers of this book is that they open themselves up to the strange, the dark, the dreamlike and nightmarish, not for the sake of wallowing in sadness but for the sake of recognizing its terrible, pathetic beauties and finding something there that is true. As a writer and a thinker, I believe that art is not meant to be simply pretty, merely decorative or pleasing. Art has the capacity to create a rift in our everyday world to reveal—momentarily, through a glass darkly—a sliver of the Real. If American Sad is able even to approach that kind of truth, well, that would make me very happy indeed.

Tuesday 20 February 2024

An Interview with Christopher D. Schmitz

February’s FTRS featured reader is Christopher D. Schmitz, the author of several Science Fiction and Fantasy series, including 50 Shades of Worf, Wolves of the Tesseract, and Curse of the Fey Duelist, which includes his most recent work, The Crow and the Troll (TreeShaker), a dark fantasy about “a contract killer, a gorgeous victim, and a mystic garden hidden beyond the Winter Court.” He is also the author of The Indie Writer’s Bible Workbook

The Final Thursday Reading Series takes place on February 29 at the Hearst Center for the Arts in Cedar Falls, Iowa. There will be an open mic at 7:00 p.m. (bring your best five minutes of original creative writing). Christopher D. Schmitz takes the stage at 7:30. The featured reading will also be simulcast on Zoom. Click HERE to register for a link. 

Interview conducted by Jim O’Loughlin. 

JIM O’LOUGHLIN: Though you write in a range of genres, a lot of your books have been Science Fiction. Can you talk about what drew you (and continues to draw you) to Sci-Fi?
CHRISTOPHER D. SCHMITZ: I’ve always loved Science Fiction. I was watching a YouTube channel just this morning run by a guy roughly my age. He claimed the 90s were not some golden age of anything except for Science Fiction television. He’s definitely wrong, except for Sci-Fi being great TV programming in that decade. Not only was I watching it, but I was also reading it. I read lots of Golden Age and Silver Age stuff and more modern books. And not just Sci-Fi but also Fantasy, which are often lumped together in the same larger genre category. I picked up a library discard when I was in the third grade and I was hooked. Around that same time, I discovered some post-apocalyptic fantasy stuff that also really spoke to me and I started reading a lot of space opera as well. 

JO: You’ve also carved out a writing career in which you are heavily involved in publishing and promoting your books. Can you talk about how you think of your work as a writer/publisher?
CDS: I have really thrown in on the independent side of the industry. I’ve been published traditionally as well as independently and really prefer the latter. Some of my author friends are big names in the SFF writing world (like guys with major movies and TV deals), and they are doing both based on their needs. I really like being in control and being able to shift when the market says shift. I travel to a lot of events every year and get on the ground level with my readers, meeting new people almost every week at comic book conventions as well as meeting return readers who have come to buy something else for me. (Although I am not entirely opposed to traditional publishing house deals, and I am in talks with one major Science Fiction publisher right now about one of my unpublished series.) Being an independent means you are also taking on the roles a publisher should (although what those expectations are has largely shifted in the last two decades.) That means I’m always promoting something, and I’m always looking for new ways to get in front of people. It started out of necessity, but I discovered I enjoy certain aspects of it. 

JO: One of the things you do is produce an author newsletter. What has that experience been like, and when is it something you would recommend for other writers?
CDS: I provide author coaching, teach at panels and workshops, and I’m currently developing some new author courses drawn out of my forthcoming expanded Indie Author’s Bible… but this is a piece of information I will always give away for free. Having a newsletter is one of the most fundamental things you can do. Not only do people follow you because they want to stay in touch with your particular brand or stories, but they want to be connected to you as an author. Giving access to ourselves as authors is something that the big traditional publishers cannot do. It’s what sets us apart qualitatively from the major publishers. Not only does that provide an element of access and quality, but it is effective and mostly irrevocable. What if your favorite social media site shuts down or deplatforms/shadowbans you or loses favor with your audience. All of those things have happened within the last couple of years. But even when things aren’t so drastic, your newsletter is still better. Email has higher open rates and if you want to switch from one email provider to another, you can take your list with you. You can also use it for other marketing things like creating custom advertising algorithms. Also, it costs you nothing to send an email. Do you want your Facebook followers to see your latest update? That’s going to cost you if you want more than a small percent to know you just did something neat. I have resources I recommend and highly endorse the book Newsletter Ninja. It’s written for authors, but I recommend it for anybody wanting to learn how to effectively use newsletters for your industry. 

JO: Are there any other tips you have for emerging writers?
CDS: I’ve gotten ahead of the curve on a few things including using Kickstarter and crowdfunding to launch books. Part of it is that it’s helped me find my people who love my kinds of books, and another part of it is that in researching how to harness that side of the business well I have joined several online groups to both learn and share, and it’s helped me find more and more like-minded people. It’s important as an author to surround yourself with voices you’ve allowed to be critical of your own work and methods and also to build a peer group. I really enjoyed watching interviews between Stephen King and George RR Martin. Those two used to travel around to shows to autograph books and meet people just like I do along with several other friends I have met on the author circuit. They value each other as peers even if the stuff is pretty radically different in many ways. That’s how a lot of author friendships are. I have friends who write radically different genres, but at the end of the day a lot of the challenges are the same and it’s important to have outside voices to challenge and grow you as a writer and also as a business owner …because that’s what being an author is in today’s day and age: it’s a melding of business and creativity. 

JO: You and your wife also run a business, Waterloo’s Weis Mansion Bed & Breakfast. How do you manage the balance between finding time to write and having another job that demands your time?
CDS: With great difficulty. I try to manage my schedule well. Luckily Kelly does most of the operational side on the bed-and-breakfast. I often split time between writing and marketing endeavors and break up my day with painting or property repairs and that sort of thing. I live and die by my calendar alerts.

Sunday 21 January 2024

An Interview with Catherine DeSoto

2024’s first Final Thursday Reading Series featured reader is Catherine DeSoto. DeSoto is the author of Lies of Omission: Algorithms versus Democracy (Skyhorse), a study of the impact of algorithmic curation of social media on divisions within the United States. Dan Kovalik writes of Lies of Omission, “this book will make you question what is true and factual in the world, and whether you have a viable path for discerning such things.” DeSoto is a professor of Psychology at the University of Northern Iowa. 

The Final Thursday Reading Series takes place on January 25 at the Hearst Center for the Arts in Cedar Falls, Iowa. There will be an open mic at 7:00 p.m. (bring your best five minutes of original creative writing). Catherine DeSoto takes the stage at 7:30. The featured reading will also be simulcast on Zoom. Click HERE to register for a link. 

Interview conducted by Jim O’Loughlin 

JIM O’LOUGHLIN: While there has been a lot of media attention focused on the impact of social media on individual behavior, you approach this issue as a psychologist. How has that allowed you to view this issue differently?

My background in neuroscience and psychology allows me to characterize what is happening in the brain when one receives certain kinds of information, and then link this to social psychology research on preferring agreement over disagreement. In all, this makes our little pocket gadgets, and the way they work with the background algorithm, the perfect storm for increasing polarization. There is actually a lot of relevant research and knowledge that explains why society is splitting. Basically, human beings have a powerful innate love to be right; it is hardwired in the brain, and this allows us to understand the addictive nature of modern social media. 

JO: Lies of Omission details some of the information gaps that exist in how social media presents information on controversial topics. Can you give an example of how algorithms feed people with different views different versions of the world?
CD: The divergent media feeding really began 15-20 years ago. By 2016 all major feeds were changing content based on what articles the user had been clicking and pausing upon. The book goes into detail, but for example, Neighbor A will opens her phone and see an article vividly describing the details of immigrant who committed a horrible crime, while Neighbor B opens her phone and is provided articles depicting a mother fleeing violence along with pictures of her young child with braids and a doll in her hand, stuck camping on the US border for nine months. Views on immigration problems will further diverge. Specific research on the algorithms' effects will be overviewed in my talk, and is well detailed in the book. 

JO: While you are concerned about the effect of social media on individuals, the subtitle of this book—"Algorithms versus Democracy"— also points to your concerns of the political impact of these developments. What can be done to stop the corrosive impact on our politics?
CD: I wish I had a good answer. I like to hope that increased insight and awareness might help in some small way. 

JO: In writing this book, what were the pleasures and challenges in taking scientific data and presenting it for an audience that may include specialists as well as general readers?
CD: Very hard to do; and I am sure I failed to strike the right balance at times. For the second part, I earnestly sought to give a strong and accurate overview of what a person who holds the opposing view might say and focus on. I hope that it is hard to tell my true view after reading the pros and cons of a topic. If that happens, I feel I succeeded. That is what I was going for. 

JO: How, if at all, has writing this book affected your own use of social media? Do you do anything differently after spending so much time on this subject?
CD: Yes, actually. Like everyone I do not want to have holes in my knowledge about issues I care about. Often, I try to look for specific content by name, and not let the media feeds (Facebook, Youtube, my News feed) select articles for me. I am aware that what is served to me is algorithm driven and will automatically work to keep some information from me, as well as buffer me from opposing information. I don't want to let that happen, or at least I wish to try to limit it. Another thing I do: I try to click on and pause on articles I do not agree with, even if I don't read them.... I do this to try and keep my feed from being too catered to my own viewpoints.