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In Conversation With: Alex Shephard (OC ’09)

7 May

This week I was lucky enough to steal away some of Alex Shephard’s precious time for the following interview. (Check out his work here!)  Shephard graduated from Oberlin in 2009 and is one of the founding members and editor in chief of Full Stop, an infant online books forum that includes interviews, reviews, features, etc.  If you haven’t read Full Stop, please drop what you’re doing and go there now!  The site is a huge inspiration to me as an undergraduate pursuing a pretty useless creative writing degree.

Here I ask Alex about the popular new site, his own writing ambitions and advice, and what it takes to become a new superstar of the book world.  His answers are poignant, smart, and certainly left me thinking.

How did the idea for Full Stop come about?

In Philadelphia, they serve something called the “City Wide Special” — a shot of Heaven Hill whiskey (which tastes a bit like fermented rust) and a 16 oz. PBR. After drinking a couple of these, Jesse and I started talking about how we didn’t think our generation was well represented in the online literary “scene” and about how, after writing for other places for a few months, we wanted a space of our own where we could experiment and grow as writers and editors. For obvious reasons, that first conversation wasn’t particularly coherent, but we stuck with it.

That was, I think, the week before Thanksgiving. By mid-December we had brought in Max Rivlin-Nadler, Amanda Shubert, and Eric Jett and had a lot of discussions about what we wanted the site to cover and how we wanted to cover it. Looking back, I’m amazed at how quickly everything came together — we basically set the site up, on a whim, in 6 weeks.

Have you been surprised by the response thus far?  What were your expectations?

I have been amazed by the response thus far. When we started we had no reputation to speak of, no money, no marketing; in fact, there’s still no money or marketing. Just a handful of interviews and reviews and about two dozen people who were really committed to making the site work. By the second week, we had been picked up by 3 Quarks Daily, which helped to boost traffic a lot, but for the most part we’ve grown, and have continued to grow, by word of mouth. It’s difficult for me to express how moved I’ve been by how quickly we’ve gained a modest, but committed readership. The fact that that our readership continues to grow on an almost daily basis is really heartening.

Because things happened so quickly, I don’t really ever remember talking about what our expectations were for the site, in terms of traffic. We mostly discussed things like tone, what we did and did not want to cover, our editorial roles etc. I’m pretty sure a part of me expected that nobody would read us at first, because, well, why would they?

I’m proud that, while I monitor traffic pretty religiously, it’s not something that we place very much importance on. I hope you’ll forgive me for copying and pasting an excerpt from an earlier interview, but I do think that it’s relevant: “We started [Full Stop] to write about what we’re interested in, to contribute to a conversation that, without energy and integrity, can easily stagnate. If nobody was reading something, perhaps we’d pay attention to that, but we generally want to write and read about what we want to write and read about and I hope that doesn’t change.”

Full Stop carves and defends a necessary space for young critics to talk with and about young writers.  The discussion has traditionally been established writers talking about young writers.  Do you think full-stop’s dialogue had the potential to change the way critics approach literature?  Or do you think the approach is already changing, and full-stop is merely a product of that change?

 I don’t think there’s one conversation. So, I’m pretty wary of talking about how we can “change” a critical conversation that’s always been pretty multivocal. While the internet has exploded the critical conversation, it hasn’t, in my opinion, dramatically altered it. The old guard — your newspapers, journals, and magazines with New York somewhere in the title — is still going strong and most  websites still follow their model. I’m pretty sure you could find legitimate parallels between most of the online beacons and journals or zines from ages past.

That being said, the internet has the power to create and sustain, I think, a more diverse critical conversation. For instance, we’ve tried to bring in people with a lot of different backgrounds and interests. It’s also changed the way we register critical authenticity or legitimacy. You no longer need a secondary outlet to say “here is something we sanction”; you can just go out and do it yourself.

Before Full Stop, did you have any other writing jobs/did you maintain a blog?  If so—how did that experience inform your current work?

I was (and still am) a fairly active freelancer, though most of the work I did before Full Stop was editing and most of the writing I did was anonymous. I wrote reviews and conducted interviews for a variety of outlets (some reputable, some not), but didn’t do nearly as much writing as I do now. And most of the worthwhile writing I did was private — attempts at fiction; “journaling.” So I’m not sure how that experience informed my work. Writing and editing technical manuals and medical papers certainly didn’t contribute anything, but it did make me hungry — it made me really, really want to do the kind of writing I longed to do. That drive was and is essential to the site. I’ve tried to stay hungry.

What have you learned so far from the experience and what advice would you give to undergraduates seeking to make careers in writing?

Let me begin by prefacing everything that follows with this: I don’t really know what the fuck I’m doing. Full Stop has been an exercise in improvisation and one that hasn’t been going on long enough for me to really be qualified to give advice. But, here it goes:

So much of what I’ve learned is remarkably boring; it’s mostly stuff that seems obvious, but is actually pretty difficult to accomplish. Respond to emails on time, keep deadlines, maintain control over the disparate tasks you have to accomplish. The great Tom Scharpling sums it up perfectly with his 3 rules for getting quality creative work done:

1. DO THE WORK. Can you look yourself in the mirror at the end of the day and say that you did the best you could?

2. BE THE BEST POSSIBLE VERSION OF YOURSELF. Don’t shortchange yourself or pull your punches because of some internal negative voice.

3. WRITE DOWN WHAT YOU NEED TO DO. It helps. Do those three things and you’ll be more alright than not.

Is there any job more romanticized than writing? People often overlook that a writing career often means an often grueling workload, financial instability, and (always) the possibility that no one will read what you’ve spent x hours writing. It is, first and foremost, a job. So I think that finding an internal drive and maintaining a certain level-headedness about what you’re getting into is really important.

What are your plans for the future, both with Full Stop and in your personal writing career?

 Full Stop (at 4.5 months) and I (at 23.5 years) are both relatively young and have no concrete plans. I honestly have no idea what the site will look like in 6 months, and that’s one of the things I love most about this project: we’re always trying new things, there’s very little pressure and no constraints. As for my own writing career, I just hope I continue to “develop” as a writer.

If you had to write an acknowledgements page right now, who would you include?  What people, works, or experiences have been most important to your growth as a writer?

Growing up in Elmira, NY I lived in what Philipp Meyer calls a “split existence”:  a private life of reading and writing and a “social” life of normal Rust Belt teenage boy stuff. That dichotomous upbringing was and is really crucial to my thinking. My experience at Oberlin was equally important. The Oberlin English Department essentially taught me how to write, with David Walker taking on the bulk of that Herculean task. And a lot of the folks I met at Oberlin, now my best friends, are people I still “workshop” ideas with. My bffs Eric Jett (Full Stop’s Web Editor), David Sokoll, and Lucas Brown are the three people that had the greatest effect on me over those four years and, as a result, I’ll be burdened with love and affection for them for the rest of my life.

In an interview Wells Tower did with Barry Hannah (probably my favorite writer of fiction), Hannah talked about living in Oxford, Mississippi and having to get used to Faulkner’s ghost hovering around everything in that town. When I spoke to Wells back in February, we touched on the idea of “ghosts” (this didn’t make it into the final interview) and concluded that we’d never really had that experience. So, in terms of works or writers, I can’t really direct you to one (or even two or three) and say, “I wanted to do this because of x.”

That being said, I can briefly give a rundown of a few critics or non-fiction writers that had a big effect on me. In high school, Andrew Sullivan and Chris Hitchens loom large. I still read everything they write, and credit them with a great deal of what I guess you could call my “moral” development, though I would be hard pressed to define that. In college or shortly after, Nicholson Baker, Paul Collins, David Foster Wallace, and V.S. Naipaul became heroes. Other folks, mostly living, one dead, that come to mind when I think of writing I admire: Richard Holmes, Marco Roth, Ta-nehisi Coates, Benjamin Kunkel, Jessa Crispin, Michael Schaub, Samuel Coleridge, Blake Butler, Denis Johnson, Joan Didion, Edmund White, Nitsuh Abebe, Geoff Dyer, Gabe Delahaye (the funniest man on the internet), Max Magee, Edan Lepucki, Tony Horwitz, Christian Lorentzen, Michael Miller, Emily St. John Mandel, and John Jeremiah Sullivan. So there’s what The Awl would call a “listicle without comment.” I’m sure I’m leaving a bunch of writers I like out, but those are the people that came to mind immediately.

In Conversation with Connie Springer

4 Apr

Recently I had the opportunity to interview Positively Ninety author and photographer Connie Springer (OC alum ’70).  Here she talks about her recent work, mixing mediums, and the self-publishing debate.

AL: I’m interested in your recent book, Positively Ninety.  How would you describe the work in your own words?

CS: Other people have described it as an inspiration about how you can keep living actively and being engaged in the world no matter what your age.  The 20 personality traits that I culled from talking to the people show how to lead a productive and active life.

AL: Can you tell me about the process behind the book?  I know that it was inspired by your experiences with your aging mother.

CS: It was—seeing how she deteriorated and how she didn’t do the things on the list.  She isolated and lived in the past rather than the present, didn’t have any goals or surround herself with other people, just all those things that were a bad role model for me.  I wanted to see a different path.

AL: What kinds of efforts went into collecting the interviews and getting in touch with the individuals that you profiled?  What was your process and what was the timeline for putting this together?

CS: At first I interviewed one woman because I was a freelance writer for a local magazine and I wanted to profile a woman I had heard about who was in her nineties and a great gardener and you never would have guessed that she was that age.  So I interviewed her, and after that I got the idea that I could proceed and talk to other people, so then I applied for a grant from the city of Cincinatti, received it.  That was a 2 year time frame starting in 2007.  It was helpful to have someone that I had to answer to, so I knew when the project had to be completed by.

                Most of the people I got through word of mouth.  Once I told people that I was looking for lively 90-year-olds, a lot of them would say “Oh, I know somebody”.  Even my lifeguards where I swim gave me, I think, somebody.  I would say that the majority came from things like that.  One person I read about in the newspaper because he had swum across the Ohio river [laughs].  So I got his name and pursued him.

AL: It seems to reflect a real community effort, which is something that I think comes across in the work.  So I think that’s kind of interesting that it came together in that way.  What’s been the response thus far?

CS: To the work?  Well it started out as an exhibit.  That was what the grant called for—to have a public display of it.  I had exhibited it at six places and I always had a guest book where people could write responses.  People are very buoyed up by it.  People way younger who are even depressed about their ages [laughs]—you know I’m in my sixties and I have friends who are that age and they feel sorry for themselves and then when they read about these ninety year olds they get kind of reinvigorated.  The quotes on the back of the book indicate some of the responses.  My favorite is one woman who talks about how I made old people “look beautiful”, because people tend to not appreciate them enough in this country, this culture.

AL: I think it’s definitely true.  People tend to get marginalized in a sense as they age.  And I’m sort of interested also, in the work itself, in the way this project combines writing and photography.  I guess I’m just wondering how you feel these different mediums interact to create a sense of story and community.  What are some of the challenges of putting these mediums together and is there anything you find particularly compelling about it?

CS: I mean I feel like they go hand in hand really.  I’ve had a lot of responses that my writing makes the reader feel right in the room and really creates a sense of being there.  A lot of people have said that the photography really expresses the essence of the person.  I feel like those are my fortes—to write and to photograph—and I think they go really well together to create a whole picture…  In this project I actually had about three times as much text from the interviews and I had to pare it down for the exhibit and the book.  That was a challenge because I had learned about the beginning of their lives up until now and I had about six to ten pages [for each of them], but I didn’t want the viewer to get impatient or tired reading about each person.  I tried to find the essence of what each of them had said.

AL: I found it very engaging, personally, just in the form that it was in.  But I think that for each individual there were also glimpses into the fact that there was more to their lives than you represented.  For me it kind of inspired a sense of wanting to go and talk to my own grandparents and find out their stories—you know?  Something I wouldn’t really think about doing, otherwise.

CS: I experienced that too when I was younger.  I just didn’t ask enough questions.  I mean, you don’t think to do that, you’re just focused on yourself, but when you get older you want to know these things.  It’s great that it inspired you to want to go and do that—I haven’t heard anyone say that but that’s a great response.

AL: I mean that’s kind of what I’m really interested in right now, just in my own writing—ideas of family and history and things like that, so I found it pretty compelling.

CS: That’s really neat.  I sort of missed the boat; I never talked to my grandparents—they were old when I was born.  But all the things I inquired of [my interviewees] would have been nice things to know about my own family.

AL: I guess I started getting a little bit off track but I was wondering how you got into photography and writing and does it relate to your experience at Oberlin?  I don’t know what you studied here, but how did you build an interest in these two arts?

CS: I wish I had studied it at Oberlin.  I majored in sociology, but when I was back in my junior year at Oberlin I went to Israel and I brought a camera, and that was really my first introduction to photography.  I was nineteen and it was such a beautiful country.  I was taking pictures of my experiences; I worked in a kabutz.  That really inspired me.  And as it turns out my parents were photographers sort of avocationally before I was born, but I never really knew that much about that.  So it might have been sort of a slightly genetic predisposition.  When I left Oberlin I started taking photography classes.  I lived in Chicago and took photography and eventually I used it as a kind of a therapy because I had a tragedy in my life.  The person who was my soulmate was killed in a car accident so I decided to go to Boston and study photography just because I couldn’t think of anything else that would be as therapeutic.  And it really was so.  Just a great thing to be doing artistic endeavors [at that time in my life].  After that in terms of photography, I’ve been a freelance photographer.  I don’t do it full time I guess because—well I don’t know exactly why [laughs].  I mean this is a bad time for photographers anyway, most photographers are having trouble finding work.  And then writing—you always use writing when you’re in school.  I guess I’d forgotten but I’d worked on my school newspaper when I was in high school and did journalistic type stuff.  I’ve had a lot of jobs that involved writing.  I was a publications specialist for one company and did some ads.  About fifteen years ago I started freelancing because I had adopted children and wanted to have more flexibility.  I hooked up with this local magazine and started writing articles.  Over five years I wrote a lot, a lot of feature stories, and took photographs.  I started thinking of myself for the first time as a real writer and photographer.

AL: I wrote an article on my blog this past week talking about self-publishing and responding to the negative energy surrounding it from “higher established”, whatever you want to call it, artistic circles.  My article is a basically a defense of self-publishing, especially in the way that the internet has transformed self-publishing, with blogging being a highly visible form of this transformation.  You went a self-publishing route with Positively Ninety and with a previous work, Our Families, and I’m wondering how you found that experience?

CS: One of the things I think, especially with a photo book where you want things to look the way you want them to, you have so much more control when you self publish.  I was glad for it.

AL: Did you find any negativity as the result of that?

CS: Well the negative thing is the cost.  I have to charge a lot more for the book which hurts its marketability.  [The company] I used also gave me a lot of problems…it took about three months to get things the way I wanted them.  I started to look for a publisher but I wanted to get a book out in time for an opening I had of an exhibit.  I still might look for a publisher.  It would be a lot easier cost-wise to do that.  Plus it kind of legitimizes you.  I had tried to publicize my book in different ways.  Publisher’s weekly has a new thing out for self-publishing.  I sent them my book and some money and they’re going to start publicizing people who self-publish and occasionally they will do a review of someone who has self published. …The next segment is coming out in March and I’m waiting to see what happens.  I’ve just sent my book to a lot of places that might review it.  I guess if you dealt with a publisher they’d have another person doing all that stuff, that would be an advantage.

Connie Springer is an award-winning and widely-published photographer specializing in human interest themes including adoptive families, elderly, children, and intergenerational and multicultural images.  She is also a freelance magazine writer and photographer and an archives consultant, organizing photo and print collections for the workplace.

Connie studied sociology at Oberlin College and photography at the Art Institute of Boston and completed her master’s degree in library science at Simmons College.

In 2002 she self-published a photo datebook on adoption, OUR FAMILIES: A CELEBRATION OF ADOPTION, partially funded by a City of Cincinnati Artist’s Grant. 

Her most recent project, POSITIVELY NINETY, also received a Cincinnati Artist’s Grant. Exhibited in six venues in the Cincinnati area during the past two years, the work explores active nonagenarians in photos and narratives.  Her book based on the exhibit came out at the end of December and can be previewed and ordered at http://www.blurb.com/bookstore/detail/1785463#.  A portion of the proceeds from the sale of the book are being donated to The Center for Creative Aging in Washington.