Tag Archives: reading

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.

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Reading is Gilded in the Golden State

29 Apr

A USC Dornsife/Los Angeles Times Poll about the reading habits of Californians found, interestingly enough, that 80% of dwellers in the Golden State read a book in the last month, and that a full quarter of the population reported reading a book a week!

If this is actually the case, then I’m a poor representative of my state.  And I love reading!

I have a strong feeling the poll numbers overrepresent the actual reading habits of Californians, for two simple reasons. 

(1) Californians are BUSY,  despite a stereotype of laid-backness.  Try to drive anywhere in So Cal (aka Southern California, aka the evil empire) and you will know what I’m talking about. 

(2) Californians are trendy people (or at least they think they are!).  In a strange way, reading is trendy.  I might actually believe the poll if it were conducted in wine country, but LA is in a weird kind of competition with New York City and the appearance of being well-read is a rich commodity in that competition.

What would be a more interesting study, I think, is to figure out what kinds of books Californians read, and compare those books to what’s being read in other states.  Do those living on the west coast read more nutrition/healthy living books than those in eastern or northern states?  Is genre romance more popular in certain regions of the country than others?  Are there certain books that are universally read?  I think the feedback from such a study would be surprising, and could make a good sociological paper!

A Quiet Voice–Reading by Layli Long Soldier

18 Apr

Layli Long Soldier captivated obies with her short reading at Slow Train this past Sunday.

          Photo Credit

  This past evening, Sunday April 17th, I had the great pleasure of listening to a poetry reading at Oberlin’s Slow Train Café by Layli Long Soldier as part of the Multicultural Resource Center’s Indigenous Women’s Series.

I’ll admit I wasn’t expecting much.  As I’ve said in various other ways on this blog, listening to poetry often makes me feel incredibly stupid.  I guess I wasn’t blessed with the sort of mind that associates words and sounds and images, or that can follow a string of these images and sounds into some other transcendental space.  Then again, I have a feeling any sort of true poet would laugh at that last sentence, because I’ve always been sort of wary of poets—I get the sense that some of them get a great kick out of standing up in front of a group of raptly attentive individuals, spouting off long lists of adjectives that supposedly mean something.  It just always seems like there’s some joke I’m not getting.  Although to circle back, this mentality is probably the child of a severe insecurity my ficton-writerly self has with my failed-poet-writerly self.  And if I am going to keep rambling I might as well just condense all of that into a single sentence, which would be that my real problem with poetry is that I think too much and that I don’t just listen, don’t simply feel.

Long tangent aside—Layli’s reading.  This was both my first reading of the semester, and also my first visit to Slow Train, so I decided to commemorate the occasion by purchasing hot chocolate, an iced coffee (for the boyfriend) and one of every type of baked good Slow Train sells.  Thirteen bucks later, I nestled into the lone empty corner (hidden behind a speaker; I had to poke my head around the corner to watch Layli read, which brings up the interesting topic of why this was necessary—wasn’t I just coming to listen?  But the reading was also a visual experience, and that in itself could be a whole new post.) and allowed Layli’s poetry to carry me away.

Her poetry is striking in the way it deals with words and their meanings, both on paper and in a deeper sense, in the sense that words both define and cannot define things.  Her poetry captures the pains of the body, of motherhood and fatherhood, of a spiritual relationship between the past and present, and of memory, and of definition.  I can say that I was moved by her rhythmic reading and her quietly shaking hands—an unassuming reminder that she was in many ways like me.  Her poetry was not an exclusive joke and did not make me feel stupid, rather it was heartfelt, something she was both excited and nervous to share.

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Layli Long Soldier, Oglala Lakota, is a graduate of the creative writing program at the Institute of American Indian Arts. Her family is from northwestern Idaho and the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota. She has served as editor-in-chief of the “Native Language Network” and other publications for the Indigenous Language Institute. She is a two-time recipient of the Truman Capote Scholarship Award. She is also writer/guitarist for “M=Water” and mother of a five-year old daughter, Chance White.