by Haylie Book
The young adult novel The Boy in the Striped Pajamas written by John Boyne takes place in Germany during the second World War. The narrator is a young boy named Bruno. Bruno is a naive narrator, as he is too young to fully realize the extent of his situation. Bruno’s family moves to a new home, although he does not find out until later that they moved out of Germany and into Poland. Bruno gradually gathers information as the story goes on, wistfully pulling at the audience’s heart strings. Bruno discovers a wire fence at the new house that keeps him from exploring the entire property and can see people dressed in striped pajamas and caps across the fence. Bruno’s grandma told his father how disappointed and ashamed she was in him for the work he was doing. Bruno realizes that the people on the other side of the fence are treated much differently than himself and his family. All of these realizations begin to build up as the audience makes connections to the reality of Bruno’s situation.
What makes this story work is the innocence of Bruno. Nearly right off the bat, the audience recognizes what is happening: Bruno’s father runs a concentration camp filled with Jewish people. This makes it painful to continue to read through Bruno and his purity. Bruno tries to make friends with people on the other side of the fence by giving them food or playing games with them. In his mind, he sees no difference between himself and them. However, he begins to realize that his father and his father’s workers treat them much differently. They do not give them as much food. They only get the striped pajamas to wear. They must work all day every day. Bruno’s young mind does not understand why this happens. He is inquisitive of the situation, but he never considers himself to be superior to them.
The length of this story is perfect. There is just enough information and detail to make the audience connect with Bruno in a way that makes the rest of the story incredibly tragic. The story does not drag on to a point that makes it repetitive or boring. Every scene is intended to make the audience realize the chilling nature of the situation or bring you closer to Bruno as a character. By doing this, the audience is able to fully grasp the family dynamic, as well as dig into Bruno’s young mind.
The ending of this story is what makes it so impactful. It takes something as serious as World War Two and makes us think about it in an even deeper and frightening manner. The ending is like a punch to the gut. It does not glorify any aspect of the war; instead, it makes concentration camps seem like the horrendous camps that they were. Without giving away the ending and spoiling it for anybody who has not read it, I would encourage anybody who is interested in World War Two, or even just in a well-rounded, heartbreaking story, to read this book. It is a quick read, but you may have to occasionally set the book down and take a breather, so as to keep your emotions from going overboard. It takes a lovable, innocent narrator and tells a poignant and moving story that takes you on an emotional rollercoaster the entire way through.
This book can be found in nearly any store where books are sold. I’d recommend getting your hands on a copy and hopping into the story with a few tissues in hand.
by Abigail Fellin
James Zarzana was our guest blogger of the essay "Madness" and the author of the Marsco Saga (which can be found on Amazon). Below is a collection of excerpts from an email interview with him over his experience with literature and writing.
Why did you decide to study literature?
I committed to studying English in my undergraduate days…But, I love stories. I love the way a story can bring the reader into a life or taut situation, and the reader comes away understanding “life” and possibly themselves better. (Yes, I’m that type of idealist.)
Loved Shakespeare, Austen, Dickens. I leaned toward British writers. At first, I was going to specialize in the 18th Century British lit with its urbane and witty verse, but once I dug into the 19th C British novel, I was hooked.
I read on your website that after retiring from teaching, you took on the full-time job of writing. Why writing?
You know, when a student would ask me “why?” my response often was, “well, why not?” I was in the classroom or at an administrator’s desk for 41 years. I wanted to retire “early” (by only two years) so I could devote myself to fulltime writing. I had one Marsco novel published by then, it was getting great reviews, and I wanted to be flexible about my writing and my time to present. I wanted to focus on my writing while I was “young” enough to finish all the works I had in draft form.
I have always written something. I wrote a novel in college, which looking back, I realize now was “fan fiction,” a term that did not exist in 1970. (Exist to me, at any rate.)
So, why write? Why not? I have these stories to tell, they are timely—a megacorporation takes over the world, sound too much like today. Alt-news, the end of our democracy, violence everywhere, rule of law gone. As Wilfred Owen, the great World War One poet, wrote, “All poets can do is warn.” I write to warn.
While “Madness” is a short essay, you typically write longer fiction novels that have more of a futuristic feeling to them. Why do you like to write in this genre?
Marsco came naturally to me. I just started writing it, just jumped in. Now, I organize more, I outline ahead, and think about my characters much more before I write than when I jumped into Marsco. As a teen, I read a good deal of sci-fi from HG Wells to Julies Verne to the modern Americans (Bradbury). I was a high school junior when Star Trek started on TV. (“Live long and prosper!” I was a trekkie before there were trekkies.) I was teaching high school and finishing my MA when Star Wars hit. And yes, I stood in line for three hours to see it during its opening weekend. This was before Netflix and movie rentals, but I managed to see it seven times over the next few months, including once seeing it as a pirated copy shown at a pizza parlor—grainy and with poor audio.
Sci-fi gives the writer a chance to set all the rules. If I wrote a Civil War novel or a World War II novel (and I have outlines for both of these), then to be accurate, I would have to limit the role and condition of women, for example. Although the Federal Army fought to free the slaves, they were hardly thinking of racial equality the way—I hope—we think about it today. So, writing set in another era has to deal with all that era’s dust under the rug.
With my sci-fi, I can set my own agenda…Sci-fi also allows me to write about today without directly doing it, naming it.
You have already published two books of your four-book saga. What challenges and rewards have you come across along the way?
The rewards are that I do have a print copy I can hold up. My work is available as a Kindle download to any Kindle-ready device. I have had people read it on their phones, on Nooks, on laptops. You can order a print-on-demand copy. So, it’s rewarding in that sense. I received a very favorable, stared review from Blue Ink Review, which reviews mostly self-published writers and is used by libraries across the country to highlight self-published authors like myself. I noticed my sales to libraries spiked. So, that’s good.
I went with self-publishing after years and years of trying to secure a literary agent. Self-published writers are growing in number, and the publishing world and book sales world is changing as that number grows. Amazon commands the market, not brick-and-mortar stores like Barnes and Nobles. So, publishing as I do, any reader can find it anywhere in the world if they can get to the Internet. So, no one from North Korea is reading it, but I have had sales in Europe, in Canada, in the US.
So, challenges: seeking an agent and not finding one. I sent out over 100 query letters. Very frustrating. When I do my next sci-fi novel, my non-Marsco novel set in London, I will again seek an agent. But, now, with half the series self-published, it is hard to find anyone interested in me. I’ll try fresh with my next series. Who knows? Maybe I’ll ride an elevator with Steven Spielberg and he’ll make Marsco into a movie.
Another reward is that, with the two books in print, I have the cred to speak on writing. I love giving Q&A format discussions about my work, about writing in general. (Several of these are on YouTube under James Zarzana.) I also present a workshop titled, “Getting Started Writing Ficton.” I have given that at libraries, like ours in Marshall and up in Alexandria, Minnesota.
by James A Zarzana
“It’s always too soon to quit.” - Rudy
Lately, I have been thinking about the madness it takes to start writing a novel and see it through to its completion. It takes all the usual preliminary work: an outline, several character sketches, months of drafting, countless months of editing. Then, the text needs all the publishing aspects: cover design, interior layout, back cover comments. It’s not something to whip out in an afternoon.
“Be patient with the wait,” Oprah reminds us. And Seamus Heaney tells us, “Getting started, keeping going, getting started again—in art and life, it seems to me, is the essential rhythm.”
It is the staying with the text that makes it happen. Writing a novel, a history, a biography, is god-awful work. Endless work. I know this sounds pity-party, but these miraculous marvels readers enjoy don’t float onto the shelves of our libraries as though writers produced them as easily as we can download them to a Kindle. “Writing is a combination of intangible creative fantasy and appallingly hard work,” Anthony Powell noted. And he’s the author of a twelve-novel series, A Dance to the Music of Time. No easy feat taking characters from their school days in the 1920s up through the 1960s.
It is by not paying attention to all the pitfalls and dead ends that makes this work possible. The writer has to ignore the obvious drudgery and love the task—every part of it, from the printer jamming, to the need to edit a chapter again, to the desire to read the work aloud to hear the dialog clearly. Damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead sort of tommyrot.
Thankless, often. This isn’t happening at your local coffee shop. It happens in your writing space, and with any luck, all fledging writers have a dedicated writing space. “A room of your own with a lock on the door,” as Virginia Woolf tells us. Maybe we have to settle for a corner of some room. Or even a spot under the stairs—a nice literary echo in that. Somewhere that is hers or his alone. The space is ours. The mess is ours. That special ambiance is ours. Like Fanny Price at Mansfield Park living in unheated rooms, but with a desk and ample paper for writing when the ink isn’t frozen.
And yet, it still remains folly that drives us all forward. What is it about our task that commands and holds our collective attentions? Is it our unique characters? Or those final, infuriating plot twists? How that kiss might feel if pressed to our cheek? It is all senseless, irrational behavior.
Better to take up knitting or baking or jigsaw puzzles. . . anything with defined parameters and a set goal line. I hear bowling is really nice. Something measurable that would please the Board of Teaching. Walking your dog should bring you back home with a dog, ideally, the same one you started out with. That’s not always the case with writing. I started a novel with a twelve-year-old boy who promptly told me he was man, and I had better get to revising quickly because he was grown up now and not putting up with idle youth again.
And how about this? The writer reads another novel. Then, he says to himself, I can use this particular technique in my own work. Or another writer realizes this would be a greater way to run her still-in-draft-form, ho-hum love story. Or that the shading of that just-read dialog—the hesitation captured in words, the nuance the speaker utters but her listener misses, the humor in the dry reply—they are all too tempting not to knead into our own story.
And yet, it all remains imprudent, reckless, foolhardy.
“With the voices singing in our ears, saying that this was all folly,” T. S. Eliot muses.
How do you take a blank sheet of paper and start writing something vaguely about hobbits and a magic ring and a dragon hoard without being slightly off the beam? Is your colleague down the hallway going to listen to that?
Or a boy—just your average, gawky preteen with broken glasses—who is a wizard but who doesn’t even know what the hell a wizard is. And that once an obsessed evil wizard tried and failed to kill this boy who is a good wizard. The priest in the confessional probably thought you came to talk over your sins.
A whale. A white whale. A lunatic captain. A naïve sailor jotting it all down. Does that work as scintillating dinner conversation?
Young girl, smart but not the most attractive at the ball. But light on her feet, and quick with a quip, and deadly smart, and boasting a wonderful smile. Snubbed at a dance. Then, in the end, capturing the heart of the man who snubbed her. . . and then promptly rejecting this same man’s proclamations of love. You going to mention that in your car pool? Again?
How do you justify setting all these ideas down? Completely? Smoothly? That task is at least a year or two in the making. With no guarantee that anyone at all will ever read your words anyway. What do you say to your spouse or mother or children? Does your family plot to lock you up? Take away your computer and printer? Stop buying you inkjets? Make you do the dishes for a change?
Or worse yet, humor you. That’s nice, dear. Yes, pretend it’s the Panama Canal, bury them in a basement, dear.
It’s all madness. Infuriating madness.
We have no one to blame but ourselves. I think. Or maybe a high school English teacher. Or a prof that first year in college. Or the one novel we love and can’t stop rereading.
Madness and folly! Goats and monkeys! Yet, we go on.
Editors note: This short essay was written by James Zarzana about the struggle of being a writer. Stayed tuned for an interview with him next week!
by Abigail Fellin
Samantha Hirschman graduated from Buena Vista University just last spring (May 2017) with a Bachelors of Arts degree in Corporate Communications and a minor in business. Below is an interview with Samantha almost a year later.
What did you do right after graduation?
Right after graduation, I moved to Ames, Iowa and worked at Sam's Club for the summer. I was accepted into the Masters of Education in Student Affairs program at Iowa State. I wanted to move to Ames to get acclimated to the city before starting my program in August.
What are you doing now?
I am currently at Iowa State University. I am a graduate assistant in the Student Activities Center (SAC). Though next year, my graduate assistantship will be with Ivy College of Business Career Services. In my current SAC assistantship, I help with the recognition process of student organizations. I maintain the SAC facebook page, help with promotional efforts for our bowling alley, CyBowl & Billiards, and provide support to the student programming organization, Student Union Board.
What about BV best prepared you for life after graduation?
Although my courses taught me the skills to do the work, it was in my extracurricular activities that I practiced my skills and developed as an individual. Outside of the classroom was where I experienced challenge. Where there is challenge, there is growth. During the fall semester of my junior year, I had the opportunity to study abroad in Rome, Italy. I received funding from the institution that helped me pay for the travel costs. Studying abroad was easily the most influential experience I had during my four years.
Do you have any advice for people who are about to graduate? Either from high school or undergrad?
My best advice would be to remind yourself that where there is challenge, there is growth. College is not easy, so be proud of yourself if you are about to graduate. And if you are able to graduate from high school, keep your wide eyes open. Your imagination and excitement will be what helps you throughout your experience. If you are a student who feels you do not have the access to college, I see you. There are resources available to make college happen if you want to attend.
I was told you use to work in the CAE as a writing tutor. Do you think these experiences helped you after college? Would recommend that others who are offered this experience try it?
I was a Writing Tutor for three years. It was and still is the foundation for why I want to do Student Affairs work. I believe that this experience encouraged me to open my mind. It helped me build skills that I may otherwise have not been able to. I do believe students can benefit greatly from being tutors. It can be very beneficial for someone to build their interpersonal skills while learning how to teach and facilitate learning. Anyone who is offered an opportunity to be a tutor, I would tell them that it can be an invaluable experience. It is an incredible opportunity. No two tutors are alike - everyone has their own way of teaching and own style of communication. It is not a position to take lightly however, because your ability to facilitate learning can impact a student's academic life.
Do you have a favorite book/author?
My favorite author is Nicholas Sparks. I have always enjoyed reading his love stories. I am a romantic and find excitement in reading a great love story. I am also a nerd though so I enjoy reading theory in textbooks and articles.
by Abigail Fellin
While doing this series on BVU grads, we could not forget one of last year’s editors, Kacee Baker. Below is our interview with Kacee by Abigail Fellin.
Where are you/what are you currently doing?
I’m getting my M.A. in literature at West Virginia University in Morgantown, WV.
Why did you choose to go to grad school?
I had such a great time studying lit at BV that I just wanted to keep doing it.
What about BVU properly prepared you to go to grad school?
Small classes with engaging instructors and thoughtful students prepared me really well for the challenge and atmosphere of graduate school. All the extracurricular opportunities—like helping with Hot Dish and FACES, tutoring at the CAE, and working as an academic assistant in the English department—were also awesome because I was totally immersed in the world of English just like I am now. I could go on forever about how much I love and miss the BV English department.
What is something unexpected about grad school you wish you knew before hand?
How easy it is! I had this perception that I was going to be totally out of my depth and constantly drowning in assignments. The workload and classes are challenging, but I would have felt much more confident and relaxed starting classes if I had fully realized how well prepared I was and how doable grad school is.
What do you miss most about the Midwest?
I think people in the Midwest are the perfect mix of reserved and friendly, and I miss that. Also, the food: Hy-Vee chocolate chip cookies, Godfather’s banana dessert pizza, my mom’s chicken croissant casserole… When I came back home over Christmas I had a long list of Midwest-only places I wanted food from and (hot) dishes I wanted my mom to make.
Is there anything you would like to say to someone considering studying literature as an undergrad?
Do it! It’s engaging, thought-provoking, fun, and challenging. I feel so lucky that I got to go to classes and talk about books every day. If you’re worried about not getting a job or knowing what to do with the major, just put everything off by going to grad school!
Do you have any current book recommendations?
I just finished a great one! If on a winter’s night a traveler by Italo Calvino is an awesome, accessible postmodernist novel. It moves between a story about two people trying to read the novel itself and the beginnings of several other books that the readers happen across. It’s clever, emotional, engaging, and fun. I read it after coming across its great last line: “And you say, ‘Just a moment, I’ve almost finished If on a winter's night a traveler by Italo Calvino.’”
by Dalton Machholz
As part of a new series of blog posts, we are interviewing Buena Vista University graduates to see how their life has been since BV. Paije (Wee) Wilson graduated in 2016 as an English major, biology minor. Here is an interview with Paije by Dalton Machholz.
What is it that you currently do? And why did you choose to go to grad school?
Currently I attend the University of Iowa's graduate program in Library and Information Science, and I'm employed as a student worker in special collections as an archival processor and at the department of dentistry as a research assistant. I chiefly decided to go to grad school because I loved academia, and have always wanted to remain a part of the fast-paced research environment. Dr. Gwen Hart was the one who ultimately directed me towards library school, and therefore a position where I can help professors, students, and even medical practitioners in conducting research while having the opportunity to pursue my own research interests.
How did BVU help you prepare for what you are doing now?
BVU prepared me for grad school in a number of ways. Specifically, my degree in English has helped me to be a critical thinker (which has fueled my research in critical literacy in academic environments), has given me the skills to write grad-level essays, and has made me a confident and successful researcher. My minor in biology has also sparked my interest in encouraging interdisciplinary research, has contributed to my ability to acquire a mentorship with the medical library, and had helped me to acquire a student position at the department of dentistry. In sum, BVU is an invaluable contributor to my success in grad school.
What activities were your favorite to attend while you were at BVU?
My favorite activities at BVU included being an assistant editor for the FACES literary magazine, and, of course, Humans vs. Zombies!
What is something you really miss from BVU?
The thing that I miss most about BVU is the small-town atmosphere of the campus. I loved being able to study in any building at any time of night, and being able to talk to professors of pretty much any discipline.
Name you favorite Midwest, or Iowa food.
My favorite Iowa food would be sweet corn, of course! =)
by Abigail Fellin
“The best books, they don’t talk about things you never thought about before. They talk about things you’d always thought about, but that you didn’t think anyone else had thought about. You read them, and suddenly you’re a little less alone in this world.”
When I first picked this book up at Barnes & Noble, I was intrigued by the image of kids chilling in a field, staring at the sky on the cover. Who are they? What is their story? And why are they all staring at the sky? Basically, I judged this book by the cover and decided I liked it instantly, giving the story high expectations to live up to.
Spoiler alert: It did.
We All Looked Up follows the story of four high school seniors as they realize it is not graduation they need to worry about, but the end of the world. An asteroid, affectionately called Ardor, is set to hit Earth in 8 weeks, ending life as they know it. This gives them two months to really live.
While this sounds like it could just be another apocalyptic story filled with high school drama and teen angst, it is so much more than that. Wallach takes stereotypes—the jock, the slut, the slacker, and the nerd—and turns them into three dimensional characters with insecurities, desires, and fears. The characters quickly change from stock characters to relatable people that readers can easily find a bit of themselves in. While multiple point of view stories can become a volley of going back and forth between different stories, Wallach does an excellent job of weaving the change of POVs together in way that makes the story seem continuous without giving all the characters the same monotonous tone.
This story is not without its shortcomings. Although Wallach was able to create multidimensional characters, he does fall into the trope of having a lopsided love triangle—unfortunately, an overused device in books. Despite this flaw (that sadly spans the length of the book), this novel is still a great read that leads readers to ponder philosophical questions on existentialism.
We All Looked Up by Tommy Wallach could have crashed and burned like the Ardor is set to crash into the Earth, however it takes on big questions in a non-cheesy, cliché way that intrigues readers from the first page.
by Emily Wedell
Samantha Frehse is a BVU graduate who currently teaches at Newell-Fonda High School. Hot Dish Magazine interviewed Samantha after a presentation Hot Dish editors gave to the Newell-Fonda students who visited BV. The Newell-Fonda students were working on their own literary magazine project, and Hot Dish Magazine was excited to learn about the high school project.
As a BVU alum, how has BVU prepared you for your current work?
There are many things that I could say that BVU has done to prepare me for the work I do as an English teacher. However, the opportunity that helped prepare me the most for the WE Term class, Mustang Mag, was working on the FACES magazine with Annamaria Elsden and my friend Krista Kent. Working on the magazine back in 2011, I was shown a glimpse of the planning, organization, and work required to create a magazine.
Could you tell me a little bit about your students’ new literary project?
During this past year, Beth Olsen and I decided that for our 2018 WE Term Project, we wanted to try something a little different than we had done in the past. Inspired by magazines we enjoy, and our love of learning we thought creating a magazine project would be fun. By allowing the students freedom of choice, they would be able to learn more about the topics they enjoyed. In our group this year we ended up having a variety of magazines. We had magazines about pets, fishing, survival, photography, culture, 4-H Fairs, sports, art, and cooking.
The children started out the process by brainstorming ideas that they would like to look into a little bit more. Some students came together and formed groups based on interest, others decided to focus on a topic that they alone found interesting. Mrs. Olsen and I worked hard to create lessons that would help them with their magazines. We tried to front-load our class with information to help our students sort out their magazine. We also went to some amateur and professionals for a little bit of help in working with our magazines. We got a chance to learn more about photography from Michael Dewey and Danielle Peterson. We got a chance to learn more about creating a magazine and a logo for that magazine from Hot Dish Magazine at BVU. We also got a chance to learn a little bit more about the printing process with the Prairie Lakes AEA Printing department and their graphic designer. Overall, together with our students, we learned that with a lot of work and collaboration, there could be some successful magazines created in even a short time like our two-week class.
What is the most challenging (and/or most rewarding) part of pioneering this project?
One of the most challenging parts of creating this project was not knowing where the kids would go with it. It is hard to plan and prepare for something when you are not sure what type of students will be in the class or where their interests will lie. However, when all was said and done, it also became a really interesting piece of our class. We got to learn more about what the students are truly passionate about. It was fun to see some of the students really enjoying themselves as they read articles to help them become more informed on their topics.
Is there anything particular from the Midwest region that inspired this project or contributed to its creation?
Some of the magazines themselves were inspired by the Midwest region because of some of the unique qualities found here.
Do you have a favorite book or author?
My current favorite author is probably David Baldacci. I love the action and adventure that he brings to his novels.
Since we are a Midwest, "Hot Dish" publisher), What is one "hot dish" type of recipe you typically make (and please include recipe and instructions)?
1 lb ground beef
1 pound mostaccioli pasta, cooked and drained
1 jar Barilla Pasta Sauce
2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese
Preheat oven to 350°F. In a large skillet, season the ground beef with salt and pepper. Then at a medium temperature, brown the ground beef until cooked through, about 10 minutes.
In a mixing bowl, stir together the beef, cooked pasta, and pasta sauce until well combined.
Layer half of the pasta into the bottom of a 9x13-inch baking dish and top with half of the mozzarella cheese. Spoon the remaining pasta mixture into the dish to form a second layer. Top with remaining mozzarella cheese.
Cover with aluminum foil. Bake in preheated oven for 15-20 minutes, or until the cheese is brown and bubbly. Remove from oven and let rest for 10 minutes before serving.
by Abigail Fellin
We Could Have Been Happy Here, MG Press, can be found online on Amazon and in local bookstores.
A thick fog sat on top of the lake. The misting of rain throughout the day had turned into a drizzle as the sun set. It was the first true fall night in Storm Lake, Iowa, as Iowa writer Keith Lesmeister visited Buena Vista University to read pieces from his new book, We Could Have Been Happy Here, a collection of short stories all based in the Midwest. Keith Lesmeister is originally from Cedar Falls, Iowa, but currently lives in Decorah and teaches at Northeast Iowa Community College. He has been published more than 30 times over the last five years, with his first short story, “Looney Bin” being published in Midwestern Gothic in 2012.
The classroom quickly filled up with students, faculty, and a few community members, and Keith started by telling the audience he did not always plan to be a writer. He explained how he was originally a jock and it wasn’t until his late twenties that he started writing. He shared a couple stories of family and Midwest life and then began reading from his book. After reading the first half of “We Could Have Been Happy Here,” Keith answered some questions from the audience involving how he began writing, where he draws his inspiration from, and his experience with publication before bookending the event with another excerpt from “Today Call Me Lou.” Afterwards, a few students lined up at the front of the room to purchase copies of his book and to talk with him a few minutes.
The next morning, I had the privilege of being able to give him a tour of the campus. After seeing the sites and spending time looking at literary journals in the library, we found our way to an office suite where we sat on a surprisingly comfortable tan couch, and I was able to ask him some questions. A transcript of that conversation is below.
Abigail Fellin: Why do you write about the Midwest?
Keith Lesmeister: In part, it’s because of what I mentioned last night in that it’s where I’m from, it’s where I grew up, it’s what I know well, the location certainly, but also the people. There’s a certain practical pragmatic part of this too, which is I don’t want to travel to someplace to get a feel for that location to write about it authentically; but it doesn’t take much for me to travel around the rural northeast Iowa landscape and take in the sight and sounds and the smells, and I can render that authentically in my work. Not just because I’m from here, but I’ve grown up here and it’s just kind of part of who I am.
What’s your favorite part about the Midwest?
Well, its tough to pinpoint any one thing I like more than the other, but I guess for me personally, I like the open spaces. For example, Nebraska is as vast as a landscape as you could ever see. They call Montana Big Sky, but North Dakota or South Dakota or Nebraska could just as easily be called Big Sky. I have a friend that refers to that vast sort of expanse, and the way that big sky is as the Iowa Ocean. I’ve always liked that term. So I like the open spaces. It terrifies some people, it doesn’t terrify me at all. The other thing to, again for me personally, I like small towns. And I like small town ethos. I like the character of the people, the intentionality of community. If, for example, you go to the grocery store in a small town whether you are going for $200 worth of groceries or a gallon of milk, you’re probably going to be there for like 30 minutes, at least. Because you’re going to end up talking to everybody, for better and for worse. The other thing is that I can walk everywhere in Decorah. I walk from the very south edge of town to the very north edge of town in an hour. It’s about two and half miles. There’s something really great about that.
What is some advice you would have for young aspiring writers?
I would say don’t stop writing, read as much as you can, adopt habits and stick to them, and be resistant. When you’re going to get a lot of critique and criticism, you just have to have the confidence to keep going, the self-discipline to keep going, the unrelenting sort of attitude of ‘I’m going to get this finished.’ And just, keep reading, keep writing.
Do you ever struggle with writing?
All the time. Every single day. It is honestly something that I have never felt a kind of mastery for. Like every project is new, every short story is a different short story than the one before, so to say that writing them is like anything else you do, or any other story of the story before that is simply not the case. Every story is like starting some brand new all over again. Of course it’s built on the same ideas, the same language but yeah, I struggle with it all the time. I’m just as fearful and insecure and self-doubting as ever before. Even with the book out, but that’s just being part of a writer, learning to manage and deal with those insecurities and self-doubts and persisting in the face of those things.
What is the most challenging and most rewarding part of publishing your book?
I don’t know if there is a challenging part other than the process of going through all the edits with the editors. In terms of rewarding, think of how much great television is there is out there, how many great movies there are, how many great books there are. People have all of these wonderful options. You can hang out with your friends, you can sit and drink coffee and watch a television show. And then I hear about people who have taken the time to read my book, and its immediately sort of flattering to me, and I’m always surprised to hear when people engage with the book because there are so many other great things they could be doing with their time. So the fact that anybody takes the time to read it is a wonderful thing, and on some level maybe the most rewarding is hearing from readers who engaged with the book at a very deep and personal level.
Do you have a favorite book?
That’s a tough one. Let me just point out some individual stories and authors who helped shape my early writings. I would say “White Angel” by Michael Cunningham, “You’re Ugly Too” by Lorrie Moore, and Charlie Baxter’s “Gryphon.” Those were some of my early influences. I could name those and maybe even a dozen more whose stories and story writers who’ve shaped my early writings and have continued to shape me as a writer today.
After the interview ended, another student I took him to lunch, and then had the opportunity to speak with him in one of our classes. Experiences like these are both educational and fun for students who want to interact with people who are currently involved in the publishing and writing world, and are a great aspect of the experience students at Buena Vista get to have. I’d like to thank Keith for coming here and sharing some of his work with me, giving his time to talk to classes here on campus, and connecting with our literary citizenship initiative on campus.
by Emily Wedell
Page After Page: Discover the Confidence & Passion You Need to Start Writing & Keep Writing by Heather Sellers is a short guide on how writers (or anyone, really) can fine-tune their writing habits. A successful poet and author herself, Sellers has written and published memoirs, children’s books, and countless short stories. Page After Page was published in 2005, which was after her collection of short stories was published. The main objective Sellers had in mind while working on this book was how to get people started on writing, and how to encourage them to continue to write. Each chapter addresses a slightly different aspect of developing yourself as a writer, from engaging with other authors, to defeating the infamous “writer’s block,” to dealing with rejection. Sellers uses many personal experiences and examples, as well as a few exercises at the end of each section for the reader (or the writer who happens to be reading) to try. While the advice Sellers gives seems geared towards budding writers who wish to practice creative writing, her exercises can help any writer further develop their skills.
There were a few parts in particular that I liked. First, the chapters are short, focused, and each discuss a specific topic (though they are all interconnected). The exercises Sellers gives at the end of each chapter may at first sound trite or irrelevant, but any writing will help develop a writer’s voice and help that individual get into the practice of writing. Next, Sellers encourages aspiring authors to write whenever and wherever, and even goes as far as to take a night off and sit and write. She explains that writers should be outlaws: free to write whenever, wherever, and to do as they please, because inspiration can come from anywhere and everywhere. As nice as this sounds, restraints such as jobs, responsibilities, and time usually prohibit taking writing time to oneself, but Sellers still encourages writers to try it, for a break and to see how much progress that writer can make with this method.
Overall, Seller’s book Page After Page offers lots of helpful advice about multiple different aspects or topics concerning writing. Even though some of her tips may not be entirely possible for one to practice due to prior responsibilities, the best advice she offers to aspiring writers is to simply write. She stresses that in order to succeed, writers must be dedicated and devote time to their craft. Her advice is useful for students, teachers, professional writers, or anyone who wishes to write.