A Couple of Art Monsters: Summer Pierre Talks to Lisa Brown

MUTHA Magazine asked me to interview the funny, SMART, and talented illustrator and author Lisa Brown.  

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Lisa in her gorgeous studio – photo by Kristen Sard

I have admired Lisa’s work for years and so was excited at the prospect. We had such a good time talking to each other that we kept on gabbing for a full hour and a half!  I would still be high from this talk if it weren’t for the utter…MORTIFICATION that I experienced transcribing the interview. I had never done an interview before and was unprepared for THE SOUND OF MY TERRIBLE LAUGHTER (of which there was plenty) AND NERVOUS, SLOBBERY VOICE (a totally impartial observation). Luckily, Lisa shined through for us both and made it all worth it.

I think you can tell we had fun talking to each other. Go on over and read the interview!

The Artist in the Nursery Interview: Jennifer McMahon

Jennifer McMahon is the best-selling author of Island of Lost Girls and Promise Not to Tell.  She lives in Vermont with her partner, Drea, and their daughter, Zella.

Although your first published novel, Promise Not to Tell, appeared in 2007, you’d been writing seriously for a long time before that.  Can you talk a bit about your history as a writer and what lead up to publishing your first book?

I studied poetry in college and for a year in an MFA program.  Then one day, a prose poem took on a life of its own and became the start of my first novel.  Once that novel was finished, I sent out a batch of queries and was overjoyed when one of my top agent choices expressed an interest and soon offered to represent me.  I was so overjoyed, enthusiastic (not to mention just blissfully clueless!) that I quit my day job to devote myself to writing full time.  I was sure that the book would sell and my career would be on its way.  The book did not sell.  Months went by, then a year.  I finished my second novel and sent if off to my agent, who pronounced it “a bit dark” but diligently went to work pitching it to editors.  In the meantime, I wrote book #3, a long, rambling mess that I stuck in a drawer, too ashamed to show anyone.   By this time, nearly another year had gone by and my agent hadn’t had any success selling either book.

I sat down to write book #4, determined that this would be “The One.”  It had to be.  So I asked myself, “What sort of book would I most want to read?”  And the answer that came back, loud and clear, was a ghost story.  So I wrote my ghost story and when I was done, I was sure that this was going to be the one that did it.  I knew it was good and had the potential to be a success.  So I sent if off to my agent.  I didn’t hear from her for weeks.  When I did, it was a letter saying the book just didn’t do it for her and much as she respected my work, blah, blah, blah, it was time we parted company.  I was devastated.  I drank a lot of tequila.  I thought about quitting.  But I knew I couldn’t quit.  Writing is too much a part of who I am. Continue reading

The Artist in the Nursery Interview: Marian Henley

Marian Henley is a cartoonist and author who’s work has appeared in Glamour, Ms., The San Francisco Chronicle, and The Austin Chronicle, among other places.  She is the author of Maxine, Laughing Gas, and The Shiniest Jewel: A Family Love Story.  She lives in Austin, Texas with her family.

At 49 you were working professionally as an artist full-time, when you decided to become a mother and adopt a baby.  That must have been quite a change!  Can you talk a bit about the ways you had to adapt your life to having a child?  Were there any ideas you had about mothering and/or having a baby previous to bringing your son home, that you found were unrealistic or at least different when you did bring him home?

Adapt my life?  Hmmm.  No, I’d say nuclear annihilation followed by painstaking, piecemeal reconstruction is the best way to describe the adjustment period.  This had nothing to do with William – he was an easy baby and, considering the first twenty-two months of his life had bobbed along quietly and predictably (Russians believe babies do best with strict routine), he adjusted to the zip-zip, zoom-zoom kaleidoscope of life outside the orphanage – with two stranger/parents babbling at him in English – with an ease that I can only describe as heroic.  No, what flattened me was the difficulty of the adoption process itself.  My agency made key blunders at several points, one of which was failing to notify anyone that I was arriving in Moscow.  Alone, exhausted, I waited in vain for my ride and finally consulted the information lady, who blew me off in a puff of cigarette smoke.  A young taxi driver saved my life, perhaps literally, considering that dozens of foreigners “disappear” from that airport every year. Continue reading

Artist in the Office Interview: Audrey Beth Stein

Audrey Beth Stein earned her MFA in Creative Writing from Emerson College and is a two-time national prizewinner in the David Dornstein Memorial Short Story Contest. She teaches memoir and novel development at the Cambridge Center for Adult Education.  Her memoir Map was a 2009 Lambda Award finalist.

What are some of the day jobs you’ve had?  What do you do now?

The four “major” day jobs I’ve since college were as a secretary and webmaster for a university department, a web wizard for a non-profit multimedia start-up, an editorial assistant for a textbook publisher, and currently a reporting analyst for a bank.  I’ve also been teaching creative writing classes for the past five years, which I love and consider an integral part of my writing self – it’s certainly not paying the bills though!

Were there ways you snuck your creativity into your workday?  Were there ways your job(s) have helped with your creative work?  If so, how?

The most important way my jobs have helped me creatively is by providing stability and structure.  And by that I mean a steady paycheck, a place to go each day, and people to interact with, as well as a respite from the demand to be creative.  I’ve experimented with a lot of different ways of writing, and there are definitely times on each project when I need immersion, but for the most part I find I am just as productive when I have a full-time job as when I don’t.

I think a lot of the creative process involves letting things simmer, and so getting absorbed in something completely different, like computer code or an engaging work project, is often beneficial.  I’ve also found that there is a similar skillset involved in structuring a database or website and structuring a book, so practicing those skills at work pays off when it comes to my writing.

I’m still trying to figure out how to integrate more creativity into the work environment itself… I definitely found The Artist In the Office inspirational on that front!

When I met you, you were fresh out of college, but it seemed to me already a professional writer.  You were ambitious, sending work out to be published, winning awards, writing at open mics, at home, wherever you could.  It’s been over ten years since then (!)—how has your relationship to writing changed?  Have you ever felt like giving it up?  What has kept you so ambitious?

Thank you.  It’s funny… a few people have commented on my ambition and determination, and I don’t think it ever occurred to me back then that it was even a choice.  I always felt like I wasn’t doing enough, and I still wrestle with that.  Spending nearly a decade on a book when the first draft only took a couple of months definitely led to a good deal of reflection.  But I’ve never felt like giving up writing.  For that particular project (Map), what kept me going was activism—a firm belief that there were people out there who needed to read a memoir like mine, and that my book could make a positive difference in people’s lives.  But as far as writing in general…

I believe in the power of telling and sharing stories.  Writing is how I often make sense of the world, of my life, of my feelings.  I do a lot of journaling and other forms of creation for myself—for instance, I painted a dinner plate last week to capture an idea—but when I spend a long time trying to express something, or I write about something that no one else seems to be talking about, I tend to want to share that with others, to communicate.  Which usually means some form of publishing.  At the core, though, it’s no different from a little kid tugging on a parent’s pant leg saying, “pay attention to me!”  And I think the biggest change for me in the past decade is that I have been more and more valuing individual human connections—both in person and through the page—and understanding that transformation lies there, not in hitting the bestseller list.

Continue reading

The Artist in the Office Interview: Noria Jablonski

NORIA JABLONSKI is the author of the story collection Human Oddities (Counterpoint, 2005). Her stories have appeared in FiveChapters.com, Swink, Monkeybicycle, KGB Bar Lit, and the anthology Who Can Save Us Now?: Brand-New Superheroes and Their Amazing (Short) Stories.

What day jobs have you had, what job do you have now?

The only day jobs I’ve had—that is, jobs I’ve had while pursuing writing—were teaching and working in bookstores. Before I decided to be a writer I worked at a coffee roasting company, weighing out one-pound bags of beans. I was a quality controller, inspecting pants (Chi Pants, which had an extra panel of fabric in the crotch, so you could do yoga or tai chi or whatever got your chi flowing, and you could also have a tiny crystal sewn into the back of the waistband to power-up your chakras) and children’s clothing (lint from the velour outfits would turn my snot purple, teal, bright pink, or deep green). I lasted three days canvassing for an environmental organization. I worked in a movie theater. I sold socks.

Now I am unemployed! I was a lecturer for several years at UC Santa Cruz, but I got laid off last summer. I call it my recession sabbatical. It’s been a blessing. I’ve been teaching in some capacity for eighteen years, first as a high school English teacher, then teaching college. This time off has given me time to explore creatively. Most importantly, it’s allowed me to play, which is what I think is, or should be, at the heart of creativity.

I know there was a time when you were teaching high school and not pursuing your writing.  Can you talk about what changed for you and why you decided to commit yourself to being a writer?

It took me a while to figure out that I wanted to write. Like, seriously write. Like, write an actual book. I was not one of those people who always dreamed of being a writer. I always had a talent for it, but growing up it didn’t occur to me that it was something I could actually do. What I really loved was reading and I read whatever I could get my hands on. Fairy tales, the Oz books, cereal boxes, the TV Guide. Trashy Judith Krantz romances, Agatha Christie, The World According to Garp. But in junior high I had a terrible English teacher who made us diagram sentences and I lost my love for reading. He had greasy hair, he wore the same shiny disco shirt every day, and shoes with pilgrim buckles. His voice was nasal and flat. He had no affection for language. He made words a chore.

During my sophomore year of high school I had an amazingly cool English teacher. She liked the band X and told me I looked like Exene [Cervenka, the leader singer of X]. She lent me her copy of Black Tickets and I rediscovered my love of language. I decided I wanted to be an English teacher, like her. When I told her I wanted to teach she said, “Don’t do it.” (She quit after her first year of teaching and went on to law school.)

At 22, I started teaching high school in San Francisco. Six classes a day, 35-40 students in each class. It was exhausting. In photos of me during that time my eyes look buggy and manic. One night during my second year of teaching I went to hear a friend of mine and her writing group read stories at Red Dora’s Bearded Lady Cafe. I was so jazzed! I went home that night and began writing a story. And then a member of the writing group left for grad school, so I auditioned for a spot and got in. We met weekly, drank a lot of wine. We put out a zine. We did readings at Red Dora’s, the Paradise Lounge, the Chameleon. (All those places are gone now.)

Writing was a way for me to reclaim a part of myself, or to claim part of myself that I’d never really had a chance to express. I’d been devoting all my energy to my students, helping them find their voices, but I hadn’t ever done that for myself.

Continue reading

Getting Creative With Penguin

I am STOPPING IN BRIEFLY to say that while I was out Penguin posted a spot I did for them on Artist in the Office.  I want you to know some things before you watch it:

I went to their offices months ago to film this when I needed a sweater AND a jacket and if you are in a HEAT WAVE currently like so many of us, I hope watching it doesn’t send you into a HEAT STROKE.

I had to make up ALL my own script, so if it seems HAMMY and a LITTLE MUCH, well, you’ve been WARNED.

It was shot entirely on location in Penguin’s offices (which smells deliciously of paperbacks).  Incidentally, the picture above was taken during the shoot by the fellow artist in the office and editor, Maria Glagiano.  I am sitting in my other editor’s office, with her Halloween costume hanging on the left side of her desk, made by some OTHER author she edits.  Maybe you’ve heard of her?  Does the name KERI SMITH mean anything to you?  Huh? DOES IT?

That’s what I thought.