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In a live episode recorded at the Lit Youngstown Fall Literary Festival, Ross Gay and Alison Stine discuss joy, trash, the art of writing quickly and without pressure, novel drafting, revision, writerly obsessions, creating art in a burning world, and, of course, why we must bring each other French fries.
Ross Gay is the author of four books of poetry: Against Which; Bringing the Shovel Down; Be Holding, winner of the PEN American Literary Jean Stein Award; and Catalog of Unabashed Gratitude, winner of the 2015 National Book Critics Circle Award and the 2016 Kingsley Tufts Poetry Award. He is also the author of three collections of essays: The Book of Delights, Inciting Joy, and, most recently, The Book of (More) Delights. Photo credit: Natasha Komoda.
Alison Stine is the author of the novel Trashlands, which was longlisted for the 2022 Reading the West Book Award, a finalist for the Ohioana Book Award, and longlisted for the 2022 Mark Twain American Voice in Literature Award. Her first novel, Road Out of Winter, won the 2021 Philip K. Dick Award. Her next novel, Dust, is forthcoming in 2024. She is also the author of three poetry collections and a novella.
This conversation was recorded before a live audience at Youngstown State University on October 21, 2023 at the Lit Youngstown Fall Literary Festival.
Ross Gay (00:00): Don't write great things. Just write. Laura Maylene Walter (00:08): Welcome to Page Count presented by the Ohio Center for the Bookat Cleveland Public Library. I'm your host, Laura Maylene Walter, the Ohio Center for the Book Fellow and author of the novel BODY OF STARS. We are in person today with a live audience at the Lit Youngstown Fall Literary Festival. We're going to be talking about writing, creativity, delight, joy, and, of course, trash with Ross Gay and Alison Stine. Let's give them a round of applause. Laura Maylene Walter (00:41): Ross Gay is the author of four books of poetry, including CATALOG OF UNABASHED GRATITUDE, winner of the 2015 National Book Critic Circle Award and three essay collections, The BOOK OF DELIGHTS, INCITING JOY, and now THE BOOK OF MORE DELIGHTS. As his website states, Ross Gay is interested in joy, wants to understand joy, is curious about joy, and studies joy. Alison Stine is the author of two novels, ROAD OF OF WINTER, winner of the 2021 Philip K Dick Award and most recently TRASHLANDS. She's also the author of three poetry collections, a novella, and original plays and musicals. And her next novel DUST is forthcoming in 2024. Ross and Alison, welcome to the podcast and thanks so much for being here. Ross Gay (01:25): Thank you. It's good to be here. Alison Stine (01:26): Thanks so much. Laura Maylene Walter (01:28): So I think we have a really compelling author pairing here today. Ross Gay's last few books have been essay collections, examining the joy and delight to be found in our world. And Alison's latest novel is set in a near future ravaged by climate change and full of trash. So, I think this is gonna be a great conversation and I really mean that, but there is a reason why we are all on the stage together and that is because Ross and Alison are both Ohio authors with an Ohio connection. If you don't know, Ohio Center for the Book is an affiliate of the Library of Congress Center for the Book initiative. So every state and US territory has one Center of the Book and in Ohio we happen to have it in Cleveland hosted at Cleveland Public Library. So Page Count, the podcast has an Ohio focus. Our guests all have some kind of Ohio connection. So with that said, usually my first question is about your Ohio connection. So I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit about how you're connected to Ohio and if we could combine that with a delight, that would be wonderful. Would you like to go first Ross? Ross Gay (02:32): I was born in Youngstown, Ohio. So my dad's family, half of my family is from Youngstown, more or less so, although we moved, my dad kind of followed Pizza Hut jobs into Stow and I think Kent and Paynesville and Elyria until we were little. You know, I was like five years old and we moved to the Philadelphia area but we've always been coming back here because my family's always been here. Between here Youngstown and my nana lived in Cleveland for probably the last 10 years or so, maybe 15 years of our...maybe 20 years of our life. In terms of a delight, there's many delights among the delights, which I would sort of say have more gravity actually than delight though delight is utterly serious, f***ing serious for your podcast. You have to edit that out. Sorry. Laura Maylene Walter (03:16): We could leave it in. That's fine. Ross Gay (03:17): Yeah, you could leave it in <laugh>. The joy of sitting with my last remaining elder, that generation of folks who the oldest was 101 just died last week and to be able to sit with my aunt butter, you know, gonna have like three days of spending time with her, feels like a profound joy. Alison Stine (03:41): Well I grew up in Mansfield, Ohio, home of the Shawshank Redemption, if you know that. The penitentiary was a big part of that. My parents were there for many years. I moved away after college, I moved all over the place. I went to New York, California, Michigan, kind of chasing the academic job dream. And then when I was getting divorced I knew I had to come back to Ohio. I knew I had to go home. And so I came to Athens County, Ohio and I've spent most of my adult years there. I don't live there now, I wish I did, but that's really where I consider home. My parents and brother and all my nephews still live in Ohio, they live near Cleveland. My biggest Ohio joy kind of connects with yours in like the opposite generation way, because my son was born here, my son was born in Athens County, he was born at home. Alison Stine (04:33): Maybe you should edit that from your podcast. I didn't tell my mom that. But he was born at home in Ohio and that was a really big deal for both of us. That it's home for both of us always and he knows can always return there and that's where he has his roots. Laura Maylene Walter (04:48): Ross, you mentioned gravity in the midst of delight and I think that relates to my next question, which is a fairly broad question about writing, but there is a line in INCITING JOY: "But what happens if joy is not separate from pain?" And this made me think of the writing process a bit, so I was wondering if each of you could share your thoughts on the joy and the pain of being a writer, how those two things might interact for you and how you think about that. We're starting big here. We don't have much time. We're getting right into it. Alison Stine (05:17): No softballs. No softballs here. You know, I think that they're linked. I think there's joy in the pain if that makes sense. I mean maybe I'm just a masochist, but you know, there's joy in work, I guess. There's comfort in work, especially the times we're living in now. They're very, very hard. And I do find joy in working hard. I find joy and I also lose myself in my work. I'm able to escape in it. And we might think of that as being bad, right? We shouldn't escape from the world. We need to work hard and fight for the world. And I agree with that. But in order to fight hard you have to rest too. And for me, sometimes writing is a a rest, it's a respite from everything that's going on. It's a world I can close myself off into. And so I think the joy and the pain are linked and they're both to be found in the work. Ross Gay (06:07): Yeah, it feels to me like the work of sort of being with one's imagination is, is also a kind of endeavor of love for the world. What can feel like a kind of solitude or can feel like a kind of retreat, which itself can be completely reasonable to me, but also to retreat into one's work, which is also to say into one's sort of deepest questions is of service. You know, that's of service a profound service. I have been thinking lately, I have a little essay in this last book about how I think I used to think writing was supposed to be just sort of misery. Laura Maylene Walter (06:41): I'm with you sometimes, you know? Ross Gay (06:43): Yeah. You know? And I remember, I remember I had a guy, a poet, a lovely dude named Alan Shapiro and I was sitting in as his assistant in a workshop and I was saying something, you know, to the other students in the workshop and I was like his, like his assistant and, he was a very generous person just sort of letting me kind of co-teach the class basically. And I said something about writing can feel like torture sometimes. And he said, have you ever been waterboarded? And I was like, oh thank you. Laura Maylene Walter (07:11): Some perspective there. Ross Gay (07:13): Yeah, it can be challenging is what I meant. But the other thing that I realized is that the process of writing that can feel profoundly difficult, which is some of the most necessary stuff often is because it's sort of contending with the deepest questions that we have, which are not A. Either easily resolvable but B. Like pleasant, you know? And so to sort of contend often with aspects of ourselves in our writing, which is aspects of other people as well, can be profoundly difficult. But there's something to me joyful in joining my questions with the questions of the world. You know, like to me the fundamental quality maybe of joy is this kind of joining thing and to be in a kind of however you would say it, a kind of inside looking that's also a kind of outside reaching. It feels joyous and it can make you weep. You know? Laura Maylene Walter (08:03): This question is also somewhat related, but I'm thinking of your novel, Alison, TRASHLANDS. One of the characters, Coral, she lives in a world full of, of trash, of plastic. Plastic has become a new currency in this world that has been ruined in many ways by climate change. And she actually takes trash and makes art from the trash. Which makes me think of our current real world and everything that's going on right now. Everything in the news and how it can feel sometimes as an artist or as a writer, that we are focusing on these things. We're trying to make art out of a world that seems to be constantly burning and full of trash. So I'm wondering how you both think about that, what you think your creative work maybe adds to the world, what you hope it does, or just broader thoughts about making art at this point? Alison Stine (08:52): I was very inspired and had been very involved in sort of street art and graffiti, just the ideals of that community. The idea of just making something beautiful and leaving it, you know, not getting paid for it, maybe not getting credit for it, maybe not signing your name, but just leaving something beautiful has always been really important to me. The idea of finding delights in the world, which you know, could be a beautiful piece of street art but it could also be like a little free library or you know, somebody knitted a telephone pole. They, you know, they just left something not knowing who will find it. And that's so much about all the work that we do. We're literally just writing letters to people and we don't know who they are and we don't know if they're going to read it. But we hope they do and we hope that they find something there that resonates with them and helps them. Alison Stine (09:39): Maybe for me writing is just the way I can reach out, the way I can write those letters to the world. I think the world still deserves to have beauty and to have things written to it, even if sometimes it doesn't act like it. You know? I mean why else are we here was one of the things I was talking about this morning. Why else are we humans if not to make things and to leave them for other humans who might want to make things too or might just feel better about their life even for a moment. Ross Gay (10:07): Yeah. I'd kind of say like that. Yeah. Yeah. And there's a kind of faith maybe in making something with the dream that someone will receive it and also knowing that everything we make has been given to us to make and that it is really properly received upon being given away. And that we might be in this kind of circuit of sharing feels like one of the beautiful things that maybe, yeah, maybe that's what we can do as a truer practice in a way than what is a kind of brutal way, you know. I think a practice in a way to this larger in fact than the brutality that we find ourselves often enduring or complicit in. Laura Maylene Walter (10:52): I will say since we're here at a writing conference, I do need to ask some craft and process questions. Alison, I was listening to a past interview with you where you talked about before your first published novel wrote ROAD OUT OF WINTER that you had written past novels that weren't published or agented. And that when you wrote that one you felt something was different. And that really struck me because I had that same experience with my novel. I wrote novels before my novel got published and I did feel this one was different. So this makes me think more broadly as a writer about confidence and about instinct and persistence. So I'm wondering if you could both talk about those things a bit, the role you think confidence and instinct plays in your writing practice. Ross Gay (11:34): It's so funny, I never think of instinct. Laura Maylene Walter (11:35): Oh really? Ross Gay (11:36): Never. Alison Stine (11:37): I was telling people today I lie to myself and that's when I write the best. When I'm like, nobody's ever going to read this. Nobody's ever going know. Your mom's not going to read this. Your agent's not going to, it's never going to be published. No one will see it. And I feel like only then can I be my true self because I don't have people standing over my shoulders, you know, I don't worry about the reception if there's gonna be a reception. So I think what was different with ROAD OUT OF WINTER was that I was fed up. I had tried so long to write a novel. I had failed so many times. I'd gone through several agents who treated me like terrible boyfriends, you know? And I just was like, I've had it. I'm just gonna write like the weirdest, most f***ed up book I can think of. Like the darkest, the scariest, sexual... Laura Maylene Walter (12:24): I love that. Alison Stine (12:25): Weird book and that worked for me. Laura Maylene Walter (12:28): I feel like that's so inspiring. So write your weird shit, everyone. Ross Gay (12:31): So who were you writing to? Alison Stine (12:33): I was writing to me. Yeah, I was writing to me, I was telling myself to let it go and be yourself, tell your story even though it was a novel, you know, there's a lot of emotion and true things in there. So I was writing it to me. Yeah, Ross Gay (12:47): That's the thing that I feel like coming to learn how to write what you will love, you know? And I think that's the thing that I feel like it's taken me a while to learn and part of the learning process was like, you know, trying to like get my way into not the poetry world, which I felt kind of like had my bearings in a way, but trying to like break into this nonfiction world and writing a proposal and the proposal is effectively saying this is who I am, this is what I'll do, this is what this book that I'm going to write over the course of the next four years will be. Which it makes no sense to do That doesn't make any sense. This is actually a useful story. You know, I had an agent and I was trying to like finish up this proposal which I'd been working on for you know, long. Ross Gay (13:28): And you have like a chapter descriptions, you write all your chapters out, like little descriptions. And I was like this is ridiculous. I would never in a million years, nor do I think I would ever want to read a book that was written like that. And I told my agent, I said, I'm about to quit this whole thing. This project is already getting stupid to me. And she was good enough to be like, okay you're done. Like let's just wrap it up and you know. But that process was sort of like, oh it made me aware that I've spent a good bit of my life trying to write what I think other people will like. And then when you start to be like, oh I'm going to write like what I love. And that's something that to me like I'm sure for everyone you kind of cobble together from like other folks like man I love those footnotes and Junot Diaz. Ross Gay (14:15): Like I love that and Oscar Wilde, how he does that. Or I love how, you knowToi Derricotte she can get so raw like so fast. Or I love how Gerald Stern like does these insane like just goes on and on and on and on and on. Or how Rebecca Solnit can like move from here to here to here and have like a string of footnotes beneath a whole book. Like what the hell is that? I want to try to do that. Stuff that I don't know how to do first of all. But also stuff that I'm like I will love and I don't know if anyone else is going to love it. That's the thing, you know? And that's why I ask who you writing to? Because I feel like oh yeah, it's myself too. Laura Maylene Walter (14:51): Yeah. You never know if someone else is going to love it but you have to do it anyway. Yeah. Ross Gay (14:56): And the other thing is kind of like, I do think if you love it, there's a better chance that other people loving it than if you like it or you think it's pretty good or you think it's proficient or you think it's solid. Alison Stine (15:08): Because you can't fake passion and people can tell. I think when you read something you can tell if someone hated writing it or not. You know, and and the passion and the energy and the belief comes through. Laura Maylene Walter (15:18): I was just telling someone recently that I feel with the novel I'm working on right now, I feel like I'm writing beyond my abilities, which is something I'm always trying to do. And it's, to me that's the point. But it's also frustrating cause there's a little part of you that wonders will I ever really be able to do it as I envision? I don't know, but I'm working toward it. Ross Gay (15:33): What does that mean? Like as you envision, just say what that means. Laura Maylene Walter (15:36): I guess for it to be as, as powerful as it is in my mind and have it come out on the page that way. Because once it leaves your mind and goes onto the page, it's a different world isn't it? Ross Gay (15:45): But so you have just, just for the sake, I'm just curious. Laura Maylene Walter (15:47): Yeah, yeah. Ross Gay (15:47): So you have a sort of precise idea of the thing? Laura Maylene Walter (15:50): No, and I... Ross Gay (15:51): You have an abstract idea of a very good thing. Laura Maylene Walter (15:52): Abstract, abstract. Cause I don't plan it, I just write. Ross Gay (15:55): Yeah. Laura Maylene Walter (15:55): And I, yeah, it's abstract of just... Ross Gay (15:57): Yeah. Laura Maylene Walter (15:57): Am I achieving something with this? Ross Gay (15:59): Totally. Yeah. And that it feels like that's a relationship too. That is like one of the relationships that we're always dealing with. Like this idea of the thing that is in my mind and I had this experience recently, I just realized it. It felt so important. I'm writing a book called BOOK TOUR in the moment. Ross Gay (16:17): Like now. Laura Maylene Walter (16:17): Writing it right now? Yeah. Ross Gay (16:19): Like right now we're in the process of the book. And I realized as I was writing, I was like, oh, I'm my first reader. Like I really realized like I have no idea what this is, but I'm sort of excited to see what Ross has written. You know, oh it's going to be neat. Like I don't know if it's gonna be any good, but I'm not thinking of it like that. I'm thinking of like, oh I'm excited to see what he's going to write today. You know what I mean? I know the things that I want to kind of recollect, but I have no control at all over what those things are going to connect to or what's actually going come out. I'm glad you said that because it's also feels instructive. Like that relationship between the thing, the idea in our head, if there is in fact an idea in our head and the process of like putting stuff on the page. Alison Stine (17:00): And I am like you, I don't outline, my agent almost had a heart attack when I told him this. Several books in like, I don't know, like unless they make me, which they have made me. And that was a lie. The outline I wrote was a lie. But I like to be surprised, like surprising myself is such a good part of writing and I think that helps me keep going. That idea, like what thing is my brain gonna come up with next? You know, allowing yourself the potential for surprise. Laura Maylene Walter (17:26): Absolutely. I've often said I wish someone would study like a real scientific study, the writers who outline and the writers who don't. Now that it's always so binary. But I do think I have to write to explore and surprise myself. That's the point for me. But sometimes I'm envious of the writers who write an outline and then they write the book, like to that outline. Laura Maylene Walter (17:43): That must be neater in some ways and maybe less revision. But it seems like such different ways our brains work, which is really interesting. Well, let's talk about revision a little bit because that's such a huge part I think of the writing life. There's a line in INCITING JOY: "The endeavor might be asking the poem or essay, et cetera, what it wants to tell or show you. And really listening to the best of your ability. This endeavor, which for me can go on for a while, is also called revision." Laura Maylene Walter (18:11): Which I really love that because it speaks to I think, the time and how pieces can develop in layers slowly. So I hope you could expand on that a bit. And also both of you just talk about revision and what that process is to you and what it means. Alison Stine (18:27): Sure. I actually like revision. I like the start of revision. I like the first revision. That's what I like the first revision at the very end when we're going through edits, copy edits, I don't like that part. Proofreading and I don't like letting it go. I have a hard time with that. But for me, revision is really where I discover the heart of the story and I discover what matters to myself and I discover how to do it purposefully throughout the book. In the first draft, I feel like I'm telling myself the story and I don't know what I'm doing. I'm just going out there and seeing what sticks. And in the revision, I gotta make it stick. I got to peel it off the wall and try to assemble some sort of meal out of this spaghetti I've thrown up against the ceiling. But I really like that because again, it goes back to surprise for me. You know, how can I make these pieces fit together? It's a problem that I enjoy solving, you know, I enjoy trying to make it work, you know, trying to get the thing to hold together. So revision is actually really fun for me. I really enjoy it. Ross Gay (19:30): Me too. That's the, you know, like the writing itself is that experience, like I said, like, oh, I wonder what's gonna happen. But the revision is where I know that's something I can't imagine is going to happen in ways that are more profound than the first coming out actually. That's why I could revise forever. And also why it's hard for me to kind of let go of books. And it's not because I'm trying to make it perfect, that's not actually what I'm trying to do. I realize this book, or maybe the last book, it's that I know that there is yet another kind of connection or like scraping off of spaghetti or whatever that is going to be the thing that unveils something that I never, never could have imagined. Like there's just like another connection, I feel like. And that to me is just like, it's exciting, you know, when I sit down to revise, to read over stuff, I mean I could be so sleepy and then I sit down like with a manuscript to start revise and it's like I drank six cups of coffee. It's just like I'm on, you know? And I'm on again not looking for errors, but of course that's part of the thing. But I'm looking for connections actually. And I'm looking for things that I can't quite see. Sort of like what you're talking about. I'm looking for the things that I know it's gonna take repetitions actually to sort of be able to learn how to do it. And that knowledge means if I have time for a thousand repetitions, I'm going to find some more stuff. I might only have time for a hundred repetitions, you know? Alison Stine (20:54): But there is something about the process that you do get these last minute inspirations. You really do. Laura Maylene Walter (20:58): Like when you have to turn in your proofs and you're like, well actually I want to change all of this. Yeah. Alison Stine (21:02): Well actually I just got this brilliant idea. Laura Maylene Walter (21:04): That's the funny thing about being a writer and publishing what you write in some ways is kind of a living, breathing thing. And you're never gonna make it perfect. But I always want to keep revising too. Just shifting things, changing things, uncovering a tiny bit. But then if you publish it, it gets to this point in the process where it's the official version and it's in print, right? And that is just what it is. Ross Gay (21:24): Also, I just want to mention, there's a great book. There's a something called like that Why I Write series or something. It's out of Yale, I think maybe it's all the people who won some prize out there. But the writer, Samuel Delany has one and he's an amazing writer. But he, in this piece, it's sort of a, it's a little bit of a history or something of his writing life. But he has notes from his editors, maybe his copy editor or something. But, so there are these little conversations between him and his editor in the footnotes. And you get to see the process a little bit of him being like, oh, okay, that's a good one. Or him being like, no, you're missing the point, blah, blah, blah, you know? It's some insight not only into the editorial process but also into the revision process. Laura Maylene Walter (22:01): It might be helpful for all the writers in the audience who are hoping to publish if they haven't yet already. The thought of our connection between our writing selves and our publishing selves. The fact that not everything we write will be published or maybe should be published. So I'm curious how you both think of that. What advice would you have for someone who's sitting there hoping to publish that connection between the art of the writing and the publishing part? Ross Gay (22:26): I don't know, but I feel like maybe, maybe this is what I think, off the cuff. That's a hard question actually. Is something like, what is the impulse to share? Is the impulse to share, you know, something like that. And then what are the many ways that we can share our work? Maybe it's something like that. Because one of the things that I think of so often is like, it's so important to be in some kind of literary community, which is a kind of publication when you have people reading your work or if you're giving readings or if you help to organize a reading in your town or you're, you have a little reading group or you do a thing where you're working with kids at the library, whatever. There's some analog between that and the question of publication because the question of publication is about audience. And those are also ways of sort of being in an amidst audience, cultivating audience or being an audience. So anyway, there's some, you know, uselesslanguage for you. Alison Stine (23:17): And I also will say that I've been describing myself as a recovering poet because I've not, I've not written poetry for a while. That doesn't mean I wrote won't again, but it's just been hard for me to hold two genres in my head at the same time. But what I used to think when I wrote poetry more seriously was that every poem helped me write my next poem. So maybe this one didn't work, but it got me to the next thing, which got me to the next thing. You know, it's like leapfrogging over lily pads or in a pond or something. And the journey is also part of it, you know, it's not just like, I want to write a good poem so I'm gonna write these bad poems. But the journey, the process is part of it. You know, the process is the art too, thinking, going through things, you know, that's just as important as publishing. It's separate from publishing, but it's its own thing that matters too. Ross Gay (24:04): Yeah. I want to piggyback on that too. That feels like an important thing to learn, that every draft is practice everything. Even the thing that you publish and win some fancy prize was actually practice, even if it's bound up and you know, it was practice for something. Maybe this is too much to say, but if it wasn't, then probably we need to recalibrate. Laura Maylene Walter (24:25): Yeah. And thinking of it as practice makes me think of THE BOOK OF DELIGHTS and THE BOOK OF MORE DELIGHTS. Can you talk about your process for those short essays a bit that you limited yourself to about 30 minutes a day, I think. Can you talk about that in what that specific practice of, you know, short bursts almost every day, what that meant to you as a writer? Ross Gay (24:44): Yeah, so I wrote them every day for a year, pretty much every day for a year. The constraints would write them daily, write them by hand, and write them quickly, 30 minutes or less. You know, the daily thing is the daily thing, which is actually not just the daily thing. The daily thing is partly what felt important about that, the kind of diaristic manner. It was the practice, it was just sort of, I was talking about yesterday, maybe during the teaching thing, it was sort of about like sort of trying to follow a practice, you know, trying to follow something. But the writing by hand thing showed me this. Partly it was just because I wanted to make it as easy as possible. So I could always have a notebook and a pen. And I never have a kind of excuse not to, to write a delight, you know. Ross Gay (25:23): But shortly I learned that there's a particular kind of thinking that we do with our bodies, period, that we think with our bodies. And to write by hand is a particular kind of thinking, and it's a different thinking than write it on a computer where you can delete large swaths of your thinking. So writing by hand is a way of archiving the process by which we arrived at what we arrived at. That feels important to me. And then the writing quickly felt like, because I too am a person who has an idea of a good thing, it just eliminated that because I knew growing up as a poet, like I was never going to write something good in 30 minutes. It wasn't like a thing. So I just like got rid of that and then I was just like, what will I write in 30 minutes? Ross Gay (26:02): You know? That was the sort of part of the discovery part of it. But the other thing is that was taking pressure off, don't write great things, just write. I learned that in writing quickly and quick enough that I wasn't trying to be brilliant. I wasn't trying to be excellent and I wasn't going to be proficient. It made me do these syntactical things, these thinking things, these grammatical thingsthese dictiony things that I otherwise, if I was trying to be good, which if I had two weeks to write an essay about something that delighted me, I would be, I'd be trying to be good. I would not have had those discoveries that those kind of quick rapid, like got to get to figure out why a public high five is so delightful to me. It feels like, to me it's a lesson about constraints. It's a lesson about imposing on yourself ways that will make you think, move, do et cetera differently. Which is also to say ways that will remove not only your mastery, but your aspirations or mastery. Laura Maylene Walter (27:00): And what about you, Alison, in terms of constraints or any limits you might put on your process sometimes? Or can you give us any insight into your process say of drafting a new novel? Alison Stine (27:11): I feel like life has put some constraints on me. You know, life does a good job with that. For the entirety of my son's life, I've been a single mom and he's 12 now, so he's very supportive of my work as much as a 12-year-old boy can be. But you know, it wasn't always the case, just the time, you know, not giving me time, not understanding that I needed to be alone. I wrote a lot of ROAD OUT OF WINTER at Burger King in Athens, Ohio. They had a great play space and he would just play and they had free Wi-fi and the cashiers would bring me free French fries and coffee. Alison Stine (27:43): Like they were worried about me. So they were always like giving me food and you know, that was a big help. You know, that was a big help. And also it was a constraint, of course, knowing I only have an hour while he's asleep or I only have three hours while he's at preschool. Why wasn't preschool all day? I don't know. But you know, knowing that I only have that time meant that I really worked during that time. I couldn't mess around. I had to sit down. I would ride in my car a lot. I would bring my laptop to the preschool and ride in the lobby. You know, if, you know, you only have a few hours, you got to work through those hours. But your process is actually similar to my process for drafting a novel in that I just try to get that first draft out there. Alison Stine (28:23): And I try not to stop myself or self-edit myself in the beginning. My mom told me when I was working on my dissertation, she said, done is better than perfect. And I think that's very true when it comes to a first draft. You know, you just got to get it out there by any means necessary. And for me anyway, my first drafts are very messy. There's lots of mistakes. I drop characters, I mess up people's names, I forget things. But that's okay. That's the first draft of the story. And the most important thing is to get to the ending and then go back to the revision process that I like so much and shape it into something that makes sense. Laura Maylene Walter (28:59): Yeah. Done is better than perfect. Although for me, the thought of a perfect first draft is very laughable. Done is better than blank. 300 pages of a novel. Alison Stine (29:07): Done is better than nothing. Laura Maylene Walter (29:09): Exactly. Exactly. So just get it out there. I thought it might be fun to hear maybe some of your current or one current writerly obsession you might have. And I was thinking of this because last night at Ross Gay's reading, you read your poem that has a vulture in it. And I've been working on a story about a vulture. I have been researching vultures. I went toif anyone knows in Hinkley, Ohio, they have the buzzard day. I went, yeah, it was amazing. I got to meet actual vultures up close and personal. People had like vulture hats on. Turkey vultures, I'm a huge fan. They're amazing creatures. So that has been my, my obsession, which also ties in with trash. I think since they are kind of our nature's like recycling beings. I promised trash, that's my trash addition. So is there something you would like to share that you've been interested in lately or a bit of research you did? Laura Maylene Walter (29:58): Or just any writerly obsession present or past you'd like to share with us? Alison Stine (30:02): Well, I guess I can start 'cause of the trash. You know, my last book was called TRASHLANDS and it did have a lot to do with plastic. And so to revise that book, even though it was fiction and speculative fiction at that, my editor wanted me to know as much about plastic as was possible for someone who has a humanities degree. And so I learned quite a lot about plastic. For the current project I'm working on, it's not quite as depressing. I'm actually learning a lot about owls. Yeah, I'm writing writing about owls in a way. I've had a few encounters with owls during the day, which usually means it's juvenile or something's wrong. But earlier in the spring I got Covid for the first time and unfortunately I got it very severely and I had these terrible, strange dreams and I had this dream that I was very sick in the hospital. Alison Stine (30:51): And the nurse gave me a ring and she said, you know, the ring will determine whether you can stay or go. And I chose the owl ring for some reason in my dream. And so I woke up and I said, I've got to get an owl ring. And so I have one now. But just the idea of the owl, I mean, I don't remember my dreams very often, so I feel like if I did remember it, it was important. It had something to say to me. And now I'm trying to figure out what it was. Laura Maylene Walter (31:15): If you ever want to do an owl-vulture collaboration... Alison Stine (31:19): I do. Yes. Right now I'm ready. Ross Gay (31:22): I don't know what, what my obsessions are right now. There's a couple things that I'm curious about. Like at some point I'll write a thing about falsetto singers. Yeah, I love falsetto singers. Sometimes I think about some books. There's a writer named Fleur Jaeggy, I think you say her name, who has this great, it's this weird little, I think it's her, it's three very short biographies of writers and I forget who they are. It might be like Keats and someone... Keats or Yeats, one of those guys. ButI sometimes think of doing like a little biography like that. I love the genre of the lyric biography. There's a writer named Sam Stevenson who has a book about the photographer Eugene Smith called GENE SMITH'S SINK. And I love that book so much. Or Saidiya Hartman's book, WAYWARD LIVES BEAUTFUL EXPERINMENTS, which is a kind of lyrical biography of many people It feels like. So sometimes I think about, oh, it'd be fun to do a lyric biography of like Erykah Badu or you know, any number, there's a handful of people and I could imagine like a little three of them or something who are just like sort of imagining things in ways that are just, I don't know, beautiful to me. Laura Maylene Walter (32:35): Yeah. Thank you for sharing both of your obsessions. We have a few minutes. I thought we could try to take just a couple of audience questions. If I call on you, say it in a loud voice so we can hear you. I will repeat it into the microphone so I capture it for the podcast. Okay. Yes, right here. The question was, someone was in Olympic National Park and saw one of Ross Gay's poems or an excerpt from one of his poems on display in the park. So what is that like having your poem in a national park? Ross Gay (33:07): I don't know. I haven't seen it. <Laugh>. How was it? Laura Maylene Walter (33:08): Wait, is this news to you right now? Ross Gay (33:11): Yeah. Yeah. Laura Maylene Walter (33:12): Did you take a picture of it? Okay. Afterward maybe... Ross Gay (33:15): Great. Laura Maylene Walter (33:15): Well, send it to me and I could show it <laugh>. Ross Gay (33:17): That's awesome. That's awesome. Thanks for telling me that. Great. Yeah, thank you. Laura Maylene Walter (33:23): How do you feel now that you know your poem? Ross Gay (33:26): Glad. Glad. Laura Maylene Walter (33:27): Oh, that's. Wow. You think they could give you a heads up or send you a photo? Ross Gay (33:29): I bet they did, but I'm, you know, yeah, yeah. I'm not, I'm not good at keeping track. Laura Maylene Walter (33:34): Amazing. I see a hand here. Yes. Thank you. I'll repeat that question. The question was for Ross Gay about having an optimistic mindset, if that has come naturally or if that's something you've had to seek out the delight and the joy. Ross Gay (33:52): I'm not optimistic. Yeah, and I don't feel pessimistic either. I feel like to the best of my ability, what I'm trying to do is both articulate what I notice, but the articulation of what I notice, I'm trying very hard because I'm very good at articulating and noticing what is devastating. I try very hard to also articulate what is beautiful and caring and loving of which there is more than the devastating, often. Though the devastating often for good reason takes precedence in our imaginations. So it's a great question and it's a great question because I think there's a way that, I mean, there's a way that that practice, the delight practice, is in fact an attempt at building a world. You know, it's a practice at building a world that will reinforce itself by further building a world that will reinforce itself by further building a world. The world being ultimately, because I think of those delights as sort of pleasant indications, flickering indications of our connection, the world being one in which we are knowingly all connected. Ross Gay (35:11): Like, oh, okay, those, someone said this beautifully the other day. The delights are like the mushrooms of connection and joy is like the mycelium. It's beneath us all. And it's always there, whether we know it or not. Which is why you have to practice knowing it's there. But periodically a delight will pop up like a mushroom and you see it and you're like, oh look, you know, like a little beautiful bird landed on the fence post, like within arm's reach. The light. That's a sign of connection. So anyway, I need those signs because I am also inclined to, you know, like that novel, which I haven't read yet. I'm excited to read your novel, the plastic novel, you know, I'm horrified and I'm also like in the midst of the horror, which is unfathomable. There's like these kids working at Burger King, I assume that they're young people working at Burger King who see you working and bring you French fries. Ross Gay (36:12): That is the nature of our lives. That is, you know, that is the more powerful thing that is always being suppressed. And a certain kind of way, like, sorry to go off, but the administrators of care who we might call the government and other people are in fact the withholders of care. And they confuse us because they make us believe that they're in fact the administrators of care, but they're not. They're the f***ing bomb droppers. That's who they are. And the administrators of care are each other. And it's these people who bring each other French fries and they see that this mom is working clearly. And like you said, they were worried about me, so they brought me French fries and coffee. You f***ing kidding me. Of course they did. Of course they did. We don't always, but that's what we do mainly. Ross Gay (37:03): And it feels like that's the practice of like holding fast to that. You know, these people who I love who are Fred Moten and Stefano Harney, they have a book called THE UNDER COMMONS and they sometimes they'll say stuff like, we're at war and we're at war with who I'm talking about the people who would try to convince us that we are not sufficient to care for one another, that we have to go elsewhere to care for one another. And I always resist that idea. I always resist it because I don't want to be at war, period. But then sometimes I think, oh, but the point is actually it doesn't matter if you're at war because they're going to be at war with you. You might not want to be at war, but they're gonna be at war with you. Our capacity to care for one another will be, is being attacked constantly. So that's part of like why I want to study delight and I wanna study joy because I wanna be participant in the practice of witnessing, articulating, shouting, hollering about celebrating that these people at Burger King brought one of our writers French fries and coffee, you know what I mean? Alison Stine (38:14): We have to bring each other French fries. Ross Gay (38:15): We have to. Alison Stine (38:16): As people. Ross Gay (38:17): That's sort of it. Laura Maylene Walter (38:17): That's the message of this whole hour. We do need to wrap up in a minute, but I did think this question was great for you as well, Alison, because you wrote a novel about our future world that climate change has changed the coastlines, that plastic is everywhere. Is there anything, anything you would quickly like to add about this optimism, pessimism issue when writing a dystopia? Alison Stine (38:41): I think that there's actually a lot of hope in those kind of books. Octavia E Butler was a huge influence on me, and people might think of her work as being hopeless because it's about such a dark time. But you know, in the dark time you look for the light. And I read books like her books for hope and for ways forward. And that's what I try to do with my work as well. That it's not just about this difficult world. Alison Stine (39:03): It's about how do we see our way out of this difficult world? How do we make a new world within this world? How do we continue to help each other and forge community and love in this world? How do we go forward? And also, art is a big part of it too. How do we continue to make art and just leave it, you know, just make it for the fact of making it because making it makes us human and helps us reach each other even in the darkest of times. Laura Maylene Walter (39:29): Beautifully said. I think that might be the note to end on. So thank you both so much. I also wanna thank Lit Youngstown, Youngstown State University, RW Franklin, Page Count's biggest fan. And for all of you for being here and of course Ross Gay and Alison Stein, can we give them another huge round of applause please? Thank you everyone. Laura Maylene Walter (40:01): Page Count is presented by the Ohio Center for the Book at Cleveland Public Library. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe, rate, and leave a review for Page Count wherever you get your podcast. Learn more online or find a transcript of this episode at ohiocenterforthebook.org. Follow us on Instagram @ohiocenterforthebook, on Twitter @cplocfb, or find us on Facebook. If you'd like to get in touch, email firstname.lastname@example.org and put "podcast" in the subject line. Finally, follow me on Instagram and Twitter @LauraMaylene. Thanks for listening, and we'll be back in two weeks for another chapter of Page Count.
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