The Shifting Boundaries of Story and Medium: Interview with Matthew Derby

By Sylke Jackson

This weekend, Cuppa Pulp Writers’ Space welcomes Matthew Derby for the River River biannual Lodestar Reading. His recent novel, The Silent History, co-authored with Eli Horowitz, Kevin Moffatt, and Russell Quinn (Farrar Straus and Giroux 2014), was originally conceived as the first major exploratory interactive novel designed for digital platforms.  In this interview, Sylke and Matt discuss reaching beyond the boundaries of print media to tell a rich story about children, language, and the questions addressed in the novel that made him delve into unconsciously held thoughts and feelings about his late sister.

The Guardian called The Silent History “A compelling story about difference, rights and power”; Wired called it “Entirely revolutionary.” Matt’s work has also appeared in The Anchor Book of American Short Stories, Dzanc’sBest of the Web 2009, McSweeney’s, The Believer, Guernica, and elsewhere. He is also a designer for Harmonix, a video game studio in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

SJ: Is there any moment or experience in your childhood that you’d point to that opened the door to the kind of work that you are doing now?

MD: I grew up in a big Catholic family. I had six siblings, most of whom were significantly older than me. By the time I was six, all but two of them were already in college. They left a lot of stuff behind in the house when they went away – mostly books and records – and I pored over these materials like an archaeologist struggling to understand an ancient civilization.

The Beatles were the one thing all of my siblings seemed to have in common, so I spent most of my time listening to their records and reading the many books we had about them. I became fascinated with the ‘Paul is dead’ conspiracy theory, and spent many afternoons scaring myself silly looking for the clues about his death scattered throughout their recordings. One day, I read that, if you played the very end of “A Day in the Life” backwards, you could hear, instead of an orchestra reaching a spastic climax before hitting a single, unforgettable note, the sound of Paul’s car skidding and crashing in the moments before his death. I went straight to the record player and spun the record in reverse, and what I heard sounded astonishingly like a car crash.

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Weekend Crash Course in Making Short Movies!

Laura Shapiro loves digital storytelling and will be offering an intensive workshop in this exciting format on the weekend of April 28-30th at CILK119. She has found that the short movies people create convey personal and profound messages and offer a medium that is extremely accessible.

Laura trained in digital storytelling at StoryCenter, a pioneering organization that promotes digital storytelling and has helped nearly a thousand organizations, and more than 15,000 individuals, share their stories. This vital initiative and the amazing videos that it nurtures, supported Laura’s growing conviction that digital storytelling could be an effective tool for expression and communication. Laura especially appreciates that the medium helps communities to speak to their concerns. People’s stories change the world.

The workshop that Laura will offer will help participants tell their stories and find their voices in this concise, selective art form, using images and sound to offer personal narratives. Workshop participants will identify transformative stories that they want to tell, create scripts, learn simple editing on iMovie, and begin the process of composing their own digital stories. The workshop will start at 7pm on Friday evening April 28th and will run from 9am to 5pm on Saturday and Sunday, April 29th and 30th.

An educator, Laura has worked with the New York public city schools and NYC Outward Bound Schools to implement the Expeditionary Learning model, a project-based learning approach. Her digital storytelling clients include: United Hospice of Rockland; Veritas Public School, Queens; Expeditionary School for Community Leaders, Brooklyn; Dr. Albert Pfadt, NYC; and Women’s Digital Storytelling Retreats. She enjoys working with people from diverse backgrounds and helping individuals identify the stories that are important to them. Check out her workshop at:…/digital-story-intensive-with-la…/

Dead-Shot Writing: An Interview with Diana Goetsch

by Sylke Jackson

JACKSON: Do you feel that creativity, or writing in particular, can help us in the new Trump era? How?

GOETSCH: Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about Atticus Finch, the gifted and unusual father in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Specifically, the scene in the film where a rabid dog is wandering down their street, a vicious creature (oddly named “Tim Johnson”) demon-possessed and no good to itself. The townspeople have gathered their children indoors, as has Atticus. Then the sheriff hands his rifle to Atticus, and Scout, his daughter, is shocked to see him kill the dog expertly with one shot. Everything about him was gentle, nonviolent, amazingly compassionate toward people, even those who’d even mistreated her—ignorant schoolteachers, nasty old ladies. But Scout didn’t know what the sheriff knew: even though he hadn’t picked up a gun in thirty years, Atticus was still the deadliest shot in Maycomb County. What she also didn’t recognize: this facet of her father was every bit as loving as all the others.

Trump’s bullying presidency is a pack of rabid dogs, staggering down a lot of streets, where many children play. Fifteen other candidates in the Republican primary field, many of them accomplished bullies themselves, couldn’t figure out how to stop him. We’re all waiting to see if the courts, the legislature—our checks and balances—will hold, but I suspect there will be moments we will need to toss out the rulebook (as Trump has already done) and practice a kind of love that is unrecognizable in common times. We will need a lot of Atticus Finches.

But Atticus Finch is a fictional character, so we will need a lot of Harper Lee’s. Lord knows we need good journalists doing their jobs courageously (they failed miserably during the last Republican presidency). Still more rare is the courageous artist, who, to use Joyce’s words, “go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.” We need the courage of South African novelist Nadine Gordimer, who took on apartheid by writing “as if I were writing from the grave.” It’s easy (and maybe counter-productive) to spout on Facebook, but it takes amazing courage to protect and practice art in a time like this, and give us our Atticus Finches.

And we need all art, not just political or socially oriented art. We need it for maintaining contact with the sacredness of life, and the guidance that flows from that contact. Nietzsche said, “It is only as an aesthetic experience that existence is forever justified.” The week after the election I had a reading at a university and I read a lot of love poems—on purpose—saying, “Let’s please remember what we’re fighting for.” In Denmark, not long after the Berlin Wall came down, folk singer Arlo Guthrie played a song written by the least political artist imaginable—Elvis Presley’s “I Can’t Help Falling in Love with You”—and the crowd knew every word. 30,000 people singing a love song in a foreign language, in unison: it doesn’t get more political than that.

JACKSON: Wow, that’s an amazing image. So many people, connecting across language and culture, through a simple (and beautiful!) love song. So, cultivating our writing practices, or any form of art that brings us to our love and truth, will deepen us and sharpen our shooting for the fight ahead? (As a Quaker I balk a bit at using the shooting metaphor for my own experience, but I’m going with it…)

GOETSCH: I want to say yes, that art functions precisely in this manner—though right away a voice in my head says, what about Ezra Pound’s anti-Semitism, Yeats joining the Fascist Party, or Woody Allen’s “involvement” with his children? Still, art is often a transformative experience, one that puts us in contact with the sacred and makes us want to protect it. Writing practice in particular helps cultivate what Buddhists call right speech. Writers are people who continually ask, What needs saying?—versus What doesn’t need to be said?—in order to discern what’s finally real about a situation.

Conversely, we’ve seen all kinds of activism that, however righteous, is aggressive in its approach: militant canvassers, manipulative fundraising tactics, charities led by Napoleonic hotheads. This is bad art, sloppy activism that risks throwing the baby out with the bathwater, and very different from Atticus Finch shooting that rifle. Atticus is no militant, he’s simply responding to a situation by doing what’s called for, regardless of how he may appear to others—maybe even regardless of his own personal beliefs. (I’d even venture to call him a good Quaker.)

JACKSON; So hopefully, in writing, we transform ourselves and tap truth. That can give us the insight to cut through abuses and transform the world. And maybe setting aside the chaos of the current political apocalypse for a moment and giving ourselves a safe place to write is also a healing, nurturing process.

GOETSCH: I agree. Practicing art requires a setting aside of something—a lot of things—in order to create space for something else. I recently re-read Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, where Woolf keeps emphasizing the necessity of having such a place in order to have any shot at writing that’s going to matter. Elizabeth Bishop’s great poem “The Fish” also comes to mind: an old woman, alone in a rowboat, achieves this magnificent insight of what it is to be a warrior. Such moments of clarity, and the poems that give rise to them—and even the space in which we read them—require nurturing and protection.

But there’s something else Woolf points out: even if we do have a room of our own, our writing can still be polluted by things extraneous to a piece of art—usually in the form of unaddressed trauma, creeping onto the page. So there’s an inner place as well that requires healing and nurturing.

JACKSON: Healing the inner place sounds good. Is that something to approach through writing or other artistic avenues?

GOETSCH: I think so. Art isn’t therapy (and Art Therapy isn’t art) but what art and therapy both do is promote body/mind synchronicity, and that heals us. Each art form does this in its own way, re-integrating the troubled or isolated mind with the sanity and wisdom of the body. This embodiment is easy to see if we’re talking about African drumming or dance, but it’s also the case with writing. I’ve seen this in workshops; a certain quality of engagement comes over people while working on a piece of writing, a kind of spell is cast, and when they come out of that experience their whole state of being is transformed. I usually notice it before the participants do, but then they read back what they wrote, and they’re stunned and surprised by what came out of their pens. It’s transformative.

Among the arts, writing is especially good at helping us externalize what was previously unknown about ourselves or our world. Even if we don’t at first understand what we’ve written, there is—if we’ve written well—a visceral sense of integration. Toward the end of a workshop I watch people become hopeful in a good way—not that they will become famous authors, but the hope that they can keep doing this on their own, returning to this zone of creativity and empowerment. That’s healing, though it’s much more: it’s being fully alive. (And of course, some may become famous authors.)

JACKSON: I love what you said about people voicing something they didn’t even realize that they knew and surprising themselves in their writing. And the resulting inexplicable feeling of visceral integration. A while ago, I was explaining to a friend that I was having trouble writing. In an email to her I meant to write, “I am afraid of the void,” but by Freudian slip wrote “I am afraid of the voice”! I like the idea that in writing we integrate voices that may be powerful but are unconscious and unclaimed. And we open a connection to an untapped source of power that could help with the whole rabid dog thing.

GOETSCH: I think you said it better than me.

This next class I’ll be teaching, the fifth installment of the Free-Writing Intensive, will focus on voice—though you’re right to use the plural “voices.” We’ve all got a lot of voices in us, most of which are unclaimed, and startling in their sudden appropriateness. From a certain standpoint, all the page ever asks of us is the right voice. Maybe our times are asking for this too.

Find Flow with River River this December

While ice will soon form on the Hudson, River River brings a swirl of literary events to Cuppa Pulp Writers’ Space at CILK119 in December. Cuppa Pulp, a major sponsor of River River along with Seranam Literary Arts, offers a physical space to anchor the budding nonprofit. We hope you will enjoy the wellspring of literary events made possible by this partnership this month and for many months to come!

We’ll begin on December 3 with Saturday Morning write!, a 3-week series of free salons designed to encourage generation of new work. Facilitators Donna Miele or Anu Amaran will offer a prompt in a supportive group atmosphere. Writers take this wherever their creativity leads them, and we end by sharing our work fresh off the page. The write! salons are River River’s signature offering, and have sailed through a variety of wonderful venues, including Art Cafe, Johnnycakes, and Didier Dumas of Nyack. We are honored and excited to continue hosting salons at Cuppa Pulp.

December 17 brings a triple-splash that includes write!, then a Drop-in Poetry Revision Workshop with Anu Amaran, and finally, the much-loved holiday season Lodestar Reading, featuring local author Mary Beth Keane, who will read from her novel, Fever. Fever was named one of the best books of 2013 by the San Francisco Chronicle, NPR Books, and Library Journal.

The tide is coming in! Check out our calendar and ride the great swell of River River offerings over to CILK119 this December.

Visceral Wisdom and Music—How Diana Goetsch Got (and still gets) into Writing

Sylke Jackson: Did you write when you were a child? If not, when and how did you start writing? 

Diana Goetsch: No. Sports were my main thing as a kid. I once wrote a report on Saturn copied directly from the encyclopedia. “This is great!” I remember telling myself, as I copied what someone else wrote into my notebook, feeling totally like an author. I was seven.

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In July I met a robot named Miss Peggy


It was at a party where an inventor presented an exhibition on making houses explode. Yes, and the toilet watered the plants. And there was a maze that never ended.

It wasn’t a dream. It wasn’t a psychotropically induced hallucination. It was Duncan Bell’s Inventions showcase—half open house, half science museum exhibit, a swinging soiree where people can sail off on the Kayakamaran (or at least check out the construction of the double-hulled vessel) or munch nibbles while the grand master explains how everything works.

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Charting the Wilderness of our Lives—An Interview with Debra Scacciaferro

Debra no glasses May 2015

Early Bird Rate extended for “Which Way Do I Go: Your Life Story in Fact or Fiction.” Register here.

Are there any memoirs that you have found particularly moving? Why?

I’d have to say that “fictional” memoir—or more accurately, an autobiographically-based work of fiction—was my first embrace of the genre, with Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series. My best friend Freyda and I devoured these in grade school, and then acted them out by playing “Pioneers” in our suburban backyards. Those books appealed to our imaginations, our fascination in fourth grade with American history and crafts, and our deep appreciation of Laura’s struggle to be a “good girl” when she longed for the kind of adventure only boys were allowed to have. We also were deeply moved by the independence of her family, their resourcefulness, and envious of their wanderlust.

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Memoir—Where Writer and Reader Meet: an interview with Lorraine Ash


JACKSON: How did you get started writing memoir?

ASH: I started in 1999 in a hospital bed days after the stillbirth of my first and only child, Victoria Helen. Up to that point, I’d written thousands of articles as a journalist, a few published plays, and a few unpublished novels, all in third person.

After my daughter died, I reflexively started writing to process the experience. I reached for the notebook that my thoughtful husband had placed on my bedside table and jotted down images, aromas, snippets of conversation, and sensations. At that point I was still too grief-stricken and ill to string together sentences.

Later, when my emotions had just begun to settle and realign themselves with my new view of the world, I wrote about the horrendous separation my daughter and I had experienced.

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