Interview with Tiana Clark


Tiana Clark is the author of I Can’t Talk about the Trees without the Blood (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2018), her debut poetry collection which won the 2017 Agnes Lynch Starett Prize, and Equilibrium (Bull City Press, 2016). Clark has also won a 2019 Pushcart Prize, the 2017 Furious Flower’s Gwendolyn Brooks Centennial Poetry Prize, and the 2015 Rattle Poetry Prize. She received an M.F.A from Vanderbilt University and a B.A. from Tennessee State University, where she studied Africana and Women’s Studies. She has been featured in The New Yorker, Poetry Magazine, Kenyon Review, BuzzFeed News, American Poetry Review, New England Review, Oxford American, Best New Poets 2015, and elsewhere: feel free to explore her writing.

30North: We’re happy to have you here today.

Tiana: Happy to be here.

30North: The first question we have for you is, “When starting the process of writing your poems, do you always have an intended topic and audience in mind, and what is the truth you are trying to reveal?”

Tiana: Looking at the first part of your question, just because my mind starts going and then I can’t catch up with it…so one of my favorite writers, and especially with poetry, is Terrance Hayes, and he did an interview one time and someone was asking him about his process, and he said in the first draft, “it’s just me and my shadow, and no one else is in the room.” I really liked that idea that I’m not thinking about anyone else in that first initial draft. I think that first drafting process is really special and wild and that’s when you want your little, carefree kid to come out and play on the page. You don’t want your internal editor in that first draft session, because it’s going stomp out that impulsive, intuitive little kid, right?

I like this idea of exorcising all your demons and letting your little kid come out, and if I thought about audience in that first draft, I probably wouldn’t write anything, right? Because I’d be like “that’s stupid, that’s silly, that’s whatever.” Especially if I’m writing about family. If they’re in the room with me, and in my head, I’m never going to get anything out of my body or head. So as far as audience goes, in that first draft, it’s a very insular process for me. Oftentimes, I’m just trying to chase the thing that’s haunting or obsessing me.

In another interview that I read from Ruth Stone, she talked about how sometimes she would feel like poems are barreling down the hill and chasing her, and she has to run inside the house and grab the pen to try and catch the hem of it, you know? So, sometimes, these ideas… they do come to me, and they do feel like they’re barreling through my body, and I don’t even have time to think of my audience because I’m trying to pin that poem down to the page before it dissipates.

Now, when revision comes, I’m definitely thinking about audience. I’m like, “Okay, editor brain. Little kid, you’re not welcome anymore. Editor, please come in the room.” Then I’m thinking about, “okay, what form do I want this to be?” I throw it into different containers. Is it couplets, tercets, do I want this to be a sonnet, or do I want to break the sonnet open, or do I want to have the ghost of a form in palimpsest? Do I actively want to make them uncomfortable? All those different questions come into my mind when I’m editing.

Now, topics? You know, I think being a poet is paying close attention to the world. So, I think I’m just constantly pained and fascinated by everything. I’m always looking up words that I don’t know. I’m always carrying words or clips of conversation in my head and journal. I write things down a lot in my notes, so sometimes those thoughts are just always are kind of swirling. I don’t know if those impulses are actively taking me to the page, but I’m kind of just a magpie collecting images and sounds and sensory experiences, and then try my best to filter them through my poems.

So, what is a truth I’m trying to reveal and who am I trying to speak to? I think if anything (and I wrote about this in a recent interview), I’m writing to save my own life. You could look at that in a very narcissistic way, but I think so often when my experience hasn’t been part of the traditional Western canon, then I’m trying to create a narrative of survival, a way for me to see and sustain myself, and possibly others to see themselves, too. So often in the world, especially in our current political climate that feels so inundated with a kind of psychological dissonance, I’m just trying to kind of create larger spaces for my lyric self to have some more swagger and sway that I don’t feel in the everyday world. Right? So, really, I’m speaking to myself through these different personas that I’m trying to capture. When you publish a book, they ask who’s your market audience, and I think it’s definitely women of color, but so often I want the work to have a circumference that’s large and immersive, a net that could capture everybody. I always tell my students to write very, very personally, because for me, the personal is a way to the universal, and nobody can really argue with your own story. I like to smash the personal and the political together and see what kind of tension and drama that creates on the page.

30North: Several poems in this book mention or respond to non-literary artworks. What is your biggest non-literary influence or inspiration?

Tiana: How are you defining non-literary? Is it the pop culture references, is that what you’re…

30North: There’s dance in there, pieces of art…

Tiana: Okay, I got you. I really love ekphrastic poetry, or poetry that responds to art or art responding to art. So I have the Balanchine series in there… again, I’m always interested in fraught issues of race. What brought me to Balanchine was Arthur Mitchell, who just passed away a couple months ago. He was the first African American dancer to be a part of a major dance company in New York. Balanchine had this radical dance; it was the first time they had a black male dancer dancing with a white, Southern ballerina, and it was 1968, this fraught time in America, so there was this tense anxiety woven throughout the dance that I wanted to capture. That was just my entry point. Then I kind of got obsessed. I really love research. Another poet I really love, Robin Coste Lewis, on a really great podcast you should listen to, Commonplace, talked about research as a form of devotion. I thought that was really beautiful. I get on these big, deep-dive holes of researching. So, I’m researching Balanchine, I’m researching Arthur Mitchell, I’m researching what’s happening to the 1960s, and in the ballet world, but, again, for me, I don’t put those things in categories of literary/non-literary. I’m sweeping in all of that research into my poems. We are painting with words, using these abstract symbols to connect to the limbic system in our brains, and I see all these intersections with poetry responding to art. With dance, I was interested with the theme in that one. With the music video, the Rihanna music video, “BBHMM” – again, that just kind of pierced me, and it’s an obsession that starts happening. Poets, we have a certain set of obsessions and be sure to try and chase those, and try and pin them down.

30North: Before each section in your book there are quotes. Do you choose the quotes before or after you’ve written the poems? And how do you intend for the quotes to influence the direction of your poetry?

Tiana: These are wonderful questions. So, yeah, I love quotes. I’m a quote collector. Oftentimes — I don’t know what different kind of instructions you’re told, like not to have too many epigraphs — but I don’t pay attention to a lot of the rules.  I, in fact, try to push against them. I actually had more epigraphs in this book. This is actually a tamed down version.

When I was thinking about the structure of the book — sorry, let me sidebar. Have you all read Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts? So, it’s this nonfiction book, it’s really fascinating, where there’s a lot of intertextuality, and every time she’s quoting someone or pulling in a different theory, she puts their names in the marginalia. And her whole point is that she wants you to know who she’s in conversation with at all times. So, I think of epigraphs as a way of showing the reader what other texts and other poets and other writers I’m in conversation with, who are kind of hovering at the seam of the collection. I think of epigraphs as little foyers, you know? A little entry space before you enter the house of the poem.

By starting off with Claudia Rankine in that first section, I am wanting my readers to think about her book, that collection of micro-aggressions, and I’m pulling that quote, always ruminating on the idea of trees, but in this section, it’s thinking about lynching. And in that second section, Adrienne Rich, another political poet of her age, I’m ruminating on why it’s necessary to talk about the trees. That quote rattled my brain while I was writing the collection, and I wanted that to forefront that section. The third section (which is more abstract) is centered on blood that’s pulled from Ezekiel, which is actually this weirdly intense prophetic dream about an abandoned metaphorical baby that represents Jerusalem. I wanted the reader to think about different kinds of religious themes, like blood and sacrifice.

Regarding epigraphs in general, I think about them as a meal, you know what I mean? You have the appetizer, then you have the little palette cleansers, like little limoncello shots, and then at the end of the book, as the dessert, you get Gwendolyn Brooks, saying, “…You are the last of the loud, conduct your blooming in the noise and the whip of the whirlwind.” I wanted the book to end on a strain of joy that was clutched in pain, but still kind of swinging towards growth. Yes, I wanted the readers to know who were the writers I was in conversation with, the quotes that were rattling in my head as I was writing this collection. And I just love them. And I think they’re wonderful. But there is some guidance to not get too wild with them, because they can be barriers to entry.

30North: You toy with the lineation of your poems to create representations of your content, such as when the words form a circle on the page. Can you talk to us about how you see the relationship between words on the page and meaning?

Tiana: Yeah, so, we’re talking about lineation here…line breaks and aesthetics. Aesthetics are really important to me. There’s so much consideration when you’re crafting a poem, and I’m really interested in form and in the aesthetics of form. For me, playing around with lineation is a part of my revision process. When you’re putting poems into different containers, what ends up happening is that your syntax starts getting weeded and kind of controlled. There’s a really great… actually, it’s Rebecca Hazelton’s essay on the poetic line, on Poetry Foundation, that I always teach… but it was Catherine Wagner who talked about cutting lines around the themes of sound, speed, surprise, and syntax… I always think about line breaks and lineation as a way to fulfill or thwart expectations in a poem. Think about curating a museum exhibit. You get to decide how your reader is going to walk through your collection, or through your poem. Some pieces of art might have a ten-foot velvet rope, some other might be an interactive exhibit where you get to touch it, but you get to control that experience.

Visually, I’m always trying to push myself to take risks on the page. There’s a really great essay by Charles Olson called “Projective Verse” which talks about the breath, the sound, and the syllable kind of controlling that first poetic verse or spark. That’s one way to look at it. For me, I’m really led by surprise. I’m really into the idea of contrapuntals and multiple meanings that can happen in a text, so that you get to decide how you’re going to read it. Are you just going read it the traditional way, horizontal, left to right? Or are you going to read the right side then the left side, then read it all back together and pick up on different meanings? In doing so, I like that there’s these little echoes of meanings kind of bouncing around the poem that are layered. Everything has been written before, but how do we breathe life into dead language? How are we making it fresh or making it new? These different techniques of craft help me as a writer by providing a type of creative mental gymnastics for myself. I’m always thinking about my readers’ eyes when putting a collection together. After a long, dense poem, maybe they want a shorter poem that not only has caesuras for breath, but also on the page, like a breath for the eyes, you know what I mean? And I think that any writer has to think about their relationship to the line. That’s something that I’m always asking myself. I’m a poet who takes joy in making and breaking forms, playing around with the field of the page. It’s something that keeps my writing practice really fun and fresh, and it’s also helpful in exacting and clarifying and sharpening my syntax. Which was really helpful as well.

30North: Where did you get the idea for your title, I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood? It’s a unique phrase that splits into three parts of the book, and we’re curious about the creation of this phrase and how it morphs your book.

Tiana: So, the title comes from a line in “The Rime of Nina Simone,” which is in the middle of the book. I went to graduate school at Vanderbilt, and my mentor was like, “I really like this line. What if this was the title of your book?” And I was like, “It’s really long, I don’t know…” and then it just came to me. I was like, wait a second. I’m a visual person, and in my head it broke apart into a tryptic, a three-part panel: “I can’t talk/about the trees/without the blood”. From there, that became my triumvirate structure. And then I was like, “Oh. I’ve made a chapbook before, so let me just make three little chapbooks and string them together.” And that helped me kind of think about my sections, because it was almost too much to think about them altogether, because you can’t hold it all in your brain. So then, that became my structure. It was also trial and error. It’s kind of like a house. You see what furniture you can move around, and what poems talk to each other. For the first section, “I can’t talk,” I was thinking about silence, silences in the body, silences in history, and about what poems are having that conversation around erasure. Then you put all your poems on the floor, see what’s conversing, and then you put them together.

I knew I wanted Nina Simone to be in the middle of the book; she’s the fulcrum of the collection, the ghost that haunts the book. And, so, I knew she’d be “about the trees,” the part that makes up the middle. “Without the blood” was the hardest part for me to wrangle. I didn’t want to be on the nose with it, but it’s also the section that’s probably the wildest and also the one that’s tipping my hat to what I’m working on next. I remember Ocean Vuong came to talk to us during graduate school and he said that he always tries to write at least one poem in his book that’s a little bit of a nod to what he’s working on next. I like that idea.  Maybe I don’t have all the answers figured out in that section, and it’s a little wild… but I wasn’t worried about totally figuring out all of the creation. What I really invested in was actively letting the reader see my thought process, and maybe it’s not done, but there’s something about reaching for that trapeze baton kind of snatch…you may not get it, but the effort in trying is really beautiful. Instead of just having something that’s highly curated. I don’t know. I’m still working through it. But it gives me a sense of permission to keep going.

30North: You said there’s a nod to your next work in this book. Could you give us a clue as to where that might be?

Tiana: For me, this book was very much like going through puberty in that there are certain rite of passage poems…And I think it was Helen Vendler who said we’re always writing the same poem over and over again. So a lot of my poems are going to have daddy issues, black pain, slavery, black woman: I had to get all of that out. Now that I got all the stuff I need to say about that out, I feel free to move on. I will always still hover around those themes, but I’m trying to transition to… not writing about pain so explicitly. Is it possible to ever transcend pain? Obviously the answer is no, but what would be the effort in trying to have my poems bend a little bit more towards joy, to be a little bit more about happiness? And I’ve also been writing longer poems. I think “The Rime of Nina Simone” was my first big long poem, and the second collection I’m working on actually has like four big long poems in them. So I’m very interested in taking up a lot of space on the page and not apologizing for it. I feel like whenever someone has a long poem, they feel the need to be like, “Sorry, I have a very long poem.” I’m trying to be less apologetic in my next book. I feel more freedom in my next book because I kind of got some stuff out of the way. You know those early dating relationships? You get those out of the way… and then your third or fourth one… maybe you aren’t all there yet, but you get those out of the way so you can have more freedom. Does that make sense? I think one that’s tipping the hat to the next book is “Rituals.” That poem is exploring sexuality in a more complex, anxious way, which is what I’m looking at in my next book.

30North: Many of the poems written have a historical connection to black culture and segregation beyond slavery: how important is history for the creation of poetry, in general, and in your own?

Tiana: I was a history major in college and for the longest time, I thought I wanted to be a historian. I actually did an internship for the Schaumburg Center for Research on Black Culture in Harlem in the summer of 2008. If you’re ever in New York, I would highly suggest going. It’s fabulous. That’s where Langston Hughes’ ashes are interred and they have this huge Cosmo-gram inlaid in the terrazzo of “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” and his ashes right in the middle of it. So, everyday I’m walking over his body. During this time I thought I wanted to be a historian. I had started writing poetry when I was in high school, but I didn’t think you could do anything with it, I didn’t know about MFA programs. I’m doing all this really dense research and then poems started kind of bubbling out, and I was actually quite terrified, like: “Oh god, like, go away poems, I need to write this research paper!” but it was my body telling me about my future.

My body digests research through poetry, and that was really terrifying. I was like: “What job is that?” I started researching poetry careers, and I found about these MFA programs. I was like “Wait a second, there are places that will pay you to read, write and teach and learn and explore your imagination? What is this magical place? I want to go to there.” That’s a longer story of how I made it to the MFA.

The historical context – again, that was a major obsession of mine; again, I really love smashing the personal and political in my poems, and having those historical elements woven through. In the poem “Nashville,” I’m taking you into a private moment between a husband and a wife, whilealso unspooling the history of Black Nashville, which creates a really interesting tension in the poem that I like to explore. That’s been how I interact on the page; all that research flows in.

Deep-dive into your obsessions instead of avoiding or controlling them, and that’s what’s going to make you different. Honestly, I’ve been studying a lot about grammar and genre. Writers who are unabashedly themselves and unabashedly show their passions, those are the writers we fall in love with. Or think about how you fall in love with your friends or different lovers; it’s just their weird, idiosyncratic ways that they do things. How can you be more of yourself on the page? For myself, history is one of my obsessions; it’s something I just can’t help put into my work.

30North: One of your poems clearly details an internal struggle with the use of African American history and the perception that your work is more or less appreciated for its tragic and graphic nature. Is it a subject which must be navigated through poetry?

Tiana: That’s a good question. We’re getting into the deep stuff today. That hits home for me with “Nina Simone,” where Nina is really an avatar to have a conversation with myself. In the first couple of drafts I couldn’t really tell the difference between her voice and the speaker’s. In subsequent drafts I was really trying to nail down and have her really indict the speaker. “Hey, if you are really free and can write whatever you want, then why would you choose to write and retread Black pain?” I was trying to kind of call myself out a little bit.

The idea of attacking your history a little bit – maybe attacking isn’t the write word, how about interrogating? Interrogating your origins. It’s one thing to indulge your obsessions, but I think it is crucial to also to interrogate them at some point. So, I was interested in interrogating myself, like “why do you like writing about Black pain so much?” So, then Nina gets into issues of, “do you have sadomasochistic impulses towards your subject matter?” You’ve got to dig into psychological layers of it, because, again, you don’t want your writing to be one note, and there’s a kind of self-awareness I was trying to lasso in the book. I was questioning the expected-Black-pain poems as well the need to perform this type of slavery porn for others. Because in my writing, who am I writing to? Am I writing to my audience? Am I writing to myself? Am I writing to digest black pain for white people? Make it more palatable? Am I talking to a black audience? Am I just retreading stuff that’s already been heard before? How am I making it new?

And also, am I just re-enacting trauma, inflicting pain on myself again, so why would I do this? Why would I self-flagellate the performative aspects of suffering in front of other people? What’s great about creative writing is that you don’t have to answer any of these questions. I’m constantly wrestling and holding and caring for all these questions while I’m trying to explore and reach for answers that may never satisfy.

30North: In “The Ayes Have It,” a ‘post racial America’ is mentioned and shot down; can a ‘post-racial America’ exist? Can a ‘post racial’ anywhere exist?

Tiana: So, it’s interesting thinking about time. I wrote that poem when President Obama was in office. And, so, I think at that time everyone was like: “We got a black president, everything’s cool, everything’s fine, I don’t care, everyone needs to stop talking about race, we’re good now,” which obviously wasn’t the case then and isn’t the case currently. But the idea of the post-racial America has always been a myth in my opinion. We never reconciled what happened in our national past with slavery.

And so, one thing I am interested in is that poetry is on the rise. I think it’s up like 38% percent with the last poll I read. A lot of younger people are using their anger and frustration with the government by siphoning that discontentment into poetry. I think that’s really fascinating and awesome. Also, It seems like people are paying more attention to poets who delve into political landscapes, especially with the boost of social media. You can share and retweet these little empathy shots everywhere, and I’m really comforted by that.

30North: What about Nina Simone moves you to write about her?

Tiana: So much. Did you all see What Happened, Miss Simone? the documentary on Netflix? So good. I highly recommend checking it out.

I’ve always kind of been obsessed with Nina, I wrote a long essay about her for Oxford American and in my research Maya Angelou interviewed her in 1974 for Redbook where she said, “life has left keloidal scars on her throat, “ which makes me think about duende. Have you all read Lorca’s essay on duende? So it’s this idea that all dark sounds come from duende. It’s not necessarily from a beautiful voice or technically skilled voice, but that there’s this broken glass inside the throat that’s authentic. You can tell that this Nina has been through pain. Like Janis Joplin; you believe that Joplin has been in pain versus some highly curated, sugary pop songs. I mean to me, she has this ancient diasporic-rich voice that has gathered all of Black history: the duende of slave ships, of sharecropping, of work songs and field songs, call-and-response and Motown and blues, it all wraps up in her voice in this kind of magical, arcane way that I’m interested in exploring.

Her life is utterly fascinating and devastating; if you read her autobiography – it’s bananas, all the things she went through. She’s an interesting character, she’s someone who felt it was her job and duty to reflect the times and it actually lost her a lot of her career. She got super political in the sixties and seventies and she honestly felt like black people betrayed her. I’m interested in looking at black female artists at the end of their lives, so often the narrative is a woman abandoned and alone, like Phillis Wheatley or Zora Neale Hurston.

So, going back to obsessions, there’s a way that I’m indulging and also wanting to interrogate them vis-à-vis Nina Simone’s life and tone. I was working off of the “Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” again with the idea of making and breaking new forms. I was thinking about, “who would be that person who would stop me on the way to a wedding? Who would want to interrupt me and have a conversation with me and kind of warn me about their apocalyptic life?” And that was Nina Simone.

30North: The cover art of your book is very interesting. The back cover says that it’s titled “I Think Imma’ Nina Simone” yet the actual image is dripping with distortion. Were you a part of the creative process behind this cover design? What do you think the art represents, and how does it connect to your work?

Tiana: So, the artwork is actually by my favorite poet, Terrance Hayes, who was very kind and generous to allow me to use it. Alex Wolfe worked on the cover deign from Pitt Press and did an excellent job. Aesthetics are extremely important to me, so with my first chapbook, Equilibrium, I have a painting by Amy Sherald with the same title. She also did Michelle Obama’s national portrait. I wanted a woman of color on the cover, but I wanted a gaze that looked directly at the reader.

I feel that’s what my poems do; they’re looking at you, not away, and I also wanted that continuation with this new book. It’s a black woman looking at you, except her eyes are covered and distorted. And so again, when I saw that painting from Terrance Hayes, I was like, “oh my god, that’s my cover,” and I had already been working on “The Rime of Nina Simone,” who was haunting me, so I was like, “here’s Nina, but she’s a spectral kind of Nina,” which was perfect.

The cover is beautiful and grotesque, kind of how I interpret the landscape in the South. The picture is a representation of this kind of complex relationship I have to the racist history smearing across gorgeous, idyllic views. I love the South and I miss it actually very much, but where someone might see a row of trees, I might see lynching trees. And so, to me this distortion, you see, is kind of like the psychic disruption I have as a filter framing my work.

Archives Visit

A couple weeks ago, the 30 N staff took a trip to North Central’s archives to learn about our history! Our name has changed a few times (which you can learn more about in this post), but so has the content we publish! It has varied from very formal to very informal, and in the middle of the two.

It was a great visit and we had a wonderful time exploring the past.

Interview with Janet McNally


Janet McNally is the author of the novels The Looking Glass and Girls in the Moon, as well as a prizewinning collection of poems, Some Girls. She has an MFA from the University of Notre Dame, and her stories and poems have been published widely in magazines. She has twice been a fiction fellow with the New York Foundation for the Arts. Janet lives in Buffalo, New York, with her husband and three little girls, in a house full of records and books, and teaches creative writing at Canisius College. (Source)

You incorporated a number of fairy tales into this book. Are these stories ones that were important to you as a child, and/or now?

They’re very important to me now, certainly. I think that I was always drawn to fairy tales, but I can’t tell you when I first read the true fairy tales. I’ve taken courses in fairy tales and now I teach courses in fairy tales, mostly in modern retellings, but we have to revisit the actual fairy tales too. My re-obsession with fairy tales happened when I found out I was pregnant with my first daughter. I have an older daughter who is seven and I have five-year-old twin daughters. When I found out that I was having a girl, I was thinking about the fact that all these stories, or many of the stories, that we tell over and over about girls and women are often about girls who are in trouble or need some kind of saving. I wanted to play with that, so I did that in poems and now I’ve done that in here, too. And, I don’t necessarily want to play with it and make every single one of [the girls] a badass who wins all the time, that’s not it, but I just wanted to give them more of a voice. It’s astounding in some of the original fairy tales how little of a voice they have. You know, I often think about Snow White who literally wakes up and the prince is like, “Gonna marry you!” and she’s like, “Okaay.” Because, you know, she really has no agency at all and that is indicative of how women were treated. They often had no agency as to whom they were going to marry or really in any other way, like the path their life would take.

When it came to writing about a ballerina did you have to do much research? Or did you write through experience? 

I was a dancer when I was younger. I didn’t dance on point because I tried it and didn’t really like it. I preferred more lyrical ballet and then also modern and hip hop and tap and all these other things. I mean, I did everything. But here I felt, I love ballet. I love watching it and I felt that I needed something that would sort of reflect the fairy tale world. The way that ballet is all about illusion and you’re supposed to believe that it’s very easy and effortless. They’re just flying around there, but Sylvie says in the book, have you ever heard what it sounds like? Just knowing what dancers feet look like, what dancing does to your body, that seemed very related to fairy tales. The harm that is done to women’s bodies in them, perhaps.

I did some research because there is no National Ballet Theater, so it’s kind of modeled on American Ballet Theater. I didn’t want it to be the exact same thing, where people would be like that’s not how it ABT works, so I wanted to have it be my own, but it has that model of school into the company, where not every kid in the school is going to go into the company. But, there’s this expectation that Sylvie will because Julia did. There’s precedent for what Julia’s doing but she’s very young to have these chances to dance these principal roles, but there are definitely dancers who have done that.

Sylvie’s relationship to ballet is not dissimilar to Julia’s initial relationship to drugs. What inspired you to draw this parallel? (There is an amount of dedication you need to have to dance and it can sometimes be a toxic relationship. Sylvie is expected to go into this and once she’s in level seven and up she can’t really find her way out. So, it’s kind of like that addiction as it takes you)

I think that that also explains why Julia’s so driven not to lose that, right? Because, at that point, that’s all she has. I think [Julia] talks about going to college or she’s thinking about going to college. But, I know that Julia is doing that in whatever world I’ve created here, so she is trying to take a different path because the original path she thought her life would take has been closed to her by her injury. But it is something, you’re right. You get into [dance] and it can be hard to see a way out and part of that is the expectation that other people have. Even Sylvie and Julia’s mother, who is a pretty decent mom in a lot of ways, she also is just kind of expecting that since it didn’t work out with Julia, it’ll be Sylvie who’s going to be able to do this. I think it’s pretty clear that Sylvie is not so sure that she wants to do that. That makes a lot of sense, that connection.

Fleetwood Mac was a major theme in the second part of the novel. How did you choose the playlist specifically for that part? 

I had this idea that Jack would have this annoying habit of listening to only one band at a time. I mean, I love music and I know a lot of music obsessives and I’m married to one, and he’s never done that, but I could see somebody doing that and just as a way to really get to know someone’s cannon, right? So, I was thinking it needed to be somebody who it would be a little playful. It couldn’t be somebody who was just strictly cool, like the example in the book where she asks about Bowie and he says “I already did that” and she’s like “Err.” It couldn’t be somebody that was that uncomplicated. I wanted it to be something that was playful and kind of funny where she can be like, “Oh, god, Fleetwood Mac,” and then actually end up really liking it.

That’s sort of my relationship with Fleetwood Mac whereas I thought they were just over the top and cheesy and just songs that I barely knew. Then when I had music fan friends who were like, “No, no really listen to this” and I was like “Okay actually, you know, they’re great.” Stevie and Christine are just very cool and the guys are fine, too, I guess  *laughs*. It just made sense because they’re over the top and kind of ridiculous, but also serious music makers and they have their own fairy tale stories within that. [Fleetwood Mac] has done a lot of talking about what it was like when they were at the height of their fame and [Stevie Nicks] has expressed regret for never having children. She’s just a really interesting, open person and so all that was sort of around the edges for me. But mostly, they also have a lot of songs that people know and it was really fun.

I had so much fun with the chapter titles in this book. My last book has numbered titles and I don’t know when’s the next time I’ll do this again, but I had a really fun time pulling out phrases that were the titles of the different chapters. And then the songs, it was fun too to think of what song could fit what chapter.

Sylvie’s subconscious thoughts sometimes appear in parenthesis, what made you choose this format? Why did you utilized it and what can it inform us about Sylvie? 

I think it was just fun for me. It’s something that just happened with her voice. Now, obviously, when you’re writing first person, it’s all internal. They’re telling the story, so this is almost like the internal of internal. I also think that Sylvie has a hard time thinking about and talking about dealing with things that happen, traumatic things that happened, especially the actual overdose or what happened afterward. So that’s a way for her to kind of put it there, but not have to touch it too closely. I think she says at some point that she’s barely told this story even to herself, what it was like that night when they found her on the couch. So, for me, it sort of evolved organically and became a thing. I do believe that characters have to become real in some way and then they kind of tell you what they want to do. So, that was something that she seemed to just want to do and I let her.

Do you consciously write for a young audience? If so, how do you tap into a younger mindset when writing a younger character? 

It’s no trouble for me to tap into a younger mindset because I feel like a perpetual teenager in some ways. And I always say “I’m a grown up?” I think most grown-ups probably feel that way: a lot of my friends seem to. I still feel very connected to my teen years. They were messy and chaotic. In some ways I enjoyed them, so it’s not an upsetting mental space for me to inhabit. I think sometimes people may want to rewrite their teen years the way they wanted it to be. For me it’s not quite like that. It’s kind of like revisiting the feelings that I had at that time, and it’s really fun.

I don’t think there’s a huge difference between writing for teens and writing for grown-ups because I think teenagers are really smart, and I’m not writing down to them, changing my vocabulary. It allows me some things like super-short chapters. It’s something you could do in adult fiction, but it’s not done as much. It’s very common in YA and I like working that way. YA also has those… you want each chapter to have an arc, to end in a place where you really want to turn that page. It’s sort of a thing that happens in YA. And it’s fun to write that way. I have students now — I teach a YA workshop — and right now they’re writing… supposedly they’re beginning novels, so we’re writing two chapters that we’re workshopping throughout the semester. It’s interesting to see them try to do that. Up to this point most of them have only written short stories, and it’s a totally different way of structuring something. But you still have that little teeny climax. YA novels are certainly shorter. And there are certainly other differences, but it’s not a dumbing down or anything along those lines.

You also write poetry. What do you see is the relationship between your poetry and your fiction? Do you have a preference? 

If I had to choose one I would choose fiction because that is the one that is most important to me. But I really love being able to write poems because it feels like play because you can do whatever you want. In fiction you do have to follow some sort of narrative quality. There’s a lot more freedom in poetry, at least for me. I don’t know if every poet feels this way. And it [poetry] is a great way of using my brain in a different way.

Also, I love, with poems, that you can leave so many holes. With fiction you do have to fill in a lot of blanks. And poetry, which I do still use to tell stories, you can do it in a way that’s more loose, which appeals to me very much after having to fill in things when I’m writing a novel. It’s okay if people don’t exactly know what you’re talking about. They come to it and they can bring themselves. I mean, that happens in fiction, too where the reader is really involved in the story, where it’s going to be a different experience for every single reader of the book because you’re going to bring who you are to it and meet me halfway.  But I love both, and I feel really lucky to be able to do both because it’s nice, when I feel I’ve hit a wall in one genre, how I can hop over for a while into the other.

How did the process of writing this book differ from your first novel? 

It differed a lot because I was under contract and I had to write it faster and I had other people’s expectations, and my experiences with the first book… other people’s voices in my head. When you write your first book… Lydia Netzer, she wrote a book that was called Shine, Shine, Shine. That was her first book, which I like, and she said your first novel, it’s like your whole life up to that point you’ve been writing that book. And then your second one you’re supposed to do in a year or two and it’s much harder. So the second book was a lot harder, and there was a time when I thought there’s no way I can do this.

Young adult lit, they want you to produce pretty quickly. The schedule can be very difficult, especially when you’re somebody who has a job and has a family. My dad was dying when I was finishing this book, and that was also really hard — I wasn’t sure what I was doing or who I was or what was even happening, so it was a lot different in that way.

But what was funny was, you write this book, and you do your edits and whatever, and eventually you get what are called pass pages, which is like, they’re photocopied and all laid out and it looks like a book but they’re just 8 by 11 pages. And you have to read through that and make sure things are the way you want. You make manual changes if they’re not. And this is after the copy editor has asked you questions about, “Oh, her eyes are green here but they’re blue here,” and they’re amazing in that way (and you also kind of hate them). But they’re doing their job, and we’re lucky to have them. Anyway, when you get the pass pages… This time it was wild because I thought “oh wow it really is a book. It actually, I think, makes sense.” And I wasn’t sure when I finished it that it was ever going to be that. And so I was pleasantly surprised at how much I’ve enjoyed coming back to this book and reading pieces of it at readings because I had a difficult relationship with this book at one point. We were not getting along.

What was the easiest part of developing the sisters’ relationship? If you could add or take away an element what would it be? 

I don’t think I would add or take away anything. I’m happy with the way they are. I think their relationship is complicated enough for me. I don’t have a sister: I have a younger brother who I love a lot. I read a lot about sisters… I always wanted a sister and I have relationships with other women that are sisterly and especially I think I sought out in my life a lot of older sister figures, and now I’m the older sister figure two younger people which is pretty cool to see that from both sides. So… I love my brother; he’s awesome, and so I would not trade him. There’s one [brother] in here: Everett. Their relationship is really great. Everett’s not like my brother but that closeness and kindness, that comes from our relationship.

I’m interested in sister relationships because of the way that when you have children of the same gender they’re going to be compared to one another maybe more than if they’re not of the same gender. And I have three daughters who, to me, they look very different, but people often say “oh wow they look so much alike,” and “they have the same face.” (They don’t.) But there must be something about them that does look alike. I have twins so I know the way they’re going to be compared to one another, and of course we compare them too even if you try not to, so that’s really interesting to me.

This was a different relationship in some ways because there are seven years between Sylvie and Julia. My last book was also a sister story, and there were 2 years between them. That was more like my girls. The one thing I’m working on, the book for adults, [in that] there are 16 years between the sisters. That’s a whole different thing, where there is a kind of “oh we had another baby” situation.

I can’t stop writing about sisters, which might be a problem.

Is there one character you were very attached to creating? Could you see what that character was doing outside of the story? 

I usually can see what characters are doing outside. It’s hard to say just one. Obviously I’m very attached to Sylvia because she is, in many ways, the me figure.  I definitely look at writing as acting. I almost exclusively write in first person because I want to take on a persona because I have a lot of fun with that. And so my narrators, my main characters, are always different from me in all sorts of ways, but there’s an innate me-ness in them. I have a big soft spot for Sylvie, Jack — I also really love Tommy and Sadie. In this case I think I wrote friends it would have been great to have when I was a teenager. And they are… Tommy, definitely, their [Sylvie and Tommy’s] relationship is based on a friend of mine who I don’t talk to a lot anymore, but at one point we were so close. It’s funny because some of the affection you have for characters could be, in some cases, the affection you have for a real person, for pieces of that person, but they are definitely their own entities. They are separate. For example, I don’t know anyone exactly like Jack. And my friend that I’m thinking… There are elements of my friendship with him in Tommy and Sylvie’s relationship, but he’s very different from Tommy in notable ways.

And our last question: What genre would you consider this book? Is it magical realism, or a fairytale, or something else? 

That’s a good question… One thing is, I’m not super comfortable using the term “magical realism” because I have a writer friend (Anna-Marie McLemore) who has made a convincing case that “magical realism” is rooted in some kind of oppression, so I don’t feel comfortable taking that term on. But the quote on the cover from the Booklist review mentions magical realism. Many people use that term that way. Perhaps it’s just semantics, I tend to call it realism with a touch of magic. I’m most comfortable, I have the most fun, with magic that you’re not quite sure is magic, magic that can be explained away.

I think I would say this is a realistic contemporary novel with elements of possible magic, if I can create my own genre. But certainly a lot of people would call it magical realism, and that’s fine. But I’m not sure: is the magic magic? Is it Sylvia’s desire to see Magic, to have permission to go find her sister? I don’t know. Obviously, since the book was found and since Julia sent it to her, it’s a pretty big coincidence, but in life there are very big coincidences. The universe has sent some things my way that seem unbelievably coincidental, where I think “whoever is writing my story, this is not believable. I could not put this in a book.”

About the authors of this post: This interview was a collaboration between the Fall 2018 staff of 30 North.

Janet McNally Campus Visit

On October 19, 2018 author and poet Janet McNally visited North Central College’s campus. She visited one of our 400 level English classes to answer questions about her latest novel, The Looking Glass, and writing. In addition to this class visit, McNally also did a reading of her novel as well as some poetry. Afterwards she answered more questions and signed copies of her novel.

30 North was lucky enough to interview McNally. The interview will be posted soon, so keep your eye out!

30 North is Back in Session!

Our school year has begun and our first meeting has been had. Our Fall term staff is so excited to start reading submissions that were sent to us over the summer! We are also excited for all of the submissions we will be receiving until the end of our Winter Term (aka the end of February).

As always, our 2019 issue of 30 N will come out late may/early June, so if you submit to us within our open time period, expect to hear back at the very latest at the end of April (though it is likely that you will hear back from us much sooner than that).

If you have any questions or concerns, send us an email at And if your looking to submit, check out our submission page on this website that will give you a direct link to our submittable page.

We are officially on Summer Break

North Central College is officially on Summer Break, so that means 30 North is too! Submissions are currently open, so make sure to send us your best work! Our fantastic staff will read all of your submissions when our Fall term starts in September.

Also be aware that we will not be checking our email during this time because we are not in session.

Good luck with writing and week can’t wait to see your work. Have a great summer!

P.S. Be on the lookout for our interview with T. Clutch Fleischmann. We will be posting it within the next few weeks

Submissions reopened

Submissions for the 2019 issue of 30 North are now open! Please be aware though that as we are soon going on summer break, we will not be able to let you know any decisions until early September at the soonest.

Good luck and we can’t wait to read your work.

Time Travel with 30 North

In honor of the multiple redesigns 30 N has gone through this year (website and journal), we have decided to take you on a tour of our magazine’s past. We have taken pictures of every past issue that we are currently in possession of and can’t wait to show you all the changes we’ve gone through before.

Every copy

Pictured above is every issue we currently have in our possession, from 1982-2018, from The Cardinal to 30 North. Sadly we are missing issues from the years 1936-1981, 1983-1990, 1993-1994, and 2000.

The cardinal

From its creation in 1936 to 1994, 30 North was known as The Cardinal. They published works from all over the country, not exclusively undergraduates like we do today.

NC review 90s

In 1995, The Cardinal transitioned into The North Central Review. In the 90s, they were still figuring themselves out in terms of size and style. However, it can be agreed that all the covers were creative and eye-catching. Our personal favorite is the cover of the Fall 1998 issue.

NC review large

In 2001, the style of the The North Central Review changed and stayed consistent for a few years, until Spring 2004. At this time, The NC Review was still publishing work from those of all ages across the country.

NC Review Small

In Fall 2004, with a new school term started a new style of magazine. Not long after that in 2005, The NC review closed its pages to everyone who wasn’t an undergraduate at any 2 or 4 year institution. 2013 was the last issue of The North Central Review.

30 N

In 2014, a name change was in order and The North Central Review turned into 30 North. Our style stayed pretty consistent until this year, 2018. We decided to remodel the issue, making its size a little bigger and more tradition in terms of other literary reviews.


Pictured above is every size change of the journal that we have access to. We gone big and small and everywhere in between.

As a special treat, here is a picture of the first issue of The Cardinal that we have access to from 1982. Check out the pages!

We hope you enjoyed this little peek into our past.


Printing Mistake

We would like to announce that in this year’s issue of 30 North, there has been a printing mistake. Courtney Bennett’s piece, “Meeting Expectations,” has been printed twice, once in the wrong category. We would like to make it clear that this is a piece of nonfiction, not fiction. However, the version that appears in the fiction category displays the correct pronouns as the piece in the nonfiction category does not.

We would like to apologize to our readers and our contributors for this mistake.