Interviews

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5 Burning Questions with Marco Rafalà

Marco Rafalà is one of our featured writers at our December 10th reading. Check out our interview with his below.

What is your first memory of writing for fun?

I think I fell in love with worldbuilding first. As a child in the 1980s, I discovered Dungeons and Dragons and it opened up a whole new world. I’d spend hours not only playing through pre-written adventures with my friends, but also writing my own adventures. I built fantasy worlds with thousands of years of imagined history filled with ancient kingdoms in decline and mysterious ruins waiting to be explored. I learned how important it was to leave space for the characters (in this case the players) to move through the world and change it along the way. So, as I was running a game, I had to let go and allow the story to go in new and unexpected directions. Without even knowing it, this was my first lesson in writing fiction—one that’s still central to how I write today.

How many drafts = done?

It took me ten years to write my debut novel, How Fires End, and more drafts than I can remember. Every piece of writing is unique and comes with its own set of challenges. But when it’s done, you just know it. And even then, there’s probably another draft waiting for you. At least, that’s how it was for me with my debut.

What is your favorite book or favorite book-of-the-moment?

My favorite novel is A Kiss from Maddalena by Christopher Castellani. It made my own novel feel possible and helped me see how a story about ordinary Italians during the Second World War—the stories of civilians and the hardships they endured—might be something other people would want to read.

What is it about your discipline that gets you the most excited?

I like to be surprised as I write. I start with characters, put them in a situation, and then see what happens. The discovery is what gets me excited.

What’s your favorite word or words? What about it/them appeals to you?

Most of my favorite words are Sicilian curse words. These profanities are theatrical, expressed with more than just words, but body language, too. Like Italians, Sicilians speak with their whole being in a passionate dialogue. There’s a weight and musicality to these words that English simply cannot convey. Translations often lose the colorful language and imagery that tell the full story of what’s being said. Take “mannaggia la miseria.” This is a common expression, considered not that bad in the realm of curse words from the south of Italy. But still, it cannot be translated as it is. It is similar to “damn misery” but it expresses so much more. There’s a rage and disappointment, sometimes even wrath, that simply saying “damn misery” does not convey.

Bonus question: what fictional wedding would you most want to attend, if any? This can be one you read about in a book, saw in a movie, or one you think would be really rad (like if Godzilla married King Kong, but something more creative than that).

This would obviously be a destination wedding, with the destination being Middle-earth. I’d have to pick the wedding between Samwise Gamgee and Rosie Cotton because not only is Hobbiton a place I would love to visit if I could, but I imagine a Hobbiton wedding would be raucous fun.

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Marco Rafalà is a first-generation Sicilian American novelist, musician, and writer for award-winning tabletop role-playing games. He earned his MFA in Fiction from The New School and is a cocurator of the Guerrilla Lit Reading Series in New York City. Born in Middletown, Connecticut, he now lives in Brooklyn, New York. His fiction and non-fiction have appeared in the Bellevue Literary Review and LitHub. How Fires End is his debut novel.

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5 Burning Questions with Khadijah Z. Ali-Coleman

Khadijah Z. Ali-Coleman is one of our featured writers at our December 10th reading. Check out our interview with her below.

What is your first memory of writing for fun?

My first memory of writing is when I was about six and writing lyrics for a song called “My Sweet Lover”. A fan of Rick James, I made sure it was pretty funky.

How many drafts = done?

I don’t understand this question.

What is your favorite book or favorite book-of-the-moment?

Not sure if I have a favorite book. I love so many books. I am tremendously inspired by the book Makeda by Randall Robinson. It is such an exquisite work of art. It is in the same category of work as some of the luminaries who I consider literary royalty—Toni Morrison being the Queen Mother above everyone. Her books Beloved and Song of Solomon have been life changing.

What is it about your discipline that gets you the most excited?

I love writing. Lately, writing plays has pre-occupied the majority of my writing practice. I love the act of telling stories, crafting character profiles and determining endings. Dare I say it? The endings are my favorite part of the process, and I always start on them first.

What’s your favorite word or words? What about it/them appeals to you?

I love the word “zephyr”. The singer Teena Marie always seemed to find a way to use it in several of her songs. It always triggers a feeling of airiness and weightlessness.

Bonus question: what fictional wedding would you most want to attend, if any? This can be one you read about in a book, saw in a movie, or one you think would be really rad (like if Godzilla married King Kong, but something more creative than that).

I can’t think of one.

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Khadijah is a producing playwright and performance artist.  She is founder of Liberated Muse Arts Group and moonlights as singer/songwriter Khadijah Moon.  She was selected as an inaugural Quadrant Playwright by Theater Alliance in 2019. She coaches other creatives, helping them birth their creativity through her brand The Creative Midwife.

She is a recipient of a 2015 Maryland Arts State Arts Council Individual Artist award and is a 2012 Prince George’s County Social Innovation Fund Forty Under 40 awardee in the Arts & Humanities. 

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5 Burning Questions with Vonetta Young

Vonetta Young is one of our featured writers at our November 12th reading. Check out our interview with her below.

What is your first memory of writing for fun?

In seventh grade, my science teacher asked the class to write about the perfect Thanksgiving dinner; make him salivate, he said. And I won, describing turkey, stuffing, and works in way more dramatic fashion than necessary. That was the moment I became a writer.

How many drafts = done?

When it’s finally accepted for publication. I know, that’s so “external validation,” but that’s my guide.

What is your favorite book or favorite book-of-the-moment?

My favorite book of all time is Lolita, though I’ve been saying that since I read it freshman year of college, so I should think of something else at this point. I’m in my thirties.

What is it about your discipline that gets you the most excited?

I love fiction because I get to make sh*t up! I write memoir and personal essay as well, so fiction is where I really let my hair down because I’m not restricted by what actually happened. It allows me to be people that I am not, like acting; there’s a lot of fun in that.

What’s your favorite word or words? What about it/them appeals to you?

Morbid, but “hospital.” I love the “ha,” and the rounding of the mouth over the word, then the crude “pit,” then the soft “al,” the last of which I always hear in my head as a ‘90s sitcom studio audience during a sentimental scene.

Bonus question: what fictional wedding would you most want to attend, if any? This can be one you read about in a book, saw in a movie, or one you think would be really rad (like if Godzilla married King Kong, but something more creative than that).

The one in the movie “Jumping the Broom”! A lot of my fiction is centering about bougie Black people being messy, so I’d love to soak in the whole scene in Martha’s Vineyard. Being by the beach is always an added bonus.

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Vonetta Young is a writer and financial services consultant living in Washington, DC. Her essays have been published in Catapult, DASH, and Lunch Ticket, among others. Her short fiction has appeared in Cosmonauts Avenue and is forthcoming in Gargoyle Magazine. She is currently writing a memoir about growing up with an absent father who was a minister, and a story collection about Black women being messy. Follow her on Twitter at @VonettaWrites.

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5 Burning Questions with Jessica Gregg

Jessica Gregg is one of our featured writers at our November 12th reading. Check out our interview with her below.

What is your first memory of writing for fun?

Hmm … I was an editor with our high school newspaper, and technically I received school credit for that. But it was fun, too. I liked collaborating with others, but I also liked crafting my assigned stories. That’s when I knew I would major in journalism.

How many drafts = done?

It’s never done. I can always tinker, and I love to tinker! This is why deadlines are critical.

What is your favorite book or favorite book-of-the-moment?

Three books: “American Herstory,” from celeste doaks; “The Best American Poetry of 2018;” and a memoir by Kate Braestrup called, “Here If You Need Me.” The last one is a repeat that I reread every few years. It’s about a woman who becomes a chaplain for the Maine Warden Service. It reminds me of time I spent reporting from or living in small communities.

What is it about your discipline that gets you the most excited?

Playing with language. In my day job, it’s important to convey information clearly. Poetry, on the other hand, lets me use images and word play to convey a mood or theme. I am still there chiseling with words, but there are no boundaries.

What’s your favorite word or words? What about it/them appeals to you?

I had a whole poem of favorite words that I wrote years ago – it was like a save-for-rainy-day word list. Some of those words were crystalline and sfumato, majestic and electric. Some words I like because of how they sound, but some I think look so pretty on a page. That’s a total geek writer thing.

Bonus question: what fictional wedding would you most want to attend, if any? This can be one you read about in a book, saw in a movie, or one you think would be really rad (like if Godzilla married King Kong, but something more creative than that).

I would like to go back in time for a big posh Hollywood wedding, but without studio interference. Rock Hudson’s Big Fat Gay Wedding, for example, comes to mind. Think of the guest list! Also, imagine the wicked jokes that Doris Day probably told after a few martinis. Seat me next to her.

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Jessica Gregg is the editor of Baltimore Style and Baltimore’s Child magazines. Her chapbook, “News from This Lonesome City” was published this year by Finishing Line Press. She is a recent Writer in Residence for the Highlandtown Arts District and lives in the same house where her father grew up. She has two children, both of whom are taller than her.

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Five Years in the Making

Friends, tonight Writers and Words celebrates its fifth anniversary. This is big. For five years, we have scheduled readings featuring local and regional writers—some seasoned and some making their debut appearance. We’ve have countless wildcards—some wilder than others—and a couple unexpected turns along the way.

There were a lot of different ideas we kicked around for the five year celebration—some grand with a ticket price in the hopes of fundraising, some small and intimate just with the writers who have read for free for us over the years, and some simple like the line-up we landed on: an open mic to feature you—the supporters who have kept this thing going—at the place where this all started, Blue Pit BBQ and Whiskey Bar.

Five years ago, give or take a few days, Michelle Junot roped Michael Tager to organize a reading to help her sell her thesis book (because she thought she could sell enough books to pay off her student loans. Being young and naïve is cute sometimes, and so sad other times.) That first night we had four readers—Michelle Junot, nonfiction; Michael Tager, fiction; Steven Leyva, poetry; and Anne Marie, our first wildcard. The entire evening was emceed and lit by Ian Anderson. If we had known that this would be the first reading of a series that would become Baltimore’s best (and let’s face it, W&W is Baltimore’s best), we might have taken more pictures.

Michelle didn’t sell any books that night, and she’s still paying off those student loans, but Writers and Words has grown into something she and the rest of the folks in attendance that night could never have imagined. Although the two founders and the original crew have moved to the sidelines, the series continues to thrive due to the time and dedication of two individuals: Cija Jefferson and Maria Goodson. And our banners and zines are of course made possible by the one and only Amanda Ponder.

But ultimately, we are successful, because of you. The yous who are reading this. The yous who rush over after work to catch a reading, even when it’s hot, or cold, or raining, or incredibly beautiful outside and you could be doing anything else but listening to a brand new writer find her voice. The yous who come up to the editors after the reading to say thank you or hi. The yous who continue to make this a joy.

Thank you for five years, Baltimore. Join us tonight and let us hear your words at our open mic. Details available here.

Until next year…

–The Entire Writers and Words Team

 

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5 Burning Questions with Cameron MacKenzie

Cameron MacKenzie is one of our featured writers at our September 10th reading. Check out our interview with her below.

What is your first memory of writing for fun?

I remember in 3rd grade writing a story about a dog who could fly and had X-ray vision. The reason it sticks with me is that I got really frustrated about the ending, and couldn’t figure out how to bring the story home. Probably because it was around 1984, I decided the dog should go to the Olympics and win a gold medal. That felt a little rushed to me, a little forced, but looking back we most likely had something like 30 minutes for the whole assignment.

How many drafts = done?

Some stories happen quickly, some take years. For a short story, I’ll write at least 15 drafts. Usually when I think it’s completely tight and ready to go, I’ll set it aside for a month or two and then come back to it. The time gives me some necessary distance on the story and I can see problems I didn’t notice before. I’ll do anything to get some space between myself and the writing; I’ll look at the story in a different font or with different spacing. I usually know the story’s done when I just cut off the first page or the last page and it sounds a lot better.

What is your favorite book or favorite book-of-the-moment?

I’m back and forth between Peter Mathiessen’s The Snow Leopard, a gorgeous recounting of his hike to Himalayan monasteries in 1973, and The Largesse of the Sea Maiden, a collection of short stories by Denis Johnson–the story “Triumph Over the Grave” has got to be one of the best things I’ve ever read.

What is it about your discipline that gets you the most excited?

There’s a black magic to writing. It’s really like a conjuring–a gathering and deployment of spirits. A powerful writer can build and breathe life into a world right in front of you that wasn’t there before. It’s a remarkably difficult highwire act that, if done right, has the power to change people.

What’s your favorite word or words? What about it/them appeals to you?

I get nervous if I find myself using the same words. I love it when I stumble on something unexpected. “Disarticulated” is a word that popped up lately as I was writing. I try to listen to the rhythm of the sentence and, finding that, then try to get a sense of how many syllables the next word should have in order to keep that rhythm going, or complicate it, or shut it down.

Bonus question: what is one thing you would eradicate if you had the power to eradicate just one thing in this world.  [can you tell my favorite word is eradicate?]

Fear, maybe. All negativity comes from that. But I’m also hesitant to eradicate. Maybe we need more, in the broad sense, not less.

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Cameron’s work has appeared or will appear in The Michigan Quarterly Review, Salmagundi, and J Journal, among other places. His novel The Beginning of His Excellent and Eventful Career (MadHat Press), and monograph Badiou and American Modernist Poetics (Palgrave Macmillan) were both published last year. He teaches at Ferrum College.

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5 Burning Questions with Rachel E. Hicks

Rachel E. Hicks is one of our featured writers at our September 10th reading. Check out our interview with her below.

What is your first memory of writing for fun?

All the examples that first came to mind were assignments for school—limericks, haiku, and the like. I suppose it took me a long time to give myself permission to write creatively, to play with words. I do remember one poem I wrote in either eighth or ninth grade, an epistolary poem to a loved one who had died—except that I hadn’t lost anyone I’d loved yet. I must have needed to explore what that might feel like.

How many drafts = done?

Most of my poems go through between five and ten drafts. I sit on them for a long time, coming back to them fresh after days, weeks, months, sometimes years. I revise until there is a sense that the poem is ready to head out; there is no magic or formula for this. I know if I held onto my poems and didn’t send them out, I would probably never stop revising them. Even after they’re published, I still sometimes want to keep tweaking them.

What is your favorite book or favorite book-of-the-moment?

I’m going to have to go with favorite book-of-the-moment…too many all-time favorites. I’ve been doing a deep dive into the life and work of Czeslaw Milosz this year and have been feasting on his Selected Poems: 1931–2004. In the anthology A Book of Luminous Things, Milosz curated international poems he felt embodied his view that “poetry is…on the side of being and against nothingness.”

What is it about your discipline that gets you the most excited?

Beauty and truth in good poetry knock me flat. What logical sense does it make that a moment of deep beauty—in a line of verse, for example—is enough for the soul, is so mysteriously healing? I’ve read poetry that somehow balances the scales when all does not seem right with the world. I’m not sure how it does that. I get excited when I read that kind of poetry, or when something that I’ve written flares out at someone in that way.

What’s your favorite word or words? What about it/them appeals to you?

Singular. This word helps me be attentive to the person (or moment) in front of me, whether in real life or on the page. Paying attention helps me to wonder (as in awe). The word singular reminds me not to pre-judge, but to look for what is unique in a person, character, or situation.

Lately I’ve been reading Marilynne Robinson’s collection of essays, The Givenness of Things. As a result, I’m enjoying exploring the word (and concept of) ontology. I’m not into abstract metaphysics, but, like Robinson, I believe there is meaning to being—to the things that are. I agree with her that there are some “givens” we can grasp and intuit based on who we are as humans. As a writer, I’m curious about being and meaning and how they are related.

Bonus question: what is one thing you would eradicate if you had the power to eradicate just one thing in this world.  [can you tell my favorite word is eradicate?]

Plastics.

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Rachel E. Hicks’s poetry has appeared in Little Patuxent Review, Welter, St. Katherine Review, Gulf Stream, and other journals. She won the 2019 Briar Cliff Review annual fiction contest, and her poems have been finalists in other poetry contests. A global nomad who has lived in seven countries, she explores themes of displacement, worldview, and connection in her writing. Some of her favorite things: scooters, Sichuan food, and hiking. Find her online at rachelehicks.com.