Wednesday, April 4, 2018

Interview with travel writer Anna Mantzaris, newest MFA faculty member

We are delighted to welcome Anna Mantzaris to our MFA community as a faculty member teaching travel writing. In this intimate interview Anna, a California-based travel writer, talks about the genesis of her writing career, why travel is good for writers, and what she learned staying with a community of monks at a shukobo (temple) in Koyasan in the mountains of Japan. 

Can you tell us a little about your path to becoming a writer and how you got started in travel writing?
Probably, like many writers, I don’t know exactly when it started. I have boxes of writing dating back to elementary school (I haven’t been able to throw them away). I wrote a lot of weird, awful poems, short stories, letters, cartoons, plays, lists—everything as a kid. In college and graduate school, I studied and wrote primarily short stories. After graduating, I worked in book, newspaper, and magazine publishing and wrote and edited nonfiction. I think my first travel writing assignment came from Time Out. I went to Book Expo America in Los Angeles to network and walked away with a couple of assignments. I started contributing to guidebooks and writing articles, and then wrote some travel books and got into a lot of food and travel writing at that point.

How can travel be beneficial to writers of any genre?
I love this question. When I was an MFA student, one of my professors talked about how she had her husband drive her up and down Highway 1 in California when she felt blocked. That was a way she could start writing again. I’ve never been able to write in a car but changing my location and moving around has always inspired me. I often make lists of observations when I am on the road. When I was in Cuba the sounds were so incredible. I stood outside where we were staying for about an hour and wrote down everything I heard (music, dogs barking, cars starting up) and found myself with pages of notes to put to use. I think being out of your normal routine and comfort zone can jump-start new ideas. Taking away set parameters has always helped me feel creative.
For revision and edits, I do like being at home and on a schedule but when I am starting something new or feeling stuck, I like to be in an unfamiliar place. I also like to write in notebooks as opposed to on my computer when I travel.  Then I type everything up at night and do more writing from there. This semester we’ve talked a lot about how travel affects our writing and how taking away the safety net of home and routine can bring us to new places on the page.

Where have you traveled, and is there a place in particular that you found especially inspiring?
I feel very fortunate to have traveled around much of the United States. There isn’t a road trip I won’t take. Some of my favorite journeys have been closest to my home in San Francisco—towns like Petaluma, Bodega Bay, and Bolinas. I lived in Europe and spent time traveling the continent, including my family’s home country of Greece. Some of my favorite cities are Budapest, Los Angeles, Tokyo, and Havana but I will go anywhere—small towns, suburbs, big cities.
One of my favorite trips was a solo journey I took to Koyasan in the mountains of Japan years ago. I took a tram to the top and stayed at a shukobo with Buddhist monks. The area is the home to Shingon school of Buddhism and home to dozens and dozens of temples that open their doors to overnight visitors. I think I stayed for about a week but it felt like a lifetime—in a good way. I roamed the Okunoin Cemetery and was humbled attending services with the monks. Because I was alone, they brought my meals—homemade tofu and beautifully prepared vegetables—to my room. It was truly magical to be in such a sacred place and feel so welcomed. It’s a trip I think about often.

What, in addition to writing and traveling, are your passions?
I am totally obsessed with our dog, a sweet little smooth fox terrier named Stella. Taking her to the park and on walks is a great way to break up my day working from home. She’s like a little clown and I can never get enough time with her. I also do a lot of writing with her on my lap.

Is there anything else you would like to share with us?
I’m really excited to be a part of the Bay Path community. I have family in East Longmeadow and have always been familiar with the university and area. The students are incredible—hard working, kind, and inspiring. It’s great to see the amount of time and effort and they put into critiquing one another’s writing and the support they offer. There’s some really terrific writing happening. I am so thankful for the welcome and support I’ve received from the MFA program and everyone on staff at Bay Path. Since writing is so solitary it feels good to be part of such a thriving and creative community where so many good things are happening.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

Publishing a personal essay

One of the pleasures of having one’s creative nonfiction work published is the
sense of direct communication with a reader. A personal essay, in particular, allows for an intimacy between writer and reader, a bond between two individuals unknown to each other but connected by the magnetic force not just of language, but of secrets shared. The writer is, in essence, saying “I have something personal to tell you.” There is an implied trust on the part of the writer and a willingness on the part of the reader to be a witness to an unrepeatable moment in time, to another’s private sorrow or joy. 

I was reminded of this when my most recent essay, “Hooked Up,” was published recently. Readers wrote to share their own experiences with the topic, creating a connection I hadn’t expected and an opportunity for a little more light, a little more understanding about an issue so many people have struggled with.  This, for me, is the best part of belonging to the tribe of writers and readers.  When I write and publish, when I read what others have published, I get closer to the world and remember, each time, why I value literature as much I value my next breath.  Sharing stories is the way we know one another, and know ourselves. This one, although laced with comedy, was hard to write. I’m glad I did.

Hooked Up
Nine p.m., the appointed hour. The person who opens the door is a surprise. I’d pictured someone in her sixties, calm and professional, with a tidy bun and a crisp white uniform, a clipboard in her hand and a name tag that says “Marion” or “Florence.” Someone who knows what she’s doing. Someone with steady hands and a soft voice. But it isn’t Marion who greets me, or anyone remotely like her. I consider backing out, but it’s too late for that. More

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

February literary feast: Four MFA instructors talk about their new books

One of the great pleasures of working with the writers on my faculty is knowing when their new work is about to be published and getting to read it right away. This academic year, Sophfronia Scott came out with two new books: This Child of Faith, a spiritual memoir co-written with her son, Tain, in the wake of the Sandy Hook tragedy, and an essay collection, Love’s Long Line.  All this output comes only a year after the publication of her 2017 novel set during the Harlem Renaissance, Unforgivable Love. Writer and MFA thesis director Adam Braver, who edits the Broken Silence Series for the University of New Orleans Press (a book series that tells the firsthand accounts of political dissidents), published his ninth book, The Disappeared, a novel about two strangers searching for loved ones in the aftermath of terror attacks. Prolific essayist, editor, and MFA thesis director Lisa Romeo’s new memoir, Starting with Goodbye: A Daughter’s Memoir of Love after Loss, is forthcoming this spring; and T. Susan Chang has a new book on the way next fall. A departure from literary food writing, which she writes and teaches in the MFA, Chang’s new book explores the world of spiritual divination and mystery through the ancient art of tarot. Her 20-year interest in divination began during her undergraduate studies in Classics at Harvard, continued through her years as a literary studies editor, and strongly informs her current work writing about all five senses.
All of these faculty books explore subjects that go to the core of the human experience. They are united by themes of loss, death, violence, and grief, and also by healing, friendship, love, wisdom, hope, and spirit. They ask hard questions and find unexpected insights.  And they showcase the power of language to help us understand not only the world we live in, but ourselves.
We asked the four writers to tell us something about the genesis of their new books, their process while writing, and what they hope to communicate to the reader. Read on for a rare look inside their writing studios (and find out more about upcoming appearances):

Adam Braver
The main inspirations for beginning the book came from my own feelings of fear, and how they interacted with our larger culture of fear. Once the characters and voice started taking shape, I also began to see that the book’s questions, at least for me, were: 1) is it possible to not let fear be driven by what we can’t see? 2) what stakes do some people have in promoting such fear? and 3) how do we cope with or grieve for what suddenly is missing from our lives? In terms of the question of what I hope a reader will take from The Disappeared—my main hope, as with all the books I’ve written, is that the reader feels an experience that connects her to other human beings; and that by the end she is compelled to consider her own set of unique questions that the book might (hopefully) inspire. 

Sophfronia Scott
Love’s Long Line is a collection of essays ruminating on faith, motherhood, race, and the search for meaningful connection in an increasingly disconnected world. I guess you could say I cover a lot of ground, from what my son taught me about grief after the shootings at his school, Sandy Hook Elementary, to how a walk with Lena Horne became a remembrance of love for my father; to the unexpected heartache of being a substitute school bus driver, to understanding my spiritual journey and why my soul must dance like Saturday Night Fever’s Tony Manero.
The book is inspired by Annie Dillard’s observation in Holy the Firm that we all “reel out love’s long line alone . . . like a live wire loosed in space to longing and grief everlasting.” As I assembled the collection I felt as though I could see her observations at work, and that I was saying something, maybe even responding to her thoughts, about love and faith in everyday life. I’m hoping readers will be able to see themselves in my reflections, just as how I saw myself in Dillard’s.
          I never expected to write this book so it holds a very particular sweetness for me. When I entered my MFA program I was studying only fiction. At a friend’s suggestion I dove into the very different waters of creative nonfiction and began writing what eventually became Love’s Long Line. Its existence still feels like a nice surprise.

Lisa Romeo
This book began as essays that each addressed some part of the story of the first few years after my father’s death. As each was published, I’d think of new slices of the story I hadn’t yet told, and I’d write a new essay—a long narrative piece, or a prose poem, or bit of flash nonfiction. There was always this sense of the well not yet being dry, that if I kept digging, there was yet another layer. That’s part of what I love about creative nonfiction, the idea of excavating more meaning from a particular experience or life journey. What inspires me is discovering what else might be lurking.
Starting with Goodbye is about what can happen in a relationship after a parent has passed—and what keeps that person alive to the surviving adult child. I’d love it if readers come away with an optimism about some positives that can occur during grief, and curiosity about that process, rather than fear. I wanted to show that it’s perfectly natural to converse with a deceased loved one, to continue to feel they are part of one’s life, and to talk about departed parents without feeling odd about that.
Sometimes I learned things that weren’t easy to face, like how much I took his time and financial support for granted earlier in life. But I also learned how much he had positively influenced my life, far beyond what I thought when he was alive. I always imagined us at odds, but after he was gone, I realized we were more alike than anyone else in our family.
In the process of writing the book, I learned about transforming essays into a more traditional linear book-length narrative. I’m such an essayist at heart, that this was at first terrifying to me, but in the end, seemed to be exactly what I needed to try, struggle with, and eventually (hopefully) figure out at this point in my writing life.

T. Susan Chang
"Correspondences" are the secret ingredients of every spell, and indeed, every magical practice. (Eye of newt? Toe of frog? Those are correspondences!) And they are hidden in tarot cards as well, just waiting to be recognized. Although these ingredients—astrology, the elements, the numbers, the Kabbalah, the animals, gemstones and fragrances—and their uses have been passed on hand to hand for centuries, I felt it was time for a book that not only collected all that information in one place but taught readers how to use it in connection with their cards.  In sharing Tarot Correspondences: Ancient Secrets for Everyday Readers with the world, my hope is to offer up the correspondences as fuel for readers' own imaginations, to provide substance and body to their own intuitive instincts, and to enrich the practice of divination and the magical current we've all inherited.
For me personally, writing the book was a milestone in a 20-year-long personal journey working with the cards.  Like many readers, I've worked in private and in secret for a long time.  But at a certain point, I had too much to say and too much to share to keep it to myself any longer.  Probably the best reason to write a book is because you can't not do it for another day—which, I finally realized, is the point I'd reached with my thoughts and writings about tarot.

Upcoming appearances and events
Sophfronia Scott will be speaking at our spring Bay Path Writers’ Day on Sunday, April 15, and at other events.
Lisa Romeo will be speaking at our spring Bay Path Writers’ Day on Sunday, April 15, and at other events.
Adam Braver has wrapped up his book tour but updates on his other appearances can found here: https://adambraver.com/events
Stay tuned for T. Susan Chang’s fall 2018 appearances…