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…