Thursday, June 7, 2018

Interview with the incomparable Tommy Shea

Listen in on this delightful conversation between Tommy Shea and Sandy Chmiel, in which Tommy, who will be teaching the Creative Nonfiction Writing I course in the MFA, shares his history as a writer, his memorable moments chasing stories, and his ear for the extraordinary in the ordinary. 

Can you tell us a little about your path to becoming a writer?
I was outside a church when I decided to be become a writer.
          Wait, that isn’t quite accurate.
          I was outside church in Springfield, MA selling newspapers. When I wasn’t selling them I was reading the sports sections. We sold newspapers from New York City to Boston, so many city and town names that if I read them aloud you’d swear I was reciting an Amtrak route.
          I had grown up wanting to be the first American Pope – I had a name picked out and everything, Pope Patrick I – or replace Mickey Mantle as the centerfielder of the New York Yankees.
          At 13, those plans were dashed against the rocks of reality.
          I liked girls and I wasn’t as good as I wanted to be at baseball.
          At a loss for what I was going to do for the rest of my life, it dawned on me – between the 9:15 and the 10:30 mass – I could become a sportswriter.
          The emphasis was on sports not so much writing.
          That would come later – when I discovered the work of Pete Hamill.
           He wrote for the New York Post, a very different newspaper back then. It had a female publisher and actually told the truth about Senator Joe McCarthy, when few media outlets did.
          Pete Hamill wrote a daily general interest column and he really mixed things up: writing about political chicanery, of course; boys returning from Vietnam not quite the same as they left; a poor neighborhood in its struggle to save the local firehouse; his father; what it was like to grow up poor.
          The following week it was different topics, but the same heart and soul.
          There was something about his sentences that made me want to write like him – or at least try.
           I’m still trying.
         
How do you get people to trust you with their stories?
 I’ve never found it hard to have people trust me.
          I have to think why that is.
          My mother always thought I’d be a priest because she thought I’d hear a good confession – and never repeat it.
          Hmm.
          Maybe because I never thought I was the story.
          I want to think I’m a good, attentive listener.
          I’m curious, I know that.
          I do believe people respond if you are truly interested.

          In my nearly 39 years as a newspaper reporter, I was in loads of situations where it could be – I don’t know if combative is the right word, but I’ve had my share of testy exchanges, scenes spilling with tension – but people still talked.
          Even if all they said was “no comment.’’
          That could say a lot.

          At the risk of repeating myself, I think most people just want to be heard. If you care about them – with thoughtful questions and real listening – I think they will trust you.
          That has been my experience.

You’ve written about everything from baseball to music to the Catholic Church abuse scandal. Is there a story that touched your heart more than any others?
I have been lucky– and I know it – to get to have covered the variety of stories I’ve covered.
          Newspapering allowed me this life. I wouldn’t have met my wife Suzanne if I weren’t a reporter. (We met when I was covering high school hockey…)
          But of all the stories, I guess the one that sticks out was one that involved the ongoing coverage of the murder of 12-year-old altar boy Danny Croteau.
          The only suspect in the murder was a Catholic priest. He was arrested 20 years after the murder for molesting two brothers named John and Paul (after the then Pope.)
          I started covering the story in the fall of 1991. So this might have been sometime in 1992, there was a new fact in the story – maybe another charge against Richard Lavigne - and I didn’t get the phone call confirming whatever it was until late. It could have been closing in on 10 p.m. Deadline was 11.
          I needed a reaction from the Croteau family. Called the house, no answer. Called one of their sons. He didn’t want to comment and I asked a question out of desperation: “Do you know where your parents are?’’
          He said they were at BINGO.
          St. Catherine of Siena is an inconvenient ride from downtown Springfield, not far as the crow flies, but too much stop-and-go with all the lights if you are in a hurry.
          When I got to the parish hall it was packed. I started looking for Mr. and Mrs. Croteau.
          I was pointed in every direction:
          He’s over there.
          She’s over here.
          The clock was ticking. It had to be at least 10:30. People were leaving.
          Finally, someone said look in the church.
          I did.
          The lights were so dim it was almost dark, but the sacristy was lit, and in the shadow of Jesus on the cross there was Carl Croteau, Danny’s father – kneeling at the altar, head bowed.
          No one knew he was there.
          It certainly wasn’t a show for me.   Whatever I asked, he answered.
          I rushed back to the paper, not quite blowing red lights, more like easing through them, pressing the gas harder than I usually do when the coast is clear.
          The story, I don’t remember the story or any of the details, just that I made the deadline.
          But I’ll never forget standing in the back in the twilight of that church, wondering what the deniers, liars and character assassins, priests, lawyers, spokespeople, the faithful flock, would think if they saw this: the father of a dead altar boy, humbled before his God, praying.
          It wasn’t for faith. Carl Croteau still had that.
          Remarkably.
         
          I was a witness.
          That’s what all writers are.

You have been a part of the MFA’s Summer Seminar in Ireland since it began. What makes the Dingle experience so memorable?
DINGLE.
          It is a place where confidence is built.
          And inspiration comes from people whose last names you might not even know (yet.)
          Work gets done.
          And you take it home with you. Where more work is done.
          The town is very pretty. The food is great – even at gas stations.
           The people are friendly and helpful.
          I think it is a place well worth the jet lag.

This fall you’ll be teaching Creative Nonfiction I in the MFA program. What about this class are you most looking forward to?
The easiest question!
          I can’t wait to read the work and talk about it until we are all hoarse.
          I know I can offer a tip or two. And present many examples of great creative nonfiction that we will dissect.
          Powerful topics know no boundaries.
         
You are a big music enthusiast. What are you currently listening to?
AH, Sandy, thanks for asking about music.

          What I’ve been listening to:

          Sam Baker: Mercy. He’s like this cross between folk singers John Prine and Townes Van Zandt. His voice isn’t probably for everybody – I love it, but I came to music through the Bob Dylan door.  Sam, who has some back-story, writes with the spareness of an Edward Hopper painting.

           Terry Gross of NPR’s Fresh Air did an interview with Sam a few years ago. Listen in…



Congratulations, 2018 MFA graduates!


Summertime, and the living is easy—especially if you just finished a graduate program after completing 13 writing courses and a 100-page thesis. I’m hoping the members of our 2018 MFA graduating class are taking a deep breath before going on to the next great thing: finishing their books, publishing essays, teaching creative writing, editing for magazines, founding a literary center…the possibilities are as varied as they are. In the meantime, I’m still savoring the experience of hearing our writers read from their finished work at the MFA graduate reading and celebration, held in Hatch Library on May 11. The topics ranged from clandestine horse riding to adventure mountain climbing, from working as a harried school photographer to working in a hair-raising chimp research facility, from decorating a wildly inappropriate cake in a Catholic school contest to running a 26-mile marathon in the wake of a tragedy…and more.

All proving that one can write about anything under the sun and moon and make it interesting—if the writing is good. It was more than good. It was exhilarating, powerful, moving. And in the end, it silenced the room, as graduating student Amy Consolati read from her most recent work about battling cancer via a video she had recorded from her hospital bed.

Amy’s fierce, unexpectedly funny, and truthful reading that day reminded each of us in the room why we do what we do. Why we write. Why we teach. Why we tell stories. Writing helps us not only describe the world but grapple with it. It helps us navigate the shocks and upheavals of daily life. It helps us connect to one another when so much of contemporary society contrives to keep us isolated and alone, in our cars, in cubicles, in front of our screens. As long as we have literature, we are never alone.

Thank you, Amy Consolati, Pam Estes, Carolyn Free, AndrĂ©s Moral, Kim MacQueen, Kara Noble, and Andrea Prettyman, for showing us why writing matters—and pointing the way to the writers who will come after you. And deep thanks to the extraordinary MFA faculty who traveled many miles to give each student a personal introduction: Mel Allen, Adam Braver, Lisa Romeo, Suzanne Strempek Shea, Tommy Shea, and Kate Whouley. See the photo gallery for pictures of the reading and the celebration: we toasted, passed around slices of lemon cake, and shared more stories before heading over to the graduate Strawberries and Champagne celebration. A fitting end to a day of joy.



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…