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The Writing Life: An Interview with Emily Johnson

2014 June 17
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The Writing LifeSHOREEmily Johnson (on the right in the photo) is a dancer and choreographer based in the Twin Cities. Originally from Alaska, her work with her company Catalyst explores the fringes between art forms and performance. I sat down with Johnson to interview her about SHORE, a “multi-day performance installation of dance, story, volunteerism, and feasting,” which includes those four different art forms as separate events.

The reading, SHORE: STORY, kicks off a week of SHORE events tonight, at the Loft Literary Center. Curated by Johnson, the reading will feature work by Jayal Chung, Paula Cisewski, Heid Erdrich, Brett Elizabeth Jenkins, R. Vincent Moniz, Jr, , Marcie Rendon, and Ben Weaver.

I started out thinking I would just interview her mostly about STORY, but I soon learned that all parts of SHORE are equally connected, and all involve storytelling in some way. So let’s back up, and give you a bit more context.

SHORE is third in a trilogy of works that Emily Johnson has presented locally at Northrop (aka, my day job). The Thank-you Bar, the first in the trilogy, remains one of my all-time favorite performances I’ve ever seen at Northrop. I loved it because it, too, used storytelling to carry the audience through the performance.

Johnson describes the trilogy taking visual form in three concentric circles: The Thank-you Bar is at the center, with Johnson’s own very personal story of missing her home in Alaska. The performance itself took place on the old Northrop stage, with the audience on stage alongside the performers. Niicugni, copresented by Northrop and The O’Shaughnessy, was about the story of a place, and happened on The O’Shaughnessy stage but with performers coming from the audience to the stage and back. Finally, SHORE is a broader scope, including multiple perspectives and stories, as well as multiple stages, if you will.

SHORE: STORY specifically helps to ground SHORE in the community it’s in. Johnson said she thought a lot about what SHORE will look like when it goes on tour. “How can I help SHORE land in a place? Part of that is stories about that place being an active, vital part of SHORE. Start with stories about here. Know where you are from lots of different perspectives and lots of people’s interpretations and lived experiences. And really, listening. I love that SHORE starts with listening. That’s a direct connection to Niicugni, which means listen.”

Johnson will put out a call for readers in each community SHORE tours to, just like she did here. For the local call, which the Loft Literary Center helped her put out, she asked for work about “place, home, land, your connection or disconnection to those thoughts, ideas, places, words. And all of those words can be interpreted widely,” said Johnson. She had initially wanted five readers, but ended up curating eight in the final line-up. “It was an honor to receive these works,” she said.

“Story is an important part of my work, but I want to tell more than my story. So the curated reading is really about local authors telling their stories,” said Johnson. She followed up with “Knowing they were the first part [of SHORE], it took a lot of care and attention. It’s just so thrilling to invite other people into the process. Those stories are part of SHORE, that’s awesome.”

When reading through the works, Johnson felt for those that had some elemental similarities to her vision and intention for SHORE as a performance installation. She felt she is the “mother” for SHORE, guiding along these different events to feed into the larger, cohesive idea of SHORE. As for a continuing thread throughout the work that she ended up selecting, she told me “what was so palpable to me was how writings about place, land, home, really are so personal. That was a surprise. Some through-line is all the works are very personal.”

At SHORE: PERFORMANCE (which takes place at Northrop), Emily starts outside on the Northrop Mall, telling a story. In SHORE: COMMUNITY ACTION,  she will have experts (Sharon Day and David Wiggins, for example) there telling the real history of the river, of the community that is being picked up. And at SHORE: FEAST at Foxtail Farms, participants are encouraged to bring a recipe that means something to them, and to share that recipe and story with the rest of the feasters. Johnson’s hope is that these stories trigger other stories, both in the audience and for her.

Johnson said, “As I was reading the work [for STORY], the same thing happens: you start to have your own relationship to it, it starts to spark your own ideas, thoughts.” Join me tonight at SHORE: STORY to start this process of triggering stories while sharing community at the Loft Literary Center, 7:00 pm.


The Writing Life: The Publicity Hit Parade, Part 1

2012 July 31

Editor’s Note: Linda White is a dear literary friend of ours. As the mind behind BookMania, we asked her for her tips on publicizing books. Today we present The Publicity Hit Parade, Part One. Stay tuned for Part Two next Tuesday!

by Linda White (BookMania)

When Hazel and Wren asked me to write up something about publicity, they suggested a tips list. It is difficult to boil things down to what might be valuable for the whole of Hazel & Wren’s crowd out there, but the following tips are my hit parade — the things that I find myself repeating over and over. So often, in fact, that I started teaching a class at the Loft Literary Center, which of course expands on all of this.

The Mantra

My main mantra is: Early, early, early. You cannot start promoting your book early enough. By promotion, I mean all types of things: coming up with your elevator pitch, having give-away items made, telling people about your book. Publicity, to be clear, is part of promotion. It has to do with getting your message out through any medium, usually for free. (On the other hand, advertising, where you are guaranteed placement and message, costs — lots.)

A year before your book comes out is not too early to start. The basic timeline for promoting a book in the old-school world was pretty much controlled by the NYC publishers. They have loooong lead times, so they have somehow hoodwinked media into thinking that the media needs to have the book 3 to 6 months before the book comes out. And guess what? It has worked. It is very difficult to get coverage for a book after it is already out. Not impossible, but difficult.

If you have a book already published that you want to promote, find a news angle, a holiday or other observance, or some other way to link it to current events — to make it “news-worthy.” The main reason that many publishers want to get their books out early is so that all of those reviews and interviews hit during the launch month. The consumer is bombarded with this book over and over in a short period of time. That’s one of the basic tenets of marketing – repeating the message. So give yourself a new “launch” date and operate accordingly.

Pitching It

Here is the bottom line: Your book has to be something that can be talked about in order to get media coverage. What’s your angle? What’s your platform? Even for a fiction piece, there has got to be something. Maybe it’s the extreme research you did. Maybe it’s the character based on your estranged father and the story of that estrangement, the writing of which resulted in a reconciliation after thirty years (don’t roll your eyes, this happened). Whatever it is, you need to figure it out. The media will not figure it out. Do not — I repeat — do not expect them to read your book and simply want to talk to you because it’s the Best Story Ever. Not gonna happen.

Remember, your relationship with the media is a partnership. You are providing them content for the service they provide. They are not doing you a ‘favor.’ And you are not pitching a book to them — you are pitching a story. Know who you are pitching to — check out their website, and whenever possible, watch or listen to the program, or read the publication. Make sure you know why their audience would care. Give them ideas, and try to be creative. It also helps to be as specific as possible: if you want a review, say so. If you want a profile, say so. If you want an on-air review, ask for that, or if you want an on-air interview, ask for that. Don’t make them guess how they can use you or your book.

… to be continued next Tuesday on The Writing Life!


Linda White is a professional reader. She runs BookMania, which offers editorial and publicity services. She is currently wearing many hats, which makes her very happy. Linda is the Minneapolis Books Examiner, is working on a Book Arts Certificate at the MCBA and recently started reviewing books for Library Journal


An Interview with Kelly Barnhill

2011 October 26
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We’re pretty smitten with local author Kelly Barnhill. She’s spunky, kind, incredibly insightful, a talented writer with a fresh voice, a supporter of other writers, and did we mention spunky? We appreciate a good amount of spunk over here at Hazel & Wren. Anyway, we reviewed Barnhill’s inventive young reader novel The Mostly True Story of Jack a while back, and just couldn’t get her out of our heads. So we decided to share her charm with all of you. Enjoy.

Hazel & Wren: When did you start writing? Have you always wanted to be a writer? 

Kelly Barnhill: That’s actually a complicated question! I started writing stories (and poems and character descriptions and single lines that I liked the sound of) in high school — primarily as a way to keep myself looking occupied as my mind wandered in class. I started writing more seriously in college. I had an amazing teacher — Jonis Agee (whose book of short stories, Acts of Love on Indigo Road remains one of my favorite collections ever) — and I wrote furiously, obsessively.

And then I sorta… stopped.

And I’m not exactly sure why. Perhaps post-college ennui, perhaps being young and in love and the inevitable questions of identity that immature love tends to pose — that… acquiescence of Self, you know? (Am I me? Am I you? Where is the line between Me and You?) Being in one’s early twenties and being adrift? Well, it’s a curious time, I’ll tell you what. I still wrote then, just not very often and not very well. The obsession was gone, the fire was gone, and my writing life had gone cold.

That changed after my second child was born. I was reading Louise Erdrich’s book Last Report of Miracles At Little No Horse, and then re-reading it, and then re-reading it, as I balanced an infant on my lap, and something shifted inside me. I opened up a notebook, wrote a paragraph, and then wrote every day ever since.

H&W: What does a day in the writing life look like for you? 

KB: Well, that has changed as well. It used to be that I wrote from four til six every morning, because that was the only time that I had guaranteed to myself. But the work that I was producing then… well it wasn’t very good, was it? It wandered and contradicted itself, and no one will ever, ever see it.

Now that the kids are in school, I get them up, make their breakfasts, pack their lunches and send them into the world every day. Then I sit down and write from nine until noon or one, then go for a run, and then write some more. Sometimes I write at night as well, but I’m slower in the evening, so it’s not as fun. Plus, I’d rather be watching Mad Men with my husband. So there’s that.

H&W: You write in many genres, including fiction and nonfiction, for both children and adults. What are the challenges and benefits of this? 

KB: I think it’s good for our brains to be reading across genres, and it’s certainly good for my writer’s muscles to be writing across genres as well. I think the best writing happens when we’re outside of our comfort zones, and when you don’t allow yourself to stay too long in any particular genre, it means that you have no comfort zone. Everything is new.

And I guess, for me, I don’t know what it’s like to feel at the top of my game, and I certainly don’t know what it’s like to feel anything close to competency. All I know is the learning curve. All I know is the furious trial and error, trying to get the thing right. And really, I hope I always feel that way.

H&W: How has being a mother impacted your writing, if at all?  

KB: Oh, I am a way better writer as a mom than I ever was before. Being a writer requires a person to be in a constant state of empathy right? We are constantly in the brain and in the soul and in the very skin of people who are not us. This is a job requirement. One of the benefits of motherhood is that we are constantly — whether we want to or not — feeling as our children feel. I have felt every knocked head, every skinned knee, every schoolyard slight as if it was my own.

Because they are my own, you know?

H&W: How does writing for young adults and children change the way you approach plot, characters, and/or dialogue? 

KB: That’s hard to say. My projects are so different from one another — even within genres. Every piece has a different approach to those elements, and each element responds, not to audience necessarily, but to the heart of the story. Each story is tuned to its one, central note, you know?

But here’s the thing: when you’re writing for kids, you’re not just writing for kids. You’re also writing for the adults that read the book with the kids, and the kids that those adults used to be, and the adults that your kid readers will be someday. There is a sort of chronological vertigo that is a requirement for the writer. And I kinda dig it, to be honest.

On one hand, kid readers are an incredibly tough audience to write for. They can sense moralizing a mile off, and if they think you’re headed in that direction, they’ll kick you in the shins. At the same time, they’re incredibly soulful and philosophical and ready to engage. So the books that work for this age group have to walk an incredibly fine line.

Kids are also very flexible in their thinking. They get that the world is complicated and strange and largely unknowable, so they don’t need a ton of explanation. They’re more like, “Oh. So the world’s like that is it? Okay then.” And they’ll move on with the story.

It’s adults that need every damn thing explained to them. Because, as a group, we’re a rather dull lot, alas.

H&W: Jack is the main character in your most recent novel, The Mostly True Story of Jack (duh). Did he come to you naturally? 

KB: He did. Sometimes, when I go for a run, I’ll compose in my head. I’ll start with a line, or a little knot of language, and I’ll spin it out and out and out until it’s the beginning of something. I can usually carry about two to three pages of text in my aural memory bank.

A while ago, I had a scene pop into my head while I was running — a scene with a kid and his mom in a rental car, barrelling over a country road in Iowa. And they had a very snarky conversation, that was removed long ago. But the boy interested me. He was so singular and so sad and so lonely. And I had to know who he was. And it took me an entire book to do it.

H&W: What resources have been most beneficial to you as a writer? Are there organizations, publications, or people who have helped you along the way? 

KB: Both the Loft [Literary Center] and Intermedia Arts have been ridiculously helpful. I was in the mentorship program at the Loft as a creative nonfiction writer while simultaneously doing a speculative fiction mentorship at Intermedia Arts. I didn’t plan to do it, and it was nuts of me to even try, given the workload for each program. But I didn’t think I’d get into either, much less both, and when you work as a freelancer, you learn to just say yes when the opportunities arise. So I did. And it was amazing. Both organizations gave me a boost when I needed one and both have helped to define me as a professional writer. And I will be grateful forever.

H&W: You are embarking on an around-the-world trip by hot air balloon. You are allowed to bring three books with you to entertain yourself during the long trip, but no more than three, because, well, hot air balloon baskets aren’t that big, and you do need food, after all. Which three books do you bring? (No cheating with an e-book reader!) 

KB: Last Report of Miracles at Little No Horse, the collected works of Borges,  and anything by Phillip K. Dick.

H&W: Literary Death Match: Mark Twain and Norman Mailer are in a fight to the grisly death. Who wins? Bonus round: Jane Austen vs. F. Scott Fitzgerald? 

KB: Oh, god, are you kidding me? Mark Twain in the first round. That guy could fight dirty and he knows everyone’s weakness.

And given that Scott Fitzgerald would likely be falling-down drunk before the fighting began, I think that Jane Austen would make mincemeat of him, despite the punitive Regency underwear and the domineering family members.

H&W: What’s next for you? Books? Life In General?  

KB: Why, world domination, of course.


What We’re Reading: Lit Punch

2011 September 15

All I hear about lately in the Twin Cities literary scene is punch this, punch that, wanna get punched? No, Minneapolis is not getting over its Minnesota nice and finally going to B-E AGGRESSIVE. So what are they all so nutso about? It’s the new Twin Cities Literary Punch Card, which had its kick-off event last night at Club Jäger.  Beers were had, tweeps met face-to-face, and elbows were rubbed with, well, everyone. It was a full house, eager to be punched.

The Punch Card is sponsored by a bunch of literary organizations in town (Coffee House Press, Milkweed Editions, Graywolf Press, Rain Taxi, and the Loft Literary Center), in partnership with a bunch of local, independent booksellers (Magers & Quinn, Micawbers, Common Good Books, and more). If you go to eligible literary events around town (most of them), you get your card punched. Once you fill it up (12 is the magic number), the punch card magically transforms into a $15 gift card to participating bookstores. It’s a great way to get the community excited and involved. Also a wonderful way to find out about some exciting events happening in the Twin Cities area with stellar writers.

For this week’s What We’re Reading, I’ve flagged a handful of upcoming Punch-eligible events that feature authors I’ve read recently. Click on them to find out more on our Mpls/St. Paul Literary Calendar, or visit Rain Taxi’s calendar.

1. Kathryn Kysar and Jim Moore (Sept 18)

If you haven’t read my What We’re Reading post on Kathryn Kysar‘s poetry collection Pretend The World, you should. It’s a beautiful collection on the reality of motherhood, of being a woman, and of nature.

I haven’t yet read much Jim Moore (do I see a Jim Moore WWR post in my future?), but he’s got loads of awards and published work. Have any of you read him? What is your take on his work?

2. Nancy Paddock (Sept 20)

I stumbled upon Paddock through my apprenticeship at Red Dragonfly Press, where I discovered many great poets.  Paddock has a strong, calm voice, and writes about nature, the process of aging, and much more, always with a playful sense of wonder. This event focuses on her newest work, a memoir called A Song at Twilight: of Alzheimers and Love.

3. Danielle Sosin (Sept 22)

Sosin’s novel The Long-Shining Waters is on my list of favorite books from 2011. The story centers around Lake Superior, and the intense draw, frightening power, and dark mysticism it holds for three women, each living in different time periods near the lake. Sosin doesn’t just write the story—she crafts it. Each of the characters are significantly different, but are connected through this one natural landmark in such a unique and heart-wrenching way.

4. Ed Bok Lee and Bao Phi (Sept 24)

Lee and Phi are two spoken word poets who perform both on the local and national stage of slam poetry, with a big stir. They both explore racism, culture, and history with a fresh, current voice. While launching Lee’s and Phi’s newly released poetry collections (Whorled and Sông I Sing, respectively), this event also spotlights their publisher, Coffee House Press. It’s a slam-dunk evening with a reading, Q&A, conversation with the poets, spoken word artist Shá Cage emceeing, music from DJ Nak, and, of course, free refreshments. Check out the other spotlight events happening this fall, if you’re in town.

Are any other cities doing promotions like this to get literary people out and about? Have you read any of these writers? If so, what are your thoughts on their work?