House Guest

House Guest: Zeina Hashem Beck

Zeina Hashem Beck’s poems, “The Woman in Our House,” “Asmahan,” and “Listen” appear in Ecotone 21. In the piece below, Zeina tells us about the process of writing 3arabi Song, using a glossary of some of the Arabic words in the chapbook.

3arabiCovWriting 3arabi Song: A Glossary of Arabic Terms

Tarab: a kind of Arabic music. The word is also used to describe the emotional effect of this music on the listener, who is almost in a state of trance.

Tarab: When Mom began an Umm Kulthum song in the kitchen, Dad replied from the corridor. When my parents’ friends came over, everyone sang. The only video footage my parents have of me as a toddler is me singing in the middle of a living room, surrounded by clapping adults. This was Lebanon in the ’80s, during the civil war. Every day at lunch or dinner, Dad made the same joke about a line from a famous Abdel Halim song – a line about how time was coming to heal us.

Ya’aburnee: literally means “you bury me.” A term of endearment, often used by Arab mothers, expressing their desire to die before their children, rather than live without them. Can’t be translated in one word.

Ya’aburnee: Three summers ago, my cousin was shot dead on the street in Tripoli, Lebanon. My aunt sat in her living room, crying and singing about her asmar, her dark-skinned boy. That same summer, two Tripoli mosques were bombed. I don’t know how many people have buried loved ones in Syria, in Iraq, in Palestine. How to write the untranslatable?

3arabi: the Arabizi way of writing “Arabic.” Arabizi” comes from the combination of “Arabic” and “Englizi” (English); it uses numbers to represent sounds that are specifically Arabic, and has become well-known among Arabic speakers (especially online and in texting).

3arabi: One of the books we had in our house in Tripoli was a big, blue, French-Arabic/Arabic-French dictionary. It’s one of the earliest books I remember going through; I liked its thick cover, its smell, its thin pages, its weight. Looking back now, I find it interesting that, like me, it was bilingual. Like many Lebanese, I attended a French school then an American University. I feel I live in many languages, and so does 3arabi Song. But living in many languages means using the language of the colonizer, the Empire – do I forgive myself? And how do I break English to create a space for my 3arabi self inside it?

Ra7eel: departure | 3awda: returning

Ra7eel | 3awda: In one of the first stories I wrote as a little girl, I gave my character a very Western name: Grace. I remember struggling to come up with it because, in my little girl’s mind, I probably thought, Who names their characters Zeina or Ahmad? Who sets a story in Tripoli? One thing 3arabi Song says is, Oh for God’s sake, who the hell is Grace?

Bahr: the sea. Also means “meter” in Arabic poetry.

Bahr: The sea isn’t always merciful. Refugees keep drowning in the Mediterranean. And poetry seems simultaneously useles and powerful. But language is what I do, so I do it.

Habibi: my love.

Habibi: I lose count of how many times a day I use the word habibi. I lose count of Allah too.

Allahu Akbar: God is greater.

Allahu Akbar: These words didn’t use to invoke fear, or beheadings. When I visited the US for the first time last year, I wanted to read the poem “Adhan,” which contains the words Allahu Akbar. My husband worried some people in the audience might not get it, might be scared. He also worried some people in the Arab world might be offended. This is what happens when you live in the liminal. I read the poem.

Zeina Hashem Beck is a Lebanese poet. Her first collection, To Live in Autumn, won the 2013 Backwaters Prize. Her second collection, Louder than Hearts, has won the 2016 May Sarton New Hampshire Poetry Prize and is forthcoming in April 2017. She’s also the author of two chapbooks: 3arabi Song, winner of the 2016 Rattle Chapbook Prize, and There Was and How Much There Was, a 2016 smith|doorstop Laureate’s Choice, selected by Carol Ann Duffy. Her work has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, Best of the Net, and the Forward Prize, and has appeared in Ploughshares, Poetry Northwest, and The Rialto, among others. She lives in Dubai, where she has founded and runs PUNCH, a poetry and open mic collective. Zeina’s readings often have a strong performative quality, and she has participated in literary festivals in the Middle East, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

House Guest with Arna Bontemps Hemenway: Living in a Tree of Smoke

In House Guest, we invite Ecotone and Lookout authors and cover artists, as well as editors from peer presses and magazines, to tell us what they’re working on or thinking about or reading, to discuss themes in their writing or unique publishing challenges, to answer the burning questions they always hoped a reader would ask.

The following essay is from Arna Bontemps Hemenway, on the immersive experience of reading Denis Johnson. Arna’s short story, “A Self-Made Man,” appears in Ecotone 15.

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One of the realest places I’ve ever lived (or traveled, or remember) is actually the territory of a certain novel, Denis Johnson’s National Book Award winning Tree of Smoke.

Tree of Smoke is a long book; at 720 pages, its length is possibly one of the reasons why it really feels as if you’re living in it as you read it.

That’s also one of the things I like about it: it takes time. You have to live a not insignificant stretch of your life with it. You have to consider it when your thoughts drift throughout a month’s worth of showers, of doing the dishes, driving to work, walking to lunch. And this reading experience mirrors the lives inhabited in the book itself, in that they are inescapable. This is a book as much about the oppression of never being able to escape yourself and your own life as it is about Vietnam, or anything else.

For those of you who’ve never read it, I’m going to lean on Geoff Dyer here (never a bad idea) to describe what it’s about, from his review of the novel in The Guardian:

“However extensively the novel’s story is summarised it is going to be sold short. It starts in 1963. “Tree of Smoke” is some kind of CIA project. Skip, an operative of uncertain status but intense dedication, is working for the Colonel (who also happens to be his uncle). Skip has an affair with Kathy, a Seventh-Day Adventist whose aid-worker husband has been kidnapped, possibly killed. Years pass. History–as they used to say of shit–happens. Kurtz-like, the Colonel’s methods become increasingly unsound. At the sharp end are the seriously messed-up Houston brothers (who previously saw service in Johnson’s first novel, Angels). Trung, a North Vietnamese–who once tried to assassinate the colonel–is being recruited as a double agent, but, at the same time, Trung’s assassination is being plotted by the same guy–a German–who killed a priest with a blow pipe in the Philippines, back in 1963. Twenty years later, in Arizona, the Houston brothers . . . Ah, forget it. There may be no smoke without fire but in this case you can’t see the wood for the tree of smoke, or something.”

That one of my favorite novels ever produced one of my favorite reviews ever is not so surprising. Tree of Smoke is not a book you can not have a reaction to. But the central weirdness in this novel is key to its brilliance. Because it is a novel that indulges itself shamelessly, I’m going to indulge a little in this post about it, and go back to Dyer, this time in his summation:

“Johnson is all over the place and he is an artist of strange diligence. It is as if his skewed relationship to the sentence – not really knowing what one is and yet knowing exactly what to do with it – operates, here, at the level of structure. Tree of Smoke is as excessive and messy as Moby Dick. Anything further removed from the tucked-up, hospital corners school of British fiction is hard to imagine. It’s a big, dirty, unmade bed of a book and, once you settle in you’re in no hurry to get out.”

A “big, dirty, unmade bed of a book” is possibly one of the most accurate statements I’ve ever read in a review. It’s also true that if that sounds like something that you would find intolerable—that is to say, if you are more comfortable with a somewhat orderly or clean vision of life and love and suffering—you’re probably not going to enjoy this book. That’s okay, though. One of the things I admire most about the writing in Tree of Smoke is how little Johnson seems to be thinking about whether someone will enjoy it. As has been noted elsewhere, Johnson does seem to pick up and examine the different forms of Vietnam War narrative we have lived with in the four decades or so since it ended. But I think the truly remarkable thing is that he then sets them back down, finding them wanting. Then he strikes out into the jungle of his own vision.

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House Guest with Matthew Gavin Frank: On Eating Rats

In House Guest, we invite Ecotone and Lookout authors and cover artists, as well as editors from peer presses and magazines, to tell us what they’re working on, to discuss themes in their writing or unique publishing challenges, to answer the burning questions they always hoped a reader would ask.

The following excerpt is from from the West Virginia essay in Matthew Gavin Frank’s book, The Mad Feast, out this week from W.W. Norton, which is a collection of fifty essays, one for each of the U.S. states. Each essay begins with a foodstuff typical of said state and then digresses from there, engaging various shadowy back alleys of regional history—sometimes beautiful, sometimes atrocious—in an attempt to uncover the answers as to why we eat what we eat, where we eat. Matt’s essay, “Spoon Bread,” about Nebraska, appears in Ecotone’s Sustenance Issue.


 

Mad Feast mech.inddThough rat meat often bears traces of pesticides, heavy metals, and human excrement, and though most residents of West Virginia (save, perhaps, for the town of Marlinton—famous for the annual autumnal Road-Kill Cook-Off featuring such local delicacies as pothole possum stew, rat gumbo, and the awesomely named Peter Caught-on-Tail Gate Roll) long to shuck the backwoods “barefoot and pregnant” stereotype (after all, we have the lowest birthrate in the U.S.), my uncle empties the traps into a stockpot as his father and his grandfather and his great-grandfather did before him, adds the water, the tomato, the salt and pepper, and the hot red peppers (his personal touch). Uncle cracks his knuckles, says something about infertility, about eighty-hour underground work weeks, about coal as black lipstick, the sort he’d smear Aunt’s face with when she was alive and well and simmering anything but rodent on the range.

According to Calvin W. Schwabe’s book Unmentionable Cuisine, step one of Rat Stew: “Skin and eviscerate the rat and split it lengthwise.” Uncle dips his face into the stockpot’s steam and inhales. He calls you to the stove, puts his arm around you. You watch the little nuggets of sour meat surface and dive down, surface and dive down. You think of the pride of Debbie “The Rat Lady” Ducommun—a Californian, no less—as she said, “I do as many necropsies of rats as I can, and between 1998 and 2003 I took measurements of the hearts of 150 rats.” You take comfort in the suspicion that you are not nearly as obsessed.

You know this: that in Bordeaux, vintners trap rats that inhabit the wine cellars and subsist on the fermenting grape juice. The vintners skin and eviscerate the rodents, then brush their bodies with a thick sauce of olive oil and crushed shallots, and grill them over a fire of broken wine barrels. Apparently, the resulting meat bears the flavors of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and petit verdot grapes, the latter of which is known in French wine circles as the “little stiffener.”

You try not to think little when you think of fertility, and worry about the heritability of Uncle’s mistakes, anatomical and otherwise. You watch little heart tumble over little rib and little liver. You try to pick out the tenderloin, the neck meat. The feet. The hands. You try not to think of the appendages that anchor us into the mine shafts that only want to constrict, the earth filling itself back in, becoming whole again. This, we call collapse. You tell yourself each night in bed that those are canaries screaming into some implacable, original depth, and not the rats in the kitchen. You try not to think of stiffening bodies, of rigor mortis, of the 2010 mine explosion in Montcoal after which not a single survivor was found. The names of the dead were not released.

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House Guest with Jamie Quatro: Moments of Arrival

In House Guest, we invite Ecotone and Lookout authors and cover artists, as well as editors from peer presses and magazines, to tell us what they’re working on, to discuss themes in their writing or unique publishing challenges, to answer the burning questions they always hoped a reader would ask.

Jamie Quatro’s story “Wreckage” appears in Ecotone’s Anniversary Issue.

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Tshoka: we stayed our first and third nights

Last January my daughter and I traveled to Sikkim, a restricted state in northern India nestled between Bhutan and Nepal. After spending a few days at a home for Tibetan refugees and other at-risk girls, we took a four-day trek in the Himalayas, up to fifteen thousand feet. It was a cushy trek, as treks go: Nepali cooks came with us, and dzos (half-yak half-cow) carried the bulk of our gear. Still, even with just our daypacks to carry, the hike was challenging, especially as we began to experience the effects of elevation. On the second day the climb became sharply vertical. We moved at a painfully slow pace, using the mountaineering “rest step,” in which you lock out your downhill leg to put the weight on the skeleton versus the muscles.

At night we slept in rustic huts. We were days out of reach of any communication. Other than our occasional conversation, the dzo bells as they neared and then passed us, and the wind, I mostly listened to myself breathe. On the trail, away from “civilization,” halfway around the planet, the smallest comforts became huge. My tiny tube of rose-scented moisturizer; the one pack of pre-moistened wipes I’d brought along; my down jacket. Over and over I found myself silently blessing Patagonia, the attention to technical design elements which mean little in the urban, southern U.S. but mean everything on the trail in temperatures that fluctuate from twenty-three degrees Celsius during the day to below zero at night—like cinch cords inside the pockets, so you don’t have to remove your hands to tighten the waistband. I developed an almost passionate attachment to my Nalgene water bottle. The cooks boiled water over an open fire at night so we could fill our bottles before bed. I’d slide my piping hot Nalgene into a sock and stuff it into my sleeping bag for warmth. By morning the water would be cold again, ready for an electrolyte tablet and rationed sipping.

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The summit at Dzongri

But the thing that could (and did) bring me to tears was—after hours of trekking—the sight of prayer flags along the trail. The prayer flags meant we were approaching a place of rest: a summit, plateau, holy lake, or temple. Every time I saw the bright flash of red and blue, green and yellow in the trees or rocks ahead, I felt connected, again, to the world-at-large. Others have been here before you; others will follow. At the summit in Dzongri there were flags everywhere—wrapped around stupa-shaped rocks and strung between bushes. Flags upon flags upon remnants of flags. The idea is the circularity of existence, life replacing death replacing life. The greatest human accomplishments—the highest peaks we’re capable of reaching—even this is fragile, will fade and blow off. There was something about being at that elevation, above the welter and noise below, that reminded me of the space out of which writing comes. This is where, in a spiritual sense, I need to exist as a writer, I thought. Away from “the industry,” the constant chatter, the noise of readings and conferences. Of course those things have a place. But it’s not the place the work comes from. The work requires silence, rest, a kind of holiness, and—so important—non-attachment. You can’t write in total freedom until you’re okay with the fact that you might not keep a single word. The possibility that none of it may make it into print.

Unknown-2After the trek, at the Tibetan Refugee Center in Darjeeling, I bought an embarrassing number of prayer flags to take home as gifts. I’d planned to hang the ones I kept outside, as one is supposed to: let them deteriorate in the elements, kindness and compassion spreading out into the world. But when I got home I tied together several lengths and strung them above the kitchen table where I work. I like to equate showing up to the page each day—whether the pages are ones I write or edit—with those moments of arrival in the Himalayas. I like the idea of work being holy, connected to the past, a form of active rest. I like to show up each day remembering the silence at the summit. In some ways, I think my work is a way to practice staying there.

Jamie Quatro is the author of the story collection I Want To Show You More, a 2013 New York Times Notable Book and finalist for the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction. Another story collection and a novel are forthcoming from Grove. A contributing editor at Oxford American, she lives with her family in Lookout Mountain, Georgia.

House Guest with Chantel Acevedo: Growing up Cuban, or How to Make a Writer

In House Guest, we invite Ecotone and Lookout authors and cover artists, as well as editors from peer presses and magazines, to tell us what they’re working on, to discuss themes in their writing or unique publishing challenges, to answer the burning questions they always hoped a reader would ask.

Chantel Acevedo’s story “Strange and Lovely,” a Notable story in this year’s Best American Short Stories, appears in Ecotone 17.

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There are certain personal characteristics that seem essential for writers to cultivate—Persistence, A Sense of the Dramatic, and A Tough Skin. I’ve always thought that a Cuban-American childhood is the perfect crucible in which to practice these traits.

1) Persistence: As any published writer will tell you, talent is only part of what it takes to be a writer. A kind of doggedness has to accompany the task. After all, writing a novel or a collection of poems is a marathon, not a sprint. We Cuban Americans who grew up in the 70s and 80s understood this in a different way. We practiced persistence at an early age, especially since we often lived with abuela and abuelo, mami and papi, and all of them were stricter than Sister Maria Francisca at the Catholic School down the street. To get what we wanted, we Cuban-American kids had to be persistent enough to wear down the adults in our lives. Want to shave past your knees sometime before your fifteenth birthday? Better if you start asking permission on the eve of your thirteenth birthday. It will take them at least two years to cave. And if you’ve ever found yourself waiting for a literary agent to respond, or a literary magazine to publish your poem, you know what that waiting can feel like.

2) A Sense of the Dramatic: Stories are built around conflict. Conflict is what people mean when they say “Raise the stakes” in the stories we write. Cuban-American kids understand drama. We were fed on a sense of the dramatic. I vividly recall riding my bike back and forth down a stretch of sidewalk no longer than fifty feet, up and down, up and down, under the gaze of my abuela who watched me from the porch. If I went farther, she argued, someone would probably SNATCH ME. There was the perpetual fear of snatching, of lightning strikes, of sharks and sand bars with which to contend. The drama even followed us inside our very homes, where the nightly sh-sh-sh of the pressure cooker working its magic on black beans was a warning to every child in the house to stay out of the kitchen. That sucker could explode. Drama was everywhere, and for a burgeoning writer, that perpetual feeling of impending spectacle is a turbo boost to the imagination.

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House Guest with Lesley Wheeler: every literary world is imaginary

In House Guest, we invite Ecotone and Lookout authors and cover artists, as well as editors from peer presses and magazines, to tell us what they’re working on, to discuss themes in their writing or unique publishing challenges, to answer the burning questions they always hoped a reader would ask.

Lesley Wheeler’s poem “Grant Report, New Zealand” appears in Ecotone’s Migration Issue, and her entry in our Poem in a Landscape department appears in Ecotone 19, our tenth-anniversary issue. Radioland, her fourth collection of poems, is newly out from Barrow Street Press.

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Editing a book of poetry is probably not on most people’s list of terrors, but I’d rather face public speaking any day, or maybe an egg sac bursting with baby wood spiders. You’ve been web-spinning for years and the results are almost ready for the public, but first you have to make sure the spacing and em dashes are just so. And that’s the easy part: it’s much harder to read your poems freshly again and again during the brief window your overworked editors allot for the process. If you don’t, however, you won’t catch the word whorl on three pages running, or a slightly bungled Dickinson quote, or the dropped italics. Then one day when, overcoming the existential nausea of book promotion, you stand at podium before those raised expectant faces, you’ll turn to page seventeen and the error you finally spot will break your heart.

Well, maybe you wouldn’t burn in shame about an em dash, but certain slips are more dreadful. While combing through Radioland, I worried particularly about my references to New Zealand. I spent several months in Aotearoa in 2011, and since then I’ve been negotiating my right to write about it: living there remapped the world for me, but I feared exoticizing the islands’ green cliffs and wild shorelines, skimming over pretty surfaces like a tourist. I quadruple-checked diacritical marks in Maori words, as well as facts about the 2011 earthquake. Differences between New Zealand and U.S. English also created quandaries. Maori would take a macron over the a in many contexts, for instance, but it doesn’t in Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, the reference my press uses to settle spelling ambiguities. One poem triggered copyediting marks with a reference to “the mad jangling / of tui in the punga.” Tui, the name of an extraordinary New Zealand bird, which can be seen and heard in the New Zealand encyclopedia Te Ara, appears in U.S. dictionaries, but punga does not and therefore must be italicized. The contrasting fonts looked distracting, plus I realized how difficult punga would be for an American reader to look up, so I ended up changing the latter to “tree ferns” (fortunately metrically similar). Cultural respect, levels of correctness, confusion for readers, elegance on the page—they’re tricky to balance.

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House Guest with Ben Stroud: Wrestling with History

In House Guest, we invite Ecotone and Lookout authors, cover artists, and editors from peer presses and magazines to tell us what they’re working on, to discuss themes in their writing or unique publishing challenges, to answer the burning questions they always hoped a reader would ask.

Ben Stroud’s story “Traitor of Zion,” is reprinted in Astoria to Zion: Twenty-Six Stories of Risk and Abandon from Ecotone’s First Decade.

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One of the great difficulties in writing fiction that deals with history is figuring out where to depart from the historical record in favor of invention. In some ways, this can be the biggest problem in such a story. I had this struggle with “Traitor of Zion.” I can’t remember when I first heard about the branch of Mormons that settled on Bear Island in the far north of Lake Michigan. But once I did, I tucked it away as an idea for a story. I was drawn to the distance of the place, and the audacity of the enterprise: to build a new settlement in this remote, incredibly difficult-to-get-to island. In my writing I’m often driven by a sense of adventure. I want the story to be a journey for the reader, but also for me. This seemed like solid material.

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House Guest with Douglas Watson: Why I Make Fun of Philosophers

In House Guest, we invite Ecotone and Lookout authors, cover artists, and editors from peer presses and magazines to tell us what they’re working on, to discuss themes in their writing or unique publishing challenges, to answer the burning questions they always hoped a reader would ask.

Douglas Watson’s story “New Animal” is reprinted in Astoria to Zion: Twenty-Six Stories of Risk and Abandon from Ecotone’s First Decade.

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I don’t know that much about philosophy, but that doesn’t stop me from poking fun at philosophers in my fiction. Really, though, it’s my younger self I’m making fun of. In 1990 I went off to college figuring I would major in philosophy. What could be better than staying up half the night thinking in a rigorous way about the most important questions? Wasn’t time spent doing anything else—like getting a haircut—ultimately just wasted time? In high school I’d been taken with Plato and the kind of existentialism found in Herman Hesse novels. Throw in a bit of Thoreau and maybe spin “All You Need Is Love” on the turntable and you’ve got the picture.

But a funny thing happened in Philosophy 101, a thing that probably happens to a lot of freshmen who think they’re going to be philosophy majors: I fell out of love with philosophy. Philosophy, it turned out, was difficult and rather dry and quite possibly beside the point. Sure, my new college friends and I stayed up all night talking about the meaning of life, but we weren’t talking about Aristotle. Life, we decided, took place in the world, not just inside our skulls, and the world needed our help right now! The Gulf War was brewing, global warming was happening, and whole societal systems needed to be restructured ASAP if there was to be any chance of something-or-other. Trading the romantic image of myself in a scholar’s study for the romantic image of myself on a barricade, I began skipping classes and protesting the war and listening to the Doors. What I wanted was peace, and when I wanted it was right then.

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House Guest with Bill Roorbach: Electronic Promises

In House Guest, we invite Ecotone and Lookout authors, cover artists, and editors from peer presses and magazines to tell us what they’re working on, to discuss themes in their writing or unique publishing challenges, to answer the burning questions they always hoped a reader would ask. Bill Roorbach’s stories have twice appeared in the pages of Ecotone. In this post, he recounts the origin of his story “Broadax Inc.,” reprinted in Astoria to Zion: Twenty-Six Stories of Risk and Abandon from Ecotone’s First Decade.

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“Broadax Inc.” came about because of a ten-day power failure here in western Maine a few years ago, one that had nothing to do with weather (which would be the usual case), but with a technical break somewhere in the grid that caused cascading outages as switches and transformers and other bits and pieces no one of us knows enough about to fix overloaded and burned up—real flames.

I was in the grocery store at the time, waiting in line with my full cart in the glow of some battery-powered emergency lights. The poor woman at the one open cash register had no idea what to do. The cash drawer wouldn’t open without power, so she had no change, and no accounting system. The night manager scratched her head too. I suggested they write down what people had bought and we’d come pay later (I had no cash), but they didn’t even know what anything cost because all that was reported through the laser system. You could write it down item by item, I suggested.

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House Guest with Shawn Vestal: My Two Hats

In House Guest, we invite Ecotone and Lookout authors, cover artists, and editors from peer presses and magazines to get comfy and tell us what they’re currently working on, to discuss themes in their writing or unique publishing challenges, to answer the burning questions they always hoped a reader would ask. We kick things off with our first house guest, Shawn Vestal, whose stories have twice appeared in the pages of Ecotone. His story “Winter Elders” is reprinted in Astoria to Zion: Twenty-Six Stories of Risk and Abandon from Ecotone’s First Decade.

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My Two Hats

As a writer, I have a split personality: Jekyll the journalist, Hyde the inventor. Jekyll writes a newspaper column, and though he expresses his opinions, he is faithful to facts. Hyde writes fiction, and he cheats on facts with abandon, betrays and abuses them, comes sneaking home at daybreak, reeking of unfamiliar perfume.

People often ask me if I have a hard time moving between these two forms, and I never know how to answer—in part because I don’t have a hard time with it, and in part because I’m not exactly sure what type of a problem I’m expected to have with it.

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