Chats With Authors: Jahla Seppanen
Written by: Katya Cummins

Alien GirlsWe are very pleased to welcome author, Jahla Seppanen to Niche. Her short story, Alien Girls, was published in the latest issue of Niche. You can download and read her wonderful story here.

Jahla Seppanen was born and raised off the grid in Madrid, New Mexico. She received her B.A. in Writing from Sarah Lawrence College in New York. Last year she completed her first novel. Jahla enjoys Puerto Rican rum and listening to the Ramones.  Her stories have been published in Fourteen Hills, The Bookends Review, Used Gravitrons, and Turk’s Head Review.

NICHE: Can you tell us a little bit about how and when and why you decided to peruse writing?

JAHLA SEPPANEN: It was in my senior year of college that I first understood writers are people, and I could do it too. Not that I am living off my fiction writing, but it became clear that it can and is done. This came from a professor of mine, Junior Burke, whom I still hold as the greatest mentor I have ever had. He showed me that it’s simple. Every day you have to sit yourself down and write. If you do, you’re a writer and you want it. If you don’t, then well, you don’t want it enough. He also taught me that good writers will never be great, and great writers will never be extraordinary. He made me trust in the simplicity of my words.

NICHE: What were some of the challenges you faced, if any, when composing your short story, Alien Girls?

JAHLA SEPPANEN: Sorting memories. And doing so with the restraint of deciding what to tell. In the end, it was everything. I have always been bad at keeping secrets.

NICHE: Technically speaking, your story is a difficult one, in that, you employ first-person present tense, but the narrator is re-calling past events. Those who know a little bit about writing technique know that first person, present tense is difficult to maintain and keep coherent throughout. You do it very well. Can you speak to your choices? Why first person and why present tense?

JAHLA SEPPANEN: I believe in writing what is consistent with how I envision the story and characters. Sometimes truth does not conform to rules. It rarely does. But you have to know the rules to break them. Most writers go directly for unconventional or “edgy” writing, but that is all crap. The rules are important.

unnamed-3NICHE: In Alien Girls, the narrator is almost a secondary character. That is, the focus of the story is entirety on Sonia. However, the narrator is important. Readers know her very well by the end merely because we get to experience how she describes her sister, and how she describes her sister tells us a lot about her. Without her acting as a filter, readers wouldn’t understand Sonia at all.  Was this a conscious decision on your part or did this develop organically as you drafted?

JAHLA SEPPANEN: Yes, the narrator is nothing but a ghost limb of Sonia. I cannot speak to whether readers will understand or know Sonia, because I know her and the narrator does, and there is an intimacy there. This intimacy is love and fear and cannot be backed away from. It is my hope that readers feel close to that. Maybe to the point of feeling uncomfortable, because that is what exists between the lost and the living. We all have sadnesses in our lives. And if you don’t, you will.

NICHE: The other wonderful aspect of your story is that the language is what I would describe as “lush.” I’m defining lush as sentences that hold a level of interest or evidence of “having been there”—which does not mean the story is creative nonfiction. It merely means that you’ve used images effectively. What I like, however, is that your images are not overwrought or overly lyrical. They are very much tied to the real. I believe it is because you’ve used images in this way that your story manages to not veer into the overly sentimental, which is difficult to accomplish with a story that deals with a death. I know it is very difficult but can you describe to our readers how you go about choosing the details or images you use in a story? Do you have to struggle to find them, or do they come to you naturally as the story develops?

JAHLA SEPPANEN: I write from how I see little scenes in my head. Like the narrator, I always dream at night. Bright, vivid, sharp dreams. There is no way to share these images by using flowery language. Flowery language does nothing but wilt. Words should be simple. Adjectives should be burned. Sentiment is adjective. And it’s funny because death is the most simple thing in the world.

I have always hated writing that is overly lyrical. I believe it is self indulgent, if I’m putting it nicely.

I choose my writing based off details that have the exact right word to describe them. Of course it is a struggle, or more of a hunt, but when the right word comes I can feel it all down my body. Even before the story goes on the page it has a breed. Sometimes it can be as simple as the sound of a word that makes it a terrible fit. But you can’t include it.

NICHE: What advice would you give aspiring writers about the revising and editing process?

JAHLA SEPPANEN: Read your work out loud, because flow is everything. And kill your darlings. It is an emptying feeling when I revise and realize the story is terrible. But you have to know that you can either work through the sludge for hours on end, or trust that the story does not need to be told.

NICHE: What can you tell us about the novel you completed? What are you working on now?

JAHLA SEPPANEN: I completed a novel, The Sage and Sound, about two lovers on a nocturnal road trip from Texas to New Mexico. It centers around the dependencies of being in love, and how we are influenced for better and worse. I had a couple agents look at the manuscript but nothing stuck. The first half is very good, but the second needs work. I hope it can be published one day, but I am not ready to return to that world yet. It is entrapping, like the landscape of the desert and the feeling of being completely in love.  For now my heart can only handle short prose. But it needs writing. Oh it needs it.

Chats With Authors: Nicolas Poynter
Written by: Katya Cummins

Gringo

I’m pleased to welcome Nicolas Poynter, author of Stories From the Bottomless Pit, to our features. He had his fiction piece “Gringo Town” published in the latest issue of Niche. You can download the PDF of his story here. You can also read some of his other work at Gravel, The Chagrin River Review, The Citron Review, Tupelo Quarterly, The East Bay Review, The Siren, and  The North American Review.

NICHE: When and how and why did you begin writing? Can you tell our readers a little bit about your journey?

NICOLAS POYNTER: In the beginning: I was a really eccentric kid. And I was listening to my teachers and classmates who were telling me that this was a bad thing. They always seemed so disgusted with me and my inability to behave normally. It gave me some serious self-esteem issues that I still carry around with me today. I still walk into large groups of people telling myself, okay now,…don’t say anything strange, Nicolas. Be normal! But one day I started reading and then I discovered Vonnegut and Tom Robbins and Catch 22. The characters is those books were just as odd as me and, more and more, I began trading reality for fiction. This is a good trade. I don’t care what anybody says. Kurt Vonnegut saves kid’s lives.

Of course, after developing a love of reading, it is a short jump to writing and it can also be very therapeutic for lonely kids, even though this type of writing is generally self-absorbed and really disgusting. I must have gotten a little happier in my twenties and didn’t need to write so much. I kept thinking about writing. I just didn’t actually do it, until I took a traveling job in my late thirties. Being cooped up in lonely hotels rooms for eight years reintroduced me to my two first loves–whiskey and literature. But this time I had matured and I wasn’t so horribly lazy. I have stuck with the writing this time, even graduating from a MFA program a few years back.        

coverNICHE: What can you tell our readers about your collection of stories, Funny Stories From The Bottomless Pit?

NICHOLAS POYNTER: There are two stories that I first wrote when I was very young, sixteen and eighteen, and thinking about suicide often. I put them first even though I don’t think they are the strongest stories, because I think there is an interesting transition happening. There is, of course, something biochemically askew in my brain. I am now guessing it is bipolar disorder or mild autism or some wicked combination of several things. But I didn’t have a clue what was happening to me when I was younger and I think the early stories show this raw frustration. I now understand it–the cyclical nature of it–and am able to control my life in a way that I never could before. I think this comes into focus story-by-story. At least I hope it does.  

Funny thing: After I read an article on bipolar disorder in my late thirties, I looked at my college transcript and it was like watching a rhythmic EKG printout–two semesters of perfect grades and then a semester of failure and withdrawals, over the course of six years. You could set your watch by it. This had been happening in high school too–great semesters followed by flunking the sixth grade followed by straight As followed by jumping off a cliff. I never had a clue. For most of my life, I self-destructed every so many months as if on a schedule, but I never had any idea that there was an explanation for it beyond me simply being a loser.

NICHE: Can you tell us a little bit about how you go about balancing humor with grim themes?

NICHOLAS POYNTER: It is easy for me to get pulled into my own tragedy and start writing page after page about my stupid feelings, which will only serve to torment the reader. Humor is a way to cut the drama. I want to tell the truth and talk about the dismal nature of being alive, but there is no reason this can’t be funny. However, it doesn’t have to be. The Grapes of Wrath is one of my favorite books and I don’t think there are more than a few small jokes in there, if that. But aside from John Steinbeck and Virginia Woolf, I prefer writers who make me laugh.

I also think that humor is especially relevant and powerful regarding the troubled-loner character.  It horrifies me that there are kids out there who share my same tendency towards isolation, and maybe some of my mental issues, and they are walking into schools and churches and theaters to murder innocent people. But when I look into the faces of these murderous kids, I don’t see a sense of humor. A person that can laugh is a person that loves life and loves people, not a person filled with hate. This is an important distinction for me. 

NICHE: What are you working on now?

NICHOLAS POYNTER: My book–Volcano Wars. It tells the story of a lovable group of mental defectives that precipitate the secession of California from the United States of America. I thought it was good enough last year and it came close to finding a publisher, but now I realize it wasn’t good enough. So, I cut half the characters, using them for stories in Funny Stories From the Bottomless Pit, and then built it back up again, more focused on a smaller cast of characters. I am almost ready to put it out there again. And if it still isn’t good enough, I will gut it again and build it back up again. I can do this for eternity if needed. But I’m optimistic (and I am never optimistic). It’s a funny book. It will make people laugh.

NICHE: As you might know, Niche runs a profile series called “Careers for Writers,” which aims to give aspiring writers advice on how to “make it” as a writer once they enter the workforce. Can you tell us a little bit about how you balance your day job with your writing life?

piscoNICHOLAS POYNTER: Sometimes I am inspired to write. Other times I am not. I have learned to force myself to write even when I don’t feel like it and I think this is a very important step. And it doesn’t matter if you are working two jobs or unemployed–if you don’t write, nothing gets written. That’s physics. And very often, when I force myself to write a few pages even though I don’t want to do it, it turns into twenty pages and some of my best stuff.

NICHE: What words of advice or inspiration would you give to aspiring writers?

NICHOLAS POYNTER: I think some writers are craftsmen. They may not have anything important to say, but they can write really well and are fun to read. I don’t know anything about that type of writer. Other writers write because it is saving their lives. These people will never stop writing, regardless of how bad they are or how many rejections they receive. 

About the Author

Nicolas Poynter is a recent graduate of the MFA program at Oklahoma City University.  His fiction has appeared in many literary journals, including North American Review and Fiction Fix. Additionally, his short story “Loma Prieta Blues” won the 2013 Vuong Prize for fiction. After dropping out of high school, Nicolas became a chemist and now teaches physics in Oklahoma City

MFA Spotlight: Bowling Green State University
Written by: Katya Cummins

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I’m pleased to welcome author Laura Maylene Walter to Niche. I want to take this opportunity to thank her again for conducting an interview about her experiences at the MFA Program at Green State University.

Laura Maylene Walter is currently completing her MFA in fiction at Bowling Green State University. Her debut short story collection, Living Arrangements (BkMk Press), won the G.S. Sharat Chandra Prize for Short Fiction and a national gold IPPY. Her writing has appeared in The Sun, Poets & Writers, Smokelong Quarterly, Tampa Review, Portland Review, Fourteen Hills, American Literary Review, and elsewhere. She is the recipient of a Devine Fellowship and the Ohioana Walter Rumsey Marvin Grant. She was also a 2013 Tin House Writers Workshop Scholar and is the outgoing fiction editor of Mid-American Review.

NICHE: It is good to start at the beginning. What was your journey to the MFA like? Why fiction, in particular, and what, at first, drew you to Bowling Green State University?


LAURA MAYLENE WALTER:
I’ve long been a fiction writer, but I went into the workforce after college instead of immediately pursuing an MFA. In that decade after undergrad, I worked full-time in various communications and editorial jobs, but I still carved out a writing career on my own. I joined community writing groups, met other writers in my city, went to conferences like Bread Loaf, published stories and essays, and even published my debut short story collection. But I was worn down by working as an editor of a trade magazine all day and then squeezing in my creative writing at night and on the weekends, so when the timing was right, I applied to MFA programs.

I was attracted to Bowling Green State University’s MFA program because it’s fully funded, it has a longstanding reputation for excellence, it’s a studio program, it offers a reasonable teaching load with the chance to teach creative writing, and it houses the Mid-American Review. Its location was also a plus for me: at only about two hours from my home (and my husband and my cats) in Cleveland, I knew I could make the distance work for two years.

NICHE: How are workshops run?

41T8F2rUNULLAURA MAYLENE WALTER: Workshop, which includes both the first- and second-year students in each respective genre, is held every semester during the two-year program. In addition to these main workshops, there are also two separate, semester-long classes – a techniques course for first-year students and an advanced workshop for second years – that offer smaller workshop settings and more specialized attention to students’ work. Lawrence Coates and Wendell Mayo, the main fiction faculty, are wonderful and have been so helpful both in a classroom setting and in one-on-one meetings. A visiting writer also teaches workshop one semester in each genre every other year, so there’s an opportunity to work with someone new. It’s a small program (five fiction writers and five poets are admitted each year), but its quality is top-notch.

NICHE: Tell us a little bit about the funding opportunities? Are all graduate students funded the same, and if so, how is through teaching assistantships, fellowships, or scholarships?

LAURA MAYLENE WALTER: All MFA students are equally funded with tuition remission and a yearly stipend of roughly $10,300. The teaching load is 1/1, 2/1, though there are some competitive course releases available in the second year. For some extra funding, there’s an opportunity for a Devine summer fellowship of about $2,400, awarded each year to two fiction writers and two poets. Fellowship recipients are chosen by authors outside the program who read and select manuscripts anonymously.

NICHE: What can you tell us about the visiting writers? Do graduate students get to interact with them at all?

LAURA MAYLENE WALTER: BGSU hosts multiple visiting writers throughout the year as part of the program’s regular reading series, and thanks to our small size, there are plenty of opportunities to interact one-on-one. We have an intimate Q&A session with each visiting writer, and students are also welcome to join him or her at dinner. Some visiting writers might come out to the bar after the reading, too. In addition, the annual Winter Wheat: The Mid-American Review Festival of Writing event brings more visiting writers to campus.

NICHE: How involved are the graduate students in producing the Mid-American Review?

LAURA MAYLENE WALTER: Very! All incoming MFA students are enrolled in a semester-long Mid-American Review (MAR) editing course, where they read submissions, assist with events, and more. Beyond that, there are plenty of additional opportunities for anyone passionate about the journal or literary publishing in general. I was the assistant fiction editor of Mid-American Review my first year in the program, the fiction editor my second year, and I was also the graduate assistant and co-coordinator for Winter Wheat in 2014. I also represented MAR on panels at writing conferences and manage the content on MAR’s recently launched blog. So there are lots of opportunities for anyone interested.

NICHE: Did you come into an MFA Program with any misconceptions? That is, what if anything, do you wish someone had told you before entering into an MFA Program?

LAURA MAYLENE WALTER: Because I came to the MFA after working full-time in a demanding editorial position, I think I viewed the MFA as a magical, two-year writing retreat. I imagined having hours and hours every day to write. In reality, it’s still a graduate program with its share of demands and stress. Teaching is of course a time commitment, and then there are assignments, coursework, and other responsibilities. I soon understood that the MFA wouldn’t be just two years sitting on a deck with my feet up and notebook in my lap. But in the end, I learned so much and wrote a book-length story collection for my thesis, so I got quite a lot done in those two years.

NICHE: Along same lines, do you believe that formal training has improved your writing?

LAURA MAYLENE WALTER: Definitely. While I entered the program with some experience and publications, I knew I needed to grow as a writer. I’m happy to say that happened during my time at BGSU. I wrote stories I never would have written had I not pursued the MFA. Taking the time to spend two years focused on my writing also gave me time to research areas I might not have otherwise.

NICHE: In terms of careers, do you know what percentage of graduates place in jobs or go on to publish books?

LAURA MAYLENE WALTER: I don’t know percentages, but I can say that we’re all proud of Anthony Doerr, a past BGSU MFA graduate, for winning the Pulitzer this year for All the Light We Cannot See. Other grads with recent books include Matt Bell, Anne Valente, and Tessa Mellas, just to name a very few, and I know some recent graduates who have landed editorial, writing, and teaching positions.

NICHE: Is there anything else you want our readers to know?

LAURA MAYLENE WALTER There’s a beautiful cemetery on campus, you can easily find a cheap beer in town, and the university’s mascots are two giant falcons. What’s not to love?