Friday, July 3, 2009

Interview with Jia-Rui Chong Cook


LH: How did you get interested in writing?

J-R C: I’ve always loved to read, so I think it was only natural to want to try writing. I wouldn’t say I love the process of writing, though. It’s often difficult and always humbling. But I am always delighted to have created something in my own words. I think I got interested in newspaper writing because of the adventure. To write the best story, you have to get out to the scene, and you often get to see things most civilians never see. You get to be curious and ask a lot of questions that would normally be considered nosy. Then you get to try to make sense out of it and tell it to your audience in the pithiest, most evocative way. I think deep curiosity about character and the unfolding events makes for really great writing. I am always turned off by writing that lacks an intimate knowledge of a subject or lacks a thorough thinking-through of what things mean.

LH: What was your first success?

J-R C: If you define first success as first bylined article in a major publication, I guess I’d say that happened in the summer of 1999, when I got an article on good vs. bad low-fat foods in U.S. News and World Report magazine. I just started as an intern at the magazine and an editor assigned me to work with another reporter on low-fat foods. That reporter was nonplussed, but said I could start making some calls. When I came back to her saying that some nutritionists I talked to said there were actually bad low-fat foods, she was impressed. She suggested I do my own article.

If we’re defining success as my first award, that would be the 2006 Evert Clark/Seth Payne Award from the National Association of Science Writers and National Press Foundation. (Link to announcement: http://www.nasw.org/mt-archives/2007/08/jiarui-chong-wins-evert-clarks.htm) It’s given once a year to science writers under 30. I won for four pieces – a story about Alaskan villagers on the lookout for bird flu (http://www.latimes.com/news/nationworld/nation/la-sci-kipnuk22oct22,0,4438376.story), a story about the impact of bird flu on badminton, a story about recovering a lost text of Archimedes (http://articles.latimes.com/2006/dec/26/science/sci-archimedes26), and a story about the emerging human health risks from climate change (http://articles.latimes.com/2007/feb/25/science/sci-disease25). I was really excited about winning this award. I had only really started writing stories for the LA Times’s science editor in 2005.

LH: What kind of things do you most enjoy writing?

J-R C: My favorite kind of writing is narrative non-fiction. I love watching things unfold in front of me. I love having enough time with a subject that I can put the things I see in context and highlight the most meaningful bits. I love being able to write authoritatively in my own words, find my own analogies to describe something. This kind of writing is most similar to documentary filmmaking. Here is an example of one of my recent favorites of this kind: http://articles.latimes.com/2009/mar/25/local/me-marines25

LH: Do you have an agent? Tell us about your experiences with/without agents.

J-R C: No, I don’t have an agent.

LH: What are your thoughts about marketing? Do you have any great tips on how to do it well?

J-R C: When I am doing “marketing,” I feel as if I’m doing it on behalf of the LA Times. I want people to read my stories, but also to browse the Times and hopefully stumble on another story that interests them. I’m excited that the internet has made connecting to a potential audience that much easier. I have a Facebook page, where I often post my stories and stories by my colleagues that I like. I also have a Twitter feed (@jahree) that I update at least daily. I try not to insert too much of my opinion in these places, but I do give people reading my Twitter/Facebook posts something a little extra. It might be a funny comment a researcher made to me that didn’t make it into the story.

I also try to accept speaking invitations, even if they require a significant amount of work outside of my regular job. For instance, Zocalo, a group that organizes public lectures around Los Angeles, asked me to curate and moderate a panel discussion on veterans’ health issues at the UCLA Hammer Museum. (Link: http://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/archives_2009.php?event_id=243). While the story that this panel was based on has not yet come out in the LA Times, I did have many people come up to me afterwards saying that they’re looking forward to the story.

LH: If you could go back in time and start over, tell us one thing you have learned that would help you to succeed better/faster/with less struggle.

J-R C: I love the clarifying power of writing. When I first started working at the LA Times in 2002, one of the best writers at the paper said that clear writing requires clear thinking. I’ve really come to believe that when troubled, confused thinking results in bad, confusing writing. It’s worth taking the time to step back and ask, “What’s really important here? How do these things fit together?” Of course, sometimes you don’t know that you have a gap in your thinking until you try to put words on paper and you get stuck. That’s good, though. Then you know what you’re missing.

LH: Any other thoughts to share?

J-R C: I think I’ve said enough!

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Interview with Mike Foley


LH: Mike, how did you get interested in writing?
MF: At age 19, I read Kerouac’s On the Road and I was hooked. I’ve been writing ever since.

LH: What was your first success?
MF: My early success came while I was still in the creative writing program at Cal State Long Beach. I had several poems and short stories published in literary journals. My first short story was published at the University of Wisconsin, in their journal “Cream City Review.”

LH: What kind of things do you most enjoy writing?
MF: Short fiction or nonfiction profiles of individuals. I also like travel writing, although I don’t do much of it anymore. Film scripts can be fun too, but I prefer doing those in collaboration with other writers.

LH: Do you have an agent? Tell us about your experiences with/without agents.
MF: Yes, it seems as if I’ve always had an agent. My experiences have ranged from terrible to wonderful. Agents tend to be busy and some of them handle it better than others. My current agent falls into the “wonderful” category. He has been handling some screenplays for me, and he’s great.
LH: What are your thoughts about marketing? Do you have any great tips on how to do it well?
MF: Writers are expected to do much more of this now. Good networking with other writers or editors is essential. So I can recommend attending writer’s conferences, where you can meet many people in the industry face-to-face. There doesn’t seem to be any substitute for this. Meet people, talk about your work, and when you attend a conference, be sure to carry a few asmples with you.

LH: If you could go back in time and start over, tell us one thing you have learned that would help you to succeed better/faster/with less struggle.
MF: In the early days, I hated rejection so much that I would pore over a rejected manuscript and try to make changes so the next publisher would take it. Now I understand that work gets rejected for a variety of reasons and many, many times it has nothing to do with a work itself. If I were starting over, I would just give a rejected manuscript a quick read and then send it out again. I wouldn’t waste a lot of time worrying about it. That would free up time for writing other things.

LH: Any other thoughts to share?
MF: When it comes to writing, I still haven’t seen anything more valuable than persistence. Be persistent in writing and submitting. You have to write well, of course, but the more persistent you are, the better your writing becomes. Keep doing it!

LH: Can you tell us where to find some of your articles and your website? I know you work with other writers to help them improve/edit their work, and I have found your online courses, workshops, and input on my own manuscripts very valuable.
MF: You can find some of my articles at the Dream Merchant web site, although they aren’t designed to help writers. http://www.dreammerchant.net/
My web site is at: http://www.writers-review.com/
LH: Thanks for the insights into your life as a writer, Mike.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Interview with Martha Ronk




LH: How did you get interested in writing?
MR: I read a great deal as a child, taking books from the public library to read in stacks through the hot Ohio summers. I liked creating sentences and diagramming sentences and rearranging sentences and analyzing literature and studying Latin. I wrote a dissertation on Milton for my PhD and have taught Shakespeare at Occidental College for many years; teaching literature has made me awed by writing.

LH: What was your first success?
MR: My first book, “Desire in LA,” was selected at random for a contest sponsored by the University of Georgia, published 1991. A recent success: I had work chosen for a Norton Anthology, “American Hybrid.”

LH: What kind of books or articles do you most enjoy writing?
MR: I like conceiving of an entire project in which the poems are all related to one another by theme, approach, style, or form. At the moment I am working on “Transfer of Qualities” (quotation from Henry James) in which people and objects transfer qualities with one another—the manuscript is made up of prose poems, short essays, and short “fiction” pieces. In an earlier book, “Why/Why Not” (Univ. of CA Press), I had Hamlet and the phrase “to be or not to be” in mind for each of the sections. In fiction, I like obsessive narrators.

LH: Do you have an agent? Tell us about your experiences with/without agents.
MR: Poets mostly don’t have agents. My work has been published by means of literary contests offered by University Presses or by request from a publisher. If I try for another work of fiction, I would ask all the fiction writers I know for advice; my own fiction, “Glass Grapes and other stories” was published by a small press, BOA Editions, because one of the editors had published one of the stories in his anthology.

LH: What are your thoughts about marketing? Do you have any great tips on how to do it well?
MR: For publishing poems in literary journals, it is most important to know the journal and the editorial approach so that the work you send is fitting and appropriate. Most journals have instructions on how many poems to submit and when. I also think that it is important for all authors to attend conferences, to read at bookstores (and other venues), to attend readings. For poets, the major meeting is the Associated Writing Programs meeting in spring every year. I have had the opportunity to be an editor for Littoral Books, a small press here in LA, but we published 10 books of poems, and for several literary magazines; I learned a great deal working with other writers.


LH: If you could go back in time and start over, tell us one thing you have learned that would help you to succeed better/faster/with less struggle.
MR: I would start earlier. It also helps to begin with a community formed in graduate school, in one’s city, in publishing ventures with others, in other projects. Writers help support one another and since there is little financial support, this aesthetic support is crucial. I also wish I had tried fiction earlier; it was writing my fictional memoir, “Displeasures of the Table,” that got me to thinking that I might try fiction. For me fiction offers more opportunities for the comic.

LH: Any other thoughts to share?
MR: Writing is the most interesting and exhausting thing I do. And every time I read a great piece, a poem (C.D. Wright, for example) or a novel (I just finished “The Book Shop” by Penelope Fitzgerald with ironic, wry sentences) I am eager to write more, to find yet another juxtaposition of words. Each one offers something of a solution to the mystery of how it is done.

I have chosen photographs for the covers of my books; I have written a number of poems about photographs and I love black and white photographs and decided early to use photographs on the covers (although I didn’t have a choice for my last, “Vertigo” from Coffee House Press). My website is through Occidental College, English and Literary Studies Department at
http://departments.oxy.edu/ecls/07%20webpage/ronk/. LH note: Martha Ronk's most recent poetry book, Vertigo, is a National Poetry Series winner, selected by CD Wright.