Wednesday, March 28, 2012

The Juggler Interviews, #5: Stephanie Alison Walker

Stephanie Alison Walker is a playwright, blogger, and book author whom I know from several online groups.  Just before Christmas in 2008, she and her husband learned that the bank intended to foreclose upon their home.  She chronicled their subsequent journey through the belly of the home foreclosure crisis in her blog, Love in the Time of Foreclosure, which eventually became a book of the same name.  She also addressed the same topic in her play, American Home.  Through all of their ups and downs, she also gave birth to a son, Malcolm.  She was kind enough to take some time from her busy life to talk about her adventures in moving, home foreclosure, writing, and parenthood.

You and Bob faced some pretty extreme challenges in 2008/2009, when you lost your house in the crash of the housing market.  You even had to sell all your stuff.  Through it all, you wrote your blog, Love in the Time of Foreclosure, about your experience.  And it was not just tragic, but also extremely positive.  Readers were able to read about an experience that was being shared by millions of other homeowners and watch you getting through it.  Looking back, it seems like a natural choice for a writer to write about this, but it’s not quite that simple when you’re in the midst of such enormous turmoil.  What got you to start the blog, and what kept you going? 

Yes, yes yes. We were broke, losing our house, dealing with massive failure, feeling like big dummies, feeling lost, scared, frustrated, angry and confused. Exactly what you would expect. What surprised us is that we were starting to feel happier than ever before and totally hopeful about the future. There was this moment where we really owned up to our failures. We embraced our personal financial crisis from the perspective that we have nothing more to lose and everything to gain. We fortunately knew better than to allow it to destroy us. And we knew if we didn't "own" it, it would eventually be our downfall. Once we "owned" our failures, we could objectively confront the mistakes that led us there. And in doing that, we were able to actually learn and grow from our mistakes. It didn't just happen. We had to be really rigorous with ourselves. We couldn't let ourselves off the hook. It was time to really tell the truth and get to the root of the problem. We had to be bigger people, so to speak, than we'd ever been in our lives.

We began to do things we should have been doing a long time ago. Such as talk openly about our debt and finances as a team (not adversaries.) We stopped silently blaming each other. We let go of resentments and disappointments. And we joined together to build a future based on trust, openness and integrity. What began showing up was incredible amounts of gratitude and joy. Relief. We were finally on the same page. Finally being the partnership we had always wanted to be. It took a pretty huge wake up call. And that's what it was for us; a wake up call.

In the face of all of that, we were still trying to sell our house. Still creeping dangerously close to foreclosure. Still hemorrhaging cash. I did everything in my power to educate ourselves. And what I wanted to read was a first-person perspective from someone who faced foreclosure and lived to tell the tale, so to speak. In a powerful way. Not as a victim. But I didn't find that. What I found were stories about people in foreclosure who killed themselves or their families. Who burned down their homes rather than let the bank take them. There was nothing but tragic endings out there to be read. My choice to start the blog was to provide a foil to that. We were in foreclosure and it frankly sucked, but we were still able to be happy. I wanted to share that perspective. That it isn't all doom and gloom. That it didn't have to be tragic. I wanted to show all sides of it in a raw and truthful way. 

That's how it began. At first, I was worried about revealing too much. I also wasn't sure that anyone other than my family would read it. But it quickly caught on. Probably because I was the only one writing about it. I began to hear from people who were being positively impacted by my sharing. That fueled the fire. I was encouraged by friends and family to keep writing and not be afraid of the hard truth. So I shared some pretty raw emotion at time. But it always came around to the positive. That was my commitment. No matter what. The blog ended up being a tool to hold me to that commitment. There were days I wanted to just crawl inside a hole and never leave my pity party. But I now had readers who expected me to rise above. So I had to. It kept me honest in the best way imaginable.

Just as you were leaving the house that you’d had to sell, you got a message from one of the readers of your blog offering you an opportunity to house sit on San Juan Island in Washington State for two years.  Then a month later, you found out you were pregnant.  You were in a strange place, in a very different situation.  What did you think when you found out?

It's funny. My husband knew I was pregnant before I did. I was experiencing some strange symptoms including car sickness and stomach cramping. Bob said, "I bet you're pregnant." I thought I just had indigestion. But once my pregnancy was confirmed, my immediate reaction was, "This is perfect." It really felt like everything we had been through with losing everything was to bring us to that moment. Pregnant. On a remote and beautiful island. Priorities powerfully rearranged. Ready to begin a family. It all made sense.

And yes, it was a strange place. No hospital on the island. I had to figure all of that out. How would I deliver? Who would be my doctor? I had recently joined a running group on the island and the ladies that were a part of that group were among the first people I told. They barely knew me beyond our story (as I had shared it with them) but they were so happy for me. I'll never forget that. That told me right away that though it would be challenging, I was in the perfect place to have this baby. 
Malcolm is 20 months old. We're living in Chicago in an apartment on the north side. I love our neighborhood and our apartment. We have six chickens in the backyard thanks to our landlord who lives in the third floor apartment. We're in a very walkable neighborhood and have fresh eggs in the morning. It's really fabulous, I must admit. Malcolm loves the chickens and loves collecting the eggs. 

I often find it difficult to write plays about situations that I’m currently facing.  A blog seems a good match to everyday situations and turmoil.  But you also managed to write a play about your experiences, American Home.  How did you find the perspective you needed to write the play?  Where does the play stand now?  It seems to me that it’s something that should be produced far and wide, given that the country is still dealing with the shakeout from the housing collapse.

I actually began writing the play before the blog. I was temping as an accountant assistant which involved a lot of mindless work-- filing, scanning, etc. The idea for the play hit me at work and I was totally energized. My idea was to write the worst-case scenario of our situation. I thought it would help me to face our situation knowing that it would never get that bad. I suppose the writing of the play began as an attempt at therapy. And maybe that's how writing always is for me. I'm usually attempting to understand something when I decide to write a play. 

In writing American Home, I included our story but also focused on several other scenarios that I had read about and that were very different than our situation. One of the characters is a prosperity preacher whose congregation is far and wide facing foreclosure and her own church is also facing foreclosure. That story came out of an article I read about Prosperity Preaching having a hand in the foreclosure crisis. I found that fascinating. I was looking to understand the housing crisis from a societal and cultural level. What really led to this? 

American Home was the winner of Chicago's American Blues Theater's first annual Blue Ink Award for Playwriting in 2011. As a part of that award, it received a staged reading. ABT is currently considering it and so are a couple of other Chicago companies. Nothing is decided yet. Thank you for saying you think it should be produced far and wide. It's not an easy play. It has comedy in it, but it's not a comedy by any stretch of the imagination. So it's tough. But, it's real. And it's happening. So I do hope it will be produced and reach the people who are dealing with the loss of house and home. I though it might be really powerful to do it in a foreclosed building... if that were somehow possible.
The Moving Arts production of "The Big Ride"  Pictured: America Young and Nathan Frizzell.

Balancing writing and foreclosure is a hard challenge.  So is writing and moving—I’ve moved a lot, and often find that I lose a solid six months of writing time around a move.  Did you find ways to keep writing during your various moves?
No. Not at all. I had this vision of moving to the island and writing like I'd never written before. But I was blindsided by a severe depression only two months after landing there. I missed my old life. I missed my family. I hated the island. I couldn't write. I was tired all the time. I was also in my first trimester and didn't realize that depression can be a symptom. Once I discovered other pregnant women dealing with that, I felt so much better. The fog lifted as I moved into the second trimester and I was able to begin writing again. But I lost a lot of time. And then I felt desperate. Like if I don't write everything I've ever wanted to write right now, I'll never have the chance again. I was writing against a ticking clock-- Malcolm's birth. Still, I was only able to churn out a few new ten minute plays, some articles and a handful of blog posts. I tinkered with things but didn't have a lot of forward motion.

So, yes. Moving, foreclosure, pregnancy... they have all made it hard for me to be very regular about my writing. And I'm very hard on myself. I always feel much better when I'm writing. Especially when I'm writing well. 

And now you’re a mother.  How to you find time to write now that you have a young son?  (Assuming that you do find some time to write.)  Do you find that it changes how and what you write? You were able to write about the foreclosure as it was happening, are you able to do that with motherhood?
Sometimes I write late at night when Malcolm and Bob are both sleeping. But usually I'm sleeping then too. My mom is a saint and watches Malcolm every Wednesday so that I can write. And my sister has started to nanny two days a week so that I can not only write, but do some marketing on the book.

It definitely changes how I write. I have to write much faster and more focused. So that's a good thing. I have to limit the amount I research. I love researching, but just don't have the time for that anymore. I try to write in my head. 

What an interesting question (writing about foreclosure in the moment vs. motherhood)! It's funny, when I was pregnant, I loved blogging about it. I was very open about certain aspects and even posted pictures of my humongous pregnancy bras (that was on my blog "Two Years on an Island.") I documented the entire birth story (and am so glad that I did that.) But I just haven't written about BEING a mother. Maybe because I'm too busy. Maybe because I need to be writing about other things. I don't know. I just haven't found my voice on that subject matter just yet. It all feels so in flux and like my mind is always trying to just catch up with this incredible being. The most I've been able to write about being a mom is in occasional Tweets or Facebook updates. And sometimes in his baby book (which is a project that has sat stagnant for far too long).

I’m very impressed by your positive attitude, and how you’ve managed to transform such a challenging situation into a blog that’s been helpful to thousands of readers, and then get a play out of it, and now a book based on the blog.  Tell me about how you found your publisher, Outpost 19.  They’re publishing it as an ebook  They publish ebooks only, not print.  You could have self-published Love in the Time of Foreclosure as an ebook—what did Outpost 19 give you that you couldn’t do on your own?

Outpost19 came to me. Jon Roemer, their publisher, had been a reader of my blog and felt it would make a powerful book and wanted to include it in his launch. I'd by lying if I didn't say that I tried first to sell it traditionally. Working with my agent (who I teamed up with as a result of the strength of the blog) I wrote a proposal for a memoir based on our story and the blog. My agent worked really hard to try to sell it, but it just wasn't in the cards. At first, no one really believed that the foreclosure crisis would last long enough. (Hello!) Here we are three years later. We finally put my memoir proposal to rest after several rounds of rejections and that's when Jon contacted me. Because I wanted to reach more people, I was excited by what Jon proposed. His idea was for a book version of the blog. In that, I saw an opportunity to expand our story. To include episodes that I had left off of the blog because of the sensitivity of the subject or the timing. Jon had a great vision for the arc of our story -- which posts to include, which to leave out, etc.

And yes, they do only publish eBooks. I could have published it on my own through Amazon, but I chose to work with Outpost19 for the support and so that I didn't have to do it on my own. Jon was also my editor and helped me so much through the editing of the book. It was super helpful to have such a smart person on my team to help shape our story as a book. Outpost19 is a new, indie digital publisher and I was drawn to what they are about. I wanted to be a part of their launch. And as a part, I also benefited from their marketing and publicity. Their resources, like mine, however are definitely limited. There is so much more we could be doing. If only. If only we had more money. More time. More manpower. But I am definitely glad that I chose to publish with Outpost19 as opposed to on my own. The idea of doing it completely alone was so overwhelming. And Outpost19 also provided the moral support... which is critical. At least to me.

Can you compare the experiences of writing a blog, plays, and a book, both in terms of your process, and in how you find and relate to an audience?

 Oh gosh. Such a big question. Well... goodness. They are so different. So much goes into writing a blog that people actually read regularly. And it takes thinking in such a different way. I had the most readers when we were facing foreclosure. When our future was unknown. When each day brought a new piece of terrible news. People were rooting for us. (Thankfully.) And they wanted to know what would happen next. I continue to blog, but I haven't had the same kind of readership because our stakes are no longer sky high. That's a big part of it. So if I want to draw more readers, I have to find a different way. And I'm not sure what that is, quite yet. This is all part of the thought that goes into my blogging and explains my large gaps in contributions to my blog. I get overwhelmed. I feel like no one is listening, so why bother. 

It's not like that with playwriting. I just had a reading of a play I have been working on for over nine years. It's easier to give up on blogging when I'm not inspired, because it's not my passion. Playwriting truly is my passion. So... though it takes forever and is all about rising above constant rejection, I know I'll never stop writing plays. It's just what I do. It's part of the air I breathe. It's in the way my brain works. And how I think. I think in scenes so often it's scary. 

The appeal of blogging is the immediate interaction with the audience. When we were in the midst of our foreclosure crisis, I heard from so many readers. They shared their stories with me and we were both changed for the better as a result of that interaction. It's addictive. 

It's very different with my plays. I have to wait for the opportunity for an audience. And that happens fewer and farther in between. But I always keep the audience in mind. And I don't know if they are different in my mind. The audiences for my plays, book or blog. I think not, actually. I'm just always trying to tell the truth. To capture it in a way that the most people can feel known. And it's no different in any of my writing.

What’s next for you, as a writer, as a family?

I have huge writing goals. I'm currently revising two full-length plays and writing two new full-length plays. I'm marketing both American Home and The Art of Disappearing. Trying to land productions for both of those plays.
I'm also working on a couple of screenplays - both of which I began writing about five years ago. I'm determined to polish those off! Everyone always tells me that our story would make such a great movie. So I'm working on a treatment for the film version of Love in the Time of Foreclosure. And lastly, I do want to write another book that would encompass our time on the island. That was such a special time in our life, I want to capture it and share it.

As a family, what's next is getting Malcolm sleeping through the night (Please, God. Please!) so that we can all catch up on our sleep. Oh, yeah. And a date night would be lovely too. 

Thanks for your time, and for being an inspiration and source of support and information to so many people.

 Thank you for having me, Patrick!

You can find Stephanie's blogs at Love in the Time of Foreclosure, Two Years on an Island, and I Am Saw (her playwriting site).  The book version of Love in the Time of Foreclosure is available from Outpost19.

Next week, I'll talk with fellow playwright and stay-at-home dad, John Shea.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

The Juggler Interviews, #4: Jessica Maria Tuccelli

Jessica Maria Tuccelli (photo by Shirin Tinati)
Jessica Maria Tuccelli and I met when we were both undergraduates at MIT, living in the same dorm (Baker House).  We were both slight oddballs at MIT, interested in a bunch of different topics outside of engineering (but still pretty geeky, truth be told).  For me, it was writing, theatre, and filmmaking.  For Jessica it was anthropology and archaeology.  We remained friends after school, though we lived on different coasts.  When she moved back to New York, in addition to film work, Jessica got involved with theatre, doing acting and improv, and even directing one of my plays.  Then she started writing.  Her first novel, Glow, is just out from Viking, and it's wonderful--lovely and ambitious and deep.  She's also a new mother.  She's juggled a huge number of different professions and interests over the years (check out the list in this interview).  I asked her to spend a little time answering some questions about her book and her life.

First, thanks for taking the time to do this—I know it’s a crazy time with the book coming out right now.  What struck me first about Glow is the power of the language.  You’ve created a book that begs to be savored.  The voices are so distinct and powerful, and the images paint this lush Appalachian landscape, in several different eras.  You’ve worked a lot in film and photography, especially in lighting.  Did you draw on those experiences as you painted your mental picture of the world of Glow?

My pleasure, Pat. I’m so thrilled to collaborate with you again!

My dad gave me my first camera when I was eight, and I’ve been fascinated with lighting ever since, be it Stanley Kubrick’s Barry London (some of which was lit solely by candlelight), a photograph by Minor White (who taught at MIT!), or a chiaroscuro painting by Peter Paul Reubens. I don’t know exactly what it is about light that excites me—but the way it shapes or wraps around a landscape, object, or person and what it can reveal or hide has largely influenced my style in photography and film, and now in Glow, where ghosts slip in and out of shadows; the light of a streetlamp floods through a hole in the window of a darkened townhouse, illuminating broken glass strewn across the floor; and the youngest protagonist, Ella, has a vision in the middle of the night of her mother dying, surrounded by dancing speckles of light, just to share a few examples. My devotion to the nuances of light is directly connected to my ability and desire to paint a detailed verbal picture of the surroundings in Glow.

You also did some work as an actress when you moved back to New York.  How do think your acting work influenced your ability to write so distinctly in different voices?    (If it did at all.)

I love to listen to the tenor, pitch, and levels of a person’s voice as she speaks. I accessed this passion in my theatre work, especially in my one-woman shows, which were populated with multiple characters. I think this made for a relativity easy transition to writing in the first person point of view for Glow.  My acting skills facilitated my ability to embody the voice, character and spirit of the individual narrators in the novel, to keep their language distinct.

Everyone is going to ask you this, but I can’t help myself.  What was the spark that brought you to Persimmon and these characters?  Do you remember a specific inciting thought or moment?

Absolutely! One of the sparks was a last will and testament I had come across during my on-line research. Rabun County, Georgia maintains an extensive archive of its white settlers, including records of estates and wills. Of interest to me was the will of Samuel B., who had died in 1870 and left a 200-acre lot to one of his former slaves, Lucinda B., who alone “has staid with [him] since emancipation,” and her two children. Wanting to know if the land had been transferred to Lucinda and being curious about who lived upon the lot now, I contacted the Rabun County Historical Society and made an appointment to sift through their historical documents. That was the first of my many adventures in northeastern Georgia, and it stands out as the ignition that led me to this part of the South. Once I arrived there, I knew I had found the right setting for Glow. The land was lush and mountainous; the valleys filled with the flowers the likes of which I had never seen. It seemed the perfect place for living beings and ghosts to cohabitate, as they do in Glow. And so, I found my setting and my spark in the same place!

You’ve written five narrators, each with a very different voice.  And there is some great historical detail.  How did you keep track of it all while you were writing?  Were there tools or techniques that you found useful?  Tell me a little bit about how you approached the research?  I get sucked into research pretty easily--did you have to cut yourself off at some point?

I adore research too; learning about other cultures has always excited me. In fact, it’s one the reasons I write: it gives me an excuse to travel and learn something new.

I read a lot: History books, of course, and online data collections, including those of the Smithsonian and the U.S. Census Bureau; I read books about the times and of the times; I read cookbooks and newspapers and obituaries.

Basically, I kept three databases: a chronological one for my historical research, another for the events in Glow, and a third database which merged the first two, so that I could see where historical events and events in Glow aligned. In this way, I could guide my characters to behave in accordance to or against the laws and customs of the time. It also allowed me to ensure that I didn’t have any anachronistic objects in my scenes. Plus, I enjoyed setting up the databases. I guess it’s the nerd in me!

My approach to research is to physically absorb myself in it as fully as possible. For Glow, this included three summers hiking through the mountains of northeastern Georgia, spending time on the Sea Islands of South Carolina, talking to people in the regions I was exploring and listening to their stories. When it came to physical objects such as a Kentucky rifle, I went to antique shows in order to find one and handle it myself.  If it’s food, I ate it—luckily there is a lot of good food in Glow. I even put my favorite dessert in the novel, jelly-filled doughnuts.

When researching the book, you got to go on some pretty fun trips and adventures.  What were some of your favorite or more interesting experiences from the research process?

One of my favorite research experiences was soaring into the sky in a 1929 New Standard biplane, not dissimilar to the 1924 Jenny in Glow. The flight was amazing: the wind whips pretty fiercely around your head, and the heat from the prop is intense. I enjoyed having nothing separating me from the sky except the air, which made landing and take off particularly thrilling. Very unlike any other airplane experience I’ve had.

I also met many wonderful people during my research trips to Georgia such as Robert Murray of Mountain City. Known locally as “a living encyclopedia,” Robert was Appalachian-born and raised, and a teacher, former Marine, NSA agent, and curator at the Foxfire Museum. I spent much time at Robert’s side, soaking in as much as I could about the Appalachian people, whose culture and geography serve as templates for those in Glow. Robert passed away three years ago at the age of 54. Before I found out about his death, I had always imagined traveling back down to Mountain City and presenting him with a copy of my novel, a novel enriched by his storytelling and knowledge.

You worked on this book for a long time—when you started out, you weren’t a mother, but clearly motherhood, and the bond between mothers and daughters, is important to this book.  How do you think working through these themes might have affected your readiness to become a mother?   Does it affect the way you view parenthood now that you’re a new mom?

I don’t know if anything could have prepared me for becoming a mother. I’m still figuring it out!

I definitely have a lot more respect for parenthood now that I am a mom. And a lot more empathy for parents. I used to be one of those people who grumbled about the crying baby in the airplane, and now I totally get it. Babies cry, it’s what they do, and you do your best to figure out why and remedy the situation. That’s my inner airplane sound track now!

As parents we are solely responsible for this little person, every facet of her life is in our hands, and I can’t think of anything weightier. The depth of this responsibility began the minute I found I was pregnant, and has only grown. I’m hoping that as I mature as parent and my daughter’s independence grows I will mellow out a bit. There is hope for me!

The last two years have been quite dramatic—you had a pretty big year last year—you landed an agent, a book contract, gave birth to your daughter, and had to undergo the editing process for Glow, which is never easy, but can be especially challenging for such a rich and complex story.  Your husband, Joel, was starting up a new food company, Fig Food Co.  That’s a lot all at once.  How did you/do cope and juggle it all?  

It was a lot at once, and still is. The whole experience: a new baby, a new book, and a new business (or baby, book and beans, as we like to say), really threw us off balance. We are two passionate and social people who enjoy each other, our vocations and our avocations, and (before the baby) freedom from time limitations. Spontaneity was integral to our life style. For me, it was a difficult transition to give up that spontaneity. That being said, Joel and I are very fortunate to have professions that allow us to create our own schedules and co-parent. I still don’t feel I have the right balance yet; I want more time with my family and more time to work and play, but I know from speaking with other working parents, that this is a common experience. For me, the key to balance is prioritizing what is most important and giving my attention to those pursuits, and setting aside the rest of the list for the moment. At least that is my working theory.

I know you’re caught up in the whirlwind of this book right now, but what’s next for you?  Another book?  Work on a film?  (Visiting your friends in Boston?)  When I was a new parent, I found that suddenly it was impossible to write about parenthood for a little while, because my perspective was changing so quickly.  I’m curious to see what themes/topics you tackle next.
Much of Glow is written from the child’s perspective, and I’m still fascinated with that perspective. Currently, I’m working now on a story about an Irish-American family of five: four children (one sister, three brothers), a mom, and a father who has passed away. Coincidentally, the spark for this story came from a visit to the Boston Common, where I stumbled over a dead bat that was squirming alive with maggots. Now there’s an image! I’m also working on a feature length script that takes place in Rome about a music teacher—an American man who survived the Battle of the Bulge, freed the Jews at Bergen-Belsen, studied cello under Pablo Casals—and his student, a young Italian girl. I’m not certain which project will win my attention, but I expect to find out when I return from my book tour and have more time (oh there’s that luscious commodity again), to dream, dwell, and write.

Thanks, Jessica!

You can read more about Jessica and Glow at her web site at

Next Wednesday, I'll talk with Stephanie Alison Walker about her book and blog, Love in the Time of Foreclosure, and her experiences as a playwright and mother.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

The Juggler Interviews, #3: Jeni Mahoney

Jeni Mahoney and I met at the Seven Devils Playwrights Conference in Idaho last summer.  She serves as artistic director for the conference and is part of a warm and insightful team that helped me with my script, and was of great comfort when tragedy unexpectedly struck my family.   I was grateful to have a chance to talk to her about new plays and new play development, and how family fits in with it all. 

Thanks for taking the time to be part of this, I know you’re super busy.  When I was talking to Sheila McDevitt  the other day (at the id theater) she said you’d received almost 500 submissions for the Seven Devils Conference this year.  Plus you’re Head of Playwriting at the Playwrights Horizons Theater School/NYU Tisch.  And you’re a mother of a young daughter.  It’s amazing how influential you are on developing other people’s work.  How do you find time for your own writing?  

In the spirit of not sugar-coating my answers: often I don’t find time to write! I do better in the early Fall – in the short lull between turning in final grant reports, and the attacking the ever-growing mountain of Seven Devils scripts. It’s not that I don’t write at all the rest of the year, but I tend to be more deadline driven. I’ve had to learn to be okay with writing less, and that’s been a struggle. But being frustrated and punishing myself about it is so unproductive and stressful.

I used to be the kind of writer who loved to spend the whole day writing; without even realizing it I’d discover that I’d been at it for 8 or 10 hours without a break (I got runners knee twice just from sitting at my desk!), so figuring out how to do it differently was challenging.  The turning point for me was something Richard Dresser said at a workshop he hosted at Seven Devils. I’m misquoting of course but it was something to the effect of: “if you’re going on and on about how you can’t write and you don’t have time or the space or whatever is you think is stopping you, then you’re not setting the bar low enough.”

I wrote it on a post-it and hung it over my desk for a year. I just had to remind myself to do what I could do – even if it’s mostly crap. When you have kids you tend to feel like your time is so limited and precious; if I’m paying a sitter, shouldn’t I make it worth that money??? Wow! Talk about a huge creativity-killer!

Using this kernel of wisdom, I decided to tackle “Kandahar” – the first play I wrote after my daughter was born – in three hour increments. She was in an early intervention preschool, three days a week, three hours a day. I would drop her off and then take my laptop to the bookstore/café down the block and write. My goal was to have a draft before the end of her semester – not a good draft mind you, just get to the end. You should also know that “Kandahar” is a spin-off of a play by Arthur Schnitzler (“Das Weite Land”) that I’d be puzzling with in my head for a long time – I just thought: here’s thing that’s been in my head, let’s see what happens if I get it out. Ultimately, I proved to myself that if I had to write this way, I could.
Other things that have helped – trying to get away for development workshops, which I think I’ve been able to do twice since becoming a parent. I make such good use of a week away now – I know what a gift it is. I also am in a writer's group which gives me deadlines. We meet every two weeks, at each meeting a different person leads an exercise so we’re all writing, and talking about writing, at every meeting. It keeps me thinking like a writer – which is soooo important. I also write a lot of ten minute plays. Sometimes I just need something to remind me that, yes, I actually know what I’m doing!

What are you working on right now?

I just finished up a two-week workshop of a play that I actually started many years ago called “Bad Water Juju” – it’s a monster of a play that takes place in a circus. I didn’t think anyone would ever want to tackle it, but was really fortunate to get it into the hands of an adventurous director and a fantastic group of actors. This actually led to the play being picked up for production in Spring 2013 (longish story I won’t go into) – so I just started meetings and such for that. I have a lot of work to do to get that production ready but I’m very excited about that.

I also just recently had a really productive meeting with a director/literary manager I really respect. Not about any specific future production opportunities, it was really just getting feedback and notes on “Kandahar” – I asked him if he’d read it again in great part so I’d really have to make the time to deal with the play, and to keep growing my relationship with an artist I respect. I’ve started to focus more on planting those long terms seeds, than on specific production opportunities. The more I’m in this biz, the more I want to focus on working with people I want to work with.

I’ve been tooling around with a new piece in my writers group, but I’m not in love with it yet. So I’m waiting it out until I fall in love with this, or find something else to get excited about. I’ve also been writing about playwriting and development – I’ve written a few articles, toying around with something more substantial.

Even though the demands of teaching and the Seven Devils Conference are pretty extreme, they also offer you a chance to spend a lot time thinking intensely about what makes plays work (or not work).  How has that experience influenced your own writing and writing process?

Wow. That’s a big question.  I’m not sure I have an easy answer for that! I think plays work and don’t work on so many levels. There’s talent, craft, luck and opportunity; then there are things like business and networking and egos and temperament. None of these elements on their own is going to “make” something happen, but any one of them can turn into a stumbling block.
From where I stand, there are a lot of terrible writers, and a lot of wonderful writers – but a terrible writer with something passionate to say is far more interesting to me than a smart writer who is doesn’t take me anywhere. I’ve also think audiences don’t just want to be entertained, and they don’t want to learn. They want to be engaged – that is really what makes a theatrical experience transformative (dare I say cathartic!), so as a writer, if I’m not engaging my audience, nothing else matters. Lack of active engagement, or even the ambition to engage, rather than talk at and/or show the audience something is probably one of the most prevalent problems I come across in the plays I read.

In my experience, plays (and playwrights) tend to work best when the writer is interested in their collaborators and their audiences – not necessarily interested in being liked, or having the audience like the play, but interested in the sense of being curious about how to communicate with, move, engage, share time and space and meaning with artists and audiences.  In my work at Seven Devils, and as a teacher, I’m really interested in helping playwrights find that place of confident curiosity – I think that once a writer has that, she is able to walk into any situation and find her footing as a positive, and equal, collaborator. Being empowered as a playwright isn’t about calling all the shots – it’s about the ability to be open to the process without feeling threatened.

Your daughter has some pretty intensive special needs.  As a fellow parent of a child with special needs, I appreciate even more all that you’ve been able to accomplish as a writer and theatre practitioner.  For me, I found that it took a few years of being a parent before I was ready to write effectively about parenthood, and I’m only just getting there when it comes to children with special needs (my son is 12, so I’ve got a big head start on you) and their families.   Do you find that you’re at a point (outside of your blog) where you’re able to write about this part of your life?  Even if it’s not the central topic of a piece, do you see your experiences as a mother of a child with special needs influencing your style or way of approaching scripts?  Or even influencing how you approach the business of theatre?

My daughter is seven now. She's blind, non-verbal, can't walk or stand on her own and has a host of other issues; she is also bright, stubborn, determined and has a great sense of humor. I blog about her at

Yes, I think being a parent has influenced my writing, and the way I approach the business of writing. No, I can’t write about it directly at all yet as a playwright. Not yet. I always say that I can’t write about something until I have enough distance on it to have a sense of humor about it (i.e. to abstract it) – otherwise I’m just unbearable. But my “real” life has been – with very few exceptions - rather deeply submerged in my writing. I know it’s there, but I don’t tend write “about” it in a direct way.

I would say there is a certain twisted absurdity that people see in my work that, for me, is just what real life is: this sense of laughter and crying being very close together; or joy and heartbreak, victory and tragedy, gratitude and fury. Full disclosure (perhaps bordering on confessional) I also have Multiple Sclerosis, am a breast cancer survivor, and have spent a lot of time in physical therapy with injuries I’ve incurred just taking care of my daughter. These things – and many others (world travels in some pretty grim situations for example) – influence my approach to life and writing and theater. I think they push on me and make me very aware of the fact that my ability to write at all is not a given. Of course that’s true for all of us. I’m just very aware of that. As much as I can feel myself the butt of some ongoing cosmic joke, I also know I’m very fortunate.

So many plays come across your desk, with the exception of The Miracle Worker, which has lapsed into cliché, do you see much work out there dealing in an honest and open way with people with disabilities (especially children)?  About their families?  John Belluso was writing about it.  Next to Normal looks at a mother coping with bipolar disorder.  Are there others?

A play haven’t revisited since my daughter’s birth is “A Day in the Life of Joe Egg” – I saw it long, long ago but I recall it containing something very painful and real. Also Francesca Sander’s “I Am A Guitar” - which we worked on at Seven Devils. There is an aloneness in both plays that I think is very real, and a sense of building your life around a child who – at some essential level - is unseen by the world which is also very true and painful from a parenting point of view.

It’s funny, my husband and I rented the film of “The Miracle Worker” not long ago and we laughed our tails off in the scene where Annie Sullivan is trying to get Helen to sit at the table and eat and Helen is throwing tantrum after tantrum. Seriously, how do you get to a place where a scene like that reflects your daily life experience in a way that makes you laugh out loud? And how do you convey that theatrically? One of the things I like about the “The Miracle Worker” is that it is about recognizing Helen’s humanity and her deep need for connection. Unfortunately, as you point out, that is often sentimentalized and made into a cliché, when in fact it’s the basic need driving the character forward.

There is a great group working in Israel that does a piece called “Not By Bread Alone” – you can see some of it on youtube . They work with deafblind actors, and they’ve created this incredible theater experience that – while it is essentially for sighted people – offers a very generous glimpse into the way the deafblind actors experience the world: touch, smell, and vibration. The play starts with the actors making dough and putting it in ovens on stage – so the actors and audience smell the bread cooking - and when the bread is finished, the play is finished and they serve the audience the bread. It’s so beautiful – and I love that it so literally embraces the idea of theater as feeding the audience. It’s just plain great theater PLUS that demonstrates the creativity of a group of people whom we all too often dismiss as people, much less as fully creative artists.

But, overall no, I don’t see plays dealing with things that look like my life and my choices and the struggles that I’m facing – and will be facing as my daughter gets older, which are made all the more terrifying by the fact that I don’t see her as disabled. I just see her as my daughter who, beyond all her disabilities, is probably the most optimistic, hard-working person I know. I hope someday I’ll be able to write about it more directly. Honestly, even in this format it’s extremely difficult for me to write about. It just kind of smashes up the deepest part of every possible emotion and makes you stand neck deep in it. So… there’s something to work on.

One thing I really like about Seven Devils is that it’s run by people who are parents and that part of the whole reason it takes place in McCall, Idaho, has to do with family roots.  Can you talk a bit about the vision for Seven Devils, and how it relates to your experiences at other play developmental opportunities?
Well you know, the id theatre existed before Seven Devils, and there are stories of Sheila doing the curtain speech with baby Fallon on her hip, so kids have always been a part of id. I wasn’t a parent when we started Seven Devils but I was very influenced by my experience at the O’Neill where, at the time, kids weren’t allowed on campus at all. There was one Dad/playwright and it was really rough on him. When his son came to visit they had to spend their time away from the company. It was very marginalizing. I understand to an extent. Theaters are just crawling with hazards, and people need to focus, time is limited. On the other hand, theater is all about life – so it seems odd to ask us to separate ourselves so fully from life in order to participate in it.

For id - our view on parenting dovetails with our views on theater and community in general. A big part of id’s mission is about embracing the diversity of the American experience by building bridges that connect things like rural/urban, coastal/inland, student/professional, old/young, audience/artist, etc.

Lisa Rosenhagen and Matt Daren in "The Feast
of the Flying Cow... and Other Stories of War,"
And Toto Too Theatre Company, dir. Lorraine Scott

In some ways, theatre is the most intensely interpersonal and human of artforms, but so many opportunities in theatre seem to be structured in a way that ignores the possibility that artists sometimes have children.   Is there a way to create and develop theatre work in a way that doesn’t preclude involving artists who are actively parenting kids?

Yes. There have been some years in which we’ve had a good number of kids at the Conference, in some ways, the more the better because they can all play together. But you’ve got to have at least one grown up who is assigned to keeping an eye on them. Even older kids need to have someone in charge for when they need a ride back from someplace, or lose their bike lock or someone pushed someone first – whatever. There are things kids can do to feel a part of the process: make brownies for everyone, or write a play of their own to perform for the company (this can be big fun, especially when they decide to make fun of us). We also work with high school students – some of whom have also been sitters for company kids. I think the more families that are a part of the company vibe, the better. When you’re always trying to keep them apart, then there is tension – then Mommy or Daddy is doing something that is NOT hanging out with me. We know how much kids enjoy that. When they are running wild and interrupting rehearsal time because they have nothing else to do then the other company members feel like you’re not respecting their time. And we know how much they like that.

That being said, having kids in the mix can be expensive and logistically scary for a theater company. And on an artist’s salary, paying for childcare can make bringing the kids prohibitive. Some housing situations won’t work with kids – that’s a problem we’ve had at Seven Devils because artists stay in homes in the community. Artists and theaters really have to pull together to make it happen. I’d say we’ve had varying levels of success, but it’s always been worth the effort for us.
Now that my daughter is in school five days a week, she doesn’t come with me to Idaho for the Conference – it’s just much more manageable logistically and financially for her to stay in New York and finish the school year, then she and my husband fly out once the Conference is over. It’s difficult sometimes seeing other kids enjoying the Conference family, while my daughter is at home.  But if having kids around is challenging, having a special needs kid around is ten times tougher – even, or perhaps especially, when I’m the one running the show!

But overall, I have some hope that it will get better for parents in general – as we see more acceptance of non-traditional families, I think we’ll see more theaters making room for artists with kids. I think we’re already seeing it.

Any last advice to writers who are also parents?

I’m not sure I’m the right person to give advice! I spend a lot of my time these days trying to figure out how to simplify my life – and mostly I fail miserably at that. I’m pretty sure I can’t sustain all these things indefinitely. But I love everything that I’m doing and that’s ultimately a wonderful problem to have.
The times when I find rare moments of balance are those times when I am able to be with my daughter fully, or my students fully, or my work fully – and not thinking about how I need to return some emails, or do the dishes, or write a grant, or read someone’s play. I can get into a pattern in which everything I’m doing seems to be a task on the way to the next task. When that happens I lose sight of the fact that I actually love and enjoy all these things that I’m so desperately hurrying through.
I think my advice would be – don’t punish yourself for the things you think should be doing. It takes away from the joy of doing the things you love. After all, parenting and playwriting are both things that should only be done for love, because Lord knows there’s not big money in either one.

Thanks, Jeni!

You can read more about Jeni and her work on her web site at

Tom Byrn, Catharine Slusar, Matt Saunders, and Emmanuelle Delpech in "The Feast of the Flying Cow... and Other Stories of War" at InterAct Theatre Company, dir. Seth Rozin (Photo © Seth Rozin)

Next Wednesday, I'll talk with Jessica Maria Tuccelli about her new novel, Glow.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Juggler Interviews, #2: Mike Cooper

Mike Cooper is a novelist and short-story writer.  And a dad.  His newest thriller, Clawback, is being released this week and has already won some rave reviews.  He'll be signing and reading from the book tonight at Brookline Booksmith at 7pm.  We both have children in the same grade at school and spend a lot of time on the playground, talking (and occasionally ranting) about the world, publishing, and parenting (and sometimes we bring our juggling gear) .

First off, congratulations on the book.  I remember when you first told me about the concept for Clawback, in the midst of the banking crisis and fears of general financial meltdown, it felt like you had the right idea at exactly the right time.  With any work that feels timely when you’re writing it, there’s the danger that when the book finally comes out, the moment will have passed.   Do you feel like the world and economy are continuing to cooperate for your book right now?

CLAWBACK is sort of like a GOP presidential hopeful: the more the economy improves, the worse it is for the book’s chances.  Only kidding! The novel’s premise is that an assassin has begun shooting the rottenest, worst-performing financiers on Wall Street.  Given how persistent greed and corruption there seem to be, themes of bankster retribution are always going to resonate. 

You spent some time working in the financial sector.  Does Clawback draw on people that you knew back then, or are you more influenced by the characters that we see in the daily news?  Or are they all just conjured from your imagination?

So far as I know, I’ve only ever worked with one guy who’s actually killed people – and he’d done so in the service, in Vietnam.  So that’s all made up.

And in fact, just about everyone I’ve known in the finance sector has been hard-working and honest. Part of the problem is that the system is rigged to elicit behavior damaging to society at large – as anyone paying attention the last few years will have noticed.  Of course it’s not deliberate, but once short-term financial gain is everyone’s primary motivation, and the government has been fully captured, the results we see are inevitable.

So in that sense I haven’t really had to draw on my own experience to find villains – they’re well reported in the press.  On the other hand, however, we’ve all had difficult people in our lives. Inspiration is everywhere!

You’ve written a lot of stories, another novel, and you’re writing the sequel to Clawback, plus trying to get the word out about this book.  You also have two kids.  How do you balance the demands of parenting with the demands of writing?

When our daughter was born, and we decided I’d be the stay-at-home parent, it was easy.  Two naps a day – during the morning nap I’d sleep an hour too, and then I had time to write during the second, not to mention after she went into the crib at night.  When it got challenging was after the second child’s arrival.  Man, those first six months with a toddler and a baby were hard.  I need my sleep – I started dozing off all over the place, like on the floor of the pre-school or slumped in a kitchen chair.

I lost a year or two of writing in there. 

Now they’re older, though, and I have a few hours to work every day while they’re at school.  The usual rule, so familiar to parents, does apply – sloth expands to fill the time available.  The real problem is not the daily hours as the constant siren song of procrastination. I really wish I were more driven, or compulsive, or goal-oriented.  I try to make up for it by asking for lots of deadlines, but that only works to a point.

You write for adults—thrillers and mysteries.  Do you find that your work is influenced by your experience as a parent?  Or is it a chance to completely escape from your role as “Dad” for a few hours every day?

One result of becoming a parent, probably common to all, was that I totally lost interest in reading about violence against children.  In fact, noir generally became less appealing to me, as both reader and writer.  My first short stories were all fedoras and rain and semi-automatics. Nowadays, although there’s plenty of over-the-top action in my writing, it tends to be cartoonish, even silly.

I’d like to think that parenting experience has made me more sympathetic to the world’s wide range of personalities, emotions and inter-personal difficulties.  (My children suggest that it’s merely made me even more rigid and set in my opinions, but what do they know?)  If some of that broadened perspective informs the writing, I’m happy.

Your daughter is an avid reader.  Has she read any of your stuff yet?    If so, what did she think?  (I find my kids are pretty hard to impress with my work.)

Ha, they sure are!  Our daughter has read a few of my stories.  I’ve told her she’s welcome to try the novels, but that she might find them difficult – because they assume a familiarity with the adult world that she doesn’t have (and because the jokes are probably right over her head), not because of the sex and violence.

We’ve always had a no-censorship policy in the house: they can read whatever they want.  This has worked out fine, for the most part; both will stop reading a particular book if the themes become challenging, or if they simply dislike it.  As usual, trusting them to make their own decisions seems to be for the best.

That said, I do wish our son would move on from Calvin and Hobbes – I swear I’ve read every strip Bill Watterson wrote at least ten times.

I hope we both find readers that will read our books ten times!  Thanks for taking the time for this interview.

No, thank you!  It’s always a pleasure to talk about writing – lots more fun than actually doing it.

“Don’t bail them out, take them out!” – is a good tagline for CLAWBACK, and Mike rather hopes it remains fiction.  You can learn more about his work at

Next Wednesday, I'll talk to Jeni Mahoney, fellow playwright, mom, playwriting teacher, and artistic director.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Measuring Matthew poster is out!

The production team has just finished the poster for the Measuring Matthew short film. Check it out!  (I'll have a larger version soon.)
Measuring Matthew poster
a small version of the Measuring Matthew poster

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Playwright Submission Binge #20 starts today!

Today marks the start of the 20th online Playwright Submission Binge.  The Binge is an online community of more than 650 playwrights, dedicated to the discussion of marketing of plays and scripts.  It's grown into an extremely supportive group over the years (I started it 10 years ago).  Twice a year, the group gets together for a month-long Submission Binge, where we take the challenge of sending out a submission a day (script or query), every day, for 30 days.  After we send out the material, we report back to the group about why, where, and what we sent.  It's a great way to make marketing chores a lot more fun, and also ends up sharing and exchanging a lot of valuable information on submission opportunities.  (Don't worry, we don't kick people out if they don't really manage to send out a submission every day.)

You can check it out here:

For the record, my Binge submission today (Flight) went to the Bloomington Playwrights Project, to their Woodward/Newman Award.  The winner gets $3,000, production and travel funds.  The postmark deadline is today.  (I would have completely missed this if someone on the Binge list hadn't posted about it.) There is a $10 fee that is waived for Dramatists Guild members.