Local Author Series: Marian Kent

by Vanessa Pesa

Marian Kent, a 48-year-old grant writer and successful Easthampton poet, says “if I say I’m going to do something, I’m going to do it.” This affirmation is evident throughout Marian’s work, and she continues to compete with herself each day.

Marian is a mogul in her own right. She has created her own publishing company, or empire as she refers to it, called ALL CAPS Publishing, in which she is the founder and editor, and through which not only she publishes her own books but also publishes other authors’ works. This company was designed intentionally in order to ensure that her books never appear self-published, which is very important to Marian; the books are extremely professional, the covers are designed by a local musician and graphic designer named Max Germer, and she assured that the level of detail and attention that goes into each book is such that they reflect this effort.

Her newest book, SUPERPOWERS or: More Poems About Flying, achieves this goal. The cover art represents a retro comic book, right down to the cellophane packaging. It is creatively divided into sections by superpowers such as invisibility and immortality, and the poems are selected that way, respectively. Marian says this is a fun way of organizing. Her first book, Responsive Pleading, has a similar organizational theme, based on the seasons in this case. She says she latches onto a concept of why she would want to collect something and bases her books around this focus. Her next idea for an upcoming collection will be based upon a journal of her grandmother’s poetry combined with her own writing, but still needs to further conceptualize and iron out the details.

Poetry is Marian’s main genre, yet she has dabbled in short fiction as well, but feels that this is harder. She even wrote a 50,000 word novel in 30 days a few years ago, participating in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) in November. She has not published this, but would like to revisit it, and also wishes to branch out further from poetry at some point in her writing career.

Blogging spurred her writing practice; she built a strong readership this way. It quickly awoke the creative writing aspect within her and she was able to connect with writing communities, such as the Imaginary Garden with Real Toads. This is comprised of a group of poets that create writing prompts and provide support. This allowed her to build a strong online presence and following, and has now spread this to various social outlets such as Facebook and Twitter.

Locally Marian is part of the Florence Poets Society and frequently participates in local fundraisers such as Northampton’s Center for New Americans November event where she writes 30 poems in 30 days. She has also been doing many local readings and you can check out her scheduled events here if you’d like to check one out!

How she finds the time to write is her number one challenge, but she is a very productive writer and her way of writing is observational. She always carries a notebook and jots down notes as they filter in, saying that “there is no shortage of things to notice.”

In Springfield Marian works as a grant writer full time for HAPHousing, a nonprofit that focuses on affordable housing and homelessness in the community. It is predominantly a fundraising position, seeking out resources and development for the individuals she works with. This is a fairly new position to her, and she says that this work finally gives her the opportunity to merge the two processes. Marian feels that writing is a practice, and while poetry and grant writing are two very different skills, to have writing be the focal point of both careers feels like the right fit for her.

Marian has had the opportunity to have some of her poetry published in local journals, but spends less time focused on submitting her work in this arena, feeling that she would prefer to spend her time writing and promoting herself. She says that we are lucky to be in a moment in time when publishing is really changing; self-publishing has changed from even just a few years ago. She feels that what she has been doing is working and what she has been able to accomplish is a huge success.

If there is more you’d like to know, it can all be found on Marian’s personal website here. There are constantly new poems on the site, so if you want to get a glimpse of how great Marian’s work is, go check it out!

Janice Silverstein

When my daughters Molly and Sally were little girls, I went through a Shel Silverstein phase, and each year at Christmas, or on their birthdays in February, I’d create poems for their enjoyment. They received them hand-written in fancy journals—like a collection of works.

Recently, I dug these journals out and, for fun, started reading some of the poems to my grandson Eli. He thought they were so funny I thought I’d share a sampling. They are circa ’99-ish.

Eli thought The Dumb Shoe was the funniest, and he kept stopping me in mid-read of the others and insist that we go back to it, and he’d crack up all over again. I hope these give you all a fraction of the enjoyment Eli got.

The Muse

I have a magic pencil.

It writes all by itself.

I took off its eraser.

Underneath there was an elf.

He writes my papers for me,

Thinks up all the ideas.

I can face my teacher now.

Toss aside my fears.

He isn’t good at math.

He can only count by twos.

So, I gave him a fitting name.

I call him “The Muse.”

The Dumb Shoe

Once there was a really dumb shoe,

Made in a factory in Kalamazoo.

It went out for a walk

Down a long, winding street

Before it realized, “Oh no! I need feet!”

Mom

My mom is a runner.

She zooms for miles every day.

I know she loves me dearly,

So she’ll never run away.

My mom and I are artists.

We like making things.

She made me, but not with clay,

Or glitter, glue and strings.

Mom loved me into being.

She got some help from dad.

They think I’m very special,

And that makes me feel glad.

Loss of Appetite

A wiry man walked by me.

He had very stinky feet.

I was going to buy a donut,

But now I don’t think I could eat.

Another Limerick

There once was a red horse named Frank.

His stable was dirty and stank.

I decided to clean it,

And I really did mean it.

I filled up a big army tank.

Bridging the Gap Between What’s Real and Imagined

By Vanessa Pesa

In a blog that posted March 9, we heard from Janice about how hard it was to transition from nonfiction to fiction because, as a journalist, nonfiction has really been her mainstay.

I wanted to tell you more about how she transitioned to fiction for her second book, Unleashing the Sun, particularly as it regards plot and character development.

Janice, of course, started off with a rough sketch of the story: Two people fall in love, and in the process, they change each other; he makes her a stronger, more independent person, while she makes him someone who can be tender and compassionate.

She was stumped midway, though, with how the story would end.  “What came to me is pretty wacky, but I like it,” she told me.

She was interested in seeing my reaction to it, and now that I have fully digested the manuscript, I can honestly say that the ending completes the novel in a way that works for the characters. I won’t give away anything more than that!

She came upon the idea by thinking about what she wished would happen in this relationship, and then started seeing all of the awesome things that could come to fruition.

This reminds me of a certain “what if” mentality that Stephen King has referred to; he has always said, when developing any strong story from a foundational concept, to take the idea and ask yourself, “what if?” and absolutely run with it.

Janice has been “what iffing” for some time now.

Character development was also a challenge all on its own.

Janice started off with real people and real events, but once she realized she had to move away from nonfiction pretending to be fiction, she took a step back and worked on character development. What would these characters look like?

This often led her to seeing actual people in her life, which she would then combine with traits she had imagined.

There were certain necessary truths that she wanted to include about her characters, certain qualities that were a must, but the process of creating details was a blending exercise of real and imagined. A minor character, for instance, might look like a lawyer Janice knew once, but the things he said and did were fabricated. The result was a wonderful fusion of reality and imagination, a merging of things she had seen and things she had envisioned, which has been the most fun of the entire process for her.

Once she had the two main characters she began to branch out to the secondary characters in their world; she says, “It’s been cool to play with imaginary people, it’s like playing house.”

Janice is on a roll with this kind of work now in the book. She is reading through it and fleshing out characters’ appearance and dialogue, and this all, in turn, continues to fuel the plot, although the end has not changed since she wrote it many months ago.

On making time to write, Janice says that, while Beetle Press keeps her busy, she tries her best to carve out time. When she first started the book, she would begin each day working on it for 30 minutes. Though, that 30 minutes would soon turn into an hour, then into two, and would slowly consume her entire day, and she would end up working late into the night trying to catch up on actual work. Now she is much more organized; on weekends she works on the book for a few hours, and often times will block off time in her datebook as well.

She finds it helpful to go somewhere else to write also, so the scenery and atmosphere feels different. This winter, she went on a writing retreat for an entire weekend with her friend Judy, who happened to be housesitting at a location with a fireplace.

Talk about setting the mood to write!

Janice also let me in on a little secret…she’s already thinking about a third book! But I won’t get into that just yet. Let’s just focus on polishing Unleashing the Sun and getting it picked up by an agent first!

How Boots from Walmart Changed my Life

When it comes to winter I’m the biggest whiner on the planet, but this winter—with its record snow fall and frigid temperatures—I whined not. Not even one time. I owe it all to my WUggs. My faux Uggs from Walmart, that is.

Generally, I begin my complaints about winter in September when I begin to worry about being cold. I fuss when it gets down to 50 and then 40, and the light dims and the frost forms on the deck and walkways. It all makes my heart heavy. I worry about the cost of snow removal and heat too, but it’s the ache in the bones that comes with never ever being able to get warm and stay warm that really brings me down.

I started off this fall in that familiar trajectory. Last summer went by so fast and, come September, I was seriously depressed because I knew fall would lead to winter, as it always does. I moaned my way through October with gritted teeth and a heavy heart.

Then, November brought me a winter gift—my WUggs.

I was out shopping in Hadley with my daughter Molly and my boyfriend. I had in past years contemplated getting a pair of Uggs, the knee-length version, but at almost $200 a pair, I couldn’t justify the cost. Plus, honestly, I don’t see Uggs as very fashionable, and every teen girl in America is wearing them, so they are certainly not original.

Having rejected the name brand, I did contemplate a knock-off version in a shoe store in Hadley for $82. They looked warm and cozy.

“Should I get a pair?” I asked my boyfriend.

He shrugged. “

Ya,” I said. “I don’t think they’re even worth $82.”

I left them there on the shelf. Then we all traipsed into Walmart for the slippers we didn’t find in the shoe store, and there in a nearby aisle, were tan faux Uggs. Not as nice as the real thing, but close enough, and at $22 for the pair, I couldn’t pass them up.

I bought them eagerly and put them on as soon as I got home. They were incredibly cozy, like slippers that went half way up the leg. But I didn’t know even then how deep an attachment I would form with these tan suede boots.

I had intended to wear these WUggs only at home because I was self-conscious about the Walmart brand—even though, thankfully, there is no Walmart insignia where the Ugg stamp appears on the boot heel on the name-brand versions.

But I found myself planning my daily wardrobe around the boots, and as winter wore on, I even began to wear them to work appointments and client meetings. I no longer cared that I was a walking Walmart advertisement. I was warm, all day long, as long as I had my WUggs on.

Below zero temperatures? Bring it on. Another Nor’ easter? No problem. I am protected.

I thank my dear WUggs for ushering me happily through winter 2014-15. I will honor them by storing them safely in my closet, and I look forward to wearing them next fall, as soon as the temp dips below 60.

I will probably also get a second pair, in black this time, to upgrade my wardrobe. Perhaps, if I go soon, I will find a pair on sale for even less than $22.

Local Author Series: John Sheirer

Local Author Series: John Sheirer

By Vanessa Pesa

John Sheirer is an episodic writer.

The 53-year-old local Northampton author works full time as a professor at Asnuntuck Community College in Enfield, Connecticut, and he writes creatively on the side. “I have two careers, one that pays reasonably well and one that doesn’t,” he says. “But both are about making the world a better place, and I’m happy with that.”

Like many writers, it’s difficult for John to find the time to write creatively. He said he is always preparing for school, and the key thing for him is to grab small pieces of time as they arise.

John writes a monthly column for the Daily Hampshire Gazette, and in order to organize for this he will grab 15 minutes here and there to gather his thoughts until it finally comes together, similar to his own personal writing. He referred to this as episodic writing—brief but intense periods of writing in which he gets an abundance done in a short time frame.

His main genre isn’t definitive, however, he does work a great deal in memoir writing. One of his works, called Loop Year, is an ecological memoir. This book focuses on John’s experiences in hiking the same trail for an entire year, and he describes it as an environmental and anthropological study, as it focuses on the current events and people he came into contact with during that year in that specific region.

The column he writes for the Gazette is political in nature and deals primarily with current events, and he also has published a book, called Tales of a Real American Liberal, which is political as well. His most recent endeavor has been children’s books featuring his dog Libby, titled Libby Speaks and I Like Sticks! John says that everything he writes comes out of his own life; it is a way for him to connect with what comes from outside of himself.

John has been publishing since he had a poem appear in a literary magazine in college. He used to rewrite obsessively, and felt that everything he wrote needed to be literary or scholarly to be considered worthy of reading. Now as a more mature writer, he says that it wasn’t until he finally gave himself permission to make mistakes as a writer that he was able to publish his books.

Once he let go of the need for perfection he finally saw the greatness in his work. He now starts hundreds of projects and finishes five, and says he now comes up with his best stuff that before he would have disregarded.

He feels that his writing career is more of a hobby; he sells a few books here and there, making enough yearly to cover one mortgage payment, and he works with small publishers, so it is an intimate experience. His goal is not to get rich but to connect with people, including his students. He teaches children’s literature and all levels of college writing, and feels that writing makes him a better teacher. By having lived the craft, he can more artfully model the experience in a skilled way to his students and connect with them on a deeper level.

John grew up in Central Pennsylvania, in Bedford County, on a farm. He elaborates on this experience in his book Growing Up Mostly Normal in the Middle of Nowhere: A Memoir. He moved to Northampton, Massachusetts, in 1989.

He has been teaching full time at Asnuntuck Community College for the last 22 years; it has been “the career job he was looking for.” John teaches a vast array of courses, from literature, writing and English offerings to communications courses. He has also held administrative positions at the college but prefers to be in the classroom.

Given the ability to write full time, he would jump at the chance, but he would also still teach part time because teaching is a great passion for him as well.

All of John’s books are available on his personal website here, and are all definitely worth the read. He is also available on Facebook, so check him out!

Photo Credit: Betsy Sheirer

Validation is a Beautiful Thing

I was on pins and needles all last week as Vanessa read through my manuscript. I kept waiting for a reaction, an opinion, a thought, but I got nothing. With the exception of one email in which Vanessa said she was on page 60 and enjoying it, she gave me no hints as to whether she thought the book was trash or treasure—or something in between. This, even when I saw her in person last week, and she mentioned she had less than 20 pages left to read.

Last Wednesday, Vanessa fired me an email to tell me she had finished reading, and I sent her a series of probing questions. I impressed on her that her most important job as my intern was to give me a brutally honest opinion of the work. “My time is precious, so if you honestly think completing this project is a waste of time, you really, really need to tell me!” I instructed her.

I’m an impatient thing, and I wanted Vanessa’s responses immediately, but again, I had to wait. And in the waiting, I formed the opinion that Vanessa hated the book, that it was a bust. I gave up on the project quietly and started thinking about what might be next.

What was actually next, in my inbox on Saturday morning, were Vanessa’s very articulate and encouraging responses. I learned that her take on the book mirrored mine. While her favorite scenes were not my favorites, they were definitely in the section of the book I felt was strong; the weaker areas she identified were in the section that I view as still a work in progress. And Vanessa also outed me, in that she clearly saw I had trouble with the concept of fiction as the book begins.

What makes me so happy, though, is that Vanessa summed up the story line—the point of the book—just as I would have, if someone had posed the question to me. I am so motivated now, that I already spent an hour or so on a new scene, and I will now block off days, and perhaps even a week or two, to finish and get this thing done!

Here are some of the less specific questions I asked Vanessa, and excerpts from her responses.

What was your overall opinion of the manuscript? I really enjoyed what you have so far. I can see in the beginning the struggle in transitioning from nonfiction to fiction, as some of your personal life hinted through. I can also see how you did make the transition and work your way through that challenge. Stylistically speaking, it is similar to Divine Renovations.

Would you recommend I continue the work of completing it or let it die a graceful death? Why? I honestly think you have something here. Plus, I hate giving up on things, and I feel that in life there is never room for regrets. You owe it to Rox and Alex to finish their story and give them the chance they deserve. I found myself chuckling at times, feeling emotional at others and overall invested in the story and characters. Keep going!

What were your main take-aways? I think the book on the surface is a love story, or a romance if it were to be placed in a neat package for an agent, but I think the point of it is much more than that. I think it is more a coming-of-age story, or a story about finding yourself, and furthermore a story that shows that finding yourself can happen at any age. I think Rox represents so many women in the world, at any and all ages, and is an extremely sympathetic character.

Did you form an attachment to any of the characters? Why? I feel like I did form an attachment to Rox. I found myself relating to her in many ways. She made me want to be more independent. She reminded me of myself at times.

Did you care about them? I felt very invested in both characters, yes. More so in Rox than Alex, because, above all else, I wanted her to do what was right for her in the end, and if that ended up not being with Alex, then so be it.  She was so empowered in developing her own future and securing it that this is what I felt most concerned with, and I appreciated that this is what was most important to her, not just pleasing Alex or finding love. I love the way that Alex and Rox are able to connect in a way that doesn’t require words. I think you do a great job of showing this and could maybe develop this more.

What else should I know? That you still have work to do, which you know, but what you have has amazing qualities that I think many people will appreciate and connect with. I do not like romance novels Janice, I read Stephen King, and I liked this. Your style of writing is enticing and fun, it keeps the reader engaged. Your characters are interesting and sympathetic, giving reason to continue reading for want of knowing what the outcome will be. A good piece of fiction, no matter the plot, hinges on character development; if your reader cannot connect with the characters there is no point. I connected with Rox, and I honestly think I will not be the only one that will do so.

The Road to Fantasy

By Vanessa Pesa

Janice has been thinking a lot about the transition from nonfiction, with her work on Divine Renovations, to fiction, with her upcoming work, currently with two working titles, The Sun Drifters, and Unleashing the Sun. We had a long conversation about it, and thought we would share it with you readers to give some insight into the process as well!

Long story short: the process was really, really hard. But let’s delve a bit deeper.

In 2012, Janice wrote a memoir, Divine Renovations, which she says was easy for her, because she had all the info, knew the cast of characters and knew the whole story. Remember that Janice has been a journalist for the last 15 years, so she’s accustomed to having all the tools at her fingertips. When you’re interviewing people out in the field you’re gathering all the necessary information needed to write a story, similar to that of a memoir, so the move from journalism to memoir writing was seamless. The story basically flooded out of her in about six months.

Switching to fiction, she found has been much harder, as these simple tools are no longer directly in front of her. What she discovered as she started was she began basing her characters on people she already knew, and then realized she was just writing another memoir!

To counteract this automatic response, Janice would consciously stop and sit back, taking long breaks in her writing to try to develop her characters. Soon enough they would begin to reveal themselves to her, and so started the process of backtracking to remove the already existing people and fleshing out the now developed characters.

All in all, this has been a much longer process compared to the memoir; at this point Janice has spent between a year and a year and a half on The Sun Drifters/Unleashing the Sun. However, the good news is, there is a light at the end of the tunnel, as she is finally almost done!

I cannot wait to get started on reading the first draft of this much anticipated break into a new genre!