Interview with Ned Tillman, Author of The Big Melt

This post comes from contributing editor Ann Bracken.

Columbia resident, author, and environmental activist Ned Tillman has been unusually busy spreading the word about climate change to audiences all over Maryland. I caught up with him one morning at a local coffee shop where we talked about his new young adult novel, The Big Melt. After having a great turnout for his book launch, Ned went on to be a featured speaker at the National Science Teachers Association where 40 teachers volunteered to evaluate the book and work on getting it adopted into the local curriculum. In addition to articles about Ned and The Big Melt in numerous local papers, here’s what Publisher’s Weekly/Booklife Prize Review had to say about the book: “Ned Tillman’s The Big Melt is a fast-paced novel for young readers that advocates taking care of the environment and illustrates the possible negative impacts that might occur if humans should neglect this responsibility. Tillman’s novel is certainly inspiring and unique, melding together a firm call to action for young people to consider the environment and a young protagonist’s decision to protect his town.”

I loved the book for its powerful story, dynamic characters, and cleverly embedded humor. Thank you, Ned, for this inspiring call-to-action.

Ann Bracken (AB): After writing two successful nonfiction books that delve into the topics related to climate change and community action, what made you decide to write a novel for young adults?

Ned Tillman (NT): A number of my readers asked me to write a book for young adults. I think we all can agree that they will need to get involved as soon as they can in understanding climate change and taking action before it is too late. I think many people, teenagers and adults alike, prefer reading fiction. It is often easier to get a visceral sense of a big problem through a fictional story.

AB: When I heard the title, I thought the book was going to involve a story about rising sea levels. What inspired your idea to use extreme temperatures and melting asphalt?

NT: I wanted to come at this challenge with something fresh—not just talk about the standard icons like polar bears and floods. I wanted stories that everyone could relate to, be surprised by, and get excited about. I wanted the reader to eagerly turn the next page to see what else might happen that they had not thought about.

AB: How would you describe the main character, Marley, whom we meet just as he’s about to graduate from high school and go on to college?

NT: I think everyone can relate to Marley. Like so many young people, he wants to get on with his life, but really does not know what he wants to do. We can then follow him through one climate-change challenge after another and see how he responds. He tries to seek out creative solutions, and he works with others to help save his town. He becomes this mythic kid that wants to fix things, make them right. I hope all my readers will be engaged by his actions.

AB: What have young readers told you about the effect that the book has on them?

NT: It is really interesting to see the responses the book gets. Readers have decided to pursue careers in science, politics, teaching—all sorts of things related to preventing and adapting to climate change. They have told me that they can’t stop thinking about the characters in the book.

AB: It’s clear from reading the book that you’ve done lots of research on the causes of climate change as well as the increased pace of change we’re all experiencing now. How did you decide on what information to include?

NT: I tried to include things the reader might not have thought about, everyday things that might disrupt their lives. Most of us are numbed by watching things happen to other people all around the world. I thought the readers needed something they could relate to better.

AB: Which part of the creative process came first—the story itself or the facts and ideas that you wanted to explore?

NT: I did not start writing until a rough idea of the story came into my mind. I met a teenager one day named Marley, and he was perfect for the lead role. He may not recognize himself in the character, because I did not know him that well, but my mind just took off. The ideas just flowed as the characters appeared. Some of the characters do things that I might do, many are named or fashioned after other people that I know. The facts were the easy part. Since I am fascinated by some of the stories I included, I had a hunch that readers might also enjoy hearing about them.

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Meet the Neighbors: Q&A with Shaileen Beyer

Little Patuxent Review reminds all its readers and contributors that we are sponsoring a free poetry contest for Maryland residents with the Enoch Pratt Free Library. The winning poem will be published in Little Patuxent Review, honored at a reading at the Library, and celebrated at Baltimore’s CityLit Festival. Runners-up may also be considered for publication. The deadline is March 1, 2019.

Shaileen Beyer is a librarian and member of the Poetry Programming Work Group, which administers the contest. A native Baltimorean, Shaileen has worked in the Fiction Department at the Central Library since 2005. She has a Ph.D. in English and a master’s degree in library science.

We’re very grateful she’s willing to answer a few questions for us.

Q: What’s the mission of the Enoch Pratt Free Library?

The Pratt’s mission is to “provide equal access to information and services that empower, enrich and enhance the quality of life for all.” As the State Library Resource Center, the Central Library has an additional mission. It “provides cooperative, cost effective, statewide resources and services for Maryland libraries and their customers.”

The Poetry Contest realizes both missions: it creates free opportunity for Maryland artists and shines a bright light on poetry, which brings out the best in us all.

Q: What’s the history of this contest?

The Poetry Contest was the idea of my colleague Lisa Greenhouse in 2011. We were brainstorming ways to make poetry more visible, and she said, “We should have a contest and put the winning poem in the window!” (The Central Library has enormous show windows.) LPR came on board to judge the entries and publish the winner—a collaboration that we’ve repeated now for six of the contest’s eight years, turning to Poet Lore for the other two. The CityLit Festival organizers have helped every year by making room in their schedule for the winner. The Pratt has such good neighbors.

Q: What resources for writers do you have at the library?

Writing begins in reading, as poet Charles Wright reminds us when he quotes poet Theodore Roethke: “You want to be a writer? There’s the library.” At the Pratt we have terrific retrospective and contemporary collections in all imaginable genres. Looking for oodles of plays? Publishing tips or writing prompts? The poetry scene’s newest arrivals? Stop by the Central Library, or visit our online catalog to find e-books or request transfers of print books to any Pratt branch.

We also feature wonderful free programming for would-be authors. Poetry & Conversation and Writers LIVE! readings—often preserved on podcasts—inspire listeners with magical passages. Writing workshops led by esteemed teachers such as Clarinda Harriss cultivate skill and confidence. And gatherings like the Central Library’s Writers’ Roundtable allow people to share what they have made.

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Free Poetry Contest with Enoch Pratt Free Library — Deadline March 1

Little Patuxent Review reminds all its readers and contributors that we are sponsoring a free poetry contest for Maryland residents with the Enoch Pratt Free Library. The winning poem will be published in Little Patuxent Review, honored at a reading at the Library, and celebrated at Baltimore’s CityLit Festival. Runners-up may also be considered for publication.

The deadline is March 1, 2019.

More information is available on the Pratt Library website and by clicking the image in this post.

Meet the Neighbors: Q&A with Lucy Bucknell of Writing Outside the Fence

Lucy Bucknell is the founding director of Writing Outside the Fence, a writing program for returning citizens in Baltimore. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in Alaska Quarterly ReviewThe Baltimore ReviewThe Chattahoochee ReviewCream City ReviewFictionThe Laurel ReviewNatural BridgePleiadesSouthern Humanities ReviewWar, Literature & the ArtsWillow Review; and elsewhere. After teaching for several years in both The Writing Seminars and the Film and Media Studies program at Johns Hopkins University, she became full-time faculty in FMS in 2007. She is also Principal Investigator for the Baltimore Youth Film Arts Program.

We’re very grateful she’s willing to answer a few questions for us.

Q: What is Writing Outside the Fence and how did it get started?

Writing Outside the Fence is a free, volunteer-staffed, community writing workshop. It meets weekly at the Northwest Career Center in Baltimore. It was originally intended specifically for returning citizens. I taught a workshop at the Anne Arundel Detention Center, and one of the participants—a Baltimore City resident—was due to be released. I tried to find him a free or affordable writing program and there was none. The then-director of the Career Center, Felix Mata, suggested I start one, so I dragooned a couple of friends to teach the first few sessions. Within weeks writers of all stripes were asking to join, so the group opened to anyone from the community, regardless of background. Instructors have continued to volunteer and we’ve kept on. The center director is now Gerald Grimes, and he’s also been very welcoming. In twelve years, we’ve paid no rent, no salaries, and no tuition; and we’ve missed meetings only for water main breaks and snowstorms.

Q: In an email I received inviting me to lead a workshop, you wrote that past instructors have included poets, journalists, playwrights, screenwriters, and writers of fiction and creative nonfiction: “No two have run their workshops quite the same way; all have found it rewarding.” How have you found it rewarding?

Writers over the years have been so generous with their art. There is always something new to hear, something surprising, something moving, something human. Attendance goes up and down; writers come and go. We also have writers who’ve been coming for a decade. But whenever I teach or attend a reading, I always feel I’m on fresh ground. It’s an expansive group, a tolerant group. They make room for one another and for the instructors, they tell the truth in beautiful ways, and it’s just a rare and rather wonderful project to be part of.

Q: What do I need to do to get involved in Writing Outside the Fence, either as a teacher or a writer?

To join as a writer, you would simply walk in the door. If you forget your pencil, we’ll lend you one. Anyone interested in teaching can contact me at Instructors tend to be published, working writers, and many, though not all, have teaching experience.

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Meet the Neighbors: Q&A with Jen Michalski

Jen Michalski is the author of the novels The Summer She Was Under Water and The Tide King (both Black Lawrence Press), a couplet of novellas called Could You Be With Her Now (Dzanc Books), and two collections of fiction (From Here and Close Encounters). Her work has appeared in more than 100 publications, including Poets & Writers. In 2013, she was named as “One of 50 Women to Watch” by The Baltimore Sun and “Best Writer” by Baltimore Magazine. She is the host of a fiction reading series in Baltimore called Starts Here! and editor in chief of the literary online weekly jmww. We’re grateful she’s taken the time to answer some questions.

Q: You come with high praise in that a contact suggested that I interview you as a “great Maryland writer whose work engages sexual identity.” What are some ways in which you’ve done that?

Thank you! I’m very flattered to hear that. I don’t think of myself as someone whose work engages sexual identity specifically, but as a lesbian I’m sure it influences my writing to some degree. Mostly, I’m not afraid to write about things that interest me, whether it’s incest, sexual abuse, May-December same-sex romances, murder, or transgender characters. I’ve always been interested in the “other” and unconventional narrators, i.e., people on the margins without much representation in literature, and placing myself in their shoes. I think my interest has a lot to do with not really seeing myself reflected in the books I read growing up, and it’s made me think even more, as an adult writer, about those voices that have been left out in addition to my own.

That said, it’s a great time to be a writer now, because not only is there so much diversity on the shelves, but also readers are actively seeking out other perspectives, whether they’re sexual, racial, or political. Years ago, I remember being a little worried about publishing a collection of novellas that included sexual abuse and a May-December same-sex romance (Could You Be With Her Now) for how people would perceive me or my work. I don’t think I would have the same concerns today. And I think it’s wonderful that writers are being allowed to not only push past the boundaries, but that they’re being encouraged to as well.

Q: How do you stay connected with the literary scene in Maryland and Baltimore? How can I get more involved?

I’m glad you asked! I’ve been involved in the scene for many years, and beyond reading, reading, and reading, I think making connections in the community is the most important thing for any writer to do. I’ve always been a little introverted or, at least, I need a lot of time to recharge after social events, but I’ve been editor in chief of the literary weekly jmww since the early 2000s and spent more than ten years hosting reading series (The 510 Readings and Starts Here!), so I’m living proof that you don’t have to be some high-octane, gregarious, outgoing person to get involved in the literary ecosphere.

Where to begin? If you want to get an overview of the community, I would start by attending The CityLit Festival, which is held every April at the University of Baltimore. The festival attracts fantastic regional and national authors for readings, panels, and talks, and there’s a marketplace where you can pick up all sorts of information about writing programs (including the University of Baltimore), literary journals, and writing organizations in the area. A similar offering would be The Maryland Writers Association’s annual conference: there are plenty of panels and lectures on craft and specific genres (like mystery writing or children’s books), and there’s usually an agent or two there.

If you want to jump in, get on the ground and meet and hear writers, there are several excellent reading series in the city: monthly series like Writers & Words in Remington and Hey You, Come Back! In Station North, almost-weekly readings from Writers LIVE at Enoch Pratt Library’s central branch, and the Ivy Bookshop hosts writers practically every night at their Falls Road location. Readings are places in which I’ve made the most meaningful bonds with other writers, and other opportunities can arise as part of those connections, whether you secure an invitation to read at said series, find people with whom you can start a writing group, or maybe you discover a local press that’s publishing work to which you really relate and you buy a book from them or you volunteer to be part of their staff or maybe they dig your work so much they publish you.

Putting yourself out there can be hard, no doubt, but even if the thought of going out to talk to other people makes you break out in hives, there are so many great literary journals operating in the area, such as the Baltimore Review, the Loch Raven Review, the Delmarva Review, and, of course, the Little Patuxent Review, for whom you can volunteer to read submissions or review books or interview authors, all online. At jmww, we’re continually looking for interns and volunteers to fill these roles, and they’re great opportunities to gather some publishing credits and build your resume all within the comfort of your home or coffee shop.

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Meet the Neighbors: Literary Family at The Writer’s Center

This guest post comes from Zach Powers, the communications manager for The Writer’s Center (4508 Walsh St, Chevy Chase, MD 20815).

When I came to The Writer’s Center in February 2018, I didn’t know much more about it than the fact that it was a literary arts nonprofit. I was new to the Washington, D.C., area, still trying to find my place in the local literary community. Sure, I’d perused The Writer’s Center website and read the latest issue of The Writer’s Guide, the triannual magazine the Center has published for decades. I knew that the Center was over forty years old—a true Gen Xer—and has been housed at its current location in Bethesda since the early 1990s. I knew the Center has been publishing Poet Lore, America’s oldest poetry journal, for the last three decades of the journal’s existence. And I was told, right from the start, that a renovation was in the works for the upstairs of the building (the lower level had been renovated in 2014).

Within months of taking my job as Communications Manager at The Writer’s Center, the long-anticipated renovation began. My colleagues relocated their offices into the lower level writing classrooms (I was lucky enough that my office was already downstairs). Our coterie of faithful interns took up positions in the writing carrels in the main room. We snaked cables all over for power and internet. The construction crew sealed off the stairwell with plastic sheeting, and the first rumbles of demolition began right away.

Even though my first months on the job were disrupted by sawing and hammering and bangs so loud I can only guess they were caused by small explosive devices, I learned something important about The Writer’s Center. The building, as shiny and new and amazing as it now is (more on that later), merely houses the spirit of The Writer’s Center family. For over forty years, the Center has empowered writers and those who want to write, and that mission is far larger than the 12,000 square feet that make up our facility. No building is big enough to contain all the stories lived and written by the people who make up our community.

I had spent a year trying to find a literary community when I moved here, and I did meet a few writers, but since joining The Writer’s Center I’ve found so many friends and collaborators, from acclaimed published authors to new writers jut now taking the first steps toward creating literature. These are fiction writers, poets, journalists, memoirists, and people finding purpose and inspiration in the written word. These are my people.

At The Writer’s Center, I consider it my job to grow this community, to welcome to our family every single person in the Washington, D.C., area who wants to join us, especially those who may not yet know that we’re here for them. Our newly renovated building will certainly help.

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Review of How to Sit, by Tyrese Coleman

This book review is written by Raima Larter, a Little Patuxent Review fiction reader. 

Local publisher Mason Jar Press of Baltimore has just published the debut collection, How to Sit: A Memoir in Stories and Essays, by Tyrese Coleman, a writer based in the Washington, D.C., area. Coleman has a strong engaging voice with important things to say. Her collection of stories and essays is unique in the way it combines fiction and non-fiction to create a true memoir. I was struck by the way the story builds from chapter to chapter, some fictional, others not, showing us how one young girl became a woman while growing up in a world that might have broken a weaker soul.

The book takes its title from the opening story in which the character we later come to know as “T” is taught by her grandmother how a young lady is supposed to sit in Grandma’s house, a home filled with a constant parade of older men, most fueled by alcohol. We follow T to prom night, to college, to motherhood and beyond, at one point exploring her family roots through a DNA analysis that reveals more than a few surprises. The memoir returns us to Grandma’s death bed where T must finally confront what is real and what is fiction. She says, “If this were fiction, we would’ve gotten to this part by now. The part where T pulls back the curtain and sees her dead grandmother’s body…”

All through this book, it is never clear what is truth and what is fiction. I thought this might be a problem, but that was before I read the book and found that it is actually one of its great strengths; Coleman shows us how the truth about one’s own life is sometimes revealed more fully when we take a step outside ourselves and look at our life the way someone else might see it.

I recently had the opportunity to interview Coleman about the experience of writing this book. My questions (RL) and her answers (TC) follow.

* * *

RL: The structure of your book is one I haven’t seen anywhere else—a mosaic of fictional and non-fictional components that add up to a memoir. How did you get the idea to use this structure?

TC: Honestly, it was not a *completely* deliberate thing. At some point, I looked back at my work and realized that I was writing about the same topics and about my childhood, parenting, or grief and that there was a through line that existed with several pieces of my work. I’d tried and considered different formats of how to do a collection. One iteration was a chapbook of flash creative nonfiction and another was a collection of short stories. I was afraid to put the fiction in with the nonfiction until I realized that other writers had done this. For example, David Sedaris’s Barrel Fever combines some of his stories and some of his essays. That is a completely different sort of collection from mine, but knowing that a book could contain both stories and essays opened my mind up to the possibility that putting these two seemingly different types of writing in the same book wasn’t actually too crazy of an idea. When I first discussed this with Mason Jar Press, we had thought to say which stories were fiction and which were nonfiction, but ultimately decided to leave it a mystery for the reader.

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