Author Interview: Joe Denham

Joe Denham is the author of two poetry collections, Flux (2003) and Windstorm (2009), and one novel, The Year of Broken Glass (2011). He lives with his wife and two children in Halfmoon Bay, BC, and works as a commercial fisherman throughout coastal British Columbia, Canada.

First Line (FL): Joe, in addition to writing fiction, I know that you are also a poet. Do you have a favourite word?

Joe Denham (JD): My favourite colour is blue. My favourite key is E flat Major. Individual words I don't find terribly inspiring.

FL: “The Year of Broken Glass” is your first novel. What was the journey like from writing it, to getting it published?

JD: Writing and editing it was a four year process. For two years the story and characters just kind of floated about in my imagination, slowly evolving. Then I spent the fall and winter of '09/'10 writing the first drafts. I'd tried writing a novel a couple of times before, each time taking the less disciplined approach I take to writing poetry (which is to say, getting to it if and when the desire and inspiration stirs me to do so, and otherwise busying myself with the rest of life), but unsurprisingly I kept getting lost after the initial burst of inspiration. So with this one I decided I needed to make it an 8 to 10 hours a day, everyday kind of project. Which is what I did over the six months of that fall and winter, and by the time spring rolled around Amy (my wife) and I had finished working over the fifth draft.

Before I left for fishing that spring I decided to give it to Silas White, both an old friend and the publisher of my two previous books, Flux and Windstorm, to see what he thought of the manuscript as it existed at that time. To keep a long story short, Silas thought it was
great, even possibly a big and important book, and encouraged me (despite his own enthusiasm for the book and desire to publish it with Nightwood Editions) to pursue an agent and a corporate publishing house that could really put some major money behind. Which is what I did. And after about 20 doors politely clicked shut in my face with less than a glance thrown my way beforehand, I came back to Si and he agreed to publish it. To be honest, I think we both hoped, for the sake of the book and for my career and for readers too, that I would have been able to get further with that process than I did, but what I gleaned is that there's a very conservative aesthetic holding sway in the Can Lit industry, and The Year of Broken Glass is in so many ways un-conservative, genre-melding, boisterous, etc, so it just doesn't fit. That said, publishing the book with Silas and Nightwood was a great process. Everyone poured a lot of energy into the editing and proofing and designing, and I think what we all came up with in the end is a really fantastic book that we're all proud of.

FL: What was the best advice you received as a writer?

JD: I studied at a community college for my first two years of post-secondary. When I finished, I asked my creative writing prof, a very fine and respected poet, where she thought I should go to continue my studies in creative writing: Concordia? UVic? UBC? She very respectfully suggested that if I wanted to learn to write inside that conservative aesthetic I just mentioned, that I should by all means go to any of the above. But if I wanted to find my own voice, to really find it, she suggested I should drop out, read, go to readings, work, and learn to write on my own, in the world.

Okay. So I took the latter advice. Sometimes I think to myself: who in their right mind (and who's to say she was in her right mind!?) would tell an earnest 20 year old straight A student with some talent and ambition to jump off the train? Usually I think this to myself when I've had a bad fishing season or have nearly cut my hand off at work or have had 20 agents flat out reject me without really considering my work because they have no idea who I am or who anyone close to me in my life is. But on the days when I'm writing and the writing feels good and true and at least somewhat un-affected, I think, sure, good for her, and for me, that she chose to be so honest in that moment. Spending too much time in classrooms always makes me itchy and dopey anyhow, and given the amount I recall nodding off in her workshops, she must have seen that in me! Also, looking at it all from a distance now, I think she was right in asserting that the whole apparatus of post-secondary creative writing workshops unfortunately works to reinforce a sort of lowest common denominator approach to writing and art and seems to kind of press out some of the more individual character and sensibility in many developing writer's work.

I was reading this little non-fiction piece on dissonance recently, and I found this interesting: back in the 16th century in Germany it became fashionable to carefully breed and train canaries for the purpose of birdsong performance and competition. Today, if you compare the sonograms of domesticated canaries with those of wild canaries, apparently you can see a distinct difference in the third and fourth seconds of their song. I'll quote the essayist (Barbara Hurd) here: "On the domesticated bird's sonogram, the markings on the graph (indicating frequency and duration of notes) are consistent, as if drawn by an accomplished graphic artist who'd learned to replicate the same graceful squiggle over and over. That bird is repeating clear notes and was cheered at competitions. But at the same moment on the wild canary's graph, the markings go haywire, as if drawn by a kindergartner using the wrong hand. Their thicknesses vary wildly; splotches hover over skewed jabs. Birders studying the sonogram call this the canary's "dissonant phrase." Though it's been completely bred out of domesticated canaries, it remains in wild ones."

I'm certainly not asserting that I'm the literary equivalent to a wild canary, or anything "wild" for that matter. I did eventually, for one year in my later twenties, return to Creative Writing workshops (at the University of Victoria), and I've read my share of literature. So I'm affected, just as we all are. But I think there are degrees of affectation, and I think that prof was trying to steer me, in the very formative years of my artistic apprenticeship, away from an arena which applauds the replication "of one graceful squiggle over and over", and instead towards a lifestyle and approach to art in which I might retain a small semblance of the more individual and at times dissonant song we're all naturally born with. Which hasn't and doesn't let me off the hook insofar as knowing and mastering craft goes, but how that is accomplished and even what that means can be defined in greater terms than many of the academic bureaucracies allow for. To be clear, I'm not suggesting that there are no exceptions to this as far as university writing programs go, nor am I saying that no good writers or work emerge from those programs. I think it's fair to say that some great writers have come up through the academic system, just as some have come up outside of it, and I know for myself that it's been a good thing for my artistic development, for my particular temperament, that I more or less count myself amongst the latter, and that this has occurred greatly because of one writer's timely advice given over 15 years ago.

FL: What book do you think every writer should read?

JD: In fiction, I think John Berger's Into Their Labours Trilogy is an important work. I've been reading a lot of David Foster Wallace recently, though I'm still gathering the gumption to start in on Infinite Jest. But really, I can't answer that question. I don't think there's any one seminal author or book everyone should read and appreciate. Everyone comes to literature with their own particular needs, expectations, interests, and sensibilities, and what is an infinitely important work to one is next to useless to another.

FL: If you weren’t a writer, what would you want to be?

JD: That's an interesting question because I'm not sure I think of myself as "being" a writer, as opposed to "being" something else. And here's why: I don't make my living from writing. At best I get the odd grant and token royalty cheque. But as it is I'm a commercial fish boat captain and a residential house builder. That's the work which pays for the home I live in with my family and for the food my children eat, etc, and it also pays for the time I take to write. Writing is my heart's first vocation, and if I could I'd spend more time at it and have a greater volume of work published as a result, but I've yet to achieve the success necessary to call myself "a writer" in that context wherein it is exclusively what I do to make my way in the world. So, it's almost like, if I weren't a fisherman and a builder, I'd want to be a writer. Maybe someday things will turn that way, but it's a precious few of us who get to live in that grace, isn't it?

FL: Describe your work habits. When do you write? Where?

JD: There's a small studio building on our property where both my wife, Amy and I do our writing. There's Amy's piano and my guitars and a small PA system and some computers in there. That's where I wrote The Year of Broken Glass, and I've already described a bit of how I approached the writing of that book. More generally, I tend to write sporadically. I'm not into exercises or projects or scheduled effort. I'm interested in writing born of intense inspiration, and I think too much time at the craft can dilute that. I don't think writers need to or even should write all the time. I don't believe in writer's block. I believe that when we've got something really worth saying, we've got little choice but to sit down and thrash it out, and when we don't, c'est la vie. There are a million other things to do and explore with what little time we've each got.

FL: What inspires you?

JD: The sea. Music. My wife and children. Books. Movies. Wind. Anger. Love.

FL: If you could have dinner with any writer, living or dead, who would it be? Why?

JD: I suppose that would be the poet Jorie Graham. I think her writing is absolutely phenomenal--so brilliantly intelligent and so visceral all at once--and, though I'm not sure what it is I'd like to ask her in regards to that, I'm certain the conversation would have the potential of being
illuminating, and if it weren't so it would most likely only be as a result of my own shortcomings.

FL: Do you have any other creative talents? Do you paint? Play a musical instrument?

JD: I'm a guitar player. I write songs. I sing those songs.

FL: What are you working on now?

JD: I've been writing songs again for the first time in over a decade. Recently I formed a band with a few folks in the neighbourhood. I suppose it's an alt-country-rock kind of project. We're working towards an album, but I don't think we're in any hurry. I'm working (slowly) on two volumes of poetry which will form a trilogy in conjunction with 2009's Windstorm. I'm busy raising children, building a new home for my family, and kicking around ideas in my head for a second novel. I've just recently arrived home from a 100 day fishing shift, so as it is today I'm just happy to lollygag a bit with the kids, play some guitar, and hope for a little sun before summer's end.

Thanks Joe!

To learn more about Joe Denham click here.

Week #143

The coffee was terrible, the waitresses were mean, but I still kept coming back to this crappy diner.

Random Exercise

Use these three words in a short story:

swordfish, gymnasium, cool.

Book Review: Ron Carlson Writes a Story

“Ron Carlson Writes a Story” by Ron Carlson (Graywolf Press) is a unique and compelling essay that allows the reader to watch over the shoulder of Ron Carlson as he writes the first draft of his short story, “The Governor’s Ball.” In addition to having written eight books of fiction, Ron Carlson has also published short stories in The New Yorker, Harper’s, Esquire and GQ. He also directs the graduate program in fiction at the University of California, Irvine.

This slim book opens with an explanation of how this essay came to be and continues in a friendly tone about the art and craft of writing fiction. Carlson discusses topics such as the source and validity of ideas, and whether or not outlines are necessary, before settling at his desk to write the first sentence of his short story, “The Governor’s Ball.”

Interspersed throughout the writing of the short story are brief chapters on the importance of not leaving the room while writing (no matter how badly you want that cup of coffee), reference books, naming characters and writing dialogue. There are even writing exercises for the reader to try. I think Carlson does a wonderful job of capturing how the mind moves during the creative process: the decisions, the indecision.

As the book progresses, so, too, does the writing of, “The Governor’s Ball.” Characters are introduced, descriptions are artfully crafted and the plot develops until Carlson eventually finds his ending. He closes the book with a marvellous, short meditation on what he believes the job of a writer to be.

“Ron Carlson Writes a Story” is a rare opportunity to eavesdrop on a writer’s thought process as he creates and, frankly, I found it fascinating. I have never read a book quite like this one: probably because it is so difficult to capture the elusive writing process. But Carlson does it admirably well.

(Note: The completed version of, “The Governor’s Ball” is included at the back of the book.)

Dialogue Exercise

Use this line of dialogue in a short story. It can be the first line, the last line or any line in between!

"That wasn't here before."

Week #142

I forced myself to keep walking towards the light, blinking in the distance.


"Anyone who keeps working is not a failure. They may not be a great writer, but if they apply the old-fashioned virtues of hard, constant labor, they will eventually make some kind of career as a writer."

~ Ray Bradbury

if you feel like surfing...

You can spend a lot of time browsing around here, reading writerly stuff. I'm just warning you...

Long Story Short

Random Exercise

Use these three words in a short story:

tattoo, hysterical, fly.

Week #141

It was me who found Grandpa, dead on the porch, a lit cigar still burning in his hand.

Dialogue Exercise

Use this line of dialogue in a piece of short fiction. You decide who said it and why.

"You are going to give the rest of us a bad name."

Writing Adventure

Take a notebook outside and write after dark. Consider your five senses. How is your sense of sight, hearing, smell, touch and taste different in the dark? Is your writing different in the dark? Is it more daring? More free? Explore the summer night this way.

Random Exercise

Use these three words in a short story:
owl, reflection, backpack.

Week #140

The team had been on a losing streak since Coach Hinley's bloodhound, Blue, ran away.


"Life is either a daring adventure, or nothing."

~ Helen Keller

Author Interview: Donna Miscolta

Donna Miscolta's debut novel, When the de la Cruz Family Danced has just been released. Her short fiction has appeared in Calyx,Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, New
Millennium Writings, Connecticut Review
other journals. Her short story collection,
Natalie Wood's Fake Puerto Rican Accent was a
finalist for the 2010 Grace Paley Prize for Short
Fiction. She has received literary awards from
4Culture, Artist Trust, the Bread Loaf/Rona
Jaffe Foundation and Seattle Office of Arts and
Cultural Affairs. She's been an
artist-in-residence at Anderson Center,
Atlantic Center for the Arts and Hedgebrook,
and was recently awarded an NEA-sponsored
residency at the Virginia Center for the
Creative Arts. She grew up in National City,
California and lives in Seattle, Washington.

Welcome to the First Line blog, Donna!

First Line (FL): Donna, I read that you did not start writing until you were almost forty. Were you always an avid reader, though?

Donna Miscolta (DM): Yes, I’ve always been a reader except for a phase in high school when I sort of zoned out in the lost days of my awkward adolescence. Even the comfort of a good book couldn’t rescue me from a sense of displacement and disorientation – of not fitting in and not knowing who I was and where I belonged. But even then, I considered books things of wonder and thought that the creation of one was reserved for the divinely ordained – which is the reason, I think, it took me so long to give writing a try.

FL: You have a great story about how your novel, “When the de la Cruz Family Danced” was discovered and eventually published. Would you mind retelling it for us?

DM: The discovery happened after my novel had been turned down by over thirty editors. In late summer 2007, I had obtained an agent, one very enthusiastic about my book. Even though she continued to reassure me of her belief in it, after two years of rejection, it was hard for me to consider the possibility of a response other than the ones we had collected: they didn’t see it as a fit for their list, it was an issue of marketing, they didn’t fall in love. And yet almost all of them said they admired the writing. So that gave me hope. I’d heard many accounts of how a published story or novel excerpt led to publication of a novel. Not quite believing it would happen to me, I sent off the first chapter of my novel as a stand-alone story to seven journals. Within a month, I received an acceptance from one and a few days later I received an acceptance from another. The story was published in Cha: An Asian Literary Journal in May 2010. Several months later, I received an email from Marshall Moore of Signal 8 Press, a new Hong Kong-based publisher whose focus is literature for Asia and the Pacific Rim. He asked to read the entire novel manuscript. I think the alacrity with which I sent the thing off made him anxious about my expectations and he let me know right off that it could take him a while −a month or more− to get back to me. I assured him I understood, that I expected to wait. I was used to waiting. A week later he sent me an email offering to publish the book.

FL: What was the best advice you received as a writer?

DM: I can’t pinpoint the source because it’s something I’ve heard and read on a number of occasions. It’s something I try to live by and that is to be happy for the success of other writers, those you know and those you don’t know. We each have our particular path to writing and, if we’re lucky, to publication.
I know of or am acquainted with several writers whose books have been recently or soon will be released by major publishing houses. They’re getting book tours, newspaper reviews, radio and TV interviews, and second printings. Exciting stuff. I don’t begrudge them any of it. I do feel wistful and a little envious at times. I remind myself that I’m grateful to my small, independent publisher for putting my book and others out into the world. My book is making a relatively quiet entrance without the bells and whistles of a professional publicity campaign. So are many others. Each of us in our way is doing the same thing – saying to people: Look, I made this. Here it is. And you hope they take it into their hands. You hope they love it.
The other advice I like to remember comes from Cynthia Ozick via a workshop I took from Tom Jenks some years ago. It goes: Play what feeble notes you can and keep practicing. It’s a reminder of what the writer’s job really is.

FL: What book do you think every writer should read?

DM: Since I don’t feel qualified to be prescriptive about such a thing, I’ll tell you what I need to and do read every so often.
As a fiction writer, at times I feel the need to read some poetry, though I’m woefully uneducated about and often confounded by it. Still, I like to see how so much feeling can be packed in a line and how what is unsaid can be so powerful. The most recent book of poetry I read was Elizabeth Austen’s Every Dress a Decision, which I loved. Jane Hirshfield calls Austen’s poems “pellucid.” What a great word!
Another thing I do every so often is read books on craft. My writing education has been a patchwork of workshops, classes and conferences over the years. I wish I’d had the opportunity to do an MFA. I think it would’ve helped me be more deliberate in how I approach a problem or at least be more aware of the choices I make, which might make me a more efficient writer. As it is, I think much of what I practice in my own writing comes from my experience as a reader. My hope is that at a certain subconscious level, I absorb some of the techniques I come across in stories and novels. They go unarticulated and unanalyzed because rather than take the time to really study what a writer has done on the page to accomplish a particular effect, I’m just anxious to read another work of fiction. So I’m a little lazy or maybe I’m just feeling encumbered by so many books, so little time. At any rate, reading a book on craft, particularly when I’m in the revision stage, will make me stop and think and hopefully understand better what I’m trying to achieve in a work.

FL: Describe your work habits. When do you write? Where?

DM: I have a full-time job so I write at the end of the day. When I started writing, my daughters were seven and three years old so my habit was to write after they were in bed. Also, over the years I spent a lot of time with a writing notebook on my knees while sitting on bleachers at basketball or soccer practices, swim lessons, and gymnastics classes. Between ball drills, laps or tumbling passes, I would jot down a few lines. I think as a result my brain has been trained to write in short spasms. In stutters. Amid both material and mental clutter.
Our house is small so I’ve never had a separate space for writing. My laptop sits on a small table in the bedroom. It’s a tight space and clutter accumulates quickly. The table is one of those lightweight folding ones, and when I type, the vibrations send the table moving in almost imperceptible increments away from me, perhaps in protest of the clutter. Eventually, I have to pull the table back. I do this over and over. Sort of a calisthenic.

FL: What inspires you?

DM: As far as what inspires a story, I get my ideas from other people’s lives. It might be something I observe, read about or hear from another source. A coworker told me about an incident with a wicked teacher she had in elementary school and now it has a place in my next novel.
I’m also inspired by other people’s art. Seeing a good movie or even a bad one can be fuel for my own desire and need to create. A play, a painting, a performance – all of it inspires.
Mostly it’s just a matter of being open to the world around me.

FL: If you could have dinner with any writer, living or dead, who would it be? Why?

DM: I’m going to take the liberty of choosing one dead writer and one living writer.
Dead writer: Virginia Woolf. Who wouldn’t want to sit across from those mournful eyes, the exquisite, almost abnormally, long face, and the pointy-tipped nose that Nicole Kidman’s prosthesis in The Hours failed so miserably to reproduce. The question is would I go back in time as a 21st century Filipina-Mexican-American woman to sit in Woolf’s early 20th century drawing room at her heavy oak table, its claw feet gouging the Persian runner? Or would she meet me in my kitchen where I could offer her store-bought lumpia rather than tea and scones on my flimsy pine table? Would my 58-year-old self meet her at 58 years old, a year before she walked into the river? Or would I catch her ten or so years earlier, just after the publication of A Room of One’s Own? Regardless, the fantasy would have to include a personality enhancement for me – smarter, less shy, and not so easily intimidated by the famous and the scarily intelligent.
Living writer: Sherman Alexie. I’ve seen him perform several times. He’s rock-star cool and completely charismatic. He’s committed to social justice. He speaks to youth groups and participates in community fund-raisers, which is how I happened to take a two-hour poetry workshop from him one evening a few years back. My friend had given me her ticket she had won in an auction. I enjoyed the workshop, but I’m not a poet and my dislike for sharing raw work aloud was reflected in the peevishness of my language. A year or so later, Rick Simonson of Elliott Bay Books introduced me to Alexie when we were both in the store. We chatted briefly, made small talk and I lamely reminded him that upon hearing my “poems” in that workshop he exclaimed, “Wow, that’s some depressing shit you’re writing.” Given the number of people he meets, I’m sure Alexie remembers neither of these encounters. Now, if I were to have dinner with him, I would be, if not enchanting, decidedly unlame. Maybe I would have dinner with him and his family at his home, or maybe we would eat at a bistro in his neighborhood. We would split the tab.

FL: Do you have any other creative talents? Do you paint? Play a musical instrument?

DM: I’m afraid not. When I was young I used to draw a lot and I was pretty good except that my renderings lacked imagination and everything was so tentative. Plus, I don’t have a good sense of color as someone might guess by my wardrobe. I’m all neutrals, drab greens and hushed blues. Regarding music, my sister and I took piano lessons when we were kids because my mother wanted us to be musical. After about a year, she sold the piano and bought a stereo. I’m really a one-trick pony, spectacularly lacking in other talents.

FL: What are you working on now?

DM: I’m doing some revisions on the last story in my collection called Natalie Wood’s Fake Puerto Rican Accent which was a finalist last year for the Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction. I was never quite happy with the ending of that story and I’ve been trying to give it more punch. I also have a few unfinished essays that need attention and I’m two-thirds of the way done with the first draft of another novel. Oh, yeah, and I try to update my blog twice a month. Stop by if you get a chance −

Thanks Donna! Learn more about Donna Miscolta and her novel, When the de la Cruz Family Danced here.