Verbal Conversations

Mat Johnson & Sean Smith

“I like saying stuff that hasn’t been said—that hasn’t been articulated. I like saying stuff that will get me in trouble because it’s exciting.”

2012 Alum, Sean Smith, interviewed author and James Baldwin Fellow, Mat Johnson, during his visit on October 6, 2014. For more of Mat’s work, visit his website.

On Finding Time to Write: “You’re always stealing time. There’s never a perfect time, and so you have this balance because you can’t just sit down and write. You can sit down and type, but you can’t sit down and write.  You have to get into this mode where you’re going to access something good, but at the same time you can’t be so precious about when you’re going to write that nothing ever happens. You have to write through crap.”

On Getting Into the Writing “Mode”: “It’s tricky finding that mode. I like saying stuff that hasn’t been said—that hasn’t been articulated. I like saying stuff that will get me in trouble because it’s exciting. You put something, like, ‘Oh, shit! I can’t believe I just said that!’ You think, ‘What’s going to happen now?’ And that’s fun.”

On Editing: “Usually, I’ll start [writing] a book and I’ll say, ‘Okay, this book is about revenge,’ and then I’ll start telling the story about this guy whose father was killed, and I’ll get two-thirds to the end and I’m like, ‘Oh, crap,  this book is about this guy looking for his missing father, and it’s about fatherly love.’ The story isn’t what you think it’s about, it’s not what you plan it to be—what it is is a culmination of scenes. A big part of writing is realizing that you don’t have complete control over it; you have to step back and realize what you’ve actually written versus what you actually intended. If you try to change it constantly to be what you intended, you can kill the story.”

On Genre: “We talk about literary versus genre fiction; literary comes out of genre fiction to begin with.  When you’re looking at Gulliver’s Travels, when you’re looking at Frankenstein, when you’re looking at a lot of the most important books in the past, we have this collusion. Genres in part are born from literary fiction.  The idea, now, of speculative fiction, of this kind of hybrid of literary fiction and genre fiction–there’s nothing new about it, it’s kind of this re-awakening…no one thinks of Beloved as this ghost story and literary fiction story. No one thinks of 1984 being between literary fiction and post-apocalyptic fiction. So, when they’re successful, they’re taken out of the genre spectrum altogether.”

On Entertainment and its Value in Writing: “I grew up reading comics…the first thing I actually read by my own volition was The Hulk, and that’s when I got into the joy of actually reading, and I didn’t switch to novels until middle school, and that’s where my roots are and not in literary fiction. I think, in part, we don’t think of literary fiction being class-restrictive but oftentimes it is. The fun part of having monsters or having ghosts and zombies is that it attracts a larger audience to the conversation…I do fear that literary fiction has just gotten too damn boring. There are books that bore 99% of the population that I love; I read literary criticism for fun, you know? I know people are bored by that; there are books I love that people just find so dry and that’s fine, but I think this question of entertainment matters. It matters in part because of that class situation. If we start thinking of literature as something that only people that have degrees have access to, that is scary.  If we’re saying that only boring books–only books where there are extended points that you’re going to be bored–are serious, then that hurts literature.”


Claire Lober & Sarah Carnes

“I also like to read as close to another stack of books as possible.”

First year Literary Studies and Psychology double major, Sarah Carnes, interviewed first year Literary Studies major, Claire Lober, at the Fall 2014 Literary Studies Program event, Don’t Read Alone.

Q: What do you like to read?
A: Fantasy–older books, like medieval books (King Arthur), and Neil Gaiman, author of Coraline.

Q: What did you read over the summer?
A: On the Jellicoe Road by Melina Marchetta. I’ll read anything I can get my hands on that’s by Marchetta. I also read More Than This by Patrick Ness over the summer.

Q: When do you read? When are you able to?
A: I read all the time. It’s what I do in my free time.

Q: Do you find that you read differently when you’re reading for fun compared to when you’re reading for class?
A: Yes. Reading for fun is just easier, and when I read for school I feel more focused. But I always read with a pen. I like to underline and pick out quotes.

Q: Do you have a special place you like to read?
A: I’ll read anywhere. I like the quiet, though. I also like to read as close to another stack of books as possible. It helps me read whatever I’m reading at that time more quickly because there are always other books around that I’m interested in. I always want to read more.

Q: Do you know what you’d like to do with your major?
A: I want to be a literature professor.

Josh Brandon & Katy Major

“Anything that has the audacity to challenge traditional prose is just absolutely astounding.”


Senior Creative Writing and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies double-major Katy Major interviewed junior Creative Writing and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies double-major Josh Brandon via email over Fall Break.

Q: What are you reading right now?
A: As this semester continues, the difficulty to find my own time to read and write increases. At the moment, I’m the midst of reading and critically analyzing pieces on craft and form — specifically in the genre of personal essay. I’m at the nexus of my two academic passions: Creative Writing and Queer Studies. So, I’m reading pieces that will inspire me to think further on queering genre. Some specific pieces include: “Solipsism” by Ander Monson (as seen in 2008 anthology The Best American Essays) and “Genre-Queer: Notes Against Generic Binaries” by Kazim Ali (from the anthology Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Non-Fiction).

Q: We’ve been reading texts by experimental women writers in Tammy’s class this semester [ENGL 2231, Experimental Women Writers]. Have you enjoyed reading experimental writing? Which writers have been your favorites?
A: Yes! This class has been so challenging — and at times very taxing on the mind — but in the best ways. I’ve noticed that specific experimental influences crop up in other readings/my thoughts on the readings in other classes. I feel that many of the authors we’ve read so far have had a great deal to add to the art of experimental writing (Stein, Woolf and Dickinson, to be exact). Anything that has the audacity to challenge traditional prose is just absolutely astounding. I’d direct anyone who wants to gain a new understanding on what it means to be hypnotized by non-traditional prose to read The Waves by Virginia Woolf. As our professor from our class, Tammy Birk, has iterated many times to us now: “Sit with this meditation on existence — what it means to be — in bursts…like you would with any collection of poetry.”

Q: Your genre is creative nonfiction. What nonfiction writers do you tend to go back to again and again, either for inspiration or for your reading pleasure?
A: I’ll be the first to admit that the authors/works I seek out have become pretty focused on what I can apply to classes. Once the school year fizzles out, I give into the summer entrancement and then find I’ve spent the summer pretty distant from the literary world. I’ve also transitioned from being primarily a creative nonfiction writer to a combination of creative nonfiction and poetry, after taking an intermediate poetry class with Dr. Terry Hermsen. Authors listed on a course syllabus can be just as influential as what you find on your own. In the genres I write, I’ve been drawn to names like Rita Dove, Virginia Woolf, John D’Agata, Phillip Lopate, Joan Didion, Sylvia Plath, Susan Sontag, Mary Oliver, James Wright, and of course, Emily Dickinson. It’s also to note important or influential writing that might exist in other genres — for me, I can attribute influence to fiction writers such as Toni Morrison and Margaret Atwood.

Q: How do you find new books to read? Where do you look for recommendations?
A: Many of the new books I’ve been reading, as said before, have come from professor recommendations and course syllabi. I also have many friends who’ve explored various facets of literature and will look into books brought up in conversation and, of course, the ever-present power of social media has given me so much literature to divulge in.

Q: Do you use an e-reading device or your laptop to read? How does this compare to reading books? Do you think that the future of your reading lies in the screen?
A: Only in very specific instances will I use technology to read long works. I don’t own a tablet or e-reader, so my options are limited to my laptop or smart phone (which is especially uncomfortable). I like reading physical copies of books. I like the work I’m reading to be tangential. I like feeling of worn or crisp pages between my fingers. That isn’t to say that’s the only valid way to read. However people can access the literature they love is personal and has a lot of surrounding context, so I don’t discount the various ways to consume text. Maybe one day I’ll be the proud owner of a tablet and can voraciously read any and everything — who knows?

Q: What’s the biggest draw for you when it comes to reading? What keeps you coming back to the written word?
A: The biggest draw (and aversion) to reading, for me, is the insurmountable amount of writing in existence. The world of literature exists parallel to the universe, ever-expanding. It’s intimidating, but at the same time exciting and entrancing. In many ways, access to literature and academia is a privileged one, but reading has been a driving force in how I’ve come to gain knowledge and has greatly shaped my worldview. I try my best to acknowledge a diversity of voices when I read to gain an understanding of the world from people who exist in various facts of life. I also recognize that there are so many other thoughts, feelings and voices our there than I can comprehend. And they’re all a different take on what it means to be. And that’s beautiful.

Sarah Carnes & Claire Lober

“I like quiet, green places with trees.”


First year Literary Studies major, Claire Lober, interviewed first year Creative Writing and Psychology double major, Sarah Carnes, at the Fall 2014 Literary Studies Program event, Don’t Read Alone.

Q: What are your favorite genres?
A: I like reading dystopias, poetry, fiction, and teen romances, as long as they are reasonable.

Q: What did you read over the summer?
A: Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell. I loved this book. I read The Fault in Our Stars. I also read If I Stay.

Q: How do you read differently for fun rather than for class?
A: I read faster when it’s for fun. I get as much as I can out of the book. For school, I have to slow down to remember everything for quizzes. I don’t have to as much for college, but it is still faster to read for fun. I like to pull out good quotes.

Q: Where do you like to read?
A: Outside. I like quiet, green places with trees.

Q: What would you like to do with your major?
A: Within my four years at Otterbein as an English major, I want to plot the storyline for a bigger work of fiction.

Lavonne van der Zwaag & Kari Highman

“Spirituality was always a journey of learning … I knew that when I continued asking the same questions about spirituality, I had a new direction to go in for the project.”

Sophomore Creative Writing major, Kari Highman, interviewed 2012 Alum & Fisher Prize Recipient, Lavonne van der Zwaag, at the Fall 2014 Literary Studies Program event, Don’t Read Alone.

Q: What is your writing genre preference?
A: I like to focus on nonfiction. I like it because you can be more open to being vulnerable.

Q: What was your biggest challenge as a writer and how did you overcome it?
A: My biggest challenge during the senior writing project was learning how to put memories from the past down onto paper and asking the honest questions.  As well as how to find my voice and tell a story that was healing to me.

Q: What was the process of the senior writing project like for you?
A: It was great. My original idea was a general story on spiritual aspects in life … but then it became about my personal journey instead.

Q: How did you decide to change your topic?
A: Spirituality was always very prescribed in my life growing up.  It was always a journey of learning … another step on the spiritual path.  I knew that when I continued asking the same questions about spirituality, I had a new direction to go in for the project.  Writing helped me define some of those things.

Q: How has the experience changed you as a person?
A: Now I’m more able to be comfortable with the differences and how much more of myself I was discovering … how much more “me” it had become.

Q: Any other changes you’re more comfortable with now?
A: I’m OK with the ambiguity of it all.  The whole experience was definitely a monumental moment for me.