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Author Q&A: Baret Magarian

Baret Magarian’s fiction has been published in World Literature Today, Panurge, Darker Times, Voyages, El Ghibli, Sagarana, the White Fly Press anthology HOTell and Journal of Italian Translation, and his poetry has appeared in Collectivo R, Semicerchio, Contrapasso, Iris News, and Stanza 251. His story “The Pain Tapestry” was staged last year in Florence and will be performed again in Italian in Turin by the noted Italian-American actor Roberto Zibetti in April of this year.  Magarian has also published journalism in all the UK broadsheets and is a composer of piano music that is in the vein of Alkan and Jarrett. His writing has been praised by Jonathan Coe, the British novelist and biographer, and by Bruce Hunter, the Canadian poet and novelist. His collection of short stories Melting Point will be released later this year by the Italian publisher Quarup and his EP of original songs is available for download on Amazon and itunes (Floto- We Specialize in Broken Dreams). He can be contacted at baretbmagarian@hotmail.com.

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TBL Author Q&A Series: Baret Magarian

This is one in a series of brief interviews with a diverse array of writers, editors, and other industry professionals. Check back over the coming months for more!

 How did you begin your writing career? 

I first started writing when I was about eight years old—I discovered that I had some kind of natural ability to make things up. This later played a part in my rather creative History essays at school, when I would invent history, which I found easier than actually memorising facts and events. I carried on writing bits and pieces, poetry and attempts at novels during my teens. Then when I went to university, I wrote a 3 hour play which I staged myself and it was a success. At that point, I realised I had some ability, I suppose.

After leaving university I became a freelance writer, turning out book reviews for The Times, The Guardian, The Observer, and writing features for The Independent and The New Statesman. This gave me a great boost and some measure of self-confidence. At around that time I began writing a novel, which took years to finish. In the meantime, I published a story with Panurge magazine and my contact with John Murray, the editor, helped me a great deal in terms of giving me focus. I subsequently moved to Italy and began teaching creative writing, which is both blessing and curse for a writer, as it can facilitate but also inhibit one’s own work. Then I published more stories online and in print, and much in journals and collections in Europe and America. I am now trying to find a publisher for my novel, which I am rather proud of. After much re-drafting and tinkering it has finally settled into its best possible version.

What the your main sources of inspiration for your fiction?

I’m not sure what my main sources of inspiration for my fiction are, as I think so much of what I write about comes from a rather intangible, amorphous place inside my brain or soul or being….I do know that certain moments in life leap out when something is said or someone looks a certain way or a combination of things come together—for example, a breeze, the movement of a tree and the sight of a swimming pool—and this combination triggers an idea or a mood or an emotion. From that a story or a world begins to emerge. A lot of it is just down to thinking and meditating.  New experiences, travel, books are also very important. The five senses too. And being on the edge of things, feeling fear, feeling lost, severed from one’s compass and map and guidebook: scary experiences also deliver precious material and insights.

You write in different genres. Is there a particular genre/style that interests you the most?

It’s true that I write in different genres—that just seems natural to me because I am interested in different approaches to writing. I don’t think there is a particular genre that interests me most but I suppose I am interested in what all genres can potentially do, which is to chart internal territory and movements from innocence to experience, from oblivion to awareness in the characters. I am drawn to writing that says the unsayable, that articulates that which lies beyond the threshold of experience. 

You have a writing style that could be considered ornamental in the modern world of minimalism. Is this a conscious artistic choice?

My writing style is certainly complex and even difficult, I suppose. However, I want to make it clear that I detest flowery writing. I have always sought to be poetic and absolutely precise at the same time. I think that I want to write with all the registers and possibilities of the English language and I am aware that these days language’s richness is in ever increasing danger of dying out. The way I see it is that a writer should be able to demonstrate his or her own mastery of the tools available and that means testing words, breaking boundaries, forging new ways of saying things. So, yes, this is my choice. I suppose I also personally prefer writing that is rich and textured, just as I would prefer to be in a drawing room rather than a garden shed.

You are not just a writer but also a musician. Do you think interacting with other art forms, especially music, has influenced your writing style in some way? If so, how?

It’s true that I also play music and paint. There is some kind of influence on my writing from the other arts, particularly music. Music is, of course, the superior art, in my view, because it can evoke emotions so powerfully—whereas writing relies on ideas and forms and structures that are intellectual. I suppose music’s sheer force is always hovering around my mind when I write and perhaps I try to infuse my writing with some of that immediacy. When I listen to music it instantly transports me to its world, its rhythms, its atmospheres—it’s a very powerful thing and it allows me to forget where I am, and who I am with, and everything around me.

I think literature should also transport the reader and throw him or her into another dimension, another reality, that world of the story, which should be every bit as exciting as the real world, and in some cases, goes further than reality in that fiction can reach places that the other arts can’t in the hands of the best practitioners. So even though music is superior at evoking emotion, literature can ultimately draw connections and create structures that can make sense of life and relationships—in that respect it is the most illuminating art of all I think. Painting and cinema are also great loves and my writing is definitely very visual in some ways—I am in love with description, but not when it loses sight of the plot and story.

Who are some of your literary influences?

My literary influences are vast and different. When I was younger I always loved the stories of H. G. Wells and Arthur Conan Doyle. I was influenced hugely by Kafka when I first discovered him at the age of 15. I was also knocked out by 1984 by George Orwell. Later on I discovered European writers like Milan Kundera, who I loved for a while. A number of key novels have really impressed me—Herman Hesse’s Steppenwolf, William Gaddis’ The Recognitions, John Fowles’The Magus, Roberto Bolano’s 2666, Stefan Zweig’s Chess. I seem to respond more to European writers than British ones I have to say, and I find the European sensibility more in tune with my own. 

What is your one piece of advice for beginning writers?

My one piece of advice for writers starting out is to carefully construct and wear at all times a metaphorical helmet when you send your work out to anyone because it’s a heartless business and you should be ready to be knocked about and bruised. The world is full of aspiring writers and it’s harder than ever to get published so you should be prepared for the battle; that way you are less likely to be defeated! But it is a battle and to say otherwise is foolish. 

What are your goals? What direction do you see your writing taking now, in terms of both craft and publication? 

My immediate goal is to find a publisher for my novel, which is a multi-layered affair and hugely ambitious—which, of course, makes it harder to sell. But I have had some wonderful feedback about it, from people like Jonathan Coe, the highly regarded British novelist. At the moment I am at work on different ideas—a play about adult babies, a story set in Mexico, and I am trying to develop an idea for another novel.  I have a lot of stories and poetry that I am still sending out there. Essentially, I would just like to keep producing good material and find people who can appreciate it, both in terms of readers and publishers. But I’m at the stage now where I’m a bit like an old boot, pretty tough, which is a good place to be. I think I know my own strengths and limits. The trick is to develop the former and try and eradicate the latter!

Dana Diehl earned her BA in Creative Writing from Susquehanna University. She received her MFA in Creative Writing at Arizona State University. Dana has served as editor-in-chief of Hayden’s Ferry Review and The Susquehanna Review. She is a blog interviewer for The Collagist. She has taught composition and creative writing at Arizona State University, Florence Prison, and the National University of Singapore. Her honors and awards include a Completion Fellowship from Arizona State University, as well as Piper Enrichment Grants to attend the Port Townshend Writers Conference and the Rutgers Camden Summer Writers’ Conference. In 2014, she received a Piper Global Fellowship to teach Creative Writing at the National University of Singapore. She has been awarded a Glendon & Kathryn Swarthout Prize in Fiction and was an Indiana Review Fiction Contest Honorable Mention.

TBL Author Q&A Series: Dana Diehl

This is the first in a series of brief interviews with a diverse array of writers, editors, and other industry professionals. Check back over the coming months for more!

 How did you begin your writing career? 

When I was ten, I wrote a short story called “The Hanging Tree” that won my local library’s “Write and Illustrate Your Own Book” contest. The story was bound and placed in the children’s collection for a year. It had a number in the card catalog system and everything. I remember thinking to myself at the time, “Yep. I’ve made it.”

Is there a particular style that interests you the most when writing?

I have stylistic obsessions that I can’t seem to shake in my writing. I love lists and fragments. I love parallelisms, and I love borrowing vocabulary from the sciences. These obsessions are an important part of my writing, but I’d like to learn to write without them. I worry that these obsessions have become or will become crutches. I admire writers who can confidently craft long, sprawling sentences with multiple movements. I want to be better at that.

What are some of your literary influences?

Lately, I’ve been feeling most inspired by my writer-friends and mentors. I feel lucky to have studied with some incredibly smart, funny, creative, and hardworking people, and often their influence on me feels more real and tangible than the influence of writers I’ve never met.

To name only a few of these influences, Matt Bell’s new novel, Scrapper, is beautiful and powerful. Adrienne Celt’s lovely book The Daughters just came out. Silas Zobal’s short story collection, The Inconvenience of the Wings is available now. And Sarah Gzemski’s poetry chapbook Centralia will be out with Porkbelly Press later this year. The energy of these writers is contagious and makes me want to work harder and better.

I’m also influenced by book arts. While in grad school for writing, I took printmaking classes with Dan Mayer, a talented printmaker and book artist who teaches at Arizona State. Working with ink and paper, having ink-stained hands and paper-cut fingers, gave my appreciation for stories and books a new dimension. I think more about font than I ever did before!

What is the most important element for crafting a good story?

The answer is whatever makes an author feel awake and electrified. For me, that means chasing the mystery. It means chasing the image or idea that feels just out reach. It’s like holding a still-live fish, slippery and freshly plucked from the river. You are always at the same time holding it and not holding it. That’s the feeling I chase. I’m trying to grab hold of that fish.

Is there anything you look for in a publication when you’re submitting your work?

When I first started submitting to journals, I’d go to Newpages’ “Big List of Lit Mags” and pick journals at random. That method helped me get to know the literary magazine world, but it did not guarantee a high rate of success.

I’ve gotten a lot better at submitting since then. Now, I spend a lot of time looking at the publication lists of writers I admire or feel I have things in common with. That gives me an idea of the publications that might be open to my kind of work. I also follow a lot of journals on Facebook and Twitter. I want to get to know the personality of a literary magazine before submitting. Certain journals give the impression of being like weird little families, and I love that.

Would you say that being the editor-in-chief of Hayden’s Ferry Review. Do you think this  helped you flourish as a writer?

Yes! Writing is normally such a solitary activity, and working for HFR helped me to feel like I was part of a conversation, a community. It exposed me to writers that I might not have known otherwise. Editing HFR also taught me the goal isn’t just to write a “good” story. The goal is to write a great story that only you can write. We read a lot of “good” stories for HFR, but the ones we published were the ones that excited us, the ones that felt like they were taking risks.

It seems like you have traveled for work quite a bit. Would you say these experiences have shaped your writing?

It’s hard to say. I always expect travel to shape my writing in obvious ways—like one day, I’ll suddenly be writing flash fiction pieces in a Singaporean dialect—but it’s (maybe fortunately) way more subtle than that. I believe that travel makes me a better person, and I think that becoming a better person makes me a better writer. Travel helps me to be more open-minded, less judgmental. Travel reboots my senses.

What one piece of advice would you give a starting writer? 

Find that thing that is weird and unique about your writing, and then become the best at it.