Inside the amazing brains of Tony Press, Robert Scotellaro, and Karen Friedland
Tony Press writes fiction when he has questions, and poems when he thinks he has answers: thus, mostly fiction. His collection, Crossing the Lines, was published by Big Table Publishing Company, and an e-chapbook of his poems appears online at Right Hand Pointing. His nominations include the Pushcart (twice), Best of the Web, and the Million Writers Award.
“In a glib, caustic age, Tony Press observes humankind through compassionate eyes. Warm in tone and assured in craft, Crossing The Lines tells tales of human yearning with sensitivity and respect. O’Henry and Malamud would surely approve.”
~ Jon Sindell, The Roadkill Collection
BLM: What role does Buddhism play in your writing?
TP: I stumbled into Buddhism about thirty years ago, and there’s no question it has made me a more kind and generous person. In relation to writing, my practice reminds me, and helps me, to pay attention, and when I do that, I see life more clearly and I could put myself in the shoes of others. As Percy Shelley wrote (roughly), A person, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; must put oneself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasures of the species must become one’s own. I’d say that’s pretty good advice for a writer, too. And then there’s Mary Shelley (I don’t really think Shelley was a Buddhist, but …. ), from Frankenstein (in the Creature’s own words, as he observes people who are struggling: … when they were unhappy, I felt depressed. When they rejoiced, I sympathized in their joys.
Finally, I’ll say that when I’m off in nature on a meditation retreat, the conditions are often just right for receiving, and then scribbling down, the first glimpses of stories or poems.
BLM: Where were you when the Challenger exploded?
TP: I honestly don’t recall where I was when I heard about the Challenger explosion but I’ve looked up the date, and chances are quite good I was either going to jail or to a courthouse. That’s what I did most mornings in January of 1986, in my role as a criminal defense attorney. For many years, I felt was being helpful, and I enjoyed it, too, but then both of those things began to fade, and I went back to school to become a high school teacher. This poem looks back at those days:
Third Strike (first published in 2015 in Right Hand Pointing)
When they ask
why I no longer practice law
When they praise me for
becoming a teacher, for
leaving “all that money” to
work in “one of those under-performing schools”
When they wonder what
criminal defense was really like
I recall a client
who was sentenced, me by his side,
35 years to Life
(may apply for parole only after 29.75 years)
seven dollars worth of crack cocaine
to a cop
It’s been nineteen years.
BLM: Will you share a paragraph of the novel you’ve been working on?
It was the silence that takes over when the stereo has played its last song and no one feels like getting up to change the record. There were eight people lounging – some stoned, some bored, some both – in the big living room in the Madison house. It was no surprise that Jake was the one to break it, but what he said, and how he said it, that was unexpected.
Robert Scotellaro’s poetry and flash fiction have been published in over 300 books, journals, and anthologies. He is the author of seven literary chapbooks, several books for children, and five flash fiction collections most recently What Are the Chances? (Press 53, 2020.) He was the recipient of Zone 3’s Rainmaker Award in Poetry and winner of the Blue Light Book Award for his fiction. He has, along with James Thomas, co-edited New Micro: Exceptionally Short Fiction (W.W. Norton, 2018). Robert is one of the founding donors to The Ransom Flash Fiction Collection at the University of Texas, Austin. He currently lives in San Francisco with his wife, artist and art historian, Diana Scott.
BLM: What do you love about the very very short story format that you are so well known for?
RS: Two words that come to mind are focus and impact. With a very short piece of fiction there is much that dwells between the lines, is implied, many times alluded to through telling details. This creates a kind of partnering with the reader, a lingering imagined possibility or set of possibilities.
I also like that though the pieces are short, that aspect of “allusion” can create permeable borders, can resonate long after the last note is struck. I’m always fascinated by the multitude of strategies writers employ so that a flash story can be satisfying–small without feeling slight.
BLM: Tell us about where you were when Robert Kennedy was assassinated?
RS: I was working at a company called REF Dynamics that subcontracted with the government to make parts for aircraft. We all gathered around a small TV in the office and were allowed to leave early to watch the drama play out at home. It was a profound loss. A lot of shock, gasps, and tears.
BLM: Which of your short stories is your favorite and why?
RS: I won’t preface this with: they are all my children… (though it is tempting). But one I like a great deal is from my latest book, Ways to Read the World: Stories in Triptych. It is a flash piece called “Squirm.” It involves two people who meet at a “Lightning Strike Survivors” support group.
I am often drawn to exploring our human need for connection and understanding. Our connections to each other, to various belief systems, to the bigger world around us and the one we navigate within, striving to comprehend, make sense of this great “unfolding” that life is. All of that takes place in the context of a catastrophic event: being struck by lightning. It is a story that has many nuances and details, and explores some issues perceived through a lens that, in many ways, is universal.
Gary feels smited (biblically) though he tells himself he shouldn’t. That it’s just a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time and isn’t worth a rotten fig to think otherwise. The clouds after all are machines of science and those jagged volts that crackled down to ravage every cell were just that: science on the move.
Mourning Becomes Electric
He meets Frida at a Lightning Strike Survivors support group, sits across from her in a hard brown folding chair. She says to the group, “Forgive me if this sounds harsh, but I don’t give a rat’s ass about religion.” She says this after someone shares that they feel punished and blessed at the same time. “I burned a Bible soon after, at a motel,” Frida says. “In the bathtub with a can of lighting fluid. You should have seen it: all those “thees” and “thous” going up in smoke.”
They are in a semicircle with their cups of coffee, looking at her, stricken. Gary gets up to hug her. When he touches her sweater he gets a small shock of static electricity and pulls back. Only the two of them know what’s happened and laugh. The only person in the group who’s been struck by lightning twice gazes at her with a slightly twisted mouth and says, “Damn! Set a Bible on fire in a bathtub. You sure like playin’ with fire, sister.”
Gary is a mattress salesman and late that night at the strip mall he lets Frida in and they bounce on each bed/mattress in a back floor room for “firmness” and “reliability.”
“I kind of liked it when they had squeaky bedsprings,” Frida says. “When beds talked back.”
“You like being bad, don’t you?” Gary says.
“Bad is good,” she says. “Goody two shoes went flying out of me as I was lying there on the ground unable to move.” They are nearly naked, but when he goes to embrace her, she weeps.
“Ever since, you know—it happened—things taste better,” Gary tells Frida.
“I know,” she says. They are in her studio eating burritos and drinking beer. “You think the electricity is like a really good spice?” She says, smiles.
He half smiles. There is a black bean pressed against his teeth. “No, I mean it. Coming that close to death. Feeling its breath on you, maybe spices things up a bit after, you know?”
“Hmm,” she says. Her paintings are all around them on the walls—huge blocks and swirls of color, bold and shooting down the canvases. She tells him how after she was struck she was lost for a time, working at her uncle’s music box factory. How the same ditzy tunes kept getting stuck in her head. How it nearly drove her nuts, but then she returned to an early love. She sweeps a hand demonstratively around the room.
He feels foolish when he gives her a nerdy thumps up. She goes on and on about something or other, and he stops listening but continues nodding.
The rain seems to nail him deeper to the ground, and when he comes to, he tries to move a finger, then two, and then his head, slowly. He is face down in the mud and there is a worm. A worm squirming past his vision. A watery eviction no doubt. It pauses by his face as if to catch its breath. Gary is still disoriented and wonders if he is really alive or… No, it’s a fucking worm, you idiot. The thunder is everywhere at once it seems and the searing flashes highlight the worm’s slow departure. He wants to scream: “Wait!” But wait for what? It’s a worm after all, and not his life, as he knew it, leaving, not his faith, not his old sense of who he was, or why he is. It is just a worm is all. Just one squirmy little wet departure. Nothing more.
“Pass the hot sauce,” she says.
A grant writer by day, Karen Friedland’s poems have been published in The Lily Poetry Review, Constellations, Nixes Mate Review, Writing in a Women’s Voice, Vox Populi and others. One of her poems was nominated for a Pushcart Prize and another was displayed on the walls of Boston’s City Hall. Her books are Tales from the Teacup Palace (Cervena Barva Press) and Places That Are Gone (Nixes Mate Books).
"Friedland's observations give readers a heightened awareness of life's small but critical moments with subtle humor, robust femininity, and acute kindness."
~ Renuka Raghavan, The Face I Desire
BLM: What is your favorite theme in a movie, book, story, or poem?
KF: I’m not sure if it’s a theme, per se, but I love and admire writing that takes small moments of awareness/insight, and expands them out to address the pain and beauty of the human experience. I’m thinking of work by contemporary poets like Naomi Shihab-Nye, Dorianne Laux, Ross Gay, James Crews and Sarah Freligh, whose work is just so beautiful and humane. I also love hybrid work that explores a singular human consciousness as filtered through popular culture, literary criticism, etc.—such as Deborah Levy’s Living Autobiography series, and work by Chris Kraus, Maggie Nelson and Olivia Laing. Also—I love really gripping, beautiful-written fiction, such as Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet—that book blew me away! Lastly, I’m a huge fan of Virginia Woolf, whose ability to seemingly get inside an individual mind continually amazes me.
BLM: Can you talk a little bit about how cancer has changed your attitude about life?
KF: After several months of increasing abdominal pain, I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in mid-November, 2021—so I’m still fairly early on in my cancer “journey”. This cancer is life-long and frequently deadly, so it changes your perception of the time you have left on earth completely. After the initial panic subsided, I found myself delving into books about mindfulness and taking a Buddhist approach to life (Pema Chrodron and Saki Santorelli were key authors). I now find myself living in and appreciating the moment/the day, versus fretting about bad statistics and recurrences (or “going down the rabbit hole of fear” as a friend put it).
Mainly, I feel intense gratitude for the tremendous amount of support and love that I’ve received these past few months—from family, friends far and wide (and unexpected), colleagues, my medical team, ovarian cancer support groups and more. More than anything, I am grateful for this wave of support and caring—for the thoughtful gifts, cards, books, food, flowers, rides, daily check-ins, “chemo mail”—and find that any resentment, negative thoughts or petty judging I may have been guilty of in the past has gone. Cancer has made me a better person.
BLM: Which poem you’ve written is your favorite, and why?
KF: I’ll go with “Ridiculously Alive”, which was included in my most recent book of poems, Tales from the Teacup Palace, published by Cervena Barva Press in 2020. Publisher Gloria Mindock honored me by nominating this poem for a Pushcart Prize. Why is it my fave? I suppose it’s just very “me”—rooted in my neighborhood and home, touching on the meaning of life. Funny, because I really thought this poem was a throw-away, and almost didn’t include it until I tweaked a line or two.
I am thinking about
the small spaces I inhabit
and the tiny things
I see every day—the very stones on the road.
I am thinking
that I will continue to reject
that which insults my soul—
this gets easier every year.
I am turning my mind instead
to everything that is now living—
my husband on the couch, reading the paper,
the dogs, softly snoring beside us,
the late summer crickets, with their fading serenade.
Everything, I know, dies
but this does not grieve me right now—
Because at this moment,
everything is so brilliantly,
almost ridiculously, alive.