Welcome to The Burning Hearth! For those of you who are new to the site, I’m so glad you’ve found your way here. For those of you who have visited The Burning Hearth in the past, thank you for returning.
For the last several months, I’ve been thinking about the direction of my writing and my blog and have decided to turn my focus of both towards speculative fiction. While I love writing and reading realist fiction, my authentic storytelling voice lives in the speculative. I am a child of the speculative, open to both the seen and the unseen. I have, for my whole life, felt as connected to that other place from where I came, as much as I feel connected to the place where I am. (Maybe all of our lives exist in the liminal space between the two.) I have out of body experiences. I have visions and lucid dreams. My childhood home was haunted and that, combined with the events of my life, have left me knowing that there is more to this whole picture than what is seen by our eyes, heard by our ears, or felt by our touch.
Add to all of this, my deep affection for all things Star Trek from the age of 5 on and it makes complete sense that where I’m most at home telling the stories I want to tell is in a world of other worlds where strange possibilities exist and unknown species inhabit foreign landscapes.
Beginning this month, The Burning Hearth will be focused on interviewing writers of speculative fiction. I will also be talking about Ursula K. Le Guin for the next twelve months as I’ve decided to do a deep dive into her works for the next year. Every interviewee will be asked a question that focuses on one of Ursula’s writings or interviews, and at the end of each interview I will share the books I read during the month.
I am honored to announce that writer and founder of Pioneer Valley Writer’s Workshop, Joy Baglio, agreed to be the first interview of my relaunch. Joy, who has a BA in Literature and Creative Writing from Bard College and an MFA in fiction from The New School, currently lives in Northampton, MA. She came to writing as a young child around the age of 10 and shared with me that she wrote stories and poems all through her childhood, including, she said, “two (bad) novels in high school before I began to study writing more seriously.”
Writing is a passion she claims to have never questioned, and after interviewing her, I believe her. There is deep love of writing and reading and teaching that is evident in how thoughtfully and naturally she responded to my questions. I enjoyed getting to know Joy through our interviewing process and when you finish reading this interview, I’m certain you will feel that you’ve made a new acquaintance whose career is one you will want to follow.
BH: One of the reasons I wanted to interview you is that you are doing so much. You’re the founder and director of Pioneer Valley Writers’ Workshop, you’re a teacher and an editor, and you’re working on your own writing. Whew!
If you would be so kind, please tell readers about Pioneer Valley Writers’ Workshop and what all you’re doing there.
JB: I began Pioneer Valley Writers’ Workshop (PVWW) after moving from NYC to the Pioneer Valley region of Massachusetts (Western MA). I wanted to create a writing community that felt simultaneously rigorous and craft-centered, as well as welcoming and open to writers of all ages, levels, genres, backgrounds, and career stages. When PVWW first opened its doors in 2016, it was just me, teaching fiction, and several local authors joined as instructors shortly after that. Now six years later, we’ve grown to include over thirty writing instructors, 40+ virtual and in-person workshops each season in a range of genres; a year-long program, and hundreds of writers, students, and participants who come through our (mostly virtual) doors every year.
Past and current workshops include seminars and intensives on novel-writing, historical fiction, publishing, memoir, revising poems, flash fiction, humor writing, worldbuilding, speculative fiction, writing about death, playwriting (new this fall) and many others. I occasionally teach, but mostly I work behind the scenes to keep everything running.
One of the things we’re most excited about is our (virtual) Year-Long Manuscript Program, now in its fourth year, for writers of book-length projects who want to make serious headway toward finishing their manuscripts. The program offers year-long workshops in all genres, and we host an open house every Fall.
In addition to running things, I host Community Writing at PVWW – a free, monthly, generative gathering on the first Friday evening of every month (via Zoom), open to writers of all levels and genres. Community Writing always includes prompts, time to write, and a chance to meet other writers, discuss our processes, and be part of a creative community. It’s always an energizing hour and a half, and since our switch to Zoom at the start of the pandemic, attendance has grown to include writers from all over the country, occasionally from beyond as well. In addition to this, I host frequent readings and author events – always free and open to the public. Last fall, because of our virtual existence, we were able to feature Nigerian writer Uchenna Awoke, author of the forthcoming novel The Liquid Eye of a Moon – who joined us live from rural Nigeria to share his work.
You can read more about us, the Year-Long Program, and browse our current workshop listings and events on our website linked above. We have a mailing list you can join for anyone interested in receiving updates on new workshops, events, and when applications open for the Year-Long Program. We’re also on social media and post there frequently. We plan to remain mostly virtual indefinitely, so everything we do is open to writers everywhere.
BH: How do you fit your own writing into all of this?
JB: I start almost every morning with my own writing, and putting it first like this helps me prioritize it, as otherwise it’s easily pushed aside. My other work – whether PVWW, editing, or teaching-related – is always much easier for me to get into, so working on my writing projects first, for as many hours as I can, guarantees that writing happens daily and remains at the center of my life. This is also possible because I work for myself and from home, so there’s a lot of flexibility as to how I can arrange my day, even though my other work can and does pile up regardless.
BH: How do you feel teaching and editing enhances your writing?
JB: I think there are philosophical, conceptual layers that get engaged when we try to break a concept down in order to teach it, or discuss how a particular story or excerpt is functioning. When we create art, we’re often engaging in the process somewhat subconsciously, nebulously, mucking around and experimenting, seeing what works. When we teach writing or any artistic discipline, we’re forced to put our processes and tools into language in order to explain them to others, yet I also find that this breaking down sheds light on my own practice as well.
BH: As a teacher and an editor, what have you found to be your most common corrections?
JB: I wouldn’t necessarily call it a correction, but something I frequently find myself talking about is the importance of clarity, especially in the opening lines. It may seem obvious, though sometimes in our zeal to hook and astound and/or to create mystery, we can forget about the importance of clearly grounding the reader, yet nothing matters more to a reader’s investment in the story. If a reader is struggling to figure out the basics of who, what, where, or when, it’s hard for them to care about much else. Other frequent feedback I give has to do with issues of pacing, structure, scene development, sentence-level flow, too much “showing” of what’s unnecessary, or dramatic moments that aren’t set up or built toward.
As far as speculatively-inclined stories go, I often find myself asking writers as to the real urgency around the speculative element, and to make sure that element is functioning deeply and emotionally in the piece and isn’t there just because it’s fun or edgy. It’s often helpful to ask yourself why the story needs to have the speculative element at all. How would the story be told without it? Is the speculative version the only real way the story can be told? What’s at the emotional core of the story, and how does the speculative element help articulate that?
BH: As a writer, what are your most common mistakes?
JB: I wouldn’t call them mistakes so much as early challenges or perhaps missteps, as who knows what their eventual role will be in helping me get to the end? Yet I’d say I often stumble around trying to identify what a story is trying to be early on and can too eagerly force it down a path it doesn’t want to go down. When that happens, it’s not so much that the writing itself is bad, but more so that something about the piece isn’t resonating or clicking into place: it’s either not pointing clearly toward a center, or it’s pointing to the wrong center – “wrong” in that the story itself is giving mixed messages.
BH: Another reason I reached out to you is that you write speculative literature. As you and I have talked, I’ve recently decided to put realism and flash to the side and focus on speculative novels and short stories. My authentic voice is one of other realms, other worlds, and specters, and I had to sift through a lot of personal hang-ups before I could say, in the spirit of confession and owning one’s truth, I am a speculative fiction writer.
Have you always wanted to write speculative literature?
JB: I love that epiphany of yours, and I’m honored you reached out! As far as always wanting to write speculative literature, I would say yes, although I didn’t think of it that way early on, and I’ve certainly had some roadblocks and periods of confusion along the way. As a child and high school writer, I was hugely into fantasy, science fiction, and anything magical, although to me, those were just regular stories, the kind I read and was most interested in writing. As a senior in high school, I wrote a “novel” called The Curse of the Dragon Queen, complete with a D&D-style map of the world I created. Though when I started studying fiction in college, I entered into what I think of now as my “bleak realism” phase – where I ended up writing stories of slight domestic “offness” because that style seemed to get the most praise from my professors and classmates, and this temporarily threw me off a bit as to the kind of fiction I really wanted to write. What happened, I think, was that as a younger writer still learning a lot about craft, I was able to write most compellingly about the stuff close to my life, which makes complete sense. There must be something of ourselves and lives in the work if it’s going to feel alive, so most good writing often starts there. Though all through college, the weird, fantastic ideas kept coming in even as I honed my quiet, realist stories. For me, as a younger writer, it felt harder to bring that grittiness of my lived experience into my more fantastically-inclined work, and it wasn’t until some years later that I felt I had the control and skill to begin to write the kind of stories I really wanted to tell, in the ways I wanted to tell them.
BH: Was there a signifying incident that sent you back toward the speculative?
JB: I’d say what brought me back to my love of the strange and fantastic in fiction was first encountering Aimee Bender’s short story “The Mother Fucker” during my time in The New School’s MFA program. There’s actually nothing overtly speculative about this story – though the voice and POV are what tips it away from realism and gives it its off-kilter sensibility. I remember thinking at the time, Wow, writers are allowed to do this? I had a similar reaction when I first read Karen Russell’s first short story collection, St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, also during grad school. These stories weren’t just playful and beautifully-written, they exposed the inherent strangeness of being human without trying to over-explain or provide neat answers.
That epiphanic first encounter with Aimee Bender and Karen Russell led me down a rabbit hole: I re-read Angela Carter with a new perspective and discovered Italo Calvino, Kelly Link, George Saunders, Laura Van Den Berg, Mary Gaitskill, and countless other writers who felt distinctively and deliciously off-kilter. I began thinking more in “What ifs?” My perception of what stories could do and the effect they could have began to shift. I guess this could be seen as more of a return to what I’d always loved and gravitated toward in literature, albeit this time with what felt like a kind of permission to dive in myself.
BH: Many writers of speculative literature, myself included, often say that one of the reasons they are drawn to the genre is that it allows them a freedom to explore issues in a way that realism does not. If for no other reason, realism puts it all too close to home.
I might be making a bit of a stretch here, but speculative fiction is like therapy. One of the hardest things about therapy is that we cannot get outside of ourselves and look back, watching ourselves play out our dysfunctional behaviors. We are inside ourselves, with every fear we have telling us we are right in our actions. We defend because we are certain in the validity of our reactions to our triggers. A therapist, well a good one at least, takes us to a point of surrendering our egos, allowing us to remove judgment and observe ourselves with a clearer eye. I believe speculative writing allows for a similar dispassionate observance.
Does this play a role in your desire to write speculative literature as well?
JB: I love that analogy and think it’s completely apt. Yes, I’d say there’s a certain amount of processing of my own life, anxieties, fears, issues, etc. that happens through my writing, in particular through the speculative. Part of the fun of bending and distorting reality for me is addressing what feels urgent in my life through an ostensibly unrecognizable lens, yet one where I’m still connected to the emotional core of the issue or situation. I ultimately think that storytelling is a process that’s deeply connected to our attempts at growth, at understanding who and what we are. As George Saunders says: “craft, like prayer, can function as a form of ritual self-expansion.”
I also feel drawn to the speculative because, as a reader, I feel it challenges our habitual thinking in more interesting ways. Humans tend to fall easily into habits and patterns, and when stories are told realistically, it’s easier to fall back on these habitual thoughts and responses. The speculative allows us to deal with the same themes, but through a different lens, and that often leads to an awakening of insight, and/or frees our responses from the well-worn tracks of our habits.
Though I’ll also add this: I don’t have anything against realism; some of my favorite writers and works of fiction are realist. Each story, as it opens, creates a set of rules for itself that will govern what it cares about and how it will function, and for a well-crafted realist story, a speculative or fantastic element might be excessive or in poor taste. But I do think the most interesting stories for me have some central strangeness to them, and by that I mean something that pushes us outside of the way we usually see or think, such as the voice, language, or POV in many Aimee Bender and George Saunders stories, even though nothing actually fantastic or magical is occurring.
BH: I had so much fun talking with you several weeks ago. I was fascinated when you shared with me your interest in how communication between this realm and the spirit realm happens. Your short story featured in this interview, which we’ll get to soon, deals with this idea. Share what it is about this idea that is so compelling to you.
JB: I’ve always been fascinated by borderlands, threshold, portals and doorways, as places where a lot can happen: discovery, transgression, transformation, and also communication. They’re spaces that open up lots of narrative possibilities, also lots of imaginative and worldbuilding possibilities. Beyond this, the novel I’m working on has to do with communication between ghosts and the living, so communication across these liminal spaces has been on my mind a lot, both logistically as to how spirits might try to get our attention and what those interactions might be really like, as well as the bigger questions about their desires and motivations.
I think I’m interested in writing about these topics largely because they take some of the sting and fear away from the fact of death. There’s also something comforting and hopeful to me in imagining and writing these different versions of what might be.
BH: You also shared with me about your fear of the dark.
I would love it if you shared some of what you told me about how Yaddo might be haunted.
JB: Yes, I’m definitely not a fan of being alone in the dark, especially in a new environment. Right before the pandemic, I was lucky enough to spend a month at Yaddo, in Katrina Trask’s room in the mansion, and while palatial in the best way during the day, the room at night definitely activated my fear-of-the-dark, and I ended up sleeping with the lights on. Also, while I was there, a few other residents had interesting experiences: one in particular told me she woke up with the distinct sensation of children near her, asking for cookies. This becomes much more relevant and eerie the more you delve into the Trasks’ tragic loss of all of their children on the grounds of the estate. So yes, it’s easy to go down that road and imagine the otherworldly inhabitants present. There were also several times when I felt what seemed to be a Presence in my room, though I’d add that it never felt threatening. My partner Eric would stay on the phone with me late into the night and he started reading Katrina Trask’s poems aloud, and I was blown away by how infused with love and positivity they were. After the death of their children, the Trasks’ mansion burned down, and they chose to rebuild it. In the great hall there’s a mosaic of a phoenix rising out of the ashes, with the inscription “unconquered by flame Yaddo is reborn for peace.” And ultimately the whole place has a very empowering, creative, and positive energy.
BH: I have done one residency at Write On, Door County and absolutely loved it. While I did share my residency with a poet, it was not filled with other writers and artists.
Can you share how you feel residencies have helped you grow as a writer?
JB: I had two residencies in the fall of 2019: Yaddo, followed by Vermont Studio Center, and I have nothing but superlatives to say about both. They were each a mix of solitude, uninterrupted writing hours, meals prepared by (and this felt miraculous) someone else, and time spent getting to know the other writers and artists. Both residencies showed me what I was capable of accomplishing when given long stretches of uninterrupted time to focus only on writing, and that I could easily fill day after day with my creative work if given that opportunity.
Though I’d say I came away from both residencies most energized and inspired by the people I met, and the joy of working and living alongside them in intermittent solitude and socializing. I feel like it’s impossible not to be expanded by the whole experience.
BH: As I explained in my introduction, I’m devoting this year to a deep dive into the writer Ursula K. Le Guin and am bringing her into my interviews in one way or another. I thought a lot about how to do that for your interview. Then, I began thumbing through her book The Last Interview and Other Conversations and found this gem I had underlined.
“Stuff has to go down inside of you, get into the dark and turn into something else, before you can use it in art. If you use raw experience, straight experience, you’re doing journalism which is another discipline.”
My question to you is: how comfortable are you in your own darkness?
JB: What incredible words by Ursula, and I wholeheartedly agree. That’s exactly why I love twisting and distorting and exaggerating in fiction: that process just feels like it gets us closer to the emotional core of the experience and creates something that (for me) feels more artful, more interesting to contemplate from all angles.
I also love your question and think it’s an important one for all artists, all people, really. We try so hard to hide the parts of ourselves that we think others won’t accept, and of course that’s natural, even though we all have these shadow sides, these scared, misunderstood parts we don’t feel are worthy of love and acceptance, or that we need to grow or shed, because our attachment to that fear is never who we really are, or want to be.
I actually am just finishing a final draft of a short story, an inversion of the Persephone myth, about gaining comfort in our own darkness, and I’ve been thinking a lot about these ideas. The story uses the literal fear of darkness and dark spaces (which I’ve mentioned earlier is a fear I’ve had – somewhat irrationally – for years) to explore the deeper question you’re asking. My fear of (literal) darkness has been an annoyance that’s persisted into adulthood, causing me to leave lights on while away on residency or other ridiculous things like that. Though lately (and this is what gave rise to the story) I’ve gotten tired of this fear: it’s no longer something I want attached to me, and I’ve started to face it in very intentional ways. I’ll walk through a dark bathroom and resist turning on the light or sit in a closet with the door closed for minutes, and it’s been interesting to watch how this has led to an unmasking of other fears too, deeper than the actual fear of the dark. In other words, my fear of literal darkness – a fear of danger, threat from the unknown, that which I can’t see – parallels and is tied to deeper emotional wounds I’ve struggled to face throughout my life: aloneness, abandonment, fear of my own inability to survive and/or cope with loss. I suppose it shows how our fears often deposit themselves in what feels like geological layers, and when one is unearthed, it leaves the next exposed.
The story of mine that you ask about below – “They Could Have Been Yours” – is also a piece that channels something that feels connected, in way, to my own darkness. While I’m not the character in the story and wouldn’t do the types of things she does, she grew out of a part of myself I was afraid of for a long time, namely my intensity and capacity for obsession. This character feels like a sharpened angle of myself, a shadow side accentuated. There’s definite darkness to her, yet she’s also deeply alone and scared that she will always be alone, that she’s missed out and lost her own chance at happiness. I suppose this is braided with my own fears and past fears, and I think the reason this particular story felt so liberating to write and why it flowed out of me so urgently and naturally is that it doesn’t try to hide from that darkness.
BH: Finally, this interview turns to your latest story “They Could Have Been Yours” coming out in the current spring 2022 issue of The Missouri Review. I grew more and more fond of this story as I moved through it. As I commented to you, I feel you are deft in your handling of social media in this piece. You show us a character, much like ourselves, becoming absorbed, engrossed, and maligned by social media. Never before, in human history, have we had access in this way to our former lovers’ lives, or anyone’s lives for that matter. That lack of access alone, spurred a person to move on. But in this case, jealously, loss, FOMO, and self-recrimination are flamed and inflamed to the point of desperation and inertia in your protagonist as engagement after engagement in rapid fire is announced. I can’t help but think of how different this story would be without social media.
I wonder if we will soon cross a point (or maybe we already have) where it is impossible to write a contemporary story absent the impact of social media. What are your thoughts?
JB: You’re absolutely right: Never before in history have we had these windows into others’ lives, and I think we’ll definitely keep seeing social media (and other technologies) appear in contemporary stories, though I do think the conversation will continue to change as social media and technology evolve.
As for my thoughts on social media in this particular story: I was intrigued by the way we vilify voyeurism while also participating in systems that enable it, that essentially make all of us voyeurs to a certain degree. In crafting the story’s initial premise, I essentially tried to escalate the concept wherever I could, as a kind of thought experiment: What if, given the voyeuristic window of social media, someone who wasn’t over an ex saw his engagement announcement? (As I’m sure happens all the time.) What if it wasn’t just one person’s announcement, but many, thus compounding the effect? What if there was a magical device that then exaggerated the absurdity of social media, intensifying the voyeuristic experience even more? (Enter, the cursed ring which allows the protagonist to “haunt” the fiance’s of her exes.) So the ring functions in the story as a kind of more extreme social media experience, and it’s my hope that it also speaks to some of the ways social media can become all-encompassing and world-engulfing, and to the nature of addiction in general.
BH: I love the voyeurism of the protagonist once she discovers the power of the ring. And where that voyeurism leads once she is capable of being a spirit, following and haunting the women engaged to her former partners. That you bring her to that moment when she is between K and Katrina at their wedding is brilliant. You arrive at this moment with perfect pitch and tension. How do you know when you have the screws tightened just enough?
JB: That’s a great question, and also such a difficult one to answer, because each piece is so different and always plays by its own rules. With this particular story, I was lucky that it flowed naturally and quickly toward that culmination, which isn’t how every piece progresses. Most of the time, I feel like I’m leading a stubborn horse.
For me in general, I would say it’s usually a mix of pushing the story as far as I can, then taking as much space as I can, then returning back to it after days or weeks, with fresh eyes, then repeating this process until I can’t stand it anymore. Though this process works especially well if you have lots of in-progress stories you can shuffle between. I also think a lot about what George Saunders has written about revision, namely that it’s “a chance to inflict your best self on the prose over and over again.” There really isn’t any way to go wrong with a process of endless, repetitive tweaking. And as a mildly OCD, detail-obsessed person, this might be my favorite part of the writing process! I think you know the screws are tight enough when, after lots of drafts and edits and space, you pass your own screening, namely nothing snags you or feels saggy or cringy. Then the process of inflicting other trusted readers on the piece begins and you learn even more.
BH: Changing gears a bit, who or what has had the largest impact on you as a person? (The answer can be a who and a what.) How have they or it affected you as a writer?
JB: It’s impossible not to immediately think of my mother, in answer to this. She raised my sister and me by herself after my parents’ divorce, and somehow in addition to working full time as a social worker in inner city Buffalo also managed to give us the most magical, wonderful childhood full of music lessons, figure skating, summer canoeing expeditions, a Waldorf education, and lots of love. She is perhaps single-handedly responsible for setting me up for a creative life.
Also impactful on my life: Up through eighth grade, I went to the Aurora Waldorf School, in the suburbs of Buffalo, and I’m still grateful every day for those years. There’s nothing like waking up excited to go to school, where mornings always began with singing and recorder-playing, and hands-on artistic projects like knitting and painting and play rehearsal happened every day. My Waldorf education was foundational to who I am as an avid learner, perennial student of the world, and all-around creative person.
It would also be impossible not to mention my partner Eric here, as the biggest influence on my adult life. We’ve been together twelve years, and he’s been with me every step of the way through much of my journey as a writer and has influenced and inspired me in all kinds of ways. He reflects my enthusiasms back to me, times a hundred, and we’re always nerding out on all kinds of topics. Eric is always the first reader of my work, a frequent brainstorming partner, and a phenomenal editor with an intuitive sense of narrative.
BH: Before signing off, please share what is on the horizon for you.
JB: I’m someone who has lots of projects going at once and is always trying to push them all forward simultaneously, resulting in a glacial pace – and yet, this seems to work for me and gives me adequate space from each while I work on the others. So right now, the task at hand is to finish my novel-in-progress alongside the remaining short stories to complete a first collection. I’m really excited to share both of these books with the world, and I’m aiming to get final drafts to my agent by the end of this year.
I also just found out that I’ll be Writer-in-Residence next spring at the Jack Kerouac House in Florida. So, I’m excited to get lots of writing done over the three months I’ll be there, living and writing in Jack’s space.
I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this interview as much as I enjoyed bringing it to you. Joy plumbed her depths in her responses making this a more intimate interview than I could have hoped for. Big thanks to her sharing, and big thanks to you for reading.
Books by Ursula K. Le Guin I’ve read this month.
Changing Planes is a fun, at times funny, thought provoking look at other worlds that in the end are representations of this world, including aspects of this world we would, perhaps, rather not look at. These stories brought to my mind Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. My personal favorite in the collection is “Seasons of the Ansarac.”
Conversations on Writing, which was written alongside David Naimon, whom I will be interviewing in August, is pure joy to read. And the book is beautiful. The trust and respect Ursula and David shared is apparent within these conversations.
The Last Interview and Other Conversations is full of insights into the person who was Ursula K. Le Guin.
Stay safe and well until next month, when I interview Scottish speculative flash writer Neil Clark.