Peg Alford Pursell is an award winning writer and the founder and director of WTAW Press. Her book, SHOW HER A FLOWER, A BIRD, A SHADOW was published by ELJ Editions to excellent reviews nationwide in March 2017 and soon sold out. A second edition was published by WTAW Press (Why There Are Words) in September 2017. The book was honored by Poets & Writers magazine’s “Five over Fifty” annual feature in December 2017, received the Honorable Mention from the Eric Hoffer Prize and won the 2017 Indies Book of the Year for Literary Fiction. Peg talks about writing, starting a press and reading series, and her new book of stories, coming out in 2019.
Q. Your first book, SHOW HER A FLOWER, A BIRD, A SHADOW is a short story and hybrid prose collection. The stories are described as "lyrical and brief, focus on the small wonders of the world, the importance of family, the need for belonging, and the nature of identity." Can you say a little about how you combine the short story format with the distilled precision of poetry?
The stories in “Show Her a Flower” are quite short, ranging from a four-sentence story, for example, to a three-page story, but with many taking up no more than a page. So the brevity common to poetry is an obvious shared feature: the challenge is to express the breadth and depth of a thing—most often a relationship—fully within the constraints of brevity. Relationships carry an inherent dramatic tension and can provide the narrative arc in the brief story. Similar to poetry, the stories pay close attention to language, its sound and its rhythm. Often, a piece has its genesis in the sound of a phrase that runs through my head and asks to be written down. As in some poetry, the stories rely on imagery which relies on details. Details are more than statements of observation; they’re suggestions that allow the reader to enrich her imagination by connecting to our own experiences. In their distillation, the stories beckon the reader in, ask her to co-create the stories with her own knowledge and understanding.
Q. SHOW HER A FLOWER, A BIRD, A SHADOW won the 2017 INDIES Book of the Year for Literary Fiction and is in a second printing. Can you say a little about this different set of muscles you use as an author, rather than a writer? By that I mean--putting on your marketing/publicity/extrovert hat. Do you step away from writing then?
The role of “author” is, yes, different from “writer.” Like many writers, I find it a challenge to come up with the extroverted persona from within that’s necessary to promote a book. In this day and time of social media, though, it’s possible to see how difficult it is for others to do the same, and so that knowledge is a bit of balm and eases the struggle to some extent. While I’m engaged in promoting a book—or any published piece—I continue to write daily: it’s essential to privilege my writing self. Otherwise, I’d feel utterly depleted.
Q. Are there certain habits of writing you've cultivated? For example, do you write at certain times, certain places? Do you submit your work to literary magazines in batches?
The primary habit I’ve cultivated is waking before 5 each morning to write, putting that before all other activities in the day. I’ve learned the hard way that if I don’t give my writing the first moments it’s likely to fall by the wayside, and if that happens, I’m out of sorts and question why I’m bothering to do any of the other things that I’m doing. How necessary is it to respond to all these emails? Why should I care to eat lunch? What are all these activities adding up to that seem so mundane and meaningless. So I write first thing, for as long as I can, and that length of time will vary. Most often, the writing time never seems long enough, but I like that too, because I’m then eager to delve back in the following day. For a time, I had a partner with whom I had a pact to send out batches of work on a weekly basis: on Thursdays we submitted finished work and reported to one another where we’d sent our stuff. This was a wonderful process, and I especially loved celebrating with her our acceptances. Unfortunately, she didn’t have much finished work and after her handful of finished stories were published, she had to drop out to prepare new work to send out, and I have yet to reestablish a regular pattern of sending out work again.
Q. You founded the national reading series Why There Are Words (WTAW), which you originated in Sausalito in 2010. What gave you the idea of starting the reading series, and how has it evolved since then?
In 2010 I’d just moved to California and was interested in meeting other writers and in developing a writing community so that I could shift writing into a more prominent place in my life. I’d had a succession of quick moves around the country just before, as well as a succession of family issues (trauma-drama), and I needed help bolstering belief in the significance of making art—I needed to see and know others who believe in and value the creative act of writing. Also, I suffered intensely from shyness, social awkwardness, and fear of public speaking, and I thought throwing myself into this endeavor would mean that I would have to become inured to at least my fear of public speaking once and for all. Since 2010, the series has now grown to become nationwide with branches in Los Angeles, New York City, Portland (OR), Pittsburgh, Austin, and New Orleans, with more planned for the future.
Q. You are founder and director of WTAW Press in Santa Rosa. Like Virginia Woolf, you are a writer, but also an editor and publisher. Why did you decide to start an independent press? What has it been like to read, edit, reject, and publish work as an independent publisher?
I started WTAW Press essentially because I couldn’t bear knowing that so many writers I came in contact with were having so much difficulty finding publishers for their wonderful, amazing, important manuscripts. While I didn’t plan to publish these writers’ manuscripts (I read all work without knowing who’s written it), I knew that there needed to be more good independent publishers available and I knew that the reading series (Why There Are Words) would provide a good foundation for helping the books I published receive attention and get into readers’ hands. So after much research on publishing, including talking with other indie publishers, I launched the Press in 2016 and published our first two titles in 2017. Two titles, by the way, that have each taken the top prize in their respective categories, the short story and the creative nonfiction, from the Independent Book Publishing Awards.
It’s exciting and satisfying to publish books that I know will deeply move readers. I love entering into the editorial relationship with an author and helping to develop the manuscript according to a shared vision of what the book is and what it’s meant to become. Saying no to a manuscript is one of the hardest parts of the whole enterprise in the case of one I’d like to publish if I were able to bring out more books at this time in the young life of the press. I like to believe that the authors of such manuscripts will persist and that these books will find their homes.
Q. Are more writers blurring the lines of prose and poetry? For example, do you see flash fiction and "micro-memoir" gaining in popularity?
I’m not sure I’m the best person to ask about the popularity since I’ve been drawn to and immersed in the very short form for a long time. The prose poem and flash fiction have been around forever. Given the popularity of memoir in general, it makes sense that the short, compressed memoir would be a thing. Beth Ann Fennelly’s Heating & Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs is an excellent example of a recent book of the flash memoir.
Q. You earned your MFA in writing from Warren Wilson. How did that experience change your writing?
Initially, immediately after completing the degree, I decided my writing sucked! Before going into the MFA program, I’d won a few story contests (The South Carolina State Fiction Award and The South Carolina Academy of Artists), but after my studies, I sent out no work—I could only see the “flaws” in my stories—and when, years later, I started submitting again and receiving rejections, I was convinced that my writing was abysmal. I was completely unprepared for the reality that writing is much more often rejected than accepted. This wasn’t part of my education, and I didn’t understand that luck had been involved in those early awards. The program focused specifically on writing, the art and craft, and not on the business of publishing. I learned a great deal about craft, about how to read like a writer, and so learned how to continue learning and growing as a writer, while developing my intrinsic respect and love of the process of writing.
Q. Who are your favorite dead writers?
Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Harrower, Elizabeth Bowen, Henry James, Doris Lessing, Flannery O’Connor, Anton Chekov, Ruth Stone
Q. Okay, now for the living ones. Contemporary writers you admire?
Diane Williams, Christine Schutt, Diane Seuss, Joy Williams, Joan Silber, Nin Andrews, Colm Tóibín, Karen Brennan, Noy Holland, Kevin McIlvoy (oh, the list goes on and on).
Q. What's next for you, Peg? What are you working on?
I have a book of stories coming out in 2019 from Dzanc Books, A GIRL GOES INTO THE FOREST. Currently, I’m working on a novel that’s been in the making for many years, one that previously had taken the form of linked stories. I continue to write micro fiction and prose poems often, and will have a few of those coming out in journals and publications in the coming months. WTAW Press opened for submissions in June, so I’ll be reading manuscripts for the coming months as well as overseeing the press’ fall titles launch. All with great excitement!