Interview – Introducing Swarm Fiction Editor Brandi Wells!

Swarm is thrilled to have Brandi Wells on staff as our newest editor! Brandi is the author of Please Don’t Be upset (Tiny Hardcore Press) and the forthcoming This Boring Apocalypse (Civil Coping Mechanisms). She is one of our two fiction editors, and her first selection was K. Jane Child’s “Cake,” included in our Summer 2014 issue. Poetry editor Brandon Amico sat down with Brandi to ask her a few questions about her writing life and literature tastes, so enjoy this glimpse at our newest member of the staff, and help us welcome her!

Brandon: What writer do you wish you had found much earlier in your life? What writer do you wish you had avoided altogether?

Brandi: I’ve just started reading Angela Carter. What the fuck was wrong with me? Why didn’t I get to this sooner? I think I looked at Carter when I was younger and the sentences felt “hard” so I moved on. But maybe it’s nice that it’s all so new and fresh to me now.

I don’t think the Chuck Palahniuk books I read when I was younger did me any great service.


What’s the story that has most impacted your writing?

That’s almost impossible to answer, but I can name the story that has impacted the stuff I’m working on lately and that’s the title story from George Saunders’s Pastoralia. The tone/voice of the whole thing really gets me going.


Tell me about the first submission you’ve ever sent to a journal. We all had to have a first submission, and there’s almost always something regrettable about it, so spill.

I have no idea what my first submission was. I was doing a lot of stuff wrong. I think some professor told me to submit in new courier font, so I was doing that. I was also writing really awkward cover letters where I lied and referenced work from their publication that I hadn’t actually read. I was such an embarrassment. Maybe in five years I’ll think what I’m doing now is embarrassing. It’s all fine.


What grabs your attention when you’re reading a story—what do you look for, what do you run screaming at the sight of?

I guess I like something that’s interesting right off. A story that begins in medias res.

I pretty much never want to read a story about a guy trying to pick up a girl at a bar. But I see those here (and in other slush piles). Dudes, please quit writing boring stories about the girls you did or didn’t sleep with. I don’t want to read writing about your girlfriend or your ex-girlfriend’s body.


Enough of those softballs, here’s the question everyone wants to know: What are your five (5) favorite fruits?

I think my favorite fruits, beginning with my most favorite, are: Watermelon, Pluot, Plum, Blackcherry, and Grapefruit. Close behind are Blackberries, Honeydew Melon, Peach, Nectarine, and Banana.

I take issue with anyone who says their favorite fruit is strawberry.


What the crap is a pluot?

It’s a hybrid plum-apricot. Most grocery stores have 3-4 different kinds of pluots.

If you have miraculously lived this long without eating a pluot, I recommend you correct this gross oversight.


Will do. By the way, can I keep this whole exchange as part of the last question?

If you’re comfortable admitting you are an adult who hasn’t heard of a pluot.


Interview with Wah Ming Chang

Wah-Ming Chang has received grants from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Urban Artist Initiative, the Bronx Writers’ Center, and the Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts. Her fiction has appeared in Mississippi ReviewArts & Letters Journal of Contemporary Culture, and Kartika Review; her nonfiction in Words without Borders and Open City, an online magazine published by the Asian American Writers’ Workshop; and her photography in Open City and Drunken Boat. She lives and works in Brooklyn.

Ian Sanquist: What inspired this story?

Wah-Ming Chang: In 2009, I went to China for the first time to meet my father’s family, and in the middle of the trip, which happened to fall on my birthday, I decided at the last minute to sail the Yangtze to see the Three Gorges Dam, which is the subject of another project, another folly. The details in this story’s first paragraph are more or less what I experienced—the Sichuanese dialect a whirl of aggressive singsong around me—but everything after that paragraph is fantasy. I do own a copy of Rewi Alley’s translations of Li Po, though, a gift from a friend named J., not K.

How are ancestry and tradition important to your writing?

Some years ago I revisited Borges’s labyrinths and Kafka’s Great Wall while at the same time reading up on Chinese historiography, and began writing narratives about a perceived ancestry and tradition. I have a tendency towards sentimentality and nostalgia, and prefer to keep these aspects of myself out of my writing (though not necessarily with success); but with this revised perspective I was able to approach both ancestry and tradition—family lore, history—with a clarity I hadn’t be able to access before then. So the personal story, a porous inwardness, can’t help but emerge whenever my narrator starts a journey, whether inside a cultural labyrinth, along a historical wall, or down a fabricated river. None of which belong to her, but none entirely independent from her either.

This piece is from a longer work. Can you tell us about that?

I’m working on a series of biographical sketches called This, Too, Is Life. My narrator, traveling her way through a yearlong sabbatical, meets various figures, alive or dead, who have influenced her in some fashion. These are encounters with ghosts—the ghosts inside her mind, the ghosts haunting her surroundings. What is the point of travel if one doesn’t meet such characters? This question is not one she poses, though, but is my own.

There is an encounter inspired by the actor Leslie Cheung, in “Heartbreak,” which Kartika Review published earlier this year; there is one featuring W. G. Sebald during a lull at a dinner party; one in which the descendant of the founder of Shaolin Temple seduces the narrator with his music; one in which Lolita and her mother show up on a tour bus in Oaxaca; one in which Mao the swimmer, before he became Mao the chairman, disappears during a race across the Yangtze River; one in which Anna May Wong, traveling through China for the first time, suffers through a night of second-rate Peking opera; one in which Lu Xun, on the eve of his death, is having trouble finishing his final essay, called “This, Too, Is Life.” There’s an encounter with my grandmother, who died in the early 1990s, and another with my father, who, healthy at the age of eighty-four, of course will never die. These are biographical sketches, as I say; these are also dreams about and deep desires for communication and travel, but mainly about ghosts.

In this story there is a somewhat mysterious figure named “K.” Who is this? Is it a reference to Kafka?

In the story “Heartbreak,” my narrator meets a stranger who shares a love for the actor Leslie Cheung. I hadn’t given this stranger a name, but when I submitted “Moonbeams” to Swarm, I decided that he would trail the narrator throughout her travels as her guardian angel, and so would be named K., because we must think of Kafka and his precursors wherever we go, always.

Conversations with Kafka, a memoir in which Gustav Janouch recounts urgent conversations and leisurely strolls with his mentor, Franz Kafka, and recently reissued by New Directions, with an enthusiastic introduction by Francine Prose, is the first book in my library to inspire this. The second is John Berger’s Here Is Where We Meet. The third is César Aira’s Ghosts. The fourth is &c., &c.

Interview with Amorak Huey

Amorak Huey is a former newspaper journalist who teaches writing at Grand Valley State University in Michigan. His poems can be found in The Best American Poetry 2012, The Southern Review, Hayden’s Ferry Review, The Collagist, Linebreak, Rattle, and other print and online journals. Follow him on Twitter: @amorak.

Dillon Welch: In your poem “The Lion Tamer Resolves to Start Telling the Truth,” you hit on some pretty powerful details about an unfortunate career and how it affects both the speaker and those around him. Obviously a lion tamer is a fairly unusual example of a job that would have a whole host of social repercussions. Do you feel that this poem rings true for other, more conventional careers as well?

Amorak Huey: In this poem, I was thinking about public faces and private fears. About performance. How we have to go out in the world and put on a show no matter what’s going on inside. This is true for all of us but would be exacerbated, seems to me, in any show-biz kind of career, including the circus. Is this a kind of dishonesty? What happens if we stop lying to people around us? If we stop lying to ourselves? Is this even possible? I’m guessing probably not. Anyway, those are things I was thinking about when I was writing this one.


Before you sent “The Lion Tamer Resolves to Start Telling the Truth” to Swarm, I read another one of your poems in Bluestem, titled “The Tight Rope Walker Gets High.” Do you intend on coming out with a circus-themed collection at some point? If so, is there a tentative title you had in mind?

In fact, Hyacinth Girl Press recently accepted my chapbook The Insomniac Circus, which includes “Lion Tamer” and “Tight Rope Walker” and a bunch of other circus-performer poems with punny titles. It will be out sometime in 2014.


You’ve mentioned previously that you had a 15-year stint working for a newspaper. What was it that made you decide to leave?

I was lucky enough to leave on my own terms because I was in the right place at the right time to be offered a teaching job. I pretty much feel like newspaper business left me before I left it, though. The job was changing so much, and the things I loved about the work were vanishing, the decisions increasingly being taken out of the hands of local editors and writers and given to SEO consultants hired by the corporations.


Do you think your time with the newspaper gave you a perspective that other writers may not possess?

Plenty of writers bring a clear-eyed perspective on the world to their work, so I don’t claim anything particular that others don’t have. I think and hope I have a journalist’s sense of connection and story, but how that manifests itself in my poetry is probably for others to judge. I think all those years working for newspapers did give me a deeply felt sense of compression, clarity and communication. They also made me view the Oxford comma as an unnecessary extravagance.


If I dig hard enough, will I find an old article or two written by a younger Mr. Huey?

They’re out there. In Tallahassee, I covered a handful of random sports events: Florida State baseball, the MEAC basketball tournament, a Nike Tour golf event. In Kentucky, I covered health care and county government as a beat writer for the newspaper in Elizabethtown. After that, I worked mostly as an editor, with fewer bylines beyond smaller pieces and a column here or there. A good Lexis-Nexis search will get you to some of those articles, I’m sure, though I’m not sure the reward would be worth the effort.


Amorak’s poem, ““The Lion Tamer Resolves to Start Telling the Truth”,” appeared in Swarm’s Spring 2013 issue.

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