Interview With Michael Johnson About His New Biography “Can’t Stand Still”

By Robert Drinkwater

Michael K. Johnson is Professor of American literature at the University of Maine at Farmington. His primary research areas are African American Literature and the literature and culture of the American West. He is the author of Black Masculinity and the Frontier Myth in American Literature (University of Oklahoma), Hoo-Doo Cowboys and Bronze Buckaroos: Conceptions of the African American West (University Press of Mississippi), and, most recently, the biography of African American singer Taylor Gordon, Can’t Stand Still: Taylor Gordon and the Harlem Renaissance (University Press of Mississippi). He is co-editor (with Kalenda Eaton
and Jeannette Jones) of New Directions in Black Western Studies, a forthcoming special issue of the Journal of American Studies, and he is also co-editor (with Kerry Fine, Rebecca Lush, and Sara Spurgeon) of an anthology of criticism, Weird Westerns: Race, Gender, Genre, which is forthcoming from the University of Nebraska Press. He is a former President of the Western Literature Association.

Tell Me About Taylor Gordon.

He was a spiritual singer in the 1920’s. He was born in Montana in 1893 and he moved to New York eventually. He wrote an autobiography called Born To Be that was published in 1929. So, I guess to say who he is, is that he is a singer and songwriter. His period of fame was during the 1920’s into 1930’s.

What Made You want to Write About Him?

The area that I work in is African American Literature and I’m interested in black writers who grew up in the American West, and I don’t have to go too far into that topic to find Taylor Gordon. In Born To Be , the first third of his book is about his life growing up in White Sulphur Springs, Montana. I just found his story to be astonishing in so many ways. There are so many weird things that happened. He became associated with John Ringling of Ringling Brothers Circus, because John Ringling was looking for an available hand in Montana and Taylor Gordon was around and it managed to get that leading into a job offer and travel around the country. That’s actually how he got to New York because Ringling was stationed there.

How would you describe your writing process?

This is a biography and I found this much more difficult than doing literary criticism. With literary criticism, there’s a book, and I basically write about it and it’s very focused on that one thing. With a biography, I sort of had to keep in mind with everything, from 1893 to 1971. I had to keep track of all those details. Once I got up to speed, I was fine. It was a different sort of experience than writing about a book because I can pick that up after not writing about it at any point during the semester, but with a biography, it’s harder to that because I had all these pieces of paper that at some point had to be in my head. If I took two months off, a lot of errands would need to be get done. I don’t have any special techniques or anything, I just get up and do it.

What did you learn from this experience?

I learned that just because you think that there’s nothing there, that doesn’t mean there’s no reason not to look. I continually found information that I didn’t know. For instance, I did not know that Taylor Gordon was involved in radio broadcasting, but I began finding all of these listings kind of like how there are listings of T.V. programs. It was like that with radio broadcasts. Another thing that struck me was that there are projects out there that people don’t know about because they don’t think there’s anything there. A lot of things that seem non-existent just haven’t been looked for. That’s another thing, if you’re learning about the African American west, a lot of people think that there’s not much there, but once you start looking, you begin to start finding things.

What projects are you currently working on?

There are two things. Taylor Gordon had a sister, Rose Gordon and she lived her entire life in White Sulphur Springs, Montana. My original concept for a biography was to write about them both. However, I realized that if I did that, then this book would be too long. Also, the direction of their lives ended up going so differently, so I’m going to do a biography on her life. She made a living writing for the local newspaper and she’s a really interesting person. The other thing that I’m currently working on is about weird westerns. A weird western is kind of like The Walking Dead, so sort of like these hybrid genre stories like Westworld. That’s what I’m currently working on right now.

You can buy Can’t Stand Still from Barnes and Noble here.

Interview With UMF English Major Amber Soha

Why did you decide to be an English major?

  I have always been so inspired by the enthusiasm of all of my English professors. That, combined with a love of reading, interpreting, storytelling and writing are why it was a no-brainer for me.

What brought you to UMF?

            I had settled and grown roots in this area, and I wanted to try the college experience again, so it seemed only logical to apply to my local university. I had actually dropped out of UMF many moons ago, and I was given a second chance—the type of opportunity that doesn’t come along very often—which was further reason for me to believe that UMF was the right place for me. 

What do you plan on doing after you graduate?

            I am considering grad school at some point, but I am not sure yet. I am hoping to find work as an editing and content manager, but I’m not settled on any particular position at this point. I am always searching for the potential things I can do with my degree, and there are so many!

What is your favorite thing about being an English major?

            I get to do what I love! From reading to discussing (sometimes arguing), and the skills I’ve learned about effective communication, research, citing evidence and critical thinking.

What is your favorite English course that you have taken so far?

Such a difficult question! So far, I really love the English courses that have been cross-listed with one of my minors: Women’s and Gender Studies, and I think that part of this is because there’s always such lively discussion at this intersection.

Interview With UMF English Major Billie Rose Newby

By Robert Drinkwater

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What made you want to become an English major?

I actually didn’t start out as an English major. I came here as a creative writing major. I found that my English classes were also very engaging and were very intellectually interesting to me. I decided to pursue both English and Creative Writing as a double major and I do not regret that choice.

What brought you to UMF?

I’m from Delaware, which is quite far away. I knew I wanted to go into creative writing. I went to check out schools down south, I went to California. I realized I wanted to go to New England. I love the cold weather and the snow! UMF is one of the three creative writing programs in New England. It was also one of the best school tours. I went on a tour in February when the ground was covered in snow. I loved it. I also came here because I wanted something new.

How has your time as an English major here been like for you?

It has been a lot of reading which is wonderful and difficult at times. I know how to speak English, but there are so many interesting things about this language. I’m still learning the intricacies of language.

What do you plan on doing after you graduate from UMF?

I’m constantly changing my mind about what I want to do after college. I’m building up skill sets that I can virtually go anywhere with my degree. My current plans are communications and international travel.

What has been your favorite English class been at UMF so far?

That’s a tough question, but in terms of what I learned the most in, I’d have to say linguistics. I’ve improved so much in my understanding of the English language and other languages. Another class I enjoyed was Misty Krueger’s Transatlantic 18th Century Women Writers course that I am taking this semester. It has introduced me to a variety of rather obscure literary texts that I may not have encountered otherwise. The discussions are engaging and the material we are reading is fascinating.

Book Review: Recursion

By Robert Drinkwater

One of the latest bestsellers of 2019, I felt myself immediately drawn to Recursion by Blake Crouch. A novel about memory and time travel that is sure to grip you from the start. This story has two point of views, Barry a detective who is investigating this new disease going around called False Memory Syndrome, or FMS. A condition in which people have false memories of a completely different life. One woman for instance has vivid memories of the last ten years being married to a man and living in a completely different location. After realizing that thee ,memorizes are false, she has a mental breakdown and commits suicide. The other point of view Helena, is a scientist who has worked nearly her entire life to build a memory chair. A device in which you can go back in time to any vivid memory you have and relive your life from that point.

This was a compelling story from start to finish. Both Helena and Barry were likable characters with realistic goals and motivations. Eventually these two characters stories connect with each other and there is a bit f a doomsday vibe to it. It is up to them to save the the world from destroying itself. This novel involves time travel and a lot of times I feel like this idea gets stale, but in this case, it was intriguing and it made for a compelling plot.

While FMS is a focal point in this novel, it is not the main plot. I thought the source of this disease would be the main mystery throughout the novel. However, FMS does play an important role as it is seen as this new disease that hits people at random (or so it seems). We see this with Barry towards the beginning as he becomes paranoid of what is real and what isn’t. He begins to question the things happening around him. This happens to more people later on in the sory as we soon find out what is causing FMS.

One of the main themes of this novel was the dangers of technological advancement. While Helena’s motivations were to help people like her mother who were suffering from dementia, there were others who wanted to use the chair for their own personal gain. At times, this reminded me of something that would be on Black Mirror, portraying technology in a bleaker viewpoint with thought provoking ideas. We explore concepts such as ‘what if we could go back in time and save a family member or do something in you life differently’. In this case going back in time has drastic consequences.

Overall, I felt like this novel had a unique approach to time travel. Without going into too much spoilers, I’ll just say that multiple timelines were involved, a concept that was both fascinating and confusing at times. I also felt like there was decent development with the two main characters and their relationship. This is a book that I would recommend for anyone who is into science-fiction, speculative fiction, or just a fan of Netflix’s Black Mirror. Recursion is a fast paced novel that deals with time travel and it is sure to make you wonder what would happen if advanced technology such as the memory chair got into the wrong hands.

You can buy Recursion on Amazon for 13.99:

Interview with Elisa Albert

By Robert Drinkwater

Writer Elisa Albert will be visiting UMF on Thursday, November 14th in The Landing at 7:30pm. She will be this semesters last visiting writer. Albert has written three books: How This Night is Different, a collection of short stories published in 2006, The Book of Dahlia, published in 2008, and her most recent novel, After Birth, published in 2015, that tells a story of motherhood and alienation after pregnancy. Her fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Tin House, The New York Times, The Guardian, The Gulfcoast, The Rumpus, and much more.

1. How would you describe your writing process?

Writing is a practice, and practice is by definition an ongoing thing. Process is about engagement. The external noise has to be muted at some point to allow for that. And the butt has to be in the chair a certain amount. I don’t know any shortcuts.

2. Do you ever get writer’s block? If so, how do you deal with it?

I suspect “writer’s block” is a pseudonym for something else. Fear or anxiety or self doubt or perfectionism or entitlement or what have you. It’s important to keep those things in their place, and not let them run the show. I’ve never really bought into the idea that I might sit down one day in front of a blank page and have no way to enter into an engagement with the process. I might not love what I find when I enter into engagement with the process, but it’s my job to work it out, is all.

3. When did you realize that you wanted to be a writer?

I wanted to be a writer when I was a kid, because I resonated with books and with reading, but I thought I should be practical about it and do journalism or work in publishing or something, so I tried those things, but stories and novels were always where it was at for me.

4. Has your writing been influenced by your own personal life?

Sure, somewhat like one’s bowel movements are influenced by what one eats.

5. What types of books do you usually like to read?What are you currently reading now?

I’m currently loving Virginie Despentes’ trilogy Vernon Subutex. Epic and sprawling and contemporary in the best way. I adored Edward St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels. I wish everyone would read Doris Lessing’s essays. Jennifer Block’s  recent journalistic masterpiece Everything Below The Waist is “necessary”. Rebecca Schiff’s stories are hilarious and intelligent. I guess these types of books fall under the category of no-bullshit. I guess I enjoy an absence of bullshit.

6. What inspires you to write?

Power dynamics. Birds. Weather. Relationships. Time. History. Ancestry. Music. Food. Yoga. Desire. What I find when I look into other peoples’ eyes.

The Book of Dahlia is available on Amazon

After Birth is available on Amazon