nonfiction

Meet The Author

Meet the Author: Andrea Roach

Andrea Roach is a writer of memoir, essays, and creative nonfiction who lives and works in Boston, Massachusetts. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from Lesley University and was a finalist for The Writer's Room of Boston Fellowship Award. Currently, she is working on personal narrative essays and the third draft of her first book, a memoir, about the blurred lines of love, family, and violence. Her work has also appeared in Blavity.

1.  When and why did you start writing? What inspires your writing most now?

I fell in love with writing and stories when I was very young. My mother was a reader and she filled my life with books and introduced my to the library. It was an elegant and symmetrical building built in 1898 with massive columns framing the front entrance and smooth stone walls with Renaissance Revival features and globed lampposts out front.   The Children’s Room had its own entrance on the side. I remember the mahogany door and the dark wood bookshelves. The library was the first place I was allowed to walk to on my own as a child, my first experience with independence.

I also consider my mother to be the first writer I knew and while she didn’t write stories or have the luxury to pursue a career for herself, she was the first person I saw put pen to paper. She wrote thoughts, letters, doodles and I of course wanted to be like her, so I began to do the same.  That kind of writing has a healing, cleansing quality to it that I appreciate.

I wrote my first story in the fourth grade with my best friend, Paula. It was a horror story, and it had all the standard scenes we saw in movies, blood pouring out of faucets and running down walls, with bits added from the ghost stories my parents told me on family nights. I didn't have a typewriter so I dictated and she typed. I wish I had saved those pages.

What inspires my writing now is the mystery and magic of telling a story, its movement. Once I surrender to the process of whatever story is trying to be told through me, I find myself on this fascinating journey of discovery that makes everything seem shiny and new. Even after long periods of time trying to figure out how to enter a piece, a stretch that can feel so heavy at times, the moment it comes to me is super exciting.  I really dig that rush. This current draft of my memoir has led me to the depths of human complexity, the pulsing heart of every instrument that Ornette Colemen played and the metaphorical genius of molting cicadas. I can’t wait to see where it takes me next.  

My characters also drive my writing.  I like to write about people I’ve experienced growing up, invisible people, the victims of domestic violence, the homeless men who live in doorways with their trash bags, newspaper-lined shoes and liquor bottles.  These people, who have suffered and struggled everyday of their lives, are full of wisdom and love and I think it’s hard for some of us to look past their tragedy and see their humanity.  Agatha and Aaron are the main focus of my essay but writing about the “Avery girl”, a person I only knew through a story  overheard as a child, who had such an impact on me that I recognized her a decade later, also felt important to the idea of how people, even strangers, imprint themselves on us and shape our viewpoint of the world.

2. Why are you drawn to nonfiction?

This is something else I’ll attribute to my mother.  She loved true crime stories and biographies.  She also turned me on to documentaries when I was young. We’d watch PBS together all the time and she’d scoff at anything that wasn’t “true”.  So that’s probably where it started.  What I like about nonfiction writing is that it demands a fearlessness and an honest confrontation of self.  If you’re going to do this kind of writing, you can’t be afraid to speak your truth and that requires some real excavating. As nonfiction writers, we have to get beneath the surface of experience and our own external representations to find verity. I actually like doing that kind of sleuthing. It helps me grow as writer and a person. 

3.   What events do you think warrant a story or should be written about?

I think you can find a story in almost anything.  I tend toward large heavier landscapes like death, love and abuse, but I also think an essay about the day you accidentally swallowed a fly that was in your coke can could be just as intriguing as going to the wake of the woman your uncle killed if the writer is able to connect it to the human experience in a meaningful way.  I look forward to writing some lighter pieces just to balance out the space I’ve had to occupy to write essays like the one that appears in Under the Gum Tree.

4. How much have lies and hope intertwined in your life? Do you continue to think of them as things that work off of one another?

Good question.  I’ll try not to go too far off the topic of the essay. The symbiotic relationship of lies and hope has always been part of my life, even before I was born. If you think about it, lies and hope are the foundation of our civilization. We live in a society/world where there have historically been hierarchies of wealth and privilege and ruling classes that have thrived on our willingness to believe the stories and promises told to us. The relationship of lies and hope is important to understand because it drives our thought processes and behaviors.  Edward Bernays, the father of public relations, understood this with his analysis of political propaganda and consumer culture and I think that some of his theories can be applied to the way we navigate certain situations and relationships. When I came up the title "The Lies We Call Hope," I was thinking of “lies” as self-deception, not really as purposeful untruths meant to manipulate. The stories and omissions we tell and justify to make people and ourselves happy or to avoid pain save us from being swallowed by fear and worry. They help us dream and imagine. It’s taught behavior and it’s useful but those same stories and omissions can also become crutches used to protect us from emotions that we think will crush us. I think in that way lies and hope can inhibit our ability to see and deal with hard truths. I try to be aware of the stories I tell myself in order to figure out what I’m avoiding or what I need to learn, especially in difficult situations.

5. Upon entering the funeral home and coming face to face with Agatha's family, are these hopeful lies stripped away? How did their grief force you to confront what had happened regarding your uncle, Aaron?

I think the hopeful lies were stripped away but I don’t think I was aware of it at the time.  I just thought I was naïve, and I was.  I thought that because I didn’t personally kill Agatha that it wouldn’t be a problem for me to go into someone’s space of mourning but the pain and anger was so palpable it scared me in a way I had never experienced. I left with an uneasiness that haunted me for years.  And it took a long time to find the words to express that feeling.   The wake was a turning point for me and the way I viewed violent men.  I grew up witnessing physical violence but a man has never beaten me. I describe my uncle, who is very close to me in age, having a soft angelic voice and that’s the man that I knew.  I had to separate the other man, the violent Aaron, from the loving one and that’s something I was taught by the women that raised me. The monster in men was something we had to exorcise with love.  It became our responsibility.  I think up to the point when I went to Agatha’s wake, I still carried the idea that somehow the abuser deserved more compassion than the victim because he was sick.  When I saw Agatha in her casket and was met with so much hostility from her loved ones, I was forced to start looking at abusive relationships in a different way.

6. "I told myself that it didn't matter what he did because in my family, love and violence are the same." Love and violence resonate throughout your piece; do you see them as two sides of the same coin?

I don’t see love and violence as two sides of the same coin but because I grew up with damaged people who really wanted to love and be loved I understand the dynamic. My parents could never get past the inherited pain and ideas about men, women and relationships given to them from other generations of damaged people. For them and for my uncle and me, love and violence morphed into normalcy. It was the only model for romantic relationships I had seen growing up. I was lucky that my mother was determined to make sure I didn’t live her life.  She guided me, the best way she could, to another path. I’m grateful for that and a lot of other factors that have helped me to live life differently.

7.   Agatha appears to be the opposite of you: stripped of her identity as a black woman and, in death, totally unable to express herself. Is she part of the reason you wrote this piece?

Yes, that’s part of it. I had only met Agatha twice, briefly, before she died and both times she seemed quiet and reserved. Maybe it was because she didn’t know me, I can be shy too when I first meet people.  I wrote the essay for Agatha, to give her a voice and perhaps even pay penance for my blind loyalty to my uncle. I’m exploring her more in my memoir.

My mother also had something to do with this essay, and everything in my life, as you may have noticed.  She died of lung cancer shortly before I started my MFA program and I initially wanted to tell her story.  We joked about it sometimes, that our life could be a “movie of the week.” It was part of my own grieving process and a way to honor her.  I was so afraid that she would just be erased and I couldn’t let that happen.  In writing my mother’s story I thought about the word survivor and what that meant and I thought about how my mother, a victim of domestic violence for 15 years, could have been Agatha.  My mother was also very different from Agatha, she was out spoken and strong but also misunderstood, called crazy, without any consideration for the abuse she endured.  That bothers me. So it’s important to me that the women I write about, who have lost their lives in one way or another, are seen and understood.

Meet the Author: Stephen D. Gutierrez

Stephen D. Gutierrez has published three books of stories and essays. Live from Fresno y Los won an American Book Award, and The Mexican Man in His Backyard is his most recent. He has published widely in magazines and anthologies, including nonfiction in Fourth Genre, River Teeth, Under the Sun, Alaska Quarterly Review, Third Coast, ZYZZYVA, and Cleaver Magazine. He is working on a collection of essays and hybrid nonfiction. He teaches at California State University East Bay. Stephen also participated in Under the Gum Tree's recent national nonfiction simulcast, reading from his piece featured in our October issue, "Spiritual Direction."

Q: When and why did you start writing? What inspires your writing most now?

I started writing in college but I had always been a good writer. I always considered myself one inside. I started doing it seriously after being tremendously inspired by quality literature in an English class in my miserable last year of high school. It gave me a path forward, the call. What inspires me most now is the wish not to waste whatever gift I may have and be regretful on my deathbed because I could have done more. While I can do it, I think it would be a shame not to write. As well, I read my contemporaries and convince myself I have something to add to the literary conversation that is exclusive in its way—that is a bit different, that is me.

Q. Why are you drawn to nonfiction?

In nonfiction you can be more direct and straightforward than in fiction. Really, you can write more nakedly and openly absent the required fictional mask of irony and authorial distance that yields its own rewards but that is always a mediating disguise. You can cry plainly in sight in nonfiction, which can be moving for the reader as well. Also, its confessional aspect appeals to my need to come clean.

Q. What events do you think warrant a story or should be written about?

Really anything that moves you enough to want to articulate it fiercely and exactingly for another person to experience is potential material. I suppose we go after that part of experience that isn't easily translatable or explained to justify our words, and whatever brought awe to you is worth trying to pass on. Often these are very private moments that don't seem worthwhile, but I think they are—the micro, the macro, the personal, the political, the act of writing itself—it's all worth writing about if you're passionate enough about it. Whatever excites your passion is your subject.

Q. You refer to God as female in "Spiritual Direction." Is there a reason for this subversion of the typical gender assigned to God?

It's automatic now. "God" doesn't exist. There's no big man in the sky. Everybody knows that. So when we speak of God we are of course speaking of something else; what that something else is confounds me and everybody else, though people are getting close when labeling it an energy, a flow, a rightness with the universe due to certain moral precepts propounded by many religions for a long time, or just right decisions that are most in tune with your elemental self. Anyway, to refer to "God" as "he" is a trap. Immediately, we see the old man, and that's not tenable anymore. "She" has its own risks because of reanimating the old human figure of God, but she's novel, and new, and might contain the power I'm talking about for the time being. She might serve us well as we grapple with this new, evolving notion of divinity. And we might learn that she is realer than we expected, only different.

Q. Sister Carmen Rodriguez has a deep, spiritual connection to her history and culture. Is this the spiritual direction you are seeking?

No, we're very different. I'm in a different place, historically, culturally. I even have trouble identifying myself as "Latino" sometimes, it seems false to my real life and sensibility. If anything, I'd advocate everybody breaking free from their histories and cultures as completely as they can. For me, the sign of a healthy culture is that its individual members grow out of the culture recognizing that it shouldn't be privileged or honored or regarded in any special way. It's just a vessel for the inculcation of absolute respect for the worthiness of every single human being outside that culture. With that said, you can draw on what is good in your culture or has been fructifying, and Sister Carmen makes me proud to be Mexican-American. She has strength and mercy and compassion in equal measure, and she has a spirit that is Mexican-American that is mine, I recognize it, and I honor it. I don't know what spiritual direction I wish to be pointed in or what I want spiritually, but I also think that is exactly the right frame of mind to have about all things spiritual. I'm lost, I'm okay. I'm not arrogant, I'm just trying to be as open as possible.

Q. You write, "Without prayer we should have been dead a long time ago." Even as you struggle with disbelief, you recognize the power of prayer. What accounts for that?

I think it's true. As I said above, I believe we're dealing with energies and forces we don't understand yet when talking about religion and prayer. My gut tells me that all the lonely monks and devoted sisters and religious of all kinds have saved the world from nuclear destruction through their constant intercession on behalf of peace, of sanity, of life on earth instead of death and destruction. I think it's the most sensible thing to do nowadays, pray against nuclear holocaust and for peace, without the assurance of a big ear in the sky bent toward you. Indeed, with the certitude that no such ear exists, desperation is added to the prayer-energy, and that must count. Prayer is serious business. It wouldn't have lasted so long if it wasn't.

Q. In regards to participating in our creative nonfiction simulcast, what are the best parts of speaking/reading to a live audience?

I'm usually nervous before a reading of any kind even though I've been doing them for a while. The main benefit is selfish. I'm told I'm a pretty good reader, and when I feel the power of the words read right coming through me, I'm inspired to keep writing. I'm very doubtful about myself as a writer sometimes, very down on my abilities and calling, and getting up and reading and getting some good feedback from audience members and feeling good about myself doing it is all positive. I think, Shit, I should keep doing this. I should never quit. 

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Chicago, here we come!

There's a writing conference every year put on by the Association of Writers and Writing Programs. This year it's in Chicago -- and we'll be there! We plan to hit up as many of the nonfiction and publishing panels as we possibly can. But we'd also love to meet any of our readers or contributors who might also be there. So if you'll be there, drop us a line. Here are some of the panels we're looking forward to:

Thursday, March 1

  • Selling Out Everyone You Love: The Ethics of Writing Nonfiction
  • Behind the Scenes of Implementing a Successful iPad and Tablet Publishing System
  • Of course the key note address by Margaret Atwood

Friday, March 2

  • A Year in the Life of Electronic Publishing
  • Memoir without a Net
  • Going Beyond What You Know: Research & the Personal Memoir

Saturday, March 3

  • PIF Magazine & Friends on Memoir Writing
  • Marketing the Literary, or Putting Some Poetry into Your PR
  • Why Independent Publishers Matter / Independent Publishers and the Changing Industry

And we can't forget about the fantastic book fair, off-site events and exploring the greatness that is Chicago. We'll have hard copies of our winter issue on hand, plus we'll be taking subscriptions and newsletter sign ups. We don't have a table at the book fair, but we will be floating around so look for our editor & publisher, Janna Marlies Maron.

Hope to connect!

News

announcing our premiere issue!

Yes, it's finally here: the premiere issue of Under the Gum Tree! There's a preview here on our site -- head on over to the premiere issue page; there's a digital pdf that you get if you sign up for our newsletter; there's also a print copy that you can order via MagCloud. Get a copy, eat it up and let us know what you think by dropping us an email.

What's in the first issue? We're featuring stories from Peter Grandbois, Kate Washington and Alexa Mergen, and photography from Mazzarello Media & Arts and Jeannine Mengel. These stories explore a myriad of topics from the disenchantment of growing up in the suburbs, losing a loved one, losing oneself and dealing with the unexpected (sometimes unwanted) that life throws at us.

There's even one piece that give you a glimpse of the gum tree's origin. So sign up for our newsletter or order a hard copy and enjoy!

 

 

News

What's a Gum Tree?

Yes, there is a method to our madness; a reason for our rhyme. But we aren't going to tell you yet.

What fun would it be if we gave all our secrets away? There'd be no anticipation. No mystery. And, frankly, we enjoy the build up. So get excited. You'll learn what the heck a gum tree is soon enough.

For now, all you need to know is that Under the Gum Tree is a place for sharing stories without shame. We're tired of the same old game of putting on a show. Living a story and telling it without shame is about yanking down that curtain that so many of us hide behind. You know, all our shit happens back stage, and once we are primped and composed, we enter the stage and make a beautiful -- contrived -- performance.

Not here. Not Under the Gum Tree.

News

Call for Contributors

Hey there, and thanks for checking out Under the Gum Tree. Things here are still under construction, so please feel free to poke around, ask questions and share ideas. As you can see, we've got a pretty bare-bones look going on. That's because we're in need of some contributors! We're looking for creative folks who are interested in contributing as a labor of love, specifically:

  • designers to help with a logo and page design for the first issue
  • photographers, illustrators and artists to add beautiful images to the pages, and
  • writers to write creative nonfiction

If this sounds like something you'd like to be a part of, please shoot us an email at info (at) underthegumtree (dot) com. Hurry, we're waiting by the inbox.