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BONNIE DITLEVSEN INTERVIEW

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KGBBAR.LIT appreciates writers who not only are devoted to their craft, but also to helping others succeed in this often isolating and difficult business.  Such is the case with Bonnie Ditlevsen, a talented author and the Editor of Penduline Press, a literary journal out of Portland, Oregon that champions writers of varying experience and backgrounds, while serving as a showcase for artists that take risk in style and substance.

We asked Bonnie to share with our readers her thoughts on her writing, her work at Penduline, and what she has planned for both.

KGB:  Tell us about your writing life - the ups and the downs.

Bonnie Ditlevsen:  I edit things for others a great deal, and take several writing classes each year.  I’m also quite busy raising two boys who love road trips, camping, and skateboarding all over Portland. It’s never the case that I just sit down alone, Hemingway style, and start writing stories or fictions.  I’m the Hadley at home, you know?  Thus, most of what I crank out nowadays is to fulfill an assignment.  If it’s publishable, great.  I’m lucky to have been studying in Ariel Gore’s program for the past five years, because she is so excellent at teaching memoir and getting you to find the heart and lungs of your story.  I’ve got lots of vignettes and short stories and even a longer draft from my eighteen years overseas, as well as earlier stuff from my childhood in Akron, Ohio. But those stories that I’m now writing 30-40 years later are tough to convey accurately to a listening/reading audience with post-Berlin-Wall memories.  This touches upon the question of how soon after a life experience one ought to present one’s memoir work----will it be just as compelling to a readership other than your family thirty, forty years later?

So I started writing using memoir as the springboard, and spent a good three years sifting through my memories and lasering in on what makes for a good story.  Later, I became enamored with flash fiction/sudden fiction writing---giving myself a day, maybe even a couple of hours, to generate something.  Never in my formal education had I been shown the joys of flash, and…why was that??  Three of my shortest publications (Hip Mama, Every Day Fiction, The Prompt Literary Magazine) were things written on the fly, in a “quickwrite” mode.  These were fleeting and freeing, like sparkling little brain exercises...so unlike the lengthy, ball-and-chain aspects of my Cold War Europe storytelling from the 80s.  All of a sudden, my memoir work looked and sounded like that old Wendy’s commercial with the dour fashion model:  “Evening-vearrrrr!” I wanted to burn all of my memoir drafts. [I didn’t, though.] Only one piece has been published, “What Is Lost Behind the Wall” with Seattle’s Verbalists.  The rest?  It’s worthy, and rich in feeling and details from the era, but I need for it to come alive again with a modern-day relevance to readers, and that, I’m afraid, is going to take some serious reflection and revision work.

KGB:  Each issue of Penduline follows a theme.  How do you select these, and why?

BD:  Because we decided to be quarterly, Sarah Olson (my co-editor) and I wanted themed issues in order to present a more cohesive whole.  These at first were Control, Angst, Spellbound, and Dastardly, and then I was bitten by the geography bug. I wanted to pay homage to the state that raised me, Ohio.  I knew there would be wonderful submissions on the theme of Ohio, and the Issue 5 contributors did not disappoint.  We then wanted to pay homage to Sarah’s part of the world—she is a Kiwi living in Portland— and again, the quality of work we received was impressive.  Later on, we published the most wonderful piece, “A Bone,” by Dave Lordan, an Irish poet, performance poet and author.  I asked Dave if he’d like to guest edit Issue 9, Éire-Ireland, and he was game.  What a cool thing it was for us to collaborate with Dave and help present his vision, his showcasing of modern experimental prose and poetry in Ireland.  Kalle Ryan of Dublin’s Brownbread Mixtape even created a 60-minute Penduline Irish Performance Poetry Showcase on Soundcloud, which is part of the issue.  We’re back to a non-geographical theme, the Seven Deadly Sins, for Issue 10.  But we’re not done with the global map.  I’ve lived in central China, Denmark, Germany, Austria, England, the Czech Republic, Canada, and Australia, and worked for three months in Costa Rica and Nicaragua.  I know that great stories are fermenting in all corners of the globe—how, then, to showcase them for readers?

Maybe I also got the geography bug from avidly reading the Akashic Noir series, which I highly recommend.  Each collection is set in a different city or country.  I loved the recently published Haiti Noir, for example, edited by Edwidge Danticat. [http://www.akashicbooks.com/subject/noir-series/]

KGB:  Tell us about the writers you publish in Penduline.  What do you look for in a story or writing project?

BD:  In a word:  Coen Brothers.  I love work that goes for the jugular, especially if it’s also got some humor to it.  I’ve come to see that longer pieces have to be very well crafted in order to hold my attention.  It’s amazing how some writers either mess up their beginnings OR mess up their endings.  For those whose beginnings fall short, I typically reject the piece right away.  For those who need to rethink their concluding paragraphs, though, I’m far more willing to consider the piece for publication and then engage in an editorial process with the contributor, involving possible revisions.  Regarding the themes, I find I am lucky that I despise chick flicks, chick lit and rom coms to the degree that I do.  I receive poetry and short stories with romantic, uplifting messages and promptly reject them.  Oddly, the flash fictions never seem to suffer from shiny-happy-heartfelt chick-lit disease….maybe the form itself is just too postmodern?  Anyway, I look for smart writing and writing that can truly take me on a ride, mess with my head, give me visions.  I also support well-written lewdness, debauchery, and dripping-wet erotica told with originality and voice.  Our upcoming issue (later in September 2013) contains a brave, brilliant fiction piece by Bernise Carolino, an emerging young writer in the Philippines.  You will love this author.  Look out for her.  I about fell over when I read her submission.

I should mention that we’ve had some contributors who have faced adversity on the home front for the explicit and controversial work they’ve seen published through our lit mag.  We’ve had to advocate for them, and for ourselves.

KGB:  How do you balance your own writing with editing work?  Is it difficult sometimes to keep them separate?

BD:  I edit 90-95% of the time, and have a hefty inbox, so this question kind of makes me sad.  Also, I’m a vocal music student in Portland two days a week, and there’s a lot to rehearse, and only so many hours in the day.  Take today for example:  I have dead European composers with furry eyebrows staring me down from sheet music on the keyboard in my living room, but also three dozen Penduline contributors for the upcoming issue whose work I have to do final proofs for, and then the usual end-of-summer family stuff on the docket, as well as a new storytelling/writing course with fisher-poet Moe Bowstern beginning in a few days.  And I’ve been ignoring the tomatoes in my back yard that are all turning an angry red.

Penduline can really take over my life when an issue launch is imminent.  My own writing work sits on the back burner.  Maybe this is how I know that I am better suited as an editor; a person winds up choosing to do what is more important.  For me, it’s more important to lend my editorial eyes to Penduline issues, to ensure clean, satisfactory copy for everyone.  I always tell our contributors that no edit is ever too small or bothersome for me.  It really singes my fur how many online lit magazines there are with typos, formatting problems, and terrible font/background colors.  Sarah and I took an oath that this project would look good, read very very well, and offer up quality.  If that suppresses my own writing work, so be it. 

KGB:  In five years, what would you like people to say about Bonnie Ditlevsen, the author, and Penduline?

BD:  I hope that Penduline will be in its 30th issue by then, and that people know me as a fair, frank, and discerning editor who offers creative solutions and helpful feedback.  “Creative solutions"---ha!  That’s so corporate.  Penduline is the most indie, not-corporate project I’ve ever worked for.  I’d like for people to continue saying what they’re saying to me right now—that this project offers readers edgy, excellent content, and that we’re greatly supporting and promoting artists, writers and poets worldwide with what we do.  And in five years, I would indeed like to publish my fragmented memoir, although in what format and to what degree, I don’t yet know.

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Bonnie Ditlevsen began her career of linguistic wanderlust as a translator in Europe before doing a graduate degree in English and taking it with her to central China. It was there, teaching academic writing at Xi’an International Studies University, that she heard the call both to perform music and to write. She sang blues for the first time, did voiceover for an avant-garde Chinese film production, took part in a radio show and a modeling gig, and chaired her first creative writing competition. For several years afterward she focused solely on vocal music, performing in a jazz-rock ensemble, an a cappella swing jazz trio, and a blues ensemble. In Portland she studies classical singing, training her mezzo-soprano voice through various Schirmer’s collections in French, German and Italian.