The Shifting Boundaries of Story and Medium: Interview with Matthew Derby

By Sylke Jackson

This post appeared originally on the CILK119 blog. 

This weekend, Cuppa Pulp Writers’ Space welcomes Matthew Derby for the River River biannual Lodestar Reading. His recent novel, The Silent History, co-authored with Eli Horowitz, Kevin Moffatt, and Russell Quinn (Farrar Straus and Giroux 2014), was originally conceived as the first major exploratory interactive novel designed for digital platforms.  In this interview, Sylke and Matt discuss reaching beyond the boundaries of print media to tell a rich story about children, language, and the questions addressed in the novel that made him delve into unconsciously held thoughts and feelings about his late sister.

The Guardian called The Silent History “A compelling story about difference, rights and power”; Wired called it “Entirely revolutionary.” Matt’s work has also appeared in The Anchor Book of American Short Stories, Dzanc’sBest of the Web 2009, McSweeney’s, The Believer, Guernica, and elsewhere. He is also a designer for Harmonix, a video game studio in Cambridge, Massachusetts.


SJ: Is there any moment or experience in your childhood that you’d point to that opened the door to the kind of work that you are doing now?

MD: I grew up in a big Catholic family. I had six siblings, most of whom were significantly older than me. By the time I was six, all but two of them were already in college. They left a lot of stuff behind in the house when they went away – mostly books and records – and I pored over these materials like an archaeologist struggling to understand an ancient civilization.

The Beatles were the one thing all of my siblings seemed to have in common, so I spent most of my time listening to their records and reading the many books we had about them. I became fascinated with the ‘Paul is dead’ conspiracy theory, and spent many afternoons scaring myself silly looking for the clues about his death scattered throughout their recordings. One day, I read that, if you played the very end of “A Day in the Life” backwards, you could hear, instead of an orchestra reaching a spastic climax before hitting a single, unforgettable note, the sound of Paul’s car skidding and crashing in the moments before his death. I went straight to the record player and spun the record in reverse, and what I heard sounded astonishingly like a car crash.

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I’m At Risk for Screen Poisoning. Are You?

A couple of weeks ago, author Emmy Laybourne and mentee joined us for a Q&A on literary mentorship at American Bulldog in Chestnut Ridge. Writers in attendance came away with a renewed sense of what it takes to draft a novel or other long written work, and how a “Pro in Your Corner” can shorten your drafting time and keep self-confidence strong.

To encourage you to seek out your mentors, whether online, via favorite writing treatises, or in person, we are delighted to share some of Emmy’s wisdom for staying on track. This blog post originally appeared in her newsletter. Enjoy!


“Screen poisoning” is what I call an illness that sets in when I’ve been spending too much time in front of my computer and engaged with my phone. Symptoms include physical complaints such as dry eyes, strained vision, shoulder and/or neck pain, feeling drained; and mental difficulties like fogginess, being easily distracted, fractured attention span, forgetfulness, and… I can’t remember what else.

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On the Same Page: One Tip for Easing the Pain of Critique

Dylan Manning

Featured Image: Truman Capote, 1959 by Roger Higgins for the New York World-Telegram and the Sun via Wikimedia Commons. This image is in the public domain.


You’ve finished your short story,  painstakingly perfecting all twelve pages, and submitted it to your writing group to be workshopped. After weeks of apprehension, tonight is finally the night. You’re looking forward to the praise, congratulations, and encouragements you’re sure you are going to receive and perhaps a suggestion to submit your work to The New Yorker. You brace yourself for this cascade of compliments, taking a seat in the circle and nodding politely to your colleagues. “Don’t smile too much,” you tell yourself. “Be cool.” And then it starts. They smile and say they “liked it” and it “definitely had some parts worth reading” but overall it “needs some work” and “heavy editing” before it can be “considered for publication.”

You want to cry. You want to tell them how you really felt about all their pieces because all the times you thoughtfully critiqued their work you had really been holding back. You feel the urge to run away, rip up your piece, and never write again, regretting suddenly your decision not to go to med school or night school for automotive repair. You wish that you knew someone with real taste who could read it for you, really read it, and tell you that it’s a great piece of fiction and anybody who says otherwise doesn’t know a thing about writing.

They just told you your baby was ugly, and it hurt.

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Imagine Doing This All the Time: Support River River write! Community Salons

Guys. GUYS. Last Friday, River River had the BEST night. If you were there, you were probably transported to a new state of being, and want to support our online fundraiser without further rumination. If you weren’t there, read on. We’ll include the link again at the end of the post, we promise.

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Our reputation for organizing warm, open, and highly entertaining readings with local writers preceded us all the way to Georgia, where poet Nick Norwood, director of the Carson McCullers Center, was planning events for the celebrated author’s centennial. River River joined in the festivities planned for Nyack, Carson McCullers’ home for twenty years, where the author famously hosted many artists and musicians at her historic Broadway house.

The room was packed. As always, we began with an open mic to warm up the crowd for James Hoch, an award-winning local poet (Miscreants, 2007) who teaches at Ramapo College. We had a published novelist and veteran poet lining up for the open mic, right alongside regulars from our writing circles and starry-eyed newcomers. No line-jumping allowed! The welcoming grace of our community did the rest. The air was heavy and bright with words. Everyone left wanting more.

We want to give more, and keep giving it for a long time. Which is why it’s so important for us to reach our very modest goal of $1,600 through this online campaign.

We are growing! We are reaching an ever-widening circle of writers.

Over the last three months, River River Writers Circle has brought over 500 hours of low- to no-cost writing circles, readings, and workshops to a community of writers with all levels of experience, including:

  • up to three write! generative salons each week,
  • readings by contributors to our Journal and by award-winning poets and novelists, which
  • always feature open-mic readings from our writing circles, without regard for publication credits or other honors—all you need is five minutes’ worth of material and the will to stand up.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could do this ALL THE TIME? We think so! If you add up all of those hours (priceless, we know, but that never stopped anyone from trying to put a price on something really good), and multiply by, say, $10/hour, you’ll quickly understand why we need your help.

River River Writers Circle is surviving on less than minimum wage.

We are an official 501(c)(3) nonprofit. We need to raise about $1,600 so that potential grantors know that you guys believe in us. In return for your donation of as little as $5, you will be commemorated forever on the pages of River River Journal’s first-ever anthology, due for publication in 2018.

And of course, the perks evolve and beautify as your donation increases. Your donation could purchase editorial services for yourself or your favorite aspiring writer. You could have us print hand-bound, custom chapbooks of your selection of poetry. Or you could buy a ticket to our spring Lodestar reading. Check out the link for more information.

Keep us afloat in Nyack on this amazing river of words.

Borrowed Pages – Inauguration Day

Whirring blades of helicopter on the flat-screen darkened the diner counter, while I pulled my gloves off. I’d come straight from the protest rally on Main Street in Nyack, New York, where my inauguration-day mood had shifted from black to a mere dark gray. But, staring up at the event about to tumble into history, I recoiled, feeling grateful that the usual spot for our writing group is all the way in the back, next to the chalkboards announcing smoothie flavors and Nespresso options.

Writers arrived with muted greetings, spread themselves out at the long table. Some glanced over at me, probably wondering what might prompt creative writing in this dim light.

I pulled a round tea-box from my bag and opened it, revealing many strips of paper printed with verse. “Take a line, and use it as a starting point,” I suggested. The box passed from hand to hand, with some taking several, others taking one and then trading for something else. Then inspiration pulled us all into the silent focus of writing, and it kept us well past my ten-minute warning to wrap up and begin the readings.

Here are a few of the results of that exercise, from slices of William Butler Yeats’ “The Second Coming” and “Wild Swans at Coole.” Some brought image and individual experiences to the signs of our national moment, while others veered into satire. But we all took a collective deep-breath and nodded encouragement to each other in our micro-democracy: our open circle. Many thanks to the writers for community, for inner voice striving and shining through…

The Falcon
by Steven Swank

The falcon has broken the bond,
no longer hears the falconer;
flights are now of her choosing,
no longer tethered to his will,
she sleeps alone in nature,
lets hunger define the kill.

Writers trouble the politics,
debate the call to peril, yet
join the street for justice’s sake,
compose the freedom carol.


I saw, before I had well finished
by Lilly Nin

I see, said her brain.

I felt it, said her heart as it drummed like a flicker bird, loud and mighty on the highest branch.

Well, said her brain, then why did you not listen?

I don’t know. I did hear it too, far in the distance, but I heard it. I know I did! But it was too loud for me. My ears lost their sense.

There will be punishment for not listening! said her brain. You have worked so hard for it. It will hurt, it will bleed. You will hear its cries. They will wake you up at night. The scar is still not healed from before, and it will open up again.

I feel it, ouch! said her heart. Why do you do this to me, again and again. I am tired!

I was taking care of you, said her brain. I was doing my best for you. I was trying to prevent this, prevent more pain for you but you did not listen. I saw it coming, way before I had well finished.


“The Ceremony of Innocence is Drowned”
by Mike Seliger

Today, I turned off the Internet,
scheduled a day of quiet
Uninterrupted Creative Concentration.

Today in a parallel universe
there is great joy in Mudville,
where Mighty Casey prevailed.

Today, in that place, Great News!!
A benevolent leader stepped forward
and righted wrongs from the past.

Today, in this Universe,
the Dinosaurs fell off the edge
of a cliff as the Earth quaked,
TerrorRanOSoarUs roared
and waved his short arms,
and stood on the top of a hill
proclaiming “Long Live the King!”
while all the Warm-bloodeds
cringed and watched from their caves.

Today is Junior’s birthday.
Someone forgot the candles.
Someone stole the cake.
“I was going to take you
to the Circus” Daddy said,
“but there are no more elephants
and soon no more circuses,
only bright-lit, loud spectacles…
“It’s okay, Daddy,” said the boy,
“clowns scare me, especially
the ones with orange hair
who blow big bubbles
that burst into nothing in midair…”
Today is the First Day
After the Giant Earthquake.
Survivors emerge slowly,
as do birds and flowers.
There is nothing left
for Tyrant-O-Saurus to eat.
Disgusted, he turns away.

From behind a Cloud
the sun peeks out
and the songs of birds
herald a new day…


“Their hearts have not grown old”
by Steve Green

A wide-eyed child, riding upon a wave of innocence, faces the world with wonder and curiosity.

After many storms and upheavals, the weathered pensioner squints out at a weary planet.

The young man, with a fresh degree and a promising career, captivates an energetic crowd.

The older man, sculpted by the knife of experience, is avoided by the suspicious throng.

The child, buried deep, wonders what happened. The fires of curiosity are still burning. The anthem is still held in tight grip to cut away delusion and uncover truth. His arms are still expanding to embrace receptive cohorts.

But the new bark around the old tree, tough and rough, frightens the younger seedlings.

The wide branches of the old timber serve to protect the saplings. But age is a reminder of temporality, a rather disquieting piece of information.

Find Flow with River River this December

streaky lights

While ice will soon form on the Hudson, River River brings a swirl of literary events to Cuppa Pulp Writers’ Space at CILK119 in December. Cuppa Pulp, a major sponsor of River River along with Seranam Literary Arts, offers a physical space to anchor the budding nonprofit. We hope you will enjoy the wellspring of literary events made possible by this partnership this month and for many months to come!

We’ll begin on December 3 with Saturday Morning write!, a 3-week series of free salons designed to encourage generation of new work. Facilitators Donna Miele or Anu Amaran will offer a prompt in a supportive group atmosphere. Writers take this wherever their creativity leads them, and we end by sharing our work fresh off the page. The write! salons are River River’s signature offering, and have sailed through a variety of wonderful venues, including Art Cafe, Johnnycakes, and Didier Dumas of Nyack. We are honored and excited to continue hosting salons at Cuppa Pulp. 

December 17 brings a triple-splash that includes write!, then a Drop-in Poetry Revision Workshop with Anu Amaran, and right in the middle of it all, the much-loved holiday season Lodestar Reading, featuring local author Mary Beth Keane, who will read from her novel, Fever. Fever was named one of the best books of 2013 by the San Francisco Chronicle, NPR Books, and Library Journal.

Come in with the estuary tides!

The Invitation by Jean Marie Donnelly

Jean Marie Donnelly, also a member of Rockland County’s Writing Beyond the Basics, leads River River salons at Cuppa Pulp Writers’ Space. She is at work on a novel set in a dystopian world in which creativity has been banned. The following story, true to Jean Marie’s taste for the weird and fantastical, is based on a prompt called “The Invitation.” We always love a good twist!

~

I stare at the wedding invitation on my kitchen table.  There’s been some mistake.  The invitation looks exactly like the one my fiancée, Declan, and I picked out. I touch it to be sure; rough where the roses belong and pearl smooth around the edges. I run my finger across the raised lettering I had insisted upon.  D-E-C-L-A-N S-A-V-O-Y.  The letters are so neatly spaced out and his name feels so good under my fingers.  M-E-G-A-N L-A-N-G-S-T-O-N.  My finger traces out the rise, fall, crevice, and groove of each letter.  Surely there is some mistake.  Declan and I met during our junior year of college. We’ve been a genuinely loving couple for the last six years.  Why is Megan’s name there? This mystery is not helping the piercing headache I can’t seem to cure.

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Reading in Translation: One Student’s Five Cents

Recently, River River’s teen intern Mia Schiffer had the opportunity to discuss some fine points on reading in translation with Claudia Shaldervan, a classmate and native Russian speaker. The text was Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Both students are writers, poets, and artists. While certain details of Claudia’s experience will be familiar to those who have shared it, the overall discussion offers some wonderfully deep thought on the transformative effect translation can have on literature, as well as a poignantly expressed opinion on how reading one’s national literature from afar creates powerful, conflicting feelings of connectedness and disconnectedness. 

Q:   Do you think that a book or poem can truly be translated into another language and keep its integrity?

A: Literature of any language holds a humor and essence unique to its culture. Of the Russian works I compare with their English translations, poetry especially gets lost in translation.

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A Character Template: You Won’t Know If You Don’t Ask

By Julie M. Goldberg

The fiction project I’m working on features a large cast of characters gathered in a supermarket one autumn evening. I won’t elaborate on what is happening to them there, but suffice to say that not one is having a pleasant shopping experience.

When writing my first novel, I felt that the characters existed in the universe somewhere, and my role was to get well enough acquainted with them that they would trust me and tell me their story. They did, but it took a long time.

The characters in the current story have suggested their collective existence and experiences to me, but require much more effort to sculpt as individuals. I wanted each to have a separate soul, as evidenced through her language, her longings, and her choices.

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Borrowed Pages: A Taste of the Macabre

We know we can always look forward to a taste of the macabre from John, a confirmed horror fan and writer who has been published in California Quarterly, Forge, and Diverse Voices Quarterly. John attends River River’s write! in Nyack, a weekly group that shares a writing prompt and a round of readings, in both poetry and prose. We bring you this unedited excerpt dripping fresh gore…

Writer’s Block

by John Morrison

Henry was frustrated. He wanted to write something down, anything. So he wrote about his frustrating inability to put words to paper. It didn’t help. He threw his pen down on the table, stood up, and grabbed the folding chair he had been sitting on. His knuckles turned white as he lifted the chair and heaved it through the window. The glass erupted outward and rained down on the sidewalk.

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