When I asked Karl Hubert what made him start writing, I didn’t know what to expect. One never can with Karl. His response was that he was very photogenic as a child, so I followed up with the question of when he started writing. Again, I was not disappointed. His response: “when I laughed at the end of Pan’s Labyrinth.”
And a new writer was born.
Karl is a stalwart member of our Ink Writers Group, but I’d mostly heard poems and short stories from him until he raised the idea of National Novel Writing Month (or more affectionately known as NaNoWriMo) last November. Turns out he’s been hiding numerous novel drafts.
If you’re not sure what NaNoWriMo entails, it’s simple. You write fifty thousand words of a novel draft in the month of November. If you make it within that amount of time, you win. It’s hard.
Karl’s won it six times. He’s been doing it for the past decade or so. Most of it is his own genre—a “fun and squicky” comedy-horror-sci-fi blend. Some of his completed drafts include “Needlin’ the Dermis,” a story of a tattoo parlor plagued with tattoos coming to life to kill people, and this past year’s “Meme the Dream.”
Having a particular personal interest in “Meme the Dream” (for it follows Karl’s character, Benjamin James, from our Unknown Armies roleplaying game), I asked about it. He admitted that this year’s winning draft came somewhat easily. It was a familiar character and a chance to develop the ten years prior to the game for the character’s background. It was a bit of Benji’s things fondly remembered and ranged to things that might have been able to happen to him. It even had his cheerleading girlfriend from high school.
The nerds always get the best girls, right?
There are many writing benefits beyond a draft of a book though. Karl feels that NaNoWriMo is a great experience for writers mostly because it forces you to write, whether you reach the final goal or not. He can ease your mind about it though—“No one’s going to hurt you if you don’t write,” but a good support group of people (like the ones you can find with NaNoWriMo or a local writers group) helps you. And you don’t have to write anything great—just write. If it’s bad though? Karl says if it’s bad, just cry, maybe drink, and then that’ll get you more to write about. And that’s the point.
NaNoWriMo isn’t all fun, however, but Karl encourages us to keep trying to get past the days of falling short of your daily goal, or when you can’t get in the writing groove. If you’re really stuck, he has the best advice that he shared with me when I had writer’s block: “When in doubt, write porn.”
It sure helps pad that word count.
Karl is a good example to follow. He’s been writing off and on since senior year of high school with not only novel drafts but a couple of novellas and a script about shark attack survivors on a cruise. You can, and should, write about anything that interests you in any form you feel like playing around with. And if you’re bored, just write. “Just don’t post any stuff on the internet that could get you arrested.”
Karl’s full of good advice.
Karl also shared that he feels writing has been “part therapy and part giving a louder voice to the voices in my head.” It can be easily done, and it’s pretty fun. And as “one of the oldest forms of entertainment, it’ll let people argue about your work for years.”
Sometimes it’s daunting to do an interview with your boss. But when you have a talented and sweet boss like mine, it makes it easier.
Mischelle Anthony is a poet, department chair, associate professor, and Poetry in Transit creator hiding and writing in plain view. I honestly don’t know how more people in Northeastern Pennsylvania don’t know about her and the good she does for our community and its local university students.
Professor and Poet
For more than a decade now, Mischelle has been teaching in the English Department at Wilkes University. Her favorite thing to teach isn’t creative writing though—and it’s not really even a class. Her chosen subject matter is getting her students to analyze structures and to find what the piece is actually about. She also likes to have students analyze first-person plural narrators. The “we” fascinates her—and it’s even better when the narrator is unreliable because it’s, as she says, “way too true to life.”
But it’s not all unreliable. Since 2007 Mischelle’s creation, Poetry in Transit, has been a staple of Wilkes-Barre. Not familiar with it? Just hop on one of the Wilkes-Barre buses and you’ll see the fruits of her program. Poetry—short poetry—lines banners on all of the city’s buses for riders to read and enjoy. The program idea came to Mischelle when she was on the #6 bus that runs from Luzerne to Wilkes-Barre. She and the other usual riders she talked with on their commutes would read the advertisements for fast food and community groups. Often, they’d be encouraged to find a breakfast sandwich when they got off at their stop from the encouragement of said advertisements. Mischelle thought—why not give riders poems that they can read and talk about on their bus rides instead? She mentioned it to the marketing department at the university, who offered to pay for the program for the first year or so. After that, the bus company had had such good responses from their riders that they cover all of the costs of the program now (after a grant that helps out). Poems are switched out every month, and the program gives local writers the chance to submit their works for consideration each April. Submissions are chosen by English departments of five local colleges each year and in late August the launch of the new set is held in downtown Wilkes-Barre. Writers in NEPA—watch for the new theme coming this April.
She’s not only busy on the buses or in the classroom though. Mischelle is also a poet who’s been writing since her piece about her Cheer Bear Care Bear she wrote at just nine years of age. She admits she hadn’t taken creative writing too seriously until graduate school, but since then has been active in poetry and writers circles and has been published often in American Chordata and, by the poetry press Foothills among others. Much of her writing focuses on her family and growing up in Oklahoma. She feels “it’s the only thing [she] knows how to write.” She credits this progression in her writing to Sir Richard Hugo, for after having read his Triggering Town (about how writers need to find the one subject that is theirs—and then keep writing on it), she realized her days in the Midwest were what she had to tell others about in her writing. One of her poems, “Keep Your Eyes Open,” which was recently nominated for Sundress Publication’s Best of the Net Award, treats the subject of her Aunt Karen’s rape that the family avoided talking about, and only finding a voice in Mischelle’s work.
Fertile Space and Sage Advice
Mischelle stresses that to become a better writer or a published writer, you need to gather with other writers and be a part of writing community. “This is not a world for writers—we need each other,” she says, and goes on to say that it needs to not only be writers—but it needs to be writers that you can trust showing your work to as well. Whether it’s writing groups or workshops, just try to find other writers you know that want to get together and share writing and ideas. Creating a positive environment is crucial to being able to feel confident to keep producing writing and to be able to test out the new. This “fertile space” will yield more pieces and more words and will give you a chance to figure out how to think about your writing in new ways. And that’s what it’s really about.
And here, a taste from Mischelle Anthony:
Sure, we had cowboys. I knew five
men from different families
with “Bubba” worked into
their State Fair belts. But my town
was no metaphor. The dairy farmer’s
son grew up a banker with that
fieldstone walkway, every Saturday
digging irregular shapes in the clay.
His shovel tangled in chickweed,
sent up red eddies from his sloping
lawn. We all sucked our teeth
when his corner bank went under.
We worked stalks of dried grass
with our tongues, nursed porcelain
mugs at the Cafe. Some of us sympathized.
Most didn’t. That family had it coming
with their Lincolns and slacks. Mr. Morris
approached the wife’s office, belt buckle
shining over Lee denim, to show that woman
she deserved it, perched there while electric
hands swept around the dial, her buzzing
typewriter’s metal ball ready to strike.
Later we recalled a prairie woman captured
in some silver-screen Western, pale dirt rivulets
dividing her skirts, straddled
by a Seminole who made her swallow
her own jeweled chain, the necklace
stubborn as a bull snake in a well line.
I want to tell you the superintendent
sheriffed in, paunch spilling over
his trouser snaps, and defended her
from the savages. But he didn’t.
My town was no metaphor—
the secretary lived, no sticks or stones,
just a quiet dinner that night,
my father’s grim mustache
over the Swiss steak,
my mother smiling, smiling
across the dark wood expanse,
even as she choked around
the clasp and settings in her mouth.
That’s when Zack Hammond decided he needed to be a comedian. He experienced comedian Christopher Titus’s “Norman Rockwell Is Bleeding”—a comedy appearance treating his dysfunctional family, and Zack decided comedy could be a way for him to better cope with the dysfunctions in his own life.
A Comedian Is Born
Zack began attending all of the open mic nights he could. When he turned twenty-one, he signed up to perform at Wise Crackers (when it used to be at the Clarion in Scranton), and he shares that “it sucked.” The host announcing it was his first night to perform probably didn’t help. The guy that heckled him for being an English major probably didn’t either. Still, Zack made it through the tough Pennsylvania crowd, figuring he had to keep at it in order to be better.
Zack’s got a list of comedians who’ve influenced him to keep trying ranging from George Carlin to Richard Pryor to Patton Oswalt and Doug Stanhope, who Zack opened for in Scranton earlier this year. There are writers he encountered in his English major days that move him, too—Hemingway, Joyce, Milton, and the more contemporary David Foster Wallace, who Zack really seems to admire. He likes that the author is “clever and smart” and adds that the asides in his writing translate to comedy easily. With society heading down a sad path of stupidity, Zack is grateful for his English background that got him not only reading, but writing, too. In the recent Creative Writing Conference hosted by King’s College in Wilkes-Barre, Zack shared with students that his career in writing isn’t just about jokes and being funny, but that the literary techniques of foreshadowing, plot and structure are crucial to not just setting up a good joke, but being able to carry them through a successful comedic act as a vehicle as well. You’ve got to have these to keep audiences interested, and more importantly, laughing. “Comedy has limits, unless it’s good,” he shares. Structure and mechanics of writing are clearly what helps make the comedy last.
I asked Zack about inspiration for new material. He says there isn’t anything like that. He just takes things he notices (that often annoy him) and he tries to comment on them in a way that will be funny. He adds some advice from Carlin—the idea that you have to divorce yourself from society. Zack echoes the truth in this concept. Good comedians need to put anything and everything on the table as potential material—even themselves. He writing isn’t only about the mechanics of it, but working on the analysis of material, too, including self-awareness.
Zack’s tried other creative writing with screenwriting, skits and sketches, but isn’t a big fan of writing these out, as visualizations of an idea are sometimes easier to just explain. He isn’t interested in writing comedy for others to perform either as it can be frustrating for his vision to take the form he wants through the actions of others who might interpret things in unintended ways or just disregard his direction all together. Plus, long-form comedic writing is a big commitment, and shorter forms are more Zack’s style. He believes it’s more exciting when it’s you performing and you get to see firsthand how successful the comedy has been received.
But writing comedy is challenging, to be sure. Zack shares that it’s not like performing music where you can hear it when you practice it to make adjustments or corrections. “With comedy, you don’t know it’s funny until someone laughs at it,” he confides. Then, editing can take place to see if a bit is too wordy or if there’s a better way to get an idea across. He adds, “You have no idea how much gas [a bit] has until you test it out.” You have to learn how to proofread onstage to fix it offstage for the next show.
Some Sage Advice
I questioned Zack about what advice he had for aspiring comedians who want to get on stage. He said simply, “Don’t.” I’m fairly sure he was joking, But it leads to the advice he has to give. One, be motivated—nose to the grindstone, full-out hard work will be what gets you the big payoff. Two, “Be yourself 100%.” You can’t rely only on imitation or emulation and feeding off of others. You must “bear your soul” and “suffer and such for a very long time” until –hopefully—things click into place. He adds that becoming a comedian is a “very long road of highs and very depressing lows. You question yourself all the time and have moments of doubt where you wonder why you ever thought it was a good idea. You have to be passionate and crazy to do it.”
You can find Zack Hammond (to follow him around like a groupie) on Facebook ( Zack Hammond: Comedian) or find him at the following upcoming shows, several of which he’s hosting or head lining:
December 22: Stroudsburg, PA @ The Sherman Theater at 8 p.m.
December 28: Binghamton, NY @ Peterson’s Tavern at 8:30 p.m.
December 29: Erie, PA @ The Harlequin Ballroom at 8:30 p.m.
December 30: Hershey, PA @ The Vineyard at Hershey at 8 p.m.
January 12-13: Wilkes-Barre, PA @ Wise Crackers at Mohegan Sun Casino at 9 p.m.
And hunt down his albums online: Sorrow Tree, Appalling and Utilitarian.
Dan Pape is a mysterious fellow. When we first met at the NEPA Creative Writers Group, I’ll be honest—I was intimidated. His writing was visceral and powerful in a way I could only dream of mine being. I know I need to share his works with you.
A fan of Ghostbusters, beer, and hanging out with friends, Dan has countless facets to him. Getting a start in middle school as a writer, he’s dabbled with many genres: lyrics, novels, short stories, and poems (his main squeeze for now). Having recently entered the blogosphere, too, it’s certain his time to shine past the bounds of this region is nigh.
Dan’s enigmatic appeal is not only in his writing but in talking with him. One thing that is not obscured is his emotion captured in his works through his words. His allusions run from classical to modern, and even if you’re not sure of their references, you still feel what he wants to get across. And he challenges you to want to find out more.
Dan started writing recently on The Game Chateau’s blog, Rolling the Dice. A different approach to blogging, the site takes topics that all contributors for that quarter write to. Dan’s contribution, “Rapture,” is bittersweet and magnificent. His first piece of magical realism ready for the masses (in the vein of some of his favorite writers including Marquez and Borges) pulls the reader into the narrator’s raw, heart-rending world. The seeming brief romance of two young women ended abruptly from intolerance punches deep—and leaves you willingly wounded. He talks about this piece humbly, as he does about most of his writing, saying that he was concerned about taking a chance on writing from a woman’s perspective, and from another sexual identity’s perspective as well, but that in the end he wanted to do the characters justice. He went on to add that he hoped his piece would, “[help] to put [a sensitive topic] out there by a voice you don’t expect it from,” and that hopefully his sincere treatment of the trauma involved in the story would help others see people who are “different” as not so different from the rest of us.
Dan doesn’t mind a bit of pain himself it would seem though. I had heard through mutual friends about his monstrous Master’s thesis pursuit of James Joyce. Having tried to read several of the author’s works (Finnegan’s Wake? Come on. That’s just jibberish…), I felt compelled to find out why Dan had chosen such a great, and complex author for his topic.
“I thought if I could pick it apart, maybe I can learn something about the craft [of writing]” he confesses. And what a pursuit it sounded like he was on. It involved a whole section of the library and special access to Joyce’s notes on his masterpiece Ulysses. Dan insists that the novel is “the most human thing I’ve ever read” and he appreciates its commentary on loss and the randomness of its topics just adds to its beauty.
The Joyce influence is clear in Pape’s works, whether it’s a story or his poetry. We discussed poetry as a genre while we were talking, too, and Dan had some spot-on insights. He feels it’s time for poetry to make a comeback—that it is a way for writers to attack all of the “poisonous stuff out there” though he admits that online rights are sketchy and unclear as to who owns what, and that that can be a downfall of fighting the powers that be with the written word. Still, he knows that if poetry can be taught well to younger generations—and not as some unreachable and opaque genre that no one can penetrate—that poems can push our culture forward and out of its seeming recent complacency.
“Anyone can try poetry and with practice [they] can get pretty good at it,” he goes on to say, and his hope is mine: that the intimacy and directness of poetry can get people to take notice.
Some Sage Advice
Not only poetry is accessible to all the would-be writers out there. Dan says writers should find a group to share their work with, and give feedback on others’ works in return. And then, he put it even more simply—in a list!
Read great writers.
Join groups to hone your craft.
Meet other writers.
Just get out there and do what you have to do, in other words. And like Dan Pape says, “You’ll find something about it that’s lifelong. Don’t be afraid.”
And for the record, he wore the black cap long before Jim Halpert from The Office did.
This article was written by one of the writers featured in our column, “The Writer’s Edge,” Alex Lotorto. In Alex’s article, he writes about the interview he had with our talented columnist for the “The Writer’s Edge,” Marcie Riebe. Alex writes:
Classical writers used inkwells to replenish their quills, but in our area, many writers turn to Marcie Riebe to refresh and refine their craft.
A local university professor, poet, caseworker, union maid, and actress, Riebe is a well of inspiration for Northeast Pennsylvanians making the most of our transitioning region. During the school year, Riebe is an adjunct writing professor at Wilkes University.
When asked to list the three most important lessons of her Academic Writing class this semester, Marcie replied, “First, writing is an ongoing process and it doesn’t stop. Second, some international students come from countries that don’t value writing as intellectual property. In some Arabic speaking countries, it can be an homage to a person to use their words. So, I emphasize the importance of research and sources. “For the third lesson, she paused then added, “The more you read, the better you can write.”
Riebe shares her talents of writing and critique at local writers groups. You can find her at Northeast Pennsylvania Creative Writers every other Wednesday night at the Taylor Community Library. Once a month on Saturday afternoons, catch her at The Game Chateau’s writers group in Wilkes-Barre.
“I love it at The Game Chateau. It’s an oasis of creativity in NEPA. They offer writing workshops, art, writers’ groups…you should check them out!” she said.
Her work can also be found on topic-focused blogs including Project Wednesday (a positivity blog), here at the Thirty-Third Wheel (local arts and culture), and The Game Chateau’s upcoming feature blog, Rolling the Dice.
As a young person, Riebe started writing as a hobby while working as a tutor in the writing center at Wilkes.
“I realized I was talented and tried to help other people,” she said.
Riebe pursued genres of writing including dramatic writing, short stories, screenwriting, poetry, and essays. Some of Riebe’s early works included a one act called Have that was published in the Wilkes Manuscript literary magazine.
When asked to describe the plot, Riebe blushed, as every writer does when asked about their early work.
“A guy and a girl who knew each other in high school were the ones that got away from each other. The play was set up as a confession of how they felt later, divulging feelings. Like a confession booth. It was never performed.”
Riebe said she enjoys writing poetry the most.
“I can get something out and see a result, something that feels finished, in a relatively short amount of time. It is gratification for me. Lately, I have been writing a lot about women as subjects and their experiences,” she explained.
About a year and a half ago, Riebe brought a friend along to see a show at the Scranton Cultural Center. While waiting on line for a while, Riebe observed her friend’s fragrance, which inspired her poem “No Scents.”
A woman at work
Wears the perfume
I avoid her.
If I smell it–
For the rest of the day.
I’ll only think of your
Roan, curly hair–
Flitting in a July breeze
Getting caught in your sunglasses
With the tortoiseshell pattern
That almost matches them–
And the hem of your
Evergreen, gauzy dress
Tipped up, a moment,
In the same balmy breeze
With the sun on your side
My eyes squint to keep it out
But they lose for longing to look
One morning in June, Riebe woke up to the grueling heat. Tangled in her sheets and sweaty, she remembered the biweekly prompt of her Northeast Pennsylvania Writers’ group, “sleep”. She went downstairs to her notebook and penned:
I wake long before I should have to see you
The heat alerts me with a start
Caught and tied in my damp nightshirt
Restrained in moist bedsheets
The pillow I hug wetter than me.
Riebe’s favorite poem in that little notebook makes her hungry. She smiled and said, “It’s about spaghetti that I had at my friend Bernie’s house.”
Crimson sauce disperses
Forming a fiery tomato nebula
A significant galaxy within
Of beef, egg, breadcrumbs
Sausage asteroids, slippery, in transit
Past meridians of a universal plate
Studded with white dwarfs of garlic
And distant yellow suns of onion
A black hole’s gravitational pull begins
Fork spinning slowly on an axis
Guided by a spoon, a fleeting meteor
Together sounding the serenade or remote
A Parmesan supernova in perigee
The vastness smells of
When asked to name writers that inspire her, Riebe rattled off, “Locally, my favorite poet is Daryl Sznyter because she reveals raw emotion that I feel a connection to.”
“Of all time, Tennyson inspires me the most. My favorite of his is ‘In Memorium’ because I associate it with my grandfather. I read it at his funeral,” she recalled. “In the poem, Tennyson had a special connection with his friend and I’d like to write a poem that can show my connection to someone like that someday.”
Riebe added, “Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky are melancholy like I am and realistic. I find things in their characters that I can relate to, at least in part.”
Riebe has spent the last eight years as a caseworker, working with the Spanish-speaking population in Northeast Pennsylvania.
“I was a sociology major at Wilkes as an undergrad. When I worked at the writing center I got interested in English as a second language (ESL) classes and veered off the sociology track. I couldn’t find a job doing that in public schools, so I went back to school for my secondary education degree. I was teaching Composition 101 at Wilkes and I ended up working at the International Student Services office while I was teaching.”
A family connection pointed her to her current career.
“My father in law worked in social services and while he knew that I loved my job at Wilkes, he knew that my husband and I just bought a house and he encouraged me to take the civil service exam. I didn’t hear anything for almost two years and then I got a call from human resources, took the Spanish test, and started my current job,” she continued.
Riebe quickly got involved with her union.
“I grew up in a family of teachers and unions were part of my upbringing. I started getting involved in our union, taking note of workplace issues and going to our chapter meetings. Then in 2015, I ran for union shop steward on a ticket with two other women for our union election and we won,” she said.
When asked about her role as a shop steward, Riebe explained, “I believe in equity for members, which means being treated fairly according to our contract. I try to help people see how the union works for them and how, if they are involved in it, they can feel ownership.”
A woman of many parts, Riebe participates in local community theatre as well.
“Early on, I did community theater and little kid plays at day camp. I didn’t get back to it until I was in high school at Danville Area.”
In May, Riebe performed in Diva Productions’ The Smell of the Kill (Molly) at the Olde Brick Theater in North Scranton.
“I like to do comedy because I competed in speech in high school in humorous interpretation,” she explained.
In the dark comedy, Riebe played one of three wives cleaning up after a dinner party and discussing their husbands’ abuse, stalking, and microaggressions. Their husbands are playing golf in the next room shouting expletives until they suddenly go missing. The wives discover the men have locked themselves in the host husband’s meat locker downstairs and wonder aloud, would the men rescue their wives from the freezer if the tables were turned?
Riebe analyzed, “From a feminist theory perspective, the play depicted women working as a team instead of working against each other. In the beginning of the play, every time one woman leaves, the other two are talking about her, but by the end, they come together to share how they would all like to kill their awful husbands.”
Riebe combined her passion for labor unions and theatre in her most recent performance in After the Shots Were Fired as Mrs. Stephen Philips, the wife of a coal miner shot dead by William Walker Scranton’s coal company militia during the Great Railroad Strike of 1877. The play, performed at the Pennsylvania Anthracite Heritage Museum’s Labor Heritage Day and Pittston Riverfest, was written by local historians Margo Azzarelli, Marnie Azzarelli, and myself.
Riebe’s character bemoans her husband’s death, “I have no money for us this week and hardly any food left. Our debt to the company is high, and if I don’t start to pay it, they will take our home from us. I must send the children to work. I could lie about young Stephen’s age so maybe he could be a laborer. I could send the three oldest girls to the mills and the youngest boy to the breaker. I could take in miners that need boarding, or I could marry again. If that’s what I need to do to keep my family alive, I will do it for us. I will do it for Stephen.”
Riebe, originally from Danville, asserts that she is native to central Pennsylvania, not northeastern. I argued that Danville is within the WNEP viewing area and therefore, she is from Northeast Pennsylvania, but she was adamant. Either way, she’s firmly rooted herself here in NEPA with many contributions made and many still yet to come. We should all be proud to have her to replenish our pens.
Seeing my writing friend, Sara Hubert, is like seeing a beautiful morning sunrise. Her shy, but quick smile and glow welcome and warm hearts all around. They are a beacon of the caring and creative light inside of her and her works.
Sara and I met recently to mull over many topics to do with her writing, but they all go back to her vivid imagination and her myriad talents in not only writing, but art as well.
“Weird Horror” was Sara’s response when I asked her to share what she called her writing style. It seems apropos, as the first story of hers I’d heard dealt with brownies overtaking a business (and we’re not talking desserts here, folks). She’s into writing about strange surprises that pop up when you’re expecting something completely different going in. And it keeps things interesting—not only in her written works, but in all of her artistic ventures.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s stick to the writing things first.
Sara says she began writing as a child—and that her mother has saved her early works. One she remembers writing was a tale of a camel salesman, complete with illustrations. Not really the weird horror one might see later, but it was a progression to get to that over time with scary movies and Stephen King novels working their way into her imagination.
She finds inspiration all over—in books, movies—and in her online wanderings. She keeps a folder on her computer with images and ideas for use in future works. One example she knows is in the list of possibilities in a small mouse clinging to a Queen Anne’s Lace flower. She thinks he’s ready for her to write his adventures out—and says they’ll be weird ones, too.
Her works are not only weird horror though. Many times, they take a spiritual turn. Sometimes after meditating, she’ll be calm and centered enough to just let her mind take her where it will. Sara says, “You can’t control what happens, but you can control how you react. [That] makes you mindful. There are all sorts of paths possible from one incident.” And it seems, from talking with Sara, that that’s the whole idea—the journey of seeing where things end up.
But Sara’s interests go further still. She loves animals (and has multiple, adorable pets), she’s an artist with her own Etsy shop, and she is a painter. She hasn’t incorporated her art with many of her writings since the good old camel salesman, save the story of one of her pets of yore who inspired a Yule story for Sara’s mother entitled “Olaf the Yule Rat.” She hopes to turn it into a book. That’s a children’s story to watch for, certainly.
Another Writing Form
I wanted to talk to Sara about her storytelling skills with regard to role-playing tabletop games as well, as she runs the game “Unknown Armies” that all of her players (including me) jones for when we’re not playing. Effortlessly she leads us through 2024 as teenagers recruited to work for a Raccoon Corporation/Pentex sort of conglomerate that employs magically-gifted people for artifact investigations (among other morally questionable assignments along the way). It is a dark, weird, and sometimes horrific game that Sara doesn’t ever look nervous running. I asked her how she does it so easily. Nonchalantly she smiles and shares that while she has plotlines constructed in outlines of where she wants things to go, the process is really cooperative, depending on how we, the players, decide to adventure in her world—and that’s the challenge of it that she loves. This cooperative idea is really symbolic of Sara—she obviously cares for others and values all opinions, whether they’re her own or not, and it’s obvious she takes joy in finding how others will respond to things that come up in-game. And one of her other miracles of gaming that I’m a huge fan of, and am planning on using in my own writing, was used in character creation for the game. Instead of having us write a background story, as is usually the case in games like these, instead we were instructed to come up with a five song playlist that describes our character. It’s one of the best things I’ve had to do. Talk about making you think. That’s a Sara thing, too.
Moving Forward and Sage Advice
Sara’s main writing venture coming up is participating in NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) this November. She and her husband, Karl (watch for an article on him here sometime soon), will be competing with one another to produce books from their active, exciting brains. She’s still deciding where the novel will go, but looks forward to pushing herself, which is the advice she has for all aspiring or new writers. “Move out of your comfort zone,” she says. “If you want to write about something, go experience it. You might find something you really like doing. That’s good advice for life in general.” She’s so right—and she practices what she preaches.
Sara is a featured writer at “A Halloween Execution”hosted by Ink Writers Group at the Game Chateau in October where she and other featured writers will be sharing creepy writings of the season. Look for her, too, in Elle Hammond’s upcoming blog, “Rolling the Dice” as a contributor, also starting up later this month.
Sara’s got a lot of good things to say. You don’t want to miss them.
Self-styled as fiction writer, activist, amateur historian, union member, and actor, Alex Lotorto does it all. We spent time together in the Electric City recently to talk about his novel, his plays and his philosophy.
Why Historical Fiction?
A history fan, Alex has always been fascinated by what happened in the past. Growing up in Pike County, stories of the Underground Railroad, the labor movement, and famous people passing through Pennsylvania have piqued his interest in the beginnings of Northeastern PA.
His novel in progress, The Deliverance of Charles Ball, touches on many of these historical occurrences, and builds on them with other issues and personages of the past. You’ll be surprised though—while the title references Mr. Ball (a former slave originally from Maryland who eventually made his way north to freedom) the protagonist of the book is Rachel, a young girl who lives with her sheep-herding family. When I asked why Alex had chosen a woman, he explained that he wanted history to be from a new perspective, and not the mostly male and autobiographical examples usually encountered in sources. His desire to give a new voice to history is refreshing and well-orchestrated. The novel begins in 1842—a pivotal year for Pennsylvania in many ways. Debtors’ prisons were banned in that year. The ban on slave catching was struck down, making Pennsylvania a sanctuary state no more—a similarity that makes one think of current immigration issues even today. But Rachel’s story and its parallels to today don’t stop there. Rachel and the town dwellers learn about Charles Ball’s plight through his writing and take on other conflicts of the day as well, such as labor unrest in the region and the question of the feasibility of utopia (with a guest appearance by Horace Greeley, who actually visited Pennsylvania around that time, and attempted a utopian socialist colony, Sylvania, near Shohola).
The three main topics of the work include these, according to Alex. In addition, in his work he wants to give the experience of the American slave, to show the plights of workers in the dawn of American capitalism and the Industrial Revolution, and to explore the treatment of women in this time period of national patriarchy. His narrator is written to have readers question, as she does, could people of these marginalized groups have been treated in a more humane way? Alex, through his characters, asserts that they could have, and that we need to be vigilant of these issues as history always comes back around again.
The Play’s the Thing
Novels aren’t Alex’s only genre. Acting and the theatre are in his blood, too.
After the Shots Were Fired—a play co-written by Alex in coordination with the mother/daughter duo of Margo and Marnie Azzarelli—is being performed throughout the area this fall. It tells the story of the Great Strike of 1877 in Scranton, featuring imaginations of several strikers in the riot that occurred on Lackawanna Avenue.
Alex has a screenplay in the works as well—and while a bit more light-hearted in nature, it still pulls from actual Commonwealth issues. Its working title is The Herd and it, too, focuses on Pennsylvania working heroes who save the rest of our citizens—this time not from coal bosses or slave catchers, rather the unfortunate villains are the State’s cervidae—the deer and elk.
To try to do it justice, Alex shared this summary of the trailer he envisions for the work:
A hunter, a bit hungover, is out on Opening Day of deer season. He drifts to sleep on his deer stand in the State Game Lands. Two does run by. He awakens—readied—and the buck is coming and faster than he expected. With no time to even grab his gun, the big-racked buck appears, honks, sniffs at the hunter, and then proceeds to charge right at him. Black out. Then, we hear a call from a worried wife telling the game warden about the hunter, her husband, who never made it home for dinner.
Not to give it all away, let’s just say the deer are not well, and a dark comedy in the vein of “Little Shop of Horrors,” “Independence Day,” and “Snakes on a Plane” ensues.
Just remember—don’t feed the deer.
Parting Comments and Sage Advice
Alex’s enthusiasm in his work is contagious—I can’t wait to hear and see more from him. His passion is evident in all of his characters, and it’s clear that fiction is his strength. He knows this himself and says, “Fiction lets you do the things you couldn’t do in real life.” Who wouldn’t want to live it up like that?
Alex has advice for new local writers—get out there. Join a writer’s group such as NEPA Creative Writers or Ink and find all of the other writers in the area who are willing to help get you started and “talk up” your confidence. He says that they’ll give you the accountability you’ll need to continue. He states that writer should capitalize on the area itself, too. “NEPA is a great micro-laboratory for the human experience and existence,” and adds that there is “untold content” waiting to be written about from local history to current events in our region.
Alex truly has no shortage on storytelling and he wants to encourage others to take up the cause, too, because “there’s not a person anywhere who doesn’t have a good idea to share to help make the world better.”
Want to hear more from Alex Lotorto? See him in After the Shots Were Fired at Pittston’s Riverfestthis month. He’s also a featured writer for the Writer’s Showcaseat the Olde Brick Theatre in Scranton at the end of September. He says don’t be shy about contacting him on Facebook or at the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) meetings at Café Sevda in Scranton the last Saturday morning of every month. He’ll be happy to help share ways he works to make Pennsylvania history—and more—accessible to all.