Existing in the Liminal: An Interview with Adriana E. Ramirez

I had the pleasure of conversing with Adriana E. Ramirez, who visited Chatham for our event, “Dialogues: Writing in Divided Times.” Ramirez is a world-renowned performance poet, and her nonfiction novella Dead Boys won the 2015 PEN/Fusion Emerging Writers Prize. Ramirez currently resides in Pittsburgh and teaches at Carlow University. She is co-founder of the Pittsburgh Poetry Collective and ran Steel City Slam for ten years. Our conversation focused on her upcoming book, The Violence, due in 2018, but we also discussed a wide variety of topics including the current state of journalism, the poetry scene in Pittsburgh, and themes of recurrence in Battlestar Galactica.  

The Fourth River: I just want to give you an opportunity, first, to talk about your upcoming book, The Violence.

Adriana E. Ramirez: I am neck deep in it right now. It’s about a civil war called The Violence in Colombia from 1948-56. This guy running for president, Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, he was essentially a populist, the working people loved him. He’s assassinated, and a weeks worth of rioting ensues, kicking off a civil war. This was not the first war between liberals and conservatives in Colombia. But this one obviously went much longer than three years.

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On Research and Relationships: An Interview with Kathryn Miles

Kathryn Miles is a longform journalist, memoirist, and environmental writing professor. Her most recent book is Superstorm: Nine Days Inside Hurricane Sandy, published in 2014. She is the author of Adventures with Ari: A Puppy, a Leash & Our Year Outdoors, and All Standing: The Remarkable Story of the Jeanie Johnston, the Legendary Irish Famine Ship. Her nonfiction has been selected for Best American Essays, and has appeared in a wide range of publications such as Alimentum, Ecotone, Outside, The Boston Globe, Psychology Today, and The New York Times. In addition to being a mentor in Chatham University’s low-residency MFA program, she teaches in the low-residency Masters program at Green Mountain College in Vermont.

Kathryn Miles joined Chatham’s Summer Community of Writers in July 2015 as the featured creative nonfiction writer.

The Fourth River: You got your start as a reporter in high school, correct? Since then you’ve written many things and your style has no doubt changed a lot. What traits of that rookie reporter have you retained? Or is everything about your work different?

Kathryn Miles: The Peoria Journal Star, a really wonderful daily, took a chance and hired me as a cub reporter when I was 16. It was sort of a dream-come-true for me: my godparents, who were really like surrogate grandparents, met and fell in love while working there. So, in a lot of ways, it felt like a family legacy for me to follow in their footsteps, and, like them, I really grooved on the dynamism of an active newsroom. I took an incredibly circuitous route back to journalism – I majored in philosophy as an undergraduate and took a Ph.D. in English – but the roots have always remained. What I really learned from those early days was the importance of old fashioned reportage: sitting and listening, and letting your subjects be the voice of their own stories. I also learned about the crucial importance of accuracy and writing on deadline: two considerations all creative writers need to internalize, and ones I’m constantly reminded of in my work today. What’s changed, I think, is my newfound appreciation for narrative and storytelling: literary journalism was an unknown concept to me then, and it really defines my writing today. I’m much more aware of voice and the arc of a story than I ever was then.

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Wonderful Strangeness: An Interview with Karen E. Bender

Karen Bender, the Chatham MFA Program 2015 Melanie Brown Lecturer, is a novelist and short story writer whose most recent collection, Refund (Counterpoint Press, 2015), was a finalist for the National Book Award in Fiction, shortlisted for the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Prize, and longlisted for the Story prize. Her other works include two novels, Like Normal People and A Town of Empty Rooms and she was the co-editor of the nonfiction anthology Choice: True Stories of Birth, Contraception, Infertility, Adoption, Single Parenthood, and Abortion. Her short fiction, widely published in literary magazines, has also appeared in The Best American Short Stories and The Best American Mystery Stories. A Los Angeles native and past resident of New York City and Iowa City, she currently lives in Wilmington, North Carolina with her husband, writer Robert Anthony Siegel, and their two children.

The Fourth River: How did you start writing and who were your early influences?

Karen Bender: I started writing because I was hit on the head with a rock when I was six. I was at a birthday party for a little boy and all the kids were trying to put him through a “spanking machine”, which was when all the kids lined up to make a tunnel through which the birthday child was supposed to crawl. He didn’t want to go through the spanking machine, so he was running away and he picked up a rock and threw it. The rock soared over everyone and hit me. I fell backward and some adult picked me up and put me on the birthday cake table, and all these kids were surrounding the table and staring at me and I was bleeding. And what I remember is that they had to move the birthday cake so it didn’t get bloody—that is the detail I remember. So I started writing my first stories after that incident, when I had this big bandage on my head. I believe that was my first insight I had as a writer, because I was trying to impose narrative on chaos. And that’s actually what I think stories, or work, does, because the world is so chaotic, and there are all these rocks thrown at us all the time, in various ways. Writing is a way to try and control the chaos. As a child, I wrote many novel beginnings but never finished. I didn’t know how to finish them.

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Carolina Minded: An Interview with Wiley Cash

When bestselling author Wiley Cash passed through Pittsburgh on the promotional tour for his award-winning novel A LAND MORE KIND THAN HOME, he sat down with THE FOURTH RIVER to talk plot tricks and book deals. Cash also gave creative writing students at Chatham University a craft lecture before a public reading of his work, including excerpts from A LAND MORE KIND THAN HOME, recently released THIS DARK ROAD TO MERCY and a currently untitled novel-in-process. I talked with him about how to figure out the right book title, being star struck by Jeannette Winterson, and why he can’t wait to get back to North Carolina.

FR: It’s obvious that place plays a huge role in your books. A Land More Kind Than Home and This Dark Road To Mercy are both set in North Carolina, and the new book you’re working on is historical fiction about North Carolina. You seem to really love the state. What was it like growing up there?

Wiley Cash: I absolutely love North Carolina. I did my undergraduate at UNC Asheville, my Masters at UNC Greensboro, and actually left to get my PhD at University of Louisiana-Lafayette. I spent five years in Louisiana. I’ve been teaching in West Virginia, but we’ll move back to N.C. this year. My wife took a job in Wilmington. I can’t wait. I grew up going to a Southern Baptist church in Gastonia. It was very conservative. There was pressure, imagined or whatever, to feel and talk about holy, biblical things. That anxiety transfers to A Land More Kind Than Home’s protagonist Jess, that guilt that young people have about “How do I know when I’m saved?” “Do I believe things correctly?” The rise and fall of Southern Evangelicals had a real impact on me.

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Interview: Marjorie Agosín

It was an unseasonably warm fall day in Pittsburgh when I talked with Chilean writer and activist, Marjorie Agosín, Chatham University’s All-Campus Author and the woman behind nearly forty books, including anthologies, poetry, memoir and nonfiction, and a novel, I Lived on Butterfly Hill, which was released in March 2014. In the living room of the Howe-Childs Gate House, I sheepishly removed several Apple devices of various sizes, one for recording, another for keeping the time, and she asked me about my family. We’d met before. Agosín graciously remembered the time last year I almost drove her and her husband the wrong way down a one-way street. We had a lot of catching up to do. For the next half hour, Agosín and I navigated our conversation through shared territory—of home, memory, and separation in poetry, the value of travel, the smell and feel of the Pacific Ocean when she returns to the country of her childhood. “The problem with Chile,” she told me with a sigh, “is that it’s far no matter where you are.” And so we talked too about this longing, about the clarity of what is left behind. Although I don’t speak Spanish, her native language, the conversation was easy, and I learned that even in our silences, nothing is lost.

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Off-Kilter Vacations: An Interview with Stewart O’Nan

Local Pittsburgh writer, Stewart O’Nan, blends fact with fiction in his 2015 novel, West of Sunset, published by Viking Press. In an excerpt featured in The Fourth River 0.3: Celebrating 10 Years of the Melanie Brown Lecture Series, O’Nan takes readers back to a time in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s life that is not often discussed: the later years when Fitzgerald was an alcoholic struggling to find work while Zelda is away in an asylum.

Before this novel, O’Nan’s short story collection, In the Walled City, was awarded the 1993 Drue Heinz Literature Prize. Several of the short stories from that collection appeared in The Nebraska Review, Northwest Review, among others. During 1993, he published his second book, Snow Angels, which was later adapted into a film in 2007 by the same name.

Along with these successes, O’Nan collaborated with Stephen King on an e-book, A Face in the Crowd, before finally publishing West of Sunset.


The Fourth River: What drew you to write about this rarely-talked about part of Fitzgerald’s life in West of Sunset?

Stewart O’Nan: I knew a little about his time in Hollywood, but I felt there was a lot more. He’s an intriguing figure living in a legendary place during an interesting time. The more I looked into it, the more fantastic and romantic it seemed. Who knew that he worked on Gone with the Wind or met with Shirley Temple, who wanted to star in Babylon Revisited?

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So That You Know Your Story Will Be Told: An Interview with Sabata-mpho Mokae

I recently sat down with South African writer Sabata-mpho Mokae, and discussed his influences, oral storytelling and how language affects the way a story is told and absorbed. Mokae’s debut novel in Setswana, Ga Ke Modisa, I’m Not My Brother’s Keeper, (2012) won the M-Net Literary Award for Best Novel in Setswana as well as the M-Net Film Award. He is also the author of the the biography The Story of Sol T. Plaatje (2010) and the poetry collection Escaping Trauma (2012). His youth novella Dikeledi [Tears] was launched in 2014. Sabata-mpho Mokae is a resident at The University of Iowa’s International Writing Program.

The Fourth River: Can you start by talking about your writing process? What does the road between inspiration and a published piece look like?

Sabata-mpho Mokae: Once I have a group of characters sorted out, the book writes itself. I know my characters, I know how they behave, I’ve given each of them a background, I’ve given each of them a routine, a certain behavior, I’ve given them dreams, aspirations. As a writer the book is being dictated to me, I have the story and then I simply become a typist. I have my first draft sorted and then I keep it there and allow it to be there. I take it out of my system, I detox. I take ample time to detox, three months, sometimes four months and then I go back to it, now as an editor. I am now a different person from the one who was telling the story in the first place. The second draft is basically going through the new me as the editor of the first draft.

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Interview: Salvatore Pane

To meet Salvatore Pane in person is to be engaged. Friendly and spirited, he fills the room with a devil-may-care but darn-I-like-people attitude. On a recent winter evening, he and other writers met in a room above a bar in Pittsburgh.

Salvatore comes off as a hipster who would be comfortable being labeled a nerd, and that is no slight. He seems to be welcome in the world of intellectuals and creatives who are often mislabeled. But he is very serious about writing.

His spike-ledge hair compliments a gray sweater pulled over a black button-down, the modern professional/city-dweller look. Pane’s work has appeared in PANK, Annalemma, and Weave, among others.  Pane is a former lecturer at Chatham University and his novel, Last Call in the City of Bridges, was published by Braddock Avenue Books on November 6th.

The Fourth River: At the end of “Man of Ego, Man of Hubris, Save us From The Sun,” you wrote a defense of the story. How important is biography in connecting with readers?

Salvatore Pane: That story was published in a great online journal, FRiGG. They run extras at the end of their pieces. I don’t think these extras are absolutely necessary for a story to be good or even for an issue of a journal to be good, but there’s so much potential with online magazines that it seems foolish not to exploit it. Hobart does this cool thing where they put bonus material from their print issue on their website, cool trinkets from amazing writers: a great essay about Metroid by Mike Meginnis, a fun map from Aubrey Hirsch, a video of Brian Oliu reading his work. If their stories weren’t good—and in this case I guarantee that they are—none of that would matter. It always comes back to the work, but if a journal has the capability to do stuff online, they should capitalize on that.

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Embracing the Gap: An Interview with Alix Ohlin

Alix Ohlin is the author of two novels – Inside and The Missing Person – and two collections of short stories – Signs and Wonders and Babylon and Other Stories. More of her work can be found in Best American Short Stories and elsewhere. Although she was born in Montreal, she currently resides in Pennsylvania, teaching at both Lafayette College and in the Warren Wilson MFA Program for writers.

The Fourth River: What’s your writing process like? How do you go about telling your stories?

Alix Ohlin: All writing begins and ends in failure, and that embracing failure is the most important step a writer can take. I always have this vision in my head – this idea that “Oh, this book is going to be amazing!” – but the distance between what I wanted to do and what I wanted to accomplish is vast. And I can work on the draft as much as I possibly can but, inevitably, it never gets close to where I wanted it to be. You never finish, you just abandon and move on to the next thing. So, for me, another crucial part of the writing process is reading, because it reminds me of what great writing can be and can do. When I look at my own work, all I can see are the flaws and all the things that didn’t come through. But when I look at someone else’s work and see what they were able to do, I try to write back to that, or write an imitation of that, or write out of love of that.

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The Heart of What I Want to Tell You About Is Not the Place: A Conversation with Amy Bloom

I want to crawl inside Amy Bloom’s head. I want to plant the bulb of my story into the fertile soil of her brain, let the roots take hold, watch the green shoots erupt and behold my novel blossoming onto the page.

This is what I am thinking as Amy Bloom and I leave the WPTS radio station at the University of Pittsburgh student union. In search of food, we cross Forbes Avenue amongst a swarm of students and spill into the acre of green space that is Schenley Plaza. Amy Bloom wants to check out the Conflict Kitchen.

I am a bit star struck having spent the last two hours interviewing her with Josh, a University of Pittsburgh MFA grad student, for the Hot Metal Bridge literary journal podcast, [in brackets]. Prior to that, I spent a month immersed in her three novels Lucky Us (2014), Away (2007) and Love Invents Us (1997), a short story collection, Where the God of Love Hangs Out (2010) and numerous published and audio interviews. Even still, I am mindful that I have consumed only a fraction of the Amy Bloom canon which includes a screen play, State of Mind (2007) and the nonfiction offering: Normal: Transsexual CEOs, Cross-dressing Cops, and Hermaphrodites with Attitude (2002).

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The Kindness of Book Signing: An Interview with Fred and Melanie Brown

On October 18th, we are celebrating the 10th anniversary of the Melanie Brown Lecture Series with the visit to Chatham of acclaimed writer Amy Bloom. The Melanie Brown Lecture Series brings an established author to Chatham every year and allows aspiring writers and the Chatham community at large to interact with them in various settings and learn about their work. The Fourth River is honored to feature a folio of work from the last decade of the lecture series in our current digital issue.

The Melanie Brown Lecturer is supported by an endowment from Melanie and Fred R. Brown established in 2008. The Browns are lifelong Pittsburghers who love books and have crisscrossed the country collecting signed copies of works of fiction, most of which are first editions. The Browns generously donated their vast collection of award winning contemporary fiction to Chatham in 2010. The Melanie and Fred R. Brown Special Collection of Literary Fiction is now permanently housed in the Jennie King Mellon Library. They now spend most of their time in Florida but are frequently back in town. I had a chance to interview Melanie and Fred Brown in advance of their traveling to Pittsburgh this month to attend the lecture.


The Fourth River: Celebrated author Amy Bloom will be coming to Chatham as the tenth Melanie Brown Lecturer. Are you excited about her visit?

Melanie Brown: We are pretty excited about that. We were excited when it came up as an option. Usually we have some input. Together with Marc Nieson and Sheryl St. Germain we make a decision from several names. They’re already starting to throw up names for next year.

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Interview: The Mark of Real Life : An Interview with Allison Joseph

Allison Joseph was born in London, England in 1967. She is the author of What Keeps us Here, which won the 1992 Women Poets Series Prize from Ampersand Press, a publisher of poetry and fiction based at Roger Williams College in Bristol, Rhode Island. The book, dedicated to Allison’s late mother, also won the John C. Zacharias First Book Prize from Emerson College and Ploughshares. She is the recipient of the 2009 Aquarius Press Legacy Award, the Literary Award from the Illinois Arts Council, the Associated Writing Programs Prize, the Academy of American Poets Prize, the Ruth Lilly Fellowship, Sewanee Writers’ Conference Fellowship, and the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference Fellowship. A graduate of Kenyon University, Joseph is currently the editor and poetry editor of the Crab Orchard Review and Director of the Young Writers’ Workshop, as Director of the SIUS MFA Program in Creative Writing, Professor Joseph also maintains a blog about the graduate creative writing program.

At the time of this interview, her most recent books were My Father’s Kites (Steel Toe Books, 2010) and Trace Particles (Backbone Press, 2014).

BJ: When and why did you begin writing?

AJ: I was one of those kids who couldn’t shut up. That’s what I’d get on my report card. You know, “talks too much in class” so that’s part of it. Always much more interested in language than in numbers, which accounts for my poor math skills to this day(laughing). And as soon as I discovered poetry, I knew that it was going to be a part of my life. Probably around the same age a lot of people discover poetry. Probably early pre-teen kind of age.

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Interview: Monsters, Video Games, and Design | An Interview with Rebecca King

Rebecca King is the Founding Editor and Designer at Origami Zoo Press. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from Chatham University in 2011. Her fiction has appeared in decomP Magazine, >kill author, Dogzplot, and others.

The Fourth River: You took a publishing course when you were at Chatham, and this is what sparked your interest in launching Origami Zoo Press. Is that right?

Rebecca King: Yeah. I actually told myself, “I’m a writer; I’m not really interested in publishing.” But a bunch of my friends were taking [the class] and I thought, well, I should see the other side of things. And then I ended up falling in love with the process of making books. The first book I made for that class was Phantoms by Chad Simpson. He was a former professor of mine, and I had such a fun time interacting with him, really collaborating.

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Interview: Maps and Legends | An Interview with Hillary Wentworth

Hillary Wentworth earned her MFA from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.  Her writing has appeared in Black Warrior Review, Caesura, and Red Wheelbarrow, among others. Her flash fiction piece “146.9 Volts” was selected for the 2010 miniStories grand prize by Alexander Chee, Daniel Handler, Heather McElhatton, Kevin Larimer, and Dennis Cass.

The Fourth River: “Blowing Rock,” your nonfiction piece which appeared in issue 7 of The Fourth River, braids several intriguing threads together, and the changing Earth is one of them. What is your overall theory of this planet we occupy? How do you attempt to capture that in your writing?

Hillary Wentworth: I’ve always been fascinated by Earth, space, this small pocket of the universe we inhabit. And it’s a fascinating subject that I naturally veer toward. The best nonfiction, I think, is personal but also informative, so I try to balance those elements. Writing has always been my main passion, though I was interested in forensics for a while. I’m still fascinated by the body; there is a lot that is still beyond the scope of human comprehension. When I incorporate geology, time, and scientific phenomena, it’s my attempt to find the story beyond me.

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Interview: Luis Alberto Urrea

Luis Alberto Urrea is the son of a Mexican father and an American mother. The critically acclaimed and best-selling author of 13 books, Urrea has won numerous awards for his poetry, fiction, and essays. The Devil’s Highway, his 2004 non-fiction account of a group of Mexican immigrants lost in the Arizona desert, won the Lannan Literary Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. His novel The Hummingbird’s Daughter tells the story of Teresa Urrea, sometimes known as the Saint of Cabora and the Mexican Joan of Arc.

After serving as a relief worker in Tijuana and a film extra and columnist-editor-cartoonist for several publications, Urrea moved to Boston, where he taught expository writing and fiction workshops at Harvard. He has also taught at Massachusetts Bay Community College and the University of Colorado. The interviewer first met Urrea at the Fishtrap writing conference in 2006, and some of her questions refer to statements he made there.

The Fourth River: You have said that “Writers build bridges, not borders.” Can you talk about the bridges you have built with your writing, and where they have taken you?

Luis Alberto Urrea: I hope I have built bridges. Perhaps a clearer metaphor is one I have been using lately: Writers like me stand outside the wall and throw love notes over the top, hoping somebody will find them.

It makes me feel a little pretentious to start listing all the ways in which I’ve saved the world. But if you’re asking about pure mediums of communication, I always say that from the first book on, I have tried to give voice to the voiceless and to make connections between people who had never thought much about each other. For example, the denizens of the Tijuana garbage dump and sophisticated readers in the United States, border patrol and Chicanos, curanderas and Jesuits.

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Goats and Genre and Getting Closer to the Truth: An Interview with Brad Kessler

“All flesh begins as grass,” Brad Kessler writes in his 2009 memoir Goat Song: A Seasonal Life, A Short History of Herding, and the Art of Making Cheese. This is fitting for an exploration of the relationship between pastoralism and poetry—which is quite a strong relationship, by the way. Kessler is also the author of novels Lick Creek (Scribner, 2001) and Birds in Fall (Scribner, 2006).

He is the recipient of the Rome Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, a Whiting Writer’s Award, a NEA fellowship, and The Dayton Literary Peace Prize. Kessler’s work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine, The Nation, BOMB, The Kenyon Review, and The New Yorker.

He lives in Vermont with his wife and raises dairy goats in addition to writing. Kessler’s work is “bread labor,” the kind of effort that sustains us: making cheese and writing books, crafting each detail carefully by hand. I sat down with him when he visited Chatham as the Melanie Brown Lecturer on March 16, 2011.

The Fourth River: So, I’m interested in this ambidextrous ability that you have with both nonfiction and fiction—and you started as a children’s writer.

Brad Kessler: I actually started in nonfiction. My training was in journalism, or, rather, nonfiction writing—back then, the term “creative nonfiction” didn’t exist. The first time I heard “CNF,” I thought it was a railroad line, like “the CNF doesn’t stop here anymore.” [Laughs] The children’s book writing was really a way of making money and learning how stories—particularly folk tales– were put together: a sort of infancy of narrative. It was interesting training for how to write fiction.

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An Interview: In the Flow with Evan Morgan Williams

Evan Morgan Williams, 47, is a writer from Portland, Oregon. His character-driven stories explore personal interaction, as well as the modes and nature of communication. He has published over thirty stories in literary magazines, including Witness, The Kenyon Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Northwest Review, and issue 2 of The Fourth River. His story “Maybe I Want to Tell You” can be found in issue 8 of The Fourth River.

The Fourth River: In “Ivory,” you write about a character with a cochlear implant, and in “Talking Hands, Blue Eyes,” you write about a boy who refuses to speak and relies upon Native American signing to communicate. Is this a common theme in your writing: characters with communication disabilities? And if so, what drew you to the subject?

Evan Morgan Williams: Broken communication is a common theme in my stories. In the case of “Ivory” and “Talking Hands,” the characters have tangible barriers to communication, but I think they symbolize broken communication in general. In fact, a lot of the dialogue in my stories is fundamentally disrupted; characters talk at each other, not back and forth, but that’s the way it is in life. Real people don’t maintain a continuous line when they talk to each other, and I don’t like stories where that’s happening. Most television shows suffer from that. Just watch an episode of Law and Order to see what I mean. The great dialogue writers, such as Hemingway and Carver, have broken communication.

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Pirouettes and Courage: An Interview with Daniel Duane

Daniel Duane is the author of seven books, including the surf memoir Caught Inside, A Surfer’s Year on the California Coast. His journalism, appearing in Men’s Journal, The New York Times Magazine,  Bon Appetit, GQ, and Esquire, has won a National Magazine Award and received a nomination for a James Beard Award. His latest book, How To Cook Like A Man, A Memoir of Cookbook Obsession, was recently published by Bloomsbury. He lives in San Francisco with his wife and two daughters.

We were really excited that Daniel agreed to be interviewed by us, and we’re even more excited to have Cody Leutgens, a student at Chatham who happens to be an avid surfer, available to conduct it.

The Fourth River: After rising in the morning, what is your day-to-day like, and how is your writing routine incorporated?

Daniel Duane: I have young children, so I like to get them ready and out the door for school. I take a lot of pleasure out of making bacon and pancakes for my daughters; it’s a really nice way to start the day.  Plus, my wife is a fulltime writer and also works from home, so we share.

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