Meet the Author: Heather Quinn

by Katie Walker on January 21, 2015

HeatherQuinn3x5Heather Quinn is originally from San Diego, California but currently lives in Portland, Oregon, where she is an MFA candidate at Portland State University. Her work has been published in The Rumpus, The RiveterCutbank, and now in Under the Gum Tree!

Heather’s piece “Memento Mori,” is the skeletal framework and existence of the things that encompass a life in its whole. By interweaving writing and photography and by her exploration through barren, desert landscapes, Heather first lays the foundation of her story. It is by ushering readers through her different stages with memorable markers of a place, thing, or an experience that we begin to see the progression of Heather’s life—and much like we see within our own lives—the many shapes it takes. We feel the everyday mundanities in our lives undergo change, defined by new meaning as she shows us a hair brush is not just a hair brush when its last and final usage is before her mother submits to the hospital for treatment and surgery. And a camera is much more than a body and a lens through which to view the world; it is a preserver of the histories of a life that sometimes go untold. This story transports us constantly from undeveloped desert, to home life and some of its own foreign places we are forced to confront, and back to desert, all in one sweeping continuum, where along the way Heather exposes what it is we should be seeing but sometimes miss.

Q: Right away your title is striking: “Memento Mori.” Most all of us have heard the term carpe diem at some point which translates to “seize the day,” however, memento mori is something which alludes to death and implores us to sort of remember death. What was your thought process behind deciding on this title?

A: The title is based on a quote by Susan Sontag, from her essay about photography, “In Plato’s Cave.” She says “All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.” This really rang true to me, but through most of my reading of the essay, I found myself arguing with Sontag more often than not. Her view of photography is particularly negative—she characterizes photography as a form of violence, of appropriation, and even equates the act of taking a picture to a rape or a murder. My response as a reader, and of course as a photographer, was that there is nothing unique about photography that makes it more prone to these issues than any other art form. When Sontag talks about memento mori, she seems to be implying that this act of engaging with the mortality of others is a similar act of violence, but we don’t need a camera to have these kinds of experiences. Any time we interact with other people or engage with the world around us, we are involved in the mutability of things. There’s a tremendous intimacy and tenderness that can come from sharing that kind of vulnerability with another human being, whether that sharing comes through the act of taking a photograph or from just living life around other people. In my essay, this idea of the memento mori was a guiding principle. I wanted to look at how photography can, at times, enlarge these moments of being present in the face of vulnerability and mortality, and maybe even lend these moments some kind of redemptive power.

Q: Interestingly enough, upon reading the first sentences and unknowing of where Jacumba is, it seems this was a piece about exploring distant lands oversea. Everything you write about the sand dunes and the landscape is so exotic; the colors of the green-yellow insects glued to your windshield, the rust-colored rocks, even your description of ascending through the mountains and life and vegetation all but disappearing enacts a shallowness of breath like high elevation’s thin air. However, although your piece begins with the most sensational, and almost foreign images, you gradually descend down your mountaintop to vignettes of life that are increasingly domestic. The first camera received on a sixteenth birthday, a step-father’s arrest and his time in jail, even your mother’s failing health. This progression in actuality feels like the narrowing of a camera lens, was this intentional and if so, what was behind your motivation?

A: I love the idea of a camera lens narrowing in focus. I can’t say that that was my intention literally, that I had any notion of recalling something photographic with how the piece was structured, but it was my intention to start with a landscape that seemed utterly foreign—as it did to me on my first visit—from a distance, and as the piece progressed finding ways to connect more directly with certain smaller scale aspects of the place. The California desert really is foreign, and exotic, which—coming as I did from the coast—was stranger for the fact that, as different as the landscape seemed from what I was used to, there is a lot of the desert in the rest of the arid state. When I was living in San Diego, for instance, much of my drinking water was brought in across the desert from the Colorado River. The existence of this vast desert, the lack of water, is very central to life in Southern California, but it’s a world that many Californians simply have not explored. To me, this desert represented a kind of shadow world to the one I was living in. I hoped to bring this out somewhat in the piece by progressively taking a closer look at the landscape and the ruins I found there, and by connecting my own personal experiences with these discoveries. So, for instance, the story of my mother’s passing becomes connected, in the piece, to the discovery of a forgotten photo album in an abandoned home. Both of these vignettes are about bearing witness to loss, about what gets left behind.

Q: Seeing as how your piece so highly focuses upon photography and the use of cameras, we wonder if you do any photo journalism or ekphrastic writing? Your writing is already so vivid with all your detailed description that the pictures that would be paired with some of the things you describe seem unimaginable.

A: I’m embarrassed to admit that I had never heard the word ekphrasis before, but after looking it up, it’s a great way to describe a lot of my writing. I love what happens when you attempt to translate the impressions from visual art or music into the written form. You always end up with something completely new and fresh that’s a dialogue with, rather than derivative of, the original work. In my case, I often start with photographs before I write anything down. My writing about the Colorado Desert started only after I had been taking photographs there for some time. In fact, my first piece on the subject was an artist statement that accompanied a portfolio of black and white prints of desert landscapes that I exhibited in a group show. I don’t tend to write a literal description of my photographs into a piece of writing. Instead, I might get out some prints, or open some images on my computer, and have a look through them. They place me back in the landscape, remind me in a more visceral way than simply reading through my notes just what it was that moved me about the scene, allow me to recall those first impressions much more directly than I would be able to otherwise. So I guess there’s a kind of ekphrasis in that exercise.

Q: In the final paragraphs you relay that after your mom’s passing, you took the camera back up with a sense of urgency. Naturally something of a comfort and catharsis for you, but when you returned to the dunes, what were you looking to find? Was there a connection to the place because your mom had first suggested you to trek and photograph there?

A: I guess there is some sense of connection to her simply for the fact that she first suggested I visit there, but the direct connection between the place and my mother really ends there. She was this incredibly joyful, energetic person, totally full of life when she was alive. The desert, on the other hand, is almost completely devoid of life. It’s such a hostile and desolate landscape. So whatever I’m looking for out there, it certainly isn’t her. I think it’s that emptiness itself that attracts me. It’s impossible to enter this kind of wilderness and not feel that, there’s this palpable atmosphere of death and sterility that hangs over the place. It sounds morbid, but I found this comforting. I’ve had a lot of death in my family—my mother, my father, my grandfather—and too often in our culture we are encouraged to move through the process of loss and grieving too quickly. I felt I could relate to the desert in a way, to this landscape of death. I appreciated how unapologetic it was in its sheer desolation and emptiness. Like I said, there’s a lot of the desert in all of Southern California, but in most parts of the coastal cities the aridity is covered up by cleverly irrigated landscaping. In the Colorado Desert, the dryness, and the desolation, is just naked and raw. I liked the honesty in this, and I liked finding the beauty in all that ugliness and death. In a way, it helped me learn how to tell my own story of loss. I found these visits incredibly healing.

Q: Lastly, it seems you have the wish that beauty always be found and explored in everything. You write that in the abandoned homes and ramshackle desert highway, “I was haunting a dead world, stalking some beauty left behind.” How does this have bearing in your own life and your artwork, writing or photography? 

A: I’ve always had this fascination with things that are abandoned, with things or people that are typically overlooked. I guess it’s just about being awake to what’s around you, being present in your surroundings. When you see something that other people don’t, it’s almost as if it exists just for you, or maybe like you exist just for it. In the Colorado Desert, there are a lot of legends of secret and forgotten gold mines. Amateur prospectors and rock hounds still go out into the wilderness looking for these fabled treasures. I can imagine the feeling is similar to what I get out of looking a little more closely at these abandoned homes. When I find something beautiful in these places, when I can frame the perfect photograph of some secret scene in an out of the way place, that’s like finding my own kind of buried treasure. But more than that, there’s a satisfaction in finding ways to tell stories that would otherwise be lost or forgotten. I think that motivates a lot of writers and photographers.


Meet the Author: Steven Simoncic

by Katie Walker on January 9, 2015


Steven Simoncic is a playwright and writer of both creative nonfiction and fiction. His plays have received productions, readings and, workshops at The Goodman, Steppenwolf, Victory Gardens, The Second City, Pegasus Players, The Baruch Center for the Performing Arts, Stageplays Theatre, and The Soho Theatre in London. Steven’s play, Once Upon a Time in Detroit, was selected as a semi-finalist for the 2013 Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Playwrights Conference, and Heat Wave was recently selected for Steppenwolf Theatre’s 2015 Garage Rep season. Steven recently completed critically acclaimed productions of Broken Fences with Ballybeg in New York and 16th Street in Chicago, which was featured in The Chicago Tribune’s “Best of 2013.”

Steven’s piece “I Like You,” is about the emotional and even physical struggles of parenting and the curve balls that we are often thrown in the process. When visiting his parents and old hometown of Romulus, Michigan, more than just stale memories are stirred up, and the bigger issue that Steven and his wife are unaware of surfaces from the behavior of their youngest child. What seems like mere hyper-sensitivity and temperamental flare-ups on their son’s part unfolds into what’s known as Sensory Processing Disorder. This story is heart-wrencing and grueling at times, not to mention vulnerable, but it exemplifies the kind of self-reflection that we are capable of and that fuels us to overcome our greatest obstacles.

Q: Upon reading your story it appears—that for all intents and purposes—it is going to be about your daughter (suspected to be an only child from the first paragraphs), and that there would be some profound coming-of-age anecdote or the realization of a father truly understanding—or as much as a father really can—his daughter. This assumption was completely wrong however, and the story is refreshingly about a father and his son and the struggles they both share.

How was it to not only write about something so personal and intimate as your parenting skills—the good and even the bad at times—but to showcase it for readers of this story?

A: Writing this story was challenging in that it required brutal honesty and a certain openness that is easier said than done. I guess the thing that sort of drove me to write this was reaching a certain humility in my parenting and in life in general. At some point you realize that parenting is incredibly difficult—add in a special needs child—and it becomes even more difficult. So instead of pretending you have it all figured out—you sort if find power and hope in understanding your limitations and fallibility. Because that opens doors to other people sharing their limitations and fallibility—and in that discourse you might have a shot at becoming better.

Q: You write that in the moment of trying to disarm your son, both literally and metaphorically,

“I had spent years trying to move on from this place [your home of Romulus, Michigan]—trying to somehow be better than where I came from, but in that moment I was significantly worse.”

This must have been a hard realization to swallow, like that you had seemingly left your town far behind only for it to catch back up to you, but to then feel or know you had never really left it behind at all.

How did you reconcile that?

A: I come from a true blue collar background—and when you come from that place you are given some great gifts—resiliency, humor, the ability to survive and stand up for yourself. These are things I am grateful for and carry with me. At the same time, I do not look at where I come from in an entirely romantic way. There is a lot of close-mindedness, anger, and pettiness as well—and a general feeling of being just outside the anointed caste that gets to be affluent and beautiful and well adjusted. So I have always been ambivalent about where I come from—and I think that struggle comes through in this piece. I will always be a member of the proletariate and I am not ashamed of that—but it is a complicated and often dubious place to have come from.

Q: How, too, were you also able to admit quite vulnerably in your piece that in all the pandemonium, your son and his struggling at the ice rink were second in concern to how your parenting was being perceived by the on-lookers? What you felt in that moment is something all parents seem to be guilty of but don’t want to acknowledge and it shows a broader self-awareness.

A: Yes. I think I just didn’t want to let myself off the hook. I think a lot of parenting does have a dotted line to ego on some level. Your children are inextricably linked to—and are an expression of—you. On our best days—we meet them where they are and take pride in them for who they are. On our worst days, our esteem and sense of well being hinges upon how they act at the mall. I couldn’t write this story and pull a punch in that scene—I had to admit that my ego was a factor—right or wrong it was there—and that level of honesty seemed important—maybe folks who read this piece will relate or connect.

Q: Reading further into your piece we learn that your son, with all his melodramatics, is actually justified in—or at least exonerated from—his behaviors because as you also come to find out, he has SPD, Sensory Processing Disorder.

Was this frightening for you and your wife to hear or was it more of a relief in that you guys discovered the root of these small fits and could then try to effectively combat them?

A: It was both frightening and a relief. It helped to have an angle on what was going on—but SPD is tricky and the school of thought regarding SPD is still sort of forming—so it was far from finding a tangible, magic bullet cure for the situation. It was more like trial and error and discovering things that seemed to help and building from there.

Q: Stories of creative nonfiction, such as your own, are so often about growth that spans definitely longer than the couple of pages that it gets condensed down to. How long did it take after finding out about your son’s diagnosis for you to begin tackling and writing this piece?

A: It was a couple of years—it took that long to get a handle on it and have some sort of narrative distance to create an arc for the story.

Q: Lastly your witticisms in your writing and the seemingly self-deprecative but humorous asides that you make must be touched upon. You and your wife are very self-aware, environmentally-aware, and just aware in general. You make the point of mentioning that you both eat Greek yogurt and do hot yoga, which you stylistically include for readers to better comprehend who you are and what you are about. Yet when you make the change to riding your bike to-and-from work, you admit that it isn’t just you doing your part to protect the environment.

How much of these little nuances, which are probably quite characteristic of you as a writer, do you actually include in your other writing?

A: I write theatre and fiction as well as nonfiction and in all of my writing humor tends to find a place—but more than that—the telling detail is almost always there. To me, specific details—the quirky specifics and stuff of life—really go a long way to creating character and moments within a piece. They are economic, telegraphic impulses that say so much more than is evident at first blush.


Meet the Author: Mary Collins

December 22, 2014

Mary Collins moved to the United States from England, where—as you’ll come to read—she had been writing “expressionless” research based articles for medical and nursing journals. She first discovered her passion for creative writing late in life when she set out to untangle the knots of childhood and put the conflicting tales of her father […]

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Meet the Author: Jonny Blevins, on his piece “Which Person She Is”

December 12, 2014

Jonny Blevins is pursuing his MFA in creative nonfiction at Chatham University. He is also a Henry Reich Teaching Fellow and student-coordinator for Chatham’s Words Without Walls program and is an active member of West Virginia University’s Appalachian Prison Book Project.  In the past Jonny taught ESL in China. We are extremely happy to have given […]

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Under the Gum Tree Magazine Announces Four 2014 Pushchart Prize Nominations

December 1, 2014

Today is the postmark deadline for submitting 2014 Pushcart Prize nominations, one of the most coveted literary prizes. It’s particularly special for magazines like us, because the award is for “little magazines and small presses,” of which we are definitely one. And, it’s particularly special for Under the Gum Tree this year because it is our […]

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