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The Rumpus Interview with Nanette Vonnegut

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Kurt Vonnegut’s daughter, Nanette, doesn’t have a massive Internet presence. She’s not a regular on the literary scene and she doesn’t have a blog. A writer, painter, and self-identified little sister, she raised three kids and thinks of herself as normal. She’s intentionally looked away from the literary aura of Kurt Vonnegut, preferring, instead, to view one of our country’s greatest writers as “Dad.” That makes her introduction to her father’s book, We Are What We Pretend To Be: The First and Last Works, moving and enlightening. The book spans the beginning and end of Kurt Vonnegut’s fifty-year career. Basic Training is Vonnegut’s earliest unpublished novella, and If God Were Alive Today is the unfinished novel Vonnegut began before he died. Nanette, who was with her father when he wrote the latter, provides context for the books and the man who wrote them.

Nanette and I spoke on the phone the day after Hurricane Sandy struck, a few weeks before what would’ve been her father’s 90th birthday. Within five minutes and four F-bombs, I wanted to invite her over for a bowl of soup. She seems like the sort of person that would actually come, too, bearing warm bread and beer. She’s earnest, funny, humble and intense. Her tone shifted so audibly throughout our conversation that it seemed to affect the very light in the room. When she talked about her family, the tenor of her voice became tender enough to seem palpable. She clearly loves her father and it was fun sharing my admiration for him with her. Yet the second my tone grew sticky with awe, hers turned cautious. He was real, she’d insist. A beautiful, complicated, human who was also an amazing writer.

Nanette laughed a lot and moaned and sighed. She honored truth’s messy layers. It’s not fair, but I couldn’t help listen for echoes of her father from time to time, the man who lived and laughed and lamented The Children’s Crusade. It was in Nanette’s fearless embrace of complexity—especially where it concerned her father—that I heard the deepest echoes of his voice. I’m only guessing, but I think he’d love that.

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The Rumpus: In a guest piece for The Huffington Post, you say living with your dad was like living with an elephant that was trying to give birth to something twice its size. I can’t get that image out of my head. It’s kind of painful and exciting.

Nanette Vonnegut: Definitely a labor. It was a sensation of living with a lot tension. I was the youngest and I cried all the time. I tried to turn everything into a fairy tale. I’m the most sensitive in the family and I absorbed a lot of what was going on in the house. My father was definitely a man dealing with trauma. This is a man who was carrying the weight of something…not even his wife understood.

Rumpus: He never talked about his experiences in World War II with your mom?

Vonnegut: No. And he was a textbook PTSD sufferer. It’s only recently that veterans are encouraged to talk, let alone cry. My dad could be triggered by something like watching the news coverage of the Vietnam War. Both he and my mother were tuned in to what a load of crap it was. I remember him ripshit yelling at the TV saying, “Fucking lies!” I’ll never forget that. My mother was red-faced, saying, “They’re not going to take my boys. They’re not.”

My father was remembering what it was like and he knew: these are a batch of babies going off to war for nothing. There was a reviewer, William Deresiewicz, who writes for The Nation. He said Slaughterhouse-Five is not a book about flying saucers; it’s a book about post-traumatic stress disorder.

Rumpus: You hadn’t looked at it that way before?

Vonnegut: Nobody had the words for it back then.

Rumpus: So when your dad wrote he was expelling demons.

Vonnegut: He was expelling them with writing and with artwork. If he wasn’t writing he was creating terraces on our patio. He was a nonstop creative force. It was like he had to keep busy or he would die.

The demons gave him the impetus. I do think people are born with the seed of genius, and it either gets worked or it doesn’t. Probably his experiences [in WWII] gave him the impetus to create. Everything he wrote about stemmed from that.

Rumpus: In an interview with The Paris Review, he says everything he writes is about family.

Vonnegut: Huh. It always is, isn’t it? That’s what I’m feeling lately. I’ve always written, but I’ve always been in the closet with it. I don’t want to have to stick my neck out there.

Rumpus: Yeah, Kurt Vonnegut’s daughter. A little pressure?

Vonnegut: Too much pressure. People can be mean. Anyhow, I feel my work is all about family. Everything I write about points to it—even to my great, great grandparents. I believe my father was affected very deeply by his mother’s death. It’s in our DNA. This is the source of who we are.

Rumpus: What do you mean?

Vonnegut: Writing is a process of discovery and writing always leads me to family. My father always said you should have an audience in mind when you write.

Rumpus: An audience of one, right? And his was family?

Vonnegut: Yes. His sister was his audience. I found that very, very touching. He adored her. She was an incredibly funny human being.

Rumpus: Why her?

Vonnegut: Because he’s her baby brother. He got her attention because he was funny. He got everyone’s attention by being funny. Even at the dinner table he was always being the baby. He was crazy about his big sister. There’re these clips, these old films. When you see them together, there’s just so much love there. She’s enough older that she must’ve seemed like a giant to him.

Rumpus: Was she also a maternal figure for him?

Vonnegut: Yes. Definitely.

Rumpus: Who’s your audience?

Vonnegut: I have people who’ve always supported me. My big sister has always been crazy about what I write. But, of course, I also write for my father. I’d want him to be proud of me. I want to do something well that has dignity to it. And also, I find if I’m writing and I come up with something that is funny I think, Whoa! Dad would like that!

Rumpus: You said your dad wasn’t enthused about the idea of family counseling (“too much to talk about!”), but you’d bond over jokes.

Vonnegut: Oh god! He hated the idea of talking about things. We could sometimes, if you got the right moment, but even then it was almost cruel to do that to him—to do that to anyone of that generation. You have to be sensitive.

Rumpus: But you did ask him some big things. In your introduction to We Are What We Pretend to Be, you mention having conversations, toward the end of his life, about important things. I thought it was brave of you to ask him how many people he’d been in love with.

Vonnegut: It wasn’t so brave. He’d say things that would make me ask the question. He would say: “I think you’re allowed to be in love three times in your life.”

Rumpus: Ha. Almost like he wanted you to ask him?

Vonnegut: Well, they were statements. Then he’d move on quickly and I’d want to follow up.

Rumpus: So these three women he loved—did they share anything in common?

Vonnegut: My mother and Lorre Rackstraw were very well-read. Very smart. Very funny. In some ways they looked alike. The third was his second wife, Jill Krementz, and she’s in a category all her own.

Rumpus: Were there other questions that you didn’t get to ask?

Vonnegut: I’m very interested in my grandparents, great-grandparents. There was one significant question I pressed. I called him because I wanted to know more about his mother’s father—Albert Lieber. He both did and didn’t want to go there. I called him on the phone and I explained: I’m going to go to the cemetery [in Indianapolis] to visit the gravesite of my peoples. And so I asked, “Where’s Albert buried?” There was this silence on the other end of the line. It was like he was embarrassed—he said, “Geez, I don’t know… But that man ruined my mother’s life.”

Rumpus: Are you comfortable telling me what he meant by that?

Vonnegut: Absolutely. This is the kind of thing I want to write about. He remarried after his first wife died of pneumonia. When my dad’s mother, Edith, was ten. Albert remarried a young, apparently beautiful musician. She turned out to be sadistic. She beat Edith and the two little brothers, in particular. Brutally beat them. Edith spent her childhood trying to protect her little brother. This says everything, even about my father.

Rumpus: Down to the dual sister-mother role.

Vonnegut: Well, it’s my thing, too. It’s in me. It’s part of me. They’re finding trauma may be carried down through DNA.

Rumpus: How so?

Vonnegut: It’s mind-blowing. I have a friend who is in Boston working with scientists on mental illness and trauma, and they’re finding real events in our life may become embedded in our DNA. That, I believe, is what ruined my grandmother’s life and why she stayed so depressed.

Rumpus: What else did you learn?

Vonnegut: My grandmother’s middle name: Sophia. That so moved me. It’s such a hot name and it made her seem very alive.

Rumpus: I just learned my paternal great-grandmother’s name so I know what you mean. Goldie came alive for me once I could name her. I’m curious about something your dad said about you and your sisters in an interview. You’ve probably heard it before.

Vonnegut: …You’d be surprised at how little I’ve read.

Rumpus: There’s a scene in If God Were Alive Today that brought it to mind. Character Gil Berman’s mother allowed him to sit next to her on the piano bench but wouldn’t let him ever touch the keys. If he tried, she would slap his hands and say, “No, no, no Gilly Willy be very unhappy if he touch the keys. Gilly-Willy-woo cry and cry all night like Mama.” That made me think of this Paris Review interview in which your dad said, “I have two daughters who are as talented as [my sister] was, and both of them are damned if they are going to lose their poise and sense of humor by snatching up their talents and desperately running as far and as fast as they can. They saw me run as fast as I could—and it must have looked like quite a crazy performance to them. And this is the worst possible metaphor, for what they actually saw was a man sitting still for decades.”

Vonnegut: Oh, man. Whooo! He’s good, isn’t he?

Rumpus: Amazing.

Vonnegut: Yeah, I saw him running. Believe me. I saw him running. None of us missed the sweat.

Rumpus: He worked nine-to-five. Was he writing in his head, after office hours?

Vonnegut: He was always living it, still, you know—making dialogue. Talking to somebody and somebody answering back and making jokes. There would be laughing and then he’d be quiet. It was like he was walking it out on a stage or something.

Rumpus: Did he ever talk overtly to you about ambition?

Vonnegut: There was hardly any time for that. Our house was mayhem. I got a lot of letters because he had left the Cape when I was fifteen, sixteen. He did have lots of advice: learn how to type. It was never: learn how to be a writer like I am. It was more like: the odds are not in your favor. You’re not going to get anywhere. Be practical. When my father was worried I might become illiterate because I was attending art school, he begged that I read these three books: Madame Bovary, Candide, The Dubliners. More than anything, though, he wanted his daughters to be self-sufficient. He was practical.

Rumpus: So he slapped your hands away from the keys?

Vonnegut: Definitely, yeah. Until later in life.

Rumpus: In that interview, though, he seems proud that you weren’t chasing success.

Vonnegut: …That we weren’t hustling.

Rumpus: Yeah.

Vonnegut: I think he would’ve also been proud if we had. He lived in a world in New York with highly accomplished people and that’s admirable, also. The second woman he married is one of the most ambitious ever. New York scared me because it was so savagely ambitious. My father didn’t go to New York to get somewhere. He already had arrived and then he joined the crowd.

Rumpus: Your mother pushed him on through years of rejection to get to that point, right? I understand that literally—years during which he wasn’t getting published?—she insisted he was going to be great. What did she see?

Vonnegut: A sparkling. She read what he wrote very early on and saw his greatness. She kept him going. She and Knox Burger were the two people who said, “You’re really good. Keep going.”

Rumpus: He listened to them?

Vonnegut: I think he got pissed off at times. Like, Just let me sell Saabs, or leave me alone. He was very insecure.

Rumpus: Masked by his humor?

Vonnegut: Yes!

Rumpus: I watched a PBS clip of him. He was eighty-three, still sharp, pissed off at President Bush. He laughed a lot. Right before he’d laugh he’d get this bright, almost maniacal look in his eye. It was as if right before he laughed he’d figured out the truth and it made him happy. His face just lit up. Do you know this look?

Vonnegut: Yes. Even at eighty-three he was still sharp. He was quick. I got to have him back for almost a year in Northampton. Growing up, we were all distracted. There wasn’t any one-on-one with anybody. Then years later [after his house fire] I got to have him in town with me; it was such a gift. It was also hard because he was quite miserable. Still, I’d walk in and it just staggered me how quick he was, even in his 80’s. I treasured those moments with him and I marveled. I had to stop and look at him and think: what a beautiful piece of work that man is.

Rumpus: There’s a passage in If God Were Alive Today where an old comedian tells Gil Berman, who is also a comedian, “Fuck you, Fuck you, Fuck you and please take that as a compliment.” Is that the sort of humor your dad most respected—the kind that devastates?

Vonnegut: Well, he had a range. Much of his own humor was so sad. My son does standup comedy and he read If God Were Alive Today and said Gil Berman would never make it on the stage. I don’t think my father would’ve done well standing up telling joke after joke.

Rumpus: Why?

Vonnegut: That’s a good question. I don’t know. He tried it with Gil Berman and it didn’t work! His speeches were a beautiful mix of things. He could be shocking and there were times it just didn’t work. Sometimes it would be painful and it did not go over well. With me.

Rumpus: You mean sometimes the humor was personal?

Vonnegut: Yeah. It wasn’t always funny. I could say that to him and he liked it. He liked being called out. Not many people did that.

Rumpus: I want to talk briefly about his novella, Basic Training. You say in your introduction it’s pretty autobiographical. What do those characters tell us about your dad’s early life?

Vonnegut: The characters my dad is relating to through that story were real people. He was very sympathetic to The Captain, both the man in the story and in real life. He could be very hard on people, very critical, but he had that tender side, too. We’re all just human, you know. He felt we’re all of us just fucking idiots.

There was also a character named Mary who was based on his first crush. I was always hearing about Mary. We were visiting Mary’s sister once when we went to Indianapolis, and all my father would talk about was Mary—how beautiful she was. He was with Mary’s sister and you’re supposed to do equal complimenting you know! Like, Of course, darling, you’re beautiful, too.

Rumpus: Right!

Vonnegut: Well, no! The other sisters were just dogs and Mary was beautiful. It was very awkward. He fixated on that. When I read Basic Training I’m touched that that’s his remembrance of his first crush. And Haley’s physique fits my father’s—this lanky, gawky boy. He was such a beautiful, pretty boy. He was picked on in high school; he wasn’t athletic. I think he had low self-esteem. I ached for him on the page a little.

Rumpus: Is there a book that most embodies your dad for you?

Vonnegut: All of his work makes me hyperventilate, but Slaughterhouse-Five more than any others.

Rumpus: Why?

Vonnegut: Because it’s so good. Because of the pace of it, because of the poetry of it, because of the message, because of the humor. It’s hard, too, though. There’s family in it. It’s not all pretty. You see his sentiments about children. The way he talks about Billy Pilgrim, whose son was going to be a Marine, and how hugging him was no different than hugging a dog. Now, that’s a little bit hard to take, because I take it personally. I sometimes think he wasn’t crazy about his kids. But of course he was. He did the best he could considering what he was dealing with. I think he distanced himself from family and love sometimes because it was too painful. I see that in his writing. He’s making a joke here because he can’t handle real intimacy. And I respect that. I do. I mean, the shit he’s been through.

Rumpus: His mother committed suicide. He survived the firebombing of Dresden. He was a POW. It’s hard to imagine how anyone could survive all that.

Vonnegut: That’s the elephant that’s ten times his size. This man survived a lot of pain. The fact that he did not kill himself, that he didn’t just fall over and die from heartbreak is amazing to me. I admire him. I’m so proud of him and so impressed.

Rumpus: He made something out of all that grief.

Vonnegut: Yep, he did.

Rumpus: You went to see Slaughterhouse-Five with your son but had trouble locating it. I’m assuming you did finally find it after chasing him through the streets of Dresden?

Vonnegut: No. It was so bizarre. From what I’ve read, it’s in a place where a lot of soccer fields are around. It was Good Friday. Everything was shut. We asked the cab driver, as if everyone knows where Slaughterhouse-Five is, and he took us to the Slaughterhouse district. I had this big image in my head. I mean, what’s in my head is as interesting as anything. You really have to know what you’re doing to find it. I want to go again.

Rumpus: So, it’s not much of a tourist attraction?

Vonnegut: No, I thought it would be big news in Germany, but it’s not.

Rumpus: What did your dad think of you going?

Vonnegut: Well, I told him the story and I lied. I told him I found it because I didn’t want him to be disappointed. So, again, it was that quiet on the other end of the phone that said everything. He didn’t really want to talk about it. He said, “Thank you.” And that was it.

Rumpus: I’m heartened that your dad never ceased having expectations for our country.

Vonnegut: He was so angry. I think that’s the clip you watched on PBS. That’s where I saw him most upset—politics, policies. Because he saw what it did to him. People were dying in Iraq. This is war. This is mayhem.

Rumpus: His anger was fearless. What did he say when he saw eighteen- and nineteen-year-old Iraqi soldiers kneeling on the ground, holding guns over their heads? “Those men are my brothers.” I love that. Somehow, there’s this unspoken rule that in America, “Love of Country” prohibits love of Anyone-Outside-Our-Border.

Vonnegut: He said everything he needed to say. I don’t think he needed to say anything new.

Rumpus: He missed seeing Barack Obama elected.

Vonnegut: Oh my god. That’s the one thing that could’ve lifted him out of his depression. He would’ve adored that man—hallelujah!

Rumpus: I’m sad he didn’t see that.

Vonnegut: Me too. He would’ve been very active. He would’ve been out there drumming support.

Rumpus: Well, even in his 80’s he still cared enough to feel frustrations. His anger felt like a form of love.

Vonnegut: He was tremendously patriotic. You wouldn’t put that together when you first think of Kurt Vonnegut, but you’re missing something if you don’t. He knew how great we could be and he was appalled and ashamed with everything that has gone down. He used Gil Berman as his mouthpiece for everything that was wrong. I wish he could’ve sat back and seen Obama elected. He was so tired.

Rumpus: Was he reading anything in particular at the end of his life? Listening to music?

Vonnegut: He loved Judge Judy.

Rumpus: What? Judge Judy?

Vonnegut: He thought she was so fair! He thought she should be a Supreme Court justice, in his semi-joking way. He was still doing artwork with his friend Joe Petro. Mostly all I can think of is Judge Judy.

Rumpus: He must’ve made peace with television?

Vonnegut: My father quite admired TV. He thought there was good writing happening there. He loved Hill Street Blues. Growing up, we all watched Laugh-In and also watched Batman with our neighbors, the Dubus family, in Iowa City. That was quality family time, not hours and hours sitting in front of the TV!

Rumpus: Your dad had a pragmatic view of writing. He compared himself to an auto mechanic.

Vonnegut: Yeah. He trained himself in writing for magazines. I’ve got three kids who want to write. One of them gave my dad something to read. He was tough! He said: “This is not friendly to your audience. You’re being self-indulgent.” It may sound crass, but he meant his work to be entertainment.

Rumpus: It’s a selfless attitude.

Vonnegut: Absolutely. He’s a great entertainer. All my life, I’ve tried to avoid being his fan. You know, it’s surreal. There’s too much admiration. I just want this man to be my father. But now I find myself thinking of his blackboard illustration about how a good story goes, and it’s brilliant!

Rumpus: So, you ended up a fan after all.

Vonnegut: Oh my god. Here I am. A fan.

Rumpus: How do you understand him differently now that you work with words?

Vonnegut: I didn’t like what the work did to him. You know how it is. You’re a writer, too. Your family will say something to you and they’re not even there to you because you’re writing.

Rumpus: Yeah, there are moments when it feels unfair to my kids and I wish I had no ambition. There’s no punch clock in the mind, right? That feels like a loss.

Vonnegut: You can’t help it. Once it’s going in your head it’s there. My father’s brain was just electric, going nonstop with thoughts. Alcohol was maybe the only way. It’s a tough profession and there are a lot of alcoholics; you need a way to shut your brain off.

Rumpus: Did he read much of your work?

Vonnegut: This is funny. My sister, who believes so much in me, read a poem of mine. She thought it was good and she wanted to send it to The New Yorker, and she sent it to my father, too. And he called and said, “That’s just a piece of shit.”

Rumpus: Oh man. That must have crushed you.

Vonnegut: No, it didn’t, because I kind of knew. It was so sweet of my sister. Dad was brutal. I never heard him say he liked anything that any of his children or grandchildren ever submitted.

Rumpus: What did you make of that?

Vonnegut: Maybe he was trying to save us. He might’ve been competitive, who knows. I don’t know.

Rumpus: Did he sweeten the response at all? “This is crap, my dear, but…”

Vonnegut: No! He didn’t. We had a writing relationship when I was a teen because he had moved. He sent me a typewriter in high school and wished me well with my writing. He did think, because of my letters, that I had some talent. Now my daughter is at Emerson studying writing and she’s got that typewriter.

Rumpus: She’s the one who is encouraged by how long it took him to find success?

Vonnegut: Yes.

Rumpus: Aren’t we all.

Vonnegut: Well, his early work is out there and it’s not his best. And people who love his writing are upset it’s out there, but young writers can now see seeds of how good he was. Do you think Fred Astaire came out dancing like he did? You work it and work it. My mother gave him a lot of criticism and then they’d have terrible fights. He wanted it to be done with, no more working and practice. She told him the truth. He really needed that. There was a lot of sacrifice on her part; he really needed a labor and delivery nurse.

Rumpus: That’s got to be hard on a marriage.

Vonnegut: It’s a killer. I think it’s partly what ruined my parents’ marriage—her job as coach and him looking at her all those years while he’s in labor. Do you think he wants to keep seeing that face? The marriage was fraying very, very badly before they divorced. My mother never held a grudge, though. There was reconciliation between them.

Rumpus: Out of all your siblings, how did you happen to write the introduction for this book?

Vonnegut: Well, I sent the introduction to my sister and she was so happy. I was raised [around writing] and it was in my bones. Forever, I’ve known this, but to be given the opportunity to write something was kind of a fluke. Now I’m hooked. I wrote the preface very last-minute and sent it to my brother, Mark. He wrote right back and said he was sending it to the publisher, recommending they take mine, not his. It made sense for me to write it, because I lived with my father when he was working on If God Were Alive… And I remembered the characters from Basic Training and I’m very close to my dad’s friend, Majie Failey, who filled in the autobiographical blanks. The publisher e-mailed immediately and said they loved it. I blubbered a lot into my coffee when I got that affirmation.

Rumpus: Now you don’t have to pretend to not be a writer. I guess you’re out of the closet now aren’t, you?

Vonnegut: Yep.

Rumpus: The title of this book comes from Mother Night: “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” This book, with works that bookend your dad’s career, is highly autobiographical. Such a frank man. He, of all people, seems incapable of pretending.

Vonnegut: Ah, god. No. I think he was very complicated. He understood what it meant to be human and to be deceptive. I don’t think he put himself above anything, frankly. As a man, I think he struggled privately with a lot of guilt: guilt about his marriage, guilt that he couldn’t save his mother. I think he’s extremely human and certainly capable of things that only the people closest to him know about and forgive him for, but he wasn’t anything less than a fuck-up, like everybody else.

Rumpus: The character at the end of Mother Night ends up killing himself not for crimes against humanity, but crimes against himself. Does this sound about right? Your dad was harder on himself than he was on others?

Vonnegut: No question about it. My dad had tremendous survivor’s guilt about his mother’s death.

Rumpus: He survived over and over again. He survived the war.

Vonnegut: And he survived his mother, his brother-in-law, his sister. I think it would’ve taken a miracle to cure all that. But there’s a real connection I feel with my father now. He’s so present.

Rumpus: More than before he was gone?

Vonnegut: Oh, I’d get love bombs for him. I couldn’t stay mad for long. I always came around to this: he’s a tremendously noble but wounded creature. Having a celebrity as a parent is a mindfuck, but I feel so much love and nothing but forgiveness and understanding. The generosity I feel toward him—it’s nothing I’ve worked for. It’s like a gift.

Rumpus: Your dad said something that kind of haunts me. I wonder what you make of this. He said, “You learn about life by the accidents you have, over and over again, and your father is always in your head when that stuff happens. Writing, most of the time, for most people, is an accident and your father is there for that, too. You know, I taught writing for a while and whenever somebody would tell me they were going to write about their dad, I would tell them they might as well go write about killing puppies because neither story was going to work. It just doesn’t work. Your father won’t let it happen.”

What do you think? Will he let it happen?

Vonnegut: My dad is holding the door wide open for me, with a big Stan Laurel smile on his face.

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For further reading, please see Steve Almond’s homage to Kurt Vonnegut, “Everything Was Beautiful and Nothing Hurt,” originally published in Almond’s essay collection, (Not That You Asked): Rants, Exploits, and Obsessions, and reprinted exclusively by The Rumpus.

Nanette Vonnegut also has a website, which you can visit here.

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Photograph of Kurt and Nanette Vonnegut © 2012 by Majie Failey.

Self-portrait of Nanette Vonnegut, hand-drawn in graphite © 2012 by Nanette Vonnegut.

Photograph of Kurt, Jane, and Nanette Vonnegut © 2012 by Edith Vonnegut.

Photograph of Nanette Vonnegut © 2012 by Scott Prior.


Jennifer Bowen Hicks teaches with the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop. Her work appears or is forthcoming in The Iowa Review, North American Review, Defunct, and other journals. She's a recipient of the Arts & Letters/Susan Atefat Prize in Creative Nonfiction, a Pushcart Prize nomination, and a 2012 Loft Mentor Series Award in Creative Nonfiction. More from this author →