In Conversation with Michael Martone

Interviews, Writing Tips

Thoughts on the creative process and the shifting publishing landscape

by Tara Smith

Martone hat

We’re delighted that Michael Martone, award-winning author, teacher, and judge of this year’s Philadelphia Stories’ Marguerite McGlinn National Prize for Fiction, will be our keynote speaker at Push to Publish. In anticipation of his visit with us here in Philadelphia, Martone shares a few thoughts on publishing, writing for contests, and a writing technique called “collage.”


TS: Writers generally come to a conference called “Push to Publish” carrying a jumble of hopes, expectations, and questions about being published. What did it mean for you to first be published? And how would you suggest that unpublished writers allocate their time and energies between writing and working at being published?

MM: I always ask my students if they want to be published. I will ask the participants at the conference that as well. And all will say, I imagine, yes. And then I will say, “I have an incredibly powerful typesetting machine, the same layout software used by Knopf, and electronic connections to printers in Iceland, China, and Ann Arbor, Michigan. I can publish you right now.” And what I expect to hear is, no, that’s not what we mean by “publishing.” What is it we mean when we want to publish? So a conference about publishing, I think, should not be so much about the “How to” material that has snap and pat solutions, but should address that “jumble” you mention and how specialized and individualized the notions of successful publishing are for each of us. I consider my contribution of a story to a workshop of 12 people to be an act of publishing. I have published a story in a magazine that probably had fewer than a dozen subscribers. I have written and sold poems on the spot on subject matter suggested by the reader on the streets of Philadelphia. I have published in journals subsidized by universities or by Karastan carpets. I have published myself in books. As an editor, I have published others in magazines and books. For me, more and more, it is harder to compartmentalize the me who is the writer and the me who is the contributor of his writing. I find myself living in a horizontal world of publishing. I don’t spent much time at all thinking in the vertical.

TS: I ask my writer friend, whose only experience of collage was an unfortunate incident in second grade involving scissors, paste, and her parents’ wedding photos, to come along to your Push to Publish master class, “The Four C’s: Context, Cutting, Compression, and Collage” ( How would you suggest I word the invitation?

MM: Well, I think you could actually cut and paste. That is to say Google the word “collage” (let me just point out that when we “Google” we are making, with our computers, collages) and then, going to the various result pages, cut out interesting snippets of text and/or graphics and paste them into your invitation. The hardest part of collage for prose writers, I think, is giving up the feeling of control of the text. In collage one creates interesting environments, arranges things, invites the reader to make something from these disparate pieces but does not invite them to specific results, specific conclusions, meanings. It is not about the point but the spread. The technique would not be the best for the form of writing we call an “invitation” as specific information needs to be transmitted. But it is great at creating a sensation, a mood, a tone. It is the sublime in plain sight. There is no way to take notes as the thing itself looks as if it is nothing but notes. Ah, “nothing but notes!”

TS: You read the top stories for Philadelphia Stories’ Marguerite McGlinn National Prize for Fiction ( this year and selected our winner, Che Yeun’s “One in Ten Fish Are Afraid of Water.” You’ve been both winner and reader for many writing contests (though presumably not both for the same contest!). What advice would you give to writers submitting a story for next year’s Marguerite McGlinn contest?

MM: Tough to give advice as that implies that such judgment remains static and unchanging. Remember, I selected from a pool of ten finalists. I am not even sure who made the initial cut through all of the submissions. What were the stories I did not even see? I might have really admired many of the stories in the first round but did not see them as the first readers’ taste just differs from mine. Remember, too, that it is sheer luck when and how a submission is read. If you are read first of the day or last after the judge has read 25 stories before yours, that placement could deflect the reading. We make a mistake in contests if we proceed in the belief that there are objective standards that everyone understands, agrees upon, and can attain. My advice? Think of contests as a lottery with much better odds though a lower payout. It is always nice to have someone read your work either in the setting of a contest or in an attempt to have that work published, but the writer cannot surrender his or her feeling about that work to the judge or editor. Not being selected or published is and should be considered very low stakes. Writing success, for me, is not tactical but strategic. It is about the long game, the lifetime of writing. Contests and publishing are dangerous, then, if the writer grants these immediate snap judgments the power to divert his or her individual work from the long-term life’s project.

TS: What one truth, idea, or inspiration would you hope that Push to Publish participants take back to their writing desks after the conference is over?

MM: Quantity has a quality all its own.

TS: You’ve travelled widely and taught in many different contexts, including Philadelphia and Rosemont College. What particular opportunities and challenges do you see for us as a community of writers here, in 2013?

MM: I am not sure I would locate the challenge in Philadelphia. The challenge has to do with the construction of authorship and audience. The models of both are in rapid flux in this time and place. The categories of author, editor, publisher, agent, reader seem to be collapsing. When I started writing, if I published myself it was considered “vanity” publishing, but that word has now been replaced by “self” and we suspect (we fear?) that “self” itself will disappear altogether. I am writing this on an incredibly powerful typesetting and publishing machine that is connected to a seemingly infinite network of other machines. So maybe the challenge is to figure out what is “network” which is to say what is community itself? Maybe the community here isn’t negotiating challenges and opportunities but the notion of community itself is the challenge, is the opportunity.

TS: Do you have a “most embarrassing publishing moment” (real or imagined) that you could share with us?

MM: In the late seventies, I went to a reading given by George Plimpton, the founding editor of The Paris Review, a magazine I had been submitting stories to unsuccessfully. Mr. Plimpton as a writer was famous for his books of participatory journalism. He trained and played football with the Detroit Lions. He played professional baseball, hockey, golf. Played in a professional symphony. He wrote about being an amateur in with the professionals. After his reading during the Q&A that followed, I asked if he would allow me, an amateur, to edit The Paris Review for an issue. He was not amused.


Michael Martone is the award-winning author of Four for a Quarter, Not Normal, Illinois: Peculiar Fiction from the Flyover, and many other titles. Martone has won two Fellowships from the NEA and a grant from the Ingram Merrill Foundation. His stories and essays have appeared in The Best American Stories and The Best American Essays anthologies. He is currently a professor at the University of Alabama, where he has been teaching since 1996.

When and where can you meet Michael Martone?

In addition to the keynote address at Push to Publish on Saturday morning, Martone will be giving a reading at Rosemont on Thursday evening, October 10th (, ( and a master class on Friday the 11th (

Push to Publish: Meet the Experts- Rosemary Cappello


Today’s Meet the Experts interview was done by KJ Wells and features Philadelphia Poets creator and editor Rosemary Cappello. For those interested in coming to Push to Publish with poetry, Rosemary Cappello is just one one the many poets who will be on hand on October 13 for Push to Publish (

Below is the interview:

Wells: Who are some of the poets you think everyone interested in poetry should read?

 Cappello: Poets who are important to me run the gamut from the Italian Renaissance poets, which include Petrarch,  Michelangelo, and others of that era, to 19th Century poet Robert Browning and  20th Century’s William Carlos Williams, W.D. Auden, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, and contemporaries such as Diane DiPrima. Also, the Japanese haiku masters. However, each poet has to find his or her own favorites while developing an individual style and not be overly influenced by any one writer.


Wells: What inspired you to begin Philadelphia Poets?

 Cappello: The year was 1980 and that being the pre-Internet era there was a need for a way of spreading poetry news. One night after a reading, several poets and I were bemoaning the fact that poetry news just didn’t get good coverage, and the others nominated me as the person who should put out a newsletter. Thus, Philadelphia Poets was born. It started out as a three-page newsletter that included some poetry, since there was a great need, as well, for another outlet for publishing poetry.  Also, a need existed for an editor who would not place restrictions on the form or length of a poem and who had firsthand knowledge of the complaints poets had concerning editorial response, and would try to be more understanding of their needs.


Wells: For some who may not understand the relationship of poet and editor, could you briefly describe it?

 Cappello: It varies according to the editor, but basically, the poet sends work to the editor and the editor reads it and decides if it is publishable. In some cases, an editor will see a poem that is in need of editorial advice, and will supply it. An editor should never make as much as a simple change in a poem without first going over it with the writer. This includes misspellings, errors in punctuation, and other problems the poem might contain. For more serious problems, such as when the editor sees good things in a poem and yet it needs work in order to be a complete poem, the editor might suggest changes, at the same time letting the poet know that he or she is the final judge of their creation.


Wells: What are some of the poetic devices that have become clichés and should be avoided?

Cappello: Rhyming (though sometimes it is acceptable, in the hands of an excellent and skillful poet such as the late Richmond Lattimore); capitalizing the first word of each line even when it isn’t the start of a new sentence; writing three-line poems and calling them “haiku” when they’re not; repetition, although sometimes it can work in a poem.


Wells: What are some of your pet peeves that poets looking to be published do?

 Cappello: Main Pet Peeve: not following Philadelphia Poets’ submission guidelines. Some poets send multiple (separate) submissions before I’ve had a chance to look at the first one. Submission here means a manuscript consisting of, according to my guidelines, eight pages of previously unpublished poems. Every year, there’s a poet who sends me two submissions of 15 pages each, and she gets both back, rejected, every year.


Contacting me not long after sending poetry to find out why I haven’t responded. Sending poetry that has been hurriedly written and is not their best poetry. Sending poetry they’ve sent me before and I’ve already rejected.


Sending poetry they’ve sent me before that I’ve already published.


Not advising me of simultaneous submissions, and not letting me know when another publication has accepted it.


These last three apply to poets who do not keep good records and don’t even seem to have knowledge of their own work.


Failing to include bios.


Not staying within my 50-word bio requirement.


Wanting their ms returned, but not placing enough postage on the envelope.


I, for one, am not impressed with the number of places where a poet has been published, the number of awards he or she has won, or the number of degrees they have. With me, the poem’s the thing.


Rosemary Cappello Bio:


Rosemary Cappello’s poetry has appeared in a number of publications, including Anthology of Women Writing, Voices in Italian Americana, Poet Lore, Avanti Popolo, and Iconoclast.  Her chapbooks include In the Gazebo, The Sid Poems, and San Paride. Rosemary edits and publishes Philadelphia Poets, which she founded in 1980, and in conjunction with that publication, organizes and presents poetry readings throughout each year and bestows two annual awards. She is a published prose writer as well, mainly of essays and film reviews

Push to Publish Series- Meet the Expert- Kevin McIlvoy


Today’s Push to Publish Expert is none other than this year’s keynote speaker, Kevin McIlvoy. McIlvoy will also be doing a Writer’s Master Class the day before Push to Publish (October 12) called : THE STANCE OF WONDER IN FIRST-PERSON NARRATION (cost is $75 and includes lunch).
*Email for an application. Space is limited!

In this interview, I ask about craft issues as well as what we can look forward to at the Push to Publish event and his master class.

Wittle:   What authors (and/or) books do you feel have inspired your writing and you to become an author?

McIIvoy: I have always found it energizing to reread the work of Willa Cather, Katherine Anne Porter, Tillie Olsen, Grace Paley, Angela Carter, and Clarice Lispector. I also often reread the poetry of Stanley Kunitz, John Berryman, and Hayden Carruth. The works of all these writers present narrative voices that uniquely reflect the estranging and engaging music of a person made vulnerable by the dark and luminous beauty always arising and dissolving in this world.

Wittle: How important is it to your writing process to have outside readers to your drafts?

McIlvoy: I bring very early drafts and very late drafts of my work to outside readers in order to be challenged to revise boldly. As I compose and as I revise I do not picture large groups of readers finding certainty in the ideas that I have constructed. I picture a solitary reader inhabiting the story before her/him. I picture that reader carried far inward and far outward by the story to a condition of uncertainty in the experiences I have created.

Wittle: You will be teaching a master class on October 12 at Rosemont College on the topic of “first person narration.” Why did you choose that topic? What are the biggest challenges of writing in first person?

McIlvoy: In this master class I will ask that we discuss the challenges of realizing the full potential in first person narration. From the first moment that a narrator uses the word “I,” the reader feels that the terms of engagement will be unstable. The writer who prefers for the story to be under her/his control will always find authentic first person narrative challenging. It is a tremendously liberating form of narrative – and many writers struggle with the radical freedoms it presents.

Wittle: You wrote four novels and a short story collection. Do you prefer writing in long or short form? Which do you find more challenging and why?

McIlvoy: The novel presents opportunities to expansively dramatize our ways of becoming and ways of being. The short story is made for dramatizing our ways of being and the subordinate dramas of our ways of becoming. I feel strongly that works of large scale do not present more transformative beauty than works of small scale.  I’m a flower gardener as a hobby; I have a great love of the smallest balloon flower and a love just as great for the dinner-plate dahlia.

Wittle: You will be giving the keynote speech at the Push to Publish conference on October 13. Can you give us a sneak peek at what you will be talking about, and why you think your topic is important to today’s authors looking to get published?

McIlvoy: I will be talking about how writers train their ears to welcome in the full chord of life’s gifts. I will be addressing the yearning of the reader to recover innocent wonder through hearing that chord.

Wittle: What was the best advice a writer or professor gave you about writing or narration?

McIlvoy: In one way or another, my best teachers have always asked me to place more value on wisdom than on knowledge, that is, on feeling what I know than on merely knowing.

For more information on the Push to Publish Event go to:

Push to Publish Series- Meet the Experts- Catherine Stine


Today’s expert is Catherine Stine, a professor and a Young Adult novelist.  Catherine will be one of the many editors at Push to Publish as well as adding her knowledge to the panel for YA novelist. Right now Catherine is “working on a sequel to Fireseed One, and has completed another YA novel with a very charming but nefarious villain, which was a blast to write.” Catherine wishes everyonen to stop by her blog at to get the most up to date information on her and her latest work.

Below is our interview:

Wittle: What books are you reading right now?

 Stine: I’m reading The Passage by David Cronin and a young adult novel called Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor. That’s typical of me—alternating between an adult novel and a YA. Both are speculative fiction, which I’m loving right now.

 Wittle: What books did you like as a young adult?

 Stine: Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles, Orwell’s 1984, JD Salinger’s Franny and Zooey and The Moviegoer by Walker Percy were favorites. I read adult literary novels and sci-fi, which is similar to my tastes at present.

 Wittle: How did you get interested in literature?

Stine: I was always crazy for books. I remember trying to write (and illustrate) a thriller in fourth grade. In sixth grade, I wrote a speculative novella, which my teacher Xeroxed copies of. Grassroots publishing, ha! Seriously, my father taught lit, and his father taught lit, both at the college level. Dad would read Edgar Allen Poe to me at bedtime when I was eight and nine. My great, great uncle also wrote stories for kids’ textbooks. He lived on Spring Garden Street and used the Philadelphia Public Library as his writing studio!

 Wittle: Who are your biggest influences when it comes to writing your novels?

Stine: Biggest influences? Wow, that’s a tall order. I enjoy Cherie Priest and Franny Billingsly—authors who make the hair on the back of my neck stand up with their unique prose and weird plot points. I agree with Stephen King, who says that an authors’ first responsibility is to ENTERTAIN. Forget about trying to teach, or to elucidate on a theme. Give your readers a rollicking rollercoaster ride and have them laughing and crying. So far, the best compliment given to my futuristic thriller, Fireseed One, was from a teen book reviewer, who said that she wept at the end.

 Wittle: When did you know you wanted to write YA fiction?

Stine: My stories have always veered toward the teenage terrain of the psychologically complex, the aching hearts, the passionate young lovers, heady coming of age horrors and thrills. I wrote Refugees as my MFA thesis, a tale of two unlikely friends—an insecure poet in Afghanistan and his American counterpoint, a tortured teen flutist from San Francisco—and the YAs rolled on from there.

 Wittle: How do you gage the market in YA fiction?

Stine: I note the trends but don’t write to them, because by the time you publish something, the trend will have come and gone. That said, I think it’s wise to keep an eye on them—at least to what’s yesterday’s news and what markets are saturated. Seems as if the paranormal and vamp market has slowed, while YA historical fantasy and sci-fi are “in” right now, as is the resurgence of realistic fiction. High concept still matters. But don’t quote me on all of this conjecture! 🙂 My best advice is to write to your passions. That’s the fiction that will “sing.”

 Wittle: What are the obstacles in writing YA? How have you overcome them?

 Stine: The obstacle now is that the YA market is saturated and the publishing industry is gun shy as it stumbles through a revolution of sorts. This is not only true of YA, but any genre. It’s important not to “write down” to teens and to entertain rather bombard with messages. Don’t overuse teen-speak. It dates and is very transparent.


 Wittle: What book of yours are you the most proud of?

 Stine: I’m proud of my latest, Fireseed One( It’s a futuristic thriller, and I concentrated on plot twists and inventive world-building. I also worked hard to create a compelling mix of characters: Varik, the brainy marine biologist’s son who must put his dreams of becoming a doctor on hold in order to save the ocean farms; the beautiful but misguided terrorist, Marisa; Varik’s trendy fashion-hound friend, Audun, who is saddled with a frightening responsibility; Nevada Pilgrim, a woodsy artist girl, who is in way over her head when she joins a murderous clan; the Fireseed cult, who worships Varik’s dead father, and more. I am also a published illustrator, and Fireseed has nine of my original drawings in it, which makes me proud.

Wittle: When teaching, how do you find time to write?

 Stine: I teach college lit part time, and a longstanding creative writing workshop. I find that teaching, though time-consuming, nurtures my own writing. I get energized from the writing community, and from helping students become better writers.

Wittle: What advice would you give to someone writing a YA novel?

 Stine: Don’t rush! Build your story in layers as a painter does with glazes. Join a writers’ group. Make sure trusted readers comment on your work before you ever send it out. Fully engage and forget about the market while you write.

Push to Publish Series: Meet the Experts- Don Lafferty


The 21st century has given writers a new way to talk with their readers and connect with other writers and fans.  It also gives writers different ways to market and sell their books. Today’s Push to Publish Series talks with the social media guru Don Lafferty. He will be at the Push to Publish event helping writers find their way towards all the great resources to help writers promote themselves (

Here is an interview with him that discusses just a small sampling of the resources for writers.

WITTLE: For those that may not be familiar with The Liars Club, could you explain what it is and how people can benefit from it?

LAFFERTY: The Liars Club is a group of positive thinking, like-minded Philly area writers who understand and cherish the value of their relationships with other writers, and the cascade of benefit that our fellowship brings to each of us.

We provide a physical, living, breathing, FREE community for writers here in the Delaware Valley. From that community, writers in all stages of their careers can draw on the community’s collective body of experience. Outside of a pay-for conference, it’s one of the only forums where you can ask a New York Times bestselling author or other publishing industry expert for advice about your query letter, the first page of your manuscript, an agency issue or a marketing question.

The Liars Club is all about writers helping other writers – for free. We all know what it was like when we didn’t know the first thing about the process of becoming published, and we want to help shortcut that learning curve for up and coming writers. Be sure to join our Yahoo group to stay plugged into our schedule of FREE events where we share everything we know about the world of writing and publishing. Go to Yahoo groups and search “WritersCoffeehouseOnline”.

WITTLE: What are the three social media avenues every writer should have and why?

LAFFERTY: Facebook, because 75% of the readers in North America are there. Twitter, because if you know how to “listen” for the key words that will tip you off to the conversations being had by your target connections, you can discover and connect with them and larger pockets of community. Goodreads, because it’s a community of readers and writers, telling everybody what they love, what they hate, what they’re going to read – and who they’ll never read again.

WITTLE: How much do you think social media and networking plays into being a writer?

LAFFERTY: I don’t think it has anything to do with being a writer, but good social media and networking skills will help a good writer become more widely read. The Amanda Hocking story is a great case in point. She was a self-published author, badly in need of an editor, but her solid story telling ability and stellar social media chops got her a three million dollar payday, one of the best editors in the business and shelf space in every bookstore in the world.

WITTLE: In your opinion, how has e-publishing enhanced the publishing world?

LAFFERTY: Ebooks have blown the lid of the long tail of the commercial side of writing. The lack of friction in this distribution channel, combined, again, with good social media skills, makes this the best time in the history of the written word for writers to reach their readers, no matter how niche the market. It has and will continue to change the business of publishing, but I know the trees are very happy about it.

WITTLE: What is one piece of advice you would give a writer trying to get his or her work out in this digital age?

LAFFERTY: Most importantly, make sure your writing doesn’t suck. Then, connect in person with a local community of writers. Be sociable. Play nice. Be kind. Check your ego at the door. Do unto others, and all that stuff. Take advice from those that have demonstrated success, and then pay it forward every chance you get. Yes, that’s one piece of advice. 😉


Don Lafferty’s short fiction has appeared in NEEDLE MAGAZINE, CRIME FACTORY MAGAZINE, SHOTGUN HONEY and a number of other markets and anthologies. He’s written corporate communication, marketing and advertising copy, and feature magazine articles. Don is a regular contributor to the global conversation about marketing through the social media channel, and blogs at

Don is a regular speaker, teacher and the Chief Marketing Officer of the digital marketing agency, Mingl Social. He’s a member of the Philly Liars Club, the social media director of the Wild River Review, and serves on the board of directors of the Philadelphia Writers’ Conference.