Interview with Amy Cipolla Barnes by Kristy Snedden
This interview, with Amy Cipolla Barnes, was such a pleasure. Her new book, Child Craft, comes out September 5, 2023. In addition to her responses to my many questions, we spent a lovely hour sharing stories about writing, editing, reading, publishing, and everything in between.
Having read this collection of beautiful stories, I find I agree with Kathy Fish, in her beautiful review of Child Craft, when she writes, “Amy Barnes renders the often-hidden lives of young girls and women and mothers with disarming candor and the sort of perfect, skewed vision one finds only in dreams.”
Enjoy her generous responses to my questions and towards the end of the interview, pay close attention as she shares the secrets that produced these beautiful stories.
Is there anything else you would like us to know about Child Craft? I’m curious about what you hope to share with the world.
Scott Neuffler from Trampset wrote a recent review of Ambrotypes that actually hits the nail on the head for Child Craft too.
“To review her collection of stories, Ambrotypes, properly, I would need to get a stack of children’s construction paper, cut it to stars and shards using oversized antique scissors, soak it all with the spittle of a dying garden hose, then catapult the resulting mess through the sky, streaking near the space-line, to splatter high-rise windows in New York City.”
When I read that review of Ambrotypes, it hit me that that is exactly how I write most of my stories – perhaps the best esoteric description to match my often-surreal, often-wonky creative attempts. The title of Child Craft is a play on one of my favorite childhood books, the Childcraft encyclopedias that explored all kinds of science, art, etc. I wrote and ordered the various parts of Child Craft to reflect the process of “crafting a child” but also the craft of writing. Later on this year, I’ll be teaching a course to hopefully guide that process as well. I’ve purchased several Childcraft volumes to cut up and send out for ekphrastic prompts.
I hope to share some of that child-like wonder, wondering, the process of parenting and child-ing, crafting words and crafting children – all through Child Craft, in the same way that the original books fascinated me as a child.
How long have you been writing and when did you become serious about your writing?
I’ve been writing since I was a child – early rhymes about kittens and mittens to my very dramatic salutatorian speech. I’ve had “fits and starts,” as people sometimes say in the South. For the past two decades, I wrote mostly non-fiction articles for a variety of outlets like Southern Living and Apartment Therapy. When my kids were little, I didn’t do much fictional writing – instead I wrote more non-fiction, mostly parenting articles. When they were both in high school, I returned to writing fiction. The pandemic hit and I was at home with my 10th grader who was doing remote “learning” – I sat with her every day, without our usual crazy schedule and with Animal Farm. And I wrote and wrote some more had it published. And then another. And another. And then a book of that fiction. And another. And now Child Craft, out in September.
How often and how do you write?
I write a lot in in-between times and also have the maybe bad habit of writing and editing in my head. As I’ve gotten older, I’m having to start making notes on my phone or I forget the ideas, but I definitely do drafting/editing in my head before it hits the paper. I have tried to write on a schedule and that honestly works for my scattered thoughts about as good as me trying to keep track of submissions.
What is the first book that made you cry?
Sylvester and the Magic Pebble
What are common traps for aspiring writers?
I think it may be the same thing as some aspiring Broadway singers – thinking Broadway is the only goal. I have a tendency to set goals on and off-writing-Broadway, sometimes way off. Thinking certain publications or publishers are the ONLY goals. And the second big trap is comparing yourself or your writing to other writers.
What is your writing Kryptonite?
Imposter syndrome. Thinking about people reading my work and hating it or not feeling something. Or my mother reading it. Or no one reading it.
Have you ever gotten reader’s block?
I speed read so my reading levels vary greatly. I also have been reading MG and YA books for years. My kids did something called Battle of the Books where they read from the state list of books in great depth and then competed against other middle schoolers to remember obscure details. And then I started reading AP Lang and Lit books to discuss alongside them – some were repeats like Toni Morrison or Kate Chopin but others were more contemporary like Colson Whitehead to Kate Zambreno.
Even with all of that reading, I felt woefully under-read when I started taking writing seminar and workshop classes in the last five years and found I’d missed a large portion of “adult” literature. I’m good with what I’ve been reading but I do feel behind. I also edit for several lit magazines and read a LOT of submissions which makes returning to an actual book or collection a little jarring. Independent of more mainstream or popular fiction, I’m usually reading a collection of flash or short fiction by a writing friend so I’m not sure that I’m ever truly reading-blocked – unless I can’t find my reading glasses or the right lighting.
What creatives have helped shape your mind and your work?
The creatives that have helped me have varied greatly. I have a bank of literature that influenced me but I think more, I’m influenced by my contemporaries. The writers of collections and short fiction that I’ve met in real life, interacted with online, discovered in a Submittable queue. There are editors that have taken a chance on me and writer peers that read and comment and critique me in such generous ways – that are stellar writers and editors in their own right. I learn so much from reading and listening to them. The list is too long to include and I don’t want to leave anyone out but the literary scene right is definitely thriving and supportive, even when a lit discourse goes haywire.
If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
Don’t listen to the naysayers. Get the MFA when you are young. You might regret not having it at age 50, but also it is okay to figure out your own path. The right words will come at the right time. But more importantly, no regrets. That’s easier said than done. I have no tattoos, but in the eternal writer struggle to write and edit – I have no doubts that my “no regrets” tattoo would be woefully misspelled because I can dish out how to be a writer advice better, than I can take it and because I am constantly second-guessing and editing. The truth is I’ve been a writer for decades, defining how to be a Writer or even, a WRITER is the hard part and there is no linear path to that. And to be honest, if every writer’s path was linear or easy or completed by an MFA or a certain publication – it wouldn’t be all that interesting. Our writing wouldn’t be all that interesting.
As an editor, I’ve had the honor of publishing and nominating for awards – young writers, first time writers, octagerians, writers from around the world, writers from around the corner. My younger self had no idea that was possible. Some of that can be chalked up to being twenty-something and starry-eyed, some of it to imposter syndrome. Should have I done the MFA when I was that younger self? Maybe. Should I do it now? Depends on the day.
This is your third book. Did publishing your first book change your process of writing?
I got some very good advice from Christopher Allen of SmokeLong Quarterly five years ago. He said to find several main themes that you know well or like to write about. And then write mostly in those lanes. If you do that, an eventual collection will be easier because the stories will mesh together more easily. I have slowly learned in the process of moving from a chapbook to full collections – how to order the ins and outs of cover art, asking for blurbs, promoting a book, selling a book.
What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?
This is a hard question because I do write a lot in my head and in cheap notebooks. I think maybe the best money I spent has less to do with writing – it was the cover art for Mother Figures. Popshot Quarterly commissioned it specifically for a story they published, and I loved it enough to buy the rights for the cover. That was a learning process in itself – the very talented artist is agented, and I got quick lessons on art cost and contracts. During the pandemic, I also took an online amazing (and terrifying) workshop course with Sabrina Orah Mark.
As a writer, what would you choose as your mascot/avatar/spirit animal?
I think it would be a giraffe. I wrote a piece of short fiction that begins with three giraffes giving a eulogy at a funeral. As a child, I was taller than my peers and was compared to Big Bird and a giraffe often. I even had a 1970s print giraffe dress. At some point, I decided to take the height comments as a positive so a giraffe feels fitting, although it might be hard to fit a giraffe spirit animal in a room.
What is your writing process?
I process things to write about. The notes file on my phone is always filled with notes on odd news stories or road sign names or images. Unless I’m in a workshop setting or using a prompt, I carry around idea seeds and entire stories in my head, shifting the plot and characters around until they turn into a full story. I also edit in my head. It’s a dangerous process because I don’t always get the ideas/stories down on the page in time, but also can be a productive one because my “drafts” are rarely a true first draft. They are a draft on paper but may have been in my head for months.
What period of your life do you find you write about most often? (child, teenager, young adult, adult)
I think I write a mix of all of those ages with a twist of my own adult parenting added in the fiction.
What did you edit out of this book?”
I think I did more ordering than editing things out. I actually just replaced one story that was accepted and has been in limbo for a few years and won’t be published in time to release the rights.
Do you hide any secrets in your books that only a few people will find?
I don’t know if they are secrets, but my mother will definitely think she’s in there, even though this isn’t published as a memoir.
What is your favorite childhood book?
The “Shoes” books. The Boxcar Children. The Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.
What is the most difficult part of your artistic process?
Editing. Figuring out what to include and not include. Letting go of things I think should stay but I know are wrong.
Do you believe in writer’s block?
I believe in it but I also am (finally) learning to figure out the root issues of why I’m creatively blocked – and to then deal with those issues.
Can you share your process in creating Child Craft?
I do write in similar themes. The simple answer is: once I had a certain amount of stories written and/or published, I put them in a linear order and started submitting. Several writer friends had drawn my attention to Belle Point Press as a great regional independent press. I sent the manuscript in on maybe the last day of their submission period. I had sent in a few stories to BPP for their earlier anthology that weren’t chosen – those stories are now in the smaller prose series to Child Craft. So, it was a submission process too. My rejection for those earlier stories was kind and personal; the full manuscript was a better fit.
Please share any promotions for your work, social media, blogs, etc.
Twitter and Instagram: @amygcb
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