Oyster River Pages: Who are the writers who have made you who you are?
Joe Ponepinto: So many I couldn’t possibly name them all, but a few that come to mind are Margaret Atwood, Jose Saramago, Amy Hempel, Philip Roth, David Foster Wallace, Rebecca Makkai, James Joyce, Anton Chekhov, Bruce Holland Rogers, about 100 others, and one editor, Gordon Lish.
ORP: What are the lenses that shape your worldview?
JP: I’m a former journalist, and I still read more nonfiction than fiction, which I feel keeps me informed about what’s really going on in the world, and feeds my literary imagination. The main sources are The Atlantic, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Review of Books.
ORP: What’s the most important thing you’ve read/seen lately?
JP: Probably Charles Baxter’s The Art of Subtext. It really deepened my understanding of what fiction should try to do.
ORP: What’s your least favorite word? Why?
JP: “Was” (or any copula). It’s the foundation of banal, didactic, and completely uncreative writing. As an editor I see far too many submissions that are little more than a list of facts: he was, she was, it was… Those writers aren’t even trying.
ORP: What’s your favorite thing that you’ve created? (line, image, story, etc.)
JP: I wrote a short story a few years ago called “The Killer of the Writer,” which portrayed a creative, but unknown and unsuccessful writer, who accidentally kills a commercially successful hack, and then embarks on an exploration of the famous writer’s life. Of course no U.S. journal would take a chance on it, but it wound up published in Australia’s The Lifted Brow.
ORP: What do you want to read more of in the world?
JP: Imagination. Literary fiction these days is overwhelmed with whiney, woe-is-me, my-life-is-hard paeans to self-indulgence, in which the point seems limited to blaming someone or some group for the character’s problems in life. I believe it’s to move forward from there. I’d love to see literary fiction infused with science, history, humor, adventure, and more, producing writing that’s more hybrid and interdisciplinary in nature, and which offers hope for the future, instead of blame for the past.
ORP: How do you pay it forward?
JP: Running Tahoma Literary Journal gives me an opportunity to publish dozens of writers every year, most of whom have had limited publishing credits. That’s always a good feeling. I’m also establishing an endowment to provide grants to writers, but you’ll have to wait until I die to get one.
ORP: What is the space that has shaped you the most?
JP: Probably this big old leather chair I’m sitting in. Aside from the physical contouring, it’s the place where I spend hours every day writing, reading, corresponding, and thinking.
ORP: You’ve just written your autobiography. What’s the title?
JP: Mr. Neutron. Which happens to be the title of my forthcoming novel, even though it’s not an autobiography. But there are many similarities between the main character and myself. An excerpt, if that’s allowed: “He felt small, powerless—utterly infinitesimal, as he often did. A mere particle floating in a plasma filled with objects of greater mass and energy than he… In a world that pulsed with electricity, he was neither positively nor negatively charged. A neutron, if you will, a fraction of an atom, taking up an area of space so insignificant that it was no surprise to be regularly ignored. He lived in a universe of despair, where the physics of random chance had conspired to render him moot, to keep him down, and where nothing he could do would change that destiny. But sometimes, his intellect fought back. There had to be some logic to it, some hope in which he could invest. Perhaps neutrons were necessary. Perhaps there was a higher calling for them, even if they appeared to be little more than ballast for the universe, stabilizing the floor so the baryons, hadrons, quarks and the rest of the subatomics could get it on. He just had to deduce what that purpose was.”
Joe Ponepinto’s novel, Mr. Neutron, will be published by 7.13 Books in spring 2018. He is the publisher and fiction editor of Tahoma Literary Review, a literary journal that has had selections reproduced in Best American Poetry, Best American Essays, Best Small Fictions, and other notable anthologies. His fiction appears in many literary journals in the U.S. and abroad. Joe teaches at Seattle’s Hugo House and Tacoma Community College. Find him on Twitter @joeponepinto. Read his story "Born Famous" from Issue 1.