Celebrating Women’s History Month with Red Hen Press!

It’s March! Happy Women’s History Month! We at Red Hen want to use this month as an opportunity to share interviews with our award-winning authors who identify with womanhood.

As with Black History Month, we want to particularly highlight our women authors and also acknowledge the work done by BIPOC women, specifically trans women of color, in shaping women’s history. Along these lines, we will be sharing women-run bookstore/other literary recommendations!

Scroll down to read more!

Lara Ehrlich, author of ANIMAL WIFE, 3/31/2021

What advice would you give to aspiring women writers and publishing industry professionals who hope to “break into” and succeed in an industry historically dominated by men?

Although publishing a book has always been my ultimate goal, completing and selling a manuscript seemed utterly mysterious and out of reach until I attended my first writing conference. I arrived with 20 pages of a novel and zero knowledge of the publishing industry, open to learning everything I could.

I was nowhere near ready to query agents yet, but I took advantage of a pitch session with a powerful woman agent who encouraged me to stick with my novel, gave me some pointers on the query letter I’d drafted, and invited me to send her the book when I was ready. That one actionable goal—send this woman my book—helped me begin to demystify the publishing process and break it down into other actionable steps that seemed attainable when tackled one at a time.

During that same conference, I clicked with two other women writers who were working on their first novels, and we formed a critique group. We continued to meet for years, supporting one another through drafting and revising our work, querying agents, and eventual publication. That is what I needed to be able to take my writing seriously not just as a craft, but as a career.

So, my advice boils down to three things: learn the business, form supportive literary friendships with like-minded women, and network with women writers, agents, editors, and publishers you genuinely admire. 

Who or what inspires your work as a writer?

Animal Wife originated with the titular story in the collection, about a girl who undertakes a quest for the mother who abandoned her. I started this story as a novel and after writing hundreds of pages, realized it was actually meant to be a short story! This is where I rediscovered my love of writing short stories, how time and emotion can be compressed into a tight space that exerts pressure on every sentence. I love the intensity of short stories, and how they can sustain an off-kilter voice or a wild conceit that might sag in a longer piece.

The next few stories are also about girls and young women, tapping into the urgency and uneasiness of puberty. As I began writing toward a collection, the stories began to change, to move away from girls and toward mothers. During this time, I was questioning whether I wanted to have a family. I was terrified of the self-abdication that I believed motherhood necessitated. I was going to create Important Work, and I couldn’t afford the distraction. I believed that the right way to be a mother was to devote all of myself to my child, while the right way to be a writer was to toil in isolation, unfettered by the needs of others.

I wrote the majority of the stories in Animal Wife while agonizing over this decision, then while pregnant, so those stories are often worst-case scenarios, nightmares, terrors about motherhood. I wrote the last few stories during those first few months of motherhood that I can barely remember because they were so intensely exhausting. Writing has become not only a calling and a career, but my way of keeping hold of myself and avoiding the self-abdication I’d so feared.

Throughout Animal Wife, readers will be able to see my preoccupations and priorities shifting—and with them, my voice. Now, I could no longer write the stories that open this collection.

My novel-in-progress is a more in-depth exploration of these themes, framed by a loose retelling of “The Little Mermaid.” At its heart, the book is about the dark underbelly of fantasy, the need for escape and transformation, which in the end is disappointing—and often destructive. A fun note: As part of my research, I attended the Sirens of the Deep Mermaid Camp at Weeki Wachee State Park in Weeki Wachee, Florida, where women have performed as mermaids since 1947. During the two-day camp, my fellow campers and I were trained by mermaids—called Legendary Sirens—who had performed at Weeki Wachee in its golden age. My essay about Siren Camp was published in Lit Hub.

Is there an underrated book written by a woman that you think deserves more praise?

The book that immediately came to mind is Nothing by Janne Teller. It’s garnered tons of praise in Teller’s home country, Denmark, and throughout Europe, but I’ve never met another person in the US who has read this book. (Atheneum Books for Young Readers published a translation by Martin Aitken in 2010.) This book is startling in its sparsity, its fable-like narrative, and its matter-of-fact violence that challenges readers to question the value of the tangible and intangible things we hold most dear.

Here’s the jacket copy:

When Pierre-Anthon realizes there is no meaning to life, the seventh-grader leaves his classroom, climbs a tree, and stays there. His classmates cannot make him come down, not even by pelting him with rocks. So to prove to Pierre-Anthon that life has meaning, the children decide to give up things of importance. The pile starts with the superficial—a fishing rod, a new pair of shoes. But as the sacrifices become more extreme, the students grow increasingly desperate to get Pierre-Anthon down, to justify their belief in meaning.

Plus, Janne Teller is exceptionally cool: She was educated as a macroeconomist and worked for the United Nations and the European Union in resolving conflicts and humanitarian issues around the world, especially in Africa. 

Martha K. Davis, author of SCISSORS, PAPER, STONE, 3/29/2021

What advice would you give to aspiring women writers and publishing industry professionals who hope to “break into” and succeed in an industry historically dominated by men?

When I first began publishing stories in literary magazines, I noticed that the journals based at universities, where groups of students vote on the content, never chose my work. I became much more discriminating about the places where I submitted, researching the type of work they published as well as the ratio of men to women working there. Although as many men have published my work as women have, the masthead of the journals have been at least equally weighted between the sexes. Besides, I wouldn’t want to be published by a lit mag that didn’t have parity.   

I can’t speak to breaking into the publishing industry, as my experience was more than thirty years ago at a small women’s press that is still going strong today–Aunt Lute Books in San Francisco. I began as an intern. I believe starting at entry level as an editorial assistant is still standard in the industry.

In the end, “breaking into” a writing career depends on what your definition of success is. For me, perseverance has been the key to opening up publication. A thick skin for rejection, dedication to sending the work out again, and often simple luck.

Who or what inspires your work as a writer?

What most inspires my writing is the incredible quality and broad range of other writers’ work available to me as a reader. Having a high bar to reach for is the most motivating factor. Whenever I read a book and wonder, “How did she do that?” I feel challenged to accomplish something of my own that’s equally complex, ambitious, and generous. Authors who do this for me include Toni Morrison, Alice Munro, Virginia Woolf, Octavia Butler, Ursula Le Guin, Mary Gaitskill, and Joan Silber. 

Is there an underrated book written by a woman that deserves more praise?

Overall, literature by women outside the U.S. tends to be under-appreciated, particularly literature in translation. I recommend Grieving by Cristina Rivera Garza, The Memory Police by Yoko Ogawa, and The Door by Magda Szabo. 

Felicia Zamora, author of BODY OF RENDER, 3/25/2021

What advice would you give to aspiring women writers and publishing industry professionals who hope to “break into” and succeed in an industry historically dominated by men?

Lean into yourself. Don’t compromise your identity as a woman/woman of color and all your intersectional identities in your imagination, wonders and your art. Being women is what makes our experiences what they are, and this, this is tremendously valuable in the publishing world and in creating real change in society. Bring the grotesque, the Kitsch, the raunchy, the absurd, the emotional, the raucous, the unspeakable, the full gamut of human complexity—trust the world you build on the page—it is necessary. Believe in your art first. From here, our voices become a collective to tear the patriarch down, to build an industry where we don’t just thrive, but lead.

Who or what inspires your work as a writer?

Claudia Rankine’s work does some serious heavy lifting in both expression and form. Her art is a game changer when it comes to working toward social change through art. The genre bending in her writing, combined with an accessibility of language necessary for such complex topics of racism and whiteness in this country, core me. Recently, I’ve also had my socks knocked off by Zadie Smith’s Intimations and Heid Erdrich’s Little Big Bully. Joy Harjo is why I became a poet, after reading She Had Some Horses, decades ago. Her book was the first time I saw a woman of color be a powerhouse in poetry, the first time I saw myself in poetry. 

Is there an underrated book written by a woman that deserves more praise?

Diana Marie Delgado’s book Tracing the Horse is alive with world after intricate world in these pages full of imagination, grief, pop iconography, familial ache, transformation, and the devil—my god, who could forget the devil in this book. In Delgado’s poem “Twelve Trees,” she writes “In Mexico, the Devil is handsome…He rakes leaves and fixes umbrellas, / occasionally throws back his head and sings.” To me, this book deserves pure celebration.

Brittany Ackerman, author of THE PERPETUAL MOTION MACHINE, 3/22/2021

Are there any new/upcoming women authors whose work you are following?

Maria Adelmann, Kathryn Scanlan, Melissa Broder (she’s not up and coming, she’s already HERE, but her latest book Milkfed is a treasure!)

Is there a certain area or genre in the literary community that you think needs more women representation, or would like to see more women thrive in?

I’d love to see more work by female Jewish writers that follows the exploration of faith and culture. 

How does women’s history figure into your own work, if at all?

As a Jewish woman, I’m interested in creating work that has Judaism and jewish identity as its backbone and writing stories that aim to represent the modern day reform traditions of my people.

Landon Houle, author of LIVING THINGS, 3/15/2021

What advice would you give to aspiring women writers and publishing industry professionals who hope to “break into” and succeed in an industry historically dominated by men?

Advocate for your own work, and protect the time you put into your writing, reading, and editing. Know your voice is important and worthwhile, and your contribution matters. Champion other women writers the way you want to be championed.

Who or what inspires your work as a writer?

I’m always inspired by the way that people tell stories, how they talk about their every days and what takes them out of the ordinary. I’ll never get tired of listening and trying to capture something of what I hear on the page.

Is there an underrated book written by a woman that deserves more praise?

There are so many! I think more people should read More of This World or Maybe Another by Barb Johnson. That book will break your heart and make you laugh at the same time, and I think that’s what we’re all after as readers and writers.

Sisters Uptown Bookstore and Cultural Center, 3/11/2021

Photo Credit to pw.org

Sisters Uptwon Bookstore and Cultural Center is owned by Janifer P. Wilson and Kori N. Wilson in Washington Heights, NY. They’ve been established for 21 years, where they bring “an educational, emotional, spiritual and loving environment for our diverse community where all are welcomed.”

Some of their bestsellers include The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennet and White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism by Robin DiAngelo. Staff picks include Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison with mentionable titles such as Dominica by Angie Cruz.

Follow them on Facebook and show them your support!

Reema Rajbanshi, author of SUGAR, SMOKE, SONG, 3/8/2021

Are there any new/upcoming women authors whose work you are following?

I read across genres all the time, so at the moment, I’m moving through The Dark Fantastic by Ebony Elizabeth Thomas, just finished The Body Papers by Grace Talusan, and am re-teaching Tentacle by Rita Indiana. I appreciate the quality of courage and bold imagination (for alternative worlds) in each of these works.

Is there a certain area or genre in the literary community that you think needs more women representation, or would like to see more women thrive in?

Narrative theory. I’m thinking of Toni Morrison and Hélène Cixous and Gloria Anzaldúa, who knew that the creative and critical shaped each other. Anti-intellectualism is especially harsh for women, yet women of color have often been doing theory through their aesthetics and community-making around questions of what might be beautiful, might bring solace, might ring truer. Generally, representations of women will never be central or more complex until theory shifts, because story also depicts and reproduces ideas. 

How does women’s history figure into your own work, if at all?

My creative work returns a lot to how girls and women experience desire, violence, and labor. I won’t make a universal statement but in many societies, all three arenas have exerted great pressure over girls learning to be im/proper and de/valued women. (You only have to look at events tied to wage inequality or #MeToo.) But the linked stories in my book are also curious about how girls and women respond—through emotions like rage, humor, and sympathy—the ways in which they survive and/or transform (which are not always the same thing) that may be censored. And because I’m focusing on girls and women of color, I’m also thinking about multiple obligations that are juggled, personal and intergenerational histories that get hidden. That’s the draw of experimental aesthetics: I’m trying to find language for characters and shapes for stories for which the tried-and-true techniques may not be enough or right.   

Chelsea Catherine, author of SUMMER OF THE CICADAS, 3/1/2021

Chelsea is nonbinary but identifies with womanhood in some ways.

Are there any new/upcoming women authors whose work you are following?

What constitutes a new/upcoming writer? T Kira Madden is a writer who I like to watch. I think her amazing memoir is being turned into a movie, which I will be first in line to see. I also generally keep an eye out for new work by Carmen Maria Machado and Jaquira Diaz. All of these women are established, in my opinion, but I am eager to read more from them.

Is there a certain area or genre in the literary community that you think needs more women representation, or would like to see more women thrive in?

The literary community needs more lesbian writers. I read somewhere that lesbian writers make up only 2% of those published in the literary community. Gay men are at 4% and bisexual/pansexual writers are at 10%. Lesbian writers have a lot of great things to say – think about Audre Lorde. I would love to see more lesbian writers highlighted and more lesbian-centric books published.

 How does women’s history figure into your own work, if at all?

If not for the black and brown women who fought for LGBTQ rights during the Stonewall Riots, I would not be able to live openly as a lesbian. I benefit every day from the sacrifices they made, and it is always in the back of my head when I am writing. 

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