On Location

On Location with Olivia Clare

This installment of On Location comes from Ecotone contributor Olivia Clare, whose first published story, “Pétur,” which was originally published in Issue 14: The Abnormal, and won a 2014 O. Henry Prize.

When I took this picture, it was for someone who had never been to Louisiana. This magnolia lives in Baton Rouge in my father’s front yard in a small magnolia tree. In the house in which I grew up (not the house to which this magnolia belongs, but a hazier, duskier, years-ago place) we had two large magnolia trees, each the size of a tiny cottage, or at least that is how my child-self thought of them. I don’t remember ever climbing these, as much as I like to think I did.

It is not at all original to write about a magnolia or about trees from one’s childhood front yard. Yet the flora and fauna from my childhood, still existing somewhere in me, in my interior child-life, are the places from which so many of my words and stories bloom. What, I wondered/wonder, are these non-human forms that live with us just as deeply as human forms do?

I trusted every plant I knew. They concealed nothing. They asked nothing. And if I was obstinate or grouchy, they did not mind. They even had names—my grandmother’s roses, especially. They came with names, and you could give them your own. Leona or Hilda or Beau. You could name many things, I discovered.

There are certain places I’m not able to write about until I leave them, and I did not write about Louisiana until nearly fifteen years after I’d left. I visit often. Several times, I’ve driven by my childhood home. I have even, with the new owner’s permission, taken photos, which never come out the way I expect or want them to. The roots for nostalgia are Greek. They mean “homecoming” and “pain.” We know you can’t go home again, but you can drive up to it. You can drive into the driveway of your childhood home, turn off your car engine, listen to the birds in the magnolia tree in the yard, look at your favorite window, the shutters, the roof, the eaves. And if you are very lucky, and if you look closely, you might see people coming out of the house, perhaps family members or friends, and you can speak to them, ask them how they are, and remember.

I think too of all the things I do not remember, and the things I have never written down, and wonder where those exist. There is a place. They—these objects, events, walkways, storefronts, bridges, lakes, somehow sadly too far back and now outside my memory—accumulate. They bring me here, bring me up to this day, though I can’t now name or know them.

Olivia Clare is the author of a short story collection, Disasters in the First World, from Black Cat/Grove Atlantic. Her novel is forthcoming from Grove Atlantic. She is also the author of a book of poems, The 26-Hour Day (New Issues, 2015). Her stories have appeared in Ecotone, GrantaSouthern Review, n+1, Boston Review, and elsewhere. Her poems have appeared in Poetry, Southern Review, London Magazine, FIELD, and elsewhereShe is an Assistant Professor in Creative Writing at Sam Houston State University. www.olivia-clare.com


On Location with Clare Beams

This installment of On Location comes from Ecotone contributor and Lookout author Clare Beams, whose collection We Show What We Have Learned was a recently named a finalist for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Award and the Young Lions Fiction Award from the New York Public Library.


When we moved into our house in Pittsburgh, we found the contents of somebody’s life in our basement. Not the life of the man who’d sold us the house; this stuff appeared to have belonged (or to still belong?) to a woman who must have lived here too, maybe as a roommate, maybe in some other capacity. Among the things we found:

  • pots and pans
  • half-consumed dry goods
  • toiletries (soap, shampoo, and conditioner, still in their shower basket, like strange eggs in a nest)
  • a TI-89 calculator
  • textbooks
  • a journal, which I dipped into briefly, unable to decide if this was morally acceptable
  • an entire dresser, full of clothes
  • a wedding dress

All piled in our dungeon-y, stone-walled basement, next to the Pittsburgh Potty—a toilet in the basement, common in houses built before 1950 or so, once used by the household help; ours doesn’t even have a curtain. All a little clammy to the touch.

From the start, we felt wrong about having these things. Whoever this woman was, wherever she was, she probably needed them. And we didn’t want them; knowing they were down there, under our feet all the time, made us feel like we were living with a ghost. We’d had contact with the house’s previous inhabitant only through his real estate agent, whom we called repeatedly to explain the situation and ask what we should do. What we heard was that the owner was gone, the real estate agent had no idea who this woman was, and everything that was left was ours to do with what we wanted. We didn’t want to do anything with it, was the trouble. The idea of cooking out of this woman’s pots, using her lamps to light up our rooms—it felt grubby, and disrespectful toward whatever misery had made her leave all of it behind.

After a while, we stopped asking. She would get in touch, we reasoned, if she wanted to. And a while after that, two years after we’d moved in, we donated everything to a charity that was willing to come and pick it all up off our front porch.

Basements fascinate and unnerve me—these spaces where we store the things we don’t want to look at. The basements in the houses I’ve lived in tend to show their age. The house we rented in Massachusetts, built in the forties, had one that at first seemed promising, like a room we could maybe use—except somehow squirrels kept getting into its ceiling, so that hollow caps of acorns would sometimes pile up ominously in the corners, like the hats of sad, absent elves. The house where I grew up in Connecticut, built in the 1730s, had a dirt-floored basement, smelled like earth, and was lined with shelves on which some enterprising person a half-century before had stored her preserves. Empty Ball jars stood there in my time, their lids reproachfully rusting. The basement of our current house, built in 1894, has raw-stone walls, and tiny insecure-looking windows, and much damp. Walking down into the basement of an old house is like walking back in—or down into—time. Upper floors get new coats of paint, new bathrooms, kitchens with running water and refrigerators. But when you stand at the house’s lowest point, the point where only mistakes and leftovers and seasonal decorations are stashed, you could be standing in 1960 or 1899 or 2017. The upper floors of the houses I’ve lived in feel like they belong to me. But their basements—when I go down there to put the broken stuff I mean to fix, the things my kids have outgrown—feel, to me, like I’m sharing them. The space, and its secrets, too, because where else do we put them but underground? And then, like seeds, sometimes they grow.

The questions this woman left in our basement weren’t as easy to cart up into the light as her belongings were. I think about her often, for a woman I’ve never met. What kind of life she might be living now, having left all of those things behind. I can’t quite stop wondering how so much of her ended up down there, in the dark, in the first place.

On Location with Josh Emmons

This installment of On Location comes from Ecotone contributor Josh Emmons, whose story, “Nu,” appears in issue 15, and was a special mention in The Puschart Prize XXXIX.

Hell-A Revisited


Growing up in Northern California, I considered Los Angeles to be the worst city in America, synonymous with smog, sprawl and superficiality, Alvie Singer’s cultural wasteland and “the big parking lot where you buy a hamburger for the trip to San Francisco,” as John Lennon put it. My friends and I called it Hell-A and avoided it as much as possible, although, like the common cold, it sometimes struck: I’d visit relatives or go to Disneyland or pass through en route to friendlier, less toxic Mexico. After college at an anything-goes moment, I followed a girlfriend there and lived for six months in the Los Feliz neighborhood, where its sun and asphalt and artificiality so depressed me that Elliott Smith’s suicide in nearby Echo Park a few years later made sense.

Following two decades living in San Francisco and New Orleans and Philadelphia, I moved back to LA in 2014 for work, hoping I’d be better able to accept the city’s endless ugliness as a blunted forty-year-old than I had been as an idealistic twenty-something. What I found, however, is that it is no longer a vast, unrelenting space devoted to cars and bad movies, but has made great strides in public transportation, density, art, green space, tacos and sustainability: the whole New Urbanism fantasy. When people now say, apropos of what’s happening here versus the Bay Area tech takeover, that “San Francisco is a utopia gone wrong and LA is a dystopia gone right,” they aren’t wrong.

I don’t want to get too boosterish, because Los Angeles still has the worst air quality in the country and attracts a lot of demi-creative narcissists and is too hot, but I live in a stately Art Deco building downtown, a few blocks away from the excellent Last Bookstore and Broad Museum and historic theaters on Broadway. I walk everywhere and meet people uninvolved with Hollywood and find corners of the city where nature is reasserting itself. All this might sound like a low bar to cross, but I’m encouraged that a city of four million people, like so many other cities in America and abroad, is trading in a bankrupt dream of single-family homes and eight-lane freeways for an expanded train system and high-rise residential buildings and public art.

I’ll probably never stop fantasizing about living in a more instantly appealing place—a New York or New Orleans or Paris—but for now I’m happy to be in one that’s come so far in so short period of time.

On location with Callan Wink

This installment of On Location comes from Ecotone contributor Callan Wink, whose story, “Off the Track,” appears in issue 14, our Abnormal issue.

Guide’s Day Off (The Yellowstone River in Paradise Valley, Montana)


For the past ten years I’ve spent my summers as a fly fishing guide on the Yellowstone River. Every season is a blur. Montana summers are short, a relatively small window in which a fishing guide needs to make as much money as possible. Long hours on the water, sometimes over thirty days in row without a break. Up early to prep for the day. Coffee and more coffee. Meeting your clients. Figuring out what section to float, i.e. “the plan”—an arcane mix of informed luck and gut instincts honed by countless days on the water. The Yellowstone is a huge river system, and we guide on over one hundred winding miles of it. A dynamic, ever-shifting waterway that seems to change wildly from season to season, day to day. You pick your stretch and you go and sometimes you catch them and sometimes you don’t. You have lunch and point out eagles and talk about the old Native American buffalo jump across the river over there, and eventually you’re pulling into the take-out spot. You drop your clients at their hotel and then you go to the Murray Bar where most of the other guides straggle in to drink and bullshit. Sometimes the fishing is good and everyone is in high spirits—easy money, large tips. Sometimes, in late August, the doldrums, the fishing is slow and the sun is hot and everyone is short tempered and burnt.

Sometimes your boat knocked them dead on a day when everyone else struggled—you feel like you have it all figured out and gloat quietly to yourself. You’re the fish whisperer. The next day your luck changes, you make the wrong call, your plan is flawed, your clients manage only a few anemic whitefish, one of them snags you in the cheek with his fly. But, as these things go, eventually the end of the day comes and you load your boat on the trailer and drop the clients at their hotel and you go to the Murray Bar. You’re out of the sun and the air conditioning is delicious and, without speaking, the bartender ignores a queue of thirsty tourists to present you with your customary summer drink: a fishbowl of ice-cold vodka with fresh squeezed lemon and lime. Soon enough the other guides are there and the bullshit commences. On and on. A summer’s worth of it. Fish and sun and cash and Texas oilmen and daily immersion in the most captivating river you’ve ever seen.

Occasionally you get a day off. You’re going to do laundry, pay your bills, fix the growing number of things on your truck and boat that have become broken through hard use. You’re going to sleep in.

Of course, that’s not what you do. You’re up early by habit. Coffee and more coffee. You get on the phone and rally everyone you can think of who might have the day off as well. You make a plan. It comes together slowly, people drop out, people join up, but eventually everyone converges on the river. There are boats and dogs and bikinis and radios and Frisbees and coolers of beer. Someone has a battery-powered blender and there are margaritas. There are no fishing rods, though. That’s the general rule. All gear and paraphernalia pertaining to the hooking of trout are left at home. Anyone uncouth enough to buck the trend and try to fish will get ridiculed, blasted with water cannons, harassed by stick-chasing dogs.

A fishing guide’s day off. Tomorrow you’ll be back out there, hustling for trout and tips. Today though, you’re swimming, you’ve got a margarita, if you’re lucky, your girlfriend is rowing your boat.

There’s an eagle and when it flies over everyone points. You’ve seen it a thousand times and it’s still goddamn majestic.

Callan Wink was born in Michigan in 1984 and now works as a fishing guide on the Yellowstone River in Montana. His work has been published in the New Yorker, Granta, and The Best American Short Stories. His first book, Dog Run Moon, was released yesterday.

On Location with Delaney Nolan

This installment of On Location comes from Ecotone contributor Delaney Nolan, whose story, “The Ugly,” appears in issue 17.

The Death Café

I go to the Death Café in April. It’s held in the Johnson County Senior Center, a brick building on Linn.


We go around the room and introduce ourselves. It’s a funny cross-section of Iowa’s death-intrigued: one sprightly lady in a headband who volunteers at the Iowa Parrot Rescue; next to her, a historian who specializes in “grave-related paraphernalia.” An Indian man explains that he’s a Jainist and wants to share some of Jainism’s views; he inadvertently quotes Plath: “Dying is an art,” he says, “and I would like to share that art.” A large bearded man holds a book on meditation and cheerfully cites an interest in Zen death poems.

The purpose of the Death Café, as the name may suggest, is to talk plainly about death.

That day, we begin with the death of pets.

“I found that when I had an animal die, I was more upset about that than the people that died,” says a woman named Carol. The grave historian nods enthusiastically.

The lady with the parrots advocates writing your own obituary, but says she procrastinates, so she hasn’t done it yet. People laugh—there’s a surprising amount of laughter in the Death Café, parallel, I imagine, to the way people make jokes on the set of a scary movie.

Rahul, the Jainist, explains that in his faith, “starving to death” is sometimes recommended. Letting yourself die when you can no longer follow Jainist rituals will keep your karmic load from increasing. “Gradually, you stop taking solids. Then you stop taking liquids. And when one week or two weeks arrive, [you] just pass away and die.”

Somebody adds, “That’s kind of the point of the advanced directives too, to write out that you don’t want somebody putting tubes in you,” and at this there are little noises of agreement all around the room. There’s scorn for meddling doctors, ambulance medics who automatically give CPR, families who cling.

The idea of having control of your own death is a subject we return to again and again, and in a sense that’s the end game of the Death Café. Discussing a problem, like writing about a problem, is a method of control, and as we all talk about death—our own death, others’ deaths, obituaries, breathing tubes—it’s clear that we’re trying to air out cobwebs, let some light into an attic where we’re usually too scared to tread.

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On Location with Elliot Ackerman

This installment of On Location comes from Ecotone contributor Elliot Ackerman, whose story, “Charlie Balls,” appears in the Migration Issue.


Where are you from?

I often feel like answering, “nowhere.” Because the “right” answer has always eluded me, and as an American living in Istanbul these past two years my answer has only become more muddled. That I am American is obvious to any inquiring Turk—the sharp ‘e’ in my pronunciation of merhaba (hello), that I often confuse günaydın (good morning) with iyi akşamlar (good evening), and that I never drink ayran, a tepid, salty yogurt drinkyet the asker always wants a specific answer, not just “America.” I usually respond “New York,” though I have never lived in New York, but the city is such a colossus, so vast and multicultural, that evoking its name usually kills the conversation because whoever has asked just nods, unable to produce a follow up question, as if I dropped a skyscraper of possibilities on their head. Sometimes I say Washington, D.C., which is a bit closer to the truth. I owned a house there for a few years before uprooting to my flat along the Bosphorus. However in the Muslim world calling the seat of the U.S. government your home can engender unwanted suspicions, so I lay off that answer. When I get bored of replying New York or Washington D.C., I often say Los Angeles. Which also is true. I was born there and left when I was nine years old. Los Angeles usually gets a predictable response. I am asked about movie stars, if I know any, if I’ve got some stories, which in fact I do having gone to a Montessori school that harvested an usually high number of famous and even infamous Hollywood figures. But the L.A. stories take a long time to rehash so I have to be in a certain mood to claim the Angel City. If I’m feeling provocative, I’ll say Texas. This is less true, but not without some grounding. My mother’s entire side of the family is from Dallas. I grew up spending holidays there. My grandfather, a former state senator and small business owner played an important role in turning Texas politics from majority-blue to majority-red after the Second World War, helping define the state brand of nouveau conservatism. (You’re welcome, America.) When he died I inherited his jewelry box: lone star cufflinks, tie clasps, some money clips, a formidable belt buckle with a stallion and colt on it that I wear with my jeans. So when I say “Texas” to an Istanbulite, lifting my shirt and jabbing my thumb at the belt buckle, I always get a sustained and respectful nod. I’ve found there’s a little Texan in most Turks. Or, more aptly, perhaps there’s a little Turk in most Texans.

When I was around seven years old I went to see Spaceballs, the Mel Brooks parody of Star Wars, at the iconic Egyptian Theater off Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles. In the climactic faceoff between Dark Helmet (think a nebbish Darth Vader played by Rick Moranis costumed in a little black tie with enormous helmet and glasses) and Lone Starr (Han Solo meets Indiana Jones meets Luke Skywaker played by Bill Pullman), Dark Helmet reveals the secret of his past, the one that connects him to Lone Starr. This is the “Luke, I am your father” moment of Brook’s satire:

Dark Helmet: Before you die, there is something you should know about us.
Lone Starr:
Dark Helmet: I am your father’s brother’s nephew’s cousin’s former roommate.
Lone Starr:
What’s that make us?
Dark Helmet: Absolutely nothing. Which is what you are about to become. Prepare to die.

Star Wars is an origins story, so is Spaceballs. Here’s the chronology of my origins: I was born in Los Angeles and lived there until I was nine, then moved to London and lived there until I was fifteen, then went to Washington D.C., then to college in Boston, then into the Marines where I was based out of North Carolina for six years but deployed around the world, then back to D.C. for a few years, then to Istangreen-on-blue-9781476778556_hrbul. So what am I? A Californian? Londoner? Washingtonian? North Carolinian? Perhaps, like Dark Helmet says, I am absolutely nothing.

I think I like that best, to be from nowhere. It frees me to be wherever I am.

Elliot Ackerman is the author of the best-selling novel Green on Blue and the forthcoming Dark at the Crossing, a novel set along the Turkish-Syrian border. He lives in Istanbul.

On Location with Andrew Tonkovich

This installment of On Location comes from Ecotone contributor Andrew Tonkovich, whose story, “Falling,” appears in the Abnormal Issue and Astoria to Zion: Stories of Risk and Abandon from Ecotone‘s First Decade. More recently, his story, “Reelection Day,” appears in the Migration Issue.


I’m curator of a thousand pieces of decaying artwork, including a few still-brilliant canvases, intricate miniatures, hand-illustrated broadsides, an unpublished (typed) book or two, posters, journals, sketches, all produced by someone dear and, yes, still near, nearer than ever.


I’d lived decades with a representative sampling of these tattered pen-and-ink drawings, oil and acrylic paintings, watercolors, and writings. Their titles: “The Discovery of California,” “You Don’t Have to Eat God,” and “In the Summer We Went to the Mountains.” All were made by the late Dr. Peter Carr of Laguna Beach, California. He was my Comp Lit professor, an activist, a larger-than-life fellow of small stature if terrific self-esteem who created in whatever medium he found handy. He scribbled, typed, drew, painted (even on cardboard and plywood), was perhaps a bit manic or only urgently, unceasingly productive. Just as well because he died, suddenly, in 1981 at age 56, no plan for any of it, not the life’s work, unpublished memoirs, anticipated triumphant gallery show, or incredible output. Thirty years later they came to me.

Here, the rest of it, in a storage unit a mile from my home, behind a roll-up corrugated door: flying-swimming humans and fishes, peace demonstrators, killer jets, Central American ghosts, talking bear, coyote, raven. Peter drew finely layered mountains, captured the transparent, glowing leaves of our Pacific kelp forest, organized the intricate botany of tide pools and assembled among these lonely, alienated humans he meant to save.

Think Kenneth Patchen meets German Expressionist George Grosz. Caricature meets narrative in visionary doomed landscape reverie. Intersecting colors with enthusiastic, funny speech bubble dialog from creature-persons. Or narration by an all-knowing off-stage guide sounding like Peter.

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On Location with Ben Miller

Ben Miller’s memoir-in-essays, River Bend Chronicle: The Junkification of a Boyhood Idyll amid the Curious Glory of Urban Iowa was published by Lookout in 2013. He sent us this update about life after his Radcliffe Fellowship and a cross-country move for our regular department On Location, where writers share a picture of a meaningful place.

ANmural4 copy

After completing my fellowship year at the Radcliffe Institute in May, I made a spinning leap from Cambridge to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and landed on my feet in front of the celebratory mural in Meldrum Park created in 2013 by artist Dave Loewenstein and the children of the Whittier Neighborhood. Squeezed in my left hand is a manuscript containing the sixty-one new translations of William Carlos Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow” that I gathered over the last year from generous poets around the globe. It is my dream to hold a park reading at which this tiny poem of vast vision will be delivered in each of the 143 languages currently spoken in homes in Sioux Falls. Any translator interested in participating, please e-mail me at muralspeaks@gmail.com! I am in particular need of translations of the poem in African and Asian languages.

Ben Miller is the author of River Bend Chronicle: the Junkification of a Boyhood Idyll amid the Curious Glory of Urban Iowa. His prose is forthcoming in the New England Review and the St. Petersburg Review. His awards include fellowships from the NEA and the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard. On October 17 in Hooksett, New Hampshire, he will be presenting shrub-based polyphony in front of the New England chapter of the International Lilac Society. Selected works from his ongoing collaboration with the painter Dale Williams can be seen very soon in Brooklyn.

On Location with Miha Mazzini

Miha Mazzini, whose story “That Winter“ originally appeared in Ecotone and is now featured in Astoria to Zion, sent us this fascinating brain comparison. Read on to find out why writing is so addictive.


This is the place I usually live: (PICTURE A)

Sometimes, after a long procrastination, in quiet surroundings, when I’m alone, I start writing and the place changes: (PICTURE B)

I had a chance to scan my brain while doing research for my nonfiction book about writers and creativity, Born for Stories. The general rule for interpreting the scans: the brighter the color, the greater the flow of blood.

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On Location with Karen E. Bender

Karen E. Bender, whose story “Candidate” originally appeared in Volume 2, Issue 2 of Ecotone and is now featured in Astoria to Zion, sent us this fantastic photograph and accompanying description of the “ecotone” she and her family learned to navigate in the Tong Bie neighborhood of Taichung City.


At first, we didn’t know where to walk. We stepped into the neighborhood of Tong Bie, just north of Tunghai University in Taichung City, Taiwan, and saw this: the scooters, their guttural growl vibrating in my throat, the scooter drivers moving, carving their paths down the road, wherever they wanted, really, a huge public bus occasionally swerving through the crowds. Where were we supposed to walk? We watched the pedestrians, calmly carrying a plastic cup of tea or sweet potato fries or an egg pancake, walking.

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