Thursday, September 10, 2015

Interview with Aida Zilelian

Aida Zilelian is the founder of the Boundless Tales Reading Series. She recently released her outstanding debut novel Legacy Lost Things. She’s a Queens resident, and also a contributor to Newtown Literary.

JG: Tell us a little about yourself.

AZ: I’m an English teacher and a writer. Before I decided to start writing seriously I played guitar and wrote music. I played shows all over New York City for many years.

JG: When did you start the Boundless Tales Reading Series? What was the impetus behind it?

AZ: I started Boundless Tales in September 2011. Queens didn’t seem to have a reading series that I was aware of, and I wanted to provide a platform for emerging and established writers.

JG: Do you like MCing? How do you put together a lineup?

AZ: I do like MCing. It’s especially fun introducing new writers. My lineup is based on the type of literature being read (i.e. fiction, nonfiction, poetry, etc…) and the overall mood of the pieces. I like to create a nice of balance.

JG: I understand you had to change venues. How did you land the new location?

AZ: Waltz Astoria, where we used to be, was closing. And the Astoria Bookshop seemed like the most obvious and sensible choice. And the owner Lexi is marvelous.

JG: Where does the inspiration come from in your writing?

AZ: My family. Their strengths and flaws.

JG: How has the book tour been treating you? Any interesting stories you’d like to share?

AZ: The book tour has been interesting. I was surprised about how many different types of people were interested in reading about an Armenian family who immigrates to Queens, NY. Last week I spoke with an African American man in his late 80’s who used to be a musician in Harlem in the 1940’s. He bought the book.

JG: How long did it take you to write The Legacy of Lost Things? Any hurdles you had to overcome?

AZ: It took me about a year to write. The most difficult hurdle was writing about characters who resembled my family members and portraying them as honestly as I could.

JG: How many publishers did you approach?

AZ: I don’t remember, honestly. I was fortunate, though. I finished writing the novel in September 2012 and signed my contract in January 2013.

JG: This might be probing, and I’ll understand if you don’t want to answer, but did you draw on any stories or background from friends or family regarding immigrating or assimilating into New York City?

AZ: Absolutely. My parents immigrated here. I drew on their experiences and my personal accounts of their struggles.

JG: Where did you go to school?

AZ: Queens College for my B.A. and M.A. But I was a psych major with a double minor in philosophy and sociology. My M.A. was in creative writing.

JG: What writers have had the greatest impact on you?

AZ: Truman Capote, David Sedaris, Sylvia Plath

JG What are you reading now?

AZ: A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry

JG: You are also involved in Newtown Literary. You serve on the editorial review board. Tell me about your experience.

AZ: It’s been quite amazing. Tim Fredrick, the founder, is one of the best people I have ever worked with. His intuition on how to run and manage a publication always impresses me. And the staff overall is extremely innovative.

JG: What’s the Queen Book Festival?

AZ: It’s a festival featuring Queens literature. They are working very hard to make it a huge success. It will be the first one the borough has ever had.

JG: Opinions about MFAs?

AZ: They aren’t necessary, but they help in many ways. It gives the discipline, insight into other writers that you wouldn’t normally read and you have to produce a body of work by the end of the program. Those are all valuable aspects, I think. But as I said, not necessary. It depends on the writer.

JG: Do you have a schedule for writing, a preferred time or place?

AZ: I just need peace and quiet and I need to be indoors. Being outside is too distracting. As long as I write every day, regardless of when, I’m happy.

JG: Any guilty pleasures?

AZ: HBO’s “Girls”, Lindt salted chocolate, tequila, gin, and aji verde.

JG: What do you want to be when you grow up?

AZ: A person whose writing has made on impression on her readers.

JG: If you were throwing a dinner party who would you invite (Living or dead)?

AZ: My stepfather, my father, my grandparents, and many other relatives who passed away. I know— not very exciting and kind of sad, but they inspired me more than anyone else in my life.

JG: How do you deal with rejection?

AZ: I don’t let it bother me. When I send out stories or my work for consideration I always keep a detailed log, but I forget that I sent it in the first place.

JG: Any new projects?

AZ: I’m working on a new novel. The deadline I have set for myself is December 2015. It’s about a girl’s quest to find out what happened to her family in Armenia during the Genocide.

JG: Places you long to visit.

AZ: Argentina, Italy, and Armenia.

Check out her novel Legacy of Lost Things. You can find out more about Boundless Tales Reading Series right here:

Friday, September 4, 2015

Panther Creek's 98 Shea Vineyard Pinot Noir

Recently, I had a chance to taste the ’98 Panther Creek “Shea Vineyard” Pinot Noir. Willamette Valley’s answer to premier cru Burgundy. Holy cow! As a bottled-up 17-year-old it was still so vibrant. Packed with bing cherry up front, offering notes of sage, and rose petal it gave way to darker fruit and a touch of gaminess on the finish. Its balance proved it to be a venerable pairing delight. It’s a silky wine, well-knit and still showing grip, but civilized grip— tannin tame enough to appreciate Debussy in the park.

Panther Creek was founded by the legendary Ken Wright in 1986. Ken moved on in 1994, and so did his bold, fruit bomb style. When Michael Stevenson took over as winemaker in 1996 he brought a new philosophy to the estate, one that focused on balance, nuance, and more restrained oak over flamboyance. 1998 was a Shawshank Redemption to the 1997 washout. The ’98 produced a small crop, less than the tiny ’94 that basketed less than 2 tons per acre. They talked it up as the vintage with plump and powerful wines, many properties were already licking their chops. Harvey Steiman described the ’98 Argyle “Nuthouse” Pinot Noir as “Ripe and seductive” offering “plum and black cherry, shaded with hints of chocolate”. Wine Spectator gave it 93 points. When the ’98 Domaine Drouhin was released its “bright” fruit and “soft” tannins had hailed it as approachable enough to start the Pinot Party. The consensus declared it as an excellent vintage, but I’m not sure anybody realized how long the wines would last in the cellar. Even after you’ve completed barrel tastings, even after you’ve tasted a finished product, a year or two out can seem like an eternity. Wine tasting is indeed a game of extrapolation. A warm vintage like 1998 might show itself plusher in the early rounds, but the fear that it may be short-lived lingers.

The ’98 vintage started out dismally with heavy spring rains. There were already comparisons to the ’97 washout. Then it got warm for the summer, and just before harvest, maybe even too warm for some tastes. The kicker was the fact that they had less grapes to cull from, and, with viticulture less is usually more (in terms of quality). With less than a ton of grapes per acre (when 2.5 — 3.5 is considered the norm) it was going to be a tiny harvest.

Pinot Noir is fickle no matter where it grows, and this is where the love affair begins for the wine wonk. What sets Shea Vineyard apart from other sites? It’s a pristine vineyard located in the AVA of Yamhill-Carlton and is known for its soil composition: sedimentary with cracked sandstone. It is rich in marine deposit and is unirrigated, enveloped in small ridges. The grapes ripen earlier and are known to offer jammier fruit. This is the challenge then. If you you’ve got riper fruit more extraction will lead to fruit bombs. Tannin offers structure, but so does acidity. It is often overlooked as a key factor. For many people the fruit and tannin stand out. The lack of one bolsters the other, but one has to be mindful of all the components, and the interplay between fruit, alcohol, acidity and tannin.

Panther Creek’s ’98 Shea Vineyard Pinot Noir has the balance and acidity level have offered tremendous ballast. It’s a layered wine with great nuance. I see this wine carrying on well into the next decade.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Journeyman’s Guide to Flushing: Welcome to the 2015 US Open Qualies

The big rub for the journeyman is how he can seal his apprenticeship and sluice into a full-fledged master. Doesn’t happen by osmosis and it doesn’t come cheap. One must make sacrifices and be totally committed. Precision is the key. Tennis is no different than blacksmithing or carpentry in this instance, it requires the dedication and diligence of a craftsman. I shadowed the racquet-wielding journeymen this past week during the US Open Qualifying rounds. These guys have battled all year long, playing just about everywhere a net can be staked. They’d rally with frying pans if it came down to it.

The Qualifying Rounds don’t get much press, if any. You won’t catch these matches on cable. Nobody is tuning in at their local watering hole. None of matches are slated for the stadiums of Arthur Ashe or Louie Armstrong. They’re relegated to the outside courts, but every match is a battle for survival, the lifeblood of the sport. The next Pete Sampras or Rafa Nadal may be smacking groundies on one of these blue courts. To get an idea what’s at stake you need to realize that most of these guys cannot fully earn their living playing matches. Yes, they are playing for prize money, but their purse is a pittance compared to the main draws of Masters level events. Due to the incredible costs of travel and lodging, equipment, inflation, and oh yeah food, some of these guys have had to crash in their cars or in sleeping bags under the stars. Many have had to do various odd jobs. Stringing racquets and giving tennis lessons happen to be two of the most popular staples. Many of these guys don’t have the luxury of traveling with their coach. Some don’t have formal coaches.

Qualifiers cover a large swath of skill level. There’s pedigree too. Some are rising stars, still in high school or college, others have been career journeymen. A few have made into the bigtime and have slid back into the lion’s den. This year’s top-seeded Qualifier is Paul-Henri Mathieu from Strasbourg, France. He’s been ranked as high as 12 in the world back in 2008. He’s raked in some $5.4 mil in prize money since he’s turned pro. He’s the anomaly, French Open Juniors champ of 2000. He went the distance with Agassi at Roland Garros in 2002. He’s beaten Andy Roddick, and Fernando Gonzales when the Chilean was #5 in the world. Mathieu has 4 ATP tour titles under his belt, but has recently fallen on hard times, and now he’s forced to grind it out as a Qualifier. So far this year he’s made 2 ATP tour finals, most recently the Generali Open in Austria, earlier this month where he succumbed to Phillipp Kohlstreiber. At Wimbledon, he didn’t even make it into the main draw, losing in the 3rd round of qualifying.

Here in Flushing he seems to have his A-game, knocking off the Italian, Matteo Donati 6-3, 7-6 in his first bout. In his second-rounder, he crushes the German, Tobias Kamke 6-1, 6-2, but there’s always one more match, and the looming anxiety of breaking through. He’ll to get past the hard-hitting Colombian, Alejandro Falla or else it’s a plane back France.

This year the Sake Squad is a new attraction. You might be familiar with James Blake’s groupies. Allow me to introduce you to the Sake Squad. There’s about 35 to 40-some-odd of them (give or take) clogging up the left side of benches on court 12, wearing bright orange shirts that read Sake Squad. I mistook them for fans of the German, Jan-Lennard Struff garbed in an orange and black top. An innocent mistake, but I soon noticed that their cheers and claps were out of sync with the German baseliner. I then realized they were fans of Saketh Myneni, the 6 foot 4 Crimson Tide Alum, originally from India.
Myneni’s best results this year topped in the Spring. He made it into the semis at the Batman Challenger in Turkey, and then in May he made the semis at Samarkind Challenger in Uzbekistan. Early in the second set Myneni pops a string, and has to go over to his bag to grab a new stick. He must have at least 9 racquets hidden inside. You’d think they are all identical, the frames for sure, but, as a longtime journeyman myself, I have a hunch some may have slightly different tensions. Sometimes you want more bounce off your serves, the trampoline effect, and, other times you need a tighter, more laser-focused touch. That kind of edge makes all the difference. Maybe.

Myneni’s contingent is loud and eager to pump fists for their player. Tennis fans aren’t as dorky as you might think. Some show the souped-up ebullience of soccer nuts, they might even throw-in a wave (the rippling kind often associated with beer-chugging sports). All that hullabaloo doesn’t shake the German. Struff gets stronger as the match progresses. His serves are booming. He cranks his backhands. Midway through the second set it looks like the Myneni has run out of gas. Struff wins in 3 sets.

Later on, I stumbled upon a nearly crowdless match on court 6 what was merely a green practice court oh so many years ago. Am I dating myself yet? It’s the court I won my Freshman Doubles Championship match with my doubles partner Richie Reyes back in 1988. I was drawn to the match because it pitted a lefty, Jonathan Eysseric against a righty, Jose Hernandez-Fernandez. I’ve always been smitten with that racquet dichotomy. McEnroe-vs-Lendl, Ivanišević-vs-Agassi, Nadal-vs-Federer.

Hernandez-Fernandez is currently ranked 183 in the world and plays Davis Cup for Dominican Republic. At this year’s Wimbledon, he suffered a heartbreaking loss to the Czech player Jan Mertl (15-13) in the third. Despite that he’s jumped 100 spots from 2014. Here he started off slow, hitting balls at what I’d call warmup pace. Eysseric looked sharp had those nice lefty angles. The lift off his back foot made him seem like a pelican or an old-school Nintendo character, think Super Mario swinging a racquet rather than an oversize hammer. Hernandez-Fernandez hung in with good repertoire. Clearly, he had a big forehand, but what impressed me was his ability to rush the net when necessary. During the critical fifth game, while he was twice in jeopardy of going down 4-1, he chipped his way into the net, and eventually broke his opponent’s serve, placing a crisp forehand volley winner to get back on serve. Then in 10th game of the first set down 5-4 on his serve he ran around his forehand and sliced a backhand to force an error. Eysseric was livid. During the tiebreaker the Dominican dialed it up a notch, cranking forehands and backhands. The Frenchman clubbed his way back, and then Hernandez-Fernandez began mixing it up, and won an awesome rally with a chip forehand. He bulled through the second set and onto the next round where he fell to the American, Tommy Paul. Tommy is a Jersey boy who lives and trains in Boca Raton. Having won this year’s Boys French Open he comes into US Open with high hopes. Nonetheless, he’s still a dark horse never having risen above 429 in the world). After Noah Rubin and Mitchell Krueger lost in their second-rounders, Tommy becomes the lone American left in the Qualies.

Taro Daniel is back. He qualified last year in his first US Open appearance. Now he’s seeded #9. He won his first match against the Argentinian, Renzo Olivo. Keep an eye on Elias Ymer, the 19-year-old Swede, Galo Blanco’s protégé who has earned a trifecta of births into the Australian Open, the French Open, and Wimbledon. He’s a favorite to make a qualifying slam after he dispatches Jan-Lennard Struff in the 2nd round.
One of the great joys about wandering around the courts during the Qualies is that you get to see the dwarf stars before they burst into supernovas. Back in 2004, I remember being impressed with a young Frenchman who had sweet strokes and a cannon for a serve. His name was Jo-Wilfred Tsonga. Nobody knew much about him. I caught both his matches. He eventually lost to fellow countryman, the veteran lefty, Jérôme Golmard. Then in the 2005 I stumbled upon a talented British kid, Andy Murray. He was cocky as hell, but he had the weapons to back him up. I caught his 2nd and 3rd round qualifying matches when he knocked off Paolo Lorenzi 6-3, 6-2 and then made minced meat of the Ecquadorian, Giovanni Lapentti 6-0, 7-6. When he beat Andrei Pavel in the main draw I was convinced that this guy was something. This was even before he hooked up with Brad Gilbert. But Murray ran into a wall with Arnaud Clement. Clement too had qualified into the main draw 2005, and cruised through his 1st round match beating the former #1 Juan Carlos Ferrero.

It’s 7ish and the sun sluffs off and will probably crown the Unisphere before the next batch of fans pours in. Night tennis in New York rocks. The blare of white light on blue courts brings new energy. It’s invigorating. The 21st century gladiators are smashing, lunging, and slugging their way into the blue hour. Some will win. Others will not. It’s great to be out, watching this protean transformation. That guy, that guy right over there that beanpoley guy he’s going to be the next Djokovic. Wait, what’s his name? Let me check my program.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Interview with Sarah Frances Moran

Today I’m sitting with the talented poet, Sarah Frances Moran. She is the founder and publisher of the brand new, rising parvenu of a literary journal, Yellow Chair Review. Sarah, thanks for taking the time out of your busy schedule to share your insight. Tell us a little about yourself.

SM: Well I’m a 33 year old, native Houstonian living in Waco, Texas. I’m an assistant manager at the local spay/neuter clinic. I spend my days with lots of cats and dogs. I live here with my partner and our animals. We have a small houseful.

JG: You’re billed as the Waco Poet. How does sense of place influence your writing?

SM: It really doesn’t influence my writing tremendously and honestly there are a ton of other amazing poets in this small town. I do think it’s important to be active in and supportive of your community so I do my best to do that.

JG: What’s the poem that hooked you? Did you ever try to emulate it?

SM: Langston Hughes’ “Genius Child.” It has always been my favorite. When I was in high school I carried around his Collected Works. That poem has always been important to me. I’ve never tried to emulate it though I’ve frequently made reference to searching for that genius child within myself.

JG: How long have you been writing? What is your earliest recollection of writing?

SM: I remember writing poems when I was in 2nd or 3rd grade as assignments. I didn’t begin to write poetry that was on my own terms until I was fifteen. So I’ve been writing longer than I haven’t been writing!

JG: You are, indeed, a brave soul, launching a new literary journal? What are your goals for it?

SM: Thank you! There are moments when I sometimes think “what have I done?” Mostly though I love what YCR is becoming. I want to see it continue to grow. It’s been gaining moment at a rapid pace and it would be awesome to see that sustain. Since it started I’ve added staff to assist me with the submissions. It’s become a lot of reading! I’m working now on getting funds together to start publishing chapbooks. I haven’t decided if it’s going to be in contest for(m) or open reading period form.

JG: Why Yellow Chair Review? Does the name have a special significance?

SM: Yellow Chair was the title of a poem I wrote in high school. It’s in the inaugural issue. There were many name ideas but this one stuck.

JG: What do you look for in a submission?

SM: Heart. I look to be moved. That’s the most simple answer. Sometimes being moved is laughing, or crying or just feeling like I can’t shake it after I’m done reading it. It stays with me.

JG: Social Justice might be the zeitgeist of our time. Share your thoughts on your Social Justice

SM: Yeah the web has bred a whole new species of social justice warrior. Lol. The social justice blog is probably the most dead aspect of YCR right now. I started it in June when the Supreme Court was expected to be ruling on Gay Marriage. Since then we haven’t done a whole lot with it. I’ve toyed with the idea of revitalizing it with the Rock The Chair challenge, merging it so-to-speak. Right now Rock The Chair is just the best poem of the week. I’ve considered changing it to the best social justice poem of the week. That’s undecided.

JG: What are you reading now?

SM: So much poetry! I’m also reading Go Set The Watchmen, Harper Lee’s book. Or maybe Harper Lee’s book who knows? So much drama on the authenticity of it. I’m slowly reading it. I worry it will ruin Atticus Finch for me.

JG: Opinions about MFAs?

SM: No opinion really. I don’t think those with MFAs are any more qualified than those without. I have a serious disdain for the literary elite. I think a lot of the times that falls into folks who feel their education makes them overtly special. Some will say it’s because I don’t have an MFA but it’s a core belief of mine. I don’t equate education with knowledge. They don’t always intersect well.

JG: Hindsight, but also extrapolation, might be the blessing and bane of writers. Any advice for
teenage Sarah? Advice for old Sarah (eons from now)?

SM: Oh god. We’d need to be here all day! I’d tell Teenage Sarah to be patient with herself above all else. I’d tell Old Sarah to also be patient with herself. I think the greatest advice ever though is to enjoy life and treat others with kindness. I’ve always tried to keep true to that.

JG: Do you have a schedule for writing, a preferred time or place?

SM: It’s very random. A lot of times I’m putting poems into my phone because something hits me and it’s all I have with me at the time. I’d like to say I have a more set schedule but I don’t.

JG: Tell me about Chihuahuas.

SM: They’re awesome? They’re these tiny little creatures with a hell of a lot of heart and they don’t take any shit. I have three. Two that are full and one that is a mix with Rat Terrier. They’re my family. They keep me sane. Nothing will ever be as loyal to you as a dog is.

JG: What do you want to be when you grow up?

SM: I’m pretty much living the life. I love working with animals and on the side I have this Review and my own work. I suppose if I could own my own full-time publishing press that would be living the ultimate dream.

JG: If you were throwing a dinner party who would you invite (Living or dead)?

SM: Stevie Nicks. I’d just love to sit and have dinner with Stevie Nicks. Just me and her. I think I could talk to her and it feel easy. Music and writing. I guess that’s not much of a dinner party but that’s what I imagined immediately with this question.

JG What are you working on now?

SM: On a personal level I’m always writing poetry. I’m sending out chapbook manuscripts like crazy. I’m slowly writing and putting together a chapbook of poems based off this video game called Fallout 3. It’s like nerd to the next level stuff. Three of those poems just got picked up for an anthology so that’s given me more motivation. I’m also dabbling in writing flash fiction.

JG: Places you long to visit.

SM: Pretty much anywhere I haven’t been. I love to camp. We do a ton of camping during the year. We’ve mostly focused on hitting as many state parks in Texas as we can. Next year we hope to expand that to other states. Aside from that I’d love to go to Greece. I’ve always wanted to visit there.

JG: Hardest lesson you’ve learned as a writer.

SM: To not take rejections to heart. A lot of times whether someone likes your work or not is completely subjective. I’ve had poems rejected over and over again and then I get this acceptance where someone raves about it. I think it’s important to not let those rejections get you down and at first they really bummed me out. Now I just move on and search for the next place to try or send to the same publications that have rejected when I’m allowed. Gotta keep on trying!

You can learn more about Sarah and her writing on her website

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Interview with Weam Namou

JG: Today I’m sitting with my friend and fellow author Weam Namou. She is the author of the books The Mismatched Braid, The Feminine Art, The Flavor of Cultures, and, a poetry collection entitled I Am a Mute Iraqi With A Voice. Because of the great success of that collection, she started the Iraqi Americans book series. So far she has two books published of this series: 1) The War Generation; 2) Witnessing a Genocide. Welcome to Papercut. Thanks for taking some time to chat with me and my readers. Tell us a little about yourself.

WN: Thanks for inviting me.

JG: Your first book is The Feminine Art. Would you mind sharing your experience both the writing and the publishing aspects?

WN: It took me two years to complete The Feminine Art, and then in 1996, I attended a local writer’s conference at Oakland University where Frances Kuffel, then a literary agent at the Jean Naggar Agency, critiqued the first chapter of the novel. She loved it, asked me to send her the finished manuscript, and soon we signed a contract. Frances was my literary agent for a number of years. Her belief in my work allowed me to start and finish a second novel, The Flavor of Cultures.

Frances went on to become the vice president of the Maria Carvainis Agency in New York. She was still my agent, but then in early 2003, she published her first memoir, Passing for Thin, and left the agency. No longer having representation, I was advised by a number of friends, professors and authors, to independently publish my book. The 2003 US-led invasion had just begun and they felt that my book had a timely appeal. They were right. Within six months of publication, I did over a hundred nationwide radio interviews. I also received a number of newspaper and magazine jobs, requests for poetry submissions, speaking and reading invitations, and even my own column for a local paper.

JG: How long have you been writing? What is your earliest recollection of writing?

WN: My first attempt at writing a book started about twenty-four years ago, at age nineteen. My earliest recollection of writing a story was in fifth grade, shortly after I arrived to America. I had to write a personal story and I wrote about having to leave, in secrecy, my friends and school in Iraq and moving to a foreign land. My English teacher asked me to share my story in front of an audience of parents at a school event. This was my first “published” piece.

JG: You’ve been engaging in multiple mediums for some time now. Tell us about the articles you write.

WN: I live in the city of Sterling Heights, nicknamed “Little Baghdad,” so I’m surrounded by material which is easily translated into different types of literature. Writing articles about high profiled Iraqi Americans, mostly Chaldeans, as well as covering events about the community has introduced me to people and subjects that I would not have discovered on my own. These encounters led me to come up with the idea of the Iraqi Americans book series. Each series will include a different subject matter about the Iraqi American community.

JG: What’s it like to write a screenplay?

WN: Green Card Wedding was a short film I made for my thesis at the Motion Picture Institute of Michigan. After graduation, I spent two years turning it into a feature script. The process was entertaining because a number of people were involved. My younger brother and my nephews, who were in their early twenties, came over every week to critique the material I had written. Because the script was a light comedy, we had fun playing around with the scenarios. The creative energy in my living room was great, and it led us all (including my husband and one year old daughter) to go to L.A. in 2007, to find actors for the film. Lance Kawas, an accomplished filmmaker who was one of my instructors in film school, really believed in Green Card Wedding and worked with me to attain funding.

Then in 2010, a family approached me to write a story about their daughter, Dawn Hanna. Dawn was in federal prison at that time, accused of conspiring to broker telecom equipment to Iraq during the sanctions. Unbeknownst to her and the jury which tried her, her coconspirator was actually a CIA operative. The project was sponsored by the United States to listen in on Saddam and his men. I put the film on hold and for the next four and a half years, worked on the Dawn Hanna story, which I named The Great American Family. I completed the book last year and currently, I’m searching for a home for it.

JG: How do you organize your day?

WN: During the school year, I write once I send the kids to school. I will take breaks in the late afternoon, during which time I cook and do light housework. The evenings are for research, interviews and marketing. In the summer, my writing hours in the daytime are shorter because I like to spend time with the kids and enjoy the warm weather that does not last too long in

JG: Have you been to writing festivals? Do you have an opinion regarding them?

WN: No, I haven't. I feel that interacting in any literary community is healthy and inspiring for writers. However, some writers spend more time in writer's groups and conferences than they do writing, or honing the craft of writing, and that’s not going to move the book forward.

JG: What are you reading now?

WN: Maria Theresa Asmar's Memoirs of a Babylonian Princess
Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (audio)
The Paris Review Interviews Women Writers at Work

JG: What is your job as a writer? Who is your audience?
I freelance, mostly for the Chaldean News and right now I’m concentrating on the Iraqi Americans book series. The next book will be about the lives of artists, and it will be released in autumn 2015. My audience is intellectuals who like to read history, politics, biography and literary fiction.

JG: You are Chaldean. Can you explain what exactly that means? How does being Chaldean inform your writing?

WN: Chaldeans are Christian Iraqis who trace their roots to Prophet Abraham since he was from Ur, the biblical land of the Chaldees. When I began to learn about my heritage, I felt empowered by the richness of my ancestral land, where writing was invented. But I was also bothered by how little the world knew of these people’s achievements. Enheduanna, the first recorded writer in history, was a woman from ancient Iraq. I came across her name by accident and I could not understand why our Chaldean churches and the general educational institutions did not highlight her achievements.
Then while covering a story in 2012, I learned that almost two hundred years ago, a woman from Telkaif (my parents’, grandparents and great-great parents’ once Christian village in northern Iraq) had written a 720 page memoir. Maria Theresa Asmar was a Chaldean woman born in 1804 when the Ottoman occupied Iraq. She ended up traveling to Europe by herself, met the Queen of England (even dedicated the book to her), and described in the book her travels through Turkey, Syria, Lebanon and Israel. She died in France. An English version of her book was published in 1844 and was well received in England. Yet very few people in our Chaldean community know about her work.

JG: You are a wonderful writer. I’m a huge fan, as you might’ve guessed. I think that you are the Chaldean equivalent of Jhumpa Lahiri. Would you agree or disagree?

WN: I’m honored. Thank you. I read Lahiri’s “Interpreter of Maladies” when it first came out, and she and other ethnic writers such as Amy Tan showed me the possibility of telling my ethnic stories through the English language. Although, as I write this, I remember my former agent, Frances, and an Iraqi American book critic, after reading The Feminine Art, had compared my writing to that of Jane Austen because of my attention to small details that are the thread of family relationships.

JG: Do you have a schedule for writing, a preferred time or place?

WN: From early morning until late afternoon, every day, unless I’m out of town.
I used to love writing at coffee shops, libraries and bookstores. When you have kids, however, it’s not easy to just get up and go. You have to depend on the schedule of those who will watch your kids, and that dependence takes away your freedom to write how much you want to write.

I live in the same house my husband and I bought ten years ago when we got married. From the start, we made the family room my office. While I loved it spaciousness, it took years for me to get used to working in an atmosphere that was either very quiet (when the kids are asleep) or very noisy (when they were up). But over the years, I renovated it to create the right writing atmosphere for myself. I began to enjoy the window view I have while writing – the squirrels, birds, cats and rabbits that visit our backyard and nibble on food that is left behind from the previous night’s dinner we had on the patio.

For some years now, this has become my favorite and preferred place to write.

JG: What does Weam do when she is not writing?

WN: When not writing, Weam is mostly taking care of the house and kids and doing various family activities. I’m also currently helping care for my mother, who lives with me. I come from a big family (six sisters and four brothers, nearly 35 nieces and nephews, etc. – not to count my husband’s side) so much time goes into extended family as well as my own family.
When I have free time, I love to spend it in physical activities such as yoga, walking, and swimming. Once in a great while, I’ll have time to go to the movies.

JG: What do you want to be when you grow up?

WN: My great-grandmother Maria was a well-known healer. My father, who headed the accounting department at Baghdad’s railway station, was also a bonesetter for family and friends and whoever needed that free service.
Since it’s in my genes, for many years I have been studying spiritual work through different teachers. I’m currently a fourth year apprentice of Lynn Andrew’s school. Lynn Andrews is the bestselling author of the Medicine Woman series. Over twenty-five years ago, she founded Lynn Andrew’s Center for Sacred Arts and Training, a four year spiritual and healing school.
I want to continue to use my storytelling abilities to do work similar to that of my great-grandmother, my father and other family members.

JG: If you were throwing a dinner party who would you invite (Living or dead)?

WN: Dead: Margaret Mitchell, Maya Angelou, Henry James, Nora Ephron, Saddam Hussein (I have a lot of questions to ask him), Layla Al Attar (a famous Iraqi artist), Maria Theresa Amar

Alive: Woody Allen, Al Pacino, Robert Di Nero, Meryl Streep, Michael Moore, Stephen King, Kahtim al Sahir (famous Iraqi singer), President Bush Sr. & President Bush Jr. (I have a lot of questions to ask them too).

JG What projects are you working on now?

WN: I’m in postproduction of The Great American Family, based on the book with the same title.

JG: What’s the hardest lesson you’ve learned as a writer?

WN: You are responsible for your own success.

JG: Any advice?

WN: A friend of mine once said to me that if she wanted to, she could write a book in a week. This woman had a master’s degree in business and was successful in her field, but she is a very impatient person and the one thing you need to have to write a good book, especially if you’re starting out, is patience – while writing the book, while finding an agent/publisher, and after the book is published, then when writing the next book, and so on.

Along this journey, it’s important that you keep your priorities straight and have a balance rather than obsess over your writing. What’s the use of having a great book if you have a lousy life? These days, especially, having a great life can easily translate into a great book.

JG: Opinions about MFAs?

WN: It’s a matter of preference and opportunity. If one can go, why not? If one can’t, that should not stop them from being a writer. Many famous writers never went to college. Maya Angelou never even took a writing class. William Faulkner, Mark Twain, Jack London, and H.G. Wells dropped out of high school nearly from the time they enrolled.

JG: How did you land your agent?

WN: As I mentioned earlier, I met my first agent, Frances Kuffel, at a writer’s conference at Oakland University in Michigan. I met my second agent, Cicily Janus, in 2012 at a writer’s retreat in Colorado. At that time, she worked at Folio Literary Management.

Learn more about the author on her webpage

Friday, August 7, 2015

The Pride of Manduria, Pirro Varone

Okay so maybe I like wines from southern Italy because they’re usually not phony bolognas. They’re not itching for aristocracy. They’re happy in their blushing grape skins. So today I’d like to share some background and tasting notes of a wonderful, hidden gem of a property called Pirro Varone from a sleepy town, Sorani, in the heart of Manduria. The roots of Manduria go way back. Pliny the Elder cited the area in his magnum opus Naturalis Historico. The ruthless Saracens crushed it in the 10th century. Over time, the town was rebuilt, but not until the 18th century did it take back its old name, Manduria. It sits in the region of Puglia, which once upon a not-so-long-time-ago was hailed with the dubious distinction as “Europe’s Wine Cellar”.

Vast improvement have been made in recent years. There is quite a contrast in style and quality depending on where grapes are sourced and who is at the helm of production. Wines closet to the Salento peninsula tend to be the fruit bombs with high alcohol and yes wines closer to Taranto, near the Ionian Sea seem to be more vibrant. These are gross generalizations.

These past few years, as I’ve had the chance to taste and retaste the Pirro Varone wines, I’ve been surprised how, time and again, they keep getting better. Pietro Ribezzo, the talented winemaker, produces some of the best Primitivo anywhere on this mudball. What distinguishes Pietro’s Primitivo di Manduria from the other sluff is the fresh varietal expression. The alberello-trained vines are grown in black earth with tufaceous layers. He also grows olives.

Despite what you might think the grape name Primitivo refers to the fact that it is an early-ripener and has nothing to do with it being primitive though it has been around for a long time. It’s a constituent varietal of Salice Selentino, and is also related to that Hemingway of a grape, Zinfandel, by way of a distant relative from Croatia called Crljenak Kaštelanski.

Forget what preconceived notions you have of Primitivo. Pirro Varone’s wines revel in authenticity and pure essence, none of the cosmetic fluff you get with certain producers trying to beef-up for point scores. No mouthful of stewed prunes. No rubber-bally aftertaste, and no wood. Not a splinter in his wines. Behold the redder fruit on the palate, a jubilant medley of raspberry, tamarind, and dried herbs. Spicy notes sneak in mid-palate. The bright acidity tames the ample alcohol. It wears its 15% ABV like an elephant in capezios. It’s a liquid tour jeté.

His entry level Casa Vecchia exudes more rusticity and is ever so more gracile, sourced from 15 — 20 year-old vines. It’s a late night jammer (think alto sax not fruit preserve) whereas the Pirro Varone (coming from 50-year-old vines) is a studio artist with a bit more polish.

Pietro farms organically and is ICEA-certified organic. His desert Primitivo ‘Tocy’ (no snarky remarks) is fantastic. Sure the fruit is super-ripe, but the viscosity never gets anywhere near syrupy, its consistency and mouthfeel are supported by a tangy finish.

Besides Primitivo, Pietro plants Grisola, an organoleptic anomaly he found one day chilling amongst his grapes. You will be hard-pressed to find any other living soul or zombie winemaker making wine from this varietal. Grisola is the George Plimpton of red grapes— swilling with personality and virtually impossible to pigeonhole. He also plants Minutolo, a white which is thought to be a distant cousin of Fiano, but is a distinct varietal that tastes like a melonball dipped in gingerbread.

The property’s name is an homage to a distinguished merchant, Giovan Battista Varone, who lived in the area during the 16th century. Pirro Varone was his son. He was a Jewish nobleman who converted to Catholicism, and eventually went on to become a great philanthropist, building the first hospital in the area and built a charitable foundation that is still going today.

Let’s face it, Puglia is a sunbaked seaside region. The climate seems perfect for fruit bombs with high alcohol, and it usually delivers, but when you find a sumptuous, well-structured Primitivo you are practically raring to belt out “Some Enchanted Evening”. If I had the pipes or thicker walls in my apartment, I sure would.

Sip and Swirl.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Barbera: A Spit Bucket Primer

The workhorse of Piedmont is one of the most versatile Italian varietals. It has come a long way since its days of relegation as blending buddy for Nebbiolo. Almost half of the region’s production is dedicated to Barbera 70,000 acres (28,000 ha) as of 2000. It is the 3rd most widely planted red grape in all of Italy. It’s known for its deep ruby color, bright cherry flavors, sharp acidity, and near absence of tannin. Depending on where it is grown and the winemaker’s practice in the cellar, the grape may show itself to be fresh and approachable, slightly rustic, and even a substantive wine that is a force to be reckoned with. It is considered to be native of Monferrato, in Southeastern Piedmont near the hilly Asti and Alessandria, but also grows in Alba, Rubino, Gabiano, and the Colli Tortonesi. The vigorous-growing vine requires constant pruning to prevent excessive yields, which, if not kept in check, can dilute the quality of the wine. Sandier soils help lessen its rigor though the grape tends to show best in chalkier and loamier soils. Fortunately, Barbera is blessed with a high level of acidity which helps maintain crispness and structure. Because it ripens a couple of weeks earlier than Nebbiolo, in late September or early October, the grape has historically been viewed as a cash crop for growers in the region. Recent DNA studies suggest Barbera may be related to Mourvèdre. How you like them apples (or berries really?) The jury is still deliberating.

A lease agreement from the mid 13th century, belonging to the cathedral in Casale Monferato refers to a bunch of vineyards planted with de bonis vitibus barbexinis (the name from antiquity). The first written proof of vinification dates back to the 17th century and is kept in the town of Nizza. In 1798, Count Giuseppe Nuvolone-Pergamo of Scandaluzzo, deputy director of Società Agraria di Torino, included Barbera on the first “definitive” list of Piedmontese varieties. Around that time, Barbera wines were relished by officers of the Savoy army who claimed the wine gave them courage on the battle field.

By the early 1900s, Italian immigrants brought vine cuttings along with them as they set sail for the Americas. Barbera set its roots in both in the Central Valley of California and Mendoza, Argentina. For a while, it spent time consigned to the bulk wine or blending category. In Italy, Barbera d’Asti received DOC status in 1970 and it was right at this time that the infamous Emile Peynaud encouraged winemakers to use smaller barrels and a carefully monitored oxygenation to soften the astringency and the potentially reductive quality of Barbera. By the 80s, Giocomo Bologna decided to give the varietal the royal treatment, growing single-vineyard Barbera called Bricco Dell’Uccellone. His Braida cellar increased concentration and extraction, aging his wine in French barrique thus creating a “Super Barbera.” For good or bad, this pioneering move created a paradigm shift and a wave of disciples cranked out burlier wines.

In recent years, Barbera has evolved into a Zeligesque wine that evokes myriad styles based upon mood and context. It is both worthy for everyday consumption and cellaring. The grapes great versatility, ranging from wines with fresh fruit and laser-beam sharp acidity, to plusher wines with dried berry flavors, medium-bodied, to the bigger, bolder wines, that show a smokier, leathery character. Some growers have also been extending the harvest later to reach higher sugar levels and offer crowd-pleasing fruit-bombs.

Barbera d’Asti DOC

Since Nebbiolo is not planted in Asti, Barbera is given the best vineyard sites and thus has a chance to thrive in this zone where it often produces brighter red berry fruit with mouthwatering acidity, a perfect food-pairing companion. The town of Nizza is the warmest area of the appellation and makes the ripest, most approachable wines. According to DOC law, a minimum of 85% Barbera must be used, the remainder may consist of any combination of Dolcetto, Freisa, and Grignolino. The wine requires at least 11.5% alcohol and must be made before March 1st, immediately following the harvest.

Barbera d’Alba DOC
Often described as more robust and ageworthy than its northern neighbor from Asti, it is sometimes vinified for early consumption, but offers a darker berry flavor, is generally, although not always lighter in acidity. The soil type is mainly limestone-rich, chalky, and the growing area runs through the rolling Langhe hills, including the famous Barolo and Barbaresco.

Other Appellations include Barbera Delle Langhe DOC, Barbera Del Monferrato DOC

DOCG Status
In 2008 both Barbera D’Asti Superiore and Barbera Del Monferrato Superiore got bumped up to DOCG status. Both require an additional minimum of 1% alcohol and need an additional 14 months of aging