Donna Talarico is a writer, an editor, and the founder/publisher of HippoCampus Magazine, an online journal dedicated to “memorable creative non-fiction.” This summer, she has been working on the first ever HippoCamp, a three day writers’ conference in Lancaster, PA. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Wilkes University. I first met Donna at Lancaster Story Slam, where she occasionally tells stories, and wanted to learn more about her writing, and current projects.
Jim: What do you love about the creative non-fiction genre?
Donna: I love true stories. I love getting to know people. Don’t get me wrong: I also love imagined worlds and people and storylines. But there is something different about reading a story when you know it’s true. Writers are sharing moments, often deep, dark and troublesome–and that rawness and honesty really brings reader and writer closer together. CNF writers are letting people in–and that is brave. Of course there is lighter nonfiction as well (not every memoir is about revealing some deep secret or getting through a rough time), and reading about those everyday moments, those stories too strange to be true, are kind of like sitting around with old childhood or college friends recounting the time we “couldn’t believe this happened to so-and-so.” I enjoy writing nonfiction for these same reasons. It’s just, well, real!
Jim: Was their a certain piece of creative non-fiction that first hooked you?
Donna: In college, as a communications major at Wilkes University, we took a senior research methods course and I think this is where my love of personal stories began. We did an oral history project, and we also read a few ethnographies. So it was more on the journalism end, but my love of nonfiction just grew from there. One book in particular from that class, Tell Them Who I Am: The Lives of Homeless Women by Elliot Liebow, got me hooked on learning more about ‘everyday’ people, and it also inspired the desire to tell other people’s stories — which I did for many years as a features writer. On the memoir side, it was Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs. That book is what made me want to write a memoir.
Jim: You’ve been writing a memoir “Door to Door,” about the trials of constantly moving and dealing with stepfathers during your childhood. What’s the status of the project?
Donna: The first draft was my MA thesis. Then I polished it as my MFA final project. After working on it—on and off–for a solid three years throughout graduate school, I let it take a break. I queried agents, and was thrilled to get interest in my story and requests for partial manuscripts. However, with no bites after sending the first few chapters, I realized the story might not be there yet. So I workshopped parts of it the past few years and received some great help from my local writing group. After letting it simmer for a bit, I’m ready to dive into revisions later this summer. My MA mentor, Beverly Donofrio, wrote her book during grad school too — but it did not come out until years and years later (Riding in Cars with Boys.) From Bev, I learned that I needed more reflection time on my life–not the draft, but my actual life–to see what my story really meant, what it was trying to do. And I think I know now. But it took time to go deeper.
I should add that I got reunited with a “character”-one more pivotal than I thought– in the book which changed my perspective (in a very good way). It will be a better story because I let it sit. It will be a better story because I grew as a person and continued living that life I was writing about. (I put character in quotes back there because, well, the people in my book are real, and that’s something to get used to–to just think of them as character so you can be more objective.)
Jim: Can you describe what makes a submission to HippoCampus stand out in a crowd?
Donna: I’ve got to feel something. Or laugh. Or both. If I get chills, if I get misty-eyed, if I get angry at or fall in love with a character, if I want to go research a place or topic covered in the essay or memoir excerpt, if I’m still thinking about it the next day. We publish such a range of material that there isn’t really a set “HippoCampus story” but we know it when we see it. We’re publishing true stories by real people so we want our readers to care about the writer, the situation. It has to matter to the greater audience, not just the writer.
Jim: HippoCampus Magazine is coming up on five years. How has the magazine evolved?
Donna: Wow. That’s such a good question. We’ve grown by leaps and bounds in submissions, readership and the amount we publish each month, but we’ve really stayed consistent with our product so there hasn’t been a big evolution from that standpoint, but there has been amazing growth. The conference and other live events and some new complementary initiatives will help us evolve into new spaces and places. Even though a lit mag is a labor of love, I treat it like a business, not as a hobby or a “side project” so that has helped shape our direction.
Jim: I’m looking forward to HippoCamp 2015, especially hearing Lee Gutkind and Jane Friedman speak. I know this is the first HippoCamp you have coordinated. What are you most excited about?
Donna: I’m most excited about bringing an online publication to life, and about bringing a set of people together, most of whom don’t know one another, to one place to learn and share with one another. And leave knowing new people and new things. Right now this idea, these plans, they all exist in our heads and on paper — but they will soon come alive, and that is exciting. To see an idea come to life.
Click on the links to learn more. Read about Donna Talarico’s writing at her website. Read HippoCampus Magazine or check out the speakers and the schedule for HippoCamp 2015, being held in downtown Lancaster from August 7-9.