Volume 9 nonfiction writers Emma Foley, Mandira Pattnaik, Annie Williams, Rachel O'Sullivan, and Nadia Barghout Brown.

Artists on Artists: the Nonfiction Authors of Vol. 9

By Vol. 9 Nonfiction Authors | May 24, 2023

We asked the nonfiction writers from our latest issue what questions they would want to ask their fellow Volume 9 contributors. A few then answered those questions, delving into their craft, their inspirations, and their approach to creating. Read on to learn more about Emma Foley, author of "I Could Do Anything, But I Don't," Mandira Pattnaik, author of "Our Family of Hard Truths," Annie Williams, author of "Second Home," Rachel O'Sullivan, author of "Yourself, At Ease," and Nadia Barghout Brown, author of "Windows and Stone." And make sure to check out their work in Vol 9: AGENCY!

Emma Foley, interviewed by Annie Williams

Annie Williams: What inspired your piece? How did it come to existence? 

Emma Foley: I read the quote that my piece was based on a few years ago and it stuck with me. The grief of losing my dad, combined with becoming a mum to my two sons has had a transformational effect on me. I've felt more agency over my own life for the past two years than I ever have, even at a time when I am, on paper, the most tethered I've ever been. Having my family as my one non-negotiable priority has given me immense freedom in other areas - if they're alright, everything else is just detail. With all this in mind, when I saw the theme of 'Agency', I knew what I would write. 

AW: Were there any difficulties writing your piece?

EF: No, to be quite honest! Maybe some apprehension about how vulnerable it was but actually, it was quite easy once I'd sat down to write it. I'd been ruminating on the themes of this piece for a while, so it flowed onto the page very easily in a few hours, which is not always the case but always a bonus! Sometimes I find that I have to deliberately 'craft' what I'm writing, sometimes it feels more arduous - but this was fun to write. 

AW: What was the best part about writing your piece? 

EF: Taking some quite incoherent thoughts and turning them into a coherent narrative. To then find that Fatal Flaw wanted to publish the piece made it all the better - a bit of external validation goes a long way! 

AW: When it comes to nonfiction, are you ever scared what people in your life will think? Do you think about what people will say, especially those you have written about?  

EF: This is always a consideration for me, and one that I have to really push through. My main concern with this piece was whether I would come across as being unhappy. Everything in the piece is true but it was a stylistic choice to make it quite dark, to try and convey some of the frustrations that I had felt in the years since my dad died. I'm genuinely the happiest I've ever been, and I hope that comes across in the final paragraph. Yes, I could  have done things differently - but look what I'd have been missing.

Mandira Pattnaik, interviewed by Emma Foley

Emma Foley: At what age did you first write something and realize 'I'm good at this'? 

Mandira Pattnaik: I used to write poems and mysterious little detective stories when I was very young. One of my poems was published in a national daily when I was in high school. I participated in a lot of contests, writing and others, during that time. My essays were appreciated. I think it was around that time that I realized I loved to write, not 'I'm good at this'. I don't know if I can still say that, mostly I'm in serious doubt, but yes, I love what I'm doing. 

EF: I'd love to know about how you turn a spark of an idea into a fully-formed piece - do you just sit down and write? Do you make notes first? Do you go through several drafts?

MP: The best results are when I can manage to sit down immediately and put together a bare draft as soon as an idea, or say, the title, or say, the opening line, pops up when I'm busy doing other things. If this is possible, I add the fleshy bits later. But finding that crucial time to write is not always an option. The next option is to take notes, and write when I've gathered enough. If you mean several drafts as in changing the direction of the piece, then no, that has seldom happened in my case, but I do edit at least three or four times going through the entire draft and adding and subtracting paragraphs and so on.

EF: I can't stand background noise while I write - what works best for you?

MP: Same. I love the quiet. It is very unusual for me to listen to music when I write, but I do that sometimes.

EF: Drawing on personal experience whilst writing can feel very vulnerable - are there any boundaries you put in place with this?  

MP: Nonfiction for me is the rare occasion, fiction comes more naturally. It is not because of any inhibitions or boundaries, but more because I don't seem to find interesting ways to tell a true story.

Annie Williams, interviewed by Nadia Barghout Brown

Nadia Barghout Brown: What does 'agency' mean to you in life? In your art?

Annie Williams: When it comes to agency I never really thought of it, and always feel like the world is much larger than I can handle. With writing and my art, most of the time I lose control. My hands just start typing or scribbling on the page before I can even think, and I think my poem or story is going to be a certain way but ends up in a completely different direction because in the middle of writing bottled up emotions explode or something unveils itself that I didn’t even know was hiding. Although I am the creator of my art, I am never in control of what becomes of the art, and how it appears to other people. Agency is not part of my writing because I just let go and lose myself among the page.

NBB: How do you see your voice as an artist? How did it evolve? How do you see it progressing or evolving even further? 

AW: In a weird way I don’t think I have an artistic voice because my artistic voice was just my voice. I couldn’t hear correctly until I was around 5 years old and fell behind in speech. I would always mess up my pronunciation and stutter a little, and soon became a very insecure, introverted kid. Because of that I was scared of how I talked or sound to people, and writing became my way of communicating without feeling any pressure. So in a way writing was my first voice, my first language, and I have always used writing as a way to express myself but at the same time never really thought of it as artistic or creative. It was just my natural way of communication and being myself. At 21, it is still the case because yes, my writing can be an art form, but at the same time it’s just how I communicate, and it will develop and evolve as I grow older and wiser.

NBB: Who is one nonfiction writer with whom you'd love to share a conversation over coffee? 

AW: Definitely Carmen Machado! I read her memoir, “In The Dream House,” which is my favorite memoir of all time! It opened up my mind to the possibilities of memoirs and nonfiction writing. The book was both so creative and heart wrenching, and has inspired my own nonfiction pieces by imploring her fragmented style. She has also encouraged me to lean into weird, experimental writing in nonfiction, and I would love to talk to her about pushing the boundaries of what nonfiction could be and the possibilities of the genre.

NBB: Besides writing, how else do you express yourself artistically?  

AW: I like to express myself through the way I dress. I find fashion to be fun and it makes me feel free. Once in a blue moon I do occasionally paint and draw, not being good at either of them but both are fun.

Rachel O’Sullivan, interviewed by Mandira Pattnaik

Mandira Pattnaik: How do you see your work being in conversation with the theme of agency?

Rachel O’Sullivan: My piece critiques a common contemporary misunderstanding surrounding agency - that awareness, and self-awareness, are often mistaken for agency. It also points out how, especially if you’ve experienced a lot of adversity, that agency is not necessarily something quantifiable materially or financially, but it is something mental, and ultimately comes down to long-term psychological states and your own relation to your adversity. Agency is not something that is either possessed or not. It is fluctuating, it is a spectrum and where you are on that spectrum varies day by day, minute by minute. This piece is about the gritty details of the days I am out of touch with my own sense of agency. 

MP: As a nonfiction writer, how far do you feel comfortable in writing about topics that trouble you, given that those may be disturbing to others?

ROS: It’s a fine line, I must admit. One that I have been tripped on multiple times, falling on one side or the other, but what really cemented this balance was a conversation I had with a creative writing tutor last year, in my second year of university. She said, from her perspective, it’s okay, and in fact necessary, to express your complicated and messy truth, as long as you take steps to let the reader know that you’re there with them. Almost like a guide, letting them see your world for all that it is, but ensuring that they make it to the other side fully intact. This has been my gospel ever since, to honestly let the reader in, but make sure they still feel safe. To make sure the process builds trust, rather than breaks it. 

MP: Do you often switch between genres?

ROS: An approach I like to take is that there is no set approach. I try my best to look at what I am trying to say, and see how it relates to genres, tropes. Then, I can see that sometimes complete adherence to a set genre is exactly what I need. Sometimes a hybrid is best. Other times, it takes turning a whole genre on its head to get the point across. This also applies to form, style and medium. So, nothing is off the table, but also, nothing is on the table by default either. I change genre as often as I feel is needed, given the content of a piece. 

MP: What draws you first and foremost when you are reading work written by your fellow contemporary writers? 

ROS: Honesty, complexity and commitment. I am drawn to work that has a set perspective and is self-assured that it is a perspective worth experiencing. In all its detail. No matter what form that takes. Nuance and affective comparisons make me want to press pages into my chest. I like a sentence that packs a punch. Something I could tattoo all over my body. 

MP: One defining aspect of your writing? 

ROS: Emotional truth. 

Nadia Barghout Brown, interviewed by Rachel O’Sullivan

Rachel O’Sullivan: What do you think your piece reflects of our current global climate?

Nadia Barghout Brown: It feels as though there are, currently, an increasing number of rifts and examples of disconnection on both macro and micro levels: in the physical world, in society as a whole, and on an individual/personal level. While the resulting feeling of isolation seems to be more prominent now (and/or or there is greater awareness of it), the experience of disconnection is an almost-universal one. At some point in our lives, we have all felt this in some way, and my piece is just one example of that.

ROS: What aspect of your piece are you the most proud of? 

NBB: I love this question, because it is an invitation to consider things about our work that is often very difficult to do. Doing this in and of itself invites a kind of agency. I interpret this question as: which aspect of “Windows and Stone” do I feel most closely represents the internal time, place, or feeling it is intended to convey? For me, this is the image of the mountain because the piece reflects the way that mountain has lingered in my mind, like a harmonic, ever since.

ROS: What do you hope your writing can give to the reader? 

NBB: A sense of the availability of peace, that a “rightness” can be found if we are open to looking precisely where we are, and that there is beauty in resting in the big patterns of life (e.g., nature). We don’t need to look very far for comfort or connection, when viewed from this perspective.

ROS: What relation do you have to the theme of agency?    

NBB: A strong one! Feeling a lack of it, the search for it, the bolstering of it in others - these have been key themes for me, and my sense of agency is always-evolving as a result of these experiences. For me, at its core, agency is the ability to embody a moment as fully as possible, recognizing that the pursuit of doing so is life-long. When we are truly available to the moment we are in, we are also available for the resources it has to offer, whether those are tangible, concrete resources, or whether they arrive in the form of insight, understanding, inspiration, or rest. And from there, we make decisions, solve problems, and have the opportunity to move our lives forward in the way that provides the greatest benefit to us as well as to others. To me, this builds self-efficacy, a vital pillar of agency.

About the author

Emma Foley is a writer and mindfulness teacher. She lives in the North of England with her husband and two young sons.

Annie Williams is a writer based in Fraser, Michigan, and is currently studying Creative Writing at Oakland University. She has been writing ever since she was little, and loves to write poetry, horror, nonfiction, and gothic stories. When she it not writing she is rocking out at a concert or staying at home watching a movie.

Mandira Pattnaik is the author of collections "Anatomy of a Storm-Weathered Quaint Townspeople" (2022, Fahmidan Publishing, Poetry), "Girls Who Don't Cry" (2023, Alien Buddha Press, Flash Fiction) and "Where We Set Our Easel" (forthcoming, Stanchion Publishing, Novella). Mandira's work has appeared in The McNeese Review, Penn Review, Quarterly West, Citron Review, Passages North, DASH, Miracle Monocle, Timber Journal, Contrary, Watershed Review, Amsterdam Quarterly, and Prime Number Magazine, among others. She edits for trampset and Vestal Review. More at mandirapattnaik.com.

Nadia Barghout Brown is a mum, physician, and easily-inspired human who writes (memoir, fiction, and poetry) because she must. Her work appears in various online and print journals including most recently Red Noise Collective and Beyond Words Literary Magazine (forthcoming). One of her short stories was a finalist in the Writers Union of Canada Short Prose Competition. She is a generally optimistic and well-caffeinated soul who lives in southern Ontario with her children and many pets.

Rachel O’Sullivan is a 21-year-old writer, photographer and freelancer based in Dublin, currently studying English with Creative Writing at University College Dublin. Their work embodies the liminal, the uncanny and the uncomfortable - as well as divulging into all that is golden and glimmers. They have featured in a variety of outlets such as Full House Lit, The OutPostÉire, Bloom Magazine and Creature Mag. They are upcoming in Iamb, and recently published a feature article with Shado Mag.

up next...

Artists on Artists: the Poets of Vol. 9

We asked the poets from our latest issue what questions they would want to ask their fellow Volume 9 contributors. A few then answered those questions, delving into their craft, their inspirations, and their approach to creating. Read on to learn more about poets Kahlo Smith, James Champion, Harley Anastasia Chapman, Ariel Machell, and Moni Brar.