Interview with Laura Mahal: Q4 2020 Creative Nonfiction Essay First Place Winner

Sunday, November 01, 2020
Laura Mahal splits her time between writing, copyediting, gardening, and coffee drinking. Her work appears in various places, such as Fish, DoveTales, Veteran’s Voices, Across the Margin, and OyeDrum. A two-time winner of the Hecla Award for Speculative Fiction, 2020 Lit Fest finalist and Book Projecteer, Laura was on the editing team for Rise, recipient of the 2020 Colorado Book Award. You can read a sampling of her edgier stuff at This essay is dedicated to Laura’s sister, the six-year-old in the story—who still likes shiny shoes and new dresses, and still gets too close to snapping turtles.

interview by Marcia Peterson

WOW: Congratulations on winning first place in our Q4 2020 Creative Nonfiction essay competition! What inspired you to write your essay, “How to escape from a Cult?”  

Laura: First off, thank you for this immense honor. All the essays were award-winning and worthy of recognition. Full credit to my fellow competitors. They and the judges deserve a shout-out. :-)

This essay began in February during a class I took with Chloe Leisure, called "Windows & Doors: Possibility in the Prose Poem & Lyric Essay." Chloe and my talented classmates helped me to understand that people's belief systems are challenged in this form, because the author takes leaps, "engages us on the surprise level." We read Marilyn Nelson, Carolyn Forche, Russell Edson, Anne Carson, Michelle Leigh, Natalie Diaz . . . I wrote myself this note on February 13: "Laura: Write about biting into the catfish as a kid. No shoes, being the youngest who wanted to tag along, but wasn't wanted." Chloe encouraged us to consider experimenting, using numbers to allow for greater leaps. The essay began with only the numbered portions. The narrative sections written in third person about my sister and me came later. Mainly because I found the numbered sections too jarring, and remembering my time in the cult stressed me out. As I thought about the significance of my biting the head off the catfish, the epiphany came that these two disparate essays really belonged as a matched set.

Full disclosure: I did write this essay about a time I inadvertently joined a cult. Thankfully, I got out. That experience strengthened me, and though it was awful on a number of levels, my primary takeaway is gratitude. Biting the head off the fish meant an internal strength that we all need. Sadly, the six-year-old in the story, my real-life sister, has struggled greatly with abusive men. My writing life is happy, steady, and so (for the most part) is my actual life. Whereas this sister is often on the precipice of hardship. Fear for her drives me, when my writing goes into the realm of personal essays. (Mostly, I stick with fiction, which is my "happy place," along with poetry.) This sister and I are linked by a lifetime of opposites. I love her. She loves me. And when I think back to her trying to put on makeup, such a petite thing she was, all big blue eyes and beauty, long legs and subconscious sexiness, it breaks my heart. To this day, I still eat watermelon with salt. Wishing I could find one with actual seeds, because spitting would help. Fishing might help. Having the power to go back in time, change this tale; instead of us going to Arnie's Lake, maybe I should have asked her to spend time with me, make me pretty too, and give her a connection that was sisterly, rather than reaching for young men and trouble? Alas, I have not that power. The only gift I've found so far that extends beyond me is the gift of my pen. That is what I will do as I go forward, in a quest to help my sister, and other women who too live in a place of fear, who are trapped in a bucket no bigger than that a catfish once swam in . . .

WOW:  The gift of the pen is powerful, keep using it. What is your writing process like? Please describe a typical day.

Laura: My writing process surprises nearly everyone. I am not a morning person. I fritter away my mornings, drinking coffee and writing (snail-mail) letters, putzing in the garden or taking hikes, when our air quality is okay. (We too are suffering through a horrendous wildfire season.) I'm a copyeditor by trade and can edit for others in the morning, without difficulty, as my brain has firmly absorbed The Chicago Manual of Style along with the Merriam-Webster dictionary. My creative time is from three to eleven p.m. I do write every day, but I give myself credit even if this means I reach out to someone with a chatty email or dash out random lines that I'm not quite sure what to do with. Later, I'll come back to these and use them in a poem or a flash story. Because I dabble in short fiction, poetry, flash, and long-form fiction, I never get bored and I really never get writing block. Once I'm in my groove, I'll generally hone a solid second draft, because I cannot resist editing as I go. I'm ridiculously productive because I drink far too much coffee. No doubt, my internal organs are swimming in Sumatra and other dark brews.

WOW: Sounds like coffee is a good writing friend! Are you working on any writing projects right now? What’s next for you?

Laura: In August, I was accepted into the Book Project, in partnership with Lighthouse Writers. I have two years to hone my novel that tells the story of two veterans from very different eras with quite variant world views. The first (and second, smile) draft of The Kid from the Other Side is complete. But due to the mindset of my younger veteran, who struggles with PTSD and a traumatic brain injury, I want to explore some of the experimentation you found in "How to Escape from a Cult." I'll have to be quite precise as well as mindful when I implement these changes, because I don't want to risk losing readers. Since I was in the U.S. Army (what feels like gazillions of years ago), I hope to interview some experts at Fort Carson in Colorado Springs; it is crucial that I get this story exactly right. As you might imagine, I'm a bit of a perfectionist (recovering). Beyond that, I make it my goal to submit at least one piece of short fiction, poetry, or a personal essay every month. Lucky for me, I have an accountability partner. We keep each other honest. And the upheaval of the pandemic makes me productive, because so many things are out of control that writing gives me a feeling of tangible accomplishment. I currently have two poems in a regional art show, called (Un)Settled, and have a short story ("Scars") coming out later this year in the Pikes Peak anthology, Fresh Starts.

WOW:  Congratulations about your poems! What are you reading right now, and why did you choose to read it?

Laura: I'm about to start The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead. My Book Project mentor, Erika Krouse, felt this book might resonate with some of the inherent tensions of my novel-in-progress. For no particular reason, I recently reread both Dracula (Bram Stoker's original) and Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Then I immediately wrote a poem, turning the Frankenstein stereotype on its head. Since we have entered autumn and are having these awful fires, I also reread the first book in The Dark is Rising series. Susan Cooper is perfect for windy and ominous weather. Since I read for a living (copyediting novels that will soon be published) and write as my consuming passion, by the end of the day, my eyes are generally tired. Reaching for children's books can offer me that step into my own past, when I had no "real" responsibilities. (Secret goal: I want to be Joan Bauer when I grow up, LOL. Assuming I ever take up writing middle grade. :-)

WOW: Thanks so much for chatting with us today, Laura. Before you go, do you have any tips for our readers who may be thinking about entering writing contests?

Laura: Yes. I definitely encourage them to try! Now that I'm submitting more regularly, I'm publishing more, and subsequently, my writing bio deepens month by month. There is real momentum that comes with consistency. I'd recommend a simply spreadsheet, such as in Excel, with columns that keep track of the basics: Title, where submitted, genre (short story, personal essay, poem, etc), to whom / point of contact, name of Publication / Literary Agency, response or follow-up action, and whether or not there is a fee. In many cases, contests such as WOW! are worth the extra fee in order to receive feedback. Feedback helps us to hone our craft. [My dream is to get into SmokeLong Quarterly. I finally worked up the courage to submit to them for the first time a week or two ago. Though they did not take my flash story, they gave me specific and helpful feedback. Once I implement those revisions, I'll have a story that will be ready for publication.] Do take the time to make sure you follow all submission guidelines, as these details are crucially important and can make the difference between an acceptance or a rejection. Finally, my last bit of advice is to be the turtle that lets rejections roll off your back and into a deep and possibly murky lake. Celebrate small successes and share these with friends who will unfailingly have your back. I fundamentally believe that there is room for all of us in the writing industry. We have unique gifts to share and our voices are our literary fingerprints. Push yourself, trust, keep on trying, and you will get there.


For more information about our quarterly Flash Fiction and Creative Nonfiction Essay contests, visit our contest page here.


Jeanine DeHoney said...

Marcia, this was a great interview.
Laura, congratulations on your first place win and continued success. I'm sure with your writing gift you will get into your dream publication, SmokeLong Quarterly.

leela_mahal said...

Thanks, Jeanine, for your kind words! Many thanks to the incredible team at WOW! for offering these contests -- for Marcia Peterson's interview, Angela Mackintosh's amazing support of writers, and the Q4 judges: Chelsey Clammer, Melissa Grunow, Sarah Broussard Weaver, Melanie Faith, Ashley Memory, and Kandace Chapple. Congratulations to Lisa H. Owens, Keb Filippone, and all the other authors who penned incredible essays for this contest. It's an honor to have a place to send writing that is honest and even a bit gut-wrenching. Truth connects us and roots us in the shared grief and joy called life. <3

John Paul McKinney said...

Great stuff, Laura. Keep it up. You're an inspiration.

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