Spark Off Rose

A Conversation with Alan Olifson

I recently reunited with an old friend from the Los Angeles storytelling community, Alan Olifson, who has recently published a collection of essays, entitled Manchild: My Life Without Adult Supervision. While I was busy producing Spark Off Rose, he was producing and performing at his spoken word show WordPlay. All these years later, he is now living in Pittsburgh where he landed a publishing deal. In our interview below you'll get a peek inside his writing journey and his best advice on how to get your essay anthology published!

ALAN OLIFSON is an award-winning humor columnist, public radio commentator, comedian and regular host of Pittsburgh's monthly Moth StorySLAMs. He created the acclaimed storytelling series WordPlay in his hometown of Los Angeles which he now produces in Pittsburgh along with Bricolage Production Company as part of their regular season. He has hosted storytelling events for conferences, schools and, believe it or not, bridal showers. Alan relocated to Pittsburgh with his wife and two children years ago but never tires of hearing people complain about "traffic." His book, Manchild: My Life Without Adult Supervision, is now out on Six Gallery Press.


Karin: Well, this is very exciting about your book. Of course I remember the ManChild essays well from your spoken word days in Los Angeles. Can you share the basic premise for those who are new to your writing?

Alan: So it's called Manchild: My Life Without Adult Supervision and it's really just a chronicle of finding out what it means to be an adult. I think most people have a hard time, especially just out of college, like in your early 20s, like, “Oh wow, I'm an adult now.” There's not really a big transition period from college to adulthood. And I think it took a long time fumbling my way through my 20s and 30s to figure out what adulthood meant to me. And in doing so I did all the adult things like getting married and having kids and buying a house, but I never felt like an adult doing them. So it's kind of exploring what that's like.

How did it make its way into book form?

It has been a long winding journey. It's been funny editing it now because some of these essays are now over 10 years old. I started writing these when I briefly had a column for The Boston Phoenix through some random connections. I think it's defunct now. It was like the L.A. Weekly of Boston. I wrote a column once a month, and that got me into essay writing in the first place.

I amassed a nice little backlog of stories and I got into the story telling scene out in LA. I would take these essays around to shows and tweak them and rewrite them. I did Sit and Spin, and your show (Spark Off Rose) and then I started my own show Wordplay out there at the Fake Gallery, which ended up going on for five years. So at the end I had 20 or 30 essays.

And then it all started because an agent contacted me, through Twitter or Facebook, I can't remember where. She found one of my pieces on The Phoenix and really enjoyed it and was curious if I ever thought about putting a book together. That kind of got my wheels turning. It was really encouraging, but it still never amounted to anything. She was just a low-level agent and she never really could sell the idea to her upper-whoever. Through that I worked with various people and got a proposal together and a decent query letter. The query letter got a good amount of response but basically it came down to “an essay collection by someone that no one's ever heard of is just a tough sell,” which I understand. Everyone was like, “the writing is funny and I enjoyed it, but I just can't sell this.” So I put it on the back burner.

So when I moved to Pittsburgh I thought I'd start to put my feelers out for a local, Pittsburgh-based publisher - a micro press - because I was basically ready to self-publish it. One of the draws of Pittsburgh is it's got a pretty lively comedy and literary and theater scene. So I was like, “I'll just try and see if I can get a small press interested.” I sent out a few letters and one place got back to me - Six Gallery Press - and they were really interested, but they were totally backlogged. It's a very small company and I waited about a year for them to finally have some time. It took another year of them editing it and here we are. It took moving to Pittsburgh to make it happen.

Tell us about Six Gallery Press.

They do a lot of poetry and more experimental fiction. My editor has admitted to me that “This is the most bourgeois thing we've ever put out.” They're kind of on the 'anarchist' end of the spectrum politically. And you know my book is very much the suburban dad kind of stuff. So it's a funny combination but it seems to work. It meant a lot that this guy actually found it funny and wanted to publish given that he's coming from a completely different place in his life. So it's nice to see some kind of universal appeal there, I guess.

Can you still stand behind your essays even though they were written so long ago?

It's a good question. Some of them I cringed reading them again. And some of them don't represent who I think I am now. But the book is more about the journey. I talked about it with the editor and we kind of liked the idea of just including the stuff that may not be who I am now, because it's who I was when I wrote it. It's the evolution of me from being a single guy to starting to date my wife, to getting married, having kids. Hopefully that's what's interesting... to see not only what's changed, but also the voice that stays the same through all that 10 or 15 years.

What was the editing process like for you?

It was very interesting. I gave the editor a lot of control. I mean, he ran everything by me, but I really trusted him and that made the whole process very easy. I don't know how it would be if you had an editor whose sensibility you didn't trust or who didn't get what you were trying to do. But I think this guy really got it. There wasn't a lot of content editing. We weren't trying to mold it into any kind of narrative, or take essays and make it into more of a memoir. It really is a collection of essays. It reads like a memoir in the sense that they're all written by me, and it kind of follows my life over time, but each one is meant to be its own stand-alone. It was very interesting to have someone read all these things back to back in context of one another, when they've been written over the course of 10 or 15 years. I got a lot of comments back like, “You know you make a lot of jokes about hookers. You sure you want to do that? Like maybe one.” There are certain phrases I would use all the time, because I thought it was funny; and it was fine to use them all the time, you know, five years apart. So it was interesting to see the crutches I would rely on. It was kind of cool to be called out on that -- so cleaning up in that sense.

Are you exploring completely different territory now?

No, it's still very much the same actually, but my kids are getting older and I'm getting older and my life is getting a little more suburban and settled. And I'm more used to it. This book is about being grown up and not feeling prepared for that. But I'm getting closer to 50, and I think I'm fairly comfortable being an adult at this point.

Well that's good to hear, congratulations.

Thank you, I finally made it.

What I love about your writing is that you have a lot of comedy without losing the depth of what you're writing about. Is that something you're conscious of or is it just what you do?

I'm trying to be more conscious of it, mostly because here in Pittsburgh there's not the talent pool that there was in LA. So I have to coach. I get a lot of really good submissions that just aren't quite there, so I'm trying to get better at giving notes. I still do WordPlay as a comedy show but it has become much more of a storytelling show with hopefully some funny stories. They're always good stories, but I can't always get five funny ones. So I'm trying to find ways to do exactly what you're asking me. But to be honest because I started as a stand-up when I was 16 and I did that for a good 10 or 15 years before I started writing essays, the comedy was just part of how I thought about the world. Mostly with my essays I usually write a couple of the jokes first and then build the depth around it.

You do, still?

Yeah, for the most part. The really early ones all had a stand-up bit. I'd start with a bit and then work my way down. Because for me, I have to force and allow myself to slow it down and paint the picture and be more descriptive without worrying about making it funny. That's always a struggle for me when I'm writing.

But also I think a lot of the humor comes from the depths, it comes from it being very specific and very real. So doing both seems natural to me. Stuff that doesn't have any depth to it isn't that funny. I think you need both.

Can you give an example of how you started with a bit and then mined that further?

Yeah, I had this one bit about being Jewish, but I don't typically look Jewish. So I had this whole bit about how I was a “stealth Jew.” And I had a little song I would sing about how I would freak people when they would say something anti-Semitic and I would catch them. “But I'm a Jew!” It's a five-minute little bit. And I ended up writing a whole story about moving to Chicago and what it was like to be Jewish, especially outside of LA. You know, everyone in LA, if they weren't Jewish they knew what being Jewish is about. And then I moved to the Midwest and was questioned about it more; you know, if we celebrate Christmas or not? And what we did on Christmas? It's still a pretty funny story, but it started from just, “How can I write a story about using this 'Jew gag' that I have?”

What theme were you exploring?

It ended up being about what it means to be a minority. Being a Jew in LA you're technically a minority but it feels very different than being Jewish in Pittsburgh or in the Midwest where you actually feel like you're “the other.” So there are different layers to that minority status that I don't think I was aware of having grown up in Los Angeles.

Have you gotten involved in the literary scene in Pittsburgh? Did you continue WordPlay out there?

Yeah, I did. It was one of the draws of moving here. I pretty quickly got WordPlay up and running again, within six months. I started talking to a few theaters and found this one theater. They helped me navigate the grants. There's a lot of money out here; a lot of people call it “guilty steel money.” There's the Carnegie Foundation, the Frick Foundation and there's a cultural trust - basically all of these sources of great arts funding - and the money has really been earmarked for the arts. So even in recessions and hard times it's still a decent pool of money for the arts. This theatre helped me put together a grant proposal and I got a small grant to kick off the show. The grant was basically to help us fund, I think, three shows to get it off the ground and try to get momentum for it. I got to pay myself. I got to pay all the performers.

Is it still doing well?

So yeah, we're doing another one in March. It's going to be our 13th one here. After a couple of years the theater basically took it on as part of their regular season. So at the end of every year I meet with them, we pick out the dates and we plan on our season.

I also host The Moth StorySLAM here. I got very lucky. It was the fourth city they started story slams in. I moved here in April, in August they started; so they were gearing up and actively looking for a host. And the people who were helping to bring it here had happened to see me at another event in town.

How cool...

It's really the best gig. I love it. For that I don't do any producing. I really just show up. And they do it at this like beautiful old theater. It seats like three hundred people. It's great. I love it.

As you know, many writers would love to publish a collection of essays. Do you have any advice for them?

Yeah, move to a smaller town and then use your local press.


To learn more about Alan Olifson, visit

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A Conversation with Lisa Manterfield

I had the lovely opportunity to chat with Lisa Manterfield this week, author of the memoir I'm Taking My Eggs and Going Home, about her journey through infertility. She is a big proponent of self-publishing and offers some helpful insights that may shorten the learning curve if you're considering going that route. She is also doing a unique experiment with her fiction (a serial novel!) so read on below to find out more.

LISA MANTERIELD is the creator of an online forum that gives a voice to women without children. Her writing has been featured in Los Angeles Times, Bicycle Times, and Romantic Homes. In her gritty, award-winning memoir, I'm Taking My Eggs and Going Home: How One Woman Dared to Say No to MotherhoodLisa traces her spiraling route from rational 21st century woman to desperate mama-wannabe.

She examines the siren song of motherhood, the insidious lure of the fertility industry, and the repercussions of being childless in a mom-centric society. But this isn't just another infertility story with another miracle baby ending, nor is it a sad introspective of a childless woman; this is a story about love, desire, and choices and ultimately about hope. It is the story of a woman who escapes her addiction, not with a baby, but with her sanity, her marriage, and her sense-of-self intact. I'm Taking My Eggs and Going Home is a 2012 Independent Publishers Book Awards winner.

Lisa lives with her husband and cat, and divides her time between Los Angeles and Santa Rosa, California.


Karin: Where did your memoir begin?

Lisa: I had signed up for The Writer's Studio at UCLA with Barbara Abercrombie, and her husband was sick suddenly. This was a few years ago. And Amy Friedman was the replacement teacher. I just connected with her immediately. She did this exercise in class where she had us go home and write on a piece of paper, “What is the one thing that you don't want to write about?” So I went home and thought about it, and I said, “I don't want to write about infertility. I don't want to write about this... I'm living it. Not interested in writing about it.” I went in the next day to see what she was going to do with it and she didn't do anything with it. She never mentioned it again.

So that topic sort of wormed its way into my mind until I ended up writing about it. I always sort of laughed that that was one of her devious moves to get us to write about things that we “thought” we didn't want to write about, the hard stuff.

I really started writing about it as a way to deal with what I was going through. And then I kept writing and kept writing, and finally I thought, you know, there's nothing out there on this topic. There were very few books out there, but they were a lot of “how to” books or “miracle baby” endings. So I started writing more and more about it, and I realized that I had a book. I put together these funny essays and had some people read them; and I just realized I was just skimming the surface of my own story.

So I took a step back and started from the beginning again, thinking, “What's the story that I want to tell?” And I still wasn't sure what the ending was going to be, so it's kind of interesting that the process of writing the story helped me to understand what my own ending needed to be. Not just the book, but the ending for my own story.

For you, what does it mean to realize that you 'have a book'?

Some people go through a life experience and go, “I want to write about this, I want to share this story” and that wasn't the way it happened for me. I have always wanted to write fiction and have been working towards how to write fiction; and at the same time writing personal essays, which is what I did at Spark, writing short narrative nonfiction. So I never really set out to write a memoir, but was gathering this material and realizing that I was probably looking for a book myself that didn't exist. There really were not resources out there. I wasn't hearing this story... “What happens when it doesn't work out for you?” Does that happen to anybody? I just felt that somebody needed to talk about it. For me, it needed to be written, and I'm really glad that I did.

Did you publish traditionally or independently?

I did it independently. I did pitch it traditionally, and that topic - even now - is pretty taboo. There are very few traditionally published books around that topic. But I knew I just needed to get it out there; so yeah, I did publish it independently. And ultimately, I think that was the best move for it.


Because it is a niche audience. I think it's a much bigger audience than people realize, but it is very niche. Part of publishing the book was starting a blog, which has actually really grown into this pretty active online community. So that's something that came out of the publishing process. That in turn led to the follow-on book which is more of a “how to” book. Sometimes you make plans of which direction your career or life is going to go, and then things just kind of evolve.

But I like the self-publishing process. I like having that control. It's a lot of work, but you have a lot of control over it. It's a lot of work, but it's kind of fun to know that you've basically produced the whole product, not just the writing aspect of it, but the whole package.

I think so much is changing in the traditional publishing world now, I think it's really hard to get a book noticed, especially for a debut author. It happens, of course it happens. But it feels like that whole world is in flux right now and there are so many people publishing independently and really doing it well. It is a lot of work and the big downside, I think, is not having that kind of support system and team behind you that can look at your book and say, “I see exactly where this fits in the market and this is how we're going to reach that audience.” So when you publish yourself, you've got to figure all that out.

But the flip side of it is, you can get your book out there. And if you're willing to the do the work, do the marketing - which you're going to have to do anyway - there's no reason for somebody not to get their work out into the world and find the readers that want it. It's kind of exciting actually.

When you went through the process, whom did you hire along the way?

I hired Jennie Nash originally as a book coach to look at the overall book and the structure of it and the flow.

After you'd written a draft?

Yes. And then once I got it to where I was happy, I hired an editor. I have a friend who is a freelance editor and she was the one who actually edited for me. And then I hired a proofreader as well. The number one thing that I wanted going the self-publishing route was to make sure that it didn't look like a self-published book. That it wasn't full of typos, that it was well laid out, that the cover looked professional. So I hired all that stuff out, which was a pretty steep learning curve for me. And there are definitely things I would have done differently, but I'm still really proud of how the book came out.

What would you have done differently in retrospect?

As far as the package, nothing. But the distribution... I decided that I would print a large quantity of books and have them delivered to my house. It wasn't a huge number, I think it was maybe 250 or 300 books on the first printing, but when that shows up on your doorstep, there's a lot of boxes. And then I ended up shipping those boxes to Amazon, so double shipping costs there. The second book I used Create Space and Ingram's Lightning Source. Through those two channels I'm able to distribute to all the major online bookstores.

The thing you don't get with self-publishing is access to major brick and mortar bookstores. So that's definitely a downside. Just being able to do bookstore events, for example. Like my local Barnes & Noble said, “Oh we'd love to have you, but your book is not in our catalogue so we can't sell your book here.” But that's changing; I think they're now including self-published authors in their catalogue. And then I did a couple of events at independent bookstores where they took books on consignment, so there's a way around that stuff.

What exactly is Create Space?

So Create Space is Amazon's print-on-demand service. You basically load the book into it and they only sell through Amazon. But they print as needed rather than doing a bulk order and then shipping it. So that's great, that takes that double shipping out of the loop. And then Lightning Source is a similar thing - they are also print on demand - so I can get print books into the online stores like Barnes & Noble but their online version. And then bookstores can order from Ingram, too.

I'm curious to hear more about what you're doing now... It sounds like you're circling back to fiction in an interesting way?

Yeah, I have circled back and am publishing a serial novel online, A Strange Companion. I'm doing it on my website and I'm also doing it on Wattpad which is a bit of an experiment; I'm not sure how that's going yet. I'm posting a chapter a week of my novel.

What have you learned so far?

I have learned to listen to my wise friends who told me to make sure I have six fully completed chapters before I start posting, because I'm finding myself at the moment running headfirst against my deadline. But I haven't missed a deadline yet!

So the flip side is that having that deadline is making sure that I get to my desk and I get my writing done. I really just wanted to get my fiction out there, and this is a novel that I've written and rewritten and pitched and rewritten... many, many, many times. And then said, “You know what, this book is going nowhere. I'm going to put it under my bed and forget about it and move on to the next one.” So when I finished a second book, which I'm now currently pitching to agents, I have this book under the bed and say, “I really love this story, I want to get it out there.” And looking if there's a way to start building a readership for fiction and decided, you know, I'm just going to start putting this out there and do it as a serial novel. I know the story. I'm going to make a really clean outline so I know where I'm going, and then write, edit and publish a chapter every week. It's definitely gotten me working on this book again which I probably would have just abandoned. There's an instant gratification factor of putting chapters out there and having people respond to them. It's a little bit nerve-wracking; as you know, even as you get to later drafts of a book, things change and sometimes you need to go backward before you can move forward. But once something's been published that's much harder to do. I would say overall it's been a really good experience. It's been really fun, which sometimes writing can stop being fun when you're trying to get towards a finished product and you're going through, particularly, that revision process. For me the fun part is the new, shiny first draft; you get to your fifth or sixth revision and at some point it stops being fun.

Do you intend to go back and revisit any of it, or is it just going to be whatever has been posted?

At some point I will put it together and publish it as a complete book, but whether I will just put the chapters together and clean it up and publish it, or put it together and take another bigger look and make more significant revisions, I'm not sure yet. But at some point I will put it together and make it available in another format.

Some people really like the serial format where they look forward to a new chapter coming every week. But a couple people said, you know, I like the story but I'm going to wait until it's done because I don't like having to wait a week. I want to binge read the story.

Where did you get this idea from? Do you read other serial novels?

I do not actually. Again, talking about the changes in publishing and that there are so many ways to get your work out there in the world; I'd come across Wattpad, which is a writing and publishing app. It's this whole community of writers and it's more teen writers and young adult stories for the most part, where people really are publishing first drafts online and then getting feedback. It's a really active community... just seeing other writers putting their first few chapters of their novels up there, or publishing novellas or short stories that are spin offs from their published novels. So I've been snooping around, and thought, you know, this is a really good way to get this book out there without me having to commit to doing a complete revision before I do anything with it.

How did you go about building an audience for yourself?

Well, that's partly the reason that I did it actually, is to start building that audience for my fiction. Because it's really hard to build an audience when you don't have anything for them to read as far as fiction. Even though there's some crossover between the fiction and nonfiction, it's still largely a different audience. You know, we get hammered all the way that “you must build a platform, you must build a platform.” And I think it's really hard to do that when you don't have anything to tell people about. So that was one of the reasons that I decided to do this as well, to actually use it to start building a readership so that when the next book comes out, I'll already have a built-in readership.

I'm still on the fence on whether Wattpad is the right place for this, but I'm continuing to publish. What I've done is reach out to people that I already know - so friends, social media, using Facebook, and also then telling my nonfiction, “Hey, if any of you enjoy fiction this is what I'm doing.” It's definitely a slow growth, but it's an ongoing slow growth. It's an experiment. I'm not sure yet if it's going to be a successful experiment; I think it is. But it's serving several purposes and one of those is to start growing an audience and let people know that, “Hey, I write fiction as well.”

How do you access it and what chapter are you on now?

So this week was chapter 15 and that's about the midpoint of the novel; so yeah, the 15 chapters are all posted on my website. And then if you want to subscribe to the newsletter, you get a notification every week when the new chapter comes out.

So you don't have to sign up to Wattpad necessarily?

No. That's part of my experiment to see what kind of readership that generates. But my main focus is publishing it on my website.

In terms of process, what have you found serves you well in doing your work?

As far as having a process, mornings are my writing time and I'm very protective of it. They do get nibbled into of course, because that's life; but I really try to be protective of the morning. What I've discovered about the way I work is that I need to play first. I need to take my idea and play with it, whether that's writing exercises or writing nonsense or writing a lot of stuff that might never make it into a book. For me I need an outline, structure is really crucial before you go into that fully formed first draft. But I need to play around and figure out what it is that I want to write about first. And then put a stake in the ground and say, “Okay, this is the story, this is what I'm going to write.”

I know some writers who are up and at their desk at 7, and 7 to 10 is their writing time. But I need a little bit more flexibility in there. But I do try to get there every day and do something, at least touch the work, even if words don't end up on the page.


To learn more about Lisa Manterfield, visit

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