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An Interview with Erin Schalk, Author of Farewell, Mr. Garcia

Schalk 1

Erin Schalk is a writer, visual artist, and educator who lives in the greater Los Angeles area. Her poetry, prose, and visual art have been published in a variety of journals. Highlights include Writer’s Digest, The Petigru Review, The MacGuffin, The Woven Tale Press, Parentheses International Literary Journal, Willawaw Journal, and others. She is the author of (quiet, space), a journal that combines her art and poetry.

Schalk graduated with her MFA in Studio from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and she has exhibited her art throughout the United States, as well as in the United Kingdom and Japan. In 2021, she was named The Muckenthaler Cultural Center’s Artist in Residence—the third artist to receive this honor.

What inspired you to start writing this book?

When I was in junior high, my school was wracked by a violent crime that affected every student, teacher, administrator, and the surrounding community. The severity of the incident forced a campus shutdown that lasted over two months, and we had to continue the semester as best as we could in temporary classrooms located in a different town.

I remember being encased in a fog of fear.

This event occurred many years ago in a small community with limited resources, so there were no therapists or professionals who intervened to help us process the trauma. Over time, our collective fear gave way to silence and getting back to former routines. Yet, scars began to surface in the following years as my fellow students and I tried to cope while transitioning from childhood to early adulthood.

As school shootings continue to increase across campuses in the United States, I find myself looking back on that life chapter. I began digging into research about the history and dynamics of school shootings, specifically the variables that often lead up to these unimaginable acts of violence. While the crime that affected my school was not a mass shooting, I uncovered similarities between what my community endured and the indelible psychological and emotional marks experienced by school shooting survivors and their families.

My manuscript fictionalizes this tragedy and the people involved, reimagining the events in the context of a school shooting. The story itself starts a few months after the violence happened, placing the reader into the characters’ shoes as they stitch together their broken lives while learning to cope and heal. We follow the protagonist from 1995 to 2008 and see her respond to the wider historical contexts of Columbine and Virginia Tech.

Ultimately, I feel a sense of duty to write this story for trauma survivors, especially survivors of school violence. I think about my younger self and what might have helped me untangle the knots of fear and grief earlier. I believe in the power of stories to give voice to experiences that feel impossible to put into words, to help us recognize we are not alone in our suffering, and to find courage in the knowledge of those who have tread similar paths before us.

What other professions have you worked in? What’s something about you that your readers wouldn’t know?

Since 2010, I have referred to myself as an “artist, writer, and educator.” The majority of my formal education is in studio art, particularly painting, drawing, and ceramics. The bulk of my professional experience centers upon visual arts. I have taught art at all age levels but focus on adult education. I have also managed ceramics studios and spent six years as an art writer, writing non-fiction pieces and interviews about artists and museum exhibitions.

I am grateful for my visual arts background; it fuels writing that shows rather than tells. My fiction often weaves in strong visual elements, such as specific colors, textures, landscape features, and quality of light. Visual description is a key skill in my current teaching role, as I work closely with blind and visually impaired adult students. My students continually teach me the critical importance of creating visual pictures through words, especially for those who cannot see.

I also love languages, culture, and travel. From 2010 to 2013, I lived in Okinawa, Japan, and spent time learning Japanese while teaching elementary, junior high, and high school students English reading, writing, speaking, and listening comprehension.

Something about me that my readers wouldn’t know—when I was a teenager, I became fascinated with voice acting and animation. Now that I am older, these interests have shifted into a secret dream to become an audiobook narrator.

Who/what made you want to write? Was there a particular person, or particular writers/works/art forms that influenced you?

From childhood onward, I was fascinated with books. I always needed time to decompress after school and spent hours in my room writing stories, drawing illustrations, and reading.

As I entered my teen years, I encountered greater pressure to specialize in a particular area of study. At the time, my school only taught academic writing classes. Starving for more creative activities, I immersed myself in visual arts courses. During those formative years, I became known for my representational drawing skills, so it seemed logical to study visual arts at the college level.

When I transitioned to graduate school, the studio art program was highly interdisciplinary and rooted in poetics. Professors challenged me to write poems and prose alongside my paintings and photographs. This was beyond intimidating! I felt like an imposter because being a visual artist had been at the core of my identity for a long time. So, it came as a shock when multiple professors told me that my writing was stronger than my visual artwork.

Gradually, I began writing with the same joy and interest that fueled my creative writing as a child and teen. I learned that “specializing” is not always necessary. For me, studio art and writing form a symbiotic relationship, and I am happiest when I have opportunities to pursue both.

Where is your favorite place to write?

The guest bedroom is my home office, equipped with a desk-table where I have access to my computer, notebooks, and pens in about every color imaginable. When I sit at my desk, I look out large windows across the south wall that are perfectly at my eye level. Since I live in Southern California, the panes let in clear sunlight and views of palm fronds most days, which I find soothing. On the rare rainy day, the atmosphere is cozy with dimmer light and bead-like water droplets that gather on the glass.

Twenty feet beyond the window is a low brick wall that partitions my backyard from the neighbor’s. I imagine this wall representing any sort of “block”—fear, procrastination, imposter syndrome, etc.—and that I have to scale over or blast through these challenges. Often when I start to take myself too seriously, a rogue squirrel or the neighbor’s orange tabby cat scampers across the top of the wall, and I have a good laugh in surprise.

What is one thing you hope readers take away from reading your book? How do you envision your perfect reader?

I love finishing a book with the feeling that I’ve been changed because the author provided a higher level of insight or a new perspective through their story. After reading my book, a perfect reader would experience a similar sense of transformation. I hope readers will take away a greater awareness of trauma and its aftershocks, crises in contemporary schools, and the myriad ways people endeavor to make sense of and move through tragedy. Better still, an ideal reader would translate this awareness into positive action, such as reaching out to help support schools and individuals in crisis or recovering from trauma.

Are you a writer, too? Submit your manuscript to Atmosphere Press.

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