An Interview with Anna Sortino, Author of “Give Me a Sign”

Recently, I had the chance to chat with Anna Sortino, a DePaul MAWP alumni whose first novel, Give Me a Sign, is being published at Penguin Random House. Anna shared some insights on graduating, shed some light on her process, and expressed what it was like representing Deaf culture.

Give Me a Sign comes out July 11 and can be pre ordered here

Thank you for taking the time to talk with me, Anna, and congratulations on the upcoming release of Give Me a Sign. How does it feel to be so close to the release date?

Hi, thanks for having me! I can’t believe it– where has the time gone? Publishing is often very slow, until things suddenly start moving fast. I got the news of my debut book deal toward the end of 2021, and back then 2023 felt like ages away, but somehow here we are, with release right around the corner. I can’t wait!

You graduated from the MAWP program at DePaul in 2019. How would you describe your experience in the program, and how did it prepare you for this experience– your first novel being published by Penguin Random House?

The MAWP program was the kick I needed to start taking writing seriously. At the time, I was stuck at a job I disliked, but they offered full tuition reimbursement. I started looking into master’s degrees and decided on DePaul because all the courses seemed so practical. I was itching to grow as a writer, and this was the perfect opportunity. Working forty-hour weeks while taking 2-3 courses per quarter to maximize my employment benefit was difficult, but writing my school assignments during lunch break mentally got me through the long days. My evening classes were always something to look forward to, full of camaraderie and interesting discussions.

What was your experience after graduating? Was the idea behind Give Me a Sign already percolating when you finished the program, or did it take a little searching for the right project?

By graduation, I was querying my first novel but realizing that my heart wasn’t into that story anymore. I wanted to take on something more personal, and the idea for Give Me a Sign wouldn’t leave my mind. I moved cross country that summer, so as soon as I got settled in, I quickly typed up a draft and submitted it at the deadline to a mentorship program. I tried to get some space before revisions in the meantime, not really expecting anything to come from the application, but I got selected! Things started to feel very real, like this project was the one. That conviction carried me through all the querying and submission hurdles. Now, almost four years from the day I started drafting this story, Give Me a Sign will be on the shelves.

How does it feel to see early reviews and blurbs, specifically praising your representation of Deaf culture?

It’s absolutely amazing. After deciding to write a book with Deaf representation, I knew that I had to set it at a summer camp. The type of story I wanted to convey couldn’t be done with just one Deaf character, it needed to be a large disabled cast. When people think of disability, it’s often in isolation– that one kid in their class, or that one actor in a movie–and because of that, they haven’t really gotten to experience the joy of our community.

I’ll admit, I was nervous that people might not be open to reading something like this. There are a lot of misconceptions when it comes to disability, so it was the goal to write a story that is both an accessible introduction and a compelling, romantic coming of age journey.

The best part so far has been receiving messages from excited readers, especially those who have a hearing loss but haven’t gotten the opportunity to engage with Deaf culture before. The majority of Deaf/hard of hearing kids are born to hearing parents, so I hope Give Me a Sign serves as an invitation many have been waiting for.

Were there YA books that inspired you to write within the genre? Or did you feel Give Me a Sign demanded to be told to a young adult audience?

I had this start of an idea, but wasn’t sure exactly what to make of it until I shared it with a classmate of mine who steered me in the right direction, saying “that should definitely be YA.” Suddenly, it all clicked! It’s funny to think that in some other universe, maybe I wrote a tense literary version of this instead.

A summer camp love story does make for a great YA novel. I appreciate that I could explore so many feelings about identity and belonging in this age category.

Thinking back to your time at DePaul, was there a particular lesson, or class that influenced your writing process, or sensibilities as a storyteller?

Without a doubt, Rebecca Johns Trissler’s novels class changed my life! Before that course, I had been so intimidated by the sheer word count that a book required, yet Rebecca’s sensible approach got me across the finish line of a very first full draft within a single quarter. She didn’t shy away from the business of publishing, so I was informed when trying to get my start in this industry. I also felt prepared, when that first book didn’t get the traction I’d hoped it would, to easily jump into the next project and be content with that initial attempt existing as a ‘drawer book’, one that gave me the experience I needed to move forward with an even better novel.

Do you have any words of advice for current students? How would you recommend someone make the most of their time in the MAWP program?

Take a wide range of courses. Though from the start I had my heart set on writing novels, learning how to write short stories enhanced my understanding of pacing and scene structure. Poetry transformed my prose. Memoir gave me the tools to channel a character’s internal dialogue. All these different facets help you find your writing style and voice.

Also, don’t be afraid to swap work with your peers. Grad school is a great spot to find critique partners!

Congratulations, again, Anna and thank you!

Thank you for these great questions—and good luck to all the current MAWP students!


Congrats To DePaul Alumni Erika J. Simpson Whose Essay, “If You Ever Find Yourself,” Has Been Featured In Best American Essays 2022

Erika was the very first student to work on a Big Shoulders Books project – before BSB even existed, in fact. After DePaul, she graduated with an MFA in African-American speculative fiction from University of Kentucky. Her award winning essay, “If You Ever Find Yourself,” has earned her a book deal with Scribner and will be expanded into a memoir, This Is Your Mother.


A Huge Congratulations To Megan Heffernan!

Megan Heffernan has been awarded a fellowship from Notre Dame’s Institute for Advanced Study for 2023-2024 to work on her next book, Resilient Books: Archival Science in an Age of Precarity. The Institute’s research theme for next year is “The Long Run,” and it’s described this way: “Practical decision-making, ethical evaluation, scientific modeling, and cultural meaning-making all increasingly push us to consider causes that extend further and further into the past and consequences that extend further and further into the future. The Long Run Project will bring together humanists, scientists, social scientists, policy scholars, and artists to consider how we understand, manage, and respond to events that lie in the distant future or past, or challenges that unfold over long periods of time.” Professor Heffernan will be in residence at Notre Dame University for all of next academic year.

God Quad aerial..Photo by Matt Cashore/University of Notre Dame

My Interview With Professor Kathleen Rooney and Her New Book, Where Are The Snows: See Her Read Tonight, Oct.19, 6-7 PM in ALH 103!

I recently had the opportunity to ask (via email) author, poet and Professor Kathleen Rooney about her newest poetry collection, Where Are The Snows. Along with the award winning book’s vital take on a world insistent on ending, we get to talking about the collection’s relation to Rose Metal Press and Poems While You Wait, and finding poetry in unexpected places. Make sure to catch Professor Rooney along with Professor Tara Betts tonight, October 19, 6-7 PM in ALH 103 for a reading and book signing!

Thanks again for talking with me about Where Are the Snows. And congratulations on winning the 2021 X.J. Kennedy Prize! I was really taken aback by this collection. It felt very much like a living record of this moment in time, even when dealing with subjects that extend far beyond right now. Did the events of the last couple of years spur this collection, or did all of this catastrophe just coincide with your regular writing practice?

KR: Thank you so much and I’m happy to hear you found the book striking. All of the poems in the collection were written during late March and April of 2020. That kind of concentrated daily activity is not always a part of my writing practice. But my dear friend and fellow poet Kimberly Southwick put together a National Poetry Month poem-a-day group then as she often does, and I had signed up to participate. When I agreed to do the challenge (30 poems in 30 days!) I had no idea that April of 2020 would be a nadir of pandemic panic and despair, but it was.

Consequently, the poems, as you observe, distill the unique dread and misery of that period, but also expand outwards in such a way as to not make this merely a pandemic book. Catastrophe is kind of everywhere all the time now! Just a non-stop three-ring chaos circus 24/7! I think this mood of absurdity would have found its way onto every page of the book whether I had written it then or not, but the timing absolutely shaped the character of the collection.

A lot of the poems have this momentum like you’re trying to get to the bottom of something. You follow an idea as it spirals to its origin. “Ekphrastic” is one of my favorites. It begins in an empty museum with a sort of tribute to the people who would usually populate these galleries. It ends at this Bunuelian parallel between them and the bloodied goldfinch watching Christ. You strike the perfect balance between spontaneity and deliberation in the way you structure your poems. Do you begin with a place in mind you need the reader to arrive at, or are you as surprised as the reader when these ideas and images come together?

KR: Yes! Thank you! I love that description, like every poem is a ride down the tornado side on the playground. Each of these poems was a riff on a prompt provided by Kim or one of the other April poem-a-day group members and in some cases, I stuck pretty closely to what they were requesting and in others I departed wildly. But in all cases, I tried to open with an initial topic or premise or idea that I wanted to pay as much attention as possible to. There is no such thing as thinking too hard is one of my mottos. So I wanted to think and feel and muse for a sustained amount of time on every poem in the book. I think it was this balance of having a restraint and then letting myself spiral freely that led to the feeling of spontaneity and deliberation that you describe. I was mostly trying first and foremost to have fun and amuse myself, to play around and reveal some new insights which I then hoped would make their way across to the hearts and minds of my future readers.

How did you decide on the form these poems would take- the combination of prose poem and stanzas that feel like self-contained statements as much as they bound into the next one? 

KR: Rose Metal Press, the small nonprofit publisher I co-founded in 2006 with my friend Abby Beckel, specializes in hybrid genres and so it made sense to me to let this project be a hybrid. I think these are prose poems of sorts? Definitely poems, but not in line breaks or stanzas, more in aphoristic sections and stanzagraphs. I wanted to let the process proceed by way of the sentence and not the line and to play with gaps and white space between really big and dramatic imagery and utterances and jokes and punchlines. Some of the poems actually ended up getting published as essays and flash nonfiction, so I don’t think that I’m enforcing a clear genre boundary with any of them.

In “The State Or Period Of Being A Child,” you describe a prompt you give to students. “Long shot, middle shot, close-up. Gradually zoom us in, really letting us see it.”  You could say that prompt describes many of these poems, the way you follow an idea down a rabbit hole. How does your practice as a writer inform your teaching, and vice versa?

KR: That prompt is from Janet Burrorway’s wonderful textbook Imaginative Writing, which I use in my Creative Writing class and I love assigning it in-class each quarter because like you say, it sets students off into an intriguing rabbit hole that can take them a surprising distance away. I love receiving prompts for my writing and so naturally I love giving them.

Part of why I love Poems While You Wait so much is because when you are out in the world encountering randos and asking them to give you money and a topic for a personal one-of-a-kind poem, you are forced to write about things you might never have touched otherwise. I let that curiosity and chance into my own practice as much as I can even when I am not doing PWYW and try to bring it to bear in the classroom, too.

The collection is rife with religion, astrology, mythology, mysticism- the loathe/desire to believe in something or other figures as a recurring theme. In absence of social norms and a normal climate, do you find believing in something greater than the individual is useful, or even necessary, where hope feels like too much of a stretch?

KR: Solidarity—I believe in solidarity, as in the unity of a group or class that produces or is based on a community of interests, objectives, and standards. Hope is hard but I always have it because I do believe that even in a world that wants—and uses both mainstream and social media to propagate—to make us constantly terrified and competitive and angry, we can opt instead to find common cause. I believe in fun. Joy as form of resistance. Racialized misogynistic capitalism wants nothing more than to normalize misery and I believe in saying no to that and then creating spaces and communities and relationships that offer alternatives.  

Told to be present and quit doomsurfing, you offer us, as an alternative, curated streams of your own content- stray thoughts, geography, definitions, memes, histories, factoids- punctuated by startling imagism. I loved the line in “A Quiet State After Some Period Of Disturbance (a poem that might feature at least one of everything I just listed), “If calm were a tree it would be deciduous- shedding its leaves, putting them forth again.” Then, you end the following and final stanza with a voice over the CTA intercom, an unforeseen source of reassurance. Can you talk about finding poetry in unexpected places? In sampling from such an array of sources, including quotes from other poems, would you say there is an element of found art to the collection?

KR: Sampling—yes! I want these poems to be like a really great hip-hop song or a beautiful collage. Not something I created alone, but made with other people, both living and dead, both here and long gone. The imagination is a space that is potentially eternal and ideally shared. So I always try to let my imagination run wild over even seemingly quotidian things like commuting on the red line. Poetry, to me, is a very focused form of attention and when you “pay” attention to everything—even though that metaphor says you are expending currency—you are the one who is getting rich.

It’s hard to tell at times whether you see the glass as half full, or bone dry, but there is a sense of joy in these references you draw, in being fascinated by whatever fascinates you. There is an appeal to wonderment at the center of Where Are the Snows. Would you say taking an interest in the world around you, which can be its own struggle, is a source of self resolve?     

KR: The glass goes up and down from day to day for sure. But yes, I think that as long as you maintain a sense of wonder, as long as you don’t let this cruel world grind you down too into thinking that cruelty is natural or indifference is fine, you are in some small sense winning.

Lastly, is there a class you’re teaching next quarter, or anything happening around DePaul you’d like to throw a spotlight on?

KR: Yes! I hope people will sign up for my ENG 309 Youth & Malice class where we write about the periods of childhood and adolescence but for an adult audience. Those eras of human development are so full of conflict and tension and emotion and interest, it always makes for a very fun class.

Upcoming Book by DePaul Alum, Zhanna Slor: Breakfall

Author of At The End of the World, Turn Left, Zhanna Slor’s upcoming book Breakfall is a domestic thriller about a young mother, fresh off a divorce, whose sultry affair with a married police officer leads to a scandal, but when people at her Jiu Jitsu gym start dying and disappearing, the only connection is Mina herself. 

To be published by Agora Books and released in Spring 2023

Tomorrow: Prof. Marcy Dinius’s New Book

This is a reminder about this exciting event tomorrow evening with Professor Marcy Dinius. The direct Zoom link is below:
Join Professor Marcy Dinius for a discussion of her new book: “The Textual Effects of David Walker’s ‘Appeal’: Print-Based Activism Against Slavery, Racism, and Discrimination, 1829-1851”, due out from the University of Pennsylvania Press in April! The event is Wednesday, February 23 from 4:30-5:30 on Zoom. Join us!

New Podcast: DePaul Alum Interviews Professionals with Liberal Arts Advanced Degrees Working Outside Their Fields of Study.

MAWP alum Jesse Butts has started a podcast,  The Work Seminar, devoted to liberal arts advanced degree holders considering work outside their fields of study.

Jesse writes: “In each episode, I interview MAs, MFAs, PhDs, and the like who’ve done exactly that. Some guests have migrated to adjacent fields, and others have landed in (seemingly) unrelated occupations. We explore their journeys from grad school to their new lines of work; reflect on work’s role in their lives, passion vs. practicality, and their philosophy of work; and share advice for listeners uncertain of what’s next.”

The show is available on all major podcast players, including Apple PodcastsSpotify, and Stitcher.