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Prior to the First Books Reading, author Kate Hopper, author Josh Ostergaard, Coffee House publisher Chris Fischbach, and author Andy Sturdevant appeared on a panel to answer questions for MFA candidates.

On Thursday, March 15, the University of Minnesota was proud to host three Twin Cities authors, who read from their first books.

Kate Hopper is an alumna of our MFA program; she graduated with a nonfiction focus in 2005. Her memoir, Ready for Air (University of Minnesota Press), is described as a "harrowing, poignant, and occasionally hysterical journey into motherhood," in which "Hopper confronts the challenges of becoming a preemie mom with 'brazen honesty and an occasional fitting expletive.' Ready for Air is a triumph--a testament to the strength of motherhood, and the sharing of stories, to transform lives." Read more about her work, including an excerpt, in a previous post.

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Josh Ostergaard graduated from our MFA program in 2011 with a nonfiction focus. He also holds an MA in cultural anthropology from the University of Illinois at Chicago. He has been an urban anthropologist at the Field Museum and now works at Graywolf Press.

Ostergaard's new book The Devil's Snake Curve: A Fan's Notes From Left Field (Coffee House Press) is about much more than its author's love of baseball and sports history. It's about "the domestication of the human animal," the role of the spectator, and the "soft violence of American culture and the ways in which historical and contemporary representations of professional baseball absorb, reflect, and legitimize actual physical violence (war, etc)." It's also about, as Ostergaard puts it, the "damn Yankees," the "regal Kansas City Royals," and the "damn Royals."

The concept behind The Devil's Snake Curve came to Ostergaard in 2003, when an exhibit called "Baseball as America" passed through the Field Museum where he worked. Ostergaard says this exhibit occurred at "precisely the same time that the crescendo to the war in Iraq--the false claims of WMDs--gave way to the launching of missiles. Millions of people who were paying attention knew the war was based on false pretexts." As Ostergaard walked through the "Baseball as America" exhibit, he found it "impossible to reconcile the mythology of the national pastime with the very real war that had just started." He began paying attention to the ways baseball had been represented throughout history, and noticed that representations of the sport often support the nation, even when the nation moves against democracy and human rights. "I noticed that the professional sport is more than a game and more than entertainment," Ostergaard says. "It's also a tool, like a hammer or a gun, which can be wielded by those with political power and financial capital."

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This innovative and politically relevant book was a long time coming. At first, Ostergaard jokes, his goal was to "write a bestseller as a way to meet women and generally embark on a life of ease and adventure." His first attempt was titled Let's All Hate the Yankees, which he discarded because it was too straightforward. He then worked for several years on a novel called The Case Against the Yankees, about an "insane" father and son who spend the entire 20th century accumulating evidence that the Yankees are the worst team in baseball history. This draft was retired to the bottom of a pile of books in Ostergaard's living room, and he started over again. In his third approach, he began to recognize the significance of his underlying obsessions (war, social control, religion, representations as tools, and propaganda), which had remained the same throughout each manifestation of the book. For three years, he worked on a new draft, with the goal of "refuting narrative and avoiding direct argumentation and letting juxtaposition, word choice, and structure do that work." Ostergaard set aside his hopes for publication, and took chances with form and content. Nevertheless, he asserts that he still expects "to sell a million copies and waste the remainder of my life on a beach somewhere in the South China Sea, chewing betel nut and guzzling Pocari Sweat between snorkels." We wish him luck.

Ostergaard began the approach that would become The Devil's Snake Curve while attending the University of Minnesota's MFA program, where he brought portions of the book to workshop. He credits classmate Josh Morsell with suggesting the title, after reading a section about Billy Sunday, a baseball player turned preacher, who claimed the devil wanted to snare good men with a "snake curve." Ostergaard believes his original title, Baseball, Hair, Hot Dogs & War, lacks the artfulness of Morsell's suggestion.

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The Devil's Snake Curve is one of those rare books that finds its way to publication via a publisher's slush pile. Ostergaard submitted his manuscript to Coffee House Press because he respected the work they publish, especially writing by Paul Metcalf. Ostergaard says when it came to getting published with Coffee House, he had "no idea that Chris Fischbach, the publisher, liked baseball. I just got lucky." On Halloween of 2012, he skipped a Father John Misty concert to submit his manuscript on the final day of the fall submission period. Two days later, Ostergaard says, he walked out of a meeting and listened to a voicemail from Chris Fischbach, who said he loved the book and wanted to publish it. "I nearly had a stroke," Ostergaard recalls. "I could barely push the buttons on my phone when I called him back because my fingers had lost their strength. There are a million manuscripts floating around, but unless they find the perfect reader at the right moment, they will have a hard time getting published. Chris Fischbach was that person for The Devil's Snake Curve, and for that I am grateful."

Read the opening section of The Devil's Snake Curve:

Long Ago, in Kansas
The clover in deep left field was delicious. I crouched for a better look, laid my glove on the thick green grass. My shoe was untied. A cluster of purple flowers gleamed, each blossom a mid-inning snack. I picked the best one--not the biggest, because their nectar has usually dried, but the darkest purple bud. I stood, tucked my glove under my arm, plucked the long purple threads, placed their white stems between my teeth, and pulled. Sweet nectar spread across my tongue. Coach called my name. I looked. The inning was over. My teammates were already in the dugout.

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Andy Sturdevant is an artist, writer and arts administrator living in south Minneapolis. His work has been exhibited at the Minneapolis Institute of Art and The Soap Factory. Andy was born in Ohio, raised in Kentucky, and has lived in Minneapolis since 2005. At the First Books Reading, Andy read from his new book, Potluck Supper with Meeting to Follow (Coffee House Press).

The book is an amalgamation of the many aspects of Midwestern life that Sturdevant finds compelling, from artists and public art to communities, history, visual culture, and food and drink. Broadly, Sturdevant says, this book is about "the contemporary urban Midwest. Specifically, it's about Minneapolis and St. Paul. But beyond that, I usually tell people it's also about liquor store signage, train graffiti, trust fund kids, R.E.M., Mary McCarthy, Jorge Luis Borges, winter, the Metrodome, futuristic birdhouses, old man bars, Bert Blyleven, Buffalo Wild Wings, flags, empty storefronts, and Xerox machines. Those are just some of the specific topics that make up the experiences of the contemporary urban Midwest covered in the book."

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Potluck Supper with Meeting to Follow came into in an existence under unusual circumstances. Sturdevant and Coffee House publisher Chris Fischbach had become acquainted through public art and literacy projects in the Twin Cities, such as Works Progress, a public art and design studio. Sturdevant admired the work Coffee House Press was doing, and he and Fischbach casually discussed the possibility of collaborating. When Fischbach suggested that Sturdevant compile a book-length work using short pieces he had been working on for diverse publications, Sturdevant undertook the hard work of combining essays, prose, and semi-fictional pieces into a cohesive whole. The product: Potluck Supper with Meeting to Follow. "It was very unusual," Sturdevant said, "but it felt very organic, like it was the result of a relationship that had been developed through admiration, collaboration, and a shared interest in how literature, art and public programs can overlap."

Read an excerpt from Potluck Supper with Meeting to Follow:

That's why I've always found the idea of "the heartland" as a metaphorical flourish so odd and inappropriate for the Midwest. The heart is the center of the body physically, just as the plains of the Midwest are the geographic center of the country. But think of driving through the exurban interstate corridors in the region's right-wing strongholds and coming across those anti-abortion billboards that picture a gurgling baby proclaiming, "My heart was beating at three weeks!" The "heart" metaphor in "heartland" is getting mixed here, since the heart is also among the earliest organs to develop. The rest of the body grows out from the heart. How could someplace as recently populated and as hastily improvised as the Midwest be the heart of a country at least a century or two older than it is? If the Midwest is the heart of this land, it's an artificial heart, one that's cobbled together from the parts that were lying around.

That very self-conscious, deliberate manufacturing of heritage creates a certain compression of nostalgia. Oftentimes, especially here in the urban parts of Minnesota, you'll hear people talk about the "old Minneapolis," or the "old St. Paul"; they're talking about things that aren't more than forty years old, which almost anywhere east of here is a millisecond, the snap of a finger. They're not delusional. The Minneapolis or St. Paul they knew is in fact gone, paved over or demolished to make way for something else.

Kate Hopper Launches New Memoir Ready for Air

KHopper-Headshot-e1377295675264.jpgKate Hopper's daughter Stella was born two months before doctors could have anticipated. In her new memoir, Ready for Air (University of Minnesota Press), Hopper tells the story of her final weeks of pregnancy, Stella's early life in the hospital, and the "post-NICU world" the family inhabited upon bringing the baby home.

The narrative is "often funny, often terrifying," Hopper said. According to a Star Tribune review, the author "finds that motherhood is not as she had expected it to be... Hopper and her husband cannot even hold Stella when she is born, and Hopper's sadness, and anger, are palpable in her writing."

Hopper began the book in early 2004, in the midst of her time at the MFA program at the University of Minnesota. The new mom took a year off to care for her daughter, and when she returned to the University, Ready for Air became her thesis. She graduated in 2005 with a half-finished draft, which she completed over the next two years. After several rejections, Hopper decided to rewrite the project, giving it new life.

"I printed out the whole manuscript, " she said, "then opened a new Word document and started to write the book again, from the beginning." After two and a half years, Hopper completed a new version of the book, which agent Amy Burtkhardt sold to the University of Minnesota Press in October of 2012.

While Hopper's journey is harrowing, it is not without the power to uplift. "I hope this book is a testament to the strength of motherhood and the transformative power of sharing our stories," She said. The Star Tribune describes Ready for Air as "a comfort to some and an explanation for others, but for [Hopper] it is proof of her own strength."

As for Hopper, she hopes the book will transcend the myths of motherhood. "I had a very challenging first year as a mother," she said, "and part of that had to do with reconciling my reality--the trauma of Stella's birth and the isolation of new motherhood--with the myths of perfect motherhood that are still perpetuated in our society." Hopper hopes Ready for Air will inspire others to "write their truths, whether these are 'acceptable' or not." She wrote her book in part to communicate to readers the strength of a story shared.

Kate Hopper lives in Minneapolis, where she teaches writing courses at the Loft Literary Center, leads writing workshops and retreats, and works in nonprofit development. She has also published a writing guide called Use Your Words, which is based on her Motherhood & Words class.

This Thursday, October 3rd, attend the launch for Ready for Air at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis, from 3--7pm.

Read an excerpt from Kate Hopper's Ready for Air:

When we bring Stella home, she's still too small, and I'm petrified. When I hold her I'm afraid that I'll drop her. And sometimes I'm afraid that I'll accidentally throw her like a football across the room--a perfect spiral against the bedroom wall.
I'm scared to confide this even to Donny, and when I finally do, he laughs.

"Throw her like a football?" His hand cups an imaginary ball above his head and he whips it through the air.

But I insist. "No, I'm serious."

I'm holding her now. In fact, I'm always holding her. She screams when we put her down. Her face turns dark red, and a thin, high-pitched wail emerges from her tiny mouth. She's sleeping, now, though. She's an angel, and I can't imagine throwing her, hurting her. But I look at Donny, and he knows I'm scared, that I don't trust myself.

"I've read about this," I say, "the fear of hurting one's own baby; it is a sign of post-partum depression." And I hand him the pamphlet that one of the nurses gave me before I was discharged from the hospital.

"You're not going to hurt our baby," he says to me, quietly now, tender. He's sorry for laughing, for not taking me seriously at first, and he's nervous, fear opening his arms.
"You need to trust yourself." He kisses my forehead. "You're not going to hurt our baby."
"But by accident, maybe?"

"No," he says. "Not even by accident."

Chasing Shadows with alum Swati Avasthi


On September 24th, MFA alum Swati Avasthi will publish Chasing Shadows with Knopf Books for Young Readers. Avasthi graduated in 2010 with an emphasis in fiction, and her first young adult novel, Split, landed on a number of "best of" lists.

Chasing Shadows, already a selection for the Junior Library Guild, is a YA novel about friendship and loss, featuring comic book-style illustrations and invocations of Hindu mythology. Avasthi's second novel, Chasing Shadows is the fruit of significant labor; the author spent four years creating more than 15 drafts before the book was complete. Agent Rosemary Stimola, whom Avasthi cites as a "great champion" of the project, sold the book as the second in a two-book contract.

A starred review by Publisher's Weekly calls Chasing Shadows "superb" in its addressing of tough subjects. In the face of a devastating murder, Avasthi's young heroines tackle grief and mental illness, and they explore the depths of friendship. The book also received a starred review from Kirkus.

"I read because I yearn to live vicariously," Avasthi says, "to experience more than I ever could in my lifetime." She describes the comfort of recognizing herself in books, and hopes to provide a similar transcendence for readers.


Read an excerpt from Chasing Shadows:

I am not The Leopardess, but sometimes I wish I were.

As I dangle off the edge of this roof, I could use her steel claws. Superheroes get Wicked Toys, Cinematic Escapes, and Guaranteed Wins. If I could live in a comic, I'd be The Leopardess. And if I were The Leopardess, I'd be Fearless.

But I'm just Holly Paxton, so I have to run my fear ragged.

For links:
Author page:
Kirkus review:
Publishers Weekly review:

Kevin Fenton's Leaving Rollingstone

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MFA alum Kevin Fenton ('05) publishes Leaving Rollingstone, a memoir about growing up in a Minnesota farming village. The book visits memories of family closeness and small-town values, an idyllic life that is ruptured by a tragic car accident and a move to the city. As the narrator grows older and his innocence fades, he reflects on his upbringing and his hometown not with nostalgia, but with "a holy kind of consideration," writes the Star Tribute. "Fenton puts the past, warts and all, on a pedestal while remaining fully aware that this nostalgia for when 'things were better' is an illusion that each generation nurtures. Fenton's book is a treasure for readers who want to strike that balance between memory and awareness." read the full review

Leaving Rollingstone is not Fenton's first publication. His novel Merit Badges won the AWP Award for the Novel and the Friends of American Writers Award.

The book is about growing up in a happy family in a Catholic farming village in southeastern Minnesota in the sixties and how the changes that happened to the town, the school, the farm, and his family shaped his life.

A self-described "plodder," Kevin wrote the first draft of the first chapter right after 9/11. A mostly-complete manuscript was his "barely defensible thesis" in 2005. The manuscript kept being a near miss for publishers until he realized the problem: too many characters who were too much alike. In the case of Leaving Rollingstone, it was a lack of clarity and pace that came from pursuing too many themes, he says. "What happens is several smart people who don't know each other all say basically the same thing at the same time." His years of revision paid off. Instead of working with an agent, Kevin pursued a lead from the Creative Writing program that the Minnesota Historical Society Press was looking for memoirs. They bit.

He hopes that those friends who asked, "aren't you too young [at 54] to write a memoir" and who really meant "you're not famous enough to write a memoir" will appreciate the value of memoirs by the non-Kissingers, non-Kardashians of the world. The memoir looks to complicate the perceptions of small town America as a one-dimensional place, either as a haven of innocence or an oppressive community.

Read an excerpt from Leaving Rollingstone:

1962. The village of Rollingstone had just had a picnic when a cloudburst pummeled us, soaked our clothing, and saturated the green of the grass. Everyone else ran for the pavilion or their cars. But because the wind had gusted and blown the yellow plasticware from the tables, my siblings and I suddenly had a job to do. We swarmed after the escaping utensils as they collected under the merry-go-round, flew under the swings, sprayed up against the tennis court. Maybe because I was three, this invasion felt giddy, like being tickled by the sky; the utensils became exclamation marks. Five kids pursued five hundred things. Plucking forks and knives from the ground, we glimpsed the shiny leaves of broadleaf plantain and a frizzy, yellow-flowered grass. But we had to keep running and lung¬ing and grabbing and screaming. The hysterical sky let us act hysterically.

The memory is innocent, but something shivers beneath it. It isn't the giddy freedom that has caused me to remember it; it is the color scheme. The green of the grass and the yellow of the forks scattered in the park suggest the green and yellow of trac¬tors, the green and yellow of corn, and, thus, the farm we aban¬doned. We moved into Rollingstone because one of dad's surger¬ies had gone particularly badly. We sold the farm to an in-law who rented it to our old neighbors, the Herbers, while they built a new house on their farm. Our family talked about the farm all the time. If families had mission statements back then, "regain the farm" would have been ours. Dennis, who had followed Dad everywhere, spent his summer working on the farm of another family on the ridge above Rollingstone.

Here, in Rollingstone, we hosted the picnic because the town had given Dad part-time work taking care of the park. Dennis and the girls helped Dad. He couldn't sprint after forks; he couldn't howl and dart and dive.

MFA Poet Carrie Lorig Wins Chapbook Contest

MFA student Carrie Lorig, a soon-to-be third-year poet in the program, has won Radioactive Moat's chapbook contest for rootpoems, written with fellow poet Russ Woods. Carrie is active in the poetry collective Our Flow Is Hard and has been published in numerous venues. Her chapbook, nods, has just been published by Magic Helicopter Press. tumblr_lx6rf4v0dH1r7p7p0o1_500.jpg

Yes, We Write: A Catalog of Recent MFA and Alumni Books Published

All told, we will have 26 books published (or forthcoming) by current students and alums in 2012-2013, from houses like Knopf, Ecco, Doubleday, HarperCollins, Coffee House, Milkweed, Touchstone, Caketrain, University of Minnesota Press, etc., and so on. Our MFAs rock!

Amy Shearn, The Mermaid of Brooklyn (Touchstone)
Eireann Lorsung, Her Book (forthcoming, 2013, Milkweed Editions)
Ethan Rutherford, The Peripatetic Coffin (Ecco)
Matt Burgess, Uncle Janice (forthcoming, 2013, Doubleday)
Francine Tolf, Eighteen Poems to God and a Poem to Satan (Redbird)
Elizabeth Larsen, Unbored: The Essential Field Guide to Serious Fun (Bloomsbury)
Shana Youngdahl, History, Advice, and Other Half-Truths (Stephen F. Austin University Press)
Amanda Coplin, The Orchardist (Harper)
Joshua Ostergaard, The Devil's Snake Curve (forthcoming, 2014,Coffee House)
Kate Hopper, Ready for Air (Fall, 2013, University of Minnesota Press)
Kevin Fenton, Leaving Rollingstone (Minnesota Historical Society Press, Fall 2013)
Rachel Moritz, Borrowed Wave (forthcoming, 2014, Kore Press)
Meryl Depasquale, Dream of a Perfect Interface (Dancing Girl Press)
Swati Avasthi, Chasing Shadows (Fall 2013, Knopf)
Feng Sun Chen, Butcher's Tree (Black Ocean)
Elisabeth Workman, Ultramegaprairieland (Bloof Books)
Carrie Lorig, nods. (Magic Helicopter Press)
Aaron Apps, Compos(t) Mentis (BlazeVox)
Anna Reckin, Three Reds (Shearsman)
Norah Labiner, Let the Dark Flower Blossom (Coffee House)
Sarah Fox, First Flag and Mother Substance (both from Coffee House Press, 2013-2014)
Liana Liu, The Memory Key (Forthcoming, 2014, HarperCollins)
A.T. Grant, The Collected Alex (Forthcoming, 2013, Caketrain)
Nate Slawson, Panic Attack, USA (YesYes)
Arlene Kim, What Have You Done to Our Ears to Make Us Hear Echoes (Milkweed)

Elisabeth Workman's Ultramegaprairieland Home Companion

Elisabeth is a third-year poet in our MFA program who has authored several chapbooks and is soon to make a splash with her first upcoming full-length book of poems, ULTRAMEGAPRAIRIELAND (Bloof Books, 2014).

While a year away, it's never too early to start the hype. Here we take a sneak peek at what to expect from her work and get some insight into the publication process.

Nicky Tiso: First off, congratulations on the book deal. How does it feel?

Elisabeth Workman: Ecstatic relief. (I've been holding it for so long and now can finally let it go.) And the ecstacy is that it's been embraced/accepted by my first choice (or hope, rather, as if the choice was mine!) for a home for the manuscript--the superlative Bloof Books.

N: I see you've published a chapbook Megaprairieland. Is Ultramegaprairieland conceived of as a sequel? What can we expect from it?

E: It's an expansion of it, an ultra-izing of the mega-ness, with more spectacle and parades and rabid revisionist histories.

N: Did you submit any other places or what advice have you for people looking to get published?

E: Thanks to grant funding, I was able to submit to more than several book contests, which made me feel slightly dubious. The manuscript was short-listed with several presses, which was reassuring, I suppose, but I would encourage people to pursue the presses that are feeding their hunger. What are the books that land their tentacles all over and through you and won't let go? Which books make you a crazy writing zombie? Who publishes them? For me, that was Bloof.

N: Did the previous grants/fellowships you've received help enable you to write this book?

E: YES. Funding from the Jerome Foundation allowed me to pursue a mentorship with Sharon Mesmer and travel to NYC to meet her and do a reading at Zinc Bar with the women of Flarf; support from the Minnesota State Arts Board afforded me the means to isolate and hide out in a cabin for two weeks when I was thirty weeks pregnant and finish poems for the manuscript; and the McKnight Fellowship meant I could finalize the manuscript, send it out, work on new projects, and not have to return to work full-time after I had my baby.

N: Were your chapbooks self-published or did you have a publisher for them?

E: Grey Book Press published MEGAPRAIRIELAND; it was selected through their first open reading period/chapbook "contest," judged by Sandra Simonds and GBP editor Scott Sweeney. My other three chapbooks were published through the Dusie Kollektiv at the invitation of Susana Gardner, which proved to be, not only an exciting alternative to rote publishing patriarchies, but more--an exciting and generative international poetry community.

N: Does Bloof have any relation to Flarf?

E: They both end in F, and are full of wild-eyed pirate poets.

N: Can you describe your writing in three words?


N: Can I describe your writing as "hot gore"?

E: As long as you don't capitalize the G.

N: Books that have really influenced your writing?

E: There are so many. For this project, in particular:
Disobedience, by Alice Notley
The Golden Age of Paraphernalia, Kevin Davies
Warsaw Bikini, Sandra Simonds
Deed, Rod Smith
The Romance of Happy Workers, Anne Boyer
I Don't Have Any Paper So Shut Up (Or, Social Romanticism), Bruce Andrews
the work, in general, of Sharon Mesmer and Nada Gordon and Elizabeth Bachinsky and K. Silem Mohammad and Christian Bök
and lodged willy-nilly in my psyche, Titus Andronicus; Helen Adam; Keats; the Wife of Bath (she was gap-toothed, too); Tristan Tzara; and not least Lewis Carroll

N: Shout outs?

E: SHANNA COMPTON, Bloof Boss and beautiful poet
SHARON MESMER, mentor, sister, birthday twin, atomic bitch poet
SANDRA SIMONDS & SCOTT SWEENEY, fierce poets, editors, supporters

Maybe Malibu, Maybe Beowulf

Then, there was toil,
as toiled the slaves of Rome
in flowy frocks and torpedo tubes
abnormally polite to the love hostage
who realized quite unexpectedly
the "U" in U-boat
is for "venereal."
According to ancient science
after every explosive climax comes
"What then?" Then, entire families,
sitting in the middle of craters
chomping down corndogs. Then,
a little bit of syphilis.
Then, Comic Sans.
Year after year the toil
and the coitus. This would be
the real story told to earth people
in a voice more trusted
than the situation warranted.
What then? Maybe Malibu.
Maybe Beowulf.
Then, when the hills break out
ablaze, people will reach for their
joy sticks and try to transubstantiate
into the infernal wisdom of electricity
using Western techniques and trends.
Hi-fi clap-on, clap-off firelight,
then another high noon
in which staring at the same dot
transfixed for hours could
potentially result
in hot gore.

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Elisabeth's chapbooks include a city_a cloud; Opolis; Megaprairieland; and Maybe Malibu, Maybe Beowulf. Ultramegaprairieland will be her first collection and is forthcoming from Bloof Books in 2014. In 2010, Elisabeth received the McKnight Fellowship for Writers/Loft Award for Poetry, selected by Marilyn Nelson. In 2009, she was a recipient of the SASE/Jerome Award from Intermedia Arts. Her poems have appeared in Abraham Lincoln, Dusie, Boo Journal, Diode, Alice Blue, and lots of other places. She lives in Minneapolis, MN, with the designer Erik Brandt and their daughter Beatrix. For more information, please visit