“‘Harbors’ Surprised Me”: An Interview With Donald Quist


Last year, we published “Til Next Time, Take Care Of Yourselves and Each Other,” a moving essay by Donald Quist. Since then, that essay has appeared in his collection Harbors, which explores questions of identity, geography, and nationality. It’s divided into two sections, one of which explores Quist’s life in the United States; the other focuses on his life since moving to Thailand. Via email, we discussed the process of writing his collection, his future literary plans, and his work on the podcast Poet in Bangkok.

The first half of Harbors is comprised of essays about life in the United States; the second focuses on your life overseas. Had you started work on the book before you moved?

I started work on Harbors after I had already moved to Thailand. I wasn’t aware initially that I was working on essays that would become a book. No lie, Harbors surprised me. In 2013, I was invited by one of my favorite journals, Numero Cinq, to contribute nonfiction about living in Bangkok. I submitted a piece that would later become “Cartography”, the essay that opens the second half of Harbors. Following the NC publication, I started writing more nonfiction. Being so far away from the USA and being submerged in a culture I didn’t entirely understand gave me plenty of opportunities for self-reflection, and also, a chance to ponder my home from afar. I wrote about these feelings and was able to place some essays at different journals. Some of that work caught the attention of Tatiana Ryckman and Wendy M. Walker at Awst Press, and they asked if I’d like to work together on a project. The idea for Harbors came to me after looking at the essays I had accumulated and thinking about topics I’d like to further examine. I tried to craft a cohesive narrative that strung these recollections together in a way that others might find helpful/useful. I hope the book succeeds in that.

Have you found any difference in your writing process since you moved overseas?

My writing process in Thailand hasn’t really changed. I still work in concentrated bursts, fits of creative energy that can last minutes, hours or days. I still write by hand and then type, editing as I go. I still print completed drafts, read them aloud to myself forward and then backward, sentence by sentence, to try to make sure each line justifies itself. These are things I’ve always done. There’s no ritual to it. I will write anywhere and I don’t own a desk. I do have a preference for places with a lot of foot traffic, like a busy coffee shop. I think all the movement and cacophony drives me to action. There’s an urge to contribute my own pencil scratches and tapping keyboard to the collective noise. About the only thing that has changed since moving overseas is having more time to dedicate to the process.

Your first book, Let Me Make You a Sandwich, was a collection of short stories. Have you found yourself writing more nonfiction or fiction these days, or are you finding a balance between the two?

During my MFA I got really zealous about the divisions between forms. I strictly identified as a fiction writer. Publishing Harbors has freed me from the notion that one should stay in their lane and never venture into other creative formats in fear of failure or being labeled a fake. At 5, I said I wanted to be a writer; I didn’t make a distinction. As a kid I wrote plays, poems, comics and novellas. I think that younger iteration of myself had the right idea. I’m currently working on both fiction and nonfiction, and even sending out a few poems. I don’t think I’ve necessarily found a balance between all the things I want to do. I’ve committed to making whatever I feel like making whenever I feel like making it. I’ve resolved to trust that I’ve cultivated the skills to be able to discern if what I produce might be worth sharing with others. If the majority of people don’t like what I release that’s a bummer, but hopefully it resonates with someone somewhere.

Are there certain subjects or themes that you find easier to write about in the context of a story or an essay?

If I believe there is a correlation between consumerism and human rights violations, I think an essay would be a better form to examine that theme. I could more easily employ third-party accounts and personal anecdotes to illustrate this thesis. If I want to explore a perceived connection between anti-environmentalism and ideologies centered on an afterlife—how one might place less importance on ecological preservation when they view the Earth as a place only to be survived until eternal peace after death—I’d be more inclined to use a story. To me, the difference is between the concrete and the conceptual: nonfiction to examine what I know and can prove; fiction to explore new ideas to reveal what I might think.

Your essay “Till Next Time, Take Care of Yourselves and Each Other” brought back memories of Jerry Springer’s time of ubiquity. Did writing said essay change your feelings on Springer at all?

I genuinely enjoy The Jerry Springer Show. The only thing writing that essay changed is the shame I’d feel admitting to anyone that I like it un-ironically. I’ve got no remorse now. There are millions of Americans that identify with the folks that appear on Springer every weekday. As Jerry said, “We can’t just have mainstream behavior on television in a free society, we have to make sure we see the whole panorama of human behavior.” There are obviously aspects of the show I dislike, but I’ve learned a lot about empathy while watching Springer and showing respect to others despite their faults. Also, the Final Thoughts are most always well stated.

You also co-host the podcast Poet in Bangkok. Is there a substantial expat creative community there?

There are a large number of expat artists in Bangkok grouped within diverse overlapping communities. It can appear very cliquish, with many expats unwilling to venture outside their circle of friends that share a similar discipline. When Colin Cheney and I began collaborating on Poet in Bangkok, a semi-fictional podcast about making art between Thailand and the USA in the shadow of thuggish demagogues and imperiled missions to Mars, one of our aims was to have the project serve as a resource for expats artists within Bangkok to discover other creative people. We wanted to bring people together. We’re in our second season now and it’s been a lot of fun chatting with writers, painters, musicians, comic artists, actors and stage performers.

Are you working on a new book now?

I’m working on a short story collection. Right now it is called For Other Ghosts, it explores how the stories we receive, and the narratives we choose to tell, affect personal and cultural identities. Reoccurring characters and themes of loss and reincarnation link the narratives. Each story blurs genre and plays with form. I’m excited about it.

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