A Look Back: Lara Donnelly

This article was originally published on April 5th, 2015

Lara Donnelly's premiere novel, Amberlough, was published on Feb. 7, 2017. She is now working on her second novel, Armistice.  

She sat across the conference table from me.  Pale, Pocahontas braids, black smudgy-lined eyes.  A high school Junior, she interviewed me for the high school’s theatre productions director.  Adults interviewed me too, but in a town like ours that spawns such professionals as anthropologists, sociologists, and artists, it’s the child’s voice that matters.  I got the job.  Lara Elena Donnelly.  She picked me.

Lara starred in three shows that I directed.  She took my art classes, sang and danced in my art room at lunch, and talked endlessly about her stories.  I hear fellow writers say that writers are quiet so they can listen.  I say art takes all kinds.  I don’t espouse a certain type (sure, there are commonalities in artist types).  Successful artists must first and forever be: talented.  Lara is talented.  As a teenager, she participated in the Alpha SF/F/H Workshop for Young Writers, first as a student and then as a peer instructor.  Of her many art interests, it is her writing that soars with higher skill and deeper love.

A graduate of Wright State University, Lara received a B.A. in English with a concentration in creative writing, as well as a minor in women's studies. She received the Presidential Commendation for Excellence in Co-Curricular Activities four years in a row, and graduated magna cum laude, with honors.  During and just after college, she was a four-time finalist in the Dell Award for Undergraduate Excellence in Science Fiction and Fantasy Writing, and won the award in her fifth and final year of eligibility.  After college, she attended the six-week Clarion Writers Workshop at UC San Diego.  Lara says, “[At Clarion] I honed my craft beside seventeen other amazing authors. We were taught by Jeffrey Ford, Delia Sherman, Ted Chiang, Walter John Williams, Cassandra Clare, and Holly Black.”  This summer, Lara, with great anticipation and excitement, will return to teach at Alpha and mentor the students as an on-site staff member.

We, art creators, art appreciators, critical viewers of the world, who teach the arts to artists, know one pure truth:  We supply.  We push.  We add sugar to the hunger.  And then we get out of the way.  Every now and again, as an arts teacher, I get to savor a bite of a student’s sweet reward: a lollipop day when I receive an excited call, text or email (all in caps),


Lara Elena Donnelly, braids replaced with a Pixie cut and cherry red lipstick, trading out jeans and sandals for pencil skirts and shapely heeled legs, Lara, the songstress of fantastical stories, the brilliant ruminator, Lara the soon to be PUBLISHED AUTHOR contacted me with the great news!  Her debut novel, Amberlough, is due out from Tor Books in Fall ’16. Here is just a taste:

When the glamorous city of Amberlough becomes a battleground between the corrupt old regime and a nascent fascist party, a smuggler, a stripper, and a spy form an uneasy alliance built on sex and secrecy. 


Faced with a series of bitter choices—faith or treason, fight or flight—Aristide Makricosta, Cordelia Lehane, and Cyril DePaul navigate an increasingly precarious cityscape of prejudice, corruption, and bloody ambition.


Amberlough brings together the high-stakes suspense of John LeCarre and the sex appeal of Cabaret. Fans of James Bond and Jacqueline Carey will be right at home reading this fantastical thriller, rife with intrigue and dripping with champagne.


For more updates, follow Lara online at laradonnelly.com, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.

An Interview With David Starkey, Creative Writer in Four Genres

An Interview With David Starkey, Creative Writer in Four Genres:

David Starkey has experience writing in four genres: poetry, dramatic writing, creative nonfiction, fiction, as well as pedagogical textbook writing. The following interview explores a moment of David Starkey’s insight.

Rebecca Kuder, published author and instructor in Antioch University Midwest’s Individual Master Of Arts Program, introduced me online to David Starkey, published and prolific poet, as well as head of the Creative Writing Program at Santa Barbara City College. I share in his enthusiasm for poetry and dramatic writing. Starkey teaches these genres, as well as others, and has a long publication career. He was gracious with his input, answering questions and helping me learn specific approaches to the writing process.

AA: Your poem, “Apology” touches me, speaking broadly about the experience of ‘leaving behind,’ yet so distinctly through those named in it.  I shared “Apology” with many people, and it resonated in such a way that we found ourselves recalling ‘our olden days.’  In poems like “Apology,” “Hope,” and “The Murder Suspect, Moments Before He is Confronted by Police,” and in manuals such as Poetry Writing, Theme and Variations, there is a universal good will and invitation to poetry.  I admire how your work reads easily and cloaks its complexity.

DS: That’s quite a compliment, Andrea—thank you. I’m not sure about the “universal good will,” but I do think poetry needs to invite the reader, especially when there are so many other distractions out there.

I’m typing this in the Newark Airport, after a week spent in New York, and it strikes me (again) how little high-brow poets seem to care about the sort of intelligent reader who might be willing to give poetry a chance, but instead feels immediately shut out by the deliberate obfuscation of avant-garde poetry. I sometimes wonder, to reverse your formulation above, if this poetry consists of simple ideas cloaked in unnecessary complexity.

That’s not say that I have anything at all against this sort of poetry being written and read. In fact, in my textbook, Creative Writing: Four Genres in Brief, I think I give far more space and play to avant-garde writing than any other contemporary textbook author. I want students to be able to decide for themselves which aesthetics are closest to their own. Still, while I try not to be a nostalgist myself, I suppose I am drawn to those poignant moments in our lives, rendered clearly and artfully.

AA: What was the process like when you became Santa Barbara’s Poet Laureate?

DS: The selection process involves being nominated by several fellow citizens, then that nomination goes to an Arts Council special committee, where it’s approved by the full committee, and then it goes to the City Council and the Mayor for a final vote. Pretty complicated.

Fortunately, I was preceded by two good friends, Barry Spacks and Perie Longo, who had lived in the community much longer than I had. They gave me a lot of support and guidance—before, during and after I was Poet Laureate.

The highlight of my tenure was probably Poems for Santa Barbara, a half-hour video produced by the local TV station. I solicited ideas for poems from Santa Barbara residents, then I chose those I thought I could turn into the most compelling poems. I wrote the poems, and a camera crew and I went all over Santa Barbara videotaping. (You can find the video with a Google search.) http://vimeo.com/15266185

AA: When reviewing both your own writing and others’, what constitutes good work?

DS: That’s a tough one. My biggest poetic influences are probably 20th-century British and Irish poets: early Geoffrey Hill, Philip Larkin, Michael Longley, Derek Mahon, Seamus Heaney, Ciaran Carson, Vona Groarke. So I suppose I’m always listening for the music I associate with that poetry, the telling images, the brevity. I want to hear it in my own work as well as in the poetry I read. However, I think I’m generally more forgiving of other poets than myself.

AA: What advice do you offer regarding submitting work versus keeping it in a prolonged seasoning, marinating state?

DS: I went to graduate school back in the 1980s, when there was still a chance that if you came out with a decent set of publications, you might land a tenure-track job teaching creative writing. So, early on, I always erred on the side of sending things out too early. I needed the publications.

Over the years, though, especially as I’ve moved to a community college, where no one cares if you publish anything or not, I’ve become more selective about the marinating process.

Nevertheless, I feel like there’s a tipping point. A piece of writing gets to a moment where it’s not going to get much better than it already is. If you still like the piece, send it out and see what others think. If not, it’s time to put it away and forget about it for a while.

AA: Recently, I read Paul Scot August’s interview in Connotation Press about your use of light and dark in your work, that you have a “cheerful public persona” but when you are alone you are “often quite gloomy.”  I feel a kinship to that.  Your piece, “In Praise of Happy Endings,” feels like it articulates this optimism/gloom, with the placement you describe, promising a wisecrack and moving to a darker strand.  Please expand on the statement about the duality of optimism with closeted gloom.  How does it find its life in your work?

DS: That just seems to be who I am. Laughing and joking with colleagues and fellow writers, then waking up in the middle of the night, obsessing about death. My wife has a trick for that when I start squirming at 3 a.m. She tells me, “Don’t worry: they’ll have a cure for that by then.” “That” meaning “death.”

I think my cheerfulness keeps my writing from sinking into the depths of melancholy, while the darker side keeps in check any literary silliness I might be inclined toward.

AA: What do you mean by “literary silliness”?

DS: Being overly clever, or being clever for its own sake. Sylvia Plath and Emily Dickinson are models for me of finding the sweet spot between darkness and light. Certainly, they were often disconsolate, but what great (dark) senses of humor each of them had.

And maybe that light/darkness is also a response to who I am as a writer. Fairly talented, moderately successful, but certainly not a name to conjure with in New York. When I was in my late twenties, I wrote a series of poems called Adventures of the Minor Poet. I guess I’m still living that life.

AA: Conjuring Plath and Dickinson makes me think of isolation both in their despair and their solitary, astute yet humorous observations.  How do you think they kept from sounding maudlin?

DS: Clearly, they actually feel the pain they’re writing about. That’s crucial, although I also think there’s some truth in Oscar Wilde’s famous bon mot that “all bad poetry springs from genuine feeling.” Plath and Dickinson don’t sound maudlin because they always put their art above their emotions. That’s the advice I always give to students: if you really want people to pay attention to how you feel, you need to express your feelings in language that’s worth reading.

AA: It sounds like you learned to balance the cheerfulness and the darkness early in your career.  How do you guide students who have a tendency to sink and stay in the depths in their writing?

DS: That’s hard. I think it’s probably true that creative people are touched by melancholy more than the average person, and to the extent that delving into that shadow world produces good work, I’m all for it. But I think you have to be able to step back from the work, and say, “Look how miserable I felt. Look how beautifully I wrote about it. Now I’m going to get an iced coffee and chat with a friend.” Writing should be a way out of despair. In that regard, Emily Dickinson remains a model. Sylvia Plath, alas, not so much.

AA: I notice that you do not have a blog.  Is that correct, and could you please expand your comments to include how you advise new writers on the matter?  What opinions can you add to the good and evils of Internet sharing?

DS: I admire writers who have the tenacity to write a blog, and I’m told by everyone that it’s an important element in remaining visible in the online world. That said, I’m personally turned off by writers’ blogs that do nothing but sing their own accomplishments. I’m thinking of a particular writer I know who seems to spend far more time crafting his/her blog than actually doing the real work of writing literature.

Still, if someone came along and told me of a fool-proof way of selling lots books through the Internet, I would most certainly be listening!

AA: Lastly, for artists who self-edit, in an attempt to keep from slipping into the deeply melancholic prose, what advice do you give to those who tamp the melancholic voice with such control that it strains expression?

DS: My advice would be to embrace the melancholic voice completely in the drafting stages, to explore it for all it’s worth. Then, in revision, privilege craft over pure feeling. Write the work that someone besides you will want to read.

David Starkey: Formerly the Poet Laureate of Santa Barbara, he is the Director of the Creative Writing Program at Santa Barbara City College and an English professor. Amidst a wide body of published work, he has textbooks for creative writing instruction:  Creative Writing: Four Genres in Brief (2008), Teaching Writing Creatively (1998), and Genre by Example: Writing What We Teach (2001). He has poetry collections including Adventures of the Minor Poet (2007); Ways of Being Dead: New and Selected Poems (2006); and Fear of Everything (2000).  Garrison Keillor of The Writer’s Almanac has featured David Starkey’s poetry.  Starkey’s fiction has been featured in American Literary Review, as well as Rio Grande Review, Sou’wester, and in the anthology Blue Cathedral: Contemporary Fiction for the New Millennium.  Many of his creative nonfiction pieces have been published, and his plays have been produced in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, and other locales.

Originally Published Ob Nov. 19, 2014