Nicole Walker – 2013 Writers@Work Interview 

What inspired you to write your first book?

My first book is This Noisy Egg—a collection of poems where lyric and narrative fight in the same way nature and nurture fight. That book was about working out my relationship to my dad’s death, my desire to have a baby, and how the seeming randomness of the world can actually be a good thing. Putting unlikely things together is my favorite thing about writing. 

How much impact does your childhood have on your writing?

Childhood is everything. Little folded puzzles to unpack. But unless I situate my childhood in some broader contexts—like nature, politics, and science—then I don’t get any meaning out of the unfolding. 

What did you find most useful in learning how to write?

Form. It’s true for essays too. Without line breaks, rhyme, word play, even in the loosest sense of the word, the language becomes flabby. That goes for nonfiction too—white space, sections, and research push the language beyond the ordinary.

What are a few pitfalls a new writer would do well to avoid?

Sending out work too soon, before it’s finished. Confusing publication with writing success. Success is the satisfaction of having something to go back to, to revise, to write again, to launch yourself into a new iteration. Caring too much what other people think. Conversely, not really listening to people when they respond to your work. 

What are some day jobs you have held? How did any of them influence your writing?

I worked at the Oregon Winegrowers Association where winemakers turned what began as dirt and plant into delicious wine. If there’s a better metaphor for writing, I don’t know of one. I worked at the Oregon Humane Society which makes me remember that being kind is more important than being successful. Also, the taking care of plants and animals, the kind of attention you must pay them, is practice for the kind of attention you must pay to the world to get it in your writing.

What inspires you? What motivates you to write?

Sometimes, being mad is the best. I have a whole file of “Letters to the Editor” that I never send out. Those can turn into poems and essays. Obsessions fill most of my work. Food, the word “micro,” the health care industry. If things are driving my brain crazy, the only way to get them out of my brain is to get them on the page.

Are there any occupational hazards to being a writer?

Sometimes, you think your obsessions are charming when they are indeed not. Also, if you write a lot about food, you may do too much “research.” And since one writes about obsessions, it’s easy to privilege obsession. OCD is a disease. Practicing how to be simultaneously obsessive for your writing and not obsessive in your personhood is a lot of work. Mostly, I fail.

What is it that makes a collection (poems, essays, or stories) hang together?

Choosing a few registers of images. One should be expansive and inclusive but not at the expense of coherence. Images of birds, screwdrivers, spit balls, bacon, and feather dusters—that’s a good start. But throw in too many tractors, tables, coffee cups, bras, and bobbypins and you might overtax your reader. You’re creating a world but not the whole world.

How do you know when a book or individual piece is complete?

When I read it and it doesn’t immediately make me close the screen of my computer. I want to see the interest in there. I can never divorce myself wholly from the piece but when I go to revise something and type a sentence that I think needs to be there and I see that exact same sentence in the next line of text, the coherence is there. 

What books are you reading now?

I just finished Amy Leach’s Things That Are. It’s a wild book in the true sense of wild—animals are agents of their own story. The animals become characters. There’s no love of a character so much as the love for a goat. I’m just finished Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve, about Lucretius’s On the Nature of Things and how such a paradigm-changing text survived into and through the last 2000 years.

What is a book by another that you wish you had written?

My main impulse is to say “All of them” but that seems a bit greedy. Toni Morrison’s Beloved. John Berger’s To the Wedding.

What did you enjoy most about writing your most recent book?

When I rearranged some of the sections and a new way of seeing the book just clicked. In the book, I’m working on, Salmon of the Apocalypse, I read an essay aloud to my students in an attempt to explain how to marry research and narrative and I had a new idea for how to structure the whole book.

What do you think is the future of writing? How will technology change literature?

Technology has already changed how I write. I write shorter essays, interspersing them with longer ones because it’s hard to read long on the internet. I write things with hyperlinks inside them. I can imagine linked stories between authors, not just between stories. Ways that story will collapse and expand depending on a reader’s interest. Serialization might make a comeback. Readers will always like whole paper books too. The idea of a book to get away from technology will persist.

Writers @ Work is holding its annual writers conference at Alta Lodge in Alta, Utah, from June 5-9. See our conference page for all the details and register today!

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