Interview for Writers at Work 2013
What inspired you to write your first book?
I remember reading The Catcher in the Rye for the first time and being carried away to a world that was more compelling and vivid than the world I was living in. I was enthralled. My mother called me for supper and I didn’t move. She called again. I told her I was sick. I wanted to do that for other people—to carry them away to a more fascinating world, to make them care about darlings that I had made up.
How much impact does your childhood have on your writing?
The source of much of the material that finds its way into my writing is my own life, my own values, my own emotions. Not so much the actual events of my childhood, but its emotional legacy. Flannery O’Connor said that anyone who has survived beyond the age of twelve has enough fictional material for the rest of her life. And remember, too, the unexamined life is not worth living.
What did you find most useful in learning how to write?
I went to Catholic schools. We learned how to diagram sentences in fourth grade. I loved doing the diagrams and learning the architecture of a sentence. One day, many years later, when I was trying to tell stories with my writing, someone told me what a plot was. Knowing how to write was not enough, he said. You also need to know the architecture of action. And that was the best advice I ever got.
What are a few pitfalls a new writer would do well to avoid?
- Writing for money
- Writing to become famous
- Writing the same story over and over again
- Writing to take advantage of a current fashion in literature
- Writing to show how clever you are
- Writing about anything other than what keeps you up at night
What are some day jobs you have held? How did any of them influence your writing?
I worked in a plastics factory. We made tea sets and lawn gnomes and plastic bowling pins. I drove a cab, painted houses, tended bar, picked blueberries, cleaned toilets, worked at a crisis intervention center, ran a drop-in center, was a youth worker in drug programs, did freelance writing, did newspaper layout, and I’ve taught for a long time.
What inspires you? What motivates you to write?
The familiar definition of inspiration as “divine guidance or influence” seems fanciful, romantic, and false to a writer. We aren’t inspired to write. We write and then we are inspired. The muse only comes to the writing desk. She’s not hanging out at the pub or in the TV room or at the party. In other words, you don’t wait, you write. There are many people who want to have written. Writers want to write. We don’t have trouble sitting down at the desk. We have trouble getting up from the desk.
Are there any occupational hazards to being a writer?
Not if you like being alone and don’t mind a limited income or the necessity of a day job. You may lose or offend some friends or acquaintances because you’re stealing from their lives for your precious stories. People who know me know they shouldn’t tell me their wonderful stories because I’ll use them. But they can’t help themselves. If you tell me you’re using the material, I won’t appropriate it. You don’t have much of a social life because you’re writing. Everything in your life is calling you away from the writing desk, and you resist it all.
What is it that makes a collection (poems, essays, or stories) hang together?
It can be any number of things. Place can tie things together as can the thematic material you’re exploring. Reappearing characters can. I usually let theme guide the writing of my stories and my longer pieces. A story has to have a point, has to be about something.
How do you know when a book or individual piece is complete?
You realize that it never is finished, but you’ve done all you could to do justice to the lives of your characters, and you have new worlds to make up. When you find yourself spending all day putting in a semicolon and then taking it out, you’re finished.
What books are you reading now?
I tend to read a dozen or so books at the same time. I leave them in different rooms and pick the closest one up. So here are some: Life after Life, Jill McCorkle; Heart of Palm, Laura Lee Smith; Blowout, Denise Duhamel; Postage Due, Julie Wade; Moby-Dick, Herman Melville; Rattlesnakes and the Moon, Darlin’ Neal; The Drunkard’s Walk, Leonard Mlodinow; Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead; The Boys of My Youth, Jo Ann Beard.
What is a book by another that you wish you had written?
Reading Turgenev by William Trevor.
Which of your own books is your favorite?
No Regrets, Coyote, which is coming out in July.
What did you enjoy most about writing your most recent book?
I always enjoy the opening months of writing when everything is new and you’re creating a world and people out of nothing. It’s exhilarating walking around in this place that had not existed before I set to work and spending time with fascinating new friends. And then the final revisions are just the best. Going over and over the book, and knowing that each time you read and revise the book gets better. So the beginning and the end. All that part in the middle is so hard. And even that is fun when it’s not being temporarily frustrating.
What do you think is the future of writing? How will technology change literature?
The future of writing will remain quite like its present and its past. (Well, not quite. We don’t have to make our own ink anymore, our own paper, and we don’t need carbon paper to duplicate our pages. Technology has made it easier for the writer to concentrate on composition and creation and it will continue to do so. But ease isn’t always beneficial, and writing isn’t supposed to be a snap—telling a story is taking the path of most resistance. We don’t want a thought; we want complete thought.) Those of us who choose to will sit in quiet rooms and make up stories (or poems or essays or plays or some other brave new form) out of thin air. We’ll work our pieces into shape and send them off into the world. The future of publishing, however, is another matter.
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!