Why There Are Words Literary Reading Series presents:
An interview with Pam Houston
By: Nancy Au
Pam Houston is the award-winning author of Contents May Have Shifted, Cowboys Are My Weakness, Waltzing the Cat, A Little More About Me, andSight Hound. Her stories have been selected for the Best American Short Stories, the O. Henry Awards, the Pushcart Prize, and the Best American Short Stories of the Century. She teaches in the graduate writing program at University of California, Davis.
1.) In reading The Best Girlfriend You Never Had, I was thrown through loop after loop; each character, scene, movement, even the sensory details such as smells, in your story built upon one another — not in a linear way — but around, down, up, and upside down. What does your writing process look like to develop a story this intertwined?
Pam Houston (PH): My writing process is nearly always the same. I try to pay really strict attention when I am out in the world, and when I do that, certain things have a kind of vibration around them—I call them glimmers—they are the things, small or large that say, “hey writer, look over here, listen up, feel this!” Or something in that department. Sometimes they are obvious things, like the moment the vultures tear the corpses apart at a sky burial at a monastery in Tibet, moments anybody would notice. But more often they are particular to me, something in the outside world that resonates with something inside of me, that will help me tell my particular story. The way a mother backhands a child in the checkout line, the way the light hits the surface of a river at dusk. I write them down—“get in and get out fast,” I tell myself. Don’t try to make sense of things, just write where the power is and then move on to another one. Then I combine that glimmer with a whole lot of other glimmers. Because they have all been filtered through the consciousness that is me, they tend to talk back and forth to each other, to resonate individually, but even more so, when brought into proximity with one another, so the whole equals more than the sum of its parts. This, I think, causes the intertwining you are talking about.
2.) After reading your work, I had a strong desire to call up my friends and say, “I just read the most amazing non-fiction story!” One reader on your blog labeled your writing “autobiographical fiction.” How would you characterize your work, particularly the stories in Cowboys Are My Weakness and in A Little More About Me? Are any of your stories non-fiction or memoir?
PH: Well, just literally speaking, Cowboys Are My Weakness is published as a book of fiction, and A Little More About Me is published as a book of personal essays (nonfiction). So we can start there. I have said in the past that my work comes in at about 82 percent true (though apparently sometimes I say 86% — even in this I can’t be absolute, apparently). Generally speaking I turn in a book and then my publisher and I decide together whether it is going to be called fiction or nonfiction, because the same ratio of “how it really happened” to “things I shaped in order to make a better story” is always more or less the same. I have written an essay about this subject, about the fact that all of my work is essentially, but not absolutely, autobiographical, and why I think that is an important conversation. The essay is called “Corn Maze” and it is widely available on line if you type in the title and my name. But in brief, just suffice it to say that because of my writing process, which is described above, most everything I have written, both in fiction and in nonfiction, are things that I have experienced. Everybody has gone crazy lately over nonfiction that turns out not to be factually accurate, but there is so far no law against fiction that is 82 (or 84 or 86) percent true. Because of language’s essential failure to mean, because of the failure of memory, because of the failure of courage, because of the 25 people who saw the same car accident, because my first loyalty is always to the shape and beauty of the story, and not to representing reality precisely, I choose to call the vast majority of my work fiction.
3.) How To Talk To a Hunter is written in second-person point of view. How did you decide this was the point-of-view the story needed? What advice would you give to a writer attempting to write in second person, a point of view that I’ve personally found very difficult to write from?
PH: In my opinion, the second person is the most consistently and unfairly maligned form in the instruction of creative writing. If I had a dollar for every time a student of mine told me professor X told them that they were not allowed to write in the second person, I could take a week’s vacation to Hawaii. The second person, like the first, and the third, is just another tool in the writer’s arsenal and to reject it out of hand is as absurd as saying you can’t use flashbacks, or you can’t use the present tense (two other “rules” the students report). We would sure have to sweep a lot of great books off the shelves if we start making rules like that. I personally love the second person. Not for every situation, but when it is right it is so right. In the first place, it is the language of the American street corner. “So you are standing there, and this guy comes up to you.” Speaking as a Jersey girl, there was a time in my life when all I ever heard was the second person. Also, it nicely deflects responsibility and is, therefore, essentially American. It creates a wash of shame over a narrative presence who doesn’t quite want to fess us, who doesn’t quite want to say “I.” It sets up beautiful rhythms in the prose that are entirely different than the rhythms of the first or third person. I once wrote an essay in second person negative, and it was almost like singing. As far as advice, I guess I would say if you are truly having a hard time using the second person, it probably means the second person is not right for the situation in which you are trying to use it. But if you are having a hard time because some ghost of a teacher in your head shamed you for using it, I say lock that bastard ghost in the closet and start fresh.
4.) I recently read your story The Long Way to Safety so I have to ask: do you yourself own or ride “psychotic horses” on your ranch in Colorado? How can you tell if they’re psychotic?
PH: My horses are too old to be psychotic anymore, and quite honestly, if I were to reevaluate with the wisdom of the fiftenn years since I wrote that essay, I would say they were definitely more on the neurotic side of the line. Deseo used to take every opportunity to display his unease with his surroundings. His favorite trick, on hearing a tree creak or a hawk scream, was to jump straight up in the air, turn something close to 180 degrees and come back down. Roany was more of a hard head than a neurotic. One winter he tried to kill Deseo by not letting him approach the water trough in deep snow (which was especially bad because Deseo was also afraid of the water trough.) But now there are like a couple of old bachelors who have lived together a very long time (and they have). If you take one out of the pasture, the other one goes completely nuts.
Thank you, Pam Houston! See you/hear you Oct. 13, 7:15 pm.
Why There Are Words Literary Reading Series presents:
An interview with Sarah Stone
By: Nancy Au
Sarah Stone is the author of the novel The True Sources of the Nile, which has been translated into German and Dutch and adopted for classroom and book club use. With Ron Nyren, she co-authored Deepening Fiction: A Practical Guide for Intermediate and Advanced Writers.Other publications include short fiction, nonfiction, and poetry in, among other places, Ploughshares; StoryQuarterly; Dedicated to the People of Darfur: Writings on Fear, Risk, and Hope; and A Kite in the Wind: Fiction Writers on Their Craft. She’s written for Korean television, reported on human rights in Burundi, and looked after orphan chimpanzees at the Jane Goodall Institute. She now teaches in the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers.
1.) You wrote the wonderful craft book Deepening Fiction: A Practical Guide for Intermediate and Advanced Writers. How did the experience of writing a craft book differ from teaching in a classroom setting?
Sarah Stone: Thank you for your kind words. Ron and I worked on the book for a couple of years – we’d start at breakfast and keep going, every surface in the house covered with collections of stories, plot diagrams, draft POV charts. We’d talk about a chapter, one of us would draft a section, the other would read it and suggest revisions or take it away and rewrite it, then the other would revise the revisions. Then we’d submit versions to our editor and outside readers, revise again, repeat. In teaching, on the other hand, we walk into our classrooms with elaborate notes and plans – we’ve read, reread, and critiqued workshop pieces; gone through piles of stories to work out readings; developed questions that might open up different ideas about craft and process; made up or found writing exercises that build on the readings or questions of the day; and thought about the sequencing of it all. The difference is that, once you get in the room, all the preparation becomes background. Depending on the conversation and the needs and interests of the writers in the room, you switch up the order, bring in new elements, concentrate on one aspect or another, even throw things out. If it’s a workshop class, of course, it’s crucial to make sure everyone gets their full time. Other than that, it’s all improv. Writing about writing is more like giving a lecture – you can reach quite a few people at a time, but you don’t have the immediate joy of the face-to-face conversation with students. But you still have the same issues to work out, plot or alternative structures, language and imagery, and the enormous challenge of creating believable, surprising human beings out of words on the page.
2.) In The True Sources of the Nile: A Novel the protagonist Anne, an American who works in a human rights organization, and Jean-Pierre, a Tutsi government minister, have an emotionally and sexually intense relationship. I admire the way you created Jean-Pierre—how he speaks, his facial expressions, how he moves read authentically and make me believe that you have spent a lot of time in Africa. If not, how you were able to capture such realism of a culture so different from our own?
SS: I did live in Burundi for a couple of years. One of the things I did there was to collect data on human rights, which meant interacting with some delightful people who appear to have been deeply involved in the revenge cycles of genocide. I’m Jewish through my mother’s side of the family, and her grandfather, grandmother, and most of their children died in Auschwitz-Birkenau, so I’d been reading and thinking for years about how different character aspects show up in different historical circumstances, the qualities in us that make genocide possible. The most difficult character for me to invent was actually Anne, the narrator, so stubbornly naïve, so ferociously in love that, although she’s always looking at Jean-Pierre, at Burundi, she doesn’t see them, any more than she sees her own family. In that way she’s an unreliable narrator – not that she lies to the reader, except insofar as she’s lying to herself. Still, I was asking the reader to see around her, to see what she doesn’t. And though a few characters call her on her illusions, they’re not exactly fully trustworthy themselves.
3.) Your novel is set in a time and place torn apart by war and genocide (Burundi, 1993). What advice would you give to writers who want to approach subject matter as difficult as violence, death, and illness?
SS: Sometimes, for those of us obsessed with human cruelty and other dark subject matters, it’s all about finding the richness, the fascination, even the pleasures in the world we’re inventing or describing. I often focus on this in my teaching, as well as in my own writing. It’s very difficult to have a book that’s entirely dark, with no humor, light, surprises. Every work that takes on these subjects will have something to offer in return, sometimes in the events or characters, sometimes in the poetry of the language, the unexpected images. Writers like Andrea Barrett, Toni Morrison, Doris Lessing, Hilary Mantel, Wole Soyinka, J. M. Coetzee, Manuel Puig, Edward P. Jones, Theresa Hak Kyung Cha, George Saunders, Haruki Murakami, and Iris Murdoch have wonderful – and very different – strategies for writing political, wild, unexpected, iconoclastic books, for tackling the hard subjects: death, war, physical and emotional violence, power imbalances, deception, self-deception, and betrayal. These are all writers who work with strong tonal contrasts, making fiction that can be both very dark and yet also brightly colored.
4.) Your use of colors in your writing is so powerful. What is your philosophy behind how and why you use color?
SS: Like you, I’m both a visual artist and a writer. My undergraduate degree is in painting, and I’m still fascinated by color and shape. My paintings were primarily huge and full of animals: peacocks, aardvarks, poison arrow frogs, wild pigs who’d thought they were rocks until they woke up. They became more and more narrative as I went on. Finally I just began to write. My early drafts aren’t visual at all though. And they don’t have any plot worth mentioning. It’s all people eating, having sex, and talking about politics. Worse, agreeing about politics. Full of exposition and explanation. I’m doing it again in my new book. This very morning, the characters were in a giant industrial kitchen, ostensibly working to solve the problems of world hunger, actually setting the scene for sexual intrigue and betrayal and braising vegetables. Sooner or later, these people are going to have to stop cooking and talking and do something. If this were someone else’s draft, I might say, “These characters are in a situation, but they’re not yet in a predicament.” When I was a brand-new writer, I wrote gleefully; now I see all the problems as I work. Nonetheless, my early drafts are intractable. I have to follow them through anyway. Maybe in the third or eighth draft, something will happen. Meanwhile, no clock is ticking. My characters are making ratatouille.
5.) In your novel you described “Nile perch lapped in palm oil and surrounded by green bananas baked until they were soft, fat, sticky with oil.” This sounds delicious! Have you eaten some of the foods that you’ve described? Do you have a favorite dish? A favorite cookbook (or website) that you’d recommend for authentic African recipes?
SS: The meal I ate most often when I lived in Burundi was boiled beans, fried plaintains, and soambe (manioc leaves pounded with peanuts). Authentic Burundian cooking does tend to use a lot of oil, since it’s a cheap way to get calories: during the time period of the novel, the average pay for a Burundian agricultural worker was just under eighty cents a day. Getting enough calories is definitely not a problem for those of us who live in an area that grassroots food activist and chef Bryant Terry has described as a “food paradise.” His website (http://www.bryant-terry.com/autho/) links to his books, which include affordable, sustainable recipes from the African diaspora, like Spicy Mafé Tempeh in Vegan Soul Kitchen and Funmilayo Fritters with Harissa in The Inspired Vegan. Robin Robertson has a whole section on African recipes in Vegan Fire & Spice: 200 Sultry and Savory Global Recipes, including West African Yam and Groundnut Stew, as well as a website with recipes: Global Vegan Kitchen (http://robinrobertson.com/). In Appetite for Reduction,Isa Chandra Moskowitz of Post Punk Kitchen fame (http://www.theppk.com/) includes global and fusion recipes, including healthy African-inspired dishes like Ethiopian Millet and Mushroom Tibs. Making food, and feeding people, is a nice counterbalance for those of us who spend most of our time in our own – or other people’s – imaginations.
Why There Are Words Literary Reading Series presents:
An interview with C.J. Hribal
By: Nancy Au
C.J. Hribal is the author of the novel The Company Car, which received the Anne Powers Book Award, and the novel American Beauty. He’s also the author of the short fiction collections Matty’s Heart and The Clouds in Memphis, which won the AWP Award for Short Fiction, and he edited The Boundaries of Twilight: Czecho-Slovak Writing from the New World. He has held Fellowships from the NEA, the Bush, and from the Guggenheim Foundations, and has twice won the Sternig Award for Short Fiction. He is the Louise Edna Goeden Professor of English at Marquette University, and is a member of the fiction faculty at the Warren Wilson College MFA Program for Writers.
1.) You’ve said on your website that the “danger in writing about your forebears is that they tend to get lionized.” This makes me wonder if you have ever considered writing a memoir. Do you think the same difficulty lies in wait for the would-be memoirist?
C.J. Hribal (CJH): Oh, I think of writing a memoir, but the fact is that my own life isn’t that interesting. Or maybe it’s that I’ve never figured out a way to shape a non-fiction narrative beyond the illustrative examples I use in my essays. Most likely, though, my impulse to make things up, or misremember, either deliberately or accidentally, gets in the way. I might just be hard-wired that way. That impulse to “make stuff up” happens in memoir, too, of course, and all memoirists, I’m sure, are aware that their shaping of narrative uses many of fiction’s tools—selection, omission, emphasis, proportion, distortion. I’d just rather accept that’s the case and use the material for writing fiction, which provides for me the necessary distance to get at essential truths without worrying that my version of events might offend somebody who might have a different recollection and a different narrative of what occurred. What was it William Maxwell said in So Long, See You Tomorrow? Something along the lines of, “When talking about the past, we lie with every breath we draw.” To which I say, “Guilty as charged.”
2.) As a teen in 1974, you traveled to Sri Lanka, where you “thought you wanted to become a poet.” In college, you studied journalism, before delving into the world of creative writing. How did your studies in poetry and journalism translate into your fiction writing?
CJH: I still read a lot of poetry, especially before I start writing in the morning. The compression and intensity of poetry is something I want to get into my prose, so it helps to remind yourself daily that every word counts, every sentence can be magical. I did think I was going to be a journalist in college, one of those roaming-the-globe-with-camera-and-pen types, and work for National Geographic. But it seemed that so much of what I found interesting seemed to fit outside the inverted pyramid-shape of news stories, or at least needed a different shape to get at the story that I wanted to get at. Sophomore year I took a class in writing fiction, and it was one of those Aha! moments—so this is where all the stuff I’m interested in goes! (I also took a poetry class, which convinced me I was never going to be a good poet.) I’ve written a number of feature articles for magazines in the years since, however, and it helps to be reminded of how important conciseness is—you are, after all, filling in the “news hole,” i.e. what’s left on the page after the ads are placed. A magazine editor once told me he liked the fact that as a writer I came at stories from a different angle than classically-trained journalists might, and that’s probably true—I usually don’t know what the story is when I start, and discover it as I go along. It’s also, unfortunately, a fairly time-consuming way to write.
3.) In your novella The Clouds in Memphis, I felt that the mother’s grief was shown in her hurried, furious courtroom questions. For me, this revealed one of the themes in your writing: how the source of our grief is actually fear of the unknown. We can ask (as Janie does), “…huh? Huh? Huh?” and we are met with silence. Your writing reveals this without philosophical exposition. What is your writing process to get to this point? In earlier drafts, do you find yourself running away from difficult themes/questions?
CJH: I think the hardest and most important thing I can do when I write is work with an empathetic imagination. I don’t know when I get into a character’s head and heart what I’m going to find there. I certainly don’t have a road map for where I want to get to. It’s an exploration, and when I delve deep into a character’s voice and thoughts I try to lose myself, to become them as much as possible. I don’t worry about the philosophy of what they’re expressing, I just want to get at the expression itself. As a person I’ve blundered through most of my life, and my characters often blunder through theirs. Maybe that’s what helps me get at their fear and their grief as well as their joy. Life overwhelms us from time to time, and into the darkness we jump, feet first. That’s what I try to do when I’m writing, catch my characters mid-jump, while they’re still howling on the way down, before they know if the parachute is going to open or not.
4.) Have you always known that you wanted to teach? What is the relationship between this service and your own creative work?
CJH: A quick story to illustrate where I’m coming from: When I was at St. Norbert, I was blessed by a faculty who saw me, a benighted doofus, blundering his way through college, as someone of worth even though I’d yet to demonstrate any. I remember my very first college paper, written for Professor Tom Davidson. I had sailed through high school on my own glibness, and turned in a paper I’d dashed off the night before, thinking my B.S. would be sufficient. Also, I was writing for the school paper already, and thought I was hot stuff. My lit paper came back marked “C” and “see me after class.” After class, Professor Davidson said to me, “I’ve seen your stuff in the paper. It’s pretty good.” Then he held up my paper. “You wrote this last night, didn’t you?” I swallowed. “You’re better than this,” he said. “Never let it happen again.” I never did.
In grad school at Syracuse, I was lucky enough to study under both Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff. They were incredibly generous, both with my work and with my life. Again, they took the time for me. These people took me seriously. More importantly, they taught me to take myself seriously. I was blessed with professors both in college and grad school who were full of the joy of learning—they clearly loved what they did and instilled that love in people like me. I will be forever grateful. And it’s that love and joy and seriousness that I try to take into the classroom with me now, when I teach. I think it’s paramount to try to give back what has been given to you. And I have to say, I’ve learned tons more in trying to teach other people how to love what they do, how to work with seriousness and joy. Besides paying the bills, teaching allows me to connect with people and share this thing I love, and maybe get them to love it, too.
5.) Cornell West described himself as “a bluesman moving through a blues-soaked America, a blues-soaked world, a planet where catastrophe and celebration…sit side by side.” If you were to pick a genre of music to compare your writing or writing-self with, what would it be?
CJH: Cornell West is clearly a very wise man. I’m an omnivore myself—perhaps that’s why my favorite musical artist is Van Morrison—blues, folk, jazz, rock, country—he’s done it all. When I write I often listen to things like Keith Jarrett or Illinois Jacquet, or Lionel Hampton, and I’m sure that influences my writing rhythms. I could write all day to “Flying Home.” Catch me in another mood though, and it might be Henryk Gorecki. If I had to pick one genre, though, I’d probably pick jazz—you have the through line, and you have the variations and the riffs, but it keeps coming back to the through line. There’s seriousness and there’s playfulness both, and in my writing I’m usually trying to marry comedy with darkness—or as West puts it, “catastrophe and celebration.” A reviewer once wrote that I was the laureate of “broken-hearted optimism.” That sounds about right.
Why There Are Words Literary Reading Series presents:
An interview with Ericka Lutz
By Nancy Au
Ericka Lutz is the author of the recently published novel The Edge of Maybe. Her seven non-fiction books include On the Go with Baby and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Stepparenting, and her short fiction and creative non-fiction have appeared in numerous books, anthologies, and journals, including Literary Mama, Because I Love Her, Paris: A Love Story, and Green Mountains Review. She won the Boston Fiction Festival in 2006 with her story “Deer Story,” and was a two-time fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. Her full-length solo show “A Widow’s To-Do List” is in development. She teaches writing at U.C. Berkeley. She is currently writing a second novel based in Oakland about family ties… but this one has ghosts.
1.) Your new novel, The Edge of Maybe, has a hilarious bite to it. Oakland, the city, feels like a character itself, not just a setting for the story. As an Oakland resident myself, I have learned to laugh at the lectures I receive from strangers about tossing my recycling into the trash, leashing my dog on walks, driving instead of cycling. But your book reveals that there is much more below the surface. Was there any point in your writing when you considered changing the setting? How important was it to you that the story take place in Oakland?
Ericka Lutz (EL): The Oakland and Berkeley settings are intrinsic to the book, which is, as much as anything else, my reflection on the time, place, and community I live in. In fact, my original title for the book was “The Oaklanders,” and my working internal subtitle was “How we live now.” I’m so fascinated by this little bubble of mostly-white, middle-class progressive living in the midst of a diverse urban environment. Here, we live among people of all cultures and ethnicities, we pride ourselves on diversity and inclusivity, yet we mostly hang out with other people just like us. So, we can be shocked when people with other perspectives and values land on our doorsteps, which is what happens in The Edge of Maybe.
Oakland has similarities to other enclaves of West Coast progressivity: Santa Cruz, Portland, even San Francisco, but there’s a lot that’s specific to here, to now. And not many people are writing about it. Perhaps we’re afraid that pointing out our own faults and ridiculousness challenges the sincere and worthy premises behind our actions and beliefs.
In The Edge of Maybe, I do take a satirical approach to this community, but it’s satire with love. You can be progressive, and somewhat PC, and be a foodie concerned with sustainability and eating locally etcetera, and still laugh at yourself, I think. At some point, one of the characters in the book muses on the line between observer and participant. Writing this novel about these Oakland-based characters, I got to be both.
2.) You also performed a one-woman show, A Widow’s To Do List. Do you translate fiction writing onto the stage, or do you begin with an entirely different creative process? What elements of story are involved or modified to suit the performance art form?
EL: Developing work for solo performance, at least the way I was taught to do it by my teacher W. Kamau Bell and the Solo Performance Workshop, is less about “page to stage” and more about “stage to page.” In other words, while I eventually end up with a strict script that I internalize and perform word-for-word, my pieces are developed orally through improvisation and through reading scraps of notes and getting feedback from collaborators. It’s ironic that the best solo work is often developed in a group.
When I’m doing solo performance sometimes my writing background is a liability, because I keep wanting to write it out first. But generally if I bring in written material to a rehearsal it sounds stilted, rather than spoken/lived/breathed. So, often I’ll write something out because I think best on paper, but then I’ll get up in rehearsal without what I’ve written and paraphrase it from memory. It’s scary for me to work without paper, but it seems to work best. I record the rehearsal, go home and write down the pieces that worked, then come in with more ideas to improv next rehearsal, and go back and forth like that.
It also always surprises me how far a small amount of material goes on stage. So, it’s really a matter of paring down to the essentials.
3.) You are the author of seven non-fiction books. What techniques, beyond the obvious, are necessary to non-fiction writing but not in fiction writing? What advice do you have for nonfiction writers who want to write fiction?
EL: It’s hard to answer your question about non-fiction techniques because non-fiction is such a broad area. Are we talking advice books? Newspaper articles? Academic papers? Memoir or personal essay?
I believe that non-fiction and fiction are both best when they tell truths, use specific details, and have a great narrative arc. So, they really aren’t so very different.
Technically, I find fiction harder because I have to taunt and bribe and seduce my characters into telling me what they want to do. But emotionally, memoir and personal essay might be harder to write than fiction, and I’ve needed to figure out special strategies to defeat my Evil Editor. Because when the story is personal, I worry about what other people will think, and about questions of privacy and exposure.
In fiction, I get to hide behind the line, “Oh, I made it up!” (On the other hand, sometimes fiction exposes more than non-fiction. In non-fiction I can control what revelations I share. Fiction reveals so much about the author.) Actually, people are often frightened by the concept of writing fiction, though the technical tools are the same. My advice is to start with real life material, whether something that’s happened to you, or a news story that piqued your interest, or something that happened to a friend or family member. Then, change one small but intrinsic thing.
For instance, if you want to base a story on your first heartbreak – but make it fiction – then keep a lot of the details the same, but change something key about the main character. Like the gender. Or even the hair color. If the main character (based originally on you) weighs 200 pounds more than you and is a man rather than a woman, than that will likely have ramifications on how that character experiences life, and that heartbreak, and how people respond to that character.
Now, add in something else real but altered. Yes, the breakup happens on a dark and stormy night. But what if that storm happens in rural Arkansas rather than in New York City. And what if you throw in your best friend’s suicide attempt in college? Seemingly random pairings of unlike things often combine in wonderful ways.
(Years ago, I performed a monologue from Chekhov’s The Seagull while showing the audience a large photo of mating slugs. It brought a whole new perspective to Nina. I like to bring a similar [kind] of surprise to my writing as well, and combining seemingly unlike things can do that.)
Now you’re off adventuring in a parallel universe. Add and change more things. It’s chemistry. What happens when you add This + That? What happens next? And after that? Trust your weird intuition. And don’t be afraid to wander down a lot of dark alleys before you find the right road through the material.
4.) In The Edge of Maybe you use evocative, dense descriptive action to convey emotion, to reveal something about your characters. When Kira went to retrieve her abandoned groceries, she “stooped and gathered together the broken fragments of succulent and slid them in her blazer pocket.” All at once, I was hit by the immensity of what Kira had just lost after meeting Amber – a life that Kira had built together with Adam was broken to pieces, just as the young boy, Joey “stripped years of growth from the succulent – snap!” How do you balance moving a story forward without being weighted down by too much description?
EL: I have no idea how the hell to balance anything (even a checkbook) when I’m in the middle of a first draft. That all happens in the editing and rewriting of the many, many later drafts I do of a book. My first draft is all about letting intuition guide me, and “laying track,” that is, getting many many words down. Once I’ve created my first completely shaggy, bowl-of-Jello-like first draft – in which I’ve mostly concentrated on emotional blurting and character and plot development and scenic description – I can focus on the “stretch and squish” part of writing. I think about the whole arc and read the manuscript really fast many times for flow. I take out words/phrases/passages to speed up the action. I add in description when I need another rhythmic beat. I cut whole huge chunks and weep. I re-envision, rewrite, ad nauseum. I tell myself, “You have to grow a tree before you can prune it,” and mostly I believe myself.
And then I realize things within the mess that I’ve written. “Oh, the bit with the succulent is so cool, because succulents take so long to grow but are really so fragile, but, if treated right, every little broken off fragment will eventually re-root!” And then I’m pleased with myself for being so intuitively smart, and it’s all worth it.
5.) After having lived in the East Bay for over ten years, I’ve found that Berkeley Bowl offers some of the best grocery shopping in Berkeley. Which location would you recommend for first time “Bowlers?” The original “Bowl” on Oregon Street? Or its “sister store” on Heinz Street? And why?
EL: I live in Oakland, so I rarely shop in Berkeley, though of course I had to put Berkeley Bowl in The Edge of Maybe. It’s an institution!
When I do shop there, I go to the original Bowl. Actually, it isn’t the original original Bowl – that Bowl was across the street on the site of an old bowling alley, hence the name, and the aisles were so narrow that there were regular shopping cart bumper car battles fought daily. I’ve only been to the Heinz Street store twice. It’s an easier experience because you can actually park … but it doesn’t have the charm of the Oregon Street location, and maybe not as many delicious choices of berries.
Why There Are Words Literary Reading Series presents:
An interview with Carolyn Cooke
By Nancy Au
Carolyn Cooke’s Daughters of the Revolution was listed among the best novels of 2011 by the San Francisco Chronicle and The New Yorker Magazine. Her short fiction has appeared in AGNI, The Paris Review, and two volumes each of Best American Short Stories and Prize Stories: The O. Henry Awards. These stories were collected in The Bostons, which won the PEN/Bingham Award and was a finalist for the PEN/Hemingway. She teaches in the MFA writing program at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco.
1.) In Daughters of the Revolution, your character Madeleine is described as an expert at “coaxing nature to an unnatural intensity.” This reminds me of how a writer’s craft can lie in forming sentences with words that might not naturally go together to create a compelling emotion or image in readers’ minds. You do this so beautifully. What does your revision process look like to do so? How much work goes into reshaping individual sentences in your writing?
Carolyn Cooke (CC): I appreciate what you suggest here: that our job is to put together words that don’t “naturally go together.” For me writing is like performance art of a solitary kind. You have material, and a shimmery idea or image. But the hot moments happen while you’re blind. You can almost feel the parallel world running through your veins, coming out the ends of your fingers. Other times sentences lie there in a state of such pitiable crudeness you have to pound the keys like a bricklayer chopping old grout with a hammer. Edwin Arlington Robinson spoke of the “ache to be sublime.” I need experiences of the sublime every day. It’s like an addiction: spending hours trying to lose consciousness of ordinary life, waiting for the jolt of capturing something unsayable.
2.) Your character, Carole, is an artist, a gifted painter who “for years…worked only on painted heads…They looked like bowling balls, decapitations. They looked as if they had rolled there.” This image makes me wonder if you are also a visual artist. How do these types of images come into your mind? Do you have suggestions for writers to likewise invigorate their scenes?
CC: My ambition is to write the way Lucian Freud painted. Somebody said that being painted by Freud was like being “flayed alive.” His family sat for him anyway. I would have, too. There’s a brutal quality of attention in Freud’s work that feels almost indistinguishable from love. This has to do with the time it takes to really see people who matter to us – even if they’re characters in a novel. It isn’t a trick of paint or of language. Daughters was influenced by two Chicago painters: Judith Raphael, who paints pubescent girls in attitudes borrowed from heroic Roman sculpture, and Susanna Coffey, who for many years painted only her own head – but many, many versions. I’m not a visual artist, but seek out friends who are. The problems of writers interestingly resemble the problems of painters and performance artists and choreographers. A line like “Build up the color from white” could have been a prompt for Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady.
3.) You have some of the best, most interesting names for characters. What is your process like in selecting first names like “God” (short for Goddard), and last names like Rebozos? Do you have a personal “rule” that you stick to when naming characters?
CC: My mother was delivered by a man named Coffin. New England is filled with people who go by interesting names – Bun, Shirty, Mucker, Squeak. Look at the early witch hunters – Cotton and Increase Mather. As I hammered away at my novel, my God and Carol Faust enacting their gendered drama, Lawrence Summers got thrown out of Harvard for a line of dialogue that might have come from my own first draft – and Drew Faust became president of Harvard! Names matter, but I resist trying to create a semblance of the ordinary. Ordinary life isn’t really my subject.
4.) The idea of individuality and personhood — who we believe ourselves to be — seems to be a theme in your novel. For example, when Mrs. Graves helps to type another character’s obituary (I won’t reveal who’s obituary!), she is overcome with a sense of control and closeness to that person. She could edit the obituary as she saw fit, “feeling she knew him better than anyone.” I took this to mean that we are not in control of our own identity, that others see us (and will remember us after death) as they want to. Can you talk about that? What are other themes that you find yourself exploring?
CC: Virginia Woolf wrote in her diary that “If my father had lived to be ninety his life would have ended mine.” The role of women – especially wives and daughters – in mopping up the literary lives of men, of typing up the remnants as a means of self-expression and because it’s expected, is too provking to thump on here. Sexuality and mortality are compelling themes, too.
CC: I’ve now lived in Northern California for over 20 years – and feel liberated to shift focus from the world of Daughters. Right now my desk is piled up with reading about technology and identity – Walter Isaacson’s biography of Steve Jobs, and a couple of books by Ellen Ullman: Close to the Machine about her life as an early software engineer and her new novel, By Blood, about adoption, the liberation of Bergen-Belsen, eavesdropping, sexuality, and San Francisco in the 1970s. Ronaldo Wilson’s Narrative of the Life of the Brown Boy and the White Man – incredibly sexy, scary work. Wilson spontaneously creates prose poems — and records them on his iPhone while running. He’s literally an insight machine. Justin Torres’s We The Animals – because I’m about to meet him at Why There Are Words! I have a big, messy scribbled-over copy of my forthcoming collection of short stories, Amor & Psycho, and eight or ten small yellow lined pads filled with urgent matter – images, dreams, stolen dialogue, lists of books, essential lines. Half the time I can’t even read the words. Sometimes misreading is useful. Maybe the point is just being surrounded by writing, by the mess and process of it.
Why There Are Words Literary Reading Series presents:
An Interview with Lysley Tenorio
By: Nancy Au
Lysley Tenorio is the author of the brand new debut collection of stories Monstross (Ecco Harper Collins, February 2012). His stories have appeared in The Atlantic, Zoetrope: All-Story, Ploughshares, Manoa, and The Best New American Voices and Pushcart Prize anthologies. A Whiting Writer’s Award winner and a former Stegner Fellow at Stanford University, he has received fellowships from the University of Wisconsin, Phillips Exeter Academy, Yaddo, The MacDowell Colony, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Born in the Philippines, he currently lives in San Francisco, and is an associate professor at Saint Mary’s College of California.
1.) Your story, Monstress, which I listened to you read on KQED Arts, had me spellbound, laughing and crying, shaking my head in wonderment. I recently learned that May is Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month. And just like your character Gaz Gazman, I thought, “Jackpot! Eureka! This is the real deal!” I need to interview Lysley Tenorio.
One of your characters in Monstress used the term, “chop-suey cinema,” to describe the splicing together of East and West genres. Your writing defies stereotypes. You do not stigmatize your Filipino characters. What advice can you give to writers who want to write about characters where English is a second language?
Lysley Tenorio (LT): If you mean to show the nuances, challenges, and metaphorical possibilities of English spoken as a second language, then you should render it accordingly and realistically. If that isn’t important, I think the best thing to do is to not worry about it, to simply keep the dialogue sharp and concise, and always meaningful and surprising.
2.) In an interview that you gave for St. Mary’s College, (where you are an Associate Professor), you spoke of writing with an emotional heart and, that once we identify what the heart is, the story will come. I love this. What do you tell your students about writing with heart but avoiding sentimentality? What is sentimentality in writing?
LT: Sentimental writing demands an emotional response from the reader that hasn’t yet been earned, and is often clichéd, lazy, and meaningless. Even a well-written scene that is dramatically persuasive can border on sentimentality, when it lingers too long on a moment that indulges and ultimately isolates—and therefore decontextualizes—broad and simplistic emotional moments. As for telling my students about writing with heart? I’m not sure I do that. Maybe the closest thing to it is when I tell them to render each moment as authentically as possible—to render intelligently and persuasively the relationships between character, action, dialogue, setting, etc., in every single moment.
3.) In that same interview, you spoke of the beauty in short story writing, that the truest test is making sure that every word counts, paring away the excess. This reminds me of your characters in Monstress who pared down or abbreviated their names, “declunked it down to its smoothest sound.” Sounds. Sound in names, spoken accents, individual vowels and consonants. As a teenage Chinese-American growing up in San Francisco, I paid attention to these diverse sounds; the less sound a kid made, the less different they were, and this was a “good” thing. Your characters often battle with a similar sense of belonging. What are other themes that you write about? And why?
LT: It takes me a while to recognize some of the other thematic meanings of my work. But I think I often deal with the idea of beauty, of the possible future vs. the definitive past, trying to reconcile the ridiculous with the serious.
4.) In Monstress, you described Gaz’s homemade movie set as “…attempting magic from junk.” In some ways, I feel that this is what we fiction writers try to do. Put together pieces of memory and magic, and call it imagination. What advice can you give to writers who say that they’ve run out of ideas to write about?
LT: Read The New Book of Lists. It’s full of wonderfully weird and unexpectedly moving facts (“Secret Armies of the CIA,” “Days of Extinction for 8 Birds,” etc.). And if you read the Odd News sections on any news site—CNN, Yahoo, MSNBC—you’re bound to find some scenario worthy of reimagining. And if a fiction writer has run out of ideas because she/he has nothing else to draw from their own personal experience, then that’s a good thing: if you want to write fiction, get out of your life; it tends to be a lot more fun.
Why There Are Words Literary Reading Series presents:
An Interview with Meredith Maran
By: Nancy Au
Meredith Maran is a book critic, award-winning journalist, and the author of several bestselling nonfiction books including My Lie, Class Dismissed, and What It’s Like to Live Now.A member of the National Book Critics Circle, she reviews books for People, Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, and the Boston Globe, and writes for a number of magazines. Since publishing a poem at age six in Highlights for Kids, she’s dreamed of publishing her first novel. A Theory of Small Earthquakes is it.
1.) You have such an inimitable talent for nonfiction writing (as shown by your ten nonfiction books, and the multitude of essays and articles that you’ve published over the years). What inspired you to branch away from nonfiction to write your extraordinary debut novel, A Theory of Small Earthquakes?
Meredith Maran (MM):I love a challenge. The theme of my life could be described as “Why do it the easy way when the hard way is available?” I’d written poetry, essays, investigative journalism, memoir, and book reviews, and I was in my 50s, and I’d always wanted to write a novel and it seemed to be a now or never kind of thing.
Also, I wanted to write what I love to read, and my favorite form of literary submersion is fiction.
2.) You once stated that your writing is focused on your “greatest passion: the difference between how things are and how much better they might be.” How do you feel that your novel approaches this passion, compared to your nonfiction writing?
MM: In exactly the same way, but with a spoonful of sugar–love and sex, that is–to make the medicine go down. I’ve always felt that fiction has great potential to change people, and thereby the world; the book that got me writing in the early 1990s was Barbara Kingsolver’s The Bean Trees. I just wasn’t sure I had the chops to make it work. Back to the bucket list: I didn’t want to die not knowing.
3.) A Theory of Small Earthquakes interweaves complex issues of motherhood, love, gender and sexuality, among many others. Are there any influences in your life that led to your writing of this evocative and deeply memorable story?
MM: There’s good evidence that I’ve been bi since birth, but I didn’t have a relationship with a woman till the early ’80s, the same era when my characters meet in an Oberlin “Wimmin’s Studies ovular” and fall in love. So the rule of first novel as autobiographical novel holds. I found that time and that world so utterly compelling when I was walking around holding a woman’s hand for the first time. Later, I found it hilarious. I wanted to share the intensity and the ridiculousness with friends–and by friends, I mean readers.
I started writing Earthquakes in 2004, when the first round of gay marriages were happening at SF City Hall. I wondered about all the gay couples, including gay parents, who had died without having that chance, and I wondered whether gay marriage could stop being such a big deal if more straight people understood what a not-big deal it is. Nothing like a “relatable” bi protagonist to introduce the masses to the world of “who cares who you love?”
4.) You’ve been a Writer in Residence at UCLA, the Mabel Dodge Luhan House in Taos, Yaddo, Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Mesa Refuge, and Ragdale. Do you have any advice for novice writers who are thinking about applying to a writer’s residency?
MM: Start by applying to smaller, less competitive colonies. There’s a huge difference between the ratio of applicants to acceptances for a place like Yaddo versus a less elite colony, and you get the same magic effect either way. All relevant info here: http://www.artistcommunities.org/about-residencies
5.) Lastly, I have to ask: What was it like living with the cast of “Hair,” in London?
MM: Just as you would imagine it to be. Bear in mind, this was 1969-1970. Can you spell “Drugs ‘n Kundalini yoga for breakfast?” The actors were actually super-sweet and funny and eccentric–mostly in the good way. And needless to say, nudity wasn’t an issue in the house.
Why There Are Words Literary Reading Series presents:
An Interview with Kate Moses
By: Nancy Au
Kate Moses is the author of Cakewalk, A Memoir, nominated for a Northern California Book Award, and the internationally acclaimed, award-winning novel Wintering: A Novel of Sylvia Plath, published in fifteen languages. As a founding editor and staff writer for Salon, Kate Moses co-edited Salon’s groundbreaking daily feature Mothers Who Think and two bestselling anthologies of essays on motherhood inspired by the site, Mothers Who Think and Because I Said So. A native of San Francisco, she teaches in the creative writing programs at San Francisco State and the University of San Francisco.
1.) In your novel, Wintering: A Novel of Sylvia Plath, you explore the last few month’s of Sylvia Plath’s life. Your work also explores the idea of a fraught identity–Plath felt she was many things (writer, mother, wife) and nothing (as revealed in the quote above). Did your experience as editor of the anthology and Salon.com’s, Mothers Who Think, (an evocative and diverse collection of essays about motherhood) inform your writing of Wintering: A Novel of Sylvia Plath?
KM: I never could have written Wintering if not for my experience as a mother who is also an artist. The experience of editing Mothers Who Think, both the daily website and the anthology, was just as essential to my understanding of how all-consuming and individual is the experience of motherhood. I first read Sylvia Plath seriously when I was a first-time mother of a newborn, and clutching my baby son to my chest I kept asking myself, How could she have done it? How could Plath have left her children, when the evidence of her profound love and respect for them is in her poems? How could she have given up on herself and on them?
I wrote Wintering while a mother of two small children, like Plath, and while editing Mothers Who Think. That process taught me that the creation of art and the raising of children calls on the same internal resources — your heart and your full attention — and also taught me the paradox that motherhood, raising children, is such a common experience but at the same time it can be so completely isolating. You so often feel like you are on your own, making it up as you go along and hoping for the best, never feeling like you’re giving enough or good enough. I realized for the first time how hard Plath struggled to give herself fully to both her artistry and her children, while at the same time battling personal demons and mental illness she didn’t even know she had. In the end I felt such compassion for Plath as a woman, a mother, an artist — I could see how she had finally been swamped by her illness, no matter how hard she tried to fulfill all of the roles she’d set for herself.
2.) Your work has a lyricism, rhythm, and eloquence often found in poetry. Was writing or reading poetry a part of the process when you wrote this novel?
KM: I think of poetry as my “religion,” what I turn to for internal sustenance. I don’t write poetry myself but I think — I hope — it seeps into my writing. Plath’s poems were the inspiration for Wintering and I read them with the same necessity and constancy as breathing while I was writing the novel. But I also read the poetry that mattered to Plath, to try to get deeper inside her head: Shakespeare, Yeats, Dickinson in particular.
3.) Along these same lines, could you describe a typical day of writing? What does your process “look” like?
KM: I spend more time looking like I’m doing something else other than writing: walking the dog, cleaning my house, baking. But while I’m doing those things I’m really doing the heavy lifting of my writing. Mostly I don’t write on a schedule or have a typical writing day, I wait for the words to shape themselves internally before I can sit down. It never works for me to sit at an empty computer screen or an empty page. But once the words are in my head and the urgency has arrived I absolutely have to drop everything else and write: phone is off, internet is off, dinner and beds don’t get made. When my daughter was small she coined a phrase for what it’s like when I’m writing: “Mommy’s behind the door.”
4.) What authors or poets or memoirists have most influenced you?
KM: I could go on and on with this, but I’ll try to keep it to my inner sanctum: Janet Frame, Lawrence Durrell, Michael Ondaatje, Jayne Anne Phillips, Eudora Welty, Virginia Woolf, Leo Tolstoy and William Faulkner in fiction; Sappho, Jack Gilbert, Plath of course, Anne Carson, C. P. Cavafy, Robert Fitzgerald’s translation of Homer, and Emily Dickinson in poetry; and particular memoirs — Ondaatje’s Running in the Family, Mary McCarthy’s Memories of a Catholic Girlhood, Janet Frame’s three-volume autobiography, James Salter’s Burning the Days, Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, the autobiographical writings of Welty and Woolf, and Mary Karr’s three memoirs.
5.) Your memoir, Cakewalk, “tells the story of a girl whose insatiable appetite for sugar and stories was the key ingredient to surviving her unhappy family.” So, the question must be asked: Do you have any cavities?
KM: Let’s just say I would be horrified if anyone wanted to look inside my mouth, and I spend a lot on toothpaste.
Why There Are Words Literary Reading Series presents:
An Interview with Kirstin Chen
By: Nancy Au
Kirstin Chen is a 2011-2012 Steinbeck Fellow at San Jose State University. She has won awards from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and Emerson College. Her stories have appeared in Hobart, Pank, Juked, The Good Men Project, and others, and have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and the Best New American Voices anthology. She holds a BA from Stanford University and an MFA from Emerson College. She currently lives in San Francisco, where she is completing her first novel, Soy Sauce for Beginners, set in her homeland of Singapore. Her fabulous short story, I’ll Get Back To You, can be found here.
1.) Was I’ll Get Back to You based on true events in your life?
Kirsten Chen (KC): A lot of my fiction begins with a true event, but not this particular story. I actually got the idea for I’ll Get Back to You after discovering that website, postsecret.com. (People mail in their secrets anonymously on homemade postcards, and the website displays them.) Someone wrote in confessing that his grandmother had recently passed away, but that he continued to call her cellphone in order to hear her voice on the voicemail recording. I just couldn’t get that idea out of my head.
2.) Were you raised in Singapore? And how did this impact your views on the ABC characters that you wrote about in I’ll Get Back to You?
KC: I was indeed raised in Singapore, but I left home at the age of 15 to attend boarding school in New Hampshire, so right now I’ve spent exactly half of my life in America. One of the things that strikes me, though, from having spent time with many Asian American friends is that they often have very fraught or complex relationships with their parents’ homelands. Obviously, it’s tricky to generalize, but I’m going to do it anyway. Whether they ultimately embrace or distance themselves from their parent’s homelands, the decision is purposeful and sometimes guilt-inducing. This is a bit of what I tried to capture in the character of Lucky: she struggles with how to deal with the Chinese ritual of Qing Ming Jie, and what she can do on her own to honor her dead sister in San Francisco where she lives.
In contrast, I think my relationship with Singapore is much less fraught. I view Singapore in the way an American might view his or her somewhat-cosmopolitan hometown. I was happy to leave to experience other countries, and while I have no plans to go back (mostly for mundane reasons, my husband’s job, the fact that San Francisco is awesome), under different circumstances, I could easily return. I feel the same way about “holding on” to my Chinese / Singaporean culture: my culture never seems to be in danger of slipping away from me. It’s right there in Singapore, with my parents and grandmother and uncles and cousins. I can go back to it whenever I want.
3.) I recently read an interview with the author and teacher Don Lee in the October/November issue of Writer’s Chronicle. In it, he discusses the transition “of trying to get away from being labeled merely as an Asian American writer and breaking through as [a writer] who happens to be Asian American.” What are your thoughts on the label, Asian American writer?
KC: I love Don Lee’s writing. He was at Emerson (where I got my MFA) the first year I was there, but he left to teach in the Midwest before I could take a class with him. I totally understand where he’s coming from when he talks about the challenges of being an Asian American writer, but I’m not actually sure the term applies to me. In many ways I feel like a Singaporean writer who happens to live in America, as opposed to an Asian American writer. How this actually plays out in my work, I’m not entirely sure, aside from the fact that much of my fiction is set in Singapore and in other parts of Asia, as opposed to in America.
That being said, readers probably assume I’m Asian American, and that doesn’t really bother me. Building on what I said earlier, my relationship with the term, Asian American, may also be somewhat less fraught. The best way I can attempt to explain it is this: I grew up in a country where everyone looked like me and talked like me. I never experienced being a minority until I moved to America, and then I experienced, and still in many ways continue to experience, America like an expatriate, as a long-term or maybe permanent visitor.
4.) Your forthcoming novel, Soy Sauce for Beginners, is set in Singapore. Can you tell us a little about it?
KC: The novel is centered around a family business, an artisanal soy sauce factory that has preserved the traditional art of slow brewing, and is the last of its kind in a rapidly commercializing industry. (Much like wine, real soy sauce is aged in barrels for months and months, but in a lot of the sauces we see on supermarket shelves, the aging process has been sped up through the use of chemicals). The protagonist is a young woman who returns to Singapore from America because of a series of unhappy events: her American husband has just left her for another woman, her mother has developed kidney failure. Once she’s back in Singapore, she begins for the first time to become immersed in the work she’s tried all her life to escape, and must eventually decide whether to forge ahead with her new life, or return to the one she built abroad.
5.) Are you bilingual? If so, how does this affect your writing?
KC: I would say I was once bilingual, but am no longer bilingual. In particular, I’ve lost a lot of my reading and writing capabilities in Chinese (as you probably know, there’s no alphabet in Chinese, so everything is based on memorization.) If anything, right now, I’m more fluent in French than I am in Chinese. (I studied it in college and lived in Paris for a brief period).
That being said, speaking multiple languages, and spending time in many different parts of the world has definitely affected my writing. In Soy Sauce for Beginners, I’ve worked very hard to capture the way Singaporeans speak Singlish — an amalgamation of English, Chinese, Malay and Tamil. I also recently started a new project, set on a tiny island in Southern China at the time of Chairman Mao. All the characters speak in English translation (i.e. the dialogue is in English, but the reader understands that the characters are speaking Chinese to each other, and that they are reading a translation). Knowing how the characters would sound in Chinese has definitely influenced decisions I’ve made about tone and voice.