When was the first time you got paid for writing?
When I was an editor at National Parks Magazine. It took me two years to work up my courage to ask for a feature assignment – and a byline. It was for a one-page piece about the Yorktown Bicentennial.
My first well-received work of writing was a 6-stanza rhyming poem about Washington crossing the Delaware, in sixth grade. I remember one stanza: “A night I figger, for gun and trigger. Ten more miles to the river!”
My mother tells me I wrote songs when I was three. I have proof – she wrote down both lyrics and score. I suspect her of supplying the music. She’s a great pianist.
How is your writing affected by your environment?
I like a lot of peace and quiet and birdsong when I write. It helps a lot to have clean surfaces, but that never happens in my office – well, maybe once a year—and once I get going with the writing it doesn’t matter, I’m deep into it. I am haunted by place—a sense of the natural world, the world of farms and forests, so it’s great when I can be home or at a retreat place, and break up my writing day with walks outside and fresh air. The walks tend to evoke solutions to writing problems, they are like paths through the forest to a clear place. That said, of course I can write anywhere. Well, anywhere there isn’t a loud TV going or explosions.
What fictional character are you most in love with?
E.M. Forster’s Margaret Schlagel in Howard’s End. I love her for her integrity and kindness. She has a kind of delicacy of feeling in her relationships and in her understanding of people that allows her to forgive difficult things. And I love her motto: Only connect. That’s become my book tour motto.
What are some recent books, records, media, etc. that have influenced you?
A recent book: Angela Davis-Gardner’s Butterfly’s Child. I loved how she took a mystery from a Puccini opera, and answered that question thoroughly – what became of the child of the geisha who commits suicide when she’s abandoned by her American lover? It’s quite exquisite. It turns the obvious result—the tragic result—on its head. And I liked her choice of characters for point of view narration, it’s interesting to see how the narration choices give sympathy to difficult people in a multi-voice novel.
Another recent book: What the Zhang Boys Knew by Clifford Garstang. His story cycle includes points of view of each resident of a Chinatown condo in DC. I love DC stories (as opposed to Washington stories, of Capitol Hill life), since I grew up there. There seem to be so few writers telling DC stories – Edward P. Jones comes to mind—and the stories of ordinary people there are fascinating to me. Garstang’s story collections – In an Uncharted Country is the other one—have such a strong sense of community, how little we know each other, yet we are interconnected, even if only by living on the same street or in the same town. It’s a way of surprising us, going into the loneliness of everyday people, finding surprising connections between them. It’s an interesting way of looking at things to me, something I’m working on in my own writing. Also, the two places he’s explored in his writing so far—Washington, D.C., and a town in the Shenandoah Valley that reminds me of Staunton—are places I love.
What are your phobias, disorders and/or manias?
How about tics and addictions? I used to require a certain kind of cookie when I wrote—an arrowroot cookie that had no taste, but had a great crunch, and was strangely soothing, like a pacifier. Long ago I smoked cigarettes, and I used to think I had to smoke to write. Not true. It’s been a long time since I did that, but writing can be like having an anxiety attack when you’re first getting into it—sometimes I need something to soothe the nerves. These days it’s Oolong tea.
I do have Congenital Pile of Paper Disorder – something I learned from my father, who was also a writer and activist. His piles of paper spread all over his fax machine, his desk, his long sofa, and his second desk. Some days, my piles creep onto the floor. The day my dad died there were paper piles two feet tall on all surfaces. It took a while to sift through that, but it was interesting reading. I’m like him in that I tend to be working on sixteen or seventeen things at once – between writing, teaching, consulting, talks, conferences, and projects—and since I’m a very visual person, I have to see the files out in the open in order to really find them. If I put them away, they’re dead to me.
When I was at Headlands Center in Marin County, California, for about 6 weeks I developed a strange multi-phobia of rogue waves, tsunamis, bridges, and Route 1, which hugs the cliffs along the coast. The first day I was there, there was an earthquake and a tsunami warning. The first week I was there, I was standing on the beach and a rogue wave came up and smashed into some people picnicking on the cliff. I found I was okay driving over bridges if I just didn’t look over the side. But on Route 1 I was up near Stinson beach one day, and my husband had come to visit, and he said, “don’t worry, nobody ever crashes here,” and we came around the curve, and a car had just gone off the cliff into the Pacific Ocean. There was a tow truck spinning out about 300 feet of tow line.
I finally learned to use my yoga breathing and calmed down when going over bridges. Not too long after that the bridge in Minnesota collapsed. So it took a while to calm down.
I have a mania for going to the gym. I go a certain time of day and watch HGTV. We don’t have a TV at home, so that’s my secret sin. I love the show where this very handsome young man fixes up people’s basements to rent out, so they can afford their mortgage. I don’t have a basement, but I find it very reassuring that someone out there can fix your financial and house problems in a matter of weeks. Plus, he seems like a really a nice person.
Is literature dead?
Hell no. I’ll keep it alive with my bare hands if I have to. Every time someone reads a good book, a book that is meaningful and exquisite in its language, literature comes alive. I read 3-5 books a week when I’m not deep into a teaching schedule. I figure that helps.
Who is the most underrated writer publishing right now?
I wish they had given Barbara Kingsolver the Pulitzer Prize or the National Book Award for The Poisonwood Bible. I think she’s a tremendous thinker and deserves more. I’ve been reading a lot of A.M. Homes lately, and though her work tends toward the sardonic, it is deeply funny and also satisfying in the solutions people come up with for their lives. I’m not sure what awards she’s won, but it surprises me so much that women writers don’t win prizes for social commentary novels. And then I think Cliff Garstang will be noticed more as he continues with his writing career. He’s got a deep understanding of human nature, he works in interesting territory, and he leaves NO ONE OUT in his broad sympathies.
Who is the most overrated writer publishing right now?
I guess many writers would agree that whoever it was wrote 50 Shades of Gray and all those books is getting way too much attention. Not sure it’s rated highly, exactly. Here’s a surprise, perhaps–I think Joyce Carol Oates is getting a bit tired. But I can’t keep up with her, so maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about. She is like a force of nature. I don’t like talking about this much, I think writers have enough difficulties without being accused of being overrated. I think that if a novel isn’t any good, just don’t review it. Give the space to something you love.
What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done that you’re willing to admit to?
Here’s something I wrote about recently. When I was in seventh grade, I was extremely shy. I was the smart shy girl with glasses. I went to a junior high dance and a boy asked me to dance and I said no. He was a Thalidimide boy and he had no hands, just kind of thinly covered bones at the ends of his arms. It was clear to me that I was a person he picked because I was nice. How I WISH I had been a person who had courage. I love to dance. It would have been splendid of me. But I was not splendid that day. It really pains me to think that I did that. That was one brave kid.
How many jobs have you had? What was the best? The worst?
I have had many many jobs. Lord! Before college I took a year and worked whatever job I could find. I was an intern at Mother Earth News, mostly in the shipping room. I worked as a tile setter on new high rise office buildings in Virginia. I worked my way through college waiting on tables and stuffing envelopes and selling ladies lingerie to pimps at Lansburgh’s department store on Sunday mornings. I made crepe paper flowers for the Florida float for Nixon’s second inaugural parade. I was a super in an apartment building, a teen counselor at a runaway shelter (that was volunteer), a bartender and cook, and a restaurant manager. I was a typist for a kindly university professor, who overlooked my many many typos. Once I moved to North Carolina, I’ve been on a quest for a part time job that would support a writing life. It’s a pretty endless quest. I’m still trying. I have about 15 jobs a year right now—all in the freelance vein.
A favorite job: copyediting chief for Algonquin Books. The scheduling of manuscripts for press was stressful, but every once in a while I would sit up and say to myself, “You are reading NOVELS for a living. Is that cool? Yes it is.” I learned a lot about fictional form and the new Southern writers emerging from Algonquin, and it turned me toward fiction writing. Worst job: proofreading financial statements for Arthur Anderson, Inc. It was so boring that I would drink 8 cups of coffee then fall asleep drooling on my arm. The only thing that kept me alive was writing poetry.