An Interview in ForeWord

Favorite childhood book?

The Yearling by Marjorie Rawlings, about a young boy’s adoption of an orphaned fawn. My love of books about the fraught relationships between animals and people started young. Most of these stories are ultimately about loss. Another book I loved, though less well known, was Old Bones the Wonder Horse by Mildred Mastin Pace.

What have you been reading, and what are you reading now?

This summer I was able to immerse myself in books I had stacked near my bed. Among them were Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel, The Lover by Marguerite Duras, Full Body Burden by Kristen Iversen, Just Kids by Patti Smith, We the Animals by Justin Torres, Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes, and The Most of It by Mary Rueffle.

I am currently reading Adam Braver’s Misfit, Betty Jane Hegerat’s The Boy, and Jeanette Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?

What types of books do you enjoy reading, or what makes you love a book?

While I am now a creative nonfiction writer, teacher, and reader, I love all genres. My specialty in graduate school was modern poetry and I still try to read at least one poem a day. To keep up in my field I read widely in contemporary essay and memoir. But to the extent that I have the time, I read across the genres—novels, memoirs, collections of essays, and books of poetry. I am a reader of serious literature and look elsewhere for pure entertainment.

Five must-have books for a desert island

Jane Eyre (because you always need your inner rebel), Bleak House (comfort will come despite the worst), Mrs. Dalloway (it’s about living in your mind, and you’re going to be doing a lot of that), As I Lay Dying (like having a bunch of people with you), and Krapp’s Last Tape (riches in memory and exile).

Book that changed my life

Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping. Every sentence matters in this story of women among themselves.

What was it that brought you to writing?

From childhood on I felt that I would be involved in something expressive and creative, out of the norm. My father sold life insurance, and his father and grandfather operated the Aldrich Pump Company in Allentown, Pennsylvania. They were a practical lot, and my father was worried about my “mooning” around. Until college I was taken up with singing, acting, and horseback riding. My English teacher in my junior year of high school, Mr. Hinderlie, asked us to write a short story a day for three weeks. He also introduced us to “real” literature. That year began my turn towards writing, but it wouldn’t be until college that I realized how fully it called me.

Did anyone inspire you to write?

I studied with Denise Levertov in a one-month intensive course. She asked if she could publish one of the poems I wrote in her workshop. The experience of working closely with her that cold January and then having her pick one of my poems was a watershed. She was the most inspiring writing teacher I had. She did a flip on the carpet to demonstrate how a poem should surprise and spring off the page.

How do you write? Do you have a daily routine? What’s good, bad, and ugly about the process?

For much of my writing life I was a working mother, and my home office was smack dab between the bedrooms of my children, in the midst of chaos. I now have a quieter place, but time is still hard to find.

The best time of day to write is the early morning before daily life begins. I like to sit in bed before my mind is written upon by what needs to get done, by practical demands. Just awake from sleep and dreams, but not yet revving the engines—that’s when my best writing occurs. The trouble is I can’t enjoy that luxury on a daily basis. It’s not that I’m waiting for inspiration; I’m waiting for time.

What did you have to unlearn, un-believe about yourself to find your truth as a writer? What had to go?

While it is essential to study great writing, you shouldn’t try to sound like anyone else. Teachers often tell students that they must trust their voice. But it’s often hard to know how to do so. There have been important voices for me—Charlotte Brontë in Jane Eyre, Virginia Woolf in A Room of One’s Own, and Jamaica Kincaid in Annie John, to name three. They helped me hear what a voice is. Then I had to hear my own.

Is finishing harder than starting? Is there a part of you that doesn’t want to let go?

Yes, finishing is much harder than starting. It’s exhilarating to begin. For one, I don’t know where I’m going, and that’s exciting. Second, everything seems possible in the beginning. It’s a bit like starting a relationship with a person—everything is to be discovered, and we fool ourselves into thinking everything we experience will be good. Along my writing way, I encounter difficulties, complications, even blockages. I might lose my faith that what I’m working on is worth writing, that I have the skill and stamina to realize my vision.

Some of what I write seems to write itself—it just springs forth fully developed. That doesn’t happen regularly. More typically I have to fight through rough spots and hang on until I’ve worked my way through.

Do you have any particular story to tell concerning the writing of this book?

The structure of Companion to an Untold Story is not the form I began with. In the beginning I wrote a version that was closer to a biography and tried to provide a more exhaustive account of my friend’s life and death. I discovered how many things I didn’t know about him, how many gaps there were between the man I thought I knew and the man he had come to be. It became clear that in part my subject was how the mysterious resides within the familiar. His suicide exposed that central fact. I also came to see that I had left myself out of the story. In the final version I strive to be a companion to my friend’s story, and the theme of companionship runs through the book.

What advice have you received concerning writing? What advice would you offer young writers?

I’d pass on Virginia Woolf’s words from A Room of One’s Own: “So long as you write what you wish to write, that is all that matters; and whether it matters for ages or only for hours, nobody can say.”

How did you find the publisher for this book?

To be honest, I encountered some difficulty. I submitted the manuscript to a handful of contests, one of them the Associated Writing Programs creative nonfiction prize. The judge, Susan Orlean, picked my manuscript. The University of Georgia Press has made a beautiful book of it.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m working on a memoir titled Haze, which returns to my college years to look at my education, both inside institutional walls and outside, my place and role as a young woman.

When not reading, I am:

Walking my dogs, preparing classes, answering email, swimming, trying to keep the plants in my yard alive despite the drought, and writing!