Conversation started 2 December 2015, 1:30 p.m.
REBECCA: Okay! I’m going start by being selfish and asking what I really want to know: How has the process of writing changed for you over the years? Do you feel as if your creative impulse comes from the same place it always did? (And do you ever feel tapped out?)
KATE: ooooh, a process question. i love a process question.
let’s see. i’ll start with the easier part first: does the impulse come from the same place?
that is the same. it is a *need* to tell a story, to make sense of the world through story.
and that need has remained unchanged through everything.
it seems to be a part of who i am.
on the surface, the process is the same, too.
that is: i mostly hew to two pages a day.
i am a little more comfortable in the final stages (5th or 6th draft) doing multiple two page sessions in a day.
the fear is still there, too.
and the reluctance.
but the odd thing is that there is more *joy* in it now, too.
i’ve relaxed into it somehow.
i’m not sure when that happened, that relaxing.
re: tapped-out-ness. i remember when i was first sending stories out and i would think: what if they get lost in the mail? or what if someone steals the story. and i would always think: oh, it doesn’t matter; there are so many stories in me.
now that i am older (51), i still feel all the stories, but that sense of infinitude (the “if you prick me, i would bleed stories.” isak dinesen) has maybe lessened some.
does that make sense?
are you going to answer these same questions now?
and also: what book have you felt deeply passionate about in the last two weeks?
REBECCA: It’s funny, I have always felt a kind of kinship between us – it’s the ways in which we talk about writing. Fear, for example. I hope I never forget how great it felt when we were on a stage somewhere with Jack Gantos, who turned to us and said, “you feel AFRAID?” and we both said, “YES.” I’m paraphrasing. But yeah, that felt good.
I don’t have a need to tell stories, though. I’m not full of stories. I have never been full of stories. What comes to my mind when I try to think of a story is the most generalized, most uninteresting kind of thing. So general and uninteresting that it almost isn’t there. My younger son, Eli, wanted me to tell him stories when he was little and I was just awful at it. We came up with a dog and a chipmunk who went to work with Sean (my husband). In the first story, they wanted to steal a sandwich from the fridge in the office kitchen. In the second story, all I could think of was: Um, they want to get a brownie from the fridge in the office kitchen? I can’t explain how helpless I feel in the face of a demand for a story.
What I think I do have is a longing to be tender toward the world. George Saunders – I know we both love him – has written recently that literature “is a form of fondness-for-life” and I think that’s what drives me. But I never feel particularly ready to begin. I don’t know if that’s the same as feeling tapped out.
Deep passion in the last two weeks! Hmm. I have loved Laura Amy Schlitz’s The Hired Girl, which I finally read last week. And I also read Honor Girl, a graphic memoir by Maggie Thrash that knocked me out. And We are all Completely Beside Ourselves, by Karen Joy Fowler. That book, in my opinion, achieves something that I think about a lot when I’m reading (and writing) – a kind of exquisite control that creates authentic, powerful emotion. George Saunders is someone who does this beautifully, over and over. Also William Maxwell in So Long, See You Tomorrow, a book about which I never shut up. And, this year, Jim Shepard’s The Book of Aron. I finished that book and, several minutes later, found myself walking around the apartment crying. I’m completely vulnerable (in a way that I like) to a story where the emotion runs underground. Until it doesn’t. (An example of a picture book that affects me this way is William Steig’s Brave Irene.) It’s as if these writers are slowly, slowly drawing back their bowstrings. You don’t even see it happening. And then – zing. But they manage it without sentimentality or sensationalism. William Maxwell said that he always wanted “the line of truth exactly superimposed on the line of feeling.” That’s mostly what I want, as a reader. And it’s what I am reaching for, unsuccessfully, when I write.
KATE: i feel that kinship, too! (i wonder if i am supposed to be using capital letters (to honor that kinship)).
oh well . . . anyway.
and yes. jack gantos was genuinely appalled by us and our fear.
bravely forward we go though–appalling and fear-filled though we may be.
and can i just say that tenderness that you speak of, i know it very well.
it is that oft-repeated (at least oft-repeated by me) quote of e.b. white’s that all he wanted to say, all he ever was trying to say was that he loved the world.
and to me, that is why all of his words seem to matter so much, because he bore down on them with that love.
same for our friend william maxwell.
i found jim shepherd’s *the book of aron* absolutely haunting, terrifying, beautiful, unbearable and (oddly) triumphant.
and *we are all besides ourselves–* that is another–haunting, terrifying, beautiful, unbearable *and* funny. rare, that combo.
lately, i have been obsessed with your most recent book (truly, and not because we are having this conversation).
you draw that bow back slowly. you deliver that zing. i cried. i won’t tell you where.
i wonder if you can guess where. i cried.
and last night (a night of helping a friend with a father in the hospital, a night of not-much sleep), i sat and recited all the character names as a way to comfort myself, and i thought: what will happen? how will it all come together? and it did come together so beautifully, with such a zing to the heart.
- have i asked you this before? have you read william maxwell’s correspondence with sylvia townsend warner?
do you like steig’s *sylvester and the magic pebble?*
REBECCA: Thank you for those wonderful and crazily generous words. I read them on the subway after a strange book signing at a fancy club on the east side where I sat at a table for two hours while people carefully avoided eye contact. Anyway, you made me feel great. Of course, I’m curious about when you cried. My favorite moment is probably when Jamie comes to sit with Bridge after her nightmare. (My favorite moment in my last book is one where a character opens a door and says, “come in.” But I don’t think many other people feel the way I do about it.) I hope your friend’s father is doing okay.
The Book of Aron – yes to everything you said. I really think it’s a masterpiece, and I don’t use that word lightly. I want more people to read it. I don’t know why it isn’t on every end-of-year list. These lists make me crazy sometimes. And awards. And that way we have of looking out in order to be convinced of something that’s in. I think you are very disciplined about not looking out, and I don’t really know how you do it. I have things I don’t do (I don’t read amazon or goodreads reviews), but I do read other reviews. I read blogs. I tweet when I’m not on a twitter break (The month of December is a twitter break.) A couple of summers ago I went to the Tin House Writers Workshop (where, full disclosure, my workshop was led by Jim Shepard). It’s a lot of writers on the Reed campus for a week in July – some of the faculty can live comfortably on their royalties and others can only dream of doing so. But everyone there felt employed – their work was writing (and, often, teaching). I sat one day in the auditorium and just took that in. Anthony Doerr gave an inspiring talk called “failure.” It was so great. (This was before the Pulitzer.) Yet I find myself very afraid of failing.
I haven’t read the Maxwell/Townsend Warner correspondence. Do you love it? I think I have written that down four times but I never actually got the book. Sylvester has always been agony for me. That long terrible separation. The ending doesn’t make up for it.
Do you plan ahead much?
KATE: it’s the bit about mr. partridge and the black and white cookies and why we’re all here.
which dovetails neatly with *your* favorite part–jamie comforting bridge after the nightmare.
and do i plan ahead much?
oh my goodness.
i am a list-maker, a type A-er, a planner in the extreme.
it’s laughable how much i plan.
but i don’t plan the stories.
i plan how i am going to do the *work* of the stories.
but not the stories themselves.
writing is the only place i have learned to be patient.
and it is also the only place i have learned to not to try and control things.
do you make an outline?
and i love *tin house.*
and i have long been an admirer of anthony doerr.
he wrote the most fabulous essay in granta a couple of years ago.
okay, them’s my scattered thoughts for now.
hey, yes. reviews. i read what my publisher sends. even that is hard.
i am always working to find a balance, to get out of the way of my ego, to let the story breathe without suffocating it in the needs of the ego (and the needs of the ego are profound).
REBECCA: Nope, I don’t plan. I don’t outline until I have a full draft and am revising. But I have moments when I WISH I could plan. Because tolerating the not-knowing is seriously unfun for me.
I’m glad that was the place you cried. I sort of felt as if I was “going for it” in that scene – do you know that feeling? Not the most comfortable. I’m always asking “have I earned this moment?” I have to stuff the local authorities in a trunk and shove it waaay back in the closet before I can write a scene like that. I saw a tweet once (yes, a tweet!) from someone at an MFA program (Brooklyn College, I think). It said “To achieve sentiment, you have to risk sentimentality.” I have thought of it often. Do you agree?
KATE: re: sentimentality. i’ve been accused (in some review) of teetering on the edge of sentimentality and sometimes falling right in.
and i think: well, fine. i fell in. my characters fell in. life is a sentimental business, right?
and sentiment is part of what we need when we read, to move us toward that catharsis.
i remember the first time i read a george saunders story.
i was in the bathtub (too much information), reading the new yorker.
it was a short story called *the falls.*
do you know that story?
it is incredibly funny, sad and very, very moving.
i was so blown away that i spoke out loud in my little bathroom. i said, “who *is* this guy?”
REBECCA: This weekend I was having lunch with two writer friends and we talked a little about just how hard it is stay open enough to write in the presence of all the chatter. You’re right – stories need sentiment. When we fall in – something impossible to measure, really – it’s just more evidence of our commitment.
I just read The Falls – one nice thing Saunders does for all of us who struggle to write fiction is model the gorgeous flying leap. He does it over and over and apparently I need to read it over and over. I don’t know if the sentiment is on the page or inside me, but either way it works.
That story was published in January 1996 – twenty years ago. One of the pages of the magazine includes a poem by Donald Hall about packing up his mother’s house and the end of his time with his wife Jane Kenyon, who was dying. I happen to know (because he wrote about it in a forward for his wonderful book Life Work) that after she died he suffered through a long fallow period, followed by more love, more work, more life.
One last question for you: I just got an email announcing that Gene Luen Yang is the new Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. This means you are officially retired from the job, though I assume you get to keep the title. What was that experience like? Did it change anything about your relationship to books or the book-reading community?
P.S. Happy new year.
happy new year to you.
are we done asking questions?
because i didn’t get to ask if you are working on something now.
and i didnt get to ask if you are happier when you are working, or happier when you are not working.
and i am just back from handing the torch to gene.
he gave an amazing speech and i am so excited about him stepping into this role.
and hmmmm . . . did it change me?
it was only toward the end of the term that i realized that this message that i went out into the world to deliver was getting delivered to me everywhere i went.
that is: i realized how much i connect to the world through story.
something kind of *solidified* in me; the connection to the readers, to the stories just seems more certain.
does that make sense?
REBECCA: It does make sense. It’s a vital connection. Stories feel more and more important to me – each one is a string that leads . . . to an individual? To a particular world of questions and ideas? Social media feels like a hive mind, and a hive mind, for me, is the enemy of any kind of impulse to generate material. Everything that comes up feels used, pre-digested. But when I read stories, I want to write again. And to answer your question, when am I happier – I’m happier when I feel as if I’m one of a tribe, part of something bigger. Which is a hard feeling to reach as a writer. It was much easier when I was a lawyer. But I’m probably happiest in my work when 1) I’m reading something that makes me aware of my connections to the world, 2) I’m writing something that feels true and interesting (this is rare), or 3) I’m with other writers.
What about you?
I am working on something new – earliest stage, which means scribbling dialogue, voice, not worrying about plot. And it means staying off the internet. I’m finishing the Lucia Berlin collection, A Manual For Cleaning Women, and I’m halfway through the new Elizabeth Strout, which is making me happy.
And I’m never really done asking questions – but at some point soon I will deliver this to the Michigan Steads.
KATE: i will be sad at the end of the questioning.
i am working on a novel now. i’m still in beginning parts (third draft of first part, have no idea of what the second part is, or what will happen–oh the terror and oh the joy).
it is cold here and snowy and i feel so lucky to get to do this for a job, but sometimes i wish i *understood* what i was doing.
REBECCA: Yes! I wish I *understood* too.
I finished the Elizabeth Strout, My Name Is Lucy Barton, and have begun to re-read. I found this in a New York Times story about her:
Ms. Strout said she did not use her characters as pawns to make a greater point, nor as stand-ins for her own experiences, as readers often assume that writers do. Instead, they come to life mysteriously, organically, in stray scenes or bits of dialogue that present themselves and then, through some mysterious process that even she finds difficult to explain, eventually coalesce into a whole.
“I work in all different ways, and never from beginning to end,” Ms. Strout explained. She sets out her various sketches and ideas for characters on scraps of paper and lets the scraps accrue wherever she is working. She discards some and keeps others, she said. “I dust them up, and they do their little things, and I keep what is most truthful about them.”
It made me feel better.
Meanwhile, I’m very interested by the fact that you revise the beginning without knowing what will happen later in your story. I’ve never thought of doing that (I usually generate everything and then revise the whole mess). How would you describe revision at this point in your process? Is it refinement of voice and character? What are you getting at and how does it help you move forward? (If it does?)
I guess I do have a few more questions. Hope that’s okay.
KATE: that elizabeth strout is next up for me.
i loved *olive kitteridge* so much.
- how would i describe revision at this point in process?
refinement of voice, yes.
refinement of character.
i think of it as listening better with each draft.
and getting out of my own way more.
have you ever read *the cat’s table?* by ondaatje?
REBECCA: And as you’re revising for character and voice, are you also listening for ideas about where the story might go (plot-wise)?
This is inspiring me.
Next week I’m “retreating” with friends. I always end up disappointed by my failure to write ten pages a day. And then I get cranky. Yet I look forward to these things like crazy.
I haven’t read the cat’s table! Good?
KATE: read *the cat’s table!*
and yes, as i revise (and work to listen better) the characters and the voice kind of figure out the plot for me.
10 pages a day?
i could never do that.
REBECCA: Well, as it turns out ten pages a day didn’t happen. (And I don’t think I have ever written ten pages in a day.)
But it was restful and lovely, and gave me a chance to tune out distractions, which was nice.
I thought about your revision-of-the-first-third approach. It’s speaking to me.
New George Saunders in the New Yorker! I’m saving it – I don’t know why, exactly.
I want to hand this over to Philip (if that’s okay).
So I am resisting new questions.
Maybe I’ll go read that Saunders now.
Conversation ended 10 February 2016, 9:16 a.m.