My story "The Brooks Brothers Guru" is now available as a Ploughshares Solo. Click here to buy.
In May, at the Blue Metropolis Festival in Montreal, I was very happy to meet Padma Viswanathan. Her new novel The Ever After of Ashwin Rao, which examines the aftermath of the 1985 Air India bombing, has been called “an important book – one that deserves to find international recognition.” You can read the Globe and Mail review here.
Padma tapped me to participate in a “virtual author tour” by conducting a self-interview—here is her (fascinating) entry. I’ve asked Lee Upton, whose latest book is the excellently-titled story collection The Tao of Humiliation, to take up the baton next week. These are my responses:
1. What am I working on?
I’m in the early stages of a new novel, a time of maximum superstition, so I don’t like to say too much about it. There are so many large technical decisions that accompany the early parts of novel writing—finding the structure, voice, point of view, etc—and until they’re nailed down, which can take a long time, the entire project seems to hover in the hypothetical. I like to keep it close until I know the project’s really going to take hold.
I continue to write short fiction, and my short story "Casino," which was originally published in Guernica, appears in The Best American Non-required Reading 2013. My story "Taxonomy" is in the Summer/Fall 2014 issue of Triquarterly, and I have work forthcoming in the Ploughshares Solo series.
I’ve also been writing some criticism, mostly book reviews and essays. At The Millions, I wrote about Tove Jansson, the Moomin books, and the special sadness of childhood. At the Tin House blog, I wrote about one perfect sentence by Alistair MacLeod. I’ve also written book reviews for the New York Times, the National Post, and the San Francisco Chronicle. I’m working on a piece for the Los Angeles Review of Books about the British author Elizabeth Taylor.
Lastly, I’m working on the courses I’ll be teaching at Lafayette College in the fall. In addition to creative writing and screenwriting workshops I also teach environmental writing, and I’m organizing an interdisciplinary symposium on hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) to be held September 19-20. My colleagues and I received a grant through the Mellon Foundation to infuse the arts into science and engineering education. Our event, A Place for Fracking? Environment, Community, and the Arts, will bring together artists, scientists, students, community members, and others to discuss and learn about this complex and pressing issue. Our keynote speaker will be biologist, author and activist Sandra Steingraber.
2. How does my work differ from other work in its genre?
I find this question sort of anxiety-producing for a number of reasons. First, I don’t usually think of my work in terms of genre, even though literary fiction is one, of course. Second, to argue that my work is “different” is a position I rarely take. I’m usually more interested in thinking about the connections between my work and other writers and literary traditions. I tend of think of literature as a conversation among books, or a genealogy, and not as a series of breaks.
An explanation of difference that I am in tune with comes from an essay called “My Vocation” by Natalia Ginzburg, collected in her book The Little Virtues, which I love and recommend. Ginzburg says it so well:
When I write something I usually think it is very important and that I am a very fine writer. I think this happens to everyone. But there is one corner of my mind in which I know very well what I am, which is a small, a very small writer. I swear I know it. But that doesn't matter much to me. Only, I don't want to think about names: I can see that if I am asked "a small writer like who?" it would sadden me to think of the names of other small writers. I prefer to think that no one has ever been like me, however small, however much a mosquito or a flea of a writer I may be. The important thing is to be convinced that this really is your vocation, your profession, something you will do all your life.
3. Why do I write what I do?
The Ginzburg quote goes a ways towards answering this question too. Also, I suppose I write because I read and books have always been the conduit for my thoughts and emotions. I write to answer questions about the world and about myself—and sometimes I don’t even fully understand what the questions are until after I finish the book and see them laid out there. I write because a perfect book always exists in my mind, and then I write it and inevitably the result is imperfect, falling short of what I originally envisioned. All I can do is move on to the next unwritten perfect story.
4. How does my writing process work?
My writing process is composed of one third false starts, one third self-doubt, and one third coffee. Outlining doesn’t work for me, so I tend to begin with a cluster of preoccupations more than anything else. I find that the scene is a helpful engine of discovery, so I usually write a loose first draft that brings the characters and subject matter of the book into relief. After that I rewrite and rewrite, shaping the book, as I learn more and more what it’s about.