What are your favorite books?
My favorite canonical books are Pride and Prejudice, The Great Gatsby, and Middlemarch. I reach Pride and Prejudice as a kid and have loved it ever since. Gatsby I failed to appreciate in high school, but in adulthood I’ve read it over and over. I didn’t read Middlemarch until I was in my late twenties, due to an intense hatred of Silas Marner, which I also had to read in high school. By the way, my least favorite canonical book is The Grapes of Wrath, which I was assigned to read in high school, college, and graduate school. So I’ve had plenty of opportunity to shudder at that last scene.
Other favorites, in no particular order:
Eva Moves the Furniture, Margot Livesey
Jesus’ Son, Denis Johnson
Airships, Barry Hannah
High Fidelity, Nick Hornby
The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro
Wonder Boys, Michael Chabon
Lucky Jim, Kingsley Amis
True Grit, Charles Portis
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, Haruki Murakami
Birds of America, Lorrie Moore
Tunneling to the Center of the Earth, Kevin Wilson
A Wrinkle in Time, Madeleine L’Engle
What are your influences?
My answer to this changes depending on what book I’m working on. For each book I’ve looked for role models. Because Body of a Girl had a mystery plot, I learned a great deal from Tapping the Source by Kem Nunn and An Unsuitable Job for a Woman by P.D. James. For the female friendship story in Myth of You and Me, I gained insight from Cat’s Eye by Margaret Atwood, Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett, and Middlemarch. With Husband and Wife, I kept looking at High Fidelity and at the beginning of Richard Ford’s The Sportswriter, thinking about how to create the narrative voice for a self-aware character who still has something to learn, and who is looking at life with a mid-thirties mixture of regret and hope.
Is your work autobiographical?
I have a character give a long answer to this question in Husband and Wife, and it’s essentially my answer. I’ll paraphrase here—I’m a believer in writing from emotional truth but not necessarily literal truth. In other words I have to put my characters in situations where I’ll understand what they feel, and to do that I mix elements of my own life with details from other people’s lives and add a healthy dose of stuff I made up. Body of a Girl is about a young female reporter in Memphis covering a murder. I was a young female intern at the Memphis paper, but I was in the Neighbors section and wrote about council meetings and family reunions. Still, I was living alone for the first time, I knew from another intern about crimes in my neighborhood, and I was scared to go out by myself at night. This fear particular to being a woman in an urban environment was what I wanted to write about (i.e. the emotional truth) so I put a character in a situation where she’d have to confront that fear much more directly than I ever did.
Where do you get your ideas?
This is related to the question above. A novel for me starts with something from my own life that interests me. Then I do my best to create a story that will make it interesting to others. For my first book, I wanted to write about the dangers particular to being a woman, and my own fear of those dangers, and so I invented a crime reporter chasing a story about a murdered woman her own age. For my second I wanted to write about female friendship and explore my own lingering feelings about a significant friendship I had that ended badly. So I invented a character who had experienced a similar bad ending, and whose life had, in the aftermath, veered off-course.
When I started Husband and Wife my daughter was three and my son was seven months old. What was on my mind was motherhood, and how it affects your self, your marriage, and your work. But as my grandmother once told me, motherhood is all-consuming, and yet there’s very little to say about the daily act of mothering: the diapers, the bedtime books, the lost mittens, the mac & cheese. So how to make the subject interesting? I needed a crisis in my characters’ lives to throw the way they lived into sharp relief, and the crisis I chose was infidelity. Nothing causes you to examine a bond like a betrayal of it. I was interested, too, in how a contemporary woman with a career—a woman who was not raised to believe in the preservation of the marriage above all—would struggle with the conflicting impulses to stay or go, and with the ways she imagines either choice will be perceived.
I’ve been resisting for years the impulse to make my characters writers, but here I gave in, and that surrender allowed me to explore another question that fascinates me: what it means to have seen yourself as an artist and then give up your art. I’ve seen a number of my graduate school classmates make this choice, and in recent years have known several women who struggled to get back to writing after having children. When I was beginning to think about the book, I saw a compelling truth in the Heath Ledger/Charlotte Gainsbourg storyline of the movie I’m Not There: That two artists in love are united in a sense of the importance of their art, and that post-parenthood the woman’s priorities sometimes shift while the man’s do not. So that conflict made its way into the book as well.
What are your books about?
I get asked this a lot in social situations, and I always want to run away. It’s a bit like being asked what you’re going to name your baby—you can tell immediately from the asker’s face whether they like your answer or not. I usually give a quick plot summary and change the subject.
A broad answer is that I consider my first book to be about fear, my second to be about grief, my third to be about love—familial love, which is in so many ways more complicated than the purely romantic kind.
What is your writing process?
I write every weekday unless my teaching schedule makes it impossible. The goal each day is to reach a point where I’m completely absorbed in the work and then ride that energy as long as I can. I used to write 500 words a day, because I required the discipline of that rule or I spent all my time watching DVDs of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Now that I have kids and a teaching job I’m more careful with my time.
Can creative writing really be taught?
Yes! A million times yes! Frankly it’s silly to imagine otherwise. It’s a skill like any other. I can’t give someone innate talent and I can’t give them something to write about. But I can teach them the skills they need to construct a narrative, to polish their prose, and to read work they admire for techniques they can imitate. I improved enormously with the help of teachers (Mark Jarman, Manette Ansay, Charles Baxter, Nicholas Delbanco).
Will you talk to my book group?
Yes. Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.