Deb Olin Unferth [photo credit: Margaret Olin] is the author of the memoir Revolution: The Year I Fell in Love and Went to Join the War, the story collection Minor Robberies, and the novel Vacation, winner of the 2009 Cabell First Novelist Award and a New York Times Book Review Critics' Choice. Her work has been published in Harper's Magazine, McSweeney's, The Believer, and the Boston Review. She has received two Pushcart Prizes and a 2009 Creative Capital grant for Innovative Literature, and was a Harper's Bazaar Editors' Choice: Name to Know in 2011. She teaches at Wesleyan University.
1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?
My latest book, Revolution, is a memoir, and my first book, Minor Robberies, is a book of short shorts. They feel similar in that I approached them with the same urgency and desire, and I revealed myself equally in both. But in Revolution I am better able to handle longer narrative, tell more of a story, I think. The short shorts are more obviously philosophical, perhaps. I think the answer to the question "why are you writing?" would be the same when I wrote each of them.
2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
I never wrote poems, not even when I was in high school and in love, though my leap toward fiction was more rooted in philosophical and emotional interests, like many poets. I suppose it took me a long time to work my way around to nonfiction because I didn't see a lot of examples of nonfiction that used language and sound in ways that excited me. I'm not saying it didn't exist, I just didn't encounter it. Once I began finding it, I grew interested.
3 - How long does it take to start any particular writing project? Does your writing initially come quickly, or is it a slow process? Do first drafts appear looking close to their final shape, or does your work come out of copious notes?
It depends on the project. Short shorts come quickly, though I may revise them for years and they still may wind up looking very similar to how they started. My novel, Vacation, took tremendous reworking and changing, many, many drafts, notes, notecards, bargaining letters to God, and so on, but I began and ended the entire thing in a little over two years. With my memoir, Revolution, I had written bits and pieces of it over a period of many years without quite knowing what I would do with it. For a while I thought I'd write a spy novel -- ha! And then, after I wrote Vacation, I decided on a memoir and I spent a year and half gathering and rewriting and shaping.
4 - Where does prose usually begin for you? Are you an author of short pieces that end up combining into a larger project, or are you working on a "book" from the very beginning?
I do generally think of whatever I'm working on as either part of "the book" (whatever book I'm working on) or as some extraneous thing -- extra story, essay, exercise for no reason, outpouring of frustration, etc. There is always a "book" I'm working on -- or not working on, as the case may be.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Readings are generally a positive experience, it's nice to get out and meet people. I've had plenty of the usual horror story readings though, the ones where two people show up, or where everyone is so bored that they are falling out of their chairs, etc. I've had enough of those to put the fear of God in my heart whenever I'm on my way to an event. But I've had lots of fun readings too.
6 - Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer with your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
I think if the questions were easy enough to formulate that I could just write them down right here, I probably would have just done that instead of writing the books. But narrative communicates in a mysterious way. Through things like collage, repetition, the way tension is built, the note a piece ends on, the narrative is expressing something about the world, about morality, perception, time, the self, etc.
I would say my work has philosophical, political, and emotional concerns.
7 – What do you see the current role of the writer being in larger culture? Does s/he even have one? What do you think the role of the writer should be?
The role of the writer in the world is the same as it is for any individual. I happen to think every individual has a moral responsibility to, at the very least, not cause pain in the individuals (people and animals) around her.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
I have been very lucky with editors. I've had three fantastic editors work extensively on my books: Diane Williams, Eli Horowitz, and now with this most recent book, Gillian Blake. Also Dave Eggers edited my first book, but he did only a light edit -- and it too was just an outstanding edit. It is rare to have such luck, from what I understand. I loved working will all of them, and my books are much better for it.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Approach the form with daring and disregard for the norm.
10 - What kind of writing routine do you tend to keep, or do you even have one? How does a typical day (for you) begin?
I write every morning.
11 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I do a lot of free-writing, a lot of exercises. I pull out things I never finished. I look at a part of the book that I haven't looked at in a while. I read.
12 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
What a question! Home? Several places have felt deeply like home. I felt deeply at home in Kansas, and the smell of skunk, of all things, reminds me of that (I had an entire family of skunks living under my house at one point and the smell lingered for a year). I felt at home in Chicago, of course, which is where I grew up, and each neighborhood I lived in had different smells. I spent a lot of time in Mexico as a child and certain fresh flower smells and the smell of exhaust reminds me of that. I now feel very at home in New York. I guess this is a question about sentimentality -- I suppose I can feel sensorally sentimental about any number of locations.
13 - David W. McFadden once said that books come from books, but are there any other forms that influence your work, whether nature, music, science or visual art?
I think visual art, especially the various kinds of modernists, had a big influence on me as I was developing my voice. Now I mostly listen to music for advice on how to think about structure.
14 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Here are a few just off the top of my head of a few writers I currently love:
Living writers: George Saunders, Ben Marcus, Zadie Smith, Nicholson Baker, Jennifer Egan, Dave Eggers, Heidi Julavits
Also I'm a vegan and that's very important to me.
15 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
Save the world. Like Superman, you know?
16 - If you could pick any other occupation to attempt, what would it be? Or, alternately, what do you think you would have ended up doing had you not been a writer?
I might like being a full-time animal rights activist. I might have liked to be a lawyer. Or do something with design. Definitely not a politician, firewoman, or anything having to do with cooking. Those are out.
17 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I took to it very quickly once I started. I started late (at twenty-five) and it never occurred to me to stop. Everything else I'd done up to that point, I stopped.
18 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Zadie Smith's Changing My Mind is fascinating.
Hal Hartley's The Book of Life -- I can't believe how much I love this film.
19 - What are you currently working on?
A graphic novel.