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 first book, Miss New York Has Everything, was published by Hatchette in 2006. It’s in part about my experiences working as a flight attendant based in New York, and in part about growing up in a small mill town outside of Pittsburgh, and in part about my father’s death, and mostly about my own experiences leaving and coming home. It’s a coming-of-age story that covers 30 years and is more a collection of individual chapters/pieces than a fluid memoir. Critics compared it to books by Chuck Klosterman and David Sedaris, to Coffee Tea or Me. It’s mostly funny in the way that those writers and that book are funny. It’s dark, too. Hard to get around that.
The title, which comes from an episode of the old TV show “That Girl,” confused some people. One time, I showed up for a booksigning at Sam's Club and people were expecting the real Miss New York. There was a huge used car-lot sign with my name in lights. There were a lot of mostly middle-aged men waiting in a very long line. There was a lot of cologne wafting about. Many people were disappointed when I arrived in sensible shoes and was just me and not Miss New York or even a runner-up. The Wal-Mart folks were nice about it, though. They gave me a free hot dog and a Coke and sold my books anyway.
That book changed my life in a really practical way because it helped me keep my job teaching at a university (book = tenure, sort of). It also gave me the opportunity to work with a big New York publishing house and an editor I liked a lot. It was agented by a nice agent who also handled a huge best-selling book about a man and his dog.
To be honest, that experience screwed me up a little. Every conversation my agent and I had would go back to that dog book and why it was spectacular. I wanted my agent to love me. All writers want their agents to love them best of all. I kept thinking “now how can I write a book like that dog book?” Except I didn’t have a dog. Everyone in my family is allergic. We have fish – one tetra, one catfish, neither very personable. We have a handful of snails to keep the fish tank clean. Fish and snails don’t make for gripping narratives, “Finding Nemo” aside. My daughter sometimes pretends to be her own imaginary pet, a giant worm called “Wormie.” It’s sad, really. But anyway, I didn’t have a dog and I wasn’t that kind of writer and I had to work hard to let go of all that.
My second memoir, The Bridge to Take When Things Get Serious, and my new book – Belief Is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe -- are both on smaller, independent presses. There’s more freedom there, less marketing pressure. Editors of indie presses are willing and able to take more risks than big publishers, who feel the understandable pressure to sell a bazillion books. With my later work, I felt free to write the kinds of books I really wanted to write, the only kind of books I could write.
I feel like the humor that’s in my later books is a little more organic. I don’t feel the pressure to be overtly funny all the time. I don’t feel pressure to be put into any kind of marketing box. I definitely don’t feel pressured to write about dogs, though I sometimes do anyway.
My latest book is an adoption memoir written in short vignette-y chapters. It’s funny in spots, but overall it’s a pretty dark and meditative book about family and what that means, about what people do and don’t do to one another in the name of family. I’m grateful to my publisher, Dan Cafaro, and to Atticus Books for getting behind it. The book is quirky – in structure, in its experimental blending of nonfiction and fiction, everything. I’m grateful it found a good home.
2 - How did you come to non-fiction first, as opposed to, say, fiction or poetry?
I came to non-fiction roundabout.
I started, as most child-writers do, by writing terrible rhyming poems and ripping off Jim Morrison and Led Zeppelin lyrics. My mother would post these on the fridge, which only encouraged me. I went to college for journalism, but wrote poems and took creative writing classes on the side. I worked for a newspaper for a blip during and after college, then did some PR for a university, where I learned about MFA programs.
I didn’t know it was possible to go to graduate school to study poetry, to be poet. I didn’t know there were things called graduate assistantships which allowed people to study poetry without going $60,000 into debt. And so I applied for and was lucky to get an assistantship at the University of Pittsburgh. I went back for my MFA in poetry, which seemed a very practical thing to do.
When I got out, I had trouble finding a steady job – shocking, I know -- so I joined the airlines, which is kind of like joining the circus but better because you get to go to Paris and Madrid and steal caviar from First Class.
I kept writing while I was flying, but eventually my poems weren’t behaving. They weren’t orderly. The lines were getting longer. The focus was broadening. I panicked. It took me a long while to figure out what was happening, that I was evolving into this thing called a creative non-fiction writer. It made sense once I thought about it. For me, creative non-fiction is the perfect hybrid of journalism and poetry. It’s true stories condensed and shaped into art. I love that.
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’s always hard to say how long any one project takes. If you include incubation periods – all those years of rolling material around, thinking about it, wondering about it, trying to find language and a shape for an experience – who knows. But it usually takes me years to write a book from the first sentence on.
I’ve written five books and had four of them published in the past fourteen years. There’s some kind of math there. I’m not good at math. It’s a childhood trauma thing. Catholic school.
4 - Where does a book 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?
It varies. My first book would be an example of short pieces that end up in a larger project. With my new book, I knew from the beginning that I was working on a book, a full narrative that would run beginning to end.
I always start to write from a place of confusion, when I have something in my life I don’t understand and want to sort out. My new book came out of that kind of place. I’d lost my mother and I became a mother simultaneously. My daughter was born with a birth defect I’d had, too. I’d been adopted and I didn’t have any medical history. I confronted this idea that I didn’t know anything about my past, that I had nothing to offer my children, and so I started an adoption search. I was, of course, grieving, too, which complicated everything.
I wrote this book as a way to sort all of those experiences, to figure out what they might mean in the larger landscape of what it means to be a person. It took a while to find the structure and shape for it, though.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I do. I like the connection that happens in readings. I like getting the chance to talk to readers one on one. I don’t understand writers who complain about readings, really. If people are kind enough to invite you, if they’re nice enough to show up, it’s a gift. It’s important to be grateful to people who take the time to read or listen to or show interest in your work.
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’m always grappling with the concept of truth. I love Hemingway’s advice: “Write one true sentence and then write another.” And another. And another. But truth in creative nonfiction is a slippery thing. One person’s truth is another person’s fiction. One person’s subject is another person’s secret.
I’m not talking about James Frey kinds of fiction. There’s a very clear line between honest perception of an experience and making something up. I always want to write the best, most accurate version of my own truth as possible, while acknowledging that memory is faulty and that other people might see things differently and there are some blanks that can’t be filled in, no matter what.
That’s partly where the title of my new book comes from – belief is its own kind of truth. Maybe.
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 should be to tell his or her truth. It’s important to remember that by telling our own truths we connect to other people who have similar experiences. By telling truths, especially the hard ones, we let readers say, “yes, me too.” The world feels a little less lonely that way.
Whitman said, “I am large. I contain multitudes.” He meant that by speaking through himself he could speak for and with others, too.
There’s an obligation for the writer to speak. There’s an obligation to repel bullshit. I’m an American and sometimes I think our national language is bullshit. Our politicians, etc.
There’s so little truth in the world these days, I think.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
A good editor is a wonderful thing. It’s also good to have one close reader who’s not your editor, but who really gets what you’re trying to do and has your best interests at heart. My husband, Dave Newman, is an amazing writer. He reads everything I write and I read everything he writes. I feel incredibly lucky for that. I never feel I’m going it alone.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
The great Spanish poet Antonio Machado, when asked what advice he had for young writers, said, “Pay attention.”
Hemingway’s advice about that one true sentence. That’s good too.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (journalism to memoir)? What do you see as the appeal?
I think I hit on this earlier. Memoir, for me, is a hybrid of journalism and poetry. The appeal of memoir is that you have more freedom beyond the Who, What, When, Where, Why and How of straight journalism. Also, deadlines are more flexible. As in there are none.
11 - 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 try to do something for my writing every day. I have kids and multiple jobs and trash that needs to be taken out and bills that have to be paid and neighbors I should be nice to because I’d like to have a few friends in this world. The demands of everyday life are pretty intense, but it’s important to keep writing central, to do something – even if it’s just a few sentences, even if it’s just sending a piece out for publication – every day. It keeps things in balance. If I neglect my writing, I can get pretty bitchy. I feel like paying attention to my writing, making time for that, is a kind of public service I do for my family and the people around me. I’m a better mother, better partner, better person when I’m writing.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
I read a lot. I’m a complete believer in Joe Strummer’s (The Clash) advice – “No input, no output.”
If I’m stalled as a writer, it’s because I’ve been lazy about my reading.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
Cinnamon and the slightly burning smell of an overworked vacuum cleaner. I love the sound/smell of a good vacuum cleaner. So soothing.
14 - 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?
Before I wanted to be a writer, I wanted to be a professional musician, a pianist. So music has always been important to me. I’m not much for nature – fear of spiders, Lyme disease, etc. -- but a good walkabout in a city helps. I love being in busy places filled with people to watch. I love the invisibility that cities offer. I can spy and eavesdrop and no one cares, not really. I also like to research odd things. Lately I’ve been obsessed with D.B. Cooper, the bank robber who jumped out of an airplane and may or may not have gotten away. He was, apparently, very polite. He paid his bar tab on the plane. He worried the flight attendants weren’t getting good meals and offered to make those part of his ransom demands. Interesting guy.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
I love minimalism so I’m always reading and rereading American writers like Raymond Carver and international writers like Mohammed Mrabet and Annie Ernaux who have mastered compressed, direct narratives in voices that just spark. Simone de Beauvoir’s A Very Easy Death, was a real catalyst for me to write about family. I read books by other adopted people — Jeannette Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? ; A.M. Homes’ The Mistress’s Daughter. I love tough-guy writers – Bukowski, Hemingway, Harry Crews, especially Harry’s A Childhood: Biography of a Place. I love Joan Didion’s sharp reportage and Truman Capote’s storytelling. I love the West Coast poets, especially Joan Jobe Smith, Fred Voss and Gerry Locklin (my son is named after him). For place-writing, there’s no one better right now for me than Scott McClanahan. His book Crapalachia is a huge inspiration. It’s big-hearted in ways that aren’t necessarily fashionable and I love that. I love Bill Boyle’s Gravesend, a great noir crime novel. And my husband Dave Newman is always an inspiration. I read everything he writes and learn from it. He read the manuscript of my newest book over and over, and was a tireless editor and a patient person. Lucky life.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I’m not sure, but I’m open.
17 - 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’ve already done it – flight attendant. It’s the only other job I can imagine doing.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
Writing was pretty much the only thing I’ve ever been good at. I wasn’t that good a pianist, though I tried very hard. And I’ve mentioned my math issues. I am not crafty. I am clumsy and awkward and look ridiculous in business suits and shoulder pads. When I was in high school, I went to see the guidance counselor. He asked, “So what do you want to do with your life?” And I said, “Go to college and major in English.” And he said, “Good, because you can’t do anything else.” It seems cruel, but it was honest. He was, probably, right.
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Stewart O’Nan’s latest book, West of Hollywood – about F. Scott Fitzgerald’s last years in Hollywood, is crushingly good. Stewart is from Pittsburgh, too. Bonus points. I thought Boyhood should have swept the Oscars. Richard Linklater totally got screwed.
20 - What are you currently working on?
Right now I’m in Brussels, Belgium on a writing residency. I’m finishing my first novel.
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