Maya Sonenberg is the author of the story collections Cartographies (winner of the Drue Heinz Prize for Literature) and Voices from the Blue Hotel. 26 Abductions, a chapbook of her prose and drawings was published in 2015 by The Cupboard, and her newest chapbook of prose and photographs, After the Death of Shostakovich Père, appeared from PANK in 2018. Other fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Fairy Tale Review, Conjunctions, DIAGRAM, New Ohio Review, The Literarian, Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, Hotel Amerika, and numerous other journals, both in print and online. Her writing has received grants from the Washington State Arts Commission and King County 4Culture. She teaches in the creative writing program at the University of Washington—Seattle.
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, Cartographies, enabled me to get my first full-time teaching job. Before its publication, I was working full-time as a paralegal and also teaching part-time at a community college. The full-time teaching gig meant I had more time to write more books.
In many ways, my most recent book, After the Death of Shostakovich Père, is quite different than that first story collection. It is ¾ nonfiction, it contains images, and it’s overtly and openly about my own family. On the other hand, it shares many qualities—a focus on the sentence (I’m still interested in writing beautiful sentences and in creating meaning through sound and syntax), an appeal to the intellect as well as the heart, a whole made up of pieces (many of the stories in Cartographies are also fragmentary). Above all, this newest book returns to one of the questions I’ve been worrying at since I started writing seriously as a teenager: How can I write about art without writing criticism?
How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
I wrote both poetry and fiction as a teenager, but my English teacher at Stuyvesant High School was Frank McCourt (who, later on, published wonderful memoirs) and he definitely had us write more fiction than poetry. Non-fiction, as a “creative” endeavor rather than journalism or academic papers, was really not much on the radar in the 1970s. I stopped writing poetry when I realized that I would need to think about meter and line and rhyme; it seemed like a lot of work! Then in college, I studied with Annie Dillard who told us that sometimes she left a blank in her writing because she could think of a word with the right meaning but not one with the right rhythm. I thought, “Oh crap—I thought I was escaping that by writing fiction!” Of course, I wasn’t.
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?
In general, I’m quite a slow writer. I may keep returning to an initial image or idea over months or even years, taking some notes in a journal, before I focus my writing. The speed with which I move from that stage to really working on the piece then depends on the type of writing. There’s a certain type of short story (based on an initial image and almost always coming out of fairy tale tradition) that I find I can now write relatively quickly, by which I mean I’ll do several drafts over a period of a couple of months. Or if I’m using a very specific prompt, I can generate a story or essay in about that same amount of time. These are usually short, stand-alone pieces. However, I’m also working on a long series of essays/fictions that entail a lot of research, that draw together numerous different threads, that include photographs or other images, and that each grow out of or respond to a complex form. These take years and years. After the Death of Shostakovich Père is part of this series and took eight years from initial idea to publication. Oh yes, copious notes for these more complex pieces and many drafts.
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 often think about my writing projects the way a painter thinks about creating a series of paintings that explore a certain type of imagery or a certain technique. In terms of my writing, I don’t plan a novel or book-length work of nonfiction. I write separate pieces that all explore a similar theme (what’s it like to parent young children and take care of aged parents simultaneously, for example) and/or utilize a similar technique (a series of stories generated using traditional verse forms, for example). By the time I’ve exhausted my interest in those things, I usually find I have enough stories or essays to make a book.
Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
I have come to enjoy doing readings but don’t find them central to my creative process. I only read things that are definitely finished, even if they haven’t been published yet.
Do you have any theoretical concerns behind your writing? What kinds of questions are you trying to answer in your work? What do you even think the current questions are?
I definitely have theoretical concerns behind my writing, lots of different ones. I mentioned one of them above: how do I write about art without writing criticism? Both of my parents were visual artists, I studied dance, and my husband was a musician when we met—art is as central to my life as the family drama that concerns so much fiction and I’m still trying to figure out how to write about it vividly. I’ve also been interested in creating something I’ve come to call experimentation with heart, experimental writing that doesn’t rely on irony or “in jokes” and that is emotionally as well as intellectually engaging. This means that I want the reader to be aware that they are reading, that the text is not a mirror of or window on “the world” but its own reality, and simultaneously want to suck the reader in so that they lose themself—the former because it’s honest and the latter because there’s no pleasure like getting lost in a book. Riding that line is tricky. I’m also interested in exploring various connections between art-making, citizenship, political action. While many of these concerns and questions feel somewhat private, the last one is clearly shared by many artists currently.
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?
I would hope that any art provides a place for questioning, ambiguity, the exercise of empathy, and the cultivation of multi-dimensional thinking (the ability to hold more than one idea in one’s head simultaneously). That said, I’m well aware that many artists at the current time feel a responsibility to engage politically and culturally, and many do so through their art in really interesting and important ways. It’s also possible for artists to do so in other ways. Both of my parents were very involved in the anti-war movement in the 1960s, but only a tiny tiny percentage of their artwork itself was visibly political.
Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Because of my publishing history, entirely with literary journals and university/small presses, I have had very little editing done to my writing—this may be for good or for ill! Given that history, I certainly don’t find working with an outside editor to be essential. The level of difficulty depends on the editor and how clearly they can convey their vision for my writing and why. If they’re clear, I can decide either to work with them or not, depending on whether that vision makes sense to me.
What is the best piece of advice you’ve heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
Don’t do sentence-level revisions before you have a clear—even if not articulable—understanding of your intentions for a piece of writing. In other words, understand your goals and revise accordingly, starting with the largest components.
Write every day, even if it’s only for 10 minutes.
Don’t assume that “real writers” work every morning from 5-7 am.
How easy has it been for you to move between genres (fiction to non-fiction)? What do you see as the appeal?
I probably find nonfiction harder to write. I haven’t been doing it for as long, all the nonfiction I write necessitates a lot of research, and I’m still figuring out how to include the fruits of that research without sounding academic. That difficulty makes it appealing as well as challenging. The nonfiction I’m writing currently comes from an impulse to honor real people—literary and literal ancestors—who are important to me; this is part of the appeal of working in the genre. Always, though, I turn to the genre that I think will create the best opportunity for me to accomplish my goals for a particular idea.
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’m the kind of writer who needs a lot of lead up time. If I still sharpened pencils, I’d probably need to sharpen 100 of them before I could start actually writing. This means that most of the time I don’t write every day; I write when I know I’ll have a really long block of time. I go away a couple of times a year for 4-7 days and just focus on my writing. This is particularly useful when I’m drafting something new or trying to revise at the structural level. If I’m just making notes toward a future writing project or fine-tuning sentences, I can do that in little bits of time between teaching, family obligations, social life, political activism, going to the movies, etc.
When your writing gets stalled where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Going for a walk always helps. I also need to remind myself that every single piece of writing I do goes through a stage when I think it’s total crap. If I’ve gotten far enough to reach that stage (some projects get dropped before that), I can be almost entirely sure that I will come through it, out the other side, and figure out a way to make the writing better.
What fragrance reminds you of home?
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?
As I noted above, I often write both fiction and nonfiction in response to other art forms. My most recent book, After the Death of Shostakovich Père, was written in response to a Shostakovich piano duet and also follows the form of that duet. Stories have been written in dialogue with Robert Smithson’s artwork, with an Italian Renaissance painting, and with cubist paintings. I’m currently in the midst of a project about the choreographer Merce Cunningham and using some of his creative methods to generate the writing.
What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
The stories of Robert Coover and Jorge Luis Borges were eye-opening to me as a young writer. I actually don’t know if I could have continued writing if Annie Dillard hadn’t introduced me to them. I return constantly to Henry James and Virginia Woolf because they force me to be on my toes as a reader. In terms of contemporary writers, I love anyone who tugs on and then broadens my expectations of what fiction and nonfiction can do: Colson Whitehead, Carole Maso, Toni Morrison, Lily Hoang. I love Kelly Link, Kate Bernheimer, and Jeff VanderMeer for the slinky and completely satisfying way their fiction slides between genres. That’s just a start.
What would you like to do that you haven’t done yet?
More travel. Actually weed my yard. Get my office organized.
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 would probably have been an art historian—of course, that entails a lot of writing too.
What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
The constant challenge. In college I was seriously considering becoming an art historian. While many aspects of pursuing that would have been difficult for me, I realized that those were all containable difficulties. Writing fiction presented more immense, more terrifying, more ongoing challenges.
What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
Novels: Helen DeWitt’s The Last Samurai. JeffVanderMeer’s Area X trilogy. I’ve read many many other terrific books in recent years but these two engendered a real sense of wonder.
Film: I’ve seen many films in the past year or so that I’ve thorough enjoyed for many different reasons, everything from Black Panther to The Shape of Water to Swiss Army Man, but the one that made me think the hardest and made me think and question differently upon repeated viewings was Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. Part of that thinking and questioning centered on how problematic the film was.
What are you currently working on?
I already mentioned the work on Merce Cunningham. This will be a series of very short essays to be read as part of a performance celebrating the centenary of his birth.
I’m also working on a book-length collection of essays and images about my love of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s novels; the tension between that love and the racism and sexism of the work and the general political conservatism of the real Wilder family; my grandmother as an immigrant “pioneer”; and Jewish utopian settlements in the Dakotas and the Bronx at the turn of the 20th century.