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 changed my life in that it felt like someone was taking me seriously, and that I had a physical object representing the work I had completed, and I was thus allowed to call myself a capital-W Writer. My most recent work is quite different in that it's a novel, but it's similar in that writing is a continuous reclaiming of one's voice. Of allowing yourself to grow but still attempting to write as yourself.
2 - How did you come to fiction first, as opposed to, say, poetry or non-fiction?
I actually wrote poetry at first! My mentor in undergrad was a poet and that's largely what I wrote and read and studied. I considered myself a poet and then I'd sneak off to work on a shitty novel. I was rejected by eight (8!) grad schools I applied to. I started taking fiction classes at night and trying to write stories. Then I found a grad program that didn't make you say what sort of writer you were, because in truth many writers write all of it! And some of my favorite novels were written by poets.
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?
I usually just start a project. I relate it to running, or any sort of exercise, in that if you look at all the miles you're supposed to run or minutes you've blocked out to work out, it can feel daunting and impossible and your brain starts to convince you that there's no point in starting, that you could just make yourself a nest of blankets and read instead. But if you just take that first step, then you've started. You're already in it. So I tend to just force my fingers to start moving across the keyboard. Sometimes I start with an idea I've been tossing around in my head (I'm a mom of three little ones, so a lot of writing gets done in my head so I'm ready to go when I have time to sit down at my desk), and sometimes it's a first sentence or an image I'm curious about. Many of the things I've published have been first or second drafts. I don't generally outline or take notes. But! I will also say the process is different, for me, for each book. The last book I wrote was like a huge shapeshifting puzzle that I continually reassembled. The one I'm working on now is like a crazy quilt.
4 - Where does a work of 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?
Well, that's different for each book. Ugly Girls and Eat Only When You're Hungry I wrote in chronological order. The two most recent novels I've been working on are quite different. The current one, as I said, is like a crazy quilt. You only see the whole thing if you look at each little piece. So it jumps around in time and place and character. The one just previous is reverse-chronological for one character and chronological for all the rest. But yes, I know I'm working on a book from the very beginning. I tend to treat each "chapter" like its own piece of flash fiction. It makes it doable and fun for me.
5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?
Oh, I LOVE doing readings. I didn't used to! I got flop sweat and nausea at my very first public reading. I kept thinking, why do they want to hear me? I'm just a rube! But I happened to do that reading with Peter Markus, who blew my mind when he said he loved to read his work. I realized I could write something that felt fun to say, and I started looking at readings as performances. Why bore your audience to death? Why not make it fun, meaningful? I co-hosted a reading series for a while with the hopes that it would help more writers have fun reading their work. Now I host a podcast with the same intention.
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, always, my work deals with loneliness, and with trying to show the humanity where you may not expect it. I wonder about this myself, because in person I am a very chipper, happy idiot, but my writing tends to be dark, even grotesque. I have been looking for ways to include grace, even at the sentence level, in everything I write.
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 writer is essential to our culture, to society, to humanity. I can't think how often I've thought, if only so and so read more (okay, I am talking about Trump and his ilk). Reading leads to empathy, to curiosity, to knowledge, to grace. Those are in short supply, but thankfully there's a solution. READ.
8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?
Essential! Yes, it can be awkward to be shown areas where you've biffed it, or to be told "yeah, no, do this over," but I've been blessed to work with wonderful, smart editors whom I trusted, and who stood up for the writer I am and the work I was making.
9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?
"The first draft is just you telling yourself the story." I read that in Alexander Chee's How to Write an Autobiographical Novel. And, "You need to stet more." That was from my wonderful editor at FSG, Emily Bell (who's now at Zando), when she felt that my voice was being trampled by the copy editor. A wonderful reminder to reclaim my voice.
10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (flash fiction to the novel)? What do you see as the appeal?
Well, it's not "easy," but I definitely use my flash fiction background as I write novels. Flash fiction has kept me connected to the immediacy in what I'm writing, and has helped me stay attuned to when what I'm writing just isn't doing it. I use the constraint of flash fiction (word count, mainly) to reach my daily goals. And my flash fiction background has helped me consider what world, and what slice of that world, I want to present. And! It's fun to write that way. To focus intensely on what I'm working on in that small amount of time I have in the day, to select my words carefully, to feel like what I'm doing is enough.
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?
Since we're in a pandemic and I'm a parent of three little ones, I don't have as much time as I used to. I get maybe six hours a week (groan), and those hours are generally during nap/quiet time for my kids. But that means I've had to adjust my goals and yet still complete them like the beast I know I am. I have a word count goal I set for myself each time I sit down at the desk, and I always meet or exceed that goal. As a project goes along I'll start setting longer goals for myself, like when I'm going to do a big revision or when I'm going to send it to my agent. I always treat it like work; I always take it seriously. I know it will one day be a book I'm proud of.
12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?
Constraints! I give myself a constraint, like my word count goal or a timed writing session or even a prompt, like "write what this character's living room looks like." If I focus on the constraint, something concrete and achievable, then that feeling of being blocked kind of fades into the background.
13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?
I'm from Central Florida, so I'd have to say it's the scent of orange blossoms carried on a hot blast of exhaust.
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?
I wrote Ugly Girls as a response to the movie Drive (and also as a response to the book Ravens by George Dawes Green). I don't generally listen to music as I write, but when I'm revising, it's essential. Sometimes I'll hear a song as I'm just living my life and I'll know there's a story or a chapter I can write just because I heard that song.
15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?
Anne Tyler is an example of how something can be sad and dark but still filled with grace.
16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?
I'd love to write a screenplay! I've attempted it a few times but my brain is so wired to the page that it's hard to write something that'll be onscreen. One day...
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 wanted to be an actress! I studied theater in high school and my freshman year of college and I studied it at the Lee Strasberg Theatre Institute before realizing what I truly loved and wanted to do was to make people feel, and I could do that a whole lot better with my writing. But I think when I read my work in front of an audience, I'm combining the two. Recently, though, I've decided I would have made a great FBI agent.
18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?
I've been writing since I could write. It comes so naturally to me and so obviously what I was meant to do that I can't believe it's not an inherent part of every human's life. Like, what? You don't write? Really?
19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?
20 - What are you currently working on?
I'm working on a new novel! It's this idea I have that life is actually not chronological, that time is a collage of all other times, and that is especially true after a traumatic event. It's about a murder, and motherhood, and young love, and identity.