Thursday, August 11, 2022

12 or 20 (second series) questions with Madeline Sonik

Madeline Sonik is a multi-genre writer and anthologist. Her latest book of fiction, Fontainebleau, is a linked story collection. Her latest nonfiction book, Queasy, recently appeared with Anvil Press.

1 - How did your first book change your life? How does your most recent work compare to your previous? How does it feel different?

I guess that the publication of my first book gave me the confidence to attempt a second. I recall being very self-conscious with the first book. It’s difficult for me to put myself out there and I worried a lot about how the work would be received. It was a fiction collection, Drying the Bones, and it surprised me that many people believed the stories to be autobiographical. I was equally surprised that my first non-fiction book, Afflictions & Departures, was thought, by some, to be fictitious. I think that I’m much less self-conscious about my work now. Also, I’ve come to realize that readers will find their own meaning in a work and that once something is written, if you want an easy life, you just need to let it go.

2 - How did you come to poetry first, as opposed to, say, fiction or non-fiction?

In my early teens, I attempted to write satirical autobiography.  This was followed by attempts to write science fiction and children’s literature. Poetry followed, but more as an exercise. I would say that the first early writing I did, my juvenilia, happened as a kind of catharsis. There was so much I needed to express, and none of it was allowed. Writing gave me a space where I could express my grief and air my grievances and didn’t get in trouble for it.

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 write very slowly, but the work does come out of copious notes. Usually, the notes are factual: for example, I might look into the life cycle of an insect to get a good metaphor, or for authenticity, details of the taste and texture of a particular sort of apple. Usually, my first draft is close to the final. I’d say that on average, I do about three drafts—and with the final two there’s a lot of tinkering rather than composing.

4 - Where does a poem or 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?

A poem or work of prose usually begins for me with an image or a memory that I want to explore. I have written shorter pieces that have ended up being larger book projects, but also, I’ve started projects that I know will be books.

5 - Are public readings part of or counter to your creative process? Are you the sort of writer who enjoys doing readings?

I don’t think readings help my creative process directly. They might help in the sense that I feel such relief and so relaxed when they’re over that I’m able to access my inner world faster. It’s kind of like having your oxygen cut off—when you’re able to gulp that air again, it’s an explosive experience.

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?

When I’m writing, the questions present themselves. I don’t try to answer them so much as amplify them. They are, for the most part, open-ended questions with no specific concise answer. For example, in one of the pieces in my current collection, Queasy, I found the writing directing me to explore the relationship my mother had with her half-brother. As I wrote and researched, I became more and more aware of how different they both were, and how both, separated by a generation, seemed to be products of the times they were born into. This might seem like a rather banal theoretical revelation, but for me, seeing how it impacted my mother and her half-sibling was quite astounding. Further, it made me realize that I too have been born into a specific time that influences the way I think, feel, act, and 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?

I think different writers have different roles, though I don’t think writers are particularly conscious of what they do in terms of collective impact.  For example, some preserve the status quo, while others disrupt it. Some support collective values while others point out the limitations of these. Sometimes they do both together. I don’t think it’s for writers to say what their role should be. One writes what one must and tries as best they can to prepare themselves for the praise or punishment or plain indifference that follows.

8 - Do you find the process of working with an outside editor difficult or essential (or both)?

I’d say it depends on who the outside editor is. If the outside editor understands the work and isn’t trying to impose their own ideas upon it, then they can be very helpful.

9 - What is the best piece of advice you've heard (not necessarily given to you directly)?

It’s hard to decide what’s the best piece of advice I’ve heard, but I’ll share with you something that has been very helpful to me recently both in my writing and in my life. This comes from an interesting little book, 365 Tao: Daily Meditations by Deng Ming-Dao:

“In order to solve problems, it is helpful to first understand whether they are puzzle, obstacle, or entanglement. A puzzle need only be analyzed carefully: It is like unraveling a ball of yarn and requires patience more than anything else. An obstacle must be overcome: We must use force and perseverance to either destroy or move away from what is blocking us. An entanglement mires us in a maze of limitations: This most dangerous of situations requires that we use all our resources to extricate ourselves as quickly as possible.”

10 - How easy has it been for you to move between genres (poetry to short stories to the novel to essays to memoir)? What do you see as the appeal?

I try to follow my energy, and this makes it easy to be fluid. However, it also means that I have many unfinished works in progress, as the flow of energy might change before I’ve completed something. I have works from two decades ago that are still in need of completion. This used to bother me a lot, but as I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned to trust the process more and more. Sometimes the passage of time and the perspective that it gives is essential for moving forward. I’ll give you a good example. When I was in my late twenties, I began writing a novel in which one of the primary characters was a woman in her fifties. As I recently revisited the work, I realized that I could now write this character with more authenticity instead of relying on stereotypic ideas about what a fifty-year-old woman might be like.

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?

When I’m settled, I’ll write every day, beginning in the morning. At some point, I’ll usually go for a bike ride or go to the gym to clear my head. I’ll write again in the evening until I can’t discern what it is I’m writing, or in some cases, when I fall asleep at the keyboard. However, when I’m not settled, I find it very difficult to keep to a writing routine at all.

12 - When your writing gets stalled, where do you turn or return for (for lack of a better word) inspiration?

I usually get away from the writing if it’s not going well. I’ve found doing something physically active can usually help.

13 - What fragrance reminds you of home?

I’m not sure which place I’d call home, but there are fragrances that remind me of my childhood, like newly mown grass and the smell of dusty humid air before a thunderstorm.

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 think that everything you mention can inspire writing. I’d add to this intense childhood memories and images as well as the personal stories of friends and relatives.

15 - What other writers or writings are important for your work, or simply your life outside of your work?

I’m an extremely eclectic reader, but I mostly read works in genres that I’m currently writing. For example, Annie Dillard’s nonfiction works were important when I first began writing nonfiction. Toni Morrison, Barbara Gowdy, and Gabriel García Márquez have been important writers for me at different times, as have been Kelly Link, George Saunders, and Shirley Jackson. When I was working on Queasy, I read a lot of history and biography. I read, for example, Margaret Thatcher’s books (something I never would have read if I hadn’t been trying to get a political perspective of the 1970s in England). I read works like A Very English Scandal by John Preston and Anger Is an Energy by John Lydon as well. Being particularly interested in Jungian psychology, I have read a great deal in this field too. In fiction and in nonfiction, I find it helps me know the characters I write about better.

16 - What would you like to do that you haven't yet done?

I’d like to renounce the world and live in bliss as a hermit on a mountain top, never having to deal with income tax again… but that’s not going to happen any time soon.

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 think it I hadn’t put my energy into writing, I might not have survived. My alternate occupation would have to be psychotherapist.

18 - What made you write, as opposed to doing something else?

I wrote because, metaphorically, my tongue had been ripped out of my head and my mouth sealed. Writing seemed the most expedient and safe way to express myself. This, I believe, turned me into a writer.

19 - What was the last great book you read? What was the last great film?

Whenever I’m asked a question like this, I have a very hard time answering. I don’t know if I see works as “great” anymore. There are books that can be very well written and meaningful to me—books that can inform my writing—books that can bring me to new places of consciousness. However, I don’t know if I think of any of them as “great.”

20 - What are you currently working on?

I’ve just completed a collection of Weird Tale, and I’m currently working on a nonfiction book about family and genetics. 

12 or 20 (second series) questions;

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