How does reading life inform your writing? What are you reading now?
I think our lives, as readers are more or less ‘shadow lives’ to our lives as writers. There is a deep connection, though we may not be immediately conscious of a specific influence. That’s why it’s so important that we read literature, as a culture and a nation — writers truly are the conscience of the cultures from which they write. If we respond to images and sound bites rather than sustained narratives that reflect and interpret the meaning of our lives, we lose our way in the long story of our generational histories. As for my own reading, I’m re-reading books that I’m considering assigning as supplemental reading for my fiction workshop at Rutgers Newark in the fall: Fat City, by Leonard Gardner, They Came Like Swallows, by William Maxwell, James Agee’s A Death In The Family, Carol Shields’ The Stone Diaries, Alice Munro’s The Beggar Maid, Junot Diaz’ Drown.
What about these novels is particularly instructive to new writers?
The Munro and Diaz texts are connected stories with novelistic arcs. I love Shield’s writing, and that particular novel is written in sections that expand to a generational story structured in metaphors. The Maxwell and Agee are almost companion texts, both written as first books of fiction, both the transformed true stories of the early loss of a parent, both written to assure the psychic survival of the writers, both pitch-perfect in their evocations of character and child’s point of view. Fat City is, simply, a perfect novel, written by Gardner over many years and edited over time to a tighter and tighter book. Line by line, it’s a textbook on voice, place, class, dialogue; elegantly economical and limitless in its acceptance, its luminous sorrow, and the dignity with which it imbues every scene.
What goes on in your fiction workshop?
Our faculty members each work intently and differently, so that students are mentored in different ways by different instructors. My workshop is equally made up of writing, editing, and reading books we discuss as technical and spiritual references. I divide the students into groups so that each writer knows his or her deadlines at the outset, and each writer presents three or four new stories a semester. We begin with the writer reading, and proceed to discussion that addresses the intent, the world, the successful elements, the questions, the points at which the writer’s authority wavers, or the reader is lost.
We then talk about the sentences themselves: the sentences, one-by-one, line after line, are the crux of the matter. My students get a line edit from me that is very specific, and they line-edit every story we discuss, which enables them to develop as editors; they also come to class with typed single-spaced one page responses on which to base their class comments. The writer whose work is discussed receives the line edits and responses to aid in revision.
That’s a basic outline, but the community formed within the group is always different, always specific. RN MFA students work hard; they’re an engagingly diverse, experienced, talented group. The program is designed to inspire community rather than competition: no one is competing for aid, for instance. There is focused intent to write deeply and well, to exceed one’s own capabilities and expectations.
In an earlier interview you said that you were influenced by Southern writers “for their connection to the physical world, and their enslavement to it.” Can you say more about that?
In more rural areas, the world stays up close — the natural world, whatever the landscape. The feel and smell of a place becomes part of our identity, bred into us for generations, perhaps. It’s home, emotionally, sensually, associatively. The writing hones toward it, though the writer is often forced to leave in order to survive as an artist, to find the space to speak.
Think of Joyce: silence, exile and cunning. By ‘cunning,’ I think he meant an alert, adaptable clarity, so there’s that. But there’s also a bit of sorrow, a deepening.
What is your process like drafting and revising a novel?
I really don’t ‘draft’ my novels, in the sense of planning them out. I begin with language itself, a line, a way into a voice, and find the story inside it. As for revision, I go over every line again and again, but I don’t throw out a lot of material. I trust in the material itself and stay with it
For as long as it takes. There are obvious disadvantages to this method — it’s a slow, painstaking process. I call it the high anxiety method.
What do you think makes for a good opening to a novel?
I want to feel a sense of risk in the language from the very first line.
What would you say to new writers working on their first stories or novel?
The writer’s first community is within literature: I’d ask them if they’ve read deeply and broadly enough, if they’ve learned to read as writers. Writing is part dogged persistence, part skilled (self) editing, part redemption/devotion, in that we need to write what is deeply important to us, and to readers. And if they’re really talented, I’d encourage them to apply to Rutgers Newark.