Monthly Archives: November 2012

The Blog Hop, or, All About My Mots d’Heures

A couple of weeks ago I was invited by Julie Gillis to participate in a “blog hop,” which is kind of like a chain letter without the threats of supernatural punishment should you fail to do it in a timely fashion. I was supposed to post last Tuesday, but I used Thanksgiving as an excuse to push it back a week, which meant I was supposed to do it yesterday. Then this happened instead. And then I got all hopped up on migraine meds and lost my fine motor skills for eight hours.

I’m supposed to answer questions about my work, which is a little daunting, because I’ve got a zillion half-baked projects right now and I can’t tell which ones I’m supposed to be concentrating on getting totally baked. (Wait, that didn’t come out right.) The YA novel? The non-YA novel? The freelancing? A non-fiction book? (I hope I don’t lose all credibility when I say that my iPhone tarot app keeps showing me the Two of Wands and the Seven of Cups. Yeah, don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about, closet tarot addicts.)

But I don’t want my dog to get cancer or whatever happens to people who break the chain, so here I go.

What do you write about and why? 

Apparently I write about violently severing ties with institutions that have supported me in the past, like CultureMap and the University of Chicago. (And yeah, there were people who nurtured and supported me at the U of C. Some of them were the same ones who made life miserable, which is complicated.)

But seriously. Looking over my posts from the year, I write about two things: things I love and things that make me furious. The fact that the latter posts generate far, far more site traffic is something I feel very . . . conflicted about. I am what they call a “passionate” person. (Cue theatrical eye-roll: “Typical Aries.” Followed by sarcastic eye-roll: “Stop talking about horoscopes and tarot. They are, empirically speaking, dumb.” Followed by bored eye-roll: “Why so many parentheticals today, Amy? Get it together.” Get off my case, imaginary people!)

So anyway I am “passionate,” which means I get angry about things, and when I get angry I cannot seem to shut my mouth. And for some reason when you’re angry and sarcastic people are far more likely to listen to you than when you’re blissfully chirping about art and life, which are both things I enjoy. Contrary to what you might think, I don’t actually enjoy feeling angry. It gives me a headache and makes my stomach hurt. So I try to save my anger for the things that matter, like when someone disses The Hunger Games.

I have never claimed to write because I can’t help it, or because I would die if I didn’t. Most of my writing is just for fun, and I feel good when I’m doing it. But honestly, when I write a post like the one from yesterday, it’s because I feel like there’s something fighting to get out of me and if I don’t let it out it will tear me to pieces.

Most often the thing that makes me feel this way is misogyny. I’ve seen it wreck women’s lives on a micro- and macro-level, in the news and in the neighborhood, as it were. But it doesn’t wreck every woman’s life. More often I’ve seen it chip away at their confidence, their pride, and their precious energy. Energy they could be putting into daily tasks and daily joys, loving relationships and flourishing careers. Every woman I know is tired. “Winning” patriarchy means losing yourself wholesale, but fighting it means you lose a little of yourself every day, in the energy you expend trying to pick your battles, fight the good fight, be generous where possible and harsh where necessary, and above all stay open and loving in the midst of it all. Fighting patriarchy means you also lose its compensatory pleasures, or cling to them defiantly only to feel them randomly betray you, like when you walk out of the house feeling confident and beautiful in high heels and five minutes later get a lewd comment about them.

(Side note: In 2001, alone and friendless in Portland, Oregon, I went to a co-worker’s fancy party out of desperation and loneliness. It was some kind of gallery or restaurant opening, held in a fancy modern building packed with people I didn’t know. I wore a skirt that went past my knees, a dressy, form-fitting tank top, and a pair of high heels. I was neither over- nor under-dressed for the occasion. What I was, though, was alone. As I stood in the buffet line, a complete stranger came up behind me, leaned in close to my ear, and whispered that he could tell from looking at me I was a “dirty girl.” That pearl of wisdom dropped, he sauntered back over to the corner and resumed leering at me from a distance with his buddy. I grabbed my fringed shawl and left the party without even hitting the ice sculpture martini chute on the way out. End of side note.)

I get angry about racism and poverty as well, but I write about them less, because I’m a white woman from an upper-middle-class background in a comfortable living situation and those things are not burned onto my skin or into my bones by daily encounters. My persona on this blog has thus become “angry, comfortably well-off white woman.” I feel ambivalent about that. I’d like to be smarter about race, especially, and other issues that matter to me. But even more so I’d like to invite women who have experienced racism like I’ve experienced sexism to guest on my blog. (I’m not outing you here, but You Know Who You Are.)

Where besides the blog do you write?

Ah, that is a good question my friend! I wrote a lot for CultureMap Austin this year, but I want to be completely clear about why I have moved on from that. I said in my last post that I had already started pitching elsewhere before the incident, and that is true; I have a piece in the works for the Austin Chronicle right now, and I am working up pitches for other places. I had a few minor frustrations with CultureMap, but mostly I just felt like it was time for me to try other things. However, until yesterday I was planning to keep writing for them to promote people and events—they do more cultural events coverage than any Austin news source that I know about, and it’s easy to get an article in with them quickly. By saying publicly that I do not want to write for them any more, I did not feel like I was sacrificing anything career-wise, because I was not counting on a long-lasting relationship with them. I did, however, sacrifice relationships that I value, which does not feel nearly as noble as sacrificing my career. But there it is.

So! What besides the blog do I write, that might be a better question for me. Like many writers, I have a couple of novels languishing on my hard drive, because I can’t decide which one to really put my back into. I wish I could discuss them in detail, but I’m too chicken and I don’t want to drain the magic, if there’s any in there. One of them is a vaguely sci-fi-ish YA novel (Hunger Games meets Gossip Girl! That’s going to be my elevator pitch, if I ever find myself in an elevator with a person who you give elevator pitches to). I have a handful of ideas for a grown-up novel, including one that’s been percolating for years but that is too scary and sad for me to have written yet.

And oh yeah! I also have a semi-erotic adventure thriller set in the imperialist world of Frances Hodgson Burnett, The Little Princess meets King Solomon’s Mines. (That’s more than an elevator pitch. It’s the whole outline. Don’t worry, the sequel includes characters from the Secret Garden-verse too.)

Additionally, I’m working on a long, angry, funny essay about women’s writing and the culture of misogyny, but it just keeps shifting and changing and somehow Lacan and Althusser keep showing up, and I am so mad at them I can’t tell whether they belong in the essay or not. Maybe I’ll finish it and pitch it, and then when it doesn’t get picked up I will post it here.

Oh yes, I am also co-authoring (and performing in!) Blood, Sweat, and Cheers, the exciting brainchild of Austin’s own awesomely talented one-woman superlative-generator, Kaci Beeler. It’s an original play about the cut-throat world of competitive cheering, and YES it will involve actual competitive-style cheering by actual competitive cheerleaders, and YES I will play an angry cheer coach, and YES you will very much want to see it in 2013.

Your bio lists a lot of things you do besides writing. Are you a writer, a performer, a singer, a comedian, or just an a random angry person with a degree she doesn’t know how to use?

I’m glad you asked that, self! I am a writer who is re-finding her voice. I’m also a singer with a not-great singing voice who doesn’t really write and perform songs anymore because people only liked the funny ones and the sad ones made her cry when she practiced them. Also I don’t think I’ll ever be able to try hard enough to get better at the guitar. I am a rusty performer who has tried to get back into the game by taking improv classes, but I don’t think I’ll ever get great at improv either, mostly because I am unwilling to put the time in. I am really good at drawing mermaids and unicorns, from years of practice as a child. I write comedy but can’t call myself a comedian because I only started taking comedy seriously as an art form, like, two years ago.

Oh hey, I just realized a thing that I love about comedy! It’s this: When I hear jokes about misogyny, I feel happy, not angry. The funnier the joke and the truer it is, the happier and more recognized I feel. I now have some idea of the prodigious skill that goes into great comedy. But the most important thing it has taught me is that you don’t have to yell about misogyny to critique it. You can also make fun of it, you can taunt and tease and torment it like a bully until it runs away crying like the wuss it is. BUT you have to be really smart and good at comedy, or it’s not funny. So I’m working on that. I performed my first sketch comedy show “She-Mergency!” this summer with talented funny lady Lydia Nelson, and since then the amazing Valerie Ward of P-Graph has joined us to form our sketch troupe, Every Girl’s Annual. Performances forthcoming at This American Live and an upcoming classic sketch cover night.

Which authors do you find inspiring?

Dead? Henry James. Willa Cather. James Baldwin. George Eliot. Marianne Moore. Gwendolyn Brooks. Jane Austen. James Agee. Octavia Butler. James Weldon Johnson.

Living? Sarah Waters. Libba Bray. Emma Donoghue. Jennifer Egan. Doris Lessing. Ursula LeGuin. Alice Munro. Others!

What is your writing process?

I try to write “morning pages” every day. These are the three daily pages of longhand stream-of-consciousness journaling advocated in the cheesy yet wonderful self-help book The Artist’s Way, which I highly recommend. Emotions come out in the morning pages that don’t come out on the screen. When I find that my hand is shaking and I am frowning and writing really fast, it’s usually time to post something that’s going to make my stomach hurt.

The rest of it, the articles and posts that don’t come from the angry place, is all write, write, write, reviserevisereviserevisereviserevise, post, revise again. I would like to figure out how to stretch out that energy and harness it for slower, steadier work, on novels or longer non-fiction, but I am dumb and it is hard.

Boring part over! Here are some fantastic blogs you should check out:

Julie Gillis: Austin-based activist, performer, and sex-positive feminist writes about politics and her own spiritual path.

She Makes Me Laugh: A newly minted comedy blog by improv impresario and puzzle-mistress Valerie Ward. (Be the first kid on your block to put it on your RSS feed!)

Incremental Catastrophe: Smart, interesting, in-depth posts on media, culture, and politics by funny dude Ben Blattberg.

Skoolaid: Melissa Barton is a smart cookie–no, an intelligent layer cake!–who chronicles her fascinating experiences teaching in Chicago public schools.

Aptal Yabanci: Michael Meeuwis blogs quite wittily about being a professor in Ankara, Turkey–where apparently they actually value teaching!

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Thanks for Slut-Shaming a Teen Rape Victim, CultureMap!

In 2012, I published 24 articles in CultureMap, many of which I’m very proud of. A few weeks ago the smart, kind editor who encouraged me to write for them in the first place, who gave me tips on pitching and interviewing and dealt with my clumsy mistakes for almost a year, left CultureMap for greener pastures. I was happy for him but sad for me—I lost the first person who put me in e-print. Meanwhile the company had slashed its already modest compensation, and the editors seemed to be more overworked and less careful than before. So I was already starting to pitch elsewhere. But after all, it was such an easy gig, and as I said, they had done a lot for me.

That’s why I initially told my husband I didn’t want to write anything about this thing. I still don’t. It makes me tired. But the queasy feeling won’t go away, so here I go.

On Halloween, CultureMap Dallas published an article by one of its managing editors. The article implied a young Dallas rape victim might be lying (or rather, suffering from “guilt” over “impulsive teenage decisions”), and expressed sympathy for her alleged rapist, a promising high school baseball star. CultureMap freelance contributor Dan Solomon, as he relates in the XOJane article I read yesterday, posted about his disappointment with CultureMap on his personal blog. He was then approached by his editors and asked to remove the piece, under threat of losing further opportunities to publish there. A freelance contributor being asked to remove his own reflections about the magazine from his personal blog. Solomon, obviously, did not.

Well, I’m a freelancer too. I have a personal blog too. And if freelancers for CultureMap are associated closely enough with the brand to warrant that kind of attention from the editors, then it’s a two-way street. Put another way: CultureMap has demanded passive support from its freelancers in the form of silence on their personal blogs. So I’m posting this in order to feel that I have not granted it.

What I would like to do that I have not seen done yet is take us step-by-step through the article. No apology or statement has been issued, although St. Amant defended her piece in a follow-up entitled “Bandwagon reporting doesn’t do victims of sex crimes any favors.” (Surprisingly given the headline, the article isn’t actually a compendium of quotes from victims of sex crime who agree with St. Amant!)

The point of this exercise is not just to show that the article was sloppily and lazily written–that doesn’t take a close reading to prove. It’s to show how once again, this type of sloppy, lazy writing covers up an opinion that would be too noxious to spell out in a well-reasoned argument.

Maybe it’s the Freudian in me, but I don’t believe in “sloppy writing” any more than I believe in all those supposed “gaffes” from Republican rape apologists earlier this year. I do believe in slipshod thinking that covers up the misogynistic attitudes that buoy up rape culture. These people don’t want to believe they believe the things they believe. When you listen to their language, you start hearing the mental blurs, the murky pits where thinking goes to die, the cesspools of plausible deniability where slut-shaming and victim-blaming grow like an algae bloom.

At first, the article appears to be pointing out a relevant fact: the second-degree felony charge implies the victim (whose age was not released) is under 17. Despite the actual headline, the opening paragraph leads a reader to expect an argument that the rape should not be charged as a crime against a child, but rather a crime against an adult. The lede:

There are few things more complicated than the line between adolescence and adulthood. While the Texas legal system makes a clear-cut distinction from age 16 (a child) to age 17 (an adult), the transformation occurs only on paper.

Leaving aside that wretched first line (oops, I didn’t leave it aside, oh well), it’s an interesting enough angle for me to ease warily into the article. I’m ready to hear an argument about the severity of these charges, perhaps with references to statutory rape law and child molestation cases.

This, however, does not occur. Six sentences lay out the bare facts of the case (two of those sentences are about how this guy’s dad is a CEO of something or other and how the kid is a great baseball player, but whatever). Then we get this:

Many criminal cases hinge on he-said, she-said evidence, but when the parties in question are high school students, the information is under even greater scrutiny than usual.

Uh, okay. If you say it’s under greater scrutiny, it’s under greater scrutiny. Oh hey, have you ever noticed that only in acquaintance rape and sexual harassment suits is what we normally refer to as “evidence” renamed “the he-said, she-said”? Just a side note! Okay, still listening. What next?

Kids are supposed to mess up. They lie. They cheat. They get caught. They grow up. But throw a sex act in the mix, and childish ways are all but left behind.

What the what now? This paragraph says nothing. Its sole function is to be a transitional paragraph between dubious sense and utter nonsense. What are these “childish ways” St. Amant is writing about? I literally have no idea what is happening here or where this argument will go next, which is part of the point. While my mind is still echoing with the words what-the-what-now, here comes the next paragraph, which returns to the point just long enough to make me think, Argument alert! Here it comes!:

However, it still seems bizarre to call a girl his peer while they are kissing but a child if their clothes come off.

Okay! Let’s ignore the general tone this is taking and stick with this statement, which is consistent with the premise presented in the lede. St. Amant goes on to present another “fact” paragraph, the only one in fact where the girl’s story is laid out with any detail at all:

The girl who pressed charges against Romo says she told him “No, I don’t want to do this,” as well as “Stop!” She says Romo told her “It would be okay,” and to “let it happen.” A sexual assault exam revealed trauma consistent with force, the affidavit states. [emphasis added]

And now–immediately following the statement about the results of the sexual assault exam!–the kicker, the final paragraph, where St. Amant pulls the misogynistic rabbit out of the sloppily-written hat:

No matter the facts, there is no good outcome in this case. If Romo forced himself on a girl in the backseat of his Chevy Tahoe as alleged, then he’s a sexual predator. If it’s a case of impulsive teenage decisions, remorse and guilt, then no one suffers more than 18-year-old Ryan Romo.

Actually, Claire St. Amant, there IS a “good outcome”! We call it “justice.” If this girl was raped, as substantiated by her exam, a “good outcome” would be that her rapist would be convicted and sentenced, and that would be a “good outcome” even if her rapist proved to be Romo! That is, if by “good outcome” what you mean is “good outcome” for the victim; I suppose, as is the case with all accused and convicted criminals, it wouldn’t technically be a “good outcome” for Romo. At any rate, as per the second sentence in the paragraph, Romo being “a sexual predator” would not actually be an “outcome” of the criminal proceedings of the trial, but rather an outcome of his having raped a girl under the age of 17.

However, the last sentence really brings home St. Amant’s readiness to call the victim a liar, not by saying she might have falsely accused Romo, but by implying that she might not have been raped at all. Despite the results of the sexual assault exam cited in the previous paragraph, the alternative St. Amant finds to Romo being a sexual predator is not that she was raped by someone else. It’s that this was a “case of impulsive teenage decisions, remorse and guilt.” (I assume she means the girl’s potential “impulsive teenage decision” to have sex with Romo, not Romo’s potential “impulsive teenage decision” to rape her.) The question has been shifted from “Who raped her?” to “Was it rape?”

Acquaintance rape: the only kind of crime where being accused is actually a worse fate than having been a victim. What’s important, as always, is that a “promising” young man’s career got jeopardized by a woman who probably invented her rape charge because, why again? Why, Claire? Because rape charges make you super popular? Because she WANTS to be strapped to a table and probed by the county examiners? Because she WANTS to be gently chided in the local press for her impulsive teenage decisions, in an article that seems to delight in the phrase “Chevy Tahoe,” as if it stood for every teenage slut that has ever climbed into the back of a senior’s car and then sniveled later that he didn’t stop when she said “no”?

Maybe I should invent a rape charge! It would bring me so much welcome notoriety. I crave trolls on this blog. Now all I have to do is seduce some poor schmo into having sex with me, manufacture some bruises and lacerations, smear my mascara, and hobble to the nearest police station so I can sit for several hours on a cold bench under flourescent lights, talk to skeptical police officers, and then spread my legs for the county examiner. DONE!

(Next I plan to get pregnant so I can have an abortion, thereby sticking it to yet another group of beleaguered conservatives. Or alternatively I could become a single mom, thereby flaunting my sluttiness in public for 18 years and contributing to the decay of society as we know it.)

In her follow-up piece, Claire St. Amant attempts to “clarify” her original argument, with about as much success as GOP candidates clarified their “gaffes” earlier this year.

[W]hen men don’t listen, it’s rape. Period. However, we don’t know that’s what happened in that Chevy Tahoe on Saturday [DAMN “Chevy Tahoe” is fun to say! -Oed]. And when the two parties are high school students, the situation is much murkier than, say, a 32-year-old teacher preying on his pupil.

ACTUALLY NO, IT IS NOT MURKIER, CLAIRE! IT’S STILL RAPE. And yeah, if the victim is 16 (and she could be 14 or all we know), by law, she is a child. Sorry if that offends you. A girl who gets raped in the back of a Chevy by someone a year older than her has not been raped any more “murkily” than a girl who gets raped by her math teacher.

And anyway, that’s not the point that your article put across. It is about whether she was raped at all. And unless you want to start writing a “maybe this didn’t happen” article about every crime that happens in your county, I am going to assume you have some underlying motives to account for, even if you’re not entirely clear on them yourself.

Earlier this year CultureMap Austin published my husband’s angry response to the Daniel Tosh rape joke incident. The screed had been circulating on Facebook, and my former editor picked it up and ran it. And because of that my husband got internet famous for a day, as the male comedian in Austin who took a nasty, funny, smart stand against rape culture.

For 48 hours we lived and breathed rape culture. It was a difficult time. In the aftermath, after the fifteen minutes of internet attention had died down, my husband suggested we put our money where our (loud) mouths were and volunteer at SafePlace. Last month we finally started the process, which is fairly long and arduous. After sitting in that room, knowing that we were there partly because an editor at CultureMap took a risk on running a very controversial piece, knowing that part of what propelled us to that moment was the notoriety and conversation that his piece had generated in our lives—after all that—the very same corporate entity has unapologetically endorsed a public slut-shaming of a teen rape victim who reported her rape—Brave! Rare!—showed her bruises, submitted to the rape exam, and was deemed by a third party to bear “trauma consistent with force,” which I daresay even Todd Akin might concede is “legitimate”. . . .

Well, my coherency is gone. A rape joke uttered in a comedy club hundreds of miles away warrants a risky op-ed. An irresponsible, victim-blaming article about a girl in our own back yard gets nothing. No apology.

In her follow-up, Claire St. Amant asserts her solidarity with rape victims. (Apparently if a woman walked down the street naked and gets raped, it’s okay by St. Amant to call it rape! Truly radical.) But even if that’s the case, if you doubt that her article justifies less enlightened people in their view that teenage girls who have sex consensually can’t really have been raped, but are just experiencing morning-after regrets—I dare you to read the comment section on the Dallas Observer blog, where Anna Merlan called out the CultureMap article the day after it was written, giving far more detail into the crime report than St. Amant bothered to give. Read those comments and tell me if they get better, because I had to stop after the first handful of them.

Well, really after the guy who was like, “yeah man, this one girl I used to sleep with said ‘no’ one time, and then she seemed like she changed her mind and we had sex anyway, and also a bunch of other times where she didn’t even say no, and then later she just told her friends about that one time and then everybody thought I was a rapist. Ergo, this didn’t happen.”

THAT is the kind of thinking you are encouraging with your generous speculations on the subject of “but maybe she’s lying!”, Claire St. Amant. That is what you, and CultureMap too, are being called to task for.

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Listen Here: Reflections on Learning to Interview

In the eight months since I started interviewing people for CultureMap and for my own blog, I have spent a lot of time listening to myself on tape.

The very first stage of my development as an interviewer was simply accepting that my voice sounded like that. It is simply too awful to describe. Ordinary language quails at the task: Desperate concierge? Groaning escalator? Pubescent wombat? If you interact with me on a daily basis, I can only assume that it takes all your energy to refrain from shuddering, and that after we are done talking you immediately run off and buy yourself a box of petit fours to reward yourself for the effort. I apologize to all of you.

However, that phase passes fairly quickly. If the interview goes well, and I deliver my guttural wombat noises briefly and infrequently, I can ignore myself and focus on transcribing the interviewee’s answers. Perversely, I love transcribing. It feels like a Gillian Michaels tape for your carpal tunnels. You turn your brain down to a one and your fine motor skills up to a ten, and try to get the words into your ear and out of your fingertips as quickly and with as little interference from the command center as possible. Spelling, grammar, and punctuation are so much jettisoned cargo. As long as I’m able to identify the phrase “wll thta’s a rayly goo quqqstin” using context clues, it’s good enough for the transcript.

With my fingers flying and my brain on vacay, it’s a lot easier to rise above the fact that I sound like a moron. Easier, but still not always possible. Because there are some interviews that just don’t go well. These are obviously the interviews with Big Shots, the writers I respect and admire most. I usually write a ton of questions for these authors, and yet mysteriously wind up sounding like I have no idea who they are or what they have done to deserve to be interviewed. That is because once the interview begins, I am in a survival situation. It is as if the interviewee has hijacked my subway car and is holding a gun to my head, and I have to give Christian Bale enough time to get into his Batman outfit. My one goal is to keep the interviewee talking so that I won’t start talking. Because that, to paraphrase Egon Spengler, would be bad.

Here are some telltale signs of a bad interview:

  • I say the phrase “That’s really fascinating!” between five and seven times.
  • I say the phrase “Let me just look through my notes” at least once.
  • I ask about a favorite movie or book. (Follow-up question? “Oh, I’ll have to check that out.”)
  • I laugh at 20 second intervals. The interviewee does not laugh.
  • I laugh at 20 second intervals. The interviewee laughs nervously in response.
  • I laugh at 20 second intervals. The interviewee begins to sound frightened.
  • I interrupt myself in the middle of a question to say, “You know what? This is a stupid question.”
  • I ask if I am keeping the interviewee from something important and perhaps should let her go, and when the interviewee replies in the negative, I say, “Are you sure?”

Listening to these interviews is excruciating, but instructive. I feel that I have learned from them a few basic things about the art of interviewing.

First and foremost, the key to getting what you want from an interview is letting go of what you want and just waiting. My wonderful, kind editor tried to tell me this right off the bat, but since I am a narcissist with the patience of a toddler, it was hard for me to swallow. I am not good with waiting. If they did the marshmallow experiment on me, I would spend 30 seconds staring desperately at the door, then I would eat the marshmallow, and then after 30 more seconds I would start pounding the one-way mirror and yelling that my blood sugar was dangerously low and I better get some more marshmallows in here stat.

And interviewing is all about waiting. First you have to wait through the silence after you ask the question and before they answer. This can take up whole fractions of seconds. As a result, I have had to dedicate a whole portion of my brain solely to yelling silently at myself during those pauses: Don’t follow up yet! They don’t need further elaboration! They’re just thinking! Shutupshutupshutup!

But there’s a second kind of pause that’s even more important: the halftime pause, when the interviewee’s subconscious comes out on the field and does an elaborate dance number and everybody switches channels to the Puppy Bowl. (That metaphor is probably not worth examining too closely.) Really what happens is the interviewee talks for a minute or two, finishes what she has to say, and falls silent.

At this point, the brain police have me tied to the mast, and the silence is my siren song, calling me out to sea. I am mentally writhing in agony, my brain screaming, Odysseus-like, I didn’t mean it! I didn’t mean it! Please let me talk! I was born to fill silences! This is aaaaaawwwwkwaaaaarrrr. . . [trails off in a gasp of agony].

But the halftime pause is crucial. Everyone I’ve interviewed has been interviewed before, and they all have a basic idea of how they’ll respond to the same questions they’re always asked. They listen to the question, take a moment to register which answer is required, and go. But eventually they run out of script and they pause. And somewhere in that breath, having done their duty by the question, their brains are having a nice time free associating, and they are likely to have an actual new thought that seems worth mentioning. Or maybe they hate silence too. Either way, if and when they open their mouths again, the next thing that comes out will almost always be less rehearsed, less guarded, and more speculative. The first answer isn’t exactly a lie, but the second answer is almost always the truth.

By the same token, I have learned never to retract a stupid question, or apologize for asking it. It’s not that there are no stupid questions–I have asked a million of them. I usually know when I have asked one by the fact that I am silently clubbing myself on the head and mouthing the words “stupid stupid stupid” in the pause before the interviewee responds. The thing is, in golden instances, and not as rarely as you would think, the stupid question actually turns out to be the smartest question you could ask.

I’m not talking about a boring question–that’s different. I mean a truly out-there, stupid question like “Are you religious?” or “Why is there a pancake scene in all of your novels?” that just flies out of your mouth before you can stop it. The advantage to such a truly stupid question is that it is probably one that the interviewee has never heard before. Which means it may actually catch them off-guard, and they might go ahead and say out loud what they are thinking. They may even be prompted by pity to say more than they usually would.

“This poor wombat-girl sounds like she’s on the brink,” they might be thinking. “I’d better start talking before she decides to enter another graduate program.”

There’s always a slim chance that they will acknowledge the stupidity of the question by responding curtly, thereby setting into motion an hour of googling nearby masters programs in social work. But you know what? That’s just bad manners.

Early on, when I had just started doing this, I overheard one rather well-known writer make a crack about a journalist at a rival publication who had interviewed him earlier that day. It could not have been for my benefit, because although I was standing right there and he had been told I would be interviewing him, he had only the faintest idea who I was. The well-known writer made a few snarky comments about how “weird” the interview went–which, undoubtedly, it did, since the interviewer, I presume, was speaking to one of his literary heroes. He capped off his remarks with a huge eye-roll and the following statement: “Oh yeah, and he told me he’s a writer. I was like, great, good for you, dude.”

So this last lesson that I have learned from interviewing people turns out to be basically the same lesson I learned from waiting tables for years and year: It’s easy to tell when someone thinks of you as a human. And it’s just as easy to tell when they think of you as a talking appliance that produces comically human-like phrases from time to time.

It’s perfectly true that there’s only one crucial participant in the interview, and it isn’t me. But just because I could easily be replaced by another, better journalist doesn’t mean that I’m literally a fungible commodity, like silver or crude oil. Just because I try to be invisible for an hour doesn’t mean I have actually disappeared. And just because my job is to make you look good doesn’t mean that I’m actually a mirror. It turns out you can learn a lot about people when you really listen.

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Emma Donoghue Says All the Smart Things (and Still Gets Mansplained To)!

Twelve years ago I picked up a racy-looking paperback with a gaping bodice on the cover and a dictionary definition on the title page: “Slammerkin, noun, eighteenth century, of unknown origin. 1. A loose gown. 2. A loose woman.”

As it turned out, Emma Donoghue’s Slammerkin had a lot more to do with slimy breeches than heaving bosoms. Set in 18th-century London, the novel is almost straight naturalism, a grimy, depressing, but riveting story that follows a young girl on her path from prostitute to refugee to [spoiler alert!] murderess. Mary’s psychology, such as it is, is almost entirely molded by outer circumstances, accidents of birth and station and bad timing. Given her environment, it only takes a soupcon more than the usual amount of envy in Mary to set the wheels in motion that lead her to her ghastly fate. It’s enough to make you listen to your elders.

It wasn’t until I read the historical notes at the back of the novel that I realized this wasn’t just a realistic story, it was a real story. Like Toni Morrison’s Beloved, it was inspired by a gruesome murder about which the historical record says little. Many (though not all) of Donoghue’s other books have done the same type of historical reconstruction work: The Sealed Letter, Life Mask, and the short stories in The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits and Astray, her latest collection, which covers four centuries of wanderings, migrations, and peregrinations from the micro-perspective of those caught up in the crosswinds. Emma Donoghue thinks like an academic and writes like a woman possessed by the ghosts of historical nobodies, whose minor, idiosyncratic histories tell a larger story about their time.

In 201o, Donoghue’s contemporary novel Room appeared, a gut-wrenching account of a mother and son in a captivity scenario out of your worst nightmare. Room‘s unconventional narrator is a five-year-old boy who has lived his entire life in a tiny, one-room prison with only his mother for company. Trapping the reader inside a child’s head is far from just a gimmick, or even a tool for ongoing dramatic irony. It conveys at once the airless, stunted quality of life in the room and also the astonishing potential of the human mind, its almost sublime ability to reach beyond its narrow limits to the incomprehensible beyond. Jack and his mother shape one another asymmetrically but wholly; Room is Emile written as a love story between mother and child, boxed in by their bond of love and the utter dependence of one on the other just as they are by the literal prison around them. Room was masterful, and it should have won the Booker Prize, or the Orange Prize—it was shortlisted for both.

So, given all that, let’s just say I was excited to get a chance to interview Emma Donoghue for CultureMap. I was nervous, and consequently listening to the recording was not fun: I sound dumb as a rock. I asked questions that made it seem like I hadn’t actually read any of her books; I blanked and failed to listen properly or follow up. Luckily, Emma Donoghue was smart enough for the both of us, so my awkwardness didn’t ruin the interview.

And anyway, I’m proud of it. It’s a landmark for me. At the beginning of 2012, having just graduated and not knowing what was next, I conceived of this ludicrous idea to interview all my favorite contemporary female writers. Jennifer Egan and Emma Donoghue were at the top of the list. Along the way, I’ve fallen in love with a dozen more female authors, and have been fortunate enough to interview a couple of them. But to speak to someone who was an initial inspiration for this project, whatever it is, that was really something.

Interview after the jump. Continue reading

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Scientology! Co-ops! Motherhood! The True Confessions of Author Sarah Bird

*shorter version of this interview available at CultureMap Austin*

When I asked around for names of people’s favorite contemporary female novelists a few months ago, a number of people mentioned local Austin writer Sarah Bird, including writers I respect, like Libba Bray and our own Monique Daviau. So when I had the chance to interview Bird for CultureMap (shorter piece here), I immediately took the opportunity to buy and read her most recent book, The Gap Year. I knew it was about a mother/daughter relationship that grows strained during the daughter’s senior year in high school.

But I was unprepared for how intensely the book sucked me in. It was really funny but also heartbreaking, even frightening at times. The book alternates chapters between the two characters’ points of view during the fateful year when daughter Aubrey suddenly falls in love with a football player and starts behaving like a total stranger to hip, single alterna-mom, Cam. Interwoven within the story is Cam’s sorrow over Cam’s ex, Aubrey’s father, whom she lost years ago to a Scientology-like cult. I read the thing in 24 hours, pulled on not only by the mystery of Aubrey’s transformation, but also by the writing. Deceptively breezy, it is often beautiful and always intelligent, even on the few occasions when the plot resolves a bit too neatly. It really proves what Libba Bray said in my interview with her a couple months ago, that a book can be razor-sharp without being pretentious or, as she put it, “hiding its heart.”

I try not to over-identify with my interview subjects, but there were several points where  I felt an unexpected shock of recognition. It was a pleasant surprise that she had lived in the ICC co-ops while attending grad school at UT, but what really threw me for a loop was the traumatic break-up with a boyfriend who becomes invested in a religion you just can’t reconcile with reality. Bird lost a boyfriend long ago to Scientology; mine was a Mormon. Despite the different religions, I got chills reading that section of the book, and listening to her talk about it made me realize how rarely I have encountered another person who had experienced that particular type of tragedy.

So anyway, here she is, ladies and gents. I hope to read more of her.

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The Oeditrix: The first thing I noticed was the structure of the novel, the two alternating voices. Had you ever written anything like that before, and how did you decide to use that structure for the story?

Sarah Bird: Had I ever done anything like it? No, I hadn’t. No I had not, and oddly enough the novel I’m working on now, the same exact thing is happening. Unbeknownst to me. I mean, in Gap Year I thought I was telling the mother’s story because that’s the story I know, and emotionally that’s what I was living through because our son was getting ready to leave, going away to college. I was all distraught about that. Surprisingly. Much more than I had ever expected to be, it was far more emotional than I thought it would be. So I thought I was writing that story, because that’s where my emotional anchor was. So I was writing her story, and you know, like, the good angel and bad angel on your shoulder? So it was her, and then the other angel on the other side was sort of like, sneery, and going, Yeah, that’s what she thinks. That’s her story. And I kind of gradually realized that I was hearing my voice from that age. So I had to let Aubrey tell her story. Which was fun, I enjoyed it a lot.

OED: So Aubrey literally just popped in there.

SB: She was a surprise. She just started talking to me, and she had a lot of commentary. And it was also, I wanted to get to that feeling that parents, particularly mothers of boys, have. Unless you have a very unusual boy, you know, they go into the nonverbal years, and, you know. They stop holding your hand, they stop curling up on your lap, and they stop telling you about their lives. And so you have this stranger living in your house that you know on some level, but you also realize that—certainly my parents didn’t know what my interior life was. And I for sure wanted to get to that feeling of parallel lives that starts happening of necessity when children separate.

OED: I was really struck by how authentic both of those voices felt. 

SB: Amy, how old are you?

OED: How old am I? Oh! Sorry there’s like a cat altercation going on here. Yeah. I’m 34, and I have not had a child as yet.

SB: But you’re much closer—you’re kind of right between. That means a lot to me that it rang true for you.

OED: It really did! When I started the novel I also thought this was going to be the story of this mother. And the voice is so strong and so sassy, and then all of a sudden the daughter spoke up and I was like wow, this is an equally strong voice. So it’s interesting to hear that it was based on your own memories. My next question was going to be—You have a son. You do not have a daughter.

SB: No, I don’t. And I’ve been so happy that, at signings and whatnot when I’ve gone around, so many readers come up and they take my hand and say, I know you have a daughter, because I went through the same thing. I’m glad it came across. I sort of had a secret weapon in that when our son was in high school I volunteered at the attendance office, so I was one of those ladies writing up passes and excuses. I was sitting behind the desk, and essentially I was invisible. And invisible with a notepad in front of me! I was this little imbed in the high school world, and that’s how I was able to get the current details and language and stuff.

OED: Did you copy down things that you heard?

SB: Yeah, I was taking notes the whole time. I mean it’s just amazing what these young people would say right in front of me. Apparently I’m deaf, so that’s good.

OED: How did you decide to make it a daughter, instead of a son?

SB: Once I realized that I was going to have a character that age I knew very clearly it could not be a male. I also knew that if I made the character female, that would put enough distance between my son and that book, so that he wouldn’t feel like I invading his privacy, or reporting on him. Which was was exactly what happened.

OED: You mean he did think you were reporting on him?

SB: No, he didn’t. I asked him, how do you feel about my writing a book about someone this age? And he goes, It’s a girl! It’s a completely different species. You know, like, you’re writing about lemurs, and I’m not a lemur. So . . . we’re fine.

OED: Has he read it?

SB: I don’t think so. I think the only book of mine that he’s read is Alamo House, because he lived for a while in an off-campus co-op. That’s kind of a cult book, because that’s set in an off-campus co-op, and so that passes around the co-ops, and I think he’s read that one. But I don’t know.

OED: Is it set in the UT co-ops?

SB: Yeah, Seneca House. Why, did you live in the co-ops?

OED: I did, I lived at Helios.

SB: Oh, Helios! Oh my god.

OED: For years and years every person I dated lived in one of those co-ops. I couldn’t escape them.

SB: It was so strange, because it was such a good experience for me. I had moved here from Albuquerque and was going to graduate school, and I didn’t know anybody, and I moved into this co-op and immediately had a group of friends, and a place to be. At the time I was there, Seneca House was graduate women. Graduate, vegetarian, feminist women. A serious, studious group. So I talked about it a lot, and so my son said, oh, I’m going to go live in a co-op. And the co-op he lived was “clothing-optional.”

OED: House of Commons?

SB: 21st Street. Let me just say, here’s a little secret: nobody you want to see with their clothes off is going to be stripping down. It’s going to be everybody that you don’t want. Anyway. So he followed in my footsteps and did that.

OED: And was he shocked by how different it was?

SB: No.

OED: That was a fun time for me too. It was not a particularly studious time. But it was a fun time, in those co-ops.

SB: No the co-ops have changed pretty dramatically from when I was there. I mean they always were sort of wild, but not, I mean, whoa.

OED: So you were here for your MA in journalism. And had you been writing your whole life before that?

SB: I had written for magazines. And—hold onto your hat—I wrote for True Confessions magazine.

OED: Oh wow!

SB: Yeah. And made more more money in the early seventies than I would make now on a magazine article. They were great. I mean, they’re out of business now. But that was literally pulp fiction. It was literally pulp fiction, but that was where I started. But by the time I went to journalism school I had been publishing in magazines and writing articles and things like that.

OED: Tell me what it was like working at True Confessions. I’m dying to know.

SB: It was amazing. I mean, it’s just great training. Inadvertently, because—I started writing to make money. I had been an au pair in France, when I was 19 or 20. And when I was over there I was trying to learn French, but you know. My French was better than the three-month old babies I was taking care of, so I wasn’t learning very much. So I got these photo-romances, that’s what they called them. They’re like, they have them in Mexico too, they’re photos, like cartoons but with photos. And they were like, Oh Guillaume, je [san je fais le blague?] So I was reading those things to learn colloquial French, how people actually spoke instead of what I had learned by reading Molière, which wasn’t very colloquial. But you know, it kind of occurred to me. They were so bad, it was the first time I was reading something that was discernibly bad writing. A little light went on, and I said, I could probably do that! So when I got back home I searched out a similar market, and there were the True Confession magazines. Equally bad.

OED: That’s pretty amazing. So you were writing stories—

SB: I was writing “I kidnapped my own child!”, “I seduced my parish priest!” . . . really they were pretty tame. Everything back in those days was pretty tame. They were just a great way to learn how to plot a story. And it was really great to learn how to write to a certain audience. I had the blue-collar and working class, and it was just such great timing to figure out how you capture that world, so. I wish they still existed.

OED: Yeah me too, I would write for them.

SB: Yeah I know, I feel so badly that all the places where I started and made a living when I was starting as a writer, they’re vanished. But at this point True Confession magazines were dying out, even then.

OED: When did you start writing novels?

SB: I had this goal that I’d publish my first novel by the time I was 30, and I did. It was a mystery. I had a state job by then, no wait, it must have been before then because I got—I’m losing track. So it was before I was 30 that I published a mystery novel, Do Evil Cheerfully, from the Blaise Pascal quote, “Men never do evil so cheerfully as when they do it from religious conviction.” And it was about this Scientology boyfriend that is why I ended up in Austin. I followed him to Austin. And he became a Scientologist. So I wrote that novel, and I had him dead on page one. He was dead, he was floating in the bathtub with my hairdryer in it.

OED: That Scientology experience, it must have informed the part of The Gap Year about her ex-husband.

SB: Oh my god, yes! Exactly right! You’re exactly right! That’s all very, very, very true. I just never figured out the answer to how someone so intelligent, that I was so crazy about, could go for this malarkey. As Joe Biden would say.

OED: There was something very real about that the description of the marriage dissolving, it was very hard to read at times, there was something really authentic there. Until the [ex-husband] character showed up, it seemed like a fun thing, a made-up job, you know, what if someone worked for the Scientologists as a bodyguard, but then . . . 

SB: Yeah, it’s such a jokey thing. Just to say “Scientology,” or “Moonie.” But you know, they suck people in, and then lives are over. He tried to get me to join up, he had me take a beginning course that, oh my God it was like a horrific combination of assertiveness training and a kindergartner’s birthday party. It was just an odd, odd experience. Which, all hail to the Austin libraries, they saved me from it. I was not lured into white slavery and signed away 99 lives to Sea Org. After I took this course, I was sort of dazed and heartbroken. So I did what I always do: I researched it. I went to the library, walked in there to research Scientology, and everything I came across, the articles had been razor-bladed out. I went to the librarian and said what’s the deal, there’s nothing here. And she said, oh we keep some of that stuff behind a desk, because these guys come in and cut the articles out, or steal the books. So we have to keep them locked up. So anyway, that’s how I found out what I found out about Scientology and L. Ron Hubbard. So yay, go Austin Public Libraries.

OED: But it did bring you to Austin, that experience. And you’ve been here ever since?

SB: Yeah, since 1973. I mean, ostensibly I came for graduate school, but it was because of this guy.

OED: Do you feel like you’re from Austin at this point?

SB: You know, that’s any interesting question, which kind of goes to a deep psychological thing. But I grew up in an Air Force family. And if you grow up in the military, where you move a lot a lot a lot, and your primary allegiance is kind of to the mission, to the Air Force, to America, I don’t know, there’s just this essential non-rootendess about you. So I think that just got baked into my identity at such an early age that. . . but if I’m from anywhere, it’s from Austin.

OED: It’s a good place to be from.

SB: I’m madly in love with Austin.

OED: It’s my favorite place on earth.

SB: Where are you from?

OED: I’m from Houston originally. I came to Austin for school, but then for years I went to grad school in Chicago.

SB: Oh my God! Where did you go?

OED: University of Chicago.

SB: Smart girl.

OED: Well I was smarter still by coming back after I was done, really the smartest decision I ever made. I married my husband here, and I have a lot of friends and family. I just love being back. I was in Chicago, a big, culturally wonderful city, but it doesn’t hold a candle to how great it is to live here. Anyway. Another question that kind of goes to that, about The Gap Year: Cam strikes me as kind of an Austin hippie, or a hip Austin mom. Most stories of teen rebellion are kind of the opposite, there’s a conservative or strait-laced parent, and the child rebels. That’s not the story you told, so tell me a little bit about that. 

SB: About where Cam comes from?

OED: About the dynamic. I mean, the daughter wants to be more normal, essentially.

SB: That kind of came from–I have five brothers and sisters. And this is a great blessing to a novelist, to be one of six children, in that you see these people from the first moments of their lives. And it gives you a deep understanding that so much of who we are is hardwired. Obviously Cam sees that in her work. And I saw that with my son. When he was born, I looked into his face, and he made himself known to me on some really fundamental level that never changed. I knew. And so I think, this is just, you know, this great roll of the dice, about parents and the temperament of their child, a mother and the temperament of her child. What that child needs, whether the mother can supply it, and how those pieces fit together, and form and deform each other. So I’m interested in that, and I would say Aubrey was somebody who came into the world with a temperament that craved order. And obviously Cam had come from too much order, and she was giving what she thought was the greatest gift she could to her child, and it made Aubrey feel insecure and unanchored. And so that’s what she sought out. She sought out that stability.

OED: It’s a scary thought to somebody who has not had children, it is kind of your worst fear. You know, what if my child rejects me not just because I’m their parent, but because of different personalities. Like, they just don’t like you.

SB: I mean obviously as a parent you have a huge advantage in that you form their world. That was the other thing that I wanted to get at, is how much parents form their world, creating these little football players, or whoever, that are expressions of their parents. And your parents are always going around going, oh I just want him or her to be happy. Yeah, as long as it involves a degree from Yale, that’s an okay happiness. But community college, that is not an okay kind of happiness.

OED: Do you think those expectations of parents from their children are a common source of the gap between parent and child? 

SB: Children come into the world, and they’re dependent on these big humans to feed them and protect them. So by and large, you want to please your parents. I think it’s unusual not to want to please your parents, and not to feel tremendous grief when you don’t. And sometimes, you know, the little person you get is not the person that’s going to fulfill your expectations. We’ve all heard stories about that kind of sadness—Laurence Olivier, who always wanted to be an actor, and his father wanted him to have a respectable profession. Just sometimes. More often than not it works, and there’s just this happy blend.

OED: One thing that was most terrifying to me was that it all revolved around cellphones. The scariest scenes to me were the ones where the mother was calling and calling and calling, and yet when I was growing up we didn’t even have cellphones. But just the thought of not being able to reach your child—it was written in a very terrifying way. Is that a feeling you’ve experienced?

SB: Of course. I mean that’s the curse of cellphones, you just immediately go into red alert when the person on the other end doesn’t respond immediately. I think back to when I took off and backpacked around Europe. Just by a fluke, the letter I sent to my mother telling her that I had arrived safely and everything was fine went into our mailbox, which in my house fed into a closet, and it went into the pocket of a coat. The only letter that ever got diverted like that. So she didn’t know for months that I was even alive. That just literally couldn’t happen now. That’s horrible for parents, but on the other hand, that complete break is what I think turns the key for a lot of children, and then they begin to appreciate their parents, after they’ve had that. I’m curious about whether that happens as much when you remain in constant contact.

But it’s definitely, it’s a terrifying experience when you cannot get your child to call you back. Much more common with boy children. All my friends who had girls, the girl’s like, Hi mom, I’m walking across the quad, oh I better hurry  up I’m gonna be late for class, hey listen, can you send me my that hair thing that I left there? It’s in the top drawer, yeah okay, Pat’s looking for me, see you, talk to you. And then they hang up, and a few minutes later the phone rings again. That’s a month’s worth of communication with a boy.

OED: Can you tell me about the quote in the front of the book: “The anchor or the arrow?”

SB: Oh yeah, yeah. That. That came very clearly to me in a dream that I had when I was eight months pregnant. I woke up with that in my head, and I saw that it was always this little conflict between whether you’re launching your child into the world, getting them prepared for the slings and arrows and the harsh reality, or are you the nesting place? The home where they always have to take you in? I just remembered that very clearly when our son reached that age, when I said, Do I need to toughen him up? Is this a cruel thing, that he’s never known anything but approval and love, and toxic love is a selfish thing? So that’s what Cam was facing.

OED: I wanted to ask about suburbia versus living in the city, another theme I noticed in the book. There was such a strong thing in the book about her yearning to be somewhere else, and I wondered where that came from.

SB: I exiled myself to the suburbs. I’m not really in the suburbs, I live in the Northwest hills. But I had always lived in Hyde Park and Crestview, and pretty central Austin, so it really felt like I was out on the edge of the prairie when I first moved here. And that I had somehow sacrificed my essential identity to be a parent. We needed a bigger house and we could afford one here. So I gave that to Cam, which I think is not an uncommon identity crisis that parents have, that you have given that essential part of yourself up. Sycamore Heights was kind of Hyde Park. . . And kind of knowing that probably I wouldn’t have really blended in there either. So. This dynamic plays out in a lot of places, like in Albuquerque, places I’ve visited and friends I know, they kind of have the same turmoil. Like moving out of New York into the boroughs, that stuff. The changes you have to make when you become a parent.

OED: Can you talk about your sense of humor? There were lots of parts in the book where I laughed out loud. 

SB: I love it when people say that, but I’m also just wincing, because the book I’m working on now is intensely serious. It doesn’t have a single laugh in it. It’s like my other complete laugh-free book, The Flamenco Academy. It’s just whatever shape the book takes. I’m very lucky that I have an editor that’s never forced me to do a quote-unquote “Sarah Bird” book, she lets me go wherever I want to go. But I would say I grew up in a very, very funny family. My family is super articulate, highly verbal. It was one of those big Catholic families that are somewhat competitive, and we were always playing to the laugh. To get my mother to laugh, that was the big gold star for us. It’s still tons of fun when I get together with them. They’re still the funniest people I know.

OED: You say competitive in the sense that there’s a lot of you?

SB: There’s a lot of you, but also that kind of humor is competitive. You’re trying to top someone else’s laugh, or get the laugh, or make the kill shot. I kind of grew up in comedy camp.

OED: Tell me a little bit more about the book you’re working on now, the serious one.

SB: It’s very serious. It’s very serious and it’s very complicated. I’m just now speed-reading it. Something’s not working, and I have to sort of speed-read it to take my main character’s emotional pulse. I actually have two main characters, like Gap Year, double point-of-view thing. It’s the story of an Okinawan girl during the Battle of Okinawa who was conscripted into the Japanese Imperial Army and forced to serve as a nurse in their cave hospitals. So it’s her point of view juxtaposed with a contemporary military brat stationed on Okinawa. In both cases what I wanted to talk about is the price of empire, and how those costs are always born by the young. [Pause.] So that’s a laugh riot.

OED: What put it in your head to write it right now? 

SB: I’ve just been very concerned about the rise of militarism in America. Things like, how infrequently in the campaign they talk about this immense colossal defense budget we have. From doing the Yakota Officer’s Club I learned so much about the Battle of Okinawa, and I always wanted to go back to that, because more people died there than in Nagasaki and Hiroshima combined, yet very few people know about it. Including me, who was there. So that was always lingering. And then I wanted to talk about military families today. So that’s what I’m stirring into the pot.

OED: And do you have any other ideas on the horizon? Do you know what you’re next book after that would be? 

SB: No I don’t. Not really. I do have some idea, but I don’t want to encode them in my brain in any dangerous way.

OED: Are you the kind of writer who has a lot of ideas?

SB: No. No, I’m really not. That’s kind of why I switched from journalism to novels, because I realized I only get about one really good idea a year. I can’t go chasing magazine assignments. No, I don’t, and I don’t keep notebooks of my ideas, and I don’t write things down much. I get attached to things if I write them down. So it has to occur to me over a long period of time, and then I start pursuing it.

OED: So what is your actual writing process like? 

SB: Kind of sporadic. I have months where I do nothing but research, and months where I do nothing but write all day, and then months where nothing happens, so. I’m certainly not a model of discipline.

OED: I mean who is, right?

SB: Well, I know a lot of people who are.

OED: Do you think you’re strongly associated with Austin for your readers?

SB: Well, I came from New Mexico, and I was so freaked out by Texas when I first got here, it was so strange and bizarre. So I wrote Alamo House, my first novel. I meant it as a satire. And then I discovered that Texans, and certainly Austinites, have the best sense of humor in the world. So my blistering satire was warmly received. [Laughs.] I think it’s sort of been a two-way love affair.

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