An Interview for an Anchorage High School Student
A high school student sent me some questions, which I answered yesterday and thought you may be interested in. It is also kind of funny, because last night at dinner, friends who watch Fox News said that Bill O'Reilly's thought for the day feature (or something like that, I've never seen it) was for kids, and it was, "Do what you say you are going to do," and to my surprise, I agreed with him, and had just written that to a response below. Which all goes to show that there is some common ground in this political season. (In other news, the moose hunt continues, slowly, and cautiously. There were two split/forks turned in as of yesterday, but we heard that a 3 brow-tine has been taken as well. The cross-country team heads to the regional meet in Juneau this weekend, the new pavement and sidewalks are done on Main Street and look great, the Thunderbird Motel is all gone, opening up a new view next to the Summer Inn, the best fishing season in years is winding down, the last tourists wandered around town in the cold wind yesterday, and the summer restaurants are closing soon or have closed. Today is picture day at the school for 6th-11th graders, tomorrow community and homeschool portraits are taken from 6:30-8:30pm at the school library.) Now the interview--
1. How did your experiences in high school prepare you for a writing career?
I attended a Quaker school, which was much more diverse than my community. The Quakers taught me empathy, I think. For instance, at school we couldn't vote on anything, all decisions by a student council, class, team, or activities committee had to be made by consensus-- everyone had to agree-- that builds in understanding and respect at an early age. Also, I had great English teachers who taught us Shakespeare and poetry, and my history teacher made the past come alive in stories that were funny, moving and true-- and significant- as she was named Miss. Roosevelt and was Teddy's great-granddaughter. I played sports, sang in a choir and was in school plays, which all are good training because they teach you so much more than classes do about yourself and others. (Being active physically is important to writers, since the job requires a fair amount of sitting and angst, so for me, still, the best way to get inspired or to self-edit is to take off on a bike ride, run, hike, or snowshoe. Recently, I've taken up golf. As an aside, a dog is good for a writer, because she will force you to be out in the world, and so is singing in a choir, as you meet all kinds of people and the collective effort is better than you alone can do, which is somehow satisfying, and of course a metaphor for lots of things, and writers need to think in metaphors.) My teachers and coaches taught me to work hard, do my best, and to do what I say I'm going to--- which all good habits for writers.
2. Is there anything that would have helped you more? Any classes that you wish had been offered or that could have been improved?
A basic composition, spelling, and grammar class would have helped, and I had them, I'm sure, but I hated them. Now I wish I'd paid more attention. The tools of the trade are words, sentences, paragraphs, pages, chapters-- books, and the more you can learn about them the better off you'll be. I think a poetry writing class which concentrated on forms would have been great, rather than say, free verse. Writing sonnets and limericks is great practice.
3. How did your higher education help you? What courses did you take?
I went to Middlebury College and majored in History, and then recently earned an MFA in Creative Writing from UAA. My MFA course of study taught me much, but at 50 I was much more ready to learn, had a solid base of writing behind me, and soaked it all up the way adults do, as I haven't met one yet who wished they hadn't paid more attention in college or high school. I wrote my thesis essay on Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (her novel The Yearling is terrific, and I loved her essays, Cross Creek.) In college my history classes taught me that there are many versions of the truth, an important concept for a writer. The story of a war differs depending on who is telling it. A soldier on the winning side, a wounded prisoner of war on the losing side, a mother back home, a politician, a farmer whose barn has been ransacked, a widow, etc.
4. When and why did you decide to publish your first book?
I didn't decide as much as it happened. I received a contract to write it in 2000, and it was published in 2005.
5. Is there anything you wish you had known before writing or publishing your books?
No, not really. I learned along the way from my editors and enjoyed that-- and I still am.
6. What was challenging about the publishing process?
The time it takes. My newspaper column deadlines were on Tuesday and the they were published Thursday. A book takes at the minimum (unless you are famous and it is timely) 2 years, most take about 5 with the writing, editing, then a full year of pre-publication layout, cover design, copy editing, and proof reading. It is slow.
7. Who was your publisher? Would you recommend them, another company, or self-publishing?
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. I love them, as they are small enough to pay attention, but big enough to actively market my books, which is a huge part of writing, and one that most writers aren't so good at. That's why for me self-publishing would be a disaster. I would give the books away. I don't know much about other publishers, but I do know the publishing world is changing very rapidly and there are many more options now than a traditional publisher. I would caution anyone who sets out on his or her own to hire an editor. Every writer needs one. (I'm sure this interview will get an edit from you, and I appreciate that.)
8. What impact did you expect your writing to have on your community?
I hoped they'd like the way I portrayed us and mostly they have. I also hoped it would be thought provoking and insightful, and that it would make people laugh and cry. I think the greatest compliment is that my stories about Haines move people who have never been here and don't know us. That's why the world needs writers, because we live in places and tell the tales, and make some meaning of this life-- each place, community, family, group of friends, writer even, is unique, so the more writers in the mix the better.
9. Did your career in non-fiction help you when you wrote fiction?
Yes, because ultimately to be a writer is to be aware, to pay attention to everything-- the light on the mountains, the smell of bacon, a funny conversation, an argument at the next table over, the kid who finishes first and the one who sprints in last. All that works for both genres, and in a way, fiction tells more of a truth than non-fiction, because the writer can craft it more.