Questions, Questions

Here is my stop in an author blog tour, a self-interview equivalent of a chain letter, except nice. I was tossed this opportunity by Devyani Saltzman, a writer and literary programmer who I first met when she brought me to Toronto to participate in the Luminato Festival, but who is best known via her memoir, Shooting Water. Her answers are posted here. Next up in my blog tree will be Alix Ohlin.

1. What am I working on?

I’m a mad-dabbler at present. My new novel just came out a few months ago, so I’m traveling a lot to promote it. I was to have been working on a nonfiction book next, but it’s about living people and some huge complications have arisen, so I’m waiting and watching to see whether I can continue with it or have to shelve it. I have a book of short stories in progress; most of the pieces are already written; half are published. Here’s one: Carnival Week.

I’ve also been translating the work of a mid-century Brazilian novelist and memoirist, Graciliano Ramos. He remains one of Brazil’s most admired writers but is very little known in the English-speaking world, mostly, I think, because he’s been ill-served in translation. If it didn’t sound massively hubristic, I’d say I hoped to remedy that. I haven’t done much translation, but I’m finding it exhilarating to take my turn at deciphering his complex prose; to try to catch meanings (and sometimes whole sentences) that previous translators have either missed or mysteriously skipped; to become so deeply intimate with another writer’s voices. I’m not a scholar, but I can see how translation could be considered a scholarly enterprise: the abasement of the self before another writer; the sense that I, alone, properly understand his work; the desire to show others how to read him. It is also, of course, terrifically humbling to sense how much is lost in translation and how much I will never plumb.

Finally, I’m starting a full-time, tenure-track teaching gig at the University of Arkansas this fall, and so am preparing for that. I was recently awarded a National Endowment for the Humanities grant under a program called “Enduring Questions,” intended to foster conversation on timeless issues. My proposal was called “Can Good Books Make Better People? Our search, in stories, for how to be.” It will be a creative writing course, but founded on my belief that creative writing is an underused tool for teaching critical thought. We’ll be reading fictional selections from ancient times to the present, and across cultures, while discussing what it means to be good, whether reading stories can help humanity in that quest, and why we so often turn to stories in this shared goal. Very excited to sit around jawing about all this with some of the best undergrads at our university.

2. How does my work differ from other work in its genre?

I find this question very odd. Each of my projects differs materially from every other, in sources and style, though I suppose a reader might find some consistency of voice (except in my translations, where I hope I’m effacing my own voice and evoking that of Ramos). I guess I can’t answer this question because I don’t presume that other works in my genres are generalizable while mine is not; I think each work of literature must and should be considered on its own terms.

3. Why do I write what I do?

Each of my writing projects feels irresistible to me, compulsive, inevitable. If it sustains, it doesn’t feel like a choice. The compelling element is usually some bundle of unanswerable questions, on character, history, ethics or aesthetics, whatever forms the nucleus of the story.

4. How does my writing process work?

My writing process is always a dialogue with myself. My journals served a similar function before I became a career writer, and I always have a series of notebooks (now kept on my computer) in which I talk to myself about my projects and record my often tortuous process. Someone asked me recently how I manage to write novels and raise a family at the same time. The only two solid, uncompromisable aims I have ever had were to be a mother and a writer, so it doesn’t feel like a choice, but I had to admit that I’m always living in a second, imaginary world. I enter it by means of certain rituals, such as rising before my family does and going up to my isolated study, to fully inhabit that other place before life’s necessities require that I descend into a world I more objectively share with my family, friends and colleagues. But I’m always carrying that parallel space. I suspect this is may be common among people who do work about which they are passionate, that the questions and intrigues of their work are always lurking beneath their surface existence, their brains beetling away, awaiting the rituals that allow the work to become real life, if only for a limited time.

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