Thursday, November 20, 2014

Q&A with author Hannah Pittard

Hannah Pittard is the author of the new novel Reunion. She also has written the novel The Fates Will Find Their Way, and her stories have appeared in various publications including The American Scholar and McSweeney's. She teaches at the University of Kentucky's MFA program in creative writing.

Q: How did you come up with your main character, Kate?

A: Kate is a combination of many different things….One of the comments I received from colleagues [in the past] is that the women [in my work] tended to be difficult protagonists. A couple of my cohort pointed out that they were unpleasant to be in a room with.

I probably took this more personally than I should have. I started writing in the point of view of men, and it was more well received. I avoided letting women have a voice because something difficult or unlikeable might come out of it.

As I got older, I realized that I didn’t care if the females were difficult and unlikeable—it made them interesting!

After I finished The Fates—it was incredibly well received, and I felt lucky—a conversation came up a lot while I was on tour: Why don’t you write from the point of view of women? Where are the smart women in your book?

Then the Claire Messud debate broke out [where people were saying about her novel The Woman Upstairs,] “I don’t want to read a book narrated by a woman I don’t like.” Claire Messud said that was ridiculous, and I agreed.

I wanted to do something very different from The Fates. I admire [Jonathan] Lethem and Jennifer Egan, who are always doing something different…

[Around that time] my grandfather committed suicide, and I couldn’t get it out of my head; it was an overwhelming noise in [my] brain. I knew I wanted to write about women, and I wanted to write about someone difficult, and I wanted to write about suicide as a theme. It all coalesced. Difficult, ornery Kate was born of that confluence of events.

Q: I’m very sorry about your grandfather.

A: My grandfather and I were not and never had been close, but he meant a lot to my father. It was a difficult time for my father, so it was difficult for me.

Q: Truth and money—two big topics--are two of the themes with which Kate is preoccupied. Why did you choose to include them in the book?

A: Truth is interesting. I’m very intrigued with stories that either acknowledge the storyteller or the process of storytelling—what is true and not true. I’m very keen on stories that address the intersection of memory, truth, accidental lying, and deliberate lying.

Having a young woman coming to terms with who she is, later in life [than some others], understanding that she is a deliberate liar and wanting to stop is an interesting thing to me. How much is instinct, and how much is willful.

Money is interesting because a very early draft of this book did not address money at all. I sent it to a couple of people. One of my very close friends read the book, and said it’s as though there’s something missing, as though you, the author, are lying to me.

I thought about my own life, and I realized, Oh my gosh, it’s money! I had been on the phone with my brother the same week, and he had this great line [about the importance of money] and as he said it, there was this perfect serendipitous coming together of two conversations, and I realized that money was missing from the book.

It was easy to [revise]—Kate would be thinking about something, but it was generic filler, and all of a sudden I knew what she was thinking about: money….

Q: Reunion deals with family relationships, particularly those among siblings. What intrigues you about sibling relationships?

A: In my first novel, I was really interested in friendships, specifically male friendships, and the way they can overshadow things that are supposed to be more meaningful relationships, like with wives and children…

I am lucky to have two older siblings; I think the world of them and they of me. We have had our ups and downs. I wanted, in the story, to talk about unbreakable bonds that exist whether you want them or not…[The siblings in the book] genuinely love each other; even if they found out they weren’t related, they wouldn’t go anywhere.

I did need to point out the peripheral children [Kate’s many younger half-siblings] who weren’t their “family.” The six children after Kate weren’t her siblings, they weren’t people who grew up with her, who know Kate like the back of her hand.

I love my siblings--that’s one of the very few things I have in common with Kate, but this is probably the most autobiographical of anything I’ll write. I’ve wanted to write a love letter to my siblings for a while. The book is dedicated to Noah and Greta, my brother and sister.

Q: Which authors have influenced you?

A: I was reading a speech that James Salter gave at the University of Virginia where he was making distinctions between voice and style. Young writers spend 10 or 20 years figuring out their voice, and it then becomes their style. I do think I’m entering the style portion of my career, and this is how I write.

Absolutely there are authors who influenced my early writing voice that became my style. William Faulkner was so impactful for me as a young reader and early writer. I loved his stories and his language.

He was so unafraid to overdo a sentence. That can be a problem for a young writer…it was a really necessary stage for my writing to go over the top, to be overly sentimental, to abuse what he probably would have advocated. He made me fall in love with writing and reading.

There are writers whose writing I hope to be in a conversation with [one day]. Ann Beattie is absolutely responsible for any refined skill I learned from her. She took my writing out and chopped it up and made it into something bigger and bolder than I thought I was capable of.

Her stories are just brilliant. Her novella Walks With Men [is an example of] storytelling that’s aware of itself…it’s a gorgeous somersault of a magic trick. It’s a book I would love my own writing to be in conversation with.

Muriel Spark and Lorrie Moore, as well as Ann Beattie, are all aware of the storyteller. There’s a type of metafiction in play that I’m very interested in….

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I’m very excited to be able to say that my third novel will be out in March 2016! It’s called Listen To Me—it’s a modern gothic road trip in which a marriage goes horribly awry in 24 hours.

I have a really large project—I have multiple things going on. My long-term project is a historical novel set in Atlanta in the ‘60s. I’m very excited about it—it’s going to be a big beast of a book. I think I’m finally ready for the challenge of this book; I’ve been thinking about it for no less than a decade…

Q: Anything else we should know about Reunion?

A: I’m very proud of Reunion. It’s a short book but it deals with really weighty material. Ultimately it is funny. I wanted to try my hand at something that’s not instinctive for me as a writer. I wanted to see if I could do it, and I think I did.

It’s challenging because you’re confronted with a narrator who’s not always the sweetest person in the room, but for all her lies, Kate is a very honest character.

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Nov. 20

Nov. 20, 1923: Writer Nadine Gordimer born.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Q&A with writer and editor Sari Botton

Sari Botton is the editor of the new book Never Can Say Goodbye: Writers on Their Unshakable Love for New York. She also edited a previous anthology, Goodbye to All That. Her writing has appeared in a variety of publications, including The New York Times and New York magazine. She lives in upstate New York.

Q: Why did you decide to edit this new collection of essays about New York?

A: I had enjoyed working on the first collection, Goodbye to All That, so much. I didn't feel like I was done. I also had all these men who'd been willing to contribute from the beginning, before I got a book contract for the first book that limited it to women.

What's more, I realized that nine years after having said my proverbial goodbye to all that, I still feel like a New Yorker. I still identify as a New Yorker.

So in the same way that I see Goodbye to All That being about the idea of leaving New York, what it means to leave New York, I see Never Can Say Goodbye as being about the idea of becoming a New Yorker for life, even if you leave, as most people do, at least for a time.

Q: How did you select the authors to feature in the collection?

A: I wanted a diverse group of writers of different backgrounds, with a variety of experiences. My editor and I both had wish lists, and there was a great deal of overlap in them.

From there I chose a mix of writers whose work I love, who had interesting stories about the things that cemented them, even if only in mind, to the city.

Q: Do you see particular themes that run through the various essays?

A: Impermanence in a city that is forever changing is a big theme. Writers come at it from different angles. Many write about the shuttering of favorite establishments, due to the recent sharp rise in rents and in the cost of living in the city.

But Rosanne Cash and Jason Diamond add that while they lament the passing of certain restaurants and shops, they are also excited to discover the new ones that replace old favorites.

Nick Flynn writes about how easily one is replaced in New York. I think about that a lot - about how you can so quickly lose your place. I am forever trying to assure myself that even though I live in Kingston now, there is still a place in the city being held for me.

Q: In your own essay, you write, “I like to believe that once a New Yorker, always a New Yorker. That the city changes you irreversibly.” How did it change you?

The city changed me in countless ways. I went there hoping it would render me cool, something I'd never felt. In the pursuit of that, there were some really unflattering, clumsy attempts to re-invent myself.

In the meantime, the city was opening my mind by exposing me to so much, culturally and socially. It taught me to fend for myself - to speak up and have my voice heard above so many others.

It toughened me up in some ways, while also softening me up in others. You're almost forced to develop your heart muscle when you live so closely among people and see them through their best and worst moments, day after day.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: I have a few things in the works. One is a memoir, another is fiction, and I am weighing whether or not to pitch another anthology idea that I have.

Q: Anything else we should know?

A: Even though I wax nostalgic for New York City, I really do love living upstate. I like being part of a smaller, more tight-knit community. I'm taken with the natural beauty surrounding me in the mid-Hudson Valley. It's actually hard to imagine living in the city full-time again, even if I could afford it. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Nov. 19

Nov. 19, 1899: Poet Allen Tate born.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Q&A with author Edward Dolnick

Edward Dolnick is the author of the new book The Rush: America's Fevered Quest for Fortune, 1848-1853. His other books include The Clockwork Universe, The Forger's Spell, and The Rescue Artist. He is a former chief science writer for The Boston Globe.

Q: Why did you decide to write about the gold rush of 1848-53?

A: It had a lot of things going for it. I am interested in American history, particularly stories you can tell from letters and diaries. I had pictured it as a hairy-chested he-man sort of thing, and that there wouldn’t be much documentation, but it was the disgruntled middle, who were good with writing and record-keeping.

Q: What surprised you most in the course of your research for the book?

A: The technological thing that surprised me is that there are so many letters and diaries without [your] going anywhere! There were letters sent home to wives, and collected in local historical societies, and a huge amount has been digitized and available on the Web. You could hear that these voices had a huge appeal.

The psychological thing is that this is something new in the world—the first person to think that life could actually be better. It’s an utterly fundamental idea, but it was a new one. I wanted to know what that felt like.

Q: You focus in the book on a variety of fascinating characters. How did you pick them?

A: It took a long time to narrow it down. It’s hard if there are five dozen names to care about who’s who. I knew I was looking for five or six, and I wanted at least one woman—that’s a voice you don’t hear enough; [you hear more about] tough guys. If a woman made it, she had to be twice as tough.

The main thing was a voice. There were many meticulous diaries, but they were too mundane: I woke up at this time and I ate this. They had different backgrounds, came from different parts of the country. Some had given up a lot; some had [little to give up]…

Q: You write, “In the sense that California is like the rest of America, only more so, the gold rush is the American story, only more so.” What are some of the reasons that the gold rush is such an American story?

A: It’s got an awful lot of American themes. The West, hyper-speed, a euphoric perspective, a we’re-all-going-to-get-rich sense. It’s violent, crass, materialistic, hopeful. A lot of things the Europeans don’t like about Americans—too pushy, too materialistic. The Gold Rushers are the American mentality with all its sharp angles, to the fore.

Q: You note that in 1848, there were 812 people living in San Francisco, and in 1851, just three years later, there were 30,000. What impact did the gold rush have on California, both immediate and lasting?

A: It had an enormous impact. Because California wasn’t settled the way the rest of the United States was, it was more cosmopolitan; it was more common to hear different languages and different accents. It was far less provincial.

There was a get-in, get-out-quick mentality built into it. It had a seething, frenzied tone from the start. This had been a persistent effect—there were enormous prizes on offer, and some people were cashing in on those prizes.

There was striving ambition, and there was frustrated ambition. It was a culture where people who made it had stumbled and fallen before, and that became part of their story.

At that point, it wasn’t the American story—[in other parts of the country] it was a stigma if you failed. In California, failure was a mark that you took big chances. To this day, Silicon Valley enshrines that code: Failure shows ambition.

You were meant to dream big in California. It was not a sign of being childish or uninformed, but ambitious and striving. In the East, it was not quite done, it was too crass, but it was expected in California. You were meant to strive hard because the prizes were so great.

Q: What are you working on now?

A: Nothing to do with the gold rush or American history. It’s a history of science in the 1600s, about sex, and about where babies come from. [Great thinkers like] Leonardo da Vinci and Isaac Newton didn’t know. They knew men and women had sex, and that they had babies, but they couldn’t figure out the connections. They were stumbling against something that every 8-year-old wants to know. Again, I’m looking at diaries and journals, this time from great thinkers, who are wondering, “How can this be?”

Q: Anything else we should know about The Rush?

A: The main thing I hope people will take from this is that it isn’t homework. It’s fun; it’s quite a yarn. These people look and sound kind of like us, but they’re really different. They’re seeing for the first time something thrilling—and [the book looks at] how they wrestled with that chance. 

--Interview with Deborah Kalb

Nov. 18

Nov. 18, 1836: Playwright W.S. Gilbert born.