Monday, January 5, 2015

The Interview (Not the Movie)

In which we explain why we are doing this.

This dual interview was conducted via faltering internet connections on two separate occasions over two continents with frequently crashing computers and fairly functioning cell phones. It has been edited for clarity and content.

MARLÉNE
Okay, first question. What do you see as your biggest obstacle right now to a satisfying writing life?

DAVID
My biggest obstacle is consistency. Some days I'm good. I make the time, sit down with a cup of afternoon coffee and get to work. But it takes me a bit to get in the groove, so when I write every now and then, I don't really get very deep into the writing. The work that I do seems superficial, cosmetic. I think OK, tomorrow I'll delve deeper, but tomorrow I don't feel like it, or the kid wakes up after one hour, etc.

MARLÉNE
I've definitely struggled with follow-through, but with me it's cleaning—laundry, dishes, mess. What do you think it would take to "fix" that? What would get you to show up and write even if it's terrible?

DAVID
For me, it's stringing together enough days to make it a habit again. Also, being more flexible. I've always been a routine guy. So if the day throws me a curveball, I'm toast. I would like to become a better on-the-fly writer—someone who can turn it on and write, even if you just have 30 minutes. Years ago, I heard someone say that you should ritualize your writing life. I still think about this a lot and strive to ritualize my writing life, but this flipside is that it makes me a little inflexible. How do you feel about routines and rituals? Do you have a special process that helps you clear your mind?

MARLÉNE
Yeah, it pretty much always starts with a fresh mug of hot tea, or a hot tea and a triple espresso depending on how much sleep I’ve had. I don’t ever open up the computer and start writing. I’ll sit and write an email and check on the status of submissions to journals, but then I’ll close all the windows after whatever time I’ve allowed myself for maintenance, 20-30 minutes, and then face the blank screen. If I’m home alone, I’ll put on Bon Iver so I don't feel alone, but I can't understand what he's saying anyway so it doesn't interfere with writing. It's mellow. If I need something peppy I put on John Coltrane.

What about you? I know a lot of people cannot work with music on, but I find I get too lonely not to. Writing is too solitary. I had to train my brain to accept it.

DAVID
I also have trouble with too much silence or solitude. For a few years, I had to go out in order to write. I couldn't work in the house because there were too many distractions. I'd go to a coffee shop or café. The great thing was that this was when we were living abroad so I couldn't really understand what was being said around me, so it was just white noise. The downside was that this was expensive and even though I tried to rotate cafes, I was inherently self conscious about sitting for two or three hours and having just ordered a coffee or two. It wasn't a perfect arrangement, but also not bad.

MARLÉNE
I find I need a mix of both solitude and activity. The trouble with cafés is that it’s often difficult to sustain for several hours, with leaving your stuff to use the restroom, or with parking limits if you have a vehicle. But I need the faces and the noise sometimes for sanity. The key for me is headphones. Too many writing days were derailed by wedding planners having meetings with clients at the next table and I forgot my headphones at home. But if I need to do anything really long-form, it helps to have the solitude at home (if I can resist the dishes and laundry). And I always tip the baristas and try to get to know them if they are open to it because then I don't feel guilty sitting there forever. It's great for good will.

DAVID
I can't listen to Bon Iver. I'm a big fan, and it turns out most of their songs translate well on ukulele.

MARLÉNE
I think writing playlists have got to be an incredibly individual thing. It's quirky like that—it's not something that's one size fits all.

So for you to be in what you'd consider an amazing writing place, what would that look like?

DAVID
I feel like I've tried almost every physical environment. Inside, outside, café, home, morning, night. I don't think there will ever be a perfect writing place for me... though, there will always be coffee involved. What's more important for me is the mental space, finding the mindset that is focused and ruthless. Someplace where I can attack or create the work in a deep way. I will absolutely need a babysitter!

We're both parents. You've been one for a few more years than me. Have you noticed any changes in the subject matter of your writing since becoming a parent? Do you write more mothers or fathers into your stories than you did before?

MARLÉNE
Ok, before I answer that one, I have to reference the retro trailers article I read recently.

I think all of us could get a LOT more writing done if we had access to one of these. Just sayin'. But getting back to your question...

DAVID
I love how it's called "Cuddle up in this."

MARLÉNE
Ok, parenting changing my writing. Yeah, absolutely. It’s gotten a lot darker, weirdly. I feel like I wasn’t quite aware of the implications of being an adult or a citizen before being responsible for the welfare of another human being. Now I get it. Life was less scary, more frivolous when it was just me, and now everything is tinged with importance. There’s a weight that didn’t exist before. Also, I am much more sympathetic and empathetic to female characters and protagonists now. Motherhood, and especially having a daughter, has softened my view of women quite a bit, actually. I didn’t get along with my mother, and I have plenty of self-loathing, so that used to always get in the way when I tried to write from a female perspective. I never wanted to be writing about myself.

What about you? I feel like before, parents in stories were more apt to be one-dimensional, and now they're more complex.

DAVID
I didn't really write much about parents before. I wrote about kids, but the parents would be largely absent. And when I'd write about adults it seems like the conflict always had something to do with the lack of kids. I don't think there was any psychological motivation behind this. I think it was more of a safety measure against writing inaccurate parents.

One of the first things I remember thinking after my son was born was that, Oh, this is how my parents must feel about me. It's like I had no idea.

MARLÉNE
Right. I certainly give mine a lot more credit now, or at least acknowledge a lot more complexity in their motivations.

DAVID
I still haven't written a parent-kid relationship yet, but I hope to soon. It's such an interesting dynamic—especially if you imagine the child not really being fully aware of how the parent cares for him/her.

MARLÉNE 
That brings me to another thing. I know we probably both read a lot of parenting stuff—tips, advice, etc., but what are you reading or want to be reading more of right now in the bigger world?

DAVID
We're getting ready to move again in a few months, so we've been on a decluttering kick. A few months ago we purged a lot of our library. A lot of old textbooks went and a ton of other stuff we really didn't need or had no intention of reading again. But it also allowed a bunch of unread stuff to rise to the surface. I'm kind of a bookaholic in that I love to buy books just as much as I like to read them. So I have a bunch of unread stuff. I have things like In Cold Blood, Everything is Illuminated, the new Chabon, Telegraph Avenue. I'd love to "catch up" on all these things I've purchased sometime in the past. Maybe once we complete our move, I can then allow myself to read something recent!

What about you. Have you read anything recently that's knocked your socks off?

MARLÉNE
I have to confess something awful. I haven't been able to finish a book in ages.
I have the new Chabon, whom I usually love, but I read it while pregnant, and if you know anything about the subject matter, that was a stupid idea, and I have fifty pages to go and never got to the end because I went into labor about the time one of the protagonist’s wives went into labor and that was that.

Everything I pick up lately, I eventually discard. My expectations are too high. I want everything to be both BEAUTIFUL and IMPORTANT and RIVETING.
I am most of the way through Blood Meridian, which was great while I was vacationing in the desert, but now that I'm home with little kids around, it feels too brutal. Without grace or redemption. The only thing I've been able to stick with, which you already know about, is Karl Ove Knausgaard's My Struggle, which I wanted to hate but couldn't. It's currently my brain candy. I’m reading a lot more journals though to fill the void, and that’s a plus.

DAVID
I'm still reading My Struggle, which I still enjoy a lot, but it does meander a little.

MARLÉNE
I feel like I need someone to grab me by the shoulders, press a book into my hands, and say, "This book will change your life," with conviction.

DAVID
I know what you mean. When you only have an hour or so a day for reading, you really want it to count!!!

So the holidays are coming up, which usually involves a fair amount of family gatherings and whatnot. For me, this inevitably means that I'll get the dreaded questions about my writing. "Publish anything recently?" "How's the writing going?"

Will you be facing something similar? And if so, how do you respond to these lines of questioning?

MARLÉNE
Yeah, I get this every other week. It's excruciating!

Thankfully, I had a small success last week, so my family has boosted their opinion of me from "moron" to merely "quixotic."

DAVID
Awesome, want to share?

MARLÉNE
I'll have a story out in the spring in a local (to me) journal, Reed Magazine. But I also got four rejection letters on Sunday, so the numbers are still terrifying.

DAVID
That's terrific, and it also represents a great lesson: Get a success, any success, before the holiday or family reunion.

MARLÉNE
Fuck yeah.

DAVID
I'm glad to hear you're sending so much out. I've been in a rut. I'm just trying to get some daily writing in at this point. Hopefully I can upgrade to submitting in a month or two.

MARLÉNE
That's why we're doing this, man!

DAVID
True story.

MARLÉNE
Ok, but I didn't answer your question. I do get preemptively defensive about the questions. I talk a lot about the acceptance rates, which are often in the thousandths of a percent.

DAVID
That sounds like a tough topic to breach with non-writers!

MARLÉNE
I have to combat a lot of advice to self-publish. People don't understand that literary fiction is not like more commercial fiction. Readers want a proxy to vet the work. Hence, the journals, the publishers. So yeah, I talk about the rates to non-writers. They seem very confused by the whole thing. They say, "but Fifty Shades of Gray!" and I have to start from scratch. They're like, why don't you just post your work online?

DAVID
Yeah, I've had those conversations too. One of the most interesting things that sometimes happens is that relatives will pitch ideas to me. They'll say they have a great idea for a story, which is sweet but oh so misguided.

When I talk to relatives or non-writers about writing, I'm at a complete loss. I usually try to stay as vague as possible, but I always walk away feeling like a complete idiot.

MARLÉNE
I don't know. Maybe your circles understand literary fiction better than mine do. Even explaining what I write is a circular process, and I do it over and over again. I do have a canned response to that question as well, but I don’t always feel good about it. Like sometimes I’ll just say I write literary fiction, and I’ll get a blank response, and when they ask what that is, I’ll say “writing that aspires to be art.” But usually that gets a blank response as well, and I have to get into Thomas Kincaid and Dan Brown analogies, which feels pretentious and awkward. Often, people want to know what subjects I write about, asking if I write vampire or mystery stories. I used to say I write whatever comes to mind, but recently I decided I would tell people that the only subjects worth writing about were birth, death, and all the sex you could have had in between. That doesn’t quite cover everything, but it gets most of it. I’m also very interested in morality. What it means to be a good person, if that’s even possible. But I can’t get into those things with random people! It feels too personal.

DAVID
No, no, they do not understand what I do either and your conversations sound really similar to mine. I like your writing as art analogy. That's a good one.

MARLÉNE
The hardest part for me is that I'm not making any money, and won't for several years at the very minimum, and that's hard to justify.

DAVID
Absolutely understand. For me, I want to find a place where I don't have to justify it—become someone who needs to write so badly that I don't care!

MARLÉNE
The key is the spouse. The spouse has to be a gazillion percent on board. Mine is more sure of me doing this than I am. It's the only reason I'm still here.

DAVID
A friend of mine once described this "need" as an itch. I have a theory that everyone has an itch, and we all find a way to scratch. And by itch, I mean a way of justifying or finding self-worth.

MARLÉNE
That's an interesting take. Is that why you're still pursuing this?

DAVID
Yeah, for me, it's an itch. It's the thing I want to do. I feel pretty desperate about it because I'm afraid that if I don't have some amount of success I won't ever be satisfied.

MARLÉNE
Yeah, the desperation is ever-present. It's a bit ridiculous. I have to do it so bad now that it would totally destroy me if I couldn't.

DAVID
I think commercial success—selling a book or a series of stories—would make cocktail parties easier. But for me the real thing is satisfying my desire to write well and have someone acknowledge it.

MARLÉNE
Well it's not like musicians record records and put them in a vault. The whole point is to connect with other human beings. And the ego bit, honestly, gets very balanced out by all the rejection.

DAVID
Talking a little bit about success...

Does it motivate you as you write? Do you think it's useful to define what success would mean to you?

MARLÉNE
Hm...It does motivate me. It makes me not want to delete everything anyway. Success is very specific for me. I want to publish enough in journals or book-form to be able to teach creative writing at a university and then continue writing forever. I honestly just want a decent job. I want a community. A built-in literary community. And then to keep at it. That's it. I would feel much more personally validated by a tenure-track position or something similar than a book deal. Although the two are related. You can’t have one without the other.

What about you? Is it more vague?

DAVID
Yeah, and it's hard to articulate. At this point, I don't really have a big plan or dream like you do. Or maybe it's just how my personality works. But I want to publish somewhere good. Someplace that I really respect.

From there, I want to write and publish more of course, but I don't really see beyond that first step right now.

MARLÉNE
Yeah, that is also my first step, but more as a vehicle for the other thing. I want to be successful enough that I don't need to justify it to the in-laws anymore.

DAVID
Sure, I get that.

MARLÉNE
There is this pressure for me to watch the kids full time or have a paying job, not this ambiguous kid-watching/preschool/part-time daycare so I can pursue my interests bullshit.

DAVID
Is the pressure coming from yourself or from your in-laws?

MARLÉNE
Myself, entirely. Because I have planted imagined disdain in other people’s minds for what I do, and I’m working against that.

DAVID
As a guy, I have a totally different set of hang-ups, but I bet I feel more naturally entitled to "take time for myself to write" because it's more unusual for a man to be stay-at-home.

MARLÉNE
I feel like people equate it with me going shopping or horseback riding while someone watches my kids.

DAVID
Right.

MARLÉNE
I feel justified, because my spouse supports me, and the whole Virginia Woolf thing. Room of your own, 200 pounds a year or whatever it was. But I feel like I have to prove that I am worthy of that privilege. Which is why I don’t dick around when someone else is watching my kids. I just work, period.

DAVID
Yeah, okay. Me too.

Shall we finish up with a little pointed questioning about why Writers' Block feels necessary to us?

MARLÉNE
Yeah, but speaking of Virginia Woolf, I feel like I need to do this (Writers’ Block) because if I continue to write alone in a room without having a community then I will definitely end up in some very dark place.

I'm trying to combat that. The dark, depressive writer tendency.

DAVID
And I think maybe some people romanticize that darkness. Pulling your hair out alone in a closed off basement until you stumble out one day with a manuscript!

MARLÉNE
That is so true.

DAVID
The MFA (that we both got at UMD) was terrific because we had this community to exist in. We were all in it together, trying to get better—and most of us not quite there yet. When I started, I was pretty sure that I'd finish as this "complete writer." Someone ready to take the lit journals by storm.

MARLÉNE
Hahahaha, yeah that is very accurate. There’s a certain naïveté that I think nearly all writers need to go through before they can even acknowledge that they suck, and only then can they get better. It’s funny to have realized that almost everything I wrote then was complete garbage compared to the last six months’ work alone.

DAVID
In reality, in the few years since leaving UMD I've felt pretty lost in my writing, and part of me was ashamed of this. Like I shouldn't have to reach out to friends, and definitely not to strangers. Now, I'm ready to admit that I don't have it figured out but that I still want to.

MARLÉNE
Yeah, it's called becoming an adult. Grad school was bit of a delayed adolescence, and now we're parents, and necessarily grownups. And that helps with evaluating the work that's left to do.

DAVID
Indeed. Let me ask you something since you mentioned your recent work outdoing your old stuff...Have you been writing a lot from scratch or do you mostly go back and rework stuff?

MARLÉNE
I don't touch the old stuff. It's dead and stale to me now.

DAVID
Interesting. I want my old stuff to be good so, so, so badly. But sometimes I get lost in these old stories I wrote years ago and get defeated.

MARLÉNE
But I was not able to write for a full year after the birth of my son (because he was extremely challenging and we had some extreme sleep deprivation), and that forced sabbatical gave me some wicked perspective and pent-up creative need. When I came out of it (with the help of part-time daycare), it has been a dam-burst of output.

DAVID
That's awesome.

MARLÉNE
Some of it is clearly exercises, some is worth keeping, but it's the practice that's amazing. It's the realization that I have to write no matter what comes out and I have to write constantly. There can be no breaks. Okay, other than illnesses and holidays (now). So some of the short stories won't do anything, but they are teaching me something. Huge things about practice. It's like freaking piano lessons, which I hated. Otherwise, I'm writing bad poetry surreptitiously on my iPhone while going to the bathroom. And that was awful.

DAVID
No, that's cool. It makes me realize I need more time. Lots more. I'll have to pick your brain about daycare options at some point later on.

MARLÉNE
Totally. It’s why we’re doing this after all. Other people’s brains.

Editor’s note: At this point, the interview devolved into bad zombie jokes, and it was decided that we end here. Feel free to join the conversation in the comments, or just join us again next time.



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