When did you know you wanted to be a writer?
Growing up, I was very bookish. I’d try out big words (that I’d usually mispronounce, because I’d only ever read them) and decide how I liked them, I’d string together sentiments and test them out my Grandmother, who always took me seriously, even at an age when other adults spoke to children as children, not as other people. This was probably the greatest gift I had, growing up with a Grandmother who prioritized talking through my ideas, my conceptions and preconceptions of our world, and asked me probing questions about wherever I landed. Her lack of judgment in anything shocking I surely said, and her faith that I’d figure out whatever dilemma pressed me, gave me the confidence to begin writing, instead of only reading others’ thoughts and stories. It took many filled notebooks before I called myself a writer, but by the time I said it, I believed it myself, which can be the greatest hurtle.
I’ve always had a drive to write but it all coalesced about twenty-five years ago after watching Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me.
I knew I wanted to be a writer when I was eight years old, and read Little Women. I was inspired by Jo March. But I began to believe I could someday be a writer when I was in the fifth grade. I wrote a story about a girl whose family moves into an old house, and in the attic she finds a wonderful treasure trove of antique furniture, old trunks, and clothes perfect for dressing-up. I told our school librarian about it, and she read it, and she encouraged me to keep writing. Her name was Patricia Lanningham, and she passed away last year; I hope that wherever she is, her spirit smiles when she sees my work published.
I knew I wanted to become a writer when I was 10 years old and read a library copy of Daisy Fay and the Miracle Man by Fannie Flagg. I was enamored with her command of language, her wit, and her ability to paint such a vivid picture on the page. I am a writer today because when I was 13 years old a woman named Norma Fox Mazer changed my life. My eighth grade world was lit on fire when it was announced Norma Fox Mazer – who was one of my favorite young adult authors – would be making a guest appearance at our school. After some serious campaigning to the junior high powers that be, I was one of the few students selected to have lunch with her in the library. I was beyond thrilled, having read every book she’d written. Although I was terribly star struck, I bravely showed her a section of a short story I was working on at the time and told her how much I wanted to be a writer. Norma Fox Mazer scanned over the first page and informed me, “You already are.” Two years later, I published my first short story. And the rest, as they say, is history. But I never would have become a young adult author without first being a young adult reader. Norma Fox Mazer was my best friend, without even realizing it. Each step of the way, she was there for me, guiding me through the field of adolescent landmines. She helped me cope with my parent’s divorce with Taking Terri Mueller. She taught about me death and grieving in After the Rain. She let me know that it was okay to not live like the rich kids in Silver. And she answered the questions I was too embarrassed to ask in Up in Seth’s Room. Similarly, I learned valuable life lessons in every Judy Blume book I could get my hands on (particularly Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself and Then Again, Maybe I Won’t). I devoured every volume in the Nancy Drew series. I hung on every suspenseful word written by Lois Duncan, and later, Christopher Pike. The influence of these authors is evident in my work. I hope, in some way, I am paying tribute to them with each word I write.
Lounging around my grandmother’s sofa on yet another hot, listless summer day when I was just ten years old, I chanced to pick up one of the many Reader’s Digest’s annotated editions, stacked in the bookshelves. We didn’t have many “good” books in our home, just picturesque tomes like the Time Life biographies of the Kennedy family, or dusty Ellery Queen mysteries, or the occasional Danielle Steel. My mom and grandmother were readers, but nothing too serious, nothing classic. In the search for real literature, I was on my own. But fortunately, Truman Capote’s “A Christmas Memory” had been published in one of RD editions I happened to pick up. My eyes lit upon the story, and something within me quickened. It was more than the fact that Capote’s young hero, Buddy, was being raised by a dotty aunt with more than a faint resemblance to my own grandmother; more than the sad reality that Buddy had been abandoned by his own parents, as I felt myself to be. Like Buddy, I was also too smart, too sensitive, too all-knowing for my small world. But it wasn’t only that; it was Capote’s language, which sounded instantly to me like music in my ears. Like a language my mind somehow already spoke. From the first few paragraphs, I felt a kinship with Capote’s rhythm and cadence, as though we existed in a secret tribe, just us two. I put down the story, knowing I wanted to make “music” like that. In some ways, I’m still talking to Capote in my writing, and I’ll never forget our first encounter that Fort Lauderdale summer long ago, when it was too hot to go outside and play, but just the right temperature to uncover my destiny, in an air conditioned room, all alone on my grandmother’s couch.
My seventh grade English teacher, Mrs. Fleming, asked us to write descriptive paragraphs in class one day. I wrote about an Olympic diver who decided in the middle of diving to alter his dive slightly to try to earn extra points, but he miscalculated his momentum and ended up belly-flopping in front of all the judges and earning the lowest score of his competitive career. I remember trying to slow down the pacing of my writing, really focusing on every detail of how his body felt, what was going through his mind, what sounds he could hear in the Olympic arena. It was the first time I realized that writers could play with time in their writing. After I turned it in, Mrs. Fleming called me up to her desk at the front of the classroom to give me some revision suggestions. I started revising it right there on her desk, scratching out phrases and saying, “what if I wrote this?” Beaming, Mrs. Fleming said, “I feel like I’m working with a little author!” I was simultaneously mortified that she said that in front of the class because I knew my classmates would tease me later for being a teacher’s pet, but also thrilled that she had complimented me. From then on, I saw myself as a writer.
What’s the hardest (or best) part of writing about the South?
Given that “Understandings” doesn’t merely contain racial overtones but is very unsubtly about race, I think, especially because the South I write about is Florida, which in its more southern parts is historically racially troubled, race as a theme is easily the hardest part of writing about this part of the world. I’m white. There are all sorts of problems to being a white dramatist; they mainly have to do with whether you’re allowed to write honestly about how people feel about each other. It’s enough and most tasteful to discuss here merely the problem of how many white people feel about black people, which isn’t very good, though I suppose our current president, if he’s done nothing else, has made that clear of the populace that elected him—and he did very well in those areas of Florida one would call the South, which is really anything north South Florida, excluding Tampa, Orlando, and Gainesville. This is especially tricky because I’m not from here, so what I know about race in the South is as an outsider. It’s especially pathetic, my knowledge, in that respect, and I wish I understood more. So my own limitations may be more at play than any cultural shortcoming.
Writing about the South is both a joy and a terror. It is a joy because the time in my life when I lived in the South was so essential that it has stayed with me as I have grown older and shaped me in ways I am still discovering. It is a terror because whenever I write about the South, I really have to work to get it right. It has been many years since I lived there. Naturally, the South has changed quite a bit in that time. That’s why I try to craft my stories around people whose struggles are constant and universal. In “Pareidolia,” for instance, Eugene wants to find meaning in a world where he doesn’t quite fit in. That’s not uniquely southern. That’s just being human. My family and I visit the South Carolina Lowcountry about twice a year, so I’m not completely out of touch with southern values, but the subtleties and nuances that make a story distinctly southern are sometimes elusive. There’s a fine line between authentic and cliché, and I never want to cross that line, particularly when writing about the South. I hope I’ve managed to avoid it here.
What literary pilgrimages have you gone on?
Every other year I teach Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick in landlocked Kansas, more than a day’s drive from the Gulf of Mexico and more than two from either coast. All my journeys to the sea have become pilgrimages to participate in what Ishmael calls “ocean reveries”—the human search for self in oceanic waters, a search for “the ungraspable phantom of life.” Last summer, in Iceland, in the mouth of Akureyri’s fjord, which opens into the Greenland Sea, I witnessed live, wild whales—humpbacks—for the first time, and “the great flood-gates of the wonder-world swung open.”
Last spring I took a group of students to Louisville, Kentucky for the annual Sigma Tau Delta international English honor society convention. The convention center in Louisville is only a few blocks from the historic Seelbach Hotel that inspired the scene for Tom and Daisy’s wedding in The Great Gatsby. So of course, we had to go. Entering the gorgeous Beaux-Arts lobby, we must have looked silly with excitement and quite out-of-place because the night security guard came over and told us to wait where we were. I was certain we’d be asked to leave as we weren’t guests of the hotel, but after a few minutes, the guard reemerged and proceeded to take us on a full (and unexpected) tour: Al Capone’s spy-mirrored dining room complete with secret escape tunnels, the Rathskeller speakeasy where F. Scott Fitzgerald met George Remus (the alleged bootlegger inspiration for Jay Gatsby), and even the preserved suite where Fitzgerald stayed. After two hours, countless photographs with nerdy literary paraphernalia, and many colorful stories from our nightwatchman-turned-docent guide, we left looking even sillier and with even more excitement from our unexpected adventure into Fitzgerald’s Louisville.
During a six-hour road trip to Texas to visit family a number of years ago, as I drove down an especially mind-numbing stretch of unfamiliar highway, I was jolted out of a daydream by the sight of green exit sign that read Archer City. I blinked. Archer City is the hometown of Larry McMurtry, author of The Last Picture Show, Lonesome Dove, and Terms of Endearment, and one of my literary idols. The town is also the real-life counterpart of the fictional setting for The Last Picture Show. I’d heard that McMurtry had moved back to Archer City a few years ago and opened a bookstore there, one offering rare and used books. I kept going, but I kept thinking about Archer City. I fantasized about walking out of the Texas heat into the musty, cool quietness of hundreds and hundreds of old books. Larry McMurtry would be standing behind the counter, and I would say …. Okay, here was a problem. What could I possibly say to him that hadn’t already been said? Nothing. Besides, what were the chances McMurtry would actually be there on the one Friday afternoon I happened to be passing through? Slim. I looked at the map. Another side road leading to Archer City still lay ahead. I took it. As I pulled into the town, population 1,848, I drove down what seemed to be a main street, saw a Methodist church, and across from it, a Baptist one. And there beside them, not just one bookstore, but two — Booked Up 1 and Booked Up 2 — flanking the churches like bookends.
Inside Booked Up 1, I began browsing, while surreptitiously looking for Larry McMurtry, who, of course, was nowhere in sight. No matter; I soon got caught up in exploring, and in the midst of pricier collector’s items, I found plenty of plain, old, used books at used-book prices. As I turned to look for someone who could point me to the poetry section, I spotted a couple of employees talking to a man who sat in an armchair with a infant on his knee. Clad in jeans and a white T-shirt, the man looked a lot like the book jacket photos I’d seen of McMurtry, but I couldn’t be sure. I stared while pretending not to stare. I eavesdropped. One employee, the mother of the baby, it turned out, asked if she could work more hours, to which the man in the chair agreed. I watched out of the corner of my eye as he gently bounced the baby, who couldn’t have been more than a few months old, on his knee. I resumed my search for poetry. When I turned around a few minutes later, the man had disappeared. I’d missed my chance, but that was okay. I pictured how the meeting might have gone — a polite, glazed smile coming over his face as I gushed that I was a huge fan. He would never remember the encounter, and I didn’t want to remember one with him in which I was just one more person looking for a brush with fame. Somehow, it seemed more important to fix in my memory that glimpse of him holding the baby — the look in his eye, the relaxed smile on his face — as he gazed at a new, tiny soul, one who cared nothing for his fame.
I found the poetry section and spent an hour and a half happily choosing a few out-of-print volumes. As the clerk tallied my purchases, I timidly asked, “That man sitting in the chair earlier, was that …” “Yes,” she said, anticipating my question. I mumbled something about not wanting to ask him, and she replied cheerfully, “Oh, even if you’d asked, he might not have admitted it. He’s been known to lie.”
As I headed out of Archer City that day fifteen years ago, I thought what a good life it must be to spend your days surrounded by books, to occasionally hold the new and warm bulk of a baby on a lazy Friday afternoon, and to enjoy, when the mood strikes, the luxury of pretending you are not yourself.
What is the one thing you would change if you could about your writing?
I tend to forgo emotional intimacy and interiority for the sake of images and language. I wish I were readily vulnerable in my writing.
What drives you crazy about writing and the writing process?
That I can sit down one day and have no words and no ideas and sit in utter despair as I stare at my glowing laptop screen or blank white page, but of course, the minute I am out walking or running or sitting in a café with no paper, pen, or phone to take a note, I have entire sentences unfurling in my head, entire ideas suddenly unraveling the knots I thought I couldn’t untie. Writing is fickle.
Describe a story/poem/essay nobody should write.
Unfortunately, I met the person writing not a story/poem/essay about this subject, but an entire novel. To be exact, a thousand-page semi-autobiographical novel – that wasn’t finished yet – about his years teaching English in Asia. If the message of a piece of writing can be boiled down to #humblebrag, it will be ineffectual before it even gets on the page. Exceptions can be made for astronauts.
What advice would you give writers who are just starting out?
There are two kinds of writers, hawks and sparrows. Hawks fly alone, seeking their own way. Sparrows flock together, looking to others for direction. A writer needs nothing but paper, pencil, a place to work and time. Fly high. Find your voice. If you don’t love language, the way words are made and arranged together to make rhythms of meaning, you’re a sparrow. If you write, looking to others, seeing how they study markets, attend seminars and obtain degrees from those who give degrees in writing, you’re a sparrow. Nobody learns to write truly by listening to somebody talk about writing. If you have wings, use them. Read everything good, and listen while you read. Avoid the mediocre. The bad is irrelevant. Develop a built-in shit detector. Understate. Nouns and verbs carry the movement of life. Adverbs and adjectives are for the lazy and the unobservant. It’s not about how pretty you are. It’s about words that are read when you’re no longer there. Language should not be self-conscious. Make the reader work. He’s riding the same horse. Forget yourself and the world might remember you.
I would advise all writers to learn something tangible about the world they inhabit, specifically the natural world, which we too easily forget is the source of all our highfalutin technology. A single microchip takes many times its weight in fossil fuels, chemicals, and water to produce. So even if you’re an ecophobe (which I hope for all our sakes you’re not), you’re still deeply connected to and mutually dependent on the non-manufactured world. If you’re not keen on learning which rare earth minerals make up your laptop, at least learn about your fellow organisms. Is that “bird” in your poem a flicker or a nuthatch? Are those “trees” in your story white oaks or black locusts? As writers, we must believe that words matter. Words allow us to see the world around us and, by extension, allow our readers to see what they might not otherwise notice. So don’t settle for generic. Know the world. Know its names.