Saturday, March 26, 2011

Reality of Fiction: Novelist George Rabasa

Photo: Keri Pickett
George Rabasa is a novelist and short story writer whose latest book is Miss Entropia and the Adam Bomb (Unbridled Books); he is also the author of a short story collection (Glass Houses: Stories) and three other novels (Floating Kingdom, The Cleansing, The Wonder Singer). Glass Houses received The Writer’s Voice Capricorn Award for Excellence in Fiction and the Minnesota Book Award for Short Stories. His novel, Floating Kingdom received the Minnesota Book Award for Fiction. Another novel, The Cleansing, was named a Book Sense Notable. His short fiction has appeared in various literary magazines, such as Story Quarterly, Glimmer Train, The MacGuffin, South Carolina Quarterly, Hayden’s Ferry, American Literary Review, and in several anthologies. George Rabasa was born in Maine, lived many years in Mexico City, and now resides and writes in Minnesota. George came to us when we issued our Call for Common Boundary: Stories of Immigration, and he sent us the wonderful (sensitive, touching, humorous) duo of stories (with truly memorable characters) that appear in that volume.
The Escape Artist
Among our expectations of good fiction is the implicit promise that it will cut the bonds that tie us to life’s conventions. I’m not referring to the relief that stories can offer from the numbing commute, the office, the news of the day. The escape that fine fiction promises is of a more revolutionary nature, delivering freedom from the conventional thinking and automatic responses that cloud our sense of our greater-than-human condition. In this way, the writer is a literary Houdini that shakes off his own chains and in the process frees his readers so that together they can enjoy a ride into parallel and unsuspected universes of mind, heart and soul. The fiction that does this is not buried treasure. It’s the work of a million writers throughout the ages whose works are free in libraries, or for a reasonable price at a favorite bookstore.

Liar Liar Brain on Fire
I was eight or so when I started inventing stories. I told them to neighborhood children who promptly repeated them to their parents and to their teachers.  My tall tales got around: The Hansens down the street keep their children in cages. Miss Norris, the sixth grade teacher, was once in prison for bank robbery. Señora Larios likes to sunbathe in the nude with her gardener. Having got wind of these stories, my parents decided I was a problem liar, not a budding artist.
I was regularly sent to apologize and confess my untruths to the victims of my fantasies. The idea was to shame me out my compulsive lying disorder, technically, and more evocatively, known as pseudologia fantastica.
The stories kept on coming, whether I told them to others or kept them to myself. My mind bubbled over with overheard voices and remembered faces. I imagined the secret lives of family friends. Chance encounters with bus drivers, clerks, school staff all gave rise to visions of mayhem and adventure.

Unlocking the Writer
I was not a good student in high school. I was too busy reading for fun – Spillane, Salgari, Steinbeck, Hemingway – to crack textbooks. And I was a master at spinning assignments, from history to biology, into fanciful narratives of inspired bullshit, good enough for a laugh and a C-.
I went to Clemson University and soon gravitated from an engineering major to the cigarette-smoking, beer-drinking, easy-loving crew that edited the Chronicle literary magazine. My first short story was about a homeless man panhandling the fashionable denizens of the upper West Side of New York. Then I wrote one about a bullfighter. I had never begged or fought bulls, yet I was not writing about these exotics; I was living them. I heard their voices and smelled their fear and humiliation. The stories were published in the magazine and I knew I had found my calling; I could make up stuff and be recognized for it.
More than that, fiction helped me reconcile the imagined world with the world I lived; the story fixes a moment so that it can be relived by anyone opening the page. Piggy will always lose his glasses in Lord of the Flies. Fiction’s concrete world is no less tangible than the moving flow of reality. And the voices I heard were as alive as any outside my head.
I had a slow apprenticeship. My first stories came slow and hard, to the point that I thought I was not really going to be the writer I had hoped to become. I was unhappy trying to write and I was unhappy failing at it. The muse had deserted me. But I kept reading, this time moving on to the Latin American boom – García Márquez, Vargas Llosa, Fuentes, Cortázar. Then, Nabokov, Woolf, Conrad, Kafka, T.S. Eliot, Whitman. I read above my head: Don Quijote, Under the Volcano, Madame Bovary, Crime and Punishment. I realized that I would never be more than a midget next to these giants, but I felt I had an obligation to honor the small gift of the imagination with which I had been blessed. I would have preferred to be a rock musician, a movie star, Mother Teresa. I accepted I was a one-trick pony and became a writer of fiction.

Process, what process?
I like to think that somewhere a writer has discovered a systematic approach to the composition of a novel – a step by step approach from ruminating to note-taking to drafting and revising. The result would be the seamless web of a novel with all the harmony and grandeur of a cathedral. No angst, no uncertainty, no fear. I haven’t met such a person. For most of us the process of writing is disordered, with much hesitation, exploration, improvisation. In the end, however, I generally feel by the time a piece is published that I’ve accomplished what I set out to do. If I have illuminated some of the mystery of being human through stories and characters that grip and engage and move the reader, then the winding road has proven to be as direct as a bullet. I believe in the power of story to satisfy a basic human need. To fulfill this promise, I rely on basic technique – vivid characterization, a strong sense of place, the telling detail, the pursuit of a timeless sort of truth. I don’t have pet themes; my fiction carries my core beliefs without an explicit agenda.
In the process I have plumbed depths of compassion and understanding that I didn’t know I had. In my villains, I find that their evil is part of the human condition, and therefore integral to my own humanity.
I learn about myself through writers who tell stories in ways that I might never attempt. In the process I’m reminded that one can do anything in a novel, to escape strictures of logic and form and plunge into the unknown. This takes artistic courage. I recently read Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore, a marvelously compelling shape-shifting narrative with mythic resonance. Before that, Bolaño’s 2666 with its hypnotic patterns of violence and uncertainty. And, some years ago, Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. How do they do it?
I have also discovered new works and kindred spirits through my publisher Unbridled Books: Mark Estrin’s Insect Dreams, Peter Geye’s Safe from the Sea, Frederick Reuss’s A Geography of Secrets.
Good writing pushes me to write. To this end, I have a gentle work schedule that slowly but slowly has allowed me to produce four novels (and a couple of unpublished ones) plus a bunch of short stories in a collection and in magazines. I have a studio a couple of blocks from my home and I spend weekdays writing for about four hours divided in morning and afternoon. Some time is also spent reading, researching and indulging in various forms of idleness with the help of the internet.

Punching in at the Fiction Factory
As a reader I’m interested in the work habits and writing spaces of writers. When one of my readers asked about these things, I thought of a recent, typical morning:
I’m late, I’m late! It’s 9:13 and the brain is humming but the author is not writing. Not a good situation for the novel that has been in progress for several months. Still, I just can’t dive in. Like a good athlete I need a little warm-up – might strain a brain cell or two otherwise. So, I check e-mail (nothing much), calendar (nothing much), news headlines (way too much).
 I take a look around the Fiction Factory, and I’m energized by the red walls (“cayenne,” says the paint can), the Mexican rug with the Huichol designs depicting the symbols for eagle, corn, flowers, peyote. Packed bookshelves hold a lifetime of reading, and learning. This is where my masters live – García Márquez, Updike, Lowry, Borges, Nabokov, Cervantes – it’s a long list. There are pictures on the walls, some created by friends. On the i-pod player, Perla Batalla sings Leonard Cohen.
Before I know it, I’m staring at the screen, cursor blinking, words waiting to be arranged and rearranged. Commas achieve the importance of subatomic particles; take one out or put one in and the order of the universe has been altered. The new novel is about fifty pages long so far, and all I think about for the next hour or so is a sentence, a paragraph, a scene. I take one step at a time, without thinking too much about the finish line. Then I move on to the next sentence. And so on…
Finally, it’s lunch time! Work at the Fiction Factory specifies a decent time for lunch and reading and nap, followed by a couple of hours of the afternoon shift. Then, it’s time for meditation, exercise, wine, dinner, chocolate. Ah, a happy routine! While I’ve been told I should get a life, I can’t think of a better one.
Thirty-five years after publishing my early stories in college, my first book, Glass Houses: Stories came out to a few good reviews. Since then I’ve continued to listen to the voices in my head. I know myself to be my characters just as Flaubert did. When asked where Madame Bovary came from he answered, “Madame Bovary c’est moi.”
I’ve published novels about an immigrant smuggler (Floating Kingdom, Coffee House Press) and a torturing physician (The Cleansing, The Permanent Press). More recently, I wrote in the first-person voice of a legendary opera diva in The Wonder Singer (Unbridled Books).
My latest novel Miss Entropia and the Adam Bomb (Spring 2011 from Unbridled Books) is a story of young love gone mad. Told in the voice of adolescent Adam Webb, he narrates his obsession and eventual tragic unfolding with Francine Haggard, aka “Miss Entropia.” More about my work can be found at and at
Copyright©2011 by George Rabasa
Photo Copyright©2011 by Keri Pickett

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Author Nahid Rachlin Self-Reflects at St. Francis College

By: Chandra Persaud

On March 17, 2011, a small crowd of students, faculty, and members of the community gathered in the Maroney Forum for Arts, Culture & Education at St. Francis College for Nahid Rachlin’s reading from Persian Girls: A Memoir, followed by a Question & Answer session and a reception in the theater’s lobby. The intimate setting was appropriate for a reading that delved deep into the author’s personal life.
            Professor Gregory Tague of the English Department at St. Francis provided the opening remarks, explaining that he first came into contact with Rachlin when Editions Bibliotekos, his small family-owned literary publishing company, was searching for pieces to be placed in two anthologies: Common Boundary: Stories of Immigration, published in 2010, and Battle Runes: Writings on War, published in 2011. Stories by Rachlin were published in each anthology, but her work left a lasting impression on Professor Tague and he was more than delighted when she agreed to the reading. Professor Tague then proceeded to give a brief biography of Rachlin including her education at Columbia University and then at Stanford University on a Stegner Fellowship as well as her notable recognitions. He shared reviews from prominent literary publications, such as The New York Times Book Review, Boston Globe, and Publishers Weekly, testifying to the value and richness of Rachlin’s work. Persian Girls: A Memoir was chosen by Christopher Merrill, Director of Iowa International Writing Program, as one of the best four books of 2006.  
            When Rachlin took the spotlight, she gave the audience some background information on her writing style. For many years, she wrote only fiction as a way to understand the world; she was able to escape any harsh reality through her writing. Even though her characters or plots stemmed from her imagination, her writing was always personal and somehow related to her life. For example, Foreigner, published in 1978, was composed at a time when Rachlin was questioning her own identity. While she always wished to write a memoir, she was rather surprised at how difficult the process turned out to be. The sole purpose for writing a memoir is telling the truth, the essence of the writer’s being, which meant that Rachlin could not make up any events or characters as she was accustomed to. It also meant that she had to embrace memories that took quite some time to come to terms with.  
            Excerpts from Rachlin’s memoir revealed an individual who is multilayered, whose life has been filled with emotions and experiences that continuously shape her writing, her perspectives of the world, and her being.
              The first few excerpts Rachlin shared revolved around her childhood and early teenage years in Iran. She recalled the time when she was forcibly taken back by her father, who was a well-educated judge in Iran, from her aunt who did not legally adopt her. Rachlin was given to her aunt, Maryam (her mother’s sister), as a baby after Maryam repeatedly pleaded with Rachlin’s biological mother, Mohtaram, to adopt one of her children. Maryam was a widow with no children of her own, while Mohtaram gave birth to ten children. Mohtaram promised Maryam that she could adopt her next child and Rachlin was that next child. When her father came to take her back at the age of nine to live with her biological family, Rachlin was reluctant to be separated from Maryam, the woman she still considers to be her mother. In an interview for The Writer’s Chronicle in 2008, Rachlin explained that at the age of nine, her father viewed her as “a woman…and he felt I [Rachlin] needed his supervision.” To help readers understand why her father must have felt this way, Rachlin explains in her memoir that, “Islam required women to begin wearing chadors, or head scarves, around the age of nine. Nine was also the age when Iranian girls could legally marry” (6).
            Rachlin also spoke about her upbringing in the home of her biological parents. She described her parents as being “half-Westernized” because they were not devoutly observant of Muslim customs such as praying, following the hejab, or fasting. Yet, they upheld many traditional standards of Iranian/Muslim life, such as believing girls and boys should not mingle together until marriage, marriages should be arranged by parents, education was for boys, and girls should tie the knot as soon as a suitable match was found. Rachlin shared a very close, loving relationship with her older sister, Pari, who like Rachlin, did not settle for the prescribed roles for Iranian girls and women. She yearned to be an actress and Rachlin a writer and, as Rachlin explains, both “wanted to use the arts to escape what we felt deeply as the oppression of our beings” (Interview for The Writer’s Chronicle, 2008).
            Rachlin also read an excerpt detailing the arranged marriage Pari reluctantly agreed to, despite being in love with someone else. Their parents did not find Pari’s love interest suitable for their eldest daughter and so repeatedly turned down marriage proposals from this suitor. The man whom they accepted as their future son-in-law was very wealthy and educated, but Rachlin later revealed he was also abusive and her sister’s marriage ended in a divorce. Pari passed away as the result of accidentally falling down a stairway while Rachlin was in America, but Rachlin still fears that her sister’s death may have been self-inflicted since Pari was dissatisfied with her life and not being able to live out her dreams.      
            Rachlin then shared an excerpt describing her initial experiences and feelings in America. After her two older sisters were married, she knew it was her turn next. To escape a life of domesticity, Rachlin convinced her father to send her to the U.S. to study at the age of 17 and he finally agreed, but on one condition: she must attend an all-women’s college in close proximity to her brother who could “keep an eye” on her. Rachlin spoke of the cultural changes she observed in America, particularly the freedom of women to dress, socialize, and go as they please. Yet, she also recalled the mixed emotions she experienced in those days, feeling relieved to be “out of the prison of her home” but simultaneously feeling alienated and insecure. She read about the time when the Dean of her college insisted she wear her “native costume,” or chador, on Parent’s Day. Rachlin never wore a head scarf in Iran and associated it with “a kind of bondage,” but the Dean never inquired about her feelings or preference for the covering.
Rachlin valued the freedom to write and express herself here in America with a sense of ease that she did not experience in her homeland, but her fear of being “discovered” still lingered during those initial days in her new environment.      
            The reading was followed by a Question & Answer session where Rachlin revealed further details about why her father allowed her to come to America. While in Iran, Rachlin was in the habit of reading censored books, many of which were written by American authors, that she managed to get from a bookstore’s owner whom she befriended. Rachlin’s father feared that her reading list as well as her writing could be interpreted as anti-government and to protect his family from the Shah’s secret police, he decided to send her to America.
When asked why she chose to refer to her mother and aunt by their names when Iranian/Muslim tradition deems such an act almost sacrilegious, Rachlin explained that, for the sake of clarity, she used names to distinguish the two women who played motherly roles in her life, but she considers her aunt, Maryam, as her true mother.
She also revealed that her book, Persian Girls: A Memoir, is not published in Iran and while many of her books have been translated into other languages, such as Portuguese and Dutch, none have been published in her native tongue, Farsi. Her decision to write in English and not in Farsi is emotional—she associates her native language with “taboo and fears.” Rachlin also answered questions about her homeland, explaining that customs, values, and laws vary by villages in Iran so while acts such as stoning a woman is accepted in one region, it may not be the case in another.
            A small reception followed in the theater’s lobby where Rachlin signed books and enjoyed small talk with guests.
            Nahid Rachlin’s Persian Girls: A Memoir is more than just a story about a woman who escaped a life of convention, giving her the freedom to accomplish her dreams. It also awakens readers to the values and traditions of a culture that many do not have a firsthand account of. Readers are given the chance to enter a world where Rachlin pulls back her many layers, revealing her core, her beginnings, her fondest memories and deepest pains.
            For more information about Nahid Rachlin, including a complete biography, interviews, and upcoming readings, visit

Copyright©2011 by Chandra Persaud

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Story Teller: Ruth Knafo Setton

Ruth Knafo Setton is the author of the critically-acclaimed novel The Road to Fez. Born in Safi Morocco, she is the recipient of literary fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, and PEN. Her poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction have appeared in many journals and anthologies. Ruth is the Writer-in-Residence for the Berman Center for Jewish Studies at Lehigh University. She is working on a new novel and a collection of poetry. Ruth’s story “Living Between Question Marks” and poem “My Father Eats Figs” appear in the Bibliotekos collection, Common Boundary: Stories of Immigration.
            Every night for the past thousand years, under moon and stars in the Djma el Fnaa, the fabled square of Marrakech, a man tells a story. Wearing a white turban and djellabah, he stands in the center of a circle of people. Wide-eyed and rapt, they lean forward to catch his every word and see his every gesture. He is competing with the human circus in all its barbaric grandeur. Crowds stream past, drums pound, people dance, steam rises from food stalls, beggars wail, the snake charmer lures his six-foot python from a basket, the Berber pharmacist spreads his cures on a blanket, the henna woman tries to embroider your arms and hands with henna scrolls. Surrounding the magic circle of the storyteller are voices, a multitude of voices—beggars, vendors, the muezzin, singers, musicians, snake charmer, the crowd—yet his voice stands out.
I have watched the storyteller for hours as he weaves a web of magic around his audience. You don’t have to understand the language he is speaking to understand the power of story. All you have to do is listen to his voice, watch his eloquent gestures and you find yourself responding to the rhythm of his words, the dramatic pauses, the sense of tension and suspense he creates. Story is the answer and it is also the question.
Who are we? Why are we? What are we? Why do we want what we want? What is truth? What is true?
Story is you and me. Story connects us to each other and to the world.
            I am a storyteller. I tell stories to my students, I tell them to my children, I tell them with my pen—and in my daily life. When I write poetry I tell a story that pulses with images. At night I dream in story. When I see strangers I imagine stories. For me, always and forever, it comes down to our most ancient, necessary need: story.
            For my ninth birthday I received my first diary. The first words I wrote: “I want to be a writer.” This was the first time I articulated what I must have always known. It was always about words—and story—for me.
            When I was three, we left Morocco, where I was born, and crossed the Atlantic Ocean to the United States. In America I received a hand-made gift: a picture book of the alphabet with an object illustrating each letter. A = Apple. B = Boat. C = Cat. That was the beginning of my love affair with English, a passionate love that has never waned.
            At age four, I sat on my mother’s lap as we puzzled through the first American picture book I brought home from the school library. We trembled as we opened the book to the first page. Flicka, Ricka and Dicka, pretty blonde triplets, smiled back at us, beckoning us into their black-bordered world where nothing evil could enter, no djnoun or rampaging mobs, no shrieking nightmare figures or serpents with human heads. For the moment, we were safe. What my mother didn’t know, what I already kept secret, was that I was not simply pointing out words, I was pressing and digging my index finger into the illustration, trying to penetrate the black borders of the story world and find the doorway that led from this world to the other world.
            That desire has never changed. Okay, so my finger wasn’t powerful enough to transport me from one world into another, but my imagination did the job with ease. I’ve always tried to bridge the world in which I live and the world in which I dream—with my reading and my writing.
            As I grew up, books were my food and air, their authors my earthly and spiritual guides. I read indiscriminately, haunting old book fairs, cracking open dusty volumes with inscriptions that offered glimpses into other lives—and connected me with people of other times and places. My fourteenth summer, in particular, was an orgy of passionate encounters. By day I flirted with neighborhood boys as I rode my bike, swam in the local pool, sneaked cigarettes in the evening and chased fireflies. By night I huddled under the cover with a flashlight (not to wake my sister) and let Colette, Isak Dinesen, Dostoevsky, D.H. Lawrence, W. Somerset Maugham, Edgar Allan Poe, Richard Halliburton and the Brothers Grimm wrap their winged arms around me and fly me to lands that made me tremble and cry. Afterwards I collapsed in bed, shut my eyes and dreamed. My dreams were mini-series (the budding novelist) and cliff-hangers, sagas of adventure, mystery and romance. In the morning I awoke, dazed, reddened and exhausted. Like the twelve dancing princesses, I felt like I’d danced all night in an otherworldly kingdom. I already knew I wanted to be a writer, but that summer I decided I wanted to create magic with my pen. I wanted to transport my readers to a dream-land they never wanted to leave. 
            I read constantly, hundreds of books a year. Words are still my sustenance. This past year I’ve discovered the gorgeous world of contemporary young adult fiction. I’ve been on a reading binge … loving the dark bittersweet chocolate of The Hunger Games trilogy; the tart lemon of Incarceron, and the even tarter, almost sour sequel Sapphique; the gorgeously imagined Graceling and Fire; the spicy cider of Jellicoe Road; the lush Hush, Hush; the coolly frightening worlds of Matched and Across the Universe, and so many more…. It’s a cornucopia of riches, a feast. Reading them, I am fourteen again, dreaming of a world of infinite possibility, enchanted gardens of unimaginable beauty and horror, love so passionate it transcends death. I’m also teaching a young adult literature course this spring, which allows me to read more.
And yes, I’m writing a new novel that can be called young adult. It explores the power of myth in modern-day life, particularly myths of female power, through the eyes of a sixteen year-old girl. This new novel is profoundly inspired by a recent Mediterranean voyage during which I sailed and taught on a ship that stopped in Athens, Rome, Naples, Istanbul and Casablanca, among other ports. The experience of wandering through ancient-new cities while feeling the weight and timeless presence of history and myth was very moving on many levels. I was returning to my roots, retracing the voyage my parents made when they sailed from Tangiers through the Strait of Gibraltar, and across the Atlantic to New York City. This new book is set in contemporary America, but it goes back to our most ancient stories, myths, rituals, human dreams and yearnings.
I’m also working on a collection of poetry, several memoir-like essays, and the revision of my novel, Darktown Blues.
            While raising three children and working fulltime, I trained myself to write while changing diapers, packing lunches, helping with homework, doing private tutoring, and teaching in elementary schools and universities. Like Hamlet, I learned to find “eternity in a nutshell.” When people ask me, ‘How could you write with three children?” I tell them, “I couldn’t have written without them.” My children—and my family—taught me not only to be disciplined in the pursuit of my goal, but also to discern between what is important in my life, and what can fall by the wayside.
            It took me nearly seventeen years to write and publish my first novel, The Road to Fez. A coming-of-age novel that explores the interweaving lives of two Moroccan-Jewish girls, one fictional and the other, the legendary Suleika. A beautiful seventeen year-old Moroccan-Jewish martyr, Suleika refused to renounce her faith and was beheaded in Fez in 1834. In over 300 versions of her story, Suleika represents the shifting mirror of the Jew, particularly the Jewish woman, in the imagination of Muslims in pre-colonial Morocco and European Romantics. Spaniards and Frenchmen wrote plays about her tragic, mysterious life. Jews and Arabs prayed side by side at her tomb in the Jewish cemetery of Fez. As I pieced together the puzzle of her life, I realized she was a figurehead who stood on the border between Africa and Europe, Judaism and Islam, tradition and modernity, women and men, sacred and profane. Who was this girl who bridged so many worlds? And why would a young girl choose death over life? To me the subject was profoundly fascinating and disturbing with no easy answers, exactly what one hopes for from literature.
I rewrote the novel at least five times, trying to squeeze Suleika’s life into a semi-coherent narrative, the way I tried to squeeze mine, eliminating the hyphens and inconsistencies in my own identity, immigrant memories, dreams and longings that made no rational sense, the search for a home that didn’t seem to exist in daylight, the key that unlocked my grandparents’ house in Morocco, and even earlier, the house we had abandoned in Spain during the Inquisition. In my search for Suleika I discovered my own family: rabbis, Kabbalists and philosophers—and a grandfather who composed poetry in Classical Arabic and played his oud on a roof terrace against the sea wind. I faced constant discouragement and received enough rejection letters to wallpaper my room, including one so painful it was almost funny—yet it paralyzed me for several years: “You write well. Next time try writing about the real Jews.”
But I picked up my pen and notebook and soldiered on. There was no other way.
I write every morning, a cup of coffee in one hand, pen in the other. I write by hand in sketch books—no lined pages, no computer screen—nothing but my pen painting the white pages. The act of writing is intensely physical and sensual, and deeply personal as well. I hug this private world I’ve created between the covers of my notebook and keep it intimate and mine for as long as I can—until the story threatens to burst from the notebook. Then I type it up. That’s the movement from personal to public. That’s when I can edit, see clearly (at least more clearly), and share it with the world.
I write poetry, fiction and creative nonfiction. Poetry has taught me the importance of each word and how to speak in the language of images: a wreath of yellow butterflies, a killer jewel, a sunken stone library, a block of ice colliding with the Old World…. Fiction, on the other hand, knows that the image, no matter how breathtaking, is never enough: we need the story. We crave narrative momentum, suspense, desire. When I write, my poetic and fictional impulses collide, struggle, interweave. My nonfiction attempts to see the pattern, to discern the method in the madness.
As I write I am like a detective searching for clues. I don’t know the solution, I don’t even know exactly what the mystery is about, but I do recognize a clue when I stumble over it. I pick it up and examine it in the light. And that leads me to the next clue. A detective groping in the dark, bumbling and blind, yet given moments of grace: a door blows open, light shines on a hidden path, a whispered word lures me around the corner. I have no idea where it will lead but I’m up for the adventure.
Every morning you can find me, pen in hand, working on a story or poem or essay. The shadows of palm trees sway over the pages of my notebook, even though I may be writing in wintry Pennsylvania. I hear the storyteller’s resonant voice, see his gestures and watch the enchanted faces of the audience. With the power of his story he has drawn a black border that guards and protects: the magic circle Scheherazade drew night after night for a thousand and one nights. The sounds, smells, sights of the frenzied, chaotic Djma el Fna’a recede. Time holds still.
Once upon a time … and they lived happily ever after. What a story lies between those words! Listen.
Text and Images Copyright c. 2011 by Ruth Knafo Setton

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

“Stitching and Unstitching” - The Life of a Writer: Anne Whitehouse

We are quite pleased to share an extended Interview with poet, fiction writer, and author ANNE WHITEHOUSE.  Anne has been writing in multiple genres for her entire life - has been developing her craft for a lifetime - and if you are familiar with her work (if not, read some of her books), what she says here will offer insights into her origins as a writer. We are impressed with how Anne continues to challenge herself as a writer and mature as a poet. The life of a writer, as W.B. Yeats describes work in “Adam's Curse,” is one of stitching and unstitching, penciling and erasing - the toils of the writer are for the benefit of the reader.

When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer? As soon as I learned to write, when I was about five or six, I used to create illustrated stories with ballpoint pen or pencil and sometimes with crayon. When I was about nine years old, I wrote longer stories in installments that were read by my younger sisters and my friends. At the age of 16, I read Wallace Stevens’ poem, “The Snow Man.” The triple use of the word “nothing” in the last stanza made me want to write poetry.

Why do you write? Writing begins in desire and need. I write because I feel incomplete without writing. I write out of a love for literature, reading, language. I write to convey what is authentically mine. I write because of a wish to create something durable and permanent from evanescent experience.

Is being a writer/poet anything like you imagined it would be? It never gets any easier to face the blank page or the blank screen. I thought it might get easier over time, but it really doesn’t. That said, I also write because I love to play with words. For me, writing is rewriting.

What do you think makes a good story? I find it satisfying when the story coheres and comes together on the immediate narrative level and on deeper, symbolic and thematic levels. I am more of a character than plot-driven writer; character is what interests me. I am a student of human nature and a close observer. I try to understand what motivates people. I look for the context. My undergraduate major was Social Studies, an interdisciplinary major in the social sciences. I am interested in psychology, history, philosophy, sociology, anthropology. I have also loved myths from a very young age. I was raised on the Bible and Greek and Roman myths. As I grow older, they seem ever more mysterious and inexhaustible. I love literature that incorporates these elements in different ways. For example, James Joyce’s Ulysses has been a favorite of mine for many years for the ways in which he recreates and retells a myth for modern times. His mind is so fertile and his ear is so musical that I continue to delight in his writing, no matter how often I reread it. I also love and revere Kafka, whose writing is more profound in the sense that he creates his own myths. His writing is mythical, allegorical, endlessly suggestive and allusive. I love the major novels and especially I love the stories and tales about small animals and freaks. I admire the way in Kafka that nothing is quite what it seems, and yet his prose is so tactile, so focused and pared down on the sequence of events he is depicting. It develops logically, one thing leading to the next, yet the result is anything but conventionally logical.

What's your favorite genre to read? I have eclectic and catholic tastes. I will read anything that is printed, including cereal boxes when nothing else is available. I love literary fiction, memoir, poetry, history, and biography.  I love art and photography. I love books on natural history. I have worked as a book reviewer for many publications; my bibliography is available on my website.

Who is your favorite author or poet? There are so many I love. I feel a little bit like Roberto Bolaño (another writer I love) as I start to compile a long list of beloved writers. In addition to Joyce and Kafka, mentioned above, I would add Shakespeare (of course), Virginia Woolf, Henry James, Jorge Luis Borges, Charles Baudelaire, William Butler Yeats, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Euripides, John Donne, William Blake, John Keats, Lord Byron, Stendhal, Horace, Julio Cortázar, Gabriel García Marquez, Albert Camus, Yasunari Kawabata, Primo Levi, Italo Calvino, Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, Leo Tolstoy, Rainer Maria Rilke, Anton Chekhov, Marcel Proust, T.S.Eliot, Oscar Wilde. I love Jane Austen, Charlotte Brontë (I like Jane Eyre better than Wuthering Heights), Elizabeth Bishop, Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, Katherine Mansfield, Shirley Hazzard, Bruce Chatwin, Maxine Hong Kingston, Isak Dinesen, Vladimir Nabokov, Oscar Wilde, Machado de Assis, Marianne Moore, Jack Kerouac, Mark Twain, Pablo Neruda. Writers I love that are somewhat forgotten and deserve to be better known include Iris Origo, Katharine Butler Hathaway, Isabel Bolton, Virginia Hamilton Adair.

I was a tremendous reader as a child; children’s literature is still very important to me. Children’s writers I love (from my own childhood and my daughter’s) are Robert Louis Stevenson, Laura Ingalls Wilder, J.K. Rowling, Louise Fitzhugh, George MacDonald, Noel Streatfield, Rosemary Wells, E.B. White, A.A. Milne, Andrew Lang, Maira Kalman, Louisa May Alcott, Lewis Carroll, Hugh Loftis, L.M. Montgomery, L. Frank Baum, Frances Hodgson Burnett.

There are lots of writers I love selectively (in other words, I love some of their works)—Faulkner, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Hawthorne, Edgar Allen Poe, Eugene O’Neill, Graham Greene, Susan Sontag, Truman Capote, Robert Lowell, Gustave Flaubert, D.H. Lawrence are a but a few.

There are writers whom I once loved but have not read in decades, and I need to rediscover them again. That includes Fyodor Dostoevsky, Herman Melville—these are writers one has to feel willing to grapple with. I hope to once again, but I am not ready quite yet.

There are some writers I love for one book: Harper Lee for To Kill a Mockingbird, Ralph Ellison for Invisible Man, Anne Frank for her Diary, Tobias Schneebaum for Keep the River on Your Right, Louise Erdrich’s Shadow Tag.

I think the generation of poets born in the 1920s and early 1930s was an extraordinary generation—better than my generation. To name a few: James Merrill, William Merwin, A.R. Ammons, Galway Kinnell, James Wright, Robert Bly, Jane Cooper, Philip Levine, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath, Seamus Heaney, Anne Sexton.

Some contemporary writers I’ve read in the past year or so with great pleasure include Donna Tartt, Roxana Robinson, David Moolten, Lewis Hyde, David Castronovo, Alexander Chee, Valerie Martin, A.E Stallings, Ben Macintyre, David Benioff, Alison Light, Garry Wills, Erika Dreifus, Bob Zellner, Joseph O’Neill. I am riveted by Malcolm McDonagh’s plays.

What books or stories have most influenced you the most as a writer? Virginia Woolf’s novel, The Waves inspired my novel Fall Love. I already mentioned the effect Wallace Stevens’ poem “The Snow Man” had on me. I think that writers aren’t aware of their influences at the time that they are being influenced. I think that if one is aware of the influence, then it’s not really an influence. It might be a model. But influences are more mysterious and unconscious. One only knows in retrospect.

What books or stories have most influenced you as a person? As a child, I had The Golden Book of Greek Myths. I vividly recall my shock when I first read the story of Oedipus. And the truth is, every time I read it, I still feel the shock. What a story! Writing doesn’t go any deeper than that. The Biblical story of Joseph is another one. The family is the basic human social structure, and our deepest conflicts and yearnings; our desire, terrors, and taboos, go back to it. 

In a larger context, The Iliad has never been surpassed as the great story of war and society and capricious fate. As Simone Weil wrote in her wonderful essay, “Its bitterness is the only justifiable bitterness, for it springs from the subjections of the human spirit to force. This subjection is the common lot, although each spirit will bear it differently, in proportion to its own virtue. No one in the Iliad is spared by it, as no one on earth is.”

Where/how do you find the most inspiration? I find inspiration wherever I can. One cannot will inspiration to come, but one must allow oneself to be receptive enough to recognize it. It’s a certain kind of attention, a readiness. I think it gets harder and harder every day as our attentions are fragmented and scattered. We’re supposed to pay attention to so many things at once. We’re in touch with everything and everyone but ourselves. It’s hard to go deep, to concentrate. I’m as guilty of the above as anyone else. Some days my mind can’t seem to settle on anything. Yoga and meditation help me to create a welcoming space, a willingness to receive inspiration with a proper sense of awe.

When I am trying to work out something in my writing, and I feel stuck, I try to focus my mind on it before falling asleep. Sometimes it works. When I was taking calculus in high school, I used to figure out math problems this way. I’d have the answer when I woke up. I don’t always have the answer now, but sometimes it helps.

What does your family think of your writing? My husband Stephen Whitehouse says, “I am very proud of my wife’s writing.” My 18-year-old daughter Claire says, “I like my mom’s writing, and I am proud of it.”

What is your work schedule like when you're writing? I start each day reading over what I worked on the previous day or previous few days, in order to get me back into the right mindset. Sometimes I move back and forth between several things I am working on; some days I put all the effort into one thing I am working on. It all depends where I have an insight. I take notes for everything I do, and I refer to them.  I prefer to write in long, uninterrupted blocks of time. I am a social person but not when I am writing. I have found talking antithetical to writing. If I have to talk when I am writing, it breaks my flow of concentration, and it’s hard for me to get it back. This is hard on my family. I need solitude to write. Solitude can be found in a café full of strangers, but it’s not the family living room with everyone sitting around and the television on.

Do you have any writing quirks or rituals? I don’t do my creative writing sitting at a desk. I sit at a desk at my job, and I sit at a desk at home when I am paying bills and the like, but when I am writing poetry or fiction or anything creative, I usually sit on a comfortable seat. Or I like to sit on the floor. Often I like to spread my legs out in front of me or tuck my legs under me.  I like to be physically relaxed and comfortable when I am writing. 

Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing? Sometimes, in fiction more than in poetry, I write myself down a wrong direction, and I have to discard writing that has taken me weeks or even a couple of months. It can be hard to let go of it, but it is absolutely necessary. You’ve got to be ruthless. In order to write fiction, I have to be able to visualize my characters clearly. It sounds easy, but for me it’s not. I begin with ideas about my characters, but it takes a while before I know them. Knowing my characters, working out their stories, is what keeps me going and what I care about in writing.  If I know everything in advance, I can’t write the story.  If there is nothing for me to discover in the process of writing, then the writing will be dead; it will lack suspense.

I read in amazement of writers who are able to plot their stories out completely and then go back and write them. They make it sound like filling in the blanks, so much easier than my struggles. I know some very good novels have been written this way, and I’ve tried to do it, but my mind draws a blank. Maybe one day I’ll figure it out. I’m still trying. Sometimes I wish I were a different kind of writer, but I have to use the gifts I have and be grateful for what I’ve got.

Many writers, I among them, take comfort from Henry James: We work in the dark, we do what we can, we give what we have. Our doubt is our passion, and our passion is our task. The rest is the madness of art.”

What are your current projects? I’ve recently completed the first volume of a two-volume novel about a Southern Jewish family in Birmingham, Alabama, called Rosalind’s Ring. It’s set in the 1950s and early 1960s. The first chapter can be read on the Santa Fe Writers Project Journal. I’ve completed a new volume of poems, The Refrain, almost all of which have appeared in literary magazines (linked on my website).

What are you planning for future projects? About a half-dozen of my short stories have recently appeared or will be appearing in literary magazines or anthologies, and I am planning to put together a book-length collection. I am also working on a new collection of poems. I am beginning the novel that will follow Rosalind’s Ring. And I have a couple of other irons in the fire that I am not ready to talk about yet.

Do you have any advice for other writers? Whatever subject you choose to write about, be sure that it interests you enough and you care enough about it to devote yourself to it the way that you’re going to have to. There’s no doubt about it, the practice of any art requires a great deal of sacrifice. It’s hard for people who don’t feel that need and passion to understand why anyone would give so much effort and love and time—at the expense, often, of one’s family and friends—to what seems to offer back so little, certainly in terms of a financial reward. In the end you’ve got to please yourself, or it’s not worth doing. It’s too hard, and it’s too demanding.

Don’t expect other people to understand why you write, not even people you love. For example, one of my closest friends invariably comments when my poetry is published, “I hope you made money on that, Anne.” I know she loves me and she means well; deep down, she wants me to make money on my poetry, because she doesn’t understand why else I would write it. Yet I can’t quell a sense of despair at her familiar comment. To demand of poetry that it be profitable is to burden a frail, delicate creature with such a weight that it can’t take off, much less fly.  I thank G-d that I don’t have to make a living from poetry; otherwise I couldn’t write it.

My fiction, alas, has proved to be as much a labor of love as my poetry. That’s the way it is, and I accept it. Society doesn’t value literature, not really. Or else, there’s no telling if society will value it. If society does value it, it’s probably for a reason other than a literary one.  As Yeats wrote in one of my favorite poems of his, “Adam’s Curse:”

A line may take us hours maybe
Yet if it does not seem a moment’s thought,
Our stitching and unstitching has been naught.
Better go down upon your marrow bones
And scrub a kitchen pavement, or break stones
Like an old pauper, in all kinds of weather,
For to articulate sweet sounds together
Is to work harder than all these, and yet
Be thought an idler by the noisy set
Of bankers, schoolmasters, and clergymen
The martyrs call the world.

I often reflect that the literature that has been passed down to us is what has survived arbitrarily. There may well have been other, greater works that we will never know about, because they were destroyed and their authors forgotten. Think about the tales of Kafka, or Anne Frank’s diary--how easily they might not have survived.  One might indeed invent a hypothetical catalogue of destroyed literature. Perhaps this is something Borges wrote about. It sounds like a Borgesian idea. I hope I’ve written something that will survive in some way, but I feel properly humble. As I wrote of my character Althea, an artist, in Fall Love: “...if the thought of leaving a couple of items to a catalogue of thousands didn't daunt her, then perhaps she deserved to have something survive.

My last bit of advice is practical. Make sure you get enough sleep and are well rested. Writing is a huge mental effort. Some of it is frustrating. You are creating something that was not there and has never existed. You have to stick with it day after day, abiding with it. When my writing has gone well, my mind feels great afterwards, as if it’s gotten a lot of exercise. Some days, on the other hand, it’s hard to accomplish anything. Yet I’ve also come to realize that the frustration is part of the writing process and often precedes the insight. I try to be patient with myself and give myself permission to follow my instincts and inclinations. And if it’s not working, I don’t force it. I do something else, anything else, even dusting the bookshelves.

Something to add: Like Stephen Sondheim in his wonderful book about creating musical theater, Finishing the Hat, I regard teaching as a sacred activity. I was a dedicated and determined student, and I taught for many years, both adults and children. I feel fortunate in having had some wonderful teachers who helped me, inside and outside of the classroom. I am grateful to them all.  At its best, education shapes who we are and helps us to live. Once we have it, it can’t be taken away. I’ve written about two wonderful teachers outside of school who influenced me as a child, Miss Don and Miss Praytor. I had some excellent teachers at Mt. Brook High School. Harvard was a revelation and a transformative experience for me. At Columbia’s graduate writing program, I came into contact with some amazing writers and began to think of myself as a writer as well. As an adult, I would like to credit the remarkable Eleanor Worthen, to whom Fall Love is dedicated, for teaching me how to edit fiction.

Where can we find your work? Please go to my website,
Here I would like to credit the publishers I’ve worked with recently: Poetic Matrix Press, Finishing Line Press, Editions Bibliotekos, Modernist Press, Atticus Books online, and the many literary magazines that have been so supportive of my work. Links are on my website. And thanks to Anzelina Okarmus Coodey, who designed my website, and Ginger Nagy, who keeps up the website and designed my last two book covers. I’m also grateful to Joe Milford for his labor of love on his poetry show, which featured me: The Joe Milford Show and all of those who love literature and labor for it.

My novel FALL LOVE can be downloaded as an ebook free of charge from Feedbooks  and Smashwords  or for Purchase or as KINDLE edition. 

Some other, recent titles, include:

Bear in Mind (Finishing Line Press, 2010), poetry chapbook.

Blessings and Curses (Poetic Matrix Press, 2009), full-length book of poetry.

Copyright c. 2011 by Anne Whitehouse
All Rights Reserved