Terry Tempest Williams

TTWTerry Tempest Williams is a stunning writer, a dedicated activist, and one of the most forceful conservationist voices of our time. She writes only about that which moves her, and what moves her ranges from women’s health issues to nuclear testing and the diminishing wilds of the American continent. She is deeply rooted in and associated with the American West. Her works include Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place; An Unspoken Hunger: Stories from the Field; Desert Quartet; Leap; Red: Patience and Passion in the Desert; The Open Space of Democracy; Finding Beauty in a Broken World and, most recently, When Women Were Birds, which she calls a kind of sequel to Refuge. Her first book, The Secret Language of Snow, a children’s book, received a National Science Foundation Book Award.

Williams’ writing on ecological and social issues has appeared in publications like The New Yorker and The New York Times, and the epilogue to Refuge, The Clan of One-Breasted Women, which explores the connection between the high rate of cancer in her family and nuclear testing in the Nevada desert, the region’s threatened natural landscape, and her own complicated relationship to Mormonism, is very widely anthologized.

In 2006, Williams was awarded the highest honor given to an American citizen by The Wilderness Society: the Robert Marshall Award. She is also a recipient of the Wallace Stegner Award, given by The Center for the American West, and a Distinguished Achievement Award from the Western American Literature Association. She has received a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Lannan Literary Award for Nonfiction. In 2011, she was awarded the 18th International Peace Award given by the Community of Christ Church.

Williams, who is known as much for her compassion as for her passion, has spent her entire life in the classroom and currently teaches at the University of Utah and Dartmouth College.

This conversation took place over the phone on the morning of April 16, 2013, the day after the bombing at the Boston Marathon. Williams was in Boston at the time of the call, cheering on members of her family who had run in the race.

How are you?

I’m fine it’s just, you know, the weather system of this day in Boston is…

Oh, it’s terrible.

I don’t how to make sense of it. It’s hard…Our family is at the Boston Marathon, as we speak, so it feels especially, personal. The bombing was very near where we all were the night before. My niece and nephew were running in the race. But, you and I are here with each other, you’re in Stockholm, I’m in the United States, so lets talk.

Are you prepared to do the interview today or would you rather reschedule it?

No I’m completely prepared to talk. This is the world we live in, it’s violent, unpredictable and this is why I write and to me it’s living my life engaged and I can’t separate my writing life from the world around me. America loves to exploit this violence on the television. It’s too much. It’s a relief to be thinking about something else.

I think it’s important that if what we have to share with one another has any meaning we have to place it in this context.

Absolutely.

One of the most troubling things is that, today, I literally heard one reporter say, “We’re not interested in why, we are only interested in who, the rest is immaterial.” I just wanted to say, “If we don’t know the why then we will never understand the world we live in.”

The who is in some ways the least important. Anyway, here we are.

Thank you for calling.

Thank you for doing this today. I love to start at the very beginning. You’re an activist, you’re without a doubt a very passionate person and I suppose I’m wondering when this passion began. Were you committed to ideas early on in the way that you have been later in life?

I grew up in the American West, Utah, in particular, part of a traditional Mormon family going back six generations that moved to Salt Lake City for religious freedom. The outdoors in my family was a spiritual landscape, not just a physical one. So I think my passion has always been tied to the land, to nature, to birds. I was given a Field Guide to Western Birds by my grandmother when I was five years old and I would pore over the illustrations in that bird book learning the names of birds, memorizing their feather patterns, where they lived, maps of distribution… And they became kin. So the passion is deeply tied to my family, my religious upbringing, and the geography where I was raised. Utah is home ground.

We lived on the edge of Great Salt Lake with the lake as the horizon line that looked like liquid silver. Spectacular sunsets were mirrored in lake at the end of each day. To our back was the spine of the Wasatch Range, part of the Rocky Mountains. So: mountains, Great Salt Lake, this liquid lie of the West, this body of water in the desert that no one could drink created the physical space with which I lived.

We would make trips out to Great Salt Lake, my grandmother and I, to see the birds, these long-legged birds that would migrate into Utah each spring. Black-necked stilts, white-faced glossy ibises, long-billed curlews, red-wing blackbirds, yellow-headed blackbirds, ducks, geese, swans – I could go on and on. It was as though you lived in the middle of a desert Serengeti here in the American West.

The other influence was my family’s livelihood. The Tempest Company. They lay pipe. They’re ditch-diggers. And, inevitably, they would be laying pipe in very remote areas in the American West, whether it was in Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, Nevada…

And my father would bring us home creatures: snakes, lizards, dead birds, bones. I remember in particular, a young cottontail rabbit that my father found that had fallen into the trench that became our pet. Then there was the time, he came home from a hunting trip with a horny toad that we were told squirts blood from its eyes. Deer hunting, pronghorn hunting, duck hunting…I would help pull the feathers from the mallards and pintails that my father would bring home and then, we would eat them for dinner.

It was a very active, vibrant childhood that was deeply connected to the land.
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Jane Smiley

SMILEY2Jane Smiley is the owner of many horses and the author of many books, including A Thousand Acres, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the National Book Award in 1992. She is a member of the American Academy of Art and Letters and winner of the PEN USA Lifetime Achievement Award for Literature. Her canon of work includes Barn Blind (1980), At Paradise Gate (1981), Duplicate Key (1984), The Age of Grief (1987), Greenlanders (1988), Ordinary Love and Good Will (1989), Moo (1995), The All-True Tales and Adventures of Lidie Newton (winner of the 1999 Spur Award for Best Novel of the West), Horse Heaven (2000), Good Faith (2003), Charles Dickens (2003), A Year at The Races (2004), Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel (2005), Ten Days in the Hills (2007), The Georges and the Jewels (2009), The Man Who Invented The Computer (2010), and Private Life (2010).

Over the course of her career, she has transcended genre and audience in such publications as Playboy, Practical Horseman, Vogue, The New Yorker, The New York Times, Harper’s, The Nation, The Guardian, Outside, and Real Simple. She recently inspired the indie rock band Wilco to name-check her in “One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend).”

At a geek conference in Chicago, The Days of Yore had to beat through a mob of fans waving ink pens and paperbacks to steal a few minutes with the magnificent Ms. Smiley.

Were there any writers in your family?

I grew up in the suburbs of Saint Louis, and my mom worked for the St. Louis Globe-Democrat. She was the Women’s Page editor. I’d been downtown to the paper. I’d looked at the presses. I saw her working at the typewriter. She also ran the biannual fashion show.

Did she put you in the fashion shows?

She did. [Laughs.] So that was fun.

Did you ever try out her typewriter?

No, I wasn’t interested. I read books, but as a child, I wasn’t interested in writing.

What were your favorite books?

The Bobbsey Twins, Nancy Drew, horse books by Dorothy Lyons, The Black Stallion books. Series books were what I liked as a child.

At what point did you decide to write something down?

Well, I enjoyed writing things my senior year of high school, but it wasn’t until college that I really did anything. I went to England for two weeks and stayed with friends of my parents, and I loved it. We had to write a long paper at the end of senior year, and I wrote about that trip. I enjoyed writing the piece. So when I got to college, I took Freshman Creative Writing.

Were you getting praise for your writing?

Enough, but not too much. You don’t want to be the star, and you don’t want to be the one who nobody ever notices. You want some praise, but you want the praise to be special, not standard.

Why do you say that?

Praise gets boring, just like anything else. You don’t learn from constant praise. It’s like training an animal. If you’re giving sugar to your horse, he gets bored with that. Pretty soon, you have to do the law of intermittent rewards, where he does not get a treat every time. He gets a pat. He gets to know that he did the right thing, but he doesn’t get that special thing every time. He has to work a little harder to get that special thing.
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Summertime and the living is easy

Dear Yores,

We’re taking a summer-long hiatus to stock up on interviews for ya’ll. The sun is shining and we’ll be typing and talking, what about you?

xoxo

Team DoY

typewriter

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Ta-Nehisi Coates

TNCoatesTa-Nehisi Coates is a senior editor at The Atlantic and writes an immensely popular blog which was included on TIME Magazine‘s list of Best Blogs of 2011, with the motivation, “Like many of the world’s best bloggers Atlantic senior editor Ta-Nehisi Coates is impossible to pigeonhole.” Coates’ prose is electric, crackling with wit and intelligence. He tackles some of the most infected issues of our time – race, social inequality, masculinity – with a rare balance of passion and equanimity.

Coates grew up in a rough section of West Baltimore. His father was a former Black Panther and founded the publishing company Black Classic Press, which he ran out of their home. Coats’ 2008 memoir The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood, is a lyric depiction of coming of age as an African American man in America.

Coates attended Howard University but dropped out to pursue journalism. He wrote for The Village Voice, Washington City Paper, and TIME Magazine before joining The Atlantic.

On May 2, 2013, he won a National Magazine Award for his article entitled “Fear of a Black President.”

When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

Tony Dorsett, the running back for the Dallas Cowboys. That’s what I wanted to be.

Did you play a lot of football on your own or was that just sort of a….?

I did, but I didn’t play too much on account of not being very good. You know, it was just something we did in the neighborhood, threw the football and ran around a lot, yeah, a lot of fun.

And were you a kid who told a lot of stories?

No, but, you know, I did ask a lot of questions. I asked a lot of questions. I really annoyed my brothers and sisters, I remember that.

You were the kid who was always saying, “Why? Why?”

Yes, that was me.

What was it you wanted to know?

Everything! I mean that was how I ultimately got into writing. Professionally I started off in journalism and the thing about journalism is, it’s a license to ask anybody anything. For a kid like me that was exciting, you know?

My dad read a lot, I do know that. My mom read a lot, there were books all over the house.

Your father actually ran a publishing company, right?

He did, he ran a small publishing company so there were books everywhere.

I was voracious, man. My natural inclination was to read.

Was there an early reading experience that was important to you?

Yeah, Choose Your Own Adventure. I was just like, “Wow, you get to sit in the driver’s seat.”

A lot of writers talk about that moment when they’re reading and they realize that someone actually wrote the story, that there’s someone behind the story.

Yeah, yeah.

And I think what you’re describing similar, right? That feeling that you wanted to control the narrative.

Yeah it was totally similar. It’s the idea that, “Hey you can’t do it.” You know what I mean? Choose Your Own Adventure says, “Yes, you can control the story.” It’s not even wondering, “Can I?” The answer is, “Yes, you can.” It’s actually not that much of a leap from saying, “I can control the story” to “I can actually write the story.”
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Hoyte van Hoytema

HoyteHoyte van Hoytema is a one of the world’s most sought-after cinematographers. He was born in Switzerland, raised in the Netherlands, educated in Poland, has won awards in Scandinavia and is now the hottest ticket in Hollywood. His film credits include Let The Right One In, for which he received the Nordic Vision Award for cinematography; The Fighter; Call Girl; and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which garnered him a BAFTA and an ASC nomination. He is famous for his ability to capture the intangible; to paint emotion as well as color with his lens.

Hoytema studied cinematography at the Polish National Film School in Lodz. He lives in Stockholm with his wife and young daughter.

Hoytema is affable, self-deprecating, and quick to chuckle. He can be seen rambling the streets of Stockholm dressed in layers of black, always with a camera around his neck and seasonably impractical sneakers on his feet.

You were born in Switzerland to Dutch parents. What’s the story?

My dad was studying there and my mom followed. They were living together in Zurich. That is why I was born there, it was pure practicality. And one year later we moved back to Holland.

Your dad was studying architecture, right? He’s an architect.

Yes.

I find that interesting, that you dad is an architect and you’re a cinematographer. There is something there, a parallel I am trying to get at. Both architects and cinematographers are artists working within very technical media who need to adapt to wills and budgets dictated by others.

Accommodating arts, you could say. You don’t carry the full responsibility of the functionality of your art or your contribution. Maybe that’s a parallel. But the parallel that I see more between my dad’s job and mine is that I just absolutely didn’t want to become an architect!

[Laughs.]

Because he was one?

Yeah. I think it’s a beautiful profession to be an architect. And to a certain extent it is very similar to what I do, because there is always so much politics involved before you actually get to do the nice things. There’s money, and financing, and whatever you do has also to be utilized by a lot of people.
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Benjamin Anastas

Benjamin AnastasBenjamin Anastas is a writer whose work reminds us all to keep it real. He published two novels, An Underachiever’s Diary (1998), recently re-released in paperback by the Dial Press, and The Faithful Narrative of a Pastor’s Disappearance: A Novel (2001), which was a New York Times Notable Book, before writing the shimmeringly beautiful and gut-wrenchingly painful memoir Too Good To Be True (2012), in which he tells the story of a life (his own) whirling out of control. When his third novel is refused, his wife leaves him, and he becomes so utterly broke that he must scavenge change to buy food for his toddler son, the once-promising writer must find a way to put the pieces of his existence back together. In a review in The New York Times Book Review, Deb Olin Unferth writes, “New Yorkers connected to publishing will have fun finding themselves in this book — or they might recoil in horror. (…) With painful precision he tells a midlife coming-of-age story: the world shatters us.”

Anastas earned his MFA from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and currently teaches writing at Bennington College. His fiction, criticism, and essays have been published in Story, GQ, The Paris Review, The New York Times Book Review, Harper’s, and Granta, among other places. His essay, “The Foul Reign of Emerson’s ‘Self Reliance,’” was selected for The Best American Essays 2012.

Despite all that Anastas has been through, his humor – and generosity – remain intact, as witnessed in this lively interview.

How much do you know about The Days of Yore and how much do you want me to tell you before we sort of get going?

I think I get the idea, which is sort of talking about a certain time in your life, before you were a grand personage.

I like that: a grand personage.

While you were still struggling.

Yes.

The struggle never ends but there’s struggling and then there’s struggling.

Exactly. So, can you recall an early reading experience that was somehow important to you?

Well, my father kind of made it his project to turn his children into literate people. All he had in his house were books; he never had any money but what money he did have to spend he always just spent on books. His house is just absolutely filled with them.

I don’t remember how old I was, maybe ten or eleven, and for some strange reason he encouraged me to read James Joyce’s “The Dead”. I remember starting the story one night when I was staying at his house and not being able to stop. Reading about halfway through and then I couldn’t wait to go to bed the next night because then I knew I could finish “The Dead”, and did. I read it all the way through in two sittings.

In a lot of ways it was the first grown-up literature I ever read. I used to read a lot of – I guess you would call them fantasy books – about swordfights and monsters and dragons and heroes with great manes of hair. But James Joyce’s “The Dead” was really the first profound reading experience I had when it comes to adult literature.

And what was it about it that was so appealing to you?

There was a lot that went over my head, but it was literally just the cadence of the language. When I got to that last page, about the snow falling over Michael Furey’s grave, I remember sitting there and reading it over and over again. And of course it didn’t hurt that my father – you know, I had been coached, I had definitely been coached. He said, “You’re not going to believe the last page of this story.” I think he’d even read it aloud to me. So, I had been primed to really appreciate this kind of pure outpouring of language almost for its own sake and it really did work.

Of course the idea of having regrets in marital life and having carried unrealized love around with you for years: these were things that were completely alien to me as an eleven-year-old. It was just the force of the language itself that I found really mesmerizing and I remember very vividly staying up late with the bedside light on in the bedroom that I slept in at my dad’s house and just reading and reading and reading.
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Nathan Englander

Nathan Englander © Juliana SohnNathan Englander is a critically acclaimed writer who has been translated into over a dozen languages and was named one of “20 Writers for the 21st Century” by The New Yorker. He is the author of one novel, The Ministry of Special Cases, and two short story collections, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges and What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, which won the 2012 Frank O’Connor International Short Story Award. He translated New American Haggadah, which was edited by Jonathan Safran Foer, and co-translated Etger Keret’s Suddenly A knock at the Door, both published in 2012. His stories and essays have appeared in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Atlantic Monthly, and The Washington Post as well as in The O. Henry Prize Stories and several editions of The Best American Short Stories. In 2012, his play, The Twenty-Seventh Man, premiered at The Public Theater in New York City.

Englander is a winner of the PEN/Faulkner Malmud Award, the Bard Fiction Prize, and the Sue Kaufman Prize from the American Academy of Arts & Letters. He has been awarded fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers at the New York Public Library, and the American Academy of Berlin. He earned a MFA from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and currently teaches fiction in the writing program at Hunter College.

This furiously paced conversation took place over breakfast at Englander’s Brooklyn home while his spirited pup stole croissants and yelped for us to quit jabbering and start playing with her, already.

You grew up in an Orthodox Jewish home. Tell me about your childhood.

If we lined up all your author interviews, I always feel like you’ve asked authors, “How did you end up being a writer?” “I was a miserable unhappy child and someone gave me a book.” I feel like that sums up almost everyone’s bio: “Literature saved my life at some point.” I immediately get metaphysical; I can’t control myself. What is memory versus what happened? My point is, every once in a while I’ll see a picture of myself smiling and I’ll be like, “I must’ve been happy at that moment.” But I feel like I have a brain that erases everything positive and just holds on to…

Marina Abramovic said that a happy childhood makes a crappy artist.

Maybe so! I remember being happy at my grandparents’ house when we’d visit them once a month. But yes, I was pretty much an anxious, unhappy child, I guess.

Why, do you think?

I don’t know. If you ask my mother, her memory will be me always telling jokes. She said there’d be people over and I’d be telling the adults stories. She remembers this distinctly, that she’d be in the kitchen and hear laughter and I’d be out there telling a room full of adults stories. She remembers me climbing the walls and happy and storytelling and all that.

But I think it was more…. the sense of being an outsider. What we’re talking about – maybe that’s the central thing – is this distinct sense of feeling outside of things, of questioning the reality that I was in but not knowing that there were alternate realities. I think I sort of compare it to what it must’ve been like for people to come out of the closet. It was this real feeling that: this is the world, this is my reality, and if I’m miserable then I’m going to be a miserable person in this world. That’s why I compare it to this idea that if you’re told, “this is how your orientation is supposed to be, this is how the world is,” and you just know at a young age that you don’t feel this way and if this is the only way to be then its going be a long unhappy life.

So you felt “other”?

I could see the Catholic girl getting on her bus to the school down the street and neither of us…

Simply this: this is your world, this is your universe, and I just felt I’m probably just going to be an unhappy person in it. I guess you just don’t understand that there’s another option for you.

Growing up there was a real structure of rabbis and students and to me this very clear, very gendered power structure, and I think it was just recognizing – just questioning that this doesn’t make sense to me. That’s the terror of, “I’m just gonna be unhappy here.” You don’t know your alternatives.
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Nick Harkaway

NICKH.jpgNick Harkaway is a British writer who has two novels and one book of non-fiction under his belt. The Guardian referred to his debut novel, The Gone-Away World, as “a beautifully silly plan of melding a kung-fu epic with an Iraq-war satire and a Mad Max adventure.” Oh, and it’s set in a scary post-Apocalyptic world. Angelmaker was published in the United States in 2012 and received ridiculously gleeful reviews. In fact, Harkaway’s writing tends to inspire gleeful responses, slithering impishly as it does over genre boundaries and giving a good-natured swat at reader expectations.

“Nick Harkaway is a hyphen-novelist. A tragical-comical-historical-pastoral novelist, if you like; or – more precisely in the case of this second book – a fantasy-gangster-espionage-romance novelist,” writes the Observer. He is also a hyphen-person; and a hilarious-irreverent-mischievous-riotous interviewee, to be more precise.

Nick Harkaway is a pseudonym, as is the nom de plume of his father, John le Carré.

Let me start from the very beginning. When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

When I was a very young kid I wanted to be a milkman because we had an incredibly happy milkman. He came every morning and he was always pleased to see everyone. That just seemed to me to be an excellent life. I don’t think I ever wanted to be an astronaut or a rocket scientist or a pop singer, anything like that.

When I was in university I wanted to do international environmental law. I had a politics degree and I thought that I could go into a conversion course and a master’s and so on, or East European politics or something. But then I just couldn’t stand the idea of another hundred-thousand years of my life at university. I was like, “It’s already been an eternity! Three years is forever!” Because when you’re nineteen or twenty-one, whatever it is, the idea of six months somewhere is an appreciable fraction of your adult life. Now if someone says, “six months,” I go, “Wow! That soon? Wow!”

So, instead of doing that I got a job, I decided I wanted to go into movies. That was my next big dream.

It was, like, the big silver screen movie dream…?

Yeah, I wanted to write Jurassic Park or… I actually wanted to write the screenplay for Neal Stevenson’s Slowcrash. Literally, I called movie studios and begged them. They were like, “You’re some dude from England, why on Earth would we let this happen?”

But you had the guts to call them. I mean, come on, that’s pretty cool.

Yeah, and the weird thing about that is that in Hollywood people were kind of like, “Well obviously we’re not gonna let you do that, but wow, you know…”

“…You’re calling!”

People did offer me things. They were like, “Come and do this instead.” And I was like, “Well, no, I don’t want to do that.” But now I look back and I’m like, “Jeez, did you turn down those offers just because you were so monomaniacal?” But if you’re not that monomaniacal then they’re not interested in you in the first place.

Since you wanted to write for film, writing was something that you wanted to do. And writing wasn’t a foreign thing for you growing up, obviously. For a lot of writers I speak to, it’s a really big hurdle for their families or for themselves to understand that you can write, that such a thing exists called “writer.” But your mom is a book editor and your father is a very successful writer.

The biggest burden that I had, in a way, was that I was surrounded with storytelling as a way of living, as a way of being in the world and whatever. My family tells stories to one another as a kind of… Instead of “hello,” it’s, “this incredible thing happened to me today!”

And I have always known how a writer’s day works, how a writer’s month, year, works, what that whole rhythm is, what it looks like and how it works. I knew that it was a survivable way of living.

My dad would get up in the morning and his commute would be from the bedroom to the study. He would close the door and he would work. Turns out that’s the difference between us: I will very, very happily work where people are doing construction, next door where my daughter is playing, you know, wherever. As long as no one actually demands that I get up and do something else, I’m very happy to work. I’ll work in hotel rooms, I’ll work on the beach, I’ll work wherever I am. If I need to work, I can work.

And it’s funny about the door thing as well: Dad used to shut the door and I kind of always assumed in my life that that was to keep me out, you know, keep us out. Until about twelve months ago when I realized that it might equally be to stop him coming out to play with us. Because I have a daughter now – she’s two – and the single most difficult thing is not just going, “Oh screw it, I’ll write this later when she’s asleep.” Because she’s there and she’s having a great time and she’s going, “I have found the tortoise!” and I’m like, “Oh my God, you said tortoise!” and come out and kind of play with the tortoise for half an hour. You do that three times in a day and you write nothing. That’s your lot.

You know, a lot of people think basically if you want to be a writer and you’re not high 90% of the time and if everyone you love doesn’t hate you and you didn’t have a terrible childhood, you’re screwed, you’ve got nothing. And it’s not true! I would go so far as to say five or six percent of writers are not insane. I don’t necessarily number myself in that group but, you know, it’s possible and I knew it was possible. So, I knew that writing as a life was not about being Hunter S. Thompson. That’s not to say you can’t do it, obviously Hunter S. Thompson wrote amazing stuff. But the thing is, you write day after day and by the end of the year, amazingly, you have a book.
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Idra Novey

IdraNoveyJPGIdra Novey is a poet and translator whose exuberance is as apparent on the page as it is in person. She has published two poetry collections, The Next Country, which was a finalist for the Foreward Book of the Year Award in poetry and Exit, Civilian, which was selected by Patricia Smith for the 2011 National Poetry Series. Her most recent translation is Clarice Lispector’s novel The Passion According to G.H., which was published by New Directions in 2012. Her work has been featured in Poetry Magazine, Slate, American Poetry Review, and NPR’s All Things Considered, among other places.

Novey has a BA from Barnard College and a MFA from Columbia University. She has taught in the Bard College Prison Initiative and Columbia University and currently teaches at NYU and Princeton University.

Novey speaks quickly, laughs often, and is always doing at least three things at once.

Were you always very apt at languages when you were younger?

I used to make up plays and make the neighborhood kids act in them in the backyard. In my family there were four of us. Especially my younger stepbrother Daniel, I would dress him up in tutus and make him participate in all of my literary shenanigans. I was always doing things like that. At the bus stop I would make up songs and games and make people do them. People were game; it was a small town.

Where was this, where you grew up?

I grew up in a town in western Pennsylvania, near the border with West Virginia and Ohio. It’s, like, the rust belt. No one moved away and no one came so there was a fixed group of children who just knew each other forever – I think I was just known as the person who did those kinds of things.

Most of the people that I went to high school with…some of them now, I go home and they work at, like, the Blockbusters, or they work at the mall, things like that. So I did not to go to a high school where a lot people were going to college. I wrote a play in high school. It was performed and no one knew it happened, it was, like, a total non-event because it was the only play that anyone had ever written in that high school. You know, there was a football game that Friday… It was that kind of high school.

But you knew you wanted to be doing it because you were doing it on your own.

I never knew I wanted to be doing it, I just did it because that was what made me happy, you know? My dad was really helpful. The University of Virginia had this creative writing program in the summer, so he sent me to do that when I was in high school. I wrote stories and then he found someone who was a professor at something and this professor read my stories and gave me feedback and sent them back.

That’s pretty big. So your dad was really trying to help you.

Yeah. He is a doctor but when I was little he acted in lots of plays, I remember going to see him as Dracula. And we always went and saw theater. The six of us went as a family to the Edinburgh Theatre Festival.

I remember being, like, fourteen and there was this Japanese dance thing that was all naked men. I look back on it, like: “That was a really interesting choice!” [Laughs.] To take four children to see all these naked men dancing. But I was fascinated by it. And we talked about it for years. You can imagine four teenagers being, like: “Our parents took us to see…”

…naked men dancing?

[Laughs.] Yeah!
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Sarah Manguso

sarahmangusoSarah Manguso has written two books of poetry, Siste Viator and The Captain Lands in Paradise; one short story collection, Hard to Admit and Harder to Escape; and two memoirs, The Two Kinds of Decay and The Guardians: An Elegy for a Friend. The Guardians, which is a beautiful and unusual chronicle of losing a friend to suicide, was named one of the top ten books of the year by Salon while the Telegraph dubbed it a Best Book of the Year.

Manguso has been awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in General Nonfiction, a Hodder Fellowship from Princeton University, and the Rome Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. She is a graduate of Harvard and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and currently teaches writing at Princeton University.

When the Guardian described Manguso’s latest book as “clear and sharp as a shard of glass,” the critic may as well have been speaking of Manguso herself. This interviewer would like to add a few more modifiers to complete the picture: humble, thoughtful, kind.

Were you the kind of child who ran around telling stories?

Never. I can’t tell a story. I can look at a small part of actual reality and try to figure out what’s going on, and maybe write about it, but I cannot make up a story.

I was a very late talker. The family legend is that my mom asked me when I was about three, “Can’t you talk?” I’m told I said, “Yes!” [Laughs. ]

There were sixteen kids in my first-grade class. We had show-and-tell a couple of times a week, and I could never find a reason to share anything with these people. We would go around the circle and everyone would have something to say, like, “My dog did this” or, “I went somewhere with my brother.” I never volunteered, and periodically people would say, “Why isn’t Sarah Jane sharing in show-and-tell?” To her credit, Mrs. Birkholz said, “Sarah Jane will speak when she is ready.” I don’t remember ever sharing anything.

I was an only child, and I grew up on a street with a lot of retirees, so there weren’t many kids in the neighborhood. I spent most of my early childhood by myself. I looked at the toad family that lived in the storm drain, the little stones in the garden.

Was there an inner dialogue going on that was about looking at and examining things?

I remember feeling somewhat alienated from my peers when they talked about TV. I didn’t watch TV. My parents didn’t watch much TV. So I didn’t understand why, with these half-hour programs, everyone would then talk about them for hours at school the next day. It’s not that my parents were intellectuals; they just didn’t keep the TV on.

I grew up in Greater Boston, the patchwork of old little towns just inland from the city. Our street bordered protected wetlands and forest. I wasn’t allowed to walk into the forest, and I never thought, “Wow, I could go into the forest!” I thought, “Oh, okay. I’ll just look at it from here.”

But I remember very tall trees and interesting stones I would pick up. Maybe all the kids were doing this, too, along with watching TV.

You just didn’t have the contemporary culture part.

I was easily overstimulated — not in a way that made me combative or noticeably upset, but I sensed I needed less stimulation than I thought my peers did to feel full, to feel maximally involved in the universe, and I still feel that way.
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