blackbirdonline journalSpring 2014  Vol. 13  No. 1
an online journal of literature and the arts
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Panel Discussion
Moderator: Tina Griego. Panelists: Ramona Ausubel, P.J. Mark, and Sarah McGrath
captured November 19, 2013

Tina Griego: Welcome. I’m so glad everyone’s here. My name is Tina Griego. I’m the news editor of Style Weekly and I’m relatively new to Richmond, and more to the point tonight, I am a native New Mexican like our esteemed author. Reading this I was always curious—we can talk about this—how a person who grew up in the high desert could conjure a world so full of water. (laughter)

I want to tell you just a little about agent and editor P.J. Mark and Sarah McGrath. Sarah McGrath is vice president and executive editor of Riverhead Books. Prior to coming to Riverhead in 2006, she was senior editor at Scribner where she worked for eight years and acquired and edited a combination of literary fiction and narrative nonfiction. P.J. Mark is vice president at Janklow & Nesbit. He has been an agent since 2002, and has been in publishing since 1993. And he also works with literary fiction and narrative nonfiction.

I am really excited to sit here and have this conversation because if you have—well, you just got a sample of this book if you have not read it—beautiful keeps coming up a lot, and it is beautiful and the words are wondrous, and tonight we get to talk about story and we get to talk about words and the power that they convey. And it is as, I think it was NPR who said it, these perfect little jewels of sentences. And if you have not read it, you can buy, you can have your book signed, you’re welcome to do that.

And so without further ado.

One of the things I was thinking about, and you spoke about the genesis of this book begins with your grandmother’s stories about your great-grandmother?

Ramona Ausubel: Yeah.

TG: So you went to New York for two week and you interviewed your grandmother and these were taped conversations, but one of the things I kept thinking about is, I kept picturing the younger Ramona who was listening to the stories from her grandmother and how the stories came to inhabit you. And when you left New York with your tapes, and you went back and transcribed the basis for your story, what happened to the stories?

RA: What happened first was that I wrote everything down—well, first I sort of did the true transcription—and then I started writing, but really I was basically still writing it the way it had been told to me. And my grandmother is a really great storyteller, so it was good, but it was her voice and I didn’t really have any place in it. I gave up, I thought it wasn’t going to work. I thought, oh I guess maybe, I don’t know, it was too hard, too big a project, too much about the real thing, I thought I wasn’t going to find my way through all of those facts into the story I wanted to tell. So, I put it down for two years.

TG: How long did you work on it before you put it down?

RA: I worked close to a year or so. It might have been a little less, ten months or something.

TG: One of the things I was curious about, you conceived of this from the beginning as a novel.

RA: Yes.

TG: And there is a part in the beginning, and it’s also in the end, where you say, “I wrote a story with both the parts I saw with my eyes and the parts I did not,” and you went on to say that someday your children will ask what happened and you will tell them your version and this is the way the story will keep living, the truth is in the telling. And as I read that I thought many a memoir has been written under that kind of wide umbrella of emotional truth. Was that never a consideration for you, and why not?

RA: No, it wasn’t. I think part of it is that I knew I didn’t have nearly enough information to even begin to think of an entire book of nonfiction. I could’ve written an essay maybe. Also, I don’t like doing research that much, and you really have to do a lot of it if you’re going to write a book of nonfiction. I like doing a little bit. I mean, the kind of stuff that gives you a sense of the place, and images. But I’m not interested in fact-checking a million-thousand times. That’s part of it, it’s just what made me excited was the idea of the story, and I knew the fastest way to get to that was through my imagination. Once I figured it out, once I got to that point a couple years later when I picked up the book again, and I realized that if I wanted to know these characters, and I wanted to figure this place out, and I wanted to figure something about how they survived this, I was going to have to do it, no one else was going to be able to do it for me, and I was going to have to give myself some room to imagine it, and trust that was legitimate.

TG: You background is you’re a poet.

RA: That’s how I started, yeah.

TG: And you’ve been writing poetry for how long?

RA: I had been writing poetry for, well, six years?

TG: So you’re writing poetry for six years, and then you decide to move from poetry to a novel. And I’m curious about how your poetry and working as a poet, what that transition was like, how it helped or how it hindered you.

RA: Yeah, well, I tell fiction writers all the time to read poetry, it’s one of the smartest things you can do, because just getting to that, getting right to the emotional core and these things that go through your body without you even noticing that it happened, and sort of economy and all that. So I think I learned so much of the stuff I know how to do in prose from poetry. But you are right, it’s a lot more pages. And I had the feeling like, oh no, I can’t, I can’t do this. And after that first eight or ten months, I had maybe sixty pages or something, which seemed like the most pages I could write. I had already done the marathon, I couldn’t go any farther. So when I started graduate school that following fall, I went back and started writing short stories for a couple of years, which I hadn’t really ever done before. So even that felt like, whoa, fifteen whole pages, all right, let’s see what we can do here. But then after a few, then the novel was a little less intimidating, after writing stories for a while and having a sense of how that arc works.

TG: So that’s what I was wondering, if writing short stories was sort of that transition, the bridge.

RA: Yes, absolutely. Although I wasn’t even thinking. I truly felt the novel was done and dead and gone. I had completely given up on it. So, I was writing stories because I wanted to be writing stories, and then a little later I got a brave again and thought I could try it. See what happened.

TG: So I have a lot of questions, and I want to bring you into the conversation as well. So I’m going to fast forward a little bit, but remind me to go back because I want to talk about the drafts that you did.

TG: At what point did you two become connected, P.J.? And I’m curious, when you first saw the manuscript, or pages of the manuscript, and you read that, was there a point where you just said, “Ah this is true, this is real, this is wow,” and if so, what was that point?

P.J. Mark: My heart is actually beating because I remember the moment I read the manuscript. But I came to Ramona through her stories first. An editor had told me about her work, and she was in New York meeting with agents who were interested in her work through the manuscript of stories that she had written. And I really loved those stories. It’s this book which came out second. And I think through reading those stories and talking to you about the novel to come, I just believed that it was possible, I believed that it could happened so I sort of made the commitment, we made the commitment together. But it was when I read the manuscript for the first time—I think I read it over the weekend and called you, I left this crazy message—

RA: It is the best message I’ll ever receive.

PM: I just really had this immersive, deep, deep experience reading the book that was kind of hallucinatory, it was like a fever dream. And I closed the book and I was crying and I immediately picked up the phone and called Ramona and told her how moved I was by it. Then we did a little bit of work on it before submission, but we went out pretty quickly with it. Afterwards, everything sort of accelerated after the submission was in, but it had been isolated from until many drafts in.

RA: Yeah I had sent it out to a couple of agents. I had a story published in One Story right when finished my MFA and I got some emails from agents so I sent it to like two people then. And they were like, “Hmm, I don’t know what this is at all.” So then I was like, “Oh okay, noted I’ll go back to work.” And then I didn’t want to show it to anybody. It was totally under lock and key. And I was so grateful to P.J. for being willing to work with me not having read it. And I felt like I better make this good because I don’t want him to regret that decision. Good motivation.

TG: So, Sarah, when did you enter this little family?

Sarah McGrath: So, the genesis of Ramona being at Riverhead is actually kind of uncommon, and being with me is not the way it normally goes. I had a colleague, whose name is also Sarah, who was actually the person who acquired the book. And then she left Riverhead. And that is not uncommon, editors leave, and it happens to authors, it’s called being orphaned, and it’s the worst thing that could happen to you because you get someone who didn’t fall in love with your book and isn’t necessarily the best advocate for it. The other Sarah left shortly after acquiring the book, so it was before the editing was completed. So my publisher came to me and said, “Read this,” and, you know, I thought there’s nothing worse than working on a book you don’t believe in. And I didn’t expect not to believe in it, but it’s just you know. And I had the most amazing experience because I had been given the best gift, which is, I don’t have to fight for this book, it’s here! And oh my God, I remember reading it too, I read it one day. I was euphoric and I was so excited. And also, euphoric because I loved it, but grateful that I didn’t not love it. I absolutely would have acquired this book on my own and that was fortunate. You know, in all my years being an editor, I’ve read a lot of books that take place during the Holocaust, but this is not a Holocaust book at all. I mean, it’s about imagination and storytelling.

TG: Had the editing already begun?

RA: Yeah, so I was in the middle of that draft, and knew Sarah didn’t want to read it until it was done with that edit. Which was great, because I knew I could just get through this and go on those first notes, and then we would be able to continue together. So again, it was like I better do a really good job here, because I don’t want her to read it and be like, “Oh rats, you huh?” So then we worked together a little bit. I think we maybe went through two short revisions after that.

TG: Okay, so let’s establish a timeline. You interview your grandmother. You start the book. You put it aside for two years. You come back to it. Now, how many drafts does it go through, and at what point do you start sending it out?

RA: I think it was at least five drafts before I sent it to anybody. Then there was those couple people who saw it then. And there was another year and a half before I sent it out again. And it was eighteen drafts total. So I don’t know exactly where the breakdown happened, but it was a lot of goings-over.

TG: And after when you sent it out the first time, and then you were starting to get responses back, I guess the other thing I wonder about is the evolution of the point of view in the story. And whether or not when you send something out into the world, and you get it back and someone says you should do this and this and this. How do you take that? How do you know when to listen? How do you know when to say, “No, this is part of who I am in this book?”

RA: That’s one of the hardest things. And the point of view was the sticky place. The book, for a long, long time was written, the whole thing, in first person plural. So it was all “we,” there was no central character. It sort of followed the main character now, but it wasn’t her voice. And I think that was what people were struggling with. But it was also really important to the story. I felt like that was what made the story true, and that was what the whole book about. So I didn’t want to give it up, and I went to back and forth with people being like, it’s too hard, we don’t have any footing here. And then being like, but that’s what it is and I don’t know what to tell you. And then it was that little excursion in Egypt. I had really been thinking about it and realizing that there needed a way to do both of those things: to get feet on the ground, and feel like you were rooted in a character, and to also have it be about everybody together. And that was my job. That was going to be hard and I needed to figure out a way to do that. So I kind of just tried an experiment of giving the whole book to Lena, who’s the main character. Letting her tell parts that she wasn’t there to see and see what that felt like. It was an experiment, and I was glad that it felt like it was working. And I was wondering all along if anybody would ever say that you can’t, with a first-person narrator go to all these different place and see what’s happening in everybody’s heads. But nobody ever said that. I think because I had that plural narrator for such a long time, that voice was part of all of the writing and it was part of the whole story, so then when Lena got to tell it, it felt natural and right, and I don’t have idea why.

TG: That’s interesting because there are parts of the book where Lena is clearly present, but there is one part of the book that comes through vividly for me that I remember, is after the soldiers have discovered the village and they’re running towards the river, and there’s this wonderful sense of the collective, and the collected voices that come. And it’s still her, but it’s not her. And I have never really seen that. Have you seen that?

PM: I know that that scene was really meaningful for me as well. That is one of the scenes that is most vivid. There is something in the book in the ability to take that collective voice and give it a personal lens that’s both inward looking but also expansive. I think that when we had talked about the book, my experience reading it was, there’s a sort of division in the book, not even halfway but maybe, that it felt like the first part of the book was this inhale, and it became this sort of constriction, and then it was just this rush of an exhale outward. I think that part of that inhale was gather all the stories and internalizing and pushing it back out. And it literally happens in the book. The character moves out of the village. But it also becomes a more narrow lens. It becomes her. So it became sort of the collective to the individual.

SM: I also think that the reason the perspective works—that’s the kind of thing that I would chase an author about—but the whole book is about storytelling, you know, and so she’s telling the story of what happens to her husband. She’s not there, but she’s telling the story as she sees it and it either is the way it happens or it isn’t, but it doesn’t matter because the whole book is about how you make it true by telling the story. So, you know, because it’s part of the conceit of the entire novel, it just works.

TG: So you’d seen the short stories, and based on the short stories, you were ready, you wanted to see the manuscript. How did you work together? Were you saying, “When am I going to see the manuscript?” Or how does that relationship work? And then, once you saw the manuscript, what was the give and take between you?

RA: It wasn’t that long. We met, I think, for the first time in maybe . . . December. And then I came back to New York again in January, or . . . Is that right? No, we just . . . Did we meet only once before?

PM: I think we did.

RA: Yeah. So, anyway, I felt like, “Oh! This is the person. This is the person.” There wasn’t really much of a question. So, then, I think it was the middle of April that I sent the manuscript. So it wasn’t that long. I knew that I was in the sort of end zone, and I also had a good little space of time where I had nothing else that I needed to be doing, and I worked just all day and all night. I worked really, really hard for those few months to get all of the things done that were left and to make the new point-of-view hold together and have it be good. And then I think we . . . it was only a couple of weeks, maybe a month, before it went out.

PM: Yeah.

RA: So we went back and forth a couple of times, but it was sort of mostly small, kind of housekeep-y stuff.

PM: So the collection was finished, and in the interim of receiving the novel manuscript, we were sending the stories out, including one submission to The New Yorker that they acquired an entire year later. Literally, a year after I submitted that story, they acquired it.

SM: But it was perfect timing because—

PM: The book was about to come out!

SM: The book was about to come out, so The New Yorker, you know, anointed her as we were wanting the novel, so it was good.

PM: I wish I had more in that timing; I think it’s really just the pile of manuscripts that they go through.

SM: Yeah, yeah.

PM: Yeah, so the stories were ready, and then the novel came in, and we went out with it pretty quickly because I think we sold it in April.

RA: Yeah, yeah, something like that.

PM: It also went very quickly within publishing, but in the same way that Ramona had to find an advocate for the work, I had to also find an advocate for the work on the publishing side. And there were people that were appropriate and responded very clearly to the book, and then others who, I think, also, didn’t know what to do with it. And that was okay. It’s okay for somebody not to get it.

RA: And that’s not unusual, right?

PM: And it’s not unusual at all, yeah. So then it was really finding the right advocate for it, and then we got lucky that Sarah was behind it as well.

TG: So when you’re looking for that advocate and you’re describing the book, how were you describing the book?

PM: I think I just set the scene of this isolated village and this plane flying over mountains, a bomb going up, and this body washing down the river and coming up on shore of this village, and then the story that unfolds from there. I mean, I really . . . I went for the narrative. And I did not pitch it as a Holocaust book. I was very sort of careful not to do that because I think that there’s this kind of reductive thing that happens when you say the word “Holocaust,” that people think, “Oh, it’s going to be heavy, it’s going to be sad, I’ve read this before, what more is there to say?” And I knew that this book was doing something new in the way it was telling the story. And the Holocaust was happening offstage. I mean, there’s a very obviously devastating moment, when the soldiers move into this village, and changes the whole world of these characters, but it wasn’t following what you might sort of assume you know of a typical narrative that you’ve heard. So I was very careful in pitching not to . . . I was locating it in place. When we were doing the jacket copy for the book, we were going back and forth about how much to reveal to the reader about, sort of, the time frame. We had to place it in time in history, but we also needed it to be the story independent of that history.

SM: Yeah, yeah, I mean, it’s not . . . like you just said, if you call it a Holocaust book, it sounds like it’s going to be historically accurate, and it sounds like it’s going to be dark. And though there’s a lot of threatening going on in this book, it’s actually a book about hope, and it’s a book about vision, and so you don’t want to define it in those terms. But, yes, you do need to place it in history.

TG: So once you had the manuscript, what did your editing look like, and did your editing with Ramona differ from editing that you do with other writers?

SM: Yeah, I talked a little about this at the Q&A earlier. Editing varies greatly from author to author and book to book—and even book to book with the same author, at times, just because of what the work is, or what they’re doing, what they’re struggling with, what they’re not struggling with. Sometimes it’s really on the line level, and it’s touching every sentence. Sometimes it’s reorganizing it or cutting it or adding a character, taking away a character; sometimes it’s really like that. Ramona had it all figured out for the most part. She really . . . I would never mess with Ramona’s sentences. [laughs] Maybe I condensed here or there, but mostly it was just a matter of making sure . . . You know, my job as an editor is largely to give the author a sort of map of my reading experience, and so if I was confused here, you know, I might say, “This would have made it clearer for me, but it doesn’t really matter that you do it the way I just suggested, it’s that you understand that I was confused there, and you can fix it however you want.” So it was just making sure that everything added up.

PM: I think that was really useful, after we had worked together on it, also then to get Sarah’s perspective because I think that one of the things that, when we were getting it ready for submission . . . There’s a tricky thing, which is like, if you pull the wrong thread, everything unravels. And so you have to be precise in what you’re doing. And it was sort of . . . I liked that you said that it was, with Sarah, about logic because I think that the questions that you were able to ask, kind of going into it, were like, “Okay, does A actually lead to B? To C? To D?” and kind of close those holes, or knot it tighter where it needed to be. But because it’s such a story that is based in fable and storytelling, there was a threat of undermining the structure at any turn, really. I mean, it was sort of this precariously balanced structure of the book that you couldn’t press too hard on it because you’d go through the other side.

TG: So, Ramona, were you ever in a situation where you had to make an argument for why you were doing something the way you were doing it?

RA: I don’t think so. I don’t remember having to do that. No, I felt . . . I’m lucky that I have such good readers who understood what I was trying to do from the beginning, and we were all very much working on the same thing. So I felt just hugely grateful to have people who hadn’t seen it before and were seeing it now and could tell me what it felt like and what was happening and where it was confusing and where it was holding up. And that, after having worked on it mostly by myself all that time, it was like, “Oh! Hi! Thanks! Welcome!”

PM: It’s also just different from my perspective of selling a book and Sarah’s perspective of editing a book. So my only role is to get it into the shape that it can sell, right? And then once that happens, then I sort of recede from the relationship, and then the editor and author interaction sort of moves the book forward. So even . . . We submitted the manuscript without the prologue or the letter at the front. I just felt very sure that we needed to get into the story, but sort of said, like, “Once it’s sold, you know, we can put it back in. You can do whatever you want.” And in fact, it went back in. I mean, I think it was something that you asked to be brought to the front. So that process just shifted from sale through editing.

TG: Ramona, is your grandmother still alive?

RA: She is, yes.

TG: So I’m assuming she’s read this?

RA: She has.

TG: What was her reaction to it, and did she recognize her own stories in it?

RA: I think she does, yeah. I think she’s really proud of me. I’m her only grandchild, so she’s got to be. [laughs] I think she also really recognizes the idea that a story that’s being told stays alive, and if I wasn’t going to keep telling it, she was the end. My dad is not going to keep this one going. So I think she was really appreciative of that. Right before the book came out, I was sort of nervous, and I asked her what her parents—who are sort of the idea for the main characters—would have thought, and she said, “Oh, are you kidding me? They would have been so happy that you care and that you wanted to try this and make a world for them to live in.” So she’s been great. And she’s—I was saying this before, too—she’s also a very prototypical Jewish grandmother, and worrying is her occupation. That’s what she does all day long, and she loves it, and she’s very good at it. So having the book come out leaves lots of opportunity for worrying about things. Everything could go wrong at any time, so really it was like the best gift I could give her. [laughs]

TG: Lena is based on your great-grandmother.

RA: Yes.

TG: So, I briefly talked about this earlier . . . so Lena is adopted by her aunt and uncle in the story, but this is actually what happened with your great-grandmother?

RA: Yes.

TG: Explain that story.

RA: Yeah, so, my great-grandmother’s parents—they had a . . . she had a whole bunch of siblings—and her mother’s brother didn’t have . . . they couldn’t have children. And so they just gave them one of their children, which was a thing that people did. That was part of the story that was told to me as if that was no big deal. The notes were always like, “And she learned to sew, and she had elocution lessons and learned Polish . . . ” And it was like, “Wait, wait, wait, back up. They just gave her away? That doesn’t seem weird at all?” But actually, as in the book, they took the sister first, but in real life, they returned her because she was too stupid. And I just couldn’t write that—it was too sad! So I made her too big.

TG: So this is one of my favorite parts of the book, and—I’m sorry, this question may be incoherent because I haven’t quite figured out how to ask it. We talked about this earlier, but this is one of my favorite parts of the book, and it’s after Lena has been adopted by her uncle Hirsch and her aunt Kayla, and Kayla’s not altogether there, and so Lena has to grow up; I mean, she has to start from infancy again and grow up again. So the part—this passage in the book, and it’s a few pages—is the part in which Lena is being given words—the objects around her, her uncle Hirsch is starting to name objects around her, and she’s greedy for these words because she’s keeping them because now she can use them. And so this . . . just beautiful three or four pages in which the world is being named for her, and as she’s acquiring these words, the weight of them starts to . . . Well, I . . . You finish this, and then I’ll ask my question.

RA: They’re sort of walking through the village, and her new parents are giving her all the words and naming things, and as they go, they start to get a little heavier and lower to the ground, and eventually they have to sit down. They can’t keep going under the weight of the world around them. So that’s kind of what happens.

TG: And then that’s followed by a passage in which the committee—I can’t remember the full name of the committee . . . 

RA: The Committee for What We Have and Where We Have It.

TG: So they’re listing the tangible items in the village, and then it moves to the intangible. This little section has the naming of things, attaching a name to the world around us, and then it has cataloging of things. And I wanted to ask you just about the importance of that in this story, in a story that is about the birth of a world, where that fits in in this story.

RA: I was thinking about it a lot and imagining, “What if you were starting over? What if you were just entering a place and you were in charge of it?” And I think the first thing that humans do is you sort of take inventory. You figure out what you have, and you figure out where you have it, and you name it, and you give it a value. And that process is so much of how we do everything we do. My husband is a scientist and that’s his whole job—is cataloging things and naming them and assigning a value and figuring out how they do what they do. I just . . . I like that in the world, and I love lists, and I love names, and I love just the words themselves, so I gravitate towards that anyway. But I was thinking about that especially in this world. And then thinking about the same sort of counterweight of that, of the freedom that it gives you to have language and to name things and to be kind of in control of your environment. But then there you are, and you’re responsible for all of it, and you have to keep track of it, and if something starts to be depleted, you have to know what to do, and if something goes missing, you have to know what to do. And all of that is kind of a responsibility that the villagers . . . In that scene, they’re acquiring it in sort of a small and personal way, but it happens otherwise, too.

TG: It’s marvelous.

RA: Thank you.

TG: I think I read this in one of the interviews that you’ve done—you’ve done many, many interviews, which is fantastic—but I really liked your answer to this, and you may not answer the same way, which is wonderful as well. [laughs] But it was, I think, the Penn Center was asking you about advice that you’d give to emerging writers. I’d like if you could talk about that.

RA: Sure. Well, the first thing is: read all the time. That’s the most important. But the second thing that I think about a lot is just to write . . . do you. Write your work. Don’t write . . . if someone else can do it, writing is really hard, bless their hearts. Let them take care of it. You do the thing that you can’t not do. And a story that you would write, or a poem that you would write, whatever it is, even if no one ever read it, then you would still be grateful that you had gotten to live with that and gotten to be there in that world and make those sentences, and I think that the work that you make is much more interesting if you cared about it. And really cared about it and didn’t think, like . . . I mean, I have thought sometimes, especially before, but even now, like, “But what would be a good book that somebody would want me to write?” And then I get a good idea. I did this when I received a little fellowship when I finished graduate school, and I got this idea for a nonfiction book that I would write, and I would research on this round-the-world trip, and I had a whole plan about it. And I think it was a good idea. And halfway through the trip, I realized that I wanted to read the book, but I didn’t want to write it at all. And that was the problem. So . . . just let go of those things that you feel, like, some sort of [responsibility] for. Or that you feel like you should or that somebody might want, and do the thing that is yours to do.

TG: That’s what you have an emotional connection to . . . ?

RA: Yeah, yeah. Another good way to put it: Jim Shepard, who is a great writer, many of you probably know him, he says, “Follow your weird.” I love that.

TG: So, PJ, I have the same question for you. What advice would you give emerging writers as well?

PM: I would also repeat read. Read as much as you can, and I would add, “Buy it in hardcover.” [laughs] Even further, if you’re writing short stories, buy short stories because you’re the only ones that are buying them—the people that are writing them. So, yes, read and read and read some more, and then write. Allow it to be something for you and not necessarily for others. And I think it has to be something that is yours before it can be somebody else’s. And, you know, I have many writers that I work with that have written things that are in drawers, and that’s not shameful. It’s part of the process, and sometimes you are able to write something and have it done and have it ready to go, but other times it’s just something that needs to be written so you can write something else. So I would also just say be patient with yourself.

SM: We’re all saying the same thing. I’m amazed, though, at how many young writers I meet who tell me how much they write, and when I ask what they like to read, they don’t have an answer. So you can’t just write, you have to read. And I think you should read what you love, but you should also read outside of that. You should ask people that you respect for suggestions and try to broaden what you read, but then also figure out what style you love and who you want to be as a writer. And don’t write it to be published, write it because you need to write and want to write it. And yeah, most people don’t publish their first thing. You should almost, you know, write your first book and then write your second book, and then maybe you’ll publish both of them, but . . . Yeah, and write. You have to write, I think, every day. I mean, you can’t call yourself a writer if you’re not actually writing.

TG: Are you writing every day?

RA: Mostly, yes. Some days . . . I have a two-year-old, so, you know, some days . . . 

SM: I didn’t mean literally every day. Ramona, you’re not a writer anymore!

RA: [laughs] It’s all done. I’m cut off! But I do. I do really try to do that. And I notice that when I stop, when I take a break for something, it’s so much harder to start again. Sometimes—I mean, taking a break—my method is to go back and forth between longer stuff and shorter stuff, so I’m always working on short stories, even when I’m working on a novel, which . . . I’m doing both of those right now. And I find that I’m working along on the novel, and I get somewhere, and I’m like, “Okay, so this is what this is.” And then I come up against a wall, and I’m like, “Okay, I don’t know what to do.” First of all, go for a walk, try again. But then, if that doesn’t work, then I’ll put it down for a little while, but I don’t like to be idle because I think it makes me . . . well, it makes me nervous, and it also makes me less good at what I do. So then I go, and I work on a short story and try to figure that out, and when I get to the wall there, then I go back to the novel, and I think they sort of rescue each other because by the time I come back, I’m like, “Okay, I can figure out one thing to do here, at least.”

TG: So in between the going back and forth between the novel and the short story, are you reading all along the way as well?

RA: Yes, always. Yeah.

TG: And do you ever find the author has insinuated [into your work] . . . ?

RA: I feel like people are always worried about that. I remember I taught a class at Irvine, and the person who was . . . It was in a different department, so a new person was kind of supervising, and she looked at my syllabus, and one of the assignments was to imitate one of the writers we’d read. And she was really nervous about it and was not comfortable at all and said, “I don’t like that, I think we need to be encouraging them to find their own voices.” And like, that’s how you do it. You have to see what happens, to try on some different things and see what it feels like. And you will fail at imitation. It won’t work. It can’t work, you know, it just can’t. You have your own mind. But you kind of find your way through by letting those voices get inside of you. So I don’t worry—ever—about trying to be somebody else. And I do feel like, instead, that I try to be influenced by everything I read in some way and to let influence be a good thing and let it—even things that are very different from what I write or that are thematically different or language-level different, whatever it is—to just let it all kind of find a place, and the more the better, and that’s part of where the accumulation is good because you’ve just got a lot of different voices with you all the time.

TG: I also read that you write in “blocks” so that you move your blocks around. What was your first block that came to you, and did it end up in the final?

RA: Yeah, I think probably so. I think . . . I’m trying to remember exactly. But the first . . . the whole “new world” thing didn’t occur until the second draft. So the first block I think actually was probably that adoption section. So I knew that the character was going to be adopted by her aunt and uncle, so the first section was all about the family as it was, and then the transfer. I’m sure it’s changed from the beginning, but the essential part of it is the same.

TG: So as you were writing, it’s not a matter of writing the first sentence and then . . . an act of faith is going to carry you through your writing?

RA: Oh, Lord no. No. I can’t. There are those writers who write one sentence, and when it’s perfect then they move onto the next sentence, and when that’s perfect, they write the third sentence, and that is amazing to me. And I do not work that way at all. So, yeah, I make a big mess, figure out where the heartbeat is, and then start moving things around.

TG: Thank you. That was a wonderful conversation.

RA: Thank you!  end  

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