Why do you write?
This, to me, is like asking “Why do you breathe?” I can’t not write, and writing keeps me breathing on a regular basis. I write to try to carve clarity, and I hope create a bit of beauty and meaning, out of the raw chaos of lived experience.
What books do you read?
At the moment, lots of scholarly tomes related to theories of trauma and haunting, linked to an essay collection I’m co-editing on the Southern Gothic, and to the monograph I’m writing on race and slavery in the Early Atlantic. For pleasure: I love detective fiction, particularly novels set in Italy by authors such as Donna Leon and Lucretia Grindle.
What inspires you?
Nature; the wonders and the weirdness of family; sounds and accents and voices; incidents when I travel; the language of children, which is wonderfully direct and uncluttered with stale metaphors; old photographs; songs; paintings.
How did you know you wanted to be a writer and when?
I’ve been writing stories and telling stories as long as I can recall, from the age of about four. I wrote and directed a play when I was 8 years old called Rough Road Home, about intrepid pioneers. One scene required that I climb a chinaberry tree with the family cat and cast him out upon my cousin, whose line was “Eek! A wildcat!” She shrieked like a banshee.
How Do you deal with rejection?
Pretty well, actually. In this poeting racket, one has to have a high degree of sensitivity along with the hide of several rhinocerii.
Who are some writers you admire?
Where do I start! Among prose writers, Flannery O’Connor; the immortal William Faulkner; George Washington Cable; Mark Twain; Nathaniel Hawthorne. Among poets: Natasha Trethewey, a stunningly good Mississippi writer. Louise Erdrich, Denise Levertov, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman. W.H. Auden; Sally Evans.
Is writing the only artistic medium you do?
No…I enjoy painting with acrylics. My paintings aren’t exactly Immortal Art, but that feeling of being completely absorbed and in the flow does give me huge pleasure.
What would be some advice you would give to your younger self?
Don’t be so hard on yourself. And don’t imitate…find your own true voice, and go for it.
Do you have any advice for other writers?
Read good writers and learn from them. Believe in yourself…and persevere! I know someone (who will remain nameless) who submitted a screenplay to 86 agents. The 87th took it, and got him/her an advance of 100k plus a 3-book deal and film rights. Remember as well that great writers often weren’t critically acclaimed in their own lifetimes…the important thing is to write words that last, and that make us look at the world in new ways.
Also: listen to children…their language is wonderfully fresh, direct and uncluttered with stale metaphors..
What is your writing process?
For scholarly writing: once the research is done, I break the project into manageable chunks and set myself a target of X words per day, and stick to it relentlessly.
But poetry is a very different thing. I write when I feel the poems nibbling at my head and refusing to go away. And I write them on my laptop…it makes tinkering with line breaks so much easier. Wordsworth’s comment about emotion recollected in tranquillity rings very true…most of my poems come from a place of emotion, but then I try to pare them down to the bone. However, I’ve had to learn to avoid editing the life out of a poem! Still, that feeling one gets when a poem suddenly comes together is just about as good as it gets.