Tuesday, January 11, 2011

A 1/2 Dozen for Tatjana Soli

Here's a 1/2 Dozen for novelist Tatjana Soli

who gives advice to those who've fallen in love with a writer

"...Don't take on the role of guilting the person into being normal. Don't expect dinner parties, or in fact dinner on any regular basis...."

how to survive the early years of a writer's life when you're "boomeranged with rejections," and ...

how one singular photograph inspired a novel.

Current obsessions -- literary or otherwise. (I prefer otherwise.)

Travel is a big one. My husband and I are workaholics — when you are in the arts you kind of have to be to keep the bills paid — so we didn't travel for many years. Now we are making that a priority. I don't know that it has a direct connection to my writing, but the excitement I feel planning and then traveling makes me feel like a child again. Luckily or unluckily, we can still only do it in small doses so the excitement isn't wearing off. Lately I have developed a love of cooking, which I refused to do for years. Not day in, day out, but tackling a complicated recipe once in a while. I love baking! If I see a great picture of a dessert, I usually am tempted to try it. I am obsessed by all things Italian. Clothes, wine, and especially food. Southern style, with lots of seafood and tomato sauce. My dream would be to rent a place In Rome and live there a whole year.

What’s your advice to someone who’s fallen in love with a writer?

Run! Seriously, it's hard to be a writer because of the isolation, and we rely on our support network heavily. I think you have to be the type of person who is not threatened when your loved one wants to go off alone, when she is lost in the world of her book. She will come back up for air and be very happy to see you. Don't take on the role of guilting the person into being normal. Don't expect dinner parties, or in fact dinner on any regular basis. But the good parts (this is self-serving) is that most writers I've met are tremendously open to the world, are empathetic to all kinds of people. Most writers are like big kids; it keeps life fun. Just make sure to gently punch down the ego regularly (like bread dough).

What's your advice to a writer who's looking for a lifelong partner? Any particularly useful traits to suggest in said partner? (Do you want to tell us a brief love story here?)

Make sure he cooks! My husband is a really good cook, and boy has that gotten us through a lot. When we first met, he brought me and my roommates a box of his homemade chocolate-chip cookies. These weren't just regular cookies, they were fantastic! Love at first bite.

Although we all might crave excitement, the writing life is pretty prosaic. In other words, the work isn't going to get done unless you are planted in that chair every day. Finding someone to enjoy the routine of every day was vital to me. My husband was a businessman when we first met, and twenty years later, he is a full-time painter, so I think we have influenced each other. We both work at home, we hike with our dog, we cook and have friends over. A simple but sustaining life. Although it's not always easy, we both are doing what we love.

I despise the pervasive myth of inspiration – the idea that an entire book can exist simply because of an accumulation of inspired ideas – but I don’t deny that inspiration exists. There are things that have no other explanation. Was there a singular moment of inspiration for this book?

The Lotus Eaters was my first novel, and if I had been smarter about publishing, I don't think I would have been brave enough to write it. This was definitely a case of ignorance is bliss. I had such low expectations of ever publishing it, that I allowed myself to write something that was inspired by a single picture of a female photographer in Vietnam. The subject matter, the body of work already written about the war, was extremely daunting, and yet, I had never read an account like the one I wanted to write. I was obsessed by the war, but I had no intention of ever writing about it myself. But that picture haunted me. What was it like to be her? So that was the beginning.

Some writers hate to write. Other writers love being engaged in the creative process. How would you describe your relationship with the page?

In the early years, it was definitely a slog. I would only work to fill my quota, either pages per day, or amount of time. I think it was because I had such high expectations that everything would be perfect, first time out. You can drive yourself crazy that way. Or become blocked. I'm much easier on myself now. It's all part of the process. And the routine of writing becomes fixed in you. That's what takes all those years. Now, it is so second-nature that I feel jittery when I'm not working. For example, when Lotus Eaters got accepted for publication, I was very distracted by all the things that a writer needs to do to help a book make its way — website, blogs, etc. Now that I'm more used to the routine, I'm balancing that part of the business with writing. I'm working on a short story now, and also researching a third novel. It makes me feel less anxious, more grounded.

Pep talk (or bootie-kicking) for the downhearted writer. Let fly.

Elizabeth Gilbert wrote an essay about the creative life that I always pass out to my students at the end of my class. The sentence that was a wake-up call to me was that the world doesn't owe you a living because you want to be a writer. It's so easy to complain — about the unfairness of the industry, about publishers and agents, on and on. You somehow have to come to this delicate balance of having absolute belief in your work while at the same time being humble about expecting the world to embrace that work. I think that's how you avoid bitterness at any stage of your career.

When my novel first went out and boomeranged back with rejections, I was devastated. I seriously thought of doing something else with my life. For about a week. And then I thought, hell, there is nothing else I want to do. So I spent half a year writing short stories, that very lucrative activity. I stopped telling people I was a writer because I didn't want that feeling of expectation, of pressure: What have you published? I just wrote. I still got plenty of rejections on short stories, but I simply checked those places off, and sent the stories out to others. I separated the creativity part from the publishing part. If I felt I did something good, I didn't let the rejections take that away from me. All of those hard lessons learned are still serving me every day.

What’s your reading life like? Do you have any current favorites or sleepers that may have flown under our radar?

If I could clone myself, one of me would do nothing but read. The saddest part of being a writer is that you have less time to read. Especially if you teach. But when I travel, for vacations or flying around promoting the book, I binge read. I always tell my students that you can't write if you don't read (you would be surprised how many try to). Since I've been spending way too much time in bookstores, I have been reading all the "big" books that came out this year. I had a stack, plus kindle, on my trip to Asia this last winter. I always try to balance my reading between novels and short stories. But the surprises were the most exciting. One that 's been in my TBR stack, blew me away: The Size of the World, by Joan Silber. It's described as linked short stories, but it has the breadth of a novel. It a wonderful book about travel and identity. Another great short story collection that I read over the summer was The Bigness of the World, by Lori Ostlund. Again, a book about travel, but Ostlund was such a wonderful voice, so smart and yet funny, I devoured the book. Robert Stone, a master of both novels and short stories, had a great collection out this year, Fun with Problems, but you should also read his earlier collection with it, Bear and His Daughter. An astonishing novel came out this year, In the Company of Angels, by Thomas E. Kennedy, that's beautiful, profound, disturbing, everything you want in great literature.

Tatjana Soli is the author of The Lotus Eaters, a 2010 New York Times Notable Book. Born in Salzburg, Austria, she attended Stanford University and the Warren Wilson MFA Program. Her stories have appeared in The Sun, StoryQuarterly, Confrontation, Gulf Coast and North Dakota Quarterly among other publications. Her work has been twice listed in the 100 Distinguished Stories in Best American Short Stories and nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She was awarded the Pirate’s Alley Faulkner Prize, the Dana Award, finalist for the Bellwether Prize, and received scholarships to the Sewanee Writers’ Conference and Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. She lives with her husband in Orange County, California.