Monday, February 28, 2011

A 1/2 Dozen for Elizabeth Stuckey-French

Today, a 1/2 Dozen
with novelist and short story writer
Elizabeth Stuckey-French

who talks about
Radioactive cocktails,
Criticism and his nasty big brother, Rejection,
War versus Peace (in War and Peace)
and hooha book parties.


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?

Not a singular moment, but, unlike with other projects I’ve started, I remember stumbling upon the book that started it all--Eileen Welsome’s The Plutonium Files: America’s Secret Medical Experiments in the Cold War (1999). Welsome’s book, which began as a series of articles in the Albuquerque Tribune, exposed the abuses of patients kept secret by government scientists for almost fifty years. Many of these experiments were shocking and hideous, but the one that really got to me was done on low-income pregnant women in Nashville, TN. Their doctors gave them prenatal vitamin drinks that were actually radioactive “cocktails.” Many of these unsuspecting guinea pigs and their children developed health problems, including cancer. As a novelist I kept trying to imagine how these women must’ve felt when, years later in the early 1990s, they learned the truth about the “health drinks” they’d been given. (There was a government hearing on these experiments during the 1990s, but the day the President Clinton came on TV to talk about them was the same day OJ rode around in his Ford Bronco on the interstate with the cops and media following him. Guess which story trumped the other?) I also wondered how the doctors and their staff justified their behavior to themselves. They weren’t all “bad” people. Arrogant and monomaniacal perhaps, but not necessarily evil. Certainly the Cold War offered them rationalizations, but there was more to it than that. I wanted to imagine what might have gone on in their heads, and how they lived with themselves afterwards. This book is my attempt to answer these questions. But my story isn’t bleak. The process of writing The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady taught me that humor, and even love, are possible no matter how dark the situation.

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?)

I can’t imagine being married to someone who doesn’t love to read. (The fact that my first husband never willingly cracked a book could have been a major reason for our subsequent divorce.) I’m now married to a wonderful man who just happens to also be a writer. He writes non-fiction, so we’re not directly competitive, which helps. Neither Ned nor I were writing when we met 25 years ago at a Purdue English Department party, but we started talking about books we loved from the get-go. We got married and stumbled into writing—and kids, and everything else, together. Nowadays, we’re always reading each other’s work and able to talk through our writing dilemmas at any odd time, which is such a treat. Of course, we’re both struggling for time to write, and that could be a drawback in a relationship, but we both understand the necessity of having time to write, which to a non-writer, might seem merely like time to be self-indulgent or a way to avoid chores and annoying people and functions. Not that there’s anything wrong with avoiding those things.

Criticism. It’s part of the territory. How do you handle it? Is this the way you’ve always handled it?

Criticism might be hard to listen to, but you can either try to absorb it, turn it into something helpful, or go off and get yourself another drink. Rejection is Criticism’s nasty big brother. He’ll crash your party and knock you flat. But he’s family, just like Criticism. You can’t get rid of either one of them, and they’ll toughen you up.
People who end up getting published and have a writing “career” are the people who can get back up after being flattened. Period. It’s not that getting knocked down doesn’t hurt, but somehow, someway, you have to find a way to get up. Take to your bed for 24 hours, howling with self-pity, but then get up. Scramble up, lurch up, crawl a while before you get up, but you have to get up and keep at it. I didn’t know I was the sort of person who could do this until the first time I was absolutely crushed by a workshop leader at a summer writing festival at Indiana University--a woman who apparently enjoyed crushing people. I went back to my hotel room and cried for a good long while, then I thought “I’ll show you, bitch,” and bounced out of bed. I went to the closing banquet with red eyes and a fierce attitude. Her comment when she saw me at the banquet was—in a disapproving voice—“You always look so neat and tidy.” This off-the-wall comment helped me to understand that her nastiness came from a deep well of bitterness that had nothing to do with me. Well, it took a few years, but I guess I did show her. Often times, rejection is much more impersonal than this, but it still hurts and I need to regroup, collect myself and move on. I do this, much more often than I’d like, because writing is something I really really care about.

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

I read all kinds of stuff, but at the moment I’m reading, very slowly, War and Peace. I belong to a reading group connected with Books on the Nightstand, a fantastic weekly podcast about books and reading. As a group we’re reading War and Peace and supporting each other with a discussion board, pep talks, helpful related info, etc. I was always intimidated by the idea of reading it, but I’m finding the novel fascinating. The Peace part is all parties and social conventions and loveless marriage and politeness and luxurious homes, and the War part is horrid weather, chaos, randomness, maiming and death and nobody ever knows what the hell is going on. So far I like the War part better. And I’ve recently stumbled onto a British writer I’d never heard of before but now love--Jane Gardam. She writes hilariously poignant little masterpieces. I’ve finished God on the Rocks and Old Filth and am fixing to read The Man in the Wooden Hat.

What’s your take on touring?

As a famous writer (Lorrie Moore) once said about her book, “The book is dead, the author is dead, but the book tour goes on and on...” This is how a book tour can feel, even if one is lucky enough, in this day and age, to get any kind of book tour at all. There’s so much anxiety involved in book tours, and putting on the writer persona can be exhausting. I’m an introvert, and I like being at home with my family best of all, but I also adore meeting readers and bookstore people. They are the best kind of people. There are so many horror stories about book touring. One of my favorites is Brett Lott’s account of a reading he was flown to in a private jet after his novel was designated an Oprah book pick, only to find that about the only person who showed up at his reading bought a copy of his book for her dog, who was in her purse. My first book came out in 2000, and upon publication I was whisked off to the Whitney in a limo, with some other authors, for a big hooha book party. Even at the time I thought, I bet this is rather unusual for a first book, and if course I was right. Those days seem to be over. For my new book there weren’t any big New York hoohas, but I’m doing plenty of readings, because I believe that meeting actual people has value. You just never know who you might meet and the ripple effects of such meetings. But now that we have social networking and book blogs galore…do we still need them? Jury’s still out on that.

Writing Tip #17 for Aspiring Writers – or #47 or #2. Your pick.

Tip #17: Don’t compare your publication success to those of other writers. That way lies madness.

Elizabeth Stuckey-French is the author of a novel, Mermaids on the Moon, a collection of short stories, The First Paper Girl in Red Oak, Iowa, and, with Janet Burroway, Writing Fiction: A Guide to the Narrative Craft. Her new novel, The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady, has just been published. Her short stories have appeared in The Normal School, Narrative Magazine, The Atlantic Monthly, Gettysburg Review, Southern Review, Five Points, and The O’Henry Prize Stories 2005. She was awarded a James Michener Fellowship and has won grants from the Howard Foundation, the Indiana Arts Foundation, and the Florida Arts Foundation. She teaches fiction writing at Florida State University.