Thursday, April 21, 2011

A 1/2 Dozen for Leah Stewart

A 1/2 Dozen for novelist LEAH STEWART

who offers some smart-mouthed advice on love,

a beautiful tribute to A. Manette Ansay,

and FINALLY someone's taken me up on the question
about writers who shaped you because
you hated their work

and more ... Here goes.

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

Consider polygamy, so the two of you can marry someone with a steady income.

People always talk about the writers they aspired to emulate. I’d love to know the writers you most hated as you were coming up and how those tastes shaped you.

In my whole life, there's been nobody I've hated like I hated Thomas Hardy and John Steinbeck. Everybody rolls their eyes at the sentimental happy ending, but I've always felt like Steinbeck was married to the sentimental unhappy one. I don't know if I can articulate my reaction to him more clearly than that, not having read him in years and having hated him so viscerally when I did. Grapes of Wrath was the only book I was assigned to read at all three levels of education--high school, college, and grad school--and now the thought of it makes me shudder. As for Hardy, what I don't like about him is the whole "caught in the wheel of an unstoppable fate" thing. I'd much rather see characters make bad choices on their own, choices that tell us something interesting about their nature and human nature in general, then struggle like pinned butterflies before surrendering.

Have you learned to strike a balance between your writing life and the other aspects of your life?

My first thought on reading this was: Ha! I'll try to give a more complete answer. I lose track of things when I'm in the midst of a novel. Emails go unanswered, my house goes uncleaned. But I still manage to interact with my family and teach my classes, so I think I'm balancing the important things. When I'm between drafts or books, I usually do a lot of frantic catch-up. That's the place where I am now--sorting the outgrown clothes in my kids' closets, answering emails from four months ago.

Was there an extremely influential writing teacher who was impactful on your writing life?

A. Manette Ansay had an enormous impact on me. She came to Vanderbilt, where I was an undergrad, my senior year. The longtime fiction teacher, who'd been there since the Fugitives, was of the "you're a writer, you're not" model. He was encouraging, which of course is enormously helpful, but I'd never done an exercise, I'd never done a revision, I'd read very little contemporary fiction. I didn't even know what an MFA program was. Manette not only challenged me to move beyond the bounds of my instinctive approach to writing—to write in first person, to start a story with setting, which I usually ignored—she introduced me to writers like Lorrie Moore and Alice Munro, and encouraged me to go to a graduate program. I'll always be grateful to her, and I think about how she helped me often when trying to be a mentor to my own students.

Are you a writer of place? Is place always one of your main characters?

I've always said no to this question, but I'm not sure that's entirely accurate. I mentioned before that I had no natural inclination to write about place, and never did it before Manette suggested I try. I attribute this to my military-brat childhood--I never felt especially located anywhere, a feeling which persisted long into adulthood. But maybe since Manette's original challenge I've worked to compensate for this. The Memphis setting is very important to my first book, Body of a Girl, and the book I'm working on now has a great deal to do with Cincinnati and the characters' relationship to living here. I always set my books in a different place--Myth of You and Me is Boston and Gloucester and Oxford, Mississippi; Husband and Wife is Chapel Hill--and I do have a sense that those places shape the book in some crucial way.

What project of yours was the easiest writing of your life? And, flip-side, which one was the most like wrestling bears? (And could you tell before you started or did they turn on you, for better or worse?)

Husband and Wife was the easiest, because I was in the throes of life with a newborn and a toddler and I had a lot to say about that. So once I came up with the plot that would allow me to say it, the book came pretty quickly. The Myth of You and Me was horrible, horrible, horrible. I was under contract to an editor, and I wrote four different versions before she broke the contract. (In fairness to her, I had a hell of a time figuring out what that book was about. The first draft isn't recognizable as a draft of the finished book.) After that, I wanted to throw the book in the trash, or burn it in the yard, but my beloved agent Gail Hochman said, "Well, you could do that. Or I could try to sell it to someone else." Which she did—to Sally Kim, with whose help I finally got the book where I wanted it to be. Happy ending!

Could I tell? I don't know. In retrospect I should have been able to tell that the first draft of Myth would go badly, since I had so little idea of what the book was about when I started it. But it takes a certain amount of denial to get to the end of a novel.

Leah Stewart is the author of three novels, Body of a Girl, The Myth of You and Me, and Husband and Wife. The recipient of an NEA literature fellowship, she teaches in the creative-writing program at the University of Cincinnati.