Sunday, January 25, 2015

1/2 Dozen for Angelina Mirabella

Here is a half-dozen questions for Angelina Mirabella whose debut THE SWEETHEART (Simon & Schuster) has just hit stores. Pulitzer-Prize winner Robert Olen Butler calls the book "Smart, funny, and poignant..." I've started the novel and can attest, Mirabella is an amazing young talent, and this interview offers some wonderful insights into a marriage of two writers, motherhood and writing, and the joy of first and last chapters.  

Here we go:

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?

There were two moments, actually. First, I read THE NATURAL. I admired so much about it. Roy Hobbs is a fabulously flawed character, and the book's central message--a second chance is no guarantee of a happy ending--is one that struck me as inherently true. But, like other readers before me, I had a beef with the female characters. One is an angel and one is a devil. That is a problem. Then I watched some really non-nutritious bit of television--if it wasn't VH1's I LOVE THE '80's, it was something like that--and I learned that, at one point in her career, Wendi Richter could command more money than Hulk Hogan. That got me thinking about wrestling's potential as a subject. It's fun in and of itself--full of primal screams and primary-colored Lycra--but it also gave me a way to think more about good girls and bad girls. Faces and heels are the dominant personae in wrestling. I liked the idea of building a novel around two women who had adopted those personae but were infinitely more complicated out of the ring. 

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

I'm on both sides of this equation: my husband is also a writer. This has its complications, but mostly, it works. As long as you are sharing equally in the pleasures and challenges of family life and protecting the other's writing time as ferociously as your own, it is a helpful partnership. The trickiest bit, at least for me, is getting and giving feedback. Jack is a better reader of my fiction than I am of his, smarter and braver, and that can feel like a burden. Before I started THE SWEETHEART, I started another novel. I had been thinking about a wrestling novel, but I had this idea that your first novel was supposed to be a sort-of practice novel, something slim and semi-autobiographical. I took a week off of work and wrote sixty pages. At the end of the week, I gave the pages to Jack, and he told me he thought I was making a mistake and should just write the wrestling novel. I made a gin and tonic and took it in the backyard to cry into it because I didn't even want to be in the same building as him, I was so pissed. But he was right. It took me a while to come around to it, but I'm so glad I did. I guess that's my advice: be smart, be brave, and be prepared to sleep on the couch. 
Have you learned to strike a balance between your writing life and the other aspects of your life?

When you're a mother who writes, it is very easy to let family life take over and to let your writing fall to the wayside. Time and energy are finite, and children demand a lot of both. If there's any left over, you want to make sure you are spending it on something worthwhile. There were times when I wasn't convinced that writing was the right investment of my limited resources. But eventually, I realized that if I wanted my children to set lofty goals for themselves and do the hard work to meet those goals, I was going to have to model it for them. By deciding my novel was important for them, I made it important for me. To get it done, I became flexible about how, when, and where I worked. There were days when I wrote with my laptop on my knees in the stairwell, because from there I could keep an eye on my children while they played. I couldn't always find the time to get to the computer, but I found the time to think about my novel every day. That way, it stayed alive until I could work on it again. And sometimes, you just have to do everything at once. Late one night, when I finally figured out how to end my novel, one of the two rare writing times when I felt like I was on fire, my youngest toddled into my room wanting to nurse. I popped her on, took a moment to stroke her curls, and then got back to work. It was so satisfying and empowering to have both of those things at once, to know that I could make art while nurturing and staying connected to my child.

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

I admire writers who can create a character out of a place, but I am not one of those writers. One of my earliest writing challenges was understanding my own relationship to place and finding a way for that to be part of my fiction. I grew up in a military family, so I moved around a lot in my childhood. That rootlessness felt like a disadvantage. I didn't have any fierce attachments to place, and there was no place in the world that I knew well enough to evoke in a way that would teach anybody anything. Eventually, I realized that a character's relationship to place didn't have to be cozy or even knowing. My feelings of rootlessness, estrangement, and bewilderment belonged in fiction, too. It doesn't surprise me that I created a protagonist who never lingers anywhere very long and rarely feels like she belongs where she is, whose relationship to any given place is little more than her immediate surroundings--a gym, a hotel room, a seat on the bus, a booth in the diner.  

What's your worst writerly habit?

Procrastination. I am very good at finding things to do that are not writing. This is one way that being in a relationship with another writer has been helpful. My husband has a superhuman work ethic. He has an academic job, his family responsibilities, and a side project co-creating two series of infant board books (COZY CLASSICS and STAR WARS: EPIC YARNS) with his brother, Holman, yet he always makes time for his fiction. Early in our marriage, when he would spend long hours at the computer, I would mope and say, "Can't we do things normal couples do like watch television or have sex?" And he'd say, "Sorry, I'm writing. But I'll get back to you later on the sex." After so many months of that, you start working on your own novel just because you have nothing better to do.

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?)

Almost everything about my novel was difficult. It took eight years to get from the first word to the final draft (with some breaks for babies and other life events). In all that time, there were maybe two days when I felt possessed, when I was writing in a furious manic state because after many, many shitty, unsatisfying attempts, I was finally onto something. On those days, I finished the first chapter and the last chapter. Those are my favorite chapters of the book, and I'm sure there's a relationship between my assessment of them and the state I was in when I wrote them. But I couldn't tell you if it's because of the emotions I associate with those moments or because they really are the most inspired chapters. What I can say with certainty is that I couldn't make a novel out of just a first chapter and a last chapter. If I waited for the days when I felt like that, I'd almost never write.

Angelina Mirabella received her Master of Arts in English (Creative Writing) from Florida State University in 2003. Her work has appeared in The Southern ReviewThe Mid-American Review, and The Greensboro Review. In 2007, she attended the Sewanee Writers’ Conference as a Tennessee Williams scholar. She lives in Ithaca, New York, with her husband and two daughters. The Sweetheart is her first novel.