Friday, October 23, 2009

Getting Below the Surface :An Interview with Elizabeth Graver

Elizabeth Graver will visit Chester College of New England on Wednesday, October 28. SO Good/Compass Rose staffer Alan Ferland had the opportunity to speak to her.

Alan Ferland: At what point in your life did you want to become a writer?

Elizabeth Graver: I grew up in a house full of books, and no television, so I was an avid reader from an early age, and also a kid with a very intense and elaborate fantasy life. As a girl, I played imaginary games, wrote, and drew pictures in nearly equal measure. I expressed a desire to be a writer from a very young age, around six, I think. I began writing more seriously when I became a teenager and playing with dolls was a terrible embarrassment; the life of my imagination shifted more intensely into writing then. After that, it was a slow, gradual process that involved many steps--writing for the self, writing in school, eventually writing toward publication. The context kept (and keeps) shifting. But the act itself--the writing, the making up of stories--has been part of how I make sense of the world for as long as I can remember.

AF: What do you consider to be inspiration for your writing?

EG: My inspiration comes, for individual pieces, from many different places: photographs, newspaper clippings, dreams, a voice, an image, sometimes (though not often) an event in real life. In a wider way, writing is most centrally about two things for me: words, which I adore--their sounds, their poetry, the way they can be braided into narrative; and emotion and psychology, getting below the surface. The act of writing itself is, I suppose, what generates the inspiration, the words as things I love to put together, and that lead me to new places.

AF: I read your short story, "The Mourning Door" in my Speculative Fiction class and was very much interested in the story's content. Have you always been a fiction writer, or do you stick more so with non-fiction?

I mostly write fiction, and I mostly write fairly realistic, psychological fiction, but that story is one of my stranger ones, playing as it does with the surreal. I could not have written that story as an essay, even though many of the things it engages with--infertility, modern medicine, science, biology, loss--are things an essay could take up. But I wanted a world whose strangeness could be signaled by, saying, the central character finding a little baby ear under the swing-set. I wanted to show the strangeness of reproduction and reproductive technology. Fiction that played with the borders of realism felt like the best way to do that.

AF: Is it ever possible for a story to be considered "done" on the first draft? Do you let your students workshop your own work?

EG: A story for me is never done on the first draft, though some of my stories come out closer to being finished than others. Sometimes it's a question of tweaking, editing, tightening. Other times, it's a question of knocking the house down to rebuilt it again. I often free-write with my students and share some work with them, but I've never had them workshop my own work; we are much too busy trying to fit in their work, and they

AF: In your short story collection, Have You Seen Me?, a few of your stories have maternal undertones. Did you draw from experience to create these pieces?

EG: Not in any direct, autobiographical way. I am a parent now, but my first daughter was born in 2000, my second in 2002, and Have You Seen Me? was written many years before that, in my early to mid-twenties. I love children; I baby-sat a lot; I have a mother; I am a daughter. So I guess that's experience in a way, but mostly, for me, writing is not about recording my own experience--it's about imagining, crossing thresholds into the experiences of my characters. I have to be interested in an urgent way, but I do not have to have, for example, been pregnant in order to write a story about a pregnant woman. If I need to know more, I do research. I make a lot of things up. I feel quite strongly that writers should not limit themselves to the autobiographical. Whose life is interesting enough? Not mine!

AF: What challenges do you face in both teaching and writing? How do you balance such a lifestyle?

EG: My life pulls me in many different directions, with writing, teaching, and parenting young kids all at the center. I love all those things. Sometimes they energize each other. Sometimes I need to put one aside to pay more attention to the other. I need to be patient, let the work develop slowly. Nothing is ever quite in balance, so for me it is more about learning to live with the disequilibrium and know that each thing will return, and that I need to do things to make that happen. A few examples: I left my family twice last year to go to Artists' Retreats for five days and do nothing but write; I left my writing this summer to spend seven weeks with my kids in Switzerland and do nothing but be with them and my husband, as a family, in a foreign place. When I was off writing, I missed my family, and when I was off with my family, I missed my writing, but the purity of not being divided in both those situations made it entirely worth it, and when I came back from my writing retreats, the kids were fine, and when I came back from Switzerland, my novel had not up and run away.

AF: Can you tell me a little more about your current project "Plants and their Children?"

EG: It's a strange sort of hybrid--a series of linked novellas or stories, I suppose, all set on the same small spit of land in Buzzards Bay, but spanning half a century and told from multiple points of view: that of a Scottish nanny caring for a child whose family spends summers on this Point; that of a wealthy young mother in the 50s; of her troubled son in 1970. It's about land, and ownership, and social class, and family as made up of bloodlines and caretakers and in-laws. It's probably the hardest book I've ever written in that what I am trying to capture is quite complicated, as is the relationship of the parts to the whole. It's taking me a long time, but I'm not in a rush and just hoping to get it right.

AF: What advice do you have for up and coming writers?

EG: Read, read, read.`12 Identify what conditions you need in order for your work to flourish (solitude or a cafe, a writers group, an MFA program, a cabin in the woods), and do what you can to create them. Be patient. Go out into the world and have adventures and crossings-over in which you enlarge your sense of the world and yourself.
Don't feel limited to just writing what you know (learn more, know more, imagine). Allow yourself to play--and then allow yourself to go back and revise, revise. E.L. Doctorow once wrote that "writing is like driving at night. You can only see as far as the headlights shine, but you can make the whole trip that way."

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