Absurdly talented L.A. short fictionist (Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It) and sister of Portland Decemberist Colin. She appears 2 pm Saturday on the Powell’s stage and as part of the “State of the Story” panel with Trevor Houser, Mary Rechner and Lan Samantha Chang at 4 pm Saturday on the McMenamins stage.
What are your favorite themes to write about (or that you’re most guilty of rehashing)?
Love triangles, dangerous strangers and the accident of birth.
Name three books on your nightstand or shelf right now.
The Circus Fire by Stewart O’Nan, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell and Just Kids by Patti Smith.
What’s your personal writing ritual?
No candles. I have a MacBook Air, which I love. I have a chair that tilts back and I sit with the laptop in my lap. I used to have a desk that slid over the chair on an arm, but the Air is so light that I’ve stopped using the desk. I write first thing in the morning. I have breakfast before starting and stop for lunch when I start making things worse.
The most beautiful word in the English language is:
I don’t know. Not “slacks.” That’s the least beautiful.
What authors made you want to pick up a pen in the first place and why?
Anna Karenina is inspiring and amazing. Tom Robbins probably made me want to pick up a pen in the first place. I read Still Life With Woodpecker when I was 13 and it was life-changing. Also Joan Didion.
Name a book you think is highly overrated. Be honest.
Madame Bovary. I know that’s sacrilege. Sometimes I’ve come to love a book I couldn’t read in the past, so I might like it better now, but I found the passages making fun of people talking in a banal way to be just annoying, and I wished Emma Bovary would find something to do. Maybe that’s about my own quickness to be bored. But she drove me crazy.
The best piece of advice I ever got was…
To read big books, like Anna Karenina, that make writing seem important and sublime and difficult, and then to read smaller books that make you think you could do that.
What’s your literary guilty pleasure?
Lately I’ve been reading kids’ books, but I don’t feel guilty about it. They’re fantastic, an enormous pleasure. I revere Philip Pullman and loved Suzanne Collins’ Mockingjay trilogy and Rebecca Stead’s When You Reach Me and John Green and David Levithan’s Will Grayson, Will Grayson.
The closest I’ve ever come to quitting is…
After reading David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, I stopped writing for months because it was so clear to me that my brain wouldn’t do that, and if it wouldn’t do that, then why bother? At the same time, I fixed up a house, got very involved in how toilets work, and how to install door hardware. It’s very satisfying, when you spend a lot of time moving imaginary people around imaginary spaces, to make actual doors open and close.
Most recent nightmare:
Falling from a trapeze and missing the net.
Your cure for writer’s block:
Show up every morning and write something, even if it’s a description of why the thing doesn’t seem to be working. Then, if you’ve been sitting there for a while and it still isn’t working, go do something completely different for a while, and let your brain reset.
Name a dead person you’d like to meet (they’d be alive during the meeting):
William Maxwell, the writer and New Yorker editor. I love his books and his stories, and his letters to Sylvia Townsend Warner in The Element of Lavishness are so beautiful. My impression is that he not only had a truly brilliant mind but was also a good, kind, observant, happy, generous person.
What was your favorite book as a kid?
I loved The Westing Game. And A Wrinkle in Time. And The Princess Bride.
Please paste a short paragraph from a story, poem, article, blog post, etc., you’re currently working on below:
This is from my guest blog post for the Wordstock website:
I wrote all of the stories in Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It, many of which are set in Montana, while living in Los Angeles, and I think it might be easier for me to write about a place when I’m not in it every day, overwhelmed by the reality of it. It’s easier to see it from a distance. I had started a novel set in Los Angeles before I put it away to work on the short stories, and I haven’t picked it up again. My new novel is set in London in 1952. I’d still like to write about LA, but I might need to go somewhere else to do it.