Post Road Magazine #12

Maria Flook

Q: Which singular experience has affected your writing most? Sharon Allen, Allston, MA

A: This question might mean, "What was the catalyst that spurred me into choosing a life as a writer," or what experience was very "transforming to me in my work or livelihood as a writer." To answer the first, I think that very early in my family life, I was thrust into charged situations where I witnessed distressing events. For instance, when my sister disappeared from home to start up a life as a child prostitute in Virginia Beach, well, that was a lynchpin event of my childhood. Thrust into the "arena" of accelerating events as "witness," I learned how writing helped me to distill my perceptions and to filter both the upsetting and the beautiful landmarks of my coming of age, by placing them in the realm of fiction. Writing gave me some kind of control and power. I found succor in finding my own voice and inventions and to use these as both weapons I could wield and bridges I could build when I had no other support systems. The second part of the question: My experience as a young writer at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown was a most important period in my life. The first winter I spent in P-town as a writing fellow came at a critical time. I was a single mother and had little resources. My phone was turned off. I waited until the propane tank was empty before I called the gas man. I went to Macmillan pier to get free "trash fish" from draggers unloading the day's catch. Despite money problems, it was the richest time. Different from my graduate school years, in Provincetown I met wholly authentic artists and writers who encouraged me in the right direction and I formed lifelong alliances.

Q: What are your feelings on going to school and obtaining degrees to be a writer or being self-taught and not attending writing classes? Jeff M. Giordano, Williamstown, NJ

A: "Obtaining degrees" is of little importance to a writer. But graduate school can offer a supportive community to writers and that is good. These MFA degrees don't seem to guarantee high octane writers upon completion, but one can get a real head start by attending programs with vibrant instructors and serious writing peers. Different from flying school, where a pilot is judged on his skills to keep a plane in the air, writing students at graduate programs sometimes seem more interested in earning degrees so they might eventually be hired by academic institutions that require proof of post graduate instruction. To some, it doesn't matter if "the plane is in the air," as long as the university might hire them for having the degree certificate. This "proof" on paper sometimes becomes more important to students than the real proof on paper, which is, of course, the writer's work itself. And self-education should never be a finite thing, but should be lifelong and ongoing. Writers who are self-taught learn not only from a habit of reading but from a habit of writing.

Q: What's your creative process like when writing a story? Whitney Davis, New York, NY

A: "Creative process" is a term which sounds like it belongs in a medical manual like "peristalsis" which means the "wavelike muscular contractions" of the digestive track. I don't know if I cringe more from the word "process" or from the word "creative." For me, my work begins with a core anxiety, with a connection to character that drives my interest and leads me to a starting place. My "process" is one of spending many hours each day within that obsession about my characters that finally erupts from the interior out onto the desktop, and where it is made flesh on the page.

Q: On being a writer, the late NY Times travel writer and columnist Emily Hahn once wrote in a letter to her mother, "Everything that I see or hear I think 'Could I use that?'. . .It's a bad way to be." Like many writers, are you often writing in your head, listening to snatches of conversation, watching people in restaurants and planning how to use any of it? If so, is it sometimes "a bad way to be?" James Simpson, Lawrenceville, GA

A: Writers take ownership of what they see. John Berger wrote, writing is seeing. Everything in the human experience is up for grabs, yet it is perception, not mere attendance at an event or at an eavesdropping that a writer must master. I am forever looking for the new vernacular, or trying to find the surprising in the familiar. We write what we see, but every writer "sees" differently. An "eye witness" will tell a prosecutor something different from another "eye witness." Writers earn a distinct and idiosyncratic voice not only by how they tell a story but by what it is they notice about a setting, or about the tangle that is unfolding. What they choose to notice and to interpret becomes their "content." Therefore, what is "seen," in fact, comes from within. No two writers wear the same night vision goggles or find the same landscape in their sights. Just one 'for instance': Bobbie Ann Mason and Eudora Welty.

Q: Of all the creative writing program maxims like "write what you know", etc., which one or ones do you think are bogus? Janet Bender, Jamaica Plain, MA

A: I can't think of many maxims other than the one you mention here. And I don't dislike this one: "Remember, the most important end of the pencil is the eraser!" which is similar to the caveat in baseball "Good pitching beats good hitting." The eraser and the pitcher are the genius of using defense as a strategy for success. The old chestnut "Write what you know" is a warning to writers to seek authenticity both in their premise and in their carry-through. But that maxim doesn't mean to stop at what you know, but with every new page one hopes to be learning more about his subject and deepening his perceptions.

Q: Is it difficult to live in the community you chronicled so brilliantly in Invisible Eden? And if you were going to do it again, would you change anything about how that book came to be written? Jennifer Bailey, Dorchester, MA

A: The book came to be written when I received a phone call from an editor at Random House who said that he saw a heading in the newspaper that said "Truro Author Murdered" and he had at first thought it was me! He asked me to write about it, and I agreed. That's how it came to be written. I am deeply attached to my town on the outer cape and it was a challenge to examine such a difficult and important event that affected many people in my community. My recent novel Lux, which I had completed prior to writing Invisible Eden, is also set in the same community, but of course its characters are fictional, and therefore, they are twice real and twice eternal.

Q: What would your Desert Island Top 5 Booklist look like? Michael Vogel, Brooklyn, NY

A: Blake. Dickenson. I'd have to think harder about the other three titles, because that's really pinning me to the wall! If I had only a few books to read relentlessly, until "flesh is the ash of time," poems are the most instructive and renewing. Poets keep fresh. Even the best novels begin to curl around the edges, if examined ad nauseam, because "story" is different from what poetry does. Poems address a different sphere of consciousness, the highest level of consciousness. Poetry tests mind and soul at each go-round. Upon each new reading of a poem, by Blake for instance, there is more.

Q: Interested to know your evolution from poetry to fiction and nonfiction. What is the appeal of each genre for you? Charles Rietz, Sacramento, CA

A: I had written both poetry and fiction as a young writer. I wrote my first novel (unpublished) when I was twenty-two with my infant daughter in a bassinet beside my typewriter. I applied to graduate schools in both genres. was accepted at some schools in fiction, but University of Iowa accepted my poetry application, so I concentrated on poetry for a few years, although I still wrote fiction. I published two collections of poems before I published my later fiction. One of my first stories was published in Playgirl, in an issue that included a section of nude pilots, called "The Cockpit." Nothing more boring than soft core pix of pilots. In my thirties I started writing short stories more and more, although I continued writing poems. I published stories in literary magazines and in a small edition. In '90, I published my second collection of poems, Sea Room, but I was writing my first novel, Family Night. I haven't written poems on a regular basis since then. For the past fifteen years I have written more novels and two nonfiction books, the first of these, My Sister Life, was about my sister's disappearance—a story that haunted me all my life. Her story could not be translated into fiction. It deserved scrupulous transcription. I have been "AWOL" from poetry for the past many years, but my dependence on the use of lyric evidence and poetic figure is ongoing in my fiction and nonfiction.

Q: Assuming the two are mutually exclusive, is it more important to be a great writer or a good person? Brian Jackson, Brookline, MA

A: For me, a writer's moral stance is inseparable from his work. The "greatest" novelists examine their subjects with both uncompromising lucidity and indisputable compassion.

Q: Now that Christa Worthington's alleged murderer has been caught, is there anything in your book Invisible Eden that you regret? David Soto, Somerville, MA

A: Invisible Eden examined the life of the victim and the community's reaction to her unsolved murder here on Cape Cod. The success of the book was distinct from any new developments in the case. The murder is still unsolved until there is a conviction. I am currently following the events and interviewing the suspect, as I am writing about the arrest and trial for a new edition of the book for Random House

Q: I loved your book My Sister Life and had heard that you and your sister were going to appear on Oprah together. Whatever happened with that? Matthew Sargent, Boston, MA

A: Producers invited me and my sister on the Oprah show, but when a producer interviewed my sister via telephone my sister balked when they asked her to get on a plane that very same night. I was able to adjust my schedule, but my sister could not. Her volatile reaction to their insty request sort of nixed it. She gave them a piece of her mind! They asked if our aged mother could turn up, and that too was hard to maneuver.

Q: Is there a book you read over and over? Nicholas Therry, Scottsdale, AZ

A: There are always poets I return to. And I look at sections of many books over and over, new and old, whether it's scenes from a novel or a nonfiction text that I return to in order to bolster my center of gravity. Hardy, Trevor, Chekhov, Edna O'Brien, Mitchell's Bottom of the Harbor. I look at The Art Spirit, by Robert Henri for instant homeopathic therapy.

Q: As a fan of your short story collection You Have the Wrong Man, I'm always on the lookout for new stories by you. Do you still write (and publish) short stories? And how did you put together You Have the Wrong Man? David Tatum, Hoboken, NJ

A: The stories in You Have the Wrong Man were written from '88–'96. I haven't published too many stories since, having had to work on other books. Of late, I have been sort of itchy to write a new story. There is something rejuvenating about the short form; its difficulty is an invigorating challenge, and when it is successful nothing else gives a writer that that kind of quick fix. Currently, I am swamped with following the murder case for a new edition of Invisible Eden, and I also have over 200 pages of a new novel in progress that I sneak back to in between interviews and court dates, but I do have a short story impulse that I want to sit down and follow through.

Q: I read somewhere that you sold your first poetry collection directly to a publisher when you were very young. What is the back-story and what was that experience like? Anna Warford, Manchester, NH

A: I didn't feel "young" back then, but now, at a riper age, 29 does seem pretty young. I sent my poetry manuscript Reckless Wedding to Houghton Mifflin in '81 and it was the winner of the Houghton Mifflin New Poetry Series competition and was published in 1982. I had worked on that manuscript in Iowa and at the Fine Arts Work Center. I was working a full-time job in "credit card operations" in a bank in Providence, when I got the news that the book would be published. I remember returning to work the next day, sorting through microfiche and talking to customers who called up to complain about credit card errors on their monthly statements. I would tell them, "Okay, here's some advice, don't use plastic, use cash!" Poets don't really earn money from their work, and are usually paid in copies, unless one is mass marketed like, for instance, Maya Angelou and a few others. But I was told by my editors, Thomas Hart and Robie Macauley, that my advance was, indeed, the largest advance for poetry that Houghton Mifflin had ever shelled out to a poet. It was more than they had paid Lowell or Sexton. I received $800.00. The funny part of the story is that I didn't remember to declare it, and the IRS tracked me down and fined me a late fee.

Q: What is your opinion about writers writing reviews of other writers? And is it true that it isn't necessarily the quality of reviews a book receives, but the number of venues in which a book is reviewed? Robert Jeffers, Brooklyn, NY

A: Some book reviews are often no better than restaurant guides, or church lady tirades. There are a diverse group of people who write book reviews, and I admire a few book review writers who do not write books themselves. But I do think it is important to have writers review books. I can "agree to disagree" with contemporary writers who review their peers more easily than I can stomach the opinions of certain wet-behind-theears literary scholars. I especially dislike some of these new celebrity lit critics on line. But when writers review books they are standing abreast of their subjects in the same despair, pants downs around their ankles, in the same treacherous ravine, on the same battlefield. When I have reviewed books for The New York Times Book Review and elsewhere, I was always very conscious of the hard work the writers had done and felt a deep awe for their accomplishment. Whatever quibbles I might have had with a book, as a writer, my appreciation for the terrain and the setbacks a writer faces, hopefully gave the right balance to my assessment.

Q: What was your experience with all the national media attention for Invisible Eden like? Jennifer Blackstein, Cambridge, MA

A: The wizard publicist at Random House, David Drake, was responsible for setting up scores of TV, radio, and newsprint interviews and stories to publicize Invisible Eden. Previously, I had done only a little television for other books, and it was a very grueling schedule. I once prized my privacy and anonymity and I envied David Drake's powerful perch and wished we could have changed shoes. He never had to go before a camera. Before the publication of the book, I taped a segment of 48 Hours and was interviewed by People and The New York Times. Each of those writers who visited me was oddly embittered. The NYT's guy was angry to be late for his son's Rocky Horror themed birthday party. The People writer just seemed over-worked, like she was running on Red Bull and Krispy Kremes. Then, the book was launched during a lull in the Iraq conflict, a slow news week and the press jumped on the Worthington story. In Boston, I did fourteen TV and radio spots in one day, from 6:45 a.m. until 8 p.m. that evening, before flying to New York to do the Today Show, The Early Show, The View, CNN, and other television news shows. My first broadcast interview in Boston was with the late David Brudnoy in his comfy studio, at a salon-type gathering within his home on Commonwealth Avenue. I sat down in a big overstuffed chair right beside him and he said, "Before we get started, do you want a martini?" I declined regretfully, but was glad to see Brudnoy was very supportive to me when some of his callers made attacks. His hospitality was a good starting point on a sometimes hostile tour. In New York it was interesting to see how the show biz world eats up a five-minute helping of this book, or that book, and then flashes to the next segment—to a cooking demonstration, or to a politician. The morning I went to the Today Show, they were conducting a live wedding on the set. In "the green room" I saw the bewildered couple who had been invited to participate in the TV show's "June wedding" brainstorm. Whatever was happening to me face-to-face with snippety Couric wasn't going to have lifelong implications, like a marriage! One thing I learned about publicity: Never agree to do a "B-roll." That's when they ask to follow you around as you walk down a street or stop to buy a Diet Coke. "Look natural," they say, "Forget the camera!"

Q: Is there a book by another author that you'd wish you'd written? Denise Young, Bronxville, NY

A: No. It wouldn't be my book then would it? Of course, I admire so many writers and I learn from them. I school myself from their example, studying their inventions and idiosyncratic stylizations, but I don't want to write anyone else's story. . .

Q: What is your favorite moment in your writing career to date? Karen Williamson, Iowa City, IA

A: My favorite instant in my writing life is when I am at my desk and the work is going well—I'm in that "fugue state" they talk about, when the story is coming and nothing intrudes, and I feel completely enlivened by the work, and awakened to my subject.

Q: I read that you changed the ending of the novel Lux at your editor's suggestion. How do you think the book is different because of it? Lindsey Jackson, Revere, MA

A: In the original ending to my novel Lux, the main female character had to face harsh circumstances because of her actions, without any reprieve. In my revision, she is given some redemption, and she gets a second chance, albeit she still has to see her probation officer! But her return helps strengthen her characterization and with her return, her relationship with the male character, Lux, is more fully defined.

Q: Where did the idea for Lux originate? The two main characters and also the setting are such powerful forces that I was curious where it all started. Alex Balestrieri, New York, NY

A: I always tell my students that "idea" is not what begets fiction. It's something closer to impulse or obsession. A core anxiety. Lux was very influenced by Thomas Hardy's Jude the Obscure. In fact, Jude was a secret template. My character Lux seeks similar goals as Jude in that novel. It's not Wessex, of course, but the setting in Lux is an important force as in all of Hardy's novels in which setting is almost fate. As in other novels I most admire, from Faulkner to Annie Proulx, landscape is a psychological element. The setting for Lux is my own backyard. My other novels are set in Rhode Island where I also lived for many years. And wherever they live, I'm most interested in the disenfranchised, the working class and wondrous nobodies that populate a sub-umbrella society in those kingdoms, in an underworld that is always charged with comic misfortunes. Lux's characters are my neighbors and brethren spirits. Alden's obsessions for men and for a baby of her own, her struggles with the DSS, come from my fascination with innate human longings, and all the red tape thrown up around them. Most certainly, the gothic seaside landscape of the outer cape is the indoor/outdoor temple in which I live my day-to-day life. I walk out my back door and I'm on the National Seashore—a prized wilderness that so few people have access to. But "wilderness" is both an interior and external phenomenon, both rich and threatening. •

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