How and when did you decide, or discover, that you were to be a writer?
I wrote my first short story when I was twelve years old. So I had aspirations. I realized I might actually become a writer when my high school English teacher Virginia DeMora told me I was an excellent writer. We were writing an essay a week in her Advanced Placement class. That same year, 1966, I won the National Council of Teachers of English award for a paper I wrote in Mrs. DeMora’s class. I also worked for my high school and college newspapers as a reporter, and then as assistant managing editor at the Minnesota Daily when I was a graduate student in journalism at the University of Minnesota. You’d think by then I would have been convinced. But I still thought writers were men who smoked pipes, drank martinis, and lived in New York. It took me another 20 years of writing to realize that Mrs. DeMora was right all along. At that point, I went to Mills College in Oakland, CA and earned my MFA in creative writing. Eight years later, in 2004, Swimming with Maya was published. Dream of Things reissued the book in digital and paperback formats in 2013.
Describe your writing process.
My writing process involves a fair amount of thinking and internal dialogue before I ever sit down to write. I like to putter before writing – it’s a form of creative avoidance and it helps manage my anxiety. So I water plants, make tea, maybe even dust or vacuum. Then, I’m ready to sit down. Ideally, this would all happen by 9 AM. Once I start composing, I typically write a first draft pretty quickly, although I edit as I go. When working at home, I tend to sit on the couch with my laptop to compose. To revise or edit, I may migrate to my office and use my desktop so the set-up is a bit better ergonomically. I might scribble a list of bullet points before I begin, but I actually don’t outline until I’m into my third or fourth revision. Then, I will make a plot map to ensure I have a strong opening scene in each chapter, enough conflict, and a climax for each chapter, plus a solid narrative arc for the entire book. Sometimes I’ll make this map in the middle of the process when I start to feel lost.
These days, I’m blogging. In that case, I start with a kernel of an idea, or a quote, and build a mini essay around that idea or quote. I will use google for any research I need for a blog post.
For a longer piece, I use my local public library for research, or I will do interviews to gather information.
What was the inspiration behind what you’ll be reading at Waterline?
Swimming with Maya began its life as raw journal entries in the months immediately after the death of my daughter in 1992. It was a grief addled rant. Lucky for me, I was in the graduate creative writing program at Mills at the time. That was one of many things that saved me. Within a year, I was researching and writing about organ donation. I wrote an essay that was published in The San Jose Mercury News Sunday magazine two years after Maya died. That’s when I realized the story could become a book.
From that point forward, it took another 9 years to complete. I workshopped it while still at Mills, and it became my master’s thesis. But the ultimate book bears little resemblance to that thesis. From the time I got a contract with Capital Books in January of 2002, until I handed in the manuscript in August of 2003, I worked my fanny off. I revised the manuscript multiple times in that period, working with my writing partner Sarah Scott Davis. We met weekly by phone and Sarah would give me her critique on the set of chapters she’d just finished reading. Then I’d spend the days when I wasn’t at my day job – basically all day Friday, Saturday, and Sunday working. I was rewriting down to the final deadline.
Swimming with Maya is a love story. Love is what inspired me to write the book. Grief is the flip side of love – it’s the wild river of emotion we must navigate when we lose someone we love.
What are you working on now?
I’m currently working on a screenplay treatment of Swimming with Maya. I’ve got images I’ll never get out of my head – and I want to see those dramatized on the screen. I found I had to fictionalize the story significantly in order to get the dramatic structure right. I’m hoping to find a screenwriter or production company who wants to take it on, because I’m a narrative writer. I’d love to consult on the project, but I don’t have illusions about being able to write a screenplay. That is a very specialized skill.
I’m also working on a lightly fictionalized account of my time in a co-housing community in Oakland, a sort of picaresque novel. It was a long-held dream that turned into a nightmare with hilarious (and tragic) consequences. It’s populated with a cast of eccentric characters – including the narrator – and plumbs some of the same themes as Swimming with Maya: a search for family, trying to replace a “lost” daughter, and ultimately coming into one’s own as a healed – and whole – woman who has survived the empty nest and moved on with her life. The working title is “Co-opted.”
And, as mentioned, I blog and write personal essays. From time to time, I also write poems.
Monday night, I’ll be reading at the Book Stall in Winnetka.
All of this is thanks to my amazing publisher Mike O’Mary at Dream of Things who gave Swimming with Maya a second chance at life once my original publisher closed its doors. Thanks to Mike, the book has sold almost 20,000 copies since it was reissued.