H e a r t S o n s & H e a r t D a u g h t e r s of A l l e n G i n s b e r g
N a p a l m H e a l t h S p a : R e p o r t 2 0 1 4 : A r c h i v e s E d i t i o n
A Conversation with Lesléa Newman by Renée Olander
Renée Olander: As author of nearly sixty books, including such feisty titles as Heather Has Two Mommies, Out Of The Closet And Nothing To Wear, The Little Butch Book, and Nobody’s Mother, among others, and subjects ranging from eating disorders to gay and lesbian issues, you strike me as a writer of intrepid courage—courage just to stick your neck out, write and publish for a very long time—what do you think about courage as it relates to your writing and publishing life?
Lesléa Newman: It’s so interesting that you’d say that, because about a year ago, I gave a commencement speech for an MFA program and I said if I could think of only one word to give the graduating students, because as a writer I’m always looking for that one perfect word, the word would be “courage.” I don’t think of myself as particularly courageous; I just write about things that matter to me. And I don’t really think about audience when I write. I just sit down, and pray that I’ll have something to say, because that’s a struggle for me. If I don’t feel passionate about it, then it’s not worth putting down on paper. It never occurred to me to not write about any of those subjects.
RO: So you were a teenager when you began publishing poems?
LN: Well, I have been writing poems since I was very young, probably ten or twelve years old. And I don’t know where this came from, but I have always been very active in getting work out in the world. I read Seventeen Magazine and saw that there were poems in that magazine, and I thought well, why not my poems? In hindsight, I think that took a lot of confidence. But somehow I had it in me to find out the name of the editor, the address, and what to do. Actually, it’s an interesting story. I got a letter from the poetry editor, Hilary Cosell, daughter of Howard Cosell, the sportscaster, and she wanted to publish several of my poems. She invited me to come to her office, which was in midtown Manhattan, and I still remember what I wore as I wanted to look sophisticated—I wore a black leotard and a wraparound flowered skirt that I bought in a used clothing store and at one time was a curtain, it was a kind of nice Scarlet O’Hara moment. And I wore black cotton flats, those Chinese slippers that look like MaryJanes, and I rode the train into the city and took the elevator up to the top of a skyscraper, and she graciously took me to her desk, to her office cubicle, whatever, and she had a paper shopping bag she dumped out on the desk, and all these papers went flying, and I could see some were handwritten, some had drawings on them, and some were typed up, and she said, “As poetry editor of Seventeen Magazine, this is what I get in the mail every day, and your poems stood out like a shining star.” So, that was the beginning of my literary career, and I’ll never forget how kind she was to me.
RO: You were raised by your parents and your grandmother who lived across the street—did they, or your grandmother in particular, encourage your writing?
LN: They didn’t encourage or discourage, I’m the proverbial forgotten middle child—I was left to my own devices in many ways. I don’t think I was taken seriously as a writer by my family because I grew up in the 1950s and ’60s, and it just didn’t seem that important for a girl to have any kind of career because the assumption was I’d get married to a man and be taken care of. I did have a wonderful creative writing teacher in high school named Miss Stern, and in fact, in 1999, when I went back to be inducted into my high school’s Hall of Fame, she came to the assembly with a folder where she had kept all of my poems, and that meant so much to me. So my teachers always encouraged me, up through college—I studied at University of Vermont with David Huddle, whom I will never forget, because at the bottom of one of my poems, he wrote two words: “so what?” Of course at the time I was devastated, but to this day, I put the “so what?” test to my poems.
Then I went to Naropa Institute’s Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, where I was Allen Ginsberg’s apprentice. I also studied with Anne Waldman, Ted Berrigan, Alice Notley, Larry Fagin, Dick Gallup, and Peter Orlovsky—they’re my nurturing mentors. I also studied briefly with Grace Paley. But Naropa was really where I was taken seriously as a poet, and when I look back at that extraordinary experience, I realize how lucky I was. I pretty much did everything my teachers asked me to do. Anne Waldman once said to me, “You should be writing really long poems,” so I tried to write really long poems. My teachers were good at breaking me out of the habit of just doing over and over what I did well—they wanted to challenge me, and they did.
RO: You write in many different genres and forms within them—so after you have prayed for something to say, to what degree might you specifically consider whether you’ll work on a children’s book versus a young adult novel, or a poem versus short story—does audience come into your writing mind?
LN: The content really dictates the form. So I will start writing—usually with either an image or a voice, and I follow that to see where it is going, and at some point this is revealed to me: this is a picture book, or, this is a poem. And then, this is a poem for adults, or, this is a teen novel. I’m very process-oriented. I don’t outline, I don’t plan. If I’m in the middle of a novel, then I know that day I’m going to work on that novel. If I start writing poems pretty regularly, then I’ll think, “Oh, I’m working on a new poetry manuscript, fancy that!” If I’m writing a short story and then write another short story, I will more consciously direct my writing to that form, because I want to be working on a book. But at the beginning, it’s anybody’s guess, least of all mine.
RO: In your recent conversation with Farideh Goldin, she asked about your use of humor, which is prevalent in so much of even your heaviest work, and you said humor “took the sting out” of what’s otherwise painful—is that conscious, your use of humor to “take the sting out”?
LN: It’s my personality. It’s who I am. I come from a funny family. It’s also traditionally a Jewish way of looking at the world—with humor, often self-deprecating. It can be a defense mechanism. I think as I’ve become older and more mature as a writer, I’ve relied on humor less, which is not to say my work is now humorless, but it’s more balanced. The only time I’ve consciously said, “I’m going to write something funny,” and it was one of the hardest books I’ve written, was while I was working on Out Of The Closet And Nothing To Wear, and I think it’s because I was trying to elicit the same emotion continuously, which was laughter, or amusement. And there wasn’t a break from that—no trying to get a reader to tear up, or feel enraged. I don’t know how Erma Bombeck did that for forty years or however long she had a weekly column. It was very difficult, and the experience gave me a lot of respect for comic writers.
RO: Do you think writing is always partly autobiographical? After you read “A Letter to Harvey Milk,” one of my students asked me whether you were the teacher who had taught Harry Weinberg—
LN: While I have taught writing classes in a senior center, I never had a student like Harry Weinberg—he is a figment of my imagination based very, very loosely on my grandmother mainly in two ways: the way he uses language, he speaks in “Yinglish,” or English with Yiddish phrases and constructions, and the way he won’t talk about his past. My grandmother would never tell me about her childhood because she said she did not want to burden me with the pain in her life. So I felt like I had to make up those stories. Things that are “true” in that story are the facts about Harvey Milk—that he had big ears, liked jellybeans, and prophesized his own death, but as far as I know, he never had a friend like Harry Weinberg.
I think that’s the question asked most frequently of fiction writers; how much of this is true? I knew a writer who would always say, “17%.” He’d just give a number. In a way that question is a compliment, because the reader is saying, “You convinced me this had to have happened,” and in a way, that question is an insult, because it implies, “You couldn’t have made this up,” which is a fiction writer’s job—to use our imaginations to make things up that have some emotional truth about human nature. So it’s an interesting question, and I wonder, what is the question behind the question? Why is this important? Why do you need to know? Would the story move you less if you knew it was or wasn’t “true”? And these days, we live in an Oprah culture, no offense to Oprah—people are more interested in the writer than the writing. That’s part of the memoir craze, people aren’t looking at the work as much as they’re looking at the author. In fact, when I have had more than one book published in a year, which has been almost every year since I’ve been publishing, I’ll go back to a bookstore six months later with the second book of the year to set up a reading and they’ll say, “We don’t want you, you just came,” and I’ll say, “But this is a completely different book—that was a book of poetry, this is a novel,” and they’ll say, “But people come to see you. They don’t come because of the book.” So what I really meant was—it’s not an Oprah culture, it’s a People Magazine culture.
RO: Your Harvey Milk story ends with Harry Weinberg feeling ambivalent about his own writing before he turns his notebook over to his writing teacher—do you think there is any responsibility to get stories down?
LN: I have a friend, a playwright named Andrea Hairston, who said, I have this quotation up over my desk: “If you don’t tell your story you die twice.” I think that for Harry, he had to cut off his memories because he needed to survive and get through his day, and it was just too painful. On the other hand, he doesn’t want to leave this earth and be completely forgotten; I don’t think anybody does. So he is ambivalent, and I think when he started to—I know this sounds strange, I mean, he’s a fictitious character—nevertheless, when he started taking a writing class, as with anyone who writes, you don’t know what’s going to happen. You don’t know what you’re going to discover. And it was more than he bargained for. When I used to teach women’s writing workshops, I can’t tell you the number of women who would uncover unpleasant childhood memories, and several of them said to me, “I need to stop coming to your class and go into therapy,” and they did, because there were things buried that surfaced that were very painful for them, that needed to be handled carefully. And I always say I’m not a therapist, I’m a writing teacher—I will take care of you the best I can, but I’m there to talk about the writing, and so when they need to go elsewhere they go elsewhere. I believe that those memories surface when the person is emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually ready to deal with them. And then they have to be treated very tenderly.
RO: In your introduction to the poem “Break the Glass,” you referred to “my spouse, Mary,” so I wonder if readers don’t feel somewhat invited to connect the writer’s biography and writing—
LN: I need to say something about the word “spouse”—the problem I have is that it is not a very melodious word, and when I’m writing, particularly poetry, I come up against it all the time. I have a poem called “Guess Who Died?” about Grace Paley, and at the end, the narrator’s spouse comes into the breakfast room, and that particular poem is autobiographical so I wasn’t going to use the word “husband.” “Lover” implies a lover as opposed to someone whom the narrator is married to, or an illicit affair. Some lesbian couples use the word “wife,” to describe each other, but I don’t think of myself as either being or having a “wife.” So I used the word “beloved,” which I like the sound of, and also one cannot mistake its meaning. But it’s tricky because heterosexual couples have this very easy shorthand that they can use and lesbian couples do not.
So back to the whole notion of being exposed—I don’t write memoir. Consciously so, because I don’t think my life is that interesting, and even though I write about a lot of things that I have experienced, it’s always couched in fiction, and even when I start a story based on something that’s happened to me, in about the second or third sentence, I throw a lie in; it just happens, I’m a fiction writer—I lie to make things more tragic, funnier, more intense, more interesting, more conflicted. Because I’m a storyteller, it’s impossible for me—not impossible, but it’s difficult to stick to the “truth” if I have an idea that’s going to make it a better story. And that’s what I love about fiction; you can explore characters and push them, to see how far they will go, and what’s up with you as a writer, emotionally, when you go to a different place. I like to live other people’s lives like in the story, “Mothers of Invention,” which is about a lesbian couple—one of them wants a child and the other doesn’t, and what ends up happening is the one who wants the child can’t get pregnant so the one who doesn’t want to be a parent gets pregnant. I’ve never been pregnant, so I had to research pregnancy and got to vicariously experience the pregnancy through this character. Of course, it’s not the same as experiencing a real pregnancy, but it’s bearing witness to that character’s pregnancy, and that’s what’s so interesting about writing. And reading—you can go all over the world and never leave your room.
RO: You are a full-time writer—how do you approach this “job”? Do you write every day?
LN: I decided early on this was what I wanted to do. And I never came up with a Plan B, which I learned from Barbra Streisand, who never learned to type, because she said if “I learn to type I’ll wind up typing,” so I like to say I never learned to sing because I’d end up singing (that’s a joke because I can’t sing at all). But my job, I believe, and it might sound very arrogant—I was put on the planet to write, it’s the only thing I know how to do. Even on days when I don’t know how to do it particularly well, it’s what makes me happy, and at this stage in my career I’ve had enough feedback to know that some of my work touches some people’s lives, and that’s important to me. So you can call it confidence, maybe that’s a better word than arrogance, that I know this is what I’m supposed to do. And because I’m a fiction writer, I could lie and say I do it every day, but other things come up. I try to do it every day; when my beloved goes off to work at nine o’clock, I go into my office, and, at the very least for an hour, work on something. The times I procrastinate—and deliver us from e-mail, please, that’s my biggest procrastinator—is between projects. As soon as I finish something I think, “Ok, that’s it, I have nothing left to write about.” If I’m working on something, I’m eager to go to my desk, because I can pester a line—for instance, whether an “a,” should be “the,” for about seven hours, and be perfectly happy doing so. Then there’s the point where the poem or the story or the novel really is finished, and I know it’s finished, but I don’t want to let it go because as soon as I do, I’m going to have to face a blank page again. I call it “page-fright.” At some point, I cross a line and start making a piece worse rather than better and I know I have to stop. So if I don’t know what to write about, I’ll do what I call kvetching on paper for a while—I have, embarrassingly, notebooks and notebooks of this, and my archivist will be horrified to learn that I shred much of it but I have to, because it’s always the same: “I don’t know what to write about, I don’t know what to do, I don’t know where all the books I’ve written came from…” It’s boring, and then eventually I’ll come up with an image and see where it goes. Or I’ll read—I’ll turn to poetry, which is always the thing that inspires me the most.
But when you say I’m a full-time writer, which I am, I don’t want to mislead people—it’s not that I just sit for eight hours and write. I feel like I have two jobs: my day job is being an author—so there’s a lot that goes into that, whether it’s corresponding with my agent, proofreading a manuscript that just came back from a copy editor, or calling back someone who wants to bring me to their school or conference to give a workshop or reading. I also have MFA and private students whom I mentor, so it also depends on how many of those manuscripts are sitting in my inbox, if I need to spend the day looking at someone else’s work instead of my own, since that’s part of what pays the bills—you know, there’s just stuff. I try to set aside the morning for my own writing, and if I’m really cooking, the afternoon as well, but sometimes things just have to happen quickly. One phone call can change the whole day.
RO: You’ve written more short stories than novels—in terms of process, for instance, with The Reluctant Daughter—did it begin as a novel, or when were you aware you were facing the “terrifying proposition” of a novel giving “birth to itself through you”?
LN: I knew right away. There was just too much going on to contain in a short story. My main character had issues with her own mother, with not being a mother herself, with what makes a family in terms of her cousin Jack, and she also had issues going on in her romantic relationship, that are questions of, literally, life and death—so I needed the luxury of space and room to tell that story. Plus, I’ve always wanted to write a great big mother/daughter novel, and when Lydia Pinkowitz started speaking to me, I knew that the time had come.
RO: Has that been the case with other novels where at the beginning you felt, “this is a novel, not a short story”?
LN: Well, for example, my novel Hachiko Waits is classified as a middle grade novel though it’s really a novel for dog lovers of all ages, but it’s about 100 pages—a short novel. I’m pretty lazy, so I actually wanted it to be a picture book, and the first draft was very short. Then I said, “I need to put in some more details,” and the second draft was forty pages, and I thought, “Oh my God, you can’t have a picture book that’s forty pages long”—the average picture book text is about three pages—and then, of course, the terror descends, because I thought, “Oh my God, I’m writing a novel, can I do it?” And this book was particularly challenging because the question was, “Can I write a historical novel that took place in a different culture, during a different time period in a country where I’ve never been (to this day)—can I do justice to this story?”
The gestation of that story was that after September 11, I didn’t write for the longest time. It was the longest ever I had not written—three months—and of course, everyone was so emotional at that time, but on top of the emotion that was in the world, I thought, “whatever I write at this point is useless because I wasn’t in New York when it happened, who cares about anything else, including me, but how can I write about it, because I wasn’t there.” Then I thought, what I really want to do is offer the world, and especially children, a small, quiet book full of hope.
RO: Perhaps if offering people some hope through writing was something you entertained as you set out to write Hachiko Waits, a sense of audience is more on your mind as you write than you realize?
LN: Well, it’s a little different with a children’s book, because I know, once it “takes” inside me that I’m writing for children, then I’m a little more conscious of that. But I had no idea I could pull it off, even though this is the only book I’ve ever written that I knew the plot of before I started. At that point in my life I was so desperate to write something, anything—so I started with this idea, rather than the way I usually begin, with an image. But I don’t know where the idea of this novel came from; it’s a true story, but I have no idea when I first heard that story.
RO: So you researched to find out more?
LN: I went to the library and asked a librarian, isn’t there a story about a dog who waited for ten years at a train station hoping for his master’s return? I didn’t even know the story took place in Japan—that’s all I knew about it, this tiny little gem inside my brain, which is something I tell my students, that we are all walking treasure chests. We have experiences that have happened to us, we have our memories, we have our imaginations which are limitless, we have our sensory/direct experience, what we see, hear, et cetera, and we have stories that have been told to us, stories that we have read in the newspaper—we just have these fleeting things that come in and out of our consciousness, and some of them lodge in our brain, and the part that I don’t know how it happens—writing is 33% inspiration, 33% respiration, 33% perspiration, and 1% magic—so part of it is that at some point, when you least expect it but need it most, a story that’s in the back of your head travels to the front of your head, and drops down into your heart.
Once I was at a writing conference, sitting next to Grace Paley, and I don’t remember who the speaker was, but he was talking about how important it is to have a daily writing practice, and then he quoted someone who said, “Chance favors the prepared mind.” Grace and I looked at each other, whipped out our notebooks, and wrote that down. So as a writer, if I show up to the page every day for a day or a week or a month or in this case three months and nothing is happening and I just am practically in tears every day because I think I have nothing more to say, and on day ninety-seven, the first sentence of a novel begins, I needed those ninety-six days, to prepare my mind even though it didn’t feel like anything was happening. Peter Orlovsky used to say, “You’re always writing the poem.”
RO: In his book Write To Learn, Donald Murray said writers don’t ever really procrastinate because what we call procrastination is useful ripening—
LN: Every writer has his or her own process. As W. Somerset Maugham said, there are three rules to writing a novel, but unfortunately nobody knows what they are. The most valuable thing any writer can do is learn your own process. I know I have to go through a certain amount of kvetching on paper before something breaks loose. I know one writer who keeps this file of index cards of ideas, and when she doesn’t know what to write about she just plops down an index card idea—I tried that and it didn’t work for me, I got too frustrated because I had no ideas to put on the index cards, so I felt even worse about myself. The most important thing you can do is look at, “How do I write?” If there was only one way to do it someone would have told us by now and made a million dollars. That’s why there are so many different books about how to write. So, without sounding too judgmental, I would dismiss any writing theory where someone says, “This is how to write.” I would say, “This might be how you write,” and I can tell you about my process but I’m not going to claim it’s the best way. I’ve just learned through the years that it’s the best way for me. It might not work for you at all.
RO: About children’s picture books—I had assumed that as writer, you would have relatively close interaction with the books’ illustrators—
LN: No, you never do. The only reason I did with Heather Has Two Mommies is it was a co-publishing venture. What happens with picture books is that the author sells the text, and it looks just like the typewritten page—it’s not broken up into the thirty-two pages. The editor takes the text and says, “Oh, I want this illustrator to do it.” They have what they call a stable of illustrators, and they look through their file and say, “Oh, this style really matches this text.” They get in touch with the illustrator’s agent, and some places ask for samples, some don’t, and it depends on the illustrator—you’re not going to ask a Caldecott winner for samples (I should be so lucky as to be working with a Caldecott winner), so then, the editor breaks up the text into thirty-two pages, the illustrator does sketches, which I often see, not always—black and white, just to dummy it out. Then the illustrator goes to work, painting or collage, or whatever, and works primarily with the editor and art director, and after I see the sketches I pretty much don’t see anything until the final product—I mean, not when it’s like a book on the shelf, but the page proofs. And, depending again on the publisher, I may or may not have much say. People are usually horrified at this, and what I say is a picture book is like a movie. The scriptwriter thinks, “This is my movie,” the director thinks, “This is my movie,” the star thinks, “This is my movie,” the editor thinks, “This is my movie,” everyone thinks, “This is my movie,” or this is my picture book—whoever’s involved. There’s a huge amount of letting go, a huge amount of trusting your editor, because you and your editor want the same thing—you want the best book that can be produced, they want a book that can sell, so maybe the editor has a little more marketing on the brain than you did when you wrote the text. But if things were reversed, if someone gave me thirty-two paintings and said, “Write a story,” I wouldn’t want the creator of those paintings hovering over my shoulder saying “No, no, that’s not what I meant.” So especially with a picture-book, more than with any other form I write in, it’s a collaboration.
RO: Is it true you sort of stumbled into writing children’s books—that you wrote your first one for a friend whose daughter wanted a book that showed families like her own?
LN: I never thought of myself as a children’s book writer. Then, after Heather Has Two Mommies, I fell in love with the form of picture books, which is much more difficult to write than one might think. I find it the most challenging form of all.
RO: Before you mentioned it I had not thought about the form, though I’ve read lots to kids and can see they’re a standard size—
LN: They’re printed in signatures of sixteen pages, so it’s two sixteen-page signatures. Once in a while you’ll get a forty-eight-page picture book. But the trend is toward much shorter texts, like 300 words, 500 words, so now a picture book text of, say, 1,000 words is considered long. People might say, “Oh, that’s hardly any words, I can do that,” like people say about poetry, and I say, “No, you don’t get it, it’s pretty hard to do.” In a picture book, you have to develop characters, have a narrative arc, action—there’s got to be a lot going on that will sustain the interest of a child, and also it’s the only form where the primary audience is not the primary purchaser. It’s the parents or grandparents or aunts and uncles, whoever the adults are, buying these books for the children, and the best picture books are the ones that have some interest to the adult who is reading as well as the child who is listening. When I think about it, with my background in poetry and humor, children’s books are a natural form for me, because many children’s books are written in verse.
RO: Your earliest publishing was poetry, you studied poetry at Naropa, yet you have also published fiction for more than twenty years—at what point did you feel you should tell stories also?
LN: When I was an undergraduate, I took a class, an introduction to creative writing—with the great David Huddle—so we wrote fiction and poetry, and one day he said to me to me, “I like your fiction better than your poetry,” which again—well, let’s just say he had a habit of devastating me. But one of the stories I wrote for his class, “Sunday Afternoon,” has survived and is in my collection A Letter To Harvey Milk. Then I went to Naropa and identified as a poet. That was my primary interest and really is still my first love. But this is what happened: I was working at a daycare center, and at the end of the year, my contract wasn’t renewed. I needed a job, and I didn’t know what to do, so I did something very unlike me, because you know I’m from New York which means I have a kind of baseline of cynicism built in—I went to a psychic, and I said, “I need a job, I don’t know what to do,” I explained the whole thing to her, and she said to me simply, “You don’t need to find a job; you need to go home and get to work.” And I went home that day and wrote the first twenty pages of my first novel. That’s a true story. Well, I am a fiction writer so I do lie, but in this case I am telling you an absolutely true story, and I was terrified. At some point, someone said to me, you’ve been reading novels your whole life and you’ve absorbed more than you know, you’re smarter than you think, you know more about this than you think you do, and she was right because I truly believe the only way to learn how to write a novel, or poem, or short story, is by writing a novel, a poem, or a short story. I have written a craft book on writing, so it may sound funny to say this, but you learn a lot more from reading a good novel than reading a book about how to write a good novel. Be a sponge, soak it up! That’s what you need to do.
RO: You mentioned Write From The Heart, and you’re a teacher and mentor who’s taught at universities and privately—could you talk about teaching privately versus in an institutional program?
LN: What I enjoy best is a long, deep one-on-one mentoring relationship with a student who wants to learn. I think that is very satisfying for the student and for the mentor—me—definitely. I have seen a vast improvement in students when working that way. A private student of mine recently sold her first novel, which was thrilling for both of us. Literature is my passion, so if I’m interacting on a regular basis with someone who shares that passion, whatever level they are on in terms of their own writing and career, that’s a wonderful thing, and I find it very satisfying. I probably still would teach even if I didn’t have to, because it also forces me to think about writing, and to think about being articulate in terms of how one makes one’s writing better. Of course the question is always, “Can you teach someone how to write?” I always say, “You can teach someone how to write better.” Whether they’re going to be a writer is up to them—you can’t teach passion, you can’t teach commitment, so that has to come from within. I’m a tough teacher, I’ve been told—of course, I think I’m a pussycat, but if people are paying a lot of money, whether to get an MFA or study with me privately, they deserve honesty, they deserve respect, which comes with the honesty, they deserve to be taken seriously, and they deserve the benefit of my expertise, of having been a professional writer for more years than I would care to admit. Let’s just say I’ve been in the game for a very long time.
RO: When you read the poem, “Viet Nam,” and mentioned it was the first time you had read it, someone asked whether you felt particularly nervous reading new work, to which you replied it wasn’t really new because you had revised it a thousand times. In terms of process—how much do you revise? And do you revise as much for novels as you do poems?
LN: Everything gets endlessly revised. I enjoy revision probably more than the act of creating. Facing a blank page and not knowing if there will be anything on that blank page at the end of the day is so stressful for me, and then, if something does appear, there’s so much relief that I will just pester those words to death until I am satisfied, and that is what I love to do. And so, with a novel, my process has changed over the years—my first couple of novels I wrote longhand. This was before computers, and then I would type them. Now I still start everything longhand including novels. I sit on the couch in my writing room and work with a spiral notebook and a Bic pen, and those tools have not changed in thirty years, but there will be a certain point in the process, it’s almost a physical sensation, when I have to get up and put what I have written in my notebook onto my computer and then go further. So it’s not clear anymore whether this is a fourth draft or a sixth draft, because I’ve been rewriting as I’ve been going, and as I’m writing on the computer, I’ll highlight a paragraph, open a new document, and rewrite that paragraph four or five times, and then when I’m satisfied I’ll put that back in. And then I’ll go further, and keep doing that, so it’s not as cut-and-dried as is this a first draft or a third draft, or a sixtieth draft—because there will be paragraphs that have been written sixty times, as opposed to another paragraph that I felt I only needed to rewrite once or twice, so it’s a different process now.
RO: For The Reluctant Daughter, how much time elapsed from knowing you were tackling a novel to the whole first draft?
LN: About four months. Once I start something and know it has “taken,” I get completely obsessed and write very quickly. I take a year or longer to revise (and revise and revise and revise). From first draft to publication took about four years.
RO: And during that time working on the novel, you also wrote poems, and you were named Poet Laureate of Northampton?
LN: Yes. Well, in the beginning it’s a very intense time getting the first draft of a novel down on the page. I would say the first three drafts took about a year and a half. And then there’s kind of a lull period when my agent is reading it, and after she read it, I got feedback and rewrote it again for her, before she would send it out, and maybe I’d get feedback from other people too. So once I get to the third or fourth draft, I’m not working on it every day like I am in the beginning. Though there are times I’m not working on it, I’m still thinking about it, but I’m not as actively working on it so I will be doing something else, like maybe a picture book, or writing poems. And when I was named Poet Laureate of Northampton, I felt joyfully obligated to work on poems because I had that title.
RO: How did you feel when your laureate term came to an end?
LN: Oh, very sad. I knew when I received that honor it was a two-year term. I did a lot of things during those two years: I edited a poetry column that appeared in our daily newspaper, I ran a “Lunch with the Laureate” series, I ran a poetry contest, and I did a “30 Poems in 30 Days” project which worked like a walkathon, except people pledged a monetary amount like a dollar per poem to raise money for a family literacy project. More than seventy poets participated and we raised $13,000! I met so many fabulous poets and lovers of poetry, and people who maybe didn’t think of themselves as poets but who participated in the “30 Poems in 30 Days” project because they just thought it would be a cool thing to do. I did poetry in-services for teachers, I did all kinds of things—one of my favorite projects was called “Poetry to Wait By”—Marilyn Nelson told me she did this when she was the Poet Laureate of Connecticut—I got poets to donate poetry books, and I distributed them to waiting rooms all over the city of Northampton, so when you go to get your teeth cleaned you can now read People magazine or poems by Pablo Neruda, so that was a project I especially liked. It’s always a little sad to pass the crown, but I’m excited to see what the next Poet Laureate does. And I got to introduce and read with Richard Wilbur—it doesn’t get better than that.
RO: You have said “First Death,” is autobiographical—how did this poem, reflecting a painful early childhood experience, get written so recently?
LN: Well, I think that echoes what I said about how we are all walking treasure chests, and who knows why that poem on that particular date, or that memory, moved from the back of my head to the front of my head. I just sat down to write like I do almost every day, and that poem came out. I didn’t know where that poem was going when I first started writing it. I remembered this little girl—well, I think part of what was happening was recently, I have heard about so many people who are struggling with cancer, it’s just extraordinary, and so that must on some conscious level have helped me uncover the memory of this little girl who is the first person I ever knew who had cancer—she was seven, and I was maybe nine—and she showed up at the bus stop wearing a wig. And it frightened us, the other children, so much, that of course we had to be mean to her, and I remember, and I had forgotten, this true part of the poem, that when I found out she died, I got hysterical, and it came out as laughter, and I was slapped, and not in a punishing, punitive way, but I think just to get me literally to snap out of it, so that all just came back into my mind when I was writing that poem. And so, I have been thinking of this notion of mob mentality and what makes us join in, when we know what we’re doing is wrong. I have a friend who said that when she heard me read this poem, it made her think about the first time she was faced with a moral dilemma as a child, and I thought, “Wow, then the poem has done its job.”
RO: What are you working on now?
LN: I’m putting the finishing touches on a new book of poems October Mourning: A Song For Matthew Shepard. I was the keynote speaker for coming out week at the University of Wyoming the year he was murdered, and it’s taken me eleven years to write about being there during that awful time. The poems are told in many different voices: the fence, the truck, the road, the moon, the wind… the book is a poetic exploration of an unbearable tragedy. It was just accepted by Candlewick Press and will be released in 2012. I’ve just begun a series of triolets (a French poetic form) about mothers, daughters, and illness.
RO: Mother/daughter issues are another recurrent theme in your work across genres—does this reflect autobiography at all?
LN: Probably like most women, I have a complex relationship with my mother, and I live in a community, meaning the LBGT community, where there’s this extra dynamic, often, because most women of my parents’ generation didn’t expect that their child would come out to them as a lesbian, or a bisexual person, or a transgendered person, so when you are of a certain ethnicity, let’s say, or religion, more often than not, you have that in common with the people you are growing up with, but when you are an LBGT person, you are often surrounded by people who are very different from you in that way, so you are very alone in your family which can create conflict. And so I have probed that conflict in many genres, in many forms, because it’s interesting to me.
RO: Well, your two most recent titles, Nobody’s Mother and The Reluctant Daughter, seem almost like a set!
LN: Along with the picture book Just Like Mama and the board book Mommy, Mommy And Me—you know what I think? I never really thought about this before, but I think that because I don’t have children, this issue is of prime interest to me. I have a friend who’s a writer and an only child, and she’s always creating families with many siblings in her writing, so again, it’s a way to live somebody else’s life.
RO: Is there anything else you’d say to fellow writers, or the readers of the Writer’s Chronicle?
LN: I want to get back to the theme of courage—because at the beginning of this interview I said I don’t really think of myself as a courageous person, but why I think you need courage as a writer is that at every step of the way you need the courage to believe you have something to say, you need the courage to make this a priority in your life, because often there are the other people saying you need to get a job, or why are you wasting your time, or whoever’s voice is in your head, so you need courage for that. You need the courage to show your writing to someone else, whether it’s people in your writing group, or your spouse, or a potential agent, or a potential magazine editor. So then, you need the courage to keep going when your writing is turned down, as it probably will be—I don’t know any writer who hasn’t had that experience. And then, you need the courage once it’s accepted to put it out in the world, and hear what people think of it, you’ll need the courage to live through bad reviews, most likely, or tepid reviews, you’ll need the courage to stand up to people who disagree with you, you’ll need courage in the face of offending people—every step of the way, you’ll need the inner core of strength, or what we say in Hebrew, “koach” to get you through.
[Reprinted from Writer’s Chronicle (May/Summer 2011). Used by permission of the author and the interviewer. Originally published in NHS 2012, http://www.poetspath.com/napalm/nhs12/.]