We're away leaf peeping, to return sometime before election day. In the meantime, we've got a wonderful interview with Nicki Richesin, editor of THE MAY QUEEN, and Michelle Richmond, a contributor to the anthology and author of the forthcoming novel THE YEAR OF FOG.
You can catch both these authors and more on Monday at 7pm at Madrone Lounge in San Francisco with the good people of the Before the Mortgage anthology including editor Christina Amini and contributors Shoshana Berger, Carson Brown, Sasha Cagen, David Kolek, Catherine Price, Ariana Lamorte, and Evan Ratliff.
Nicki Richesin: First off, congratulations on your forthcoming novel THE YEAR OF FOG. It's no surprise that it's already being lauded as an I-can't-put-this-book-down success. Why did you change the title from OCEAN BEACH to THE YEAR OF FOG?
Michelle Richmond: Thank you. Actually, the title change was my editor's idea. I was very attached to Ocean Beach--both as a geographic location and as a title--but my editor pointed out that the phrase may not have the same resonance for someone who isn't familiar with San Francisco that it does for me. So we went back and forth for a couple of months on titles, and ultimately decided on THE YEAR OF FOG--which I'm happy with. The novel's atmosphere is very much influenced by the fog, as was my emotional state while I was writing it. As far as the story goes, the new title works on both a literal and a metaphorical level, whereas the former title was purely literal. You can read a foggy excerpt from the novel in the San Francisco Chronicle.
NICKI: You've written extensively about growing up in Alabama- often writing about places as disparate as China and Alabama in DREAM OF THE BLUE ROOM. You're adept at portraying the humor and empathy needed when two cultures collide. Is that something that comes naturally to you- that gift for using the location of your novel as a backdrop for making a larger- and often more political- statement?
MICHELLE: From the time I left the South for New York City at the age of 26 I've felt a tug-of-war between the landscape of my childhood and the urban places I've chosen to live in as an adult. I've also been a fairly passionate traveler for about ten years now, and the countries I visit for any good length of time have a way of finding their way into my writing. I set Dream of the Blue Room in China after living in Beijing for two months. When I spend time in another country, the politics of that place become very interesting to me, as I'm able to see them from a more local perspective. The Three Gorges Dam sparked my interest while I was in China. On a trip to Argentina 3 years ago, the political upheaval of that country inspired me to begin a new novel (which is currently on the backburner while I complete my third novel for Delacorte, due for release in 2008).
NICKI: We both hail from the south and now make our homes in the San Francisco Bay area. When I first moved here, I found I was often confronted with ignorant stereotypes of southerners and the south. How do you feel about fighting or discouraging stereotypes that people often place on you as a southerner?
MICHELLE: Oddly, I rarely face a stereotype until I tell people I'm from Alabama, at which point they inevitably say, "You don't SOUND like you're from Alabama." I suppose many people who haven't traveled or lived down South have an impression of the region that isn't entirely accurate, but much of the stereotype is also based on truth. I mean, the South does tend to be overly conservative politically and socially, and there does tend to be less ethnic diversity, and it can be very difficult to find an indie movie theatre, etc. That said, I like having a background that's very different from most of the people I know professionally and socially. And there are many things about the South, particularly the Gulf Coast, that I miss--the slower pace, the warm nights, the heady scent of azaleas in summer, the kids running barefoot, the summer dresses, the fact that you can't stand in a line in the grocery store without making friends.
NICKI: When I first asked you to write a piece for THE MAY QUEEN you took a light, comedic approach to the subject of turning 30 or what it means to be a woman in your thirties. Then after I found a publisher, you had become a mother and experienced more of your thirties, and you wrote a very different story in “Getting Ready” about your relationship with your mother and sisters and how time plays tricks on us. How do you think your perspective had changed in the couple of years between your first and second drafts?
MICHELLE: I believe that I was very new into motherhood when I wrote the new essay for The May Queen. The early months of motherhood, while allowing very little time for contemplation, do make you think about familial relationships. I found that much of the common wisdom didn't apply in my case. Motherhood, for example, didn't make me feel that much closer to my own mother. It did help me to understand her struggle better, but it didn't make me come around to her way of thinking that motherhood is the greatest feat a woman can accomplish. It's true that motherhood is by far the most difficult thing I've ever done, but I think it's odd that we as a society seem to still accept that it's the "greatest" or "most important" thing a woman can do. This would imply that women who have made enormous contributions in science and literature and other fields are to be commended not as much for their public service, which had major consequences for millions of people, as for their act of raising children. I'm not saying that motherhood isn't extraordinarily important. And yes, of course, after having my boy I'd trade any book I've written or am yet to write for the joy of having him in my life. But a woman is more than the children she produces. Okay, I think I'm getting off track from the question!
Back to The May Queen essay, yes, becoming a mother did alter my way of perceiving the world. And it made time speed up dramatically, which is frightening.
NICKI: Now that you have a son, do you find that your writing life is richer? Having a toddler who is so fully immersed in her imagination has definitely opened up my world in many ways. Despite juggling the challenging demands of motherhood with teaching and writing, do you find that you have more to share now?
MICHELLE: That's a great question, but, sadly, I haven't reached the "richer" part yet. My life as a whole is certainly richer, but my writing life has suffered. Before I had my son, I arranged my teaching schedule each semester to give me two full days each week to write--which meant that I had a lot of time to thump around in my head, to think things out, to read--in short, to have a kind of life of the mind, which is something that has always been very important to me. I think a large part of writing is the time spent contemplating. Since having my son, there's no contemplation time, no leisure in my writing life. While, in the past, I had the luxury of time in developing stories, essays, and novels, now any time I find an hour of free time, I spend it racing to meet a deadline. On the plus side, having my son has definitely made me a more efficient writer, in that I can write and edit much more quickly, with fewer false starts.
NICKI: What are you currently reading?
MICHELLE: Oxaca Journal, by Oliver Sacks. Cosmos, by Witold Gombrowicz. The Last Flight of Jose Luis Balboa, by Gonzalo Barr. And some rather grim nonfiction books for research on my novel-in-progress. Also, my students' stories, and stories I've assigned for class. I'm always reading a few things at once.
NICKI: I interviewed you on my blog about your favorite San Francisco haunts and you've been hailed in your latest book for writing “a love letter to San Francisco.” I imagine the Gulf Coast in terms of humidity and lush surroundings is its exact opposite. What is it about SF, in particular the Richmond, that makes it feel like home to you?
MICHELLE: For some reason, I felt an affinity for San Francisco the first time I visited here, when I was 13 years old. It took me fifteen years after that to get here, but it was worth the wait. I love the Pacific Ocean, which I can see from my house. The fog. The huge swath of green that is Golden Gate Park, which I can see from both the front and back windows. I love the bakery around the corner, Nibs, and the coffee shop three blocks up, Simple Pleasures, and the market, one block up, and the movie theatre, the wonderful old Balboa. I love that San Francisco is made up of neighborhoods, and that the people in my neighborhood are familiar to me. They recognize my son and call out to him on the street. I love that San Francisco has more green space per capita than any other city in the country. I love that it's a raucous, bizarre city, with weird little corners and a whole lot of strange characters.
NICKI: How long have you been the Fiction Attic? What inspired you to start an online journal and how has your approach changed over the years?
MICHELLE: Hmmm, I think it's probably been five years. I'm not certain about when I started it, but we're about to go to issue 20. I started it one day when I was just playing around with designing a website. Over the next couple of months I asked a couple of friends for stories. Then I put out a call for submissions, was overwhelmed by the response, and at that point decided I'd try to make it a "real" journal, as opposed to just a little personal experiment in writing HTML. I used to publish one story per issue. About a year ago, I switched to blogging software and redesigned the site, at which point it became easier to post more material. Now, each issue of Fiction Attic features multiple stories, an interview (most recently with Kate Braverman, Katia Noyes, and Orange Award for New Writers winner Diana Evans), multiple short stories, Letters From (a letter from some unusual place), Quote the Raven (obscure literary quotes), The Tao of Wade (wisdom from my friend Wade Williams in Texas), and original artwork. The one thing that hasn't changed is that it's still a one-woman operation, from submissions to design. I think I need an intern! My next issue will be the Flash in the Attic issue-only fiction of 750 words or fewer. Contributors have included Stephen Elliott, Steve Almond, Michelle Tea, and other names you might know, as well as many new writers.
NICKI: There's very much a hypnotic note to your stories. The mystery of dreams seems to play a large part in your writing as in your first novel DREAM OF THE BLUE ROOM. I once took a creative writing class wherein we were asked to wake mid-dream at 6a.m. and scribble as much as we could remember into our dream journals. Based on these ramblings, we were meant to write poetry. It was interesting how the students' dreams began influencing each others- many had surreal dreams of snakes. Have you ever used elements of a real dream in your stories? How does your waking/conscious life versus your unconscious/dream state affect your storytelling?
MICHELLE: I've never used real dreams in my stories, but that's an interesting exercise. The title Dream of the Blue Room came from the classic Chinese novel by Taso Hsueh-Chin, Dream of the Red Chamber. I think once I had decided upon that title, which happened very early in the process of writing the novel, it opened the door to including dreams in the book. It's one of those things you're often advised not to do, as a dream tends to want to "mean too much" in a work of fiction, but to me the idea of dreaming worked well with the storyline: a woman takes a cruise up the Yangtze River to scatter the ashes of her best friend from childhood, a Chinese-American who longed to see China but never made it there.
Anyone who has been writing for very long has likely had the experience of going into a semi-unconscious state while writing, of finding the fingertips working seemingly of their own volition, as if some mysterious current is running from the depths of the brain to the fingertips, and the conscious effort of writing has been left somewhere by the wayside. Of course, not every writing day is like this, but there are moments when it happens. I'm always grateful for those rare days when I am able to sit back and write in a sort of dream state. Because, really, most of the writing is work, with the forklifts and heavy lifters going full tilt in the brain (is it obvious that I've been reading TRUCKS: My first truck board book to my toddler about ten times a day?)
NICKI: You've praised your husband Kevin, also a writer, for making sacrifices in supporting your career. After our last reading of THE MAY QUEEN at Cody's Books, you described how you first seduced him in grad school. A very amusing story. How has living with a writer and having access to an "in house" reader/editor influenced your writing?
MICHELLE: It's an enormous benefit. Some people have writing groups; I have my husband. He's the first and only person to see any story or essay I write before I send it out. His background is in Eastern European literature, and I met him when I was very young--24 years old. He was just six years older, but was extraordinarily well-read and had spent a lot of time puttering around the world. I had come out of a fairly traditional English department, and had huge holes in my reading, and he turned me on to writers I'd never heard of. I think his editing has helped me to move away from the "purple prose" I was fond of as a beginning graduate student to a cleaner, more mature style. He has a great eye for identifying where I need a scene to do a particular thing, or when a piece of dialogue should go in another, unexpected direction. I fell for him in part because I understood very soon after meeting him that he was one of the most intelligent people I'd ever known. It didn't hurt that he was also the funniest person I'd ever met, bar none!