This is the second of what I hope will be many interviews in the Author-Author series. The interviews, by the way, will appear on BlogLily whenever I manage to talk writers I know into being interviewed about everything from embarrassing jobs they’ve had in the past, to what books they love.
I’m grateful to the many readers of this blog for posing most of the questions I’ve asked in these interviews. Without that help, I’m pretty sure nobody would have agreed to be interviewed. So, thank you, dear readers and I hope you enjoy the fruit of your labors.
Sandi Shelton lives in Guilford, Connecticut, and is the author of three novels, What Comes After Crazy, A Piece of Normal, and Kissing Games of the World, which will be published in November. She’s also written three nonfiction books about parenting and family life: You Might As Well Laugh (a collection of humor columns Sandi wrote for Working Mother magazine), Sleeping Through the Night…and Other Lies, and Preschool Confidential.
Sandi is a part-time feature reporter, and until recently, a free-lance writer for women’s magazines. She also teaches creative writing workshops and, of course, writes a blog.
Sandi is married to another journalist, Jim Shelton-between them, they make up the writing staff for the feature department at the New Haven Register. They have three kids who, according to Sandi, have worked out pretty well, despite the fact that for a whole decade of their lives, she was writing about her family life for the newspaper.
1. How’s your work coming along these days?
Well, my work these days consists solely of writing my fourth novel, which is due this fall. I am about halfway finished with it, which means that I spend my days mostly consumed with this fictional world I’ve created. Honestly, I probably live three-quarters of the time now not as myself but as this main character who has taken over my head. If you were to, heaven forbid, see me working what you would see would be a woman in her pajamas doing a lot of pacing, sighing, and drinking iced tea, followed by manic bouts of typing. I haven’t gotten out of my pajamas much this month, unless I have had to go do an interview for my newspaper job, that is. I love doing this so much, I can’t even describe the feeling. The only hard part for me is that I have to resist the temptation every day to go and rewrite the sections I’ve already written rather than blaze new territory, and so I am always hauling myself back to the blank screen, and yelling at myself to move the plot forward. And then jumping up and pacing while I talk to myself. (I see that I have pretty clearly outlined the symptoms of insanity.) But truthfully, I love that feeling of complete immersion that writing a novel brings to me. And when I get in bed at night and am falling asleep, the scenes of the novel play out for me just as though I were watching a movie screen, and so often (way more often than is probably healthy) I have to get up and go back downstairs and write some more. It is a wholly consuming experience for me, writing. Not always fun, of course-but as necessary to me as breathing most of the time.
2. People love to hear how writers overcome difficulties- the long slog of getting from a brilliant idea to the end of a work, the strings of rejection so long they could circumnavigate the globe, the mean reviews, the weird reactions of loved ones to your work, the moment you see your book on the remainder pile. Can you talk about the dark nights of the soul and how you kept going, even though the lights seemed to be out?
Oh my God, there are such long, difficult, heartbreaking things that happen-dark nights of the soul indeed, times that your very foundation of self seem threatened by the outside world of judgments, mean reviews, remainder piles. The best way I know to get through these times-after you’ve had your temper tantrum, complained to all your friends and had a good sulk, that is-is to write something new. No, seriously. Because the place of writing is so much deeper than either the place of publishing or marketing, you need to get back as soon as possible to the feeling of freedom that writing brings you. I have a sign above my desk that says: The writing itself is what heals us. I should mention, though, (full disclosure and all that) that I never believe this will work when it is happening to me-but then somehow I always remember it again, with a head-smacking realization, and the magic of it works once more.
Writing is the only cure I know for rejection, and it certainly helps out with those other writerly demons, too: waiting, jealousy, fear, and self-loathing. Really, the very best thing about writing (and possibly one of the only sane reasons for continuing to do it) is that you’re in control, when all else in life is so beyond your control. You can turn up the volume on your emotions, or mute them; you can explore things you would never dare to do in real life; and you can reason with and analyze all the difficult, maddening people in your life, and make the outcomes of situations finally occur the way you wanted them to be.
Also (and I know I’m really starting to go on and on here), writing brings your soul to that glorious state known as flow. You sit down and start to write, and the next thing you know, ten hours have passed and your dog is thinking you will never let him out, and your hair has started to go gray, your fingernails have grown a quarter inch, and you are spent, yet pages and pages (okay, at least paragraphs) are now in front of you. They may be good or bad-you don’t know yet and couldn’t find out even if you wanted to-but you have the refreshed, almost shaky feeling of somebody who’s just returned from a far-away place. That feeling is what stays with you no matter how many sales fall through.
But probably the best thing of all to keep in mind is that writing is one of those skills you can actually learn. You feel yourself getting incrementally better at it as you do it, and so it brings with it a lot of hope. There is also always the chance that you will reach a new level, that you will make sudden and blinding connections, connections that will speak to others as strongly as they speak to you. Breakthroughs are awaiting you. And if you’re even a tiny bit optimistic, you know that the mailman is always just about to arrive with a letter of acceptance that will certainly bring you money and fame and validation and a happy afterlife as well.
And oh yes, there is also alcohol. Don’t underestimate the ability of a glass of wine to stimulate your senses and bring you back to your native sparkling brilliance.
3. Why do you suppose so many people want to know where you get your ideas?
What a delightful question this is! It’s true that every time you talk to people about writing, that’s what they all ask: Where in the world do you get your ideas? And I always give a different answer, because the truth is, I don’t have any idea where they come from. Nor do I really mind not knowing. Sometimes ideas seem to land, fully formed, in my brain, and all they ask of me is that I just sit down and quietly type while they dictate, thank you very much. And other times, I yank and yank at the tail of an idea, and it refuses to come down to my computer until I have proven myself worthy of it by ignoring it and letting it take its own time. With some ideas, you have to play hard-to-get-even go and start washing the floor or driving around in your car with the radio playing loud-and only then will they unfold before you and insist that you pay attention.
I guess the real answer is that ideas come from little snippets of real life. You see a man yelling at a woman at the beach, and instantly you think of what their home life must be like. You see the slump of her shoulders, and then how she stalks off in the other direction, and maybe he follows her, or maybe he turns on his cell phone and has a conversation, and you can’t help it. You wonder if he’s just called his girlfriend to tell her that at last he’s broken up with his wife and he’s now free, and can he come over? Or maybe he’s a neat freak and they were fighting about how messy the house is, and he’s decided to call a cleaning service to take care of the house from now on so they won’t have to keep having this fight over and over again, and won’t she be pleased when she gets back from her walk? Or maybe he just quit his job, and she’s distraught about what they’ll do, and he’s claiming she never trusts him to make the right decisions for both of them. Or oh goodness, you know what this is? This, I’m sorry to tell you, is a couple whose only child just died last month of spinal meningitis, and they’ve come to the beach thinking they can get back in touch with the elemental things like sand, water and sun-but it’s not working, they can’t stand to be around each other or other people.
Now most likely the truth is waaaay less interesting than this. That’s why we write fiction, isn’t it, to spice up the daily tedium. She’ll come back after a while, and they’ll merely talk about something mundane, like about where to go for dinner and would he put suntan lotion on her back for her-but you, in the meantime, have halfway written a story that now has nothing to do with the actual couple, but which will weave in an anecdote you overheard your mother telling her best friend about your uncle who gambled away the family fortune, and you’ll add in the red slippers you saw on a woman at Taco Bell the other day, and the feeling you had in the pit of your stomach that day in seventh grade when you opened the door to your Spanish classroom and found your teacher in there, just springing free from the arms of the principal.
That’s where ideas really come from; you open yourself up and ask for them, and then they form themselves in your brain, using bits and pieces of things you’ve overheard or thought about, along with all the years of sensory training you’ve had just from living in a family, in a community, on the planet Earth, where things are endlessly goofy, sad, beautiful, hilarious and endlessly fascinating.
4. The business of being a writer – finding an agent, placing stories and poems in literary journals, getting a publisher to buy your stuff – can be difficult to navigate. What do you wish you’d known starting out?
Oh, there are so many things I wish I’d known! Where to begin? The main thing, though, is that I wish I’d known not to hang out with those two demons, discouragement and time-wasting, and then I wouldn’t have taken so long to get going. If I’d had any idea how time-consuming it is for nearly everyone, and not just me, to find an agent, to get published in magazines, to start getting publishers interested, maybe I wouldn’t have second-guessed myself and taken every NO as a permanent black mark on my record and my abilities. Before I got started sending stories out to magazines, I thought that things would happen quickly-that a story, if good, would automatically find its way into print. If I’d known that every writer hears negative stuff much more than positive stuff, perhaps I wouldn’t have panicked so much, and taken huge amounts of time off before I tried again. This is why hanging around with other writers is such a necessity: you find out that you’re not really any worse off than other people, and you can bolster each other up on the long, difficult climb.
5. How do you balance the rest of your life with your writing life?
Oh, I run around like a crazy person most of the time. And I whine a lot! Seriously, I try to give my best energetic time each day to the thing that’s the most important-and these days that’s my novel, so I work on it in several chunks during the day: first in the morning when I wake up, then later in the afternoon after I have had some exercise and some strong tea, and then again at night, when most decent people know to go to bed. Surprisingly, it’s the bits that I write at night that really make the most progress. Maybe it’s the quiet, or the fact that I’ve already spent half the day reading the internet so I don’t have to do that anymore, but I really feel free and happy writing at night.
6. Talk about the books you’ve loved.
Oh, dear. I always draw a blank at this question. Not so bad when I’m writing my answers, but there have been some rather disturbing dead air silences when I’ve been interviewed on the radio and get asked this. The short answer is that I love books that explore inner lives and love and relationships with honesty and authenticity-and if they can make me laugh at the same time, then I’m truly grateful. The contemporary books and authors I adore include Anne Tyler (The Amateur Marriage), Alice Munro (The Moons of Jupiter), Elinor Lippman (The Inn at Lake Devine), Anne Lamott, (everything) Elizabeth Berg (Until the Real Thing Comes Along), Amy Bloom (Away), Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love), Alice Mattison (In Case We’re Separated).[Hmm, I think having a first name that starts with an A or an E might be a definite advantage,you know? I’m going to go file the papers to change mine right now!)
I read men, too: David Sedaris, Mark Haddon, Philip Roth, Michael Chabon, Nick Hornby, Dave Eggers, among others.
And I was an English major, so I love the classics writers, too: Shakespeare, Dickens, Mark Twain, and all those major poets.
Now watch, I’m going to think of 400 more writers that I couldn’t live without and I’ll be shouting them out for the next few hours. My family will think I’ve gone mad.
7. Do you think most writing is autobiographical?
To some extent, I think everything we do and think about, and therefore create, is a reflection of things we’ve experienced; how could it be any other way? What drives writers wild is when everything in the book is thought to have happened to the author. Let me give you a painful little example. In my first novel, What Comes After Crazy, Maz, the protagonist, has been left by her husband and is raising her two little girls by herself, with much trauma and trouble. She decides to have a much-needed fling with, as it happens, the boyfriend of the woman her husband cheated on her with (are you following me?) And, perhaps unwisely, she gets caught up with this guy during a time she’s giving a slumber party for her older daughter. After the children have been put to bed, they go out on the deck and start fooling around and end up having sex out there. Now what do you think the main question I get asked at readings and by book clubs? Here is what everyone wants to know: How could you have let yourself have sex with a guy while children were sleeping inside the house, and…also, was it the most thrilling, wonderful experience you ever had?
Now there was plenty in that novel (I hate to admit this) that was from my own experience: I didn’t invent the co-op daycare Maz belongs to, or the feeling of getting divorced while having two kids to raise, or even what it was like being the daughter of a somewhat flamboyant (read: crazy) mom. I guess the emotions of the novel were my real emotions-but the circumstances I changed to be more interesting. (Well, all except for my mom. I actually had to tone her down some, to make her believable for the book.) Maz isn’t really me at all; she’s much more wishy-washy and conflicted, and her children are way more bratty than my own ever were. And I swear it now: I never had sex on a deck with the boyfriend of my husband’s lover.
8. What other jobs have you had, besides your job as a writer?
I’ve been a waitress, a medical assistant (they actually trusted me to give people shots!), a receptionist, a secretary for Legal Services, a babysitter, an adjunct journalism teacher at the state college, the editor of a weekly newspaper, and a clerk in a department store at Christmas.
Sandi’s summer writing spot