If you could cook dinner for any author, dead or alive, who would it be? What would you make?
I would love to cook dinner for Christine de Pizan, an amazing French feminist writer of the late fourteenth century I am particularly fond of her Book of the City of Ladies, which imagines what the world would be like if women ran it. As Christine was a pampered lady of the French court, I would need to make something à la francaise, because she probably wouldn’t like anything else. I think I would make a cream of lettuce soup, followed by a duck in orange sauce, finishing with a tarte tatin. (And yes -- I DO know how to make all that. I had a job years ago translating at a cooking school in Paris that catered to American students. They paid me and gave me cooking lessons. I have an intermediate certificate in French cooking from the now-defunct Ecole de Cuisine La Varenne.)
What scares you the most about the writing process? How do you combat your fears?
Years ago, I used to revise while sobbing. I usually write first drafts with gusto and confidence, sure I have written something amazing. Then, after a time, I return to the first draft and realize it is just a stinking mess. This used to bother me, but now, I acknowledge how bad I am before I become better. I combat my dread of realizing I am not yet better than Shakespeare ever was by admitting to myself that not even Shakespeare was Shakespeare in his first draft. As the novelist Camus said, “Ecrire, c’est récrire” -- to write is to rewrite. This is just the job of the author in all genres.
Who is your biggest literary crush, author or character?
Like many female avid readers, I fall in love with male characters authored by women. Without endorsing the glaring political problems of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind, I used to have a massive and dysfunctional crush on Rhett Butler. Luckily, I realized that I did not so much want to be with Rhett Butler as I needed to acknowledge that in some measure I AM Rhett Butler. I am an eccentric Southerner (transplanted from Brooklyn) with suspicious Yankee ties. I dress well. I swagger. I am unapologetically unconventional. I might be brave to the point of recklessness. And frankly, my dear….
I do retain a love for Rostand’s Cyrano de Bergerac -- probably not the actual historical figure -- but the man who could win a sword fight while composing a poem with an envoi? That’s what makes me want to shout at Roxanne that she should forget the pretty boy soldier and respect the man who ghost-wrote him. But I forgive her. There is no way she could have understood in a society that demanded virginity from brides that a very big nose might be a sign that something else was out-sized as well.
What books are on your nightstand?
Currently, I have a scholarly edition of The Confessions of Nat Turner (the historical document, not the Styron novel), Tracy K. Smith’s utterly brilliant collection Life on Mars, Derek Harriell’s Stripper in Wonderland, Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward, Fire and Fury by Michael Wolff (Don’t judge me! If this book is wrong, I don’t want to be right), The King James Bible, and Alison Pelegrin’s delightful collection Water Lines, of which I just published a review. I tend to read a lot all at once. I only finish about eighty percent of the prose books I start. If the prose is too provocative of grief or fear, I get a little like that Friends character Joey and want to put the book in the freezer. Right now, Ward’s novel is breaking my heart. It may end up in the freezer for that reason.
Where do you get your ideas? What inspires you?
I get my idea in portions, rarely as a whole. For instance. I wrote a series of poems called “Tribulation Lyrics.” I started from the premise that if one reads the Book of Revelation as a whole, one sees events before the return of Jesus at a distance comparable to the one from which satellite photos might be taken -- big-picture, impersonal perspectives of the masses’ experience during tribulation. I first asked myself how one might express something in a first-person lyric that couldn’t see the big picture in any meaningful way, where the person was in the middle of living through a difficult time on Earth. I wondered what that would look like. I had the negative example of the Left Behind series, which writes about what could be the most interesting topic in the world but finds itself understandably overwhelmed with trying to fit all things in Revelation into the series -- I frankly think it’s poorly written, for all the money it made. So I gave myself small Revelation assignments: The first one was, “if you could leave a note right before getting raptured, what would you say?” The second was, “if someone found evidence of a missing person that might have been raptured, what would he or she say to the police?” For the first of these two, I thought about who might find the note. I decided it would likely be someone trying to hotwire a nice but abandoned car. For the second of these two, I decided to incorporate the trope from traditional Catholic hagiographic studies, where a sign accepted of sainthood is a dead body smelling like flowers. I decided a housekeeper would be a likely 911 caller, and I made her smell unidentified roses.
Favorite punctuation mark? Why?
The question mark is the most productive punctuation mark and is hence my favorite. All of scientific inquiry depends on it. I read a great deal of religious literature, and I love how in the Talmud (which I have only read in translation -- no Aramaic, alas ) the method of inquiry is almost always to answer one question with another question. I note that God doesn’t answer Job out of the whirlwind at the end of Job with answers but with questions. I read once from Elie Wiesel that while humans disagree with each other about a great many things, our questions unite us. Therefore, I applaud the question mark as the unifier of the human race.
What book were you supposed to read in high school, but never did?
Not surprisingly, my high school assigned Moby Dick, and by chapter 3, I wanted to have that stupid white whale eat them all. I just found Melville’s prose pompous, phallocentric (though I didn’t know that word then), and boring. I got in trouble with my English teacher. She saw me scribbling during her Moby Dick lectures in a way that didn’t suggest I was writing down what she said about the book. She thought I was passing notes. She made me stand up and read to the whole class what I was working on. I was toward the end of writing an 18-page paper on how all of Tennessee Williams’ female protagonists resemble his mother as he describes her in his memoirs. After class, she spoke to me kindly about why I wasn’t reading Melville as assigned, and because she was so impressed with what I was writing about Williams, she let me turn in that essay in lieu of a Moby Dick paper.
What inanimate object would you thank in your acknowledgements?
I would like to thank the world’s supply of Diet Coke. I am shamed by those who claim that the current president’s eccentric and hostile tweets are fueled by his overconsumption of that soft drink, but I manage to keep my Tweets grammatical and polite despite an excessive consumption of that product. Don’t take my word for it. Follow me @annebabson and see for yourself whether or not I make up stupid nicknames for my political adversaries or ever end a Tweet with a single word sentence -- “Sad.”
Why do you write? The first 5 words that come to mind. Go.
You might read and understand.
If you could write an inspirational quote on the mirrors of aspiring writers, what would you write?
Never fall so much in love with the booming sound of your own voice that you drown out the soft and improbable voice of irrational inspiration.