If you could cook dinner for any author, dead or alive, who would it be What would you make?
The evil side of me would ask Hemingway and I would serve him raw oysters. I would expect him to explain his choices while he watched the recent documentary about his life.
The ambitious streak in me would ask Lydia Davis; I’d ply her with wine, prosciutto and a zillion questions about her writing process while swearing on the life of my grandchildren that I wouldn’t reveal any of it.
The spiritual part of me would ask Mary Oliver, to whom I would serve sweet tea and macaroons while hoping beyond hope that she would explain her mystical self.
My authentic writer-self would entertain Alice Munro with chicken and dumplings (the only thing I cook really well). I would kiss her ‘pope’s ring’ in gratitude.
I would sincerely desire to ask Eudora, but I would be far too nervous.
What scares you the most about the writing process? How do you combat your fears?
The Very Blank Page terrifies and especially if I simultaneously have file cabinets devoid of any recent work that is decent.
I fight this situation by piddling and tidying, denying and doing all I can to tell myself: it doesn’t matter. If I gather up courage, I try to sneak up on some phrase/word/idea that’s been niggling.
Who is your biggest literary crush, author or character?
Good grief: only ONE???? Alice Munro, Marilynne Robinson, Tolstoy (short stories), David Jauss, Mary Oliver …. The list is endless.
What books are on your nightstand?
Jack by Robinson
Music for Hard Times by Clint McGowan
Ambition and Survival by C Wimon
Why I Wake Early by Mary Oliver
The Americans, by Robert Frank
On Beauty by Zadie Smith (Audible)
Mary Sutter by R Oliveria (Audible)
People We Meet on Vacation by Henry (Audible)
Favorite punctuation mark? Why?
The dash – tho I know it isn’t loved by editors much. I like it because I think in tangents and dashes help me insert those musings (before I delete or move them).
Also the interabang – because a wonderful Dallas bookstore is named for it.
What book were you supposed to read in high school but never did?
Actually, I read what I was supposed to back then; I especially gobbled up all the literature and that was when I knew I was addicted to it. In graduate school tho, I avoided Cost Accounting.
What inanimate object would you thank in your acknowledgements?
My secret office. It is attached to my garage in such a way that no one would ever know it is here unless they were invited and no one is ever invited.
If you could write an inspirational quote on the mirrors of aspiring writers what would you write?
“Be a loner. That gives you time to wonder, to search for the truth. Have holy curiosity. Make your life worth living.” Albert Einstein
Or this: “Extreme brevity,” from Chekhov in his ‘six principles of a good story.’
Does writing energize or exhaust you?
What are common traps for aspiring writers?
Paying attention to things outside the page in front of them.
Not working on their own soul, thereby projecting too many of their own issues onto the page.
Not finding paid work that will not allow enough energy and focus for the page.
What is your writing Kryptonite?
Over-commitment to energy-sapping activities.
Have you ever gotten reader’s block?
Yes. It is an absolute nightmare.
Do you think someone could be a writer if they don’t feel emotions strongly?
I believe very much in Holy Detachment – allowing pretty much everything to be what it authentically is on its own and in the present moment. This is especially true of allowing the story on the page to be itself without me making using it for therapy or anything other than what it is, with its own voice. My emotions should therefore be entirely irrelevant …. I cannot judge for any other writers; everyone has their own process and the demands of that process.
What other authors are you friends with and how do they help you become a better writer?
I’m blessed with some wonderful friends who are writers: Robin Underdahl Gropp, Ben Fountain, Robin Oliveria and all the members of a writing retreat that I lead at my church. So many others – some I see regularly and some seldom. They encourage me to persevere, and they also comfort me when I despair about something I’m working on. When I get to see their works from inception to completion, I know that with some effort, I might make work what is clumsy, inarticulate and unclear.
Do you want each book to stand on its own or are you trying to build a body of work with connections between each book?
It is probably true that when we look at a writer’s entire body of work, we see connections either with characters or with themes. However, I do not believe I can be deliberate in that regard. Some of my characters appear in multiple stories but overall, each story and certainly each book, are stand alones.
How did publishing your first book change your process of writing?
Since I’ve just now sold my first book of stories, I can’t really answer that; I’m just too early in the process. I will say I have an increased respect for the non-writing parts of the process of getting a book from my office to readers.
I will say that when I first began having individual stories taken by literary journals, I felt validated in terms of writing skill and sometimes validation of the life in the story. One of my earliest stories was published by a teacher of mine – and that was a ground-breaking validation because when I wrote it, I had zero interest or investment in anyone even liking it. I wrote it my own way and for myself. My realization of the story having its own life changed my work a lot.
What is the best money you ever spent as a writer?
I paid a writer-friend to send out my stories so that I could remain disconnected from everything in the writing life except what was on the page. This freed me from illusory ambition and fantasy expectations and kept my mind on the page.
Also, for many years, I’ve given myself an annual writing retreat away from home and family, always for at least a week. I’ve been many places, but in recent years, I check into Dairy Hollow Writers Colony; they house us, feed us and leave us alone.
What authors did you dislike at first but grew into?
What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
I grew up in a ‘high church’ of the Episcopal denomination and we had the King James’ version read to us A LOT every week. The church was small, poor and dark with a formal liturgy. I learned mystery from all that … and the mystery was circumscribed by the language itself even when my finite mind couldn’t understand.
What’s your favorite under-appreciated novel?
We all need to study Alice Munro’s stories which are so complex that they certainly rival any novel written.
I do believe the Marilynne Robinson’s work will stand the test of time both in literary communities and the general population. I hope too it will be seriously studied among religious people for its theological sophistication and moral confrontation about social issues.
David Jauss’ work is under-read in my opinion – he is a writer’s writer and anyone can learn a great from him about the imagination. Plus, despite his knowledge, his stories are fantastic reads.
As a writer what would you choose as your mascot/avatar/spirit animal?
The Border Collie – herding what is alive and important.
What do you owe the real people upon whom you base your characters?
I’m pretty sure no one will ever recognize themselves. If they do, of course, I am grateful that they let peek out their authentic selves and especially their contradictions. Contradictions make stories come alive.
What does literary success to you?
Language with its own legs, its own force/energy to connect with readers.
What is the most difficult thing about writing characters from the opposite sex?
Probably the testosterone factor which I’m supposing is behind thought patterns and consciousness, especially for quite young males.
I really love writing from male POV and have done a lot of that, but honestly I never give gender much thought because I believe the POV of a story is demanded by the actual story.
What did you edit out of this book?
I chose the stories from my stash that seemed to group around an intuitive sense of the human experiences of looking for love, explaining their experiences of that search to themselves, and then making choices about it all. Most of the stories had been revised to death though already. The ones I originally chose are in the book today. I did not use any of the stories I’d written when I was trying to be Eudora.
It occurred to me after the book got to final draft that in writing each of them, I had cut out the absolute maximum so as to be left with what was essential to describe what was critical in a particular moment --- as if I was trying to minimize the description of that moment and still have on the page the human experience OF that moment.
If you didn’t write what would you do for work?
I cannot imagine not writing seriously, but for me, it’s never been about work. Writing is a spiritual journey, a longing toward truth.
CYNTHIA C. SAMPLE is a the author of the short story collection Forms of Defiance.
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