Monthly Archives: November 2012

Misplaced Person: Anne Sanow

I’m really pleased to kick off this interview series with Anne Sanow, recently displaced from the storied beaches of Provincetown, MA to the baked flats of Lubbock, TX. Though I’ve never been to Lubbock, it occupies a place in my heart since this person hails from there.

David Schuman

Anne Sanow is the author of the story collection Triple Time, winner of the 2009 Drue Heinz Literature Prize and the 2010 L. L. Winship/PEN New England Award for fiction. Her book was selected as a “Must-Read Book” by the 10th Annual Massachusetts Book Awards. She’s currently a visiting professor of  Creative Writing at Texas Tech University.

1) Where do you come from, originally?

I hail from Sunnyvale, California, which is about as quintessentially suburban as you can imagine.  But it’s California quintessential.  When I was growing up there (this was in the 70s and 80s) there were still orchards among the tract housing; I woke many mornings to the sound of a tractor in the fields by this fruit-and-vegetable stand called the Corn Palace.  (That’s actually still there—it must be the only unpaved part of Silicon Valley still left!)  Right after high school graduation I moved to Saudi Arabia and the other expats I met joked that they imagined me spending my high school years going to the beach and drinking champagne in hot tubs, which I vociferously denied until I realized that it was kind of true.

2) What geographical area would you say defines you as a person and maybe also as a writer? This can be a specific place (New York, Cleveland) or a geographical element (mountains, prairies, ocean). How has this place or element defined your work, if it all?

There’s no one place I could choose, nor even particular elements—I can say that I’m drawn to water, but I’ve been equally happy living on Cape Cod or next to the Hudson River; I like vastness of any kind, things windswept and stark and even a bit barren.  Given that I’ve been a serial monogamist with the places I’ve lived over the past 25 years, I suppose the uniting aspect would be something of that vastness and its possibility, some sense of always being able to look out and imagine.  Wandering and migration fascinate me, and feeling out of place—that’s something that many of the characters I write about experience.

3) Describe where you are now–describe a few things you’ve learned about this new place that have surprised/frightened/frustrated you?

For the first time since leaving California, I’m back in the West!  I’m currently a visiting professor at Texas Tech, which is in Lubbock.  This is what they call the Panhandle/Plains area of West Texas, and you really get a sense of plains pretty much right outside of the city limits.  There are ranches and cattle and cotton fields, and a lot of windmills.  The altitude is 3,000 feet, but it’s so flat that when it rains the streets flood out.  It also smells like cow manure quite a lot—which is not a bad smell, really.  The birds have long tails and shriek differently than they do back East.  Men wearing cowboy hats is routine.  I’ve never seen so many fabulous vintage Ford pickups in one place as this, ever.  Oh, and there’s supposed to be this good museum downtown commemorating some famous dead rock star . . . what’s-his-name . . . just kidding, David Schuman.  I know you’re going to unfriend me if I don’t get there soon.

Surprised?  Well, I’m still not used to being called “ma’am”—it’s not an age thing here, as even a 20-year-old Starbucks cashier will say it to a 20-year-old customer.  It’s still odd to me when students do it, though.  Frightened?  No; unless I should be more wary of the (many) stray dogs in the neighborhood.  Frustrated?  Lack of beauty: the city is not very attractive overall, I hate to say, but that’s why I’m learning to get out and explore.  Next weekend it’s the canyons a couple of hours north.

4) How has your current location filtered into your work or your writing life?

Not yet—but it will!  I always need to give it time.  It took more than 10 years after leaving Saudi to write about it; having recently departed New England, that’s only just now starting to wend its way into a few drafts.  I’ll definitely use this place at some point, and look forward to seeing how that happens.

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Easy Does It – Chad Harbach and Tracy K. Smith

Recently, I decided to read a novel (The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach) and a book of poetry (Life on Mars by Tracy K. Smith)  at the same time. I read a chapter, then a group of poems, and continued this pattern over the course of several weeks. I discovered similarities – things I mostly liked and occasionally disliked – about both works. I also found a few lessons.

Lesson #1 – Don’t Shy Away from Well-Traveled Terrain

As writers, we are often told to explore new subject matter and forms. However, there are some subjects that are universal for a reason and strike chords. The topics of baseball in The Art of Fielding and outer space in Life on Mars speak to the geek in me. At different times in my life, I was obsessed about both topics, and I’m not the only one. Both writers find a way to treat these well-traveled topics in a fresh way, while still managing to keep an ease and simplicity in the work itself.

Lesson #2 –  Simplicity Does Not Mean Shallow

OK, I’ll admit it. As a fiction writer and poet, I got a bit jealous by how easy The Art of Fielding and Life on Mars were to read. The “effortless” prose and poetry felt very much like watching an athlete like Kobe Bryant gliding to the rim.

Neither writer adorned their works with words that called attention to themselves. Chad used the very familiar setting of college life to paint vibrant scenes without a lot of additional prose that took away from the sharp dialogue. Tracy often used simple metaphors (e.g. The Universe Is a House Party) to build her poems around.

While each author occasionally annoyed me – The POV charecterizations in The Art of Fielding were sometimes too shallow and there were a couple of clunkers (very bad poems) near the end of Life on Mars – I found myself excited and engaged with both works.

Lesson #3 – Ignore the Reviews and Make Up Your Own Mind

There were plenty of reviews available online and friends who wanted to share their opinions about each book. It’s always this way with books that have “buzz” and I needed to work hard to avoid finding out too much about them in advance. Of course, if you are reading this blog, it’s OK – no spoilers here!

– Martin Ott

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Misplaced Person – David Schuman

How does where we live define who we are as writers? Writelivining seeks to answer that question with a new feature called Misplaced Persons. We’ll focus on writers’ thoughts on being displaced/misplaced—in the contemporary literary world, in pursuit of academic jobs, fellowships, and educational advancement, we writers lead a peripatetic existence. I’ve start interviewing a few writers to see what they’ll say. In the meantime, here’s my own story.

– David Schuman

I was born and raised in the suburban doldrums of New Jersey. Highway 18, strung between two shopping malls, was our main artery. Along that highway, we had the most pizzerias and bagel stores, per capita, in the nation. The original pizza bagel was invented by accident, peanut butter cup style, when one harried father rushing out of Brunswick Bagels collided with a frenzied soccer mom exiting Sal’s, next door, carrying an extra large.

Okay, I made that up. But it could have happened there.

Manhattan was twenty-five miles or so to the northeast—I could see the Twin Towers (nobody said World Trade Center) from the Exit 9 ramp—and the city was a beacon, a promise I made to myself in my room at night after a day of junior-high humiliations. Although I moved to Philadelphia to attend art school, and then finally to New York (where I found the coalescence of eighties fantasy and nineties NYC reality somewhat dissatisfying), in some ways I will forever be trapped in East Brunswick, New Jersey, the way a part of me is still the exposed nerve I was at fourteen, when, as my father used to put it, “You break out in tears if someone looks at you cockeyed.”

When I started writing fiction, I turned, naturally, to New Jersey. I had a dim awareness of the suburbs, particularly the northeastern suburbs, as well-traversed fictional territory, but I naively imagined that no writer had really done for Central New Jersey what Carver had done for the gray, misty towns of the northwest, especially through the lens of “coming-of-age.” I had not read (though would soon read) Frederick Reiken’s excellent Lost Legends of New Jersey and Junot Diaz’s revelatory Drown was still a few years from publication (yes, more of an urban take, though in NJ the relationship between its sooty, blighted cities and strip mall studded suburbs creates a whole—it is nearly impossible to consider, and Diaz does consider, one without the other). As I moved into an MFA, a Route 130 story under my belt, I considered myself a New Jersey writer, and thought my home state a subject worthy of much fictional consideration.

My MFA program, though, was in St. Louis, a place I didn’t know at all and never would have imagined living. And two things happened there that changed my idea about the kind of stories I wanted to write.

The first was when the fiction editor of a prestigious literary journal spoke at a publishing forum the program sponsored. She was a commanding presence, this editor, herself a short-story writer of some renown. Standing at the podium in a snappy suit, she was, to us eager beavers in the audience, a gateway, someone through which we had to pass in order to fulfill our chosen destiny…okay, it was St. Louis—there’s a 630-foot tall monument to such metaphors right downtown.

“What don’t you want?” some intrepid questioner asked, cutting to the chase. The editor’s answer left me cold, blinking like a bird that’s hit a window.

“No more stories about growing up in New Jersey,” she said. She didn’t smile. She meant it. I could sense my fellow students’ eyes on me, even heard a few muffled snickers. I had, only a few days ago, presented yet another growing up in New Jersey story to be workshopped. Some suburban kids take a trip to the Pine Barrens and run in with some yokels…blah, blah, blah.

After a day or so, I shrugged it off, but a fizzy, titillating residue remained. Of course there were plenty of New Jersey stories out there—it’s like the most densely populated state. So fine, I’ll write about other places! Isn’t that what I’m supposed do, imagine stuff? I was freed from the ball and chain of Jersey forever! Thank you, prestigious editor!

Secondly, right there in front of me was an entirely new landscape—with its rumble of four am freight trains, its tornado sirens, its strange processed cheese—one I hadn’t grown up with but could try to write my way into, creating a hybrid of the real and the imagined in a way I could never do with New Jersey, a place that ran in my very blood, that had poisoned me. And St. Louis, because of my limited outsider access, was a much more manageable place to write about. I didn’t really know what was underneath its shabby surface so I was free to make it up. St. Louis was a city that even a modestly empowered superhero could handle—no sprawling Gotham or Metropolis was this. And I could make it mine by not proclaiming it, by remaining an outsider. It was my fictional city, my Beck, Nebraska (like in Dan Chaon’s “Big Me”). This idea of place changed the way I think about my work and opened up possibilities for me I never would have had if I’d stayed in where I was.

I do still write NJ stories, sometimes.

I do not submit them to a certain prestigious magazine.

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