Manhattan / Northwestern Connecticut
I am too old to say my age. I live on a sort of perpetual loop between New York City and northwestern Connecticut, in a house built by my grandparents. In New York I live right in the center of Manhattan, and in Connecticut I live in the town with the smallest population in the whole state. So this is the romance of extremes.
What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done?
Probably writing the biography of Georgia O’Keeffe. Writing this book seemed like a monumental task, it was like climbing Everest, and I couldn’t see to the top of it. My husband, who was a lawyer, told me to separate the project into parts, into smaller tasks that I could imagine doing. So that made it possible. There were three main parts to it: archival research, which I very much enjoyed, because it consisted mostly of reading other people’s letters, and O’Keeffe and her friends were perfectly marvelous correspondents, thoughtful, articulate and engaged; interviews, which were fascinating but arduous, since I was not an investigative journalist, (and am by nature rather shy); and the actual writing, which was a great pleasure. It was a huge project, challenging, exciting, and very satisfying in the end.
Knowing yourself now what would you tell your 50-year-old self?
I think I’d tell myself to embrace more things, take on more projects. Dare to do more. What’s that wonderful feminist line? “Imagine what you would do if you were not afraid”? I think fear is an invisible companion in many women’s lives; I’d have urged myself to banish it, or at least to be aware that it was there, to wrestle with it, try to throw it overboard. And always, be kinder.
Where do you write? What’s your creative process? Do you have a room of your own?
I write in my study. I have a study both in the city and in the country, though the one in the country is in a different building, so if it’s raining or snowing or nighttime or freezing cold I may write in the main house, in the room in which my grandfather wrote, which we call The Bookroom. I write first thing in the morning, when I first get up, and write for as long as I can. When I’m starting out on a book I can only write for a couple of hours, but when I get further into it I write longer and longer, and by the end of it I write all day long and into the night. At the end of writing O’Keeffe I did nothing else: I didn’t go to the dentist, or the grocery store, I stopped running. I wrote all day, my husband made dinner and I came downstairs and ate it and then I went back upstairs and wrote after dinner, all evening, when I woke up in the middle of the night I wrote more, and the next morning I got up early and sat down and wrote again. It happened with every book, but that’s in the last stage, when the world of the book takes me over, and becomes more real than the other. When I’m in the beginning of a book I don’t know what I’m doing, and I can’t write for very long. It’s like trying to knit with spiderwebs. Then toward the end it’s like building a log cabin.
Who’s your favorite female author?
My favorite famous author is Virginia Woolf, and I teach To The Lighthouse every year to my graduate students at Hunter. It’s brilliant on every level, lyrically beautiful, formally radical, marvelously psychologically astute and complex, as well as deeply compassionate and intelligent. I love the fact that the family is at the center of it, and though Woolf is writing about a deeply civilized and decorous Edwardian household, the book starts off with a six-year-old contemplating killing his father with a hatchet. I love the scarlet threads of feminism that run through the narrative, love little Lily Briscoe with her squinched-up eyes, love her fear of censure and her stubborn, silent courage. I love teaching this book, and being able to have this conversation every year with my students. My favorite contemporary female author is Tessa Hadley, a wonderful English novelist who writes with a brilliant, glittering style and a ruthless – but not cruel – view of society. She’s a bit like Edith Wharton in that sense, another great favorite.
What are you most looking forward to in the next six months?
I am looking forward to the publication of my next book, “Dawson’s Fall.” It’s based on the life of Francis Warrington Dawson, my great-grandfather, who was an Englishman who came to this country to fight for the Confederacy. He ended up by staying on, living in South Carolina, where he edited the News & Courier. He led an incredibly eventful life, and exploring his story became a way to consider our current political situation and the question of race – which he declared was the country’s greatest problem – and the related issues of violence and slavery. The book took me five years to write, and I’m delighted to have been able to place it in the hands of my publisher, FSG.
Any final thoughts?
One of the great joys and honors of being a novelist is that it allows you to contemplate the issues that you think are important – really, any of them, all of them. It’s like writing a super-diary, one that anyone might read. You can write about the environment, about divorce, about war, about heroin addiction; about blame, and fear, and kindness – all those complicated things we wrestle with every day. A novelist gets to wrestle with them at great length, and with great complexity, if she chooses, and she gets to set out the problems as she sees them. I write about things that I find troubling, and through writing I come to an understanding about them. And sometimes what I’ve written allows other people to understand these things as well, which is very exciting. The whole point of writing is to share ideas! So I feel that it’s a great privilege to be a writer.
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