Describe your latest book.
Set Me Free is a novel about the life of a school, love lost, love found, long-hidden secrets, being the father of a daughter (and the daughter of a father), straddling two cultures, the foibles of liberal ideals, the aftershocks of radical activism, and how a group of strangers becomes a family. Set mainly at Ponderosa Academy, a school for Native American kids in the Oregon high desert, Set Me Free is told from the points of view of four people, all intimately attached to Elliot Barrow, the founder and headmaster of the academy: our narrator, Cal, Elliot's best friend and bitterest rival; Amelia, Elliot's sixteen-year-old daughter; Helen, Elliot's ex-wife; and a newcomer named Willa, who is at the center of Elliot's biggest secret of all. The novel takes its title from the last three words of Shakespeare's The Tempest, which haunts the book's structure, characters, and themes. Throughout, Set Me Free is narrated by the acerbic Cal, a Native American man with secrets, and fears, of his own.
Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good book with which to start.
I absolutely love the work of Rose Tremain. Her most recent novel, The Colour, about the New Zealand gold rush in the 1860s, is wonderfully odd and beautiful. She's a British novelist who is brave in exploring stories that require tons of research and vivid imagining outside her own skin: one novel, Sacred Country, is about a girl who grows up to be a man; another, The Way I Found Her, is a psychological thriller set in modern Paris; and Music and Silence is about a royal lute player in seventeenth-century Denmark. Her fearlessness inspires me. She gives me permission to be as weird and bold as I want to be. Cal, a middle-aged Native American man, would have never ended up as the narrator of Set Me Free if I hadn't read Tremain's books.
Offer a favorite sentence or passage from another writer.
From Virginia Woolf's diary, 29 September, 1924: "How entirely I live in my imagination; how completely I depend upon spurts of thought, coming as I walk, as I sit; things churning up in my mind and so making a perpetual pageant, which is to me my happiness."
Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?
From the time I was a little girl, every time I went to my grandparents' house, my mother would pull one particular book off the shelf, breathlessly open it to the flyleaf, and read me the inscription. I wasn't allowed to touch it myself; the bookshelf it lived on lay far out of my reach. It wasn't until my teens that I understood why this book was so important: it's a first edition of F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Beautiful and Damned. Fitzgerald gave it to my great-grandfather, who ran a bookstore in Minneapolis and was friendly with many writers, including Sinclair Lewis and Carl Sandburg, both of whom inscribed their own editions, which now reside on that same shelf. What strikes me as particularly special about the Fitzgerald inscription is that it addresses an intimacy between two men, of which I'll never know the details:
For Cornelius Van Ness
Every time I go to my grandparents' house, the first thing I do is visit this book.
In memory of
many hot debates
Describe the best breakfast of your life.
Late summer, rural France, close family, fresh croissants, creamy butter, raspberry jam, scalding tea, ripe peaches, cherry yogurt, and the ocean breeze.
Who's wilder on tour, rock bands or authors?
I was blessed to be invited on the First Fiction Tour in the spring of 2005, for my first novel, The Effects of Light. The First Fiction Tour is based on the model of a rock tour, replete with posters designed by Mike King; it sends a handful of new writers out onto the road, to do readings in pubs instead of bookstores, attracting a younger crowd. It was simultaneously a blast and incredibly exhausting six cities in less than two weeks. I don't know how rock bands do it. We were constantly on airplanes, experiencing daily that bewildered feeling of waking up in our hotel rooms with no idea what city we were in. Which isn't to say we writers weren't a little wild that last night in Austin is a blur of margaritas. However, like the dorks we are, the four of us finished up the night signing each other's Mike King posters, like seniors signing yearbooks. I bet rock bands don't do that.
On a clear and cold day, do you typically get outside into the sunshine or stay inside where it's warm?
I never thought I'd be a New Yorker. From the time I was nine, I was a Portland kid through and through. But I kind of accidentally moved to New York after college, and I haven't left yet. I couldn't live anywhere else in New York but Brooklyn it's the closest thing to the Northwest you'll get here. Prospect Park is gorgeous, the people are kind, there are tons of sidewalks to tromp up and down. I work from home. In order to retain my sanity, I have to get outside for a significant period of time every day, no matter the temperature. There's nothing sweeter than a long, thinking stroll on a cold Brooklyn afternoon.
Aside from other writers, name some artists from whom you draw inspiration and talk a little about their work.
Music is a huge part of my process; when I was writing Set Me Free I listened to a lot of Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen and Gillian Welch I was trying to tap into that feeling of driving along dusty roads in the high desert. I'm also absolutely in love with Patty Griffin's work, especially her new album, Children Running Through. Her time has come.
When I was writing The Effects of Light, which is about two fine-arts models working with a photographer, I spent a lot of time sticking visual art up all over my office. I've been a photographic model for two people: Jock Sturges and Mona Kuhn. I grew up working with both of them, so in many ways, they taught me the ins and outs of how to be an artist on a daily basis. I admire both of their work deeply. It's a gift to know their art from the moment of its inception.
Right now, my sister, Kai Beverly-Whittemore, is making a film called Bone Doll about being a photographic subject. I've learned a lot from watching someone I know so well make a piece of art about a subject I know a lot about (and wrote a book about), and yet her angle on it is utterly different. That's very invigorating.
Recommend five or more books on a single subject of personal interest or expertise.
It's not accident that the last three words of The Tempest are the title of my second novel. Although Set Me Free is in no way a retelling or recasting of Shakespeare's play, I borrowed structure, characters, and themes from it; in addition, the children of Ponderosa Academy perform The Tempest for their community. I'm not the first writer to be inspired in this way by a literary masterpiece:
5 Great Books that Borrow from or Flirt With Literary Masterpieces
Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (Ulysses by James Joyce)
The Hours by Michael Cunningham (Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf)
A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley (King Lear by William Shakespeare)
Grendel by John Gardner (Beowulf)
On Beauty by Zadie Smith (Howard's End by E. M. Forster)