Photo credit: Beowulf Sheehan
Describe your book.
I wrote The Optimistic Decade
out of an obsession with idealism and disillusionment, as well as with the landscape of the American West and all its booms and busts. The story (although not the novel) begins in 1982, when Caleb Silver is driving around Colorado looking for the perfect place to start a back-to-the-land utopian summer camp. He finds it in Escadom, a high desert town destroyed by Exxon’s oil shale bust, where he buys a ranch from a bankrupt family.
Eight years later, Caleb is beloved by hundreds of children and his camp is thriving. Donnie, one of the ranchers who sold him the land, wants to take it back — by any means necessary. Rebecca, Caleb’s cousin, comes to work at the camp, although she’d rather be helping out at her parents’ radical newspaper. And David, who grew up coming to the camp, is trying to prove his devotion to Caleb. As the summer unfolds and the days become hotter and the rivers dry up, tensions run high, forcing everyone to question what they believe in — and who they can trust. It’s a story of love, class, land, and trying to figure out how to change the world even when so many attempts fail.
What was your favorite book as a child?
Childhood is long and feels longer. My first love was Little Bear
, who left his mother to travel to the moon, then Babar
who hid as a hunter shot his mother, and after that, Ballet Shoes
[by Noel Streatfield], those three orphaned dancers. I was a clingy child, bedraggled by homesickness, unable to leave my parents for a sleepover, so I read about separation to help me prepare to do it.
A page from Little Bear.
As a teenager, bored by junior high, my favorite books were about alternative education. There was the Japanese memoir, Totto-Chan: The Little Girl at the Window
, about a young girl who was kicked out of elementary school and ended up in in an unorthodox wonderland of a school just before World War II shut it down. And there was Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child Rearing
, a nonfiction book I found on my parents’ bookshelf. It describes a school in mid-century England where kids were given near-total freedom, to make the rules, to decide whether to attend classes, and to have sex. How do we raise kids? How much freedom do we give them? I’ve been interested in these questions since I was a child myself, and the camp in The Optimistic Decade
comes from all the hours I spent with these two books.
When did you know you were a writer?
I only really know I’m a writer when I’m writing. So, right now, writing this sentence, I feel pretty confident that I’m a writer, but when I reach its end, which is approaching, I’ll become increasingly less sure until I start another, and in that space between I’ll wonder again if I should have gone to law school. As a kid, however, I knew I was a writer because I liked to write. I wrote a poem about rain and nuclear war and sent it to Stone Soup
, a kids’ literary journal. When I received an acceptance letter — my words in a magazine! — I felt a soaring thrill I’m still always chasing.
My poem in Stone Soup and its cover.
What does your writing workspace look like?
I write at a white Ikea table with a chartreuse Ikea lamp in a room of five such tables and lamps in a shared writers’ office that I founded 11 years ago. The view out our windows is of ice and a parking lot. In the springtime, when we finally open the windows, we smell the glue from the coffin factory across the parking lot. But working at the table opposite mine, so that we sit with our backs to each other, is my closest friend. We take breaks and talk about the wonder of Zadie Smith
’s essays and a dog in a Joy Williams
story and our kids’ 4th grade teachers and what we’re cooking for dinner and all our fears and annoyances. So I don’t care about the smells, the view; I’m where I want to be.
My writing space at The Writers’ Mill in Northampton, MA.
What do you care about more than most people around you?
I’m fascinated by American utopian communities, from the earliest to the most recent, the religious, the radical, the dietary. I like their names: New Harmony, Brook Farm, Fruitland, Nucla, The Farm, Drop City, Hog Farm, Libre, and so on. I like thinking about the audacity of trying to create a new world. I like the details, the perfunctoriness, the dailiness, which I find in the journals of participants, their zines, the photos of women giving birth under the New Mexico sun. I want all that hope. I know how the story ends. I don’t need to read much about the dissolution, the unmasking, the leader sued for bank fraud or accused of abuse, the geodesic dome abandoned to the rats.
A photo I took at an exhibit of New Mexican communes. This is from a zine about Libre.
Tell us something you're embarrassed to admit.
I’m terrible at history and geography. All those beautiful proper nouns, so useful, so specific, I can’t remember most of them. Hadrian, Ponce de León. Who were they? Madagascar. The Caspian Sea. The Strait of Gibralter. The Marshall Islands. I only vaguely know where they are.
Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good book with which to start.
You could stop reading this right now and pick up anything by Lore Segal. Other People’s Houses
is an autobiographical novel about her time fleeing Nazis in the kindertransport from Austria and then living in foster homes in England. It’s fantastic, but my very favorite Segal novel is Her First American
, which is brilliant and very funny, about race and refugees. Or maybe my favorite is Tell Me a Mitzi
, a picture book in three parts that fascinated me when I was a kid, because the children in it have both the volition and faces of much older people.
Besides your personal library, do you have any beloved collections?
After I gave birth to my first daughter, my hearing, pretty humdrum during the day, became exquisite at night. I began to wake not only at my baby’s every snort, but also at the quick pitter-patter of a mouse, the brush of a ghost, sleet on the roof. I started collecting ear plugs, morsels of wax or foam in the colors of macarons. None of them is quite right, which is why I have so many, but each offers the promise of silence. I like to hold them in my hand and think of sleep.
What's the most interesting job you've ever had?
I loved being a reporter and might have kept with it if I weren’t so terrified of making phone calls to strangers. When I wrote for High Country News
, an environmental newspaper that covers the mountain west, I descended miles underground into gold mines; I flew in helicopters to see clearcuts in Montana; I hiked with fossil thieves and Indian activists; I ate breakfast with out-of-work coal miners. Each person was a story. Actually, maybe that was the problem. I wasn’t as interested in the quotes that would further the point of my article as I was in hanging out with these people, learning about their lives, what they longed for, how they would act when they checked their mail and the letter that they were hoping for was not there. I wanted fiction, and so I wrote it.
An issue of High Country News with a story I wrote about miners.
Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?
When I was in fifth grade, my family moved to London for the six months of my father’s sabbatical. It was early morning when we landed in Heathrow from Los Angeles, although of course it felt like the middle of the night. After dropping our suitcases at our rented flat on Russell Square, my sisters and I lay down to sleep, but my dad said, No, no, we must get on London time immediately
. He marched us through the city, past Regent's Park and Parliament Hill until we reached our destination, the Highgate Cemetery in Hampstead, and there, in the drizzling rain, we said hello to the tomb of Karl Marx, whose hirsute face carved into stone was so familiar that it felt like we were home.
A photo of Marx’s grave. Since my father is in London right now, I asked him to return to Highgate Cemetery
What scares you the most as a writer?
and take this photo. It’s by him: Rick Abel.
Honestly? My own desire. How badly I want to write, to be read, to read, to not write, to get attention, to be ignored. It’s a lot of wanting.
Offer a favorite passage from another writer.
"I saw my ex-husband in the street. I was sitting on the steps of the new library.
Hello, my life, I said. We had once been married for twenty-seven years, so I felt justified.
He said, What? What life? No life of mine.”
by Grace Paley
Share a sentence of your own that you're particularly proud of.
“It seemed she spent most of her time lying down or lounging uncomfortably on her elbows, as if the purgatorial condition of college students meant that they were both too young and too old for chairs.”
Describe a recurring dream.
I was just noticing that my dreams often involve powerlessness or paralysis — trying to run but not moving while a tidal wave approaches, driving and stalling on the highway — while my husband’s dreams often involve fulfillment — he’s playing drums for Sonic Youth or basketball with the Knicks. Is this male privilege extended to the sleeping world, or simply the somnolent adventures that befit a healthier ego?
What's your biggest grammatical pet peeve?
False ranges. As in: “The fair had everything she wanted, from cotton candy to chainsaw competitions.” What lies between the poles of cotton candy and chainsaw competitions? I know I’m being too literal, too dependent upon linearity; this idiom is simply used to mean a wide array of disparate things. Still, it always causes me to stop reading and think about fairs and whether the piglet race is closer to the cotton candy end of the continuum or the chainsaw end. And then I’ve lost interest in the story.
Do you have any phobias?
Perhaps I have a phobia of bats, or perhaps I have a realistic and healthy response to the horror of waking at the chit-chit sound of echolocation to see a winged monster with the face of a demon flying fast circles just inches above my face. This has happened enough times and with enough screaming on my part that right now, as I type this, my kids are in the kitchen planning a prank on me that will involve a pretend bat. Tomorrow, even though I’m somewhat aware of the scheme, I will scream in real, vivid terror.
Name a guilty pleasure you partake in regularly.
As a Jew raised atheist, but with the long history of my ancestors' emotions in my cells, I’m pretty sure guilt is my guilty pleasure. I can feel guilty about using too many em-dashes and guilty about skipping songs in a Spotify playlist. And then there’s all the deeper guilt. I’ve thought so much about guilt, and I know it’s not productive. It’s not the same as empathy or action or restitution. So why bother? There must be something pleasurable in it, on some level, as if I believe the act of feeling guilt exculpates me. And so there I am, feeling guilty about feeling guilty. I don’t feel guilty about most other pleasures. I really love eavesdropping and snooping, but I don’t feel bad about that. People are so interesting and mysterious. And, as I said above, I hate calling strangers on the phone. What else can I do but eavesdrop?
What's the best advice you’ve ever received?
When I was 23 and working for that newspaper in a small town in Colorado and very worried about my job, my friend Lisa told me that anxiety isn’t informative. She explained that feeling anxious about something doesn’t mean it’s going to happen — or not going to happen. This blew my mind. I’d been a strict devotee of magical thinking my whole life, making sure to worry enough to prevent bad things from happening, understanding that if something good happened, something bad was sure to follow. Was she right about the lack of causality? I’m crossing my fingers and knocking on wood.
Top Five Books About the West (That Also Happen to Be by Women):
When I traveled around the west in my 20s, the two authors I carried with me were men: Wallace Stegner
and Edward Abbey
. It wasn’t necessary. I found these guys in every bookstore and coffee shop and youth hostel in every tiny town. And while I loved the way they describe a landscape, I couldn’t stand their sexism and racism. Finally I realized: Why bother? So many women also write about landscape with all that grandeur and sense of possibility, and they write just as well about the complex currents of class, race, and culture in this vast region. Here are five of my favorites.
by Claire Vaye Watkins
by Lisa Jones
by Alice McLerran and Barbara Cooney
This is a picture book. I’ve read it to my daughters one million times, and I would happily read it one million more. In fact, they’re on to me; when I tell them that we don’t have time for any more books, they say, "But what about Roxaboxen
?" And I relent. It says everything I was trying to say in my novel about the western landscape, community, fighting over territory, and the passage of time.
by Marilynne Robinson
by Leslie Marmon Silko
Top Five Books by Women That Are Very Funny and Also Serious
The two writers I mention in my answers above, Grace Paley and Lore Segal, blend humor and thoughtfulness in a way that makes me happy to be alive. Here are five other such books by women.
Bobcat and Other Stories
by Rebecca Lee
All My Puny Sorrows
by Miriam Toews
by Yannick Murphy
To the Lighthouse
by Virginia Woolf
÷ ÷ ÷
was raised in Santa Monica, California. She attended Swarthmore College and subsequently worked as a reporter and editor for political newspapers. Her essays have been published in The New York Times,
the Los Angeles Times, Slate
, and elsewhere. She received her MFA in fiction from the New School, where she later taught creative nonfiction writing. She lives in Northampton, Massachusetts, with her husband and two daughters. The Optimistic Decade
is her first book.