Photo credit: Mark Murrmann
Describe your latest book.
The Art of Vanishing
is about my search for Barbara Newhall Follett
, the child prodigy novelist who disappeared when she was 25. It’s also about my own marriage and search to reconcile my feelings of restlessness with family life. Barbara led a very unconventional life, and I related to her yearning for freedom. But there are many perils to these impulses. The book alternates between Barbara’s story and my own. Ultimately, both my story and Barbara’s ask if it’s possible to be bound to the people you love, but also free.
What does your writing workspace look like?
I wrote The Art of Vanishing
in different cities and countries — New York, Mexico City, Oaxaca, Conway, Arkansas, Banff, Washington, DC, and Oakland, California, so my workspaces were constantly changing. In Mexico, my foster dog, an energetic Labrador-German Shepherd mix, lay at my feet as I wrote. After an hour and a half, he would bark until I took him for a walk or played with him. I tend to roll my eyes when writers are overly finicky about their workspaces. You could fiddle with your desk forever, trying to create the perfect environment for the divine muse and never write a word. I’m all for eliminating distractions and appreciate aesthetics as much as anyone (the view out the window at Banff was amazing), but at some point you just have to sit down (or in my case stand up) and do it. I have trouble sitting for long stretches, so I tend to alternate between standing and sitting. My standing desks are very DIY — usually a box on top of a desk, which probably isn’t great ergonomically, but I get along.
I’d like to deconstruct the idea of a workspace entirely. Sometimes my workspace isn’t a desk at all. When I get stuck on an idea, I make a point of leaving my desk to take a walk. I spent a lot of time pacing around one particular block in the Roma Norte neighborhood of Mexico City, so those blocks pop to mind as a “workspace.” Sometimes I would try to sort through a writing problem as I walked and sometimes I wouldn’t. But I always found that when I returned to my desk, I could approach the issue with a fresh perspective and usually solve it. As I was writing, I also had experiences and conversations that informed my work as much as anything that I did at my desk. The cross-pollination of engaging with other people, places, and ideas enriched my writing — my life, really — enormously. The impulse to shut the world out so you can work can be dangerous. Isolation is an ideal breeding ground for ignorance.
Share an interesting experience you've had with one of your readers.
I’ve had so many interesting conversations with people about Barbara’s disappearance. Recently, a man emailed me with a document he had found that he thought might help in my search for her. We started sharing documents back and forth. I like that the search for Barbara has become a collaborative effort.
Another interesting thing — my parents recently read my book. They were extremely supportive, but also quite shocked. The book contains very personal details about my life and marriage and they were surprised not so much by what they discovered as by the fact that I had written so openly about my life. They had considered me a very private person, and it’s true, I can be. But I felt very comfortable opening up in the book, partially because I worked very hard not to imagine my readers as I was writing. “You were fearless,” my dad said, which really touched me. But then I thought about it a little more, and said, “I think you mean shameless,” and we laughed and agreed that that was probably right. I do feel shameless about the book — and moved that the people in my life who could have rejected my shamelessness didn’t.
Tell us something you're embarrassed to admit.
I can barely spell. I want to blame it on spell checker and computers, but I didn’t have one until the fifth grade and I didn’t spend much time on the computer growing up. I think something may just be wrong with me.
Introduce an author you think people should read, and suggest a good book with which to start.
Elizabeth Flock’s beautiful nonfiction book, The Heart Is a Shifting Sea
is about three Indian marriages, but it’s also very much a captivating story about place. She reported the story over almost 10 years, and it feels both intimate and universal. Also, check out Lauren Markham’s The Far Away Brothers
, which is about
her twin students' harrowing journey fleeing from El Salvador’s gang violence to America. This is a deeply humane book about immigration that feels incredibly relevant right now. Both of these books are the authors’ debuts, so this is the only place to start.
What scares you the most as a writer?
I’m afraid of becoming isolated. I aspire to be the kind of writer who lives an eventful life and draws her material from being deeply engaged with the world — with current events, with my community, with friends and family, with the natural world. But writing is a solitary, mostly indoor activity, and nonfiction writers seem more cloistered than ever before, due mostly to money constraints. It’s hard to hit the pavement when people won’t pay you to do it. I freelanced for a long time and spent a lot of time by myself in front of a screen, and often ran out of ideas because I had no material to draw from.
Offer a favorite sentence or passage from another writer.
I just read Rachel Cusk’s Aftermath
, a memoir about her divorce. She has so many stunning lines. Sometimes they’re just turns of phrase like “the swarming silence of experience” or “the gunpowder smell of personal truths.” But one of my favorite passages in the book is when she watches a family biking through a park wearing protective helmets and luminescent strips and she’s struck by how fearful traditional family life can be. She writes, “They seem to have taken all the fun out of life: Spoilsports! What happened to passionate conflict and reunion, the kinetic of man and woman that drives the lifeblood around the body? These men and women wear protective helmets to pass through a public park.” I admire Cusk’s literary viciousness.
Do you have any phobias?
I’m afraid of flying. I understand, in theory, how flying works, but as the plane takes off, I completely forget the laws of physics and think to myself, “How is this enormous metal plane staying up in the air? This is impossible!” Plummeting feels like a very real possibility to me during the entire flight. Katie Roiphe has this great line in The Violet Hour
about Dylan Thomas being scared on an airplane not long before his death. She writes, “Many high-strung people panic on planes; if your life is at all fragile, airplane travel is one of those moments when you feel that fragility most acutely; any lack of structure, of solidity, any sense of the bottom falling out, makes itself felt as the plane rises into the air.” That rings so true to me. During takeoff especially, I feel vulnerable in a way that seems shattering. The problem is that I love to travel, and being afraid of flying doesn’t mesh with the person I like to believe I am, so I fly anyway, but I have to drink alarming amounts of booze to get on the airplane. Or take a Xanax.
Name a guilty pleasure you partake in regularly.
I’ve been having trouble sleeping recently, so I read cookbooks to fall asleep. They’re boring and comforting. I’ve also been listening to the 2 Dope Queens
podcast a lot. I know it’s good because I laugh out loud when I’m listening to it alone.
What kind of writing speaks to you today? What kinds do not?
I’m very interested in genre-defying authors right now. I loved Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts
. She seemed to invent a form all her own — part psychology, part literary and cultural criticism, part memoir. I love Zadie Smith
’s nonfiction for the same reason. Sometimes an essay of hers will mix literary criticism with memoir, art criticism, and history. For me this mode is more intellectually honest and reflective of the cognitive process. I enjoy writers who are omnivorous thinkers, drawing on a mishmash of their own experiences and encounters with other thinkers from a variety of backgrounds.
As for what is not speaking to me right now, I’ve been feeling the inadequacy of polemic to respond to this time we live in. In the wake of #MeToo, the steely certainty of that form doesn’t do justice to what’s going on. Of course, in theory, each polemic is advancing the conversation, hopefully making room for a wide variety of voices. But right now it seems like each author is sitting down hoping to write the definitive piece... to end the conversation. And it has become a vehicle for a lot of privileged white women to lash out at each other. I’ve occasionally felt myself wanting to write my own polemic, partially out of the misguided idea that this is the only way a writer can make a living today, that having some kind of “hot take” will launch your career or ensure stability.
Recently, I’ve come to terms with the fact that I’m just not that kind of writer, and that realization has come as a tremendous relief. Perhaps I don’t have the stomach for the backlash, or perhaps I prefer to operate from a more flexible mode of inquiry — probing and asking, rather than stating. I find ambivalence to be much richer terrain for exploration. The experience of entering my 30s has been entirely humbling. Everything I thought was true has come undone, and I feel in awe of — almost grateful for — this fact. I realize the absurdity of this: I’ve just written a polemic against polemics.
My Top Five List of Excellent Memoirs(ish).
- Darkness Visible by William Styron. It’s perhaps the most beautiful book about depression I’ve ever read.
- Henry and June by Anaïs Nin. This isn’t really a memoir, but her journals about the year when she fell in love with Henry Miller and his wife.
- Zami: A New Spelling of My Name by Audre Lorde, a totally absorbing memoir about her childhood in Harlem.
- Fun Home by Alison Bechdel is an engrossing graphic novel about her upbringing. It’s an exploration of sexual identity, as well as family dynamics more generally.
- Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter by Simone de Beauvoir is about this titan of feminism’s formative years.
÷ ÷ ÷
’s writing has appeared in The New York Times, Slate
, and Mother Jones
. She worked on The Art of Vanishing
while on a fellowship at the Banff Arts Centre. She lives in Oakland, California.