Describe your latest book.
My novel, The Daylight Marriage, is about a wife and mother who goes missing one day. The narrative alternates between her husband and children's story, as they try to figure out what's happened to her and the story of what is, in fact, happening to her. The husband is a climate scientist who studies the connection between global warming and hurricanes. The wife is a part-time florist. And their teenage daughter is unwittingly enamored with the gay couple next door. The book is about marriage and family and how our small, daily decisions can snowball in a way that we may not intend.
What's the strangest or most interesting job you've ever had?
In my early 20s, I was a counselor at a shelter for homeless and runaway teenagers. Many of the kids had violent pasts involving weapons; a few of them had attempted homicide. Most of the kids had been court-ordered to live at the shelter.
I sometimes worked the overnight shift. I was always on edge there, even while they were asleep. I was worried they might try to escape, and I was the only one there to keep them from doing so. Thankfully, no one ever did, although one boy did pull a knife on me (the other kids restrained him and everyone was all right in the end).
The shelter was an otherworldly place at night, with 12 sleeping kids, the ticking of the clock, the hum of the heater, that dark, creaky old house. At night, I paced the hallways, peering in their bedrooms, feeling a bit like a prison guard. Of course when they slept, they became harmless kids. They slept four or five to a room, tucked beneath their institutional sheets, many with their teddy bears or old blankets under their arms. Some still sucked their thumbs. To look down at a big kid curled up in footed pajamas, sucking his or her thumb, to think of the violence that this young person had often witnessed or been victim to and later inflicted — that was something.
Describe a recurring dream or nightmare.
I am lost in Montreal, the city where I went to college. I am my current age, but I have been made to return because I never graduated and now I need to take just one or two more classes in order to complete my degree. My kids are back home in Massachusetts, untended. I am late for a class and cannot for the life of me figure out my way around the campus. There is very little subtlety, character development, humor, or texture in my recurring anxiety dream. Every time it's the same old thing: lost in Montreal, can't get to class, worry about kids. Anxiety. Repeat.
Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?
I grew up in a town that many people visit for its literary past: Concord, Massachusetts. My sister was a tour guide at the Louisa May Alcott house. My high school is walking distance to Walden Pond. The graves of Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson and Nathaniel Hawthorne are near Concord center. Growing up, I and many other kids, I suspect, heard these names so often that they meant little to us. The Alcott House was just somewhere my sister worked. Walden Pond was the crowded place where we went swimming. Emerson was the name of the town's hospital.
Only after I left did I come to appreciate these literary ghosts that surrounded me as a child. In my 20s, living in Colorado, I discovered (I won't even say "rediscovered," given what a slacker I was in high school English) Thoreau, and Walden became my bible for a while. Self-reliance, appreciation of nature and quiet, civil disobedience — these were things that finally spoke to me. Bit by bit, Concord has come to life for me in a new way. My husband did some research for Megan Marshall's Pulitzer-prizewinning biography of the fascinating and forward-thinking Margaret Fuller. I've come to appreciate Louisa May Alcott and her ahead-of-her-time tomboy, Jo, from Little Women, which I've been reading to my daughter. I'm now on the board of PEN/New England and was incredibly lucky to be able to walk around Walden Pond with T. C. Boyle, who won the PEN/Thoreau award for nature writing.
Now, when I visit the town, the pond and the Alcott House and the beautiful old library and Authors' Ridge at Sleepy Hollow Cemetery all look and feel entirely different. They have gained so much more meaning than they ever had for me when I was a kid.
I guess the shorter answer to the question would have been, "No."
Dogs, cats, budgies, or turtles?
A very sweet and strangely large hamster named Harriet for now, although one day, when my kids are a little older, it might be a dog. My kids have been begging for a dog for years, but I am smart enough to know that I'll be the only one taking care of the thing. I am allergic to cats, and beaks and shells freak me out, to be honest.
Name the best television series of all time, and explain why it's the best.
Six Feet Under is my favorite. I can't say that anything is objectively "the best." (Um, I guess there's my job editing The Best American Short Stories. Hopefully in my forewords and the guest editors' introductions, we have adequately expressed our discomfort with that pesky word, "best.")
But Six Feet Under. It got me thinking about death in a new way. It made me question why we as a culture are so mystified and deeply frightened by death. My husband and I used to watch it while we worked out on stationary bikes in our garage. We gobbled up the whole series in just about a month. Those characters! Their knife-like honesty! And those beginnings, those deaths. Just brilliant. I would watch the whole series again in a heartbeat.
Who do you follow on Twitter and why?
People who are funny or surprising or weird or who write books that I love. People in publishing and bookstore people, as well as this one local weatherman — Dave Epstein (@growingwisdom) — who makes weather forecasting sound like poetry. Taye Diggs, who made me think I was pretty hot stuff when he followed me. This was before I realized that he follows almost everyone on the planet. Joyce Carol Oates, Victor LaValle, Roxane Gay, Elizabeth McCracken, Lena Dunham (don't believe the haters). I am a big fan of Twitter.
Do you have a favorite font? Does it change depending on the project?
Times New Roman. It's so boring, I know. I wish I were more of a snazzy Book Antiqua or an elegant Garamond kind of person, but Times New Roman is the only font that is invisible to me. It allows me to see just my words and therefore my own true self — for better or worse — on the page.
Five Books on Writing
Writing is never just writing. It's living and failing and doubting oneself and thriving and then not thriving at all. These five very different books capture various elements of the writing process and the writing life and have been useful to me at certain points of my career. Here are five great books — funny, profound, technical — about becoming and being a writer.
1. On Writing by Stephen King
2. Out of Sheer Rage by Geoff Dyer
3. A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf
4. Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
5. Writing in General and the Short Story in Particular by Rust Hills