Describe your latest book.
Spinster: Making a Life of One's Own is a memoir about the possibilities and perils of remaining single, starring six protagonists — five women who lived in the early 1900s, and me. These "awakeners," as I call them (a term I borrowed from Edith Wharton), are a mix of famous and obscure: journalist Neith Boyce, essayist Maeve Brennan, social visionary Charlotte Perkins Gilman, poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, and novelist Edith Wharton.
The story is set primarily in New York City at the turn of the last century and the turn of this one — two eras that have much more in common than you might think. In a sense, the book is a personal prelude to a cover story I wrote for The Atlantic in 2011, called "All the Single Ladies." The bulletin board above my desk is a slice of the book in miniature:
What's the strangest or most interesting job you've ever had?
I got my first job when I was 12, as a dishwasher at a local cafe, which means I've been working for three decades straight, but in all that time I've never had a job that was particularly strange or interesting, so I'm going with "most memorable juxtaposition": the summer before college I spent my days as an arts and crafts counselor at a YWCA camp and my nights making fried dough for leering drunk people at a seedy amusement park on the beach in Massachusetts.
If you were trapped in an elevator, what fictional character would you want with you?
Pippi Longstocking. She'd figure out how to free us in such an entertaining fashion that I'd forget I'm claustrophobic.
What was your favorite book as a child?
Island of the Blue Dolphins by Scott O'Dell, based on the true story of Juana Maria, a young Native American girl who survived alone on an island off the coast of Santa Barbara for 18 years. Like Pippi Longstocking, she was impossibly resourceful and ingenious.
Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?
Many times. Hands-down my favorite was the week I spent "living" at Edith Wharton's country house, The Mount, in western Massachusetts, while I wrote my chapter about her for Spinster. During the day I had free run of the place: I'd sit on the floor of her bedroom with my laptop and write, read and nap on the sofa in the drawing room, look at her books in the library, stare out the window. At night I stayed at the Blantyre hotel, just down the street, which is basically the most beautiful aspects of the Gilded Age restored to perfection. Being immersed in Wharton's world, from the furnishings to the views, deepened my appreciation of her sensibilities. If you look very, very closely at the picture below, you can see me asleep on the sofa:
And here's a shot of my dinner at the Blantyre one night:
What scares you the most as a writer?
Everything. That I'll get a fact wrong. That I won't express an idea clearly enough. That I can't ever say everything I want to say, because there is never enough room, or time. That readers will read into my work meanings I didn't consciously intend to put there.
What do your bookshelves look like? Are you a book hoarder? Do you embrace chaos, or are you a meticulous organizer?
I hoard books, chaotically. My "reference" section is loosely clumped into categories: biographies, anything related to the history of the home, works past and present about women. The rest is a jumble of everything under the sun stuffed so willy-nilly — Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles next to Dostoyevsky's Notes from Underground next to the entire Anne of Green Gables series — that every time I glance at my bookshelves, as I'm doing now, I'm overcome with self-loathing about how completely unorganized I am. And then, whenever I go climbing up the ladder in search of something, as I just did to give you those aforementioned examples, I find something I didn't know I had — this time it was a small, red hardcover from 1928 called A Short History of Women: A Revealing Record of Customs and Practices Governing the Position of Women from the Earliest Times Down to the Present Day, written by a British journalist named John Langdon-Davies — and I remember why I keep it this way.
Offer a favorite sentence or passage from another writer.
Last year at my brother's house I spotted an old, bloated, half-destroyed paperback of John Updike's Couples sticking out like a sore thumb on his bookshelf. I opened it at random and the first line I saw was: "Downhill a mailman gently sloped away from the pull of his bag." I could not believe my eyes. For a moment it seemed like the most beautiful sentence ever written — the visual perspective, the economy of language, the physical tension between the man and his bag and gravity itself. All of a sudden I understood that I unconsciously direct my reading by what I think needs to be read — as in, under-read books, or books by under-known writers — and because Updike was famous and celebrated and didn't need me to read him, I never had, and what a loss that was, as obviously he has so much to teach me, and then also what a gift, because now I have all of him before me to read. I'm glad to report that the rest of Couples lives up to that line.
Recommend five books on a subject of personal interest.
When my friend Erika M. told me she was feeling alone in her male-centric workplace, I mailed her these books to give her a sense of female companionship until I could visit:
The Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett
Prisons We Choose to Live Inside by Doris Lessing
Margaret Fuller: A New American Life by Megan Marshall
Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit
A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf