Describe your latest book.
I was raised in the mountains of Idaho by a father who opposed many of the institutions that most people take for granted — public education, doctors and hospitals, the government. As a result I was never put in school, never visited a doctor or nurse, and was not given a birth certificate until age nine. I was 17 the first time I set foot in a classroom, but 10 years later I would graduate from Cambridge with a PhD. Educated
is the story of how I came by my education. It is also the story of how I lost my family.
When did you know you were a writer?
I never did. I wrote this whole book, and never once thought of myself as a writer. The situation was very simple: I wanted to write this one thing, and because it was my life and it mattered deeply to me and to other people, I didn’t want the writing to be bad. So I learned how to write — not because I thought I was a writer, or thought I should be writer, but simply because there was something I needed to do, and in order to do it I needed to be able to write well. I needed to understand the tools of grammar and structure and language — all the tricks that writers know — because I knew they would help me tell my story. So I learned as many as I could.
I listened to lectures online about grammar and sentence structure. I had never heard of the “short story,” but a friend gave me one, and after that I read them compulsively. Each one seemed to me a little textbook. Short stories are full of writerly tools because they have to be: they have to achieve a lot and quickly, so they are packed densely with tricks and mechanisms. I would find a story I loved and I would read it maybe 50 times until I understood how it worked. The New Yorker Fiction Podcast
was a wonderful discovery because in each episode, after a writer reads a story, they discuss the story with Deborah Treisman
and together they explain how the story works. These episodes taught me most of what I know about writing. They taught me about point of view, about the judicious application of repetition, about reverse parallelism, ambiguity, and all the rest of it.
What does your writing workspace look like?
I have a desk that looks out of a window. The window is very important, so that I will want to spend time there. I have a big chair, that has to be big so there is room for my dog to lie in my lap, and I have a footstool. And many cups of tea.
What do you care about more than most people around you?
Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good book with which to start.
I adore Toni Morrison. I think we would all be better writers if we read more of her. You could read anything, but I particularly love The Bluest Eye
. I love the simplicity of it. It’s a short novel, perfectly paced and uncomplicated, not weighed down by needless subplots or lengthy descriptions. And it’s heartbreaking.
What's the strangest job you've ever had?
I used to roof hay barns for my father. It’s dangerous work. Writing is much better.
What scares you the most as a writer?
That people might actually read my book! I wrote my story for myself — because I wanted to write my life in the hopes of seeing it from a new perspective, and make it feel different the second time around. I wanted to make sense of the loss of my family, but more than to make sense of it, I wanted to describe it in a way that would help me live with it. To put some beauty into it, even if it was tragic beauty. Now that it’s written, it’s a very strange thing to think of other people reading it.
Offer a favorite sentence from another writer.
“There are times when it will go so wrong that you will barely be alive, and times when you realize that being barely alive, on your own terms, is better than living a bloated half-life on someone else's terms.”
— Jeannette Winterson, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?
What's your biggest grammatical pet peeve?
When a writer adheres too closely to grammatical rules and sacrifices style, sound, rhythm, or even meaning in order to fulfill some directive, which as often as not is derived from Latin constructions and is utterly irrelevant to English anyway.
What was the hardest part of writing your story for you?
It wasn’t what I expected it to be. I thought it would be hard to write about my brother, because he had been violent and angry, and sometimes cruel, and for a lot of years I’d been afraid of him, felt trapped by him, felt utterly under his power. But strangely, it was not difficult to write about him. I knew I was not there. His power was broken and I was free. I was in control of myself now. It was my choice to return to those moments, to write them, and it was within my power to leave again.
So the moments that had been the most difficult to live were actually some of the easiest to write.
What was hard to write about were the lovely things: the beauty of the mountain, the ring in my mother’s voice when she laughed, the way she looked when she canned peaches. These were the things about my childhood that I had loved the most, and these were the things that I had lost. It was painful to be so close to them again and know that I would never have them. Like attending the wedding of someone with whom you’re still in love. Those things stayed with me for days after. I felt haunted by them.
My Top Five Favorite Short Stories.
I’m going to share a list of my favorite short stories from The New Yorker Fiction Podcast
, because that podcast influenced me so much while I was writing my own book. Each of these stories showed me something crucial about how to write — some grammatical tool, some mechanism of structure, some trick of language. I’ll give just one example: Nabokov’s "My Russian Education." This story showed me that sometimes, when you are writing an event of great drama, of huge emotional power, the best approach might be to write around it, rather than write it head-on. This way you can allow the reader to imagine the drama. Nabokov achieves this by cheating. The story is about the death of his father, who was assassinated when Nabokov was a young man. But the story Nabokov tells is in fact not that story; most of "My Russian Education" tells the story of a duel between Nabokov’s father and another man, a duel which never takes place. As a reader, you are deeply relieved when this news comes, and you learn that his father will not die in a duel. A few sentences later, well, that is when you learn that he will be killed some years in the future. You experience that death not as violence, blood, and gore, which is how a lesser writer might have written it. Instead, you experience it as a loss of the comfort and safety you had been feeling. You hit the ground hard because you were riding high after the happy outcome of the duel, so you had a longer way to fall. It’s a cheat. And it’s brilliant.
"Voices Lost in Snow"
by Mavis Gallant
"The Treeline, Kansas, 1934"
by David Means
"My Russian Education" by Vladimir Nabokov
"Dog Heaven" by Stephanie Vaughn
"The Ormolu Clock" by Muriel Spark
÷ ÷ ÷
was born in Idaho in 1986. She received her BA from Brigham Young University in 2008 and was subsequently awarded a Gates Cambridge Scholarship. She earned a MPhil from Trinity College, Cambridge, in 2009, and in 2010 was a visiting fellow at Harvard University. She returned to Cambridge, where she was awarded a PhD in history in 2014. Educated
is her first book.