Thursday, June 12, 2008

Q and A with Meg Waite Clayton

Meg Waite Clayton's the author of a book with an irresistible cover (see right)--the written word, ah yes. But what's inside is just as riveting, and Meg was gracious enough to allow me to pepper her with questions.
(I also want to mention Meg's great blog, first books, which are terrific stories of how writers get started.) Now, back to our interview.

1. The Wednesday Sisters seems to be a very different novel than your first novel, The Language of Light. Deeper and richer and more complex. Can you talk about how you progressed from one book to the other?

Well thank you!
My writing progress definitely did not come in a straight line. Between The Language of Light and The Wednesday Sisters, I worked on a few things that didn’t pan out or haven’t quite come together yet. One very pivotal moment for me, though, was at the Sewanee Writers Conference, which I was very lucky to attend as a Tennessee Williams Scholar the summer after The Language of Light came out. I studied with Tim O’Brien, who gave us all a piece of advice that made me rethink how I was writing: He suggested we ought to be using extraordinary actions by our characters to illuminate ordinary and universal emotions. I really embraced that advice as I set out to write The Wednesday Sisters. It took me way out of my comfort zone, but that turns out to be as good thing for my writing as it is for so many things in life.

2. The thing that I really loved about your novel was the slow patient way you built up your characters while setting them against a major chunk of history. What was the research process like? Was it a combination of having lived it, talking to women who had, books, or something different altogether?

I was pretty young in the late 1960s; at the time the book opens, I was eight years old, so in some ways the character I am closest to is Kath’s daughter, Anna Page.
I do have memories of the period. Watching Neil Armstrong step onto the moon, for example, is one of my most vivid childhood memories. I remember the Olympic Black Power salute from the 1972 Olympics, when I was thirteen, too, and watching the Miss America Pageant. So I have some emotional response to those events to draw on. But even the events I remember, I don’t remember in detail. I definitely had some research to do.

I have a huge three ring binder overfull of things I collected for The Wednesday Sisters. I pored through magazines and newspapers from the late 1960s, picking out clothes and hairstyles they would wear and trying to imagine which articles they might read and what they would think of them. I did research on the state of medicine at the time, the state of scientific research, the details of peace marches and women’s rights sit-ins and women’s running. I even researched what kind of typewriters and copy machines and credit cards were and were not available at the time. I went through bestseller and top-forty lists, listened to music from the era, and watched old Tonight Show clips and old movies. (All great fun!) One of the most compelling things I did was watch the lunar landing and lunar walk footage; even still, I well up with emotion when I watch that!

The staff at the Palo Alto library was a great resource, especially Steve Staiger of the Palo Alto Historical Association, who gave me access to about a million photos. And for the things I hadn’t personally experienced, I relished opportunities to touch base with someone who had, including my mom.

I love research because it not only illuminates the things I don’t know, but also leads me to new launching pads.

One of the things I learned along the way, that I personally experienced but didn’t really remember: I started high school the year Title IX passed, but before it went into effect. My yearbook from my freshman year has pages and pages of boys’ sports, but very few of girls’ sports. There were only six teams girls could play on, two of which were bowling and archery. (I show up on the badminton team.) Not even a girls’ track team. Can you imagine that?

3. Writing plays a major part in these characters lives. I loved the message that writing doesn't have to culminate in a book deal, that it can feed the soul of anyone who works hard at it, that with hard work, it is possible to get better, and that writing can make sense of one's life. Can you talk a little bit more about this?

Like the Wednesday Sisters, I’ve come to know myself much better through my writing. I like to think maybe this is reward enough for writing, and there have certainly been times when the publishing side of things was not going well and I clung to that. Sometimes I think writing without the goal of being published might even result in better writing. I did start The Wednesday Sisters at a low moment in my writing career, and except for showing the first couple chapters to my husband and my best writing pal, I wrote it in isolation. That was liberating, actually, to just write what I thought I would like, without worrying what others would think.

(Although it was very scary then to turn the draft over to others!)
I know that even before I’d ever published a word I was already getting a lot out of writing personally. I have kept journals ever since I started writing in earnest, which turn out to be wonderful records of my sons’ lives and my own. (Which of course I feel free to borrow from when I’m writing!) The community of people I’ve met over the years as a writer is also something that is really special; I sometimes think I might keep writing just so I can enjoy their company. I observe the world much more closely as a writer than I ever did before, too—and so enjoy it more, I think.

4. I'm always interested in process. What's your writing day like? For you, what is the most difficult part of the writing?

If I had to pick a single word to describe what makes me a writer, it would be “discipline.” It sounds boring compared to the bursts of great inspiration I, at least, used to imagine constituted the makings of a real writer, but I sit down every day at the computer or with my journal or manuscript, and I do my best.

I know very few writers who couldn’t wallpaper the entire mansion in the Wednesday Sisters’ park with rejection slips, including myself. But the only thing you have to lose by trying is a little pride, and that’s a small price to pay for a shot at your dream. So I sit down and write.
My rule for myself when I’m writing first draft—and my chocolate expenditures definitely skyrocket when I’m writing first draft—is 2,000 words or 2:00. If I’ve got 2,000 words by 10:30 in the morning, I can eat bon bons all day. But the truth is if I’ve got 2,000 words by 10:30, I’m not getting up even for lunch because that is a great writing day.
I don’t even need rules for myself when I’m revising. For me, first draft is like going to a cocktail party where I know no one, and revision is like sitting down over coffee with old and dear friends.

5. What are you working on now?

I’m finishing up the first draft of a new novel with the splendid title of “Untitled Catholic Story.” At the moment, it is definitely drivel, but I’m hopeful there is a story that can be pulled out of the muck.

6. What question didn't I ask that you wish that I had?
How about: How do you hope readers will experience The Wednesday Sisters?
And the answer:

Joyously! I think of it as a little bit of a fairy tale, and I hope that, like the best fairy tales, it will make readers imagine—and reach for—great futures for themselves.
And I hope that they will respond like one blogger who posted that “…when I finished, I emailed all of my best girlfriends just to tell them I love them.” I’d just spoken to my friend Brenda, my “Tuesday Sister” (because that’s when our Nashville writing group met), when I read that post, but after reading it I picked up the telephone again and called Jenn, my #1 Wednesday Sister, to tell her I loved her.

No comments: