Thursday, May 29, 2008

Q and A with Welcome to Shirley author Kelly McMasters

Welcome to Shirley is a terrific , smart and heartbreaking memoir about growing up in an atomic town that I raved about in Dame. I loved it so much I pestered for a Q and A and the author Kelly McMasters was gracious enough to answer my questions. I especially loved what she had to say about the de-romanticizing of the writing process.

1. I love the fact that you were on the road to becoming a lawyer and you gave it up to write. But how did the idea of writing about your home town come about?

I went to grad school focused on a completely different project—my great grandparents performed on the vaudeville circuit and I’ve always wanted to dig into their story. But while I was in school I started working on a collection of essays, and each essay kept returning to Shirley, my hometown. I produced a number of them before one of my professors took me aside and suggested I look for a link—what question was I trying to answer by continually delving back into that place and time? The book started to come together once I hit on that question—why, when I have these beautiful memories of my childhood and my friends and I talk about our hometown as magical do we also have a sense of shame about the place where we grew up?

2. I read and loved and essay of yours on where you talk about the writing process, how you spent so much time workshopping your intro that you were finally told the workshop wouldn't be looking at any more intros of yours anymore, to get on with it and write! How is your writing process going now? (And what are you working on?)

Thank you! I was so excited to write an essay for, and was surprised when that story popped out. My workshop is such an important part of my writing process—we’ve been together in one form or another since grad school and do our best to support one another and keep each other on track. My agent is also incredible—I really don’t know what I would do without her. She read every chapter of the book and gave me detailed notes on structure as well as style. She also reads my essays when I think they’re ready to send out and edits those as well. This is incredibly rare in the business and I’m so thankful for my workshop and my agent.

In terms of process, I wish I could say I wrote every day, but I don’t; I do write most days, though. When I’m stuck, I take a page from one of my favorite writers Abigail Thomas and assign myself 2 pages on something—she suggests subjects like write 2 pages that take place in water, write 2 pages of lies, write 2 pages that involve 3 hard boiled eggs—and if it is a good day I lift my head and realize I’m on page 10. My husband has been an incredible influence on me; he is a painter, and I notice that often people romanticize what he does and imagine him in a bar every night or out gallivanting at galleries and sleeping till noon, but nothing could be more distant from the truth. Whether it is painting or writing, it is our job. If we are hung over, we produce crap. If we don’t focus and carve out time for producing the work, it isn’t going to get done. Some days you feel like writing, some days you don’t, but when you look at it as your job the excuses fall away and it is easier to just get down to work!

3. What's fascinating about Welcome to Shirley is the tone. Horrible things happened in Shirley, and yet, your childhood sounded idyllic in a whole lot of ways, because of the people. Are you still in touch with anyone from Shirley?

Idyllic is the perfect word. I’m still in touch with my four best friends from childhood, as well as their families and a group of friends from school who still live in there. The most amazing part of the book process so far has been the nearly one hundred emails I’ve received from people who either once lived or still live in Shirley. I’ve had letters from people who lived there in the 50s and from girls who are in their first year of college away from home, and all but two have been incredibly warm and excited about the book. Most, of course, talk about the people they’ve lost, and almost all of them love the good memories and nostalgia that the book shakes up in them.

4. I know, I know, it's the question every writer gets, but I'm curious. What are you working on now and how is it going?

I’m working on a collection of what I’m calling “country essays” right now, most of which focus around an old 1860s farmhouse and dairy farm that my husband and I are renovating in rural Pennsylvania. The first, called Hearts and Bones, was published in the Washington Post Magazine and I’m slowly building other pieces around that one. I’m reading lots of EB White and Verlyn Klinkenborg and George Elliot, trying to slow my rhythms down. Some writer friends told me to make sure I had another project going during the time that Shirley was hitting the shelves so I could sink into that one instead of obsessing about Shirley, and that has been a luxury. I haven’t figured out the motivating question yet so I can’t call it a book, but I am loving the work and it has a similar feel to the way the first book began, so we shall see!

5. What question didn't I ask and I should have?

One question that I think is important is: Why should someone who doesn’t know Shirley or live near Long Island care about this book?

I just returned from a trip to DC for a talk at the Cleveland Park Library, a reading at Politics & Prose bookstore, and an interview at the Wilson Center for George Seay’s Dialogue program. Folks in DC relate everything to policy, which was exhilarating and really opened up the conversation about the book. The national laboratories across the country have a history of pollution—in fact, most of the labs that focused on nuclear weapons are in worse shape than the Brookhaven National Laboratory; Brookhaven was moved to the top of the list because of its position on top of a drinking water aquifer—so this is clearly a national issue. More importantly, we are also standing at an historic moment in history: the Senate is about to look at a plan that provides $544 billion towards new nuclear power plant development in the United States. As Mr. Seay pointed out during our interview, policymakers often forget the human side of issues and don’t look beyond their reports and budgets. This book shows that human side and the subsequent collateral damage. This needs to be considered in the discussion about the ill-fated move towards nuclear power.

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