All of your books seem to touch upon medical narratives and feature strong women characters. Can you talk about why that is?
I like the thorny questions medical developments pose for human identity. My first book, The Sperm Donor’s Daughter, looks at assisted reproduction. My novel, The Baby Lottery examines both fertility treatment and the huge question of second trimester abortion. My third book is a linked collection titled The Medicated Marriage that questions why we are medicating ourselves and our children, and whether we’ve created a world that’s too sped up to live in. I suppose you could say I write about the politics of the body.
My father was the catalyst for my interest in medical issues, aside from the fact that medicine is a field where birth and death happen—the big themes. He didn’t want me to become a writer initially. He was a man of science, an obstetrician, and as a young man he served his medical residency before Roe v. Wade in the labor-and-delivery ward of Los Angeles County Hospital. His stories were memorable. My consciousness as a feminist definitely also came from my mother, who was a script supervisor on one of the first multicultural films made in the US— House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday— and she also worked on B-grade biker flicks. She was often the only woman on the set besides the makeup artist, and she was this kick-ass skinny broad in a buckskin coat. She gave me a lot to aspire to.
My parents dared to live unconventional lives; they lived with their children, not for them. I think you could say that’s true for me as a mother of two children who also writes and teaches.
How did you get started with writing?
I started writing in the third grade. I was obsessed with death. I wrote a poem about the death penalty. I was lucky to be in a school with a good arts curriculum and we had creative writing, so I really took off at an early age. I thought I was a witch too, so I wrote spells and cast spells on people. It was my way of being powerful. I was a somewhat morbid child. We moved around a lot and it was a way for me to carve out a realm of my own.
The structure of my original family was a little unusual from a genetic standpoint. My mother and her sister married my father and his brother; both couples divorced after having children. This is what made my childhood unique and forged me as a writer; so many voices and versions surrounding a common event. I was always caught in the middle and would grant each relative his or her wish to have the one true version. I maintain that position now with my characters, and I hope the readers of my work change their minds and shift their sympathies countless times.
Your recently published Shebook, “Diary of A Slut,” is set on an island and “Her Wildness”at the base of a volcano. Are they based on real places?
I am very conscious of being a western woman writer. “Her Wildness” takes place on Highway 542, which originates in Bellingham next to the Puget Sound and ends at the top of a steaming volcano, Mount Baker. I like roads that end in extreme places of beauty. I don’t have to make these places up. They exist, and land is a character all its own in my stories. The boom and bust of the Northwest is embedded in my humor. Jack Kerouac’s “Sal” keeps heading west in On the Road, and as much as I love the book, the women are mostly fuckable roadside attractions. When I wrote wrote “Her Wildness,” I wanted to write it from the waitress’s point of view inside the roadhouse.
With “Diary of A Slut,” I want the reader to experience the isolation of Salbatora Island and that quality of being outside of time. It was important to me to set the story on an island since islands are places where species sometimes evolve in different ways, and I wanted to take a look at the school as a collective that has transformed into something tribal. The rules and regulations by which a normal school functions have fallen apart in this situation and the collective has become something else entirely. I did attend a small alternative high school in the 1970’s on one of the Channel Islands, and I’ve since heard of similar schools in the San Juan Island Islands; they were very much a product of 60’s utopian thinking about education reform.
I also believe land becomes saturated by ghosts, especially if it has been blood soaked. “Diary of a Slut” contains ghost stories, the notion that ancestral presences are always with us, and the narrator’s girlhood self is someone that she is looking at and speaking about in third person and that’s sort of the way that ghosts are always with us, as old selves are always with us. The ghost motifs are always tied to the land.
Where did your ideas for The Baby Lottery come from?
I found the idea for this novel at the bottom of the driveway by the mailbox, that’s where a neighbor told me about a friend of hers who’d had a second trimester abortion and the splintering effect the news had had on a group of women. The neighbor moved soon after, but the idea stayed.
I wrote the novel because for me, fiction is a way to present the complexity of human experience instead of becoming polarized by politics. Unfortunately, the public debate on abortion has been framed by all-or-nothing positions that seem to me disconnected from how people live. I’ve written as authentically as I know how about a group of women whose responses to a friend’s abortion represent a wide range of values. I also made a point of actively describing women at their jobs with their loyalties divided. That’s crucial to me in the current climate of Chick Lit, where young people are not encouraged to look at life beyond finding Mr. Right, where they aren’t being invited to think about how current social policies affect families. I feel comfortable talking about all of those things.
In both The Sperm Donor’s Daughter and The Baby Lottery, there were stories about steps, exes, and halves. What is it about broken connections in families?
I think there’s a tremendous amount of pressure on families, and I think our definitions of family are far too narrow, so that people are made to feel either failed or weird. The former Pope, Jean Paul, had it right when he said: “we live in an age of savage capitalism.” I want to write about the savage feelings that go along with that. Women are exhausted. Men are exhausted. The social changes that feminists envisioned in the 70s were not enacted. But there’s very little social analysis, in fact, I think instead men and women are encouraged to blame each other—the so-called mommy wars. Or we’re encouraged to pathologize our problems–the exhaustion of the impossible task must be depression or some sort of personality disorder.
What’s the greatest risk you’ve taken in your writing?
A friend’s death compelled me to write “The No-Tell Hotel” as did my own fear of illness. I have Crohn’s Disease, so this is something I think about. My relationship with my own children has caused me to reflect on the large number of children and teenagers out there who live with ill parents and have little to no support. I wasn’t sure than anyone would want to read a story about illness, which made me mad and more determined to write it. The story won the Goldenberg Award for Fiction, which was judged by Jane Smiley, and was subsequently published in The Bellevue Literary Review. So I learned something there, and it compelled me to finish my new collection, The Medicated Marriage.
“The No-Tell Hotel” follows a mother who has opened her door to her son’s friends who have run away or been kicked out of their homes after high school graduation. One of these teenagers in particular, Sid, has a mother with multiple sclerosis whom the narrator must care for after Sid runs away.
The experience of illness has affected my work profoundly. There’s very little in our society that recognizes living well with pain or illness or supports people who are afflicted.
How do you define chick lit and how do you see yourself in relation to that category?
Chick lit in my view is a derivation of the romance genre. Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones was the first big chick lit book and it sold over 4 million copies. So, it obviously tapped into something out there. Many women now like to trace chick lit back to Jane Austen, because she was writing novels of morals and manners, but we forget, they were a response to eroding class boundaries in Britain. I think certain kinds of social anxieties are expressed by chick lit, but the issues are very clearly for the middle class. That doesn’t get challenged. What concerns me is not that this genre exists, but that there is an increasing tendency to pull all women’s literature into that category. If all women writers are all classified that way, what happens to the female writers of social protest and other difficult social questions?
I believe that the blanket classifying of all women’s writing as chick lit goes back to the age-old notion that women only write about small, domestic matters. I see my books as tackling ugly social questions and not fitting into the category of chick lit.
You identify yourself as a Northwest writer. Why is this identity important to you?
I am a sixth generation Westerner. My grandmother’s grandmother arrived in 1860. My parents split up when I was small, and I moved around a fair bit so that my childhood encompassed Los Angeles, San Francisco, Santa Barbara, and the Eastern Sierra Nevada. I’ve lived in the Pacific Northwest now for over twenty years and have considered its many forms of precipitation. I think that like painters, writers have a palette of color and hues; mine definitely belongs to the West.
What do you like to teach?
Teaching puts me in the middle of a cultural conversation, and I love that. Because of my students, I update my knowledge base constantly. I recently established a course called “The Literature of War,” because I see this disconnect in society between Main Street and military culture and that troubles me, especially with so many Vets returning home and coming to campus on the G.I. Bill. I also established a 1960s lit course in my department and that has been a great opportunity to talk about the Vietnam W
ar, political protest, civil rights, idealism, all of it. And every year, I teach Editing and Publishing, because I want to enable young people to influence the book industry and find careers they might not have known existed.
What advice do you have for an aspiring writer who is just starting out?
Remember why you loved creating as a child and get lost in it. Write from love; love even your most reprehensible characters. Don’t take on the martyred artist view of yourself. Don’t be duped by the celebrity fantasy. There was a time when everyone in the village danced, or sang, or told stories, or made things of beauty. Plenty of people are super creative. How much better we’d all be if it were totally woven into the fabric of our everyday lives. Think about all the reasons for telling stories that don’t have to do with getting yourself published. We dream in narrative, and we tell stories to heal ourselves and others. If you don’t get published via the conventional route, don’t become bitter. Become a publisher yourself. Independent publishing is key to the democratic process. I always tell my students, “You may not make a lot of money, but you can be part of the cultural conversation.” That’s what matters to me. Being a writer in the community.