much research do you do for your books?
It’s amazing how much research writing fiction requires.
I find that a story doesn’t seem authentic and feel
deeply imagined unless its author really understands very
precisely what it is she’s trying to describe. Usually,
the information or insight about a certain subject that ends
up in the final draft is a tiny fraction of all a writer must
learn about that subject.
one of the many reasons I love writing fiction is that it
allows me to do a lot of research, and doing research for
a book is a wonderful way to justify learning about obscure
corners of the world.
addition to “book learning” and Web-browsing,
I also try to give myself many of the same experiences my
characters have had. For example, I experimented with gathering
and processing and eating acorns while I was writing Into
the Forest, and I volunteered at a center for homeless women
and children while I was working on Windfalls. Because one
of the characters in the book I’m currently working
on is a midwife, I recently received my certification as a
long does it take to write a book?
Thus far, it’s taken about five years per book. Maybe
I’ll get a little quicker once some of my children leave
home, but I doubt I’ll ever be able to write very fast.
It generally takes me a great many drafts to discover the
story I want to tell, and then many more drafts to shape and
polish that story.
do you write?
I write whenever I can. When my kids were younger, that meant
writing during naptime and after they were in bed at night
(which meant no wine with dinner...). Now that they are older,
I write whenever I’m not “momming” or teaching.
I try to write at least a few hours every day, and I try equally
hard to be gracious and graceful and generous about giving
up those hard-won writing hours when the rest of my life intervenes.
do you write?
I have a twelve foot, thirty-five-year-old travel trailer
across the yard from our 1,200 square house, and that is where
I generally go to write, though I also frequently take my
laptop with me when I go into town, and write in the library
or in my car while my children are occupied with classes or
friends. I worry sometimes that the townspeople must think
I’m either nuts or a spy when they see me parked on
some back street, writing away.
do your characters come from?
My characters are like imaginary friends who grow more clear—and
dear—to me the longer I know them. They are different
aspects of myself, of course, and very occasionally they are
suggested to me by people I’ve known. But, like the
characters who people my dreams, almost all of the characters
in my stories are really like no one else I’ve ever
do you get your ideas?
My ideas come to me most often as ways of examining the questions
that my life offers me. I get many more ideas as I’m
writing than I do when I’m not writing. That’s
one of the many reasons I keep returning to my desk.
other authors have influenced you?
I’m influenced by everything I read. When I read, I’m
always trying to see what I can learn about the art and craft
of writing. A short list of the writers whose work I love
the most are William Shakespeare, Thomas Hardy, Jane Austen,
Alice Monro, Mary Oliver, Billy Collins, and Marilyn Robinson.
For a longer list you might want to check out my “Favorite
long have you been writing?
I’ve been writing seriously since I was in my mid-twenties.
Although I wanted to be a writer since I was a little kid,
it wasn’t until I was in graduate school that I learned
how to take my rough drafts and slowly and steadily shape
them into something that (more nearly) satisfied me.
are you working on now?
I’m currently nearing the end of another novel. In many
ways this book is a departure—yet again—from my
previous work. One of the main characters is male, and there
are scenes which make me (at least) actually laugh out loud.
But at the same time, that story, too, asks questions about
mothering, and art, and the environment, and what things are
worth devoting one’s life to. I guess you could say
that all of my books share the same DNA.
I love to teach, and always welcome the opportunity that teaching
gives me to think very deeply about various aspects of the
art and craft of writing. Reading manuscripts takes a lot
of time, but it is generally a great pleasure to be able to
look at someone else’s work in progress, and I often
find that trying to respond helpfully to my students’
drafts helps me to better see my own work. I also enjoy the
camaraderie of teaching. Writing is a fairly solitary enterprise,
and it’s good to meet with others who are in the same