What is the best thing that I love about my work?
Writing novels allows me to go wherever I like—I can spend weeks in a blizzard, open mysterious doors, explore abandoned asylums. I can try out alternative professions—mortician, painter, locksmith. I can walk toward my deepest fears. I can revisit past mistakes. And best of all, I can take something that haunts me and work with it in story-form until that fear eases.
What is my idea of perfect happiness?
I try not to pursue happiness so much as feeling contentment. You can feel deeply connected and engaged in relationships and in the world, even in times of sorrow and conflict. Also, you can feel awe and appreciation each day by simply taking in a beautiful sky, a fragrant walk in the rain, a smile from a stranger, an unhurried moment with an aging pet. To me, a sense of contentment is a deeper, more sustainable emotion than happiness.
What is my greatest fear?
I feel the most paralyzed if someone is hurting and I can’t help them, particularly if that someone is a child or an animal. The fear actually becomes a physical thing that I feel in my body, like another limb.
What is the trait that I most deplore in myself?
I’m trying, slowly, to learn not to deplore things about myself. I’ve struggled for a long time with the destructive habit of scrutinizing my flaws and failures in a way I would never do to others. Now I simply try to learn from them.
Which living persons in my profession do I most admire?
I love Toni Morrison, not just for her incredible writing but for the way she carries a sense of power and stature—like she owns who she is and allows herself space in the world. She’s not afraid to add her voice to the important dialogues of our time. So often you see poor examples of power in the world that are fueled by greed and corruption and self-interest, but Morrison carries a kind of power I admire.
Many of the others I admire in my profession are the unknown writers who fight self-doubt every day to work on their poems and short stories and novels and memoirs for no pay because they have something to say.
What is my greatest extravagance?
This may sound silly but it’s a really important part of my daily sense of joy: If there is something I must do on a recurring basis, I try to make it something I look forward to. And, for that reason, I make sure I really love my toothbrush, my coffee cup, my first meal of the day, and the space where I do most of my writing.
On what occasion would I lie?
I would lie to keep from hurting someone’s feelings. However, I think a sign of the strongest relationships is that there is room to share hard truths.
What is the thing that I dislike the most in my work?
I often feel lost in the process of writing a story. I might feel obsessed about a particular topic but not at all sure what I want to say about it or how to express it. It can feel like falling into chaos, unsure how all the pieces fit together. There’s a lot of anxiety when you’re lost and not sure you’ll ever find your way.
When and where was I the happiest, in my work?
The greatest pleasure in my work, and it’s hard-won, is to take something that haunts me and find a way to make that same story heal. Or to take what felt like chaos and give it a coherent shape and a deep sense of meaning. This can take years, but it’s the primary reason I write—to take what gnaws at me and to work with it till I’m at peace.
The many mini-pleasures in my writing come with how I write. I do most of my storytelling while walking, and I talk the stories into a recorder on my phone. Getting out and moving helps loosen and focus my thoughts and nurture my body.
If I could, what would I change about myself?
Oh, I’ll go out to dinner with friends or colleagues, have a perfectly good time, and then go home and pick the night apart until I can conclude that I‘d annoyed or bored the group, that I’d only been tagging along, unwanted. I do the same at readings and professional events. It’s the habit I can’t stop.
What is my greatest achievement in work?
My debut novel will always be my greatest achievement because I didn’t believe I could ever write it. For much of the process, particularly when I threw out several hundred pages and started over, I thought it would destroy me.
When I finally got the story down the way I needed to, I stopped having decades-long nightmares. And I found that all kinds of stories that had been walled off behind that first one were suddenly unleashed.
Where would I most like to live?
I’m pretty smitten with New York. But I like to travel a lot so I don’t forgot the many other ways people live.
What is my most treasured possession?
Each of my sons had a stuffed animal they took everywhere with them until most of the fluff had worn off. I keep them in a safe place and I won’t wash them because they still smell like my boys when they were little.
What is my most marked characteristic?
You know what? I have no idea.
What is my most inspirational location, in my city?
I’m always most at home beside a creek, deep in the woods, which is what I loved most about my childhood in Virginia. Here in New York, these days I’m most inspired marching with a huge crowd of protesters as we collectively stand up for the equality and dignity of our diverse nation.
What is my favourite place to eat and drink, in my city?
My favorite local restaurant is a place called Café Red, where I love to order a good Spanish wine and a salad made of asparagus, beets, tomato, cucumber and raw onions.
Even more, I love my husband’s many Indian curry recipes on the front porch with a glass of Pezzi King Zinfandel.
What books influenced my life and how?
Mother Goose, Dr. Seuss, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses made me yearn for rhythm. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series made me a lifelong reader. Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings made me want to be a writer. Nikki Giovanni, Shirley Jackson, James Baldwin, and Tim O’Brien made me hungry to write better.
Who are my favorite writers?
James Baldwin, William Maxwell, Shirley Jackson, Toni Morrison, Tim O’Brien, William Gass, Zora Neale Hurston, Albert Camus, John Steinbeck.
You Only Die Once. What music would I listen on my last day?
I come from generations of stoics who are quiet and restrained. And, maybe for that reason, I love very emotional and overstated music, from opera to hardcore hip hop. But if it’s my last day, I would probably have to go with “Give Up the Funk” by Parliament. Might as well go out like a dance party. https://youtu.be/gjKFCYzqq-A
Who is my hero or heroine in fiction?
Merricat Blackwood from Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle. In my mind, she is simply the best character ever written.
Who are my heroes and heroines in real life?
My heroes include my high school janitor, Melvin Brooks, who used to share his poetry with me after school and encouraged me to take my own poems out of hiding. I have so many other heroes, who live with chronic pain, PTSD, depression, illness, or physical disabilities, but have fought hard to create powerful art.
Which movie would I recommend to see once in a lifetime?
Wow, only one? Maybe Wings of Desire, directed by Wim Wenders.
What role plays art in my life and work?
I’m married to a costume and set designer, one son is a filmmaker, and both of my sons are musicians, so I’m surrounded by many forms of art. All of us, in our own ways, are trying to capture, examine, impact, and re-imagine the world around us.
Who is my greatest fan, sponsor, partner in crime?
My husband I have been friends since we were both nineteen. He is interwoven into almost every experience of my adult life—the joyous, the new discoveries, the failures and sorrows, the world’s ups and downs. Somehow, we never run out of things to talk about, though we are perfectly content to be together, not talking at all. He knows everything about me, and he’s still here.
Whom would I like to work with in 2017?
My answer to this question and the next one are the same. I believe in chemistry. Connections simply happen. You meet the people you’re meant to meet. You might go angling to shake so-and-so’s hand, but the great partners and agents of change will be those who inspire you to drop your guard and show your truest self and create a life more meaningful than you imagined. Those are the people I want to meet and work with.
Which people in my profession would I love to meet in 2017?
What project, in 2017, am I looking forward to work on?
The book I just finished, The Flicker of Old Dreams, will be published by HarperCollins in March of 2018. In the meantime, I’m working on something brand new, set in an abandoned asylum.
Where can you see me or my work in 2017?
Last month, I had an author profile in Publishers Weekly, where I discussed morticians and death and other aspects of my book, The Flicker of Old Dreams.
On October 27th, at 1745 Broadway in NYC, I’ll be on a panel with authors Julia Franks and Margaret Wrinkle and moderator Susan Larson of NPR, celebrating the tenth anniversary of Great Group Reads.
And on November 13th, I’m giving a reading, alongside Kim Chinquee, at the Cornelia Street Café in Greenwich Village, NYC.
What do the words “Passion Never Retires” mean to me?
As long as we’re alive, we can dream, discover, create, connect, and pursue a rewarding life.
Which creative heroines should Peter invite to tell their story?
Bridgett Davis, Wayetu Moore, Caroline Leavitt, Jessica Keener, LeConte Dill.
How can you contact me?
The links to my books: