The Shelf Elf Interview (published on 1/10/13)

Amy note: I ended up laughing out loud as I worked on this interview because I NEVER expected to say I'd been inspired by Oprah -- but there it was! And it's 100% true! Also, you should know that I really, really, REALLY did want to run away with this interviewer and head for the hills (so to speak) in order to see one of the great herd migrations. I mean, wouldn't that be something?  

If you had to choose 5 things (ideas / books / objects / topics / people) that have most inspired your writing, what would you choose?

First thing that popped in my mind? Oprah. Isn’t that hilarious? It’s a cliché, but Oprah inspired me, like she’s inspired millions of others. Anyway, back in the 90s, Oprah authored a book with Bob Greene, the exercise guy. (Was it Make the Connection? I’m not sure of the title.) I probably read it to get myself exercising, but what stuck was this: In her introduction, Oprah wrote: “Just do it.” Right then, something clicked – not about exercising (I wish) but about writing. At that moment I knew I was never going to have enough time or inspiration for writing. I realized that if I wanted to be a writer – and I would have told you I desperately wanted to be a writer -- I was going to have to “just do it.” That’s when I started scheduling my writing time and being disciplined about it. I learned then that you can make time for anything -- you just have to decide that what you’re doing is worth being a priority. Yes, it means making hard choices (and possibly being your parents’ worst nightmare). In my case it meant taking jobs that didn’t require work after hours, and turning down promotions so I’d have more time to write. 

By the way, there’s good news too! Through the discipline I did find the time, and experienced all sorts of inspiration. So all the stuff I fantasized about “a writing life” came about, but through established writing habit.

Other things? Every writing residency I’ve done has been helpful in teaching me how to live without the distractions of daily life (extremely helpful). I love Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird. (My anxieties are a lot like hers, but don’t tell anyone.) And when I’m writing, I like to have a door to shut out the world.  

Is that five? I hope that’s five. I should have warned you that I’m extremely long-winded…

What are some things – other than imagining great stories and writing them down - that would make it onto your list of favourite things to do?

I’ve got lots of favorite things I like to do! I love reading novels. I’m way into cooking and farmer’s markets. I’m also a big walker and am exploring living without a car (we have one, but I try to use it as little as possible). And I’m re-discovering photography, which was something I loved as a kid. I just got my first DSLR and I gotta say that learning all these buttons, dials, knobs, menus and terms is rough, but I’m committed. Plus, photography goes well with long walks, so it’s a total win-win. 

What did ONE CAME HOME teach you about writing?

I learned that there’s a way to do historical fiction that’s like writing science fiction. The birds in ONE CAME HOME are unbelievable – just crazy. There were days I was certain I was describing some alternative universe, but this world happened in 1871 in Wisconsin. You have got to be kidding me! Still, it did. Wow. 

What helps to keep you writing when the going gets tough?

This one is simple: my spiritual life. There’s a lot of disappointment and heartache in writing – mostly in the daily doing of it. I almost always fall short trying to recreate the movie in my head on paper. Paragraphs, sentences, the English Language – all of it – isn’t nearly flexible, or layered enough. There’s failure to face every day. There’s also – usually -- some success as well. Unfortunately, I tend to emphasize my failures, which accumulate and become weighty if they lay around too long. I like having a God I can talk to about it: I give over the failures; I say “thanks” for the stuff that works; and then, I start fresh the next day. Starting fresh is hugely helpful – particularly over the long haul. 

What three words best describe your main character?

Gritty, opinionated, and strong-willed.

Are you more like Georgie or Agatha?

 My innermost, rawest self looks a lot like Georgie: opinionated, earnest, stubborn-headed, and a planner. But I wouldn’t want you to see that. I’d hope you saw me more like Agatha. I do love books, and I like to study.    

I think pigeons would likely make it somewhere onto the list of creatures most looked-down-upon by humankind. What are some things you learned about passenger pigeons that might make people see this lowly bird a little differently?

A friend of mine here in Chicago calls pigeons  “rats with wings,” and there are times when I agree -- when I’m walking under a highway overpass say, and water that’s been running through a poopy pigeon I-beam habitat dribbles on me. But otherwise I like city pigeons. First, they’re survivors. They’ve figured out how to live with people, which is no mean feat! Second, pigeon-mating season cracks me up. I love watching a male pigeon strutting, pushing himself through a pack of females. He’s purring and his head is bloated and all fluffed up. That guy works it! But the female? Not interested. Finally, the aerial maneuvers of city pigeons are worth taking a moment to watch. How do they know how to turn at the same time? How do they create those shapes? It’s gorgeous, and much more complex than jet-planes at an air and water show, and I don’t think those pigeons have to practice.  

 Your story certainly makes me think about how jaw-droppingly amazing it would have been to witness so many birds flying as one mass. The closest thing I’ve ever seen to that kind of gathering was a huge flock of starlings that nested for part of the spring in the courtyard of the building where we used to live. Have you ever seen a large group of animals in the wild, or is there a particular type of creature you’d like to see going someplace together? 

I haven’t seen anything like that – other than starlings (which, like you, I love to watch). I’d love to see one of the great herd migrations in the Serengeti, or in the Artic. I’d like to see it from a vantage that would allow me to experience the sheer numbers of animals. I mean, what would a caribou migration in the artic be like? Would it be like a river or more like a rock-slide? All those hooves pounding the earth – what would that sound like? Would the caribou’s breath plume in the cold air? If so, would it be a sort of haze you’d see them through? Or would the caribou create their own snowstorm?  

Now I want to go. I’m serious. Let’s go tonight.  

Just curious, are you pro-mule? Long Ears makes me think you might have known (and loved) a mule at some point…

I suppose I hadn’t given mules a lot of thought before writing this book. It is true that the more I researched mules, the more I liked them, and Long Ears is a wonderful mule to know. That mule won me over. 

There are some characters in some books who I have a hard time letting go of when the story finishes. Georgie is one of those characters. I’d love to know what you imagine might have happened to Georgie after she returned home and laid down her gun.

Your guess is as good as mine, though I am pretty sure that Georgie runs that store better than anyone could imagine. She’s got a head for business, though no one (not even Georgie) knows it yet. 

Thanks for this interview. It was fun!