I had the opportunity to interview Meghan Daum (http://www.meghandaum.com), the author of the newly released book The Unspeakable and Other Subjects of Discussions. Here are some highlights from that session.
While writing, what kind of relationship do you often form with your own writing self – a painful or a joyful one?
What kind of relationship do I form with my writing self? If you’re talking about the way I feel about myself when I’m writing, I’d have to say it’s 20 percent joy, 40 percent pain and 40 percent some combination of ambivalence, doubt, frustration and anxiety. It’s fairly rare that I experience that euphoria or “flow” that writing gurus like to talk about. I’m not denying that it exists or that some people don’t access it on a regular basis. I’m just saying that I’m usually working under a deadline or under various restrictions or requirements that are making the process something less than a spiritual journey. That said, there are moments when I find my way into a phrase or an idea or, better yet, an entire passage that seems (for lack of a better phrase) really right. And that can be tremendously satisfying.
If you’re talking about the kind of relationship I form with the persona I’ve constructed, the “me” on the page versus the “me” who’s composing the words, I’d say that there’s usually an intensity or even drama in the “on the page persona” that doesn’t quite exist in real life. Just as fiction writers have to propel their characters into situations or states of mind that are going to result in a compelling narrative, nonfiction writers who are working in the first person have to push the tone past their humdrum real life selves. I am not in any way advocating for being less than truthful or even exaggerating. I am saying, rather, that you have to dig down and think really hard about the truth of the situation and then present that truth in honest terms. Often those terms are surprising or slightly discomforting or, at the very least, not something you’d say to someone in casual conversation. (Though please understand I’m not talking about being gratuitously shocking.) And when you do that you inherently create an intensity that is interesting to the reader.
Are you effected by other people’s appraisals of your work? Have you ever been hurt by them?
I’m human so of course I’m affected by other people’s appraisals of my work. Of course, you have to consider the source. If it’s someone just jawing away on a random blog or on Twitter that’s not going to carry as much weight as someone you know whose opinion you respect. But a huge part of being a successful creative person in the current cultural climate is figuring out how to filter out all the noise while still being receptive to feedback that might be helpful. For me, this is ongoing process. As a newspaper opinion columnist for nearly ten years, I essentially bathe in vitriol, anger, misdirected outrage, ad hominum attacks and so on. I wrote about this in some length in this piece in The Believer a few years ago. Generally, I don’t read the comments on my columns, though sometimes I skim them to see what the general vibe is and if anything looks potentially thoughtful or interesting I’ll take a closer look.In terms of reviews, I guess you could say I hold my hands in front of my face and peek at them through my fingers. It’s wonderful to get a reviewer who truly seems to understand the book and is engaging with it on the level on which I wrote it. Even if that reviewer doesn’t like everything about the book, it’s great when he or she truly gets it. The most frustrating thing is when a critic totally misses the entire point of the book and operates from that misunderstanding throughout the whole review. As for Amazon reviews, I haven’t looked at any of them with this last book. I don’t look at the reviews and I don’t look at my rank. I just went cold turkey. And so far so good.
What was the last truly great book you read?
The last truly great book I read? That’s a loaded question. “Truly great” can manifest in so many different ways. Off the top of my head, I’d say Andrew Solomon’s Far From the Tree is a truly great book that I’ve read in the last year or so. It’s astonishingly ambitious and incredibly well done. But it’s one of so many great books out there.
What books are currently on your book stand?
I just temporarily relocated to New York City, so the books on my shelf are those that I packed in a box and sent to myself to read during the four months I’m here. They include all three volumes of Karl Ove Knausgard’s My Struggle, which may be overly optimistic.
What was the last book to make you laugh, cry or furious?
A book that really made me laugh but that I also found incredibly smart was Caitlin Moran’s How to Be a Woman. I know it’s been out for a couple of years and she has a new one (that I can’t wait to read) but it really stayed with me. One thing I love about Moran is that she writes with a total lack of apology. She just says what she wants to say, no hemming or hawing or “it seems to me that . . .” She writes in a way that too often is associated (often unfairly, but it’s there) with male writing. And I love that she does this in a book called How to Be a Woman.
Whom do you consider your literary heroes?
My literary heroes range from Joan Didion (obvious answer) to Joni Mitchell (surprising?). Didion’s an obvious answer because she influenced just about every literary nonfiction writer since the early 70s, when she started to get really famous. I’ve said this before, but there was something she was doing with rhythm and tone at that time that had never been done before, and it gets imprinted in a lot of young writers’ brains and we essentially copy her. I think every young writer who deals with literary nonfiction goes through a phrase where they’re just ripping off Joan Didion. I certainly did. I’ve always thought of Joni Mitchell as Didion’s musical analog. She invented a very particular sound that came from alternate guitar tunings and a certain way of cramming a bunch of words into one line. And just about every singer songwriter on the planet, consciously or not, copies her in some way. Even if they’ve never heard Joni Mitchell, they’re probably copying another musician who’s been influenced by her. But, anyway, as a personal literary influence Joni was very big for me, not least of all in the way she crams all those words into one line. I have a habit of writing extremely long sentences that attempt to do in one sentence what should probably be done in three or four. And I blame Joni for that. This is something I talk about in The Unspeakable, in the essay The Joni Mitchell Problem. Other heroes? Richard Ford, John Updike, Fran Lebowitz, Dorothy Parker, Mary McCarthy, David Rakoff. I could go on and on.
What do you plan to read next?
What I plan to read next is a novel that’s coming out in June. It’s by my friend Lisa Glatt and it’s called The Nakeds. It’s about a young girl who gets hit by a car and spends the next decade in a leg cast undergoing multiple surgeries as her mother remarries and joins a nudist cult. Lisa is a beautifully gifted writer and I’ve been savoring the chance to read the book, which, knowing her other work, will offer an extraordinary combination of darkness, absurdity and hilarity.
Which books might we be surprised to fined on your shelves?
What would you be surprised to find on my nightstand? Mike Huckabee’s new book, God, Guns, Grits and Gravy, which I thinking of writing a column about and which I’m actually kind of enjoying.
Of the books you have written which is your favorite one?
My favorite books of that I have written? I must say I have a soft spot for my 2003 novel, The Quality of Life Report. It’s the only novel I’ve written so far and unfortunately it’s not currently in print. But I wrote it during a strange, difficult, fascinating and alternately horrible and wonderful time in my life and it reflects that time in a way that’s really important to me. I was living in Nebraska, in a tiny little farmhouse out in the country. The book is a somewhat satirical take on the notion of “the simple life” and the human search for “authenticity” (which has been a big theme for me throughout my writing life.) I had an absolute blast writing it. I’d sit there at my desk in that little farmhouse, looking out on the prairie and often just laughing my ass off as I wrote. It was definitely the most fun I ever had writing a book. I’m hoping to get it back in print one of these days.
What is next for Meghan Daum and what would be next for Meghan Daum if the sky were the limit?
What’s next for me is that I’m teaching in Columbia MFA program this semester and also preparing for the publication of an anthology I edited about choosing not to have children. It’s called Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids. It’ll be out March 31 and has amazing writers who take on the subject from a number of different angles. I love the book’s title, because readers will see that they’re anything but selfish, shallow and self-absorbed. Well, maybe they’re a little bit of the latter, since they’re writers after all.
Beyond that, if the sky were the limit? Hmm, I think it would actually be quite stressful if the sky were the limit. I guess I just prefer nice high ceilings.