ou’ve written books for children, novels, and poetry. What is your favorite genre to write in?
I’ve written quite a few essays and short stories, as well—I have a collection of stories coming out this fall, The Uninnocent—but far and away my favorite form is the novel. The nice thing about writing a short story, children’s book, or an essay (haven’t written a poem in years) is that it can be accomplished in a relatively brief period of time. Novels, at least my novels, take years, and so there’s a marathon element involved. That said, the novel is such a large, inviting, empathetic, generous, embracing art form that I find myself deeply drawn to it as a medium of expression. A writer’s largest and tiniest thoughts fit into its frame. As a reader, also, I’m far more given to reading novels than any other literary form (though I read poetry and nonfiction nearly every day, as well).
Is there a genre that you haven’t tackled yet that you’d like to?
I always thought it would be wonderful to write or even direct films. To work in solitude for a period of time and then emerge to collaborate with actors and other artists, and see the vision spring to life has always seemed like a dream job to me. On the other hand, I’m very aware that filmmaking—precisely because it is collaborative—often involves decisions made by committee. As a novelist, for better or worse, I have artistic control over the final text. And that’s one aspect of being a writer, a “solo artist” if you will, that I really like.
All of your novels deal with the importance of family. How has your own family influenced your writing?
Family is so crucial to me as a novelist because it’s central to our lives in the best and worst ways. Family, home, is where our journeys begin, but it is also the place we long to escape. It’s where we find profound love and nurturing, but also at times deep anger and resentment. Home is where we feel safest, but most vulnerable as well. Family and friendships that are as tight as blood family—this is the most complex emotional and spiritual locus of them all. So I naturally gravitate to family as a Pandora’s box that holds every kind of human desire and fear.
Many of your characters are strong, determined women searching for their places in the world. Who are your role models for these women?
I was raised in a family whose women were storytellers. There wasn’t much of a library in my childhood house, some Modern Library titles and a smattering of college chemistry stuff, but I grew up hearing plenty of oral narratives being spun. My grandmother Hoffmann, who was a dirt-poor farm girl when she grew up in Red Cloud, Nebraska, was the most memorable bard in the family and the epitome of a strong, determined woman. She was a real survivor, and made a great impression on me. (Oddly, the paternal side of my family was made up of taciturn men, quiet and mostly gentle types.) Our matriarch’s stories mostly centered on family history, family agreements, family discord—another possible reason I’m drawn as a writer to focus on families, be they broken, loving, or otherwise. That said, I think that my models for the women in my novels who are searching for a place in the world are finally a composite of any number of women (and men) I’ve met in my life. I rarely if ever model a character on an individual I know, however, and imagine that the characters in my books are all ultimately fragments of myself, and represent my own search for identity.
Your scenes in the outdoors are so fully described that nature is almost a character in the book. Where does that knowledge and respect come from?
Growing up along the front range of the Rockies, I spent a lot of my youth in the mountains and down in New Mexico and elsewhere in the Southwest, so nature was just a fundamental part of my life. My aunt and uncle had a very isolated ranch near Steamboat Springs, and I spent a lot of summers in the heart of high forests there, camping and fishing. Having lived for the past thirty years in New York City, I still get off into the woods or back out to the Southwest as often as I can. The names and nature, if you will, of trees, flowers, birds, clouds—I can’t explain exactly why these things are so important to me, talismanic really, but they are. Nature is fundamentally magical and metamorphic, and I think you’re right in saying that it invariably becomes so central a player in my narratives that it achieves the status of becoming a character, interactive with human characters, subtle and powerful.
I mention in my review that your writing is so fluid and calm that I often felt sedated while reading it. It made it very easy for me to relate to the confusion and doubt that Cassandra was experiencing. Was your intention to cast something of a spell over your readers, or did it happen by accident?
No, I can’t honestly say that I deliberately set about casting a spell or creating an atmosphere of calm, though I have heard other writers comment on this as being an important part of how The Diviner’s Tale works. I’m very aware that conventional mysteries unfold often with more overt and strenuous action. There is a lot of action in the book, obviously, but her voice enveloped me while I was writing, and I imagine that sensuous skein of voice envelops the willing reader as well.
You are a teacher, an editor and a writer. If you had to choose one of these professions over the other, which one would it be?
They all have a crucial place in my life. I adore my students and editing Conjunctions is honestly one of the best jobs in the world. My first love is writing, though.
Do you plan on writing a sequel to The Diviner’s Tale?
I have to finish my new novel, The Prague Sonata, first and then I’ll think about it. Of all my narrators, Cassandra is certainly one of my favorites and I would love to travel with her again if the right story rose to mind.
The Diviner’s Tale is a literary novel with a murder mystery tucked inside it. Do you have any plans on writing a more traditional detective story?
I wouldn’t know how to write a traditional detective story. It’s too much in my nature to break the rules of genre, stretch it into fresh forms. And whatever it is about my writing that makes it “literary” isn’t something I could suppress or change even if I wanted to.
Who are your favorite authors?
Among those of the past century or so I’d include Thomas Hardy, W.B. Yeats, Virginia Woolf, Willa Cather, Samuel Beckett, Thomas Bernhard, and more recently William Gaddis, John Fowles, Angela Carter, Cormac McCarthy, David Foster Wallace. This is a difficult question for me to answer, though, because I’ve published over a thousand writers in Conjunctions and on Web Conjunctions and since I only accept work I feel very strongly about, all those writers could also be considered among my favorites.