A Christmas Gift for Language Wonks?

The linguist and writer Stephen Pinker has written a new style book, "A Sense of Style," which tries to be less rules-y than some books, using common sense, he says, rather than rigid rules.

In my interview with him in The Washington Post, he said that mistakes such as "who" for "whom" (or vice versa) bother him less than murky, imprecise language -- with the first, the reader at least knows what the writer means.

Our interview risked getting immersed in wonky grammar questions such as whether it's okay to use "prevaricate" to mean dither, rather than lie -- which I hear all the time in Britain. At one point, he looked up a British dictionary and found that "dither" was a more common usage in the UK than the US, and therefore more acceptable.

This could have gone on for hours... but I restrained myself, and kept those bits to a minimum.

And so, the interview.

Interview With Margaret Atwood

I still remember clutching Margaret Atwood's story collection, Wilderness Tips, in my arms as I went to the library to write during my first year in graduate school -- reading one of her stories, then immediately scribbling lines of my own, as if some of Atwood's intelligence, clarity, complexity might sprinkle onto the page.

So it was a thrill to interview Atwood about her new collection, Stone Mattress, for The Washington Post. The Post interview appeared today, and here's two more questions that didn't make it in.

Atwood talks about these stories being a hybrid of realist stories and tales.

Why did you want to push that boundary?

I didn’t want to push anything. People think there is a lot of intentionality involved. You just find yourself doing it. For instance, “Stone Mattress” came out of a conversation about how you plan to murder somebody on a boat in the Arctic. I was having that conversation on a boat in the Arctic and I began a story just to amuse my fellow Arctic boaters.

You chose the story “Stone Mattress” – in which a woman kills a man named Bob who’d raped her in high school – as the title story. Is old age, often depicted here, a stone mattress?

Well, it’s where Bob ends up. I never thought about it like that. The thing about a good title is it has many meanings. “Stone Mattress” was irresistible to me because it was such a rare conjunction of words. It’s a transliteration of the word for a stromatolite. There’s a resonance as well with the well-known song from the Mexican revolution, called “Bed of Stones.” So is old age a stone mattress? Let’s find out.

Writers Lisa Scottoline and Francesca Serritella:
A Mother-Daughter Team

Bestselling crime writer Lisa Scottoline pairs up with her daughter Francesca Serritella every week to write about their lives -- women, motherhood, daughterhood, boyfriend, pets -- and their latest columns have been compiled into their fourth book together: "Have a Nice Guilt Trip." (St. Martin’s Press, $24.99)

In their interview with me for The Washington Post, they spoke about what it's like to work together, Francesca as a writer still working on her first novel, and Lisa, who's written more than twenty.

Here's a bit that couldn't fit into yesterday's Washington Post interview.

Burns: What’s it like to write as a mother/daughter team?

Serritella: "I try not to make my Mom my editor, because as a writer, I can find a lot of great editors, but I only have one Mom. Also we would obviously just fight. (laughs) But it’s funny, when we put the columns together – and this is my Oh-my-God-am-I-becoming-my-mother? moment – you begin to see these parallels that we didn’t plan at all. In an earlier book, I had written an essay completely busting myself, my own crisis of feminism, when I realized I was getting a little neurotic, reading the New York Times wedding announcements. This was so out of character for me, but I was worrying, Oh, am I going to find the right person, she’s this age, I’m that age… I was totally like I have to change this, so I wrote about that. And then I saw Mom had written one about getting neurotic reading the obituaries, and I thought: OK, we both need to calm down. Step away from the newspaper!

Scottoline: I think by reading these books a mother can find out how your daughter thinks by reading how my daughter thinks; and I also find out by reading these essays.

Here's the full interview.

Howard Norman's 'Call Me Ishmael'

It's hard to write a better first line than this one, from Howard Norman's latest novel, Next Life Might Be Kinder: “After my wife, Elizabeth Church, was murdered by the bellman Alfonse Padgett in the Essex Hotel, she did not leave me.”

Whether Elizabeth is haunting the narrator of this book, or whether he's imagining her, doesn't matter much in the end. This exploration of loss isn't about solving mysteries, but exploring them.

My review ran in The Washington Post today.

C.K. Williams on Argument in Poetry

A few nights after reading C.K. Williams new book, All At Once, his first complete collection of prose poems, for an upcoming interview, I was sharing a bottle (or two) of wine with my partner and his friend. Their stubbornness about aspects of the (admittedly rather flawed) artworld reminded me of one of Williams's pieces, and I ran to retrieve the book and recited the poem.

It read in part, “I differ from myself with rancor.” And then continued with Williams's wife saying, "That's because you're stupid."

That went over like a bomb with my two friends.

Nonetheless, I asked Williams about it when I interviewed him the next day.

In one poem you write: “I differ from myself with rancor.” Does that argument drive your poetry?

"Not the rancor," he said. "The argument is, the rancor is a joke. But the argument is at the basis for much of my poetry. Argument with myself. Robert Frost said something about having an argument with the world. That’s true. We all do. Some of us put it in poetry, and some of us put it in prose, and some of us just shut up."

My complete interview with Williams ran in The Washington Post last month.

Ivy Alvarez's Writing Process Blog: Time for Play

Ivy Alvarez, whose recent Disturbance, her book of poetry published by Seren, circles around a murder, is writing in a different vein at the moment: she's playing.

As part of NaPoWriMo (short for National Poetry Writing Month, Ivy is just experimenting. Disturbance, she writes in her Writing Process Blog Tour post, "was dark -- and this is play. So, yes, luxurious, and a little bit naughty, like I'm getting away with something..."

Her full blog can also be viewed on her Google Plus page. Enjoy!

Parthian editor and writer Susie Wild's blog stop is Friday.

David Allen Sibley, America's New Audubon

David Allen Sibley is a naturalist whose Sibley's Guide to Birds has become the standard for birders across North America. In interviewing him for The Washington Post, I was struck by how he is both a scientist and an artist. His thoughts and ideas about drawing so echoed that of my partner and artist Paul Edwards. Yet Sibley dropped out of college after a year of studying biology, and spent the next 12 years "birding and sketching full-time."

My Washington Post interview runs today. Here are a few bits I wasn't able to fit into that article.

Why did you decide to focus on this – bird identification -- as opposed to another kind of animal science?

My main interest has always been birds, and drawing for me is how I study birds. It’s how I learn about them. It’s a method, a technique, of learning. Doing a drawing forces me to look at every part of the bird, study all the different colors and patterns and shapes. Birding by itself, drawing is just so exciting and I think it’s sort of optimistic kind of pursuit. Birdwatchers are always thinking about what’s next, what’s coming tomorrow, what’s going to happen next week. And there’s always something different. And it’s much stronger in bird study than any other kind of nature study, because the birds are so mobile . they appear and disappear locally, they move with the seasons, their ranges can change dramatically in 10 or 15 years.

Lets say people are just beginning to have an interest in birds – where should they start?

Get a Field Guide. One of the best things to do is spend time at home flipping through the pages of the books. In my book birds are grouped in families and genera. Learning the groups can really help. What makes a vireo a vireo? The hardest part is the first 25 to 50 species. Someone sees their first sparrow and you go the book and find out there are 25 to 30 species of sparrow. So go out with someone. There’s usually an Audubon center or wildlife center within 20 miles of every town in the country, and people who run bird watches are happy to have novices. They can help you with those first identifications.

For an avid birder, what’s your top tip?

A similar tip – pay attention to the relationships between the birds. Really think about that. Bird watchers and field guides tend to focus on the differences between birds. I like to focus on the similarities.

You say that you mix the color for each breed once, then paint the entire page for a species. Have you ever gone out to the woods with a new page to see if you’ve got the right yellow?

I’ve gone to a museum. Mainly I rely on sketches and my own sense of what looks right. Color is incredibly subjective, so I try to get the relative color right.

Writing Process Blog Tour

The Writing Process Blog Tour is a kind of whistle-stop tour of writers exploring their writing process -- they answer four questions about their work, then send you on to the next writer. Today, I'm one of the stops.

First, I’d like to thank Vanessa Harbour for inviting me to take part. Vanessa is programme leader for the MA Creative and Critical Writing at the University of Winchester, where I worked for six years, and a writer of young adult fiction.

What am I working on?
Two major projects are coming to fruition at once. My short story collection, The Missing Woman, is being published in April 2015 by Parthian Books. The stories circle around women who are either literally missing (a mother in rehab, a sister who’s disappeared from a bike trail) or who are missing a metaphorical part of themselves. The best stories, I hope, contain both. At this final stage, I’m looking again at stories that have already been published in journals; hoping to finish a few on the go; and even, if I’m ambitious, writing a new story or two over the spring and summer. My deadline is October.

At the same time, I’m finishing (again) a novel, The Anatomy of Light, which I’ve been working on for longer than I’ll admit today. I’m so excited about this final draft (truly final!) which, I hope, has expanded this very interior story of a photographer learning to “see” the lack of intimacy in her marriage through a very sexual affair, and cast it (and her) into the larger world – in this case, 1998, the release of Viagra, the Clinton/Lewinsky controversy, raising questions of trust and sexuality and openness in both the private and public realm. I’ll be looking for an agent, and hoping that Parthian might be interested, too.

How does my work differ from others of its genre?
Oh my gosh, has the marketing department asked me this question? I use different words than other people might use; I come up with images that are mine, not theirs; I use too many semi-colons. I do think I write about sex very frankly. Maybe that’s distinctive.

Why do I write what I do?
Because I have to. I just had a brief discussion with a male friend who’s reading just non-fiction – the real world is so fascinating, why bother with made-up stuff? A former journalist, I strive to accomplish what non-fiction can’t. I am fascinated by interior lives (Henry James, Virginia Woolf, are my classic loves) and I try to imagine, discover, convey what it is like to be a human being on this planet.

How does my writing process work?
Writing, rewriting, rewriting, rewriting. I had a wonderful first editorial meeting with Susie Wild, my short story editor (and, yes, one of the next bloggers). We began with my very favorite story in the collection, and I could see, with Susie’s help, and even with just the knowledge she’d be coming back to me with ideas, ways to make it better. Rewriting, again! I was scared walking in to our meeting. Sitting there with her, in the Pettigrew Tea Rooms in Cardiff, I found that work so exciting.

But that’s at the end of the process. I’ll concentrate on the beginning. I don’t, consciously, begin anything (well, except my novel). My drafts feel like kaleidoscopes. I write a paragraph one day that describes some moment or image. The next day, I might write something else; the next day a few other short bits. At some point, I turn the kaleidoscope and I see a pattern emerging -- I realize I’m putting together a story. This is all on paper. When I have enough, and I need the logic and order that a screen demands, I allow myself to type up what I have into a Word file. I print, scribble, type, type again, turning and turning the kaleidoscope until each individual turn works in itself, and fits into the overall design.

For my novel, this was sort of how I started, but the logic, plotting, re-plotting, required me to create a more sustained trajectory – more like a movie than a kaleidoscope. But even if the trickery has worked and the reader sees a line of action, behind that illusion is still a series of images and intense interior moments that my fiction is about.

I've just looked up "kaleidoscope," and discovered it means in Greek the "observation of beautiful things." That seems right.

Next stops:
Ivy Alvarez's second poetry collection is Disturbance (Seren, 2013). A recipient of writing fellowships from MacDowell Colony, Hawthornden Castle and Fundacion Valparaiso, her work is published in journals and anthologies in many countries and online, with selected poems translated into Russian, Spanish, Japanese and Korean. She also worked with Paul Edwards and me on Imagistic. Her Writing Process Blog will appear April 14 on her Google Plus page.

Susie Wild (@Soozerama) is a writer, journalist and editor based in Cardiff. The Art of Contraception was her first book. It was long-listed for the Edge Hill Short Story Prize 2011 and won 'Fiction Book of the Year' in the Welsh Icons Awards 2010. Her Kindle novella 'Arrivals' was released globally through Parthian Books in May 2011. She is the General Editor (Fiction and Creative Non-Fiction) at Wales' Leading Indie Publisher Parthian Books. Her Writing Process Blog will appear April 21.

Previous stops that I particularly liked were by author Judith Heneghan, also a Winchester lecturer and the Winchester Writing Festival director; Claire Fuller, whose first novel is coming out with Fig Tree/Penguin next year; children's writer Kat Ellis, and writer Virginia Moffatt.

Discoveries: Books I Wasn't Expecting To Read After AWP

Sharon Olds was of course amazing, as she transitioned from her Pulitzer-winning Stag’s Leap to new poems, including one she had written two days before in her hotel. Colm Tóibín as well speaking on how he once entitled a writing class “relentlessness.” As well as Gish Jen. Tobias Wolff.

But one of the aspects of AWP I love is those discoveries of writers not on my bookshelf, or even on my radar. So three authors I wasn’t expecting to be reading after AWP:

If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This: Stories, by Robin Black – It was Robin Black’s talk on open endings in short fiction – the difference between what she called “generic irresolution” which simply avoid the problem of a pat ending rather than a complex, complicated ending that was both open and closed -- a which convinced me I must read her work. Her novel, Life Drawing, comes out in July.

The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner – I know, I’m late to this party. But something about the reviews made me think the book was hip and clever only. Her reading Friday from a section in which her Nick Carraway-like narrator (at least here) is the straight woman to a bizarrely funny and completely believable couple she meets in a bar made me realize it’s much more than clever. And she was a match, too, during the joint q-and-a with Colm Toibin.

Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter – Based on how he led the Gish Jen/Tobias Wolff reading (in which he said he’d known Tobias since the war, where he had saved his life then offered an alternative ending to “Bullet in the Brain”) Walter could have given Seth Meyers a run for his money on hosting Late Night. His latest book wasn’t on my list – until now.

Anna Quindlen on Fiction and Journalism

I feel like I grew up reading Anna Quindlen.  Somehow, her reasonable, clear, articulate vision of what it is to be a woman helped shape the woman, and the writer, that I am.

So I'm befuddled when, still at heart a journalist who needs to get the facts right, I search for the dates when her column, "Life in the Thirties," began.  Surprisingly difficult to find, first of all.  And then the earliest columns I can find are the "Hers" column which ran in the Metro section.  I'm a senior at university by the time that's running.

When I interviewed her last week about her new novel, "Still Life with Bread Crumbs," she spoke about the ideas that readers put onto her -- not all of them jiving with her own ideas about her work.  So here's another one, I suppose -- my own faulty filter through which I've taken in her work. 

Which didn't at all diminish the pleasure of talking to her about journalism and fiction, art and writing.  Below, a slightly longer version of a response for the interview, which appeared today in the Washington Post.

Can you give an example of ideas readers put onto your work that didn't correspond with your own ideas.

When I was doing Life in the Thirties, there was a lot of perfect-mother/perfect-life stuff, which seemed entirely laughable to me since half the time I couldn’t find a clean pair of socks. But there was this sense that I was standing for something, or more correctly that I was standing in for a lot of someones. And that’s really gratifiying. When people come up to you and say, "You’re writing the story of my life," what can you say but, "Thank you." At the same time, the ways in which it makes people think about you can be a little disconcerting. A woman came up to me at a book signing and said, “Can you write: 'For Mary, You’re my very best friend.' ” On the one hand, that’s very sweet. On the other hand, I have a very best friend and her name is not Mary.

(Regarding the work of the character in her novel, Rebecca Winter...)

I did think there was a moment, and her  life encapsulates it, when the world was breaking open for women and the world was looking for images that reflected both the way they lived and what they no longer wanted their lives to be. So I think it makes sense that people project onto her photographs. It’s just that at a certain point, you have to make a deal with yourself that has nothing to do with the outside world. I mean, those moments when Rebecca says, reflecting the fact that her work is deeply intuitive, "I know it when I see it," you can’t stop listening to that voice because the public doesn’t respond in the same way or the work doesn’t sell in the same way.