One of the things I LOVE about doing these weekly interviews is that I am reminded again and again that writing is not a monolithic experience. No two of think the same way about the practice, and no two of us do the same things to get words to the page. That’s awesome. Today, Natalie Harnett adds her voice. I think you’ll appreciate what she has to say.
1. Tell me about your latest project.
I’m working on a novel set in the 1950s that is inspired by my great grandmother’s and her servant’s lives. My great grandmother was a diamond dealer, and she came over from Amsterdam under very shady circumstances. Her servant was a white woman who was basically her slave. That servant was never paid a dime, never had a day off and, once she became too old to work, my great grandmother gave her away to my grandmother.
Their story has haunted me since I was a little kid, and it’s been a very powerful experience writing about them. What’s also been a powerful experience is writing about Queens, NY, where the novel is set. My family has lived in Queens for over a century, and the novel is filled with snippets of family history (which includes my great grandfather’s speakeasy). It’s also influenced by Queens and NYC history. I’m about halfway through with the first draft and really enjoying it.
2. What role, if any, did books, writing, and reading play in your childhood?
I think my love for language came at a young age and was fostered by the many afternoons I spent reading early twentieth century poems to my maternal grandmother. My family’s love of made up words and my paternal grandmother’s broken English—she was an ethnic German immigrant from Slovenia—also helped.
3. What is your writing practice, your writing routine?
I work part-time as a writing tutor and each week arrange a schedule with my mother and husband for what days/hours they can watch my four-year-old. So whenever they can watch her, I write. I love writing by hand, but because of time constraints, I try to force myself to work on the computer. I also try to write while I drive. I plan scenes or FB posts (or whatever) in my head and then speak them into my phone.
4. Who are you reading now?
I met Kimberly G. Giarratano at a book event, and she totally hooked me on her debut novel, Grunge Gods and Graveyards. It’s YA, but it’s not only young adults who read YA, right? Anyone who’s into the supernatural, the 90s, and suspense will likely be into this book. I just started it and it’s already a page-turner. I can’t wait to delve further in!
5. What are three of your all-time favorite books? Why do you love those?
I first read A Tree Grows in Brooklyn when I was a young teen and I loved it. It made me feel as if I’d lived during the early 1900s when the novel was set. That’s the time period when my grandmother grew up, and though I’d loved her, I’d always felt distant from her. A Tree Grows in Brooklyn made me feel like I’d experienced the era that had made her who she was, and it made me feel much closer to her. I also love the collected stories of Flannery O’Connor because no matter how many times I read them, I’m both surprised and delighted by them. My third fave would be The Lord of the Rings (I realize that’s three books, but I read them as one.) I read them when I was eleven and loved them so much that I would let myself read only one chapter a day. I couldn’t bear the thought of that story, that world, closing to me forever. That’s powerful writing! I’m sure the fact that I was head over heels in love with Aragorn added to the experience.
6. How do you balance “building a writing platform” and the actual writing to set on that platform?
The best thing I ever did was give up on trying to achieve any kind of balance in my life. Trying to achieve it and then failing at it was just making me feel bad. Now I work at writing until I feel anxious or guilty that I’m neglecting publicity. Then I switch to publicity until I feel guilty that I’m neglecting writing. I wouldn’t recommend this strategy, but I manage to be productive so. . .
7.What is a typical day like for you?
There really are no typical days because my tutoring and writing schedules continually fluctuate. As soon as I wake up, though, I check emails and make a list of what I absolutely have to get done in terms of family, publicity, and writing. Then I try to figure out how to do it.
8. Describe your dream writing space?
I’d love to have a room with large windows that look out on some beautiful natural scene. I particularly love water and trees. I like having a bird feeder to look at. I’d love a desk that’s big enough to not only put all my notes, but that’s big enough to then be able to find them!
9. What is the hardest writing critique you ever received? How did you respond?
During an MFA class at Columbia, a highly esteemed literary critic announced to the class that my short stories were melodramatic, self-pitying, and self-absorbed. I waited for some type of guidance or advice—something constructive to follow on that criticism—but it didn’t come. That was his method of teaching. Needless to say, it was totally demolishing. Thankfully, two classmates took the time to tell me afterward how much they liked my writing and disagreed with him. I licked my wounds and kept writing.
10. What is the best wisdom you have to share with other writers?
Keep as many balls in the air as possible. Contest submissions, conferences, events—whatever you can handle. One of them is bound to lead to something. You’ve got to be out there for something to happen. I so wish I’d tried for more earlier on.
Natalie S. Harnett has an MFA from Columbia and has been awarded an Edward Albee Fellowship, a Summer Literary Seminars Fellowship, and a Vermont Studio Center Writer’s Grant. Her fiction has been a finalist for the Mary McCarthy Prize, the Mid-List Press First Series Award for the Novel, the Glimmer Train’s Short Story Award for New Writers, and The Ray Bradbury Short Story Fellowship. Her publications include The Irish Echo, The Madison Review, The MacGuffin, and The New York Times. Her debut novel, The Hollow Ground, named best novel of 2014 by Providence Journal, is an Amazon and Audible Best Seller; a Goodreads Book Group Worthy title; a Library Journal’s “Debuts with Buzz” Selection; a San Francisco Magazine‘s ‘5 Books to Read This Month’ Selection; and a NYC Irish Arts Center 2015 Book Day Pick. You can find more about Harnett’s work on her website or “like” her on Facebook.