Each of these interviews gives me a new glimpse into the secret of writing – that it’s always different for everyone AND it’s always the same. But today’s guest, Misty Urban, seems to have a lot more the same with me . . . just look at her list of favorite books. I could have written it, and I love the same thing she does about writing. You might too?
The ten stories in A Lesson in Manners offer a how-to manual for dealing with love, lies, and loneliness. Sam Wesson, an up-and-coming country-western singer, wants a baby but doesn’t want her boyfriend to know about it. Dacey, already pregnant, wants to leave her cheating husband but doesn’t know how. Sarah, an exotic dancer, longs for a job at a religious theme park; Amelia dreams of creating impossible bonsai. While Helen braces herself to endure the last months of her son’s terminal illness, the narrator of the opening story, “A Lesson in Manners,” reels in response to her sister’s sudden kidney surgery. In ways humble, funny, sympathetic, or outrageous, all of these characters are in search of an etiquette that will deliver them from disappointment and shield them from crushing grief.
2. What stories, themes, motivations do you find yourself drawn to in your work and in the works you read?
I find that in my short stories my characters are often dealing in some way with grief—through denial, by running and hiding, by making choices that will cause other problems to distract them from their grief. Sometimes the grief that haunts them is simple loneliness, as is the case with John, the narrator of “Monsoon,” who longs for connection with an unnamed regular at the grocery store where he works. In “Green Space,” Amelia uses bonsai as a way to tame the uncontrollable because she can’t control anything else, especially not the cancer that her mother endured. In “Planet Joy,” Caro misses her younger sister so much that she has developed motion sickness—her sister’s affliction—and it means she is slowly losing her own life.
Because it is so much a preoccupation of my own work, I don’t often pick up books about grief to read. Rather, I’m drawn to works about women triumphing: women growing and learning, women traveling and teaching, women wrestling for achievement or surviving mighty obstacles. I read about men, too, but I am drawn to women accomplishing great things—especially historical women—to balance, I think, my own particular obsessions.
3. What do you do when you’re not writing?
Read. I so admire people whose bios are varied and interesting—poets who garden, mystery writers who knit, historical fiction authors who run charitable organizations in Africa. My hobbies revolve entirely around the written word: reading, writing, talking with writers about reading and writing. I do play the piano and I like to sew, but I’m not very good at either of these activities.
4. Describe the first 2-3 steps of your process in writing your book.
My process, whether it’s for a short story or a novel, begins with a character and her want. Sometimes the want is connected to her problem, and sometimes the problem reveals itself later. I have written stories that began with an image—“The Keeping of the Counts,” for instance, began with the image we see at the end: the sick, bald boy in the little red wagon, being pulled by his mother as grandma wheels the IV tree alongside. I saw that once when I was walking into a hospital and it crushed me.
Once I began a story with nothing but a title. In conversation at a graduate school function, a colleague told me he and his wife spent the weekend driving all over the county looking for a corndog. I immediately wanted to write a story titled “Trying to Find a Corndog in Tompkins County.” But the story didn’t begin until I found the character and her problem: “Dacey still hadn’t told Steve about the money.”
I rarely begin writing, though, until I know the end of the story—where the character will end up, that final emotion, and sometimes the final image, that flings her (or him) into the larger world. Then I sit down and figure out how that character moves from the beginning to the end. It’s always a wonderful process of discovery, and sometimes it takes me many, many visits before I feel I’ve gotten it right.
5. What is your favorite part about being a writer?
The feeling of having written. Wrestling with every word, every sentence can be harrowing. Trying to carve out time to write can be exhausting. One of my favorite things is talking with other writers, learning from their experiences. But my very favorite part is putting down the pen after the story has poured out, hitting the “save” key one last time on a paragraph or a chapter or a story or a book, feeling that incredible rush. There’s nothing else like it, and it’s the only thing that can persuade me to write every day—knowing that, if I open the door, that high awaits me.
6. What is your least favorite part about being a writer?
That housework doesn’t do itself. Then again, washing dishes or mopping floors is sometimes a great way to pretend to avoid writing while letting the mind still percolate, so perhaps it’s all part of the process, really.
7. When you write, who do you imagine as your reader?
This was an odd realization, and it makes me sound incredibly self-involved, but as I considered this question as homework for a book marketing class I was taking, I realized that my ideal reader for my short stories is my younger self. I’m writing for that intensely lonely, aggressively self-conscious young woman who agonized so endlessly about her life, who doubted herself at every turn, who floundered under every loss that struck her, big or small. I wrote these stories to reach out to that young, aching girl and tell her, “You’re not that strange. Look, other people suffer in exactly those same ways.” If the book doesn’t sell or doesn’t interest any readers, then perhaps that means that younger me really was alone, in her awkwardness, in her self-consciousness, in her constant assessment of her own worth. But maybe I’ll find out she wasn’t.
8. What are a few of your favorite books of all time?
The Epic of Gilgamesh. Beowulf. Anything by Jane Austen. Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre. Favorite modern-day historical/Regency author: Georgette Heyer. Favorite non-living historical mystery/romantic suspense author: Elizabeth Peters/Barbara Michaels. Favorite living historical mystery/romantic suspense author: Amanda Quick/Jayne Ann Krentz. Favorite literary novels about a fictional creation: The Hours by Michael Cunningham and Possession by A.S. Byatt. Favorite short story collection: Like Life by Lorrie Moore. Favorite travel/food/spiritual memoir: Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. Favorite book on writing: Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg. Classic I most want to read: Don Quixote. Classic I will probably never read: Moby-Dick. Favorite literary genre: Louisa May Alcott’s “blood & thunder tales.” Favorite fantasy: The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, Sir Thomas Malory’s Morte D’Arthur, and Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon.
9. What’s the best writing advice you ever received?
“Butt to chair.” All the best writing advice I’ve received is some version of this. Sir Philip Sidney’s line from the first sonnet from Astrophil and Stella is perhaps the most eloquent expression: “Fool! said my Muse to me, look in thy heart, and write.”
10. If you could inhabit the setting of one book, where would you live and why?
The fairy wood in Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I wouldn’t want the donkey head or to be abandoned by everyone I love, but despite all the obstacles and dire revelations, everyone wakes up refreshed, inspired, and paired off with their love (even, presumably, Hippolyta). It’s the most enchanted literary world I’ve come across and the happiest ending I’ve ever read. Has the fairy magic worn off, or is Oberon still controlling everything? Either way, I’ll take it.
Misty Urban is the author of the story collection A Lesson in Manners. Find more about her fiction, creative nonfiction, medieval scholarship, and teaching at http://www.mistyurban.net, or find out what she’s reading by visiting http://www.femmeliterate.net, a blog about feminism, literature, and women/in/and/of books.