Lauren Slater is a prolific nonfictionist and a licensed psychologist, best known for applying her lyrical cadence to some of the most controversial questions of our time. Slater is the author of seven books, several of which have stirred critics at once to kiss and to slap her hand. In Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir (2001) she sweeps readers into a hypnotically truth-bending tale of her bout with epilepsy. In Opening Skinner’s Box: Great Psychological Experiments of the Twentieth Century (2004), Slater unlocks ten famous studies, including Stanley Milgram’s notorious shock treatment experiment on obedience, and then tests them herself. For one of the resulting essays, “On Being Sane in Insane Places,” Slater walks into a psychiatric emergency room and claims to have a false symptom—an auditory hallucination of the word “thud”—thereby risking confinement. Members of the international academic community railed against Slater’s methods, but she went on to win the 2005 Bild Der Wissenschaft Award in Germany for most groundbreaking science book of the year. Her books, essays, and articles, often taught in college classrooms, collapse the wall between scientific jargon and literary narrative.
Her five other books include Prozac Diary (1998); Welcome to My Country: A Therapist’s Memoir of Madness (1995); Love Works Like This (2002); Blue Beyond Blue: Extraordinary Tales for Ordinary Dilemmas (2005), her first book of fiction; and The $60,000 Dog: My Life with Animals, forthcoming from Beacon Press. A contributing editor at Elle, Slater has published work in Harper’s Magazine, The New York Times Magazine, National Geographic, Vogue, The Best American Science Writing, The Best American Magazine Writing, and more.
She holds two degrees in psychology: a Masters from Harvard University and a Ph.D. from Boston University. A former Knight Science Journalism Fellow at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Slater won a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship in 2004. She served as the guest editor for The Best American Essays in 2006 and has been nominated for numerous National Magazine Awards.
This Days of Yore interviewer rode in buses, trains, and cabs to locate the writer in the tiny town of Harvard, Massachusetts, where she had just moved. We talked in her office, a cozy room furnished with her seventeen-year-old desk and a daybed.
In Prozac Diary, you say that you have always seen yourself as a writer. Were you born into this work?
I don’t think I was born into it, although it’s possible that I was. In Kindergarten, when we were learning to read, our teacher wrote C-A-T on the board. I remember looking at that and struggling and struggling to know what it meant. Suddenly it dawned on me: cat. Those severed letters all came together into one meaningful word. That, I think of, as the beginning of my fascination with language.
Do you remember the first narrative you ever wrote?
In first grade, I set out to write a novel called “Tommy and the Toy Ships.” I wanted it to be one hundred pages. I think it was one hundred pages, many of them with pictures.
I felt quite sure that it would get published. Then my mother gave me a typewriter—a cursive typewriter—and I found the mechanics of writing absolutely fascinating.
Were you serious about writing from the moment you owned the cursive typewriter?
When I was fourteen, I started writing in earnest. I read Carson McCullers’ Member of the Wedding, and I was really taken with that, so I started reading short stories in the style of Carson McCullers’.
All through college I wrote seriously, especially my junior and senior year. When I graduated, I really buckled down and started to try, in earnest, to learn the art and the craft of writing. I had a long apprenticeship—on my own. I was apprenticed to the books I was reading.
Who did you read?
I just read voluminously back then. I read Virginia Woolf. I read all of William Faulkner. I read William Trevor. In fact, the books in my study are largely the books that I learned on. Janet Frame, Antonia White, the stories of Denton Welch, Donald Hall, Gerald Durrell, Isak Dinesen. I was reading like a writer reads. I was studying—how was this story put together?
Didn’t you teach yourself to write by playing a game?
In my twenties, I would read Faulkner, for instance, and halfway through a story, I would stop reading. Then I would go off and try to reproduce the first half from memory and then keep writing and finish the story or the chapter in the author’s voice, trying to imagine how the author would bring this to conclusion. Faulkner’s story was going to be better than mine, because he’s William Faulkner, so I got to see what Faulkner did and how his differed from mine.
Sometimes I would play alone and ask a friend, “Can you tell where Virginia Woolf ends and I begin?” The goal was to make your voice so much like the other writer that my friend would not be able to tell where Virginia Woolf ended and I began. Or where William Faulkner ended and I began. I learned to write by mimicking, by imitating, and that has both its pros and its cons.
What were your most paralyzing frustrations as you were taking off?
My biggest frustration was that, most of the time, I had no idea how to drop down into that place where you can spin words and images and themes, and everything feels true. It’s like finding the right vein. I didn’t know how to access that. I still don’t. But when I was in my twenties, I would write and write and write and hope that I would. It felt out of my control, and it was out of my control. It wasn’t until my late twenties when I thought, “It’s like driving a car.” I always wanted to be just in fifth gear, but you have to learn to drive in first, second, third, fourth, and reverse. Then I started to put less pressure on myself to get to that special place.
Where did you live as you were making these discoveries?
In my twenties, I lived in a basement apartment, with centipedes on the walls, in Cambridge [Massachusetts]. It was pretty awful. I can’t believe I lived there for so long. You went down a set of stairs, and the superintendent was there chomping on cigars, and the apartment was dingy.
Did you share the basement apartment with anybody?
Right after I graduated from college, I lived in the apartment with a high school friend. Then she moved out and my boyfriend moved in. That was an intense situation, because he was brilliant, and we both wanted to be writers, and I was so intimidated by him. He was so much smarter than I was. I really thought, “He’s going to be famous and I’m going to be left behind.” It’s hard to share a space with other writers.
We lived together for a year, and then he moved to New York, so I lived alone in the basement apartment for about six years. When I met my husband—I was, I think, twenty-nine—I was still living in the basement apartment. He moved into the basement apartment, and then we left the basement apartment to live in a third floor apartment in Summerville. I lived in the basement apartment for ten or eleven years.
Where was this basement apartment?
5 Haskell Street in Cambridge. The rent was really cheap. Three hundred a month or something. A rent controlled building.
How did you support yourself?
I worked in the supermarket as a bagger. I worked in several bakeries in the Faneuil Hall area. I didn’t like any of these jobs, but you have to do it. Money was scarce. I finally got a job being the volunteer coordinator for a literacy organization.
What was your artistic community like in those days?
We had a writers’ group. It started in my early twenties, a group of young women. Audrey Schulman, Pagan Kennedy, and others. Pagan had been published in a really good magazine, something like the Paris Review. I was in awe of her, that she was published and had an agent. I couldn’t imagine having those things.
Their opinions mattered to me so much. If they liked something, I was thrilled, and if they didn’t like it, I was devastated. But it was a great group. A couple of years in, we decided to invite a few more writers, including Karen Propp, and maybe some guys. But there was this core group that stayed together for ten years.
Ten years! That’s a long time to keep a writers’ group together.
To tell you the truth, we didn’t always talk about writing. We would meet at each other’s houses, and bring our dinners, our salads, and there was a ton of talk about our lives, our woes, our relationships. When we went to Elizabeth’s apartment, we would actually bring our laundry, because she had a machine. It was an all-purpose group. More like a support group. The group gradually disintegrated, but it took a long time for that to happen. I’m still in touch with Karen, Pagan, and Audrey.
In Prozac Diary, you discuss how, once you started taking Prozac, you couldn’t write.
Taking Prozac was one of the most incredible experiences in my life. I had been devastated by mental illness—specifically by anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder. I took Prozac, and within two days, it kicked in. All of the sudden, those thoughts and obsessions stopped. I started to feel good, and I had never felt good—never. The world was one big buffet. I wanted to try everything. I hadn’t been able to try a lot of things, because I had been too locked into my own world. I worried that this sort of extroverted way of going through life—curious about this, curious about this, curious about this—would drain my creativity. I didn’t write anything for about a year. I was about twenty-four or twenty-five years old.
How did this hiatus from writing affect your mood?
I was worried. Of course, you take Prozac to decrease your worrying, so I wasn’t so worried that I was going to stop taking the drug. Over the years, it stopped working as well. You also adjust to being more adjusted.
Did you go to your writing group even when you weren’t writing?
I definitely went to the writing group. I might go for a year and not read anything. You could go for a long, long time and not bring anything.
Sounds like a great group. Just show up with your laundry and your salad! How did you take up writing again?
I looked for studies about Prozac and creativity, and called different psychiatrists and asked them, “Is it possible that this drug can rob you of your creativity?” For that year, nothing came to me. I didn’t have the discipline to write.
Eventually, I circled back to my writing, but I was no longer going to be a tortured artist. I was going to be a more placid craftsman. I started to think less about the art, less about the inspiration, those lightning bolts, and more about being a carpenter. “I’m going to try to build a really solid table. I can do that. I can try to do that,” I remember thinking. “What I’m going to aim for is competence. Not brilliance. Competence.” If I could do competent work, the streaks of inspiration would come if they came. That’s how I was able to write on Prozac: by accepting that I wasn’t necessarily going to be brilliant, but I could be competent, and that would be enough for me. Once I was able to accept that, I started writing again.
At what point did you decide to start writing about your life?
There was one really particular point in my twenties that I started writing about my life. I happened upon The Best American Essays, maybe the first or second volume. I read an Elizabeth Hardwick essay called “Summer.” It was an autobiographical essay and a gorgeous piece of work. I immediately set out to write my own essay, in the vein of hers. That was the first essay that I’d really written. I felt so much freer doing that than trying to write fiction.
I realized that in the essay, you don’t always have to follow the rule of “show, don’t tell.” In the essay, you can tell, you can explain, you can analyze. There’s much more room for reflection and reverie. This was a form that I felt really comfortable in. Essays don’t have to be autobiographical, but oftentimes they are, and I just seemed to gravitate toward the autobiographical element.
I do write fiction, but I feel like fiction isn’t quite as honest as the autobiographical stuff. It doesn’t have the same edge or the same heart. I think I am by nature an autobiographical writer, but that doesn’t mean that I write exactly according to experience. It’s very natural for me, in the course of an autobiographical essay, to alter experience. I just wrote an essay, for instance, about my daughter: We brought our cat with us when we moved. He’s an outdoor cat, and so he went outdoors, and he never came back.
He was probably killed by coyotes. But in the essay, I write that we heard a shriek the night before and then found our cat’s body and then buried him. That’s not true. We didn’t find the cat’s body. We didn’t bury him. But it seems totally natural, in the essay, to have this scene with my daughter where we’re burying the cat. I don’t think about it ahead of time. It just happens: I swerve away from the actual events. I don’t know if I would call it “embellishing” them, because that makes it sound like I’m putting garnishes on them and making them more frilly, but I mold them to the themes of the essay.
Do you feel obliged to tell the reader that you’ve altered reality?
No, I don’t feel like I should tell the reader, because it’s close to what did happen, and it serves the themes of the essay. In this case, the essay was about feeling shame as my daughter enters adolescence, and I’m entering middle age. Her body’s just starting to develop, and I’ve become overweight. When I’m digging the grave for the cat—in the essay and when I’m writing it—I feel suddenly empowered. I know how to dig graves. I’m forty-eight years old. I’ve buried lots of pets and people and that’s something that she can’t do. That’s the sort of power that I’ve retained despite the fact that I don’t have the beauty of a girl coming into womanhood. I’ve got something grittier. So no, I don’t tell the reader, “and by the way, the cat didn’t come back.”
Do you write in this very room?
I’ve had this desk for seventeen years. Small, but sturdy.
What’s your writing process?
I get up in the morning—I’m a late riser—I have breakfast and a cup of coffee, and I go to my computer. I so often write on assignment, so I’ll map out the piece. What’s the first thing? What’s the second thing? What’s the third thing? It’s a very primitive outlining system. If the map works, then the piece will work.
It’s different when you’re writing for yourself, than when you’re writing something on assignment. Many of the pieces I write on assignment are pieces that are not inspired. I’m writing them just to make money. The magazine pieces, I see more as my bread and butter.
So yeah, I would say mapping is essential to my process, although I don’t use it all the time. I’ve gotten to a point where I’ll just follow the different trajectories or rivulets, where the writing is going here, or there’s a theme here. It’s sort of like juggling. I can juggle with two balls, but can I juggle with three, what happens with four? Once I’ve got these balls in the air, how am I going to bring them all down without them falling all over me? When a piece is a success, I bring them all together to some kind of crescendo and then denouement. It’s a matter of staying in control.
What spurred you to pursue psychology—a Masters from Harvard and a Ph.D. from Boston University—after focusing on creative writing since you were a child?
Actually, after college I applied to MFA programs at the University of Iowa, Stanford, and Brown, and I was accepted to all of them. At the University of Iowa, I was given what seemed at the time to be a fair amount of money. I went to Brown, but I left after just a few weeks.
Why’d you drop out of the MFA?
The instructor was Robert Coover, and I just didn’t get anything that he was saying to me about my work. I didn’t understand what Robert Coover wanted. He thought that he didn’t like my work, but he never said why he didn’t like it. I knew that I was losing confidence, and I knew that confidence, for me, was essential.
There was also all this competition in the workshops, this sense of who’d been funded, and who hadn’t been funded, and I just thought, “This is definitely the wrong atmosphere for me.” I knew enough to get myself out of there. I don’t do well in really competitive situations. The whole thing of them having their darlings, that’s toxic. I don’t understand why MFA programs set up some kind of clear hierarchy. That’s not good for people. It should be more collaborative than competitive.
What happened after you left Brown?
I was writing on my own, and I knew that it was something that I wanted to do, something that was very much a part of me, something that I would keep doing, but my goal was to be published in literary magazines, where I think the best work often is: The Iowa Review, The Missouri Review, Ploughshares, The Agni Review. That’s where I wanted to be published, but I knew that I wouldn’t make enough money to support myself, so I chose to go to graduate school.
My plan was that I would be a psychologist, earn enough money to support myself, and write in the interstices. Writing would still be the main thing, but I would write early in the morning, or at night when I got home from work. It was a practical plan. I didn’t want to be a waitress. I thought this was a degree that would lead me into interesting work, and something I would have for life.
Did you continue to write while pursuing your Masters and Ph.D.?
Yeah, that’s when I wrote Welcome to My Country.
So you found your patients interesting.
Yes! I did not go into psychology for material, but I was very moved by many of the stories that I heard. I thought, “I get paid to sit around and listen to people’s stories! That sounds great!” My intention was not then to reproduce patients’ stories, but I did, in Welcome to My Country. That’s the only time I’ve ever done that.
Welcome to My Country was your first book. Tell me about your publishing experience.
I submitted it to Duquesne University Press, because I saw that they were giving a prize to a writer who had never published a book of nonfiction before. That was exactly the kind of prize I would go for: a small press. And it won the prize.
At the time, I had an agent who I never spoke to, so I called her, and I said, “I don’t know if you really remember me, but I’m your client, and I’ve won this prize, and I’m going to sign this contract. Can you look it over?” My agent said, “Send me your manuscript.” I sent her the manuscript, and she disseminated it to all these editors in New York. Within a matter of moments—it seemed, but it was probably days—she called me at work, and she said, “Are you sitting down?” And I said, well, I don’t remember what I said. And she said, “Deb Futter” —or someone—“Wants to buy your book for $80,000.” And I was like, “Oh my god.” And she said, “But we’re not taking that offer.” And I was like, “What?! You’re not taking that offer?!” And she said, “No, because we have other offers coming in.” I was like, “Please! Just take that offer.” But she made it a bidding war. The book wound up being sold for much, much more than $80,000. It was totally unreal.
Well, it was sold to Kate Medina at Random House, and I met Kate, and she said to me, “America wants to see your face.” I remember thinking, “There’s something wrong here, because this is a book about schizophrenic men. This does not have wide appeal.” I knew from the beginning that this book was going to fail. In a way, it was bad for me, because the book was not going to perform to their expectations. They had paid way too much money. But for some reason, they had it in their mind that I was the new whatever.
How’d the book do?
The book got good reviews, but it didn’t earn out its advance. What that means is that your next advance is lower. At some point, your advances just kind of even out, and they give you $100,000 or something close to that.
At what point did you become a fulltime writer?
In the year 2000, I decided that I would stop practicing psychology, for a little while, at least, and it turned out to be twelve years. I was suddenly getting all this work. I was able to support myself [through writing], which was never my aim. My goal was to publish in these literary magazines.
Did you have an I have arrived moment?
No, no. I’ve never arrived. I’m always wondering, “What’s the next thing I’m going to write? And will I?” There’s always the fear that I’m not going to write anything else. I don’t think that artists really do arrive. There’s no port of arrival. It’s all departure.
What’s your artistic community like today?
It definitely could use some bolstering. I’m still friends with Pagan Kennedy, Karen Propp, and Audrey Shulman, and they comprise my very small artistic community. I also have my editors—at Elle, at Self, at The New York Times Magazine. They give me assignments and I’ll pitch ideas.
I do think it’s a concern—finding a community. I would like to have more writers around and to hear more about what people are doing and thinking, but I’m not sure how to go about getting it. On the other hand, you can keep in touch with people. There’s phone, there’s e-mail.
I’ll tell you what will really harm or change things—kids.
Tell me more.
[Loud crash from another room in the house.] Was that a kid?
I mean, once you have children—not so much you, but once your friends start having them—children become a priority in a way that I’m not even sure is healthy.
That’s when the writers’ group fell apart: when we started having kids. Suddenly we couldn’t meet for hours and hours on any given night. There were babysitting issues, or mostly, just wanting to be there to put our kids to bed. Especially when they’re young, it’s hard to have an artistic community. But when they get older—I’ve got an eight and a twelve year old—it’s a whole different story. We haven’t heard anything from them. I hope they’re okay!
[Laughs.] When your children were first born, did you have to change your writing hours?
No, no, I didn’t have to change my writing schedule. I always said to my husband that I could not have children unless we could afford help. I think that’s critical. I mean, it’s expensive. But I always said that I absolutely needed to have my writing time, and he knew that to be the case.
In the beginning, we had someone living with us for five years. We lucked out. She was awesome. She taught my kids Spanish, so they’re bilingual. Her name was Sessy. In some real sense, we both brought up my daughter. She had a huge influence on Clara. Much less so on Lucas, because she left when Lucas was only ten months old.
How did the dynamic change, once there was another person in the house?
There was some rivalry between us. Maybe it was just me, actually—I don’t know if it was her—but my daughter loved her so much, so there was some jealousy there. But I also knew that Sessy was awesome and that my jealousies were not the main issue. The main issue was my daughter getting the best kind of care that we could give her. And Sessy—you couldn’t ask for better.
So you can write, if you have help.
But you have to be able to afford it.
Between ten thousand and twelve thousand dollars. You have to have that income.
Do you remember your first paycheck for writing?
The first essay I ever got published won The New Letters Literary Prize, or whatever, and I think they gave me a thousand dollars. I also may have published a piece of fiction before that, in The Belletrist Review, but I think that one paid less than one thousand.
How old were you?
When I won The New Letters Prize, I must have been twenty-eight or twenty-nine.
I didn’t really try to get published before then. I knew that my work wasn’t good enough, and so I wouldn’t send anything out until I felt that it was really, really, good enough. My friends would write and send stuff to The New Yorker, or these literary magazines. They were gathering their rejection slips, but I didn’t see the point in sending out anything that I wasn’t proud of and that I knew was subpar. This particular essay, which won The New Letters Literary Prize, I did feel was a high quality piece of work. I sensed that I had moved up a notch.
Had you received any rejection letters before that?
I have this vague memory of submitting something to The New Yorker at some point and getting a handwritten note. That was the big thing. I just didn’t have as many rejection letters as my friends, because they put more of their work out there.
Did the rejections sting?
That’s part of the reason I didn’t submit—I didn’t want to be stung! I had no armor. My writing—though less so now—was fused with my identity so completely that the two couldn’t be separated, and so if my writing was rejected, then I was rejected. It cast everything into question. Was I not good enough? I felt warped in some way, that there was some essential thing wrong with me, that I would never be able to write in the way that I wanted to. All of these things would come up. Whenever I got a rejection, or even if I read something to friends who were writers, and they didn’t like it, that was a huge thing.
How have you transcended those fears?
To some degree, I still have them. I don’t like getting bad reviews, especially snarky reviews. There are certain assessments that I’m afraid of, for instance solipsism, or melodrama, or a kind of immaturity. I worry about those things in my work. I remember getting a review by someone who said it was a sick book. That made me sick! I got into bed and just wouldn’t get out for a day or two. I was devastated.
I don’t know how I’ve gotten over that. I guess I’ve gotten enough positive feedback that it’s in some ways a bulwark against the negative. I suspect I also have more in my life now. I have a family. I love to do stained glass and painting. It’s been really important for me to engage in other arts and crafts where I have no ambition. I’m never going to make a living being a stained glass artist. I don’t have to be good. It’s something that I can just love doing.
My identity is not wholly focused on my writing anymore, so when someone disses my writing, my whole identity is not dissed. My identity is as a writer—that’s what I am—but my self-esteem is not as tied to the outcome of my writing.
You probably don’t get rejected much anymore.
Well, actually, my publisher accepted my new manuscript, but when they found some sentences in my work from Bernd Heinrich, a biologist, my publisher rejected the manuscript.
Oh my god!
Yeah! They said I breached my contract, essentially, because I didn’t turn in original work. It was a huge thing for me. Norton basically rejected the manuscript because of issues of plagiarism.
This was fairly recently?
It just happened. One of the cons of the game I told you about earlier is that I’ve been so influenced by texts that other people’s texts creep into my work. I retain what I read, and I’ll put what I just read into my own work. That’s something I’m conflicted about. I’m not just taking another person’s sentences and importing them into my writing. The sentences get transformed. They’re in a very different context.
On the first page of my manuscript, there were two phrases from a writer named Bruno Shultz, who I love. There’s Bruno Schultz right by my desk. I’ve read and reread Bruno Schultz. So some of Bruno Shultz’s phrases got into my manuscript, like the words “wild and rustic.”
How are those words Bruno Shultz’s? Nobody else can write “wild and rustic”?
There were other phrases. “A keyboard of ribs”—that metaphor got into my writing, and there was one other. Norton found it, and they freaked out. They were like, “How do we know that the whole manuscript isn’t full of quote ‘borrowings’?”
They had me hire an independent editor. I underlined all the images or metaphors that I thought could conceivably come from someplace else—because what I’m most likely to borrow are metaphors or images that stay in my mind—and we ran them through Google to see if any hits came up. The editor wrote a report saying there was no plagiarism in the book. I also submitted to Norton all of the books that I used while I was writing—The $60,000 Dog is the name of my book—and said, “There they are,” and said, “Go through those books.”
But there was this botfly thing that I didn’t realize I was a borrowing [from Bernd Heinrich, the biologist], because when I’m borrowing, I don’t know that I’m borrowing. When we were going through the text, the independent editor and I found a phrase from William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, which I haven’t read for thirty years. It was so weird. We also found a phrase from a Wallace Stevens poem. I don’t remember ever reading Wallace Stevens. Obviously I did at some point, and the phrase stuck in my mind.
Why couldn’t you have thought of the Wallace Stevens phrase?
It just seemed unlikely. The phrase was, “The rough glitter of distant spruces.”
Yeah. I don’t remember ever reading it. That’s the problem. I’m very porous. They just come in and they stay in and they get mixed up. So I didn’t realize that I was using Bernd Heinrich’s sentences. I wasn’t trying to hide anything from Norton. But they happened to find two sentences of his after finding the Bruno Shultz phrasing, so they were like, “We can’t publish something like this, so be on you way.” They cancelled the contract. They want their money back.
There’s a whole school of thought that says that’s fine, that the idea of originality is puerile in some sense, but there’s also a powerful school of thought that says no, no, no, you must not do this. The problem is, it’s absolutely natural for me to do it.
Writing is like making a quilt. There are these squares, all around me, and the squares have already been made. I need to put them together, and I’m going to put them together one way, and Heinrich’s going to put them together another way. We have the same squares, but totally different designs.
In fact, I think I’m going to call him up, Heinrich, and ask him, does he mind that I have two sentences of his in my writing? Does he feel okay about that? I want to know how he feels about it. I would of course acknowledge him in my bibliography. If someone called me and said, “I’ve got two sentences of yours from Prozac Diary in my book,” I’d say, “Good! Help yourself.”
[Laughs.] What do you think of Norton’s stance on plagiarism?
My own feeling about it is that they have a very narrow and academic view of plagiarism. When you’re in school, in college, you’re not supposed to take the words of another writer and put them in your own paper. But when you’re writing creatively, it’s that quilt analogy that I come to. There’s a whole history of Shakespeare borrowing from other people, and the theme from Nabokov’s Lolita was borrowed from someone before him, and Ian McEwan has phrases in his book that come from elsewhere. There’s this kind of crosspollination that goes on, creatively, and that works are always derivative of other works, to some degree.
Have you read Lethem’s “The Ecstasy of Influence”?
Yes, I have read it. I just read it. It’s weird that you bring it up. I typed plagiarism in my Google search, and up came “The Ecstasy of Influence.” It was very affirming for me to read that essay.
Has Norton read the essay?
Actually, my lawyer is going to send the essay to Norton. Because they’re asking for their money back, because I didn’t provide an original work, and I disagree with that. I think the work is really original. My botflies are different from Heinrich’s botflies.
How do you define plagiarism?
To me, plagiarism is if I decided that I was going to write a chapter on flies, and I was going to categorize flies, and I just took his botfly thing and plunked it in and there was nothing different. If our visions, our chapters, our intentions, were pretty much the same. But if you take something and recast it so that it has a completely different meaning or context, that’s part of the creative process. There’s a kind of Puritanism about it when people say you can’t do that.
Are you rewriting your book right now?
No, I took the book elsewhere. Beacon said, “We’d love to have it!” But to change the sentences.
Now you’re rewriting the sentences?
I’m going to call Bernd Heinrich and ask him. If the sentences upset him, then I’ll change them, but if they don’t upset him, then I feel I should leave them, because this kind of thing should be allowed, so long as you’re making the work new. You’re not copying the writer’s vision, the writer’s intention, the writer’s themes. So I’ll see what Heinrich thinks of it.
For the emerging writers out there: What do you wish you had known in your early days?
I wish I had known that as a writer, competence is what you should strive for. If you come to your desk every day, and you work hard, and you try to put together honest, competent work, eventually the muse will visit you, but you shouldn’t spend your time chasing after some kind of transcendent state. You have no control over it. But you do have control over writing honest, competent work. The transcendent state will come when it comes. You just have to be at your desk and be ready to receive it. I really did spend time in my twenties, a lot of time, being so frustrated, because I couldn’t get into that state of mind. Without that state of mind, I thought my writing was worthless, and that’s not true. You can write well without being in that state.
You have to learn, slowly and painfully, to write outside of that state, even though you’re not quote “inspired”, or the muses aren’t singing to you. You need to learn to write on level land. Every once in a while, you’re going to get hit by a bolt of lightning, or some kind of grace is going to come over you, or you’re going to drop down into this magical place, and the writing will come out of you, beautifully and easily, but you never know when, and you can’t count on it.
I wish I had thought, earlier on, about the craftsman aspect of it. You’re putting something together here. It’s an art, but it’s also a craft. You have the power to craft a good solid table or a good solid essay, whether you enter that transcendent state or not.
Being in that transcendent state does not always equal good writing. That’s the weird thing about it. The transcendent state, it’s a great place to be, but you can’t count on it for excellence. Excellence comes from a combination of things.
Interview by Kassi Underwood
Photo by George Lange