h a l l o w e e n w e e k

Boo!

It’s Halloween week, and that means it’s time for us to look back at some scary moments in DoY history. Or, rather, in the history of our interviewees. Alright, there are (mostly) no knives or bloody gore in here. But there are other, scarier things. Like sexism, and loneliness, and self-doubt.

Here are some shuddering tales of days past to give you a thrilling chill…

Kate Christensen on sexism!

Iowa, there are different stories about it, different versions. Incredible community, but also a stiff hierarchy and lots of competition. Tell me about your experience.

I was there during the beginning of the reign of Frank Conroy. I don’t know if this is generally true, but my experience with him was that he despised female writers. Although his first book, let me point out, was a small coming of age memoir called Stop-Time, he sneered at all of us young women writers, he sneered at the small coming of age novels that we were all apparently writing. It never occurred me that his first book was a goddamn coming of age novel.

He palled around with the guys. There was a real sense of… it was a man’s world. This was 1987. They played pool together, they got drunk together, they lavishly praised one another’s writing. There was just a boy’s network.

Marina Abramovic on nearly being killed by her own mother!

Finally, the museum of modern art gave me the space to show all my written performances, which were photographic at that time. I went to the opening, and I knew that I had to be home at ten o’clock. Everybody was going for dinner, but I went home anyway. I didn’t know that somebody had called my mother and told her on the phone, “Your daughter is hanging naked in the museum. There is a photo.”

So, I arrived home at five to ten. I opened the door, and the house was dark. And I thought, she’s sleeping. I opened the dining room door and she is sitting in the dark, completely dressed in her double breasted-suit, really white in the face. And there is this huge crystal ashtray from the marriage that never worked, that someone had given my father and my mother, and she picked up this ashtray and she threw it at my head. Really, with the words from Taras Bulba, “I make you and I am taking your life from you.”
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Lois Lowry

Lois Lowry is one of the most renowned authors of young adult and children’s books in America. She has twice won the Newbery Medal for her work, for Number the Stars in 1990 and The Giver in 1993, and has written many successful series, including the Anastasia series, the Sam series, the Gooney Bird series, and The Giver series. Her most recent book, Son, is the final book of the latter.

Not one to shy away from challenging topics, her work is often found on required reading lists at schools around the world, while it has also been banned in conservative districts in the U.S. The Giver, for example, is considered one of the most banned books of the 1990s.

Lowry spoke with The Days of Yore while on an American tour to promote Son.

You’re on a big tour, I know. Where are you right now?

I’m in Austin, Texas at the moment.

I’m from Dallas. Are you going there?

I’m not going to make it there this time, no.

That’s okay. There’s not much to see in Dallas.

I’ve been to Austin once before. Everyone seems to think Austin is the best place in Texas.

What was the first piece you ever wrote? Do you remember?

If you wanted to do some tedious research, you could look up a 1947 magazine, published for children: Jack and Jill Magazine. Each month they’d publish letters from children. I frequently wrote to them, but they never published any of my letters until August 1947. I was ten years old. And in the letter, I said I’d written an novel. I have no idea what happened to the novel, or if I was lying about it.

Did you do a lot of creative writing in school?

We read only textbooks back then. I don’t recall in my elementary school years that there was any creative writing at all. It wasn’t part of the curriculum.

So you wrote in your spare time.

In those days, kids had a lot more spare time. Of course now they’re all so scheduled. When everyone else was playing tag and hide and go seek, I was inside with a book or a notebook.
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William Carpenter

William Carpenter is an expert at juggling his two professions – teaching and writing. Since moving from Chicago to Maine in 1972, he has authored three books of poetry, The Hours of Morning, Rain, and Speaking Fire at Stones; and two novels, A Keeper of Sheep and The Wooden Nickel. The Wooden Nickel was recently optioned for film and is a book of which, The New York Times noted, “Melville would have approved.” (The Times also described the book as “too salty to quote.”)

Carpenter has been a recipient of the Samuel French Morse Prize, a National Endowment for the Arts grant, and the Associated Writing Program’s Contemporary Poetry Award. Born and raised in New England, he earned a B.A. from Dartmouth College and a Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota. He is a faculty member at College of the Atlantic, a school devoted to human ecology that he helped found.

Carpenter is as modest as he is successful, as much a teacher as he is an artist, with a personality much like his prose, if not a little less “salty”: he is approachable, funny, smart, and completely original. In winter he is rarely seen without a knitted hat that he seldom removes, in-doors or out.

When you were a little kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?

When I was a little kid?

Yeah!

This is going to be a long talk! I don’t remember ever thinking of the future when I was a little kid. [Laughs.] When I was a little kid, I totally lived for the present.

I don’t remember ever having a desire. Although, as I grew older and began to live in the future – which is like the Fall of Man – I think that my desire was founded after my father, who was a professor, and so I wanted to be a professor – that looked like a pretty good job. For one thing, it had all summers free. I looked around, and I couldn’t see any other profession – astronauts, firemen, lawyers, doctors – that had summers free!

As soon as I could really formulate an idea, I thought I would be like my dad.

When did you decide to be a writer?

I don’t think I decided to be a writer. I think that came upon me. And I don’t know if anybody decides to be a writer. I don’t know if that’s a rational decision. [Laughs.] Or even a decision at all. I think that you are chosen more than you choose to be a writer. It comes upon you and you can’t help it; either you put up resistance or you give in.

My dad was a professor, but he was also a wonderful painter, though I think he was so devoted to his institution that he suppressed his artistic side. I was a little more selfish than he was, and I indulged the creative side. I thought of myself as doing for him something he had not allowed himself in his own life.
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Sadie Stein

Sadie Stein is the Deputy Editor of The Paris Review and the Editor of the journal’s online counterpart, The Paris Review Daily. Before joining the Review in May 2011, Stein was a fashion and arts editor at Jezebel. In her role as fashion watchdog, she once pulled a fabulous stunt at fashion week involving a large, identically dressed doll.

Together with Lorin Stein (no, no relation whatsoever), she edited the freshly published (October 2nd!) book Object Lessons: The Paris Review Presents the Art of the Short Story. Her writing appears regularly on The Paris Review Daily. She also has a pretty neat blog.

You went to the University of Chicago and wrote a creative thesis. Would you say, at that time, that you identified as a writer?

I was always very embarrassed to use that word, and I wouldn’t describe myself that way now, actually. My parents both wrote for a living, so I was very conscious of not romanticizing that. Until I supported myself that way, I would not have been comfortable using the term.

But I will certainly concede that I had no other practical skills. I am incompetent in many spheres, in anything practical. So I knew I would have to do something that incorporated writing. I think in some ways that is a great blessing, because you don’t have a hundred careers staring you in the face. I knew that I was limited to things centered on reading and writing and language.

Your parents both write. Tell me about that.

My dad is a journalist and my mom writes children’s books. And when she was younger, she wrote for television. And my grandfather was also a writer; he was a playwright.

Did you ever feel rebellious? Like, that you didn’t want to become a writer because your parents both did that.

I was very protective of my writing, when I was younger particularly. I wouldn’t let my parents read my college application essays, which was purely rebellious and self-destructive.

My dad is a very heavy-handed editor and we had different styles. I knew he would mean it for the best, but… I wasn’t a rebellious teenager but that was one of the ways in which I thought it was important to preserve my autonomy.

And did that reluctance continue…

Oh yes! I don’t like to show them my work. They are overly enthusiastic about it— you know, they are parents.

You went to Paris after graduating from college. What’s the story there?

Well, I went with a boyfriend and he had the real grown-up job, doing something with energy, something international… He was off wearing a suit, and he had a badge. [Laughs.] So I kind of tagged along. I got a bunch of jobs. I was a part-time au pair, I worked in the American Cathedral – which was very bizarre – I started giving English lessons, and I also started doing some ghost writing. Whatever I could find that paid the bills.

Why was the American Cathedral job bizarre?

There was a really peculiar group of people… There was this Englishwoman, Pamela, who kind of ran everything and had this puff of apricot-colored hair and a face like a bulldog and an oddly flirtatious manner with men. There was this old lady with no teeth who was a horrible racist who would come in. Then we had all the clergy. I became good friends with the verger, who is like the janitor in a church.

In retrospect, that was a depressing period, but the characters there were so amazing that I started writing them up. I started a little blog just to keep my hand in and to chronicle things that happened there.
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Lorin Stein

Lorin Stein is a writer, critic, and translator who has served as Editor of The Paris Review since April 2010 – the third in the magazine’s fifty-nine year history. He was a contributing editor at Publishers Weekly before joining Farrar Straus and Giroux as an editorial assistant in 1998. He rose within the ranks at FSG to become a senior editor, working with writers like Jeffrey Eugenides, Jonathan Franzen, and Sam Lipsyte. Books he has edited have received the National Book Award, the Pulitzer Prize, the Los Angeles Times Book Award, the Believer Book Award, and the National Book Critics Circle Award.

His writings and translations have appeared in The New York Review of Books, Harper’s, The London Review of Books, The New Republic, n+1, and the Salon Guide to Contemporary Fiction. His translation of Gréoire Bouillier’s memoir The Mystery Guest was published by FSG in 2008. On October 2 (tomorrow!) Picador is publishing Object Lessons: The Paris Review Presents the Art of the Short Story, which Stein edited together with Paris Review Deputy Editor Sadie Stein. (No, they are not related, and yes, they get asked that a lot.)

Stein is often portrayed as a fast-paced literary party boy, but during this interview he was soft-spoken, contemplative, and utterly disarming.

When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

In second grade, an author of children’s books named Ashley Bryan came to our school and told us how a book was made. I knew that I badly wanted to do that. I remember being shocked at how long it took to make a book. And I always enjoyed making little books at home.

But I think if someone asked me what I wanted to do, I would have said some typical boy thing, like be a fireman or play football. I remember telling a neighbor that I wanted to be a professional soccer play. This neighbor had been a very serious soccer player when he was young. And I remember him telling me— this is so gentle – he told me that I was too intelligent.

That’s a wonderful letdown, isn’t it?

[Laughs.] I had no physical coordination. So, I think I would have said that I wanted to do those things, but in fact I spent a lot of time kind of dreaming about writing and making books. Books had this powerful, magic aura for me.

You did begin to write. Because you wrote poetry. And you studied poetry later on.

After college. But you see, even in grade school I was submitting poems anonymously to the high school literary magazine. And then when I became a freshman in high school, they put me on the staff and I did that all through high school.

And also, since we’re in those years, my father gave me a job editing for him. He gave me a copy of William Strunk’s The Elements of Style and he asked me to edit some publication that his office was putting out. My stepmother used to give lots of speeches and he asked me to edit one of her speeches. I think the idea of giving a kid that kind of power over your parents’ work, even though she didn’t take any of my edits…[chuckles] There was a rush of perverse power.
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Kate Christensen

Kate Christensen is the author of six novels: In the Drink, Jeremy Thrane, The Epicure’s Lament, Trouble, The Astral, and The Great Man, which won the 2008 PEN/Faulkner Award. Her essays and reviews have been featured in a wide range of publications, including the New York Times Book Review, Bookforum, The Wall Street Journal, Tin House, and Elle. She is also an avid cook and food writer whose descriptions are as delectable as the dishes she describes.

Christensen earned a B.A. from Reed College and a M.F.A. from the Iowa Writers Workshop. She lived most of her adult life in New York before moving to Portland, Maine.

The New York Times once extolled The Great Man as, “Mischievous…funny, astute…” Which, it so happens, is an accurate description of the writer herself.

You went to a Waldorf school. Tell me about that.

Well, I grew up going to public school. My mother was a single mother getting her PhD in psychology at Arizona State University. She didn’t have a lot of money for private school, as you can imagine. But she grew up with a mother who was a Waldorf teacher and my grandparents and great aunt were very instrumental in bringing Waldorf education to this country.

So, we were living in Arizona, I was going to public schools. But halfway through high school I started to get really restless. I was fifteen and felt I needed a better education. And so I sent away for a lot of brochures from places like Interlochen and Putney. I would look at these photographs of beautiful, arty kids and think, “God, I want to be with them!” I was going to a high school in Cottonwood, Arizona. I played the violin and I liked to read books, I was really into Jane Austen… I didn’t have any fellow nerds. I was looking for my fellow, nerdy, introverted, bookish, musical kids and I wasn’t finding them. And I wasn’t finding teachers who could challenge me. I really liked literature and wanted to study it more in depth.

So, long story short, my grandmother, who was still affiliated with this Waldorf school in Spring Valley New York called Green Meadow, basically set it up so that I got a full scholarship there. I found a teacher to live with and to work for to get room and board – babysitting and housekeeping – and so the last two years of high school, I got to go to a Waldorf school.

And you also left home.

Yes, I left home for good. I had just turned sixteen. I wasn’t ready. I was very immature, a late bloomer to put it lightly. I was probably emotionally around eleven [laughs]. Now I had to work for room and board, I was the new girl in class. My English teacher was T.S. Eliot’s niece and she was brilliant– really my first mentor as a writer. It was challenging and it was very good for me to go. Although I had to be homesick and depressed and feel sort of out of place.
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J. Courtney Sullivan

J. Courtney Sullivan is a young writer with big early success. Her debut novel, Commencement, made quite the splash when it hit stands in 2010, quickly becoming a New York Times Bestseller. Gloria Steinem had nothing but praise for the novel and Oprah’s Book Club included Commencement in a list of “5 Feminist Classics to (Re)read as a Mom, Wife and Writer.” In 2010, Sullivan co-edited the essay collection Click: When We Knew We Were Feminists.

Sullivan’s second novel, Maine, was named a Best Book of the Year by Time Magazine and a Washington Post Notable Book for 2011. Her writing has also appeared in The New York Times Book Review, The Chicago Tribune, New York magazine, Elle, Glamour, Allure, Men’s Vogue, and the New York Observer, among other publications.

We met in an impersonal conference room where we had to wave our arms in the air every few minutes in order to stop the motion sensors from pronouncing the place unoccupied and switching off the lights. Sullivan had plenty of self-deprecatory jokes at the ready. Her laugh, bubbling up easily and frequently, is tinged with wonder, as though she can’t quite believe her own good luck. But her eyes, glittering with intelligence, confirm that luck has little to do with it.

As a kid, growing up. Were you a storyteller?

Of course. I grew up in this big Irish Catholic family. Everyone in the family is a storyteller. They all tell stories. Every Sunday we would go to my grandfather’s house for dinner. Everyone would be sitting around this long table and at a certain point in the meal, when I thought I could go undetected, I would slip under the table and I would just start eavesdropping on what everyone was saying. And, of course, the more wine they drank the more interesting the stories became.

And I started writing short stories when I was about six or seven. I feel like these stories were kind of about my family, even when they were about goldfish or bears. They were essentially trying to figure out the inner lives of what was behind what everyone was talking about at the dinner table.

When I was eight or nine, I started writing plays. My plays were unbearably long. They could be thirty, forty, fifty pages long. I grew up in a neighborhood full of kids, so after I finished a play, I would get the neighborhood together and everyone would perform the play. These all still exist on VHS tapes. Except you can’t hear what we’re saying in the play, because all you can hear are the mothers in the neighborhood saying, ”How much longer is this? When is this going to end?”

It sounds like you knew pretty early on that this is what you wanted to do.

Yeah. In high school – to my detriment now – that was really all I cared about: reading and writing fiction. I never really paid attention in math or science class and now it seems there are simple things about biology or division that your basic human being knows that I don’t because I just wasn’t paying attention. I was writing a poem.

I think it was very clear what direction I was going to be going in. Even my SAT scores would be, like, perfect in the English and then in the Math it would look like I just brought in an infant to sit in the chair.
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Nicholas Christopher

Nicholas Christopher is the author of fifteen books: six novels, including The Soloist, Veronica, A Trip to the Stars, and The Bestiary; eight books of poems, among them On Tour with Rita, In the Year of the Comet, and Crossing the Equator: New & Selected Poems, 1972-2004; and one work of nonfiction, entitled Somewhere in the Night: Film Noir & the American City. He has also translated the poems of Martial and Catullus as well as the work of several modern Greek poets, including George Seferis and Yannis Ritsos. His own work has been translated widely. Christopher’s writing has also been published in numerous anthologies and has appeared in a wide range of publications, including The New Yorker, Granta, Esquire, The New Republic, The New York Review of Books, The Nation, and The Paris Review.

He has won awards and fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the Academy of American Poets, the Poetry Society of America, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Christopher earned a B.A. from Harvard, where he studied with the poets Robert Lowell and Anthony Hecht. He taught at Yale University, New York University, and Barnard College before joining the permanent faculty in the writing program at Columbia University.

Christopher gleefully embodies the idea of the buccaneer writer, having crammed his early years with adventures that he is now – wise with age but no less witty – willing to bestow upon eager ears. This is what we’re talking about when we talk about a Yore.

You studied with Robert Lowell as an undergrad at Harvard. Were you already identifying as a poet at that point?

Yes. Though I thought I might study anthropology or Italian, all my focus was on poetry. As the first freshman ever admitted to Lowell’s advanced poetry class, I felt validated in what I was doing as a poet, though the fact is that I was just beginning my journey, just beginning to learn my craft.

What was Lowell like as a teacher?

Lowell’s idea of a workshop was one in which we discussed poems from a terrific anthology – 6 Centuries of Great Poetry, edited by Robert Penn Warren – and then went over some poems by workshop members. So if you liked presenting one of your novice poems after a discussion of, say, Marvell, Yeats, and Browning, it was just the place for you. It was perfect for me. Listening to Lowell talk about Yeats was far more useful to me at the time, age eighteen, than hearing him dissect poems of mine or my classmates. Though I believe I’m a good teacher, and I enjoy teaching, I was not one for workshops as a student. It was a different world then – at least for me. There was so much I had to read in order to make myself into a writer. That was all I had time for. That and my social life and traveling as much as I could.
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h e l l o f a l l

Summer is coming to a close and fall is right around the corner. What did you do this summer? Did you go on vacation, travel somewhere exciting? In celebration of unscheduled time, freedom, and that infectious little travel bug, we are beginning the new season here at DoY by reminiscing about travels of yore. Because among the over one hundred artists and writers we have spoken with over the past two years, a whole lot spread their wings and soared far away at some point during their early years. Travel was often transformative, offering new perspectives, new insights, and new courage.

Over at the Yore, we’re excited to be back in action with new in-depth interviews every Monday. Next week we will begin for real with a truly marvelous tale from a truly remarkable writer. But first, some travels of yore!

Enjoy! Then go book a ticket somewhere exotic. It’ll be good for you.

Astri

Heidi Julavits I went to southern Thailand, I was on a beach in my own little hut. It cost nothing – like five dollars a night. And as with a lot of these communities, they cut the electricity at, like, eleven at night and then there is none until the morning. All these places have mosquito netting over the beds because the bugs are so bad. I had noticed when I checked in that there were all these holes in my mosquito netting. I didn’t really think much of it. I just thought it was old, what can you expect for five dollars a night? Literally, it was like a horror movie. The lights cut, boom! I’m in the dark and all of a sudden I just hear, scrabble, scrabble, scrabble, scrabble…! It’s a thatched hut, you know? So the little claws are clicking away. I hear rats, rustling on the mosquito netting.

This is on your bed…?!

Yes. I am beating it with my hands to make them go away. I was up all night, it was so horrible.

And you know they can get through because there are holes…that they have made…

Oh yeah, there are holes! There are holes!! I literally had to sit there all night and beat the sides of the mosquito netting to scare them off. So, I get up in the morning. I go over to my suitcase. Of course, I’ve been traveling for quite some time so it has a lot of, you know, clothing in various states of filth. And the rats had chewed holes in all the crotches of my underwear.

[Bursts out laughing.] Kind of an indictment, huh?

Such an indictment! “Do your laundry!”
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s u m m e r t i m e

It’s the last Monday in July and it’s time for us at the Yore to go on our annual summer break. We are taking a few weeks off to gather new steam, new fantastic interviews, and tans, of course. But don’t fret! We will be back again on the first Monday of September, ready with fresh interview inspiration every single week.

Thank you for reading, sharing, and supporting us. See you in September!

Astri

Editor, The Days of Yore

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