I love a good chat about reading, writing, and all the rest of what we do as artists, whether the chat takes place in person or (more and more these days) through email. This page offers links for some of my favorites.
Certain questions keep coming up--how do you get started as a writer, how do you get your ideas, how much research do you do, do you like it, how do you keep producing? I share my personal story here; I'm sure you'll find your way.. And please do find your way--we need your stories too!
For more tips and tricks from my personal aesthetic, please go to "Advice for Writers."
Reflecting on my review of a novel by Stacey D'Erasmo: "I connect with the idea that you can fail as an artist (and not even be a very nice person) and still have moments of unexplainable beauty — that even a failed artist can have an artful life.”
... brief interview from back when I wrote a lot of reviews for NYTBR. Includes the somewhat sobering line drawing above, which was based on a photo of me once living my best artistic life.
With Broad Street Magazine
" I look back on my teens and twenties, when I wrote and wrote and wrote, with a kind of nostalgia—yes, I’ve published more since those years, but there was something wonderful about all I hoped I could do."
As editorial director of Broad Street, I approved this online feature--interviews with people who tell the truth, whether in nonfiction prose, photography, poetry, or some other form. And once I said yes to the feature, I had to be a guinea pig ... Here is my interview; check out others on the Broad Street site!
"I am at first a big plotter—lots of outlines, notebooks full of facts, pages for characters and things that might interest them or that they might say … and then I sort of fall out of the notebook and get more pantsy as I go on and the various people and places become real to me. I can always return to the notebook if I need more inspiration. "
"The Laughing Lesbian": an interview primarily about Mirabilis
Broad Street: What role does truth play in your writing–-your nonfiction, certainly, but also any other genre in which you work?
I think there are different kinds of truth–-there’s the emotional truth, the kind you find in any good writing, whether nonfiction or fiction. And then there are empirical facts, the truths on which we agree, the ones scientists and historians have recorded and explained for us. Both types of truth are the heart of good writing.
In nonfiction, I’ve written about zoos, supermodels, abortion, Barbie’s best friend, Midge, and best friends in general (for Broad Street!), and about the role coincidence plays in life and fiction–-there are some coincidences in my life that I could not put into a story without being called a sham. I researched every one of those pieces and tried to tie my personal truth to a “bigger truth” recognized in the world beyond my own heart.
I do the same thing as a writer of historical fiction. I research each era, each piece of clothing and bite of food meticulously–-then let emotional truth take over in a story that usually reads like magic realism (with an emphasis on the realism). Nitpicking readers will notice the historical accuracy; emotion should transcend everything.
How does honesty in storytelling affect the voice in which you write a particular piece?
This is where the idea of emotional truth really comes in. Sometimes someone (student, friend) brings me a piece of writing for diagnosis. The person usually knows why the material has slipped through the fingers–-maybe because excitement over it led off in fireworksy directions, or maybe s/he was just writing in order to write, trying to suit some sense of externally imposed structure. We do need some kind of structure to sharpen the arrow that drives Truth toward the heart, but writing to formula often feels too much like a series of tricks that tire the writer out and make her wonder why she’s doing what she’s doing. We often have really great chats about why it’s happened, though …
If I don’t feel and believe my heart is in a piece of writing, whether it’s an essay or an article or a novel, it’s going to fall flat. I talk to my material and live with it until it becomes part of me–and that’s when the truth blossoms.
How do you determine some subject has to be written about?
Pain, usually. If it hurts me, if it’s hurt someone else—pain demands recognition. But so does joy—rare and astonishing as it might be. And sometimes things just puzzle me so I want to know more about why people are doing some crazy thing.
I once wrote a scholarly article on changing fashions in “most personal hairstyles” because I wondered about the shift; I discovered links to a move in the porn industry from movie screens to home video and-–surprisingly–-to nineteenth-century Reformist ideas of cleanliness. The porn actors were using almost exactly the same rhetoric as the religious crusaders. Proving you just can’t make up the weirdest parts of truth.
Again, pain. I get horribly depressed when I have to write about something awful (and I’m not just talking about reading novels written by Tyra Banks and Naomi Campbell, which I once had to do for profiles on them). It’s hard to go to the dark corners of the soul and root out those tangled dust bunnies for other people to inspect and possibly sneer at. If I make something bad happen to a fictional character, I might actually cry. Even humorous subjects bring a sort of agony–whom might I hurt by making a joke? Perhaps (most often) myself. (Perhaps Tyra Banks or Naomi Campbell.) In the end, the challenge is being true to the material and to my own tender heart.
But you pretty much have to go There if you’re going to write something important. Let yourself feel every possible emotion. Write from mood if mood is what inspires you-–plot and character don’t necessarily have to be the beginning.
When you were a struggling/dreaming new writer, what gave you inspiration and kept you going?
That’s one of the hardest–-and the very best–-times in life, when you feel such longing, such ambition, and you aren’t sure you’re going to be the kind of artist you want to be. But you’re so full of potential; you can feel it thrumming through your veins. I look back on my teens and twenties, when I wrote and wrote and wrote, with a kind of nostalgia—yes, I’ve published more since those years, but there was something wonderful about all I hoped I could do.
In those early days, I mostly worked at pantyhose-and-cubicle jobs. I wrote about that era and the sexism inherent in putting on pantyhose and going to a cubicle in an essay called “My Life in Pantyhose,” for Writers on the Job, which later made its way into an anthology.
My students ask me about how to keep going, how to keep writing, every week.
For myself, I think there’s the easy answer “I can’t not write; I have to do it and always have”-–I started writing as soon as I could read, at age four. Mostly I knew what I wrote was not “good enough,” and in fact if we had to share an assignment in class I hid the secret artist part of myself for protection and wrote some silly thing about being a member of an ant colony my sister was stomping on. There’s always been a deep, dreamy, chthonic part of me that wanted to express some truths-–factual and emotional. Reading a good book will make me tingle all over–or sometimes cry. Getting an exciting idea or phrase is a gift from the gods.
A long way of saying I don’t know for sure … Just that writers have to keep believing through the darkness, giving their projects a loving pat on the head from time to time even when they don’t feel good about themselves. And finding kinship among other truth tellers, even if that kinship exists only on the page for a while. Seek the best in others and you’ll find the best in yourself.
So here’s what I’d say to new writers above all: Believe. Listen to your inner editor, but don’t let her beat you up entirely. No one else knows what you know; you have to write your truth or it won’t be out there for the rest of us to experience.
More thoughts for new writers can be found here.
Broad Street: True stories, honestly.
"One time I was very depressed for a week [while writing Mirabilis] and couldn't figure out what was bothering me. And then I realized that I'd let a character get hurt. I hadn't protected her from it because, of course, fiction is made up of bad situations that either grind a person down or give her/him a chance to rewrite the world. I feel awful every time I make something bad happen to a character."
List five adjectives to describe yourself.
First an EEEK!! from me, but here goes:
angsty: I worry all the time.
inquisitive: I write because I want to figure out why the World works as it does and why language has such power.
thwarted: I will never figure it all out, and I'd like to be a perfectionist--but I know perfection is impossible to come by.
headachey: I have chronic migraines from a couple of head injuries, and sometimes they make things very weird ... I get blind spots or see things that aren't really there. So the world becomes a little magical, a little scary.
magical: because the migraines make the world so strange, and because I've seen a lot of weird things. My great-aunt was the official spirit medium in a little Danish village called Gilleleje.
"Literature, I think, is anything that makes you look at the world in a new way, and when you’re a child, almost anything can do that for you."
Cokal believes she decided to become a writer — perhaps without even understanding there were such things as writers — when she read her first book at age 4: “Rumpelstiltskin," which she recalls reading to her ailing mother, is featured on her website.
"I’m not sure I realized people wrote the books,” she said. “I just knew the books existed and I really loved them.”
Book group chat via Skype--I didn't get to share the dinner, but the conversation was delightful! (And yes, the tall woman in blue is my friend of nearly forty years, Leslie.)
Experience a panel discussion of historical fiction set in the Wild West in general and California in particular (I'm the lone chick in the group, mostly talking about Breath and Bones). Also some thoughts simply about What It Means to Write. From the Book Group Expo in San Jose.
"In our culture, it’s traditional to associate being in love with having a disease—we say we’re lovesick, we’re suffering from love, we feel passion (which can mean strong emotion or strong pain and suffering)."
Some reviews and opinions
"There is an intriguing feminist statement contained in this post-feminist reimagining of 19th century America. During Famke's short life, she is literally mythologized in Albert's paintings, many of which are recreations of mythical scenes. Willfully, she becomes both muse and myth. Halfway in, however, the roles reverse ..."
Who doesn't love a mermaid, especially these days? And there just may be more mermaids to come ...
THE KINGDOM OF LITTLE WOUNDS
a harrowing fairy tale of a novel
Reviews and Plaudits:
-- New York Times Book Review
"Mesmerizing." --Kirkus (starred)
“Brazen, baroque, The Kingdom of Little Wounds plots coordinates of history, fever,and magic in such a way that each is occasionally disguised as the other. However, there's no disguising Susann Cokal's immediate rise to eminence as a pantocrator of new realms.I lived in her controversial kingdom for only a week,
but I suspect and hope I shall never recover.”
--Gregory Maguire, author of
Wicked and What-the-Dickens
"Its eloquence and scope are breathtaking."
--Publishers Weekly (starred; a Best Book of 2013)
"The book’s lyrical writing, enthralling characters, and compelling plot will give older readers lots to ponder."
"A gripping stroll through 550 pages ... distinct in thought and elocution."
---School Library Journal
#3 on the Boston Globe's list of best YAs of 2013
--Bulletin of the Center for Children's
Books, starred review
"I loved the layered storytelling with few answers .... Favorite Book Read of 2013."
--Elizabeth Burns, Cozy Up, SLJ