Marianne Wiggins was born in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and has lived in Brussels, Rome, Paris, and London. She is the author of ten books of fiction, including John Dollar and Evidence of Things Unseen, for which she was a National Book Award finalist in fiction, as well as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. She has won an NEA grant, the Whiting Writers' Award, and the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize. She is Professor of English at the University of Southern California. (Author biography courtesy of Simon and Schuster.)
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In the spring of 2005, Marianne Wiggins took some time out to talk with us about some of her favorite books, authors, and interests.
What was the book that most influenced your life or your career as a writer -- and why?
Hands down, this was Tillie Olsen's Silences. It was published soon after I turned 30, when I had one book in print and had not really found my canvas nor my voice. I was at a turning point in my life, not knowing if I could make a "career" of writing and having a young daughter to support on my own. Olsen's masterpiece is not so much "written" as gasped -- her passionate engagement with the subject of women writers grips you physically like a madwoman on a bus demanding your participation in her cause. I read it in the kitchen, I read it in bed -- I still read parts of it at least once every month.
What are your favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
When I moved back to the United States after living 16 years in London, I had to ship all my possessions to California through the Panama Canal. I'll always remember the look on that Allied Movers agent's face when he saw my shelves of books: over 300 cartons' worth, and that was after I weeded out the out-of-date travel books to places like Burma and Romania that I had bought for research for my novels. I'm going to have to sidestep this question, adapting my sister's line. She has five children and frequently, sincerely, says, "I love ‘em all."
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
I write on a visual canvas, "seeing" a scene in my thoughts before translating it into language, so I'm a visual junkie. There are entire genres I stay away from -- I recoil at violence. But I'll watch a nonviolent movie on any pretext, even if it's in a foreign language -- I just love love the form, and the longer, the better (again, that love for extended narrative). My favorite routine is to take in the first matinee when the theatre is practically empty and I can have not only the whole row but the whole front of the house to myself. Then I lose myself for two hours.
Ours is an age dominated not by the written or printed word but by visuals: they define our experience, even how we process news, process our life's history. I think there is an unconscious effect that we have yet to discover: I think movies are not only shaped by dreams, I believe they shape them. I caught a rerun of The Lord of the Flies a while ago, I think on TNT -- I must have seen it more than 35 years ago (a lifetime!), but as I watched I realized I was seeing a landscape that was very personal to me, a landscape I thought I had invented, in fact, when I was writing about a deserted island in John Dollar. In fact, when I was "imagining" the island for my book, all I had been doing was recalling, unconsciously, the island from the movie The Lord of the Flies which I had seen only once when I was in my early 20s. Freaky.
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
Because music is a language unto itself, when I'm writing, I need silence. I need to hear the music and the rhythms of the words inside my thoughts. Also, when I'm reading, even if it's a magazine or newspaper, I prefer to do it in silence so I can hear those sentences. When I'm cooking, I love to listen to the radio, a habit I developed in London, where the BBC radio programming is superb.
Now that I'm an Angelino, I spend more time in my car than I would like to, so I take that time to channel surf as my way of learning about music I would not normally hear (or hear about). I'm an opera buff (that need for narrative, again) and tend to need a good lyric line to match the musical one. I'm trying with Eminem, I truly am, but I miss the complexity and depth that colors the classical genres. And don't even get me started on Cuban rhythms.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
Asking anyone what she or he is reading is a necessary part of conversation, exchanging news. So I take recommendations from friends -- and I always pass along a book I've loved. A good friend of mine in Washington, D.C., asks the independent bookstore Politics & Prose to send a book a month (at their discretion) to her friends and family. I think this is an absolutely wonderful idea for gift giving.
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
Hmm..."desk"? Such a quaint idea. I know for a fact certain writers do have "desks," but the implication is one of sitting down somewhere to conduct a business. I think there's a thesis in the making in the study of how men and women differ in their approach to "work." I've known many male writers (and lived with a few) and, to a man, each had a "desk," each would "go" to it, ritually, to begin the working day. But I've lived alone now for over a decade so my "desk" carries with me through the house, and through the day. And because I write longhand, my "desk" is portable -- I can sit in cafes when I'm in Europe, on the bus in London or up on my favorite perch in the Santa Monica mountains looking out at the Pacific here in California.
I tend to like to write supine (so did Colette) so even when I was married, when I had "a writing room", it had (more important than a "desk") a day bed in it where I could stretch out. I do, however, currently have a long deal table where my laptop and printer sit, where I go to type out things like answers to this questionnaire. On it, other than the technical necessities, are pictures of my daughter at all ages of her life and rocks, rocks, rocks, fossils, and more rocks, at all ages of the earth's life. I'm fascinated by the narrative of geology and I'm a veritable pack rat of a collector on the road. I keep a rock hammer in my car. And as I type this, my eye travels over the million years beside me. I can reach out and cradle eons in my hand.
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