Good to Know
Some interesting outtakes from our interview with DeWoskin:
"I'm an unapologetic feminist."
"I spent my childhood summers on a farm in the Ozarks where my brothers Jake and Aaron and I collected tadpoles and cultivated them in a wading pool. Once, we left the wading pool in the sun during the ‘dangerous hours,' and the frogs boiled. We wept, and my mom stacked all three of us on her lap and explained that sometimes, scientific experiments require sacrifice."
"I love and can spend hours poring over family photographs, whether my own or those of total strangers."
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In the summer of 2005, Rachel DeWoskin took some time to talk with us about her favorite books, authors, and inspirations:
What books most influenced your life or your career as a writer?
Anna Karenina -- When I first read Anna Karenina at age 16, I wanted to be Anna, romantic and tragic. When I re-read it at 21, 26 and 30, I wanted to be Tolstoy, in charge of characters and sentences as real and sharp as his.
Also, The Complete Poems of Elizabeth Bishop 1927-1979 -- I've been reading Bishop my whole life, and love her contradictions -- between gross subjects and gorgeous lines, parentheticals and confessions, anecdotes and universal truths, craftsmanship and risk-taking.
What are your ten favorite books, and what makes them special to you?
Anne Carson's Autobiography of Red changed the way I think about writing. Carson is a brave, original and unusual writer, not only in her genre surfing, but also in her economy of language. She never wastes a syllable.
Charlotte's Web by E. B. White -- My mom read it to me and my brothers a million times.
Poems of Akhmatova – selected, translated and introduced by Stanley Kunitz – Her poems have spectacular clarity -- every one of them is worth memorizing.
A Right to Be Hostile: The Boondocks Treasury, by Aaron McGruder – hilarious.
Brothers Karamazov -- A perfect book about what drives people to action, love and insanity -- it has always seemed to me to be about everyone I've ever met and everyone I've ever been.
Lolita, by Vladimir Nabokov -- I read Lolita at 12, 19, 25 and 29. And I can't believe that Nabakov had to learn the cadence of regular English from scratch before turning his second language into the lines of Lolita.
Montale's Satura (translated by Arrowsmith) -- The opening sequence of poems in Satura, "Xenia," is the best tribute I've ever read -- about the loss of the poet's beloved, bespectacled and sarcastic wife.
Caroline, or Change isn't really a book, but I have to list it here because the writing by Tony Kushner and the music by Jeanine Tesori deserve to be read and heard over and over -- by everyone. It's the most important new play I've ever seen. Kushner is a hero, a genuinely moral artist engaged in the world's struggles in an active, progressive, and consistent way.
Close Range: Wyoming Stories -- Annie Proulx's stories are ferocious, and her plots are so compact that her 20 page stories pack the punches of most 300 page novels (especially "Brokeback Mountain," which may be the best short story I've ever read.). And her characters are alive in the way that Flannery O'Conner's are -- a stark, savage, electrifying way.
Ocean of Words -- Ha Jin's stories about soldiers in China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) provide access into a world which is otherwise impossible to know or imagine.
What are some of your favorite films, and what makes them unforgettable to you?
I love foreign movies, because they're like travel -- unfamiliar, uncomfortable, and exciting. I particularly like the ones that give me culture shocked access to characters and stories for which I have no template or reference point. Good examples include some of my favorite Chinese movies, Bian Lian (King of Masks), about an old man who adopts an orphan he believes is a boy, but who turns out to be a girl. Raise the Red Lantern, about wives and concubines, fighting for dignity and power in the house of their shared husband. Beijing Bicycle, about two boys who fight over and have to share a bike in Beijing. Blind Shaft, about the relationship between two miners and a little boy who befriends them. And The Gates of Heavenly Peace, a brilliant and judicious documentary about the 1989 Tiananmen Square uprising. And I was wild about Yi Tu Mama Tambien, because it was so certain and consistent and sexy, about a culture I know nothing about. I believed in the world it contained, explored, and offered up.
I'm also fascinated by movies about transformation -- about people's inner and outer lives -- but they have to have perspective and empathy to work. My favorites are Nights of Cabria, about a sad and lovely and hopeful prostitute, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, about a sad and lovely and hopeful transsexual rocker, Hoop Dreams, about sad and lovely and hopeful teenage basketball players, Tootsie, Angels in America, Eight Mile, and Capturing the Friedmans. All of those movies are wildly original, daring and moving.
The movie Adaptation was a joy because usually movies about writers glamorize writing, featuring movie-star looking writers in a montage of cigarettes, old-school typewriters and inspiration. And every well-lit montage invariably leads to a scene where the writer signs copies of his/her bestseller, which make real writers cringe and writhe in bitterness and fury. In Adaptation, the writer is hideous, and his process is one of despair and debilitating self-loathing. And I was ecstatic to see an anti-social freak of a writer rage and suffer while writing horrible drafts.
Finally, I'm Jewish, and I love movies about Jews. Annie Hall is my all-time favorite. I'm hysterical even thinking about the split screen of the WASP family dinner and the Jewish family dinner. What could be funnier?
What types of music do you like? Is there any particular kind you like to listen to when you're writing?
I like Chinese rock by Cui Jian. I like Chopin nocturnes, because my little brother was a piano prodigy and I grew up listening to him play. I like Vivaldi because I played his sonatas (badly) on my cello for years and years, and feel attached to them. I like Eminem because he uses very nerdy internal rhyme sequences to say sordid and shocking things. I like Leonard Cohen's most recent album because it's peaceful and gruff and the lyrics are heart-breakingly smart. And I love sultry female vocalists: Billie, Ella, Janice, Rickie Lee Jones, Joni Mitchell, and Donna Summer (I grew up listening to disco and had a dance routine to "MacArthur Park," which involved leaping off a chair right at the moment when she sings, "I'll never have that recipe again.")
I don't listen to music when I work -- I'm too distracted by lyrics, which I like to listen to/for. I sometimes listen to classical music while I write in journals, but that's usually a bedtime kind of thing or a traveling on planes, trains and busses kind of thing, not of the getting-real-work-done variety.
If you had a book club, what would it be reading?
I would choose poetry and novels in verse by Anne Carson, short fiction by Annie Proulx, Flannery O'Conner and Ha Jin, novels by Rushdie and Marquez, and plays by Tony Kushner.
What are your favorite kinds of books to give -- and get -- as gifts?
Complete, hardcover poetry collections are my favorite. (Robert Pinsky's Figured Wheel and Inferno are gorgeous gifts I got -- they inspired me to go to graduate school in poetry, for example.)
And brilliant, huge novels are also fun gifts. (like Middlesex, Cloudsplitter, and The Moor's Last Sigh).
Do you have any special writing rituals? For example, what do you have on your desk when you're writing?
I write late at night, not always at my desk, but all over the place. I pace the halls, wander the living room, window shop the fridge, write on book jackets, inside other people's books, on the backs of ratty scraps of paper. But I like to keep my desk itself tidy. On it, I have journals, maps, a Chinese dictionary, a Mao alarm clock and the collected poems of Ackmatova and Bishop. I usually manage to blaze out first drafts in fits of inspiration, and then I go through 200 incredibly self-loathing rounds of revisions. I work on more than one project at a time, usually cross genre, so that when I despise one, I can turn to another.
Many writers are hardly "overnight success" stories. How long did it take for you to get where you are today? Any rejection-slip horror stories or inspirational anecdotes?
I have a big, fat folder of rejection notes. And I no longer keep it next to the folder of "acceptance/publication letters," because the comparison they inspire keeps me up at night. And as for being an overnight anything, I have been writing literally since I was in second grade, when my best friend and I created "spy books," and wrote down our parents' conversations over dinner parties (we were hiding under the table in order to create suspense in what might otherwise have been lackluster plots and dialogue sequences.) In fourth grade my Aunt bought me a green diary with a lock, and I promptly got in the habit of writing down everything I saw, heard and thought. Needless to say, this included (then and later and now) huge amounts of sentimental, ill-conceived and unusable material, including hordes of bad poems about breaking up with high-school athletes. In my experience, the road to a single good line is paved with bad drafts.
What tips or advice do you have for writers still looking to be discovered?
I'm not sure how qualified I am to give advice about writing, except to say that what works best for me is to try to find ways to stay engaged in the world, so that I don't stick my head in the oven while revising. And what delights me and helps my writing is to memorize other people's most beautiful lines, poems, and paragraphs so that even though I didn't write them, they become mine.
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