Bloom: You have a fascinating history of work and travel – you’ve lived in places as diverse as Montana and Nepal, done work ranging from a bartender to a logger to Peace Corps volunteer. How have these experiences nurtured (or hindered) your writing?
Marian Palaia: I guess the short answer would be, everywhere you go and everything you do adds to a well of experience you draw on as you write, so all of these jobs and places have definitely made it much easier for me to find things to write about. That holds true in a physical sense—writing scene, writing people in motion—as well as in a sense of connection, or empathy, or understanding. In other words, if I’m doing it right, not all of my characters are different versions of me, or of the relatively small group of familiars that have surrounded me all my life. Having some sense of global or universal (in relation to humanity) concerns is awfully important for a writer, whether or not you are writing directly about those things.
Bloom: Whose work first inspired you to write? Who inspires you lately?
MP: When I was a kid, I never stopped reading, and my tastes ran a gamut from Sherlock Holmes and Doc Savage to Pippi Longstocking and Harriet the Spy. I would completely lose myself in these different worlds, to the point that everyone in my family knew better than to try to talk to me if I had a book (or the comics, or a cereal box) in my hands. In high school I discovered James Michener and Graham Greene; admittedly two very different kinds of writers, but it must have been about that time I began to be interested in what was occurring, or had occurred, somewhere other than the U.S., or made-up places. I still remember reading The Power and the Glory and being completely blown away at Greene’s descriptions, and the utter complexity of his characters’ lives. There is nothing simple or formulaic about a Graham Greene novel, and he still inspires me. The Quiet American, as I’m sure I have said elsewhere, is one of just a handful of books I find to be perfect, whatever that means.
Of a totally different aesthetic, a boyfriend gave me a copy of Tom McGuane’s Panama when I was 23 or 24. It’s funny, I guess, but that is the book that really made me want to write fiction. I had been writing stuff—mostly song lyrics and terrible poetry—forever, but there was something about McGuane’s voice in that book (and a little bit later Ninety-two in the Shade) that unlocked something in me, and I started writing short stories. Not long after, at The University of Montana, Barry Hannah showed up to teach for a year, and that pretty much sealed the deal. The things that man could do with a sentence should probably have been illegal. He wasn’t necessarily consistent, but when he was on, boy, get out of the way. I still keep a copy of Airships nearby, just to keep me honest, to keep my trying as hard as I can to write sentences I can be proud of.
Bloom: You keep a blog, and you’ve contributed to other blogs, like David Abrams’ The Quivering Pen. Do you enjoy writing for digital media? How do you think the Internet has changed both the profession of writing and the quality of writing?
MP: I honestly haven’t given a whole lot of thought to how digital media is changing things, though I know it is. I subscribe to a few blogs, but the links, when they come, mostly stay unopened in my inbox, I guess because there is just so much to read out there these days. So maybe that’s an answer, of sorts, but maybe it’s an answer about reading rather than about writing. But of course the two things are totally connected. I guess I have noticed a few things, peripherally. One is that the collective attention span (mine included) is approaching zero. It’s a little bit disturbing, I think, that digital journals and magazines now have to tell you how long it will take you to read something, and I suspect that the shorter a piece is, the higher the readership. (I would love for someone to tell me I’m wrong about that.) The first chapter of The Given World was just up at Medium, and one of the first things I noticed was that every other piece there was an x-minute read, the x being somewhere in the single digits, usually about two, give or take another two. Mine was a whole 22 minutes, and I thought, “No one is going to read this.” And other than some of my friends—because I put the link up on my Facebook author page—I don’t know if anyone did. It’s as good as gone now. No one is going to scroll that far.
Bloom: I’m going to quote you from the essay you wrote for The Quivering Pen: “If I’m going to do these stupid, stupid things, I might as well get some stories out of the deal.” The stupid thing was a relationship that ended badly, but you say the experience got you to start writing – can you describe why that was motivational and what it was you started to write? Do you think the best writing comes from places of pain, sadness, or disappointment?
MP: First of all, that was not a relationship: it was an incredibly ill-advised, and alcohol-fueled, tryst. It still makes me cringe to remember it. But to answer the question, yes, I do think a lot of good writing comes from personal turmoil. But you can also get carried away with it. In the same blog post I think I also quoted Rickie Lee Jones, talking about the danger of always writing from a place of pain, because if that’s your “dope,” you’re pretty much screwed if you wind up happy. I guess the trick is to be a writer first, and a tragic figure last, or not at all. This insight, of course, is one of the benefits of being as old as I am, which in my case (thankfully) does mean I am wiser than I once was, and not at all drawn anymore to being that tragic figure. I suppose at one time it had its advantages, but that’s all over now, except for the writing part. It’s good to have some perspective, and some brain cells left.
Bloom: How has your writing process changed over time, from that first experience of beginning to write to your first story to The Given World, your first novel?
MP: I imagine it has changed a great deal. For one thing, writing a novel really is a very different experience from writing short stories. I get to know and develop my characters and their interactions much more deeply than in a story, and I live with them for a much longer time, obviously. I guess I do a lot more thinking about where I’m going, and I plan a lot more, which is not to say I outline, but I like, at least incrementally, to have some sense of where I’m headed. It was that way to a degree with my stories, in that I often could see the ending—usually some sort of an image—before I got there, but then I would catch myself racing to get to it. I am much more deliberative now, as I should be. I am also much more aware of how the narrative moves, the direction it takes. When I started sending my stories out, I’d hear back from editors that they lacked a narrative “arc” and I really didn’t get what that was, because it was (and still is) such an abstract concept when it is just thrown out there like that. Aligning The Given World as a novel, after fooling myself into writing it by writing a series of (basically) short stories and then adding the connective tissue, taught me what narrative arc is, and, yes, you do need it; it just doesn’t have to adhere to any hard and fast rule or shape.
Bloom: The Given World spans more than two decades and tackles a very traumatic time in American history – the Vietnam War and its aftermath. How did you balance the historical and factual aspects of the story with your ideas for your characters?
MP: All of my work is character driven, first. I don’t write fiction about ideas, but about people who live in a certain time. History—all history—infuses that time, and I work hard to get it right. It (our human history) is background, but it is integral, and it plays a huge role in how it affects my characters. So it is not secondary. The two things—character and history—go hand in hand. We don’t live in a vacuum, though many of us act (and sometimes write) as if we do, as if learning our and others’ history is just too much bother. That really bugs me.
Bloom: The chapters in The Given World have something of a stroboscopic quality–they illuminate someone or something in Riley’s life, then go dark, and when the light goes up again she’s somewhere else, with someone else. Did the novel start out as a series of short stories? If so, did you always envision them as centering around Riley? At what point did you start conceiving of it as a novel?
MP: It started out as a single short story, which was Chapter Two: Girl, Three Speeds, Pretty Good Brakes. I wrote it sometime in the late 90s, and until I got to graduate school in 2010, figured that was it. When I started writing new stories for my MFA, Riley (who had not had a name for all those years) began to appear in them. There was something about her story that still intrigued me, so I kept going. When Lorrie Moore and I sat down one afternoon and looked at the handful of stories I had (probably three at the time), she saw a novel in there, somewhere. I kept writing stories, though, because the prospect of a novel was too daunting. I didn’t get how anyone could keep a whole novel in her head. Now I realize that you don’t. You just build it, sentence by sentence, word by word. Because of the way I wrote it, the editing process—aligning it as a novel—took rather a long time, but it was a great learning process for me. I am working on a new novel and aligning it as I go, but I think I needed to write the first one the way I did. If it doesn’t look exactly like a typical novel, whatever that is—well, I can live with that.
Bloom: On your Web site, you use two phrases to describe yourself: writer and shit-disturber. Tell us more about the latter—what is your definition of a shit-disturber and what, specifically, makes you one?! And, how do those two jobs work together?
MP: I like to stir things up. I like to disturb people in their complacency, their insularity, their entitlement. Sometimes it’s playful, but other times it’s serious. As I said earlier, so many people (Americans, especially, or at least most obviously) seem oblivious to anything they don’t think impacts them directly, and sometimes that pisses me off. More than sometimes, actually. Or else it makes me very sad. I’ll occasionally post real news to my Facebook page—about Syria, maybe, or the fact that veterans of the first Iraq war are just now getting acknowledged and treated for injuries and illnesses they got and reported over 20 years ago, and I’ll get zero response. Photos of my dog? Lots, which is nice. I love my dog, and my friends who love my dog, but… The last thing I want to be in my writing is didactic and preachy, but I do want to remind my readers that, in a way, all of life is a domino effect, that people suffer a lot and for a lot of different reasons, and that we all probably need to work on our empathy skills and on paying attention a bit more.
Bloom: You’ve had many different and fascinating professions – what would you do professionally if you weren’t a writer?
MP: Marine biologist. Or boxer.
Bloom: What’s next? Do you have another writing project underway or conceptualized?
MP: Oh, yes. I’m halfway, or more, through a new novel (which actually started out as a novel) called The Hello Kitty Justice League. The Justice League is two women—Lucky and Angie—who spend a few winters wreaking havoc in the Montana backwoods, but that is only part of it. Other parts: a young mother jumps off a bridge; a green-eyed boy gets shot during a bank robbery; a Haitian refugee joins the National Guard so he can go to college and gets sent to Iraq; a father spies for the Russians; a daughter runs away to San Francisco. To steal a word you used earlier in this interview, it is stroboscopic in its own way, probably more that The Given World, but also more deliberately so. Most of the chapters are very short; it is sort of like a weaving. I love working on it, and can’t wait to see what happens. I think I already have that ending image, but I am trying very hard to not race to get there.
Click here to read an excerpt from Marian Palaia’s The Given World.