So, you’ve written a book about returning to Catholicism in a historical moment when the institutional Catholic church looks like a bunch of right wing nut job lunatics? Does that mean you’re a right wing nut job lunatic?
Far from it. I mean, I teach at UC Berkeley, dude (you don’t mind if I call you dude, right? I mean it in a feminist, gender-neutral sort of way). That’s clue number one. Clues number two through ten thousand have to do with the fact that I’m a thinking feminist who believes in social equality for LGBTQ people and has what you might call a socialist fantasy life. A lot of Radical Reinvention is about understanding the difference between the hierarchy of the church and the people on the ground. Catholics are not some sort of monolithic mass of Pope worshipping automatons.
Touchy today, are we? But seriously: a book about returning to Catholicism. Were you trying to get on the New York Times Worst Seller List? Can’t you come up with a more commercial idea?
Apparently not. I went from a book about indie, published with a massive mainstream press, to a book about a massive mainstream religion published with an indie press. The publication experience has been start-to-finish wonderful in this case, but like any other author these days, it’s hard to figure out how the hell to get people to read your stuff without coming off as some sort of tap dancing brown nosing loser sad clown.
Wow, you really are in a bad mood at the moment. Perhaps we should pick this up again in a day or so?
So, a couple of days later. Feeling better today?
Marginally. Classes just started and my main concern is how to interest my students in writing about Riot Grrrl as a point of historical interest for talking about music and social movements (that’s the theme of my research writing course). That doesn’t have much to do with Catholicism, unless you think about the female saints who would have made great Riot Grrrls: Mary Magdalene, Joan of Arc, Theresa of Avila, Clare of Assisi, Dorothy Day…
You just got back from a book tour of the Pacific Northwest, and you’re leaving for LA in a couple of weeks to do more readings. By the end of the year you’ll have done something like fifteen readings and talks on top of a full-time job teaching and a part-time job working at a Shakespeare theater, and you still manage to write, too. Are you insane?
Yes, and also, I am not rich, nor did I marry a rich guy, nor do I come from a family with money. I’ve worked since I was thirteen and have never gotten a sabbatical or a grant that allowed me to stop teaching in order to write. For some of us, writing is something you just have to make room for. I wrote Radical Reinvention over the course of three years, mostly on my only day off, which is Friday. 70 thousand words, mostly written on Fridays. It’s not impossible. Readings are part of the work of being a writer and I’m damned lucky I get asked to do them at all. If fifty people show up, awesome. If two people show up (which has happened more than once), I owe them the same attention and focus I owe fifty people. When you find your vocation, and it happens to be writing, you find a way to give to that vocation even when you also have to earn a living. And I’m privileged that my day job is teaching writing. It’s a time eater but I can’t imagine a better one.
That’s slightly more cheerful, I guess. But isn’t this the kind of lifestyle that gives people ulcers?
IBS, actually. I’d say more about the wonders of acid reflux but there are far more interesting things we can discuss. Like, for example, the role of religion in the writing life.
That’s an unfashionable topic. Atheism is so hot right now.
Indeed. Atheists are sexy. All that self-confidence! But it also takes self-confidence to surrender to faith, as much as that’s possible for a cynic. You have to be self confident that God won’t look at what you’re doing and and laugh. I was recently working on an essay about Bach, and discovered that he wrote “Jesus, Help” at the top of every piece of music he composed. I mean, dude. Not everyone can go to that extent (I can’t) but even taking a moment each day to be thankful to God as you understand Her/Him/It can change the way writing works in your life. Seeing it as a gift instead of a burden (cliché, right?). I am so tired of the trope of the suffering, egotistical artist, a trope I admittedly fell into for a few painful decades. Now I could go on here about the fact that I also had to stop writing poetry to come to that transition but that may be off topic…
Not really. You have an MFA in poetry, and yet you stopped writing poetry several years ago and now you’ve cranked out two nonfiction books. Do you think you’ll ever write poetry again?
Who knows? All I know is that the most authentic voice I’ve ever found to write in is the one that emerged with this book. My “poetic voice” (barf!) felt stifled and artificial. Poetry land – at least on a local scale – felt claustrophobic and full of people jockeying for attention from the so-called power players. I also got tired of reading blogs that were all about what shirt so and so wore at a reading and who knew who and who said what about who on which other blog and so on. I wanted something bigger, a form that allowed for a kind of vastness of scale. If you’re going to write a book about God, sure, you can do it in poems if you’re Gerard Manley Hopkins, but not if you’re me. Poetry feels very egocentric in terms of my personal tendency to embellish and navel gaze, whereas nonfiction is simply about recounting the truth about lived and observed experiences. Reporting has a kind of honesty that I really need to live out in my writing, right now.
Hmmm… you sound slightly less bitchy but also like you’re trying to piss off poets.
Ugh, far from it. I hate fighting. Listen, I love poetry and poets. I am good friends with a shitload of poets and plan on continuing to be. This is more about discernment, which is such a Catholic thing to talk about. I was never 100% about poetry anyway; I was a working journalist and nonfiction writer right alongside the poetry all along. Nonfiction simply took over because it allowed me to sound like myself. I’m happier, and more balanced in many ways because of that.
On that note, you’ve been crabbing a lot lately about how hard it is to get reviews. Whose fault is that, jerkface?
Hey, there, I thought we were trying to get along. Listen: it is difficult for any writer to get reviewed these days because newspapers have slashed their book sections down to nothing, magazines are folding and don’t care about books, and if a newspaper does review a book it’s gonna be Molly Ringwald’s first fiction collection in the NY Times. Ka-ching. I edited and helped run a magazine for five years. And I rejected a lot of stuff, way more than I could possibly have published. Now I have mixed feelings about the crowdsourcing of reviews via Amazon and Goodreads; on the one hand, more voices = good. On the other, the fact that you can buy Amazon reviews (literally buy them) = bad. Really bad. You can also buy Kirkus reviews. And the top selling book of 2012 is Twilight fan fiction. So the people have spoken, and they want Twilight fan fiction and short stories written by Claire from the Breakfast Club. I wrote a book that my agent, my editor, my publicist and my publishers believe to be good (also, Publishers Weekly starred review, yo). If people agree with that assessment, great. I mean, I have never been able to say before this book that I sincerely believe something I’ve written is good. And this book is good. But it’s about an unusual topic and it feels like the discovery of this book it going to be organic, word of mouth, DIY style, and that might take a while. Ultimately, that’s fine. Do I still wish it was me and not Molly Ringwald in the Times? Fuck yes I do. It’s time we started admitting that kind of thing.
Molly Ringwald’s a really nice person, you know.
I’m sure she is, but I’m not sure her book’s more important than a lot of other stuff coming out at the moment. If I’m wrong about that I’ll eat my hat (it’s made of cheese).
So, you’ve been teaching writing for fifteen years. What can you teach someone who reads this about the writing process?
Nothing. My classes consist of 80 minutes of silence as my students gaze into an existential void. Kidding. They consist of 80 minutes of bad jokes, close reading, music breaks, group workshop, craft workshop, and writing. Realistically, however, as much as I can rattle off about tried and true formulae for helping people writing, there is no foolproof process, one size fits all. Those people who say they sit down and write every day, like machines? Fine. I can’t do that. Books about writing? Useless to me. Writing groups? Nice idea, haven’t been in one since grad school. Basically, I get an idea, I walk around thinking about it, check out a ton of library books on the topic, think about it, think about it some more, interview some people, do some field work, think about it, read more, think more, eat a lot of food, and then bang, I start writing. Usually it has to become an obsessive thing, a topic that I cannot keep out of my mind, a story that has to be told. Jeremiah (of the Bible) puts it this way: “Oh Lord, you have seduced me/ and I let myself be seduced. You have overpowered me; you were the stronger.” Writing should be like that. I have to be overpowered by the desire to write in order to write. It has to be a need, not a choice. If I forced myself to do it every day it would become habitual, mechanical, and therefore trite.
But doesn’t God put his finger into Jeremiah’s mouth?
Indeed. I’d probably barf if that happened. That’s why I’m a nonfiction writer and not a Biblical prophet.
KAYA OAKES is the author of Slanted and Enchanted: The Evolution of Indie Culture, the poetry collection Telegraph, and cofounder of Kitchen Sink, winner of the Utne Independent Press Award for Best New Magazine. She teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, and lives in Oakland.