Terry: Welcome to Fresh Air, Elizabeth.
Elizabeth: Thank you, Terry, I’m so thrilled to be here, I’m a huge fan, really. I would have done anything to be on this show. Anything.
T: Anything? Well, it’s so nice to hear that, not as nice as if Sondheim had said it, but still nice.
E: I know, right?
T: Elizabeth, I often ask guests about their childhoods because people want to know how an artist’s material was formed or inspired, but you write so frequently about your childhood that I wonder what you have left out, rather than what you can tell us about.
E: It isn’t that I had a particularly fascinating childhood, in fact, I thought of my childhood as boring, since I was from an unknown place that felt so dull, Prairie Village, Kansas, my God, could it be any worse? I certainly do believe, as whoever said it, “A writer gets all the material he needs from childhood.” It is a gold mine, if that person said that, too, which maybe he did.
My parents divorced and remarried, sure, but even that, in the 80’s, was unusual but not unheard of. There was another kid in my class with divorced parents. She was really popular though, damn her, cute as a button, and she could do the splits.
I have always felt I was most vividly myself about age three, and working with kids at that age when I worked at a day care, it was just more evidence. Before school, but after awareness and the beginning of memory. I remember “The Sound of Silence” record I had, a ring and a nightgowns that felt romantic to me, thinking about how words sounded and why other people did what they did, making my first friends, Mandy and Steve, having a playhouse that was really mine. Trees became special to me, and then have always been special.
Three and four were special ages to me, and so was seventeen. And I have spent most of my teaching career teaching kids at those ages. Probably not a coincidence.
I also ended up writing a lot of nonfiction about my childhood because it was easier to avoid the issues of privacy. My childhood is definitively mine in a way other parts of my life aren’t. That, and it’s actually true, I think, that the most boring stuff to you, as a human being, is sometimes exactly where the energy is. It’s either there, or where you feel the most nervous and embarrassed. Recently I read a section in a novel about a woman picking her nose, and I thought that was some interesting stuff. That was some energy. Weird energy, and maybe not interesting, to go back to that interesting word, but energy.
T: What do we not know about your childhood, then? What have you left out because it wasn’t good material?
E: I have written very little about my parents because I feel protective of them. They’re both fascinating people– creative, thoughtful, tough, curious, and self-sacrificing. I would be friends with either of them if they weren’t my parents, which I know is incredible luck. They had this laser focus on wanting to be parents, they still do, and they are really good at it.
I’ve written about my parents in fiction, turning them inside out various ways, as I have written about romantic relationships, which I also don’t feel right about using for nonfiction.
T: In your novel A Year Without Purpose, the story is sort of built after the story of Joan of Arc. Your novel The Man Made Out of Wood uses the story of Pinnochio. Do you always begin fiction with another story in mind, and how did those stories function for you? As fuel, as frames, or in some other way?
E: I start with either that story, or a character. The novel I am currently working on is something about the Biblical Jacob.
I would call them scaffolding, I guess, that is, some of their support gets taken away. There are false alarms, and certain ideas emerge later as motifs that I had no idea would be significant. For Joan, the caged and trained animals, and in The Man, a lot of the Pinnochio story fell away, but the idea of blue light, like the blue fairy, stayed with me all the way through.
T: Which reminds me, siblings are an important part of all your stories. How have your own siblings affected your idea of what a sibling relationship should or could be?
E: Probably especially because I am not married, my siblings are the people who have shared my life, and more than a spouse would, they have shared my whole life, at least– I am the oldest– since they were born. I have had some serious knock down, drag out fights with my siblings, but I would never understand what I understand about myself without them.
Much the way I love fiction for helping me explore alternate scenarios and realities, my siblings help me understand alternate ways I could be, and the way I am. A lot of that is blood, is genetics, although of course we were raised together, that is a part of it. I have a half-brother, too, though, and we lived in the same household only a few years– he is thirteen years younger than me– still, I can feel we are cut from the same cloth.
I have cousins in most of my work for the same reason, I’m sure. Cousins are like siblings, but you don’t hate them as much as you hate your siblings.
Maybe the best example is that when I started having panic attacks a few years ago, I had family I could bounce ideas off of, people who would not get sucked into my self-obsession but would look after me, and people who were like me and could tell me, “It’s gonna be okay. I was a mess, and I got better.” And then I passed that along to the next person who freaked out.
END OF PART ONE.