Erica Bauermeister is the bestselling author of the novels The School of Essential Ingredients, Joy for Beginners, and The Lost Art of Mixing. She coauthored 500 Great Books by Women: A Reader’s Guide and Let’s Hear It for the Girls: 375 Great Books for Readers 2–14. With a B.A. from Occidental College and a PhD from the University of Washington, she taught literature and writing at the University of Washington and Antioch University. I first discovered Erica’s second novel, Joy for Beginners, and was impressed by the beauty of her prose. It didn't take me long to collect her works as well.
Erica, you write on your Web site that Tillie Olsen’s "I Stand Here Ironing" motivated you to pursue your dream of writing and earn your PHD. You wrote, but say "thankfully" your early writing was not published. Why do you say "thankfully"? How has your writing evolved since your early work?
I think we all need to clock those 10,000 hours that make us skilled at any profession, and especially writing. Those first manuscripts were incredibly important for me to write, but they weren't ready for public consumption. I'll always be glad I wrote them, though. They taught me to be a writer. They got me my first book contract (for 500 Great Books by Women). And even if they weren't published, they ended up being a part of who I became as a writer and person. So much of what I learned about myself and motherhood and writing that came from my unpublished memoir about being a young mother went into a couple pages of Claire's story in The School of Essential Ingredients. I get more letters about those two pages than anything else I've ever written. Was it worth writing 120 pages to get 2 good ones in the end? Absolutely.
Would you recommend a writer earn a Masters or Doctorate degree for any reason other than the extensive reading required? What would that be? How long did it take earn your doctorate?
The value of a Doctorate degree in literature depends upon the person and what he or she wants. I learned a tremendous amount. I learned how to research, to read closely, to think critically about literature. I was connected with some very smart people. If you are thinking you want to be a professor, it's a great preparation. As someone who ended up being a professional writer rather than educator, I sometimes wonder about what else I might have done with the seven years it took. I honestly think I learned more about literature from all the books we read doing the research for 500 Great Books by Women. But we wouldn't have gotten the contract for 500 Great Books by Women without my PhD, so it is all connected, one way or another.
What contributed most to developing your writing skills: Reading, your education, your teaching, or life experiences? Why?
They all did – it's all interconnected. The research I did for 500 Great Books by Women gave me access to great books, but also the not-so-great ones, the ones that fell apart for one reason or another. I would always take them apart in my mind, figure out what would have made them work. It's incredibly valuable for writers to read books as writers. My education and teaching had the same effect -– they all taught me to take the works apart, to see books as the beautiful, intricate machines that they are.
You didn't mention writing itself, but I think it's important. I think of writing as music. Both because you need to learn the rhythms, the notes and chords of the words and sentences, but also because you need to practice until it is effortless, until you hear the rhythms in your sleep, until you know how to use them to create mood, to reinforce your ideas, to provide a soundtrack for your readers' experience. That takes practice, lots of practice.
And then life experience – sometimes I think that is the most important of all. I knew when I was in college that I wasn't mature enough yet to write the books I wanted to write. They took life experience, and the time to contemplate what those experiences meant. I think it makes perfect sense that, given the kind of books I write, that my first one wasn't published until two months before my 50th birthday.
You started out writing non-fiction with co-authors before publishing your three highly acclaimed novels. Was it a challenge to transition from non-fiction to fiction? How about the transition from working in collaboration to working solo?
When I was in graduate school, writing groups were just being discovered (this dates me, I know). But within writing groups, I learned to edit others' work and to receive feedback with gratitude. This extended into the process of writing the readers' guides. We three co-authors all edited each others' annotations. It was remarkably helpful and educational. And while I now write books by myself, each novel has benefited greatly from feedback and editing from others. I still have a writing group, plus a wonderful circle of reader-friends. As a result, everything I write goes through 10-12 edits before my editor ever sees the manuscript. And I still think of myself as someone who writes in collaboration with others.
As for the transition to fiction – you know, it's strange, but it just happened. I got the idea for School of Essential Ingredients and the characters started showing up where no characters had ever shown up before. It felt both extremely odd and absolutely natural. I still don't know what happened, but I am grateful every day. This is what I've always wanted to do.
What obstacles did you encounter when you published your first novel? How did you know if was "ready?" How long did each novel take to write? Is novel-writing easier or harder since the first?
Unlike my previous attempts at publication, finding a home for The School of Essential Ingredients was astonishingly easy. The first literary agency I sent it to took it. My agent sent it out to eight publishers and we had a response within twelve hours. In the past, sending out a manuscript had meant months of waiting, and dozens of rejections before finally giving up, so I know how unusual my experience with School was.
But what you also need to know is that before that wonderful rush, it took six years of writing and rewriting, and many, many drafts of every chapter to get to that point. I felt that this was the book that might make it, and it had to be perfect before I sent it out. I had one shot. So I waited until I felt as if each chapter was as strong as it could be, and then made sure they all blended together seamlessly. I listened to the feedback from my writing group and reader-friends and incorporated every suggestion that made sense. And then I polished again. So while it might sound effortless, that was only because there was so much effort beforehand.
The next two novels went much more quickly – partly out of necessity. I had a hard deadline for writing Joy for Beginners, as it was part of a two-book contract when I sold School. It was easier in one way, because someone had declared I was a writer. But it was harder as well because School was being published during the time I was writing Joy for Beginners and I was reading the reviews. Both positive and negative reviews put a lot of pressure on writers – it's probably better if we don't read them, but I never seem to have the will power to avoid them. I had to learn to find a safe place within myself to write, knowing that not everyone would love what I had written because that is simply impossible.
Do you keep to a regular writing schedule?
As for a writing schedule – I wish I kept a regular one, but alas, I don't. This may be because I was learning how to write when my children were small and there was no such thing as regularity. Or, it could be because I write character-driven novels rather than plot-driven ones. My books are fueled by the revelations the characters make, and I don't always know what they are going to be. Sometimes I have to step away from the page and allow the ideas to come to me. If I stay at my desk simply out of some theory of "what writers do," I often find I write myself into a corner that it can takes weeks to get out of.
Your novels are full of rich sensory details, metaphors and similes that ground the reader in a specific moment and speak volumes in a clever way. Your books reveal those tiny moments in life that are often overlooked and highlight their meaning. What techniques did you use to develop your descriptive language skills?
I've always been an observer. I love watching people and figuring out what they aren't saying. I love observing how the subliminal things in our lives affect us in ways we never even notice. Smells, music, the architecture of our buildings, the food we eat – they sneak in through our senses and change who we are. I want to write books that make people pay attention, but to do so I have to pay attention first.
When I get stuck writing, I often go and do what my characters are doing – whether that is cooking or gardening or white-water rafting. It is so much easier to write descriptively if you are paying attention while you are doing something – living as a writer.
So far, your novels have consisted of an ensemble cast, almost like a Robert Altman approach to crafting a novel. Do you plan how this cast of characters will interact before your begin writing? How do you keep track of each story line so that you can weave them together so seamlessly? Do you create a detailed outline, and do you follow it as you write or do you let their stories evolve from a general idea?
Interconnected short stories, which is what I would call my three novels, require an amazing amount of organization to pull the stories together, blend the characters, keep track of chronology and details, create a whole that is larger than the parts, and develop a storyline between the chapters that has a rise and fall of energy. But on the other side, there is this amazing thing that happens during the writing of each story where I lose control to the character in order to let them develop in the way they need and want to.
I don't plan the characters in advance necessarily, nor do I always know how they will connect with each other. I have a rough idea, but some characters and connections come in later. During that time I have to keep track of all those details, which I do using a huge sketch book and lots of charts.
Your characters are complex, and the subtleties in their personalities and relationships are revealed in the tiniest details. How do you come up with ideas for characters? Do you create character profiles before you start writing or do you discover them as you write?
I almost always start with an image, something that intrigues me. It's like seeing one of those almost-hidden paths you simply have to go down. I don't do a lot of conscious planning, and I don't do profiles ahead of time. But some part of my brain must have a clue, because all the characters do come together in the end. I've only ever removed a character from a book once.
Do you plan to keep writing in this ensemble style? Would you feel constrained by a protagonist/antagonist approach to novel writing? What are you working on next?
I'm actually doing something quite different right now – writing a memoir about a house renovation we did about ten years ago. It was an almost-wrecked hoarder house in the small Victorian seaport of Port Townsend, Washington. We shouldn't have found it, and wouldn't have bought it if we had been thinking rationally. But we did and the experience was life-changing. I think I am finally getting the right amount of perspective to do it justice.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers?
Read like a writer. Travel like a writer. Flip burgers and nurse babies and go to parties and train stations and grocery stores like a writer. It's what you probably already do – observe everything around you, hear it in words in your head – but let yourself do it consciously and proudly. It's a gift.
And don't worry about publishing until you know you have something to say. Writing is not a race. If all you care about is publication, you'll miss what writing has to teach you.
Thank you so much, Erica. http://www.ericabauermeister.com/