Interview: Ann Putnam

Ann Putnam holds a PhD in literature from the University of Washington. She teaches creative writing and gender studies at the University of Puget Sound in Tacoma, Washington. She has published short fiction, personal essays, literary criticism and book reviews in various anthologies including Hemingway and Women: Female Critics and the Female Voice, and in journals, including the Hemingway Review, Western American Literature, and the South Dakota Review.

Enjoy this interview.

Tell us a bit about yourself. Where are you from and how long have you been writing?

I was born in Illinois but moved to New York with my academic parents, when my father was taking his PhD from NYU. We moved to the Northwest when I was in the 5th grade. Though I’ve lived on both coasts and in the middle of the country, I still feel drawn to hot summer nights, fireflies and bathwater lakes, locust and elm trees. Yet I love the rugged beauty of the Cascades and Olympics, the sun on Puget Sound and the lush, erotic green everywhere I turn.

I have three children, two sons and a daughter, but have no pets, after years of living with many dogs, birds, an occasional lizard and two inherited white rats. I would say I have dog envy, but cannot bring myself to start over. The death of the dog is in my book. I have 8 unattractive houseplants I keep forgetting to water, which may in part explain their unattractiveness. I dance, sing in a chorale and can twirl batons upon request, if given a good stretch of time to practice—all of which sooner or later finds its way into my writing, one way or another.

I’ve been writing for as long as I can remember.

Tell us about your latest book. What do you hope readers take away from it?

I’d like to reference the “Preface” I wrote for this memoir, which tells the story of my mother and father and my dashing, bachelor uncle, my father’s identical twin, and how they lived together with their courage and their stumblings, as they made their way into old age and then into death. And it’s the story of the journey from one twin’s death to the other, of what happened along the way, of what it means to lose the other who is also oneself.

My story takes the reader through the journey of the end of life: selling the family home, re-location at a retirement community, doctor’s visits, ER visits, specialists, hospitalizations, ICU, nursing homes, Hospice. It takes the reader through the gauntlet of the health care system with all the attendant comedy and sorrows, joys and terrors of such things. Finally it asks: what consolation is there in growing old, in such loss? What abides beyond the telling of my own tale? Wisdom carried from the end of the journey to readers who are perhaps only beginning theirs. Still, what interest in reading of this inevitable journey taken by such ordinary people? Turned to the light just so, the beauty and laughter of the telling transcend the darkness of the tale.

Share some of your writing goals. What’s next for you?

I’m currently working on revising a novel called Cuban Quartermoon. It’s a novel set in Havana, Cuba and comes out of six trips I took to Cuba over the years as part of a Hemingway Colloquium sponsored by the Cuban Ministry of Culture. I’m in love with this book, but it’s big and defies genre—part magical realism, literary, political thriller. I’m looking at it with an eye to what I should cut. Each time I went to Cuba, I came home with another layer of emotion and experience. There is an old Cuban proverb which says, “Believe only half of what you hear in Cuba and none of what you see.” So there were layers and layers of intrigue, beauty and sorrow to unfold.

What’s the most interesting book you’ve ever read?

I like the word “interesting”—not compelling or brilliant, but interesting—so I take that to mean a book that draws me back to it again and again because it doesn’t lay itself out very easily. For some reason John Fowles’ novel, The Magus comes to mind.

Favorite authors?

Ernest Hemingway. It’s interesting because I discovered him as a college sophomore and thought that he’d be an author I’d grow out of, especially with my changing work in gender studies. But wonder of wonders, this is exactly where Hemingway scholarship is going these days. So I continue to find him intriguing. I love any writer who is lyrical and so I’d also add Virginia Woolf and Toni Morrison, and I love several of Ann Patchett’s books. I’ve taught Bel Canto to my college students several times. Marilynne Robinson and Terry Tempest Williams are also beloved to me.

Book you’re currently reading?

I’m reading a wonderful book by the physician-writer, Abraham Verghese, called Cutting for Stone (Vintage). I’d heard him give a lecture in Seattle and thought him a lovely, compassionate, eloquent man. It’s a book I cannot put down.

Any type of writing ritual you have?

Ah, this is always such an interesting question. I’m always asking this of others. Still, turned to the light, I’m not sure I can answer this so easily. I usually begin with little jottings and scribbles in a tiny notebook I always carry with me. This way I’m not so intimidated at starting a big project. At some point those jottings turn into free-writes. And this I can do easily and apparently endlessly. Once I produced an eighty-page free write for a middle section of a novel. It was a glorious time. Words came unbeckoned and without end. But then it stopped, and I had eighty pages of this and that and hardly any idea how to organize it. So I’m very easy with right-brained writing, but seem to have little of the logical, left-brain to work with. So the next part can be terrifying and seemingly endless. So I try outlines at this point but never ever before, as I try to encourage all apparent side roads. I never know where I should really be going until I get there. Eventually I have what I call a “working rough draft,” and at this point I begin to sculpt and shape and polish. This is a calmer, saner process and I feel more in control. Actually, at this point the terror leaves me and I can see what’s good and what’s really awful and does not deserve the light of day. These sections I move to the bottom of the manuscript in case I see later that they are worthy of redemption.

I must add that music is absolutely essential to my writing process! I can’t seem to write at all without it. It can’t be anything I can hum along to or with lyrics that might spin around in my head. So it’s mostly jazz and classical (Ravel and Debussy especially). Lately, I’ve discovered soundtracks. When I’m writing fiction I often find a soundtrack that I associate with this character or that, and when I put on his/her “music,” it takes me right to the core of that character in a very quick and deep way. Why some music becomes identified in this way is a mystery. For example, the soundtrack for The English Patient has become identified in my mind with Eugenie, a character in a novel I’m working on. One whole chapter came from the track where Fred Astaire sings, “I’m in Heaven.” I don’t try to analyze; I just give thanks! I try to use soundtracks from movies I haven’t seen so that I don’t have to compete with cinematic images that might float across my mind. I look to the lists of soundtracks nominated for SAG awards and Academy Awards as a place to start.

Do you believe in writer’s block? If so, how did you get past it? If not, why not?

There are so many theories about this! Victoria Nelson has a wonderful book called, logically, On Writer’s Block, where she maintains that writer’s block is really a creative stage in the writing process. I like this idea a lot. But I know so well the stone-cold terror of the blank page and the sense that I will never write again, ever have another worthy idea and that if even a single revelatory, stunning word came to me I would be redeemed from what only can be called despair. This moment doesn’t last long, thankfully, at the most a couple of days. I’ve learned over time to develop some writerly muscle that permits me the ability to just stay put and keep putting words down even if there are terrible beyond bearing. And knowing that sooner or later something will happen that will change everything. I often keep a process journal where I talk about the writing and its problems. This helps tremendously, because I can see that there are predictable shifts in my process, so I can say, Oh yes, I know you. I’ll be patient and wait you out.

In your opinion, what’s the measure of a successful writer? And do you have any advice for other writers?

In Bird by Bird, Anne Lamott talks about this in her usual charming, disarming and hilarious way: publication is not all it’s cracked up to be. The joy—the spiritual, artistic, life-altering joy—is in the process, not in the outcome of that process, as that is so often out of the writer’s hands.

A poem that has great meaning for me is Marge Piercy’s “For the Young Who Want To.” I’d like to offer a few lines:

“Talent is what they say
you have after the novel is published…
Beforehand what you have is a tedious
delusion, a hobby like knitting . . . .
The real writer is one who really writes. Talent
Is an invention like phlogiston
after the facts of fire.
Work is its own cure. You have to
Like it better than being loved.”

Where can we learn more about you?

My website , Facebook, and my university website. I doubt if readers want to look up my old high school annual, although that might prove revelatory. Best keep that in the distant past.

Anything else you’d like to add?

Yes, I think the most I can say is that writing is a way of being in the world that puts us fully present in life rather than causes us to withdraw. While my husband was dying, I wrote the “epilogue” to my memoir. I do not know how or why this came to me, but it arrived unbeckoned, all of a piece.

“Writing this now in a rainy light after loss upon loss, a memory comes to me. When I was a teenager, I took voice lessons from Ruth Havstad Almandinger, who gave me exercises and songs I hardly ever practiced. I have wondered why this memory has so suddenly come to me now, and why this, the only song I remember, comes back to me whole and complete:

“Oh! my lover is a fisherman/ and sails on the bright blue river
In his little boat with the crimson sail/ sets he out on the dawn each morning
With his net so strong/ he fishes all the day long
And many are the fish he gathers
Oh! My lover is a fisherman
And he’ll come for me very soon!”

If only I’d known then that my true love would be a fisherman, I might have practiced that song harder and sung it with more feeling, which was what Ruth Havstad Almandinger was always trying to get me to do. If only I’d had a grown up glimpse of my true love when I was sixteen, I would have sung that song so well. If only I’d known he would have cancer and go to the lake for healing the summer after the radiation treatments were done. If only I’d known that I would be his fishing partner that miracle summer of the sockeye come into the lake from the sea. If only I’d known that the cancer would return and that I would do everything I could to save him, knowing all along that he could not be saved, and that my heart would break beyond breaking, then break again. If only I’d seen the sun coming up over the mountains and the sky shift from gray to purple and the pale smudge of light against the mountains turn gold just above the crest. If only I’d seen the sun glinting off those sunslept waters as my love lets down the fishing lines, and off in the distance a salmon leaps—a silver flashing in the sky as if to split the heart of the sun—before it disappears into a soundless splash, in this all too brief and luminous season, to spawn and to die—oh, how I would have sung that song.”

I might just add that my writing life has pulled me back into life. After he died, I was so tired, and felt such emptiness and sorrow, I saw myself and my world shrinking into a little speck of nothing. I saw myself staying in my pajamas all day, afraid to go out of the house, quitting my job, becoming this tiny half of a person searching for the other half who’d gone inexplicably missing. But six weeks later I was scheduled to give an hour-long lecture in Colorado and had no choice but to write it, had to pack my suitcase, had to get on a plane, and then finally had to walk up to the podium and read what I’d written from my deepest heart. And I did.

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