In this version of twenty questions, I send a list of questions to a willing
victim author and they choose their own interview by choosing which questions, and how many questions, they want to answer! Edie Meidav’s new book Lola, California explores family relationships and the daath penalty. Weighty topics indeed. Edie answered twenty questions, and here is what she had to say about reading, and writing as an excorcism!
Would you give us a bit of introduction and let my readers know who you are, how you got started writing, and what kind of books you like to write?
I grew up in a very verbal household, primarily in Berkeley, the youngest of three, and found myself turning to writing and art in order to find airtime. I often find that writers have had some kind of issue with speech when younger, whether stuttering, mutism, multilingualism or some odd confection of all three. In other words, some kind of uneasy alliance with verbal language seems to sublimate expression onto the page. At a crucial age, eight, I learned from someone I respected that I should begin to read only adult books, and so delved, flailing a bit, into the books that were around our house: sociological tomes on the counterculture, odd geophysical texts, Dumas, Maupassant, Hugo, Biblical texts, Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying. All of these books, as I list them now, seem crucially linked to the project of Lola, California.
That said, I entered college as a biologist, spent most of my time paintiing, left for a dance scholarship in New York City and only at the eleventh hour decided to put down all other arts and dare to care about this secret friend that had kept me company all those years: in my last semester, I took a writing workshop with Peter Matthiessen, a true mentor, who then recommended me to his editor and for a prize. If nothing came out of either recommendation, I dared to believe in myself, and began to make all other activities handmaidens to writing, whether while living in Los Angeles, New York, Sri Lanka, France, or California. Daughter of California, a piece I wrote recently about the death of my father this past year and how California suggested possibility to me might be a useful hypertextual link.
As for the books I like to write: Because I believe the novel is one of our last remaining technologies for truly exploring the strange mystery of being human, I like to explore how we respond when placed in extreme situations. While people have called my first two books historical fiction, in truth those two novels might be considered solely literary fiction in the sense that while I like to use certain sociocultural contingencies to fret a character’s choice, my primary interest remains always this: character. A person alone, a person with others, a person within a particular society, a person on her deathbed.
I am often struck by the different ways writers respond to the proccess of writing a book. Linus’s Blanket refers to my use of reading and other activities as a means of escape and comfort, can you share with us any routines, food or recipes, or favorite books or rituals that help you thorough the writing process?
I always love the story of Ibsen writing so many of his plays, or at least gleaning inspiration, from his habit of reading a newspaper in a cafe; and that newspaper had a crucial hole through which he could spy upon his fellows. When I’m creating a story, I like to be in an environment rich in aleatory devices (cf. my advice to writers at Poets and Writers). When I am writing a story anew, I enjoy being around other live beings; when revising, I like to be in a place as devoid of outside input as possible so that I can truly hear the music of the text, since I think language ultimately always aspires toward the condition of music.
Since I have two little daughters, whatever I once thought of as the perfect day for writing doesn’t fully exist anymore, but an overall arc in my creative life remains: mulling, filling the well, constructing, revising.
Write the question you would most like to answer in an interview, and then answer it.
Do you believe everyone is a writer?
This is the first question that came to me, and I will answer that by saying yes, I must think that everyone has at least one book inside. This qualifies me as truly American, an Emersonian down to my fingernails, but such must be the case. I have taught writing for so long that either this is an occupational delusion or a saving grace.
People live in stories, we are surrounded by them. What was it about this the story that made it the one you had to tell at this time? What impact did telling this story have on your life? Did you find that it had changed you?
Writing this particularly story has been like an exorcism. If Adam had the pleasure of naming beasts in the garden, I got to name certain primeval energies of my upbringing, whether or not these energies were related to friendship, sexuality, music, countercultural dystopia, and the death penalty. I am changed because now I feel that Rose and Lana, the main characters, as well as Vic, who completes the triumvirate, exist as avatars. Perhaps people who invest lots of time in playing computer games as avatars — The Sims, etc. — start to feel the same: a certain clarity about archetypal energies.
What are you reading now? What are some of your favorite books and authors? Has writing your own book changed the way that you read?
I am always about to read or in the middle of reading or thinking about having read J.M. Coetzee. As for favorite books: Lolita (Nabokov), Madame Bovary (Flaubert), The Names, Libra, Underworld (Delillo), Angels (Johnson), The Little Disturbances of Man (Grace Paley) and too many others to list. For what this is worth, I also love reading poetry, and, among many, Wallace Stevens and Rilke were big influences, as is the poetry and music of speaking languages other than English.
And what a wonderful question: has writing my own book changed the way I read? Subtly, surely, but in such a nuanced manner. I am probably always secretly looking for some kind of characterological ticking bomb and I appreciate when I recognize such a device in another author’s work.
Are you able to read when you’re writing and if so what books inspire you when you’re working your own book(s)?
If I didn’t read while writing, I would never read, since I love to touch my writing in some form every day.
What was the most interesting thing that you found out while researching this book that you ultimately decided not to include?
This is an oblique way of answering your question: I thought, back in 2005 or whenever I first wrote this, that the inevitable, pre-apocalyptic form of government best suited to the primacy of choice as an issue in California would be a web-mediated bracelet that the governor had to wear as a condition of office: voters would stream in their influence and, consequently, policy would switch. Should I therefore have been surprised when Obama recently mentioned some web-based poll in order to determine policy? Was I that far-seeing? Not really. Such dystopian gestures seem almost predictable.
For what this is also worth, once there lived a whole section on an Arnold-like governor who engaged in sexual peccadilloes with the young Maria in his condo, daughter of the prison guard who tends Vic Mahler on death row. Prescient or predictable? Again, you judge.
What types of books would some of your characters have if they were readers? Given their issues what book(s) would you suggest for them to read?
Authors: Colette. Erica Jong. Jeanette Winterson. Henry James. Nabokov. Maya Angelou. Claude Brown. Cesar Vallejo. Rimbaud. Joan Didion.
In the past I have visited a blog called Daily Routines and it’s all about the schedules of writers and creative people. What does a typical day look like for you and how do you manage a busy schedule?
Perhaps the most extreme moment in the life of writing Lola, California might be this: when my first daughter was little, I would tiptoe out of the house at 5:15 am and write in a neighborhood big-chain coffeehouse. When my daughter awoke, my husband would call me and I’d rush home. Between 5:30 and whenever that call came marked my writing time on LOLA.
If you could have everyone read five contemporary books, which ones would they be?
Disgrace by Coetzee. Angels by Johnson. Madame Bovary by Flaubert. Lolita by Nabokov. The Little Disturbances of Man by Paley. Invisible Man by Ellison, which is a perfect book at its outset.
Did you know what you wanted the title of the book to be? How involved were in choosing the name of the book?
The original title, one of many, for this book was Steal Me, which could have occasioned some problems in the bookstores, a post Abbie-Hoffman sort of title. Briefly there flared these other titles: Highwway Five, None Their Master, Lola OneandTwo etc. Titles proliferate and then usually someone with commonsense says to me, as was the case with this novel: Are you kidding? This is the one. Such a stern rebuke helps: I tend to proliferate choices.
Do you ever look back at your early work? How do you feel your writing style or approachto writing has evolved since you first began?
I have probably written fifty novels to the three that have been published: a Dionysian who enjoys getting lost in the forest, I write lots but only accept some of what I produce. Perhaps one day I’ll return to the other novels, or at least to those few for which I feel that crucial blend of pity and love that makes one want to coddle a concept along toward its first steps.
What were your experiences with reading when you were growing up? Was there a pivotal moment in discovering literature when you knew that you wanted to be a writer?
Well, in truth, I didn’t really apprehend that there was such a thing as a Writer until I was about eleven and read Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying and then something about this act of written gossip clicked. I wrote a novel with one of the ur-Lolas perhaps that same year, one with a line about which my brother still teases me: she tasted of apricot and honeysuckle. And later a line about a girl using more vinegar than oil. Both early metaphors crucially linked to food: what does it all mean? Metaphors transported me out of my gawky reality? Nourished me? That said, I didn’t get that one chose a profession which came easily to one; I thought the world of work was composed of stretching beyond myself, so it was only until my decision at age twenty to forsake all other artistic fancies and dedicate myself to the monkhood of writing that I started using the verb, as in: I’m writing a novel. For a long time I felt as if I were a fraud, which I think is a crucial stage in apprenticeship.
How many works in progress do you have going at any one time? How do you know when one has potential and when one just needs to be scrapped?
When I used to paint, I loved having a couple of canvasses going at once and I think I feel the same about writing: I like to have a novel going, the novel that most generous of forms, always awaiting, and then like to work in little off-shoots like short stories and the like.
As a published author, what’s been the biggest surprise about life after the publication of your first book?
Between those covers? People suddenly take your words with disproportionate seriousness! Now you know something; before you didn’t.
Are there other books you love or writers you admire that are from your local area?
Carolyn Cooke. Kate Christensen. Joan Didion. Ellen Sussman. Jennifer Egan. Jonathan Lethem. Rick Moody. David Foster Wallace. Brad Morrow. New work by Sharon Guskin.
Who was your favorite character to write, and why did you have an affinity for that character in particular?
Well, in truth, I could write twenty novels from the perspective of Vic Mahler, all too easily, but it would be a bit repetitive, wouldn’t it?
Did you have to do much research when working on your books, and do you tend to write first or research first?
I like to proceed crabwise: research, write, research, write. Research is one of the most sophisticated forms of procrastination, surely — and that said, there is nothing like the kind of creative daydreaming serendipity that allows for sudden realization.
Where do you most love to write? Are there places where it comes to you easier than others?
My ideal place is a cafe in a foreign country where human gestures are subtly defamiliarized for me, allowing me the clarity of a kind of deathbed perspective.
A novel in Latin America: Cuba, where I just spent two months; Nicaragua; and perhaps Miami.
About: Edie Meidav was born in Toronto and has lived in New York, Cuba, France, Nicaragua, Sri Lanka and other international zones. A former director of the MFA program at New College on Valencia Street in San Francisco, she is now in residence at Bard College. As a child, she acted as if language were indeed a virus.