5 from 35: Author Q & A with Natalie Singer
Natalie Singer, 40, published first book California Calling: A Self-Interrogation with Hawthorne Books this year. Read more here.
How long did it take you to write your first (published) book, start to finish?
That’s a bit of a tricky question. I first started working on a version of this book probably eight years ago. For a couple of years, I worked on it in the form of a more traditional narrative work—a memoir that moved forward chronologically and had a narrative arc much like a novel. When I felt that it wasn’t quite working, I put the book aside, and then I picked it up again in 2015: I had started an MFA program and decided to return to the manuscript as part of that. I had been inspired by a number of more experimental works and was really interested in how creative nonfiction is blurring the edges of what we formerly regarded as the limits of the genre. I decided that I should adapt the form of my manuscript more intently to the content. I began writing in fragments, vignettes and found forms, and I used an interrogative structure, appropriating the language of police questioning, in order to explore a major theme of being silenced. It worked, and I was done drafting the book in 2016.
What kind of work did you do to earn money while writing your first book?
My formal training is journalism and over the past seven years as the book developed and published I have worked as the executive editor of a regional magazine and media company, and currently as an editor and storyteller in corporate communications. When I started my MFA program in 2014 at age 37, the idea was that I would take a break from working (I was calling it an unofficial sabbatical), but one month into the start of the program my husband was laid off from his job. Suddenly my not working was out of the question. So, I went to night school and worked my day job while I earned my MFA and wrote the early version of the book that would end up being published. There were some rough moments, but I wanted it so badly by that point (both my MFA and to finish the book) that I pushed myself to stay with it. At this point I’m used to juggling a day job with my creative work.
What compelled you to write your story?
Many times in my life, reading and writing have saved me—books have helped me through difficult times, and writing has helped me process my world and figure out how I want to live in it. I think the only hope we have as a species is through human connection—connecting with each other emotionally and authentically. And the way we do that is through story. I think I always knew, starting from when I was a self-conscious little kid hiding out in the library, my nose in a book, wondering if anyone out there in the world felt like me (and finding out on the pages that, in fact, others did) that I would write my own stories one day.
How many books did you write before you published your first one? What happened to them?
The first book I wrote is the first book I published. I know that isn’t always the case, and that often we hear about the books that need to get written and then hidden in drawers, so writers can go on to write the book that will be published. I don’t know why I don’t have any practice books—maybe I was lucky publishing. More likely it has to do with all the writing I did over the course of my career. I started working as a newspaper journalist at age 23. So, I had 17 years working that writer’s muscle for my day job, churning out thousands of stories, before I published my first book. And while writing a book is very different than newspaper and magazine stories, the practice and habit of writing, and the facility with language and ability to self-edit and evolve, is a common thread. As a journalist I learned how to make language work, how to make the leap from idea to story, how to withhold and how to deliver. I learned to face the page and deal with a deadline, and how to push myself. By the time I wrote my first book, I was ready to write a book that would be publishable. Also, I have a lot of terrible journals in drawers. As a memoirist, I think they were my practice books. I’ve thought of burning them and probably should, because they should never see the light of day.
What are you reading right now?
Lots of creative nonfiction, especially essays as I’m preparing to teach a class on how to write and publish the personal essay this winter. I recently read Jenny Boully’s brilliant essay collection Betwixt-and-Between: Essays on the Writing Life and Alexander Chee’s How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, which has one essay in particular, “The Curse,” that sets such a mood and explores some intimate themes so masterfully that I am still dreaming about/haunted by it. I also recently read Deborah Levy’s fantastic The Cost of Living: A Working Autobiography and am eagerly awaiting the forthcoming essay collection by one of my idols, Lia Purpura, All the Fierce Tethers.