How did you become a writer?
I grew up in a family that revered books (my father was on the local library board). I read continuously growing up. I graduated from a small public high school in Kansas, and with a National Merit scholarship studied creative writing as an undergraduate at Stanford. I got my graduate degree in creative writing at San Francisco State, going to school at night while working full time.
Name your writing influences (writers, books, teachers, etc.).
Nancy Packer at Stanford was tough and because of that, encouraging. In graduate school I was most deeply influenced by Herbert Wilner. I was doing directed writing with him while working full time as managing editor of the Sunday magazine of the San Francisco Examiner & Chronicle. I was working on a novel. He was clearly ill from a heart condition caused by treatment for a lung cancer years before. He had surgery and died. I couldn’t continue that novel. I got a scholarship to Squaw Valley Writers Community and got back on track up there. “Stealing the Fire,” the title story in my first collection, which is coming out later this month as a selection in Dzanc Book’s rEprint Series, uses some of that emotion and that setting. It’s about a writer finding her voice. Some of us in Herb’s writing workshop (including Molly Giles, Susan Harper, and Jane Vandenburgh, who all went on to publish novels and story collections) started a writers’ group that went on for years. We’d gather at each other’s houses and drink wine and critique the work. We weren’t always kind. But we all ended up being better writers. More recently I've been workshopping my novel with my husband Mark, who also is a fiction writer, and Greg Sarris, a novelist whose work I admire greatly. We're all coming toward completion of our manuscripts. It helps to have others along on the long journey.
Writers? Flannery O’Connor. Margaret Atwood. Marilynne Robinson. Toni Morrison. And hundreds of people whose work I’ve reviewed. When I review a book I read it at least twice, sometimes three times. I look at the structure, the language, the themes, the intent. I admire too many contemporary writers to name.
When and where do you write?
Most often I write in the corner of the bedroom I share with my husband Mark, who also is a writer. Wherever we are living. Mark and I spent many summers in a deserted ski resort in the Catskills. I set up a folding wooden desk in a corner of the bedroom. I wrote a nonfiction book there, and lots of short stories, including “Memorial Day,” another story in Stealing the Fire, in which a bear goes on a rampage.
I wrote the story “Gridlock,” also in Stealing the Fire, on the 104 bus while commuting between our apartment on the Upper West Side and my job across the street from Grand Central Station.
I take notes on napkins, on blue books I carry in my pocket (the kind used in final exams).
I’ve done some of my best writing at writers’ colonies.
At MacDowell I had a cottage to myself, which was a first/ I finished a first draft of the story “A Pilgrimage” there. It's also in Stealing the Fire.
At the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, where Mark and I have been in residence quite a few times, we once got a last-minute fill-in to work on a deadline and we shared a studio—we brought in a second desk facing out the window and got to work.
I finished the story “Stealing the Fire” at VCCA, and burned the manuscript in the fireplace to help me write the last scene. (I had it on my computer, of course.) The list goes on. Whenever I can get time from deadline work.
At the moment? I'm writing in a room of my own, facing Sonoma Mountain, with a grapevine’s green fire right outside the window.
What are you working on now?
I’m finishing a novel I’ve been working on forever. Revising is so humbling. I’ve spent a lot of time researching—chunks of several years—and drafting. Now I have to let some of it drop away. But I needed that back story before I could write the first draft.
It’s called Eastville. It’s about a woman who grows up in a small Illinois town founded by her abolitionist forebears. She falls in love in high school with a classmate who is the fourth in a line of men whose ancestor was a runaway slave who worked on the underground railroad with the abolitionist founders. He becomes radicalized and leaves her when their son is not even two years old. The book is set in 2004 during the Obama-Keyes senatorial campaign in Illinois. The woman, who is now living in New York and quietly going about her chosen business as an American history post-doctoral fellow, gets a call from her son, who is in jail for being highly successful in the drug business. His girlfriend, who also is in jail, shoplifting for drug money, is pregnant. Twins. So my main character goes back to Illinois. Lots of trouble comes from that phone call.
I’ve almost finished a second story collection. Most of the stories have been published; I’m still working on a story set in New Orleans before Katrina. Can’t quite get it right.
And I’ve started something new, which seems to be a series of flash fictions accumulating around a man who separates from his wife and sets up camp in his backyard with an electrified fence between himself and his soon to be ex wife and a billboard totally up the money he's giving her, on an hourly basis. There are flocks of parrots. Swarms of bees. A case of blight afflicting an Asian pear tree. That’s all I know for now.
I’ve just seen the cover for the Dzanc Books e-book of Stealing the Fire, which is part of their rEprint series. http://www.dzancbooks.org/stealing-the-fire/ It’s fun to be an e-book newbie and ask all the dumb questions, like, how do you sign an e-book?
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
Not really. I’ve always done something else to make a living—I’ve worked as an editor, a journalist, a columnist, and now as a book critic doing reviews, interviews, and cultural reporting. Deadlines on other projects are my only block. And that work has fed my fiction writing.
What’s your advice to new writers?
Expect to throw a lot away. Expect to work hard, and revise constantly. Love it. Or don’t do it. Isn’t that what we all say?
Jane Ciabattari is the author of Stealing the Fire, a selection of Dzanc Books' rEprint series. Her short stories have been published in Long Island Noir, edited by Kaylie Jones (Akashic Books, 2012), The Literarian, the online publication of the Center for Fiction (edited by Dawn Raffel), KBG Bar Lit, LOST magazine, Literary Mama, Ms. (nominated for O.Henry and Pushcart awards), The North American Review, Denver Quarterly, Hampton Shorts (which honored her with an Editors' Choice Award), and Redbook, which nominated her story “Gridlock” for a National Magazine Award. Her story "Payback Time" was a Pushcart Prize "special mention." Her story "How I Left Onandaga County," appears in the anthology The Best Underground Fiction (Stolen Time Press, 2006) and also was a Pushcart Prize special mention, as was her story "MamaGodot," which appeared online in VerbSap and in Chautauqua. She has been awarded fiction fellowships from the New York Foundation for the Arts, the MacDowell Colony and The Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. Her reviews, interviews, and cultural reporting have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, NPR.org, The Daily Beast, the Boston Globe, Bookforum, The Guardian, Salon, The Paris Review, the Los Angeles Times, and the Washington Post, among others. She is vice president/online and a former president of the National Book Critics Circle. More details and links to stories at www.janeciabattari.com or @janeciab on Twitter.