How did you become a writer?
I always wanted to write, but I came from a background in which I didn’t know any actual writers. How they found the time to write and how they supported themselves seemed mysterious. I knew I would have to make money somehow; I assumed that because I did well in school, I would enter one of the professions and write in my spare time. Then, two years after I graduated from college, I decided to apply to MFA programs in the arts. I applied to three programs in fiction writing and three photography programs that concentrated on alternative processes. The Iowa Writers’ Workshop was the only place I got in. I took that as a sign and went. While there, I worked on short stories. In my final workshop session before graduation, I presented a piece in the form of an interview between, well, me and The Guy Who Invented the Harness. (Reading J. B. Jackson’s The Necessity for Ruins had left me with questions about how the invention of the harness had influenced the development of the urban grid. I wanted to explore that in fictional form.) During workshop, Goldberry Long asked, “Do you think it’s possible this story could be a novel?” I said no, but her comment stuck with me. Shortly after I graduated, my mother died, suddenly and unexpectedly. Her death plunged me into despair. Instead of applying to law school, I found myself struggling to get through each day. I managed to sell one of the short stories I’d written at Iowa: a glimmer of hope. I enrolled in a yoga teacher training course, thinking this would be a healthy way to get stronger, help others, and make a little money while I figured myself out. At the same time, I began writing the novel that would become The Testament of Yves Gundron. I sold it about two years later, and have been writing ever since. I also taught yoga for about a decade, and now teach creative writing to help make ends meet.
Name your writing influences (writers, teachers, books, etc.).
By category, in not-really-chronological order: Virgil, Catullus, Horace, Sappho, St. Jerome. Chaucer, a bunch of Middle-English lyric poets, some of whose names are lost to history, Petrarch, Shakespeare, Sidney, Barnabe Barnes. Benvenuto Cellini. Ben Franklin’s autobiography, John and Abigail Adams’s letters. Jane Austen, all three Brontë sisters but especially Anne, Elizabeth Gaskell, George Eliot (most of all – she is my favorite novelist). Charles Brockden Brown, Herman Melville, and Wilkie Collins. Gertrude Stein! F. T. Marinetti. J. B. Jackson and Paul Fussell. Suzanne Keene, Michael Martone, Marilynne Robinson, and Deborah Eisenberg. Sylvia Plath, Audre Lord. Akira Kurosawa. Gilda Radner. Chris Adrian, Ellis Avery, Pat Barker, Kirsten Bakis, Alison Bechdel, Michael Chabon, Alexander Chee, T. Cooper, Felicia Luna Lemus, David Mitchell, Julie Otsuka, Richard Powers, Nina Revoyr. Hayao Miyazaki.
When and where do you write?
I usually write in my office, which is up in the attic. I often work by hand though sometimes on my computer. I write on various couches and chairs if no one else is home, but if anyone else is here, I retreat to my office. Although I recommend keeping a regular or at least rhythmic schedule to writers who are starting out, at this point in my life, I use whatever time is available. On weekdays, I am either getting kids out the door myself or helping my husband do so, so it seems natural to take care of other business (laundry, errands, exercise) before settling down to work. Likewise before picking them up. Sometimes I settle down earlier or later or not at all. Some days I get a long work day. I seldom write on the weekends. This works for now. As our children grow older and grow up, perhaps I’ll get back to having more regular writing time.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on a series of essays and trying to decide if I want to go back and look through the novel I “took a break from” to write The Book or Esther or simply want to find something new.
Have you ever suffered from writer’s block?
No, because writer’s block strikes me as an imperfect, catch-all term for various problems that should not be confused or conflated. It is possible, for example, not to have anything that you’re working on at a given time, no ideas at all; I’d call that a fallow period. Or say that every time you sit down to write, it feels like torture. Are you ignoring something that the text in question wants you to do? I’d call that stubbornness; or, if you simply haven’t solved the problem or even defined what it might be yet, I’d call it a mysterious problem that you need to puzzle through. If you are flattened by depression or anxiety, those are medical conditions. They require treatment, compassion, and not being labeled as a block.
What’s your advice to new writers?
To be very brave—to go for the most difficult form, style, or subject matter that attracts you—and to be humble and kind to yourself at the same time. To speak your truth. To listen with a calm mind and heart to critique, and then to judge what parts of it resonate with you and what parts you can discard. To work hard at your craft while you take good care of the rest of your life and the people and world around you. Perhaps most of all I’d encourage new writers to cultivate interests beyond writing and craft. After all, you need something to write about.
Emily Barton’s novels are The Testament of Yves Gundron, Brookland, and The Book of Esther, which will be published by Tim Duggan Books (Crown) this June. Her reviews, essays, and stories have appeared in The New York Times Book Review, Kveller.com, The Jewish Daily Forward’s Sisterhood blog, The Massachusetts Review, and The Threepenny Review among many other publications. She has been the recipient of a Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Sustainable Arts Foundation. This past year, she taught a graduate fiction workshop at Columbia, and she’ll be teaching one at NYU this fall. You can follow her on Twitter @embleybarton, on Facebook at http://facebook.com/barton.emily, or on her website, http://emilybarton.com.