Getting to Know Sarah Avery
Topic: Author Interview
Sarah Avery the person:
1. What three words do you think describe you as a human being?
Curious, whimsical, and kind.
2. How do you think others would describe you?
They'd say I have the longest attention span you'll find anywhere outside a Buddhist monastery. The ones who have visited museums with me might say this with some frustration, because I take forever looking at stuff. They'd say I'm persistent, maybe downright stubborn, and that I finish projects no matter what it takes, even when finishing may not be the best idea. They'd say I'm a good foul-weather friend-a person who's not great at keeping in touch when everything's going smoothly, but I show up with a casserole and a mop and a will to help out when the people I care about hit hard times. And they'd say I'm easily amused, which is a fine thing. Life is more fun if you're good at laughing at it.
3. Please tell us what you are most passionate about outside of writing.
My family. My husband and I have been married fourteen years, and after trying to start a family for most of a decade, we have a seven-month old son. I've had the blessing of falling in love with my husband anew as I've gotten to know who he is as a father. My baby is, very simply the best thing that ever happened to me-and some pretty good things have happened to me.
4. Do you have any pets? If so, introduce us to them.
We have a cat, Sonia, who is a quiet being of simple soul. She was one of a litter of barn kittens whose barn cat mother disappeared when they were only five weeks old, so Sonia was dropper-fed by humans from very early on. She has no predatory urge to speak of, and is happiest on a lap or a computer keyboard.
5. What is your most precious memory?
It's so hard to choose just one, so I'll pick a writing-related memory. When I was seven years old, my mother made me the most wonderful toys. They were polygonal cylinders with different numbers of sides and different colors, depending on the parts of speech she gave them, with a different word on each face. The nouns were red, the verbs were green, and the adjectives were yellow. I think I had some articles (a, an, the) to throw in as needed. The game we'd play was that I'd roll the cylinders down the length of my room to generate random sentences. That was how I learned about parts of speech and word order. I discovered that I could make the dragon eat the princess, or I could make the princess eat the dragon, and the two sentences were grammatically the same. It was silly, and absolutely absorbing, and a total revelation to my seven-year-old brain.
6. What is your most embarrassing memory?
That's easy. When I was in grad school, I had to take a bunch of fairly grueling oral exams to get the master's degree and qualify to keep working on my doctorate. The orals themselves went fine, and afterward my husband and my grad school friends went out for a celebratory lunch. We were making a lot of goofy Star Wars jokes in our mock Darth Vader voices-once I was the learner but now I am the master, that sort of thing-and laughing the giddy laughter of the exhausted, because a bunch of us had done our orals all in the same week. Sounds innocent so far, right? The trouble was, we were making all these goofy jokes about being masters in an Ethiopian restaurant whose staff was mostly African-American. The waiters and waitresses were trying to figure out what kind of racist jerks we were, and we were so caught up in the little world of academia, we didn't notice for most of half an hour. You'd think a bunch of grad students in literature could be counted on to remember that words mean different things in different circumstances. When we realized that we'd given offense, I went up to the hostess's station to explain that three of us had just finished our master's degrees, and that defused the situation. We left the biggest tip ever.
7. If you weren't a writer, what would you be doing with your life?
I'd be an English professor at some small liberal arts college. That's the life I trained for, and I almost got stuck in it. It's not that there's anything wrong with being an academic. It's just that I had to choose between writing books I believed in (genre fiction), and writing books I didn't believe in (literary criticism), and I concluded that life is too short for writing books you don't believe in. When they say publish or perish, they're pretty specific about what kinds of books you're supposed to publish in order to avoid perishing.
8. In two paragraphs or less write your obituary.
Only if I get to decide how long I'll have lived and how much I'll have done by the time I get there! Let's see...I'll need at least sixty years, and maybe some spare change, if I'm going to finish all the projects on my to-do list. Come to think of it, I want to decide how many kids I'll have had, too. Okay, here goes:
Sarah Avery, age 102, died quietly in her home, surrounded by family and friends. She was the author of the wildly successful Rugosa Coven stories and the long-running classic epic fantasy Spires of Beltresa series, as well as several books on contemporary Neo-Paganism, and a number of volumes of poetry. Although she left teaching as a profession in her thirties, she mentored numerous younger writers over the years, occasionally taught at writing workshops and conferences, and was a priestess in a teaching coven in the Blue Star Tradition of Wicca. She is survived by her husband, her two children, five grandchildren, and ten great-grandchildren, as well as a Wiccan lineage of several daughter covens.
Sarah Avery the writer:
9. Can you describe the time you realized you were indeed a "real" writer?
A close friend was dying of cancer. It was a long, painful process, exactly what you would never want to happen to someone you cared about. His wife, also a close friend, saved my stories to read in the worst moments, because she knew she could count on them to lift her out of her life, to turn her temporarily into someone else with totally different problems.
Our whole community was struggling with George's illness and trying to support Cat. The day my friend Sabrina realized the end was near for him and it was time to say goodbye, my friend Jen handed her the manuscript for "Closing Arguments" and said, "Take this to read on the train. I've been saving it as a treat, but I think you need it more than I do." That night, Sabrina called me to say, "The only reason I didn't lose my mind with grief right there on the train is that I had your manuscript with me."
During the last week of George's life, I started writing a series of blog posts that were a sort of prayer in story form. A lot of people who loved George followed that story and found comfort in it precisely because it was grappling with the prospect of losing this person we all cared about so much. I realized that my writing was doing two of the best things that writing can do: It was offering people an escape from suffering, and it was offering people a way to engage more closely with their suffering. My friendship with George brought a lot of wonderful gifts into my life. The recognition that I'd become a real writer was one of the most unexpected.
10. What is going on with your writing these days?
I'm in the weird position of writing to editorial request for the first time. I've written a lot of stuff-nearly a million words of genre fiction just since I left academia five years ago-and all of it with no certainty that any editor would ever want it. Now, if my current e-book does well, and its sequel does well this fall, Drollerie Press will publish a print volume collecting those two novellas with a third one, which is still in progress. Just when I finally have a home for my writing, I'm struggling more than I have in years to protect my writing time. I'm a first-time, stay-at-home mom, my baby is changing every day, and I tutor part time. The daily writing rhythm I had before my son was born doesn't work anymore, and I'm still playing around with the structure of my day, trying to find a new writing rhythm that will work.
11. What are your future goals for your writing?
The Rugosa Coven characters are a lot of fun to write. I want to do a lot more with them. I can imagine returning to their adventures for many years to come, but so far they seem to be strictly short fiction plots, novellas and shorter. A Rugosa novel is theoretically possible, but I don't know if that's what the muses have in mind.
I also have an epic fantasy series, very different stuff, that I'm hoping to place with one of the big print publishers. When I finished my Ph.D., I decided to write an anti-dissertation, a book that would contain everything that entertained me and nothing that didn't. At first, I thought it would just be a little hobby that would amuse me while I was between teaching jobs, but pretty soon I was writing four to eight hours a day, and I was happier than I'd been in a decade. It's a family saga about a democratizing revolution that brings a lost ancient magic back into its world. The first volume's written, and I have two other manuscripts in the series half finished. One of the spin-off short stories has been accepted by Black Gate, and some other spin-off stories are making the rounds with other fantasy magazines. So far, I've pitched series to several agents at writing conferences, and the agents have nearly all requested the full manuscript of the first volume, but it's too long to be an easy sale in the current market, considering that it would be a first novel by an unknown. I'm hoping the Rugosa stories will help fix the problem of being unknown.
12. Can you describe a typical writing day for you?
I spend the day taking care of my son and running household errands. During his naps, I do research for my writing-at the moment, I'm researching horological astrology, the Jersey Devil, and obsessive-compulsive disorder. My husband comes home by six, and we sit down to our family dinner. Then I go out to tutor while my husband puts the baby to bed. I come home from teaching and hang out with my husband until he goes to bed. Then I write until I drop.
13. Why do you write?
So many reasons! I love it when my unconscious mind dreams up some really funny thing for my characters to do, and I wake up at three in the morning cackling with laughter. I love figuring out the puzzle of the story, taking the pieces apart and putting them back together, adding and lopping parts, until it works just right. I love having conversations with my characters, learning from them what the story's heart will be. I love getting feedback from readers, finding out that my work means something to them, and what that something is. Oh, and the first time I ever got a check for a story I sold, and I could finally say I'd made a professional sale, I loved that, too.
14. What writer most inspires you? Why?
The poet I wrote my dissertation about still inspires me. Her name was Hilda Doolittle, but she published under her initials-as you might, too, if you had a name like Hilda Doolittle. And in 1913, when she started her writing career, it helped that readers couldn't tell right away that she was a woman. H.D. was a sort of comeback kid. She got famous right away, inasmuch as poets can be famous in their own lifetimes, and then went through several cycles of being forgotten and rediscovered. She never gave up. Within the space of two years, her brother died in WWI, her father died when he got the bad news about the brother, her husband lost his mind to shell shock, and the influenza epidemic nearly killed her and her baby. She climbed out of all that, studied psychology with Sigmund Freud, and reinvented herself as a writer. During WWII, she started writing long, visionary poems as offerings of thanks for her family's surviving the Blitz, and those are my favorites. The Walls Do Not Fall, Tribute to the Angels, and The Flowering of the Rod are collected in a volume called simply Trilogy, and I'd recommend them to anyone who has a good grounding in mythology. The first one was published while the Blitz was still going on-imagine living in a city that was being shelled almost every night for nine months, and you'll have some idea of what she and her audience were going through. In her very idiosyncratic way, she gave voice to the disorientation, the terror, and the gratitude of the people who survived those months.
15. How do you define your writing?
I try not to define it. One of the things I enjoy about my writing is that it can surprise me. After all, if I never surprise myself, how can I surprise my readers? I want to keep growing as a writer, and if in five years I'm doing things I would not now expect of myself, I'll count that as a success.
16. In one sentence-what do you want people to say about your writing in fifty years?
She told the truth about the human heart.
Sarah Avery the details:
17. Can you tell us where to find more information on you? Website? Blog?
My blog, Ask Dr. Pretentious, can be found at http://dr_pretentious.livejournal.com/. My website, http://www.sarahavery.com/, is under construction at the moment, but I have reason to hope it'll be up before the end of June.
18. Is there a place where readers can reach you?
People are welcome to comment on my blog. The website will have a contact form on it at some point, too.
19. Can you list all your book titles so people can look for them?
Closing Arguments is the only book that's out so far. Its sequel, Atlantis Cranks Need Not Apply, will be coming out in the fall. The planned print volume doesn't have a title yet, but if we do it, that'll be sometime this winter, late 2008 or early 2009. They're all from Drollerie Press (http://www.drolleriepress.com/), and they'll all be available at the publisher's website, as well as Amazon, Fictionwise, and Mobipocket.
20. For new readers-what can they expect when they read your book(s)?
They can expect ensemble casts of varied, vivid characters who will stay with them a long time after the stories end. They can expect a sense of humor, crackling dialogue, and the occasional stunning twist. They can expect that I've put everything I've got into every story I send out into the world.
21. Take as much space as necessary to speak to our readers-what would you like them to know about you and your writing?
My process depends absolutely on revision. I write my first draft to find out what's possible, and I try out a lot of stuff that doesn't (and shouldn't) appear in the final version. My characters appear in my dreams to correct me when I get their inner lives wrong. I make huge bulleted-point lists of options at the big decision points in the story, and sometimes I write three or four mutually exclusive scenes, just to see how they play. I jump around the chronology, writing whichever scene I can see most clearly, even if I haven't the slightest idea what its function in the finished story might be. When I've got the piece about halfway roughed out, a structure begins to emerge, and I can start thinking about things like pacing. By the time I write the last scene that comes to me, which is often in the middle, the first scenes I roughed out have often been worked over fifty times. Literally fifty times. Some of the scenes in my sprawling epic have been reworked more than that. There are people who are able to write more efficiently using index cards, or the snowflake method, or whatever, and I've tried a few of those methods out, but I think the method I use works better for me. I just plain get better results through trial and error than I do with a front-loaded process.
My way only works because I give myself permission to be imperfect-or even to be awful-on the first attempt, and because I refuse to accept anything less from myself than my best when I'm on the last pass of revision. If I got stuck in perfectionism or sloppiness all the way through the process, nothing worth reading would ever emerge.
Posted by joyceanthony
at 4:03 AM EDT