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Interview: Joan Wickersham, 2010 Fall

In Capital Letters (ICL): What is your favorite and least favorite part of the writing process? The most surprising? The most challenging?

The best thing is the moment when the piece comes alive, and the worst is all the frustrating slogging I need to do in order to get to that moment. I’ve found that I have to be willing to write it wrong before I get it right— but writing it wrong is just excruciating. Often I’ll abandon a draft partway through, or finish it and not show it to anyone because I know it’s not there yet. Then at some point—days or weeks or sometimes years later— I’ll write it again, without looking at the earlier draft, and somehow it comes alive. Occasionally, a piece will just write itself, it feels right instantly, which is a rare and lovely surprise. But mostly the surprising thing is how long everything takes, and how patient and tenacious and honest you have to be about what feels genuine, and what just isn’t there yet.

ICL: You didn’t study writing at the tertiary level. When did you first start thinking of yourself as a writer? 

In fifth grade I had a teacher who was passionate about reading and writing, and every three weeks she had us write what she called a “creative story.” I loved it, and wrote steadily from that time on.

ICL: You graduated from Yale with a degree in Art History. Do any of the skills garnered in that program influence your written work now? 

I started off as an English major, and switched because I hated the kind of literary analysis we were being asked to do, which seemed to me to have very little to do with why writers write or what I thought about when I was reading. Art history was fascinating, and I knew I’d never get another chance to spend all that time looking at paintings. It did teach me to look very closely at everything, and it’s been an ongoing source of pleasure. But I think I’m one of those writers who fill the gas tank obliquely. What I learn from reading fiction is intuitive, rather than analytical. When it came to consciously studying something, I was much better off in a different field.

ICL: Are certain techniques central to your writing and why the form of an index in The Suicide Index?

I try to be loyal to the story, and to keep working patiently and honestly to figure out how that particular story wants to be told. The Suicide Index took about ten years to write. For a long time I thought it was going to be a novel, and experimented with different structures and voices. But it was a blah piece of writing: too neat, and it didn’t reflect the experience of my father’s suicide. Eventually I threw out almost the entire manuscript and started over, writing in fragments of varying lengths and tones which seemed true to the chaotic nature of the experience. The idea of organizing the book as an index came very late, only a year before I finished. It worked because it grew out of the material—it wasn’t just some gimmicky idea. I had wrestled with the story for so long, trying to impose order on something inherently fragmented. The index provided that order, but also in an ironic way pointed out the impossibility of order when it comes to something like suicide.

ICL: Which form do you enjoy the most between the op-ed, short story, novel and memoir?

I love all of those forms, and I love switching between the various disciplines. Each offers a different set of challenges—of rules, really. And once you have a very clear sense of those rules (which took me years to get to) you can start to play around with them. What happens when you write a 700-word op-ed column that is also a piece of memoir? What if you try to pack the sweep of a novel—a character changing over time—into a 30-page short story? Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t. The more experience I’ve had with different forms, the more confidence I get about playing around. It’s given me a bigger toolbox. 

A lot of the experiments fail. I don’t love it when that happens, but it doesn’t seem to derail me the way it did when I was younger.

ICL: If your life had a theme song right now, what would it be? 

“Help!”

Joan Wickersham