Our nonfiction editor, Brett Sigurdson, had this exchange with Tara Deal, author of Issue #10’s “Bookbinding for Amateurs in Autumn.” Here’s what she had to say about her love of learning and discovery, her interest in shifting among genres, and what she’s working on now.
Much of your prose surrounds a certain dilettantism you seem drawn to. Aside from bookbinding, which you write about in “Bookbinding for Amateurs in Autumn,” you’ve written essays on learning glassblowing and sailing. In your essay “Travel and Leisure,” you write, “I wish that I could be a printmaker. Or a painter. Some sort of artist. Something other than a pedestrian.” What compels you to seek out these experiences and write about them?
I do consider myself a dilettante and an amateur, in the best sense of the word, as a “lover of” learning and discovery. I love to learn how to make something. I grew up in a household where my mother made all sorts of beautiful things, from paper flowers to evening dresses, and my father is a writer and photographer, and we were all always reading books and magazines in order to find something new. So I think that’s just how I learned to live. But now, I also write about my experiences, which is just another level of making. I’ve always thought that making something, whether a batch of cookies or a batch of poems, is the way to live. It’s what you do to keep going. In Diana Athill’s memoir Somewhere Towards the End, she says upon meeting an old woman who turns out to be a painter with canvasses squirreled away: “She was an object lesson on the essential luck, whatever hardships may come their way, of those born able to make things.”
So when I say things like I wish I could be “some sort of artist,” I really do feel that urge, and I think that a painter’s life must be fabulous. But I also realize that I am some sort of artist, just by having that feeling, pursuing the passion, and crafting it into something that can be written down.
You’ve also written several pieces on travel. How does this mesh with your desire to experience life and write about it?
Traveling, like learning how to bind books or throw pots, is another way to crack open experience and discover things I never knew existed. So it’s beneficial on a visceral level. But then, later, I write about traveling, because it’s what I have. I also believe you could just sit in a room and never go anywhere and have a perfectly ecstatic kind of life. But that’s not my mode. I sometimes wish it were.
Does the same impulse that drives you to try different pursuits and travel also drive you to move among nonfiction, poetry, and fiction? Do you have a preference for a genre?
Yes, I think you’re right about this. The restlessness to learn and discover (I am never standing in line or on the subway without a book to teach me something) makes me shift among genres. Different forms require different forms of thinking, and I like that. It surprises me to move among genres and to see things in one place that I wouldn’t have thought of in another. My preference is to write in a hybrid genre, mixing things up, because I feel that’s how the mind works (my mind, that is). Thoughts are always slipping around and quotes from other people are popping up. In my first poetry chapbook, I inserted nonfiction observations about city life among the poems, and I really found that to be a satisfying format. You’ll see I do the same sort of thing in my bookbinding essay here. And I often self-plagiarize, using the same sentence or sometimes an entire scene in very different pieces.
Your prose pieces are often short and possess a fragmentary quality. What draws you to this style and voice?
I love the short form and the fragmentary and the elliptical. As a reader, I like to think for myself and fill in the gaps and jump to conclusions, so I try to write like that. I’m often thinking of the Buddhist exhortation to accept the reality that’s in front of you and to confront the facts. I also think of T.S. Eliot: “These fragments I have shored against my ruins,” which I often mistranslate to myself as “These fragments I have shored against my ruin.” And I think that these fragments are enough.
Your blog, filled with New York City scenes and moments offered without comment, has a similarly ambiguous quality. What kind of creative outlet does this project offer you?
My blog is my love letter to NYC. I like to present moments/snippets without too much commentary because I want the form of the blog to mirror life in the city. You walk down the street, you see things, you do things, you eat a bit of fabulously bizarre food, you take it all in, without talking, without comparing, just living, and all these bits, in their accumulation, they add up to something, something else, maybe. Unfortunately, a blog requires pictures, so I take pictures, although I’m not a good photographer, but I do it, out of love, again with the impulse of the amateur. I start every working day with a blog post. It is my offering to NYC. The same way women in Bali walk to their stone altars in the morning and deposit rice balls and orchids.
You used to be a book editor for Oxford University Press. What did you enjoy about that experience?
I worked as a project editor in the Young Adult department, and we worked on books from start to finish. We didn’t just read and revise and edit and proofread manuscripts, but we also worked with artists and designers and cartographers to illustrate the books, lay them out, and create the covers. I loved seeing a book go through all these stages, the layers and levels of corrections and adjustments and clarifications, until we had a perfect finished product. And then, with every fresh new book, usually immediately, while we were still smelling it, some disastrous typo or printer’s error would flash in front of our eyes. Nothing was ever perfect. But we kept trying.
Who are some writers who give you inspiration?
I am always, always inspired by reading anything these people wrote: Beckett, Camus, Nabokov, Proust, Joyce, Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Melville, Paul Bowles, Wallace Stevens, James Merrill, Graham Greene, Borges, and Eliot. All the great dead white male authors of the 20th century! (Seriously.) I’ve also been inspired by the writers who wrote about bullfighting (such as Barnaby Conrad, and more recently, A. L. Kennedy), and I’ve copied this William Burroughs quote onto my daily calendar: “Unless I can reach a point where my writing has the danger and immediate urgency of bullfighting, it is nowhere and I must look for another way.”
More recent inspirational figures are David Shields (I share his lack of interest in current fiction and his faith in the fragmentary; I couldn’t get enough of Reality Hunger) and Karl Ove Knausgaard, whose My Struggle is such a meditative, mesmerizing reading experience.
What is your writing process like?
I’m not sure I can describe my process, but I can describe my procedure. I segment the day into different sections (poetry, nonfiction, fiction) and then I work on projects in those sessions during my allotted hours. I don’t work on weekends or on vacation. I have to have solitude (but not silence, since I live in NYC). And I don’t have a word count I must meet every day or anything like that. I use the Japanese idea of kaizen—continuous, sometimes miniscule, daily improvements—and just keep going. I hope I can keep going forever.
I think Kierkegaard had a good routine (which I discovered in the book Daily Rituals: How Artists Work): “The Danish philosopher’s day was dominated by two pursuits: writing and walking. Typically, he wrote in the morning, set off on a long walk through Copenhagen at noon, and then returned to his writing for the rest of the day and into the evening.” Although I like to replace that evening work with TV watching.
What are you working on now?
One project I’m working on right now is a book-length manuscript about crafts and travel, which includes the bookbinding piece published here. It’s a manuscript about exploring where to be and what to do, about the struggle to find the proper tools and materials and make something good and/or great. It’s a hybrid manuscript of a sort, in that I’ve included long narrative essays as well as flash meditations and mini travelogues.
I’m also working on two different hybrid novels, in which I mix fiction and nonfiction, and on a long, linked travelogue composed of short pieces. And I’m constantly cannibalizing and recombining these manuscripts, hoping to come up with just the right mix.
Because Mud Season Review grew out of a writing workshop, I have to ask: what has been your worst workshop or editing experience.
I have never taken a workshop or a class, no doubt to avoid having a bad editing experience.
For more about Tara Deal and her work, visit www.taradeal.com.