INTERVIEW / NICHOLAS CLARO
PHOTO / KAT WILSON
There’s a big difference between being talked to, and talked at. I encountered the former a lot during my time as a student in several different universities. I can’t deliver a precise number, but I can say I have had many professors and countless TAs that, while teaching, did so in a way where I (and I am sure many of my fellow students) felt as though our presence was somewhat of a burden.
What I mean by “talked at” is this: speaking to a person, or a group of people, without emotion; simply saying what it is you want to say as to be rid of it. Now, do I think these professors and TAs really viewed us as a burden? No. Not at all. But what I am saying is they lacked fervor. In the classroom, I feel enthusiasm is as important as morale is to an active combat unit. Without it, or with little of it, things can go awry.
Like so many others, I met Padma Viswanathan in the classroom – a fiction workshop some years ago. The first day of class started as nearly 100 percent of all classes do. Everyone introduced himself/herself. We said where we were from. What kind of things we wrote about and why. What writers influenced us, etc. And all the while this went on, Padma smiled and looked at the speaker, and at times, asked a question about the writer they were talking about (Which book of his do you like best?) or a question about their hometown. From day one, she engaged with all of us. And this never waned, if anything, as the semester went on, Padma’s enthusiasm only grew.
Apart from being a passionate and wonderful teacher, Padma is also a very talented novelist and short story writer, as well as a playwright. If you didn’t know, over the years, Fayetteville has been home to a number of talented writers and poets (Ellen Gilchrist, William Harrison, and Miller Williams to name a few) and now, I’m happy to say, we can add one more to that list.
Padma Viswanathan is the author of the novels The Toss of a Lemon and The Ever After of Ashwin Rao. She has written two plays, Disco Does Not Suck and House of Sacred Crows and her short fiction has appeared in various journals. She currently resides in Fayetteville, Arkansas, with her husband, the poet and translator Geoffrey Brock and their two children. The Idle Class recently caught up with Padma to discuss her teaching and writing balance:
Most writers out there are “working writers”, meaning they have 9 to 5’s like anyone else, so my first question is what is it like to teach, and also write? Do you have a set time of day when you sit down to write, or do you wait for a free moment when one arrises?
I’m not a waiter on free moments, and teaching is, fortunately, not 9 to 5, especially in creative writing. I have the stunning good fortune, as a morning writer, to teach just two afternoons a week. I do prep evenings (after kids are in bed) and come in for meetings but apart from that, try to keep my writing hours close to what they always have been. Before kids and this job, that was 8 to 2. Now it’s sort of 5:30 to 7 and 8 to 1 or so. Some semesters, like the last one, are so demanding that all this completely falls apart in favor of nonstop prep, but it’s a routine I return to whenever life permits.
I know Kent Haruf used to write in the basement of his Illinois home, in an old coal room, at a manual typewriter with a stocking cap pulled over his eyes, as to “blind himself so he could see” and Italo Calvino had said the last thing he wanted to do in the morning was write, so he’d go out and run errands, buy the newspaper, so by the time he was finished it was afternoon, and that’s when he would sit to work. Do you have any conventions of your own when writing?
I’m curious to see how this might change with my next two projects, a translation and a non-fiction book, but when working on fiction, I have generally tried essentially to wake up at my keyboard, already writing. I often fall asleep thinking on the novel and wake up into it, and so try to preserve the dreamspace, as a sort of bridge into the world of my imagination, by silently making a cup of tea and going straight to my desk.
I’m astonished to hear that about Calvino – his work is so immersive, so fully imagined, that I can only think his mind at work must be iron clad, to withstand the million assaults of the mundane world that you are describing! As I said in my last answer, I often have to take a break 7 to 8 to get my kids off to school, and when they leave, it’s not uncommon for me to take a short nap, not only because I have been up for hours at this point, but because sleep destabilizes, takes down the defensive curtains guarding the unconscious. I should also say that my study is a private little attic room on the third floor of our house. It’s slightly arduous to get up there, and feels very protected. Although I have written in many places, I crave isolation to do it (no cafes for me), so this is the other necessity that my living situation answers. My kids come up there now, in the summer break, to say hi, but I actually kept it secret from each of them until she or he was old enough to respect it.
A sort of secret writing lair. That’s great. And, I’m intrigued with your answer, on your recognizing the possibility that your writing habits may or may not change in regard to switching from fiction to other areas of focus. Any hints on what possibly might shift slightly, or change altogether?
It’s a curious question and I’m mulling it. As much as has remained consistent, I’ve certainly shifted in various ways as my life has progressed, not just in my writing habits but in my focus. You mentioned teaching, which has added a new set of demands, and a new set of rewards. I very much find myself using teaching to work out my ideas on writing and on service – what it means to be a writer in the world, notions of social responsibility.
I have always thought I would be more productive if I were a little more rigid and self-protective, but I’m sure I would also have an unhappier family and perhaps even feel impoverished, myself, emotionally and intellectually. I find Fayetteville social life a little overwhelming at times, but also tremendously enriching; ditto for my family.
I never thought I would write autobiographically, but, in recent years, have found myself, to my surprise, writing urgent personal essays. And it did happen that while I was working on the darkest parts of my last novel, in mid-winter, that I couldn’t drag myself to my desk before dark – it was just too desperate. I needed to see my kids and the sun first, to give myself the energy for the descent. So much, in writing, feels like call and response.
I’m glad you brought up the novel, which is The Ever After of Ashwin Rao, since I was going to ask, in your experience, what the most difficult aspect of novel writing is.
I very much think it varies from book to book and writer to writer, but in my case, it was probably the integration of research. Both of my novels worked from real historical circumstances, though in the case of The Ever After of Ashwin Rao, the circumstances were more recent and much better known. So I had full imaginative leeway with my characters’ responses to these events, but I knew many readers would be familiar with various of the details of the acts of terror that provide the context and motivation for the novel’s action. I chose to attempt to represent a good deal of what is commonly known or accepted about those events, but I fretted long and hard over how to do so in ways that were aesthetically and ethically sound. The details had to be presented in ways that felt inevitable and natural. Also, when it came to the worst violence, I had to find ways to make them sear the reader but that didn’t feel sensationalizing. So all of that was a struggle.
Beyond (and related to) this, structure–what order to put things in and how to link them–is always a struggle for me. I suspect both of these will be just as big a challenge in the nonfiction book as well, though.
Well, I look very much forward to the nonfiction and translation. Beyond those two, is there anything else we should keep an eye our for?
I’ve also been beetling away on a book of short stories. It could be close – I think I have published half a dozen pieces from it – but I seem to think it needs a couple more pieces. I hope that if I just keep my head down, nose to the grindstone, and hew to all the other clichés, something completed will emerge from my study before long!