“Fiction Chose Me”: A conversation with writer
Every summer, Voices of Our Nations Arts Foundation (VONA) convenes writers of color from across the United States and internationally. This past June, VONA took place at the University of California at Berkeley, where I joined a class of 11 creative nonfiction writers. In that same class, I met the San Francisco-based fiction writer Natalie Baszile, who is burnishing the finishing touches to her debut novel, Queen Sugar. As a writer who flirts with the overlap between fiction and nonfiction, and curious to talk with a Fiction Writer (TM), I asked Natalie for an interview, which she graciously agreed to do. During a languid July evening, I interviewed Natalie: she in southern Louisiana, where her father was born and raised, I in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Thank you, Natalie!
Topics of conversation: fiction; Queen Sugar; grinding season; southern Louisiana; sugarcane; harvest; Mark Doty; description; truth; MFA; Warren Wilson College; Los Angeles; UCLA; Afro-American studies; meta; Jo Ann Beard; creative nonfiction; racism; Pete Turchi; Charles Muscatine; aluminum; UC Berkeley; five things every writer needs; Alfred, Lord Tennyson; Ulysses; Rick Hillis; not giving up; Southern literature; writers; reporting from the wreckage
First, a question about the title of your book: you have Queen Sugar, and then The Grinding Season. Are those two different titles for the same work, or two different works?
The novel was originally called The Grinding Season.
As in hard work? “The grind”?
It refers to what the sugarcane farmers down here [in southern Louisiana] call the harvest season. There is a long, involved process they go through: washing the sugarcane, then grinding and boiling it. The farmers call this period, from around October 1st to January 31st, grinding. When I first started thinking about sugarcane as the crop for my character, I was talking with my friend Renee, a former farmer, and—this was right after Hurricane Katrina—he said, “You should come down for grinding.” That’s when he explained it to me, and as soon as he said it I knew I had the title for the book. Of course there are other meanings, like difficulty and hardship. The way the book title eventually became Queen Sugar was during the very last revision. A trusted reader of mine said, “That title? It reminds me of a root canal.”
I tried to explain, “It’s a harvest!” But then I thought that, ultimately, I didn’t want to turn off readers with a title that would be off-putting. I needed them to see just the other part of the book, which is uplifting, redemptive. I won’t give it away, but there is a moment when Queen Sugar is as viable a title as The Grinding Season; it’s just not as dark.
It doesn’t bring to mind a root canal.
I was really excited to speak with you, number one, because you’re a fiction writer. Is that correct, that fiction was your entrée into writing?
Absolutely. That’s my first love.
How did you choose to write fiction? How did it become your first love?
I’m not even sure it was [a choice I made]. I think [fiction] chose me. All I can say is that—I mean I’m probably like every other fiction writer—I have always loved stories, I have always loved storytelling. Sometimes I think back to when I was a little kid and my mother used to read to me, and just that feeling I would get, and still get, when I think about having a story read to me, or having a story told to me, it’s incredibly soothing, and I think I just wanted to do that. I’m reading Mark Doty’s The Art of Description: World into Word. In the first chapter he was asking exactly the same question you’re asking: why do writers feel this need to write? How do they make sense of the world? In the introduction to the book, he’s talking about this impulse that writers feel to capture what they see. He’s asking this question: why are we driven to do this? What he says is:
What we want when we describe is surely complex: To solve the problem of speechlessness, which is a state without agency, so that we feel impressed upon by things but unable to push back at them? To refuse silence, so that experience will not go unspoken? To be accurate (but to what? the look of things, the feel of being here? to the strange fact of being in the face of death?)? To arrive at exactitude in order to experience the satisfaction of matching words to the world, in order to give those words to someone else, or even just to savor them?
I read that and thought, “Yes, this is exactly how I feel!” It is the attempt to translate my experience and try to translate it for myself, but then also to try to share that with other people. And I think that the greatest joy I have is when I read a book and someone has described exactly what I’m feeling, what I have felt, and I think that is exactly it. I love that. I think that’s why I write. I am so appreciative when I encounter other works and writers who have done that for me, and I think I’m trying to do that for other people. And, why fiction? Because I think fiction allows me to get at a truth, kind of a bigger truth. It was interesting to be in that [VONA] memoir workshop because I was struck by people’s willingness to be totally exposed, and the truth that they were telling or reaching for was so personal! I think I may have said this during our workshop: what people have to do in memoir felt, to me, exactly the opposite of what I do in fiction. In fiction—well, in fiction and memoir we’re both trying to get at some bigger truth, but I’m accustomed to doing it through character, so there’s a filter between my experience and what I’m reaching for. In memoir, it’s the exact opposite. It’s you.
I think there’s something about fiction that feels precise and dreamy at the same time, and I like that combination. I like the precision, but then I also like it to be just a little fuzzy.
Do you feel freer in the genre of fiction, compared to creative nonfiction?
Do I feel freer? Not necessarily. I think, because I’m more accustomed to writing fiction, it just feels more familiar to me, I know how to do it better. But, I’m enjoying creative nonfiction. It feels like there’s one less step there, more immediate to me, than does fiction. I think because it’s me. But I’ve noticed that when I’m writing creative nonfiction I treat it like it’s fiction in the sense that I have to think about the story. I’m not saying that memoirists or creative nonfiction people aren’t thinking of [their writing in] that way, but I only have the rules that I’ve learned in fiction. I only have that toolbox. So, when I come to creative nonfiction, which I’m terribly new at, I find that it works better for me if I think, “Okay, how will this flow as a story?”, which is the way I think about fiction. I haven’t quite put my finger on the difference, but creative nonfiction, memoir—straight memoir—feels too sharp to me. Creative nonfiction is a quarter turn of the dial softer.
This is question number 10 on my list of things to ask you. I think that all writers possess an eye, a sense of an emotional register, and it’s a noticing that non-writers don’t often bother engaging in. It’s almost a sense that one’s skin is vibrating, once a person feels the frequency, it’s a particularity to writers, or to creative people, that they have that emotional or writer’s eye. What is your definition of a writer’s eye, and how do you think you developed yours? Were you just born with that sensitivity?
I have to differ with you a little bit. I think all artists are tuned to this frequency. To me, the world is divided into people who do and make art and people who don’t. Sometimes I look at people who don’t have some connection to a creative life and think, “How do you get through the day? How can you not see all this magic that’s around?” I know that sounds judgmental, and I don’t mean it to be, but I’m always stunned by people who just kind of push through life and for whatever reason don’t feel [a creative life is] worthwhile and aren’t tuned to that frequency. I look at those people and think, “Wow, what a different like you’re leading.” I think all artists have an eye, or an ear, or a touch. But, I do think writers and musicians seem to share a similar [artistic sensibility]. I can’t compose or paint worth a damn, but I have friends who are musicians, and that seems to be similar to [what I do as a fiction writer]. How did I develop my writer’s eye? I think I was born with it. I’ll tell you a funny story: when I was pregnant with my first daughter, some friends threw a baby shower for me, and my mother [was also there]. Her gift [to me] was my old baby book that [she’d begun] when I was a newborn. The book probably went up to age five or six. Through the years, my mother would make little notes and, at the time of my baby shower, I was making the transition from my old life in sales and business to my life as a writer, and having some trouble with feeling guilty, feeling, “Ugh, this is what I want to do,” but also being really afraid. When I opened up that baby book, I saw a note my mother had written: “Natalie loves stories, and she loves books.” I don’t think I was old enough to write anything yet [at the time she wrote that note]. But, she had a note in there about my loving writing. I tell you: I read that and my adult self was suddenly connected with my four- or five-year self. It was a huge lesson to me, because it told me that I have been this person all along, I just haven’t been paying attention. I have not been true to me. That did it for me; that was the moment where I really accepted what I was supposed to be doing. That was the last time I fought it, because I thought to myself: “If I was expressing this desire at four or five, before I learned to edit myself, be well-mannered, and all this other nonsense, that’s who I really am, and I need to reconnect with that person.” So, I think I’ve been this way all along. It was just a matter of shedding all these layers of things that I thought I should do, and people I thought I should be, and ways of moving through life that I thought I should be involved in, and getting back [to this idea of,] “Who am I really?” I think I’ve always had it.
You received your MFA from Warren Wilson College. How did you decide that you wanted to pursue an MFA? I think you previously earned a master’s degree, so how did you then decide that you wanted to enter an MFA program?
I got a master’s degree at UCLA in Afro-American Studies, and the program was interdisciplinary, but my concentration was literature. There was a moment, probably during the middle of my second year, when I was sitting in a literature class, but we weren’t reading the literature. We were reading some critic’s analysis of some other critic’s analysis of the work.
That’s too meta for me.
It really was. I sat there and thought, “I don’t want to spend my life doing this. I don’t want to spend my life talking about other people’s books. I want to write the books.” That was the moment I decided—because for a while I toyed with the idea of going on and getting a PhD in English, becoming an English professor—“I don’t want to do that.” So, when that program was over, I went to Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference the very next year, and I was shocked. I felt like I had stumbled into some parallel universe where all these people were writers, and they were actually living the life. They weren’t like me, who was coming home after work, trying to stay awake, scratching out some short story from six in the evening until midnight. These people were living this life. I was totally floored. The writers at the conferences were speaking a language that I needed to learn, and I could try to figure it out myself, or I could find a place where somebody would teach me. At one of the writers’ conferences I attended, Pete Turchi, who was at the time still director of [Warren Wilson’s MFA program], led an information session about their program. I remember hearing him talk about the program, and—by this time I had two kids, and my husband’s an attorney, so the idea of picking up and moving to another state was out of the question—the way he talked about Warren Wilson and their devotion to craft, that was it for me. I knew right then that that was the program I wanted. It was rigorous but it seemed warm to me, and inclusive. I also really appreciated the fact that they supported writers of color. So, I logged it away and thought, “Okay, one day I’m going to apply.” That’s how I chose Warren Wilson. I loved the idea that they weren’t about publishing. I’m not trying to disparage other programs, I don’t know what other programs do, but I loved the fact that they were devoted to the craft of writing, and that’s what they vowed to share with their students.
What experiences most shaped who you are?
An experience that really shaped me was working for my family’s business before I decided to accept that writing was what I should be doing. That was huge for me. But, backing up, I can think of two other things. I had two experiences in high school that were so negative that I’m almost grateful for them. I remember, when I was a freshman in high school, I took an English class with Mr. Hill. I turned in a paper and he told me, “You didn’t write this. Black people don’t write like this.” It was so shocking that it left me cold. I went on and moved through the rest of my day. [The second experience] happened during the second semester of my senior year, also in English class. Coach Flagler taught a class in the short story. I’d probably read Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” in regular English class, but his class was devoted to the short story, and we read “Hills Like White Elephants” and “Snows of Kilimanjaro”. I’m sure they were all of the books that he had read when getting his Master’s in English. I loved that class. It was my first introduction to the world of creative writing and fiction. Then, in college, where I majored in business— which was stupid because I suck at business and math—I would take one English class every semester as my treat. I took an English class with Charles Muscatine, a class you had to apply to get into. It was a workshop where he only accepted 12 students, and I got into that class. He was your classic English professor: gray hair, tweed suits with patches on the elbows. At the end of that semester he told me, “Natalie, you are a fool if you don’t continue to write.” And that stayed with me, even though I packed up and went back to LA to work in this family business. The fact that he would say that to me really meant a lot. Leaving what I loved and going to work in a family business selling aluminum to aerospace and aircraft, it could not have been more deadening. But I think, in a funny way, spending almost 12 years doing something that almost killed me, and doing something that I was so miserable doing, made me so grateful when I finally left and wrote full-time, because for me there’s no screwing around with this. I don’t have time to wring my hands because I wasted a decade of my life doing what I thought I should do and not doing what my heart really called me to do. So, in a funny way, I’m even grateful for those years in business because they toughened me in a way that I don’t think another experience would have toughened me, and I think that prepared me for the second half of this writing life, which is the publishing side, getting the agent, and all the rejections.
What’s your take on the five things every writer needs?
Time away is first on the list. I [also] think you have to give yourself permission to work and to write. If you wait around for other people to give you permission, that’s just not going to happen. Time away, for sure. Books that inspire you. A place to work, having some kind of sanctuary or refuge is important.
Your blog heading features an excerpt from Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s “Ulysses”: “to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield”. Why this quote?
That’s funny. I have a friend, Rick Hillis, who is a poet. Last summer, Rick and his wife—Nancy, who’s a fiction writer—and two other friends, also fiction writers, and I, all rented a house together on Long Island. Rick and Nancy worked all day, and at four o’clock they’d go to the gym. Every day. And that happens to be the ideal writing work schedule for me. I love to get up, get right to work, then at four o’clock take a break. So, every day we would go to the gym. One day Rick and I were on the treadmill. Rick is the kind of poet who’s so well-read that you can be talking about anything and he will say, “Oh, that reminds me of this poem!” and will not only know the poem, he will recite the poem. So, we were on the treadmill, or on the elliptical machine—he’s on one and I’m on the other—and talking about not giving up, because at the time Rick had just learned that his second book of poetry was going to be published, and I had just sold my novel, and we were talking about how hard it was. That whole process, not even the publication part, just the writing part, and how much it took out of us, yet how exhilarating it was. We were talking about how you always have to be curious. You always have to be pushing yourself forward. Always, always, always pushing yourself forward, asking the next question. Then, in his typical Rick way, he said, “ You know, it reminds me of a poem,” and he recited the Tennyson poem, and when he did that, I thought, “Oh my god, it’s perfect.” That’s the way I came to the title. It was luck. It was thanks to Rick.
On the website, RT Book Reviews, your forthcoming novel is compared to work by Sue Monk Kidd and Rebecca Wells. Do you agree with these comparisons?
I am totally happy with them. Here’s why: I really love Southern literature. I love, love, love the storytelling tradition, I love everything about it: I love the narrative, I love the oral quality, I love the old-fashioned-ness of it, and I think coming from California, being a California native, it’s an honor to me if somebody considers me a Southern writer. I would love that. I’ll take however people respond to the book, but feel really honored to be part of that Southern storytelling tradition. I know Rebecca Wells’ work from long ago. They’re Louisiana stories, and Wells is dealing with a different segment of the population than I’m dealing with, but there’s some definite crossover and I’m okay with that. I’m also okay with the comparison to The Secret Life of Bees, Sue Monk Kidd’s book, which is trying to get at some issues with not even a light touch because it’s a sweet book but it’s not a sweet book. If they want to lump me with those two authors, I am perfectly happy. The editor who bought my book bought Bees, so I think I’m in the right place for the kind of story I’m telling.
What made you want to shift into, or explore, creative nonfiction?
Fiction takes a long time. I love it, but writing a novel takes a long time. With the first [novel], I was so nervous about siphoning off even a thimbleful of creative energy that, when I would have ideas for short stories or little essays, I did not dare risk draining off any energy. It all had to go into the novel. I even stopped working on an old blog, because I found that I was spending too much time on that. I realized, “I have to give birth to this book.” But when it was over, and the book was finished, I felt that I did have this craving for a shorter sprint, a sprint rather than a marathon. I know I’ll always run the marathon with novels, but I found myself drawn to creative nonfiction. I think there are questions I can ask myself with creative nonfiction that have to do with—I mean, at some level it’s all me, but I think there are more pointed questions I can address in creative nonfiction [in a way I can’t in fiction]. It feels sharper, more focused, since most of the creative nonfiction pieces I’ve worked on have shorter turns, I like doing something that has quicker turns in it and, now that I have one book launched, I can relax a little. I’m more willing to straddle two projects. The creative nonfiction I’m interested in writing looks a little bit like stories—it looks a little bit like fiction to me, a tiny bit, so I don’t think I’m straying into totally uncharted waters. Also, there are things that I feel I can do with creative nonfiction—I don’t know what, yet—but it’s different enough that I’m curious.
I love that: that there is this thread of curiosity, or a light, in your desire to write, regardless of genre.
I think some things just come to me as creative nonfiction pieces, and others come to me as fiction. It’s very clear to me, “Okay, this is a creative nonfiction piece. That’s what it needs to be.” Or, “This is a fiction piece.” Maybe because it doesn’t have to do with me. It’s some other person, or some other character, who’s moving through that world.
When you inhabit the world of the characters you’re writing with and about, how do you know when you’ve reached the pitch that matches their voice?
It’s funny you would ask that because I had that experience just this morning. Part of what I have to do in this final revision [of Queen Sugar] is filling out a character. Right now, readers find him to be one-dimensional, and that’s not my intention. I found this morning, as I was writing a couple of scenes that are from his point of view, that I really for the first time sunk down into him. There was this moment when I realized I was inhabiting his mind. I am not even in my mind anymore. I am totally in his mind. It’s this feeling I get of being blind to everything else around me. That’s when I know I have reached that pitch: where I can’t see anything, or see the world any other way than the way the character sees it. It doesn’t happen often, where I totally feel either the character has absorbed me, or I have absorbed that character. That’s the way I felt this morning, and I knew, “Okay, I’m there.”
In my own writing, I find myself wanting to write about people in my life as fiction characters, and from their point of view. Sometimes I don’t know what genre I’m working in—
Yeah. I get that.
—so it’s interesting. I’m interested in the interplay between fiction and creative nonfiction. I’m learning more and more that a person needs a solid external structure in order to be able to write through certain scenes or experiences. Earlier this summer, there was point at which I looked at my writing and thought, “I’m reporting from the wreckage,” and realized I didn’t want to be. In fact, I felt I should not be writing if I’m coming from the point of view of reporting from the wreckage.
But, I do think there’s a way to write about experiences so that you are taking the art from them, the art, beauty, and humanity of the experience, and leave the junk behind. I haven’t read many memoirs, but the one person whose [creative nonfiction] work I admire and find timeless is Jo Ann Beard’s The Boys of My Youth. What I love about that book is how it straddles that line between memoir, personal essay, and fiction. She is very bold in that book, and what is striking is that it is so beautifully written.
If there is a through-line for my creative nonfiction, it is that there’s something really important about the desire to live. There’s something really important about the desire to find the world worth living in. I’m trying to write the narrator out of the bombed out place that she thinks is the only reality. Right now, I’m grappling with whether to continue on a project, and realizing that I would be okay with writing a CNF manuscript, for the sake of writing it. If it helps me move into the fiction stories that I want to write, then that’s the process.
I have a friend who did something similar. She was working on a novel, and wrote a series of short stories in order to figure out the novel. In the end, she ended up publishing the short stories because, in a way, they were truer.
Yes. What I know for sure is this: I remember walking home from [the VONA writing] workshop after the first day. At the time, I felt very ambivalent about being in a writing workshop at all. On that walk home, I thought, “If writing, and my being in this writing workshop, is not making me a better human being, then I shouldn’t be writing.” Then, as the week progressed, I knew it was making me a better person. To be in that space, to be workshopping manuscripts, to be surrounded by people who cared as much as I did about writing, co-combined with this sense of uninterrupted, unmitigated deep care in our class. That made me a better person. It renewed my commitment to writing. I realized I should be writing, and it wasn’t so much that I felt I wanted to give up on writing entirely, but perhaps just that particular manuscript.
That was interesting to notice, because that’s what writing has always done for me. When we first started talking, we talked around this idea of writing as a direct line to one’s interior. In some ways, I think writing is the only way I get to access the best and truest part of me.
I totally understand that.
Thank you, Natalie. It’s always fun to talk with a writer, especially a fiction writer!
This has been really great. I thoroughly enjoyed this! After I complete the final novel edits, I’ll have to interview you. I always look forward to hearing what writers have to say. I think we’re an unusual bunch.
I think so. In a really endearing, necessary way.
Photo credit: Natalie Baszile