In today's edition of Writer's Block, we chat with author Marianne Apostolides on the books that inspire her, the trouble with recommending solely one read, and "writer's spume". Marianne recently published a new novel, Sophrosyne, with BookThug in Autumn, 2014.
Do you have a book that you’ve gone back and read several times?
I’ve gone back to several books throughout my life; I’m often amazed by how little I understood the first time! And yet, the books obviously spoke to me; I sensed them seduce me toward terrain I wanted to know but couldn’t yet enter, because I hadn’t yet felt the actual, physical experience needed to help me imagine deeply into the dynamics of the text. For example, I read Anne Carson’s The Beauty of the Husband when I was happily married and breastfeeding my first daughter; I put that book away, returning to its brutality and beauty when I was ready. Another example is Toni Morrison’s Beloved, which I read in high school, completely unable to ride her writing through the unsayable, wanting (at that point) to read along a line of logic…. There are other books, too, which I return to for solace: Rilke’s Duino Elegies or Christopher Logue’s War Music; and there are books I reread just to sense the brilliance of the author: The Life and Times of Michael K by J.M. Coetzee, for example, or the dramas of Shakespeare, Sophocles, and Aeschylus.
What’s one book you always recommend?
I don’t think I could possibly ‘always’ recommend one book. That’s be like asking, ‘Who’s the one man you could always recommend to a woman as a husband?’
To state the obvious: Reading is a relationship between the reader and the ethics/ aesthetics of a text. I wish I could always be a great matchmaker, intuiting which book would speak powerfully to a person at that particular moment in his/ her life. I’ve had a few experiences like that, where a mentor or friend has given me the specific book I needed most — the book I was perfectly ripe to receive at that moment in my life. The first time that happened was when I was 17 years old; my high-school English teacher assigned To The Lighthouse as my year-long graduation project. I think he sensed my desire to write/ create far before I did….
What’s the most surprising thing about being a writer?
At first, I was surprised by how much smarter I seemed when I wrote. I’d say to myself, ‘I didn’t know I knew that! How could I possibly…?!’ As I get older, though, I’m not as amazed by this; these startling little moments have come to feel necessary to the writing process…. What surprises me now is how physical the process of writing is: my body reacts when the writing is going well; the flow is like a flood through me. I didn’t feel that as acutely when I was younger.
Have you ever experienced writer’s block? What did you do about it?
I’ve never experienced ‘writer’s block,’ but I’ve definitely experienced ‘writer’s spume’: i.e., times when I can generate thousands of words — a veritable tsunami of language — which is nothing but scummy, foamy, frothy awfulness…. This often happens when I begin a project too soon, or when I try to extend a kernel of an idea into an entire narrative, when the idea doesn’t merit that kind of treatment. Sometimes I’ll think I’m writing well, but then I’ll start to sense an acidity in the writing process — almost like I’m drinking burnt coffee. I’ll usually push forward for a few more days or weeks, unwilling to accept that my project is not viable. But eventually I have no choice but to stop, step back, abandon in order to read, regroup, rethink, and reengage once I have a sense of what I want to say — and why it’s important. And, if I can’t find an answer to those questions, then I simply walk away from the project. I’ve done that many times.
Some sage advice.
What’s the toughest part about being a writer?
Oh, that’s easy: it’s the ability to persevere in the utter silence of the process. I can work on a novel for five years without any feedback; I receive no sense, from anywhere, that the project is meaningful or worthy. The only thing that keeps me going is my belief — not my belief in myself (…I don’t really understand what that means, except as a toss-off phrase…). No, it’s the belief that the writing process is locking me harder into knowledge that’s inherent to my potency/ vitality as a human being. The creative process brings me to my aliveness; I need to honour that process, despite the lack of external evidence that this endeavour is legitimate. That can be tough.
Here is my bio — from the Greek word βιος, meaning ‘way of life’ or life-force. Given that etymology, what is my bio?
My βιος comes from three things: my family, my writing, and my physical practice. I need all three or I’ll come unhinged. I’ve shaped my life to serve all three; at times, the three have shaped my life to serve them. That sounds cryptic; perhaps I’d like it to be. Nonetheless, my non-fiction books — Voluptuous Pleasure: The Truth about the Writing Life and Inner Hunger: A Young Woman’s Struggle through Anorexia and Bulimia — might give you a clue as to the specifics of my shaping/ being-shaped by writing and appetite…. Now my ‘way of life’ — my biography of living in a very tiny apartment with my two children, making my way as a divorced mom who writes every morning, seven days a week, starting at 6am, then engaging in some sort of physical practice so my mind gets grounded — perhaps my ‘way of life’ has found its balance. But I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: writing is not a sane/healthy process. We mold our lives so we can keep ourselves steady within the process of creation. Or, well, at least I do.
Author photo by Jorjas Photography.
Thanks so much to Marianne for answering our questionnaire, and to Hazel Millar at BookThug for making all introductions.