Poser is one of those books that could have been just awful. A book propped up by a premise, a conceit: okay, we’ll just use these 23 poses for the outline and the story structure will just run autopilot through them bing bang bong.
But instead, it’s pretty amazing. It’s a memoir with a premise that is seemingly simple, but the premise is just the gateway into a deeper story of the narrator’s life, just as the narrator’s life is just a gateway into a deeper discussion about the trajectory of women’s lives. Not all women, a certain kind of woman–a woman with choices, with the ability to have a career and a family and yoga. A woman who could choose many things–divorce, freedom, travel–who decides to stay planted in marriage, in family, and in the presence in the moment that yoga requires. Why should we care? That’s the essential question that burns through every memoir, right? Because the memoir here is greater than the sum of the narrator’s life.
Here, take a quick peek. Here’s one of my favorite passages, in which Dederer talks of her mother’s generation as well as her own: “These women, the moms who left home in the a 1970’s, were a vanguard movement–whether on not their intentions were political. They were the ones who broke the back of expectation. Like union members on strike, they were the ones who would no longer tolerate the working conditions of early marriage and early childbirth, and they staged a walkout.
Maybe being their kid was tough. Maybe divorce is not what most of us would have chose for our parents. Maybe we are angry at them or compensating for them, or sad about what we lost as children. But maybe, just maybe, this is also true: If they had not done what they did, we might have lived utterly different lives. If they had not made new lives, when it was our tun to become young women, we might have found ourselves living ghosts, stuck in the old life they left behind, the life marriage at twenty-one and a kid at twenty-two; we might be living that life one more time in some kind of eternal return.”
So, you’ve waited long enough. Here’s my interview with Claire. Oh, but wait, good news, Claire’s giving away a signed copy of Poser, so post a comment below for a chance to win.
Claire: My husband and I were lucky–during the period I was working on the book, the wife of one of his friends published a very personal memoir about their marriage. So we both read that book and used it as a kind of yardstick. My husband said he could live with that level of exposure.
Theo: What does your writing time look like? Do you have a routine?
When I was working on this book, I wrote every day for eight hours, sort of a grind-it-out work ethic. But I got the most done by going away for a few days every month and just staying up all night writing every night. I’m a night person by nature, so when I’m away from my family I can indulge that and get a ton done. Incidentally, I recently read a study that said that night owls have higher IQs than early birds. Which was great to hear after years of hearing people (ie my husband) be smug about being early risers. Suck it, early birds!
Claire: Love the feeling that I’m solving a huge puzzle. Loathe the part of writing a book that no one told me about: the fifteen pounds you gain.
Theo: I hear ya! It’s like the freshman fifteen. When did you first think of yourself as a writer?
Claire:When I was in first or second grade. I always had at least a couple Mead spiral notebooks on the go. My early work involved a lot of girls from olden days living in orphanages and wearing their hair in long braids. .
Theo: What are some of the ways you’ve built your platform as a writer?
Claire: I’ve made my living as a writer since I became a staff critic at the Seattle Weekly about fifteen years ago. Once I had my first child and quit the paper, I freelanced. So I’ve never focused on building my platform–instead I focused on getting the next freelance gig. My strategy was to stair step upward–a piece at Seattle Weekly gave me a clip to send to the Chicago Tribune, which gave me a clip to send to Newsday, which gave me a clip to send to The New York Times, where I freelanced frequently for many years.
Theo: Who are some of the authors who’ve inspired you?
With Poser I turned my attention to memoirs that are structured around something outside the memoirist. Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage was very important to me. It starts out with his slightly bonkers obsession with D.H. Lawrence and ends up being a very intimate self-portrait of Dyer himself. Other examples: Nick Hornby’s Fever Pitch, which is ostensibly about soccer but is really about his parents’ divorce. Lavinia Greenlaw’s The Importance of Music to Girls, which organizes a coming-of-age story around her favorite songs. Calvin Trillin’s About Alice, a memoir of his wife that is really a self-portrait of the writer as husband. And of course Laurie Colwin, who is my favorite writer. Her Home Cooking books are about food, but also give a rich picture of her domestic life.
Theo: Couldn’t agree more with the Geoff Dyer’s Out of Sheer Rage pick. That’s one of my all-time favorite books. The subtitle of Poser is “My Life in 23 Poses.” Why 23 poses?
The number of poses varied over the course of writing. I wrote a bunch of the poses first, like little essays, and then realized that process was preventing me from finding the larger arc of the book. Once I had written the whole book, I went back and organized the pose material. 23 just seemed right. Any more and I think it would have felt too disjointed.
Theo: Why do you return to–my favorite yoga pose–the child’s pose (I think 3 times)?
I return to child’s pose over and over as a way of organizing the flashback material in the book. I really wanted to underpin my story as a mom with the story of my own mother. Child’s pose seemed like a natural pose to use to frame that material.
Theo: Had you published personal essays before this book? (I noticed that there’s a bit of your mom’s story in the Nation piece about Erica Jong.)
I had published personal essays in two anthologies, and I had written many essays over the years for publications including Seattle Weekly, Vogue, and Real Simple. I’ve worked as a film critic and a book critic for many years, and I have always tried to incorporate elements of personal essay into my critical writing. I believe strongly that reviews really reflect one person’s opinion, not some authoritative judgment from on high. Folding personal essay material into a review reiterates that more openly subjective approach.
Theo: What’s your favorite writing tip?
Don’t save your good material, your good image, your good writing for later. Use it now.