When I see my students being all adult about workshop notes, I can’t help but try to understand why I wasted so much time pushing away what I so needed to hear. The answer I come up with: I subscribed too heavily to the idea that talent reigns supreme. I believed that these critiques meant I didn’t have enough talent to BE A WRITER. Another issue: I then lacked the skill to take a comment and revise, so I found critiques overwhelming. How on earth was I suppose to use these comments? How could I pry open this formed thing and begin to rebuild?
This week I had the pleasure to interview my dear friend and new author, Natalie Singer, on the publication of her new memoir, California Calling, a gorgeous coming-of-age story that takes a hard look at what it means to grow up girl and offers up a complex and nuanced investigation into how we become who we are. Lidia Yuknavitch says of the book: "California Calling split my heart open." And the book--to be released next week--is already getting rave reviews. It's a beauty. Get it. Read it. Tell your friends.
THEO NESTOR: Welcome, Natalie! I'm excited to dig in and ask you about how this book came to be.
A question I get asked a lot is “How long does it take to write a book?” I find this question hard to answer because I'm often drawing upon material I wrote long before I officially started a book and because I've usually written in fits and starts in between bouts of teaching and parenting and staring out the window. What about you? Do you remember when you truly started California Calling? Is there a scene in it that you think of as the book's genesis?
NATALIE SINGER: I agree with you, it’s hard to pinpoint. In a way I was writing this book since I was about three years old. I believe all our most important memories come back to us obsessively, or else sometimes stay subconsciously hidden until the right moment, so that we are compelled to do the important work of interrogating them. We need to investigate these intense memories in order to understand how our experiences have shaped us. This understanding is essential for our self-indentities, to know who we are. A handful of memories from my childhood have preoccupied me for a long time, and I think I have always known that I would eventually write about and out from them. One of those memories, of standing on a courtroom witness stand, is the scene I would say is the book’s genesis. But a handful of scenes—the courtroom when I was sixteen; me as a toddler listening to my parents’ records while they looked on; me at twentysomething driving down a dark California highway, windows open to the artichoke-and-garlic-scented air—are at the center of the book’s origins.
About eight years ago I began to write some of the material that eventually became the book. I first worked on a version that was driven by a more traditional narrative structure. I played around with versions of the surface story—after my family kind of exploded I moved from my Canadian city to California, a place I had romanticized since I was a girl. And as I worked and reworked the story, leaving it and coming back to it, I realized there were deeper themes at play, beyond the coming-of-age story. About three years ago I decided a more fragmented, lyric approach was what I needed and the book in its current form began taking shape.
Oh, and staring out the window is 100 percent part of writing!
NESTOR: California Calling is subtitled "A Self-Interrogation." Why?
SINGER: The book is built on a scaffold of queries, where an interrogative voice asks the narrator questions, often probing, sometimes confrontational. The book deals with both a literal silencing, having to do with that courtroom memory, and thematically with what I call the silencing of girlhood. These questions, which sometimes act as chapter titles, provide a way for the narrator to confront the state of being silenced. While this is the form I chose for this particular book, I think in a more broad way that memoir as a genre is always a type of self-interrogation.
NESTOR: “The silencing of girlhood.” Wow. I’ve never heard it put that way, but yes, that rings so true.
When I met you nine years ago, you'd recently decided to take a break from journalism and were just starting in on writing personal narrative. But most of those years in between you've been working full-time as well as raising a family. What helped to keep you on the path of getting your own writing done?
SINGER: Feeling that I wouldn’t be a good enough person if I didn’t write this book. Ha, how’s that for exposing my insecurities? Practically, participating in a series of classes and writing programs, starting with your yearlong memoir class nine years ago, helped me continue to move forward with my writing in spite of the intense demands of “real life.” Juggling writing with work and family responsibilities is challenging, but that pressure, for me, is also very motivating and even generative. With so little time, I learned to maximize the moments I had to think and write. I wrote parts of this book in between school pickups, on the soccer practice sidelines, in the driver’s seat of our minivan, at midnight in bed, at 7 a.m. Sunday morning when I could slip out undetected, and at weekend retreats where I could impose a necessary isolation.
Deadlines help me a lot—my journalist background—so being in an MFA program, which I completed in 2016, helped me push through and complete an earlier version of the book. The intensity of motherhood has actually fueled my writing. As a mother, I’ve learned to be selfish. It’s a bargain I made and live with: I love my children beyond all logic, but I am not willing to give up my art in order to mother them. Sometimes that means I miss things; sometimes that means I chose myself and my work. And yet I am still their mother and a damn good one. Somehow as women we have to answer for the quality of our mothering when we shave time off for art; men do not have to answer for this.
NESTOR: But what message would we be giving our kids if we deferred our dreams? If you have kids of your own one day, you can put your hopes on hold and then one day they’ll do the same for their kids? When does it end?
Okay, back to CALIFORNIA CALLING. What about your road to publication? What was that like?
SINGER: Magical and anguished. I knew I wanted to have the book traditionally published, but I tried to keep my focus on writing it and not worrying ahead about what would happen after. As I finished the draft I began to think about what the right publishing scenario would be. Because the book became a hybrid lyric memoir that I feel pushes up against the boundaries of the genre, it felt like an independent publisher committed to bringing readers more experimental or overlooked story forms, from traditionally marginalized writers including women, would be the right home. I entered the manuscript in a handful of contests with such publishers. I decided that if nothing happened with those contests, I would begin the work of finding an agent. I was a finalist in two 2016 contests—the Autumn House Press nonfiction contest, and the Red Hen Press nonfiction contest, where I was the first runner up.
During that busy and exciting contest season, I had nearly forgotten that I had sent my manuscript to what I had decided early on would be a dream publisher: Hawthorne Books and Literary Arts, based in Portland, Oregon. Among other excellent books, Hawthorne published Lidia Yuknavitch’s breakout memoir, The Chronology of Water, a book that had become one of my totems.
The day Hawthorne publisher Rhonda Hughes reached out and said she wanted to publish California Calling was one of the most ecstatic of my life. I knew right away that she saw California the way I framed it, and that she would help bring the book to life in its perfect form.
Pursuing book publication can be very fraught. What helped me in addition to keeping my focus on the work while I was creating it was the opportunities that both contests and essay publication afford. In addition to being a finalist in those two manuscript contests, I’ve had several essays that were early versions of book excerpts published. One won the Alligator Juniper nonfiction contest, and one won the Pacific Northwest Writers Association nonfiction contest. Every publication and win helped embolden me and exposed my writing to editors and publishers who could become supporters. Submitting your work to journals and contest also builds the perseverance muscle: rejection becomes easier to deal with, and you nurture the grit to continue.
NESTOR: What's been the hardest part of the process of writing the book and bringing it into the world? What's been the most fun?
SINGER: The hardest process was figuring out how to structure the book, what form it should take. Before it was a book it was a pile of feelings inside me, and the process of translating those intangible feelings into a narrative felt at times insurmountable. One really fun thing: seeing the cover, and the book as a physical object, come to life. I’m not an e-book reader; I love the concreteness and beauty of a book as a paper-and-ink object. One reason Hawthorne is a dream publisher for me is that it prioritizes high quality covers with double-scored flaps, silky nonscuff matte lamination, and full-cover art (including flaps, back and spine), all designed by Adam McIsaac and Sibley House. I almost cried when I saw Adam’s visual interpretation of California Calling: the colors, typography, and overall design perfectly conjure the feel of my story and wink at some of the major themes in the book: the seventies, music, pop culture, and the chimerical nature of California and our personal mythologies.
NESTOR: OMG. That cover is to DIE for. Love it!
Natalie, thank you so much for visiting with me here on Writing Is My Drink!
Readers, If you're in Seattle, come to Natalie's book launch at Elliott Bay Book Company on Monday March 5th at 7pm.