INTERVIEW WITH TERESA CARMODY
My last interview, with Teresa Carmody, was not spontaneous as the others had been. She kindly arranged it with me on Friday of &Now, and when I showed up on Saturday I had a tape recorder ready, because my writing hand and wrist were in pain. Here is a very lightly edited transcription of what she had to say.
ROSE MIREYA: Well, thank you very much again for taking a few minutes to talk to me. I totally enjoyed your reading. Unfortunately because we get so swamped at UCSD, I hadn’t really heard about it before, but I felt like you were channeling the characters that you were reading, and that just makes me curious about how you go about writing that sort of thing. Can you talk a little bit about your techniques as a writer for characters and stuff?
TERESA CARMODY: Well, I came to writing thru voice. In other words, it’s been, as I was learning, the point of entry for me as a writer, to learn about what writing might do or text might do was thru voices. And so … this project is a project that I’ve been working on for a very, very, very long time. A very long time. … I say this because it seems that I don’t know what will happen when this book is done. Like I know that I’m more interested, that I’ve become increasingly more interested in narrative, that entry point has not been thru voice, it has been thru oftentimes thru visual imagery. But I think that learning to write takes a really long time, and that oftentimes … it seems that, it seems that some writers, maybe a lot of them … maybe not a lot of them, but enough of them, have whatever projects that they need to write initially to go thru and get out of the way and then they can continue on, thinking about other things. And so, for me, like this project that you heard from today is very—it’s not a memoir but it has a lot of autobiographical—you know, it comes from personal experience. The voices I grew up with.
R.M.: That’s cool. And do you have any specific technique for recalling those places and making them your own?
T.C.: No … I think that … sometimes using something, which is not the case in this book, but sometimes using something really arbitrary … can actually help you hone a voice more distinctly. So, it might even be something like using a certain kind of grammatical pattern, or syntax pattern. Or, in … my collection of short stories that came out a few years ago … all of the stories play with voices—starts with a single voice, goes to two, then it’s a polyvocal piece, and they’re kind of monologues, but in the one that has many different voices, one of the layers of editing I did was assign a different vowel sound to each of the characters and go thru and do an edit where I was actually putting … a lot of that vowel sound in, which I then actually ended up taking out some of that—I like, overdid it, and then … did back, but it was like almost as if I saw these things as if you were painting … it’s almost impressionistic, so it’s like you have a figure that’s coming and then maybe you need to put a lot of red, but then maybe the red needs to be covered up. So that’s one of the elements of sound or language that you can do that with …
R.M.: What is something that’s particularly fun about writing for you?
T.C.: Already having written. … I’m actually quite serious about that—that, sometimes, the most fun thing is having already done it. … I really like it when you’re at a place in a project where you start seeing all of the little pieces start to connect … there’s little webs that are being made between the kind of imagery, there’s sonic sense that’s happening between different things, and that takes some time to get to in a piece, and so when you get there it “A,” means you’re getting close to being done, which is fun, getting back to my first thing, but that’s just part of the symmetrical delight, or the formal delight, in writing.
R.M.: If somebody wants to do what you do, with Les Figues, can you talk a little bit about steps they would take to start doing that?
T.C.: To start actually having a press? Well first of all, I think that … the steps would be figuring out what it is that you want to do, and then trying to articulate a vision, and then coming back a year later after you’ve already started doing it. … I see making a small press as kind of similar to making a piece of writing, where you could have this idea or this dream or this sort of sense, but then once you actually get into the logistics of making it … it’ll start to become increasingly clear what it is that you’re trying to do, as long as you’re reflecting on it. But it’s also really easy to do now. … I mean you can use a POD publisher and make books that way easily. But I think the thing … that we’re really smart about with Les Figues is having a really articulated vision of what we’re trying to do. And again that has been fine-tuned, but coming back to that, over and over again. … And a little bit of insanity. Or a lot of insanity.
R.M.: Are there certain personality traits that are helpful to have?
T.C.: No, but just like being willing to work really hard, for no money, and just being a little crazy that way.
R.M.: So on that note then, what keeps you going to work for little or no money? I’m sure a lot of my classmates would be interested to know. I’m interested.
T.C.: The thing with Les Figues, when Vanessa Place and Pam Ore and I started it, we didn’t really have a writing community, or the writers that we knew were not necessarily the kind of work that we wanted to be engaged with … or we liked their work fine but … there weren’t the kinds of conversations about writing that we wanted to be having, and we found that it was really—like if you go to a cocktail party … and you say like, “Well what are you trying to do with your writing?” people don’t like to answer that question in the context of a party. And so … we were trying to figure out how could we have conversations about that, and … it’s that very thing of having those kinds of conversations, and building the community. And also just—I mean, I really love the work that we publish, and seeing it go out in the world and seeing people, other people read it and get excited about it. I love that.
R.M.: Do you think it helps or hampers a writer to have an audience or demographic in mind when creating any kind of work?
T.C.: I think it depends on the writer, and what kind of writer the writer wants to be in the world. So some people want to …write to a certain audience and be a voice representing that group, and other people are a voice representing that group, but they don’t necessarily have the self awareness, because … you know. But I think that … one should be absolutely free to do whatever it is, and if you start writing something and it makes you upset, then that’s a place to continue writing.
R.M.: I can see that. You’re hitting something—
T.C.: Yeah, exactly!
R.M.: You’re hitting some nerve, some hot spot.
T.C.: Again, some writers want to be the head of a choir that already sings the response they know is gonna be sung when they hit this note. That’s not the kind of writing I’m interested in. I don’t want to be that kind of writer. But I get it that there’s a place in the world for that kind of writer. … The hard thing is that there is no one way, and there is no one right way. And so it’s all about, how do you deal with that anxiety of not knowing how to be, and not knowing like how long it’s gonna take. … When I started my MFA program in 2000, one of the things I kept saying to myself was that, if you practice something for 30 minutes a day, every day, you will become an expert after 10 years. I don’t know if I have reached expert status, but I definitely have more facility with language and writing than I did 10 years ago, and that’s just because of that practice. Like, whatever talent I had didn’t matter. And I’ve seen that over and over again too, if somebody’s talented and they don’t practice.
R.M.: I think everybody in college sees that at some point …
T.C.: But I think there’s a lot of anxiety about … what makes a writer a real writer. And so, you also see a lot of people’s bios—people are like, “I’ve been writing since the age of five!” Well that might be true or not true, but it doesn’t make somebody more or less of a writer. But I think it’s like people try to cling onto this idea of what makes a writer … which is fine, it’s just … know that that’s what you’re doing.