Q: The sense of a living, breathing place -- whether it be California, Greece, or the eastern seaboard -- is so vivid in your stories, yet much of The Gender of Inanimate Objects depicts the pain of dislocation and non-belonging. How do these themes connect? What drives you to write about them?
I write about the places I love, usually coastal towns in California and on Cape Cod, sometimes Europe. My love for these places engenders the pain of being away from them. I guess that comes out in the stories I invent about imaginary people.
Q: Much of this collection revolves around the subtle complexities that surround categories of gender identity. Maya, the protagonist of The Gender of Inanimate Objects, is a highly satisfying enigma: she has heteronormative relationships, but there are hints throughout the story of a coded, dynamic sexuality. Tell us more about that.
Maya seems oblivious to the fact that she’s doing a man’s job, yet she majored in Cultural Anthropology in college, so should be aware of gender roles. She’s “a mystery wrapped in an enigma, wrapped in a conundrum” -- or something like that (Grace Paley deliberately misquoting Churchill). I like characters who are complex, and interesting, and I hope I have created that in Maya.
Q: Who are your literary influences?
At various times I’ve been influenced by Faulkner, Calvino, Robert Musil, Hermann Broch, Virginia Woolf, Djuna Barnes, Jane Bowles, H.D., and many others
Q: Who are your greatest inspirations?
Susan Sontag and Joan Didion inspire me because they are so intelligent and articulate. Hermann Broch and Robert Musil inspire me because they are such great writers overall. Calvino’s and Herodotus’ imagination inspires me. Faulkner, Marquez, Duras, and Woolf’s lyricism inspire me. The daring of writers like Joyce, Barnes, Bowles, H.D., etc. inspires me.
Q: What are you reading now?
I am reading Kat Anderson’s Tending the Wild, a book on how California Indians managed the land they lived on before the Europeans came. The park-like settings the Europeans thought were natural were actually a result of thousands of years of controlled burning, pruning, and weeding, to keep forests from encroaching, and to encourage certain plants and animals to occupy these settings. This is research for my novel-in-progress about women lighthouse keepers on the coast of California. I am also reading a book about the Thirteenth Dalai Lama Thubten Gyatso, and his Buryat Monk Tutor, Agvan Dorzhiev, also research for my novel (John Snelling -- Buddhism in Russia). Finally, I am re-reading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, for fun, and just finished Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See, for my book club.
Q: You’re currently professor of English at Lynchburg College—the latest step in a distinguished three-decade career that has also taken you to Stanford, UC Santa Cruz, the University of Oregon, the University of Colorado-Boulder, and the University of Albany. How has your academic career influenced your parallel writing career?
I consider it a privilege to work with young people, to talk about literature and writing with them. I have found that I did not realize what I actually knew about writing, until I had to talk to my students about it. Most of what I do stays internal and intuitive otherwise. I am also very humbled and grateful for the opportunity to help them. They are very grateful and sweet. People college age (18-22) are very excited, hopeful, energetic.