Don’t Do the Hustle: an Interview with Author Belinda McKeon

by Julie Chibbaro

In a society where the dollar is everything, and our very existence depends on money, it’s often difficult for writers to find the time and resources to reach down deep to discover what we really want to say. This is a fact that I’ve been struggling with as an author, and it’s great to talk to other writers, to understand their ways of dealing with the grind of life while also making time for what they want to focus on —– their writing.

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Belinda McKeon, our February 2019 guest and the award-winning author of the novels Tender and Solace, doesn’t have all the answers, but she does have an amazing ability to juggle a tremendous amount of creativity. I asked her how she does it:

GLB: You are a playwright, journalist, novelist, professor. How do you manage to do it all?

BM: I don’t really do it all —- I just do one thing at a time. I tend to work on projects in blocks, including teaching work, which consists of a lot of syllabus and assignment-writing over break, and then class prep in blocks during the week. Around that, at the moment, I’m trying to spend two to three hours a day working on my current novel, and there’s no journalism or playwriting happening. They’ll return, I hope, when the teaching semester is done and I have some space for them. When I was in my twenties, the idea of firing on all cannons was much more attractive to me. Now I see the pressure to be massively productive as, basically, another part of the neo-liberal con, even for writers. I write what I can, when I can. That’s really all anyone can do. The rest is hustling, which is not the same as creating.

GLB: You’re from Ireland. How does that inform your work?

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BM: Fundamentally. The cadence, intonation, sentence structure, grammatical structure, of my writing is Irish. That’s before I even get to the question of character, storyline, themes, settings. I was born in Ireland, I lived there until I was 26, I return there several times a year, and in a sense I’m always halfway there, or half there, because a good deal of my reading, my social media feeds, even sometimes my radio listening, is from there. Also, my husband is Irish. But we’ve been in the US for almost 14 years, and life here, and the texture of life here, has become an organic part of my thinking and my writing over that time. The novel I’m working on at the moment is set here, between Newburgh and New York, and that is something I think it took me almost 14 years to be able to do without (I hope) forcing it. It took that long for the experience of being here to filter down into the writing in that way. Of course, one of my characters is still Irish, and is thinking about the immigrant experience all the time…there’s not much getting away from that. Still, it contains many aspects, so I don’t feel limited by it.

GLB: Lots of times, writers want to protect their characters. How do you get so honest in your work?

BM: I don’t have a choice. Honesty, often horrifying honesty, is just what comes out when I sit down to write. I don’t have any interest in writing characters who portray me in a flattering light. I’m just a messy, needy human.

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Belinda McKeon’s debut novel Solace won the 2011 Faber Prize and was voted Irish Book of the Year, as well as being shortlisted for the James Tait Black Memorial Prize.

Her second novel, Tender, was published in the US by Lee Boudreaux Books in February 2016. (Read the Kirkus starred review here.)

Her essays and journalism have appeared in the New York Times, the Paris Review, the Guardian, A Public Space and elsewhere. As a playwright, she has had work produced in Dublin and New York. She lives in Newburgh and is an Assistant Teaching Professor of Creative Writing at Rutgers University.

Joyce Carol Oates: Fantasized into Being

By Flora Stadler

I was a runner for half my life. I loved the clarity it gave me. I could outrun the thoughts reeling through my head and clear a space for my mind to wander.

In my 40s, my knees decided they’d had enough. So I felt a knowing pang when I read that Joyce Carol Oates relied on running to clear her mind and think about her writing. She once said that “the runner who’s a writer is running through the land- and cityscapes of her fiction, like a ghost in a real setting.” Yes, I thought when I read this.

The first of her novels I ever read was The Accursed, and I couldn’t get over the immensity of it. That a mind could contain all of that was overwhelming to me as a reader and a writer. Even though it feels like dark magic, I know it’s mostly work—hours of research, running, planning, building, revising. Something else she’d said, about “the writing itself being the biggest challenge,” made me wonder what that process must be like for someone so skilled at taking giant subjects and building a universe to contain them. So I asked her:

How do you overcome that writing challenge, especially when you’re working on a dense novel with historical contexts and big themes? Where do you start and how do you keep your momentum?

“Writing begins with inspiration, a sudden thrilling ‘idea’—which then must be contemplated, meditated, fantasized into being.

I spend much of my ‘creative’ time running/walking—I never write until I have imagined the prose that I will write, as a sort of film evoked in my head when I am away from my desk.

My day-dreaming/meditation—focuses upon characters engaged in dialogue, scenes.

I don’t, however, think of them as ‘characters’—rather as people.

If I try to write directly—before I have ‘imagined’ the scene—it is much, much more difficult.

Beyond this, I try to outline as much as possible. I amass a folder of notes, scenes, sketches, etc. that can be as bulky as 200 pages, before I actually begin the first chapter.

‘Pre-production’ is everything in a novel, as it is in the making of feature films.

After this initial work, writing is a matter of increments. Weeks, days, hours, minutes—attentiveness to the sentence, that builds the paragraph, eventually the scene, & eventually the chapter, & beyond.”

I loved that her written response to me looked and read something like a poem. I’d expect nothing less from a great runner. As for me, I’ll take her advice and walk through my stories first from now on.

Joyce Carol Oates is a playwright, poet, essayist, and the author of dozens of novels and short stories. She has been a writing professor at Princeton for more than 40 years, has won the National Book Award and two O. Henrys, and truly is a National Treasure. You can follow her on Twitter and check out her latest novel, a dystopian thriller titled Hazards of Time Travel.