Mysterious words are so much fun. I remember when I was a child, reading about Turkish delight in The Chronicles of Narnia. It never occurred to me that I could look up what that meant. I was just glad to encounter such magical words! Sometimes words take on weight, and delight--like poetry!--when you don’t know exactly what they mean.
I have read your previous interviews, and one theme that comes up is your spiritual practice and your interest in spirituality as a writer; I hope this is the right word to use here. Could you tell me more about this?
This is a complicated question. I consider spirituality to be a strong dimension of what I write, but it’s not as if I write stories about people who are on religious quests or have a religious vocation; in fact, I’m much more likely to write about a person who’s striving to find their place in the world than I am to write about someone who has any kind of certainty, religious or otherwise.
In A Highly Unlikely Scenario, the main character lives in a world in which various ideologies vie for followers through proprietary food chains. He is a Listener (a fancy term for “complaints guy”) for a Pythagorean pizza chain, and he believes in the tenets of Pythagoreanism. He was chosen for this job through an advanced process that recognized his off-the-charts receptivity and ability to open up to the pain of the world, and that’s a spiritual concept. His ability to receive people’s hurt (i.e., listen to their complaints) is evidence of spiritual capacity, no less than his ability to receive messages from dead thirteen-century mystics. When he sits in his pretzel position, he receives wisdom. And while he’s saving the world, he’s also learning how to be in the world, with people; he’s learning how to love. These are spiritual questions for me: how do we live a good life? How do we love?
This question also arises in Good on Paper in somewhat different form: how do we love after we’ve been hurt? How do we get beyond our hurt to forgive? My tradition, Judaism, has a lot to say on these matters, and they inform what I think. For example, in Judaism, [we speak about] “teshuva,” which is returning to yourself; some call it “repentance,” but it literally means to turn back to yourself, your true self. The narrator of Good on Paper is an atheist, but she’s very concerned with these questions.
What do you enjoy most about being a writer?
Writing is the best. I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was eight years old; it’s all I’ve ever wanted. How do you describe something that, when you do it, you feel like you’re aligned with your talents, your purpose, your values, how you want to live your life? That’s how I feel when I write.
I love playing with my imagination, with humor, with emotion, and finding a way to get all of that plus all the weird ideas I have in my head into a story. In A Highly Unlikely Scenario, Marco Polo, Roger Bacon, the unreadable Voynich manuscript, Jewish mystics, and a lot of other ideas come together. In Good on Paper, I include ideas about translation, Dante, rhetoric, and poetry … When you put it all together, it’s just great fun, in addition to being moving, cathartic, and a lot of other things, depending on the book. Drafting a novel is exhilerating, like skiing downhill without brakes--unless you fall, which can happen! Then once it’s drafted, you turn on your analytical brain and start shaping and understanding what the book is about; through revision, you have an opportunity to make your story something fun, interesting, moving, and lovely for your reader.
I also love the autonomy of being a writer; I can be anywhere in the world writing. I love that independence, and I love the writing community. Writing changed my life. It’s so hard, but it’s great in so many ways, and it suits me well.
What do you consider your greatest achievement as a writer?
All of my publications. I started writing relatively late in life, in my thirties. I went to grad school in my late thirties and started publishing in my forties. Good on Paper took more than ten years to write, then it took a long time to find the right publisher. Seeing those books in print feels like my greatest professional accomplishment, and both of the books have been well received by critics and readers. To have the appreciation of one’s peers and one’s readers is incredibly gratifying.
It’s a big act of faith when you sit down to write a novel. I didn’t intend to write a novel when I started Good on Paper. It was meant to be a short story, and it just kept growing. It wouldn’t have been anything I considered myself ready to write, but it chose me … I had no choice!
Has it been a straight path for you, or do you feel you have been tested along the way to achieving the goals you’ve set for yourself? Can you talk about what some of those challenges have been and how you’ve surmounted them?
It has not been a straight path in any way. I may have wanted to be a writer since the age of eight, but that doesn’t mean that I became a writer when I had the opportunity; I didn’t. I didn’t know what I wanted to do after college. In the back of my mind, I still thought that I would love to write. But I also felt if I couldn’t be James Joyce, if I wasn’t an actual genius, why would I bother?
Now I know that’s silly. Probably I just lacked confidence, or didn’t have a story I needed to tell. I felt I needed to do good work in the world, and I didn’t yet make the connection between doing good work and being a writer. So I traveled a while and got a degree in international development. But it turns out my greatest skill was not in motivating villagers to dig wells; my greatest skill was writing, so I started writing for international health agencies in D.C. It wasn’t until I was in my mid-thirties that I looked at what I was doing and thought, is this what I want to do for the rest of my life? Is this it? Is this where I’m going to grow? Is this where I’ll find my satisfaction? The answer was, I could find some satisfaction here, but it’s not what I want from my life. So I quit my full-time job and went to the ocean, very romantically, to write. I took what I thought was a year off, and it turned out to be a whole new life. I got a second master’s degree, in fiction writing, in my late thirties, and I had my first short story publication at age 39. I started attending artist residencies, and getting scholarships to go to conferences, and making my way as a fiction writer.
I supported myself by continuing my former work as a writer/editor with international health agencies, but now as a part-time consultant so I could have time to write fiction. It turns out that being a consultant suited me, my need for independence, my lack of love for the 9-5 life. I lived frugally so I could write as much as possible, and I wrote lots of stories, then published the novels. It was a very winding path, but I wouldn’t trade any of it. You make lots of turns in life if you remain open to new possibilities and to questioning where you are at certain junctures, and you can certainly take wrong turns or the long way to get to where you’re meant to be, but all that life experience can be useful. I view it as useful.
What are some of the most important lessons from your professional experience that you would like to share with the next generation of St. Stephen’s graduates?
I know a lot of really talented writers who gave up. Maybe they were afraid of rejection, or they experienced rejection, and didn’t like it, or maybe they just didn’t want to put in the work, but they gave up. Persistence is a huge part of success. Persistence may be a skill you acquire over time; certainly, it was not something I had initially!
Of course, some get their perfect job right out of school, or they write a best-selling novel at age twenty-five--this can happen. But for most people, it doesn’t work that way, so we need that persistence. Call it grit, call it resilience--it’s the ability and willingness to put in the work, to not expect something to come easily. To expect at least some failure, to know you’re going to make mistakes.
Putting yourself out there is also important. You can’t be passive and wait for things to come to you; you have to take chances. Even if you’re afraid of failure or rejection, you have to learn how to manage that so you can keep at it, so you can keep trying. It all sounds so obvious, but it’s not obvious. You may find yourself in a job where it’s easy to continue what you’re doing. This was the case with me. I had a respectable life, but a part of me was aching: I was not doing what I was meant to do. So you have to take chances and put yourself out there; you can’t wait for things to change.
To learn more about Rachel and her writing, visit her website.
Photo credit Bennett Beckenstein