I finally understood I really did have to put in the hard work, that becoming a writer was in its own way it sort of like becoming a brain surgeon.
Valerie Sayers was born and raised in Beaufort, South Carolina, which became the thinly disguised Due East of her fiction, and educated in New York, where she lived for many years. She is the author of six novels: The Powers; Who Do You Love and Brain Fever, both named “Notable Books of the Year” by the New York Times Book Review; Due East, which also appeared in five foreign editions; How I Got Him Back; and The Distance Between Us. A film, Due East, was based on Due East and How I Got Him Back. Her literary awards include a Pushcart Prize for fiction and a National Endowment for the Arts literature fellowship. A professor of English at the University of Notre Dome, she publishes stories, essays, and reviews widely.
Web page: http://www3.nd.edu/~vsayers/
Novel: The Powers
Novel: Who Do You Love
Novel: Brain Fever
Novel: The Distance Between Us
Essay at Image: The Word Cure: Cancer, Language, Prayer
Check out Valerie’s video message to Stephen Colbert, appealing to their shared Irish Catholic South Carolinian backgrounds, in hopes that he will give the Colbert Bump to her new novel, The Powers.
How Valerie Sayers Became a Writer
This is the next installment in the How to Become a Writer interview series, which will post here at Ph.D. in Creative Writing every other Sunday (or so) until I run out of writers to interview, or until they stop saying yes. Each writer answers the same 5 questions. Thanks to Valerie for saying yes!
I resisted becoming a writer as long as possible. I was the designated writer in a large family and longed for something sexier like actress or brain surgeon. I sensed that writing involved long, self-involved, neurotic hours (and of course, I was absolutely right). But even though I didn’t want to be a writer, I did want to write. Mainly, when I was younger, I wanted to write in short bursts–moments when I was on fire–and so until college, I wrote a great deal of very short material because that fire kept dwindling down. I finally understood I really did have to put in the hard work, that becoming a writer was in its own way it sort of like becoming a brain surgeon. And since I have minimal depth perception and no hand-eye coordination, brain surgeon was really not a good career choice.
2. How did you go about becoming a writer?
I read voraciously and (when on fire) produced. In college I signed up for a fiction-writing course and got poetry instead, by mistake–best training ever (and had me producing poetry more than fiction for five years or so. I rarely write poetry anymore, but every now and again it pops out.) The course was in the early ’70s, that giddy time of politicized experimentation, and the prof was full of wild enthusiasms. When he liked something, he leaned his head back and laughed uproariously. That suggested to me for the first time that in addition to moaning about hard work and neurosis, I could openly consider writing fun.
That first poetry professor, Bob Nettleton, who had begun his own career as an engineer and then moved over to literature. Two editors at Doubleday, Lisa Wager and Casey Fuetsch, were great boosters, and my agent Esther Newberg has been steady and faithful despite the lack of income I bring. My editor at Northwestern, Henry Carrigan, has delightful taste, if I do say so. My family helps me, and all my colleagues in the Creative Writing Program at Notre Dame are great about supporting each other. Bryan Giemza has been writing about my work in a smart way that has been totally affirming (he has a new book on Irish Catholic Southern writers, which is wild company). This sort of feels like an Oscar speech, so I’ll stop there–but so many people I cannot count or name them all, and students and other writers have topped the long list.
It’s funny that this question is so hard to answer, because I have always been a compulsive reader of writers’ bios. But of course, once you know the stories, you know the dark sides. When I was a young mother, the painter Paula Modersohn-Becker’s story affected me deeply, because I didn’t know how I would keep writing and mothering going simultaneously. Also, I got to cry at the catastrophic childbirth-deathbed scene. When it turned out that mothering stoked instead of smothering writing, that realization made Modersohn-Becker’s story an even greater loss. I was also quite obsessed with Faulkner’s life, particularly the deals he would make with himself about drinking and writing. And I like very much what Coetzee has done with the whole concept of a telling a writer’s life, though he sure is hard on himself.
5. What would you say in a short letter to an aspiring writer?
Have some fun. What the hell.