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An Interview with Writer Alice Boatwright

 

 

3. How can one find the balance between writing for income and writing for pleasure?

Up until now (and I can only have hopes for my book Collateral Damage) I have seldom made any money from writing fiction. So, in order to live, I have always done other things, most of which have stemmed from my skill and training as a writer.  When I lived in Portsmouth this ranged from teaching composition at UNH and freelancing for local magazines to handling all the grant writing, publicity, publications and exhibits for the Children’s Museum.

I used to think that I needed a flexible schedule so I would have blocks of time for my own work. In fact, I had a hard time getting anything done with an ever-changing schedule and spent most of my time worrying about juggling part-time jobs, freelance work and teaching assignments.  When I finally took a full-time job (at the Children’s Museum) it was a great relief. I became a morning writer and that’s what I’ve been ever since.

I would have to add that, for me, the distinction is not between income and pleasure, but between writing what I want to write and fulfilling a task assigned by someone else.  I generally love pottering around with words, no matter what the subject or purpose.

4. What kind of technology did you use and how did it change over the years of writing?

I still have (somewhere) a few handwritten manuscripts, but I grew up listening to the tap-tap-tap of my father’s typewriter, so I have always associated writing with typing.  My first typewriter was a green Smith Corona, and I loved it.  I used that manila yellow paper (like we had in elementary school for arithmetic) for first drafts and then white paper for the final versions.  I don’t think any writer starting out today can imagine how much work it was to submit stories – which had to be typed originals – no carbons, no photocopies!!!  – and preferably with no corrections.  I am a crappy typist, so I had to do a lot of retyping. The correcting typewriter was a huge step forward, but, needless to say, word processing changed my life.  I have been a Mac person for a long time now, no looking back. But a while ago, I found the first draft of an unfinished novel typed on yellow paper, and I was quite amazed to think this really was the first draft as it came out of my head. There is no such thing anymore with all the back and forth changing, cutting and pasting, which are part of writing on a computer.  That seems a shame.

5. Why the heck do we keep trying?

Alice K Boatwright by Maria AragonI can think of lots of answers to this question.  One personal one is that I am very stubborn and I don’t take no for an answer.  I had an agent in New York who tried to sell my book – and she tried pretty hard, but she gave up and quit the business to raise her children instead.  So I kept sending the book out on my own until I connected with Standing Stone Books. Which, by the way, was more like magic than trying.  Robert Colley had published a couple of my stories in his journal, Stone Canoe, and, he really liked my work. When he decided to go into book publishing, he asked me if I had a book.  You can imagine how I felt hearing those words after all the years of “trying” to find a publisher.

Another answer relates to what is ‘trying’? As in what am I trying to do?

When I was younger, my impressions of what it would mean to be a writer were based on the stories of other writers.  I would dance in the fountain at the Plaza while drunk on champagne, meet for lunch with my kindly editor in New York, smoke a pipe and pontificate to my eager students in some ivy-covered college building, put my head in an oven or walk into a river with stones in my pocket. You might notice a lack of emphasis on actual writing in these stories. . . and that was something I had to learn to do. Write. Marge Piercy wrote a poem about writing that includes the line: “the real writer is the one who really writes”.  That haunted me for a long time until I settled down and became a person who really writes. I don’t try to do it.

The nice thing about writing as an art form is that once you decide you’re going to do it, nothing and no one can stop you.  You don’t need a lot of space. No backers, collaborators, expensive equipment or supplies are required.  You don’t have to apply for permits or permissions from anyone.  A computer is nice, if you rewrite endlessly the way I do, but it is definitely not essential. Paper and a pencil do fine.

Of course, once you’ve written something, you hope to publish it. You’re not really a writer until someone else has approved of your work, right?  Again, the stories about the struggle for recognition I heard when I was younger all had the same arc.  So-and-so accumulated so-many painful rejections, but pressed on and achieved fame, wealth and immortality.  In fact, it seems to me that any time you put two or three writers together, sooner or later, the conversation reverts to these myths, legends, and horror stories.

Stubbornness and experience have also helped me with this issue.  I expected my early stories to be snapped up by the New Yorker or some other paying market (of which there were many more in those days) and I’d be on my way.  This did not happen, but something else did. Chip Noon and I took matters into our own hands and started Penumbra – a quarterly journal of writing and art from northern New England.

Nowadays I guess you start a magazine by creating a Web page and an e-mail address.  In those days, we went down to the Portsmouth Post Office and paid $10 for a mailbox. Number 794, as I recall. Then we took out a free classified ad in the New Hampshire Times and we were in business.  We published many great writers such as Don Murray, Rebecca Rule, Elizabeth Knies, Robert Dunn, Esther Buffler, Marie Harris, Jean Pedrick, Ira Sadoff, and Michelle Dionetti, along with art by many of the wonderful local artists.

The support we received for this little venture was marvelous. An organization of local artists called Umbra gave us a $125 grant to publish our first issue, but we also sold ads for $15 a piece and many local businesses bought them. From that first grant onward, we were totally self-supporting through sales and advertising.

Our biggest booster was Fred Miller at the Little Professor Book Center on Congress Street.  Many of us owe a lot to Fred’s unfailing enthusiasm and encouragement (as well as part-time jobs).  Penumbra was a tabloid that sold for $1 – we wanted it to be accessible – and Fred kept a stack by the register.  Whenever a likely customer came along, he would say, “. . . and surely you’d like a copy of Penumbra with writing by our local writers, wouldn’t you? It’s only a dollar.” And he’d be putting it in the bag and adding the dollar to their bill before they could say no.  In that way, he sold about 90 copies of each issue, so we were a success.

The relevance of this to the question being. . . I tried to do one thing, but another thing happened that was maybe even more wonderful and totally unpredictable. Penumbra was a high point of my creative life, and I also learned that when editors say something does not fit their current needs, they probably really mean exactly that. It’s not about you or your work. They’re creating something too – an issue – and they’re looking for the pieces that fit together. Yours may not be one of them. So what do you do? Keep trying. Never saynever.

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