The Three Rs: Erin McGraw

December 14, 2012 § Leave a comment

Erin McGraw’s the author of five books of fiction. A new novel, Better Food for a Better World, will be coming out in March from Slant Books. Her stories and essays have appeared in The Atlantic Monthly, Allure, STORY, One Story, The Kenyon Review, Good Housekeeping, and many other journals and magazines. She teaches fiction writing at The Ohio State University, and with her husband, the poet Andrew Hudgins, divides her time between Ohio and Tennessee.

When did you first know you wanted to write books?

For a long time I didn’t want to write books. I was the kind of kid who read a lot, but I didn’t feel the impulse to pick up a pen myself. Writing looked like work, and I was opposed to work. I managed to coast through my undergraduate degree, even though it had a specialized focus in writing, without writing any more than I had to, and then I found myself working as a secretary at a financial-investment firm, using my B.A. in English to proofread prospectuses about mining companies. It was then, when I was maybe 23 years old, that I woke up to the fact that if I didn’t change my life, no one else was going to do it for me. That meant I had to get serious about writing. Even so, more years had to pass before I actually wanted to write books, mostly because it took me a long time to figure out which were the books I wanted to write.

What does your day look like while you’re writing a book?

These days I’m always writing a book, so all of my days look alike. I get up early – 5 AM – to feed the dogs, exercise, and clear the decks for action. I try to start writing by 8 o’clock, and I’m usually done with the fiction part of my day by lunchtime. I can put in longer hours, but the law of diminishing returns sets in. As I get more tired, my brain gets sludgier, and my prose, too. So in the afternoon and early evening I answer email, deal with my students’ work, talk to my mother, and generally put out fires. My husband and I convene in the evenings for TV and talk and gin.

Do you type or write?

I type. Always. No one wants to see my handwriting.

What do you read while you’re writing?

This is a great question, because it’s a hard one to answer. I don’t like to read fiction if I’m writing fiction – which is most of the time – but my teaching job requires that I read a lot of fiction, not only from my students, but also new work from writers I admire. Just in order to stay in conversation, it’s necessary to stay current. So while I’m trying to hang onto my own characters’ voices, I’m reading but also walling off the voices from other fictional worlds. Nonfiction works for me much better, and I’m constantly on the lookout for books that introduce me to strange corners of American culture that I wouldn’t be able to find otherwise. One great example of this is Daniel Bergner’s God of the Rodeo, about the annual prison rodeo in Angola, Louisiana. It’s a fascinating book, beautifully written, and full of action and detail I could never have imagined for myself. And it had nothing to do with what I was writing, so reading it felt like a daily vacation from my work. I was terribly sorry to reach the last page.

What have you read recently that you really loved?

Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell novels, both Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. These books are astonishing examples of imaginative immersion; Mantel knows Tudor England better than I know my own house. Her range is remarkable and her language devastatingly beautiful. She didn’t just re-set the bar for historical fiction. She completely changed expectations about what a novelist can do. She also, I think, changed a lot of people’s ideas about Cromwell, and that was probably overdue.

What are your all-time favourites?

Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory is always at the front of my bookcase, even though more than once I’ve had to take to my couch after reading it, overcome with depression because the perfect book has been written, and I didn’t write it. No matter how many times I read that book, it undoes me. I also love Eliot’s The Four Quartets; the attempt to corral spiritual experience into language is very moving. For the same reason, I love the poetry of Rumi. And I reread Madame Bovary at least once a year, and every single time find something spectacular that I’d missed before.

You can either write or read for the rest of your life – but not both. Which do you choose?

Reading, no question. Writing is work. And so many books are backed up on my Must-Get-To-This list that I’ll need the rest of my life to get through half of them.

What’s your third R, and why?

I’m tempted to say dRinking, but I don’t want to play into stereotypes. Instead, I’ll choose something closely related: Rest. Most of us don’t get enough of it, for a lot of very good reasons. But fiction writing, or the creation of art more generally, works best if we’ve got a little bit of white space in our brains. That’s the room that art needs to expand and surprise us, finding its way to comprehension that we had never guessed at. This description sounds mystical, but the activity isn’t mystical. It’s thinking, of a very specific and focused sort. And like all thought, it requires a well-rested brain.

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