Pamela Erens is an acclaimed author of three adult novels, a novel for young teens, and a nonfiction volume. Her 2016 novel, Eleven Hours (Tin House), a compelling tale of a woman in labor, was named a Best Book of the Year by multiple outlets including NPR, The New Yorker, and the Irish Independent.
Her short fiction, reviews, and essays have been featured in several publications including The New York Times, Slate, and Vogue. She has received fellowships from several writers’ conferences and the 2017 Maplewood Literary Award. Pamela has also taught and lectured at several institutions, and works as a freelance editor and certified yoga instructor.
Hi Pamela, welcome to Famous Writing Routines, great to have you here with us today! Congratulations on your latest book, Middlemarch and the Imperfect Life. How did George Eliot’s masterpiece influence you as a writer and a person over the years?
Thank you! Nice to be here. There’s much more about this in the book, but Middlemarch gave me a powerful vision of what it is to be a decent and generous person in the world. It created images of an ideal perhaps out of reach but worth aspiring to. And also, eventually, it taught me how not to write. By trying to emulate Eliot, I came to understand that her style, much as I love it, was not the right one for me.
Your book was published on Middlemarch‘s 150th anniversary and during the COVID-19 pandemic. How did these two events influence your writing and the book’s themes?
You won’t believe me, but neither my publisher nor I noticed it was the 150th anniversary. I wish we had! But Covid had a great impact. Suddenly disease and death—those great 19th-century novelistic themes—were very close, very real. COVID made me understand the fragility of my life and hopes in a much more intimate way, and that’s reflected in my book.
In the book, you explore how Middlemarch helped you navigate difficult times in your life. How do you think literature can help people cope with adversity?
Literature, like any of the arts, does this magic trick of taking us out of ourselves while simultaneously showing us our reflection. We get a distance from the trivia and see what’s true and essential in human life, for better or for worse (since not all of it is pretty). This kind of being-in-touch can give us more clarity during times of adversity. Literature in particular can show us that others have had struggles much like our own. That can at the least make us less lonely.
You have written for a wide variety of literary, cultural, and mainstream publications, including The New York Times and Vogue. How do you adapt your writing style to fit different audiences and platforms?
The first dozen years of my working life I was a magazine editor, so I became very familiar with the differing vibes of various publications and gained an instinct for the voice and themes any particular magazine might respond to. But a publication’s editor will also help guide me if I go astray on an assignment.
You have received fellowships from the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and the Wesleyan Writers Conference, among others. How has attending writing conferences and workshops helped you to improve your craft?
I took regular writing workshops for a long time before I went to any conferences. Initially those workshops were short-term —10 weeks here, 8 weeks there—and these didn’t do much for my work. But then I got involved with a writing school, The Writers Studio, which had classes that were ongoing. My classmates got to know my work over many months and years, and vice versa.
We did very close study of published work, imitating it so that we came to understand on an almost cellular level how this story or that poem functioned. This was fabulous training, and eventually led to my being able to see what kinds of techniques brought out my best writing. All this said, short-term workshops can be very helpful and are certainly better than isolation!
For years I didn’t really understand what conferences were for, and I didn’t want to leave my young kids to go to one, but I was curious. Finally, I did go, and for me it was more about forming relationships with other writers than getting my work critiqued. Conference workshops are hit-or-miss, in my opinion. Your classmates aren’t familiar with your work, and have no context for it. You meet only a few times, and the critiques can be off base. But I’ve met wonderful writers in those classrooms, and wonderful faculty, and I’ve built important and inspiring friendships. Conferences have gone a long way toward making me feel part of a large, loose communal endeavor.
I no longer take workshops, but for over a decade I’ve been part of a self-directed writing group that is basically my writing family. There are six of us, and I trust these people so deeply with my work. They help me get to what’s working and steer me away from what’s not.
As a freelance editor of literary fiction and nonfiction, what do you think are the most common mistakes that writers make, and how do you help them to improve their work?
In fiction, it’s a failure to stay connected to the highest emotional stakes in the story, and thus frittering away narrative attention on inessentials. In nonfiction—I often deal with memoir, so I’ll address that here—it’s a failure to construct a perspective on past events. A lot of memoirists think it’s enough to just describe what happened. But memoir is all about one’s take on what happened.
It’s about negotiating between the person you were then and the person you are now, how you have come to re-interpret your past. In both cases, I go into the manuscript in great detail to show a client places that are working and not working and why. I use examples from the published work of others to help them see what might be harder to see in their own work.
Your short fiction, reviews, and essays have appeared in numerous publications, including The New York Times and Tin House. How do you choose which publications to submit your work to, and what advice do you have for writers who are looking to get published in literary magazines and journals?
Most of the time these days I query editors I already have a connection to, either because I’ve written for them in the past or I have gotten to know them socially or someone I know knows them. I also have an agent who can send for me to places where she has a relationship. It’s really hard when you’re starting out and have to send cold.
There’s no easy way around that. But once you start to get nice rejections, follow up! Send there again! I read somewhere that journal editors say men usually follow up on an encouraging rejection quite quickly, while women don’t. They get more focused on the rejection than on the encouragement. That’s a lost opportunity.
I’ll go back to the conference question and say that these can be a way to get a foot in the door. Journal editors often show up at these conferences, either as visitors or fellow attendees. Also, some conferences take place at institutions that publish literary magazines. So these are all avenues toward making a personal connection with someone you can send your work to and know that it will actually get read.
You have been a visiting writer at several universities and colleges. What do you enjoy most about teaching and working with aspiring writers, and how does it inform your own writing process?
I love how open and enthusiastic the young writers I’ve met have been, how willing to ask questions. I don’t remember being so unafraid in that way when I was an undergraduate. The student’s questions make me rethink basic things about my own practice: “Hm, why do I do that?” “How do I do that?” It keeps things fresh.
Can you tell us about your writing routine? What does a typical day look like for you?
Alas, I am not an early-morning person. I get up somewhere between 7:30 and 8. I have a leisurely breakfast and read the terrible news. I meditate, then go to yoga class or take a walk. I deal with the most essential emails or phone calls. By the time I sit down to write it can be 11 or even noon. This is not ideal, but there it is. I get in two to three hours of work—after that I lose sharpness—and the rest of the day is household tasks, appointments or errands, reading (which I do count as, indirectly, writing work). Dinner with my husband, more tasks, more reading.
If you could have a conversation with any author throughout history about their writing routine and creative process, who would that person be?
Well, I’m obsessed of course with George Eliot, but I wonder how much she could really convey about her process. She never wrote or apparently spoke that much about it, although she kept a very interesting notebook while composing Middlemarch. I guess I would still choose her, though I’d be so intimidated to be in a room with her that I probably wouldn’t be able to ask anything.
I’d love to know about the books you’re reading at the moment. What have been some of your favorite recent reads?
I’ve had a really good run of reading recently. And I love to offer recommendations! Rebecca Makkai’s I Have Some Questions for You is a supremely canny and entertaining investigation of our evolving understanding of sexual and physical violence against women. It’s couched as a murder mystery, but it’s a sneaky one. Paradise, by Abdulrazak Gurnah, the 2021 Nobel winner, is the captivating account of a 12-year-old Tanzanian boy sold off by his father to pay off a debt.
I just finished Henry James’s The Bostonians for the project I’m working on now. It’s about the women’s movement in post-Civil War Boston and I remember it pissing me off when I was in college, but I overlooked a lot of its ambiguities then. It’s wonderful. Darryl Pinkney’s Come Back in September is a formally interesting memoir about his friendship with the critic Elizabeth Hardwick. I love Pinckney’s essays and criticism for the New York Review of Books. Tell Me Everything by Erika Krouse is a really unusual memoir blending Krouse’s traumatic family history with her work as a private investigator on a big lawsuit that was brought against a Colorado university for a series of sexual assaults by the football team.
Finally, I just finished an APS Together of the new Michael Moore translation of Alessandro Manzoni’s The Betrothed. APS Together is a series of communal readings sponsored by the literary magazine A Public Space, and The Betrothed is an 1840 masterpiece about “little people” caught up in the politics and famine in northern Italy between 1627 and 1630. Moore’s translation is brisk and witty and so engrossing. I enjoyed reading it a chapter a day, as Moore and my fellow readers and I engaged in an online conversation about it.
What does your current writing workspace look like?
For a while now, as I work on my novel in progress, I’ve been at my dining room table. I have to confess that I have a whole office to myself on the 2nd floor, where I wrote all five of my published books. But that room has become so multi-use—I’m at my desk and on my desktop computer so much of the day for all kinds of other things—that I was losing the ability to focus on fiction there. During the pandemic, our dining room became unused space, and so eventually I took up at the end of the table with my iPad, untempered by all the bills and papers and books in my office. It helped.
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