December 13, 2011KR Conversations

Erin McGraw

A micro-interview with Erin McGraw by KR Associate Heather Crowley.

Erin McGraw is the author of five books, most recently the novel The Seamstress of Hollywood Boulevard. She teaches at the Ohio State University and divides her time between Ohio and Tennessee. Her story “Punchline” appeared in the Fall 2011 issue of KR.

KR: Is there a story behind your KR piece? What was the hardest part about writing it?

There isn’t so much a story behind “Punchline” as a circumstance. My father died of lung cancer in 2008, and I have been surprised—not happily—at the many shapes of my grief, and its duration. I had thought I would cry for a few months, and then be done with things, but grief turned out to be a moving target. It would move in close, then vanish, then take on weird new expressions that I didn’t recognize. So the story grew out of my thinking about grief and my experience of it, as well as the superstitious feeling, once your heart starts hurting, that everything in the world that you love is imperiled.

The hardest part? That’s easy: Trying to portray sorrow without dipping into bathos. A writer wants to move her reader, but she doesn’t want to write like Dickens in The Old Curiosity Shop, about which Oscar Wilde said, “A man would have to have a heart of stone not to laugh at the death scene of Little Nell.”

KR: What internal or external factors have the biggest influence on your creative process?

I don’t think in terms of creative process so much as habit. I am at my desk six mornings a week (I knock off for Sundays), and when I am there, I expect to work. I generally have a few different projects going on—maybe an article or lecture, a few stories and sometimes, as currently, a novel. Having options is good for me. If the thing I’ve been working on feels stale or blocked, I can shift to a different piece of writing and let my brain cool off for a while. I do try to get my writing done first thing in the morning, as early as possible. Once email and the stock market and news of the day start to kick in, it’s harder to concentrate and maintain a connected vision.

KR: Nicole Krauss said in a recent Guardian column that “We’re programmed to do the ‘easier’ thing… People no longer have the concentration to finish things; we skim along the surface, and it’s miserable.” Do you see this absence of ambition in the literary audiences of today? How do modern attention spans affect your writing?

It’s certainly true that all of us are accustomed to reading short articles on line; that’s become a fact. But readers still buy and read novels. They talk about them in book clubs and write about them in blogs. Nicole might say, rightly, that even novels are more often broken into small segments. George Eliot probably wouldn’t recognize a 2011 novel as the same genre she wrote in. My response to this is typically obstructionist. I find myself writing longer scenes and much longer narrative passages. I have less interest in dividing up material into small, cinematic pieces that end with an implied rim-shot. Like any reader of contemporary fiction, I read lots and lots of three-page scenes, and I get tired of that now-predictable rhythm. I find myself writing something different just to play with different effects and give myself a break.

KR: What have you learned about the writing process in the last five years?

The same things I learned in the five years before, and the five years before that: Be patient. Allow the story to reveal itself. Make every word count. I don’t mean to say that I’m still blindly enacting the lessons I learned in graduate school; I really am re-learning those lessons, taking them in at a deeper level, or at least a different level. I tried to be patient, allow the story to reveal itself, and make every word count in stories I wrote fifteen years ago, but if I wrote those stories now, I would make different choices.

KR: When we publish, whether in print or online, we hope we’re making a sustained art–something that endures and continues to be significant. What role will sustained art have in a future that’s sure to be full of iPads/Pods/Phones and Kindles, hyper-fast computers, and a reality where we can always be online, all of the time?

One of the beauties of literature is that stories remain in the mind. The language may fade, and all but the choicest images will probably get forgotten, but we remember and hold dear and re-tell stories we love. I don’t see any reason that should change whether we are reading the story on an iPad or a printed page. That means that the pressure is on writers to create memorable stories, but hasn’t that been our job all along?