My new memoir, An Incredible Talent for Existing: A Writer’s Story, is set in 1965, the era of love, light—and revolution. While I (the twenty-two year old romantic narrator), fanaticize a bucolic future in an old farm house with children climbing the apple trees, my husband plots to organize a revolution and fight a guerrilla war in the Catskills. Our fantasies were on a collision course. When I became ignited by radical feminism, this clash became an inner conflict. My husband and I were comrades in revolution but combatants in marriage; I was a woman warrior who spent her days sewing long silk dresses reminiscent of a Henry James novel. One half of me was not speaking to the other half. And then, just when it seemed that things could not possibly get more explosive, my wilderness cabin burned down and I found myself left with only the clothes on my back, and fifteen years of writing in ashes. From my existential childhood to writing my first children’s book on a sugar high during a glucose tolerance test, the memoir describes my lifelong and idiosyncratic journey to becoming a writer.
Tell us something about yourself.
I have been writing and publishing children’s books since 1985. I also published Pride and Prejudice and Kitties: A Cat-Lover’s Romp through Jane Austen’s Classic, with coauthor, Deborah Guyol. Though my writing is sometimes lyrical, I like to look at the humorous side of life; even poignant or dark events generally have a funny aspect. The ability to laugh at oneself is especially helpful in writing as well as in life.
What inspired you to write this book?
Long after my cabin burned down and I lost all my writing, that episode in my life remained vivid in my mind. At the time, I had a summer job at Mohonk Mountain House, a dazzling Victorian hotel on the crest of a mountain overlooking the Catskills. In the midst of this idyllic setting, I was going crazy and the startling contrast between inner and outer worlds left an intense and reverberative impression. Also, I have always been interested in stories about how people get out of psychological trouble so I wrote a book like one I would take pleasure in reading as well as writing.
How did you choose the title?
“An Incredible Talent for Existing” is a chapter title from my childhood in the story and my most impressive talent (at least as a little girl!)
What obstacles did you encounter in getting this book published? How did you overcome them?
The book was difficult to find a publisher for, partly because the market was overflowing with memoirs, and partly because it took me a long time and much patience to identify the story, which required a relaxed, funny, yet unflinchingly truthful voice.
How did you know you wanted to be a writer? How did you get started?
As a little girl, growing up in an accomplished family of scientists, art critics, and historians, I felt invisible, even to myself. My main accomplishment, as I saw it, was the novelty of my own consciousness and my awareness of it (my talent for existing!) But no one, including me, saw how I was going to amaze the world by the stunning fact of my existence so I started writing a novel about myself in my head, imagining that thousands of readers were hanging on every word. That fantasy was the beginning of becoming a writer.
Do you have any writing rituals?
Because the creative process is so messy, I try to set the stage for writing in as orderly a fashion as possible (regular hours, exercise, good nutrition, and, if possible, a kitty curled up by my side).
How do you come up with the names for your characters?
In my memoir I used actual names, except in instances where I wanted to preserve privacy. In my children’s books, I play around with the characters’ names until they feel right. If the character holds back on the page, the name is probably wrong.
Did you learn anything from writing and publishing this book? What?
After my cabin fire, I tried to write the events of the memoir as a novel. I had no idea what I was doing, and when I look at this now 40-year old manuscript, I feel sorry for the young woman (myself) who was trying to write a story and didn’t have the faintest idea how to go about it. But I learned from my own experience and from many other writers, that persistence and hard work often result in a publishable book, hopefully one that others will find pleasure and inspiration in reading.
If you were doing it all over again, what would you do differently?
I wish I could say I would have written my memoir faster, but I don’t think I could have.
What types of books do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors? Why?
In fiction, I like the 19th century novelists such as Jane Austen, George Eliot and Henry James. For nonfiction, I read history – especially WWII and the Elizabethan age – memoirs, and biographies. Some of my favorite modern authors are Kay Redfield Jamison, Norman Maclean, and David McCullough.
Are you working on your next book? What can you tell us about it?
I am working on a humorous travelogue about the three years my family and I lived in Florence, Italy. The subtitle is “No One Feels Sorry for You When You’re Living in Tuscany,” which is true!
What is the best advice you could give other writers about writing or publishing?
Don’t give up, either in the writing or submitting process. I have sold some children’s books on the first submission; others required over 125 submissions. Remind yourself repeatedly that giving up is not an option, and if rejections hurt pretend you’re a masochist and you want more. Also, try to divorce yourself from emotions when submitting; just keep sending out and, if necessary tweaking your book or proposal as you go along.
Who is the perfect reader for your book?
Baby boomers, writers, and women, both older women and those just coming of age, as well as others interested in the confluence of the personal, psychological, and political.
Where can readers learn more about you and your book?
Book trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PA1znyLsaGY
children’s books: http://www.pamelajane.com