In the Spotlight
Hofstra University, Professor
New York Member Since: 1998
About: Martha McPhee is the author of the novels An Elegant Woman, Dear Money, L’America, Gorgeous Lies, and Bright Angel Time. Her work has been honored with fellowships from the Nationapale hl Endowment of the Arts, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, and a National Book Award nomination. She teaches Creative Writing at Hofstra University and lives in New York City with her children and husband, poet and writer Mark Svenvold.
Photo Credit: Ann Billingsly
This is a time of unique challenges for writers, many of whom already spend a great deal of their time in isolation. How do you stay connected to your writing community?
By reading. Booze sales are up, I see, just now in the news. Reading is up for me. I read my students’ work, my friends’ work, and writers publishing now—Joanna Hershon’s St. Ivo; Lily King’s Writers & Lovers. I will read my way across this pandemic and come out the other side, I hope, inspired. But it is hard. I also Zoom with friends, but we don’t speak so much about writing.
What do you feel writers offer to the world that may be more necessary in the era of COVID-19 than in recent history?
Everything: escape, a vision, a different point of view, history, reality, company. Our imaginations are so stimulated right now by the constant onslaught of terrible news. It can feel like we are approaching the end of the world. To be in the car with Valeria Luiselli’s characters in Lost Children Archive, I can vanish into her imagination and become caught up in her language and story and remember that there is much more than the immediacy of now.
What projects have you finished recently, and what are you working on now?
Last summer I finished my fifth novel, An Elegant Woman. It took eight years to write and challenged me so very much, but I made it and I believe it is my best. The story uses my grandmother’s life as a jumping-off point to explore what it means to make a life. In particular, I was interested in a woman’s life across the backdrop of the 20th century, in which so much changed for women. But really the book is about mothers, daughters, sisters, the ways we invent and reinvent ourselves and at what cost, about the stories we believe about ourselves and what happens when we find out they aren’t true. The central story begins with a mother and her two young daughters fleeing across the country in a blizzard in 1910 and the wayward, sometimes brutal life that followed in the American West. Moving west to east and across generations, the novel examines the repercussions of that early life on the generations that follow.
I have started two new novels, but it is tough to work in a sustained way in these horrible times and with a book coming out—the attention it requires when traditional paths to promoting it have temporarily vanished.
What are you reading right now?
Lost Children Archive. Luiselli is so good.
Who encouraged you to be a writer?
My mother. She told me when I was a young child to write everything down. She said our family was unusual and I should take notes. I have been doing that ever since.
If you could meet any writer, who would it be? What would you say to her or him?
Carol Shields. I would tell her that I loved The Stone Diaries, that her first-person narration was acrobatic and taught me how to finish my fifth novel, An Elegant Woman—which I’d been struggling with. So I would also thank her and ask her about her process, how she developed that voice, the discovery.
Which book should be required reading for young people?
Maybe this a copout – but I would say any book. I say just read. Read anything. Faulkner’s advice to writers was to tell them to read anything—comics, newspapers, literature. Read read read, he said. I suggest that for young people, read whatever gets them reading.
The book you could read again and again is __. Why?
This changes all the time. Right now, for example, I am re-reading Pale Horse, Pale Rider by Katherine Anne Porter. I have read the novella three times. Now, during the pandemic, the fever dream of the story becomes something else entirely—more instructive, informative of what the illness might look like, how the present and the past align to describe the sweep of what has been lost and the suffering being endured.
When do you find time to write?
When I work best and most freely, it is in the early morning, 5 a.m., 4.30 a.m. I love that hour, still dark, just the thinnest light. The day hasn’t yet swept in to distract me. If I start in this way, I can be lost in my work for hours.
Do you feel influenced by your peers to produce a certain type of creative work, or do you feel free to follow your own interests and passions?
Not at all. If I don’t follow my own interests, I am not curious enough to keep going.
Where do you get your best reading recommendations?
Word of mouth, from friends I admire.
Describe your writing process. Do you write every day? For how long? Do you listen to music? Do you type at a computer or write in longhand?
My best and most productive time to write is very early in the morning. I might begin by writing in my journal, reading from a novel, then set down to my own work. Hours disappear and suddenly the sun is up, and the house is alive and the streets are noisy. It’s 10 a.m., 11 a.m., and I have the day in front of me to do other things. I write on a computer. Whenever I am stuck and feel I have nothing to say, if I remember to read I become almost immediately unstuck.
What is the greatest compliment that you could ever receive about your writing?
Hearing that I have moved a reader is the most powerful compliment. That’s what I want to accomplish after all with my storytelling, take the reader into emotional terrain and have her/him feel it, connect to it viscerally.
What is the best lesson that you have learned from a book?
That I am not alone.
What is your favorite thing to do when you should be writing, but just can’t find the motivation?
Cooking. I have loved to cook since I was a girl. I had ten sisters and stepsiblings and a lot of chaos in the house. We never ate dinner before 9.30, often after 10 p.m. I understood by the time I was eight years old that if I wanted to go to bed early my dinner job had to be “before dinner,” which meant setting the table or cooking. I would get lost in cooking, dreaming ambitious dishes I could try out on my family. By the time I was 10, I had mastered Chicken Kiev and gâteau au chocolat. I knew how to make bread and cookies, to cream and stew. When I can’t concentrate on writing, I always turn to the oven. What I love most about cooking is feeding.
Now during the virus, I have taken up gardening and raising baby chicks. I’ve not yet returned to a place where I can write in a sustained way, so learning to grow vegetables is my new great escape.
What is your favorite line from a book?
“If I have to lie, cheat, steal or kill. As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again.”
Do you own an e-reader? How has that changed your relationship to books?
I do. I used it in the “old days” when I rode on subways, before the virus. Having a reader allowed me to have a book with me at all times. For some reason, I prefer reading classics on the reader, while new works I prefer in their hardcover form.
Why did you decide to join AWP?
I joined a long time ago, before my first job but after I published my first novel. A friend told me it was a useful resource for writers and that friend was right. It was through the AWP job list that I found my position at Hofstra University and for that I will always be grateful to AWP. The job at Hofstra is the smartest thing my younger self ever did for my older self.
What would be your advice to new AWP members on how to make the most of their membership?
Read the articles. They are terrific. Use the job list. It is comprehensive, and it works! Explore the ads for MFA programs. They are informative and give a rich sense of the range and scope of what is being offered by MFAs.
What is your favorite AWP Conference memory?
Going to LA with my sister and hearing Phillip Lopate speak on the essay and also hearing the editor Elisabeth Schmitz lead a panel of some of her favorite authors. She was brilliant, drawing out her authors. One of the writers was Francisco Goldman, who had recently published Say Her Name, a novel based on the tragic death of his young wife—a heartbreakingly beautiful story. My sister, Jenny McPhee (novelist and translator), and I went shopping at Theory so we could feel beautiful. I remember trying on a stunning dress, spinning around, full of myself—then realizing with Jenny, in a small lovely fit of laughter, that a writer didn’t need such a dress for the AWP Conference. That was a very good thing too because I couldn’t have afforded the dress.