So Improvement is your eighth book of fiction. The last three books—which have done just fine, in my opinion—are books of linked stories. How come you decided to write a novel?

I wrote novels before I wrote stories (I was very backwards that way). At a certain point, I began working on long short stories, and I fell into my own way of connecting them—a minor character in one was major in the next, and the stories were moving toward the same theme. After three books in that form—a form I felt I’d done my best work in—I wanted to return to the novel, to write something with the intensity of a line carried through—while still using the skills I learned in spreading across a web.

My first advance review, in Kirkus, called Improvement, my alleged novel, a story cycle, and I was not at all insulted. Actually, they called it a “kaleidoscopic story cycle”—who would mind that?

Kingdom of Women’s main character, Averil Parnell, is the world’s first female Roman Catholic priest. We learn early on in the novel that she’s the lone survivor of a massacre of 22 women who were about to be ordained. Why give her such a traumatic backstory?

It wasn’t a conscious decision. The backstory was part of what came to me with the character. And since it shaped her life, it shaped the plot in fundamental ways. She probably wouldn’t have started to have religious visions, or had an affair with the most unsuitable man possible, if she weren’t so traumatized.

Since the prospect of a conversation with myself bored me, I decided to talk with my good friend and fellow poet Jackie Hymes—thanks, Jackie!

How did you come to write poetry? Or, what drew you to poetry?

Like most writers, probably, I’ve always been a voracious reader. And I’ve been fascinated by poetry pretty much as long as I can remember. My parents always had plenty of books in the house, including some old literature anthologies and poetry collections from when they were students. I remember I enjoyed reading through Robert Frost in particular, and also Anne Sexton and this collection of Romantic poetry. Keats in particular seemed to have this interesting charge that kept my attention. It didn’t occur to me that poetry was not a popular interest.

It wasn’t until early in college that I realized there were contemporary poets who worked seriously on their craft and sort of made a living from it (though we all know how that works). Though I flirted with other areas of study like mechanical engineering (I wanted to work on cars), I was always most passionate about reading and writing–and I found in poetry an intellectual and emotional challenge that captivated me.

Fast-forward some years and I couldn’t imagine not writing poetry. It’s such an integral part of my life and I think that will always be the way it is. It’s in my blood; poetry as an art seems to want something from me, though I’m still not sure what.

As with many writers, you majored in English literature in college. But unlike most, you did not go on for an MFA. Instead, you went to law school and have been practicing full-time for the last three decades. Why did you take that path? Does that say something about your opinion of MFA programs?

It’s true I came to my writing life, in some sense, rather late. Other than my creative output in school publications, I published my first fiction—as an adult—at the age of 39. I am now 58 with 10 published books to my name, two of those as editor. And my first poetry collection will come out this November. All the while I have been practicing law, the last 27 years with the California Department of Justice. I’m currently a supervising attorney in the Consumer Law Section.

Can you talk about the genesis of Here in Berlin?

The idea began as an inquiry into the human fallout from Cuba’s long association with the Soviet bloc. I wanted to find the interesting stories from this globalism—the relationships and children, complications and dislocations—that always accompany political upheaval.

 

Was Berlin your only, or primary, destination?

Originally, I thought of doing a book in three or four parts with stories set in Berlin, in Chile, in Vietnam, and Angola—all places where Cubans have studied, were politically involved, or fought wars. Berlin was my second stop, after Chile, and I couldn’t get enough of the city. I knew pretty quickly that it was where the whole novel would be set.

This is Fresh Air. I’m Terry Gross. My guest today is the acclaimed author, writing teacher and online entrepreneur whose debut novel, This Is How It Begins, is the best novel I’ve ever read in my entire life—

Stop it! That’s private.

 

… Joan Dempsey, welcome to Fresh Air.

[Groan.] Now I’ll never meet her.

 

Oh, come on. Terry Gross isn’t reading your TNB Self-Interview.

Unless she’s actually considering an interview with me.

What’s one memory that came into your mind recently that you haven’t thought about for ages?

Weird memories come to me all the time – it helps to have siblings who like to remind you of the various horrors of your life – but the one that came to me today was from when I worked at an infomercial company in the 1990s. I think about that time fairly frequently, actually, because every time I see someone who looks like Ed McMahon – which, living in Palm Springs, is pretty frequently; he has a lot of doppelgängers among the retired golfing set – I remember how I worked on his ill-fated Miracle Fryer (the miracle of which was that there was no frying involved – it was a pan that you baked chicken on). But I suddenly remembered the day I realized that the company I was working for might be involved in something nefarious – there was a cult involved, and a defective exercise device, which I recognize doesn’t sound like two things that go together, and it turns out, well, they don’t – and so I emailed the one person I’m still in contact with from that job to confirm that a strange meeting happened where it was announced we would no longer be getting free bagels and snacks…which everyone then intuited was some very bad, bad news for our jobs. (Well, that and because there was talk the government was coming to seize our computers and that we should all delete our Napster accounts.) (It was the 90s.)

photograph by Cat Gwynn

Why write about the Souplantation?

For a decade of my life, it was the place that was most home.

So The Disintegrations is a book about a man obsessed with death, who knows nothing about it and is trying to understand it. You call it a novel, yet most of the names that appear in the novel are those of actual people, including the protagonist, who bears your name. Similarly, the book is an investigation into Culver City’s Holy Cross Cemetery. Why shouldn’t the reader just think of this as memoir or creative nonfiction?

Well, this book, as with all my writing, springs from non-fiction, that’s always the departure point. But as a writer I can’t stay within those parameters; as soon as I start writing, it shifts into fiction. To call it CNF or memoir would be an act of bad faith.

 

How did you come to write poetry?

When I was nine and eleven, I wanted to be like John Lennon, but most of my lyrics had a simple drumbeat and no melody. I think I realized I was actually writing poems at the age of twenty-three. I guess it’s always been in there.

Photograph by Andrea Augé

What got you started with poetry?

Well, there sure wasn’t anything literary going on in my early environment. But I was exposed to great music, especially the Latin music popular in the Fifties. My parents had met in Atlantic City in the late Forties, when Boardwalk hotels had Cuban bands playing in ballrooms with crowded dancefloors every night. So I wound up bouncing to Mambo records as a toddler. Along with this, I was living in a hotbed of immigrant anxiety hopping with explosive feuds—my father’s parents had it in for my mother, and she hated them right back. The shame endured by the Jews of Eastern Europe was spilling into family dynamics, spouting from the pores of these people so blindly anxious to belong, and I got drenched in the vitriol. I was myself of course anxious to belong, to be seen and known through the blaze of the arguments, through the constant crossfire of blame.

Hi, it’s nice to meet you. I didn’t realize how different you’d look in person. You’re nothing like your author photo.

Yeah, I’ve aged a bit. Also, I had a baby.

 

That’s cool. Wait, I think I knew you 10 years ago, when you were just starting the research for your first novel. Is this the same book you were working on then?

Sadly, yes. It took me ten years to birth this book and ten hours to birth my daughter. The book was way more painful and I cried a lot more.

 

Haven’t we done this before?

We have. I think back in 2011. Actually, I know it to be so because I googled it.

 

Did you write your novel about Emilia Bassano Lanyer because you disagreed with a professor?

Well, I heard a talk about Emilia by A.L. Rowse, a British historian who gave a lecture at UGA when I was in graduate school. Rowse was convinced that she was the “Dark Lady” of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. It thrilled me to think that not only may she have been Shakespeare’s girlfriend, but was a poet herself—and an early feminist! Writing about her brought together two strands of my life that had been separate: my love of the Renaissance and Shakespeare and my feminism.

But Rowse had a low opinion of her character, based (I thought) on his misogynistic attitude. I wanted to question that attitude, so I decided to write about Emilia from her own point of view, as a woman struggling to survive in a time when her life would have been severely restricted and constrained by laws and anti-woman beliefs, yet also a time of excitement and possibility.

Why do you sometimes introduce yourself as an elegaic poet?

All poetry is about loss—of people, places, moments—and therefore about time, isn’t it? And that means it’s also about those little moments of joy, when the direction of loss is reversed. As for example, in my poem, “Thaw” in Shimmer, when “the fog / in my mouth melted / like spun sugar” and I recollected the name —“even more beautiful / than the tree”—“liquidambar,” which I had been completely unable to summon.

Memory is so often my subject. I love the Proustian moment—some triggering thing—and an entire past world blossoms open. My memories of the past sometimes seem like paintings I can re-examine, in which I can discover new things.

I have an Updike-ian feeling for the way the music, books, and fashions of our prime moment in time flow swiftly into the past, taking our very sense of self with them.