Author Interview: Priscilla Long

I am happy to welcome Priscilla Long to the First Line blog! Priscilla Long is the author of, “The Writer’s Portable Mentor” which was reviewed on the First Line blog yesterday and, “Where the Sun Never Shines: A History of America’s Bloody Coal Industry.” She is also a writing teacher and a widely published author of essays, fiction, science and poetry. She has been awarded a National Magazine Award and a Seattle Arts Commission award. Welcome Priscilla!

First Line (FL): You have a fascinating section in "The Writer's Portable Mentor" about collecting words. Do you have a favourite word?

Priscilla Long (PL): I keep finding new favourite words! I like odd words like crook and croodle. I love the work lickspittle. I like words of Old English origin like crock, cricket, work. Peduncle is one of the great words. Tick and croak. Then there's hornswoggle.

FL: What was the best advice you received as a writer?

PL: The most important advice I ever received was from a book by Dorothea Brande called "Becoming a Writer". She advised to write for 15 minutes every day (more if the day allowed but 15 minutes in any case). I read that lovely book before I knew there was such a thing as a writing teacher and I have been writing for at least 15 minutes every day ever since. That was thirty years ago.

FL: While reading, "The Writer's Portable Mentor" I flipped to the back hoping to find a "Recommended Reading" list. But there wasn't one! So, here's my chance: What book(s) do you think every writer should read?

PL: "The Writer's Portable Mentor" uses many virtuoso sentences and passages to show the effect of this or that technique. The bibliography in the back comes to thirteen pages, about different 150 works. I read the whole of anything I quote from and I recommend these works passionately! Writers need to read, read, and read. A short list is difficult! Susan Sontag's essays. Michael Ondaatje's "The English Patient". I currently adore the novels of Ann Patchett. I am reading the essays of Katha Pollitt and Orhan Pamuk. Anne Carson is indispensable. I am rereading Emily Dickinson. A fabulous essayist is Brian Doyle. Joan Silber's short stories are breath-taking. Oh, you have set off a long answer. For philosophy I will take Gaston Bachelard. For science, Stephen Jay Gould, Oliver Sacks, Lynn Margulis. For weirdness, P. K. Dick. You have asked what books every writer should read and I am answering with what I have read. As for books about writing, besides "The Writer's Portable Mentor" of course, I recommend "Art and Fear" by David Bayles and Ted Orland. Even though it was meant for visual artists, every word is true for writers. I recommend "The Weekend Novelist" by Robert J. Ray and Bret Norris and "The Weekend Novelist Writes a Mystery" by Robert J. Ray and Jack Remick. I am just now reading a lovely book by Bruce Black, "Writing Yoga". Charles Baxter's "The Art of Subtext" is excellent. I highly recommend Twyla Tharp's "The Creative Habit". Ok, now I'll stop!

FL: If you weren't a writer, what would you want to be?

PL: If I wasn't a writer I would be a painter. Someone once said that poets and painters have a relationship of love and envy. It is true that I love and envy the painters. I try to one-up paintings with vivid words but I never succeed. The way they get to work with paint is not fair.

FL: Describe your work habits. When do you write? Where?

PL: I get up every morning and write in my journal for about an hour. This can be about anything but through it I frame my day. There are days when that is all I get. (I have a heavy schedule teaching writing and editing the online encyclopedia of Washington state history, I often write in one of several Seattle coffeehouses. I write virtually all first drafts in a notebook, then transfer to the computer. I don't carry a computer to a café but use the notebooks in the cafés. This is partly because I love to write in notebooks and partly because I spend so much time at the computer (editing the encyclopedia and also revising my own writing) that I am maxed out on the computer. I work on several pieces at once, always. Some of the pieces require considerable research and take time. So it's valuable to be able to switch from one to another and then back again. I am very concerned with issues of productivity (but believe that anxiety is counter-productive), and I am concerned with finishing works and sending them out. I teach mostly advanced writers and I do all the assigned exercises myself and hand my homework to the writers in the class. I do the word lists, the Before/After exercises, and all the rest, very consistently, and it helps me become a better writer all the time. These are not digressions but lead to published works.

FL: What inspires you?

PL: Art inspires me. That would be Beethoven. That would be Jim Morrison belting out "Light my Fire" or Otis Redding's "Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay." I get a lot from looking at paintings, from the visual arts. Miles Davis. Great writing always inspires me.

FL: If you could have dinner with any writer, living or dead, who would it be? Why?

PL: I would like to have dinner with Kafka. At this dinner I will inform him that although he thinks of himself as "an incapable, ignorant person" (as recorded in his diary), I think of him, on the contrary, as a great writer. And, I will tell him, so do lots of other people. And, no, they don't all have terrible taste … And, yes, they do know what they are talking about. So, no, he is not "an incapable, ignorant person".

FL: Do you have any other creative talents? Do you paint? Play a musical instrument?

PL: I used to play banjo and one day will again. Last week I made a great soup.

FL: What are you working on now?

PL: An exciting new project. It is a weekly blog column, to be called Segue to Science, to be published by the journal The American Scholar. Each weekly column will have a core of science and will then range from the personal to poetry to whatever and then back to science. I am having a great time with these. (The Scholar will start posting them soon.) I am also composing 36 sestinas. I am also composing an abecedarium called "Autobiography: An A-Z". A stands for Arrests and details one of the times I was arrested in the Civil Rights movement—back when. B stands for Bottle-fed Baby. Etcetera.

To learn more about Priscilla Long visit:


historywriter said...

Wonderful post. And one of the best author interviews I've read recently. Nicely done on the questions. (answers too)

Priscilla has laid some wonderful advice in her book. And she was up here in Bellingham,WA to talk our group about writing, she gave about 10 to live by. (Coming again for the Chuckanut Writer's Conference)I have always written at least 15 minutes a day (usually an hour or more). I've started word journal (Mine were originally on scraps of paper). I love the word jollification (1858). That's going in first.

firstlinefiction said...

Thanks Historywriter! I am so glad you enjoyed the interview.

~ Lori