Author Interview: Donna Miscolta
Donna Miscolta's debut novel, When the de la Cruz Family Danced has just been released. Her short fiction has appeared in Calyx,Cha: An Asian Literary Journal, New
Millennium Writings, Connecticut Review and
other journals. Her short story collection,
Natalie Wood's Fake Puerto Rican Accent was a
finalist for the 2010 Grace Paley Prize for Short
Fiction. She has received literary awards from
4Culture, Artist Trust, the Bread Loaf/Rona
Jaffe Foundation and Seattle Office of Arts and
Cultural Affairs. She's been an
artist-in-residence at Anderson Center,
Atlantic Center for the Arts and Hedgebrook,
and was recently awarded an NEA-sponsored
residency at the Virginia Center for the
Creative Arts. She grew up in National City,
California and lives in Seattle, Washington.
Welcome to the First Line blog, Donna!
First Line (FL): Donna, I read that you did not start writing until you were almost forty. Were you always an avid reader, though?
Donna Miscolta (DM): Yes, I’ve always been a reader except for a phase in high school when I sort of zoned out in the lost days of my awkward adolescence. Even the comfort of a good book couldn’t rescue me from a sense of displacement and disorientation – of not fitting in and not knowing who I was and where I belonged. But even then, I considered books things of wonder and thought that the creation of one was reserved for the divinely ordained – which is the reason, I think, it took me so long to give writing a try.
FL: You have a great story about how your novel, “When the de la Cruz Family Danced” was discovered and eventually published. Would you mind retelling it for us?
DM: The discovery happened after my novel had been turned down by over thirty editors. In late summer 2007, I had obtained an agent, one very enthusiastic about my book. Even though she continued to reassure me of her belief in it, after two years of rejection, it was hard for me to consider the possibility of a response other than the ones we had collected: they didn’t see it as a fit for their list, it was an issue of marketing, they didn’t fall in love. And yet almost all of them said they admired the writing. So that gave me hope. I’d heard many accounts of how a published story or novel excerpt led to publication of a novel. Not quite believing it would happen to me, I sent off the first chapter of my novel as a stand-alone story to seven journals. Within a month, I received an acceptance from one and a few days later I received an acceptance from another. The story was published in Cha: An Asian Literary Journal in May 2010. Several months later, I received an email from Marshall Moore of Signal 8 Press, a new Hong Kong-based publisher whose focus is literature for Asia and the Pacific Rim. He asked to read the entire novel manuscript. I think the alacrity with which I sent the thing off made him anxious about my expectations and he let me know right off that it could take him a while −a month or more− to get back to me. I assured him I understood, that I expected to wait. I was used to waiting. A week later he sent me an email offering to publish the book.
FL: What was the best advice you received as a writer?
DM: I can’t pinpoint the source because it’s something I’ve heard and read on a number of occasions. It’s something I try to live by and that is to be happy for the success of other writers, those you know and those you don’t know. We each have our particular path to writing and, if we’re lucky, to publication.
I know of or am acquainted with several writers whose books have been recently or soon will be released by major publishing houses. They’re getting book tours, newspaper reviews, radio and TV interviews, and second printings. Exciting stuff. I don’t begrudge them any of it. I do feel wistful and a little envious at times. I remind myself that I’m grateful to my small, independent publisher for putting my book and others out into the world. My book is making a relatively quiet entrance without the bells and whistles of a professional publicity campaign. So are many others. Each of us in our way is doing the same thing – saying to people: Look, I made this. Here it is. And you hope they take it into their hands. You hope they love it.
The other advice I like to remember comes from Cynthia Ozick via a workshop I took from Tom Jenks some years ago. It goes: Play what feeble notes you can and keep practicing. It’s a reminder of what the writer’s job really is.
FL: What book do you think every writer should read?
DM: Since I don’t feel qualified to be prescriptive about such a thing, I’ll tell you what I need to and do read every so often.
As a fiction writer, at times I feel the need to read some poetry, though I’m woefully uneducated about and often confounded by it. Still, I like to see how so much feeling can be packed in a line and how what is unsaid can be so powerful. The most recent book of poetry I read was Elizabeth Austen’s Every Dress a Decision, which I loved. Jane Hirshfield calls Austen’s poems “pellucid.” What a great word!
Another thing I do every so often is read books on craft. My writing education has been a patchwork of workshops, classes and conferences over the years. I wish I’d had the opportunity to do an MFA. I think it would’ve helped me be more deliberate in how I approach a problem or at least be more aware of the choices I make, which might make me a more efficient writer. As it is, I think much of what I practice in my own writing comes from my experience as a reader. My hope is that at a certain subconscious level, I absorb some of the techniques I come across in stories and novels. They go unarticulated and unanalyzed because rather than take the time to really study what a writer has done on the page to accomplish a particular effect, I’m just anxious to read another work of fiction. So I’m a little lazy or maybe I’m just feeling encumbered by so many books, so little time. At any rate, reading a book on craft, particularly when I’m in the revision stage, will make me stop and think and hopefully understand better what I’m trying to achieve in a work.
FL: Describe your work habits. When do you write? Where?
DM: I have a full-time job so I write at the end of the day. When I started writing, my daughters were seven and three years old so my habit was to write after they were in bed. Also, over the years I spent a lot of time with a writing notebook on my knees while sitting on bleachers at basketball or soccer practices, swim lessons, and gymnastics classes. Between ball drills, laps or tumbling passes, I would jot down a few lines. I think as a result my brain has been trained to write in short spasms. In stutters. Amid both material and mental clutter.
Our house is small so I’ve never had a separate space for writing. My laptop sits on a small table in the bedroom. It’s a tight space and clutter accumulates quickly. The table is one of those lightweight folding ones, and when I type, the vibrations send the table moving in almost imperceptible increments away from me, perhaps in protest of the clutter. Eventually, I have to pull the table back. I do this over and over. Sort of a calisthenic.
FL: What inspires you?
DM: As far as what inspires a story, I get my ideas from other people’s lives. It might be something I observe, read about or hear from another source. A coworker told me about an incident with a wicked teacher she had in elementary school and now it has a place in my next novel.
I’m also inspired by other people’s art. Seeing a good movie or even a bad one can be fuel for my own desire and need to create. A play, a painting, a performance – all of it inspires.
Mostly it’s just a matter of being open to the world around me.
FL: If you could have dinner with any writer, living or dead, who would it be? Why?
DM: I’m going to take the liberty of choosing one dead writer and one living writer.
Dead writer: Virginia Woolf. Who wouldn’t want to sit across from those mournful eyes, the exquisite, almost abnormally, long face, and the pointy-tipped nose that Nicole Kidman’s prosthesis in The Hours failed so miserably to reproduce. The question is would I go back in time as a 21st century Filipina-Mexican-American woman to sit in Woolf’s early 20th century drawing room at her heavy oak table, its claw feet gouging the Persian runner? Or would she meet me in my kitchen where I could offer her store-bought lumpia rather than tea and scones on my flimsy pine table? Would my 58-year-old self meet her at 58 years old, a year before she walked into the river? Or would I catch her ten or so years earlier, just after the publication of A Room of One’s Own? Regardless, the fantasy would have to include a personality enhancement for me – smarter, less shy, and not so easily intimidated by the famous and the scarily intelligent.
Living writer: Sherman Alexie. I’ve seen him perform several times. He’s rock-star cool and completely charismatic. He’s committed to social justice. He speaks to youth groups and participates in community fund-raisers, which is how I happened to take a two-hour poetry workshop from him one evening a few years back. My friend had given me her ticket she had won in an auction. I enjoyed the workshop, but I’m not a poet and my dislike for sharing raw work aloud was reflected in the peevishness of my language. A year or so later, Rick Simonson of Elliott Bay Books introduced me to Alexie when we were both in the store. We chatted briefly, made small talk and I lamely reminded him that upon hearing my “poems” in that workshop he exclaimed, “Wow, that’s some depressing shit you’re writing.” Given the number of people he meets, I’m sure Alexie remembers neither of these encounters. Now, if I were to have dinner with him, I would be, if not enchanting, decidedly unlame. Maybe I would have dinner with him and his family at his home, or maybe we would eat at a bistro in his neighborhood. We would split the tab.
FL: Do you have any other creative talents? Do you paint? Play a musical instrument?
DM: I’m afraid not. When I was young I used to draw a lot and I was pretty good except that my renderings lacked imagination and everything was so tentative. Plus, I don’t have a good sense of color as someone might guess by my wardrobe. I’m all neutrals, drab greens and hushed blues. Regarding music, my sister and I took piano lessons when we were kids because my mother wanted us to be musical. After about a year, she sold the piano and bought a stereo. I’m really a one-trick pony, spectacularly lacking in other talents.
FL: What are you working on now?
DM: I’m doing some revisions on the last story in my collection called Natalie Wood’s Fake Puerto Rican Accent which was a finalist last year for the Grace Paley Prize for Short Fiction. I was never quite happy with the ending of that story and I’ve been trying to give it more punch. I also have a few unfinished essays that need attention and I’m two-thirds of the way done with the first draft of another novel. Oh, yeah, and I try to update my blog twice a month. Stop by if you get a chance − http://donnamiscolta.com/notes/.
Thanks Donna! Learn more about Donna Miscolta and her novel, When the de la Cruz Family Danced here.