Interview with New Fiction Professor, Stacey D'Erasmo

The Fordham English Department is proud to welcome our new fiction professor, Stacey D'Erasmo. Professor D'Erasmo has published four novels and one book of non-fiction, in addition to numerous pieces in The New York Times Magazine, The New York Times Book Review, Ploughshares, and The New Yorker, among others. She was a Stegner Fellow in Fiction at Stanford University from 1995-1997 and was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2009. Stacey's fourth novel, Wonderland, tells the story of a middle-aged rock star embarking on a comeback tour. Wonderland was selected as a New York Times Book Review Editors' Choice and was included on several Top Ten lists for 2014. In this interview, we discuss research, teaching, and the moment you truly become a writer.  -Erin Coughlin 

EC: How did you start writing?

SD: When I was in the fifth grade, the teacher asked if someone wanted to write the class play, so I volunteered, and I did. I still remember sitting in my little desk with my little pencil and writing this very Nancy Drew inspired play. Ever since it’s been a strong part of my life. I stopped for a little while in my late 20s. I wasn’t sure if I really wanted to do this, or if I could do this. Once you get out into the world, you realize how small you are, what’s been done, and what you can do. When I started again at 30 or 31, I felt like more of a beginner than I ever had in my life. When I realized how impossible it was, how long it was going to take to do anything half-way decent, that’s when my adult life as a writer began.

EC: I feel like that is something every writer experiences. There are so many books already, and every year there are more. How can you possibly tell a fresh story?

SD: Exactly, but when you have that doubt and that realization and you decide to do it anyway, that’s when you become a writer. Before that, it’s lovely, but it’s that moment when you meet the world when you actually become a writer. You spend an enormous amount of time working alone with very little reward. Novels take a long time. You can spend years working on something without knowing if you’re going in the right direction. The good thing is, writing is a lifelong vocation. Being a tennis star has a time limit. Writing does not. You can do it your whole life, and it takes your whole life. That turns out to be the good news. I’m always incredibly moved by dancers. At 40, or earlier, the body starts to go. Even for people who are fantastically talented, there are places where the body stops you. I find that very poignant.

EC: You’re primarily a novelist, but you do also write non-fiction. How do they compare?

SD: Early in my career, I did a ton of journalism. I have a non-fiction book called The Art of Intimacy, which is much less racy than it sounds. It’s about the way we create a sense of intimacy in fiction. One of the huge pleasures of non-fiction is that reality pitches you the ball, and you have to figure out how to hit it. I can’t tell you how fun it was to be dropped in the middle of something and have to find the story. You’re working from the outside in, and with fiction, you’re working from the inside out, creating this world and trying to get it into being. Several of my novels have things I had to go learn about, but the facts are material. They’re not the story.

EC: Do you find you generally start with a character or an image?

SD: I’d say that I’m a character-driven writer, and a language-driven writer. I’m not a plot-driven writer. I start with a group of characters at a turning point, and generally, I know where the train is going, but I don’t know how the train is going to get there.

EC: Are you doing all that work in your head or do you write it out?

SD: Both, because I’m walking around with it in my head the whole time, and then working my way through it on the page. It’s a sophisticated way of talking to yourself, and sometimes I’m talking to myself on the page. I’m always telling myself the story. And because of computers, that really changes the way we physically compose. Back in the day with typewriters, you couldn’t scroll back, play with a paragraph or change a character’s name, which really changes the way you make the work. Now it’s incredibly fluid.

EC: About Wonderland, specifically, how familiar were you with the life of a rock musician?

SD: I have no musical talent at all, and no music aspirations, either. I have no desire to be in a band. I guess everyone wants to be a rock star, in a way, but [when you say that] what you really want is to look cool in a photo shoot. I had friends who were musicians and I’d always been interested in how they lived their lives, but I did research. I read books, watched documentaries, and I went on the road with a band in Europe for a few weeks, and that was invaluable. I really needed to know what it felt like to go from place to place, doing the same set over and over, and being with the same people every day, what it’s like on stage, what goes on after the show. That’s where my journalism chops came in handy. I knew how to do reporting, so I filled pages with notes. A number of musicians, people I didn’t even know, have said, “Wow, you really got it.” And I loved hearing that. I can barely play chopsticks.

EC: That definitely shows. The veneer of a rock star’s life is so glamorous, but in reality, it’s really lonely and kind of dull. The characters are moving through all these beautiful places, but there’s this comic absurdity at work.

SD: There totally is. There’s nothing holding a tour together. It’s logistics. It’s a completely random experience, and it is absurd and odd and strange things happen. People come in and out. And it’s incredibly hard work. Something about musicians that blew my mind is, there’s no net. There’s no fallback position. There’s no, “Oh, you were a rock star. Well, you can be the rock star pro at the guitar store.” A lot of working musicians have other things they do to pay the rent, and it’s a very precarious position, and an itinerant one. Some musicians are on tour for a year.

EC: And imagine if you don’t like the people you’re with.

SD: No kidding. Imagine if you had to get on a bus [with your co-workers] and travel day and night and perform together for a year.

EC: I think it would be hard to do that with my best friends.

SD: Exactly. And bands are essentially small businesses. There’s a huge amount of pressure. And it’s show business, so Monday you’re up, Tuesday you’re over. When I parted with that band, they were going on to Australia, and I had a great time, but I was set to go home. I couldn’t live that way.

EC: Which band was it?

SD: Scissor Sisters. They’ve since broken up, but the lead singer, Jake Shears, is a friend. Fortuitously, they were doing a tour in Europe, much like my character was doing, but they’re a very different kind of band than my character’s.

EC: The Alice in Wonderland parallel is fitting then.

SD: And even when you’re someone who’s done this a million times, it’s still Alice in Wonderland because it’s so unpredictable. You get on that bus or that plane and the adventure starts. You have no idea what’s going to happen.

EC: Or who you’re going to meet.

SD: There are so many variables: money, weather, politics.  

EC: Was that parallel with you from the jump?

SD: Yes, I was very interested in musicians, especially women, who successfully came back. Patti Smith came back. It was called Wonderland always. Alice in Wonderland was always haunting the book.

EC: Is it a book you feel close to?

SD: Yes. It’s an endlessly compelling journey story.

EC: The whole story, and this is rare for a female protagonist, is about her struggling with her identity.

SD: Yes, she’s changing size unpredictably. I think women particularly find that compelling: the idea that any moment you could radically transform. We morph quite a bit.

EC: Something else I liked about Wonderland was that the narrative went back and forth between the tour of the present and Anna’s memories of the past. I’ve always been fascinated by the children of artists. That seems like its own strange fairy tale world.

SD: My parents are not artists, even remotely. I was also interested in telling a story where the child of a strong artist also becomes a strong artist. I find it quite interesting how that happens because it doesn’t often happen, but every now and then it does. And when your father is someone who sawed the train in half, how do you do the equivalent in a completely different medium?

EC: And be yourself, as well.

SD: How do you do that? How do you ever get that train sawed in half? That’s the question all writers and artists face. Maybe you do it once in your whole life, but every day you try.

EC: How do you balance teaching and writing?

SD: The first thing is basic logistics. How many hours are there in a day? Writing requires an unreasonable amount of time. Film requires an unreasonable amount of money. Visual art requires an unreasonable amount of space, and writing requires huge amounts of time. You’re always hoarding time, so I’ve learned to show up at the desk. But in another way, the teaching feeds the writing. If you walk into a classroom not entirely knowing what’s going to happen, with the attitude that it’s an exploration, that attitude really is not unlike what it’s like to make a book or an essay. It’s that continual excitement of being curious, being engaged, letting it unfold. That’s fantastic. It always starts out simple and by the end of the term, always, lots of things have happened in peoples’ work, in discussion. I can’t tell you how to write. Even if I could do it, it would be very boring, but if we can open up a space together, that’s exciting.

EC: And it’s a wonderful way to think about learning, too. Hopefully, college is a place where you can break out of rote learning and regurgitation, and become passionate about what you’re studying.

SD: I hope that my students leave my classroom not as people who have memorized some list of ideas that I gave them, but as stronger thinkers and creators. As we said, if you decide to become a writer, you’re going to spend a lot of time alone, and you have to have those strong muscles of engagement, curiosity, and passion because you’re going to need them. With writing particularly, you really need to be able to think for yourself. Giving you some list of rules, even if I had them, wouldn’t make you a stronger writer. It would make you a weaker writer. I wouldn’t be giving you what you need.

EC: Most people learn how to write by reading. Read a lot, find what moves you, and find your own voice. That’s the challenge, I think. You have to swim through this sea of other people’s words and find your own.

SD: Yes, it’s what is urgent to you. It’s that interesting alchemy of reading and working with language at your own desk and seeing what happens. And allowing yourself to be surprised.

-This interview has been edited and condensed.