Personal Best: An Interview with Pamela Erens by Curtis Smith

Pamela Erens is the author of three novels for adults, The Virgins, Eleven Hours, and The Understory; Matasha, a novel for readers age 10 to 14; and Middlemarch and the Imperfect Life, a meditation on the classic work by George Eliot. Erens’s books have appeared on many Best of the Year lists, including at NPR, The New Yorker, Kirkus, The New Republic, and Literary Hub. Shas been a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for First Fiction, the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing, and the John Gardner Fiction Book Award. Her essays and criticism have appeared in publications such as the New York Times, Vogue, Elle, Slate, Virginia Quarterly Review, and Los Angeles Review of Books. Reader’s Digest named Erens one of “23 Contemporary Writers You Should Have Read by Now.” You can visit her at www.

Curtis Smith: Congratulations on Middlemarch and the Imperfect Life—Bookmarked. It’s a great read. How did you hook up with Ig for this project?

Pamela Erens: I met Robert Lasner, Ig’s publisher, at the home of a mutual friend, and became aware of the Bookmarked series. I thought that authors writing in a personal way about a formative work of literature was a great idea, but at some point I shot Robert a ribbing email saying, So where are all the women? All of the books on the list were by men and about works written by men. Robert said he knew this was an issue and that Ig was planning to do something about it. Some months later he reached out to me and asked if I wanted to do a volume.

CS: Was it always Middlemarch and nothing else—or were there some other contenders? What were the factors that ultimately swayed you?

PE:  It was always going to be Middlemarch. The only thing that gave me pause was that Rebecca Mead had already done her excellent 2014 book My Life in Middlemarch. Could there really be another “my life in Middlemarch” book? But I felt mine would be different enough—one, because I’m a different person, and two, because Middlemarch is such a capacious novel that not even a dozen such books could exhaust the material there. Also, Mead’s book incorporates reporting and travel, which I didn’t plan to, and mine focuses on my development as a fiction writer, while Mead is a journalist.

CS: Middlemarch might be a hard sell to readers of contemporary fiction. How might you persuade them to give it a try?

PE: I can’t tell you the number of people who, when they hear about my book, tell me apologetically that they’ve never read Middlemarch. They think I’ll see this as a failing. No one has to read Middlemarch! There are countless other outstanding novels to read, and it’s perfectly okay if you want to skip this one. On the other hand, I’m here to say that it’s just possible that you, whoever you are, would get a lot of unexpected pleasure out of it. Because Middlemarch is nearly a thousand pages long and because Eliot was an intellectual, people feel it’s going to be dense and boring and good for them in the way that some vegetable they don’t like is good for them.

Actually, Middlemarch is quite funny, in a sneaky way, and every character in it has some vivid analogue in contemporary life. You can enjoy Eliot’s 1830s-era auctioneers and pub owners and bankers and poets and know exactly who in your life is the 21st-century reincarnation of one of those characters. Then there is the profound empathy Eliot offers both her characters and her readers. She is so wise and compassionate about marriage and career, envy and ambition, aging. She understands the role of money in people’s lives, how having or lacking it profoundly alters our path. I’ve given a long answer, but I guess my short one would be: generosity. Eliot is so embracing of human nature. I think she helps each of us feel more accepted, more understood.

CS: Let me digress for a moment and fanboy over one of your previous books, The Virgins. It occupies a space on my most coveted shelf—books I’ve read and want to save to read again. How do you view your old work? Do you ever think about your old characters? Or is the publication of a book a kind of sealed room that’s left in the past?

PE: Thank you so much. So far, my old novels are pretty much sealed rooms for me. Even by the time a book of mine is published, it feels a bit like a dream I once had that I can no longer remember all that well. I can’t retrace all the connections. That said, I’ve recently written a sequel to the book I published before this one, my middle grade novel Matasha. But I don’t think it works and I’m putting it aside for a while. Maybe later I can decide if I was at all able to re-enter that dream.

CS: I’ve interviewed a number of authors who’ve contributed to the Bookmarked Series—and more than a few have reported an initial phase of doubt and pause before locking into a kind of mindset that allowed them to dive into the project with a kind of vigor that might not be found in their other projects. May I ask what was your experience?

PE: First of all, let’s acknowledge that you’re one of those authors. I loved your volume on Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five.

Naturally I had some concerns about taking on a capital-M masterpiece like Middlemarch, and I’ve already mentioned the challenge of making sure the book was distinct from Mead’s. But I’d been thinking about the novel for nearly forty years, and my enduring excitement over it translated into excitement over writing about it. So the project was mostly a pleasure. I found it so much easier than writing fiction!

With nonfiction—articles and essays—I have a method that I developed intuitively; it probably goes back to school days. I read slowly, taking lots of notes—ideas, connections that occur to me, strong emotional reactions—pegged to page numbers. Then, after a break of a few days, I read through the notes, start to finish, underlining in red what seems most important or juicy to me. After another short break I reread only the marked notes and I start to have a sense of a few broad categories that most of them fall into. Such as: community. Such as: What makes someone a good person? I make a brief and provisional outline of those themes—just: which category should be addressed first, which next—and start writing, folding in the thoughts and ideas in my notes. It’s a gradual winnowing-down process, it’s methodical, and it keeps me from getting overwhelmed and freaking out. It worked for this book as it has for the shorter pieces I write.

CS: A few years ago, I wrote an essay about revisiting a book I’d faked my way through in a college lit course—and how it couldn’t speak to me then, but as an adult, it really touched my heart. I think I counted four times you revisited Middlemarch in this book. Can you address how the lens of different life experiences influenced the experience of reading—and rereading—this book?

PE: I first read Middlemarch at twenty and was entranced by the character of Dorothea. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve come to question her more. She’s a huge-hearted, almost saintly young woman and I love her, but I’ve stopped seeing her as entirely plausible. She’s a beautiful ideal, as I say in my book, but I needed to stop feeling scolded by my failure to be like her. Not that Eliot was scolding me. I was scolding myself. Ideals are important in life, but so is coming to accept one’s imperfections.

There is a lot in Middlemarch about what we owe other people and how we take care of them. Once I became a mother, in my mid thirties, I had all kinds of new ways to think about some of those questions in my own life. This is so even though Middlemarch doesn’t deal very much with parenting.

In my most recent reading, I responded more than ever before to the parts of the novel that had to do with how people carry on when something unexpected and challenging upends their lives, because of what was going on in my own life.

CS: It’s one thing to read a book—or to return to a favorite—but it’s another to return to it with an eye for writing about it. What was that like? Did you find yourself pausing and taking notes and reflecting in ways you hadn’t anticipated? Did this last reading bring any new insights in terms of craft or themes or other areas you hadn’t admired previously?

PE:  That’s a good question and it’s odd to me that I can’t say that the plan to write about Middlemarch changed the experience of reading it much. I’ve always read the novel slowly, savoring it and thinking about it as I go along, so it wasn’t that different this time around.

CS: This is your first nonfiction book, correct? Nonfiction requires a certain vulnerability that fiction doesn’t, and I admired how you handled this here. I’m interested how the process was different than writing a novel—and if you found something in the process or in your nonfiction voice that might carry over to your next fiction project?

PE: Thanks for saying that about the vulnerability of nonfiction. So true. Yes, this is my first nonfiction book. When I was working through drafts I gave it to a few trusted readers, and one of my big questions was whether the personal material and the Middlemarch material felt in the right balance. I did not want any of the personal stuff to feel self-indulgent. If there wasn’t a point to it being there, I wanted others to let me know. It’s uncomfortable to have revealed certain things about myself and even about family members in the book, but I feel I can deal with my own personal discomfort, and anything about others that seemed a little dicey I ran by them for their okay. I’ve already described how I write nonfiction like an eternal college student. My novel process is completely different—I create a few handholds, but mostly I’m dreaming around. It’s much scarier.

CS: And speaking of process, I’d like to look at two quotes that struck me—“Our task as writers is to discover the way we have to write” and “Writing is about process above all.” I often talk to my students about process—and how there’s no singular right way, but it is important to understand how our minds work, to know if we’re planners or plungers—and then to work with and not against our natural tendencies (while also being open to trying new avenues to access our stories). So what is your process? Are you an everyday writer? Are there certain times of day that work (and don’t work) for you? Are there any rituals involved? In your fiction, what is your normal access point—situation or setting or perhaps mood/tone?

PE: For each work of fiction I’ve written, the access point has been different (sometimes situation, sometimes setting, sometimes an idea about form), and for each I’ve had to find a new avenue. For The Virgins, for example, I used this somewhat elaborate index card method promulgated by Robert Olen Butler. When I tried it again for Eleven Hours, it didn’t work. I’m always looking for what’s going to allow the particular work to emerge, which is often something I’ve never tried before.

When I’m working on fiction, I do try to make it every day. Otherwise re-entry is much harder. It’s hard enough after only a handful of hours have gone by, best not to give it longer. I have the most clarity and focus in the mornings but as I get older, exercise and meditation are more of a priority, so those get the first hours of the day, and often I am not sitting down to write until eleven a.m. or later, which isn’t ideal. Afternoons or evenings are no go for writing fiction. I just don’t have the energy. I can sometimes write nonfiction in the afternoons.

Rituals for sure. I have to make a cup of tea and a cup of coffee. I had to swear off coffee about 15 years ago and learn to love tea, but then I gradually became able to drink small amounts of coffee again, so … okay, too much information. And I put a piece of chocolate or a small cookie on a small plate beside me and even just having it there relaxes me. It’s very childlike, primitive, the need to have something sweet and consoling nearby. I generally reread the end of what I’ve written the day before, but I have to take care not to get too lost in revision, not to let that become a way to evade writing new words. If I’m struggling to get back in, to have confidence, to care, I’ll read something inspiring. Recently, there’s been Nicole Rudick’s What Is Now Known Was Once Only Imagined, an assemblage of the writings and work of the artist Niki de Saint Phalle, and Jami Attenberg’s memoir I Came All This Way to Meet You. And George Saunders’s new Substack, Story Club. He’s brilliant about what makes fiction work and how writers can deal with their insecurities and shortcomings.

Curtis Smith’s latest book, The Magpie’s Return, was named as one of Kirkus Review’s top Indie releases of 2020. 

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