Ever wonder what hurdles women writers in history had to endure? And what might we learn from them? Today I’m sharing my interview with Nava Atlas, author of The Literary Ladies’ Guide to the Writing Life, a book of first person accounts from women writers in history who broke the mold and paved the way for us. Enjoy the interview – and please, leave a question or comment for our guest. Nava will be popping in to respond throughout the day!
Don’t forget to follow the rest of Nava’s book tour sponsored by Wow! Women on Writing, for a chance to win a free copy of The Literary Ladies’ Guide to the Writing Life!
Interview by: Mary Jo Campbell
I’m so excited to read The Literary Ladies’ Guide to the Writing Life! What gave you the idea for this book?
As both a writer and a visual artist, I’ve long been fascinated with the creative process and love to read artists’ and writers’ biographies. A few years ago, when my sons had hit their teens, I had the crazy notion to go back to grad school for a Master’s degree in Art Studio so I could update my rusty design skills, study theory, and learn how to make limited edition hand-made books.
One of my classes was called Printed Books and I worked on making a little book of brief passages on the writing life that I’d started to collect. The book, a rudimentary version of the one we’re discussing now was also called The Literary Ladies’ Guide to the Writing Life. and how it ended up being published is a story unto itself, but it goes to show that if you believe in an idea, and are willing to persevere and go deeper with it, it can grow in surprising ways.
After researching for this book and undoubtedly learning about the struggles these ladies had to endure in their writing careers, what can the modern woman writer learn?
That’s a great question and truly the point of the book. We look at our favorite literary icons and think that with their talent and achievements, they must have burst forth from the womb fully destined for their successful outcomes. In truth, most of the twelve authors I focus on in the book (as well as other classic women authors) each had particular obstacles and struggles to overcome.
One of the great lessons learned from this book is that no one had success handed to them; all these authors worked incredibly hard and kept going despite setbacks, and life’s large or mundane problems. Even someone like Edith Wharton, a wealthy heiress, struggled with a crippling lack of self-confidence and a whopping inferiority complex. We see in these classic authors a mirror of our own experience, and that’s quite comforting.
Do you see any parallels with the writing process and life balance between the Literary Ladies and modern women writers?
Striving to find one’s voice (as well as the confidence to use it), learning to be disciplined, facing rejection, finding time to write, dealing with self-doubt—these are amazingly universal experiences. The contemporary woman writer reading the Literary Ladies’ first-person narratives on these very issues and others will take courage from the fact that she’s not the only writer struggling with them. Of course, what’s more important is to overcome issues and obstacles, which the twelve Literary Ladies did gloriously; and that’s where the inspiration kicks in!
Fewer women writers of the past were also mothers than I think is true today. Only four of the Literary Ladies had children, and that’s pretty representative of female authors of the past. Madeleine L’Engle and Harriet Beecher Stowe were two of them, and they directly addresses their balance issues in the chapter titled The Writer Mother. Stowe was burning to write what ultimately became Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and lamented, “As long as the baby sleeps with me nights, I can’t do much at anything, but I will do it at last.” Sound familiar? Others who didn’t have children, like Louisa May Alcott, still had to work to support themselves or their families. Alcott did a lot of anonymous hack writing to support her mothers and sisters. Perhaps she felt a bit compromised by it, but on the other hand, doing nothing but writing for a living helped sharpen her writing skills and voice.
Writing to me means thinking, digging, pondering, creating, shattering. It means getting at the meaning of all things; it means reaching climaxes; it means moral and spiritual and physical life all in one.
–— Anais Nin
How do you think we’ve changed as a society to help or hinder women writers today?
Women authors had greater odds and prejudices to overcome in the nineteenth century; and by this I mean white women authors. Because of the way things were, women of color as well as women of other ethnic descent didn’t gain much traction until after the civil rights movement, with the exception of a small number of pioneers like Zora Neale Hurston (who I wish I could have made one of the Literary Ladies, but couldn’t find enough in her first-person narratives about her writing life). So that has been one positive development.
I wish I could say that women writers have made huge strides since the earlier part of the 20th century, but surprisingly that isn’t true. I compared the best-seller list of the 1930s with today’s and it was such an eye-opener. Women—including some of those in this book, like Willa Cather, Edna Ferber, and even Virginia Woolf (plus other renowned authors like Pearl Buck and Margaret Mitchell were not only topping the best-sellers lists, but reaping Pulitzers like crazy. According to a National Endowment for the Arts survey, professional women writers are making 80% of their male counterparts’ earnings, which is pretty much what it is across the board these days.
One other change that’s not so positive is that in the age of proliferating media and the internet, sources of paid writing have shrunk dramatically. While it’s great that the internet has fostered the democratization of writing, there is also a sense that everyone who writes is a provider of free content, for the glory of promotion or a link. Several of the Literary Ladies worked as journalists, others editors, and still other cut their teeth by writing sketches, articles, column-fillers—print media, after all, was all their was. This allowed them to sharpen their writing skills with the very same effort as making a living.
Which Literary Lady’s story inspired you the most and why? Which of these ladies do you most resonate with?
Though I’m no heiress like she was, I really appreciated Edith Wharton’s honesty about her struggle to overcome lack of self-confidence. I’ve had to face that as well. And when you do experience that moment of revelation that others do appreciate and respect your creative efforts, it’s really liberating and gives you the courage to do much more than you ever imagined. I haven’t received a Pulitzer or gotten an honorary doctorate like she did, but I can dare to dream now! And I also really like Charlotte Brontë. She was self-described as “small and plain” (like her heroine, Jane Eyre) but she seemed so formidable. She was the ringleader of the trio of talented sisters which included herself, Emily (Wuthering Heights) and Anne (Agnes Grey). She seemed like the kind who wouldn’t take flak from anyone.
“At last I had groped my way through to my vocation, and thereafter I never questioned that story-telling was my job … I felt like some homeless waif who, after trying for years to take out naturalization papers, and being rejected by every country, has finally acquired a nationality. The Land of Letters was henceforth to be my country and I gloried in my new citizenship.”
— Edith Wharton, From A Backward Glance, 1934
Tell us what is next in your writing and promotion projects!
Aside from the WOW blog tour, I’m connecting with others in the vast writing community to do guest posts and interviews; this week I’ll also be doing an interview on the BlogTalk radio show Feisty Side of Fifty (http://www.blogtalkradio.com/feisty-side-of-fifty/2011/03/30/nava-atlas-on-feisty-side-of-fifty-radio), readings, library events, and I hope in the fall to speak to college classes on my travels. I hope I can participate in literary festivals and book fairs. There are so many ways to go with a book about writing and classic authors!
To keep up with events please visit the book’s site, http://www.literaryladiesguide.com and click on Events. Or connect with me on Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/pages/Nava-Atlas/67621864858?ref=mf) for up-to-the-minute Literary Ladies sightings and events!
In one of my other two lives (aside from writing, there’s visual art, and vegan food), I have a vegan cookbook coming along this fall, Vegan Holiday Kitchen (late Oct., sorry, no link yet). Years ago, I tried twice to write novels but gave up when it started to feel too hard. I put it out publicly in the preface to The Literary Ladies’ Guide to the Writing Life that I want to do a graphic novel. Now that I understand that even for the true giants of writing, the effort often felt arduous and lonely, I’ll be less likely to give up! Even if nothing comes of it, I’m going to see the project through. Check back with me in a couple of years on that!
Mary Jo, thanks for these thought-provoking questions, and for hosting me on your site today.
You are very welcome, Nava! Thank you for visiting Writers Inspired!
About the Book:
In this celebration of twelve remarkable “literary ladies,” Nava Atlas reveals how such pioneering authors as Louisa May Alcott, Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, Willa Cather, Edna Ferber, Madeleine L’Engle, L.M. Montgomery, Anais Nin, George Sand, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Edith Wharton, and Virginia Woolf pursued their dreams of becoming a writer–and how the lessons of their lives can inspire today’s writers. Drawing on the personal journals, diaries, memoirs, and letters of these brilliant, unique women, Atlas explores how they balanced their own individual literary voices, dealt with rejection, struggled with their own inner demons, and basked in the triumphs of success.
The Literary Ladies’ Guide to the Writing Life is a lively and incisive look at what it takes to be a writer and to hold onto belief in one’s own talent, sometimes despite enormous obstacles. Sumptuously illustrated, this book brings to life these twelve classic authors in their own vividly compelling words. Nava Atlas accompanies their quotations with fascinating biographical details and her own insightful reflections on the writing life. As she says in her introduction, this book is “a treasury of intimate glimpses into the unfolding creative process across twelve brilliant careers.” Atlas includes the voices of other female writers as well, ranging from Zora Neale Hurston to Colette to Anne Lamott, to capture a spectrum of literary wisdom. For all who dream of living the writing life, this is a book to treasure.
About the Author:
Nava Atlas is the author and illustrator of many well-known vegetarian and vegan cookbooks, including Vegan Express, Vegan Soups and Hearty Stews for All Seasons, The Vegetarian Family Cookbook, and The Vegetarian 5-Ingredient Gourmet. Her first book was Vegetariana, now considered a classic in its field. In addition, she has published two books on humor, Expect the Unexpected When You’re Expecting! (A parody), and Secret Recipes for the Modern Wife.
Nava is also a visual artist, specializing in limited edition artist’s books and text-driven objects and installations. Her work has been shown nationally in museums, galleries, and alternative art spaces. Her limited edition books are housed in numerous collections of artist’s books, including the special collections libraries of The Museum of Modern Art (NY), National Museum of Women in the Arts (Washington, DC), National Library of Fine Arts, and dozens of academic collections.
Want to be one of the first to read an author interview, guest post or hear about a book giveaway? SUBSCRIBE to this blog and voila’! an email covered in pixie dust will appear in your inbox ; )