Chronicle Books: An Interview with Dashka Slater

interview01Did you always know you wanted to be a writer?

I grew up in a literary household. Both of my parents are writers, as is my brother and one of my sisters. So when I began making up stories of my own, I naturally assumed that the world wanted to hear them.

When did you start to read and write?

My parents lived in Europe and the Caribbean for the year that I was four, and since I was away from other children and didn't have much to do, my mother taught me to read. I immersed myself in books from that time on and gloried in being precociously literary. I used to haul around a copy of Shakespeare's sonnets when I was about six which always did a great job of impressing grown-ups even though I mainly used it to draw pictures in the margins. By age ten I had written two fifty-page "novels," neither of which I ever got around to finishing. The first was in the realistic mode; the second, which I called "Colors of the Day" after a Judy Collins record my mother owned, was surreal bordering on the psychedelic. Most of the stories I wrote from then on were on the magical side of magical realism.

Did you study writing in college?

I came to the University of California at Berkeley in 1981. I was determined to major in something other than English, because I'd seen up close how undependable writing was as a source of income. I bounced around from department to department, flirting with majors in French and Dramatic Arts, and took a semester off to live in Eugene, Oregon with my boyfriend (now my husband) and study midwifery before finally settling in a small inter-disciplinary program called Conservation and Resource Studies. I never cured myself of the writing habit completely though.

When did you start writing seriously?

After college I traveled briefly in Latin America and then took a job as a marketing manager for a company that made solar energy software. It was half-time, which allowed me to write, but I didn't really accomplish much until I was laid-off two years later. For six months I collected unemployment and wrote the first draft, in longhand, of the book that would eventually become The Wishing Box.

The next few years were spent trying to support my writing habit with a slew of temp jobs and a job as marketing coordinator for a computer book publisher. In 1991, I took a feature writing class with the editor in chief of the weekly East Bay Express, a newspaper sometimes described as the Bay Area's New Yorker because of its emphasis on long form journalism. He liked my work and began publishing it, and eventually I discovered that it was possible to make a living writing after all—even if it was by writing non-fiction.

Describe the evolution of The Wishing Box. Did it take a long time to write?

I'm really glad you're asking me about this, because it seems like I'm always reading articles about writers where they say, "She dashed off the novel in two weeks, while studying for the bar exam," and it always used to make me feel completely inadequate. But I really think that my experience is much more common for writers, and so now that I get to be the subject of an interview, I want to preach the word: it takes a long time! I started when I got laid off from my job at a computer software firm, and I wrote in longhand 2/3 of a first draft, of which maybe one or two sentences are in the final version. Then my unemployment ran out, so I had to go get a job, and didn't get to work on it again for a while. It was like that for ten years: I'd work on it, there'd be a big flurry of activity, and then the needs of having to make a living would intrude.

What was the original impetus for the book?

I started with the scene that ended up becoming the prologue, in which Julia's grandmother finds herself swimming in a pool full of angels. The scene came to me very vividly and then it was a question of finding out who are these people and what is this story about? I had somewhat of an idea that there was a father who disappeared. You always hear the stories about the guy who goes to the corner store for a pack of cigarettes and never comes back, and I began wondering what it would be like to grow up with an unfinished story like that. What happens to the people he leaves behind? And how much are we shaped by the mistakes our parents made in raising us?

What's the relationship between the author and her characters like?

I don't want to get too mystical about this, but there's really is a feeling when you're hard at work on a project that the characters have a life of their own, and that you are just listening to the stories they're telling you. The odd thing is that I'm convinced that some of the characters have continued to live lives of their own since they were created. Julia's grandmother, for instance, swims at my gym. The whole time I was writing the book I kept running into her at the pool, and I felt like apologizing to her for not having finished it yet.

What are some of your favorite books?

I love Dickens and Jane Austen and Toni Morrison and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but probably the books that have been the most influential for me have been children's books. When I was young I was an avid reader, and those were the books that I read over and over again—I think I read Charlotte's Web 14 times. In a lot of ways I was formed as a writer more by E. Nesbit and E.B. White and Lewis Carroll than anyone I've read since. I don't think I ever stopped believing that magical things happen to ordinary people as a matter of course—talking spiders can take up residence in your barn, a looking glass can lead you into a topsy-turvy world, a second-hand carpet can turn out to be the flying kind. What people have termed "magical realism" I think is really just a reflection of how peculiar and unexpected the world actually seems to most of us.

How many hours a day do you write?

One thing I learned from being a journalist is that if you sit around waiting to be inspired, you'll never get anything done. So I make it a habit to at least sit my butt in the chair by my desk for a couple of hours a day. I can write non-fiction for eight hours at a stretch, but with fiction I'm usually tapped out after four. If it's going horribly I'll let myself get up after two hours and go for a walk or a swim to try to clear my head.

When do you write?

The answer to that has changed since I had a baby last year. I used to get up, have a leisurely breakfast, read the paper, and generally postpone sitting down to work until around ten. Then I'd write until I was completely exhausted or frustrated, or my eyes were crossing. When my son was born I had this idea that I'd write during naptime, but that turned out to be a fantasy—usually I was napping during naptime. So now I have a babysitter who takes him for part of the day and I rush into my study and pound away at the computer until my time's up.

What are you working on now?

I don't know if other writers are this superstitious, but I've always felt writing was like wishing—it's better not to tell anyone about it until it comes true. When I wrote The Wishing Box I didn't even tell my husband what I was doing until I had a first draft.

Do you still write longhand or do you use a computer?

I use a computer—in fact, I'm now completely paralyzed without one. Part of the problem is that after being a journalist for ten years, my handwriting has become completely illegible. I'm so used to taking notes at top speed that writing out full sentences seems incredibly laborious. But all those years of working as a temp has left me with superior typing abilities—70 words a minute, thank you very much. So it feels as if there's a direct link between my brain and the computer screen—until my computer crashes and I lose the entire day's work...

Who do you show your work to?

I have a wonderful writing group that's been meeting, on and off, for nearly ten years. They see everything first. I also show my writing to the writers in my family. They love me, but they still tell me when something needs work. Still, it's kind of funny to have a critique that begins with "Sweetie" (my dad) or "Darling" (my mom). My husband is my biggest fan, but it's hardest of all to show new writing to him. I usually tell him that if he doesn't like it, I'm filing for divorce, and then I hover over his shoulder while he's reading trying to gauge if he's laughing at the funny parts. He's much funnier than I am, so if he laughs, I know the scene must be working.

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