Most of these sample questions and answers are drawn or adapted from questions posed to Emily and answered on this website in the Interview section. If there’s a questioner, the name is included in parentheses for attribution purposes should that be appropriate.
You’ve launched an unusual project, publishing books written over several decades within the space of a few months. Why are you publishing all your books at once?
I wanted to be sure I was old enough and experienced enough to get the work right! But seriously, there’s no simple answer to this question except that it’s the result of misadventure, adventure, timing, bad luck, and good luck all in one. I wouldn’t want to repeat my decades of being the bridesmaid of New York publishing, but this project has been so much fun, trying to publish my main work—and I should mention most of the short work has been published before—all at the same time. There have been real advantages to it. I’ve been able to use everything I’ve learned in writing in the editorial process for one thing. I’m also able to bring the books out from one press and with some common design features that make them like a family. And I’m doing something unconventional enough and so tortoise-like that I think it has the value of novelty.
What are the different books in your publishing project? Do they have a common thread? Are they a series? Here’s a link for the synopses that appear on the back covers or in the back matter of the ebooks. That will tell you what the different books are about. But they’re certainly not a series. Two are short story collections. The four books that are novels range from Suite Harmonic, which is a big historical novel about the Civil War to Clare, Loving, which is a novel in three novellas that looks at three different periods of a woman’s life and, in particular, her relationships with her mother and her daughter. It’s not historical at all except as any adult’s life is historical, starting at a time well removed from the years of adulthood. There are things that connect the work. As I said in answer to a question from Elizabeth Sheinkman, I do think I have a voice as a writer that has to do with the way I jockey the building blocks of language and the way I focus on physical place as well as on the interior way we experience the world and the way place and experience interact. I’ve never analyzed this, but I also think there’s a thematic unity across my work. I’m always moved by people’s inner struggles and their ways of trying to live lives that make rough, if painful, sense to them, while they attempt to navigate the important relationships and events in their lives.
Could you explain the unconventional publishing process you are using and what makes it work for you? (Rosemary James)
Given my long and rather complex relationship with traditional publishing, it wasn’t a quick or easy decision for me to opt for an independent route. Yet I felt the digital age offered exceptional opportunities for publishing. Here, briefly, are the steps I’ve followed in this process, though I’ll stress I don’t offer them as a template to others. I first took my unpublished work through a serious process of review and revision, revisiting long years of writing advice from agents, editors, and other writers. Since I wanted the work to be published by a real press that existed as an ongoing entity, in a collaborative effort I established Sky Spinner Press, Inc. I also looked for and found serious professionals: a topnotch copy editor, a wonderful book designer, an inventive and patient web designer, a skilled ebook converter, a printer with decades of varied experience and a distribution and fulfillment arm, and a good and resourceful friend who worked very hard to help set up the initial marketing efforts. I also had the great good fortune of my husband’s photographic archives and the skilled work of friends who are artists and friends of artists, which gave me many possibilites for cover art and for fun in thinking about the covers.
What is your background for writing fiction? As with any writer, reading—reading a lot—was both the precursor and the main requirement for my becoming a writer. All writers have to be equipped with a sense of language and how to put it together in order to communicate well on the page and they learn that, consciously and unconsciously, from how other writers have done it. As far as my specific background is concerned, English and writing were always my strong suits in school growing up. I felt less confident about writing by the time I got to college, but that was mostly because I was slowly feeling my way into what it meant to write fiction. Recently, I read a Paris Review interview with John McPhee, and he talks about the fact that writers develop slowly. I think that’s very true. We have some romantic notion of the handful of writers like Hemingway who write brilliantly in their early twenties. There are others. But it takes a long time to learn what is a very complicated craft and there’s also that matter of having something worth writing about. That can mean looking around for a while and getting a sense of what life is like. Since I’m a general do-it-yourselfer, much of what I know as a writer came through trial and error. But I also had a couple of creative writing classes in college and picked up a master’s degree with a creative writing emphasis much later, though I focused more on reading-as-writers classes and general background courses than on workshops. I also thought hard about the suggestions and criticisms I received from agents and editors and other writers, though there’s always a fine line in finding what is critically useful and what undermines confidence to no purpose.
What have you published and have you won any awards as a writer? The Author Info page in this media kit has that information.
If someone wants to read one of your books, what should they start with? Probably they should begin with their own interests and an awareness of how they read. All the books are available as ebooks as well as in paperback so both reading options are available. Suite Harmonic is a good choice for someone who likes to spend a long time in the world of a book since it’s lengthy and covers lots of territory. It may have the largest natural audience since it cuts a large swath through the nineteenth century—Irish-American immigration, life in a community that was founded to be a utopia, the western and eastern theaters of the Civil War and life on the home front. For anyone who wants a firsthand sense of the historical experience of that war, that’s the book. But it’s clearly not the easiest choice for someone who only has time to read a chapter a month. The two story collections, In the Land of the Dinosaur and Watching Oksana, might be good choices for readers who don’t have a lot of sustained reading time. Place links the Dinosaur stories. The Oksana stories are linked more by theme. The Second Magician’s Tale is the most unusual and fully imagined of the novels. It’s definitely a trip for the reader. My guess is that Time Stamp and Clare, Loving, the two shorter novels and the ones with the unusual chronology, would be particularly good book club choices. Readers can get a sense of the different books by looking at the excerpts and links on the title pages on the website.
Is it possible to read excerpts from these titles? Yes, there are excerpts from each title available on the Excerpts pages of this site. In addition, it is possible to read inside the books on the Amazon.com website by searching for the titles or going to the Emily Meier Author Page.
Why did you include music links on the title pages for your books on your website?
I feel my job as a writer is to create different worlds, and music is a part of virtually any world. When I was thinking about what I wanted to include on the website, I realized that music links could give the reader a sense of the kind of music that was the background for some of those worlds and, in a few cases, be an actual example of music that’s referred to in a story or novel, or at least analogous to it if there wasn’t an actual piece of music outside my imagining of it. And I just think that it’s fun.
Writers rarely make much money. Have you had other jobs? If you include other jobs that don’t make much money, the answer is yes. I’ve had a lot of different jobs. When I was pretty young, I babysat for the neighbors’ three children, and did a big chunk of their housework and laundry for 25 cents an hour. In high school, I briefly had a job trying to sell magazines over the phone and was a day camp counselor. In college, I worked as a nurse’s aide in a children’s hospital three summers, and in the business office of a prison the fourth. Later, I was a waitress, a bank teller, a secretary, and then the person who drops off papers for paperboys and vending machines in the middle of the night. I collaborated with my husband in running a stock photo business and a small photo studio. I taught piano lessons to children. At the university level, I taught history, literature, composition, and creative writing and then fiction courses at a literary center. I might have missed something here. I had many unpaid jobs as well—accompanist, room mother, Scout leader, school board campaign manager, campaign head (actually the whole campaign) for saving the strings program in the local school district, reading mentor, boiler project manager for my building! That’s enough.
Why do you write? (Sigrid Nunez)
I really need to go back to the beginnings on this, and the first book that—excitingly—was mine alone: When We Were Very Young by A. A. Milne. It was a book I inscribed with my first letters, laboriously printing my name inside the cover. From that early time, my sense of self was interwoven with books and their function as a passport to life, in part because of the books themselves and in part because my family moved often and books were always a constant for me. By the time I was in high school, I knew I wanted to be a writer, although I don’t know when I decided that. It was more than a decade later, when my daughter was a baby, that I started a project (the ancestor of Time Stamp) that began to come together for me as a writer, particularly as I began to learn the important dailiness of work. Though I kept what I was doing to myself for a long time, that period marks the start of the time when I knew why I write. I had finally realized that the charge and exactitude I found in writing made me feel like myself. They have since I was very young.
Have you always lived in St. Paul? I was born in Illinois, lived in Indiana, Missouri, Ohio, Kentucky, Minnesota, went to college in Rhode Island (Brown), graduate school in Arizona (University of Arizona), Wisconsin, and back again in Minnesota. (I also picked up a writing degree at the University of Minnesota while living in western Wisconsin.) I consider myself a Midwesterner first and foremost though I enjoyed the college and graduate school years in East and West. My children are East Coasters now so they keep me in that loop.
How did you get interested in writing historical fiction? (Kate Klonick)
Aside from Suite Harmonic, I don’t really categorize anything I’ve written as historical fiction, although Time Stamp certainly covers a wide time period, from 1911 to 1997. I had a specific desire to tell the Suite Harmonic story before I ever thought of it as historical fiction; my interest was in that one story, not in historical fiction per se. I was fascinated by John Given’s letters from the first I knew of them as a teenager. Also, my mother had told me her mother’s stories about him when I was growing up, and I knew he had had an interesting life with a lot of historical nexus points. It wasn’t until I read his letters myself, and even more when I tracked down some of their references, that I realized how amazing those connections were. That’s the place where the old history student part of me came into play, particularly the researcher from graduate school. I knew the potential excitement in the story needed not only the imaginative work of the fiction writer but a passion to do the research that would unearth the full dimensions of the relevant historical record.
Did the experience of doing such extensive research for Suite Harmonic, your Civil War novel, have an impact on you as a writer beyond providing the information you needed? (Janet Holmes)
The most obvious way research had an impact on my writing was that it basically meant for three years I really didn’t write. That had a disorienting effect, even an unmooring one. I was totally consumed with a writing project, but it sometimes felt as if I would never get enough pieces in place to start the actual writing. But I think there’s a deeper question here: did doing the research and working with what I found change the way I wrote or my perceptions, or even instincts, as a writer? That question gets a definite yes. My imagination had to work in lockstep with my research findings. I couldn’t just picture a scene and write it off the top of my head. I had to keep anchoring it in a factual base. While I’ve always liked the idea that characters can slip right into the events of the day and feel like actual people, this went way beyond that. These characters were actual people. I had to discover the contours of the world I was writing about through research and then fit my characters to them. The strictures on me as a writer were greater and I felt a real sense of obligation to the characters to get their stories true, both emotionally and factually.
Do you consider yourself an expert on the Civil War?
Not at all. Not even remotely. What I am is a person who did some intensive research on aspects of the war that involved my main character in Suite Harmonic, John Given, and the units he served with. The viewpoint is his. Like any soldier, it was hard for John to have an idea of what the bigger picture of the war was. There are many references in the book to his desire to get home and read what really happened in a given battle or situation in Harper’s Weekly. I did draw on later reports such as those from Harper’s and on the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion and other sources to do all I could to make battle scenes, right down to the confusion, accurate. But the most I can claim is that, as I wrote the various scenes, I wanted to be as knowledgeable as possible on the experience of those battles for one soldier. And that included making his experience fit into the larger movements of the war in a way that depicts them as they actually were.
As a fiction writer, do you have to limit or control the ways in which you use research-generated material. (Peter Hessler)
It’s always necessary to impose yourself on the research material, discarding a great deal of it, but that doesn’t mean the rest of it is useless. There’s a Vanessa Redgrave anecdote I love that’s relevant here. I think she was advising one of her daughters on a stage performance. A scene, anyway. There was a trunk as part of the props, but it was never opened. They discussed the character and various aspects of the performance and then Vanessa Redgrave said, “Of course, you know what’s in the trunk.” For a fiction writer—and I suspect a non-fiction writer as well—all the research that doesn’t land visibly in the story is what’s in the trunk. The knowledge of it informs the tone of a story, a character’s reactions, what things a writer decides to include.
Did other books or writers have an influence on Suite Harmonic? (Eileen Hunter)
The main work I can think of in this connection has just a tangential relationship: Paul Scott’s Raj Quartet. Both it and Suite Harmonic are about momentous, historical events told from the narrative view of one side. The back story of slavery in the South is just that in Suite Harmonic, much as the experience of Indians under the British Raj is backgrounded in Scott’s work. I suspect this reflects a larger oddity in the way we tell our most important stories: the very reason for their existence is often an all but invisible yet impelling force behind what we write.
You say that John Given’s letters, which are the basis for the story in Suite Harmonic: A Civil War Novel of Rediscovery are family letters. What is the connection for you?
John was my mother’s maternal grandfather, so my great-grandfather. I don’t mention this directly in my descriptions of the book and I don’t normally volunteer the answer to this question. I’m not trying to be coy about it. It’s simply that I want readers to approach the book on its own terms and not think of the book as just someone’s family stories. John Given’s life was remarkable no matter whose great-grandfather he is. And in some ways, he could be anyone’s immigrant ancestor who goes through so much to make a home in a new land.Yet the personal connection is part of the reason I could be so dedicated to this project through the years of intense research and writing. It felt mine as both a writer and person.
John Given, the Irish-American protagonist of Suite Harmonic, has descendants who live in the Atlanta area. Do you think living there would have had any attraction for John himself? (Pam Greer)
John spent some of his enlistment period with Sherman—not when Sherman was marching through Georgia on his rampage, but in the earlier period when he’d taken command from Grant, and his troops had begun decimating everything that could support the Southern war effort. Even if John had had a desire to live in the South, he would have realized how battered it was by the war and, as a man who was wary of what welcome he and his family might receive even in certain circles in New Harmony, he would have certainly doubted his acceptance there, and of course known that, given the devastation, Southern poverty and hardship after the war would be extreme. He might have thought life would be as challenging there as it had been in Ireland. But here’s an interesting small fact. The Given family name is actually Scottish. If John had ancestors who’d emigrated from Scotland, he might have been comfortable with some of the folkways he would have encountered among the Southern Scots-Irish. And he certainly would have realized it was part happenstance that, as an immigrant, he wound up in the North instead of the South and in the Union army instead of the Confederate.
Obviously Suite Harmonic required a great deal of research. If a story needs research to develop the ideas, do you do it before you start writing or while you are writing? (Diane Craig)
The research question can surface at any point in a story’s creation. Obviously, in writing a big historical novel like Suite Harmonic, a whole lot of research had to precede almost all of the writing. I had to know what it was I was putting together, although I continued to do needed additional research while I wrote. But Suite Harmonic is sui generis in my work. In general, there’s probably not a story I’ve written that hasn’t required some degree of research along the way, whether it’s checking on minor facts, or learning the terms a given character might use, or just verifying things—say, by walking down to a fence to check exactly what a clicking fencer sounds like or using a fencing tool to internalize what clipping barbed wire to a stake actually feels like. Or maybe a story requires exploring car ads to find out what model car might best suit a man in a mid-life crisis, such as the one Jefferson Shalli experiences in “Moving,” in Watching Oksana. I could find unlimited examples from stories that required research at some point along the way. So I guess the main answer to when the research gets done is this: you do research whenever a story requires it.
How did you go about deciding when and how to take artistic license with the historical record for Suite Harmonic? (Susan Welsch)
From the very outset of my work on Suite Harmonic, I was committed to sticking to the facts of John Given’s story as reported in his letters. Of course, I couldn’t find the answer to every single question I had. The one that plagued me most concerned John’s education, and I ended up speculating about what it was based on family stories and the information I was able to gather from various sources about education in Ireland in the 1840s and 1850s. Generally, in writing scenes, my guide was, first, what the letters reported, and then what information I’d gathered to flesh them out, particularly from Civil War records, and my own sense of the characters and their relationships. Of course I took liberties, and many of them. In the end, I wasn’t writing a biography and didn’t intend to, but writing a novel. But it’s a particular kind of novel, and perhaps a unique one in its verisimilitude. If you’re reading about whether somebody was wounded in a battle, lost in a steamboat explosion, had a child, moved somewhere, or did something as simple as going berry picking, you can pretty much take it to the bank.
Your sentences have a brilliant clarity but also a conversational element. How do you achieve that? (Susan Thurin)
This question reminds me of something I heard the poet Jorie Graham say in a master class. I’m just making a rough paraphrase, but she spoke about the levels of diction we use in writing, depending on the audience. The highest diction level is the language of, say, Caesar speaking to the crowd. The levels descend—I think she may have actually sketched out twelve levels—until we arrive at the least articulate: the writer trying to convey the broken phrases and unrelated bits of language that float in the consciousness. That level is really the writer just barely speaking to the self. My feeling is that a lot of writing is really combining and calibrating these various levels of diction in such a way that we convey the essence and complexity of what we’re saying in the most direct and accessible way we can. There may be something in this process that helps me achieve the phenomenon you’re talking about, if and when I do. It’s working and working until the tone is right since, in writing, we are always in conversation with someone.
What impact did your National Endowment for the Arts fellowship have on your writing? (Dana Gioia)
There were several impacts. The grant money meant I could trade teaching time for research time, so that was huge. The fellowship also opened doors. Most people went out of their way to help me when I introduced myself by saying I was doing work on a novel that I’d received a National Endowment for the Arts fellowship to write. This was the case even when I showed up in my blue jeans with a backpack. As far as whether or not I became a different writer because of the fellowship, I suspect the answer is no. The projects and plans were already there even if the research was on hold. The intention and dedication were already well established. My voice as a writer was clear. What I think I became, though, was a happier and more productive writer and one who felt more an accepted part of the community of writers. It was an irreplaceable feeling of validation, one I still have, and it made a difference I can’t even calculate.
Have you found in being married to a photographer that your husband’s visual language and subject matter have found their way into your writing? (Jack Milroy)
I’ve always known that my husband’s being a photographer has had a big influence on how I experience things visually. Sometimes I’ve even felt I learned how to really see because of the things he showed me with his camera. So in this very large sense, yes, being married to a photographer has influenced me a lot. I’ve also borrowed some of his knowledge about photography and cameras, particularly in writing Time Stamp since Maddie, one of the two main characters, is a photographer. But I have a love of photography that I think stands on its own and a certain knowledge base I’ve picked up through osmosis. It’s a different question, though, whether or not my husband’s style or themes have influenced my work. I really don’t think so. I can’t remember an example of that happening. If it has, it’s encrypted beneath too many layers of memory for me to find. It’s more as if we’ve been on different tracks. We’ve both always been interested in each other’s work, but they’ve been very separate in emphasis. Really, in everything. But I’m fascinated with the idea of collaboration. I think it’s a great way to stretch artistically. Perhaps this publishing project is the closest I’ve come to trying it.
You have some background in music. Do you feel music has filtered into your style and, beyond that, have you ever used it directly as a construct for ordering or advancing the framework of a narrative? (David Cost)
There’s of course nothing better for creating mood than a piece of music. When I have an idea about something I want to write and can’t quite put my finger on how to express it, I sometimes think of a piece of music that has gotten into my blood in the same way I want a certain scene or situation to work. Then I’ll listen closely to the music and try to write down what it is that it’s evoking in me. What I’m hearing. The images it brings to mind. The sense of excitement or apprehension or calm. Music is a serious tool in this way. In effect, it’s a generator of language that can then follow its own lead. But even if work is inspired by a cadence or rhythm in music, it has to move from that to establish its own sound. Influence isn’t congruence. To make a more writerly comparison, you can’t write prose in lines of iambic pentameter. And you also can’t write prose in the exact rhythms of music (unless you’re maybe Toni Morrison in Jazz). I also am not the sort of writer who closely plans a structure when I begin work on a story. While the idea of trying to do something like Thomas Mann did when he tried to insinuate the twelve-tone structure of Arnold Schtönberg’s music into Dr. Faustus is pretty fascinating, attempting to write that way would probably challenge the sense of essential freedom I rely on in writing, and try my sanity.
If you had to tell a stranger who you are, what would you say? Eons ago, there was that game in which people were asked to answer this question in three words or phrases that captured the essence of how they identified themselves. That’s maybe a little reductive. At the most basic level, I’m a writer, a family member, a friend. But I’m other things that are more about the me me. I’m hard working and persevering; I like to figure things out; I like to be amused; I love all the arts, including the practical ones of construction; I love to watch baseball. I like the big picture. I believe life has more mysteries than certainties and that we all have vulnerabilities, which is why it’s possible to write and tell stories and why those stories are interesting.
As a writer, has any personal sense of vulnerability or mortality affected what you write, how you write, or even how you present your work to the world? (Richard Solly)
I will make this personal but brief. My mental sense of myself is of a person about to swim laps or run flights of steps in my neighborhood. That’s me. Yet there are times, including now, when I’m not that person and serious illness has made me feel vulnerable. The honest answer is that that feeling has affected how I write more than what. When I have a sense of urgency about getting the work done—getting everything downloaded from my brain while it’s a living and functioning organ—it makes me a highly focused and driven writer who works on an unforgiving schedule. I don’t think that’s unusual. I think we often have moments in our lives when we have real clarity about our priorities and push everything else aside—times when something precious to us feels imperiled and we work over our heads. And this sense has also made me feel that I won’t dawdle in presenting my work to the world. I’ll break some rules if I have to.