Monday, July 27, 2009

Harriet Chessman's Guest Post: My Life as a Writer

A happy thank you to Aggie and to Kepler’s for inviting me to contribute to this rich blog! Thank you too to Kate Maloy for suggesting it. I’ve enjoyed reading all the posts.

In this first post, I’ll create a snapshot of my life as a writer, through a mini-q&a. My fifteen-year-old son Gabe came up with the questions.

How often do you write?

Once a novel has gotten a foothold and I’m sure of its direction, I write each weekday, for two to five hours. Often it can take me months, though, to reach this point!

What are your favorite or most influential books by any author?

I love so many novels, poems, short stories, memoirs, essays, and plays. In my first career, I taught English at Yale, so I had the chance to read and teach a wide range of authors, from Chaucer to Milton to E.M. Forster. The authors who may have most directly influenced my writing, though, include Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Bowen, and J.D. Salinger. Woolf’s To the Lighthouse is the novel that inspires and moves me most deeply.

Which of your own books are your favorite?

I think of them all with affection and some pain! My first, Ohio Angels, helped me see that I could write; my second, Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper, created a voice I trusted; and the third, Someone Not Really Her Mother, generated a form I found fascinating to work with: that of linked stories, each one holding to a small slice of life in present tense, with the mysterious past hovering in the background. I also have great affection for my new novel, The Beauty of Ordinary Things, as yet unpublished.

How did you decide to become a writer?

I fell off the tenure ladder at Yale (ouch!), and something in me doggedly refused to apply for other teaching positions. The pull to write was quite strong.

How have your personal experiences influenced your style and stories?

Oh, I am sure my personal experience is everywhere in my books. Often it’s disguised, though, even to me. Once I’m really inhabiting a fictional world, I use what comes up inside me, yet in the act of writing, I’m not consciously thinking, “This is something from my own life.” As novelist Maud Carol Markson (author of the new, beautiful novel Looking After Pigeon) says, one’s characters quickly become not characters, but people, as close to the author as family members.

What do you think of popular literature, read mostly by teenagers, such as Twilight? I haven’t had the chance to read any of the Twilight series. I am, however, all for any books that entice readers, especially young readers!! The summer you (Gabe) were nine, for instance, I wished I could send flowers to J.K. Rowling each day.

Do you have any advice for a beginning or unpublished author?

Trust yourself.

P.S. You’re welcome to take Gabe’s “quiz”! All thoughts welcome! I’d love to hear your own response to any of these questions.

Coming up Wednesday: Irish Writers I Love.

And on Friday, my Achilles heel as a writer.


  1. >I fell off the tenure ladder at Yale (ouch!)

    So interesting to hear that another writing life turned on a blessing in disguise. I, too, started writing after falling off a career ladder, and although I had planned to step off the ladder anyway, it turned out to be a blessing when I might have given up and stepped back on an easily accessible ladder when the going got tough.

    I'm reading Looking After Pigeon now - and loving it!

    Lovely post, Harriet! And great questions, Gabe!

  2. Thank you, Meg. You're right, falling off ladders of all sorts may be the best thing that can happen to a writer! It did hurt at the time; yet, gradually, I had a sense of being able to look around and breathe.

  3. Great post! Love to get this sneak peak into the life of a wonderful writer.

  4. Gabe, thanks for prodding your mother with this idea! I wish I had more time up here at BL to comment... You could write a whole book about your writing life, and I'd want to read it. More, please!

    (Sorry, though--I'll give the whole Twilight series a pass!)


  5. Oh, I could write a whole book about my writing life, and it would be a wonderful soporific! but thank you so much, Scott -- I miss you both greatly.