Where have you lived?
I lived in Granville, Ohio, for most of my childhood. Granville is a beautiful small town in the Welsh Hills (yes, Ohio has hills!), near Columbus. My father G. Wallace Chessman taught American History at Denison University, and my mother chased four children around, first in an old house right in the center of town, and then two miles out, in a new A-frame house (new in 1956!). Once most of us were teenagers or older, my mother went back to school and became a psychiatric social worker — a profession she loved.
In 1957-58, my father had a one-year sabbatical at Southampton University. We took the Queen Mary to England, and lived for one year in the tiny village of Colden Common, in Hampshire. I went to boarding school from 10th grade on – Northfield, in MA –and then to Wellesley College. After graduating in 1972, I lived in Paris for a year, working at the American College in Paris, and then entered the English Ph.D. program at Yale University. After gaining my Ph.D., I taught at Yale for eleven years, living first in New Haven and then in Madison, CT. In 2002, I moved with my husband Bryan J. Wolf, and our three children, to Palo Alto, California. In 2014, Bryan and I moved back to Connecticut, where we live in a peaceful house in the woods.
How did you start to write?
I often wrote stuff as a child, especially poetry, and I continued to write poems once in a while in my twenties and thirties. As a faculty member at Yale, though, I devoted time to writing a book about Gertrude Stein, and scholarly articles on Elizabeth Bowen and the painter Mary Cassatt.
One of the best facts of my life is my tumble off the tenure “ladder” at Yale. I decided to start exploring the world outside of academics, and I soon discovered how freeing this world felt to me; for the first time in my life, I could start to listen – really listen – to what I wished to do and to write. At first I wrote stories for children (eventually publishing two in Ladybug and Spider), and then, out of the blue, ideas for a novel started coming to me.
Do you write every day?
I wish I could! I have to confess, I go for months without writing, sometimes. I get caught up in family life and our household, and of course I also do freelance editing, which is something I enjoy greatly.
Once I’m really immersed in a work of fiction, though, I am much better at clearing my desk and my mind. On good days, once a piece of fiction is underway, I write for about five hours.
Do you write other things besides fiction?
Do you write on a computer?
Yes, I absolutely love the computer. I can write quickly, when my ideas and words are spilling out, and yet a computer also makes it so easy to revise.
Sometimes I write longhand, too, in a blank book with unlined pages, especially when I’m thinking about a character or the larger shape of my story. This is a wonderful way to have a conversation with myself.
How do you get an idea for a novel?
I listen for what engages me, arouses my curiosity, hovers in my mind. As I’m chopping vegetables, watering the garden, cleaning out a drawer, something slips into my head, and if I let it stay awhile and question it, a story starts to form. Sometimes this original seed is a character; sometimes it’s a place. In the case of my novel Lydia Cassatt Reading the Morning Paper, Mary Cassatt’s paintings came first; I cherished her art, and sensed a story, especially in the oil paintings she’d created using her sister Lydia as the model.
To “grow” a story, of course, I do a lot of research, in books and online. I sift through information with an ear out for ways to develop my story.
Do you have advice for a new writer?
Read! Read constantly and carefully, with insight and attentiveness.
Trust yourself; listen to yourself; experiment; be stubborn; give your story or poem or play a chance to breathe and unfold.