Where were you born?
I was born in Newark, Ohio, January 16th, 1951. I was the third child out of four.
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 dad taught American History at Denison University, and my mom 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!).
In 1957-58, my dad had a sabbatical at Southampton University in England. We took the Queen Mary across the ocean, and lived for one year in a tiny (nearly invisible!) village called Colden Common, near Eastleigh. 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, 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 three children and my husband Bryan Wolf to the Bay Area.
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, although I became immersed too in more scholarly writing.
One of the best facts of my life is my tumble off the tenure “ladder” at Yale. I soon discovered how freeing this was; for the first time in my life, I could start to listen – really listen – to what I wished to write. At first I wrote children’s picture books, and gradually ideas for a novel started coming to me.
Do you write every day?
I wish I could! I try to.
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, I write for three to five hours.
Do you write other things besides fiction?
Do you write on a computer?
Yes, I 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, 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 loved 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.