review of Shoes Hair Nails. Today we are pleased to share with you our interview with author Deborah Batterman.
GJR: I really enjoyed reading your book of short stories Shoes Hair Nails. How did the idea come about?
Deborah Batterman (DB): Once I realized I had enough stories for a collection, it became a question of which ones to include/which to leave out and whether there was a unifying hook that might frame them. One obvious thread that emerged was how drawn I am to the metaphoric underpinnings of symbols in our world and how they can be lifted from their everyday – mundane, if you will – associations to reveal their deeper resonance. When those symbols have a particularly female association – as in shoes/hair/nails – they’re often dismissed as trivial. In using them as the cornerstone of my collection, my hope is to crack that veneer.
GJR: I would be hard pressed to choose a favorite story, but my favorite character is easy…Charlotte. Where did she come from?
DB: Charlotte, I think, grew out of a certain sensitivity I’ve always had to anyone who is laughed at or mistreated -- and let’s not forget the gossip inflicted – because he or she is different. And yet so often they’re the ones who give us our greatest lessons. So while I can’t say there was a ‘Charlotte’ in my life – aside from an aunt, not in the least bit crazy, whom I had a great affection for – I do have a strong memory of a classmate teased a great deal because of his disability. Later on, in high school and college, I remember admiring certain classmates because of their willingness to be different. And yet they suffered for it. So I suppose Charlotte is anyone and everyone who has ever been ridiculed for thinking (or living) outside the box. Of course, she would probably be diagnosed with some form of depression these days but that isn’t the point.
GJR: I loved the way Talking Gets Your Nowhere is written, in both the mother and daughter points of view. Any plans to revisit Rhonda in adulthood. I’d love to know what she was up to now.
DB: Funny you should ask. I would not be the first writer to recognize that a short story sometimes begs for expansion, even if it stands on its own as a self-contained entity. “Talking Gets You Nowhere,” structured as a kind of therapy session in which the mother and daughter never quite address each other, contains a backstory alluded to – compressed in way – that would not leave me be. I don’t mean to make this sound so mysterious but that’s the way it is with certain fictional characters and the situations from which they emerge. So this short piece of fiction became the genesis of the novel I’m working on, which means that, yes, you’ll see Rhonda again, morphed into a character named Vanessa.
GJR: Of all the stories, which one is your personal favorite? I realize this is like asking you to choose a favorite child (I’m convinced it was my brother).
DB: I confess that I’ve always had an affection for “Crazy Charlotte,” mostly because it’s a story that demanded to be rewritten many times until I got it right. It happens to be one of the first stories I wrote, but unlike other early stories that I filed away, this had the seeds of something that felt worthwhile thematically, not to mention a character just oddball enough to draw compassion. But I can’t stop there . . . and I would have to say that “Shoes” is a favorite as well, for different reasons: it happened to be my first published story; but even more important may be the way craft and heart combine to tell a story that, to my thinking, is particularly poignant.
GJR: Can you please describe your writing process?
DB: I’ve learned to trust that what I’m struggling with today will often resolve itself at the most unexpected time – on a walk or driving in the car, for example. Sometimes, I’ll jump out of bed in the morning—well, not jump – because the phrasing of a line that wasn’t quite right when I went to sleep will emerge with clarity and I want to get it down before I forget it. Not that I ever really forget. So when you ask about process, my mind leaps to a zen wisdom story about a meditation student who tells his master he had nothing but distracting thoughts during his meditation. The master responds, “That’s good.” The next day the student reports to his master that he had no distracting thoughts while meditating. The master responds, “That’s good, too.” I think it’s very much the same with writing. I sit – every day – and plug away, for a certain number of hours, the point being that sitting – even if I’m staring at a blank screen or at the deer I see through the glass door that looks out on my driveway – provides consistency. Some days my fingers fly, the thoughts and phrasing almost taking on a life of their own. Other days every line is an effort.
GJR: How do you go about naming your characters?
DB: Sometimes it’s really nothing more than the sound of a name, the cadence it strikes in me. In some ways the naming of a character – like Rhonda – is simply about an allusion, in her case a song by the Beach Boys. Other times it’s more about the particular quality of the name. “Crazy Charlotte” was the working title of a story before she was a full-fledged character. No other name seemed to suit her better so I stayed with it. How many times have you heard someone’s voice on the phone before you met him or her and said, “You don’t sound or look like your name”? It’s not all that different with fictional characters in that I try to come up with a name suited to the personality, quirks, what have you, of the character. I try to stay away from using names of friends and family members since people tend to read too much into that. Also, I myself might see too much of that person in a character.
GJR: What are you currently working on? Can you tell us the premise?
DB: I think writing is an act of discovery – you discover things about yourself as a writer and you discover things about the characters you create. Two stories in my collection – “Nails” and “Talking Gets You Nowhere” – had a link via the main character that seemed worthy of more exploration. “Nails” ends with her taking off to spend time with a friend in Mexico; “Talking Gets You Nowhere” finds her unable to settle down in any one place, a single mother, uncertain of where she belongs and haunted by the death of a best friend in Mexico. So what began as a journey story – a kind of modern-day Odyssey – is turning into a mother-daughter narrative that has, at its heart, the dispersal of family and the question of what we call ‘home.’
GJR: Who are your favorite authors to read? Why?
DB: This is always a hard question – isn’t it? So many great books, so many gifted writers. Richard Powers has a brilliance that’s hard to match, both in terms of the breadth of his knowledge and his often exquisitely poetic writing. Toni Morrison hooked me with her first book, The Bluest Eye. Grace Paley and William Trevor, different as their voices are, encompass entire lives in short stories. I go back to Jane Austen when I want to be reminded of what brought me to a love of reading, and writing. Virginia Woolf opened my eyes to new ways of perception and style. I also read a lot of poetry, which I think informs my own work in many ways. Among my favorite poets are Mary Oliver, Jane Hirshfield, Philip Levine, and Eavan Boland.
GJR: What are you currently reading?
DB: I don’t ever seem to be reading one book at a time. I just started The Financial LIves of Poets by Jess Walter, though I can’t wait to read Adi Alsaid’s Somewhere Over the Sun, based on your review alone. I’m also reading an early collection of poems by Eaven Boland, An Origin Like Water.
GJR: What is the most challenging aspect of being an independent writer?
DB: Marketing my work. And while I admit it takes a great deal of time and energy from the writing itself, I would have to say that the effort has brought me in touch with wonderful writers and a whole new world of book bloggers I would otherwise not have known.
GJR: Something different: How long have you been knitting? What is your favorite thing to knit? Do you wear your own creations or give them away?
DB: I should thank you first for reading that post I wrote on the connection between writing and knitting. I knitted when I was a young and only recently started taking it up again. My mother-in-law relinquished a set of knitting needles to me a few years ago so all I needed was the motivation, which came in the form of a Gryffindor scarf my daughter had been wanting me to make. I think it’s no small irony that I began the scarf the day I released my dog from her suffering. It felt like a very life-affirming thing to do. After knitting the scarf for my daughter, I made one for myself, cashmere. It was a good winter for knitting scarves – and hats. I came across a pattern for a slouchy hat that I just loved, so I managed to adjust the pattern for the yarn I was working with. Of course, my daughter insisted on having one, too. I expect I’ll be graduating to vests and sweaters soon.
Thanks again to Ms. Batterman for answering our questions. If you want to learn more about her, follow her on her blog at The Things She Thinks About.