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Meet Sami Rohr Prize Finalist…Elisa Albert

Thursday, February 05, 2009| Permalink

Posted by Naomi Firestone-Teeter

Our third installment of “Words from our Finalists”…Elisa Albert

Elisa…meet our Readers
Readers…meet Elisa

What are some of the most challenging things about writing fiction?

The wide-open possibilities, I suppose. When you’re not bound to facts, the “what-really-happened”, those endless open roads can be daunting. How to make the right choices for your characters? How to be true to life while making the whole thing up?

What or who has been your inspiration for writing fiction?

I fell in love with books as a kid and always felt driven to express myself in such a way as to honor what I found in my favorite writing. Lorrie Moore’s short story “How to Be a Writer” (from Self Help, 1984, click to read) struck me like a bolt of lightening in high school. And I have an extremely dog-eared copy of The Vintage Book of Contemporary American Short Stories edited by Tobias Wolff; I must’ve torn through that thing a hundred times.

Who is your intended audience?

I actually try to avoid thinking about audience altogether; it can hobble me in a lot of ways. The real or imagined expectations of real or imagined readers (your mom, your mom’s friends, your friends’ moms, your teachers, your friends, your enemies, the lady at the drugstore, that guy who wronged you a decade ago,ad nauseum) seem to serve only as a limiting, censuring force, and to write fiction I believe one needs to be free of all that.

Do you think your work speaks predominantly to your generation? Future generations? Or, older generations?

My work transcends time and generation, speaking to the core of universal human experience. Okay, no, sorry. I really couldn’t say, but I do feel fairly rooted in this present moment, both as a reader and as a writer. Who knows how that might translate over time?

Who is the reader over your shoulder?

Some conglomeration of the teachers I’ve been so blessed to have (Binnie Kirshenbaum, Jayne Anne Phillips, Stephen McCauley, and David Gates, especially), and some best version of myself — a reader who is sympathetic, empathetic, aware, well-versed, and capable of holding two opposing ideas in her head at the same time. Basically, a presence I adore and trust, and with which I don’t feel the least bit self-conscious or afraid.

Are you working on anything new right now?

Well! I just finished an opus: his name is Miller David Schwarzschild and he’s nine days old as of this writing. Next up, I’m editing an anthology of original personal essays by literary authors on sibling relationships, under contract to Free Press. Working title is Freud’s Blind Spot, and contributors include Erica Jong, Julie Orringer, Peter Orner, and Joanna Hershon. I’m also taking notes for a new novel about travel (the notion of the wandering Jew looms large), playing with a couple short stories, and writing two essays for upcoming anthologies, one on my feminist “click” moment and one on sex.

What are you reading now?

I finished Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland recently and was utterly charmed, moved, and delighted by it. An absolutely elegant and perfectly wrought book. So very deserving of its reception.

Very different, but no less excellent, is Gilad Elbom’sScream Queens of the Dead Sea, which I found at Dove and Hudson, Albany’s wonderful used bookstore, and picked up on a whim. A wacky, wild, very funny and perverse ride through a few days in the life of an Israeli metalhead working at the local mental institution.

When did you decide to be a writer? Where were you?

I don’t think I decided to be a writer so much as decided that my attempts to be anything else were just not going to cut it. I did decide to go to grad school while temping at a really depressing little literary agency, though, and taking that step was a big commitment, in my mind, to giving the writing a serious go.

What is the mountaintop for you — how do you define success?

A steady and constant writing life is the ultimate goal for me. Pushing forward and quite simply doing the work, day in and day out. It’s a huge challenge for me: I tend, quite honestly, toward rather dramatic bursts of productivity book-ended by periods of creative despondency and self-loathing. I feel like I’ve conquered the world and the worst in myself when I can just do the work, do the work, do the work, and let the chips fall where they may.

Also, lately, I very much aspire to breastfeed and nap at the same time.

How do you write — what is your private modus operandi? What talismans, rituals, props do you use to assist you?

I circle around it pretty elaborately: a walk to the store, a cup of tea and a snack, the window shades just so, the soundtrack extensively mulled, the laundry done, the house clean. (See also, above: creative despondency.) Then, when there’s nothing else to be done, when I have no choice but to face whatever I’m trying to write, I write. And if it goes poorly, at least I have the solace of some nice music in a clean house.

What do you want readers to get out of your book?

I suppose the answer depends on the reader. On the broadest level, and at its best, fiction can do miraculous things: show us bits and pieces of ourselves in stories with which we might not otherwise immediately identify, expand our capacity for real-life empathy by forcing us to empathize with characters we’ll never actually meet, and make us think about how vastly different perspectives on the world can form a really vibrant, if challenging, harmony.

You can read more about Elisa Albert by visiting her website here.

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