I first met Tammy Greenwood seven years ago. She was teaching a creative writing class at UCSD Extensions in San Diego and I was living in the Mojave Desert. This meant I drove 3 hours each way to attend her class. I can think of few better testimonials to her as a teacher.
Tammy is the author of six novels and has a seventh novel in the works with Kensington. (I’ve had the distinct pleasure of reading drafts of the new book, and it’s going to be a good one!) She has won numerous awards and grants for her writing and has taught in various universities and workshops. I could go into specifics, but suffice to say, she’s living the dream!
Tammy combines a keen eye for details with a capacious heart, and yet somehow manages to push her stories into the gloomiest of places. Her novels examine the tragedies of contemporary American life, with memorable characters who suffer from the curse of loving too much and being wounded by the flaws of desire and destiny. Kids die in her novels; trains crash, families grieve over lost love and commit adultery; there are hoarders and cancer survivors and shoplifters. Tammy’s characters hold a mirror up to the darkest corners of their being, and they never flinch from going deeper.
I’ve been fortunate to work closely with Tammy and another fine San Diego writer, Jim Ruland, in an intimate writing group we affectionately call “The Dub Club” (Dub standing for the letter ‘W’ and not the former president.) It’s my pleasure to interview Tammy here on Numéro Cinq.
The Confluence of Rivers: An Interview with Tammy Greenwood
by Richard Farrell
RJF: Place seems to matter a lot to you. You’ve invented towns in Vermont in your novels. Places you’ve lived seem to appear frequently in your work. Could you talk about how you think about place, about landscapes, as you outline your writing?
Tammy Greenwood: I have described my work in the past as “auto-geographical.” What I mean by that, is that setting (for me) comes from a true place. I feel like that in order to create authentic characters, they must first inhabit an authentic world. Setting is one of the first decisions I make, sometimes even before character.
I grew up in rural Vermont, and (especially as a teenager), I was always trying to escape it. I think it’s funny, because now it is with tremendous longing that I return to Vermont again and again in my fiction.
RJF: Your writing is always tinged with darkness yet to you express very little darkness in person. What was it Chekhov said? That happy writers write sad stories? Do you find that true?
TG: I don’t know about all the other happy writers out there, but it’s true for me. I actually think the darkness in my fiction arises more from my definition of story. For me, story-telling is about exploring trouble. My characters are always troubled or in trouble (and sometimes both).
RJF: What other writers have had the greatest influence on your writing career?
TG: In terms of writers who have mentored me, I am indebted to Howard Frank Mosher who has been championing my work since I was a teenager. He is a wonderful storyteller himself and one of the first people to encourage me to pursue a writing life. I have had the good fortune of being taught by many amazing writers as well (Burt Porter, David Huddle, Ann Cummins, Barbara Anderson, Colleen McElroy to name just a few). In terms of writers whose work has influenced me, the list is long: Anais Nin, Toni Morrison, John Irving, Richard Russo, Scott Spencer, Barbara Kingsolver, A.M. Homes, Kathryn Harrison, Mary Gaitskill, Alice Hoffman, Dan Chaon, Stewart O’Nan…and so on and so on. And my writer friends have a tremendous influence on my work as well.
RJF: Could you go a little bit deeper into your thoughts on structure? What goes into how you conceive a novel’s structure?
TG: My feeling about structure in a novel is that it should (as in poetry), reflect the content of the novel in some significant way. For example, in my second novel, Nearer Than the Sky, the main character is struck by lightning as a child. The recollections she has of her childhood come in flashes, brief and terrifying flashes, which (over the course of the novel) illuminate the secrets her family has kept. In Two Rivers, I am telling two stories, stories which ultimately converge — the climax occurring at the confluence of these two narratives. I find linear stories difficult. Surprisingly, writing a straightforward narrative was one challenge I found in writing This Glittering World (which, despite its simple form, is actually structured to reflect the five worlds of the Navajo creation myth).
RJF: Faulkner, I believe, once likened writing a novel to a one-armed man building a chicken coop in a hurricane. Do you feel this way when you begin a new novel? What do you struggle with the most at the start of a project?
TG: The metaphor that I like (and I can’t remember who said it) is that writing is like driving down a dark road, only able to see a few feet ahead of you. You’ll get there, if you just focus on that beam of light. I’d say, for me, that writing is more like driving a beat-up VW Bug in a blizzard with one headlight out and somebody in the passenger seat complaining about your driving.
The thing that I struggle with most is allowing my original vision of a story to change. It happens every single time I write a book, but I still cling to the idea that the book will be exactly as I plan for it to be. I almost always start with an image – characters in some sort of situation – and then write to figure out how they got there and how they’ll get through it. And what I now know (after writing seven novels), is that I always think I know the answer, and I am almost always wrong.
RJF: What is the biggest misconception about writing a novel you encounter from non-writers?
TG: That publishing a novel makes you rich. I used to think that too until I published my first novel. And my second. And my sixth. A writing career is rarely a lucrative one, but you know you’re a real writer when it doesn’t keep you from writing.
RJF: Robert Olen Butler’s famous writing book, From Where You Dream, makes a strong case for what I would call pre-writing, for thinking deeply about your characters before beginning. From conversations with you, I know you do some of this, but you seem to write at the same time. How far in advance do your stories and characters come to you? How much of your pre-writing is done concurrently with your early draft writing?
TG: I have story ideas buzzing around my head all the time. I am constantly thinking of the next book. I take notes and I keep notebooks, and some ideas are decades old before they find their way to the page.
I like to keep note cards, as Butler suggests. I jot down ideas for scenes, characters, little snippets of dialogue. I shuffle them around. I usually do a lot of hand-writing in the earliest stages of a novel. A notebook is a great place to be non-committal. I always feel like I have to have a pretty good sense of where I’m headed by the time I sit down and start writing on the computer.
RJF: I know you are also a photographer and that your husband works in the arts. How do other mediums influence you? (Music, painting, photograph, etc.)
TG: I am a tremendously visual person. I would actually say that other than reading, photography and film influence me the most. It’s amazing how an image or a bit of footage can trigger an idea for me.
RJF: Discuss writing as a parent. How you manage your dual roles as a mom and as a writer.
TG: Remember the VW Bug metaphor? Now put two kids in the back seat with one giant pixie stick that they have to share. And a Raffi tape stuck at the highest volume in the tape player. That’s what writing is like for a parent.
I actually feel like I have nothing to complain about any more. My girls, at seven and nine, are in what we are calling “the golden years.” They are both in school which gives me six uninterrupted hours a day to write. They are easy, breezy kids right now. I have no excuses (pertaining to parenthood anyway) for not being productive. I look back at when they were little and I was teaching three classes a semester plus weekends and writing Two Rivers and I honestly don’t know how I did it. I was a lunatic.
RJF: You also teach creative writing. Do you find teaching useful to your own writing? In other words, does the act of teaching writing cause you to reflect more deeply on your process?
TG: Absolutely. Teaching forces me to be a student again in many, many ways. I am grateful for every single class I teach, because I learn something new about writing every time I am in a classroom.
Keep following that beam of light. I appreciate this interview and the acknowledgement of family life/dynamics as it relates to the pursuit of writing.
Richard, I just had to add another comment. Her website intro (via her name link above) is incredible. I love the visual elements and the dramatic timing. Quite impressive – lovely way to end the day! Thanks for sharing this tremendous interview with your teacher and writing group partner.