Goddess of Bibliotherapy: An interview with Featured Author Peg Alford Pursell

Peg Alford Pursell’s story, “My Father and His Beautiful Slim Brunettes,” is featured in our 2015 online issue. We had a chance to ask her a few questions about writing. Here’s what she said.

Q: Do you have any super secret rituals that help your writing process?

A: I doubt I have any super-secret anything, especially when it comes to writing process. I’ve learned to enjoy talking about writing and sharing my latest approaches—they’re always changing—since it can sometimes be more fun to talk about process than actually writing. One approach that remains fairly useful for me is to continually impose new constraints on my writing. For example, with “Brunettes” I decided I would write a story that opened with the protagonist awaking, an approach that isn’t advised, and try to make the piece strong enough for the reader to go on. Also, writing in first person often feels uncomfortable, so I also challenged myself to use an “I” narrator, with whom I share little of the experiences, to see if that discomfort could result in a satisfying story. I seem to rely on constraints, whether word count strictures, omissions, topic restrictions, character limitations, focused themes, etc. to occupy, satisfy, or distract that part of my mind that needs to analyze, censor, judge. Sometimes I listen to a Brainwave binaural program (an app) that claims to boost concentration, if I’m particularly abstracted in my environment. I might put my feet up on my desk and while staring off into the middle distance untwist paperclips, evidently. I’m always finding these unbent paper clips on my desk. More useful, I force my writer husband to listen to me read aloud, often when we’re in the car or somewhere else where’s he a captive audience.

Q: What parts of your writing have you put the most focus on?

A: This is a trick question, isn’t it? I enjoy lyric, dense writing. That’s most what I like to read, and inevitably, that’s what I write, so a great deal of my revision focuses on stripping away and paring out what the story can’t support—I think. Characterization interests me since I’m always developing characters who aren’t people I know, but whom I try to inhabit, try to “feel” my way into and through their worlds. This is probably what I find most engaging, sleuthing out and discovering the universal and the particulars in fiction writing, and so that’s an aspect that receives the benefit of my attention without too much strain.

Q: What is your favorite literary sentence and why?

A: Once upon a time I might have had a handy answer for this question. Now it seems that I encounter sentences that regularly make me stop and close the book, reread, place a checkmark in the margin, and mostly just marvel. Colm Toibin’s The Master, in which he emulates the masterful sentence construction of Henry James, has sent me back to James and to his female counterpart, Elizabeth Bowen. Here’s a sentence from The Master. “His relationship with Constance would be hard to explain; Andersen was perhaps too young to know how memory and regret can mingle, how much sorrow can be held within, and how nothing seems to have any shape or meaning until it is well past and lost and, even then, how much, under the weight of pure determination, can be forgotten and left aside only to return in the night as piercing pain.” Bonus? A partial sentence near the end of the book. “The moral is the most pragmatic we can imagine, that life is a mystery and that only sentences are beautiful, and that we must be ready for change…”

Q: If this piece were a cake, what kind would it be?

A: This was a delicious question if only because it prompted me into a mini crash course on cakes, landing at a website with a glossary. http://www.thenibble.com/reviews/main/cookies/cakes/glossary.asp  So many kinds of cake!

It seems to me that the protagonist doesn’t allow herself much sweetness, so a cake that is bittersweet seems suitable. The bouchon, the French word for cork, is a small, bite-size chocolate cake baked in a tin that produces the shape of corks, and because of its bitterness, goes well with champagne. I like the idea that there’s something for the protagonist to celebrate in “Brunettes,” and not simply the recording contract, but there’s something for her to feel good about in her encounter with her family in the final scene. Now, to find a local bakery.

Q: Which writers do you look up to? Who has influenced your writing? What’s one thing everyone should read?

A: The list seems endless of who I look up to and who’s influenced me. Virginia Woolf will always head my list. Lately, I’ve fallen in love with Elizabeth Harrower’s work, now that it’s been brought back to attention. The Watchtower is genius, with its unflinching devotion to truth telling via clear composed sentences that seem innocent but can assail the reader with a painful recognition in their openness. Jean Thompson can’t write a bad story. I’ve lately been filling in a reading gap in her oeuvre and admire her ability in the story collection Throw Like a Girl to explore as relentlessly as she does the question of why the females in these stories are mostly unfulfilled and trapped despite their strengths. The question remains worth pursuing. Elena Ferrante! The Lost Daughter is exquisite. Every book of hers is a gem. I had the great fortune of Joan Silber’s mentorship in the Warren Wilson MFA Program, and a more sterling mentor couldn’t exist and I revere her books of story cycles.

I can’t imagine what the one book is that everyone should read, though it’s fun to puzzle over, and it might be even more fun to play goddess of bibliotherapy for a day and prescribe certain books to certain people.

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Peg Alford Pursell’s stories have been published in or are forthcoming from the Journal of Compressed Arts, Eleven Eleven, Tupelo Quarterly, the Los Angeles Review, Joyland, and others. She is the founder of Why There Are Words, a monthly reading series in Sausalito, and North Bay Writers Workshops. Her book of flash fiction SHOW HER A FLOWER, A BIRD, A SHADOW is forthcoming from ELJ Publications. Much more info at her website, http://www.pegalfordpursell.com.