Alice Sebold
Photo by Neville Elder

Alice Sebold: “I'm not hammering at it like a nail”

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Short Profile

Name: Alice Sebold
DOB: 6 September 1963
Place of birth: Madison, Wisconsin, USA
Occupation: Author

Ms. Sebold, were you a misfit growing up?

Oh yeah, sure. But I think almost all writers feel like they were misfits growing up!

Is that what it takes to be creative?

I think it takes desperation! When I teach, I always say that desperation is a great motivator. And a lot of students will judge themselves for how desperate they feel. But I think it’s a great thing, as long as what you’re desperate to do is not to succeed but to express something in a way you feel it really needs to be expressed, or to tell a story that you haven’t seen out there. The desperation has to come from a drive to express something. I want to learn and explore difficult things by writing.

Is that why your novels The Lovely Bones and The Almost Moon explore such dark subject matter?

I have a running joke with my friends that I’m waiting for the day I feel inspired to write a “fluffy, happy, hippie novel” – which is my kind of fill-in title for a kind of book that I would love to be inspired to write just because it would be really fun to write it – but it just isn’t in my DNA. Those kinds of self-entertaining works don’t hold the interest for me enough.

“I think almost all writers feel like they were misfits growing up.”

What makes violence interesting enough to write about?

I’m interested in the things that separate us, and so the experience of violence or anything that’s taboo in its way is something that separates us. The reality is that so many of us, especially in this day and age, are having these experiences that the culture hasn’t yet caught up with in terms of making room for.

Could you say that you’re fascinated with finding beauty in pain?

I think I’m fascinated with understanding pain. And so ultimately when you’re in that pursuit, you find all the nuances of it. And one of them may indeed be beauty.

Is there a kind of release in finding those nuances?

Sure, I think writing about anything that matters can be cathartic. The hope is that it’s not just self-involved. You can write things that provide a release for you, but they still have to be good books or good writing. So, the motivation should be, in my mind, to create characters and to understand, not necessarily to be searching for release.

What was your motivation for writing Lucky, a memoir that describes your experience of being raped?

Lucky felt like a process done in the service of what I would write in the future. It untangled the knot of me and fiction. I knew that I wanted to write about rape and I’d known that… Even the night I was being raped I knew that. I think a lot of writers feel like they have some kind of mission, and that was definitely one of mine.

To write about that experience?

Initially, yes. There had been so little written in a novel form about rape in what I thought of as a “real way” that I felt I should be writing for everybody who’d ever been raped. I was trying to write to what I refer to as “the universal rape victim.” I felt like that was my responsibility. I think Lucky allowed me to give the specificity of my experience a place to exist within the confines of that book, and therefore remove any of that from whatever I would write in the future.

“Writing about anything that matters can be cathartic.”

Is it difficult to constantly have to relive your past through a work like Lucky?

No. I don’t mind that at all because I feel like I can help people. I think maybe that might have been true ten years ago or when talking too much about that created a wall between my creative process and me. Pain is emotional, but it’s also intellectual. The luxury of the intellect is that it helps you parse the emotion in a way that if it were just purely emotional, you wouldn’t be able to pin it down. That’s another thing about time passing, it makes things easier.

You’ve said that it often takes you a long time to find the voice of your protagonists. How do you go about finding your characters’ voices?

If I knew that answer, I would probably have written many more novels! (Laughs) In my experience, it hasn’t been the same for the three so far that I feel like I’ve found. Sometimes if you’re lucky, you just get a voice or a line or whatever… A big part of my process is really reading a lot of poetry. It’s usually down to three to five poets per each book, and then I read a few of their poems every morning before I sit down to work.

How does that influence your writing?

There’s something about reading the right poets that makes your own drive a little bit more diffuse. When I finally get to the page, I’m not hammering at it like a nail, I’m more available to the subconscious than I would be if it was just all me and my narrative lines. But every novel is so different in its process and in its characters and the writer’s attachment, when it’s written, what stage of life, all that stuff… It feels like I’ve finally reached a point where I’m working in a way that I really enjoy.

What way is that?

(Laughs) Not in the fluffy, happy, hippie way but in an editing kind of way; to deepen and understand. For the first time, I would say I’m just really enjoying the writing. And to that degree, it feels like such a wonderful time that I don’t want this part to end. But of course, at the same time… You do ultimately end the book.