What is my idea of perfect happiness?
An 86-year old friend of mine always says “Joy is the measure,” and I agree. Happiness occurs moment-to-moment, and if I can be mindful of the moments of my life, joy is sure to follow.
What is my greatest fear?
Living an unexamined life. I’d hate to be on my deathbed and feel like I’ve coasted through my days.
What is the trait that I most deplore in myself?
That I can’t get over a lifelong belief that making money means I’m selling out somehow—it’s totally irrational, but I can’t seem to shake it.
Which living persons in my profession do i most admire?
Alice Munro, for her tenacious telling of stories all these years, and her humility and focus primarily on her writing. Margaret Atwood for being a great literary citizen who’s generous with young writers. Colum McCann for his gorgeous writing and his dedication to helping facilitate difficult conversations through his Narrative 4 program.
What is my greatest extravagance?
On what occasion would I lie?
I lie all the time. Who doesn’t? Small, “white lies,” as they’re called, that allow me to coexist happily with others. Imagine if we all told the truth all the time! I shudder to think.
What is the thing that I dislike the most in my work?
That writing takes so damned long. Creative work demands a great deal of time, but I’d like to get a book out into the world—a great book, not something dashed together—far more quickly than the 7 years it took me to write THIS IS HOW IT BEGINS.
When and where was I the happiest, in my work?
Without question, my friend Tony’s cottage in Wellfleet on Cape Cod in Massachusetts. The isolation, the silence, the sea, the minimalist decor … I’ve always done my best work there.
If I could, what would I change about myself?
I’d wave a magic wand and suddenly feel like it’s A-okay to earn a great living, that having money isn’t a bad thing. That, and I’d love to love getting regular exercise so I would always feel energetic and fit.
What is my greatest achievement in work?
So far, publishing my debut novel, THIS IS HOW IT BEGINS at a time when I’d just won the Poets & Writers Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award and got named by Poets & Writers Magazine
as one of “5 more over 50” writers to watch. It’s been really gratifying to hear how much readers have loved the novel. http://thisishowitbeginsnovel.com/
Where would I most like to live?
Right where I live now! I adore living in Maine, and love the house, land and my writing studio (aka “The Shed) that I share with my partner. Maine’s a wonderful place to be, and I expect I’ll be here for the duration.
What is my most treasured possession?
If I can be said to “possess” them (as opposed to simply sharing a life with them), I’d have to say the animals I’m privileged to live with: dogs Logan and Beattie, and cats Maggie, Little Jack Sparrow and Freddie. And since that’s maybe stretching the intention behind this question, I’ll say that for inanimate possessions it’s my books. Can never have enough of those!
What is my most marked characteristic?
My partner always says that it’s how everyone really likes me. I’m pretty likable, probably because I’m so terribly interested in other people, and prize intimate friendships above all else in my life, so people feel comfortable talking with me.
What is my most inspirational location, in my city?
I’ll choose Portland, Maine as the nearest city (since I live in the country), and the place I find most inspiring is the Eastern Promenade, a wonderful green space that opens out over Casco Bay, with broad vistas, salt air and crying seagulls.
What is my favourite place to eat and drink, in my city?
In this case, the city nearest is Brunswick, Maine, and my absolute favorite place to eat and drink is El Camino, a fantastic neighborhood Mexican joint, where Dan the bartender knows just how to make a margarita to my liking (jalapeno-infused tequila, Hornitos, fresh lime juice and a swirl of Grand Marnier on the top, with salt and rocks).
What books influenced my life and how?
Oh boy. There are far, far, far too many to even begin to answer this question. I have 54 years of being influenced by books, so I can’t possibly do justice to this question.
Who are my favorite writers?
At the moment, Colum McCann, Andre Dubus III, Maggie Stiefvater, James Baldwin, Jeanette Winterson … there are so many more.
You Only Die Once. What music would I listen on my last day?
Probably the early “Little Love Affairs” album from Nancy Griffith. I’ve been listening to that on and off for 40 years or more, and love singing along to it.
Who is my hero or heroine in fiction?
At the moment I am obsessed with my own main character, Ludka Zeilonka, because she has lived with me for more than 8 years and is a force to be reckoned with; she totally muscled her way into my novel THIS IS HOW IT BEGINS and took over the narrative. She’s a fantastic, complex 85-year old Polish Catholic art professor who rescued Jews as a young woman in Warsaw during WWII. I adore her.
Who are my heroes and heroines in real life?
I don’t really have heroes or heroines, only people I admire for the work they do in the world. Most recently, Barack and Michelle Obama, for leading us with such integrity and wisdom. I’m excited to see what they do next.
Which movie would i recommend to see once in a lifetime?
Ordinary People, based on a novel of the same name by Judith Guest. It’s one of the few movies I’ve seen multiple times, and I go to it to experience intense emotion. It’s the 1980 directorial debut of Robert Redford and stars Donald Sutherland, Mary Tyler Moore, Judd Hirsch, and Timothy Hutton.
What role plays art in my life and work?
Art seems to come to my mind fully formed, and I end up putting it into my writing all the time. I feel like I must have been an artist in another lifetime, since I can just see things that are utterly complete, and then I write them down. In THIS IS HOW IT BEGINS, I created a fictional painting that readers keep telling me they’ve Googled, trying to find it.
Who is my greatest fan, sponsor, partner in crime?
My Antioch women! Four of us got our MFAs in writing together and we’ve been supporting each other for more than ten years now. They’re wonderful women, terrific writers, and my life would be far poorer without them.
Whom would I like to work with in 2018?
Universities—I love teaching, and now that I have a novel published, I’d love to be a guest at universities, colleges, writing conferences, etc.
Which people in my profession would i love to meet in 2018?
I just met a whole raft of incredible folks, thanks to the Poets & Writers Maureen Egen Writers Exchange Award, which took me on an all-expenses paid trip to New York City, where I met incredible people like Deborah Treisman, fiction editor at the New Yorker, and Amy Gash, senior editor at Algonquin Books, and Elliot Figman, executive director at Poets & Writers. That said, I’d really love to meet Maria Popova of Brainpickings, and Terry Gross of Fresh Air, and the writer Colum McCann.
What project, in 2018, am I looking forward to work on?
My next novel, starring a more minor character from THIS IS HOW IT BEGINS.
Where can you see me or my work in 2017?
What do the words “Passion Never Retires” mean to me?
Artists always seem to work until they die, which to my mind means they’re doing what they love to do in life, and there’s no desire or need for retirement. I feel that way about my writing.
Which creative heroines should Peter invite to tell their story?
Dawna Kemper. Mary Rechner. Christa Mastrangelo Joyce.
Through either of these websites: http://thisishowitbeginsnovel.com/ OR http://www.joandempsey.com OR via email at joan [at] joandempsey [dot] com