Friday, October 15, 2010

Elyssa East answers our Top Five

Elyssa East is the author of Dogtown: Death and Enchantment in a New England Ghost Town. Don't miss her reading at the bookstore on Wednesday, October 20th at 7pm.

1. What's on your nightstand right now?

Lots of books and at least a years’ worth of New Yorkers that—let’s just cut to the visual.

It's like a landslide waiting to happen. And it has a tail of books and magazines that has spilled onto the floor. Sometimes I think of the books as an army attempting to conquer my sleep. In this they succeed, as I often wake up in the middle of the night and read.

And since you asked, in these piles are Da Zheng’s Chiang Yee: The Silent Traveler from the East, Erica Hirschler’s Sargent’s Daughters, The Paris Review Interviews Women Writers at Work, The 2010 PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories, The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake, Richard Burtons’ The Anatomy of Melancholy (always on the nightstand), Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran, Brian Moore’s The Lonely Passion of Judith Hearne, Richard Brautigan’s In Watermelon Sugar, Katheleen Kent’s The Wolves of Andover, Terese Svoboda’s Pirate Talk or Mermalade, The Selected Prose of Heinrich Von Kleist, Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain, Mavis Gallant’s Paris Stories. I’m on a bit of a story bender right now so I’m definitely moving between the above collections a lot.

2. How do you write?

I would really like to have a sensory deprivation chamber to write in, but I’m not that privileged. I do like being by a window, as I prefer natural light, but can find it distracting. We have a view of the Hudson River and the Palisades and regularly see hawks and sometimes bald eagles out the window. I feel extraordinarily lucky to live in Manhattan and have a nature view with the occasional barge and tugboat passing through.

I teach creative writing at Purchase College. When it comes to writing, though, a lot of days I don’t get going until kind of late. It’s like I need to burn off some anxiety before I can start working. That, or I’m building up steam.

I adopted a dog a few months ago and she likes to nestle under my desk while I’m working and jump up to commandeer my hands for a petting session every so often. She’s helps take the edge off. Here’s her special under-the-desk spot and default mode of sleeping with a paw around one of her teddie bears.

I don’t often listen to music while working as I can get too swept up into it, but that really depends on where I am in my process. When I did listen to music while writing Dogtown I took in a lot of Bach Cantatas and one of my favorite pieces of music ever, Antonin Dvorák’s American Quartet. There was also some Yo La Tengo, Sonic Youth, TV on the Radio, Grizzly Bear, Os Mutantes, and Betty Davis on rotation. Plus, my fiancé happens to run an avant-garde jazz label called Pi Recordings, so I logged a lot of time with his beyond hip, fantastically weird music floating in from the other room.

3. Name the first time or moment you realized you were a writer.

If I could say I had an a-ha moment it was while reading this gem, Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, when I was in middle school in Georgia, but I couldn’t write worth a lick and I was one of those lucky people who had teachers that went out of their way to tell me that. Nonetheless, I had known that I wanted to be an artist of some sort, only I had no training in anything other than music—my mother was a piano teacher—and I thought that you just had to be born with some magic ability no matter what creative form you wanted to pursue. So my path from wanting to write to actually doing it and then doing it well enough to be published was akin to snow accumulating and turning into a glacier.

4. What are you working on now?

I’m working on a new book, but I can’t say much about it except that it’s a novel about love, an unusual surgery, and a sanatorium. It’s too undefined to say more beyond that and I’m terrified it will flop. I’m also working another nonfiction book proposal about poets and artists during wartime and possibly an anthology about farm animals.

5. Favorite recent find?

The recent Charles Burchfield exhibit at the Whitney blew my mind.

Burchfield paints the sounds of things as well as their colors and energy. His work is wholly, oddly synesthetic and vibrates off the canvas like some strange insect beating its wings. Guernica Magazine, which just celebrated its sixth year, recently published some great photography, including these images by Jason Larkin from an Egyptian history museum. I’m very excited for the Nicolás de Jesús show at the Neuberger Art Museum. I love Mexican art and find De Jesús’s work to be hilarious. You can read it as skeletons making fun of the living or that though we’re all alive we’re somehow dead inside. It’s this reflexive paradox and the idea that the dead are not fully gone and that we are not fully alive that I love so much. And if I don’t catch the Zwelethu Mthethwa show at the Studio Museum of Harlem before it closes next week I don’t know how I’ll ever forgive myself.

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