How do you end up as a fiction writer? Some people learn to use their word skills for a career, then also discover a strong creative calling. My guest today, Ann S Epstein, wrote psychology papers for many years and then discovered joy in writing fiction. Now she has a solid catalogue of published short stories, a Pushcart Prize nomination for creative nonfiction, the Walter Sullivan prize in fiction, and an Editors’ Choice selection by Historical Novel Review. Her fourth work of longform historical fiction, The Great Stork Derby is released this week. We talk about this – and many other moments that slowly added up to Ann S Epstein, author.
Ann, was your family creative in any way or are you an outlier?
I didn’t grow up in a creative family, although my mother taught us to appreciate art and music. My father liked to make things for our small Bronx apartment, but these were primarily utilitarian: radiator covers, storage chests, and step stools. (I come from a line of very short people.) As a child, I loved to draw and write, and continued these activities long after my friends abandoned them. However, the arts were seen as a “hobby,” not a means of livelihood.
My brother and I both became social scientists – he an anthropologist, me a psychologist – and we each produced a lot of professional writing, but not creative writing. And yet, at some point later in adulthood, he began to write poetry and I started to write fiction.
Tell me more about that.
I thought it would be fun to try writing fiction when I retired. Then I asked myself, “Why wait? Why not give a go now?” So, I did, and I loved it.
Have you taken formal instruction in writing?
I’ve taken a couple of classes and several workshops, but most of what I’ve learned has come from being a long-time member of two fantastic critique groups. We’re supportive and encouraging, but also honest in our feedback. Our participation stems from a need to improve, not to be patted on the back. (Or skewered.)
I learn as much by reading and giving thoughtful feedback to others as I do from receiving their input about my work. We celebrate one another’s successes and, perhaps best of all, commiserate over our inevitable rejections.
I’ve also learned from developmental editors who make me think about what I’ve written. Their ideas and questions push me to go deeper and wider.
You also have a PhD in developmental psychology and an MFA in textiles. What fulfils you about these disciplines?
My 40-plus years as a developmental psychologist were extremely gratifying. I was a researcher and curriculum developer at an educational nonprofit foundation whose mission was helping at-risk children and their families and teachers. One of my books, The Intentional Teacher (published by the National Association for the Education of Young Children) remains a bestseller in the field, and has been translated into several languages. I still hear from readers around the world about how the book affected their relationships with children and the adults who work with them. Knowing that the foundation’s work, and my contribution to it, made a significant difference in the quality of their lives reassures me that my chosen career was meaningful.
I actually got my MFA 10 years after my PhD. As I said, I never stopped making art. In addition to drawing, I loved working with fibre. While I was in graduate school in psychology, macrame was the big thing. (I’m still doing penance for creating knotted and beaded jute wall hangings and planters.) The local YMCA offered a class in weaving. I signed up and immediately knew I’d found my medium.
Do they find their way into your writing?
Psychology and art certainly do. My character-driven stories explore relationships between parents and children, siblings, friends, co-workers and even the nameless people we cross paths with who make us wonder about their lives, and our own. I’m intrigued by the challenge of making an “unlikable” character sympathetic by humanizing them.
My immersion in art makes me attentive to imagery. And I love textiles because of how fibre feels passing through my fingers. The act of weaving — feet pounding on treadles, heddles clanking up and down, shuttles flying back and forth — establishes a noisy whole-body rhythm. Each type of yarn, plant or animal, has its own smell.
Ultimately, in art or writing, I try to make the disparate pieces coalesce into a satisfying whole.
What non-writing jobs have you done/ do you still do?
In college, I worked summers at an office and a bank. In graduate school, I was a research assistant and a teaching fellow. After I got the MFA, I changed my schedule at the nonprofit to four, 10-hour days, and used the fifth weekday (and weekends) to make art. I exhibited my work in dozens of shows, and sold several large pieces to corporate clients. Later, when I began writing, I kept the same schedule and shifted some hours from creating at the loom to the keyboard.
I’m also a firm believer in (unpaid) community service. In high school, I was a Junior Red Cross volunteer. In college, I was active in the civil rights movement and tutored youth from low-income families. I currently serve on the board of my Jewish community centre.
You have four novels and a solid catalogue of short stories. What makes an Ann S Epstein work?
My work is character driven, both inner and relational, but I’m also attentive to plot as the driver of each character’s arc. The people I write about might be called underdogs or outsiders, those who are discriminated against because of poverty, religion, race or ethnicity, gender, immigrant status, handicap or other otherness.
My characters come from diverse backgrounds (gender, religion, race and ethnicity, countries) and ages (very young to very old). I favour ambiguity over tidy endings; I want readers to keep writing the story in their own heads. I’m not a nihilist or pessimist, but I accept that people are flawed. Yet I believe that hope is a renewable resource. Many of my works are historical.
Any signature periods or settings?
They are set in the years from before WWI to after WWII, but bear messages for today. The novels often span several decades so that parts are more contemporary. I love researching the periods I write about, but my emphasis is on fiction, not history. Other than being a stickler for certain details (I abhor anachronisms), I invent people and events as long as they’re consistent with the time, place, and culture I’m writing about. I’m delighted, after finishing a manuscript, if I can no longer remember what is real and what I invented.
On your website you have a quote about Susan Sontag. To paraphrase: becoming a writer is a long process of apprenticeship and failure. You comment that you find this reassuring as you look at your own evolution as a writer. I can certainly identify with that. The first novel of my own that I published (after I was a ghostwriter) was a book I’d been incubating for about 18 years. I sent it to publishers and agents, who were encouraging, but really I was trying to write something I wasn’t ready for. Eventually I wrote that novel properly, and it taught me to be the writer I am now. So that’s what ‘apprenticeship’ looked like for me – and of course apprenticeship never ends. What did apprenticeship look like for you?
In the two decades I’ve been writing fiction, perhaps the greatest change was having the courage to write about things that were NOT part of my own experience. My early stories were inspired by the people and events that populated my childhood. However, I quickly learned the freedom of writing from my imagination, not my memories, although I’ll draw on the latter to add details.
Not having formally studied creative writing, my apprenticeship has meant incrementally mastering the craft, including how to write dialogue, where to start a story (endings are easier for me; beginnings are harder to nail), and when to kill my darlings. Like every writer, I’ve learned the importance of (re, re, re) revision.
Me too. I’m a total reviser. Revision is where I do my most creative work.
I also read differently than before I began to write. I’m not overly analytical (that would drain the pleasure), but I’m more aware of the mastery behind a passage that makes me stop in admiration, awe, and (I admit) an appreciative twinge of envy.
How did you end up at Vine Leaves Press?
In December 2015, I saw a call for submissions in Poets & Writers and sent a query for On the Shore. Two months later VLP requested the full manuscript and the following month they wrote that they wanted to publish the novel and included an amazing review by Peter Snell.
The bookseller Peter Snell! We’re good friends! I might even have introduced him to VLP/ (BTW, I feel I should mention our radio show, So You Want To Be A Writer…)
Peter has also given the go-ahead to my two other VLP books, Tazia and Gemma and now The Great Stork Derby. Pending the response to this third book, VLP has also accepted a fourth. So, I’m among those fortunate authors who can laud and thank Peter for being our gateway to VLP publication.
An unexpected benefit has been joining the international VLP community. Not only do its members connect with a group of talented writers and staff, we support one another through every stage of the publication process, and cheer our individual and collective achievements in the literary world at large. I’m in awe of what Jessica Bell has created and continues to innovate and build upon.
Amen to that. And here’s an interview with Jessica herself.
Ann, tell me about your latest release, The Great Stork Derby.
Based on a bizarre but real event in Canadian history, The Great Stork Derby begins with a husband pressuring his wife to have babies to win a large cash prize. In 1926, an eccentric millionaire leaves most of his estate to the Toronto woman who has the most babies in the 10 years following his death. Emm Benbow convinces his wife, Izora, to enter the contest. His ambition becomes an obsession and Emm ends up disappointed by his large family and alienated from his children. Fifty years later, and now a widower, Emm is told by his doctor that he can no longer live alone. He can either go to a dreaded old age home, or move in with one of his disaffected offspring. The novel follows Emm as he tries living in turn with each of his adult children and attempts to learn that the true value of fatherhood is not measured in big prizes, but in small rewards.
That’s quite a concept.
The idea came when I stumbled on this weird event. As often happens with me, I knew there was a story, but the question was “What?” Or more accurately, “Whose?”
To find the heart of a story, I must first decide whose point of view to tell it from. An idea may incubate for years before that “aha” moment. My original short story covered the 10 years of the stork derby itself, written from the wife’s perspective. When I envisioned the novel, I knew it had to be from the husband’s viewpoint. As I said, I love the challenge of turning an unlikeable character into a sympathetic figure and Emm put me, and I hope readers, to the test.
The period from 1926 to 1976 was also fascinating to research. It encompassed the Depression, WWII, post-war boom, and emergence of the women’s and gay rights movements. So, another challenge was imagining how these societal developments affected the development of the Benbow parents and siblings. I had lots of threads to interweave in this book.
You’ve also written memoir essays. Has your memoir informed your work in fiction?
Both memoir and fiction involve storytelling. Character drives both. And creative nonfiction employs the structure and rhythm of fiction, that is, character(s) follow an arc or trajectory. They have desires, face setbacks, make discoveries, and either evolve or fail to change.
How do you think creativity operates in non-fiction if it must be based on fact?
I think of fiction as construction and memoir as reconstruction. Both mix fact and fiction. Fiction has elements of fact (such as details of time and place, the truth of human nature). And memoir is not strictly factual, but rather an honest attempt at recall. Writers and readers of memoir sign a contract in which they agree to accept that the events and people are described ‘as best remembered’.
To me, what makes memoir interesting is not a mere recitation of what happened, but the writer’s reflection and analysis. Unearthing what lies below the surface, letting the mind play with the message underlying the facts, makes the piece creative. And meaningful — to write, and to read.
Do you teach writing in any form?
For many years, I taught workshops on grant-writing, which I was very successful at; I brought in millions of dollars (public and private) for the nonprofit I worked for. The people who attended my workshops tended to be from small agencies in search of operational funds so they could serve their target audiences: children and families from low-income, minority or immigrant backgrounds.
I taught by putting students in the position of the people deciding who to grant the money to. I distributed five sample proposals that I had written, each with strengths and weaknesses, then had them debate who to grant the award(s) to. They learned from sitting on the other side of the table. I see this method as analogous to my saying we learn as much from critiquing others’ work as we do from getting feedback on our own.
You seem prolific as a short story writer. What’s your working routine like?
I don’t have a routine in the sense of sitting from X to Y o’clock at the computer, or producing a minimum number of words a day. That said, I write — or do writing tasks such as submissions or critiquing — pretty much every day, including weekends. Quite simply, I like to work! I’m an early riser, so I get an early start. I’ll usually knock off mid- to late afternoon to work in the yard, go for a walk or read. Around 5:00 PM, I head two blocks east for my daily playdate with my grandsons, aged nine and five. I keep paper and pencil handy during dinner (also at my bedside) to jot down thoughts that pop up. I think a writer’s mind never stops churning.
I mentioned I’m short. My work space where my laptop sits is an old oak kindergarten table (with child-size chairs) and I’m writing by hand at a child’s roll top desk (also antique).
Do you have any tips for submitting to literary publications?
Perseverance! You never know when something you’ve written will resonate with a reader or editor. I’ve submitted some stories dozens of times before they found a home. That said, don’t submit blindly. Learn what type of work each journal publishes and if/when you have a piece that fits (or are inspired to write one), send it in. And every time you get a response that says “Your submission wasn’t the right fit this time, but we’d love to read more,” take heart. I keep a folder labelled “Encouraging rejections.”
What question about writing do you find hardest to answer?
‘Where do your ideas originate?’ Occasionally I can trace when something I read or heard ignited a spark, but the path to the endpoint is too circuitous to pinpoint the exact source. As I craft each character or scene, I often ask myself, ‘Where on earth did that come from?’
No wonder the Greeks invented muses. Dipping into the creative well is like dunking a bucket blindly and seeing what you pull up. Thank goodness, my bucket has never come up empty.
An easy question, often asked by new writers, is how to go about writing. Should one write every day? If so, how many words? Is it best to knock out a first draft and revise it later? Should one make an outline or follow wherever the writing leads?
My answer is that there are no ‘shoulds’. My colleagues each employ a different method that suits them. So, I say, experiment and find what works for you.
Also on your website is another quote I love – from a personal essay by Peter Schjeldahl, which (in your words) ‘captures the “Did I really write that?” sensation. Writing is a present/absent process. One is at once fully immersed in the act, yet also removed to another plane’. Now you’re leaving The Great Stork Derby behind, what are your feelings? Do you want to linger with the characters and world?
My characters never leave me. Once I enter their world, I continue to occupy it. I think that’s why those with whom I’ve become deeply embedded migrate from a story to a novel. (And why they were great company during my solitary pandemic lockdown.)
However, once I complete a novel, while I may stop in to say ‘Hi’, I rarely linger. Recently, though, I pondered writing a prequel to a book I finished not long ago. The completed novel, which follows the seesawing friendship of two women from their teens to their 70s, touches on their traumatic childhoods as WWII orphans and I’d love to explore those early years in depth. The Great Stork Derby has a large cast of intriguing characters. Maybe someday, I’ll write about Emm’s death and the continuing lives of his many children over the next 50 years.
If you’d like help with your writing, my Nail Your Novel books are here. If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s been going on on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.