Miriam Gershow can do bittersweet like nobody’s business. She cracks us up and breaks our hearts, sometimes in the same paragraph. Her debut novel, The Local News (now in paperback), was a finalist for the 2009 Oregon Book Awards and reminds us of Lorrie Moore and Jennifer Egan. In a favorable New York Times Review last year, Janet Maslin compared it to the Lovely Bones and called it “deftly heartbreaking.” Gershow lives in Eugene, where she also teaches and is the mother of an infant son. NWBL asked her a few questions.
NWBL: Your debut novel was published almost a year ago. What has surprised you most about being a first-time author?
GERSHOW: This may sound absurd, but the most surprising thing was the fact that other people were actually reading the book. Obviously, I knew people would read the book–or at least I hoped they would. But before publication, I had mostly been anticipating the incidental trappings of being a new author–My name embossed on a hardcover spine! My book on bookstore shelves! Soon, though, I was hearing from readers via email and meeting them in book groups and I was just awed and humbled–and yes, surprised–by their rich, generous responses to the book and their own poignant stories about family or adolescence or loss that echoed Lydia’s.
NWBL: You’ve said that the characters and circumstances of The Local News, in which a nerdy 15-year-old narrator reacts to her popular brother’s disappearance, were entirely made up and not based anything in your life. How do you get to a place where you can make up this stuff?
GERSHOW: Well, I’m a creature of habit. I need to write in the same place (my desk at home or a particular table at the Eugene Public Library) and I need to drink the same drink (a double latte) out of the same mug (a heavy blue monstrosity I made in a ceramics class during my MFA days). Repeated ritual helps get me get past all the distractions. And if I do this regularly – ideally, daily–the ideas just come to me.
Also, more and more, I’m game for anything. I’m willing to try out most ideas that pop into my head. I used to be a much harsher critic of my own imagination, convincing myself an idea was stupid or silly or too hard to write before it even made it to the page. Now I try not to do that as much, and instead give any idea a whirl. This leads to a lot more failures–you should see my aborted multi-narrator novel about a man driving his truck into a fast food restaurant (or better yet, perhaps you shouldn’t.)
NWBL: You’re at work on a second novel. Can you give us a sneak peek?
GERSHOW: I’m suspicious–almost to a fault–about sharing work too early. I will say, it features siblings again, but a very different set of siblings. And it also features tarot cards and prisons and the Portland Art Museum. I’m afraid you’ll have to wait for anything more.
NWBL: What’s your relationship with reviews?
GERSHOW: In the beginning, I voraciously read every single one. I was delighted to see nearly all the editorial reviews embraced the book. But eventually, I had to stop. As my smart friend, Cai Emmons, pointed out, all reviews–good or bad–are just heady distraction from the real work of writing. And, of course, she’s right. So I try my hardest to stay away from the proliferation of online reviews–Goodreads and Amazon and LibraryThing and on and on.
NWBL: Favorite line from something you’ve written?
GERSHOW: I quite like this one from The Local News–“Had a linguist stood beside me in the front hallway, I was convinced he’d have discovered a new language that night, a guttural, frayed derivative of English, a tongue just barely comprehensible, inflected as heavily as it was by paroxysms of bewilderment and grief.”–mainly because of my use of “paroxysms.” I’ve long loved that word.
NWBL: Will you share a line from a work in progress?
GERSHOW: “‘There are cigarette butts in the azaleas,’ Barb says, pointing to the bushes beside our porch, and I see the a couple butts littering the green leaves like flower buds.”
NWBL: What’s on your nightstand:
GERSHOW: Maile Meloy’s debut story collection, Half in Love
David Ebershoff’s historical novel, The 19th Wife
Jill Ciment’s newest novel, Heroic Measures
A notepad and pen
A baby monitor
NWBL: Name a book you’re an evangelist for right now:
GERSHOW: Elizabeth McCracken’s devastatingly honest, spare, heartbreaking, funny and smart memoir, An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination. Anyone who’s ever had a child, wanted a child or lost a child–really anybody–should read this book.
NWBL: Book you’d love to see made into a movie:
GERSHOW: This is a tough one because I love books and I love movies, but I’m disappointed 99% of the time when books I love are adapted to film. (A pox on the houses of all those responsible for turning The Feast of Love into a muddled and forgettable rom-com). So as much as I’d like to see the fantastic, trippy world of Geek Love on the big screen or watch Edward Norton take on Motherless Brooklyn’s Lionel Essrog, I’d rather leave well enough alone.
NWBL: What distracts you from your writing:
GERSHOW: My infant son. Good weather. Bad weather. Email. The internet. The phone. Television. Food. Drink. Washing dishes. Folding laundry. A glimpse of deer outside the window. A glimpse of cars outside the window. A glimpse of the mail truck outside the window. Getting the mail. Sorting the mail. Opening the mail. Anything, if I let it. Nothing, if I’m in a groove.