While visiting York College of Pennsylvania to give a reading, Marion took the time to sit down with me and answer some questions. In a closet. I’m kidding, of course, but only barely. The room in which we seated ourselves is not only window-less, but quite small–calling it cozy would be a rather generous sentiment. Thanking the heavens that I do not suffer from claustrophobia (and hoping that Marion doesn’t either), we found our respective seats and began to chat.
Marion Winik is an assistant professor at the University of Baltimore. Her published books include The Glen Rock Book of the Dead, Above Us Only Sky, and First Comes Love. Many of Marion’s essays have also been published in magazines, including O, the Oprah Magazine; The New York Times Magazine; and Harper’s Bazaar.
If you’ve never read anything by Marion Winik, I must tell you that 1. You should, and 2. Her writing style makes it seem less like you’re reading something and more like you’re sitting down having a cup of coffee with a friend. “I’m never going to be a person who writes something that you can’t understand, like poetry you have to figure out. No, I want everyone to be perfectly clear on what I’m saying. I want it to be understood.”
Marion was wearing her black cowboy shirt complete with white tassels and black boots, and I wondered if she were ready to lasso a new essay or a bucking bronco. Considering I’d just gotten to the part in First Comes Love when she and Tony move to Austin, her choice of dress was very appropriate. It almost felt as though the woman before me had stepped out of the book that was nestled in my bag. As it turns out, the Marion I met in the essays I read is very much like the Marion of reality in that she is very conversational, honest, and more than willing to answer questions about herself. For which I was extremely grateful. This being my first interview, I was relieved to be talking with someone who was more than willing to share.
I nervously start off with the basic must-ask questions, trying to get a sense of who exactly Marion Winik is. So, naturally, I ask what music she’s into. Leaning back into the chair with her legs crossed, Marion responds, “I’m from the Grateful Dead, Allman Brothers, Prince, David Bowie era. And I don’t think you can ever outgrow the music that you love when you’re young, so they’re all still really powerful for me.” I nod my head, firmly in agreement. I AM still an MmmBop fan after more than 13 years, after all. This common ground helps put me at ease, the qualities that make Marion’s writing so conversational taking the pressure off. Suddenly, I’m not interviewing a published author for my internship but chitchatting just for the sake of chitchatting.
Being a voracious reader, I am always on the look out for new books. And of course authors are some of the best readers. So I ask Marion what books are currently resting on her nightstand. This is apparently a very good question to ask, judging by the excitement that permeates her answer. As she responds, she eagerly leans forward in her chair. “I’m a book reviewer,” Marion explains, saying that she doesn’t often get to choose the books she reads (as Literary Studies minor, I totally get where she’s coming from). “I’m in the unusual position of having five books I’m dying to read.” These highly anticipated titles are The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides, We The Animals by Justin Torres, Pulphead by John Jerimiah Sullivan, A Regular Guy by Mona Simpson, and Minor Characters: A Beat Memoir by Joyce Johnson. Her enthusiasm has me looking forward to semester break, to a time when I can add these to my nook and sit back and read. For fun.
Okay. So Marion Winik is into jamming to Prince, reading (tons and tons) of books, and writing her own. But what other things float her boat? The answer: Scrabble. Scrabble and cooking. Of the former, she says, “I’m really into a Scrabble and I thank god I’m into Scrabble because it’s something that I like to do that’s not bad for you and you do it with other people.” Of the latter, “The creativity of cooking is nothing like the creativity of writing, but you are creating something and I just love the earthiness of it and the sensuality of it.”
Now that I’ve got an idea of who Marion is as a person, I change gears to become acquainted with Marion the author. I find out that Marion has been a writer since her childhood. When she looks back at her old stuff now, she says, “Sometimes I’m too clever for my own good; I can see that in the stuff I did in high school.”
Marion’s writing has changed a lot from those days. Her first genre of choice was poetry, of which she had two collections published. As an adult, she found her niche in creative non-fiction. “Poetry had a lot to do with adolescence and coming of age and having people be able to know what was in my heart. And once that level of psychological development was over, my work, my gaze, became more outward. Creative nonfiction also has to do with letting people know what is in your heart but there’s also a lot of looking around.” Her explanation makes perfect sense to me. I can see a parallelism between the development of her writing and the development of the human being. After all, don’t human beings often go from self-centered, apathetic teenagers into world-conscious, concerned adults?
Her writing process has also changed over time. Take, for instance, her preferred time of day to write. “It’s funny how things keep changing, ‘cause I normally would have [said] I like best to work early in the morning. I’m starting to not feel that much…now I don’t care what time it is. Maybe it’s just when you’ve been doing something for decades and decades, you know, it’s less…it’s so natural to me to be writing in some or another it’s what I’ve done with a lot of my time—for 53 years. So the whole thing is less elaborate.”
Writing is clearly something precious to Marion, if she hasn’t tired of the trade after doing it for 53 years; 53 years of honesty, of sharing, of telling everybody everything. For me, writing about myself is such an enormous feat—and when I have accomplished this miracle, I can almost never share it. As I read some of Marion’s stories, I was constantly amazed at how honest she was, how willing she was to share with the reader who she is. It was mystifying. But Marion casually swats away the word “brave” in any reference to herself, saying that it’s natural for her; it’s just the way she is. However, she does admit that, “Some things did take courage. I felt nervous writing First Comes Love after Tony died. To tell our experiences without having him there to agree or disagree on it felt scary. So I often had moments of thinking ‘I can’t do this’ or ‘This is just too much’ and ‘Nobody will like this’ and ‘People will think this about me.’ But you know—because I’ve been down the road so many times now—I just think, ‘Well, if I’m thinking that, it probably just means that this is really good stuff.’”
It’s almost as if Marion signs a full-disclosure agreement with her readers. All the roads she’s taken—the ones that’ve led to joy, and the ones that’ve led to pain—are right there in black and white. All the Marions of the past, waiting to be met. “It’s kind of weird. All these different version of me are so out there and so alive. Like I’m such a different person than I was when I was younger, and that younger me that was…so reckless and so self destructive is such a live person because she’s so captured in all these stories. So I’m sort of coexisting with these versions of myself that are not really all that much like me anymore.”
This aspect has caused more than its fair share of problems, of course. Imagine having everything you’ve ever done in a nicely covered book just waiting for someone you’re arguing with to use it as a reference. “It does make it complicated to be living with every version of yourself that ever existed,” Marion reflects with a laugh.
Later that day, I attended Marion’s reading on campus. It was hosted in the gallery of Wolf Hall, which was just the right size—small enough to be intimate, but much larger than where we’d had our interview. For seating, there were metal folding chairs and an assortment of benches—a group of seats as eclectic as the readings Marion had chosen. As she read, tears of both laughter and sorrow were brought to my eyes, and sometimes I barely knew which was which. As a special treat, she read the title piece from her next book, The Little Sweetheart of the Boston Strangler, which is currently unpublished. I couldn’t help but feel disappointment when she’d finished reading. It’s a very familiar feeling of disappointment, one I experience every time I finish a really good book. Needless to say, I anxiously await the day I see her new book in stores—just a taste was most definitely not enough.
Rehann Rheel was a Fall 2011 Shaking intern.