Come to Indy Reads Books on Monday, June 2, at 7PM to hear from local writer Sarah Layden. Sarah Layden’s debut novel, TRIP THROUGH YOUR WIRES, is forthcoming from Engine Books in early 2015. Her fiction, poetry, and essays have appeared in Sudden Flash Youth, Stone Canoe, Blackbird, Artful Dodge, PANK, Ladies’ Home Journal, The Humanist, and elsewhere. She is a winner of an AWP Intro Award, the Allen and Nirelle Galson Prize for Fiction, and two Society of Professional Journalists awards. She teaches writing at IUPUI, Marian University, and the Indiana Writers Center in Indianapolis. Sarah was kind enough to answer some questions about her writing life.
1. When did you first start writing? Why?
I’ve always been a big reader, and some of my favorite baby pictures are of me holding a book or the comics page upside-down. Aside from school, my first forays into writing were uber-private: penciled chicken scratch in a red leather journal with a small gold lock. I was nine, and my family had just moved to Indianapolis. Most of the entries are about my sister and me, and then later, the other kids we met in our apartment complex. (Also, our antics in said complex.) The act of writing felt very private, very sacred. I mean, I had a key and a lock. I could say whatever I wanted. I wrote about change: moving, uprooting, adjusting.
That year at school, in fourth grade, I wrote a poem about fall. An ode, if you will, heavy on the candy and leaf references. My teacher posted it on the classroom door. My little heart just about burst with pride. So, ego and candy, I suppose, were early influences to keep writing. I felt encouraged to share my writing. Putting my thoughts on paper helped me figure out what I thought about life. I no longer wanted to lock up those ideas.
2. Tell me about some of your favorite books, from childhood or just last week. Do they share any common elements? Do you gravitate to certain voices or types of characters?
Two books that have floored me this year are Claudia Zuluaga’s Fort Starlight and Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. These stories involve characters in interesting, complicated, layered conflict. I first read J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye in junior high, and have reread it a dozen times since – most recently in 2012, when I taught the novel. Every rereading brings new meaning.
Growing up, I devoured the Sweet Valley High series, Archie comics, novels by Judy Blume, Paula Danziger, Christopher Pike, and many, many more. The trend? I think I wanted to read about teenagers before I became one. I haven’t been a teenager for quite some time, but I still love YA fiction.
3. Who are some of your favorite writers?
This list could be two miles long. I try to read widely, but to narrow it down, and in no particular order, I love to read/recommend/obsess over the work of: Alice McDermott, Dave Eggers, Elinor Lipman, Don DeLillo, Toni Morrison, David Foster Wallace, George Saunders, Roxane Gay, Larry Brown, Sandra Cisneros, J.D. Salinger, Haruki Murakami, William Trevor, Bob Hicok, Willa Cather, Aimee Bender, Margaret Atwood, Lorrie Moore, William Faulkner, Cynthia Voigt, Madeleine L’Engle, Kate Atkinson, James Baldwin, Joan Didion, Gabriel García Márquez, Dan Chaon, Alice Munro. I know I’m forgetting someone. This could take all week.
4. How do you challenge yourself with your writing? What kinds of goals do you set?
I try to keep goals reasonable, especially since our children are small. Some days it seems like just showing up to write is its own challenge, when there are so many distractions and reasons why writing gets pushed aside. Some of those reasons are valid, particularly the child-related ones. Others aren’t. (Internet, I point a stern finger in your general direction, wherever that may be. I mean, really, where is the Internet? How can we properly blame it for our shortcomings if we can’t locate it? Right. User error, I’m afraid.)
So, I make sure that my work days are filled with work. During the semester, that may mean scheduling an hour of writing in between classes. Or getting up an hour earlier than the kids. Or staying up late and working while the rest of the house sleeps.
I’m constantly relearning to value my writing time as I would the time I give to others – my family, my students, time for course prep, and so on. I try to focus on putting in the time, whatever I can manage. I once had a word count goal, but I’ve moved away from it lately. Sometimes it’s useful if I’m writing to discover the story, but it turns out that I can really blather on when I’m trying to fill pages for a quota. I wind up cutting that stuff.
5. Who’s been a mentor for you, in writing or otherwise?
My parents have always supported me and believed in what I’ve chosen to do, and I know that’s a rare gift. They’ve been my models in how to deal with adversity, should it befall you, and success, should you be so lucky. They’re also just really kind, smart people who quietly help others, all the time.
Writing-wise, my MFA thesis advisor, Porter Shreve, was always extremely generous with his time and feedback. I’ve learned a great deal about writing and teaching from him, and he’s been a sounding board long after graduation. I show my fiction students a copy of a story I wrote for one of his workshops. Every page has heavy annotations, and he also typed another two pages of comments. He worked with me through several revisions, nominated the story for awards, and showed me how to make it better. I couldn’t have done that on my own. I took a novel writing class with Patricia Henley and Sharon Solwitz, which was invaluable for what would eventually become my first novel, Trip Through Your Wires.
Trustworthy readers are mentors, too. Barney Haney, a friend from Purdue’s MFA program, is someone I turn to for advice and critiques. He’s a great writer, critical reader, and total workhorse. My husband, a writer and journalist, is my first reader. He gives honest feedback and unlimited support, and provides a perspective I hadn’t considered.
6. What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received?
An editor I worked with at The Post-Standard newspaper in Syracuse, N.Y., Kevin Hyland, told me something I’ll never forget. We were chatting about our backgrounds, since we both hailed from the Hoosier State. He asked if I’d always wanted to be a reporter, and I admitted that what I really wanted to do was write a novel. I was scared that I never would. I can still hear his reply. “If you really want to write a novel, you will,” he said. He compared it to people who say they want to lose weight, but do nothing to try to lose weight. You do the things you really want to do, he said.
He wasn’t talking about publication, or glory, or whatever grandstands and trapdoors we conjure when daydreaming about writing. He was saying that if I really wanted to write a novel, then I would. I could. And you know what? I did.
Forget about what happens – or doesn’t – after a novel is written. If you really want to write a book, who’s to stop you? You. That’s it.
7. How did you get into teaching? What have you learned from being a teacher?
At the newspaper, I started out on the sports beat. After a few years, I began covering education. I spent many hours sitting in the audience at school board meetings. Have you ever been to a school board meeting? I can count on one hand the number of times there was controversy or major conflict. It’s an awful lot of protracted but necessary procedural doings. People who serve on school boards are saints; it truly is service. So, after a couple years, I finally started to understand that all these policy votes were interesting stories in disguise – about teachers, students, administrators, communities. I loved getting to tell those stories as a reporter.
Reporting education stories as an impartial observer began to feel strange to me. I could’ve hung out in classrooms all day if I didn’t have to make deadline. It dawned on me that I wanted to be part of the education process, not just write about it. I began looking into MFA programs, as a way to both write and teach. Getting into Purdue was a dream. It wound up being the perfect place for me at just the right time. Even though I’d majored in journalism at Syracuse, I’d always wanted to write fiction. It was like this secret that a practical Midwestern girl dare not confess. But I kept reading, kept writing, kept confessing.
8. What’s your favorite place in Indianapolis?
This is tough. Can I do a top three? The Monon Trail, in and around Broad Ripple.
The IMA for great art, great views, beautiful grounds. The Red Key Tavern, when thirsty and have a babysitter.
9. Tell us a little about your forthcoming novel Trip Through Your Wires. How long have you been working on it? What are you most proud of?
In Trip Through Your Wires, years after her boyfriend’s murder in Mexico, a clue draws Carey back into the mystery that led to his death. She must finally confront her own culpability and self-delusion. Grief shaded Carey’s memories, and new information shines harsh light on the truth. It takes place in 1996 – revisiting Guanajuato, Mexico, in memory – and Indianapolis in 2003, the book’s “present day.”
I’ve been working on the novel for ten years. It was my MFA thesis, in vastly different form and with another title. My editor at Engine Books, Victoria Barrett, excels at finding the heart of a story. When we first talked about the novel, it was so clear to me that she understood the book and what I was trying to do. Her notes for revision helped me to re-see the material, to deepen in places and cut elsewhere. She is an amazingly talented editor and writer.
I’m very proud of finishing this book, of not giving up on it. I’m so excited about what Trip Through Your Wires has become over the years. It blends a number of my interests: cultural conflict, Spanish, photography, tourism, and, of course, the 1990s, for which some of us are a little nostalgic. (*Points finger at self*)
10. Anything else you’d like to add?
To me, it seems vitally important to follow your nose as a reader and writer. Don’t worry too much about what you should be reading. Go to what interests you, and see how it might take you to new places. I’m a huge fan of music, and growing up, I subscribed to Spin, Rolling Stone, and later, Paste Magazine. The first thing I published in college was a music review, and the second thing was a band profile. I’ve since gone in other directions, but I’m glad for the route I took.
Indy Wordlab is a monthly reading series/open writing workshop. A local writer reads their work, takes questions, and offers a writing experiment, Attendees take 30-40 minutes to write on the prompt, and then reconvene in small groups to share their work. Learn more on our Facebook and Meetup pages.