I want to welcome Eleanor Bluestein to Hey Lady! I asked Eleanor if I could interview her after reading her collection of short stories entitled Tea & Other Ayama Na Tales and she accepted!
(I should tell you that having worked with Eleanor on her virtual book tour (which didn’t influence me at all about liking her book, as anyone who’s read a few reviews here will know that I’m a pretty tough critic), she’s a total kick in the pants. And if I lived where she lived, I’d totally have put on the puppy dog eyes and asked if we could be friends. Alas, I live too far away so email will have to suffice.)
First, Eleanor, I want to welcome you to Hey Lady! Whatcha Readin’? My first question for you is: When did you know that you loved writing?
My first thought was, “Who says I love writing?” I find the early and middle stages of a new work difficult, frustrating, and agonizingly slow. I rewrite endlessly waiting for the magic to show up. I’d abandon the whole enterprise except that when I’m not writing, I feel kind of lost and undefined. So maybe it’s more need than love that keeps me at it. I knew I needed writing in my mid-thirties–I’d been writing seriously at that point for a year or two. I do enjoy, maybe even love, the later stages of the process, when the hardest part is behind me and I’m polishing, tweaking, and deepening.
Do you still have some of the first things you wrote once you knew you wanted to be a writer?
I’ve been at this long enough that earlier backup systems have come and gone. An early novel is on a floppy disk buried in boxes in a Fibber McGee garage. A few of the oldest things that saw print are still on the shelves (poetry, short stories, an essay), and there’s more recent unpublished stuff on the hard drive.
Do you look back at old things you’ve written and cringe at how poorly they’re written? Or do you think they’re pretty good?
OK, so this relates to your first question about loving writing. I produce many drafts before what I’ve written is fit for taste-testing let alone serious human consumption. So if I look back at older stuff, which I don’t do too much, I sometimes wonder how I pulled it off. It looks better than the early stages of a work in progress. I do sometimes cringe though.
You mentioned in a guest post that you completely invented the country of Ayama Na, all the way down to the national anthem. How long did it take you to invent this fictional country?
I did invent Ayama Na, but not from scratch. I used aspects of landscape, local color and the politics and history of the places in South East Asia that I’d visited. All in all, it took about two and a half years to complete the ten stories in the book. And during that time, names of streets and places changed and details became more focused, so the country continued to evolve until the book went to print.
What do you do when you’re not exactly inspired to write? How do you push through writers’ block?
Mostly, I revise and edit the previous chapter until I feel in the swing of the work again. Sometimes reading jumpstarts the process. If I’m stumped by plot, I might talk it out with a writer friend.
When you write, do you control the characters and their outcomes, or do you find that the characters drive the story? Are you sometimes surprised at how a story ends?
When I’m lucky, the characters come to life early and help drive the plot. (That happened in “Pineapple Wars,” for example). It’s rare though. More often, it’s a lopsided collaborative effort with me doing the heavy lifting, trying this, trying that, seeing what works. The characters usually contribute dialog. They tend to speak for themselves, which helps a lot. Hmmm. Perhaps I should write plays.
As for how a story ends, a few weeks ago, I wrote a guest post on story endings for Gautami Tripathy’s blog “Everything Distils Into Reading.” I gave specifics there but the gist is that I rework and rewrite endings, changing them even months or a year after I thought I had them right. I add, subtract, and weigh alternatives searching for a satisfying conclusion—at least one that satisfies me. And yes, sometimes I’m surprised by what that conclusion ultimately ends up being.
The story “Hamburger School” has a very profound lesson about time. Did you make that up or was that something you picked up from someone else, such as your own father?
Everyone has probably experienced time speeding up or slowing down depending on what’s going on at the moment. The lesson Mahala’s father delivers at the end of the story (that time can move so slowly in someone’s mind that even a young person might feel quite old) seems a logical extension of this phenomenon, but I did make it up. The thought was probably influenced by the volunteer work I do as a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA) for kids in Child Protective Services. Most of the kids I’ve worked with live in group homes, not even with foster families. As they approach and move through their teenage years, their pain is palpable and it’s impossible not to recognize how much forbearance is required of them just to get through a day. Because of what they’ve been through (including the reasons they needed to be removed from their parents in the first place), they are often significantly immature in certain ways, but in other ways they are old, wary, and sad beyond their years. My impression is that time can pass very slowly for these kids.
In the story “Tea”, there’s an interesting cafe where the owners decide what drinks the patrons need. Did you make this up or did you visit a similar cafe?
Pure invention again, but one I thought had so much potential that after Tea and Other Ayama Na Tales was published, I had an “Ayama Na Tea Ceremony” at my home for some friends who’d encouraged my writing efforts. After dinner, my husband and I dressed as the elderly proprietors of the cafe and ceremoniously prepared and served each of our guests a special drink chosen to meet their needs—for example, a jasmine tea described as assisting in the healing of scars for a friend going through a difficult time, or more playfully, a tea called “Get Regular” to help a friend with writer’s block. Everybody, of course, got chocolate. Who doesn’t need that?
In a few of your stories, “Pineapple Wars” being one of them, a modern way of thinking is almost more animalistic than the traditional way of thinking. Can you comment on this?
I think you’re right. In Ayama Na, when family, cultural, or religious values break down, ethical and moral guidelines sometimes weaken as well. You can see that drift toward amorality in response to stress, confusion or desperation in the car salesman in “Pineapple Wars,” the farmer in “AIBO or Love at First Sight,” the young playwright in “The Cut the Crap Machine,” and the women in the hill tribes in “A Ruined Life.” The theme wasn’t conscious as I wrote, but it makes sense since Ayama Na is recovering from war and modernizing at such a dizzying pace. In a way the entire country is suffering PTSD. On the other hand, you also meet strong characters in these stories who think hard about virtue and responsible citizenship—the tour guide in “The Blanks,” the beauty contestant in “Skin Deep,” the fortune teller in “North of the Faro,” the one-legged red-headed whore in “The Artist’s Story.” These characters are struggling to do the right thing.
What’s the most recent book you read that made you go, “Wow!”?
Olive Kitteridge (by Elizabeth Strout), this year’s winner of the Pulitzer Prize. The writing is wonderful and the title character is completely original. I loved the book.
What are you currently working on?
I’m working on a novel set in San Diego—working title: Vinyl Repair. It’s about a young man’s efforts be a good person. I’m interested in how you figure out what a moral and ethical life is, especially in the absence of a religious commitment.
Thanks, Trish, for the opportunity to answer these questions for you and your readers.
Thank you, Eleanor, for such a great interview! I will definitely be checking out your next book.
Do any of you think you could invent a whole country, even if it was an amalgamation of various countries? I couldn’t. Though I’d love to have Jill on my team so she could invent the national anthem. I think she’d be good at that. 🙂