photo: Algonquin Books, Alan A. Church
Her debut novel, “The Atomic Weight of Love,” is among Amazon’s “Best literature and fiction of 2016 so far” and is listed as the 12th best selling out of 20. ELIZABETH J. CHURCH entered the literary world with the naturalness of someone who has always written books. She spent more than 30 years working as a lawyer and it seems as if she has now returned where she belongs, among writers. I rejoiced in reading her book and it is with great delight I welcome the author as my guest in this candid, exclusive interview.
What’s the most beautiful thing about being a writer?
Freedom. The freedom to let loose the characters in my head and to watch them interact. The freedom to illuminate dreams.
And what’s the least pleasant part of your profession?
The lack of income and the lag in income.
What are the things you learned as a lawyer that have served you the most in your writing?
I learned how to dissect a problem and put it back together, using evidence. I learned how to write persuasively, to make an argument on behalf of my client. I think of Meridian, in particular, as my client. I think of women on the whole as my client, and I as I write, I am making arguments, trying to win their case – to protect and promote them.
I know you’ve wanted for years to write a novel. Why have you waited so long?
There are numerous reasons why this took me so long. Among them: practicalities (the need for a reliable, dependable income); the loss of a savings account to my mother’s wrath when I moved in with a man to whom I was not married (the early 1970s); the myriad distractions of life; and lack of sufficient faith in my talents.
When and where do you like to write?
At home, before my computer, with my dog beside me. I begin writing as soon as I return from our morning hike, which is early – so well before 8:00 a.m. I write each and every day. Nothing is more important to me.
Once you start writing, do you write easily?
Sometimes it flows readily, nearly as fast as I can type; sometimes it comes in hard-won starts and stops. I much prefer the first several drafts, before I’m editing with someone else’s input or ideas in mind – when it’s still purely, exquisitely mine.
When did you first feel that what you write matters?
When I was nine years old, and my teacher pulled my homework assignment out and read it to the class. We were asked to interpret a drawing, to describe what was happening in the picture. I wrote about the characters’ motivations, why they were doing what they were doing, how they felt. I was most pleased that I’d managed to convey emotion.
How do you know whether the story you’re about to tell is worth telling?
What I write will matter to some but not to others, but if it helps my head and heart to understand something that before only puzzled or eluded me, then I’m hopeful it will speak to others, too.
What were you most afraid of, before you started writing „The Atomic Weight of Love„?
That I would fail to finish and so would let myself down.
Who is Meridian? Is she purely fictional or someone served as an inspiration in the creation of this wonderful character? Are there any characters that are actually purely fictional?
Meridian is an amalgam. She is me. She is my mother. She is shavings of other women I’ve known. She is a creation. She lived inside of me for a long while, and when I finished the book I grieved her for weeks; I missed her.
For me, all of my characters are shavings of myself and others, along with what I need for them to be to serve plot or purpose or theme. I don’t believe any character of mine is purely fictional – even if the only part of a character that is “fact” is a physical trait I’ve observed in someone I passed on the street.
Did you consciously choose the course of events in the book or did you just let them happen? As a writer, do you think you have full power of decision over the events and the characters? Or at some point do they start making their own decisions and choices? In short, is a writer the full and omnipotent creator of a story?
I think my subconscious wrote a good deal of this book (as well as the book I’m just now polishing off to send to my agent). I certainly chose the pieces, set them out, faced them in a certain direction, and scooted them along a few squares on the chessboard, but they do have minds of their own. As I write, they become fuller agents with desires of their own, unanticipated quirks and foibles. I have had some characters who were to be bit players actually refuse to leave when I thought their time was up. So far, they’ve been right to demand, and I’ve been right to succumb to their demands.
How was your childhood in Los Alamos, New Mexico? What are your most vivid memories?
My childhood was a mix of idyll and sudden grief. I hiked the forests, played alone in a nearby meadow without fear. In the winter, I walked alone after school to ice skate in a canyon near our home. I swam, volunteered to help in the elementary school library where I read all I could. I climbed up and down the ladders to cave dwellings in Bandelier National Monument. I delighted in creating science fair projects and excelled in school, where I had exceptional teachers who let me work at my own pace, who created special classes for me in both mathematics and English.
My father died when I was ten, and that dramatically altered my family’s income. Not many children in town had only one parent, and so we were somewhat outliers. For example, my mother had to go to my teacher and tell her I could not be in the school play because my mother did not have time to sew a costume for me. However, what I gained from tragedy was immense: My mother gave me the example of a woman who did not lie down in a fetal position when trouble struck. She stood tall, squared her shoulders, and worked hard to provide for her four children. I used her strength as an inspiration when my husband became ill and then died.
How did your parents’ professions and personalities shape your vision of the world, of life?
It’s hard to separate a parent’s profession and personality from genetic contributions – but that statement in itself may give you a clue as to my personality and how I see the world. My life has been steeped in science, in careful observation and examination, in questioning how things work, why things are as they are (or as they appear to be). My father was exceedingly demanding, and so I worked hard to meet or exceed his expectations, to win his approval. My mother also had high expectations, but she could also see that I would always drive myself harder than necessary, that she needn’t push me. My mother had a lifelong desire to learn, a passion for finding things out and excitedly sharing her discoveries. I also possess an eagerness for learning, and I very much miss sharing discoveries with her. I know that she would have adored discussing crows with me.
How do you see feminism nowadays? What do you think has gone wrong in women’s emancipation process, if anything?
I am sorry that being a feminist has to some degree become something reluctantly, almost ashamedly admitted. Some have called my novel “unabashedly feminist,” and I’m proud of that. I think we are by no means done fighting for ourselves, for consistent respect. I hear haphazard sexist comments every day of my life – even from those I love – and it disappoints me hugely that women are still disparaged by reason of our gender. Our very language reflects ongoing prejudices, when the worst thing a man can be called is “a girl,” or when a presidential candidate can casually backhand women and think a belated, paltry apology wipes the slate clean.
The fight for true equality has taken too long. I wonder: How can we still have such poor representation in our legislative branch – a couple handfuls of women? How can we still be fighting for the right to control our own bodies? How can we still be fighting to get rapes properly prosecuted? We think we’re “progressive,” and yet how many countries long ago put women in charge? Indira Gandhi became prime minister of India in 1966!
How much of a woman’s success in life is defined by her career, by her professional accomplishments? Do you think a woman of today can be happy being a stay-at-home mother and / or wife?
I think it all depends upon a woman’s expectations and dreams. If I expect, as did Meridian, to obtain a graduate degree and to have a career, and I am unable to meet that long-held expectation, then I will either have to adjust or be miserable, unfulfilled. If my strong desire is to build a family, to raise children and create a safe, stimulating environment for those children, then I will be miserable if I’m not able to meet those expectations (or I will adjust). This is all true for men, too – the match between expectations and reality, between ambitions and what we’re able to make manifest. I think about John Lennon – how at the end of his life he was getting back to the recording studio, to his career, but that he had also reportedly loved stepping back from the world and fame, taking care of his son. I think we can find fulfillment in both arenas. The point is that we have the choice, and women have not traditionally had that choice.
“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” Would you agree with Ernest Hemingway? How much suffering is there in writing?
I have definitely opened some veins to write, in an effort to make readers feel. With my second novel, the one I’m just now polishing, I went into a deep depression this past winter. What I was writing, what I made myself feel, was extraordinarily painful, brutal. I did it so that I could take the reader along, convey pain and difficulty in a realistic way. I understand what Hemmingway is saying (great quote, by the way). I disagree when he says that there is “nothing to it,” as the pain can be immense, and it takes courage to put one’s self through it.
I will also say there is great joy – the joy of a phrase well crafted, of a joke embedded in a scene, of a character’s well-executed triumph.
Your profession is very quiet and solitary. How do you balance that? What do you most like to do when you don’t write?
I am by nature a very solitary person. I like my aloneness, and I am comfortable with my own thoughts. I find my daily hikes, being out in nature and hearing birdsong, seeing the slant of the sun, the latest blooming flowers or the patterns of frost, to be soothing. I swim a great deal, and that’s another way for me to break away from the purely solitary life. I am approachable, which means that when I run even simple errands I have all kinds of unanticipated conversations with complete strangers, many of whom can’t wait to share their stories with me, because I listen. Of course, I also have friends I see – I love a good, intelligent, spirited conversation. I enjoy attending lectures and concerts, museums, bookstores (surprise!), and restaurants. I like to sit with a drink in a bar, and although I’m not a smoker and don’t like the smell, I miss the days of smoky bars, padded booths, good music on the jukebox and long, easy talks over cocktails.
Why do you write?
Because it’s something that burns bright inside me.
What are you the most grateful for?
That I have loved fiercely, without reservation.
What do you wish for the most?
To be fortunate enough die in a place where there is at least one person who loves me, who has the courage to hold my hand until I am gone.
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***Semnat de Corina Stoica