Transforming Struggles Into Art
Interview by Emily Jaeger, Features Editor
Patty Somlo is an author of fiction and creative nonfiction living in Sonoma County, California. Her second book, The First to Disappear (Spuyten Duyvil), was a finalist in the Fiction: Short Story category of the 2016 International Book Awards. Her work has appeared in journals, including the Los Angeles Review, the Santa Clara Review, Under the Sun, Guernica, Gravel, Sheepshead Review, WomenArts Quarterly, and numerous anthologies. She has two forthcoming books: a memoir, Even When Trapped Behind Clouds (WiDo Publishing), and Hairway to Heaven: Stories (Cherry Castle Publishing).
Jaeger: “Starlight,” an excerpt from your memoir Even When Trapped Behind Clouds, appearing in this month’s issue, revolves around the difficult decision to devote yourself to a life of writing over other priorities, such as motherhood, and your admiration of the author May Sarton. How does this chapter fit into and influence the rest of the memoir?
Somlo: The memoir contains a series of interconnected personal essays covering a period of my life during which I devoted a great deal of time and effort to healing long-term depression and anxiety. I suffered for years and couldn’t acknowledge these conditions or question the way they made me see the world. I healed by tuning in, using a combination of Western psychotherapy and Eastern practices, including meditation and mindfulness. I was able to step out of my habitual patterns and examine what I’d been feeling, as if I were someone standing outside myself. It’s an important theme in this chapter and runs through the memoir. In the same way, I believe that Sarton wrote about how she sought out solitude. She would go home and sort out the emotional outbursts or moods she had experienced with others.
Jaeger: Why did you choose to structure “Starlight” around your reading relationship with a favorite author? Could you talk a little more about the development of the chapter?
Somlo: One of the central themes of the memoir is my search for a place I could call home. After a childhood of being constantly uprooted and continuing through a nomadic adulthood, the cottage in “Starlight” was the first house I had ever owned. As I wrote about the house I thought that Sarton would have loved it. Once I wrote that sentence, I began to recollect my first introduction to Sarton, after I learned that I was pregnant. I wanted to have time to write and knew that it would be impossible, as a writer and a single woman, to raise a child. Reading Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing made me feel not quite so alone.
After I read her Journal of a Solitude, which is my all-time favorite book, I felt as if she were a friend. As I continued writing “Starlight,” I realized I related to Sarton’s descriptions of the complicated life a writer inhabits: needing solitude but then feeling lonely and having to struggle with depression and the ups and downs that sensitive souls frequently experience.
Jaeger: You began your writing career as a journalist and then eventually moved to literary fiction. What caused you to transition to memoir writing? How does your past experience with journalism and fiction feed into your work as a memoirist?
Somlo: Early on, when I began writing fiction, I felt like I wasn’t very good at it. I didn’t know how to revise my work to make it better. A few years earlier, I had started going to therapy for what I learned was a nearly lifelong case of low-level depression and anxiety. As part of my effort to heal, I started writing a memoir about depression, which turned into a book-length memoir called Living with Depression. I found a literary agent who spent about a year trying to get a publisher for the book without success. One of the problems was that it wasn’t strictly a memoir, but also had elements of a self-help book in it—a hangover from my journalism days.
I decided to focus on shorter work, both fiction and nonfiction, including essays, short stories, and memoir pieces, that would be easier to revise than an entire book. As I learned to improve the short stories, I also began to use more fictional elements in the memoir pieces. So, the fiction helped with the storytelling aspects of memoir. The journalism contributed to an attention to specific details and descriptions.
Jaeger: In “Starlight,” you exhibit extreme vulnerability and candor in your discussion of abortion and the choices you believe women writers have to make. What was the experience of writing this section? Did telling the story change the way you felt about it?
Somlo: I once taught some writing workshops at a homeless shelter. I told the students that writing about difficulties in their lives could transform them from sad circumstances to art. Writing this memoir was tremendously empowering because it enabled me to own the parts of myself and my life I previously hid. I grew up in an alcoholic family and felt ashamed about many aspects of my life. The shame caused me to hide what I judged to be not good enough.
I have always been pro-choice and never regretted the decision I made to have an abortion. But writing about it allowed me to discover a deeper regret: I had such a limited choice, with no partner and so little help for parents raising children in this country. Abortion is such a hot-button issue. I never felt comfortable talking about my own abortion. Writing about it, therefore, was empowering.
Jaeger: Ultimately, you decided to commit to writing over single-motherhood. The back-cover blurb for Even When Trapped Behind Clouds describes you, in the context of the memoir, as “incapable of developing long-term relationships.” How does this contrast or connect with your commitment to the writing life?
Somlo: Since I grew up in a military family that moved almost every other year and my parents also were not great role models for developing good relationships, I didn’t know how to develop long-lasting ties with other people. At the same time, I started writing and enjoyed it so much that I kept at it. I had some early successes: many of my first freelance articles were published in newspapers and magazines. Even though, like most writers, I have had more than my share of rejections, and still get them, I have had enough success to keep me going.
Writing has also become a necessity. At one point when I was feeling very discouraged about my writing, I decided to stop and focus on art. It didn’t work. I missed writing too much. Luckily, I connected with a wonderful group of women writers in Portland, Oregon, who publish an annual journal, VoiceCatcher. Their support got me through that difficult period with my writing.
Jaeger: In addition to your interest in Sarton, much of “Starlight” is occupied with the renovations of your Queen Anne style cottage. Indeed, your past homes are a common image throughout the memoir. Could you talk about the importance of the theme of houses in the memoir?
Somlo: In one of the early chapters, I write that other people grow up in houses but my family grew up in motel rooms. Since the memoir deals with my search for home, the houses I’ve inhabited throughout my life serve as characters in the book. For instance, in one chapter, I talk about a beach cottage my husband and I bought on the Long Beach Peninsula, on the southwest Washington coast. I write about how in buying the place, I got caught up in all the fantasies I had developed over the years about a house at the beach, which included the influence of reading about Sarton’s time in her house on the coast of Maine. The beach cottage ended up being a disappointment because I attached way too many hopes to owning it and spending time there.
Jaeger: How does the imagery of renovation relate to the larger narrative of the memoir?
Somlo: The imagery of renovation mimics the themes of healing and personal growth that run throughout the memoir. In old houses, renovation is both fun, exciting and necessary, but also difficult, challenging, and sometimes even scary. Most importantly, renovating an old house means you often have to live through a hard stretch of time in order to reap the benefits. This is much the same process for the healing: it’s necessary to travel through the darkness in order to reach the light.
Jaeger: You have written in the past that your travels have greatly inspired your short stories. How does travel function in your memoir?
Somlo: In the chapter “The Woman Who Waits for Me,” I write about how difficult it has been to know myself since I’ve left pieces of myself everywhere I have lived before. Travel in the memoir is focused on my efforts to pick up those pieces in order to construct a whole, self-aware person who feels like she fits in her current life. As a child I was expected to leave a place and simply forget about it and move on. I did it, but later realized that it’s critical to embrace what I have loved and lost in order to live a happy life. In the memoir, I return to areas I’ve left and remember the past or visit new places that bring up memories both to celebrate and grieve the parts of the world I have loved.
Jaeger: What is your regular writing practice and how did it affect the evolution of Even When Trapped Behind Clouds? What was your process of revision?
Somlo: I get up early at least five mornings a week and write. I tend to start with a small idea, sometimes a word or two jotted down on a napkin, and see where it takes me. Even When Trapped Behind Clouds began this way as many short memoir pieces that I later combined into a book. Initially, I revised the pieces as I wrote them. Since the pieces were able to stand alone, I submitted them to journals. Some editors who accepted the pieces suggested edits, which improved the manuscript further. I also went back to pieces after some time had passed and revised them more. Finally, after the book was accepted for publication by WiDo, I was assigned a wonderful editor. We went through about three revisions of the book and made significant improvements.
Jaeger: What new projects do you have in the works?
Somlo: I am working on another book-length memoir at the moment. The themes are similar but it covers a different time period in my life. I have two separate novels in progress as well. At first, when I finished Even When Trapped Behind Clouds, I couldn’t decide which project to focus on, so I went back and forth with them for a while. Then I decided to focus first on the memoir. Next I’ll probably go back and forth between the two novels before I settle on one.
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