A Third Inspirational Conversation

Author Monica Drake’s second novel The Stud Book, released earlier this year, helped her to enter a special class of writers in Portland—those who have gained the attention of a national audience. She counts among her writer friends Chuck Palahniuk and Chelsea Cain, both bestsellers beyond the Rose City. Shortly before the release of her book, the humble and funny author talked with me about her experiences in Portland, teaching, and writing comedy.

Monica DrakeHow long have you been writing?
In about 1991 I joined Tom Spanbauer’s workshop, and count that as the beginning.  Tom had just moved to Portland from New York. Then I met Chuck Palahniuk and others, my writing crew. Chuck and I, along with others, still meet every week. How crazy and amazing is that?

How long have you considered yourself a writer?  What did it take for you to call yourself a writer? Publication? A degree?
I didn’t call myself a writer until after Clown Girl came out in 2006. Between your first question and this one I realize I was writing for fifteen years, before I felt like I’d earned the title. I had an MFA by then. I was writing short stories, publishing in journals primarily. I’d written reviews and articles, including one very long piece for The Stranger, in Seattle—the entire issue.

Some people are quick to take on titles. I’ve always been more hesitant. I used to paint a lot, but I’d never call myself a painter. I’ve written poems, but don’t call myself a poet. Having a novel out, going through the process of completing the work, making it through the hurdles, then the trial by fire of reviews…I’m a writer. I feel it, now.

Do you believe in the adage that in order to be a writer you have to write every day?
That’s a wonderful luxury. It’s important to think about writing all the time and stay in the conversation, but as a survival skill in a demanding world, I grant myself permission to write when I can. Along with being a writer, I’m a mother, and an Associate Professor. I do some administrative work, and I’ve founded a new writing major at the school where I teach, the Pacific Northwest College of Art. If I told myself to write every day or give it up, I’d be done for. I make sure not to get too far away from my projects. Treat writing the way you’d treat an important relationship—keep in touch, check in, take care of the process, and keep going, heart and balls.

Is it easier or harder to be a writer in Portland? What is the community like here? How does it compare/differ from more prominent literary cities like New York?
I’ve pretty much always been in Portland, so can only speculate about other places. I’m curious—is the narrative about moving to New York to be a writer worn out yet? It feels a little well trod, from here.

I’m lucky to have good friends who have proven you can make your mark from out West, far from the traditional center of publishing. Katherine Dunn set the pace for me with Geek Love. Then, with Fight Club, my friend Chuck hit the big time. Any sense I had that a person had to give it up, move away from Portland, was obliterated, right?  The list is long, I could go on. I’m here, and glad to be in Portland, and to have lived here long before the New York Times started writing about the city.

We have an amazing writing community—smart, accomplished, loving and daring, and we throw damn good parties.

What are you working on now?
I have a new novel underway. The working title keeps changing. Also I’m tinkering with a handful of essays.

Is it more difficult to write comedy than tragedy?
Good question. I wouldn’t want to pit one against the other, though it does seem to me anyway harder to define what works as comedy. We all recognize a sad story, a narrative in which characters end up worse off than they started. But simply building a story arc with a happy ending doesn’t ensure a story isn’t full of tragedy along the way, and it doesn’t ensure a comedy by a long shot.

When I first started submitting an early draft of Clown Girl, I was told it was “tragedy upon tragedy.” I thought it was funny! I realized my idea of comedy might be just that—tragedy piled on tragedy, to the point of the absurd. I revised the book to highlight comedic elements, to offer readers more in the way of cues.

I write comedy about serious subjects. The Stud Book is a comedy about over population. It has a miscarriage in it. It has violence. I hope I’ve found the humor and humanity in the struggle of living within the physical urges, hopes and limits of one human-animal body on a crowded planet.

How do you balance teaching with working as a writer? How does one inform the other?
I have the good luck to teach writing at art school, so when we talk about writing, there, we’re also talking about the arts as a whole. How nice is that? We have a steady stream of amazing creative people coming through, giving talks—more talks about ideas than anyone can manage to attend in a week. It’s rich. So though I’m busy, and time is tight, I’m also exposed to so many interesting conversations, from students and professionals. I’m constantly kept aware of how creative problem solving functions in the world, as designers, writers, visual artists, film makers. It’s wonderful. And I’ve launched a new program at PNCA—an undergraduate degree, a BFA (not a BA) in writing. It has a parallel study in visual arts, and we’ve defined “writing” about as broadly as possible. It’s the perfect program for a writer who would like to be surrounded by the visual and other arts, and who’s willing to draw and consider art history alongside learning how to write. It’s really pretty dynamic.

Tell me about your experiences as a woman writer.
I could say a lot about this—every writer, male or female, has concerns, doubts, struggles with marketing boards. Books, like movies, are often packaged along pretty gendered terms, and I do what I can to not step into that marking niche. As a female author, I hope to write in a way that reaches and interests men as well as women.  

But to focus on the best aspects—I adore being part of a kickass community. Writing has let me meet some of the coolest, smartest women I’ve ever known. There are women in publishing, marketing, and music, doing amazing things. It does my heart good just to be around them.

Who are some female writers you admire/look up to?
So many! Here’s a short list. 

Abigail Scott Duniway, for being the first author to publish a novel in Oregon when the territory became a state, and for fighting like hell to secure the right for women to vote despite years of set backs. She was a powerhouse author.

Mary Shelley, for all obvious reasons! Brilliant.

Katherine Dunn.

Ursula LeGuin, always amazing.

Stevie Smith, because her poems are smart and funny, and she had the courage to adopt an often simple, singsong delivery, that seems in opposition to her intelligence but serves to underscore her vision.

Joy Williams. Even in the darkest moments of her work I feel happy, because of her words, her choices, it all just delights me.

Lidia Yuknavitch. My friend and workshop colleague. She keeps me on my toes and her writing makes me so happy.

And Chelsea Cain, who gets grisly on the page, but keeps the humor tucked in unexpected corners. Smart page-turners. Yowza!

And Ellen Forney, for having the courage to write and illustrate “Marbles.”

I’m interested in the work of Kate Zambreno, Elissa Bassist, many others. Those are only a few. So many more.

This article first appeared in The Rearguard in March 2013.

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