Thursday, August 19, 2010

Writers Talk - Eberle Umbach

I’m so happy to see the Writers Talk series beginning & I’m even more happy because we’re starting it off with my dear wife Eberle Umbach.  The facts: Eberle has a B.A. in Creative Writing from Oberlin College & an M.A. from Johns Hopkins, also in creative writing.  She has had her short fiction published in several literary journals as well as The Whole Earth Catalog (I've always thought that was terrifically cool), & a very generous excerpt from her Weiser River Pillow Book was published in the Impassio Press anthology of fragmentary writing titled In Pieces  (you can read the complete Pillow Book right here on Robert Frost’s Banjo.)   Eberle also served as Idaho Writer in Residence in 1988 & 1989.  In addition, as a musician she has been awarded a number of grants by the Idaho Commission on the Arts, especially for scoring work she did (with some help from yours truly) for the films of silent film director/writer/actress Nell Shipman.  In short, Eberle’s creativity, not only in writing & music but in other forms as well, is truly inspiring. 

To get some sense of Eberle's writing, please check out the new Writers Talk blog, where you’ll be able to read the first chapter of Eberle’s novel, The Sportswoman’s Notebook.  So, without further ado….

When did you first realize your identity as a writer?

In grade school and high school I wrote poems that just amazed me by how beautiful they were. In some ways, this has become more complicated over time, and in some ways not.

Describe the creative process involved in any one piece you’ve written—this could be book, a story, a poem, an essay, etc.

I had an unvarying routine for my most recently unpublished novel The Sportswoman’s Notebook - make coffee, sit with my parrot and write in the Pillow Book, then go to my studio and work. I liked having a complete outline written out very neatly, even though I was constantly not following it and rewriting it. As seems to always be the case when I write, one inexplicable image was the start of it and what I kept returning to when I felt lost in it. In this case it was an image that came to me as I was reading Turgenev’s The Sportsman’s Notebook (I’d never read any Turgenev before or since, but I was living in rural Brazil and read ANYTHING in English I could find.) I thought of how the book might be if instead of a narrator who was a hunter moving freely between classes and expressing the dynamics of feudalism, you had a woman narrator/hunter who moved freely through centuries, expressing the dynamics of masculinism. In itself, this was no more than an idly half-irritated thought – but it immediately merged with an image of vampires and other immortal monsters - of Frankenstein, and Mary Shelley encountering in herself the monstrosity of female writing, a doubled narrator - and the image of Elizabeth Bishop who had lived in small-town Brazil with the lover she called her maidservant. The tension between those ideas was what encoded the whole story immediately, in a moment, and I knew all I had to do was unravel it. I think the thrill for me is the experience of being simultaneously the silkworm who spins the cocoon and the woman who unwinds the cocoon into a single thread and weaves it into a dwelling tent. If an image doesn’t make me certain I will feel like that, I know I will get bored long before I find the story in it that is real for me.

Could you describe your relationship to the publishing process (this can be publishing in any form, from traditional book publishing to blogging, etc)

In the years immediately following graduate school, I had several short stories published in literary magazines and felt quite pleased with myself. But I knew that novels were what I really wanted to write. When my first two novels went unpublished in spite of some interest, I was really abysmally crushed though I tried not to admit this (pride not only goes before a fall but comes after it?) I started playing more music and writing less. When I started working on novels again, it was with no illusions as to their probable future. Which was, in some ways, liberating – after I’d exhausted the other emotions. I’ve been working recently with an agent who’s interested in a somewhat fictionalized non-fiction book about the friendships between 19th century women authors that I’m writing and this has been a different kind of emotional roller-coaster than outright failure – sometimes I feel horrified by the thought that I’m selling out – other times horrified by the thought that I’m not even a good enough writer to succeed at selling out – even more afraid of the fact that I’m actually coming to love this book and it’s not really selling out at all. What I’m trying to do now is just stay open to wherever the encounter of writing this way takes me, knowing that that’s the only thing, ultimately, that has reality.    

How has being a writer affected your relationships?
A movie that absolutely possessed me at a strangely young age was The Red Shoes, where the conflict between a woman’s art (as a ballerina) and falling in love leads to her take her greatest dancing role into her own life and commits suicide by dancing herself into a moving train. I also ADORED the ballet in the movie, where a newspaper dances on stage, and an ocean comes right up to the footlights (I was young enough to think these things were real.) But it was the fatal and inevitable horror of the conflict between art and love that consumed me. Not surprisingly, perhaps, I plunged pretty deeply into destructive relationships in the early adult phase of my writing life…and this conflict of identity is still one that gives me vertigo at times. But I’ve learned a lot more about it, and John – you understand this in a way that always brings me back to earth, to you, no matter how far away I’ve gone.

How would you describe the community of writers you belong to—if any?  This may be a “real” or “virtual” (in more than one sense) community.

My primary writing community has always been virtual (in book form) and intensely energizing to me. From early on in my reading life I strongly preferred women authors to the other kind (is literary sexual orientation perhaps genetic?) and in the thrill of 80s fem crit was delighted that I could justify this preference in such an intelligent-sounding way by espousing (tee hee) and even disseminating (har har) theories about the irreconcilable difference between women writing and men writing. But it wasn’t really a theoretical decision – the sense of an imaginary community of women writers that I read, as women writers before me had read, was just this incredibly powerful thing for me. One of the great historic events of my life in this in this virtual community was when I met Audrey – a graduate student in literature – when we were both waitressing in Charlottesville, and our first conversation in that frat boy bar with sandwiches named after sports heroes we’d never heard of was about 19th century women authors and the remarkable happened – I met someone who felt the same way I did about reading and about our literary ancestresses. So we developed an actual friendship within this virtual community and it has been an extraordinary relationship – for 25 years now. I think our dead sisters-in-writing have enjoyed our relationship too; they occasionally appreciate an up-to-date perspective. Ask me about St. Cecelia if you’re curious.

What are your future goals in terms of writing?

Honestly, my immediate goal is to write a publishable form of this book of 19th century women authors and then find a publisher for the novel I’m writing now, Magdala Red. More honestly and possible even more embarrassingly I’d quote George Eliot (a sister-writer whose unabashed earnestness at times makes me feel somewhat less abashed about my own):

May I reach the highest heaven.
Be to other souls a cup of strength in some great agony,
Enkindle generous ardor, feed pure love,
Beget the smile that knows no cruelty,
So may I join the choir invisible,
Whose music makes the gladness of the world!

Bonus Question: If your writing were a musical instrument, what would it be?

I would like to say an Aeolian harp, or the spangled drum of Cybele and Miriam. But more honestly perhaps, a duet between a student-grade Tibetan prayer bowl and a kazoo. A poor thing, but mine own.


  1. Is that a window on the wall or a picture? I like the ambiguity of the photograph.

  2. Hi Kat: It's a window! It is a good photo if I say so myself.