"I cannot live without books." -- Thomas Jefferson

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

5 Questions with author/bookseller Michaela Carter

Poet Michaela Carter discusses and signs her debut novel Further Out Than You Thought on Tuesday, September 9th at 7pm. She was kind enough to participate in our 5 Questions Survey. Enjoy!
1. There has been a lot of non-fiction writing/reporting about the LA Riots but it's difficult to name a work of fiction centered around it. How did this book come about?

I find it fascinating that more hasn’t been written about that time. Anna Deavere Smith wrote her phenomenal play Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992 in the voices of numerous Angelinos of various races and ages, both men and woman, which she performed as a one woman show, but other than that no creative work comes to mind.

I knew when I first started that the novel would focus on the lives of three twenty-something bohemians, people who came to L.A. to make it in the entertainment industry but didn’t have any real success. Worn down by the city, they still have their dreams, but their lives don’t look the way they thought they would. And there’s a pull between the beautiful, if squalid, life they’ve made for themselves, a life still shaped by their illusions and hopes, and the truth they don’t want to face.

The riots seemed to me to be about this very thing. It was a time when L.A., the city of dreams, had to face its own unpleasant reality. It could no longer overlook its race issues, economic disparities, its actualities—all those undercurrents were right out in the open.

During the 1992 Riots I lived in the Miracle Mile area and worked in Hermosa Beach. Like all the other Angelinos, I went to work the morning of what is now considered the second day of the riots. The afternoon prior, there was the Rodney King verdict, the white policemen were acquitted, and there were the angry protesters at the L.A. County Courthouse, along with the Reginald Denny beating, but they all somehow seemed like isolated incidents. No one anticipated the explosion of riots across the city the next day. So I found myself across the city needing to drive home. The 405 was bumper to bumper, and I decided to take South La Cienega, where I got stuck in my car, alone, in the middle of riots, with a gas station on fire sending all this black smoke over everything.

It was a day I’ll never forget. And it changed me—made me want to live a life that mattered, at least to me. The feelings the riots prompted were complex, and so, even years later, they continued to intrigue me. On the one hand, I felt terror, and real fear for my life, and on the flip side of that, I felt free in a way I hadn’t before. I’ve always been a perfectionist, the straight A student who tows every line, but on that second day of the riots, driving by fire after fire, when Los Angeles, a place I’d believed was predictable, became unrecognizable, I realized I could be anyone, do anything I wanted.

As a writer, I wondered what this sort of moment would cause my characters to do. I wanted to keep the riots very personal to them. They aren’t analyzing the political implications of what’s going on around them, they are just living their lives, trying to figure out what’s next.

2. You co-founded Peregrine Book Company in Prescott, Arizona and you're also the book buyer there. What led to your decision to jump into the book business?

Prescott needed a bookstore! Barnes and Noble was closing and we didn’t have a single store that sold new books. It’s a town of 100,000 people, and my partner, Ty Fitzmorris, and I thought that had to be enough to sustain at least one bookstore. Our friend, Tom Broderson, cofounded Changing Hands in Phoenix back in the 70s, and he owned another bookstore for a while in Prescott, and when he was willing to start the store with us, we knew we had to do it.

I love leading people to books, helping them find the perfect book for that moment in their lives. Books are so personal. Your experience of reading a book will always be different from another person’s experience, but a place where people can have the kind of discussions that books inspire—readings and talks, but also all those little conversations you have in the aisles—this is essential to the kind of town I want to live in. And it’s going really well—the community has embraced us profoundly.

3. You're also a poet and painter. How do you decide which creative outlet to pursue daily? Do you have to build in time for painting? Writing?

This sounds terribly unromantic for a writer, but lately I’ve taken to “clocking in” when I write, to make sure I devote real time to it. You have to make time for the things that matter to you but aren’t pressing. If I don’t get my kids dinner, they are going to have something to say about it. If I don’t respond to my students’ work, they’ll get upset with me. But I’m the one who will suffer most if I don’t make time to write—well, me, and the people who have to be around me. I get really grumpy when I’m not writing! Routine always helps here. I get my son off to school, make coffee, and sit and write for the rest of the morning.

Painting is different, at least for me. I started painting when my kids were young, one reason being that when my hands were covered with oil paint, I couldn’t drop everything and immediately be Mom again. I had to clean up a bit first. I’m usually reticent to start a painting because I know once I get into it I won’t be able to let it go. I get completely obsessed—the way I get when I’m writing a poem. I can stay up all night, the painting takes absolute precedence.

4. Tell us about teaching creative writing at Yavapai College.

I’ve been teaching at Yavapai for the last ten years. I used to teach composition as well as creative writing, but now I feel very fortunate to only teach creative writing, and mainly poetry. For the most part, students take these classes because they want to, and that makes a world of difference at a community college. The best classes have a wonderful mix of ages. There are people in their 70s alongside students just out of high school. This is an amazing mix for creative writing, when so much of what students write about and share comes from their lives.

My favorite class to teach is Writing and Healing, in which the whole focus is to reconnect with those impulses that made you want to write in the first place. So often, when we get further down the road as writers, we lose touch with those raw emotions that give the writing real power. It’s easy to play it safe and to do what you’re good at. But writing requires risk, and in this class students feel safe enough to be vulnerable.

5. If you could read your poetry aloud in performance with two other poets (living or dead), who would they be?

What a great question! It would be Anne Sexton and Patti Smith.

Anne Sexton used to read with a jazz band behind her. She’d get on stage, throw off her shoes, light her cigarette, and launch into her iconic poem “Her Kind.” “I have gone out, a possessed witch, / haunting the black air, braver at night; / dreaming evil, I have done my hitch / over the plain houses, light by light.” She must have been something to hear live.

And Patti Smith, from her descriptions in her memoir Just Kids, seems like she’d be equally free-wheeling, strong and sexy. Of course, her readings were also backed by musicians, which led to her idiosyncratic sound as a singer/songwriter.  

I’ve loved reading poems best when I have musicians on stage with me—everything from light percussion to a three-piece jazz band. Maybe it’s some unfulfilled desire I have to be a musician, or maybe it’s not feeling so alone up there and having others to play off of, or the fact that the readings are in bars or restaurants and I have a glass of wine to sip on, but these readings are the most fun I’ve had on stage. And if I could be alongside Sexton and Smith—that would be unthinkably cool.

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