Oyster River Pages: What’s the most recent work that surprised you?
Louise DeSalvo: Alice McDermott, That Night. Starts with a teenage protagonist, a young narrator who tells the story of the protagonist’s love affair and pregnancy from a later place in time. And then you realize that the narrator couldn’t possibly know what she describes in astonishing detail, So what’s going on. A projective fantasy? The creation of a myth about the time and star-crossed lovers? The first time I read the book I didn’t see that.
ORP: When did you first learn that language had power? What was that experience like for you?
LD: My father was a working class man and as such he was cut out of the retirement plan where he worked. I wrote a letter on his behalf, and he was admitted to the program, though they gave him a pittance.
ORP: What are you doing to shape and inspire the next generation of artists?
LD: I taught in the MFA in Memoir Program at Hunter (I started it). Many of my students have published their books. I never aimed to shape the next generation of artists, nor inspire them. Each generation must find their own way, different from the work that came before, unique, authentic. I see too many teachers of creative writing “shaping” the next generation: left alone, and simply guided they find the power within themselves and their own authentic voices.
ORP: Does having a work published alter the way you think about it? Does it alter the way you think about yourself?
LD: Once the work is done, it’s finished, over, time for the next work. Publishing has nothing to do with self esteem, nothing to do with helping us find our way with the next book. Too much emphasis, now, I think on publishing, less on refining a work by oneself to find what the authentic work is. I saw many a writer tripped up by editors telling them what the book should be like. Promises made, not kept. Publishing is an industry, not, except under unusual circumstances, a support system. Editors are business people, not therapists, not stand in parents. I’ve seen too many young writers seduced by what is often the false camaraderie of the people they work with based on commerce, not true friendship. There are of course exceptions, but they’re rare.
ORP: What role does research play in your work? How much do you research do you do before or during the creation of your work?
LD: Years and years of it before I understand a period, say, WWII for my book Chasing Ghosts.
Louise DeSalvo began the MFA Memoir Program at Hunter College where she was the Jenny Hunter Endowed Scholar. She has published the memoirs Vertigo (winner of the Gay Talese Prize), Breathless, Adultery, Crazy in the Kitchen, On Moving, and, recently, The Art of Slow Writing and Chasing Ghosts: A Memoir of a Father, Gone to War. The House of Early Sorrows: A Memoir in Essays is forthcoming from Fordham University Press in Spring 2018. She was working on a memoir about cancer when she passed away in October 2018. Read her essay, "Sweets," here.