Feature Author Pamela Erens

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The Smoking Poet Interviews Pamela Erens 

Pamela Erens's novel, The Understory (Ironweed Press), released in Fall 2007, was the winner of the Ironweed Press Fiction Prize, as well as a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for First Fiction and the William Saroyan International Prize for Writing. Pamela's short fiction has been nominated for two Pushcart Prizes and has appeared in Chicago Review, Boston Review, The Literary Review, Bellingham Review, Upstreet, Skidrow Penthouse, Redivider, and the short-story anthology Visiting Hours (Press 53, 2008). Pamela is a member of PEN and the recipient of two New Jersey State Council on the Arts fellowships in fiction. 
Pamela has also published poetry, literary essays, articles, and book reviews in a wide variety of newspapers and magazines, including The New York Times, New York  Newsday, Glamour, O: The Oprah Magazine, Michigan Quarterly Review, New England Review, Ms. and Mother Jones. A longtime editor at magazines including Glamour and 7 Days, she won national awards for both her editing and her journalism.

The Smoking Poet: You have a strong editorial background, Pamela. Do you consider yourself more of an editor or a writer? Or both live side-by-side in harmony?  

Pamela Erens: Writing is closest to my heart. I wanted to be a writer from the time I was six years old. When I’m not writing for any length of time, I feel very uncomfortable in my skin. But I truly love editing, too. If I had time, I would do both. I’m raising children, so there isn’t time, at least not given the way I work. Actually, if I could live three lives I would like to edit, write fiction, and write about fiction. I enjoy and admire the criticism of James Wood, Sven Birkerts, Daniel Mendelsohn, Lionel Trilling, and Elizabeth Hardwick, among many others, and it makes me want to do my own small thing, too. I do write about or review fiction from time to time, but infrequently, because I’m so slow, at reading and writing both.  

TSP: How has one type of writing (journalism) affected, positively or negatively, the other (creative)?  

Pamela: I can’t be sure, but I would guess that writing for magazines taught me to be concise. When I first handed in a piece for Glamour magazine, Ruth Whitney, who was the editor-in-chief there for over thirty years and a formidable presence, sent it back with a black line slashed through the first paragraph and “throat-clearing!” written next to the slash. I’d thought I was creating a nice atmosphere, easing the reader into the right frame of mind, but really I was just enjoying the sound of my own voice. I was making the reader wait for the goods. That was a worthwhile lesson.

Fiction is different from magazine writing, of course. There’s value in voice itself, language itself. But not when it doesn’t serve the fiction. It isn’t bad for a fiction writer to ask herself: “Is this just throat-clearing?” 

TSP: Is The Understory your first novel (published or unpublished)? Can you tell us something about how it was born? The seed of the idea? 

Pamela: The Understory is my first novel, unless you count something called Fight for Freedom, which I wrote when I was ten and which was about a slave girl in Arkansas who escapes to the North with Harriet Tubman. The story sat around the house for a couple of years and then my mother, who thought it was pretty good, decided to see if someone would publish it. Eventually she found a press in California called the Shameless Hussy Press--great name!—which was run by the poet Alta. Alta’s daughter, who was about my age, had her own line there of books that were written by children. She and Alta took Fight for Freedom. It was pretty exciting. I’d hardly even been aware that my mother was submitting the book. I got royalties and everything. I think I made over a hundred bucks! Years later, when I was in college, a friend came back from a trip to England and said she’d seen a copy in a feminist bookstore there.

At the age of ten, writing a novel was a no-brainer—I just did it. (I wrote other novels, too, including one about two orphans during the Great Depression.) But as a grownup, though I’d written and published some short stories, I believed I didn’t know how to make a novel. I felt that the architecture was too complicated. So in part I wrote The Understory as a dare to myself, to see if I could pull it off.

I’d been musing about the yearning for the perfect partner, the perfect reflecting mirror, someone who understands one completely all the time. A wonderful or a chilling ideal, depending on your point of view. The idea coalesced of a character who is obsessed with twins and is searching for some sort of spiritual twin. In later drafts, the search became less literal and the focus was more on how the main character deals with his deep ambivalence about finding that other, his ambivalence about desire itself. 

TSP: The birth of an idea is just one part of writing a great story. There is, then, the raising and molding and refining of this creative new life. Tell us something about the process for you. Smooth flow or down and dirty wrestle?  

Pamela: My process is very “gappy.” I’ll try to explain. I don’t start typing without knowing roughly where I’m going that day—what the scene is, what is supposed to happen—but sentence to sentence I work from vague rhythms I hear in my head or character gestures I dimly feel or see, from a general sense of mood and meaning. Sometimes these are so ill-formed that I can’t put words to them. So I will just write an extremely bland sentence or a sentence that follows a certain rhythm but is missing some words or even just a note to myself, a placeholder. I don’t want to or can’t stop and figure out exactly what is going on and how to say it precisely, succinctly, and vividly. I just move on to the next sentence, which also might be merely another approximation or note. My drafts are a big messy wash of occasional sentences with lots of interruptions of me talking to me and then me talking back to me, sometimes at great length.

All the time I’m just pulling myself along with intuitions, or conscious decisions, about the general shape and feel of the narrative, which can change over time, of course. But the bottom line—what’s driving the intuitions and decisions—is character and the relationships between characters. That’s what I’m interested in.

Next come many, many passes to fill in the blanks and address as much of my internal conversation as I can. The first pass is probably the next day—I can pin things down a bit. The pass after that may not be for months or years, when I have completed a large chunk of manuscript—if “completed” would be the appropriate word to use in this case. Every time I get to the end of my chunk I’ll begin over and refine some more, working toward the goal of readable sentences with the impact I want. It’s a long circling.

For a long time, I thought that what I’ve just described was the wrong way to write. That when I became a better writer, or a real writer, or less distracted or lazy or scared, I’d write in full sentences. Full sentences would prove that I knew what I was doing. Now, I don’t worry about it so much. There’s no point; I can’t seem to work any other way. Although I do marvel that some people actually write drafts that come out in complete, artful sentences.  

TSP: Your approach to telling the story of John Frederick Ronan Gorse is not so very dissimilar to Knut Hamsun’s Hunger. That is, it is more about the internal life of your character than a series of events and actions leading to a conclusion. An internal simmer, an element of angst, a slow and meticulous transformation. Did this book cross your reading path at any point? What kind of writers have influenced you in your writing in general, but for this book in particular?  

Pamela: I came across Hunger when it was assigned for a class I was taking. The Understory had already been accepted by Ironweed Press and I was revising it. I was so struck by Hunger, and it did remind me of what I was trying to do in my novel. Maybe it seeped into the revision somehow; I don’t know. Later, when Franz Wright wrote a blurb for The Understory and mentioned Hunger, I almost fell over. I was so thrilled that he saw an affinity with this book that I was so passionate about. 

Hunger has one of the great first-person narrators in fiction. It’s such a naked narrator—there are so few props. I gave my protagonist, Jack Gorse, many more props: I gave him a daily routine and certain places he regularly visits, a love of plants, a housing dilemma, a couple of fires, a love interest. The unnamed narrator of Hunger has, what? A love interest, eventually. And he’s starving. That’s about it. Yet the narrative is riveting. The voice is amazing. And the desperation is so profound, so scary.

There were three books that definitely did influence me when I was writing The Understory: William Trevor’s novella Reading Turgenev, John Banville’s The Book of Evidence, and Camus’s The Stranger. Reading Turgenev gave me the structure for my novel: the toggling between a present tense narrative and a past tense narrative that moves far enough forward in time to finally merge with the present-tense one. The Book of Evidence came in after I had finished an early draft. I wanted some objective editorial feedback, and a friend introduced me to Michael Lowenthal, the author of Avoidance and Charity Girl, who was very kind and encouraging. He told me my book reminded him of Banville’s, which is also a first-person retrospective account of a crime that toggles bewteen past and present. So of course I read it. There is something very dreamy and menacing and claustrophobic about Banville’s narrator, and I tried to emphasize those elements in my narrative as well.

Then way late in the game I read The Stranger. I just felt there would be something there for me. I loved how pared down and sort of autistic it was. It prompted me to pare down my own prose in the last go-rounds. 

Can I take this beyond The Understory? George Eliot is one of my great loves. The depth and breadth of her understanding of character is a gold standard for me. I learned a lot, years ago, from imitating John Cheever and Eudora Welty’s bossy, extravagant narrators, third person and first. More recently, I’ve been very taken with the narrative voices in Annie Dillard’s The Maytrees and Christine Schutt’s Florida and the novels of James Salter.  

TSP: Jack moves through a slow metamorphosis in confronting his homosexuality. It could even be argued that he never really does confront it. Rather, it gradually overcomes him, possesses and obsesses him, and the reader wonders if he is even conscious of it. Talk to us about this…  

Pamela: I’d suggest that Jack doesn’t really think of himself in terms of sexual categories. Although he is aware of certain physical sensations and yearnings, I don’t think he’d ever say, “I am a homosexual” or “I am not a homosexual.” Why? I don’t know, I’m just the author! But maybe it’s that he doesn’t really want to enter the world of sexual relationships. “Heterosexual” and “homosexual” imply a certain set of behaviors involving another human being, right? That’s a little too … demanding for Jack. But there’s also a certain wisdom to his stance. There are plenty of people who would say that these terms are confining, that they don’t allow for the complexity of experience. I agree. Categories tend to trouble me. 

TSP: Must there always be an element of obsession in love? Or is this the very thing that taints love and veers it in the direction of destruction? Then, of course, there is also the absence of love. Jack has grown up without the love of his parents, who are killed in a car accident early in his life.  

Pamela: I wouldn’t agree that there is always an element of obsession in love. Some love can be very calm, very roomy, particularly long-term love. The love of one’s children is very passionate but not obsessive in the way I think you mean. In The Understory, Jack is a character who is obsessive about things, so when he develops an interest in another person, that interest or love is going to be marked by obsession. 

TSP: Jack is something of an obsessive-compulsive type. He collects things. He needs the comfort and security of repetition. There is his fascination, or more, with twos. Two people, twins, brothers, intimacy between two. He contemplates the theory that many of us are actually twins at conception, but lose or absorb our twin in the process of gestation, yet remain forever feeling the void of that missing other. There is his returning to a book of poetry in a bookstore that he is compelled to read each and every time he enters the store, even though he does not particularly like that book. Something of a man going and gone mad, and yet at the same time, he has a very keen intelligence. The workings of his mind are intriguing; it is what makes this novel so absorbing, even profound.  

Pamela: I hoped that readers wouldn’t write Jack off as crazy. Some of the things he does or thinks are extreme or impractical, but my intention was that they shouldn’t be complete nonsense. With the poetry book he keeps re-reading, for instance, there is a mood the poet is expressing that resonates for Jack, that feels familiar to him. Jack keeps going back to the book because he keeps being troubled and moved by it. There’s something pure about Jack’s responses. Most of us feel something and then indulge that feeling for a while or wall it off and move on. Jack keeps feeling the original feelings over and over.

It’s been very gratifying to me that so many different types of readers have said that they identify with Jack. People who obviously aren’t anything like Jack on the surface: they’re perfectly functional human beings who hold down jobs, have marriages and families, etc. It’s gratifying because the things that drive Jack are things that I take very seriously: the fear of impermanence and loss, the simultaneous desire for and terror of intimacy.  


TSP: One suspects metaphor throughout…. the bonsai, for instance. The clipping back and wiring into new and different shapes, and that inside the life of a monastery. And the Buddhism, the man who walks among the meditating and hits them to keep them focused.  Talk to us about these metaphors and what you wanted to illuminate… 

Pamela: I didn’t think of them as metaphors when I wrote them. I just had this idea that Jack would work with bonsai. I’ve always liked and been fascinated by bonsai, and I wanted to write about them, and they seemed somehow to fit. If I examine it a bit more closely, I probably felt that the way in which bonsai are stunted and controlled, they way they are shaped at a cost, reminded me of Jack. His self-restriction, willed or helpless, has brought him certain joys and strengths, and also has been a kind of crippling. 

TSP: What other works are now in process?  

Pamela: I’m well into a new novel. It’s about a love triangle. I’ve gone from twins to triangles.  

TSP: Where can we learn more about you, Pamela? And, do you do any readings?  

Pamela: You can read about me and my work at my website, In addition to some shorter pieces of my writing, there are reviews of The Understory there (including yours, of course, Zinta). I enjoy doing readings when asked!  

TSP: Thank you for talking to us. We’ll be watching for your work. Call it… hunger.  

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