Writing from Memory
With her latest book, Blind Submission (Shaye Areheart, 2006), Debra Ginsberg ’85 has broken out of the memoir genre—which has been very good to her, indeed. Her first memoir, Waiting: The True Confessions of a Waitress (HarperCollins, 2000), was published to critical acclaim. She followed it with Raising Blaze: Bringing up an Extraordinary Son in an Ordinary World (HarperCollins, 2002), and About My Sisters (HarperCollins, 2004). Blind Submission is Ginsberg’s first novel—a fast-paced satirical mystery set in a cutthroat Bay Area literary agency.
Editor Mitchell Hartman spoke with Ginsberg from her home in San Diego.
Reed: You published your first memoir, Waiting, more than 15 years after graduating Reed, during which time you did, indeed, wait tables. Were you a writer during that time?
Ginsberg: I’ve always thought of myself as a writer, from age five, or maybe in the womb. That’s the only thing I can ever remember wanting to do. Writing was always it: a good thing and a bad thing. You always know where you’re going, but when you’re thwarted, every little disappointment and setback is all the more crushing.
Did you ever give up on having a manuscript accepted?
I wasn’t published until I was 37 or 38. I despaired at many points. I kept thinking, “What else can I do? This is never going to work out.” And that’s how I gathered the information for Blind Submission. I figured I’d get in through the back door—editing, literary agencies.
After I had my son, I channeled all my creativity into him. That was a period when I was pretty fallow. But I never stopped writing. I had just turned 25—it seems young now, though it didn’t then. I wasn’t comfortable being a child, I wanted to be an adult, and by the time I got there I felt I had always been a grownup.
Your main character, up-and-coming editor Angel Robinson, says at one point that novels set in literary agencies—novels like the one that a creepy stalker-author is sending her anonymously via email—don’t sell.
I was barely able to get Blind Submission published—even with three memoirs. No one will actually cop to the real reasons, so I’m left to speculate. You don’t want to bite the hand that feeds you. But it’s myopic to say books set in an agency won’t sell, when you see the kinds of books publishers do put out there. They’re about the most obscure corners of the world. “No one’s written on the love lives of earthworms, this could sell!”—yet they don’t think anyone has interest in a novel set in the publishing world. My less charitable sense is that they have no sense of humor about themselves.
Blind Submission is above all affectionate. I’m hopelessly in love with books and reading. The people who get most skewered are writers.
How difficult was the transition from memoir to fiction?
I could never write straight fantasy—a lot of my writing comes from observation. I still have what I wrote when I was eight or nine, about what my family was doing. I observe and then respond to my own observations. In the same way, Blind Submission is taken from my experience. Still, as my first novel, I felt like I had so much license to make stuff up, which I hadn’t ever had in the memoirs.
You review books for the San Diego Tribune; how do you respond to reviewers who don’t like your books?
I’ve been lucky in being widely and well reviewed. Negative reviews have been small in number. I see them, I hate them, I never forget them. You don’t forget them just like you don’t ever forget a bad tipper.
Recently, several writers of hot-selling memoirs have turned out to be fiction writers—and not in a good way. Do they give the genre a bad name?
I would like anyone to call me up and ask me what I made up in my memoirs. I centered my memoirs largely around my family. I’m comfortable with them, they’re comfortable with me (well, more or less—I promised them I wouldn’t write about them anymore). It’s the Rashomon effect: you can have five people in the room experiencing the same event—and they experience it differently. What I write is colored by my emotions. That’s not the same as creating characters out of whole cloth.
Do you see yourself as a feminist writer?
I don’t have any problem with being a women’s writer, a feminist writer. As I get older it’s more important to me—what happens with the distortion of body image, the pornification of culture. Women of my generation are stranded between baby boomers and Generation X—we’re not from the feminist generation, but we’re before the post- generation. Who are we supposed to be as mothers, lovers, wives? A lot of us in our early 40s are asking: How did we get here? What are we supposed to tell our daughters?
What do you read for pleasure?
Fiction, nonfiction, across the board. And I have my guilty pleasures. Rock and roll biographies—I can eat one of those up in a sitting. That’s my mind candy. Occasionally a good one comes around—The Dirt, about Motley Crue, is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. Addiction memoirs are another of my guilty pleasures: how do you put a new twist on the story, because every story has been told already.
Debra Ginsberg will teach a class on memoir during Alumni College/Reunions 2007.