: Maureen Pilkington Interview :

Author Maureen Pilkington Interview

"Writing was an impulse like reaching for the light switch in a dark room."

Tell us about you.

I’m a New Yorker, splitting my time, unevenly, between the suburbs and Manhattan, much preferring the latter. One of my stories, “Toward the Norwegian Sea,” was recently published in the Antioch Review. This acceptance spurred me to send out my manuscript of sixteen stories on submission. I’m happy to report that This Side of Water was published by Regal House at the end of April 2019.      

Cover of the book "This Side of the Water Stories"I used to work in book publishing selling subsidiary rights. With toddlers at home, I went to Sarah Lawrence College to get an MFA. Raising children and other various jobs took the romance out of writing and put in the reality—writing on the dash of the car (not while driving!) while waiting at “pick-up” when the kids were older and playing sports. My car had become my villa, stocked with books, notepads and coffee. It was this inner life running alongside of reality that enhanced the mundane and allowed me to work out the direction of my fiction. Now I see, too, how writing held my hand during inevitable traumas and brought me a certain coherence, settling my jumping thoughts.  During this time, my stories and essays were taken by numerous journals and magazines. I attended writing conferences in the summers and served on several educational boards. I’m the founder and director of a program called Page Turners, a writing program for the inner city-schools in the Archdiocese of New York. I am currently writing a novel.

What made you want to write?

Writing was an impulse like reaching for the light switch in a dark room. As a child I chronicled my dolls’ provocative slinking around the house during the night—they weren’t fooling me. A Twlight Zone re-run junkie, I felt Rod Serling’s plea for truth in his off-beat characters. But the first time I was cognizant that writing was pulling me into a vocation, an otherness, a place where nothing was as it appeared, I was in the seventh grade reading Ray Bradbury’s “All Summer in a Day” in a textbook called Thrust. It rained on Bradbury’s planet Venus for seven years straight “…with the drum and gush of water.” Margot, the washed out looking girl originally from earth, was bullied for her constant moaning about the rain, so the kids locked her in a closet. In this watery world, I heard crunch, “the concussion of storms.” But it was my attraction to the twist in the story—how the sun finally came out just for a few minutes while Margot was in that closet—that confirmed I had faced my calling.

How many times were you rejected before you were published and paid?

I sent out my first fully developed story during graduate school and it was immediately accepted by a literary journal in Southern California. I thought, what is everyone talking about? This is going to be easy! I was soon collecting rejection slips. As far as a paycheck, perhaps another year went by before I got lucky there. We are all aware in this business that few literary journals are able to afford to pay their contributors. That said, I have great respect, and affection, for those who run a journal, share the love for language and volunteer their time to promote writers. I have always supported as many journals as I could by subscribing. However, when I started selling essays to general magazines, I was almost bashful when receiving my checks!

How do you handle rejection and what advice would you give to emerging writers?

I think it was Anita Shreve who said that rejection slips are just tickets to the game. I agree, it’s just part of the process. Even now, when I receive a rejection, the piece goes immediately back out on submission. I have a mantra to share: a real writer persists.[CR4]  Early on, positive comments made me optimistic. Once I received an encouraging note from The New Yorker and it sustained my equilibrium for months! Ray Bradbury said, “You have to know how to accept rejection and reject acceptance.” I think this is rational advice in an irrational profession. I would tell emerging writers, don’t get hung up on rejections or acceptances. Concentrate on your craft, and the rest will come. Getting published is not the only reason for writing.

Of everything you have written, what is your favorite piece and why?

My favorite piece is the current piece I am working on, the one that wakes me up at 3am. I am writing a novel about the friendship between two young women that begins at a Catholic boarding school for girls when they witness an event, and how this secret steers the direction of their lives. I like the long form process, the layering of the story, discovering it from different points of view, and the room to explore backstory and expose surprises, even to myself. I love the puzzle of seemingly unconnected elements that, in the end, are actually crucial for completion. In choosing his favorite works, Kurt Vonnegut graded his thirteen novels from A+ to D. I can’t imagine Vonnegut receiving a D in novel writing, but I guess we are all our own harshest critics.

Who are some of your favorite authors and why?

I’m thinking of a few in an endless list. First, as mentioned, Ray Bradbury, for introducing to me the power of story. When I worked in publishing I got to spend time with him and we immediately started talking about the movies that influenced us. Strangely, it turned out we were both fans of the 1949 film, Mighty Joe Young, and carried the same image: the giant ape, a stage attraction, rises out of the orchestra pit and lifts his beloved owner, a young blonde woman, over his shoulders—platform, piano and all—as she plays the song that soothes him, “Beautiful Dreamer.” I remember this conversation with Bradbury distinctly, and as we were walking in Anaheim, California, we noticed a huge crack in the sidewalk. We both said nothing, but walked around it as if we were afraid of being yanked down to a netherworld.

Some others: the autobiographical writing of Virginia Woolf (Moments of Being) for her self-examination, analysis, and her extreme sensitivity in documenting the purpose of writiing ; Lorrie Moore, Ann Beatty, Ray Carver and Richard Yates for bringing the contemporary short story to the forefront; Wallace Stegner for the delicate moments in his novel Crossing to Safety about undying friendships; Edward P. Jones for his urban voice that drives the prison-grit story, Old Boys, Old Girls; Haruki Murakami for jumping over the line of reality, just a little; Thomas Merton for this writing on spirituality; Helen Schulman for skillfully confronting the effects of technology in our culture; and MFK Fisher, a food writer who doesn’t just write about food, but the human condition: “Probably one of the most private things in the world is an egg until it is broken.” 

What else do you have to share with your readers?

Stephen Vincent Benet said something like a good short story only takes moments to read but is remembered for a lifetime. I hope that at least one of my stories will be remembered by my readers for a very long time.

May 2019

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