Freudenberger, a young writer whom Salon.com once described as, "gorgeous and brilliant and poised and intimidating," created quite a stir with her debut anthology of stories, Lucky Girls, published by Ecco/HarperCollins in 2003. The five rich and unforgettable tales in this collection, set in Southeast Asia and on the Indian subcontinent, are compelling enough to have garnered several awards, including the PEN/Malamud Award and the Sue Kaufman Prize from the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
Freudenberger, who lives in Manhattan, graduated from Harvard University, worked as an editorial assistant for the New Yorker, and has traveled extensively in Asia. Her travel writing has been published in Travel + Leisure and The Telegraph Magazine. She has written book reviews for The New York Times, The New Yorker, Vogue, and The Nation, but she has been mentioned in more magazines than she could possibly write for in one lifetime, with appearances in such publication as Vogue, Elle, and Entertainment Weekly, which declared her "the summer's hottest young writer." Google her, and your computer will nearly freeze.
The thirty-one-year-old authorís first novel, The Dissident, was released in paperback this fall. Her bold, intricately woven novel features an enigmatic Chinese performance artist and political dissident who disrupts the life of one American family living in Los Angelesówho have problems enough of their own.
WOW: I love, love, love your books. The Dissident was the best part of a recent vacation I tookóI read it in three days by the pool and was completely antisocial. I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Nell: Oh, thank you! That is so nice to hear.
WOW: And Iím sure itís not the first praise youíve receivedóyour books have been reviewed extensively. Do you read all of your reviews?
Nell: I used to, because it struck me at first as free advice, but that was sort of a sweet and naÔve idea. Now, I never do, because you discover that you remember every bad thing that was ever written about you and forget any hint of praise. Itís not helpful to have those voices in your head when youíre trying to write.
WOW: Iíve heard that before from authorsóAmy Tan never reads any of her reviews, nor interviews. But do you have friends to whom you turn for their opinions?
Nell: I have some friends I went to undergrad or graduate school with, and we are able to talk about writing and the problems that come up, but there often isnít much time to show my work. I work slowly, so itís not often that I have finished work to share.
What is most valuable in this regard, to me, is having people I can write back and forth to about elements of and struggles inherent in fiction writing that arenít interesting to anyone but people who write fiction.
"I donít get that many ideas that seem workable, so every time I get an idea that seems remotely possible, I feel like I have to try it."
WOW: That makes sense to collaborate with like-minded writers. Another thing thatís interesting to me is that youíve covered a good chunk of the eastern hemisphere to complete both your first book of short stories and your novel, The Dissident. How much time do you spend abroad and how do you go about collecting research to assemble fictional characters?
Nell: For my first book, I had already lived abroad. I was teaching English in Bangkok for a year, then I went to India for the summer after that, and went back the following summer. None of it was research at the time. I was in a graduate writing program that year after Thailand and I was trying to write a novel that took place on a commune in Massachusetts where the residents manufacture only fruit juice and donít believe in romantic love. It wasnít a successful novel in the least. Honestly, at the time, it had never occurred to me to write stories that took place in Asia, just because I felt like I had first seen a country like India through the eyes of Indian writersÖthat was my introduction, thatís why I wanted to go there. For me, India belonged to those people. It took writing the first story to realize that while I could never write the way someone from Delhi or Bombay would, it was my way of writing about being an American abroad.
WOW: What gave you the leap of faith to write in the voice of the Chinese main character in The Dissident?
Nell: I had written one story in the first book that was from a first-person perspective of a young man who was Indian, but itís true that the experience of the character in The Dissident is the furthest from mine than anything I had written about before. Honestly, it didnít take that much courage because you think to yourself, well, Iíll try this today, Iíll try writing from this perspective. I donít get that many ideas that seem workable, so every time I get an idea that seems remotely possible, I feel like I have to try it. For whatever reason, I felt like I could write in that characterís voice. But it did scare me, and I thought perhaps I didnít have the background to fill in his backstory.
When I started writing about Yuan Zhao, I was thinking about an artist who visited my high school when I was a teenager. He didnít speak any English. He taught us to paint with ink, and really I was a terrible art student, but he fascinated me. I began to wonder, why do I remember this person, why am I interested in him? Apparently to see what our rarified, Los Angeles girlsí school would have looked like to him. And then secondly, the way he taught was so differentÖhe was very strict about the order of the strokes that make up the painting we were working on. It was the first time someone said to me: there is a method to doing creative work. You donít have to stare at a blank page and wait for a bolt of inspiration. So this is what drew me to portray this character.
Obviously he needed to have a story, and I had been studying Chinese, so it wasnít a complete coincidence. I had also been looking at a lot of Chinese art, and I happened to see some work by a group of artists who were from what was called the Beijing East Village and immediately when I saw one particular photograph I knew, I had a feeling, that this is what I needed to look into more deeply. That kind of turned into the character in the book.
WOW: So how is your Chinese?
Nell: Itís not good. Itís sort of a taxi, restaurant, and tourism kind of Chinese at this point. For whatever reason, a lot of the artists I interviewed in China for the book are married to women who speak EnglishÖserendipity or coincidence or purpose, for me. For Rong Rong, the photographer I was particularly interested in meeting, there is a great Canadian artist and curator, Karen Patterson, who lives in China, and she introduced me to him and translated.
"...pure writing time, I donít do more
than 3 hours day."
WOW: When you took a year off to write Lucky Girls, how did you manage your time? Was it overwhelming, and did you ever doubt that you had made the right choice?
Nell: I was overwhelmed, yes, and I was not sure about my decision to leave my job as an Editorial Assistant at the New YorkeróI really liked that job. I wouldnít have left if I hadnít had a contract to write the book. But I am pretty much a fixed-scheduled sort of writer. I sit down at 8:00 for three hours, and then I go and do some yoga and have some lunch, and then in the afternoon, Iím usually working on a freelance piece. If not, I go back and edit what I had been working on in the morning. But pure writing time, I donít do more than 3 hours day.
WOW: What sort of freelancing are you doing?
Nell: I write for travel magazines, like Travel and Leisure, sometimes the New York Times Book Review. Sometimes web stuffóI did something for the BBC recently. There was an editor at the New Yorker who said writers shouldnít turn down any assignment. I occasionally turn down something, if I really have no connection to it whatsoever, but not often.
WOW: Thatís great advice. So, are you working on a next-novel?
Nell: Yes, I am working on a novel. I have a fellowship at the New York Public Library this year, so I have an office in the library, which is great for me. I usually work at home, but now it is inspiring to be around the other writers and watch everyone in their little office plugging away. So if youíre tempted to go home or take a nap, you simply look over at someone else who is working diligently and think if they are still working, I better work too.
"...writers shouldnít turn down any assignment. I occasionally turn down something... but not often."
WOW: Have you promoted either of your books abroad?
Nell: In cases where I was, for example, in India already, writing a travel magazine story, the State Department has a cultural arm that will send writers to speak at a universities and eventsÖyou become a sort of cultural liaison if you already happen to be somewhere. In India, I did some readings, in China and Bangladesh, too.
WOW: That must be amazing to speak and network in other countries, but how have you taken to the experience of book signing tours in the US?
Nell: Itís nice if people come to readings, but to be honest, I donít enjoy them. You can never write on those trips, and they are tiring. You know, I think most contemporary fiction wasnít meant to be read out loud, itís not an oral tradition. I donít mean for that to sound pretentious. I like going to hear poetry, because most poets can really add something to their work when they read it. But I think most fiction writers are shy, I definitely am, and once in a while Iíve had the opportunity to hear an actor read one of my stories and they make it so funny and I feel like I could listen foreveróand I donít have that talent at all. So when Iím on a book tour, I feel like Iím letting people down.
WOW: Well I doubt that very much, but Iíll go with it. Does writing run in the family?
Nell: My dad is a screenwriter, partly in retirement. Heís writing plays now. And my mom is a big reader and a writer of poetry. I definitely get my fiction streak from them. My sister, actually, is the rebel. She became a lawyer.
"Iíve had the opportunity to hear an actor read one of my stories and they make it so funny and I feel like I could listen forever..."
WOW: Did you ever doubt this career?
Nell: I always knew it was what I wanted to be doing, but I never thought Iíd be able to do it professionally. And there is a separate confidence when you talk about being discovered or being published and that confidence you may or may not have when you are sitting in front of your computer. Both of those go up and down, but if you want to make it work, you have to not think about publishing or sales or reviews because there is always going to be a good article, a bad review, you are going to get lucky with one grant and not another, and if you can put all that aside when you look at the computer in the morning, I think that is most important. I do lose confidence, all the time, and the key for me is getting my butt in the chair in the morning and sitting there. All the days of failing lead up to the day where you write something you actually like.
WOW: Nell, thatís an excellent ending quote to leave us with. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us today. Your words are real, and ring true.
D'lynne Plummer is a freelance writer and storyteller based in Brookline, MA and has written for such publications as The Boston Globe Magazine and Art New England. D'lynne is also a Freelance Marketing Manager at ICON architecture, inc, a Boston design firm.
Dílynne is also part of the WOW! Alumnióshe interviewed Sue Miller in last Decemberís Issue, "Authorís Staircase," for WOW! Women On Writing.