Author Interview: Angela Pneuman

lay it on my heartI’m so pleased to bring readers this interview with Angela Pneuman, writing teacher extraordinaire, and author of the recently released and critically acclaimed Lay It on My Heart.

Here’s what Angela had to say when I asked her about the book, her other work and her approach to teaching and writing ….

KC: Your debut novel Lay it on My Heart beautifully combines humor and tremendous sadness. How did you go about balancing the protagonist (Charmaine’s) emotional journey? Was it something you consciously focused on as you drafted?

AP: I had some difficulty finding my way into this character, as strange as that feels to say since she ended up sort of close to my younger self. I started the book from five points of view, in third-person, and switched it up halfway through the first draft. Even when I landed on Charmaine, though, early readers of the early pages said they felt a cold disconnect, a reluctance on my part to delve into her interior. So I worked hard on that…and I’m still not sure why it felt so hard. I do think that I’m drawn to characters who are a little bit alienated from themselves–where the things they feel are still sort of dictated by what they think they’re allowed to feel, and I think earlier work of mine has held characters who struggle with breaking out of that. Charmaine is a little more internally articulate, maybe? I also wanted her to be able to register Phoebe’s struggle for the reader, so that the reader sort of gets Phoebe’s point of view through Charmaine, without Charmaine necessarily fully understanding the position her mother’s in…

KC: Charmaine and her mother have a complex relationship with religion in the novel. You handle the issue sensitively, but were you afraid of how people might react to the portrayal of religion in the novel? How much do you think about reader reaction, if at all, as you’re drafting?

AP: You know, I was probably more worried about whether or not mainstream readers would be interested in evangelical characters. I tend to think that unless you’re a practicing evangelical, or a recovering evangelical, then that segment of society seems pretty easy to dismiss. I’m a recovering evangelical–if that term applies? I wanted to highlight the conflict among these well-meaning people, and where the ruptures occur that allow someone to begin to experience an alternate perspective. I wasn’t sure readers would be interested in the community beyond a kind of “oh yeah, those people, in the red states, who go to church all the time and protest abortion, etc” response. I wanted to explore in the story, with the conflict, what I feel are more questions of faith and love–the spiritual questions–than questions of religion, yet those questions are raised by a closer look at any religion, I think. And I wanted Charmaine–and Phoebe–to end up wrestling with both the specifics of their religion and the more universal questions of how we deal with what we can’t understand, where that intersects with human frailty, and how we hurt or help each other out along the way.

KC: Prior to this novel, you’ve published a lot of short stories, including the collection, Home Remedies. Which do you find more challenging to write – novels or short stories? Which is more rewarding?

AP: I think they’re both pretty hard to write, though with short fiction there’s often a different time frame. With a novel you have this awareness of spending days, weeks, years on something that for me, in a first draft, lacks all confidence. With a short story you can say to yourself, if this one doesn’t go anywhere I’ve lost a month. With a novel…you have that “life is short” cloud at your back. But of course part of the deal is not knowing where something’s going to go–guarantees and/or too much planning are deadening, I believe, to a first draft. Like relationships, if you’re going into something thinking “don’t waste my time” then it’s not the right spirit. You have to kind of re-envision the time investment. Exploratory time is never wasted, etc. That’s not to say I don’t waste plenty of time on other things!! And which is most rewarding, stories or novels? Stories are more immediately satisfying, of course, and they’re easier to get out there one at a time. With a novel I feel like it’s tied to a span of my life that I’ll forever identify with the book, which is also satisfying and a little distressing, but just feels sort of different than the other. I’m working on both again, now–a story, with a new novel coming at me in glimpsed moments and snippets of voice, mostly in the shower!

KC:  As well as being a writer, you’ve also been teaching writing for a number of years now. What is the most rewarding thing about teaching aspiring writers? What is the one piece of advice you most often give to new writers?

AP: Once writers have some practice under their belt my biggest advice is to develop thick skin. It’s not original advice, for sure, but it’s one of the hardest things about the writing life. As an unpublished writer, collecting rejections, you wonder what’s wrong with your work, or if you’re feeling grandiose you wonder what’s wrong with the system. As a published writer you have the new challenges of reviews, or worse than reviews, poor review coverage, or a poor marketing investment in your book–things entirely out of your control in traditional publishing. You watch the trajectories of other writers’ careers–you shouldn’t, but you can’t help it–and on bad days you compare yourself with the most successful or most appreciated of them, no matter how much you try not to do this. Some of the most widely successful writers I know still deal with this horrible feeling, and if you can’t get up the next day and get back to the work, this feeling, or set of feelings, will take you down. The only anecdote seems to be keeping yourself fascinated with your own work. That, and genuinely celebrating the success of others–it actually never comes at your expense, though it is easy, especially starting out, to believe it’s a zero-sum game. It’s just not.

KC:  Who are some of your favorite authors? What are you reading now?

AP: I have recently discovered Michelle Huneven, whose work I’m enjoying a great deal. I’ve also been eagerly gobbling up Ross Macdonald over the past year. I’m trying to put together a course on crime/mystery writing, and he’s very interesting to me, especially as I’m living back in California. What a writer–a genre practitioner with these lucid, emotional moments that cut deep into a page, and these absolutely stunning, concise visions of the West Coast. Other favorites: Jean Rhys, Patricia Highsmith, Junot Diaz, Nathanael West, Tessa Hadley, Philip Roth, J.M. Coetzee–the list goes on!

Thanks for sharing your time with us, Angela!