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December 22, 2013

Margaret Wrinkle: The Best Gift

Posted by emily

Margaret Wrinkle is a writer, filmmaker, educator and visual artist. In her debut novel, WASH (now available in paperback), Washington, the slave of a troubled Revolutionary War veteran, encounters a potent healer named Pallas, who inspires Wash to forge a new understanding of his heritage and his place in it. In her Holiday Author Blog, Margaret talks about how she was inspired by the Paris Review’s historic author interviews, and why the best gifts --- the ones we really need --- are sometimes the ones we give ourselves, no matter when, no matter where.

In my family, we always give each other books for Christmas. Often, that’s all we give. But the only books I ever really truly wanted for Christmas, I bought for myself.

I stumbled across the Paris Review interviews years ago, while researching my novel in the UC Berkeley library. I remember the day I discovered that lovely long row of those volumes. Scuffed and tan and sturdy in their library bindings, with thick cottony pages gone soft and pliant from wear. I pulled them off the shelf, one after the next, until I sat cross-legged on the floor, surrounded by tippy stacks of splayed open books. Hours had passed while Faulkner explained the genesis and structure of THE SOUND AND THE FURY, admitting that he’d written it five different times and still had not gotten it quite right.

What a miracle to find all these quirky, difficult and often extremely private writers being relatively honest and open about their own struggles. To hear James Baldwin say about the writing process: “I was scared then and I’m scared now.” When Baldwin adds, “What you really need in the beginning is somebody to let you know the effort is real,” I realized exactly why these interviews are essential. They are full of writers letting you know the effort is real.

On that day and many to follow, those heavy brown books told me what I needed to know about writing. Since I’d decided not to go the MFA route, those writers, interviewed with such respect and care, and responding with such candor and immediacy, became my MFA. They became my teachers and fellow students both, all wrapped up in one worn volume after the next. And other writers had joined this community before me. I could tell from their scattered light pencil marks in the margins that they were as comforted by those conversations as I was.

At first I wanted to check out just one of those books. To walk out with it in my bag. To have the luxury of reading it at home with my morning tea. To have the comfort of those writers’ companionship as I plunged yet again into my own sprawling, unmanageable story. But those scuffed tan volumes could not be checked out, no matter how badly I wanted them. They’d been put on permanent reserve. 

I remember standing in the lobby of the library wondering whether the alarm would really go off if I stuck one in my bag and walked out. I looked at the security guards standing around bored. Decided I’d play dumb and say I’d gathered everything from my carrel into my bag in a rush at closing and must have taken this one by mistake. Then I realized, no, that’s ridiculous. This is a book and it should be gettable like any other book.

What I really wanted was the whole set. But that original version of the collected Paris Review interviews had gone out of print. Partial sets were available online for 300 or 400 dollars. Definitely out of my price range. In the meantime, I poured my quarters into the library copy machines, gathering the essential bits of the interviews. These copies soon grew into a great stack because, of course, it turned out that I needed the whole of a certain interview. As time went on, I realized that I wanted the whole of every interview. But that was impossible. So I made do with the thick stack of copies that sat near my desk. A stack that I dipped into on a regular basis.

After years of carrying that pile of papers around with me, moving that box from apartment to apartment, I heard that the Paris Review had decided to reissue the interviews. They’d scanned their treasure trove and selected the best advice on a number of topics: Inspiration, Craft, Editing, Rejection. It was a beautiful book and I bought it for myself. But that one volume was a pale shadow of what the whole set holds. I may have even called their office and asked them to please reissue the whole set. They did put the archive online, but any working writer knows the dangers of venturing onto the Internet before getting that days’ writing done. I had to have the books.

More years passed. The instant I saw that the whole series would be reissued as a paperback boxed set, I bought myself my own Christmas present in the middle of summer. No matter the time of year. No more waiting. And this gorgeously designed set has been with me ever since, right next to my table by the window where I have my morning tea, where I gather my courage for each day’s writing. I dip into those four volumes often. Their bright red, vivid teal, rich purple and bright canary yellow covers contain conversations that keep helping me find my way back into my work, day after day after day.

Somehow these conversations about process put us all on the same level, making the impossible feel possible. And you can read these interviews over and over. Each time, you will find something new because you will be at a different point in your growth as a writer and as a human being. Because of the magic contained within this boxed set, it makes the perfect gift for a writer. A necessary gift. The only one a writer really needs.