Q&A with 2012 Featured Author Cathy Alter
Here’s a sneak peak at the upcoming book festival where I will be reading an essay from a new anthology called Wedding Cake for Breakfast. Go time is 4:30. Check out the festival website for more info and to plan out your day.
Where do you find inspiration?
I find people so endlessly fascinating. Everyone I meet is a potential story – from the kooky hippie who owns the gift shop in my neighborhood to the cast of seniors with whom I volunteer at the Christ Child Opportunity Shop. I think being curious about others is a way into understanding your own motivations, passions, and fears. Curiosity, for me, is one of the hallmarks of inspiration. The day I stop being interested in something or someone is the day I stop writing.
What advice do you have for aspiring authors?
There is really no better advice for aspiring writers than to write, to practice your craft, and, if possible, to develop a niche. If you have a hobby you love, knitting or gardening, become an expert in that hobby and write about it. It really helps, especially in the nonfiction market, to specialize. I love writing about pop culture, which means I watch and think about “The Bachelor” (Courtney!? Are you kidding me?!) way more than I ought to!
What are you reading right now?
At the moment, I am reading “The Discomfort Zone” by Jonathan Franzen. I am a mega Franzen fan—from his modern-day classic “The Corrections” to the complex and touching essay he wrote about his father in The New Yorker (and even to his completely misguided snubbing of Oprah)—I think he is the master of the written word. I knew he could write about other characters with humor and pathos so I was curious to see him focus his lens on himself – plus, what could be better than a memoir about his neurotic beginnings? In this book, Franzen writes with such a biting and caustic wit and with an almost fond self-awareness of his loser status, I felt an amazing kinship with him. Which helped me understand that maybe if I wrote about my own struggles with fitting in, as I tried to do in my own memoir, I’d be able to connect with readers in a similar way.
What book has inspired or affected you in some way?
Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird” is required reading for any writer, but when I read “Operating Instructions,” a chronicle of her first year as a mother, I felt both schooled as a writer and understood as a new mother. My baby boy is now 7-months old and I found myself using Lamott’s book as a roadmap of sorts. I also marveled at how raw and honest she was, admitting at one point she just felt like throwing her newborn son against the wall during one of his terrible crying jags (I’m not there yet, and luckily, Leo is a fantastically happy baby). Writing memoir is often an ugly process, where horrifying thoughts get put down on the page. In a way, Lamott was giving me permission to express and ultimately excise my own inner monster – a hugely relieving experience for a writer and a new mother.
If you could sit down at dinner with three other authors, living or dead, which three authors would you choose, and why?
If I was hosting a dinner party with three other authors I probably wouldn’t be able to eat a single bite. Writers, especially ones I admire, are my rock stars. But, since this is a fantasy, I will assume the role of cool and collected hostess. I would, of course, sit at the head of the table. To my left, Shalom Auslander. He is one pissed off dude and I like that in a person and especially in a writer. Raised in an ultra Orthodox community, Auslander was schooled in God’s unpredictable, vengeful, and bloodthirsty character, lessons he soon rejects. The aftermath, including his repudiation of both God and his family is bold and blasphemous and terrifically funny (if you can believe it) territory. I’d love to talk to him about the genesis of his new book, “Hope: A Tragedy” – in which his main character discovers an older Anne Frank living in his attic. That means naturally, to my right, is Anne Frank. What a lively debate those two would have, don’t you think? To carry on the theme, I would love to seat Christopher Hitchens at the head. For many reasons, of course, but mostly because he still deserves to be at the table. Plus, he’d probably bring a really good bottle of wine.