Archives by date

by Dory Athey on Feb 28, 2018

How did you come to write this novel? What’s the story of this story?

As I say towards the beginning of Flunk. Start, I spent a decade of my life pretending a decade of my life had never happened. That decade included the seven years I spent in the Church of Scientology, and the three it took before I was certain I wouldn’t, once again, be pulled back to it. Then almost another decade went by when I was largely unable to think or to want to speak openly about it.

But at the college where I’m lucky enough to be a professor, I started to teach a course, Introduction to Myth and Fairy Tale. As I began to lecture how one has to go “into the woods” (in a fairytale) and descend to “the underworld” (in the myths of the hero’s journey), I was often struck that I might apply those ideas to my own long and strange pilgrimage. But then I’d shake my head: Snow White learns something from her time in the forest; Gilgamesh grapples with essential truths when he loses his best friend and is plunged into a darkness of a particular sort, but me? I’d just made a huge mistake.

Still, living with those ideas of Campbell’s, and asking my students to apply them to, say, a tough semester, or to the travails of a pop culture figure, or to a family member who’d confronted and mastered some massive difficulty, eventually forced me to take a look at how these ideas might apply to my own time in Scientology. Finally, I began writing. What was a huge surprise was the “boon” I discovered waiting for me as I explored what I’d come to see as a pretty dark underworld. I’d no idea there was treasure to bring back from confronting those old ghosts. Hence the title, which comes from a Scientology phrase when you’re drilling a particular skill: You didn’t do it quite right, try again: Flunk. Start.

What are you reading right now?

Perhaps not unsurprisingly, I’m reading a lot of memoirs, especially by friends and acquaintances, that I postponed reading while working on my own. These include The Lost Night, by Rachel Howard; Filling Her Shoes, by Betsy Graziani Fasbinder; Rash by Lisa Kusel, and, quite stirringly, Broken by Lisa Jones. I’m also relishing Lynn Freed’s wonderful essays in The Romance of Elsewhere and Amy Tan’s compelling and wise Where the Past Begins.

These days, I also keep to hand books about the roots of Christianity: how and why it emerged out of Judaism, how and why it spread so quickly and became so entrenched in a relatively short period of time. I’m interested in the anti-Semitism buried within the Christian church, and am in the midst of browsing a number of books that deal with that and related subjects, including Constantine’s Sword, by James Carroll; Adam, Eve, and the Serpent, by Elaine Pagels; and an absolutely delightful book called Sisters of Sinai: How Two Lady Adventurers Found the Hidden Gospels, by Jane Soskice, which describes the journeys across the Syrian desert—several times!—of two Victorian-era sisters, defying every odd and a lot of societal disapproval. I often give this latter book as a gift. It’s a great read. And I’m always up for books that have titles like Scandal of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Intersections between myth, religion, and history have always fascinated me.

What’s the one book that you recommend to people, over and over?

It’s changed over the years—for quite a while it was Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto; and for a few years Jennifer Egan’s The Keep; it’s also been Sisters of Sinai, described above; but mostly, recently, it’s Elizabeth Gilbert’s Signature of All Things. I’d read Gilbert’s Eat. Pray. Love and enjoyed it — especially the pray part — but it wasn’t as if I was waiting for her next book (the way I do with, say, Egan). But one day, when a flight east was cancelled and I was stuck for endless hours in an airport, Signature happened to be front and center in a bookstore. Some significant authors had endorsed it, and I was sucked in by the first few paragraphs. All of a sudden that enforced stay in the airport was exactly what I wanted and needed; enthralled, I had the time and focus to sink deeply into the novel. I love that Gilbert deals with history so thoroughly and evocatively, that her craft is meticulous and satisfying, that it’s a deeply feminist novel, and that it presents so stirringly the natural world. I love the spirituality inherent in its title—as it is, indeed, inherent in its pages.

Who are some of your writer mentors? Do you find that’s changed over time as you evolve as a writer or do they remain the same?

I started as a fiction writer and that’s where my writing roots remain. I return again and again to John Gardner’s Art of Fiction, and I find Forster’s Aspects of the Novel very useful (I love Forster’s books: Room With a View, Where Angels Fear to Tread, and especially Howard’s End). Ursula LeGuin’s Steering the Craft is excellent, and I’ve returned often to my father’s (Oakley Hall) How Fiction Works. I found Sven Birkerts’ The Art of Time in Memoir very useful. Perhaps most vital as I worked on Flunk. Start. were John McPhee’s essays on structure published in the New Yorker. I love all of McPhee’s writing, and found, especially, his Encounters with the Archdruid structurally fascinating; his ideas were hugely influential as I worked on the memoir.

What is your most prized book possession? A first edition? A gift? Please describe.

That’s a hard one. But what comes to mind is a Shakespeare’s Complete Works that was given to me by a friend of my parents, a professor and Shakespearean scholar, upon my graduation from the University of California, Irvine. My final semester, I had the marvelous good fortune to play Viola in a production of Twelfth Night that was directed by a member of the Royal Shakespeare Company; the entire experience was profound and inspirational. To receive that volume (the kind with a sleeve), with an inscription remarking on that performance made a huge impression on me. I’ve carried it with me all these days, even though I’ve since learned to quibble with the editors of that particular edition, and now own dozens of texts by and about Shakespeare. That college experience led to a deep involvement with the acting and eventually the directing of Shakespeare, a huge part of my life for a very long time; perhaps that’s why, even now, that gift holds such resonance.

by Dory Athey on Feb 09, 2018

How did you come to write this novel? What’s the story of this story?

This particular novel’s journey started many years ago, when a short story of mine was published in The Sun. I got more fan mail from that short story than I’ve ever received for anything else, including all my books put together, probably – and the vast majority wrote to say thanks. Thanks for writing about sex, about fantasy, about isolation (even in the middle of relationship), about vulnerability in love.

I kept several of the letters, because they were so inspiring (never think writing a letter to an author doesn’t matter!) One fan wrote: “I was especially interested in the conversation between the women about sex/orgasms/fantasies and violence. I’ve never seen or heard it put together quite like that, but felt a big poof! of relief and surprise … I thought I was just very peculiar, twisted, living out some sort of painful karma in that arena!”

Another emailed: “I have never written a note like this, and I am surprised at how intimidating it is to write to a writer. But I have to because I have lived with your story “Under the Apple Tree” for several months now. . .  I want to thank you for an honest, real, and intriguing look at the life of an adult woman. I wish more talented women writers would follow your lead.”

I was so honored by such responses (as you can see—I’ve saved them all this time). That correspondence got me to thinking about doing just that—trying to continue the conversation of honest portrayals of sex in literary works. In a society that is wildly prudish on one hand, and pornographic on the other, I think we sometimes lose sight of the honest portrayal of sex and love and romance.

What are you reading right now?

One fiction and one nonfiction. The nonfiction is Rising by Elizabeth Rush – and I’m just loving it. It’s not just a book about the calamities of rising sea levels and the lost habitats and homes (although it is that)—it’s also a moving rumination on the rise of women as investigative reporters, the rise of tangible solutions, the rise of human endeavor and flexibility.

I’m also reading Great Tide Rising by Kathleen Dean Moore because a) I like to keep up with Counterpoint authors, and b) I love her nonfiction work, and c) I’m teaching with her at Fishtrap (a writing workshop in Oregon) in July.

Funny that they both have “rise” in the title. Maybe I should say I planned it that way.

What’s the one book that you recommend to people, over and over?

That really varies on the person. But I do point people to Counterpoint books as being the best-of-the-best of what’s being published today (and I’m not just saying that). I also tell people to get a subscription to The Sun magazine – for the same reason.

Who are some of your writer mentors? Do you find that’s changed over time as you evolve as a writer or do they remain the same?

Kent Haruf was a great mentor until he passed away. His books were a huge influence on me – and I believe he’ll go down in history as one of the greats. He was a humble man and a generous mentor. Before that, Emilie Buchwald, who was the editor in chief at Milkweed Editions, was a huge and important mentor. She took me under her wing when I was just in my twenties. I write her a thank you letter from time to time, just to remind her how grateful I am. Rick Bass continues to be a great friend and mentor as well. And I have so many writing friends—and they are my community, my peeps, my literary soulmates.

What is your most prized book possession? A first edition? A gift? Please describe.

That’s a tough question! Okay, I’d say three things: an old copy of The Little Prince from my childhood, a broadside of Kent Haruf’s writing gifted to me by a friend, and an arrowhead I found as a child (which is not a book possession, but it sits next to these other things). I own nothing of value, really. My books are my most prized possession.