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Award-Winning UCI Author Alice Sebold Discusses Works

ERIK STEIN/New University
Alice Sebold's "An Evening of Fiction" April 26 at 7 p.m. in HIB 135.

Famous writer participates in a question and answer forum for students.

By Ehzra Cue

At the "Evening of Fiction," a workshop sponsored by the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program and the vice chancellor's office, students, parents and professors welcomed famous writer, teacher and UCI graduate, Alice Sebold.

The event was designed for undergraduates interested in creative writing who want more exposure and insight into the current literary world in which they may eventually participate once they leave UCI.

Sebold gave a two-part presentation in which she related her experiences and that of other contemporary writers during their literary careers, as well as answered questions from the audience.

In the second half of the evening, Sebold led the group in a creative exercise of drawing images that resonate with them in terms of their current writing projects, helping them to better explore, discover and develop aspects of their writing.

Although Sebold declined an interview, the event provided ample opportunity for students to raise questions regarding Sebold's career and the contemporary literary world.

Sebold fostered an encouraging environment in which attendants, which included aspiring writers and literary aficionados, were uninhibited to ask questions.

Audience: You talked about a book contract. How do you go about getting one? S

ebold: That's always the first question! I will say this, [the] first thing one does is write a book. There are so many different answers to how one gets a book contract, but the first thing you have to do is write a book.

I went to Syracuse for an undergraduate degree, I went to University of Houston for a graduate degree in poetry, and I went [to UCI] for a graduate degree in fiction. All of my professional contacts have come out of those academic environments. If you're in the environment [and] you have a good manuscript, you're much better poised to have that person [a contact from your academic environment] come up and say, "I'd like to show this to somebody." You position yourself where somebody who knows somebody, who knows somebody, who knows somebody who is going to read that book.

In this day in age, yes, you need an agent. That's usually what "that somebody" does for you. As opposed to getting you a book contract, they put you in touch with an agent.

Audience: How would you characterize [your experience as a woman writer] as different when compared to your colleagues?

Sebold: A couple things are true, you know, women are the largest amount of readers in America, but my friend Cathy and I have this phrase, it's called "the big boy book." "The big boy book" gets a lot of attention in publishing. For those of you who aren't familiar with my memoir, "Lucky," it's the memoir of my rape at age 18 at Syracuse and the trial that followed it. Talk about taking a header right into the controversy of trying to get a difficult subject published. You've just gotta go ahead and do it, and I hit my head against a lot of brick walls, but I was convinced that I had a story that was important and that I could write it. It was difficult.

For instance, I had people at presses that were reading it and saying to my agent that this was too dark a place for me to go. "It's a wonderful book. The writing is beautiful. But, you know, it's just so dark. Possbily, possibly, yadda yadda yadda." But you just put that in the column of "okay that didn't work out" and keep going. I think support from other women is very important, so I sought that out.

Audience: Can you tell us a little bit about what your new book is about?

Sebold: Sure. We've gone back to the original [The Lovely Bones]. It is about the murder and dismemberment of a young girl and she dies in the first chapter. She tells the story in first person. She tells the story of her family and her friends and her murder after death from the perspective of heaven.

My friend and agent and editor said, 'If you told me that was what it was about, we never would have bought it. Thank God we got to read it.' That's the other thing, sometimes you just find yourself writing something that's impossible to explain in two sentences."

Audience: What's the process like working with an editor?

Sebold: It depends on the editor. It's a different relationship with each different person. We're so new in this [relationship with Little Brown] that I wouldn't know how to quantify that one, but in terms of the Scribner editor, it was phenomenal. I've heard nightmare stories, I haven't had one.

Audience: Nightmare stories, what are you talking about?

Sebold: The biggest nightmare story is that you're orphaned. Your editor leaves the [publishing] house and since they're the one who acquired the book, you know, horrible, horrible.

I have to tell you, you're looking at somebody whose been orphaned twice now at Little Brown in the space of four months. But I'm orphaning up, which is much better than orphaning down. So basically it means that person who's passionate about your book will be publishing it, and that can turn out to be the best case scenario or it can turn out not to be.

At least for me, I think my editor a god or goddess, depending, and treat them accordingly. There are writers out there who are very rude and unpleasant to their editors, and so, you know, maybe the nightmare is mutual.

Audience: What do you do when you feel very doubtful about your writing?

Sebold: Well, how honest can I be on this, I think I cry. I think I get really, really depressed and it's just like one of those things like any other kind of depression. I walk the dog and call my friends-they're writers. I think that in New York, which for me was not - I mean I wouldn't trade my 10 years in New York for anything - but it was a difficult place to write because everyone in New York writes and they're all better than you are. It's hard to go out and find hope in that kind of atmosphere, [it's] highly, highly competitive.

So UCI, again, was a great experience for me because there were people around the table [in writing workshops] that only wanted to make my writing better, not make it their writing and not compete with me.

Audience: How do you keep the flow of the new, and the exciting, and the life going as a writer?

Sebold: We trade work and it's not as structured as the workshop was, but usually we come with large bodies of work.

For instance, when I came with the final draft of my manuscript, which they all read in sections and pieces, I was so nervous that I spent the night throwing up. I had no reason to be, but I was very, very nervous. Their opinion means more to me in some way than the editors and all the other people.

Audience: I was thinking you might want to talk about what you think is going on in writing today; what's different. A lot of us at UCI have an English education that stops at around 1950, what would be different?

Sebold: I guess for me. I read a lot of literature that I would have hated if I read it when I was supposed to read it or whenever somebody told me I should be reading it. For instance, everybody from my family therapist at the age of eleven told me that I should read "Portrait of a Lady" by Henry James and I didn't. It was recommended again when I was 16 and I didn't, and then in college and I didn't, and somewhere in my 20s and I didn't. I got this one-year thing at this arts colony and I read almost all of Henry James and it was mind-blowing for me and wonderful.

I think what my feeling about what's going on now is that there are, say, more permission slips for me that are being published and getting some attention than there were 10 years ago. I'm less strange now in the world of published fiction or published memoir than I would have been 10 years ago. And so, for me, that makes me very happy to see, you know, stranger voices, minority voices, poetry type of voices that are now lapsing into prose.

Audience: I'm curious about what happened in the time that you took off between graduate and undergraduate.

Sebold: I worked a lot of different jobs and became a competent New Yorker, which is no small task, and went through a lot of stuff, and rediscovered reading on my own and I became more honest to who I was, which matters a lot. I went out a lot. I would go to a lot of readings. I did a lot of things that I'm not particularly proud of and that I can't believe I did.

I probably, at the age of 38, am not going to climb to the top of Manhattan bridge, but in my 20s I climbed to the top of Manhattan Bridge. You should just go and do stuff.

Audience: Now during that time off when you were experiencing all that, did you try to write?

Sebold: I wrote pretty much consistently. I just came back [home] and wrote everyday. I didn't have the hours and discipline that I do now, and discipline is crucial, but I did keep writing. I joined little writing groups, I kept returning to what my passion was even if it was accidentally.

Audience: Do you think that during that time you were writing freed up in a way that hadn't happened during the undergraduate [program]? Did it get better?

Sebold: I hope so. Yeah, it definitely got better. I mean, I really do believe that if you keep doing it, it gets better. It's not if you keep doing it, it gets worse. I will say this, that failure is a very, very good thing because it makes you get better. You can have early success and not necessarily get better because you have an immediate assessment; there is no motivation to get better. You get rejected a lot, there's a lot of motivation to get better.

New U.: Is there anything else you do besides reading when you're stuck or feeling down, or [have] writer's block? Anything you do to get your creative juices flowing?

Sebold: I used to lift weights a lot until I hurt my hip and now I just limp around with the dog. The other thing that I think is extremely important is to find an environment where writing is not respected, not thought about, not talked about, no one cares about it. I have a lot of friends back in New York that live in a very internal world. I mean, you should be able to find yourself in these other environments, talking to other people about what they're passionate about.

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