Minot with Knopf author John Burnam Schwartz at Barnes & Noble in New York City
hat was your goal when you set out to write this book?
When I set out to write this it was almost a different story. The idea that I had at the very beginning did not involve the death of a parent. I didn't know if my character was a boy or a girl, but the idea was that some kid comes home and finds him or herself alone in a big empty house. The family has just disappeared. It's a bit of a surreal idea. I was working with both a boy and a girl, and the kid would go to school, come home, and didn't really want to tell the neighbors or the teachers, but (s)he thought, "Okay, I can deal with this on my own." This character turned into Via, though she didn't have her name yet. A lot of what I wrote then were flashbacks to when the family was intact and everyone was around, and these ended up in the book. Once it came to being the mother dying and my structuring it around a day, the big thing I wanted to get across was not that it was just another tragic, depressing day for some kid; I wanted the message to be more uplifting, reassuring, more about paying attention closely to little things in life, all of which comes about after you lose something. The message is that you can embrace a loss--that even a little kid can.
Do you recall having the same sort of...
Reaction to my mother's death? I don't think so--not immediately. I think it definitely woke me up in that, when other kids would complain about their moms, I would think, "You're lucky you have one." I wouldn't say anything, but I do remember being aware of a bigger picture that I don't think I would have been aware of otherwise. In the long term, it did cause me to be paranoid that accidents happen all the time; that same paranoia heightened my sense of wanting to tune in. Not that I did all the time; I definitely tuned out and numbed out during periods of my life.
Do you remember the time period after your mother died very vividly?
I don't remember actual events very vividly, but I can remember not what I was feeling, but the mood. It was similar to this idea of the kid being alone in the house. It was that kind of mood--not necessarily terrifying, and maybe a little bit...cool, because being a kid alone in the house made me feel...tough. But it was scary, too.
A lot of Via's observations and memories are what comforts her and helps her to get through the first few days. What were your sources of comfort when you were going through this?
That's a good question. At that age, I don't remember thinking about my mother all the time. Right after I lost her I may have even tried not to think about her, because it was so overwhelming. I have a big family--six older siblings.
So you're the tiny one?
I am the tiny one. They were all very present and around, so that was my main source of strength. I had a lot of friends, so I didn't feel like a lonely kid. I was lonely for my mom, but I had comfort places. In this book, there's such a huge amount of love between Via and her mother before the loss. No matter what happens, if you have that kind of wholesome love, you can sustain anything. I don't know how kids who don't have their parents or don't have support even cope with getting on a bus let alone anything like this. It blows me away.
Does Via's relationship with her mom echo your relationship with your own mother?
Again, the mood is similar. If I were to try to write a memoir of that time, I don't know how I would do it. I don't really remember what I was like. I do remember what my mother was like, and she's similar to Via's mother, but there are other aspects of her that this book doesn't touch upon. Via's is a very "kid" slice of a mother.
It's done very well. What about some of the minor characters and details in the story; to what degree are those autobiographical?
It's funny--I was just up in Maine doing press, and my husband asked me what questions people asked and what I talked about. I was telling him what I read and one excerpt was the part where Via and her mother are clamming and they find the heart pendant in the mud. People asked, "Did that happen?" And the answer is no, but did I go clamming when I was a girl? Probably once or twice. Is that me while I was clamming with my mother? It's not. I certainly never found a little necklace piece in the mud with my mother, but the mood is there. There are some events that I've heard that were sort of funny, or that I dreamt about that I put into my book. The details came from all sorts of spots. For me the mood is the root of what I do know, and then it takes on its own life.
What do you think an eight year-old perspective brings to a tragedy like this? Is a child at an advantage or disadvantage to an older person when something like this occurs?
I think a child is at an advantage. At least I'd like to think that, since I was a child who lost her mother. It's a disadvantage that I didn't have her for all those years, and that Via's not going to have her mother for the rest of her life, but I think, just by nature, a child may be at an advantage. Even their being frightened isn't that frightening, because it's something they feel all the time. It's not just as normal as a kid's having their snack or their lunch, but it's just another new aspect of life that's coming at you. I think that the protections and defenses, and all the buffering that people do as they get older, from feeling and from seeing things happen, are absent in kids. It's easier for a kid to kind of absorb and hopefully adapt. Kids are more flexible and malleable, just as their bones are.
I found the recurring concept of death interesting--Pa, the guinea pig, the family's first dog, the chick, the toad that was blown up by a fire cracker. Can you comment on this? Or on the role of animals in general--I take it you're an animal person?
I am. I don't own any animals right now, but I've always felt like they were people. Not that I don't eat meat--I do. But pets that I've had all have very strong personalities to me. Regarding the death aspect, I don't remember being fascinated by blown-up toads, or really into that sort of thing.
Had you experienced death before your mother's?
No--except for a dog that was kidnapped. Little weird things. Even after my mother had died, I remember thinking about other kids whose parents were dead and thinking, "Poor kid!" It's so surreal when it's your own. I do think that all those things, dirt, sticks, toads, are all endlessly new and fascinating. Just as we were talking about with Via's reaction to having her mother die. It's not on parallel with a toad blowing up, but it's almost that basic. It's another aspect of this weird world.
Does Via have slightly psychic premonitions of her mother's death, when she's feeling sick and unsettled during the Valentine party in the classroom?
That wasn't my intention, but it did occur to me as I was rereading it. I think that if it comes off that way, that's alright. It's her mom and she's a child and they have weird feelings. Premonition maybe, but I didn't consciously put it there.
You don't actually describe the accident itself. Do you have thoughts about what occurred?
No. In this story she just bashed up her car. Just today I was thinking, "I never really explained it--how would she have died?" I gave it some thought but I didn't come up with any theories.
Do you still think about Via? Is she still a part of your life?
Yes, she is. It was strange for me, having been a seven-year-old kid when my mother died. Via just sort of appeared, another little kid echoing in my head. I felt sorry for her. It was like feeling sorry for another little person, and thinking, "Oh, those poor little kids that lose their moms . . .and me, too!" She is a real little creature, but she's had her day. This book was her little place.
I loved all your references to '70s pop culture, and Via's interpretations of them. Did you set the story in the late '70s because you have a good perspective of what it was like to be a child during that period?
Yes. With references to cartoons and things like that, it made life easier for me to set the story then. There were often times where I'd be writing and I'd think, "Wait a minute--were Doritos around then?" Certain things were foggy territory. It's amazing what those fact-checkers came up with. Things like "doofus"--I learned that was not in the lexicon. I'd say, "I swear I remember saying 'dork'!" and the answer would be, "No--not until '81."
What role do you think the songs and other phenomena of a given time period play in shaping one's personal memories of that time?
I think they hold you to memories quite a lot. People have said, "How do you remember so much?" Often what I think of are songs. You think you don't know that many songs, but if someone starts singing some '70s song, you realize you know every word. It's more amazing that you've forgotten. If you're trying to list songs from, say, "Donny and Marie," you think you only know one. If you spend enough time thinking about it, you're amazed at how much you've forgotten. For me, just thinking back to that window of time, those TV shows and songs were big markers in my head.
Who is the third-person narrator--is it you?
I guess. It's really just a third-person narrator. I think it could not even be there. Via's character is an eight-year-old, but at times she uses vocabulary that is not an eight-year-old's vocabulary.
Was that intentional?
In a way. I tried sometimes, as an exercise, to have strictly an eight-year-old mind set. I'd think about how my niece talks or would write. I was trying to give an eight-year-old's frame of reference a voice. I wanted you to be able to read it and feel it, but not wonder, "Would an eight-year-old say that?" I also didn't want it to be too intrusive. I felt that the third-person introducing the book suggested that there was someone else behind Via that would allow for some of that added lexicon.
How would you like people to walk away from this book?
I would like them to walk away feeling uplifted and happy that they're alive. And to realize that there are things--little things--that often go unnoticed. If you keep track of what's going on, nothing really leaves, even if you lose someone. If you're present the whole time, things are much more celebrated and worthy. Which is not easy.
You're the youngest of seven children, and your sister Susan and your brother George are writers. What do you think has drawn you all to writing?
Different things. My father had a real way with words. He wasn't a big talker, or a wordy guy--he was quite reserved. When he did speak, it was very au point, almost poetic, most of the time. He wasn't even really aware of it. That is part of it. My mother had a real appreciation for nature and for observing the details in life, so I was taught to see as much as I could of the natural world. My dad had that too. Also, being one of so many kids, there was lots of talking that went on, lots of relaying of stories, sketches of people, trying to describe who said what, where, when, why. There was a lot of general cataloguing of life going on. And having Susan as a writer influenced me. My brother George is a lot closer to her in age, but I would see both of them write. One of my brothers wrote poems. It was like painting pictures of sewing your blue jeans, it was just something that we did at home. Then when Susan was successful, I think in one way I was very aware that that's not just what happens if you decide to write, but it also made it seem feasible.
Do you read all the press that's written on you and your book now?
Quite a bit. Partly because it's just fascinating to me. As I said, I just got married in September, so I'm still pretty preoccupied with that. Now my husband will open a magazine that I'm in, and it's this funny, funny thing. It's totally weird too. At the Vogue shoot--I wished my husband was there or someone that knew me. I was just laughing the whole time. They were very serious, putting on my make-up. It's hysterical.
There's been very little, but does criticism bother you?
I've agreed with a lot of the criticism that I've read. And some of it was written by critics who just didn't like the book, which is completely understandable too. So nothing's really gotten to me personally. Again, I'm just trying to get my head around the fact that this is actually happening. Nothing's hurt my feelings yet, which is nice. I tend to be buttressed for the worst--I was ready for pans, left and right, which hopefully wouldn't have upset me too much.
Well, fortunately that didn't happen.
So far, so good.
Do you have any private rituals or environments that you need to create in order to write? I know you traveled while writing The Tiny One.
It was so much fun when I started writing this and travelled. I wrote in college and was encouraged by my teachers, by Mary Gordon. I won some prizes, and soon I felt that not only could I keep doing this, but that I had to. Writing was like that to me. I thought that I'd be able to work and write. I was working in TV, and during that time I wrote nothing. I'd applied to the Columbia Writing Program, fantasizing that I could get in and get some kind of scholarship, that it would be like receiving a stipend to go write, which is impossible for the first year. I didn't go to Columbia. Instead I worked in TV; I was there for 3 1/2 years, beginning to numb out, working in a windowless office. I read People magazine--I was a researcher, and it was fun, but after a while I was ready to move on.
I borrowed a little money from friends, instead of borrowing tons of money and going to school, and went to Bali for four months, basically to see if I could get some writing done. I had a feeling I'd get there and just kind of chill out and get a good suntan, maybe write a little, but not get something relatively substantial done. But my little routine there was fantastic. Eat breakfast, read the paper, write till noon, walk to the beach, get some lunch, read on the beach, come home, write for an hour or so if I felt like it, or read, then wait till it got cool enough, go for a run, come back, have a little dinner, and write. It was fantastic.
It sounds it. How much of the book did you get done during this time?
I probably wrote about 200 pages, but it was the old idea. A lot of the flashbacks and little anecdotes were there, but I didn't have the structure, or the mother dying. The names were different, it was jumbled, but it was definitely enough to make me want to get back to it. So I came home and did a little writing in Maine. Then I started working for Michael Moore for a short-term, working on his pilot. After that I went out to Colorado to finish my book; a friend of mine's family has a house there and said, "You can come house-sit and finish your book." After a week my computer crashed, and that was the first of my hexes out in Vail, Colorado.
Colorado was great though--it was beautiful. I was skiing, scanning tickets, hostessing; it was like being a ski-bum. But then I broke both my arms snow boarding, which made typing hard. I just had to wait it out. I was closer to finishing than I'd thought; I'd thought I still had a lot to do, but once I had the structure of the day and the idea of flashing back to a day from two days after, it all came together.
I came back to New York and was to start working for Michael Moore for a six-to-seven-month span, so I knew I had to really get it as done as I could. I had no schedule. I was up till 4AM; I had about three weeks like that, where I was like a manic finals student. It wasn't bad, though--it was fun.
Did you show early incarnations of the manuscript to your sister or anyone?
I did, to Susan, to my brother George--to pretty much all of my siblings, if they were close enough to be able to deal with the unwieldy thing that was my manuscript. My sister Carrie read it after I got back from Bali when it was the more surreal version. I knew what I was doing. I knew where the mood was coming from and that it was really Mum, my mum. I remember Carrie saying, "Just do it. You don't have to be afraid of going so close. You can do it." I knew that, but I was just trying to invent some other way to evoke the same feeling. But when it came right down to it, it was the mother loss that I really wanted to deal with.
Has writing this book helped you with your own grief and memories?
Yes. I don't feel that different from how I ever have about my own mother, but as I was saying, it helps to have created Via as this other kid with a similar little life to what I had, and to see her as a separate person. It's both weird and nice.
Where does "Via" come from?
Long ago at a camp--I don't even remember which camp it was--there was a girl somewhere named Via. I don't even think I ever knew her, but I remember seeing her name on the wall and thinking, "Isn't that an airline?" But it stuck in my head.
I like your choice of names throughout the book. How do you generally pick your names?
Picking the names was hard. Usually they just kind of come to me, but often I don't like the first versions. I deal with them until I come up with something I like better. Most of the ones in this book stuck though, even the ones I didn't really like in the beginning. I forget, now, which ones I didn't like at first. I also was trying to stick with the New England theme, and the Irish-Catholic, because that's who lives in New England.
What are some of your favorite books or authors?
That's such a hard question. I have a hard time coming up with favorite books or music, even colors, but I can name some that I love. Some that are important to me are the "big guys," though I haven't really read much of them since school. Dostoevsky, Faulkner, Joyce--the heavyweights. Beckett, Kafka--I loved all of them when I was in school. When I was in Bali writing this book I read James Salter's Light Years, which I really liked, and Jesus's Son, by Dennis Johnson. That's got a really good pace to it. There's one story, "Emergency," that's especially good and haunting. I read The Shipping News, which was a good reminder of the northern clime, since I was in the tropics. I tend to read in spurts. When I'm reading I really love it, but unfortunately I can go four months without really reading anything. Sometimes I'll go through an in-between phase, where I'm not diving head-on into anything, but I'm about twenty pages into three different things. I have a bad habit where I like to read the endings first. I won't read the whole chapter, but maybe the very last paragraph. And I'll think, "Okay, now how did we get there?"
What are you working on now?
I'm working, but on nothing in particular. I'm basically logging hours writing right now, and things are sprouting out, but nothing really strong enough that I could talk about and not jinx. Things are coming out of the woodwork.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
I would say to go away if you do want to go away and can. I know I was incredibly lucky in terms of the places that I ended up staying, and my being able to cope. I'm hoping I'll be able to write in New York City now, but I'm also not working all day long. If I do start working again, I hope I'll be able to take time off. To try to do both is just lunacy, unless you have an incredible amount of energy. I know that I felt stuck when I was working full-time, and that traveling was really what I wanted to do. I would dream about it. I remember telling my shrink that what I really wanted to do was to go somewhere really safe and warm and be alone and write. It sounded so . . . drippy, but that's just what I did, and it was what I needed to do.
I guess that's less my advice than my being proud of myself. The advice I'd give would be to write two hours a day, no matter what you write. This was actually advice that Mary Gordon gave me. Even if it's just playing with the spell check the whole time, just being in front of words is important. As is reading, which I don't do enough of. Now that I'm settling back in after my wedding, and our apartment's all set, and we're living, reading really can get the creative juices flowing. It is a good thing.
The Reading Is Fundamental people will be quite pleased that you said that.
interview by Laura Buchwald