Q&A: Julia Older

Julia Older
There are a lot of wonderful writers living in our state, some full-time, some part-time.  As the Director of the NH Center for the Book I get the opportunity to talk to many of them. This interview series of Q&As with New Hampshire authors here on Book Notes lets me share that experience a bit with my blog readers.   

If someone hasn't read your work yet where should they start?

It depends on their interests. Nonfiction fans  might  enjoy  APPALACHAN ODYSSEY: Walking the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Main,  co-authored and hiked with Steve Sherman. I was the 19th woman to hike the trail which now is hiked by thousands.  Novel readers and biography enthusiasts may follow the life of writer-mother-gardener-literary hostess Celia Thaxter in THE ISLAND QUEEN (the first novel on my Shoals Trilogy. 

Poetry lovers who enjoy a good story may find my booklength poem TALES OF THE FRANÇOIS VASE reader-friendly and it comes with  an audio CD of the NPR verse play (music, sound effects, actors, students) which you can listen to as you read. Great for tweens to seens (seniors). I'm honored to be included in the Hobblebush Press Granite State Poetry Series.

When did you first think of yourself as a writer?

"The prophetic revelation that I was a poet occurred on a motorcycle honeymoon trip through France and Spain.  My new husband and I sat in the bleached Roman arena at Arles. He insisted we leave to visit the Church in Arles. I sat on the limestone bleachers listening to the ancient voices of slaves, Christians and Romans entombed among the cypress groves. "I'm writing a new poem," I told him. "Please—go on. You can come back for me." Angry shouts echoed through the arena as he grabbed my notebook. In horror I watched this man I swore I'd love till death rip the pages to shreds and cast them into the wintry Mistral. A custodian hurried down the steps past the madman rushing out and asked if Madame was all right. I looked at my poems littering the arena like the flesh of gladiators and actually smiled.  From that moment I knew no one could harm them or me—so long as I could write.  (from LETTERS TO A NEWBORN POET, in progress)."

Addendum: Three months later my birth as a poet-writer was baptized by the salt spray of a small Ligurian fishing village on the Golfo dei Poeti where Byron tried to save Shelley from drowning. In a balconied studio I wrote, studied music, and translated while my husband was working on a research ship. In a twin villino perched on a cove a few miles (and half a century) away, D.H. Lawrence wrote his first novel. An outward manifestation of my declaration of independence as a woman and writer was to drop my family nickname (Julie) and sign all correspondence and poems with my given name "Julia" (Giulia).

How did you end up in New Hampshire?

While I worked my way through the University of Michigan, a job counselor handed me a thick file of summer positions s at Maine and New Hampshire resorts. What hooked me on Eagle Mountain House in Jackson, NH, was a photo of the dining room and menu offering fresh Maine lobster, home-grown produce, and freshly baked breads and desserts. The Inn driver circled around the sprawling Victorian hotel overlooking the mountains and dropped me at the entrance to a barn with Shaker-bare dormitory rooms. Co-workers and slackers included a disenchanted (often drunk) New Jersey housewife, a feisty teenager from Tennessee who claimed she was destined for the Grand ol Opry, a tough blond blueberry picker waiting for apple season and a Maine student who recited Robert Burns more than is healthy. The grueling seven day schedule landed me in the North Conway Hospital next to e. e. cummings  who, like me, wasn't allowed visitors. Fortunately, I recovered in time to hop a freighter for a year of independent study in France— where my first poems were published. The following summer, although I was a counselor in Maine, my 10-15 year-old charges  hiked New Hampshire's Presidential Mountains (in the rain).

Surrounded by the violence of a broken marriage, civil riots, and Vietnam protest marches, I went into self-imposed exile for a six-month Writing Fellowship at the Instituto Allende (San Miguel de Allernde, Mexico),  I also taught Mexican children at a bilingual school and gave music lessons at the Bellas Artes. Upon my return I was hired as an Assistant Children's Book Editor at the Putnam Publishing Co. in New York. Yaddo invited me for my first poetry residency. Homeless and jobless, I was getting desperate when an audition landed me a job with the  Saõ Paulo Philharmonic in Brazil. The  MacDowell Colony in Peterborough also came through and  re-invited me the following winter. During this residency I met writer Steve Sherman and with a book contract in hand we set out on the 2000-mile Appalachian Trai1. Many blisters and soggy notebooks later, in Hancock NH we co-authored Appalachian Odyssey. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Where do you like to write?

Poetry is fleeting and requires instant attention anywhere on anything (toilet paper, bank statements, end papers, skin). I recently worked on a poem in the Keene Honda dealer's front showroom (WiFi, office chairs, hot coffee). Train compartments are great. Steve and I finished the rough draft of a movie script on a cross-country train trip to California. My favorite annual retreat is on Webhannet marsh at Wells, Maine.

How important is place in your writing?

Much of my childhood was spent roaming the woods and  fields, wading streams, biking and on horseback, and after living in a tent on the Appalachian Trail it was difficult to sleep indoors. Like my naturalist friend Sy Montgomery, I'm a "walkabout." and so are the historical characters that people my novels and poems. The telekinetic attraction of earth-sea-sky is predominate. Tahirih (a Persian 19th century women's rights leader and poet) rode a camel caravan across the desert to meet her spiritual leader and fled on horseback over the Elburtz mountains to find refuge from the Shah's wrath on the Caspian sea. Celia Thaxter  on the Isles of Shoals off Portsmouth, NH, also was a child of nature. Her Shoals garden, artist colony, and writing were nurtured by the other-worldly Shoals. The characters I inhabit love the Ocean, flora and fauna. And they  are inextricably tied to the loci of my own peregrinations from the15th century cloistered cell where I studied in Aix en Provence to the Hancock "Common" and Revere bell that wakes me each morning.

What do you do when you're not writing?

Read and meditate. Swim, walk. Play my flute. Dance.

What's the best advice you were ever giving.

The one I practice most?  Know thyself. And what seems to follow—You can't really know someone until you've walked in their shoes.

What books do you love and what about them speaks to you?

A Cautionary Tale I wish I'd read William Butler's THE WAY OF ALL FLESH sooner. He shows how as children we are manipulated by parents and our siblings—especially if we are of a sensitive nature.

References throughout my seven-storied life: KING JAMES BIBLE (Psalms, Prophets, Job, Kings, Song of Solomon); The Complete SHAKESPEARE, Dante's COMEDIA Homer's ODYSSEY. The OED, INTERNATIONAL THESAURUS, language and classical dictionaries.  Reference books continue to reflect and connect. Each day a new word, new concept, diagram. What poet Peter Viereck calls "the tall ideas dancing."

Early Joys: I still dote on Jules Verne adventures. His "romantic plots" are duds. But the scientific exploration, earth-sky-seascapes sparked my imagination. Lately, I read a French children's classic THE GREEN RAY" based on an optical sun-sea phenomenon. When I was fourteen the (Midwest) town librarian scolded me for checking out Tolstoy's ANNA KARENINA and demanded I bring a written note from my parents. They complied and the haunting love story remains a favorite.

Russian Novels  Yes, the list of names can be disturbing but I've learned much over

the years from the broad backdrop of WAR AND PEACE, the microcosm of intimacy and passionate personal relationships in Pasternak's  DOCTOR ZHIVAGO broadened by the Universal spiritual-political upheaval. I like Russian novels because they are layered, multi-charactered like plays, costumed, philosophically demanding. THE MASTER AND MARGARITA by Mikhail Bulgakov was a mid-life discovery. With the skill and wit of Aristophanes and Dante, this 20th century author turns political satire into high art .

Memoir  Nabokov's memoir SPEAK, MEMORY is the newest Russian visitor to my reading table.  LOLITA and Vlad's other novels let me down whereas the lyrical  soliloquy of Nabokov's memoir seems to shimmer and float over childhood like one of the butterflies he chases throughout the book. M.F.K. FISHER'S non-fiction essays are memoirs written with the skill and observation of a novelist. The four books in THE ART OF EATING travel, sing, flow with finesse, grace and natural élan. I admit Mary Frances, was a  friend. But were she not, like Auden, I'd still sing her praises. How did she do it? Write so naturally? New Hampshire's own Celia Thaxter's boatload of stories  AMONG THE ISLES OF SHOALS is written with the same effortless charm.

The Sea  Faulkner wrote an early story THE OLD MAN I discovered researching my third novel. Faulkner's page-long sentences always got in the way—until I read this novella.  It takes place in a boat (like Hemingway's OLD MAN AND THE SEA) but is oh so less self-conscious. Conrad's NOSTROMO trumps LORD JIM yet they're both remarkable. How could a Polish-born author write such engaging English novels? It's uncanny. Then there's MOBY DICK and Melville's sea voyages. I'll never climb to the poop deck—although my Shoals protagonist Thom Taylor learns the ropes. But fortunately we have Conrad and Melville to hoist the sails for us.

Poetry I recently picked up the collected poems of my favorite author-thinker-polymath Samuel Taylor Coleridge and reread RIME OF THE ANCIENT MARINER and KUBLA KHAN. Why do I like these poems? The music. The narrative. The otherworldly interior conversation of Coleridge with himself. His BIOGRAFIA LITERARIA is a brilliant compendium of thought about everything old under the sun—with a new spin by a genius mind. OK where was I? Poets: I'd been looking for the writing o f Taoist poet Sun Buer for seven years and suddenly in the local Toadstool Book Shop I paged through IMMORTAL SISTERS and she appeared. I call this felicitous conjunction Book Zen. Yeats was and is my first love for his lyrical-narrative gift. Yeats MYTHOLOGIES, like Rainer Maria Rilke's STORIES OF GOD (a recent pre-read treasure) are prose folk tales told by pros. They flow through the memory like forgotten fairy tales. I have long admired Elizabeth Bishop's poems for their "distance" and "detail."

Translation Loves: BORIS VIAN was a Satrap of Pataphysique (the 20th century School of Imaginary Solutions). I've translated and published his short stories and  am bringing out a Vian Reader (poems, essays, stories, songs). I love Vian (and Coleridge) because they wanted to know everything—learn, and explore all forms and disciplines. Vian wrote 42 novels plays poems (400 songs), recorded, acted, invented, was an engineer, died at 39. Fifty years later his work is still fresh with his own voice.  I discovered  PERSIAN SKETCHES by GERTRUDE BELL while translating the poems of TAHIRIH. Bell was a brilliant linguist and diplomat in Iraq  (where she founded the now war-bombed archeology museum). Her poetic descriptions of Persia are suffused with the romantic assignations and hightened awareness of Gertrude-in-love.  I also recommend Bell's translations of  POEMS BY HAFEZ, Persia's second favorite writer (the first being the Prophet Muhammed). The more I translate the later poems of  Sicilian Nobel Poet-translator SALVATORE QUASIMODO, the more I'm honored he was a friend and mentor. It's as if the Russian sputnik replica on his desk sent his poems into orbit. The spatial time continuum is light years ahead of his early work.

Philosophers  Soren Kierkegaard's existentialist novels  are obvious vehicles for his ideas Yet for me they don't have as profound an impact as the raw retelling of Abraham and Isaac in FEAR AND TREMBLING or the creative thoughts on artistic evolution and human nature posed in  REPETITION. What makes these companion books on my shelf are their daring  examination of family, religion, and the artistic individual in society. 

American Classics:  I dote on land-locked American family sagas because they represent the best (and yes, worst) of our heritage in myriad forms. Wallace Stegner's ANGLE OF REPOSE, Margory Stoneman Douglas' RIVER OF GRASS (The Everglades) are doozies.  Douglas can turn a paragraph of biography into flesh and blood. I wished my latest find AN OWL ON EVERY POST by Sanora Babb (written in the '40s) would never end. Sanora's ancestor was the bloody bawdy tavernkeep Philip Babb of Hog Island (Isles of Shoals 1600s). The publisher turned this novel down for GRAPES OF WRATH—and it's every bit as powerful.  If you're a  publisher or agent, I'd definitely look into this one.

What are you working on now?

I rarely answer this question so I'll be brief.

1. The third novel of my Isles of Shoals Trilogy.

2. ON THE BALCONY OF A DREAM: Essays On Reading And Writing.

My second translation collection, BORIS VIAN INVENTS BORIS VIAN (selected poems, songs, stories, and essays), is scheduled for Black Widow Translation Series, Commonwealth Books, Boston 2014.

What do you want to share?

Thank you, Mary, for inviting me to reveal some of my everyday world.

This also seems a good time to express my gratitude to NH libraries and Librarians for supporting me and my books. I don't own a single credit card,  but have access to four interest-free library cards that allow us to attend lectures, readings and exhibits, offer free passes to Boston Museums, research special collections and national Interlibrary Loan systems. Heartfelt thanks to Amy Markus at the Hancock Library who surely has the most engaging book launches and age-specific events in the State. Thanks also to  the newly appointed  Peterborough Town Library Director, Connie Chronopoulos, her assistant Linda Kepner and Reference Librarian Brian Hackert.  Steve Sherman and I also are indebted to Circulation Services Librarian, Jill  Wixom et al at  the Franklin Pierce College DiPietro Library, Director Nancy Vincent and her fine, friendly staff  at the Keene Public Library, and Circulation Librarian Robin Riley at the  Keene State College Mason Library. The combined Keene catalogues create a double treasure for independent writers/researchers like me.

You can learn more about Julia's work, and that of Steve Sherman, at www.Appledorebooks.com

On December 1, 2014, in conjunction with NH Writers' Week, Julia Older will be doing a reading at the Portsmouth Public Library.

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