Welcome to the second installation of Book Chat! If things go well, I hope to feature at least one writer a week here on my blog. Last week, I had the pleasure of talking with Nillu Nasser.
Today, I get to interview Paula Coomer, a wonderful writer I was fortunate enough to meet when we both wrote for the same–now defunct–publisher. Paula writes both fiction and nonfiction, and I’ll bet if you read on, you’re going to want to check out her work!
Mary: When did you first know you were a writer, Paula?
Paula: I knew from a very young age that I was an observer. I “wrote” my first book at four, meaning I drew pictures and copied lines from the newspaper onto manila notebook pages. As for when I decided to get truly serious about writing, I was in my thirties. My first book came out the year I turned forty.
Mary: What genres do you write?
Paula: I write poetry and literary fiction, primarily. I consider myself a serious writer. But I do have one food memoir out, as well as a follow-up cookbook. Those were unplanned. They sort of happened on their own, and they have been my most popular books so far.
Mary: Which of your books would you recommend to someone who’s discovering your work for the first time?
Paula: I think Jagged Edge of the Sky, my second novel, is a fun read, although a little complicated. It’s not mainstream, but I think having it set partially in Australia has added an element of interest to it, plus it was nominated for big awards—even the Pulitzer—so at least my publisher thought it had literary merit. Somebody Should Have Scolded the Girl, my most recent short story collection might also appeal to readers, although some of the stories are a bit tough to read. I write mostly about rural women. Tough things happen to women in most of my stories.
Mary: I’ve begun reading Somebody Should Have Scolded the Girl, and am enjoying it a lot so far. The characters feel very real, and I’m a huge fan of gritty stories that expose the true beauty in humanity. This leads to my next question: Of all the scenes you’ve created in your writing, which have you liked best?
Paula: I really like the sex scenes in Jagged Edge of the Sky. I like sex to be really understated. I don’t like erotica or pornography, but I do like it when sex is heavily hinted at in such a way that it makes your breath quicken.
Mary: Ditto! Now let’s talk a bit about our current world situation. We’re two years into the pandemic now. How has this scourge that materialized on earth almost overnight and changed practically every element of life as we once knew it affected your writing?
Paula: I’d be lying if I said it hadn’t, but I had already written my way through very hard times personally, so living through a pandemic felt like just one more thing I had to endure in my life. I wrote more poetry than anything, primarily because I was working on hard stuff in writing that had to do with the traumas in my life. To write about trauma when you are in the midst of being traumatized by world events proved to be very difficult for me. I’ve recently set that project aside in favor of diving into a novel—an actual happy story—I’ve been mapping out and taking notes on for years. The nonfiction stuff will have to wait. This is a time to be generating as much joy as we can.
Mary: Many movies and TV shows filmed during the pandemic have avoided setting scenes specifically in 2020 or 2021. One reason is that so much about COVID-19 (our knowledge of it, policies around it, mutations in the virus itself, predictions about its future, etc.) is changing in real time. But writing books allows for more flexibility. Have you included references to COVID-19 in your writing so far? And/or do you see yourself writing about it anytime soon?
Paula: I have written about COVID in nonfiction, but I don’t ever see myself writing about it in fiction. I do have a climate-catastrophe novel making the rounds, but the enemy is snow, not a virus.
Mary: Are there any books about “the craft” that you’ve found particularly helpful in your writing career? If so, which ones?
Paula: Oh gosh. So many. Brenda Ueland’s If You Want to Write, Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life, Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones, Stephen King’s On Writing. Brenda Ueland made me aspire to be a good teacher. Annie Dillard made me want to write beautiful prose, although I don’t know if I’ve ever truly arrived at that level of craft. Of course, craft is not something you arrive at. You get better, you get worse, you get better again. Anne Lamott’s practical advice about just getting to it has always stayed with me. Natalie Goldberg helped me understand writing as a practice and spiritual path, which it needs to be, as you must lose yourself and your ego if ever truly are going to write what matters to yourself and to the world. Stephen King made me understand that even for writers like him there is no magic but there are demons, and you must be prepared to face those within yourself before you can step away from ego. It’s a tough business. We need to turn to those who have gone before us if we are serious at making a career of books. It’s about maintaining a culture of wisdom as you seek your own wise evolution. You can’t add to that body of understanding if you don’t recognize yourself as a link in that chain.
Mary: I love what you just said: You can’t add to that body of understanding if you don’t recognize yourself as a link in that chain. One thing that upsets me is when writers (of all ages) discount classics because they consider them boring or dated. Of course, writing–like all art–keeps evolving, but it’s so important to recognize the risks others have taken in the past so we can write what we do now. And speaking of other writers, what books are you currently reading for enjoyment/entertainment? And who are a few of your personal favorite authors?
Paula: I am reading a book called On Suspect Terrain by John McPhee, one of my favorite non-fiction writers. I also just finished The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead, a book I recommend to everyone, hard as it is to stomach. You can’t understand racism fully without reading this book. Favorite books currently—Diane Seuss’s frank: sonnets. And I read everything Wendy J. Fox writes. Lidia Yuknavitch, of course.
Mary: Okay, so I’m embarrassed to say I haven’t read any of Lidia Yoknavitch’s work. But I just went to her website and have added two of her books to my summer reading list. She sounds amazing. Now let’s get back to you. Have you experienced periods of time (longer than a couple of days) when you thought you might stop writing?
Paula: I used to quit writing every August and December, until I realized that what I needed was a break during those months. Other than that, I want to quit all the time, but what I really need is to find ways to bring balance to my life. More movement, etc. And, I realize, what I really want to give up is the business side of writing. I think that is the downfall of many of us. The applications for conferences, grants, queries, setting up events, etc. I’d love to be able to pay a publicist or an assistant to take that part over, but I’ve never wanted to part with the cash. Usually, the times I want to quit the most are times when I’m not writing. If I can even make myself go to the desk for thirty minutes a day, I’m more content. At times I think I was happier when I was just writing in my journal, writing poems I never intended to show anyone.
Mary: Yup. I hear you on all of that. But I’m glad you did start publishing and hope you continue. Here’s my final question: What’s something about you that you wish more people knew?
Paula: I wrote a seriously good experimental snowpocalypse novel that is also plausible in terms of the science behind the forming of a mini-ice age based on current climate conditions. Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like a novel on the page, but it’s not exactly a graphic novel, either. I don’t know if I’ll ever find a publisher, which means the message will be lost, which is exactly what happens in the book—a woman dreams of the coming ice age, but because of trauma in her current life, she’s not remembering her dreams.
Mary: Well, I hope you do find a publisher for it. It sounds fascinating, and I think a lot of people will relate to the idea of important environmental messages being lost due to all the trauma we’re going through as humans on earth.
Thank you so much for being here today, Paula! It’s been a treat reconnecting, and I look forward to talking again soon!
More about Paula Coomer
Paula Coomer is a poet and literary fiction writer who occasionally writes about food and health. Her writing has appeared in many journals, anthologies, and online publications. Books include the novels Jagged Edge of the Sky and Dove Creek, short story collections Somebody Should Have Scolded the Girl and Summer of Government Cheese, poetry collections Nurses Who Love English and Devil at the Crossroads. A food memoir, Blue Moon Vegetarian, was followed by the much-loved cookbook Blue Moon Vegan. A long-time teacher of writing, Ms. Coomer has been a nominee for the Pulitzer, the Pushcart, and others. She lives with her husband Phil in the tiny town of Garfield, Washington, where she coaches writers and organizes and facilitates Clearwater Writers, a retreat program on the Wild and Scenic Clearwater River near Syringa, Idaho.