Landing Linda Gray Sexton for this interview was a complete accident. If I hadn’t flubbed, I probably wouldn’t have dared reach out to her. You see, I was careless. I stumbled on her Twitter profile (@LindaGraySexton), noticed that she had recently published a book, Bespotted (read more on that in the interview), and thought, “Voilà! ‘new author’ for my author interview series.” And then I direct-messaged her.
If being a published author of nine books is not enough, Linda Gray Sexton is also the literary executor of her late, Pulitzer Prize-winning, mother’s estate, Anne Sexton. And, yet, she still makes time to help writers (at varying stages in their writing careers) with their writing projects. She informed me that she has room for just a few more clients. (In fact, I attribute her willingness to have an e-chat with LivinginCyn.com to her love of books and all things writerly, including aspiring authors.) You can find out more about her editorial consultant service by clicking here to visit her website.
So, yes, I tripped and fell face-first into a goldmine. And, today, you too can enjoy the wealth of knowledge, experience and grace that she brings to lovers of the literary—without getting egg in your mascara!
Before we head to her interview, here are some ways you can get social with Linda Gray Sexton!
Name/ Age/ Website Linda Gray Sexton/ 63 in July (oh my God!)/ lindagraysexton.com
Where do you currently reside? What’s your hometown/origin? I live in Redwood City, California, up high in the mountains, just south of San Francisco, on the Peninsula. I grew up on the East Coast, in the Boston suburbs.
Some could say you’ve been “born to write,” but can you remember that first time you absolutely knew that writing was going to be more than a hobby, or an assignment? I do think of myself as being “born to write,” as the daughter of the poet, Anne Sexton. I learned my craft “at my mother’s knee,” spending afternoons in her study showing her my early poetry and short stories, starting when I was in the sixth grade. By my early years in high school, she was showing me her work and asking my opinion, which she took amazingly seriously. She flattered me by calling me her “best critic”(not sure I believe this), as I was honest and (I hope) perceptive about what did–and did not–work for the ordinary reader, in a world where poetry was largely an esoteric mystery to many.
To me, writing never felt like “a hobby or an assignment.” It always came naturally, flowing from the heart, if not from skill in the beginning. In college, I took poetry seminars and wrote my English assignments with great pleasure, and graduated magna cum laude in English and American Language and Literature. I had thought I would go into editing at a publishing house, as commenting on my mother’s work had come so naturally in the later years, but I began my writing career instead by compiling a volume of her letters after her suicide. She died shortly before my graduation from Harvard when I was 21. I am also her literary executor, initially a painful task, but one that has become less so over the years and more filled with the satisfaction of representing her work and making sure it is remembered in the future. By the time I finished editing Anne Sexton: A Self-Portrait in Letters, I was fully launched and never wanted to do anything else but create with words. I’ve been a writer (in three different genres) ever since 1975.
Was there an occupation you aspired to besides writing? Do you see elements of that “life” in your current life, or do they play out in your literature? Interestingly enough, I dreamed in junior high and high school of becoming a psychiatrist. I now see that urge as a misplaced desire to take care of my mother, who was so very mentally ill, and I’m glad I didn’t follow it. However, a psychiatrist examines the mind, dreams, wishes and thoughts of her patients’ emotional lives, and I like to think I offer my readers similar aspects of my own emotional life via my writing—which in turn offers them the opportunity to identify with me and my situation, and then to examine their own lives. Most of my “fan” mail (as my mother used to call it) centers around how a reader feels attuned to me and what I’ve offered with candor about my own life, be it through my three memoirs, my four novels–or even my newsletter, which isn’t really a newsletter at all, but instead an biweekly meditative essay on the ideas I have about everything we face as we wind our ways through our days. So that introspective, emotional side comes out in my writing. I was never a medical doctor to a patient, but I make myself an example of how one can struggle with and overcome any problem, hoping that each reader can find his or her own way to a little bit of peace through what I offer.
Can you tell us a little bit about Bespotted? This is the third book in what I like to think of as a trilogy of memoirs, being preceded by Searching for Mercy Street: My Journey Back To My Mother, Anne Sexton (Editor’s note: named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and optioned by Miramax Films) and Half In Love: Surviving The Legacy Of Suicide. The first two memoirs are darker in tone and deal with the pain of loss, suicide and forgiveness—how you can come from a very difficult place in your life to resolution. So they both have an upward swing and a hopeful ending.
The last one, Bespotted: My Family’s Love Affair With Thirty-Eight Dalmatians, describes the pleasure my family has always taken in our dogs, who happen to be Dalmatians, and the ways in which they guided us through the tough times in our lives. It begins with my childhood, and watching my mother turn our Dals into “therapy dogs” who comforted her through her days. It then moves on to my adult life, where Dals reappear as soon as I had a fenced yard available for them to run in.
Later, in the midst of a great depression in my forties, I, too, made a special dog—the dog of my heart—into a therapy dog. He was the one who really pulled me through to the other side of my bipolar illness with his love.
It is an upbeat book, dwelling on the happier aspects of both my childhood and my adulthood and the incredible relationships I have formed with these black and white miracles, as many people form with their own dogs. It really is a “dog book” of literary bent, which happens to be about Dalmatians.
My readers and community are also very much interested in the writing process. It seems there is a strong therapeutic undercurrent motivating your writing. Would you say that’s true? And, if so, do you take a freestyle approach to laying words on a page, or are you methodical? Do you wake up one day already knowing what your book is about? I’ve already talked a bit about how my books are introspective—for me and for others. I don’t think, however, that they are personally cathartic.
For me, to write about an emotional subject requires both knowledge and resolution, because if you were just blurting material onto the page for the sole sake of release, you would be better off keeping a journal. I need to have completed “the catharsis” long before I begin to actually write the book. Otherwise I won’t know what I am going to say, or what I am going to take away from my own experience. Or what I can offer my readers.
I do take an “associative” approach to getting my words down on the page—just following them wherever they may go, a process dictated by the unconscious. I turn off my internal editor, usually write a first draft (that I would never show to anyone) to try and catch the waterfall of words, and then go back and revise. If I sat there worrying about my prose, I would never put down a single word. I revise over and over again.
And yes, before I begin, I try to know “what the book is about,” though sometimes a book surprises me and moves beyond what I had originally planned or divined—or even designed. And I never tell anyone (except my husband maybe) what It’s “about” as that seems to be a jinx for me (yes, I am very superstitious!). I wrote a whole newsletter on the topic called “Killing A Novel Stone Dead,” which a lot of people really liked. You can sign up for my newsletter on lindagraysexton.com, and there is a free giveaway of any one of my books for subscribers every month. (Not to plug my newsletter—but hey, writers have to be self-promoting these days as no one else will do it for you!)
Could you describe a typical day for you? You seem very generous with your time away from actually writing — you even help budding authors with developmental edits, tightening their pitch, and you provide one-on-one consultation. What’s your secret? My days are very regular and self-disciplined. They have to be or I would never get anything done. I usually start writing at 9 a.m. and work till 1 pm, when I break for lunch. If I don’t have anything lyrical to say and the “juice” isn’t flowing, then I write whatever I can manage, which can be rewritten or relegated to the back of my file cabinet, though I don’t ever throw anything away, as you never know when it might come in handy after all. Sometimes important ideas are hiding in material you’ve rejected.
After lunch, I either do more work on the manuscript—if I am feeling incredibly productive—or I read, looking for examples of other writers who have mastered their craft. Or, I work on my newsletter, or write a blog for someone else, or try my hand at some kind of article that will probably never see publication, as the “magazine” market has contracted to the point of non-existence. Whatever it is, I keep on going. There are those days I stall out, but I try to be kind to myself and just get going again the next.
And, as to the last part of your question: well, I’m not sure I have a “secret” for those hours I spend away from my own writing and with others. For me, it’s more of a philosophy: what you give, you get back—in spades. Or, to quote the popular saying, “what goes around, comes around.” I like helping other writers, which is what led me to extend myself by offering consulting services (also detailed on lindagraysexton.com). It’s fun to work with other people’s words, rather than my own—less pressure, I guess—and I suppose it also reminds me, in a happy way, of all those afternoons I spent working with my mother when she asked for my opinion and treated it as something valuable. I like to believe I have something to contribute.
I also find I enjoy writing as a charitable enterprise. I work with a Dalmatian rescue, (Save the Dals), writing the biographies for the dogs who have been abused and are looking for new forever homes. It’s tremendously rewarding. Recently, I wrote a detailed brochure for the Dalmatian Club of America in their effort with the AKC to better educate potential and new owners about the breed, so that they know what they are getting into when they choose a Dal—lots of love and cuddling, but their realistic needs and character flaws, as well.
Do you ever experience writer’s block? What do you recommend to aspiring authors dealing with writer’s block? Every writer must experience writer’s block at some point, or they aren’t putting themselves out on the line and challenging themselves with their projects. For writer’s block I always try to write SOMETHING, no matter how awful it is. It helps just to get one word down on the page, even if it’s an expletive. And sometimes that one word, that one sentence, leads you into the unconscious, which is the wellspring. Sometimes, I recommend writing exercises or journaling. It depends on the stage of the writer and the depth of the block. I believe it can be overcome with diligence and determination. No one’s muse shuts up forever.
Do you have any new projects brewing at the moment? I’m working on a new novel. It’s a lot of fun to be working in the land of the imagination, after spending 21 years dealing with the reality of past and present in the land of “me” and “my life.” Both genres dig for the truth, but each in its own way. I find there are themes that will be central to your writing for your entire life, in many guises, and that we return to them book after book, no matter which genre we are working in. For me, I think that central theme for each book is the characters’ emotional survival when the consequences are dire and the odds are against him or her.
If there was one person (dead or alive) you could spend an afternoon with, who would it be and why? I suppose the answer to this is obvious. The one person with whom I’d choose to spend that time together with would be my mother. I would love to share with her all I have written, get her reactions, tell her how much I value her impact on my life as a writer. She once told me not to be a writer—that she would follow me around “like an old gray ghost.” Of course, this is exactly what has happened, but I’d like to tell her that I don’t mind that any more, that I value her haunting. Yes, an afternoon with Mom. From beginning, to middle, to end. That would be a special afternoon, indeed.
Coffee or Tea? Coffee with LOTS of Fat-Free Half and Half. But I always drank sugared tea with my Mom in the afternoons.
Any questions you wish I’d ask you? Nope. I think I’ll shut up now!
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