Gina Wohlsdorf, born in North Dakota and graduating from Tulane University, is an exciting new author who is currently riding the wave of acclaim her first novel has received. Security has been described as a shocking thriller, a brilliant narrative puzzle and a multifaceted love story unlike any other. Gina Wohlsdorf earned an MFA in creative writing from the University of Virginia. I was very excited to pin down Gina, after her exciting debut, I was keen to see where her literary inspiration came from, as well as what tips she would give to aspiring authors. Please enjoy my interview with the wonderfully talented Gina Wohlsdorf…
When someone asks you ‘what do you do for a living?’ – How do you respond?
I say “I’m a writer” a lot more now that I have a novel out, because the next question people ask when you say “I’m a writer” is “Oh? As in books, or . . .” And the ellipsis is allowing you the option of saying “Not yet,” “Any day now,” “Fingers crossed,” or something else that lets them then say “Good for you. Chasing your dream,” while secretly they pray you’re not starving.
When you think about your childhood, what book comes to mind?
A collection that contained a few of Grimm’s Complete Fairy Tales by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, fables, poems. Goodnight Moon by Margaret Wise Brown was in there, and that one about a house that goes to ruin as the neighbourhood around it urbanizes. A tale about a man who never washed his dishes (traumatized me; I’ve hated dirty dishes ever since). A real mishmash of stuff. It’s what I always grabbed at bedtime. Also: James Earl Jones on Reading Rainbow, reading Bringing the Rain to Kapiti Plain. Loved that. I taped it and rewound and rewound and rewound.
Can you remember the first real story you wrote?
Yep. I was 11, and I had an incredibly strange dream involving Benjamin Franklin getting shipwrecked on an island inhabited by a futuristic inventor who takes him prisoner. I woke up, went downstairs. My dad was making Sunday breakfast, and I told him the whole thing. He kind of wrinkled his forehead and said, “Gina? Write that down.”
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
An FBI agent. I thought that job was basically getting to act out The X-Files on a daily basis. Though as I got older (late high school, early college), I began to suspect I’d be quite good at behavioral profiling. I doubt it now. Once I like a story, I commit to it. Makes me a good writer but, I’d hazard, a lousy detective.
What do you think your school aged self would think of the present day you?
She’d be surprised, that’s for sure. I was very sheltered. I wasn’t raised to take care of myself, but to let someone else take care of me. My independence and capable nature would make the kid I was both proud and horrified. More horrified. But the woman I am now feels similarly about the girl I was then. If I could tell her anything it would be, “Hey, nobody’s teaching you what you’re gonna need to know. You’ll learn every lesson the hard way if you don’t -” But she’d stick her fingers in her ears and start belting a show tune.
If you could wrap up a single book and gift it to yourself as you left education – which book would it be?
Does your reading have routine? Is there a particular time or place that you like to read?
No. I’ll read anywhere. If I’m way into a piece of fiction, I prefer quiet, but if I’m way into a piece of fiction, a crowded bar becomes quiet. I finished The Executioner’s Song at a crowded bar, by the way.
Which book has had the biggest impact on your career so far?
So far? Jealousy by Alain Robbe-Grillet. Security was this cool little seed of an idea for a long time, but I didn’t have the faintest notion how to get it to sprout and grow. A professor at my MFA program assigned Jealousy, which has this super-detached narrator — so detached that he never identifies himself as the narrator. My mind just clicked, and Security slammed into focus. I wrote the first draft in 19 days, and I knew I had my first publishable book.
What two pieces of advice would you give a young aspiring writer?
I’ll steal the first from Junot Diaz: “Let go of your deep longing for approval.” This is hellishly difficult. It’s so difficult I’ve had to think about it another way, which is more like: Would you rather be loved for something you’re not, or hated for something you are? Because if you can find the courage to answer that question correctly, and be responsible for your own moral clarity, and be diligent and disciplined in listening when a critic wants to help you but ignoring the ones who only want to cut off your legs so they can feel taller, then you’ve taken a giant leap toward having a voice of your own, rather than one that simply parrots what it’s been taught is acceptable.
The second is: Ask yourself if you want to be a writer, or if you want to write. I’ve met too many people who want the recognition, the label, the wine and cheese parties — but who think of the actual day-to-day writing process as a necessary pain in the butt to get to that other stuff. And I am telling you, unequivocally: there are easier ways to wine and cheese parties. You need some wine and some cheese and some guests. There are labels and recognition that are much easier to attain, and that do not require years — more like a decade, in my case — keeping your nose at a grindstone. If you don’t love the work of writing, don’t be a writer.
My dad loved Stephen King. I remember how excited he was reading It and The Stand before each miniseries aired. He wanted to be an author in his youth, and whenever I asked why he didn’t pursue it, he’d say, “I have no grasp for the dramatic moment.” Which is not something you decide about yourself. I strongly suspect it’s something a teacher told him. So Stephen King not only has this adeptness with prose that makes his storytelling seem as natural as sunrise — he also made a handsome living at it. My father admired that a lot.
What book have you recommended the most to friends and family?
Probably Battle Royale by Koushun Takami. It’s brilliant. It laps brilliant and hurdles genius.
Do you prefer fiction or non-fiction?
Fiction, but that’s much more immersive for me. It’s almost as immersive as writing. I forget to eat, I lose sleep, that kind of thing. So nonfiction’s easier on my constitution. I probably read three nonfiction books for every novel.
Do you think reading is important?
What’s the best book you’ve read in the last 6 months?
Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance by Atul Gawande. My style trumps my clarity sometimes, and Gawande is a study in clarity. Better details his struggles to improve as a surgeon, and medicine’s overall trajectory of improvement over time. Constant improvement is my guiding star, so any how-to is beyond welcome.
Do you prefer real books or digital books?
I love how that question is worded. I’ve never read a digital book, actually, so that pretty much answers that. I’m not a Luddite, but I like the physical weight of a book, the smell, the texture, everything. I was very thin as a kid, very slight. I used to fantasize that holding a book kept me from floating away. I doubt Kindles would be as effective in that regard.
Name a book that you feel every human should have to read by law.
Ah, but to require everyone to read a particular book is as bad as banning everyone from reading a particular book, no? I think it would be beneficial if more Americans read The Qur’an. Really, if anyone of an established religion read the texts of other religions. If people who read nothing but mystery tried a romance, if people who read nothing but romance tried a sci-fi, if people who read nothing but sci-fi tried a horror. If people who read nothing but what someone in weird, ambiguous artistic authority termed “literary fiction” tried anything else. If white people read more books by non-white people. If men read more books by women. If individuals read outside the scope of their own experience, to validate their own experience. If they fought their biases. If they challenged themselves.
What is the book that you feel has had the single biggest impact on your life?
Beloved by Toni Morrison. I read it when I was 16. I finished the last couple of pages — that benediction, that haunting coda — holding my breath. And I knew the wonderful, terrible moment where you decide what you must do with your life, the heights you must reach, and that you will probably never reach them. But as Atticus Finch says, “Courage is being licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through to the end.”
Are there any books you haven’t mentioned that you feel would make your reading list?
Oh, so many. The Outsiders by Albert Camus, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, It, Pet Semetery, The Shining by Stephen King, Parable of the Sower by Octavia E. Butler, Deliverance by James Dickey, Dark Horse by Rory Flynn, We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson, Les Sept Solitudes de Lorsa Lopez by Sony Labou Tansi, The Frenzy of Renown: Fame and Its History by Leo Braudy . . . I mean, endless.
I need to do a bunch of research on art history, so I’m thinking I’ll take a class. That’ll have its share of texts, I’m sure. Fiction-wise, I finally acquired a Haruki Murakami that a buddy of mine recommended a million years ago (Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World), so that’s high in the pile. So is Absalom, Absalom by William Faulkner. So is Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi.
If you were to write an autobiography – what would it be called?
I wrote one. A few years ago, an agent (not my agent now) liked an essay collection I submitted but said she doubted she could sell it. She said she’d love to see a memoir. So I put one together, a mix of humor, film criticism, and autobiography. It’s called Prism Diaries: Movies, the Millennium, and Me. She didn’t wind up signing me, which worked out for the best. My heart belongs to novels.