2010 PEN/Hemingway Award Winner for A Long, Long Time Ago and Essentially True
Q: Do you remember the first Hemingway story or book that you read, and what do you remember from that experience?
A: I don’t remember the first, but the ones that mean the most to me are The Nick Adams Stories and The Torrents of Spring because my husband is from Petoskey, Michigan and we spend a fair amount of time up there.
I also really connect with A Moveable Feast since a sense of place is so important to my own writing, and Hemingway so deftly captures the place as well as the no-man’s-land of being an expat.
Q: Did you know—as an undergraduate at Dartmouth—that you would become a writer?
A: Definitely not. I was a Studio Art major, working mostly on sculpture. Fortunately, someone somewhere along the way convinced me to double major so I’d have a fallback. That fallback major turned out to be English. Senior year, I took two creative writing courses with the poet Tom Sleigh and writing started creeping into my life. I distinctly remember a frustrating period of attempting to capture particular thoughts or emotions in sculpture and instead feeling rather ham-fisted, so much so that I exhibited one of my sculptures with an accompanying short story.
But it was really the year after college that set me on the path of becoming a writer. I went to live in Krakow, Poland out of a vague sense of adventure and independence. It was only about five years after communism had ended, and there weren’t very many expats there. So much was different from what I knew and so much was changing every day. I would walk around town and sentences would form in my head. I would have conversations and be flooded with characters and storylines. I don’t know where it came from; it was one of the miracles of my life. When I came back to Chicago, I was so full of stories, I wrote them down simply to clear my head and give my friends a break from listening to me. Twelve years and about a hundred drafts later, that became A Long, Long Time Ago.
Q: You lived in Poland, Russia, Germany, and Italy. Did living in these countries inspire your writing?
A: In fact, I’ve found over the years that I can only write stories set in other countries. After writing a series of linked stories set in Russia, my first novel (set in Poland), and my second (set in Italy), I tried to write something set in the Midwest. After three years, 900 pages and a great deal of hand wringing, I had to abandon it. Now I’m happily writing about East Berlin in the late 80s.
I’ve obviously thought a lot about why this is, and I keep coming back to an art teacher, Fr. Joseph Heyd, who convinced me that all art comes down to seeing. When I think about the U.S., I take too many things for granted, and my vision becomes very utilitarian and therefore, generic. But when I’m abroad, my observations are much sharper, and everything jumps out at me. I find that when the superficial differences are so obvious, it’s also easier to clear those away and see the deeper things we have in our common humanity.
The downside is that it can be incredibly intimidating to write a novel about a country you’re not a part of; when I found out that A Long, Long Time Ago was going to be published in Polish, my first reaction was panic. Since then, I’ve become more comfortable with it, and I’ve even come to appreciate the benefits of examining something from the outside-in rather than the inside-out.
Q: Tell us about the writing program you spearhead at Whitney Young Magnet High School.
I run the writing center at Whitney Young, a public high school in Chicago, so about ninety percent of my day is spent working one-on-one with students and the rest is spent helping teachers teach writing. I love all of it—the individual time with the students, learning other subjects like physics and art history, the unpredictability of my day. It’s really my dream job.
Unfortunately, there are only a handful of high school writing centers in Chicago, and as far as I know, we are the only public one. Our students are lucky to have a very forward-thinking administration and supportive parents and teachers. But I don’t think we should be an exception. Having a writing center in a high school should be a no-brainer. Most high school students can’t get help from their parents on writing assignments and especially college, scholarship, and summer program applications. And most high school teachers already oversee, plan for, grade, administrate, discipline, and tend to the emotional needs of 170 students a day with very little down time. So it’s no surprise that there’s little time for the one-on-one practical writing instruction that everyone already knows works best.
So if anyone out there wants to think about starting a writing center in a high school, I’m happy to talk to you.
Q: Do you remember where you were when you learned that you won the PEN/Hemingway Award?
I was checking my junk e-mail box and found the message from PEN. The idea of winning any kind of writing award, much less the PEN/Hemingway, was completely off my radar: I don’t come from a family of readers, and at the time, I was far removed from any kind of writing community, I didn’t consider my novel particularly “literary,” and getting my first novel published had already been a dream come true, so I wasn’t expecting anything to come after that. The surprise of it really heightened my joy. It was a whirlwind I’ll never forget.
Q: Are you working on a new book at this time? If so, can you tell us about it?
A: Yes! I’m writing a novel set in East Berlin in the late 80s. It’s about a single mother whose husband defected to the West fifteen years before, and to survive, she’s had to lead a very cautious life, not calling any additional attention to herself.
The story picks up in the late 80s, when her two teenage children, like many others at the time, are really itching for freedom. So the novel is partly about white-knuckling your children’s decisions and fighting the urge to shush them into a quiet, safe life.
At the same time, the main character is dragged out of her own inconspicuous life by her Stasi-informant neighbor, who launches an all-out campaign to force her out of her apartment. That situation generates the other major question of the novel—when so much evil is done to you and it’s so easy to react in a way that multiplies the evil, how do you manage to suffocate it instead?
It’s a very personal novel, I’ve just returned from a productive research trip to Berlin, and I feel happily dug into the writing at the moment.
Q: Where can people keep in touch with you?
Though I have Facebook and Twitter accounts, I’m not very active on social media, but readers can always e-mail me through my web site, brigidpasulka.com