One of the women I’ve been privileged to meet over the past few months while compiling our collection of real reflections and experiences about being a mother – ‘The Milk of Female Kindness – An Anthology of Honest Motherhood’ – is Angélique Jamail.
She is a sublimely talented poet, and I’m really looking forward to reading her debut novel when it is released. Apart from being a writer and mother, she is also a teacher, bellydancer, and wearer of fabulous hats. I was lucky enough to interview her recently. Read on, lovely people, read on…
What are you passionate about today?
My family, my writing, the environment, equal rights for all genders and orientations. I’m passionate about these things all the time. There’s an expression I try to live by:
“Live your life so that your children can tell their children you stood for something wonderful.”
I’m far from perfect, but I try to make whatever corner of the world I touch a better place than it was when I found it. Sometimes I manage to be successful.
You’re a teacher, I understand. I read a quote from Barbara Trapido once, which read (if my memory serves me even vaguely correctly) “I wrote my first novel at my kitchen table in my fortieth year. A degree in English literature left me feeling that I was singularly unqualified for the task.” Do you feel that knowing too much about literature can be paralyzing to a writer?
I sometimes like to tell my students that I want to ruin them for reading for pleasure. They look at me quizzically till I explain that I want them to understand and enjoy literature and writing so intimately that they will never be able to read something without noticing the artistry (or sometimes lack thereof) that went into writing it. After studying literature and writing for so many years myself, this is exactly my wonderful burden, and I wouldn’t trade it. A small part of why I teach, I think, is to share this love of the written word with other people.
But I think I understand where Trapido was coming from in that statement – the feeling of personal inadequacy while groveling in awe at the mountains of excellent literature that has come before. I certainly do feel that, often, but somehow it doesn’t prevent me from writing. It spurs me on and motivates me. Part of me wants to have written literature worthy of being included in someone’s beloved canon, somewhere. That ambition helps me get a draft down on paper. Showing it to my workshop group, though, that’s another story! When I have to share it with people, that’s when the feelings of inadequacy rear up. But I also know that there is no growth without honest and constructive critique, so off those little manuscripts go.
Does poetry come to you spontaneously, or do you need to work at it?
I love the idea of found poetry, and occasionally I will write something very spontaneously and not have to revise it too many times, but more often than not, it’s a slow process from first draft to publishable poem. I like that, though: I want my poems – or stories, or essays – to incubate for a while. There might be months between first and final drafts, occasionally years. I have multiple manuscripts going at once; it’s the only way I can get anything done.
Do you find writing longer fiction a marathon compared to the contained beauty of poetry?
I really find beauty in every form. For me, the best part is the process. I recently completed my first novel, which took me several years because I was having babies and teaching full-time while I was doing it, and also because I hadn’t ever written a novel before and was learning the process as I went along. I remember there were whole semesters where I wrote only one or two chapters.
I love short forms because it’s the closest I get, as a writer, to something like instant gratification in my work. I can potentially write a poem and revise it and have it critiqued and revise again and do a final edit in the space of a few weeks. Writing fiction requires a different head-space, I think: I have to imagine stories differently from how I imagine poems, even narrative ones. And the novel was so different even from other fiction forms. I’m not sure I’ve ever had so many different threads on a single project in my head at once. The day after I finished the first draft, I remember, I felt very lonely because for the last year of my writing it, the characters and their interactions had been in the background of everything I did, as my subconscious tried to finish the book while I went about the other obligations of my life, waiting every day or every week to have time to sit down and write.
Poetry has been described as ‘crystallised moments’. Would you agree?
That’s a good question. In one sense, yes, a poem (unless it’s a long form poem) can be a sharply, vividly defined moment in thought. But I wouldn’t have immediately thought to characterize it with this phrase, I think. I was once involved with someone who refused ever to revise any poem, insisting that the definition of poetry was a snapshot of the poet’s experience in a particular moment, and that to revise a poem was destroying that snapshot. To each his own, I suppose, but for me, the process of making that poem – the length of my editing process – is quite different.
A dear friend of mine, Margo, and I absolutely love wearing hats. We had this grand plan a few years ago to bring hats back into style and started wearing them out places, but then she moved halfway across the country, and we couldn’t really do that very often anymore. I thought that posting pictures of fabulous hats would reach a wider audience than just wearing them out and about, and I wanted some sort of weekly thing I could do on my blog that had to do with fashion – which would be my hobby if I had any free time! So then Fashion Fridays was born. It quickly evolved into a forum for me or other people to share fun accessories – I enjoyed having guest bloggers come in and participate! – but also to discuss real issues about body image and beauty and even wellness. The frequency has dropped down now because I have so many other pots on the writing stove, as it were, but I’m still posting Fashion Fridays occasionally and am definitely open to queries from other writers.
I understand you’ve also dabbled in bellydancing. Do you see any parallels between dancing and writing? From the outside, one seems to be very public and extrovert, and the other very private (at least in conception) and introvert.
I have terrible stage fright and have to force myself to get out in front of people in order not to be terrified of what others will think of me. This may be one reason why I teach, in fact, as teaching has helped me conquer that fear at least somewhat. Bellydance was a natural choice for me: I’m Lebanese-American and grew up around the dance, and I started doing it as a young adult because it was really fun and healthy exercise. I also discovered that it’s a wonderful way to improve one’s self-concept, both in terms of body image and in terms of self-confidence. As one of my teachers once explained, if you can control your body, you can control your personal space, and if you can control your personal space, you can control your life. Ultimately I had to quit performing and teaching dance because I didn’t have enough time to devote to it. I found I was spending all my creative energy on choreography rather than writing, and while dance is wonderful and exciting, it wasn’t really feeding me intellectually the way writing does. When forced to choose between the two, writing won out, but I do miss dancing. I miss it very much.
How on earth do you find time to write, work and raise children? Has having children influenced your writing?
Well, I’m incredibly fortunate in having a very supportive partner. My husband actively helps to make sure I have the time and space to write when I need it – including sending me off on Saturday mornings for writing dates with my close friend Sarah Warburton, who’s also a novelist, while he handles the kids and the house and whatever elaborate breakfast requests our little ones have dreamed up — and he’s also probably my biggest, most encouraging fan, as well as a sharp beta reader. I’m positive I couldn’t do all of these things with any sense of competency without his being a full participant in every aspect of our home and family life. I know some writers don’t get that, no matter how much they deserve it, and I know how lucky I am.
I think the biggest influence being a working-outside-the-home mother has had on me lately is to (nearly) eliminate writer’s block. When you have five projects going on and next to no time to work on any of them, you tend to get really focused when that writing time does come along! I also learned, once my first child was born, to let some things go. For example, when my children were babies, I let go of the idea that I would get teaching work done at home and consequently also let go of the idea that I wouldn’t work through lunch at school. Trade-offs, you know?
Having children really focused my writing, too, because it wasn’t any longer some neat thing I could say I did for fun while teaching paid the bills. Suddenly I began thinking about quality of life and what kind of stable future I wanted for my family and what kind of role model I wanted to be for my kids, and then writing was not just my passion but also a focused career path. It just so happens I also love teaching and have a position at a really excellent school. The trade-off there is that I’m fortunate in the place where I work my “day job,” but I don’t get to write full-time.
The truth is, there’s never enough time to do everything you want to do all at once. When I left dancing, one of my teachers told me not to worry, that dance would always be there waiting for me when I was able to come back, and that I could in fact have everything – but not all at once. Finding the work-life balance is one of the major spiritual conundrums of our day. I won’t pretend that I have anything under control on a consistent basis. But I keep trying, and I keep taking things one chunk at a time.
There are days when all of this can be stressful, certainly, but right now, we’re making it work. Right now, that’s okay.