(Seal Press) $12.95
Barbara Sjoholm (Wilson) has written novels, short stories, mysteries, a memoir, and, recently, a book for young readers. Among other honors, her work has received a Columbia Translation prize and a British Crime Writers' Association award (the latter for Gaudí Afternoon, which was also made into a movie starring Judy Davis, Lili Taylor, and Juliette Lewis). Twenty-six years ago she co-founded Seal Press--which became a feminist publishing house of international importance--and in the 1990s she started Women in Translation, a not-for-profit press. I wanted to ask this incredibly productive and uncompromising artist how she has managed to maintain her integrity as a writer over so many years of work.
What has sustained you over the long time you have been at this--not just in terms of "material," but in terms of moral, spiritual, or aesthetic sustenance?
The questions of livelihood and what keeps us plugging away at our craft are a bit different. I actually consider that I've been rather fortunate, given the sometimes marginal nature of my subject matter, to have made as much money as I have from my writing. My novel Gaudí Afternoon, which was just a delight to write, has brought so much income from royalties, foreign rights, and film rights. That book, more than many of the others, has supported me. Although helping run Seal Press and Women in Translation took time and energy away from my own work, I had flexibility in my hours, so I could write.
Now I'm freelance editing and teaching, both of which bring me in contact with other writers. What keeps me writing is the pure joy of words and using words to make sense of inchoate emotions and visions. I want my finished work to sound inevitable, even though the process of getting to that place is complex and sometimes frustrating.
You've traveled and lived abroad a lot, but you keep coming back to Seattle. Why?
Travel gets more interesting to me, in part because I suffer terribly from homesickness--not so much for Seattle, but for the ease of living in the Northwest. I just spent three months this winter in Arctic Scandinavia, traveling around in extreme dark and snow. Three years ago I spent several months visiting the islands and maritime countries of the North Atlantic. I collected material about women and the sea, and am working on two projects connected with that. One is an anthology, and the other is my own travel narrative, The Pirate Queen.
Both your 1996 novel If You Had a Family and your 1997 memoir, Blue Windows, deal with a woman and her search for family. What's the relationship between those two books, and between your fiction and nonfiction in general?
Writing fiction came out of my desire to work with a multiplicity of voices. That interest reflected the women's movement and the notion that women's lives, in all their variety, should have a voice. In my two mystery series, the detectives ask questions and the other characters tell their stories (or their alibis) in ways that evoke a full range of responses. This technique gave me a way to investigate, and often satirize, ideas and values on the Left and in the feminist and queer communities. After some years, however, I noticed that I was drawn to reading essays and books that were hybrids. Writing nonfiction seemed to call forth a more authentic voice, a voice truly my own. Blue Windows demanded a lot of truth-telling, but also a reflective, retrospective voice that came from a deeper place. I haven't written fiction in about three years, and I'm not sure I will go back to it.
Your new book, A Clear Spring, was written for young readers. Why did you write a book for girls?
Florence Howe, then the director of the Feminist Press, asked me to write a young adult book about work for girls. I also tried to bring in an environmental mystery. It seems important to encourage girls--all children, in fact--to think about what it means to be in nature. The book was an enjoyable project for me, but I don't see myself becoming a children's author.