August 31, 2010
Writer’s Digest Conversation with Jessica Strawser
Decades before her groundbreaking novel The Color Purple, Alice Walker was already a distinctive voice in American and world literature. Decades later, she remains a force—and an inspiration to writers everywhere.
Alice Walker is one of those rare writers who’s had the privilege of witnessing the impact of her own legacy—though it’s one to which she still contributes nearly every day. For decades, she has been one of the most celebrated writers of our time—as well as one of the most prolific, the most varied and, yes, the most censored. And though she’s created an extensive body of poetry, novels, short stories, essays, memoir and even children’s books at a steady pace since the 1968 release of her debut title, the poetry collection Once, she is still best known for her 1982 novel The Color Purple, which won the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award, and was adapted into an Oscar-nominated film and a Tony-nominated musical.
At 66, Walker shows no signs of slowing down, having added two books to her canon just this year—reflections from her humanitarian efforts overseas in Overcoming Speechlessness: A Poet Encounters the Horror in Rwanda, Eastern Congo and Palestine/Israel, and a poetry collection, Hard Times Require Furious Dancing—while maintaining a travel and speaking schedule as well as posting new poems and essays regularly at www.alicewalkersgarden.com .
A powerful voice on the landscape of world literature, Walker’s writing has served an integral role in both the civil rights and women’s movements, and today, with books like the 2006 New York Times bestseller We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For, remains an outlet for her passionate belief in humanity and the need to protect and restore the world in which we live—and to actively participate, however we can, in making it a better place.
Walker’s interview with WD revealed a calm strength and an encouraging spirit—she offered thoughtful, almost poetic responses and a joyful, uninhibited laugh as she discussed her wide-ranging body of work, the need to make space for writing in life, and what it takes to be true to oneself in publishing today.
Writers today are encouraged to develop a niche, but you’re prolific across many forms. Do you feel writers who don’t create in such diverse ways limit themselves?
Well, I think they’re being led by someone else, someone else’s idea of what they should be in their writing life and, therefore, in their total life. I would not be able to accept that. I feel that I need to write what comes to me, as this particular person—and if I am patient enough, and if I meditate enough, and if I take enough long walks, and if I just do nothing but basically stay open, that the genre actually will form itself to suit whatever the subject is that arrives. So I would want writers to consider that just as they wouldn’t get dressed and wear only a hat [laughs]—
Maybe they would![laughs] I don’t think so—but maybe they would, and if that’s true, then fine, you go out there and you just wear a hat. But for me, I would need to think about wearing a hat, a scarf, a sweater, trousers, or a beautiful frilly skirt, or nice high heels, or loafers, or tennis shoes, or sandals. In other words, writing is not different from life—you want variety, you want refreshment, and you want balance. And so I think for me I have felt very balanced doing all of the different kinds of writing that I do.
So when something inspires you, how do you decide on a form—you said the genre just comes to you?
If I’m patient, and if I don’t try to force it—and I don’t. I have no interest in forcing anything. In fact, if it doesn’t want to come, fine, I will do something else, and it can go somewhere else. So it’s very easy, actually, to wait in an attitude of patience and acceptance and trust that this is something that clearly has come to me to be expressed, and if it has gotten this far, probably it will want to come up with the form.
It’s amazing that it never seems like work. It’s hard work and then, in a way, when I look back I can’t even remember how it was done.
So you don’t force yourself to maintain a writing routine?
This has changed a bit, but for, I would say, three decades, I wrote every morning, or I made the space. Because part of writing is not so much that you’re going to actually write something every day, but what you should have, or need to have, is the possibility, which means the space and the time set aside—as if you were going to have someone come to tea. If you are expecting someone to come to tea but you’re not going to be there, they may not come, and if I were them, I wouldn’t come. So, it’s about receptivity and being home when your guest is expected, or even when you hope that they will come.
You’ve said, “I don’t like writers who don’t care. I think writers should care desperately.” Do you feel writers have a responsibility to address issues facing the world?
If they call to them—not, of course, if they don’t. But I would think nine times out of 10, something would call to a writer, because that’s just the way it is. And it doesn’t have to be something dreadful; it can be just something exquisite, or something that you want to share with the world, and you feel they’re not paying enough attention. It could be about anything, but you should care always about what it is that you’re offering. Because your caring is actually part of what you are offering: I care, and therefore I offer this.
The writing you’re doing now, in books like We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For, seems focused on just sending love out into the world. And you’ve said that’s what you’ve always been doing with your work.
Can you explain why writing is the way you feel called to do that?
It was cheaper than painting or making music. And I think over time it also felt very organic. And portable, because I move a lot—I’m nomadic in my being, I think—and I love the world, so I want to see it. I want to see how it’s being cared for, or not, I want to see the people, and I can carry with me, in the old days, my spiral notebook and a pen or two, and now [carry] my little tiny Mac[Book] Air in my backpack, and I’m there. I find it really simple, really easy.
And I’ve gone back to music and I’ve gone back to painting, but I can see why I couldn’t do them earlier. They take a lot of space, you know, you have to take a lot of canvas, and paint and turpentine or whatever. So, it suits me.
You know, they say that—and they don’t just say this, they’ve proven it—some of our really early ancestors, the bush people, loved painting so much that they carried with them at all times a little satchel, a little bag attached to a strap around their bodies, full of paints. And wherever they went, they painted—they painted caves, they painted rocks. They took their tools with them because they knew that they loved the animals that they painted, they loved the ceremonies, the people that they lived with, and they knew they’d want to paint them.
And that’s how I feel. I feel like I’m really a descendant of those people, and my little paint box is my—well, now it’s my Mac Air, but then it was my notebook.
How have you grown as a writer over the years?
I think I grew in confidence, that if I fully prepared myself— by research, by health, taking good care of myself, doing my yoga, doing my walks, doing my swimming—and if I had a practice of some sort—either being in solitude at home, or in a retreat or something, some kind of practice, meditation—that I could do as well as I can do writing about any subject, and so I needn’t fear it. I think there’s a tendency to fear huge, horrid subjects. You know, like war, like mutilation of people, like destruction of the planet. You get so—you could get really frightened. But part of the fright comes out of a lack of preparedness. As you know from school, it’s when you have not prepared for the test that you have the fear of failing. And if you have prepared, even if you fail, you’ve done your best.
So, this leads to a certain lightheartedness. I can be almost terminally grief-stricken because things are so dire, but at the same time, there’s a real lightheartedness about just the recoverability of life, of how things change, how they’re not the same, ever again. Things happen, and then something else happens, and then something else happens, and you really never know, actually, how things are going to turn out. And so that leads to a certain joy.
You’re still asked in almost every interview about The Color Purple, nearly 30 years later. How do you feel about how that book has been so integrated into your identity?
It’s like everything else that’s been integrated into me [laughs]. It’s like having really nice cherry-brown skin; it’s like being a certain height, or a certain weight. It’s just part of what is. There’s nothing I can do about it. And I feel very grateful that it’s good medicine. I think the reason it’s still fairly strong even now—I mean, the musical is still on the road—is that it’s very good medicine, and to be able to bring something of use to the world is worth in a sense the—the stigma [laughs]. So, it’s OK.
When you were writing it, could you ever have anticipated the impact it would have?
No, there’s no way. And it would not have interested me at all.
Uh-uh. I’m looking out of the window and I see some amazing Santa Rosa plums. They’re big—they’re still green, but they’re really big and wonderful. And, you know, one day they’ll be purple, too. So, in other words, the novel grew, it became The Color Purple, and it has had meaning for people, and I’m really grateful. I’m grateful for that.
Do you feel The Color Purple is the greatest thing you’ve ever written?
No. … It takes me back to these plums I’m looking at now. Am I supposed to say, well, one plum is better than all the others [laughs], and that I would rather just have that one? No, no no no. They’re all on the tree, they all look pretty good, and some of them are shaped a little differently, but that’s just how they are.
Now. I love The Temple of My Familiar, I love Possessing the Secret of Joy, I love By the Light of My Father’s Smile and Now Is the Time to Open Your Heart. And I love, you know, that they’re all different but I love them all.
You advocate that everyone should have a circle, a like-minded community to which they can belong. For a writer, what do you think that circle should be?
Early in my life I would have said it had to do something with writing itself, but now I think, not necessarily. A writer, to be connected to the world, should have a circle that cares about the world. And out of that would come the writing. And then, toward the end of each meeting, each circling occasion, someone might say, “Oh, you know, now that we’ve talked about all the other things”—like, you know, war and poverty and how to change this or that situation—“I just happen to have written this poem or short story or essay. Would you like to hear it?” Or they could say, maybe, “Hmm, this makes me think about what I’m doing in the world.” But it wouldn’t necessarily be just about writing.
For me, writing has always come out of living a fairly to-the-bone kind of life, just really being present to a lot of life. The writing has been really a byproduct of that.
Now that you’ve been blogging for a while, how do you feel about the format?
Well, I like it, I think. It’s hard to know who’s reading, or whether it’s being read. Which is fine, because my responsibility is actually just to put it there. … I also like it that it’s free. I love that part. I’ve always wanted to offer what I offer freely, and I would like to do that as long as I can.
Publishing has changed dramatically since you released your first book, and you’ve worked with a number of houses, big and small. What are the most positive and negative changes you’ve seen?
I was with Harcourt Brace Jovanovich for 25 years, I think, or more. And what I liked was having a close relationship with my editors—they seemed to really be there, fully embodied. They had a perspective about the world, and also a real connection to me and my work. And I think that that has changed. I don’t know many people who have that anymore.
Do you feel that writers suffer because of that?
I do, especially early on. I think early on it’s really nice to have someone older, nurturing, thoughtful, well experienced in the ways of the world, and in the publishing world, too, just to guide one.[Also], the way the larger publishing houses are morphing into corporate structures, that’s a problem for people of conscience, because often you just don’t know what your publisher’s doing in the world, and it could be pretty bad.
I think it’s important to support smaller publishers, which is why I’ve gone to smaller publishers lately, like The New Press, which has a really fine list and cares about the world, and not so much about the bottom line. Of course, they suffer, and writers suffer, because the bottom line is important. People have to survive and, if possible, thrive, and it’s hard to do if you’re not being sufficiently supported financially by your work.
I’ve gathered Random House declined to publish We Are the Ones We Have Been Waiting For, and then it went on to become a New Press bestseller?
There has to be some satisfaction in that.
It was hard to imagine that they didn’t see the relevance of the kind of essays I had in that collection to the time that we are living in, which is this time of enormous change—and enormous need for people to understand that there is nobody else after us to solve the problems that we’ve created. We have to try to solve as many of them as we can, or at least start working in the right direction. And also, I didn’t quite understand the fear of my thinking that in order to be fully active, and fully centered in positive thinking, people need some kind of spiritual practice that would mean better decisions for the planet. So of course this shook my confidence in Random House tremendously. They also couldn’t publish Why War Is Never a Good Idea or There Is a Flower at the Tip of My Nose Smelling Me. I wouldn’t feel safe with a publisher who didn’t understand those concepts, and couldn’t beautifully support those ideas. And I was fortunate I found publishers who loved and supported those thoughts.
So, if you came out with a new novel that had tremendous mainstream appeal, you wouldn’t go back to a publisher like Random House?
I would have to see what they’re offering—I don’t really make hard-and-fast things that are eternal. I have to see if they’ve grown. It’s not impossible for huge entities to actually improve, and that’s the hope.
I just read the most wonderful first novel by a young writer in Hawaii, and I was telling him that I had become somewhat disillusioned with big publishers, but that he couldn’t afford to be disillusioned yet [laughs]. So it’s kind of like that. There is reality in terms of how people can live. But for me, I would ask some pretty hard questions, and I would have to be reassured about what the publisher understands, what the editor understands and how they connect with what I’m doing.
It’s an awful feeling to write something that you feel is really important … and to feel that you’re being published by people who really don’t get it and/or don’t really care.
Minorities are still underrepresented in publishing. What do you think can be done to change that?
Well, soon, we will be a majority, and so that will take care of itself. And people will also help in that area by buying more books and being more interested in what people who are designated today minorities are saying, because it’s very crucial. In fact, in hard times, we are advised by all wise people to look to the margins of a culture, not the center.
The tendency seems to be to create a new genre to cater to what is perceived as a specific audience—the label “women’s fiction,” for example.
I know—that’s their attempt to marginalize us. We actually changed that [for a while] by having feminist bookstores, which went on for quite a long time until they were pretty much destroyed by the big corporate bookstores. Which is to say that we are very smart, and we can figure out ways to get the books we need and to basically ignore the effort to marginalize us by choosing ourselves as center. There are ways to do that.
What advice would you most like to offer writers today?
The most healthy thing is to be true to your own self, quoting—who was it, Hamlet?—but also, that you have a right to express what you see and what you feel and what you think. To be bold. To be as bold with your vision as you can possibly be. Our salvation, to the extent that we have one, will come out of people realizing the crisis of our species and of the planet and offering their deepest dream of what’s possible.
What do you plan to write next?
I never talk about what I plan to write. Part of what I so love is the surprise of what comes, and so if I try to talk about what is coming, I think it probably wouldn’t come, because it would be bored already. You know what I mean? It’s like, when you try to tell someone something, you tell them the story, and then if you have to tell the story again, it’s just not the same.
For a very long time, you wrote only longhand, and typed only to transcribe—though you did finally move to a computer. Do you feel the act of writing is actually different for you when you’re typing?
I wrote for such a long time in longhand that I harmed one of my fingers. It’s fine now, but I realized that it was time to move to a different way, and now I like writing on the computer. But for a long time I really did feel that thing that writers always say, that when you write in longhand, it’s as if the blood from your heart is coming into what you’re writing, right down your arm.
So it just took practice to get that same feeling on the keyboard?
It did—it took quite a bit. And also, I really loved my Smith Corona typewriter, when I would transcribe from the legal pad. I loved the yellow legal pad—partly because I had so many of them, my husband was a lawyer and we always had legal pads in the house—but I also liked my little typewriter.
I would think writing on a computer would radically transform the process of revision especially.
Yes, but you know, my way of writing for so many years was in my head, many drafts without any paper, so I don’t have a whole lot of revisions. I have some, and a couple of books I revised everything, but generally speaking, again, it’s because of the periods of solitude and silence and meditation, you can actually write a chapter easily—say, if you’re writing a novel and it’s not such a long chapter—in your head, and then write it and have very few things to revise. But I think it’s harder for many people to do that now because of the fragmentation of the mind and the many gadgets we all have claiming our attention.
It’s hard to find quiet.
Mmmhmm. And one-pointedness. I don’t know what people are going to do when they really lose all notion of one-pointedness. There’s no sense of focus. There should be for everybody a period in every day when you’re just free to sink into your own space, your internal space. And without that I think people have no true compass.
You’ve said that heaven should be a verb. What other words are underutilized?
Bliss, ecstasy, joy. I live in Mexico part of the time, and my friend Yolanda always says that something is maravilloso. The word marvelous—especially when she says it about almost everything—reminds me that yes, indeed, that’s the truth of it. Even with all of the things that are so awful, if you walk into your yard and stay there looking at almost anything for five minutes, you will be stunned by how marvelous life is and how incredibly lucky we are to have it.