Book CIty: The key to posing as a memoirist

Seattle author (and Crosscut contributor) Claire Dederer turned a snow day and her yoga obsession into a career as a memoirist. What she reads for inspiration.
Seattle-area author Claire Dederer.

Seattle-area author Claire Dederer. Photo: D’Arcy McGrath

Claire Dederer is the author of the bestselling memoir “Poser: My Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses,” which has been translated into 13 languages. A proud fourth-generation Seattle native, Claire began her writing career as the film critic for the Seattle Weekly, and has gone on to contribute to the New York Times, Vogue, The Nation, Slate, Salon and many others. She lives on Bainbridge Island with her husband, the writer Bruce Barcott, and their two children. They have no pets but are discussing a goldfish.

What books are lying open on your nightstand right now?

Right now I’m reading Donna Tartt’s “The Little Friend,” because I just finished ”The Goldfinch” and loved it more than life or candy. Also reading “The Ghost Writer” by Philip Roth, because I’m catching up on my Roth (the good ones, anyway). I’m thinking about how time works in memoir, so next up is Sven Birkerts’ “My Blue Sky Trades” which moves back and forth in time, or so I am told.

Read any truly great books lately?

I’ve been lucky to stumble upon a few truly great books lately, which is not always the case with me. I mentioned “The Goldfinch.” I loved “All That Is,” the latest from James Salter, as well as the memoir “The Chronology of Water” by the Portland writer Lidia Yuknavitch. The latter two have a lot of dirty bits, so I’d recommend highly, but with an NC-17 rating.

“Orange Is The New Black” is another recent favorite — my daughter loved it and gave it to me. It’s just terrific, funny and beautifully written and infused with a subtle, surprising feminist spirit.

Any well-reviewed or popular books that you felt didn’t live up to the hype?

I’ve been on a James Salter kick and I’ve tried repeatedly to read his alleged masterpiece “Light Years,” considered one of the great post-war novels about marriage. Really, it just annoyed the shit out of me. So portentous and overwrought.

Was “Poser: My Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses” your first book? Where did the idea come from to frame your memoir with yoga?

Poser was indeed my first book, though I’d been a working writer for about fifteen years when it came out.

In 2007, my family and I were spending a year living on the top of a mountain in Colorado. One spring day we were snowed in, with huge drifts around the house, so I couldn’t get to yoga class. So I was doing poses at home. Doing my yoga alone really got me to thinking about what complicated emotions and thoughts I had about each pose. I had a kind of love affair with headstand; I was in a gigantic argument with revolved triangle. At that moment, I got the idea to edit an anthology of essays by different authors. Not yoga experts, but writers who are funny and good at parsing their experiences. Each author would write about a different pose.

I told my idea to my husband Bruce Barcott, who is also a writer and a kind of genius at story ideas, and he immediately said, “Why don’t you just try writing the whole thing yourself?” The minute he said it, I was off and running. It was the perfect moment to be snowbound, with nothing but time on my hands.

For years I’d been thinking and writing about motherhood, daughterhood, and the legacy of divorce and feminism. I wondered if the two seemingly separate themes — yoga and my generation’s way of mothering — might work together. And they did.

What are you working on now? Do you have plans for a new book?

I’ve been consumed recently with a big piece I’m writing for the Atlantic Monthly on sex in the memoir. And, yes, I’m working very slowly on a new book, another memoir.

Does your reading inform your writing?

Reading informs my writing constantly and fluidly. When I was writing Poser, I read and reread memoirs that dealt with a subject matter outside the author. First and foremost is Geoff Dyer’s brilliant “Out of Sheer Rage,” a description of his obsession with D.H. Lawrence that becomes a self-portrait. Other examples are “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running,” by Haruki Murakami. Ostensibly about running, but really about Haruki Murakami. “The Importance of Music to Girls,” by Lavinia Greenlaw. Ostensibly about music, but really about Lavinia Greenlaw. And so on.

How did you come to live on Bainbridge? Does living in the Northwest, and/or on an island, have an influence your work?

Sometimes I get told that Poser has a strong sense of place, and that’s my very favorite compliment: I worked really hard to evoke that sense. As for how we ended up on Bainbridge: I’m a Seattle native and the one place I always swore I would never live was Bainbridge Island (though my family moved here for a few months when I was in 1st grade).


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