Book CIty: The key to posing as a memoirist
Seattle-area author Claire Dederer. Credit: 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).
My husband and I both work at home and we dig nature, so we decided about five years ago to move out of the city. Our motto was basically: “Anywhere but Bainbridge.” Too many lawyers. But we were swayed by the island’s proximity to the city. And now here we are, and we’re very very happy, and my best friend on the island is a lawyer. But an ACLU lawyer!
What were your most cherished childhood books?
I was a huge “Little Women” person, and also loved the Betsy-Tacy books by Maud Hart Lovelace and everything by L.M. Montgomery. I was a big fan of the olden days. I had a subscription to Good Old Days magazine, an obscure nostalgia digest probably only read by a bunch of 80-year-olds and my nine-year-old self.
Can you think of a particularly powerful passage from a book that’s stuck with you?
I think a lot about the opening pages of Geoff Dyer’s “Out of Sheer Rage,” where he describes trying to write about D.H. Lawrence and failing. It’s one of the funniest things I’ve ever read, and also strangely vulnerable, and also brilliant. It’s proof that non-fiction can be a whole lot weirder and more left-field than is generally accepted.
Do you have a book or two that you’ve re-read over the years?
My most re-read books are British comic novels: Mitford, Waugh and E.F. Benson — all of whom are writers I’ve loved since high school.
Can you recall a specific book or author that inspired you to become an author yourself?
Yes, Seattle’s own Betty MacDonald. As a child I adored her memoirs, especially "Onions in the Stew” (about her life on Vashon) and “Anybody Can Do Anything” (about making a go of it in the University District during the Depression). I loved the idea that this place was worth writing about, and I loved that she was funny
Do you have any favorite mystery titles, or favorites in another genre?
I’ll read anything by P.D. James. And I, like all right-thinking people, admire “The Golden Compass” and its sequels by Philip Pullman.
Where do you settle down to read/to write?
I am a bed reader and very occasionally, when I’m feeling undisciplined, a bed writer. But mostly I have a little shack in the backyard where I hole up and really get stuff done. I also like to work in the reading room at Suzzallo Library. It’s nice to be in a grand space sometimes.
What do you plan to read next?
New books about food from Greg Atkinson (“In Season”) and Kurt Timmermeister (“Growing a Feast: The Chronicle of a Farm-to-Table Meal”).
What Val’s Reading This Week: “Time Warped: Unlocking the Mysteries of Time Perception,” by Claudia Hammond, who masterfully weaves together current research and observations on the past, future, memory and daily life, to explain the puzzle of time. Hammond, a Brit, hasn’t written a “how to get more out of every minute” book, but rather an exploration of our personal experience with time.