Author Margaret Lazarus Dean, summer writing workshop faculty

Margaret Lazarus Dean was our 2017 Water~Stone Review Summer Writing Workshop Visiting Faculty member for Creative Nonfiction. Assistant Managing Editor Sophia Myerly had the opportunity to interview her in advance of the release of her latest project—co-writing the memoir of retired astronaut Scott Kelly. Their book, Endurance: A Year in Space, A Lifetime of Discovery is now available.

Margaret Lazarus Dean is the author of a novel and a book-length work of creative nonfiction. Leaving Orbit: Notes from the Last Days of American Spaceflight, which won the 2015 Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize, documents the final year of the space shuttle program. Her novel, The Time It Takes to Fail (Simon & Schuster, 2007), is set near Cape Canaveral and explores a family’s response to the Challenger disaster. Her articles, essays, and fiction have been published in the Paris Review, Story Quarterly, Michigan Quarterly Review, Huffington Post, Five Chapters, and elsewhere. Dean’s awards include fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Tennessee Arts Commission and the Hopwood Award for the novel.

Dean received her MFA from the University of Michigan and is currently an associate professor of English at the University of Tennessee, where she teaches fiction and creative nonfiction writing at the undergraduate and graduate levels. She is a recipient of the John C. Hodges Assistant Professor Teaching Award. She lives in Knoxville with her family.

SOPHIA MYERLY: What trends in the publishing or literary world excite you?

MARGARET LAZARUS DEAN: Small presses seem to be gaining steam and prestige. It seems like every year more of the books that surprise and excite readers are coming from the smaller presses. Similarly, the demise of Borders and reduced numbers of Barnes & Noble stores led to an unexpected insurgence of small, independently owned bookstores. Who knows what may come next?

MYERLY: Leaving Orbit is a masterpiece of research-based creative nonfiction and literary journalism, and you also did a massive amount of research for The Time It Takes to Fall. How did you organize your research materials for both books to avoid becoming overwhelmed?

DEAN: I love research. I think I do allow myself to become overwhelmed by it, in the sense that I don’t just read or absorb what I have determined I need to know and then get back to my own project—I allow the research to completely knock me off my path, confuse me, and show me a new path. An example from Leaving Orbit is the reading I wound up doing about explorers from centuries past—first Juan Ponce de Leon, but then Christopher Columbus, Captain James Cook, and others. A friend saw me reading a copy of Captain Cook’s journals and said, “I thought you were still writing about space!” And I said, “I am!” Only snippets of that research and the connections that came from it made it into the book, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. It’s time consuming, but it’s the only way I know to write.

MYERLY: On page 83 of Leaving Orbit, you say, “I am not really one of the space people, as much as my friends might mistake me for one of them. […] I can’t imagine putting this much energy into it just for its own sake.” Do you think it is important for writers who are just beginning to delve into research-based writing—fiction or nonfiction–to become personally immersed in their research subject or topic in order to get the most out of the research process, or do you think heading into the process as an outsider with a mission in mind is a better approach?

DEAN: A lot of fine writing has been done without much, or any, research at all. So I would never tell a writer they had to approach a topic one way or the other. But I get a lot of energy from the research, and I do like the way it changes what I thought I was going to say.

MYERLY: What proved to be the most challenging part of writing and revising Leaving Orbit?

DEAN: I think I had the same challenge a lot of writers of creative nonfiction face, which is how to put myself into the piece in an authentic way. It can kind of become a joke in creative nonfiction workshops—you can look at a dozen very different pieces of writing, and each time the workshop will say “You should put yourself into it more!” and each time that will be true in different ways. I was at first a bit uncomfortable as a narrator of the more historical/policy sections, but I was able to navigate that without too much angst because it’s similar to other kinds of nonfiction writing I’ve done in the past. But writing about myself in the first person for the reportage bits—saying “I am standing here and it’s hot and I’m being bitten by mosquitoes and people are being pushy”—that felt very weird and took a number of tries to get right.

MYERLY: There’s a passage on page 244 of Leaving Orbit where you describe walking around the News Center after the landing of Atlantis and watching the journalists working, glad that you had some time to take in the magnitude of what you had just seen and how others were handling it. You also talk about “my self-appointed job of reflection,” which I think rings true to the thoughts of most creative nonfiction writers. Given this personal level of reflection, do you feel that you wrote a modern work of literary journalism or a work of creative nonfiction?

DEAN: Definitely creative nonfiction. I think journalists have a certain obligation to a larger and more objective truth, no matter what type of journalism they are engaged in, and I have a massive (and recently renewed) respect for what journalists do. I think what creative nonfiction writers bring to our subjects is our very subjectivity, and this is something I consciously thought about throughout this project. I knew the thousands of journalists around me were working to hold themselves to the standard of recording as close to an objective truth as they could, and I’m so grateful to them for doing so. The standard I wanted to hold myself to was to offer readers a subjectivity that could reveal a different kind of truth.

MYERLY: Several prominent writers covering the early years and decades of American spaceflight are clear voices on the pages of Leaving Orbit. The strength of their voices is unmistakable, but your voice is the strongest—making your book a remarkable balance of research and personal experience. How did you find the right balance to bring Norman Mailer, Oriana Fallaci, and Tom Wolfe’s voices onto the page in the midst of your own words?

DEAN: Only through a great deal of trial and error. When my agent read the early chapters, she wanted me to take down the level of Norman Mailer by about 20%. Reluctantly, I agreed. Then once the book was placed with Graywolf and I started working with my editor there, he wanted me to take down the Mailer level another few notches. They were both right, but I found Mailer so fascinating and useful as a predecessor and foil and mentor and villain, it was painful to remove each one of those sentences. I’m glad I had smart readers telling me when enough was enough.

MYERLY: Your workshop explored a key question in creative nonfiction—“How do writers research and imagine—responsibly and artfully—within a genre that is at its heart a hybrid form?” How have you gone about finding the right balance of these craft techniques in your own work?

DEAN: Only through trial and error. You can’t really know until you’ve done it, which involves a lot of tinkering. I think this is both bad news—because it’s a lot of work—and good news. Because it means we get to reinvent the genre a little bit every time we sit down to write in it.

MYERLY: Would you share a piece of wisdom with our readers that you shared with your workshop students?

DEAN: I love this question but can’t remember a thing I said to the workshop, only the things I learned! What a great group of writers.

MYERLY: In some of our classes, we talk about the negative effects that an inferiority complex and overly critical thought process can have on emerging writers who are trying to push themselves and try new things. What words of advice would you have for those writers who feel that they are going through a rough patch in their writing and have nothing new to add to what’s already been said?

DEAN: I think the answer to feeling overly critical of one’s own work is pretty much always that you are not allowing yourself enough drafts. My students expect to write a draft, proofread it, and then publish it—so of course they are discouraged when that first draft is not New Yorker level. There is lot of mythmaking about “talent” (a concept I don’t believe in at all) and the perfect story or essay springing forth all at once. In reality, a bad essay is a draft for a good one—there just may be 100 drafts in between. The only answer is to keep writing it until you surprise and exceed yourself.

MYERLY: What projects are you currently working on?

DEAN: I’ve just finished co-writing this beautiful tome! It comes out October 17.

MYERLY: What books and/or literary journals are you currently reading?

DEAN: Today I am reading Danez Smith’s Don’t Call Us Dead and listening to the audiobook of George Eliot’s Middlemarch.

Meet the Interviewer:

Sophia Myerly

Sophia Myerly

Assistant Managing Editor for the Literary Journals of the Creative Writing Programs at Hamline University

A transplant from the fields of Iowa to the deep forests and flowing waters of Minnesota, Sophia delights in the natural world and considers it to be her writing muse. She is fascinated by the complexities of the written word and the hidden marvels of the brain, which explains why she savored the opportunity to pursue a double major in Creative Writing and Psychology with a double minor in English and Linguistics at Hamline. Equipped with a deep, reverent appreciation of research and heavily laden bookshelves, Sophia is currently delving deeper into her studies of creative nonfiction in the Hamline MFA program.

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