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Flash Interview: Natalia Rachel Singer

Natalia Rachel Singer is the Craig
Pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish at St. Lawrence Uni­ver­si­ty, where she teach­es cours­es in
fic­tion writ­ing, cre­ative non­fic­tion, and envi­ron­men­tal lit­er­a­ture.  Her essays and sto­ries have appeared in Harper’s, Red­book, O: The Oprah Mag­a­zine,
The Chron­i­cle of High­er Edu­ca­tion, The Amer­i­can Schol­ar, Ms.
, and many
oth­ers.  She is the author of a mem­oir, Scrap­ing by in the Big Eight­ies,
co-edi­tor of an essay col­lec­tion, Liv­ing
North Coun­try
, and is cur­rent­ly com­plet­ing a nov­el set in France.


I see that you write non­fic­tion as well as fic­tion, from
microfic­tion to nov­els. Which do you feel presents the great­est chal­lenge and

I love both gen­res and it’s hard to choose which
one I pre­fer, but I can tell you now that it’s eas­i­er to
pub­lish non­fic­tion than fic­tion these days, at least in the book-length form.
 At the same time, there’s been an increas­ing inter­est in and audi­ence
for micro fic­tion and micro-non­fic­tion, and when I can
final­ly fin­ish the project I’ve been work­ing on for ages (the
nov­el) I would like to try my hand again at the short-short.
 I am a great fan of the on-line mag­a­zine, Brevi­ty, which
pub­lish­es 750-word essays, and I have many friends who are
pub­lish­ing short-shorts in a num­ber of new on-line jour­nals.  This is a
good era for the short.


You write quite a bit about trav­el and the places you
have trav­eled to.  How impor­tant do you think trav­el is for the writer’s
voice/perspective?  Do you feel that a writer can suc­cess­ful­ly con­nect
with read­ers with uni­ver­sal themes with­out trav­el­ling or do you feel trav­el is

Trav­el­ing has fed my work because it has put me out­side my
com­fort zone and made me under­stand anew what it means to be an out­sider, which
can be help­ful as a writer, and it has helped me learn to mar­vel at the world.

What I am try­ing to do in the non­fic­tion book I am
also work­ing on is to bring that awe and mar­vel to our every­day world, to
the quo­tid­i­an.  We have to devel­op good habits of see­ing in order to
be open to the strange­ness and splen­dor that is around us, even in our famil­iar
envi­ron­ments, and I admire writ­ers who help us learn how to do that:
essay­ists like Annie Dil­lard and Rick Bass and Scott Rus­sell Sanders.


Your sto­ry “Hon­ey­comb” is beau­ti­ful­ly lyri­cal with
high­ly visu­al poet­ic lan­guage.  Do you also write poet­ry or cre­ate visu­al
art (pho­tog­ra­phy, paint­ing, etc.)?  If not, where would you say your
inspi­ra­tion comes from?

Thank you so much for your kind words.  I have
always tried to make my writ­ing appeal to the sens­es.  That’s
what I look for as a read­er as well. 

I have recent­ly tried
my hand at pho­tog­ra­phy, but only as an ama­teur, and I do come from
a fam­i­ly of painters.  I also come from a fam­i­ly of
musi­cians and I lis­ten care­ful­ly to the musi­cal­i­ty, the rhythm, of a
writer’s prose, includ­ing my own.  It’s impor­tant to read your work out
loud to hear how it sounds and to real­ize when a line is a clunk­er.


I hope to be able to teach when I have com­plet­ed my
MFA.  As a pro­fes­sor at St. Lawrence, what is the most ful­fill­ing aspect
of teach­ing?

I love my stu­dents.  They are moved by the books
we read togeth­er, and they are at that stage in their lives when a good book
can change their point of view, their world­view, and even their under­stand­ing
of them­selves.  Par­tic­i­pat­ing in that kind of engage­ment is inspir­ing and


What authors have influ­enced your writ­ing?  What are
you read­ing now?

Like many fic­tion writ­ers, I am so amazed by and
moved by the writ­ing of Alice Munro.  I was thrilled that she won the
Nobel prize for lit­er­a­ture this year–finally.  I have so many
favorite writ­ers it’s hard to nar­row them down. In
col­lege I read a lot of poet­ry and loved, in par­tic­u­lar, the work of
William But­ler Yeats, Louise Bogan, Adri­enne Rich, and Denise Lev­er­tov.

I read the Jew­ish writ­ers, the male nov­el­ists of the time: Saul
Bel­low, Philip Roth.  Then I dis­cov­ered the mag­i­cal real­ism of
Gabriel Gar­cia Mar­quez and Gunter Grass.  And oh, the women: Toni
Mor­ri­son, San­dra Cis­neros, Kate Chopin, Vir­ginia Woolf, and Flan­nery O’Connor.
 These days I also real­ly love Tes­sa Hadley and Charles
d’Ambrosia and Aimee Ben­der and George Saun­ders, among many oth­ers. And
on the non­fic­tion front I have so many writ­ers that I love
that I can’t begin to list them all here.  I teach
con­tem­po­rary lit­er­a­ture of the envi­ron­ment so I have a spe­cial
fond­ness for nature writ­ers.


When did you begin writ­ing?  What was your first
pub­lished piece?

I began writ­ing as I learned to read.
 I wrote poems and short sto­ries, none of which were any good,
but I loved try­ing.  I pub­lished in the cam­pus lit­er­ary
mag­a­zine in col­lege, a cou­ple poems at first.  Then I was asked
to write a col­umn, a per­son­al essay, in the alum­ni mag­a­zine
while I was a senior.  I quot­ed Rilke and
thought I was very clever by telling my fel­low seniors to fol­low his
advice in “let­ter to a Young Poet,” to “love the ques­tions
them­selves” as they set off into the world.  I was wor­ried about
all the pre-pro­fes­sion­al­ism that was seep­ing into the lib­er­al arts even then. 

Then a cou­ple years lat­er I wrote some nature essays for the
news­pa­per in Seat­tle where I was liv­ing, and by 24 or
25 I was begin­ning to pub­lish short fic­tion.

Do you have a writ­ing process/routine/ritual that you
feel con­tributes to the suc­cess of your writ­ing?

Things go best for me when I write every day.
 Even 20 min­utes a day can add up to some­thing at the end of the week, the
month, the year.  It’s bet­ter to just sit down and write dai­ly, no mat­ter
how lit­tle time one has, then to wait for time, because time nev­er comes.
 It’s hard­er than ever now to get pub­lished, and at the moment, and I’m
find­ing it more chal­leng­ing now
than I did ear­ly in my career.
 So you have to love the process itself.  The ear­ly morn­ing hours.
 Butt in chair.  Writ­ing not when you’re inspired but writ­ing in
order to be inspired.  If you love the work itself, it can be its
own reward dur­ing those lean years.


I light a can­dle and med­i­tate first.
 Usu­al­ly by the time the timer goes off and the med­i­ta­tion is done I’m
ready to start work­ing.


Author’s Note

SusanRuhl.jpgSusan E. Ruhl is an MFA in Cre­ative Writ­ing can­di­date at Rose­mont Col­lege. She received her B.A. in Cre­ative Writ­ing and Eng­lish from South­ern New Hamp­shire Uni­ver­si­ty and won the 2011 Amoskeag lit­er­ary jour­nal poet­ry con­test. She is cur­rent­ly work­ing on a col­lec­tion of short fic­tion. She lives in Lan­cast­er, PA.

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