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
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
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.
Susan 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.