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Interview with Dana Sachs, September 27, 2007 | UNCW Archives and Special Collections Online Database

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Interview with Dana Sachs, September 27, 2007
September 27, 2007
Dana Sachs, graduate of UNCW's MFA program and part-time faculty member of the university's English department, is the author of the memoir The House on Dream Street and the novel If You Lived Here. In this interview, she discusses topics such as her connection to Vietnam and its culture, her experience in the MFA program, and her process of writing and research.
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Interviewee: Sachs, Dana Interviewer: Rodrigues, Carmen Date of Interview: 11/27/2007 Series: SENC Writers Length 58 minutes

Rodrigues: This is Carmen Rodrigues. Today is Thursday, September 27, 2007. I am at the Randall Library with Dana Sachs. Dana is the author of several books including her 2007 debut novel If You Lived Here, a book since picked from March 2007 and a summer 2007 selection for Barnes & Noble's "Discover Great New Writers" series. Welcome, Dana.

Dana Sachs: Thank you.

Rodrigues: So I'm very excited to have some time here with you today. I know that you are a graduate of UNCW's MFA Program in Creative Writing, and you are also currently teaching at the university in the English department. So we would like to start at the very beginning. We're going to take you back to your time in Memphis, Tennessee when you were a young girl just discovering reading. And I wondered if you could tell us just a little about your first memories of picking out books, and when you may have later discovered that you loved to write.

Dana Sachs: I remember writing books, and we called them books, we'd write-- this was probably in first or second grade-- we'd write these little paper books that were stapled together and all the children wrote horse books-- all the girls wrote horse books. So I wrote dozens and dozens of horse books, and that was probably my first experience telling stories, and thinking about adventures and that sort of thing. I also remember writing stories at home, but I was so interested in the idea of creating characters that I would just make lists of families. "The oldest sister's name was Nellie and her brother's name was..." and there'd be, you know, 15 kids. And I'd get so involved in what color their hair was, how tall they were and what they liked to do, that I never actually got very far with the stories. But I think that was a start with for me, to use my imagination and think about different kinds of people that you can create from your imagination, so that was fun. And then, of course, I love to read too.

Rodrigues: What type of book interested you most when you were young?

Dana Sachs: I loved the classics. I read the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, the Little House books, all of them so many times, and Charlotte's Web and The Chronicles of Narnia. I remember, I had a friend and she would read Charlotte's Web, that's what she did. She read it 15, 20 times, and I sort of kept up with her reading Charlotte's Web, but I also had other books that I loved to read so I'd sort of go in and out of the Charlotte's Web thing. But the interesting thing about Charlotte's Web was, I now have kids who are reading it themselves and that book has held up. That book, I still think, is amazing. I mean he's just such a brilliant writer, and that's a sort of a book about writing too. So that was inspiring to me as a child, but it's still inspiring to me as an adult. Just when I read it I see the craft that went into what E. B. White was doing. And it's so effortless and beautifully written and sort of elegant, that I still find a lot of those books inspiring.

Rodrigues: Do you? When you were young, and you were reading and you were writing, did you have one particular person in your life who encouraged your creativity, said "Dana, wow, this is really something. You might want to keep looking into that."

Dana Sachs: I had a lot of people-- I guess the people that stand out for me, and I've thought about this a lot, are my parents. They got divorced when I was eight, and they were really different. My mom was very sort of stable and bookish, and kind of academic. And she would-- she was always-- you know, she would read what my sister and brother would write or do. She was very much involved in our academic life. So I think that she helped us all in that way to push ourselves intellectually. But my father is really a free spirit and he's very creative in his own life, in the way he lives his life. So I think in terms of sort of creativity, I was inspired by just watching him and his-- he has this since of possibility, anything can happen. And so that probably helped me to think I could follow my dream or, you know, do what I wanted to and also be maybe more imaginative too.

Rodrigues: Did you know as a young girl that you wanted to pursue writing, that this was something that was going to become a career path for you?

Dana Sachs: No I don't, not necessarily. I loved it, but, I mean it's always kind of a leap to think that this could be a career and something like that, because it's a risky thing to do and I don't think I had really-- I would have-- I think I liked the idea of it, but I didn't know that it would be something I'd really be able to do, so, kind of went in and out of it for awhile as I got older, you know.

Rodrigues: So you went-- so you graduate from high school, to move forward a little bit, and you go away to college. You went to Wesleyan in Connecticut. How was that experience for you there, and what did you study while you were there?

Dana Sachs: Well, I was an English major, and I'd say the most sort of profound things that I studied was just reading books. I just read so many different kinds of books, and wonderful literature, and I wrote about it academically. And so writing about things, literature, academically pushes you to really to look at what writers are doing and think about form and think about word choice, and down to minute levels. And I wasn't really studying as a writer then, I was just appreciating great literature. And I didn't even-- I don't think I took a creative writing class until my senior year of college, and before that I just read. And so, I think just reading all those great books inspired me.

Rodrigues: In your senior year of college you take that first writing course. Tell me a little bit about it. Did it change your perspective on whether or not you could pursue writing as career?

Dana Sachs: I think so, yeah, it did. Because at Wesleyan, even to get into creative writing class was a big deal because there were not very many. And so many people were applying for every single class that it was just-- it was like a great success if you could get in. And so I was sort of intimidated, and I don't think I even tried to get into one until my senior year. And then I just-- I had written something over the summer. I did this project with my sister. And I just thought, "Oh, I'm going to turn that in," because you had to turn in a writing sample. And I just thought, "I'm going to turn it in and see what happens." And I got in. And so, I was in this class full of people who-- a lot of them had been writing more-- like, writing creatively throughout their college years, because they had started earlier. And just being in that class was really exciting and fun, and I got to write stories. And so I thought, "Maybe I could do this." And then after I graduated, I moved to San Francisco and wanted to be a fiction writer. But how do you, how do you get a job as a fiction writer? You can't, so. I started cocktail waitressing and working at a magazine because I was also really interested in sort of politics and progressive ideas. So I got a job at a magazine, Mother Jones magazine, and started doing journalism, and I did that for a really long time. I was a freelance journalist for-- I mean, I still am, so it's been over twenty years now. And so I did a lot of nonfiction and fiction sort of-- I didn't forget about it, but I just stopped doing it. I didn't think of myself as a fiction writer anymore, because I could actually get published and do things that were exciting for me as a nonfiction writer. And then when I came to graduate school, which was, I guess, like 12 or 13 years after I graduated from college and I'd been writing nonfiction, I thought, well, I was going as a nonfiction writer but I could take classes in fiction. So I started writing a novel. And then now I think of myself as a nonfiction and fiction writer.

Rodrigues: You. Umm...Before we get into graduate school, do you want to discuss that somewhat? I want to take you to 1989. Is that the year you had your first visit to Vietnam?

Dana Sachs: Uh-huh. It was, like, right around New Year's, it was maybe early 1990, something like that, yeah.

Rodrigues: What prompted this initial visit to Vietnam?

Dana Sachs: Well I mean, that's another part of my life that's really important, is I love to travel, and I've always just been an avid traveler. And after I graduated from college, I took a lot of trips and traveled whenever I could. And in 1989, I went to Asia with a friend and backpacked for nine months, and that was some-- I'd always wanted to just travel until I couldn't stand it anymore, and that was sort of my chance to do it and it was just fantastic. And I had been working in San Francisco at that time for a newspaper called the Tenderloin Times, which was an inner-city newspaper which was published in English, Vietnamese, Lao, and Khmer, because it was in the inner city and there were a lot of refugees there. And it was just this fantastic experience, and there were reporters from all these different ethnic groups. And so, when I went to Asia I thought, I really want to go to Southeast Asia and see the places where these people I knew had come from. And so, we were in Thailand and we found out that Vietnam had just opened to American tourists for the first time since the end of the war, and I didn't really have that much interest in going to Vietnam because all I knew of Vietnam really was about the war and I thought that was kind of depressing, but I felt like, as an American I had to go if I had a chance because it was-- Vietnam had been-- the United States relationship with Vietnam had been such an important part of our history. So, I sort of went thinking, okay, I'll do it. And it was just so different from what I expected. It wasn't this really sad, war-torn country. Although it had suffered a lot it had moved on, it had been 15 years since the end of the war and it was really a country in the midst of rebuilding itself and people were constantly saying, "We're thinking about the future now. We're not thinking about the past. We want to move forward." And that was so exciting to me, and it was sort of a revelation, and I found the country really beautiful and interesting and I realized it was this rich culture and history that I knew nothing about. And so, after I went back to the United States I decided to go and live there for a while, and try to write about it, and try to find out more, because I felt like if I didn't know anything and all this was sort of a revelation to me, then there's a lot of Americans who also don't know much. And so that was sort of my goal to move there and learn more about it, learn the language and kind of report back, you know.

Rodrigues: So you planned on doing some pieces from a journalism point of view while you were there?

Dana Sachs: Well, I had an idea about writing a book. I mean, I had always wanted to write a book but I hadn't really found anything that I was really-- I felt I could focus on enough or that I felt I could be an authority on. I'm not saying that I felt at that point like an authority on Vietnam, but I felt like I could go as a person who wanted to learn, and learn, and then write about that. So that's what I did with my first book that was a memoir, so it was very personal. But it also included a lot of like-- the results of a lot of research I did on the country, and the culture and the history.

Rodrigues: Before your trip, you actually took an intensive study course in Vietnamese. You wanted to learn the language.

Dana Sachs: That was before I went back there to live.

Rodrigues: Just the second time.

Dana Sachs: In '92.

Rodrigues: In '92. And that led you to meeting a woman who later is featured in your memoir. Can you tell us a little bit about that first encounter and also learning the language, and gearing up to go on this amazing trip that would change your life, ultimately?

Dana Sachs: Yeah. I mean, I had always, as I said, I was a traveler, but I always felt, I always felt that I was missing something because I couldn't speak a language in another country. And I had learned French for years, I mean, I started studying French in elementary school and I just never really enjoyed it, and I always felt intimidated to speak, and I just-- I was a French failure. And so I'd kind of given up French in college and then I just-- when I went to Vietnam I thought, "I want to learn Vietnamese." I want to go there and-- it was an opportunity for me to go to a new culture and completely immerse myself in the language and force myself to learn it. And so I decided to prepare to do that by studying Vietnamese a little bit in the States before. And there was an intensive language program in, (cough) sorry, at Cornell University that was going on at the time. It still takes place but it's at a different university now. And so I enrolled in the summer program, and it was like going to summer camp for people learning Southeast Asian languages. And I was in a class with other people learning Vietnamese and we had three teachers, and one of them was the woman that I later call Cha in my book. And I just loved her. She was so vivacious, and interesting, and full of life, and we had adventures together in the U.S. and then I decided, "Well, when I go to Vietnam, I want to go to the place where she lives." And so, she was really the person that introduced me to Hanoi.

Rodrigues: In your book you describe Hanoi. And you also, when you go there you get this love of the culture but also of Vietnamese folk tales. In 2003 you published two books, Fit for a King and then your memoir, The House on Dream Street. Can you tell me a little bit first about Fit for a King, and then we'll move to your memoir?

Dana Sachs: Well, the folk tales book is called Two Cakes Fit for a King.

Rodrigues: I'm sorry.

Dana Sachs: That's okay. And that came about because, when I was living in Hanoi I lived there in '92 for about six months and then I came back to the United States and then I missed it too much so I went back to Vietnam and lived there again for about seven months in '93, '94. And then I sort of kept going back and forth like for a month here, a month there. And I developed some really close friendships with Vietnamese people. And I had two friends in particular that, we really enjoyed talking about literature and art and they both knew a lot. And in the course of just sort of hanging out together, we decided we wanted to produce this book of folk tales because we all loved them, but we didn't feel like there were very many chances for an American, English-speaking audience to find out about these folk tales. So we produced the book together. And one of my friends is a-- she's sort of a literary critic and translator, and so she and I wrote them together. She would write these stories that she remembered from her childhood that her father had told her, and she'd write them in English which was wonderful, her English was great, but not quite up to publishing level because she's a Vietnamese native speaker. And so then I would sort of-- I would take those and then kind of translate them into a kind of a form that was more appropriate to an English-speaking audience, and I guess that's how I should describe it. It was the process of working together to make these traditional folk tales into something that we hoped American readers would enjoy reading. And then our other friend is a painter, and so he created these beautiful illustrations for the stories. So we did it all together and it was great. And then-- so that was kind of like a labor of love to do with my friends and it meant a lot to me. And then, actually, the memoir-- my memoir came out in 2000 and the paperback came out in 2003. And the memoir is really about my experiences living in Hanoi during a period of time when the country was really changing tremendously and it was opening to the outside world. And the sense I got was the people that I came to know there were having a hard time sort of figuring out their role in this new world, and life was changing so quickly that in some ways it was really great, in others people weren't-- they were destabilized in a certain way. And so I tried to chronicle that in my memoir. So that's sort of what that's about.

Rodrigues: With the Two Cakes Fit for a King, that being a collaborative project, and then you have this memoir which is very personal and something that you worked on alone. What's the difference between those two processes as a writer?

Dana Sachs: Oh, well, my sister and brother are both filmmakers and they-- and when I see what they do and how much they work with other people I always think oh, I'm so glad I'm a writer because I can pretty much do it myself, you know, I can do-- I can sit down at my computer and just write, and I can produce what I want to produce. It might not be good, but I can do it. And I don't have to rely on anybody else. And I like that. But I also-- the process of producing a book with two friends was great because we all had input, we all did things to make the book a better book and it was not without problems. There were moments when we were just really, you know, butting heads about a lot of things and it was-- that was tough. That was a big challenge to get along with each other. But I also felt like the book was better because of that and it was a great experience to produce a book with people and, you know, this is something that we made together so that's a very satisfying thing, too.

Rodrigues: Tell us a little about your process of then working alone. You had this idea before you went to Vietnam. Did you know exactly when to go and when to study this culture, and that I'm going to write a memoir? Did you know distinctly what the idea was or was it more like I'm going to go and take this experience and turn it into some type of book?

Dana Sachs: I think I was interested in the form of a travel memoir, and I felt like for me, because of the kind of writing I do, that was a good form. I write in a kind of novelistic way, and I'm not an historian or social scientist, and so that seemed like the best way for me to approach the subject. So even when I went there I wrote, I took a lot of notes. I took notes about everything from customs, like how people eat and the kinds of things people do in a day or, you know, just traditions and that kind of thing, to more notes that had to with the actual people that I was getting to know. And I would write down conversations I had with people or experiences I had with them. He said this and I said this and she said this and I kept a lot of notes in a journal. And so I guess I knew from the beginning that it was something that I wanted to bring together my own personal experiences and the notes that I taken from these, you know, conversations or whatever with research that I did, and books that I read, and background information that I was able to sort of bring into the story, history and reading about the war, and that kind of thing. So I saw it as a kind of an amalgam of all these different things. And that I knew that was more of my strength then doing sort of straight historical record or something like that, you know.

Rodrigues: So you gather your notes, and these conversations and these bits and pieces will become a part of a larger puzzle when you put it together. When do you actually sit down and start writing the memoir?

Dana Sachs: Well, I started writing, you know, you think maybe you are ready to start writing at one point and it's just is a total struggle. And so, for me, I sort of started writing after I came back from living there the first time in '93, '92 or 93, but somehow it wasn't, it hadn't perculated enough in my mind yet, so I ended up going back to Vietnam. And then my book covers, really, these two big chunks of time. And so, it's hard to know when you're ready to start writing. But actually, the thing is that I realized after-- I mean now I've finished two books on my own. And I realized that those times when you're struggling, and you feel like everything you write is horrible, or you're not going anywhere, you haven't figured it out yet; that's all part of the process. And I say that, having heard it. I've heard so many people say that before, like you have to struggle, and you go through all these different periods, and there's lots of times when you feel like you're not making progress, but on some level you are. And I've heard that, but I'm actually only now coming to believe it because I have more confidence-- more self confidence that that is part of, I don't want to say journey, part of the process of writing is to have a lot of periods of time when you feel like you're not being productive, you don't know what you're doing, you completely lost, you can't figure out a way to get this material together to make it flow. But sitting in front of the computer and, you know, going like this a billion times, that is part of it. Because little by little you're working your way there. You know, you don't just don't reach the top of the mountain and one day you sort of climb up and go down, and climb back up and go back down. And, I mean, I think-- I say this to my students that-- this is another thing that I mean that it's not-- I didn't-- I'm not the first person to say it but I believe it now after all this time of writing and working, that the big difference between people who are published and the people who are not published is not so much talent, it's that the people who are published are the ones who are just, they keep working. They don't give up. They just keep working at it for so long that they can get to a farther point then the people who give up earlier. You know it's an endurance test, really.

Rodrigues: And so you come back from Vietnam, and you have your materials. And then you go back for a second trip and then you come back again. And then shortly thereafter you enter graduate school is that correct?

Dana Sachs: A few years later. I mean, I went back and forth a few times to Vietnam. And I felt like I was kind of at a standstill. I had been working on the book for a while before I started graduate school. And I had an agent and she had tried to sell a proposal that I'd written about, it was for the memoir. And she couldn't sell it. And I was very upset. And I thought, well, I'll still try to write it. But by the time I came to graduate school I only had a few chapters because what I did-- and this was a mistake I think. What I did is I felt like I had to perfect each chapter before I moved on to a new chapter, and I don't know where I got that idea. It was just a certain kind of stubbornness which really held me back. So when I arrived here for graduate school I had these few chapters, I don't even think any of them or much of them ended up in the final book. But I started studying in a nonfiction writing class with Paul Wilkes, who was a professor here then. And he'd written a lot of books. And he, you know I said-- he sort of sat down with me and talked with me about my process. He also talked to me about the actual contents. But, you know, he said "What is-- what are the blocks that you're facing?" And I said, "You know, I'm going over and over these chapters and I'll spend a week trying to get the perfect word, and, you know, making a paragraph beautiful." And he said "Don't. Don't. Leave it. Leave it. Just keep going forward. What you want to do your goal right now is to have a first draft and then you can worry about making it beautiful. And don't think about that now because you'll throw things away and that's just going to stall you." So in his class what I did was just I think it was in my first year he said at the end, I think we did I had two semesters of class with him. And he said, "Your goal is to have the first draft by the end of the year." And so I just wrote. I just wrote. And he gave me deadlines. He said, "What do you want?" I said, "I want deadlines, and I want you to tell me to just keep writing." And so that's what he did. You know, I'd write something he'd read it, he'd say, "Fine. Keep going." You know, he wouldn't even necessarily comment on what I was doing so far, he'd just say, "Keep going," and he'd give me a deadline. Because then I'd had a way to-- I'd have something I had to write towards. "Okay, now I can do another chapter, another chapter, another chapter." So getting a first draft done was probably the-- in some ways, because that was my first book, that was probably the most important achievement that I've made as a writer, because from there on I was kind of okay, you know. But just learning how to keep writing and to write through and not get stuck on being-- like making something perfect was a huge thing for me.

Rodrigues: And so you get that first draft, and you're immersed in this writers' community with fellow writers who are kind of at the same point where you are in their career, and these professors who are guiding you and helping you along with your goal. What is life like when you are immersed in a community of writers? Before, you were immersed in a community of journalists, and it's different. Tell us a little about the differences between the two and your perception of them and then your experience, your entire experience in the MFA program and how that changed you.

Dana Sachs: Well, I thought when I lived in San Francisco because I lived there for about 12 years. I mean I was in Vietnam for part of that, too, but San Francisco is my home. And I just had this fantastic community of writers, friends who were other journalists. And it was really-- it was very exciting because there was-- everybody was doing things and it was a very active-- journalists are so outward-looking and it was a very active kind of community. People knew a lot of what is going on in the world. It was very political, and that was thrilling. Then I came here and moving from San Francisco to Wilmington was quite a change because I was going from a big city to a smaller town. And for me a big problem was the fact that it wasn't very diverse here. And I-- one of the things I loved in the bay area was just the diversity of the population. So that-- it was kind of-- it was a change that was a little frustrating. So I really started to think about ways to become inspired here and in ways that I had been inspired in the bay area. I mean they were-- it was different forms but I was still able to be inspired. But here it was more about writing itself and less-- it was much more inward. So the kinds of conversations that I would have with writers here would have to do with like what I'm saying to you to the things-- questions about process or, you know, talking about different writers that inspired us creatively. It was less about politics or what's going on in the world and more sort of focused on form, and style and that kind of thing. And the writing is sort of more personal here because the writers that I know here are writing in such a different form I don't really know journalists here, not very many. And so it's more, it's more private in a way. People in this community are writing things, I don't want to say from their heart because I think journalists do that too, but it's a different kind of writing and that was really interesting to me. And I've learned a lot by moving into more of a creative writing community. You know.

Rodrigues: You published your memoir in 2000. That was something that, you finished the first draft in the MFA program and then you went on to revise as well during your time in the MFA program?

Dana Sachs: I did. Yeah. I did.

Rodrigues: And then you also began working, later on, on a novel which was published this year called If You Lived Here, published by William-Morrow. Let's talk about when you started that process, the idea that you were now going to switch gears from nonfiction into fiction and go into a new arena that would allow you to, once again, explore the culture in Vietnam. Can you tell us a little bit about that process?

Dana Sachs: Sure, well, I mean, I took full advantage of my experience in the MFA program because I started thinking about the story for the novel when my husband and I were driving across the country to move here, and it was in my head for a long time. And I started taking fiction classes in the MFA program and I actually took Clyde Edgerton's novel writing class farther along in my time here, in the MFA program, and I finished a first draft of that novel in his class. I think I finished a first draft, because he also was all about finishing a first draft. So, I really took full advantage of both fiction and nonfiction offerings at UNCW and-- but then as I said, I graduated in 2000 and the novel, I didn't really finish until 2005 and then it came out in 2007. And so, it was a long process of-- again I mean, I think because of my background in journalism I do a lot of research and so the novel took a lot of research. And I felt like I had to find out a lot in order to write with authority about these subjects because it's about a-- it is about Vietnam but it's about an American woman, partly about an American woman adopting a baby from Vietnam. And I'm not an adoptive mother or adoptee and so I just really immersed myself in issues related to adoption for a long time and so-- to sort of build up a knowledge and build up a sense of what would be going on in her head as she was going through the process of adoption. And so, that took time, not just like I decided it was going to take a long time, but I think I just had to go through a process of coming to understand it, which took a long time.

Rodrigues: The novel opens in Wilmington and mentions several locations, Market Street. And the American woman is a mortician's wife. She'd kind of fallen into this business. She doesn't have as much experience as her husband but she does have something like 20 years experience. Did you also do research into that?

Dana Sachs: Oh yeah. I had to do a lot of research about that because I didn't know much about-- I mean, I didn't know anything about it. But, it was interesting to me. The reason I got into that, and this is one of the things that I love about writing fiction, is that you can just follow what you're curious about and write about what you want to spend time researching or finding out about. And I-- all the major, sort of, themes in that novel comes from things I was just sort of curious about. So, adoption comes from the fact that my husband and I were starting to think about having children at the time when I was beginning to think about that novel, and I was already sort of like, "Okay, if we have problems with infertility then we'll adopt." And also, part of me has always wanted to adopt, even way back when I was writing those stories when I was in first and second grade, I was very interested in like, adoption. I was reading little-- you know, reading books about adoption because I think children are curious about that subject. I actually read that recently, or somebody said, that in the 70s-- 60s and 70s there were a lot of children's books about adoption 'cause children were so fascinated by that. So that fascination has stayed with me, and so I was interested in adoption and I was also really interested in the fact that my-- I had these friendships with these women in Vietnam that seemed really surprising to me when I, sort of, stepped away from them to think that these are women that were children when I was a child in the United States, they were children in Hanoi and they were being bombed by my country. But here we are in the 90s being able to be really good friends. And we didn't even really think about the war, we were just close to each other because we liked each other. And so I wanted to get at that in my novel too, so I wrote a story about a friendship that develops between a Vietnamese woman and an American woman, and so all these things came together. Oh, and the funeral part was a part of it because my husband's friend grew up in a funeral home. And right when I was starting to think about this novel or story, it was just a story then, he was telling us about what it was like to grow up in a funeral home. And I thought, "That's something that I never really gave any thought to." And his life was so normal. And so, kind of-- death was just a part of their lives and they were able to deal with it in this way that struck me as being very healthy. And so I thought I want to explore that more. So then I made Shelly, the American woman who's adopting, into a funeral director so I could kind of pursue that.

Rodrigues: So, when you're sitting down to write fiction as opposed to nonfiction, and you can explore all these curiosities, does that change the process for you at all? As far as sitting down to write a nonfiction book, and then a fiction book?

Dana Sachs: Yeah. Each time I'm-- whatever I'm writing at the moment is the most difficult, and so the memoir was the most difficult because, really because it was my first book. I don't count the folk tales book because that was a collaborative thing. But the fiction seemed like the most difficult because I had nothing to work with except for what was in my brain. Now I'm back to nonfiction, and fiction seems so free and open and, you know, there's so many possibilities. But I mean, I think on some level, the way I see it is when you write-- because I write in a novelistic way and all these forms, there's still a lot-- there's a lot of similarities but the difference in my head while I'm writing is that in nonfiction you have this whole universe of information that's real, from real life that you have to somehow put together, it's like a puzzle you have to put together into a form that reads in an interesting way. So, you have to make all these choices about what to include and what not to include. And that's the challenge in nonfiction. But in fiction the challenge is that there's nothing there except for what you create out of that nothingness in your imagination. And so the challenge there is to come up with things. And both of those things are really hard, but in a lot of different ways.

Rodrigues: When you're writing and you're sitting down to write. You said that when you were in the MFA program you had teachers that were giving you deadlines and really encouraging you to finish those first drafts. What kind of personal deadlines do you set for yourself and what kind of habits do you try to adhere to, to keep producing?

Dana Sachs: Well, that's a hard thing, you know. I sometimes make artificial deadlines which are not-- I'm not so good at following them. Really, strangely, the best thing that's happened to me in terms of being a productive writer is having children, which is-- I know it's kind of counterintuitive because a lot of people think that once they have kids that they won't be able to do anything else. But for me it focused me completely, because before I had kids I had a lot of time and I had, you know, I'd make lots of choices like "Oh, this morning I'm going to go to the bank, I don't have time to write, I have to go to the bank or the post office." And time would just sort of fizzle away. But once I had kids I didn't have any time to play around. When I had time to write I would just sit down and write. And so I was actually much, much more productive. I mean, my first son was born in 1997, and then between '97-- well 2000 was when my first book was published and then my second son was born in 2000 and then my second book-- I mean, it's not like I am the most productive writer in the world, because I do have a lot of other things. I'm slow, there's a lot of things to do. But it has paralleled my experience of motherhood completely, and so I think that actually having too much time can be a curse, kind of. And now, my kids are both in school all day and I see myself sometimes sliding back into these old ways of, kind of like "Oh well, I don't necessarily have to do that. I have four more hours," you know. So the time is not quite as precious as it used to be because I have more time to myself. But I'm still trying-- I still try to really follow a kind of diligent schedule.

Rodrigues: Do you write on a daily basis? Do you have certain days when you tell yourself you absolutely must write? What kind of guidelines do you give yourself?

Dana Sachs: Well, I would like to think that when my kids are in school, that's when I really want to write, but I have a lot of other things that I have to do like; taking care of my house or, there's lots of things: doing things for my kids when they're in school, going to their school and volunteering, all sorts of things that get in the way. So I don't have any certain times, no. Because I don't have-- I have to be more flexible than that. But I try. I mean, and when I say-- right now I'm sort of writing and researching at the same time for the book I'm working on now and so I consider all of that working. But I do-- one thing that's kind of odd is that I can't really write in my house. And so I take my computer to a café and work in a café. I feel like I wrote my whole novel in a café, which is kind of goofy, but it helps me concentrate.

Rodrigues: You mention cafés on your Web site and then you also say that, "In The House on Dream Street a significant kiss occurs in a café." And then, "If You Lived Here, the story's biggest secret is revealed over fresh croissants." Tell me, do the cafes pop into the novels because you're actually sitting there writing in the café, or is there just a secret love for cafes that has always existed in you and inevitably is going to draw to the café to write and make the cafes appear in the books?

Dana Sachs: Well, I think that, I mean, Vietnam is a café society, so the people spend a lot of time in cafes. But part of the reason I'm drawn to that society is probably because I'm also-- I also love to hang out in cafes. I love the fact that you can be completely alone, but you can also see other people doing things. And there's sort of public interaction between people but not-- it's not like you're on top of each other. And I guess it's just-- it's hard for me to say exactly why. I just-- I find it a really good place for me to think and stuff.

Rodrigues: Do any of the conversations that you overhear in a café ever appear in any of the works?

Dana Sachs: I can't remember that happening. I-- they're not necessarily always that interesting. They're very seldom that interesting. But also, you know, when you're writing you're so focused on the particular things you need that the chance of what somebody's saying next to you in a café being relevant to what you're doing is pretty slim.

Rodrigues: You said that you pick your genre based on the project that you're interested in. So if it's something that's nonfiction you're going to go and write nonfiction. If it's something-- an idea that you're thinking of that's more fiction, you're going to do fiction. I'm interested-- some writers would say that versatility might be distracting, might take you in different directions. I, as a writer, personally think versatility is great. Tell me how that's been a good thing and maybe, has it been a bad thing to you, as far as your career as a writer?

Dana Sachs: Well, you know, I have-- I'm kind of strange in that so far I've been-- my books have all been focused on one thematic area, even though they're in different genres. So I kind of have been-- I move toward the stories that inspire me and they've been related to Vietnam because one thing kind of leads to another and the more I learn about it the more interested I've become. So, in that way I have an advantage because I'm not having to start from scratch on new subjects. Not that-- I think I'm not-- I don't think I'll be writing about Vietnam my whole life, and I think the book I do after this one is not going to be related to Vietnam. But, anyway, in that way, that's been an advantage for me because I can sort of build on knowledge that I already have. But it's-- there-- it's a struggle. I mean, as I said, all my books are sort of novelistic. So in that way I can do a lot of the same things. But it's a struggle because I'm learning how-- I feel like I'm learning a new form each time. So learning to write fiction was different from having written a memoir. Putting a novel together, there were a lot of differences in terms of setting up characters and figuring out who the characters are, because they're not based on real people. And all sorts of challenges that were completely new to me that now I feel like I understand that better than I did before. But now I'm working on nonfiction again and the nonfiction book that I'm working on now is a historical narrative so it's based on research. And, I mean, the others were based on research, but this is based on a lot of research and a lot of interviews. And so it's really a whole new challenge for me to figure out how to create a book out of that kind of material instead of either something that's completely from my head or my own personal experience. Because I'm-- I'll just tell you that the book I'm writing about now is-- it's the story of Operation Baby Lift which was an evacuation of 2,000 Vietnamese children from Vietnam at the very end of the war, and they were subsequently adopted by families overseas. And it's a really controversial story, and it's very dramatic and very, kind of, heart wrenching, and interesting, I mean incredibly interesting and inspiring creatively to me. But figuring out how to put this story of all these different people's live and experiences that took place 33 years ago-- 32 years ago into a story that people want to read is really hard. So I've been reading. Now my reading that I'm doing to sort of inspire me is reading all these nonfiction narratives like-- I just read The Devil and the White City by Erik Larson which is about the Chicago World's Fair and a murder that-- a murderer and, you know, just seeing how a writer can take historical information and write it in a way that's very dramatically gripping and also novelistic. And there's all sorts of questions that come up with that that are new to me like, especially with reading Erik Larson. How much of this is true and how much of this did he use his imagination? And where can you stray and what are the gray areas in that? And how comfortable would I be creating a scene if I wasn't there 30 years ago? You know? And these are all things that in some ways I can't use my fiction writing skills because it's not fiction. But I can in some ways. And so I'm constantly, sort of grappling with these issues, and this is new. And if I had written a dozen books like that, or like Erik Larson has written lots of these books, these are issues he doesn't have to worry about anymore. But I'm reinventing the wheel for myself in those ways.

Rodrigues: How much of your writing time is spent really just having these conversations about these types of issues in your own head? And just thinking about characters? Or thinking about where you want to go with the story, because that is essentially also writing time. How much of that do you find yourself doing throughout the day as you-- do you find yourself drifting off, thinking about "Oh, this makes sense," it suddenly it comes to you?

Dana Sachs: Yeah. When I'm, when I'm actually in front of the computer I'm thinking mostly about really narrow issues, like, "How is this paragraph going to move into the next paragraph?" Or, "How am I going to bring this point in?" Like, really specific stuff. It's when I'm away from the computer or I'm listening-- like I listen to books on tape, or reading a book that's in the same kind of genre as mine, that brings up all these larger issues, or when I'm speaking with other writers. And then I'm, you know, I have these obsessions and I'll say, "What do you think about this issue? How much can you put in your own little fiction ideas?" or, you know-- and asking people to talk to me about other writers and everybody's got their opinions and that-- so when I'm actually doing my writing, I'm not thinking about those bigger issues so much. And then when I'm thinking about the bigger issues I'm mostly talking or pulling my hair out trying to figure it out (laughs). You know.

Rodrigues: As a writer, you also spend some of your time teaching. And you're teaching in the English Department. How does that fit into your life, your overall life as a writer? Does it help you? Does the writing help you in the teaching areas? Does the teaching ever help you in the writing area? Do you find that they're a marriage made in heaven? What are your thoughts on that?

Dana Sachs: I think that having to articulate certain principles to your students-- your own set of ideas about writing-- is helpful, because a lot of times in-class discussions will lead me to think, "Oh, well this is how I feel about this subject." Or this is, "I disagree with that." And then I'll-- I might not have ever realized I felt that way before. So it can be helpful to my writing in that way, and seeing the students and where they are in their writing careers is interesting because I think, I think having been through so much of that myself I think I can give them guidance and I hope I can give them some sense of possibility also about what they can do with their own lives and, you know. So I spend a lot of time talking about what writing, what the writing career is like. Actually, today for the first time I-- my students' assignment was to read three drafts of an article that I wrote for a magazine, a travel magazine, because it's a travel writing class. And so they're reading like, the first draft and then an edited version with the editor's comments and questions and then they're reading the final published version. And so I think that-- I'm interested to see how it works, but I think that could be interesting because they can see what it's like to go through the process of publishing and also they can see, I mean, sometimes you read stuff that's published and if you're not a writer you think "Wow that writer is really good." or "That writer writes so effortlessly. It's so easy for that writer." And I think by seeing the stages that writing can go through, beginning writers can start to realize that everybody struggles, you know. It's not easy in the beginning. It's never easy and that you just have to keep working at it to get it into a form that's more acceptable. And hopefully that will help them. (laughs)

Rodrigues: You mentioned showing your students the drafts, the first one, yours, and then the edited one and then the final version. Do you find as you yourself are going through this process of going from the creation to the publication, what was the most surprising element about the business, the actual business of writing, separate from the creative process of writing?

Dana Sachs: Hmm, I'm just trying to think. You mean for the, for my books?

Rodrigues: Right. From the point that you hand the book off to someone else and then you get into the actual pre-publication business.

Dana Sachs: Well, I think, you know, having come from journalism where there's a lot of fact checking and there's a lot of, sort of, focusing and discussing. It seems like every word, every sentence, they don't do that in books, you know. I mean both of my books I have fact-checked myself because I came from journalism where I really want to make sure everything's okay, and that I didn't get any facts wrong. But in book publishing, I mean, there's a copy editor, but they don't-- other than that they don't check and make sure that you write them like you say. And they don't even do-- the editing isn't even that heavy, you know. And so, that was a surprise to come from magazine and newspaper to book publishing where, you'd think, like, it's a book, it's bigger, they're going to do more. But they actually do less, I think.

Rodrigues: One final question. You've given us some helpful advice along the way. If there was one thing that you wish you'd have known about writing, whether it's fiction, non--fiction or journalism, or having a versatile career that you would share with a younger writer, an up and coming writer, what would that be? What piece of advice?

Dana Sachs: I would definitely say not to be intimidated. I feel like I wasted a lot of my time being intimidated and worried and thinking, "Oh I can't do this." And I think-- I-- you can do it. You just have to be willing to work really, really hard. But I wish I hadn't spent so much time sort of second guessing my abilities, because that doesn't help you in any way.

Rodrigues: I want to thank you for taking the time to meet with us here today at the Randall Library.

Dana Sachs: It was my pleasure.

Rodrigues: It was very exciting to have you here and again, this is Carmen Rodrigues, I'm here with Dana Sachs at Randall Library, and thank you.

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