In a room populated by plush velvet armchairs and aspiring literati of all ages, Kate Manning YC ’79 spoke about novel writing, the inspiration behind her most recent book My Notorious Life (released this year), and her love of the English language. With platinum blonde hair and a ready smile, Manning isn’t exactly the poster child for brooding historical fiction. But with a passion for nineteenth-century slang and a penchant for off-the-cuff aphorisms about writing, the novelist and former documentary television producer certainly knows her stuff. She does a killer Irish accent, too—during her talk at the Rose Alumni House, she read the first chapter of My Notorious Life in the voice she described “hearing in her head” as she was writing the book, a lyrical mix of imported brogue and domestic Manhattan dialect. After the talk, WEEKEND sat down to get the scoop on career changes, favorite words and writing nineteenth-century tales with twenty-first century relevance.
Q. What inspired you to make the switch from documentary television to writing books?
A. I always wanted to write novels, but I had to make a living. Television was great training. You have to hold your viewer’s interest, because if they change the channel your work isn’t going to be seen. You learn to tell the story. You learn that not blathering on is important. I really learned how to hang fiction on the bones of fact, and I think a lot of my fiction still has this “ripped from the headlines” quality.
Q. Were you an English major?
A. I was. I transferred here [to Yale] actually, my junior year, from Middlebury College. I studied with some really fabulous teachers — Tisch, Ted Tally, a bunch of others.
Q. You mentioned a fascination with the richness of the English language. Do you have a favorite word?
A. I have lists of words, notebooks full of words. Toad-stabber, costermonger … old-fashioned words. We know what they mean but we don’t hear them. You don’t want to overuse them, though. You’ll anger your reader and make them want to throw the book across the room.
Q. Literary idols? Favorite works?
A. So many. I usually have one, two, three books near me when I’m writing. For this book [My Notorious Life], a lot of Irish writers — Edna O’Brien, Sebastian Barry. Peter Carey’s “True History of the Kelly Gang” — the narrator has a really strong voice. Roddy Doyle’s “The Woman Who Walked into Doors.” I think there’s something about Irish mothers, and the way they just impart this incredibly lyrical voice.
Q. You’ve taught creative writing. What’s one thing you always tell your students?
A. People always ask if you can teach writing. You can teach some things about it, but a lot of it is hard work — editing, changing, fixing. And read like a writer. It’s not like reading for information, or to study for an exam. If you are reading like a writer, you’re reading to figure out, “How does she do that?” You can read for pleasure, but read [a sentence] again and say, “Why did I like that? How is he making me feel this? How is this writer accomplishing this?” Learn from the writers that you love and then write like yourself.
Q. Could you describe your writing process?
A. Sit down. As soon as my kids go out the door, I sit down and work. I treat it like a job. Some days are very good; some days are very bad. Sometimes you feel like you’re just smearing the paint around, like you’ve just absolutely ruined it. It’s self-discipline punctuated by bursts of inspiration — usually at 2 in the morning.
Q. What’s your next project?
A. I feel like I was just your age. I don’t feel middle-aged, even though I’ve been called mom forever and ever. I have a lot of things I still want to do … but I feel like I can’t talk about it now. If I talk about it I won’t have a need to write it … I can’t talk about it until it’s cooked. It’s kind of like being six weeks pregnant — you don’t want to tell anybody in case you have a miscarriage. Also, I think it sounds kind of lame if you try to condense into a few sentences a story that takes several hundred pages to tell. I’m trying not to be lame.
Q. Any advice for aspiring writers?
A. Write like yourself, and write all the time. Find a reader — someone who knows about writing and will help you edit and learn. Beyond that, have lots of experiences, find stuff out, travel around, open your eyes. Just stick with it. And if you can do something else — do that. And if you can’t do something else … then you’re a writer (and God help you). I think that I always wanted to write a novel. But no one is asking you to write, to paint — you’re doing it because you have to. The trick is to find the self-discipline to do it, to take yourself seriously enough to do it. Sometimes you write fiction to figure out what’s going on.