Monday, May 05, 2014

Author Interview: Tamara Linse: author of How to Be a Man: Writing is Love: Empathy and Connection

Tamara Linse—writer, cogitator, recovering ranch girl—broke her collarbone when she was three, her leg when she was four, a horse when she was twelve, and her heart ever since. Raised on a ranch in northern Wyoming, she earned her master’s in English from the University of Wyoming, where she taught writing. Her work appears in the Georgetown Review, South Dakota Review, and Talking River, among others, and she was a finalist for an Arts & Letters and Glimmer Train contests, as well as the Black Lawrence Press Hudson Prize for a book of short stories. She works as an editor for a foundation and a freelancer. Find her online at and

Welcome once again Tamara on my blog!

Your real name and pen name?

You mean my split personalities?  Actually, my real name and my pen name are the same ~ Tamara Linse. I think early on I considered  using my initials to be T. T. Tillett (my maiden name) because of bias against female authors of literary fiction, but since then I’ve embraced who I am.

Please share some of the best memories of your childhood.
Tamara Kindergarten
I’m this little girl whose parents die in India and then I go to a mysterious mansion of my uncle’s in England and there’s this secret garden … No, wait! That’s something I read, The Secret Garden. Okay, there’s this girl with a quirky nanny who lives in a brownstone in New York City who scribbles in her notebook all the time and has a spy route where she peaks in at her neighbors. Wait! That’s Harriet the Spy. Seriously, some of my best memories are of the one hour bus ride to and from school where I read and read and read. Or a lazy afternoon curled up with a book in the alcove of our second story library, reading in the beams of sunlight. And that’s why I’m a writer.

About your education.

I’ve been writing and reading all my life, like most writers, but I have a bachelor’s and master’s in English from the University of Wyoming.  My degrees are in literature and my thesis was on 1850s pioneer diaries, but I also took a lot of creative writing courses.  I love the fact that I’ve focused on so many things for my education ~ journalism, engineering, education, art, English. None of it has gone to waste in both my fiction writing and my professional writing.  I think one day I may go on to get a low residency MFA just to keep challenging myself, for the joy of it, but in the meantime I’ve taken lots of writers workshops online and at conferences.
Britt Tamara and Hip
What career did you plan during your education days?

All through grade school, middle school, and high school, I wanted to be a large animal veterinarian, but as soon as I graduated and came to university that dream fell away.  It took me 13 years to get my undergrad because I was lost and had no idea what I wanted to do.  I think I first trusted my instinct and went into journalism, which would have been fabulous, but then I second-guessed myself and changed to the very practical engineering.  When I almost flunked out, I searched and tried a number of different colleges.  All this time I knew I loved writing and reading but I didn’t think I could get a job at it, a product of being raised poor on a ranch.  My husband finally encouraged me to major in English.  By that time, I was already working as a technical editor for an environmental consulting firm and a freelancer.

What languages you can speak and write?

I wish I could say I knew more, but English only. I know a smattering of Spanish and even less French.

What is your biggest source of inspiration in life?

Writing is love.  Writing is as close to you can get to another person’s insides, and that’s why I love writing and reading so much.  It is empathy and connection. I’m inspired by all those writers I’ve read who knocked my socks off, and if I can inspire or move just one other person like the authors I’ve read have moved me, I’ll be happy.

What hurts you most in this world?

The news.  It’s strange. Before having kids, I’d hear the news and I’d be, like, “That’s sad.” But it wouldn’t really touch me that much.  Having kids, though, breaks you wide open in a way nothing else does.  Everyone in the world could be your child.  And so when you see something horrible in the news, it just breaks you in two.  For example, the recent massacre in in the Central African Republic. All those killed were men except for one woman, a grandmother who was defending her grandson. That just tears me up, both the grandmother and the grandson. 
What is the biggest challenge you have faced? How did you overcome it?

It sounds cliché, but it’s true: believing in myself. I’ll be the first to acknowledge that I have been very fortunate in my life, and I’ve had so many advantages.   There have also been challenges in my life, but most often my lack of success is a failure on my part.  I undermined my own success or didn’t let myself dream big.  I wasn’t brave.  I don’t think I’ll ever overcome it, but I will continue to fight the good fight.

If you had to live a day of your life as one of the living or dead personality, who would it be and why?

You know what? I don’t think about these kinds of things.  I tend to be fairly pragmatic, and if I’m daydreaming it’s about something I can actually do.  So instead of dreaming about being a rock star, I think obsessively about how I’m going to construct my new website or what steps I need to get my chores done so that I can get to my writing.  I’m a huge fangirl about people who have smart things to say or who create amazing art.  And so if I’m admiring anyone ~ if I wanted to be anyone ~ it’d be someone like Virginia Woolf or the street artist Banksy or Adele with her amazing voice or a bunch of people who’ve given TED talks. But that doesn’t answer your question. Hmmm. Okay, if I was going to choose I’d say Hemingway in his villa Finca Vigia in Cuba, hanging out with friends, eating good food, drinking, and talking writing.

What is your favorite genre and why?

Literary fiction, far and away (and literary is definitely a genre with its own conventions).  I love literary fiction because it tries to capture lived experience, the subtleties and nuances of the way we are in the world.  Many genres, including nonfiction, tend to try to simplify the world and make it a coherent narrative. We crave a coherent narrative.  But we all know, though we may not admit it, that life isn’t like that. That’s why we’re drawn to stories ~ to make sense of things and to give them meaning.  Entertainment is a legitimate goal of fiction, but I like mine messy and “real.” I love the challenge of trying to take the messy bits of life and forming them into a satisfying aesthetic object.  There’s always a tension there.

When did you start writing? What is the purpose of your writing?

I’ve always written, but I didn’t call myself a writer until I was almost 30.  I’ve been writing ~ and reading ~ my whole life. My mom read us Shakespeare when I was a kid, and I loved books from an early age. I had an hour bus ride to and from school every day, and so my backpack was stuffed to the brim with books. I was ecstatic when I went from grade school to middle school because I’d exhausted the grade school library.  My first story called “The Silver Locket” was about a girl who went back in time to become her own great grandmother.  I had written things before but I hadn’t  thought about shaping them into a story until a friend who introduced me to the British children’s mysteries of Joan Aiken wrote a story that ended with a head rolling in a gutter. I edited the high school newspaper, wrote a little for our local paper, and won a prize for a poem, but I still didn’t call myself a writer.  Nobody I knew was a writer.  Authors were these mystical beings that lived somewhere else.  It wasn’t until I was almost thirty that I dared to call myself a writer, even though I was working as a technical editor. Then I began to take writers’ workshops and started a novel and the stories that eventually became the collection How to Be a Man. The reason I write is because it’s my passion. Because as a child I felt I had no voice. Because I love to read, and writing is like reading only better. Because I have to to stay sane—just ask my husband. Because I’m fascinated by people, and writing and reading is the closest you can get to another person’s consciousness. The reason I write may be slightly different from the purpose of my writing, which is to connect with people, to move them.

Which of your work has been published so far? Would you like to share a synopsis of your work?

This literary short story collection How to Be a Man is my first published book, but the stories themselves have been published in a number of literary magazines and have even been runners up for awards.  A synopsis: A girl whose self-worth revolves around masculinity, a bartender who loses her sense of safety, a woman who compares men to plants, and a boy who shoots his cranked-out father. These are a few of the hard-scrabble characters in Tamara Linse’s debut short story collection, How to Be a Man. Set in contemporary Wyoming—the myth of the West taking its toll—these stories reveal the lives of tough-minded girls and boys, self-reliant women and men, struggling to break out of their lonely lives and the emotional havoc of their families to make a connection, to build a life despite the odds. How to Be a Man falls within the traditions of Maile Meloy, Tom McGuane, and Annie Proulx.

What are your forthcoming writings?

Great question!  I have a novel coming out in July and another coming out next January.  The one in July is called Deep Down Things.  Set in contemporary Colorado, it’s about a young woman who falls in love with an idealistic young writer. They get pregnant, and he blames her, but because he’s idealistic he “does the right thing” and marries her.  Then they have a darling baby boy with a severe birth defect, and she tries to save her child and her marriage.  A point of interest: this book is told from four points of view, so you get not only her and his POV but also her brother’s and sister’s POVs, and they all have their own arcs.  The book coming out in January is historical fiction called Earth’s Imagined Corners, the first book in a trilogy.  Set in 1885 Iowa and Kansas City, it’s about a young woman whose father tries to force her to marry his grasping younger partner, and so she elopes with a kind man she just met who has a troubled past. 
Tamara on Ernie
What are your future plans?

Continue to write fiction and to publish. That’s the great thing about being a writer ~ you can go where your obsessions take you.

What four top most things you take care of while writing a book?

I assume you mean within the writing itself?  Characters and motivations have to be absolutely sound, but you also need a good forward-moving plot or your readers won’t care about those characters.  A good book involves well-rounded characters rubbing up against forward-moving circumstances. Other things include obsessive attention to word choice and editing and re-editing and editing again.
Linse Family
Your dream destination on Earth?

A better childhood ~ for everyone.

Your origin of birth and other countries you have visited/stayed. What best things you liked in these countries around the globe?

I was born and raised on a ranch in northern Wyoming, USA.  Being an Anglophile, I had always dreamed of visiting the British Isles, and so when I graduated with my master’s I visited Ireland for a week and England for a week. It was as fabulous as I expected, and if I were to live anywhere else it would be there.  (I’ve also spent a half a day in Canada and a half a day in Mexico.)  I think all people should get to know the world. Unfortunately, I have not had the chance to travel much, but I go there in my reading. The things I love are the small everyday things I’ve come across. Napoleon’s death mask.  The friend’s relatives I met in Dublin.  The bed and breakfast I stayed in in London. Going to church at a plumbers’ guild service in London’s financial district on a Friday afternoon. The food.  Walking where Virginia Woolf walked.

Your favorite time of the day?

There isn’t one specific time.  I was raised on a ranch and I was in between generations and essentially alone all the time.  I got used to that.  And so now that I’m an adult, I crave alone time.  So I love taking a late lunch and going to my favorite Mexican restaurant, eating nachos, and writing.

Your zodiac/sunsign?

I’m a Capricorn, and I identify with the steadfastness and dedication of that sign.  Pigheadedness is one of my best qualities.

Your favorite color and why?

This is going to sound weird, but I don’t have a favorite color.  They all have their plusses and minuses.  If it helps, I wear a lot of black, but people think you’re weird if you claim black as your favorite color.
Tamara rodeo queen
Your favorite book and why?

I couldn’t narrow it down to one.  I just couldn’t.  It’s often the book I’m reading, a passionate love affair with this book and this author. My writing gods are Virginia Woolf and Hemingway.  I love Woolf because she portrays what I try to ~ the social experience, what it’s like to live in a family and go through your day.  My favorites of hers are Mrs. Dalloway (because it’s exactly that) and To the Lighthouse. There’s this great passage in To the Lighthouse where she writes about a mother and son in the garden and the father comes up and the son hates the father in that moment because he takes the mother’s attention away.  There’s also this great part when she shows time passing by telling the story of a house.  I love Hemingway because he’s my natural inheritance in content and style, growing up the way I did in the American West.  I love “Big Two-hearted River” and For Whom the Bell Tolls. When I finished For Whom at two in the morning, I sobbed uncontrollably for an hour.

Your favorite celebrity and why?

I don’t really follow celebrities, and the people who I think of as really cool tend to be people who think a lot and have big ideas and create great art.
Tamara with broken leg
Your favorite food?

I don’t crave sugar and chocolate. What I crave is real food: mashed potatoes and warm bread with butter or toast.  Steak or hamburger.  A really nice mango peeled and sliced and sprinkled with lime juice. Also Mexican food, Ethiopian food, Indian food, Thai.  I love food from other countries.

State your signature line/tagline/best quote.

My blog is named Writer, Cogitator, Recovering Ranch Girl.  When I started the blog, I needed a tagline/title, something that helped me to stand out.  “Writer” was obvious.  I love old-timey words, and I had been finishing up a historical novel at the time, and so “cogitator” popped into my mind. I have friends who are “recovering alcoholics” (and “recovering Catholics”) and I thought that that fit me well—the idea that my childhood was something I needed to recover from.  As Maile Meloy wrote in her story “Ranch Girl,” you can’t have much worse luck than being born a girl on a ranch. 

The last line of your autobiography would be…

I would love to say, “And she lived happily ever after,” but I’ve long been disabused of that notion.  I guess that’s a perennial tension in my life ~ I want the world to be this beautiful place where everyone is nice to one another, but the pragmatist in me knows it’s not true.  And so, maybe, “What she wrote moved a great number of people.”

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