Patty Dann has published three novels, STARFISH, MERMAIDS and SWEET & CRAZY. Herr work has been translated into French, German, Italian, Portuguese, Dutch, Chinese, Korean and Japanese. MERMAIDS was made into a movie, starring Cher, Winona Ryder and Christina Ricci. She has also written two memoirs, THE GOLDFISH WENT ON VACATION and THE BABY BOAT. Her publications include N.Y. Times, Chicago Tribune, Philadelphia Inquirer, Christian Science Monitor, O Magazine, Oregon Quarterly, Redbook, More, Forbes Woman and Poets & Writers. Dann teaches at the West Side YMCA in NYC. She was cited by New York Magazine as one of the “Great Teachers of NYC.”
Loren Kleinman (LK): When did you decide to become a writer?
Patty Dann (PD): When I was six years old, my mother took me to an exhibit of the Brontes’ tiny books, written in microscopic brown ink and I decided I wanted to become a writer. I went home and cut up tiny pieces of paper and sewed them together with blue thread. Then I wrote teeny masterpieces, that I hoped would be in an exhibit someday.
Soon after I heard the phrase “to walk in someone else’s shoes.” and I began imagining actually wearing other people’s shoes and feeling what their socks felt like, because I thought that’s what the Brontes would do.
LK: Who is your favorite character in your new book?
PD: I first wrote about Charlotte (named after Charlotte Bronte) Flax when she was fourteen in “Mermaids.” Charlotte is Jewish but yearns to be a nun. I’m Jewish, and like Charlotte, lived next door to a convent in a small town. The nuns seemed so peaceful as they walked by in their long black robes, much more so than in my wacky household. In “Starfish,” the sequel, Charlotte is 41 and is back in that house, although the convent has been turned into condominiums. I have the same yearnings for a simple life, and the beauty of toast, that Charlotte has. Elizabeth Bishop wrote about a writer having “the courage of one’s peculiarities.” Charlotte and I say yes to that.
But every so often I have to write closer to the bone and tell truths in a different way in memoir. I wrote about adopting our son in “The Baby Boat” and about my first husband dying when my son was four years old in “The Goldfish Went on Vacation.”
LK: Did you do any research before starting or during of the writing of the books?
PD: In preparation for “Mermaids” I read the Bible, both Old and New Testaments straight through several times – which I had never read. My mother read us the psalms but we had no formal religious training. I was a nun and saint junkie for several years. I read a thousand pages of nun and saint material, and probably wrote that many as well, but I end up writing books as spare as possible.
It’s like making a movie. You shoot for a month, 12 hours a day, six days a week, and you end up with a 90-minute film.
LK: What is your favorite book?
PD: “Ethan Frome” by Edith Wharton – I’m haunted by the sublimated sexuality, the triangle of the couple and the young girl, the sledding, the sparseness of the prose. Ethan lives with his horrible wife Zeena, what a name Zenobia! and is madly in love with his young niece. Trying to fix a broken pickle dish is as far as their passion gets, and then they are both mangled in a passionate sleigh ride. I read that every year, and each time I’m excited about it.
LK: You write WHAT?
People are always surprised when I say I wrote “Mermaids.”Once it’s established it’s not “The Little Mermaid,” the first question they ask is, “Did you get to meet Cher?” They do not care that I worked for years on that book, or I wrote two unpublished novels before I sold it. They do not care I have a collection of miniature books sewn together with thread that I wrote when I was six years old.
Yes, I met Cher. She’s great.
LK: What piece of advice would you give to other writers?
PD: In April of 1856, Charles Dickens wrote,
“I write with great care and pains (being passionately fond of my art, and thinking it worth any trouble), and persevere, and work hard. I am a great walker besides, and plunge into cold water every day in the dead of winter.”
I don’t know if I’m a fan of cold water, but I walk every day and try to swim as often as I can. I find swimming is a great antidote to the anguished feeling writing can cause. Of course you can feel anguished if you don’t write, but swimming is a great solution for both. My late husband was Dutch and used to say, “You’re in a much better mood when you get your fin wet.” I don’t know if he said it that way because he was Dutch, but I got the picture.
Where can you find Patty Dann?
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