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(Almost) 10 Questions for Meg Pinto

The day I arrived on the butter schooner a cow had fallen off the cliff. Its carcass was found on the beach in the cove below, near the high tide line, by some men waiting to load the hogs and butter onto the boat for the return trip to San Francisco. Everyone agreed the ranch foreman would be angry, but these things happen. Cows fall from the sky into the sea.
—from "Butter Schooner," Volume 63, Issue 1 (Spring 2022)

Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
When I was in my twenties, I wrote two stories about women who were quite a bit older than I. In one, a woman living in Rome realizes that people have stopped referring to her as Signorina and now address her as Signora. In the other, a woman, probably nearing seventy, remembers a long-ago love affair that exposed her fundamental independence, but also her innate selfishness. I was interested in the characters’ interior lives, in their sense of themselves in relation to others. Apparently this has always been a rich vein for me: many of my stories feature prickly women who do not easily forge links to the people around them. I love working with voice, and that first manifested itself in these two early stories. I often write in the first person, creating a character through her (sometimes his) own words, which reveal (or conceal) what each really knows about her- or himself.

What writers or work have influenced the way you write now?
I’ve had to recognize that what I read and write is not fashionable. I admire 19th-century novelists like Trollope, Dickens, and James—James especially for his psychological acuity. Thank heaven, I don’t write sentences that are three pages and seventeen clauses long; I can be quite abbreviated in my own style at times. (A while ago I won a contest with a story of 720 words.) But I have a deep appreciation for those authors’ depiction of complicated humanity.

What other professions have you worked in?
I’ve never strayed far from the word. I started as a high school teacher and then taught writing in colleges and writing workshops. I moved into documentary film when I felt utterly defeated by a foot-high stack of papers to grade, despite loving the classroom. The collaborative aspect of film was a revelation. Yes, I was occasionally frustrated by not having the final say, but I also reveled in the chance to spark off other people. And I found the marriage of word and image magical.

What inspired you to write Butter Schooner?
I grew up in Northern California, so the setting was completely familiar to me, and deeply beloved. Point Reyes is as much a character in this story as the teacher is, which spoke to the pleasure I take in wild places. The nameless protagonist was easy for me. I had worked on a PBS documentary on the history of the American teacher, and so I felt I absolutely knew this person. The Eastern young women who took up the challenge of teaching “at the West” in the 19th century were pretty indomitable. They had to like adventure and challenge, had to be tough and tough-minded. I read their diaries and letters and came to admire them enormously.

Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
Clearly, the lure and mystery of intense nature are catnip for me. In a pandemic-time story, I found myself writing a first-person narration about someone living in the woods who had become almost feral. But I have an urban sensibility too. I’ve set stories in New York and Chicago. Those took place in the 19th/early 20th century, so I move through time, as well. I’ve sporadically lived in Italy, because my husband is an art historian. Like James (see above), I think displacing American characters to a foreign setting situates them in both isolation and relief. They have to rethink, reimagine and redefine who they actually are.

Who typically gets the first read of your work?
My sister is my first and best reader. Then my husband sees whatever I’ve written. The limitation regarding my sister is simply that she knows me so well and can immediately see what I’m trying to do. My husband is often my fact-checker. He’ll read an entire story and his sole comment is, “That temple was actually erected in 72 CE.” In any case, both my readers are extremely supportive. I haven’t been in a writers group for a long time, and I sort of miss it. But I carry on with my two faithful critics.

What are you working on currently?
During the pandemic I’ve been walking a lot. I spend that time listening to music, including by Bruce Springsteen. I realized that if The Boss can give us an entire narrative (they met in high school, life wasn’t kind) in three minutes, I should be able to write viable short/short fiction in under five or six pages. Like many people’s, my attention span has been limited lately, and really brief stories have been my mainstay work for the past two years.

What are you reading right now?
My husband reads aloud to me, and right now we’re a third of the way through a lesser-known Trollope, The McDermotts of Ballycloran. Our last outing was a Raymond Chandler noir, which I loved. What a genius for description that man had! For my own reading, I’m in a book group that tackles one book of historical fact and one book of historical fiction in tandem. We’ve read everything from Conrad, Orwell and Nabakov to murder mysteries set in Elizabethan times. Now we’re back in the Roman era, with Mary Beard’s Pompeii and Robert Harris’s Pompeii. I have a funny feeling it all blows up.

MEG PINTO grew up in northern California, moved east for college, and stayed. She has an MFA from the University of Massachusetts. Pinto has taught writing at Smith and Princeton, as well as in public housing settings. She’s worked in documentary film, including as scriptwriter for a PBS series on the history of the American teacher.

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