Thursday, April 10, 2008

Author Q/A: Nancy Peacock. Of Brooms and Rooms

Very few writers persevere at their craft without day jobs -- or night jobs, or flexible part-time jobs that pay the bills and make it possible to write that novel, memoir, essay collection, screenplay, or volume of poetry. Sometimes, those rent-paying gigs are writing-related: teaching, editing, proofreading. More often, you'll find writers in other jobs, across dozens of fields of endeavor.
Nancy Peacock wrote and published a debut novel, and a second novel, while cleaning houses and thought little about her chosen way to support herself. In fact, as an independent house cleaner, the job allowed her to make her own hours and choose (or tactfully reject) clients, and was mentally stress-less enough to allow her to return to her writing without the brain drain common among writers who work more traditional jobs in say, marketing or fundraising.

But others were not so blasé about her work choice. Her literary colleagues were always surprised to hear of it, and not long after a tabloid magazine shouted, "Here's One for the Books: Cleaning Lady Is an Acclaimed Author," Peacock knew what her next book would be.

A Broom of One's Own,
just out from Harper Perennial, is her memoir of house cleaning, stocked with equal parts behind-the-scene home-owner tales and Peacock's endeavors to maintain a literary life. She answered some of my questions recently.

Q & A with Nancy Peacock, author of
A Broom of One's Own

Lisa Romeo: When did you know you had a memoir? Were you collecting house-cleaning stories all along, or did you decide on a memoir and then go back to recollect the experiences?

Nancy Peacock: Although I'd quit housecleaning, I'd had to return to it, so I was still cleaning a few houses when I started working on Broom. Actually, a friend of mine suggested that I write about housecleaning, and once I thought about it, I decided that I really did have a lot to say on the subject of that particular job. I knew it was going to be part memoir and part writing manual. The main thing that I wanted to do, beginning with the first essay about being featured in the National Enquirer, was be open about my struggles with writing and earning a living. And show by example of my life, that a writing life can take many forms.

LR: You write about people whose houses you cleaned - and even if, as I'm assuming, their names and some identifying characteristics were changed -- did you let them know they were going to appear in your book? Was there any feedback, positive or negative, about that?

NP: I only cleared it with one client - and that was my ex-boyfriend and his wife, (who are) James and Lillian in the book. They were and still are my friends, and I wanted to make sure that they were comfortable with what I wrote. I've changed enough details - such as names and locations of houses - that it's unlikely anyone who knows these people would recognize them. I also told stories that only a housecleaner would know.

LR: In the book, you skirt around (artfully) many details of your personal life. Was that intentional or more organic? Are you not keen on revealing more personal areas of life in print?

NP: I mention my husband and my studio and my writing, but all that was organic to the material. The structure of the book dictated that I wouldn't go deeply into my own home - but trust me, it had (and has) its share of dust bunnies.

LR: You were fond of certain housecleaning customers, and rather disdainful of others (rightfully so). Did you find yourself, in the crafting process of the book, searching for extremes, or did they flow naturally from the memories?

NP: They flowed naturally. Some of the people whose houses I cleaned were extreme - for instance the family that walked around in states of semi-nudity. Others were extremely nice, respectful of me, and appreciative of my work. Both stood out in my mind, for different reasons, as unforgettable.

LR: What skills from your fiction writing did you find most helpful to you when writing this creative nonfiction book?

NP: Telling a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end. Because each chapter of Broom focused on a particular house and its people, as well as a particular struggle I was having with writing, I had to wrap each story up with beginning, middle and end.

LR: Likewise, were there any techniques or habits from fiction writing you found unhelpful in writing memoir?

NP: No - not really. Not in this book. I think that writing a more traditional memoir, about a time in life that was difficult, could be troublesome. I think the temptation to embellish could be great, as we've seen from the fake-memoir trend.

LR: What else about the nonfiction genre surprised you as a writer?

NP: It surprised me how easy it was to write this book. I am just finishing up my third novel, and I had forgotten what a struggle it is, in writing a novel, to keep all the threads of a story going - to make sure that the characters and storyline are consistent - and that things fit. It takes many, many drafts for the characters and plot to evolve. It can be quite frustrating at times, but I didn't have that to contend with while writing Broom.

LR: Was developing the "I" narrator character easy for you since as a novelist you are used to thinking of character development, or was it difficult to think of the "I" character as you and yet also as a character?

NP: I love first person.
Life Without Water is written in first person, but I had been writing in third until Broom. Of course the "I" of a memoir, is very different than the "I" of fiction. It wasn't hard in this case. I have written about myself before, somewhat unsuccessfully, but with Broom so much of the book focuses on the people in the houses that I cleaned. That gave the character of "me" plenty of places to push off of. Also - the "I" in this book really is me, so I didn't need to do any developing. I just remembered the stories and the way I felt at the time - and worked with that.

LR: I found the book a delightful balance between literary nonfiction and an engaging popular memoir to enjoy, say, on the beach. Was this a conscious strategy, to have artistic prose carrying an everywoman theme, but still be assessable to the casual reader?

NP: I never have a conscious strategy, but it's delightful to hear that it worked out.

LR: Did you write the book in the order it eventually appears, or was each chapter a separate piece, which you then rearranged? Or did you get the "bones" of the book down first, and then go back and develop each chapter more fully?

NP: For the first draft, I wrote one chapter a week. I began each one in long hand, in my journal. Then I entered it in the computer, edited it, and let it go. Once I had a collection, I went through with more editing. Then my husband and I went through it together for yet more editing. He's got a good eye for prose and I learned a lot working with him. (It's great to have free editing!) After the book was accepted, my editor at Harper Perennial, Carolyn Marino, suggested that I rearrange the essays to create more of a narrative arc. I think that improved the book a great deal.

LR: What are you at work on now?

NP: I am literally about to send my third novel to my agent, having completed the final draft today. I think I'm going to mine some of my short stories after that - and there's a grant I want to apply for which will take some time. In a few months I'll most likely start another novel.

LR: Any advice to first-time memoir writers?

NP: Be honest.


Rene said...

That was an interesting interview. Actually, I think housecleaning and writing go hand in hand. I do some of my best mental writing when I'm cleaning house. It doesn't require a lot of focus and you can let your mind wander while still doing a good job. I can also see the attraction for its practicality. The hours, the selectiveness and you certainly don't bring home pressures from the office. Plus the opportunity to see another person's life so intimately without being involved.

KATE EVANS said...

I love it: "I never have a conscious strategy, but I'm glad it worked out."

Power to the unconscious!

Lyz said...

This was great, and really interesting. Thanks!

Melanie Gold said...

Very cool story. Obviously the tabloid paper was trying to shame her, but I'm glad she didn't take the bait!