Donna Miscolta: The Accidental Novelist
Presented with all the past themes and prompts used for Humanities Washington’s annual Bedtime Stories fundraising event, Donna Miscolta chose “Pillow Talk.” The prompt helped her build a story around her frequent youth protagonist, Angie Rubio, placing the fifth-grade girl at an awkward sleepover in the mid-1960s.
“I think Angie is a character a lot of people can identify with, especially coming up through school and feeling how you want to fit in but don’t know quite how,” said Miscolta, who’s now crafting a full manuscript around the character. “There’s always something that’s tripping you up.”
Miscolta is the Seattle author of two published novels — When the De La Cruz Family Danced (2011) and the generational saga Hola and Goodbye: Una Familia in Stories (2016) — plus a wealth of short stories and essays. Her latest Angie Rubio story gets its first public airing at the twentieth annual Bedtime Stories reading, alongside fellow writers Jess Walter and Charles Johnson and master of ceremonies Nancy Pearl.
You started writing as an adult. Do you ever look at your work now and think, “I could never have written this when I was younger?”
I didn’t start thinking about being a writer until I was 39. I think I had wanted to be a writer for probably most of my life, but the circumstances of just growing up, where I grew up and how I grew up — I just didn’t believe people like me became writers, so I never even thought about doing that. But I think at a certain point in your life that deeper, suppressed feeling has to come out, and it did. My kids were young, my husband was starting a business, we had a house that needed fixing up, I was working full-time. It was the sort of time when your life is very busy, but still very incomplete. There’s something really missing, and I think for me that was writing. It took me several years before I had a complete manuscript, and then I threw it out and I started over. So over a period of, I guess, ten years, I finally finished a manuscript, and then it was a long process of revising and trying to get it out in the world. I sort of regret those years when I wasn’t writing, when I hadn’t allowed myself to think that I could be a writer, and I often wonder what I would have written about when I was younger. I started writing late, about the things that I was ready to write about.
You’re also a writer of reviews. Does the role of critic intervene in the act of reading a book?
I do think I read books differently, and I certainly read them more deeply, if I know I’m going to write about them. There’s so many books to read, and if I’m just reading for pleasure, I probably don’t reflect on it as much as I should, because I’m anxious to get on to the next book. It is a different experience, because sometimes, you’re really analyzing a book. Most of us don’t really do that when we’re reading just for pleasure. I think there’s value in doing both, because when you’re reading for pleasure, you want to get that immediate visceral reaction, and that can be enough. For me, it’s like going to a movie, getting that pleasure and not necessarily breaking it down — whereas reading a book you’re going to write about, there’s something there that you’re connecting with, and finding that thing is a different kind of pleasure. How is the author conveying meaning through structure, or language, or character?
Have you ever had the experience where a short story you’re writing grows to become a novel or novella?
When I first started writing, I was writing stories just to learn about the basic structure of storytelling, and I don’t think at the time I meant to write a novel — except in the second class I took. Rebecca Brown was our teacher, and she gave us an assignment to write the first chapter of a novel. I’m not sure what the intention of that assignment was, because we were in a short story class, but it made me think about the differences. It was really roomy to think about characters and backstory and plot, because I think for me, plot was a challenging thing to think about. I think that my impulse is to write stories — but I have this novel manuscript that came out of a short story, Hola and Goodbye. I see Angie Rubio as sort of a collection of short stories. So I’m starting to see that short stories are where I’m naturally drawn, and novels are sort of something that happen to me.
Aren’t we all collections of short stories, in the long run?
I think that’s really true, especially when I think about Angie — you look at these episodes that are all strung together, and you do see this kind of arc of a life.
You’re speaking to me from the Mineral School residency at Mount Rainier. How valuable is a residency for your creative process?
First of all, you just have this uncluttered time. I have two manuscripts I brought to work on, and I have the whole day in front of me to work on them. It’s just a huge gift to be able to focus and think about a manuscript, without having to chop it up in pieces when you’re busy with your day job — never getting to look at it in full. And that’s been a great gift. I think residencies are really critical to going deep into the work and completing it. For me, I think it’s just being away from my regular space. I have a desk at home, but it’s not separate from the rest of my life, like being at a residency is. You have your bed, you have your desk, meals are made for you, so you don’t have to think about anything except writing. You can come close to it if you have all the right things working for you at home, but I don’t know if it’s quite the same.