Interview with Natalie Standiford

Natalie Standiford is the author of numerous children’s and YA books, most recently How to Say Goodbye in Robot and Confessions of the Sullivan Sisters. She currently lives in New York City and plays the bass in an (almost) all-female rock band called Ruffian as well as a YA author band called Tiger Beat.

Why must you write? What would you do if you weren’t a writer? (Or, what was the best job you had before becoming an author?)

If I weren’t a writer I’d be an editor. I’ve always wanted to work with books and language in some way. In fact, I was an assistant editor of children’s books before I became a full-time writer, and it was a great job.

But the best job I ever had was as a part-time reader for a blind lawyer at the New York State Attorney General’s office. His specialty was Consumer Frauds. I read complaint letters from angry consumers out loud to him. Then he typed up his responses, which I proofread. It was an easy, fun job, and the lawyer was an interesting man to talk to. It was through him that I landed my first job in publishing: his ex-girlfriend was a children’s book editor at Random House and she told him that there was an opening for an editorial assistant. I applied and got the job. I was so excited to have a real job in publishing! I felt as if my life were finally beginning.

What two books do you find indispensable? Who has given you the greatest experience of the essence of creativity, its depths and eternity?

The dictionary is the book I refer to most often. I can’t stand to misspell or misuse words–it embarrasses me. I still use the Random House College Dictionary I was given on my first day of work at Random House.

If you could not send a reader all of your books, which one would you recommend first?

HOW TO SAY GOODBYE IN ROBOT. I tried to put everything I love in it: Baltimore, late-night radio, funky old bookstore/bars, the Ocean City boardwalk, corny haunted houses, cheesy pop songs from the ’70s, time travelers and other odd people…. I didn’t succeed in squeezing everything in, but I think it’s as close as I can come in one novel.

Which question did you once have, that you love most in retrospect (and have since answered or not answered)?

What kind of adult will I grow up to be? Will I be happy or will I be trapped in a life I don’t want?

I once wondered whether I had the talent and drive to be a writer. I had no way of knowing, and it felt like something out of my control. I’ve since learned that the drive is the important part, and I had it without being aware of it. Through all the obstacles and disappointments I’ve faced in my career (as every writer does), something has kept me going almost without thinking about it. I’m happy to know, now, that I can do it.

Where is the place in which you most love to write?

I suppose it’s the tiny office in my apartment. I’m not sure how much I love writing there but it’s where I do most of my work. I also like to write in bed but it’s too easy to fall asleep.

In my fantasy life I’d write in a room overlooking the ocean. Maybe someday.

What is the value of solitude to a writer?

Absolutely vital, to me at least. Even when I’m not writing, I need a lot of time alone just to let my thoughts wander and organize themselves, and to keep my mind open to the details that will help me do my work.

What advice would you give to a young person, or your younger self, about love?

I’m not sure I’m wise enough to give anyone advice about love! As far as I can tell, love is a delicate combination of clear-eyed honesty and self-delusion. Getting the right mix is the tricky part. You have to see your beloved for who he or she really is, and accept him or her, flaws and all. Then convince yourself that the flaws are the best part.

What is the value of sadness to a writer?

Sadness is a great source of material for a fiction writer. This will probably sound silly, but just before I started writing HOW TO SAY GOODBYE IN ROBOT my dear old cat died. I missed him fiercely and put a lot of my grief into writing that book. The book isn’t about mourning a cat but I’d like to think that sadness informs the tone of the book in a good way. And it made me feel better to know that my grief served a purpose. The great blessing of being a writer (or any kind of artist) is that you can use everything that happens to you, good or bad, in your work. So even sadness brings a kind of joy.

What book, story or poem brought you greatest comfort as a teen?

A friend of mine, an English professor, recently taught “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” by T.S. Eliot to her class, and discussing it with her reminded me of what a revelation that poem was to me in high school. It perfectly captures the existential despair I felt–that a lot of teens feel, I imagine–and even though it’s depressing, I found its complexity comforting. I felt understood when I read that poem. The sense of being numb, yet with an undercurrent of anger at the dull conventionality of adult life, felt so true to me at that age. “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons”–what teen wouldn’t shudder at that line, and vow never to let her life become that deadening? Doesn’t every generation of teens promise themselves they won’t let the adult world crush their spirit?

I must admit, however, that in a major crisis I usually turned to music for comfort.

In closing, what single best piece of advice would you give to a hopeful young writer, in a sentence?

Persist, revise, see your stories through to the end, and don’t forget that words and sentences and paragraphs and chapters have a music all their own.

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