10 Questions with 'Starling' Author Sage Stossel
Photo: Michael Callaghan / Penguin
Sage Stossel seems to have it all: a career with The Atlantic, filling roles as both an editor and cartoonist; a successful graphic novel called Starling (LitReactor's review); access to great bookstores in Harvard Square. Seriously, it leaves many of us drooling in envy
But when she was asked to choose her own super power, her answer surprised me. Read on to see what she has to say about her first story, selling her cartoons, and what she'd choose if she could be a super.
What was the first story you ever wrote, and what happened to it?
I don’t remember my first story, but a few years ago, my grandfather returned to me a story I’d written at his house when I was six — about a giant disembodied nose sneezing at night in the middle of the neighborhood, keeping everybody awake. I wish I knew what became of my very first story… though maybe it wasn’t that interesting, since I don’t remember it, and nobody seems to have saved it.
When you sold your first piece of writing, how did you celebrate?
In my case it was generally cartoons rather than prose that I was trying to get out into the world. After college, I started doing current events-based cartoons for the Atlantic web site, where I worked, and sometimes another publication would ask to reprint one. I was always excited, no matter the publication. But the first time the New York Times called to ask about including one of my cartoons in the Week in Review, I was ecstatic. I did my best to act calm and collected on the phone, but the second I hung up I yelped and started jumping around my office.
Tell us about your process: Pen, paper, word processor, human blood when the moon is full... how do you write?
I usually plan things out first on scratch paper using pen or pencil, then I do the actual writing on the computer. For prose, I use Microsoft Word. But if I’m writing text for a long-form cartoon, I usually use a program called BBEdit, since Microsoft Word has a tendency to change my idiosyncratic cartoon-related notes into what it assumes I really wanted to type.
What's the biggest mistake you've made as a writer?
I’ve probably made every mistake there is as a writer, but my most consistent frustration is how agonizingly slow the process is for me. I envy people who can tap out flowing, coherent paragraphs in seemingly no time at all.
What kind of catharsis did you achieve from your latest work?
It was satisfying to imagine, via Amy, what it might be like to go through life never having to feel physically intimidated, even as the interpersonal and professional aspects of her life are no easier than for the rest of us. It was also satisfying to draft certain scenes where she asserts herself in ways that I have a tendency not to do in my own life. And overall, having undertaken such a big project, it was satisfying just to see it all the way through to completion. By the end it felt as if I’d run a marathon.
Which fictional character would you most like to have a drink with, and why?
Maybe Nora Eldridge of Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs. She’d certainly be bracing to talk to — and inspiring, since by now she must be well on her way to artistic achievement. In any case, it would be convenient, since we both live in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Where do you buy your books?
For my own reading, I pretty much just go to the library. But I do like to buy books as presents, and since I live close to Harvard Square, I do most of my shopping at either the Coop or Harvard Book Store.
How do you handle a bad review of your work?
With bitterness, fuming, and lost sleep, unfortunately. I’ve been grateful that with the exception of one supercilious review by an author of poetry chapbooks (in which I was also misidentified as a man), the response to Starling so far has been positive. Knock wood…
What's the worst advice you hear authors give writers?
Offhand, I can’t think of any universally bad advice. But the process is so different for everyone that I could see how certain recommendations might be helpful for one writer but unhelpful — or even counterproductive — for another.
Assuming Starling isn’t YOUR alter-ego, i.e. you don’t actually have super-powers, what superpowers would you choose for yourself, if you were given the choice? Why?
As a socially avoidant person, I’m afraid I might choose invisibility and never be seen again! Which is why it’s probably just as well that I can’t assign myself superpowers…
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