We Asked Alice: A Q & A with Alice Sebold
After living the majority of her life on the east coast, award-winning author Alice Sebold applied and was accepted to UC Irvine’s MFA graduate creative writing program in the 90s. Her most notable work to date is the The New York Times bestselling novel, “The Lovely Bones.” Sebold’s other works include her first book, “Lucky,” and her most recent, “The Almost Moon.” “The Lovely Bones” sold over a million copies and tells the tragic story of a young girl that was raped and murdered. The story continues by following the girl’s spirit who watches over the aftermath of her friends’ and family’s struggles to cope with the dark experience. Sebold is great with her words and captivates audiences.
Aleece Reynaga: How did your time spent studying at UCI contribute to the accomplished writer/person you are today?
Alice Sebold: UCI has a false world feeling about it somehow, or it did for me, especially since I’d come from 10 years of working two or three jobs at a time in Manhattan. I often left my apartment on Amherst Aisle (I had no car when I came) and almost immediately felt too unclean to be walking the sunny streets of southern California. But the false world, for all its feeling of sterility and isolation, was very good for my work. Gone were the voices of literary New York strivers who condemned before they gave new work a chance. Instead I met Aimee Bender in my class, who is still one of my closest friends. Her words were bombs in the shape of bubbles and she hadn’t had all the East Coast snobbery drummed into her. I watched Aimee and she opened me up to have faith in whatever weird, wacky work I wanted to do. All permission. No judgment. That was my experience at Irvine. Also, great teachers and great fellow students. If you don’t have a good group for your MFA it can be grim, believe me.
AR: Where did you spend most of your time on the UCI campus? Did you have any favorite places to go or study?
AS: I keep odd hours and so another thing I loved about the UCI area was how I could go out and walk in the strangely clean and man-made park behind Amherst. There were hundreds of bunnies in that park and I walked before first light so they would dart in and out of the shrubs like dark bullets. I loved that. And I also liked the air in Irvine, which compared to the Lower East Side was pretty amazing.
AR: How long did it take you to write “The Lovely Bones” from the day you started putting ideas to paper to the day it was published?
AS: I’d say a good five years from start to finish. Part of that was stopping for 18 months to draft some of “Lucky” before returning to “The Lovely Bones.” I had to get the ‘me’ out of Bones and out in another way, thus, the memoir.
AR: How did you feel after your first book “Lucky” was published?
AS: My whole goal in my life was to be published. I’d been leaning forward waiting for that moment for 36 years. But I’d dreamed of being a novelist or a poet, so the strange reality that I entered published life with a memoir was a bit unsettling. Luckily or not, as it turned out, the book was such a quiet publication that I didn’t really have to go on tour (or shall we say, no one exactly asked me to go on tour!) and talk about the gruesome facts of it. This was a blessing to me in terms of privacy and keeping my eye on the ball — that ball being a novel I had yet to finish.
AR: What advice would you give to other people looking to fulfill their dreams, whether it be in writing, engineering or anything?
AS: I’m a big believer that it is desperation above all other things that is at the root of success. A bit of self-hatred, some perfectionism, ambition, seething resentment for how life has treated you … all those are good too. I don’t believe that we’re all destined to dream big and achieve those dreams. My feeling is that it is drive and desperation, commitment, discipline and holding on long enough so something might actually happen for you (the whole time while doing your work faithfully for the sheer insane love of it) that ends up in success. Also, success can be defined in so many ways. We sort of have a very achievement-oriented system here in the States but the entire quality of life has to be taken into account as well, if one is to say they are a success. A man in his 70s I once worked a job with (he is now 89 and painting away in the mountains outside Riverside) blew my mind when he said, “I don’t care if my sons are bums, as long as they’re happy.” That was 180 degrees away from how I was raised, but there is true wisdom and freedom in that view too. So sometimes I dress like a bum after a long day of work at my desk. I go to the grocery and very few people seem to care. My work is my focus on those days and being a bum sartorially allows me to return to my desk without having had to enter the world of judgment and measurement that we all face every day. Maybe I wasn’t clean enough to walk the streets of Irvine after all, but they certainly set me on the path to the life I lead today.