Lydia Peelle is a writer and a teacher. Her latest novel, The Midnight Cool, is the story of two freewheeling horse traders torn between civic responsibility and personal freedom when America enters WWI. And it is terrific. When you finish it, read her short stories. When you finish those, wait for what she does next. It will be worth the wait. Here, she discusses curiosity, fear, and failure.
How do you describe yourself? How do you describe your work?
I am going to first and foremost describe myself as a left-handed person. Which means I do everything backwards and upside down. It’s a bit of an impediment in the modern world. But I also think that my right-brained way of being contributes to my curiosity about the world, which I’ve had since I was a kid; it’s what led to me being a writer, I suppose.
I also am very dedicated to a task once I start it, and I have a very high tolerance for pain. Both of which are great traits to have when you’re writing a novel.
To the second question, the curiosity I feel about the world is a curiosity about its unsolvable mysteries, the questions that are ultimately unanswerable, but are so worth chasing. That’s what I hope to do in my work.
Is that curiosity innate or is it something that you’ve actively cultivated?
It’s a combination of both. It takes cultivation because it takes a lot of energy to be curious. At this stage in my life, it would certainly be a lot easier to not ask difficult questions and explore and play. That is such a big part of curiosity: play.
Is there anything in particular you do that helps to nourish that curiosity?
Reading is a big part of that, always making room and time to read. Making sure that I walk as much as possible is also a big part of that. I find if a few days have gone by and I haven’t been out for a walk, I am not engaged in the world in the way that I want to be. And it doesn’t need to be a big walk through the woods, though I love those: it can just be a walk around the neighborhood, a walk through the back lot of the K-Mart, a walk down my alley.
What impulses serve you best in the creative process?
The impulse to have a routine and the impulse to stick to it. Which I guess would be the opposite of impulsive behavior. But so much of it is sitting at the desk day after day and knowing that it’s not all going to be sparks and fireworks, and in fact it is mostly not sparks and fireworks. That it is just sitting down and putting one sentence after another.
How do you sustain your focus through the long arc of writing a novel?
The writing of this novel, which took seven years, was such a marathon of endurance that it became entirely embedded in my life. My life and the novel were one and the same, even though I had a lot of other things going on that weren’t the novel.
I think that that’s what it took to finish it was truly making it a part of myself in such a way that if I hadn’t finished it, it would have been a permanent hole in my heart. That’s what kept me going in the years that I felt that it was never going to get done. And there were literally years that I feared that it wouldn’t get done.
What did you do with that fear?
What I do with my fear of not being able to finish a project is I go and sit down at my desk. Sometimes that is for better and sometimes that is for worse. Because it certainly was a driving force in the long years of writing this novel, but also I think that it hindered me some because I would tend to forget that work on this book wasn’t necessarily limited to sitting at my desk and writing.
If I had taken that fear and instead gone for a walk or taken out my hula hoop or banjo or gone dancing, those things could have moved me through those moments of fear – and moved me forward in my work – instead of just chaining myself to my desk chair.
How much of a role does the company you keep play in your creative process?
More and more, I see how important it is and how important just having conversations with people who inspire me are and the interplay of ideas. It doesn’t need to be face-to-face. I have a weekly phone call with a friend who’s a writer and we leave it feeling so energized. Even just emailing with a friend about writing or life can so feed the creative process.
Is there anything in your life you’ve let go of that has benefited you as a writer? As a person?
I am a Virgo and the desire for perfection is something that I’ve had to let go of in my work. It’s been a very liberating thing to let go of. Because in the end, every creative endeavor is a failed pursuit. You never capture it as precisely as you saw it in that first big-bang moment of synthesis. In fact, I have so successfully let go of the quest for perfection [that] I am more and more interested in embracing failure – though I don’t know that failure is the opposite of perfection. I guess I want to embrace imperfection.
Can you say a little more about what that means for you?
I think for me it boils down to moving forward and always moving forward. Part of the struggles I had with writing this book were the times I would fall into a desire to get it perfect.
I think of these times as being in the horse latitudes, which in sailors’ terms are belts of calm air and sea, the doldrums in the ocean where there’s no wind and you lose all momentum in your sails. I could see myself falling into the horse latitudes when I would start thinking about getting something perfect or getting something right. And now, I’m so much more interested in movement.
Did that come about as a result of this writing?
Writing this novel taught me that. I’m very grateful for the process for teaching me that. It was a liberation.
What things are worth being totally committed to?
One’s art. One’s own definition of success, [and] constantly reassessing that. That’s something I do daily, almost hourly, now that my book has been out in the world for two weeks. It’s easy to fall into the trap of defining the success of a project by what other people think of it. But for me, the real success was finishing it. Even knowing that deep in my heart, it is still easy to be lured by other visions of success.
Do you have a counter to that?
What I’ve been doing is picking up the book and holding it and having it as an object in front of me and thinking about all the years that I dreamed of it and wished for it and worked my tail off for it. That’s where I go to reconnect with that feeling of accomplishment.
If you’re feeling depleted, how do you restore yourself?
I forget to restore myself usually. That goes back to this idea of living in this illusion that working is strictly limited to working. I went cross-country skiing one day last month and that one hour of being out in the woods in the snow did more for my work than two weeks of sitting at my desk tugging at my hair and trying to write.
Can you say anything about your next project?
Right now it feels full of diverse possibilities, big and unwieldy. I am so excited about it and excited by it and also scared by it and daunted by it. I feel so good that it took me this very long time to figure out how to write this novel ultimately in order to prepare myself for what is next, something I see as a far more challenging project.
I don’t even quite know what it’s going to be. It’s very amorphous in my mind. So when I think about it, it just has so much potential. For me, that’s my favorite part of the creative process: that moment of potential when it’s just forming in your mind and it could be anything.
What’s the best-kept secret of being an adult?
With an open mind and an open heart, one’s capacity for love expands the longer one has been in the world.