Describe your first writing desk. How is it different (or not) from your current writing desk?
My first writing desk belonged to my maternal grandmother, a cottage oak pedestal with many drawers. I put a piece of glass on top that covered favorite photographs I looked at while typing. The desk I use now belonged to my paternal grandmother, an antique secretary with cubbyholes and a glass-fronted bookshelf filled with mementos. I moved from one grandmother to the other.
What is the one piece of writing advice that you value most?
My teacher Robert Boswell said I should use my most sensitive memories and feelings as material for my fiction. That’s what readers are most interested in reading about. Be honest; don’t sensationalize, sentimentalize, or cover over. Dig deeply and convey what you find with objectivity. Be Chekhov, who said his only job was to know what questions to ask.
What theme or symbol often emerges in your work? Why are you drawn to this theme/symbol?
A theme that keeps emerging in my fiction is a character unknowingly doing harm to someone else. I don’t know where the idea came from, but it’s the source of my discomfort with violence and my need to understand its causes.
Who are your heroes in real life? What do you admire most about them?
My current heroes are professionally ethical journalists. I subscribe to and read three newspapers every morning. Journalists sometimes risk their lives to make sure we are informed, which is especially important as our democracy is being threatened.
Do you like things to be carefully planned out or do you prefer to just go with the flow? Does this also apply to how you lay out a story?
My days are carefully planned, but not my fiction. Writing is a process of discovery. That’s the only way to tap into your subconscious where literary gems are waiting.
Who are your favorite writers? And who is your favorite hero/heroine in fiction?
Marilynne Robinson, Alice Munroe, Joan Silber, Elizabeth Strout, Jorge Louis Borges, Chekhov, Katherine Anne Porter, Carol Shields, W.B. Sebald, Chang-Rae Lee, Toni Morrison, J.M. Coetzee, Carson McCullers, Peter Taylor, Jenny Erpenbeck, Charles Baxter. Favorite heroine: Ruth, the narrator in Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping.
What’s the most interesting thing you’ve heard or read recently?
I long to understand why good people support the former president and his encouragement of white supremacy. I’ve come to understand that most of these people love tradition and are afraid of change. That doesn’t make their actions acceptable, but it helps me talk to them.
Does good writing result from best practices, magic, or a bit of both?
Think of the process as a Ouija board. You move the hand plate, tending to craft issues—language, dialogue, pacing, etc.—then magically see the message your story has revealed.
What is your next project?
I’m revising a novel that is loosely based on my journalistic experience interviewing the serial killer, Henry Lee Lucas. He confessed to hundreds of murders then recanted them, throwing the criminal justice system into chaos. My novel is about the lives of four people involved in the nationwide investigation while the killer is confessing. I’m showing why they got involved, how they influenced the investigation, and how their experiences affected them. The novel’s core idea is obsession.
If people want to learn more about your work, where should they go?
Nan Cuba is the author of Body and Bread, one of “Ten Titles to Pick Up Now” in O, Oprah’s Magazine and winner of the PEN Southwest Award and the Texas Institute of Letters Steven Turner Award. Cuba co-edited Art at our Doorstep: San Antonio Writers and Artists and published other work in Antioch Review, Harvard Review, Columbia, and Chicago Tribune’s Printer’s Row. She reported on the causes of extraordinary violence in LIFE, Third Coast, and D Magazine, and was featured in the Netflix docuseries, The Confession Killer. She was included in Texas Monthly’s “Ten to Watch (and Read),” is the founder and executive director emeritus of Gemini Ink, and serves on the advisory committee for the San Ysidro Ranch Writer’s Residency. Her website is http://nancuba.com.