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Author Interview — Special to

This Is How I Speak b y Sandi Sonnenfeld

This Is How I Speak by Sandi Sonnenfeld

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This Is How I Speak: Diary of A Young Woman  is an intimate portrait of a graduate student trying to come to terms with the end of her dance career even as she embarks on a new one as a writer. The book explores the complex relationships between men and women, mentor and student, and the precarious balance between ambition and fear, anger and forgiveness that helps the author discover her own voice in a world already filled with the voices of others.

ClubMemoirThis Is How I Speak is written in diary format, spanning your days in a MFA fiction writing program.  When you were keeping your journal at that time in your life, were you conscience of the fact that one day you might want to publish the work, or parts of it?

Sonnenfeld : I had been keeping a journal since my freshman year of college and by the time I wrote the entries for This Is How I Speak, I probably had filled twenty notebooks, and never once saw the journals as anything but a place to record my thoughts and perhaps serve as a mine for potential short stories.  But somehow that first year in the MFA program, the quality and the subject of the entries changed — there was a cohesiveness about them and a sense of narrative that the writing never had before. Partly I think it was simply that I had moved 3000 miles away from my friends to attend grad school and the stories I normally would I have told them, I put into the diary instead. I also think that the traumatic events recounted in the diary, most notably surviving a sexual assault, made me really take a hard look at myself, not unlike the work one would do for creating a character for a novel, so the book seemed to evolve naturally.

ClubMemoir: Passages in your book read more like typical narrative than diary form such as several paragraphs of dialogue or a sentence or two of background on a new character you're introducing to the reader, even though you may have known them for years.  For example, when you introduce Nathan Katz to the reader you throw in a parenthetical ("whom I met at Mount Holyoke when he served as a writer-in-residence.")  Did a lot of this come through in the process of your turning your journal into a book, or is this typical of the way you keep a diary?

Sonnenfeld: Both my publisher and I very much wanted to keep the diary entries exactly how they were when I first wrote them.  In a few instances for reasons of clarity, I did add descriptives to a few entries during the editing process to help make it easier for the reader to understand the context.  But surprisingly, perhaps because I already was employing so much of the narrative format, a lot of those tags already had been included in the original work.

ClubMemoir: How and when did you decide that this period in your life needed to be published as a book?

Sonnenfeld: I didn't so much decide, as respond to opportunities.  My publisher initially began as an editor of an anthology of journal entries.  I had seen the ad she posted in Poets & Writers calling for entries, so I submitted 20 pages of the diary that I thought were the most interesting, and she accepted them.  Once I decided to share part of the diary, I guess it just seemed natural to share the rest, especially when I began receiving encouraging letters from potential publishers.

ClubMemoir: Many people, especially a lot of writers and other creative people, record their daily lives regularly in journal format. What do you think it takes in a journal, or one's life, to turn those entries into a book published in diary format as opposed to using the entries as a jumping off point for writing a more narrative memoir?

Sonnenfeld:  I believe that a compelling story, and good writing, no matter what the form is the key to any successful publication.  Most people do write diaries strictly for themselves and likely aren't paying attention to their writing style or focusing on narrative techniques such as character development, dialog, description, etc.  I think because I was writing these entries while enrolled in the MFA workshops, I was practicing those literary techniques on a daily basis, so the diary immediately took on a narrative feel.  Diaries and journals serve a very important personal purpose for many people, and they shouldn't sacrifice the personal growth it offers them in an attempt to publish. I think in some ways, my own success with This Is How I Speak was something of a fluke, because many of the elements came together unconsciously.

ClubMemoir: Getting published in diary format is very difficult these days. How long did you search for a publisher before signing on with Impassio? And what are any rejection  stories you can share with us?

Sonnenfeld:It wasn't an easy task convincing a publisher to buy the book. I shopped the manuscript around for more than 10 years. I was even short-listed twice by some New York publishers, but everyone seemed frightened by the diary format, urging me to turn it into a traditional memoir or novel. There also were quite a few so-called "agents" who "agreed" to represent me in exchange for a huge "editing" fee--so I would urge all writers to be careful of entering into any agreements with agents or publishers who expect you to pay them (unless your intention is self-publication) instead of the other way around.  I had all but abandoned the idea of publication, when Olivia Dresher of Impassio Press came into the picture. I had worked with her years before on an anthology of journal writing and when she casually asked me what else I was working on, somehow or other I just knew that she would understand what This Is How I Speak was about. She did, and for that I am very grateful to her.

ClubMemoir: Who is the target audience of This Is How I Speak? And what do you hope readers will take away from this book?

Sonnenfeld:  Writers, of course.  But also any woman who has suffered or known someone who has experienced a great trauma, whether that be sexual assault, illness, political or social oppression or any other life-altering event. I do not want This Is How I Speak to be viewed as a book about victimization, but rather a hopeful book about the challenges and rewards of finding one's own voice after a great trauma, especially in a society that is already so crowded with the voices of others.

ClubMemoir: What is the most valuable lesson you learned during the entire publishing process of this book?

Sonnenfeld: Be humble.  Be grateful.   Be persistent.  Let others help you.

ClubMemoir: Who are some of the writers who have influenced you?

Sonnenfeld: Margaret Atwood.  Joan Didion.  Barbara Kingsolver. Anais Nin. F. Scott Fitzgerald.  Isabelle Allende. Basically, women and men of feeling who still know how to tell one heck of a story.

ClubMemoir: What book is currently on your bed side table?

SonnenfeldParis to the Moon by Adam Gropnik, which recounts his experiences while living in Paris five years with his wife and small son.

ClubMemoir: What tip or piece of advice would you give to writers pounding away on their first memoir?

Sonnenfeld: Be persistent.  If you intend to publish, always ask yourself if what you are putting down on the page would be of interest to anyone other than you.  By that I mean, are you telling the story in such a way that it compells the reader to turn the next page?  If you haven't yet learned all the important elements of narrative, buy a book or take a writing workshop and study them.  Don't take a workshop in memoir, but in fiction writing, because I think it will help you learn what makes a story work.

ClubMemoir: Any additional comments you'd like to make?

Sonnenfeld: Hard work and a willingness to be flexible are just as important as talent.

About the Author 

Sonnenfeld.jpg Sandi Sonnenfeld was born in Queens, New York and grew up on Long Island. Drawn to the arts at a very early age, Sonnenfeld studied ballet for more than 15 years.  She attended Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts, where she majored in both English and dance, graduating magna cum laude.  After a brief stint performing with a professional dance troupe in Boston, Sonnenfeld enrolled in the MFA program in fiction writing at the University of Washington, where she studied under National Book Award winner Charles Johnson. Since that time, Sonnenfeld has published more than 30 short stories, essays, and journalism pieces in a variety of publications.  Sonnenfeld currently lives in Seattle, where she is working on a short story collection and a series of personal essays.  This Is How I Speak is her first book.


This interview was conducted by Sheree Curry Levy.
This interview may not  be reprinted in whole or in part without the consent of
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