Marissa Bell Toffoli

Interview With Writer Lucille Lang Day

In author interview, books, editors, fiction, memoir, poetry, writing on January 24, 2014 at 3:52 pm

Lucille Lang Day

Lucille Lang Day. Photo by Marissa Bell Toffoli (2013).

An introduction to writer and editor Lucille Lang Day. She is the author of eight poetry collections, a number of short stories and creative nonfiction pieces, and the children’s book, Chain Letter. Her latest book, Married at Fourteen, won the 2013 PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Literary Award in the category of memoir. Day holds an MA in English, an MFA in Creative Writing, an MA in Zoology, and a PhD in Science/Mathematics Education. She’s also the founder and director of a small press, Scarlet Tanager Books.

Quick Facts on Lucille Lang Day

  • Website: 
  • Home: Oakland, California
  • Comfort food: white wine
  • Recent top reads: Holding Silvan by Monica Wesolowska, The Water Will Hold You by Lindsey Crittenden, Searching for Mercy Street by Linda Gray Sexton, Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter, Wild by Cheryl Strayed, Dear Life by Alice Munro
  • Current reads: Bloomsbury Anthology of Contemporary Jewish American Poetry, edited by Deborah Ager and M E Silverman

What are you working on at the moment?  

I’ve just completed a poetry manuscript called Becoming an Ancestor.  It’s about my ancestors, my descendants, my grandchildren, family and mortality. I just put the manuscript together in November 2013, although I’ve been working on the poems since 2003. I’m also working on a short story collection, and I have about a dozen stories so far.

What spurred you to write your memoir, Married at Fourteen?

Well, I guess I’ve always wanted to tell the story. Over the years, when I would tell people that I was married at fourteen, had my first child at fifteen, divorced at sixteen, and remarried at seventeen, then left him again at eighteen because he didn’t want me to go back to school, people would say, “Oh, you should write a book about that.” I became interested when I realized other people were drawn to the story, and also because I felt I had something to say about teen mothers and juvenile delinquents. I was a delinquent before getting married. I shoplifted, cut school, drank, and I took my father’s car with a boyfriend and ran away to Los Angeles, all when I was thirteen.

In writing this book, I wanted it to be creative nonfiction. I didn’t want to write a didactic book that summed up what I learned or what teenage mothers and juvenile delinquents could do to get their lives back on track. I wanted to show the potential for change that teen mothers and juvenile delinquents can have, to upend stereotypes that say things like juvenile delinquents become adult criminals or teen mothers have no future. In the first half of the book, I tried to capture what I was thinking and feeling between the ages of twelve and nineteen as I was having all those adventures. I wanted to show how I was growing, and ultimately changed and matured.

You have poems that touch on these same topics, are any of them included in the memoir?

I do, and they were collected in Wild One, my autobiographical poetry collection. Many also were in an early draft of my memoir, but I was advised that including a lot of poetry would make it harder to publish, and it necessitated telling some things twice when I could say more with prose. There are four poems in the published book; three of mine and one by my current husband.

What do you hope readers will take away from your memoir?

I hope that they’ll enjoy the story. I hope they’ll read my memoir as they would a novel or short stories, as creative work. I hope that people see that juvenile delinquents and teen mothers have great potential for change, the same potential as everybody else.

 “Juvenile delinquents and teen mothers

have great potential for change,

the same potential as everybody else.”  

Where and when do you prefer to write?

I have an office in my house where I work. When I travel, though, I tend not to try to finish anything but I usually take notes for projects. I do not have a routine for writing at the same time of day. It depends on when inspiration happens.

Where would you most want to live and write?

I like living and writing in Oakland. I like the weather here, and having my own house. A lot of writers like going to cafes, but I’ve never been into that. I’ve also never gone to writing retreats. The problem for me is that I like to have all of my books nearby. I can more easily envision writing some places now besides my own house because of the internet. I can look things up online, and I always find I want to look things up when I’m writing. When I’m writing about myself, poetry or nonfiction, I like to have access to my letters, calendars, photo albums, and things like that, which is much easier at home.

Do you listen to anything while you work?

No, I find anything distracting. 

What motivates you to write?

I’m really deeply moved and engaged when I read things by other writers. I learn and see things more clearly based on what I read. The same thing happens with my own writing, I come to understand myself better.  In putting it out there on paper, I’m able to communicate more deeply with other people. I think that ultimately communication is what motivates me.

“I learn and see things more clearly

based on what I read.”

When you’re stuck on a poem, where do you look for inspiration?

The inspiration to pull me out of it could come from just about anywhere. I might find inspiration for what to do with a poem from prose I’ve just read, and reading a poem by someone else can often help with writing prose. It works both ways. Getting unstuck usually necessitates reading and seeing what other writers have done. Sometimes all it takes is reading and noticing an image that speaks to me.

How has your experience writing poetry influenced your prose, and vice versa?

It’s had a big impact. In poetry, you have to get rid of the extra words and really hone it down. I think in prose, my original instinct was to be too wordy and not focus my work enough. As a result of writing poetry for a long time, now I can see the extra words in my prose. In prose, other things are important that are really important in poetry too, like images, metaphors, similes. It’s always important to have images and other elements that help people visualize things. The rhythm of the language is also critical. Definitely, I’ve become a better prose writer because of writing poetry.

How did your teaching experience in science and math influence your writing?

The ideas, images, and concepts of science have all played a really important role in my poetry. I have a whole book of science and nature poems, called Infinities. I would like to do more with these ideas in creative prose, both in fiction and nonfiction, but I haven’t done that yet, although I’ve published science journalism, research papers, and science education texts. I co-authored a book called How to Encourage Girls in Math and Science: Strategies for Parents and Educators, and I edited a fourth and fifth grade curriculum in health and biomedical science.

How do you balance content with form?

I almost always have something I want to say before I start writing, or sometimes it grows out of my writing. What’s being said is always important to me, and then finding the right form for it. Some ideas feel too big to be contained in a single poem, like the idea that juvenile delinquents and teen mothers are redeemable. It required telling a story in prose as opposed to just one poem. If there’s a particular incident or image that I want to write about, then a poem might be enough.

“What’s being said is always important to me,

and then finding the right form for it.”

Also, with poetry, there’s the question of writing in free verse or not. For me, it’s intuitive to decide which way to go. It’s a process of trial and error. Some poems of mine have gone through many different forms, with short lines, long lines, as a block prose poem, stanza breaks, no stanza breaks, staggered lines. Eventually there reaches a point where it feels like this works, this is how it’s supposed to be, and you feel happy with it. That’s when you stop. That’s when you start showing it to other people.

How have your goals as a writer changed over time?

There was a time when I was younger when I hoped to make a living as a writer. I thought of my work in science education as what I was going to do until I wrote a bestselling book. Now, I’ve totally let go of the goal of making much money as a writer, certainly I don’t expect to make enough money to support myself. I did work in the field of science and math education for over thirty years, and now I’m sixty-six years old and collecting Social Security and two pensions, so that’s how I support my writing.

What advice would you give to aspiring writers?

Read a lot. Read broadly, not just the things that you’re interested in. Read things that people recommend because you may be surprised by things that you didn’t know, or work you might not have chosen for yourself.

Don’t be afraid of rejection. I think most writers get rejected a lot, and it has to mean nothing to you. You can’t let it impact you emotionally or prevent you from going on and submitting your work elsewhere. In general, it doesn’t mean that your work is bad or that anything is wrong with it because most literary magazines get way more creative writing than they can ever dream of publishing. They have to turn down a lot of good things. It’s not just a matter of writing well to get published; it also takes a little luck. Over the years, I’ve met lots of wonderful writers who just can’t deal with submitting and getting rejected. Find a way to deal with that and get past it so you can keep working.

What’s the best advice you’ve been given as a writer?

Novelist Herbert Gold gave me some great advice concerning submissions. In the late 70s/early 80s, I had applied four times for the Joseph Henry Jackson Award and been rejected. The fifth time, Gold was very insistent that I had to apply again, and I didn’t want to. He told me, “You have to do this. You’ll never be successful if you don’t.” So, I finally did it, and I got accepted for the award on that fifth try. He also encouraged me to submit work to better magazines, and I did. I got rejected a lot still, but I also got accepted.

As an editor and a publisher, what’s your advice to writers?

Before submitting your work to a press, look at what they publish. There are definite tastes. For example, some local Bay Area presses, like Omnidawn and Kelsey Street, like experimental work, I go for more lyric poetry and narrative work, and other presses are very eclectic in their taste. You really need a sense of what the press is interested in before you send them your work.

What made you decide to start Scarlet Tanager Books?

At the time that I started it, I felt like I could do a better job than some other small presses. Right away it gave me much more respect for all small press publishers. I felt like I could do nicer covers, better production, better publicity, better proofreading, and it all turned out to be such a big job and so much work. It’s a labor of love for most small press publishers because it’s not a lucrative field. I think I have done a good job with the books that I’ve published. I’ve done the best I can to promote them and help the authors themselves to promote their books, but I don’t feel that I am doing a better job than other small presses. We’re all doing our best.

I also kept meeting people whose work I loved, and they weren’t getting published. I thought I could help send some of this work that I liked so much out there into the world.

What do you find most challenging about writing?

I find writing my first draft most challenging. Once you have the draft, editing comes more easily.

Is there a quote about writing that inspires you?

There’s a T S Eliot quote: “We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.”

I think that writing does work that way. In revisiting one’s past, after writing about it, you understand it for the first time. I was first inspired to write poetry by the Romantics, by Shelley and Keats, and also by Emily Dickinson, and Edna St Vincent Millay. Before I started studying poetry, that was the poetry that I was familiar with and the poetry that I was trying to emulate. I started out writing all rhymed poems. After studying poetry and getting degrees in English and Creative Writing and being in many poetry workshops, I write mainly free verse now. But when I am inspired to write a sonnet or a villanelle, I know that place of doing that, and in a way I didn’t know it when I was first trying to do so at age twenty-two. I can come back to that place where I started in poetry and understand it in a way I never did before. 

When you’re not writing, what do you like to do?

I like to read and I like to walk outdoors, on the beach and in the woods. I like identifying birds and trees and flowers. I find it very relaxing. I like to go to movies, museums, eat at good restaurants, spend time with friends and my grandchildren. I like to travel.

About Lucille Lang Day

Lucille Lang Day has published poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction in The Cincinnati Review, The Hudson Review Passages North, River Oak ReviewThe Threepenny Review, Willow Review, and many other journals. She is the author of the children’s book, Chain Letter, and eight poetry collections, one of which received the Joseph Henry Jackson Award. Her memoir Married at Fourteen has been excerpted in many literary magazines. The founder and director of a small press, Scarlet Tanager Books, Lucille also served for seventeen years as the director of the Hall of Health, an interactive museum in Berkeley, California.

Buy Married at Fourteen, or some of Lucille Lang Day’s poetry, preferably at your local independent bookstore.

[Toffoli, Marissa B. “Interview With Writer Lucille Lang Day.” Words With Writers (January 24, 2014),]

Married at Fourteen by Lucille Lang Day (Heyday Books, 2012).

Married at Fourteen by Lucille Lang Day (Heyday Books, 2012).

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