A First Sentence Interview with Author Sonya Lea: “We have always had the fire and storytellers”

First Sentence is a series featuring a monthly interview with a writer — poets, novelists, essayists, memoirists, as well as those who do not fit into any of these neatly defined genres. Each month gives us a glimpse of a variety of writing approaches, philosophies, habits, quirks, and publishing options.

My guest this month is essayist and memoirist Sonya Lea, who writes on memory and identity. Her memoir, Wondering Who You Are, about what happened after her husband lost the memory of their life, was a finalist for the Washington State Book Award. Wondering has won awards and garnered praise in a number of publications including Oprah Magazine, People, and the BBC, who named it a “top ten book.” Her essays have appeared in Salon, The Southern Review, Brevity, Guernica, Cold Mountain Review, The Prentice Hall College Reader, Good Housekeeping, The Los Angeles Book Review, The Rumpus and The Butter.

Lea teaches writing at Hugo House in Seattle, and to women veterans through the Red Badge Project. She speaks at conferences, universities and festivals. Her short film, Every Beautiful Thing, won two awards for direction, and several awards for score. She has also written screenplays.

Originally from Kentucky, Sonya lives in Seattle and the Canadian Rockies. Learn more about her work on her website.

Your memoir, Wondering Who You Are, chronicles a harrowing journey of illness and recovery, not to mention a radical reshaping of identity — both your husband’s, your own, and that of your marriage and family. How long did it take you to write this book?

If I count devoted writing time, about three years. Though I spent time thinking about what happened in our relationship, and writing essays about these events for about ten years before I wrote the memoir.

Tell us a bit about your writing routine. What keeps you going?

Silence & solitude. As anyone who has lived with me knows, I require several hours a day to be by myself, usually in the quiet. This can happen in the wilderness or the writing room. Being with people and in cities is wonderful, and I have to be alone to work. This took me until fifty to understand about myself.

What surprised you in the unfolding of this story, as you looked back and considered what to include and what to leave out? How did you make decisions?

I make choices based on what my body intends. There were pieces in the book I wrote—like my sex story and my money story—that my body was still shedding shame over, and so I wrote them and then decided at the end of the writing whether they belonged in the world.

One thing I found so extraordinary about your memoir is the amount of research behind it and how seamlessly you weave this in with your searingly personal experience. The “notes” section practically stands alone. Did any particular systems help you stay organized?

Thank you. I was inspired by Susannah Cahalan, who wrote Brain On Fire. I keep journals, and folders on the computers. I abhor book writing systems or programs because they inhibit me.

Do you believers writers are born, made, or both?

There’s no natural skill that could be said to benefit a writer. Everything necessary can be cultivated, practiced. It’s not like we need our bodies to be a certain shape. We have always had the fire and storytellers. We don’t even need eyesight or typing skills, because technology has now found a way for stories to be recorded. Though if you look at what Europeans consider literature, there’s a case to be made that being born white/male/able—from the culture of dominance would seem to be an advantage. This time that we’re living in requires us to make and read narratives we haven’t yet seen, haven’t heard.

If you could have lunch with anyone — living or dead, real or fictional, who would it be? What would you want to ask them?

This question fucks me up. You could ask me this question once an hour, and it would change. But here goes: Margaret Atwood, Ursula LeGuin, Mary Shelley, Zora Neale Hurston, Graciela Iturbide, Brandon Teena, Frida Kahlo, Renee Stout, Valie Export, Wilma Mankiller, Emily Carr, Beyoncé, Tanya Tagaq, Hannah Arendt, Themistoclea. Mostly women. No fictional people, because they’re in my body all day as it is. No ancestors, because I also have conversations with them.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a novel about a museum curator who hears an Amazon warrior woman speaking to her, and it’s also about identity, and how we aren’t who we think we are. Because I can’t stop writing that story.

Stay tuned for April’s conversation with Nancy Stearns Bercaw, author of Brain In a Jar and the forthcoming Dryland.

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