women. writers.

An Interview with Sonya Huber

Sonya Huber is the author of two critically-acclaimed memoirs, Opa Nobody and Cover Me: A Health Insurance Memoir, and has been featured in a variety of publications such as Literary MamaFourth Genre, and The Chronicle of Higher Education.

For the debut issue of Lady, it seems only fitting to introduce you to a woman who is not only a highly-gifted storyteller and writer, but also an educator, mother, and a passionate advocate for social and civil justice, all of which have informed her writing over the years.

 Thank you so much, Sonya, for sharing your thoughts with us! It's a privilege to have you here.

1)  In your first memoir, Opa Nobody, you explored the social and political activism of your German grandfather and how it informed your own ideologies. Did your research into his life influence the way you viewed yourself as a writer? A mother? An advocate?

Learning about my grandfather definitely influenced the way I saw myself as a social advocate. I was a shy activist, but those I admired seemed so bold. After I learned that my grandfather was, by nature, a quiet man despite his anti-Nazi and labor work in Germany, I learned to forgive myself for being exhausted after public speaking or leading a meeting. Being introverted is a necessary quality for many writers because have to shield the inner world where writing begins to happen. In writing Opa Nobody, I was trying in a way to work out whether it was okay to be a writer at a time when the world seems to need action. And I found, in a way, that both roles--writer and community member--are necessary and appropriate. I was also trying to work out in that book how an activist can belong both to community movements and to his or her child. I wanted an easy way to make these divisions between roles, and I admit I had some kind of fantasy that there was a perfect mix where I'd feel no guilt, where I could switch back and forth between mother and activist and writer and I'd never feel guilty for doing it wrong. Instead, I learned--through the book but also through living during the time I was writing--that there is no perfect mix. There's no way of effortlessly having it all and gliding through our responsibilities, even if we "lean in." I found myself at a surprising place by the end of that book. I was imagining listening to my grandfather, and he was telling me to try to take it slow as I worked to combine all these passions. That could be pure fabrication, because he's long dead, but I imagine, as I've seen in my own life, that sometimes it's easier to have compassion for others than for one's self. So I used this roundabout method of seeing myself through his eyes to try to take it easy on myself, to do the best I could each day as activist, mother, writer, and teacher, and to not be as hard on myself about not doing those roles perfectly.

2) You also wrote another memoir entitled Cover Me detailing your search for access to quality, affordable health care over the years and the obstacles currently in place for so many struggling to do the same. What did you find was most necessary for you to share with your readers and why?

In Cover Me, I wanted to focus not on statistics but on emotions and thoughts as triggered by that experience. I think there has not been enough attention paid to how an external circumstance like having bad or no health insurance affects one's psyche and emotional world. I wanted to humanize and complicate what it means to go without healthcare, because I was aggravated by the simplifications in news stories in which people without insurance were used as case studies, human objects, and it seemed that they only mattered to the degree that their suffering was horrific, which in the end seemed to not even move the debate to a constructive place. 

3) I’m a new mother and, honestly, writing has taken a backseat for the moment until I get a better handle on that thing called a “work-life balance”. How do you manage to take on the often tedious work of researching, writing, and editing a book with your growing son in tow? Do you allow him to take a peek inside your life as a writer?

The balancing act is so hard, isn't it? I freely admit that I don't have balance. It's more a game of tug-of-war, all ropes and limbs and rope burn and periodically ending up in the mud. There's no balance. Most days are too much of writing and work or then again, too much of laundry and not enough time to sit and write. The only thing I have learned is to try to listen to my own inner voice--not the writing voice, but the self-care voice that says, I need five minutes to regain my cool. Please take this baby. I continually struggle with balancing self-care and all my various responsibilities. One of the best things I did for myself when my son was little was pay a  babysitter so that I could have 5 hours a week to write in coffee shops. We did not have this money, but it allowed me to recharge, to keep myself writing, and then to come back to him with more presence and less resentment. I've realized over the years that I simply need to write, and I'm less bitchy and more able to be present for others if I have that time for myself. 

It's been very sweet to see my son, who is now 10, grapple with having a mom as a writer. I recently wrote a piece about him for the New York Times called "How the Trophy Just for Showing Up is Earned," and I showed it to him. He was really upset because I had miscounted the number of his soccer trophies and I didn't let the New York Times know so they could make a correction. He has been working hard on writing and revision in fourth grade, and he was very disappointed with my research skills. I think he was really alarmed to see any mention of him in print, too. I try not to write about him because I don't want him to feel exposed, but in this piece he was not revealed beyond his generic appearance in sporting events.

But he's very proud and very supportive of me, even though I don't expect that of him. On all those little mother's day card projects at school where they make kids describe what they like about their moms, he always writes down that he is proud I am a good writer. And he knows I need to write. During snow days or sick days, we battle over not bugging me during my hour in the mornings, and I think he finally gets that that one hour is sacred time. 

4) In what ways do you think female writers are (or can be) important advocates for change, even if that change isn’t necessarily defined as a “woman’s issue”?

In every single way. I really like this question, because what you're getting at is an issue I've pursued in so many of my writing projects: that a women's place is on the front lines of every issue that concerns her: workplace issues, healthcare, whatever concerns us. And every issue concerns us. For writers, I think the specific job is to share personal experience of our own or others, and to make that come alive in stories for other people to connect with. That's the culture-building responsibility that helps change the world because it allows societies to imagine new stories about where they might be headed.

5) You've influenced a number of writers, including myself, as a professor at Georgia Southern University, Ashland University, and, currently, Fairfield University. Would you say your work as a teacher has benefited your writing? How?
Oh heck yes! One hundred percent. Absolutely. There have been countless days where I've shown up to class wondering if I have anything to offer--not because I'm particularly hard on myself but because I think that happens to everyone. And the conversations with students re-light a fire in me. My students have pointed me in the direction of hard questions I want to pursue. Writing I've done during free-writes in class has sparked new projects. And my understanding of craft issues--and my ability to put those questions into practice in my own work--has grown every time I've had to explain an issue to my students. I gain the confidence to write because I get to see myself teach writing, see myself help other writers. It's a seamless whole for me, and I'm very lucky to have that work. 

6) How do the varying roles you fill – mom, wife, daughter, friend, activist – impact the way you approach teaching?
This is a complicated question, but I think I can answer it with the word "vulnerability." I started out teaching in 1999 with an idea that I had to create a "teacher" version of myself who would keep order and be strict and have an idea at all times of where we were going. But with parenting, family, friendship, and activism, I have had to learn how to loosen my grip on my agenda and my carefully crafted "lesson plan." I'm very influenced by Buddhist writers, who often describe the ability to be in the moment and learn from what the moment in front of us offers, even if that moment isn't what we planned on. As a parent, especially, I learned and continue to learn how being with my son and being present is more important than the amount of things I get done. So there's this impossible balance between getting the "tasks" done and being present, and I see teaching as riding that balance. Things go well when I really listen to what my students are saying, when I'm willing to stop to explore a question--but they also go well when I have a sketch in mind of where I need to go, and then I can see how a question actually connects to the next skill or assignment we need to work on. To do that well, I have to be open to what others are saying but also to myself--how I'm doing at the moment, what I'm thinking and feeling. That requires vulnerability, which is painful sometimes and almost always leaves me feeling like not an "expert"--a role that is prized in academia. But it's true: I'm no expert. I do know how to take advantage of a moment, I think--so that is a skill that grows with practice, both in the classroom and out. 

7) What would you like other female writers to understand about the art of crafting a story, whether fiction or non-fiction?

I think this connects to the idea of vulnerability, too. It's scary to not know how the story will end up, how the book will look when it's finished, whether you'll get published, or what your character will do on the next page. But writing requires and teaches that openness. I think what we describe as "writer's block" is sometimes a fear of that horrible feeling of sitting down and having no idea at all of what will happen next. Life is chaotic enough, and especially in those times, it can be hard to open up the chaos on the page. But for me, the surprise in crafting a story or essay usually comes at around fifteen to twenty minutes into a writing session. That's when I get bored enough of the blank page to start taking leaps, and my own words begin to surprise me.  And it's those surprises--the tiny details we invent about a character, or the fleshed out memory in an essay--that ultimately give the productive illusion of life set into a new order, at least temporarily. That creates joy in writing, and the desire to go back to it--that we are making sense in the midst of chaos. So the art of crafting a story requires a series of surprises, which only come if you take ten risks and then later cut out the five that don't work. Writing a story requires the ability to brainstorm those ten random details and then to cut paragraphs without seeing them as mistakes but instead as stepping stones. 

To learn more about Sonya, please visit her website or follow her on Twitter @sonyahuber. 
Post Comment
Post a Comment