My special guest today is Pamela Jane. We’re focused on her memoir, An Incredible Talent for Existing: A Writer’s Story, but also touch on travels, humor, and more.
Pamela Jane is the author of over twenty-five children’s books with Houghton Mifflin, Atheneum, Simon & Schuster, Penguin-Putnam, and Harper. Her books include Noelle of the Nutcracker illustrated by Jan Brett, Little Goblins Ten illustrated by NY Times best-selling illustrator, Jane Manning, and Little Elfie One (Harper 2015). Pride and Prejudice and Kitties: A Cat-Lover’s Romp Through Jane Austen’s Classic (Skyhorse) was featured in The Wall Street Journal, BBC America, The Huffington Post, The New York Times Sunday Book Review and The Daily Dot, and has just come out in paper. She has published short stories and essays with The Philadelphia Inquirer, The Antigonish Review, Literary Mama, and The Writer. She is a writer and editor for womensmemoirs.com, and her memoir, An Incredible Talent for Existing: A Writer’s Story has just been released.
Welcome, Pamela. Please tell us about your current release.
It is 1965, the era of love, light—and revolution. While the romantic narrator imagines a bucolic future in an old country house with children running through the dappled sunlight, her husband plots to organize a revolution and fight a guerrilla war in the Catskills.
Their fantasies are on a collision course.
The clash of visions turns into an inner war of identities when the author embraces radical feminism; she and her husband are comrades in revolution but combatants in marriage; she is a woman warrior who spends her days sewing long silk dresses reminiscent of a Henry James novel. One half of her isn’t speaking to the other half.
And then, just when it seems that things cannot possibly get more explosive, her wilderness cabin burns down and Pamela finds herself left with only the clothes on her back.
From her vividly evoked existential childhood (“the only way I would know for sure that I existed was if others—lots of others—acknowledged it”) to writing her first children’s book on a sugar high during a glucose tolerance test, Pamela Jane takes the reader along on a highly entertaining personal, political, and psychological adventure.
What inspired you to write this book?
I saw my story visually, like scenes of a film flashing by, and I was determined to find the theme and tie the scenes together into a whole, especially the sharp conflicts and startling contrasts of the period I wrote about. For instance, as a young woman, I got into deep psychological trouble while working in a beautiful Victorian hotel on the crest of a mountain overlooking the Catskills in upstate New York. I eventually fled because I could not stand the contrast between inner and outer worlds – the outside world of beauty and civility and the inner prison-like world of fear and despair.
Although I lost all my writing in an explosive fire, I was fortunate because I had tried in my twenties (after the events) to write the story as a novel. I had no idea what I was doing and it must have been the most terrible novel ever written, but it was valuable because all the dialogue and descriptions were still fresh and immediate in my mind. Many years later, I was able to use these bad drafts to help me write the memoir, as well as dozens of letters returned by friends that were written in “real time” while the events were unfolding.
You can read an excerpt published in The Writer:
What exciting story are you working on next?
I am working on a travelogue about living in Florence, Italy, with my family for several years where my husband taught at NYU’s estate in Florence. The subtitle of the book is “No One Feels Sorry for You When You’re Living in Tuscany” which is true! But everything was always going wrong in wacky, unexpected ways; it was not exactly the Tuscan idyll people envision!
When did you first consider yourself a writer?
It began as a small child even before I could write and I write about this in a section of my memoir called “An Existential Childhood” :
“I couldn’t shape my life into a narrative yet, at least on paper. But I strived to leave mental notes to myself—a record of my own awareness as a living, observing intelligence. Crouching behind a tree clutching a pine cone, I vowed never to forget it. Of all the hundreds of pine cones in the world, this was the one that would live forever. I would make it live forever by remembering.”
Do you write full-time? If so, what's your work day like? If not, what do you do other than write and how do you find time to write?
I do write fulltime and I joke that I’m a strict boss, but it’s true. I give myself very little slack.
What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
My whole writing process is kind of quirky. I expressed the formula for writing my memoir like this:
agony + (obsession x conflict) + panic + 10,000 drafts - total crap = finished memoir
As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Mostly I just wanted to be famous, because I felt invisible. I was horribly jealous of the Mouseketeers, especially Karen and Cubby, who were my age and got to sing and dance their way across the TV screen every day for millions of Americans.
Anything additional you want to share with the readers?
What I wrote about in An Incredible Talent for Existing was a raw chaotic mess when it happened, but I managed to roll it into what I hope is a fluffy omelet of a story. I also hope my book is an inspiration for others to pursue their own dreams and stories as well.
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Thanks for being here today, Pamela!
Thanks for being here today, Pamela!