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Writing Poetry Makes me a More Careful Writer

March 12, 2009 by · No comments

Interview with Pat Valdata by Katerina Stoykova-Klemer

Pat Valdata writes novels, poems and nonfiction. Her publications include the novels The Other Sister (published by Plain View Press, 2008), Crosswind (published by Wind Canyon Publishing, 1997) and the poetry chapbook Looking for Bivalve (from Pecan Grove Press, 2002).

Pat received an MFA in writing from Goddard College and is an adjunct associate professor for the University of Maryland University College (UMUC). She writes occasional articles for Chesapeake Bay and Cecil Soil magazines in addition to her day job as a business writing consultant. She and her husband Bob Schreiber live in Elkton, Maryland.

Please tell us about your new book The Other Sister.

The Other Sister is my second novel. It explores family relationships across three generations of Hungarian immigrants during the first half of the 20th century. United by their language, their foods and crafts, and the Catholic Church, the first generation of immigrants forms a tight-knit community to help one another in a town that is not often welcoming and is sometimes openly hostile.

As succeeding generations become more Americanized, their challenge is to make a place for themselves in an increasingly materialistic society. The family story takes place against a backdrop of major events, including WWI, the influenza pandemic, the Great Depression, and sadly, two more wars.

A book like that I would image requires extensive research. How did you go about doing your “homework”?

I began by going to the archives of the American Hungarian Foundation in New Brunswick, New Jersey. I found some wonderful resources there, and the staff was incredibly helpful. Since I was researching this in the early 1990s, before the World Wide Web was widely used, I did old-fashioned research in libraries, mostly at Rutgers University and the University of Delaware. I also spent time with my mother learning about her childhood in the 1920s.

What is the most unusual place that you looked to find information for the book?

I needed to find out about day-to-day living, so I looked at microfilms of old newspapers. I checked the news of the day, sports scores, and especially advertisements. One of my characters is a seamstress and another is a dress designer, so I spent a lot of time looking at ads for women’s clothing.

Is there something you learned during your research that you found particularly surprising?

I was surprised to see that there was a real class system in the area during the time I was writing about. I rarely saw Hungarian names on the front pages of any English-language newspaper. If Hungarian immigrants were mentioned at all, it was usually a brief notice in the police blotter. That made me realize how important the community newspapers written in Magyar were to these people.

How long did it take you to write the book?

I started writing it shortly after I graduated from Goddard College, where I studied for my MFA, in 1991. I worked on it in my spare time for about 9 or 10 years.

Please describe briefly the life of the Hungarian immigrants in the USA during that time period.

The Hungarian people came through Ellis Island and dispersed to the industrial and mining areas of the Northeast. Many stayed in New Jersey; others went to Cleveland or Detroit. Many immigrants also went to the coal mines of Pennsylvania. Often, the man would come first and work to save money for the passage of his wife or sweetheart a couple of years later.

You are one of those writers who are active in many genres. Besides your novels, you have also published a book of poetry, Looking for Bivalve. What kind of poetry do you write?

My poetry has been changing over the years. Because I write fiction and nonfiction, many of my poems have a narrative component, and since I’ve been attending the West Chester University Poetry Conference, I’ve included more formal elements, paying more close attention to sound and rhyme and meter.

Do you find that writing poetry helps you in writing fiction, and vice-versa?

Absolutely. As I mentioned above, telling stories helps me write narrative poetry, and writing poetry, with its special attention to words and to metaphors, makes me a more careful writer overall. People have told me that they enjoy my descriptions when I write fiction, and that I help them picture the people and places I am writing about, so I think that comes from poetry.

And there’s a practical aspect, too, when I am stuck on a particular piece of writing in one genre, I can switch to another genre. That helps me stay fresh, and lets my subconscious deal with the writing problem, which it will do nicely if I stay out of its way!

You are a business writing consultant. What does that involve?

In a nutshell, I help companies achieve their goals for employee communication. I help them plan communication projects and I help them execute those projects by doing some or all of the writing. Right now I do a lot of work involving the environment.

For example, I am helping a client plan their participation in Earth Hour, which is a worldwide event on March 28 at 8:30 p.m. local time. I hope you’ll shut off all your unnecessary lights during that hour! Imagine how pretty the night sky will look with many cities dimming their lights for that hour.

Looking at your bio, it seems that you write all the time. Do you spend most of your day in writing and writing-related activities?

Just about! That actually makes it very hard to do creative writing when I get home, and I am not a morning person so the idea of getting up an hour early to write is just not realistic. For the past three years, I was lucky enough to get a residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, where I was able to focus on my own writing.

I completed the first draft of a novel while I was there for those three, two-week residencies. It’s one of my favorite places! The staff is wonderful and having the freedom to just write is heaven.

What other interests do you have, besides writing?

I attend the Lunchlines poetry group in Elkton, Maryland, on the first and third Tuesday of the month whenever my schedule allows. I also watch birds; I coordinate the annual Hawk Watch at Turkey Point in the Elk Neck State Park not far from where I live. And I fly gliders. My first novel, Crosswind, is about two women glider pilots, a student and her instructor.

I am very excited to be traveling to Slovenia this summer to attend the Women Soaring Pilots Association annual seminar. This will be the first women’s seminar to be held in Europe. I was glad I had the chance to hear Slovenian poet Tomaž Šalamun when I went to the AWP conference in Chicago earlier this year.

What do you wish for the readers of Public Republic?

What I wish for everyone—world peace, and a stable and fair economy. If that’s asking too much, then at least I hope your readers will have a very happy spring!

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