Patti Marxsen took a short break from her busy schedule as the editor of the latest Offshoots literary journal to answer our questions about her life as a writer. She has so many strings to her bow, I hardly know where to start: researcher, journalist, translator, writer, reviewer, art historian and essayist. She can be seen at many GWG events with her camera in her hand and can be found online at www.pattimarxsen.net and on Twitter @pattimarxsen.
Where did your love of books/storytelling/writing come from?
I like your question because I think the desire to write happens in the same order: first, a curiosity with the existence of books … then the discovery that these objects contain whole worlds within their covers … then the thought, “Maybe I could do that!” I think I wanted to crack the code of the world from an early age. Books were in my home but not in great number. We also had music and art and unusual objects from our military lifestyle: Japanese porcelain, lacquer, ink drawings, and kimonos; chip carving from the Black Forest, Dresden figurines, and landscapes of German villages painted in the 1950s; also my father’s beloved big band records in a gold leather album and my mother’s piano.
Books were part of the smorgasbord and I suppose language had a special appeal. I spent most of my first 12 years in bilingual places—Germany and Texas, where I learned Spanish in elementary school. The many uses of language felt natural and important to me from an early age. I also lived in South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama where I was exposed to the American “patois” of black and white Southern voices. I was also blessed with a fantastic French teacher at age 14.
What sort of writing do you do and why?
This has evolved over time, as I believe it does for most writers. For the past 6 or 7 years, I’ve been immersed in biography because biography as a genre draws on the bag-of-tricks I’ve managed to amass over the years: research skills, a capacity to manage long-term projects and big documents, and some level of narrative art. It also calls for patience that I probably didn’t have in my thirties. Later, I didn’t have time because I was in a full-tilt career managing communications/ publications for cultural NGOs in New England. The “why” a writer writes what s/he writes is, inevitably, related to circumstances and skill sets that are always changing.
That said, within the vast genre of biography I find myself attracted to people barely known in the English-speaking world. I see myself as a “bridge,” thanks to the art of translation, which is something I like to do and believe I do rather well. Also, contrary to all myths about the 50+ years being peaceful, I find myself increasingly outraged at the ignorance and injustice I see in the world. Biography offers an opportunity to explore these realities through the prism of an individual life. In that sense, it’s an act of witness as well as an act of interpretation. These days, I’m driven by my work on the life of Haitian writer and public intellectual Jacques Roumain (1907–1944), in part because his voice is so relevant to our own time.
Finally, I want to add that a lot of my writing has been less than literary. I’ve done reams of culture journalism, writing sometimes referred to as “soft news.” I’ve also published a number of articles for CATS Magazine, mainly because I love cats. And then there are the 2,000-plus radio ads I banged out in Maine in the early 1990s that will surely not be archived anywhere!
Who or what inspires you?
It might be easier to tell you what doesn’t: overrated best-sellers, predictable plots, novels full of unlikeable people, recovery memoirs aimed at revising bad decisions into heroic acts, dull dialogue, sloppy prose, and one-sentence paragraphs. Obviously, I’m a crank and a snob—or both. On a more positive note, I’ve been under the influence of French literature for a long time. On that channel, I deeply appreciate the work of Marguerite Duras. She was such a courageous, curious writer who worked at novels, short stories, film, and memoir. She was also full of contradictions … so totally human. I like real people who turn the chaos of life into art. I’d place Swiss writer C.F. Ramuz in that category as well, along with many of the Haitian writers I read. Haitian literature is always political and yet very poetic. I’m especially fond of Yanick Lahens, who won the Prix Femina a few years ago for Bain de lune, and I just finished Avant que les ombres s’effacent, winner of the 2017 Orange Prize by Louis-Phillipe Dalembert.
In English, I’m sorry to say, I usually prefer Irish or British writers. Who can resist the pitch-perfect prose of Julian Barnes, John Banville, Iris Murdoch, or Edna O’Brien? Gabriel García Marquez is another magnetic writer, though I read him in translation. He’s best known for One Hundred Years of Solitude and Love in the Time of Cholera, but I highly recommend The Autumn of the Patriarch, especially in this era of dangerous tyrants. That novel was inspired by the thirty-year dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic; brutally truthful fiction.
What do you enjoy most about writing?
I have to quibble with your question because I’m not sure I “enjoy” writing in any conventional sense of the word. I mean, I enjoy ice cream and I enjoy letting my eyes travel across a canvas of Monet’s waterlilies. But I don’t enjoy writing in that way. What I DO enjoy is getting a hold of an idea and exploring its potential … that enlivening phase feels full of possibility. I love that. But once an idea becomes “a writing project,” the “working writer” takes over. I set goals and deadlines for myself, edit myself without mercy, push myself to navigate tough spots, chase threads and detours. No matter how much I’m interested in the topic or how inspired I feel initially, it becomes four-letter word: W-O-R-K.
What (if anything) has surprised you most since publishing your first book?
I had published articles of all kinds and developed books for other people and organizations long before Island Journeys: Exploring the Legacy of France appeared in 2008. That collection of travel essays about islands with French connections was not especially surprising. Rather, it was satisfying, just as a good article or essay can be. My article “The Quest and the Question in C.F. Ramuz’s Si le soleil ne revenez pas…” appeared the same year in the French Review and was almost as satisfying as my “first book” because the French Review is prestigious and the work was the culmination of a lot of reading and research.
Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
Well, I think we’re all aspiring … if not to write a first book, then to be the best writer we can be at any given moment. The only advice I can offer is that all of this takes time and, so, the only way to achieve anything is by working consistently for the long haul. You really have to make a place in your life for this kind of work. You have to value it and take yourself seriously. And you have to learn to say “no”—and “no thank you”—if you want to be productive.
How did you become involved with the Geneva Writers’ Group?
I attended my first workshop at the Press Club in September 2007. I remember it VIVIDLY because it was startling to hear so much English in one room after living in Thun for six months and barely hearing any English at all, except my own and from my husband, Hans-Peter, for whom English is a fourth language. I had come to Switzerland that March and we married in June. Switzerland was all new and difficult. Then, suddenly, here was a room full of English and Susan walking toward me in some flowing sort of wrap with a big smile and arms open for a hug.
You are the editor-in-chief of the latest edition of GWG’s literary journal Offshoots with the theme ‘Fragile States’. Can you tell us a little more about your concept for the journal and how you feel the writers responded to this theme? This loops back to some of my earlier remarks about the state of the world, which includes our fragile environment, our geo-political relations, and also the reality of being the fragile human beings that we are. This theme was meant to be a statement as well as an invitation to GWG writers to interpret fragility in unexpected ways. And nearly 100 writers who submitted work did exactly that!
When Jenny (Bew Orr) and I sat down to work out the sequence of selections—because we both agreed that how an anthology “unfolds” matters—we identified some themes within the theme: childhood/adolescence, motherhood, migration, nature, spirituality, and betrayal, among others. In other words, the work is quite varied. And Sue Niewiarowski’s sensitive design and Alistair Scott’s photos extend the mood and meaning of the work beautifully. Offshoots is never just for the contributors selected. I hope all members of GWG take time to read this year’s edition and, better yet, share it widely.
And now, a special, exclusive treat for all our members: the cover reveal of Offshoots 14. I hope you'll agree it's a beautiful addition to our catalogue!