Patch sat down with Judith Lindbergh, author of the historical novel The Thrall’s Tale. Judy moderates the very popular Writers Circle, a South Orange Maplewood Adult School offering that meets Thursday nights at Columbia High School. We asked her 20 questions on topics ranging from her personal life, her professional career and how to find time to write fiction between the two.
1. Tell me about your life. I’m married with two elementary-school-age sons. And we have two black cats. I live in West Orange, I teach in Maplewood, and I’m a citizen of the world.
2. How did you wind up in New Jersey? I like to say it's because they don't sell bunk bed cribs. We were living in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, and were expecting our second child. There was no room to fit another kid. We had been looking for years for a place that combined a short commute to New York with affordability. A work mate suggested Maplewood since it was only 30 minutes away.When I was a child we visited relatives who lived here, but my childhood memory was that it was way far away from the city. When we came to check it out, I was pleased to find that it looks a lot like the Massachusetts town where I grew up. West Orange was particularly appealing because it had all-day kindergarten. We picked this neighborhood because I can walk to the train.
3. What’s the best thing about having kids? I don't want to say everything, although it is everything. I never thought I’d be a good mother, or even want to be a mother, but my boys are so delicious, such good fun. They keep me from thinking about myself, obsessing about myself, which is a good thing.
4. Describe your professional self. I’m a novelist, creative writing teacher, former IT project manager for a major media company, former dancer and actress, occasional photographer. I've had a feline existence with many past lives. I’ve had many incarnations.
5. You were a professional technology person. Do you own a Kindle or other electronic book? No, not right now. I like books. I like the object of a book, and I’m increasingly aware of how digital media is changing the way we imbibe books. So, I'm as curious about it as I’m wary.
6. PC or Mac? PC except for the years I was in IT. I think it's what you first learn, what you are comfortable with. They're both good systems.
7. Tell me about those past lives you mentioned earlier. If I had to describe a past life existence, I’d say I clearly lived in a difficult environment. And I’m still working out that struggle between life and death in my fiction. My past life was about having strength and fortitude and facing my environment directly to survive. These are themes I remember, and I continue to draw upon them over and over.
8. Why did you launch the Writers Circle? The hardest part about being a full-time writer has been the isolation. I'm a very social person. When I worked in IT, I had a team and interfaced with many people. Then, when I became a full-time writer, suddenly my day-to-day existence was lived within four walls. My life was defined in a five-mile radius. It felt very lonely. One of the reasons I started the Writers Circle is because I needed friends. You can’t just walk into Starbucks and start asking people if they are writers. The group has grown to love each other, and we accept our strengths, weaknesses and unique perspectives. Each of us is coming in with what we have and if each of us raises one step, we grown. As much as I’d love to see all of us published, it's really about something else–it's about growth, self-awareness, it's about accepting other people’s views without giving up our own sense of truth. It’s about taking our own vision and raising it up.
9. Tell me about your teaching philosophy. I love teaching, it’s very intuitive for me. I listen very carefully to my students and their work. I work to find the right key that will unlock their individual creativity with generosity of spirit, and belief. Each writer has his or her own unique voice. I want to help them find the right expression
10. What’s your favorite writer’s exercise? I have two, the first is pick a topic, any topic, and write for ten minutes without stopping. That’s an exercise originated by Natalie Goldberg, a well-known writing teacher. I love to see it when five people write on the same subject, how different the results can be. The other is to create a word bag if you're stuck for subjects. Put maybe 30 or so different, random words, nouns or adjectives, in a bag and pick three at a time. Use those words as the basis for an essay or story. There’s a third exercise–or better said--practice from my former teacher, the children's book author, Madeline L'Engel. It’s whatever your exercise may be, think about it all week, but only write for one half hour.
11. What is The Thrall's Tale? The Thrall’s Tale was a journey. A Norse woman was the least likely topic for me to write about, never gave it much thought. I had no interest in Viking women in Greenland and was stuck on the cliché of the warrior beast man. But then, one day, I was at South Street Seaport in New York City. I saw these tiny ships docked there. They were replicas of Viking sailing ships and were beautiful and fragile. I thought to myself, 'How did these craft ever sail across the North Atlantic a thousand years ago?' I spied a striking woman, a crew member, who was up on the deck of one of the ships. That triggered something and I began to imagine women of that long-gone era. What came to mind was every bad cliché about woman as victim. I sensed it to be much more than that and became intrigued as to what women’s lives were like at that time. It took ten years to write the book, which was published in 2006.
12. What's next? I’m finishing a novel about a nomad woman warrior on the central Asian steppes 5th century BC, called “The Pasture of Heaven.” It’s based on several archeological burial sites across the steppes, evidence that women were warriors in particular eras.
13. What's your inspiration? Nature and myth inspire me, and different ways of seeing the world. I find the modern world relatively boring. I like to look back and imagine different world views. Archeology inspires me too. It's tactile and it brings the past alive. The bones speak to me. It's visceral. You begin to wonder whose comb was this, whose sword? The artifacts begin to speak to me.
14. Tell me about your spiritual connection to nature. More and more, I need to be out in the woods. I’ve always been interested in wilderness and survival without the trappings of modern society. Nature in its unadulterated form, which is hard to find in these days, is the truest and most vibrant environment for people. We've lost that connection, we’re afraid of it.
15. Animal, vegetable or mineral? Mineral, definitely–I’m basalt–like the ridges in the South Mountain Reservation or the coast of Iceland. It’s rock that was formerly volcanic. What happens is that the lava shoots through water and cools suddenly forming huge columns. You see it in Iceland, actually Ireland, too. It’s architecturally very strong, black and solid. Frozen time.
16. What was your most exciting moment? Without a doubt it was the day my book was sold. I was eight months pregnant with my second child. I signed with an agent and had a sale two weeks after that. Everyone was afraid that I’d go into premature labor. I was so excited I couldn't sleep, which is pretty unusual for an eight-months-pregnant woman
17. What’s some advice for writers? The biggest difficulty for writers is finding time. Keep a writing pad by the bed, a pen with a light so you can write during the night and a writing pad in the bathroom. Fifteen minutes or a half hour here and there can add up when you do it often enough.
18. Who’s your favorite author? My favorite depends upon the moment. I’m most influenced by Shakespeare. I love having to figure it out and don't like things handed to me–but maybe I should learn to.
19. What do you want to be remembered for? For creating a community of people who support each other to help with their writing and lives. I call my group the Writers Circle because a circle is a powerful symbol. It has an interdependent geometry. It cannot exist without the sum of its parts and is quite powerful. By creating a community of writers who are sharing the struggle of creating work, who become friends and support each other in their work and eventually in their lives, I've created an atmosphere where writers can banish isolation and be part of a community. A circle can grow and keep its shape, its integrity.
20. What would be your epitaph? Let me out here. I can walk.