Pinball Machine

Pinball Machine

Toni Mirosevich trucks through unrestricted territory

By Amanda Witherell

INTERVIEW Toni Mirosevich thinks imagination has a prominent place aboard the great ship of nonfiction, and she knows that vessel travels on waters as wide as an ocean. The Rooms We Make our Own, her first book of prose and poetry, was published in 1996 by Firebrand Books; most recently, she’s authored a collection of creative nonfiction, Pink Harvest (Mid-List Press, 203 pages, $16). Mirosevich teaches at San Francisco State University and lives in Pacifica, but I caught up with her by phone in Seattle, on the last leg of her Pacific Northwest book tour. She’ll be back in the Bay Area for a Feb. 14 reading at the Poetry Center at SFSU.

SFBG When I saw you read at Modern Times Bookstore, you said you had a very wide definition of creative nonfiction.

TONI MIROSEVICH Memoir and nonfiction have become very big. A lot of people are doing it, but everyone has a very different definition. Some people have a very strict definition: you have to have evidence, almost like a police report. But nonfiction, for me, includes the imagination.

SFBG How is that different than writing an essay and speculating in it or wondering aloud?

TM That’s a nice way to define it. It really is wondering aloud. I read last night my story “Pinball.” I’m driving down the coast with a friend, and he says, “I’m lonely when I pump gas.” All of the rest of the story is wondering and speculating on what it’s like to be lonely. That’s as nonfiction as sitting in that car seat with him.

SFBG I was speaking with Candice Stover, another writer and teacher. She was saying what she doesn’t like about creative nonfiction is that she doesn’t know what she’s stepping into.

TM Yes, isn’t that great? [Laughs] I think that’s wonderful. The messier it is, the more excited I am.

SFBG Genres have specific expectations — did you find yourself employing any kinds of rules or restraints when you were putting these stories together?

TM Not many. The thing I like to do is make what I call the net of association as wide as I can, so that I try not to limit when memory comes in or goes out, or the projection of the future that comes in or goes out. There’s a cross talk of past and present, a cross talk [between] genres.

SFBG One of the stories in Pink Harvest that I thought manifested that is “The Nutria.” So much of the physical act of writing is being in the moment and not being in the moment, because you have to focus on the task of writing, but your mind is not in the room. It’s elsewhere.

TM That’s exactly it. You have to not have many strictures or limitations to allow your mind to pinball off the past and present like that.

SFBG Who are some of the writers whose work you have students read?

TM W.G. Sebold is a real favorite of mine. Jamaica Kincaid. Oh, and one of the most gorgeous, poetic writers in the Bay Area is Brian Hoffman. He does the Fishing Report on Thursdays in the Sports section of the San Francisco Chronicle.

SFBG What do you read?

TM Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead [Farrar, Straud and Giroux, 2004]. I’ve always loved Jamaica Kincaid. I love, love, love Carolyn Chute. I read a lot of poetry. One of my favorite poets is Truong Tran. And Tsering Wangmo Dhompa.

SFBG A lot of my good ideas, or what I think are good ideas, come to me in the middle of the night. Do you have the discipline to get up, turn on the light, break out the pencil, and do it?

TM If it’s a really good idea. And I get up a lot at night. You gotta do that. I used to be a truck driver, and I would write down little things as I was driving along, and I think that still happens. But if you’re talking about the discipline to sit down and work it into something else, that takes time. Then you really have to sit down.

Originally published January 16, 2008 in the San Francisco Bay Guardian