A Writer’s Habits: Anya Backlund

What type of writing do you do?
Recently, I’ve been writing nonfiction. I’m inspired by history – and by how we come to know history, and to understand history.  I find inspiration in historical documents, from early American law and political writing to family letters and snapshots to advertisements from the ‘40s and ‘50s… the list goes on. For a part of my thesis, I’ve been trying to learn as much as possible about life for a young American woman overseas with the Red Cross during WW2 (my grandmother was among them). Many amazing documents survive, including reports from various Red Cross clubs detailing weekly activities, letters and photographs, of course, as well as official Army & Red Cross orders (some of them still stamped “SECRET”), et al. Early on in my thesis research, I made a list of everything my grandmother had kept in a file on her father, who died when she was 10. That list alone is “a piece” – a good list is one of my favorite things.

Where is your favorite place to write?
In a comfy chair in a small, bright, undecorated room.

Are you writing a thesis? What is it about?
I’m writing a “creative nonfiction” thesis about family history. I worked with Prof. Cohen in the fall, and now I’m working with Prof. McCann – both have been amazing!

My project focuses on my grandmother’s life, and takes the reader from her early childhood (growing up as a wealthy, white American with a widowed mother and three siblings during the Great Depression) to her years at Smith College (she helped her friend Betty Friedan bring Eleanor Roosevelt to campus to speak) to a teaching/tutoring position on a massive cattle and sheep ranch-complex in New Mexico to her experiences in Italy, Germany, and France with the Red Cross during and after WW2 to her out-of-wedlock pregnancy, and the resulting inevitable adoption, and then along through the rest of her life – though not necessarily in that order!

It’s an immensely rewarding project and I’d love to turn it into a book. It’s a little funny, though, when people ask me what my thesis is about, to say: my grandma.

What’s your favorite thing that you have written?
Parts of my thesis – is that crazy!?

What’s the best thing you’ve read recently?
Ok, a few things:

-Vivian Gornick’s Fierce Attachments (recommended to me by Prof. Cohen, my thesis advisor in the fall) is amazing and inspiring – probably the best book I’ve read in the past 6 months
-John D’Agata’s About a Mountain (which I read for Prof. Cohen’s Intermediate Nonfiction Workshop in the fall; the entire syllabus was amazing, but this one stands out as a favorite)
-Hilton Als’ The Women (also recommended to me by Prof. Cohen)
Please Kill Me, an oral history of punk and glitter/glam rock by Legs McNeil & Gillian McCain (a must-read for anyone even remotely interested in music of the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s)
-also anything and everything by Virginia Woolf and Gertrude Stein, my continual & constant inspirations

These are almost all nonfiction, and sooo good. I guess nonfiction’s my thing.

What writers have influenced you?
Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, Janet Malcolm, Vivian Gornick, Anthony Burgess, Dave Eggers, Joan Didion, John D’Agata, Lydia Davis, Chekhov, Adam Hochshild, Hemingway, David Foster Wallace, William Carlos Williams, Martha Gellhorn, Basho… and my friends in Intermediate Nonfiction… and certain members of my family…

Is there a particular person who you share your early drafts with?
No, I’m very secretive and shy – it’s something I’m trying to get over, especially because I’ve found workshopping to be extremely helpful.

What has your favorite writing class at Wes been?
Intermediate Nonfiction with Prof. Lisa Cohen – hands down. Probably the reason I love nonfiction.

Are you involved in any writing groups or events?
I’ve been an editor of Ostranenie magazine since my sophomore year.

Do you hope to pursue writing in the future? How?
Yes! Any way I can!

Anya Backlund is a senior English major. A Writer’s Habits is a series of interviews with student writers on campus.

1 comment for “A Writer’s Habits: Anya Backlund

  1. mary vanderkam
    July 12, 2011 at 4:28 pm

    After finishing Nothing Daunted, I felt sad that there was no more to read. Then I discovered your senior thesis online and spent a lovely few hours reading it this afternoon. Thanks for your hard work and your sharing your work online. You write very well. I will look for more from you!

    I grew up in Grand Rapids and am about the age of Suzette with a birthdate nine months after my father returned from WWII. So that aspect of the story interested me in itself.

    My own daughter is a non-fiction writer who has had several books published since her graduation from Princeton. 168 Hours is her most recent book.

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