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Labors of Love

On the Road

Photograph of Patricia O'Donnell Patricia O’Donnell’s stories have appeared in The New Yorker. Her debut novel, Necessary Places, is published by Cadent Publishing. O’Donnell directs the BFA Program in Creative Writing at the University of Maine at Farmington.

What inspired your book?

Necessary Places Cover Necessary Places started when I wanted to take my ailing father on a trip. He was in a nursing home in Iowa with advanced Parkinson’s disease, I was in Maine with my family, and he wanted to travel. I couldn’t take him anywhere, so I started writing about a woman taking her ill father on a trip from Maine to Iowa to visit his brother.

How much did you know about the eventual content before you started writing?

I really didn’t know what would happen on this trip. I know writers say that all the time, but it’s true. I didn’t know what their quest would be, I didn’t know what problems would arise, I didn’t know what would be discovered. Those things grew as I wrote, in what felt like an organic and natural way. Sometimes I would start on a track and realize it felt wrong, so I’d head in another direction that, over time, felt more right. The problem with the “perfect” daughter arose, and added another layer to the story. I gradually realized that Anna, the main character, was on a quest to discover her lost mother.

What does your writing practice look like?

I teach full-time at the University of Maine in Farmington, and am not able to keep much of a writing schedule during the semester. In summer I don’t garden; my yard is a mess; I don’t spend time at the beach. I’m in my house, sitting on the couch or at the kitchen counter, ignoring people and typing away. In June I start writing; in July and early August I’m deep into it and am at my most antisocial; in late August I start to (regretfully) pull back into the world.

Do you have a favorite novel or novelist?

I have many favorite novelists; the list is constantly changing. Recently I love Penelope Lively, Shirley Hazzard, Jeffrey Eugenides.

How does teaching help your own writing?

Some writers have said that teaching detracts from their writing, as it takes the writing concentration and puts it in the classroom rather than in their work. For me the academic life has helped me continue writing; classes and conversations with students and colleagues have always reminded me of the importance of writing, of its significance and vitality. Even when I don’t have time to write—in the depths of November, say, or dreary March—I keep this image of summer in my mind, of the time when I can lose myself in a story of my own making and let everything else drop away. And in the meantime I am assigning stories to students, reading the stories they write, talking with them about stories, and writing. Really, what job could be better?

Any writing advice?

I really just have one piece of advice that I give myself, and will give to writers of any age: Don’t give up. If writing is what you want to do, do it regularly, do it faithfully, regardless of what you perceive as the lack of support. Isak Dinesen said, “Write a little every day without hope or despair.” To that I would add, don’t worry if you can’t write every day, or every week; the writing will still be there for you. It’s a faithful, shy lover with a crush on you.