Margot Singer is the author of a forthcoming novel, Underground Fugue (Melville House, 2017); a collection of short stories, The Pale of Settlement (University of Georgia Press, 2007), winner of the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction; and co-editor, with Nicole Walker, of Bending Genre (Bloomsbury Academic, 2013), a collection of essays on creative nonfiction.
Her short stories and essays have appeared in The Kenyon Review, The Gettysburg Review, Conjunctions, Shenandoah, Prairie Schooner, Agni, Ninth Letter, The Sun, and many others. Winner of the 2013 James Jones First Novel Fellowship, she has also received a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, the Reform Judaism Prize for Jewish Fiction, the Glasgow Prize for Emerging Writers, the Carter Prize for the essay, and an honorable mention from the judges of the PEN/Hemingway Award.
What is most difficult about writing?
Pretty much everything is difficult about writing, but for me, the ambiguity is the hardest part. A long time ago, when I worked in management consulting, we used to say that you had to have a “high tolerance for ambiguity.” But writers need an even higher tolerance for ambiguity than consultants. It’s hard not knowing what you’re writing about, where your story’s going, whether or not it sucks, or whether it sucks now but will eventually work out. Not having the words come out perfectly the first time is hard, and revising is harder yet. It’s hard to get feedback and not know how to follow it, or whether, even if you figure out how to follow it, you’re making your writing better or worse. When you send your work out, it’s hard not knowing why you’ve been rejected. Were you the very next person on the list, or did they read the first sentence and laugh at how awful it was as they tossed it out, or did they even read it at all? It’s hard not knowing who, if anyone, will ever read your work, and if they’ll like or understand it if they do.
What is your philosophy of failure?
What is a “philosophy of failure”? My failures have no theoretical underpinnings. They’re just failures. “Onward,” as my agent says.
What is the biggest mistake you have made as a writer?
Not starting to write until I was in my mid-thirties.
What is the biggest mistake you have made as a person?
Moving to Ohio, probably. I love my job and I love my friends, and I think for my kids it’s been an okay place to grow up, but I don’t love living here, especially now, post-Trump. I miss the coastal liberal bubble. I miss mountains and oceans. I miss nonstop flights. And I’m sorry to have lived so far away from my parents and other family members all these years.
What is your best failure story?
I applied for a Rotary Scholarship when I was a senior in college. I had come up with this idea that I was going to go to Tokyo to study business management at Waseda University. This was 1983 and Japanese business practices were all the rage. My boyfriend drove me to Worcester for my interview. The local Rotarians were all old men who looked like Mike Pence. They asked me why I was interested in going to Japan to study business. I mumbled something or other, and they all leaned back and laughed, and one of them said, “Ho, ho, so you can take away more jobs that were meant for men!”
My failure is not only that I didn’t win the scholarship (I didn’t) or get to go to Japan (I’ve still never been there), but that I didn’t say anything back. I think I just squirmed and smiled. The French call it l’esprit de l’escalier—the rejoinder you think of only later, after you’re out the door, standing outside on the stairs. I’m still trying to come up with a good line that isn’t just an expletive.