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Ideas are tough; irony is easy

Pulitzer Prize-winner Annie Dillard speaks

By Grace Suh

Others may describe Annie Dillard as a Pulitzer-Prize winning author, but she calls herself a soccer mom. In an interview, reading, and open-forum session at Calhoun yesterday, Dillard talked about God, aging, and the stuff of life.

"People are always trying to convince themselves that their times are really important," she said. "But if you really, truly understood that you are going to die, and how many people there are now and how many people there have ever been, just beads in this never-ending string, how, then, do we live? How can you take yourself seriously?"

Dillard's writing career began early in high school when she began composing poetry. It was at Hollins College in Virginia that she met Calhoun Master and Mrs. William Sledge. Their friendship has spanned many decades. "You know, she looks exactly the same as she did when she was 18, every hair in place," she said of Betsy Rose, now more familiar to Yalies as Mrs. Sledge.

For Dillard, college is a wonderful opportunity. "You're an idiot for not spending time with each other. You'll never have friends like these again," she said. "But by the time I graduated, I couldn't do anything except read and take notes." Dillard graduated as an English major.

Her works include An American Childhood and Teaching a Stone to Talk, but Dillard is perhaps best known for Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, the book which won her the Pulitzer Prize at age 29.

"By the time I finished the book, I weighed about 98 pounds," Dillard said. "I never went to bed. I would write all night until the sun was almost coming up." She admits that she has changed since then, but says she doesn't regret "fanaticism of youth."

Her life now is vastly different from what she had imagined in her twenties, yet she doesn't mind keeping to schedules and thinking about such mundane matters as carpools and house plants. Indeed, she says that the most inspirational moment in her life was having a child. "Well, maybe except for getting pregnant," she said.

Although times have changed, Dillard maintains her love of literature. She cited Henry James, Thomas Hardy, and Ernest Hemingway as a few of her all-time favorite fiction writers. She greatly admires works by Yale English professor Robert Stone, including A Flag for Sunrise and Dog Soldier. Although she loves all types of literatures, she doesn't like F. Scott Fitzgerald and Jane Austen. She feels these authors deal too much in social issues.

Courtesy Harper Collins

Critics often draw comparisons between Dillard and Thoreau, another nature writer. "It's a real honor to be compared to a great writer like Thoreau," she said. However, Thoreau has influenced her life in more ways than one. Dillard explained how she met her husband, Bob Richardson. "He wrote a book about Henry David Thoreau. About 40 pages in, I realized that I was going to have to write this guy a fan letter." She wrote the letter and invited him to call if he found himself out East. "And so he came East, we had lunch, and then we got married," she said. "That was about nine years ago."

Dillard draws from all aspects of her experiences, but she admits that composing a written piece of art can be difficult. "I'm not very good at finding things to write about," she said. "I'm willing to pay 25 cents a piece for ideas; 50 if yours is chosen." For Dillard, humor is an important aspect of her style--she even keeps an index of jokes to remember. "Sarcasm has no place in literature," she said, "but irony has the highest place."

On a more serious note, Dillard also addressed her own spirituality. God and religion are recurring themes throughout her works. "I knew in my twenties that I was going to end up a Catholic, horrifying as the thought was, because I was raised a Presbyterian." She attended an Episcopalian church in college and eventually converted to Catholicism. "When I went to the third world countries, I always went into Catholic churches." Because of her early success, she relished the solace and peace of anonymity in church. Of the two pieces Dillard read, one was a poem about the spiritual life "The Sign of Your Father."

Dillard is currently working on a new book. "It's impossible to describe," she said. "It's a personal narration about God and the problem of pain. It has a lot of Jewish theology in it, a lot of Catholic theology, and scenes from hospitals and births, birth defects, and a lot of geology of sand. It's about the birth and death of the generations."

To aspiring writers, Dillard gives this advice: "You have enough experience by the time you're five years old. What you need is the library. What you have to learn is the best of what is being thought and said. If you had a choice between spending a summer in Nepal and spending a summer in the library, go to the library."

But Dillard doesn't live entirely in the world of ideas. To those Yalies pondering the deep meaning behind "Living Like Weasels," keep in mind that, even for Annie Dillard, sometimes a weasel is just a weasel.

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