Meet the Writer is a feature for which I interview authors who identify as women. We talk less about a single book or work and more about where they’ve been and how their lives affect their writing. Today, please welcome Beth Gilstrap. If you’re into connecting with authors through social media, Gilstrap is on Twitter, and you can find out more at her website.
Grab the Lapels: What did you want to be when you grew up, and does this choice influence your writing today?
Beth Gilstrap: Aside from a few years in elementary school when I wanted to be a ballerina, I always wanted to be a writer. I had a rather traumatic childhood, and writing and reading was how I coped with that. My elder sibling got a guitar. I had notebooks, pens, and paint.
GTL: Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?
BG: My mom says I was trying to write in the margins of her books before I even knew how to read. My first real writing project I remember was a play. My mother was the principal of my elementary school from 2nd through 4th grade, and those years stand out in my mind. I was enamored with the story station my 4th grade teacher had created. It was this little reading nook complete with headphones and a tape player and books. I fell in love with Shel Silverstein’s books there. The music of his language and how he read was pure magic. Every chance I got, I escaped to that little corner and drowned out the world. And after school, when Mom was still working, I’d go to the auditorium and perform for an invisible audience, though I am sorry to tell you the play included the 80s band Daryl Hall & John Oates.
GTL: How have you developed creatively since then?
BG: I’ve studied writing for my entire life. I recognize my strengths and weaknesses now. I’m becoming more fearless with every piece I write, but most importantly to me is the fact that I have read so many books outside the traditional white male canon; at this point, I feel like I’m finally undoing a very lopsided education. I have a long way to go. To me, intelligence is knowing how little you know and continuing to show curiosity about this crazy life.
GTL: What happens when you’re not happy with your writing?
BG: I probably bang my head against the wall too long — I love the puzzle of tinkering and revision — but putting a piece away for a few months is generally much smarter than banging your head against a wall.
GTL: Did you learn anything from writing your book, Deadheading & Other Stories?
BG: I learned that I need writing to survive and that in the act of making stories, I am my most authentic, least anxious self.
GTL: Why do you think your book would be a good choice for a book club pick?
BG: I wrote this book during the worst period of my life. My mother-in-law, who also had a personality disorder, was dying of cancer. I was her primary caretaker. My husband almost never came home from the road and began self-medicating in a way that could have easily killed him. Our marriage fell apart. So, I think the timing of a book, which asks the questions, “How do you go on living after trauma?” and “What do you want your life to look like given what you’ve endured?” is prescient in a world with covid-19 in the picture. It is a deeply personal and interior book, but I believe it is in this kind of specificity that we reach the universal.