The Writer’s Hot Seat: Mira Ptacin

02 February 2018 on Blog, The Writer's Hot Seat  

Mira Ptacin reports on women in trouble—in trouble with the law, with the economy, with their bodies, with ghosts. Her memoir, Poor My Soul, has been called “a funny and deeply moving story of loss, love, and redemption in the tradition of Cheryl Strayed and Elizabeth Gilbert” and was named a Best Book of 2016 by Kirkus Reviews.

Since then, Ptacin has been working on a new book, The In-Betweens, forthcoming from Liveright/W.W. Norton. The In-Betweens is about Spiritualism, an American religious movement founded by women in the 1840s, based on the belief that spirits of the dead communicate with the living, typically through a medium. The book centers on the Camp Etna Spiritualist Community, which has been active in rural Maine each summer since 1876. 

mira headshot #2

Ptacin received her MFA from Sarah Lawrence College. She teaches writing in a women’s prison, and in spring 2018, she is a visiting professor in the MFA program at UNH.

Interview by Nonfiction Editor Susan Geib

Tell us about your forthcoming book, and about how you found your way to the topic of Spiritualism, and particularly Camp Etna.

I had finished my memoir, and I didn’t have any idea what I wanted to do next, besides teaching and writing articles. I had no idea for a book. A friend of mine, the writer and editor Celia Blue Johnson, just randomly said to me, “Hey, I’ve got this really amazing book idea that I think you’d be interested in.”

Well, whenever anybody says that, I’m just like, “Nope! This topic is yours, and I’m probably not going to be interested in it.” When you come across a book idea, it just has to be perfect and exactly what you didn’t know you were looking for. It’s synchronicity, I guess. I didn’t think Spiritualism or Camp Etna was amazing; it all just seemed really complicated and not what I wanted to spend years working on.

Time went by, and little things popped up here and there that led me closer to Camp Etna. I got more curious, and did some online research about Spiritualism, and it just blew me away. I got turned on about it, but it such a huge topic. I’d only written about myself, and I really didn’t know what to do with it. Also, I had two little kids and didn’t want to take on a book project. But it was a topic that just wasn’t going away, so I finally I made a commitment to write something about it for Tin House. I’d never written anything big for them, and I was pitching some article ideas. I just happened to mention Camp Etna, and my editor said, “I will take that article!” So I thought, “This is my one chance,” and I just had to start. By the time I finished the Tin House piece, I realized that I just had to write a book about this.

That’s a lot of ramping up! What did you learn from this process?

I learned that it’s okay to procrastinate. I had all these facts in front of me, and it gave me time to think about how I was going to arrange them and what story was going to appear to me. It took me a while to figure out what the themes were, and the questions I wanted to find answers to. Someone else could be writing this book and say, “I want to prove that this is all fake,” or whatever. But that’s not my book.

I decided to follow two related threads—present-day Camp Etna, and the history of Camp Etna and Spiritualism. I wanted to answer certain specific questions: What did Spiritualism do for women? Where did it go? Do women need it anymore? And then, there’s also the question: Are ghosts real?

The tension that moves the story forward is about the future of Camp Etna. Back in the day, it was really successful and popular, but today, there aren’t many people coming. There are some women who’ve been at the camp their whole lives and are bitter that it’s being opened up to things besides mediumship, such as ghost hunting and dowsing for water and crystal meditation, and also that it’s charging money so the camp can survive.

You teach writing in prison, and you've written some pieces about prison life. How did one lead to the other?

I teach in prison by choice, as a volunteer. Because I do that, I’ve been asked to write about life in prison. Well, I can’t write about prison without writing the stories of how these women got there. I love writing these stories. It’s easy to write about prison life because it’s so awful, so basically awful. One danger, though, about writing about women in prison is that there’s a power dynamic: I can leave and I can write about them and I have freedom—and they don’t. So I write about them for their benefit or to be their advocate—just to do some kind of “love activism” as a writer. I don’t want to take advantage of them, and it would be so easy to do.

All of your writing comes back to women in some way or other. Do you ever feel confined by that?

I’ve accepted that I like to write about women and feminism and female empowerment—and just women’s stories. And I don’t feel confined at all, because I don’t write the same story over and over again. It goes from abortion to ghosts, which may seem kind of random, but they all relate.

There’s a political or hot-button-issue aspect to much of your writing. Have you gotten any push-back on that?

Well, it took me eight years to get my memoir published [because it deals with an unviable pregnancy and subsequent abortion]. No one wanted to go there, which is insane, because so many women needed to hear about it. And people who are against it needed to see one person’s story. It makes no sense that, if it’s political, it’s either that you have to bring out that aspect even more to make it relevant for sale, or else leave it out because it’s a hot topic, and how are they going to advertise it, market it, and all that?

In my opinion, the rejection letters I got for it [the memoir] mean that they just didn’t want to go there yet. It was still just too taboo. And then with this book [The In-Betweens], my agent sold it within weeks after I sent her the proposal.

Before we wrap up, is there anything you have to say about who you are as a teacher?

Nothing general that’s going to sound too cheesy. But I strongly believe that if writers aren’t teaching people who are new, taking on apprentices, then art will die. It’s so important to teach and guide younger and newer writers because the world is not set up in a way that anyone else will do that for them. There are so many people who want to push them away from the direction of art. This is my duty as a writer. I want to teach because I want to help people who really want to write be good at it. I just want them to be the right kind of writers, who feel supported. I want to pass on the knowledge that’s been passed onto me.


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