Interview by Tamzin Mitchell
To read Sonya Huber’s work is to take a romp through a writer’s mind: researched but imaginative, energetic but informative. I worked in health insurance long enough to doubt that the subject could ever be interesting—Huber proved me wrong. Huber teaches English and creative writing at the University of Fairfield. Her first book, Opa Nobody, melds research and imagination as Huber seeks the guidance of her long-dead grandfather; her second work of creative nonfiction, Cover Me, chronicles her years-long struggle to find affordable health coverage.
Your unofficial résumé is impressive—and busy! Obviously your activism work was a strong influence in Opa Nobody. How else has your work influenced your writing?
Thank you! I love this question. I think my work as a journalist has made me more able to sit down and write for an hour a day and produce and then let it go. Getting edits isn't that painful for me because I see all of my work as continually in progress and improved with outside feedback. I think the fact that I've always worked full time has made me disciplined in terms of having to focus when I had time to write. I've gotten pretty aggressive at carving out my hour a day. Finally, I love work as subject matter in all genres. We spend so much of our time working that I love any creative writing that focuses on employment and what it does to us.
Research has been an integral part of your longer works. What did that process look like for you?
I can definitely lose myself in research, like many writers. I tend to collect bits and pieces of research for a long period of time, sometimes years, and I try to read widely in a topic I'm writing about, even in scholarly works that feel like they're over my head. I love to have an excuse to dive into esoteric subject matter. I collect quotes in a program I love, Evernote (which is free online), and that helps me organize notes I might later use in a piece. Sometimes I read a whole book and end up only using one quote, which is sort of painful, but hopefully the underlying sense of what I learn from what I read imbues the writing.
I’m interested in the way your voice shifts depending upon audience or project—chattier in some of your essays, more meditative in works such as Opa Nobody. How do you come to a given piece’s style?
I think each person has so many voices as part of their personality. I'm fascinated with that. I think my voices have developed out of the very different social roles I've inhabited. Finding the right voice to match a subject has been a challenge for me in everything I've written, but I think the right voice is the one that completely unlocks a piece of writing. The right voice is the one that usually connects to the social role the piece is about. Each voice is connected to a persona, and sometimes I think it's hard to give a persona a voice on the page because I am invested in appearing differently than the "true voice" of the piece. For example, I might want my readers to think I'm smart, thoughtful, educated, and I might therefore try to manipulate how they see me through putting on a different voice. Sometimes, though, the right voice for an essay is a goofball or a weepy sad woman or even two warring voices. I'm looking forward to doing more and more voice experiments as I write. I've gotten more and more into that in the past few years.
Your work often blends the personal and the political. How do you strike the right balance?
I am not sure. I struggle with this, because there is no perfect balance. The two categories overlap completely. I think a piece can be very personal and implicitly contain a challenging political message. Or it can have a lot of reporting and a clear agenda, but the personal element is left out and the reader therefore doesn't have to connect emotionally. The balance is very elusive, but being able to pursue them both is one of the best things about narrative nonfiction. Can a piece be both vulnerable and didactic? Can it both expose a reader to a clear argument and contain a questioning and curious narrator? These are interesting questions to me.
You’ve had essays published in a number of literary journals and media outlets, including Creative Nonfiction and The New York Times. How do you decide where to target a piece?
I often aim for an outlet before I have an idea of what I want to write and craft an idea that seems best suited for that outlet. I'll see a call for entries or submissions and realize I could write something, and then I study the publication to see what styles they tend to publish. I've had so many rejections, like most writers, and often I'll be sure that a piece is great for a certain outlet and I'll be wrong. Other times I'll be shocked that something works. In general, I want to keep aiming for new outlets just because I like my work to hopefully reach a wide audience. I treat each submission like a lottery ticket—you can't win if you don't play.
You received your MFA from Ohio State University in 2004. What was your strongest takeaway from doing your MFA? What advice do you have for MFA students or recent graduates?
I valued getting the chance to sit in the same room with so many great faculty at OSU and to hear how they organized their writing lives. The biggest impact was actually discovering that I could write nonfiction and learning about what I did well in writing; before the MFA, I did not know what my strengths were or what to build on. I always include positive feedback for my students in workshops, not as a “feel-good” but because I think developing writers need to know what their strong suits are so they can play to and develop those.
I would advise the recent graduate to subscribe to CRWROPPS-B, the listserv that Allison Joseph at Southern Illinois University runs. There is a barrage of opportunities for submitting one's work. I would subscribe to Poets and Writers and get an AWP membership. Staying connected to your sense of yourself as a writer is essential; organize a writing group to get feedback; go to small regional conferences if you can't go to the big ones. And carve out just an hour a day to write; don't feel like you have to wait to write until you have a huge great idea or until you can go on a writing retreat. Just write and submit to places you think you have no shot of getting into.
What are you working on now?
I am finishing up a memoir on intergenerational substance abuse and also putting together an essay collection on chronic pain. And for some completely confusing reason I started voice recording a bunch of notes for a possible novel on the way up to New Hampshire. About one in ten book ideas will make it into book form, but that's okay. My hard drive is chock full of bits and pieces of strange things.