“Conquering the Poppy Fields!”: An Interview with Bonnie Friedman 

Interview conducted by Cary Ann Siegfried

In her new essay collection, Surrendering Oz, Bonnie Friedman touches on the subject of envy, just as she did more extensively in her previous work, Writing Past Dark: Envy, Fear, Distraction and Other Dilemmas in the Writer’s Life.  Ironically, as I read these essays in her new book, I could not help, as a writer of essays myself, feeling quite envious of her mastery of the form.  Others obviously share my admiration, evidenced by the fact that Surrendering Oz has been named to the longlist for the 2015 PEN/Diamonstein-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay, as well as being named to the shortlist in the Creative Nonfiction CLMP Firecracker Awards.

Friedman’s essays have appeared in The Best American Movie Writing, The Best Buddhist Writing, The Best Spiritual Writing, The Best of O., the Oprah Magazine, and The Best Writing on Writing.  Her first collection, an exploration of emotional issues in the writer’s life, was a widely anthologized bestseller.  Reviewing her new book in The Rumpus, David Weinstein says: “Friedman’s peripatetic thoughts constitute an essay in its purest form – more like Montaigne than the typical collection today.”  He goes on to note: “[her] earnestness is refreshing when so many memoirists today bury their insights in irony . . . Each of Friedman’s observations is microscopic in its precision, but her collected wisdom, prolific and sprawling among so many topics, could fill a sea.”  Library Journal calls Surrendering Oz “a must for students of creative writing.”

I interviewed Friedman at the University of North Texas where, as it happens, I am one of her graduate students, and where the envy occasioned by reading her book is fortunately tempered by my hope that she will be able to help me learn to write with the same penetrating wisdom and exquisite attention to detail that she employs.  While reading these new essays, I was often reminded of her insistence that we, her students, think all the way through our writing, to not stop with the easy or pat conclusion and to show that work, to allow the reader to see us “thinking  (and feeling) on the page.”  She holds herself to these same high standards.

The theme of Friedman’s new book is learning how to surrender the poppy-fields of pacifying delusion and fantasy for the excitement of being a “grown up grown-up,” which entails accepting the force of eros and the inevitability of mortality, as well as the power that each one of us possesses to alter his or her life.  Cumulatively, the new essays could also stand as a model for writers on the craft of the personal essay.

Interviewer: The subtitle of your new collection of essays, Surrendering Oz is “a life in essays” and it’s obvious that the collection follows along a journey toward discovery that you’ve taken in your life.

Were you always intending to assemble these essays in a book?  Can you talk a little about how and when you realized that the essays might relate to one another and work together?

Friedman: Thank you for this interesting question.  I wrote each essay as a standalone piece when there was something in my life that I needed to figure out or when I’d had an experience that was so rich in some way – sensually, intellectually – that it seemed almost blasphemous to lose it by not committing it to the page.  What else does life have to give us if not important experiences, and how careless and upsetting to lose them to the sheer ongoing daily sweep of time!

The essay about living in Greece was like that, and the essay about my sister and the graveyard rabbis, and the essay about having a secret, uptown life – all were attempts to catch key experiences and to find out the deeper meaning which had disturbed me at the time.  There’s something marvelous in the longitudinal quality of written sentences.  Without the tool of writing, many of us have the notion that we’re thinking something through when actually we’re just thinking something to the middle.  Or two-thirds of the way.  Writing helps you actually to complete the fraught and thickety thought, to glimpse its implications.

I knew I had a book when I could see that I was no longer the person I was at the beginning – insecure, indecisive, squirrely, needing always to merge with those around me to feel okay.  I felt I had a book when I could see I had become someone else, when my awareness had shif