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Writers@Work: An Interview with Donna Seaman

March 28, 2017



Note From Rochelle



Dear Readers,


Last week we talked about how to shed what doesn’t work, shift to new practices, and take a single step in a positive direction. If you tried the assignment and struggled—you’re normal! We must work at this: shedding old habits and shifting to new practices. Here’s the thing: we build strength through the struggle. Every time we fail and try again, we build new muscles. We learn what works and what doesn’t. And over time, we move forward. Yeah for that!


For today’s tip, I interviewed Donna Seaman, author of the new book Identity Unknown: Rediscovering Seven Women Artists. Seaman will talk about her book at Boswell Book Company in Milwaukee on Thursday, April 27 at 7:00 PM. If you live in the Milwaukee area—consider attending: this should be an inspiring evening!




The Write Now! Coach




Writers@Work: An Interview with Donna Seaman by Rochelle Melander


Welcome to the Write Now! Coach blog. I’m excited for your new book, Identity Unknown. Can you talk about how it came about?

Identity Unknown brings together my passions for books and visual art. Even when I was making art—I have a B.F.A., I read and wrote all the time. My literary side pushed me to earn an M.A. in English, and I found my way to Booklist, the review magazine published by the American Library Association, where I review books about art and artists along with nonfiction about many other subjects, poetry, and fiction. I also reviewed books for the Chicago Tribune and other newspapers. But when it came to my own writing, I wanted to do something different. So I turned to my other obsession, visual art; to a literary form I’ve always loved, the biographical essay or profile, and to a subject I felt strongly about: the lives of women artists.


What drew you to write about the lives of these seven women in particular?

Each of these brilliant and daring twentieth-century artists achieved success during her lifetime. Each exhibited and sold their work; their shows were reviewed; they were interviewed by journalists; museums acquired their sculptures and paintings. But soon after their deaths, they faded from public view. Critics and art historians overlooked them, and museums put their work in storage. I wanted to tell their stories and call attention to their art to counter this neglect.


What did you learn about what drove these artists to make art during a time when women were primarily subjects instead of makers? 

The need to make art is a mysterious and powerful force, and it impelled these women artists to reject gender expectations and take control of their lives so that they could devote themselves to their work. They were individuals of profound conviction and highly original vision.  Everything else in their lives had to accommodate their drive to create, and this complicated marriages and, for most of them, motherhood. For these seven artists, life and art were inextricably entwined.


When you studied the work habits of these artists, what did you learn that inspired or encouraged you as a writer? 

I was very moved by the depth of their commitment, by the consistency of their discipline, by their many sacrifices, and their perpetual sense of both mission and adventure. They always pushed themselves to try new approaches, to seek fresh perspectives and experiences, to risk all to keep exploring, experimenting, perfecting.



What are you reading now?

I’ve been reading a lot of fiction lately. I highly recommend a debut short story collection, What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky, by Lesley Nneka Arimah, and the first novel by the brilliant essayist Elif Batuman, The Idiot.



Donna Seaman is Editor of Adult Books at Booklist, the editor of In Our Nature: Stories of Wildness, a member of the advisory council for the American Writers Museum, and a recipient of the James Friend Memorial Award for Literary Criticism and the Studs Terkel Humanities Service Award. She has reviewed for the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times, among others. She has written biocritical essays for the Oxford Encyclopedia of American Literature and American Writers. The National Book Critics Circle named Seaman as a finalist for the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing. Seaman has been a writer-in-residence for Columbia College Chicago and has taught at Northwestern University and the University of Chicago. Her author interviews are collected in Writers on the Air: Conversations about Books, and she is the author of Identity Unknown: Rediscovering Seven American Women Artists. Seaman lives in Chicago. Visit her online at her website or on Twitter,



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