An Interview with Mira Ptacin, by Olga Kreimer
March 10, 2016
Mira Ptacin’s debut memoir, Poor Your Soul, about the grief of losing an unexpected pregnancy at twenty-eight, is not depressing. This might be surprising; between that event and the braided-in story of her brother’s sudden death at sixteen, you expect tears before you’re done reading the dust jacket summary. But the slice of her history that Mira’s book offers is full of color and nuance, peppered with details and even humor that breathe life into all its layers. The result will probably still make you cry. But it’s the familiar details that bring it home, the flashes of recognition of sticky youth, new love, New York City sidewalks, iron-willed parents, teenage cigarettes, petulant silences, 80s fashion, puzzling neighbors, unexpected joy—and of grief and pain, yes, but also of irrepressible resilience.
Skyping from her home on Peaks Island, Maine, while her newborn daughter Simone mostly napped, Mira shared some thoughts about the book, what she’s learned, and what keeps her from Googling herself.
You’ve talked before about the origin story of the book: this big thing happened while you were in grad school, and this story forced itself into your writing life. How did the writing timeline fit into the story? Were parts of it still happening as you were writing?
You know when you’re watching TV and you see something happening, and there’s a two second delay, and then you hear the audio? That’s kind of what the book was like. I started writing it right after I’d gotten married—I got married in September, so I was also back at grad school, and I had to write something. I started writing two or three chapters for grad school, and then I realized I had to keep going with this.
What’s it called when you go tubing? The wake. I was writing in the wake of it happening. I couldn’t get myself to write about other things, because this was all-consuming. I went back to certain things—writing about losing the baby was one of the last and hardest parts I wrote.
You’ve also mentioned that it took a long time, and a lot of rejections, before the book was published. What’s the most surprising part about finally getting it out into the world?
I’m really surprised how detached I am. When I found out I was getting a book deal, my goal was: I have to be detached from this. And I have to work on it, I have to practice, I have to meditate, and all these things. And having children saved me. Most people go crazy when they have kids, but it grounded me. Because the book was going to be my legacy, and I had all my value placed on that book, and whether it was going to be read by people, and if that’s how I’d be known, but after having Theo and moving to Maine, and then having Moe, that’s what I care about. I used to feel like I need to be writing all the time—I’d be pissed if I had to get up and go pee and I was losing five minutes of my writing time! But now, harmony is so important to me. And the kids are so interesting and fun—they are my legacy.
I think it’s a really important topic, and I think it’s going to help a lot of women—I hope—and men. Because when I lost the baby, there were no books like that. I had no companionship. And this is something I gave to the world. But I’m moving on. It was my therapy, and my craft, and it’s what I do, but I’m less emotionally attached to that book now.
I was a little worried that my core values were going to be, like, fame and success. But when it comes down to it, the things I love about getting the book published are it helping people and, on the book tour, getting to see my friends. Having a conversation about reproductive rights was really important to me too. But the fame stuff—I don’t Google myself, really. Well, sometimes I do.
Where do you think politics come into all of this? Reproductive rights are such a huge issue, especially now. I forget sometimes when I read your story that it’s about something so political, because it’s so human. How do you relate to that?
I think when you make it political, you take away the spectrum and you make it black and white. So if this book did anything political, I would hope that it made people even more confused about what their beliefs are. Even now, I’m pro-choice, but I don’t prefer abortion—it depends on the situation and ME. It’s my choice. It’s not someone else’s choice to make for me, and it’s not my choice to make for someone else.
I think this book is really important because it shows how complicated someone’s life is up to that point where they make a decision that takes two seconds, to say yes or no—there’s so much before and there’s so much that comes after it, that it’s more than just abortion. It’s so huge. For me to become really politically involved would sort of take that away. I still don’t know how I feel about abortion. I still don’t know how I feel about my own decision. And I don’t want to be known as an abortion activist. I’m a storyteller.
What are some of the most interesting responses you’ve gotten?
When I was on the Leonard Lopate Show, a woman heard me on the radio that day in New York, and she had also lost a baby, and she came to my reading in Brooklyn that very night. And as you know, living in New York, going all the way to Brooklyn to a reading is far! That was one of the best responses—a woman I didn’t know coming to my reading because she felt like it would help heal her. Anytime I get a response from someone saying, I’ve been through this, or my wife, my sister, thank you, it offered solace—it’s the best.
People always say, when you write memoir, “Aren’t you worried about what people will think?” And I always say no. Because whatever I include, I’m conscious of the reason I’m including it, and that those reasons are valid, and that the story is honorable because my intentions are pure. My intentions are just to help people and connect with people and make people feel better about being flawed humans.
As I got to know firsthand, you’re a very generous teacher, with your insight and your time and your investment in your students. What do you get out of teaching that feeds your writing?
It’s like working in a church, almost. I would like to know what a pastor would say about doing what they do, because I think it’s kind of similar. You’re preaching to your audience, but you’re also saying what you believe, so you’re reminding yourself of what you believe, and sort of questioning your beliefs and forcing yourself to find the answers through talking. And also your students question you, so it forces you to always be re-evaluating your beliefs. You have to answer for yourself. I think teaching is the best form of growing as a writer.
It’s also a double-positive thing because you get to see your students—I get to see you grow as a writer. I like teaching sometimes more than I like writing. So you have to check yourself sometimes and be like, okay, you gotta put your butt in the chair now. It’s your turn to write.
Teaching also pays. But not that much.
What are the most important things you’ve learned from your mentors, in any size nutshell?
Vijay Seshadri taught me—here’s a quote. We were in class. It was the last day of my nonfiction class, and one of the students asked, “Vijay, what are we going to do if what we write about becomes boring?” And he was so mad. He was like, “Boring?! You’re asking me what to do when life becomes boring? You are the master of your own universe. You are consciousness. The question isn’t whether or not something is boring, the questions is whether or not you have faith.” And I was like, Preach! So he taught me that you have to be conscious of what’s going on around you all the time. Because then everything is fascinating. Everything Vijay says, it takes me like a week to process it, and then it sticks with me forever once I figure it out.
On one of the first days of our class last year, you were telling us about going to grad school and said, “I got really good at writing.” You were so unapologetic for your success, and it’s sad that that’s striking, but it really was. What’s your key to that kind of assurance?
Ninety percent of the time, I don’t speak like that. It’s hard to pin it down, because I don’t remember any specific moments in my life when someone said that women don’t speak like that, but I’m used to not having assurance and still having confidence without questioning it. In parenthood, too. I think I’m a really good mom, but the minute I say that, I think of an article that says I should be doing this, this, and this, and I’m not doing that. I had my six-week postpartum checkup six weeks late. I was on tour with Simone, and thinking, “She’s going to ask me how nursing is going, and I’m just going to lie.”
I think I’m constantly comparing myself to who’s better, but when I work really hard, and I stop doing that, there are moments when I can think, I worked really hard at this, I’m good, and I’m just going to say it. And it doesn’t happen often.
But I do remember that moment. I was being so honest with you guys and I felt like being honest with myself was not indulgent. That being kind to myself wasn’t being indulgent. I knew I could say that about myself because I had put in the work. And the work I put in, the majority of it, was really sincere.
I think that’s called having integrity.
Olga Kreimer is a writer and editor especially interested in women’s health, local food systems, and intersections of culture. She’s a 2016 Fellow at the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto and an alumna of the Salt Institute and New York University. She once won a fight with a rooster using only her words.