Author of The Last Prince of the Mexican Empire, etc.

C.M. Mayo < Digital Media < Podcasts < Conversations with Other Writers <

Recorded in December 2011 by Skype.

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Announcer: Conversations with Other Writers, with your host, award-winning travel writer and novelist C.M. Mayo.


C.M. Mayo: I'm thrilled and I'm honored to have Sara Mansfield Taber on the show today because she's a dear friend. We met more years ago than I want to admit at the Bread Loaf Writers Conference where we were both fellows, but I'm also a great and very, very deep admirer of her writing. She has a new book coming out which we're going to be talking about, which is very exciting and very interesting, but I'll start out with a brief biography of Sara.

This is taken from her website, which you can visit at SaraTaber.com. She was raised in Asia, Europe, and the United States as the daughter of a covert CIA operative. She has a doctorate in human development from Harvard University, a masters in social work from the University of Washington and a BA from Carleton College. In her doctoral work, she specialized in cross-cultural human development, a blend of psychology and anthropology. A writer of literary nonfiction, Taber's works include literary journalism, personal essay, and memoir.

She's the author of Dusk on the Campo: A Journey in Patagonia and Bread of Three Rivers: The Story of a French Loaf. She's also written a writing workbook for internationally global youth entitled Of Many Lands: Journal of a Traveling Childhood, which was published by the Foreign Service Youth Foundation.

She's taught writing for 15 years at The Writer's Center in Bethesda, Maryland, in the Masters of Arts and Writing Program at Johns Hopkins University, and in the MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts, and in private seminars— which we're going to be talking about, both in the U.S. and abroad. She's married with two children and lives in Washington DC area.

Welcome, Sara.

Sara Mansfield Taber: Thank you. It's so nice to be here and talk to you, Catherine.

C.M. Mayo: Well this is really fun. We're recording this on Skype, for anybody who's wondering. I'm in Mexico City and Sara is in Silver Spring, Maryland, right?

Sara Mansfield Taber: Yep, over here in Maryland.

C.M. Mayo: Right outside DC So we're going to talk about your new book, Born Under An Assumed Name: The Memoir of a Cold War Spy's Daughter.


Sara Mansfield Taber: The book is basically the story of a girl growing up as the daughter of a spy. It's about what it's like to grow up with secrets and what that does to a family. It's also about what it's like to move from culture to culture. There's a lot of material about my love of the different cultures I was plunked into.

The book really tracks two parallel identity stories, my own and that of my father. As for my story, it's the story of a shy girl's adjustments, social struggles, and final triumph as she moves from country to country and school to school.

And as for my father's story, it's really the story of his career, and his growing ambivalence with being a spy— his mixed feelings about the various assignments he had and his growing disaffection with what the U.S. is up to overseas.

So those are the main threads that go through the book.

It's also very much a story of the Cold War. As the book unfolds and proceeds, I touch on all the Cold War events that are unfolding as I develop and as my father goes through his career. So especially, it's tied to the events in China because my father's bailiwick was watching the communist Chinese.

C.M. Mayo: So he was based in Japan and then Taiwan before you came to the U.S., and then the Netherlands, which is kind of the outlier, and then back to the U.S., and then Borneo, and then Japan. So it was mostly Asia with an interlude in the Netherlands and the U.S.

But your dad was working a lot in Vietnam, right? I remember he had a book that you had published at his funeral, of his memoir.

Sara Mansfield Taber: Right.

C.M. Mayo: He was one of the last people out of Vietnam.

Sara Mansfield Taber: That's right, yes. Well, I was in college when he was in Vietnam and it was at the very end of our involvement in Vietnam. He had a pretty crazy exodus from Vietnam.

He was there after the U.S. Embassy was evacuated and was sort of abandoned by the American government to find his own way out of Vietnam which was quite a startling thing to have happen.

As part of that exodus, he and his two colleagues managed to get fifteen hundred people with their families who had worked for the CIA, he managed to get them to the U.S. by flagging down a ship in the ocean so that these people wouldn't be persecuted by the communists coming in. So that was something he was very proud of.

C.M. Mayo: Really heroic. His memoir that you had published for him at his funeral… He never saw the book published?

Sara Mansfield Taber: He did see it. It arrived two days before he died.

C.M. Mayo: Oh, so he did see it. That must have been so nice for him to see that.

Sara Mansfield Taber: Absolutely, yes.

C.M. Mayo: Can you tell us the title and where people can find a copy of that book?

Sara Mansfield Taber: It's called Get Out Any Way You Can. It's the story of the House Seven Propaganda Force in Saigon and their evacuation from Vietnam. His name is Charles Eugene Taber. It can be purchased through the usual suspects on the Web.

C.M. Mayo: Amazon.com.

Sara Mansfield Taber: Yeah.

C.M. Mayo: That's wonderful to know. That's a very important document for anyone studying the history of the Vietnam War.

He ran the radio there, no?

Sara Mansfield Taber: Right. He and his colleagues ran an underground propaganda radio station that beamed to the Vietcong in the North and the North Vietnamese and to Laos and Cambodia.

It was this full radio station from dawn through the evening with drama and news and singing and everything you can name, but oriented toward convincing communists to come over to our side.

C.M. Mayo: Now when this was going on you then were already in college. You had left home.

Sara Mansfield Taber: Right.

At the end of the war there was a long period when we didn't know what was going on with my father. He and these colleagues were stuck on an island off the south of Vietnam. We didn't know what was happening because he was still there after supposedly all the Americans had left.

C.M. Mayo: Oh, that must have been terrifying! How long did that go on?

Sara Mansfield Taber: It was a week or two, I think. My mother had been evacuated to Taiwan and she was up there biting her nails.

C.M. Mayo: I can't even imagine. That must have been absolutely terrifying.

I think the Vietnam War is something that, golly, it already seems so long ago... for me just growing up it was every night, you know, Walter Cronkite... You had to kind of think your way through what were we doing there, and what did it mean and getting that outcome... Anyway, your book is tackling such a really profound issue, personal identity and identity as an Amerian. It's so interesting too that you grew up in all these different countries, Japan, Taiwan, the U.S., Netherlands, U.S. again at a different age, and then Borneo and Japan again, so it kind of comes full circle.

But each of these countries, although most of them are in Asia are unbelievably different from one another. Borneo, Japan, Taiwan—it's difficult to imagine countries more different from one another!

That must have been so challenging, to be pulled out of one and thrust into another.

Sara Mansfield Taber: My family was very adventurous and interested in other cultures, so it was also exhilarating. I basically loved each place. But the adjustment was huge each time we moved.

And the harder part really was adjusting to new schools. Most of my schools were international or American school. But schools are quite different from place to place, so each one was a big adjustment.

C.M. Mayo: And the age, too. My personal theory, Sara, is that 8th grade is Hell on Earth for everybody!

Sara Mansfield Taber: Absolutely.

C.M. Mayo: There are certain ages that are more difficult.

Sara Mansfield Taber: Exactly. My hardest transition was from a tiny school in Holland where I had 14 students in my class to a school in Washington DC, which was not so large by American standards, but much, much bigger than that. And moving from a tiny family-like school to a big, sophisticated Washington DC school was very difficult. And that was in 9th grade.

C.M. Mayo: And that was when you went to Sidwell Friends?

Sara Mansfield Taber: Right. I went to Sidwell Friends School, which was just full of very sophisticated Washingtonians. A lot of children of politicos and journalists and very well-off people.

C.M. Mayo: For those who are listening who don't know Sidwell Friends, it's kind of a funny…I mean, I never went there, but I've lived in Washington and what always struck me about it was that kind of funny juxtaposition, that it's a Quaker school— so from that angle I would think it would not be a particularly socially sophisticated school and yet it is. This is where Chelsea Clinton went and Obama daughters are there and so on and so forth. So it's the private school in Washington DC. Very rigorous academically, as well.

Sara Mansfield Taber: Right. Back then it wasn't quite so full of celebrities [laughs] but still it had a lot of liberal elite of Washington, and it was just a whole new culture for me.

You know, it was also the 60s and people were pretty cool. Everyone was dressed like hippies. It was just a whole new…

C.M. Mayo: Bell bottoms and hip huggers and peace signs.

Sara Mansfield Taber: Right. Exactly. The thing that saved me really was that I got very involved in the anti-war movement. Sidwell being a Quaker school was very supportive of that, so I kind of found my niche through the anti-war movement.

C.M. Mayo: That must have been so difficult though, with your dad working in Vietnam.

Sara Mansfield Taber: It was very ironic. I mean [laughs] to have my father be in the CIA.

Of course at least half of that time in Washington I didn't know my father was in the CIA. I only found out when I was 15.

The upshot of finding that out is described in the book. I had maybe an unexpected response to it, and I'll just say that I adored my father so that didn't change. Although finding out he was a spy raised a lot of questions.

C.M. Mayo: Well, it's funny talking about your book because it's not a novel, it's nonfiction, but your writing is all novel-like so I don't want to give away the ending! I don't want to give away the plot. I think this is something people are going to have to read from beginning to end.

But I did read an earlier chapter that you showed me, the one on Taiwan. That was absolutely fascinating and particularly for me because I've lived in Mexico for many years. It's always a bit of…it takes some adjustment to come into a culture where it's normal and expected and even to some extent part of the social contract to have servants. You quickly realize that you're giving a job to someone who needs a job, but growing up in most places in the U.S. in the latter half of the 20th century, most people didn't have servants and nannies. So it's really kind of a foreign thing to be thrust into that. And yet you were a tiny, little kid there in China.

Sara Mansfield Taber: Yeah. I mean it was just very different than what we live here in the U.S. Yeah, we had a cook, a nanny, and a maid—but a tiny house. Yes, I mean we were basically able to employ people who really needed work. Taiwan was extremely poor at that time.

But yeah, these four years in Taiwan we had a baby ama, as they were called. She looked after my brother and me. My brother was two years younger. We adored her. To me, that was just normal life.

But years later when we lived in Borneo and had servants, I found it very uncomfortable and would refuse to ring the bell for dinner, that kind of thing. But my parents did explain to me that actually our cook had his own servant at his house. So having servants in Asia is very, very common. Also my parents pointed out that we were offering our cook and our maid really good jobs.

So that complicated things. I couldn't look at it in quite so simple a way as I might have if I'd just stayed in America.

C.M. Mayo: It must have been a big shock to come from Taiwan and the Netherlands to the U.S. I mean to come back to the U.S. Not just the change of culture but also that you were a different age at the two times you came back to the U.S.

Sara Mansfield Taber: Right. I came in 1962 and then back in 1968.

In 1962, America was really like a 1950s place with people wearing Bermuda shorts and cowboy hats. [Laughs] It was just sort of hunky-dory all the time and extremely patriotic. It was before we were enmeshed in the Vietnam War. I think the world looked simpler. We were still sort of in the World War II mode of thinking. We were on top of the world pretty much.

And then coming back in 1968 was a whole different order of business and was not the American I had come back to in 1962. Washington had just been…there had been huge civil rights demonstrations, and then the whole anti-war movement was in a fervor. So when I came back then, there was a lot of anti-American feeling in America, whereas earlier it had been all rah, rah America.

So very different countries I came back to each time.

C.M. Mayo: And that was right when you went into high school, right? Oh, no, no... ten you went to Borneo, then you went to Japan, and then you went to high school.

Sara Mansfield Taber: No. My second time coming back to the U.S. was as I was entering high school at Sidwell Friends.

C.M. Mayo: That was in 68. That was an incredibly standout year of huge change.

Sara Mansfield Taber: Right. It was just a turmoil in Washington but very, really interesting. Being at a Quaker school was very formative for me because we had meeting for worship each week— that was a silent meeting when people spoke about their political concerns, when they were inspired to. It was just a time that opened up my mind and made me think harder about a lot of things.

Before that, I'd been just a zealous patriot in a very simple-minded black and white way. And then when I entered Sidwell all of that got shook up.

C.M. Mayo: One of the chapters of your book that I read before it was in the book was your chapter about growing up in the Netherlands and how there was…what I recall about that— aside from the beautiful, poetic language— was that there was such a sense of tension between the Americans and the "Dutchies."

Sara Mansfield Taber: Right. As I said, I went to this tiny, American school. We were so ardently American. It was really something! [Laughs]

I think this is common in American children raised overseas and probably all children raised out of their countries. They become more patriotic than the people at home.

C.M. Mayo: More American than…we see that in Mexico too. [Laughs]

Sara Mansfield Taber: More American than the Americans. It's kind of crazy. So we were always comparing ourselves to the Dutch and claiming that we were better and our cheese was better, and our toilet paper was better, and our everything was better.

That age, that middle school age tends to be that way, very black and white about everything.

C.M. Mayo: Oh, yeah. It's such a difficult age because you're still trying to figure out who you are— I guess we're always trying to figure out who we are, but I think that age has got to be the worst! [Laughs]

Sara Mansfield Taber: It is horrible. [Laughs]

C.M. Mayo: I felt that you portrayed that so well, because in my own life living abroad when I was younger I remember trivia would just really grate on me. I think that's normal. I think when people go abroad at first it's very exciting and invigorating and wonderful, but then after about three weeks, it starts getting very grating, and little things really start to bother you. Again, I don't think this is just me. I think this is normal.

I remember in England one of the things that really bothered me was their ketchup. Their ketchup was just horrible in the 70s. Then the other thing that drove me bananas was their cords, their plugs. You know, if you had a hair dryer or something like that, they had all these weird little plugs with round holes and square holes and different sizes, and I'd go, why can't they just have a normal plug?! [Laughs] These kinds of things would take on enormous significance, which I find really funny now. I'm kind of relaxed about that sort of thing at this point. I've been 25 years on and off in Mexico. It's like, listen, I just can't get upset about trivia because otherwise I'd never get up in the morning. [Laughs] I felt that you conveyed that so well in that chapter about the Netherlands.

I look forward to reading your book, Sara. I haven't read the whole thing since it hasn't come out yet, but I'm really excited about reading it.

Sara Mansfield Taber: Thank you. I do have a lot about both loving and being very ambivalent about different things in different cultures, for sure.

C.M. Mayo: At a less personal level, it's also about how one CIA operative, at least as far as his daughter understood what he was doing or not doing, was working during the Cold War. So a question I have for you is in writing the book itself, just coming back to these memories and thinking over it and thinking over it, as you have to do when you write a book, did you find any change in how you thought about what it meant to be American? And also how you see the CIA itself by the time you finish writing the book?

Sara Mansfield Taber: Yeah. I definitely sort of had to struggle with all of those issues about what America does abroad and what the CIA does abroad as I wrote the book. That was part of why I needed to write it was to find out what I thought and sort out what I thought.

And in a way my thinking evolved sort of in parallel to my father's because he came into the CIA out of World War II, when entering the agency was about the most patriotic thing you could do— to fight fascists and evil people around the world. So he came in really optimistic and hopeful.

But then he saw how sometimes we used people in ways that really endangered them and didn't have much of a profitable outcome.

My father's thinking was that there are very difficult things that are happening in the world all the time, and there are people with very mixed motives and people with harmful motives. And so you do need a CIA to keep track of what's going on around the world, and know what people are plotting, and know what people in questionable regimes are up to.

So finding out the truth about what's going on across the world is a good idea. And I think he believed that all the way through his career, that an intelligence agency is important. You need to have one.

What he had trouble with was when we meddled in the internal affairs of countries, in some cases, and also he worried about the individuals who we put in jeopardy by either supporting them or putting them up to things that put them in danger, or in fact led them into situations where they were killed.

And he was involved in things where people died as a result of our supporting them or our working with them. That was very troubling to him, how we often abandoned people who helped us. That was really difficult for him.

Then on a larger scale he was very concerned about what we were doing in Vietnam ultimately, and how we overthrew democratic regimes, and that sort of thing. So on the scale of our policy objectives, he often had questions.

So as I went along tracking what he was doing through the book, I just had a rollercoaster ride of feeling like, OK, yeah, we do need to know what's going on in other countries, and, oh my gosh, we're doing horrible things.

While we need an intelligence service we need to really scale back on our interference in other countries.

C.M. Mayo: It seems to me like it's so difficult because it's a bureaucracy, and bureaucracies I think always have…I think of them as they kind of have a life of their own. Then by its nature, it's secret, so all sorts of things can be kept secret that maybe don't need to be, or if they were brought out into the light would never be approved of.

I can see the conundrum.

Well what happened after Vietnam? Your dad came back to the U.S. at that point?

Sara Mansfield Taber: He came back to the U.S. He worked in the CIA training center for a year or two and then his last assignment was in Germany in Bonn and there, his growing disaffection with the agency really came to a head when he was asked to find evidence for something President Reagan said that simply wasn't there.

Reagan had made a big pronouncement about communists in Germany and communists being behind the anti-nuclear protests in Germany. And those protests were completely homegrown and sincere, and my father's task was to find evidence that it was the communists, the Russians behind it. He just found this the most disingenuous way of conducting foreign affairs, basically.

So that really was the straw that broke the camel's back and he decided to retire early. He just couldn't support and stand up for lies.

C.M. Mayo: Let's start talking more about writing here.

One of the things that really interests me as a writer is reading as a writer. So in order to write a book like this— this beautiful literary work that you do—I know that you read other writers so who are the writers who have most influenced you? And who would you say has most influenced you in the writing of this particular book?

Sara Mansfield Taber: One writer that I read and studied a lot when I was first starting out writing this book was Jamaica Kincaid and in particular her book Annie John, which I just love. She writes very much from a child's point of view. That's what I was trying to do with this book, too: to see the world as the girl I was back then saw it. Jamaica Kincaid does that beautifully.

Other writers that have influenced me a lot especially in my literary journalism work are Bruce Chatwin and John Berger, both of whom write about other cultures in just an absolutely beautiful way. Another writer of other cultures who I admire hugely is C.M. Mayo!

C.M. Mayo: Oh, come on, Sara! You're sweet. I send you a kiss over the Internet! [Laughs]

Sara Mansfield Taber: You are just one of the most exquisite, user of figurative language I've ever come across. I mean, your similes and metaphors and your descriptive passages about cultures and people are just exquisite. You're another writer who's influenced me.

C.M. Mayo: You're very dear. Bruce Chatwin, he's one I absolutely love. I sometimes get exasperated with him, though. He's so wild and wacky and his language is so poetic, so British.

Sara Mansfield Taber: Yeah. His travel writings are much more those of passing through than my writing about cultures. I tend to go a little deeper, whereas he writes fabulous things about brief encounters.

C.M. Mayo: I sort of feel like Bruce Chatwin is just Bruce Chatwin. He's just the fabulous Bruce Fabulous Chatwin and because he's so fabulous, everything he sees and does is just fabulous. I'm so inspired by him as a writer ,but that isn't what I'm trying to do. For me, what's so amazing about Bruce Chatwin is the language, and the child-like sense of wonder, and how he gets so enthusiastic about things.

Sara Mansfield Taber: Exactly.

C.M. Mayo: I love that and I do try to emulate that but I'm not trying to be Bruce Chatwin. I think there's only one Bruce Chatwin.

Sara Mansfield Taber: I used to study his sentences. I would copy down various kinds of sentences he wrote onto index cards and try to model some of my sentences after his, because he uses sentences of different lengths and... in an interesting way.

C.M. Mayo: This is one of my favorite subjects, syntax! Because I love that. In fact, this is what I do in my workshops and it's something I started doing only a few years ago and I wish I had done it sooner is... precisely that. When I see a sentence that just has so much music in it and it's so interesting to take that syntax and vary the nouns and verbs or whatever so that I'm not plagiarizing it. It's mine, but I'm keeping that structure and it's almost like doing verbal yoga.

Sara Mansfield Taber: Yeah. It's fun to take on someone else's sensibility for a little while and try to absorb a little of it.

C.M. Mayo: I love it!

So when you are reading you read with your notebook or you read with index cards? As teachers of writing, we talk a lot about how to read as a writer. What would you say about that?

Sara Mansfield Taber: I write all over everything I read! I spend, oh, thousands of hours making notes in books I admired, and especially looking at how they structured them, how they might open the book, how a chapter would be structured. Where they would have a scene, where they would have historical information, where they'd have exposition. How much of the text was dialogue, what was description, and sort of, how it was paced and sequenced in the book.

I did a lot of studying of structure. That was a huge, huge part of my self-study.

C.M. Mayo: I would say exactly the same. I think thinking of my book on Baja California, Miraculous Air— structuring it was so hard because when people try to write memoir and or literary travel memoir, which is kind of the same thing, there's a huge overlap between the two genres, personal memoir and literary travel memoir— there's that problem of how do you get in the information? Like, what was going on in the Cold War or what is Taiwan or who was President thus and such?

So how do you have it read like a novel, which is the ideal, the Chatwin-esque ideal, so that we pick it up, and we just read it through delightfully without it feeling like, oh my God now we're in the textbook chapter where the professor is speaking and it's this jarring change in tone.

Yeah, I mean for me a big master there is Ted Conover. I took a lot from him and also V.S. Naipaul—
how to get that information in and yet keep it novelesque.

Sara Mansfield Taber: Absolutely. How to not have an "expository lump," as Ursula Le Guin says.

C.M. Mayo: The "expository lump," exactly! [Laugh]

So we chop up the expository lumps and sort of lard them through, no?

Sara Mansfield Taber: Exactly. How to sneak in the exposition? It's really hard. I struggled with that a lot in this book. I don't know if I mastered it or not, but I ended up sneaking in some of the Cold War facts through dialogue with my father. So I have conversations in which he explains to me what's going on in the world, which actually did happen all the time with him. But that was one solution I came to as a way to convey information.

But oh, yeah, it's really a challenge in these books where you want to bring in history and lots of background as well as tell a personal story.

C.M. Mayo: So reading as a writer another thing I've noticed about you is you always have your notebook with you. Always, always, always!

Sara Mansfield Taber: Absolutely. I'm a fanatic note taker and just note things down all day long. Thoughts that come to me, things I observe, just items I might see along the way, or in a museum. I'm always noting down things that are of interest to me, and thoughts that occur to me, and sentences that may fit in the piece of writing I'm working on.

I feel like it's really important to capture those thoughts and moments and observations in writing immediately because I lose them at least if I don't note them down in the moment.

So I'm a great index card fanatic, too. I keep them all over the house for making notes on it as something occurs to me.

C.M. Mayo: I say the same. I think for me the worst has to be to be somewhere where I overhear or see something fascinating and I have nothing to write on! Oh, I just want to pull my hair out!

Sara Mansfield Taber: Exactly!

C.M. Mayo: Because I have no short-term memory! I just can't remember. I think, that's so cool but what was it? It's just gone!

Sara Mansfield Taber: I even have this crazy system—especially when I'm deep in a book— where I have a whole file box with dividers in which I stick these various index cards. I have all the different topics in there, so I can put my index cards in the right places and then use them later.

C.M. Mayo: That's the nice thing about index cards as opposed to notebooks. You can file things like that.

Another problem with notebooks— I always say this in my writing workshop, I try to be open to the idea that everybody is different, you know, my prescription may not be the right thing for everybody but that said
I just am very down on these fancy notebooks. I find them very intimidating. You go to Barnes & Noble or Politics & Prose and they have these gorgeous notebooks you know, with butterflies on the cover and I don't know what. So you have this beautiful writer's notebook... and then I find I can't write anything in it! I feel like I have to write something intelligent. [Laughs]

I mean, to me it's more interesting to just write down some funny thing I heard on some card in a museum or whatever that just sort of jogs my memory or some word that I think is interesting that I want to be sure to use... I wouldn't put that in a beautiful notebook with the butterflies on it. [Laughs]

Plus, you can't put those things in your purse. They're huge! An index card can go in a wallet.

Sara Mansfield Taber: Right. I do think index cards and scraps of paper are the best. [Laughs] Corners of things.

C.M. Mayo: Even if I don't file them and they get lost, just the act of paying attention, the act of writing it down...

At what point when you're a writer at what point are you writing? I think there's such a gray area because that process of noticing and taking notes is part of writing.

Sara Mansfield Taber: It's constant. Luckily and sadly I think if you're a writer you're just kind of always writing. You're always collecting material or thinking something through or plotting or writing sentences in your mind.

C.M. Mayo: Do you have another book on the horizon? I know you're going to be taken up a lot this winter with promoting the memoir, but do you have another idea in the oven?

Sara Mansfield Taber: At the moment I'm mostly writing essays on topics that occur to me. Just little, short essays, and also writing some more stuff about family and I don't know what it might become. Basically I would like to do something in the literary journalism arena again, doing interviewing with people. I haven't nailed down the topic yet but that is inviting to me.

I've now spent all these years sorting out my own life, and what I really enjoy the most is talking to other people about their lives and writing about those lives. I'd like to get back to that, I think.

C.M. Mayo: I can relate to that, Sara. I'm starting a book in the winter about Marfa, Texas and it's really just because I want to interview people. [Laughs] I just want to talk to them. When you have a book you can ask people more questions than you would normally ask, say, a neighbor. You might seem very nosey asking a lot of questions of a neighbor or an acquaintance, but when you have a book project, I find most people are fairly forthcoming and generous to someone who's writing about them. And I just love that. It's such a privilege.

Sara Mansfield Taber: Absolutely. There's just nothing better than interviewing people. I just find people so amazing how they triumph in spite of great struggles. I love hearing about that and writing about that and honoring them and bringing out people's stories. As you say, it is just a huge honor and a huge pleasure. You want to give that pleasure to other people by passing it along in writing.

C.M. Mayo: So this is coming back to what you did in your earlier book. You have Bread of Three Rivers: The Story of a French Loaf. I loved that book.

What I recall about the book was how you had looked at the ingredients of a prize-winning loaf of French bread that was just so incredibly delicious and what were these ingredients? The salt, the flour, the yeast, and the water— and then interviewing the people and going and talking to the people.

We have a blurb from Jacques Pépin, author and cohost of PBS TV's Cooking at Home. He's a big deal in the culinary world.

"The greatest treat in the world for me is a chunk of superlative, crusty, fresh country bread covered lavishly with the best possible butter. Bread of Three Rivers is an in-depth poetic study of the most basic of all foods, bread."

And Richard Goodman, our mutual friend and the author of French Dirt: The Story of a Garden in the South of France says— and I completely agree with him:

"This is one of the most compelling, knowledgeable, and graceful books about the French soul that has ever been written by an American."

Because you went in and interviewed people in French about their world and their work, the guy who produced the yeast, and the guy who had the flour mill, and the baker and all these people.

Then you also had that wonderful book, Dusk on the Campo: A Journey in Patagonia, which had a lot of interviews.

Sara Mansfield Taber: Right. That one is the story of a sheep ranching community in Southern Argentina and the story of sort of the rise and fall of that community. It was Basque people came from France and Spain and settled there in the 1880s and set up and worked on these vast sheep ranches and it's the story of this very, very isolated community and the people there and how they survive in social isolation, and what their lives are like as sheep farmers.

It was just wonderful experience talking to them. They're some of the most warm, hospitable people in the world. When you live way out in the scrublands by yourself, you tend to be very open to other people. These Argentines, if you turn up on their doorstep they take you in as though you're a long lost relative.

C.M. Mayo: That's really extraordinary. Well, are you going to be writing about another country or will you be writing more about the U.S.?

Sara Mansfield Taber: I'm hoping to do some writing about women in different countries. So that's one thing that's on my agenda. I love hearing people in different cultures... just have such different world views and different metaphors for experiences we all hold in common. So I would love to try to capture some of that on the page and explore that more. You know, just how people see the world and life and what's important and what it means to be a woman, and all that kind of thing. We'll see what happens.

C.M. Mayo: Fascinating. Teaching is an important part of what you do as a writer. You've been teaching for many years, both at the Writer's Center and other venues. I think more recently at the Vermont Cente? And you also teach privately as well.

Sara Mansfield Taber: I do a lot of teaching in my home, which is really fun. I have writer's workshops there and some of those have been going on for years, which is really fun because I have the same people year after year and I get to watch their books come into the world.

I do love teaching. I think everybody has an important story to tell. I find that with support and rigorous commenting, people become better and better writers and produce these beautiful, creative works of art. So it's just wonderful to be able to support that, and lots of different people.

C.M. Mayo: I would think it's helpful for you as a writer as well to stay connected with that. Because I know it is for me.

Sara Mansfield Taber: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. You're thinking about words all the time and how they work best and how to structure a piece of writing. It just keeps you on your toes having to think about it!

C.M. Mayo: You teach a manuscript critique where everybody brings a manuscript and you sort of lead the critique session?

Sara Mansfield Taber: Right, I do that kind and then I also have a new format, which I call the Memoir Club, wherein people just come and read work aloud so nobody takes anything home or marks pages, but they respond to pieces read aloud. That's a lot of fun, too. And amazingly, you can get very helpful feedback even in that kind of format.

C.M. Mayo: Just the act of reading aloud— I find when I'm reading my own work aloud— not so much when it's already been published, then there's nothing I can do about it at that point —but when I'm reading a draft aloud, oh! I find all these things I want to fix.

Sara Mansfield Taber: Right!

C.M. Mayo: I suddenly realize, oh! That paragraph went on way too long!

Sara Mansfield Taber: Yeah. It's so useful to read your work aloud and to hear someone else read it is sometimes really helpful.

C.M. Mayo: Oh, terrifying. Just the act of reading aloud I think... I've been at this for so long that I don't have any problem with that. But when I started out I think I was like most people, it was very difficult to read my own work and almost impossible to read my own work in my natural voice. I would just feel my throat get all tight and it was very difficult. So just getting used to coming and reading aloud is enormously helpful, I would think.

Sara Mansfield Taber: Yeah. That's good. I should add, in all of my classes I always have people do some free writing as part of the workshop. I can't overestimate the value of that. There's just something about being forced to write something impromptu to a surprising prompt. You just produce material you didn't expect to produce and surprise yourself.

C.M. Mayo: I know, and then the fact that it's under a clock and then you get to share it with other people— it is a formula for some magic.

Sara Mansfield Taber: It really is. It's very cool.

C.M. Mayo: So if people want to find out about your workshops they can just go to your website, which is SaraTaber.com.

Sara Mansfield Taber: Or just email me to ask what I'm teaching at the moment, which is Sara@SaraTaber.com.

C.M. Mayo: And then your new book, Born Under an Assumed Name: The Memoir of a Cold War Spy's Daughter, that is going to be available in January 2012 from all the usual suspects—so that means Amazon.com, BarnesandNoble.com and of course your local independent American bookstore. Go to Politics & Prose or, if you're in Northern California go to Kepler's or, if you're in Denver it would be Tattered Cover. All those places will carry it and if for any reason you don't see it on the shelf, you can ask them to order it.

One of the things that drives me nuts as a writer is people are always saying, "How can I get your books?" I'm like, the bookstore. [Laughs]

You know, what a lot of people don't realize is if you don't find the book there, they can just order it. It's not a big deal. It's not like if you don't find it on the shelf, oh my God, you can never get the book. It's carried by a distributor so the clerk can just order it and send it to you, it's not a big deal.

So it's easy to get it. That's exciting.

I noticed you also have a Podomatic page there so people can listen to your podcasts. I'm assuming if anybody is listening to this podcast after the fact, the podcast of your reading in 2012 at Politics & Prose should be on your website, right? Or also the one at Politics & Prose I think they are recording all their book events now.

Sara Mansfield Taber: The one that's up there now is a lecture I gave on my struggle to find the right story for my book, for Born Under an Assumed Name. So it's a lecture on the memoirist's conundrum, that of trying to figure out which story of the many of your life you're going to nail down as the one for a particular book.

Listen to Taber's lecture on writing memoir

C.M. Mayo: That's a very important topic. I remember when I did my first draft of my travel book it was like the telephone book, it was ridiculous! I wanted to tell the truth so I felt like I had to put everything in, in order to tell the truth because I realized that the minute you leave something out, you're sculpting the truth. But you can't possibly put everything in, or it won't be readable.

Sara Mansfield Taber: Right, it's very difficult. There are so many truths, and you can't put them all in. [Laughs]

C.M. Mayo: This lecture that you gave that's a podcast on your website this was at the Vermont Center for…

Sara Mansfield Taber: The Vermont College of Fine Arts.

C.M. Mayo: Where you're teaching in the MFA program.

Sara Mansfield Taber: Right.

C.M. Mayo: You know, for those of you who are listening this is really a resource. Guess what, you can have it for free on the website! So it's really a resource for anyone who wants to learn more about writing or memoir writing or personal memoir or travel memoir writing to just download that podcast and listen to it. It's really well worthwhile.

Listen to Taber's lecture on writing memoir

Another really cool thing about Sara Taber's website is you have a whole page of just advice for other writers. You've been at this for a very long time. You have several books now and you've published in some really interesting places— literary journals and also the Washington Post. This is just a wonderful resource for any writer out there, so be sure to check that out at SaraTaber.com.

Sara, before we sign off, is there any last thing you'd like to add?

Sara Mansfield Taber: I'm going to be starting a blog about writing— writing and spies in the new year. So if people are interested in more tips about writing I'm going to have a lot, especially writing memoire on this blog. So in case that's of interest to people I wanted to mention that.

C.M. Mayo: Fantastic. I noticed your blog. Again, we're recording this in December 2011. Your blog right now has your podcast. So you'll be taking that up in January with lots more going on.

Sara Mansfield Taber: Right, exactly.

C.M. Mayo: I wish you so much luck with your new book. From what I know of your other books and the couple chapters I've read, I am so excited to be able to read this book when it comes out. I'm really, really looking forward to it. Born Under an Assumed Name: The Memoir of a Cold War Spy's Daughter by Sara Mansfield Taber. Check it out at SaraTaber.com.

If you hear this in time, go to the Politics & Prose reading. I'm sure there'll be some other events as well, so go check out SaraTaber.com and if you can go to one of them, go get your autographed first edition!

Sara, thank you so much. It has been such a pleasure to chat with you.

Sara Mansfield Taber: Thank you, Catherine. Wonderful to talk to you, too.


Announcer: Visit again for more Conversations With Other Writers as well as other podcasts with your host, C.M. Mayo at cmmayo.com/podcasts.