Five Questions: Anna Staniszewski
Anna Staniszewski is an award-winning writer who has published more than ten books. She's also such a huge fan of puns that her relationship with her husband more or less started because of one. Anna and I met up at Blue Bunny Books & Toys (a children's store, this is relevant during the interview) in Dedham, Massachusetts for a coffee and a chat. And of course, she answered Five Questions. Meet Anna.
How do you define failure?
Failure is giving up when you shouldn’t give up. You have to know when to give up. There are certain projects that I’ve worked on that I think, “It’s OK if I don’t finish this, it’s OK if I put this aside. I’ve still learned something even if it’s not done and other people won’t read it.” But if I gave up on something just because it was hard or because I was frustrated with it or if I didn’t give it enough time or focus and then I give up on it, that’s failure. If you work really really hard and something doesn’t work out, you still learn something from it. If you give up or you feel like you failed, but it’s really just because you didn’t give it your all, then that’s failure.
Me: Have you had any of those?
Anna: Yes! Especially when I first started writing, I had a really hard time finishing things. I would just give up when it got hard. I don’t think that was wasted time necessarily, but there might have been missed opportunities. So I got better about being a bit more critical about what I work on, knowing certain ideas are going to work better than others, so knowing, “Maybe I don’t need to focus my efforts here.” But if there’s some potential somewhere, I keep going with it even if it is hard.
Me: Right. I’ve had those moments of difficulty. For me, it’s less about my music and it’s more about life. [Laughter] Taking risks as a person is tough.
Anna: Yeah, we need to be forgiving toward ourselves. I sometimes chant to myself, “You did the best you could with what you had.” You have to remind yourself of that because you can beat yourself up like, “I should have done more, I could have done more.” So you have to say, “I did the best I could, I’ll do better next time.” Sometimes I have to say that aloud to myself and then it feels better.
What is your greatest accomplishment?
It goes back to what we were talking about before, about accepting yourself for who you are and being OK with it, and I think doing that is a big accomplishment for me. I spent so much of my life not liking who I was or beating myself up about not being good at things or not being better than I wanted to be. I think I’ve finally—not to say I don’t still have those moments, but I think I’ve gotten better at accepting that this is me and I’m making the best of it and maybe it’s not so bad. But that was a long process and writing has been a big part of it. I’ve been able to put out some things that have been very personal, and have people respond to it in a positive way and identify with it. Then I think, “OK, I’m not the only one who feels this way and there’s some value to having gone through the struggles that I’ve gone through” and then come out on the other side of it more me.
Me: You say you still have those moments of, “Oh shit.” Whoops, I’m sorry!
Anna: There are children around! [Laughter]
Me: Oh, god. I’m terrible. [Laughter]
Anna: For the record, there are children around!
Me: So how do you combat those feelings when they do come around?
Anna: Sometimes you just have to tell yourself to get over it.
Me: Tough love.
Anna: Yes. If it’s something I have to do—I’m still not great in social situations. A lot of times I just have to tell myself, “You’re going to do it and it’ll be fine and if it’s terrible, it’ll be over soon.” And when it comes to work, I just have to say, “You’ve been here before, you’ll figure it out.” I just have to be a cheerleader to myself. And sometimes it is just about saying, “Suck it up and get it done.” It’s not supposed to be easy.
Me: Right. If it was easy, everyone would do it and there would be no value.
How do you define being “in love”?
Me: Did you prep for this one?
Anna: Yes! This one I practiced because I was nervous! [Laughter] See, going back to our previous question, practicing and imagining the possibilities—because I’m a control freak, so if I can think about the different possibilities of how things might play out, without obsessing about it…it makes me feel better about going into a situation that might make me feel uncomfortable. So that’s what I did for this!
Anna: So being in love… My husband and I have been together for almost sixteen years and we were babies when we met. We were just out of college when we started dating, so I feel like we’ve grown up together. So when we first started dating, it was that giddy excitement of, “Oh I get to hang out with you!” and “You like me too!” Like middle school, which I write about, so I feel like I’m still in that mindset all the time. But now that we’ve built this life together—like I said, we grew up together. We do so many things together, we really rely on each other. So maybe that excitement isn’t that same giddy excitement, but it’s still excitement. I’m still excited to see him and I’m still excited to tell him about my ideas and my day and there’s so much stuff that’s like, “I have to tell him later because he’ll think this is hilarious!” The longevity of that is being in love. Where you always think of that person being in your life and you’re excited about that.
Me: One of my favorite things is going back and reading—because I transcribe the interviews, so I have to read them many times, and I have to edit them—so I go through that process and it’s so important to read this stuff multiple times. Especially this question because it’s something I’m genuinely searching for in my life, so I’m trying to catalog all these good ideas.
Anna: With being in love, people think it’s magic. Like, “Oh it just happens” and “It’s so easy” and it does sort of happen, but it’s not easy.
Me: No, that’s the thing that I’ve learned—just dating is work. But for me, I feel like I’m ready to do the work. It’s just a matter of time to find someone who is also ready to do the work and we like each other. Two little things. [Laughter]
Anna: And you have to be patient. My husband and I have been together for sixteen years and we were so young when we got together that we didn’t always want the same things at the same time, so it was just a matter of being patient with the other person and thinking, “OK, yes, we want these things for our future, we don’t necessarily want them at the same time, but it’s worth investing in.”
Me: What were you drawn to then? Not necessarily in him, but things that happened between you. What was it that kept you there?
Anna: I will tell you what drew us to each other in the first place and it’s really ridiculous. A friend of ours fixed us up and he said, “My roommate loves puns, I think you guys would get along.” And he was right! So it was our ridiculous love of puns that brought us together!
Me: That’s amazing!
Anna: I have to tell you this story and I can’t reenact it because we don’t have salt and pepper shakers, but there was one time when we were hanging out, just as friends, and he took a salt and pepper shaker and put a bread knife up to the salt shaker and he tipped over the pepper and he said, “A salt with a deadly weapon.” And it was the nerdiest thing and I was like, “Tee hee hee hee!” I was just like, “Marry me!” We just have that same ridiculous sense of humor that other people are like, “Ugghhh.”
Me: Lot of eye rolls.
Anna: Yeah! Exactly! But we have that. It’s our strength. There are things that we just—we’re not alike in every way, but that sense of humor keeps us going. Especially these days with a two-year-old. She’s wonderful, but it’s hard and thankfully I have someone there who’s as invested in it as I am and we can do it together. But that sense of humor is the only thing that gets us through certain days. That’s a thing that keeps our relationship solid even if there are all these other moving parts.
What’s one thing in your life that you wish you could change?
No. There are obviously things that are bad that have happened, but you can’t change it, so I try not to think that way. I try to think about what I’ve gained from those experiences and how do I keep going. It’s so pointless to think that way. All you can do is think, “How can I do better?”
Me: Are there moments when you’ve been in that moment like, “Oh my god.”
Anna: All the time! Like, “Why did I say that really stupid thing?” But no, all the things that I’ve done that felt like mistakes at the time or if there are things I felt like, “Why didn’t I take that opportunity?” or whatever, things wound up where they needed to be. Especially after college, I felt very lost. I didn’t know what I was writing, I didn’t know where I wanted to go, I didn’t know what I was doing, and it was just by a series of chances that I wound up taking a job that led to another job that led me to grad school. They were all connected. At the time it felt like I was just stumbling around, but I wasn't in the larger scheme of things.
Me: You referenced it as a series of chances, do you believe that they were chance? Do you believe in coincidences?
Anna: No. I don’t know. There are certain things that are so senseless that you think, “There’s no reason that happened for a purpose.” But there are other things that there’s just no way it could be accidental. I have this theory that there aren’t enough extras in the world. This is why you always bump into people you know in the most random places. I don’t know what the purpose behind that is, but it doesn’t feel like an accident when there are billions of people and you run into someone you know in an airport in Amsterdam.
Me: I have one of those “bumping into” stories. I flew from Rome to L.A. in 2015 after I spent a month in Rome. And on my way back I sat next to a couple and they were super nice, both Italian, we chatted, exchanged Facebook info. They were in L.A. for a couple days, but we didn’t connect, whatever. That was it. Last summer , I was in Boston and I was just walking, taking pictures, and I hear from across the way, “Steve!” Now, I never turn when someone honks or yells Steve…unless they say Molter, it’s never for me. So I’m just like, “Not me.” But I hear it again, “Steve!” And it’s in an accent, so I turn around and it’s this couple from the plane. They’re running towards me like, “What is going on?” And we’re all like, “Oh my god! How is this possible?!” We had never corresponded so this was crazy. Of course we had to get a drink, so on the way to this bar, I’m like, “What day is it?” And it was August 23rd, and I’m like, “Oh my god. This is the day we got on that plane. We got on that plane on August 23, 2015.” So one year later to the day, we bumped into each other in Boston. Crazy.
Anna: Whoa! I think you just gave me a book idea!
Me: Do it! It was insane. We couldn’t believe it.
What will you miss the most when you’re gone?
This is one I practiced too! Because I really did think about it. I’ll miss the magic of creativity. Where you can connect with people—especially for someone like me who’s rather shy, and it can be hard for me to connect with people, I think that creativity is the way to connect with others and that’s definitely helped me so much especially in recent years. That’s something I really value and it’s a bummer to think that that won’t be there.
Me: In your books, you’re not yourself, right? You’re your characters. Do you think it’s nice to be someone else and to be able to connect? So you’re not necessarily doing the connecting, is that a thing?
Anna: Yes. There’s always a little bit of me in every character…that’s why I write about them. I guess I’m a fairly multi-faceted person because I can keep pulling on weird insecurities and putting them into different characters, but I think that’s why people can connect with my characters even if the readers are completely different from me. There’s that truth that I’m putting into a character who’s not like me. So somebody who’s not like that character or is like that character can connect even if that reader is nothing like me. It's that magic of connecting through creativity. That’s really cool.