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Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction 7.1 (2005) 157-172

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Interview with Lauren Slater

I interviewed writer Lauren Slater in her home, a large Victorian house located in a bustling Cambridge, Massachusetts, suburb. During the course of our two-hour conversation she stopped several times to converse with her three-year-old daughter's friend about her daughter Claire's busy social schedule. She readily admitted that the birth of two children has forced her to modify her previously structured writing schedule. But drafts of the endnotes of her most recent work, Opening Skinner's Box, were scattered about on the worn hardwood floor of her spacious and light-filled second-floor work space, and its publication since the interview indicates that she is still a very disciplined, hard-working, and productive writer.

Like other medical practitioners who also write literary nonfiction, such as Oliver Sacks and Richard Selzer, Slater writes in a moving fashion about the human psyche. However, her work has generated more controversy, due to her insistence upon using time-honored fiction-based stylistic devices in essays and memoirs grounded in fact. More specifically, this essayist has brought her credibility as a writer into question by routinely compressing experience, combining characters, reconstructing dialogue, and altering time frames, all with the intent of broadening what she sees as the altogether too narrow definitions of memory and truth. This was particularly true of Lying, a book boldly subtitled A Metaphorical Memoir. And the same may be said as well of Opening Skinner's Box. Slater was accused of distorting factual detail by some of her interviewees, including B. F. Skinner's daughter Deborah, while she herself felt she was writing about the public outcry that followed Skinner's use of the box he designed for childrearing.

Those reviewers who recognize that Slater is a literary risk-taker have written favorably of her work. For example, Salon reviewer Peter Kurth writes of Slater's second published book, a memoir, that Prozac Diary is "as fine a chronicle of illness and regeneration as you will ever read. Slater writes like an angel, in a dream-like, joyous, reflective narrative that remains both personal and miraculously detached." [End Page 157] And yet another Salon writer, in his review of Opening Skinner's Box, writes that "Slater has the technical expertise to tackle the various ethical dilemmas that inevitably arise in inquiries of the human mind, but she also has the necessary creativity to cut through the controversies in order to show us just how complex and curious psychology has shown us humans to be."

Lauren Slater is the author of Welcome to My Country (1996), Prozac Diary (1998), Lying (2000), Love Works Like This (2002), and Opening Skinner's Box: Great Psychological Experiments of the Twentieth Century (2004). She has a master's degree in psychology from Harvard University and a doctorate from Boston University. Her work has been reprinted in The Best American Magazine Writing of 2002 and The Best American Science Writing of 2002, and her essays have been included in The Best American Essays of 1994 and The Best American Essays of 1997. She is a two-time National Magazine Award nominee and her book Lying was picked by Entertainment Weekly and the Washington Post as one the three best nonfiction books of 2000. She is also a frequent contributor to the New York Times Magazine and was recently a Knight Science journalism fellow at MIT.

Our interview took place in March 2002.

Culhane: Do you have a set routine for writing?

Slater: I used to write religiously for about three hours every morning. I'd get up and have breakfast, and then go for a walk. I don't do that anymore. I still write regularly and intensively, and writing still consumes a lot of mental space and time as well. But I'm now more of a sprinter than a jogger. When I have a race to run, I run it.

Culhane: How did this come to be?

Slater: The necessities of...


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