Not sprawling, but curated. It’s all in the language, right? I mean, if anyone can, we word nerds can make this Thanksgiving sound pretty good.
Thanksgiving 2020 might look different, but there’s still a lot to be thankful for. Yes, really.
You, for one. You, especially, all 1,553 of my followers (from 98 different countries). I mean, were you lost? But, really, thank you for joining me, as I read and write the Rust Belt and far (far) beyond. Your comments—and friendships—are so valuable to me, especially this weird year.
While not surprising, I was struck by the fact that one of my non-writerly posts was among my most viewed, this year. The Dead Mom Club…and other lessons in grief was my way to reach across the blogosphere with a memory and a listening ear. Words can’t heal, not really, but they can offer solace and togetherness, even if virtual. I mean, we bloggers know that well. We bloggers were made for these pandemic days. But, really, I think we’ve had enough now. Right?
2020, while an underachiever by any standards, was a big year for new reads, and marked my introduction to Italy’s Elena Ferrante (and many other American readers’ introduction, I’m guessing). Which led me to Domenico Starnone. Which led me to more great literature in translation, that of Finland’s late, great Tove Jansson.
Thanks to the WordPress editors for bringing back Discover Prompts for the month of April. The one-word prompts, like “open” and “song,” were the inspiration I needed to ruminate on the fear, isolation, and (tender, if forced) togetherness of those early pandemic days.
Author and professor Sonja Livingston, who writes about her Rochester, NY, home and searching faith, was kind enough to join me, in May, for an interview, in two parts, where we discussed her latest book, The Virgin of Prince Street: Expeditions into Devotion. Any of her books, really, are a balm–and I highly recommend them.
In June, I reviewed Rust Belt-set The Distance from Four Points by Margo Orlando Littell, a book that answers the age-old question: can you really go home again? Reader, you can, but home might surprise you.
Wherever you find yourself at home this Thanksgiving (or this November 26th for the rest of you wonderful people), here’s wishing you a good word or two, a happy song, a note of thanks, and peace.
Got some time? Interested in more author interviews, book reviews, essays, and more? Check out my categories, above. Also find me at FB and on Twitter and IG @MoonRuark
Rust itself requires steel, water, and neglect–three things gritty cities across the post-industrial landscape of America know well. With the decline of industry and population in Rust Belt cities like my native Cleveland and my mother’s native Buffalo, many of the people there have seen their Catholic churches shuttered. With the churches goes the sacred art–statues and other devotional items. Some are lost, and some (almost miraculously) are found again.
In Sonja Livingston latest book, The Virgin of Prince Street: Expeditions into Devotion, the award-winning writer goes on a quest to find a missing blue-cloaked statue of the Virgin Mary from her childhood church in Rochester, New York. Her unexpected return to her home parish offers her “an occasion to travel through space and time to explore the changes in the larger Church and in her own life.”
I adored this book for its lyrical and honest portrayal of a journey of the spirit. It’s a journey relatable to spiritual seekers of all kinds–as rooted in the gritty earth as it is to the sacred. And I loved my conversation about it with Sonja and hope you do, too.
Sonja, in your Author’s Note that starts your book, you describe yourself as “astonished,” to find yourself back at your childhood church in Rochester. With all that has gone wrong with our childhood churches in the Rust Belt–and the institution of the Catholic Church–why was this journey the right one for you to take?
Great question. What we’re drawn to really matters! Our memories, dreams, obsessions, worries—these are arrows pointing to our material as writers and human beings. The trick is to trust those arrows—even and especially when they make no sense. I spent lots of time wondering why I kept returning to my old church and while I developed a few theories, the most important takeaway relates to faith. Not faith in the doctrinal sense, but faith in the raw sense. As in, not being sure about something but proceeding anyway.
For me, writing itself is a tremendous act of faith.
That said, there’s no getting around the Church’s problems. Their stance on issues of sexuality and gender, as well the abuse scandals and cover-ups, have sent people packing. When I left church in my 20s, I believed that Catholicism was either good or bad. Going back required that I blast those categories wide open. Most churches and religions are a mix of bad and good, ugly and beautiful, vulgar and holy. To get the good, I needed to put up with some of the bad—not all the bad, or the really bad, of course. Still, love and trouble often go hand and hand. You won’t see that on any greeting card but it seems to be true. Unfortunately, we don’t get to choose which troubles visit us—and trouble is, by its very nature, painful. Which is a very long way of saying that this journey was about church but, even more so, about growing my heart enough to contain the mix of pain and joy inherent to all relationships.
So, the narrative thread that binds your essays of devotion together is the mystery of a missing statue of the Virgin Mary from your childhood church, “Queen of a working-class parish,” you call her. Since this is the Rust Belt Girl blog, I wonder if you could tell me a little bit about where you grew up and what your home parish was like and is like now?
My family of 7 kids and a single mom moved around when I was young—from the northeast section of Rochester to rural Orleans County to an Indian Reservation near Buffalo and back again. The one thing these places had in common was poverty and as I wrote in one of the essays, my family’s one consistency was being among the poorest of families in whatever enclave of poor people we found ourselves.
Corpus Christi Church was a hub we returned to over the years—the one source of beauty of light we could count on when we lived in the city. Like many parishes in the region, it was built to accommodate immigrants who came to work on the Erie Canal, in the railroads and textile factories in the late 19th century. Later, their sons and daughters and grandchildren worked production jobs at Kodak and Xerox or as secretaries and bus drivers. By the time I was on the scene (in the late-1970s and 80s), anyone who could afford to left the neighborhood which resulted in empty pews in all those old churches their grandparents had worked so hard to build.
Today, my old church is one a handful of parishes still open in Rochester’s northeast quadrant. I’m not sure how COVID will impact us as human beings in terms of spirituality and faith, but I’m guessing it will be the end for many parishes such as my own which were barely holding on before the pandemic. But for now, the church is still a place of beauty and light in my life—and one I appreciate all the more as its survival becomes more tenuous.
“What is this attachment?” to the Prince Street Virgin, you ask yourself early in your book. The importance of statues and relics and other devotional items can seem pretty strange to non-Catholics. In your essay “The Heart is a First-Class Relic,” you visit a shrine in Montreal that contains the preserved heart of a saint. In your thinking and writing—for a reader—how do you move past the foreign, strange, and even grotesque of our religion to a place that might engender more universal searching?
These essays were, in part, an attempt to explore those aspects of tradition I thought I’d outgrown or never quite understood. Whether it’s the statues at church or the bloody images of Jesus or the use of relics, I’ve come to realize that Catholic devotional practices often underscore the belief that the world is saturated with the divine. If the physical objects and elements at church—like holy water, statues, or stained glass—can be sacred, so too can things outside the building. Which is to say that some of these seemingly strange Catholic traditions are about making the sacred visible, tangible, solid, and real in people’s lives.
I hope this is relatable to people regardless of belief or background. So many of us recognize this in nature—the way the sun lights up new leaves or the pure magic of dogwood blossoms. And no matter how we explain it, often feel buoyed by such physical manifestations of beauty/holiness/light.
The Catholic religion is very much body-centered. Over most altars we see a crucified, bloodied Christ, nailed to a cross. In your writing in this book and your memoir of childhood, Ghostbread, you are very attuned to the body: from girlhood, when your body often went hungry, through adolescence to womanhood. Your reaction to returning to church is described as a feeling—not a lofty spiritual feeling, but a feeling in your body. You write: “…my body returned to a church pew as if it were an old love.” The sense of devotion as a body-centered act—do you feel that’s a bridge even non-believers can cross to understand your essays more fully?
You’re so right, Catholicism is all about the body! The celebration of the mysterious transformation of the bread to Body is the very heart of the Catholic Mass, for instance. To worship is to kneel, to stand, to sing, to cross yourself, to genuflect and bow.
Devotion is not an exercise of the head.
To participate in the Mass, at least for me, is not about “thinking” but feeling and doing. Like “losing yourself” or “falling” in love, the body seems to take over as the mind spins and second-guesses.
Regardless of how we label ourselves religiously, we humans are spiritual creatures and I hope most people will relate to the pull of the body in matters of love or hunger and possibly use it as a way to similarly understand the longing for mystery, ritual and faith.
In your inward journey of devotion, you covered a lot of actual miles—part faithful pilgrim, part objective observer. You travel to St. Brigid’s Well in Ireland, to an Orthodox Catholic celebration in Florida, to a Death and Marigold Parade in New Mexico. Is there a destination that didn’t make it into the book you’d like to describe?
A few Christmases ago, I attended a funeral at the local Catholic Worker House. I was shadowing my parish priest to write a profile and the weekly Mass he was scheduled to celebrate became a funeral service for a man whose family otherwise couldn’t afford one. This wasn’t a “big” destination—it was only a few miles from my house, in fact. But sitting there listening to the gospel choir while looking at a framed photograph of Dorothy Day and this man in his casket and meeting someone from my old neighborhood—all during the height of the holiday season—caused me to think about poverty and gifts in a new way.
Please check back for Part II of my interview with Sonja Livingston–for more from this book of hers, for her take on teaching students of writing to “notice what’s not being talked about,” and for what Sonja’s writing and reading, right now.
For more about Sonja Livingston and her latest book, The Virgin of Prince Street: Expeditions into Devotion, follow the links. Sonja’s first book, Ghostbread, won an AWP Book Prize for Nonfiction and has been adopted for classroom use around the nation. Sonja’s two other essay collections, Ladies Night at the Dreamland and Queen of the Fall, combine history, memory and imagination to illuminate the lives of girls and women. Her writing has been honored with many awards and her essays appear in outlets such as Salon, LitHub, The Kenyon Review, America, Sojourners and are anthologized in many textbooks on creative writing. Sonja is a popular speaker and is currently an associate professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond and teaches in the Postgraduate Program at Vermont College of Fine Arts.
For a blog focused on the idea of place in all the stories we tell, I can’t think of a better person to talk to today. I met author and professor, Matthew Ferrence, at a writers conference in the spring, where I picked up his memoir, Appalachia North — the first book-length treatment of the cultural position of Northern Appalachia.
Matthew and I are from similar places. But more than a book of essays exploring geology and place, Appalachia North is a very personal memoir that allows the reader to journey alongside the writer as he is diagnosed with a brain tumor. From the book jacket:
Appalachia North is an investigation of how the labels of Appalachia have been drawn and written, and also a reckoning with how a body always in recovery can, like a region viewed always as a site of extraction, find new territories of growth.
Matthew, how did you come to write this book?
I wrote through a somewhat circuitous path for Appalachia North. The project began with a rejection, for a collection of essays I’d been working on for some time. But that opened up a conversation with Andrew Berzanskis, who was then editor-at-large for WVU Press (he’s now a senior acquisitions editor at the University of Washington Press), and a contract to write a book about northern Appalachia. While we both knew this was to take the form of a memoir, what we didn’t know is that I was going to be banging on the keys and finding some dreadful resistance. I’d recently finished treatments for my brain tumor, and I wrote an essay called “The Foxes of Prince Edward Island,” which was all about that. And I knew that I really wanted to write about recovery and brains and foxes.
So, one day I just decided that I’d do both, and see what happened if I tried to simultaneously write the book I had a contract for, and the book that was gnawing at me, somehow as one book. With that, the writing started to open up, and I began to see the connections between geography and self, between recovered bodies and recovered regions, of how erosion could function as a reframing metaphor of beauty and hope. Then, draft done, I had to tell Andrew. Who, much to his credit, looked at this new book he hadn’t bargained for, saw what it could be, pushed me to revise toward directions I’d neglected, and Appalachia North came into form.
I love the idea of mapping — both of your native geography and (the native geography) of your body. Could you describe the process by which you came to “see” the terrain of your journey enough to write it?
Mapping as a literal act came with the earliest versions of the book, that I would seek out the corners of the official parts of Appalachia north of the Mason Dixon line, to sort of survey and consider the delineations. As I did that, I was surprised by the recurring mutability of the lines that seem so permanent on an actual map. Most of all, I was struck by how the three counties of northeastern Ohio included in the official Appalachian Regional Commission map were late entries, “becoming” Appalachia forty-some years after the ARC put out its first map. So I became preoccupied with thinking about ways that map lines just don’t work. That connected with my figurative sense of self as an Appalachian exiled by birth, simply by the fate of being from Pennsylvania instead of the parts that usually count as Appalachia. This has bugged me for a long time.
For the body, I experienced the way clinical treatment exiles a person from a sense of self, because your body becomes defined by blood test numbers, and MRI scans, and radiation beam coordinates. Your sense of self becomes a cartography of medical rationality, and that makes you feel, well, not yourself really. You get lost the more you’re mapped. Somewhere in that irony, you start to get a sense that you’re tired of letting other people draw the maps.
In your essay, “Conduits,” you discuss those who make geographical maps — generally, those people in power. By writing about place, you do feel you’re map-making? Do you see this as a way to wrest some control over your native place?
For sure. Like, just the other day, a colleague was saying they didn’t really agree with my “claims” that Pennsylvania is part of Appalachia, because they spent a lot of time in “real” Appalachia in the North Carolina mountains. I was sort of stunned, frankly, because even the official maps back me up on this one! But at the same time, this is the tyranny of cartography: that people can draw lines for whatever reason they want. Money. Politics. Taxes. On and on. And there was some weird power exercised here in this very moment, about who gets to actually lay claim to the definition of a region…and in this case, as is often the case, the person making the definitive claim was not from the region and “correcting” someone from the region. We don’t even get to draw maps of our own places.
Yet the terrain — I love that word! — just doesn’t care. Trees grow. Dirt erodes. Mountains emerge. When you’re walking in the woods on many borders so clear on a map, you really can’t tell where the line is, since terrain is fluid. Really, there is no line. So in looking around at places on the ground where the lines are supposed to be, I started thinking a lot about all the lines that people try to place on our lives: healthy and not, for one, or legit Appalachian or not. Maybe because I’m on the “wrong” side of both of those lines, I became determined to refuse the lines altogether.
You challenge the conventions of regional dialect in one of your essays. As in, we’re supposed to say “Appalachia” a certain way — to prove we’re an insider in the region. Why this struggle for Appalachian authenticity, do you think? Why does it remain a region so intent on staying true to its roots? What does it mean for you?
I get the hard and fast claims for rightness in saying App-uh-latch-a, because lots of people have been made to feel small and unimportant for being themselves. Authenticity — including accent — becomes a way to fight for your own sense of worth. So on one hand I totally root for that, and I kind of relish the way Appalachians can smack down the folks who don’t know anything about the region. But at the same time, well, I don’t want to be kicked out of where I’m from. That’s the trouble of the northern part, for sure. We can feel sort of absent. Another one of my pet peeves: all sorts of people (again, who are not from here) keep telling me this is the Midwest. And I’m always thinking, fuck off on your Midwest. They’ll make some claim about jello salads or politeness, but it all comes with this sense of diminishment. Because they usually mean this in the context of explaining either how they’re from more sophisticated spaces not the Midwest, or as a way to deepen their disdain for northern Appalachia by refusing to even acknowledge it as being a place with its own claim to regionality.
I want to be clear, I don’t mean this to disparage the Midwest, but very much to defend how places like it, and like Appalachia, have to stick up for themselves as legitimate locales, as distinctive and meaningful, because everyone basically says over and over, fly-over country. So, on pronunciations, I love the variance of Appalachia, which has a whole spectrum of pronunciations, which is another way of saying it’s a place of vibrancy and nuance. I’m not going to give away my corner of that, so I’ve become comfortable using both the soft and hard vowels, but will still totally make fun of someone from outside the region who pronounces it wrong. The nice thing is, I can make fun of them no matter what they say. Cruel, I suppose.
In your memoir’s preface, you say, “So many writers…seek to make a declaration: this is what a place is.” You, like a good essayist, seem to be happier delving into the ambiguities of place. You also seek to reclaim your native place for the next generation — your own kids among them. How do you do this without defining that place?
Yes! This is what we love, I think, ambiguity and gray edges and journeys. I say this a bit cheekily: essayists love to squirm away from anything declarative, relish the provisional, even as we love to make big claims…which we then overturn and twist and turn inside out. On the matter of place, the big thing to me is that it matters, but when a place seems to carry rigid definitions — Trump Country, Red States, Fly-Over, all that — such restrictions wind up wrecking a place. That’s when we become totemic monoliths or, really, tools. So, for me and for my kids, I long for a vibrant connection to terrain and geography, with a sense that what a place means can also evolve and contradict and carry the fluidity the essayist loves. I want my kids to love a place, but I want them to be able to live in it with a sense of reciprocal love. I’m frustrated and angry, these days, by how places redouble their restrictive sense of who counts, who looks or loves or behaves the “right” way. That’s the wreckage of definition, as it crushes back to stereotype and turfiness and xenophobia and trope. Ambiguity, I think, invites inclusion and expansiveness. Because we can’t say this instead of that.
The language of geography and of the body — especially around medicine — can get really technical; yet, you do a lovely job of softening both of these languages. Instead of unapproachable moments of medical jargon, you note the moments of “mercy” between you and our doctors. You call it: “The precise language of medicine facing off against my growing recognition of life.” Yet, as a writer, language is your tool. Did it ever feel useless? Did you ever think, I don’t know how to write about what’s happening to my body in my language?
The veer to the metaphorical helps, for me at least. The peripheral look, the askance view, the detailed description of some concrete object that suddenly emerges with a new dimension of meaning, well for me, that’s how language becomes the only way to make sense of the ineffable. The biggest example is my recognition of the geology of my home, that it’s a dissected plateau instead of a worn out mountain. My Dad filled me in on that, part way through the writing, and it was a literal geological process that changed everything for me, metaphorically. Suddenly, I could see the post-surgical me in a different way, not as something grand that is now worn out and wrecked, but something shaping into a new form that can carry its own beauty. The metaphor was everything. On the flip side, cliché strikes me as the enemy of health writing, because it’s almost all you get from people when you’re ill. Directness felt better, on the page, that this happened and that happened. Combining the direct with the cascading metaphors helped me use language very much as the tool for narrative recovery.
In your essay, “The Molt,” you compare your emotional state, traversing your medical condition, to molting, as an animal does. Through your sickness you waited for “the hardening,” for a new shell, as it were, to help you bear up. Yet, the best writing, I believe, comes from exploring those times before the hardening, don’t you think?
I agree. Totally! I guess the hardening is the lived desire, that you just want things to stop being difficult, to end, maybe to stop feeling, at least for a little bit. Because things are so difficult. But, no, the hardening is a false desire, because actually developing it would be catastrophic. Maybe the essayist’s stance is to write about the moments when hardening fails and, more so, to write as an act of resisting hardening. Writing softens us up, so we can actually find the substance.
What’s your favorite thing to teach students in your college courses — about nonfiction writing and about Appalachian Studies?
About Appalachia, it’s pretty much always a combo of you’re in it and you are it. Up here in the northwest corner of Pennsylvania, there aren’t a lot of people who actively think about themselves as Appalachians, nor who have had any reason to think deeply about the region. Yet close to half of our students are from places that are literally in Appalachia. I love the immediate shake-up that provides, which I shared. First you think, that can’t be right. Then something like, but I’m not… And then, …but wait I am. So what we all think about Appalachia is…not accurate!
That moment of recognition and depth is what I love most about nonfiction itself, that we find new avenues constantly, so long as we cultivate a practice of curiosity and attention.
I love helping students unlock the potential in two disparate personal narratives, or figuring out how oblique research can deepen a complicated narrative line. Most of all, I love getting to spend time with a group of students all committed to the deep reflection of the world we walk around in. And language. Maybe this is really the best part: helping students understand the power of the lyric sentence, how the gestures of poetry and art, applied to real experience, yield the best nonfiction.
In thinking about your take on place, I learned that you’re taking a run at the PA House in 2020. In what ways did your writing get you to this decision?
Without a doubt, part of the motivation stems from writing books that have allowed me to dive deeply into how my home turf has been used and exploited by politics. That’s part of the framing of my candidacy, in fact, that there are stories that we tell ourselves over and over again that never turn out well for us. So let’s write new ones. The incumbent, as well, has not been, shall we say, a friend of the arts during his decade-and-a-half in office. My rallying cry, I suppose, came from his remarks suggesting that the state shouldn’t give student aid to people majoring in “poetry or other pre-Walmart majors.” Well now. Hmmm. That didn’t sit with me. Even if we want to stay in the spheres of practicality and economic policy, the arts sector is huge, and can have a tremendously positive impact on rural areas like ours. And at the same time, I long for a politics that doesn’t limit its vision to the spreadsheet. Politics is about people, in fact is the people. We talk about vision in politics, but we rarely see candidates who want to run on creativity and possibility.
I’d say the brain tumor factors in here, too: for one thing, I saw first hand what it means to get sick and suddenly see how expensive staying alive is. I was lucky, because of my insurance. Many other people would be bankrupt now, if they’d faced what I did. That’s not right. Then, existentially, I’m tired of living in a world attenuated by the small-minded nightmares of regressive politicians. Part of the after-effect of having a brain tumor is the relative ease at which I find myself saying, fuck it, and doing the thing that matters to me that’s the sort of thing we all have a tendency to be afraid to undertake. Running for office is that. I refuse to leave Appalachia to the troglodytes. The national narrative tells us that’s who we all are, and we most definitely are not. I want to stand up and write it differently.
What’s next for your writing? What should readers look out for?
I have two projects I’m wrestling with right now, each in very early stages. One is fiction, which is taking shape as either a novel or a collection of linked stories. Appalachian. Eco-futurist. Focusing on the possible presence of magical creatures in nighttimes threatened by a radical growth in light pollution. The other is an essay project, more or less the writing of a Catholic Mass, to address the ways I am simultaneously deeply lapsed from the Church yet unable to shake the feeling of mystical deep spirituality I find within it. In both projects, I’m trying to find a way to toggle toward radical beauty, to write of dark things but with gratitude and joy. I’m thinking of Ross Gay’s work in both poetry and nonfiction here, and how moving I find his devotion to that serious artistic stance. More and more, I find myself wanting to write toward hope and goodness, particularly as the world churning around us seems to only call us to critique, which is vital, but also wearying. Art helps us imagine new futures, and I long to imagine my way toward hopeful ones even when most of what we see suggests dystopia as our fate. Maybe we can write a better future into being.
Matthew Ferrence lives and writes at the confluence of Appalachia. He is the author of Appalachia North: a memoir and All-American Redneck, a well as numerous essays published in North American literary journals. He teaches creative writing at Allegheny College and in 2020 is vying for a seat in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives, representing Crawford and Erie Counties.
I’ve developed a love affair with poetry this year. So, I found Teri Ellen Cross Davis’ poetry collection, HAINT, at just the right time. I met the author at a recent literary conference and was delighted to discover that she too grew up in Northeast Ohio. Names and images of our home set the stage in her poems of childhood, such as “East 149th Street (Symphony for a Black Girl)” and “Akron at Night,” but many more of her poems present a powerful universal ode to girlhood, adolescence, and adulthood as a woman seeking love. Poet Ross Gay, another Northeast Ohio native, said of HAINT, “Although heartbreak is the origin of so many of these poems, it’s love that makes them go. Love to which they plead and aspire and pray.”
Teri was kind and generous enough to tell me more about what makes her poetry–and life–“go.”
It’s been a long time since I’ve shared some good writing advice from an author. This piece comes from Ross Gay, award-winning poet and essayist, whose latest collection, The Book of Delights: Essays came out earlier this year. He’s also a professor at Indiana University and a big sports fan and former college football player–and what delights Gay are many and varied things, which is, for this reader, delightful.
Before I share his advice, I’ll share a story: I’m a little embarrassed to say that while I’m only 27K into my new WIP, I already have its epigraph–you know, the quote or quotes at the start of a book that suggest theme. In my WIP’s case, the working themes are around loss, sorrow, and joy. Loss we can all try to get our heads around together.
But sorrow is really loaded–especially for me as a Catholic. Funny thing, a friend of ours recently learned what my family’s parish is called. “Our Lady of Sorrows,” he said. “How depressing.” I’d never thought about the name, a common descriptor for Jesus’s mother, Mary, as depressing. For, like Mary’s, our sorrows are borne together; sometimes, they’re necessary, even life-changing, lifting us all up. I couldn’t articulate this to our friend at the time, but his words got me to thinking about the transformative power of sorrow.
That’s about when I started reading Ross Gay, and who knows if his words will stick as one of two quotes in the epigraph of a novel not even half finished, but these words of his, from his essay “Joy is Such a Human Madness,” have served as a good thematic guide:
What if we joined our sorrows, I’m saying. / I’m saying: What if that is joy?
Ross Gay, The BOOK Of Delights: Essays
About the time I jotted this quote down was when I learned that Gay, like this aspiring author, is a Northeast Ohio native–making the possibility that I might one day hear him read in person pretty decent. (Joy!)
Until then, I’ll read his poems and essays and delight in learning about this inspirational author through interviews, like this one with Toni Fitzgerald in The Writer, in which Gay talks about his writing inspirations and process–our writing advice for the day:
…usually it’s thinking, reading, studying, trying to find something that turns you on and going for a bit.
When I first met Larry Smith in Ohio, he was sporting a Cleveland Browns cap–not an unusual fashion choice for a sports venue or bar, but we were at a literary conference. From this first impression, I could sense two things: the cap wasn’t ironical and Larry was my kind of literary people.
As it turns out, the Ohio-based author, poet, and director of Bottom Dog Press/Bird Dog Publishing and I have much more in common than rooting for the home team. There’s an abiding sense of creative responsibility, a promise to tell our own stories, that comes with hailing from a place like ours. I’m going to go out on a limb and say Larry and I try to make good on that promise. Larry has definitely made good on his.
This National Poetry Month of April, Larry was also gracious enough to take the time to answer over email my questions–about the writing life and what it means to publish poems and stories rooted in place. “There is always some blurring of identity here,” says Larry, “between Larry Smith and Bottom Dog Press.”
Though much of my life is Bottom Dog Press, my life extends beyond that, and Bottom Dog Press is more than I am, too, it’s over 210 books and about 500 authors.
Let’s learn more…
Larry, how did growing up in the Rust Belt, specifically an Ohio mill town, affect your writing sensibilities and choices?
Well, this goes to the heart of it and of myself. You can’t take out of me the Ohio Valley and the working-class world I grew up in. I was nurtured on that life and those values of hard work and character, of family and neighborhood, of just accepting and caring for each other. I write from who I am, and though I worked as a college professor and live in a middle class neighborhood now, I am still that kid getting up to deliver morning papers and watch my father pack his lunch for work on the railroad. Read more
Amy Jo Burns is the author of Cinderland, and her writing has appeared in Salon, Good Housekeeping, The Rumpus, Electric Literature, Tin House’s Open Bar, Ploughshares Online, and in Roxane Gay’s anthology Not That Bad. Her novel Shiner is forthcoming from Riverhead Books.
Amy Jo was gracious enough to answer a few questions from another Rust Belt girl–me–about her literary memoir, Cinderland, which I discussed in a previous post; about her Rust Belt upbringing; about juggling the responsibilities of writing and motherhood; and about her upcoming novel, Shiner, which I can’t wait to read!
Amy Jo–your memoir, Cinderland, is set in your hometown outside Pittsburgh. How did that particular post-industrial place inform your upbringing? Does your memoir’s title reflect the place in which you were raised, the abuse you suffered as a girl, both?
I chose the title Cinderland because it represents an inner fire that remains after old, unnecessary things have died away. I see so much of myself in the landscape that I grew up in. The abandoned buildings, overgrown lots, and empty warehouses of my youth were (and are) placeholders for new things to come, and they are so beautiful to me. The story of the Rust Belt is still being written, even if some people call it a dead zone. There is life inside! Rust and cinders aren’t dead things. They’re just in a state of transformation, and I think that became a powerful metaphor for me to explore my own coming of age in my memoir.
In your memoir, you discuss your Christian upbringing and throughout the book use biblical allusions. (Your abuser you call Mr. Lotte.) In using the language of the Bible, did you feel like you were wresting some control over that part of your childhood? Something else?
The Bible was my first introduction to language, so it felt very natural for me to use biblical references as a way to represent how I see the world. This was such a good question for me to consider, because I just realized in borrowing some of that language, I was actually able to release some control over the painful parts of my past. For so long I tried to manage what had happened to me and my grief over it, and it only ended up suffocating me. I was afraid to let it be what it was.
Sometimes I think “religion” tries to manhandle who God is, and having faith is the opposite: letting God be God, and finding rest because of it. For me, that meant letting Mr. Lotte be held accountable for what he did. It was not “Christian” for me to try to hide away his transgressions, even if some people in my community swore it was. When I was writing the book, I came across this verse in Proverbs 17:15:
“Whitewashing bad people and throwing mud on good people are equally abhorrent to God.”
I’d never heard that before. It’s not an exaggeration to say it changed my life to see that God has no interest in camouflaging a man’s true character for the sake of fake peace.
You were a student of ballet, growing up. Had you known the true story you present in your essay, “Body on Fire,” of Emma Livry, a young ballerina whose costume caught on fire during a performance at the Paris Opera in 1862, or did you come upon it more recently? Can you talk about this idea of burning or “consuming” of women with respect to today’s #metoo movement?
I came across that story about two years ago, and I still can’t stop thinking about it. Emma Livry had GUTS as an artist and as a woman, and I think she probably felt just as frustrated to perform for an audience full of men she didn’t trust as so many women still feel right now. Livry’s biographer, a male, seemed to suggest she was a victim of her own making, that it was her own vanity in wanting a certain kind of ballet skirt to wear that ultimately killed her when her tutu caught fire. I call foul! I think she knew her patrons saw her as nothing but a body for consumption. She fought to dance the way she wanted– wearing what she wanted–for herself, first and foremost. She paid a price for it. Livry wasn’t spared because of her talent or her drive. Instead, she was treated like a piece of machinery. That’s what resonates for me with today’s #metoo movement–she was blamed for choices that were never really hers to make.
Have you changed as a writer since becoming a mother, besides having less time and energy to write?
Yes! I wanted to finish Cinderland before I had children because I thought parenthood would make me overly sentimental. I didn’t want to write about my own childhood with too much nostalgia. It’s funny, though, because the opposite has been true. I’m much more raw as a person and as a writer now that I’m a mother, and I like it. My sense of self has totally shifted. I’m constantly becoming someone I’ve never been before, which is weird and wonderful and a little scary. There’s a new urgency to what I write now, like I’m trying to capture each meaningful truth before it disappears.
Also: now I write while Paw Patrol plays in the background. I gave up on trying to find the ideal working environment. It doesn’t exist. That helps me value my writing time without letting it become too precious.
Interviewing skills–basic but thoughtful asking and listening–are crucial for the curious writer, reader, or moderately engaged human being. Think: job interviews, first dates, meetings with new acquaintances…
Of course, author interviews are, by far, my favorite kind of interview to conduct.
For a fan, an author interview is a great place to be–second only to actually taking up shop in the author’s head.
I fielded enough questions about that interview that I thought I’d address the topic here:
Curiosity is the first step to a good interview. Confidence is the second. Preparation is the third. Remember that trio, and you’ll be OK. Want to nail an interview? Follow these tips:
5. Ask. You may or may not be granted an interview with your favorite author. Sometimes you might have to go through the author’s agent or other representative; in this era of social media, you can find someone. Sometimes (unless you’re the New York Times) you will be turned down. But you won’t know unless you ask.
4. Own it. Come to the interview, whether over the phone or in person (never through email, please!), knowing that you are in charge. It is the interviewer’s responsibility to guide the discussion. Don’t assume that a meaningful conversation will happen organically. Prepare, and both you and your subject will be put at ease.
3. Prepare (prepare, prepare). Come with open-ended questions, more questions than you think you’ll need, but only ask about 10. Tell the author in advance how much time you will need–30 minutes to an hour, tops. Research the author’s site, and don’t ask anything you should already know from an online search. That wastes time. If you’re interviewing the author about his/her latest book, be sure you’ve digested it thoroughly. Bonus points if you can read the rest of the author’s body of work to prepare fully for the interview.
2. Be different. An author interview should uncover new answers–which requires new questions. I don’t read competing book reviews before I’ve written mine, and I don’t read all the interviews out there with an author until after I’ve worked up my own questions. Think of your unique audience. What do they want to get from reading your interview. Don’t know? Ask them to submit their questions; you can choose the best one or two to add to your list.
(drum roll, please)
1. Listen up. So, you’ve prepared thoughtful, unique questions for your author interview. Make sure you get the answers. Take the fear of not hearing or misunderstanding–and potentially misquoting–an author by recording the interview. Always ask for permission first. Then record using your phone or a trusty recorder (my inexpensive Sony ICD-PX333 has never let me down). This frees you to take part in the conversation. Truly listen, and be ready to ask follow-up questions.
Do I fret (Daily Prompt)? Do my palms still go clammy with nerves when I conduct an interview? Yep, every time. But it’s worth it to find out what makes an author tick, don’t you think?
Need some good questions to ask your author? Bookfox has 50 here.
Do you conduct interviews for work or for your blog? What are your top tips?