Photo credit: Kaitlin LaMoine Photography
Describe your latest book.
Oh boy. How is it possible that after 14 years of working on this book, I still don’t know how to describe it? I think it’s ultimately the story of one woman’s midlife crisis, but said crisis is unfurling in 2004 Iowa in the midst of the presidential election, and also — partly, hypothetically, metaphorically — in Nazi-occupied France, which is what a lot of us feared the US was going to feel like if George W. Bush won a second term in office. Such fears seem almost quaint now in this current nightmare state of the country... I guess I also think it’s about the stories we tell ourselves and each other in order to keep living our lives in this world. And about what we turn to for emotional and spiritual sustenance in the absence or failure of religion. I should probably admit, too, that regardless of what I set out to write, I think I always wind up writing about mothers and daughters, so it is about that as well. Also, I think of the whole book as a kind of improvisational medallion quilt: at its core, a photo of three little girls, and then to that, gradually, more and more borders have been added, enclosing, changing, and shaping the frame through which those little girls might be seen. It could perhaps, at its center, look something like this, but with many more surrounding borders of shadow paintings and church signboards and bumper stickers and license plate holders, ribbons of printed John Deere tractors, swaths of rolling farmland, a smattering of appliquéd Kerry-Edwards campaign buttons, all of it quilted together in a whirlwind of spiraling sashiko stitching, and then the whole thing might need to be left outside to withstand a tornado. I think maybe that’s what this book is: a massive improvisational medallion quilt that’s weathered the ravages of a tornado.
What was your favorite book as a child?
The Teletrips of Alala
, story by Guy Monreal with pictures by Nicole Claveloux — the most astonishingly psychedelically illustrated story about a little girl who lives in a plastic collapsible floating bubble house, and whose best friends are a talking toothbrush and a turning table — who enters her television and travels through the worlds inside!
When did you know you were a writer?
In 1980, when I was in Mrs. Wells’s third grade class, a Writers in the Schools person come to do creative writing with our class, and we were given the prompt to write a day in our own lives in the year 2000. I’d be 28, and, I imagined, a writer. (I’d written a non-rhyming poem in 2nd grade of which I was very proud — so proud, in fact, and for so long, that I had it reprinted in the 6th grade yearbook, although there’s a typo — the third line should be little “buds,” not little “birds.”)
At any rate, much of my imagined day-in-the-life narrative centered around very detailed descriptions of my writing outfit — a blue silk blouse and blue slip-on heels with a bow at the toe — but the part that really seemed to interest people were the opening lines:
“Morning,” I said to Doug, my husband-to-be.
“Mornin’ hon!” His voice was hard to hear over the sound of sloshing toothpaste.
When asked by slyly grinning, bemused adults about my projected living situation, I was confused. "You’re living together," they inquired, "but you’re not married?" By all reports, I screwed up my face and replied, "Well, how am I supposed to know if I want to marry him if I don’t live with him first?"
What does your writing workspace look like?
A lot like my living room couch… oh, goodness, it is my living room couch.
What do you care about more than most people around you?
My family might say running out of toilet paper, but though I do like to keep 27-roll economy packages of Scott tissue in every bathroom, I’d say I care more about names than most people around me. I can get lost for days in the popular baby names lists on the social security administration website
. Hell, I can find happiness reading a phone book! I think it has something to do with spending a lifetime explaining Thisbe to nearly everyone I meet.
Tell us something you're embarrassed to admit.
I probably already have and just don’t realize it yet.
Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good book with which to start.
Jay Baron Nicorvo’s The Standard Grand
(Full disclosure: the author is my husband, and I actually think you should also be able to read the two novels he wrote before The Standard Grand
, but you’ll need to find a publisher for them first.)
Besides your personal library, do you have any beloved collections?
My quilting fabric stashes. I comb Goodwill on a regular basis for any fabric that catches my eye — sheets, dresses, scarves, blouses, neckties, you name it — and squirrel it away for future quilting projects.
What's the strangest or most interesting job you've ever had?
Most interesting to me are the two summers I spent at Wheatland Vegetable Farms in northern Virginia learning how to grow food and selling it at farmers markets in the DC area. The strangest (i.e. most miserable) would be the couple of months I spent at a schlocky New York publisher the year after I graduated from college. It was 1995 and the house had been commissioned to put out a review guide to CD-ROMs, but no one there, including me, really understood what a CD-ROM was or what to do with it, so they were paying me 10 bucks a pop to write fake reviews of CD-ROMS based on the publicity materials we’d been sent. The one I recall very specifically was the Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous Cookbook
I nearly lost my mind, and fled New York for the vegetable farm as soon as the greenhouses opened for the season! Here’s that season’s crew posing behind the compost tomatoes:
Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?
When I was living in Iowa, years before I knew I’d one day teach at Western Michigan University, I was driving through Michigan and decided to make a stop in Kalamazoo. It's where the great Stuart Dybek
had lived and taught for many years, and I thought it must be a pretty cool town if it had sustained him as a writer all that time. I parked and went to use the restroom at the public library downtown, because you can learn a lot about a place from the state of their public library; and, also, I had to pee. The Kalamazoo Public Library was gorgeous — maybe even nicer than Iowa City’s at the time — and I remember thinking: I could live here. Little did I know…
What scares you the most as a writer?
Unintentionally hurting someone I’d never want to hurt.
If someone were to write your biography, what would be the title and subtitle?
See #5 under Top Five Tornado Books, below.
Offer a favorite sentence or passage from another writer.
From Elizabeth McCracken
’s short story, "Some Have Entertained Angels, Unaware": “Dad was thin then — maybe still is — and as chinless and gloomy as a clarinet.” I read that sentence and swore I’d read everything she ever wrote.
Describe a recurring dream.
All my life: dreams of my teeth moving around and crumbling in my mouth. Because — guess what? — I grind them viciously in my sleep. In fact, I've succeeded in “killing” two of them — and have two crowns to prove it. Dentists say that kind of damage can really only be caused by trauma to the tooth, and I say: You should hear me sleep.
What's your biggest grammatical pet peeve?
It makes me crazy when people use “that” instead of “who” when referencing people. People are whos not thats! I’d contend that animals should also be whos, but I won’t get into that here.
Do you have any phobias?
How much time do you have?
Name a guilty pleasure you partake in regularly.
If something makes me feel too guilty, then I can’t take pleasure in it. I do have a great fondness for certain online word games — in recent years it’s been Wordstone — and though I feel guilty about playing, my husband tells me it’s staving off dementia, so I try not to feel so bad. Also, I really like eating the chocolate chunks out of pints of Ben & Jerry’s Chunky Monkey and Cherry Garcia. I also really like taking photographs
of people on the street or in public when they don’t know I’m taking pictures of them. And, yes, I know there’s a hugely rich tradition of street photography, which is a real and legitimate thing, but I still feel guilty about it, though I guess not guilty enough to stop snapping — especially at Renaissance festivals, county fairs, public beaches, and amusement parks.
What's the best advice you’ve ever received?
It’s not advice that was actually offered to me personally, but when you read something in a book and it speaks to you profoundly, it’s almost like it's being offered personally:
"Write with your eyes like painters, with your ears like musicians, with your feet like dancers. You are the truthsayer with quill and torch. Write with your tongues of fire. Don’t let the pen banish you from yourself. Don’t let the ink coagulate in your pens. Don’t let the censor snuff out the spark, nor the gags muffle your voice. Put your shit on the paper." — Gloria E. Anzaldúa
Haven’t you been working on this Q&A long enough and aren’t you, at this point, just procrastinating starting the yoga video you swore you were going to do today?
Make a Top Five Book list of your choice.
Since making lists is probably one of my Top Five Ways to Survive Being Human — up there with Reading, Researching, Quilting, and Living in Farmland — I feel compelled to provide here, with fullest apologies to all, five Top Five lists of books that were essential to the making of Our Lady of the Prairie
Top Five Books That Might Have Been Written by Lucius Bocelli but Weren’t, as He’s a Fictional Character:
Marianne in Chains: Daily Life in the Heart of France During the German Occupation
by Robert Gildea
The Vichy Syndrome: History and Memory in France Since 1944
by Henry Rousso (trans. Arthur Goldhammer)
The Unfree French: Life Under the Occupation
by Richard Vinen
Occupation: The Ordeal of France, 1940-1944
by Ian Ousby
France During World War II: From Defeat to Liberation
by Thomas R. Christofferson and Michael S. Christofferson
Top Five Books I’ve Used to Defend the Inclusion of Chapter 4:
The Blind Assassin
by Margaret Atwood
The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle
by Haruki Murakami
by Roberto Bolaño
by Peter Matthiessen
The World According to Garp
by John Irving
Top Five Books on What It’s Like Both to Be Amish and to Stop Being Amish:
The Amish Struggle With Modernity
by Donald B. Kraybill and Marc A. Olshan, eds.
Crossing Over: One Woman’s Escape From Amish Life
by Ruth Irene Garrett and Rick Farrant
True Stories of the X-Amish
by O. A. Garrett
Rumspringa: To Be or Not to Be Amish
by Tom Shachtman
by John A. Hostetler
Top Five Books on Improvisational Quilting:
The Quilts of Gee’s Bend
by William Arnett, Alvia Wardlaw, Jane Livingston, John Beardsley, et al.
Gee’s Bend: The Architecture of the Quilt
by William Arnett, et al.
Gee’s Bend: The Women and Their Quilts
by William Arnett, et al.the improv handbook
The Improv Handbook for Modern Quilters
by Sherri Lynn Wood
Unconventional and Unexpected: American Quilts Below the Radar, 1950-2000
by Roderick Kiracofe
Top Five Tornado Books (some of which get extra points for their title and/or author’s name):
The Tornado: Nature’s Ultimate Windstorm
by Thomas P. Grazulis
Under the Whirlwind
by Arjen and Jerrine Verkaik
Tornado Alley: Monster Storms of the Great Plains
by Howard B. Bluestein
Tornadoes of the United States
by Snowden D. Flora
Tornadoes, Dark Days, Anomalous Precipitation, and Related Weather Phenomena
by William R. Corliss
÷ ÷ ÷
is the author of a story collection, Out of the Girls’ Room and Into the Night
, and two novels, The Good People of New York
and Osprey Island
. Her fiction has been published in the Iowa Review
and the American Scholar
, among others, and her nonfiction has appeared in Vogue, Glamour,
and elsewhere. She teaches at Western Michigan University and lives in Battle Creek, Michigan, with her husband, writer Jay Baron Nicorvo, and their son. Our Lady of the Prairie
is her most recent book.