Photo credit: Andrew Kovalev
Describe your latest book.
The Book of Joan
is a speculative novel in the feminist tradition of Margaret Atwood
, Ursula K. Le Guin
, Doris Lessing
, and Octavia Butler
. At the heart of the novel is a revisioning of the Joan of Arc story. Sci-fi dystopian body politics, literature, and ecological transmutation play out in an epic battle between what’s left of Earth and a wealthy elite class suspended in space. The question raised is, who will we become, given human hubris and greed, given our relationship to the planet, given the tensions of our present tense? And how will our body stories be written?
What was your favorite book as a child?
One of my favorite books as a kid was the one I slept with, A Wrinkle in Time
, written by Madeleine L’Engle. In addition to sleeping with the book (I thought if I slept with it I could open up my own tesseract), I drew pictures across the words on most of the pages. I couldn’t help myself. I also ate a couple of the pages. I couldn’t help that either.
When did you know you were a writer?
I don’t think I knew I was a writer in that “I am a writer” out loud sense until I was in my mid-20s. Even then I had my doubts. Though stories were pouring out of my fingers and head and heart, what I actually believed is that something might be wrong with me, because I could not stop the stories from coming. It took me nearly a decade to find others like myself, to understand that what was happening to me was a way of being in the world, a place to stand. As a kid, I was punished for my imagination — for going too far with my ideas or mixing up reality and imagined worlds — but now I know that was tyranny. Now I know my childhood is where everything I would need to become an artist was born.
What does your writing workspace look like?
A nest mess. And here’s the thing — I can’t work in a clean and tidy room. I have to have layers and layers of colors and textures and imagery and sound and varying forms of lighting — my writing room looks exactly like the inside of my head. With each new book project, I devote an entire wall to the world of that imaginal place, to help me believe in it with my whole body. It’s also comforting to me to have my nest clutter — talismans and rocks and shells and feathers and photos and oil pastels and trinkets — surrounding me. I need a perimeter between me and the ordinary world. I need to feel like I’m leaving regular life when I’m making art. It’s sort of like someone barfed up language and dreams in a painting studio.
What do you care about more than most people around you?
Art and water.
Share an interesting experience you've had with one of your readers.
I married him.
Tell us something you're embarrassed to admit.
Hmmmm. I’m embarrassed to admit how much I love to be alone, since it makes people think that I don’t like people. I think people are great, I just identify with and understand imaginative realms better than regular life realms. I do OK with trees and dirt and water… it’s social interaction that is endlessly difficult for me. I have to make it up every single time. I always leave feeling like I’m deficient or I’ve blown it or I should maybe sign up for that one-way ticket to Mars.
Introduce one other author you think people should read, and suggest a good book with which to start.
. Because gahhhhhhhh. Lynne Tillman is a novelist, short story writer, and cultural critic. Tillman is the author of five novels, three collections of short stories, one collection of essays, and two other nonfiction books. She is also part of the reason I am a writer at all. I first met her phenomenal writing in the mid-'80s, and my initial reaction was holy motherfucking shit. Honestly, no other writers besides Lynne Tillman and Kathy Acker
could have brought me back to life at that time in my life, but their work shattered me back open and brought me to my body and language. It would not be an exaggeration to say that her books saved my life — or gave it to me.
Much later I had the honor and privilege to meet Lynne, when I won the Poets and Writers
Exchange Grant and traveled to NYC from PDX (know-nothing hungry blonde goes to the big city). I gave a TED Talk about this miraculous journey.
Start with: Haunted Houses
. In uncompromising and fresh prose, Tillman tells the story of three very contemporary girls. Grace, Emily, and Jane collide with friends, family, and culture under dark and comic circumstances, presented in uncanny, disturbing, and sometimes shocking terms. In Haunted Houses
, Tillman writes of the past within the present, and of the inescapability of private memory and public history. A caustic account of how America makes and unmakes a young woman.
Besides your personal library, do you have any beloved collections?
’s letters, and The Darwin Collection in the Natural History Museum. Also my collection of hair.
What's the strangest or most interesting job you've ever had?
The most interesting job I ever had was transcribing the interviews of juvenile offenders. I learned more from listening to the words in between their words, the stories underneath their answers, the sounds of their voices, the rhythms of their breathing, where they paused or clamped shut, than I did getting a PhD.
Have you ever made a literary pilgrimage?
Yes. To see the house Emily Dickinson
lived and wrote within, to rest my body on the graves of Sartre
and de Beauvoir
, to the grave of Mary Shelley
, to Keats
’s house where I was thrown out for getting on his bed, and to the river Virginia Woolf
waded into, stones in her pockets. In each case I was consumed with something like an ecstatic state, or maybe I was just haunted. In either case I was physically changed forever. The question about death is, is it?
What scares you the most as a writer?
That something would steal my imagination — an illness or losing my senses, something keeping me from this heart and drive might be the end of me.
If someone were to write your biography, what would be the title and subtitle?
Here Lies One Whose Name Was Writ in Water: A Small Life
Offer a favorite sentence or passage from another writer
“Censor the body and you censor breath and speech at the same time. Write yourself. Your body must be heard.” – Helen Cixous
Share a sentence of your own that you're particularly proud of.
“I am not the story you made of me.”
Describe a recurring or particularly memorable dream or nightmare.
Well I prefer the dream realm to waking life, so that’s a tough call, but I remain most moved by visitations I’ve had from Mary Shelley, Joan of Arc, and Emma Goldman
. Mary Shelley sat quietly by the side of my bed. She wore a dark velvet green dress. Her skin was very creamy. Her eyes big and dark. She held my hand, and the last thing she said was, “Motherhood is not monsterhood.” This was before my daughter died the day she was born; later in life then, that line saved me from myself.
What's your biggest grammatical pet peeve?
That grammar exists — given that language is an arbitrary sign system and, as Gertrude Stein
among others proved so eloquently, might be reordered and change reality at any given moment.
Do you have any phobias?
I’m phone phobic. I know I’m not alone in this, but I don’t think everyone’s phobia comes from the same place. My father used to call me from his work after I got home from school and say inappropriate things or ask inappropriate things. When I was 10, I didn’t know it was him, and so I developed a terror around answering the phone. By the time I was 12, I knew who was on the other end, and my rage began to bloom.
Name a guilty pleasure you partake in regularly.
The idiotic late night shows on The History Channel. Because everything
boils down to extraterrestrials. Duh.
What's the best advice you’ve ever received?
Never surrender (Ken Kesey
Write a question of your own, then answer it.
Why should anyone write? To counter your culture. To puncture the status quo and the cult of good citizenship and the sleepy sheep life of consumerism before it anesthetizes us to death. To cry out. To make a bridge into otherness. To break free of the script lives we’re given and reinvent being and loving. To generate laughter, tears, rage, desire; to bring readers back to our bodies.
Top Five Books That Tell the Truth From the Body of a Woman:
What I mean by “books that tell the truth from the body of a woman” is that these writers have dared to open narrative up to their corporeal experiences, unapologetically, fiercely, with an eloquence that takes my breath away. I’d go as far as to say they are radical innovators who risk telling the story from the inside out, rather than waiting for culture to assign them meanings.
Him, Me, Muhammad Ali
by Randa Jarrar
Palestinian-American writer Randa Jarrar’s stories grapple with love, loss, displacement, and survival in a collection that moves seamlessly between realism and fable, history and the present. With humor, irony, and boundless imagination, Jarrar brings to life a memorable cast of characters, many of them "accidental transients" — a term for migratory birds who have gone astray — seeking their circuitous routes back home.
by Sarah Gerard
Gerard uses her experiences growing up on Florida’s Gulf Coast to illuminate the struggles of modern human survival — physical, emotional, environmental — through a collection of essays exploring intimacy, addiction, obsession, religion, homelessness, and incarceration.
Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body
by Roxane Gay
As a woman who describes her own body as “wildly undisciplined,” Roxane understands the tension between desire and denial, between self-comfort and self-care. In Hunger
, she casts an insightful and critical eye on her childhood, teens, and 20s — including the devastating act of violence that acted as a turning point in her young life — and brings readers into the present and the realities, pains, and joys of her daily life.
by Melissa Febos
At once a fearlessly vulnerable memoir and an incisive investigation of art, love, and identity, Abandon Me
draws on childhood stories, religion, psychology, mythology, popular culture, and the intimacies of one writer's life to reveal intellectual and emotional truths that feel startlingly universal. She’s also fracturing and reinventing what we mean by essay writing.
Narrow River, Wide Sky
by Jenny Forrester
Narrow River, Wide Sky
unwrites the story of family and America through the flutter of hearts beating or beaten up, through a skull on the piano, through the desert of our longings into the river of our sorrow — or is it hope, or maybe love, that keeps us alive in spite of ourselves?
÷ ÷ ÷
is the author of the national bestselling novel The Small Backs of Children
, winner of the 2016 Oregon Book Award's Ken Kesey Award for Fiction as well as the Reader's Choice Award, the novel Dora: A Headcase
, and three books of short stories. Her widely acclaimed memoir The Chronology of Water
was a finalist for a PEN Center USA award for creative nonfiction and winner of a PNBA Award and the Oregon Book Award Reader's Choice. She founded the workshop series Corporeal Writing
in Portland, Oregon, where she also teaches women's studies, film studies, writing, and literature. She received her doctorate in literature from the University of Oregon. Her new novel is The Book of Joan
. Forthcoming is a book based on her recent TED Talk, "The Misfit's Manifesto." She lives in Oregon with her husband Andy Mingo and their renaissance man son, Miles. She is a very good swimmer.