CNF Conversations: An Interview with Mary Cappello

author-mary-cappello

Mary Cappello, Life Breaks In (A Mood Almanack). University of Chicago Press, 2016.

Mary Cappello is the author of five books of literary nonfiction, including Awkward: A Detour (a Los Angeles Times bestseller); Swallow, based on the Chevalier Jackson Foreign Body Collection in Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum; and, most recently, Life Breaks In: A Mood Almanack. Her work has been featured in The New York Times, Salon.com, The Huffington Post, on NPR, in guest author blogs for Powells Books, and on six separate occasions as Notable Essay of the Year in Best American Essays. A Guggenheim and Berlin Prize Fellow, a recipient of The Bechtel Prize for Educating the Imagination, and the Dorothea Lange-Paul Taylor Prize, Cappello is a former Fulbright Lecturer at the Gorky Literary Institute (Moscow), and currently Professor of English and creative writing at the University of Rhode Island.

About Life Breaks In:  Some books start at point A, take you by the hand, and carefully walk you to point B, and on and on.

This is not one of those books. This book is about mood, and how it works in and with us as complicated, imperfectly self-knowing beings existing in a world that impinges and infringes on us, but also regularly suffuses us with beauty and joy and wonder. You don’t write that book as a linear progression — you write it as a living, breathing, richly associative, and, crucially, active, investigation. Or at least you do if you’re as smart and inventive as Mary Cappello.

What is a mood? How do we think about and understand and describe moods and their endless shadings? What do they do to and for us, and how can we actively generate or alter them? These are all questions Cappello takes up as she explores mood in all its manifestations: we travel with her from the childhood tables of “arts and crafts” to mood rooms and reading rooms, forgotten natural history museums and 3-D View-Master fairytale tableaux; from the shifting palette of clouds and weather to the music that defines us and the voices that carry us. The result is a book as brilliantly unclassifiable as mood itself, blue and green and bright and beautiful, funny and sympathetic, as powerfully investigative as it is richly contemplative.

“I’m one of those people who mistrusts a really good mood,” Cappello writes early on. If that made you nod in recognition, well, maybe you’re one of Mary Cappello’s people; you owe it to yourself to crack Life Breaks In and see for sure.

“Are we sometimes not astonished by the beautiful futility of encountering some sudden fugitive moment that renders us so vulnerable to ‘unanticipated forms’: of perhaps an inner light or an inner dark? Here, with Mary Cappello’s ravishing prose, lies a vibrating scalpel that intricately parts the belly of little swirling vertigos that we have no name for but know so deeply.”
— The Brothers Quay

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“Mood is alpha and omega, it is everything and nothing” – Mary Cappello, Life Breaks In

Julija Šukys: Mary, first of all, congratulations on your book. Life Breaks In is learned, rigorous, and, at times, intimate and devastating. On the one hand, the text is incredibly wide-ranging: you take the reader through subjects as varied as Joni Mitchell’s music, mood rings, your father’s darkness, your friend’s death from cancer, taxidermy, and the weird queer history of children’s books. But on the other hand, your book is impressively focused and disciplined as it continually loops back to thinking about mood as sound, as space, as reading, as color. It does so in an almost oblique way and manages to look closely at something that is otherwise almost invisible.

You have written that the challenge of the book was “not to chase mood, track it, or pin it down: neither to explain nor define mood – but to notice it – often enough, to listen for it – and do something like it without killing it in the process” (15). It seems like mood is something that you can only see through the prism of something else, like those ghosts in children’s cartoons that become visible in the dust beaten out of a chalkboard brush. Can you say a little bit about how you came to your subject? And can you talk a bit about the title, Life Breaks In, and the role that rupture plays in a meditation on mood?

Mary Cappello: This question of how we come to our subjects is perpetually intriguing to me. Some subjects for me have been urgent givens (for example, cancer); others, I’ve arrived at through intricately circuitous routes even though, once there, they greeted me with a kind of “ah-ha” or “but-of-course” feeling (e.g., awkwardness); still others were the result of an accidental encounter, what Barthes might call a “lucky find,” almost like a punctum in photography (e.g., the Chevalier Jackson foreign body collection). Mood happened for me in yet another way—in its own way—and it was as though it was always hovering. The subject has played around the edges of my consciousness for many years, and, by the time I brought the book to completion, it felt as though it was the work toward which all of my work had been tending.

Sometimes I’ll be reading a book I’ve read a thousand times, and I’ll find marginalia that I wrote in it dating back twenty years relative to mood. I guess I’m trying to say that mood felt to me like the thing I’ve been writing about all along but that had never announced itself as such—which makes me wonder if this is a sort of experience relevant to all writers. Unlike my other ostensible “subjects,” mood seemed to be following me rather than vice versa.

The title is a phrase lent to me by Virginia Woolf who wrote these wonderfully suggestive lines in one of her diary entries: “How it would interest me if this diary were ever to become a real diary: something in which I could see changes, trace moods developing; but then I should have to speak of the soul, & did I not banish the soul when I began? What happens is, as usual, that I’m going to write about the soul, & life breaks in.”

I’m really interested in the time/space that mood exists in—I mean, moods seem to be a bedrock of our being (we’re never not in a mood of one sort or another), at the same time that moods seem to exist quite apart from our ability to perceive them. Are moods co-terminus with the thing we call “life” or “living”? Does life interrupt mood or do moods interrupt life? This is related to the aesthetic problem that you refer to in your question—I mean, here’s this thing that is ephemeral, amorphous but ever-present and foundational. It will not let you pin it down, and it might only come into view when you aren’t trying to discover it. If you look too directly at it, it may not show itself, or will vanish. And the minute it does materialize, life is sure to break in, and poof, it’s gone.

I hope that readers take pleasure in the unexpected ways in which breaks enter in to the book, and I’d hardly exhaust those ways if I mentioned just a few, like day break and breaks in clouds; breakthroughs and heartbreaks; the breaking of a silence and the breaking into song.

As you know, I read this book very slowly, in fits and starts. At first, my pace embarrassed me (confession: I’m a slow reader at the best of times), but the deeper into the book I got and the more I thought about what you were doing in it, the more I made peace with my meandering methods.

You’ve subtitled the book “A Mood Almanack” and elucidate it like this: “the almanack is a revelatory book and a book of secrets. A book whose tidings we look out for and consult from time to time…. A book to wander in a desert with…. A book whose only requirement is that we float into and out from the streets where we live, pausing long enough to feel the mood beneath us shift.” (16) It occurs to me now that this is a book that values the slow reveal and invites a reader to go off, wander around, and return according to her inclinations (or, indeed, mood).

Can you say a little more about your notion of the book as almanack? (By the way, my autocorrect keeps trying to remove the k at the end of that word!)

All that I can say about the slow reveal is: yes, yes, yes. Meandering methods, both in writing and in reading, yes. I’m so glad that this is how you experienced the book, Julija. I seem to have found my ideal reader!

Mood called for what I describe as “cloud-writing,” which asked for an aesthetic of hover and drift. Like my second book, Awkward: A Detour, this book can be dipped into, read front to back, or not. For the reader interested in moving front to back, the book is structured to allow for various more and more voluble returns (as you note in your opening lines here), and a frame tale relative to voice and mood (most especially, the role of the voices of our earliest caretakers, how we may have come to receive those voices and, if we grew up to be writers, how we later constructed voice-imbued atmospheres in the form of writing).

I had a lot of reasons for calling the book an “almanack,” and with that older spelling, too. I wanted to nod in the direction of those early autobiographical experiments of Ben Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanack, but also the less well-known book by Djuna Barnes, her Ladies Almanack (1928) and its wonderful sub-title, “showing their Signs and their Tides; their Moons and their Changes; the Seasons as it is with them; their Eclipses and Equinoxes; as well as a full Record of diurnal and nocturnal Distempers, written & illustrated by a lady of fashion.”

Formally, though, the “almanack” appealed to me for its generic specificity and range: an almanack (especially a “farmer’s alamanack”) shares a kinship with mood-writing because it’s a place we turn to for chartings of weather patterns and cloud movements, the prospect of a good harvest or a drought, and it’s a space where different types of knowledge on a subject can intermingle, where folk wisdom meets philosophy, aphorism and recipes coincide—more to the point, where a kind of non-knowledge or useless knowledge (à la Gertrude Stein) prevails. I didn’t structure the book like an almanack—this would have felt artificial to me—but when I learned more about the etymology of the word, I couldn’t believe how fitting it was for a mood-book: from classical Arabic, munaā­k, it refers to a place where a camel kneels, a station on a journey or the halt at the end of a day’s travel. Simultaneously, it derives from cognate Arabic words for “calendar,” and “climate.” This blew my mind because it seemed to bring together so many mood-relatives: temporality, charts and unchartability, atmosphere, rest and pause. There is also a warmth to the Farmer’s Almanack that I was hoping to invoke.

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And the Whirlwind Begins to Slow…

It’s been an amazing few weeks: there have been fantastic reviews of my book Epistolophilia appearing from coast to coast. I’ve been out to British Columbia, where I gave my first real public reading at the beautiful Vancouver Public Library, and we launched the book with a splash on June 7, 2012 in Montreal. It was wonderful to see so many familiar and unfamiliar faces. Thanks to all for coming.

As the weather heats up, the literary scene begins to slow. This summer I’ll be doing more intimate events, and plan to use the break to integrate virtual book club visits (via skype) into my author program. Check back for a reading guide and book club instructions soon.

But today, Sebastian and I are headed outside to tend our neglected garden. Supporting a new book takes a lot of time and effort, and the poor plants have suffered. With a bit of sweat and toil, though, we should be able to get it back in shape.

Next week, my big boy starts day camp, and I’ll return to my desk in earnest.

[Photo: Sebastian Gurd]

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On Fragmentation, Springtime Energy, and Future Plans

I disappeared for a while. Sorry about that.

I got stuck in that place that we all know well: the fragmented, too-many-things-on-my-plate place.

First of all, it’s tax season here in Canada, which for a numerically challenged humanist like me, means it’s the season of hell. So far, it’s robbed me of almost three full days of writing. Second, I’m halfway through editing an issue of an academic journal, and though it’s good, honest work that I do every three months or so, it’s hard to write in a sustained fashion on editing days. Finally, there are the tasks of everyday life that keep us busy and make us tired.

But the garden is coming back to life after a winter that, for me, seemed tougher than most. The last of the snow melted only yesterday, yet brave tendrils have been fighting their way up through the soil. My son and I have been cheering on the tulips and daffodils as they get bigger by the day. He calls them “baby flowers,” exclaiming “I LOVE IT!” each time I point out a new one. “This is our garden, right, Mummy? We take care it.” Few things make me happier than witnessing my son’s love and respect for living things.

Texts are growing too: I finally got an essay off my desk and to the collection’s editor who likes it. Hurray! I’m now moving onto dreaming up a new one. And as soon as my taxes are off my desk, I’ll get back to the Siberia book properly.

I’ve been hearing from readers and colleagues who would like to take part in my new Creative Nonfiction Conversations. I’m working on some plans for chats about essays, books, and maybe even about a documentary film. Keep an eye out for upcoming interviews, and send ideas my way if you want to have a chat too. As soon as I dig myself out and return to the my usual rhythms, the conversations will begin.

I wish you strength if you, like me, are doing taxes. May spring replenish your energies, and may you return to writing, if (like me) your life has pulled you to pieces.

[Photo: Kuzeytac]

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Mystery tomatoes

For some time now our family has been ordering our groceries online from a local company called “Les Jardins Urbains” (Urban Gardens). At first, the idea was simply to streamline our lives and to save our Saturdays that were getting eaten up by thankless tasks like shopping. We’ve been procuring food like this for well over a year now, and pray that Reza, our friend and proprietor of “Les Jardins Urbains,” will never go out of business, because we could never go back.

Reza’s food is organic and largely local. Our duck, for example, comes from Lac Brome, our carrots from the Saguenay, and our tomatoes from his greenhouses.

I’ve never been a much of a food snob or a big believer in the organic movement (for one thing, I’m suspicious of the ecological argument for organic strawberries that have travelled to Quebec from California), but I have to admit that our new way of accessing food has changed our relationship to it. We now eat more seasonally than ever before — each spring we await the news that the special sweet and spicy lettuce blends are available and that garlic shoots can  be ordered — and food that is grown close by really does taste better.

But tonight, together with my weekly food delivery, came a surprise. I was gardening when Reza announced that he had a gift for me.

A few minutes later he returned from his van bearing four tiny tomato seedlings. He explained that after reading my post about how gardens reflect our lives, he’d been inspired to bring me some plants. There’s a hanging one for our son, one each for my husband and me, and one that I’m symbolically setting aside for our cat Yashka, since we don’t want any orphans or jealousy.

The tomatoes, he said, are a mystery. We don’t know what colour or shape each will bear, but they won’t be conventional.

So what started for me as a purely practical matter — this habit of ordering food every week — has brought unanticipated richness. Friendship, better health, a reader I didn’t even realize I had, and a heartwarming acknowledgment of my work in the form of four mystery tomato plants.

If you live in the Montreal area, check out “Les Jardins Urbains” here.

[Photo: onkel_wart]

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Stones: on how gardens map our lives

A few days ago I heard a snippet of conversation on the radio that got me thinking about my garden. On an NPR program called “On Point,” the writer Sydney Edison described how she had been gardening more than two acres of land for fifty years. “Gardens reflect your life back to you,” she said. “People garden they way they do because of who they are.”

Two years ago, when our son was just a baby, Sean and I watched in dismay as the front lawn got worse and worse, its water drained by the silver maple next door. Once it had reached an irredeemable shade of gold, we finally decided to do away with it, and replaced the grass with a rocky and cascading riverbed surrounded by plants.

We were short on cash, as ever, so we recycled as much as we could. We divided up hostas from the backyard, moved in tiny perennials pinched from the overflow of a colleague’s gigantic property, and dragged out a pile of old paving stones from under the porch to create a tiny patio surrounded by thyme. The potted cedar that our friends had given us before moving to Whitehorse took a place of honour at one edge. Across from it we transplanted our once sad rhododendron that now flowered for the first time in years. (Woody plants, I learned from the radio, get better with age.)

In many ways, I garden how I write. I use my gut and instinct to guide me. I don’t plan beyond broad strokes or have a colour scheme. Riding a surge of energy and inspiration, I put things where I think they’ll be happy or where there’s a bald spot. If it doesn’t work, I rearrange.

I garden because it feeds me in ways I don’t quite understand, giving me a sense of pleasure that little else does. Both my writing and the garden are maps, recording birth, growth, life, struggle, sickness, death, and robust health. And in the corners of both lie shells and stones from beaches and forests I’ve been to.

Like a magpie, I collect these treasures obsessively, shoving pebbles into pockets and dumping small boulders surreptitiously into the trunk of my car. For the garden, for the garden, for the garden, says the voice in my head. Jagged, smooth, flecked: I can’t help myself.

Stolen bits of the world, I place these amulets in a way that tells a story, protects the past, and wonders at life all around.

Listen to “Gardening Gurus Spill the Dirt” on NPR’s radio show On Point here.

[Photo: withrow]

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Siberian photographs: on home and exile

A couple months ago I took my son to visit my Aunt Birutė to talk about family history and my grandmother’s exile. She gave me some extraordinary photographs during that visit, including several from Siberia. More than I expected.

One small photograph, dated 1957, shows my grandmother’s house. Made of logs and with a straw roof, it stands on fenced property. Both look bigger than I would have expected. I’d always imagined the house surrounded by forest, but the land all around her house is flat.

Another shows my grandmother and her sister Magrieta standing in the garden, up to their knees in lush leaves. They wear matching shirts and skirts made from fabric sent in care-packages by faraway daughters. On the back, in Magrieta’s handwriting: “The cabbage garden, beyond it that you can see the potatoes and fence.” I’m struck by how happy my grandmother looks in these photographs: strong and ruddy, she could be an early American pioneer. (In the above photograph my grandmother sits on the left. She has several teeth missing, knocked out in an accident with a combine harvester.)

For the last few weeks, I’ve been singing a new song to my son Sebastian at bedtime. We call it “The Bird Song.” I learned it at summer camp as a child.

Like birds returning home
Lead us too, oh Lord.
From the sad road of exile,
Gather us up.

The song was written by my grandmother’s generation about returning to the place they fled or were forced to leave. Now, as I sing my son to sleep, it is these photographs of my grandmother in her cabbage garden that appear in my mind’s eye.

Home: I wonder if it felt like a homecoming when my grandmother returned to Lithuania after seventeen years. Can there be home without family? Her children were grown and far away; it would be another seven years before she saw her family again, when she emigrated Canada. But is family enough to restore home? Surely this country wasn’t home either: the language and customs remained strange to her until her death.

Did exile rob my grandmother of her home in more fundamental way than mere displacement? By taking her away by force, did her captors kill the very possibility of home?

Most people still die within a few kilometres of where they were born. Not so for my grandmother. Not so for many of us who move often and far either by choice or necessity. So what are the ties that bind the landless far from loved ones?

What is home to the exiled?

[Photo: Ona and Magrieta in Brovka, Siberia, 1957. Photographer unknown]

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On the Value and Meaning of Work

I’ve been reading my friend Margaret Paxson’s book, Solovyovo: The Story of Memory in a Russian Village. Paxson, an anthropologist, watched, interviewed and listened to the villagers of Solovyovo for many months to learn how they related to each other, to their land and to the past.

Yesterday, shortly before going to a dinner party with some other writers, I read a section on currency, debt and exchange.

In a village where people grow their own vegetables, raise animals, keep bees, produce their own alcohol, fetch their own water, and build their own houses, it’s fair to ask what the value of money is. In Solovyovo, one needs money to buy things like grain, heating fuel, radios, televisions, but cash is not the primary, purest or most “comfortable” form of currency. Rather than pay one another in rubles, Solovyovo’s villagers prefer to exchange meat for vodka, honey for cheese, or milk for a few hours of help in the potato field. Debts are settled through deeds and other goods. Money, as much as possible, doesn’t enter the calculation.

So, with my friend’s description of this alternate economy in mind, I set off to my writers’ dinner party.

Over food and wine, shared our stories: we told what had brought us to writing, how we organized our workdays, and we outlined the decisions each of us had made to create room for writing in our lives. Finally, toward the end of the evening, the talk turned to finances and the concept of work. The discussion was sparked by the description of one author as a “working mother,” when she practiced no profession other than writing. Was this a fair description of a woman who writes and raises kids, but who may not earn a whole heck of a lot?

Several questions arose for me as a result of that discussion: Is writing only “real” or “valuable” or even “work” if it pays the rent? Should an author’s work conditions be taken into consideration before we judge a piece of writing? Does it matter, in other words, whether a writer’s life is tough or cushy? (Tolstoy was rich; Kafka was relatively poor. Should we care?) Is the sum of one’s life’s work measured only in dollars, or is there another currency we can use?

What can the villagers of Solovyovo teach us in this regard?

[Photo: napugal]

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