Interview: Ocean State Review

I was deep into my work on the book when I discovered (to my great joy) that I was pregnant with my son. Once I was over morning sickness, it was an easy pregnancy and even a pleasurable one. I continued to work and travel until the last month when my blood pressure shot up. At that point, per my midwife’s orders, I abandoned my manuscript and put myself to bed. It was a long, long time – almost two years – before I managed to return to writing in a concentrated way. — J. Šukys, in an interview with The Ocean State Review

Thank you to Heather Macpherson for taking the time and energy to talk to me at length about writing, research, and my last two books, Epistolophilia and Siberian Exile. This interview appeared in the most recent issue of The Ocean State Review.

You can read the interview with The Ocean State Review here.

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Essay Daily: Deep Roots (Thinking About “Koreans With Guns”)

Every year, the people at Essay Daily put together an essay Advent Calendar. That is, with every day of Advent, a new essay appears. Sometimes the calendar is themed; this year’s calendar was unthemed. We were simply asked to write about an essay or essayist that we liked or that interested us.

I wrote about Sam Cha’s essay called “Koreans With Guns.” The piece comes from his chapbook American Carnage. “Deep Roots (Thinking about “Koreans With Guns”) is my first publication connected to a new book project examining college campus shootings.

Thanks to Ander Monson for making a place on the calendar for me. I’m so happy to be part of the project. You can read my December 8, 2018 installment here. 

[Image: ATOMIC Hot Links]

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DEEP BALTIC Interview: “Someone Always Pays”

Some time ago, I had the pleasure of talking to Will Mawhood, Editor of Deep Baltic about my book, Siberian Exile. Thanks to Will for the excellent conversation.

Here’s an excerpt of the interview:

The first sentence we read in the book is “Someone always pays. The question is who. And the question is how.” Could you expand upon that a little?

Over the course of writing this book, I thought a lot about the question of who paid for Anthony’s crimes and how. When I discovered the war crimes indictment against my grandfather, that is, that he had overseen a massacre of Jewish women and children in 1941, I was struck by the fact that he had seemingly not paid a price for those actions and for the choices he made. His wife paid the highest price, through her deportation and loss of her children. His children paid through the loss of their mother. As I write in the book, we, his grandchildren have paid as well in certain ways. I, for example, lost my father to a sudden heart attack when he was 56 and I was 18 years old. Rightly or wrongly, I’ve always connected his sudden death to childhood trauma. What interests me is the way that actions have echoes and consequences that become visible slowly, over decades and to what extent those echoes and consequences remain real today.

If your grandfather had been at home in Kaunas when the KGB arrived, he would almost definitely have been deported, and so would not even have had the option to consider whether to collaborate with the Nazi occupying forces when they invaded Lithuania shortly afterwards. You write how tempting it is to wish for that single change – to wish for a misfortune, but one that would have prevented him from becoming complicit in terrible events. “In this alternate and, yes, selfish history, where I can change only one fate, Anthony would have been a clear, clean victim”. Do you think family tragedy is in a way less hard to deal with than guilt?

In many families, tragedy and hardship can be points of pride. An ancestor who was wrongly imprisoned, for example, might be held up as an example of resilience but an ancestor who was rightfully imprisoned for committing murder is unlikely to be celebrated. This basic difference struck me as I was writing and a question arose for me: can we take credit for our ancestors’ good deeds, talents, and triumphs if we are not willing to take some sort of responsibility for their sins as well?

You describe how your grandmother was finally given permission to join the rest of her family in Canada in 1965, but how she always remained somewhat apart – having a distant, though seemingly unfractious relationship with her husband, and finding the material abundance and different customs and language of her new home hard to adjust to. She says about the experience of being reunited, during a later interview conducted in Lithuanian: “I felt that these weren’t my kids. That these weren’t my grandkids.” Do you think this was very typical of people like her, who had been deported for long periods of time, on being reunited with their families – that it was in some way a bittersweet experience?

I imagine that my grandmother was not alone in her experience of a bittersweet reunion. As I was thinking about what Ona’s and Anthony’s reunion must have been like, I didn’t have much information to go on, even second hand, so I did bibliographical research to try and understand the range of returnees’ experiences. I read about what happened to marriages when deportees returned to the spouses they’d left behind. Many marriages, unsurprisingly, did not survive and upon their return, deportees divorced. Oftentimes if deportees remarried after returning from Siberia, they ended up marrying other deportees. I think that makes sense. Few others could have understood a returnee better than another returnee.

In my grandmother’s case, I think that her children were tie that bound her to the family. She couldn’t and didn’t blame them for having become somewhat exotic creatures in her absence. From her 1977 interview, it seems that she worked hard to adjust to her new reality in Canada. That said, she must have mourned those lost years and having missed out on watching her children grow and mature. The great gift that she received shortly after her arrival in Canada was the birth of my cousin Darius. She really co-raised him with her daughter and I think that having a new baby in her life, a child who grew to love her like no one else, was life-saving and healing.

Continue reading the interview here.

[Photo: Ona and Margarita by their cabin in Siberia]

 

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Siberian Exile Wins Vine Award in Nonfiction

“Julija Šukys’s Siberian Exile is heroic.” — Vine Award for Nonfiction

Today, I was thrilled to accept the Vine Award in Canadian Jewish Literature for the category of Nonfiction. Thank you to the jury and to the donors and to Diana for being my date at the luncheon. What’s more, the prize comes with a generous monetary prize, which I will put to good use. Photos include pics of my speech, the program, the lovely crystal plaque, two of three jury members announcing the winners, and a photo with jurors and a fellow winner in the History category.

Julija Šukys, accepting the Vine Award in Nonfiction. October 11, 2018. Windsor Arms Hotel, Toronto.

Jury members Joseph Kertes and Beverly Chalmers announcing the winners of the Vine Awards. Oct. 11, 2018. Windsor Arms Hotel, Toronto.

The award plaque. Vine Awards.

Jury members Chalmers and Kertes with History winner, Hugues Théoret and Nonfiction winner, Julija Šukys. Oct. 11, 2018. Windsor Arms Hotel, Toronto.

The Program. Vine Awards, 2018.

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On Packing for a Year-Long Academic Sabbatical

A few weeks ago, when I started packing in earnest for our family’s year at the Institute for Advanced Study, I couldn’t find an academic sabbatical packing list (for either women or men). All I found were tips for short-term trips (like a month) or nomadic year-long family trips across warm continents. So this is my (somewhat feminine, at least in terms of the clothing list) effort. Such lists remove a whole piece of mental work, and goodness knows, there’s enough to think about!

If you have the good fortune of a year away from your usual life, then CONGRATULATIONS. I hope this helps.

Happy research. Happy writing. Happy packing.

Sabbatical Prep: Basic Tips and Principles

Stowing stuff before you leave

  1. Order one or a couple of those inexpensive clothes storage closets (with cover) for items you leave behind. It’s easier for both packing & unpacking and clothes don’t get mangled. Especially good for monstrous Midwestern houses with big, dry storage rooms.
  2. In the event that you don’t have a ginormous storage room and need to store things offsite, those pod containers that come to your house and then get carted away for the year also work beautifully. We used a pod when we went away to Malta for a year and rented out our Montreal house. We had to empty our library completely for the tenants, plus clear closets and drawers. In that case, I rolled the cost of storage into rent.
  3. Take the opportunity to reduce your clutter. Donate or freecycle any clothes you’ve (ahem) outgrown or just don’t wear. Cut up old t-shirts for rags. Take part in your neighborhood’s garage sale and share the proceeds with your kid when he sells old toys. Donate the leftover toys. Honestly, there is nothing like leaving your house for a year to make you take a good hard look at the excesses of North American life…

What to take and how to pack and transport it: first, the broad strokes

  1. When choosing which clothes to bring, I found that an organic solution emerged: a unified color scheme made my decisions easier. In the end, I packed mostly blue and black garments. This means everything will go with everything. Also, there’s less to think about when you’re dealing with reduced clothing options because you have better things to do…like write a book.
  2. Two words: COMPRESSION SACS. They even work on boots rated to -30C that I managed to mush down to a fraction of their usual size! The sacs allowed me to pack our warm jackets, ski pants, gloves, hats, and neck warmers  into a very small space. And since we have our winter essentials, we’ll be able both to ski and walk our dog in the snow comfortably. WHERE TO GET COMPRESSION SACS? I bought some inexpensive sacs online. They are just rectangular plastic envelopes with a ziplock top and one-way valves at the bottom so you can squeeze the air out. You don’t need the hardcore camping ones; just the travel kind.
  3. Related to #2: resist the temptation to “just buy new ones” of everything. Good quality clothes are expensive, and it’s worth bringing staples that will protect you against the elements, like rain gear, waterproof footwear, warm hats, winter coats, gloves. I’ve learned my lesson, having wandered around with wet feet on one too many trips.
  4. Related to #3: it’s equally important to resist the impulse to TAKE everything. Living with less is also a pleasure.
  5. I suggest deciding on how many bags you plan to take and allowing that to determine what you can bring. We took 3 large suitcases, 3 carry-ons + work papers for 2 adults and one kid. Consider sending suitcases by UPS Ground, especially if you’re driving to your sabbatical destination, as we did. UPS shipping was surprisingly affordable and send bulky stuff ahead left room in the car for cat, dog, child, and cooler. You can also ship any musical instruments. We shipped a guitar and saxophone.
  6. Be sure to pack a blue-tooth speaker. You can stream radio and music from phones and laptops and get high quality sound. I packed this almost as an afterthought, but it’s already proven to be essential.
  7. Earphones and earbuds. Enough for all family members to share.
  8. Playing cards. We’ve been playing Gin as a family since we left home.
  9. If you’ve got ’em, then take some Turkish towels. These are compact and work at the pool or beach. They also double as travel blankets on cold airplanes. Plus, towels can be in short supply in rentals. I also tucked 3 dish towels into the car before leaving and I’m glad I did, since we arrived to find none in our new apartment!
  10. Be kind to the kid. Remember that his treasures matter too. Find room in the car for 2000+ Magic the Gathering cards, if need be. The kid barely has any clothes anyway, because he outgrows them so fast. Everyone needs to be allowed something special.

What I Brought: Here’s Where We Get Specific

Work

  • research materials: photocopies from archives, notebooks, a few books
  • a “working copy” of my book for readings
  • draft of an essay-in-progress (hard copy that I didn’t have time to transcribe)
  • laptop
  • phone
  • charging cords
  • wire book holder for desk
  • book light for bedtime reading
  • pens & pencils
  • wrist brace to treat/prevent carpel tunnel syndrome
  • business/book cards
  • pens
  • computer sleeve
  • camera (for work & play…)
  • backpack for conference travel
  • reading glasses

Essential documents

  • passports
  • immunization records (you can’t register your kid in school without them)
  • your child’s last report card (also needed for school registration)
  • birth certificates
  • directions & welcome packet for the new place
  • health insurance cards
  • checks
  • …plus whatever’s in your wallet (make sure your driver’s license won’t expire while you’re on sabbatical, and far away from home)

Kitchen & Food

  • pack your road-trip food in your usual tupperware or food storage containers (we brought 4 or 5 in our cooler and I’ll use these for packing my son’s school lunches)
  • thermoses that double as water bottles (also for use during the long road trip)
  • a cooler, ’cause that road food will kill you
  • picnic plates and cutlery
  • dish towels
  • lunch box for the kid (we have a soft one which makes packing easy)
  • fabric shopping totes (we used these to pack shoes, pet stuff, toiletries into the car and now use them shopping)
  • a couple laundry balls
  • laundry bags for washing delicates
  • two large laundry bags for storing dirty clothes and transport to laundry room (across the street)

Pet stuff

  • leashes
  • cat carrier
  • flea & tick meds
  • Prozac for the problematic canine
  • poo bags
  • food bowls
  • a couple toys for the pup; a couple of small balls to chase for kitty
  • pet food (enough for the trip and a few days upon arrival)
  • any skin care meds that the problematic canine might need
  • brushes & shampoo for grooming
  • litter box & scoop, double-bagged for travel
  • “kitty quilts” (made by my husband’s aunt; yes, the cat actually sleeps on them…)
  • immunization record for cross-border travel with dog

things to do before you leave home

  • set up online billing and bill payment
  • change addresses with the bank, HR, magazine subscriptions, your mother’s nursing home, etc.
  • get your mail forwarded to the new address
  • talk to your home insurance company if you’ll have a tenant or house-sitter and make sure you’re covered under these circumstances
  • suspend or reduce insurance on any vehicles you might be leaving behind
  • change your voicemail message if you’re like us and still live as if it’s 1995
  • hire someone to mow the lawn if you don’t want to ask the house-sitter or tenant to do so
  • write up a set of emergency instructions with contacts for your house-sitter, i.e., what to do if a tree falls or the roof gets blown off
  • register your kid in his new school
  • go see the doctor and dentist and get up to date on tests and cleanings; NB: your kid will need a health form signed by the doctor to register for school
  • put an auto-reply on your email accounts to buy some extra space and time for the book you’re writing

Clothes, etc.

(Written out like this, it’s a lot…I admit. But I tried to pack comfortably for 4 seasons, for skiing, yoga, running, hiking & swimming, for conferences & book festivals, for long days in the library, dog walking, cocktail receptions, holidays and parties…)

  • 2 jersey dresses (one black, one blue)
  • 6 long-sleeved jersey shirts (in varying shades of black, purple, teal & blue)
  • 6 short-sleeved jersey shirts (ditto)
  • 1 tunic (blue)
  • 1 long cardigan (black, of course)
  • 4 work-type jackets (in blue and black, of course) that can be dressed up or down, of different weights and styles (this may be excessive, but I allowed myself this folly since I love to layer and a jacket makes me feel immediately polished)
  • 2 winter/fall sweaters (one dove grey one in merino; one navy in cashmere)
  • 1 spring cardigan (black)
  • 1 spring pullover sweater (a departure: red and white stripes!)
  • 1 fleece jacket (grey)
  • 1 stretchy athletic jacket (teal)
  • 1 down jacket (turquoise for variation)
  • 1 medium-weight fall/winter coat (black); with the down jacket underneath, it should see me through the snowy season
  • 1 rain/ski shell (grey)
  • shoes: tall leather boots (no heel), leather ankle boots (slight heel), comfy walking boots, warm winter boots, sneakers, sandals, ankle-height rain boots (good for muddy hikes as well as rainy days)
  • 2 pairs of jeans (blue)
  • 1 pair wide-legged cotton pants that go across seasons (black)
  • 2 winter/fall skirts (one in a dark, very cool denim with distressed edge; one navy pencil skirt)
  • 3 summer skirts (2 navy and one crazy mint green one for fun, in a fabric printed with images of food trucks)
  • 2 light-weight summer pants (airy light blue ones and a pair of beaten up khaki hiking cropped ones)
  • 3 pairs cotton pajamas
  • light-weight dressing gown (silk; it folds down to nothing)
  • 3 pairs of tights (black & grey)
  • black beret & gloves
  • sun hat & sunglasses
  • 2 belts
  • 3 pairs of earrings; 3 necklaces
  • bras & underwear & socks
  • umbrella
  • 5 colorful scarves of varying weights (if you’re packing mostly grey, blue & black, then you need some color somewhere!)
  • 1 leather purse (teal blue), tote-style to carry all the things…
  • athletic gear: yoga pants, yoga mat, running shorts & shirts, runners, running hat, socks, sports bra, sports socks, ski googles, ski pants, ski socks, neck warmers, long johns, yoga mat
  • 2 bathing suits & goggles
  • toiletries (you know what you need…)

Best packing list ever?

Joan Didion’s.

TO PACK AND WEAR:
2 skirts
2 jerseys or leotards
1 pullover sweater
2 pair shoes
stockings
bra
nightgown, robe, slippers
cigarettes
bourbon
bag with: shampoo
toothbrush and paste
Basis soap, razor
deodorant
aspirin
prescriptions
Tampax
face cream
powder
baby oil

TO CARRY:
mohair throw
typewriter
2 legal pads and pens
files
house key

“This is a list which was taped inside my closet door in Hollywood during those years when I was reporting more or less steadily. The list enabled me to pack, without thinking, for any piece I was likely to do. Notice the deliberate anonymity of costume: in a skirt, a leotard, and stockings, I could pass on either side of the culture. Notice the mohair throw for trunk-line flights (i.e. no blankets) and for the motel room in which the air conditioning could not be turned off. Notice the bourbon for the same motel room. Notice the typewriter for the airport, coming home: the idea was to turn in the Hertz car, check in, find an empty bench, and start typing the day’s notes.”

—Joan Didion, “The White Album”

[Photo: Thomas Hawk]

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Audio Interview: The Missouri Review

Not too long ago, I had a great conversation with the Missouri Review! Thanks to Sarah Beard for sitting down to talk with me. In “UNBOUND Book Festival Interview: Julija Šukys,” we talk about my book, Siberian Exile, research, digging into family history, archives, and much more. Come have a listen.

[Image: The Missouri Review]

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Teaching in the Archives: Women Writing Lives

Last summer, I spent a few weeks in the State Historical Society of Missouri developing an assignment for a new course called Women Writing Lives. I envisioned brining students into the archives and wanted them to get a sense of how enthralling archival work could be. It was more successful than I ever could have predicted, so I wrote a short piece about it for Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies. Here it is. 

[Photo: Texas State Library and Archives Commission]

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Review Essay: Siberian Exile in Fourth Genre

Thank you to Ned Stuckey-French for his appraisal not only of Siberian Exile (2017) but also of Epistolophilia (2012), and my work in general. His review essay, called “A Mind Thinking” (Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction, Spring 2018, p. 209-220) concludes like this:

As I was reading Siberian Exile, I began to think about what its predecessor [Epistolophilia] mean to the field of creative nonfiction. We talk often about the essay renaissance that has flowered in the United States since the 1980s. What Julija Šukys’s work reminds me is that this renaissance is, has been, and can be global in its reach. A Canadian who now writes and teaches in the United States but who was born into a family that was cast into the Lithuanian diaspora, Šukys is especially equipped to take the North American essay out into the world, and vice versa. The range of her work is stunning. It stretches across three continents, thousands of miles of travel, scores of interviews in multiple languages, and decades of history — extending from World War II through the Cold War and the fall of the Soviet Union to the present — but she also stops and looks at moments, boring deep into an exchange on a train or the night of a massacre. Her work is horizontal and vertical. It is historical and personal. She reveals the history of the last century through the lives of individuals, often as they faced the most dramatic moments of their lives, and she tells us the story of her own mind thinking about the history, the moments, and the people she has encountered.

You can also check out Curtis Woodstock’s review of a recent Siberian Exile event here. He calls Siberian Exile “wonderfully written, emotional, and real.”

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CNF Conversations: An Interview With David Lazar

David LazarI’ll Be Your Mirror: Essays and Aphorisms. University of Nebraska Press, 2017.

David Lazar was a Guggenheim Fellow in Nonfiction for 2015-16. His books include the just published I’ll Be Your Mirror: Essays and Aphorisms from the University of Nebraska Press, Who’s Afraid of Helen of TroyAfter MontaigneOccasional Desire: Essays, The Body of Brooklyn, Truth in NonfictionEssaying the Essay, Powder Town, Michael Powell: Interviewsand Conversations with M.F.K. Fisher. Eight of his essays have been “Notable Essays of the Year” according to Best American Essays. Lazar received the first PhD in the United States in nonfiction writing, in 1989. He then created the PhD program in nonfiction writing at Ohio University and directed the creation of the undergraduate and M.F.A. programs in Nonfiction Writing at Columbia College Chicago where he is Professor of Creative Writing. He is founding editor of the literary magazine Hotel Amerika, now in its seventeenth year, and series editor, with Patrick Madden, of 21st Century Essays, at Ohio State University Press.

About I’ll Be Your Mirror: In his third book of essays, David Lazar blends personal meditations on sex and death with considerations of popular music and coping with anxiety through singing, bowling, and other distractions. He sets his work apart as both in the essay and of the essay by throwing himself into the form’s past—interviewing or speaking to past masters and turning over rocks to find lost gems of the essay form.

I’ll Be Your Mirror further expands the dimensions of contemporary nonfiction writing by concluding with a series of aphorisms. Surreal, comical, and urban moments of being, they are part Cioran, part Kafka, and part Lenny Bruce. These are accompanied by Heather Frise’s illustrations, whose looking-glass visions of motherhood—funny and grotesque—meet the vision of the aphorist in this most unusual nonfiction book.

Julija Šukys: David, congratulations on your new book. It’s a finely wrought collection of formally diverse texts. In it we find longish, textured, memory-based personal essays (like “When I’m Awfully Low”), interviews both real and imagined, as well as fragmented and poetic hybrids. Themes the reader encounters include musical theater, bowling, sex, gender conformity, and nonconformity. Certain figures return again and again: your lover who committed suicide, your mother, and your son. The tone of the collection is both melancholy (“Ann: Death and the Maiden”) and kind of punchy, as in your conversation with Mary Cappello. For me, that conversation was a highlight of the book. I immensely enjoyed your disagreements with Mary about digressions and whether the term is a productive one for the essayist, your comparing of notes, and your challenging of one another’s ideas of what makes and what should make or unmake our nonfiction literary canon.

You produce three conversations here: two imagined (with Michel de Montaigne and Robert Burton) and one real (the one with Mary Cappello). I’ve always loved the interview as a form and have long thought of the essay as a conversation with a reader. Can you talk about the place of the interview or conversation in your work as an essayist?

David Lazar: What better place to talk about the interview than in an interview, Julija! Thank you! I first became formally interested in the interview about twenty-five years ago when I was doing long interviews with M.F.K. Fisher and gathering the historical interview selections that became the basis of Conversations with M.F.K. Fisher. I noticed immediately in the historical interviews how manifold the forms of published interviews were: some were formal, others informal; some were interviews broken up and interspersed into feature articles. Some interviews effaced the questioner, while others were obviously more dialogic. And when I began my own conversations with Fisher, what began as formal calls and responses, devolved delightfully into digressive (that word!) interplays, with certain questions recurring and receding, our senses of each other emerging as we circled each other, sometimes warily, sometimes fondly. I remember amusedly an editor writing to tell me that Fisher was a well-known essayist and I was not, so clearly the reader wouldn’t be interested in hearing so much of me. In addition to finding the response boorish, I thought it wrong. But in any case, that started me thinking of the interview as another cognate of the essay, both in the way one voice, the interrogated, can wander through, around, and back to certain ideas in essayistic ways, but also, again, dialogically, in the play of two voices. Solo, or duo, it’s still explorations of voice.

As I write in the MFK Fisher book, if I may be permitted to quote myself:

Etymologically, interview derives from ‘entrevue,’ a form of entrevoir, to have a glimpse of, as well as “s’entrevoir,” to see each other. We can see early, unnamed versions of the interview in the Socratic dialogues, the conversations of Satan with God in the first chapters of Job, the imaginary interview of Margery Kemp, but in its semantic infancy, the interview referred to a metting of great moment, between great personages, prince to prince, king to king, a ceremonial occasiona, before it degreaded to person to person. By 1626, Bacon can say, in New Atlantis, that is has been “ordained that none doe intermarry, or contract, until on Moneth be past from their first inter-view” . . . . The seminal Q & A:

Johnson: Why do you write down my sayings?

Boswell: I write them down when they are good.

My interview with Mary Cappello was a delight for me because I trust her so completely as both a writer and a friend. I don’t think there are many nonfiction writers working at her level right now. Plus I know I can be as silly or serious as I want or need to be in the moment with her. It’s extraordinarily liberating. Ultimately, we both hoped, as I hope here, that our sayings were good.

The imaginary interviews (which are harder than they might look!) are great fun and also serve a purpose: to engage in a living dialogue with writers who can still speak vividly, as though sitting at the table, though long gone. Burton, a favorite of mine, and the interview with Montaigne that Pat Madden and I performed, are ways of saying, “Hey, this guy can still carry a conversation.” Finding questions and responses that are spirited takes a lot of re-reading and choreography, but I enjoy it.

You’re the founding editor of Hotel Amerika, a journal that declares: “Work with a quirky, unconventional edge—either in form or content—is often favored by our editors.” In founding the journal, you created a context for the kind of work you love, respect, and produce (or, at least that’s what I surmise). I imagine this decision grew in part out of the experience of placing your first book, The Body of Brooklyn for publication. In the essay “Hydra: I’ll Be Your Mirror” you write that it took ten years for the book to find a press and describe it as follows:

My essays were all different kinds of juggling acts, with different forms and excessive digressions, photographs, vaudeville versions of the self. [. . .] It was some kind of Hydra – but think of those heads from 1963 as more like obscure objects of my own desire to construct an essay persona.” (103)

To what extent does this description of your past work still hold true of what you write today? How true is it of “I’ll Be Your Mirror,” for example?

Let’s see: about Hotel Amerika—creating the journal itself was actually quite separate from my own work. I had been the Associate Editor of Ohio Review for years at Ohio University. When that folded (long story) I was asked by the university to create a new journal. It may seem unthinkable now, but I said I would with certain terms. They were these: that I be given complete editorial control and independence; that I be given a paid managing editor; that I have a budget that allowed me to pay at least nominally for work; and that I be given a course reduction equivalent to that of the past editor of the Ohio Review. They said yes! Boy, talk about paradise lost. In creating the magazine it was important to me to put out a magazine that looked lovely, was photographic in its covers, was pleasant to hold, and was a place where one would find work that both respected generic conventions, especially in the essay, and completed denied, which led to our TransGenre issue, and our use of the transgenre category for ever issue. We wanted to have issues that, yes, and here is the connection to my work, had a lot of different stuff going on—images, and fractured essays, prose poetry and literary criticism, translations, etc. Behind it all we tended to value work with a playful ear and a playful sensibility that still was willing to embrace the most serious questions. And you’ll probably find the figure of the flâneur and the flâneuse in more of our works than most magazines. So, yes, you’re quite right, there’s a connection to my work. But I’ve always felt that an interesting magazine has to have a sensibility (part of me is unregenerate Jamesian, and the word sensibility rings importantly) and that sensibility comes from editors steering the magazine’s vision over time.

About I’ll Be Your Mirror: Essays and Aphorisms, yes, I think it, too, covers all kinds of ground in terms of different kinds of essay, and then the poetic aphorisms in the back. The aphorisms were actually a separate book, and it was Alicia Christiansen, my editor at Nebraska, who so cleverly suggested merging the two. I loved the idea. So the book is a two-fer! But I think it works together because the connection between the voice of the aphorisms and the voice of the essays is so clear. And because I think the aphorism is such an important part of the essay. I talk to my students about the aphorism and have them write them all the time. And I did a special issue on the aphorism in Hotel Amerika some years ago. So there go—it’s full circle. That issue actually started my own writing of aphorisms. And I posted each of them on Twitter, for about a year and a half. Twitter is only really interesting as an aphorism space.

To answer your question directly: that description of my essay writing still holds true. My essay voice is very performative and quirky, and the vaudeville description is apt. I’d like to think it’s a kind of Beckettian vaudeville, though: as Winnie says, in Happy Days, “sorrow keeps breaks in. . . . “

Can you tell me a little about how form works for you? And about the decision (if it was a conscious decision) to bring these different essay shapes together into the same text?

I almost never lead with form—it’s not the way my mind works. I start with whatever I’m thinking about and see what kind of trouble I can get into. Before you try to find a way understand what it is you’re trying to defuse, I think it helps to toss in as many monkey wrenches as possible, write the most complicated version of your dilemma, your set of ideas, your confessional conundrum, whatever version of essaying you’re doing. After those feverish early drafts, that’s when form kicks in for me, as a way of creating order, cutting extraneous material, finding the heart of matter. I let the material suggest form sometimes, as in, “oh, there are really two voices working here, so why not write it in two voices.” Or, how could these ideas sit with each other if I pushed them towards each other without overt transitions. Sometimes forms take wilder shape, the sequence of self-deconstructive photo prose poems in Body of Brooklyn, for example, where I wanted to comment on the nature of self-commentary itself. But form is functional, and I never say, for example, “I think I’ll write a braided essay,” or some such thing, and I teach that way, too. I don’t even like the term, “braided essay,” for that matter. Isn’t one just alternating parallel subjects. Must it have a poeticized name? I fear I’m sounding cranky.

Not cranky! In fact, you’ve introduced my next question. Let’s talk about the essay, its past and its present. You describe in “Hydra” how you switched paths from poetry to essay, “which at the time felt like changing sports, rather than leagues” (103). Ultimately, you earned the first PhD in nonfiction writing “as though I were some kind of generic freedom writer” (103) (I love that), and for this reason in addition to many others, you are perhaps better placed than most to take a long view, both forward and back, of the essay as form.

Of the eternal problem of what to call this thing we write, you offer: “Nonfiction is in many ways a non-genre, the un-genre” (103). Its defining characteristic appears to be hybridity: “To an extent almost all nonfiction offers some form of hybridity, biographies straying into history, essays digressing into informational riffs, autobiographies becoming necessarily biographical, etc.” (104). You appear to be arguing for a more expansive understanding of the essay. No more personal vs. classical vs. spiritual vs. lyric essay. Let’s be done with the braided and fractured and meditative essay. Rather than looking for new genres (I think I hear you say), let’s expand our sense of the essay, our beloved form and genre that continues to morph into shapes that surprise us. Have I understood your position? Is there something here you want to push back on or dig into? I’d love to hear/witness you riff on all of this.

Well, Julija, you did indeed anticipate the answer I gave above! Yes, at times I feel I’m misunderstood as an essay classicist (which is funny to me considering how experimental some of my work has been and much of the work I’ve published) because I’ve tended to emphasize a few points, fairly basic that are rather important to me: the history of the essay is extraordinarily delightful and various, and I can’t imagine why someone would make it their vocation without exploring that rich field. Especially mining the writers who were early and formative practitioners. And all essays represent a desire: to explore, to confess, to untangle, to express, and to interrogate the nature of that desire. The formal distinctions you mention are, yes, like carpenter’s tools. The important thing to remember is that we’re talking about a house with many rooms, and that house is the essay. However, neither white space, nor reverse chronology, nor braids can build that house. Only desire can. One can call it whatever one wants, but I like the simplicity of: essay.

You subtitled this book “Essays & Aphorisms.” Which of these texts are essays and which are aphorisms? What’s the difference? Can an aphorism be an essay, or vice versa?

I think of an aphorism as a short, self-enclosed form, usually one line, pithy, witty. But as with the prose poem, there are variations. Some are philosophical, some are arch. Some urbane, others lyrical. Some aphorisms are political, direct, whereas others are closer to one line poems. But aphorisms, as the special issue I did for Hotel Amerika showed, come in more forms that I thought. What do we call the two or three sentence aphorism? The string of related aphorisms? Well, we might sometimes call it a short essay, or a prose poem, or . . . a string of related aphorisms. We don’t really have answers for some of these questions, which makes writing them fun. I think that’s true, at least for me, for the essay as well. Every essay I write is just an essay. It’s not a lyrical essay or mosaic essay or segmented essay, although one might (or might not) use these words to describe it. I see some of the new formal categories as limiting, rather than liberating. So I like to see where different forms or subgenres intersect and talk about it: hey, that’s something like a short essay or maybe a densely aphoristic paragraph or, or, or.

But aphorisms are central to the essay, and I can’t imagine the essay without the aphorism. Think of the essays you love, and immediately aphorisms come to mind as the dramatic moments of thought in those works.

I read this book out of order in part because I couldn’t resist skipping ahead to the last piece (an aphorism, a series of aphorisms), “Mothers, Etc.” I read it late one night in bed. I couldn’t help myself. Tell me how this gorgeous collaboration with illustrator Heather Frise came about, both practically speaking and artistically-philosophically.

I’m absolutely delighted that you skipped around. And particularly to the aphorisms section and Heather Frise’s work, which I think is so extraordinary. The Mothers section of the aphorisms popped up as an idea when Heather and I went to the Contemporary Art Museum in Chicago some years ago. When we came out, we saw a huge neo sign that just said, “Mothers,” by Martin Creed. We both thought it was wonderful and immediately decided to collaborate on some kind of piece about mothers. I had seen many of Heather’s drawings and thought they were just fantastic: grotesque and beautiful, disturbing alternative worlds. They were . . . fierce. I had been writing aphorisms, many of which were a bit strange, and thought this would be a good match, so I asked Heather to just start sending me pictures and I started sending her aphorisms, and we mixed and matched. I go back to those pictures all the time. They’re my favorite part of the book.

On the “Mothers, Etc.” front: I’m interested to hear how you think about line breaks and white space. How do you know if a text needs a visual vocabulary as well as a linguistic one?

That’s a wonderful question. I felt I need to create some kind of thematic, but asymmetrical pacing that made the reading of the aphorisms pleasurable and meaningful. The thing about reading aphorisms is that, hopefully, they make you think, they stop you for a while. So, at very least, I wanted some space to give the reader a way to keep reading, to think, white space as cogitation. It’s miraculous to me that Nebraska, again, Alicia Christenson, completely understood this. To have simply listed aphorism after aphorism, fifteen on the page, would have exhausted and bored the reader. As for where I created the breaks, how large they were, how many on a page—part of this was through creating thought groupings, and part of it was intuitive, and favoring, on occasion, ones I wanted to give more emphasis to.

Tell me about where you come down on the term lyric essay. I get the sense that you reject it because all essays, one way or another, are lyric (are they? ugh…I can’t tell anymore). Anyway, this term has rooted itself our CNF/essay reading and teaching culture so firmly. It’s become shorthand for a certain kind of text: the fragmented, the poetic, the enigmatic. Do you think the term lyric essay has earned its place? Have you made peace with it? Or should we just say essay and leave it at that?

To extend a bit, I tend, yes, to favor essay because essays have always been lyrical, and essays have always been enigmatic, poetic, fragmented. There’s a difference between the adjectival—that essay is lyrical, and the noun form, that’s a lyric essay, which isn’t that useful to me. Many works that are called lyrical essays don’t seem to me to think or move like essays at all. Perhaps we should call them prose poems, or . . . strings of aphorisms. Or something else entirely.

How has the landscape for essayists changed since you published that first Hydra collection, The Body of Brooklyn? Do you feel hopeful about the essayistic literary context and community? Are we indeed in a golden moment for nonfiction and the essay in particular?

Oh, dear, it’s so much better now. The standard line when I was trying to publish Body of Brooklyn was that essay books were verboten. Even when I did finally get it taken by Iowa, they tagged it as memoir on the back! And you couldn’t even think of using “essay” in your title. I can’t tell you how it’s delighted me that Nebraska, to its everlasting credit, has included “essays” in the subtitles of my last two books. Of course there were some essays books being published. People like Hoagland, Didion, Baldwin, Epstein, Fisher, but many of these writers came to publishing books of essays through other genres or disciplines, and there were almost no younger essayists around until Phillip Lopate and Richard Rodriguez and a few others broke through.

Are we in a golden age? I’d rather tone it down to a vibrant age. I think there is a lot of interesting experimental writing going on, a lot of hybrid stuff, and as is the case with anything, much of it is not very interesting, and some of it is wonderful. I think in terms of the essay proper, I’m able to find some very fine practitioners out there, some of whom Pat Madden and I are lucky to be able to publish in our book series, 21st Century Essays, at Ohio State. Kristen Rowley, the editor in chief at Ohio State, who moved over after created the wonderful nonfiction list at Nebraska, has just been a great advocate for literary nonfiction. I’m giving her my golden Oz medal for meritorious service. But I while I think there are some very fine essayists out there now, I don’t there are many great ones, at least that I see in the US. And you need great practitioners for a golden age. What I’d like to see more of in younger essayists, before they start hybridizing the form, is seeing how far they can drive on gasoline. Since we’re talking about words, the environment can take it.

But there’s excitement about nonfiction writing, and that’s a good thing.

Thank you, David! I’m so happy to have had this conversation.

Thank you, Julija for your superb questions. I can’t imagine a better probing questioner.

Buy I’ll Be Your Mirror here. 

[Photographs courtesy of David Lazar]

 

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