Jane Varley interview, with John Hoppenthaler
Jane, your first book was Flood Stage and Rising, a prose account of the devastating flood that in the Red River Valley in 1997. It’s a first person account; you lived through that flood—fighting it with your fellow Grand Fork, ND, residents until you finally had to flee the city as the flood led to deadly fires at the height of the flood. What was the experience of putting that experience into language like for you? How did you wed the imaginative process to the more literal process of reportage?
The flood changed my life. And when a writer’s life is changed, of course, the writing changes. Writing for me transformed from being a wish or a desire to an act of consciousness. As that natural disaster occurred, I wrote about it in my notebooks, exploring through language a series of extraordinary weather and landscape events, many of them happening in slow motion over several weeks. I became obsessed with the daily newspaper reports in the Grand Forks Herald, with their offices just down the street. They made amazing efforts in reporting on the flood, and everything reached a dramatic climax when the city was evacuated and fires swept our downtown neighborhood. (The Herald continued to function even as their offices were destroyed. They eventually won a Pulitzer Prize for their reporting.) In that spring of 1997, it was like my imagination clicked off, and I wrote only about literal events which challenged me, which challenged all of us, in mental, emotional, and physical ways as we filled sandbags, watched them fail to hold off the water, evacuated the city, and returned to assess the ruins. It wasn’t until a couple of years later, after I’d moved away from NoDak and had the entire book drafted, that I decided to expand the meanings and language with poetry. It was a great learning experience for me. I reviewed every single verb in the manuscript, decided what kind of job it was doing, and tried to make it do better. Then I re-visited key images and asked myself the same questions.
You moved on from Grand Forks to land at Muskingum University in Ohio and there followed Flood Stage and Rising with another non-fiction book, this time acting as a co-writer with Muskingum women’s softball coach, Donna J. Newberry, of You Must Play to Win!: A Coach’s Journey from the Pit to the Pinnacle. Newberry, an outspoken proponent of gender equality in sport and a coach who, shortly before her death in 2010 of breast cancer, became only the 25th coach in all NCAA divisions to notch 900 wins. She also led Muskingum to its only national championship in 2001 and, under her leadership, the Muskies captured 18 overall conference championships. Can you tell us a bit about the book? Given the timing of the book, which was published in 2011, you must have been working on it with Coach Newberry up until the end. What was it like for you to have done so? At what point were you aware of her illness, and did you finish the book before or after her death?
Coach Newberry visited my office, with the idea of writing this book, when she was within six months of her death. She had battled breast cancer off and on for years, and she was still fighting it with chemo, but she was very ill, and it was clear that her body was being overcome. We had been friendly with each other for years, playing occasional games of racquetball and rounds of golf, but I was shocked when I saw her in the spring of 2010 at my office, having heard that the cancer had come back but not understanding how bad it was. Donna was extremely thin and her jaw was tightened from the whole-body pain she endured as she still met with her classes and spent hours on the practice field and at games. She held out a black pen as a gift and said she had something on her mind. “I want to write a book. Do you think I can?” I remember my long hesitation and my apprehensive thought process. I said, “I don’t know.” What could I say? I didn’t want to suggest anything that might not be realistic or even possible.
As it turned out, Donna was a ready student of writing style and a marvelous storyteller. She worked through the summer months, responding to my chapter by chapter writing assignments and chatting with me about everything from how and when to use concrete details to the use of the semi-colon. She had a phenomenal memory—even as she became increasingly ill and weak, she was able to recall moment to moment action of her many, many challenges and victories. Her telling of Muskingum University’s national softball title is a must-read for anyone who enjoys the dramatic action of sports, and it is a history lesson too, telling an incredible rise to prominence through Title IX battles and the value system of Division III. And it is not just about sports; the reasons that Donna is the only NCAA coach who won Coach of the Year in two different sports go far beyond the gym and field; Donna tells entertaining and enriching stories of the search for personal meaning.
Coach Newberry signed a contract with McDonald & Woodward Publishing just a few weeks before she died in November, 2010. The last time I spoke to her, just four days before her death, we were clarifying details about the book. During that conversation, in a voice so weak it was barely audible on my cell, she cracked a joke about earning her MA from Ohio University in just a year’s time. The last words I had with her were through a laugh. She was an honorable and courageous woman to the last moments of her life.
You were working on poetry during this time as well, as your first chapbook of poems, Sketches At the Næsti Bar, also appeared in 2011. You’d been writing poetry all along, how is it that this group of poems, poems about Iceland, came to be your first published collection? Iceland?
I am one of those people who envision and fantasize about beautiful, remote landscapes, and going to Iceland was a lifelong dream. I went there for poetry; that is, I went there in order to discover and write poems four times over three years. Sketches records the physical journeys as well as the creative journeys—what does it mean to write poetry about a place that you have desired to be? I found that my assumptions were a little bit foolish. Poetry can use description, of course, but it can’t merely describe. And if I’m in a fantastic place like Iceland, do I really want to sit around working on poems, or do I want to get out and do something? The poems are elliptical, expressing the conversation in my head about the extreme beauty of the land and sea and the incredible intelligence and creativity of the culture. The poems are about sitting still long enough to complete some sketches of ideas. But so much of that book is about the unspoken and unfathomable.
The poems included in this month’s Congeries floored me when I read them. The tone of the pieces is largely elegiac, yet there are flights of whimsy (“If whales drifted into these woods / their sound would rise to the trees / making daydreams carrying heavy fruits / and wearing bright, green wings.”) and humor that tend to balance the grief, if only tenuously, at the brink. Is this sort of balance something that comes with difficulty?
Four weeks after Coach Newberry died, my father fell ill of a totally unexpected and totally devastating and untreatable brain tumor. Three and a half months later, he was gone. I had the best dad. He spent his career as a coach, teacher, and all-purpose faculty member at the Catholic high school in my hometown, Dubuque, Iowa. During his final weeks, I was able to get back to Iowa frequently, and our family played cards, went for walks, and talked as we could, though the tumor pressed on my dad’s Broca’s language center and jumbled his words. These new poems I am working on, they seem to vacillate between direct expressions of grief and imaginative releases to say whatever I want to say, to celebrate what my dad and I shared a love of—family, nature, physical exertion. The body in the world. My dad was independent and free-spirited while also living with a strong sense of duty, having lost his own dad when he was a boy and being raised in part by the Jesuits in Omaha and achieving early as an outstanding student-athlete, a legacy that he carried into his long and successful career at the high school. I loved my dad and I loved the story of my dad. I struggled, when he died, to write things down. Poetry was out of the question. I went to his grave shortly after his funeral, and I can still hear his voice as I heard it there: “If you want to write, just write, Jane. Quit worrying about it.” Gradually that idea released me into these new poems which involve imaginative juxtapositions that I have not dared before.
The poems are all marked by Faulkner’s idea that the past isn’t even past. “Montana, 1990,” for example, ends with the lines, “and I wanted to give my bones away, // let them drift off softened by rain / and disappearing into time.” And “Richmond” contains the lines, “That city of ghosts might live inside us yet. / I want to crawl inside time, // ring a bell marking an important moment of history.” How does the burden of history play into your work as a writer?
Oh, I love that you see it that way John! Any conclusions I reach about history, or, more likely, the questions I raise, come from my privilege to have moved, through my academic studies and employment by colleges and universities, around this beautiful country of ours. Five years of living in the south, and being married twenty years to a Southerner (Roanoke, VA), have given me a deep, visceral sense of the conflicts in the southern landscape, with varieties of identity and the phenomenally rich history of storytelling. As a contrast, living near and traveling along the Highline (route 2) from North Dakota to Idaho taught me how to listen to Native American voices and stories of the frontier. I have been so lucky. My deepest sense of history derives from my home in Iowa. I come from people who enjoy the moment—we like to swim in the river, attend Mass, drink beer, play cards, do and watch sports, and laugh a lot. And history is so resonant in that water-carved Mississippi river city. Twain’s undammed current is not hard to imagine beneath the steep bluffs, and the quiet neighborhoods contain secret caves and old lead mines. In Dubuque it is easy to disappear into a pocket of woods and find hide-outs in the hollows of the hills. My sense of history and my understanding of what it means to write poetry starts with this sense of being alive—I am here now— in a place where the ghosts of the past feel nearby and possible to hear.