Meg Tuite interview with Lidia Yuknavitch
Lidia Yuknavitch’s writing has stripped, transformed, inspired, and released any assumptions and paint-by-number beige of what a book/memoir can be. The Chronology of Water palms an erratic heart. I wanted to freeze time, inhale each sentence: a drug. Here are some quotes from The Chronology of Water and Dora: A Headcase:
“Recognize when there are no words for the pain, when there are no words for the joy, there are rocks. “
“Move around rocks like a curl of water. Begin to detect smells and sounds to different varieties of rock. Give names to some, not geological, but of your own making. Memorize their presence, know if one is missing or out of place. Bathe them in water once each week. Carry a different one in your pocket every day. Move away from normal but don’t notice it. Move towards excess but don’t care. Own more rocks than clothing, than dishes, than books.”
“Sometimes I think my voice arrived on paper.”
“You will see you have an underlying tone and plot to your life underneath the one you’ve been told. Circular and image bound. Something near tragic, near unbearable, but contained by your irreducible imagination– who would have thought of it but you– your ability to metamorphose like organic material in contact with changing elements. The rocks. They carry the chronology of water. All things simultaneously living and dead in your hands.”
And Dora: A Headcase is another phenomenon. There is a profound and deep LOVE for Dora, the heightened language, and kickass, insightful brilliance of her!
“’You’ve got to start taking responsibility for your behavior,’ he yells out full fake dad volume, as we pull up in front of Dr. Sig’s office– only I’ve stopped coughing, so my father’s just yelling like an idiot into dead air–his words hanging there between us. He looks at me in the rearview mirror. I shrug. We stare at each other in the little reflective surface. He unlocks the bat-mobile doors. I open the hermetically-sealed father mobile– where his stories of himself glide along roads effortlessly– and exit into rain. As he drives away I close my eyes and put my face up to the sky. The rain is cool on my head and face.
Every Thursday my father delivers me like this.
So he can drive away from what he’s made.”
I hear publishers trying to label books. Is it a novel-in-stories? Is it a memoir? Is it a novel-in-flash? Is it a story collection? When you first approached publishers with Chronology of Water did you have anyone try to change your structure to fit their needs?
HA. Well when I first sent it out I got two kinds of responses: 1. This writing is wonderful, but we can’t sell it – would you consider taking out the sexual abuse, violence, explicit sexuality, and profanity? Which would of course have been a 19 page pamphlet. 2. There is some excellent writing here, but the story doesn’t hold together. Nineteen big time agents and editors. Then I met Rhonda Hughes of Hawthorne Books, who had the keen creative eyesight and lady balls needed to see that I had made something precise, not something broken. I will be grateful to her for the rest of my life and beyond.
I love that your friend took you to Ken Kesey’s workshop. I love that you said ‘fuck it’ to the MFA program and mapped a more direct route to the source. Can you share your thoughts on this?
Well I wasn’t mapping out anything at the time—I was quite lost, to be honest. The ONLY things I’d figured out were: I like words and I like intense experiences. Thank OCEANS Meredith found me and grabbed my hand and yanked me there. I did try a few writing workshops, but they were a little timid and controlled for me—until I met Diana Abu Jaber who did not flinch at the things I was putting on the page and suggested one of my stories written in pure fragments, “The Chronology of Water,” might be a book. I wasn’t ready to write it though. It took me 25 years from the day she said that to me. She is another woman I will be thanking the rest of my life. She saw that what others called “not a story” was really me innovating. Even then. And she encouraged me when others scoffed. Likely the problems were not in the MFA program. Some great writers have come out of that program. I’m just not good at following paths already laid out by others. I had to find my own way.
Your words, sentences, chapters, flow organically, take on their own path that is far from linear, like Moby Dick. Can you describe a process or structure that moves you through the blood tunnel of writing a memoir/novel? I know writers that keep folders of landscapes, characters, zombie novels, favorite words, and pull from the best of those when writing. Do you write every day? Any time frame that works best?
GAH. I hate Moby Dick! Ha…doesn’t matter, I understand what you are talking about. You have it right that linearity disinterests me rather quickly. I didn’t reject it initially—quite the contrary. I studied it as hard as I could by choosing to get a Ph.D. It’s just that along the way in my studies in literature I of course found alternatives, and the alternatives that captured my imagination the most happened to be written women and gay men and people of color. So when I studied their literature, I noticed a common cross-current—all of them made formal rearrangements away from linearity. And then I had a further epiphany—that the writers and artists I most admired all worked from the body—as far back as Walt Whitman. So from that moment on, I set out to develop languages and narratives that had the body at the center. Linearity doesn’t move the way the body moves. Linearity follows logic and certain constructs we like to call “time” and “realism.” Our lives don’t move that way, our emotional intensities don’t move that way, and our memory for god damn sure doesn’t move that way—storytelling is a way to quiet the chaos and bring unity to experience. That’s not “bad,” it’s just not my primary interest.
Process wise, I move from intuition and subconscious impulses. I am moved by poetics, by images, including dream images, painting, photography, and our lived natural world. I move more from metaphor and figurative ground than from literal ground. I am more interested in writing that makes you feel like something is happening to your body; I am only partially interested in making “sense.” I don’t mean that I don’t care about readers; I care intensely. I just think there are a gazillion ways to capture their attention, and I am interested in writers and artists who are trying to capture attention in daring rather than inherited ways.
I do not write every day. My job and life do not accommodate that practice. I write in big binges when an opening happens. I write in waves. That is a legitimate and beautiful way to practice, as far as I’m concerned. I learned it from oceans.
Sorry about the Moby Dick reference!!!
Can you write when high on some drug to get to that place you need to be? Do you find it helpful in getting closer to the edge or are memories/flashbacks and caffeine able to serve that purpose? And swimming? I heard you did a reading somewhere in your bathing suit. I LOVE YOU! Any photos? A link?
OH GOOD GOD. I did several readings in a suit when The Chronology of Water launched. I also distributed goggles to audiences. It was the best. Time. Ever. I don’t write high, because I can’t find my own hands when I’m high. I do drink when I write though, but only in the first drafts, and never when editing, or I edit like a monkey. Caffeine stifles any good idea I ever hoped to have.
MT: BEAUTY!!! I’m flying to LA to hear you read with Wendy C. Ortiz, xTx, and Roxane Gay on July 11th. So looking forward to that!
How was it going to school in Texas?
Horrible? Dry (Lubbock)? Violent? Racist? Sexist? Culturally evil? Enlightening? Because I think three profoundly important things happened to me in Texas:
I figured out my own edges by cutting them against the culture
I woke up to the ways in which violence and brutalities are both visible and invisible (racism classism sexism)
I fell in love with my straight woman roommate, my gay best friend, and my ambiguously sexual first husband, simultaneously. My gay best friend and my first husband were both male artists, so you could say that’s where I learned to fall in love with art and bodies, and where I learned that gender is a hoax. I think you could also say I witnessed my first model of a beautiful and loving relationship (something completely foreign to me) in my best friend and his partner, who remain together today—pushing 30 years.
DAMN! Life changing! That’s a lot of horror, power, and beauty packed into the Lubbock experience! I know you are teaching workshops now? Can you share some information on when, where, and how many students in each session?
Well, I’ll be in Port Townsend, Washington in August at The Writer’s Workshoppe, I’ll be doing a retreat with Jennifer Pastiloff in Ojai in September, and I’ll be at Pam Houston’s Tomales Bay Writer’s Workshops in October. I’m also starting a workshop seasonal series of my own beginning in the fall, here in Portland. Now that I’m thinking about it I’ll be all over the place next year. I should update my website, shouldn’t I?
YES! Please! I would LOVE to work with you.
Who are you reading right now? Who are the writers that have inspired you? Musicians?
I LOVE ART! Ha…I just read Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts. Loved it. And Sarah Gerard’s Binary Star, also loved. Some indie books that just came out that I’ve been pimping include Liz Prato’s Baby’s on Fire, Shane Hinton’s Pinkies, MAN ALIVE and everybody read Amelia Gray’s Gutshot. But the thing is, I read every night of my life, so the writers who inspire me are ANYONE I’m reading that moment, because all writers inspire me. Because they fucking dared, you know? How dare they. In THIS culture. And yet they do. So my answer is, everyone! I’m slutty too. I read low art high art grocery store books new york times bestsellers woman on the corner stapling her shit together old school pamphlet style. I’ll read anything. And I’ll love it even if I hate it, because I’ll learn something.
I’m waiting in my own party-city line for your new book! Anything you can pass on about this one?
LY: Yes. This!
LOVE! Thank you, Lidia! You have changed my existence, as I’m sure you have for all those who have read your work. I discovered a braver me within your words. You have tapped a vein I didn’t believe could be reached. HUGE LOVE!
Are you kidding? The pleasure is MINE to know and write with YOU. All we have is each other. Ever. We keep each other alive. Being a writer full-throttle means never failing to help each other navigate consumer death culture. Onward, comrade. With a bottle of scotch, a flashlight, and graham crackers. XOXOXOXO
One more quote from The Chronology of Water:
“Was it possible I had something to give? Out of the nothingness that was my life? Really, what the fuck did I have to give? Woman with too many holes in her. And yet there was something.
In order to preserve the artistic arrangement of the writing, this piece has been created with Print2Flash Flashpaper.