Monday, May 16, 2011

A 1/2 Dozen for Karen Salyer McElmurray (Alternate Brutal Variety)

Actually this is not your typical 1/2 Dozen because ....
a writer has taken me up on the
And, well, the result is something quite stunning.
But that might be because it's an interview with
Karen Salyer McElmurray
who always sets me off kilter
in the best ways,
a brilliant writer
and author of one of the most beautiful
and heartbreaking and redemptive
memoirs I've ever read.
Here goes:

Where do you get your stupidest ideas?

I don’t know if they’re stupid ones or not, but I get ideas that are freer, more open to playing with language and letting characters create their own scenes when I’m swimming or running or dancing. I find that being in my body makes the story at hand more grounded. When I’m grounded, the words find their place on the page.

Did you consider becoming a writer settling because you really wanted to be something else -- something better or more useful to society?

I think a lot these days about how the comparatively safe life of a writer in a university can find a place in the community, a use that is of and in the world. I’m in year four of remission from colon cancer, and my wish to be of use has in these years grown broader and more urgent. I’ve done some work for chemo labs at local hospitals in both Georgia and Maryland--reading to patients or just sitting with patients and getting them anything they want or need as they get treatments. Scott Russell Sanders, in an essay of his called “The Writer in the University,” urges us as writers not to mistake the academy for the world—to seek out the work of our hands, work for our communities. My next project is to find work in a women’s shelter. I used to think about teaching a writing class in a shelter. I’m not sure about that. I just want to work with my hands.

Tell us about your failed projects.

I have had and do have file drawers of stories (mostly short stories, since I don’t work as well in that form) that didn’t become complete. But I try hard not to think in terms of failed projects. I try to think of what Maxine Kumin said at a reading at Berry College some years back. She keeps a file on her computer called The Bone Pile. It's full of lines and sometimes poems that need to wait awhile to find their place.

Have you ever thrown a punch because of criticism? If not, have you at least mentally prepared long elaborate speeches hand-tailored for specific critics? Where do you do this mental work? In the shower? Long car rides?

My most difficult response from a critic was to say that my memoir about surrendering a child to adoption was “womb gazing.” Well, sure it was. It was looking hard at a birth and an adoption that defined my life. What did I do with my anger about that review? I talked with friends. I wrote an essay about it, and later a panel presentation. Long car rides? Yeah, with Kurt Cobain turned way up.

What are you compensating for -- most deeply?

I often think I’m compensating for the way other women in my family have not spoken up. There’s this scene in my memoir, Surrendered Child, where an aunt of mine is sitting in the living room in her trailer and her husband comes in waving a rifle around like he’s playing a game. He aimed it at her and she said, “I hate it when you do that.” She didn’t move or raise her voice. The background to that story is that the trailer is the same place where my cousin shot himself. That cousin? A kid, really. Nineteen, twenty when he died. The same one I remember seeing last at the dining room table in the trailer. First we said a blessing, thanking Jesus for the chicken and slaw. Then we were all eating and he was in the other room with AC/DC turned up really loud. We kept talking and passing the biscuits and gravy. He came out finally and walked over to my aunt, his mother, and said, “I’ll never be as good as you are. I want you to know that.” He was dead a couple of years later. While no one has pointed a gun at me quite like that, I’ve had other, more metaphorical guns held to my heart. Lovers. Colleagues. Strangers. I compensate often for that gun-play. For my cousin, telling us all he wasn’t good enough and that he needed something, something way down deep, and that none of us were listening. I keep trying to be the woman who gets up and walks out of the trailer. The one who says no or yes, anything but sitting there, waiting.

On a typical day, how much of your writing time is dedicated to feeling like a failure? Would you say that this is an essential part of your creative process?

Well, I guess I was primed early on to think of myself as a failure. With my Protestant, Southern Baptist, Fundamentalist roots, I grew up thinking of card playing and drinking as sins and of writing as a suspicious hobby. I do know that, as a woman, I did not arrive at some mark set for me early on. I’m not a mother in the traditional sense, nor am I particularly a success in the worldly sense with my books. See this: me, just back from surgery, my father there to take care of me. Me, leaning back in the blue chair, mouth hanging open as I fought off sleep and morphine. My father said, “I always wanted more for you.” And he meant the best. He loves me and I love him. But to him, I ought to at least have ten books made into motion pictures about right now. That’s an exaggeration. But it is true. I’m a literary writer. If my family failed to get this picture—tattooed, former hippy, misplaced mystic—the image of me as a writer with a small audience is hard for them, and sometimes for me. I am a graven image in my own heart, some days. On the other hand, one of my favorite books is called Art and Fear, by David Bayles. He says this: “the function of the overwhelming majority of your artwork is simply to teach you how to make the small fraction of your artwork that soars.

Seriously, looking back, would you go into something else?

When I was ten years old, my favorite book was about a family with a child with CP. I wanted to be a physical therapist, but instead I went to the library. A lot. I read every book I could get my hands on, then fell into writing really, really bad poems. I’d sure change that part of the journey. The bad poems.

If a slow writer -- one who takes a good ten years to write a book -- do you think it's all about crafting the exact right sentence or are you just kind of lazy?

I am indeed a slow writer. A good day for me can be five pages. But I am capable of a productivity I like. Last year I took a leave from my job and I wrote a draft of a novel in six months. That novel is now on its third, deep revision. I have a natural rhythm for my work, but am not very good at balancing that rhythm with my teaching life. I’m better at giving all to one large work at hand.

Do you think being a writer has, in some ways, made you sharp-tongued and self-centered, in a way that would embarrass your mother?

Let’s just say I have solipsism down to a fine art.

Do you think that your writing life has sabotaged more than a few of your relationships?

Very sadly, yes. Once I lived with a man named George. We traveled the world together, worked together, lived in a cabin near Asheville, North Carolina together. Used to be, I’d make him leave the house before I could write a word. I failed to realize that the perennial beds outside our home were a poetry I’d never know how to write.

Have you ever cried on the way home from a Ladies' Book Club where they got a little drunk and caustic? Did it hurt your weedle feelings?

In this scene I’m at a huge gathering for a local chapter of some ladies reading group. Out front, there are stacks of my books for sale and my son’s mother has set up photographs on all the long tables. They are photographs of my son when he was a baby, when he was a toddler, when he was a teen. I try to help. I rearrange some books near some picture frames and she nervously sets everything back the way it was. I am nervous, too. I’m reading about this son in front of a hundred pillar of the community ladies, most of whom know my son and my son’s mother, but not me at all. She’s told me what I should read: “Just read the parts about Andrew,” she says. “That’s what they’ll want to hear about.” I’m contrary. I’ve picked other sections, too. One about my mother, the one who’s nuts, the one never knew until this very year that I’d born a child at all. And another section. The morning after the birth, how tender I felt, the insides of my thighs bruised with the effort of letting him leave my body. While I read these sections, I hear the rustling of paper, the programs for this event being folded, unfolded. And later. This woman with a red hat comes up to me and asks me how I could do that. That, I ask. She too, she says, had an adopted child. And, she wants me to know, she is the mother, the only one, and no beans about it. She moves closer to me and I back up, step for step. Her breath is like cinnamon gum.

Have you read the new studies on sitting and how it shaves years off your life? In what ways do you think writing will lead to your early demise?

I’ll probably worry myself out of existence, word by word.

The Motel of the Stars: A Novel (Linda Bruckheimer Series in Kentucky Literature) Strange Birds In The Tree Of Heaven

Karen Salyer McElmurray, who has been a landscaper, a casino employee and a sporting-towel factory worker, is in her current life a writer and a teacher of writing. She is the author of Surrendered Child: A Birth Mother's Journey, described by The Atlanta Journal-Constitutionas "a moving meditation on loss and memory and the rendering of truth and story." The book was the recipient of the 2003 AWP Award for Creative Nonfiction and a National Book Critics Circle Notable Book. McElmurray's debut novel, Strange Birds in the Tree of Heaven, was winner of the 2001 Thomas and Lillie D. Chaffin Award for Appalachian Writing. Her work in both fiction and nonfiction has also received support from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Kentucky Foundation for Women, and the North Carolina Arts Council. Assistant Professor in the Creative Writing at Georgia College and State University, McElmurray is Creative Nonfiction Editor for Arts and Letters. Her newest novel is The Motel of the Stars. She hopes, in the next year, to begin a new memoir about her travels in India and Nepal and the end of a love affair.