a writer has taken me up on the
ALTERNATE BRUTAL Q AND A.
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.
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?
Seriously, looking back, would you go into something else?
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?
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?
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?
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?
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.