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Lidia Yuknavitch

kasey_carpenter's picture Posted by kasey_carpenter

Lidia Yuknavitch

There's a Naked Woman Inside
Kasey Carpenter

Memoirs. Can you ever trust them? How many of us would be true to form in a published retelling of our lives? How many have done so in the past? Who among us doesn't delude ourselves to some degree with our own little revisionist history?

When I received a copy of THE CHRONOLOGY OF WATER to read/review, I had all of these questions polluting my mind before I ever opened the book. Then the first sentence did me in:

“The day my daughter was stillborn, after I held the future pink and rose-lipped in my shivering arms, lifeless tender, covering her face in tears and kisses, after they handed my dead girl to my sister who kissed her, then to my first husband who kissed her, then to my mother who could not bear to hold her, then out of the hospital room door, tiny lifeless swaddled thing, the nurse gave me tranquilizers and a soap and sponge.”

After that first sentence, I was hooked. Then things got really interesting: all the admissions of her own destructive behavior, her relationship sabotage, her DUI, the conflict between loathing and loving her mother, and living with the legacy her father had thrown upon her.

Granted most memoirs are thick with examples of abuse, look-what-happened-to-me narration, and such – but here in TCOW we get the other half – we get what she had done to others, and how, despite herself and her family, she survived both.

Not only was this a memoir I could relate to on several levels, but it was beautifully written – and why shouldn't it be? Lidia's literary life has been fortunate enough to have crossed paths with the like of Ken Kesey, our own Chuck Palahniuk, and she's now part of the infamous writing group that meets once a week.

Did I mention it was beautifully written? Most memoirs are little more than organized memory dumps, broken down for us into childhood, adolescence, adulthood, etc... But the passages within, while essentially (loosely) chronological in order, will force more than a few smiles to seep across your face as you read them.

So like any book that sparks my curiosity about the writer, I wanted more. After some emails were exchanged, Lidia allowed me to retrace the lines of the naked body she had prepared for us all in THE CHRONOLOGY OF WATER.

KC: Is it true that you were dared by Chuck Palahniuk to write this book? How did this come about? How were you able to go through with it?

LY: We had a big discussion in our workshop one night about what a is memoir, is it worth anything, and because we are all different people, we all disagreed – and that’s how real conversations happen… on my way out to the car, Chuck was sorta ribbing me because he and I had some similar opinions about memoir being not as different from fiction as people wish it was… and he finished with: I’m not a big fan of memoir, but if you wrote one, I’d read it. I have some weird mix of competitor and Catholic still in me, because I went home, drank a bunch, wrote about thirty pages that night. What I didn’t know was that I had a big fat story in me for the last twenty years. The other things that happened, almost 30 years ago, I was in a writer’s workshop with Diana Abu-Jaber at Oregon State and wrote a short story called THE CHRONOLOGY OF WATER – it was in fragments and kind of experimental, and everyone made fun of it. Chan Rae Lee said it wasn’t even a story. But Diana pulled me aside and said it was more than a story, that it was great, and that it might have been a book, unfortunately at that point in my life I was too busy trying to destroy it and I didn’t take her seriously, I wasn’t ready to write a book, etc… Interestingly Diana and Chuck know each other, so it seems kind of cosmic and trippy that now Chuck comes along and kind of resurrects this notion of a book inside me.

KC: Tell us about your love of rocks.

LY: As a kid, I really talked to them like they were people. I did a lot of playing by myself. This plays into investing things with life, making up little worlds, it takes a big imagination to leave a reality and create another one. My sister wasn’t around much because it was horrible to be at home, and she left when I was ten, so I played alone a lot. And I really believed that my early forays into bestowing rocks and sticks with animus was crucial to my development as a writer – looking back I think that those weird little kids who have such a huge imagination are pretty cool – they can build these aloneworlds and the amazing thing is that they become such good writers, because it is so second nature to them.

KC: A lot of this reads very well out loud, several passages, to me, beg to be read aloud. How much of your writing is a result of reading what you write aloud, then going back? Did you learn this from workshop or was this in your repertoire prior?

LY: 1) I have a background in performance art, and came of age when it was pretty cool. Karen Finley was gaining traction when I was a young woman, hip hop and rap, Public Enemy was big. This combination of music, performance and language was just fascinating to me, and 2) I’m a language junkie – I wish I could live in the page and just deal with language. I’m in love with any rhythm or poetics. When I can hear it or feel it, I have to chase it. I love it when I’m reading something and I feel it in my body. I can get higher, I can have better sex, I can be so much better when I’m in the page. I believe that chasing that jazz riff is just as important as developing a character, I hope you understand what I am saying…

KC: I do, I do. I think a lot of people, well, the vast majority of people who read as a hobby or a love or whathaveyou – they don’t really put stock in the meter of what they read, they look for the clever, the twist, the deep character… but when you get BOTH, that’s a very rare thing these days. There aren’t many authors that can do both, so when you find one, it’s a pretty cool thing. It’s almost like the soundtrack that supports the movie, if that isn’t too dumb of an analogy, you don’t really appreciate it so much on its own, like when you buy the soundtrack and you’re like, where was that song in that movie? And then you go back and listen for it and realize it was only 40 seconds worth of it, but man did it just MAKE that scene and did it just amplify everything in that section of the film. When you read those little sections and you, perhaps even subconsciously, pick up that the sentence structure is different and finally you go, “Oh, we’re into poetry now” and then you identify that this isn’t vanilla-bland straightforward narrative. I love it when I can have both.

LY: I love it when I’m reading something and I feel it in my body ala Emily Dickenson.  I love that idea as a reader – even if you don’t know it’s happening – if you feel it for just two pages, that’s enough for me.

KC: And I would have never expected this type of writing in a memoir.

LY: I think I was trying to infiltrate the memoir space and plant little bombs.

KC: I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

They say the death of a child is the single most traumatic thing an adult can go through. You write candidly about the stillbirth, in fact it is the opening salvo in the book, why did you choose to start here, to hit us between the eyes right off the bat?

LY: Well the short story started off in the same way. I wrote it all in pieces, in units, so I knew linearity didn’t matter at all, but juxtaposition didn’t matter at all, you know, what you rub against next to you? So I decided to abandon linearity

KC: Despite having the word chronology in your title?

LY: Yeah, but this is the chronology of water, dude. Of water.

KC: Ah, water definitely isn’t linear. You got me there.

LY: Right, and I’ve had a few moments where life and death were literally in my arms – when those things happened to me, I changed my philosophy on life, and linearity for that matter. And while these linear narratives are comforting, they are a construct. So beginning with a death that was also a birth was a central metaphor, and beginnings and endings don’t always happen where we wish they would. But that was why it was important to me. Even if they don’t get it 100%, I know I’ve begun differently and put a reader in a different starting point.

KC: Everyone is going to approach this book differently, and by approach I mean in the aeronautical sense of the term.  They’ll be arriving to this book from a different place, a different background. Some read that opening page and snap the book shut. Others, like me, take on a more voyeuristic role and want to see how you handled the situation. This brings me to the subject of your father, it was rather interesting to me that you actually didn’t vilify him, which is almost law in memoir that deals with this type of subject matter.

LY: I think of these things as archetypes at this point.  The dead child is literally a dead child yes, but archetypically the sort of birth/death question isn’t specific – and so the father who commits a transgression is as old as Greek gods. So there is this father and he did creepiness, but then the father transgresses in all kinds of art - is it good that it happens to individuals? No. But it doesn’t make you alone. We all carry darkness in us. We might not want to admit it, but we are humans and we all make mistakes, some larger than others, but we all make mistakes.

KC: And it seems that those who hold onto the pain are more likely to become those who replicate the pains they suffered.

LY: I think so. And this is what I love about art - that it has this capacity to change a person’s life.

KC: Certainly, good books do that, and memoirs that are written properly do that easier than fiction, but then you have to find a memoir that is written properly.

LY: The trick there is that the industry has a type… They also don’t like it if you talk a lot about all the horrible things you did in your life.

KC: “Can you leave out the whole DUI part, please?”

LY: Exactly.

'The Chronology of Water' by Lidia Yuknavitch

KC: I think they almost need to have the stakes raised, on a sensational level, to make a memoir salable – so if you have had something horrible happen to you, great, but if you have also in turn done some horrible things, then uh oh, you’ve become this sort of dirty angel, then the story isn’t as compelling, or so they think. No one feels the same for the hooker that gets raped by a john versus the high school girl walking home, library books in her arms.

LY: I know, and that’s a really big thing you just touched on there. I’d rather be at the base with everybody else, with people I can relate to…

KC: …and here’s the thing - who does your story relate to more? Every one of us has done something we’re not proud of, so that’s why other memoirs look like fantasy.

LY: I’m more interested in democratizing my story so it has more in common with more people. There is nothing that I wrote about in my book that I haven’t heard a hundred times from other people. It’s not just my story.

KC: You are the second author with a gift for language I’ve met that suffered from a bout of childhood muteness/or some other speech pathology. What kind of impact do you think this had on your writing life?

LY: It was huge. Like when we talked about the rocks, to go that deeply internal, you are almost in a state of psychosis. To the outside world, there is something wrong with you. Asperger’s or autistic people – your internal world is blown up to cinematic proportions – I wasn’t without language, I was hiding from speech. In that time, I over-developed my internal language. A language landscape. I could tell stories and sing songs. I could read the right side of the book before the left side, it didn’t seem wrong, until I got caught at 13 or 14. I could memorize poems. My internal world was huge.

KC: That’s an important distinction, “I wasn’t without language, I was hiding from speech.”

LY: My short(er) answer is that it helped me to overdevelop an internal landscape, which pays huge dividends for a writer who needs to create internal landscapes.

KC: Prior to drugs, alcohol and sex – swimming was your source of escape, yet like all forms of escapism, fraught with complications and hollow payoffs. Was it swimming itself, or was it the competition, or the fact that you could excel at it with relative ease? How did this serve to quiet your mind and buffer the tension at home?

LY: Mostly it was just the experience of being in water – you can’t hear anything, it is all around you and envelops you, it holds you. I think I might have benefitted from sort of sensory deprivation as a kid… I often didn’t hear what the coach was saying - I was in my own little kid trance when I was in the water.

KC: Early in the book, your father is the active participant in your destruction as a child, whereas your mother comes off more as the tacit supporter of his actions, by way of her own inaction. Have you ever figured out which was worse, or are they two sides of the same dark coin? Should I even be asking such a question of a child about her parents?

LY: It’s almost an easier anger to deal with to be angry at the person who punches you in the face. But the person who didn’t stop it, who didn’t even bear witness to it, and didn’t save you, that kind of hurt and anger - where do you even put it? That anger can get big inside you and consume you. You don’t have anything to direct it at. That passivity is a black hole that sucks the anger up, without anywhere to direct it, if that makes any sense. But it helped me a lot when I came to peace with my mother, when I let go of my need to place blame. A redirection of your own energy, somewhere positive. I also wrote about how forgiveness wasn’t the most important thing I had to give, when I let go of that narrative and admitted that they had stories of their own where if I had read the book of their life, I would have had sympathy for their characters and I would have understood why they did what they did. I can admit they both have stories and I can admit they had wrongs inflicted on them that shaped who they were to become.

KC: You wrote about ‘damaged women’ and how they don’t think they deserve kindness. What would you say to those women today?

LY: I’d want to take them swimming with me. [Laughs] I teach a women’s study class, I get to talk to the women I wrote about all the time. I’m listening, tell me your story. I won’t flinch, I won’t judge, just tell me, and as many people in as many ways as you can.

KC: Dark as it is, this book is dotted with some great humor. It is a pretty well-known phenomenon that the best comics have tragic pasts. How important is laughter to you, especially when writing this memoir, let alone surviving it? Was your father capable of great humor? Was your mother? Or was this a product of your environment, a survival thing?

LY: My parents did have good senses of humor, particulary my mother, who was capable of laughter and tremendous joy – so I think partly it came from her. We, my sister and I, laughed a lot as a survival mechanism before we left – the faster answer is that laughter saves your life – when you get cut off from deep humor and the ability to laugh at yourself, it’s dangerous, literally dangerous. So it was important to include it in the darkest places.

KC: Are you still a woman who thinks of dead things, or has this passed?

LY: I am but it isn’t as haunting or painful as it was. Dead things generate life like compost heaps and how a sperm and egg unite. The life it creates depends on the death of the sperm… I no longer think of death as a negative as it’s always happening in the living – it isn’t the endpoint of the living, linear narrative.

KC: What was the title of the first story you ever wrote? You alluded to it in COW, and how important it was to you and your mother both. How did you feel about the fact that you were praised for “such mature subject matter” when in fact it was (or was it?) somewhat of a cry for help?

LY: Hmm. If I think really hard, it was called “He Waits to See” and I must have been sixteen years old. I was so happy to be acknowledged for something I made, it was my clay ashtray – it went straight into my kid desire and that overshadowed the truth of it all. But shortly after that I began all my self-destructive behavior. My English teacher was the only person who pulled me aside and expressed her concern, but she had me join her bible study group – she was the right person who recognized what was wrong, but she was this big-time Baptist - she was the right person at the right time, but she was a Christian, which in my world was a bad thing. She was the only one. My parents never said a word as to the content, only that they were proud of my accomplishment.

KC: You’ve eaten a lot of paper. It calls to mind the scene from Thomas Harris’ RED DRAGON where Francis Dolarhyde eats the Blake painting, what he believes to be the source of his pain and anguish. Have you done any research into this type of behavior? Something about the cyclical nature of you eating the painful words, producing the healing ones, it just makes me smile.

LY: I have read some about it, on a clinical spectrum it isn’t such a healthy thing, like when kids eat dirt more than average… which I also did. So it’s in that category of not quite right. I laughed when you brought up that scene, because I really identify with that, it’s almost as if something magical happens when you consume the offending paper.

KC: Nuts and bolts time: take us through a writing day. Are you a lock the door and leave me alone type, do you have to be in public, longhand, any scrap of paper, what? Tell us about your process and environment.

LY: The process, I have a room in my house that is just mine for writing… and I’m not a person who has a problem with concentration… but I also have to say that my husband and son let it happen.  If my door is closed, he tells them that they can’t open that door because my mom is writing. I don’t force myself to write, but when I write, I tend to write in eight hour chunks, skip showers, drink a lot, etc… I think it’s important to say this out loud, because so many writers are taught that they have to write a certain way, when you should simply make the writing life that works for you.

KC: We are fans of the writer’s workshop around here, and you’ve found yourself in one with some heavy company (Monica Drake, some guy named Chuck, Chelsea Cain, and others).  How do you bear up in that group? Is it easy? Intimidating? A refinery?

LY: You gotta bring game. You show up with your piece, when it’s your turn, and you have to deliver to these people who read and write excellent material. It’s wonderful and nurturing and great, but it’s also incredibly challenging. You gotta bring the best, not to impress, but it allows you to feel present and respected for doing this thing that no one should ever chose to do – be a writer.

KC: What are you reading right now? Anything good?

LY: I’ve been on sabbatical all year and I’ve counted them all up and I’ve read fifty-two books in a year. It has been such an experience to be in books for a whole year. Oh and you know how the Publishing Industry is having an earthquake right now? Well the stuff that is usually ignored comes up to the surface… Indie presses are doing okay again, but there are these little cracks and fissures where some really cool stuff comes up.

KC: You’re working on a novel next, right? What can you tell us about it?

LY: I just finished one based on the relationship between Sigmund Freud and Dora, one of his patients - only in contemporary terms. That was the most fun book I’ve written in my life. Now I’m working on a novel based on Joan of Arc, only again in the future, but only a few years away. This one is harder and trickier to write. Dora and Joan of Arc are young women I’ve really wanted to write about. You would love my Dora.

KC: Well I think I’ve monopolized enough of your time, so thank you so much for answering my questions, thank you for the time, the honesty, and for giving us THE CHRONOLOGY OF WATER.

LY: My pleasure! Cheers!

You can buy The Chronology of Water here. Lidia Yuknavitch can be found online at her own website or her blog.