Interview by Nathan Leslie
Nathan Leslie: It’s so wonderful to have the chance to chat with you a bit about your work and life, Lidia. Congratulations on all the success you have found with The Small Backs of Children, a wonderful novel that diverges from your previous works in some ways. What do you think accounts for the success of The Small Backs of Children in particular?
Lidia Yuknavitch: Well, on the one hand, it doesn’t diverge much from my previous work; in fact, there is source material in SBOC that also appears in other work of mine. Ideas. Images. Tropes. Metaphors. And I certainly address the themes of violence, sexuality, art, and the body in all of my work. Although I don’t know exactly why SBOC is resonating with some people, the people I have heard from seem to find the relationship between the form and the content to be meaningful. And some appreciate that I wrote about war and art and love in close proximity to one another. Some people like the wolf girl.
NL: Your work is really fresh, direct, and frank. I love this about your writing (for instance, in The Chronology of Water). Where do you find the inner courage to write in this manner?
LY: I didn’t find any inner courage… I found my own past to be a burden I didn’t want to carry or inflict on others any longer. If you carry your wounds around too long without expression, they move toward self-destruction. Art is a form of expression that releases emotional and psychological intensities over a creative plane. I don’t think writers who address difficult material are more brave than anyone else. I think they simply don’t have a choice. It’s write or die in it.
NL: Do you like the label “experimental writer” as applied to your work? I know that tag gives many writers pause.
LY: Well, I had to stop worrying about it years ago… I suppose I wish someone would come up with a better name, but whatever. “Form junkie” isn’t available. Ha. “Nontraditional” sounds so dull. “Deviant” kind of interests me.
NL: How do you think your writing has evolved and grown since Caverns (1990)?
LY: HA oh my god! You know about CAVERNS? Well, my writing was just barely alive back then. Caverns was entirely about the process—about being in a year-long writing class with Ken Kesey. Living in a house part-time with other graduate writers (I was not a graduate student). Experiencing things together and apart. Collaboration. My writing has evolved light years in the years that came after, because I’ve worked my ass off to get better at it. But there are traces of my original passions in my writing even now. The writing I did then was sort of angry and berserk and fuck-you-ish. I was coming of age. I was pushing through emotional and creative stages that were important. I think I needed those early stages to develop and grow, even if they were kind of raw and rageful.
NL: What do you see as some of the main concerns/themes of your writing? Sorry, I know I’m asking for a lot of navel gazing!
LY: I’m not a subtle writer. HA. They are easy to pluck out. Art. Bodies. Sexuality. Violence. How we form identities and relationships. How we story ourselves into the larger world.
NL: Who do you think of as your audience? The all-important question….
LY: Anyone. Really. I’ve gotten emails from people who are 16 years old. From atheists and Christians and Buddhists. From women and men and everyone in between those two limited categories. Gay people and straight people and bi and trans people. Theoretically minded people and action-oriented people and thriller and genre readers. Unlike a lot of other authors, I don’t think much about audience. Readers will be drawn to your work or they won’t. I suspect I am inventing the readers with the writing. The people who show up and reflect something back to me are incredible.
NL: I’ll sidestep the question of literary influences for now and instead delve into musical and/or artistic ones. Which musicians and/or artists have influenced you?
LY: Mingus, Miles, Coltrane, the Cure, X, David Bowie, Laurie Anderson, Portishead, The National, Cocteau Twins, Psychedelic Furs, Patti Smith, Phillip Glass, Pat Metheny…Francis Bacon, Joan Mitchell, Willem de Kooning, Louise Bourgeois, Rothko, Pollock….and a bunch of performance artists like L. Anderson again, Karen Finley, Carolee Scheemann, Guermo Gomez Pena, Diamanda Galas, Essex Hemphill…
NL: I really like the way in which you capture a certain teenage voice so well in Dora. How were you able to do that so convincingly?
LY: I’ve been teaching at the college level for 28 years. Ha. Also I work with “troubled” teens and displaced LGBT youth. And I have a 15 year old son. But really, she woke me up out of a dead sleep one night and yelled at me. Like most of my characters, Dora woke me up straight out of a dream. Only unlike the others, she was yelling. Ha. Too, I think there’s a “Dora” inside a lot of us. It’s the voice we repressed to become good citizens.
NL: Do you have a “typical” writing process, or do you find that it varies from book to book?
LY: It varies. Although in a general sense, my writing model is the ocean. I work in big waves that then recede, and I have to wait for them to return. I don’t worry about it anymore. I trust it.
NL: I’ve read elsewhere that you consider yourself an introvert (I consider myself one, also). Do you find this affects your teaching and/or readings?
LY: Only completely.
NL: I loved your essay about teaching at Mt. Hood Community College from several years back. How are you able to balance your writing with your teaching? Do you find your teaching inspiring your writing?
LY: Is there a choice? I mean, it’s all I’ve ever known. Teaching is the great labor of my life. Writing is the great expressive outlet of my life. I think the two have formed and deformed on another. I have an essay in Guernica called “Woven” that reflects just how deeply teaching has become part of my writerly life.
NL: Thanks again for chatting with me, Lidia. Last question…. In your view, what are some underrated components of writing that many people don’t notice or pay attention to enough?
LY: I still think vast swaths of readers are reading for content only. Which is fine, but it’s not my jam. In America especially we seem to like to keep formal investigations in a special “experimental writing” box like you mentioned earlier. I like to find the readers who not only recognize the radical impact that form has on our bodies (poets and painters get that quickly), but the readers who are willing to go even further and admit what Willem de Kooning said: “Content is a glimpse of something…It is very tiny, content.”
The Small Backs of Children by Lidia Yuknavitch
HarperCollins, July 2015
Paperback, 240 pp., $24.99