March 2010

Elizabeth Hildreth


An Interview with Sonja Livingston

Sonja Livingston is the author of Ghostbread, a memoir about growing up one of seven children, with a single mother, and being raised in areas of western New York, hidden from the rest of America. Ghostbread was the 2009 winner of the AWP Award for Nonfiction, and Livingston's poems and essays have been honored with an NYFA Fellowship, an Iowa Review Award, Pushcart Prize nominations, and grants from Vermont Studio Center and The Deming Fund for Women. Her work has appeared in many literary journals, including the Iowa Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Southeast Review, AGNI, as well as several anthologies and texts on writing. She teaches workshops locally and online, and edits the nonfiction litlog†

In March 2010, she was interviewed via email by Bookslut's Elizabeth Hildreth. They discuss, among other things, what it means to be a blurbster, why itís embarrassing to be a memoirist, who God loves best, the triumph of spirit versus plain dumb luck, and why Face-freaking-book makes memoir writing tough these days.†

Hi Sonja! The first thing I noticed about Ghostbread was its unusually short (really, really short, sometimes half a page) chapters; they look nearly like prose poems. Itís appealing to me, maybe because I write and tend to read mostly poetry. Why did you make this choice?

I want to say something profound about the nature of memory and the way it comes in flashes and waves, but hereís the truth: Iím a blurbster. Itís a nickname I was given in my first writing workshop, and itís none too flattering. But the truth is, due to some strange impediment, I write prose in short blurbs. Perhaps this is because Iím a poet at heart, or perhaps the material seems too intense for longer stretches, or maybe I just have a short attention span. Either way, when I began stitching my memories together as a book, I tried to connect them in way that was more typical in terms of a traditional narrative. At one point, I think I had twelve long chapters. But it felt all wrong. So I went back to some books I admire that are successful in their tiny and often associative, lyrical chapters (Deborah Tallís A Family of Strangers and Sandra Cisneros's The House on Mango Street). Also, at the same time, it seemed like some of the restrictions and traditions of genre were beginning to ease up, so that there was room for a more poetic structure in a memoir. So I returned to the manuscript, and began structuring it the way the memories had come to me, in distinctive snapshots, and ended up with 122 little chapters.

So did you actually think while writing, ďI am writing a book,Ē and with that thought in mind, start to set goals for yourself? Or were you just writing these independent essays and they happened to weave themselves into a longer cohesive piece?

I probably wouldnít have started if I thought I was writing a book. That was outside of my reality, and frankly, though Iím working on another, the idea of a book still seems daunting. I have to lie to myself to get anywhere on it. No, I began by writing personal essays that, as you suggest, began to meet at the edges. After a handful, some obvious gaps emerged, which led to areas in need of filling. Those earlier essays were published in journals, and people seemed to respond. I also began share these short memoir pieces at readings, and people were curious. Not just polite-curious, but actual-curious. So have you been back to the Reservation? Did the parish priest know that you thought he might be your father? And why exactly were you fired from your altar girl position? In fact, long after I tried to take up the respectable tasks of writing poetry and stories, I was encouraged to continue my narcissism. Which is only partly a joke. I mean, the narcissism is real enough, but the irony is that writing a memoir has allowed me, in many ways, to get over myself. I mean, they fail, I think (memoirs do) when they donít go beyond the merely personal (Iím so different, Iím so special) to something a bit larger.

I read this interview the other day with Mary Karr and Slate editor Jessica Grose in which Karr speaks to a question about why she thinks some women feel the need to claim altruism for writing their books. And Karr concludes it has to do with being feminine in this culture. That if you betray a family confidence, itís not seen as appropriately feminine. About writing The Liarís Club, she says, ďI didnít write it to help anybody. I did it for the money. I did it because Iím greedy and like living in New York.Ē In response to this interview, blogger Anna North writes in Jezebel:

ďKarr's claim that she 'did it for the money' is its own kind of bravado, but interestingly, it's a kind more common for male writers, who sometimes feel the need to counteract the supposedly effete nature of artistic endeavor by making it all about cold hard cash. Karr does happen to be in the (perhaps) enviable position of being able to write for money, but there are more lucrative careers, and Karr dances around one primary motive for memoir: narcissism. The term has taken a big beating in the media lately, but Karr is right -- it's something we've always tolerated in male writers. What else but narcissism could motivate someone to write his autobiography, not to help anyone, but simply because he considers his own life a good story?Ē

Itís been noted by several interviewees that I often send ďquestionsĒ back to my interviewees that are ďnot questions.Ē Guilty as charged. Go, Sonja.

Well, the pluck of I did it for the money is appealing, isnít it? Iíd love to be able to say I did it for the money. Only for most writers, thereís little money. And while thereís a healthy smattering of narcissism in most writers, it comes too close to why we really write to be admitted. No, I think the real greed in writers is the desire to be recognized/adored/understood/occasionally asked to drinks. We want to be known. Not nearly so plucky, but true. We all have that basic need. Why else post what sort of wine we had with our Ahi Tuna Tartar on Facebook? Still, thereís something vulgar about leading with it in art. I mean, itís so... well, needy. Art should be about higher order things, right? And, of course, it is. Or it fails. Itís easy to hang your hat on helping others, because often times, our creative projects indeed help others. But clearly, the desire to be known and recognized is there, lurking in the background like an ugly relation, or weíd be starting community foundations instead of writing books. Which brings me to why itís embarrassing to be a memoirist. You are need, undisguised. Narcissism, unleashed. Itís the reason that when writers get together, the memoirist in the group tends to mumble and hang her head while the fiction writer shouts to the bartender for another round and the poet paints her lips and makes eyes at the patrons. See how I generalize. The point is that when your writing is centered so obviously around yourself, you simply canít hide that oh-so-tender-but-completely-shameful desire to be understood like you can in a novel or well-wrought poem. It might be better for all writers (regardless of genre, regardless of gender) to admit to that need, instead of standing behind the big guns of money, altruism, or art.

Okay, so I could have talked about my absolute envy and disgust at the engorged egos of male writers and said something about feminism and how potentially impressive it is that Mary Karr thinks God loves her best, and instead I go to the politics of genre and basic human need and how, for better or worse, memoir is sometimes cast as low art. Damn.

So three things. One, I like your phrase ďthe big guns of money, altruism, or artĒ and will be putting that in the storehouse for later use, possibly as a band name when I have a band in my second life. Two: God lies. I talked to Him last night and he said, ďJust so you know, I love you best; donít tell Mary.Ē Three: I agree itís hilarious to think about the statement ďI did it for the moneyĒ as it relates to writing -- although I admit that is why I write poems. From my earnings thus far, Iíve been able to buy a grande coffee from Starbucks, which I topped off with milk and a billion shakes of cinnamon from the free cinnamon shaker -- also called ďPoor Manís Cinnamon Dolce Latte.Ē

I really liked your description of when you were living in the crumbling farmhouse and you hated to go the bathroom in the outhouse and so you just peed the bed on purpose and you wrote: ďI cried hard about losing my bed, but in the end, I didnít miss it, and was somehow comforted by my return to the floor.Ē One explanation for your acceptance of the situation might be, ďWell, people lose and they get used to losing.Ē But Iím not sure thatís all of it. Iíve been thinking a lot about the concept of ďresiliencyĒ or ďhardinessĒ lately -- why it is some people, even after the worst of circumstances, seem less affected than others. You take a family and the fatherís in jail and the motherís a drug addict and prostitute and they have children and all of them are criminals or addicts or hustlers and then thereís that one child -- who maybe does nothing exceptional, except to be normal, which is exceptional in itself, given his or her life circumstances. Here you are, all these years later -- after growing up transient and displaced and in poverty -- working a job and publishing a book. Why do you think you were less affected by loss than other people might be in the same situation? Also, how was it writing this book, knowing that many of your friends and some your siblings were very affected by their similar life circumstances and continue to be affected? Did you feel worried about coming off as superior, comparatively speaking, like, look at me, writing my little triumph of the spirit story?

I was probably just affected differently, in a way that works better. I donít shoot up or snort anything, but just your typing about shaking all that cinnamon into your coffee is enough to send me into a sugar spin, and speaking of pent up unmet needs, honestly, if God loves you best, then Mary Karr, just where in the hell does that leave me? Like lots of people (addicts and hustlers and writers) Iím still trying to get my share, but my tendency is toward more acceptable outlets.

But I know what you mean -- and thank you for liking the part where I mention peeing; itís a gross word to write and I way overused it -- but the truth is that I didnít mind returning to the floor mainly because I didnít know anything different. It sounds bad to anyone who had a bed as a kid (or puts their kids in a bed), but when you arenít used to sleeping in one, itís not a huge thing.

I never worried about coming off as superior, mainly because I didnít realize how much I had exposed (about myself and others) until the book was out. It seems like a no-brainer, but I must be a delayed processor, because Iím just beginning to get what it means to write about people I knew and know. Would they think I feel superior? Some might. I hope not. But I remember friends and family thinking I was being superior when I got my ďbigĒ job at Wendyís and bought clothes that matched.

In any case, I donít see it as a triumph of spirit story. I see it as a dumb luck story. The luck of certain tendencies (toward learning, toward personal expression, toward not getting pregnant). If it is lucky. As I get older, I think about what it means to succeed, and while I wouldnít recommend the way I grew up in a parenting manual; like all kids, I had both good and bad times. And whoís to say which life is more successful? One sibling gets two graduate degrees and writes a book. Another has two unplanned children and quits school. One struggles with what it means to succeed; the other struggles to pay her rent. But she has her children and who knows what else. I feel funny even writing this answer, as though it seems obvious what it means to succeed, or Iím minimizing how tough it is to be poor in America. hey are just big questions. All I really know, in the end, is how I want to live. And Iíd love for all kids to have access to such choices. Iím outraged that the graduation rate in Rochester is something like 40%, while a few miles away, 99% of kids graduate, but my outrage has more to do with the inequity and distribution of choice versus what it means to be successful.

Iím not saying Iím not special; I am. I didnít pay for years of therapy to claim otherwise. But the already overburdened woman who is finding out sheís pregnant right now might also be pretty special. And the kid signing paperwork to drop out of high school. I just had the benefit of knowing supportive people, of having an easy time in school, and maybe most importantly of all; of having the shoddiest pair of ovaries in western New York.

I was impressed with how you were able to illustrate how one poor decision leads into the next, or one poor circumstance begets more. When Dinty W. Moore described your book as weaving together an experience that shows ďthe perilous ease of slipping into failure,Ē he got it exactly right. For instance, when your doctor suggests if you want to have babies you start NOW (even though youíre still in high school), and then youíre working and getting used to a paycheck, and you start skipping school, and you almost donít graduate, and everybody around you is getting pregnant. You write about the girls around you -- the ones with comparatively unshoddy ovaries: ďGirls will lie down with sweet-talkers -- not because they are stupid or weak, but because they are human beings with hearts and heads and dreams, and above all, hunger, and sometimes sweet-talking is just the thing. They will have babies because babies are warm and real and maps they can make sense of.Ē I was reading this book at the same time I was reading Brandi Homanís second book of poems Bobcat Country, and there are so many parallels. You both describe who youíve become and how -- at times at least -- itís at odds with where youíve come from and the people who are still there. Yet, you both manage to do it without judgment and superiority. Your statement ďIím just beginning to get what it means to write about people I knew and knowĒ is interesting. What does it mean to write about people you knew and know? What sorts of things surprised you about their reactions? And whatís up next -- another nonfiction book?

Do you know makes memoir writing tough these days? Face-freaking-book. People from thirty years ago who would otherwise not cross my path suddenly poke me or send emails saying I spelled their sisterís name wrong and will I be godmother to their baby and why did I leave out the time my mother was given money to buy a fridge from the church and instead spent it on Christmas presents?

I changed most names, but people know. And a few names I couldnít bring myself to change because, well, how do you change names like Soupy or Rufus? But now Rufus and Soupy are on Facebook, friending up a storm, hovering just one point of connection away, and while I didnít write anything awful, I told my truth, which included some of their truth, and maybe they donít want people knowing that they got high or their father was in prison, and so on. No one has been offended; itís more that Iím suddenly hyper-aware of how Iíve described people and places. I see someone from high school at a local reading, and think, oh shit, what did I write about her? I used to be astounded by people in beginning memoir workshops who tortured themselves (and others) with hours of discussion over the pros and cons of exposing themselves in a book they hadnít even written yet. What ego, I thought, to assume a book will be published or read by anyone at all, especially if itís literary, poetic, or otherwise unappealing to most readers. I have since learned that when people are in a book, even if it looks suspiciously like poetry, theyíre more inclined to check it out.

That aside, I write about people. My husband paints landscapes with oil, I paint them with people. They are my color. I put them in my poems and essays, and in this memoir not to disrespect their privacy, but because I lack sufficient imagination, and they are the best way I knew of to describe what itís like to live on a reservation, a rundown city neighborhood, an old farm town.

Iím writing a novel now, set in Niagara Falls, so Iíve been driving to the Falls quite a bit. Is there anything sadder than Niagara Falls -- dying on one side, bursting on the other? Crumbling glory. I go there and watch the river rushing by, all that gleam and shine coming from Canadaís side, thinking about the New York side, the boarded up houses and empty lots. I sit and watch the tourists who fail to bring proper ID and so canít cross the Rainbow Bridge to all that prettiness. I like to see the way they try to make the best of things, clicking their cameras and trying not be disappointed in such a gorgeously sad place. Itís making me sad now to write about it; sad, and eager to get back, which is what Iím about to do.

Thank you for these questions, Liz, Iíve decided based on your intelligence, humor, and many good questions (you probably even have great hair) that God indeed does like you best. Then me, though. Mary Karr is going to have to settle for third place. At least in this interview.

Thank you, too, Sonja.

P.S. No great hair. But God loves me anyway -- for my fancy car, I think (a Ď96 RAV4). Little known fact: God loves Toyotas. Heís the only one left.

Elizabeth Hildreth works as an instructional designer and writer in Chicago.