An Interview With Jill Talbot

Interview conducted by Clinton Crockett Peters

Jill Talbot is the author of The Way We Werent: A Memoir and Loaded: Women and Addiction. She co-edited The Art of Friction: Where (Non)Fictions Come Together and edited Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction. Her essays have appeared in such journals as Brevity, DIAGRAM, Ecotone, The Normal School, Passages North, The Paris Review Daily, The Pinch, Seneca Review, and listed in the Notable Essays section of Best American Essays 2014. She is also the nonfiction editor for BOAAT Press.

Clinton Crockett Peters: First, could you talk a bit about how your book came together?

Jill Talbot: The book was a five year process of developments and discoveries.  The first essay from the memoir I wrote was “Radio Silence” (originally titled “The Single Mother Essay”)–the essay about an NPR “Talk of the Nation” program on the stigma of single mothers, but I had no idea it would one day be one of the main threads of the memoir—I was just writing essays.  The next one I wrote, “Emergent,” was about the dangers of our house in Canton, New York, which led me to think about all the types of houses I, or Indie and I, have lived in through the years, and so I wrote “Dream Houses,” the one about the ways in which the places we have lived resonate in our memories and in our dreams. That led to my original book plan—to write about all the homes, apartments, duplexes, and motel rooms of our lives—I even referred to it as “the house memoir.”  In 2010, two major developments:  I received the first word from Kenny, the man who abandoned me and Indie, in the form of a letter to the court, and I also found a photograph of us. I pulled out that photograph after not seeing him for eight years, and I realized the man I had been writing was not the man on the page, nor was I the woman I had been writing. That’s when I began to see us as characters in a story I continue to tell, to write. Perhaps the most profound influence/discovery came when I read E. L. Doctorow’s “The Fiction of History” from The Atlantic’s 2006 Summer Fiction Issue, in 2012. In it, he writes, “That the public figure of historical consequence makes a fiction of himself long before the novelist gets to him is almost beside the point. Once the novel is written, the rendering made, the historical presence is doubled. There is the person and there is the portrait. They are not the same, nor can they be.”  That solidified my approach and inspired me to write a memoir that questions the accountability of the memoirist, that presents history as fiction and (works to) deconstruct the memoir itself.

CCP: Maybe it’s just because I’m from Lubbock that I’m conscious of this, but so few people write about West Texas (or Oklahoma City or Cedar City, Utah) with any kind of authority like you do. I’m wondering if you think these isolated-seeming places lend your work a kind of geographic starkness, a kind of tale-told-from-the-edge-of-the-earth loneliness? Is there a pioneering quality granted by settings? Even in Chicago, your bleak living arrangements seemed to keep up this vibe.

JT: I wrote my dissertation on the road narrative, so I’m very aware of the how landscape serve