Interview conducted by Clinton Crockett Peters
Jill Talbot is the author of The Way We Weren’t: 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 serves as a mirror for the self, what I called “the theory of internal reality” in my dissertation. One of the theoretical foundations for my study was the work of Gilles Deleuze, who discusses the “inner soul of consciousness or inner essence or concept” in his essay, “Nomad Thought.” According to Deleuze, a characteristic of philosophical writing involves relations with the exterior as being mediated and dissolved by the interior.” Here’s what Steinbeck says about this in Travels with Charley: “So much there is to see, but our morning eyes describe a different world than do our afternoon eyes, and surely our wearied evening eyes can report only a weary evening world.”
If there’s authority in writing about place, it derives from being aware of this theory of internal reality, of creating a portrait of the landscape that reflects the state of mind, the psychological or emotional terrain of the writer. There’s one moment in “Dream Houses” when I look at all the places I’ve lived on Google maps and set my memory against the reality of the photographs, and “in every image, the season is not the one that stands out to me, is not the one I have written.” So even in the memoir, I’m aware that I’ve written these places through the lens of my loneliness or grief or desperation or even drunkenness. It’s tough not to get a stark or edge-of-the-earth vibe from that.
CCP: I’m very intrigued by the found-text elements of your writing. In the book you include court documents and an interpretive wine list, for instance. One of my favorite chapters is in the form of a class syllabus. What is it about these established, familiar forms that gives you breathing room?
JT: The “Wine List” was the most fun because I spent hours on Wine.com reading the notes of each wine on the list and figuring out how to conjure those notes in my narrative “interpretations” of them. The breathing room derives, in part, from allowing myself to write familiar material in new ways, to take the moments in new directions or find ones I had forgotten about. But with each of them, the list, the syllabus, and the hearing transcript, I’m emphasizing some aspect the “I”—the wine drinker, the professor, and the respondent—and establishing the distance between the persona and the person. Like in “The Professor of Longing,” when I write, “I stand before you confident, poised, engaged. I stand inside myself a wreck.” The found-texts establish expectations and I’m working against them. For example, a syllabus is a document written by someone with authority, knowledge, and control. My persona in that essay has very little of any of those qualities. In the hearing transcript, my voice on the phone, my brief, confident answers to the judge stand in direct contrast to the italicized portions revealing the woman sitting in that fourth floor office, trembling. The real breathing room then, I think, is the space to set the assumed “I” against the real one.
CCP: I love the lines “years later I’ll walk by this moment” and “I like to live on corners, to position myself at the intersection of directions and indecisions.” Can you talk about how you establish narrative distance, to take charge of both the “I” in the moment and the “I” now?
JT: This is one of the most fascinating and foundational aspects of the essay to me—the “Now” self versus the “Then” self. I’d have to credit my penchant for setting the “I” in the moment against the “I” now to Virginia Woolf’s “Street Haunting: A London Adventure.” In that essay, she writes, “Is the true self this which stands on the pavement in January, or that which bends over the balcony in June? Am I here, or am I there?” I revel in the liminal space between the past self and the now self, and I am drawn to writing inside that liminality.
CCP: An obvious question I know, but how did you arrange or think about the shifting of POV from first person to third, the I to she? How is that shift functioning?
JT: The intermittent third person chapters present me, or me and Kenny, as characters. This is one of the fictional aspects of the memoir—and one that goes back to that Doctorow idea that “There is the person and there is the portrait. They are not the same, nor can they be.” In my mind, I’m dissolving the portrait into a character because who are we but characters in stories we tell about our lives?
CCP: You seem to actively bare the mantle of “essay,” rather than say “CNF” or any other label. Could you tell me what “essay” means to you?
JT: Empathy. Memory. Honesty. Fluidity. “Creative nonfiction” is a prolific genre encompassing a wide range of sub-genres such as travelogue, memoir, new journalism, and nature writing, but it’s also a term discussed and argued and defended in regards to fact versus fiction, truth, and accountability. That emphasis has too many restrictions and limitations for what I want to do in my work, whereas the essay has infinite possibilities and emphasizes the interrogatory rather than the declarative. Montaigne asked “What do I know?” though for me, essays begin with the opposite,“What don’t I know?”
CCP: I’m in awe of your literary stewardship, your helping of fellow writers with interviews, reviews, social media postings. How do you keep this up?
JT: I think part of it derives from my beginnings as a scholar—that habit of immersing myself in my area of interest and studying it. So instead of writing a seminar paper or submitting an article to a literary journal, I’m sharing essays I admire via posts or tweets and conducting interviews with writers for various outlets. I consider myself a scholar of the essay as much as a writer of it.
CCP: You’ve been something of a literary vagabond, your numerous living locales demarcating sections of the new book. How has all this moving affected your writing?
JT: I think this question goes back to the theory of internal reality. I feel like my voice and syntactical choices in the Canton, New York section, for example, reflect the region: cold climate, closed-in-ness, compression, like the way the sun sets by 4:45 in the fall so that night took over much earlier than we had ever known. The landscape has a quietude, and I think that shows up in my essays set there. Another example is a recent essay I wrote about New Mexico, and the voice and tone of that piece has a rugged desperation that reflects the town we were living in last year. So one way it’s affected my writing is to allow me a range in voice and tone, plus the moving affords me distance. I’m writing about a place after I’ve left it, and that allows me to see it more clearly.
CCP: How do you feel about coming back to North Texas, your birth place, where your family still lives? Is this a homecoming?
JT: It does feel like a homecoming, very much so. More than anything, it’s clarified something for me, and that’s that the isolation or alienation Indie and I often felt in certain cities, certain communities, came from who we are rather than who we’re not. I mean, she was born in Colorado and has lived in nine states now, so I don’t know where she feels most herself, but she grew up listening to the voices of my family, who all live in Texas, and visiting here. She has told me how much she feels that this is the place for us and she doesn’t want to move again (that’s in part to moving fatigue but moreso to feeling like she’s home).
As for me, I hightailed it (See? Texan) out of here as soon as I could when I was young, and maybe that’s the way it is for so many of us, that we have to go as far away as we can before we’re ready to come home. I can’t tell you how far away from myself I’ve felt for far too long. I just didn’t know why, but of course a Texas girl is not going to feel like herself when she’s living eighteen miles from the Canadian border, not even when she’s running alongside an Idaho river, and especially when she never, not once, figured out how to balance while standing up on a bus lurching through downtown Chicago. The personalities in Texas, inflections and rhythms in speech, minor courtesies, the friendliness, the ease, the heat, even the swagger and the stance of people here. What do I know? I know that.