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Mapping the Psyche: A Conversation Between Jessica Hendry Nelson & Jill Talbot
I met the writer Jill Talbot in the spring of 2013 in upstate New York, at a university where she was teaching and I was the visiting writer. I felt an immediate kinship. She was smart, lucid, and warm. (Far as I know, that estimation still stands.) We ate at a corner café with a few of her adoring students and talked about the writing life, our affinity for hybrid narratives, shared anxieties, and the joy of teaching. Her short blonde hair was radiant in the dim light and the waitress knew her name and order by heart. It was a brief but invigorating meeting.
We did not talk about Kenny, an enigmatic character in her new memoir, The Way We Weren’t, and the absent father of her teenage daughter, Indie. We did not talk about her life on the road, the many academic jobs she’s held, or the time and distance between these jobs. We did not talk about regret. We did not talk about wine, loss, or sadness. (Though we may have discussed our brothers’ addictions — and her empathy, as I recall, floored me.) The creative memory did not come up, nor did money. We didn’t discuss single parenthood or loneliness or that particularly troublesome itch to flee, though we shared certain aesthetic obsessions that drive each of us to the page. I recall leaving that first meeting feeling better about the world knowing she was in it: paying attention and taking notes.
Thankfully, what we didn’t discuss that night is covered in depth in The Way We Weren’t, a kaleidoscopic memoir-in-essays about a life spent in transition and the elusiveness of “home.” Talbot is a haunting narrator and a haunted woman — doing her best to parent her child alone. Formally inventive, the book points directly at its own artifice, which raises implicit questions about the nature of memory, truth, and narrative authority.
I recently had the opportunity to ask Talbot some questions I didn’t ask during our first meeting: questions provoked by her new book.
Jessica Hendry Nelson: The Way We Weren’t is structured as a series of self-contained personal essays that together form the whole. What does this form allow that a “straight memoir” does not? Is there something intrinsic to your story that lends itself to this form? (I have my own theories, but I’d like to hear your take on it!)
Jill Talbot: A straight memoir relies on a story, on what happened. You can apply Freytag’s Triangle to its narrative — the exposition/rising action/climax/resolution we all learned in school. A memoir-in-essays relies on the gaps in the story. Instead of what happened, it’s about what’s unknown about what happened. It frees the writer from having to follow such a clear line. In The Way We Weren’t, I’m questioning what happened and complicating the idea that there’s one version of the story. The memoir-in-essays also allows me to muddle through memory and return to certain places and moments, even as the chronology moves forward. So while my daughter, Indie, and I are moving from place to place around the country, my mind keeps going back to those early years with Kenny or a day he showed up in our apartment weeks after he had abandoned us. I write in one of those essays, “What we leave won’t leave us, it seems. Kenny won’t leave me, even though he did long ago. I can run from room to room for the rest of my life. It won’t stop him from coming back.” So there’s this tension between the forward movement of our lives and the recesses of my memory. In another essay, I write, “Memory forms, piece by piece. Some of them go missing, others interlock, firm. We fill in the missing pieces with what we imagine or just leave the gap, admit the blank.” The memoir is built of these pieces and gaps and blanks that would work against a traditional memoir. When I read your question, I thought of your beautiful memoir, If Only You People Could Follow Directions — also a memoir-in-essays. It also circles back to certain moments even as you move forward in your life. For example, you write, in different ways and with varying information, the moment of your father’s death four times in the memoir. And, I suspect, the reason that moment comes in more than any other is that you weren’t there for it, so you have to imagine, invent, wonder, and recreate from the details you have. That’s what I love about the memoir-in-essays, because I can go back to the basement apartment where Kenny and I lived more than once and look at it differently for various purposes because I still need to try to figure out what happened there and how those memories still linger.
JHN: Yes. Your response calls to mind this quote from Christian Wiman’s stunning essay, “The Limit”:
I don’t believe in ‘laying to rest’ the past. There are wounds we won’t get over. There are things that happen to us that, no matter how hard we try to forget, no matter with what fortitude we face them, what mix of religion and therapy we swallow, what finished and durable forms of art we turn them into, are going to go on happening inside of us for as long as our brains are alive.
My understanding or experience of time feels more akin to the movement of the Earth, spinning through its endless laps around the sun, than a straight line. Is your experience or understanding of time related to your experience of memory? Because while your book moves forward chronologically, more or less, it also allows for the recursions of time and memory. You employ past or present tense, depending on the essay. You switch the point of view from first to third. It is a collage-like structure, even while we march ever forward in time. Could you walk us through some of the choices you made? For example, in a section of the book subtitled “Cedar City, Utah: 2003-2006” each essay has a different point of view and is in either past or present tense.
JT: Beyond the current music I listen to when Indie is in the car, the only music I listen to is 70s music — the “Firefall” station on Pandora or the Sirius 70s station, so daily I’m inundated with memories attached to those songs, which are integral to my life and my memoir. I live in a time warp — always hearing the same songs over and over and going back to the moments they bring back. Kenny once told me that Gordon Lightfoot’s “Sundown” “felt” like me, it always made him think of me. Every time I hear it, I wonder where he is, if he turns the station when it comes on, and I think of the kitchen in that blue basement where he first told me that. Memory, for me, is a continuous loop — a cassette or CD set to ‘Repeat.’
The essays in that section trace the dissolution of my self. For those who haven’t read the memoir, Cedar City, Utah, is where Indie and I moved after Kenny left us, when I got a job teaching at a university there. It was a difficult time because he was still calling, and I couldn’t move on.
The 1st person of the first essay in that section dissolves into third person in the next one because I was disappearing in the wine. That first essay is a segmented essay about drinking to a black-out level one night and making a pleading phone call to Kenny I don’t remember making — so I had to piece together the evening and the next morning. Segments. The second essay, a flash essay, is about a night I threw a full glass of Chardonnay against the brick wall of my house in the middle of the night, and I chose the flash because it was a fleeting moment, but one that lingers (as a flash essay should do). The final essay returns to 1st person because it’s about my stint in rehab, when I had some difficult reckonings with myself. That essay is segmented because it’s about the various people I met in rehab, so I devote a segment to each person and there are some people who get one stand-alone line because we were all so separate in our struggle, even while we were together. I just remembered this, but three segments of that essay, “Autobiographies,” were initially written as stand-alone flash essays. I submitted them to Brevity and Dinty W. Moore, the editor, wrote back to say they seemed part of a larger whole, and he was right, but I hadn’t written anything around them yet. A fellow writer read the flashes (about the bartender, the woman who had worked at one of the first casinos in Las Vegas, and a railroad worker) and asked, “Why are you writing about them?” I thought a long time about that. Ultimately, I realized I was hiding behind their autobiographies (we were all required to write one in rehab) when what I needed to do was write my own. So the Cedar City section works as a slow dissolve of self — the switch from 1st to 3rd person allows me that movement, and the segmentation serves that disconnected feeling. Hopefully.
JHN: You often utilize “experimental” forms and structures. One essay, “The Professor of Longing,” is structured like a syllabus. In the second edition of their textbook, Tell It Slant, Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paolo call this approach a “hermit crab” essay:
[An essay that] appropriates existing forms as an outer covering, to protect its soft, vulnerable underbelly. It is an essay that deals with material that seems born without its own carapace — material that is soft, exposed, and tender, and must look elsewhere to find the form that will best contain it.
“The Professor of Longing” is a complicated, discursive essay that indeed contains tender material. Often, the assigned readings in your faux-syllabus serve as foils against which the personal material is reflected and recast. How did you settle on this form for this particular content? I try to teach my students that the form must serve the content and vice versa — the two must work together to create meaning. This is a beautiful example. The form, rather than constraining the content, seems to free it up. You are able to move wildly across time and space, from idea to idea, because the calendar structure and assigned readings keep the narrative tethered to a central thread. What else do “hermit crab” essays offer a writer? What do you see as the dangers and rewards? How do you know when you’ve found the right carapace?
JT: The idea for the syllabus essay came when I realized the readings I assigned were all somehow an echo of my own conflicts and the recurring themes in my life. All instructors teach works we connect with, but I realized I had essentially been teaching my loss of Kenny, and I wanted to know how much, so I opened up a syllabus from an American Literature II course and began writing beneath each reading assignment to see if I could make the connection — I knew it was there, but I wanted to see how it bore out in the writing. It was an effortless essay to write. It’s interesting — in the most recent semesters, my literature students have told me in class discussions I choose books about writer’s relationships with their fathers. This isn’t something I intentionally do, but I imagine my subconscious is trying to “read” Indie’s experience and her future through writers who miss, or never knew, their fathers. I’m teaching works that will make a difference to her when she’s older, and from what my students share in class or write in their responses, there are a lot of absent fathers out there.
I was invited to read at Michigan State University this past spring, and before reading, I had the opportunity to talk informally with students, and a few of them asked a similar question — about the struggle to find the form that will work, as you note, with the content. I told them the best place to begin is with a form they know well, because if they know it well, there’s material embedded in it. I asked one young man a form he came into contact with regularly, and he said “prescription pad.” I got really excited about the possibilities and suggested he could do a series of prescription slips — detailing the drug and the reason for it, the affect it had on him, and through this series, show the progression of time (date of prescription) and the alterations or consistency of the drugs. He got really excited, too, said it would allow him to write about an aspect of his life he hadn’t yet figured out how to approach or even felt comfortable writing. In terms of what a “hermit crab” can offer a writer — it’s a way into the material, and it’s an existing form, so it’s almost fill-in-the-blank. It also allows the writer to explore material in a new way, and for a writer like me who returns to the same material (like a loop), these experiments force me to write that material in a different way. The danger derives from the form overtaking the content and being seen as a gimmick, though when you find the right form, it enhances the material. Sometimes what we need to say seems too large, too expansive, and we have no idea how to begin — the “hermit crab” sets up a space and a form, a starting point.
JHN: Your book is also a road narrative — one in which the journey is both physical and emotional/intellectual. Did you have other road narratives in mind during the writing? Did any influence you or offer up guidance or support — either structurally or internally? I wanted to ask you this question after reading the essay, “Radio Silence,” about halfway through the The Way We Weren’t. You’re driving to Oklahoma City with your daughter, Indie, and accompanied not just by various radio personalities, but others — Kerouac and Sinatra among them — who you’re summoning up in order to lend some insight into single motherhood. It reminded me of the way the road also offers up new perspectives, whether on the radio or in the shifting landscape and the necessary silence. Which formal elements of the road narrative were you working toward or against?
JT: I wrote my dissertation on the road narrative — looking at Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and how particular nonfiction and fiction books that followed imitated or modified what he had established. I also looked at Dennis Hopper’s Easy Rider as the prototypical road film and the cinematic roads that followed it. So yes, I’m very grounded in, inspired by, and enamored with road narratives — some of my favorites include Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley (“I was born lost and take no pleasure in being found”), William Least Heat-Moon’s Blue Highways (“When you’re traveling, you are what you are, right there and then. People don’t have your past to hold against you. No yesterdays on the road”), Cormac McCarthy’s The Crossing (“The road has its own reasons and no two travelers will have the same understanding of those reasons”) — all works I wrote about in my dissertation, along with films like Thelma and Louise, The Electric Horseman, and Fandango (early Kevin Costner.) I suppose the overwhelming aspect of the road narrative — a descendent of the western, the journey, and the quest narrative — is the two goals within each one. In The Journey Narrative in American Literature, Janis P. Stout identifies them as the proximate (real) and the ultimate (abstract.) For example, in On the Road, the real goal is to go, go, go (and to find Neal’s father) and the abstract goal is to find “IT.” Easy Rider? Real: take the cocaine and get to Key West. Abstract: find America (the film poster reads “A man went looking for America. And couldn’t find it anywhere.”) Thelma and Louise? A weekend escape along with retaliations against patriarchy. The Way We Weren’t works within this tradition — the real goal is the search for a home for me and Indie, while the abstract goal is to come to terms with the loss of Kenny from our lives.
Another important aspect of the road narrative: The external landscape serves as a projection of the internal (Kerouac is so adept at this), so the land itself becomes a map of the psyche. I definitely had this in mind in the section when Indie and I cross the border into New Mexico:
I always feel something shift when I approach a border, and perhaps it’s because that’s where I feel most at home — on some invisible line between two states, the then and the now, the before and the after — and I suspect Indie feels a bit of that, too — between a parent she knows and a parent she doesn’t.
I worry this is turning into a lecture on the road narrative, but there’s one more significant aspect of it: In female road narratives, the women invariably run into trouble. They aren’t safe, always aware of the threat of sexual violence and more often than not, become victims of it. Women aren’t as “free” on the road as men. Take that moment toward the end of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild when one of the two men who have been lingering and making her uncomfortable comes back to her camp — that kind of threat and unease is endemic to the women of road narratives, but Indie and I don’t meet those dangers on the road — we find them in our homes (the man who lurks outside our house in New York, the carbon monoxide poisoning, the dryer in Stillwater, the man in Chicago), so that’s different. Yet one overwhelming aspect of the female road narrative is that the women in them find a home in each other, and Indie and I definitely do that.
JHN: Absolutely. But also, because of the way your book is constructed, and its overall theme, the proximate goal and the ultimate goal are the same — to find home — which was in you and beside you (Indie) all the while. I love the way you underscore this idea in the final essay by quoting The Sun Also Rises, “You can’t get away from yourself by moving from one place to another. There’s nothing to that.” Of course, the inverse of that is also true — you can’t return to yourself by moving from one place to another — which is reflected in the construction of the book, with the two central characters in the center and the essays/experiences exploding out from that center, like a new star.
We writers of the memoir (I hate the term ‘memoirist’; it sounds so damn quaint) are often asked the same set of three questions:
1. Was it helpful (read: “therapeutic”) to write about your hard/scary/sad/crazy experience(s)?
2. How did your friends/family/exes react to the book?
3. And how capital-T “true” is your story?
I pose these questions to you now because the people want to know! But also, as reductive as these questions can seem, the answers often illuminate the more pressing concerns of personal narrative: where it’s been and where it’s going, what it can accomplish and where it fails, truths and fictions and the many ways they intersect, dissolve, and circle one another.
JT: Many writers of memoir emphasize the idea that they found themselves in the writing in their memoirs. I’m thinking of yours and how you detail your search for a life and a home, and how you find that in the essays you read in graduate school and in the ones you begin to write. Kelle Groom’s memoir, I Wore the Ocean in the Shape of a Girl, reveals the significance of words and writing. Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water — when she finds herself in a workshop lead by Ken Kesey and dives into the writing. That’s one of the reasons why my memoir is meta — because I want to highlight the ways in which I hold these experiences up to the light, or look at them through a prism to watch them disintegrate and re-emerge into surprising shapes. Once they’re art, or artifact, even artifice, the experience that inspired them dissolves a bit. And I need, we all need, some moments of our pasts to dim.
As for friends and family and exes — hmmm. Well, my mother said she liked my sentence structure. My best friend since junior high (who went with me to visit Kenny in Colorado in 2000 and met his roommate, Dan. She and Dan married in 2004 and are still married today) wrote to say, “Love the title. Can’t wait to read it, I think this will help fill in some gaps for me as well for parts of your life.” I wrote back to say that no, there are still gaps, because of course, that’s a part of the story. I did make a point to warn Indie before I signed the contract that there was the possibility that this book could bring her father out of the woodwork and that we should be prepared for that. But it’s too early to tell — I’m writing this to you a week before the official publication date.
More than anything, The Way We Weren’t wonders at the truth. I’m trying to deconstruct the genre and call into question the accountability of the memoirist (sorry) to claim her version as the definitive one. In “Return to Sender: Memory, Betrayal, and Memoir,” Mark Doty writes, “The ability to tell a story, to make language and publish it in a book, is, after all, to be an author, it confers author-ity.” I’m attempting to undermine that assumption — by including Kenny’s letter to the court, the hearing, my re-reading of our history through the lens of his representation of it. Doty also writes: “It is a strange and dire thing to be represented, and what the represented make of it is not in the representer’s power to control.” So true. That’s how I felt when I read Kenny’s letter, (which serves as the prologue.) What I made of his representation of me is this memoir, one that declares: “The stories we tell about our own histories might as well be fiction — for what we tell, what we don’t.”
JHN: Ah, I just read that Mark Doty essay last night!
Ben Marcus has a great quote along these lines: “Without time, fiction is nonfiction.” What he means, I think, is that fiction constructed in a discursive, associative way, rather than along a chronological line, is essentially essay. But essay can also be detached from the clock, and often, the result is the lyric, braided, collage, or “hermit crab” essay, wherein the writer relies on association, juxtaposition, white space, etc., to create meaning. The “hermit crab” essays, in particular, like your essay in syllabus form or the essay written as a wine list (aptly titled “Wine List”) point explicitly to the artifice of the form, often making some ironic commentary on the form, and remind us that all art is artifice, as you say, well removed from experience. Once we are able to absolve the object’s (mis)conceived obligation to capital-T truth, we allow it to become its own truth. I think that’s what’s so exciting about your playfulness with form.
Speaking of fiction written in an associative, essayistic way — have you read Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation? It’s brilliant! It’s marketed as a novel, but it’s really braided essay, I think. Which brings me to my next question: What are your thoughts on the way we categorize nonfiction these days? My friend, the writer Sean Prentiss, recently published an essay called “On Genre, On Form, On Limitations and False Borders: Offering Creative Writing New Boundaries.” Essentially, he argues for a two-part system, wherein books are labeled by form and veracity (with a hybrid option in both categories), rather than by genre alone, which is so confusing these days. Is prose poetry and flash nonfiction the same thing? Is a novel-in-essays fiction or nonfiction? Is Anne Carson’s The Glass Essay poetry or prose? Some writers like to argue that it doesn’t matter, except when it comes to marketing perhaps, but I think it’s intrinsic to how we read, write, and make sense of our world — as well as instrumental to the ways we publish and sell literature. What’s your take on all this? Do we need to devise a better way to label our literature?
JT: I’ve edited two anthologies on this genre-overlap issue: The Art of Friction: Where (Non) Fictions Come Together (with Charles Blackstone) and Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction. I also guest edited a special issue of Sundog Lit last year, the “(Letters from) the Road” issue, in which I attempted to usurp genre with mode and create an essayistic issue. I received submissions in fiction, poetry, and the essay, and the issue’s table of contents lists them all without genre identification (thanks to editor Justin Lawrence Daugherty for allowing me to do that), which was part of my attempt to expand and extend the idea of “essay” beyond the boundaries of genre.
I’m entrenched in this conversation, and I teach a course devoted to the blurred boundaries between fiction and nonfiction. One of my favorite exercises in class is to put up two categories on the board: fiction and nonfiction. Then I ask students to help me make a list of the elements of each, and invariably, the lists are mirrors. I read and enjoyed Sean’s smart, thought-provoking essay and the questions therein — I wrote one of my own during the early phases of writing The Way We Weren’t, about how I alter details in my writing for various reasons and how I slip across the borders between fiction and nonfiction. I also have a shelf in my office devoted to writers who defy genre categorization: James Brubaker, Pam Houston, Nick Flynn, Justin Hocking, Claudia Rankine, Mark Slouka, just to name a few. I’d point to Margot Singer and Nicole Walker’s Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction, particularly the offerings from Kazim Ali, David Lazar, and T Clutch Fleischmann on the transitory nature of genre. There are exciting conversations about genre-blurring and genre-bending happening now. BJ Hollars’s anthology Blurring the Boundaries: Explorations to the Fringes of Nonfiction — another fun one to think about the possibilities of the genre.
But you ask for my take on all of this, so here it is: As writers, we have to decide for ourselves what mode we write in and how. Worry about your own work, and let others worry about theirs. I don’t follow rules very well in my life — so it would make sense I don’t in my writing. “Do what you want,” Jack Kerouac wrote, “always do what you want.”
JHN: What are you working on now? What are your latest concerns or obsessions, as they relate to your writing and the work you’re reading?
JT: I had a student in Utah, a former gang member from Salt Lake City who had a brother in a county prison about 100 miles north of town. My student wrote about his brother in his essays, and one day he brought a letter his brother had written to my office — I was fascinated and asked if I could write to him. The older brother, a leader in the gang, was interesting, caring, with a mind like a maze, so I got the idea to do a work of immersion journalism about him and about the white gangs in Salt Lake City (which I didn’t know existed until then). After months of epistolary exchanges, I went to visit him, something I would do twice a week for almost a year. I’m working on a book about that experience, about the dangerous vortex — between me, my student, and the prisoner — that pulled me under like a current.
I’m obsessed with the book-length essay in fragments, such as Sarah Manguso’s The Guardians, both Maggie Nelson’s Bluets and The Argonauts, Matthew Gavin Frank’s Preparing the Ghost, and the latest one I read, Lucas Mann’s Lord Fear. What draws me to all of these is the way the writers sustain leaps of thought, haze of memory, invention, and source material from other writers, theorists, and artists — all within the framework of an attempt to know what cannot possibly be known. When I write, the mystery I’m usually trying to figure out is me, to be honest. For example: Why I did I drive to the prison while drinking Chardonnay from a Nalgene bottle, or send sixty bucks a month for commissary, or write a letter to the prison board to get a stranger moved to another prison, or stand in a classroom discussing the blurred lines between fiction and nonfiction while the guy I had woken in the night to find sitting in my bedroom sat in the back of the class. That’s a story that can only be told through fragments, invention, speculation, the blur of memory, and research. Each of these brilliant writers I mention approach the book-length essay differently — and I’m working to do that, too, because when I write, I’m always concerned with doing it in a way that hasn’t been done before.
Jill Talbot is the author of The Way We Weren’t, on-sale July 2015 from Soft Skull Press. She is also the author of Loaded: Women and Addiction (Seal Press, 2007), the co-editor of The Art of Friction: Where (Non) Fictions Come Together (University of Texas, 2008), and the editor of Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction (University of Iowa, 2012). One of the essays included in The Way We Weren’t was named a Notable Essay in Best American Essays 2014, and her work has appeared in journals such as Brevity, DIAGRAM, Ecotone, The paris Review Daily, The Pinch, The Rumpus, and Under the Sun.