#34: April Ayers Lawson and Jamie Quatro 2018
Sex, the Spirit, Short Stories, and the South, January 30, 2019
Jamie Quatro and April Ayers Lawson discuss writing about religious and sexual experiences. They share about their journeys as writers and their unique experiences of what it’s like to become obsessed with a writing project. By entering a world of fiction writing, Quatro and Lawson were able to explore the true ambiguity and complexity of situations that seemed so simple in their youth.
- Jamie Quatro, Fire Sermon
- April Ayers Lawson, Virgin and Other Stories
- Eudora Welty
- Margaret Atwood
- Emily Brontë, Wuthering Heights
- Cormac McCarthy
Jennifer Hardy Williams (host): [00:00:01] Support for Rewrite Radio comes from the Fetzer Institute, helping build the spiritual foundation for a loving world. Fetzer envisions a world that embraces love as a guiding principle and animating force for our lives—a powerful love that helps us live in sacred relationship with ourselves, others, and the natural world. Learn more by visiting fetzer.org.
Sex, the Spirit, Short Stories, and the South: a conversation with writers April Ayers Lawson and Jamie Quatro. This is Rewrite Radio.
My name is Jennifer Hardy Williams, and I teach at the English Department at Calvin College.
Today’s episode of Rewrite Radio features a conversation between the writers April Ayers Lawson and Jamie Quatro, hosted by Amy Fryckholm. Titled “Sex, the Spirit, Short Stories, and South,” this conversation takes up the complicated work of writing about religious experience and sexual experience. It may not be appropriate for all listeners.
Jamie Quatro writes fiction, poetry, and essays, and her work has appeared in publications such as Tin House, the New York Times Book Review, and the Kenyon Review. Her first book, I Want to Show You More, was a New York Times Notable Book, an NPR Best Book of 2013, and an Indie Next pick. The collection was also a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction, the Georgia Townsend Fiction Prize, and the National Book Critics Circle John Leonard Prize. Her first novel, Fire Sermon, was released in January 2018.
A contributing editor at Oxford American, Quatro teaches in the MFA program at Sewanee, the University of the South, and lives on Lookout Mountain, Georgia.
April Ayers Lawson is the author of Virgin and Other Stories, which was named a best book of the year by Vice, Bomb, Southern Living, and Refinery29, and has been translated into German, Italian, Norwegian, and Spanish. The title story in the collection won the Plimpton Prize for Fiction in 2011 and was also named a favorite short story by Flavorwire and anthologized in The Unprofessionals: New American Writing from the Paris Review.
She was a 2015 writing fellow at Yaddo, has lectured in the creative writing department at Emory University, and was the 2016–2017 Kenan Visiting Writer at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.
From Festival 2018, here’s April Ayers Lawson and Jamie Quatro.
Amy Frykholm: [00:03:08] I wanted to start with the South, because I thought that could give us a geographical landscape that we could all then share to understand what it is that you're doing in your fiction. I wanted to start by asking if you could talk about what South, which South, there are obviously lots of them, that you find most engaging for your fiction?
April Ayers Lawson: I am not going to be good at answering this question [laughs] in the sense of, I don't think of myself as a southern writer, even though I'm from the South, and when I'm writing my stories, I never think about how I'm writing about the South, and that's because I've always lived in the South. So I don't have a strong basis for comparison. Of course there are traveling and movies and television and all of that, but I have never actually for an extended period of time lived anywhere—expect for a semester in London—when I was not in the South. So I write what I'm used to being around and just have never thought of myself as being a southern writer, writing about the South. It only ever seems that to other people, and I think that reminds me of how you don't hear your own accent, but other people do. Jamie might be able to give a better answer to that than me.
Jamie Quatro: I think that's a really actually great way to open it because I have the opposite experience in the sense that I'm not from the South, I'm a transplant. Moved there thirteen years ago, from the West originally, from Tucson. So there's something about what you're saying that rings really true to me in that when I moved to the South I started noticing all of these things and I would say things to people who had lived there forever. Say, "Do you know there's Confederate trenches, like, on Lula Lake Road?" And they're like, "What are you talking about?" There's a plaque there. These were hospital trenches during the Civil War, and it's like the people who had lived there for so long had kind of almost become hardened or inured to all of the topographical distinctions that were around them and the historical distinctions. Whereas the transplant, I was seeing everything with fresh eyes, and I was seeing so many things I wanted to write about that I think it just became old hat for people who'd lived there and they'd stopped seeing it.
So, my relationship to the South is one, when people say, "Do you consider yourself a southern writer?" I always say, that depends how you define "southern writer." If it's someone who was born or raised in the South or who historically has your family roots in the South—like Eudora Welty's parents weren't from the South, but she had that double-access to the Midwest and to the South—I'm not a southern writer. But if you define it as someone who's concerned with a certain set of thematic things, such as race, religion, the grotesque, the gothic, the Civil War, those are all things that I am deeply involved in in my work. So in that sense, yes, I am a southern writer.
Amy: Both of you frequently engage sexual fantasy and sexual experience, and then juxtapose that against some kind of religious experience or cultural expectation of religious experience, something taking that juxtaposition, which is kind of unusual in contemporary American fiction, that juxtaposition, and both of you do it. I wonder if you could talk about what interests you, why are you doing that, and what makes that interesting for you?
April: It was a good question. I do it naturally because I was raised very conservatively. I also went to, my first degree I went to a private Christian college that was pretty fundamentalist. So I come from a background of feeling very much like people have told me very strongly how I should see everything with not a whole lot of grey area. [laughs] So getting into fiction and writing was a way for me to explore ambiguity that I knew existed and explore the complexity of situations that were so often, as I grew up, reduced to me to being something very simple when they weren't actually that simple. So the tension is inherent in me, so that's why it's in my work.
What was the...? Oh, and the other thing that has sort of defined my work for me, and I've written about this recently, is that when I was a child like, you know, I had a rape experience and so that also, within the context of that happening and being raised as I was being told over and over how bad it was to have sex before I was married, and then like no one knowing that I was raped, it was a lot to sort of process and I think it just naturally these tensions naturally came through when I wrote fiction.
Jamie: Yeah, I think we had very similar upbringings. Although the church I was raised in was very strict about the rules. My parents were not as strict, so I think that kind of gave me a little bit more of a grace feeling, like I didn't— Actually I think it's partly why I'm still hanging in there with Jesus. As I like to say to people, I didn't have this sense for my parents too that God is all about condemnation. But yes, I was very much raised in a conservative Evangelical home.
And as you know, those of you who've grown up that way, you also do a lot of Bible reading when you grow up that way, and you start to read the Bible and realize there's a lot of sexual content. And I think I grew up with this kind of dissonance, this disparity between what I was told and what the rules were and what I was seeing as the metaphorical language in the Bible, which is, you know, God's love for his church characterized in sexual terms. It's bride and bridegroom and I just think that that kind of natural, that cognitive dissonance is something that's always been in me.
And then as you start writing, it's not like you think, "Well, I'm going to write about the intersections of sexuality and spirituality," and you come to the table with this subject matter. You just start writing out of your obsessions and your wounds or whatever it is. And I think those themes emerge ultimately and then later people tell you, "Well, your book does this and these are your themes," and then you have to answer these questions, but [laughs] I think you have to go, "What is it? What is my psychology? Like, why why do I do this? I don't know." So there's part of me that says, "I don't really know. This is just what, when I start hearing sentences, these are what they're about."
Sometimes not though. I don't plan to write about sex very much after this. [laughter] I don't want to keep talking...
Amy: [00:10:03] I said that same thing. [laughs] That makes me curious about the first short story that either one of you wrote. Like, what was the content or the nature of your first short story, whether it became a published piece or it didn't? What was that?
April: My first story, it was for this creative writing class that I was taking as an elective for my English graduate degree. And I remember thinking—I was terrified of taking that class, like I wanted to take it, but I also thought, "I don't know if I can write a story. What if I can't write a story?" And I remember it was based on my uncle who's dead now who, he collected a bunch of antiques, like he was obsessed with antiques and he had several storage buildings for them and they were all over his room and the house. And it was basically like some character based on my uncle and him being befriended by a little boy and the little boy then tried to set up my uncle with his mother. [laughs]
I think it had to do with me wanting my uncle to like have a like a happy relationship or something because he didn't at the time and that was my first story-writing impulse was to write this world in which like he finally found the right person and connected with them. It's much more cheerful than when I write now. [laughter]
Jamie: I love that answer that she gave that she wrote what she wanted to happen or you wrote something into being. So, how far back do we want to go with this question? Because I was thinking the very first short story I ever published was I was in graduate school, I was getting my masters in English. But every time, I was kind of getting sick of doing the English thing and I would go and write these stories. I wrote the short story called "Highland Vista" and it was about a girl at a swimming pool who the lifeguard she had a crush on and then when the lifeguard crushed back on her, she was like repulsed by him and he was kind of a salty and it was weird and I got a call that that short story was going to be published in the student literary journal and I'd also just gotten into Princeton PhD program and I got the two calls on the same day and with the Princeton thing, I was like, "Great, I'm going to Princeton," and with the short story call, I put on my running shoes, ran out the door, ran the two miles to where my husband was playing soccer—the NBA law school had a soccer tournament going—and was jumping up and down like, "I'm getting a story published in the student literary journal." And that should have been a clue to me [laughter] that I should not have gone on and done this PhD business.
But so, I was thinking about that story, but then I started thinking further back when April was talking. Actually the first story I ever wrote I was in second grade and it was called "The Sad Day and The Happy Day" and I remember this because I know this because my mom saved it. And it was about a little girl who lived in Tucson, Arizona and who had never seen snow and really just wished that it would snow and every day was sad, and then one night she went to bed and prayed that it would snow and the next day she woke up in the morning and all the Saguaro cacti were covered in snow and that was the happy day. And so it was that the same impulse, right? And I do think that that's the primary impulse of the story writer when we're just little children is to see things that are wrong in the world or that are deeply unsettling to us and to try to make them right again, and to me that's also really Christian and really a kind of almost God-like thing to be able to do, like a little image-bearer thing to be able to do. To restore God's creation in some way through art.
Amy: I really love those answers. They really return us to sort of this twisted way that we we are doing restorative work by not doing restorative work. And so it's a very kind of twisted thing that I see in both of your work. There's reconciliation, there's redemption, but it doesn't come to us quite in a form that we can recognize, like 'I prayed for snow and there was snow.' At the same time, there is this kind of redemptive work that's going on in both of your fiction.
So, I wonder if you could talk about now as mature writers or, you know, as you continue to mature, but where you see yourselves right now, how do you know that you have a story? What is it that tells you, "Yes, this one is worth going forward with"? And maybe since poor April has to sit right next to me, I'll just hand the microphone over to Jamie [laughter] and we'll go this way this time. We'll go clockwise, or counter... Whatever it is.
Jamie: There's two answers. The first answer is, I don't. I get so sick of something I've written until I can't look at it anymore, and then I send it to one of my trusted readers and I'm like, "This is crap, isn't it?" Then they either tell me, "Yes, it's crap," or, "No, this is something that's really good." So in some senses, I have to really rely on my trusted readers to know.
[00:15:01] How do I know when I want to work on something and when I want to pursue it and keep going with it is sound. There's something for me when I'm writing about the sound or a cadence or a lyricism that starts to happen as I compose that becomes a driver. It's not usually because I'm super interested in the plot.
April: That's interesting because I am really different and the tone. Tone is an important thing for me. Like, I have to hit on the right tone, so it's similar in that way. But I guess I try to write so much that just doesn't interest me enough, like, it might interest me for a few paragraphs and then I'm just sort of like, "Why am I writing about this? I don't care about this," [laughs] and start something else. So for me, if I'm interested enough in anything to keep writing it and become obsessed with it, then I know that I have something. I just keep following that until I'm done.
Yeah, it's basically just when I start to feel obsession, and I start working on it for longer and longer, and when I'm away from it just sort of having thoughts about what I need to do to it, then that thing I always finish and that's what I end up publishing. I really haven't published that much either, but it doesn't happen to me that often, but when it does it's like this really strong, powerful obsession. I like it but it also can be like really upsetting. But it does tell me what is a story and what's not.
Amy: I wanted to ask and I'm not quite sure how to ask this question. I was wrestling with it in different ways. I wanted to ask about female sexual agency in both of your work. When and how—would you say that there's some kind of cultural criticism that you're working on around the issue of female sexual agency? When and how in our culture do women get to act and how does how does sexual agency work? And April in your work, I know sometimes this has a lot to do with sexual abuse and this question of agency and how that works. I'd love to hear you talk about that. And I know Jamie sometimes in your work it's around sexual violence and questions about how women act in situations where there's sexual violence.
And then at the intersection, April and in Virgin you use that quote from Margaret Atwood where she says, men are terrified that they'll be humiliated, women are terrified that they'll be killed. And I'm curious how that quotation works in both of your work and about female agency and sexuality in that. And I know that's kind of a convoluted question, that's why I tried it a bunch of different ways, but then I just thought I'm just gonna throw it all out there and just see what you'll do with it. Either one of you; it doesn't matter.
April: Do you want to answer that? [Amy laughs] I am thinking how to answer this and I'm not going to answer it exactly right. But, agency. I guess, I'm thinking that maybe too when you say this, it makes me—the last story, the Margaret Atwood quote is from the last story in my book, which is like a novella, and in that story the female character, she thinks she wants to have sex with this guy that she sort of like in a work relationship with. Like, he's her art dealer, but then as soon as it starts, she's terrified. She's also a survivor of sexual abuse, and when those of you who have been sexually abused before, especially like as children, probably some of you have because it's like one in, I think about like one in six people. So people who've that that has happened to, a lot of times if you get really scared in a sexual situation, you actually have a freeze response and shut down. So in that particular story, it's like the man begins to do something that she doesn't expect that's very violent. And at that point she just sort of shuts down, but she doesn't try to say no or stop him and just kind of lets herself get like raped all night.
And so I guess in terms of... It's hard for me to answer that question exactly about agency because I guess what's happening in that story is that her freeze response is taking over and it's the smarter survivalist thing to just keep this person happy and not upset him. And, you know, a lot of people who have been sexually abused go into what—they call it autopilot and they just sort of let this happen because I think it's easier for the other person, the aggressor, to just sort of be pleased. They will be nicer to the person that they're doing it to if they just sort of go along with it.
So I was kind of writing about that and not necessarily trying to write about more broadly like woman's agency, but it was more like a response of being a survivor of sexual abuse. And also just, well, in that particular story too she was in an unusual location and didn't know how to get out. So that figured into it too. But yeah, it had to do with the freeze response. If that doesn't make sense...
Jamie: [00:20:18] Thank you. Yeah, I'm really intrigued by this quote that, you know, when women are sexually assaulted they're afraid for their lives and men are afraid for their egos or their embarrassment or you know. I think that really rings true. I have a friend who is a male who, I was just telling April this last night, who was sexually assaulted by a woman, but he didn't call it assault and in a way, you know, I won't describe the situation, but I asked him why he didn't report her and he said, "I just, I wasn't afraid I just threw her off me and she left," and you know, if you reversed that I don't think a woman would be able to do that. And so there is there is a physical imbalance there when it comes to agency.
As far as my own work, when you say I write about sexual violence, I'm also thinking about that because are you referring to the marital rape? So in my novel, in Fire Sermon, there's one scene where the man—and he coerces her in other ways—but there's one scene where he actually forces sex physically, and the woman does this thing you're talking about where she kind of rationalizes, "If I can just breathe through this and get through it, then we'll avoid all of these other repercussions." So she does not take agency in that moment.
And second thing with agency with specifically to Fire Sermon, and I think that I've gotten comments from people is, "Why doesn't she leave the marriage? Why does she stay in it?" And what I have to point out is the complexity of that and that the novel ends—Hi, this is such a spoiler warning—the end of the novel is all in future tense. Temporally, she's in a space of not knowing if she is going to leave or not. Not a lot of readers noticed the tense shift at the end, but it switches into, "There will be grandchildren." She's explaining to her therapist, or interlocutor, kind of an unnamed, it could be a therapist, it could be not. But explaining what her vision, her intention for her future is. It isn't actually meant to be what happens. So I think there are a lot of readers who think, "Well, she didn't take agency. She didn't leave." But actually, who knows? Maybe she still will. Fire Sermon part duh. [laughter]
Amy: After the movie comes out, right? I wonder about writing from the perspective—both of you at exactly the same moment more or less in your short story collections, write from their perspective of a teenage boy. So, in April's collection, perspectives kind of vary for a while. And Jamie's, you follow female protagonists for a while. And it plays around, it messes with perspective in different ways. But at kind of exactly the same moment, you both have a teenage boy who—let's see, how did I put it?—a teenage boy who suddenly has some sexual secrets and then that kind of plays out in the rest of the world.
And I wonder if you could talk about writing from the perspective of a teenage boy. What did you—what process did you begin to enter that perspective? And how did you inhabit it? And what did you learn from doing that?
Jamie: So she's ref—I think you're referencing the story called "Sinkhole." So it's about a 15-year-old boy. He's a champion cross country runner, expected to do great things in college, but he has a problem and that is he has an anxiety disorder that manifests as a sink hole in his chest that expands open and he has to lie down and do a gesture. So it's an OCD disorder really and he has to do this gesture to make the sinkhole close and he's fairly certain he'll die if he lets the sinkhole get too big because it'll wrap around his heart and it will stop beating.
People often ask, "How autobiographical is your work?" If you were here at my talk this morning, you know this, and the real answer is that is the most autobiographical story. I have struggled with an anxiety disorder at one point in my life. And so the fact that I put it into the voice and into the body of a 15-year-old boy, was because it was close to me. And I often tell readers and students, "When you when you recognize a character—look at the characters that are farthest from the author if you're wondering what might be most autobiographical." So that is why I did that.
I also have four children and they were all teenage— Well, no, I take that back. When I wrote that story, two were teenagers and two weren't. My house was full of teenagers all the time, with their friends over, and I'm also a runner. [laughs] It was like this nuclear fusion of things and I thought, "I'm going to write this story and like really write about this, what it's like to experience an anxiety kind of panic attack disorder."
April: [00:24:57] I love "Sinkhole" and I also want to hear more about the anxiety disorder later. [laughter] I'm really interested. Yeah, I love that story and I love how you use disorder in that story and the hard thing. My writing about the teenage boy, it was one of the early stories, like the first draft of it, and I was in school and I was married at the time and I just thought, "I really need to know what it's like to be a boy to be a writer." [laughs] I guess a man, too, is a preoccupation.
So I just started asking my ex-husband—or my then-husband—all these questions about what it was like to be a boy and what it was like to be a man and just like really as personal as I could get. It was even to where I was like, "What is it like when you see a woman? And what is it like when you see a woman's body?" All these questions. Of course, I didn't use it all for that story, but I used it in other stories, but it was basically a lot of curiosity about being...
What I noticed, too, is I thought that teenage boys could be funnier. I mean, I don't think that's true now, but I think at the time, as a young female writer, I felt as if I would be freer to be funny if I were a teenage boy in the story. Does that make sense? If I were like seeing the world through his perspective and getting to be him. I think I had just this idea that I didn't know how to be funny as a woman, but I could do it if I was a boy or a man. Does that—? And I don't think that now, but that's just what I thought then.
Jamie: My students will often ask me questions about, like, "How do you write from the opposite gender? How do you write from another race? Or how do you write, you know, from a perspective that isn't yours?" And I do think there's something, if you're writing from a deeply human space, it kind of doesn't matter if you're writing from a male or female perspective. Like, it's just the human part. So writing from a boy's or a man's, I've written some male perspective stories too, it didn't seem that different to me than writing from a female perspective.
And I don't know if that's right or wrong, but it just seems like these are humans and these are human feelings. And if I focus my energies there, I could maybe make them any gender I wanted. Does that make sense? Yeah.
Amy: Kind of opens up an interesting thought experiment. Like, if we went through and just reversed the gender in a lot of these stories, what would happen? Like, what would we notice? It opens up a really interesting question about if the character in "Sinkhole" were a female runner and went through the same kind of gestures to save herself from that anxiety, you know, what would we learn? Or in "The Negative Impacts of Homeschooling," right? Isn't that the name of the—"Negative Effects of Homeschooling" is the name of the story in which April is a teenage boy, writes from the perspective of a teenage boy—what would happen if that were a girl? I mean, it would be just a very interesting experiment, just a thought experiment, I think.
And that kind of raises the question that both of you have written about in different ways and Jamie talked about this morning, but I think it's worth just talking about a little bit more, and that is the relationship between your fiction and this other thing that we call real life. So this intersection of the fictional worlds that you create and then the world that you inhabit. What if you could talk about that relationship and what kind of effect fiction has on your own life or fiction writing has on your life and how it how it shapes how you see the world and how you act in the world?
April: I guess, I don't do this as much now as I used to, but I definitely went through a phase where everything that people were saying and everything I experienced, all of it, I was like, "How can I use this for a story?" [laughs] My brain used to do that all the time. "I need to be, you know, analyzing everything as it's happening and figuring out how I can use this." But it was also like sort of separating me from experience, because if you do that all the time, it's like you're sort of putting something here between you and what you're actually experiencing.
So I kind of slacked off, stopped with that some, and then, I'm sort of answering your question to really roundabout way, but I guess like with writing fiction or like any kind of writing, it makes me notice things that I didn't even realize I was noticing at the time. It sort of forces me to slow down and to re-experience things and to realize things about life that I so often overlook because I am a pretty anxious person. I feel as if I'm always in a rush. I feel like I'm impatient way too much. I meditate now and that helps some but, yeah, like I'm always just sort of anxious about something, worried about something, or analyzing something. So when I'm writing fiction, it's like I have to sort of slow down and experience it and notice these little details about life that I've been overlooking or taking for granted.
Jamie: [00:30:11] I would agree with all of that. I think there's this—when I'm in the work and when I'm really working deeply in a story, when I lift up my head and go out for a run or go engage in my normal life, I see differently. I'm noticing differently. It's like my ears are tuned. Eudora Welty spoke of her ears is magnets, a writer's ears as magnets kind of attracting things. And it works in reverse: when I'm noticing, intentionally noticing, it will feed back into when I sit down at the page.
It's when those two things are completely divorced from one another as they are right now with having a book come out of being on book tour, I'm not working and so I'm not paying attention. I'm not paying attention to work and I'm not paying attention to the world. And it seems to me a really subpar way to live. [laughs] I really can't wait to get back to the work.
The other thing about life, I'll say, and this is just a really personal thing, when I was working on my first book and I had all the little children at home, there was a natural balance between the art and the life. And I didn't realize how important that was to me. It was just how it was. And I used to get annoyed with the kids. I'd be like, "I have to stop writing at 2:30 and pick them up and I have to," you know, not really. I mean it—of course I understand it was a gift, but you know, it was like if I was working, I was feeling guilty that I wasn't with my children more, and when I was with my children I was feeling guilty that I wasn't working more and I was just feeling constantly guilty all the time. And now I look back and I think I would just wish I could have been a hundred percent present for both and just embraced the work when I had the work and embraced the children when I had the children.
Because now that I don't have—three are in college now and one is 17, he's a junior—and I really find it's just too much time. I need another job. [laughs] I keep telling my husband I need something real life, something in my body. Like, I need to go work at a bakery or I need to like pick up an art form. I made stained glass in Barcelona last year. It was an assignment for a magazine, and it was one of the happiest days of my life. It started at eight. I was done at five. I could not believe that many hours went by and I was completely absorbed in the work the whole time and I was so excited to write after that experience because I'd been in my body. So if you have any thoughts or suggestions for me, like if you're a contractor, and you need someone to help build a house or— [laughs] come talk to me after.
Amy: You hear a writer who has too much time, right here. [laughter] Wow, that's pretty awesome.
Jamie: I mean, I have plenty of work to fill that time. It's just I need something else to make that time better when I have it because it's just—
Amy: A pressure.
Jamie: A pressure. Yes, yes. And deadlines aren't enough anymore. They used to be. Now deadlines just drive me crazy and they don't help my work very much.
Amy: Kind of raises another question that I wanted to ask you both about, you know, there are a lot of people here, I'm guessing, in this room who are aspiring writers, who long to write or find the time to write or however it works. I wonder if you could each talk a little bit about finding your footing as a writer. How did it happen that you came to claim this as something that was valuable enough to give your life to and then how did you go about making that real?
Jamie: Like I mentioned, I started on the English track. So I did a bachelor's in English. I'll go back further. I never remember a time I wasn't writing. Obviously, second grade I was writing stories. It was just always what I was doing. That's what I wanted to be when I grew up whenever anybody would ask me. I was a huge reader. I was a geek. That's all I did was read read read and I honestly think that that reading impulse and that love of reading is the first kind of primary indication that maybe writing might be your thing. I think they go hand in hand.
But yeah I went the English track in college, did a master's in English, started a PhD in English, got pregnant, had four children in five years. And in those five years of kind of desperately nap time or, you know, in between nursing's writing, I started working on my fiction and I thought, "Well, when the baby goes to kindergarten, I'll go back and I'll finish my PhD." That was the plan, but then by the time the baby went to kindergarten, I was all-in with "I really want to do fiction." So I went and did a low-res MFA at Bennington College where Lisa Cockrel goes, some other people here. And that was the decision that really—because you find a community of people who take you seriously, you know. Your family's like, "Are you still trying to write or you still doing that writing thing?" But these were people who took it seriously as a path and they've done it. They knew how to get you into doing it. So from then on it was a little bit easier to claim it.
April: [00:35:03] For me, I think that it started with being a really big reader. I had this period of time when I was much younger, I guess I was in Middle School, like the beginning of the middle school, maybe for about two years I just didn't talk at all at school. Like, there was something wrong with me. [laughs] I didn't talk. Like, if someone addressed me, sometimes there would be no response at all. It just be looking at them or just sort of like trying to get away from them. Like I did not talk. I had that condition—I forgot the proper name—selective mutism and I think it must have been related to anxiety. I don't know. During that time I think to have a sense of connection, I was just reading all the time. If there was no book around for me to read, I would just, something like this on the table, I would just feel like reading this [laughs] and I just needed to be reading like all the time. It was really weird.
And so then I got older and I wanted to write but I thought, "I can't write, like I don't know how to write a story," and so I would do more visual art because I did always feel the art-making impulse, too. But then it's like I was going to be a high school art teacher. I was in a degree program for that and we were going around visiting the different classes and sort of observing them, and it just hit me, "I don't really want to do this." [laughs] And so that was kind of hard at first because it was like, "Okay like, I'm in a graduate program for this and I know I don't want to do it," and then somehow, I was reading Henry James and I figure I was working in the graduate studies department for part-time money, and I figured out, looking at the programs, I thought, "Okay, I can just do what I want to do anyway if I do this English degree because it's just like reading stuff and you write about it and that's it."
I wasn't really interested at that time in making money. It was very detached from like what am I going to do with my life. It was just like, "How will I stay in school as long as possible?" [laughter] And so I did that, and that led to taking a creative writing class, and then the creative writing class, my teacher. Oh, and I read Virginia Woolf around then, too. I read this Virginia Woolf story in a bookstore that for some reason it made me realize like, "Oh, I think I can write a story," Something clicked and I figured out I maybe could do it and took that class and in the class, my teacher, after the class was over—I did one more class with him, like a thesis thing and then he said at the end of it like, "You need to get an MFA. You need to keep doing this."
I didn't even know what an MFA was. I didn't know that writers got these MFA degrees and so I just basically went along with what he told me, [laughs] like, what program he was teaching at in the summer. It was low residency and I just thought like, "Okay, I'll do that." It sounds like a really like a ridiculous way of coming about to writing but I was always like a art maker. And I think that that impulse to make art, just the more that I wrote the more that it transferred to writing. And so it was finally just like a writing impulse that I was following. Does that make sense? But I've always just had the art-making impulse and it's had to be something—like it has to be visual or has to be writing or I just sort of feel like something is wrong if I'm not doing it.
Amy: Do you make art now?
April: I doodle now. [laughs] I doodle, but I do worry that, I guess I have this idea that if I do too much visual art then I won't write and I don't get any money for my visual art. [laughs] And so it's like I did make abstracts or people for Christmas a couple of years ago. I made them all paintings and that was the last time I think I did like a big visual art project. [whisper] Do you want to say anything?
Jamie: Are you asking me about, do I want to make art? No. [laughter] I wish I had that gift. I play the piano. That's art.
Amy: [00:39:10] I wonder if there are questions in the audience. Oh, yes. Okay. We'll start over here, and I'm going to hand the mic—how is this going to work? Do you want—Let's see, let's do this: ask your question, I will put it into the microphone and then I'll hand the mic to the authors.
Audience Member 1: [indistinct]
Amy: So the question is how to deal with trauma, and maybe specifically even in writing.
April: I've had like two really traumatic experiences. The one that, you know, I just talked about here and then one other. And what I found that I had to do was I had to write about it a lot for myself first, like in a journal because it does feel as if you're sort of writing into minefields, because it feels almost like you could be writing something toxic almost because it's so upsetting. So I felt like I went through a long time where I was just writing about it for myself, repeatedly, as much as possible, so that it didn't feel toxic to me anymore.
And then I finally got to a place where, when I wrote about it for stories, it was still charged with a certain kind of energy that comes from writing about something traumatic, which I actually like. Like, I think that that energy can be really good. But by then, I had practiced enough, exposing myself to it that I could write about it within a world of a story and it not just sort of like take over everything in the store. Like, I had been able to write about it enough to have a certain balance with it. A balance with it... How am I trying to say this?
It didn't overtake the fictional world that I was trying to create with. It was able to sort of coexist with it. So I would just say try writing about a lot of it in a journal first and that's how you work into being able to do it for a fictional story or for an essay that you're going to publish. Sure, sure. [whisper] Do you have anything?
Amy: Thanks for that question. Anybody else? Yes right here.
Audience Member 2: [indistinct]
Amy: So the question is what was your experience of this kind of comic experience of looking out at the field and realizing there are lots of people doing great work and really amazing and where's the place for me in that?
Jamie: I would say, "Don't look out there." I still feel that. I look on Twitter or wherever and I see all these colleagues doing amazing things and all these people. There are so many books out there and it's discouraging for me. I would say read, you know, go to the classics and just read them all and keep your head down and focus on your own work because you're an individual and what you have to say, nobody else will have said in exactly the way you're going to say it. And that’s what's to remember is that yes, there's nothing new under the sun. Everything's been written, but nothing's been written by you. I can't see your name, but you know what I mean? You will have something original to say. It just takes time and it takes a lot of work and patience and specific. It's really hard.
I feel bad for people in the social media generation. And when I was in college at didn't exist, so I wasn't seeing all of everybody's publications all the time and I think it'd be really discouraging now to know. And I do feel the book world—there's too many books being published. That's a whole different talk. But I do feel the market’s oversaturated. We kind of talked about that a little bit last night.
April: I'll say I feel that now, too. I didn't when I was in school. I actually didn't feel it as much, but I feel it much more now that I'm older. I'm like what you just said, and what I have noticed though, I don't this might work for you, it works for some people and it has worked for me occasionally in the past is when you write it, think of someone that you are really interested in or love reading it, and then it becomes, that person is interested in like all the intricacies of your thoughts and they know that you're not like any other person and that you have something valuable to say and they want to know it.
And so I mean, I've occasionally done that where I'm actually writing to someone and I found that it can occasionally really come alive because it's like somebody that you imagine wants to know all that stuff. What I tell my students is if you become really interested in it and you really want to discover where this is going and you're surprising yourself, then also that is going to translate to other people. So it's really about you getting so interested in what you're writing that it comes alive. And then you forget to ask yourself, “Is this important?” You just know that it is when you get to that point because you need to write it. Does that make sense?
Amy: It makes a lot of sense, I think. It makes think, is it Isabel Allende who begins every novel as a letter to someone? I think it's her method of saying, “Who am I trying to address this to? And then as you invest your imagination and it changes, but it does make me think of that. Other questions? Yes.
Audience Member 3: [indistinct]
Amy: So the question I hear, tell me if I'm getting this, right? But question I hear is, when you come from a really conservative background, it can be difficult to begin to move into—even if you understand intellectually the value emotionally—to move into these more imaginative forms. And how do you begin that process? How do you do that?
Jamie: [00:44:51] So I just talked about this for an hour this morning. Were you able to come to that talk? So I completely empathize with your difficulty. I do see a lot of value in trying, but I also understand that different—as I said this morning—different readers have different tolerance levels based on background experiences. Another student today after the talk came up to me, and she was in high school, and she said, “I read Call Me By Your Name and my family kind of shunned me and were horrified that I would read that book. What advice do you have?” And, you know, my advice wasn't, “Don't read books like that.” That's certainly I think that's bad advice. But the advice I would give her is make sure there's someone you can talk to about it, make sure that you're processing with, like-minded people and people maybe who will challenge you a little bit on your thinking.
But also respect yourself and respect your own tolerance levels. I think that's also important. And if you find that you're not able to, start small, you know. I'll think of some maybe entry-level sex books for you. [laughter] I will not recommend my own books to you.
April: I don't know what to say after that. I don't. [laughter] I think too, you know, all books aren't for everyone and I think that also certain books are right for you at certain points in your life and then certain books you're going to look at now and you just can't connect to them or they're too upsetting, but 10 years later, they might not upset you as much. They might just be something that you might just find them interesting then. So I guess I'm just saying to you know different books are going to be right for you at different times.
And if you feel in yourself a really strong resistance to reading something—I mean, it's different if it's something you have to read for school—[laughs] you know what I'm saying, but it's just like hurt you. It's okay if you don't connect to everything, I think, too. Just expect to connect to different things at different points in your life because some of the stuff that I like now, ten years ago I would have been like, "I can't read that. That upsets me too much." And of course, now I'm much more sort of detached and disturbed and I'm like, "Oh, this is pleasant to read." [laughs] Is that terrible? So just be patient with yourself too, and try reading different things and realize that in the future you might be able to connect to things you don't now.
I wouldn't worry too much about. Is that a garbled answer but I would just read what is really going to inspire you and not feel guilty just because you don't like something that you feel like maybe somebody else likes or thinks is valuable.
Jamie: I was just going to add, I thought of a perfect example for this. Not an entry level but I thought of it. So when I my son was in 9th grade his English class was assigned to read Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk. I'm guessing you've probably not read it. It's really high in the violence category. And in others, too. There were some boys in that class that their parents said, "My son is not ready at the age of 14 to read Fight Club," and there are other boys in the class who had already read it. And so there was a vast difference in maturity levels and what they were ready for.
I taught Senior English for a couple of years, a seminar and we read Wuthering Heights and there was a boy in my, a senior 18-year-old, who could not read Wuthering Heights. He did not have the tolerance level for that. I had to assign him a different book. So I guess I'm just saying that it's so individual and to respect that. I think it's really important to respect that.
But maybe start with, see how you do with Wuthering Heights. Have you ever read Wuthering Heights? See how you do with Wuthering Heights. See how you get on. [laughs]
Amy: I like that suggestion. I wonder what's next. I mean if—taking from your question, what's next for you? What's out there that you haven't read, haven't engaged, that you feel like is kind of your own cutting edge in your reading? That you haven't read or haven't engaged. Maybe you read it, but you didn't really—you weren't ready for it. But you think it's out there for you yet. The already/not yet question, I guess.
Jamie: I tried reading Cormac McCarthy's The Road when it came out, and I couldn't. Has to do with cannibalism and it was just—I was not ready for that. There's some Cormac McCarthy…so, violence is my thing. Violence is my edge that I really struggle with. I love early Cormac McCarthy. I love Outer Dark. I love Orchard Keeper, but once it starts getting to Blood Meridian, No Country for Old Men, I start to struggle more.
[00:49:50] So I know it's out there for me. I really haven't written any kind of violence other than sexual violence in my work. I haven't tapped it. I have a very hard time with anything happening to children. Anything violent or abusive happening to children. I know it's out there. I had a hard time with Toni Morrison's Beloved because of that. That opening scene with the, yeah. So yeah, that would be my edge.
And as a writer in particular, I know I'm going to have to chase that duende, that demon and at some point probably engage in some kind of violence. In fact, the novel I'm working on now, there's a—it's about a sex trafficking victim—and there's a section in the voice of her pimp. And I know I'm going to have to get into the violence with that and I'm scared. And I think that's why I wrote Fire Sermon. [laughs] I was cheating on that novel to write Fire Sermon.
April: I'm thinking how to answer that question. I feel like there's a lot of classics that I haven't read that I need to read. Like, I've never finished Moby Dick. Jamie is reading it now. I've been very resistant to finishing Moby Dick. I've been, "Where are the women? There are no women in here." I feel like I do probably eventually need to read that one because it's important. [whispering] I'm just not reading it the right way.
And I feel like I also have been, I have so much been reading things that I think are going to sort of help me really directly as a writer, that I think I probably need to read more things that I'm just reading because they're interesting and that I don't right at the get-go think like, "How is this going to help me write my next fiction?" I want to just be reading them to be reading them and enriching my life and reading to be a better person instead of just, "How can I use this?" That's where I would like to move to.
Amy: Kind of like a professional—what's the word—a professional liability that you start, everything becomes sucked—somebody asked me recently, "Do you read for pleasure?" I was like, "Do I? I like my work. Does that mean I read for pleasure?" I really struggled with the answer to that question because everything is sucked into the machine, so I appreciate that idea of like, "What could I read that's out there, that doesn't make me think, 'How would I do this myself or something?'" Yeah.
Any other questions from the audience? Yes.
Audience Member 4: [indistinct]
Amy: So the question is, what role does research play in your writing?
Jamie: It's a great question in the context of fiction, because obviously for nonfiction, for a talk or an essay you're going to be doing a lot of research. I find that when I'm drafting fiction, research can be a rabbit hole that pulls me away from the work for a really long time. So often when I'm drafting fiction, I will make it up, if I'm in a scene and I'm like, "Oh, I would need to know would a cowboy in 1820 button up his chaps? Were zippers? Was it ties? How would that work?" And if I start researching that, I'm done for the day. I just kind of throw it in there and maybe put a TK on it and come back to it.
I have a specific example of a short story I wrote called Decomposition about a corpse rotting in the marital bed and I started writing that story knowing nothing about human decomposition. And I knew I was going to have to research it. But as I was drafting, I didn't want to look at dead bodies and really look at it too much. So I made it up. I made up the stages, brief, kind of put my own words to them. And then after I had that written, I went back and kind of made sure and wrote to somebody—actually wrote to Thomas Lynch who's a poet and he's an awesome, beautiful essayist and mortician and he vetted it for me. But yeah, it's a tricky balance, but with fiction and nonfiction very different answers.
April: About research, I have not written that much that requires a whole lot of research. It's more like I might run into something that I need to research, go onto the internet and read some articles about, but not extensive research. But I did get advice recently from sort of like a friend who is a professor and who works with a lot of PhD students and he said for them, there's so much research that they're never going to be able to get it all done. And so he tells them to just write in the morning and then research in the afternoon. And he says he advises them to just start doing it before they're ready. He's like, "Start writing before you're ready because you're never going to be able to research everything that you need to." And so as someone who's thinking about maybe doing more research for something, that was helpful to me. But I know it's not quite the same as writing fiction, but.
Amy: Well, thank you both so much for being here. Thank you everyone for coming. And let's thank April and Jamie for their contribution. [applause] Thank you so much.
Jennifer: [00:55:15] Our thanks to April Ayers Lawson and Jamie Quatro, for their honesty and their fiction, and to Amy Fryckholm, for hosting this conversation.
Rewrite Radio is a production of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, located on the campus of Calvin College in Grand Rapids, MI.
Theme music is June 11th by Andrew Star.
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