Saturday, October 29, 2011


My friend Yelizaveta P Renfro recently published a wonderful short story collection with Black Lawrence Press. It is more and more difficult for books to see their way into print these days, so I thought it would be fun to hear about her journey, here on my blog. We sat in my back garden a few weeks ago, with children and husbands and other writer friends - and later, I asked her some questions.

Your book of short stories A Catalogue of Everything in the World has the subtitle Nebraska Stories. But how much does this setting really bear on the stories themselves?

First of all, the juxtaposition of the words “everything” and “world” in the title with the geographic specificity of “Nebraska” in the subtitle appealed to me. I liked the notion that Nebraska could somehow contain “everything,” or that Nebraska was some sort of microcosm of a larger whole. I wrote all the stories while living in Nebraska, and Nebraska as a location, as a place, was certainly on my mind while I was writing. And I think that the opening and closing stories, which frame the collection, deal deliberately with Nebraska as a place. The rest, however, are probably not geographically bound. I suppose part of my impulse in applying that subtitle is rooted in my attempt to hold onto Nebraska, since, as it turned out, I ended up leaving. I guess, in the end, it’s up to the reader to decide: just how much are the stories about Nebraska? How much does setting, place, have to bear on our lives? It’s a question I’m still very much engaged with, especially in my nonfiction. In fact, the questions of where to live, and for how long, and what exactly is “home” are ones that I am likely to return to again and again.

Your stories often have an edge – or more than an edge (!) – of menace about them. Where does this come from?

My first literary influences were classics of Russian literature read to me—in Russian—by my Russian mother, a literature professor. I remember being horrified at the conclusion of Chekhov’s “Sleepy” when a young nursemaid murders a baby so she can get some sleep. Gogol’s “Viy” is even more terrifying, and his other supernatural tales are also quite menacing. Dostoevsky, Pushkin, and Tolstoy can be extremely disquieting in their own ways. The cumulative effect of these early influences was that they left me with a pervasive feeling that there is always suffering, tragedy, hardship, or sorrow around the corner. I think my early years were permeated with this sense of dread, of menace, as you rightly call it. It’s not that something horrible has or will happen to you, but only that it might, at any moment. And in my fiction, I suppose, I often imagine what will happen if some of the things that might happen actually do happen.

In your story “Lenten Rose” Rose says, “The old old urge to tell stories and write things down is driven by shame or glory. Often, it’s both.” Do you believe this to be generally true, or true of your own impulse to write?

When I wrote that line, I wasn’t thinking that it had a general applicability, or even that it reflected my own motivations for writing. I felt that it was true for the narrator in that particular story, both because of her own secret shame and also because of her encounters with young men who fought in World War II and who seemed to be telling her stories that were grounded in those impulses. I wouldn’t say that those same impulses apply to my own need to tell stories. If you asked me, I’d probably say that my impulse to write is rooted in a need to make sense of my experiences in the world—though such a statement is a lot vaguer than Rose’s. I wish I could boil it down to glory and shame, but I think that usually there’s more going on in the telling of a story.

By the way, you seem to love lists. Can you talk about this a bit?

Lists are everywhere. They scream at us from supermarket tabloids, delineating everything from the top ten leafy green vegetables of 2011 to the worst-dressed celebrity dogs. Our days are full of lists. Lists are often the primary way we obtain and store information. How many of us scroll through news headlines or lists of status updates on Facebook? No one can possibly read all the news; we must largely rely on just lists of headlines. And then there are the planners and calendars and to-do lists and shopping lists that dominate our lives. And yet, lists are also literary. They can be high art. Homer and Whitman made lists. So did Milton and Thoreau and Melville. They have a place in poetry and prose. We can make lists of groceries or angels, lists of debauched talk show hosts or notable trees. Lists can be lofty or petty, profound or banal, and sometimes both at the same time. I really got interested in lists when one of my characters began to attempt to catalogue everything in the world. Hey, she’s onto something! I thought. And I’ve been making lists and thinking about lists ever since.

I also notice that you've written a lot about trees lately, and in this collection there’s a character whose neighbor is slowly killing off his trees. What's with the trees?

I love trees. I’ve loved them my whole life, but I was only beginning to discover this as I was writing my short story collection. Trees do appear in the story “Tree Roots,” as you mention, but they don’t make a significant appearance anywhere else in the short story collection. Since then, I’ve written a whole essay collection about trees. It’s about a lot of other stuff as well—working at a cemetery, spending the summer at a Soviet Young Pioneer camp, covering the police beat for daily newspapers, growing up in the Inland Empire of Southern California, traveling with my daughter—but what brings all of the essays together is that they’re all in one way or another about trees. The book is my life in trees. The collection is currently unpublished, but most of the essays have appeared in various journals. I’m looking for a publisher. What’s with the trees? I hope there’s a publisher out there who thinks my answer is worthy of a book contract.

Do you have any particular habits or routines, when you are writing?

I have two pronounced habits: I often wait until the last minute to get anything done, and I tend to underestimate the amount of time it will take me to write something. You’d think I would learn, but I haven’t. I write when I have the time—that is, when the kids are sleeping or at school. The trade-off is I don’t do housework—or I should say, I do as little housework as I can possibly get by with. The house is in a perpetual state of entropy. I find keeping the house clean and organized an insurmountable task. If the house was clean—really clean, top to bottom, with everything put away—I would spend all my time on its upkeep, and I wouldn’t get anything written. So twenty years from now when I look back, I think I’ll have more satisfaction knowing I’ve spent my time writing something than keeping a clean house. It’s all about priorities.

When my house is clean, it's usually a sign that I have writer's block!

You do the writing if you really want to. Even if you have a job or kids, you still do the writing. If you don’t do the writing, it’s because something else is more important. I wrote most of Catalogue while holding a sleeping or nursing newborn in one arm and typing one-handed. It can be done. The question is: do you really want to do it? Or would you rather have a clean floor? Would you rather take a nap? My habits or routines can be boiled down to: get the writing done. But still, I have so many unfinished writing projects piling up! I can’t keep up with myself. And sometimes, I would just rather take that nap.

And what have you been reading lately? Which authors do you particularly admire?

I have a list of books I’d like to be reading, which is perhaps ten times the length of the list of books I actually get read. It’s the same question of time (read a book or clean out the fridge?). I’ve been reading more nonfiction than fiction recently, partly because I’ve been writing more nonfiction. A novel I recently finished that I loved was Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close. I admire most of Ian McEwan’s work. Of course I love the vast Russian novels of the nineteenth century that you can lose yourself in for days. I love the Modernists, especially Virginia Woolf. I concentrated on the Modernists for my Ph.D. exams. Faulkner, Thomas Wolfe, John Dos Passos, Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, Katherine Anne Porter, James Joyce, and many others are among my favorites. Just as I can’t keep up with my writing, I can’t keep up with my reading. Right now on my nightstand you’ll find: The Best American Essays 2011, The Fabric of Reality by David Deutsch, Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann, The Anti-Romantic Child by Priscilla Gilman, Moon Over Manifest by Clare Vanderpool, and The Bird by Colin Tudge. That’s what I’m reading right now—and yes, all at the same time.

The book publishing business is changing a lot– with the advent of e-books. Any thoughts?

Ask me a decade from now, and I might be able to tell you something useful. Yes, the publishing business is changing, and we’re in the middle of that change. My book just recently became available as an e-book from Dzanc, but I don’t have any numbers yet to share about sales or readers’ responses. Personally, I have a sentimental attachment to books as material objects, as corporeal entities made of paper that I can hold in my hands.

Me too. I'd much rather read a physical book~

For me, the reading experience is different if I’m reading a hardcover with deckled pages versus a mass market paperback versus my old college copy that I’ve annotated in the margins. I could wax poetic about this for pages (or would that be screens?). Yet I admit that e-readers are very handy, and there are times when getting a book on an e-reader is a lot more convenient than hunting down a physical copy.

Well, this is true. I hope printed books will continue along side e-books...

I wish I could tell you something that would illuminate the future of book publishing, but all I can really say is: keep reading. However you do it, just keep doing it. The book is not dead.

Thanks, Lisa, for these stories, and the conversation.

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