Emily Anderson’s writing has recently appeared in Web Conjunctions, the White Wall Review, and Requited. Her first book of poetry is forthcoming from Blaze Vox Books. She is working toward a PhD in English at the University at Buffalo. Her story “Calliope” can be found in the Summer 2013 issue of The Kenyon Review.
Can you identify the seed of inspiration of your story, “Calliope”? What was the hardest part about writing it?
“Calliope” is a manifestation of my childhood obsession with Little House on the Prairie. I loved both the books and the TV series, and I frequently discover evidence of this early fascination in my own writing and in my closet (I’m currently working on a poetry manuscript that deals with LHP and I own two calico bonnets, which, unlike sunglasses, do not break when you sit on them). I remember a specific conversation with Sara Levine and Janet Desaulniers—two of my professors in the MFA Writing program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago—where they gave me “permission” to pursue all the prairie I’d been bottling up. Being obsessed with not only a children’s book, but a racist, imperialist children’s book—and even worse than that, a racist, imperialist children’s book for girls—made me feel unsophisticated, to say the least. But Sara and Janet encouraged me to follow my obsessions, whatever they might be. This is some of the best advice I’ve received about writing. It’s as if the intensity of my childhood preoccupation—the two paperback sets of books I destroyed through frequent reading, the hours spent playing prairie pretend—generated enough steam to power me through a variety of projects. This experience suggests to me that what we give our love (or, if you prefer, our concentrated attention) to—even if it’s something childish or flawed—gives to us in return.
The challenge I set for myself in writing this particular prairie piece was to write fan-fiction that might “pass” as literary fiction. This is an ekphrastic project that I hope can function autonomously. When I started writing, I wanted “Calliope” to be a version of LHP from Nellie Oleson’s point of view. The piece grew out of some research into Laura Ingalls Wilder’s writing process. She modeled Nellie after three girls she had known at different points in her life: Nellie Owens (whose brother Willie really was blinded in a fireworks accident), Stella Gilbert (who becomes, in “Calliope,” the narrator’s silent servant), and Genevieve Masters. When I was writing “Calliope,” I was interested in testing the boundary between my childhood games of “pretend” and the imaginative effort involved in making art. I’m also interested in the boundaries between “high” and “low” art—literary fiction versus children’s fiction versus fanfiction. I continue to wonder if and how obsessive attention can become, in itself, a creative act—in other words, is love an art machine? What about consuming jealousy, or an unrelenting desire for justice? Can art emerge from those forms of attention as well?
What have you learned about the writing process in the last five years?
I’ve learned that the best writing happens when I feel relaxed and happy and playful. Traveling, scheming about projects with friends, getting plenty of sleep, eating delicious food, living slowly and taking lots of walks—these are all things that help me write. To hell with discipline, the work ethic, and all that pioneer claptrap. I’m currently trying to develop a strong play ethic. It’s hard. But it’s important to me. So I’m working on it.
When we publish, whether in print or online, we hope we’re making a sustained art–something that endures and continues to be significant. What role will sustained art have in a future that’s sure to be full of iPads/Pods/Phones and Kindles, hyper-fast computers, and a reality where we can always be online, all of the time?
I like to think of art as “sustaining” more than “sustained”; art nourishes and transforms people and in turn the world. We can’t predict what art will seem relevant or important in ten or 100 years; relevance and importance are so often political categories. Still, I think that notes sounded now will echo into the future because we carry what we read and what we love with us. Stray lines of poetry or remembered images emerge to surprise us in our writing and in our daily life. What’s changing in our relationship to reading is less the mode of reading (paper vs. electronic, limited, delayed access to texts vs. unlimited, immediate access to everything) but who we are as human beings. In my own lifetime I feel that what we understand to be “human” experience and subjectivity has changed and is changing in response to the ways we use technology and the ways that technology is used on us. When I read or write now (as opposed to ten years ago) I rely on Wikipedia—the thoughts of a multiplicity of people—almost as much as I do on my “individual” imagination, which, of course, is informed by a whole history of cultural production. One thing our reading/writing technologies are revealing to us is that being with our own, individual minds can be an experience of connection, that the experience of autonomy and lonely/powerful subjectivity is, ironically, one created culturally—in part through forms of cultural practice like the silent, solitary reading of paper texts.
Of all the things you could be doing, why do you write?
I ask myself this question a lot, given the absurdity of dedicating your life to something that isn’t financially profitable while living in a society that chooses to deny adequate food, housing, education, and medical care to a significant portion of its citizens. Writing—at least the kind of writing I do—also can’t immediately be converted into something that will inspire the kind of social change I’d like to see. At the same time, writing and art are, I believe, one way to bring the unpredictable into the world. By simply coming out of nowhere into the world, writing reveals that renewal is possible and that things can be different than they are. In Clarice Lispector’s A Breath of Life, Angela Pralini demands: “What I want is simply this: the impossible.” Me, too! What I want even more than seeing an end to violence, what I want even more than global social, environmental, and economic justice is an end to suffering and death, period. ETERNAL LIFE & HAPPINESS NOW! But who do I protest to get that? Where do I go? How do I do it? The only way I can see toward getting what I really want is by demanding the impossible, by bringing the imaginary into the half-existence of text, again and again.
In the 1950′s, John Crowe Ransom invited a coterie of critics (William Empson, Northrop Frye, etc.) to write a “credo” for The Kenyon Review. The results became an essay series by 10 leading critics on their core beliefs regarding literature and the critical practice, entitled “My Credo.” What would you include in your own credo? What core beliefs do you have about literature and books?
Here is one belief/hope: In his Periphyseon, ninth-century poet-theologian Johannes Scotus Eriugena defines nature as “all things, whether or not they have being.” I interpret this broadly because I’m in interested in a vision of nature where even things that don’t exist, even things that are imaginary, can be included. Does writing “have being”? Can a dream be said to exist? Does the movement of water from a faucet, or through a canyon, “have being”? When we value writing and art, we express our value for those things in the world which are fragile, tenuous, vanishing, reappearing, decomposing, re-forming—things which we cannot hope to control. Reading and writing can teach us how to pay attention to and to value aspects of our experience that resist and elude us—the way that other people often do.