Lidia Yuknavitch will be speaking at this year’s Write to Publish conference (W2P), Saturday, Feb. 23 at the Native American Student and Community Center. Most readers know Yuknavitch from her 2011 memoir, The Chronology of Water, published locally by Hawthorne Books. She is also the author of the novel Dora: A Headcase—what she describes as her “love letter to nerds, misfits, introverts, and arthearts everywhere.” In this interview, Yuknavitch shares her approach to writing memoir, her thoughts on girls coming of age in our current social and political climate, and her experiences dealing with publishers.
Regarding The Chronology of Water, what was the transition like going from writing literary fiction to nonfiction?
The transition from writing fiction to nonfiction was about as thin as skin. To be honest, I think all fiction is invested with biographical material; it’s just fragmented, dispersed, displaced, and alchemized. The writing process, however, was different in that it hurt more to write about my life than to write fiction. It required formal choices that were connected to my bones and heart and blood—fiction writing does too in a way, but not in the same way.
Was it difficult to speak freely about some of your more personal life experiences?
The only difficulty in speaking freely about my darker life experiences had to do with shame. But once I figured out that I wasn’t just writing a me story, that I was writing a we story, the shame disappeared. We don’t have to live in shame—those of us who have effed up in life. Our stories count too.
Ooligan Press is publishing a follow-up book to the YA novel Blue Thread (by Ruth Tenzer Feldman) called The Ninth Day that is about a teenage girl struggling to find her own voice during the free speech movement in the 1960s. Do you think that times have changed much for women since then, and what would your advice be to girls coming of age these days?
I don’t think times have changed for girls and women as much as we pretend that they have. They’ve changed some, and yet this last year in particular I heard the same old repressive abusive sh*t coming out of the mouths of conservatives, Christians and right-wingers on the topics of women, reproduction rights, and violence against women and minorities. I think “coming of age” has changed in that girls have more access to information and mediascape, and yet in women’s studies classes, when I ask how many people know what Roe v. Wade was about (ages around 18-30), maybe four people raise their hands. There is an ever-dangerous cultural emphasis on the “media woman”—a woman that does not exist that girls are trying to become. I find that tragic. The book I wrote, Dora: A Headcase, is not a YA book for sure, but it has a 17-year-old narrator. I put what I thought about what’s at stake for girls in her mouth. To be honest, I don’t find many YA books opening up cultural possibilities for girls.
How did you decide on the structure of your memoir?
I decided on the structure of my memoir based on my understanding of memory and my study of the neuroscience and biochemistry of memory. I made formal choices that corresponded to the structure of memory. That and I’ve had a life-long tendency to break the rules of literary conventions so I could tell the story the way that felt true to me.
What was your process for finding a publisher, and how has your relationship with Hawthorn Books worked out?
Rhonda Hughes at Hawthorne Books is a superwoman with lady balls. [Before being published by Hawthorne Books] 12 agents and six big-name publishers rejected me, several of which have recently tried to contact me. I consider my collaboration with Rhonda at Hawthorne to be the best of my life.
I see that you have a website, blog, author page on Amazon, and book trailers supporting your writing efforts. What promotional techniques do you think have worked the best for The Chronology of Water?
Because I’m with an indie press, I do a lot of legwork as an author—though to be honest all authors are being asked to do more legwork these days. I think the best approach for each book is to design an adventure for the reader by any means possible. To prove how it is that books are a verb.
Yuknavitch will be a keynote speaker—as well as a panelist for Creative Non-Fiction and Memoir: The Truth, the Whole Truth, and Other Considerations—at W2P. To find out more about W2P, or to buy tickets, visit the W2P website: http://www.ooliganpress.pdx.edu/w2p/
By Lorna Nakell