Lidia Yuknavitch Interviewed by Jim Ruland
There are many reasons to read a memoir. There are those that tantalize us with lurid tales or beguile us with gorgeous prose. There are those we read in the hope of finding ourselves in the author’s story. Finally, there are memoirs we read with the noble purpose of learning something valuable and true about this life raft we call earth. Lidia Yuknavitch’s uncompromising memoir The Chronology of Water from Hawthorne Books is all of these and more. It’s a book that will make you laugh, turn you on, and fill you with dread. I had an opportunity to ask Yuknavitch some questions about the importance of writing groups, working with Chuck Palahniuk, her adventures in San Diego, and the creative decisions she made while crafting The Chronology of Water. Whatever kind of memoir you’re looking for, brace yourself: you’re in for a wild ride.
JIM RULAND: Your book opens with an introduction from a member of your writing group. How important was this group to the writing of the book?
LIDIA YUKNAVITCH: Well, the short answer is the book would not exist without them. At all. For one thing, Chuck dared me to write it, but more importantly, I brought in pretty much every chapter to the writing group. They didn’t just help me figure out how to make it the best book I had in me, they could see things I could not see. They are intimately educated about the structure and style moves I employed. They are the world’s best cheerleaders. Every single person in the writing group is part of this book. Like how sediments from all over the world travel oceans and then find form in sand and rocks. I can see the places in my own prose where each of their voices rose. Don’t tell anyone but I can hear their voices forever now in my head, too.
LY: That’s a little tough–I’ve heard more than one story about how it happened, but in my world at that time I was struggling with some pretty big grief and change issues. My mother had died and my father was on his way out. I had a new baby boy, new husband, new job. To put it simply, I just got an email from Chuck one day–we’d met before and crossed writerly paths, but we were not pals or anything. He invited me to join in an email, then he gave me specialized Fight Club instructions about where and when to meet them in the “dug-out,” and I showed up. That was almost five years ago. I’ve been showing up ever since.
Something that is NOT in Chelsea Cain’s introduction. That first night? I showed up early. I bought a cheeseburger and I sat in my car eating my burger and waiting for the rest of them to arrive. I had bird watching binoculars with me. One by one, I spied them each arriving. But in the course of my stealth I managed to dribble burger goop down the front of my shirt. So I had to button my big black coat up over my slobdom the entire night.
JR: Your memoir is written in short, modular chapters. What shape was the book in when you brought it to the group? Was it a complete manuscript or did you write as you go?
LY: I brought it in pieces–and I didn’t worry at all about “order.” I already knew the order would be determined organically later by a series of careful juxtapositions that could not happen until I had all the pieces, do you know what I mean? It was challenging to work this way, to think both in discrete units and “imagine” a gestalt or whole that would emerge at the end, but it was also quite liberating, because I could enter the realm of the random–more like how dreams or the subconscious or memory work. In fact, I let what I have researched and learned about the structure of memory in terms of biochemistry and neuroscience guide my writing process. I mention this at times in the “lifestory.”
JR: What advice would you give to someone working on a memoir with a writing group?
LY: Well, one thing they simply cannot identify for you is what your storyline will turn out to be. They can comment on structure, content, they can help you to craft the best pages possible, but the overall storyline–the one you have to dive down and find on your own from the gazillion things you COULD write about–only you can do that. And it’s lonely, and it hurts, and it’s a pain in the ass, but it’s also pretty much the whole shebang. No memoir writer simply writes what happened to them. There is a story waiting to be born buried deeply down in all the layers of a life.
JR: The Chronology of Water has a curious voice. It’s almost a meta-memoir: a memoir that’s aware of itself as a memoir. How is this voice different than other writing you’ve done?
LY: A very astute observation. I created that voice, or voices really, in part because I am uncomfortable with the form of memoir as I have inherited it in American culture. I very much admire some memoirs, others feel /read to me as if they are entirely market driven and thus next to worthless for me personally. And I don’t believe in a stable subject position in the first place, a pronoun–an “I” that sits still and is unified, so I had to invent a method for displaying that.
My fiction has always too had a meta layer to it. So I’d say I cut my teeth and earned my chops in terms of explorations of voice and subjectivity by writing fiction. But I’d also say this: the “I” of memoir is always a fiction, so why not make that part of the story? Why hide that fact? Why not incorporate the multiplicity of claiming “I” into the life and body story?
JR: You are a writing teacher but you don’t play by the rules. How do you reconcile this when you teach? Did you find that you broke some of your own “rules” while writing The Chronology of Water?
LY: I’m laughing right now because I don’t think I’ve ever done anything in my life by the rules…ha. And there’s the fact that I was tantamount to fired from my job in San Diego for breaking one too many rules–interestingly, my male mentors in academia over the years seem to have sailed through while exhibiting the same behaviors… But to the issue of your question, when I teach, I spread out a map of what our inherited conventions are. It’s important to learn them, to recognize them, to interrogate them. If I then also dissect that map with challenges to those very conventions, I don’t feel like I’m breaking rules. I feel like I’m being precise about the WHOLE picture, rather than just half of it. There has always been an avant-garde. An edge against which good citizenship and cultural conventions defines itself against. I just like for us each to be able to “see” it all as functioning dialogically.
Luckily, I’m mostly old enough now to channel all my bad behavior into making art, love, family. I get arrested and fired less often.
JR: In an interview with your publisher, you discuss some things that you decided not to talk about in the book. No memoir can tell someone’s whole story. How do you know what to put in, what to leave out?
LY: I’d say once you have about 100 pages or so out, you can literally “go down into” your own work and it will organically reveal to you what your story is about. You will already have designed your central metaphors, whether you know it or not. You will already have located the structural scaffolding you will need to craft the rest of the book. And certain images, repetitions, linguistic tropes and tricks will make patterns–your job is to find those patterns and move more self-consciously through the rest of the book with an awareness of what your subconscious has so beautifully revealed to you.
JR: In your book, your time in San Diego is mostly negative. You are very open and frank about these experiences. Has there been fall-out from being so open?
LY: I see why you are saying that, but from my point of view, being in San Diego was revelatory–life changing–momentous for me. If I’d never gone to San Diego, I would have never met the Mingo. I would not have born the Miles.
There has not been, nor will there ever be any kind of “fall-out” that can touch the beauty of this: my life began with Andy and Miles. I passed through a crucible in San Diego, but it was a walking through fire that took me to a deeper understanding of self and life.
Lidia Yuknavitch is the author of three collections of short fictions– Real to Reel (FC2, 2002), Her Other Mouths (House of Bones Press, 1997) and Liberty’s Excess (FC2, 2000)– and a book of criticism, Allegories of Violence (Routledge, 2000). Her writing has appeared in Postmodern Culture, Fiction International, Another Chicago Magazine, Zyzzyva, Critical Matrix, Other Voices, and elsewhere, and in the anthologies Representing Bisexualities (NYU Press) and Third Wave Agenda (University of Minnesota Press). She has been the co-editor of Northwest Edge: Deviant Fictions and the editor of two girls review. She teaches fiction writing and literature in Oregon.
Jim Ruland was stationed in San Diego in 1986 and when he left two years later, swore he wouldn’t be back. After attending Radford University in Radford, Virignia and Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona he returned to California. In 2004 he met his wife and she lured him back to San Diego for good. He is the recipient of numerous awards, including a NEA literature fellowship and a Bread Loaf scholarship. His work has recently appeared in Annalemma, Keyhole, Mississippi Review, New Delta Review, and the Normal School. He writes book reviews for the Los Angeles Times, interviews for Hobart, and a column for Razorcale. He is the author of the short story collection, Big Lonesome, and the host of the L.A.-based reading series Vermin on the Mount. http://www.vermin.blogs.com/