Questions for the creative writing faculty member, College alumna, and author of Last One Out Shut Off the Lights.
What would you want to be doing if not your current profession?
Unrealistically: busking on the streets of New Orleans with an old-time string band, captaining a shrimp trawler in Barataria Bay, field reporting on oil industry abuses and environmental degradation in the Niger Delta.
Realistically: collecting oral histories and folklore in Gulf Coast Louisiana.
What do you hate that everyone else loves?
John Cusack, picnics, kite flying, board games, brunch (the event, not the food), falafel, comedies, bike riding, Saturday programming on NPR (Wait Wait … Don’t Tell Me!, A Prairie Home Companion), #Caturday, wind.
So, basically, if John Cusack showed up one fine, breezy Saturday morning with his boom box blasting Garrison Keillor, a picnic basket of falafel sandwiches on his arm, Scrabble and a kite strapped to his bike, and a phone full of adorable cat photos, I’d fetch my slingshot and tell him to get off my lawn.
I know. I’m a monster.
What do you love that everyone else hates?
Mayo and bologna sandwiches on white bread. Or olive loaf instead of bologna, if I’m feeling fancy.
What was the last book you finished?
The novel Valentine by my dear friend Elizabeth Wetmore. It came out in March of this year, and it’s already a raging success, with good reason. Set in West Texas in the 1970s, it gives voice to women doing their damnedest to survive the brutal, toxic, masculine culture of a boom-and-bust oil economy.
What was the last book you recommended to a friend?
Every time I find a copy of Gilead by Marilynne Robinson in a used bookstore, I buy it and give it away to the next person I see who might love it or need it. I’m also always recommending The Sellout by Paul Beatty, Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels (which will make you feel like you’ve lived an extra lifetime), The Changeling by Victor LaValle, The Rings of Saturn by W. G. Sebald, and Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders—all very different kinds of books, and all exactly what I needed at the time when I read them.
And if you want to try something brand-spanking new: Inheritors, an incredibly sophisticated collection of stories about post-Imperial Japan by Asako Serizawa, and Scorpionfish, a novel by Natalie Bakopoulos that has drawn much-deserved comparisons with Ferrante’s work.
What book changed your life?
When I read Les Miserables at 14 years old, I thought My God, a novel can do all that? It’s history and morality tale and philosophy and psychological case study and high (melo)drama all at once. At the time I read it, I remember feeling deeply changed (as only a 14-year-old can be) —in my behavior and belief systems, in my reverence for human beings and for the writers telling our stories. That’s when writing became a vocation for me, in a nearly religious sense. Some of that ardor has faded, of course, but Les Miserables is still a touchstone when I need to remember why the hell I’m still doing this.
What person, alive or dead, would you want to write your life story?
For a while there, my old bachelor daddy’s neighbors were trying to set him up with ladies, but he wouldn’t have it. “When the time comes, if it does,” he said, “I believe I’ll do my own shopping.” That’s how I feel about this question. When the time comes, if it does, I believe I’ll do my own writing.
What’s your least useful talent?
I’ve gotten pretty good at knitting one sock. I mean, every pair ends up that way anyhow, right?
Who was your best teacher, and why?
Jim McPherson at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, hands down. A Black man from a working-class family in Savannah, Georgia, he got a law degree at Harvard and went on to write some of the wisest, most humane essays and short stories I can think of (check out Elbow Room: Stories, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1978, Crabcakes: A Memoir, and A Region Not Home: Reflections on Exile). He was also so generous with his books and vinyl, his thoughts, his time, and his kindness, and he gave me one of the best pieces of advice anyone has ever given me about fiction writing: “You speak two languages,” he said of my Southern blue-collar background and my white-collar UChicago education. “You have to use them both.” I left every visit to his office with a tower of books and often found articles about Cajuns or trailer parks or the eternal return that he’d tucked in my mail cubby. His enthusiastic engagement with my writing taught me to care about my writing, and his impulse to draw from eclectic sources helped me discover what kind of writer—and what kind of teacher—I wanted to be.
What did you learn at UChicago that still benefits you today?
I could go on about how the Common Core at UChicago taught me to be broadly inquisitive, to recognize patterns across disciplines—how important that has been to my fiction writing. That makes me sound like such a company girl, but it’s true!
Maybe more important, though? When I moved from my mama’s single wide in South Louisiana to the dreamy, monastic fortress of UChicago, I was thrilled – and terrified into silence. Over those four years of undergrad, I had to learn to speak up, to show up, to recognize and try to overcome my first-gen imposter syndrome (though we didn’t have those words for it back then). I learned to stop saying yes sir and yes ma’am. I learned—or started learning, anyway—am still learning now—not to be intimidated by others’ socioeconomic and educational privilege. I learned that I belonged here too.
What UChicago classroom moment will you never forget, in three sentences or less?
My junior year, I took a class with Bill Veeder on the American gothic, and he gave a lecture on “Bartleby, the Scrivener” that brought me to tears. He was such a great lecturer because he is a natural storyteller with a contagious enthusiasm for literature. He was also so supportive of my fiction writing. I’m not sure I would have kept at it if it hadn’t been for his encouragement.