Tag Archives: personal narrative

An Interview with Joe Jiménez

21 Sep

Joe Jiménez is the author of the books The Possibilities of Mud and Bloodline and, most recently, the essay, “Cotton.”

Joe Jiménez is the author of The Possibilities of Mud (Korima 2014) and Bloodline (Arte Público 2016) and is the recipient of the 2016 Letras Latinas/ Red Hen Press Poetry Prize.  Jimenez’s essays and poems have recently appeared in Iron Horse, RHINO, Gulf Steam, Waxwing, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, and on the PBS NewsHour and Lambda Literary sites.  Jimenez was recently awarded a Lucas Artists Literary Artists Fellowship from 2017-2020. He lives in San Antonio, Texas, and is a member of the Macondo Writing Workshops.  For more information, visit joejimenez.net.

To read an exercise on using misdirection and indirectness, inspired by Jiménez’s essay “Cotton,” click here.

Michael Noll

This essay moves back and forth between first and third person, between “I” and “The man.” I once sat in on a talk with the war correspondent Scott Anderson, and he said that no matter the country he was in or the language the people spoke, as soon as someone switched into second person (you’re walking down the road and…), he knew he was about to hear something bad. The POV shift was a distancing device. Is the shift in this essay is something similar? What was the experience of seeing yourself as an almost fictional character?

Joe Jiménez

Anderson shares an interesting view of the You as a conduit to sharing something “bad.”  I wrote an entire novel in the second-person, Bloodline, a YA retelling of Hamlet, and I agree with Anderson that POV is so much about moving a speaker or narrator closer to or farther away from a reader. In Bloodline, I played with the You as a direct address, an embrace, a reaching out to hold another’s hand.  I’m thinking right now that I really was distancing myself, the writer, from “the man” in the essay “Cotton”—I am not entirely ashamed of that person I was all those years ago, and yet, I’d be lying if I said I don’t cringe every now and again when I consider how I was, not the who, necessarily, but the how of me.  Telling the story of the man, then, for me, in this essay, was all about telling a story of who I used to be, but there’s also a musicality to how “the man” sounds, which I love, and which drives me, perhaps more so than any logical reasoning or thought process that extends beyond the fact that I really just liked how it felt to write about “the man,” how it sounded when I read those lines aloud, or when I put the words inside me and let them do what they did in my mouth and my ears.

Michael Noll

The essay seems to be built upon the story, the one it ends on, the man leaving his old life to start a new one. That story leads to other stories, and I can imagine looking at this in a rough draft and wondering how to juggle and connect these different stories. The cotton seems to be the glue that holds them together. Was it always in the essay, or did it show up later as a way to connect these different parts?

Joe Jiménez

Joe Jiménez’s essay, “Cotton,” appears in the most recent issue of The Adroit Journal.

I started with the idea of cotton.  It’s something I jotted down on a papelito, a scrap paper, I kept in a notebook.  I started the essay when I was in the MFA program at Antioch University Los Angeles, and having just read Joan Didion’s essay “Keeping a Notebook,” and while I was trying to do over my life, I collected these papelitos, and later, I laid out a few of them on a table and said, what can I make?  I was staying in my hometown, then, with my mother and brother, when I recalled my visits to the cotton fields, and I remembered growing up, watching my mother looking in the cupboard some nights, which was frequently empty, and looking at what she would cook, which was a treat for us, since she often did not cook, laying out the cans of beans and maybe a can of corn and tomato sauce, a few weenies from the fridge, a potato, and saying, what can I make out of this?  I did the same with my papelitos one day, spreading them out, saying, what can I make out of this?  Rasquache is the word I would use to describe what I made.  Maybe it’s pastiche, maybe it’s lyrical—when I hold it close to me, the word I hear is mestizaje.

Michael Noll

At one point, you write, “My aunts, my grandmother, people I don’t know can sing of how picking cotton can break the back or the spirit or both—how forced labor and low-wage work demolishes a body. These are not my stories. And so, I pause now to know who I am in relation to other people’s grief.” I was really struck by this line, the way you place your own story within a context of place and people. Writers sometimes get asked who they write for–who they imagine their audience to be–and I wonder, if in that moment, if you were asking yourself that same thing. Did you have an imagined audience for this as you wrote it?

Joe Jiménez

Although I didn’t think of audience at that exact moment, I like the idea and perhaps I should ask this of myself more when I write.  What I wrote with that line was fueled by the question of power—I mean, really, how can a brown man in Texas write about cotton without recognizing its legacy?  The story of cotton in the place I am from cannot be divorced from the pain inflicted by people and institutions who have controlled cotton.  The scholar Dr. Larissa Mercado-Lopez from Fresno State University has written about the role of cotton in the area of South Texas she and I are from—we’re from the same hometown, in fact, Gregory, Texas, and have both published books with Arte Publico Press.  So I can’t write entirely unconsciously about cotton.  I think the history matters, to me it does. And I’ve learned from writing fiction to ask, when writing characters who wield power differently than me:  Am I being fair? What does this portrayal ask of the truth?

Michael Noll

There’s a great passage that begins,”If you have never seen a water tower glimmering with sunrise…” It’s one of a couple of moments where you seem to be explaining the context for your story to people who might lack firsthand experience with it. In part, I ask this because I grew up in  the country, outside a small town a ways from any big city, and so I sometimes find myself feeling the need to say to people, “No, look, here’s what it’s like.” I was talking a while back with another South Texas writer, Rene Perez, and he said that writing about South Texas is like writing science fiction; you’ve got to do a lot of worldbuilding. I thought about this when reading this passage. Do you recall at all what your thinking was as you wrote it?

Joe Jiménez

Perez drives a marvelous point.  Worldbuilding is part of what we do.  I also, and perhaps more immediately to this section of the essay, wanted to speak directly to perils of romanticizing small towns.  As a cisgender man, as a brown man who wears boots and old baseball caps and drives a red truck, my body is often read as straight, heteronormative, and so I am, for the most part, given safety in many small towns in South Texas.  This isn’t the case for everyone.  People I know and love, people I don’t know, have had to leave their hometowns for safer places, for opportunity, for people like them, for a chance at real sustainable joy.  I believe there is power in writing about our blindspots, and to see only the wonder of water towers without acknowledging that small towns, while awesome to me, also echo pain for others.  And like many of us, I’ve become especially aware of the divide between big cities and small towns, of urbanity and rurality, during and after last year’s election.  My partner and I visited Huntington, West Virginia last fall, where I talked about race and class and my YA novel at Marshall University, and while I will never fully understand why poor and working class people vote against our own interests, I do understand what it means to be living without things you need, necessities like jobs and food and health care, and for that reason, to put all your hopes in one basket, one basket that may subvert you, but still, it feels like hope when nothing else feels like hope, and what’s life without hope?  Driving the streets of Huntington, so many of the houses, like several on each street, were for sale, entire neighborhoods, it seemed, were being sold. I saw that despair, and having lived despair of my own, I understood some of it.  Coming from a small town, I have also felt defensive when I’ve listened to others disparage small-town America—like you, I often feel the need to say, “No, look, here’s what it’s like” or “But there’s so much more to it” or “More people from big cities should be interacting with people from small towns.”

September 2017

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

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An Interview with Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich

25 May

A review in Vogue called Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich’s The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir a “true crime masterpiece.”

Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich is the author of The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir, named an Indie Next Pick and one of the most anticipated books of 2017 by Buzzfeed, BookRiot, and the Huffington Post as well as a must-read for May by Goodreads, Audible.com, Entertainment Weekly, and Real Simple. The recipient of fellowships from The National Endowment for the Arts, MacDowell, and Yaddo, and a Rona Jaffe Award, Marzano-Lesnevich lives in Boston, where she teaches at Grub Street and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

To read an exercise on giving a character description context, inspired by Marzano-Lesnevich’s book The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoirclick here.

Michael Noll

The book took ten years to write—and over that ten years, you inevitably grew and changed as a person. I often find when I read work that I wrote years ago that I want to totally rewrite it. Did you do any of that with this book? I’m thinking of a moment like the one where you write, “When I began writing this story I thought it was because of the man on the tape” but then go on to write, “But I think now that I write because of Lorilei.” Did you have to, at times, resist the temptation to rewrite older sections so that they fit the sense of things that existed at that moment in your mind?

Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich

Oh, I rewrote this book so many times! That’s just the way I work. It’s a quirk of the book that though the idea’s been ten years in the making, and I’m been flat-out working on this conception of it for the past seven years, about half the book was written in the last year before I turned it in to my publisher. The way I thought about shaping the book was that while there’s a consistent narrator, she’s not narrating from a place where she has figured it all out already. She knows approximately where she’s going—the work I did before this draft let me know that—but there’s still a lot to figure out. So she’s telling herself a story about the past—both her past and what she understands and imagines from the records about Ricky Langley’s past—to try to understand why she’s so drawn to this story. Joseph Epstein calls personal narrative “the genre of discovery,” and that’s always felt true to me. The narrator is telling herself and the reader the stories of the past to try to discover the hold they have over her—and the structure of the book is meant to dramatize or re-enact that discovery, to induce that experience in the reader.

Michael Noll

How did you approach the sections about Ricky and his family. I can imagine how even a small detail like “Alicide driving the whole way back like a dog with his tail between his legs” could prove problematic from a journalistic perspective, prompting questions like “Did someone say this about him? How did you know?” How much license did you take in fleshing out scenes that must have occurred.

Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich

The book is written from research conducted on some 30,000 pages of court records and other documents, and at first, when I started writing from that research, I tried to do so in a more straightforwardly journalistic way. But there were several problems with that. First, the records contradict themselves in many places. They have holes and ellipses. In many cases, the legal narratives elided the contradictions, gliding right over them into a pretense of certainty—yet in my telling, I wanted to actually highlight the ellipses, and highlight that the legal narrative was constructed. Second, when I read the records, I found them incredibly vivid. I couldn’t help but see the scenes unfold in front of me. I decided that I need a more active narrator who was explicitly telling herself this story and could highlight imagining and speculate and muse on discrepancies. For example, in the scene you’re referencing, Ricky Langley’s father, Alcide, is driving. I begin the scene this way, talking about the car: “I imagine the station wagon my parents had when I was a child, but that was the early 1980s, so subtract, now, the faux-wood paneling, the power steering.” It was very important to me that the reader understand that I was telling myself a story based on the records of the past. The book is a record of one mind—mine—trying to piece the past together into a story. So the imagining is only done in service of that aim, to try to put the pieces together. That means no invented events or dialogue, just taking what’s already in the records and trying to imagine them into color, the way we all do when we hear or read something that feels real to us. As it says in the source note that precedes the text: the book became a story not just about what happened in the past, but even more than that, about the stories we make from it. It’s a true crime book and a memoir, yes—but it’s also a story about how we tell ourselves stories.

Michael Noll

This is partly a coincidence of timing, but as I read this book, I couldn’t help thinking about the podcast S-Town, which starts with the narrow frame of a possible crime and then explodes to a much broader frame, with people and storylines that weren’t there in the beginning. Your book does something similar as it digs into the history of the people involved. How did you figure out the frame for each section of the book and what to include and what to leave out?

Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich

Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich’s The Fact of a Body: A Murder and a Memoir was named one of Entertainment Weekly’s “Books You Have to Read in May.”

The structure of this book was one of the things that took the longest. I thought about it in a couple of ways: first, I knew pretty early on that it would have to be a braid that alternated between my life and Ricky Langley’s life, if I were going to capture the way these stories had seemed linked in my subconscious. Two, those braids couldn’t strictly remain separate over the course of the book, or I wouldn’t capture the powerful sense of how entwined they sometimes became in my mind—I wouldn’t capture the sense of being haunted that so drove me. And finally, I knew that in a book that’s largely about the way we make stories out of the past, and which concerns two crimes—Jeremy Guillory’s murder and my grandfather’s abuse of me and y siblings—stories about which have already been told many different ways, I had to have a structure that would allow me to tell and re-tell and complicate the telling of the same events without losing forward my momentum. I thought about suspense as though it were a baton in a relay race—which strand of the book was carrying it at any given moment, and how could I hand it off between sections?

Michael Noll

You’re going on tour for this book, which makes me curious how you’ll read from it. It’s one thing, I suppose, to write about painful personal details from the safety of your home and desk, but it might be quite another to read from those sections in front of strangers. How do you handle the emotional aspect of reading from this book?

Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich

One of the good things about how long this book took me to write is that I had many years to get used to reading from it. And to my surprise, I found that I absolutely love giving readings. After so many years of working, as you say, alone at my desk, it’s such a gift to bring these stories to people and experience the emotional connection that happens when you share your story. Yes, there are parts of the book that can feel vulnerable to share. For those, reading the audiobook of The Fact of a Body let me practice. But I’m mindful that we all have private stories hidden away inside of us, and if I can offer mine forth to help create connection between people—well, isn’t that the role of the writer?

May 2017

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

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