Tag Archives: Riverine

An Interview with Angela Palm

1 Dec
Angela Palm won the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize for her memoir Riverine.

Angela Palm won the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize for her memoir Riverine: A Memoir from Anywhere but Here.

Angela Palm is the author of Riverine: A Memoir from Anywhere but Here, recipient of the 2014 Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize. She is the editor of a book featuring work by Vermont writers, called Please Do Not Remove. She has taught creative writing at Champlain College, New England Young Writers’ Conference, The Writers’ Barn, and The Renegade Writers’ Collective and is the recipient of a Bread Loaf Fellowship in nonfiction. Her writing has appeared in or is forthcoming in Creative NonfictionEcotoneAt Length MagazineBrevity, DIAGRAM, Essay DailyPaper Dartsapt, SmokeLong Quarterly, Hippocampus MagazineMidwestern Gothic, Little Fiction, Big Truths, and Sundog Lit. She was raised in the rural Midwest and lives in Vermont.

To read an excerpt from Riverine and an exercise on writing expansively, click here.

In this interview, Palm discusses finding the thread in connected essays, moving beyond the self in memoir, and what it means to be a Midwestern writer.

Michael Noll

Early in Riverine, you write about visiting your riverside home years after leaving it:

“The road had  anew name, the one-way arrow of time expanding here as it was anywhere else on Earth, but the defining entropy of the place was the same. There was no aftermath through which I could proceed as story, as I’d hoped for—no obvious tale waiting to be told.”

This passage encapsulates what I think a lot of people feel as they begin to write their own stories, whether it’s through essay or memoir. What was the moment that happened—in a draft or in your head—that showed you the way into the story?

Angela Palm

I had written four standalone essays in which the landscape of my home featured prominently as metaphor and as setting. I knew the river would be one of the main threads that stitched the different pieces together. I also knew that Corey’s crime was the central narrative hook. But I needed more. Those pieces alone didn’t make a book, didn’t organize a book, so I began doing some research and found different maps of the Kankakee Marsh from different time periods. Mapping—my obsession with its accuracies and inaccuracies, with its erasure, history, and inherent limitations—became the book’s organizing principle. I would use mapping as a way to chart story, I decided, and everything began to take shape from there. It was then that I wrote the opening essays, “Map of Home,” which begins with the epigraph “Every map is a fiction,” by DJ Waldie. That essay and epigraph are a guide to the whole book.

Michael Noll

In the early scenes with your father and friends playing cards, it’s hard not to think about Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club. That was a book that inspired a lot of memoirists, but it’s also 21 years old. A lot of great memoirs have been published since. Was that a book that shaped your thinking about memoir? What other memoirs were important to you in terms of craft?

Angela Palm

It’s interesting—everyone assumes my book was informed by Karr’s work. But I didn’t start reading her work until after I’d sold Riverine and in some ways I think that was for the best. I fancy myself an essayist at heart, or a writer of books that can’t commit to a subgenre. But the books most influential in writing Riverine were Boys of My Youth by Jo Ann Beard which informed my voice in some way, Dust Tracks on a Road by Zora Neale Hurston which informed my female psyche, and Bluets by Maggie Nelson which gave me permission to mix narrative with research and science and philosophy and lyricism.

Michael Noll

Angela Palm's memoir "Riverine is a different kind of memoir, one that through a kind of sleight of hand transports readers from the narrative into the world of ideas and back again, with readers scarcely noticing the transitions," according to a Wall Street Journal review.

Angela Palm’s memoir “Riverine is a different kind of memoir, one that through a kind of sleight of hand transports readers from the narrative into the world of ideas and back again, with readers scarcely noticing the transitions,” according to a Wall Street Journal review.

The central relationship in the book is between you and Corey, and so, naturally, there are moments when you write about him outside of the frame of your friendship. For example, at one point you write, “Things had started to go really wrong for Corey when he got in trouble for taking a gun to school and stashing it in his locker.” The passage goes on to explain what happened, ending up in an intimate moment shared by both of you. But I wonder, though, about the authority in that first sentence: “Things had started to go really wrong for Corey when…” Did you worry at all about stepping into a more journalistic space, writing about others, rather than the personal space of memoir/essay?

Angela Palm

Limiting myself to those personal spaces—those memories shared directly with Corey—would have resulted in an overly sympathetic and possibly sentimental rendering of story. And I didn’t want that. In order to tell the whole story, I had to move beyond myself in some places—this place in particular. No, it didn’t worry me. I was committed to tracking his transition from innocent kid to traumatized kid to juvenile delinquent to adult criminal. The event of the gun at school was part of that sequence. I spoke with him to clarify my memories of those events and to pin down the timeline. The phrasing of that paragraph combines information and my perception of that information.

Michael Noll

I’m curious about how the literary geography that you place yourself within. If this book had been set in, say, rural Georgia, the word Southern would almost certainly be used in descriptions of both the book and you, its writer. Of course, it’s set in Indiana. Yet I can’t find the word Midwest used in reviews or descriptions of the book—which seems to suggest something about the Midwest as a literary place. I suppose one could say, truthfully, that it’s large and varied, but so is the South. Do you think of yourself as a Midwestern writer? Does that adjective have any meaning for you?

Angela Palm

In some sense, I do consider myself a Midwestern writer. I’ve also called myself an anti-pastoral writer. My writing sensibilities about place come almost directly from the Midwest’s landscape, its people, its history, and its specific challenges. Despite often being considered unremarkable, I find there’s plenty to say and consider and unpack, still, in the region. The connotations of anything labeled “Midwestern” are typically negative, but I reject that. It’s a place full of contradiction, full of rich identity like anywhere else. There are too many boxes to put writers in and too much time spent doing so. Midwestern writer, anti-pastoral, place-based writer? Memoirist or essayist? Advocacy journalist, true crime writer, or prose lyricist? My work has been called all of these things by different people, and still I write without thinking of how a piece might be construed or constricted by its organizational terminology.

December 2016

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

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How to Write Expansively Instead of In a Straight Line

29 Nov
Angela Palm's memoir Riverine "Riverine is a different kind of memoir, one that through a kind of sleight of hand transports readers from the narrative into the world of ideas and back again, with readers scarcely noticing the transitions," according to a Wall Street Journal review.

Angela Palm’s memoir Riverine “is a different kind of memoir, one that through a kind of sleight of hand transports readers from the narrative into the world of ideas and back again, with readers scarcely noticing the transitions,” according to a Wall Street Journal review.

In my own writing, the number one sign that I’ve lost track of the narrative is that I become locked into a minute-by-minute recitation of what’s happening in the story. Even if the action is eventful, the telling of it feels tedious. Good prose should seem light on its feet, not plodding; expansive, not narrow; all-inclusive like Borges’ aleph or Whitman’s lines “what I assume you shall assume/For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” Perhaps that sounds a bit high-minded, but it’s a feat of mechanics, something that any writer can try on the page.

A great example of expansive prose can be found in Angela Palm’s memoir Riverine. You can read an excerpt here.

How the Memoir Works

Palm grew up in rural Indiana, in an unincorporated group of homes along the Kankakee River. Her neighbor and friend was a boy named Corey, who she played with and fantasized about until the day he was arrested for the brutal murder of two of their neighbors. She continues thinking about him long afterward, and the memoir is an attempt, in part, to make sense of that murder in both their lives.

As a result, the book faces the need of telling what happened to Palm and Corey but also exploring the world around them. Palm does exactly that in a passage about a third of the way into the memoir:

Generally, the town newspaper was a thing you decidedly wanted your name in or out of, depending on your status. If you were Bridget Trotsma with the brownest eyes and leanest thighs and eagerest stage mother, you wanted to be in. You said, “Look at that. I can’t believe I made front page. Again.” You smiled to yourself knowing full well you’d be on the front page but not knowing that you life would never be better than it was in that moment. If you were Corey, on the other hand, and you had killed two elderly, innocent persons and torched their car in a cornfield, you wanted to be out. You said nothing, if you were smart. But Corey wasn’t that smart. He talked to someone who talked to someone else who talked to the police.

The passage starts with a definitive statement about town newspapers and the sort of people who wanted to be written about. It’s a statement that requires explanation and evidence, which Palm proceeds to provide with the examples of Bridget Trotsma and Corey. Buried within that explanation are more statements that beg for more information, like “But Corey wasn’t that smart.” It’s no accident, then, that the next paragraph begins “Or, he was smart once, but only had a makeshift upbringing as the fifth of five children, one dead too young, to guide him.”

This meditation on types of people and how they become that way runs into an opposing view in the next paragraph:

I walked the aisles of the grocery store—a mistake, in retrospect. In the bread aisle at the IGA, I heard a man say, “I hope he fries.” Firing squad, another said. In the frozen section: “Those people living in the old riverbed ought to be self-incorporated if you ask me. Those people ain’t never been fit for this town. Draw a line between the northern farms and the river and be done with them.” Some folks are born evil, someone said. “Ain’t nothing you can do about it.” But that wasn’t true, was it?

The paragraph proceeds to offer examples that complicate a belief that in “born evil.”

The passage has now moved from the town newspaper to a metaphysical discussion of the nature of the soul, and so the next paragraph begins with “His case never went to trial” and ends with “But somehow I held out hope against hope in Corey’s civility, in his true self before he shattered, over time, into other broken versions of himself.”

We learn essential information about the narrative, the sort of details that are part of any crime story. But by making definitive claims about the world (from simple things like newspapers to complex abstractions like the nature of good and evil), the prose expand far beyond the basic execution of the crime and its punishment.

The Writing Exercise 

Let’s expand a narrative beyond its immediate action, using Riverine by Angela Palm as a model:

  1. Start with a general statement about the people, places, or things in your narrative. Palm begins her passage with newspapers and how people feel about appearing in them. It’s a version of the old saw “There are two types of people: those who ____ and those who ____.” Of course, statements like these are simplistic (“There are two types of people: Those who believe in dualities, and those who don’t.”). The point is not to definitively describe something so much as launch a discussion of it. You’re giving yourself something to talk about. So, pick any aspect of your narrative world and describe it in terms of “There are two types of people…” Ideally, you’re picking something that is connected to the main thread (the action or plot) of your story, but don’t let that stop you in your tracks. If you’re stuck, pick anything and see where it takes you. Don’t plan yourself into a perpetually blank page.
  2. Provide evidence for your statement. Give examples, as Palm does with Bridget and Corey. Put faces on the examples. Avoid, if you can, the invention of straw men (faceless characters who act in ways that are convenient for the writer). Ground your statement in reality (even if that reality is intentionally curated).
  3. Make definitive statements about your examples. Palm writes, “You said nothing, if you were smart. But Corey wasn’t that smart.” She starts with a generalization (“if you were smart”) and then makes it particular (“But Corey wasn’t”). Try using Palm’s basic structure “If you were ___, then ___.” Then, follow it up with “But/And ___ was/wasn’t ___.”
  4. Provide evidence for this new statement. Palm digs into the idea that Corey wasn’t smart and tries to explain how that could be true. In your own work, think about the how. This may feel like a natural progression: from what is to how/why it got that way.
  5. Introduce opposing views. If this sounds like instructions for a freshman comp essay, that’s okay. Good arguments are often narratives, and good narratives often make arguments about their worlds and characters. Palm introduces what some of the townspeople say about Corey, which differs from her own perception of him. She does this by putting herself in the place where the townspeople can be found: the grocery store. She doesn’t worry about identifying the people she encounters. Instead, she lists their statements one after another.
  6. Ask if these opposing views are true. Palm does this literally: “But that wasn’t true, was it?” Notice how she uses a question, not a statement (But that wasn’t true). A question demands an answer, which she then must provide. What you’ll probably find is that if you ask enough questions in your narrative (whether it’s fiction or nonfiction), you’ll find one that’s difficult to answer–and it’s that question that is likely at the reason you began writing the story in the first place.

The goal is expanding a piece of prose to reveal the world around a plot and possibly discover a story’s about-ness.

Good luck.

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