Certainty is the cage that keeps us safe from curiosity. I've been released from the cage. I am the songbird and I am flying for the window. I know it's closed but I plan on breaking through. – Charlie Coté, Jr. (1987-2005)

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Gold Stars and Ghostbread: An Interview with Sonja Livingston

Sonja Livingston, author of Ghostbread (The University of Georgia Press, 2009), winner of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Award for Creative Nonfiction, agreed to an e-mail interview with me recently. Not only is she an award winning memoirist, but she writes kick-ass poetry. Hope you enjoy this interview as much as I enjoy Sonja Livingston.

CC: Kathleen Norris writes, after reading Ghostbread, that you were a beleaguered and intelligent child. That of course becomes so evident in the reading, but I’d add resilient, feisty, and precocious. What interests me is how kind you are in person, given all that beleaguerment. How do you account for that and what did you learn about yourself in the writing of the memoir?

SL: This is going to sound odd, but actually I was an introverted kid. I would have preferred to have kept to the background always. It’s who I am.  But I also craved adult attention. I was like a dog coming out of its hut for a bone. Once I performed the cost-benefit analysis fourth graders are prone to do, it was a no-brainer: saying something smart-ass garnered more notice than another gold sticker.  In middle school getting sent to the principal’s office was the highlight of my day.  I loved her! Sister Eileen would ask me to fill her in on General Hospital and what I thought about things like women’s role in the Church. She talked to me. She listened. (And I know you know what a drug that is...) Same thing at church.  No doubt some of those kindly parishioners at Corpus Christi wanted to flee when they saw me coming, but I couldn’t help myself.  I couldn’t get enough of how willing they were to ask about how I was doing, what I was thinking.  Seven kids and one tired mother did not allow for such things.

I’m not sure I learned much about myself as a result of writing the book.  I mean, I’ve always sort of over-known me.  But sifting through my memories as an adult did have me looking more at how we must have seemed to others, how my mother felt at my age, how it must have been to have all those kids.

As for kindness, most people I grew up with (no matter how troubled) were kind. I’ll take it a step further—most people are kind. I’m always astounded when someone is not. It sends me into a rant: I’ll bombard others with the question: Why isn’t so and so nice? Until some person kindly reminds me that not everyone is nice, even writers. And yet, human kindness is such an uplifting thing.

CC: Of course, the memoir’s title is haunting. I know, groan. Tell us about actual ghost bread, what it is, how it tastes, whether it makes for good french toast, and how this title defines the arc of the book.

SL: Well it tastes like... bread.  And really, is anything better?  Actually, ghost bread is a generic term used to mean different types of bread—it was especially good baked in the oven, but we also made something that was pan-fried, like pancakes minus fancy ingredients like eggs and butter.  Once, my sister found a recipe for paper-mâché paste in a Highlights for Children Magazine and we laughed and laughed, because it was essentially the recipe for fried ghost bread.

The title is about hunger.  About longing for something, and the way such longing becomes everything.  This isn’t as sad as it sounds.  I mean, we all want children to have their needs met.  But longing seems essential to the creative process. Whether it’s longing for sneakers that didn’t come from the sale bin at the public market or wanting to be selected as Veronica in the Passion Play, that desire fueled something in me. I noticed differently. I wanted differently. I still do.  Writing is one of the few things that rises to meet that longing. What do you think, Charlie? I mean, do you find with people, writers or clients, that longing is often the thing that causes creative action? 

CC: I couldn't agree more. What's that saying about necessity and the mothers of invention? Wait, that's Frank Zappa's band.

This collection seems to be a fusion of several genres: creative non-fiction, poetry, flash fiction. How do you describe it? Extra points for coining a new term.

By the way, I love, love, love short chapters, me being a bit ADHD and all. What was I asking? Oh, how did you find the book’s form?

SL: More nonfiction collections are being written this way. I recently read Bluets, by Maggie Nelson, which is a lovely collection of short meditations on the color blue, and I just started Nick Flynn’s Another Bullshit Night in Suck City which does something similar, as did Deborah Tall in her memoir Family of Strangers.  These writers are poets, so it may be that this form lends itself to the poetic impulse. But no matter its genre-bending props, these books are nonfiction. I love that literary nonfiction is free enough to allow for such play, but has at its core the writing of the actual; that is, the experiences, memories, and thoughts of the writer. In this way, the genre is unrelenting. 

Okay, I have to try for the extra points because there might be a gold star, right? I’ll call these collections Dot-to-Dot—you know like those old books where you connect the numbered dots with a pencil? Each “chapter” is a dot, and the reader is invited to make the connections between them, which then add up to a larger image. It might frustrate those looking to float along on fully-realized story. Good stories are a part of the mix here, but as with poetry, this type of essay collection is a sort of journey, and requires the participation of the reader.

CC: I like that, dot-to-dot. A big gold star for you!  Reading Ghostbread is much like spending time with you, my dear, which of course is delightful, engaging, smart, wise, original, what I want from all my companions, and best of all, such sweet sorrow at parting. Does it surprise you that I can misquote Shakespeare? I was so sad to turn that last page.

I know, that last question was a bit over-the-top. Will you blurb my book now?

SL: Thanks, but I was glad to be out of there as soon as I could.  Writing the last half was especially grueling, and I’d blurb you anytime, Charlie Coté.

CC: OK, I'll hold you to that. How have you navigated the perilous waters of writing so honestly about your kin? Have you been written out of any wills? Any lawsuits? I am a therapist. Let me know how I can help. But seriously... What is your relationship with your family like today, if you don’t mind sharing? If you do, put me in my place but make it seem like you’re paying me a compliment.

SL: One of the benefits of coming from families without wills is that there is nothing to be written out of!  And when you grow up in certain environments, everyone knows your business anyway—so less was at stake in terms of privacy to begin with.  I know lots of families learn to keep their secrets, and that must be tough.  One of the things I’m grateful about my background is that we never had the luxury of pretense.    

Plus, Charlie, when my people die, I’m pretty sure I’ll be called upon to help pay the costs.   That said, I changed most of their names and attempted to tell not only the truth (which is clearly my version of the truth) but also to tell my story in service of something larger.  So I told about my family, but my hope is that besides getting to know my experience, readers might understand more about what it’s like to come from such a family.  Rochester, Buffalo, and the city I’m in now (Memphis) are loaded with such families; single mothers, several fathers, lots of moving, and so on. We see these people on the news and walking to and from parts of the city we try to avoid.  I wanted to show something of the living breathing people whose reality is so easy to judge from outside.

The tricky thing about memoir is that the story of our life is not isolated.  My story intersected with my mother’s story, my friends’ stories, my siblings’, and so on.  I knew that intellectually, but did not really feel it until my manuscript became a book. 

CC: What was the process of writing this memoir? I want to write one myself and plan on reverse-engineering your genius.

SL: Basically it involved writing and overeating while listening to 10,000 Maniacs and Morrissey, peppered with bouts of crying and drinking.  In other word: regular living.  I wrote much of it in an MFA program, and certainly taking classes was helpful.  I currently have only myself to push deadlines, and I manage, but there is nothing like an external deadline to get you moving.  In some ways it was easier to write a memoir because the stuff is all there, but in other ways, it was tougher to return to those places we all learn to push past in order to move on.

I’m not sure I answered that and I really am working for a gold star here, so let me know.

CC: There you go, another gold star! I'll probably listen to Iron and Wine for my process, maybe Wilco too. I'm melancholy that way.

What are you doing now as a result of writing this stunning book? How has your life changed?

SL: You know, the warning new writers often hear is that publication doesn’t change your life. It’s a good and necessary warning, true in many respects. I have not attained some inner glow or an endless well of self-love as a result of publishing. If anything, you are more exposed emotionally when you publish. 

That said, life does change.  As difficult and sometimes depressing as the business of publication is, suddenly your work is accessible to others.  I have connected with people in meaningful ways ever since the book came out.  People send emails or tell me their stories, and honestly, there is nothing like a kid from Charlotte High School saying she could relate to my book.  I’ve also had some amazing experiences reading at schools across the country.  For instance, I’ve been invited to read at Notre Dame later this month with writers like Edwidge Danticat and Susan Orlean as a result of the book and will speak at a Women Helping Girls Program this spring in Rochester, which is exciting.  Absolutely life-changing. 

I’m currently a Visiting Assistant Professor in the very fine writing program at the University of Memphis. So I teach and travel. And write—which can only mean one thing: Listening to 10,000 Maniacs and Morrissey while eating too much bread and fixing gin and tonics. And looking out for gold stars. All those things are still a part of my life.

CC: Of all the places you lived during childhood, what was your favorite and why? Barb wanted me to ask this.

[Editor's note: Barb is my lovely wife, and she too has a lovely blog called Finger Lakes Summer.]

SL: I like Barb!  She’s a special person.  You know what I mean, how there are a handful of people in life who seem different?  That’s Barb.  Okay, as for the question, for better or worse, a big part of surviving lots of moves and the juggling of people was learning not to get attached.  I don’t think I allowed myself things like favorite places.  Looking back, I am fond of the more rural places like Albion and the Tonawanda Reservation.  I still like to visit the wildlife refuge in Batavia, for instance, and whenever I see a heron I will probably always think of my mother.  

CC: Yes, Barb is very special, and so is her blog. You should check it out. See, I'm all about the shameless plug.

Your book has also been compared to Frank McCourt’s memoir, Angela’s Ashes. Can we expect a sequel from you, and if so, what might we expect? If not, what are you working on now?

SL: I like the comparison, but it’s really not so much like that book, is it? I mean, God, I’d love to write a McCourt-style book, but the narrative in my hands is simply more splintered. The poverty is the similarity, I suppose, and the attempt to have others look at it, when it can be such an unpleasant thing to do.

I thought I was done with memoir, but I do have a few essays that might qualify as sequel material. They are being published as essays, but Ghostbread started as individual essays, so who knows?  I am working on lots right now!  I have a collection of poems that is near complete, a novel I’ve been dragging around for a few years, and am writing a collection of essays about women.  Brave women.  Three projects cannot be a good thing!  A tarot card reader once told me to focus and I hated her for it, but she was right.  I should focus.

CC: Splintered narrative, now there's another genre. As for McCourt, he worked as a public school teacher and you worked in the public schools, so you have that in common. What was it like being a school counselor given your experience on the other side of the desk, or couch, or sand tray? This is another Barb question. Personally, I think it’s kind of intrusive, but you still have to respond.

SL: Hey wait a minute, I never had a sand tray! Just a giant doll house and a few puppets. And nothing is intrusive for memoirists.

Being a counselor was wonderful. I love kids and it was an honor to be there for them when they felt bad or scared or that they didn’t fit in (and don’t we all feel that way?)  My experience made it so that I was easily accepting of people (no matter how different or grubby) and believed in the power of simply loving children. I was perhaps too realistic; I knew I couldn’t put food permanently in kids’ cupboards or get rid of an abusive parent or stop the things I knew would come their way; but I could let them know how much they mattered, and what promise I saw in them. It isn’t much, but in a way, it is everything.

CC: Sometimes that's all we need, someone to let us know that we matter.

What are you currently reading? What book(s) knock(s) you out?

SL: I’m reading the Nick Flynn book I mentioned, and Lydia Davis’ Varieties of Disturbance, as well as Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald, which a smart woman from my writing group recommended.

Who knocks me out?  Edna O’ Brien knocks me out. Marguerite Duras knocks me out. Harriet Scott Chessman knocks me out. Triple punch from these ladies. Nabokov causes occasional bouts of breathlessness. Very different writers, but what they have in common is prose that refuses to be bound by convention.

CC: All these great recommendations. Thanks. Who or what have been your inspirations and influences as a writer?

SL: Hearing Gerald Stern read in Prague ten years back changed everything. When he read, I felt the doors of poetry open to me. It sounds like a crazy overstatement, I know, but even while writing it, I had been intimidated by the standoffishness of poetry, as though it was a thing far removed from our daily lives.  But then, this small man stood up and opened his mouth, and I swear, something like fire and fish flopped out. It was baptism by Stern.

Judith Kitchen was another influence. Her essay workshops at Brockport were a gift to local writers; she loved the essay form and was highlighting its lush muscularity long before it became popular.  Her own writing is lyrical and honest and just gorgeous. She also influenced me as a teacher, her workshops were positive places; little writing communities. When I teach, I think of her example, and have never been disappointed. 

Writers who applied simple language also grabbed me, especially for use in memoir.  Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street is a novel, but her format, language, and content validated what I was looking to do.

CC: Gerald Stern is a force for sure and an inspiration to me given his age when he broke onto the scene with Rejoicings in 1973 (age 48) and then followed that with Lucky Life (age 52), the 1977 Lamont Poetry Selection of The Academy of American Poets, which was nominated for a National Book Critics Circle Award.

How has the experience of being an outsider, your time living on the reservation, contributed to your artistic vision?

SL: Being different made me interested in people, especially in their differences.  We are all very much alike, but I honed in on things like how on the reservation they said “spun” instead of “spoon” and how in the city my best Puerto Rican friends could straighten their upper bodies into metal poles while letting their hips fly in a merengue —even now, in Memphis, I annoy students by having them repeat the way they so beautifully say “nick-ked” for “naked”.

I was always the kid who watched the world around me.  When things change so much, it pays to keep your eye on things.   It’s probably why I majored in anthropology, then counseling. Observing others probably makes me kind of creepy, but it also equips me as a writer, it’s how I gather my threads for weaving.  It’s why I travel whenever I can, even when I can’t afford it.  Who said the writer’s job is to notice?  Someone famous said it, and he was right.

CC: Hey, I never thought you were creepy, until now...

Design your own question here:

SL: If you had to choose between an evening of Mexican music under the stars or unlimited soft shell tacos for a year (delivered, of course) which would it be and why? (Yes, I have food issues.)

CC: Answer your own question here, in the voice of a famous poet, and we’ll try to guess who you’re trying to imitate.

SL: Okay, I hope I did this right.  My answer comes in the form of a poem.

Digression on a Question
To me it’s easy, I’d turn the corner onto 7th Avenue,
head toward the Upper East Side where I’d opt to resurrect Selena
Quintanilla from the mid-1990s, and if she would not follow, that cushy-lipped Tejano Queen,
I’d think of a real queen and Freddie Mercury and what could I do but settle for mariachis;
those sad song vihuelas and cheeky rhinestones (a boy can never have too many
rhinestones--at least that’s what  someone at Doughty’s once said) and anyhow, I’d listen
and swell like a mad French balloon (I like to insert French things
into my poems—watch this: Gauloises) and we’d be in Central Park by now,
near that awful likeness of Columbus and the stars flirting
harder than little Jaynie Mansfield. I’d become a moon-filled lantern, all that light,
how could I stand not to dance and turn    marvelous     but once the night
had ended, the cool sheet of morning was pulled back, I’d be alone again, mariachis gone,
just me left alone tracing the soft shell of my stomach, trying not to think
of rhinestones and all the lunchtimes yet to come.

CC: OK, I'll say your answer sounds like either Gerald Stern or Frank O'Hara. Do I get a gold star? Thanks for the conversation, Sonja, and good luck with your teaching, writing, and taco tasting.

From Sonja Livingston's website, here's the scoop on Ghostbread, a book you'll all be glad you read, once you've read it, so please do:
Praise for the Ghostbread:
“I know where I came from. With this declaration, the author of Ghostbread takes us on a journey through a childhood scarred by poverty and graced by love. Like an American version of Angela’s Ashes, the book allows us to encounter— and see, taste, and smell— poverty through the eyes of a beleaguered and intelligent child. We are grateful to be reminded of the human reality at the heart of a world that is all too often hidden in governmental ‘poverty indicators,’ and also glad that the author has survived to tell the tale.”
— Kathleen Norris, author of Acedia & Me: A Marriage, Monks, and a Writer's Life
Ghostbread weaves together a child’s experience of not belonging, the perilous ease of slipping into failure, and the deep love that can flow from even a highly troubled parent. This is rich, sensual storytelling. An amazing debut from a wonderful new writer."
Dinty W. Moore, author of Between Panic and Desire
“Exquisite in its details and insights, Ghostbread shows us the invisible undersides of poverty. Sonja Livingston renders this so solidly that we come to understand the roots of despair, and the beauty that can be found in the midst of squalor. In an age when memoir exploits the seamier sides of life, thrusting their authors into the limelight, this book holds back, quietly resisting shock value in favor of understanding.”
— Judith Kitchen, author of House on Eccles Road
About the book
“When you eat soup every night, thoughts of bread get you through.” Ghostbread makes real for us the shifting homes and unending hunger that shape the life of a girl growing up in poverty during the 1970s.
One of seven children brought up by a single mother, Sonja Livingston was raised in areas of western New York that remain relatively hidden from the rest of America. From an old farming town to an Indian reservation to a dead-end urban neighborhood, Livingston and her siblings follow their nonconformist mother from one ramshackle house to another on the perpetual search for something better.
Along the way, the young Sonja observes the harsh realities her family encounters, as well as small moments of transcendent beauty that somehow keep them going. While struggling to make sense of her world, Livingston perceives the stresses and patterns that keep children--girls in particular--trapped in the cycle of poverty.
Larger cultural experiences such as her love for Wonder Woman and Nancy Drew and her experiences with the Girl Scouts and Roman Catholicism inform this lyrical memoir. Livingston firmly eschews sentimentality, offering instead a meditation on what it means to hunger and showing that poverty can strengthen the spirit just as surely as it can grind it down.
Sonja Livingston has earned a NYFA Fellowship, an Iowa Award, and Pushcart Prize nomination for her nonfiction writing. Her work has appeared in several textbooks on writing, as well as many journals, including The Iowa Review, Spoon River Poetry Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, AGNI and others. She holds an M.S. Ed. from SUNY Brockport and an MFA from the University of New Orleans.


p swartzfager said...

Really nice interview. I read it all (which I usually don't do). Thanks.

Charles Coté said...

Thanks Paulette!

Elizabeth said...

Great interview. I continue to admire this queen of luscious images. Swelling like a French balloon. I carry Ghostbread around with me when I need a dose of good literary language. Bravo.

dinosaur said...

I enjoyed reading this interview. I especially like getting all the book recommendations. Just like the end of winter, waiting for any sign of spring, I have needed some good writing to read.

Sonja L. said...

Dng, ding, ding--Gold Star to you--I was going for O'Hara with my pop culture references and focus on lunchtime...thanks again, Charlie, it was fun!

Charles Coté said...

Yay, I got it right!