“A Good Editor is Such a Fantastic Learning Experience.”
A Chat with Memoirist Jean Harper.
Jean Harper is the author of, most recently, Still Life with Horses, a memoir (Howling Bird Press, 2017). Her other writings have appeared in The Iowa Review, North American Review, Florida Review, and elsewhere. She is a recipient of a National Endowment of the Arts Fellowship in Prose, and has been in residence at Yaddo, MacDowell, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. She teaches writing at Indiana University East. More at www.jeanharper.org.
Interview by Tanya Perkins
As a work of nonfiction, Still Life offers readers episodes from your life—real places, real people, but rendered as characters on the page, using the same elements of storytelling you might use in fiction. What is that process like?
I once took an intensive writing workshop with the nonfiction writer William Least-Heat Moon; he talked at one point about doing the research and reporting for his book Blue Highways, and made a strong case for learning how to pay attention so closely that you didn't have to take notes. You simply are fully present, open, and take everything in. And then, of course, as soon as you can, you write down what you had witnessed. So, that's what I do. I'm paying attention all the time; I'm writing it down on paper all the time. I have a little notebook I carry in my pocket, or bag; I have a journal I write in daily. So there is lots and lots of raw material.
Shaping that material is an interesting challenge. I have to make sure I'm not drifting off into fiction land, so I constantly check myself. Did I really hear that? Did the horse do exactly that? Since I have the notebooks, they are my reference point. I go back, check, recalibrate as needed.
In terms of characters, I'd say everyone in the book was tough to write about, in one way or another. When you write about real people I believe there is no way you can interpret how they will react. You can tell yourself to be kind, do no harm, be honest, and so forth, which is all good. But no matter what you write, or how, someone will have a reaction you didn't expect. So my allegiance is to the story. What am I trying to say? What's this about? What did various people do in this story? Am I getting it right? And by "right" I mean, not only is the story accurate, but is the story perceptive, insightful, compassionate, tough, significant. Oh, and: is the damn thing interesting? If it's not interesting, that to me is the worst writing sin. Don't bore your readers. Ever.
What was the starting point for this memoir?
Hours after my horse died, I wrote down as many details as I could. Just scrawls in a notebook. Single words, ideas, images, snatches of dialogue. Those pages were really raw, but that was the beginning. From there, most of the book appeared first in handwritten journal pages where I worked out various problems of the book. The initial full chapter appeared, just about as it is now, during a writing residency six months after the death of the horse. The first draft of the book appeared at a month-long writing residency; it was a big bloated mess of a draft, but that's how I like to work: have something to edit.
Did you end up where you thought you would, or somewhere quite different, artistically?
E.L.Doctorow has written: "Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way." I think that's how I got where I ended up. I just kept going. Sometimes I took wrong turns, went down roads that were dead ends and so forth, but I just kept going. I don't think I had a final vision in mind until that final vision appeared. It was like: Oh, there you are. And then I was done.
Each chapter is preceded by a short, lyrical vignette, which acts as a lead-in but also works independently, somewhat similar to Hemingway’s interstitial “chapters” in In Our Time. How did your haunting vignettes or prose poems come to be? Were they intended to function in a particular way or were they more of a happy accident?
Thank you for saying they are "haunting." I got to a point in the revising where there were chapters that were just not fitting. That was when the manuscript was some 65,000 words. So, I ruthlessly cut those chapters out, about 15,000 words, and saved tiny bits from each chapter that I liked, and shaped those into the prose pieces. Then, when I submitted the manuscript to Howling Bird Press, their word limit was 40,000 words. So that meant taking out another 10,000, which provided more material for the prose poems. That's when it really began to work. It felt right somehow, inserting those pieces between the chapters. The idea of pausing and turning the reader's gaze elsewhere, away from the story moving forward, and taking time to look for a moment toward horses, memory, images, made sense to me.
Buddy, the horse, is the heart of the memoir. Can you talk about what it was like to write about him? What is the biggest challenge to writing about an animal?
Oh, Buddy. When I was first writing about him, it was awful, to be honest. I adored that horse, and for about six months after he died, I could only write in fragments. It was just too difficult. When I finally went to a writing retreat for two weeks, I had the solitude and unbroken time to focus on the chapter about his death. I spent a lot of those two weeks just weeping. I had to give a reading at the end of the residency, and practiced reading aloud through what I had written about 25 times before I could actually read it without tears streaming down my face. That sounds so dramatic, and soupy, doesn't it? But really, when you love an animal, it's almost a primal thing. You speak in ways beyond language, through the body; so when you're writing about that animal, it's as though the whole body is writing. It's exhausting; it's exhilarating.
The biggest challenge in writing about an animal is to avoid the sentimental. We, as humans, get sentimental about our animals; animals are not sentimental, so I think it's incumbent upon us to do them the honor of presenting them that way. Straightforward, nuanced, intelligent, and an intelligence that is beyond human intelligence.
Into what tradition or in what company do you see this memoir fitting? Who or what do you see as its antecessors—who would fit beside this work on a bookshelf?
If Still Life with Horses could choose its company, it would choose to be with smart, tough, resilient women who move past adversity with a certain amount of humor, grace, and humility intact. I love Gail Caldwell's Let's Take the Long Way Home, and of course Cheryl Strayed's Wild and JoAnn Beard's “Fourth State of Matter.” My book would also be quite happy to sit next to George Hodgman's Bettyville, which is a book that is, at its heart, kind, and empathetic about the Midwest.
What responsibility has a memoirist, do you think, when depicting people or incidents from memory, particularly those who are still alive, who participated in the events? Or is there any, beyond simply telling the truth as you remember it? Is that even (really) possible?
For Still Life, I showed the completed manuscript to a number of people named in the book, to make sure they were okay with their portrayal, and make sure any details and conversations I recounted felt accurate to them. I also offered to change names, if they wanted. One person asked for that, and I did change a name. Some other people in the book are not named; some very few have been given pseudonyms.
Overall, I think my job as a nonfiction writer, a memoirist in particular, is to work in service of telling the story, and doing so as truthfully as possible. It's possible that some of the people portrayed in the book may flinch at seeing themselves on the page; others may not recognize themselves at all. I don't think any writer can know how a book will be received by people in it, or people simply reading it.
As for truth, right: is it possible? It's been said enough times that who is perceiving what can make for vastly different narratives. That makes sense. If you know a lot about horses, you will see things a non-horse-person won't even notice. And vice versa. So, our perspectives matter. There's that. But I think the term "emotional truth" has been way overused as a dodge for not doing the work of getting the facts right. Facts are verifiable: the horse was a bay gelding, the marriage lasted 15 years, the setting is Indiana. Truth is more complicated, and to simply label it "emotional truth" kind of signals to me that you, the writer, are not doing the hard work of self-examination. That to me is a large part of writing memoir. If you have a lousy marriage, which I did, you have to own up to the fact (fact!) that the marriage was composed of two people. So there are two of you; what did you do? Not just the spouse, who it would be easy to demonize. What was your role? That's the hard work of writing memoir. Maybe we can call this "contemplative truth."
What is the best advice you ever got, as a writer?
Two things: "All real writers go through this." The this being anything related to writing: getting stuck, searching for the right word, getting rejected, getting published, fiddling endlessly with a paragraph, getting it right on the first try. If you are writing and going through whatever you are going through, you have company. You are a real writer.
And, from Chuck Close: "A quilt may take a year, but if you just keep doing it, you get a quilt."
How has publishing in literary magazines helped your development as a writer?
I've had the opportunity to publish work in a number of really fine journals, with excellent editors – The Iowa Review, North American Review, Harpur Palate, Damselfly Press, and others. Working with a good editor is such a fantastic learning experience for a writer. Once your piece has been accepted, editors can focus on simple yet profoundly important issues such as word choice, the presence or absence of a comma, the structure of a paragraph, whether a line of inquiry is sustained, and so forth. As a writer, you get the gift of close reading, and if you stay open to it, you'll learn a lot about not only this piece of writing, but the next and the next as well. As writers, I think we should submit our work with that in mind: I hope I get the chance to work with these editors, on this piece.
What is your earliest experience publishing with a literary journal? How did you get started sending out your work?
Actually the first piece of writing I ever sent out was to the Boston Herald's children's section of the Sunday paper. There was a contest of some kind, I don't remember what, but my piece won and was published. "I am a dog," a short story from the point of view of a lonely dog, was published, and I was awarded $5. I was eight, it was 1966, and that felt like a lot of money. Many years later I learned that Sylvia Plath also published her first piece in that same paper, many years earlier, at the same age I was. Twenty years later, when I was in graduate school at Emerson College in Boston, I started sending out my short stories and essays to literary journals. One of my professors, Pam Painter, brought our fiction workshop to her house one evening and showed us her system for keeping track of submissions. This was the late 1980s, way before email and Submittable. Pam's system was filing cards: one color for the journals you sent to; another color for the pieces you sent out. I still have those cards somewhere; I used that system way into the late 1990s. Using that system, or any system of keeping track, is really important. It tracks not only what you have out there, but also tracks your own growth as a writer over the years.
One of my earliest acceptances was to The Iowa Review. I had been following a traveling carnival for a couple of years, and had written an extended essay about the experience. This was in the late 1990s, still long before online submissions were the norm. I'll never forget getting a phone call from the editor saying they wanted my essay. After the essay was published, I then got a letter from a prominent New York literary agent who asked to see more of my work. Although this didn't result in a contract, we kept up a correspondence for some time, and he was quite encouraging. As a writer, I think any encouragement is useful, whether it results in publication or contracts or not. Publishing in literary journals is like that too, I think: it creates for you as a writer a network of people – intelligent, literary, passionate editors and readers – that you can feel out there, caring about writing, cheering you on, even as you sit at your desk with the page, putting down one word, and then the next. You are not alone in this after all.
What would we see on your bedside table right now?
A pad of paper and a pen. War and Turpentine (Stefan Hartmans); Austerlitz (W.G. Sebald); Jane: A Murder (Maggie Nelson); The Age of the Horse (Susanna Forrest). Two kinds of hand lotion. It's winter, and barn chores in winter … well, they're cold.
Tanya Perkins is an assistant professor and creative writing coordinator at Indiana University East. Her work has been published in Fiction Southeast, The Chattahoochee Review, Big Muddy, Storyscape, Wilderness House Review and other journals. Her chapbook People are Naturally Attracted to You is forthcoming from WTAW Press in March 2018.