An Inspirational Conversation

For most of my time in graduate school, I was fortunate to hold a part-time job as a writer for student newspaper The Rearguard. I parlayed this opportunity into a way to interview some of the writers in Portland who inspire me. Throughout the summer, I’m going to post some of these memorable interviews, starting with Lidia Yuknavitch, author of The Chronology of Water and Dora: A Headcase.

Lidia Yuknavitch Author Photo

How long have you been writing? How long have you considered yourself a writer?
I started writing when I was twenty-five, and I’m fifty. I didn’t really have that stage when I was troubled with calling myself a writer. I was twenty-five and arrogant and already creating art.

When I was published, it didn’t make me feel more like a writer. There was an outer legitimacy stamp. At first, I was pissed. Why did I need that? As I got older and kept writing, I figured out how to develop a relationship with getting published—it makes a relationship with readers, which I care about. When I first started making art, it was antagonistic. I wanted to scratch the reader. The whole time I’ve been writing, my relationship has been changing. Although, I still have the feeling that I want to wake them up.

Do you believe in the adage that in order to be a writer you have to write every day?
No! For some people, that’s a practice that works. But, there are about as many different practices as there are writers. I am more of a binge writer. I write in large chunks once or twice a week. The daily thing makes my writing bad. It doesn’t work for me. I would never say that’s not the way to do it. It just doesn’t work for me. There isn’t one way. There are a million paths of how-to. You have to figure out your path and religiously do it. That’s important.

Is it easier or harder to be a writer in Portland? What is the community like here, especially amongst female writers?
Yes and no. It is easier to be a woman writer in Portland because the community is particularly nurturing and supportive. A lot of writers who achieve status here are more willing to help newer writers. The no part is that sometimes you can get addicted to the community and start writing like others within it. Any woman writer who lives here should count herself lucky. But also, you have to be super vigilant about aloneness in a community like that so you can make work that is you.

What are you working on now?
I am working on the second two novels in my Dora three-part series. The next two novels are based on other famous women in history. I’m also writing a second memoir. I had sort of promised myself I wouldn’t write another memoir. I don’t want to be writing memoirs. I tend to write in spite of what people are telling me to write.

What is the difference (in approach, editing, etc.) between writing fiction and nonfiction?
I think I might be unusual in that I don’t see much of a difference, except in one way. When you’re writing non-fiction, certain creative paths start to close down because the plot isn’t open. But with everything else, you use the same tools in the craft toolbox as you would fiction or poetry.

It’s more painful [to write non-fiction].

Dora: A Headcase is a coming-of-age novel. Would you consider it YA?
It’s not YA. There’s too much sex and curse words and violence. I have a tricky relationship with YA. I’m for it. I like that strong young girl characters are coming out of it, but I’m worried these girls are being constrained into the YA-ness. One of the reasons I wrote Dora is that she has none of those constraints. We’re never going to get anywhere with a series of girl characters who are strong and do cool things, but they still need a boyfriend at the end. I’m a little worried, even as I’m excited for it.

How do you balance teaching with working as a writer? How does one inform the other?
Look at me, I don’t. I’m exhausted. There is no balance. I teach full-time, and I teach workshops on top of that. When I’m teaching, I hear voices and experiences that populate my imagination world. Everyone I’ve ever taught is in every book I’ve written. It’s that entire human community I’ve had a relationship with that goes into my words.

When I write, I find paths to hope and love and how to stay alive, and I can bring that back to people in a classroom who are struggling and share that. I guess I’d say they deeply inform each other.

Who are some female writers you admire/look up to?
I look up to and admire all the women in my writing group: Chelsea CainMonica Drake, Susie Vitello, Cheryl Strayed, Mary Wysong-Hiari, and Diana Paige-Jordan. I’ve been in this group five or six years. And the reason I respect and admire their work is because every week on Monday night we meet, and they risk everything on the page. We’re different writers, but we all do that.

Interview first published in The Rearguard in March 2013.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: