Whether you grew up in New Jersey as I did, or the rural Great Plains as did author Lacy M. Johnson, one’s childhood surroundings can’t help but seep into your pores and influence the way you view the world – even if you move many miles away. Johnson discovered this after entering the creative writing program at the University of Houston where she noticed how different she was from her citified classmates. Her Trespasses: A Memoir serves to not only tell the narrative tale of two generations of farm families but as a means for Johnson to understand herself and her “place.”
Lori: When did the notion of becoming a writer first come into play? How did you make that leap from a rural Midwest upbringing to writing prose?
Lacy: Even though I’ve always written, I didn’t first think of becoming a capital-W-Writer until college. Late in my sophomore year (which was really two years), I was accepted into the journalism program, and to get some prerequisites out of the way I took two English classes at the same time: Introduction to Literary Study (taught by Dr. Martin Camargo, a tenured professor in the English Department) and Introduction to Poetry Writing (taught by Nicole Pekarske, a doctoral student in the Creative Writing Program). That was the first time it ever occurred to me that a person could do such a thing as get a PhD, much less a Ph.D. in Literature or Creative Writing. It seems like such a simple thing, I know. But you have to keep in mind that I’m the first person in my mom’s family to finish college. Lots of people in my father’s family had been to college, and it was always expected that my sisters and I would also go, but it’s not like we have a lot of Ph.Ds running around rural Missouri slopping hogs. Yes, many well-read and very intelligent people live there, but I had never met a person with a Ph.D. until I went away to school. As a result, I always felt like I was late to the party, always lagging a little behind, always trying to catch up. Inevitably, I had never read what others (my professors, fellow students, and later, my own students) thought I should have read. I still feel that way to some degree, even after earning the Ph.D., which is probably how I found my way to prose. I spent most of my adult life writing poetry—well, I should say trying to write poetry. And then I eventually realized that the prevailing aesthetics of contemporary verse are just a little too far outside of my experience. Or, rather, that my experience is too just a little too far outside verse aesthetics. I felt much more welcomed by prose, and started exploring the boundaries and conventions of nonfiction. Eventually my work settled into a form mostly like the essay: combining the rhetorical strategies of poetry with the narrative drive of prose.
You interviewed family members for your memoir “Trespasses.” What were the challenges, if any, in recording true and honest stories from those you were close to?
Well, for starters, there was the logistical challenge. Despite what you might hear from StoryCorps, normal people don’t talk in memoir. Most people tell anecdotes, and almost never in chronological order. Normal people interrupt themselves and digress and forget their trains of thought, especially old people like my grandparents. One set of grandparents—my father’s parents—were particularly chatty. I could hardly get them to stop talking so I could ask another question. The other set of grandparents—my mother’s parents—would barely say a word. And then after the interviews were over I had all this footage and I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with it. At first, I tried to transcribe the interviews word for word, even preserving pronunciation and syntax. That met with all kinds of objections: Mark Doty, my dissertation advisor, alerted me to the ethical ickiness of those kinds of belittling linguistic representations, and their even ickier histories. I’m still thankful for that comment. But even when I tried to preserve only the syntax (which I felt was important for reasons I write about in the book), my mom still objected that I was making her sound like a hick. In the end, when I gave up the transcription and just listened to the interviews, I heard a lot of overlap. Several of the people repeated the same moments from different perspectives, and eventually all the different versions began to mesh together into a single impression, which, admittedly, is my own. In many ways, the telling of those moments says more about me than it does about anyone else. I’ve described the chapters (if you can call such tiny little things chapters), as snapshots, and I think that’s a good metaphor for what I try to do with the material from the interviews. I was given crusty, yellowed Polaroids and tried to restore them in an artful way. Together, the restorations might be considered a kind of impressionist family album.
“Trespasses” drifts from timeline to timeline using different voices throughout the narratives. How did you decide on using that style of telling your memoir? Were any major revisions done to come up with your final product?
Here’s the easy answer to that question: I don’t have just one voice. Who does? I don’t know anyone who is a single person all the time. Do you? Here’s the other answer: I wanted several kinds of voices to tell this story because I’m speaking to several different audiences. I wanted to put metropolitan ideas about what it means to be rural into sharp relief. And to do the same thing with rural people’s ideas about culture. A single, monolithic voice engaging in that kind of project comes frighteningly close to being reductive, and not at all reflective of anyone’s actual experience. Also: I find myself frequently arguing with myself about the place I’m from, and I wanted to be true to that, too. On the one hand, whenever I go home for a visit, it strikes me as a place I want to live forever. On the other hand, it’s a place I never want to live. It’s my home, and I’m exiled from it. I wanted to show that there are many ways to talk and think about this place, and I don’t want to privilege any one way of thinking or talking about a group of people. Instead, I’d rather challenge them all.
You’ve had quite a few interesting jobs before you began writing and teaching. What did you get out of working at Walmart, selling steaks door-to-door, and being a puppeteer with a traveling children’s museum? Have any of these experiences helped your writing in any way?
What these jobs have in common is that they put me in contact with lots of different people. Of course that’s helped my writing. Because when you work at Walmart, or sell steaks door to door, for example, you don’t get to go around thinking you’re better than other people. At the time, I didn’t think I was moving onto bigger and better things. I mean, I was in the management training program! Walmart management was my long-term career plan! So I never thought there was anything separating me from my customers, or from someone who likes to eat at McDonald’s (I like to eat at McDonald’s), or who lives in a mobile home. More than anything else, those experiences helped to inform my aesthetic. I don’t have a lot of patience for kids sitting around in workshop throwing fifty-thousand-dollar insults at one another. I tried to play that game for a long time, and then I found out that lots of my peers had never worked a hard day in their lives. They turn up their noses at Walmart and frozen steaks, and the kinds of people who are perfectly happy in their blue-collar careers. They overlook and devalue that culture. In popular media, being blue-collar is, at worst, something to be derided. At best, it’s fodder for jokes. If you’re blue-collar, or rural, you have to laugh at the jokes and at the same time know you’re being laughed at. That’s double-consciousness for you. The whole time I was working at WalMart, or selling steaks door to door, or panhandling on a subway platform in Manhattan, or working in warehouses, what I really wanted was for someone to take me seriously. Then one day I thought the first person to do that should be me.
There’s a saying that goes “You can never go home again.” Do you find that to be true? What does that mean to you as it relates to “Trespasses?”
I write about this in the book, because I’m not exactly welcome in my hometown. Even before the book was released I got the impression that I’m not seen as a person who’s from there. Instead, most people see me as an outsider and treat me with suspicion. It’s possible they just don’t recognize me. But it’s also possible they do. I haven’t been back to visit my family since the book was released. Some of my family members, like my mom, have read the book and feel proud. Others feel just okay, or indifferent. Others, like my dad, are pissed. And not about the things you’d expect. I thought, for example, that my parents would be upset by the frank way I talk about their racist attitudes and behaviors. I worried over that so much that I very nearly gave myself an ulcer. But they weren’t upset about that at all. Instead, my mom was bothered by the tiny details I got wrong, listing the names of people and places I had misspelled or conflated or confused. My dad added to this his displeasure that I had appropriated his memories and changed them for my own purposes. It’s a valid objection, and I’m still not entirely certain how to respond. But I also know that my memory, which is rightfully my own, also includes part of his memory, and his father’s memory, and so on and so forth. What is memory if not story? What is history if not collective memory? My history doesn’t consist of things that happened only to me. I didn’t come from nowhere. My history began before I was born.
Reportedly, you are an avid photographer. What are your favorite subjects?
It’s probably more accurate to say I’m a sometimes-avid photographer. I go through spells of taking lots and lots of photographs, but I don’t do so consistently. In 2011, for example, I had the brilliant idea to start a picture-a-day project, but dropped it by the end of March. I tend to pick up hobbies and practice them obsessively and then put them down when it gets too challenging or when there is no challenge. It’s how I work through questions. When I am taking lots of pictures, I mostly photograph my kids. They’re little monsters but they’re completely adorable. I also photograph food, since my food blog is one of my other occasional obsessions. More frequently than kids or food, I take photographs of textures: landscapes, frost on the window, condensation on the mirror. Texture really interests me. You might say all of my work studies the texture of individual experience. I’m far less interested in plot, for example, than I am in any kind of texture: emotional, material, cultural, natural, and so on.
What is your next writing project? Are you working on anything right now?
Yes, I’m always working. Right now, I’m working to get funding for a year-long research project on collaborative and/or interdisciplinary creative pedagogies. Every day I think of working at a food magazine that doesn’t yet exist. In reality, I work at MD Anderson Cancer Center, where I teach writing to pediatric cancer patients, and at Inprint (Houston’s premiere literary nonprofit), where I direct a manuscript workshop for K-12 teachers. In May I will be artist in residence at Millay Colony, where I will be working on my second book—part memoir, part critical study—about violence, memory, and desire. It’s still in its infancy, but an excerpt from that manuscript will be published in a forthcoming issue of Creative Nonfiction. In the meantime, I’m working on a craft essay, which has been taking far more of my attention than it deserves. On the weekends, I work on perfecting my jalapeno jelly recipe. When I get my sewing machine fixed I will work on a quilt. It’s entirely possible I’ll never finish it.