Called “living and seamless” by Carmen Maria Machado in the New York Times, the memorable and distinctive stories collected in Danielle Lazarin’s Back Talk (Penguin, 2018) have been garnering praise. Lazarin recently appeared on Publishers Weekly’s notable list, “Writers to Watch: Spring 2018,” and since then, she has gained attention as a teacher in Catapult’s writing program. Her talks and lectures have been fascinating and wide-ranging, from this one published at Lit Hub about finding “power in pain,” to a thoughtful and incisive conversation at Salon, where her stories were described as “redefining women’s fiction.”
A graduate of Oberlin College’s creative writing program, she received her MFA from the University of Michigan, where her stories and essays won Hopwood Awards. In follow-up of an early story she published in MQR, she graciously agreed to be interviewed over email for the journal.
It’s with great pleasure that we’ve been watching the meteoric rise of Back Talk for so many reasons. Has the process been what you expected? What has the experience been like from the inside, and what do you think are the most positive versus the potentially hardest aspects of it?
Even as I’ve been lucky enough to have witnessed writer friends go through their publication processes, like many big milestones and new experiences (living in a new culture, parenthood, etc.) it’s hard to know what the snags and highs will be, and impossible to prepare. I think I had pretty realistic expectations for the collection and the coverage and feedback exceeded them, both due to having an enthusiastic team behind the book that also helped me maintain realism about what the publishing landscape is like for short stories. Most books disappear into the ether — not because they’re not any good, but because there are so many good ones coming out simultaneously and constantly — and I was grateful that mine didn’t for a brief while.
I’m thrilled every time someone reaches out to me about my book, even if it’s just to say they saw it in a bookstore, or are enjoying it. Really, every time. Even when the publishing experience is positive, it’s hard to have all the work you’ve put into a project be reflected back to you in a really short timeframe. The ratio of our blood, sweat, and tears to the time it takes to consume the output of those efforts can be disheartening. While that’s of course the point: the book as object, it’s strange and intense to cycle through the ups and downs in a matter of weeks. I was fundamentally exhausted. I’m looking forward to getting back into my writing cave.
One thing I noticed and loved about the collection is the way “back talk” as a concept takes non-verbal forms. The way in which you present both direct and indirect forms of communication raises the question of whether some women’s ways of communicating reflect a belief that they won’t be heard or understood. I’m thinking specifically of “Appetite” and “Floor Plans,” but there is so much in what is not said by the women narrators. Can you talk about your approach to dialogue as well as your approach to silence? Would you say an inability to articulate one’s feelings is a common thread for these narrators?
I don’t think it’s that the characters are unable to articulate what they’re feeling as much as they don’t yet know what those feelings are. In reality, so few of us know what we feel or think in the moment and then reflect that to the other person we’re having the experience with. So in part writing dialogue for me is about trying to reflect conversations as I have heard them, the classic aim for having them feel realistic, which includes, to my experience, not having all the answers or even the questions. Nor is there always a reason to communicate what we are thinking or feeling to another person; super confrontational dialogue rings false to me.
Being alone with our thoughts and feelings is an act of self-possession. In the book, I definitely was exploring the idea that women can find strength in silence, particularly as a refusal to engage with what doesn’t serve them.
I found “Spider Legs” moving as a story of how someone who has survived both childhood/remote violence (the emotional violence of a family dissolving) and sudden, brutal violence during the story — can find a new beginning, some amount of grace. Specifically, I as a reader found “grace” in the self awareness of the narrator; the way that she grasps beyond her years her sense of separateness from the older siblings and from her parents.
In that story and in others, as the point of view characters come of age they’re often facing the version of themselves they’ve been told they are (by siblings, parents, family lore itself) and undergoing a separation from that version. I’m interested in that moment of cleaving from and within families, which can be a powerful moment of self-discovery but also often a loss, the gap between who we’ve been told we are and who we learn we are.
I appreciated your Tiny Letter about the need for more writing residencies to accommodate parents, reading it right after Michael Chabon’s GQ essay about whether kids are the “enemy” of writing. Could you elaborate on what you think are essential good conditions for writing?
Good conditions for writing vary by the writer, of course, but you have to learn what allows you to sink into the work for some continuous period; working through a project requires devotion and attention. There’s no way to do this without stealing from other parts of your life to put the project first for at least some parts of your day. Pick your sacrifices: sleep (getting up early to write was a habit before my kids were in school full time), money (renting office space or hiring babysitters will definitely light a fire under your time at a desk), a social life (going out at night makes it hard to get up early to write, as does filling your head with other people). I don’t write well in public spaces or with music or emails coming in. I shut out distractions by turning off technology, ignoring household tasks, and honoring what I need to get the work done above what others might be asking me for at the time.
What’s on your reading list right now?
I’m trying to read more plays. I just finished Sarah Delappe’s The Wolves, which is an explosive and uncanny portrayal of a group of female teens and made me laugh out loud more than anything I’ve read in years. Next up is Annie Baker’s The Flick and Stephen Adly Guirgus’s Our Lady of 121st Street. The novel I’m working on is currently in third person so I’m also reading novels that use that perspective. I just finished Jami Attenberg’s The Middlesteins, which I loved with my whole heart and admired for its use of point of view. Next up is Ruth Galm’s Into the Valley, which was recommended to me for its voice.
It strikes me that the notion of professionalism as a writer often feels very elusive, at least for those writers who also keep day jobs. Yet my consistent impression from the different interviews I’ve read with you is of your incredible professionalism — which, for me, underlined the project of the collection: to take women’s experiences seriously, and to avoid pandering (as you reference in the Salon interview). Can you say a bit about what you consider to be important for writers striving to be professional (and reckon with “the industry”) once their work is soon to be published or out on submission?
I think publishing, like much of life, requires kindness and gratitude and a good understanding and respect of boundaries. It takes so many people to make a book or story or interview happen, and I try to be thoughtful of the limits of other’s time and attention and give it fully myself when the work is in my hands. So the first question I always ask myself is if I’ve done my part of the job: have I taken the writing as far as I can before I ask for someone — my agent or first readers or editor — to come into the process? Do I know what I want from the work at hand and am I being clear in communicating that and advocating for it?
If you’ve done what you should, you then need to trust others to do the work they do. While on submission, find something else to occupy your nerves while you wait: bake or build furniture or register voters but let others do their work. It can take time to find a match for a story or representation or a manuscript. Recognize when something is out of your hands, and trust the hands you’ve given it to.
What are you working on now?
I’m at work on a novel about women’s movements, motherhood, and memory. I’ve been treating it as a side piece while I wrote the stories, and am excited to be able to give it my full attention.
Chaya Bhuvaneswar is a practicing physician and writer whose work has appeared in Narrative Magazine, Tin House, Electric Lit, The Rumpus, The Millions, Joyland, Chattahoochee Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, The Awl, and elsewhere, with poetry in sidereal, Natural Bridge, and Hobart. Her debut story collection, White Dancing Elephants (October 2018, Dzanc Books) was recently included on The Millions’ “most anticipated” list for 2018. She is a MacDowell Colony fellow and Henfield fiction award recipient. Follow her on Twitter at @chayab77 including for upcoming readings and events.