Interview: Jill Talbot
Conducted June 2016
Issue No. 12 – June 2016
Jill Talbot is the author of Loaded: Women and Addiction (Seal Press, 2007), the co-editor of The Art of Friction: Where (Non) Fictions Come Together (University of Texas, 2008), and the editor of Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction (University of Iowa, 2012). Her work has appeared in Brevity, DIAGRAM, Ecotone, The Paris Review Daily, The Normal School, The Pinch, and The Rumpus, among others. Her memoir, The Way We Weren’t, was published by Soft Skull Press in 2015 and two of the essays in it were named Notable Essays in Best American Essays 2014 and 2015. She is currently the essays editor for BOAAT and the fiction editor for High Desert Journal. She is an Assistant Professor of English at University of North Texas.
BUFFALO ALMANACK: Your writing seems to be uniquely focused on the deconstruction of private life. In every essay and memoir you give us yourself—your addictions, your anxieties, your failures and joys. In “The Professor of Longing” you are laid out for us in a class syllabus, with writers like Emily Dickinson and John Cheever becoming ley lines into your own heart. How do you conceive of the relationship between reader and memoirist? Are we students, or voyeurs, or conversationalists, or—
JILL TALBOT: I appreciate the term deconstruction, because I do work to break myself down, break apart when I write. (I’ve also described The Way We Weren’t as a deconstruction of the memoir genre—more on that later.)
Each essay, for me, has a different readership because I’m writing in different voices or about different things. Sometimes I have one person in mind, yet in “The Professor of Longing,” there are three layers of audience. 1) The imaginary students I’m addressing in the syllabus 2) the reader of essays and 3) anyone who has composed a syllabus. That third audience inspired me to deconstruct the public, authoritative persona of the professor by inserting the private, struggling persona, the one students don’t hear or know. If we choose texts that speak to us or for us in any way, we risk exposing a part of ourselves. The essay is an attempt to show what it would look like if we did that, if we unveiled ourselves to our students. And the essay does just that, unveils an essayist, a mind at work.
BA: Between blog culture, NSA data collection and the internet’s own infinite memory, it feels like everyone’s walls are coming down at least a little these days. Some people have responded to that with unease, while others seem to have embraced the moment with incredible candor. Is there anything perhaps therapeutic about ‘putting yourself out there?’ What about the dangerous side of it?
JT: Great question, and I have many layers of thoughts in response, so bear with me.
First, publishing work on the internet or creating a social media presence also involves deconstruction—the collapsing of boundaries between the public and the private, celebrity and fan, famous and wanna be famous. Writers, particularly essayists, “put ourselves out there” on the page with each essay, but the internet allows us a wider and more immediate audience.
The dangerous part, to me, is the assumption that we are who we write or who we present ourselves to be online.
Another thing: It takes thought and time to write a letter or an e-mail to a writer, which is something I do when I’m incredibly moved by a book or an essay, but it (usually) requires only impulse and reaction in a comment thread or tweet. One significant aspect regarding gender that needs to be discussed more: it’s usually women who are victims of cyberbullying and insult in those comment threads, and I’ve spoken with many women who avoid taking risks in their essays because of the fear of repercussions, both online and in the real world.
I’d like to point to a positive and empowering example of putting yourself out there, and that’s Kelly Sundberg’s “It Will Look Like A Sunset,” which first appeared in Guernica in April 2014 and was published in Best American Essays 2015. I find the essays that resonate the most with readers and gain the most attention on social media (When Cheryl Strayed tweeted a link to Sundberg’s essay, it was RTd 31 times) when the writer bares herself for the reader, when she dares to voice to readers what she may not have voiced to her own friends.
I taught Sundberg’s essay this past semester in an Intermediate Creative Nonfiction course, and we read forty essays in that class. At the end of the semester, I asked students to submit a list of the three essays that they thought I should always include on my syllabus, and Kelly’s was the overwhelming number one. (I should have told her that already—I really should have.) The class discussion that day the most intense, the most students engaged, and the discussion focused on not only how she created a balanced and complex portrait of her abuser, but how everyone could relate to her essay whether they’ve been in abusive relationship or not. I tell my students that the more specific you are in your essay, the more you send your readers to their own specifics, but it holds true for honesty in an essay as well. My students were stripped to their core that afternoon, raw and emotional and empathetic. I’ll never forget it—if I had kept the class all day, I think they would have stayed.
BA: One of the things that most draws me to your writing is your fixation with place as a means of escape. I had my own episodes of escape; times when I felt like I’d hate myself less if I ran off to Minneapolis or Denver. But of course it’s never that easy. So, knowing that, what has escape meant for you?
JT: I always come back to that line from Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises: “You can’t get away from yourself by running from one place to the next. There’s nothing to it.” And I’ve been hell-bent on proving Hemingway wrong. Yet place is not the only way I’ve escaped—wine has worked, too, though I’ve always woken up in the morning with myself, so there’s nothing to that either. In The Way We Weren’t, I describe the two weeks I ran off to Missoula, Montana as an escape, and they were, because that time I was avoiding danger, an experience I didn’t write about in the book. In fact, I’ve just now begun to write about it ten years later, but in that instance, I left everything behind: my job, my house, and everything in the house (I left only the vacuum cleaner). That was a necessary-for-my-safety escape. But most escapes, as you have pointed out, are temporary. We always return in some way, and if we’re writers, we’re always returning.
BA: There’s a passage from one of your pieces that has always struck me in particular:
We always said we’d go back. Come with me. Cancel your political science classes for the rest of the semester. Kiss Dan goodbye. Get in your car and speed south down and out of Laramie to Fort Collins (and wave to another version of myself I left behind) down to Denver and keep on pushing it along I-25 toward Pueblo and break through the border and bend that curve through Raton Pass. I’ll be on my way, too. …And I’ll pretend our bikes are still in the back of your beat-up truck so that when we pull into the canyon we won’t have to say a word. We can just ride. Until we remember ourselves. And each other.
I live in Laramie. My wife is from East Texas. We’ve taken that very drive down 25 to Raton so, so many times, and as such your writing burns that much brighter for me. When I read this essay, I think of the commonality of place. I think of how our common landscapes sets the stage for so many separate dramas. I laughed when I read The Way We Weren’t and realized that I once lived across the street from your old apartment in Boulder. I have so many stories set just feet away from your own. I guess we’re all zigzagging our way past each other through life. I’m sorry this wasn’t actually a question.
JT: I love that idea, that we’re zigzagging our way past each other through life. Maybe we once passed each on I-25 or I sat behind you at the intersection of 28th and Baseline. Isn’t that drop down from the Rockies to New Mexico spectacular? When I wrote that essay, “The Canyon,” I was living in northern New York, about eighteen miles from the Canadian border in a closed-in landscape I had never known. I felt so outside of myself there, missing the jagged, screaming spaces of the southwest and Texas, so I began writing a series about my twenties, when I raced toward edges and ran across borders, drove down as deep into Texas as I could get. Being removed and far away from the landscape I grew up in alerted me to how much of it I internalized.
BA: How does your daughter Indie feel about your memoirs? How do you think/hope she might think of them as she gets older?
JT: I asked her (she’s fourteen), and she smiled and said, “Proud . . . . it’s cool . . . but really, it’s just another day in the Talbot house. I mean, you’re a writer, it’s what you do.”
I asked for her approval before I signed the contract for The Way We Weren’t, because as I explained to her, people would be reading about our lives. I remember when I wrote the final chapter in The Way We Weren’t, “Home,” I sobbed through the final paragraphs, and later I took my laptop into the living room and asked Indie to read it. I said, “I need to know I got it right. For both of us.” When I came back into the living room, she was sobbing and said, “You got it exactly right.”
She’s also been to several of my readings—she’s incredibly supportive.
BA: The most moving lines of The Way We Weren’t are among their last: “We are not our autobiographies. We write the way were were. Or the way were weren’t. Either way, it’s fiction.” What are we then? How can we ever hope to approach the truth of our own lives, or someone else’s?
JT: Thank you—and they were some of the first lines I wrote. I did the epilogue early in the process of writing the memoir—as a guide, because I knew where I wanted the memoir to land and I needed to stay focused on what I had to establish throughout to earn that claim.
My attempts to deconstruct the memoir genre is tied to this idea, because there’s the assumption, in traditional memoir, that the memoirist’s account is true, but when I received that letter Kenny had written to the court (which serves as the Prologue), I realized I had been a character in a narrative I didn’t know existed. He told his version of our relationship and its dissolution, and it countered mine completely. We share a personal history, as I write in the memoir, but we tell competing versions of it. So the premise of the memoir, on one level, is to question the veracity of my own telling, to say I might as well be a character in a story I’m telling. A question that fascinates me as a reader and a writer: where’s the line between creating a persona as an essayist and creating an autobiographical character in fiction? The Way We Weren’t, I hope, works within those borderlands, works to unsettle such boundaries.
BA: Final question. Why do you write?
JT: Joan Didion writes, “It all comes back. Perhaps it is difficult to see the value in having one’s self back in that kind of mood, but I do see it; I think we are well advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were.” And that’s why I write.