March 22, 2016KR BlogBlogChatsReadingWriting

Every Night Is Ladies Night: An Interview with Sonja Livingston

On a recent flight from Boston back to Buffalo, my seatmate claimed both armrests, and never once looked up nor adjusted his position when I pressed past him to my window seat. Irritated, I pushed my elbow against his elbow, on the rest that belonged to both of us. Who feels entitled to take up space? A new essay by the writer Sonja Livingston in Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog returned to me when I was thinking about this question. In “On Conjuring & Bigness: Women’s History as Personal Essay,” Livingston writes:

[I]t’s the women I notice plastered against plane windows to allow their seatmates more room, and the men whose arms and legs dangle beyond their squares of prescribed space. Good for them, I think, even as I curse under my breath and push myself into the seat cushion, because, the truth, of course, is that I too want to unfold.

Poetry (April), Black History (February), and Women’s History (March) are each accorded one month on center stage. To whom do the other nine months belong? What would it look like to consistently foreground and value the lives and stories of girls and women?

Livingston’s latest book, a collection of lyric essays entitled Ladies Night at the Dreamland, does just this. It combines history, memory, and imagination to illuminate the lives of enigmatic, little-known American women from the past. Her second book, Queen of the Fall uses memory and personal experience to consider the lives of girls and women she’s known more personally. Livingston’s first book, Ghostbread, a memoir about child poverty in Western New York, has been adopted for use by classrooms around the country. An assistant professor in the MFA Program at the University of Memphis, she divides her time between Tennessee and New York State. I interviewed Livingston over email in March.

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What images, ideas, or questions fueled or inspired Ladies Night at the Dreamland?

Ladies Night at the Dreamland, University of Georgia Press, 2016

The book’s cover features a sassy flapper blowing a stream of cigarette smoke while seated on a pedestal in the spotlight. The image is perfect because, while I started with an assortment of images and ideas, the questions that emerged during the writing of the essays were largely about women and visibility.

I initially found myself drawn to various historical characters—women who stood out in some way, either by their daring (such as the tightrope walker Maria Spelterini) or their audacity (such as the Fox sisters, or Alice Mitchell who murdered her beloved in broad daylight) or their mystery (such as the “white slave” girl May Fielding or Krao Farini, a child exhibited as Darwin’s Missing Link at the turn of the century). As I wrote, I discovered women and girls doing what most did not do in 1876, 1939, or 1892.

At first, I thought it was their bravery that had snared me, or their differences, but as I wrote, I began to realize that I was most interested in the idea of being seen. I wanted to understand why some women thrust themselves into the limelight while most did not. On a personal level, I wanted to explore how and why many girls learn to deflect attention at young ages, and what it has sometimes cost us to avoid the spotlight.

Can you talk a little bit about when in the process you utilized research in these creative nonfiction essays?

Though each essay highlights a different woman from the near and distant past, I worked through the material with my own questions and experiences as an anchor, and in this way, they are not typical biographies. Certain pieces relied more heavily on memory or imagination than research, for instance, while others depended primarily on research. Most of the essays are mash-ups of all three. That said, this project definitely required more research than I’m used to in my essays.

I read books and articles, and relied on the work of those who came to the subjects before me. In many cases, there wasn’t much to go on. Other times, the stories were expanding even as I wrote them. While finishing up a piece about Virginia Dare, for instance, a friend sent an article reporting a new find about Virginia Dare at Roanoke. I couldn’t read it until I’d finished what I’d already started.

In some cases, I purposefully limited my reading in order to imagine the life more personally and fully. For instance, in the case of the artists’ model Audrey Munson—whose face and figure adorn civic sculpture and museum pieces across the country, but who lived her life in obscurity—I read some great nonfiction and articles but resisted a novel because I didn’t want to be influenced in my imagining of her. Instead, I drove to the places she’d lived, including the upstate town of Mexico, New York and the state hospital up in Ogdensburg, near the Canadian border. Visiting the places where these women had lived was key. I wanted to see the landscapes they’d seen. Combined with research on their lives and the eras in which they’d lived, going to their places and standing where they once stood allowed me to see them more fully.

What is something you figured out in the process of writing this book?

I figured out that I like to immerse myself in different times and places. I figured out that the essay is more flexible as a literary form than I’d believed. I realized that no matter how much I might wish otherwise, I’m probably never going to be very comfortable in the spotlight.

That said, my greatest takeaway was the renewed recognition that that there are stories everywhere. Amazing stories. As a nonfiction writer, I’d often been blown away by what lurks under the surface of those we meet, but as I began to study these particular lives, I was astonished to find how often their stories connected with other historical events, people or places. At some point, I had to limit myself because too many tempting stories were coming my way and all of them seemed to matter.

I often reassure students that we really all do have stories to tell, but this project reminded me of how true that is, and the way that the history and culture of which we’re a part are essential to our stories, and laden with meaningful and expansive associations.

What pleases you about Dreamland as compared to your two previous books, Ghostbread and Queen of the Fall?

I’m most pleased with the focus on other lives and time periods. I enjoyed learning about these women and their time periods. It was great to listen to blues, jazz, and opera, while researching the type of dress or shoes someone would have worn in 1892 Memphis, 1939 Italy, or in 1920 at a Great Lake speakeasy. It was freeing to allow myself to experiment with form and to imagine impossible interactions with figures like Susan B. Anthony or the character La Folle from Kate Chopin’s short story, “Beyond the Bayou” and to incorporate what I learned from those forays into my own experiences as a woman. The excitement and challenge was in finding a way to fairly explore facets of those other lives while staying open to how those various lives (their challenges, losses, strengths) might inform my own development as a human being, and in doing so, offer a similar prospect for readers.

What is one thing you’ve learned about the writing process while writing Dreamland that you will carry into your next project?

What a great question! I tend to think of projects as discrete, but, even though we package them into books or journals and share them that way, of course, our writing is dynamic, so, of course, one essay or story flows into the next.

In this case, widening the scope from the personal to the historical and cultural and giving myself writerly permission to imagine was such a hook, it has no doubt carried it into the writing I’m doing now. The allowing myself to honor the genre of nonfiction while being free in terms of form, language and process is something I’ve always played with, but in these essays, I embraced that process in a way that was new. I’m sure that conversation (between form, language and genre) will continue.

About your earlier book of essays, Queen of the Fall, you wrote: “Women have learned to keep certain aspects of our lives to ourselves, and when our bodies and fears and experiences are written about, they’re not always considered subjects worthy of serious literature.” Did you see writing this book as a way of challenging or staking a claim, a stance, against that bias, stated and unstated, in our society and in literature? (In particular, I’m thinking of the repeated phrase, “seen and not heard” in your essay, “Sly Foxes”—the phrase a riff off the saying, “A maiden should be seen but not heard.”)

Yes, I do see this book as staking a claim. I’m not a purposefully political writer, but the power of nonfiction, in my view, is in the writer shining a light on those lives that may not otherwise be seen—or in adjusting the angle of the light, so that the subject is seen differently. Whether I’m writing about child poverty, a childhood friend who became a stripper or a female tightrope walker, I am first and foremost interested in my subject, but I’m also interested in sharing what and how I see.

I tend to be pretty intuitive when it comes to writing and in those few cases when I’ve tried to force myself to write about a given topic, it hasn’t worked well. The better path has been to let the writing work in me. Once it became clear that I was writing about women’s lives and bodies—our various fears and strengths and audacities—I understood that the topics were not always welcomed. I’d been to enough workshops and conferences to see how ‘serious’ writers respond to unrepentantly personal writing—especially about women’s lives—and so yes, I suppose, since I was already writing those subjects, I geared myself up for the challenge to try to do it well enough to challenge those assumptions.

What is something you are currently reading or paying attention to that feeds your writing?

I’m working my way through H is for Hawk, and almost always have a book of nonfiction for company. I like to read poetry as well. If prose is a good meal, poetry is a Red Bull. Emily Dickinson lately for mystery, Anne Carson for possibility. A good voice always propels me: Gerald Stern, Grace Paley, Edna O’Brien. I return to those writers and ingest them like pills, reading them when I need an injection of possibility, magic, or voice.

But paying attention is the main way I feed my writing. There are a thousand quotes about it already, but noticing is everything. In writing, and in life. In fact, I sometimes wonder if my writing is an excuse to make myself notice, and to glom onto people and places without shame. I was an anthropology undergrad and that desire to observe and know others through local cultures has never left me. I feel like an actor who immerses himself to play a part—only instead of being Leonardo DiCaprio gaining thirty pounds or learning to drive a taxi, I’m doing the things the woman I’m currently writing about would have done: attending Sunday Mass, listening to old crooners, struggling with almond paste cookies, visiting nurseries to find good herbs.

As I write this, I realize how much I love such things. I should probably say something more impressive about what inspires me, talk more about books and poems—and they are so important—but these days, it has come down to the smallest things and what a joy it is to be able to take on as research the noticing of others, listening to Louis Prima, and the searching of local nurseries for the lushest rosemary plant.