Pleiades Interview Series: Trudy Lewis
Trudy Lewis is the author of the novels The Empire Rolls (Moon City Press) and Private Correspondences (Tri/Quarterly/Northwestern University Press) in addition to the short story collection The Bones of Garbo (The Ohio State University Press). Her short stories have appeared in Atlantic Monthly, Best American Short Stories, Cimarron Review, Cold Mountain Review, Meridian, New England Review, New Stories from the South, Prairie Schooner, Shenandoah, Witness, and others. Lewis is the recipient of the William Goyen Prize, the Sandstone Prize for Short Fiction, and the Glenna Luschei Prize from Prairie Schooner. She is currently Director of Creative Writing at the University of Missouri.
Lewis recently came to the University of Central Missouri to give a public reading from her latest novel, Empire Rolls. UCM student Kaleb Sweet met with her and had the opportunity to interview her for Pleiades. The following is a transcript of their conversation.
How did you come to be a writer?
I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was five years old. My mother was an English teacher and I think I noticed the attention she paid to the books. The minute I could read—you think of it as something gradual but it seemed to be sudden… I could suddenly read—that was an amazing moment. I really wanted to write. For me reading and writing are closely connected.
What are some of the early decisions you made to move in that direction? What steps did you take to become a writer?
Well, I wasn’t the kind of kid who started writing a lot and sending things out in junior high or high school. I didn’t do that. I wrote stories, mostly, for English class but I didn’t have a huge practice by myself. But once I went to college I started to write a story a week. I had a girlfriend who I’d write with and we would set a topic or a title and then we’d both write the same story. Then we’d get together and read the stories, then we went out dancing! So that was a great way to start.
I studied Rhetoric and Writing at the University of Tulsa, so I really started a serious practice there. I was on the staff of a literary magazine that started up at that time. I didn’t really have a plan but I found out you could go to grad school and basically pay for yourself, because my parents weren’t gonna pay for me to go to grad school, but if you get a teaching assistantship you can go and support yourself if you can live cheaply. So I went to grad school. I went to Vanderbilt, which was a great program for literature, but I realized that I wanted to write fiction, rather than be a literary critic; I am more suited to it. Although I really love it, and I continue to read theory and I like it.
Then I went for my MFA at North Carolina—Greensboro, which is a great writing program. I had my first publications out of there. I mean, this to me just seems like a dream now, I brought stories to the workshop and my professor says, “So, would you like us to publish that in the Greensboro Review?”
“That sounds good,” and that was my first publication. And then another story, one of my professors said “I’m a guest editor at the Carolina Review, you want to send us that story?” I did not know that things would not be so easy later. Both of these stories were in New Stories from the South an anthology. So it was great to get those things in, and I was not super ambitious about publishing, but these two publications really got me into grad school for my PhD. I worked hard on these stories, but I didn’t push to get those published. It just happened, so I was very lucky that it happened that way. It gave me kind of the wrong impression about how publishing happens, but it was great.
They advised me there not to get my PhD, but I didn’t want to shuffle around trying to get money, I wanted to have a job, so I could concentrate and have a regular life. So I got my PhD and I went to the University of Illinois—Chicago and It was a great school and I wrote my first novel there. It was my dissertation and then I published that—again very lucky—through a contest. But good timing because it was close to the beginning of my time at my first job, so I didn’t have to stress too much about getting tenure, because I knew I had a book and that’s what they asked for. So with my career, I’ve gotten the things I need at the right time so that I could keep on writing. And that’s what I really value the most.
Can you tell me a little about your experience teaching writing, the other side of writing?
The other side is, it’s a moving target. So when I went to grad school… It was the old days, when people just talked about the story very informally, then you went out and drank afterwards. So it was really informal! It was almost anti-intellectual, and when I came out of grad school, I got a job at a place that had a PhD program. So there was more emphasis on the intellectual side, which I liked. So I was able to teach themes like “the ghost story,” and we read Wuthering Heights. But the important thing to me was this: I hadn’t been taught structure. I’d just been taught, “you’re a good writer, you’re not a good writer, this line is cliched—get rid of it.” There was no teaching about the craft. I concentrated on plot because that was the hardest thing for me. I really focus on plot with my students, and structure, and also I have them read a lot of example texts. Now, that was unusual when I first started, but now I supervise a lot of graduate students who are teaching creative writing classes and they have very elaborate syllabi with lots of exercises and lots of other texts. Now I see what I do as not being very much out of the mainstream at all, so it’s interesting, how where you are changes.
Is there specific advice you give your students that I can share with my peers and the “Pleiades” readers?
I think the most important thing is to have a writing practice that you are devoted to and that you don’t let other people take that space from you or take your confidence away from you. By looking at what so-and-so is doing, what are people saying about this, “is this trendy?” or “is this cool?”—you just can’t afford to do that, or I can’t afford to do it, if I’m gonna do my practice. So I really emphasize the dailyness of it, the focus of it. I meditate. I’ve learned that writing is very close to meditating. That’s what I would recommend. The other thing I recommend is keep a journal. I have a journal that stretches back till I was 18. It’s two shelves of my bookcase. Two shelves of journals.
Could you tell us a little about your newest book, Empire Rolls?
Sure, I promote it as a roller derby novel, which I always feel is a little misleading because it’s really split between the roller derby and the forest which I call Karst Park. In a way it’s set in Central Missouri, but there’s a bit of the Ozarks that enters into it. The protagonist, Sally Chance, has a job as a park ranger that’s very important to the plot, and she announces the roller derby as a kind of maternal figure, because her niece is on the roller derby team. So she is at a pivotal point in her life: she’s just been divorced and this young man who’s about 15-16 years younger than she is—they’ve had a love affair in the past—has come back to town. He’s old enough that he has faced the adversity of failure. So he’s 29 which is a very important age and she’s 45, which I also think is a very important age of transition. They are the transition point.
Sally encounters some polluters in the forest and she performs an act of aggression, which is then captured on Youtube. It happened a while back but this young man with whom she is involved is a filmmaker, and much later on he puts it up on the internet for everyone to see. What’s really funny is that he doesn’t see it as an act of aggression; he just thinks it’s cool because it’s art. He made it—its a piece of art and of course it’s political. So, she has done something, she’s pulled a gun on these people and sexually humiliated them. And she’s going to have to pay for that sin in another way. So I guess it’s a book about defending our territory. There are lots of echos of the war in Iraq in the story and of course the territory is important in roller derby and it’s that circular space that you defend.
So more on that… Sally being a park ranger, how exactly did you research her position as a park ranger?
I looked up to see what the job qualifications were, what one would have to do. I read a nonfiction book about a park ranger. I wouldn’t say I did extensive research but it was kind of research over a long period of time looking into things. And I have become really interested in nature. It wasn’t something I was interested in when I was an undergraduate but it’s become more and more important to me. Living in Missouri I have spent a lot of time on the trails and in the woods, and it’s a sacred space.
I read in your other interviews that part of your interest in Empire Rolls is capturing the transition of the Midwest, but also middle Missouri, prior to the recession. Could you speak on that for a moment?
Well, I was working on another project when I started writing this and I was interested in the roller derby, but at the same time I noticed I had been out of town. I had been away for just a year and when you come back after a year things have changed. It was a time when the country was going through this change, and it seemed like suddenly our country was in decline—of course it had been happening for a long time, but it appeared to be sudden and I thought… I have to write about this, this is happening right now. I have to capture it as it’s going by. It’s a really traditional function of the novelist, and I thought, this is the moment. So people are frustrated, going around in circles, they can’t get anywhere. There’s a lot of aggression outside of the country, we’re engaged in military endeavours. That also translates to aggression within the country. With shootings, such as people coming back traumatized with post-traumatic stress disorder and things like that. Even beyond that, just the frustration, I think particularly the frustration of women who are in a position where they have some authority. So they are responsible, and yet, they don’t have enough power to really change things.
SO, we have seen that you are interested in the issue of police brutality… Do you see any relevance between some of the issues you deal with in the book and the events that occurred this past year in Ferguson.
I do. Of course, I wrote the book much before. What interested me when I was writing the book was the issue of tasers. I did some research into that, and I went to a public meeting about tasers, and gave thought to the way in which that’s considered a legitimate practice. That was more on my mind, thenother things came up. One of my colleagues read this passage, and he pointed out that Sally is engaging in a kind of police brutality. That force is visited on her later in the novel, but it’s not limited to one person; it’s more of a force that’s with us.
Do you see any interest in covering some of these current issues in your fiction?
Well, as you know I’m here from the University of Missouri, where we have had a lot of issues in the last year with protests, and I think I might write about that in the future. But actually, at the moment I am writing about the future. I’m writing a science fiction novel about jellyfish and immortality, and there is that force in that novel. But in that novel the force doesn’t come from the police force, it comes from corporations who are now more powerful and the states are outsourcing police functions to the corporations.
That’s “Medusa’s Bell”, right? Can you tell me some about “Graze” then as well?
Yes, and it’s a piece about migration. It’s a number of short stories. they’re not connected through character or place, but they’re all about the idea of movement. So the story of Graze is about a cattle rancher who raises grass-grown beef in california. So I’m interested in the idea of movement and consumption; it’s this cycle of nature, he’s very into that. Also these stories are about me being in a managerial role. Because a lot of them are people who can see a whole cycle. And you have to be older and in a certain position to see that. For example: another one is a scientist who works on seals and sea lions. I used the traditional story, the selkie, she has an animal trainer who is strange in some way and she turns out to be a seal. And that’s a traditional love story but this is between two women and I was interested in that idea. So that’s another type of migration. Those are the two that might be the easiest to talk about. The other is about the holocaust in Lithuania, there are a couple stories about Ireland. But it’s really about movement over space. I was doing stories very tightly focused on Missouri and I had the opportunity to go different places and I started to write about people moving through space.
You also teach and study Women’s Literature. Can you tell us how that is shown in Empire Rolls?
Definitely, I think the story comes out of the frustration of women. I feel like roller derby’s ascendance, which started in 2008, has to do with women not being comfortable in that physical role and that role of violence, and there’s something about roller derby that allows women to take out their aggressions. It’s very interesting and appealing. But also it begs the question, that is, violence is so objectionable when practiced by men… what does it mean when women practice this? Of course in a sport you don’t have that same sense, but in this novel the protagonist who is not naturally aggressive and violent, tries that out. What does it mean when a woman tries that out? What will be the consequences? We also don’t want to let them off the hook. What’s the moral implication of that? Feminism has moved from just talking about women to the idea that it is very difficult to define what a woman is. Opening up to other kinds of human problems of dealing with capitalism and aggression. So I think the novel addresses those questions.