A Writer’s Insight: An Interview with Peter LaSalle

lasallePeter LaSalle’s essay, “Driving in São Paulo at Night with a Good Friend Who Has Died,” appears in the spring 2016 issue of The Southern Review. Interview conducted and condensed by The Southern Review/LSU Press marketing intern Megan Feifer.

Megan Feifer: How would you describe your style of travel writing? What did “Driving in São Paulo at Night with a Good Friend Who Has Died” allow you to do differently from your new essay collection The City at Three P.M.: Writing, Reading, and Traveling?

Peter LaSalle: To be honest, I’m not really sure that any of my essays like this are what you would call actual travel writing. But I’ve somehow been lucky enough to have had a couple of these pieces picked up from magazines for reprinting in the annual Best American Travel Writing anthology, so I guess that at least gives me sort of a de facto membership card as a travel writer, right?

Basically, the aim of all my writing in this vein is almost always an attempt to document, as honestly as possible, a quest for discovery that involves not only a place I go to, but also a writer from that place whose work I immerse myself in while there. In The Southern Review essay, it did involve some thinking about Mário de Andrade, a truly amazing Brazilian modernist poet and, famously, an organizer of Brazil’s Modern Art Week in 1922. I was in São Paulo to give some lectures on American literature at the invitation of the literature scholar Ivan Prado Teixeira, who most unexpectedly and very sadly died the following year. He was 62.

MF: In reproducing your conversation with Ivan Prado Teixeira and “the scenes of our night in São Paulo,” you pay close attention to the architecture, the landscape, the “maze of old streets,” and the “street commotion.” Why are all of these physical characteristics so essential to the essay and the recollection of the conversation itself?

PL: The answer on this one is simple—I hope that with my conjuring up the place the best I can, the reader is right there with me, in this case, alongside Ivan and me as we drive around and talk in São Paulo that fine autumn night. I’m principally a writer of short stories and novels, and much of my fiction is set in foreign spots where I’ve spent time, like India and Africa and pretty much all over Europe and Latin America. So if nothing else, I guess that has given me plenty of practice in working to establish solid setting, which can become a significant ingredient in narrative essays, too.

MF: In the midst of grieving the death of your friend, your relationship to literature shifts from Teixeira’s proverbial question of “what would we have if we didn’t have literature” to the very doubt that “words and literature could do anything.” Where do you currently fall on this spectrum?

PL: Well, by the end of the essay, after the moments of severe doubt that the loss of a good friend can evoke, I think I do somewhat reassert my belief in the power of literature and its transcendence. Which means how it can nobly challenge, though maybe not exactly triumph over, death itself. Such transcendence is there in the definitely timeless work of Mário de Andrade. It’s also in the work of unquestionably the most important nineteenth-century South American novelist, Machado de Assis, a Brazilian, whom I mention because Ivan had been his country’s leading contemporary Machado de Assis scholar.

A gifted teacher, Ivan loved and believed in literature with an enthusiasm probably more admirable than that of just about anyone I’ve ever known. I like to think that he, in a way, often escaped chronological time during his life through that excitement about books, perhaps beat time, too, in his instilling that spirit in a couple of continuing generations of his many appreciative students at the University of São Paulo. Some younger scholars in Brazil still write me today about what a great influence he was on them.

MF: In the essay, you critically address what you describe as “the often lamentable state of the study of literature in American universities today” and recall your own literary education. Could you juxtapose the differences between the study of literature when you were a student, in Brazil, and in current classrooms within U.S. higher education?

PL: You know, it would be tough to launch into such a complicated triangulation with the space we have here, and I wonder if anybody would want to suffer through my thoughts on it anyway. But I guess what I meant by saying “lamentable” is that I wish there were more scholars and teachers like Ivan in American universities today, people who understand and are vocally passionate about the uncanny magic of words on the page and how literature can get at the stuff deep in all our hearts by way of that unique and very mysterious element.

I know that the number of undergrad English majors in universities like mine at Texas is steadily dropping, which is surely lamentable and a stark indication that lately something isn’t working. No doubt, and understandably, this has to do with students’ practical considerations, their worry about jobs after graduation in an unsafe economy. But it also might stem from the fact that when the excitement surrounding exploration of the magic of literature is replaced—sometimes almost to the exclusion of all else—by rather directly logical political or sociological analysis, as seems the current trend, students possibly decide that if they want to study that kind of thing, as certainly important as it is, they might as well get it straight up, in a political science or sociology department, let’s say.

MF: How has your relationship with Brazil developed between the release of the Portuguese translation of your story collection Tell Borges If You See Him and the publication of “Driving in São Paulo at Night with a Good Friend Who Has Died”? Where is this relationship with Brazil currently taking you?

PL: I don’t know if there’s been any change. But I can say that for me Brazil is always an amazing country, electric in its wonderful cultural diversity and its people’s sheer enthusiasm for life. And that’s despite the big problems at the moment, like the Zika virus and a precipitous economic downturn, both of which I know Brazilians will face and survive with typical spirit. Figuratively, I’m not sure where my relationship with the country is taking me in the distant future. However, literally, in the next few weeks, it is taking me to Portugal to look into the literary scene there, one largely connected to that in Brazil, where, as you point out, my 2007 story collection Tell Borges If You See Him came out this past spring as a Portuguese-language e-book.

And am I ever up for that trip, too. In preparation, I’ve been reading or rereading the works of the whole gamut of modern Portuguese writers, from the iconic and deeply haunting Fernando Pessoa to the two recent masters of the novel there, José Saramago and António Lobo Antunes. Plus, I’m really looking forward to maybe enjoying some more of that great feijoada stew I had in São Paulo and of which I’m assured there will be no shortage in Lisbon either.

Peter LaSalle is the author of several books of fiction, most recently What I Found Out About Her. Additionally, he has published a book of essays on literary travel, The City at Three P.M. His story collection Tell Borges If You See Him has been translated into Portuguese (Edições Mombak), and a new collection, Sleeping Mask, is forthcoming from Bellevue Literary Press in 2017. He is a resident faculty member at the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin.

 

Megan Feifer is a doctoral candidate in English with a minor in Women’s and Gender Studies at Louisiana State University. She received her MA from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in English (Modern Studies). She is the cofounder and president of the Edwidge Danticat Society.

 

 

 

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A Writer’s Insight: An Interview with James Scott

James Scott’s story, “With Your Own Heart upon Your Bed,” appears in the spring 2016 issue of The Southern Review. Interview conducted and condensed by The Southern Review/LSU Press marketing intern Megan Feifer.

Megan Feifer: What inspired you to write “With Your Own Heart upon Your Bed”?

James Scott: I think the first thing was the realization that the generation that had been through Vietnam could have grandchildren who were in the armed forces. The Vietnam War has loomed so large in our culture that to have it so far in the past was a shock to me.

The second thing was an article (a very small article that I have never been able to find again) about the taking of a palace by U.S. forces. The thought of those exhausted soldiers in that opulent surrounding stayed with me.

Writing this story was a way of processing that information, the oddness of those things, and others, of course, but those were the initial sparks.

MF: The title is interesting in relationship to the theme of in-betweenness present in the story. Can you discuss the relationship between the title and the deferred state of being the main character experiences?

JS: The title comes from Psalm 4:4: “Stand in awe, and sin not: commune with your own heart upon your bed, and be still.” It’s aspirational, though, to be able to do so, whether in prayer or meditation or even at the end of a long day.

In the story, it’s always out of reach, partially because the concept of “your bed” is a complicated one for the main character, as it is for a lot of people. “Home” is a relative term, and none of the places the main character has been really satisfy what one would think of as a space of comfort and safety, the kind of place where such stillness would be possible. He’s in between, always, reliving his grandfather’s war, whether he wants to or not; experiencing his parents’ failing career, but not being present for it; fighting in a war where he’s apart from the others; and coming back home to a place that has changed. Nothing is his. He doesn’t know who he is, and so he’s following in the footsteps of someone that doesn’t want to be followed.

The awkwardness of the phrase struck me and made sense for this world. I’ve spent a lot of time really breaking it down, and the more you do, the stranger it becomes.

MF: Was the continuous shift between historical and contemporary settings essential for the story? What were some of your initial thoughts about this temporal shifting when writing the first few drafts, and how did the timeline finally coalesce?

JS: I hope so! I think it follows the dislocation of the character. The timeline is one of the things that fell into place right away. I always knew I wanted to flip back and forth, and the timing of it came naturally (one of the only things that did, honestly, in a story where I felt unsure of my footing for a long time), though some of the pieces changed. I like the idea that this is how his brain works; if asked to relate the events of this story, this might be how he would go about it.

MF: Would you situate this story within the genre of veterans’ literature? Is there controversy around whether or not nonveterans can write this type of conflict narrative?

JS: I’m not a veteran, so no. In terms of putting a story, any story, anywhere, it’s not really my place. Those kind of overarching questions are too overwhelming in the process of writing and editing, especially when you’re dealing with things that people experienced and experienced so recently that the emotions are raw and the psychology is so tangled.

I will say I tried everything I could to get things right, and I had a couple of veterans look over the story, and I took their comments as gospel. At no point did I say, “Well, right or wrong, it’s good enough for me.” The details I used were somewhat sparse because it was the feeling I was chasing. I hope I came close to the heart of it.

I think that there is some controversy about conflict narrative, though I haven’t followed it. I read Kevin Powers’s The Yellow Birds and Phil Klay’s Redeployment, though not until I’d completed many drafts of this story, and thought they were both incredible books. I understand both sides of it. It’s impossible to argue with, “I was there,” but I also believe that there shouldn’t be a line drawn in the sand in terms of what people can and can’t write about. Although one has to earn the ability to do so. I hope I did.

MF: Tell us about your podcast “TK with James Scott.” Why do you think it’s so important to host conversations that focus on the intimate reading and writing practices of fellow authors?

JS: Whether it’s the story or the podcast, we all want to know we’re not alone. As a writer, especially as a newer writer, I often didn’t know where to look for information and I didn’t know who to model myself after. In a lot of ways, I’m talking to that earlier version of me. The conversation is an attempt to make a connection between writers and readers that hopefully provides reassurance that there are lots of us out there and everyone approaches the craft and the career in different ways.

However, for the majority of writers, there’s a flash of interest in your work when you have a book out (hopefully), but once that noise fades, the world can be awfully quiet, and the muscles that you’ve newly acquired doing readings and talking about the book atrophy. I want to talk to people in those quieter moments, in the in-between phases.

I’m a few episodes in, and I hope people enjoy the conversations whether they know (or like) the writer or not, and whether they’ve read the book or not. I try not to spoil anything, as I’m not really interested in relaying the plot of the book, but it’s the deeper truth of the thing that I’m after.

James Scott is the author of the novel The Kept. His short fiction can be found in One Story, Ploughshares, and American Short Fiction, while his nonfiction has appeared in The New York Times Book Review and Boston Magazine. He lives in Massachusetts.

Megan Feifer is a doctoral candidate in English with a minor in Women’s and Gender Studies at Louisiana State University. She received her MA from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in English (Modern Studies). She is the cofounder and president of the Edwidge Danticat Society.

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Jessica’s Rambling Thoughts about Spring 2016 and the New Issue of The Southern Review

My trip to Home Depot to buy yet another weed trimmer tells me a year has passed and it is a new spring. My luck with trimmers is comparable to my luck with computers: I need to replace one pretty much every year because somehow I’ve managed to render mine inoperable. An overgrown yard (granted, it’s only about 100 square feet; it’s a city yard) isn’t the only unkempt area in or around my house, though. Having recently returned from AWP, my desk, tables, and bookshelves are filled with books and manuscripts I’m eager to get to at some point, as well as poems and prose to edit for the summer issue.

AWP was wonderful for me this year. In addition to spending time with writers I like as writers and as people and chatting with many other people for the first time, I attended some stellar panels. The three that knocked off my emotional socks—and that I think everyone should definitely watch if AWP offers videos of them on their site—were the tribute to Phil Levine and the two panels on Larry Levis which featured the documentary film from Michele Poulos, A Late Style of Fire, and the release of The Darkening Trapeze: last poems, edited by David St. John and published by Graywolf Press. The Darkening Trapeze has five poems that we were fortunate to run in our Levis feature last spring, a feature which also included poems by Phil Levine, David St. John, Peter Everwine, and several other writers touched by the web of Levis. Many of the conversations I had this year in L.A. were about the Levis panels and his writing in general. His work positively impacted so many poets and continues to do so. Everyone I talked to who loves his work inevitably said something to me like: “Have you read ______? I, mean, wow, isn’t it great?!” And I either agreed on the spot or read it when got home and thought, Yes, this is great, maybe a new favorite.

Which leads me to the spring issue for this year, filled with many terrific works, maybe even some new favorites. The issue opens with three poems from Jim Whiteside, who makes his second appearance in our pages. “Disguise Game” is a brief poem that uses ambiguity and imagery to reveal the layers of memory and self that can never be defined absolutely. The speaker says, “ . . . I wake / in the forest dreaming of the forest, studying the lake // reflecting the trees.” Who or what is dreaming and reflecting? Everyone and everything, all of it connected and yet tenuous. In such shifting uncertainty of self and perspective, the poem puts forth: “I’ve played this game before, / the one that goes, I’ll be the wolf, and you be // the sheepskin I hide in.” Is that not every one of us? So brilliantly and succinctly presented. Jim’s other two poems, “Judith Mountains” and “Immutable” are tributes to the painter Devin Leonardi, and each is moving without possessing sentimentality.

The issue closes with two thoughtful, metaphysical poems from Sharon Olds: “First Breath” and “Pine Tree Ode.” The notions that we are dying as soon as we are born and that we were and again become “star stuff,” as Carl Sagan asserted, unfold beautifully and send us out of the issue with plenty to contemplate. However, between these sets of poems are many other gems, including Jay Rogoff’s “Seventeen at Last,” which uses the villanelle form, in part, to develop its story of Giuseppina Bozzacchi, the ballet dancer who died on the morning of her seventeenth birthday on November 23, 1870. Ange Mlinko returns with two vivid poems, “Cooked in Their Own Ink,” after Derek Mahon’s “The Banished Gods,” and “Nights Are Short but Evenings Come Twice,” in which, during a powerful storm, the speaker must “turn the handle that resembles a key / and watch the filaments of a hurricane lamp / glow like an arachnid spliced with an isotope.” I recall well from my own childhood of hurricanes and hurricane lamps the distinct motion and sound of turning the key and lighting the lamp, yet I never thought of the spot-on image of a spider until I read the poem.

The issue is filled with much more terrific poetry and prose as well as visual art by Sarah Williams, whose nightscapes make me think of Edward Hopper without the people. Kirstin Allio is back in our pages, with the essay “Buddhism for Western Children,” which ties to her story from our autumn 2012 issue, “Buddhist Tales for Western Children.” There are poems that comment on race in America, historically and presently, by Anna Journey, Laura Kasischke, and David Hernandez, who reads one of his featured poems, “Murmuration,” in our audio gallery. Other works featured in the audio gallery this season include two poems from slam poet champion Sam Sax, a poem about basketball from Robert Cording, a pantoum from Denise Duhamel, a poem inspired by a conversation with her young daughter by Maggie Smith, and four short poems from Jill Osier. There’s also short fiction by Osama Alomar, translated by C. J. Collins, stories by Rachel Yoder and David James Poissant, and an essay by Beth Ann Fennelly.

Well, it looks too wet outside to cut the grass this evening, after all. Which is just as well. It’s Friday. Time for some fun. This weekend, we’re in between music festivals in New Orleans, but there’s a puppetry fringe festival and a poetry festival from which to choose. My parents are taking my daughter to the Irish, Italian, Islenos parade in Saint Bernard Parish, where I grew up. I’m not sure why these groups have now combined their parades into one, maybe it’s more convenient to block the streets one time rather than three. Regardless, it’s going to be a party and food will be thrown (yes, they throw food!) and grandfathers and granddaughters will dance in the street. These are the things that poems and stories are made of.

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March 2016 Newsletter

Read the March 2016 newsletter here.

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See you at AWP!

awpFor readers and contributors traveling to Los Angeles for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference, here are the details about The Southern Review at #AWP16.

Bookfair: We are located at booth 1205, just to the right of the main entrance (map view). We’ll have subscription specials (including a free The Southern Review notebook for subscribers) and half-price back issues. Our editorial staff will be working the booth to answer questions about the journal.

Panels: Coeditor and prose editor Emily Nemens will participate in the panel “Women Who Edit: Literary Journals” (R212) on Thursday, March 31, at 1:30 pm in room 405 of the convention center. Many, many contributors are participating in panels as well; search for your favorites on the interactive schedule to find details.

Readings/Signings: Our contributors are reading far and wide at this year’s conference and across Los Angeles. Check out the schedule for a complete list of events. Signings right next door, at the LSU Press booth (1203), include The Southern Review contributors Margaret Luongo (3:30 pm on Thursday, 3/31), Bobby Rogers (10:30 am on Friday, 4/1), David Kirby (1:30 pm on Friday, 4/1), James Davis May and Tara Bray (both at 3:00 pm on Friday, 4/1). Also, Emily Nemens will be reading at the Third Annual Rock and Roll Reading, Saturday, April 2 at 4:00 pm at the Echoplex (1822 Sunset Boulevard).

Twitter: We will be tweeting from the conference! Please follow @southern_review and @emilynemens and watch for the #AWP16 hashtag.

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