By Megan Feifer
With this interview with we are excited to start a new series of web interviews with The Southern Review contributors.
Laurie Saurborn’s story “Trailing” appears in the winter 2016 issue; in the conversation below she explains the story’s genesis, her revision process, and the influence of photography and psychology on her writing. Interview conducted and condensed by The Southern Review/LSU Press marketing intern Megan Feifer.
1). Where did the story “Trailing” begin for you?
The story began in different places, over several years. One way it started was as a poem about a black dog running through the neighborhood in North Carolina where I lived at the time. I imagined him as Sirius, the Dog Star who is chasing or following Orion the Hunter through the night sky. As a poem, it didn’t get very far, but the image of that dog running off-leash over the manicured lawns of suburbia stayed in my mind.
Years later, having lived in upstate New York but now somewhat settled in Texas, I began to simultaneously process the end of two relationships: a marriage, and the relationship that immediately followed the marriage. Once I had enough distance from both, I could take pieces of those situations and use them as springboards into a story that was no longer mine.
In early drafts, Livia has a dog, but ultimately the dog disappeared from the narrative. So perhaps that dog in North Carolina led me into the story and left me there.
2). Can you tell us about the title “Trailing”? It appears as not only the title of the story but a re-occurring concept throughout. Whether it is read in the constellations or the lagging of one’s sense of self after the death of a partner, it seems to be connecting important relationships in the piece. For you, how does trailing function as a thematic layer across the story?
Sure. As a concept, I used it both as a way to structure the story and as a method to position the characters in their relationships to one another. The constellations can appear static, but of course the earth is spinning. There’s a lot of movement in the story, and sometimes when a character is physically still—sitting, leaning, standing—that’s when they have an insight they’ve been trying to avoid. Everyone’s a little behind in “Trailing,” in terms of acceptance. What I love about writing is that everything can’t happen at once. Even if all sense of time is suspended, there is an order and a progression: one word necessarily follows another. While Leon is following Livia, the story is a trail of its own: each word dogs the heels of the next.
3). What is your revision process when working on a story? What are your writing/revising practices before submitting?
For me, the revision process is obsessive, methodical, and magical. Revision is an opportunity to see what else can happen. What is waiting just under the surface? How much will I leave obscured? How much should I scrape away? Repeatedly, I read from the beginning and work various threads (voice, tone, landscape, history, personality, time, growth, etc.) into and out of the narrative.
Because I am very suspicious of early drafts, I am a big fan of writing a draft and putting it to the side for a month or so, during which time I am working on the pieces I put aside the month before for the same reason. This “put to the side” cycle happens many, many times. Eventually, I get to a place where I change something small—a word or two—and then change it back. When the change it back happens, it’s usually a clear sign that the story is done. Time and patience are great assets to my writing and revision process. Finding or creating the space necessary to construct another world in one’s head can be a challenge, but with practice and persistence, it comes more easily.
4). It was interesting to learn that your background is in psychology. Do you feel this has shaped your approach to prose and poetry? Does this background prove more useful when writing in one form or the other, and why?
That’s a great question. I think in writing prose, my knowledge of psychology gives me a framework from which to understand people and the motivations for their actions. It’s of great help when imagining how characters came to be how they are at a particular time, how they were in the past, and how they might be in the future. It’s one more tool I use to build characters and chart their movements against, and interactions with, the landscapes constructed behind, beneath, and between them.
In writing poems, this background allows me to extend that understanding to myself. By this I mean that when I’m writing poems I’ll let myself off the hook to a certain degree. I don’t constantly turn around to see if the reader is following because I want the reader to cut their own path, to enter into their own relationship with the lines. Prose is definitely more directorial. I’m trying to construct and tell a story about particular people, in a particular place, and I want the characters and locations to be as clear to the reader as they are to me. In poetry, my logic can be more fractured; in prose I make my creative reasoning more explicit.
Certainly, having some knowledge of how the mind and personality work gives me more patience with my own process as a writer, whether I’m writing prose or poems. Everything doesn’t come at once; it takes time, and repeated visits and interactions with a piece deepen your relationship with it. As a reader, I am drawn to work that begs for re-reading because it doesn’t give all its secrets away at once. The best writing has subtext and an under-layer, places the imagination can latch on consciously and subconsciously.
5). You are an accomplished photographer, and in your hybrid texts “Appearance of the Deer Woman: Diptychs” and “Parameters of a Kingdom” you have incorporated photography into the narrative of the fiction. How does your work as a photographer affect your writing?
From a very early age, I constructed metaphors about what I saw in the world. My mother is a very observant of natural landscapes, and I’m sure her joy in noticing what others tend not to certainly influenced my way of looking at the world. Writing and photography are ways I force myself to stop and take stock. I think perhaps my interest in the visual, and my interest in conveying the visual through words, are simply how I’ve learned to experience the world. So I didn’t consciously accentuate or dwell on the visual in “Trailing.” Image is a way to pull myself out of the minds of the characters, to see what is in the world surrounding them. What they notice about the world says a lot about who they are as people.
Prose, photography, and poetry are each creative forms through which I pursue the visual. Maybe what differentiates them more significantly in my practice are how time and image function together. A photograph is a moment in time, and also an image of a time. To further emphasize that connection, I prefer to use film. There are more steps to processing and scanning film; more time passes between capturing the image and viewing the image. That space invites accident and influence: the film might be damaged, for example. Or something may happen—on a personal, national, or global level—that will deeply affect how I see the images, once I scan the negatives. Alternatively, a poem can be built entirely of images and have all sorts of relationships with time. In a poem there can be more freedom, if you will, to subvert expectations of linear representation. When I approach prose writing, whether fiction or nonfiction, I do tend to utilize image in one of the ways it can be used in poems: to convey a certain tone. When I write prose, though, image functions as a subset of time. Time is what pushes everything ahead, like an invisible earthmover. One of my favorite poems is Charles Wright’s “Time Will Tell.” In one of the lines he writes, “It’s never the same wind in the same spot, but it’s still the wind.” Maybe that’s what I’m doing—following the wind with words. I’m the one trailing the stories.