A Writer’s Insight: An Interview with Laurie Saurborn

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.

 

36QVVLJ71). 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.

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Jessica introduces the winter 2016 issue

The winter holiday season is officially over in our house as we move into Mardi Gras and the marathon lineup of spring festivals in New Orleans. My daughter and I have taken down our decorations, cleared the stoop of Christmas lights in preparation for next week’s draping of carnival beads, and put the tree to the curb for recycling. For a long time now, efforts to curtail coastal erosion have included placing Christmas trees in the wetlands of South Louisiana. I’m not sure how much it helps, but anything seems worth trying when it’s the ground beneath your home you’re trying to save.

I’ve been thinking about environmentalism at the office, too, in the paintings of New Orleans–based artist Deedra Ludwig, whose work graces The Southern Review’s winter issue. Her vibrant and gorgeous paintings incorporate traditional materials as well as soil and botanical specimens; her aim is, as she writes in her artist’s statement, “to speak for the imperiled geographic locations and tenuous environments,” including the Gulf Coast. It seems appropriate that images so conscious of the environment arrive in mailboxes just as many people in my town are performing what might be their single purposeful act of environmentalism for the year. As my daughter says, “It’s a start.”

And so starts a new year for the journal, our eighty-first, with a diverse range of voices and themes and styles. Mark Irwin has two poems that open the issue, including “Zoo,” in which the speaker and his mother “in her old age” visit the zoo. There the two talk, absorb what is before them, and reminisce. As they are “running toward youth,” his mother calls out to the stampeding animals and then finally “enters / into shadow with them, that diorama we call memory.” It’s a beautiful poem—brief, vivid, and poignant—fitting of memory and the time we get with the ones we love.

I took some time this December, as I normally do, to spend days with my daughter without the worry of work or school (second grade is pretty rigorous now). We made a “canorah” (Christmas menorah) tree topper and ornaments for our family and friends, baked cookies, watched movies, read books, took walks, sang and danced with tambourines, and on and on. I’m always aware of my time with her. I’m lucky to have her; we’re lucky to have each other.

As we all know, families are formed in all sorts of ways, and Jeff Hardin and Al Maginnes both have poems (dedicated to each other) about the good fortune family can be, specifically the extraordinary circumstance of either being adopted, in Hardin’s case, or adopting a child, as Maginnes did. Their poems, “Concerning the Possibilities That Might Have Been” and “How Different a Life Can Be,” present adoption from different perspectives, of course, but at the center of each poem is “a truth” Hardin says he learned, in part, from Maginnes: “All of us are orphans finding homes.”

I also want to mention that the issue closes with three poems from the late Claudia Emerson, written while she was ill. A previous contributor to The Southern Review and longtime author with LSU Press, she was a friend to both, and so it feels right that her words send us out of the issue. Her poems “Spontaneous Remission,” “A Life Beyond,” and “Birth Narrative” are detailed and fierce and, at times, hopeful. In “Spontaneous Remission,” she writes that upon awakening, the cancer in her will be gone, burned out by “the arson that has // become the God” in her. There is no defeat in her words, only an assumption of power through whatever means is available to her. And then finally, the last poem in the winter issue, “Birth Narrative,” recounts the story Emerson’s mother has told so many times about giving birth to her on an icy January day. Filled with tender details, like the “bracelet / of porcelain beads that spell out our last name” and which they still have, it also contains the awareness of each other and time, as they “lie all night together in the emptiness // that is ours alone, and it is as though we know / already we will never forget it, not one / word, until there is nothing else to tell.” And when there is nothing else to tell, there is memory. But until there is only memory, there should be, when possible, awareness and urgency in every lived moment.

To end on a lighter note, I’ll recommend our audio gallery, which this quarter contains poems from Kelly Cherry, Lindsay Stuart Hill, Doug Ramspeck, and Rob Shapiro, as well as essays from Carrie Brown and Sarah Bryan, and stories from Crystal Hana Kim and Hilary Leichter. It’s a great mix of familiar and new voices to the journal that should warm any winter day.

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December newsletter

View our December newsletter here.

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Anthologies roundup

The autumn marks the publication of the many of the annual “best of” literary anthologies. The Southern Review would like to congratulate authors included in the below collections:

And while not reprinted, The Southern Review was glad to get many other acknowledgements for its exemplary writing. In the Pushcart anthology, Gary Gildner’s “Timmy Sheean Is a Prime Example,” Stephen Dixon’s “Feel Good,” Aurelie Sheehan’s “The Three Graces,” and Frank Giampetro’s “Dear Daphne,” all got “special mentions.” Across the Best American series, there were many “notables.” In Best American Short Stories 2015, T. C. Boyle, editor, these included Peter Levine’s “Prospect,” Peter Mountford’s “La Boca del Lobo,” Kent Nelson’s “The Beautiful Light,” and Steve Yarbrough’s “The Orange Line.” In Best American Essays 2015, Ariel Levy, editor, “notables” included Gary Gildner’s “How I Married Michele,” Hafeez Lakhani’s “If We Show That We Like They Make More Manga,” Lance Larsen’s “I am Thinking of Pablo Casals,” Josh McCall’s “A Love of Food,” and Diana Spechler’s “The Matchmaker’s Mouth.” Lydia Conklin’s “Pioneer” was a “notable” the Best American Nonrequired Reading 2015.

Congrats all around! In a few weeks we’ll be sharing our Pushcart nominations for the 2017 volume, Pushcart XLI, so please stay tuned.

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See you at the Louisiana Book Festival!


Louisiana Book Festival
Saturday, October 31, 10 am
House Committee Room 2, Louisiana State Capitol
Free and open to the public

Start the 2015 Louisiana Book Festival—and Halloween—off right with a panel discussion featuring Ava Leavell Haymon, Nick Holdstock, Matthew Minicucci, and M. O. Walsh, as well as The Southern Review coeditors Jessica Faust and Emily Nemens. The four The Southern Review contributors will talk about pieces from journal’s history that have inspired them and influenced their work. Then, stay the rest of the day to listen to other great panels and visit the book fair! The Southern Review will be in Exhibitor Tent A with great deals on individual issues, subscriptions, and journal swag.

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