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"A Private Moment between the Writer and the Writer": An Interview with Gretchen VanWormer

Gretchen VanWormer grew up in Burlington, Vermont.  Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in DIAGRAM, The Laurel Review, The Los Angeles Review, Zone 3, and PANK.  She lives in Washington, DC, and teaches writing at American University.

Her memoir, "You in the Navy, 1941," was published in Issue Fifty-One of The Collagist.

Here, Gretchen VanWormer talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about dismemberment, meta-writing, and a love letter.

What inspired you to start writing about this story from your grandfather's life?

It’s a pretty visceral one, so it’s always stuck with me. Nothing like a good dismemberment story. After he died, I wanted to try to make something out of it (the loss & the story). That’s when I realized the story itself had all these missing parts. So the essay became about that as well.  

How did you make the decision to use second-person pronouns throughout this essay? (What effect do you want this unusual point-of-view strategy to have on the reader?)

The point of view choice was less about trying to affect the reader in a particular way, and more about that feeling of missing someone and wanting to talk to him. The essay’s a love letter of sorts (albeit a slightly creepy one), so it just felt natural to use those pronouns.

About halfway through the essay, you express a desire for more precise details to enhance the original narrative, and you imagine some of the possibilities, for the sake of telling a richer story (with purposes such as "If I knew these things, I could do a better job with atmosphere" and "Anything to tweak the tone"). Later, you refer to the connection between black thread and typed words as "the obvious metaphor." At these moments, I understood the essay to be rising to the meta-level: writing about writing, to some extent. What are the benefits and risks, in your mind, of inserting this kind of meta-storytelling into your work?

As a reader, I like a little meta; it has so much potential to be moving. Rick Moody’s “Demonology,” for example, is heartbreaking in the best way. I think it just has to be grounded in the emotional terrain of the story. When I was writing this essay, the meta part grew out of the feelings of loss, so I was comfortable using it.

Of course, some cases of meta-writing do strike me as too cold or cerebral, because their meta bits don’t seem to connect to anything resembling a feeling. It’s as if I’ve stumbled in on a private moment between the writer and the writer. And I want to say: “Yikes, dude. Lock the door if that’s what you’re up to.” 

It's not until we read the phrase "now that you're ash" in the final paragraph that we learn your grandfather is deceased. Why did you choose the ending as the right moment to reveal that information?

I think my instinct there was that a dead grandpa story is a hard sell. So I wanted the reader to hear the propeller story (and the other war stories) before getting to that part. It’s an important detail, because it helps the reader understand the purpose or motivation of the essay. But it’s a shorter piece, so it seemed like it could come at the end and the reader wouldn’t bail.

What writing projects are you working on now?

Lately I have an obsession with natural history, and enjoy looking at humans through that lens. So I’m writing a number of essays that are in conversation with that. I’m also working on short stories—I seem to especially like writing about women who are funny & dark & Odyssean.

What is on your reading list for 2014?

Related to the natural history thing, I’m reading this book edited by Tom Baione called Natural Histories: Extraordinary Rare Book Selections from the American Museum of Natural History Library. The colored plates it comes with are really odd and beautiful. And it’s making me want to track down some of those books, especially works by EHA (Edward Hamilton Aitken). He’s so funny—says of the weather: “The only thing to be complained of at this time in Bombay is a certain tendency to liquefaction. Chemically speaking, one gets deliquescent about the end of May.”  

I also want to read Christopher Hitchens, Mortality & Amy Leach, Things That Are. And many, many others. 

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