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"The Names of the Flowers That Deer Dislike": An Interview with Dustin Parsons

Dustin Parsons lives in western New York state with his wife and his two sons. As well as The Collagist, his work has appeared recently in The Laurel Review, Seneca Review, The Indiana Review, Fugue, New Delta Review, and others. He is an associate professor at SUNY Fredonia.

An excerpt from The Homeowner's Guide to Deer Prevention appeared in Issue Sixty of The Collagist.

Here, Dustin Parsons talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about form, marriage, and the excitement of research.

Please describe the origins of your essay “from The Homeowner’s Guide to Deer Prevention.” What caused you to conceive the initial idea and start writing the first draft?

The germ of the essay was taking the trash out and seeing these deer, four of them, hanging out in the street like they belonged there. The next day my wife gave my son a haircut and saved the hair to scare the deer away because they’d been chewing the tops of the flowers in our garden. I love that she knows things like this. I certainly didn’t. The notion that such a simple, wispy matter like baby hair could keep deer away stuck with me for days, and some research revealed the rest of what would be the essay.

Your essay does some unconventional things with form. For example, the title suggests that the piece is an excerpt from a larger work, which does not really exist (I presume). Also, three paragraphs are italicized and offset with a wide left margin. How did you decide to play with form in these ways? What effect do you expect these techniques to have on the reader’s experience of the material?

You’re right, the book doesn’t exist, but I wish I had enough material to write a book on it. I love the names of the flowers that deer dislike. I love that at times we’ve been given advice to let our children use the back yard as a potty (we did not follow this advice). In my manuscript there are three “excerpts” from other manuscripts, and I find it haunting. Like these found objects have survived from a bigger book. The Italicized portions seemed to be in conversation with the Roman, and so I set them left to right so they might better continue that conversation. Form comes last for me when it comes to an essay or story. The physical space helps me give each piece of information a job and a home, and while I don’t always use unusual organizational strategies, I like to think that when I’m done it couldn’t be put any other way. Of course it could in the hands of other writers, but for me, at that time, I’ve found the right combination to unlock an emotion.

The italicized paragraphs include several facts about deer (e.g., “The Celts called them fairy cattle, and held them as known associates of deities” and “On the New York State Highways, an average of 20,000 deer carcasses are collected and disposed of each year.”) How much research was necessary to obtain this information? Is research a regular part of your writing process? How do you conduct research, and do you enjoy it?

If form comes last, research comes first. I jot ideas down, sketch out basic memories or scenes, but it is all just loose paper and napkins until I find out more about the territory I’m exploring. It might start with basic web searching, but pretty soon I move from a basic botany site to the East Coast Plant and Flower Field Guide to close-up fieldwork, looking at the soap bars hanging from orchard trees. I personally don’t understand how someone might not research when writing an essay. The experience one lives through is just that, an experience. Basic navel gazing. But it doesn’t have any gravity for me until there is context, and context comes from outside ourselves. When I find a piece of information I didn’t know before, I’m excited. And I think I can see when a writer is excited in their essay, when they find out something they didn’t know before. It translates.

Your website says that your wife is the poet Aimee Nezhukumatathil, and I see that you both work at the same university. Can you tell us about your experience of having a fellow writer as your partner and a work colleague? Do the two of you ever collaborate or compete? Do you read each other’s works-in-progress? Does the relationship increase your creativity/productivity?

The question makes everything seem clinical, but a relationship is better than that. Sure, we read each other’s work at times (but not always) and we work together (but we don’t compete). But having my wife be a writer means that we understand what it takes to make time for not only writing, but for each other. I love spending time with her, reading the same book and getting a whole different reading from it. I love that she understands things about the sea that I will never understand, and that my sons both know things at 7 and 4 that I will never know about ocean creatures. I fell in love with her and everything changed about what I do and how I do it. I wouldn’t have developed as a person or a writer without her.

What writing projects are you working on now?

I’m currently researching the 80s oil boom and the resultant early 90s movement by a handful of western Kansas counties to secede from the rest of the state.

What reading recommendations do you have for us?

Run, do not walk, to read Matthew Gavin Frank’s Preparing the Ghost. I’m just finishing it now, and I love it. Also read Pam Houston’s Contents May Have Shifted and Jamaal May’s Hum.

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