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"Trying to Chip Away at Universal Truths": An Interview with Erica Trabold

Erica Trabold (@ericatrabold) is a writer of family and memory. Her essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Seneca Review, Weave Magazine, Penumbra, and others. She writes and teaches in Oregon, where she is pursuing an MFA in creative nonfiction.

Her essay, "Canyoneering," appeared in Issue Seventy-One of The Collagist.

Here, Erica Trabold talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about family stories, universality, and mythic inspiration.

Please tell us about the origins of your essay, “Canyoneering.” What sparked the initial idea and caused you to start writing the first draft?

Two years ago, my husband and I took a roadtrip from Nebraska, where we lived at the time, through the deserts of the American southwest. One of our first stops was Roswell. We were interested in the place for a variety of reasons, namely the UFO conspiracies and kitschy roadside attractions, but I also approached the place with a kind of reverence. It’s the city where my biological grandfather lived for most of his adult life. Because my dad was adopted as a child, I never knew my grandfather—all I had was this story he would tell about taking me to New Mexico when I was a baby. Being in Roswell again felt a bit unreal. When I walked into Carlsbad Caverns, I realized I was reliving a moment I’d been imagining my whole life.

In the first section, amid telling the story of a trip taken when you were a year old, you wrote of your parents that “they have told me about our trip and my behavior dozens of times. I don’t ask for careful explanation. I assume I have always been attracted to the mysterious, adopting family stories as part of my own. In my memory, they are solidified.” When you are crafting personal essays and your own history through tales like this trip, how much investigation do you do into your family’s stories? If indeed you are willing to “assume” that you’ve always been a certain way, to what extent can you permit yourself to fill in the gaps of the unremembered past with your own solidifying?

Nothing ignites my curiosity more than hearing a story about myself I can’t remember. My dad is always telling these beautiful little vignettes. He tells stories so well and so often that they just become part of my repertoire, and I consider my retellings nonfiction. Words like “assume” teach the reader what to expect from my work—assumptions, gaps, second-hand information. In this essay, I’m much more interested in how we remember and interpret experience than I am in fact-checking my dad. Instead, I’m attempting to mirror the ways I know what I know in the essay’s language and form. Telling our family history any other way wouldn’t be true. There’s so much we just don’t know.

Perhaps the most riveting descriptions in this essay appear in the section where rocks growl and boulders become bears, culminating in this unforgettable line: “Ten thousand ghosts created the sand beneath your feet.” In this essay you’re combining science and your own experiences of caves and canyons to create something that sounds like a creation myth. What is the relationship between mythology and your writing? Can you speak about how a work of nonfiction can be in dialogue with, or become an example of, myth-making?

Stories passed down through generations often take on this quality because they sound a lot like myths. They explain our origins. They give us history. They tell us who we are. They offer a reason why. I have found it impossible to write family history without mythic inspiration, and I think it’s somewhat our responsibility as writers to continue the tradition by creating our own.

Your essay takes an interesting turn in its final paragraph. Here’s an excerpt of what I’m talking about: “Now imagine a hole the size of your heart. Not a giant thing, but miles deep and grand in its own way. You fall in. You’re loving it.” Up until this point the essay has not contained any direct address. What made you decide that the essay’s final move should be a switch to second person and this invitation to the reader (unless, of course, you had someone else in mind for the essay’s use of “you”)?

The conclusion of the essay does feel like an invitation. I think this is because, as a genre, nonfiction is always trying to chip away at universal truths. It’s always asking the reader to consider the myriad ways a single experience contains significance and meaning. A lot of times, the essayist’s nod to universality is a whisper, but because of this essay’s fragmented nature, I felt I needed to make its universality louder. Though the final lines are certainly open to interpretation, my hope is that each reader can cling to something that accords with the way they’ve experienced the world.

What writing projects are you working on now?

I’m still essaying about water—lakes, oceans, droughts—and I’m always going to be writing about my family. They are the most interesting people I know.

What have you read recently that you’d like to recommend?

Lately, I’ve found myself gravitating toward short story collections, which is a genre I’ve had little to no experience reading. I’m right in the middle of Lydia Davis’s Can’t and Won’t, which has been a treat so far, and I just finished Claire Vaye Watkins’s Battleborn. Both women have inspired me in a way I wasn’t expecting would influence my approach to nonfiction. I’m grateful.

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