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"A Necessity of Artfulness": An Interview with Corwin Ericson

Corwin Ericson is the author of the novel Swell (Dark Coast, 2011) and Checked Out OK (Factory Hollow, 2013), a book-length found poem in the form of police reports. His work has been published in Harper's Magazine, The Massachusetts Review, Conduit, Hobart, and elsewhere. He lives in western Massachusetts and teaches at UMass Amherst.

His story, "I Cried So Much that Night, as I Sometimes Did," appeared in Issue Seventy-Three of The Collagist.

Here, he speaks with interviewer Dana Diehl about not reading Little House on the Prairie, young narrators, and the power of description.

How did your story, “I Cried So Much That Night, as I Sometimes Did,” come to be?

A couple of years ago, my young niece mentioned “Pa” in a conversation. Who? She’s a hip city girl; she wouldn’t say Pa. Her Ma explained to me that she was referring to Pa from Little House on the Prairie—a teacher was reading one of the books to her class. Those books were important to me as a young reader; they were my first taste of forbidden literature. I remember sneaking them off my sister’s shelf to read them. Not that anyone other than my sister would have cared, but they seemed taboo because I thought of them of them as for girls only. That made them much more interesting.

What were those books about? It turns out, I don’t remember. There was the narrator—Laura, maybe? Her blind sister. Her Pa, you know, Michael Landon. I have no memory of Ma. They lived in a sod house, probably little and on a prairie. There was bad weather and some kind of dangerous animal. Maybe some locust swarms. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is not part of this series.

So, when my niece said “Pa” and invested it with such knowingness, as if we’d all had a shared sense of Pa-ness and have all rolled our eyes at his foibles and admired him for his achievements, I got enthused and wanted to talk about him too, only I didn’t know him. I went to the library and pulled one of the LHOTP books off the shelf and had myself a moment: I realized I didn’t want to know anything more about the plots or characters.

I put the book right back and went home with a sense of purpose—to not read Little House on the Prairie. This was liberating and pleasant. So that’s the sort-of ‘pataphysical way I got to that voice, that character—by hearing a girl say “Pa” and then not reading Little House on the Prairie. I went on to write several stories with those characters and that setting.

We experience the story through the eyes of the youngest sister. What are some of the challenges you faced writing from the perspective of a young narrator, and how did you overcome them?

I wanted to write in a voice that was new and foreign to me, one that allowed for fun and invention and discovery and that I wouldn’t silt up with too much autobiography. That was the challenge. Her limited perspective of the world is exacerbated by her family’s monadic isolation, which was another challenge for me as the writer. I mean a challenge in the sense of an impediment that replaces the journey—we get to the obstacle and explore it instead of finding a way to overcome it. Like doing something instead of getting something done.

I spent a few years messing with the text of a Victorian-era children’s novel, The Wide Wide World, which is written in a girl’s voice. I made cross-outs, erasures, collages on the pages. In doing that, I made a deep study of a fairly stupid book, and one of the things I discovered about it was that there was a regular tide of crying in the book. Every tenth page or so, Sophie would choke up, try to squeeze her tears back, and then bawl. Her tearfulness and her diction, which seems stilted and turgid to me, but which was probably considered a necessity of artfulness when it was composed, were appropriated for the voice of the narrator in my story.

The fathers longing to describe and his struggle to do so seems to parallel the experience of the artist. The speaker also feels this frustration. When she first experiences the roof, she relates, I wanted, suddenly, to tell my sister all about what I could see, every inch of it so new to me, yet so old to her. As a writer, can you relate to this sentiment?

Like an author among readers, Pa needs to get out of the way. He’s intrusive and ineffectual. He’s self-deluded, full of rules and inhibitions. Convinced of his own mastery. In those ways, he seems very much like an artist: he must do as he does for reasons he alone knows, and he feels insufficiently appreciated and barely tolerated. In this story, Pa has a fantasy about his daughter going blind. He feels that if she went blind, it would be up to him to describe things to her, as if he were Anne Sullivan. He wants to hone his powers of description so that he’ll be better at it, for her sake. His daughter is actually in no danger of losing her sight, so she resents his meddling and descriptions of the obvious. This is a real peril for many fictional children—someone is always trying to teach them something.

I can certainly relate to this as a writer. It’s both irritating and inspiring to have things described to you. Description can be a real infliction and writers do it all the time.

Please tell us the last book you read that you really loved.

This is a tough question. I’m not sure where I stand on loving books. Just last night, I finished Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer, and I was impressed and enjoyed it. Not long ago I read Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country and was delighted to find parts of it set in a fictitious, sinister version of a town within bike-riding distance of my house.

I can remember years ago loaning a copy of Ballard’s High Rise to a friend, who then loaned it to a friend of his who was very sick in the hospital. I asked my friend for it back, and he said he wouldn’t ask his very sick friend for it back. I then had the entirely unloving, selfish thought, “But I love that book.”

I love the constant flow of books I get from my little rural town’s library—I’m a heavy user of the interlibrary loan program. I do actually love Moby-Dick, though we haven’t seen each other in a while. I’ve given Magnus Mills’ first book, The Restraint of Beasts, to a few people and told them they were wrong when they said they didn’t love it.

What projects are you working on now?

I’ve spent a lot of time the past few months working on a big woven wicker mask, which was just shipped to its new owner in Texas this weekend. A few weeks ago I returned to making “hikaru dorodangos”—that’s Japanese for shiny mudballs. I write poems. I think and make notes about the Arctic and the hollow earth and Vikings and inuksuit, ostensibly in service of writing a novel.

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