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Wednesday
Apr112018

"Worms Turning and Obligation Souring": An Interview with Jaclyn Watterson

Jaclyn Watterson's first book, Ventriloquisms, won the 2016 Spokane Prize for Short Fiction and was published by Willow Springs Books in October 2017. She is currently at work on her second book, a collection of nonfiction from which portions have appeared in The Spectacle, New Delta Review, Split Lip, and The Collagist.

Her essay, "Our Deportment," appeared in Issue Ninety-Three of The Collagist.

Here, Jaclyn Watterson talks with interviewer William Hoffacker about etiquette, struggling with plot, and the transformation of memories into narrative.

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

With this particular essay, the title actually came first. I was reading a nineteenth century book meant to instruct readers on proper etiquette for various tricky situations. There is, for example, a section on how to comport oneself at a funeral, and another on how young ladies should behave if left alone with men whom they don’t wish to marry. The book is called Our Deportment, a title which implies, to me, culpability and reciprocity. I knew I wanted to reappropriate it to explore my fraught relationship with my mother—and the habits of mind and practices I have and have not learned from her.

While I admire the position that if we behave properly and have good manners our experiences will always remain controlled and manageable—that if we just learn the rules everything will be all right—I also know this position is a beautiful, false dream. Good manners cannot, ultimately, save us from pain and disgrace, and what horrors are exposed when our behavior exceeds the confines of mannered relations?

The essay begins with one italicized paragraph, which seems to have a different speaker than what follows, as it lacks both “I” and “you” in its more lyrical language. What purpose is this unique introduction meant to serve? How do you want it to orient (or disorient) the reader?

That introduction is in keeping with the instructions or advice on etiquette, but of course rather than present foolproof advice guaranteed to create a smooth and comfortable experience for the two people in question here (my mother and myself), it acknowledges pain and ugliness, which manners so often are meant to conceal. Here, history and past interactions cannot provide a template for clean future relations, for the history is not one of good manners and social successes, but of worms turning and obligation souring. This, I think, is not so uncommon in families. The introduction orients the reader to a place and a peace beyond the trauma that follows, spelling out the inevitable ending, while suggesting that there might yet be some dignity—and even redemption—in looking squarely at that history.

In this essay, you write: “This is the way, of course, with the true stories of youth, our memories—they bloom and die and smell, and we cannot keep them. Put another way: mildew and various other deaths accumulate.” If this is true for everyone, I’m wondering how you think it may be different for a writer, if at all. If we channel such stories into writing, how might that affect the process you’re describing here? What does writing do to the blooming, dying memories: preserve them? empower them? transform them?

I think it’s right that as writers we transform and empower memories. Of course all people narrativize their experience, but writers obsessively revise and record this narrative. I have attempted, through this essay, to show my readers the bathroom where I showered in my youth. Who are my readers? People who are interested in language and narrative. For the most part, they probably do not share my particular preoccupation with lavatories. But now I have recorded that bathroom in words, which it was never made of before, and begged you all to bear witness. However you do this, the bathroom, and my own positionality and my mother’s, have been transformed and empowered—no longer merely memory, they bloom and die and accumulate with the power of words.

Although we’ve been discussing an example of your nonfiction, you are primarily a writer of fiction, according to your publication history. How has writing fiction made you a better nonfiction writer, or vice versa? What lessons learned from one genre have served you best in the other?

Yes, I trained as a fiction writer and have studied and published much more extensively in that genre. From fiction, I learned a certain openness of possibility, and a careful attention to the way sentences reflect, maintain, or close that possibility. In fiction anything can happen, but I always struggled with plot. I would ask myself, What happened?, but I couldn’t bring myself to care about that more than the sentences or the mood or the structure of a piece, and people would tell me, This isn’t a story because it has no plot. I enjoy writing nonfiction because there are certain events that have happened, certain plots that have inserted themselves into my experience. But those plots are not immediately apparent to me when I begin writing. I think, How was I culpable, what part of that wall of mold was mine?, and in answering these questions, I am able to tell the story.

What writing project(s) are you working on now?

This essay is part of a larger memoir in essays, tentatively titled Other Dogs Haunted Other Recesses, which evokes the shame and elation of intimacy with other beings, both human and animal. Each piece begins with a singular image or incident—a blood-soaked sponge in sunlight, or walking through my childhood home alongside bidders on the morning of its foreclosure auction. I am exploring interpolations of the sublime and the abject, and many of the pieces, like “Our Deportment,” explore that most private of spaces in the crowded family home, the bathroom.

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

I just read an as-yet unpublished manuscript by the Buffalo-based poet Robin Lee Jordan which blew my socks off. I can’t wait for it to come into the world.

And I’m in love with Yiyun Li’s Dear Friend, From My Life I Write to You in Your Life. I’ve also been visiting and revisiting Elizabeth Gaskell and Daphne du Maurier, who both have so much to teach about transformation, empowerment, and looking squarely at history.

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