Lacy M. Johnson is the author of Trespasses: A Memoir, which was published by the University of Iowa Press earlier this year. She holds a PhD from University of Houston’s Creative Writing Program and has been awarded fellowships from the Kansas Arts Commission, the Mitchell Center for the Arts, and Millay Colony for the Arts. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Creative Nonfiction, Sentence, TriQuarterly Online, Memoir Journal, Gulf Coast, Pebble Lake Review and elsewhere. She lives in Houston with her husband and two children and currently teaches writing to public school teachers and pediatric cancer patients. Trespasses: A Memoir has recently been nominated for an Orion Book Award.
Amanda Auchter is the founding/managing editor of Pebble Lake Review and the author of two books of poetry, The Wishing Tomb, winner of the 2012 Perugia Press Award, and The Glass Crib (2011), winner of the Zone 3 Press First Book Award. She is at work on a memoir about adoption and foster care, What Took You So Long.
The following interview was conducted in via email in May and June 2012.
AA: This book began, if you want to take it back that far, as a series, or collection of poems, yet in its final state, it bridges the gap seamlessly between poetry and prose. Can you talk a little bit about the choices you made in terms of genre and how this book became a "memoir" and not a traditional book of poems?
LJ: Yes, if you take it back far enough, there was a point in graduate school when I was working on a collection of poems called White Trash Mongrel. I don’t think there was ever more than three or four poems in the manuscript at a time, so it wasn’t really much of a collection. For a while, it included this strange animal I was calling a screen poem, which comprised a series of very short scenes from my childhood and adolescence in rural Missouri, and which included stage directions and instructions on how to frame imaginary camera shots as well as short monologues of prose-poemy critical theory. I admit it was kind of out there. But that was at a time when I was really experimenting with form in an effort to test the boundaries of genre. At what point, for example, does a piece of writing cease to be a poem and become something else? When I wrote “white trash primer,” a very long prose-poemy essayish thing, I loved the way it straddled so many genres: poetry, the essay, memoir, nonfiction, drama, short short fiction. When Memoir Journal published that piece in 2009, it happened to catch the attention of the then-Acquisitions Editor at University of Iowa Press, Joe Parsons, who sent me a note and asked if I had a manuscript. I didn’t, but you’d better believe I scrambled to get one together! And because the work that supplied the project’s initial DNA was so generically complicated, the book became generically complicated as well. Yes, Trespasses includes prose poems, and so it’s partly poetry, but it also includes short shorts, and anecdotes, and journalism, and research, and unfunny jokes, and fake sermons, and real prayers. I call it a memoir because memoir as a form welcomes of all of those things. I couldn’t include all of those forms in a book and still call it poetry.
AA: This book is, most definitely, a story of place. What took you back to the place of your childhood and what made you want to build a narrative, a book, from it?
LJ: When I came to Houston in 2004 to enter the Creative Writing Program at University of Houston, most of my classmates, many of my colleagues had come from major cities on either the east or the west coast. It was the first time in my life I had spent that much time with people who were from places completely unlike my home in rural Missouri, and it made me realize a few things that are probably obvious to most people: first, that my upbringing (the one in rural Missouri) was vastly different from the experience of most people in this country; and second, that most people have very clear opinions of rural culture, though when it comes right down to it, they don’t actually know very much about it. Then in 2006, when I got pregnant with my daughter, I started wondering about the cultural and ethnic heritageor lack of itI would or wouldn’t be passing down to her. I started doing some very casual genealogical research and discovered that my family had been living in the same county in north central Missouri for at least 170 years. I traced it back to this one woman, Lavinia Johnson (what a name!), living on what was then the frontier, just after Missouri had been made a state, with her four children. She lists no husband on the census, only her occupation: “farmer.” That completely surprised me. Growing up, I had never heard stories about my frontier woman ancestor, or any ancestors for that matter, and I suddenly realized that when it came right down to it, I also knew very little about the place I’d come from. So I tried to find out. Trespasses wrestles with the two parts of that impulse: I am both an expert and a novice, a native and an outsider. I want to both defend my home and discover it.
AA: Trespasses is built, in part, from a re-working of interviews with your family, something I've never really seen in a memoir before. This seems like a daunting task -- collecting multi-generational stories and weaving them together, re-imagining them to form a narrative. I'd like you to talk a little more about this process. Was this your original intent and how difficult was it to get these stories?
LJ: Actually, I didn’t conduct the interviews in order to write the book. I conducted the interviews in 2006, while I was pregnant with my daughter. At the time, I thought I might make a documentary out of them (because that’s so easy to do!), even just a short one as part of my dissertation. As it turns out, I found it very difficult to work with the footagenot only technically, but also because the stories were rarely complete and never linear. I’m not sure if you’ve noticed, but people don’t talk in memoir. I spent a few months trying to transcribe the interviews, and trying to work them into long prose-poemy essayish things, but I felt like I was taking too many liberties with the language and with the voices of people I love. Working those stories into another form meant I had to change the phrasing and the tone and the meter of another person’s words to suit my aesthetic, and that felt like a very sleazy thing to do. Because I wasn’t sure what else to do with the interviews, I mostly abandoned them until 2009, when I started working on Trespasses for University of Iowa Press. At that point, I thought back through the interviews and made a list of the particular anecdotes that had haunted me for one reason or another. After I had the list, I watched the interviews again, and transcribed the relevant parts. I then used that information to write a series of very very short stories. I don’t think it’s scandalous for me to admit that. Yes, the sections about my grandparents and parents are entirely fictionalized! I based those sections on anecdotes my relatives told me during the interviews in 2006. I hope it’s clear that those sections are not so much an attempt to faithfully report the experiences of other people as they are an attempt to try to understand them, to try to imagine the experience of people I have known and loved and misunderstood, and to not only come to terms with that misunderstanding, but also come to terms with what that means for who I am and the places I come from. Admittedly, there are many factual inaccuracies as a result of this approach, which certain people in my family have been more than happy to point out. I’ve been more upset by thatthe pointing outthan I anticipated, because I honestly wasn’t trying to make mistakes. Like I said, it was my way of trying to understand.
AA: The cover of the book features barbed wire, which I think is interesting. When you think of barbed wire, you think of something sharp, even dangerous, and something that can both contain and keep out. How does this notion work into the story you're trying to tell?
LJ: That’s funny. When I think of barbed wire I think of rust, and tetanus, and stitches. One of the themes that recurs in Trespasses again and again is the border: the fence, the geographic boundary, class lines, gender lines, racial and ethnic divisions, formal and generic conventions, rules about what is polite and what is impolite, what is proper and what is improper, what is and isn’t allowed. The book tries to make the case that these borders are imaginary. They’re pure and total fiction that’s been created for taxonomic convenience, and those fictions do not serve the interests of the vast majority of the world’s people in any way.
AA: The title of your book, Trespasses, hints at religious undertones found in The Lord's Prayer, which you even acknowledge in the opening of the book. What was the impetus behind this choice?
LJ: You know, Trespasses wasn’t the original title for the book. For a long time it was called Spoons, which seems dumb in retrospect. At the time, I was thinking about The Joy Luck Club, and I was hoping to draw connections between that book, in which the characters play mahjong, and which documents Chinese American culture, and my own book, in which the characters play a version of the card game called “spoons.” If you’re not familiar with that game, all you need to know is that like in musical chairs, where there are never enough chairs, in spoons there are never enough spoons. That seemed like an apt metaphor for the game of economic elimination that has plagued at least one whole side of my family as long as anyone can remember. But when I was nearly done with the book, I heard from Claudia Rankine, asking that I respond to her Open Letter, which called for a public discussion of the creative imagination, creative writing, and race. That project gave me the opportunity to write an essay rearticulating one of the arguments of my book: that all white people do not have equal access to white privilege. The essay, called “trespassing,” deals explicitly with class passing, and with geographic trespassing, which I thought resonated too perfectly with the Christian notion of trespasses. So I canned Spoons and called the book Trespasses instead.
AA: How long did it take you to write the book? When did you know it was complete?
LJ: It took me almost exactly two years, from start to finish, though I took a few months off from writing when my son was born near the end of 2010. I don’t think there was any particular moment when I leaned away from my computer and said: Voila! I don’t think I ever even celebrated! In the initial stages of the process, I planned and outlined and plotted and graphed, and though that changed along the way, when I completed the plan for the book, I turned it in to Joe Parsonsmy deadline had arrived anywayand he said, Wonderful! And that was it: the book was done. At the time, I felt relieved, since I had gotten pretty sick of working on the damn thing anyway. But as time goes on, I think there is more I could have said. There are things I would change, even now, that I wish I could change, or whole sections I would add. Is it complete? I don’t know. You tell me.
AA: Many writers spend years sending out their manuscripts before finding a home for it. Was this the case with this book? How many places did you shop it around to and was there ever a moment where you were discouraged by the process?
LJ: I didn’t have that experience at all. Joe Parsons asked me to write it for the University of Iowa Press, and I did. After a year of working on the project, I sent them half of the manuscript and asked for a formal contract. They offered me one, and I signed it, and a year later I sent them the finished book. I’ve gathered, from talking to the managing editor, Charlotte Wright, that this isn’t how it goes down with most of their titles, though. So I consider myself extraordinarily lucky.
AA: After the book was accepted by University of Iowa Press, what was the process from manuscript to finished product?
LJ: After I turned in the manuscript, we went back and forth for a week or two with some minor structural editsI had a preface in place they felt was unnecessary, and a few sections at the end that seemed tonally off. When we got that straightened out, they printed a copy of the manuscript and sent it to me to proofread. When I approved that version, they sent it along to the copyeditor, who suggested changes, and sent them to me. We went back and forth about a few things, before our changes were returned. Then the manuscript was typeset, and I was sent the galleys. After I approved those, the manuscript went to press. The whole editing process took maybe a few months. But it was probably nine months total between the time I turned in the final manuscript and I held the finished book in my hands.
AA: What's next for Lacy Johnson? Are you currently at work on any projects?
LJ: Right now I’m at work on my second book, a memoir about violence, memory, and recovery. It’s a very dark book, the darkest I’ve ever worked on, and writing it is not remotely fun. But it’s a book I must write, and I must write it now, at this point in my life. I’m trying to get it done as quickly as possible. After it’s out the door, I’m thinking about writing something funny: maybe a collection of illustrated short-shorts for kids (my daughter is just beginning to read), or a recipe-memoir about parenting (I was doing that for a while on my blog). I would love to spend a year or two cracking myself up every day. Eventually I’ll probably get around to doing a critical study of interdisciplinary art. But I’m in no rush. I plan to have a very long career.