Luke Rolfes: Elizabeth, I had the recent privilege of reading Palindrome, a gorgeously written collection of stories from Texas Review Press. Congratulations on your new book and thank you for sharing some insight with us.
I’m always curious about a writer’s construction process when it comes to a collection. How did this project come to be? Are these all new pieces? And when did you get a sense that the stories you were writing should be a part of a book rather than ones that standalone?
Elizabeth Genovise: The publication process is always very protracted, so by the time something appears in print, it feels like I wrote it in another lifetime. Most of these stories were written in 2018-2019. But I can remember the headspace I was in then: I’d been through a period of renewal in which I’d revisited the hefty, hard-hitting writers I’d always loved but had drifted away from (Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Steinbeck, Lewis, Tolkien, T.S. Eliot, many others). I’d also begun a serious study of the work of Carl Jung which has been feeding into my writing ever since. As for the stories being connected, I never write anything with a preordained idea of how it’s going to fit into a larger collection. Honestly, I’m not sure if it’s possible to write that way and still produce something organic. There’s always been a natural point at which I look over a couple of years’ worth of work and say, “Okay, I see eight or nine stories in this crowd that seem to belong together; let’s try submitting this as a manuscript.”
LR: The book opens with three stories revolving around specific tragedies: a suicide, a horrific fire, and a child suffering from a terminal illness. Almost all the stories in this collection feature a tragic event of some kind, and are, in some ways, about how characters connected to the tragedy shoulder the burden. In your writing, you are able to navigate pain in an extraordinary way. There are things out there that we don’t want to look at, yet I feel like you guide readers through these images and scenes with a gentle hand. Can you talk a bit about writing pain and sorrow? How do you keep the heaviness of these tragedies from sucking the life-force out of your stories?
EG: I teach literature and creative writing, and during the first session of any class, I tell my students that happiness is a blank page, and that Hell is story friendly. Sometimes I make a joke of it (“life is suffering!”), but I do believe that it’s impossible to get at meaning without pain. We can’t escape or deny pain, but we can transform as a result of it. Tragedy is a wildfire. On first glance it looks like pure, pointless destruction, but upon closer inspection you realize that all manner of new growth can spring up from the ruins. Nobody reaches personal fulfillment via an easy, comfortable existence. So, tragedy in my characters’ lives is a curious kind of blessing. Without it, they will likely rot. With it, they have a shot at redemption.
LR: One more on that topic: I mostly believe that human grief isn’t all that complicated of an emotion---it’s all-encompassing like a waterfall---but how people repress grief, hide from it, delay it, etc. is particular and heavily nuanced. I’ve love to hear how you approach these grieving characters as a writer. Is there a rationality to grief, or do you let the characters and their grief behave irrationally when they need to? And do you see the characters in Palindrome as united or linked in their shared tragedies?
EG: All of these characters have dragons they try to stuff into closets or under beds. They try (or have tried) to go on living as though those monsters aren’t there, but in the meantime, the dragons take on girth, and grow sharper claws and teeth. An eventual confrontation is inevitable if these people want to survive in the spiritual/psychological sense.
I believe that most of our irrational behavior (and most of our cruelty, too) is symptomatic of an unconscious awareness that we are “living wrong” (ignoring our monsters). We project our anxiety onto others, we behave bizarrely or impulsively, because we’re on the run from ourselves. Many of the characters in this collection and in my coming publications are guilty of this. Their grief—pain over a child’s early death, a husband’s car wreck, a ruined marriage—becomes a grievance (God is unfair, humanity is evil by nature, everyone is out to get me), and in embracing or inflating that grievance, these characters attempt to sidestep self-confrontation. They’ve all contributed their fair share of hell to the world but can’t admit it until they’re shaken awake.
LR: “Meridian” is a story that revolves around a school shooting. “Travels with Zippo” is about a daughter getting an abortion. Both of these topics have been in the center of our public consciousness in the past year. I’m curious: When a topic comes to the forefront of our national conversation, does that make it easier to write about, or more difficult? Has the recent conversation changed the way you look at these stories in any way?
EG: There’s a reason I don’t use social media (no Facebook, no Twitter). I avoid mainstream media entirely. I don’t even have an iPhone (it’s an actual flip phone!). My friends, students, and coworkers are flabbergasted by this. But I need to think for myself. It sounds so simple and obvious, but we’re living in a cultural climate dominated by agenda-driven “conversation” that isn’t conversation at all, but a kind of boxing ring where people are instantly knocked down by one side or the other for saying anything that carries substance. I know plenty of writers who really sweat over how to please everyone, but it’s just not possible to do this, and so I don’t try. My methodology totally precludes that type of thinking anyway. I’ve never sat down to write something with the mentality of, “I have this grand truth in mind, and I will now use characters as vehicles to convey it.” That’s totalitarian thinking. That’s a surefire way to ensure that what you produce contains none of the mystery or revelation that comes with the making of actual art. Characters lead me, not the other way around, and their choices or beliefs don’t necessarily reflect my own.
LR: I like that answer! So, when you talk about the characters leading you, do you allow yourself to have an ending or destination in mind when you are working on a particular piece or is it entirely organic? Maybe another way of asking: Do you see yourself as one who guides these characters, or one who simply follows?
EG: I don’t know the ending, don’t even get a sense of it really, until about ¾ of the way through a manuscript. In grad school, I used to write the opposite way; I’d start with what I thought was a killer final paragraph, then work my way up to that moment. Thankfully, MFA workshop showed no mercy in decimating those stories. I’m more a follower than a guide now when it comes to character, but it’s a balancing act. In revision, I’ll spot contradictions or notice missed opportunities in character development, but that work is best done after the first raw draft is complete.
LR: “Palindrome,” the title story, is one of my favorites in this collection---a lush, place-based story that is grounded heavily in historical context. The characters, trying to dodge the draft and make it to Canada, journey from Louisiana, to Lake Michigan, to the Upper Peninsula. I’ve always been a sucker for place and setting, and you give us details that are so exact and jump off the page. Talk a bit about how you see place/setting in your writing. Do you often rely on personal knowledge to help paint these details?
EG: I do. I’m a believer in “writing what you know” when it comes to setting (and only setting). I lived in Louisiana for two years and thought it the most unsettling landscape I’d ever encountered. I also love the Upper Peninsula, which I consider my personal heaven. My passion for these two places definitely fed into this particular story, and into Michael’s revelation about the contrast between them (the U.P. being a sort of perfected, storybook version of what lies on the opposite end of the country, along the messy storm-torn Gulf coast). For me, the Upper Peninsula is a reward; it’s something to work toward, like Tolkien’s Grey Havens. The Louisiana coast, though, is where you do that work. It’s a tough, frightening landscape that speaks of mortality, and that’s the kind of place you must figuratively inhabit in order to grow as a person.
LR: Your story that appeared a couple issues ago in Laurel Review called “Earthen Vessels” takes place on the Gulf, at a place called Grand Isle. There is very much an “edge of the world”, or “gates of Hell” feel to the setting, with the violent gulf in the backdrop. Can you talk a bit more about the Gulf itself in your writing? Do you see it, in a way, as its own character that others are forced to grapple with?
EG: Yes, I do; I’ve always worked with landscape in this way. But the Gulf in particular has special connotations for me. Growing up in the Great Lakes region, I was accustomed to clean, bright beaches and gentle blue waters before I moved to Lake Charles, Louisiana. I can’t recall the name of the first Gulf beach I visited, but it was indeed hellish. The water was brown, and tar balls kept rolling out of it. This was shortly after Katrina, and the coast was thick with debris; I waded into the water and tripped over a downed power line that was lying in the shallows like a huge snake. I spotted a silver fork in the weeds, later a child’s plastic trike. It was so hot and humid out there that I felt sick, like I was breathing in poisoned air, and at some point, I stepped in a nest of fire ants. The whole place horrified me. But it was a kind of foreshadowing, a message: life until that point had been almost unforgivably good to me, and now trouble was coming. The crazy thing was, as much as I hated and feared that landscape when I first got there, I came to have both passion and compassion for it. I was drawn to the mess and the broken bones of that whole region. When the next hurricane rolled in, I stayed in my house while nearly everyone I knew evacuated. I just needed to be there. I think even as a naïve 23-year-old, I knew I needed to start getting my hands dirty. Since then, the Gulf and similar places have been richly symbolic in my fiction, representing the shadows characters have to integrate in order to become whole.
LR: Almost all the stories in Palindrome are longer than 5000 words. I might label them as “long-short stories,” perhaps even “short novellas.” It seems that, especially nowadays, fiction published in literary journals and online mags is trending shorter and “slicker,” yet you’ve been able to craft these long, extended narratives that are vivid and lyrically rendered. I really love that about your writing. Do you see yourself as bucking a trend? What is it about this length of story that appeals so much to you?
EG: I started submitting stories in 2008, and the word count preference at literary journals has nosedived since then. There was a time when an 8,000 word story was nothing to speak of, but now, many editors want 4,000 words or fewer. What a lot of them are really asking for is a kind of flash fiction. Flash fiction can be very powerful, but it’s always seemed a bit lazy to me. There’s no time to develop character. No time to let yourself be surprised as a writer. I’ve written a few very short pieces, and each time, it was more like writing a little poem than a story; I knew precisely what I wished to say and how to say it. That was boring.
That being said, the stories in this particular book were even longer than my usual, and I think this had something to do with my being on the verge of writing a first novel. I remember my husband reading “Palindrome” and saying, “Elizabeth, just write a novel. It’s time.” My brain was shifting gears that year, readying itself for a long haul with one set of characters.
LR: Congrats on your new book Palindrome which becomes available October 17th! What’s next for you and your writing?
EG: Well, I did write that novel after all. I was working from home for a year + during Covid, and I spent most of 2020 and 2021 composing it. It’s called Third Class Relics and is set in northern Wisconsin, in the town of Two Rivers which is another of those places very close to my heart. That book is in the publication pipeline with my primary publisher, Texas Review Press, but won’t be out until 2024 assuming all goes well. I also have a smaller collection of short stories, closer to chapbook-length, coming out from Passengers Press late this upcoming spring, tentatively called Lighthouse Dreams. Currently I’m working on a novelette, but it’s too early to tell whether it will become something worthy of submission, or something I add to my rather massive file of “Epic Fail Manuscripts.”
Bio: Elizabeth Genovise grew up in Villa Park, Illinois, and lived in Michigan and Iowa before earning her MFA in fiction at McNeese State University in Lake Charles, Louisiana. She is an O. Henry Prize winner and has been nominated multiple times for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net awards. Her stories have appeared most recently in Plough Quarterly, Pennsylvania English, Passengers, The Laurel Review, and many other journals.
Elizabeth has published three collections of stories via small or university presses: A Different Harbor, Where There Are Two or More, and Posing Nude for the Saints. Her fourth book, Palindrome, is due out from the Texas Review Press in 2022.
Elizabeth lives near Knoxville, Tennessee, where she teaches literature and writing courses. She is currently editing her first novel, Third Class Relics.