Lidia Yuknavitch is the National Bestselling author of the novels The Book of Joan and The Small Backs of Children, winner of the 2016 Oregon Book Award’s Ken Kesey Award for Fiction, as well as the Reader’s Choice Award; the novel, Dora: A Headcase; and a critical book on war and narrative, Allegories Of Violence. Her widely acclaimed memoir, The Chronology of Water, was a finalist for a PEN Center USA award for creative nonfiction and winner of a PNBA Award and the Oregon Book Award Reader’s Choice. The Misfit’s Manifesto, a book based on her recent TED Talk, was published by TED Books. Her new collection of fiction, Verge, is now out from Riverhead Books.
She founded the workshop series Corporeal Writing in Portland, Oregon, where she teaches both in person and online. She received her doctorate in Literature from the University of Oregon. She lives in Oregon with her husband, Andy Mingo, and their renaissance man son, Miles. She is a very good swimmer.
The characters in Lidia Yuknavitch’s latest collection of short stories, Verge, all inhabit edges. It’s how Yuknavitch, who has long been drawn in both her literary and personal life to people who live on the margins of society, came up with the title for her book. There is a story about a young girl who is forced into an organ trafficking ring, a teenager who smuggles drugs into a prison only to find her brother inside, and a middle-aged professor who invites a sex worker into her home. Characters who are often pushed to the fringes of literary fiction are given voice through Yuknavitch’s raw prose, resulting in a collection that feels equal parts urgent and soothing, and is as much a study in craft as it is in humanity.
Below, I spoke with Yuknavitch about breaking down the constraints of form, curating a collection, and her belief that a piece of literature is never truly finished.
Emma Grillo: In your own words, what is Verge about, and how did the short story collection come together?
Lidia Yuknavitch: Verge is a kind of curation of stories around characters who are sort of suspended right before they are making either a terrible choice, or a choice that will help them in their lives, or in a state of vibration between good and bad, between beautiful and ugly. The reason I’m so interested in catching a character inside that vibrating space, you know on the verge of something—get it? [Laughs]—is that it corresponds in my life to how it feels to be human. The people I spend my life working with and loving don’t achieve heroic status, they vibrate in the in-between space. I was trying to curate a collection that kind of gave space on the page to those kinds of experiences and people because I love them.
EG: Were these stories those that you had been working on for years and then you found a collection in them, or had you set out with the idea for the collection and then started writing the stories?
LY: That’s why I use the word curation. They’re stories that have changed over time, which is an idea I love, because the opposite is true for how we perceive writing in the world. Like, it gets its shot and then it’s dead, and I think that’s absurd. There are many, many new stories, formed and deformed stories, and so curation is a great word for me. The newest stories are straight from my present tense understanding of the world, and carry traces of—you know I’m 56, so they carry traces of other parts of my life and other experiences and other wars and other violences and other beauties.
EG: What is it like to go back to a story in that way, a story that you saw as finished at some point that you now want to go back and open up again?
LY: Well, see, here’s the thing, and I recognize that I may be in the minority here, but one of my mentors was Kathy Acker, so I have someone to blame. [Laughs] I think literature is always alive, and never static. When I’m inside my creative process I feel like I’m inside all of literature. And it’s always changing and moving and growing and resisting and contradicting every time you’re inside it. So I think my entire enterprise as a writer has to do with entering the aliveness of language and art and letting it—you know, having a real relationship to it.
EG: I feel like so many of these stories are written from the perspective of—I guess some might say the perspective of “the other,” as in the perspective of a child or someone living in a very different country. Can you talk about inhabiting that different space and choosing a narrator that might be so different from your lived experience?
LY: Yeah. I know I get over-righteous about this topic, I work on that. But I’m just endlessly devoted to those people and those characters who have been used as the raw material upon which culture has been built and so-called “progress” continues to exist in the world. And so that often means disenfranchised, disempowered people, children, people of color, Indigenous people, poor people, non-neuro-normative people, LGBTQ+ people. The edges of culture have been used as the material conditions to build a center, to build the mainstream. And so I like to—I’m not even saying I succeed very well, I’m just saying I’m obsessed with and devoted to shining the light on those edge people, edge cultures, because their dehumanization enrages me. And so placing their stories on the page is a way to just argue that the light is there for everyone, and these non-mainstream characters and these people we spend our lives trying not to look at, or we see them and then we look away. Like when children wash up on the beach, we’re horrified by the photo, but then we try really hard to not think about it anymore. That impulse to look away, I’m trying to wrestle that impulse back to, no, not only do we need to reconnect to otherness but we need to remember that otherness is inside us, too.
EG: I was also hoping you could speak a little bit about—I feel like some of these stories are so location-specific, like the location where it’s set becomes a character in the story. Is that intentional?
LY: It’s totally intentional, and I love you for noticing that! Nobody has asked me that; that’s so astute. I can tell you the underpinnings of that idea. And so again I’m not saying that I succeeded, but I love that you noticed that, thank you. So for me, place represents, and I think I already used this phrase, but the material condition inside of which we understand self. So for me place isn’t setting. For me, place extends to your relationship with the house you’re in, the town you’re in, the city you’re in, the state you’re in, the country you’re in, the nation you’re in. It all tracks back to how we understand ourselves in the world, and our deeply misguided divisions about our relationship to the planet needs some shaking up. So when there’s a character from Florida, the Florida got in them. And when there’s a character from Alaska, the Alaska got in them. And when there’s a character trying to flee their country towards some idea of a place like America, it’s because those stories got in them, and they’re carrying them in their bodies to either terrible ends or possibility ends. So thank you for noticing that place isn’t just setting for me. I could have just said it shorter. I’m a wordy mother-fucker, I’m sorry. Place is a character, it’s as real to me as people are, and our relationship to place is something we might want to have a deeper look at. Not just, “Oh, I’m from California,” I was born in San Francisco, but how did California get in me, and what do I need to look at in terms of, you know, what do we mean when we say place. You know, I wrote a novel called The Book of Joan, where, again, I might have failed, but the idea was that this figure, this revised Joan figure loved the planet the way we claim we love each other. And that’s how deep of a second look I think we need right now.
EG: You’ve written in so many different forms—memoir, novel, short story. Can you talk about what it’s like to switch between those forms, and if you’re working in all of them simultaneously, or if you’ve gone through different periods when you focused more on one?
LY: Yeah, I also have a PhD in literature, so I studied the forms as traditions with rules and histories, you know? And that was my first orientation to form. And I love form. But the reason I love form is because it moves. And what I love about form today is that it reflects our present tense. It reflects how we don’t know who we are anymore, and our selves and understanding the body are sliding around, and our understandings of nationality are sliding around, and who we want to be. And so it surprises me not at all that shape-shifting is happening, both in terms of people and art. I’m really excited that the hybrid form has emerged as a primary place to be making art, because now we’re speaking my language. Because for me, form slides around and it never holds, it never stays in its categories. Even genre doesn’t stay in its categories. The market kind of inscribes it that way, but that isn’t how it exists in terms of people making art. I’m both dismayed by the horrors of our present tense, and I’m thrilled that our present tense has liberated form to cross over.
EG: Can you talk a little bit about how you chose the order of the stories in this book, and what the process of curating and going through your own work was like?
LY: Well, I had a lot of help from my husband, my agent, my editors. As we moved things around, it became clear that there’s a story gestalt around the pieces that sort of stitches them together, that I could see it, but I needed help seeing the rest of it. And I think a brilliant move didn’t come from me. You know all those stories that are like “a woman signifying,” “a woman doing this, a woman doing that,” the little fragmenty ones? To spread those out and put them in between things just sort of metaphorizes, you know, makes into metaphor the whole verge idea. That in between these stories there are these women on the brink. I just think that’s so smart, and that wasn’t my idea.
EG: You also teach, right? At Eastern Oregon University?
LY: I do sometimes teach in MFA programs, also at Sierra Nevada College, and also the Institute of American Indian Arts. But my main teaching is at the non-academic center I opened here in Portland called Corporeal Writing.
EG: Can you talk about how teaching has impacted your writing process, or what it’s like to be working on a book while also working as a teacher?
LY: Oh my god, I’m guessing it’s been huge! I’ve been teaching, or—I don’t even think I use that word anymore, I’ve changed what I call it to collaborating. Because I’ve been doing that for 30 years, so it must have impacted everything I’ve made. But my understanding, and I’m sure I have deep blind spots, too, but my understanding is, and why I’ve changed calling myself a teacher to a collaborator, is that teaching opens up a space where cross-pollination of ideas can happen. In every single teaching room or collaboration room I’ve been in, we don’t all agree with each other. And yet we can hold space in a room together and start telling stories about our ideas without punching each other in the face most of the time. It’s also a space now that has been invaded by violence, so the impulse to protect the space and to put your body between the world that wants to kill your children and the world of ideas and embodiment and experience has—I guess you can say it’s been the center of my life. It must be in every word I’ve ever written. But I don’t think of teaching the way that some other people do. I don’t think of a person with knowledge who lectures at receiving, passive people. I think of it as an agreement between people to open space up and let things vibrate. Which is kind of what I said Verge is about, so I guess it’s in everything!
EG: Adroit has a mentorship program every summer for high school students. I was wondering if you have any advice for writers who are just starting to take themselves seriously as writers and really starting to focus on their craft?
LY: Oh god, that’s my favorite aged person on the planet. I’m not kidding! I’m so glad you guys have that. The first thing I would say is never surrender your vision. Because the world is going to tell you your whole life that you’re doing it wrong, or you’re mistaken, or you don’t know enough, or you need to be fancier. And somewhere inside of you is a vision that no one else on the planet could engender but you. And so that’s the piece to never give up, no matter what you want to learn or how you want to learn it. That’s the piece to never give up.