Lidia Yuknavitch

I have to be honest: I usually dislike memoirs. They’re usually boring, pretentious and rarely have the effect to make people feel anything other than a bit of grief and memoirs are often churned out in the dozens. In fact, when I used to work in a bookstore we had a whole section of memoirs, which we called “boo-hoos”. With The Chronology of Water, something is different. I’m not even sure what. Perhaps it’s the fact that Lidia didn’t only have her own demons but managed to beat them, or how she was a fantastic swimmer but when she lost the scholarships she became an amazing writer or maybe it’s just her unique way with the language that makes the whole experience gripping.

The Chronology Of Water is available from Amazon (US) and Amazon (UK).

Interview is as follows:

1.) The Chronology Of Water follows your life, in which you describe what has happened to you with brutal honesty. How important was it to you that you were honest about everything? 

It meant EVERYTHING to me.  In a lot of ways I was writing against a tradition of women’s confessional writing that I have inherited whereby we are only allowed to follow a narrow range of storylines and formal options if we want to be read by anyone or sanctified by the market.  You might say then I set out to write an anti-memoir.  For example, when I sent the manuscript to agents and editors at large publishing houses I was immediately told two things:  1) you can’t use the language you used the way you used it and 2) you have to take out the sexually explicit material, the violent material, and the material which outs you as someone who has broken laws — literal and symbolic laws.  I had to think hard about that, since from my point of view, there was no other way to tell this story.  I had to tell the truth but tell it slant, or make the language go strange, as Emily Dickinson said.  I had to also reveal what we don’t like to know about women, because trust me when I say it’s all of us.  I guess in the end you could say I opted for telling a true body story, an anti memoir, which required that I break formal and thematic and market-driven rules.  Oh well.  I won’t be rich, but I do hear from people every single day who tell me, yes.

2.) What advice would you give to writers who are worried about writing about true events or fiction that may have negative repercussions in their lives?

Life has negative repercussions no matter what you do – but if you tell your story out loud, if you risk it, here is what it will mean:  someone in the room besides you will feel less afraid.  Will feel named.  Will feel less like a freak, less alone.  That’s the reason to do it.  At some point in your life you have to leave where you came from and jump.  It’s worth it.

3.) The Chronology Of Water has a censored band going around it, to cover the woman’s breasts. Considering they are two of the central themes to the book, how do you feel about the censorship? 

It’s actually a “solution” to the threat of censorship.  A very brilliant one that the publisher and designer came up with when we were told by booksellers and reviewers that they would not display or review the book with the in-focus tit on the front.  That by the way turned out to be not true, but that’s what we were told.   I got so worked up about it I wrote an online essay for the Rumpus called “About a Boob, or, the Hermeneutics of a Woman’s Body.”

About a Boob or The Hermeneutics of a Woman’s Body

4.) How do you feel about the debate of print vs e-readers? 

I think it’s a false debate – we are already there.  The modes of production began their plate tectonics years ago. I also don’t think it’s an either/or equation.  There is room for both.  I’m one of those people who embraces the present tense – so it does not frighten me that e-readers exist.  It’s exciting to watch the modes of production shift and change.  I do think the hierarchy of the publishing industry should shift and change too though, so authors don’t get quite so…reemed.

5.) The Chronology Of Water is written in a nonlinear time line, flashing back and forth between events and important times in your life. What effect do you think this has and how do you think the book would be different if you started from the very beginning and worked towards the present?

After my father lost his memory in a drowning accident, as a way to cope with the fact that he’d lost all trace of memory of what he’d done to us, I began to study memory.  I mean in terms of neuroscience and biochemistry.  You could say I structured the book exactly like what I learned about how memory works in those terms.  The book then would be entirely different if I’d followed a linear plotline.  It would have been a lie, it would have covered over important experiences and truths about our bodies and living and dying and desire and death and grief, and it would have held up a false notion that memory works linearly and truthfully in some purist sense, which it never does, which is why I have trouble with memoirs.

6.) The book deals with issues you have had with people. Did writing the book prove cathartic or did you have different opinions of people after analyzing them and writing the book? 

Can I give you a double yes here?  All writing is cathartic, isn’t it?  You are pulling something internal out and giving it external form…I wouldn’t say I analyzed anyone in the book, but yes, writing the book did give me different opinions about two people in particular.  My mother and father.  And I loosened a self from the tyranny of the past.

7.) My favourite thing about the memoir was the creative use of writing. Often you would break the linear styles of writing, such as having sections without punctuation to create a powerful effect. What sections did you feel it was appropriate to do this on and when is it appropriate to break traditional literature rules? 

Thank  you!  I specifically used those kind of techniques in relation to extreme corporeal experience – around trauma or sexuality or death or birth or violence.  I wanted to show the reader that there is a relationship to language possible that breaks all inherited rules and forms—moves toward poetics or the free flow of a sign system.  I wanted to show the reader that language is like blood flow going everywhere at all times.  We are the ones that start and stop it.

8.) Before The Chronology Of Water you have mainly published short fiction collections. With a publication date set for your first novel, how do you feel about the process and reception of collections, memoir and a novel?

Well there is the market, and then there is what’s underneath the market.  A good example is that COW is not a NYT bestseller, but I get private emails daily from individuals thanking me for writing it.  There are many economies of “worth” for art.  One of them is monetary, another is mass market appeal, but there are many, many other forms of “worth.”  To be honest with you I’m happy when one person feels like something really did happen to them when they read a book of mine, or if they wrote something themselves in response to reading something of mine, or if they stuffed pews with my book or left it in public restrooms for others.  I’m kind of kidding but not about the “many worths” idea.  I don’t write to be adored by the mass market.  I write because I can’t help it, literally, if I don’t make art I turn into a crazy lady, and I write so that if and when my book lands in the hands of someone who feels it, we can feel human together.

9.) How has the reaction been for people who have been featured in the memoir? 

Well, nearly everyone is fine, no one’s head fell off, no one sent me a mail bomb (well almost no one), some people are annoyed they weren’t in it or weren’t a bigger deal in it, other’s are annoyed because they would have told the story much differently, to which my answer is, no shit.  The most important reactions have been from people who have said they can see me now and they love me.  And since partly I wrote the book so that my sister and I can have a story in the world not locked in the oedipal outhouse that was our family, well, that alone is worth it.

10.) Water was the central and saving theme in your life, it allowed you to leave your abusive Father but ultimately reuinited you with him. Are you somewhat grateful for the reunion through water or consider it a form or irony?

Um, yes…. : )