thinking big: feminism, media, and pop culture

The Days Are Gods: Interview with Liz Stephens

In books, environment, gender, race, Uncategorized on February 25, 2013 at 5:00 am

Sarah S.

Liz Stephens needed to get out of Los Angeles so she packed up her husband and her dogs and moved to…Wellsville, UT. She moved ostensibly for grad school but found she learned as much from diving into local history, her Mormon neighbors, the animals she raised and gave away and the ones who died, as she learned in books and classes. In her lovely, meditative memoir, The Days Are Gods, Stephens tells about white teenagers dressed up as Indians, a French kid who spends his summer on a Dude Ranch, surprise goats, and discovering how going to a non-trivially alien place helped her discover (or become or transition or whatever) into her adult self.

Stephens received her PhD in creative nonfiction from Ohio University. Her work has been featured in Brevity, South Dakota Review, Western American Literature, and Fourth Genre. She received the Western Literature Association’s Frederick Manfred Award and was a finalist for the Annie Dillard Creative Nonfiction Award. She’s equally talented at making a cup of earl grey tea and a mean mint julep. She will stop to ogle or coo over any animal in the vicinity, especially dogs. She can parallel park like a boss.

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You can buy The Days Are Gods from University of Nebraska Press or from Amazon. You can also find out more about Liz Stephens and her work on her website, thedaysaregods.com. After you finish reading this interview and buy her book, be sure to read her devastating essay “Ten Years I’ll Never Get Back.”

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SS: Okay, let’s just start out with a big one: At one point you write about the sight of a grey barn on a mountainside: “I’ve seen that movie, the one with the barn in the mountains. I’ve read that book, the one with the treacherous winter. And now I am really there.” Now that you’ve lived in Utah and returned for visits, spent 4+ years in Ohio, and returned to Los Angeles (not to mention written and re-written this book), is there an essentiality to “the West” or is it—always and forever—artifice? Or narrative? Or dream?

LS: I think the West is like a celebrity who when interviewed says, “You know, there’s me, and then there’s capital letter Brad Pitt”—or whoever—the distinction of course being that from inside one experience you know a thing, and then culturally there is this mystical entity fed by a whole culture’s desires. Cultural values I wanted to attribute to the West exclusively were demonstrably true of Ohio as well: tractor derbies are good fun, and you should keep your business at the local feed shop or they will close and you will be screwed some day in the future when you need them. Neighbors are, like fences, worth investing time in. Being a college professor living in the country is not the same as being a grounds keeper at the campus and driving in to work, and none of you are going to be able to pretend it is. It’s a wise idea, that you suggest in your own question that the West may be a narrative. It is. If you tell your life in a big epic way, those are the features you feature in your surroundings, no matter who you are or your line of work. If you keep stories small and close to the home, you value that in your narrative of your own life. You describe your region in which that life plays out accordingly. Sometimes the West is simply the line of box stores you are most familiar with, with a really long snowy season.

SS: As someone who grew up in Utah, chafing against the religious-political regime, I found your portrayal of your Mormon neighbors to be lovely and generous. I also thought you teased out the layers of “Mormoness” (and non-Mormoness) that fill all of Utah, really, although probably result in stronger ties in small communities. Was it important to you to be careful in this portrayal? Or were you legitimately surprised by what you encountered versus expectations? In the wake of Mitt Romney, do you think the LDS church would appreciate this attention or disagree entirely? (I think they’d like it, actually, but what do you think?)

LS: It was important to me to be careful in my representation of the church to outsiders. This was made easier by the surprise of the diversity of ideological outlooks and behaviors of the members I met. For starters, wandering in and throwing about judgments and proclamations would have been the worst sort of pedantic vanity, but that sort of thing would also betray the nature of being a creative nonfiction writer at its core. Writing like this, I think, bears a responsibility to the world you are looking at. Looking outward and seeing only what you expect is blindness. Not representing the duality of what you find, the complications, is laziness.

As for what the church will feel of the representation, I do wonder. In my first-hand experience, younger members were keen to extend the love they were generally bursting with to people the church had traditionally left out in the cold a bit, or at least in the drafty hall, as it were. I think there’s a lot changing very quickly right now in the church, due to members with new ideas sticking with the church to speak up instead of leaving. Those people will agree with every thing I’ve written, but wouldn’t have spoken up even five years ago on any issue not addressed in general conference as such. I knew I was always learning from an easy position, privy to all the potlucks and picnics, and excused from any home visits from sister missionaries, Relief Society obligations—so of course I could easily have had a rosy view of things. But I really did learn a lot from the LDS church, about showing up when needed, being available not just because others needed you but for your own sake, because how much do you really want to sit in your own house doing nothing instead of being part of things? Even non-Mormon Utahns I met had those characteristics: Chafing and ready to leave, but relatively generous with time and emotional commitment, because you’d been raised with that as a model. Is that Western or Mormon? In Utah that’s indecipherable because the state was settled by the church.

SS: A couple of people appear throughout the book: your neighbor Bill, your friend Mandilyn. When writing about real people, are you concerned about making them into “characters” instead of themselves or of doing some kind of violence or, less dramatic, discourtesy to them? I guess, what’s your approach or philosophy to writing about other people?

LS: My approach to writing about other people holds hands with my corrective to avoid making them into characters of themselves: the fix is in the truth. The details of the ways they are will prevent them from being caricatures if I myself pay attention to the availability of that as material. Mandilyn, to my mind, fits seamlessly into her place because she knows how to live there well, how to raise animals, how to negotiate the tricky waters of being at the outside edge of Mormon while lovingly taking part in many of its neighborhood routines. To her neighbors, among whom she is well-loved, she is a character of a different sort: married to the local tattoo artist, homeschooling her kids, crying in public when need be and taking her kids into the Walmart without shoes if they got them wet; she just does what works. Of course that reads differently from different angles.

Bill was a whole other thing. No matter how hard, for a while, that I dug into what I knew to be real and true about him in order to be sure I wasn’t just romanticizing him as a cowboy type—which was a concern of one of my manuscript readers, specifically re: Bill—he just is. It’s simply that the mythologizing we’ve done as a culture around people like him is so heavy and thorough, the myth sucks in anyone close to type, like a black hole. I couldn’t even have made him gay and avoid type now—damn Proulx. Put a hat on him and within shouting distance of a horse and he’s done. But I represented him honestly without glossing to any degree away from or towards cowboying and know that many will recognize the truth of the type.

In a larger sense, a philosophy of writing about others will and has filled dissertations, but I will briefly say here that “being balanced” as an ethics would be an oversimplification—maybe the point of one’s essay is to blast and rant, for instance – but to reveal the construction of others in the narrating of them, to be overt about your stance and bias, is to at least reveal the relativity of your take, and of yourself as narrator. In other words, it’s a Humbert Humbert thing. “I say Lolita is like this, but who can believe such a handsome devil as myself about anything?” You’re a flawed person dinking around in there with opinions and baggage; be sure readers don’t forget that, so they can disagree if need be, even if in their own heads. It’s a conversation; give enough information on other people for readers to decide with, so that you aren’t that Mysteriously Cryptic and Sanctimonious Person at the party. That’s bossy and power-trippy.

SS: The book has several themes—Westerness and rurality, tensions and artifice, home, life and death—but below them, I think, is a simmering question about femaleness or womanhood. Perhaps because of the Western-over theme, this is an exploration about having no (good?) choices but being admirable nevertheless. When you contemplate parenting a girl, you write: “I know what it is to be a girl. It’s so scary in that skin, I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.” Do you also see femaleness as a sub-theme and how do you think it informs the book? How does it inform your writing generally? And—even if it’s loaded—do you think women add something essential and imperative to the field of creative non-fiction?

LS: Many wise women suggested as I was writing this that I might look more directly at the underbelly of femaleness about the book. Maybe it’s some deep sort of vanity or, better, a version of naivety, but inside my skin my experience of things has always been so huge and laden and multileveled, I have always assumed it couldn’t be contained in a package simply marked: female. I have to hope what I’ve got bubbling in here is more aptly labeled: the human condition. If for no other reason than it may make me like men more to give them the benefit of the doubt. Well, I’m kidding, mostly. I have a rough sense that many male creative nonfiction writers would write similar things about the West, for instance. They’d notice that polygamous wives were affected by their relationships to the other wives, they’d wonder if women liked living near their mothers now, they’d have an opinion about the exchanges made by women marrying so young. It’s in the job description, to notice what’s happening across the board. I don’t ignore the tensions of the men and boys there either. Anyway, I know not all men would take this view, but I’m interested in their take too. Possibly because I love, love “men’s books:” Miller, Bukowski, Tim O’Brien, Harry Crews, Mark Spragg, Steven Rinella.

I also didn’t want to “ghettoize” the book. Just as I hope that people will recognize this is not a book exclusively about the West, but about a search much broader, I wouldn’t want this to be considered a women’s book. I don’t know what the hell a women’s book should be anyway—is Gloria Anzuldua only worthwhile to women? Maxine Hong Kingston? Terry Tempest Williams? Because they do focus on women…but I think we know the answer to this.

To be dead honest, though, I’ve always had a thing about the peculiar poignancy of men. Women seem to me to be made of steel, really, unless it’s trained out of them to imagine this is not so, but men seem only wrapped in it. The way they reach out of a bubble every time they pat somebody on the shoulder is the stuff art is made of, longing and fakery and communication and lack thereof. So I don’t think I could write a long piece exclusively looking at women’s perspectives. It’s narrow, plus it’s been done better and earlier by others. Also, I like to sit in a corner and listen, and writing exclusively from a “woman’s position” would be like being in the room with my best friends and female family members too long. Necessary, irreplaceable, a treasure, life-making, but taxing. I would need more wine to face it.

Gender aside, the position from which I write, just outside myself, just outside my girlhood and mothering and wife-ing and fear of death and occasional paralyzing confusions and the weight of the future, allows me the psychic space to move about in my work and keep a lighter touch.

SS: Another major theme is death. Now with a child, a PhD, and a published book under your belt, do you feel you’ve made the kind of mark that brings some peace to those fears of non-existence, of no longer being in the world, or do those fears linger regardless of accomplishments or what you’ll leave behind?

LS: I’m not cured, I’ll say that. It’s a process, and I very much pray I’ll have completed it before the deadline. But I know writing this helped. I think that folks that never write things down can be helped immensely by simply writing down their feelings, and that’s certainly how I get many of my students rolling. But that’s not what worked here. I already write, it’s not going to look or feel like magic to me to get my feelings down in front of me. In fact, I quit writing in a journal a lifetime ago, around the time I started writing professionally. That’s not a coincidence. It’s not the venting but the processing of information and the crafting of the thought that pay off for me, those two things in tandem. The taking in of an idea without seeking its answer or solution right away. And then the careful and artful communication of it to “listeners.” It helps me think. This way of writing has now become my way of thinking. I am now, like old Montaigne said, consubstantial to my narrative voice; I built it, and it became me.

But enough of that. The PhD has made my parents feel great, yes, thanks for asking. I have some tension in my life determining whether it’s meant to be a means to an end or a goal in itself, but it’s not going to outlast me, so I have perspective. I loved every bit of earning it, and if I get a professorship when I actively seek one, that’s going to rock so much. Having a child in an epically existential sense makes me feel less brief on earth in the plainest and most humbling human scale; she’ll remember me, and speak of me fondly, and pass on some examples of the ways we are, she and I. (That’s the most moving one, don’t let me fool you, but I can hardly touch it.) Writing a book! That blows me away. I don’t care what remainder shelf they find it on, but people I will never know can read it after I’m gone and feel what I’ve felt. I have picked up too many fairly anonymous books off dusty shelves and spent meaningful time with them for this not to move me profoundly. And you know, that does make me feel a bit better about leaving. It’s a small light.

SS: You overtly wrestle with various tensions and contradictions throughout the book and one of them is race. On one hand, you do a particularly excellent job of consciously portraying whiteness as a racial/ethnic orientation. On the other, you acknowledge the history of disenfranchisement and exclusion non-white people faced in the West while needing (or being forced) to some extent to leave that history to mere footnote. This aspect seems to come both from the real and very white Wellsville community in which you found yourself but also from the power of our imagined narrative of the West—of pioneers and cowboys and Manifest Destiny. Thoughts?

LS: Yes! Whiteness carries a world orientation! I want to be very careful here not to align myself with Victoria Jackson in any way but whiteness is damn interesting—though only in engagement with the rest of the world population. I do recognize in my daily life that I live a white woman’s life. (Though in Oklahoma, people look at my face and know exactly what kind of mongrel I am, almost to the percentage point.) I walk around in Utah and any small country town in a sort of uniform of accidental familiarity; accidental in that I was a big faker for a while, pretending I knew how to behave but for all intents and purposes walking in right off Ceasar Chavez Avenue in LA. That locals could not see that, or translate my discomfort at least, is a marker of how little so many people may think about otherness with any focus, attributing it to race when in reality it’s obviously about economics and place. Anyway, I’ve spent enough years not rich in Los Angeles to know that to not comment on the race issues in a situation is to perform an erasure.

But I did have to make a choice not to make this entirely a book about non-white history in Cache Valley. That’s a whole other book, and a worthwhile one. I’d have to have gone out of my way to make this book about that, and then it would have been irrelevant to say most of what I do say. It’s simply another book. In my daily life there, I actually thought about the subject quite a lot, which is why it does turn up here. The whiteness is flat-out un-ignorable to an Angeleno, who if white is usually in any place one in twenty. In most of LA, white blonds stick out like albinos. But my authorial choices in this respect were part of a larger act of editing, the flow of telling one central story; reach out to reality, thread in what’s most relevant only to the story you’ve chosen, keep moving…

Maybe it’s worth mentioning I have the same fascination with whiteness as I do with manhood. I’m writing an essay about it now. I sort of fetishize it, really, as a rare weird island to be on, an island often deliberately stripped of the hybrid vigor of diversity.

SS: You write a lot about seeking to be part of a community, a history, an ongoing story. I also know from knowing you that you consciously see this book as fitting into a tradition of women writing about the West (Blew’s Balsam Root, Jordan’s Riding the White Horse Home, Blunt’s Breaking Clean, Erhlich’s The Solace of Open Spaces.) Yet reading this book as a whole work, there were things I saw as setting it apart: the mostly vignettes that make up the book, many of them presented with little commentary, almost as enigmas for the reader to decipher; the almost-but-not-quite chronological structure; your constant resistance to making unequivocal pronouncements or to pinning down meaning. It began to feel to me like a distinctly post-modern Western memoir, which I mean in the most flattering way possible. Thoughts?

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LS: Thank you! That is what I’m hoping. I did cut my teeth on re-entering graduate school on these older women’s memoirs; Mary Blew, Teresa Jordan, Judy Blunt, Gretel Erhlich. I admire them to no end. But that’s a certain book, at a certain time. I still go to them for inspiration and a deep lyricism to the storytelling; these are not dated books in and of themselves, they are timeless stories. But there’s no need to rewrite them now. These women got first whack at it, they’ve knocked it out of the park, and we must tell the newer story. The newer story, for better or worse, has less ranch in it and more moving. It’s not that the newer story is more disjunctive by nature. Blew in particular among those examples is frequently using form and chronology in instructive ways, but in the end the stories to be told were inherently chronological. Complicated by memory and intention, fascinatingly, but the purpose was often to bring the past to the light of the present, and so in whatever order events are told, they are brought to the table to be put in order ultimately, with new sense, to build a family tree. The change in newer writing about the West, it seems to me, is that we have to stop pretending that newcomers to the West are persona non grata. This is like saying immigrants aren’t part of the integral fabric of North America. We aren’t there to grow the family tree, but we have valid other reasons; we are more like…I’ll resist saying tumbleweeds here, that would be silly, right? As to pronouncements made by “experts” certainly New Western History writing has shown us pronouncements don’t work. They are all subjective. We know just because a white guy said it first and loudest doesn’t make it true. And that’s true of the generational Western wave of life writers as well. Pronouncements just don’t last, can’t last, are artificially comprehensive.

I was told by a very accomplished and fairly experimental writer while I was writing this to not editorialize. I cannot overestimate the effect that had on my writing. Now, I still do it sometimes; I didn’t even take all the advice she gave me that day. (In one instance, she simply wrote, scathingly, “Really??” next to a passage. I thought about it, and then thought, yes, really, and left it.) But that had been the model for me, in my reading on the West. The work I’d read on the West had often been very descriptive, and then proscriptive. Here’s what happened, here’s what it means (let me translate this for you, you’re new around these parts), here’s why I am eligible to tell it to you better than you can see it or tell it either. I’m just not sure that’s relevant anymore. We’re not just a nation of movers; we are a nation of meaning-seekers.

Futhermore, I thought as much about craft on this book than I did about the West. I wasn’t reading those Western memoirs as I wrote it, I was reading much more broadly in memoir, and in craft and theory of life writing. In the end, it’s really not a Western book in some ways at all. Maybe it’s about translating experience, which may be inherently post-modern, and in that it resists inherited beliefs, it’s post-Western. But non-writers often forget how much editorializing is simply in the selection of information, and in the editing of a thing. Many, many choices are made simply about what to put in front of a reader. And then in what order to do so. Telling people what to think once you’ve really already led them to the water to see it did just seem a bit much. I only included my thoughts directly on an event or idea when it seemed high-handed or intentionally opaque not to; when the sentences or sections read as trying too hard to be cool, like when people speak epigrammatically in French or Latin or whatnot and then wander mysteriously away; I’m just not that person. I’m the one who says, “Here’s what that phrase means, from the 19th century vernacular, and isn’t it wonderful? The etymology of it is…” and then, “But what do you think?” A little space for them to think is only polite.

SS: This has been so great. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. What’s next? What are you currently working on?

LS: I’m working on another personal nonfiction book, this one about urban wildlife (and me, and people, and family). I’m doing a lot of field work with specialists who run the gamut from hunting to protecting to repairing coyotes, mice, bears, snakes, and more, and then getting to tell all those stories of my field trips, as well as explore more metaphorically why we think animals are so cool, look at the mythology of animal lore and the groups of people that go bay at the moon, that kind of stuff. And why nature doesn’t mean landscapes in national parks, it includes us and all we do. We’re just the part of nature with the thumbs.

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