INTERVIEW: Wendy C. Ortiz, author of Excavation and Hollywood Notebook
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by Jesse Bradley
I had the honor of interviewing Wendy C. Ortiz about her incredible memoir, Excavation, her next book, Hollywood Notebook (Writ Large Press, 2015), her writing process, and whether Robert Smith made Siouxsie and The Banshees a better band.
Jesse Bradley: In the Author’s Note at the beginning of Excavation, you write, “I’ve relied on handwritten, detailed journals from the period of time that this memoir covers, as well as my own memory.” Did you ever question your memory when using it to fill in the gaps your journals didn’t cover? If so, what did you do to get your memory back on track?
Wendy C. Ortiz: I questioned my memory often. I began writing the first draft when I was 27 and my task was to write it all out as I remembered it chronologically. Then I looked at the journals and the gaps in my memory were largely filled in by what was in those pages. There are, of course, some gaps my journal doesn’t cover, so in those cases I’ve had to rely on the slippery tendrils of memory I’ve managed to hold onto. This makes me think of my friend and one of my favorite writers, Sean H. Doyle, whose email signature line contains this quote by Philip Roth: “Obviously the facts are never just coming at you, but are incorporated by an imagination that is formed by your previous experience. Memories of the past are not memories of facts but memories of your imaginings of the facts.”
JB: How did we survive our 20s?
WCO: I survived mine by moving a thousand miles north to a forest with a great college and eventually finding an excellent therapist. How’d you survive yours?
JB: You do an excellent job at creating and maintaining the gray area this memoir exists in. What did you do you to ensure the narrative remained in that gray area?
WCO: I forced myself to be honest to the adolescent I once was and the young woman I became who wrote the bones of the book while she struggled with what was “right” and “wrong.” I didn’t listen to the voices (most of the time) that tried to tell me what I was attempting was going to make people angry or upset. Ambiguities intrigue me and inspire me so I wanted to practice staying in the so-called gray area for as long as possible, knowing that sustaining that would be a challenge and good practice not just for art but for life.
JB: Were Siouxsie & The Banshees better when Robert Smith was their guitarist? Why or why not?
WCO: Hahaha. I have no opinion on this.
JB: How would have maintaining a linear structure affected the tone of Excavation?
WCO: I sensed in one of its earlier drafts that a linear structure would have made the book completely one-dimensional, which would have flattened and taken life out of the story.
JB: What is a memory that you would like to revise? How would you revise it?
WCO: All memories are, to me, revisions on some level, however minor the revision is (the Philip Roth quote rises up again). There were a few spots in Excavation where, very late in the editing process, I took out a sentence or two from a section because they expressed something so baldly personal, and maybe were essential in the writing of it to get me to the next place but didn’t need to exist in print for everyone’s eyes. In many ways the entire book is a revision of a memory because there is plenty that was edited out, either by my editors or myself while I was writing it.
JB: What do you listen to while you write?
WCO: It depends on what I’m writing. I listen to a mix of 1980s music when I’m writing about my adolescent years. Most typically, I don’t listen to anything. As I’m writing this, though, I’m listening to the radio, which I consider an oracle much of the time (right now it’s “Flashback Lunch” with Richard Blade, one of the djs/vjs of my teen years.)
JB: According to your self-interview over on The Nervous Breakdown, your next book, Hollywood Notebook, “is a prose poem-ish memoir-ish book of over 80 short chapters that was originally a blog kept from roughly 2002 to 2004.” How did you start putting Hollywood Notebook together?
WCO: My friend Karrie Higgins had given me a domain I called “Lab of Lux” where much of what would become Hollywood Notebook was first written. When the website came down, I captured all the text from the blog and kept it in a file for later use. Once I was ready I edited the text — at about 365 single-spaced pages, with comments — down to a distillation of that time period. After notes from my editor, I added a few sections.
JB: Would you consider Hollywood Notebook a sequel to Excavation or does it fill in the gaps between the 18 through now years?
WCO: Hollywood Notebook is a sequel of sorts, but another book will be a truer sequel to Excavation: it would be the book about living in Olympia from ages 20–28.
JB: Do you prefer writing flash fiction/non-fiction vs. longer fiction/non-fiction?
WCO: I don’t have a preference when it comes to writing one form over another. I follow the form that presents itself (until it tells me it’s something else, then I follow that form).
JB: How has being a parent affected your writing?
WCO: Being a parent has most affected my writing in terms of time. In the beginning I found that having a kid actually made me write more, because I suddenly had less time. I’m forced into a structure that works as a good-enough discipline. As my kid has moved from babyhood to toddlerhood, I’m adapting to the new time constraints forced on me. Luckily I like working with constraints.
JB: Will you ever stop digging?
WCO: It’s not in my nature to ever stop digging.