The Writing Life on the Road: Lidia Yuknavitch’s Portland

Visiting Lidia Yuknavitch in Oregon to discuss dead birds, book smell, and over-ritualizing

Electric Literature’s contributing editor Michael J Seidlinger is on the road as part of his project #followmebook, visiting writers and exploring the limits of social media. As part of a limited summer series called “The Writing Life on the Road,” he’s sharing his conversations with writers he encounters as he makes his way from New York to California. This week, writer Lidia Yuknavitch shares details and insights from her writing life in Portland, Oregon.

What follows are highlights from Lidia’s interview with Michael. Her responses have been edited for clarity.

Setting the Scene: Writers, Underground

We are at Ringler’s Annex, which is a bar kind of across from Powell’s Bookstore and furthermore, we are downstairs in the basement bowels of Ringler’s so that we can be by ourselves in a cave-like bat people setting, because sun is bad.

Writing Process: Space as a Reflection of the Mind

I do believe in over-ritualizing your writing situation because life is so fucking hard and the drudgery of daily existence makes you feel not creative and gross. I so much believe in going into the literal place you write, even if it’s a closet because I’ve written in apartments where my writing space was a closet. Wherever it is, make that space amazing, and in my case, I try to make the room match the inside of my head. There’s shit on the walls. I’ve tacked up dead things, the skins of trees and hair because I have a hair fetish, and paintings, drawings. Our imaginations are cluttered, weird messes filled with id and wrongness and beauty. Somehow, being in a room with all of that helps me tap into it faster.

Our imaginations are cluttered, weird messes filled with id and wrongness and beauty. Somehow, being in a room with all of that helps me tap into it faster.

But then also when I’m in a new book and a new project, I make a special space that’s devoted to that book or project. It’s in the writing space, like a wall or a table. That’s where I’ll bring in images or objects to help me stay in the project. I like dead birds. Someone I know very well just gave me a brooch she made from a tiny dead bird and it’s now going to be one of my most precious objects. Bones of animals. I’m often finding partial jaw things with teeth still in them. Those fascinate me. I guess like in the Georgia O’Keefe way, bones and skull and stuff like that endlessly fascinate me. Rocks everywhere. Shells are good. Dead insects.

And then I drink. My go-to for writing remains a single malt scotch or wine. Red wines that are higher end, but wine has only developed as I’ve gotten older and less able to keep drinking scotch. I kind of put myself in a trance. I guess what I mean is really leave reality and go the other place, which is my better world. I would stay there.

The Creative Process for ‘Book of Joan’

Well, I had images that were anything but God, because I took God out of the equation for the story. So all kinds of images of the cosmos and space and planets. What that led me to was antimatter and black holes and stuff like that, so my friend sent me a photograph of this new color black that they’ve developed in a lab that’s so deep that when you look at the image it looks 3D because it’s so beyond normal black. I also had a bunch of hair pinned up, because in the story I wrote, everyone is hairless except Joan. Because I have a hair fetish, I have a collection of swatches of hair and I pin those up to remind me of the loss of our humanity. The story I wrote breeds an extreme desire to reclaim humanity, so having human hair around me, even though it sounds gross, was really important. It’s truly creepy.

So there’s this other thing that got taken out of the book through the editing process but used to be a much bigger deal: The color people are. There’s pigment, there’s skin tone. In The Book of Joan, they are the color of an entire Pantone sequence. They are every color we know of instead of the ones we are reduced to that make all the race wars. So I bought this beautiful set of oil pastels that has every color you can imagine and I just kept it open while I was writing so I could remind myself. There’s a character in the book who is literally aqua, and so it was a big deal to me to think about race, but go back to color and dislodge our tired arguments about race.

The Physical Power of Books

I have stacks of books all around me. But then there are the go-to ones. Always Marguerite Duras, always Walt Whitman, always Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. It doesn’t matter what the project is, it will release me, or loosen my imagination. You know when you get anxiety and panic and tightness when writing and it’s not going well? It will loosen it for me. So if I just rub those books on my head, I feel better.

You know when you get anxiety and panic and tightness when writing and it’s not going well? If I just rub those books on my head, I feel better.

We both have a love affair with France, so we both say the books we got in France smell exactly like that even if they don’t. The Shakespeare & Company books smell like history, the place in the world where art and literary history still exist. I also love new book smell because it’s the smell of our present tense and it’s a complicated smell. It’s the product, it’s capitalism, it’s the speed of art and light and I also love that smell. I also think that poetry books smell different than fiction and nonfiction books, but I might be in the minority on that.

The Social Life of an Artist

First, people walking around thinking they can be solo artists are either lying or idiots because I find you can’t make anything without others, so there’s that. Then I have a history of having found community that started when I first found people at Fiction Collective 2, where Lance Olsen is among others. How I stumbled upon them and found connection was that they all believed writing should be against the grain of culture. Every single one of them. And every single one of them was coming at it from a different angle. And I suddenly felt like being freakish, you could have a home instead of always being alone and on the outside.

Moving to Portland, what I discovered is that Portland is amazing for musicians, and writers, and artists, and actresses and actors because there’s several different cells of creative folk and they are not trying to annihilate each other. And that’s actually unusual and good. There is competition among creative groups, but that’s to inspire and challenge each other, not to cancel each other out. Maybe Portland is guarded from it, but right this second it is true that the different cells of creative community help each other. If you’re a writer, I can’t imagine a cooler place to come and create. We have the world’s greatest bookstore: Powell’s City of Books, because it literally is a city. But we also have a whole ton of tiny bookstores all over the place that we all keep alive because we remember that Portland has blood that’s made of art.

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