Lesley Wheeler and Chris Gavaler interview each other
Chris Gavaler’s second novel, School for Tricksters, was released in February by Southern Methodist University Press.
Lesley Wheeler’s second book of poetry, Heterotopia (July 2010), was selected for the Barrow Street Press Poetry Prize by David Wojahn.
The two authors teach at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia and have been married since 1993. They conducted this interview by email while in Wellington, New Zealand, where Wheeler is serving as a Fulbright Senior Scholar.
Lesley Wheeler: As I reread School for Tricksters, I find myself trying to remember any book or lesson in any class I ever had that treated indigenous American cultures or history. I was never taught about the U.S. Government Indian School system, for instance. Our college friend Scott Nicolay was doing a lot of independent research into the Lenape, I remember, after finding arrowheads in his New Jersey backyard, and he probably influenced our reading; I know you and I started to follow novelists Louise Erdrich and Leslie Marmon Silko when we were in our early twenties. You grew up in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, probably a couple of hundred miles from the school in Carlisle where your new book is set. Did you know about what had happened there?
Chris Gavaler: I grew up completely ignorant of Native American history. I cringe at the memory of a group of white suburban dads leading their sons through “Indian Guides” activities, making construction paper headdresses and rubber tomahawks. I had cousins in Carlisle, so had visited the town a dozen times without ever hearing of the Indian School. It wasn’t until after college that I started studying Lenape history on my own, tracing forced migrations from New Jersey to Oklahoma. I remember staying up till sunrise at our kitchen table, tearing the uncut pages of an obscure missionary diary while you slept behind the bedroom door in our first apartment. Erdrich’s Love Medicine—a novel in stories and so influential to School for Tricksters in multiple ways—I read next to you in bed.
I think interrogating history—its accuracies and inaccuracies, its knowables and unknowables—is a central element of both our second books. Research for me mostly meant ordering Indian student files from D.C. and interlibrarying out-of-print books. I phone interviewed Jim Thorpe’s daughters in Oklahoma, and I made one visit to the Indian School campus—now an Army War College—with the kids while you were away at a conference. Research for you was something very different. Your “texts” were far more personal and immediate.
LW: Yes, and each came in multiple versions. My starting point was an oral library of stories remembered from my childhood—tales from my mother and her siblings, my grandmother, and other aunts, cousins, and family friends about Liverpool, England in the forties and fifties. I did re-interview some of those people by phone and in person. Although others had passed away by the time I wrote my way into the series that became Heterotopia. Growing up, I had found those anecdotes of my mother's girlhood incredibly compelling: as a baby she endured the Blitz and afterwards her city was in rubble, her parents barely able to keep their four children fed and warm. I grew up in Long Island and New Jersey in the 70s, eating Wonder Bread and watching “Gilligan's Island,” and it was so hard to comprehend how different a world my mother had lived in just two or three decades earlier. As I grew older and kept turning those stories over in my head, they kept gaining power and I kept coming up with new questions about them. In the end, though, I did a ton of book-work too, as well as visiting twenty-first century Liverpool to wander around the parks and museums my mother had described. I needed as many different perspectives as possible to reconstruct the necessary detail.
One danger of drawing on a more personal kind of history is that you're appropriating stories that belong to living people—people who very well might tell you off if you get it wrong. I've been pretty lucky in that. My mother, especially, seems to appreciate these poems, and she's told me that I captured the feeling of that time and place well. You, though, are not only writing about strangers, but you're crossing lines of race and gender. One of your main characters, Iva Miller Thorpe, was a white woman, and Sylvester Long was a young man of mixed race. All that boundary-crossing makes your novel intensely interesting but also scary. Many people take offense at the very idea of a middle-class white guy telling a story about racial passing in that brutal Indian school system. Why did you need to tell this particular story? What would be your response to people who say you shouldn't try?
CG: I sent drafts of my chapters about Ivy to her daughters, who seemed delighted that I was writing about their mother instead of their father. But I know that the Ivy I created—while tightly based on the available facts—is not and could never be the real Ivy. That’s true of all historical characters, but the novel’s tensions between fact and fiction are especially strong. I was drawn to her and Sylvester Long because they were already invented characters. They invented themselves. They falsified forms and constructed whole lives in order to fake their way into the School. I’m an outsider to Native American experience, and so I’m depicting Carlisle through the perspective of two other outsiders. My boundary-crossing (writing as a woman, writing as the son of ex-slaves) echoes the boundaries that Ivy and Sylvester crossed themselves. It is scary. I have cringed at white authors who appropriate similar identity positions. But I feel that “middle-class white guys” need to address and struggle with exactly these sorts of issues. Avoiding race allows white writers and readers to fall into the illusion that “white” is the norm, the default mode of experience.
Heterotopia tackles a different but equally intriguing challenge. Where I’m going far from home for my subject matter, you delve deep into the personal, exposing yourself and your extended family on the page. How do you negotiate the complexities of writing so autobiographically? What are the emotional and aesthetic dangers and rewards?
LW: You know, I don't think of Heterotopia as an autobiographical book at all. My first collection, Heathen, is full of personal details and experiences, but by the time that book came out (2009) there was an awful lot of artifice between any of the finished poems and their originating moments. I sometimes feel when I finish reading a book of poems by another writer that I've come to know that person intimately. I love that sense of connection—in some fundamental way it's the main thing I want from any piece of art—but I do think it's at least partly illusory.
I had wanted to tell the stories in Heterotopia for a long time but couldn't make them work until I figured out how to acknowledge my own mediating role, the gap between what happened and my poems. So I'm definitely in there but not, I think, in focus. These are poems about other people. I did identify deeply, though, with one of the main characters in the book: my version of my mother as a girl and young woman is partly a projection of what I might have felt in her position. I'm sure I became myself, though, partly by watching and imitating her, so in some ways I'm a projection of her, right? And the bookish girl is a type that I have had a ton of literary experience with as a reader (Jane Eyre, Jo Alcott, Meg Murray, Lauren Olamina, a thousand others), so I probably drew on other imaginings of similar characters, too.
What I'm saying here is both a confirmation of your earlier point and a refutation of it. That is, yes, identity is performance; I'm self-conscious enough to think about that constantly out on the streets as well as in the cave of a poem. At the same time, though, all writing seems autobiographical to me. Where are you in School for Tricksters?
CG: I think of autobiography as a genre of fiction: an author’s self-conscious construction of remembered (and so inevitably distorted) experience. Writing just isn’t a medium for delivering “truth,” not in any objective sense. The most you can do is draw attention to the idiosyncrasies and inaccuracies. But then I also think the opposite is true: most fiction is secretly autobiographical. A fiction writer’s subjects and their subtexts reveal a lot about that writer, usually unintentionally, and especially when patterns emerge. And School for Tricksters does fall into a pattern for me. I seem to be drawn to stories about “fakes.” I’m not sure why that is or what exactly about myself I’m exposing. At a basic level, to me fakes are a metaphor for fiction writing. As an author, I craft highly complex lies, and I prefer stories that acknowledge that fact rather than ones that conceal it. If writing is a con game, I want my readers to be in on the scam.
In School of Tricksters, Sylvester Long is literally a con man. After graduating from Carlisle, he published a best-selling an “autobiography” about his childhood on the plains hunting the last of the buffalo (he actually grew up in Winston-Salem, NC). At one point he describes how his tribe (he was no longer a “Cherokee” but a “Blackfoot” now) disapproves of liars. He seems to be winking at the reader, daring us to see through his game. It’s rarely that extreme, but I think all writing plays that same game.
“Forged,” the first poem in Heterotopia, uses a similar metaphor of forgery, drawing the reader’s attention to ways in which the poem, and by extension the whole book, cannot achieve its surface goal of recreating your mother’s Liverpool. Your version is “purified / of reeking like a fairy tale / or a film set” and filled with “ardent lies” that still strive to create a “history” that’s somehow “true.” I recall reading an earlier draft of that poem when it was titled “Remembering my Mother’s Childhood,” which evoked the same paradox. The poems of Heterotopia have gone through a long process of writing and publishing before evolving into this final version of the book. Could you describe some of that process and how you feel about those evolutions?
LW: I guess revising is all about figuring out who your readers are. An earlier version of this manuscript was called She Doesn't Remember the Beatles and the most narrative poems were in the front of the book. The contest judge, David Wojahn, and my editor, Peter Covino, persuaded me to adopt the more theoretical-sounding title Heterotopia and to move the most challenging poems forward. I found that advice scary but also exhilarating because it authorized me to present an intellectual book. It might seem funny that as an English professor I was afraid of seeming too thoughtful, but I was. I was a relentlessly, alienatingly brainy kid and I've been in flight from that my whole adult life. This book feels like a reconciliation of past and present, feeling and mind. Oh, that sounds very pretentious, but the experience was still liberating.
There's also a mundane consideration involved: Peter wisely pointed out that variations on the word "memory" were too frequent in the final manuscript, and that all poems are about remembering, really. That's a big part of how "Remembering My Mother's Childhood" became "Forged." I just needed to widen the vocabulary. This happens when a clutch of poems becomes a book. Put together, individual pieces illuminate each other, but they also make your writerly tics more visible, and one has to revise with the company of other poems in mind.
This seems like a good moment to ask you about your project's evolution from a sequence of stories into a novel.
CG: Originally I thought I was going to write a novel about Jim Thorpe and Marianne Moore (she taught Thorpe at Carlisle during his Olympic fame and just before her own poetry career took off), but they became supporting characters after I discovered Ivy and Sylvester. I began writing back in 2002, plotted the whole book, drafted two chapters, and stopped cold when I realized I was killing the material. I paused for a year while writing unrelated short stories, and I when I came back to my Carlisle research, it was suddenly very clear that the book wanted to be a story sequence. Something about that kind of fragmentation, leaving and reentering the larger narrative at different moments and vantages, seems essential to representing the fragmented identities of my two protagonists. It couldn’t be a traditional novel with a single, unified voice. The first draft evolved into my MFA thesis at the University of Virginia, and that version was perhaps a bit too fragmented (my second faculty reader said it “enraged” him, though I think he was suffering from some of his own issues). The next few rounds of revisions tightened the narrative threads and eased the reader’s movements in and out of the characters’ lives. My editor at SMU and I debated a long while about whether to call the final product a “novel” or a “novel in stories.” Both terms are accurate, but we settled on the second because she was afraid of reviewers wasting valuable column space harping about form. The novel in stories is one I particularly like because it allows me to write in smaller, semi-independent units while still constructing a larger arc. The project I’m beginning now seems to be sliding into the same approach.
With Heterotopia behind you, what are your next writing plans?
LW: When I finished the first full draft of that book, I became the head of my English department and writing time became much more compressed and desperate. I became obsessed with the idea of writing a novel-in-verse—a better idea than it sounds, since it's easier to keep writing when you have a thread to come back to. What I came up with was a fantasy-inspired novella in terza rima, beginning with a woman who hears voices. It's really weird and I'm not sure where its natural home is. From there I began to write a lot more poems about listening, reception, and communication, some of them science fiction-y or supernatural and others that are lyric in a more familiar way. I'm calling the manuscript in progress Signal to Noise. I have more than enough pages of verse, especially if I include the terza rima sequence, but it definitely needs more time for shaping and settling (somewhere between six and eighteen months, I'd guess, though it's hard to say).
I'm balancing creative and scholarly projects for as long as I can manage both, and Signal to Noise definitely bridges my recent scholarly projects: my 2008 book concerns poetic voice and my new work involves community. You may have noticed that we're currently in New Zealand. I was lucky enough to win a spot as a Fulbright Senior Scholar at Victoria University in Wellington, researching poetry networks here. I'm writing this answer to your question less than two weeks after the devastating Christchurch earthquake of February 2011, and I've been simultaneously sorting through messages from home about some unexpected family disasters. I can see aspects of both filtering into my newest poems.
What are you writing and/or planning to write, over there on your laptop on the other side of the living room?
CG: When you were head of our English department (and so my boss), you sent me a couple of honors students searching for a professor to teach a seminar on superheroes. The course, now a regular department offering, gave me license to dive into comic book research. The result is a series of scholarly articles with ambitions of becoming a book, a screenplay I seriously doubt will ever become a movie, and most currently a swirl of fiction ideas that are growing from random short stories to a fully plotted novel outline (working title: The Patron Saint of Superheroes). Tomorrow after you drop off our son at his school and start your hike to campus, and after I drop off our daughter at her school and return to our frigid but peacefully empty house, this laptop and I will be tapping away on that. And looking forward to your returning with print-outs of your latest poem drafts for me to read.