You immigrated to Australia in the late 1990's from rural Wisconsin. Your story in Griffith REVIEW 34: The Annual Fiction Edition, 'Free Lunch' takes place in rural Wisconsin – does your writing offer a way to explore place, and where you've made a home in the past and your current home in Melbourne?
Homesickness has shaped my writing more than I ever thought possible. I very much miss my family and culture along with the trees and animals of Wisconsin. When I'm casting about for characters or stories, people and places I've known well often volunteer. Perhaps it is just plain nostalgia – a longing for my childhood helps me to misremember my struggles and certainly tame the weather – but somehow that place seeps into much of what I write. I have tried to write creative pieces based in Australia, but have rarely felt as if they were successful. As a child, I read to escape where I was from – I'm aware of this irony. So if readers feel as if they've experienced Wisconsin through my work, I'd be very pleased.
You're currently completing a PhD in Creative Writing from the University of Melbourne, and had joked that you 'unhappily realised that I am rarely able to think thoughts unaffected by theory?' Is this still the case? Is it so bad? Why?
The first couple years of a PhD involves an enormous amount of reading. The best students quickly define a quite specific area and research intensely within rigid boundaries. Against all advice, I chose to attempt a complete survey of literary criticism to try to fill in the gaps in my theoretical and critical knowledge. Although I came out the other side with a broad understanding of the history and evolution of literary theory, criticism, literature, and my preferred theoretical approach – ecocriticism – I spent years chasing a big TOE (Theory of Everything) instead of concentrating on my field. Now that I'm approaching completion, I'm much more focused on critical and creative texts relevant to my interests. And I'm learning to turn off the analysing machine to read and write for pleasure again.
What can fiction take from ecocritical theory? How much do you draw on it in your own writing?
I tend to think more from a writer's perspective than an academic's, and so for me, ecocritical theory takes from fiction rather than the other way around. When I write, I concentrate on creating a world for the characters and reader to share, including all of the smells, sounds, tastes, touches and sights that define a place and add verisimilitude to a story. I do tend to fixate on weather and water, rocks and birds, but I hope that these personal obsessions add to both the imaginative reality and the emotional impact of my work.
Is 'Free Lunch' intentionally ecocritical?
No, I don't believe I ever deliberately attempt to write in an 'ecocritical' style; my creative style is probably an ordinary result of my reading preferences. I've always been a passionate reader of nature writing – poetry, nonfiction and fiction – and came to ecocritical theory via that interest.
How is fiction a method of understanding our place in the world and working towards a sustainable relationship within our world? How can your non-fiction writing or PhD illuminate this issue?
I believe that fiction can help us explore the creation of meaning via place-centredness. By focusing on characters attempting to make a life in nature and the (re)inhabitation of place, my work attempts to display the crafting of a world of pattern, emplacement and commitment. The relationship amongst humanity and nature is dynamic and always developing. Only through examining the ways in which we've successfully and unsuccessfully negotiated this partnership can we hope to develop a sustainable and ecosocial future.
My nonfiction writing and academic work also investigates ways of understanding place. In my PhD, I investigate the intersection of ecocritical theory and Kathleen Norris' poetry and creative nonfiction. Norris is a contemporary Midwestern American writer whose work is occupied by the persistent problem of uninvited inheritance, including a rejected place, culture and religion. By bringing an ecocritical focus to literature exploring rural lands and working peoples – for example, farms and farmers – I hope to explore and encourage sustainable ecological engagement that has been developed via generational companionship with the natural world.
Is there any way you channel your own intuition when you sit down to write?
When I write, I attempt to immerse myself in, recollect and recreate the sensory experience of a place. For me, intuition is an absolutely essential sixth sense for the writer. Whatever taps into that secret web that links experience with emotion – for me it is my religious upbringing and the natural world of my childhood – that is what breathes life into a story. I listen to gospel music and sit among my precious things: artefacts and heirlooms, eggshells and animal pelts. Soon enough, the story comes to me.
When do you write best?
I'm a night owl. Unless I've got commitments before noon the next day, I tend write from midnight until morning.
You are also the publisher of Vignette Press – how do you juggle your work?
As an academic, writer and publisher, I tend to work completely based on deadlines. Whatever is most urgent gets the most attention. Unfortunately, balancing different roles has resulted in projects taking longer than I would've liked; but, I've also been able to progress incrementally in several fields. My patchwork quilt of jobs and interests may have taken me a while to assemble, but now that I'm approaching many of my goals, I'm relieved to have stitched together several ways of keeping warm.