To Give A Girl Her Voice Back: An Interview with Lidia Yuknavitch

by Marie-Hélène Westgate
September 4, 2012

Lidia Yuknavitch is – but isn’t limited to being – a writer, swimmer, teacher, mother, and lover. She believes in art the way other people believe in God. Her work is fearless – a requirement when venturing deep into matters of sex, gender, violence, and transcendence. Books like The Chronology of Water and her latest, Dora: A Headcase, are not for the faint of heart; they explore abuse, self-destruction, and the terrifying, exalting passion that drives young women to live, and to create, in the face of seemingly insurmountable pain and prohibition. Lidia describes Dora: A Headcase as my love letter to nerds, misfits, introverts, and arthearts everywhere. Like everything Lidia touches, Dora takes alienation and transforms it into a story of hope and clarity.
Marie-Hélène Westgate: What did you want to be when you grew up?
Lidia Yuknavitch: Well, first I wanted to be Earl Anthony. Then Benny Goodman (I played clarinet), then Mohammed Ali, and then Joan of Arc. All problematic for a variety of reasons.
MW: How does sexuality figure in your writing? (Writing sex is hard.)
LY: I’d say that sexuality figures in all of my writing. There isn’t any writing that I do where I can unbraid sexuality from the language, you know? I think desire and the body and sexuality are always already part of language and signification. But I do understand what you mean when you say “writing sex is hard.” Perhaps if we understood more deeply that sexuality is a full experience to both bodies and signification, we’d quit writing about it so poorly. I’m actually aghast at Fifty Shades of Grey. It sets thinking and feeling people back about 100 years – a real triumph for the market and non-thinking humans. Sigh. The first book I always hand out when people talk to me about writing sex, or sexuality and writing is Leaves of Grass.
MW: What did you pursue when you went off to college?
LY: I went to college to flee the horror of family, and to swim. It never occurred to me that I was supposed to go for a brain reason. Really! Once there, I tried English and got D’s. I tried Communication Studies (sort of like media arts) and got D’s. The only classes that felt like I belonged in them were Painting, Drawing, Philosophy, and Creative Writing. But I failed miserably at first. Flunked out twice, quit once. It wasn’t until I had a reason to be there that an intellectual experience happened to me.
MW: What did your family think of your creative pursuits?
LY: Well, they were proud, but scared. Ha! No, really, they were proud. In a kind of that’s what parents are supposed to be way. But our family dynamic was so Oedipal and clusterfucked that it didn’t quite play out right. My sister and I talk often about how if my mother was alive now, she’d be proud in a kind of unburdened way, and I’d be able to feel it, so I try to. It’s hard. Mostly when I did well at anything as a child I was rewarded and shamed simultaneously, so I have a lot of crossed wires about that. Some people will know what I mean when I say that.
MW: Do you share your work-in-progress with loved ones – partner, family?
LY: Yes. With [my husband] the Mingo. Every single thing I’ve written since I met him. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that the most important books of my life that I have managed to write would not exist without the Mingo. For one thing, he is an astonishingly good editor of my particular work. But too – the support he lends in my every day life – childcare, kindness, housecleaning, the income of a spouse who works, sex, the garden, a comrade in all things art-related, a best friend, someone to braid souls with – and the inspiration he provides me with because I am in awe of everything about him – it’s like our life together IS the work in progress, and the films and writing he makes and the writing I make are rivers in the bigger waters of knowing each other. I know. I sound gush-y. But trust me when I say we are both pains in the asses just as often as everyone else, too.
I share writing with my sister, too. Brigid. She is a poet. I learned to hear music in words from her, I am sure, starting at about age four.
MW: In those years you spent in graduate school, or starting out as a writer, did you ever lose faith or feel you didn’t want to write anymore?
LY: Was there some other way to be in graduate school? Ha! Do you know what I mean? I lose faith daily. Still. I don’t ever have “writer’s block” (I’m not ever sure I believe in it), but I do let writing go all the time. I now understand that’s just part of my personal process, and I embrace it. There are non-writing times and writing times. Like ocean waves. It is enough.
MW: How did you deal with those feelings of aimlessness, when they came up?
LY: Well, once I claimed my own intelligence and creativity, you know, stood up and inhabited my own life and body, it became easier to see what to hold on to and what to lose. I think women in particular (but yes, men too) have a hard time claiming the space of the writer with great authority. For one thing, our authority looks different – so at first I tried to claim it the way men do. And I was radically unhappy. Years later (I’m about to be fifty) I figured out that the space I needed to claim needed to be on my own terms. For me, that meant letting my body tell me what the terms were. That’s the abstract answer. The literal answer is: Swimming. Therapy. Walking. Meditation. Meditation. Meditation. Love. Compassion. Mothering. Great sex. Art. Art. Art. When I surround myself with these things, I can handle pretty much anything that comes – doubt, faithlessness, despair, rage.
MW: So, do you eventually get past those feelings, or do you deal with them as they come up because they will, inevitably, come up?
LY: Like pretty much everything in life, stuff comes back around, just in a different form. I guess that’s part of living a life, shedding skins, changing and growing. We meet each wave anew.
MW: What’s the writing community like in Portland? Is it a source of inspiration?
LY: OH this gives me a chance to quote one of my favorite writers, Monica Drake: “It’s a living practice.” That’s what it feels like to live here and write. And as you know, I am in the world’s greatest writing group that includes Chelsea Cain, Monica Drake – whose wildly anticipated novel The Stud Book, is forthcoming this February – as well as Chuck Palahniuk, Cheryl Strayed, Suzi Vitello Soule, Mary Wysong Haeri, Erin Leonard, and Diana Page Jordan. I mean Jesus, right?
Inspiration is a puny word. I think a lot of writers, myself included and perhaps especially, feel “alienated” as individuals…but I have to say that Portland is a superb place for alienated individuals to congregate and sing their off-tune songs together loudly and with laughter. There’s also really, really good beer in Portland.
MW: How do these literary communities affect you when you’re in the midst of actually writing – alone in a room, hopefully in total silence?
LY: You don’t hear voices? I hear voices. I mean that both in terms of medication I’ve had to take in my life because I had auditory hallucination episodes (mostly surrounding my father), and, more importantly, in the ways we carry the voices of those writers we respect in our heads all the time. Everything I’ve ever read or lived – all those voices – they are in my head. And I’m glad. Also I’m a Gemini so it’s not alarming. My mother always said being in a room with a Gemini is like being in a room with 50 people. Alone in my room though I know exactly what Chelsea would say or Chuck or Monica or Cheryl or Suzy or Mary or Erin or Diana…they help me to be a better writer, those voices.
MW: What did you expect would change when your first book was about to be published?
LY: My first book was published when I was 28 – a book of short stories published by an indie press. I didn’t expect anything. I think I scored at least 23 readers. My second book of short stories, possibly 200 readers. My third book of short stories, lots and lots of people, though I bet I could have recited all their first and last names. I liked my niche – sort of underground and quietly subversive.
It wasn’t until I published The Chronology of Water that a real audience wave came my way. I’m glad I was older when it happened. Otherwise I think it might have done me in. I really do. I’m still not a titan like the titans I write with, so I still feel kind of happy in my niche. I never thought I’d be rich as a writer – I use too many words like fisting and douche and vag.
I never thought I’d be famous. I never thought I’d get some fancy job or house or car. I just wanted to make books that are of some “use” to someone. I want to make books that participate in the labor of what I think of as making art. I still feel those things. If there are more readers, it means I have the opportunity to jam my foot in an open door and help sneak as many of us as possible through.
MW: How did those expectations measure up to reality?
LY: Well since they were kinda puny, the reality has been much larger! I think the most significant things that has “changed” is my relationship to readers. I understand now that it is a real relationship – words I made in the hands of actual people that I care deeply about – and yet once a book of mine is published, it’s not “mine” anymore, and I am not present – I don’t need to be the author… I just need to go back in my room and make some more art. But I have a fundamental admiration for readers that I used to not understand very well. It’s helped me to write far beyond me. Which is what real writing should be.
MW: Can you tell me about your writing routine? Do you have any rituals?
LY: Tons of them! I write in the afternoons, I write sporadically, and I write in big chunk wads. I usually drink when I write (not copiously or toward drunkardome, just being honest), I meditate before I write to get to a kind of trance-y place, and I don’t edit as I go. I puke on the page and worry about going back in and crafting later. I try, in other words, as hard as I can, to loosen the logic gremlins, the monkey brain, the self-critic. I try to let the unconscious out of her thought prison. I lead with body into language.
MW: How does your life change when you’re in throes of writing a book – say, for example, in the years before Dora: A Headcase came out?
LY: Oh how I wish I could live there and never come out! I love the process almost more than regular life. Maybe even more than. Same with painting. If there was a way to stay in there, I would. I mean a way that did not end in psychosis. It’s more real to me, more astonishing, more alive than most regular life days. But as I’ve said before, there are reasons to come out. And their names are Andy [Mingo] and Miles. It’s after I’m done writing and the book is “out” that I experience excruciating reverb. Social reverb, emotional reverb, physical reverb. Yup, that’s the period when I have to up the meds considerably. Introvert logic. I may have to invest in a sensory deprivation tank to make it through the next year.
MW: And how does your life change once you go into a creative lull, say – if that happens?
LY: Though creative lulls are hard emotionally, I guess I’m glad they happen. I think a lot of subconscious reflection and “cooking” goes on during those times that we are not fully aware of. That’s what I mean when I say I have learned to let them ride, and to trust them – I think important creative work comes from stepping away from the labor. Does that make any sense? The trick is to embrace that idea and not stress so much about it. The thing is? When she comes, she comes. Roaringly. Back.
MW: Can you tell me a bit about your inspiration to write The Chronology of Water?
LY: 1. Chuck Palahniuk told me he hated memoirs and dared me to write one. I’d been drinking wine that night so the dare took.
2. My mother and father both died and I had a son all within a 3 year period. I experienced serious audio and visual hallucinations surrounding my father that scared the shit out of me– the more I wrote, the closer I came to mental health and personal joy. I’ll say too that I was in extensive therapy while writing this book and on serious medication. And I had stupendous support. Otherwise, it might have killed me.
3. Part way through writing it I realized it wasn’t about just me anymore. I realized there were others like me. Possibly lots of them. And that we had stories to tell, and that our stories were as important as those that merit the honor of “literature.”
MW: Was your process any different with the writing of Dora: A Headcase?
LY: My process didn’t change, but the two books are entirely different forms. Dora is a dark modern Farce. Ha! I guess maybe The Chronology of Water could be too… but you know what I mean. The differences are formal. Fiction, nonfiction, memoir, novel, farce. Though Dora was much more of a gas to write than The Chonology of Water – as in more hilarious.
MW: Can you tell me a bit about the concept behind Dora; the modern, memoiristic interpretation of Freud’s famous case study?
LY: Well his case studies were already narrativizations – fictions if you will – of his work and of his interpretations and of peoples’ lives. So I think he was doing the creative writing first. What I did was what Kathy Acker taught me – I inhabited a prior narrative and staged a break-out. And I chose the classical form of farce – I mean I almost anally followed a Shakespearean model of farce – because I think Shakespeare would have gotten a big kick out of Freud. I really do. I suspect that Shakespeare could sue Freud for copyright infringement. But dead guys aside, I read Freud’s case study of Ida Bauer when I was in my twenties. I was outraged. I never forgot it. His diagnosis of this bisexual teen who’d lost her voice after her father’s business partner molested her – and her father was having an affair with the same dude’s wife – and her father sent her to Freud but told her to keep quiet…HOLY MOTHER OF FUCK. Given my own life story I just went berserk. But I had to wait to be a good enough writer to take this project on. And it only took 25 years! Basically my goals were:
o To give a girl her voice back
o To challenge a male narrative that captured a woman’s story and killed it
o To create a new girl myth
o To write a dark farce
MW: What would you tell emerging writers?
LY: Never surrender.
MW: What are you reading right now?
LY: Everything I can get my hands on.
MW: Who, if anyone, has been a great influence (dead or alive) and/or mentor to you?
LY: Ken Kesey, Kathy Acker, and Chuck—plus my writing group—strange angels. And influences? Pretty much everyone I’ve ever met or read or witnessed the art of. You could say my belief system is art.
MW: How do you juggle work and family? Is it a struggle?
LY: Daily. But Monica Drake taught me how to juggle for real, so if I just picture everything as a colored ball filled with seeds, I’m good. Kidding. Sort of. I guess I think the struggle of work, family, and the labor of making art (I have a full-time teaching job, mini-teaching jobs on top of that too) are just our particular juggling choices.
I mean, the people who pick and pack our food in 100 degree fields with no insurance or solid home ground while Arizona type folks chase them around with pitchforks and torches, I think their juggling is more difficult. Or the teens who get dragged behind pick-up trucks in Texas and left for dead because they deigned to love someone of the same sex – their juggling is more difficult. You know?
I think it’s good to take the wide view – every day of my life I’m thrilled to have a son because I had a daughter that died. Every day of my life I’m thrilled to have a full-time job with health insurance and a paycheck because I have been homeless and in jail before. And every day of my life I’m beyond thrilled that I get to write… to make art… so they seem like privileges to me, is what I’m saying.
Yes, I still complain. But my complaints sound puny even to me. Honestly? I wouldn’t trade this juggling act for any other. I love living this life. It’s more than I ever dreamed I could live. This struggle is mine – I picked it.
MW: What’s your single most bizarre experience as a writer?
LY: Filling church pews with used copies of Frankenstein in Texas in the middle of the night with my beloved friend Amy.
MW: If you could achieve anything in the next ten years, what would it be?
LY: To be able to say I’m still a practicing writer, mother, and lover.


Marie-Hélène Westgate is the senior editor at Freerange Nonfiction. She earned her Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Sarah Lawrence College, and is currently at work on a novel. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, Lumina, One Cool Word, and Freerange. Marie-Hélène lives with her partner in Brooklyn, where she spends as much time as possible locked alone in a room.