The following is an interview with Abby Hagler, the winner of the 2020 Essay Press Chapbook Prize. The chapbook, There Was Nothing Left But Gold, dives into the landscape of Nebraska, dwelling on what it means to grow up in a small town only to leave it in order to understand forgiveness and what it means to accept one's self. Meditating on the breakdown of her relationship with her mother, Hagler reaches for Willa Cather as a fellow Nebraskan exile, Derrida's hauntology, and theories on girlhood development. These essays construct a portrait of girlhood and Nebraska as wild and hungry, full of mourning, tenderness, and rebellious figures.
Hannah Hicks and Tory Irmeger: Could you talk a bit about your childhood and your path to becoming a writer?
Abby Hagler: In relation to childhood, I think about being alone quite often. My family had a farm and everyone was very busy with work, which resulted in me being by myself on a day-to-day basis. I’m really grateful for that. Periodically, I see articles like this that talk about giving children alone time and letting them get bored. I’m not trying to tell anyone how to raise their children. I’m just saying that I read these articles in reference to myself as a child. It’s helped me to realize the profound effect of a childhood spent in fields, with animals, and on dirt roads marked on no map.
I like the way Amy Wright characterizes her rural upbringing in the introduction to her book Paper Concert. She says, “I was pretty free as a kid… I did not have to direct myself toward anyone else’s expectations for hours at a time. Those hours, too, were an essay, a foray into life’s experiment, and they taught me that research always begins and ends in the field.” That moved me because I know the prism of those hours she speaks of.
However, I consider my time back then to be more constructed. There was expectation. My family all worked together but I am the youngest and the only girl so I didn’t do the same jobs. I never had to fix machinery or run the combine until midnight or get up at 2 am to check for newborn calves in February. From an early age, I was the one burning piles of thistles, filling the water tank for the heifers, mowing cattle pens, watering the rows of treelings that would grow into windbreaks. And also doing the grocery shopping, cooking, and housework. My parents taught me to drive around age seven. The old 4020 was my favorite tractor because it piped thick black smoke like a cartoon and the seat was sproingy.
There was also adult responsibility in my childhood—possibly the way it is for any child who is part of their family business. There was also a noticeable transition between being an employee during the day and being a kid in the evening. Sometimes I feel like I was raised as both a hired man and little girl. But that is a false dichotomy. I was a tomboy and a reader day and night. Always with a book on me and always writing diaries out loud. Which means I was imagining myself as a character in mundane places in the past, in fantastic situations that never happened. Fay Bound Alberti writes about a similar experience growing up after her family moved to Wales in her book A Biography of Loneliness. She said, “I was isolated and alone. And yet I did not endure loneliness. I enjoyed it. A natural introvert, I spent my days in the woods, making up stories, plotting alternative lives. My community was populated by fictional characters.” And I, too, don’t remember feeling all that lonely. There’s a connection to writing in that.
Remembering what I thought about as a kid is something I treasure in adulthood. As if I know and stay true to one more thing about who I am at core. Maybe writing as a process of saying aloud the associations that have long existed in our minds is also a method of connecting to time gone, time that did not exactly exist, time that is experienced by a person uniquely. Or maybe it just means time became a room of my own built inside my brain since I was usually asked to show my practical self at home. I don’t know. Maybe, through a larger lens, freedom alongside work ethic is a metaphor for what writing really looks like in my life. I’m not shooting for a metaphor here. At the time, I was very caught up in my imagination and was most definitely an awful employee. However, I don’t remember ever feeling bad about it. The part of me interested in telling stories has always been a clear, refreshing voice to me. It’s always been a buoy.
Hannah Hicks and Tory Irmeger: We are taking a class that emphasizes the ideals of creating a lifestyle of writing, specifically not limiting ourselves to writing when there is a grade and diploma attached to it. What is your “day job” and how does this influence your writing life?
Abby Hagler: I manage research grant funding at a university. It took me several years of working multiple jobs to get this one job (in an office with so many people dedicated to kindness, no less) that can support me, which is a big deal. This job doesn’t influence the topics I write about but it does have an effect on whether or not I have the health, energy, and emotional space to get writing done or participate in the literary community. This may fall into “the work of work” conversations—what basics a person necessitates in order to show up to do anything requiring labor. So many little things go into this on a day-to-day basis. People living paycheck to paycheck will know what I’m talking about. That’s something that’s often missing from the discussion of what it’s like to make art. How does one actually arrive at the page? Sometimes I think it took me years of commuting, working through broken bones, eating cheap, choosing to pay the fines on my taxes for not having health insurance because it’s cheaper than the actual insurance, stretching my last $10 for a week before payday so I could to get to the morning I wrote the first paragraph of this chapbook. Overall, I’m fine with being a writer outside academia. As college becomes more unaffordable, I see more opportunities open up for writers without the degrees or the faculty appointments. I think it’s important for working class writers to be publishing and speaking to their experience to boost these equalizing efforts. I wouldn’t mind seeing more writing published stemming from this perspective.
Hannah Hicks and Tory Irmeger: Right off the bat, we connected with the themes within your chapbook, particularly, “If you grew up in a small town and you got out, you deserve a medal.” For anyone who moves away, I think there is an element of growth, and often grief, inherent in becoming a person outside of the context of that small town. While this could be a rewarding experience of “finding yourself,” it’s isolating, as there is no trail to follow or step-by-step guide to finding a new place to belong. Amidst these tensions, what was your starting place when writing your chapbook?
Abby Hagler: I love this question because it gets at the idea that perhaps growth and grief are concurrent. Like two rail lines running next to one another. I relate very much to the way you describe growth. To me, when I first left home, the yawn of what exactly all those years ahead of me could contain felt obliterating. I was so ready for it too. There were, as is common in small communities, impressions of me that people had in my hometown that I was ready to shed. But, more than that, leaving was like stepping into living that really felt alive.
And I think Cather might have felt a little bit of that growing up knowing she was gay in Nebraska in the early 20th century. To me, her life goals were simple. She wanted to become a career artist and to find real love. And Nebraska outside the University—I mean Nebraska as a social body—was not going to easily afford those to her. So she left in pursuit of getting to the page. However, even after she’d become a writer and found a wife, Cather had to write several books before she could move on from Nebraska. That kind of return is so ingrained. Our minds are always grappling with the past, trying to wrestle it into a narrative that will, without doubt, be blown up with some new realization. Return, to me, feels inevitable, especially if there’s hurt there. It’s important work whether it is done physically or in thoughts. I think I have been writing myself into and out of Nebraska for almost 20 years.
I also don’t want to say that grief, anger, trauma, or any layered emotion ever really gives way. I’m more interested in how people co-exist with these complexities instead of the overdone narrative of trying to resolve them. I’m interested in a relationship with feelings. When I was drafting the essays that would become this chapbook, I had already been thinking a lot about holding two different people in my body in the same way we can hold two (or more!) separate, even conflicting, emotions.
It was no mistake that I purchased Hermione’s Lee’s book on Cather titled Double Lives in the Cather Museum bookshop. “Double Lives” was also the first essay I read. Discovering that Cather characterized her childhood as being “buried alive” blew my mind. I had no idea, though her contempt is hardly disguised in the fiction. Realizing her anger was liberating to me because a lot of writing about Nebraska seeks to make it a quaint and bloodless place. Buried alive is a strong image. Both death and not-death present. A kind of Jonah and the whale. I knew the story I was telling was an act of return but I also knew it was wrong to write about it as some kind of hero’s narrative centered on healing or conquer. I wanted this narrative to be true to those of us who left for a reason. Return in this instance, whether physically or emotionally, is an akin to being swallowed whole and spat back out.
Hannah Hicks and Tory Irmeger: You are careful in writing about your mother to acknowledge the generational trauma and context of your mother’s behavior. This speaks to a genuine struggle for many as they reach adulthood and struggle with shifting parent/child dynamics. How did you balance writing about family, knowing they might read the chapbook?
Abby Hagler: This chapbook didn’t happen in one draft. It was two other books before it reached this form of three long, meandering, grass-dense essays. The first was a book of prose poems called Everybody’s Girlhood. It’s a riff on Gertrude Stein’s Everybody’s Biography and used a definition of girlhood some friends and I thought up one night in my living room. The definition didn’t really have anything to do with sex or gender, just what existentially demarks girlhood from other -hoods in life. We discussed the age range of girlhood and how this time period is different from childhood, boyhood, manhood, womanhood, adulthood, etc. Age started to feel arbitrary to the characterization we were going for, as if, through descriptors, each of these periods became spaces people enter or exit. I started wondering: Is it possible to slip into girlhood even if one is not a child or a girl? And so I started writing poems out of memories of my own girlhood, then moved onto moments in my family members’ lives when they might have been experiencing a girlhood too.
I took parts of the girlhood poems and made them into a chapbook of researched essays titled Goldenrod of the Here and Now. However, the essays were too focused on telling my mom’s story, which felt wrong. That’s her story to tell, even if things that happened to her have an effect on me in a generational sense.
All of my anxiety in writing any of these drafts was focused on claim and how to change the ideas of claim I have inherited. My goal was to release claim where it felt necessary in order to honor someone else’s struggle.
Letting go of any claim to my mom’s history—especially after our relationship dissolved—was what propelled me to look for other ways of writing another person into an essay that honors boundaries. Two books that were really helpful were Anne Boyer’s The Undying: Pain, Vulnerability, Mortality, Medicine, Art, Time, Dreams, Data, Exhaustion, Cancer, and Care and T. Fleischmann’s Time is the Thing a Body Moves Through. The way they each use research to shift narrative focus is fantastic. After reading these authors, my strategy became: When I felt I was going too far into territory that isn’t mine, I reflected instead on my own body, my own feelings. And from there, that smaller place of myself, I could start growing a discussion about the larger issue of a government, a history, and an economic system that imprints its brutality onto our love and relationships.
Hannah Hicks and Tory Irmeger: When writing “To Fill the Spaces Where My Body’s Been,” you listed examples of the color gold you found in books by Willa Cather. Did you know early on that Cather’s presence in your chapbook would be so prevalent? How are you hoping your book emulates Cather’s legacy, or would you rather readers understand your relationship with Cather differently?
Abby Hagler: I actually didn’t know that I would be writing about her starting out! She was one of several authors in the book pile. After deciding to start the essays over, I cast a pretty wide net for what I was researching. Louise Pound, who was not only Cather’s classmate in college but was also a great folklorist in her own right, was a favorite. Pound’s work led me to making a map of places where myths and legends occurred in Nebraska—or allegedly occurred anyway. A map of places that don’t necessarily exist and events that didn’t exactly happen. The slippery space of legends about land and people. But the trip was a bust. I didn’t have the energy for it after falling out with my mom. So I spent the day in Red Cloud at the Cather Museum and bought Hermione Lee’s Double Lives, a book of Cather biography and criticism that opened up the whole project.
To me, Willa Cather has a double legacy much like Nebraska. In the classroom, her identity is never really discussed. At least, I don’t remember learning anything about her life or personality or beliefs in general education. History’s process of simplifying and forgetting. As an author, she is remembered in conjunction with Nebraska’s mythology—as bland, quaint, nature/ farm-focused. This legacy has asked us to forget that she was determined, and she was aware of oppression and inequality in America. She was not religious, was critical of Christianity, and was unabashedly queer from a young age, which is not present in her Nebraska characters. But her anger is. Anger often disguises pain. I didn’t want that to be forgotten. It was a reminder not to forget who I am in writing either. There are lots of ways we are erased even as we live and breathe, lots of ways we obfuscate or erase parts of ourselves, especially in efforts just to get by or fit a mold. I suppose I’m seeing myself in the legacy of time passing, in the legacy of a life lived American culture would like to fabricate for us all.
Abby Hagler lives in Chicago. She is the author of There Is Nothing Left But Gold (Essay Press, 2021). Previous work has appeared in Entropy, FANZINE, Ghost Proposal, and Deluge, among others. With Julia Cohen, she runs an interview column at Tarpaulin Sky magazine called “Original Obsessions” about writers’ childhood obsessions manifesting in their current work.
Hannah Hicks is from Atlanta and attends college in Cleveland, TN. Her work has been published in the American Poetry Library and Whale Road Review.
Tory Irmeger is from Elizabethton, Tennessee and attends college in Cleveland, TN, where she is an English writing major.