Tuesday, June 25, 2013

An Interview with Nicole Walker

From the back patio of my very small Tucson, Arizona apartment, I sit, jacketless, on the first day of March. Four hours and two minutes north, in Flagstaff, writer Nicole Walker is composing in her living room where the “light is almost as good but not quite”. It might be windy there. Come May, she’ll return to her deck to write in the warmth, searching for the vultures that she says return on exactly the first day it becomes warm enough to take her practice outside, ducking the ravens that dive-bomb. 

If we’re talking about mental space, Nicole says that it too gets windy—Facebook and committee meetings. “But if I just sit down and write, I can get the ravens to dive-bomb and the vultures to gyre. Although I started writing in gray, gray Portland, Flagstaff sun clears my head.”

It is perhaps Nicole’s control of such birds that produce, in her forthcoming book, Quench Your Thirst With Salt, a collection that sings. “The first essay I ever wrote was “Fish,” a poem-ype lyric essay. I only realized it was an essay when I sent it to Brevity when they published it. Then, I wrote “Superfluidity” about my dad dying and water disappearing in the desert and I thought—fish, water, death—I could write about those things forever,” she says.

But Nicole too gets bored when she’s writing, and in these places turns to research as a bridge across the water or deserts that haunts her work. “I get stuck. I get thinking that talking about the self is too selfish. It’s at the bottom of a moment of narrative that I move to research. By researching section by narrative section, I feel like I’m building a serendipitous structure. The narrative guides the research, the research, once I reach the end of the line, takes me back to narrative. They conspire to make sense of one another. Like the volta in poetry, I turn from one to the other in the white space. My thought is that the connections being woven take me and the reader to new and surprising places.” 

There is no shortage of surprising places in Nicole’s work—the essays in Quench Your Thirst With Salt happen across a variety of structures, often utilizing white space and found text. They happen across a number of subjects and landscapes and moments in time. “In the white space, I can turn from writing about a boy to writing about the mechanics of the combustion engine,” Nicole says. She attributes much of her style in prose to her training in poetry—the idea, as she says, that the reader ought to have time to digest and absorb the material, that emphasis can be added to the ends of sections, that meaning can be underscored. 
In constructing the collection, Nicole says that she asked her mother to edit the manuscript. Her sisters also read it. “I think the hard part about being written about is that you feel like you have no volition—that you’re trapped by the page. I tried to let people read and argue and reconsider, so that the characterization I did of them was more textured and real and fair. I hope.” says Nicole.

And she’s successful—even the most difficult essays seem honest and generous, wiling to explore material outside oneself in the exploration of a story that is both personal and cultural. “I veered away from writing about my dad, wrote about boys, wrote about my mom and sisters. In the end, it wasn’t the chronology or the family stories that drove the organization but rather the research. When I asked, what else is happening to water in Salt Lake? Where does it come from, where does it go? How much mercury is in the Great Salt Lake anyway? As drought descended on the valley and people still watered their lawns and my dad was still dead, it made me consider what kind of life I would be subjecting any children I considered having. I reconsidered. And then I had kids anyway.”

In “having kids anyway”, Nicole unearthed a series of fears and questions that led to the longest (and in some ways, most complex) essay in the collection, “Where the Wild Things Are”, a piece in which she’s thinking about pregnancy, motherhood, childhood, predator, prey, fear. She says, of the difficulty she faced in writing the essay, “No one wants to talk about child molesters. It’s gross. No one wants to read it. When I’m editing for a magazine or reading essays my students write, I dread the stories about any kind of abuse. The ick factor. The confession. The idea that suffering matters on its own.  In that essay, I had to try to say something about the way we hold legitimate and illegitimate fears for our children. How it’s hard to determine what is a natural reaction to those fears. Hell, the hard part is trying to figure out what is natural and unnatural at all. How do we treat our neighbor the child molester? How do we have children and let them play in the front yard across the street? Because you do. Because acting natural and pretending everything is normal is the way the unnatural and abnormal becomes ordinary and normal on its own. I think about other kinds of fear. The fear ranches have of wolves. The fear of the wilderness even though the wild has become mostly manicured. It’s natural for the wolves to attack the ranchers’ cows. Is it unnatural for the rancher to respond with bullets? Is it unnatural for the rancher to be there at all? Maybe not all actions are natural but perhaps all reactions are?  So building a fence to say, no wolves here is an unnatural endeavor but, once that fence is built, anything that crosses that fence is trespassing and the rancher’s reaction is a normal one. To reduce the metaphor:  In letting my daughter play outside in the front yard, maybe I’m attempting to undo the fence-building in the first place.” She sights a lack of distance as the reason the essay was difficult to write—her daughter was born only six months before. 

Though the essays seem concerned with what it means to be female as much as they do with ideas about place, Nicole is not trying to make a metaphor that the female body is like the land, “fucked up and fucked over”, she says, though she acknowledges that the snarky quips she includes can sometimes read that way. Instead, she’s most interested in thinking about how much reshaping humans do—“to the land, to their bodies, to each other’s bodies, and then how they shape and reshape their ideas of self. I think of the body in various settings and think, is this who I am now? Am I this woman on the shoreline of an ancient in-land sea? I’m a woman swimming in a man-made mountain lake? I’m standing on an unfinished road, on top of a dead snake, wondering, is this who I am now?” 

And, she says, “if the point of writing a book of nonfiction is to look at the self at different angles, then the angles of light produced by different combination of dirt and clouds and sun and grass and the herons make me see the self, and the place, differently. Maybe if I look at me and the place at enough angles, eventually, I’ll understand them both.”


Heather Hamilton is a graduate of the MFA program in creative nonfiction at the University of Arizona where she also served as Co Editor-In-Chief of the Sonora Review. Now, she lives, writes, and works in Boise, Idaho.

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