An Interview with Lidia Yuknavitch
Words By Yvonne Conza
The Book of Joan (TBoJ) is “VERB-driven” prose with cinematic surges of action, reaction and resistance. Was this to underscore that, in retelling the story of Joan of Arc, you were pushing past fairytale and myth and seeking a message of urgency and agency over compliancy?
That is such an astute observation—because I was so very much interested in DISlocating her body and story from history and the ways in which she is LOCKED INTO a theological mythology and relocating her in an urgent present tense—or a future so close to our present tense you could throw a rock at it. My aim, whether or not I succeeded, was to open up questions about agency, yes, and to agitate history as well as the present.
Did you always plan to tackle the retelling of Joan of Arc?
Absolutely. For one thing, I was visited by Joan of Arc, Mary Shelley, and Ida Bauer in dreams. Joan of Arc visited me when I was about ten. I already knew who she was because we were raised Catholic, and my sister had chosen Jeanne as a middle name for confirmation; she is the first person who described Joan of Arc to me. I was mesmerized. In the dream, our house was on fire—which made some sense because figuratively our house was filled with abuse. In the dream I was about five, standing alone at night in front of our burning house. She walked out of the fire and said to me, “No one is going to save you.” Not that I understood anything intellectually at the time, but that idea lodged in my body for the rest of my life, as did the image of a burning girl—not a victim, but one that has to save herself. In a way the image of a burning girl replaced whatever my “faith” might have been had I turned out to be someone who believes in god. I do not.
So yes, I always had in mind to keep this burning girl with me, but it wasn’t until later in life, in college and graduate school, where I learned her story more deeply that I knew she was a book in me.
Did the Sci-Fi/dystopia placement of the story provide you with the necessary freedom of expression? Or was there something more behind that choice?
Yes I think you could say that. The fragmentation and displacement of her REAL story, that dislocation from history I mentioned earlier, was imperative. Like dream material I could take the fragmentation and displacement and redistribute them into a new story. I was never interested in telling THE story of Joan of Arc. I was more interested in retrieving the body of a woman and suggesting something I think is true: that her body is generative of HUNDREDS of stories, not just one. I also felt an extremely urgent pressure to our present tense – about climate change, about capitalism, about celebrity culture, about gender and sexuality, and about art and representation. Perhaps that’s why the Joan idea shot up in me. My present tense felt dangerous. And then she emerged.
How did you arrive at the right structure to hold TBoJ together? Did you experiment with different forms, or styles before dividing TBoJ into three linked parts?
Yes and no? I always knew it would be in “books,” because I was countering a biblical or theological form…but I had to discover the rest of the shape of things through the creative process. I don’t know what the shape of a book is going to be until I’m deep into it. The form of the novel is something else I wait to be able to see. I wait for a gestalt to rise. When I invented the character of Christine—or more precisely retrieved her from history—I suddenly saw that there was a chronicler, a storyteller who would come before Joan and raise her from the dead, just as I had plucked her from history and embraced her in my life. So that discovery helped me to build a novel form that included many layers of storytelling as an action, and it helped me to position Joan’s actions in an intimate relationship to representation.
How much guidance did you receive from your editors? Did they contribute to the process or leave you alone to wrestle with the manuscript?
Oh man. I have been secularly, magnificently blessed with four of the greatest collaborators in human history: my original editor, Cal Morgan, my current editor, Laura Brown, my agent Rayhane Sanders and my husband Andy Mingo, who is my first reader of everything. Each one of them provided me with intensely important questions and ideas that helped me to make this book. Then again, I’m not a precious or territorial author. I am happy to collaborate with other imaginations.
There was a scene in the book about the mass graves of forty-one children. It gutted me. Joan has the ability to revive the human life for twenty-four hours, as her resurrection-power succeeds only in plants and organic material. Making Joan fallible felt necessary. How did this scene serve the story’s narrative arc? And, was it difficult to write?
Yes, that scene is kind of a nexus scene for me, because it is the scene where I wrench her away from the trope of the savior. She is not a savior—at least not like Christ. It is a place in the savior story where the fact of bodies is made material again. Before they can be sucked up into a theology or belief system. The scene was not something I knew would come. It came when I put her in a field with other children. This is the world we’ve made for our children, but then we act like it’s someone else who did it. It is a theme I took up quite deeply in The Small Backs of Children. But it isn’t difficult for me to write about the suffering of children, or the death of a child. It has been my life.
Corporate and celebrity culture, as well as consumerism and concern for our ecosystem, are major threads within TBoJ. Was it your intention that TBoJ stand as its own genre—one of literary resistance—available to turn to in time of crisis? Do you see it as a manifesto, not so much a declaration of answers, but a straddling at the edge of where we are now—on the precipice of the future? What do you hope is gained by the reading of TBoJ?
I love that last sentence you wrote so hard. YES. HA! I mean it is my hope. Yes—that the book is something like a resistance, agitation, and resilience narrative in the face of corporate, consumer, and celebrity culture. On the precipice of the future, from the territory of war, the serial. I hope the same thing I always hope—I hope that a reader feels something shift in her actual body while she is reading. It’s okay with me if I fail in other ways…if I can remind a reader that language and stories are of her body, then I’m happy.
TBoJ traffics at the intersection of chaos, politics and trauma with global destabilization in full force — and it collides with real time. What the heck does that feel like? Were there any additional changes before it went to final press?
It creeps me out a little. . . the material started coming out of my hands in pieces over five years ago, and the first draft happened over two years ago. I didn’t realize I was colliding with real time until the election. No, I didn’t change anything but in retrospect maybe I should have made Jean de Men’s skin orange, but yeah. FUCK. Talk about spooky. I think all writers, to a greater or lesser extent, are writing within their zeitgeist. Some of us tend toward focusing on the cultural and social tensions around us in our work. I think that’s what happened with this book.
The retelling of Joan of Arc is a reminder that the gender battle is not a new topic. Is there a major takeaway you desired for the reader in this way?
Yes. That women and girls are going to have to recover their own bodies, save themselves, write their own stories, and recover and reinvent the deadening tropes of the love story, the god story, the war story, and the story of our relationship to the planet. Until we do, we’re still just objects in a story that was never written to give us autonomous life.
What surprised you the most when you completed the book?
Ha, same thing that always surprises me. . . than anyone is willing to read something I wrote! But more deeply in my personal life, it surprised me how writing this book gave me my faith back. I don’t mean theological faith—I mean writing the book made me redefine faith and hope for myself, in my own terms. I didn’t know that would happen. The wonder of that.
How did you first approach your agent with TBoJ? Since it would follow The Small Backs of Children, did she have concerns or advice?
I’m sure she had concerns! But Rayhane Sanders PERSISTED. Honestly she is a human lightning rod, to be sure, but she also is tireless in her championing of writers whose art ruptures up and through market-driven masses—if anyone is like Joan, she is. She sold both books to Harper at the same time. Calvert Morgan, my first editor at Harper, was unusually unafraid of intellectually and creatively risky material written by women; his track record and support of women writers is impeccable. Similarly, Laura Brown is unflinching and glorious.
Do you have a process that helps navigate you toward knowing what your next project will be?
Not exactly, unless you consider dreams, random images that come to you forcefully or physically, meditations and trances “process.” I guess I do. I wait for the image or the line or the voice. When it comes I surrender. Not that it is outside of me, I’m not one of those people who thinks I’m an empty vessel…more like I wait for my imagination and subconscious to rise and come. Like waves.
You launched your way with the indie press, and now you’re with a big publisher. Does that make you feel more secure? What are the pros and cons of publishing with an indie press as opposed to a big house publisher? What would you like to see changed in the publishing world?
Secure? Nope. Any book could bomb. No one knows which books will float or drown. I have a keen awareness that any day could be the last day, although I’d keep writing even if I had to go back to selling my handmade pamphlets on the corner. The pros of publishing with an indie press are huge. You can write whatever the fuck you want for the most part, you can take enormous formal and creative risks, and your labor contributes to the life and labor of other writers in a real time way. Civil Coping Mechanisms, FC2, Dzanc, Hawthorne Books, so very many small presses and Indie presses doing the labor of making art in the world—insisting that art is vital to social organization, insisting that the mode of production ought to be done by the actual artists. I have not been stifled or limited in my formal or thematic risk-taking with Harper. Perhaps I have been lucky, but I continue to believe the individuals I have worked with are like magical resistance fighters within the larger machine. In fact, I feel like I have infiltrated and like I have a chance to jam my foot in the door so that other writers might infiltrate too. What I would like to see change in the publishing world is the idiotic stranglehold the mega publishers have on the artistic production of small independent presses. What I would like to see change is the tyranny of Amazon. What I would like to see change is the way the socius regards literature. I would like people to remember that literature is life. Literature saves lives. Literature changes lives. I would like to see us stop treating books like hamburgers.
You belong to a writers workshop that is lit-hot—Cheryl Strayed, Chelsea Cain, Suzy Vitello, Monica Drake, Diana Page Jordan, Chuck Palahniuk. What’s the best advice they’ve given you? And, what’s the toughest part of being in a close-knit writing group?
(Cheryl hasn’t been in the writing group since around the time Wild went meteoric.)
The best advice they’ve given me is their work. As the brilliant and beautiful Monica Drake once said, writing is a living practice. Their writing brought me to life, continues to sustain me. Their lives—their varied strategies for “being writers” helps show me how to not give in or up, even if we are all different from one another. They are kindred mammals.
Who is your first reader? Do you provide guidelines when you give your work to others to read? Are there times when you’re seeking particular feedback on sections? Do you let them know that in advance?
My first reader is my husband, Andy Mingo. My second readers are in my writing group. My third reader is my agent. I just hand over the pages and then process (or compost, ha) what comes back. I treat feedback as creative puzzles I have to come up with solutions for.
There’s a mention of the long walks you took with Miles while writing this book. Can you share with me how that helped shape the work? Did he provide the North Star guidance? Freedom to go to places in the material with playful curiosity?
When I’d run into a plot question or snag, I’d mention it to Miles on our long walks. He was also working on a creative project, and he’d share his with me, too. His mind isn’t yet locked up with adulthood. His body is still forming. His imagination doesn’t have any limits—at least not the kind that shut ideas down. His questions aren’t dull and overdone. He is as terrible at small talk as I am, and he finds it as excruciating and confounding as I do. When we are sharing creative ideas it’s like the whole world is at stake. What captivated me was the way his imagination works—differently than mine and yet related—which felt like what I’ve read about the DNA of sons remaining forever in the brains of their mothers. . .
There’s a growing crowd that sees you as ‘Godmother of Misfits.’ Does having a “devotee” following concern you? Do you have a strategy to avoid the pitfalls of becoming ‘popularized’ and cast into the role of a ‘celebrity’—a way to gain an audience of readers and writers that avoids blind allegiance and groupie mentality where everyone can’t get past being enamored, and it just becomes weird?
That’s kind of funny, isn’t it. I definitely do not believe in nor am I trying to participate in the cult of the author. I think it’s ridiculous at best and dangerous at worst (we currently have a fuckface for a president who largely—or bigly—got there solely on his idiotic status as a famous person). I don’t know how to prove whether or not I’m succeeding at this, but my strategy for avoiding the bogus cult of the author model is to do good work in the world, to always be putting my creative labor toward helping other people open up theirs, to never follow the path of the ego and to always try to remember that being a writer means joining a hundred other storytelling rivers that existed before you and will exist after you die—each leading to the ocean, where mercifully, we need everyone. The important thing isn’t my name. Or me. The important thing is to keep storytelling alive and vital. Our lives depend on it.
What writing habit has been most influential for you and has helped to advance your work?
Creating my own writing room—and by creating, I mean literally making it look like the inside of my head.
What current books are you reading? Who are the emerging writers that you are taking note of?
Sarah Gerard, Megan Stielstra, Courtney E. Morgan, Teow Lim Goh, Layli Longsoldier, Garth Greenwell, Saeed Jones, Roxane Gay’s new memoir Hunger, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Han Kang, Omar El Akkad. . .