An Interview with Lydia Peelle

January 25, 2010

Lydia Peelle was born in Boston, received her MFA from the University of Virgina, and now lives in Nashville, Tennessee. Her stories have earned her the O. Henry Prize as well as two Pushcart Prizes. She has twice been featured in the Best New American Voices anthologies. Her first collection of short stories Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing was published in the summer of 2009. The amazing debut collection features eight stories that weave together past and present while exploring our modern American detachment from our land, our history, and ourselves (read a full review here). Ms. Peelle recently spoke with us via email about her stories, our failing connection with the natural world, and writing in the shadow of the Southern literary tradition.

You’re writing stories about the American South, but you come from Massachusetts. With Southern literature having such a rich and almost mythic tradition, is it intimidating to be writing in such a heavily weighted genre? What are the challenges and benefits of being an outsider writing Southern (or any kind of) fiction?

Yes, there is a lot of weight to the term “Southern literature” – so much so that I don’t ever feel qualified to take it on.  It’s true that most of the stories in the book take place in the South, but I don’t think of it first and foremost think as a Southern book.  Tennessee is where I found myself, arbitrarily, about nine years ago, disoriented and rootless and not particularly happy here.  So I started to write about it as my own personal way of finding a connection with it. To dig down into the place where I was.  To walk around and explore abandoned farmhouses and parking lots.  And so I ended up with a book that mostly takes place in the South. 

A lot of people are surprised that I am from the North and chose to write about Tennessee.  But for me, the chance to explore other lives is the reason why I write.  I write to look at the world through another set of eyes, to imagine lives drastically different than my own – and by doing so ultimately to find the commonalities, the universal.  For me writing is very much an act of the imagination.  I spend a lot of time – and a lot of wasted paper – just trying to escape myself and inhabit another life: how would it truly feel to be this person?  In this time?  In this place?  In this particular set of circumstances? 

It didn’t occur to me until after I brought all the stories together, but most of the characters in my stories are outsiders to the place they’re in (like me) trying to find their way in a foreign landscape.      

Many of your stories seem to deal (if not always explicitly) with history. It seems like in this country we’re constantly in the process of erasing our past. One of the things that struck me so deeply in your stories was this underlying sense of the past continually being paved over with strip malls and Wal-marts. What we end up with is a strange sort of limbo where we have few real reminders of our past, yet we live every day with the legacy of the past. Why do you think we’re so willing and able in this country to eliminate our past? Do you find this to be the case more or less in the South than in New England or other parts of the country?

I was in Ireland once and the old man I was staying with really enjoyed making the point that there was an outhouse on his property that was older than my country.  It is amazing, when you think about it, how young our country actually is – and yes, how much we’ve managed to plunder and pave over and cut down in that short amount of time, but also how recent our past is.  And what a great opportunity that gives us to connect to it. 

In Massachusetts, where I grew up, we spent a lot if time in grade school talking about local history: so it was a lot about the Pilgrims, the Salem Witch Trials, the Revolutionary War, all that early colonial history (basically the stuff that made good field trips).  Because I got that all at such an early age, that’s what I grew up thinking about and tuned in to, almost to the exclusion of the ensuing 300 years of history. In Tennessee, people are still thinking about a much more recent history – the Civil War, in particular – and I imagine school kids here spend a lot of time on field trips to battlefields of that war.   I’ve never lived out west or in the Southwest, but I imagine there are similar cases there in terms of what’s remembered or considered important and what isn’t as much celebrated or discussed.  So I think every region has its different obsessions.  We’ve got such a big country, with such a dense story, it’s hard, I think, to step back and see the big picture.  But I do think you can still get in touch with all those stories, here in 2010, no matter how few scraps are left of them.      

Another powerful aspect of your stories deals with people and our growing disconnect from nature and land, soil and animals. Especially in the current economic situation, and with the specter of peak oil threatening to drastically change the way we live our lives and grow our food, these issues seem more relevant today than ever. We, as a collective people, have very little connection to the earth, very little in the way of skills or knowledge of how to grow our own food and survive or even to step out into nature and feel at home. What do you think of our current relationship in this country to the natural world?

In two words, not good.  We seem to think we exist physically separate of it, forgetting where the basic elements of our lives – food, water, air – come from.  We also seem to think we can exist morally and spiritually separate from it, and in a deep way, I think we as a culture are suffering from a spiritual malaise caused by our disconnection from place and land. 

For me, the natural world is where I go to seek mystery.  I believe that we, as human beings, need mystery in our lives.  Because only in mystery can we couch hope.  And hope is essential to our survival as individuals, and as a species, and as a world.  We need the unknowable places, and yes – the dangerous places – both physical and spiritual.  

But modern-day life really beats the mystery out of things.  You’ve got to search that much harder for it and find it any way you can – for me that’s out in the woods – or even just in a scrubby open lot behind the grocery store where I can watch a possum lumber up a tree and disappear in a hole.  I think we’ve all got to search it out: whether in the woods, or the mountains, or in church, in temple, in private meditation – anywhere you can get in touch with that sense of the unknowable, and be a part of something much bigger than your own life.

Your writing conveys a real sense of the loss of nature in our lives. Are you inspired to write by spending time in nature, or are you more inspired by being in a city where that lack of nature is palpable?

I actually do a lot of my best writing when I’m walking out in the woods.  I try to make that a daily practice – even if there’s an interstate just on the other side of those woods.  If I don’t get out, after a couple days I start to feel pretty lost.

Several of the stories in your book feature animals prominently, and in most of these cases the emotional power of the story is derived from a human-animal interaction. Most of the animals featured in your stories are used by humans  (as farm machinery, as scientific research tool, as food source, as art, as plaything) to one end or the other, yet somehow transcend this role and end up emotionally, or even spiritually moving the humans who come in contact with them incredibly deeply. What do you think about how our society treats and interacts with animals? Why is it that our bonds with our animals are often deeper than our bonds with other human beings?

I am very interested in our relationship with animals, and, for that reason, I am drawn to the culture of agriculture, where animals are not only companions but partners in work and sources of food. I am interested in the culture (mostly disappearing in this country) where that husbandry is a noble and whole enterprise, rather than the (unsustainable and inhumane) current practice of factory farming and monoculture.  

I agree that relationships with animals can be so much purer than the relationships we have with one another. Our domestic animals put ultimate trust in us (they have no choice), so there is great potential there for ultimate betrayal – as Charlie betrays the crippled kid in “Kidding Season.” For me, that signifies all the weight and responsibility of any human relationship.  How we relate (or don’t relate) to animals can represent a lot about our failure to communicate well other humans.

I think about the time, ages ago – before agriculture and domestication –  that we were much more in tune with all the other living beings we share the earth with. A time when we saw ourselves as part of that larger family, and therefore treated the land, other creatures, and each other with more respect.  If we can do whatever we can to get back in touch with the non-human – with the consciousness that surrounds us, right down to the squirrel on the sidewalk – I believe it will make us better humans. It will be a step towards healing the planet we’ve so far ravaged. I also believe it will make us more compassionate about all the human suffering around us. Seeing things as a whole. Not to say we should go out and try to talk to trees. But that we should try to be still, and aware, and in touch with all that surrounds us.  It’s a hard thing to do, in this day and age, but ultimately, we’ve got to fundamentally change our view of our place here on earth, get rid of this idea of utter entitlement.  Becoming more compassionate towards the fellows we share it with is the first step.

I saw a promotional video for your book online which featured modern day scenes of the American South, but with a soundtrack of old time music from the 1920s. The juxtaposition between the past and the present was very interesting, and seemed an extremely apt choice for your book in which your stories often walk that same line between present and past. I listen to a lot of very old American folk and blues music like that and it has the ability to move me like no other music I know, because it seems so haunted and strange and foreign even though it was made right here in this country less than a century ago. What does this music mean to you?

Southern American music from the ‘teens and ‘twenties, blues and folk music, really inspires me.  The rawness and mystery of a lot of those songs is something I strive for in my stories.  This music is so fascinating because it embodies the collision of cultures that happened in this place: it brings together the sounds and songs and instruments that enslaved Africans carried over and passed down through generations, and the sounds and songs and instruments that Europeans, especially Scotch-Irish, brought over and passed down as well. It’s truly American in that it all got traded around and mixed together to produce this entirely new, totally rich, totally unique form of music. 

Some of your characters (“The Still Point”, “Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing”) are practically crippled with dread, sometimes near-apocalyptic dread. These characters don’t see much point or hope in the world around them. Looking around at the world some days, it can be very easy to relate to that view. Yet despite this dread, these stories both end up at absolutely beautiful moments of hope and catharsis. Is writing a way for you to work through feelings of dread or anxiety about the world and to achieve some sort of catharsis in your own life?

Dread, anxiety, hopelessness, a feeling of helplessness  – yes, those things are always hovering at the edges of my conscience.  That’s why I go out into the woods and that’s why I write.  To quiet my mind.  To remind myself of the larger scale of history.  These days we’re bombarded by information.  There are so many voices out there, all saying different things, very few of which are really true, even fewer which hold any hope.  At the end of the day, the voice you’ve got to find and listen to and rely on – and trust – is your own.


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