Endowed in perpetuity by the Glenna Luschei Fund for Excellence

Olympia Vernon: The Gift of Writing

A Conversation with Author Olympia Vernon
Author Olympia Vernon

Olympia Vernon is author of three critically-acclaimed novels: Eden, Logic, and A Killing in This Town. Vernon’s Eden won the 2004 Richard and Hinda Rosenthal Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. A special winter issue of CALLALOO (March 2012) featured an interview with Olympia Vernon, conducted by Charles Rowell, founder, as well as an excerpt from her fourth novel. Vernon currently lives in Louisiana.

This conversation with Olympia Vernon is the eighth in the CROOKED LETTER INTERVIEW SERIES hosted by the Schooner’s Southern Correspondent, James Madison Redd. The following is a brief excerpt from their recent email conversation.

Redd: Often you write in the context of dramatic experiences in your life, such as when you wrote a novel in twenty-six hours after almost losing your life in a storm. What is the writing process like for you? From another viewpoint, you’ve said that before you write, “I will sometimes make a call to family/friends letting them know that I’m going in.” Has your dedication to writing affected those close to you?

Vernon: Good question. Yes. I remember writing Eden and I was in another world entirely, having no concept of time (this was before I made the calls to friends and family, so you can imagine) or place or space. I was walking with Maddy Dangerfield, taking those trips between her Aunt Pip's house and her bedroom. I was in the car with her, walking along the dirt road to Fat's, listening to the sound of that tree being cut down. I was listening to the sound of dripping faucets and night creatures and those Voices that had come from Maddy internally. It was such a space that even now I don't remember much of what was going on during that time in my life---meaning in atmosphere---when it was all over, I was exhausted.

My sister called and I remember holding the phone upside down. I was so very tired. And all I could hear was her yelling, saying, "I was about to call the American Red Cross! Where have you been?!" and I told her.

"Writing?!" she said.

She talks about that now and laughs, of course, especially after the American Academy of Arts and Letters Award. Now, they know.

If I'm not answering, I'm writing.

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Redd: How is the experience of reading different from the experience of writing for you? You seem to speak of it in your interview with Callaloo as if it is a life-changing experience.

Vernon: When I am writing, I see the events of my characters' lives happening as though I am directing a film. I feel and smell everything. I walk through. I run. I take in an entire scene as it is revealed to me. That's when the words come. I am writing the film as the film is being portrayed; so, I have no time to stop and think of what word goes where. The film is happening and it is happening 'now,' and I have to keep up with it.

I want to smell, hear, see when I read a book. I want to be a part of the experience. One should walk away from a book feeling as though s/he has been a part of a great movie in which all senses were available to her. One should walk away from a book feeling as though a life, many lives have passed through her. If a writer focuses on the film, itself, the words will come and will correspond with the lives of the characters.

There are writers whose works are like films: Lewis "Buddy" Nordan and I were on a panel together at Duke. His work(s) make me both laugh and cry. It's impossible to read any of Buddy's works without feeling like you're walking into a moment in Mississippi that you feel was impossible to capture. Buddy does that. I miss him. Of course, there is Eudora Welty---one can read one of her works and say, That's exactly what I was feeling. I just didn't know how to put it into words. There is Donald Goines who could write a scene about the streets like nobody I've seen. You cringe and yet, you can't turn away from the grit, the bare-boned scene of a junkie or a pimp or a prostitute or a prisoner. Hubert Selby, Jr's "Last Exit to Brooklyn" is another one that makes you want to turn your head, but you can't. It's impossible. Nella Larsen, etc.

One is possessed by the film with a gifted writer. You see? One cannot turn away from the scene or sleep without thinking about it. And that's very often, or should be, because the writer couldn't either.

I know it is true for me.

When a reader can read a book in one or two sittings, s/he is possessed by the film, the images and with each page there is that curiosity that builds, of wanting to know how the film will end.

That's when reading is magical.

And it's magical for the gifted writer while living through it.

Redd: You say that your characters visit you. What are these visitations like? I know in previous interviews, you’ve spoken of how characters from your past writing are still speaking with you. Are there any characters who long to be on the page now, and what are they whispering?

Vernon: Yes. You are speaking of my fourth novel, "Queer." I am not sure if it is ready to be published; but, it is written. It's the story of J.D. Foster, a man on trial for killing two boys, two lovers, one black, one white in Ellis, Mississippi and how Foster, himself, can't seem to get over Schevoski, his childhood lover.

J.D. Foster is still speaking to me. He is, perhaps, the toughest character I've ever had to follow, because his thoughts on homophobia are bursting and I can't translate his language sometimes. He speaks quickly and yet with so much beauty, as it is important to him for the world to know how he is treated, how others are treated and he can't say enough, he can't speak quickly enough or convey his feelings without breaking down or lying in the aisle of a train or on a cot where the urine has reeked through it and he can't stop speaking to society, to this world which judges and is so cold in its judgments.

I don't know, James.

I'm not sure he will ever stop.

Maybe this will be one of those works with thousands of pages to be sorted through after I am gone. I don't know.

And there is a little boy from a dream I had a couple of months ago who ran behind my eye and I followed him---and when this happens, it happens quickly and is so full and frightening and so extraordinarily real that when I wake, my body is heavy, I am drenched in sweat, and merging that world with the world in which I wake is indescribable---and there were other young boys following him and I found myself looking down at him, he was on the flatbed of a truck, and the rest is somewhat a blur and I am pleased, as it will all return when I write again.

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Redd: You call your characters your children. I was struck when you said, “I am only here because of Them” in a previous interview. The “Them” meant your children or the characters who come to you when you are writing. Would you explain in further detail what you meant by this statement?

Vernon: When I was a kid, I won a Styrofoam egg. It was the first time I had ever won something. My teacher at the time had a clipped thumb. I remember her vividly. And I remember my name being called, of all the names in the class, she called my name.

I walked through the aisle, past the other children, where I was given a brown paper bag. It was surreal. I couldn’t believe it was happening. At that very moment, something incredible had happened to me, as I was very often shy, taking in the scenes of others, their lives, their sadness and sorrows, and their joys. But that particular afternoon, I had won something.

I remember walking into the bathroom, opening the bag, and finding a Styrofoam egg that was adorned with eyes and felt wires and sequins and it seemed to have glowed inside of that bag, inside of that world in which I had unexpectedly been included.

Then, the door opened.

And thus was one of the twins whose parent had brought the Styrofoam egg; and, I remember the look she gave me---she said something too---but the look she gave me made me so upset. I was so hurt, so taken by that look that I had suddenly begun to feel such sadness about having possessed it.

In that moment, the opening of a door, a look so much had been taken away.

What happens when moments like those are unable to be captured? What if I had not written that scene out in my mind----every single scene, throughout my life, as it is now is constantly being written as it is happening before me---before I was told I was a writer, I had done this since I could remember and after being told, I realized that that was the greater purpose for my life, writing and being part of the moments of life as both an observer and a parent of those characters who I am fortunate to house for a short time.

The “Them,” yes, is exactly what I’ve described.

My characters are my children. They come and are born through me. And I am blessed to possess the feeling of having them there. I am constantly asked about this and I have answered it many times. To some degree, I feel the answer is there.

Kind of tough to answer an answer. But I am pleased that I was told I was a writer. I wouldn’t be able to put moments like the Styrofoam egg experience into words.

Redd: Poverty often features in your writing. Can you imagine the experience of literary poverty, the lack of the ability to read or write?

Vernon: What a question, James, as that is something I have never really thought about until now, not in this manner. Not being able to read or write.

I have a relative who cannot read, write, and he told me once, over the phone, that looking at the Alphabet is like looking at a foreign language. So I would call him and read Anthony DeMello’s “Awareness: The Perils and Opportunities of Reality,” and what we found, of course, is that a lot of what he, my uncle, had shared with me was equal to what DeMello was sharing. Both had experienced the perils and opportunities of reality and had dealt with them equally, had seen them equally as such and had learned to survive them.

Yet, I thought, I think now, what would that be like for me, having been born with this special gift and having it taken away or having no access to it at all, having no one to have shown me the Alphabet and having to adjust, pass, get through life without the ability to spell out, to write out what I see, feel, hear and touch? I don’t know.

I can only say that I am blessed now to possess it, to have the gift of writing from such a place that is visual to me and that carries into the lives of others some new and beautiful thing, some spiritual invitation that they can cling to.

I am sure you have read the Callaloo interview. I am thinking of that too, of how this gift has equally been haunting in that I do see, hear, feel and touch everything and can write about it in a way that is sometimes frightening----like the scene in A Killing in This Town where Curtis Willow is dragged through the woods; to have seen that, witnessed that was horrific, and yet those stories must be told in order to fully be true to the impact of the scene itself---so sometimes, the fact that I do possess those things is like John Coffey from The Green Mile who says, “It’s like little pieces of glass inside my head.”

So what would I do if I had to choose?

What would I do if I had a choice between having that glass removed and living a life that was based on my feelings without the ability to interpret them (on paper) within myself or for others?

I suppose I would have to choose the glass, wouldn’t I?

Someone has to choose the glass.

Someone must.

A winner of the Mari Sandoz / Prairie Schooner Prize and finalist for the St. Lawrence Book Award, James Madison Redd’s fiction was nominated for Best New American Voices. His fiction, poetry, and reviews have or will appear in Fifth Wednesday, Fiction Southeast, Deep South Magazine, and Briefly Noted.