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The Essay is Wildly Capacious

An Interview with Lia Purpura
Lia Purpura

The deadline for our second annual Creative Nonfiction Contest is fast approaching! We've already received many excellent submissions--get yours in by August 31!

To inspire you, here's an interview with this year’s contest judge, Lia Purpura. Purpura is the author of seven collections of essays, poems and translations, most recently, Rough Likeness (essays). Her awards include a 2012 Guggenheim Foundation Fellowship, Finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, NEA and Fulbright Fellowships, three Pushcart prizes, work in Best American Essays 2011, the AWP Award in Nonfiction, the Beatrice Hawley Award, and Ohio State University Press awards in poetry. Recent work appears in Agni, Field, The Georgia Review, Orion, The New Republic, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and elsewhere. She is Writer in Residence at The University of Maryland, Baltimore County, and teaches at the Rainier Writing Workshop.

Prairie Schooner Senior Nonfiction Reader Sarah Fawn Montgomery interviews Purpura about different kinds of essays, the power of objects, and her favorite essayists.


Nonfiction is a genre with quite a bit of flexibility in terms of the forms it assumes, the directions it takes, and the subjects it pursues. How does this flexibility speak to the nature of the genre? To the nature of writers that engage with the genre?

I’m trying in each essay to be what I know of as “myself” on the page, to think and feel openly and in an interesting form. I hope to get closer and closer to things that initially feel wordless, or even impossible to say. Another essayist might be more intent on narrating a story or event. Still another might want to focus intently on a formal element. Some essayists bend toward the investigative, others towards the personally meditative. The essay is wildly capacious and inviting and open to invention—perhaps because it’s grounded in, a priori, a human’s singular experience of the world. That’s the promise the form makes, and it’s an intimate, exciting one.

What is the experience of reading and writing nonfiction like for you? Why were you drawn to the genre?

For me, the essay is a space where I can develop a sense of being present—very much the way one does when writing a letter to a good friend. In an essay, “thought” (or “idea”) gets to be both a spontaneous gesture and an act of conscious shaping—without the shaping, all would be a self-indulgent draft or rant or report. (For me, E.M. Forster’s “how do I know what I think until I see what I say” is a guiding principle.) I’m particularly drawn to things that retain some of the marks of their maker (pots, clothing, food—objects, yes, but of course I’m extending this to essays) and that hold within them smudges, fingerprints, breath. The messy, the rough . . .that’s what feels most achingly human and is most compelling to me.

Last year’s contest judge, Steven Church, listed you as one of his nonfiction all-stars. Who are some of your all-star nonfiction writers and why? What about their work inspires or challenges you as a reader or writer?

Thanks, Steve! How about Witold Gombrowicz, a Polish writer—who is ruthlessly honest with and about himself and his era; Rebecca Solnit; Maggie Nelson; Phillip Lopate—powerful thinkers who write with great lucidity and curiosity; and of course Nabokov! Woolf!

What projects are you currently working on?

I’m currently working on new essays and I just finished a manuscript of poems, which shortly I’ll be bundling up and sending out into the world to make their way.

What kinds of submissions might catch your attention? Do you have any advice for writers submitting to this year’s contest?

I’m always thrilled when I have the sense that a writer is working out at the edges of his/her fingertips, and by the active working through of an idea, or stance, by the energetic search for fresh language for complex experiences. To read a writer who has been challenged, who has set him/herself a challenge (moral, philosophical, investigative, anything, really!) and has refused stale language, cliches, received forms—that’s exciting.


Read some of Sarah Fawn Montgomery's recent writing.