“Inhabiting three different landscapes at once”: An Interview with Laura Woollett

by Sarah Fawn Montgomery

Filed under: Blog |

The winner of the 2015 Summer Nonfiction contest, judged by Rigoberto González, is Laura Woollett, for her essay "Working Girl." Prairie Schooner Assistant Nonfiction Editor Sarah Fawn Montgomery asked Laura a few questions, resulting in a brief but wide-ranging discussion that touches on adolescence, brevity, Joyce Carol Oates, Vogue, The O.C., Nietzche, memory, and more. Enjoy!

Your winning essay, “Working Girl,” explores female adolescence using irony and humor to move the story beyond mere teenage angst. The piece accomplishes this task in just a few short pages. What roles did compression and brevity play in your writing process? How do they work with—or perhaps because of—the subject matter?

I approached ‘Working Girl’ as I would any short story, with the same concerns for setting, character, and momentum. The main difference was having my fifteen-year-old self as the protagonist. I think being ten years older gave me enough distance to find things in the situation that weren’t apparent at the time, including humor. Teenagers (or my teen self, at least) tend to take themselves very seriously, which is a recipe for humor as much as angst.

As for brevity, that’s something I’ve always aimed for. I read a lot of short fiction and love the way a short word count forces writers to be quick and deadly. Even my favorite novels are rarely sprawling family sagas, but skinny things like The Stepford Wives by Ira Levin or Black Water by Joyce Carol Oates. 

In his interview with Prairie Schooner, guest judge Rigoberto Gonzalez said, “I am drawn to narrators who are aware and observant about the landscapes and communities they inhabit, about the people who surround them, and who are emotionally intelligent. They also need to be flawed. This is not contradiction, this is complexity and that’s what makes a narrator believable, relatable and interesting.” How does the narrator in “Working Girl” observe her landscape? How do her flaws allow her insight? How did attention to setting and voice influence your writing process?

The narrator of ‘Working Girl’ is a middle-class Australian teen who aspires to something beyond middle-class Australia—the pages of Vogue, the beach houses of The O.C., the philosophy of Nietzsche. She’s also working in a factory and, through this job, exposed to a community that’s more blue-collar than she’s used to. I see her as inhabiting three different landscapes at once: a designer-brand fantasy world, the blunt reality of her factory, and a constantly shifting inner world through which everything is filtered.

As a teen, my narrator is marked by those contradictory impulses to blend in yet also to be somehow ‘special’. She’s aware of how her ambitions and education set her apart from the factory women, and relishes this difference, her outsider status. At the same time, she’s a keen observer of the women around her, and feels bound to them through the shared work. This is the tension of the piece, as well as its emotional center.

What about the genre of nonfiction—in this case the short essay—speaks to you? What compels you to write about truth, fact, and your own experience?

I mostly write fiction, and have never been a big believer in the ‘write what you know’ maxim. But ‘take what you know, and go somewhere new with it’ is something I can get behind. I like the way creative nonfiction allows me to give a sense of form, cohesion, and beauty to experiences that probably didn’t feel that way when I was living them. Maybe there’s something disingenuous about this kind of reshaping of memories, imposing order where there was none. Yet the stories we tell about ourselves are usually motivated by a desire for continuity between past and present, so there’s a larger truth that can’t be avoided: who I am now, writing at this moment, making this meaning. 

Another thing I love about the genre is the way it allows me to move around the world as a ‘character’, a ‘protagonist’, and to connect with strangers in this way. There’s something law-defying about this, especially since I’m more of a quiet observer in my day-to-day life. Nonfiction allows us to show that part of ourselves people don’t often see, and to be like, ‘hey, yeah, that’s me’.  

What projects are you currently working on?

I’m about to start working with an editor on my short fiction collection The Love of a Bad Man, with an aim to publish in Aug/Sept 2016. It’s a series of stories about women who have loved famous bad men, such as Eva Braun, Myra Hindley, and Wanda Barzee. The stories are informed by true crime and span from Depression-era to post-9/11 America.

On top of this, I’m deep into writing my second novel, Beautiful Revolutionary. It follows a young counterculture couple who join Peoples Temple church in 1968, all the way to the Jonestown tragedy of 1978. I spent the early part of this year in California doing research, including meeting some Jonestown survivors and family members. I’ve long suspected I’m a writer who does better with true stories and research than pure invention, so this has been a really fruitful experience for me, not to mention a formative one.

Sarah Fawn Montgomery holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from California State University-Fresno and is currently a PhD candidate in creative writing at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where she has worked as Prairie Schooner’s Nonfiction Assistant Editor for several years. She is the author of The Astronaut Checks His Watch, from Finishing Line Press. Her work has been listed as notable in Best American Essays and her poetry and prose have appeared in various magazines including Confrontation, Crab Orchard Review, DIAGRAM, Fugue, Georgetown Review, The Los Angeles Review, North Dakota Quarterly, The Pinch, Puerto del Sol, Southeast Review, Zone 3 and others.