“The moment I started this project, I fell in love with creative nonfiction.” A conversation with Allison Green
Waves slipped onto shore and slipped back. A bird took a dirt bath in a dried puddle. Arline and I listened as my words rippled into the near silence.
Thirty-odd years after reading Trout Fishing in America and living in the world Brautigan had created on the page, I’d found the place in the world where the real man had pitched his tent. I could see Brautigan sitting at the picnic table, composing the chapter about the unhappy surgeon on the typewriter he’d brought on the trip. I saw him write that line about America, “often only a place in the mind.” And it occurred to me that while I had spent my adolescence wishing I’d been born ten years earlier, old enough to be a hippie, Brautigan had wished he hadn’t missed an earlier, more pristine American wilderness. We both ached for a lost Eden, but in the end, he sat down at the picnic table and tried to make sense of the world he’d inherited: sparkling rivers, lively trout, materialistic Americans, a commodified paradise. He turned his contradictory experiences into poetry, into Trout Fishing in America. I’d followed the book all this way, into the heart of Idaho, to find that Brautigan’s paradise was not a place but an action: the making of art out of confusion.
–Excerpt from The Ghosts Who Travel With Me: A Literary Pilgrimage Through Brautigan’s America (Ooligan Press)
ANNE RASMUSSEN: Your title recalls not just Richard Brautigan’s oblique references to his wife in Trout Fishing in America (“the woman who travels with me”) but also how we carry the past with us: family stories and heirlooms, the memory of our past selves, or the history of the land itself. You bring many of these “ghosts” to life on the page: the Idaho landscape, your ancestors, your adolescent self, even Brautigan’s unnamed female companions. These memories, historical details and vignettes are interwoven throughout The Ghosts Who Travel With Me; your trip with your partner Arline through Brautigan’s Idaho provides a narrative through line. Had you always envisioned this braided structure for the book, or was it something you arrived at more gradually through writing and revision?
AG: The hardest part about writing this book was the structure. For the first draft, I got up every morning very early and used a chapter from Trout Fishing in America as a prompt. At the end of this process, I had over 40 short chapters. I then assembled and re-assembled them, trying to find the right structure. It was a member of my writing group who suggested I use the trip as the through line. Now I can’t remember why that was so hard to see, but I didn’t see it for years.
Once I was using the trip as the narrative thread, I had to figure out how to organize the other chapters. I wrote the title of each chapter on a post-it note and put it on my office wall, and then I kept moving them around. For awhile, I tried to cycle through the themes over and over, but that felt too chaotic. So now the different themes are roughly organized into sections. The editors at Ooligan suggested that one section be cut and the chapters in it moved elsewhere, which was a good idea.
It’s amazing to get to the end of the process and find that the structure feels organic. That’s the goal, of course.
AR: I’m always fascinated by the details of someone’s writing and revision process. Was the use of prompts a technique you’d used in writing your novels, or did this particular project–or the switch from fiction to creative nonfiction in general– necessitate a change in your writing practice?
AG: In 2008, I was feeling discouraged. Eight years had passed since my novel was published. I had written another novel but was having trouble finding a publisher for it. Subsequent novel attempts had never quite gelled. So as I began what I was calling the Trout project, I decided to stop worrying about the destination and just focus on the process. I wanted to enjoy the writing again—play around, invent. Using chapters as a prompt freed me to experiment. I had no particular goal for the project, just to keep writing and see what happened.
Writing from prompts was not something I did with my novels, although I always used an organic process. That is, I never outlined novels; I chose some characters and a situation and started writing. This was an approach I had learned in a novel workshop in college, and I liked it. But it sometimes meant that I spent years working on a story that never quite worked. I still don’t know what I might have done differently. I will never be the kind of writer who plans everything ahead of time.
AR: I loved the richness of these vignettes–how something as seemingly simple as food, for example, covers so much ground: historical, social, personal, political. Your grandmother’s sourdough starter spans generations and geographical boundaries, making its way from a sod house in the Dakotas to the pancakes of your childhood. You’ve got this great chapter on Hamburger Helper, the “signature dish” you prepared in your adolescence when your mother went back to school. Your mastery of meal preparation is a badge of adulthood brought about by a mass-produced flavor packet. There’s trout frying, of course—and you bring something to this chapter that Brautigan leaves out—that the glory often goes to the fisher and not the preparer of the meal who transforms this wild caught animal into nourishment (and cleans up afterward). And in an Idaho cemetery you encounter a cluster of graves—a family of six who all perished in a single fateful week in 1922 (victims of a bad canning attempt?) Food is just one of many topics you examine and tease stories out of in the book. Which scenes in Ghosts gave you the most pleasure to explore as a writer, and why? Were there particular vignettes in Trout Fishing that yielded unexpected results as you responded to them?
AG: I should just say that the Tuttle family, buried in the Cambridge, Idaho, cemetery, did die of botulism from canned spinach. It’s a fascinating story. I wish I had known about this when my grandmother was alive; she probably remembered it.
My initial title for the project was Trout Frying in America; I was playing with the idea of the female version of Brautigan’s book. That’s why there are a number of references to preparing food. These chapters tend to be more lyrical than the others, and in that way they were the most fun to write.
Writing the chapters about the scenes in and around Stanley—where we found the site where Brautigan camped—was an intense experience for me. My father, who is an anthropologist, had just published a book on the culture of U.S. death and dying, and I made all these connections between my trip to the sites of writers’ inspiration and religion. I ended up writing a separate essay about my relationship to my father, “Death of a Death Scholar.” Some of these sections came out in rush, the way good writing does when you’ve been obsessing and writing and obsessing and writing. So it’s no surprise that the chapters in Trout Fishing in America that I found most interesting were the ones that took place around Stanley.
AR: You began keeping a journal in middle school, around the same age you discovered Brautigan, so your introduction to adult literature (with sex in it!) coincides with your impulse to put words on a page. I loved the glimpse of twelve-year-old you that those early journal entries gave. You’re sorting through all this information about the adult world of love and relationships to figure out how you fit in, and you’re also trying your hand (with hilarious accuracy) at some wild Brautigan-esque metaphors in your own writing. Although you are quick to dissuade the readers of Ghosts from jumping to conclusions about your adolescent sexuality — this is not a coming out narrative — it does feel like another type of beginning: your early self-identification as a writer. Had you re-read those journals prior to digging them out for this book? What were the biggest surprises for you?
AG: Over the years, I have read my early journals occasionally, and I’m always fascinated by how I do and do not recognize my current self in them. But after starting this project, I went through them carefully, looking for Brautigan references. One thing that fascinated me was how often I mentioned Brautigan. I would have thought that other writers would have been mentioned more often. I read a lot of poetry then — Ferlinghetti, cummings, Sexton, Plath — but they are seldom referenced. Brautigan really did loom larger than any other writer in my adolescence.
I guess it surprised me, too, to remember how obsessed I was with love, even at twelve. My celebrity crushes included Starsky from “Starsky and Hutch,” Dustin Hoffman, Michael York, George Harrison. There were boys in school, of course. Early adolescence was an especially lonely time for me; I wasn’t a child but I wasn’t an adult. I lived in fantasies.
AR: Your family moved around the country a fair amount during this time as your dad found college teaching jobs and your mom returned to graduate school. You also touch a bit in the book about feeling pulled between the clashing cultures of the sixties and the seventies: “Generation Jones,” as you call it. I wonder if this loneliness — this sense of being outside of things — might be an essential part of developing a writer’s sensibility. (I was drawn to Brautigan during a particularly lonely period of my life, directly after college, when I was a stranger in a new place and desperately homesick. There’s something about his narrative voice that conveys that outsider’s sensitivity to juxtapositions and oddities in a way that felt companionable when I needed it most.) I’m curious as to what other writers have made an impression on you since adolescence. Have there been particular writers who “loomed” over your adult years as Brautigan did when you were twelve?
AG: Oh, yes. If I were to chose one other writer from my teens who was hugely significant for me, it was Doris Lessing. I read her a bit later than Brautigan—in my late teens. The Golden Notebook was also about an outsider, in this case, a woman. So I finally found the model I needed in the protagonist: a woman, a writer, politically engaged, struggling with romantic relationships. She was everything I wanted to be, even though she often despaired. I wanted that intellectual, political, romantic, and creative life. She suggested it was a hard life, but it could be done.
I encountered Virginia Woolf in college. Again, a woman, an outsider, a writer. Unconventional. Relationships with men and with at least one woman. In my thirties, I took a literary pilgrimage to London and followed Mrs. Dalloway’s walk. Originally, that journey appeared in Ghosts, but eventually it came out; it seemed to distract from the primary pilgrimage. Orlando was the book of Woolf’s I loved most. It’s the book I’ve re-read more than any other.
AR: The inspiration for this book came, by chance, from an article you came across in the New York Times proposing literary pilgrimages inspired by authors like Kerouac, Brautigan, and Burroughs. Embracing that idea you created a deeply personal book that moves seamlessly back and forth in time: a literary, geographical, political and family history rolled into one. In reflecting on the influence of Brautigan’s lyric style on your own novels, you wrote “perhaps I did not want to—or could not—write conventional novels after all. My desire to write poetic prose kept trumping my desire to tell a story.” But I wondered whether perhaps the desire that gets trumped is the desire to choose just ONE story when so many are worthy of telling. There are many layered stories in Ghosts, and your prose is hardly getting in their way. You’ve talked about shifting your focus to creative nonfiction, which may allow for more freedom in telling multiple stories and pushing boundaries of form. (I wonder if Trout Fishing in America could be published as a “novel” today.) Are you still writing both fiction and nonfiction, and do those categories feel useful to you as a writer?
AG: I haven’t written fiction for over seven years. The moment I started this project, I fell in love with creative nonfiction as a genre, and I’ve been writing it and mostly reading it ever since. Of course, fiction can tell more than one story and be formally inventive. Still, plot is the primary engine of much fiction, whereas the engines of creative nonfiction seem to be the things I’m better at: lyrical language, images, juxtaposition. In this way, creative nonfiction marries poetry with prose. Brautigan was a poet as well as a fiction writer; his poetry influences his prose much more than the other way around.
I do think the categories of fiction and nonfiction are useful, even necessary, although there is plenty of overlap. You can’t make up characters and events in nonfiction, so there is a productive tension in working with the truth as you know it.
AR: As a Brautigan fan I strongly identified with of many the issues you grappled with as an adult returning to his books. How to reconcile the way he writes about the women in his life? How to simultaneously love certain unparalleled passages while finding other cringe-worthy chapters in the same book? (I was in my early twenties when I started reading his work, but at certain points in my literary education I’ve felt the need to discount his writing—as though it was too juvenile or not worthy of serious consideration). But when I do return to his books, in spite of the cringe-worthy moments, I’m invariably struck by the humor and clarity (and melancholy) in his writing. His willingness to experiment with form still feels bold and uniquely his own. (I can always tell how comfortable I am with myself as a writer when I am willing to name him as a favorite without reflexively belittling it as a “guilty pleasure.”) When you revisited Trout Fishing in America in preparation for your trip and in thinking about this manuscript, how did it match up with what you remembered?
AG: When I first re-read Trout Fishing in America — now in my mid-forties — the sexist and racist passages leapt off the page. I simply had not seen them as sexist or racist as a teenager, so they surprised and disappointed me. Still, I knew how important that book had been to me, how important all of his work had been to me, so I began the project of using chapters as prompts in an effort to unearth that adolescent self. At that point I was more interested in what the book said about me than in what I felt about the book now. But as I began reading each chapter more closely, I started to see again what it was that had originally drawn me to his work, and the structure of the book struck me as still fresh and innovative. My understanding of craft had become more sophisticated, of course, so now I could appreciate even more what he was doing.
AR: Now that Ghosts is out in the world, do you have other literary pilgrimages or projects planned? Were there subjects that came up in the writing of Ghosts that you wanted to explore more deeply that there wasn’t room for in this particular manuscript?
AG: I am working on a memoir about my family’s experience briefly living in St. Croix, Virgin Islands, when I was a child. There is an element of travel because I went back to St. Croix to visit, 45 years after leaving. This book, like Ghosts, explores what it meant for me to grow up female in the 1960s; we were there in 1969, which was a time of change and turbulence in the V.I., just as it was in the continental U.S. This book also delves more deeply into race than Ghosts, which only touches on it; after all, my white family went to St. Croix so my father could do research for his dissertation in anthropology. So, yes, I’m still exploring identity and what it means to be born in a particular place and time.
Purchase a copy of The Ghosts Who Travel With Me here: http://latenightlibrary.org/the-ghosts-who-travel-with-me
Allison Green is the author of a memoir, The Ghosts Who Travel with Me (Ooligan Press) and a novel, Half-Moon Scar (St. Martin’s). Her essays, stories, and poems have appeared in Gettysburg Review, ZYZZYVA, Calyx, Willow Springs, Raven Chronicles, and Yes! Magazine. She lives and teaches writing in Seattle.