Author Interview: Sarah Perry ’04 and Andrea Applebee ’06 on becoming writers

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Authors Sarah Perry ’04 and Andrea Applebee ’06 revisited Davidson as part of the English Department’s Literary Series to read from their work, meet with students and faculty, discuss their craft and reflect on this formative place.

Perry published her memoir, After the Eclipse, in September to praise in publications including the New York Times. Described by the Times review as mystery and elegy, Perry reconstructs life before her mother’s homicide in 1994 and during the 12 ensuing years leading to the killer’s capture and conviction. Perry earned an M.F.A. in nonfiction from Columbia University, where she served as publisher of Columbia: A Journal of Literature and Art. She is the recipient of a writers’ fellowship from the Edward F. Albee Foundation and a Javits Fellowship from the U.S. Department of Education. Perry grew up in Maine and lives in New York.

Applebee is a poet, editor and art writer who began experiencing vision loss at age five and lives with near blindness. Her first collection of poems, Aletheia, was published in August. Applebee relocated to Athens, Greece, from the United States in 2016 with her guide dog, Mercy. There, she works as a freelance writing coach, and collaborates to lead a writing workshop for refugees and migrants. Applebee earned her M.F.A. in nonfiction and a certificate in rhetoric and composition from the University of Pittsburgh. She has held teaching positions at the University of Pennsylvania and Duke University. She currently serves as an editor at Tupelo Quarterly.

Here, Perry and Applebee discuss creative license, the personal and political, and work yet to be done with Professor and Chair of English Shireen Campbell and Douglas C. Houchens Professor of English Alan Michael Parker.

On Education

Sarah Perry

Sarah Perry ’04

Shireen: You’ve both done graduate work, spent time writing into the writers you currently are, but how do other experiences, for instance a liberal arts education, bear upon the work you’ve done so far?

Andrea: If I hadn’t left South Carolina and the system of values I was raised in there and come to a liberal arts college, I would never have come close to doing anything creative. An institution that welcomes “nonprofessional” effort was important to me. The other big life experience I had here was travel—it really changed everything for me. I started exploring from a place of safety and encouragement. That support was financial and conceptual. Those are really big influences on my life and shaped my possibilities—this move to Greece wouldn’t have happened had I not studied abroad.

(At Davidson, Applebee studied in Cambridge and in India through a Dean Rusk grant, and participated in the classics trip).

Shireen: I mentioned to Zoran [Professor Zoran Kuzmanovich] that you said when you came to Davidson you were pretty shy, and he said, “What are you talking about? She’s fearless!”

Alan Michael: What’s been the weirdest part of coming back?

Andrea: Coming back in this context, with the book and being treated with such gracefulness… realizing what a huge part of my life this has been. It was four years out of 32. I didn’t have any intention to come back.

Sarah: Being here and feeling this comfortable and confident is very strange to me. I had a problematic relationship with Davidson (that was both internal and external). I look back and I didn’t take any creative writing classes because I didn’t think I was cool enough, and now to be engaging with the literary community at Davidson as a person with a book, and with a faculty member who is younger than me… I think now maybe I would want to come here and teach.

I will tell people I went to school at Davidson, and I’ll say it’s like Bowdoin, but more conservative. Still, it [being at Davidson]burned out a lot of bullshit class warriorism I had, and it did me good to interact with [different]people. That’s what most surprised me about living in New York—people’s provincialism about the south.

Andrea: To be southern… for me that means a lot about language, a lot about pacing. Still, with many cuts, some things about values. It means a lot about weather. Mostly cultural stuff—friendliness, slowness, resistance to change.

Alan Michael: Sounds a lot like Greece.

Andrea: I feel quite at home in Greece—much more than I did living in the northeast.

Sarah, can I ask you a question? Can you tell me more about your political momentum, violence against women, as it’s developing for you as a political mission?

Sarah: There is an argument, especially if the book maintains the momentum it has had, that I could have a platform to make a difference. I published an op-ed in The Guardian about OJ Simpson because Nicole Brown was murdered a month after mom, and it’s in the book… there was way more of it in the book [initially].

I’ve been thinking about how problematic true crime entertainment is. Writing the op-ed was satisfying, but really not fun for me. I had to do research and read more about OJ, and of course you come across gruesome pictures of Nicole everywhere—I don’t know how much more of this work I’d want to be doing; on the other hand, I feel I can handle it, I’m well positioned, and have the skills… part of me wants to follow you to Greece and write a lyric novel… I’ve been working on this essay about why we’re so fascinated with true crime narratives—I came across this figure that shows the consumers of this stuff are mostly young women. My peers. It’s fascinating to me. Ultimately, it feels like one of those “you don’t get to pick your subject as a writer” questions.

Andrea, how did you come to Greece?

Andrea: I fell in love with Greece on the classics trip here and went back every five years. I left a 10-year abusive relationship and wanted a fresh start. I was tired of being treated poorly as an adjunct professor, and Greece was very affordable. I wanted to be in a different culture, environment, start a new life, and to do that in a place without the gentrification you see in American cities. I was kind of running away, but Greece was the haven in my mind. It’s been an amazing year-and-a-half of building community and new kinds of work and new ways of being.

Shireen: Language is tangible and embodied in your work. How does that play out for you in your work with refugees?

Andrea: I teach a workshop that’s open to all kinds of people at all stages of their time in Greece. They are from all over the place—the Middle East, Africa. My co-counselor is Greek, so we teach the class in English and Greek and we encourage them [students]to write in their language. My co-teacher translates when they read in Greek. There’s another side to thinking of language in its embodied form—that it could be put to use. I loved that about teaching, but I didn’t experience it to that degree [in America]… watching language do hard work.

Shireen: You can get a meaning without complete comprehension.

Andrea: Yes—it’s further given me confidence that there’s nothing precious about a poem. It’s a vehicle, plastic.

Alan Michael: If someone said you were a political poet—this book is a political book—how would you respond to that?

Andrea Applebee

Andrea Applebee ’06

Andrea: I’ve never voted, and that statement will cause people to attack. I’ve come up with a response—it’s a political act for me to walk down the street. My position as a woman with visual loss is a matter of survival—absolutely I’m a political poet and person, but maybe not in the way I used to imagine. I never read the news so much as in the past year.

Sarah: It’s important to identify whatever work we can be doing.

Shireen: Part of the work we try to do here is create communities of listening. Yesterday [at Perry and Applebee’s reading]we gathered to listen—not to shout at each other.

Sarah: Anything that encourages any scrap of critical thought in any human right now is important work.

Finding Your Voice/Genres

Andrea: I starting studying nonfiction and thought it was what I wanted to do… it took me a while to allow myself to be directed toward poetry—poetry is a very permissive genre because it doesn’t automatically trigger the same speculation that nonfiction might in its relationship to actuality.

I almost imagine myself writing nonfiction poetry (documentary poetry). The attachment to poetry is mostly for permission. The ideas I was encountering in nonfiction were stifling—expectations about form, the way the story should be told when it relates to actual experience. I wasn’t relating to those structures, and I have many ideas about the way poetry can be prosaic and nonfiction is poetic.

They told me [in workshop]that I should go talk to the poets… and the poets said I didn’t belong with them and should try fiction.

Sarah: Fiction would feel off in left field to me. You’re working with and arranging the things in the world [with nonfiction and poetry].

Alan Michael: Your suppositions about fiction are so wrong.

Andrea: Her supposition posits a world, and that world is complete.

Alan Michael: Positing of a world is implied in a poem.

Shireen: …not creating the entire universe in which the story resides.

Andrea: You have to be very developed in your imagination and skill to create a world. I think of it [writing]almost like sports—you have an inclination toward something.

Sarah: I had a feeling I would write a memoir and learn from it how to write a book. The stuff is out there to be found with nonfiction. I’m not more prepared to write a novel now.

Alan Michael: I think it’s a charming thought of yours. You get deep into the language as world and the narrative emerges. I’m increasingly suspicious of genre bashing.

Shireen Campbell

Prof. Shireen Campbell

Shireen: You [Sarah] were engaged in a process of discovery—you wanted to understand and learn about your mother and share your own journey across time…. There was a given that you were working from. With fiction, you have to construct the given from which you proceed.

Alan Michael: Narrator—is me and not me. There’s some negotiation between self and other.

Sarah: I put the novel at the top. Once I write a novel I’ll be a real writer…

Alan Michael: Or you’re just a capitalist lackey.

Shireen: Poetry is often held to be the highest form…

Alan Michael: You can’t sell out because no one is buying.

Andrea: It’s like being a monk. I shied away from writing anything I might identify as being poetic because of poetry’s reputation of being elite. That stigma is still in my mind. It’s very embedded in our training.

Sarah: Poetry can be so technical, too. There’s real stuff you can learn.

Alan Michael: Did you feel that way about your study in graduate school?

Sarah: Columbia [University] is a very strong program because the classes you’re taking are not in the English department. There’s value in deeply reading so much work, and being exposed to work that isn’t perfected yet. Writing as a whole didn’t feel like such a tall, unclimbable mountain. If you are well read, and everything you’ve read is at the highest level, it’s hard to think you might be able to replicate that.

In non-fiction you can go in so many different directions. Memoir, journalism—you can do a wide variety of work.

Shireen: One of the marks of professionalization is a degree of specialized vocabulary—when a discipline is trying to prove itself, it develops specialized vocabulary. How do you justify the cost of admission?

Sarah: We never used the term “inciting incident” in workshop. We stayed much more specific to the piece and the happenings and characters in the piece. Things were operating more personally and intuitively.

Alan Michael: How would you teach it?

Sarah: My overarching principal of running the workshop would be you want to take the piece and make it more what you want it to be. You’re learning how to read those around you. As you get to know who they are on the page, you get to know how they’re reading you.

Andrea: What was happening were the old entrenched ideas of nonfiction were fairly stale but still established—it’s a hardworking genre, pitchable, paced with all of those things in mind.

Extremely dense work has no clear message or lesson, no clear resolution, so it doesn’t have a lot of space in the conventional stage of nonfiction (or let’s say in the training stages—taught in a linear model). I was very unwilling to change my approach—I was unwilling to experiment with those conventions.

Alan Michael: You could also say you’ve been word drunk as long as we’ve known you. You needed to find the architecture to accommodate that.

Andrea: Materiality and music of language are a big part of what makes it appealing—but I’m less interested in that [now]than I was when I was beginning my craft.

Success & Privacy

Alan Michael Parker

Prof. Alan Michael Parker

Sarah: The process of launching this book has felt like everything to the nth degree—I don’t have a problem with personal information being out there for the world, though I recognize most people would. It was really important to me to make this story useful to others. That’s the pressure I put on myself—I didn’t do it to get sympathy, make myself look good, or expose myself needlessly. I feel very comfortable having put that pressure on myself. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t create social weirdness sometimes. Friends, family have read this—people know all of this about me. I’ve wiped out any of the “getting to know you” conversation.

Shireen: I would argue that the deeply personal story you share, your journey moving forward in time from that night—you are subject but you’re not subject—the focus isn’t completely on the suffering subject, you’re curious about how A and B connect to C. There’s still a core of privacy—you are a person in multiple dimensions.

Sarah: I think that goes back to conflating the persona on the page with me. The parts [in the memoir]about my Davidson experience aren’t the most positive, but there’s not room in the story for every facet of everything.

Alan Michael: Early in the project, before it became something that looks like After the Eclipse, you were talking about writing it through reading.

Sarah: Can I talk about my professional David Shields jealousy? I thought I’d be the filter and trap all these words and arrange them… Columbia nonfiction is not particularly friendly to blurring fiction and non-fiction. That’s the artist and writer I wanted to be, but it became clear to me early on that this particular book wanted to be journalistically verifiable. Part of that was wanting to be very careful about not further sensationalizing an already sensational story. And I wanted to be clear about what had happened and what had not—I didn’t want anybody to think I had exaggerated these details.

A lot of reality aligned very neatly with the argument I’m making about gender-based violenc— that everyday misogyny and horrific acts like rape and murder exist on a continuous spectrum. On a more personal note, I wanted to make a portrait of my mother as she actually was.

 

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About Author

Lisa A. Patterson

Lisa Patterson is editor of the Davidson Journal. She earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism at Ohio University, and holds master’s degrees in English and public health.

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