There are infinite definitions of what it is to be a writer. Susan Sontag, recipient of the Peace Prize for the German Book Trade, branded these words in the minds of her audience, “A writer, I think, is someone who pays attention to the world.” After talking to Adrienne about finding the subtle beauty in dilapidation, and about how a nostalgia for her hometown of Cheyenne, WY informs the settings in many of her stories, I believe that she is indeed a writer in this very sense of the word.
Kristina Rose: The beloved children’s book by Dr. Seuss, Green Eggs and Ham, suggests that green eggs and ham could be eaten anywhere, at anytime. But most writers don't feel that the same can be said for writing. All writers develop a preference for where and when they write. What is yours?
Adrienne Perry: I’ve become less fancy about this over time. I find myself satisfied, or seeking satisfaction, by any little bit of writing I’m able to do, and I’ll write just about anywhere. When it comes to my writing practice, it’s so easy to make excuses that being particular about where I write is a recipe for disaster. Sometimes noisy cafes are the thing, or writing with other people, or at my kitchen table. If I had my druthers, I would probably drive my car out to a cemetery or a place with interesting things to look at--for me interesting means somewhat rundown, perhaps a smashup of nature and the industrial--more regularly and just sit in the car and write about what I see.
KR: I understand that you are currently working on your first novel. Could you tell us a bit about your novel's protagonist and why you feel compelled to explore her story?
AP: A few years ago, I read Antigone for the first time and was compelled by the idea of not being able to bury one’s beloveds. More specifically, what happens when “the state” tells us how we must treat death, dying, and burial? Around this time, the character Dee came to me. She’s a black girl in her late teens, living in rural Wyoming with her mother, father, and younger brother Ebo. A flu epidemic hits, Ebo gets sick, and Dee and her family (mostly Dee) wrestle with what to do. Dee’s character and images of the landscape asserted themselves, so I went with them, but I was also compelled to write about black folks in rural Wyoming, family history, and the relationships of the characters have with the land.
KR: How long have you been the editor at Gulf Coast and what do you enjoy most about the position?
AP: I’ve been Editor at Gulf Coast for nearly a year and it is an incredible blessing. There are so many facets of this work that are enjoyable and challenging and worthwhile. What do I enjoy most? I love our staff and the artists and writers we work with. I’m continually humbled by the soulfulness, generosity, and insight everyone brings to this work. So, being with people, working with my colleagues to see the journal come together in print and online, is a particular pleasure.
KR: Gulf Coast has set itself apart from other literary journals by incorporating considerable amount of visual art as well as critical art writing into the publication. What has inspired this new direction?
AP: Gulf Coast has a long history of incorporating art and art writing into the journal, but our merger with Art Lies--a much beloved Texas art magazine--two years ago marks the start of a new era. We now have two color folios devoted to artists and up to another 24 pages of critical art writing. We also have two Art Lies editors who oversee the art content and with whom we work closely. You ask about inspiration. Many of the editors and writers who have worked on or contributed to the journal over time are deeply invested in visual art and see the need, as do we, of bringing artistic disciplines into conversation with one another.
KR: Writespace is delighted to have you host its upcoming Writers of Color Workshop. What is the importance of the workshop and what prompted you to want to lead it?
AP: A few years ago, I became a Kimbilio Fellow. Similar to the way Cave Canem provides fellowships, summer workshops, and support for black and African American poets, so does Kimbilio support black fiction writers. I’d heard from friends who were Cave Canem or Kundiman fellows, or those who attended VONA and Hurston Wright, that their workshop experiences with other writers of color were life changing for them and their writing. After attending Kimbilio, I can say I had the same experience and wanted to offer something like it in Houston. Though “writers of color,” and indeed any identity, is heterogenous, workshops for writers of color benefit from this common bond: most of the time, we are one of the only, if not the only, writers of color in the workshop space. Speaking from my own experience, when that equation is flipped, it allows for a profoundly generous, on-one’s-own-terms engagement with the work.
KR: How will the workshop be structured, and what do you hope it will impart into the literary lives of its attendees?
AP: This is a hybrid workshop for poets and prose writers, and I think this hybridity is something we’ll all benefit from. In terms of structure week to week, we’ll divide our time between workshopping each other’s pieces, reading and discussion of other writers, and writing exercises designed to get us warmed up and give us tools to use in our writing practice between workshops and when the workshop is over. There will be special guests who come to share their writing and experience, but I am also leaving part of the structure intentionally open so that we can, as a workshop, figure out our needs and make sure those are met.
KR: Who are your favorite minority writers, and what are your favorites of their works? How have these authors influenced your own writing?
AP: There’s a long list, but I find myself inspired by James Baldwin (collected essays, Giovanni’s Room, short stories), Toni Morrison (Beloved, The Bluest Eye, Tar Baby), Claudia Rankine (Citizen), Lesli Marmon Silko (Ceremony), lê thị diễm thúy (The Gangster We’re All Looking For), Toi Dericotte (Black Notebooks and poems), Jhumpa Lahiri (Interpreter of Maladies), the poet Mahmoud Darwish, particularly Fady Joudah’s translations. The beauty and risk-taking in these authors’ works made and makes me want to write. I see the gestures they make toward the world and I want to make similar ones, to see words of import, honesty, and double-sided beauty come together to make someone feel something they otherwise wouldn’t have.
KR: In addition to hosting the upcoming Writers of Color Workshop, you also just taught a workshop at Writespace entitled "Setting: Using Place to Your Advantage." How has your early life in Cheyenne, Wyoming helped you learn to develop your stories' settings?
AP: I believe very deeply that my sensibilities as a person and as an artist have been shaped by growing up in Cheyenne and the Rocky Mountain West. With a population of 50,000, Cheyenne is one of Wyoming’s largest cities, but it is also a place where antelope graze in the cemetery. A five-minute drive outside of town landed you in grasslands when I was a kid. Now, despite strips of big box stores and chain restaurants, it still has some of the most stunning sunsets I’ve ever seen. Cloudscapes that have imprinted themselves on my psyche. As an artist, I work with words, and I try to put them together in such a way as to fashion this landscape, to make it visual and real for the reader.
KR: What is the biggest personal breakthrough or the greatest lesson you have learned so far in your writing career?
AP: The gap between the work I envision creating, the work that feels most urgent to me, and the skills I (now) have to realize--that gap feels as big as the Grand Canyon. I experience any lessening of that gap as a breakthrough. I am pleased that as time moves forward I become more and more generous and daring as a writer.
KR: If you could use just one word to describe what the writing process is to you, what would it be?
KR: Would you mind sharing a quote with us--perhaps one that you try to live by?
AP: Progress not perfection.