Allison Green is the author of a memoir, The Ghosts Who Travel with Me: A Literary Pilgrimage through Brautigan’s America (Portland OR: Ooligan Press, 2015) and a novel, Half-Moon Scar (New York NY: St. Martin’s Press, 2000). Her essays, stories, and poems have appeared in publications such as Gettysburg Review, ZYZZYVA, Calyx, Willow Springs, Raven Chronicles, and Yes! Magazine. She lives and teaches writing in Seattle and can be found at allisongreen.org
Q: In a blog post from last fall, you describe the composition of The Ghosts Who Travel with Me as “free-form responses to chapters from Richard Brautigan’s Trout Fishing in America, a book I had read and loved thirty years before.” What was it about Brautigan’s novel that prompted such a response, especially so long after you’d originally encountered it?
A: There was an article in the The New York Times about literary pilgrimages; one suggestion was to follow in Brautigan’s footsteps through Idaho. That sent me to my bookshelf to find my copy of Trout Fishing in America and re-read it. And that made me want to go to Idaho. My partner and I went to Idaho in September, and that fall I started writing.
Q: So, in terms of composition, does your memoir follow the form of “free-form responses” or as a linear progression of sites from the article in The New York Times? And was this project conceived from the beginning as a book, or did it begin more organically, as a project that propelled itself from loose idea to finished manuscript?
A: Structure was one of the hardest parts of the book. As the manuscript developed, I discovered I had several themes: my obsession with Brautigan; how I felt as an adolescent being a late baby boomer, too young to run away to Haight Ashbury; my Idaho ancestry; and my development as a writer. So now the book is organized into a series of sections with short pieces that are similar to what people are now calling “flash nonfiction.” The trip through Idaho is a narrative thread that holds these disparate pieces together. So there is a structure, but it’s not linear. The structure is a bit of an homage to Trout Fishing in America, which does have an arc but certainly isn’t linear.
When I began, I had no idea these pieces would become a book. I was just enjoying the writing.
Q: After the initial inspiration to compose a memoir around a Richard Brautigan pilgrimage, what made you decide not to seek inspiration or influence from any of his other works?
A: When I was in high school, I bought and read every Brautigan book I could find. After college, I spent about a decade moving around the country, and gradually I jettisoned most of my books. By the time I moved back to Seattle, the only Brautigan book I had left was Trout Fishing in America. So as I started writing this project, I was most interested in what this one book symbolized for me. The only other one I went back to was In Watermelon Sugar because that was the first Brautigan book I read. There is a chapter on that in The Ghosts Who Travel with Me. My intention wasn’t to revisit all of his work, although certainly I was influenced by more than just Trout and Watermelon Sugar; I loved his poems, too.
Q: What is it about Brautigan’s work that compels you, even after all this time? And how has his work influenced your other writing?
A: Ah, this is a major topic of the book. There are many things that I still find compelling about Brautigan’s writing, but one is how contemporary it feels in form and structure. Many writers today are interested in hybrid forms, forms that straddle fiction/nonfiction, poetry/prose. Brautigan was doing that many years ago. Trout is prose but it’s highly poetic; it’s a novel but it’s nothing like any other novel. I have always been more interested in language than in plot, and I think that’s why I gravitated over time from fiction to creative nonfiction. Reading his work when I was young and just starting to write helped me appreciate the potential beauty of the sentence.
Q: How does this interest in language over plot manifest itself in your other writing, if at all? And how successful do you feel you’ve been through your explorations of language and the sentence?
A: As I said, I’ve moved from fiction to creative nonfiction, which has structure but doesn’t necessarily have plot. One example would be my short essay “At Fifty,” which appears on my blog and in the anthology Outer Voices, Inner Lives. This essay tells stories from my life and my friends’ lives in first person plural (“we”). As I was writing it, the sounds and rhythms of sentences were paramount. I want my writing to work well read aloud, and this essay does. For example, repetition and alliteration are used to evoke emotion; the last few sentences are a good example of that.
As for how successful I’ve been, I guess I’ll leave that to readers. For me, it’s an ongoing process.
Q: Your author biography references a number of short stories and poems published in a variety of journals. Is your work in poetry and fiction behind you, then, as you focus more on non-fiction? What do you feel non-fiction allows that poetry and fiction didn’t?
A: I don’t know if poetry and fiction are entirely behind me, but the more I write creative nonfiction, the more I’m curious to see where it takes me. My creative nonfiction ranges from flash nonfiction (very short essays) to more conventional essays to book-length memoir. I have come to feel that creative nonfiction is something like form poetry. When you’re writing a sonnet, you’re forced to stay within the confines of a structure, but that structure is unexpectedly freeing. Similarly, creative nonfiction requires you to stick to the truth, or at least your truth, about what happened. That constraint feels freeing to me. Fiction feels too wide open; I have always struggled with how to handle the infinite options available in a story or novel.
I have never concentrated full-time on poetry, although I have written poetry and had some published. Poetry is very compressed, of course, and the lyric essay is a kind of poetry, but it’s a bit looser, and for some reason I like the space to breathe a little more.
I also think there’s a productive anxiety for me when writing creative nonfiction because I’m putting my life on the page. I have to allow myself to be vulnerable, to explore things that have evoked strong feelings. That prompts interesting writing. Of course, poets and fiction writers also explore things that evoke strong feelings, but there is some protection behind the narrator or persona.
Q: What other authors have influenced your work, and the ways in which you think about writing?
A: The first book of essays that I loved was Bernard Cooper’s Maps to Anywhere, which I probably read in the early 1990s, long before I started writing essays myself. I was struck by how lyrical and yet accessible his essays were, and how he could take almost any topic – quotidian or monumental – and make it interesting.
Since then I have closely read memoirs that don’t take the usual, linear approach, books like Elissa Washuta’s My Body is a Book of Rules and Deborah Miranda’s Bad Indians. They experiment with structure to weave disparate topics together, which feels more organic to me than the traditional narrative.
My favorite fiction writer is Margaret Atwood, and I know I owe some of my style to her wry, feminist sensibility. I took the famous “dangerous writing” workshop from Tom Spanbauer, author of The Man Who Fell in Love with the Moon, among other books. His insistence that we make ourselves explore the topics that feel most dangerous to us was influential on me and one reason I haven’t shied away from exploring race and gender.
Two of my favorite poets are Martín Espada and Marilyn Hacker. Again, these are writers whose work is accessible on a first reading yet who inspire multiple re-readings, and they are both fully engaged in political issues.
Q: What have you been working on since the completion of The Ghosts Who Travel with Me? What might come next?
A: I’m working on a memoir about my family’s experiences living in St. Croix, Virgin Islands when I was a child. It describes a pivotal experience in my family’s life, when, not long after we moved to St. Croix so my father could do research for his anthropology dissertation, someone broke into our house at night, threw rocks at my head, and fractured my skull. My mother, brother, and I left St. Croix soon after to live with my grandparents in Spokane while my father spent almost two more years there.
This story has been an important part of our family lore ever since. As I grew up, I explored it in writing in various ways, and eventually I became most interested in it as exemplifying the ways middle-class whites confront their racial and class positions in the face of historic and ongoing oppression against people of color. Eventually, my partner and I visited St. Croix; I hadn’t been there in 45 years. I’m hoping to finish the memoir by the end of this summer.
Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa with his brilliantly talented wife, the poet, editor and bookbinder Christine McNair, and their daughter, Rose. rob is the author of nearly thirty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction. You can find rob here and here.