profiles in linguistics: Elizabeth Rollins

Elizabeth Frankie Rollins

Websites: www.madamekaramazov.com

http://www.queensferrypress.com/

Women writers?: “They are cracking it open.  They are smashing shit up.  They are reinventing.  They are rebirthing.  They are designing, questioning, shaping, intuiting.  They are saying yes, and saying no and saying “how about this?” They are calling people on it.  They are offering.  They are hurling it out. They are culling and rejecting and casting and spinning and cooking anew.  My gratitude is boundless.”

What are the stories that form our souls? Are these dreamscapes, are these our professions eliciting environmental circumstance. Are we shaped by our experience, our internal dialogue, how do we heal? We accept every part of ourselves and nurture those that need a soft balance, those that need a kick in the ass, and those that need someone to listen; an eclectic ear that allows for the music which is our soul, our song, our story. We participate as “other”, we create, we share, and we love. Elizabeth Rollins is a writer that gives homage to our world. In the pacing of the syntax of a line captures the myth, the dream, the story of a soul. She describes, “I am saying that we grow our souls as we live.  They aren’t written on until we live and create a narrative in the world … The different structures we choose for our lives.  The different points of view that we choose, the different protagonists.  The focus.  The pacing.  Those who build tension.  Those who live in abstraction.” 

The science of ourselves is intertwined in the chemical and cellular highways of our memory and identity. Neural circuitry and chemical extractions empower self-expression that redirects these pathways. We are left with sensory dreams that enable us to share self; environment, relationships, memory, experience, disassembled fractures of flexible heterogeneous translations. Desire and experience leave residues in our conscious and sub-conscious perceptions of self. Rollins continues, “As for ‘What could be better than a story without ending?’ This refers to us.  To now.  To all of it.  Everything is story.  The great human story.  We simply stop. Drop dead, or lose our minds, or fall out of memory.  But the story does not end.”

Elizabeth Frankie Rollins’ collection of stories, The Sin Eater and Other Stories, is forthcoming from Queen’s Ferry Press, early 2013. She has previously published work in Drunken BoatConjunctions, Green Mountains Review, Trickhouse, The New England Review, and The Cincinnati Review, among others. Author of The Sin Eater, Corvid Press, she’s previously received a New Jersey Prose Fellowship and a Special Mention in the Pushcart Prize Anthology. She teaches writing at Pima Community College, and the University of Arizona Poetry Center, and she is on the board at Casa Libre en la Solana. Samples of her work can be found here: www.madamekaramazov.com

1.)   What were the first inspirations that made you desire to become a writer? Who are your favorite writers and how did they change over time?

Even when I was young, I was crazy for novels.  There was something from the library about a gunslinger named Maggie that I read and re-read.  Then there was Brothers Lionheart, by Astrid Lindgren (of Pippi Longstocking brilliance), which is a hero’s journey book where brothers die and live an entirely new existence in another world. (An early fascination with death and rebirth, which has turned out to be constant.) Then I was in love with Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, and in fact, read this book once every year for six or seven years.  (Another death and rebirth story.) As I got older, I loved Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse with its miraculous stream of consciousness, and conversely, Raymond Carver’s clarity and stark honesty in What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. I heard Toni Morrison read the first pages of Beloved at a reading and there was symbol.  I took a Russian Lit class in college and fell for Fyodor Dostoevsky’s work, particularly, The Brothers Karamazov. Dostoevsky’s ability to reel and spin a story, to dip in and out of multiple consciousnesses, to combine the utter pathos with the utter hilarity of humans, all of this spoke to me marrow-style. My alter ego is Madame Frankie Karamazov.  I like to say that I’m the other half of the fourth half- brother.  Smerdyakov is the wretched half, and I’m the magnanimous half.

2.)   Who have been the creative inspiration / mentor writers in your career?

Rebecca Brown was a grad school mentor. Her writing taught me the absolution of clarity.  She taught me to recognize and honor voice, to shed false lines, to read my own work with honest eyes. She also taught me how to teach authentically. My undergraduate teacher, Robert Day, Jr, was a cowboy in a very traditional East coast school.  He arrived to a classroom in boots, sans handouts, and taught us to converse, sincerely, about the work we read.   I have contemporary authors as teachers, too. Selah Saterstrom’s capacity for absences/leaving things unsaid in her work, Madeline Shuh-Lien Bynum for atmosphere, Angela Carter for freedom, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Jose Saramago, Jorge Borges, and Aimee Bender for magic, Akilah Oliver for translation of emotion, Cormac McCarthy for soliloquy and landscape, Don Delillo for the weaving of theme.  Virginia Woolf. Margaret Atwood. Rikki Ducornet.  Brian Evenson. Laird Hunt.  Leo Tolstoy. Kate Greenstreet, Jane Kenyon, Joseph Campbell, Carl Jung. Dostoevsky. I’m having trouble narrowing it down.

3.)   How has your own work changed over time and why?

My first collection of short stories is based in modern life, but the stories almost always moved into magic and metaphor.  These pieces came out of my own struggle to come to terms with the expectations of a woman in modernity and my inability to fulfill these because of my art and my desire for an innovative life. 

Since then, my work has grown broader, more mythical, more philosophical, addressing larger themes. I want to illustrate the eternal same-nesses, the archetypes and archetypal situations, in human life throughout time.  I am always hoping that this understanding will create deeper compassion and understanding among people.  My first novel, Origin, takes place 1710-1750 or so, and explores humanity through the birth of an island, its first settlement, and the life of its firstborn child.  This book invents a mythical place for the study of the basic needs, desires, failures and beauties of humanity.  There’s magic realism, a Greek chorus of descendants bickering over the story, and of course, death and rebirth.  It’s a crucible for all human beauty and human ugliness. (Installments are posted here: www.madamekaramazov/origin.com). 

My second novel, Doctor Porchiat’s Dream, furthers a study of storytelling.  Here, I’m exploring the parallels between narrative and the soul.  In an unnamed European village in 1820 or so, a woman falls into a well and no body is ever found.  Through different narrative threads, I tell the stories of those who were affected the most by this vanishing, or the story of this vanishing.  My favorite part of this book is when the story itself speaks.  Now I’m working on a more traditional novel, one that studies the mirrors of sorrow in war, epidemic, and broken landscapes.

4.)   Have you been influenced by different genres, and if so how?

I am a sentence maker, although my sentences tend to be lyrical. I read poetry when I’m stuck in prose.  Poetry and jazz are ways out of stillness for me.  

5.)   What are your plans for the future?

I tore my calf six weeks ago.  I am re-learning grace.

Also, drafting the new manuscript that takes place in 1916 Tucson, WWI-era France, and Philadelphia during the Spanish Flu epidemic.  Finding the connections between unmapped, wilderness types of human experience.

As mentioned previously, my story collection will be released in the spring, so I’m looking forward to traveling and seeing friends and giving readings with other writers.

6.)   What are your views on writing by women as it has occurred in the past twenty years?

They are cracking it open.  They are smashing shit up.  They are reinventing.  They are rebirthing.  They are designing, questioning, shaping, intuiting.  They are saying yes, and saying no and saying “how about this?” They are calling people on it.  They are offering.  They are hurling it out. They are culling and rejecting and casting and spinning and cooking anew.  My gratitude is boundless.

7.)   Who are promising women writers to look at in the future?

Dawn Paul, Christine Simokaitis, Marilyn McLatchey, Amaranth Borusk, Johanna Skibsrud, Danielle Vogel, Lisa O’Neill, Julia Gordon, Deborah Poe, Lisa Birman, Kristen Nelson, Selah Saterstrom, Renee Angle. I could go on for days.  I’m forgetting people.

8.)   If you were asked to create a flexible label of yourself as a writer, what would it be?

A therapist once told me that balance is vital in a life, and that writing isn’t everything, not even half of everything.  The only time I ever lied in therapy was when I pretended to agree with her.  My friends often note this about me.  How relentless, how dogged, how devoted, how completely I am a writer.  It’s how I do.  Nothing flexible about it.

10.) The soul needs improvisation. In your novel Doctor Porchiat’s Dream, as readers, we are asked to question where the soul is located. We cannot find it scientifically. We cannot see it, hear it, touch it, but we can tell stories about it. “Doctor Porchiat’s Dream,” tangentially pulls us through the death of three women. One disappears in a well, a young girl is killed by a horse, and a scientist asks her colleague to perform an autopsy in quest for the soul. Is the soul a story?

Yes.  Yes.  The soul is a story.  That is exactly the point. Even though each of these three women dies in the story (or vanishes), she lives on, or takes breath, each time someone reads her, hears her told, or speaks of her.  This is life. I think we are narrative at our most basic living. I believe narrative creates us.  A child is born.  The story of the birth begins her.  The story of her parents/or lack of parents shapes her.  The story of her DNA shapes her.  The story of her feeding patterns, sleeping patterns, of the world at the time when she’s born, all of this becomes part of her.  It grows and grows and grows with each step and experience lived and told. In this concept, I suppose I am saying that we grow our souls as we live.  They aren’t written on until we live and create a narrative in the world.  You create a story about who you are, all the varieties of who you are, and how you move through those varieties, until you die. And for awhile after, other people tell those stories of you. 

And there’s more.  The different structures we choose for our lives.  The different points of view that we choose, the different protagonists.  The focus.  The pacing.  Those who build tension.  Those who live in abstraction.  There’s a lot to think about.

8.) In this taking apart of negotiation of bodies, we attempt to find the soul, and in our attempt we find shapes, in love maybe, or in nothingness. This figurative and literal dissection in the story is described in the calligraphy of exchange: The village and the woman in the well, the young girl and her doctor, the doctor, the colleague, and her lover.  And amidst these conversations cascading we listen to the doctor.

In the dream I found it, tucked away behind the heart.  The soul.  I knew I’d never seen anything like it before.  I snipped it free from the small web of arteries, washed it clean of blood, and set it in an enamel bowl.   It was tiny, parchment colored, yellow-clear, and gilled, little shutters on either side

The soul is found. Can you elaborate your decision to use women’s bodies to explore these notions of intimacy, love, and the shape of the soul? How does this interplay with your statement at the beginning of the story with the missing body of the women in the well: “what could be better than a story without an ending”?

Women’s bodies are culturally, biologically, and historically symbols of fertility and possibility.  They seemed the natural symbol for this story that places spirituality in the realm of the physical.  This book came out of a dream, initially, about a village where all the girls were born with twelve souls each.  How each used her souls shaped who she was.  Whether bitter or hard or gentle or wise.  Ultimately, this was way too binary, the women were all layered and men were all one-dimensional.  I don’t believe this for a second and couldn’t write a book like this.  In fact, this Doctor Porchiat character showed up and clearly had many souls himself.  It took almost a year to let the book retell itself, to reveal what it really was about.  Narrative=soul.

As for “What could be better than a story without ending?” This refers to us.  To now.  To all of it.  Everything is story.  The great human story.  We simply stop. Drop dead, or lose our minds, or fall out of memory.  But the story does not end.  Not yet.  All apocalypse books imagine the story going on AFTER the apocalypse.  We can’t even imagine the end of the world without more story.

9.)   There are differing thoughts and opinions on the ideas of dreams and clarity. At times the closer we encounter clarity, the smoother the disposition towards a language that loses its name. We reach closer towards meaning and find our failure. This happens in the dialogue of things. You can’t tear dreams that form within you. The creation of this space of self is in itself a sort of dream as is delineated in your work. How do you believe language interacts in this space of soul and dream and how does clarity for you move within this space?

A life is a story is a soul is a dream.  They are equivalent to me.  How murky or how clear depends on each telling, depends on the teller.  Language is the “body” of the narrative/soul.  The parchment color of the physical soul I imagine in Doctor Porchiat’s Dream might represent the paper on which the story is written.  The patterns of written lines are in the shutters, the black and white patterns that gills or shutters make.  This implies that I think writing is everything (see conversation with therapist), but I should be clear that I think narrative, whether told, written, drawn, photographed, painted, danced, however made, is everything.

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