Lidia Yuknavitch’s writing is a sizzle wire. Her fierce prose will jumpstart your heart and electrify your brain — and that's just how the writer wants it. Her memoir The Chronology of Water was an explosive hit, and her new novel, The Small Backs of Children, out Tuesday, is a provocative and thrilling jolt of a book.
The Small Backs of Children ultimately fuels the idea that art is everything. After a photograph of a young girl caught in the violence of war becomes an icon, a group of artist friends set out to rescue the girl and bring her to the United States, hoping her presence will save the seriously depressed writer friend of the photographer who has suffered her own tragedy. We are drawn in by the rich story, and then as it unfolds, called on to question what is genuine versus imagined. What is actually meaningful? What is perverse?
Yuknavitch is a much-watched figure in the literary community, and has written several books. She is a writing warrior. An inspiration to writers and readers alike, Yuknavitch answered my questions about how to not just survive but thrive as a writer and in a writer’s life. Here's her personal survival kit — you'll want to borrow heavily. (And she's A-OK with that.)
BUSTLE: What does a writer need to survive the arduous process of writing her first book?
LIDIA YUKNAVITCH: My first book was a quarter century ago… but I’d say this: Do not chase your first publication to find out who you are. Be who you are and stand up inside your own intelligence and creativity from the get-go, so that no one can write your identity away from you. Guard your creative process and needs with a fury. Don’t buy the hype about yourself, ever. Don’t buy the trash-talk either. Both are projections. And this: Your first book is a micro moment on a lifelong writing journey. There is only ever the next book. There is only ever the next page. Make a writing life, one that helps others, one that respects who came before you.
What book do you recommend writers read to help better keep faith with their art?
They’ll know when they discover it, which is what needs to occur. A book will happen to you that changes your life. When that occurs, find the books that are like that one, because that book is the portal to your own imaginative universe. Explore relentlessly. Create your own pathways.
Make a writing life, one that helps others, one that respects who came before you.
How did you survive your first bad review?
I cut it up and remixed it into a supernova. I still do that. It’s a direct action of creative composting. Reviews, if you really think about it, don’t mean anything. Make art. You made art before reviews, you’re not going to quit because you get bad reviews, so don’t make them more than they are.
What’s the writing you turn to over and again to nourish your creative soul?
Well there are definitely writers I turn to, Woolf, Duras, Acker, Stein, Lispector, Morrison, Silko and Harjo and many contemporary writers, but to be honest? Painting and film are what nourish my creative soul. I turn much more often to visual media.
What pursuits rejuvenate you?
Swimming like a motherf*cker. Also painting and drawing. Also f*cking. Also long ass walks.
You made art before reviews, you’re not going to quit because you get bad reviews, so don’t make them more than they are.
How do you keep your life together — including finding time to have sex — when crunching on a deadline/finishing a book?
I’m not a compartmentalizer, so everything happening all at once is how I’m wired. My writing desk is in front of my painting easel next to my drawing board across from the bed. All I do is make a series of turns. Like a kaleidoscope.
What specific tangible things do you rely on to write? (e.g., M & M's, a good Cabernet, Plumeria candles, Joni Mitchell)
The endless terrains of language, the body, the imagination, painting, and single malt scotch.
I always encourage other writers to be as brave as they can bear to be in their writing and to be generous. What two things do you want to encourage writers to do?
Invent everything (without apology) and never surrender.
How do you get Lidia time — not writing time, family time, teaching time — but time JUST for Lidia?
Just add water.
A book will happen to you that changes your life.
How do you get unstuck?
I always encounter the “stuck” as a real place, and thus I write into it, to find out what it’s language is, to get it to talk to me, to find its image, and low and behold, it’s not a “stuck” thing at all. It was just a chaotic energy seeking form.
How do you restore your faith in your own writing if it wavers?
Stop listening to what other people think about it and re-enter innovation as my most vital of practices. I think it’s important to seek the advice and feedback of others, but only to a point. In the end, it’s you and the page, and if you are mimicking or creating in order to please or be liked or following inherited patterns too closely, you are not innovating, creating, risking the journey to the edgy of the unknown or even destruction.
You’re known for sticking to your artistic vision in the frenzied publishing world. What should emerging writers know about this?
Do what you need to do to get whole with yourself before you launch yourself into the fray. I learned this the hard way when COW emerged. Set up support systems. Learn self-care best practices. Be who you are and not who people tell you to be. Be becoming, as Gertrude Stein said, and above all, abandon the ego-driven tiny-souled desire to be “liked.” That’s not making art. Art is good labor you can put in the world to make a difference. I think writing is a socially vital and activist art. So for f*ck’s sake, hurry up. We need you. Don’t make me come to your house with Vanessa Veselka to WAKE. YOU. UP.
Image: Andrew Kovalev