Q & A with Karen Lillis, author of The Second Elizabeth

The Second ElizabethElizabeth is my middle name. It is July and I am just being born for the second time. It is July and I am living in Charlottesville, with my brother Michael. It is July and Beth is living in the apartment building next door. Beth’s name is not Elizabeth, but when I met her I saw her name inside my middle name. Beth drove to Virginia from Minnesota, after she has lived there her whole life. It is July and Beth has just moved to Virginia to start a second life. It is July and I am being born for the second time; it is July and for the first time I am meeting Beth, who is starting a second life in Virginia. — The Second Elizabeth

Jessica Fenlon, 2008)

Karen E. Lillis (Photo credit: Jessica Fenlon, 2008)

Karen E. Lillis is the author of The Second Elizabeth, published this month by Six Gallery Press. As you can perhaps tell from the excerpt above, The Second Elizabeth is not a standard, straightforward narrative. It wanders and doubles back through a hot summer in Charlottesville and the events that led the narrator, also called Karen E. Lillis, to be “born for the second time.” This book is like an ocean, with rhythmic waves and a deep emotional undertow; the language is hypnotically repetitive, sometimes childishly primitive, and the style  simultaneously obscures and reveals important aspects of the story.

In order to understand this challenging book a little better and to share it with my readers, I asked Lillis to answer a few questions about The Second Elizabeth.

CvilleWords: I’m very curious about the actual process of writing The Second Elizabeth. It reads as though it just poured out of you in one long associative stream — and yet the doubling and re-doubling of themes, characters, and events suggest that the narrative was carefully shaped. How would characterize the process of writing this book?

Karen E. Lillis: By the time I got to the writing of this book, it did actually pour out of me fairly spontaneously—as long as I sat myself in front of the page. On the other hand, that’s deceptive without saying that I did a lot of meticulous pre-writing of the story beforehand. I wrote several versions of the dramatic “story” that The Second Elizabeth revolves around but doesn’t tell, I’ll call it the memoir version. Each time I wrote the memoir version of the story, I discovered a broader range of emotions that the story had produced in me. These emotions became elements to work with in the writing process, especially because I discovered or named them through writing, so the emotions revealed themselves attached to specific imagery, words, and place names. Using words and names that were so loaded with emotion then gave me a starting place to fictionalize the story.

The voice of the story was another element: the voice came to me after reading a lot of European novellas by contemporary women writers. Their writing was so intense, and intent on telling a very specific, brief tale about a very emotional time or incident. Once I found a voice that felt emotionally relevant, the story I wanted to tell (as opposed to the memoir version I didn’t want to tell) poured out of me. Those charged words and names became a part of the momentum of writing the story — I wanted to keep using them until I got out all the emotion that was stored in them. And of course that process unearthed other loaded words. The French author, Helene Cixous, in a book about writing, calls these “magic words.”

CW: In a profile interview you did with HipsterBookClub, you discuss the idea that “writing for others — writing as a craft — is about communication.” Yet The Second Elizabeth poses some stiff challenges to the reader, who must decode the poetic language and fill in some blanks in the narrator’s life. Did you feel any tension when writing this book between expressing yourself artistically and communicating clearly to the reader? Do you worry about losing some potential readers? Who do you think this book will speak to?

KEL: I believe that The Second Elizabeth will speak to readers who are excited by new forms in art and literature, and by blurred genres; to fans of the Charlottesville Acoustic Mafia and others who embrace a bohemian pace of life; to readers interested in new Southern writing; to women of many ages who have struggled to find a voice for their emotions. I’m about to give a copy to a teenage daughter of a friend, a girl who has complained that no one in her family talks about feelings. I don’t know yet, but I hope that she will hear in the style of my prose that emotions are ok, and sometimes troubling, and not everyone around us understands us in our own language, on our own terms. But that we don’t have to drown in that misunderstanding.

Yes, The Second Elizabeth is not for everyone, and no, that doesn’t worry me. In a free speech nation with a diverse publishing environment, not all books will speak to MILLIONS of people, and that’s a good thing, in my mind. (If they did, there would be far fewer books, by definition.) I hope that readers who are open to the poetic find my book. I believe that being open to the poetic is more important than being a “sophisticated” enough reader to decode the poetic. I’m really fascinated, for example, by the fact that I’ve always had a great response when I do readings of The Second Elizabeth — aurally, very different kinds of audiences are open to it — but I’ve had a slightly more mixed response from readers, some of whom are expecting a traditional novel.

To me, as a writer and as a reader, I am interested in the level at which a story is told. The memoir version (or traditional fiction version) of a story doesn’t always tell the whole emotional story. Some experimental prose, and much poetry, gets at the emotional story, in a way that divulging the factual or chronological details often does not and cannot. So, for me, I told exactly the story I wanted to tell — the emotional story, and the story of struggling with voice. And I’ve had readers who understood the story completely, and others who didn’t get the book at all. One reviewer shredded the book as a novel, but gave high praise to the cadence, the voice, and the prose writing. So, I thought, “Well, she got it, she just wasn’t willing to allow that a book can do that.” I read lots of books that are not oriented around plot per se, but that tell a coherent emotional tale.

CW: The Second Elizabeth is set firmly in Charlottesville. The details of the setting are quite specific and recognizable, right down to street names. Another author might have chosen a more generic setting, or might have placed the story in a larger city that more people could identify with. What does setting mean to you as a writer? What role does this particular setting — Charlottesville — play in this story?

KEL: Setting drives the emotion and momentum of the writing for me. Setting comes early in my choices of what to write and and how to write it — it’s part of the poetic element, because landscape doesn’t literally speak, so it’s something I’m trying to say sideways. Setting is part of the energizing challenge of writing: Can I tell a story of human emotion and culture in terms of a landscape, in terms of train tracks and kudzu versus clipped boxwood hedges and neatly-trimmed grass? I’ve written a lot set in New York City, but Charlottesville held such dense emotional power for me, it would have been a shame to waste that just because fewer people know it. I usually can’t stand stories with generic settings — it’s one of the first things I notice about movies, does the first sequence establish place in an interesting way? Creating a sense of place is still one of my favorite aspects of writing, reading, and moviegoing.

If a writer is good at writing about place, if the emotional story being told through elements of place is one that interests the reader, then I don’t think it matters whether the reader has been to the place or not. I never once thought that people would overlook the book for that reason, in part because “Southern stories” still hold weight in American literature. In the case of Charlottesville, this also goes back to your earlier question about the tension between telling and not telling. When I was in school in Charlottesville, and this was 20 years ago now, Charlottesville (both on and off campus) was a place full of things that “weren’t talked about.” It was a hotbed of secrets, silences, and double speak. From date rape to cocaine rings to closet homosexuality masked by public homophobia, to racism both subtle and outright, to sexism perpetrated by professors who had been at UVa since before women were admitted — many things were known but unnamed. I was at UVa for George H.W. Bush’s big example-setting drug bust; afterwards, all the students knew that calls were made, and rich and connected sons avoided their trials while the ones whose fathers had no political or economic clout went to prison. And of course Charlottesville was once the plantation south, the ultimate in genteel violence. To me, the very landscape of the area is infused with these loaded silences.

And yet Charlottesville was where I found a voice. On campus I was very involved in civil rights groups — Rainbow Coalition and the anti-apartheid movement, women’s rights groups, gay rights groups. I was studying art and writing, and I gained some popularity as a sardonic weekly columnist who wrote about the topics I sensed were taboo. And off campus I discovered Charlottesville’s downtown scene, all these wonderful artists, musicians, writers, dancers, feminists, and lefties, living the bohemian life, just dedicated to friendship and creativity. And these people did not embrace silence. For me, Charlottesville’s contradictions serve to ask the book’s question, can creativity and voice triumph over, or make sense of, a troubled past no one wants to talk about? I won’t say that all of that is always obvious to the reader in the way I portray Charlottesville in the book — again, it’s sideways, but as a writer it helped me to set up that contrast and write that emotional tension.

CW: What are your current projects?

KEL: I’m working on some books that have everything to do with place, in fact. One book is about Jersey City in the 1930s and 40s, and is a collaboration with poet, Richard Leck: Richard told me stories about his life, and I am in the process of shaping the book. It’s a great project for the kind of writing I like, because someone else gave me the words, and I get to work strictly on getting the rhythm right — the shape and the voice. Another book is a prose poem of New York City in 1992, which deals with the promise a new city holds when all your life is ahead of you. I moved to New York right after college in Charlottesville, and I had such specific ideas of what my future would hold, and they’re all tied in to how I learned to navigate New York as a complete outsider. And a third book is short stories set in Greenpoint, a working-class Polish neighborhood in Brooklyn that’s also inhabited by many artists.

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  1. […] Interesting, different, and very Charlottesville. Check out my q & a with the author. […]

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