Thursday, February 24, 2011

5 (or so) Questions with Margot Singer

Today, I'm happy to bring you 5 (or so) Questions with Margot Singer. Her essay, "A Natural History of Small-Town Ohio" appears in the the current issue (vol. 7, no. 2). Margot and I spoke via email about Ohio, the advantages of the second person point of view, and even a little bit about religion.

9L: One of the things I appreciated about "A Natural History of Small-Town Ohio," especially as a native Ohioan, is how complex your depiction of it is. The sense of place is so strong, almost taking on mythic qualities at points, that it becomes a character. Did you think of it as a character as you wrote it? And if so, was it tricky to balance the setting and character aspects of Ohio?

Margot Singer: The essay definitely arose out of a sense of place and found its structure as a series of scenes linked by the natural environment. I can't say that I consciously thought about place as a character, but it was always clear to me that the essay was less about me -- that is, less conventional memoir -- than about Ohio as I experienced it during the first year or so that we lived here. That's part of the reason, I think, why the second person point of view seemed to work better than a first person voice.

9L: The second person works brilliantly. It seems to me when second person is really working, and this is certainly the case here, it kind of fades away because it fully pulls the reader into the work, makes them a part of it. That said, you are a character in the essay, so how did you decide when it was time to appear? In a related question, do you have different considerations when writing characters for an essay, than when you create characters for fiction?

MS: The second person "you" is a kind of stand-in for the first person "I" -- you can more or less switch the pronouns and the sentences still work -- but the vibe is different, the sense of perspective. I suppose using the second person made me look at myself as a character, from the outside, as it were. I didn't consciously decide when to appear; each scene emerged more organically than that. Using the second person seemed to help me stay in the scene, in the richness of the descriptive details, rather than in my thoughts, inside my head. There's not much room for the kind of introspection and reflection you typically find with memoir here.

I have to say that I didn't really think about "characters" in this essay at all. I realize that my children make a few appearances, the neighbors, a few college kids, but in the writing I never felt that I was creating characters the way you do in fiction. In a short story or novel, you have to do a lot of work to figure out who your characters are: what they look like, how they talk and act, what makes them tick. In this essay, those are not the central issues at all. The main work I had to do was to figure out how the different scenes and sections fit together, and what the resulting narrative meant. I didn't know what that meaning was when I started out. It was only around the third or fourth draft that I understood what I was really writing about -- and it's still not something I can easily sum up. Something to do with culture shock, diversity, fitting in.

9L: What was it about Ohio and/or your experiences there that made you want to write this piece?

MS: Often what gets me started on an essay is a list of stories, ideas, memories, scenes, or details that seem in some way to connect. In this case, what got me writing were a collection of little anecdotes I found myself telling people that, I realized, all had to do with nature -- the deer and woodchucks and raccoons that we could see out in our yard, the millipede we squished in the bathroom, the intense weather -- and I just had a gut feeling that they had an interesting relationship to one another that I wanted to explore. We moved to Ohio from Utah, so it was a pretty dramatic change of landscape; the essay arose out of my feeling of dislocation, out of things that struck me as different and new and strange.

9L: Another thread woven through the essay is that of religion. It felt like another element, while obviously deeply personal, elevated the essay past just personal memoir and into something larger about the town. The story about the stones unearthed in 1860 with Hebrew text on them were particularly fascinating as there's this "...promise of a link between this new and wild continent and the Bible's ancient land," which people hold onto even though they're fakes. Can you talk a little about the role of religion in this essay and in your writing? Was religion one of the ideas that you started the essay with?

MS: No, I didn't consciously start with the idea of religion, but it is definitely there in the very first drafts. It was certainly on my mind in a variety of ways: the omnipresent image of the four churches at the main intersection in town; the sign (now replaced) at the main college entrance referring to it as a "Christian college"; my ambivalent feelings about the lack of a Jewish community -- or any diversity to speak of -- here. I'm not a religious person -- an atheist, really -- although I'm drawn to questions of spirituality and identify strongly as a Jew. Moving here made me reexamine my own identity and ask some hard questions about this place where my children were evidently going to grow up.

I stumbled upon the Newark Holy Stones at a presentation by a local archaeologist. My father grew up in Israel, and I speak some Hebrew, so it sort of blew my mind to see those Hebrew characters on the stones, and to hear that there are still certain people out there who don't accept they're fakes. There's an interesting theory that the stones were deliberately forged in order to discredit theories of polygenesis (the notion that God created different, unrelated races in different parts of the world) and therefore to help the anti-slavery cause. That's a whole other interesting story.

9L: Ok, last question. Since, the essay starts with the idea of traveling, do you have a favorite side stop (e.g. roadside attraction, restaurant, etc.) you've made during a road trip?

MS: Actually, I hate driving. I fly everywhere I can.

Many thanks to Margot Singer for taking the time to speak to me! To read "A Natural History of Small-Town Ohio," as well as all the other great essays, stories, and poems, pick up a copy of the current issue (vol. 7, no. 2) in our webstore.

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