Comfort in Getting Lost: Elizabeth Geoghegan Interviewed by Allison Grimaldi-Donahue

The writer on her new story collection about the lives of the displaced and the daily estrangements we all face.

Eightball Cover

Elizabeth Geoghegan’s new collection of stories, eightball (The Santa Fe Writer’s Project), centers on relationships and how difficult they can be to maintain (which is ironic, I think, because Geoghegan is so good at building community). We both teach at John Cabot University in Rome, and she was one of the first English language writers I got to know here. This conversation is part of our ongoing conversation about writing. I’m admittedly obsessed with form and semiotics. And Geoghegan insists that she is not, and is, in fact, the opposite. But in these stories the same principles come through. In one, she writes about the failure of a relationship: The truth is I don’t know why I’ve logged so many hours with Cricket Boy. Maybe it’s the accent. Maybe I’m waiting to hear about all that death. Death with an accent. I can’t help think she is embodying the anxiety Derrida presents us with in his meditations on finding or not finding a linguistic home. In fact, these stories repeatedly ask difficult, serious questions while keeping a sense of wonder and levity.

In the title story, possibly my favorite in the collection, she writes, Nick and I sit on the steps in the cold and the near-dawn light. There are still a few stars. I can’t recall if there was ever a moon. She continually calls into question what we recall, what we name as memory, how and why and when. She pushes us to examine every day situations in far flung-locations that become painfully familiar. Each story in eightball stays with you, haunts you, changes your perception of the most subtle occurrences.

— Allison Grimaldi-Donahue

Allison Grimaldi-DonahueI am struck by the relationships in the book. The struggle to maintain connections to people, whether family or friends or lovers. It seems to me this is the driving force of these stories which is a clear reflection also, I think, of how our lives often work. In the title story Quinn is constantly attempting to figure out her relationship with her brother Patrick. She takes photos, attempts to share memories—it is never enough but it does move the story. Is longing a foundation for plot in your work?

Elizabeth GeogheganLoss has always informed my work and, in turn, perhaps that creates a sensation of longing throughout the collection—there is certainly a longing for intimacy that never materializes, or one that is fleeting when it does. But I hadn’t so much considered ‘longing’ as an overarching trope. While desire, in various incarnations, is nearly omnipresent. Still, desire and longing are not quite the same.

As far as whether longing is a foundation for plot: I never really consider plot at all. But structure interests me. Sometimes I’ll impose a structural element that will serve as an echo for the events of the story or, hopefully, enhance the unfolding in some way. In the story “eightball” I wanted to evoke an eerie sense of something looming—a kind of intuition on Quinn’s part that she will lose her brother Patrick, so much so that she is already losing him, has lost him, even as he sits across from her. There’s a formidable inertia. But there is also nostalgia. That was one of the reasons I structured the entire story in the present tense, even the flashbacks are in present tense, thereby tethering both the past and the imminent losses to the forward motion of the story. It’s all happening at the same time.

Geoghegan Eightball Author Photo By Lovisa Stephenson

Photograph by Lovisa Stephenson.

AGDIn “Pura Goa Lawah” there is an explicit discussion about the main character, Drishti, and her quest (another type of longing perhaps). She is reluctant to recognize her travels as such but then it comes to be the center of the story. In many ways it feels like the center of many of your stories, that the characters are always looking for something or someone. They don’t always find it but they are in continual motion. What is your own relationship with this notion of the quest? 

EG“Pura Goa Lawah” operates as both a satire and celebration of the ‘quest.’ But I admit, I rather love Drishti. As you know, the unnamed protagonist in this story rechristens herself with the Sanskrit word “drishti,” which is a rather complex word to translate, even though in yoga classes the world over it has come to mean “focus” or focusing your gaze upon a fixed point. As you mention, there is no fixed point for most of my characters. And for Drishti, motion is not only constant, but perpetual to the point of being pathological. 

Most of us want to be travelers not ‘tourists’ but the more we long for it—there’s that word again—meaning the more we long to be on a journey rather than on holiday, the more impossible it becomes. If you’re a Westerner visiting Bali it is difficult to ignore the obvious fact that simply by being there you embody a kind of cliché. My first reaction to Bali was one of repulsion. The sheer density of tourists “in search of” depressed me. I couldn’t wait to leave. But as fate would have it, I injured my back and was forced to stay. Then a volcano erupted, and all the flights were grounded, and so I stayed longer. During those months, Bali won me over. I should say the Balinese won me over, beginning with the family who looked after me when I was injured. Since then I’ve returned several times, but with each arrival I’m struck anew by the glaring and disproportionate number of us who cram onto that small island searching for whatever it is that has drawn each of us to it. So with this story, yes, I wanted to explore the idea of the quest, but I was also attempting to illustrate the intangible: that there really is something deeper and truly powerful—magical even—operating in Bali … And all the Instagrammers in the world can’t cancel it out. It simply is.

AGDA lot of the pieces leave me feeling haunted. In some cases, it is clear why: deaths, losses. In others, I can’t quite put a finger on it. It may be something I recognize in myself: the comfort found in unfamiliar environments, the comfort of knowing you can be lost at any time. The stories are set all over the globe, and the characters are nearly always outsiders. Why is this?

EG When I first began writing, I wrote a line that went, “the slipping and slipping, the never really home” and when I read your question it came back to me out of nowhere. But I think it defines something about my work I hadn’t yet recognized or articulated. This slippage or lack of purchase. When I look back at my early reading habits, the novels I loved and returned to contained elements of the displaced or estranged. Ultimately, they were also all written by and about outsiders, whether by choice or by circumstances such as gender or illness. Writers like Paul Bowles, Marguerite Duras, Virginia Woolf. And, of course, later when I studied with Lucia Berlin and began reading her stories, they too, contained this sensibility. Even more so than the others. So that was just fortuitous because I was already drawn to this type of fiction.

For my own part, I don’t suppose I consciously realized I might be looking for ‘home.’ I never imagined myself living abroad, but here I am so many years after arriving in Italy for an intended three months. I see now that the sense of estrangement was what I needed, not just then, but now. Once I learned Italian and got comfortable here, I began traveling on my own as often as I could. You are right: there is a comfort in knowing not only that you might get lost but that you will get lost. This very nearly verges into a desire to disappear altogether. It can be both terrifying and comforting to realize nobody knows where in the world you are. I remember hitching a ride in Burma—climbing into the car with little reservation—and about forty minutes later, realizing that nobody even knew I was in Burma, much less in the backseat of a beat-up car on the outskirts of Mandalay. 

Some part of me needs to feel lost to be able to lose myself in the writing of the stories. And I do mean lost. I never plan stories out, never know the ending, and don’t want to know. Maybe that seems like giving up control, but then there is that moment where you figure out why it was that you were writing about peonies or kept cutting and then replacing a particular image or line—because later it ended up serving the story in some fashion. I’m that way when I travel, too. I don’t want to plan where I’m headed. Whenever possible, I want to move by instinct.

AGDI want to ask you about these relationships between men and women. There is a troublesome heterosexuality in these stories that reminds me of Lynne Tillman’s book Weird Fucks, in which the narrator travels and, yes, fucks around a lot. But there is a sense in your work and in hers that all of the interactions are profoundly cursory, or even hopeless, from the beginning, that true love has never been on offer, which somehow doesn’t take away from the relationships, from their importance, at least in the female narrators’ eyes. The difference, though, between the men and the women and how they view sex and romantic relationships seems irreconcilable. Can you talk about this a bit?

EGOh, I wish I could get my hands on a copy of Weird Fucks. I loved Motion Sickness. Incidentally one autobiographical attribute my characters usually have is suffering from motion sickness, which I do. It has always struck me as a cruel irony that I’m almost continually ill when in transit and yet I am so often traveling. But as far as “troublesome heterosexuality” goes, I’d have to say I’m not sure I know of any other kind.

But you’re right, true love is definitely not on offer. Probably because there is very little room for humor in a true love story, or at least I wouldn’t know how to write it. But romance is the lie we were raised on, no?

AGDOne of the short story writers I first adored was Anne Beattie and in both of your work there is a lot of privilege, a lot of time to sit around and talk and do nothing, to opine. But the characters have quotidian problems we are all faced with. They are difficult people, they lack sympathy for themselves and for others, they’re weighted by disappointment and disillusionment—and yet we feel for them. We root for them as they make mistake after mistake. What was your reasoning in creating these characters and voices that might not seem immediately accessible? 

EGAnd here I always thought the characters in the stories felt nothing but sorry for themselves! Is it true they seem to lack sympathy for themselves? For others? That’s interesting, but it isn’t intentional. A degree of inaccessibility does provide a space for characters to surprise the reader, to transform.

Privilege does come into play in the stories. Oftentimes the protagonist’s privilege will be called into question or denigrated as it is in “Tree Boy” or in “The Violet Hour.”  Violet starts off overtly privileged. One could even call her spoiled. But I want you to root for her, at least eventually. Because she’s smart. And funny. She’s fucked up but she’s figuring it out. I dislike reading stories where an author’s disdain for her own characters is palpable. I don’t necessarily set out to create likeable characters, but I do want them to be accessible. Even if it is uncomfortable for the reader. For example, when I wrote “A Roman Story,” I knew the story would fall apart with an inherently bad or evil protagonist. I wanted to oblige the reader to align herself with Pietro, with a father who commits infanticide. To feel the discomfort of what that might be like. And maybe just maybe empathize with him.

Some years ago, quite by accident, I walked into the crime scene similar to the one in the story. It haunted me for months. I kept wondering what has to happen to a person to push him that far? Still, I never intended to write a story about it. Later, when I finally did, it seemed to come out of nowhere. I’d been researching Flannery O’Connor and reading her correspondence with the writer Caroline Gordon, in response to O’Connor’s first draft of Wise Blood, a novel with as difficult a protagonist as there ever were. In the letter, Gordon praises O’Connor, but she is also instructive about anything lacking, at one point telling her that Henry James believed the beginning of any story required the writer “to plant a stout stake” for the action to swirl around. She didn’t believe O’Connor had yet done this.

In that moment, something clicked. I wondered, what O’Connor would do with an infanticide? How would she write the character of the father? And what would the moment of grace be? So instead of writing my overdue academic paper I sat down and wrote the first four pages of “A Roman Story” came to me. In one go. I could hear those lines as if they were music. I knew the lyric language was over the top, but I wrote it as it came to me. I had no idea how I’d manage to write my way back out of that opening, but I did know I was planting that stout stake. The snow, the footprints in it.

Of course, that story is perhaps the least Anne Beattie of the lot.

AGDSince you and I often talk about the writing process and the different kinds of writing we do, especially poetry versus prose, I have to stay I am often caught up in the language of these stories—the sometimes endless sentences but also very often the short ruminations of a given character, which seem like the most devastating lines in the book. At one point the narrator in “eightball” says, “I can’t recall if there was ever a moon.” Can you talk a bit about how you think of the measurements of the writing, the rhythm of the sentences that is impressively varied?

EG This is an interesting question, although I’m not sure I know how to answer it. I love that you picked up on this. I’m not a poet, but I always seem to gravitate towards poets. To poetry. Perhaps this is because my starting point is most often sound or sound-based. I might walk around with a story idea or a character in my head but when I finally sit down to write it is because I hear the opening line or lines and when I set them down, it almost feels like I’m transcribing music. Sections arrive fully formed. Or close to, and once I get the first bit and understand the internal music of the passage—which is actually the voice—I work from there. Usually, I have to read it out loud, over and over, to make sure its right.

In terms of the metrics, I’m not sure how I’d describe my style. Nobody seems to believe me, but when I began writing I was a minimalist. I spent hours stripping sentences of excess. I loved fragments. One word sentences. I loved working, in a sense, with absence. With what I was leaving out. Then I moved to Italy and I learned Italian. Arrivederci minimalismo. I’m pretty sure my sentences have become baroque.

Allison Grimaldi-Donahue is a writer and translator whose work has appeared in Words Without Borders, The Literary Review, Tripwire, Mousse and other places. She is author of Body to Mineral (Publication Studio Vancouver 2016) and co-author of On Endings (Delere Press 2019). She is a translations editor at Anomaly, senior editor at Queen Mob’s Teahouse and teaches creative writing at John Cabot University, Rome.

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