Lydia Peelle by Gillian Welch

BOMB 109 Fall 2009
Issue 109  Cover Final
Lydia Peelle 01

Photo by Brooke Guthrie. Courtesy of HarperCollins.

Singer/songwriter Gillian Welch writes of Lydia Peelle, “We met in Nashville as part of a circle of Southern transplants. All of us were artists, writers, musicians, and folklorists, living in the South because it spoke to us and to our work. I feel a great kinship with Lydia’s writing, and have from the first story I read. It was a joy to talk with her about her process, inspiration, and trials in writing her first collection of short stories.”

Peelle’s stories in Reasons for and Advantages of Breathing carry a memory of the Southern past that we might find in a short story by Flannery O’Connor or Eudora Welty. A memory that, mixed with the present, becomes something that couldn’t have existed back then but that in all its forlorn glory and hope-riddled despair brings us to the understanding that the past, as Faulkner knew so well, never dies.

—Betsy Sussler

Gillian Welch I’ve known you for all these years, but I know so little about your life as a writer. Did you always want to be a writer?

Lydia Peelle Yes … always. But, for a long time, I just kept it a secret, and if someone asked me what I wanted to be, I would say something else. I don’t know why, I guess because writing was such a private act. But going back to when I was five—my parents gave me an old electric typewriter. I used to sit and play with it. I remember sitting in the dining room banging the keys and hearing my mother in the next room say to someone, “Oh, she’s going to be a writer,” sort of as a joke, you know, and me thinking, Well, yes, I am!

GW So you were aware even at that age that people were writers. That one could be a writer.

LP Oh, yeah … I loved to read and would read everything I could get my hands on, so I knew. In terms of becoming aware of “the author,” I had a copy of Stuart Little—I loved that book and, at a very young age, probably before I could read it, I remember looking at the title page and thinking about E. B. White, and how he’d written it, and how … Wow, a person was responsible for that story. That had a big effect on me.

GW I was the same way in that I knew right from the start I wanted to play music. If not, I mean, then what? But I wasn’t sure that I wanted to perform.

LP Were you shy?

GW Yeah, if I could have found a way to just play music in my room, I would have, but then, slowly, I came around to the idea that I would have to perform in front of an audience. When did you come to the idea that you wanted an audience for your writing?

LP Well, if you write it down, it must be because you want to share it with other people. Though, of course, sometimes you have to write something down to figure it out for yourself, so yes, I suppose you can write without ever having the intention of showing it to anybody.

GW So how did you come to know you wanted an audience for your writing?

LP Well, along the way, teachers and people would say, “We should try to publish this.”

GW So it came from the outside?

LP Yes. There was a certain amount of encouragement.

GW You’re not from here—you’re from the Northeast and moved to Nashville several years ago. Tell me about your experience coming here.

LP I moved to Nashville when I got married, having never been in the South before. I came with this idea in my head that it was going to be just like a Faulkner story … that there’d be, you know, donkeys downtown and horses pulling carts and old general stores, and that there certainly wouldn’t be Sonic and Arby’s and Burger King—

GW Which there are. (laughter)

LP Which there are, exactly—that’s what there is. But the thing is, that other world, that older world, the mystery of that, is still here. You just have to look for it. Here in Tennessee, people’s connection to the land is much more immediate than it is in Massachusetts, where I grew up. The accelerating loss of that connection is also much more immediate. In my hometown, the farms were divided and subdivided hundreds of years ago. Here, it is happening as we speak. Growth seems to happen in a much more rampant, unstructured way here in the South—I suppose because there’s just so much more open land. That recklessness both repels me and greatly interests me. What it says about our country, and mankind as a whole.

History is so present in this landscape. Stories. Walking, exploring old barns and abandoned houses, you can feel them, see them, almost hear them. As Faulkner said, “The past is never dead—it isn’t even past.” But different landscapes tell different stories. Growing up in Massachusetts, the history I was aware of were the stories of 350 years before. That’s what they drill you with in grade school: the pilgrims and the natives and the early European settlers. Growing up, I thought about those stories a lot, but never the ensuing ones of the centuries after; it was like time had fast-forwarded to the present day. Here in Tennessee, I am tuned in to a much more recent history: the Civil War, the opulence and horror of plantation culture, the farm families—lives lived in the past 150 years.

GW I know you travel quite a bit. Did you write the stories here or somewhere else? What effect does location have on your work?

LP Most of the stories about Tennessee I wrote while living in Virginia. Joyce said you couldn’t write about a place until you exiled yourself from it. The stories had taken root when I was in Tennessee, but they came to be reality in Virginia, which is, of course, also the American South, but so different, in so many ways, from Tennessee. When I was there it was like Tennessee had ceased to exist. The first three years in Tennessee, we lived in the country outside Nashville, pretty isolated, and I had a tough time with it. I wanted to get out, and for many reasons the only way that was going to happen would be if I were to go back to school, so finally I went and did my graduate work in Virginia. I definitely felt like I was never coming back here. It took so much to reach that escape velocity, and I was so happy to put it behind me. But the thing was, I kept thinking about Tennessee. Writing about it. It had got a hold on me, on my imagination.

GW It can be so valuable to be an outsider.

LP Yes. You’re attuned to things, small things, that someone who has been in a place all of their lives takes for granted, or doesn’t even notice anymore. For example: my parents have lived in the same neighborhood since before I was born, and the same house since I was three. I did a lot of exploring as a kid, walked around a lot, and I’d like to tell you that I knew everything about the place, every street and tree. Last year we were back visiting, and my husband went out walking. He found a 17th-century graveyard right down the street and through the woods from my parents’ house. I had never known it was there. When you’re new to a place, you are so much more attuned to the physical landscape, as well as to the way people talk, the way they communicate, the way everyday life unfolds. Of course, for those first few years living in Tennessee, being an outsider made me miserable. I felt like I didn’t even speak the same language. Writing about the place was part of my process of trying to understand it, to make it home.

GW I had to go away for a while to get back to that first feeling about Nashville, about being inspired by it, because it had become just the place I lived.

Now, why short stories? As I was thinking about this, I realized, it’s really exactly like making an album.

LP It is like making an album. A short-story collection is like an album in ways that a novel is not; your hope is for the whole to be greater than the sum of its parts. What you want is for each song or each story to stand on its own, but for them to say something greater when collected in one album or between the covers of a book. And sequencing is so important—as I know it is with a record—the way you order the stories; you think about the emotional arc to the whole book. I wouldn’t want a reader to skip around the book, but to read the stories in order. As for the stories, well, I knew it had to be stories … When I moved here I was so inspired by this place; I wanted to come at it from a lot of different perspectives, to look at it through the lives of a lot of different people, in many different time periods. I was especially interested in the evolving human relationship with the land. To look at the way our relationship with the land, and what we ask of it, has changed, and is changing, and how all these different people in different eras have coped with that.

GW Were there stories that didn’t make it in?

LP So many.

GW That sounds familiar. So many more songs that don’t make it in than do.

LP Yeah, and you hope they make it into an outtakes album someday, but they probably won’t. (laughter)

GW Probably not.

LP So the editing process—I knew it was going to be a book about the South. Once I figured that out, I had a clearer idea of how I wanted the book to be, the shape I wanted it to take. There was one story I worked on for a long time, about a black sharecropper during the Mississippi flood of 1927. I was fascinated with that event, and for a long time I thought the book really needed that story: that perspective, that era, and the repression and exploitation experienced by so many Southern blacks.

I wrote the first draft of it about six months before Katrina. I read a lot of old documents and New York Times articles about the 1927 flood, which was one of this country’s greatest disasters. So much of the poor population of Mississippi ended up in Red Cross relief camps along the levees. For miles and miles, there were thousands of people with the few belongings they had marooned on that narrow strip of high ground. Then Katrina happened and it was like déjà vu. The New York Times headlines were almost identical: LEVEE BREAKS, HUNDREDS FEARED DEAD, WATER RUSHES SOUTHWARD.

That story never worked out. I just kept writing draft after draft, trying to get in somehow. It was very difficult. Ultimately I just couldn’t get in; I could not embody this story. And I learned something, too: that the book had limitations. It helped me narrow my sense of what the book should be, and focus my energies. Of course I wasn’t going to be able to write a book that embodied the entirety of the Southern experience! And what a relief it was to say that to myself. So it helped me to see the thread that did hold the stories together. Once I could narrow it down like that, by the end of it I was writing a story to be a cornerstone for the book, a keystone.

GW Which story was that?

LP “This is Not a Love Story.” That’s the little story I wrote to hold the rest together. I knew the collection needed it. A young college girl moves down to Georgia with her camera to become the next Walker Evans—though the dream dies pretty quickly. In a way, the woman in the story is a sort of a self-portrait. She is the outsider coming to the South with a whole set of preconceived notions, and trying to respond to and create something out of it. But it turns out—in the story and in life—that this new world she’s come to is unfathomable, ultimately. And literally, in the story, because so much history is deep underwater, in the town flooded by the dam. Even if she did come to understand the place she was in, there are things lost forever that she’ll never find. That’s something I’m aware of: though it helps to look at a place with an outsider’s eyes, you can never know it as deeply as someone does who has been there his entire life.

Also, thinking about the characters in the book, I knew I wanted a story about a middle-aged woman looking back, contemplating what’s lost in her life, to round out the story of the two girls in “Sweethearts of the Rodeo.” I knew too that I wanted a story in there that took place in the 1980s as a fulcrum between the 1940s, when the earliest story in the book takes place, and current day.

GW There’s a lot of music in these stories, which of course drew me in:

If the river was whiskey and I was a duck

I’d dive to the bottom and drink my way up

But the river ain’t whiskey and I ain’t a duck—

LP The fiddle tune in “This is Not a Love Story” is called “Drunken Hiccups.” The first version I heard is by the wonderful Virginia fiddler, the late Tommy Jarrell. Those old tunes are interesting because, in the folk tradition, people would make up verses along the way. They are collaborative works, and ever-changing—as long as they keep getting sung. There’s a line that sometimes gets sung in that tune: “Get to feeling much better, gonna sprout wings and fly.” I’ve always loved that line. It’s at once so hopeful and still so resigned.

GW I know that books and writing inspire my music, and I was wondering if music inspires your writing?

LP Oh yeah, the old songs. They work in two ways for me: I use bits and pieces of them in the stories, but also think my ultimate goal is to write a story that could capture the feeling of one of those songs. Of course, a story always has an emotional arc: you’re in a much different place at the end than at the beginning, while most songs don’t change from beginning to end, just sustain one emotion or one feeling start to finish.

GW Those old songs can really trigger something. The other day I was writing a song and I wrote the line, “Going to run all night.” And I thought, Where’s that from? I know that’s from something. Oh! Of course, “Camptown Races.”

LP Yeah, well, we were talking about Joyce before the recorder was on, about how he could write Ulysses making all those allusions to other works and knowing that his reader would have had a certain literary education and would be bringing it all to the reading of Ulysses. The thing is now, in 2009, you can’t be certain your reader has read all these works. You just don’t know what they have read, and you don’t know what they are bringing to your work. Except with—

GW Except with music.

LP Exactly; you can still do it with music. You can make those allusions and references. You can put a line from “Camptown Races” in a song and it will do so much to me as a listener. It’s going to remind me of something from when I was two years old, and it’s going to make me think, “Do-dah, do-dah”—

GW And how cool is that!

LP Yeah, and so many other things that come with my memory of that song. For me, and I imagine for a lot of other people, it has a strong association with my school playground. Boys sitting on top of the monkey bars singing it at the top of their lungs. So I am reminded of that. I also see a 19th-century saloon on the Western frontier, rough characters at a piano, a poker game … And you’ve done it with just five words! I envy you songwriters. First you write the song, and when it’s really good, you hit that point when you’re writing, that moment you get the spark, you know, and you forget yourself and all that. And then, later, you get to perform the song, and you might get that spark again. You might get it again hundreds of times over the course of a lifetime on stage. Whereas when you write fiction, it’s just the one time, sitting at your desk, that you might get the spark. And the finished work is just the ashes, really.

GW But there is something about performing—and I’m just thinking about this now—which is that you have to rely on the interpretations of others. If someone plays it from transcribed music, it’s going to be an interpretation, whereas with a book, the thing is the thing.

I don’t want to ask about particular stories, because I think it takes the focus away from the work as a whole, but I do want to ask about “Kidding Season.” The end of that story takes such a turn. I had such a reaction to it, physically—it sickened me. The reader likes Charlie, and you want him to get out of the goat farm, but then the end comes and you just think, Oh, no—the baby goat! Do you want to comment on your process for that story?

LP Yeah, I worked on that story for a long time. I started an early draft in 2000, and finished it last year, so it was moving through my mind for eight years. The structure was always the same, but I never knew how to end it. This sounds totally ridiculous, but then I had a dream, and in the dream someone came to me and said, “You know that goat story of yours? Well, Charlie needs to get away, and then much later he will realize that he loves Lucy, his boss on the goat farm.” I woke up and thought, a) I really shouldn’t be listening to my dreams for advice on how to finish stories and, b) I just don’t know about him coming to the realization that he loves her. That seemed too tidy. But, of course, I wrote the dream down. Years later, that dream did help me write the end of that story.

There’s something very personal for me in that story. I have been in that situation so many times in my life, where I’ve left like that, just burning all the bridges and leaving a place or a situation, and thinking I’ve gotten out—

GW Needing to get yourself out.

LP Yeah, and you think you do, you think you’re safe, but then it’s like, Oh my God, the baby goat. You’ve abandoned something. Thinking you’re okay, that you’ve managed to save yourself, and then realizing your actions have such a greater effect, and what you may have lost or destroyed along the way:

How many days? How many days did the kid fix its eyes on the crest of the hill, waiting for him? And Lucy, out checking the fence line for winter damage, how many steps did she take towards what was left of it, first thinking it was nothing but a last dirty pile of snow? … Se le perdió algo, they said to one another after a while. He has lost something.

GW I almost started crying there. It’s funny, it’s only with a few books I’ve had that reaction where I’ve actually cried—wearing glasses, the tears start to puddle on your glasses! It’s always Steinbeck for me. I wouldn’t say he’s one of my favorite writers, but for some reason, those endings, those punch lines, trigger that in me.

LP For me it’s Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls. I’m just weeping at the end. It’s such a long book, and intense—something like three days covered in 400 pages—and all the emotional weight of that is on you in those last pages, and then Hemingway slows it way down. You’re just exhausted, and Robert Jordan, of course, is exhausted, hiding out there in the forest, so you’re right there with him. He’s just waiting; you know he’s surrounded, done for. The officer is coming up the trail, gun cocked. The book ends with the image of Jordan’s heart beating: with life. That simple last sentence: “He could feel his heart beating against the pine needle floor of the forest.” When you close the book, he is alive. So the book ends with great hope coupled with tragedy. Every time you open that book, Robert Jordan is still alive, hanging in the balance, though you know he’s going to die. It’s incredibly powerful. It’s what we all are, isn’t it? The bell “tolls for thee.” It doesn’t happen as much any more. I wonder if that’s a part of getting older. Or maybe it’s because now that I’m more conscious of writing, I’m looking too closely at how writers are doing it to really feel it.

GW I was able to go to a Bob Dylan show once where I was able to escape that. It was so good that I wasn’t trying to figure out how he was doing it.

There are many heartbreaking moments in your stories—where farm animals invoke that sadness.

LP I am very interested in our relationship with animals, and, for that reason, I am drawn to the culture of agriculture, where animals are ever-present not only as companions but as work partners and food sources. I think a lot about our failure, as a species, to communicate well with each other, and that leads me to think about our communication with other species, how sometimes it can be, ironically, so much purer than the relationships we have with one another. I’ve always had animals in my life, so for me, they are intrinsically tied up with thoughts about responsibility and caregiving. Domestic animals put the ultimate trust in us, so there is great potential there for ultimate betrayal, which terrifies me.

GW Was there something that you looked at to help you write this book? That’s an odd way of saying it, but was there something along the way that helped inspire you?

LP It took five years to write it, first in Nashville, then in Virginia, then in Cape Cod. Through all that, the thing that kept it going, the thread, was walks. Walking in the woods. I do a lot of my writing while walking … not like Wordsworth composing whole sonnets while walking the heath, you know, not whole paragraphs, but I’ll go for a walk and a sentence will come and then I’ll come back and sit down at the desk and build around that. Also music. Always music—listening to those old folk songs.

GW Yeah, those old songs that are so strange. Like, “and then he killed her,” but they never tell you why he killed her.

LP I listened to a lot of Dock Boggs: “When my earthly stay is over / throw my dead body in the sea. / Just tell my false-hearted lover / that the whales will fuss over me.” It’s like, Whoa! So amazing. So beautiful and mysterious.

GW You think, If I could ever write a line like that. But you can do that in fiction, can’t you? Just write a line that is totally mysterious and strange?

One of the girls, dark-eyed and wasted, sees me and reaches out, saying something I can’t hear over the din, and I strain to make out her lips. Come on, she’s saying, come quickly, come, come … (from “The Still Point”)

LP This passage is inspired by the language of the Book of Revelation. The girl sitting on the carousel horse, the whore astride the beast: “And the Spirit and the bride say, Come. And he that heareth, let him say, Come.”

“The Still Point” is a story about a man who is caught up in thoughts of the world ending—a lot of my characters are, though. The world’s going to be just fine, it’s going to long continue to exist: a rock revolving around the sun. It’s us that might one day end, either because we blow ourselves up or foul the world up beyond repair. That is somehow more terrifying; we’d rather see the whole planet combust and disappear than see the cockroaches take over the Empire State Building and the coyotes trailing along the empty, cracked interstates. Anyway, across so many cultures, stories of the end of the world are about a new world, a better world on the other side of the destruction. The fresh beginning. That’s the picture that the Book of Revelation paints. My hope is that this language will echo that for the reader.

GW Did you learn anything from writing this book?

LP Quite a bit. Because it’s my first book, I learned so much about my process. I’m working on a novel now, which is completely different than my experience of writing these stories. Sometimes it’s like I’m watching myself sitting there at the desk, and saying, Wait a minute. Stop right there. I know what you’re about to do, and it won’t work, so don’t even try it. What I learned is that I am an extremely inefficient writer.

GW It sounds like we have a similar process. (laughter)

LP Just reams of wasted paper. I feel like I have to know the whole story, as if someone has told it to me, before I actually write it. Like I’ve got to know all about this guy’s mother before I can begin to write about him. For a while I couldn’t write a story unless I knew whether or not each person in the story believed in God. Then there’s, of course, rewriting the same paragraph over and over, because I’m afraid to go on, or I don’t know where to go next. I write in the mornings—

GW I was going to ask if you had a routine.

LP Yeah, I write in the mornings, not for any reason other than that I said, Okay, I’m going to sit down every morning and do this. Sometimes I wonder if I’m so inefficient simply because I’m not awake enough at that hour to think clearly, to be effective.

GW For me, it’s the same, but on the other end. I don’t get going until midnight, and then by the end of it, I think my brain …

LP Is not firing on all cylinders.

GW Right.

LP Someone told me recently that you shouldn’t sit down to write without knowing what you’re going to write about. I thought, Hang on, that’s like three-fourths of my process right there, sitting there staring at the desk!

GW Me too, and then I don’t start writing until I’m totally miserable.

LP Writing is so painful. There are so many things I’d rather do than write. I think I’d rather do anything than write.

GW Jerry Garcia said, “I’d rather pitch cards into a hat all day than write a song.”

LP Flannery O’Connor said it was like trying to eat a horse blanket. The thing is—you’ve got to do it. You’ve got to just get something down. If I’ve done that, then I know I can go on with the rest of my day and do all the other things I do. Writing that one page—or even that one paragraph or sentence—is the one sacred part of the day. That’s the sacred act; everything else is simply profane. I don’t feel like anything else I do is all that worthwhile.

Gillian Welch is a singer/songwriter with four critically acclaimed albums. She appeared on the Grammy-winning soundtrack to the Coen Brothers’ film O Brother Where Art Thou? as well as on records by Mark Knopfler, Emmylou Harris, and Ani DiFranco, among others. Her songs have been covered by an eclectic group of artists including Willie Nelson, Joan Baez, Nick Cave, David Byrne, David Johansen, Jimmy Buffett, Alison Krauss, and New York alt-rock trio Secret Machines.

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BOMB 109, Fall 2009

Featuring interviews with Allen Ruppersberg and Cheryl Donegan, Allora & Calzadilla, Joel Shapiro, Lydia Peelle, Rebecca Solnit, Cherien Dabis, Karole Armitage and Lukas Ligeti, and Thomas Bradshaw.

Read the issue
Issue 109  Cover Final