“I’m Resistant to Form, in Life and in Art”: An Interview with Loie Rawding, author of the novel Tight Little Vocal Cords by Laura Eppinger

Loie Rawding grew up on the coast of Maine. Her personal work exists as hybrid monster, a cocktail of prose and poetry that focuses on her lived experience and the subconscious or fantasy spaces in which she feels protected and strong. As an artist, Loie combines paint, photography, wax, fabric, and found objects to create works of emotional volatility and resistance. She studied dance theater and writing at Emerson College (Boston) and Pace University (New York City). In 2013, she moved to Boulder to pursue an MFA in Fiction at the University of Colorado. While studying, she taught undergraduate courses and served as Fiction Editor, then Art Editor, of Timber Journal. In the spring of 2016, she received her degree, completed a novel, gave birth to twins, and relocated to Nashville.

Rawding’s Tight Little Vocal Cords could be described as a novel told through poems. Every chapter is short, just a page or two, and describes an isolated incident—or image, really. In one, a character called only “M” resents his father for losing his mother and hallucinates a stuffed bull sitting on the dining room table. In his vision, M rips open his body to let the beast inside.

Tight Little Vocal Cords is an experimental, artistic project that breaks most of the rules taught in writer’s workshops. I interviewed author Rawding about hybrid form, the influence of Maine on writing and life, and drawing writing inspiration from visual art.

Laura Eppinger: The form of this novel is fascinating—sometimes it feels like a collection of flash, or even of poetry. Would you call this a “hybrid” work? I’d love to hear your thoughts on form.

Loie Rawding: I absolutely consider this a hybrid novel, a relatively short one at that. There are several forms here: epistolary, script, poetry, and fiction, that work with each other and, at times, against each other. It’s kind of a hot mess! But a carefully curated mess that weaves the journey of my character into a threnody about loneliness, love, and failure to act when we are called to.

I am most comfortable in a hybrid mode. I’m resistant to Form, in life and in art. When I’ve tried to squeeze myself into a more traditional box, I find I can’t get anything down or the work is garbage. I always begin with an image, more like a poet. Embodiment of the senses comes next, what is the story of a touch, or a smell? How can I turn a taste into a character?

LE: Our protagonist is “M,” and other characters are identified as being his mother or father. Other are identified only by nicknames. Can you tell me about the decision not to formally name characters?

LR: I’ve always struggled with naming my characters. In the case of M, I needed this abstraction to grant his frequent transformations. M has a fluid sexuality, even changing sexes over the course of a love affair with someone identified only as “The Soldier.”

M’s story is one of disavowal to societal prescriptions, as well as an exclusive commitment to the slippery voices that only exist in his head, influencing every action. This means a near constant battle of trying to understand what is real and what is only in his mind.

The Mother and Father also show signs of mental illness, which is an important issue to bring into the light. I resist the idea that a proper name is one of the only ways for readers to identify who a character is. The solution to that, in this case, was to not name anyone; we can’t always access the truth about someone based on their name.

Also, what does it mean to identify a person using only their principal “occupation?” How can I implicate my audience in this process; might we all be guilty of this in life too?

LE: The vivid prose really struck me in Tight Little Vocal Cords, especially about life around the sea in Maine. It feels like The Shipping News by Annie Proulx is one influence—would that be accurate to say? (And if not, who do you count as influences?)

LR: It has been a long time since I read The Shipping News, but Annie Proulx would count as an early influence for me. She showed me that there’s an infinite number of ways to approach storytelling and that breaking the rules might be necessary. The way she engages with language, using fragmentation, honing in on minute, visceral image to represent the whole of something; she mastered this approach to novel writing and won all the awards.

For an artist like myself, who finds it impossible to bend my way of seeing the world to accommodate traditional modes, she is an inspiration. Like me, she also has New England roots. Growing up in Maine, I always felt like a part of something unique, but I also felt apart from the mainstream. There is a certain stoic honesty, a tough pragmatism, plus that Emersonian self-reliance.

Where my family lives, a tiny island nine miles off the coast, how one lives their life is based on the whims of the coastal landscape. The sea, and its constant motion, invents a language of its own; it changes how one sees the world. One has to be willing to make sacrifices to live this way, or leave.

I felt an immense need to escape that place. As soon as I turned 18, I split; lived in Boston, Austin, Brooklyn, and Boulder. Now, I divide my time between Nashville and Maine because I can’t bear to be away for too long. All of this movement and eventual succumbing to my roots has had a tremendous impact on my writing.

Readers may be familiar with New England characters like Strout’s Olive Kitteridge or Russo’s Miles Roby. I love them too! But I am more interested in studying characters that are not middle class or even “blue collar.” My people are at or below the poverty line, marginalized communities that carry a quiet violence in them because of their reliance on antagonizing outside forces for survival. I’ve come to believe, from both personal experience and study, that these communities demand a different kind of language because they do not experience a linear, logical daily life. This requires an alternative approach to my fiction.

My more direct influences began with the painter, Marsden Hartley. A workshop during my MFA asked us to write a short story in conversation with a piece of fine art. Not ekphrasis per se, but an attempt to translate a visual field into a linguistic one. I stumbled upon Hartley. I connected to his personal story, as much as his work, and began to see myself in him. And this project was born. The novel eventually sailed well beyond the early inspiration, but I couldn’t have done it without him.

Other direct literary references? The tenacity of Jean Toomer’s hybrid novel, Cane. Clarice Lispector, Djuna Barnes, and Virginia Woolf for their exploration of language and sexuality. Jean Genet and Marcel Proust in approaching memory, as well as how privilege and narcissism can be brought to light and then eviscerated. Basically, I belong to a different age!

LE: M riding in a lush train car, with Turkish carpeting that smells of rose petals, is one of my favorite images from the novel. I don’t think I’ve been on a train like this in America! The word I want to use is “surreal”—is that how you would describe the aesthetic of Tight Little Vocal Cords?

LR: Thank you so much. I’ll take it! I wanted there to be a low down, constant thrum of surrealism throughout the project. This world is directly relatable to our own, like little threads braided from collective histories, but also a world apart. My aim was to interrogate our perceived reality by challenging the reader to sit with the sensation of not belonging to this place and time. Like falling into a mirror.

M travels across the country by train and crosses the ocean by boat. If he stops moving, he can’t breathe. He is an opportunist, constantly shifting his behavior in order to obtain what he wants in that moment. A person who is alone, with no money, requires a certain amount surrealism to survive.

LE: Finally, I see that the KERPUNKT Press mission statement includes: “We enjoy symbolism, non-traditional plots, unique characters, taboo, and experimentation. We like challenging. In short, we value art over entertainment.” Is this your mission statement too? I love that this flies in the face of so many writing clichés, like “Show Don’t Tell.”

LR: M’s journey is meant to disrupt the kind of reading that makes us feel comfortable and safe. I enjoy art that makes me work, physically as well as mentally. Stories that make me sweat or make my heart beat differently.

I suppose I’m a bit of a masochist. If it hurts a little to get through, good. If I’m forced to slow down and re-read something, forced to sit with an image that challenges my experience or my beliefs, even better.

My goal is to create stories that require work, that challenge readers to think out of the traditional bounds of literature, but equally important is inclusivity. Sharing alternative perceptions and a deliberate rejection of rules that were established to control what and how information is divested, I hope, speaks more truthfully to humanity.

Without publishers like KERNPUNKT, writers like myself would not have the necessary support for this kind of work. I feel very lucky, now more than ever.

Laura Eppinger is a Pushcart-nominated writer of fiction, poetry, and essays. Her work has appeared at The RumpusThe Toast, and elsewhere. She’s the managing editor at Newfound Journal.

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