Luis Jaramillo on genre-blurring, memory, toast, and his new book, The Doctor’s Wife.
Early on in my conversation with Luis Jaramillo, I admitted that I’d never spent any appreciable time in the Pacific Northwest, the setting of his new collection, The Doctor’s Wife. Of course, ignorance lends itself to mythology, and I certainly mythologize the region; mile high trees, virgin air, and ten thousand hearty hikers are delights that come to mind. But I reasoned, prior to reading, that my unfamiliarity with the Pacific Northwest wasn’t necessarily bad. In fact, perhaps it provided an ideal reading state. My mind, unhampered by experience, might conjure a place rendered by this collection alone.
I was grateful, then, that the stories in The Doctor’s Wife not only accommodated my regional make-believe, but also grounded themselves in an understated, graceful prose; each piece is exacting and all the while generous. These taut vignettes work together to limn a family that spans three generations. Within this family, we follow three siblings who grow up together with much mid-century vigor. Their vitality is as much a product of one another as it is of their idyllic surroundings. Here we are witness to the kind of West Coast family whose children hurry to change for the lake, their bathing suits “still slightly damp in the lining from the day before.” They play Monopoly under a tree, beg for another dog, and pick their zits. Their father is The Doctor, and their mother—The Doctor’s Wife—is everything else: a costume sewer, a community organizer, and a breakfast maker. She is also now a mother of four, but her new baby is not well. Quietly, it’s this terrible illness that plagues the family, though the game playing and lake swimming continue. Later we track young adulthoods darkened by loss. The third generation does not escape this tragedy, and in fact yearns—as we discover—to uncover exactly how this sadness settles amidst their family’s past. All the same, we’re warmed by this family, the woman at its core, and the stories they all must tell.
Among other matters, Luis and I discussed how, as reader and writer, mythologizing (a place, a past) can sometimes work in our favor.
Erinrose Mager I found on your website a short film that you made called “The Doctor’s Wife at Halloween” in which your grandmother puts on a Halloween costume. I recall a similar pre-trick-or-treating scene in your book. I can’t help but wonder whether the woman in the film is our titular woman as well.
Luis Jaramillo I put the video together for a reading I did at Dixon Place. The whole [project] is very autobiographical. Halloween was a big deal for my grandmother. She loved it, loved scaring the kids, and the kids in the neighborhood loved coming to be scared. She died right before Halloween three years ago, and one of the little neighbor boys was upset: the year before, he’d cried, and now he wouldn’t have a chance to show that he was older, braver. Anyhow, I made a trip [to my grandmother’s house] over Halloween one year so that I could be there to see what she did, and I turned the camera on her while she was getting ready. As you can tell from the video, she was so wrapped up in what she was doing—putting on the same outfit she’d worn for over forty years—that she didn’t really know I was filming her.
The cover of the book [features] a picture of my great-grandmother holding my mother. It wasn’t until a couple of weeks ago that I actually wondered who [took] the pictures in the family. I guess I thought I was the only one doing the observing. Not true.
EM So family observations led to—
LJ I actually started to write the stories [in The Doctor’s Wife] by thinking of them as poems. A friend of mine was working as an editor at Lyric Magazine, and she asked me to send her something. So the first piece was the bee sting story, “The Pacific War.” But it wasn’t right for [Lyric] because it was just . . . not a poem. Then I sent it to Tin House and they published it, and I thought, “Oh, I’ll just keep on writing these little pieces,” not really conceiving of this whole big project. I just thought of them as individual things.
EM And those pieces were the first iteration of the collection The Confabulated Stories: The Doctor’s Wife, From 1960-1962 from a few years back? This first collection was the basis for your book, I assume.
LJ Exactly. I was writing all these little pieces that I essentially had to make up—they were family stories, but then I got lots of things wrong. I didn’t worry too much about sticking to the facts because I didn’t think I was writing non-fiction even though the pieces are very much based on things that happened. (I always tell my students that they have to “make stuff up,” but when you sit down to write, sometimes you don’t think about the genre that you want to write in.) I guess I was thinking of the pieces as “family stories” because they’re different from what really happened. There is a way in which we make up myths about ourselves [by way of] our family stories. I tried to capture that feeling of transforming the family myth to make it feel like something that had actually happened.
EM The narrator, like you, acknowledges that he gets some things wrong when he tells the stories of his family’s past. His narrative is blurred by various missteps in memory. [His mother and aunt argue about whether their father was hunting or fishing on the day their brother was stung by the bee, for instance.] But maybe, as you said, it doesn’t matter; there is beauty in the mythology created when we reshape the past to create a story.
LJ Right. And, at least in my family, [stories are] always told as humorous, but when you actually think about them, they aren’t very funny; they have this sort of dark side to them. And one of the things that lends real darkness to them is the death of my uncle. So when I was writing these stories, I was imagining each of them circling this central, horrible thing that happened to the family. And the way in that no one ever talked about the death [itself]. So all of the stories are kind of talking about this tragedy without mentioning it.
EM Though you’ve called The Doctor’s Wife a short story collection, it reads very much like a novel. How did you get from a handful of poems to something so cohesive and fluid?
LJ Well, I’m not a poet. And I’m much more interested in narrative. Once I had more pieces, I wanted them to hang together in a way that made sense. And chronology really plays a big part in that [cohesiveness]. It’s probably not that evident, but chronology is the element that I played around with the most and is the least true to real life; I needed to make things happen in a certain way. And because I was, at first, writing poems—according to me—I didn’t feel like I needed to stick to facts. Especially facts of chronology. I needed to tell this other story. I wanted to tell a story of a family that stands fifty years. Of course there are deaths and marriages and births over the course of those fifty years, but then there is also what’s going on around those major events. And the person at the [center of these events] is The Doctor’s Wife.
EM And she’s this incredibly strong character. She seems very real to me.
LJ She’s not very fictionalized. She had such a great voice—a distinctive voice—and so it was really easy to take that language and use it. And it’s fun to get in someone else’s head too. I guess that’s the part that’s most fictionalized because you can’t get in anyone else’s head really. [On the other hand,] I have a lot of personal experience with [the Pacific Northwest] so I didn’t have to rely on fiction or anyone else to tell me about it. I had spent a huge part of my life there. So those real details come through.
EM Another detail that stood out to me was the food that your characters make and eat. A lot of the characters’ domestic minutiae surrounds meal making. And I know that you co-edit and contribute to the The New School’s Inquisitive Eater. Your relationship with food is—
LJ Well, I love food! And I love to read about food. I love the way that someone like M. F. K. Fisher use[d] food to get at something else; she wrote about food but her pieces weren’t about food at all. I guess that’s the kind of food writing that I’m most interested in. But for me—I’m not sure how much I was thinking much about food when I was writing The Doctor’s Wife.
EM Maybe it’s my own preoccupation with food that drew me to it in your book then. But I couldn’t help but pay mind to the meals that this family shares. Even their toast in the morning. The comfort and ritual associated with meals.
LJ For one, food played a really big part in my grandmother’s house. She was very interested in food and up on food trends. Should would also make very old fashioned foods from her childhood. This preoccupation probably came through. Also, I think that food can mark time in an interesting way.
EM In what respect?
LJ Like you said, there’s toast in the morning. Then something for lunch and in the afternoon there’s tea and then maybe gin and tonics later in the evening while dinner is being prepared. It’s a [ritual] that happens all the time in a very intentional way.
In one of the pieces in the collection, “Broken Bones,” The Doctor’s Wife breaks her arm and then the Doctor says, “Let’s go eat first.” So in that, there’s this idea that food is this really important thing; regardless [of what happens], if you don’t feed yourself then you won’t be able to go on for the rest of the day. So maybe that is, in part, what I was writing about. That no matter what, you have to take care of these very basic needs. Even if other, harder stuff is going on.
EM And there are other moments in which this is the case, I think. House work, for one. The Doctor’s Wife cleans when she isn’t caring for her dying son; she makes her other children dust. Eating food, cleaning the house—they are essential, stabilizing rituals.
LJ And they’re also associated with “women’s work.” I called [the protagonist] The Doctor’s Wife because I wanted her to be placed in this confining role. Cleaning, cooking for the kids, running the house: these acts are confining. She didn’t choose [this role], necessarily. And then what do you do when you’re put in this position of not being able to choose? But you also want to be really good at it? And enjoy it?
EM Apropos “women’s work:” it seems like there is this subtle charge of activism in your writing. How do you relate writing to activism?
LJ That’s a good question. I think that often writing feels like it doesn’t make any difference at all or that it shouldn’t make any difference—sometimes. But then I also think about what it’s like to be a writer in the world. As part of my job, I help manage the [Riggio Honors Program] Writing and Democracy courses at The New School. The questions that the course raises are: What is democracy? And How, as writers, are we participating in democracy? Not that we have definitive answers to these questions. But we ask them.
I thought of [The Doctor’s Wife] as being a feminist book. I was also interested in writing about community, placing a family in a community, and then placing that community [in the context of] the larger world. So this family is in a community, but they’re also in the United States and the United States changes over the course of the 50 years in the book. The family changes along with the rest of the United States. And in kind of similar ways. For one, it becomes more brown. [Laughs] And we as people react to change in different ways. Sometimes [change] is scary. We have very little control over how things change. But regardless, it’s important to put our energies into making things better in some way. Which is what The Doctor’s Wife does; she’s really trying to change her own community for the better.
EM And maybe pedagogy facilitates change as well? Do you feel like teaching is a big part of your life as a writer? Or, rather, as a writer who wants to better his community?
LJ Um, sometimes. [Laughs] No, I love teaching and I love working with students. I think it’s great to teach undergraduates; everyone should learn how to write and write well. And you can learn so much from writing creatively because [the process] demands so much of yourself.
I know that I’m not doing all that I can and so I feel like I have to put something into my writing and teaching to feel okay. My dad is a labor lawyer and my mother taught ESL to immigrants and my brother works for an electric car company. And I teach people how to write! It sometimes feels a little bit out of balance.
EM I guess I’ve never met a writer who hasn’t questioned, almost constantly, the legitimacy or efficacy of his profession.
LJ Hilton Als was just at the New School last night. After he read, he talked about being a writer and feeling like he needed to apologize to everybody. [Laughs] And, you know, he’s a fantastic writer and a very political person. His reviews talk about things that reviews typically don’t. And that’s the kind of thing I really admire: someone who can make politics really personal so that it’s not pedantic.
EM It sounds like you admire writing that goes beyond its assumed genre: fiction that pulls from your past (in the case of The Doctor’s Wife). Or food writing that’s more than writing about food. Or literature that engages in efforts of change. And then similarly, cultural criticism that is personalized.
LJ David Shields’s Reality Hunger, for instance, works this way. Or Geoff Dyer’s Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi. People always want to put things into genres, but when you’re writing it doesn’t always feel that way.
Erinrose Mager is a writer living in Western Massachusetts.
Luis Jaramillo is Associate Chair of the Writing Program at The New School and winner of the 2009 Dzanc Short Story Contest. Dzanc releases The Doctor’s Wife this month.