‘Go to the words’
Rilla Askew talks literary Oklahoma and writerly advice
I first met Rilla Askew in 2014, when we were both hawking books at a fair hosted by Decopolis. I introduced myself and spent the evening wandering over from the table I was manning to pick her brain—about writing, about Oklahoma—and to take selfies and have her sign my copies of her novels “Fire in Beulah” and “The Mercy Seat.”
Over the years, I’ve had many more opportunities to talk to and even work with Rilla, as managing editor of This Land, back when it was still publishing. I was part of the team that published three of her non-fiction essays—fangirl-turned-colleague.
Askew moved back to Oklahoma in August of 2015, after living for 35 years in New York, to take a full-time teaching position in the English department at the University of Oklahoma and also to be closer to her aging parents, both of whom have since passed.
I caught up with her again recently to hear how she likes teaching and living full-time in Oklahoma, and also to get a preview of what wisdom she’ll be imparting to other writers at the 2018 Nimrod Conference for Readers and Writers, Oct. 19-20 at the University of Tulsa.
On Oklahoma as a literary place:
“It feels to me as if, in comparison to when I was starting out as a writer, that Oklahoma has an absolute sense of itself as a literary place, and I think that’s key here in Tulsa, and I think it’s really prevalent in the Oklahoma City area. Go down to Ada, go up to Tonkawa—there’s a really established and confident literary community in Oklahoma.
And I think we can hope to keep some of our best greatest talent in this state now because of the renaissance in Tulsa, because of the renaissance in Oklahoma City. It’s a challenge—it’s a challenge for people politically, it’s a challenge for people economically. There are reasons why some of our most talented musicians and artists and poets, and especially our Native writers, have had to go elsewhere. We didn’t work to keep them here. And that’s a shame. I think there’s more consciousness of that within certain people who support the artist communities. There’s not a consciousness of it politically. There’s not a consciousness of it in the whole power structure. I wish there were, but they don’t celebrate the arts.”
On writing “Most American: Notes from a Wounded Place,” her first collection of nonfiction essays:
“Some time ago, even before I wrote ‘Kind of Kin,’ I started working on a memoir about my relationship with my godchildren’s family [. . .] that shows up in one of the essays, called “A Wounded Place.” But I couldn’t find a way to make it one full narrative like a book. So I wrote different pieces of what became, within this book, the one large, lengthy essay ‘A Wounded Place.’ The very first essay I published was in Nimrod, and it became the title essay, ‘Most American.’ And then when I started thinking about this, I had other pieces that had been published in different venues, and three of them had been in This Land. So once I had these different pieces, I saw that it could be a book, and then I approached the University of Oklahoma Press, my editor there. And then I had to write a few more to sort of fill it out and make it have a kind of unity.”
On the difference between writing fiction and non-fiction:
“The challenge with nonfiction for me, the two largest challenges, are being able to simplify the complexity of our lives in a way that makes it contained within the piece, and also really characterizing human beings that are people you know. I think they’re just different animals. I don’t know that one is easier, harder, more challenging. I think they just take different parts of your brain. They take different kinds of energy. I can write nonfiction while I’m teaching more easily than I can write fiction while I’m teaching, because of that immersion in the story, that living that imagined life.”
On her next novel:
“I have been working on this for 17 years […] It’s a novel set in Tudor, England. I’ve started it and it’s had so many voices and so many ways to get to the novel and so many different times. And doing all that research about the Reformation and all those things over years. And then every time I get pulled away from it by another book or by life, then I have to redo all of that again. I’m to the last hundred pages of a probably 400-page novel. And it’s the story of a woman who’s burned at the stake as a heretic. And she’s a historical character. And so it’s really imperative to make it as accurate as I possibly can, and yet there’s so much we don’t know. But I’ve reached the part in the writing that we’ve at least got her in historical record. So all these 300 pages before have been her life imagined.”
On what historical fiction can teach us about our present world:
“I don’t know that there’s another era that’s as parallel to the era we’re living in now as the great tumult of the English Reformation. The changes were so dramatic—they were propelled by the invention of the printing press. It was by this explosion of reading, of books within their vernacular and of the Bible within the vernacular. The parallel to our current era, not only with the internet but also particularly with social media and the dissemination of information and worldview—that’s hugely important to the story I’m writing.”
On her best advice for writers (a preview of her Nimrod sessions):
“Get up earlier. That’s the only thing that works for me. That’s the only way I can do it. I have to find a way to do that work before I get into the world. Go to the words—leave the dream state and go to the imagining state before the world comes in. And don’t look at the phone. As you go by where the phone’s plugged in on your way to the coffee pot, just leave it there.
[In my Nimrod session about] about historical fiction, I’m going to concentrate on making place real within historical fiction. Historical events, obviously, happened in very particular places, and we know that acutely in Oklahoma. You can’t really separate Oklahoma’s story and what happened here from all of the forces that make this place what it is. It’s geology, it’s weather, it’s landscape, it’s certainly the Native peoples who were removed there, but you can’t separate the place from what happened here. The oil boom that ultimately led to the Tulsa Race Massacre, as they’re beginning to call it, is very different than what happened with the same kind of oil boom that happened in Texas. Place needs to be a character in one’s historical fiction as much as the characters themselves and the costume, the settings, and all those other elements.”
On coming home to Nimrod:
“My first short story ever was published in Nimrod. It was called ‘The Gift,’ and it was published in 1989. And my first nonfiction [essay] was published by Nimrod. And I graduated from the University of Tulsa in 1980 … I’ve done the Nimrod festival, but it’s been years—more than a decade, probably. So it feels like a homecoming.”