Angela Palm joined the company of Leslie Jamison and Eula Biss when her memoir Riverine won the 2014 Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize. What made her book stand out from the crowd? For starters, not many memoirs span a friendship that survives thirty years as well as a felony incarceration. But what truly elevates Palm’s book is the writing. In Riverine, she empathically examines how her love for a childhood neighbor-boy, Corey, has remained a linchpin in her heart, and how not even his double homicide conviction or her move far away from their Indiana hometown has changed that fact.
Palm goes were few writers—or friends—are willing to go. She visits Corey in the correctional facility where he is serving a life sentence and dares to ask tough questions. What does it mean that she still holds a candle for a man who is a murderer? Why did Corey do it? Was he ever the good person at his core that she once believed him to be? How might their lives—which both began by the same river—have been different if he had received a measure more of the love, education, or benefit of the doubt that she received. I reached out to Angela Palm via email to discuss this and more about Riverine.
The Rumpus: Much of Riverine centers on your relationship with Corey, but it is only once you have met your husband, Mike, that you seem to come to grips with how much Corey and your hometown in Indiana have affected you. You write of your husband Mike, “He loved me even though I had grown up in an old riverbed and had a bloodline that ran brown like its water. But where was the source? When was the water clear? When had the trouble begun? If I was going to survive my own history, I would have to find a way to drain a vein without a wound.” Is Riverine an attempt to answer these questions and “drain a vein”?
Angela Palm: It’s certainly an attempt to understand the good and the bad of where I’m from and how it shaped me as a born dissenter. It’s me letting go and rebooting, but more than that it’s a confrontation with the past after a long period of avoidance and a dissection of that avoidance. It’s true that Mike was instrumental in helping me understand that within that avoidance and dissent was the shapeshifting violence of white men reaching back through my history as far as I could see, and a patriarchal rural Midwest. Riverine contains the words for what was always there. Putting experience into words gives them less power over me, I think. In the situation of the facts you mention in the introduction about Corey, the easiest response is to condemn that which is so obviously condemnable. The far more difficult thing is to attempt to foster compassion where none seems warranted, investigate the complications, and convert these into something useful. Compassion and consideration of the complex truth, I’ve found, is a powerful tool in a world that often makes little sense.
Rumpus: You note in the acknowledgments that only small portions of the essays in your book appeared previously in other publications. When did you realize that digging into these questions would be a book-length endeavor?
Palm: I’d submitted two or three very short essays and stories that dealt with rural Indiana as setting, the same set of questions of nature and nurture, the same characters, the same inner dissonance. From there, I gathered everything I had written over the course of two years and read the unfinished pages start to finish because I didn’t know where to begin with a book, or if I had one. I had a friend read the grouping of pages—not even a manuscript really because there was no clear focus yet—and the friend pointed out that the voice of each piece was the same. If I reordered the pieces, pushed them a bit farther, I might have a manuscript. As I worked in that direction, more and more the story came back to Corey and life along the river, leaving it and returning to it. I knew I need to speak with him, see him, and once I did, everything became clearer.
Rumpus: Regarding your relationship over the years with Corey, what was the most difficult aspect to capture in words?
Palm: To say he was a friend, someone I was once romantically interested in or involved with, was easy. But when he told me all the stories and facts about himself prior to the murder that filled in my gaps in knowledge and memory, I was devastated. As I wrote them down, one by one, they formed a very clear descent toward a place of no return and putting that on the page was tough. At the end of that sloping line—the pit I was writing toward, innocent people would lose their lives and Corey would forfeit his freedom forever in return. I could see it now, see how he had become someone I didn’t recognize. Call me naïve, or sentimental, but I could not help but imagine all the ways I or a number of other people could have led him in another direction with very simple acts of love and kindness. Mapping a life in this way feels a bit like math, a plus b equals c—I found myself wanting to subtract it all away.
Rumpus: Your book wrestles with the tension between justice and acceptance. You raise serious issues about the criminal justice system and speculate how the deck was stacked against Corey; however, he counsels you not to go down the “what if” path. Where do you sit between the tension of justice and acceptance today?
Palm: I still go back and forth between thinking he is getting exactly what he deserves and feeling that people can change. I believe that rehabilitation is possible and worthwhile, and that it’s worth thinking about how to achieve it through public discourse and policy. His is an extreme case. I will never accept what he did but I do acknowledge that people remain capable of both tragic transgressions against one another and incredible amounts of love at the same time. It’s not this individual story that needs attention—it just happens to be the personal experience I have with a criminal justice system that favors some over others and is part of a larger American crisis. It’s my entry into that conversation and my insistence that individual stories matter because they inform us of larger truths. In regards to government and institutional policy, I’m a proponent of restorative justice in place of punishment to help keep kids out of corrections centers and would like to see the US admit it has a problem—including a bias and discrimination problem—and address the issue of our disproportionate share of the world’s prisoners, and our disproportionate incarceration of people of color. When our country can’t collectively even treat innocent people with dignity and fairness, I worry that we may never be capable of addressing our criminal justice system issues. But it’s absolutely worth the continued effort.
Rumpus: Riverine is very cohesive in how it follows the arc of your and Corey’s friendship throughout the years, yet you still make time to cover a wide terrain of subject matter—from religious conversion and crop dusting to writers’ retreats and housing projects. What role does digression play in your writing?
Palm: Digressions are me thinking on the page about the interconnectedness of one thing to another and then a third thing; they’re me showing my work so to speak, and acknowledging that all experience exists within the context of a multidimensional world. Digressions, too, help me formally reflect the shape of the river, how it resists the straight line, honors the refuse it naturally pulls into its current. Information in a void doesn’t excite me as an artist and it doesn’t represent the way we experience life, and digressions are a way out of that void. I’m saying, here’s an idea, let me test it on this thing and discover what there is to learn about how they work together.
Rumpus: The writing in Riverine is at turns lush in its description of landscape and cerebral in its examination of the deep, inherent flaws of people and the places to which they belong. What is your approach in striving for tonal and narrative balance in your writing?
Palm: Striving for that balance is a perennial challenge for me. Typically, my writing process involves gathering memories and stories—experiences which for me come out as lyric prose, mostly—and placing them in the same document as journalistic or academic information, research, analysis and then working with the two modes until they fuse together in some unforeseen way. It’s not always a perfect approach, but I feel it’s my way of trying to do something meaningful with what I’ve experienced and what I know or learn. I’m constantly interested in bringing information to everyday interactions as a way of understanding the human condition, and hopefully, improving upon the act of living in some way. I keep tinkering with the approach beyond Riverine so I suppose you can say I’m working on this tonal and narrative variation as style. I love the challenge of an imperfect form or approach. I think it shows a willingness to try and learn and grow out of what is expected.
Rumpus: A central theme of your writing is how the land imposes itself on us, often in ways that are unseen or little recognized. In light of the recent presidential election and the political polarization of urban and rural communities, do you think we are collectively aware of how our geography shapes us as people and citizens?
Palm: We impose ourselves on the land as much or more than it imposes itself on us—and even more so where profit is involved. Whether we live in a rural or urban or suburban area, our landscapes contain the record of our pasts as humans—the good, the bad, the regrettable, the honorable, the downright criminal. This record should be an opportunity to learn from our mistakes, but for some, it is not and that contributes to the divisiveness. Awareness and reaction to that awareness seems to be the key difference. The places we populate hold and reflect everything—ourselves, our geographic treasures, our political ideas, our resources, our laws. What’s less obvious is the erasures these landscapes contain, and I’m concerned with those. Everywhere an empty housing development stands vacant, a community has been scattered and very likely compromised in some way for some capital project that made someone else money. Often, where a field yields a crop, a migrant worker has labored and contributed to someone else’s wealth and well-being, and before that even, a Native American has been driven away from that same piece of land and we know how that went. Mass home foreclosures are a record of something that’s gone very wrong in the triangulation of people and money and property. None of this is news. I don’t understand opting for erasure and the affront of human well-being when we should all know better, have had chances to do better, as is happening with the Dakota Access Pipeline right now. That’s not an urban-rural struggle, that’s an age-old power struggle specific to this country and power is following money rather than following people. At risk of sounding like an anti-capitalist or a liberal elite or whatever label people want to assign to giving a damn about something other than oneself, I have serious doubts about whether some people have a conscience at all, and whether corporations unfettered by regulations will ever truly adopt a social conscience. Unity cannot come from putting individual importance or corporate profit ahead of a total and inclusive community, period. That’s a relevant issue for rural communities and urbanites alike.
Rumpus: The subtitle of Riverine is “A Memoir from Anywhere but Here.” Do you view the book as a memoir, a collection of essays, both, or neither? What does the word “memoir” mean to you, and what do you feel it signals to readers?
Palm: I’m not much for strict subgenre labels, though I do think it’s important to generally distinguish between fiction and nonfiction. This book is part memoir, it’s part essays, and flirts with fictional endings and even the reality of dreams—though those are signified as such in the text. Memoir to me is a person’s organized thoughts about a series of events that personally involved them and might be of interest to a wider group of people. One thing that’s been alarming to me since I started paying more attention to memoir is that some readers (a small portion, I think?) come to memoir specifically to watch people bleed on the page the way you might watch dramas and thrillers, and there’s this element of voyeurism for the sake of voyeurism. And for those readers, there seems to be less patience with and interest in literary experimentation within the genre. Which is funny to me—as if anyone writing a memoir was ever thinking, hmm I hope this is the very personal story reader X in state Y is expecting this fall. At this point, we’ve heard a great number of shocking stories through memoir. I think memoir, at its best in contemporary literature, is not in the market of one-upping the drama of life but rather skillfully executes nuance, and offers readers small shifts in thinking, the slightly wider empathetic lens, the uptick of information that enriches and informs the way we live in the world.
Rumpus: How did you learn that Riverine had won the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize? What has changed or remained the same in your writing and publishing life since winning this incredible award?
Palm: Graywolf publisher Fiona McCrae called me and gave me the news that Brigid Hughes, editor of A Public Space, had selected it. I was shocked—I cried and didn’t believe it for a few seconds. It’s still a wild thing to me—the idea that Fiona became my editor. They let me in. Fiona is totally visionary in her thinking about individual works within today’s publishing markets, and I am immensely grateful for the chance to cross the threshold. I consider myself a bit of an unlikely recipient, not having come up in the writing world through academia. It really was just about the work and I hope that other writers will find that heartening news. My background was more school of life and a love of literature than formal writing education. Not much has changed in my writing life in a practical sense—I’m still staying up too late, wrestling with essays and fiction, trying to get the ideas on paper the way they sound in my head. The work is the same, maybe even harder because I already told the most obvious life story I have to tell. I went back to a blank page after Riverine. There’s a different kind of pressure to perform than before, I think, but what I love about this pressure or perceived pressure is that it forces me to do some deep thinking about what I have to say about this world in a future work, and what is worth saying. The award carries a lot of prestige, and that’s led to some new publishing opportunities and a new agent which probably weren’t available to me in the same way before the Graywolf prize. I’ve moved beyond the blank page and will soon be again asking the question, “Is this a book?”
Photograph provided courtesy of Angela Palm.