A Life of Words: A Conversation with Chip Livingston


Chip Livingston’s newest work, a novel called Owls Don’t Have to Mean Death, tells the story of two men in their twenties and in love. Peter, a Creek Indian, and his lover, Cache, who is dying of AIDS. Their story is woven together with stories from Peter’s family—a collection of interesting, funny, loving people.

Owls Don’t Have to Mean Death begins with Peter and Cache heading to St. Augustine, Florida for a long weekend away. The young couple is coping with Cache’s illness and their deep love for each other. The book is infused with memories from their earlier years, including Peter’s coming of age, tribal ceremony, and growing up in a rural area surrounded by family.

Livingston, a mixed-blood Creek Indian, is a poet, writer, and teacher. He’s on faculty at the Institute of American Indian Arts’s Low-Rez MFA program, where I met him when I was a student. (He also is on faculty at Regis University.) In addition to Owls Don’t Have to Mean Death, Livingston has written a short story collection, Naming Ceremony, and a few poetry collections. He’s also been published widely in journals, including The Rumpus.

We spoke in October about the book’s origins, Livingston’s move to Uruguay, his writing life, and the significance of owls.


The Rumpus: I loved the poetic bang of the first paragraph, especially this sentence: “Below the clouds, fog clings to the wet earth, and an eastern ball of fire kindles dry the red, packed clay.”

How large a role does poetry play in the crafting of your prose, and how do you balance the poetry with the need to hit fiction craft elements, like plot and dialogue?

Chip Livingston: I came to poetry after working primarily in fiction and nonfiction, and my awareness of poetic elements now fills those first two genres pretty naturally. I began writing very sparse prose, very matter-of-fact and with little regard to sequence or sound, but I realized it was the music in poetry and poetic prose that most moved me, and I began consciously (and subconsciously) inserting that into my more narrative forms of storytelling.

Rumpus: Portions of your novel are derived from stories in Naming Ceremony. How did you get from there to here? Would describe the road to publication?

Livingston: I wrote the first draft of the novel twenty-five years ago, when it began as my master’s thesis at University of Colorado. This was in the nineties and I entered the program shortly after my lover had died. The completed novel was awarded prizes from Wordcraft Circle and Native Writers’ Circle and went on to win a prize from the AABB Foundation, but for one reason or another, it was never published.

Since some of the pieces had worked and been published as short stories, I tried to make the novel into a story collection. It then won a contest for story collections but the editors said they thought “it was really a novel” and weren’t going to publish it as the winner. I started taking the chapters and turning them into poems. I lost track of what it was. I tweaked and twisted the manuscript into so many different forms I finally thought I had broken it. I didn’t have a copy of the original. I lost more than a hundred pages. But, hopefully, that worked for the best when I returned to it last year.

When Lethe Press agreed to publish my story collection, I told the publisher I also had a novel with some of those same characters, and he said let’s wait a few years and, if the story collection did well, he would bring out the novel. So I spent some time editing it, revising it, and last year I sent it to Lethe. It was a strange journey to becoming a book.

Rumpus: How much of the book is true to your own life?

Livingston: It’s a hundred percent true and a hundred percent fiction. It’s based on my experiences and my trying to make sense of major heartbreaks, my questions at the time. But in writing the novel, it became something much different than any kind of memoir. It became about the characters much more than about me, my experiences, or people they were based on.

Rumpus: That’s an interesting metamorphosis. Was it hard to fictionalize aspects of the story? Did you feel like you were betraying anyone with the fictional elements?

Livingston: It’s been painful to relive some of the events as I returned to work on the book, but it wasn’t difficult to fictionalize any parts of it. And it’s very much a fiction. I do feel like I’m betraying the truth of how amazing and supportive the family of my real-life lover was. The support of Peter’s aunt and mother in the novel is really more representative of my partner’s family’s support at the time. They remain as close to me now as my own family, twenty-five years after his death, and the book is dedicated to my late partner’s mother.

Rumpus: Let’s move on to owls. I’ve been told that, among members of Native American tribes, owls often bear significance as carriers of messages. In some tribes the messages are thought to be bad news, particularly as omens of death.

The title of the book seems to acknowledge that belief and also challenges it a bit, or at least offers a different perspective. What drew you to delving into that issue and do you think you’ll get any flak for bringing it up?

Livingston: I first knew owls as omens of death, usually literal or sometimes figurative, and there’s an element of taboo in making them so prominent in my novel. I showed the cover image on my cell phone to a Native friend, and he withdrew his hands and didn’t touch my phone, asking seriously, “Are those real owl feathers?”

I don’t expect I will get any particular flak for the subject itself, but I suspect some people will deliberately not read it/touch it because of the owl feathers on the front. Certainly some will argue about the accuracy of the title, but it was based on my own fight against what I knew was inevitable.

Rumpus: We learn early on in the book that Cache is really sick. In one scene Peter cries and Cache tells him, “It’s going to be okay… Everything’s going to be okay.” As a reader, I wanted that to be the case, even though I knew it wouldn’t be. In another scene, Peter remembers seeing a poster in the Indian Health Services clinic that read: The earth has acquired an immune dysfunction. We are all living with AIDS. Is that a poster you’ve actually seen?

Livingston: That’s an actual poster I saw in an office at the Minnesota American Indian AIDS Task Force in Minneapolis. The idea that it wasn’t an individual epidemic was helpful in my understanding of how we might consider, treat, and cure the disease.

Rumpus: Let’s talk about your versatility as a writer. You’ve done books of poetry, short stories, creative nonfiction pieces, and now a novel. On top of that, you worked as a journalist. Does it ever get confusing to work in so many genres or do you ever want to get away from words and go throw paint on a canvas instead?

Livingston: I never want to get away from words. Never. I love them and can’t imagine a life without them being primary in almost every aspect. I work on different genres/different projects at the same time, depending on my motivation and inspiration, but I’m pretty good at compartmentalizing my focus for one thing at a time. I often don’t end a piece in the genre it began. For example, a story idea might turn into a poem. Something I begin as a poem might become an essay before I’m finished.

Rumpus: What if you had a magic pen that would never run dry and for which you would never run out of words, but you had to choose only one genre; what would you choose?

Livingston: Fiction. Short stories, specifically. They’re my favorite form to read and write. But they take the longest for me to write.

Rumpus: If you could read only three books over and over for the rest of your life what would they be?

Livingston: Probably right now I’d say Power, by Linda Hogan, which captures wild Florida so beautifully for me; Not Vanishing, a poetry collection by Chrystos; and The Invisible Mountain, by Carolina De Robertis, which covers a hundred years and three generations of women in Uruguay.

Rumpus: I’m curious about language. You are fluent in Spanish, and now that you live in Uruguay you speak it full time. Will you write in Spanish? Do you think in Spanish?

Livingston: I do think in Spanish. To the point that sometimes I can’t remember the equivalent words in English. But I don’t know if I’ll ever compose creative writing in that language. I certainly don’t now have the specifics of vocabulary to express my ideas the way I can express them in written English. But we’ll see as my Spanish continues to improve.

Rumpus: Is your adorable pup Frida barking in Spanish yet?

Livingston: No. But my dog understands Spanish as well as, or better than, English. She first came here with me at eight weeks old and she was trained in Spanish. When we moved back to Uruguay, she remembered everything: streets, neighborhoods, my friends, her dog friends, and her Spanish.

Rumpus: And what about Uruguayan writers? I bet some of us, like me, aren’t all that familiar with Uruguayan writers at this time, so please tell us about some great ones.

Livingston: Carolina De Robertis, whom I mentioned in my three “forever” books. Her work is important. There are a lot of young poets publishing in Uruguay at the moment that I’m newly discovering, but I’m still getting to know the classics: Idea Vilariño, Mario Benedetti, Juana de Ibarbourou. I really love the short stories of Horacio Quiroga and Felisberto Hernandez.

Rumpus: I’ve read quite a few books that you’ve recommended to me over the years. You were a great mentor to me during my second semester at IAIA and opened up possibilities for my writing with your support of my experimentation. Who were your own strongest mentors and influences as you pursued your various writing degrees and do you still have mentors?

Livingston: I’m grateful for so many strong mentors. Primarily among them are Linda Hogan, Lucia Berlin, the poet Ai. Hogan and Berlin were also extremely important examples on how to teach writing. Louis Asekoff, Lisa Jarnot, Sapphire, Harry Crews, and Victoria Lancelotta were also very influential teachers. I still seek advice from Linda Hogan. And I have other writer friends I trust with early drafts.

Rumpus: Where do you write?

Livingston: I write in silence in my home, as I’m too easily distracted by peripheral noises and conversations. I also take Post-It notes and write observations and thoughts as I’m moving through any landscape, but I like to write at a familiar desk and big keyboard.

Rumpus: What’s the atmosphere like in Uruguay, in terms of political and cultural tensions? I’m thinking about how during elections we often hear people in the US say, “I’m moving to Canada if so-and-so wins.” I don’t think you moved to South America because of the current state of American politics, but your timing was impeccable. Are you getting a breather from the intensity of political news or is it just as much there?

Livingston: The politics of the United States had nothing to do with my decision to live again in Uruguay. My plan was always to move back here as soon as I could. I still keep an active watch on what’s happening in the north and I still contact my recent representatives regarding current issues. I’m able to make phone calls and send texts.

But there is also a relief from the constant pressure and oppression I’ve felt in the US since the inauguration. I went back to the US in April and was stunned by how visceral the division felt and how different it was from before the 2016 election. I don’t have the sense of being on edge every minute like I often do in the States. I’m personally more relaxed here in Uruguay, but that has been the case since I first came to the country eight years ago. It’s why I prefer to make Uruguay my home base.

Rumpus: In the novel, you wrote that Peter thought about “how in the old days, the days his grandfather didn’t remember but would talk about, a man was known by the place he lived, for the place that claimed him.” Has a place claimed you? 

Livingston: I’m claimed by south Alabama, by northern Florida, and that will always be my primary sense of where I come from. But Uruguay caught my adoration and my soul the first time I visited. Uruguay feels like home in a way no other place ever has, a pull I’m still trying to figure out.

Rumpus: You’ve spoken to me before of the natural beauty to be found where you grew up and it shows in this book and other things you’ve written.

Livingston: I’m from the Florida-Alabama border, and grew up on the Perdido and Escambia rivers that ran through those states. It was a childhood of cypress knees and Spanish moss, creeks and swamps, red clay—fishing with my grandfather or my father. It was also about an hour from Pensacola Beach and several bays. But I grew up among water and trees.

Rumpus: It’s such a contrast to the congested Florida cities like Miami. I tend to forget that Florida has beautiful places. You said that Uruguay is home to you now. What does home mean to you?

Livingston: Home, to me, is where I feel joy, where I feel safe, where I feel inspired. I’ve never felt more content and happy to just go to the supermarket as I do in Uruguay. Or walk the dog. Or stub my toe. Plus, if I stub my toe, I have access to amazing health care, something else I never had in the US.

Rumpus: Is there anywhere else you’d like to live one day?

Livingston: No. I’ve traveled quite a bit and lived in many different places, but since I met the Republica Oriental del Uruguay, I can’t imagine wanting to live anywhere else.

Rumpus: Do you have plans for your next book?

Livingston: I’m revising my memoir at the moment, which covers the decade I spent in New York City, becoming a poet. I suspect that will be the next published book, but then again, I thought this new novel, Owls Don’t Have to Mean Death, would have been published twenty years ago. I can’t predict what publishers might be most interested in and when.


Author photograph © Gabriel Padilha.

Helga Schimkat received her MFA with concentrations in Creative Nonfiction and Fiction from the Institute of American Indian Arts in May 2017. More from this author →