Off the Interstate, into Real Experience: Talking with Erica Trabold
In her creative work, on paper, and in person, Erica Trabold is an intelligent, deep, encompassing, and attentive presence. She has the precise cutting tools to write exacting and beautiful essays. It’s no wonder that her book Five Plots feels like a meaningful and deliberate excavation into being. I was first introduced to her work when I read her essay “Five Plots” in the Seneca Review a few years ago. Shortly thereafter, I recognized her name when I was reviewing nonfiction applications to the MFA in Creative Writing at my home institution. Although I tried my best to woo her, Erica went on to earn her MFA from Oregon State University, where I was able to meet up with her when I did a reading there.
Her debut unearths the layers of history that make us what we are, doing so as only a poetic essayist can: incorporating memory, historical fact, failures, landscapes, hopes, and whatever grows or has grown. I found myself delightfully lost in her imagistic prose, her layers of dreamy sediment, her intersecting strata of family, memory, erosion, and death. Trabold’s landscape of childhood and Nebraska is haunting and bright, warm and hostile, captured in entrancing syntax and meditation. Five Plots signals a daringly honest, intelligent, and complicated voice in the world of essays. Chosen by John D’Agata—who has championed the essay, particularly in his editing of the Seneca Review—Five Plots was the winner of the inaugural Deborah Tall Lyric Essay Book Prize.
The Rumpus: The first thing I’m wondering about is the title of your collection, Five Plots, which is also the title to the last essay. Can you talk about this how you chose this title and how it works thematically in all the essays? In the collection as a whole?
Erica Trabold: Sometimes I worry about writing short things. Do you ever worry about writing short things? I was so preoccupied with how I might make the essay longer that I almost missed this title’s appearance in my mind. In draft form, the piece was lingering at five sections—the fun of essaying is finding patterns and associations, so when I realized my father had purchased four graves for us and I had dwelled so heavily on the grave for the cat, simple math produced something unexpected. I was working at a writing center at the time. I asked my colleague (who I didn’t know particularly well and had never read the essay), “What do you think of this title? Plots are graves, and plots are stories, and there are five of both!” He was kind and said I sounded like I had just had an epiphany. Thank goodness we had no clients that hour and I could spend it thinking about death. But jokes aside, what I think I needed was to hear the thought outside myself. I can be pretty self-critical and need a sounding board. When I was putting together the manuscript, again I worried that it would be too short, but this time I had the earlier lesson to draw from. I thought about the significance the number could carry throughout the book—there is (at least) one focal death in every essay—and restricted myself to five stories that I could arrange into an arc. Maybe it was a way for me to justify writing something short, but it felt reasonable and intentional. Since it had worked once already, I tried not to overthink it.
Rumpus: The title essay was also the first piece I read from the book. Years ago, I happened upon “Five Plots” in the Seneca Review, a place where I also published the beginning of what would be my first book. The journal, as well as John D’Agata, have been such strong beacons for me. How has the Seneca Review been a beacon in your writing life?
Trabold: Seneca Review was the first place I was directed when I took an interest in writing lyric essays. Actually, that’s not quite right. First, it was Deborah Tall’s A Family of Strangers, then John D’Agata’s anthology The Next American Essay, where I must have first encountered your work, Jenny. Naturally, I was drawn to Seneca Review because of the defining work Tall and D’Agata did together as editors. Before I even knew how to submit to literary journals, I submitted to Seneca Review. They were one of my first votes of confidence as someone just beginning to find her way, and in the case of the book prize, I see such beautiful symmetry.
Rumpus: Deborah Tall’s A Family of Strangers is also one of my favorite books and a book that I turn to time and time again in my teaching. Like your book, it deals with layers of history and uncovering “family.” How do you see these elements working in your book? Has excavating always been a natural metaphor for you?
Trabold: For me, learning who I am has always been a process of uncovering—with writing, with anything. It’s both discovery and destruction. And the metaphor of digging is so closely related to stories, isn’t it? We “dig” into a good book or into our own research. My family was in many ways the first research interest I wanted to spend time sifting through, which was sometimes painful, tedious work. Excavating was a metaphor available for what that felt like, and layering our history with Nebraska’s produced interesting overlaps and some dissonance. Digging becomes a complicated metaphor because, in the case of the land, I’m not sure what good came of its many manipulations. I see the inquiry of this book related to uncovering in almost every way. I want to trouble it by asking about what was, what might have been, and what considering alternate histories can produce in our lives.
Rumpus: Digging or excavating for family history reminds me of the ending of the first essay, “Canyoneering.” You write,
You are a canyoneer attempting to locate a place that has always belonged to you, filled with your own menagerie. You don’t have to know the history of every formation, but you can allow yourself to enjoy the reprieve, the soda straws, the water pooling on your skin, the evaporation lines.
I admire how these sentences blend the everyday and the extraordinary. You’ve transformed, it seems, a body of history and land into something otherworldly through writing about it. How do you see your collection as working towards or against a literature of where you’re from, Nebraska?
Trabold: Perhaps, I am doing both. I want to see a more expansive literature of the Midwest, especially rural areas, especially of this century. I also want to trace the rich literary vein of my home—Willa Cather, Wright Morris, Loren Eiseley, Ted Kooser, my own teachers, and so many others—while finding my place within that lineage. I write a Nebraska that’s otherworldly and exotic because that’s the way I see it, but I know many people don’t. Our literature doesn’t always reflect that. Neither does the way we’re represented in pop culture. Nebraska may not be a travel magazine destination, but I think the more artists paint it beautiful, captivating, and strange, the more work we are doing to resist stereotypes and assumptions. What I really want is to get readers off the interstate or airplane and into a real experience, one that treads regional, universal, and immediate concerns.
Rumpus: It is important work, I feel, to make immediate and understood the lesser-known and misunderstood places in the world. For most of my life, and even now I suppose, I always felt as if I came from someplace else. I suppose this is due in part to an absence of literature or discourse on exactly those places where I am from. Literature, I feel, can root us, ground us in a place and culture and society. In your essay, “Borrow Pits,” you explore family history and the idea of legacy through place, interweaving the story of pioneering and ownership as well as the idea of erasure, boundaries, and leveling. You also investigate or meditate on what cannot be immediately known, underground places on which we depend. In what ways is your book an erasure, a boundary, a leveling, an underground place that isn’t known but on which you depend?
Trabold: Coming from someplace else—that feels familiar to me, too. Maybe it’s the writer’s disposition. Maybe it allows us to see. As much as I think of this project as place-work, I also think of the self-work writing involves, something Melissa Febos (quoting Rilke) calls “heart-work.” Writing a personal essay is an erasure of selves—you can commit to only a small shard of who you are on the page—so in that way, so much of this book is inherently an erasure. After I’ve swirled around in the moments I’m sitting with long enough, they feel chaotic. They contradict, and then, somehow they land. Doing the “heart-work” allows me to see where the dust might settle. The process creates its own boundaries. That feels like a leveling to me, a natural shift that makes a fuller picture of a moment, but only ever a piece, one snapshot of an idea, of a self. All of this comes from a well, that underground place (call it muse or inspiration) that, for me, seems to find herself preoccupied with the same things over and over and over.
Rumpus: Perhaps this preoccupation explains the intense interconnectivity in your book. Each subject, both figurative and literal, touches on and encompasses the text in such prismatic ways, creating an ever-enlightening discourse in the text. For example, the manner in which interior space and exterior space change hands in the work feels similar to the writing process you’re describing. In your book, there exists an abundance of interior spaces (a cave, a home, an aquifer) as well as the vast exterior that is an ever-shifting landscape, whose boundaries are forever altering the very interior spaces that are needed for livelihood. Can you talk a bit about your own exterior and interior spaces? I mean, who do you read and connect with? What are some physical everyday encounters that exhilarate your writing?
Trabold: I find so much interplay between the exterior world and my interior spark. There has to be, right? More specifically, several of the essays in this collection came out of an intention I set after moving across the country—when I traveled back to Nebraska, I tried to experience one thing I never had before and I found plenty experiences to be had even though I had lived there my whole life prior. While memory is certainly at the core of personal essaying, so, I think, is seeing the familiar anew. I’m always trying to do that, always trying to find inspiration outside to compliment what’s stored within. Going places, experiences new things—that openness can shape an inquiry in the most fascinating way. Reading does that, too, and I always have a few books in progress. I look for books with wonky timelines and a lyric quality, books that sound how I want to sound and make the familiar strange. On my nightstand right now are Francisco Cantú’s The Line Becomes a River and Gretel Ehrlich’s Facing the Wave. Both, I think, are strong examples of the kind of work I find compelling, inspiring—whatever the word is for that feeling.
Rumpus: Before we end our conversation, I was hoping that you could trace your evolution of being a writer for us. I’m specifically interested in how your upbringing, environment, and childhood played a role in your path to becoming a writer, particularly of experimental essays.
Also, how you do feel about publishing a book so early in your career? You just earned your MFA a few years ago, right?
And, lastly, Five Plots is the flagship title of the Seneca Review’s newly launched book press. The Seneca Review has historically been the journal where writers who are neither/nor can find homes for their writings that aren’t quite poetry or prose but rather what some of us deem the lyric essay. How does the lyric essay figure as a conceptual device and creative impulse in your book and your development as a writer? What might be the future of the lyric essay?
Trabold: Last year at my parents’ house, I found a half-finished novel in my bedroom. I wrote it longhand in a purple Hello Kitty notebook, and my best friend illustrated the chapters—that was probably fourth or fifth grade. Around that time, I was also keeping a diary, writing for fun, and sending my work to magazines (garnering many rejections). But I was a kid—I was doing so many unusual and fun things with my time. I could probably tell you a similar story, find some illustrative moments, about any profession I might have entered. What I’m getting at is the fact that I didn’t always know I was a writer. I found a different path toward writing, one that was more a process of uncovering what I was capable of and discovering what I could do than following my heart.
I started writing seriously in college, but it wasn’t until professors took me aside and showed me how. It’s probably not surprising for me to say in my hometown, a rural community of a thousand people, no one modeled a creative or academic career. I just didn’t know a writing life was possible, and even when I did, I still needed encouragement. I needed to see people I admired reading and writing and teaching and saying, “You can do this, too.” I don’t regret not getting that encouragement earlier. It feels incredible to have found it at all, given the circumstances—but the fact that for so long I didn’t know I was a writer makes me feel like maybe it was inevitable to end up here. It’s like finding something important you don’t even remember losing, duct taping it to your body, and vowing never to let go of it again.
I’m both thrilled and terrified to be publishing a book so early in my career—it’s the exact thing I’ve been working toward, and I know it will open doors I haven’t even discovered. But I do have the unspoken fears I’m sure every writer has after finishing a project: What if I forget how to do this? What if this is it? What if I can’t do it again? I’m trying to keep those anxieties at bay by working on new essays and reminding myself that as much as publishing the book feels like an ending, it’s actually a beginning.
I am an obedient perfectionist. Like my students, I want to know how to get an A. I want the degree, the job, the house. I want good credit. I want to stay out of trouble. I want to say the right thing and for people to like me. But these desires all stem from someone else’s design: what should preoccupy and rule my thoughts. The page is one place I can play outside that. In a culture with an ever-tightening grip on the rules, system, and “values” feeding its oppressive power, this is important work. It’s resistance. Lyric essaying is an inherently radical act. Its terrain is lawless—that’s what I love the most about going there. We don’t have to write or live the way we’re supposed to. We don’t have to play the game. In fact, it’s better if we don’t. I think I’m contributing to that collective effort in my own way by resisting the story of Nebraska or girlhood as it may have been told, resisting narrative as it may be shaped. And I’m excited by all the places yet explored, all the rewriting and resisting and reimagining this particular form allows both reader and writer to do. I want to see where we can go next, what we can push back against.
Photograph of Erica Trabold © Kimberly Dovi Photography.