Story by Story: Talking with Margaret Renkl

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Within the fated dailiness of the New York Times there is a place where the proboscis of a monarch butterfly “unfurls” and a “small gray spider has pitched an elaborate camp” and there are instructions on “how to rake leaves on a windy day.”

This zephyr is Margaret Renkl’s world, her column. This is her American South, a place she once left in pursuit of a doctorate in English on a West Philadelphia campus and then—irreparably out of place in the “heavy, exhaust-burdened air” of that urbanity—reclaimed. Raised by a family of binding love and sometimes thwarted ambition, Renkl has chased time and staked memory. She has asked her grandmother to remember out loud. She has front-row-seated herself in the theater of Backyard Nature. She has worried wonder, but mostly she has woven it into uncorrupted prose.

And now Renkl has a new book, her first, called Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss, forthcoming July 9 from Milkweed Editions. This is memoir by way of adjacencies. This is the story of a tight-knit clan and their red-dirt roads, their abiding dogs, their rainstorms, their birds, their living in-between the dying. This is the story of grief accelerated by beauty and beauty made richer by grief. This is scout bees, bluebirds, ragged foxes, fur-lined bunny nests, and yes, of course, those migrating butterflies. It is the story of a girl, now a woman, who watches it all through the window of her life.

What enraptures me is the way the book itself unfurls, moving back and forth across time, from metaphor to story to truth. Like Sonja Livingston in Ghostbread, Renkl tells her story frame by frame, eliminating the explanatory, the merely autobiographical, wherever she can. Like Patti Smith in Woolgathering, Renkl aligns natural history with personal history so completely that the one becomes the other. Like Annie Dillard in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Renkl makes, of a ring of suburbia, an alchemical exotica.

We spoke recently about the choreography of the book, its economy of words, and whether writing is an act of hope or of desperation.

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The Rumpus: The book begins not with your voice, but with the voice of your grandmother, who tells the story of your mother’s birth in an unfiltered fashion. This italicized voice appears throughout the book, sometimes when the reader least expects it, and, at one point, within a crescendoing fever pitch. How long had you been in possession of such rich oral history? Why did you decide that your grandmother must tell your tale with you?

Margaret Renkl: In 1990, my brother—Billy Renkl, a collage artist who made all the images for Late Migrations—interviewed our grandmother about the story of her life. She was eighty-one by then, and in memory she tended to dwell on life-and-death matters, so she told stories about the days when someone in our family was born and the days when someone in our family died. Also prominently featured: accidents, terrible illnesses, and hospitalizations. My grandmother measured time by the space between calamities.

As I was writing this book, I often went back to the transcripts of those interviews to check my facts, but it didn’t occur to me to include Mimi’s actual voice in the book until I was embarrassingly far along in writing. One day it just dawned on me, lightbulb-style, that letting my grandmother tell her own stories made far more sense than trying to paraphrase them myself. People tell their touchstone stories again and again and again, and I was deep into my forties before Mimi died, so I’d been hearing these stories for years. But adding her actual voice to the book brought a depth and an immediacy that I had no legitimate way to access otherwise; I wasn’t alive for, or was too young to remember, some of the stories I tell here. When you’re writing nonfiction, I think you’re obliged to be very clear about the sources of your truth.

Rumpus: Late Migrations has authority and texture, and I found myself writing all over the pages, mapping the flow of your stories and ideas, imagining you with the book’s many elements on your figurative floor. The sudden death of a starling in the essay “Encroachers” is answered, on the next page, by your grandmother’s story of the death of her favorite dog in 1940. The death of that dog is answered, in the next essay, by the howl of your own dog, in nearly present time. A bird dies, a dog dies, a dog doesn’t die, a child is born. The child who will, in her prose and in this book, howl after the world. Can you please take us inside the stitching together of Late Migrations?

Renkl: May I start by noting, with heartfelt gratitude, that your question has gone a long way toward assuaging my deepest fears about this book? As a reader, I don’t like to have significances spelled out for me, but I don’t like obscurity either. I want to be guided right up to the very edge of a place where one thing joins another—the space between image and meaning, the space between story and story—and then I want to be required to make a little leap. But as a writer, I always find it hard to leave the right-sized gap, a space that’s not so small as to be insulting to a reader, or so large as to be bewildering.

But to answer your question, I started writing these essays during my mother-in-law’s last year. Between work, family, and eldercare, I had only tiny snatches of time for the project. It’s possible to write a micro-essay in stolen bits of time, but it’s really not possible to figure out a guiding principle for a whole book that way, and I didn’t think of this book as a book until much later. I was simply inhabiting grief by writing about it—grief over my mother’s death, grief over my mother-in-law’s decline, grief over the warming planet, grief over the political disasters that kept unfolding in the news.

Several times I spread all those essays out in rows on our family-room floor—the actual floor, not the figurative one you’re imagining—to see if some kind of structure presented itself. Then I would give up and gather them all back up again willy nilly. When I submitted a set of sample essays to Milkweed during its open-reading period for nonfiction, there was no narrative arc at all. It was just a collection of essays that attempted by proximity to point out resonances between the cycles of the natural world and the cycles of human life.

It was Joey McGarvey, Milkweed’s editor, who suggested the obvious starting point: putting the family essays in chronological order. Once I did that, I could see where the holes in the narrative were, and then I could write the essays that filled the holes, the essays that made the gaps easier for a reader to leap over. Once the family essays were in place, I could see which nature essays picked up certain themes, or reinforced certain images, and they found their places, too. Or some of them did, anyway—I ended up throwing out a lot of the nature essays because they didn’t fit into the family narrative quite so clearly.

Rumpus: How excruciatingly hard it must have been to remove so many of your nature pieces, for each one that you did include is a shining gem. But I do think the proportions are just right. I’m planning to teach what I like to call the “choreography” of this book. If you were standing before a group of memoirists, what would you want to teach them?

Renkl: I think it might be helpful to some writers—maybe especially to people who come to writing later in life—to hear that it’s possible to write a memoir in very tiny pieces. You don’t need to hold the whole narrative in mind from the very beginning. You just need to write it bit by bit, story by story, image by image. It’s easy to become discouraged, but if you can write a two-paragraph essay you actually like, two paragraphs in which the words more or less match the memory, it’s easier to keep going. Eventually all those little essays—or chapters, in another way of thinking about it—will pile up when you aren’t even looking.

Rumpus: I brought the galley of Late Migrations to my honors thesis student at Penn, who is working on a memoir about his grandfather. I read the two-paragraph piece “Into the Storm, Safe from the Storm” aloud. I told my student, “Economy can be power,” but I actually didn’t have to say it. He’d received that lesson already, through the story and those eighteen lines. Could you talk about this? About all that you take out so that you can leave the necessary in?

Renkl: I come to this question as a failed poet. My entire formal education centered on poetry, and I spent close to fifteen years seriously writing poetry myself. Though it’s been more than two decades since I last wrote a poem, I think economy must go hand-in-glove with that orientation to language because I really don’t think in terms of what to include and what to leave out of a piece of writing. I think in terms of image. Once I have the central image, it’s like throwing a stone into water: the rest of the piece expands outward around it. Later, in revision, I can start to see which words work to support that image and which words don’t, and that’s how I know what to leave out.

Rumpus: It’s so hard to imagine you as a failed anything, Margaret.

Renkl: That’s very kind. “Failed” is a strong word, it’s true, and I don’t think I was a terrible poet. But I was a weak one. The matters a poet must attend to—line tension, enjambment, music—require an intensity and concentration that ultimately I just don’t have. When I first set out to write about grief, I knew I needed to write in a very compressed, almost elliptical style, and I considered trying to return to poetry. But I kept running up against the same insurmountable problem: poems are much harder to write than prose. That’s when I hit on the idea of writing prose in poetry-sized doses.

Rumpus: We see glimpses of your childhood and present-day backyards throughout the book. But might you share with us an overall view? If I were standing with you on the edge of your yard right now, what would I see?

Renkl: I think you would probably find an overall view very disappointing. If you stood at the edge of my yard right now, you would see a shabby old house surrounded by giant, sparkling homes on lots where other old houses like ours once stood in this rapidly changing neighborhood.

But nature, as Emily Dickinson wrote, is what we see. Even in the most seemingly sterile stretches of suburbia, it’s there, stubbornly persisting in those little pockets of the outdoors that human beings haven’t yet managed to smother or to poison. So if you stood at the edge of my yard and looked more closely, you would see a nest box where a territorial mockingbird—who doesn’t even nest in a cavity—is trying to chase off the bluebirds who have staked their claim to the box. You would see the pollinator garden I planted beside the driveway, the only sunny place in my yard. I call it a garden, but it looks like a bed of weeds. In fact it is a bed of weeds—the kinds of weeds that bees and butterflies require to survive.

In this yard, not all of nature is truly natural, though, and you would also see the wintercreeper vines, a terrible invasive species that I battle every year, beginning to climb one of the sugar maple trees. And if you looked more closely still, you would see why I can’t pull down the vines just yet: There’s a cottontail nest tucked between the raised roots of the sugar maple and hidden by vines. If you happened to be standing at the edge of the yard at the end of the day, you might be lucky enough to see the mother rabbit hop over to that secret nest and stand quietly above it, her nose constantly testing the air for the scent of predators. And then you would see the barest stirring of the wintercreeper leaves as her babies reached for her with their soft, tiny mouths.

Rumpus: This is not a memoir about dysfunction. Yes, there is loss here, but loss abounds in nature and in life, loss afflicts us all. This is something your young son discovers when you together find a dead robin. Your son wants to know if everything will die, and you answer him, stoically. Then he wants to know if he will die, and that is the question, you write, “that made me want to lie and lie again and keep lying forever.” Is writing an act of hope, in this afflicted world? Or is it an act of desperation?

Renkl: This is a great question, and I don’t know the answer to it. Is it one? Both? Neither? Assigning language to experience is just the way I make sense of the world. I can often write my way around to understanding something that puzzles me, or troubles me, just because the act of focused attention all by itself can be clarifying.

But I can say that the nature essays, at least, began as both an act of desperation and an act of hope. In the midst of the 2016 presidential primary season, I desperately needed some way to remind myself that what was happening to my country was not the only thing that deserved my attention. The timelessness of the natural cycles right outside my window became a source of solace and hope.

In time I came to see, too, the connection between the nature essays I was writing to distract myself from the political world and the essays I was writing about my childhood, and not just because I spent so much of my childhood outdoors. We aren’t singled out for suffering in this world. Nature is shot through with suffering of every kind, and yet its rhythms persist, its beauty never fails. (Left to its own devices it doesn’t, at least.) What was happening to me is only what happens to us all, as you point out. There was no reason to fear it or to reject it. I took great comfort in remembering that I am part of something far, far larger than myself, something that will persist long after I am gone.


Beth Kephart is the award-winning author of two-dozen books, an award-winning teacher at the University of Pennsylvania, and co-founder of Juncture Workshops. Her new book is Strike the Empty: Notes for Readers, Writers, and Teachers of Memoir. She is at work on a collection of essays, Wife|Daughter|Self. More at bethkephartbooks.com. Follow Beth on Twitter @BethKephart. More from this author →