When Laraine Herring and I were in graduate school together twenty years ago, I had a dream in which we found our way to a swimming pool. The chlorinated water was teeming with giant sea serpents, and while I stood at the concrete lip of the pool, afraid to even dip a toe, she dove straight in without any hesitation. This dream clearly was a metaphor for how I saw her (and still see her) as a writer—utterly fearless, able to face even the most intimidating monsters head on.
Herring, a tenured professor of creative writing and psychology at Yavapi College in Prescott, Arizona, is the author of three gorgeous, ghost-filled, novels, Ghost Swamp Blues, Gathering Lights, and Into the Garden of Gethsemane, Georgia, three revelatory craft books, Writing Begins with the Breath: Embodying Your Authentic Voice, The Writing Warrior: Discovering the Courage to Free Your True Voice, and On Being Stuck: Tapping into the Creative Power of Writer’s Block, plus a wise, moving book about grief for readers of all ages, The Grief Forest: A Book about What We Don’t Talk About, illustrated with Herring’s drawings, and a powerful book about a specific type of grief, Lost Fathers: How Women Can Heal from Adolescent Father Loss. As I reread this list of her titles, I can see how each book led her toward writing her breathtakingly original tour de force (out in October and available for pre-order now) A Constellation of Ghosts: A Speculative Memoir with Ravens, a book shimmering with specters and grief and courage, with silence-breaking and profound layers of healing.
In this formally inventive memoir, Herring’s long-dead father reappears as a raven around the time of Herring’s cancer diagnosis. He leads her to the ancestral realm, where she faces reverberations of generational trauma and has to figure out what to carry with her moving forward, and what she can finally let go. She finds herself writing a play in the process, directed by her raven father. It will be a cast of only four: you and me and my mother and my father, and we will speak until there are no more words between us, says Raven. And then you can decide the ending. Tick, tock, write. And write Herring did, with such potent lyricism and urgency, the pages feel ready to burst into flame.
It was a joy to speak with Herring over email, where we had a rich exchange about figurative writing, dreams that are more than dreams, and the gifts of grief.
The Rumpus: Your memoir is such a groundbreaking one in the genre of speculative memoir. How do you define speculative memoir, and what drew you to approach your own memoir through this lens?
Laraine Herring: Speculative memoir explores the truth of a life through the lens of the figurative over the literal. It is separate from journalism—not because it doesn’t address truth, but because of the way in which it renders truth. The tagline of A Constellation of Ghosts is: I was busy doing other things when cancer came, and my father, thirty years dead, returned to me as a raven. I was diagnosed with colon cancer. My father did die in 1987. My home in northern AZ is filled with ravens. They surround my patio. They bring gifts. I feed them and talk to them. Is one of the ravens in my backyard actually my dad? No (I don’t think!). But that’s actually part of the trajectory of the book. As I try to understand my own complicated grief, I start thinking about ghosts and what they are, and I found myself talking to Raven and then, in that way only characters in books can, Raven said in no uncertain terms that he was not my father, but my hope of my father. I didn’t know that was coming, and that realization was a personal aha moment in my own healing. There’s another line in the book, “I don’t remember you. I remember me remembering you.” I started to think about how much of my memories of my dad center around actual photographs I have, and what might be in the spaces that we didn’t photograph. That journey requires the speculative.
My book was inspired by a writing prompt from the incredible Ariel Gore. The prompt was:
Someone important to you who has died has not died. They knock at your door. And you show them around your current life.
This someone important to you will likely be someone you knew and loved—or tried to love—or waited for love from. But maybe it will be someone you never knew in person—an art or literary love.
This someone important to you who has died has not died. They knock at your door. You show them around your current life.
Somewhere in this story, show your visitor a book.
I tried to write it as if my dad actually came to the door (my human father!) and I couldn’t do it. I was sitting outside and a big raven came with a bread-tie in its mouth and perched on the edge of my patio. I immediately found the magic words of “what if” and ran with that. What if my dad returned as a raven? What then? And I was off and running at that point.
I do see the world speculatively, so choosing it as a lens was not so much a choice as an, of course this is the form. I’m the one who sees things other people don’t in rooms, who hears the voices of objects, and who personifies kitchen appliances! The breakthrough for me came with the decision to choose to claim the way I see the world as valid. At first, I thought I would write a more traditional memoir, but that wasn’t connecting for me, and when I understood that withholding the speculative elements actually was a disservice to my truth about my experiences, I was able to claim the speculative memoir lane. The heart of the book is an internal journey through complicated and intergenerational grief. Those concepts, which were not explored primarily in the external world, were no less “real” and no less “true” because the experiences were contained in the psyche.
Rumpus: I love this—and yes, the speculative elements of the memoir feel so profoundly real, so profoundly true. You mention intergenerational grief. I found the pulse of that thread so moving, especially how it ultimately led to what felt like deep intergenerational healing. How did writing this book change your relationship with your ancestors? With yourself?
Herring: I started seriously studying ancestral healing in 2018, after my cancer treatment. I wanted to understand where I came from and how I have been shaped by so many people, so many long long dead. I found that dialoguing with my ancestors, finding small things to be grateful for (there were some, um, complicated relationships!) and looking at how to love them better started to soften my own edges. When you’re able to be grateful for all that had to occur for you to simply have breath and life, regardless of what people may or may not have done while alive, that opens up to a bigger love. Connecting with the voices of my paternal grandparents (as RAVEN’S MOTHER and RAVEN’S FATHER), particularly through how they processed their son’s (RAVEN, my father) early death, gave me compassion. Although they are both dead, and have been for many years, I used memory, family stories, and letters to reconstruct them on the page. I knew that I wanted a thread of forgiveness in the book—for all the things we said or didn’t say, for dying, for not dying—no matter what, forgiveness was the centerpiece of the story. We were not a family that talked much about significant things, but through the speculative elements in the book, I could continue to explore my ancestral voices and have conversations that we didn’t have in life. When I reached the end of the book, I realized I was trying to write my family back together again, and even though I’m the only one alive, I still felt that that reunification had occurred. That’s the power of art, I think. It is transformative. It can love us all back home.
Rumpus: So beautiful. Your work has done that for me, loved me back home. What books/writers have been especially transformative for you?
Herring: That makes me so happy to hear that my work has loved you home! Books were my first and truest friends. So many books have opened me up! In no particular order: Carole Maso’s The Art Lover, Alma Luz Villanueva’s The Ultraviolet Sky, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior, Lidia Yuknavitch’s The Chronology of Water, and of course your work—in particular The Art of Misdiagnosis. But there are so many. Books find a person at the right time, I think, and they offer their gifts in the most unexpected of ways. Harriet the Spy by Louise Fitzhugh was instrumental in childhood, along with the Beverly Cleary and Judy Blume books. And I can’t end without mentioning The Velveteen Rabbit, by Margery Williams.
Rumpus: We share so many formative influences. Harriet the Spy forever! Speaking of books offering gifts in unexpected ways, there’s so much in the way of unexpected gifts within A Constellation of Ghosts, both in its content, with the unexpected gifts found within grief and illness, and in its form, where you give the reader the glorious gift of your unexpected use of language, such as Raven’s nonstandard play with words and rhythm. I’d love to hear both about the gifts of content you consciously wove through this book and the unexpected gifts of form that surprised you along the way.
Herring: I lost my writer’s voice after cancer. I felt like I’d never written a book before—or anything before. I’d always had writing as a companion, and I couldn’t find it for about a year. I now know that I was in the process of moving into a different voice. I bring this up because I knew I had a story I wanted to write, but I did not know how to write it. I didn’t want to write “another cancer story.” I didn’t really want to write that much about cancer at all. I was interested in the impact cancer had on me and how it changed me, and I was interested in what cancer made me think about.
The night before I got my colon cancer diagnosis, I had one of those dreams you know are more than dreams. My dad arrived in the dream and placed something warm in my belly. I woke up and told my husband, “Well, it must be bad. Dad’s back.” I dreamed of him a lot in the early years after his death, but he died in 1987, and those dreams have gotten far less frequent. So, I tried to write about that, but got stuck. I started working with the amazing Chelsey Clammer, who I asked to send me writing prompts. Quite a few of the chapters in the book came from her prompts. But I still couldn’t find a structure. Then I had another dream of two towers. One tower was the lyrical essays section and the other tower was the stage play. In the dream, the towers wove together and by the end they’d merged. After that dream, I had the form of the book. I wanted Raven’s voice to be poetic, but just a touch off. It is almost iambic pentameter. Parts of it are, but when Raven is agitated or upset, his cadence changes. He’s a ghost. Well, he’s not even a ghost. He’s a construct from a bereaved daughter’s heart. And that’s the content gift I wanted to share. I wanted to talk about complicated grieving and inherited traumas. I wanted to give my dad and me one more chance to talk, and through that conversation I learned where I still had not finished grieving. Raven’s voice gave me back my own. Grieving, thirty years after his death, gave me power. Bringing in the family constellation healed generations. I don’t have special skills. All of us can do this work, and maybe my story can be a map for someone else’s heart.
Rumpus: Can you say a bit more about how grieving gave you power?
Herring: I will preface this by saying I had done a lot of grieving and conscious grief work before this book. My second masters is in psychology, with an emphasis in grief and bereavement, and I’ve done my own personal therapy around grief in a variety of modalities—all of which has been useful. So, although I know that grief is a stream we swim in as humans, and that we don’t “get over” the losses of those we love, I was still surprised at what writing this book and embodying my dad and his family brought to the surface. It felt less like “my” grief and more like our collective grief. I gained an even deeper respect for the energy of grief and the ways in which we are all connected, as well as the potential within us to find acceptance of our own mistakes and a wider perspective to allow the ones who made and shaped us that same grace. Writing the book didn’t make me sad, though there were a few tears. The grief it brought forth was the cold kind—the kind that’s been hidden away, and as it moved, there was more space in my body and heart.
Photograph of Laraine Herring by A PORTRAIT PARK by J.