10 Questions for Joanna Luloff
- By Edward Clifford
I used to start each day with the same ritual. I would look in the mirror and say my name out loud. "Abigail," I said , letting the sound of my dhort and long a's surround me in the still -dim light. Then I would say "Abbie," the name I used to go by at school, when school was still something you could go to. Then I said "Abs," the name my mom and dad and brother used to call me.
—from "Words," Volume 62, Issue 1 (Spring 2021)
Tell us about one of the first pieces you wrote.
In junior high, a MADD (Mothers Against Drunk Driving) representative came to our school. She discussed the dangers of drinking and driving, and the injuries her son struggled with (he had been a passenger in a car crash involving a drunk driver). I don’t know how exactly we all processed her presentation. We were 12 years old, what felt like an eternity away from getting our licenses. Aside from my grandmother sharing a quick sip of her Amaretto cordials with me, and my grandfather’s evening ritual of scotch, the concept of drinking still felt very much removed from my world. And yet we were all asked to participate in a writing contest that supported MADD’s mission. Anything that had to do with writing excited me, so I went home and imagined. In the end, I wrote what was, in hindsight, a very didactic, overwrought tragedy about a teenage boy who dies in a drunk driving accident. But the story won a regional prize and I remember the delight of being escorted to the awards ceremony by my English teacher.
What writer(s) or works have influenced the way you write now?
There are so many writers who have inspired me and influenced me, even if my writing looks vastly different from theirs aesthetically and in terms of subject too. Ishiguro and Sebald for their contemplation of historical and personal memory and selfhood; Clarice Lispector for her discovery of the strange and magical in mundane, invisible lives; Edwidge Danticat for her engagement with the socio-political alongside the deeply personal; Alice Munro for her interest in the lives of women and girls. Edward P. Jones for a vibrant sense of community and place. And for history’s force on the present—Toni Morrison, Garcia Marquez, and Michael Ondaatje.
What other professions have you worked in?
I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Sri Lanka. I waited tables. I worked in a bookstore. I tutored ESL students in a prison. I’ve been teaching for years and years.
What inspired you to write this piece?
Over the past several years, and particularly through our last presidency, I noticed a growing distrust of language, the misuse and abuse of words, and how meaning became detached from the words we were using/reading/hearing. I got to thinking about what would happen if words and language started to disappear—what would happen to our society, our relationships, our families and friendships? What would happen to our identities? Our concept of the future?
Is there a city or place, real or imagined, that influences your writing?
Influential places are always changing for me, and it usually takes some years after I’ve left a place to feel its presence in my writing. Sri Lanka has been that place. New England—Boston and Vermont. My grandfather’s living room where he shared stories with me. Darkrooms where I spent hours developing photographs. I’ve been living in Colorado now for almost seven years, and I’m waiting for its relentless sunshine, dry, dusty trails, and high elevations to start working their way into my stories.
Is there any specific music that aids you through the writing or editing process?
I actually avoid listening to music when I’m writing and revising. I need things to be really quiet and still. But when I’m not writing, I do love musicians who weave intriguing narratives and alluring atmospheres into their music—Tom Waits, Cat Power, Beach House, Yo La Tengo, Camera Obscura, Nick Cave.
Do you have any rituals or traditions that you do in order to write?
I love a decadent treat after getting writing done. A piece of pie. Ice Cream. A fancy bar of chocolate. I also like to write things out long-hand, with pen and paper, before transferring over to the computer.
Who typically gets the first read of your work?
It depends. For my shorter stories, I’ve been exchanging work with my friend Rob who I met during my PhD program. For my novels, my agent Christopher usually gets the first read as well as my friend Sox, who I met during my MFA program. My brother, too, usually gets an early read.
What are you working on currently?
I’m revising a novel that takes place in the 1930s and follows two characters who run away from their families in New York to pursue more independent lives in California. Sofia joins a traveling theater troupe that is part of FDR’s Federal Theater Program. Sam works at a photo engraver shop. The manuscript is written as an epistolary novel with the two characters corresponding by letters since they are rarely able to be in the same place at the same time.
What are you reading right now?
I just finished reading Marianna Enriquez’s short story collection The Dangers of Smoking in Bed. I loved her collection Things We Lost in the Fire for its blend of horror, wit, and surprise and her latest didn’t disappoint. Three other books I’ve read recently that I’ve really appreciated: Minor Detail by Adania Shibli, Tokyo Ueno Station by Yu Miri, and Inheritors by Asako Serizawa.
JOANNA LULOFF is the author of the short story collection The Beach at Galle Road and the novel Remind Me Again What Happened, both published by Algonquin Books. Her stories and essays have appeared in The Missouri Review, Western Humanities Review, The Bennington Review, The Cincinnati Review, and elsewhere. She is an associate professor of English at the University of Colorado Denver where she also edits fiction and nonfiction for the journal Copper Nickel.