“I Had Zero Allegiance to Realism”: An Interview With Lidia Yuknavitch

Lidia Yuknavitch credit Andrew Kovalev

Predicting the shape of a new work by Lidia Yuknavitch is next to impossible. In recent years, her work has veered from brutally candid memoir to an anarchic reimagining of one of Sigmund Freud’s most well-known case studies. Her new novel, The Small Backs of Children, ventures into a wholly different territory, beginning with a photograph taken of a girl in a war-torn Eastern European nation, then shifting its focus to encompass a group of friends whose lives are impacted by said photograph. That description doesn’t necessarily do the book justice, however: it’s formally bold, and incorporates some intriguing metafictional elements atop everything else. (Steve Erickson’s fiction in the last decade or so would make for a good point of comparison.) It’s a compelling, moving, at times emotionally exhausting read, one that gets under the reader’s skin in dozens of ways. That wide-ranging approach was one of several topics that we discussed via email in this interview. 

Structurally, The Small Backs of Children represents a sizable shift from Dora: A Headcase; that, in turn, read in a very different way than The Chronology of Water did. At what point in the writing of a book do you realize the way in which it’s going to be told?

Well my artistic practice is a little backwards…I am moved by form and image more than I am by content. So content can come from the tiniest of impulses–I am much more excited by language as a medium than I am language as a direct and stable communication tool.  Abstract expressionist painting is more of an influence on me than prior writing is.  Specifically, I need about 50 pages of material, and sometimes more, to begin to feel the formal options, the patterns and repetitions, the image vertebrae, before I can begin to shape the content or story. I’m a little bit of a language junkie.

At what point in the process did some of the bolder structural decisions–telling parallel stories in columns, structuring one chapter as a play–come about?

Those choices are very organic to my artistic process.  They are less a matter of editing than of creating.  If a form arises, just like in painting (for me), I follow it, even if it is a mistake or accident.  I didn’t sit for very long and consciously think to myself, in other words, oh, at this point in the story I will use a two-column writing strategy; I simply listened and closed my eyes so that I could conjure the images of the writer, of the girl, and suddenly the page opened up to two, simultaneous voices.  Since the story is at its heart image-based, I tried to stay allegiant to the page as an image, not just a flat surface that the words and story dominate.

This was your first book working with a new editor; how did that process affect your writing?

I have to admit straight-up that I’m a lucky fucker.  Working with Calvert Morgan was astonishingly cool.  I feel like a collaboration happened, which made me giddy.  I was also lucky to work prior to this book with Rhonda Hughes at Hawthorne books; that was a collaboration as well.  In the end, in both cases, it felt like we were comrades making art together, a labor I love.  Calvert asked me mesmerizing questions as he narrated his reading experience.  I simply put myself into a creative trance to “answer” them, to come up with creative possibilities.

How would you say that this novel fits in to your larger body of work?

I think in some ways, The Small Backs of Children is a companion piece to The Chronology of Water.  In both books a girl saves herself from the wreckage of her past.  In one of the books the girl is me.  And both books represent my answer to the eternal question I am asked, what is the difference between fiction and nonfiction? For me, the answer is that they inform, deform, and reform one another. Forever. In another way, this novel continues an exploration I’m still not finished with, one I began with Dora: A Headcase, one that continues in my next novel based on a revisiting of Joan of Arc, and further extended in another novel based on Mary Shelley:  what is the epistemological space of the body–in these books especially a girl’s body. What new girl myths might we imagine? What new meanings might we discover if we turned away from tired out, limiting, and even oppressive cultural scripts?  I’m interested in the body as a site of meaning and resistance.

What prompted your decision to not name any of the characters in the book?

I abandoned the idea of a “main character” first in favor of multiple voices and bodies.  I also let go of the archetypal hero story so that the story of women and girls might emerge from its rubble.  I wanted to amplify the emotional intensities and agency of a girl, of women, of artists (some of whom are men), rather than follow the dictates of psychological realism.  Nothing traditional about narrative informs this story.  But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a story.  There a gazillion ways to make characters. To generate stories. I am among those artists and writers who devote their artistic practice to reminding us of that, even though the traditional forms and stories make us feel good.  They are comforting, even for me.  But I tend to write books that agitate rather than comfort. There is room for all of us, I think.

When reading about the conflict in Eastern Europe that sparks the events of the novel, I was reminded at certain points of wars in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s; at others, I was reminded of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine. Did you have a specific war in mind, or were you thinking more on the archetypal level?

I was attempting to rattle the archetype enough to shake loose those wars that go unnamed, the conflicts that don’t make the news, the ongoing violences we are creating every nanosecond of everyday.  I do have a toe in my Lithuanian family history though, in that I began with a box of photos of my relatives, as well as some redacted newspaper xeroxes concerning my great uncle.  He was a photographer in Lithuania. He was sent to a Siberian Gulag for taking photos of a Russian massacre at a hospital.  But those photos and stories in the box were like artifacts or pieces of story that braided in my imagination with the story of a wartime girl who saves herself.  Against all odds.

At times, this novel is deeply realistic; at others, dreamlike and metafictional elements come into play. How did you keep the two in balance?

I had zero allegiance to realism, especially psychological realism as we’ve inherited it in narrative terms.  I think it’s fair to say I let realism in only in glimpses and retinal flashes, so that I could prioritize or amplify the chaos and fragmentation of emotional and physical experience.

In your acknowledgements, you cite the influence of a number of writers and filmmakers, including Alain Resnais. How did his work factor into The Small Backs of Children?

Hiroshima, Mon Amour, the collaboration between Marguerite Duras and Resnais, is my favorite collaboration between a filmmaker and writer.  My novel is standing on the bones of their artwork.  I consider that work a call to arms.


Photo: Andrew Kovalev

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