We sat down with author Angela Palm ahead of her OE Spotlight event on Sunday, January 15 at 1:00pm. Here, she discusses the forever relevant artistic process, Salvador Dalí, and the position of Graywolf Press in the publishing landscape.
Angela Palm: My earliest artistic interest and training was not in writing, but in watercolor painting. The influence of visual art has never released its hold on me. I see memories in snapshots, recall places as image, and enjoy exploring connections between art, landscape, and architecture.
Parts of Riverine engage directly with photographs, directly with performance art, directly with film and literature. I like creative nonfiction that shows me how a writer thinks during a particular time period, how they experience the world, how they think about their lives and the lives of others. And I think my book reads like that. It’s not only that voyeuristic opportunity of accessing someone’s private life, it also shows what it’s like inside my brain. How art shapes my experience and the way I move through the world.
Oxford Exchange: That reminds me of something a curator over at the Dalí Museum mentioned to me once—that the artist is what gives a piece of art its meaning.
AP: Art isn’t just the painting on the wall or the essay or the song and what story or image or memory it portrays, it’s also the story of how it came to be. What inspired it, what moment in time was passing as it was created, what in the artist's life was shifting from a point of confusion to one of understanding or vice versa. It’s all of that. Meaning emerges from a crystallization of time, place, and character. And that’s absolutely true. If I’d written Riverine five years from now, I’d be thinking from another point of view, another passing moment in time. It would be different. It would mean something else. I think the same is true for any other book you pick up.
Since you mentioned Dalí, The Hallucinogenic Toreador is a great example of both things—the relationship between art and meaning and showing how an artist thinks. It draws on multiple places from the artist’s life, multiple meanings, multiple time frames, which instructs the viewer in experiencing Dalí’s work more generally.
To look at this painting alone and try to make sense of it is one thing—I’d think, okay, here’s this crazy surrealist painting about bull fighting, it’s got a million moving parts that could mean or amount to anything. But to see this painting in full scale—13 by 10 feet—in a museum with an explanation of its many pieces, insight into Dali’s life and times, where he had been just before he painted it, how Surrealism turned the art of the times on its head, and so on, is something else. It allowed me to see it in a much deeper way. It was a richer experience. I could see the artist thinking, assembling his experience. It’s remarkable, it’s layered. Not an easy piece to digest. It’s how I want to write. How I try to write.
OE: Well, I think you’ve succeeded. What I admire most—in Dalí’s work and in your’s—is how you throw it all in there. It’s so personal and so honest. But that can create a challenge, can’t it? How do you avoid slipping into something that’s self-indulgent or that’s simply cathartic for its author? How do walk that line between something of you but not just for you?
AP: First drafts in narrative nonfiction are certainly cathartic, kind of like notebook poetry or journal musings. Early drafts also play around with form and shape a craft idea in some way. Eventually the two must meet each other and say, are we doing this? Are we not?
And so I moved from that early stage of writing into the zone of “this is something that has become a book and is not just for me,” the zone of professionalism. I revised with audience in mind, with throughline and narrative arc in mind. And that’s the difference, I think. You have to think about how a reader will experience the work. Once I got to that stage, I reread and revised from the point of view of people I was writing about. If I were my mother reading this book, how would I feel? If I were my husband, how would I feel? Am I being fair? Am I including only those details that serve the work as a whole? If I were a total stranger, what would my experience of this work be? I tried to preserve that bloodiness and still deliver a palatable story that would, in the end, move the reader to feel something. Even if that something is different than what I felt about having lived it.
OE: Speaking of audiences, I don’t think we’ve ever had the kind of audience that we have today. It’s a complex sort—one that I’ll let someone smarter than me judge as holistically positive or negative. I just know that the trend is moving toward convenience and access; toward making consumption easy. I also know that literature is hard by modern measures. It requires undivided attention. It’s far less of a part of mainstream culture and common conversation, a solitary act in an increasingly connected environment of entertainment and pastimes.
So, I guess my question is does literature need to adapt to survive? Or is it even more important now for literature to stay the same? Either way, what makes reading critical in this current entertainment landscape?
AP: Well, I don’t think literature has ever “stayed the same.” It’s always adapting or evolving, or at least some branch of it is adapting. Whether it’s the writers and what or how they’re writing, or how the editors are influencing what’s being written, or what publishers are choosing to publish. We’re all adapting. But one of the defining characteristics of literature is that it remains “work” despite these changes. That work will always compete against new kinds of content because it requires effort from the reader in a way that other forms of entertainment do not. But I think our brains crave the work of reading. Nicholas Carr, in his book The Shallows, explores the way that digital technology and the internet are changing our brains and one of the things he notes is our rapidly narrowing ability to think deeply and what’s at stake if we lose that ability. Basically, our brains are changing because of our shortening attention spans. Reading a novel requires the kind of sustained thinking that we’re doing less and less of. That’s what makes it critical. Our very brains, the evolution of our brains, depend upon it.
Further, literature is and always has been political. I don’t think I even need to spell out why that’s critical right now. We must continue to engage in the political act of reading and writing, continue to think deeply about the world we live in, continue to read about experiences other than our own even when that requires that we sit and read when we could be watching Westworld. Choices about what we engage with, while more diverse than ever before, become more important than ever before. If reading is consistently the “harder” option, then we must consciously choose it and make time and space for it, make time and space for everyone to have access to it. That choice itself—to read—is political because it’s not what content pushers want you to do.
OE: “Iteration” is one of my favorite essays in the book. In it, I can see you shifting in the exact way we were talking of earlier—from confusion to understanding. Near the end, you invoke a character from The Sun Also Rises, talking about change, how it happens gradually and then all at once. It’s a beautiful moment. It’s the kind of understanding that feels like epiphany. But it’s also really sad. That quote from Hemingway, that character is talking about bankruptcy, about loss.
AP: The whole book is very much about engaging with what it means to be alive as honestly as possible. Change, free will, interpersonal relationships, gains and losses, consequences—these are what life is made of and Hemingway certainly knew that.
“Iteration” is, at its heart, about how we reinvent ourselves and how we become who we are. It’s a kind of study of the complexity of being a conscious being. It’s a totem to this idea that we are both products of our circumstances and products of our own making. It wants to believe that change and reinvention of self are possible, necessary, and hopeful, but it knows that there’s some governing provenance in us all. The actual writing of this book is a reconciliation. It’s the acceptance of life as it is.
OE: Before we go, it’s important to note that Riverine won the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize last year. Graywolf is—pretty much undisputedly—one of the most important, influential, and passionate publishing houses today. And this prize in particular always seems to honor work that’s representative of their larger identity as a press. Can you talk about Graywolf’s significance to your project and what they do to really standout in this current marketplace?
AP: Graywolf actively hunts—like wolves, even!—literary works that defy expectations, that are fresh, bold, nuanced, rich, and surprising. Their list is always full of shockingly timely works that end up meeting a public concern in impressive and expansive ways. I’m thinking here of Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, Solmaz Sharif’s LOOK, On Immunity by Eula Biss, The Art of Waiting by Belle Boggs.
But I don’t think the press is just looking for one-off books that meet these criteria as if it were a checklist ensuring that finances stay afloat. In my experience, they take on authors, not just books; they take on topics, not just the books that contain them; and they take these on with the full weight of their small staff. They seem committed to literary excellence, literary and cultural advancement, and their list consistently reflects that.
With Riverine, my editors pushed me to tackle some challenging personal material, all the while honoring and helping me refine my artistic approach to that material. We had editorial conversations that were about our shared vision of the book, talks about ideas, not just a list of edits. I also was involved in the process of the cover design. I think that’s the very best experience an author can have.