An Interview with Lauren Alwan

AlwanLauren Alwan’s short story, “Report from an Independent Chapter of the Embroiderers’ Guild of America,” appears in the current issue (Summer/Fall 2009) of Sycamore Review. In the story,  which is told from the perspective of a sharp 14-year-old narrator named Gillian, she and her grandmother attend the meetings of a local embroiderers’ guild. We’re big fans of the story, as evidenced by our nominating it for a Pushcart Prize last month. Sycamore‘s Fiction Editor James Xiao recently interviewed Alwan, who lives in San Leandro, California, and teaches craft and fiction workshops in San Francisco. It was Sycamore‘s first instant message interview.

SR: Let’s start with your story. I must say that as a guy in his twenties I did not expect to be as captivated as I was by a story featuring embroidery and physics.  But I once I started reading, I couldn’t put it down.  So tell me about the writing of this story.  What was the driving force behind it?

LA: That’s great to hear. I love the way this story occurred. It started with a flyer I picked up at the library. There is in fact an Embroiderers’ Guild of America, and when I saw it, I immediately thought of my grandmother who, as part of her wedding, included embroidery work in her trousseau.

At the time, I’d been grappling with how to incorporate aspects of personal experience into my fiction, and this seemed like a good opportunity. The physics element was unexpected. I am not in any way a mathematics or physics person, but the character of Cooper, by way of opposition to Gillian, seemed to insist on it, so there you go.

The other force that triggered the story was Gillian’s voice. Luckily, I heard those first couple of sentences, which had a “Robert’s Rules of Order” formality, and knew right away I had the voice and the structural device for the story. The element of emotional distance was also crucial as it allowed me to portray her character with what seemed the right amount of tension.

And, Gillian’s words spawned the device of the story, the frame of the meeting minutes.

SR: That leads me to my next question.  You handled time very carefully here.  Why did you decide to use the frame and the retrospective narration?

LA: The frame allowed me to state the present time circumstance and then move backward to show how she got to where she is, a pretty straightforward convention. But this is always a minefield for me, as I can get carried away with backstory—to the detriment of a story’s progress. So, this seemed like an organic solution to explain her circumstances, and it also set boundaries for the backstory.

SR: I think that it certainly did feel organic.  The big pitfall of frame stories that I’ve seen is the difficulty of getting over the fact of the frame, that it adds an extra layer of contrivance to the telling of the story.  So kudos to you.

LA: The challenge of the frame, for me, was the back half; justifying it by returning to it and producing some kind of resolve.

SR: I might also add that I’ve been going through a retrospective narration phase myself.  I love authors who can move backwards in time with that “storyteller’s voice”.  John Irving does it well.  I think that was one of the big elements of the story that captivated me.

LA: That’s interesting. As I wrote Gillian, I understood that the “retrospective” aspect of her voice was not great in terms of time. The time lapse between the backstory and the present is very close. In some ways, that made it easier.

SR: That and the embroidery of course.  I’ll be keeping an eye out for that embroidery flyer next time I go to the library.

LA: I’m sure the Embroiderers’ Guild is always looking for new members. Working embroidery into a story was very gratifying. The detail was important for me in two ways. It allowed me to portray what I consider to be a very specialized setting; that is, a highly specific context. The detail also provided a personal link, growing up with a grandmother who entered into an arranged marriage at a young age.

SR: If I may delve into chatspeak for a moment: OMG. The scenic detail was incredibly rich in the story.

LA: LOL. Thank you. Setting is an aspect of fiction I think about a lot.

SR: Absolutely luscious with description.  How did you approach the setting in the story?

LA: Setting has been an obsession for awhile now, especially what I think of as “specialized settings,” places that are generally unknown to a mainstream readership and therefore challenging to portray. Detail is crucial to conveying a milieu that is either highly obscure, unprecedented in fiction, or that requires specialized terms to describe, poker, or sailing, for instance, and of course embroidery.

Still, it was difficult at first to portray Gillian’s town, which is based on a place where I grew up.  Altadena, near downtown Los Angeles, is quite separate from LA, geographically and culturally. For me, the setting includes the community of Syrian, Lebanese and Armenian families who’ve been there over fifty years. For most readers that’s going to be an unfamiliar context, so the detail had to be what V.S. Naipaul calls “ground level”; that is, no explanation, but conveying the essentials through intimate detail. Gillian’s narrative distance also turned out to be an advantage-—there is much she doesn’t know. That helped me, the author, since I’m at generational remove and there is much I don’t know also.

SR: So the burning question then:  Do you embroider? Or if you prefer a question with more Red Menace: are you or have you ever been a member of an Embroidery Club?

LA: I’ll only admit that back in the day, I stitched patches on more than one pair of boyfriends’ jeans, and that I have a few unfinished projects stowed away—but that’s all.

SR: In regards to the specialized settings.  This story seemed quite personal to you in terms of drawing from your life experiences.  Was there a lot of research involved?  Are there any projects that you’re working on right now that include a lot of research?

LA: The primary research I did was for the physics terminology, cribbed straight from an old set of encyclopedia. That, and research for local detail, the names of things particular to the locale. For me, research usually centers on that level of specificity. It’s a challenge to get inside a setting in order to effectively convey it; for me that means knowing a place better through specialized terms for things like flora and fauna, details of geology, history, etc. So in that respect I’m always engaged in research.

SR: Okay, standard writer interview question: Who are some writers who have influenced you?

LA: One of the writers who made me want write was Gina Berriault. Her stories have a quality I find hard to put into words, but I responded strongly to her portrayal of what might be called outsiders, along with her prose style, which is extremely precise, high in its diction and at the same time plainspoken. And her characters have no pretensions, or if they do, in the course of events they are stripped away.

I tend to be drawn to writers for subject also. The subject of a disappeared world, which could be a kind of subgenre of fiction, is fascinating to me, so I gravitate to stories that center on places that have somehow been lost or no longer exist. Nabokov’s memoir Speak Memory might be my favorite in this regard.

SR: Anyone amazing that you are reading right now?

LA: Right now, I’m reading a book that you led me to, though indirectly. Robert Olen Butler’s book of lectures, From Where You Dream. When we were working on the edits for “Embroiderers’” you mentioned Butler’s idea of a character’s yearning, so I sought out his book and the essays are excellent. So thank you.

SR: Ah yes.  That was Patricia Henley’s influence.  She teaches here in Purdue’s MFA program and if you get the chance you should check out some of her stuff.  They’re top-notch.

LA: That particular chapter, I think it’s entitled “Yearning,” was so insightful. I’ll definitely look up her work.

SR: I think I’ve got yearning permanently engraved in my brain thanks to R. O. B.

LA: It’s fundamental, I think, to character-driven fiction.

SR: Speaking of MFA’s, in your bio you said you recently completed an MFA. Can you talk about that a little bit?

LA: I finished the program at Warren Wilson in 2008. When I decided to pursue an MFA, a low-residency program was my only option, since my husband and I have a young daughter. The residencies were twice yearly, and it was a challenge to leave her, since she was only four at the time, but we got through it. And the program was amazing. It’s a wonderful thing to work one-on-one with an advisor and to correspond in writing. I regularly received these wonderfully detailed, lengthy letters on the creative and critical work of the semester project. I still refer to those letters, as I’m sure I will the future.

SR: I admire the fact that you can find the time to write with so many demands on your time.  I believe you also teach creative writing?

LA: Thanks James, but managing time is certainly not my strong suit. I remember an essay by Jane Smiley, am forgetting the title, but in it she wrote that given four hours to write while her daughters were at school, she would sometimes fritter away three of them. I do the same, but luckily, there is coffee and if enough is consumed, my focus kicks in. As to teaching, for the past few years I’ve taught creative writing in private workshops. I feel  lucky to be able to work with teacher and poet Leslie Kirk Campbell. Her workshop, Ripe Fruit in San Francisco, has been going for over twenty years now. I teach short fiction and craft seminars.

SR: Well  I won’t take any more of your valuable time.  Let’s end on a SR interview tradition.  Which do you prefer: Curtains or Blinds?

LA: I’m old school, so unless the blinds are venetian, I’d have to say curtains, preferably ones made of bark cloth and printed with some variation on the tropical theme . . .

SR: Thank you Lauren for finding the time to speak with me.

LA: It has been a pleasure James. Thank you.