We Call Upon the Author to Explain—Julia Madsen

Julia Madsen and I met through the mechanisms of the Internet, like many writers do. We had posted similar comments on a mutual’s thread for the need for support amongst artists rather than starvation-economy competition tactics. When Julia posted a few days later about her new chapbook, Home Movie, Nowhere, I reached out for a possible interview. The minute I looked at the haunted, gothic Midwestern landscape of the book’s cover, I knew I wanted to dive right in. What I found in this work was a brilliant blending of genre, from poetry, to nonfiction, to film—a breaking down of the categories that writing is often put into, and, in turn, an exploration of the same categories the self sometimes tucks neatly into. This pithy, dark, brilliant book says a resounding “no” to these over-simplifications. In the following interview, Julia and I discuss craft, working class backgrounds in the arts, and much much more.

Alex DiFrancesco: This chapbook takes a level of detachment in the form of film. How necessary was that, for you as a writer, to telling this highly personal history?

Julia Madsen: I love this question to which there are a multiplicity of answers but I will try to streamline as clearly as I can think of them, and as clearly as they emerged for me when writing this chapbook. First, I was teaching Guy Maddin’s My Winnipeg (a film I had watched on repeat for years) for an undergraduate creative writing course on the personal and cinematic essay. My Winnipeg is an essay film—a personal documentation of homeplace and the ghosts of history that hover over / are buried below the landscape. It really focuses on the uncanny, gothic, or darker histories of Winnipeg, including Maddin’s own experience of wanting to escape the city but being unable. I felt the same about my small, working class hometown in rural Iowa (which goes by multiple names but is colloquially known as “Frytown”), which is where the line of connection with Maddin’s work was formed. Not only this, but in the film he mentions “the forks” where the Red and Assiniboine Rivers meet, a place of First Nations lore where supernatural events are said to occur. This was the beginning of the chapbook, in coming to understand my own “home movie” as a personal documentation of place which hinges on the fact of having lived just past the fork in the road, which my work figures as a historical marker of things that have come to pass as well as the “crossroads.” Whenever anyone would visit, we would say “just take a right at the fork.” So I had to learn how to re-locate myself back home. And truthfully had to uncover histories that I had kept hidden even from myself.

But there is another answer to your question which addresses my own preoccupation (obsession?) with pre- and early cinema. Georges Méliès—a filmmaker and illusionist known for his phantasmagorias—haunts the body of the work. Alongside My Winnipeg, I was watching Saving Brinton, a documentary about how historian Michael Zahs found Méliès lost work in a box marked “look for historical value” in a basement not far from my hometown. I started screening Méliès’s turn of the century work on a projector against a white sheet at home. His work is electric, spectacular, and almost unfathomable. Through watching his films I found incorporating elements of the phantasmagoria to be an exciting way of trying to tell this personal history which contemplates magic, supernatural events, and ghosts of the past alongside coming-of-age experiences.

I hope this begins to answer your excellent question about form and content. Did I mention that Maddin and I have the same birthday? I don’t think this matters much, but it is a birthday we share with Michel de Montaigne.

AD: Something in the stars that day! Can I ask you to talk more about the process of writing as an uncovering of things kept hidden even from oneself? Were there a lot of drafts? Was there an a-ha moment when some of the hidden things became revealed?

JM: I wrote out answers to these questions a few times over but cannot find any of my notes, so I will start afresh here and now! What percolates for me in the present moment regarding your questions: I think it is important to note that at the time I wrote this chapbook I felt I was under some kind of duress with job and circumstance, as I was making $1,000/month adjuncting and drinking maybe three sodas a day to stay alert and awake for work and was pretty stressed generally. I was also finishing my dissertation and pushing to meet that goal. I felt a lot was at stake with this project in particular. I promise this gets to the meat of your questions—especially your emphasis on the revelation of what’s hidden (for me, revelation itself was crucial for writing the text). I would write in my office before class and late after midnight and through the morning. I would write to try and dig deeper each time and as a result multiple drafts and a lot of material was produced which do not appear in the chapbook. Important elements that revealed themselves over time had to do with work, sex, passion, loneliness, and family history as they relate to my own coming-of-age. Because where I’m from you’re not supposed to talk about yourself, I had to uncover and come to terms with experiences that to this day bring a lot of pain and grief, and had to get comfortable even talking about and representing my own life. I never thought, for instance, that working morning and night at the hardware store in high school was very remarkable until I started to attune myself back to that time. I found a constellation of feelings, images, and associations waiting or maybe yearning to be discovered. It was also a process of remembering why I write by coming to understand my rural working class roots as something that is important to represent.

AD: Because of the film format, there is a level of blocking of space that comes in early. How would you say you used that to build the world and orient the reader?

JM: The prose blocks are significant in acknowledging the geography of the landscape itself, which is a square grid through which a single angular road creates a pivot (“the forks”). There is the sense of being contained within that frame and wanting to escape but being unable to escape. It becomes a frame similar to that of film. I wanted to push on those square boundaries and limits through crossing over between genres—poetry, prose, essay—and through the content itself where death crosses over into life.

I also had a theory I was working with which seeped its way into my skin and bones over the course of years of re-reading and being-with it. For me, Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s idea of the “body without organs”—that flat surface, plane, or plateau—came to represent the flat, endless Midwestern landscape which I imagined became a “recording surface” for memory. I started thinking about the Midwestern terrain as a filmstrip or VHS tape, and how this re-presentation of place engages with processes of deterritorialization/reterritorialization.

AD: On page 7, comments are marked with “true” and “false.” The next page contains a speculative scenario. Since this work bends genre and takes what it needs from them, I’m curious if this is a commentary on the nature of creative nonfiction? Does adding the false statement about stepping into a puddle acknowledge the nature of memory and desire in creative nonfiction for you?

JM: Yes, this is such a good reading and yes. I think truth needs to fit the music, not the other way around, to paraphrase from Richard Hugo’s “The Triggering Town.” I didn’t feel the need to write strictly the facts, because there wouldn’t be much of a story then, but rather gave myself creative permission to explore elements of fantasy and the supernatural inspired by the phantasmagoria tradition. In the process of writing I felt like memory and desire were fleeting and ephemeral, almost mirage or fog-like (again with that image of ghosts of history hovering above the landscape)—though there are certainly non-fictional elements that emerged as a result of research and investigation into Frytown’s history. This research took hours pouring over texts at the State Historical Society and on the internet. Often I felt I had to fill in the gaps and absences in history seeing as how there is relatively little information. I felt the impulse to provide space for the collaboration between fantasy and non-fiction as a way of trying to tell a captivating, revelatory story.

AD: There is wonderful use of footnotes here, which start out very straightfoward and then move into a deeper use throughout the text. Can you tell us about your intention with them within the work?

JM: The nested footnotes seemed necessary and arrived organically because of the stories-within-stories about my homeplace that I was compelled to tell. I see the footnotes as maybe “below” the text in that they are submerged and come to the surface of the page as innermost thoughts, desires, memories, etc. They often venture down roads that the text itself does not, so in a way they extend and expand the work. In writing them, they came out like a flood and seemed to be buoyed by hidden truths. The act of writing them alone helped these truths come to the surface.

AD: You identify, in your author’s bio as a first-gen writer, author, and scholar. Many of the themes in this book are working class ones, even when they just appear in a few lines. There is the rural landscape with its unused farming relics, the skinning of animals for sustenance, and mystic prophets, to name a few. Can you discuss more how these themes inform your work both here and as a writer and scholar in a larger sense?

JM: I grew up working class, my dad was a mechanic at a gas station making under $7.50/hr to start with, and my sense of class-awareness has been even more heightened by having worked within academia and the field of creative writing. I try often to raise discussions about socioeconomic class in creative writing and scholarship, which is why these themes are almost always apparent in my work (I also recently published a critical article entitled “Reframing Place and Labor History: Working Class Politics and the Archival Image in Midwestern Labor Documentaries”). My class background is not unrelated to some tragedies and intergenerational traumas that have befallen my family, which I continue to write about—like in “Home Movie, Nowhere” and in my lyric essay “The Straight Story” which dives into/investigates a family murder. A murder over money, some family members have said, though it is hard to know what is “true” and “false” or even if those binaries exist in this case. My great-grandmother killed my great-grandfather and the rest of the story unfolds from there in newspapers and court documents. She was his housekeeper, he was a farmer, and they had gotten married and had two kids (the oldest being my grandfather). After the crime took place she told my grandfather and his brother to go run out in the bean field after getting her truck stuck in a ditch from rain (this was both in the court documents as well as the story my grandfather told me). I think of that early morning scene—the dream of it—the rain, unending rain, washing everything away (like in the movie Rain, of whom Martin Scorsese is the executive producer, set in a similarly rural small town in Iowa with an eerily similar crime scene). For me, family history, intergenerational trauma, class, and film serve as some kind of feedback loop.

AD: The chapbook also makes use of interconnected flash form, in a way, part of the hybridization of genre found here. In what ways did this stylistic choice relate to the larger project of film and scene?

JM: The choice to write in-between genres relates in a lot of ways to the Midwestern landscape as an in-between space, and also to the “in-betweenness” of the gothic, which begins to account for the boundary-crossings between life and death in this text. In some ways the interconnected prose blocks also work as an extended portrait of self and place, or of self in relation to place, the kind of portrait that necessitates an encounter with multiple forms as a way of living at the crossroads. Each prose block is like a mini-portrait, snapshot, or two-way mirror.

AD: This work, to me, feels highly poetic in that associations made through word choice and language make up some of the direction the prose moves in. There is a muddying of prose clarity that works very well, to me, in terms of the larger things happening with structure here. Can you comment on uses of such poetics in prose? Or the use of such prose in poetics, as it may be?

JM: I was watching F for Fake by Orson Welles a lot while writing this (in addition to the other films mentioned) and almost think that this work is poetry that “fakes” prose, or maybe the other way around. I use wordplay and had a really fun and enjoyable time writing most of this, honestly! Writing through association and the music of language was pleasurable and my hope is that the reader finds this pleasurable too.

AD: I love this idea of genres faking each other—can you tell us more about what that means to you in terms of hybrid genre and writing in-betweenness?

JM: Now I’ve gone down a rabbit hole thinking about the word “fabrication,” which signals something constructed or manufactured but also “an invention; a false statement; a forgery” (from OED). I love that little definition. Perhaps documentary poetics writ large pushes one to invent, experiment, and extend their practice and praxis into new forms and ways of storytelling through attempting to document or “capture” everything inner, outer, and beyond. I am thinking now too of the word “poiesis” and how that suggests bringing something into material existence as with making something, like poetry or art. There is a relationship between the construction/making of the text and the construction/making of the landscape. The lines between genres are like the ruler lines of the grid cast upon the landscape—itself a kind of fabrication that becomes real in the imagination.

AD: It seemed to me, that the heart of this book is encapsulated in the line “In root I found a place to return to, a depth we must plumb, the radix from whence we come and the unanalyzable etymon which precludes our powers to say so.” This line is so tight, so well-written that I’m almost embarrassed to ask you to expound on it—but I am!

JM: This is an example of that wordplay and muddying of prose clarity you mention, haha! I believe I was thinking about homeplace and ancestral lineage as roots and how that relates to the roots of language/words. There is something ultimately unanalyzable about diving into family history and the landscape itself through language—you go so far deep that everything disappears and you’ve reached the vanishing point.

AD: The name of this interview series comes from a song I love, which contains the line, “Prolix, prolix, nothing a pair of scissors can’t fix!” and so the last question of every interview is: If you had to cut one thing from this book, from a word, to a scene, what would it be?

JM: I love the word “prolix” so this question makes me smile so much! I’m not sure this answers the question entirely, but there is a scene in here which mentions a story my father used to tell me before bed about a ribbon and a pair of scissors. It haunts me to this day. All I can think of is that pair of scissors snapping off the ribbon and her head: “I imagine that gleaming double-edge cutting the ribbon binding life and death, her head rolling endlessly, disembodied, over hills and floating across the river conducting souls from one world to the next.”

Home Movie, Nowhere is available through DIAGRAM/New Michigan Press

Julia Madsen is a first-gen writer, scholar, and educator. She earned an MFA in Literary Arts from Brown University and a PhD in English/Creative Writing from the University of Denver. Her first book, The Boneyard, The Birth Manual, A Burial: Investigations into the Heartland (Trembling Pillow Press), was listed on Entropy’s Best Poetry Books of 2018. Her chapbook, “Home Movie, Nowhere,” is forthcoming from DIAGRAM/New Michigan Press (you can preorder here). Blue-collar born and raised in the Midwest, she is a Web & Events editor at Denver Quarterly, video editor at Reality Beach, and has shown video poetry and multimedia installations at &Now: A Festival of Innovative Writing, Outlet Fine Art Gallery, No Nation Art Gallery, Counterpath Gallery, Cabal Gallery, the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Alliance and Collaboratory, and Denver’s Unseen film festival. Her video work has appeared in VICE’s “The Creators Project,” and her poems, reviews, and multimedia work have also appeared or are forthcoming in jubilatTarpaulin SkyFence Digital, Tupelo Quarterly, Omniverse, Anomaly, Caketrain, Black Warrior Review, Alice Blue Review, Flag+Void, Word for/Word, Cloud Radio, Small Po[r]tions, Deluge, Dreginald, Tagvverk, La Vague Journal, Devil’s Lake, Versal, Cartridge Lit, CutBank, Dream Pop Press, Entropy, Fanzine, Full Stop, and elsewhere. This winter, she was a resident at the University of Colorado-Boulder’s Media Archaeology Lab.

Alex DiFrancesco is a multi-genre writer who has published work in Tin HouseThe Washington PostPacific StandardVol. 1 BrooklynThe New Ohio ReviewBrevity, and more. In 2019, they published their essay collection Psychopomps (Civil Coping Mechanisms Press) and their novel All City (Seven Stories Press), which was a finalist for the Ohioana Book Awards. Their short story collection Transmutation (Seven Stories Press) is forthcoming in 2021. They are an assistant editor at Sundress Publications.


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