An Interview with Jan LaPerle

Jan LaPerle, a career counselor for the Army Reserves, has published three books of poetry and fiction. On October 7-8, she’ll lead the Sundress Academy for the Arts‘ first writing retreat for veterans and current service members, along with poet Jeb A. Herrin.

Sean Purio, an active duty officer and student in the University of Tennessee’s creative writing Ph.D. program, interviewed LaPerle on behalf of Sundress.

Sean Purio: What advice would you give to people making the transition back into the civilian world? If you were to suggest to them a particular book, poetry collection, author, or film, what would it be?

Jan LaPerle: I’ve never been deployed, never been to war, so I’m not sure my advice here counts for much. But there are other transitions. A few weeks ago my husband and I watched American Sniper. There is a moment in the movie when Chris Kyle had just returned from his third, maybe fourth deployment and he was sitting in front of the TV – the TV was off – and his family was running around him, laughing, screaming through the house and he did not seem to hear them, he did not move, just kept staring blankly. Every time I return from Annual Training or a school or some other mission I’ve been on for the Army, I feel, for several days, like Chris in that chair. It’s like stepping from one world to the next; suddenly I’m just home and it’s just really different. In a few days I’m okay again though. For Chris it took a long time – it took finding new purpose, so that’s what my advice would be: find purpose.

SP: Is there a particular book, poetry collection, author, or film you would suggest people encounter before going into the armed forces? Why?

JL: I’m not really the kind of person who does a lot of preparation for making major life decisions. I joined in 1996 when my parents divorced and my dad cut me off from college funds. I went on Active Duty without having any idea what it would be like – I just needed somewhere to go, something to do. I finished my time, got out completely and 10 years later joined all over again into the Reserves. I joined because it seemed to be the right thing to do at that moment. Turns out it was.

My husband and I listened to Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance on our way to NH last summer. Vance discusses how his time in the Marines sort of straightened him out, forced him to have discipline, and provided him with mentors who cared about his welfare. Last weekend when I was cleaning out our attic, I found a picture of me at my Basic Training graduation. My eyes were red and puffy. I don’t know the name of the Soldier beside me, but I remember the feeling of not wanting to leave because for the first time I really felt like I was part of something. During a 12-mile road march I remember falling behind and looking ahead to PVT Jones who was looking back at me with her hand out, waiting to pull me along.

SP: What do you think is the role of cultivating an artistic sensibility—a way of perceiving the world—for those who serve (or have served) in the armed forces?

JL: Two I can explain right away. The first has to be as a release. I’m a Career Counselor, so I get to talk to a lot of Soldiers. The stories they tell me – I don’t think I could function without getting those stories out in some form or another. And to keep working at getting closer to this. I would think it would be important to remember, to have something to go back to (also to lighten the weight of memory). I’m reading a collection of stories and poems by Soldiers called Warrior Writers: Remaking Sense. This, from the introduction: “there is a deep necessity to create when so much has been shattered and stolen – a profound sense of hope comes from the ability to rebuild.” 

The second reason is because the people who haven’t served, civilians, really want to know. My best friend always asks question after question after I spend time away for Army – she’s curious, and fascinated. Other people I know just make assumptions about what it is a Soldier does, and they’re often terribly wrong. Making connections between veterans, between veterans and civilians, is important, they’re less apt to feel isolated (that’s the hope).

SP: It’s a loaded question if ever there was one, but: Why do you write?

JL: I don’t remember ever not writing – while I was cleaning my attic last weekend I condensed boxes of journals into a storage tub, and there are journals up there dating back to childhood. I write now because I want my next poem (or story) to be better than the last.

I’m reading Mary Ruefle’s Madness, Rack, and Honey and, I think, this here where she quotes Barbara Herrnstein Smith helps explain: “varying degrees or states of tension seem to be involved in all our experiences, and that the most gratifying ones are those in which whatever tensions are created are also released.” When I am able to squeeze the juice out of a moment, an experience, a time in my life and make from it a poem (or story), there does seem something more gratifying about the moment/experience.

SP: I’m always curious what books artists are reading. What books have you read recently and what did you find remarkable about them?

JL: Last night I finished The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls, which is now one of my favorite books (my husband says I say this at the end of most books). I’m amazed by Walls’s persistence, her determination to succeed when she had everything stacked against her. Her book made me want to be better (this is a big idea, of course, but something I’m constantly working on) and before that book I read Grit by Angela Duckworth and Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn – there’s clearly a theme here.

Jan LaPerle lives in East Tennessee with her husband, Clay Matthews, and daughter, Winnie. She has published a book of poetry, It Would Be Quiet (Prime Mincer Press, 2013), an e-chap of flash fiction, Hush (Sundress Publications, 2012), a story in verse, A Pretty Place To Mourn (BlazeVOX, 2014), and several other stories and poems, and in 2014 she won an individual artist grant from the Tennessee Arts Commission. LaPerle was on Active Duty at Fort Campbell for three years and has spent 12 years as an Army Reservist, most recently as a Career Counselor.

Sean Purio is an active duty officer working toward his PhD in Creative Writing. He lives in Knoxville, Tennessee.