Interview with Ladette Randolph

 By James Crews

Ladette Randolph is the editor-in-chief of Ploughshares, the editor of three literary anthologies, and the author most recently of the memoir, Leaving the Pink House (University of Iowa Press, 2015). She is also the author of the novels Haven’s Wake and the award-winning A Sandhills Ballad as well as the short-story collection This Is Not the Tropics. Randolph is on the faculty of the Writing, Literature, and Publishing Department at Emerson College and is the recipient of a Pushcart Prize, a Rona Jaffe grant, a Virginia Faulkner Award, a Best New American Voices citation, and two Nebraska Book Awards. She currently lives in Boston, Massachusetts.

James Crews spoke with Ladette at the offices of Ploughshares in March, 2015.

James Crews: I actually wanted to start at the end of your memoir, Leaving the Pink House. The book is about your experience with your husband buying this house in the country, and then rehabbing it, and leaving your beloved home in Lincoln, Nebraska to move to the country. So you’re in Boston now, and I’m wondering: have you written about that change as well?

Ladette Randolph: I have not. No, and the story as you know is really bracketed by the ten months from the purchase of the house to the complete gutting and rebuilding and then to the moving in because it’s really all about that ambivalence from making the transition from an urban life, or as much of an urban life as you can have in Lincoln, to a life in the country, which I was very ambivalent about. In a way, my bio note becomes the coda for the book because it does introduce this idea that we left that house, which became very beloved to both of us. I miss that house very much. And my husband of course misses it very much. He did not, in fact, move with me to Boston for the first two years. We tried to do a long distance thing, but we didn’t like that. What ended up happening was that we sold that property and the house to our daughter-in-law’s parents. So we have two grand-children now who go and visit that house and play in those woods and those meadows, and it makes us very happy to know that it’s well taken care of and well-loved.

JC: As a reader of the book, watching you gut this house, and then seeing it takes shape very slowly, knowing that it’s still in the family and being lived in by people you love makes me feel much better.

LR: Yes, because literally, my husband’s blood is in that house. It really was such an effort. We had the help of so much of our family and so many of our friends. It was a real communal project.

JC: I thought that was one of the most moving parts of the memoir, actually, when you talk about how much you had to rely on friends and family. There’s a part where you talk about your husband, Noel, expressing his gratitude for all the help and getting choked up, getting very emotional about it. And it seems that anytime you make a large change like this, you have to call in those favors from friends and family.

LR: We want to believe we’re all so independent and self-sustaining, and it is a humbling thing to have to ask for help. And yet, I think immediately we recognized we were going to need help to finish this.

JC: What do you miss about Nebraska now? You write so lovingly about it as a place and certainly about the homes you made there. You said you still miss that house. What are some of the other things?

LR: I miss my family. I have a lot of life still there. Two of my grown children, two of my three siblings and my mother all still live there. I still have friends there. I miss the people. I now have two grandchildren there too, as I mentioned earlier. You know, I write about Nebraska all the time. All my books are about Nebraska, and I think that maybe people that know my work think that means I love it. In fact, I think I have a big question about Nebraska. I grew up really not liking it and being really embarrassed about living there. Even as a little girl living in the middle of nowhere, I mean, I did not see anyone for days and days except my family, and the postman. I think it’s hard to even grasp how a child at that age can understand that there’s a bigger world—I didn’t see the bigger world—and and know that you are not important and, in fact, in some ways are kind of loathed or the bottom-of-the-barrel. So you grow up with that feeling. I did anyway. Maybe other people did not grow up that way there. But there was definitely a trend when I was in school, that people would leave the state, that those people with promise went to college somewhere else, and onto other jobs. I didn’t do that. I stayed and built a very fortunate, blessed career, you know, just by being in the right place at the right time and finding this work that I found and this education I acquired. It’s a strange thing to realize this. I’ve come from your question of what do I miss to why do I write about it all the time, so I’ve deviated here, but it’s a kind of puzzle to me. Nebraska’s in my bones, and when I go back, and especially when I go West, if I’m driving on the interstate or on Highway 2, and I get to Kearney, I start feeling, with the shortgrass prairie, that there’s a change in geography and that’s my home, that’s where I start really feeling that these are my people, for better or worse, and this is my place on the planet.

JC: I think that’s a wonderful way to describe it. You mentioned how lonely it was growing up there, and that was one of the pieces I remembered from the memoir. You talked about how you and your siblings would often watch for the postman, and he would bring you little gifts like Blackjack gum, things that you didn’t particularly like, but it was attention and a gift from the outside world. It’s during this part that you’re describing how you’re craving that other world, but you don’t necessarily know it exists. It’s just this inchoate feeling you have, and so you say, “The unknown I had discovered is always better than the familiar. Even then, I understood it was a curse to be limited to one life. I craved an experience of other lives, other times, other places.”

LR: I think that’s the job description of a writer right there. Maybe it’s a large percentage of the population of children who also feel that way, I don’t know. It’s not something I’ve asked or researched, but that is certainly the subset from which a writer’s personality is developed, that you know there are other stories, and that you crave knowing those stories and inhabiting those lives. Maybe there are a lot of people who feel that way. It’s sort of the basis of Eastern religions, to escape that oppression of the self and that limited consciousness, but maybe what happens is that the writer achieves some relief from that oppression by writing. Because while we’re in that process of writing, while we’re in what I call the “fictive dream,” we escape the self. And that’s why we keep writing, because of that process, that moment of creation where you’re free.

JC: It’s like escaping the self. I have written fiction in the past, and though I write mostly poetry and nonfiction now, I find that I write a lot about other people. I’m much more interested in other people in some ways. It’s an enlarging of self as well, realizing as you said earlier, that we are not so special, not so important, and we are not the center of the universe. There are all these other people out there living their lives, having their stories, worries, anxieties, and their joys.

LR: Oh yes, and I was a little girl who was an incredible snoop, and I’m a woman who’s an incredible snoop. I interview people. Because I know that other people’s stories are interesting, valuable, affirming, it’s how I get to know people, and it’s how I get to know the world. I have kind of an insatiable appetite—and not for gossip, not for hearing a story in a way that I can then pigeon-hole someone or dismiss someone, but because I think it gives them dignity. If I know more about them, then I think that increases their value for me. So I can probably be annoying to some people who are very private, or who are fearful about exposing themselves in that way, and there are perfectly good reasons why people would be reticent, and I can be quite persistent. But my mother used to say when she couldn’t find me, after church—my family was very religious—that she would just look for an old woman, and she’d know she would find me talking to her, because I knew those were the people who had stories.

JC: Absolutely. You gravitate toward those repositories of human stories. I’ve been doing this assignment for years with my composition students. I ask them to write about some “scar” from their past. It can be a literal scar, some emotional scar. A lot of other teachers say, of course, students love writing about themselves, and that’s true to some degree, but when you ask them to do something like that, especially in writing, ask them to do several drafts, and then ask them those questions you’re talking about, it’s breaking away at that privacy and reticence. I think most people are actually grateful to be heard and listened to and to be able to tell their story, even if it’s difficult.

LR: And with a non-judging listener. I mean, that is not always a safe thing to do when you’re maybe in a group because not everyone is going to be listening with that same kind of curiosity and acceptance. And I certainly can’t say I’m always loving and great, but I think overall, my motives are pretty much just that I’m interested in people and I find them endlessly fascinating. I’ve met occasionally someone who I thought was pretty relentlessly boring, but it’s pretty rare. It really is rare.

JC: It seems in those cases where you meet someone who seems boring that it’s just so much tougher to get under the surface, at least for me, because I’m a relentless griller as well. It’s been my experience too that everyone does have a very interesting story to tell. So you talk about plundering other people’s stories—maybe “plundering” is too strong a word—but in the memoir, unlike your works of fiction, you had to plunder your own life. I’m curious how this project came about and what that experience was like, after writing a short story collection and several novels.

LR: For me, writing nonfiction is very different from writing fiction. I literally use a different part of my brain to write nonfiction. And you probably sense as a writer especially that this memoir is two pieces, that I wrote the framing story of the house, which becomes, I hope, a structuring metaphor for a life that’s gutted and rebuilt, but I really put together two projects. Probably ten years before I started writing about this house, I had started writing essays about my own background, and I did it because I felt that my fiction was very flawed. There was a real maudlin core in my fiction. The dead bodies just kept showing up, and I wasn’t writing autobiographical fiction, but there was something that was unresolved, that kept coming up. So I made an assignment for myself, that I would just write about these things, get them out of my system, that was the intention. I wrote probably 25 essays over the period of 4 years while I was working on my PhD with no intention of ever publishing these or making them public. I thought that the writing alone would achieve that, but it didn’t. There was still something unresolved, and the essays didn’t stand alone. I realized it wasn’t a book. So I set them aside, and when I wrote the house book, that wasn’t really a book either. It was only when I realized that so many of those essays had been set in houses that I thought maybe there’s a story here. And maybe, together, they tell a bigger story. Who knows if it works. And it wasn’t really until I published those essays that I felt truly free as a writer from some of that past, some of what I felt was oppression from the past. And as soon as I gave up this manuscript to Iowa, I started another novel, and it was the first time where I did not feel that maudlin flaw. Maybe it’s flawed in other ways, but I didn’t feel that there was something unresolved at the core of my life. I had resolved it. And so, this was a long, long process of trying to digest that material and turn it into art. Hopefully, art.

JC: You say you’re not sure if it works, but I think it absolutely does. It’s surprising for me to hear that there were these two very separate, very different pieces that blend together so well. I thought it was seamless the way the book moves back and forth between the past and the present. It’s a brilliant way to structure the memoir and is woven together so well. It tells such a great history. In America, especially, I think we are very obsessed with where we live and our homes.

LR: I hope it’s about the history of Nebraska too. It’s not just my personal history. It’s in the context of a greater history. Again, that’s something I owed the state, in a way, and I was making a conscious effort not to apologize all the time for Nebraska. I was an acquiring editor at University of Nebraska Press, and there was a catalogue one year where I had acquired some books by writers, including Ted Kooser and Lisa Knopf, you know these writers who are really terrific writers. I think Bob Vivian was also included in that. And there was criticism from some of the book buyers in New York. I don’t remember who exactly had criticized it, but the marketing manager came back and told me this and seemed very apologetic. You know, I said, that’s nuts. If this had been a California press, a New York press, or even a Texas press, or Montana, nobody would say that. So you know what? I said, I’m not going to stop doing this, and so I felt like I didn’t want to continue to internalize that self-loathing that the state has, you know, that some people have felt they needed to perpetuate that apology especially to the dominant culture. I’m contrarian in that way.

JC: I like that, though. Having lived in Nebraska myself for four years, when I find myself in more of an urban setting like this, on the East Coast, or when I visit friends on the West Coast, I try to fight it, but there’s a certain apologetic tone when I say, “Well, believe it or not, I lived in Nebraska.” There’s a sort of shock that comes on people’s faces. And I think that surprise is partly what we’re responding to because people don’t associate Nebraska with creativity or vibrancy and with producing artists.

LR: Even though it’s produced all these great artists. And I don’t want to start being that person who has to do a catalogue of all the famous people from Nebraska because I think it’s part of the apologetic tone. And I feel like I’ve staked a claim and just said, this is how it is, and I don’t want to apologize or indulge people’s ignorance in that way (laughing), or their provinciality. And so, it’s a ridiculous tiny fight, and nobody’s even watching it, but it’s a personal thing. I think it’s something I needed to do to grow and to move beyond something.

JC: I said earlier that you write about Nebraska “lovingly,” and I think that is true, but I think there’s also a certain ambivalence—a healthy ambivalence in your writing. You’re honoring this place, and that comes through in the memoir very clearly to me. You’re honoring this place that made you, that shaped you, but at the same time you’re not afraid to tell the truth about how you felt or what life was like in this place. It’s not playing the victim. That’s another form of apology, I think. So it felt very balanced to me. A healthy detachment was coming through when you were writing about the past.

LR: I’m glad to hear you say that because there were a couple of reviews in Nebraska papers—The Daily Nebraskan and even The Lincoln Journal-Star—where there was this sort of statement that I had found only one thing wrong with Nebraska and that was the Blizzard of 1880, or that the book was a celebration of the state, and I thought: Wow, I don’t think so. I think that to love something, you must embrace it for what it is. And Nebraska is not perfect, and it is not an easy place necessarily to grow up. And that history is one of huge potential and disappointment. Living in a little town with empty storefronts, clearly I was living in the midst of a failed history. And I don’t want to pretend like that was all hunky-dory and that everything was easy. So I’m glad that you saw that. Because I was a little surprised when I read those reviews.

JC: I think that with a book that’s not openly critical, and if you’re writing about a state that perhaps doesn’t get much attention, people can twist the words a little and say, you know, you’re writing a “love letter” to the state of Nebraska. But that’s not the case at all.

LR: And there’s a whole culture of people leaving a degraded place or devalued group and making fun or distancing themselves by overly playing up the difference, and I don’t like that either. I actually feel it’s a cheap thing to do. It’s one of my pet peeves. I know that a lot of people really enjoy that and expect it, and I made a very conscious decision that I wasn’t going to do that. To me, it doesn’t feel genuine to throw people under the bus. Even if you didn’t like them. It’s just playing to the prejudices of the dominant culture.

JC: One of the things I really appreciated about this memoir is that it was written with so much self-awareness. I read a lot of memoirs that don’t have that piece of awareness or the willingness to be honest enough to say: “Well, this was my stake in things. I’m not going to go around blaming everyone else for my unhappiness or disappointment or isolation or abuse.” I appreciated that about Leaving the Pink House. The writing seems to me self-aware, honest and compassionate. Because you’re showing compassion for everyone.

LR: Including myself. And there is one section in that scene at the Christ Temple Mission where I finally leave my faith, that I talk about that.

JC: Yes, you do. And that’s a beautiful passage. There’s one piece I wanted to quote from that section. This is after you’ve lost your faith and you’ve had a kind of larger revelation: “‘We’re just people trying to understand our lives, trying to make sense of a world too big to ever understand. We’re just people needing something to get us through from one day to the next.’” That’s so forgiving of yourself, as you say, and also others. You talk about leaving behind this fundamentalist Christian background, which had given so much structure and meaning to your life, and you still say, we all need something. That worked for me for a while, but now it doesn’t.

LR: Well, that’s the price of thinking. I was always thinking and questioning and wondering, and I spent a lot of years arguing and trying to stay within that world. You could do that—there’s room for argument within most faith communities—but there came a time when I couldn’t do it anymore. I had to outgrow it. Part of it was the ways the fundamentalist Christianity was evolving in terms of the political environment: they were becoming more outspoken and drawing more lines that I was inevitably going to cross. And so, it was inevitable that I was going to leave. But that was a big step, to not leave in anger. So many young people who are raised in fundamentalist communities leave when they’re eighteen, first chance they get, because they’re done with it and don’t share their parents’ beliefs. I think it’s very different leaving as an adult and leaving when you’re married, and have had children, and you’ve invested in this community. Even as a skeptic, it’s a painful thing. It’s very hard for people to understand. We don’t talk about it very much. I figure that the people who are still in those communities don’t understand because I’m an infidel, and for people who never were there, it’s hard to grasp why this was meaningful and why it was so hard to leave. Maybe there’s this feeling of stupidity attached to it. I worked very hard in my twenties to think my way out of things and didn’t have mentors or models and didn’t have access. That’s part of isolation. So you really have to create your own way. It makes for quirkiness. I’m very quirky as a result. But again, I don’t apologize. That’s how it is.

JC: It seems a very realistic way of looking at it. I didn’t grow up with Christianity or any sort of strong religion at all, but I’ve thought enough about spirituality that it makes sense to me that people would still want to be a part of that fundamentalist world. It’s not a world that I would want to be a part of. But what you’re talking about here, this switch for you, is stepping out again into the unfamiliar, into a new life, and stepping out of that structure into no structure at all.

LR: Even if you’re pushing boundaries, if you’re disagreeing or challenging, there’s a sense of a conversation, a discussion that’s going on. Now what’s the discussion? It’s many things, everything, nothing. It was great discipline in a way. Now I don’t really enjoy arguing that much anymore. I was a great debater and was vicious probably. But a lot of energy went into that. Maybe all of us, in our teens and twenties, are very passionate in that way. It was a great place to have those kinds of discussions. Now I’m not that interested.

JC: Believing in extremism, or fighting against it, takes so much energy either way. So when you’re deciding to go maybe middle of the road, your own direction, that just takes much less energy.

LR: It does. Also, I think we’re so divided and we’re so isolated from one another, that unless you have family members or friends who have beliefs that are different than yours, you don’t have those conversations. There’s not much fruitful discourse in this country about spirituality that I’m around. And that goes back to that inclination to talk to people about their stories. We’re all human. That’s why I adore Chekhov. He’s my great literary hero because even if he wants to be critical of a character, inevitably, as he begins to write about that character, he comes to love them for their humanness. Not in spite of their flaws, but for their flaws. That goodness comes through. That’s what saves me. I can still remain open to the person who seems so hateful and seems so incomprehensible to me. Then I think: what’s going on, what’s happened, what is it about what I feel is so obvious that is so frightening to this person? Trying to get behind that rhetoric is important.

JC: I think it is, and what I find in your fiction and in the memoir is that notion of looking for stories, but also with a capacity for empathy. If you can imagine yourself into the life of someone else, you need never hate them or reject them because you feel what they feel.

LR: And that’s why Willa Cather spoke of fiction in almost spiritual terms: for her it really was her belief and her church. The longer you do this, the longer you are someone who dwells very deeply and closely with the stories of characters who come to you—and you have no idea where they’re coming from—the more you do feel that you’re doing something very powerful and humbling. You’re in the presence of something that’s much bigger than you.