July 1, 2015

An Interview with Author Karen Babine, Part Two: The Triangular Prism, Water and What We Know, & Galway

Part Two of my interview with writer Karen Babine, author of Water and What We Know: Following the Roots of a Northern Life (University of Minnesota Press, 2015). You can read Part One here.

I know that you love Ireland, traveling, and camping in your Scamp. How do your travels influence what you write? Do you keep extensive journals? Do you approach your travels with hopes and plans for how it will produce writing, or is it more that you reflect on these past experiences years later?

We camped a lot when I was a kid—in a 1972 Starcraft pop-up—and both sets of grandparents liked to travel. My dad was a navigator on C-130s for the Air Force in the 70s and so he told us a lot of stories when we were growing up. I did a study abroad in Ireland and I've been back a couple of times; I bought my camper in 2008 and though I haven't gotten to use it as much as I'd like to, last summer I took it to Nova Scotia to research my dad's ancestry in the French Acadians of Nova Scotia. And as for how it influences my writing, I find that there's a triangular prism of nature writing, place writing, and travel writing, and what you write depends on your perspective. For me, those parameters keep changing. Water and WhatWe Know is place writing and it's nature writing, my Galway book is place writing and travel writing, my Acadia book will be another combination entirely. I'm convinced that you need to know what's under your feet to fully understand who you are and how you live in any place. It matters if your soil is sand or clay, if the area has a history of earthquakes or volcanoes. It matters. And so getting to know places is a first step for me in figuring out everything else. If you feel something in a place, whether it’s comfort or discomfort or something else, that’s the first step to digging into yourself to find out why you feel that way. When I first moved to Fargo/Moorhead for college, I was a lakes-and-trees-girl on the prairie for the first time, and the emptiness of the landscape made me feel uncomfortable and I didn’t know why. These days, having spent so much time on the Great Plains, I need the prairie as much as I need Lakes Country.

Though I expect I'll probably get some writing out of travel, I don't go into it with a preconceived notion. A couple of years ago I was in Montreal for a conference and we went to Quebec City, and then to Grosse Ile, which was the quarantine station for the port of Quebec. If you don't know the history of that place, Google it and then come back here. I was at an Irish studies conference, and I'd read Andrea Barrett's "Ship Fever," so I knew what I was getting into. Theoretically. But I was so affected by what I saw that writing about it was the only way I could process what I'd felt there.

I don't think I intended to write a book about Galway when I went there the first time, but as I've been struggling in those fifteen years to figure out my fascination, it's eventually made itself into a book. The Nova Scotia trip was designed as a research trip, for the next book. The best part about being an essayist is being curious and then pursuing that curiosity. I want to know—on one level—how my dad’s family got to be who they are, how the came to have the relationships they have with each other. Because the Babines were some of the first Acadian settlers in Nova Scotia in the 1600s, because they were kicked out with the rest of the Acadians in 1755, because they somehow came back, because my great-grandfather, who was born in Nova Scotia, married my great-grandmother in Massachusetts and they moved to Long Beach, California in 1922, where my grandfather and his twin were born, because my dad didn’t stay in California, there’s something here to this story and I want to know how we got there. So, I’m looking at our family’s story—even as I’m writing the book as a series of essays—as one of movement, because I think that’s the key.

I only keep journals when I travel. I've never been able to keep them in daily life. But they're a great way to record the minutiae of travel in a way that's an artifact, in a way that memory and distance can't change. For instance, I'm working on my Galway book right now and I like to think that I've always wanted to travel solo, that I'm not lonely or scared when I do, but looking back at some of those early journals, that was definitely not the case. I still have the journals from my junior-year study abroad to Galway--and man, that's embarrassing to look at now. But I'm still glad I have them.

You also have interests in genealogy work and the history of place and natural disasters. Have these interests influenced your writing?

My mother's parents lived 13 miles south of us for most of my life and they were great storytellers. Or rather, Gram was the storyteller and Grandpa let her. She was Swedish and came from east-central Minnesota, a place where her ancestors had settled in the 1860s. Grandpa's family was German and from southwestern Minnesota, and they immigrated about the same time. Gram's older sister had a two-year degree; Gram was the first in her family to get a four-year degree. Grandpa was the first to graduate from high school, let alone college. They just knew so much--about their families, about Swedish and German things, about just about everything. Gram was a history teacher, so that was an influence too. On the other side of my family, I started working on that side's genealogy when I was in high school and I took it over from my great-aunt years ago. It's a puzzle, of the best kind. My dad’s family is so drastically different in temperament from my mom’s family, I’ve long been curious about how we get to be who we are, and I’m more interested in collective identity, rather than individual identity in that sense. And that's a huge part of what I'm interested in writing about.

How would you describe your writing routine? Do you participate in writing groups? Write on a daily basis? Set goals or deadlines? Furthermore, how do you balance writing with teaching? What was this workload like during graduate school?

I knew this question was coming. I have no real routine. And it really depends on what project I'm working on and what point that project is at. Right now, I'm in what I hope is the last revision of my Galway book, but I'm stuck on it, so I'm not writing. I'm reading. I plowed through Adam Gopnik's Paris to the Moon and Pico Iyer's The Art of Stillness last week, and this week I'm moving, so things are a little hectic, but I'm reading a book called The Course of Irish History alongside a scholarly collection of essays on teaching creative writing in Ireland. My process is that I'm always writing, but I'm not always typing.

I also tend to work in multiple projects at the same time, which is why I don't have a set routine. The earliest piece in the Water book dates back to my senior year of high school. Some of the earliest stuff in the Galway book dates back to my study abroad in 2000. I was working on the Galway book while the Water book was still in process; I did the research for the Acadia book before the Galway book is finished. And I think the book that will come after Acadia is going to be food essays. But I’m also coming up against the summer submission deadline for Assay, so I’m working on reading submissions, sending things to my staff, and moving towards proofs and getting things on our website, and such. All of it feeds my work, even though it isn’t all my own writing on the page.

Balancing writing with teaching is an even tougher question: the easiest part of that question is that being a writer absolutely makes me a better teacher of writing—and being an editor makes me a better writer and a better teacher. I go through the same processes and struggles that my students do. Writing during the school year is pretty difficult for me, which is another reason I don't have a set routine, so I tend to write when I have something in my head and then file it away for when I have something to add to it. Having set deadlines, like during graduate school, were great to produce work, so when I am given a deadline, I tend to like that a lot--it takes away any excuses I might have. There’s a book contest deadline coming up in October and I want to get my Galway book done by that date. I did my PhD in three years, rather than the expected five, so deadlines were both great and terrifying. I read all the work for my comps, wrote my comps portfolios and all that in the summer between my first and second years. And then my last year was my dissertation. It was insane, but it got done. My first published critical article came out of a class I took during my very first semester at Nebraska, so there was a market for the work outside the classroom--which is great.

But I also get to teach what I love, which means I get to teach books I like, and that often sparks something I can use later. I also spend a lot time in current events and the world is just such a cool place that essays are everywhere. Right now, I’m working on a syllabus—that I might never get to teach, but that’s okay—about the sentence. The highest compliment I can give a piece of writing is “so-and-so can really write a sentence!” (If you read the first page—which is really once sentence—of Declan Burke’s Slaughter’s Hound, you’ll know what I mean.) Sometimes we get so wrapped up in the final product, the book, the novel, the essay, that we lose sight of what makes writing great.

Your book Water and What We Know: Following the Rootsof a Northern Life (University of Minnesota Press, 2015) is described formally as a collection of essays “exploring the link between natural history and memory, landscape and identity, place and meaning.” How would you describe the book to someone completely unfamiliar with creative nonfiction? What was the writing process like for this collection?

It's a collection of essays about place and about identity, about how the places we find ourselves shape who we are. How is who we are influenced by where we are? I grew up in northern Minnesota and in addition to my parents, my grandparents were great conservationists who both came from farming families. From a very young age, I knew that our soil was sand--and why that mattered. There's a reason potatoes and edible beans grow so well there, why it never floods. When I went to Fargo/Moorhead for college, the soil there is clay--and it floods if the clouds look at it funny. I came to Concordia six months after the worst flooding to ever hit the Red River and even 18 years later, that flood still has a hold on the people who went through it. I remember the earthquake that hit the east coast in 2011 and how much California made fun of them for their reaction--but the last time the earth had shook like that at the Pentagon, a plane had crashed into the outer rings of the building. We each have different reactions and understandings of the world around us, simply because of the experience of living in a particular place.

The writing process for this collection was like a lot of first collections. They weren't designed to go together. I wrote them all at different times, in different places, in different states of mind. I shuffled pieces in and shuffled others out. And then I tried to find a link between them. Everything from here on out is conceived as a single book, so that process will go much easier.

What writing projects are you currently working on?

I'm nearly done with a book about Galway, Ireland, the best city in the world. There's no reason why I should feel anything in an urban environment--as a rural girl--but this city hit me hard when I first arrived and hasn't let up since. It's a really special place and the book is in pursuit of why. I'm also working on a book that explores the Babine side of my family, which dates back to the first Acadian settlers in Nova Scotia in the 17th century. The Acadian history is a really interesting one, with the very tragic Expulsion in 1755, in which the British kicked out the Acadians. Some went to Louisiana and became Cajun, some back to France, some went to Maine and Massachusetts (where mine did). It's an incredibly interesting history and I'm looking at it through the lens of movement, why we move, and also through my family's affection for camping. But also as the family genealogist, I got to geek out at cemeteries (and I learned that the Acadians liked wooden crosses for their graves, which have long since disappeared, so I never found any ancestral graves) and I had spectacular afternoon at the Acadian archives in Tusket, near Yarmouth. History hits me in all the right places, the quotidian life of it, how people lived and why they did what they did. History is only boring when you forget it’s about real people.

Stay Tuned for Part Three: Butt in Chair,
Wanderlust, & Author Desert Island

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