This interview between Caryl Pagel and Lily Hoang is being published in conjunction with an Essay Press chapbook focused on dialogues with Cleveland State University Poetry Center authors, to be released on December 15th.
Caryl Pagel: A Bestiary is brimming with moments of memory, panic, humor, sarcasm, and joy but at its heart is an elegy (for your sister, for a kind of idealized love, and for the “other” Lily). Could you speak to the ways in which this grief accumulated and how nonfiction can work as a site of tribute or mourning?
Lily Hoang: My grief accumulated because—as I say in the book—I compartmentalize all my problems. I just focus on work. And then there must be a breaking point, and maybe that’s what this book was for me: all my avoidances from the past three years, coming forward in all their hurtful splendor. I think nonfiction is a natural space for tribute and mourning: both require an honest reckoning of another and of self.
CP: What surprised you the most during the composition of A Bestiary? How did the act of writing it change you?
LH: As my editor, you’re in a unique position because you’ve read the original and then the revision, which is this book. They’re very different books. So I’d say the most surprising part of composing A Bestiary was the revision process. I’ve never pushed myself so hard. I was working in a haze: sleeping every other night or so. Keep in mind, I had my tenure box due the same day as edits to you, and the semester was beginning. So, even without procrastinating, things were overwhelming. I couldn’t think straight. I would write a paragraph and have my friend Carmen editorially allow or cut. I gave her complete control. I wrote three completely different drafts of the last essay in the book. And in the end, she was always right.
I have never felt overwhelmed before, and revising this book, I felt overwhelmed: an entirely new emotion.
CP: The fairy tales and mythological accounts in A Bestiary operate as metaphor, allegory, framework, grounding force, and guide. Have you always been interested in the fantastic? In how imaginative stories influence real-life perceptions?
LH: Every kid hears fairy tales and every kid is influenced by them, so in that way, yes, I’ve always been interested in the fantastic. Kate Bernheimer’s The Complete Tales of Ketzia Gold taught me that fairy tales can interact with the real and that collision can produce something truly spectacular.
CP: Name the nonfiction writers who are most exciting to you now (living or dead), those who have been on your mind in, say, the last year or so? Are you learning from them, raging against them, feeling intimate, energized, or bewildered?
LH: I recently taught Creative Non-Fiction for the first time. In many ways, it was because of this class that I was able to generate the first draft of A Bestiary. The readings influenced me—Montaigne and Virginia Woolf, Maggie Nelson and Jenny Boully, to name a few—and of course my students influenced me. All student work engages me on many different emotional levels (those you named above and some more, too).
CP: What are you working on now?
LH: Ha! I’m finishing up the last round of edits for you! But afterwards, I was thinking about writing a book of fairy tales.
Lily Hoang is the author of four books, including Changing, recipient of a PEN Open Books Award. Her choose-your-own adventure love story Old Cat Lady (1913 Books) is forthcoming in 2015. With Joshua Marie Wilkinson, she edited the anthology The Force of What’s Possible: Writers on Accessibility and the Avant-Garde. She teaches in the MFA program at New Mexico State University, where she is Associate Department Head. She serves as Prose Editor at Puerto del Sol and Non-Fiction Editor at Drunken Boat.
Caryl Pagel is the author of Twice Told (H_NG M_N Books, 2014) and Experiments I Should Like Tried At My Own Death (Factory Hollow Press, 2012). Her poems and essays can be found in AGNI, The Iowa Review, Jacket2, The Mississippi Review, and Wave Composition, among other places. She is the Director of the CSU Poetry Center and an Assistant Professor of English at Cleveland State University.