Born in Seattle in 1979, Julie Marie Wade completed a Master of Arts in English at Western Washington University in 2003, a Master of Fine Arts in Poetry at the University of Pittsburgh in 2006, and a PhD in Interdisciplinary Humanities at the University of Louisville in 2012. She has received the Chicago Literary Award in Poetry (2004), the Gulf Coast Nonfiction Prize (2004), the Oscar Wilde Poetry Prize (2005), the Literal Latte Nonfiction Award (2006), two Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Prizes (2006, 2010), the AWP Intro Journals Award for Nonfiction (2009), the American Literary Review Nonfiction Prize (2010), the Arts & Letters Nonfiction Prize (2010), an Al Smith Artist Grant from the Kentucky Arts Council (2010), the Thomas J. Hruska Nonfiction Prize (2011), the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Memoir (2011), the Bloom Nonfiction Chapbook Prize (2012), a grant from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund (2012), and eight Pushcart Prize nominations. Julie is the author of Wishbone: A Memoir in Fractures (Colgate University Press, 2010; Bywater Books, 2014), Without: Poems (Finishing Line Press, 2010), Small Fires: Essays (Sarabande Books, 2011),Postage Due: Poems & Prose Poems (White Pine Press, 2013), Tremolo: An Essay (Bloom Press, 2013), When I Was Straight: Poems (A Midsummer Night’s Press, 2014), and the forthcoming collections, SIX (Red Hen Press, 2015) and Catechism: A Love Story(Noctuary Press, 2016). She teaches in the creative writing program at Florida International University and lives with her spouse, Angie Griffin, in Dania Beach. For this segment of our Author Interview Series, we asked Julie what inspires her writing, what challenges she’s faced as a writer, as well as a host of other questions. Here’s what she said:
Tell us about Wishbone: A Memoir in Fractures.
Well, Wishbone is my first book. It’s a memoir that doubles as a collection of lyric essays, so each individual chapter is intended to stand alone, and all of them, I believe, have been published separate from the larger book in various literary journals. When it came time to describe the book for publication, I found it difficult to articulate what the book was “about” because it doesn’t follow a strictly linear narrative. But the book begins with a moment of fracture–what I would call in the writing classroom an “inciting event”–where my life as the speaker-narrator splits rather dramatically into two parts or better said, two possibilities for the future. I was engaged to a man, about to be married, about to embark on a particular kind of life that my parents had always wanted for me, and I didn’t do it. At the eleventh hour, I told the woman I loved how I felt, and it turned out she felt the same way about me. The book hinges on this moment, but it moves forward in time through my life with Angie and our experiences as a lesbian couple coming out in early new millennium American culture as well as backward in time through my childhood and some of the salient moments that put me on that original path to the traditional altar. One of the finest teachers I’ve ever had, Steve VanderStaay, wrote the book jacket description for me–he was also the nonfiction writing professor in whose class Angie and I were both enrolled at the time of the fracture in question–and I’ll always be grateful to him for showing me that Wishbone is, above everything else, a love story. He called it “the felix culpa, the fortunate fall of love.”
What inspired you to write the book?
I didn’t know I was writing a book at first. I had always identified myself as a poet, so I was used to writing poems with a larger collection in mind. “Dreaming in Alpha,” the earliest essay in Wishbone that I wrote, dates back to my senior year of college in 2000 when I was enrolled in a multi-genre class called Imaginative Writing with Earl Lovelace. At the time, I didn’t know what a lyric essay was, let alone that what I had written might be referred to that way. The next year, in graduate school, I took a class with Brenda Miller called The Lyric Essay, and I found myself compelled to keep writing this kind of prosodic, braided, experimental, autobiographical prose. There was a kind of formal freedom–not an escape from form by any means, but rather a freedom to create new forms and hybridize familiar ones–that suited me and my desire to explore both the past of my upbringing and the present of my love relationship. And so I just kept writing more and more lyric essays all through my Master’s program and then my Master of Fine Arts program, even as I was always officially “on the books” as a poet. By 2006, I had finished my MFA, and shortly thereafter, I finished “Carapace,” which would become the final essay in Wishbone. I had read about the Graywolf Nonfiction Prize in Poets & Writers, and I got to wondering whether I might have a book of creative nonfiction to submit. Angie helped me with the order and the title, selecting from the lyric essays I had written to date. As it turned out, I had more like a book and a half, so we assembled a manuscript of the most thematically interlaced essays, called it Wishbone: A Memoir in Fractures, and sent it off to Graywolf with our fingers crossed. I didn’t win the prize, but I did receive a handwritten letter explaining that my book had been shortlisted for the prize and inviting me to submit again. The same thing happened the following year, and I was immensely heartened. Other people believed my lyric explorations comprised a book! How gratifying was that! Then, in 2009, I was honored to receive the Colgate University Press Nonfiction Book Award. The following year, the folks at Colgate University Press published my book, and after it sold out its first press run, the folks at Bywater Books graciously reprinted it for me–with a new cover and updated acknowledgments. In the interim, I was also fortunate to receive the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Memoir, which helped the book reach a wider audience and was a powerful affirmation for me that my love story belonged to a larger canon of contemporary lesbian literature.
What were your biggest challenges when writing the book?
I hate to sound glib, as if there were no challenges at all, but I think the fact that I didn’t realize I was writing a book until after I had written the ten essays that ultimately comprised Wishbone made the experience a very liberating one for me. All the while I was writing Wishbone, I was doing so “under the radar,” in a sense. I wasn’t a creative nonfiction degree candidate, so it was my poems, not my lyric essays, that were being scrutinized and revised and presented for thesis defense. It was like having a secret second genre–not completely secret, since I did take some creative nonfiction elective credits–but prose felt like a hidden superpower to me. Nobody knew I could make prose, too, and so I was able to focus privately on making it the best prose I could without distraction or expectation.
Who are you reading now?
Since I’m a poetry reviewer for The Rumpus and Lambda Literary Review, I get to read a tremendous range of contemporary poets, sometimes even before their newest books have come out or their first books have debuted. At this very moment, I’m re-reading an extraordinary debut memoir by Daisy Hernandez called A Cup of Water Under My Bed, which I’ll be teaching this semester in my graduate memoir seminar. I’m also reading Caprice, the collected collaborations of Denise Duhamel and Maureen Seaton, two of my greatest poetry heroes of all time. And because I like to read a lot of books at once, I also find myself neck-deep in Natalie Diaz’s gripping When My Brother Was an Aztec, waist-deep in Sandra Doller’s Leave Your Body Behind, which might have to join the syllabus for my graduate lyric essay class, and knee-deep in a brilliant new book by Christopher DeWeese called The Father of the Arrow is the Thought. Suffice it to say, I’m never bored as a reader, and with classes beginning next week, I’ll be plunged back into much of my favorite literature once again.
Which authors and novels/memoirs have been an inspiration to you, and why?
Back in 2002 when I took that graduate seminar in the lyric essay, I was awed by the writers we read. Brenda Miller constructed a syllabus that was, to my mind, flawless. I fell in love with Bernard Cooper’s writing, Albert Goldbarth’s writing, Anne Carson’s writing, Mark Doty’s writing. While I was her student, Brenda’s first book, Season of the Body, was published by Sarabande Books, and I remember seeing it and holding it in my hands and thinking, “I’ve got to read Brenda’s writing. And I’ve got to find out more about this Sarabande Books.” Both of those were top-notch ideas. Brenda is one of the most influential lyric essayists I’ve read, and all her books have had a galvanizing effect on me. Soon thereafter, I learned my poetry professor and thesis director, Suzanne Paola, had a semi-secret life as a creative nonfiction writer under the pen name Susanne Antonetta. While I was still a graduate student at Western Washington University, Suzanne/Susanne’s first book of prose, Body Toxic: An Environmental Memoir, was published, and I found it to be extraordinary in its own right and also a wonderful sign that a writer could be a poet and a memoirist simultaneously. I knew that fact theoretically, but I hadn’t know anyone–at least known anyone consciously–who wrote prodigiously in both genres until that time. Suzanne/Susanne’s second book, A Mind Apart: Travels in a Neurodiverse World, soon became one of my all-time favorite prose collections. And then, if you fast-forward to 2012, I found myself on the job market and applying for my dream job at Florida International University. I wanted to teach in the MFA program at FIU initially because Denise Duhamel and Campbell McGrath were such inspirational poets to me. I wasn’t too familiar with the other faculty members’ creative work since they published in prose–specifically, fiction and narrative nonfiction, not memoir–so I began reading their work, and I’ve never stopped. Lynne Barrett, Debra Dean, John Dufresne, and Les Standiford all make their own particular kind of magic happen on the page, and John Dufresne also talks about “How to Write a Story” in one of the most concise and incisive speeches I’ve ever heard on this subject. His Ted talk is what I now routinely show in my multi-genre creative writing class. It’s one of the most inspiring craft lectures I’ve ever heard, and I love that my students and I get to hear it in his inimitable voice:
What advice can you provide to aspiring authors?
It’s interesting that you use the word “author” here. That’s one of the first things I’d say to anyone who writes and is interested in publishing. You have to cultivate your life as a writer, which is where the private, sometimes lonely, sometimes painstaking work of getting words onto the page actually occurs. Then, you have to cultivate another life, which is related to that writing life but different from it, too. This is the author’s life, the public life of the writer. Here’s where you learn how to write and talk about your work. As an author, you write query letters and cover letters, you give interviews like this one, you set aside time to prepare writing submissions and research publication venues. As an author, you also–in an ideal world–read from your work in front of an audience and maybe answer questions about it in front of that audience, too. Maybe you participate in panels on writing and publishing. Maybe you participate in book fairs and author signings. The challenge is to strike and support a balance between these two parts of yourself. The writer part, to me, feels very right-brained, very creative, open to experimentation, reading everything with an eye to “how did this other writer do that?,” and generating more words than will ultimately make their way into your finished, publishable piece or volume. The author part is much more left-brained, focused on organization and deadlines and scoping out various possibilities for reaching a larger audience, trying to find the best and most appropriate home for the work that the writer-self has produced. You don’t want to engage your author-self until you’ve already done a lot of writing, studying of writing, reading of other writers, and revising. Once you’re ready to publish and to embrace an active author life, you want to make sure you still nourish–and consistently so–the writer-self who both wants and needs to go into that quiet place to create.