Erin Celello addresses our uneasy relationship with nature in her essay “Killing Time” (Issue 4) by exploring the various forms of animal death our consciences have to confront. In this interview, she discusses her creative process, from the state of her workplace to the way she deals with writer’s block.
Erin Celello lives in Madison, Wisconsin, with her husband and two young sons, but she will forever be a Yooper at heart. She holds a MFA in fiction from Northern Michigan University and is the author of two novels: Miracle Beach and Learning to Stay, which was nominated for a PEN/Faulkner award for fiction. Her nonfiction has appeared in Zocalo Public Square. In the hours not spent toddler-wrangling or writing, she teaches at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.
What inspired you to create this piece? It’s one I’ve been toying with since graduate school – for nearly a decade. It stems from my long struggle with being a bit of a foodie, loving animals, and being raised in a place in which hunting and meat-eating is beyond commonplace (all schools close, as an official “holiday” for the opening day of deer hunting season.)
How would you characterize your creative process as you worked on this piece? (ex: fast and furious, slow brew, fits and starts) “Fits and starts” comes immediately to mind. It’s still not where I want it to be. I’ll probably toy with this one forever. But it’s so much closer than it ever has been.
What writing or other artistic expression has had a profound impact on your writing? Why? I tend to gravitate toward reading poetry when I’m in the middle of writing something because it’s both inspiring and a perfect reminder to be careful with my language, to really slow down and work at it. It’s easy, as a prose writer, to get carried away with telling your story. Poetry has so much wisdom to impart as to how we tell it, and how few words we writers actually need to do a compelling job.
Where do you create? Tell us about your workspace. With two young boys under the age of three in our house, I have had to get far less picky about where and when I write and I now regularly crack open my computer in the car if I’m waiting or in any quiet-ish corner of, well, pretty much anywhere. But, ideally, I’ll be at home in a comfy chair in front of a fire (because winter lasts an eternity around here) and a cup of coffee (if it’s daytime) or glass of red wine (if late at night) in hand and my two dogs curled around me.
How has having children impacted your writing? What’s different in your writing now versus your writing before you had children? Having children has affected my writing in ways I never could have anticipated. The short answer is that it’s really, really hard. I have an almost two-year old who hasn’t slept past 5:30 am pretty much since he was born (some days, like today, it’s 4:30 am). That makes writing in the morning — and at night (my preferred time) — horribly difficult. So, I’ve adapted. I’ve learned to “binge” write on the days when I have a few hours of childcare, and be okay with not getting any other writing time in. At first, this frustrated me to no end. Now, though, I’m used to it. I also have learned to schedule my time differently. Instead of doing grading or class prep during my free afternoons on campus, I write instead, because I’m fresh then. I save things like returning emails or entering grades for at night, when I don’t need to be firing on all creative cylinders. And, finally, I’ve had to get okay with the fact that I’m not going to produce writing as quickly as I once might have done.
Who has been influential in your writing/creative work? Why? My first writing teachers – Kyoko Mori and Katie Myers Hanson, to name two – were instrumental to simply giving me the confidence to pursue something I loved but didn’t know for certain if I had any aptitude for. And along the way, I’ve been fortunate to be a part of a couple of fantastic writing groups and have a great beta reader as well. In addition, I’ve learned a great deal from my agent, Andrea Somberg, who is utterly fantastic both as a developmental editor, an agent, and as a person.
What do you do to help yourself get over a creative block? I used to just put the work aside and believe that the muse would come and visit as she saw fit. Now, I know that’s ridiculous, and/or a waste of time. While on deadline for my second novel, I had to discipline myself to sit down and simply write, whether I felt inspired or not. I often feared that what I wrote would be terrible beyond belief, but I found that even when writing was the very last thing I wanted to do that day or that particular hour, I would always get a sentence or two that I could be proud of. I would always move the story forward, even if in an incremental way. It was never wasted time. And going back and re-reading, I found that it was never as awful as I imagined the writing could or would be.
What made you have this realization, that you couldn’t just wait on the muse to come? I learned not to wait for my muse to show up between book 1 and book 2. The first book, Miracle Beach, took me about 8 years to finish. Learning to Stay took under two years. The difference was a pretty thick legal contract for book #2 that specified delivery dates for me to produce a manuscript for my editor/publisher. To meet those deadlines, I wrote whenever and where ever possible. I would do things like eat lunch at my desk while working my “day job,” and then take my lunch break offsite, at a coffee shop, to write. Usually, with travel time and coffee-ordering figured in, I only had about 40 minutes to write. In the past I would have scoffed at that, because what can you really get done in 40 minutes? Turns out, quite a bit. And, it’s not the reduced quality writing that I might have previously suspected. So now, I eschew inspiration and opt to grind it out, partly because I’ve learned that it’s a system that works, and partially because, well, I don’t have much of a choice (see: question above about my workspace).
What living writer would you recommend other nonfiction writers read? What titles in particular? Why? Oh, man. This is a tough one – so many great writers to choose from. But the creative nonfiction writer who kindled in me a love for the genre is Mary Karr. I’d read a grocery list if she wrote it. I love her ability to craft sentences with a poet’s sensibilities and still retain this incredible voice and sense of place. Susan Casey, too, in my opinion, is both a brilliant writer and researcher and is often very much under celebrated.
We asked Erin to dip into the “Proust Questionnaire” and select a few fun (less writing-related) questions to answer. This probing set of questions originated as a 19th-century parlor game popularized by contemporaries of Marcel Proust, the French essayist and novelist, who believed that an individual’s answers reveal his or her true nature.
Which words or phrases do you most overuse? “Seriously” – as a statement or question, and “that’s a pretty low bar”
What is your greatest extravagance? Daily Starbucks. These days my drink of choice is a doppio espresso macchiato.
Which talent would you most like to have? I want to be able to sing. Alas, even in the shower it doesn’t sound good. But my three year-old does ask me to sing him to bed each night with Desperado. I’m waiting for him to wise up.
Who is your hero of fiction? I will always have a very soft spot in my heart for Owen Meany.
What is your current state of mind? I’m very relaxed about pretty much everything. This either stems from a serious illness a handful of years ago that my husband nearly didn’t make it through, or from having two crazy toddlers living with me (or both!), but I’ve just gotten chill. Things that used to be a big deal just aren’t. And, I’m glad. Because what’s life for if not to be enjoyed, after all?
This interview was curated by Devon Halliday, Proximity‘s Interview Series Coordinator and a Comparative Literature student at Brown University.