When Erika Janik loses her dad, she chooses five of his belongings to keep. In “A Catalogue of My Dad” (Issue 3), she reconnects with him and herself via the objects he left behind. In the following interview, Janik discusses her work space, her high school English teacher, and her greatest extravagance.
Erika Janik is the author of five history books, including Marketplace of the Marvelous: The Strange Origins of Modern Medicine. Her work has appeared in Smithsonian, The Atlantic, Salon, Mental Floss, and Edible Milwaukee, among others. By day, she is the executive producer of Wisconsin Life, a radio series on Wisconsin Public Radio.
How would you characterize your creative process as you worked on this piece? (ex: fast and furious, slow brew, fits and starts) Many parts of this finished piece came from bits of writing I’ve done in the months since my dad passed away last fall. The loss drove me to the page many times but not in any coherent way until I started thinking about the experience through objects. It all seemed to come together quickly then, which surprised me to some degree because I tend to shy away from putting myself in my work – at least overtly.
Where do you create? Tell us about your workspace. I’ve long felt that my mental and physical appetites clashed. I love to research, read, and write, but I’m also full of energy and can barely sit still – not the most conducive personality for quality writing. But I’ve had a treadmill desk for more than four years now and I tend to do most of my research, some writing, and editing while in motion. I write history books so my desk tends to be stacked high with books and research notes that cover everything but the keyboard.
Who has been influential in your writing/creative work? My high school English teacher Rae Ann Engdahl helped me believe that I could write. I had the good fortune to be in her classes my sophomore and senior years. She managed the delicate balance of pushing and praising in a way that boosted my confidence while also making my work stronger. I also had wonderful history teachers who made history come alive for me. They emphasized that history is really storytelling and not rote memorization even though that’s the way it often seems. As a result, I grew up loving history (my parents were also into history so that didn’t hurt) and wanting to share my enthusiasm for the past with others. It still took me a while to put all the pieces together but in hindsight, the signs were there all along.
What do you do to help yourself get over a creative block? If I’m honest, I freak out and go into a tailspin of self-doubt for a while. But often, if I just calm down, the block gives me space to find my way back to the work. I tend to go for a run, read, or sew to calm down. Then, if I’m in the middle of a project, I go back to my historical sources to try to get back into the world I’m trying to figure out first for myself and then for readers. Also, my husband hears so much about my work that he’s good at reminding me what I’m trying to do when I’ve lost sight of the forest.
How do you think your “tailspins of self-doubt” help or hurt your writing? Or just influence it in general? I’m not sure tailspins of self-doubt are really good for anyone (no matter how common they are, especially in writers) but I suppose that it keeps me humble. One thing it does compel me to do is to talk out my ideas with other people – yes, I’m looking for reassurance to a degree but it also gives my perspective that I wouldn’t have if I was just in love with every word that came out of my head. Some of my self-doubt also relates to the telling of someone else’s story and my desire to be as true to that person as possible. One of my goals as a historian is to show that history is not names and dates but stories of people just like you who happened to live 100, 200 years ago. It’s hard to do, especially with scant historical records in some cases. I think it’s only natural to start questioning what you’re doing and whether you can do it justice.
Why do you tend to shy away from putting yourself in your work? The primary reason that I don’t put myself in my work is that I’m trained as a historian and my thinking is very steeped in that particular view of the world. It’s a view that doesn’t include the author generally, though of course, every decision I’ve made, from the topic to the elements and evidence I’ve chosen as important to tell the story, are a reflection of me and what matters to me. And then maybe it’s just that I don’t know how to put myself in the story in a way that feels comfortable and right to me.
We asked Erika 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.
What is your greatest extravagance? Travel. My insatiable wanderlust and curiosity makes travel for extended period of time a priority in my life.
Which talent would you most like to have? I’m not sure teleportation is a talent but I’ve got a whole mental list of ways my life would improve by instant travel. At the same time, I love train trips so it’s doubtful I would completely give up slow transport.
What is your motto? I may not get everything I want but I can get what I work for. (yes, my motto ends in a preposition.)
This interview was curated by Erika Williams, Proximity‘s Interview Series Coordinator and a creative writing student at Ohio University.