Indiana Review is getting ready for the annual Blue Light Reading–where we have the great honor of inviting three readers to not only share their work but also conduct a workshop, open to all. We are proud to have Elizabeth Eslami as one of our readers this year. In this interview, she discusses her short-story collection Hibernate, her Blue Light Workshop theme, and some advice for all writers.
Elizabeth Eslami is the author of the story collection, Hibernate (The Ohio State University Press, 2014), for which she was awarded the Ohio State University Prize in Short Fiction, and the novel Bone Worship (Pegasus, 2010). Her essays, short stories, and travel writing have appeared most recently in The Sun and Witness, and her work is featured in the anthologies Tremors: New Fiction By Iranian American Writers, The Weeklings: Revolution 1, and Writing Off Script: Writers on the Influence of Cinema.
She currently teaches creative writing at Indiana University.
In a past interview, you discussed how the stories are set “everywhere from Montana to Los Angeles to Tehran and beyond” in your short-story collection Hibernate. Could you discuss how you see these places interacting with each other, if at all?
I think it’s more parallel play than interaction. All of the stories, even if they don’t announce themselves as such, are about place as much as they are about people. I’m especially interested in overlap: Tehrangeles in LA, for example. The Montana of tourists vs. ranchers vs. environmentalists. Remaking your identity in LA, whether that means changing your face, abandoning or adopting a cultural heritage, or rethinking a relationship. Within these stories, there are spaces that I find interesting as well. Hotel rooms. Waiting rooms. Doctor’s offices. Working inside someone else’s house. The characters are who they are because they’re in a particular place at a particular moment in their lives. My goal was to make place act on them, and for the characters to act on place.
Your Blue Light Workshop description asks us, “What image keeps haunting your work? What are your narrative tics?” We are invited to “get to the bottom of our repetitions and consider how we might transform them into new possibilities for our work.” As a little preview, could you talk about what inspired this and if you have any repetitions you have grappled or are grappling with now?
For better or worse, I read like an editor, which means I always notice the repeated phrase, gesture, the overused verb or metaphor or image. Sometimes it’s something the writer is using as a crutch. Leaning too heavily on deaths or failing relationships because these are easy go-to sources of tension. You see this all the time in movies. If you look at Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity and Alejandro Iñárritu’s The Revenant, two different directors both use the death of a child to humanize what might otherwise be a difficult (see: isolated, emotionally numb) protagonist to connect to, and as an explanation for why the character has chosen such an existence and a dangerous journey. When our protagonists’ situation grows dire, both are visited by the visions and voices of their dead loved ones. Both crawl through the dirt before they’re allowed their rebirth.
Often the best strategy is to make cuts when you find you’re repeating something, to push yourself to adopt a different conceit or turn of phrase. However, I also think it’s worthwhile to examine—and this is what we’ll be considering during the Blue Light Workshop—why we’re drawn to these repetitions in the first place. Sure, it could be laziness, but shouldn’t we also consider the possibility that it’s fundamental to the brain’s creative process, indicative of the way we think when we think about making stories? If you keep describing snow a certain way or you always seem to include a dog in your stories, why might that be? And might there be a way, instead of just deleting these repetitions, to translate them into something that honors the obsession but still feels fresh?
I have a lot of my own repetitions, believe me. I often write what amounts to the same sentence or clause two or three times, just trying to get the language right. (I did it just above with “that it’s fundamental to the brain’s creative process, indicative of the way we think when we think about making stories.”) One of my best readers told me, after reading my collection, that I kept using injury in the stories. I had never been aware of that.
What is one piece of advice you would like to give to both beginning and practicing writers?
Read everything—classic and contemporary, work you love and work you suspect you won’t love, work written seemingly by your second self, for you, and work written for—toward—someone else, so you can, in the best instances, learn about something you don’t know, and in the worst, so you can articulate bias and blind spots and the ways the work neglected you. Read so much that it gives you whiplash, but write inside a pillow case inside a quilt inside a closet, without thinking about what everyone else is writing. I feel like I’m seeing too much of early career writers worrying about what other writers have published, a kind of “they’ve been there, so how can I do that?” Your book is a fingerprint, and yeah, there are fingerprints all over the place, but it’s still yours. Trust the reader to see that.