Stonework is published by Houghton College, a Christian liberal arts college located in New York’s rural Genesee Valley. Stonework seeks a diverse mix of mature and emerging voices in fellowship with the evangelical tradition. Published twice a year, the journal reflects the arts community at Houghton College where excellence in music, writing, and the visual arts has long been a distinctive.

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  • Issue 6
    Poetry by Paul Willis and Thom Satterlee. Fiction and interview with Lori Huth. Essay by James Wardwell, and student poets from Christian campuses.
  • Issue 5
    Poetry by Susanna Childress and Debra Rienstra. Fiction excerpt by Emilie Griffin. Art from Houghton's 2007 presidential inauguration and a forum on women writing.
  • Issue 4
    Matthew Roth--new poems. Diane Glancy--from One of Us and an interview. John Tatter-on gardens and poetry. The Landscapes of John Rhett. Stephen Woolsey--on the poetry of Jack Clemo. James Wardwell--on Herrick.
  • Issue 3
    Poetry by Julia Kasdorf, Robert Siegel and Sandra Duguid. Fiction by Tom Noyes. The portraits of Alieen Ortlip Shea. An anthology of Australian Poets
  • Issue 2
    Thom Satterlee - Poems from Burning Wycliff with an appreciation by David Perkins. Alison Gresik - new fiction and an interview. James Zoller - Poems from Living on the Floodplain.
  • Issue 1
    Luci Shaw — new poems with an appreciation by Eugene H. Peterson & Hugh Cook — new fiction and an interview

Saturday, May 31, 2008

An Interview with Lori Huth

~Mari Lamp

In May of 2007, several weeks before walking across a stage in my cap and gown, I sat down with writing professor Lori Huth in the writing commons and asked her a few things that had been on my mind. Lori had been my professor and friend for all four of my years at Houghton, and this wasn’t the first time we’d discussed some of these topics.

Mari: Well, Lori, in preparation for this interview, I’ve been trying to figure out what it is people actually each other in interviews. I did some research and thought about what writers ask people they respect. I hope this will be a conversation that just happens to have been recorded. So, to begin, I’m going to steal the question that began the most recent interview in Image, because I thought it was a good one.

Lori: (laughs) Ok, shoot.

Mari: The question is: What brought you to writing? And, my further addition to that question: When you think about your childhood, were you the kind of kid who was constantly making up stories and always wanted to be a writer? Did you have that kind of stereotypical writer’s childhood? Or, was there some other way you came into this activity, this vocation?

Lori: That’s a really good place to start. My initial response is that reading is probably what brought me to writing. That’s the part of my childhood that’s most relevant. I started reading early, before I went to school, and I loved it. I followed my mom around the house with books, reading them to her. Now, of course not all readers end up being writers. I think for me, though, being a reader helped me become a curious person, someone who was interested in the world. I became invested in these characters' interior lives -the thing that story is ultimately about.

It had something to do with looking around and seeing that the world is a mysterious place, and is overwhelming. I felt that the world was chaos, and I wanted to write in such a way as to make it something understandable, if only for a moment. I’m not sure that I’ve ever really succeeded in this, but I know that’s what led me into it.

Mari: And there’s a lot of irony in this. I think it was Czeslaw Milosz that said we write to express the inexpressible.

Lori: Yeah, there’s that too.

Mari: We are surrounded by things we can discover through creative means. I find that if I want to know about something, I write about it.

Lori: For me, it’s a little bit more about just simply being overwhelmed by the world. I want to find a way to comprehend something, which is probably just another way of saying what you just said. And that’s part of why it's inexpressible, I think. You work to articulate something and it might be true for that moment, yet it doesn’t stay stable. Time moves on, things change, it’s confusing. I find life, the world, God, all very confusing and overwhelming. I write to try and make some sense of it all.

Mari: What books had an impact on you as you tried to understand the chaos? When I think about my childhood, I tend to think in terms of specific books I was reading at the time. As in, those were the “Anne of Green Gables years” or the “Laura Ingalls Wilder years”, etc. Those characters had so much impact on me. Do you have series or books like that? Did these characters shape how you thought about people?

Lori: That’s interesting, I haven’t thought much lately about what I read as I kid. And I have to be honest –I think a lot of what I read as a kid was not good literature. I think it was just whatever was around sometimes. But as far as impact, I think more of what was happening for me was the language itself.

Mari: It’s impressive that you would have an awareness of language so early on!

Lori: Well, at the time I’m not sure how much I realized what I was learning. But I know that’s part of what engaged me –the way the words fit together, how one can express things in words. I loved that, and found it fascinating. In some ways this makes me think, “Why am I not a poet?”, but I never really read poetry, so it didn’t become a part of my sense of the world. Language through story became foundational, and that’s what makes me what to write in that form now.

Mari: So, then, it was always fiction for you, from the beginning?

Lori: Yes. Well, ok no. I started out with poetry, I’ll admit. But you know, it was very bad, 7th grade girl poetry.

Mari: (laughs) Well, that’s partly why I ask. I wrote almost exclusively poetry in high school, and it was that angstful teenage poetry. I feel like we all kinda go through that phase.

Lori: Because we have all these emotions. And fiction is very emotional, but I think it’s easier as a 7th grader to look at poetry and say, “Oh, I can do that.” At that age, though, I didn’t know a single other person who wrote poetry. And after awhile I felt like I had no idea what I was doing. There was no guidance until I went to college, and by that point I’d sort of shifted and was writing fiction.

Mari: What would you say is the best thing that fiction can do for someone? Or, what is the best thing that fiction has done for you? Or do you not think of it in those terms?

Lori: I do think of it in those terms, partly because I’m still in the process of justifying this vocation for myself. I have a lot of anxiety, I think, about wanting my life to be one that really contributes something important to the world. That’s part of why I am a teacher, because in some sense it’s easier to justify. I’m always in the process of asking ‘Why does this matter?’ ‘How does this shape people?’ 'How can it make the world a better place?’ Some writers might say those are the wrong questions, and maybe they’re right, but I can’t help but ask them.

There’s a book called Poetic Justice by Martha Nussbaum. Nussbaum teaches literature to lawyers, and she wrote this book about the novel as a moral form. She made the argument that fiction is important for helping people develop into moral beings. And one of the primary reasons for this is that it develops empathy in us. Through fiction, the writing of it especially, you have to try and cast your mind into another person’s existence and image how they experience where they are.

So, often I think about this question in those terms- that writing is helping me to experience and develop empathy as a person. And also, I think that’s really a very Christian idea. For me, it relates to my faith in that way. If you think about the stories of Jesus told in the Bible, he’s often with broken people, and he’s serving them. Maybe this is too abstract, but it helps me to think that maybe I’m trying to get out there and understand people who aren’t like me. Through words, through stories, and hopefully in the end understand each other better.

Mari: It’s interesting to me that there’s this trend of rewriting the Bible stories as fictional accounts. Because we’re trying to see it. In some ways those stories are so sparse, so there’s an impulse to want to try and pack it in with sensory details and narrative so we can feel the empathy you’re talking about.

Speaking of the Bible, and how you use story as a way to process the world, do you read the Bible this way? I feel like there is a lot of discussion about reading the Bible as story, as opposed to reading it as a book of theological treates or statements of doctrine, etc. What can you say about how that might affect the way you read the Bible?

Lori: I think it does affect how I read the Bible, and I think I do read the Bible mostly as story. As you say, that’s not that uncommon now. In recent years, there’s been a trend among emerging-church theologians to look at the Bible in terms of narrative, so in some ways I may read it that way because it’s something I’ve been culturally trained to do. But in another way, it really does help me. As I said, it’s been hard for me as a Christian to articulate and justify spending my life writing fiction. This is something I’ve struggled with from the beginning. Part of me thinks I should be out serving the poor and helping the needy in some tangible way. But it helps me to think that a lot of the Bible is told in story, and I think God accepts us understanding him that way. And I see God himself as a storyteller. If God tried to show himself to us through story, then he must think there’s something really valuable about stories. They must be a way that we can show ourselves to others and understand each other.

Mari: Interesting. I’m wondering what you think about this idea of “Christian fiction” or “Christian” writing in general? We’ve talked about writing as moral, writing as responsibility, but there’s also the ideas of books written to be published by Christian publishers, marketed to Christian audiences, maybe even sold in Christian bookstores. Does this phenomenon have anything to do with your writing?

Lori: I think, for me, the issue of Christian fiction is almost seperat from what I do. It’s a publishing industry, a way of making money, possibly entertainment, but I’m mostly interested in what I call ‘literary fiction’. I would call a lot of Christian fiction ‘genre fiction’, meaning that it’s defined by certain pre-set parameters, a certain style. Literary fiction is about the beauty of language, the exploration of difficult questions, and I’m not sure that’s what Christian fiction is doing. So, in some ways, as a writer I don’t care that Christian fiction exists, but it’s not what I’m doing.

Now, maybe as a Christian I’m frustrated that there’s this label attached. As a Christian, I wish that all Christians were interested in and associated with beautiful language and complex stories that try to understand the human condition. The perception that Christians as a whole are mostly interested in the genre of ‘Christian fiction’ is frustrating, yes. But, for the most part, I set it on a shelf. I’m not going to concern myself too much about it.

Mari: Ok. I know that you are interested in the moral implications of fiction. I remember on the first day of your Fiction class, you posed a question. The question was, simply, “Can fiction be moral?” Am I getting that right?

Lori: Yep. Well, probably, I don’t remember that precise day, but it sounds like the kind of thing I would ask.

Mari: Now I have a chance to ask you what you meant by that. And maybe this will help me understand how you approach being a reader and a writer. Have you come to any kind of personal realization about fiction as moral? And maybe not an answer, but a better grasp on the discussion surrounding the question. Also, is this related to how you justify your life as a writer?

Lori: Well, it’s a complex question, and I image that’s why I asked it. It was something I wanted the students to be thinking about as they wrote. In some ways, I think I asked the question because there has to be a distinction made between being didactic and being moral. I see the tendency sometimes, with students, to be didactic. If they are writing about God, it may end up being a didactic story rather than a moral story. Going back to Martha Nussbaum, she says that the novel is a morally controversial form because the author is trying to shape how the reader thinks about things. You are in some ways trying to impose a certain view upon the reader. You’re trying to get them to think about your topic in a certain way, about your characters in a certain way. So, what is the moral responsibility of a writer in telling stories like this? We want to shape reader’s views, but how can we do that without being didactic?

Mari: And the other issue is seperating yourself from your message. In my own writing, I have to fight against the temptation to think that everything is justified because it's my view of the world, and I have a right to represent that. But, I also hate reading didactic writing.

Lori: Well, you're trying to shape the reader's view of the world of your story. But there's an overlap between the world of your story and the real world. In order for them to understand your story, you have to get a reader to a certain interpretation of your characters and their choices. And the question is, to what extend does this translate into shaping how people then think about the real world? This is how a writer can have a lot of influence and power, and has to be aware of that. I don't expect that I'll ever have that kind of influence, but it's a question that writers should ask.

Mari: So then, tell me about what kind of stories you write. You have this manuscript for a book that you've finished, but are also still working on.

Lori: Right.

Mari: How did you come to give birth to this story? I mean, where do these things come from?


Lori: Two things I think of right away. First, usually for me a story starts with some kind of question, something I don't understand. Writing the story is the process of exploring some of the possible answers. It doesn't necessarily mean finding the answer, but it means exploring. This particular story started with the question “What does it mean to believe something?” I was interested in knowing if belief is something that you can't resist, something that's sort of inherently built-into you, or if its more like something that you choose and decide. Does someone decide they are going to believe, and then simply do? Or is believe something that overwhelms you in a way that makes it impossible for you not to believe, even if you try?

And I still don't know the asnwer to those questions, but its where the story started. I was trying to find out what would happen if a character who didn't believe something was put into a situation where they felt like they had to believe. Also, many of my stories start with brokenness. I often explore brokenness in humanity, in people's lives, and how they respond. That's sort of my personal set of interests, I think.

Mari: I think everyone has those questions.

Lori: Well, yes. The reason I say that is because I have a tendency to really like stories that other people find too depressing. I enjoy films that really explore brokenness and the ways people hurt each other. Maybe enjoy isn't quite the right word, because it's often a painful experience too. But I find those stories meaningful and rewarding to watch and read because they help me understand the world more. I find myself drawn toward something that helps me understand the pain of our lives.

Mari: And I think that's almost the task of the writer. Maybe not all writers feel this, but I think that writers need to go to those places sometimes, even if they don't necessarily want to, to make an honest story.

Writing can be lonely. Part of me thinks it would be wonderful to have huge chuncks of time on a regular basis to devote to writing. You read about Annie Dillard, who goes to these remote locations in seclusion, and part of me longs for that. But then, another part of me knows I would have nothing to write about after awhile. I have to be stimulated by living life.

Lori: Yeah, one of my graduate professors, Jeanie Macken, used to refer to it as feeding the well. She imagined that you have a well of creative energy. If you're sitting in a room by yourself all day, eventually it gets dry. She talked about finding ways to get into the world and fill it back up again. And that's true for me. If I sit in front of a computer screen all day trying to write, I go a little bonkers to tell you the truth.

Mari: Well, that brings up another interesting phenomenon. I've found, as I write more and more and take on this identity as 'a writer', that sometimes I have this person in my head that sort of writes my experiences to me as I live them.

Lori: (laughs) mm-hmm.

Mari: And I'm not exactly sure what to do with that. Sometimes I feel guilty, like I need to not be thinking about important experiences I'm living through as material! But, for me, material is how I process my life too.

Lori: I know what you mean. In order to be a good writer, you need to be really experiencing things and living your life fully. And yet, in order to write about your experiences some part of you has to remain detached from them, sort of taking notes. It reminds me of that David Sedaros essay we read in Writing About Cultural Issues. Do you remember that one?

Mari: The one we listened to on tape?

Lori: Yep, called “Repeat After Me.” In the essay, Sedaros is visiting his sister, who doesn't want him to write about her life. He's trying to be comforting to her as she goes through a difficult experience, but at the same time he's got his little notebook out and he's taking notes. I feel like that sometimes. I always have a notebook and pen when I go out. So, you don't want to seperate yourself from the experience, because then you can't write about it, but in that sense it's almost like you have to be divided into two people.

Mari: I also remember reading, I believe in one of your classes, an essay by Lorrie Moore about her baby going through cancer.

Lori: “People Like That Are The Only People Here: Canonical Babbling in Peed Onc.”

Mari: That's the one. I remember being so moved by her courage in writing that. It could have been seen as an unfeeling act, her detaching herself from the situation in order to use the good material.

Lori: And in the story the narrator's husband says “Take notes, we need the money.” I don't know if that actually happened in real life, but she does- she takes notes and writes the story.

Mari: Right. It's almost as if she knew she would write it anyway. I feel a great tension about this issue. I want to find a way to be comfortable with this internal voice that I have.

Lori: For me, I think it actually makes me more comfortable in some ways. I'm a rather retiring, introverted person, so when I'm in a social situation I'm often awkward and uncomfortable. In some ways it gives me a grounding to have in my head a little extra person, as you put it, a homunculus, who's thinking about taking notes and kinda of paying attention to what's happening. If something goes catastrophically wrong, like you say something stupid, of course there are ramifications in your real life. But on some level you can think 'Oh, I definitely need to remember this. I need to write this down and figure out what went wrong.'

Mari: Maybe it's like a coping mechanism.

Lori: Yeah, it's partly that. It also makes me think of a Mary Oliver poem, which says “To pay attention, this is our endless and proper work.” I like that about writing. The sense of being this other person who is always keeping track of things makes me feel, ironically, that I can experience my life even more fully. Paying attention helps you invest more fully in experiences because you're really trying to keep track of what's happening, what things sound like, what words people are using in a certain situation. It's a paradox.

Mari: And it becomes more than just the sum of the details, it becomes a narrative. And there's something really comforting about feeling like I'm living in a narrative, as opposed to a series of random chaotic happenings. I can look at events and moments in my ordinary life and find metaphors, and how things relate to each other.

Lori: Yes. I experience life as chaotic, and writing helps me give it a shape as I'm living it.

Mari: On that note, we’ve come to the end of our time. Thanks so much for talking with me, Lori.

Lori: You’re welcome.