Tawni Waters’s debut novel, Beauty of the Broken, was released by Simon and Schuster in 2014. In addition to winning the prestigious International Literacy Association’s Award for Young Adult Literature, it won the Housatonic Book Award, was named an exceptional book of 2015 by the Children’s Book Council, was shortlisted for the Reading the West Book Award, and was included on the Kansas State Reading Circle List. It was adapted for the stage and performed by Sacramento’s Now Here This and is being adapted for the screen by Jeff Arch, the screenwriter best known for writing Sleepless in Seattle. Her second novel, The Long Ride Home, was released by Sourcebooks Fire in September 2017 to glowing reviews. She is the author of two poetry collections: Siren Song (Burlesque Press) and So Speak the Stars (Texture Press). Her work has been anthologized in Best Travel Writing 2010, The Soul of a Great Traveler, and Monday Nights, and has been published in myriad journals and magazines. She has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of New Orleans and teaches creative writing at various universities and writers retreats throughout the U.S., Europe, and Mexico.
Curtis Smith: Congratulations on So Speak the Stars. I’m always interested in the history of a book, especially in the indie realm. How did you end up with Texture Press?
Tawni Waters: Thanks so much, Curt! I first met Valerie Fox, who is an editor at Texture, when I was writer-in-residence at Rosemont College. PS Books was hosting a launch for Valerie’s gorgeous book, Insomniatic, at Rosemont, and they asked me to act as emcee and interview Valerie at the launch. I fell in love with Valerie’s work then. I also really liked her as a human being.
I saw her again a year or so later when she was speaking on a publishing panel, just as I was beginning to compile the pieces in So Speak the Stars. I knew we had similar aesthetics, so I asked her if I could send the book to Texture when it was ready, and she enthusiastically said yes. When it was finished, I sent it to her immediately. I didn’t send it to any other publishers. I just had a kismet-y feeling about the whole thing. A few months later, while I was touring Europe with my mother, I got an email from Valerie saying all of the people at Texture were in love with the book, and the rest, as they say, is history.
CS: In your forward, you state that much of this work came from a place/time of personal reexamination. Often times, such periods are a mess, but you managed to take those challenges and wrestle a book from them. Can you look back and identify the external elements at play and the desires within that led to this cycle of work?
TW: I think the most obvious external element at play is that for all intents and purposes, I was homeless while I was writing this book. I gave up my house to travel full time and examine my life, which creates a certain level of instability outside oneself, but a wonderful, if chaotic, coherence within. Because when you aren’t being defined by your day-to-day roles, your possessions, your routines, all you have to define you is yourself. So the messy truth within comes bubbling to the surface to tell you all about who you really are, when nobody is expecting you to be anything but you.
I was in a place of intense grief as I wrote this. I’d lost just about everything that defined me, including the great love of my life. I can see now that the pain was a gift, because it made me grow like never before, but I didn’t see it that way then. I haven’t had a particularly easy life (have any of us?), but this was the only time in my life I honestly wasn’t sure I was going to survive. I think half of these poems were silent screams, because it’s not cool to scream out loud when you’re in a youth hostel in Edinburg or in a double-decker bus on your way to Germany.
I’m reading Tiny Beautiful Things by Cheryl Strayed right now, and in that book, she writes of her own great loss, “The strange and painful truth is I’m a better person because I lost my mom young. When you say you experience my writing as sacred what you are touching is that divine place within me that is my mother. Sugar (the persona she took while writing the book) is the temple I built to my obliterated place.” I cried when I read those words. That’s what these poems in So Speak the Stars are. A temple I built to my obliterated place.
CS: The collection alters between poems and short prose pieces—many of which blur the boundary between poetry and fiction. I’m always interested in form and the decisions a writer must make. Where in the process do you realize the form a piece is going to take? Do you know from the beginning? Or do you need to get to know the piece a bit first? Do you ever start out thinking you’re writing a poem and then realize it needs to be a story (or vice versa)? Is there something internal within the piece that demands to be rendered one way or the other?
TW: I am not one of those writers who systematically sits down to write with an agenda. I write when I hear something (a beautiful turn of phrase, a song) or see something (a glint in the eye of a lake, a paper bag trapped by a fence) and feel I must write about it that minute. Or I’m in bed staring at the ceiling, feeling something so intensely I have to do something with it, and the only thing I’m really good at doing with the things I feel is making words out of them. (I promise, you don’t want to watch me try to dance out my feelings.) So I do what I’m relatively good at. I turn my feelings into words.
I usually barf whatever needs to come out on paper, however it wants to come out, and then, I look more closely at the form. To answer your question, yes, sometimes, I initially write a piece with line breaks, and I realize after it’s written that the line breaks are getting in the way of the flow of the writing. And sometimes, I write a piece as prose and realize it needs line breaks to slow it down.
To be honest, genre has never felt like a very real barrier to me. It feels artificial. I teach writing in all kinds of venues, and students are always like, “Oh, my god, I’m a fiction writer. I could never write poetry.” Like the difference between fiction writers and poets is the difference between bears and fish. Like you need gills or some other special apparatus to write poetry. Really, writing is writing. If you can write one form well, you can write all of them well. And all genres inform the others. I am a better fiction writer because I write poetry. I am a better poet because I write fiction. I am a better creative nonfiction writer because I write both poetry and fiction. But once you get the essence of a piece down, you can use form to enhance the essence. At least that’s how I see it.
CS: You’ve previously published another poetry collection and two novels. How does your writing regime differ for these kinds of ventures?
TW: For me, the creation of the poetry is always a bit more chaotic than the creation of a novel. You can write a poem in a short burst and then be done with the subject matter, but as you know, to write a novel, you have to sustain the inertia within a particular piece for years at a time, which can be a huge challenge. It took me over a decade to write Beauty of the Broken, whereas I can generate the first draft of a poem in a night. I think, for that reason, writing poetry is easier for me, which is why I wrote it while I was on the road, grappling with self and big questions. I didn’t have what it took to focus on a novel length idea.
In other news, I always feel like when I channel my truth into novel form, it is diluted in some ways, which is good for certain situations, but not for the one I was in while I was writing these poems. I didn’t want to dilute my emotions by giving them to characters who were not me, by morphing my experience of the world into other people’s stories. The things I was feeling were too intense for that. I needed them to come out undiluted. I needed to leave pretense behind, to leave a through-line behind, and just channel whatever came, as it came.
CS: We’re taken back to the image of Mary Magdalene a number of times here. What is it about her character that fascinates (and motivates) you?
TW: To me, Mary Magdalene is sort of a metaphor for what has happened to femininity in our world. If you read the early Christian writings, she was considered to be a wise woman, Jesus’s primary disciple, a person of great depth, status, and power. Now, all we know of her is that she was a whore.
And I think that is what our world has done to all women, to the concept of femininity at large. Women have all of this wisdom, all of this strength, all of this depth and vision, and we have been reduced to bikini wearing props in beer commercials. I write about Mary Magdalene in an attempt to give her full personhood and power, and in so doing, I restore the power of femininity to myself. When I heal her, when I re-vision her story, I retell the story of what it means to be a woman in the world. I heal the powerful, divine, feminine part of me that was reduced to a sex object, by virtue of the nature of this world.
One of the poems in the book, “Magdalene’s Kintsugi,” was actually inspired by a reading you gave of one of your essays. Your reading was gorgeous, and for a moment, you talked about how Mary Magdalene had brought a year’s worth of wages to the Christ in her alabaster jar. I was moved by the reading, and I couldn’t stop thinking about it afterward. I asked myself what Magdalene would have to say about her year’s worth of wages, how she would tell the story of her alabaster jar if she could tell it. And the answer came out as a poem.
Incidentally, I was lucky enough to live in a medieval village in France for a summer during the writing of these poems. The village happened to be about an hour away from the place legend says Mary Magdalene ran after the Christ was crucified. I didn’t plan it that way. It just happened. So I think my interest in her was intensified by proximity. Also, Magdalene, in many of the paintings we see of her, is the woman who wailed at the feet of the Christ after his crucifixion. I had just lost the love of my life, and it felt like that. The pain I saw in her face in those paintings felt like my pain. I could do something with my pain when I married it to hers and made it bigger than myself. And I had to do something with the pain, or it was going to kill me.
CS: The book is divided into themed sections. When did this structure come to you? Did you have this overreaching vision to start and then write toward it? Or did the structure arise from the work itself? Sometimes our subconscious understands things before we realize it.
TW: I wrote these poems over a five-year period, and I think I realized I was writing a collection called So Speak the Stars about two years in. I wrote many of these poems at night, in various cities—Paris and Prague and San Miguel de Allende and Nashville. Every day, the scenery and people around me changed. But the one thing that remained constant was the stars, so I looked at them, and made them my friends, and asked them the big questions I was asking. Who am I? What is the point of all this? Will I ever see the great love of my life again? And as I asked the questions, the poems came, and sometimes, it felt like the stars were answering me.
I didn’t come up with the structure until I was sitting on the porch at Rosemont College during their annual summer retreat drinking whiskey with Grant Clauser and a bunch of other writers. Grant is one of the best damned poets I’ve ever seen, so I maybe a little drunkenly asked him for advice on how to compose a poetry manuscript. Grant wrote this blog in answer to my question, and it made the whole process of compiling the pieces make sense for me.
As I thought about his advice, I realized that as I traveled and wrote So Speak the Stars, I had changed. I had begun my travels in a state of great weakness and finished in a place of true strength. So when I began compiling the manuscript, I started at the end, like Grant suggested, with the most powerful poem in the book, because I wanted to end in a place of power. And then I worked my way backward, and as I did, I realized there were three distinct phases represented in the work. A place of true weakness, a place of beginning to find my strength, and a place of power. So I came up with star-related concepts that expressed those emotional states. Black Hole, Protostar, and Big Bang. And then, when Desiree Wade, the illustrator (and my daughter) came into the picture, we decided she would illustrate one poem for each section, as well as creating a final image for the book.
CS: The artwork is wonderful—tell us about working on this aspect of the book with your daughter. And you also dip into a bit of graphic storytelling, which is its own art form. What did you learn from this type of writing? Is it anything you can take from this graphic-centered experience and use when you return to your next novel?
TW: Isn’t it awesome? I’m a proud Momma, and I know I may be biased, but my Desiree Wade is the best artist I’ve ever known. I still have the first picture she drew, when she was two. She told me it was a seal, and damn if it didn’t look like a real seal. She never put down her pencil again. She was obsessed with drawing the way I am with writing. She did it from morning until night every day. We are best friends, so we’ve always talked about doing a collaboration together.
When I was in Europe with my mother, just before Valerie wrote to tell me Texture wanted to publish So Speak the Stars, Desi happened to send me that gorgeous picture that ended up being the cover of the book, because she always sends me her drawings. When Texture accepted the book, I asked Desi if we could use the drawing for a cover. She said we could, and Texture loved her work. Valerie had the brilliant idea of asking Desi to illustrate some of the poems as graphic novel panels.
After that, Desi and I had two really intense months, sitting in coffee shops together, talking about the book, sifting through ideas. But I can’t say I contributed much to Desi’s process. She came up with all the concepts for the illustrations. For instance, the poem “1400 Montgomery Avenue” is actually about my time living at Rosemont, in the “castle” at the center of the campus. I was always alone in that great big building at night, and outside my window, all these college kids were partying and drinking and dancing, so I wrote about the experience. But Desi saw the sentence, “This is the miracle tree in which I have built my nest for now,” and drew a whole story involving a living, feminine tree. It was stunning. So I just kinda sat there and watched her make her magic. I won’t lie. It wasn’t all hearts and rainbows. We were about to strangle each other some days, but we’ve forgotten all that, as you often forget pain after giving birth. All you see is the miracle. So we want to do another book together, a whole book, with all of the poems illustrated in graphic novel form. I think we woke up a monster.
CS: What’s next?
TW: I’m about two thirds of the way done with a memoir about my time living on the road, called Butterfly Fucking (A Memoir-ish). It’s so outrageously titled because at the beginning of my travels, I saw two butterflies mating in the center of the street in New Orleans, and the image stuck with me. The book is about my struggle to find true self beneath sexualization, and really, about the objectification of women in general, so it’s a very sex-centered memoir. But I hope a deep and meaningful one too. I showed it to a friend who is an accomplished memoirist, and she loved it, and offered to connect me with an editor friend of hers who is interested in acquiring new memoirs, so hopefully, it has a future. I’m also working on getting my rock-n-roll novel, Empire of Dirt, into the world. I’ve worked on it for 15 years, and it’s a huge piece of my heart, so I really want to find it a home.