–Interview by Brian Kornell
Wendy C. Ortiz’s story “Interiors” appeared in April 2012 issue of PANK. She is the author of Excavation, a recently released memoir from Future Tense Books, about family, secrets, sex, and coming to terms with her queer identity. It is a book that spoke to me in a way that very few books have before. Ortiz writes with emotional frankness about difficult subjects, while maintaining the lyric beauty of the world around her. I had the opportunity to talk to her about the book and the process of writing it.
Brian Kornell: I’ve been thinking a lot recently about stories that demand to be told or ones, especially when it’s memoir, that a writer cannot ignore despite their best efforts to do so. Was this book like that for you? Did you have any hesitation in writing it? If you did, how did you work past that to write it?
Wendy C. Ortiz: This book spent some time being ignored (I always imagined it sitting in a corner, sulking) but when I look back at this time, I recognize now that it was steeping. My hesitations have always been about how I might be perceived once the story was out. I got some practice when “Mix Tape” was published by The Nervous Breakdown last year and in the first 24 hours of it being on the web I went through physical reactions that were all about the hesitation. Then the physical reactions passed and I was fortunate to get good feedback on the piece and knew I was heading in the right direction. That was a good way of working past any recent hesitation I might have had.BK: Because of those initial hesitations about perception, did you ever consider writing it as fiction to give you some distance or safety from it or did you feel it had to be a memoir? I guess, I’m wondering about if not having the veil of fiction was important to you in terms of exorcising the story.
WO: I felt it had to be memoir from the moment I decided to tackle it in full, but I spent many years before trying to sort out the experience in fiction (short stories). Through that “veil of fiction” I was able to carry out story lines that hadn’t been played out in reality but had been discussed between Mr. Ivers and me; I was able to imagine a young woman like myself with a history like mine having other relationships, inventing what might happen to her and the people she was in relationship with. I was exposed early in my M.F.A. program to Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss, and knowing she had written three books of fiction that contained themes that she’d lived through and then developed in her memoir made me realize I wanted to fly straight to memoir.
BK: I can’t help thinking of the book in very cinematic terms (I really hope it becomes a movie). If there were a documentary about the writing of Excavation, what would the opening scene be to set the tone for the rest of the documentary?
WO: I’m so happy to hear you hope it becomes a movie! (I have a fantasy director in mind.) The opening scene of a documentary about the writing of Excavation might be my trail hiking shoes making their circuitous route up to the Griffith Park Observatory. That’s a place that was important to me during the years described in Excavation, but became even more important later as I worked on the first draft of the book. The trail is always a good metaphor for me for my writing life in general.
BK: Well, it is my duty as interviewer to ask who your fantasy director would be.
WO: My fantasy director is still a secret so as not to jinx it, but I think s/he could be figured out quite easily from previous interviews.
BK: One of my favorite things about the book is the structure of having the excavation sections, which are much more lyrical, to go along with the more narrative driven sections about your relationship with Mr. Ivers. How did you decide when these excavation sections would appear? Also, the excavation sections suggest there is a lot more material about your journey from teenager to embracing your queerness as an adult. Will you explore this territory, perhaps in a sequel?
WO: The tricky puzzle of placement of sections of the book was done with the extraordinary help of Tina Morgan, my editor at Future Tense Books. It felt essential to allow some breathing room between sections, keep a sense of narrative tension alive, while also allowing the contemporary narrator have space between the sections.
There is a lot more material about the journey from teenager to queer adult, yes! I’ve been working on a book based on the Modern Love column I wrote two years ago (about marrying my ex-husband, then falling in love with a woman and the aftermath) and the current draft contains some sections that explore that vein, but I’m also diving into that territory in essays and poetry.
BK: Music is very important in the book, which makes me wonder who would you have write original music for the documentary about your writing of Excavation?
WO: I haven’t thought about who I’d imagine having write original music for the theoretical documentary…but you’ve given me something to think about.
A song that comes to mind, though, when thinking about the writing of the book is “What Is and What Should Never Be” by Led Zeppelin, the title of which was the original working title of Excavation. When we changed the title I also decided against the epigraph that would have been included:
And if I say to you tomorrow. Take my hand, child, come with me.
It’s to a castle I will take you, where what’s to be, they say will be…
And if you say to me tomorrow, oh what fun it all would be.
Then what’s to stop us, pretty baby. But what is and what should never be…
So if you wake up with the sunrise, and all your dreams are still as new,
And happiness is what you need so bad, girl, the answer lies with you yeah–
BK: Do you think about your legacy as a writer? If so, what do you hope your legacy will be?
WO: I’m right now in the mode of thinking only project to project, so a “legacy” is not as much a part of my imaginings, though on the surface, yes, of course I want to think about this. I’ll get back to you in two years.
BK: We once again return to the making of documentary of Excavation, I asked you how the first scene would set the tone, so now I must ask, what is the last scene and what feeling do you hope the audience leaves the theater with?
WO: One idea for the last scene is a montage of old footage of the junior high where I met Mr. Ivers, followed by footage of the razing of the school, a scene of the dirt after the razing, then the condos that replaced the school. After this perhaps we’d follow some footsteps around the La Brea Tar Pits and admire the bubbles that form in the tar. Last scene: panning out from tar bubbles to sky.
Brian Kornell is the Executive Director of S&Q, an arts non-profit creating performance space in local communities for underrepresented Queer & POC with simultaneous online broadcast & digital archive; he also serves as the fiction editor for The Cossack Review. His writing appears or is forthcoming in The Philadelphia Review of Books, Storyglossia, Luna Luna Magazine, The California Journal of Poetics, and elsewhere. More at www.briankornell.com.