Bacon on the Bookshelf

Savory picks for the free range reader

Love, Loss, and Margaret Renkl

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I am overwhelmed – and awed – by the beauty of Margaret Renkl’s new book, Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss.

There is nothing new under the sun, we are told by a reliable source. That being said, each person brings her own eyes and personal history to the world. Margaret’s vision is dark – radiant – peaceful – mournful – and joyful, all at once. It is a gift to those of us who look at the small worlds we inhabit – our families, our backyards – and try to make sense of all the pain, and all the joy. 

I’m delighted for Margaret to stop in for an interview today! You recognize her name? She’s a regular columnist for the New York Times, writing about life in Nashville, her yard, and our society.

Hi Margaret! I’m so thrilled for you to spend some time in the Bacon Neighborhood today!

Many of your essays involve the rhythms of life and death, fear and hope, predator and prey, in the natural world. You think about the bluebirds nesting in your yard and their natural enemies – the rat snake and the house wren; you think about the “wolf” you heard outside your great-grandmother’s window when you were a child. You toggle back and forth between past and present, but in general the timeline of your collection moves forward from your Alabama childhood to your Nashville present. All of the essays are short and poetic. Many of them read like prose poems to me. Or some new thing. They simply beg to be read aloud – in your head, if not to anyone else. They have such a beautiful rhythm and flow.

When did you start working on this book? And why? Did you have any idea what it would look like when you began?

First, I have to tell you how grateful I am to you for these eloquent words of understanding. For much of the time I was writing this book, I had no idea I was writing a book, and there’s been a little nagging fear in the back of my mind ever since that maybe it isn’t really a book. So your words are immensely reassuring.

But to answer your question, I didn’t set out to write a book. My mother had just died, and my mother-in-law had just entered hospice care, and I started writing these essays as a way to have a quiet, calm place to put all my love, and all my grief. And the more I wrote, the deeper into my own memories I was drawn – and then the more I had to write about.

When – and how – did you know you were finished?

Here’s the honest answer: I sold an unfinished manuscript to Milkweed, and I knew it was finished when I had to stop writing because I’d reached my deadline day. My favorite part of writing is revision, and I think I could’ve kept tinkering with this book for the rest of my life.  

What encouraged you along the way – and what discouraged you?

I belong to two wonderful writers’ groups; it is a true blessing to be able to meet regularly with a supportive, talented group of writers. Their own work inspires me, and their encouragement helps me beat back terror and despair.

As for discouragement, I think the dragons most writers face aren’t out there in the world, ready to pounce and roar. Our dragons are quiet, and they live inside us, whispering that we’re not good enough.

I always like to picture in my mind a writer at her work. Do you work at a desk? With a pencil and paper? With a laptop? What time of day is your favorite time to write? Do you drink coffee or tea or Diet Coke or a glass of wine while writing… and do you snack? 🙂

I start most essays in a notebook, writing by hand first thing in the morning, before I’m even completely awake. To do that kind of writing, I sit at a table in my family room that looks out on my flowerbeds. But I revise on the computer in my home office. In both cases, there is a cup of coffee right beside me.

It seems to me this essay collection is, in many ways, the story of your life. Did you consider writing this as a more traditional form of memoir?

There’s definitely a narrative, a story that begins with my mother’s birth and ends just after her death at eighty. Within that framework, I tell stories from my own life that move from childhood to my children’s young-adult years, so it would definitely be fair to call it a memoir, but I’m not trying to tell the whole story the way a traditional memoir would. I’m telling only the stories that help me consider the nature of family love and human grief.

Did you ever consider writing it as a book of poems?

At the very beginning I did. All my formal education was in poetry, and I wrote poetry exclusively until my mid-thirties, but then I turned to prose and never went back. I knew when I started writing on this subject that I wanted the language to be lyrical, and I knew that the time constraints of my life meant that the pieces would probably end up being really short, and that description– “short” and “lyrical”– sounds a lot like the poems I once wrote. But this time the words never wanted to sort themselves into lines and stanzas. I remember thinking, finally, “Well, I guess I’m writing really, really short essays.” Then I stopped thinking about the question of form.

I think you found the perfect form for your heart, your mind, your sensibility, and your talents. Did any book, author, or editor inspire you to write in this way?

Thank you! There are so many writers whose work I love and whose influence I felt keenly as I was writing this book, but I wasn’t thinking of them as patterns or influences. They’re more like patron saints. E.B. White and Annie Dillard are both great essayists, but they aren’t at all like each other, and neither is much like Mary Oliver or Wendell Berry. And of course James Agee stands entirely on his own. But none of them wrote microessays.

Let’s turn now to the content and themes of Late Migrations

Opposites – or things hard to hold together in your mind at once – are constantly being considered, together. Such as: loving both the bluebird and his enemy the house wren; loving the water lilies, even as they starve the pond of oxygen; people’s capacity for both brutality and empathy; the near presence of baby rabbits shown by their warm absence from the nest. “Blessed are the parents whose final words on leaving – the house, the car, the least consequential phone call – are always ‘I love you.’ They will leave behind children who are lost and still found, broken and, somehow, still whole.”

Does life sometimes feel like a project of reconciling irreconcilable things? Or – is that one of the great endeavors of your writing? 

I’ve never considered it quite that directly, but I think you’re right. In fact, I think your theory probably holds for a whole lot of writing, or at least for the kind of writing I love best. I want to read stories and essays and poems that resist simple explanations, that embrace every possible kind of complexity. Life isn’t simple, and it isn’t straightforward; why should art be any different? 

Sometimes this book seems to be saying – Look at the world around you, and take hope. Other times, it seems to say – Look at the world around you, and despair. Other times, it says – Look at the world around you, and be still. What would you say your book is about? What is its fundamental message? Is that a fair question?

It’s definitely a question that readers ask of books, but I don’t think many books offer a clear answer. (If they did, book clubs probably wouldn’t exist.) I don’t think my book has a transparent message– not one that I tried consciously to convey, anyway– but it would be fair to say that its central concern is kinship, the way human beings are connected to each other and to the natural world.   

In Late Migrations, you show me what you were like as a child, as a student, as a young wife and mother, as a caregiver to aging relatives, and as an empty nester. We are all in the process of both continuity and change. You have always been – and still are – becoming. 

What do you want to write about next? Or – should I ask – what are you writing about right now?!

I have an essay deadline every week, and that’s a lot of writing all by itself: Last year I wrote more words for The New York Times op-ed section than I wrote for this whole book. I’m about to go on book tour, and that will cut into my writing time pretty significantly, too– or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that it will cut into the mental space I need to write. So I’m giving myself permission not to think about the next book right now. I want to give my full attention to seeing Late Migrations safely into the world, and after that I’ll figure out what comes next.

Finally – do you have any time at all to read right now? What’s on your nightstand table – or in your suitcase? 

I can’t settle down enough to fall asleep unless I spend some time reading, so I’m always in the middle of a book. I just finished Michael Knight’s new novel, At Briarwood School for Girls, which is fantastic.

To make them last, I’m slowly reading Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights (one essay per night) and Kate Daniels’s In the Months of My Son’s Recovery (one poem per night) and simultaneously reading a preview copy of Kevin Wilson’s brilliant, hilarious forthcoming novel, Nothing to See Here, which will be out in November.

Next up is Mozart’s Starling by Lyanda Lynn Haupt because the folks at Parnassus Books wouldn’t let me leave the store without buying a copy. Which of course means I will love it with all my heart – those folks know what I need to read better than anyone in the world.

 May I share one of the very short essays in this collection with Bacon Readers? I’m thinking “Squirrel-Proof Finch Feeder, Lifetime Warranty.” 

Absolutely!

Squirrel-Proof Finch Feeder, Lifetime Warranty

The steel grommets around the miniature openings, fit only for conical beaks, cannot be chewed open by even the most persistent rodent. Both the top and the bottom of the feeder detach for ease in filling and cleaning, but the pegged fittings can’t be managed by thumbless hands. The seed is black niger – a feast for goldfinches, distasteful to squirrels. So say the experts at the bird supply store.

The experts have not met this squirrel. He takes the feeder by the perches, one in each hand, pulling it to his mouth like an ear of sweet corn at a Fourth of July potluck. He makes his own mouth small to match the cleft mouth of the feeder, and he licks the seeds out, one by one. This is an embrace, a kiss that goes on for hours. Seed by seed, he fills his belly. He has nothing but time, and the squirrel-proof finch feeder, impervious to fury and force, is undone by patience and time. He knows I am at my desk barely more than an arm’s reach from the window, but I do not concern him. I am only watching through the window, and I do not in any way concern him.

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Thank you again so much for this gorgeous book, Margaret, and for your friendship, and for your time today!! 

Thanks so much for reading so closely and taking such care with your questions, Jennifer. And also for your endless support for writers and for the literary community here. Bacon on the Bookshelf is such a gift!

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If you live in Nashville – or can get here – please come to the release party for Margaret’s book at Parnassus on July 9th!

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11 Comments

  1. Great interview! I’m inspired!

  2. This is such a beautiful interview, Jennifer and Margaret. It captures what I love about Margaret’s writing: how she narrows her canvas to focus on something simple that most of us would miss, and in so doing she helps us examine universal experiences in new and profound ways. I can’t wait to read the book.

  3. I loved this interview because I respect both the interviewer and the interviewee!
    Before Margaret Renkl was a New York Times writer, she was my eldest daughter’s
    English teacher at Harpeth Hall. That whole class of young women adored their
    teacher and she influenced them in many ways that set them on their course in
    life. Although my daughter entered the field of medicine, she writes well and she
    reads well. I attribute that to Ms. Renkl.

  4. I have been looking forward to reading this for a while now, and this interview just peaks my interest more. We can’t wait to have Margaret at Parnassus. Thanks to the 2 of you, both wonderful book women, for a terrific piece!

  5. Margaret, I look forward to reading your book and regret that I will be out of town for your Parnassus book signing. You are a talented author, a voice for those without a voice and a good soul. Thank you.

  6. This abounds with grace on both sides of the interviewer’s question mark. Thank you for this treasure!

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