Official Interview: Jeannine Ouellette

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Official Interview: Jeannine Ouellette

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Today's Chat with Sarah features Jeannine Ouellette author of The Part That Burns.

Official Review

Kindle Edition (Free on Kindle Unlimited)

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1. Who was the biggest influence on your life?

That's a very difficult question to answer. I am grateful to my paternal grandmother, Nana, and her sister, Lala, for loving me unconditionally when I was a child. That was a gift of the largest magnitude and it has stayed with me for life. My teachers were also of the utmost importance. I loved school, and, crucially, I felt loved at school. In the end, though, I think my three children have been the greatest influence because through being their mother, through loving them and caring for them, protecting them, etc., I healed and became a much more whole version of myself. Maybe I could have done that without having children; I will never know. I only know that motherhood, in so many ways, saved me. And I'm eternally grateful for that.

2. What made you decide to write a book?

Although The Part That Burns is my first literary book, I’ve been writing professionally in some way, shape, or form since my early 20s, and I am 52 now. And to be honest, I didn’t really decide to write this memoir—I simply had to write it, to come to terms and make peace with certain elements of my past, especially my childhood and adolescence. In many ways, I have been writing this book, or trying to write it, all of my life. In the book—in the second to last chapter, which I wrote with my daughter, Lillie—the narrator says, “In psychology, the life story model says people in modern societies provide their lives with unity and purpose by constructing internal and evolving narratives of the self. This model explains that identity takes the form of a story, complete with settings, scene, character, plot, and theme.” And that’s essentially what I was doing through writing this book: examining my own life and interrogating some of the narratives that have defined it. In doing that, I have inevitably transformed my relationship with those narratives, and, in turn, transformed my understanding of myself and my identity. I feel, too, that I have gained a greater understanding of many of the other people in my life, and greater empathy for them. I was also eager to understand and illuminate how the visceral experiences of pregnancy, birth, and breastfeeding were so pivotal in my regaining the ability to “live in my body” rather than hover above or beside it. And mothering—the experience of loving my children deeply—was pivotal as well, in the way it taught me how to see myself as lovable, too. Additionally, of course, I wrote the book hoping that it would offer something to people who carry their own traumas. I hope it offers a testament to the power and possibility of resilience, healing, and love. That’s what Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina did for me back when I was in my 20s, and I’d love for my book to do that for someone else now.

3. Let's discuss your book The Part That Burns. How long did it take you to write?

In some ways, it took me my whole life, really. But the actual writing of the actual manuscript, not the prewriting, but the real writing where I knew I was making a book, was about five years. And although writing about childhood sexual abuse was painful, it was healing, and often joyful, which may surprise people. It certainly surprised me. In fact, until The Part That Burns, I had never been able to successfully capture, in any kind of artistic way, my childhood experiences on the page. If I have done that now—if I have made art from life—it is because the methods I used to approach the writing were often very playful, especially for the most difficult vignettes. The techniques I used were drawn from an approach I learned from a mentor named Paul Matthews, author of the creative writing sourcebook Sing Me the Creation. Back in 2009 or so I attended a three-week workshop with Paul where I learned how to use writing constraints, which were new to me at the time. I had been writing for more than 20 years by then but had always written with fairly conventional methods—starting with an idea, building a scene around that as an entry point, building some momentum on the page, amassing a certain amount of material, then finally shaping it iteratively until I had an essay or a story. But writing constraints work differently. Constraints are like puzzles, and those who are interested in experimenting with constraints can find a lot of helpful resources on the internet, as always. The most famous reference for the use of writing constraints is probably the Oulipo, a group of mainly French-speaking writers and mathematicians who, since the 1960s, have gathered to develop and use constrained writing techniques to catalyze creativity. The way Paul Matthews taught with writing constraints was just zany and wonderful and incredibly freeing, and it opened up a whole new world for me in terms of my writing life. For me, the bonus is that writing constraints also ended up making it far safer, emotionally, to take on some of this old trauma. I wrote about that for my graduating lecture during my MFA program, and I’ve written craft essays about this topic as well, like this one, From Play to Peril, in Cleaver Magazine: https://www.cleavermagazine.com/from-pl ... ouellette/

4. What was your favorite part of the writing process? What was your least favorite part?

I loved the challenge of finding very vivid language, striking images, and beautiful language. That's so important to me. I love language and wanted my book to be accessible and powerful, not overwritten or ornate, but ultimately very beautiful at the line level. I also loved reliving the births of my three children, because those were such powerful, life-changing experiences, and so healing. It was wonderful to write those scenes. My least favorite part was succumbing to perfectionism at times because that can be so paralyzing. No book can ever perfectly capture the complexity of life because a book is only a representation, a facsimile of lived experience. And mine is no different. At a certain point, we have to write the very best book we can and come to some peace with its inevitable imperfection.

5. Was there anything that got left out of the book that you really wanted to include?

Yes, I would really loved to have written more about my current husband, Jon. He's mentioned in my memoir, but the story more or less ends where he and I begin. Our relationship and marriage are really not part of the story of this book, which is more about how I begin to become whole and ultimately, as part of that, need to leave my first marriage in order to continue growing into my fullest and least broken version of myself. So my second marriage- Jon and I have been together for 22 years now--just isn't part of the narrative arc of The Part That Burns. And some readers expressed that they wish they knew more about the narrator after she leaves her marriage. So perhaps someday I will write about this era of my life, including Jon. It's a beautiful, complicated, very human love story.

6. What would you describe as the overall message of the book?

Well, I hope readers take away some lightness and a lot of hope—despite that there is heaviness in the book—because there is also resilience, forgiveness, and a great deal of love. I hope they find reassurance that even when life is painful and messy, it can lead us to essential places, places where we are able to become our fullest, most whole selves. At one point in the book, the narrator says, “It takes so long to become anything. Especially yourself.” And I really believe that—that we are always in this process of becoming. We are human beings, and that’s a verb. We’re evolving always, or should be. Sometimes that means letting go of old ideas of who we are. Sometimes it means circling back to experiences we thought were behind us, but really are not, because, as Einstein tells us, past, present, and future are just an illusion. Everything is now. Which is hard on the one hand, because it means nothing is ever truly “behind us.” There’s no such thing. But it’s wonderful, too, because it means we have chance after chance to reorganize our understanding of our experiences and of who we are, and who we want to be. For me, that’s part of what cellular memory and epigenetics are all about. I find it wonderfully hopeful.

I also want to be honest that it’s scary to share the truest version of who you think you are. But no one should feel as if they have to keep secrets or stay silent about their lives—maybe especially about childhood sexual abuse, because the secrecy and silence around that are so incredibly destructive. For some of us, creating a narrative of our lives is the surest path to healing. That doesn’t mean it’s not scary though. The first time I ever told someone what my stepfather did to me, I was a teenager, and my stepmother at the time recoiled from me as if I was dirty or dangerous, which I write about briefly in the book. It was intensely painful to be treated that way. For a very long time, her shaming reaction stopped me from being able to talk again about what had happened to me. It took me decades to reclaim my voice. So, for anyone out there who is afraid, I just want them to know I understand. I know what that fear feels like. I feel it still. And it’s okay to be afraid. But it’s also okay to tell your story, if you need to, and are able to safely. I wish for that—safety and healing—for everyone.

7. The reviewer mentions that the memoir doesn't follow a linear path. It jumps back and forth in time. Why did you decide to write the book this way?

I intuited straightaway that fragmentation was right for my story. I love fragmented books: Justin Torres’s We the Animals, Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, Abigail Thomas’s Safekeeping, Kiese Laymon’s Heavy, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, Carmen Maria Machado’s In the Dream House, T Kira Madden’s Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls, Jo Ann Beard’s The Boys of My Youth—I could go on! All distinct, but with a shared quality of being created from disparate pieces of things, pieces that form a shape when juxtaposed with one another.

Also, white space. I appreciate how white space calls on the reader to participate in meaning-making. Fragmented work is similar to flash in treating the reader as an active collaborator, requiring a different quality of attention. In a recent Writer’s Chronicle essay, Jennifer Sinor, notes that Georgia O’Keeffe’s paintings, through their magnification of fragments, force us to see differently. O’Keeffe herself said, “When you take a flower in your hand and really look at it, it’s your world for the moment. I want to give that world to someone else… I want them to see it whether they want to or not.” She also famously said, “I often painted fragments of things because it seemed to make my statement as well as or better than the whole could.”

8. What's on your agenda next?

I'm working on a novel! And it's so hard, but so much fun. It's set in the near future, so it's very imaginative, and it centers around a tiny community's interactions with a pack of wild coyotes. I'm exploring the far-reaching impact of climate change and human population decline but through the lens of a tragedy and a love story.

I like to end with some fun questions.

9. What's your favorite book? Besides your own...


In addition to the ones I named in question number 7--all those beautiful fragmented books!--I love so very many more. Dorothy Allison's Bastard Out of Carolina, Elizabeth Strout's My Name is Lucy Barton, Jane Hamilton's Map of the World, Wilson Rawls's Where the Red Fern Grows (it's a middle grades book, I know, but a classic for a reason--that book taught me how profoundly books can evoke emotions). I could go on! I have so many favorite, beloved books.

10. What's your favorite season and why?

Autumn! Because it's so beautiful and transformative, so melancholy yet glorious. It's the time when I take stock of my life, just as everything in the natural world is making one last glorious show of beauty before going to seed and turning inward. I love the light in autumn, and the way the sunshine feels warm even as the air starts to cool. It's also so fleeting here in Minnesota. It's just a wonderful, healing time of the year.

11. What's your favorite food indulgence?

Oh my goodness, anything cheesy. I'm a vegetarian and also try to limit my dairy intake, but gosh do I love cheese! Pizza, nachos, lasagna, cheese and crackers, you name it, I love it.

12. What's one item that you keep on you at all times?

Hmm, well, I do love my Burts Bees lip pencil. Even when leaving the house for a walk, I'll ask my husband to put it in his pocket if I don't have a pocket to carry it in!
A book is a dream you hold in your hands.
—Neil Gaiman
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