Interview: Margaret Renkl

Interview: Margaret Renkl

The shadow side of love is always loss, and grief is only love’s own twin,” Margaret Renkl writes in the opening pages of Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss, her memoir-in-micro-essays that was released earlier this year to glowing reviews.These wise, bracing words underpin the entire book, which bears witness to the majesty and worth of the dogs, bluebirds, butterflies, and snakes, as well as the humans, in Renkl’s orbit.

As her tender, complicated reflections build in weight and power, the reader becomes subsumed in Renkl’s world and memories, a place where beauty and destruction co-exist and even harmonize.

For several years, the Alabama native has also served as a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times, where she offers her thoughts on the natural world and the South in weekly essays that are eagerly anticipated by her faithful readers. A former high school teacher and editor of Chapter 16 , the daily literary publication of Humanities Tennessee, Renkl now works as a full-time writer from her home in Nashville. She chatted with Appalachian Heritage in between book tour dates and column deadlines.

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JASON KYLE HOWARD: I read Late Migrations with an enormous lump in my throat and sometimes even tears on my cheeks. It weaves together so many themes in beautiful and poignant ways. How did the book begin?

MARGARET RENKL: What kind words for a book that began completely by accident! Not long after my mother died very unexpectedly, my mother-in-law entered the final stages of Parkinson’s disease and my father-in-law also needed open-heart surgery. My husband and I found ourselves in the depths of grief and caregiving at the same time. I was describing those challenges to a writer friend, and his response was, simply, “Would you ever want to write about that?”

Though I’d spent twelve years working as a full-time writer earlier in my life, I was working exclusively as an editor by then. I hadn’t given any thought at all to the idea of writing about what I was going through. But as soon as my friend said those words, I understood that writing was exactly what I should be doing.

JKH: I’m so interested in the structure of the book. The essays are micro essays—short and compact—and yet you manage to fit so much depth and emotion into each one. And instead of the book feeling disjointed, the essays all work together to create a moving, powerful whole. That’s hard to pull off. How did you do it and how did it all come about?

MR: The truth is that I was never certain, right up until the first readers started responding to the book, that anyone else would see those connections—not because I don’t trust readers but because it took me so long to see the connections myself. For at least a year I believed I was writing two different sets of essays: one set about my family, and one set about the natural world of my backyard.

But then another writer friend said, “You know you’re writing a book, right?” (Clearly I owe everything to my writer friends!) I wasn’t at all sure about that, but gradually I came to understand that a childhood spent playing in the woods had given me a kinship to the natural world that felt very much like family. I came to see, too, that losing my beloved elders was as much a part of the natural order as anything that happened in my backyard. Once I understood that connection, I began to think of the whole project differently.

JKH: These essays are so steeped in place—it’s such a Southern book in how land and storytelling are all tangled up together in these pages. I’m wondering how important nature and land were to you growing up in Alabama in the 1960s.

MR: I think nature is always more important to rural and small-town people than to city people because the land is so much more integrated into human life for country people. That was especially the case during my childhood. Lower Alabama during the 1960s was largely a land without air-conditioning. With windows and screen doors wide open to the world, what happened outside the house was felt by those within it. You could smell the rain coming and feel the wind blowing and hear the birdsong in the surrounding trees every minute of the day. Growing up with that constant permeability between inside and outside—as what happened in the natural world was felt, truly felt, at all times—is a great gift for a writer.

JKH: Nature, loss and grief are themes that can easily be sentimentalized by lesser writers. But instead of reducing them, you write about these themes in complex ways. How did you manage to shy away from sentimentality?

MR: To write honestly about any powerful human feeling,I think you have to be willing to risk sentimentality. I’ve never had any use for cynicism or irony, as a reader or as a writer, so it was pretty much a given that in writing about grief I was going to find myself skating dangerously close to sentimentality. A few pieces in the book caused me to waver right up through the copyediting process—should they stay or should they go?—because I was afraid they’d come across as treacle. In the end, I decided to trust my editor, Milkweed’s brilliant Joey McGarvey, and try not to think about it anymore. Some readers may well find certain essays a bit over the top. I think that’s okay.

JKH: Grief is a major theme of this book. Implicit in these essays is the reality that grief is not really something that dissipates—it’s something that’s always present, something to be managed. I’m thinking especially of how movingly you write about losing your mother and the aftermath of her death. Did you find that writing Late Migrations helped you with your own grief?

MR: I haven’t found that grief dissipates, it’s true, but it has changed. Instead of a sharp pain or a howling void, it’s quieter now, more of a companion than a tormenter. As time goes by, I find myself thinking of my parents less as they were in their final days and more as they were in their prime, as though memory is its own form of heaven where they are restored to themselves as they were when they were most themselves. These days I live as much in the company of the dead as among the living, and not in a troubling way at all. It’s a comforting feeling. I don’t know whether this feeling would have evolved anyway, even if I had not written this book, but I suspect that writing it probably did help.

JKH: We both share a deep love for dogs, which are a recurring motif throughout the book. I know how important they are to you in an emotional sense. But I’m wondering how your love for dogs—and perhaps animals in general—has impacted you as a writer, as an artist, and how you see and move through the world?

MR: Dogs are the most fully domesticated of all the companion animals. In a way, we created them in our own image, but only the best parts of us took hold in them. Dogs are loyal and loving and forgiving and brave, just as we are loyal and loving and forgiving and brave, but dogs aren’t capable of being the opposite of those things, while we are. Dogs show us who we can be, not who we are, and love us despite our failures. How could I write about family love without including the dogs who loved us?

The loss of my first dog was also my very first experience of grief, and that may be the real reason why dogs figure so prominently in Late Migrations, although I don’t remember consciously thinking of it that way. I was just a kid who loved animals, and my mother and father were perfectly comfortable with the disorder that comes of sharing a home with animals. We had pet chickens and ducks and hamsters and rabbits and toads and parakeets and cockatiels and pretty much anything but cats. My mother drew the line at cats, and I never knew why.

During college I joined the Alabama Wildlife Rescue Service as a volunteer. Each spring and summer I took home orphaned songbirds and other creatures—opossums, squirrels, rabbits, even a baby shrew—and hand-fed them till they were old enough to be transferred to a “halfway house,” where someone who lived in a more remote area could gradually reintroduce them into the wild.

A close connection to animals, whether they’re domesticated or entirely wild, is a reminder that we are animals ourselves, motivated by the same urges and the same fears and the same pleasures. In the presence of a predator, the tiniest spider in the garden will crouch and hold still, unwilling to be eaten, and in springtime a mockingbird will stand on a rooftop and sing as exuberantly as any of us when we’re newly in love. How could a writer not learn from a world like that?

JKH: You’re also a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times, and your op-eds appear every Monday. For me they have been an antidote to the turbulence of our present political moment. How are you managing to find moments of beauty and contemplation amid such chaos?

MR: I often wonder who I’m really writing those columns for: Am I trying to reassure readers that we can survive the turbulence of our present political moment, as you so aptly put it, or am I trying to reassure myself? It’s very hard not to give in to despair these days, but I remind myself again and again that despair never made anything better. I find myself looking for every possible evidence that good people are working hard to resist hatred and anger and evil, for every reassuring sign that the natural world stands ready to recover from our assaults if we only give it half a chance.

In the meantime, the world is still a stunningly gorgeous place, and people are still capable of immense creativity and generosity and love. What a mistake it would be to overlook the beauty and the creativity and the goodness, while we have it in such abundance, merely because we fear its loss.

JKH: You are one of the only regular Southern voices on that page. The South, as we know, is often caricatured and stereotyped, both romanticized and vilified. How do you approach your role as a voice of the region? Do you feel any responsibility for how it is represented?

MR: Sometimes people ask me how it feels to represent the South, but the way you’ve put it is much more accurate. I’m just one voice of the South. I could never be the voice for the South because “the South” is in many ways a figment of the media’s imagination.

There is no one South; there are many Souths. There’s the Deep South and the Mid-South and the Upper South. There’s the urban South and the rural South. There’s the coastal South and the mountain South and the Delta South. The immigrant South, all by itself, is many Souths. And the way African Americans experience the South, of course, can be very different from the way white people do, as shameful as it is to have to admit so, all these years after the official end of Jim Crow.

I know I can’t accurately represent all those Souths, but I can try to write about how complex this region is. People outside the South too often think they know us. They almost never do.

JKH: You worked for many years as a high school English teacher in Nashville, and then with Humanities Tennessee, serving as editor of Chapter 16. How did you balance your work life, which was centered on literature and art, with your own writing?

MR: There were some years when I didn’t balance it at all; I basically gave up on writing altogether. I told myself that there would be more time to write again when things settled down, and that’s been true to some extent. But I started writing again long before anything settled down, and I think that’s because it’s very hard to spend your working life in the company of great writers and not feel the itch to write yourself. There’s nothing more inspiring to an aspiring writer than to see great writers finding words for all the ways there are to be human.

JKH: Late Migrations has received all kinds of acclaim and you were recently named by Poets & Writers as one of 5 Over 50, a special group of debut authors. How is all this success feeling at the moment?

MR: Well, I didn’t manage to publish a book until I was fifty-seven years old, and I think a lot of writers would have a hard time calling that particular trajectory a “success.” I don’t mean to sound precious, but in the context of writing, at least, “success” almost always seems like nothing more than good luck to me. Too much of what we think of as success hinges on matters that are entirely outside a writer’s control or even influence.

To me, it just makes more sense to focus on the writing itself, to make every sentence as beautiful or as true as I can make it, and to give as little thought as possible to anything else. I began writing the essays in Late Migrations more than a year before I had any inkling that I might be writing a book. I was writing just because writing made me feel happier, and I still feel happier when I’m writing. Anything more than that is just a happy surprise. ■

Jason Kyle Howard is the author of A Few Honest Words and co-author of Something's Rising, both works of literary journalism. His essays, features, and commentary have appeared in the New York Times, Oxford American, Salon, The Millions, The Nation, Sojourners, on NPR. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts and is editor of Appalachian Heritage.

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