Art at War: An Interview with Margaret Luongo
by James Cody Phenis
Margaret Luongo is a writer and an Associate Professor of English for Miami University. Her stories have been featured, among others, in Granta, Tin House, The Cincinnati Review, and right here in Wraparound South. She published her first book, If the Heart is Lean, in 2008, a collection of short stories wherein ordinary people pursue self-discovery in the face of surreal circumstances. Publisher’s Weekly positively reviewed “Luongo’s expressive imagination reveals layers of emotion and intentions” and The Montserrat Review described the book as “one of those perfect blends you hear about, smart and entertaining, funny and sad, thoughtful and wild, sexy and cool, like one of those gourmet coffees that can only be manufactured today, but tastes as natural and delicious as if it were first perfected centuries ago.”
Her second short story collection released in April of 2016, History of Art, explores people’s obsession with art and, by extension, with war and conflict. Wraparound South originally published one of the stories collected in this new book, so we decided to follow up with Luongo on her recent literary achievement. She was kind enough to correspond with us via email.
JP: How does History of Art differ from your first book, If the Heart is Lean?
I went into History of Art with more intention, specifically to write a book with art-themed stories, so that the collection would feel more like a whole, with more obviously connected stories. In the first book, I kept revisiting the same interests–desire as a motivation for characters, even when the characters know their motivations and desires are dubious–as well as formal constraints, mostly expressed by second person narration and flash fiction.
History of Art initially was “arts-themed”. I noticed I was writing about the arts a lot–including theater, dance, and music–so I decided to keep those stories out of the first collection. I ended up writing more about visual arts, and then the war theme came out, too. I ended up chucking the few stories about dance, though I am writing about theater now and have a small project planned around that. Some of those stories have been published in Five Points.
JP: Wraparound South was lucky enough to publish “Magnolia Grandiflora” in its Winter 2015 issue. It’s a beautiful story with multiple threads influencing the protagonist who seems unable to let go of old things. What were the ideas behind that particular piece?
Magnolia Grandiflora started with a dream I had of a woman (me?) who keeps the skulls of her parents in her freezer. This must be somewhat autobiographical, metaphorically speaking. My parents died when I was fairly young, so their absence has always had a major presence in my life. I loved the absurdity of that image, how it really seems to judge the protagonist right away. It’s such a delicate balance, to honor the past and celebrate the influence of the people who have passed, without becoming oppressed by mourning a life that is pure imagination. The things of the dead, too, can become so oppressive. Just talk to someone tasked with cleaning out their parents’ home. I joke that we only buy IKEA furniture so that when we die, our stuff can just go to the curb. Absolutely no sentimental value attached to the Hemnes bedframe. It’s nice enough, but it exists a thousand times over, which pleases me so much! I like the idea, and I’m not sure why, that someone in Sweden is having a good lie-in on a Saturday morning in a brown-black finish Hemnes bed.
JP: A common theme throughout the book is the power of art to affect an audience. In “The War Artist,” the protagonist, a woman who has never experienced war charged with portraying war, talks about her newfound responsibility. What do you think the responsibility of an artist is? Do you believe such a responsibility exists?
The first responsibility of artists is to be honest with themselves, which means always looking for a challenge and not creating cynically. I think if an artist is intellectually engaged, aware of what’s going on aesthetically and culturally, something relevant will come of that. I don’t think an artist has to consciously say, “I’m going to write/create about world events,” but if one is paying attention and bothered by something, that will come out in the work.
JP: Several stories in History of Art are written in unique, inventive styles; “Word Problem” is written as an actual word problem, “Seeing Birds” follows an informational booklet format, and “A Note on Type” is disguised as a reference material in the back of the book. How did you come up with the ideas for these vastly different formats? Do you think it’s important for writers to challenge themselves in this way?
I really enjoy formal constraints, the challenge of indicating a story in a form that doesn’t easily lend itself to story telling. “Word Problem” was a perverse assignment; I always hated word problems, got bored with them a few words in. If I want to know what time Train D arrives at the station, I’ll just look at the schedule. I wasn’t fooled by them–that’s what they were; tricks to make us think the problems were relevant. Obviously I’m still bitter about having my time wasted.
My husband and I have studio space outside our home and I keep very few things there–a few special books and items. The book Seeing Birds lives there, and I think I was stalling one day, meant to be working on one thing, but avoiding it, and I picked it up, read a few pages and started the story. There’s another story in the book about seeing and perspective–many, actually–but this story addresses it more directly. At one point, years ago, I noticed my visual memory was going. I was accustomed to having really good visual recall, which helps so much in writing. But I started remembering words instead of images–descriptions of what I’d seen, rather than what I had actually seen. Words are so vague! So I started taking drawing classes to help with seeing.
When we moved from Florida to Ohio and had to unpack all those books, I got really distracted. I re-read the plays of Anton Chekhov and Henrik Ibsen, and I also got sucked into reading the notes about the type in the backs of the books I was shelving. They are little novels. So that’s where that story came from. It really became about all the artists we’ll never know, the people working their whole lives with such passion and devotion, who remain totally obscure. On the one hand, it’s so wonderful that people devote themselves passionately to something, and on the other how sad that the work goes unappreciated. Researching typeface has changed me into someone who notices and has opinions about type. In the past, I would laugh at designers who fly into rages when Comic Sans comes up. Now I totally get it.
JP: What inspired you to write these stories about the power and obsession of art? Did you visit many galleries, museums, or historical sites while working on the book? Who are some of your favorite artists?
I’m an arts fanatic. I’m lucky it’s something I’ve had access to and I just respond to it. My brain feels alive when I’m looking at art, listening to music, watching dance. I don’t even know what’s happening up there, but neurons are firing I guess. Later, I came to appreciate process. That started when I majored in drama and worked in theater when I graduated. So much work goes into producing a play–so many people, so much creative energy. The work is intense, the pay low; sometimes the audience and critics respond well, sometimes they don’t, but we keep doing it. So much of the work done in the arts no one asks us to do, and sometimes there’s not much obvious reward, never mind remuneration. I so admire that quality–people insisting on the value of what they do, living it because it’s who they are and how they process the world. There’s a joy in that dedication. I show my students a video of printmaker David Crown demonstrating the process of making a color mezzotint. It’s an insane task. He can spend a hundred hours preparing a plate. What he makes looks so elegant and simple if you don’t know what you’re looking at, and most people don’t. I try to impress upon them that you really have to love your medium to put those hours in.
I go to galleries and museums whenever I can. My brain loves it. I love Robert Rauschenberg’s work and his attitude about work: show up every day. Work. At the end of the day, look at what you’ve got. Repeat. He did not make obstacles for himself. He explored fearlessly and generously supported the work of his peers.
JP: Have your writing practices changed significantly since finishing your first book? How have you grown as a writer between the two collections?
I used to be very particular about writing in the morning and writing every day. If I couldn’t write in the morning or at all, I got very cranky and that in itself became an obstacle. In the beginning, though, it was crucial to show up and work consistently, in part for the sake of morale–if you’re not publishing and you’re not writing, then how can you call yourself a writer?–but also because the practice really did improve my writing.
Now I can write pretty much at any time of day, and I don’t freak out if I don’t write every day. I do keep track of my progress and if I’m not happy with where I am, I’ll set a more regular schedule. When the semester starts, I block out writing time each week. About mid-way through the semester that tends to go out the window, and I just tell myself I’ll regroup during the break.
I’m not sure how I’ve grown as a writer, except maybe that I’m less interested in character and traditional story telling. I’m not sure that’s “growth”–just change.
JP: What are you working on next? What do you hope to accomplish in the next five years?
I’m working on some nonfiction now, about my father. I think it will be a long creative nonfiction piece. I’ve been working on a flash sequence about drama and story telling, which I hope will become something longer.
JP: What are you currently reading?
For the nonfiction about my father I’m reading about PTSD. It’s fascinating but also a bit grim. Since it’s National Short Story month, I’ve been dipping into a lot of the story collections that I’ve been accumulating over the years. That’s been fun. I’m thinking about giving myself monthly directed reading all the time. If nothing else, it will get me systematically working through the many books in our home. I foresee Design Month coming soon.