Nonfiction co-editor Julie Patterson recently had this exchange with Issue #42 nonfiction author Alexia Kemerling. Here’s what Alexia had to say about interviewing story subjects, the similarities between writing and photography, what’s she’s working on next, and more…
What do you hope people take away from “In Memoriam of Rust”?
Al Letson, one of my favorite journalists, has the best catchphrase on his podcast Reveal: “There’s always more to the story.” This is one of my favorite mottos and it sums up what I hope people learn from this essay—there’s always more to the people we meet and the places we go than is first visible on the surface. I also hope that people learn to find beauty in the Rust Belt, like Mike, like me.
Did you intend to write about Mike when you asked to go “free-stylin’” with him, or did this essay surprise you?
Yes, I did intend to write about Mike when I asked if I could spend the afternoon with him. And of course, I also asked if it was okay if I wrote about it. He is very open to sharing his story because this newfound openness of his has been a really important aspect of his recovery. I’m definitely biased, but I think Mansfield has so many amazing and interesting characters. I’d write portraits of all of them if I could.
You describe Mike’s photography as a search for “something beautiful in the blight,” and it strikes me as a potential metaphor for writing, too. What similarities do you see between your mediums—his photography and your writing?
Mike and I actually talked about this during our afternoon together! In his words: “The pen is not so different from the camera.” Writers and photographers both have the ability to show the world what things look like from their perspectives. We have a lot of power to take what we see and shape it to evoke certain feelings or responses. The lighting, composition, focus, and frame of a photograph can all influence the photograph’s message. Similarly, word choice, structure, and what details a writer chooses to include all can be used to guide the reader in a certain direction. When Mike and I were talking we also connected over the behind-the-scenes aspect of our processes. Mike might go exploring for an entire day and return with only one photograph worth sharing; he has to be selective. I might spend hours researching a topic or hours interviewing a person, but I never include all of what I find. Trust me, no one wants to read a stream of consciousness of my investigations.
Seeing in your bio that you are both a writer and runner makes me think of Haruki Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. Do you think about your writing as you run? How are writing and running related for you?
I’m a big fan of Haruki Murakami, though I haven’t read his memoir (yet). I absolutely think about my writing when I run. It’s not intentional, I don’t set out on a run with a goal to come up with a structure for my essay by mile three, but it’s unavoidable. The act of running is very meditative for me and once I get into a rhythm, it helps me think, so naturally my brain circles back to whatever I’m writing at the time. I do a lot of problem-solving, brainstorming, and editing while running.
I find it really interesting that so many writers that I know are also runners. There’s a lot of similarities between running and writing. Both are pretty solitary activities that require a lot of mental strength. They also both require a certain level of dedication. In high school and my first year of college, I obsessed over my mile times. Not hitting my goal mark every mile could ruin a run for me. Eventually I ditched my watch and focused on listening to my body and running because I wanted to. I realized that not all good runs need to be fast, sometimes just getting out there is enough. And with writing you can’t just wait for a perfect moment of clarity, you have to just sit down and put words on paper. First drafts are never going to be perfect, but there’s always time for revision. To get better at both writing and running, you just have to practice regularly.
Your bio also notes that you wear hearing aids in both ears. How does this shape your writing?
I love this question. Although my hearing aids help me hear most things, they cannot fully correct my hearing loss. I rely on a combination of listening and lip reading. I tend to pay a lot of attention to people’s facial expressions and body language to help me interpret things in case I don’t catch a few words. As a result, I spend a lot of time describing people’s mannerisms in my writing. In fiction writing, I’d say that I spend almost as much time working on describing body language as I do writing dialogue. People express a lot non-verbally. I also think that just in general, my hearing loss has made me a very observant person. I can’t always rely on my ears to pick up on important sound cues, so I am always very attentive to my surroundings, which pays off in writing.
What are you working on now?
Right now I am working on an essay that combines elements of research and memoir. As with “In Memoriam of Rust” I tend to write pretty journalistically and I often keep myself in the background of the story, so this project is a fun challenge for me!