Lidia Yuknavitch’s newest novel, The Small Backs of Children, explores art as a destructive force, as a means of expression, and as proof of existence. A photographer captures the image of a young girl in an Eastern European village, blown forward by the explosion that killed her entire family. The prizewinning photograph becomes iconic in the United States and, in the aftermath, a cast of American artists become inextricably tied to the girl’s fate.
Yuknavitch has written unflinchingly about sex, violence, politics, and culture in her previous books, Dora: A Headcase and The Chronology of Water. Her writing often probes the complexities of pain and loss, and in The Small Backs of Children, bodies themselves become war zones. Yet, for all of the brutality, Yuknavitch’s graceful, entrancing sentences lure you into her work.
In conversation, Yuknavitch is observant, openhearted, and quick to laugh. Though she lives in Portland, Oregon, she spoke with me on the phone during a trip to San Francisco. “God, I wish you could see what I see right now,” she told me. “I’m looking out at San Francisco Bay, and it’s so beautiful. I want to show you.” We spoke about war photography, writing for misfits and outcasts, and her two unabashed fetishes: rocks and hair.
Liz Wyckoff: Where did the idea for this novel begin for you?
Lidia Yuknavitch: Well, I think two things came together and got born as an idea: one is that at a certain point in my life, my aunt on my Lithuanian side, sent me this box of photos and stuff—Xeroxed copies of newspaper articles and a bunch of redacted copies of newspaper articles and a pile of photographs from my Lithuanian side of our family, of people I’d never met and didn’t know existed. The newspaper articles were about my great uncle who had apparently been a photographer, and he had taken some photos of a massacre that took place at a Lithuanian hospital. Russian soldiers came in during the occupation and killed all the patients and all the doctors and the horses and the dogs. [My great uncle] had been arrested and sent to a Siberian gulag for over eighteen years. So this box of photos and what I learned in pieces of story about him braided with the grief and loss that’s probably with me forever about my daughter dying. Those two things—they made their own DNA strand in my head. And I conjured up the story of this girl who’s partly in my life and partly imagined, and this history I’d received that’s also partly true and partly imagined, since all I got was the pieces of it. That’s really how the idea got born.
LW: That’s incredible. The book sounds like it’s a blend of fiction and nonfiction. Do you think about it in those terms?
LY: I think my work explores the membrane between [fiction and nonfiction], and I think I’ve come to a place where I no longer see a difference between the two. They involve a couple of different formal choices, but besides that, they’re relatively part of each other. Every time you try to render something that’s true, or you think is true, you’re constructing a fiction. You’re making a composition, and you’re making formal choices about images and tone, so you’re making a fiction. And every time you go to make a fiction, and you think OK, I’m making things up, you’re drawing from emotional intensities in your life, whether you admit you are or not. So after the last three books I’ve written, I don’t think there is a difference anymore. I think they’re part of each other.
LW: I think that may be a common way that writers think about it, too. Once it goes through the publisher, that’s when it has to be categorized one way or another.
LY: Well, it does seem like a good time for works that cross over because I’m seeing more books that crisscross, which is great. But you’re right. It’s a feature of the market. It’s not a feature of the living practice.
LW: I was really intrigued by your choice to distinguish your characters, not by name, but by their art form. Why did you choose to define the characters by their crafts? Is the definition of “writer” meaningful to you?
LY: Oh boy, I have like seventeen different answers to that, but I won’t drag it out for three pages. I love all literature. I love low art, I love high art, and I’m a slutty reader. But in my own artistic practice, I’m not very interested in psychological realism anymore in my own work. I’m more interested in taking apart what we mean when we say character. That’s more challenging to me. That’s more interesting.
A second answer is: I got pretty obsessed with the idea that all the characters could be a single psyche. All the characters could be inside one person, in the way that we all carry different subjectivities inside us. Even the men. And I love that possibility.
And another answer would be: in my actual life, it is true in my household that I’m a writer, my husband’s a filmmaker, my son is an artist, and all of my closest friends are some kind of artist. So it’s a statement of reality for me that I have made a community and a world in my private life that is made up of artists. I wanted to represent the idea that our labor, our making, our forms of art making… we go crazy when we’re not doing that. It really is a center for us all. And I wanted to highlight that the artist’s labor is more important to them than most things. The only way I could do that, the only way I could amplify that, was to turn the volume down on this “cult of the character.” You know, when you fall in love with a character and remember their name and imagine them as a person. That wasn’t what I wanted to amplify.
The fourth answer is: I didn’t want there to be a main character. I really wanted to do away with the idea that there was a main character. I wanted to really push on the idea that this characterization move that I made is a plurality at its heart. There’s no single ego at the center.
LW: The novel revolves in so many ways around this photo of the young girl taken in the village, blown forward from the blast that killed her family. The image contains so many of the themes in the book: the complexity of girlhood, the power of art, the horror of war. How did you conceive of that image and then go about describing it?
LY: There have been some pivotal photojournalists’ photographs of wartime that have centered on the image of a girl. Like, the Vietnam one. And the Afghani green-eyed girl on the cover of National Geographic. So I got obsessed with the idea that the image of a girl could stand in for our experience of helplessness in war, or the helplessness of the viewer, or political change. And then also that moral question [of the photographer]: was it more important to get the shot, or to throw your camera down and do something? I made that question a tension between two of the characters in the book because it’s a real question for me. I don’t know the answer to the question, but it endlessly fascinates me.
LW: I know when The Chronology of Water was published there was a lot of talk about the cover.
LY: Haha, the boob book.
LW: Right! The cover shows a bare breast underwater, and I know there were various reactions to that. In The Small Backs of Children, because the image of the girl is so central to the novel, I’ll bet the cover image was important to you. Did you have any input on that decision?
LY: Well, my first suggestion for the cover was a severed wolf paw in a trap in snow with a bunch of blood. Haha, and they didn’t go for it. But no, I love the cover. And I have to say, Harper let me have tremendous input. I got to vote on covers; I got to suggest things. That’s kind of rare, that you have that much input. They were so great. I can’t say enough nice words.
LW: I’m glad that it’s red and black, and striking, and doesn’t shy away from the fact that there’s a lot of violence in the book. I know a lot of female writers say that their covers are often “feminized.”
LY: Yes, yes, I was very afraid of that and I thought it would happen. You know, where you get a cover that looks like an ad for a maxi-pad. Or like an Oxygen movie! I was worried about that. But that’s why I think what they did is really great, to put violence and a child right up front. I’m really grateful.
LW: The Chronology of Water was published by Hawthorne Books. It sounds like you had a great experience with Harper, but were there differences between working with a smaller, indie publisher and a big press like Harper?
LY: Rhonda [Hughes, of Hawthorne Books] and I are very close friends and I love her with all my heart. There’s an intimacy in The Chronology of Water because we were in close proximity and it was an extraordinary collaboration. I mean, Rhonda is responsible for the order of chapters or fragments in The Chronology of Water. I just handed her a pile of pages and she put each of them on her dining room floor and moved them around until she felt like she had a good order. So, I was really lucky to have that experience. And as rebellious as I am, and kind of misfit-y, I was bracing myself for a cold experience with such a big press and I was dead wrong. I was completely wrong.
I worked with this editor named Calvert Morgan, who is now an amazing friend and collaborator and saboteur. He sent beautiful notes. He let me come up with my own creative solutions to his questions. He was so smart. I was also worried that working with a man might not be the best choice because I’d written a deeply womany book, and I was completely wrong about that. He understood all of that. So, it turns out, the only real difference so far has been that he lives really far away from me. That and, you know, this wider audience thing that’s happening is pretty much scaring me shitless.
LW: Is it? It’s really exciting.
LY: I know, it’s scary! I’m an introvert, so this is complex. It’s beautiful and wonderful and really terrifying. If you could see me right now, you could see how it’s manifesting. I have to build daily pillow forts to hide in.
LW: Well, I’m an introvert, too, so I understand that. You have to retreat into yourself in order to recharge. Are there more demands for your time? Or more reviews being written? What do you notice that’s different?
LY: Well, doing this with you? It’s good. I get to be in my pillow fort, so it’s OK, you know? The interviews are hard because I have to make sure I don’t say something stupid when I’m live, or swear too much. I’m fifty-two, so it’s not like this is the first time I’ve done readings or anything, but the reading I did in my hometown at Powell’s—they had to shut down the room because of the fire code. I think there were 323 people or something. That’s new. I mean, I have friends who had to leave because they had panic attacks. And I’m like them. But I couldn’t leave! I have a rock fetish and I love rocks—they calm me down and they help me—and so my husband and my son brought me some rocks so I wouldn’t have a giant panic attack.
LW: Why is it that rocks are important to you in that way?
LY: Well, I have two unabashed fetishes in my life. One of them is hair. You know those big palette boxes that either have pastels in them or tubes of paint, those big flat boxes? I have one of those. Only when you open it, it’s like a specimen case and I have different kinds of hair from different people and animals. If you open it, it’s so beautiful, but then your second thought is: serial killer! I have all three husbands’ hair in there, my hair, my family’s hair, famous people’s hair, people on the street’s hair, animal hair. It’s endlessly cool to me. I kind of hyperventilate when I look at it.
LW: How did you get famous people’s hair?
LY: I run around behind them with scissors… no, I’m kidding. I’ve been lucky in my life to meet some people who were willing to give me some of their hair. But, since I wrote The Chronology of Water, people I don’t know have sent hair in the mail. Like one time I got a whole braid—this cool, long braid that’s sort of witchy.
The rocks are equally, obsessively beautiful to me. The thing with rocks that has lured me forever is that they carry traces of existence from all over the world. Every time you find a rock, you have material from the cosmos in there. You have material from other countries. You have stuff we’ve made in the world, like, plastic and shitty things. Rocks are these artifacts of our entire existence. And in addition to that, they’re beautiful and you can hold them in your hand. So that’s my deal with rocks. When I have them around me, if I touch them or if they’re near me, I’m calm. And I have no idea where that comes from, but it works.
LW: Do you feel like your introverted nature affects your teaching at all? The times that I’ve had to teach have been challenging for me for that reason—it’s something about being the center of attention for a long time.
LY: Yeah, I hear you. When I first started, I was terrified. And I would have barf-worthy anxiety attacks in the parking lot before I taught for a while. It has gotten better because, you know, I’m old. I still get really nervous, though, the first couple of weeks. And I have to breathe and wait for what always—thank god—happens, which is a kind of group relationship forms in about two weeks. And then it doesn’t have to be just you at the front anymore. It always happens and it always saves me and it’s why teaching is hard but OK.
Another reason I haven’t quit—because I think about quitting every single year of my life—is that I just keep thinking about how many misfits there are in those classrooms that I identify with. I want to help them move from Point A to Point B, and I want to help them find forms of self-expression and self-esteem. And I want that more than I care about how scared I am. So that’s why I keep doing it.
LW: Can you look back on your own education and pinpoint a couple teachers who made a difference like that for you?
LY: Oh, god yes. I was literally pulled out of the gutter by teacher/helper people. When my daughter died, there was a period of time when I literally lost my marbles—I was institutionalized for a little bit of time, and I was homeless for a while. And some teachers came and got me and helped me. I came back up through community college, so that’s my karmic debt. That’s where I am. That’s why I stay. I know people say this and it sounds cheesy and over-dramatic, but I’d be dead if they hadn’t helped me find myself again. So, it’s a labor I care about a lot.
LW: I’ve read in a couple places that you have a mantra about writing for yourself: you don’t write so that other people will like you, and you try not to keep in mind who’s buying the book. But now that you have this devoted fan base, do you ever feel as if you’re writing for them?
LY: I don’t actually write for myself, I didn’t mean it like that. I absolutely 100% write for fellow misfits and outcasts—people who were told they were doing it wrong and people who took the crooked path. I absolutely feel like I’m in a chorus of voices of people who’ve devoted their labor to that idea, so I don’t feel like I’m writing for myself.
I think most people who write memoir confront this feeling where you think: Well, who’s going to care about my stupid life and my story? Why am I even writing this? Partway through writing [The Chronology of Water], I showed it to my sister and she said to me: “You have to finish this because you have to go back and get our body.” And when she said that to me, my ears popped, I had such a hardcore epiphany. I wasn’t just writing it for me. I was writing it for those of us who feel like somebody took our bodies away from us. That’s the reason for nonfiction writers to push forward—it’s to help somebody else in the room feel counted. It’s not to glorify the self. It’s not to celebrate that you got over your hard thing and transcended and now you are a bestselling author. It’s to open the self up to the realization that we’re nothing without each other. That’s why you keep going. That’s why you keep telling it.