Hilary Plum is the associate director of the Cleveland State University Poetry Center. She received the 2018 New Writers Award for Creative Non-fiction, presented by the Great Lakes Colleges Association.On Nov. 7, she gave a reading as part of the Kenyon Review Literary Festival.
How did you come to be a writer?
I was one of those kids who was always writing and reading by myself, wanting to be in a book. I guess it’s as simple as that, in a way. I could say that maybe the origin story of the three books of mine that have come out are all to do with … thinking about being in the generation in which the Iraq War began, and being raised in a family where the Vietnam War and the anti-war movement were a very important part of my parents’ history.
How is your process different when writing non-fiction as opposed to fiction? Does one come easier than the other?
I think it’s nice to work in multiple genres, because whenever anything seems impossible you can just switch. I don’t know if either is easier exactly. There’s a way that fiction can have a sort of energy, a momentum that’s harder with an essay because an essay’s structure is kind of pinned up against the real world in different ways. Even though my fiction includes a lot of research, you can use it more freely.
Your book, Watchfires, seems to pose a question about the interplay between agency and self-destruction. How do you see the two intertwined? Did writing Watchfires clarify that relationship for you?
I think a lot about the sort of questions that maybe we’re all having right now about our agency as citizens, what kind of effect can we have and how that relates to self-destruction or to types of political speech that feel like self-destruction, is a complicated question. I feel like those types of self-destruction are forms of protest. That book looks a lot at a range of those and is thinking about what sort of speech that is, and what moments drive people to need to make that speech … But I think also one could look at that word self-destruction a little bit metaphorically. There are ways of thinking of oneself as an actor in society that might involve certain types of self-destruction, where you have to dismantle some parts of what you thought yourself was. In particular, the types of self-other divisions that maybe one was relying on without knowing it.
How did you come to write Watchfires? Were there questions that you came to the table with wanting to resolve, or did they emerge organically as you wrote?
My husband was getting this cancer surgery, and I was sitting in that waiting room, and that waiting is a very charged time, because you’re just sitting there waiting for news that everything kind of went well. And during that day, like on CNN the whole day, they were doing this manhunt for Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the surviving of the two brothers who perpetrated the [Boston Marathon] bombing. And so the things that I was doing while they removed the tumor from my husband surgically, and then watching this whole city hunt for this 19-year-old kid who’d been involved in this horrific event. So that kind of hunt through the city for this person who was a quote- unquote terrorist, and then the hunt through a body for a tumor — that metaphorical resonance was there. So I started the book with that … and the questions of the book sort of extended out from there.
There are a lot of aspiring writers in Gambier. Any advice you might give them about how to navigate the strange and enchanting world of professional writing?
There’s something hard about giving advice because one’s own story sometimes feels like it’s mostly assembled of bits of luck or coincidence or certain specific kinds of work that relate to the specific projects you were doing.
I guess what has fed my writing the most is approaching things in a collaborative way. Finding people to work with and learn from and be in ongoing conversations with, and to think of writing in a conversational mode, that writing isn’t something that you just sit and diligently do by yourself, but it’s part of a conversation that you’re having with some friends. Maybe you don’t even know each other, it’s imaginary, or maybe it’s real, that you’re in a conversation with them. And I think that that helps you stay responsible — it keeps you writing really rigorously because you want to present it to people who you really respect.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.