The Neutral Ground
An Interview with Annie Bleecker
“As a child of New Orleans, wind is a novelty for you. A couple times a year, a bizarre weather phenomenon might stir the still air of our troubled and shallow waterways enough that a spooky remnant airstream, maybe even salt scented, will blow the hair off of our shoulders. When this happens, you say the word you think means “scared” in your girl-baby voice and pull your fists up to your eyes in an exaggerated gesture of fear. But on this train, the rush of wind delights you. It dries our sweat until our skin is stiff and crystalline.”
– from “THE NEUTRAL GROUND” – by Annie Bleecker
Annie Bleecker’s essay, “THE NEUTRAL GROUND,” reveals a writer who has a keen understanding of place. Her writing is gorgeous, incredibly detailed and textured, full of love and story and sensibility, engaged in all that is sensory. This is the kind of prose that sends a reader straight into the experience. An outing in August in New Orleans becomes a small, but breathtaking adventure. All that heat, then the ride and the wind, mother-daughter moments, the streetcar, the journey, the day.
Annie, tell us how you came to writing. What is it about creative nonfiction that calls to you? And are there any New Orleans associations that help support your literary life?
I’ve always loved writing, but was too chicken to really devote myself to it. Once upon a time I was a creative writing major—that had always been my intention—but I got tired of being embarrassed about not having an answer to that banal adult question: “And what will you do with that?” So I changed my major.
Writing has been a major focus of most of the jobs I’ve held, but I’ve found the thought process involved in writing advertising copy and copyediting doesn’t feel at all like that of creative writing. I try to look at it positively, as they complement one another, rather than think that one drains the other. I suppose that’s why I went back to school at 32; I felt there was a certain feeling I’d only ever gotten from creative writing that I hadn’t found professionally.
I always assumed I’d write fiction, as that’s what I’ve always preferred to read, and because I didn’t really know what creative nonfiction was. But I’ve found, so far at least, that creative nonfiction is the only thing I’ve been able to write. I tend to take a simple situation and make it complicated, so I really need the boundaries and structure that reality imposes. I get completely overwhelmed by the limitless possibilities of fiction. Also, a lot of writers are experimenting with the genre right now (Elisa Gabbert’s “THE SELF UNSTABLE,” T. Fleischmann’s “SYZGY,” Katherine Angel’s “UNMASTERED”), so it’s exciting to see how far it can be bent. Collections of personal essays are also becoming more widely read, which seems like a shift. For example, look at how much press there has been around Leslie Jamison’s “THE EMPATHY EXAMS.” Hilton Als’ “WHITE GIRLS” also comes to mind. Mary Ruefle’s “MADNESS, RACK, AND HONEY” has been like the bible to me for the past year or so. She calls the book a collection of lectures, but that seems a (likely intentional) misnomer.
Here in New Orleans I subscribe to a few literary groups, and it seems they’re doing great things, but I’m too much of a hermit to venture out most of the time. I’ve enjoyed seeing Room 220 grow. I love the Louisiana Book Festival in Baton Rouge (I might be the only nerd who drives from New Orleans to attend), and this year was the first time I’d been to the Tennessee Williams Festival, which was fantastic.
Chile Mining Town
In “THE NEUTRAL GROUND,” the idea of place is examined from all sides of a mid-morning excursion—from the neutral ground, “the airstrip of grass… the place owned by no one,” to the streetcar interior, “a hollowed and spit-shined redwood… bare light bulbs hang[ing] like inverted ideas.” And from the momentum of the journey, “whizzing past street signs at close range,” to the quiet cool of a fountain, “run[ning]… fingers through the lily pads’ ethereal roots.” What draws you to the specific details of place?
When I started writing, it seemed like a place, and most often an odd place, would typically be the impetus for an essay—the small mining town in the very north of Chile where I stayed for over a week in the hospital with my stepdad, who’d been bucked from a horse and broke his ribs, or the small towns in Mississippi I spent a week driving through with my sister, mother, and two-year-old daughter during a hurricane evacuation. Or it’s a place I love, like New Orleans, or the lake near Tahoe we went to every summer for a week when I was a kid. The problem I run into, the difficult part, is that then I have to build a story to go with the place.
Who are among your literary influences?
Zadie Smith (more so for her nonfiction than for her fiction, but I think her most recent book, “NW,” is extraordinary), Eula Biss (anything and everything she writes, but “THE BALLOONISTS” holds a special place in my heart), Mark Twain and Nabokov for humor and irony, Joan Didion for her writing about place and seemingly endless well of vocabulary and sentence structure, Shirley Jackson for her twisted humor, Nadine Gordimer for the way she writes relationships and subtext… I could go on and on.
NOLA Live Oak
Motherhood is also a world in which you live and from which you write. The unnamed emotion that rises up in response to your daughter—“you reach up with one hand and grab a rope of my hair—your instinctual response to worry or excitement”—creates “a rare moment of poignancy that comes on fast and fierce.” Though motherhood can be a defining and sometimes restrictive place in terms of time, do you find it an expansive and inspirational part of your life? Are there any anecdotes you’d like to share? And any material you’re gathering that may lead to future projects?
While motherhood has become expansive and inspirational, it hasn’t always felt that way, and I think that is where this story came from. I wanted (and still want) to believe that our relationships with our kids and even babies can be as varied and dynamic as those between adult, but I found pregnancy and early motherhood to be a time of limited collective imagination. When you’re pregnant, that’s all anyone talks to you about. It has become such a prescribed experience that anything but that norm feels wrong. I remember when my daughter was a newborn, I started to notice that women’s sentences had become a sort of hypothetical call-and-response: “Don’t you just think about her every second you’re away from her?” or “Isn’t being a mommy the best?” Statements for which the answer is either yes (good, normal) or no (bad, weird). Things like that.
I found the instruction books and the limited conversation and the fetishizing of early motherhood to be stifling. I guess I just shut down, in a way. So with “THE NEUTRAL GROUND,” I was questioning why I could only experience the feelings I thought I was supposed to feel about being a mother when it was just my daughter and I, on our own time, doing our own thing (though I guess in fairness, I was the one making the plans). I suppose trains are always a form of escape, and especially in August in New Orleans, the streetcar specifically is one of the few forms of non-air conditioning related respite from the heat. The phrase “neutral ground,” I’ve always found curious, and in that instance, it seemed relevant as a “place owned by no one.” It was a place of zero expectation, and that was where I felt comfortable to build a different kind of mother-daughter relationship, though, of course, none of this was intentional or evident to me at the time.
The Aubrey – Dining Room – Santiago, Chile
I understand you’d love to live in a hotel. The Columns in New Orleans, the city you now call home; the Aubrey in Santiago, Chile, a city you once called home; or, like Eloise of the Kay Thompson books and the Hillary Knight drawings, the Plaza in New York City?
Ha, I think this must be common for those of us who were read Eloise. It’s a coincidence that you mentioned The Aubrey, in Santiago, because that is where I had my most Eloise-like experience. My mom and stepdad came to Chile to visit with my husband’s family in Santiago, and then they were supposed to go on to visit the south of Chile. But there was a terrible fire in Patagonia, and all flights were cancelled, so they were “stranded” in Santiago somewhat indefinitely. The hotel gave them a great deal, but it’s small so they had to change rooms every day. As a result, I got to see every room in the hotel, which was a huge treat. The hotel is a renovation of this great old house parked up in a crevice of Cerro San Cristobal, which is this extraordinary park on a hill that rises out of the middle of the city. When I lived in Santiago, I always wondered about that house, which was so lovely but clearly abandoned.
City Park – New Orleans
City Park Lagoon – New Orleans
Has your work toward an MFA in Writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts added direction and dimension to your writing?
Dimension – yes; direction – not at all. The opposite, probably. My writing is all over the place, but I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing like I once did.
I know getting my MFA has changed a lot because I was completely inexperienced when I started there two years ago. I know I won’t even realize how huge an impact it’s made until I’m out, because I’m still very much in the thick of it. There are the writing aspects and then the psychic aspects, which for me have been just as important because I needed to build confidence and have the faith to follow random ideas wherever they might go. I never would have done that before. It’s hard work during the semester, but then I get to go hang out with my friends and do nothing but talk about writing for ten days. I heard a graduating student describe the experience as an “exquisite hell,” and I think that’s very accurate. I think of it in the way that babies grow teeth—there will be two weeks of pain and complaining as the teeth push through, but then the growth (and associated pain) relent for a few weeks and you can live off of that previous progress.
NOLA – Walking Back Home
“When our feet make contact with the neutral ground, sadness and regret return with the familiarity of our surroundings.” At the end of your journey in “THE NEUTRAL GROUND,” you describe the disappointment of falling back into the habitual, of returning home. But something shifts here. Could you describe this for us?
This goes back to what I wrote before about this odd phenomenon I experienced. It was tied to place for me. In my own home, my role was something else. But on the neutral ground, everything was undefined, and this was a relief. So I suppose the sadness and regret come from stepping off the streetcar and the spell ending. At least that’s what it felt like at the time. I was fascinated by how my perception differed from my daughter’s; how differently we perceived the same block in that moment.
Annie, I’ve learned so much about your writing, from influences and inspiration to perception and process, and how place and relationships play a major role in all of this. Many thanks for the incredible conversation!
Thanks, so much, Karin!
Annie Bleecker lives in New Orleans with her husband, three-year-old-daughter, and overweight pug. She is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her essay, “THE NEUTRAL GROUND,” is her first publication and appeared in LITERARY MAMA.
All photos permission of Annie Bleecker.
The Poppy: An Interview Series
Four to six questions begin as pods, then burst open with answers, bright lapis,
black-stamened, conspicuous—ornament, remembrance, opiate.
First posted in the Arts section of Hothouse Magazine.