By Leslie Lindsay
A truly unique slant to a traditional genre, A CONSTELLATION OF GHOSTS is just that–a cacophony of voices from the past, present, and maybe future–surrounding strong themes of life, death, grief, ancestry, shunning and estrangement.
~WRITERS INTERVIEWING WRITERS~
ALWAYS WITH A BOOK|MEMOIR MONDAY
Leslie Lindsay & Laraine Herring in conversation
Author, lover of cats, creative writing professor, grief counselor, illustrator, book coach (focusing exclusively on women over 40), and founder of Hags on Fire, a ‘zine for women to write about aging through perimenopause, menopause, and croning, Laraine Herring is multitalented and constantly juggling. A CONSTELLATION OF GHOSTS is her most recent memoir.
ABOUT A CONSTELLATION OF GHOSTS:
A CONSTELLATION OF GHOSTS (forthcoming Oct 19 2021 from Regal House Publishing), is unlike any other, inviting you to think deeply about your ancestors, loss/death, your body, and more. Like a murder of crows or an unkindness of ravens, A CONSTELLATION OF GHOSTS is just that: a boisterous and magical exchange of voices in the dark, from within and with…out. It’s a bit poetic in a sense, but also marries several distinct aspects of the author’s life: a battle with colon cancer, her unresolved feelings about her father’s heart attack (past polio diagnosis) and his early death at 47, a history of being in an emotionally and physically abusive relationship, as well as ancestral trauma. There’s a lot to unpack here and it’s artfully done.
“As haunting as it is beautiful, Laraine Herring busts open the speculative memoir genre with A Constellation of Ghosts to show that even when we thought we had let go, the dead are always with us. Through rhythmic and poetic language, Herring hasn’t just created an engaging read, she’s invited the reader to come in and have an experience. So I don’t know which is more powerful here–the story or the writing. They both gave me chills. Because from rhyming ravens to poignant ghosts, Herring’s words enter into your bones, become a part of you, and will refuse to leave.”
-Chelsey Clammer, author of Circadian
When Laraine receives an unexpected colon cancer diagnosis, her father, thirty years dead, returns to her as a talking raven. Here, we travel along with “Raven” and “Me” as the author has a sort of conversation, a two-person play with her father-as-raven. Sounds a little…weird? Magical? It is.
I found the reading experience of A CONSTELLATION OF GHOSTS almost meditative in nature, like being in Middle Earth, a liminal space of unconsciousness; I could almost hear the drum beat. We surface to the ‘present,’ which takes place largely in hospital room as Herring is receiving surgery and treatment for her colon, her recovery, and then back down–and in–we go.
Alongside these conversations with father-as-raven, we learn about Herring’s ancestral past in North Carolina, the farm/land that raised generations of Herrings, the creek ‘that gave dad his polio,’ her grandmother’s fundamentalist Christian views, more.
And yet, A CONSTELLATION OF GHOSTS is about shunning and estrangement, displacement, and more. Herring posits that perhaps grief is a great unifier, that in the afterlife, or deep work within and after a loss, one can mend the fabric of our being.
Please join me in welcoming the lovely and talented Laraine Herring to the author interview series:
Laraine, welcome! We recently connected when you led an online class about speculative memoir and it was storming. Do you remember that? You said, “I live in the desert, it never rains like this.” It was like the gods had something to say about this genre, about A CONSTELLATION OF GHOSTS, which is so witchy and yet, inspiring. Let’s talk about why this book, why now? What haunted you into it?
I absolutely remember the sudden storm! Thank you for the kind words about my weird raven book! My colon cancer diagnosis in 2017 started me down this path with this book. Although I had no idea this was the book I was working on, or even if I had another book within me to write. The instability that came with a cancer diagnosis shook loose the trappings around my voice, and I think a different kind of writer came through in this story. It was clear that, although my prognosis remains good (I have had a recent colonoscopy, which was perfect and I am now clear for 3 years!), I couldn’t go back to the life I had before or the way I had looked at the world before. Though I had done decades of grief work around my dad’s early death, there was more to explore.
I think it’s important to discuss what we mean by ‘speculative.’ And also, how it A CONSTELLATION OF GHOSTS is different than say, autofiction, or memoir, or just plain ol’ fiction. Can you enlighten us?
This is my definition of speculative memoir: SPECULATIVE MEMOIR is an umbrella genre in which the questions of the memoirist’s book are addressed through speculative elements, which may include ghosts, metaphors, what ifs, imaginative scenarios, and fantasies. It is a subset of memoir focused more on the possibilities of the internal world than the facts of the external world.
To me, calling my story fiction would have been the lie. Because my imagination and my relationship to the unseen directly informs my “this side of the veil” life, to label it as less than valid was harmful to the creation of the story. I think traditional memoir, which I love, is primarily rooted in memory and life on this side of the veil. All writers use imagination, of course, but the marrying of the imagined world with the day-to-day world on earth is where the sweet spot of speculative memoir is for me.
I’ll let Elissa Washuta say it better:
“I reject the pitting of factuality against fantasy, and I question who defines the terms. All nonfiction is a fantasy of some kind, because fantasy is the faculty or activity of imagining things, especially things that are impossible or improbable, and what is nonfiction but the fantasy that we can represent reality through compression, selection, and subjective retelling? Only some of us are told that our imaginings are impossible. I choose to believe that my imaginings are not impossibilities. They are foundations.”
I’m working on a piece—a novel in linked stories—about those primitive ancestral connections. Like you, I have deep Southern roots reaching back to 1700s Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky. I find them fascinating and mythical almost; and the stories that stem from them are so ripe to be told. You touch on this a bit with your father’s polio diagnosis, the family farm, your strict and often narrow-minded grandmother. How do you see these experiences reaching into our present being?
I don’t see how they can’t connect to us, as descendants. We’re learning so much through new studies in epigenetics about inherited trauma patterns and responses. I think science is catching up to what shamans and the witchy-folk have known for centuries. My mother’s family is from Finland. My dad’s family is originally Scottish, but they settled in North and South Carolina prior to the Revolutionary War. My ancestors enslaved Africans. I have inherited this. I have inherited privilege as a direct result of their crimes. In addition to inherited privilege, there are other psychological patterns that get passed down through families. When I think about what writing is about, for me, it is equal parts healing for myself and for my ancestors, and equal parts creating a product that other people can hopefully find meaning in.
Much of what you accomplish in A CONSTELLATION OF GHOSTS is unearthing those stories and dissecting their truths. You sort of embody your grandmother, your grandfather, your father. You give them narrative arcs, thoughts, and not just behaviors/actions. Is that part of the writerly speculation?
For sure, that is part of speculation. I don’t think speculative is only ghosts. It is imagining. For my grandmother, grandfather, and father, I created arcs for them rooted in my direct experience with them, letters, and stories I heard from other family members—especially my cousin, who still lives in North Carolina and was around my grandparents after my dad died and saw how grief impacted them. When I heard those stories from him on a visit in 2012, it opened me so much. My part of the story was that my grandparents couldn’t be bothered to fly from North Carolina to Arizona for my dad’s funeral. He saw how that grief broke them, and knowing that helped me find more compassion and empathy for them.
For me, what I like about this kind of work is that art—whether visual or written—is about the occult. The arbitrary, the uncanny, the unexampled. It’s about what we cannot see; that’s what occult really means, unseen. That’s why art is like magic. Would you agree? Is there something I am missing?
I don’t think art is like magic. I think art is magic. Every aspect of it – from the creation stage and the way an artist works with their hauntings and subjects and questions – to the product stage where a complete stranger can also find themselves transformed by lines on a page (or notes on a clef, or colors on a canvas!) There’s such a powerful exchange in the creative process—from creator + art to art + consumer.
What non-literary thing inspires and drives you? For me, it’s the fine details of nature and old homes, the secret rooms, the past lives. Do your non-literary obsessions appear in your work?
I love those things too! I have a file of creepy houses on my computer!
But I think music is the driving force for me. In my secret life, I’m a blues singer holding a room frozen in amber while I sing. In this current body, I can’t carry a tune. But there’s always a song or a lyric or something rhythmic in everything I write. In this book, there’s a musicality to Raven’s voice. I can find the drum beat of his speech pattern.
Laraine, thank you so much for this; I so enjoyed. What question should I have asked, but may have forgotten? Or perhaps you have one you’d like to ask me?
Thank you for reaching out about A CONSTELLATION OF GHOSTS! I’m so grateful you’ve read it and were swept into its raven-ness. I’m curious about what drew you to it? I’m assuming there are some overlaps, at least in themes, with your own creative work. What are those and what are you working on?
Of course! I was reading this Rumpus interview you did with Gayle Brandeis and thought, “Oh my God, I’ve got to get my hands on this book.” I don’t know…maybe it was the idea that it was memoir with a ghost or the exploration of grief that drew me? We’ve had a good deal of loss lately, in the world as a whole, but also on a personal level. And the thing with grief, while the specifics are different for each individual, the experience is the same. Words like, ‘generational trauma,’ and ‘ancestral realm,’ as well as ‘love me home,’ hit on many levels for me personally, but also in my own writing.
Currently, I have a memoir-on-submission about my complex grief with my mother, who died by suicide over six years ago. After reading A CONSTELLATION OF GHOSTS, I can truthfully say that there are a good deal of speculative elements there. More than I once realized. Dreams, for one, and sort of super-imposed truths, deep perceptions I can’t really explain. That story is also about raising strong young women, intergenerational trauma, and of course, mental illness.
Aside from that, I am exploring stories of my ancestors, those unspoken truths that permeated their lives but were too terrifying to speak of: The Dust Bowl, being sold as child, domestic violence, poverty, paternity, unwanted pregnancies, homelessness, and more.
For more information, to connect with Laraine Herring, or to purchase a copy of A CONSTELLATION OF GHOSTS, please visit:
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You might also like:
IN THE DREAM HOUSE by Carmen Maria Machado will touch on many themes in A CONSTELLATION OF GHOSTS, but I was also reminded of the work of Gayle Brandeis in her THE ART OF MISDIAGNOSIS: Surviving my Mother’s Suicide, but also a touch of Helen Phillips’ AND YET THEY WERE HAPPY, a bit of Kat Chow’s SEEING GHOSTS.
Browse all books featured on Always with a Book since 2018 on Bookshop.org
Donald Antrim’s paradigm shift about how we label and think about suicide in A FRIDAY IN APRIL (Norton, October 12), THE LIGHTHOUSE WITCHES (Berkley, October 5) by C.J. Cooke, a round-up of Maggie Smith’s poetry, Naomi Kupitsky’s THE FAMILY, among others.
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ABOUT THE AUHTOR:
Laraine Herring’s work has appeared in The New York Times, Entropy, JMWW, The Rumpus, and more. Her books include a trilogy of writing books from Shambhala (Writing Begins with the Breath; The Writing Warrior: On Being Stuck: Tapping into the Creative Power of Writer’s Block), an illustrated guide to complicated grief called The Grief Forest: a book about what we don’t talk about, and the soon to be released A Constellation of Ghosts: A Speculative Memoir with Ravens. She’s also a book coach, grief coach, and the editor and founder of the online ‘zine Hags on Fire, a place for women writing about perimenopause, menopause, and croning. laraineherring.com
ABOUT YOUR HOST:
Leslie Lindsay is the creator and host of the award-winning author interview series, “Always with a Book.” Since 2013, Leslie, named “one of the most influential book reviewers” by Jane Friedman, ranks in the top 1% of all GoodReads reviewers and has conducted over 700 warm, inquisitive conversations with authors as wide-ranging as Robert Kolker and Shari Lapena to Helen Phillips and Mary Beth Keane, making her website a go-to for book lovers world-wide. Her writing & photography have appeared in various print journals and online, including Psychology Today, Mud Season Review, A Door = Jar, Mutha, Literary Mama, The Manifest-Station, among others. She is the award-winning author of SPEAKING OF APRAXIA: A Parents’ Guide to Childhood Apraxia of Speech, an audiobook narrated by Leslie from Penguin Random House. A former psychiatric R.N. at the Mayo Clinic, Leslie’s memoir, MODEL HOME: Motherhood, Madness, & Memory, is currently on submission with Catalyst Literary Management. Leslie resides in the Chicago area with her family.
Cover and author image courtesy of L. Herring and used with permission. Author photo credit: