When I spoke with Luis Jaramillo he told me how stunned he’d been when The Doctor’s Wife (Dzanc, 2012) was named an Oprah Book of the Week—even though it had already won the Dzanc Books Short Story Collection Contest and was one of NPR’s Best Books of 2012. We talked about the work of writing, the hazy line between fiction and nonfiction, the fugitive nature of memory, Trollope-envy, junk food, and his future projects. Jaramillo was modest and generous—it wasn’t hard to reconcile the author with his work. The short, semi-autobiographic vignettes are beautifully spare and plainspoken. They document three generations of the spirited and outdoorsy Hagen family, Jaramillo’s mother’s clan, in the Pacific Northwest. His imagistic descriptions of daily swims in the adjacent lake, father-son fishing trips, community meetings, family squabbles, and country club dinners are almost idyllic slices of mid-century Americana. It's the orderly and intuitive Doctor’s Wife (Jaramillo’s grandmother) who keeps things going, even under the strain of the early death of her youngest child, an event that resonates for generations. The book cover is a family photo of his mother in the arms of his grandmother. We met at his office at the New School where he is the Associate Chair of the Writing Program and teaches fiction and nonfiction writing.
Marietta Brill (Rail): I never doubt that the characters in The Doctor’s Wife are real and that the stories are genuine—though it’s described as fiction. What distinguishes your book from memoir or biography?
Luis Jaramillo: I guess it could have been a biography or lyric essays. Not a memoir because I wasn't alive for part of it [laughs]. But it felt more honest to call it stories. I did make things up, changed the chronology some, and I invented details—that kind of thing. So it didn’t feel right to call it nonfiction. When I was teaching literary nonfiction, I read a lot of John D’Agata’s anthology, The Next American Essay, which is about the lyric essay. In Lifespan of a Fact, he talks about how he just makes stuff up in About A Mountain—a great book—but he changes the name of the bar, changes the number of bars in Las Vegas, moves things around. In the end I feel you shouldn’t make things up in nonfiction, even if it’s called lyric essay. In teaching fiction, though, I want my students to get to the edge of the cliff. When they get to the edge and don’t make things up, you can see them holding back. But when they do invent things, it’s liberating and fun. The most fun in reading fiction and writing fiction is the moment when you let go.
Rail: Where did that moment of letting go happen for you in The Doctor’s Wife?
Jaramillo: [Laughs] It didn’t! I was telling myself that I wasn’t making things up. But afterwards I realized, of course I was. I tried to be as true to the facts as possible—but since I didn’t know much, especially the chronology, I had to invent it. When I write essays I try not to fudge at all, I don’t even like to write dialogue because it’s difficult to be accurate.
Rail: Early on, the character Ann, your mother, as a child, says, “What you don’t know you make up.” Later, in your chapter “Memory,” characters argue about the facts of their past. And your aunt Petrea talks about confabulation—the process of making up stories to compensate for a loss of memory.
Jaramillo: The word confabulation is really interesting, because usually it has to do with people who have a traumatic brain injury or some other psychological problem that prevents them from remembering something. But I think we all do it.
Rail: So this is a biography fictionalized to make literary sense, to bring a story to light more vividly?
Jaramillo: I guess there’s that, but I changed the sequence of events, which is important to the story. I also tried to hide the artfulness—like it was being recorded in some way. I think even that moment of deciding “I’ll put this here about confabulation” is a way of undercutting the artfulness.
Rail: I was moved by the love the family felt for John, your mother’s brother, who died during childhood. His character—as much as the Doctor’s Wife, your grandmother—is a cohesive force in the stories. This is a tragedy.
Jaramillo: It was a tragedy—but it was also something I was really curious about. This uncle I never knew, couldn’t have known, who died young—younger than I was when I became aware of it. He was a little kid. There is a painting of all the kids, and there was this picture of John, too. I would see that year after year and was curious. But no one ever wanted to talk about him. So that was one reason why I wrote the Bee Sting story, which was always told as a funny story. All of the stories in The Doctor’s Wife were told as a funny story. And they’re not funny, really—they’re kind of horrible. So the way the family flipped things around from difficult to funny shows their strong appreciation for the absurd. And I guess that’s my sense of humor, too. So I was thinking about all of these stories that were not really funny, but made to be funny, and what was behind them. John’s death was difficult for everyone in the family and the symptoms were spinning off in different directions for the rest of their lives.
Rail: There’s that heartbreaking three-line story where Petreas says she’s been depressed for 40 years (called “In Contrast”).
“I was only depressed for, like, 40 years,” Petrea says to me.
“Because of John?”
“Because of John.”
What did your family think of these stories?
Jaramillo: I include some of the reactions in the book. My aunt Chrissy/Petrea reacted just as she behaves in the book—Oh you didn’t put this in, you got this wrong. She had her little notes. My mom (Ann) was a cheerleader—oh this is great. My grandmother (The Doctor’s Wife) said to me, this is wonderful, but then she told my mom—I’m worried that I seem mean in the book. Which obviously was not my intention. But no one was offended or upset about the book. Now that it’s out, they feel very proprietary about it! When I wrote the book, I was thinking about family myths and how they get retold and how they’re trying to tell a story about the family, whatever that story is. And I guess a book solidifies the myth in a way. It’s the myth of record now, even if it has nothing to do with what actually happened. [Laughs] But that’s true about myths too, if it’s told often enough it becomes the real thing.
Rail: One reason we’re so quick to believe these stories is because of the way you wrote them. There’s something journalistic about it. Yet, in spite of being factual and unembellished, there’s a spare beauty and cumulative emotional effect. It made me interested in your editing process.
Jaramillo: I wrote these stories as separate pieces. A friend asked me if I could write something for a poetry journal. I don’t write poetry, but she said just write something. I wrote the Bee Sting story, about a boy and his father on a fishing trip. It was wrong for them, but it was right for Tin House. So I thought, I’ll write more of these things, not thinking about it as a project. So I wrote these pieces really slowly because I wanted to get the language right. I thought of them as poems as I was writing them. I tried not to let myself worry about story so much and really focus on the language, and an image for each of the pieces. Once I had 20 or so, I thought, is there a way to shape these? So then the later process was trying to make a story out of the images, and the feelings that came up with each part. There was a certain chronology I needed to keep: John was born and John died and certain things needed to happen at different ages. But I changed ages too.
Rail: I was interested in this idea of the Doctor being so fixated on safety, yet in so many ways they live carelessly. It seems so very 1950s in a way, stern and ignorant.
Jaramillo: People thought about safety in a different way. It was a different focus. Today we focus on different things—seatbelts, safe sex, smoking.
Rail: Which they did with abandon in the book! The Doctor’s wife smokes during her pregnancy with John, the kids run free all day long, and they live next to a toxic lake. I always thought ‘this is why John’s getting sick!’ But it’s got nothing to do with it, his illness was genetic. Are you trying to say something about fate?
Jaramillo: I don’t know. I don’t really know what fate is. I’m more interested in the idea that things happen that you don’t plan for—and what you do when it happens.
Rail: You do talk about luck, which is a cousin to fate.
Jaramillo: Yes, but that was my Grandmother’s theory. The last line of the book is her saying “Aren’t we lucky?” It’s her way of looking at everything that happened in her life. And that was the way she saw the world. Part of it was growing up in the depression, too. When she died she had like $10,000 in cash hidden in her desk. And they were fine during the depression! Her father was a dean at University of Kansas. There’s another idea too: Something can happen that you don’t plan for. There are things you can’t do anything about.
Rail: There’s something very compelling about the short length of these stories. You said you wrote them as poems. The opening story, “Expecting”, is 9 words long, just a bit longer than Hemingway’s 6-word story.
The Doctor’s Wife is pregnant with her fourth child.
Jaramillo: When I wrote the book, my agent didn’t think I could sell it, and I sat on it for a year. It was essentially the way it is now. I thought, okay, I’m just going to add this one introductory story. And when I wrote it, I thought, this is going to set the stage for the rest of the book. And it felt right. Hopefully it gave the reader a way to read it and, there’s a nice specificity to it also: expecting her fourth child, introducing her as the Doctor’s Wife.
Rail: It was a brilliant way to give the book a framework. Also for me, because it had this Hemingway association, it had this ominous feeling. Hemingway’s story reads: “For sale: baby shoes never worn.” Now there are 6-word websites and books. There’s a lot of flash fiction.
Jaramillo: I never liked the term flash fiction. It’s dismissive or something. I think maybe I react against it because—and I never realized this before—it seems to communicate that it was written quickly. But these stories, I spent a lot of time on. Way more than something that’s longer and more expansive.
Rail: Yet the writing never overshadows the story.
Jaramillo: I guess that’s one way that Hemingway influenced me. His precision and brevity. And the taking out of words that don’t belong. I did a little binge on Hemingway like 10 years ago, after I read A Moveable Feast, which is such a great book. It makes Hemingway seem so generous and open and happy. It’s also known that he killed himself (before it was published). It makes me think about the difference between who you are as a writer in your life and on the page, and how the page allows you to do things you can’t do in your life.
Rail: How much do you have to write a day to make you feel like you’ve done your job?
Jaramillo: (laughs) Not very much! I’m in between a few projects right now and it’s driving me crazy. I do have a book out with editors right now. So that’s taking up a lot of psychic space, with nothing for me to do about it. Not satisfying. The book being shopped around is a novel. And the next one is also a novel set in Salinas, California where I’m from, having to do with the bagged lettuce industry. All of the lettuce companies are based in Salinas. So I did a bunch of research about 5 years ago, and got let into factories and talked to lawyers, farmers, and wrote a draft that didn’t work. But now I have a way of telling the story as a novel. It’s that same thing of not wanting to be constrained by nonfiction [laughs]. I’ve talked to people who say, why not write it as a nonfiction book? I have no interest in that and I’m not sure why. I think part of it is because I’m very interested in lettuce and the industry and water and climate change—the climate for lettuce is important because it can’t be too hot or cold—so I’m interested in all those things. But I also want to tell a story. In fiction I think there are lots of stories I could tell. And this one is a family—not my family, but a family—story.
Rail: Was your family involved in the lettuce industry?
Jaramillo: Only tangentially. My dad was a lawyer for farm workers. And my mom taught ESL to kids of farm workers.
Rail: Who are some of your literary influences?
Jaramillo: So many! Abigail Thomas especially for her book, Safekeeping, which is a collection of short pieces. I’ve read it many times. She’s a friend, and I go to Woodstock and write with her. Her precision and her generosity and the way she’s able to communicate so much emotion in such a small amount of space is amazing and something I’ve always wanted to do. But I’m thinking of Trollope for the next book. A sprawling thing. I was also thinking of Gertrude Stein—The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas—writing someone else’s biography. Lydia Davis. She has this book, The Cows. Beautiful and funny. I love Dickens too. But I think Trollope does a lot of things that Dickens does, with operatic plots, but he has an icier edge to him. It seems very modern when you read them.
Rail: But Trollope’s style is so embellished.
Jaramillo: I guess that’s because it’s something I wish I could do! The draft I wrote five years ago that failed was an attempt at that. It’s not in my nature—my nature is to write more than I should, then trim back and trim back. I don’t think Trollope trimmed back!
Rail: You’ve gotten some wonderful acknowledgements. Oprah’s Club.
Rail: Why was it shocking?
Jaramillo: After it won the Dzanc competition it took two years before it got published. I didn’t look at it because I was busy working on other things. When it came time to edit it, um, I was horrified and thought, this isn’t even a book! Then I also told myself, this is what was accepted and so don’t do too much. That was the place I’ve been in until it was published. So it was surprising when it got pretty good responses. When I wrote it, I had an idea of how I wanted it to be. When it was done it was done. It wasn’t the last book I was going to write, but it was done and I’d accomplished what I’d wanted it to do. And then that feeling went away. I forgot what it (the book) was!
Rail: The restraint of your style somehow allows readers to get personally involved—people can bring their own emotions to it because lyricism isn’t hitting people over the head.
Jaramillo: I hate lyrical writing! (laughs)
Rail: I don’t think there are even that many adjectives in this book!
Jaramillo: No! I try to get rid of adjectives!
Rail: I felt like you could even get a little recipe book out of this book. There are picnic lunches, dinners tossed in the garbage, recipes for cinnamon buns, Cheetohs. Cheetohs!
Jaramillo: Yes! Cheetohs are great!
Rail: You’re also an editor of a food journal.
Jaramillo: I also taught a class last year about food writing. I feel like I didn’t have enough knowledge so I had a bunch of guests come in. I love M.F.K. Fisher. Her stuff is about food on the surface, but really it’s about love, and loss, and longing.
Rail: Have you ever gotten any great writing advice you’d like to pass along?
Jaramillo: I’ve gotten so much! Hilton Als told me to write every day. Which is something that everyone tells writers. I’d always dismissed it—but then he said, “You know, Luis, Toni Morrison worked a full time job as an editor and she’d come home and put her kids to bed -- and then she’d write.” At the time I had a job and didn’t have kids and I thought I’d try that. And that kind of worked. One time Abby told me, “you’re not for everyone.”
She wasn’t saying it in a mean way. She was just saying, this is the way the world is. It was a distillation that struck so true.
Rail: Something affirming.
Jaramillo: It really helped me. Of course I’m not for everyone. It’s not like I pick up every book and love it—I mean, far from that. For a writer, there will be a lot of people saying no to you—and that door closes. So you have to try something else. Feeling secure in the fact that it’s not going to work all the time is just realistic. But when one person says no, it’s not like everyone’s going to say no. When I first started out writing and submitting, I felt sure that one person was going to do everything for me, whoever that person was—an editor, an agent, a friend who’s a great writer—who will open all the doors. It’s just not how it is. Things come together in strange ways.