by Evelyn Somers
Lisa Knopp has been practicing and studying the craft of nonfiction writing since before she knew what an essay was. From her years teaching public high school and writing “short little things” that she didn’t have a name for to her current position as a professor at the University of Nebraska–Omaha, Knopp’s journey as a writer and teacher has paralleled the emergence of creative nonfiction as an abundant and prospering “fourth genre.” Beginning with her collection of nature essays, Field of Vision, when she was forty, Knopp has published six books of creative nonfiction: Field of Vision (1996); Flight Dreams: A Life in the Midwestern Landscape (1998); The Nature of Home (2004); Interior Places (2008); What the River Carries (2012); and Bread: A Memoir of Hunger (2016).
Many of Knopp’s earliest essays are about the solitary individual in nature. Grounded in the natural world, rooted in place, the early books align themselves with an American tradition that runs from Thoreau through Annie Dillard, one of the writers whose work first captured Knopp’s imagination. They are packed with close observation and information—but as Knopp herself says, sometimes there’s too much information, at the expense of the essayist’s contemplation. In her later books, she mines herself more. In the opening essay of Interior Places, “The Way In,” she writes, “Certainly there is no better form for exploring interiority than this pliant, self-absorbed, reflective form, the essay . . . . What the essayist tests or probes through this wonderfully open, malleable form are his or her own experiences, perceptions, philosophies, and conclusions. That means exploring the interior. That means cracking oneself open . . . .”
This cracking-open and exploration of the individual self is a question that occupies her later writing. Knopp’s 2016 memoir Bread attempts to document and understand, through a combination of confessional and research, the periods in her adult life when she was unexpectedly ambushed by issues with food—not a diagnosed eating disorder in her case but still “disordered eating.” It won the Nebraska Book Award in 2017. Her new book in progress is based on her decades-long correspondence with Nebraska death-row inmate Carey Dean Moore, who was convicted of killing two cab drivers in 1979, when he was twenty-two.
I interviewed Lisa Knopp by phone in late January. I should have guessed that she is not one to do anything by halves. What was intended as a brief and collegial Q & A turned into an almost hour-long interview, in which she talked deeply and thoughtfully about genre, craft, process, her evolution as a writer, and her current work.
Evelyn Somers: So much of your work is research oriented and so much deals with science, both the earlier nature essays and also parts of your memoir, Bread: A Memoir of Hunger. How did you end up a writer and not a scientist?
Lisa Knopp: All my life I wrote, even as a child. I would write stories, and when I was ten I wrote some novels. One was about a ballerina, and one was about a Scottish family. I had no interest in science. My mother went back to college when I was in elementary school, and she became a biology teacher. She loved the life sciences. I would go to class with her at the college, and she took us on field trips. Still, science didn’t appeal to me, and I never did well in it. I just didn’t think there was anything there for me. I was also not outdoorsy because I had asthma and allergies as a child. Camping was impossible. And if things were pollinating, I was really sensitive to all that.
ES: Yet your first essays are all about the outdoors and the natural environment.
LK: In my early thirties, something happened. I had come to the University of Nebraska for graduate school, and the PhD program wanted two languages. I knew that was going to be impossible, but one option instead of two languages was to take twelve hours of classes in a collateral field, so I chose Great Plains Studies. One of the classes was Ecology of the Great Plains, and I loved it. We looked at prairie ecosystems—this was like a 100-level class—it was really simple stuff, very experiential. This was a very interesting class to me, and some of the papers I wrote for it, I actually turned into essays and had published. I give a lot of credit to that class for pulling together something I was interested in and did well, and showing me that there was this whole other world I should be looking into.
I had outgrown a lot of my allergies, and I started going out more, looking at things, buying field guides, and learning as much as I could about the natural world. This was in eastern Nebraska, so it was very prairie oriented. My early essays were just packed with research because I was learning all this stuff and I wanted to tell people about it. I look at those essays now and sigh because there’s so much research and not quite enough personal story, personal revelation. Also, I was surprised at how many metaphors I found in the research I did about the natural world that seemed ripe for exploring.
ES: The work that you write is dense—it’s information rich, and even now, in your more personally based writing, you seem to me to have a researcher’s curiosity. When do you know what you need to find out about, and what’s your process for finding out? Do you go to a library, do you got to an archive, to the Internet, to books?
LK: Of course, it’s changed. I used to be in libraries all the time for research. Now I just go to the Internet—everything’s there. I always thought that one reason I wrote creative nonfiction was to plug gaps in my own education. I never had a course in philosophy, but I could read philosophy and work it into an essay. There’s something about the Puritan work ethic informing this, too—that you can’t do something just for fun. It’s got to be useful. My father taught me that. This was a guy that . . . you do all of your work first, and then you can have fun. And of course, the work never ends—so you never have fun. But that was his thinking, and in many ways, he and I—our brains are wired the same way. So writing is “frivolous,” it’s not real work. But if you can do something with information, in a way that’s useful to people, then you can justify spending time writing.
ES: Was it in graduate school that you began writing essays, or did you start earlier than that?
LK: Earlier, and that is kind of an unusual story. And here I should say that though I teach creative nonfiction, I’ve never in my life had a course in it. There weren’t many courses in it or places you could study it when I was in graduate school. Prior to that, when I taught in Omaha, I’d taken a correspondence fiction course, the old-fashioned kind where you write a story and mail it to the person and they mail back some remarks. And the instructor said, “These stories aren’t working; they’re just too autobiographical. So I moved on to poetry and tried that for a while, and I got into the graduate program at UNL on the basis of my poetry.
But when I was teaching high school in West Des Moines I’d taught advanced placement composition, and we didn’t have a textbook, so I just started pulling in all this nonfiction writing that I found stimulating. I had my students reading Joan Didion and James Baldwin and Lewis Thomas and E. B. White and George Orwell and Annie Dillard, and I really didn’t know what I was doing; I just knew that I found this very stimulating. I also started imitating some of these writers, and I started writing . . . I called them “short little things.” I didn’t even have a name for them. They were personal experiences that I sent to the Des Moines Register and my hometown paper, the Burlington Hawkeye, and they published them. I was famous for a day, and I got a few dollars. It was really satisfying to write those.
ES: Those were your first essays.
LK: I did not know those were essays. In the ’80s, people really didn’t know about creative nonfiction, and essays weren’t imaginative literature; it was something you wrote to get work done. Annie Dillard was doing something kind of different, though.
ES: I share with you the experience of being around creative nonfiction, in my case editing it, at the point just before it became a “legitimate” genre that a lot of people were trying to write and publish and that people were teaching. It’s been remarkable to see a genre explode the way it has; to be right there at that point and to be young when it was starting and then be mature when it had really matured itself. That was what happened to you.
LK: It was when I went to UNL, probably my second year there, it would have been about the fall of 1989, that I went to a book fair. It was mostly composition texts. The rep said, “Do you want a free book? And he handed me the Best American Essays 1988 that was edited by Annie Dillard, and I went home for the winter break, stayed with my folks out in the country. I had my son, who was four years old, and they said, “You just do what you want to. We’re going to take care of him.” So I read these essays and marked them up, and I would go on long walks and think about them and come home and read more essays, and imitate sentences and look at different ways that authors were developing their writing.
During that semester break, I wrote “Pheasant Country,” the essay, and I remember a huge breakthrough on that. Actually, there were two. One was that when I thought the essay was finished, I kept going with it because I could see what those writers in the Best American Essays were doing, the different ways that they were developing or dilating their subject matter. It was so exciting. It’s exciting just to think about it. And another thing that occurred to me was that I could write about my own stuff through someone else. There’s a point in that essay where I wrote about intuitive flashes. But I didn’t write about my own; I wrote about those I had observed in others. That too was a breakthrough. The short little things I wrote were done; it was like I’d figured something out about how to write an essay. The next several things I wrote were published and nominated for Best American Essays, which kind of blew me away.
ES: You’ve been practicing nonfiction for many years now. What is the one quality the essay can’t live without?
LK: It’s got to be observed, reported details, but then there has to be reflection. If an author is deeply reflective, I will read them even if I don’t like their subject or persona. There’s something about really rich reflection that is so important to me. You do have to observe the world and report it well, but that other is what pushes it into some higher level: the reflection.
ES: First collections so often happen accidentally, which was true of your first book. Your third book, The Nature of Home, is a collection of essays that are all, directly or peripherally, about the concept of home, sometimes across populations. As I was reading it I was wondering, is this a book that was conceived of as a book? It’s much more centered on theme than your first collection. Were you writing to make a book at that point?
LK: Yes. I don’t know when I knew that, but it was early in the process. I thought, “I’m going to write a book about home, and it’s going to be primarily about Nebraska, and I’m going to hit this subject from as many different directions as I can. It was an easy book to write, relatively speaking. As you say, it was theme-driven, and I just had to look at different ways to open up that theme—and of course, every time I turned around, there was something. . . .
ES: As I was reading Interior Places, here and there I got bits of autobiography, and one of the things I discovered about you was that you were, after a while, a single mother. You were also in that situation of being a single mother with financial limitations. It’s a common female experience in this country—globally too. You didn’t have the “room of your own.” You didn’t have the privilege of having enough time to write or enough money to be independently writing. How did that experience impact your work?
LK: For thirteen years in the middle of my career, I worked part time. Part of that time, I was married, so I didn’t suffer financially then. But for the last seven of those years, I taught in the Goucher College MFA program. I had a prestigious job—that’s the only MFA program in the country that’s devoted just to creative nonfiction, and it’s low-residency, and I did a little substitute teaching on the side. I’m grateful for that time because I was very available to my children and I wrote a lot. But we were pretty poor. I told one friend my income, and she gasped. Gasped. That kind of says it all. There were a couple of book projects that I considered doing during this time, but I didn’t have the money for the travel and research they would have demanded. So, I wrote essays about nearby creeks and prairies, which only required a little gas money to get there. I don’t regret the choices I made, but the lack of financial well-being during those years continues to affect the choices I make now.
ES: Bread, your book about your disordered eating, deals with another common female experience. What made you decide to be vulnerable and expose a behavior that is usually associated with a fair amount of shame and concealment?
LK: Right before writing Bread, I decided that I never wanted to write another nature essay. I had said everything I wanted to say, and I would let someone else do it. A lot of the research for that was so solitary, and the writing was so solitary. In my fifties I became hungry to be more connected. My children were gone, and I wanted more people in my life. So what to do next? I’ve been working on a collection of autobiographical essays for a long time, but other projects keep interrupting it. One of the essays I was writing for that book was about my love of bread. I used to bake bread, and then I developed some gluten sensitivities. I was just playing around with it, and thinking about bread baking and communion, and “Oh, by the way, I had a little eating disorder in my life, disordered eating,” and then I got back to the bread. The essay started growing and growing as I delved into the research about eating disorders and told stories about my own conflicted relationship with food. It got to the point where I had thirty-six pages, which is very long for an essay. I gave a copy to my daughter and to the woman who was the editor for What the River Carries; they’re my first readers. They both said, “This is really fascinating. We want to hear a lot more about the eating disorder.” So I wrote more about that and showed it to them, and they both said, “You’ve got a book here.”
ES: Did you think you had a book?
LK: That made me nervous, but I started unpacking the essay. I found it really satisfying to write so frankly about myself after writing so obliquely in all those nature essays. It felt good to bare myself. The research was some of the most fascinating I’ve ever done. The material about eating disorders, the history, the cultural aspect, the biology—it’s just fascinating. And also the people. I talked to a lot of people who had eating disorders or disordered eating. I just wrote my book; but when I thought about publishing it, I felt pretty squeamish. I went to the University of Missouri Press; they had published What the River Carries. Clair Willcox at the Press said, “We’ll probably publish it; but I would encourage you to line up some experts to blurb it.” Some medical people.
ES: How did that go?
LK: I found a woman who had written a book; she was a psychoanalyst. She specialized in eating disorders. I was really interested in her because she was doing a lot with women in midlife, and she said, “Yeah, I’ll read your book, and if I like it, I’ll blurb it.” She came back to me later and said, “You don’t have an eating disorder. There’s just crazy stuff here. Eating disorders are psychological.” She was not acknowledging some of the stuff I knew—that it’s tied with consumerism; it can be tied with religion. She said, “No, I won’t blurb your book.” I also knew that she hadn’t read beyond the second chapter. So I sat down and thought about it and thought, “She’s right. I’ve never been diagnosed with an eating disorder, so I’m going to write for an even bigger audience—women with disordered eating.” I rewrote the book for a different audience, and it was so much better than the first one; it’s authentic and true. I was still uncomfortable going public with it, but when I told people what my book was about, the response from women, not just women my age, but some women in their twenties, kind of floored me. People would say, “I didn’t know there was a name for what I have, disordered eating.” I was being bombarded with stories from women, and I thought, “I really do need to publish this.” Sometimes I feel shame. There are certain aspects of my experience that I would rather keep secret; but on the whole, it’s okay. The book did well, and I know it mattered to people.
ES: I want to ask you a little bit now about the writing you’re doing about the death-row inmate who was executed last year in Nebraska, Carey Dean Moore.
LK: I’d been a friend of his for a very long time. We’d been writing to each other for twenty-three years, and sometimes I visited him. There were a couple of times when I wondered if I could write about him. But whenever I thought about this unique friendship we had, the answer was no, because I thought he was going to be so tied to the Christian conversion and redemption narrative that I wouldn’t be able to get him to open up and think freshly about his life. But then when I knew last spring that the chance was good he was going to be executed, I thought again about writing about him, and I realized he probably was going to be more flexible and open than I had originally thought. I asked him about this, and he knew that I had been wanting to write about a murder with some principle at stake. I was considering three different murders I knew of, each with a social-justice issue at stake, that I might write about. I don’t know why, but I’m interested in judicial reform. Abolishing the death penalty. Humane treatment of prisoners. As I was explaining my interest in each of these murders to Carey, I realized that none of them would be as interesting as this long and remarkable friendship that he and I had had. When he was young, he’d been in a really awful place, but he had changed profoundly. That’s the story I wanted to tell. And, too, my friend is a likable, sympathetic character.
ES: So you approached Carey Dean about making him your subject?
LK: Yes. When the execution was imminent, I told him about my desire to write a book about him. I told him I would approach it through our friendship and letters. He was game. He said, “If I’m still around, I’ll help you with it, and if I’m not, I’ll tell you everything you need to know—as much as we can, before I go.” I sent him an annotated table of contents and he went over it with me. We worked out titles together. He wrote a preface. And I got as much information as I could. But we’d never talked about the murders in detail. That was the missing piece.
Then last summer I said, “You’ve got to tell me about the murders.” And he wrote several letters (one was thirteen handwritten pages!) that were really complete. But we ran out of time. There were just so many more questions. I knew, those last weeks before his execution, that I didn’t have everything I needed, but—oh, God, my heart just breaks—I couldn’t be a writer at that point, I just had to be a friend. I just had to let the book go then.
ES: What’s the status of the book now?
LK: The interesting thing is that I wrote this book very fast last summer. Chapters that were incomplete, that were sloppy, overly reliant on quotations, but I had to write as fast as I could so I knew what I had and what I had to ask him. I’m realizing now that that was preventing me from offering judgments and reflections on what he’d told me. For instance, I hardly did anything with the victims. And I think during our long friendship, I knew about the murders, I could see the faces of the people he’d murdered, I knew they had children, but I had to compartmentalize that—I just couldn’t think about it very much while being his friend. He often acknowledged his victims. Every August was hard; it was the anniversary of the murders, but he always spoke of it in general terms. He never spoke to me about the victims or the murders in detail until the last few months of his life—and even then, he didn’t really talk about the victims. He told me how he committed the murders. He’d involved his fourteen-year-old brother in the first murder, which he never forgave himself for.
But he didn’t talk about the people he killed. I know as a writer I have to bring that into the book and I have to bring it in early: how this gentle, thoughtful person I knew had committed these awful, awful murders—he killed these people execution style. I couldn’t reconcile those two facts. So what I’m doing now is looking again at the book, and I have to be imaginative. How can I bring I bring the murders in, details about the victims and their families, even though at the time we didn’t talk about that. That’s the task I was actually working on this morning. While he was still alive I quoted heavily from his letters. I was reluctant to do much interpreting or judging, because I thought, well, he may not be executed; he’s going to read them. But now I’m thinking that readers are going to want less quotation from the letters and more of my reflection, my interpretation of his life.
ES: You said earlier that reflection is the sine qua non of the essay, of creative nonfiction. How do you feel about wading in and doing this interpretation?
LK: A “betrayal” might be a little strong. But in some ways I hate to do that because I also know there’s a lot him about him I don’t know. Even though I have 320 letters, even though each of the three days before he died, I spent time with him, at such a critical and revealing time in a life, there’s a lot about the man I don’t know. I feel uncomfortable speculating or interpreting. I know probably everybody on earth who’s written a biography and done it well has faced that: there’s so much about this person I don’t know. I could even say that about myself. I still surprise myself—things I learn about myself that I didn’t know.
Evelyn Somers writes fiction and is Associate Editor of the Missouri Review.