Jeannine Ouellette’s new memoir, The Part That Burns, is on fire — with rave reviews from Dorothy Allison, Joyce Carol Oates, The Rumpus, and more. We’re stoked that she’ll be reading from it as part of our 2021 Night of Nonfiction: Debut Author Panel & Readings. HippoCampers will get to hear from Jeannine again on Sunday, during a breakout session called Unleashing Your Hardest Truths & Most Striking Images Through Constraints, Juxtaposition & Play.
Thanks to Jeannine Ouellette for participating in our Q&A!
Tell us a little about your involvement this year at HippoCamp. If you’re involved in more than one thing, you can talk about all of them!
I am thrilled to be on the debut authors panel because … I’m finally a debut author! It took me so long to find my way into, through, and out of my memoir that I feel as if the whole planet, or, at least, my personal planet, has shifted on its axis, even if just a little. I’m excited to be in a physical room with other people as a debut author for the first time. Even though my book came out in February, the pandemic made in-person events impossible, so this is an incredibly exciting milestone and I couldn’t be more pleased or elated.
I’m also teaching a breakout session on how to use writing constraints to deepen, heighten, and electrify your work. Constraints can help banish cliche, breathe new life into well-worn topics, uncover language that’s bursting with life and has a sort of feral, wild quality without being “overwritten.” Constraints can also help writers tap into more interesting stories, the ones that are sometimes adjacent to the ones we think we’re telling. Those adjacent stories are often where the truth lives, and where the more interesting, arresting material hides.
This session is especially relevant for any writers who are struggling to write what I call “hot” material, meaning “too hot to touch,” meaning material that deals with difficult and/or traumatic topics, as my memoir did. That material presents particular challenges both for writers and for readers, and it took me forever to find the methods that really worked for transforming those experiences into art that I felt good about. I love sharing these methods with other writers and am honored to have the chance to do that at HippoCamp.
Our motto is “memorable creative nonfiction.” Tell us about one of the more recent memoirs, essay collections, or individual essays you’ve read and why it was memorable. If it’s online, share a link!
I’m reading Festival Days by Jo Ann Beard right now, and it’s stunning. I love the way she defies genre boundaries, for one thing. For another, she’s simply brilliant as a prose writer. And I love the way she challenges herself to continue dismantling her own comfort as a writer. What I mean by that is how in Festival Days she combines reportage and the telling of others’ stories with her well-known mastery of personal narrative. It’s a stunning collection. I’m also reading George Saunders’s A Swim in a Pond in The Rain, which is a craft book. Ostensibly it’s about fiction, but in my mind, the most powerful creative nonfiction is in close conversation with the conventions of fiction, because we’re talking about story, and fundamental questions that drive a story forward.
What made you decide to participate in HippoCamp this year as a speaker? If you’re a returning speaker, how did your past experiences encourage you to want to come back?
I’ve had my eye on HippoCamp for a long time, but it’s never worked out for me to come because I do a lot of teaching in the summer, as well as facilitate writing retreats. Then during the pandemic, when everything stopped, so did all of my retreats and in-person workshops. That was still the status in spring 2021 when a friend of mine emailed me to say she thought there might be openings on the debut author panel. I realized my summer was side open! When I reached out about that, the email I got back was the warmest, most encouraging, and most generous I could possibly have imagined. I know many other writer friends who attend HippoCamp, and rave about it. I simply can’t wait for the conference. I feel like a first-grader who is happily and impatiently looking forward to the first day of school!
What’s going to keep you busy between now and HippoCamp?
I’m working on an essay about desire, as well as a new novel. And I’m teaching a writing retreat for re-emergence in July at Hackmatack Retreat Center, which is exciting. That’s the first in-person teaching I’ll be doing since before the pandemic. I’m also teaching on online workshop called Writing in the Dark in June and July. This is all in addition to my full-time work as a writer/editor at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health, where I’m working on a fascinating project centered around narrative medicine. So, all in all, a busy, happy, creative summer.
Since you’ll also be attending the conference, when you’re not wearing your “speaker hat,” what are you most looking forward to learning or doing?
Being in the presence of other writers! I have a few students who’ve signed up and are coming from places far from Minneapolis, where I live, so HippoCamp will be the first time I’ve ever met some of these writers in person! I am also excited to meet Marion Winik, because she reviewed my memoir, The Part That Burns, for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, which is our daily newspaper. My dentist read that review, which gives you a sense of how it feels when your book gets reviewed in your city’s daily paper, which is to say, it’s wonderful.
We love introducing Lancaster to attendees. What are you looking forward to about your visit?
I’m looking forward to exploring the local indie bookstores, cafes, and mainly, just walking around in a city where I don’t live. If I have time, I hope to get to Philadelphia before or after the conference to check out some museums.
You can also learn more about Jeannine in our February 2021 interview by Amy Eaton.
To learn more about HippoCamp: A Conference for Creative Nonfiction Writers and see our full list of speakers and sessions, visit the official conference website.