Interviewed by Leslie Lindsay
A truly unique slant to a traditional genre, Laraine Herring’s 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.
A Constellation of Ghosts 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 (and past polio diagnosis), 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.
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.
Laraine Herring’s work has appeared in The New York Times, Entropy, JMWW, The Rumpus, and more. In addition to her new memoir, 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), and an illustrated guide to complicated grief called The Grief Forest: a book about what we don’t talk about. 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. Find her on the web at Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, or her website.
I spoke with Laraine about her experience of exploring speculative memoir, a genre under the creative nonfiction umbrella, ancestral roots, grief, empathy, structure, and putting it all together on paper.
Leslie Lindsay: 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?
Laraine Herring: 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.
LL: Your dad comes to you as a raven. For a while, after my mother’s traumatic death, I was very in tune with the metaphors of death. She came to me in dreams, and in waking life in the form of birds. A red-tailed hawk, for example, lowered from the sky while I was walking and spread his wings right in front of a neighbor’s home, like a stop sign. A cardinal in the spring fell from a nest as I was driving. A fly in the library. I could go on. Energy doesn’t just die, it gets repackaged. Can you speak to this, please?
LH: Birds have long been a vehicle for traveling between the worlds! We have so many myths and cultural stories around birds as various messengers. I don’t think anyone can speak with certainty about what happens after death, but I do feel like there is truth in the transformation of energy from one form to another. It could, of course, be our own minds’ amazing power to conjure what we hope for, but in either lens, what matters is how the view is impacting our well-being on this planet in this life. I feel that this incarnation requires me to do all the soul-healing I possibly can do. Maybe that’s not the point of it at all, but it’s the view that gives me hope and an ease (sort of!) with mortality.
I don’t think anyone can speak with certainty about what happens after death, but I do feel like there is truth in the transformation of energy from one form to another.
LL: 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?
LH: 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.
LL: 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?
LH: 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.
LL: 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?
LH: Yes, 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.
I don’t think speculative is only ghosts. It is imagining.
LL: Having empathy and compassion for those who have wronged us is a challenge. They are sort of cousins to forgiveness, but are not the same. For example, I can have compassion and empathy for my mother’s hurtful behaviors, their origins, but I might not be able to forgive her, or some members of her family for what transpired, but I can empathize with their character, their own complexities. Can you speak to that, please?
LH: I don’t think forgiveness is necessary or always warranted, but neither do I think forgiveness ultimately has anything to do with the other person and what they did or did not do. Some things are quite possibly unforgiveable. I think forgiveness is about the person who feels wronged making the conscious decision not to carry forward any more resentment over things that they cannot control. It’s the wronged person’s step into their own power and agency. Forgiveness, to me, doesn’t mean “what you did was OK”. Forgiveness, to me, means, “I’m not carrying this anymore.” I may still feel it’s safer to keep that person (persons) out of my life. Those persons may be deceased. But it’s my own act of liberation.
We can forgive someone and never say that to the person we’re forgiving. I think forgiving is an act of self-care and self-love, but I also think sometimes people rush to “I forgive everything!” before they’ve processed feelings of anger, betrayal, etc, and if those emotional expressions are skipped over, then the forgiveness is also not true forgiveness. It’s just the “what I’m supposed to do now” step.
LL: I know you struggled with the structure of A Constellation of Ghosts and then got some direction after working through multiple drafts and POVs. Like you, with my own memoir-on-submission, I wrote countless versions. In one, I imagined my mother’s life as a child, turning her mother, father, and siblings into ‘characters.’ I loved it. It was very 1960s Midwest, very dysfunctional, but it didn’t make the story intimate enough. It was like looking at the story though a window, one step removed. Painful as it was, I cut all of that and started with my mother’s death, my reaction to it, and worked backwards, dropping in some of her early life in snapshots. What I am getting at is empathy. I had to write that so I could better understand her side of the story, her family of origin. Can you walk us through some of your earlier drafts and intentions and also, how you developed that intimacy with the work? With the reader?
LH: My first draft was a series of stand-alone essays, which ended up being the “real-time” part of the book. I didn’t think they really held together as a group. It wasn’t until I got the Raven’s voice that I found the connective tissue, and once I found that, the structure slotted into place. I wanted a structure that reflected the (to me) false division between the tangible and intangible worlds. The Raven’s voice was really the doorway into the whole book, and once I heard his voice, I knew I had to bring in his parents (Raven’s Mother and Raven’s Father), and that understanding brought in the intergenerational healing component of the story. I don’t know how to answer how a person develops intimacy with the reader and the work, other than to stand in your story as the writer, and peel back everything that isn’t the story–all the ways you might want to hide. When you do that, you’ve “shown first,” so to speak, and that makes a reader trust the story and the writer.
LL: 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?
LH: 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.
LL: 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 similar non-literary obsessions appear in your work?
LH: 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.
A Constellation of Ghosts is out now with Regal House Publishing.