Each week we will be connecting with our contributors showing where they have been, where they are now, and what’s up for the future.
Renée lives in Switzerland with her rescue dachshund Tootsie and her husband. Last year, Renée had book reviews, interviews, and dog essays appear in Big Other, Fourth Genre, Rain Taxi, and The Rupture. Renée teaches online at Casper College and North Idaho College. You can learn more about Renée by visiting her website.
What are some major accomplishments you have had since your Sweet publication?
I’m most proud of my dedicated daily reading and writing practice. Since my Sweet publications, I’ve focused on reading as the foundation of writing. This grew out of intense problems with a memoir that made me physically ill to write, and which I finally set aside after too many years of wrangling it to smithereens, feeling like a loser, and failing to make art out of my brother’s suicide. It made me sick trying to make art out of that loss. I felt intense relief when I stopped trying to write that memoir. My health improved. I’ve thought a lot about a professor with whom I studied during undergrad who insisted we had to write our deepest darkest secrets if we wanted to be fearless writers; otherwise, don’t bother, we couldn’t, wouldn’t, cut it. This dude ate oranges during workshop and had his wife deliver our stories to class because every week he forgot our stories at home. That’s what he thought of our stories: forgettable. As a man over forty, he was perhaps unaware of how writing your darkest secrets might be actually physically unsafe for some of us, and how it might retrigger trauma. There was no discussion of how to care for one’s self while writing the darkness, just the sense if you couldn’t hack it, you shouldn’t write at all. I thought his damaging dictum were pathetic, but it was shocking to realize recently how much of his bullshit I had consumed as part of my beliefs about writing—and how many of his words lived on in me as dude-gremlins. Lately, when I show up at the page, fully present, well, that’s sweet success.
Can you tell us about a current/ongoing project that you’re excited about?
I took an online course last year from one of your editors—Katie Riegel—that really jump-started my excitement about dog writing because Katie is such a supportive, insightful editor and teacher. (If you’ve been wounded by workshops, study with Katie; she’s a healer!) I finished several dachshund essays in her course. My super-senior tube of fur Tootsie is my writing muse. I am currently obsessed with dogs in literature.
But, again, lately what I find most thrilling about writing is the way close reading great books makes one a more fully realized writer. A few recent reads: Ibram X. Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America. Alyson Hagy’s Scribe. Hagy is a consummate artist. Every word, a choice. Same with Jo Scott-Coe and her nonfiction book Mass: A Sniper, A Father, and a Priest.
I’m also incredibly excited that my former mentee Sophia (and now colleague!) through AWP’s Writer-to-Writer program has a memoir: Sophia Kouidou-Giles, Return to Thessaloniki—published by Tyrfi Press in Greek and forthcoming in English from She Writes Press in 2021. It’s inspiring to see the fruition of Sophia’s intense labor.
Who is your favorite author?
Two current favorites: Holly M. Wendt and Masha Gessen. I want everyone to read Circe by Madeline Miller. I always return to Tolstoy’s War & Peace and Homer’s The Iliad. My favorite work of dog literature is Tibor Déry’s Niki: The Story of a Dog, translated by Edward Hyams.
What inspires you to write?
The possibility of creating art brings me great joy. I lost four special writer friends in 2019: each was central to my writing life, and I feel their absence acutely.
My undergraduate literature professor Robert A. Ferguson, who assured me I had it in me to write books. And Michael Steinberg and Ned Stuckey-French, two incredibly generous and kind writer-teacher-editors. Mike’s and Ned’s dedication to creative nonfiction has definitely influenced and inspired my approach to writing and to teaching. Both were incredibly kind and generous to me and to my work, and that kind of dialogue feels essential. And my dear friend and poet Danna Ephland—like me, also a former dancer. When it was still my M.F.A. thesis, Danna edited my book Body of a Dancer. She edited it again prior to publication by Etruscan Press, and then after publication she set up readings and workshops. After my mum died (my mum was also a writer), Danna was one of the writers I would phone or email in desperation or excitement about a word choice or an image fail or a creative possibility. I’m indebted to her. I miss her.
These writers inform and inspire my current writing practice.
What is your favorite sweet?
Since we live in Switzerland, I am devoted to Swiss chocolate: Sprüngli and Max Chocolatier and Chocolat Stella are my current favorites. Chocolat Stella makes fabulous vegan chocolate, and their Ticino stores are full of essentials for writing toolkits.
Thank you, Renée, for taking the time to reconnect with us. We look forward to seeing more of your work in the future!