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An Interview with Joanna Ruocco
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Detail from cover, The Mothering Coven

Your prose, both on macro- and micro- levels, strikes me as incredibly disciplined. I found a quote by Brian Kitely in which he said, “whatever rules [Joanna]’s setting for herself she sticks to them.” What were some of “the rules” you wanted to impose upon yourself for Another Governess/The Least Blacksmith? (Perhaps “rules” is too severe. Maybe, “What sort of framework did you want to create for yourself to work inside of” is better?)

I didn’t allow myself to use many different words in the book. The vocabulary is radically restricted. The sentences are almost all simple sentences. I tried not to allow myself any lyrical flights into “beautiful” fluency. I think about voice as syntactical patterns, and I knew the voices of the narrators had to be limited in range, their references and resources damaged or impoverished. Fidelity to this savage kind of sparsity was definitely a rule I set. I wanted to do something as a writer that stripped me of my ability to think of language as an escape. I like to collect words, words that I think are bizarre or beautiful or inscrutable or potent, and some of my other writing projects (The Mothering Coven [2009], Compendium of Domestic Incidents [2011]) are embroidered with these words; I form sentences around them. In this book, the narrators don’t have glittery treasure troves of talismanic nouns. They can’t draw on word hoards to enrich their lives. I wanted to see what would happen to narrative under these conditions.

I read an article about you on The Nation’s website in which David Carroll Simon posits that the way in which you manipulate language creates a sort of alternate reality. This made me think both of “Village of the Crow-Stepped Gables” and Another Governess/The Least Blacksmith. I guess this isn’t really a questionper se, but I’m really interested in the way each of your pieces feels like a fully realized world, whether it’s something as long as the novellas or as short as “Village of the Crow-Stepped Gables.” I came across a quote of yours that said you like feeling out a different language, logic, and vocabulary when writing a new piece. Could you elaborate on this?

As I write, I begin to get a sense of what “fits” in the story world I’m writing, a sense of what can and can’t happen there, what kind of words it’s made out of. For example, “The Dwelling” and “The Village of the Crow-Stepped Gables”—in my mind, these are taking place in a degraded epic world/form, borrowing from prose sagas, exploring the femininized underside of heroic narrative, stasis, pollution, descent.

It’s a kind of vaguely Viking place, often cold, and it wouldn’t work to introduce, say, a papaya tree, or to have the beldame read something on her Kindle. It’s fantastic not historical, and so the story world is not a “real” place, not tenth-century Iceland, but a place oblique to it that plays with some of the mythology and topography and historiography associated with its literary tradition or status in the imagination. I’m not worried so much about accuracy, as in, “could Bjartur wear fustian? Was fustian a cloth a croftsman would be able to afford?”, but whether or not a word like “fustian” creates the right kind of emotional/cognitive surround.

Does that make sense at all? Do you have a similar experience as you map the coordinates of the story/world you’re trying to build?


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An interior shot of A Compendium of Domestic Events


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Interior and cover shots of A Compendium of Domestic Events

One of the most striking elements of Another Governess/The Least Blacksmith is the violence. I don’t mean to imply that it was gratuitous, because it was not, and the combination of the violence and your short sentences is chillingly effective. What drew you to explore the darker territory of this book? Was it difficult territory to explore?

It was difficult...



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