Danielle Geller is a writer of personal essays and memoir. Her first book, Dog Flowers, was published by One World/Penguin Random House in 2021. She received her MFA in creative writing for nonfiction at the University of Arizona, and a Rona Jaffe Writers’ Award in 2016. Her work has appeared in The Paris Review, The New Yorker, Brevity, and Arizona Highways, and has been anthologized in This Is the Place. She lives with her husband and two cats in British Columbia, where she teaches creative writing at the University of Victoria. She is also a faculty mentor for the low-residency MFA program at the Institute of American Indian Arts. She is a member of the Navajo Nation: born to the Tsi’naajinii, born for the white man.
This interview was conducted via e-mail by Interview Editor Grace Tobin. Of the process, she said, “Danielle Geller’s memoir Dog Flowers is a tremendous read, and as demonstrated in this interview, her extensive work and research lent themselves to give the reader a breathtaking true-to-life tale.” In this interview, Danielle Geller talks about the process of sifting through her memories for important scenes, her relationship with her family members, and the notion that one always has a choice.
Superstition Review: While you are visiting your mother’s ex-boyfriend, he points to a “trail of muddy paw prints that led through the back door,” courtesy of the house dog. You describe the scene as “mud blooming on the ground.” He tells you your mom used to call these ‘dog flowers.’ This is such a beautiful image. How did you pick this as the inspiration for your title?
Danielle Geller: The first scenes I wrote for this book were all about the three days I was in South Florida while my mother was in the hospital. Those days culminated in that last morning at my mother’s ex-boyfriend’s house, with those words, “dog flowers.” When he gave me that image, something shifted inside of me. I had been told my entire life that my mother and I were nothing alike, but listening to him talk that morning, it was the first time I felt some resonance between us. The title solidified itself a few months later in a memoir-writing workshop with Rita Zoey Chin at GrubStreet in Boston. When she handed me back my manuscript, she apologized for her dogs who had left a pair of muddy paw prints on one of my pages, but it felt more like a gift, like I was on the right path.
SR: How did you go about deciding what to include in the memoir and what to withhold?
DG: Through conversation. I know this doesn’t work for everyone, but I did share early drafts of my book with my dad and my sister. I asked about shared memories when I felt I needed to, but I was also able to feel out what kinds of things they would be most uncomfortable with me sharing. More often, it meant interrogating my own memory. Was I missing information? Was it a miscommunication? Did I need to provide more context or do more research? Very rarely did that result in taking something out entirely. Although, there are things that I haven’t processed that I didn’t feel ready to write about, but many of those didn’t even make it into the drafting stage.
SR: The first section of your memoir completely gripped me as the storyline moved from moments with your mother in the hospital to scenes from your childhood. Could you please discuss the decision of building a non-linear storyline for the beginning of your memoir?
DG: This book went through so many drafts. It started as a memoir, then kind of turned into an essay collection, and then ended up a memoir again. I always struggled with the structure, in part because this story never felt linear. Trauma does some weird things to memory. I read a study once that trauma survivors with PTSD aren’t able to organize their stories the way that those without PTSD are. There can be so many triggers, so many ways of shifting the past into the present. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say, I felt as if I were constantly being pulled back into my past, like I couldn’t escape it, or would always be reliving it. Writing this book in a linear or chronological way didn’t feel true.
SR: You are trained as a librarian and archivist. How did this wide body of knowledge and research help shape this memoir?
DG: I was in the final semester of my graduate program in library science in which I was concentrating in archives management when my mother died. I was juggling classes, three different part-time jobs and internships, and I felt totally immersed in that world. When I got my mother’s things, it made sense to process them the way I was processing these other collections: objectively, neatly, everything arranged in labeled folders. But as I left the program, worked a little more, started writing again, and went back to school for my MFA, it wasn’t just about the physical processing anymore. I started asking myself, what kind of collection is this? Writers love to call everything an archive. We love quoting Derrida. The most important realization I had was about my relative power over my mother’s story. I wasn’t really working with an archive - I wasn’t building something I wanted to enter the public sphere. My mother wouldn’t want that. So, I became much more careful about what I chose to include and exclude.
SR: Kirkus wrote, “Geller’s mix of archival research and personal memoir allows readers to see a refreshing variety of perspectives and layers, resulting in an eye-opening, moving narrative. A deftly rendered, powerful story of family, grief, and the search for self.” There are photos and diary entries to anchor the reader throughout the story. Can you talk about choosing which diary entries and photos to include?
DG: Most often, I chose diaries and photos that revealed moments where I felt a deficit of memory - like I wasn’t present, or the version of the story I was told was wrong or misrepresented somehow. I was adopted by my grandmother when I was five years old, and we moved away from South Florida and my mother before I was ten. There was almost two decades that my mother and I were at the fringes of each other’s lives. I selected things that helped me fill in those gaps, but I was also careful about how much of her life I revealed. My mother grew up in a culture where people say, “We don’t talk about that.” I knew if she were alive, she wouldn’t want me saying a lot of what I said in this book. I tried to honor that as best I could, even knowing I couldn’t stay silent.
SR: Author Heid E. Erdich wrote, “This courageous, honest, desperate, tender, and compelling book tells a daughters’ story of her troubled mother.” This memoir differs from most because there is a dual focus on recreating your life and your mother’s life. Could you talk about the process of creating the dual narrative?
DG: I am so grateful to Heid E. Erdrich for her beautiful blurb. There was another part to it that didn’t make it on the jacket: “Geller does not seek to make anything whole but herself. She refuses to deal in the tropes of redemption and reconciliation…” I felt so seen by her. I built the dual narrative because I wanted to see, for myself, how my mother’s life ran parallel to mine and where our stories intersected. As I mention in the book, my mother kept what I call her “diaries” in a series of yearly appointment books, which meant she only had a few lines to fill each day. I quote one of those entries from 1995: “I know deep in my heart one day the girls will be back in my life.” But because her entries were so brief, there are so many things I don’t know about that moment. I don’t know where that thought came from or what triggered it. I don’t know how she wanted us back in her life. There were a lot of years between 1995 and when she passed in 2013—a lot of time for that desire to manifest. Why it didn’t is one of the things I try to work my way through in the book, but there are still so many things I can never know. I had to make peace with the fact that her story would never have a resolution. Her life and mine were separate threads, come undone by the end.
SR: In an essay for the New Yorker, you wrote, “A Navajo blanket is woven on a loom and will never outgrow its frame. Do we finish the story our mothers began, or do we rip out the weaving and begin anew? It is not so easy to erase or forget the things that have come before us.” Did you have this question in mind while you wrote Dog Flowers? How did this meditation on your Navajo ancestry help to shape your memoir?
DG: I didn’t begin writing with this question in mind, though I kind of came to it through the revision and editing process. I wasn’t able to take my first Navajo weaving class until my last summer in Tucson. The other classes I took after I had already moved away when I was in the final stages of writing this book, but I think the lessons I learned from weaving helped guide me through the structure. The size and the shape of a Navajo rug are fixed before you ever start weaving. You warp the loom, and then you’re just working within the parameters you gave yourself at the beginning. You can change the design, but most Navajo rugs are geometrically balanced. The pattern at the end mirrors the beginning. In one of the early drafts of the book, it opened the way it does now: my mother is sick, she’s homeless, and I am going through her suitcases and taking account of all they held. And in that draft, the ending of the book mirrored the opening, except it was my father who showed up at my apartment, homeless, with a bag and all its contents. At some point in the writing process, I came to resent how much space, time, and energy my father took up in the book. I could see where the story was leading, and I wanted to take him out of the narrative entirely. But I couldn’t, not without pulling out all the writing I had already done, not without starting over. My family is part of the fabric of my identity. One of my weaving teachers, Barbara Teller Ornelas, said that her past weavings trigger memories of where she was in life, what she was doing, what her joys and worries were, and when she was in that process of creation. I think that’s true of my book, too. I feel like I’ve clipped the selvage cords and moved on.
SR: Could you talk about your experience of recreating dialogue while still maintaining the overall messages the conversations enforced?
DG: I think my process of writing dialogue is one that is more like transcription than pure creation. When I was a teenager, I developed a habit of writing down the conversations I had with my family, especially when they were intoxicated, because I was so often faced with denial: that my memory was faulty, that I was exaggerating what had happened, or how hurt I was by it. I was told I was too sensitive, less resilient. So, I would record what was said or what happened—not necessarily to present to them as evidence, but as a way of offering myself the affirmation they denied. And when it came to my mother, there were stretches of time where we only talked two or three times a year. To quote Anne Carson, “Because our conversations were few… I study his sentences, the ones I remember as if I’d been asked to translate them.” Writing my memoir, I spent countless painful hours revisiting those old conversations to parse out not only how I felt then, but how my feelings about their words changed. I parsed out how my understanding of the context of those conversations changed, so I could better translate them for an outsider on the page.
SR: You wrote, “No one taught me how to tell my father no.” As a young woman in today’s world, I feel many women are not taught how to set boundaries or when to say no to those around us. How do you hope this memoir speaks to those women who are trying to find their voice?
DG: I just want to start out by saying that my editor, Nicole Counts, is tremendously wise. In a conversation we had a few months ago, she asked me about one idea I hoped would resonate with my readers by the end of the book. Her response to that question was so much better than mine! She said that what she wanted people to feel when they read my book is that even when you feel like you don’t have a choice, you do, even when that choice doesn’t feel like one that might be expected of us. It’s something that feels obvious to me now, but when she said it, I realized that it was something I still believed up until quite recently. Taking care of the people in my family wasn’t a choice, it was something I had to do. As you say, many women aren’t taught how to set boundaries. Many of us are socialized to be caretakers, often at the expense of our own health and wellbeing. And a large part of what I am writing around is how that path led my mother—and me, and my sisters—into dangerous and exploitive relationships that harmed us. It’s taken hard work and introspection to unwind that impulse inside myself, and it’s ongoing. But I do hope that core idea resonates with the people who read my book.
SR: What are you working on right now?
DG: I’m working on two projects, though I’m not sure which is going to hold my immediate attention. One is an essay collection about video game addiction, which is tentatively titled, “A Gamer Girl in Love with Gamer Boys,” and the other is a sci-fi book I’m calling, “Obsolete Machine.” A few of the research trips I had planned for the novel have been delayed by travel restrictions, but it’s a project I’m very, very excited about!