Jill Talbot is the author of The Way We Weren’t: A Memoir and Loaded: Women and Addiction, the co-editor of The Art of Friction: Where (Non)Fictions Come Together, and the editor of Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction. Her writing has appeared in journals such as AGNI, Brevity, Colorado Review, DIAGRAM, Ecotone, Fourth Genre, The Normal School, The Paris Review Daily, The Rumpus, and Slice Magazine. She teaches in the creative writing program at University of North Texas.
“All Our Leavings,” an interview with Jill Talbot
This interview was conducted via e-mail by Interview Editor Phoebe Nguyen. Of the process, she said, “Jill Talbot’s collection of essays, The Last Year, are striking in their intimacy and vulnerability. Jill’s captivating and poetic voice guides readers throughout her last year of living with her daughter, Indie, before she sets off for university. Written with honesty and grace, Jill captures these fleeting moments with deep love and care. Her essays are a gift to both her daughter and readers alike.” In this interview, Jill talks about the question that drives her writing, motherhood, and the road narrative.
Superstition Review: I am eager to discuss your essay, “The Return,” where you expressed, “Maybe we go back to places not to ask questions, but to realize we don’t have them anymore.” Could you share your writing process for moving between past and present?
Jill Talbot: I’ll start by sharing that Virginia Woolf’s “Street Haunting,” which I integrate into “The Return,” is one of the first essays I fell in love with, and I re-read it often. I’m captivated by how she immerses the reader in her walk: “the hour should be evening and the season winter.” There’s a moment in the essay when Woolf stands on the London pavement in January, but in her mind, she’s “bend[ing] over a balcony” in June, so she asks: “Am I here, or am I there?”
It’s a question that drives much of my writing—the current self considering the self of the past. Before I began writing the essays in The Last Year, I conceptualized them as writing the “June” of Indie’s last year at home, knowing that someday (soon) there’d be “January,” so I wanted to record the occasion in real time, as it was happening. I wanted to trace the traditions and significant moments of Indie’s senior year, but due to the pandemic, Senior Night at a football game in November was the only tradition Indie participated in that year, so I had to shift to a “January” approach, looking back at where we’d been, all of our June balconies. I think most of us, in preparation for leaving, look back at where and who we’ve been, at what we’ve known.
SR: Could you talk about the process of writing the essays in The Last Year? How was the composing process different from your other projects?
JT: I have to give credit to Nadja Spiegelman, the online editor of The Paris Review Daily (at that time), who suggested I write a four-season, year-long column with essays running each Friday in November, January, March, and August. That schedule created a different composing process: for each of those months, I had an essay due every Tuesday morning with revisions (based on her comments) by Thursday evening, and because I wanted to capture the immediacy and the urgency of fleeting moments, I never began a draft until the week it would run in The Daily. When Jill McCabe, Editor-in-Chief of Wandering Aengus Press, offered to publish the series as a book, I worked with the wonderful Ana Maria Spagna, who guided me with her sharp editorial eye in order to develop the essays further and to transition the stand-alone essays into a collection.
SR: I was so honored to read such an intimate view of the relationship and deep love you share with your daughter Indie. These essays are a breathtaking exploration of the meaning of goodbye. Can you share how your relationship to the concept of ‘leaving’ has transformed over time?
JT: “I’ll always carry the look on Indie’s face when she turned to take one last look at our apartment.” I still can’t read that sentence from “On Lasts” without getting teary, without looking up at the door where she stood as I write my answer to you.
I appreciate your view of the essays as a “breathtaking exploration of the meaning of goodbye.” That’s lovely. The essays were written for her, to her, even though she didn’t know I was writing them. I planned (and still do!) to give them to her as a gift when she’s older as a way to say, “Here’s how I saw you then, how I saw us in that last year.”
Indie was ready to leave, and in part, that’s because of all our leavings, living in nine states in eleven years. She knows how to leave, but also, she’s independent and adventurous, always ready for the new. For me a single mother, her (pending) leaving was mine to bear, alone, and the essays allowed me a space do that. Right before I sent Nadja a draft, I’d read it aloud. I cried reading at least one part in each essay—a memory, a moment, the words that told me she would soon be going. Over time, the concept of leaving transformed from the idea of leaving (read: leaving me behind) to the excitement of her going.
SR: You spoke to the American Literary Review about writing your dissertation on the road narrative. You mention that “landscape serves as a mirror for the self.” How did your work studying the road narrative help shape these essays?
JT: What a wonderful question! “Texas History” opens: “The Baker Hotel rose above the Texas trees so straight ahead we didn’t trust the turns we were told to take.” And later in the essay, these lines:
“Could anyone have convinced any of us a year ago of all the turns to come, of all the wrong directions or the way so many would stand up to demand the right ones? Maybe there’s never been any such thing as straight ahead.”
I’m writing about how the landscape (trees surrounding and obscuring the road to the hotel in the distance) didn’t match the roads Siri was telling us to take, how unfamiliar the territory, a road Indie and I had never been on before. The later lines create those turns as a metaphor (a mirror) to the mysteries of that year (2020), the mystery of navigating the last year of Indie and I living together.
The road narrative, in part, derives from the journey narrative, which includes two goals: the proximate (real) and the ultimate (abstract). Take Thelma and Louise: Their proximate goal is to get to Louise’s boss’s cabin for the weekend. The ultimate goal is to distance themselves from the men who don’t treat them right (initially only Thelma’s husband, Darryl, and Louise’s boyfriend, Jimmy), to free themselves from the patriarchy. The achievement of the goals in road narratives vary. Sometimes only one is reached, sometimes none. Also, road narratives traditionally include two (very different) people—and those two people have their own respective goals. Consider Little Miss Sunshine, how every character in that VW Van has a different desire, a different goal, both proximate and ultimate. I’ll leave it to the readers to identify what they see as the proximate and ultimate goals, for both me and for Indie.
SR: I wondered what the road ahead looks like for you as I read the closing line of your book: “In many ways it feels like a pause button’s been released, and I can return to thinking, for the first time in a long time, about who I am—beyond a mother.” What can you share about the projects you are working on now?
JT: Myself, mostly, to be honest, through a lot of self-searching, self-interrogation, and conversations with myself and friends about how I want to live the rest of my life. I’m 53 as of this writing to you. I feel like it’s time to do what I want. Where I want. I’m working to be brave.
Indie’s in her senior year of college, applying to graduate schools, and she’s truly living her best life, so I feel like I need to figure out mine. I adopted a two-year-old dog, Hallie, a Jack Russell/Chihuahua mix, and she and I have good times. Your readers might wonder about a love life, something I write about in The Last Year deciding not to pursue until Indie was grown. Turns out, she’s grown! Just last night, I was sitting at a bar with a friend who asked me about the potential for a man in my life. I told her what I tell myself: “If a man comes along who can make what I have better, maybe, but none have come along.” I don’t go searching. I don’t put myself out there. I’m stubborn and romantic in that way, I guess. I still expect some stranger to walk up and say, “Hey,” and that it’ll be it.