Dispatches | March 22, 2013

Welcome to our many-part series where we chat with Working Writers who have not had success in the traditional sense. No major awards, no books in print, maybe only a few or no publications, but are still writing. Our goal is to give voice to a wide range of writers, to learn from their experiences, and to open a discussion about living the craft. If you fit the description and want to be involved, please send an email to us at TMRWorkingWritersSeries@gmail.com

Today’s interview is with Cam Terwillliger.


Tell us a little bit about yourself.

I’m a fiction writer transplanted from Boston to Baton Rouge, where I now teach composition and intro fiction classes at Louisiana State University. Since moving here a year and a half ago, I’ve not only learned to love crawfish and boudin, but my fiction has gone native as well. Specifically, I’ve been working on a historical novel that follows the decline of New Orleans’ red-light district, Storyville, which shut down during World War I. The novel has been a massive change for me. Compared to the stories and poetry I wrote during my MFA at Emerson College, this project has required exponentially more research. If nothing else, though, the book is a great excuse to spend (tax deductible!) time in New Orleans, a city with fascinating—often shocking—history.

As for background, I graduated from Emerson in 2007, and since then I’ve tried a few different jobs in an effort to string together a writing career. Out of school, I stayed in Boston to work full-time at a science nonprofit, doing admin and communications. But eventually I was able to negotiate this job down to part time, allowing me to take on evening creative writing classes at Grub Street, Boston’s (very excellent) creative writing center. After a year of this, I put together enough teaching and freelance writing to quit my day job entirely, which gave me the flexibility to do some wonderful residencies at the VCCA and the American Antiquarian Society. I probably would have continued freelancing for a while, but then fate—happily—intervened. In 2010 I fell in love with my fiancée, Cara Blue Adams of The Southern Review, when she was visiting Boston. As you can tell, it wasn’t long before I packed up and followed her to Louisiana.

In retrospect, the key to surviving the tough years after my MFA was staying in close touch with writing friends. For me, this was natural since many people I knew from Emerson stayed in Boston. We wrote together, went to readings, traded work, shared info on writing opportunities—everything. So in that way the task of being an artist overlapped with my social life, which made it easier to be productive without sacrificing personal relationships. I think we modeled good behavior for each other too. If someone succeeded, we all learned from it. One person that deserves special mention is my good friend, the writer Chip Cheek, who was my puritanical writing partner during this time. Each week, Chip and I set aside certain days when we met at 6:00 AM in a coffee shop to write before work. It was hard forcing yourself to go, but both of us felt we had to follow through. It was too embarrassing to flake out when you knew the other would be there. Essentially we shamed ourselves into doing the work. That sounds awful, but it was always quite fun once we got going. Also: it worked. The stories I wrote and revised there went on to be published shortly after, appearing in magazines like West Branch, Post Road, The Mid-American Review, The Literary Review, and Narrative, which was kind enough to recently name me one of their “15 Below 30.”

What is it about Storyville that captured your interest?

That has a number of answers actually. I first discovered it the way many people do—through the photographs of Ernest Bellocq, who was a photographer that obsessively documented the prostitutes in the district. The Missouri Review ran a piece on Bellocq’s photos a few years back, and after seeing them I was completely taken. The images are often quite candid and give you a glimpse of women that seem both marginalized and commodified, as well as eerily glamorous. I knew I wanted to write about it but I figured it would probably just be a short story. However, when I moved to Louisiana, I started reading into it a little more and became still more intrigued. It turns out that Bellocq is just the tip of the iceberg. Storyville also played a vital role in the birth of jazz, since African Americans were often hired to play the music—considered quite subversive at the time—in brothels. Storyville is also filled with an impossibly long cast of amazing characters: people like the schizophrenic coronet player, Buddy Bolden, or the congressman that owned half of the district, Tom Anderson (aka “The Mayor of Storyville”). So, before I knew it, the project was on its way.

Overall, understanding race relations in the south has turned out to be the most crucial thing. For anyone who wants to explore Jim Crow New Orleans, there couldn’t be a more revealing case study than Storyville in 1917. The place is an object lesson on how the codes of race were both enforced and circumvented. For people invested in segregation, Storyville was especially galling because it was one of the few places where intermingling of blacks and whites was tolerated. As a result, there were several laws passed in an effort to regulate it, to totally remove African Americans from the district, relegating them to a small, more dangerous area above Canal Street. Still, despite reformers’ demands, these laws were laxly upheld.

The historian Alecia Long does an excellent job explaining how this interracial contact was allowed to continue because it was one of the central attractions of the district. For example, Lulu White’s Mahogany Hall became one of the most popular brothels by offering white men the chance to have sex with “octoroons” (women of mixed race). Additionally, Storyville provided whites the chance to participate in jazz. With all this in mind, it’s easy to understand why it was difficult to segregate Storyville. Even though whites had overblown anxieties about racial mixing, there was a co-existing (and extremely profitable) interest in African American culture and African American bodies. Many New Orleanians made tons of money from Storyville’s existence, either by renting property to madams, or by running saloons and cabarets. Naturally, these people were totally uninterested in killing their golden goose.

 Wow, this is so great. I love when I learn something from these interviews.

I know! I can’t believe that this history isn’t more widely talked about. There’s relatively few books about it. It’s actually one of those eras that’s a little hard to study because the myth and the history have begun to mix. For example, little is verifiably known about Bellocq. But there’s many apocryphal stories.

Really? Was he a solitary person or did his work become big posthumously?

There’s a long, long story about it and I don’t know if I can get all the details right. He wasn’t known in his time at all. He was supposedly a creepy loner that had a hunchback (possibly) or a deformed head from hydrocephalus. Or these details might have been made up (or exaggerated) over time. After his death, his photos only survived as glass negative plates in a junk shop somewhere. One story claims they were given away by his brother, a catholic priest. This legend claims that he’s the one that defaced many of these plates. If you look at them, the faces of many of the women are scratched off. But that doesn’t really make sense if you think about it. If he didn’t approve of the photos, why didn’t he just destroy them? Anyway, many years later, in the 70’s, a photographer named Lee Friedlander discovered the plates and reproduced them for an exhibition. That’s how they gained a contemporary audience.

Quasimodo the photographer. Wow. All right – I’m interested in how you went from an MFA to a science non-profit?

Oh yes that’s right! That was a little bit random. When I was nearing the end of my MFA I decided I’d try to dig up an office job to support myself because I’d found teaching composition during graduate school to be really demanding, and not especially well paying. The science non-profit was a place I simply found by answering a craigslist ad. It just so happened that they were interested in somebody that could do a little writing on top of general office admin duties. It was a nice place to work because the folks (although oriented toward the sciences) were also extremely creative and regarded any intellectual endeavor (including writing) highly. The place was called The New England Complex Systems Institute and they were mostly people affiliated with MIT in some capacity. In a nutshell, they used computer models to make sense (aka find patterns) in a huge range of data: from economic systems to the workings of cells. Oftentimes there were underlying rules of math that applied to a variety of different systems. If you look it up you can find an interesting article they published in Science a few years back. It makes the case that you can predict locations likely to result in ethnic violence based on census data, and that this is surprisingly similar to the rules governing “phase transitions,” which are the moments when matter moves from being solid to liquid, or liquid to gas etc.

Are you still writing at 6am? I know this is the process for a lot of writers, and perhaps one where the morning is the only time they have to write (quiet time away from work, children, etc).

That’s a great question. I still find that I do my best writing in the morning, and I prefer it over other times. I feel I’ve got a clarity of thought then. Also, if you write first thing in the morning, then it seems like no matter what happens during the day, you’ve already won, you’ve done the most important thing. However, I don’t have that rigorous morning schedule like I used to. Back when I had the office job it really was the ONLY time I could squirrel away time to write. Now that I’m teaching, I’m no less busy (in fact I’d say that I’m busier), but I have more control over my schedule. I’m lucky to teach only on Tuesdays and Thursdays, so I aim to write on the off days. Sometimes grading and preparing gets in the way, but it more or less works out. Then, during summer and winter breaks, I always create an overly ambitious goal for “catching up on my manuscript.” Naturally, I never get as much done as I plan, but when I take a minute to reflect I must admit that it is adding up steadily.

Could you tell us a little bit about your thoughts on residencies?

When I first got out of Emerson, I felt a real urgency around the idea of getting my work published (as many people do). But looking back, I think it would have been wiser to use that energy to secure writing residencies and grants instead. Here’s why: When you’re working full time and trying to be a serious writer, time management becomes one of the most important things. You only have so many minutes to write, to submit work, or to apply for things. So, to me, eating up a lot of time sending out submissions for publication doesn’t make the most sense.  When you finally publish, it’s wonderful, but it doesn’t fundamentally help you do the work of writing at all. You get the acknowledgement, but it doesn’t become any easier to write the next story. Whereas when you get residencies or grants, it TOTALLY helps you develop your writing. You either get time to work, or you get money that lets you deal with your life more easily, allowing more time or energy for writing. For example, I won a grant from The Massachusetts Cultural Council that really helped me pay off my student loans, which allowed me to reduce my hours at work and write more. So I think a lot of writers just out of the MFA would be helped by focusing their limited energy on grants and residencies rather than on getting published. Consequently, it’s helpful if you have a job that you wouldn’t mind quitting if a residency or fellowship comes up. So, for the sake of your writing, it may be better to take a decent, totally replaceable job at a company you’re blasé about, rather than one of the cool arts-based  jobs that don’t pay much and demand that you make many sacrifices.

You can follow Cam Terwilliger on twitter @CamTerwilliger. You can also find his article about historical novel research on Grub Street Daily at http://grubdaily.org/digging-in-at-the-archive/.