An Interview with Rachel Ida Buff

Rachel Ida Buff’s essay, “Duluth,” appears in Issue 77 of the minnesota review.
Interviewed by Christopher Linforth
How long was the gestation period of “Duluth”? When did you feel this was a story that needed to be told?

“Duluth” is based on a true story, so it is about a friend I had who really did up and disappear. I wondered about that for a long time before I started to write about it. I wrote a draft of the piece about a decade ago, but I was an assistant professor at the time in a fairly hostile work environment, and I was completely in the closet about what I think of as my “real writing.”  So I only showed it to a few friends and hid it in a file in my computer.

About three years ago, in a new city and a much more congenial work environment, I joined a writing group composed of four progressive women. I am the only academic in the group, but we all, of course, have other work besides our writing.  In order to meet our monthly writing deadlines, I started exhuming work from old files, and I rediscovered and reworked the piece that became “Duluth.” I am entirely amazed and endlessly grateful for the motivation and support of our group; it has made all the difference for me as a writer.

This piece used to be called “Where the Fuck Are We,” but after a few rejections I decided it would never get published under that title.

“Duluth” has a segmented structure. How did this come about?

I think about the story as a mystery: one that really doesn’t have a solution, if the central questions are: where did Belle go and what became of her? So I liked the idea that the narrator would be working from a list of clues, like in a detective show.

How does your background as a trained academic influence your creative work?

I am an interdisciplinary scholar working as a historian. I am deeply concerned with how the past continues to influence the present. I love doing historical research and engaging with scholarly debates.

But I have never been quite convinced that the voice that prevails in most scholarship speaks clearly and powerfully enough. My interdisciplinary background in American Studies trains me as a scholar to look to the many frequencies on which people engage with historical and political questions: popular culture, public rhetoric, social movements. But we tend to write about these things in the voice of the scholar, in highly intellectualized prose. This seems to me to take things that people are passionate about and fix them in amber, rather than allowing them to continue to be animate. This is why the hybrid form, containing scholarly, fiction and creative non-fiction voices in journals like the minnesota review is so important.

A big part of “Duluth” is about how Ida is stuck for a long time, unable to figure out how to enter the action she could see all around. Belle jumps right in—that is what is vital about her character. But Ida’s story is about how she figures out how to jump in at another place. She is, and I suppose I am as well, more conservative, more reflective than Belle.

Do you have any thoughts on the rise of the memoir genre in America?

The more the merrier! There are so many stories out there. As a historian and as a writer, I am endlessly interested.

What are you working on now?

I am working on a novel that revolves around the story of a taxidermist and a caribou that he put back together, with one key variation.  The novel has some of the same historical themes of “Duluth,” although it has quite different characters. There is an actual ghost in it, and many sub-plots. Even a prison break!

At the same time, I am completing a historical book about deportation and immigrant rights activism in the mid-20th century. I also continue writing short stories and essays like “Duluth.” It is a productive time for me. I wake up feeling lucky to have stories to tell and the ability to tell them. This has not always been the case for me.

Where can we find more of your work?

An essay of mine, “All the Strange Hours: A Taxonomy” appears in the Winter 2012 edition of The Southern Review. Like “Duluth,” it has what you call a “segmented structure.” As a friend in my writing group said, I must like lists.

Other works of mine are to be found in various editorial in-boxes nation-wide. And I have a couple of academic pieces in press.

Christopher Linforth is the fiction editor of the minnesota review and a fiction candidate in Virginia Tech’s MFA program. He has work published in Denver Quarterly, Chicago Quarterly Review, Notre Dame Review, and other literary journals.

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One thought on “An Interview with Rachel Ida Buff

  1. Pingback: An Interview with Rachel Ida Buff « The Outsider

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