By Taylor Portela
On September 4, 2019, Alyson Hagy read at Virginia Tech as part of the Speakeasy Reading Series, sponsored by the Virginia Tech MFA Creative Writing Program. The next in the series will bring Amy Long to campus and will take place on September 16, 2019 – the event is free and open to the public.
“Never pass up a chance to use what your grandparents, aunts, uncles, parents tell you,” said Hagy, interrupting her reading with a piece of advice. While writing Scribe she used the music of her childhood – the stories and sounds – as a way to fend off writer’s block. Any time she felt her writing slow, she would set up the narrative for another story. This, she said, is the fun of writing something new, something with a different history than your own, something that contains the pagan, the supernatural, the mysteries of the world, you get to have fun and experiment with what you know. You can take the stories of your past and transport them into a different world – like her family’s (true) story about an 1863 Civil War-era coin still passed down through the generations.
Hagy’s comfort was palpable. She grew up in Nelson County, Virginia, about 30 miles from Blacksburg as the crow flies, and had never held a reading so close to home. She brought us, the audience, into her world by making jokes to Ed Falco, engaging the students who attended the dinner beforehand, and threatening us with asking us questions if we fell silent. She was here to engage us, and we were here to engage her. Attending this reading as a graduate student – not as an unaffiliated audience member, not as a shy undergrad – felt exciting and joyful, I wasn’t nervous. While I didn’t pose a question or offer comment, I was willing and excited by the possibility of talking to her and the room, which I was able to do several hours later at the reception.
It was surprising to hear about her writing process for this book because of how it disrupted up her routine. There was an intensity to her writing that she recognized and valued; she understood that if she took too many breaks or put off sections when they popped into her mind, she would lose them like the last book (about Ella Watson, the only white woman lynched out west). She described this muse as demanding. I appreciated how this mirrored the content of Scribe, with Mr. Hendrick demanding the narrator to write him his letter (containing all his faults, his sins, and only once the letter was written and read by the narrator to the person he hurt the most would he be free from them). Hagy wrote the muse’s secrets, its ghosts, and read the book to the world, freeing her muse of itself. She wrote the first draft of Scribe in 6 months.
My favorite part of the reading was being able to talk with Hagy one on one. It took her several minutes to sign my book as we talked about ourselves. As a professor in Wyoming, she lives near where my family lives in Idaho, and could recognize the town of Rigby and Bear Lake. She understood the Mormon culture in which I was raised. She beat around the bush, glancing me up and down, my makeup, my skirt, hinting at the tension between my queerness and my family’s faith – and I gladly obliged to discuss. She helped create a space opposite what she described in the book, a small town mirrored off where she grew up, where even there everyone is different. But it’s the moment when people start pointing out how you’re different than they are, when the trouble starts. We talked about how that’s the reason I got out of Michigan, and only take short trips to Idaho. We smiled in our shared understanding of our differences. And I failed to tell her that the beige linen jumper she had on, I too have, but in maroon.