Lenore Weiss grew up in New York City, raised a family in the Bay Area, and currently resides in Louisiana. Lenore’s collections include “Tap Dancing on the Silverado Trail” (Finishing Line Press, 2011), “Sh’ma Yis’rael” (Pudding House Publications, 2007), and “Cutting Down the Last Tree on Easter Island” (West End Press, 2012). Her most recent poetry collection is “Two Places” (Kelsay Books, 2014). She currently teaches a memoir class at Ouachita Parish Library in Monroe, Louisiana and serves as the copy editor of Blue Lyra Review. Her blog resides at www.lenoreweiss.com
Lenore, in “Hazardous Turnips” excerpted from Pulp into Paper, the characters at the mill are caught in what has become a common dilemma: rural workers in essentially company towns thankful for their jobs despite growing hardships—including their own health and that of everything around them. How did you decide to concentrate on the subject?
I moved to northeastern Louisiana several years ago and set about familiarizing myself with the area. Two events coincided that led me to write this book. My mate worked for a contractor at the Georgia-Pacific mill in Crossett Arkansas, one of the oldest mills in the Koch Brother’s arsenal. He was assigned to “detention pond” duty with the supposed goal of filtering harmful effluents from the paper making process. I watched him become slowly poisoned by H2S (hydrogen sulfide) and other noxious gases that have been established by the EPA as carcinogens. Every night I heard his terrible cough and stories of company noncompliance with standard industry operating procedures. Around the same time, I met the northeastern Louisiana representative to LEAP (Louisiana Environmental Action Project) who was involved with the Crossett Citizens for Environmental Justice. I began to attend their meetings and researched the history of the mill in Crossett. The book grew out of that experience.
In this excerpt, the reader gets to know a number of characters, all with compelling storylines. This includes not only Bryan, but also his boss Vernon, and Mark, who fathered Vernon’s grandson, but is at loggerheads both at home and at work with the man. Would you say there’s a central protagonist of the novel, or are there several?
I have asked myself that question repeatedly throughout the development of the novel. The first several drafts helped me to understand the characters, their strengths, weaknesses, motivations, and how they interrelated to each other. At this point, Bryan is the main protagonist. I feel his backstory is the most compelling (single dad, former bass guitar player, ugly divorce) together with his conflict over choosing right over wrong and not wanting to jeopardize his job in doing so. However, my characters live in a small community where stories and lives are intertwined. The characters in Pulp Into Paper evolve, but Bryan carries the questions of the novel forward. In that sense, he is the protagonist.
Writing about socio-political issues in literature can be very tricky and many authors, while recognizing its importance, shy away from the opportunity. This excerpt from Pulp into Paper, however, never seems forced or too stilted, as if a point is trying to be made to the reader. Do you find it take a conscious effort to raise and address issues of concern in inclusive ways that don’t alienate certain people? Is there some literary toeing of the line in this regard?
I am moved to passion by how our inner and outer lives impact each other—inner lives based on our histories and who and how we love, and outer lives that are involved with the politics of our work. But in reality, we are all of those things at once. I kept overhearing Vivian Gornick’s admonition about the “situation” and the “story.” The situation in the case of Pulp Into Paper is the mill and the mounting evidence of massive pollution. The “story” is how there is a growing awareness, a trajectory of force radiating from the center of each one of the characters that eventually meets, collides, and creates bubbles of change. My writing style occasionally verges on the surreal. In other words, it’s not always the straight narrative of the sort you’d expect from this kind of book. The difficulty I find lies not in writing about socio-political issues, but in staying true to the characters and their process of self-realization. And there’s always a balance—not to neglect either one (inner, outer). I look to Mike Tidwell (Bayou Farewell) and Dan Fagin (Toms River), who although they are nonfiction writers, do both well. Authenticity is a key.
At the end of the chapter, Rand-Atlantic’s negligence has claimed a young victim, Rincon, who appears in dire shape after simply riding bikes along the river with his brother. Where does the story go next? Are the boys involved in the narrative as it moves along?
The situation with Rincon becomes a rallying point for the fictional Hentsbury community. Parents are fed up with their kids not being able to take a summer bike ride and arrive home safely. Community members are incensed with their children missing school because of poor health. Health is a primary concern as the community begins to mourn ongoing deaths from cancer. At the center of the story is the question of who falsified permit information, a cover-up allowing the mill owners to poison the Mud (previously Silver) River. An EPA investigatory team comes to town to collect facts. Truth gets shuffled under the table. Bureaucracies process paperwork. At the end of the book, certain people occupy new desks, but not to everyone’s satisfaction. What changes? The status quo has shifted slightly. But people have an awareness that it can shift.
How is the novel shaping up? Are you working from a completed draft? Have you started contacting agents and/or publishers about the work?
I am working from a completed draft and have received feedback from fellow writers. I see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. Once I complete the novel (oh, happy day!), I will begin to contact agents and convince them of why they need to represent this book.
What other creative projects have you got going these days?
My other project is a collection of entertaining essays about what it feels like to be a transplant to the south. Topics include: Making Friends with the Lawn, How Mosquitoes Create Jobs, and Why I Hate Walmart. I blog regularly at www.lenoreweiss.com.
Thanks, Lenore. Is there anything else you’d like to share with or explain to readers?
Kelsay Books recently published “Two Places,” my second full collection of poetry, which is available from either Amazon or from my website (below):
My email address is: email@example.com
Thank you for your questions!