The University of Iowa

5Q Interview: Lucy Schiller, Nonfiction Writing Program

The Writing University conducts a series of interviews with writers while they are in Iowa City participating in the various University of Iowa writing programs. We sit down with authors to ask about their work, their process and their descriptions of home.

Today we are talking with Lucy Schiller, an MFA candidate in the University of Iowa's Nonfiction Writing Program and essayist from Urbana, Illinois. She's at work on a book of essays about history. 

1. Do you have a plan or project in mind for the current year?

I do—I’m working on a long essay-project about family history, genealogy, and hunting (of different kinds) in the American West. I’m in the middle of that! I also have some small essay projects in mind for the next year, mostly music/film oriented.

2. What does your daily practice look like for your writing? Do you have a certain time when you write? Any specific routine?

I have discovered that I need a lot of time to write anything I feel proud of, and that this time must be in the morning, before I’ve had time to absorb the weight of the day or get distracted by whatever amazing/horrible things happen in the world outside of my brain. Every morning that I can, I wake up around 6:45 and make a huge pot of Wake Up Iowa City coffee while doing the dishes from the night before because I’m still sleepy and don’t mind. Then I channel John McPhee and literally tie myself into my chair with my bathrobe rope. I keep encouragements on my desk, things that I can look at and kind of absorb for their kindness or their inspiration. Often when I write I put two of my favorite books next to me so that I can absentmindedly flip through them and remember what they do so well. While I write, I look at a silver box lid I found while metal detecting, a brick from a writing project in Oskaloosa, Iowa, a petrified bison tooth, and some other small things I’ve collected over time. I have learned that almost always, the first draft of anything, even a sentence, is going to change, but that the important thing is to get it down so that I can use it as a toehold later, a place from which to maneuver to better and more interesting ideas/language. I have been experimenting with background music while writing, and I find that entire albums are best for me—they present a seamlessness and a flow that I can sometimes tap into as I go. Bob Dylan’s mostly instrumental “Billy the Kid” soundtrack is my current go-to. When I am in the middle of an intense and long project I keep a journal with me at all times because I’m one of those people who is always getting struck by ideas that seem majorly important and then immediately leave my mind. Most of them never amount to anything, but the occasional flash has changed a project.

3. What are you currently reading right now? Are you reading for research or pleasure?

These days, I read short, intense things that make me remember what I love about language. I love Harper’s magazine because it delivers these types of snippets from all sorts of sources: courtrooms, literature, the internet, stats juxtaposed for effect. I love reading and revisiting works that don’t fit neatly into a specific genre—Eleni Sikelianos’s You Animal Machine and Michael Ondaatje’s Billy the Kid are two books I can’t stop coming back to for both writerly inspiration and pleasure. I’ve been researching my Ukrainian family roots and have loved reading Herodotus’s descriptions of the area my family was from: he talks about natural salt deposits, fertile marshland, and a bony fish particularly tasty when pickled. I’m about to read about the history of genealogy in the United States, which I’m really excited about. And when I need to awaken my “reading for pleasure” muscles, I read about photography.

4. What is something the readers and writers of Iowa City should know about you and your work?

It has (fittingly) taken me a long time to realize that my best work takes a long time. So even if I start with a particular idea in mind, or a form, both of those things inevitably morph into something very different, and more complex and thoughtful than they originally were. I am in favor of taking your time with any kind of creative project. If you see me walking around Iowa City with my brow furrowed, it’s because I’m letting my work gestate/fester/swim around. I feel like my brain is always one step behind my work and a lot of the work of writing is just catching up mentally to what an essay wants to be.

5. Tell us a bit about where you are from -- what are some favorite details you would like to share about your home?

I’m from a few places! I grew up in San Diego among beaching whales, tons of beautiful flora, super-super highways, and children more adventurous than me who spent every second surfing. Then my family moved to Laramie, Wyoming and then Urbana, Illinois, where I went to high school. Not far from Urbana are the following landmarks: the original Jimmy John’s, the Raggedy Ann and Andy Museum, and a broom factory that has operated for more than a century. It’s also the setting of a few works by one of my favorite writers, William Maxwell, who went to the University of Illinois and grew up not far away, but in a very different time.

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Thanks Lucy!