INTERVIEW WITH BRENDA MILLER & JULIE MARIE WADE
Rappahannock Review Nonfiction Editors: You were able to use something as simple as a sandwich to explore the fairly heavy themes of family, stability, tradition, and more. Among the many possibilities of mundane items in our lives, what made you choose to focus on sandwiches?
Julie Marie Wade: I have a memory of talking on the phone with Brenda, or maybe chatting by email–perhaps her recollection is more precise–where the subject of sandwiches came up. Our conversation may have been related to another essay we had been writing together called “Toys” (http://creativenonfiction.org/issue/60).
That essay had called back to my mind how, as a child, I never enjoyed playing with my Barbie dolls much, but I liked to imagine them as a fleet of personal assistants. I would send Barbie on errands for me–“sharpen my pencils!” “finish my chores!”–my favorite of which was ordering Barbie to “make me a sandwich.” (I had a huge appetite as a child but never liked to stop playing to eat.)
Anyway, our sidebar about sandwiches made us both hungry, and I think it was Brenda who said, “We should write about them!” I can still hear her laugh in my head. Maybe she was joking at first, but then we reckoned, Why not? I don’t think either one of us had ever read an essay with sandwiches as the explicit leitmotif before, and the gustatory sense so often gets lost amid more pressing visual and aural commitments on the page.
Ultimately, since Why not? is the secret credo for all collaboration, we decided to give it a whirl.
Brenda Miller: I think we were just hungry. I’m always hungry. I can always eat. And writing about food and eating satisfies so many different urges at once!
RR: When you write collaboratively, what’s the drafting process for your pieces like? Did you end up with a lot of other “sandwiches” that didn’t make it to the final version?
JMW: I don’t remember any sandwiches left behind in the kitchen. I think we kept all the ones we wrote. As in all our collaborations, there’s a kind of natural exchange, a literary back-and-forth between us where we read what the other person has written and use her words or aspects of her experience as springboards for our own.
In this case, Brenda started and selected the epigraph, too. I’m not sure if we catalogued our sandwiches as “first,” “second,” “third,” and so forth during our initial draft or if we added those sequence markers at the end to indicate the way in which our essay had evolved into a joint coming-of-age-qua-sandwiches. (I have an impish desire to call this a bread-and-bun bildungsroman!)
I never write my next entry “ahead” of receiving Brenda’s. I never know what I’m going to write until I see what she has written, after which the invitations for response are always multiple. The challenge is choosing which point of connection or contrast to pursue.
There are five sandwich sections total, which means ten individual entries–five written by each of us toward a kind of parallel structure/literary symmetry. Since Brenda began the essay, I knew I would be the one to draw it to a close. Usually, the ending comes into sight rather intuitively. Brenda might have said after sending me her fifth “sandwich” that she felt the essay approaching its natural end, or perhaps she didn’t say that, but I felt it on my own. Regardless, I re-read the essay and saw how we began, how far we’d traveled, and it felt right without being gimmicky to let the first line of the essay–Brenda’s first line–come back again at the end.
In this way, our essay is something of a Möbius strip. There’s a circular motion that invites the reader to continue reading from that “First Sandwich” again, ad infinitum.
RR: In previous collaborative statements, you’ve mentioned you’re striving to find a “third voice” that doesn’t belong to either one of you alone. How do you approach developing this voice?
JMW: I had never actually thought of collaboration as finding a “third voice” until Brenda described it that way, and then I suddenly recognized it is! When I was much younger, I used to sing in a choir, and I know Brenda sings in a choir now. For me, and perhaps for Brenda also, the idea of the “third voice” is related to harmonizing. Two (or more) voices are singing together–an alto and a soprano, say. And they’re not trying to sound the same; they’re trying to find the place where their voices complement each other so perfectly that they blend, making a new sound–uniquely textured but also unified.
The only way to do this is to practice, I think–to keep singing together, or in our case, writing. Essaying lyrically. You know the third voice is working when you hear it, and you try to honor that sound. If you fall out of harmony, you try again.
Beyond the page, we can check in with each other about what we notice in the essay, when we sense an ending approaching, where we might want to rearrange/reorder the sections. Then, we can resume with a fuller attention and precision to our song.
RR: We understand you both write and publish individually too. Any new solo projects that you’re working on?
JMW: Every year I write a meditation essay for my birthday, and I recently finished “Meditation 40: The Honesty Room,” which turned out to be quite a bit longer than I had anticipated at 13,000 words. So I’m working on revising this essay and perhaps sending it out into the world in smaller segments/micro-essays and/or as a free-standing, hybrid-forms chapbook. Since March 16th, I’ve also been writing a daily entry in an ongoing quarantine collaboration with another friend and trusted collaborator, Denise Duhamel. And since I’m teaching Poetic Techniques this summer, I will be writing poems alongside my students as we accept literary invitations from poets like Li-Young Lee, Eduardo C. Corral, Stacey Waite, Marie Howe, Harryette Mullen, Tamiko Beyer, and A. Van Jordan.
BM: Last fall, when we could still move about freely, I was on sabbatical. I got to take a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Japan, literally immersing myself in the bathing culture there, and I’ve been writing poems and short essays about that experience. I also put together a collection of my “writing-on-writing” that includes many of the craft articles I’ve written and published, as well as short autobiographical pieces about the writing life that never quite fit into my other collections. I’m happy to report that the University of Michigan Press will be publishing this collection in the near future. Now, I’m writing a poem a day as part of NaPoWriMo (National poetry writing month) alongside five other women, and it’s been my saving grace.
RR: We’ve all been spending a lot of time at home lately, due to COVID-19 stay-at-home orders. Have you designed the perfect quarantine sandwich?
JMW: I have not–but I should! The truth is, the perfect sandwich for all occasions, whether quarantined or not, lives about two miles away from me at Cafe Club on Hollywood Beach. Now that the beaches and boardwalk are closed, and now that shelter-in-place is in effect, I haven’t been to Cafe Club for at least eight weeks, but it’s the first place I plan to go when we have more freedom to move about the world again. When I arrive, I’ll order my “usual” since I’m a “regular” at this establishment: the power vegan sandwich on a freshly baked white baguette. I’m a vegetarian now, but even if I weren’t, this is hands-down the best sandwich of my life, stuffed with avocados and thick, wavy lettuce (Bibb perhaps?), tomatoes, sprouts, vegan cheese, and the kicker–the crunchiest little gherkins I’ve ever tasted, nestled right there inside the bread rather than set off to the side. There’s also vegan thousand island dressing that drips down your chin as you eat it. Many napkins are required.
BM: I’ve been dreaming about club sandwiches and about the Cuban sandwiches at Cafe Rumba here in Bellingham: the one I like comes with a hefty slice of sweet potato in between the pork and cheese slathered in some kind of secret sauce. Sauce seems to be the secret weapon of the perfect sandwich. During quarantine, my treat has been to buy expensive lox and whipped cream cheese; I toast a piece of Franz gluten-free bread, spread on the cream cheese, delicately lay slices of the silky lox on top of it, then sprinkle it all with Trader Joe’s Everything seasoning, which makes anything taste like a bagel. But then there’s always the age-old question: is an open-faced sandwich still a sandwich? Something to ponder.
Brenda Miller & Julie Marie Wade’s work in Issue 7.2: