Interview with Elizabeth Kirkhorn
Rappahannock Review Prose Editors: The fragmented structure of “Girlfriend Girl” seems to emulate how we perceive memory after trauma. Can you tell us about how you approached such a challenging structure and perspective?
Elizabeth Kirkhorn: I had been working with this specific subject matter for the better part of my writing career—trying to identify the best mold for it, experimenting with different essay shapes and allegories. I found what I think plenty of personal essayists find: it’s incredibly challenging to hack your own trauma into pieces and craft it into something literary. Something that comes to life somewhere between artistic and authentic. “Girlfriend Girl” was born out of a writing group exercise and it all poured out of me within 30 minutes. Most of it is still intact exactly the way I wrote it that day. I told myself that in order to trench through this story (which felt almost radioactive in my own brain, that’s how challenged I was to write about it) I’d start at the top level with something easy to talk about. Sitting in an old library on the hottest day of the year. The writing process itself—tackling layer by layer, section by section, admitting to more and more with each pass—definitely felt reflective of how we come to terms with our battle scars. You continue to unlock and uproot and uncover pieces of yourself, the more you interrogate the things you’ve suffered through. I’m glad the reading experience emulates exactly that.
RR: The final sentence of the piece, the quote from Memoirs of a Geisha, seems to encompass the central theme of the piece. Can you discuss what drew you to connect this specific quote with this narrative?
EK: It was the quote—“when a stone is dropped into a pond, the water continues quivering even after the stone has sunk to the bottom”—that drew me to Memoirs of a Geisha in the first place. It just spoke to me, and so many of my experiences, so viscerally. How many stones have we all swallowed that have found their way to dormancy on the riverbed floor and yet our waters continue to quiver because of them? I think it’s a beautiful reminder that there is no timeline on coming to terms with things that upheave you. Just because the stone is still and motionless at the bottom doesn’t mean you should feel shame if you continue to quiver. I honestly didn’t get much more out of Memoirs of a Geisha (and not because Arthur Golden isn’t a fabulous writer)—when I think about the book, I can only picture the stone.
RR: We understand you write fiction as well as nonfiction. Is there crossover for you in writing in each of those genres, and are there specific rewards and challenges that go along with them?
EK: I wrote my personal statement when I applied to MFA programs about being a secret poet—obsessed with wordplay and figurative language and fancy phrasing—who can never be a poet because I’m too wordy. Less is not more when it comes to my writing. I’ve always grappled with wanting to say it all in big, floral, detailed sentences that can’t be contained. I think that my nonfiction and my fiction read very differently. One half of my brain lights up when I’m writing an essay and the other half is totally activated when I’m immersed in a chapter book. I like to think what ties them together is my undercover poet’s sense for language giving way to walloping metaphors and colorful imagery and heaps upon heaps of hyperbole.
In terms of specific rewards, I would definitely say that writing fiction is a guilty pleasure that brings me such underburdened joy. I really give myself full-throttle permission to play in the fiction space. But, I can’t reach the same state of catharsis that comes from really untangling an emotional knot (see: “Girlfriend Girl”) that comes with nonfiction. Guess I’ll have to keep exploring both.
RR: How do you feel that your work as an editor for Dotdash Meredith has impacted your own writing?
EK: The obvious answer is that as an editor, I’ve mastered becoming a literary X-Acto knife when it comes to really shaping prose to perfection. While it’s always easier to critique, dice up, or renovate another writer’s work than your own, I’ve definitely sharpened skills that allow me to see my own writing with a more objective eye. Beyond that, the people I get to work with at DDM have really played a role in forming my identity as a writer. This is a group of wordsmiths who will write anything they get their hands on—the versatility in the environment is really inspiring. It’s let me see the power of language to tell countless narratives in a whole new light.
RR: Do you have any new projects in the works for readers to look forward to?
EK: I wrote my Masters thesis about an unyielding want for love and how different strains of that love can shape the way we interact with ourselves and the world and each other. It consists of six essays and culminates in “Girlfriend Girl.” Readers can look forward to seeing the rest of the collection in the world very soon.
Elizabeth Kirkhorn’s work appears in Issue 9.2 here.