Meet the Writer: Chavisa Woods

Meet the Writer is a feature for which I interview authors who identify as women. We talk less about a single book or work and more about where they’ve been and how their lives affect their writing. Today, please welcome Chavisa Woods. You can find her at her website, Instagram, and Facebook. Recently, she was in conversation with E. Jean Woods on the NPR show 1A.

Headshot by Itziar Barrio

Grab the Lapels: What was the first piece of writing you did that you remember being happy with?

Chavisa Woods: I was seven years old and in the first grade. I was raised very religiously, as a fundamentalist Southern Baptist, so I was familiar with the bible, and well-versed in dramatic and gruesome ancient stories. I found ancient roman and medieval times fascinating. I was also always obsessed with tragic romance. Anything that had painful, desperate longing or unrequited love in it really pulled me in, and I was also very concerned with ethics. I was never one of those kids who liked the villains in Disney films. I was interested in true heroes, political and social saviors who sacrificed with humility; the kinds of people who were really working for the greater good.

I decided to write my own story, combining all of the elements of these other types of stories I loved. I had an antique green silk dress with a white lace crinoline (a structured petticoat, kind of like a hoop skirt) that I wore often while I played pretend alone. I was raised by my paternal grandparents, and we lived in a large, two story wood house that was built in the early 1900s. I spent a lot of time at the top of the stairs, leaning over the wooden banister, pretending it was an ornate balcony and calling down to forbidden lovers and then going to the lower position and taking up one of my toy swords and singing love songs to my beautiful princess, bringing her the hides of animals I’d killed and treasures from far and wide. 

From these games, I came up with my first short story: it was ancient times, very medieval. A princess had fallen in love with a “lowly servant boy.” Her father, the king, was sick and would die soon, and her younger brother was a psychopath. He would be a tyrannical king if he ever ascended the throne, and he would impoverish the kingdom and torture people who dared to disagree with him . . . all the worst things I could imagine at seven: stretching, pressing with stones, whipping and hanging upside down and cutting off fingers and such. The castle didn’t have a traditional mote, but a pit full of lions surrounding it. The castle was ringed by hungry lions, and the young prince already had succeeded in executing some of the townspeople who had been critical of him by having them thrown into the pit of lions. 

The princess and the servant boy had a passionate affair. She told him that she was in love with him, and that, even though she was next in line for the throne, she wanted nothing more than to run away with him and be his forever. Of course, if she married someone from such a low caste, she would have to give up her place on the throne. She would be banished from the kingdom, and her cruel brother would become king and bring horrible sorrow to the people of his land. Even though the boy loved her more than anything in the world, he knew he couldn’t let this happen. He argued with her, but she insisted. She said there was no life for her without him. She knew they had to run away because if her brother became king, he would have her lover killed. 

The night her father died, she packed her bags and ran to meet her lover at the castle gates, preparing to flee with him. But when she arrived, she saw the remains of her lover’s body amid a frenzied feast of lions in the pit below. There was a note waiting for her where they were supposed to meet. He’d thrown himself to lions so that she would take her rightful place on the throne as queen and ensure her brother remained always a prince, never a king. 

He knew that she would never stay and become queen if he was still alive and there was any possibility that she could find him and be with him, so he made the ultimate sacrifice for the good of his people. 

The princess ultimately ascended the throne and ruled the land as a loving and fair, though notably sad, queen for the rest of her days. This sad queen never married and had a plaque over her throne with the poem from her lover’s note etched on it. 

I wish I could find it, but it had to do with the lions representing the hunger for power, her lover’s red blood representing their love, and his torn flesh, her duty to her kingdom. 

I was very proud of this. It was the first time I really felt I’d written a full story. I showed it to my family, expecting them to be impressed, but, in my memory at least, they were mostly very disturbed by the gruesome imagery. So, I suppose it was prophetic in that way.

GTL: What did you want to be when you grew up, and does this choice influence your writing today?

CW: I’ve wanted to be a writer since I was very young. I was also interested in acting and singing, and I also played the trombone. I love music and theater. Music has influenced my writing, especially my poetry. I love the sounds of words. I don’t mind going fully into a very lyrical mode at times. I also was trained in Shakespearean acting and participated in numerous productions of Shakespeare as a teenager and young adult. I believe studying theatrical dialogue, and especially Old English, has influenced how I write dialogue in my fiction. I talk to myself when I’m writing dialogue. I have to hear the words spoken out loud before I’m sure of them.

Illustration by Erika Sjule

GTL: Are there aspects of your writing that readers might find challenging to them?

CW: Sure. Many of my stories are brutal. I don’t gloss over violence, or bigoted attacks. I write a lot about a section of the U.S. where the culture is very conservative — homophobic, racist, sexist, transphobic — and I depict this culture realistically. Sometimes I write down exact quotes from people I grew up around. Real and horrific events and interactions are mixed into my stories, and that can be hard for people. But, often, I’m creating a portrait of a place, writing fables about the present time. It’s not beach reading.

GTL: What is your writing process like? Which do you favor, starting or revising?

CW: Oh! Good question. I usually know the characters and the beginning and end of the story. If I know where I’m starting and where I want to go, I can write anything. So, writing the middle, the path from the beginning to end, that’s my favorite part, because that’s where the work comes alive, and I feel like I’m discovering the story as much as I’m creating it. 

GTL: How has your writing process evolved?

CW: When I was a younger writer, and especially with my first book, Love Does Not Make Me Gentle or Kind, I was definitely more concerned with language. My prose was dense and poetic. I labored over every sentence. Plot was less important than the language. I was much more interested in how I was saying something, that the story could not easily be re-told in any other words than the ones I had very deliberately chosen, and I found the story within the language, rather than using language to tell the story. 

When I was in my late teens and early twenties, I fell in love with William Faulkner, Nabokov, Borges, Marguerite Yourcenar. At the time, they seemed to me to be primarily language-driven writers. Now, I think more about plot and characters than I ever have, but I think I overlooked some of the plot tools these writers were using when I was younger.

The most beautiful piece of text I’ve ever read on this subject is the paragraph on “this letter” from Alexis, by Marguerite Yourcenar. The letter in question is a confession a young man has written to his fiancé, breaking off their engagement, because he is a homosexual. This book was written in 1929.  When I was younger, I understood this text to be primarily about language. But now, I’m thinking of it again in relation to plot, prose, fiction, yes, but especially nonfiction and what it means to tell a story. 

This letter, my dear, will be very long. I am not very fond of writing. I have often read that words falsify thought, but it seems to me that written words falsify it even more: you know how little is left of a text after two successive translations.

What I would ask of you (the only thing I can still ask of you) is not to skip over any of these lines which have cost me so much. For it is difficult to live. It is even more difficult to explain one’s life.

– Marguerite Yourcenar, Alexis

I recommend you read the full paragraph, because it is truly a gorgeous paragraph in its entirety. Literature is a long-form art, and you’ll either take time with it, or you won’t, but if you do, I promise it will be worth it.

When I read this when I was younger, I thought about the selection of each individual word and what is lost by these choices. Now I think more about details of events and aspects of characters that must be omitted to serve the story and what it means to create a story, especially when pulling from reality, and even more with nonfiction. I often feel what I have omitted has cost me so much on a deep, spiritual level.

My more recent short story collection, Things To Do When You’re Goth in the Country, is written in a very different style than either my first collection or my novel, The Albino Album. Language still matters. I still, often, have a poetic style, but I don’t mind switching the intensely poetic part of myself off sometimes so that I can write in a more conversational style and just tell a good story or pound out an essay. 

I pondered poeticism for a long time, but I’m finding that contemplating plot devices can be just as painfully demanding as finding the perfect sentence. With nonfiction, like my book 100 Times: A Memoir of Sexism, this is also true. You can’t tell everything that happened. There is always the question of what aspects of an event should make their way into the story and what stays out.  I’m pondering questions now like, “what makes something true? What makes a story real versus realistic?”

GTL: What motivated you to write The Albino Album, your first novel and a departure from short stories? Did you ponder this project for a while before taking it on?

CW: The Albino Album actually began as a short story, which became the first chapter, “Eye of the Tiger,” of the novel. In its first iteration, the story centered around the mother and little girl characters and the several minutes when the mother is alone with the girl. She’s drunk and keeps burning the girl’s bare arm with her cigarette, telling the girl that she looks like an ashtray. The tiger appeared later, and I knew it had to be there, and it had to kill them all. From this very dark event, though, I actually got a story that is actually quite funny, buoyant, and, I don’t mind saying, really rocks. 

After I finished it, I stood from my desk and went to the bathroom and threw up. My art isn’t supposed to be therapy. That isn’t my goal, but sometimes it happens. I read the story again and again, revising it, listening to the song “Eye of the Tiger,” and I felt healed in a way. I felt like I placed this dark event somewhere else, in a different context, and surrounded it with neon pink and green light inside a fire- engine-red frame. (Sometimes I think of my stories as paintings.) It became a separate thing that happened somewhere else. I was able to turn it into something really beautiful, something I loved, and in that way . . . I don’t want to say I became grateful for my own pain, but I made good use of it, and that’s why I love writing and reading. It always makes me feel powerful. The ability to tell and take in a story always makes me feel less alone.

After I wrote this story about this little redheaded girl who was a lot like me, I then wrote what I thought was a very separate short story about this sort of manic vagabond who washed up in a gutter punk boat on the Chelsea Pier and stumbled into a strange church late at night. This character came to me before sleep, which has happened to me several times. It almost feels like a spirit introducing themselves to me. This character was in her early twenties. She had very messy jet black hair. She was wearing a black tutu and striped socks. She told me her name was unpronounceable, but that I could call her Maya, which means “mine” in Russian. I got the feeling that she was some lost aspect of myself. We communed for a few days, and I wrote the story out, which became one of the last chapters of the novel, when I realized that these two characters were the same person. Maya was the little girl grown up. So, I had the beginning and end. From there I wrote the middle. It took me 600 pages to get from that little redhead girl trembling from cigarette burns to Maya burning everything down and setting up that final bomb on the Empire State Building. 

The journey took me five years to complete. I’m glad I wrote that book when I was younger. It’s a sort of tween space with my style, in which I can almost see myself moving from language-driven to plot-focused writing, which was perfect for that story.

There’s a lot of humor about queer anarchist collectives and nonprofit art and activism, and, again, surreal depictions of rural midwestern and southern racism and other bigotries that often seem so surreal in reality as well. Still, the neo-Nazi brothers breeding albino animals tips the book just over the edge into magical realism. Many of the characters in the first half are white people living in rural poverty, and I tried to depict what it feels like to be born within this context and make your way out as a queer kid. It feels like an impossible journey. There is so much reckoning to do in such a short amount of time with yourself and the world and the whole history of the United States. That’s what The Albino Album is; it’s an epic story of a journey for queer survival in the U.S., specifically post-9/11. It’s been described as a very feral book, and at the time I wrote it, I was more of a feral person. I’ve been pretty domesticated over the years, but The Albino Album will always be just as it is, wild and unhinged, and is a testament to the many underground worlds that took me in and showed me their versions of sanctuary.

Photo by Damon Stang

18 comments

  1. Melanie, you elicit such wonderful answers! And of course your interviewees are always so generous with their responses. I grew up in rural Australia in the 1950s and 60s and it is fascinating how different – how very much more primitive in many ways – rural USA is. I love novels which are about the language. I’d say Chavisa don’t worry about plots, but of course first I should read The Albino Album

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    • My thoughts on The Albino Album on the blog from just a couple of posts ago. I love that Nick and I had such different reactions to the ending because it gave us lots to argue about. Woods also has short story collections that are available in audio. I wonder if you could get those where you are and listen as you drive, Bill.

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        • The internet tells me there are 11 books in the Barsoom series. I think Nick and I read four and then ran out of steam. John Carter ends up doing much of the same heroic stuff after a while, but the creature concepts are always interesting. I think you’d enjoy yourself. And for one credit!

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  2. What a great interview – I’m too feeble and easily alarmed to read these books but I’m very glad they’re out there. And what a great first story to have written, too!

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      • Ha, thank you. I have difficulty reading books and indeed watching films and TV shows with alarming, scary or violent content; it’s pretty severe, e.g I was unable to get through Iron Man 3 past the explosion at the start, can’t see people being even obviously fake shot, etc. People who had a difficult childhood as I did are quite frequently like this; it’s due to our cortisol spiking too much and not being well regulated from the start, in brief.

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  3. Great interview! Even having read only one of her books so far I get a sense here of how much of herself is in her writing. I loved the history of her first story at such a young age!

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    • Karissa, I think you would like the Goth in the Country short story collection. I know you don’t read a ton of short stories, but I remember one thing you didn’t like about How to Pronounce Knife was that the stories were repetitive. Woods’s Goth collection isn’t like that.

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  4. It’s so interesting how her youth, growing up in a religious home, in a rural area has shaped her writing as she became an adult-this kind of stuff is fascinating for readers to know. No doubt the direct quotes she includes in her books are shocking, it’s the kind of ‘reality is stranger than fiction’ stuff that we like to pretend isn’t the case, but usually is!

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    • Well, I definitely was surprised when one uncle called a “yarmulke” a “Yamaha,” like the brand! I can imagine someone saying that in real life. It’s just bizarre enough that you want to laugh at the ignorance, but then you also frown because a yarmulke is just as easy to recognize as the Christian crucifix.

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    • I’m so glad you read it! Chavisa and I were writing back and forth about how she wanted to include the whole thing, but I also understand that most blog readers would skim the entire passage if I did include it. Cutting the paragraph down a bit and providing a link would likely get more people to read some and some people to read the entirety.

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