Laura Jean Schneider is the author of the short story “Alternate Endings” in TTR 1.2. She also writes a blog about the writing life on a ranch in New Mexico and is an MFA candidate at Vermont College of Fine Arts. She was kind enough to answer some questions from Jennifer Porter, Fiction Editor at The Tishman Review.
- I like line-dried laundry also, but haven’t put the wash out in years. There’s something about capturing the sun in your sheets or in your jeans that appeals to me. In Michigan though, there is usually too much moisture in the air to line dry. What is it about harkening back to the pre-tech days that you think appeals to so many of us? What is it about line-dried laundry that you like?
There’s something intentional about handling each item of wash individually that gets missed in the washer/dryer process. Sure, there’s the initial sorting process, but everything is loaded for maximum efficiency and dried in a mass. I grew up hanging out laundry–even in the winter–and loathed it. Here, our off-grid camper doesn’t generate enough power to operate a washing machine, so I wash my laundry in town but take everything back to the ranch to line dry. Nothing beats the outdoor smell. I find the methodical process of pinning up items relaxing. I get into color coordination and mixing up shapes and patterns on the line: it’s almost like an installation process. Of course you risk bird shit, strong winds, and recently, an orphan calf sucking on the dangling arms of our shirts, but I like that connection with my clothing.
- Why go to New Mexico for the dream life rather than stay in your home state?
I’ve moved over thirty times in the last eleven years and have found bits of my dream life all over the United States. I left Minnesota the day after I turned eighteen, and my travels were a way to find out whom I was and what I wanted to do. You can make the dream life anywhere, I think, but the climate and landscape here in New Mexico feels like a good fit for me. It’s similar to when I first showed up in Montana at eighteen years old. I remember having this distinct feeling that I fit there, spatially. Like somehow the external landscape matched my internal one. The openness was liberating. Now I find the density and lush green of wetter places almost overwhelming.
- I really enjoyed your essay “Beauty in the Beast” in New Mexico Magazine about Coconut the cow elk, raised by humans and released onto the land on which you are now ranching. It reminds me a bit of Rawlings “The Yearling.” Do you find nature a muse or inspiration for your work?
It’s ironic that you mention “The Yearling.” I just finished rereading it. One of my reading list requirements for this semester was to revisit a favorite childhood book–guess what I chose? “The Yearling” was so much different this time around. It didn’t feel like a child’s book–it handles some surprisingly mature themes–but I found the world Rawlings creates for the Baxters and their neighbors more mesmerizing than ever. Her descriptions are astounding. I tend toward stripped down prose, but there’s a way to characterize the commonplace that she masters and it’s well worth looking at. Nature is the probably the largest source of my inspiration for writing. I think it’s crucial to get out and about on the land. I work through challenges in my writing life by going for a walk or a run or saddling up a horse and getting out of the camper, away from the laptop, and observing the world around me. I’m fortunate to be writing in some pretty inspiring country.
- And speaking of children’s books, did you have favorites as a child and what would those be? How do you think they may influence your writing today?
Besides Rawlings, I loved Robert Louis Stevenson, Lois Lenski, Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Marguerite Henry–authors who focused on adventure, animals and nature. As a younger reader, C.W Anderson and Bill Peet were big favorites, but my all-time favorite children’s book was a 1960 edition of “The Firecat” by Esther Averill. It’s about a feline bully that has a change of heart and turns into a fireman-cat. The illustrations, also by the author, are charming and colorful. This story always made me feel anything was possible. I think these books–and many more–helped me define what it took to make a good story–a balance of humor, drama, description, reliability, and above all, believability. I’d never been in a boat, but from Defoe’s descriptions I could imagine Robinson Crusoe’s shipwreck. I’d never twisted marsh hay into tight bundles until my hands bled, but I could feel the pain in the task Ingalls described, and sense the frenetic energy Enid Bagnold wrote into The Pie in “National Velvet.”
- How’s it working for you to live in a 320 square foot camper and still get the privacy you need to write? Do you have a routine or other “methods” to shut out the needs of the ranch in order to spend the time needed to write? EB White lived on a farm and said he had to put himself in that mental space to write as all he could see were unfinished farm chores.
I was homeschooled in a family of eleven in a house smaller than 1,000 square feet. As my mother recently reminded me, my husband and I have more space per person in our camper than my siblings and I did growing up. I learned early on how to work with distractions. I try to make writing more of a mental place than a physical one, if that makes sense. I did have a lovely studio space for doing art and writing a few ranch jobs back that spoiled me for a while, and someday it would be great to have a designated workspace again. For now, most of my writing happens during the early morning on the couch with my laptop after my husband is horseback and the camper is quiet. I’ve tried to establish routines in the past, but find a daily word count seems to be more effective for me, since on a ranch you’re on-call 24 hours a day and don’t have set days off. It is easy to see the sink full of dishes and the hungry calf that wants a bottle and horse that needs training, and drift back into the state of the endless catch-up. In “On Writing” Stephen King recommends embracing the daily interruptions that arise, seeing them as possible inspirations instead of inconveniences. I’ve found that approach both practical and encouraging.
- Tell me about your four dogs. I have four dogs at my house too but never tell anyone because they think that’s crazy.
Belle is an eight-year-old Border Collie / Australian shepherd cross. She was my first gift to Sam and she’s been sailing and on a 10,000 mile road trip with us in a 1967 Volvo Coupe. Fe (pronounced Fay) is her half sister. She’s a seven-year-old Australian Shepherd who was born deaf and is trained completely with hand signals. Luna is a four-year-old Border Collie with a quiet and sweet personality who likes to talk to me, and Eva is a year-and-half-year old Hanging Tree Dog (a breed that combines Catahoula, Border Collie, Kelpie, and Australian Shepherd lines) who is water hose obsessed. Every animal we own has a job to do, and these four girls work cattle for us on a daily basis. Four dogs is a lot, but they’re remarkably good and we couldn’t do our ranch work without them.
- Would you like to weigh in on the MFA or Not debate? I, for one, am very glad I went to the Bennington Writing Seminars for my MFA. How’s it working for you?
I would! When I was asking a VCFA alum why the MFA experience was worth it, she replied that while you could probably achieve the skill set on your own, an MFA program saves you much of the time it’ll take to acquire it. So far, I agree. I’ll be done with my second semester by the time this is posted, and already I feel that my work has grown in ways I would have never imagined. Having someone with experience to read, critique and encourage you is fabulous. It’s a high price tag up front, but I think what I’ll end up learning as a result of this program can’t be quantified.
- Speaking of Vermont, do you love it there? It must be a striking contrast from New Mexico. I love Vermont. I found out in my final term of graduate school that one of my ancestors actually fought in the Battle of Bennington as one of the Green Mountain Boys and I had this ah-ha moment, of realizing why I felt like I belonged in Bennington. Have you discovered a connection to Vermont?
My strongest connection to Vermont is so much less romantic … Actually, the direct access to quality maple syrup has been the number one thrill for me: I lugged a gallon back to New Mexico in my carryon after my first residency! Vermont is beautiful but I could never live there: it’s a lot like Minnesota weather-wise. I’m trying to pull off the semester in Puerto Rico for this winter residency–I feel I’ve put in my time with four-foot drifts and -20 wind chills. But Montpelier is a cute town and the summer offers so much more to do in terms of accessibility that it’s a great season to be there.
- And finally, there’s a dark humor that I love in “Alternate Endings.” I’m curious to know if you have a Mr. Dodge in your life?
Mr. Dodge was actually inspired by a ranch truck that I couldn’t stand. It left me, my husband, and multiple other employees stranded numerous times for a plethora of reasons. It was while stomping through hill and dale for eight miles in ballet flats–after it died yet again, long story–that I think the idea for “Alternate Endings” was born: if this truck was a person, what would that look like? Earlier drafts were not as kind to Mr. Dodge. But as the character became a character, not a vehicle-revenge cipher, I realized there was something so off-putting but eerily relatable about this guy too. Crafting this story taught me the value of paying attention to inanimate things. I mean, I turned a truck into a person. It kind of takes some of the pressure off of constantly observing people.