In The Field: Conversations With Our Contributors—Joseph Holt
This week, we spoke with Jospeh Holt on finding inspiration in small moments, place and setting in writing, and his upcoming works.
Your flash nonfiction piece, “People in Cars Outside the Coin Laundry,” talks about the daily interactions (or lack of interactions) at a laundromat. What was the inspiration behind this story? How did it come to be?
I recall doing laundry at a particular laundromat in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. That’s where I first made the notes that became this little essay. My life then was very busy, and doing laundry forced me to slow down. I wasn’t trying to multitask or anything. I was probably a little bored—in a good way—which led me to daydream about narrating the experience. That said, it took several years for my notes to take shape. In the meantime, my memories of that one laundromat became more like a generalized nostalgia for an unhurried day.
I love the phrase you craft at the beginning, “itinerant people,” echoed later with the phrase “what counts as home.” Where is your favorite place that you’ve traveled or worked? Do you find that various locations help you develop different stories?
Yes and no that the places I’ve been help me with writing. It’s weird, because I’ve lived in some exotic places—Taiwan, Wales, and Norway, for instance—but I never write about them. I always felt that I was just passing through, and that I could only ever glimpse the surfaces. In that way, I’ve felt “itinerant.” But then there’s places like my grandparents’ farms, the basements of my high school friends, or a laundromat in Hattiesburg. These places are smaller and more local, and they seem like “home” by virtue of my comfort there. They can operate for me like blueprints: I imagine the lives that pass through them and their dramatic possibility.
I was impressed that for such a short piece, it’s packed with the stillness of hours. Do you find you normally draw inspiration from daily moments like these? Or from where do you draw inspiration?
I do try noticing things. Back like ten or twelve years ago, I took a mindfulness course where the instructor passed around some prunes and asked us to meditate on their journey: from seed to fruit to commercial product, plus all the humans and machines that altered their course. It’s actually a lot to consider. It taught me there’s a story to most things, and it kind of filled me with wonder. The novelist Frederick Barthelme makes a similar statement, citing a rotisserie chicken as inspiration for his turn to more realistic, observational fiction. His interests, he writes, became “the mundane” and “ordinary people in plain circumstances,” which is another way of saying daily moments.
Your question was about stillness, which is a theme woven all throughout Water~Stone Review, Volume 25. As I take it, the theme of “How Quiet Burns” suggests our longing for a world less cluttered by noise and distraction. In her introduction to the issue, Meghan Maloney-Vinz writes about the greater awareness we might find “if we rest for a moment without a device telling us where to turn and how to listen.” So yeah, there’s so much texture in the world, but it takes some effort and stillness to appreciate it.
What writers inspire or influence your work? Who are some authors you enjoy?
“People in Cars Outside the Coin Laundry” is flash writing, and no one in that field compares to Lydia Davis. I wouldn’t even count her as an influence, because she’s entirely inimitable. Then there’s the power and precision of Mary Robison, whose novels have all the compression of a great flash work. Among my favorite contemporary poets is Glenn Shaheen, and his flash fiction “Interference” (in the collection Carnivalia) is a great example of wonder, concreteness, and ephemeral thought. And finally, the translator and prose poet Gary Young crafts these blocks of prose that are as expressive and evocative as a good watercolor. His prose poetry (especially the collection That’s What I Thought) can be appreciated like a daily devotional, offering a model for how to pay closer attention.
Your story collection Golden Heart Parade came out two years ago. What other projects are you working on now?
I’ve been finding my way with short stories and personal essays for a while now. Lately I’ve turned my efforts to longer works. I just wrapped up what I hope will be my debut novel, a dark comedy in which two radio deejays search for a college athlete last seen in a blurry photograph of a tornado. That work is fairly plot-heavy. Now I’m drafting an existential farming novel, which is slower and more contemplative.
JOSEPH HOLT is the author of the story collection Golden Heart Parade. His writing has appeared in Gulf Coast, Prairie Schooner, and The Sun. He teaches a class on book review at Catapult, and he’s part of the MFA faculty at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.