Sunday, August 21, 2016

Q & A with Shelley Armitage on WALKING THE LLANO: A TEXAS MEMOIR OF PLACE

[[ SHELLEY ARMITAGE ]]
The week before last, I posted a brief but glowing note about Shelley Armitage's Walking the Llano: A Texas Memoir of Place. This week I am delighted to share with you the author's answers to my questions about her lyrical and illuminating memoir of growing up in and later returning to explore the area around Vega, Texas. Vega sits on the Llano Estacado about half way between the eastern New Mexico / Texas border and the Texas Panhandle city of Amarillo. [Click here to see Vega, Texas on the map.] 

As you will see, some of my questions are with my students in mind (I teach literary travel writing and creative nonfiction), while other are apropos of my abiding interest in Texas (my own work-in-progress is on Far West Texas-- next door, as it were, to the Llano Estacado). Whether you are interested in writing travel and personal memoir or learning about this unique yet little known place, I think you will find what Shelley Armitage has to say at once fascinating and informative. 

C.M. Mayo: You have had a very distinguished career as an academic. What prompted you to switch to writing in this more literary and personal genre? 

[[ WALKING THE LLANO ]]
Shelley Armitage: I haven't really switched but shifted my focus. I've tried in all my previous books to write well and evocatively and they all required research and imagination as a foundation. I never believed that scholarly writing couldn't be readable, even possess literary qualities. But it's true that because I was an academic I was always steered away from personal/creative writing, something I wanted to do from a young age on. 

As I mention in the book, an elementary school friend and I wrote a novel together, a kind of mystery using local characters. When I was young I also admired the writing in National Geographic though I had no idea how to prepare myself to write such. Now as a retiree, I have time (though shortened!!) to explore what I've always yearned to do, though I still struggle to write things that are personal; I am more comfortable as a participant/observer.


C.M. Mayo: In your acknowledgements you mention the Taos Writers Conference and the Wurlitzer Foundation in Taos, New Mexico "where the book found a second life." Can you talk about Taos and the book's evolution?

Shelley Armitage: Taos is a special place in terms of environment and history--and many other things. So being in Taos (high desert, mountains, verdant valley) combined with focus on writing was special. I was fortunate to study with BK Loren, a novelist and essayist, at the writers' conference. She gave me permission, through her suggestions and assignments--though not related to the memoir-- to work with narrative in fresh ways.

I came to think about time in terms of what memory does with it, not something chronological. I spent lots of time in the Taos area hiking, just exploring the art scene, talking with other artists (particularly at the Wurlitzer Foundation). I've always found hanging out with other creative people, not writers, to be very stimulating and fun. Ditto looking at art, attending musical events, etc.

At the Wurlitzer I was able to get a rough draft. A couple of years later when I studied with BK, I went home and started again. 


C.M. Mayo: Which writers and works would you say have most influenced you in writing Walking the LlanoYou mention Southwest poet Peggy Pond Church and Southwest writer Mary Austin, as well as contemporary writers, including Rudolfo Anaya, Patricia Hampl, Leslie Marmon Silko, and Barry Lopez's writers retreat. Can you talk about some of these influences? 

Shelley Armitage: As a scholar I worked with the writings of both Austin and Church. I was Church's literary editor, worked with her until her death, and helped get her books published posthumously. 

Austin I knew from research I've done on women in the West, once (and maybe still) an incredibly under-researched and represented woman of Western writing and history.


Both women were extremely talented and independent but also faced assumptions about women's "place" at the time and credibility as writers. Austin did claim the tag feminist, though Church denied it. I think I saw in their talent and their battles something of myself. After all, when I received my Ph.D in 1983, someone in the English Department actually asked me if I intended to get a job with it.

The same perhaps ironically is true for Silko and Anaya, both writers whom I've taught with great enthusiasm and deep appreciation, both ground-breaking writers in a time when writers of color had a difficult time getting published. I don't mean to politicize their work but simply to point out their contribution to establishing a canon of work not available for my generation when we were students. 

Rudy also writes about the llano and Leslie will forever be influential for writing Ceremony and most recently her memoir. 

Patricia Hampl I've never met, unfortunately, but her memoirs are among the best in the genre, in my opinion. She is a seamless writer, moving among time periods, places, memories. A beautiful storyteller.

And Barry Lopez who led a writer's retreat, the first I ever attended, is a well-known "nature" writer. I like best his short stories which I've also written about. Though I am writing creative nonfiction, each of these writers has impressed me through their use of so-called fictional elements. That can be the beauty of nonfiction. These elements can make a memoir sing.


C.M. Mayo: Do you have any favorite literary travel / creative nonfiction books / writers? 

Shelley Armitage: I really don't have any favorites. I read lots of contemporary fiction (much of it immigrant writers or international writers in translation) and am drawn to books like Sally Mann's recent autobiography in which she uses photographs. 

I've written a lot on photography and find thinking about photos as connected to creating memorable but subtle images in writing. As a critic I've written some essays speculating on how photography connects with story, such as one on the photographs of Eudora Welty, called "The Eye and the Story."


C.M. Mayo: Any favorite Texan books / writers?

Shelley Armitage: I really haven't kept up with "Texas" writers as such. I don't think about writers in this category. Frankly, I tried to talk University of Oklahoma Press out of using the word Texas in my subtitle of Walking. For me, the book was about a geographic area, not a state. 

I often don't think of myself being in a state when I am in Texas but rather in a place which may or may not have commonalities with other places. That said, I did long ago admire the Texas book, Say Goodbye to a River, also the work of Elmer Kelton as a western writer who was a sage observer of the south plains, and occasionally the work of writers for Texas Monthly.


C.M. Mayo: Not many people outside of Texas have heard of the Llano Estacado, or Staked Plains, and yet it is an area bigger than New England and of considerable historical and ecological importance. Why do you think that is? (And how do the people who live there pronounce Llano Estacado?) 

Shelley Armitage: Sad to say, many Texans neither know the area nor how to pronounce it!!! It is Spanish, so llano is yano, with a soft "a," and estacado, just as it's spelled. I think most contemporary folk do not know much about geography, either in the present or historically.

I've found people who know most about the llano have spent time living within it (or on it?); cowboys, ranchers, local historians, wildlife biologists, etc. The llano suffers the same fate as most of the southwest except for the popularized places like Santa Fe: it's rural, not sublime (except in some of our eyes), and appears boring unless one can get off the main highways. 

That's actually not true if you are a lover of big skies and boundless horizons. It can appear inconsequential if identifying everything according to urban human life is most important. 

And yes, most pronounce it lano. 


C.M. Mayo: West Texas, which includes the Llano Estacado and the Far West Texas city of El Paso, where you lived for some years, is very different from the rest of Texas. In a sentence or two, what in your experience are the most substantial differences?

Shelley Armitage: In one sense the areas are like ethnic and cultural islands, separated from so-called mainstream Texas both in economics and history. In another sense, in regard to El Paso, there is the everlasting influence of Mexico and Central America.

There's also not the same commercial influences overall, that is, of the kind of characteristics Larry McMurtry might have spoofed. In the west of Texas we are mostly closer to other countries and state capitols than Austin.



[[ El Paso to Austin: 8 hours and 29 minutes ]]
[[ Austin to Vega, Texas: 8 hours ]]


C.M. Mayo: For someone who knows nothing about Texas, but seeks understanding, which would be the top three books you would recommend? 

Shelley Armitage: I'd suggest T.S. Fehrenbach's Comanches: The History of a People, Stephen Harrington's The Gates of the Alamo, and works by Sandra Cisneros.


C.M. Mayo: Ditto, books about the Llano Estacado?


Shelley Armitage: In terms of the llano, I'd recommend John Miller Morris's El Llano Estacado: Exploration and Imagination on the High Plains of Texas; Fred Rathjen's The Texas Panhandle Frontier; and Rick Dingus's forthcoming Shifting Views and Changing Places (a photographic collection with focus on the llano). I have an essay in Dingus's book called "On Being Redacted," which addresses his depiction of space, place, etc.

C.M. Mayo: One of the things I especially appreciated about Walking the Llano is your eye for the detail of the deep past-- rock art, arrowheads, potsherds, some many thousands of years old, and how earlier peoples inhabited the landscape not as square feet measured off with a fence, but as a shape. And the Llano Estacado is shaped by draws-- what people elsewhere would call a creek bed or an arroyo. The draw you focus on is the Middle Alamosa Creek. Having written this book, your eye for the shape of a landscape-- any landscape-- must be far sharper. Am I right? If so, can you give an example?

Shelley Armitage: Thanks for mentioning this! I have always liked Mary Austin's comment that to appreciate the desert, you needed "a noticing eye." The draws that become the Middle Alamosa Creek are my so-called backyard and yet I was amazed to discover what had transpired there. Spending time, listening, looking, being open to discovery I think is important wherever we find ourselves.

Right now I am in the Chihuahuan desert and very interested in learning more and perhaps writing about it. In Poland, I spent lots of time walking and looking, going into the forests that bordered Warsaw. 

In fact, I think being conscious of shapes, as you say, rather than man-made or distinguished borders can awaken us to a different kind of understanding of how we are part of these environments. It's a kind of personal ecology.

I like to look without language, by which I mean a kind of openness before we name something and thus categorize it. 


C.M. Mayo: Popular imagery of Texas often differs immensely from reality, and yet at the same time, in so many instances, stereotypes and reality intertwine, sometimes unconsciously, sometimes ironically, perhaps playfully. For example, the other day I happened to visit the website of the vast La Escalera Ranch and, as I recall, one of the videos was playing the theme song to the movie "Giant." In Walking the Llano you mention that, a child growing up in Vega, you were "steeped in the cowboy films of my childhood...Dale Evans... Roy Rogers... Then there were Gene Autry and The Lone Ranger, which led to records, sheet music, and magic rings." Later you write, "In elementary school, I kept writing about the other Wests, as if they were more important than my own." In this regard, what do you see happening for children in Vega, Texas, and similar places, now?

Shelley Armitage: I'd like to think the kids in Vega could revel in the mixture of fact and fantasy in a state and on a llano fairly amazing! And I was hopeful when I had the chance to speak to a 4th grade class at Vega schools about my book. I used a Power Point of some of the photos in the book, but of course in much more gorgeous color.

They responded with great questions about the flora and fauna mainly, but when I asked if any of them realized this canyon country existed just north of town, only one little boy said "Ma'am, I live out on one of those ranches." Everyone else seemed clueless, happy to connect the area with something else they knew, but not familiar with it themselves. 

I think their world is more daily defined as Stars Wars or Frozen and of course through that little object influencing us all, the cell phone. Viewing the world through frames, television, computer screens, cell phones is no doubt more defining than the big star their parents put on their houses. 

Do they consider themselves "Texans"? I would guess yes, when the situation calls for it. Still when I was a kid I think I was more aware of being a westerner than a Texan.