Wendy Ortiz and I both attended The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. We both started writing at a young age and ended up publishing memoirs about our early-life experiences with small presses (Future Tense, and Perfect Day Publishing) based in Portland, Oregon. But that’s where our similarities end. In her engaging and frightening memoir, Excavation, Ortiz details her four-year affair with her English teacher, which began while she was still in middle school. Also covered: her life as a teenager in LA in the 80’s, her relationship with her alcoholic mother and her eventual role as a teacher herself. I found myself transported back to an adolescence that was at once universal and also fraught with its own specific trauma. What follows is the conversation we had about the process of writing and publishing Excavation.
Martha: Your interest in writing was the door through which your English teacher, "Jeff", walked. I couldn't help but think how predators use our weak spots, our passions and interests to take advantage of us. On the other hand, what I loved so much about your story is that your writing is also what saved you; even when "Jeff" told you to never write about your relationship, you did anyway. Can you say a bit more about this? Did you ever think you would one day write a memoir about your relationship?
Wendy: The axis on which one can suffer and also survive (and even thrive)--this axis feels significant to my work as a person but also my work as a writer. I couldn't have seen this--and didn't--when I was even in my twenties. It took longer, much longer for this to really gel in my psyche. As an adolescent writer I knew I would write fiction about relationships like the one I was in (totally apparent in later chapters of the novel contained in the red binder mentioned in the beginning of the book) but it didn't occur to me to write a memoir about it until I was in my early twenties.
Martha: One of my favorite books is The Lover by Marguerite Duras. (Shamefully, I have not read Lolita.) How have similar stories shaped or informed your treatment of your own experience?
Wendy: When I began writing the first draft of the book in 2000 in a graduate creative writing program I was told to read Kathryn Harrison's The Kiss. Also assigned was Mark Doty's Firebird. Both books helped shape and inform where I knew I wanted to go with my own book. It took several rereadings of those books--years later--and then introductions to other books (more recently, Lidia Yuknavitch's The Chronology of Water) helped me see the bigger picture of what I was attempting to do with this book, and gave me the courage to continue with it. I've had readers tell me they thought of The Kiss while reading my book. The relationships between parents and child in Firebird also felt familiar to me as I was writing my own story. While these books are not about the same situation I write about there are elements that resonated so much for me in my reading of them that I knew would "show up" in some way in my own story--so when someone tells me they are reminded of The Kiss, for instance, I'm humbled and gratified to hear it (even as I've had mixed feelings about the book over the years).
One book I read in the past few years that also helped inform my treatment of my own experience was Tiger, Tiger by Margaux Fragoso. Again, this was another memoir that was not about the same situation I was in, but there were similarities I had to look at as a writer with my own story about power dynamics and abuse. In my reading of this book, I saw places I wanted more filled-in, a reflective element that I wasn't seeing in the narrative. This reminded me of what I needed to pay attention to in later drafts of my own book.
Martha: You bring a lot of humanity to the character of Jeff; he is not the creepy, mustachioed villain. In the end, I found your portrayal of him very kind - all things considered. He comes off as disturbed and manipulative, but also pathetic. As a reader I couldn't help but feel sorry for him. In a way, this makes him a more frightening character because he seems so normal. Did you have to work through a lot of feelings of bitterness or anger before being able to portray him as a three-dimensional character, or did that come naturally to you?
Wendy: It's easy to say now that it came naturally to me, but honestly, between the ages of 20-25 or so, I wasn't as keen on writing him as three dimensionally as he is written in the book. Rereading my journals from adolescence, though, reminded me of all the things I saw in him (from the perspective of a young person) and it's easier for me to see now, as an adult, why I was so captivated, even with all of his flaws. Bitterness and anger showed up in a lot of fiction and in some parts of the story that never made it into the book. Those feelings have transformed over time.
Martha: There are many moments in the book where an adult in your life could have intervened, or spoken up about your obviously inappropriate relationship with your teacher. I found myself thinking, Oh My God! Why doesn't anyone see what is going on here? Did these moments bubble through the writing process or was it a theme you wanted to draw out from the beginning?
Wendy: Good question but it requires a lot more--like, an essay-length response--one that I'm kind of working on internally. Please forgive me for passing on this one
Martha: You mined your teenage journal for material for the book. As a result (or maybe because you are a good writer) I found that you captured the confusion and high drama of adolescence fairly accurately. For example, the book contains passages like: "Puberty in a nutshell: I was regularly high, hormonal and passionately angry." And "… but the new places I found inside myself were suddenly starting to feel unpredictable, explosive, alive." I couldn't help but think how adults roll their eyes at teenagers’ emotional ups and downs. However, at the same time that you captured the silliness of your youth, you also were going through some really hard-core shit, to the extent that you would go "numb." How did you balance the fairly average aspects of your teenage years with the traumatic parts? Did you have to "get in the head" of your teenage self, or was it easy once you started picking up your journals?
Wendy: It's easy--maybe too easy--for me to access the teenage self in my head. That voice lives in my head along with others that reflect different times in my life. Living in that balance--even being aware as a teenager that some of my experiences were unusual compared to other more common experiences--that kind of coping mechanism--has served me as a writer and human.
Martha: How have your childhood friends reacted to the book?
Wendy: My childhood friends have been enormously supportive and loving. A couple of their mothers have read it, too, and I've only every received loving, generous comments about the book from them.
Martha: I grew up sheltered, and attended a small high school in rural Oregon. Reading your book, reminded me again how sheltered my childhood was. LA, in the 80's becomes like another character in your book. Can you talk about a bit about your treatment of place and time in the book?
Wendy: This is great to hear because it was an intention to have L.A. in the 1980s become its own character. This is an intention I try to carry in a lot of my writing. Setting *is* a character.
Martha: On a side note, like you, I attended Evergreen State College right out of high school and found the experience overwhelming. I had a nervous breakdown and dropped out after two terms. I find it funny that you, on the other hand, found the environment healing. We can talk about this, as long as you feel cool with making the conversation slightly less about the book! Ha!
Wendy: We can totally discuss that. I imagine if I'd gone right from high school to Evergreen I wouldn't have necessarily had the same kind of experience. It's important to note, too, that I spent eight years in Olympia, the first two at Evergreen, so it was more than Evergreen that had its impact on me. Many of my friends were not in school, were people I met outside of school, too.
Martha: Did your career choice to become a therapist come directly from your experience with “Jeff” or is it more complicated than that? (How do you find the time?)
Wendy: My career choice wasn't crystallized until late 2006, when after talking to a friend who was an artist and becoming a therapist, that I realized I probably had the capacity to do both. I could easily see how those two jobs could feed one another, when before I hadn't even considered it. My Olympia therapist used to ask me every once in a while, "Have you considered becoming a therapist yourself?" and I couldn't fathom yet what that meant or how I could make that work. It wasn't until I started the masters program in clinical psychology that I could really grasp how my own experiences would help me in the therapy field.
Martha: What is your next creative project?
My next book, Hollywood Notebook, is coming out this year from Writ Large Press. It's a prose poemish, memoirish, fragmentary book, with a very different voice from Excavation. Chronologically, it takes place from about the ages of 28 to 33.
Aside from this finished book I'm trying to work on a variety of other projects, all in brewing stages.