Interview with Alice Lowe


Image courtesy of Jenn Rhubright

Joan Hanna: Hi, Alice. We were so pleased to have “My Moving Cage” as part of the July r.kv.r.y. issue. Can you share with our readers why you decided to write a story on the subject of hodophobia?

Alice Lowe: My experience, even though it was many years in the past, has always remained vivid. And over the years, after I discovered that it was a recognized, i.e. “legitimate,” phobia, I became increasingly interested in it, as well as remarkably reassured, even long after the fact, that I wasn’t alone, that it wasn’t a personal failing. Realizing that it had a name and a definition and that there were treatments for it inspired me to learn as much as I could and to write about it.

Writing personal narrative depends on being able to mine one’s past, to compile those experiences and memories that are vivid to us but also might have a broader appeal, might speak to our shared human condition. That includes pain and sorrow and humiliation, and it also means having the ability to laugh at ourselves and to expose our own foibles.

I’ve shared this work with a number of friends and acquaintances since its publication, and only a couple of them ever knew what I had gone through. I told them that I find it ironic that in writing personal narrative, we tell “the world,” so to speak, things we haven’t even told our close friends. Perhaps, I said, we know all along that it’s “material,” and we’re saving it for our memoirs or our fiction.

I didn’t write this with the idea that it would speak to “fellow sufferers,” in spite of the fact that my own discoveries about it were vitally important to me. One person said that she thought it was hilarious; “that’s what you intended, isn’t it?” she asked. Well, if that’s how it strikes you, sure, was my response. But others felt sorry for me, commiserated. I was surprised that the primary response has been people telling me about their own discomfort driving on bridges, even though they don’t profess to have a full-blown phobia, or their fears and phobias about heights, which is of course related. A therapist told me of another technique that she thinks is better than “tapping,” and offered to demonstrate it to me. Please, no, I said, that’s not the point!

 

JH: Yes, there does seem to be a connecting on an emotional level with readers especially when the details and imagery in this story were so tactile I found myself squirming as I read your story. How were you able to focus so keenly on the physical aspects of this phobia?

AL: Probably because they were intense, and the experience was unusual for me, so out of character. I remember thinking, this isn’t me—I don’t behave this way. That, as you see in the story, is part of my problem—the need to be in control of every aspect of my life, especially of my own behavior and reactions. That lapse was jarring for me; I felt vulnerable. And then, of course, once I started writing, it all came rushing back. I was able to project myself back to that time and almost feel the panic again.

I realized too, that time and distance had given me a different perspective—I was able to find a lot of humor in the experience. Falling off a cliff is tragic; almost falling off a cliff is a hair-raising story that one can embellish with all kinds of gritty, dark and funny detail. And so I set about extracting the pathos and finding the dark humor in my escapades. I like to think that my descriptions of the physical responses evoke the kind of squirming that you get when you read a creepy story, like the monster in the closet from children’s books.

Would you believe, I had an opportunity yesterday, while in the midst of thinking about your interview questions, to test the authenticity of my descriptions. My car died on a busy stretch of the freeway. Just crapped out suddenly, and I was barely able to pull off onto the shoulder. And I saw that I was on an overpass, just a thin rail separating me from the edge and the road crossing underneath. Jeez, I thought, I don’t believe this. I called AAA, and while I waited, my eyes were glued to the rear-view mirror, fully expecting someone to plow into me, wondering if the impact would send me careening into the path of someone doing 70mph, or over the side. It was harrowing, and I felt that old panic.

 

JH: I noticed that you mention :“The White Album,” by Joan Didion, Home Before Dark,” by Susan Cheever, and Virginia Woolf in your story. I wonder if you found these writers as you were researching this phobia or if you felt an affinity to them before you understood you even had hodophobia?

AL: I’ve had to bite my tongue—more accurately my fingertips—to keep from mentioning these sources from your very first question, as they played an important part in my experience, including why I decided to write it, how it remained so vivid.

Of course I read voraciously—isn’t that ultimately what makes us turn to writing?—and since starting to write personal essays, I’ve been fascinated by the way literature weaves itself into our lives. I’m stimulated with the idea of examining the ways in which fictional characters and writers themselves, in their memoirs, not only reflect the human condition—of course they do—but analyze and shed light on complex phenomena. The premise of Jonah Lehrer’s Proust Was a Neuroscientist is that artists and writers—Proust, Woolf, George Eliot and others—discovered things about the mind (memory, feeling, the self) before neuroscience validated them.

“The White Album” was the first revelation—I think I screamed aloud when I read her describing the experience that was still too embarrassing for me to disclose. Ruth Reichl’s similar experience was the next one I came across. I’m a fan of both of them—Didion’s insightful essays and caustic wit, Reichl’s marriage of Proustian food memories to life events, her life in food—I felt honored to be sharing even their phobia, and of course it occurred to me that there must be others, many others. This was pretty much pre-Google, though I don’t know how one would even search for this kind of thing anyway.

The other literary references were purely chance findings after I had already started working on it. Learning about John Cheever from his daughter’s book and then seeking out the story he wrote about it—truly the most riveting description of all, if you really want to squirm; rereading Anne Lamott’s All New People because it’s just so ironical and funny and painful, and finding the reference there that I’d completely forgotten.

Finally, I am a Virginia Woolf devotee—an independent scholar, not an academician—I’ve read and studied her life and work for years and have written a number of essays and reviews, presented at conferences, etc. As a result, Woolf has permeated my life and certainly my writing. Sometimes intentionally and other times serendipitously she makes appearances in my personal essays, even one about baseball! If and when I collect them into a volume, she will be the thread that runs through them.

A Writer’s Diary, extracts from her five volumes of published diaries, is the work that most inspires me, and the particular passage that I used in my essay, in which she admonishes herself to observe everything, even her own depression, was in the last entry of that volume, written just a few weeks before she took her life. She goes on to talk with some excitement about going to the museum, reading history, bicycling, keeping busy. About recovery, in a word! She ends by saying that it’s time to cook dinner: “Haddock and sausage meat. I think it is true that one gains a certain hold on sausage and haddock by writing them down.” My paper at the last Virginia Woolf Conference, was “A Certain Hold on Sausage and Haddock: Dining Well in Virginia Woolf’s Life and Work.”

 

JH: I’m glad you shared those references with our readers. I especially like the idea that as writers we can analyze and shed light on complex phenomena. How do you think your hodophobia was affected by moving from “a one-church, one-pub village in England’s West Country” to suddenly be thrust into the bustling activity of California and the necessity to cross bridges like the Coronado Bay Bridge? And, ultimately how has this effected either how you approach your writing or just writing in general?

AL: The height of the phobia was in the year preceding my time in England. I wanted to put it out of my mind while I was there—Scarlet O’Hara style, “I’ll think about it tomorrow”—and I was partially successful. I was still faced with my driving limitations, but it’s expected that Americans have trouble driving in Britain anyway, so I laughed it off and let people think it was just general discomfort. And I was able to tool around the countryside without too much trouble.

My six months in England was an idyllic period. Having a block of time—not working for the first time in my adult life—was extraordinary, but I was almost crippled with my own expectations; remember, it was the anticipation of this venture that may have triggered the hodophobia in the first place. I thought I would write, but as it turned out I needed that time just for decompression. I had to learn to slow down, to be able to do nothing, to observe and think. To “just be,” in New Age jargon. I think that was all very necessary for me in order to be able to write, and having somewhat limited mobility may have even been advantageous. It was there and then that I discovered Woolf and A Writer’s Diary, which had a critical impact on me.

I think there was a part of me that thought that I would come home altered and everything would be okay, that time and distance would have taken care of it, but of course nothing had really changed. Except that it had been helpful in allowing me to distance myself from the problem; what I brought back was the determination to not let it get the best of me. I had my old fighting spirit, and that’s what ultimately won out.

 

JH: Do you have any current projects or links to website or blogs that you would like to share with our readers.

AL: I don’t have a website, but I’m being told repeatedly that it’s time—I’ll put it on my list.  I don’t have a “blog of my own,” but I contribute regularly to the Virginia Woolf blog, focusing on contemporary writers who evoke Woolf. The latest is about Anne Fadiman, also a Woolf fan, whose personal and “familiar” essays I find outstanding: http://bloggingwoolf.wordpress.com/author/alicelowe88/

A couple of my other personal essays have been published in recent months:

Seventh Inning Stretch,” my “baseball and me” piece, is at Hobart online.

Another piece, “Elvis Standing By,” tells about some of my Woolf adventures (Woolf and Elvis, don’t you like that juxtaposition?). It’s in Eclectica.

 

JH: We thank you again for sharing “My Driving Cage” and your insights into these lovely influential writers with our readers. Just one last question: can you share with us what recovery means to you?

AH: I’m presently writing an essay about “Re-Entry”—my experiences as a “re-entry,” i.e. older university student; it’s also about re-invention, reawakening, regeneration—you can see where I’m going here, all these “re-” words. All of them, and recovery too, are to a certain extent about self-discovery, about looking at the past and learning from it in order to get a handle on the present and future.

I tell how my going back to school in my late 30s came in part as a result of my recovery from a bad relationship. I had gone down a rocky path until I hit a wall, and then I rebounded, I recovered. The same with my hodophobia. Recovery doesn’t necessarily mean that one is completely cured, good as new; to me it’s more of a taking control. I’m back at the wheel—literally and figuratively—I’m in charge of my life again; even if I never drive across that damned bridge.

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