Liz Prato

Interviewed by Magdalen Powers

Most people I know from Portland are actually from somewhere else. Are you from somewhere else? If so, what brought you to the rainy city? If you’re a native, what keeps you there?

I’m from Denver, where it’s sunny 300 days a year. I originally came out here to go to Lewis & Clark College. I first visited Lewis & Clark in the middle of May. It was 75 degrees and sunny, and the rhododendrons and apple trees and roses were in full bloom. The students were all happy and playing Frisbee. So, you can see how I got tricked into living here. I truly hate the winters, but I stay because when it’s sunny and all the rhododendrons and apple trees and roses are in bloom, it’s the most beautiful place on earth. The people are friendly and weird, the city supports independent ideas and businesses, and it’s got a great literary community.

You’re currently with Dangerous Writers, Tom Spanbauer’s well-known writing group. What can you tell me about your experience with that, and your thoughts about writing in a workshop atmosphere, as opposed to writing alone?

Actually, I haven’t studied directly with Tom. I worked with two of his former students, Stevan Allred and Joanna Rose, who were teaching Dangerous Writing. About six months ago, I suddenly realized they didn’t call our class Dangerous Writers anymore. It turns out they had decided to individuate from Tom and DW—not for any dramatic reasons, just because they wanted to do their own thing.

Dangerous Writers has a reputation as some sort of crazy writing cult, but, aside from the method, it’s no different than any other writing community. It’s just a bunch of people interested in exploring language. They have a very sophisticated and helpful approach to looking at work. But it has its limitations, just like any method or instructor. Everyone has their own “thing” that they teach, and I like to explore lots of different things with different instructors.

Back in April I decided to take a break from the Class Formerly Known as Dangerous Writing. I was curious to see how I’d do without that continuous feedback on my work, how much I’d be able to figure out on my own. I’ve learned that there are plenty of times I suspect something in my writing isn’t working, but I decide to let it sit unless someone else comments on it. Part of that is not trusting myself, and the other part is seeing what I can get away with. Without people reading my work every week, I can’t ignore those instincts. I have to trust myself more. So, being on my own has been positive so far. But I still think it’s important to not write in a vacuum. I always try to share work with and remain connected to other writers.

“Underneath the Magnolia Tree When Magnolias Were in Bloom,” from Subtropics 2, is written in a very deliberate and incantatory style, as though you’re trying to get something across not just to the reader, but perhaps to the main character as well. Did you have any specific method or effect in mind while you were writing it?

I’d be lying if I said I purposefully applied a particular method to writing that piece, since it came to me while I was sitting on the edge of the bathtub, shaving my legs. Usually, when I start a piece, I don’t go into it with a specific voice or style in mind. Usually, the story tells me what that voice should be. That’s why I’m not one of those authors who has only one distinct voice. That would only allow me to tell one kind of story.

Many of my stories explore how the world becomes a different place when someone close to us dies. I’m interested in how we adapt to, or reject, that new world. Adapting to it is what we call healing. Healing isn’t about forgetting or getting over it. It’s about allowing ourselves to become a different person than we were before the loss. So, in “Underneath the Magnolia Trees,” it’s not so much that I was trying to convey something to the main character, but that she was trying to convey something to me about the nature of healing. God, that probably sounds like new-age psychobabble, like I’m a massage therapist, or something . . . .

The best writing job I ever had was as a restaurant dishwasher. I would tape a Guest Check to the water heater and write poetry during my shift. You’re a massage therapist by day. . . . How do you find that your massage work informs, helps, or hinders your writing? Vice versa?

In a very basic way it’s helpful, because there’s lots of quiet time to think about elements of my writing. But in an ironic way it hinders me. When people lie on my table, they’re allowing themselves to be vulnerable. They allow themselves to be open. Where they come from or how they behave in the outside world is irrelevant—and no one ever acts like a dick. So, that translates to me creating a lot of earnest characters in my fiction. They’re all striving to be better in some spiritual or existential way. Not many of them are dicks, and if they are, it’s for some deep-seated reason.

I recently had a conversation with Aimee Bender where I asked her why she wrote so many mean characters in her collection “Willful Creatures.” She said that she’s an earnest person, so she wanted to portray the side of humanity that wasn’t. I think that’s amazing, that she could get down inside cruelty without having to explain it in some reductive term, like “Oh, this character is so cruel is because his father beat him,” or “She’s a narcissist because her mother ignored her.” She could just allow her characters be mean, without them coming off as villains from central casting. Plus, Aimee could create that and still maintain an optimistic world view. I’m not there yet.

In “Under the Sheets,” in Subtropics 4, which is about your job, you do a neat thing by giving insight into the person on the other side of the sheets. There are a number of other professions—hairdresser, bartender, of course the mental health field—where part or all of the practitioners’ job is to listen to other people’s problems. Do you think people who partake of these services think about even the possibility of the practitioner having problems of his or her own? How do you feel about this?

I have a few clients who have never asked, “So, how are you?” and know absolutely nothing about my life. It’s kind of weird, but I accept that they see our relationship as therapeutic and that would break the boundary for them. In a way, that’s pretty cool—that me being there solely to help them is that important.

But most of my clients ask about me. The thing is, I don’t know how honest it’s okay to be when they ask me how I am. If I’m really sad or angry or frustrated about something going on in my life, I don’t want to put that on them. Part of my job is to create a relaxing experience for them and, even if they genuinely care about me, they shouldn’t have to pay money to worry about me or contemplate my problems. That’s the sticky miasma of operating somewhere between a psychotherapist and a hairdresser.

I can’t bring myself to ask “the boner question,” even though I’ve heard it’s the most common question asked of massage therapists. I mean, it seems like The Public Wants To Know, but . . .

Most boners are pretty benign—meaning, the guy isn’t looking for a happy ending. I’ve been in this business for over 12 years, and have learned how to weed out the guys looking for sex in one phone call. But it’s not rocket science—or psychopathology, for that matter. An erection happens during massage because the guy is naked and getting his thigh or his butt rubbed, and blood is moving around and it feels good. Massage therapists all have pretty different tactics for handling erections (and let me tell you how hard it is to write about erections without tripping over innuendo). I knew one woman who mounted a machete on her office wall and told her male clients, “That’s what happens if you get an erection.” I tend to take a more moderate view. I assume it’s a sign that this guy is a sexual being and therefore a human being, and as long as he treats me with respect and doesn’t draw attention to the erection, it’s not a huge deal. In other words, erections happen. Now watch, after this interview is published, there’ll be a sudden upsurge in the number of boners I see . . . .

Do you have anything else to add?

Wow, my first published interview is going to end with me talking about boners. Not that anyone close to me will be surprised. Except my dad.

Liz Prato’s story “Underneath the Magnolia Tree When Magnolias Were in Bloom” appears in Subtropics 2. Her essay “Under the Sheets” appears in Subtropics 4.