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An Interview with Lia Woodall


Lia Woodall (she/her) is an award-winning essayist who experiments with form to explore her experience of twin loss to suicide. Her hybrid chapbook Remove to Play (The Cupboard Pamphlet, 2020) was a 2019 contest winner. Other work appears in Best American Experimental Writing 2020 (digital edition), under the gum tree, Literal Latté, Sonora Review, The Rumpus, Bomb Magazine, and elsewhere, and has been recognized with Pushcart Prize nominations and as notables in The Best American Essays series. She is at work on a collection-across-genre called Leaving Twinbrook: A Memoir of Duality.

What inspired you to start writing this book?

CW: suicide

I’m a recovered attorney who stopped practicing law in 2005. A couple years later, and to prepare for becoming an empty-nester, I began taking writing classes at Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver. I started with the short story form, but memoir content kept insisting that I include it. So, I switched over to CNF and found the home I needed to tell my twin loss story, how I had become a twinless twin when Larry shot himself in 1991. The first personal essay I completed was a hybrid of text, photographs, and images, including some of Larry’s personal artwork. Foolishly, I thought the urgency I felt to write about losing my twin to suicide would subside when that essay was published. But I discovered I had more to say. Much more. And the form of the essay had become equally important to me as the content I was exploring. I started playing more and more with form, building art as Larry once had with his photography. It made me feel closer to him.

I have published essays in various forms, such as an elliptical curve, the shape of which is defined by the distance between two focal points. Another explores the scream I had held inside for 22 years until I finally expelled it on the fifth floor of MoMA during a conversation between Van Gogh’s The Starry Night and Edvard Munch’s The Scream. In my chapbook, Remove to Play, I take the last photo of us—one Larry took of me at our 10th high school reunion that also captured his image in a mirror—cut it into 16 squares and turn it into a slide puzzle that I play to see if I can put us back together.

At some point, I began to pull my essays together and embrace the possibility of a book length project. I’m currently working on drafts of essays in the shape of a board game we played as kids called Careers, a promotional brochure advertising the award-winning suburban housing development where we grew up in a neighborhood called Twinbrook, and a visual poem in the shape of a Centerfold that features the Visible Woman model kit I got for Christmas one year that never quite fit together because my mom had removed the uterus before wrapping it and putting in under the tree. When my book is nearing completion, I will write an immersive essay based on playing a boardgame that Larry originally created and illustrated in 1982 when he had his first manic episode. It’s a knockoff of Monopoly that focused on poverty instead of wealth. He called it Skidro’.

Tell us the story of your book’s current title. Was it easy to find, or did it take forever?

Although it wasn’t immediately obvious to me, my close writing friends favored the idea of naming my collection after my childhood neighborhood, Twinbrook. That title did feel like a gift from the universe.

Dad and Mom took us home from the hospital to their newly built split level in a quiet post-war neighborhood in Rockville, Maryland. Our street, Gruenther Avenue, honored a WWII General, but the residential development was named for the two branches of Rock Creek that traversed the original 200 acres of wheat farmland. Larry and I had arrived in Twinbrook.

But Twinbrook by itself didn’t feel exactly right. After all, my story is less about arrivals and fundamentally about my twin brother’s violent departure.

For thirteen years, life was solid, if not good, until our family left Twinbrook and headed to the Arizona desert. A big change—an uprooting that served me well as I began high school, but proved more disruptive to the lives of my four siblings. Twenty years later, I’m happily married with a toddling daughter and baby son, living in a central staircase colonial in DC, just downstream from my childhood home. A few blocks east, Rock Creek surges along my parkway drive to work at a prestigious law firm. I’m settling into my busy, but blessed, life when my twin brother shoots himself in the heart and is gone. Suddenly, I’m leaving Twinbrook all over again. This time—the most profound loss and unimaginable uprooting.

Leaving Twinbrook seemed more appropriate.

Describe your dream book cover.

Wow, that’s seems like getting a little ahead of things. However, I was recently working on my documentary poetics essay about Twinbrook and the promise of suburbia in the 1950s, when my son saw my computer screen with the housing development brochure that I had personalized and manipulated with family photos. He asked if that was my book cover. That got me thinking. On the page I also had a photo I made of a long film strip I had found at my mom’s house that showed Larry and me as babies in side-by-side baby carriers when held to the light. That might make a pretty interesting spine to my book and that’s the titular essay, too.

If your book had a soundtrack, what are some songs that would be on it?

This one’s easy. Music Larry enjoyed over his short lifetime, beginning with “Tapestry” by Carole King. That was the first album he bought with his own money when we were 12. The lyric, “Once amid the soft, silver sadness in the sky” breaks me each time.

When we moved to Arizona in 1972, Larry listened to Black Sabbath’s album Paranoid, especially the song “Iron Man,” on repeat, it seemed. We were running in different circles then, pulling away from each other during high school.

I remember the first time Larry played a tape of “Stay (Just a Little Bit Longer)” by Jackson Browne. We were in college. He had gotten into country music;songs that told a story.

And “Margaritaville” by Jimmy Buffett. Whenever I hear it, I smile, remembering what a rascal Larry was. When I pulled into the funeral home, driving Larry’s truck, that song came on the radio. A gift from the universe that helped me face the real music inside.

What books are you reading (for research or comfort) as you continue the writing process?

I read essays and memoirs, especially those on suicide loss, sibling loss, and twin loss. There are more now;not true when Larry died in 1991. I go to books for understanding, compassion and validation of my experience and feelings.

Since I’m writing more experimentally now, I tend to focus on essays and poems and books that inspire me in that way and inform my work of all the possibilities there are to play with form and texture. This spring I got to work with Mira Jacob who drew and wrote the graphic memoir called Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations. And I’ll get to work with Diana Khoi Nguyen this summer who wrote Ghost Of and has a new book out called Root Fractures. Sadly, she and I share the loss of a brother to suicide.

When I first started at Lighthouse Writers Workshop, we used the Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction: Work from 1970 to the Present. An incredible resource of essays by many of my favorite writers that I return to often. The opening essay, “The Fourth State of Matter” by Jo Ann Beard, was the very first essay I read in my adult writing life. I read it every year.

Where is your favorite place to write?

I’m pretty flexible. I can write at my dining room table or my desk in my very messy office. I’ve written on airplanes and in hotel rooms. I love to write in the mountains or oceanside, probably my favorite. I rarely listen to music when I write but I spend an inordinate amount of time looking at the ridiculous number of photos I have on my computer, always trying to find the connections, the frames and the fragments.

What is one thing you hope readers take away from reading your book? How do you envision your perfect reader?

Keep playing at life.

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