In Lucy Ives’ latest novel, “Loudermilk or The Real Poet or The Origin of the World,” two young men run a scam on a prestigious — and for local readers, awfully familiar — graduate writing program. The novel itself, however, is no scam as Ives has crafted an immersive story in which shallowness of character and shakiness of identity are central motifs.
In this interview done via email, Ives, a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, discusses her characters, writers and workshops, and her decision to provide an interpretation of the novel in its afterword. She also is author of “Impossible Views of the World.”
Q: I’m always interested in origin stories. You give your readers some insight into the origins of this story in your afterward, but I wonder if you remember a moment or moments when the primary characters came fully into being for you. When did Loudermilk, for example, fully become the character we see on the page?
A: Loudermilk is like no one — fortunately, or unfortunately — whom I’ve ever met. For this reason, his appearance in my writing was quite surprising, particularly as he is such a distinctive individual. I think I must have understood the way that he looked (handsome) and spoke (elaborate insults), first. And, then, that he was close with a person very different from himself, someone who was less brash and confident and conniving. Loudermilk is a sort of a genius, and thus I knew that his friend was deeply intelligent, too, if in a different way. Characters are weird, because at first they don’t exist at all, then suddenly there they are and you know absolutely everything about them. I wrote the novel’s first scene first, and the published opening page is nearly identical to the page I composed over a decade ago. Loudermilk and Harry came into being together; there’s no one, without the other. In a way, it’s like Schwarzenegger and DeVito in that movie Twins — except younger and with more poetry.
Q: You’re an Iowa Writers’ Workshop alum yourself and teach in an MFA program at Ithaca College. The book is set in a fictionalized version of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and some readers might consider the book something of a “take down” of MFA programs in general and the Workshop in particular. Still other readers (or maybe the same readers) might feel they recognize the real-life inspirations for, say, the Hillarys — married members of the program’s faculty. To what degree, if any, do you think of the book as a criticism of Workshop (and workshop) culture? How would you describe your own experience in the Workshop?
A: This is a novel about writers, even before it is a novel about writing programs in general, or any writing program in particular. It’s about how writers relate to the things they imagine, how they need to find ways to deal with the fantasy worlds they create, maybe even to manage those worlds. The Seminars, which is the name of the program Loudermilk attends in my novel, looks only a little like the Iowa Writers’ Workshop I attended. It’s fun to make fun of schools, of course, and, in a way, it’s too easy to do it. That’s why the novel spends a lot more time on questions about imagination and what it means to have the power to write a poem or short story.
Q: The book deals with issues of identity and authenticity, presenting us with an almost hyper-real character in Loudermilk and a much less substantial sidekick in Harry. What were the challenges in terms of characterization and style as you created the book’s ensemble?
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A: The biggest challenge for me was composing the various poems and stories that are written by students at The Seminars and submitted as workshop assignments. I needed to make sure, on the one hand, that they seemed good enough, as pieces of writing, such that it would make sense that the students themselves felt positively about them, while, on the other, the pieces seemed believable as student work. There’s a tiny bit of satire that crept in here, but I do genuinely find the fictional students’ writing very interesting and have respect for it, even (again!) as I see that it was written by 22-year-olds. I wanted these poems and stories to tell the reader something about the people who wrote them and the historical moment they were writing them in. It was also interesting to me to allow some of the story to be narrated through these workshop assignments, rather than through straightforward third-person narration.
Q: The afterword is intriguing as it serves as literary criticism by the author of her own work. What led to its creation and inclusion in the book?
A: This may have already come out in some of my responses here, but I definitely have a thing about breaking rules. The classic literary maxim is “Show, don’t tell.” And certainly don’t include an afterword in which you explain what everything in your novel means! Of course, the afterword is just one theory of this novel. I imagine there could be many more. I hope readers will come up with their own interpretations of the book — and enjoy my attempt to convince them that Loudermilk contains a secret encoded message about the history of the U.S. and its political ideology! Perhaps the afterword can also serve as a way back into the novel, once one has finished it. It might even be something for a reader to argue against.
Q: What, if anything, can you tell me about your next project?
A: I can tell you that there are several projects. One is a work of non-fiction. And there is more fiction, some of it short and something long. My dream is that you and I have this conversation again in another year and I tell you that everything is done, but, of course, that’s not usually the way things work out. I do really, really love to write, so much so that it seems I’m never finished.
Q: Any additional thoughts for readers of Loudermilk? What important thing(s) am I forgetting to ask you?
A: I guess I might want to say that although there is a lot of silliness in Loudermilk, I wrote it out of a very serious attempt to understand what we all think we’re doing (and what we all are doing), when we write. Many people are online for a large portion of the day each day, and we’re all typing things to one another all the time. In some sense, to be a person is to be a writer, now. I don’t know if this is universally true, but the movement in the direction of more writing by more people is quite noticeable, overwhelming even. I mean, text messages alone! A workshop is just one sort of environment in which we can contemplate the nature of authority and try to understand what it is we are doing when we write. Maybe Loudermilk can touch on some of these broader issues in the present, and be read not only as a story about a competitive, cloistered graduate program in the year 2003, but also as a tale with strong ties to 2019, a prologue to our own hyper-hyper-mediated age.