Lori Jakiela won’t let the world get in the way of things

Lori Jakiela is the author of a memoir, Miss New York Has Everything (Hatchette 2006), and three poetry chapbooks. Her full-length poetry collection, Spot the Terrorist!, was published in April 2012. Her essays and poems have been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Creative Nonfiction, River Teeth, The Pittsburgh Quarterly, 5 AM and elsewhere. She lives outside of Pittsburgh, directs the writing program at The University of Pittsburgh-Greensburg, and teaches in the low-residency MFA program at Chatham University.

Lori contributed to All That Glitters, an anthology edited by Nicholas Garnett, Corey Ginsberg, and myself.


You write that you don’t come from a family of readers. However, you’ve become one of those individuals who “like the feel of stories, all those worlds building up and spinning around inside [you].” What books/magazines do you enjoy reading today? What are some of your favorite authors?

I love Hemingway and Didion for their glass-cutter precision. And I love Studs Terkel for his huge heart.

I met Studs Terkel, the great oral historian who interviewed all these working people — waitresses and steelworkers and housewives, people like the people I grew up with, people like my parents and my friends’ parents — when I was 18 years old. I never recovered.

When I get very sad-sacked about things, when I feel sorry for myself, I think of Studs, his idealism, the way he rode the bus all the time so he could talk to people and hear their stories, the way he never seemed to grow tired of people and never seemed to lose hope. It helps.

I was a waitress for many years. I was a flight attendant. I was a journalist. I was a typist. Now I’m a university professor, a writer. I’m still working that transition out, in my mind and in my heart and in my writing.

I’m lucky. That much I know.

I still like most people, but I hate injustice. I see a lot of it in my life in universities now – a lot of very smart and good people I know work a lot for very little and are treated so unfairly. There’s a lot of cruelty. I don’t like it at all. I think Studs would have a lot to say about this.

I like writers who have a lot to say about things.

I love Harry Crews’ Childhood Biography of a Place. Harry Crews had a lot to say. I think people get lost in Harry Crews’ mythology – that big tough-guy stance, all those tattoos and Mohawks, all the booze and drugs. They miss his big-throated compassion, his humanity.

I always joke that I have a mini Harry Crews living inside of me. I’m a middle-aged woman in a ponytail and sneakers, so it’s pretty funny, but I hope it’s true.  I hope Harry is here with me and some of his fire and heart and fury are just under the surface and that they’ll never die.

Also I have two bad-ass tattoos – no I’m not going to show them to you — and I hate cotton candy and maybe when I’m 80 I’ll finally get that Mohawk.

Also, cotton candy is terrible. Highly overrated. Harry was right when he said the world doesn’t want writers to write, that the world wants us to do anything but write, that it wants us to sit around and watch The Kardashians and eat cotton candy all day.

The Kardashians are worse than cotton candy.

The world often gets in the way of things.

I love some of Hunter Thompson – Fear and Loathing, Hell’s Angels, his Nixon obit. People get lost in Hunter’s persona, too, but I love him most when he’s all bounce and guts and insight. I love Gerald Locklin and Charles Bukowski and Joan Jobe Smith – those West Coast writers who aren’t afraid of anything. I love Orwell and Vonnegut. I love Neruda. I love my husband Dave Newman’s novels and poems. I love Ed Ochester’s poems for their humor and their heart. I love Alison Bechdel, whose Fun Home opened up the world of graphic memoir to me.

I could go on and on.

I have gone on and on.

Mostly, I love honest writing. I believe people are very busy. They’re working, trying to raise families, trying to pay bills and keep their houses and not have their hearts collapse.

If those people buy a book, if they open it, if they give your words their eyes, I think it’s important not to fuck around.

I believe writers owe it to readers to give them something for their time.

I love writing that doesn’t mess around.

“She’ll get ideas,” your mother said, referring to your feverish reading. What stories did burgeon in your mind while reading these World Books of Knowledge? Is this when you realized you wanted to become a writer?

My mother was right. I did get a lot of ideas from those encyclopedias. I lived in a land-locked place, this little rusty milltown outside of Pittsburgh, but I became obsessed with oceans and sharks and I read every entry about sharks and barracudas and other ocean things that could kill you.

For a while I had a thing for giant squid and box jellyfish and swordfish, which weren’t deadly, exactly, but beautiful and off-balance and strange. I liked everything that was beautiful and strange, which is why, after the World Books of Knowledge, I convinced my parents to get me a box set of Ripley’s Believe It or Nots. But that’s another thing.

For a while I thought I wanted to become a marine biologist, right up until my father took me to see “Jaws” the week before we went on vacation to Florida. Then I wouldn’t ever go in the water again. Also, I wasn’t good at math or science and I’m a terrible swimmer. I hadn’t considered that.

It’s funny, but my daughter loves sharks now, too. She has shelves of shark books and shark movies and can name a dozen of species of sharks when we visit the Pittsburgh aquarium, where she’s made friends with the shark expert on staff. I encourage this, of course. I’m the worst mother ever because I even let my 9-year-old daughter watch shark B-movies. She’s the only 3rd grader who can quote “Sharktopus” and “Sharknado.” She’s seen not just the first (and best) “Jaws,” but all three, none of which have fazed her on vacation. She’s fearless, which terrifies me.

I think the one thing those World of Knowledge Books taught me early on was that finding something to love, whatever it is, is so important.

There were other things in those World Books, too. I loved the pictures I saw of Paris and became obsessed with Paris. I loved the pictures of New York and became obsessed with New York. I think the World Books of Knowledge started me thinking about the world, about travel, about how much I wanted to take in in my lifetime. They’re probably why I’d end up, years later, becoming a flight attendant, even though I was always afraid to fly.

I lived in such a small place. I couldn’t imagine ever having the means or time to travel, to see the places pictured in those books. Still, those books made me realize possibility. They made me think a lot about the world beyond my house, my driveway, my street. They were my first passports.

You write, “The lines of light from the window blinds make my son’s face look caged. It’s what I feel, too.” Does writing play a liberating role?

Writing for me, when it’s going well, is liberating because it’s an act of discovery. When the writing’s going well, I don’t know where it’s going. I’ll be surprised at what I find. I’ll be surprised at what bubbles up. I write to figure out things– or at least to try to figure out things. I write because I have questions I wonder about. I don’t think, for me, there’s any other reason to write. If I already know something, I’m not interested in writing about it. I’m only interested in writing about what I don’t know. The world, for me, is very confusing. Writing helps me try to sift to find a little sense. It helps me see a shape for things, even if that shape won’t hold still for long. It helps me see, even if it’s just for a second, what it is I’m doing in this life.

Did you get to meet your sister? Did you write about it?

The piece in the SoS anthology is actually an excerpt from a new memoir manuscript I’m finishing. It’s Called Belief Is It’s Own Kind of Truth, Maybe. It’s about my adoption search, in part, but it’s mostly about trying to understand what family means. It’s about making the distinction between real and forced connections. It’s about learning what’s real.

I write about family a lot.

I’ve met some members of my birth family. I’m very close with some of them the way I’m close with some members of my adopted (real?) family. That’s another thing this manuscript is about – trying to find language that matches that.

I went to a palm reader once. She did both palms, not just one. She held my left hand and said, “This is the map of what you were born with.” Then she held my right hand and said, “This is the map of what you’ve made yourself.”

This manuscript is about that – coming to terms with those two maps, those two lives.

Your memoir, The Bridge to Take When Things Get Serious, came out last May  (in May 2013). Tell us a little bit about it.

It’s the follow-up to my first memoir, Miss New York Has Everything (Hatchette 2006), and it’s about a daughter – me – who learns that coming to terms with her difficult and gravely ill mother ultimately means coming to terms with herself.  It’s sort of a real-life version of Anna Quindlen’s One True Thing, written in a style closer to David Sedaris.

In 1999, it became clear that my mother, after her fourth heart attack, wouldn’t be able to live alone. I was living in New York then, working as a flight attendant, running up credit card debt to survive. I was dating a cop I could barely stand. Almost all my dreams—being a poet, teaching college—were dead, but they were still my dreams. I didn’t want to come home. I didn’t want to care for my mother. I came home. I cared for my mother.

My mother, who desperately wanted me home, could barely stand me when I arrived. I was an intrusion. She was furious. She was tired of having heart attacks. She was tired of hospitals. She’d been warned to not slap her doctor, and that pissed her off, too. When I finally found a job teaching college and had to leave the house, my mother spite-dragged a 25-pound ham up the stairs until she couldn’t breathe. If I went out to a bar, she gorged on cheesy puffs and skipped her nightly meds. She rearranged furniture. She referred to our neighbor as her “good daughter.”

This was just after my father had passed away. My mother was still grieving. I knew that. But it didn’t make her any easier to be around. In my more selfish moments, I grieved for my own life, whatever I’d given up, even the things I hadn’t wanted.

And then, in the four years I spent as my mother’s primary caregiver, everything turned again and again.

My mother survived Last Rites three times in those years. Then she got better. She got well enough to travel – senior citizen bus trips, bingo in Atlantic City. She took to wearing Ray Bans and having lunch dates and hopping yard sales on weekends. “I have my life,” she said, “and you have yours.”

But how does a woman approaching middle-age find a life when she’s stuck in the house she grew up in and the town she fled?

I got an apartment. I tried to be a better teacher. I did yoga and imagined being alone for the rest of my life, childless, waiting for my mother’s next heart attack. I missed New York until New York was all I could think about and even my cop boyfriend looked o.k. Then on accident, I fell in love and, shockingly, became pregnant. My mother called me a whore. I said, “I’m middle-aged.” She said, “Do the right thing.” So I ignored her and, most surprisingly, ended up in Vegas, standing next to a beautiful man in a shitty church, about to be married.

The Bridge to Take When Things Get Serious is the story of my mother’s last years, and the beginning of my new life. It’s the story of a woman — who never wanted to be married or have a child  — having a child and getting married.

Before my mother died, she was — happily, joyfully —  a grandmother. When she left this world, I was with her in her bedroom. My husband was down the road, taking care of our son.

Like I said, I write about family a lot.

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