Interview with Lucy Biederman on The Walmart Book of the Dead (Vine Leaves Press, 2017)

The Walmart Book of the Dead: A Conversation with Lucy Biederman

by Tyler Mills

Lucy Biederman is a lecturer in English at Case Western Reserve University. She holds a Ph.D. in English from the University of Louisiana-Lafayette and an MFA in creative writing from George Mason University. Her first book, The Walmart Book of the Dead, won the 2017 Vine Leaves Press Vignette Award. She has written four chapbooks of poetry, and her short stories, essays, and poems have appeared recently in AGNI, Ploughshares, and Pleiades. Her scholarship, published in The Henry James Review, Women’s Studies, and Studies in the Literary Imagination, focuses on how contemporary American women writers interpret their literary forebears.

Tyler Mills: Your smart and haunting collection, The Walmart Book of the Dead, begins with an epigraph dedicated to the reader:

As for who reads this book
And who follows its spells
I know your name
You will not die after your death
In Walmart
You will not perish forever
For I know your name

Your book merges the Egyptian book of the dead with Walmart, a hub that brings together so many communities who have come there to find that thing which will fulfil a need or want that often—especially in rural places—can only be found there. Sometimes, going to Walmart is about the experience of being there. In rural places I’ve lived, Walmart has been a place to go in the middle of the night, a place where people can sleep in the parking lot, a place where you can get medicine and underwear, eyeglasses and Subway sandwiches, milk and bleach. Can you talk about how Walmart functions in your novel, and how you’ve thought of it as a new kind of liminal space between life and death?

I think “high literary culture”...politely ignores Walmart, even as it says such strong, bold, liberal stuff about the lives of the working class, or the lives of contingently employed faculty, or the lives of students under the poverty line. Where is our literature about Walmart, this central place people go, so deeply entrenched in American life?

Lucy Biederman: I was deeply into the Egyptian book of the dead when I was writing it, and I was thinking about how death was such a part of ancient Egyptians’ lives—it IS a part of life, but it’s not present in our culture in the same way it was for ancient Egyptians. I think “high literary culture” treats Walmart like that. It politely ignores Walmart, even as it says such strong, bold, liberal stuff about the lives of the working class, or the lives of contingently employed faculty, or the lives of students under the poverty line. Where is our literature about Walmart, this CENTRAL place people go, so deeply entrenched in American life? How could I live and look around and not write about it?!?!  

T.M.: Yes, absolutely. What is your experience with Walmart? Did you get the idea for this book while you were shopping in a Walmart? Can you think back to the moment where you thought, “I have to write about this?” Where were you and what were you thinking about? Or, what have your own experiences with Walmart been like? Do you have a Walmart story that inspired this book?

L.B.: The idea for this book coalesced as I listened to two separate episodes of my brother Felix’s podcast Chapo Trap House during the presidential election. The first highlighted Terrence McCoy’s beautifully written Washington Post article, “In Jim Cooley’s open-carry America, a trip to Walmart can require an AR-15.” On a later episode, Matthew Sitman of Commonweal Magazine spoke about poor people in Appalachia, and he said something like, this isn’t really a story for journalism. It should be a novel. I took that as a demand. There are tons of literary books by some native-interpreter-genius who made it out of a conservative rural area by the skin of their teeth: not that. That’s for and about people who don’t go to Walmart.

T.M.: Could you speak to the way that the book introduces the function of the spell? You’ve addressed and constructed various versions of a “you” deeply and sensitively throughout the sections of your novel. The epigraph promises eternal life through a narrator that will account for, record, and remember the names of those who have passed through the box store created by the forces of late-Capitalism. “You will not die after your death / In Walmart / You will not perish forever / For I know your name.”  How are you thinking about the function of the spell in your novel? And what about the Egyptian book of the dead inspired you to embark on this project?

L.B.: The Oriental Institute in Hyde Park, in Chicago where I grew up, has a lot of Egyptian books of the dead, so I knew about it growing up.

I started working on this during the election. I was feeling so sorry for all the terrible people of our country, their ugly, unheard, unHERALDED voices. In ancient Egypt, a book of the dead had spells to guide you through the afterlife—but you couldn’t get one unless you were rich, because papyrus was very expensive. If you died without one, you wouldn’t know how to get to the beautiful, golden parts of the afterworld; you were stuck, like in life, just wandering around.

When Trump won, I was in New York City because my brother was doing an election show. The next day, both my brothers were working so I went to the Met—which also has an excellent Book of the Dead collection. In art exhibits, I always skip over the parts about the old governments that societies had, in Sumur or China or France or whatever. It’s almost head-spinning to think that this Trump stuff will be boring in not very long at all; it’s the art endures.

I have so much to say about this, but in brief, I think my MFA and Ph.D. are like papyrus. I get to say all sorts of stuff and do all sorts of stuff in the literature that *I* make—while getting to complain that I’m not on the tenure track; but I don’t have to do manual labor. I live alongside people who do; who have the fate that the poor in ancient Egyptians had: *they don’t make it into our books*—or, when they do, it’s in a fetishizing kind of way that ends up gratifying people like ME; they don’t show up as HUMAN. Who am I to cast such strong judgment on any other person, just because I can afford papyrus?

T.M.: I keep thinking about how the spells in The Walmart Book of the Dead don’t read as anonymous incantations because of the “illustrations” that appear afterward. In these “illustrations” are voices that emerge from the minds of a whole cast of characters—from a gun owner who lives next to an LSD trailer to a middle-class shoplifter to a pimp with new “recruits” to a listless college dropout—that find themselves in the fluorescent, placeless, sameness of this big box store.

Your book isn’t specifically about the election, but it does bring to life a space where you could imagine seeing a red “MAGA” hat or two. And, one of your illustrated characters does clothes himself in DT garb (I can’t bring myself to write his name). Here is your illustration for “SPELL for Making One Not Have to Work in God’s Domain”:

“He has a t-shirt with an airbrushed image of Donald Trump, looking slim and belligerent, standing on a tank. He’s proud of his lack of education. Anti-education, he calls it.”

This section of the novel gives us this troubling perspective, alludes to a secret about him and a kind of sadness that pervades his life, as unsympathetic a character he might be. Could you talk about how you created these illustrations? They don’t read at all like stock figures, but rather like the reader is able to momentarily access a strand of thought that each person is having through the way you’ve illustrated the spell.

L.B.: Egyptologists often call the illustrations that accompany the spells in the book of the dead “vignettes,” and in our culture, we think of vignettes as written stories. I thought it would be interesting to draw out peoples’ lives in words, the way ancient Egyptian artists literally drew scenes.

In ancient Egypt, you got the entire map for the afterworld if you were wealthy; if you weren’t, you didn’t get any, or you got a very small part of it. In America, the upper classes consign the lower classes to Walmart and then make fun of them for shopping there. It’s a sign of wealth to avoid it, even to just go to Target instead. In illustrating people, I wanted to show their interiorities and humanity—even in Walmart, even in MAGA hats. There are worse things you can do than wear a MAGA hat. But even if the worst thing you can do is wear a MAGA hat, the thing that makes me want to write is the drive to imagine what it’s like to wear one, to be the person wearing one.

I also keep thinking about how wealth disparity operates in America today, and how we can maybe extend this analogy to credit (and debt): how it can seem like you can buy a future—like an afterlife—with all these things at Walmart or Target or Best Buy or wherever that seem to say “this is the version life you can have in the future."

T.M.: Exactly. I’m fascinated by what you said—“In Ancient Egypt, you got the entire map for the afterlife if you were wealthy; if you weren’t, you didn’t get any, or you got a small part of it”—and how this has been the case in so many cultures across time (like buying indulgences in the Catholic church, say, or even investing in funeral plots and headstones and even mausoleums). I also keep thinking about how wealth disparity operates in America today, and how we can maybe extend this analogy to credit (and debt): how it can seem like you can buy a future—like an afterlife—with all these things at Walmart or Target or Best Buy or wherever that seem to say “this is the version life you can have in the future,” and how this can be so illusory. I don’t know if I have a question here; I suppose I’m thinking about debt and the afterlife as one kind of analogy. Maybe I’m thinking about the housing bubble as well—though with credit and debt, the future does arrive and take everything back. In The Walmart Book of the Dead, what do you think the function of the items that your characters’ desire might have? Are they like magical items in this afterlife? Are they symbolic of permanence somehow—even though they can’t be? Could you say something about one of the items a character wants and how you think about their relationship to it?

L.B.: The illustration for the Spell to Light the Path Through Night is about a girl who wants something desperately, but I don’t say what it is. That spell is about the extreme desire for stuff sown in childhood. The poet Susan Wheeler has a wonderful line, “Child in the thick of yearning,” that I was thinking about as I wrote this. “Can I have and the song’s begun.” In this spell, and in the book, I was more interested in the quality of the arrow pointing toward the material thing, than in the thing itself.

That’s fascinating what you say about credit and debt. That’s something I didn’t investigate in this book. Did you see that Gary Cohn, the other day, when he was announcing their never-going-happen plan for tax reform, said that with the $1,000 families save, they can buy a vacation or a car or redo their kitchens? I was talking about it with my mom and I was like, “I don’t even understand—as a money guy, wouldn’t he know how much a car costs?” My mom said, “He’s talking about the down payment. He’s inviting people to take on more debt.” Because then, people like him get richer. The worst thing about being not-rich, from a SOUL perspective, is that NOTHING is about you, not even a sentence that purports to be about you. It’s about Gary Cohn.

T.M. What was a moment of your book that was really challenging for you to write? Could you share an excerpt with us and tell us how you made it through this moment of the project?

L.B.: There are things that frustrate me about the kind of writer I am, like that I always have to bring myself into it, like I can’t just imagine a full world that exists without Lucy Biederman the way novelists I adore, like Julia Alvarez, Joyce Carol Oates, Toni Morrison, Norman Mailer, create whole, full worlds without an “I” in them. But now that I write this, I’m thinking of a BEAUTIFUL thing Philip Roth says about his obsession with the “I” that narrates Madame Bovary—it’s just some guy who went to school with M. Bovary, like an eyehole where Flaubert can peek in, and that’s what Roth’s wonderfully Roth-like Zuckerman is, too. And my favorite, Henry James, inserts an “I” in the most unlikely of places, deep in the middle of a novel where it hasn’t yet appeared. It’s like, oh, you’ve been here this whole time?

I love writing. I don’t think this is an obvious thing to say, because I read a lot of articles about how difficult it is for writers to write. There’s a lot of things, like having a job that you have to go to every day, that I find extremely difficult, but writing is a joy! It’s optional and I choose to do it. In the realm of my writing, I get to make so many choices, unlike in the exterior world, where the choices I make are determined and circumscribed by Gary Cohn.

I try to be light about it. If something isn’t working, or if I get frustrated, I try to stop and just return to it the next day. I am a huge fan and follower of the late, great writing studies psychologist Robert Boice, who recommended that writing be done in “brief, regular bouts.”

T.M.: In addition to writing this award-winning work of experimental fiction, you are also a wonderful and prolific poet. Could you say something about how you approached this project differently, say, than you might a sequence of poems? Perhaps another way into this question is this: why did you choose fiction and not poetry for this subject? What did fiction offer you, as a writer, that poetry didn’t?

I’m often struck by how narrowly we writers and readers define experimental writing and its genealogy.

L.B.: Thank you! And thank you for giving me the opportunity to talk about genre, which is one of my favorite topics. If I’m remembering correctly, I thought of the manuscript as poetry up until the time I was ready to submit it, and then I realized how long the chunks of prose were, and how narrative.

When the book was coming out, someone said to me, “Oh, experimental fiction, huh? Well that’s a very big category. Are you talking Tristram Shandy or Language Poetry?” I was going to say, actually, more like the Egyptian book of the dead, but he wouldn’t stop talking so I actually never got a chance to answer.

I’m often struck by how narrowly we writers and readers define experimental writing and its genealogy—the way I see it, there isn’t much leeway or possibility for ME as a writer, between the metafiction of Tristram Shandy and the metapoetics of Language Poetry, to equip and empower me to say what I want to about Walmart. However, I was inspired by how generically various the Egyptian book of the dead is—poetry and prose mixed together, like in the Bible. In writing, we can do ANYTHING—anything!—but so often, we don’t. I think one of the things that holds us back is the grip of genre.

T.M.: Speaking of bending genres, what would be your playlist for The Walmart Book of the Dead?

L.B.: The music I associate with this book is the country songs I have been playing on repeat for like 20 years, by David Allen Coe, all three Hank Williamses, Dwight Yoakam, and Loretta Lynn. There’s this beautiful book Rednecks, Queers, and Country Music by Nadine Hubbs, where she points out how middle- and upper-middle-class hatred of country music and its perceived bigotry doesn’t square with what these songs actually ARE—how open they are to difference and weirdness. It’s like the bigotry of middle-and upper-middle class white people has been projected onto country music and the people who listen to it, so now those people really have NOTHING, not even their cultural acceptance of “the Other,” now that it’s become cool to accept the Other.

T.M.: Your book launches right around Halloween. If The Walmart Book of the Dead were a Halloween candy, what would it be?

L.B.: An apple with a razor blade in it.

Tyler Mills is the author of Hawk Parable, winner of the 2017 Akron Poetry Prize (forthcoming in 2019) and Tongue Lyre, winner of the Crab Orchard Series in Poetry First Book Award (SIU Press 2013). Her poems have appeared in The New YorkerThe Guardian, and Poetry, and her creative nonfiction in Copper Nickel (Editor’s Prize in Prose), AGNI, and The Rumpus. She is editor-in-chief of The Account and teaches at New Mexico Highlands University.