Rebecca Givens Rolland’s creative nonfiction piece, “The Magnesium”, appears in The Fiddlehead No. 283 (Spring 2020). Editorial Assistant Taidgh Lynch conducted the following interview via email in May 2020.
Taidgh Lynch: Firstly, I’d like to say how much I enjoyed “The Magnesium” and how there’s so much to contemplate throughout your essay. You start by saying, “I cannot write about motherhood without writing about identity, and time.” How do you think the essay makes it possible to reflect on these experiences? How do you think writing creative nonfiction differs from poetry or fiction?
Rebecca Givens Rolland: I think the essay allows for an unfolding of ideas and experiences in an iterative, evolving way. As I write, I allow those details to accumulate and surprise me, and try not to hold to them too tightly. I keep the thread of emotional truth at the forefront of my mind, and especially the idea of layering—the thought that I have changed since the experience I write about, and that I change even in the writing. Ideally, I hope that the reader can, in some small way, be changed. For me, the line between poetry and creative nonfiction is definitely blurred. It all depends on the context—I find that nonfiction lets me follow the narrative thread more, while poetry is more centrally focused on the image.
TL: I keep coming back to your wonderful imagery. How important is imagery to you in your writing?
RGR: The image is definitely the most important kernel for me, the thing out of which the thoughts and reflections arise. I often begin most creative work—whether it’s a novel, a nonfiction piece, or a poem—with one image that stuck with me and felt arresting. The last image of this essay is actually the first thing that came—the idea of my son coming toward me, and me calling out to him, in a moment of recognition and strangeness for us both.
TL: Your essay bubbles over with so much mystery and mesmerising detail. I feel as if you’re imploring the reader to explore their own individual experiences. Is that ultimately the goal of a writer, to rouse the reader, to shake them awake to the moment we live in?
RGR: Yes, I do think so—and to recognize the true strangeness and fascination in what might appear to be the most mundane experiences. This to me has been one of the most curious and engaging parts of parenting—the sense of a mystery always unfolding before you, and seeing the people you thought you knew so well change before your eyes, and change you, in the process. But of course, it’s not limited to parenting. Becoming awake to the momentary shifts in experiences—whatever they may be—lets these sorts of mysteries reveal themselves.
TL: What significance does the title and the numbered sequences have in the essay? Or if you wish to keep their significances a mystery, how do choices such as title and structure impact meaning?
RGR: The title comes from another part of this sequence, which talks about the infusion of magnesium as a treatment for post-partum pre-eclampsia. The magnesium heals, but also burns—which struck me as a metaphor for the difficulty and potential that comes from the reflective process. The numbered sequences started as a simple response to having hardly any time to write. I was inspired by those “day books” that ask you to write a few lines per day, and decided that I would do something similar, and write at least one sequence a day.
TL: There is a surprising image at the end of the startled son. I can relate to that feeling of alarm at the sheer complexity of life. It’s as if by looking at the son I’m staring back at my own reflection. That image doubles back for me in numerous ways, throughout the entire essay. How do these connections form? Are you aware of these links or do they reveal themselves to you as you write into your experiences?
RGR: Thank you! These links were not intentional, but I think having a pause between writing each sequence gave them time to marinate. Most of the time, these links are mysterious even to me, until they start bubbling up on the page.
TL: And finally, what can we look forward to reading of yours in the future?
RGR: I have a nonfiction book forthcoming from HarperOne (HarperCollins), on the power of conversations between parents and kids. I also have fiction forthcoming in the Crab Creek Review, and am working on revising a novel.
Rebecca Givens Rolland won the Dana Award in Short Fiction. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Witness, Kenyon Review, Cincinnati Review, Gettysburg Review, among others. Her first book, The Wreck of Birds (Bauhan Publishing), won the 2011 May Sarton New Hampshire First Book Prize.