Tuesday, May 2, 2023

Q&A with Elizabeth Rau




Elizabeth Rau is the author of the new essay collection The Good Slope. A former newspaper reporter, she lives in Providence, Rhode Island.


Q: What inspired you to compile your essays into a book?


A: Not long ago, I was cleaning out a closet and came across boxes filled with copies of the 150 or so essays I had written over the years about my childhood in the Midwest, my years spent working as a newspaper reporter, and my plunge into motherhood in middle age.


As I reread my work, I realized that I had written a memoir in short essays and that many of those essays explored the same idea: the experience of home and how it’s created and longed for and missed. I thought that was a powerful theme that would resonate with readers of all ages and backgrounds. A book seemed like the next step.


Q: How was the book’s title chosen, and what does it signify for you?


A: The title comes from an essay I wrote about taking my son Peder sledding when he was 4 years old. We started off at our usual spot, a mound in a nearby park, but one look at the bump and he decided he had outgrown it. We went to another spot—this one packed with teenagers and too steep.


Finally, after a long search, we ended up at a less perilous hill, and made our way to the top. I looked away for a second, and when I turned around Peder was gone. He was sledding, alone, down a gentle slope—a good slope—in a toboggan twice his size. He reached a clearing and came to a stop in the thick part of the snow: “He was far away, and he was happy.”


The essay is about letting go; it’s about cherishing our moments of happiness, then having the courage to move on with grace—and gratitude. The memory sustains us.

Q: The essays cover many years of your life—do you think your writing style has remained consistent, or do you see some changes?


A: My early essays were often tough for me to write. I was a young newspaper reporter trying to teach myself how to write a beautiful sentence. I labored over every word, and the writing suffered: some passages now seem forced.


When I started writing essays again after a break—this time, mostly about my family, my neighborhood, and my childhood—I felt more confident, and it helped that I had been exercising my writing muscle for years as a newspaper reporter. The words flowed easily, and the finished pieces were more fluid than my early essays. It also helped that I enjoyed what I was writing about: my family and my neighborhood.


Q: What do you hope readers take away from the book?


A: I hope readers recognize their lives in my life, especially my time as a parent. The years spent raising my two sons—now young men—were some of the happiest of my life. Readers might also appreciate that I write about the small aspects of life and transform them into stories that try to subtly explore larger questions—the transitory nature of life, for one.


One of my favorite essays in the book is about a boy named Yousef sitting on a playground making butterflies and other shadow puppets with his fingers. It’s an essay about a child’s sense of wonder, and how we can overlook that as adults.


I also hope my essays inspire a laugh or two. Humor is good! The essay “Purple Toes” is about my first pedicure—a disaster. I hated the feeling of nail polish on my body. I felt like I was suffocating. I immediately bought nail polish remover and wiped off the stuff.


Q: What are you working on now?


A: More essays. I’m taking a memoir writing class with a focus on the personal essay. The writers in the group are kind, supportive, and encouraging. We can write about whatever we want, and I like that. My passion for swimming might make a good topic or my fondness for black leggings—simple, reliable, warm.


Q: Anything else we need to know?


A: I rise at 5 a.m. every day to write. That’s a perfect time. The house is still, it’s dark outside, and the glare from my laptop is the only light inside. My cocoon serves me well.


--Interview with Deborah Kalb

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