The Fourth River

Between Memory and Imagination: An Interview with Debra Marquart

By Kelly Kepner, Managing Editor, The Fourth River


This year marked a decade of the Melanie Brown Lecture Series at Chatham University. The Fourth River honored the series and its acclaimed writers by featuring the work of previous Melanie Brown lecturers in the most recent online issue, O.3. I had the privilege to interview Debra Marquart, Chatham’s first Melanie Brown Lecturer, about her piece, “Living to Tell the Tale,” and the importance of being flexible with ourselves as writers.


The Fourth River: What’s your favorite thing about this piece?

Debra Marquart: The story of this roots-journey that I took to France, Ukraine, and Russia in the late 1980s is something that I’ve always wanted to write in its entirety. The story is complicated by the fact that the tangled history of my obscure ethnic group, the inaccurately named Germans-from-Russia, spans multiple migrations across continents over the course of two centuries. I’ve always struggled with how to get the historical layers into the narrative. My own disastrous research trip came to an abrupt halt, as this essay suggests, when I ran into 120 degree heat in Odessa while I was doing field research. What I like about this excerpt from the larger narrative is that it just dips into a moment—that panic moment on the Odessa Airlines plane—and it doesn’t worry so much about capturing the entirety of the tale. Hopefully, as writers, if we can live with writing something with tattered edges where so much of the “rest of the story” is merely intimated, we can begin a process of telling the whale of a tale that connects to the moment.

TFR: In “Living to Tell the Tale,” your travel plans, and ultimately the story you’re writing, change as your health deteriorates in the rising temperatures. Is your writing process generally flexible, even when health and logistics don’t force you to change plans?

DM: So funny that I started to answer this question above. I find I often write in the cracks between things. My entire first collection of poems was written between the hours of 3 and 5 AM, because I was working a full time job, and I was in graduate school. So, I would collapse into bed at 9 PM after my graduate night class, then something would shake me awake at about 3 AM, and I’d go to my writing desk to work for about two hours. Then I’d go back to sleep a few hours and get up to go to work by 8 AM. I’d take my notebook and handwritten drafts with me to work. When I’d get a few minutes, I’d type them up, and I’d always be amazed at what I had written. Now that I have five books published, and three more books in evolving draft form, I find my process hasn’t changed much. I know there must be people who have their lives arranged so they have all the time in the world to write. My life has never been that way, so I have to settle for writing in between things, getting the work done in fragments, bits and pieces, then working toward editing the fragments and getting them to coalesce into something more complete.

TFR: What writing advice are you glad you didn’t take?

DM: Probably any bad advice I get comes first from my own inner consciousness. My inner editor is very exacting and demanding, so it’s sometimes hard to move the words onto the page. So, maybe the worst writing advice I get is from myself. Again, as I mentioned in the question above, I don’t like to let things go out until all the edges are finished, so sometimes I have to disregard my inner mandate and let the work go out into the world, perhaps a little earlier than I might have been willing to allow.

TFR: What have you been most surprised by in your writing life?

DM: I’m always amazed at how much there is to write about. I have notebooks and files full of memory prompts—things overheard in passing, images that seem ready to be put down on the page, events that occurred in my life or in my awareness that need to be reported through writing. As my writing life continues, I find the subjects continue to spread out and get more rich and complicated. This is a surprise, because when I was younger, I had this idea there was just so much to write about, then I’d be done. But somewhere between memory and imagination, the material unfurls endlessly ahead of my writing pen. I can never hope to catch up.

TFR: What up and coming writers are you reading right now?

DM: Oh my goodness, I seem to be reading about thirty books at a time, and I read pretty widely across disciplines and genres. I’m teaching a study abroad class in Ireland, so I’ve been dipping into some new Irish authors. The novelist, Sarah Baume, who wrote Spill Simmer Falter Wither, is one of the most engaging novelists I’ve read in years. I just taught MFK Fisher’s Long Ago in France, which is a milieu piece about the three years Fisher spent in Dijon, France starting in 1929 when she and her husband of three weeks moved there so he could pursue graduate work at the university in Dijon. It’s remarkable how Fisher was able, fifty years later, to transport herself and the reader through memory to a place so changed over time.

I finished Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk a little over a year ago, and the book still rings in my ears and echoes and haunts me. I also just taught Lauret Savoy’s new book, Trace: Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape. My students absolutely loved it, and I think it should probably be required reading for every American—it’s that powerful in its analysis of the hidden, submerged, and subsumed layers of American history, especially as those layers still can be traced, if one knows how to go about looking. Savoy offers the reader strategies for how to look for the invisible.

Lastly, I’m writing about music right now, so I’ve been reading some music-related books: David Byrne’s How Music Works and Salome Voegelin’s Listening to Noise and Silence: Towards a Philosophy of Sound Art.

TFR: What did it mean to you to be part of the Melanie Brown Lecture Series?

DM: I was just remembering that I was unable to attend the lecture the evening it was originally planned. I was so honored to receive the invitation, and there was a lovely dinner planned. There was this horrendous ice storm in Iowa on the day that I was to catch my flight, and the roads were closed. I felt terrible missing that original event. Fortunately, we were able to reschedule for the following day (I believe). I still remember that drive to the airport the next morning when the roads opened. There were cars in the ditch and SUVs rolled and resting on their roofs as I drove at 30 mph from Ames to the Des Moines airport. When I finally got to Chatham and met everyone, I felt as if I was being welcomed to a family dinner, a celebration. The community of writers there is so strong and supportive, and I always look forward to seeing my good friend and former colleague, Sheryl St. Germain.


Debra Marquart was the 2008 Melanie Brown Lecturer at Chatham University. She is a professor of English in the MFA program in Creative Writing & Environment at Iowa State University, and serves as the senior editor of Flyway: Journal of Writing and Environment. Marquart’s memoir, The Horizontal World: Growing up Wild in the Middle of Nowhere, received a New York Times Editors’ Choice commendation, the 2007 PEN USA Creative Nonfiction Award, and Elle Magazine’s, “Elle Lettres” award. Marquart authored a collection of short stories entitled, The Hunger Bone: Rock & Roll Stories, as well as the poetry collections, Everything’s a Verb, and From Sweetness. Among other honors, Marquart’s work has received a Pushcart Prize, the Wachtmeister Award for Excellence in the Arts from the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Mid-American Review Nonfiction Award, The Headwater’s Prize, Shelby Foote Prize for the Essay from the Faulkner Society, the Paumanok Poetry Award, and an NEA Fellowship. When Debra’s not writing or teaching, she performs with her rhythm and blues project, The Bone People.

To learn more about Marquart’s publications, or her work with the The Bone People visit her website at



Kelly Kepner is an MFA candidate in creative writing at Chatham University. She serves as managing editor for The Fourth River, marketing director of The Crawl Space Journal, and is the founding editor of the independent children’s book press, Winding Path Publications. For more information, visit