Interview: Maps and Legends | An Interview with Hillary Wentworth

By Cassandra Bogue

Hillary Wentworth earned her MFA from the University of North Carolina at Wilmington.  Her writing has appeared in Black Warrior Review, Caesura, and Red Wheelbarrow, among others. Her flash fiction piece “146.9 Volts” was selected for the 2010 miniStories grand prize by Alexander Chee, Daniel Handler, Heather McElhatton, Kevin Larimer, and Dennis Cass.

The Fourth River: “Blowing Rock,” your nonfiction piece which appeared in issue 7 of The Fourth River, braids several intriguing threads together, and the changing Earth is one of them. What is your overall theory of this planet we occupy? How do you attempt to capture that in your writing?

Hillary Wentworth: I’ve always been fascinated by Earth, space, this small pocket of the universe we inhabit. And it’s a fascinating subject that I naturally veer toward. The best nonfiction, I think, is personal but also informative, so I try to balance those elements. Writing has always been my main passion, though I was interested in forensics for a while. I’m still fascinated by the body; there is a lot that is still beyond the scope of human comprehension. When I incorporate geology, time, and scientific phenomena, it’s my attempt to find the story beyond me.

FR: You integrate legend beautifully in “Blowing Rock.” What role does mythology play in your writing/process?

HW: In “Blowing Rock,” the place demanded a telling of the myth behind it. And the story mirrored my own story with my boyfriend (now husband), so it fit. I haven’t dabbled that much in mythology in the rest of my writing, though now I am working on a memoir about my relationship with my dad. He left many mysteries to unravel when he died—hints and clues to be investigated. So as I’m writing, I’m thinking a lot about the mythology surrounding my dad, surrounding the family.

FR: In all of your writing, the prose is very poetic and rhythmic. Do you employ a specific method to create this type of prose? What external influences inform your style?

HW: As a kid, I used to solely read aloud. So I’d be in bed on a Saturday morning, reading the Berenstain Bears or Nancy Drew aloud with the door closed. Even though these weren’t great literary works, the action itself primed me to think about rhythm and flow. I still read out loud, even for pleasure. I have a theory that it makes me process information better. I definitely read my own work aloud—to myself and others. In graduate school, I studied the lyric essay, which I think informs my style quite a bit. I love to sort of walk the line between poetry and prose because poetry just cuts more deeply and takes away all the extraneous. I love that about it. It can really be stripped of all excess. Another external influence is Annie Dillard; reading her work made me realize that I could be a poet and a prose writer at the same time and I could shamelessly be in awe of the world.

FR: Robert Louis Stevenson said, “The great affair is to move.” In your opinion, what is the relationship between travel and writing? How have different places affected you?

HW: Place is so hard to write about. You can describe a certain land’s features, its people, its measurable quantities, but the real struggle is getting at the vibe of the place or the essence of the experience. It’s like when you come home from a wonderful trip and want to share your pictures with everyone: something about it doesn’t translate. I traveled to Morocco in high school, and that trip really changed me as a person and probably as a writer as well. [After traveling] someplace so exotic that I basically fell in love with [it], it was hard to return to New Hampshire and to continue on in my daily life. Traveling is very much a spiritual experience and is like writing in that way. Both allow you to understand your own place in the world a bit better and also [to] step outside normalcy into other realities.

FR: Your writing deals overtly with the deeply personal. What effect does writing about these kinds of personal issues have on your lived experience of them? Do you have a specific idea of the relationship between memory, writing and experience? Do the people close to you ever take issue with your writing about them? Paul in “Blowing Rock,” for instance?

HW: Living as a nonfiction writer can be an out-of-body experience. There’s one part of you that’s actually living the life, and then there’s another part that’s hovering by the ceiling, recording what is happening. I think this is how you really start to see yourself as a character in a narrative. The first time I realized this out-of-body experience was when my aunt was being treated for cancer, and I would visit her and then I’d go home and write about it. So she was dying, and I was writing scenes about her dying. That whole act made me feel uneasy, like an impostor or something, but it also was the only way I knew how to deal with the intensity of the situation and the feelings there. Probably like all nonfiction writers, I obsess about memory and what will be lost. Will the written record begin to replace memory just as photographs do? What about twenty years from now, will I still remember my childhood? As I write my memoir, I do worry about reactions from family members. I know of at least one writer who has basically been disowned by his family for what he wrote. It’s a strange situation.

FR: You do a wonderful job of both revealing and concealing in your writing. How do you balance these two elements? How do you decide what to reveal and when?

HW: This might not really touch on what you are asking here, but I think that sometimes writers—myself included—do not trust their readers to take leaps and make connections, which can result in overwritten prose. I like to hold myself to a straightforward sparse style that keeps me interested and that, I imagine, keeps readers interested as well. So in that way, I conceal more than I reveal. It’s much better to leave the reader with questions that he or she can ponder.

In terms of the choice to reveal or to conceal, for me it is largely instinctual. I guess I’ll go back to my childhood here and say that much of my schooling as a writer was simply reading. I didn’t even read with a writer’s eye at the time, but I soaked up structure, timing, and technique nonetheless. To be honest, this is an aspect of writing that I struggle with, and I’m glad you addressed it.

Cassandra Bogue is an MFA candidate in Chatham University’s Creative Writing Program. She lives in Atlanta, Georgia.  Photo from the Walden Writing Center, cover photo from