Mormons, Academia, and Romantic Poets: An Interview with Lisa Heiserman Perkins

By Beth Gilstrap

Lisa Heiserman Perkins has a PhD from the University of Chicago. She taught at Tufts, Harvard, and Emerson College, and then left academia to write and to produce documentary films. Her work has appeared in Dislocate, Quiddity, Under the Sun, and Front Range Review, among others. Her film, Secret Intelligence: Decoding Hedy Lamarr, is in post-production. Lisa lives in Somerville, MA.

On an appropriately blossoming Spring afternoon, I spoke with Lisa Heiserman Perkins about being brought up in academia, quirky English teachers, her meandering path as a writer and her story in issue 8 of The Fourth River, “Buds, and Bells, and Stars without a Name.”

The Fourth River: Tell me a little bit about your background. How did you come to be a writer? Did you always know it’s what you wanted to do?

Lisa Heiserman Perkins: I grew up in Chicago in the ’50s and ’60s. My father was a medievalist at the University who also wrote novels and hung around with writers. You’d think that coming from a literary, academic family would be an advantage, and in profound ways of course it was, but it was also an impediment. When I was a tot and my father and his not-yet-successful friends were under 30, from my knee-high perspective, they were all handsome giants lounging around on Saturday afternoons tippling and smoking and either speaking truths in low tones or laughing their heads at who knew what. In that era, novelists were the king-gods of the literary world.

But when I was seventeen, having revealed an aptitude for lively prose in English class, my father gave me A Room of One’s Own. I took this as permission to tag along and to see if anything really sensational developed. And I did, intermittently, write some stories at Bennington College but they were not sensational, at all. I felt like a trespasser, it was awful, and so when I fell in love with the Romantic poets, I decided to go the academic route and became a Keats scholar.

FR: What was the impact of reading Woolf at seventeen?

LHP: It sort of clarified and confirmed the sources of my trepidation. Back then, women novelists were still more frequently considered “ladies of letters.” I remember understanding how important it would be to take myself seriously, very tough for me but do-able. Exciting.

FR: What inspired you to write “Buds, and Bells, and Stars without a Name”?

LHP: The title is from Keats’ “Ode to Psyche.” In my twenties, I was entranced by the intimations of spirituality the Romantic poets gleaned from nature, or rather by the gorgeous use they made of air and birds and waterfalls to render their surmises of spirituality sensually. The various Romantic versions of the sort of natural supernaturalism I aim for at the end of the story remains a potent if tenuous and evolving “reality” for me. I started thinking about the story years after I’d left academia, at a time of such domestic chaos that I feared that this deep source of joyful awe was waning. This fear was the core emotion that gave rise to the lost and lonely Louisa and her unlikely redemption by the Mormons.

FR: What type of research did you do in preparation for this story?

LHP: As luck would have it, I was visited by Elders Stone and Church while writing about Louisa. I sat watching, listening, my every pore wide open. Naturally, I invited them back. Between visits, I just did internet research, but the day they returned, I happened to be writing, pen poised, straining for images of Elder Stone’s eyes and the words to describe them when the doorbell rang. My door has an inlaid pane of glass curtained with gauze through which, as I reached for the knob, floated the same hazy version of his head that had just been floating in mine. It was spooky! As I opened the door, as the image came clear, I beheld every elusive nuance. I welcomed them with sinister enthusiasm, thinking, For this, I will burn in hell.

FR: What were some of the high and low points of crafting this story?

LHP: In early drafts, Louisa, gearing up for a full-blown manic episode, attempted to seduce Elder Stone. One high point was deciding to rein her in and realizing that the Mormons wouldn’t flee in horror, but inadvertently rescue her. Also, I’d been mired in passages elaborating Robbi’s narcissism, including her attempt to seduce Mr. Skyler. My other high point was deleting those passages.

FR: I love the portrait of Mr. Skyler as the hokey romantic poetry teacher. I had a similar teacher. What inspired this character? Is he pure invention?

LHP: I’m so glad you got a kick out of him. He was probably familiar because he is not pure invention but pure composite. I needed to patch together a miniature, later-day romantic hero, both hokey and handsome, something Louisa needed to adore and Robbi, therefore, to destroy.

FR: I love the ending of “Buds, and Bells, and Stars without a Name.” Tell me a bit about how you crafted it.

LHP: The images of nature that make for the romantic theme— the sacred imagination—appear throughout. I was not fully aware of this until they sort of cascaded into Louisa’s waking dream. However, to make the sentences in the final paragraph musical, to make them cohere and build, I must have revised it a hundred times. I remember enjoying Louisa’s sensations of triumph and peace myself when it was finally done.

FR: You said you revised a hundred times; how did you know when it was finished?

LHP: When the words finally fell in place. The process involved getting rid of all the clunks until the story became poetic—a prelude, a sapling from Louisa’s own imagination.

FR: Is there anything else you would like to tell readers of The Fourth River?

LHP: As I’ve zigzagged along my unlikely path from fiction to Keats to Hedy Lamarr and back again, worried at times about my tendency to veer with great enthusiasm off track, I try to remember that nothing goes to waste, that there might yet be some unforeseen use for what I’ve picked up along the way. We’re all increasingly besieged by distractions, thwarted by interruptions. I like to hold onto the words of the wily duke in Measure for Measure: “...nature never lends/the smallest scruple of her excellence/But, like a thrifty goddess, she herself/Determines the glory of a creditor. In other words, nature’s up there working on your behalf, seeing to it that there’ll be a good return her on investments in you, no matter how small or scattered, or how long she has to wait.

Beth Gilstrap recently graduated from Chatham University’s MFA in Creative Writing Program. She lives in Charlotte, North Carolina.