An Appalachian Heritage Interview: Margaret Renkl

By Howard, Jason Kyle | Appalachian Heritage, Summer 2019 | Go to article overview

An Appalachian Heritage Interview: Margaret Renkl


Howard, Jason Kyle, Appalachian Heritage


The shadow side of love is always loss, and grief is only love's own twin," Margaret Renkl writes in the opening pages of Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss, her memoir-in-micro-essays that was released earlier this year to glowing reviews. These wise, bracing words underpin the entire book, which bears witness to the majesty and worth of the dogs, bluebirds, butterflies, and snakes, as well as the humans, in Renkl's orbit. As her tender, complicated reflections build in weight and power, the reader becomes subsumed in Renkl's world and memories, a place where beauty and destruction co-exist and even harmonize.

For several years, the Alabama native has also served as a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times, where she offers her thoughts on the natural world and the South in weekly essays that are eagerly anticipated by her faithful readers. A former high school teacher and editor of Chapter 16, the daily literary publication of Humanities Tennessee, Renkl now works as a full-time writer from her home in Nashville. She chatted with Appalachian Heritage in between book tour dates and column deadlines.

                       ***

JASON KYLE HOWARD: I read Late Migrations with an enormous lump in my throat and sometimes even tears on my cheeks. It weaves together so many themes in beautiful and poignant ways. How did the book begin?

MARGARET RENKL: What kind words for a book that began completely by accident! Not long after my mother died very unexpectedly, my mother-in-law entered the final stages of Parkinson's disease and my father-in-law also needed open-heart surgery. My husband and I found ourselves in the depths of grief and caregiving at the same time. I was describing those challenges to a writer friend, and his response was, simply, "Would you ever want to write about that?"

Though I'd spent twelve years working as a full-time writer earlier in my life, I was working exclusively as an editor by then. I hadn't given any thought at all to the idea of writing about what I was going through. But as soon as my friend said those words, I understood that writing was exactly what I should be doing.

JKH: I'm so interested in the structure of the book. The essays are micro essays--short and compact--and yet you manage to fit so much depth and emotion into each one. And instead of the book feeling disjointed, the essays all work together to create a moving, powerful whole. That's hard to pull off. How did you do it and how did it all come about?

MR: The truth is that I was never certain, right up until the first readers started responding to the book, that anyone else would see those connections--not because I don't trust readers but because it took me so long to see the connections myself. For at least a year I believed I was writing two different sets of essays: one set about my family, and one set about the natural world of my backyard.

But then another writer friend said, "You know you're writing a book, right?" (Clearly I owe everything to my writer friends!) I wasn't at all sure about that, but gradually I came to understand that a childhood spent playing in the woods had given me a kinship to the natural world that felt very much like family. I came to see, too, that losing my beloved elders was as much a part of the natural order as anything that happened in my backyard. Once I understood that connection, I began to think of the whole project differently.

JKH: These essays are so steeped in place--it's such a Southern book in how land and storytelling are all tangled Margaret Renkl up together in these pages. I'm wondering how important nature and land were to you growing up in Alabama in the 1960s.

MR: I think nature is always more important to rural and small-town people than to city people because the land is so much more integrated into human life for country people. That was especially the case during my childhood. …

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