Make Sure There Is Breathing Room: A Conversation with Tania de Rozario, author of And The Walls Come Crumbling Down and winner of the 2020 NOR nonfiction contest

By Kay Keegan

Kay Keegan: Describe your writing practice and how you sustain it. Has your process changed over the course of your writing career? How about during the pandemic?

Tania de Rozario: I am not a very organized person by nature so I work really hard to set detailed schedules and deadlines for myself because if I don’t have a schedule to look at, I am unable to get anything done. Setting aside daily time for my personal writing becomes part of my overall schedule. That said, I am not one of those people who has output goals. Like I don’t have a word count I need to meet every day. I am actually a very slow writer -slower than most, I think- and I need a lot of time for things to percolate. So in that time that I set aside for my writing, I am not necessarily literally putting words on paper – I could really just be sitting with an idea and dwelling on it and letting it develop in my brain. And when I am blocked, I use that time to do something that activates a different part of my brain (like drawing or baking, for example) so that the writing part of my brain can continue to solve the issues it needs to solve subconsciously without me bothering it. Once things are on paper, I try to make sure there is breathing room between edits – again, this is to let things percolate, and to make sure I come back to the draft with fresh eyes every time. I don’t think my process has changed very much over the course of the pandemic. One thing that has changed over the course of my writing career is that I am now in much less of a rush to get to the “final product” and more focused on giving every piece of work enough breathing room to develop into the piece it wants to be.

KK: You’re also a talented visual artist. How does working in more than one artistic medium influence one project to the next?

TdR: Thank you – you are very kind to say that. If you had asked me this 10 years ago, the answer would have been simple. My visual art and my writing both dealt with similar themes, but my visual art was a way of processing my thoughts on a more subconscious level while my writing was what came out once I was ready to put those thoughts into words. But even when both mediums were quite separate in terms of how they were displayed or categorized, the two were never really separate things. A lot of my painting and drawing used poetry and memoir as a departure point, and a lot of my installation work used text as a medium. I’ve also made artist books and combined poetry with print transfers. More generally, I think that there are many elements of literary and visual art that overlap. Poems, for example, often revolve around images and the power they contain. So to answer your question, I guess I don’t necessarily see the two as being completely separate mediums. So much more so these days since I’ve started working on comics, a medium in which words and images work together.

KK: What are you reading currently? Has there been a book you’ve obsessed over and couldn’t stop thinking about (or talking about) in the last year or so?

TdR: I’m currently re-reading Stitches, an amazing graphic novel memoir by David Small. I loved it the first time around and am loving it just as much now.

KK: Across the books you’ve published, I noticed there’s always a level of genre hybridity at play. For example, your first collection, Tender Delirium, showcases both poetry and prose. Also, And The Walls Come Crumbling Down was republished and that book blends memoir with poetic rumination. What do you love most about blurring genre boundaries?

TdR: To be honest, when I started writing those books, I wasn’t really thinking about blurring genre boundaries. I didn’t have a background in creative writing and probably would not have really understood what that even meant. I did my undergrad degree in Visual Art and a large portion of the program was structured such that we would be given assignment briefs that we were allowed to address via any medium of our choosing – painting, drawing, installation, video, photography, etc. So all 40 of us would be working on something with a similar theme and set of objectives, but the work that would emerge across everyone’s studio spaces would be so different, depending on our individual areas of focus. And many of us mixed media within single projects. I think this really influenced the way I write – to mix different kinds of things together has become a natural impulse for me. So I wouldn’t say I love blurring genre boundaries – I would just say that that the blurring of genre boundaries is a natural product of the way I think and work.

KK: Your essay “There Will Be Salvation Yet” blew us all away at New Ohio Review. Could you discuss some of the formal choices you made while writing that essay, such as employing different points of view and the braided structure of the piece?

TdR: Thank you so much for saying that – I really appreciate it! So the challenging part of writing that essay was knowing that most readers would probably not have watched all the films I referenced and that they may not even be interested in horror. So I really had to identify and isolate the aspects of these three films that were most resonant to me and to the story that I wanted to tell, and intersperse them in short bursts amidst the actual memoir content. And the braided structure was a natural way to do this. In terms of the different points-of-view, I used the second-person POV for the segments concerning the “exorcism” I underwent as a way of differentiating them from the other memoir segments – it was done mainly for clarity and for threading. I also wrote it in present tense to differentiate it further, and to lend it a little more immediacy in terms of tone.

KK: Since family dynamics show up in your writing, sometimes taking center stage like in “Salvation,” do you have any advice for writers who feel called to write about strained or emotionally fraught relationships with family members or close friends?

TdR: I don’t think anyone is really qualified to offer advice about this to other people because every family situation is different and every close relationship is different. At the end of the day, only the person writing the story knows what is best for the story, and best for their own wellbeing – even though as writers, it is sometimes hard for us to tell the difference between the two. One thing I will put out there in relation to writing about any personal story that is emotionally challenging, is that you don’t owe anybody your trauma.

KK: What horror movie recommendations do you have for people who claim they don’t like horror movies? Can you think of a great horror film that might serve as a gateway for scaredy cats?

TdR: Regarding gateway horror and being a “scaredy cat”: I think many people who say they are afraid of watching horror movies are thinking specifically of particular subgenres they are averse to – for example, slasher films, or films about specific kinds of ghosts or creatures, or films containing gore. Avoiding the specific things that scare you is a good gateway tactic. Because even when avoiding entire subgenres of horror, there is still so much left to enjoy and to love. Another great gateway into horror is watching documentaries about horror – there are some really good ones out there. I really enjoyed Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror, which examines the relationship between African-American history, the evolution of the horror film genre, and the roles that African-American people have played in the development of American horror.

On recommendations, I would ask: what kind of themes or stories is that person interested in? Search for a horror film based on that. For example, Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook is a sharp and sensitive exploration of grief, mental health, and the struggles of single motherhood in which the monster haunting the protagonist can be read as an embodiment of her grief. Mike Flanagan’s The Haunting of Hill House is really gripping and emotional exploration of family and of intergenerational trauma. A film many non-horror fans seem to enjoy is Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night, which is a cinematically gorgeous film about a lone female vampire who haunts the streets at night and who does not tolerate violence against women. And one of my favorite series that I’ve recommended to non-horror fans is the first three-episode season of BBC’s In The Flesh, a zombie series that looks at assimilation and what it means to live on the margins – as a queer person, as a “monster”, and at times, as both. It brought me to tears.

KK: What are you working on now? Is there anything you’d like to promote?

TdR: I’m currently working on a collection of essays (which begins with There Will Be Salvation Yet) and I’m querying agents. So you know, if any agent out there is interested in writing that explores a weird combination of queer experiences, political commentary, pop culture and horror, I am happy to send you my proposal package!

Also, I would like to believe that in another part of the multiverse, I’ve been hired to novelize Mike Flanagan’s latest series, Midnight Mass, because well, a girl can dream!

Kay Keegan is an Assistant Nonfiction Editor for New Ohio Review. Her essays can be found on Essay Daily and Hobart, and she’s had photography published in the New York Times. She’s pursuing a PhD in English at Ohio University, but prefers running, crocheting, playing chess, and visiting the tempestuous mistress that is the sea.

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