Ampersand Interview Series: L.I. Henley interviewed by Kelsie Doran

Checkout our latest interview in our Ampersand Interview Series with L.I. Henley

In the latest Ampersand Interview, Assistant Managing Editor, Kelsie Doran, spoke with L.I. Henley about Jim Morrison, pain, her dream car, upcoming projects, and her piece, “Drive! (You’re Lost Little Girl, You’re Lost)” which will be published in the forthcoming Arts & Letters Issue.

Kelsie Doran: First of all, us here at Arts & Letters are big Jim Morrison fans. Having Jim as a figure running throughout the piece was a fun fantasy treat; at what point in the writing process did you decide to bring Jim in? 

L.I. Henley: I’m glad to hear that! The decision to include Jim as a kind of imaginary friend in the essay came early on. At seventeen I was completely enamored with Morrison’s sultry voice, transgressive lyrics (and those black leather pants!), and I really did imagine him as my co-pilot. When I sat down and began writing notes about the experience of driving as a young female on the desolate roads of the Mojave Desert at a time without cell phones, iPods, or helicopter parents, my mind immediately went to the music that kept me company. I thought about albums by the Talking Heads, Frank Zappa, The Dave Brubeck Quartet, David Bowie, Annie Lennox…all of which I raided from my mom and stepdad’s CD collection. But The Door’s self-titled debut and their second album, Strange Days, really captured the tone of my long drives to school and my failed searches for house parties across the impossibly dark mesa. The existential and mythological implications mixed with blues and psychedelic rock that made up The Doors’ early sound (“no safety or surprise/ the end”) captured the volatile desert (and the west at large) and foreshadowed the even stranger days of early adulthood that were coming my way.  

KD: This piece is very vulnerable, was it harder to write the more personal scenes or was it therapeutic in some way?  

LH: Well, anything truly therapeutic is probably going to feel like hard or even painful work at times. Pain is pleasure’s wrestling mate, I think. Physical therapy hurts, lifting weights hurts, accepting and telling the truth hurts—but hopefully we get some sense of relief as well. I believe that by being open in regards to having chronic illness I can make others feel less alone, that I can do my small part to challenge the stigma associated with invisible disabilities. I do think that there is strength in being vulnerable, and that the essay shows how the rugged environment of my childhood made me more resilient and self-reliant.  

KD: Besides Jim Morrison, who else do you like to rock out to? Do you listen to any artists or albums specifically to get you into the writing mood?  

LH: I’m still a big fan of all the performers I listed above, but my heavy rotation now includes Run the Jewels, Scissor Sisters, Puscifer, Die Antwoord, and other contemporary artists. I like to listen to Massive Attack and The Knife when I’m working on my visual art. I listened to Tool and Marilyn Manson when I was writing my desert noir novella, Whole Night Through. I’m currently working on a novel set in my hometown of Landers during the early 80’s, and I listen to what I think my UFO obsessed, up all night, down-and-out characters would listen to: Patti Smith, Shuggie Otis, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed.  

KD: Where do you write most often? Do you like to have a specific writing space?

LH: When I’m working on an eco-poetic piece that is rooted in the experiential, I sit outside where I can observe and have experiences in real time and write about them in real time. I’ve written a few chapbooks sitting in the backyard of whatever desert house or cabin I was renting at the time, just going, “Oh, that jackrabbit is looking at me,” “Oh, that cricket lost a leg,” “Oh, the ants are devouring my toes.” But writing outside is not always practical (wind, sun, heat, fire ants on my feet) and I do find myself at my standing desk quite a lot, surrounded by corkboards covered in ephemera I’ve cut from Life Magazines and bookshelves full of field guides (which is where I am writing this right now).  

KD: What/who inspires you to write the most? 

LH: As an only child living in “the sticks,” I started writing stories and poems when I was old enough to read. I think it was partially because I wanted to feel less alone but also because I was critical of the world I saw and had a lot of opinions about the adult behavior that I couldn’t voice otherwise. I was born a critic, which makes me a true optimist, because I believe we can do better. My partner, JM, doesn’t necessarily inspire me to write but he does something better—he doesn’t get in my way. He is a dedicated percussionist and composer who is always cooking up something new; we both like to be in our work. He’s also a damn fine editor and has no problem giving me unbiased, no B.S. criticism.  

KD: What would you tell someone who has just started their writing career?  

LH: Well, I guess I’d have to ask the person what they mean by “career.” I once visited a graduate poetry class at USC and a student asked me what it was like for me financially now that I had “made it as a writer,” and my response was that I hadn’t gotten the memo that this was or could be true for me. If by “career” we are talking about a calling, a life’s work, an obsession, I’m more suited to give advice, but it’s not very fancy. Read as much contemporary writing in all genres as you can. Read work that is different from yours. Write as much as you can. If you can’t be content in life without writing, then you are a writer.  

KD: We read about your first car – the used, white, Nissan Altima. But we are dying to know, what is your dream car if money wasn’t a factor?  

LH: Great question! I’d love a fully electric car that still has some cargo space in it. A fully electric camper van—does that exist yet? I’d buy one of those. I have to say I’m pretty stoked on our used Dodge van we bought off Craigslist—my partner built a bed and drawers inside of it. There are even two small laptop desks that fold down off the double doors in the back so we can work and write on the road. When I have trouble falling asleep at night (i.e. the world currently being on fire) I just remember that we can live in our van with our dogs if we have to—and we may have to because we are both adjunct English professors who lost our classes for the spring semester due to low enrollment.  

 KD: What is next for your writing? Is there anything you can share about forthcoming projects or pieces?  

LH: I am nothing if not prolific. I have a brand new eco-poetic chapbook out with symbolist painter Zara Kand called From the moon, as I fell, which was written during quarantine. Through our book sales, we are trying to raise money for the California Fire Foundation, which gives aid to families displaced by California wildfires. I am also sending around a collaborative chapbook manuscript I wrote with my best gal Jennifer K. Sweeney called The Book of Questions. I am still hoping to do some readings and interviews for Whole Night Through, which JM has made a soon-to-be released soundtrack for that includes the voices of Marsha de la O, Kristin Bock, James Cushing and other writers. I’m continuing to write personal essays centered on my experiences with autoimmune diseases and have another one forthcoming in the fall issue of Ninth Letter. I’m also working nearly every day on collage, erasure, mixed-media artwork.  

L.I. Henley’s work has most recently appeared in Diagram, WaxwingTupeloDiodeZone 3TinderboxThe American Literary ReviewThrushThe Superstition ReviewNinth Letter, and The Indianapolis Review. “Drive! You’re Lost Little Girl, You’re Lost,” is part of a collection-in-progress documenting her struggles (and epiphanies) living with a triad of autoimmune diseases. She lives and teaches in the Mojave with her partner, musician and poet JM. Visit her at www.lihenley.com.  

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