In the Land of Difficult History
Elizabeth Lopeman on Trans Europe Express and Living (and Writing) Abroad
lizabeth Lopeman’s debut story collection, Trans Europe Express, is the fall 2014 release from Propeller magazine’s publishing imprint, Propeller Books. Lopeman’s stories explore the experience of expatriate women in a compelling array of situations.: a French girl is sent to live with her German father (though she doesn’t speak his language); an American woman becomes emotionally disoriented by a German actor; a journalist escapes a lover via a bewildering Mediterranean ferry trip. In the following conversation, Lopeman discusses differences between life in Europe and the United States, writing about the body, and how she has supported herself as a writer while living abroad. —Dan DeWeese
Propeller: The stories in your collection take place, all or in part, in Europe. When did you start writing fiction that took place in Europe, and why?
Elizabeth Lopeman: I don’t remember the first story I wrote set in Europe, but as soon as I started writing fiction with focus and intention it took place in Europe. I think it’s a natural home for me. I feel at home in Europe much more than the U.S. I’m drawn to the deep sense of history and family, and in some instances tradition, in which Europeans show a greater interest. We’re frequently called ‘superficial’ and naïve as Americans, and in our defense, many of our families tossed out the Old World in order to participate in the melting pot, but in the process have thrown so much away. And with an emphasis on rugged individualism, familial relationships are discounted in many American families, and I think very rich life-lessons are abandoned in the end.
And then there is the attention to aesthetic beauty. You don’t see very much shoddy building in Europe—for sure not in Germany—and I think it’s because they value history, they know what it means to make things to last and they want their future generations, their family members and countrymen, to have a nice place and to have a nice time. I take comfort in that kind of stability. Europeans understand the perils of bellicosity and they take it very seriously because they know it will surely come again.
Propeller: You've spent the last four years living in Munich. How do you feel that has changed the idea of "Europe" for you, both in your writing and in your sense of the world in general?
Lopeman: Living there hasn’t changed my ideas about Europe a whole lot when I think about it, it’s just as enchanting to me as when I thought about it as a child. But, it has changed the way I write about it, because writing about your home is different than writing about a trip abroad. For example, I wrote the story “Stall” in the U.S. in 2006 after spending a month in Italy, Spain, and France, much of the time on my own. The story is very much about feeling outside of the culture, whereas all of the other stories were written while I was living in Munich, and while the characters in those stories experience the world very much as outsiders, they are more familiar with their environments and engage in more quotidian behavior.
My ideas about the world have—
Propeller: Wait, sorry, I want to ask more about “Stall.” That story is interesting in that most of it takes place on a ferry. So the immediate culture the main character is outside of is how that ferry works. This registers quite a bit in issues of the body—she doesn’t know where she should sit, what the rules are for the bathroom, all of that kind of stuff, and this ends up leading to fairly dramatic consequences. Many of your stories feature characters interested in art, history, ideas—intellectual things. I know you said you wrote “Stall” in 2006, but was it a departure or a stretch for you to write so directly about the body and its functions? Does a story that hinges on acute issues of body discomfort challenge you in different ways as a writer than a more supposedly “intellectual” story?
Lopeman: Well, I think issues of the body are not so much a stretch for me as just normally not very interesting for me to explore. Sex aside. Alas, potty humor will usually escape me and I’m someone who appreciates it when people keep their personal body functions to themselves—even other people brushing their teeth in front of me I find unpleasant. I think I’m more sensitive about this stuff than most—not sure why—so, it’s unusual that I would write about it. But I did fuck up a ship’s plumbing once by flushing a tampon, so obviously that incident inspired the story.
Propeller: Yeah, I think it’s probably safe for you to admit that now, eight years later. I assume the statute of limitations has run out. But I interrupted you before, you were going to talk about how your ideas about the world have changed as a result of living in Europe.
Lopeman: Yes, my ideas about the world have certainly changed, but a lot of the changes in perspective have been in my view of the U.S. I can see how we are a little bit spoiled and act with entitlement. How addicted we are to our own satisfaction—Americans always seem to be struggling to placate an insatiable urge to be individuals. The cult of the individual. I think people in a lot of other places have had to learn to sit with discomfort and dissatisfaction a little bit more and you can feel a little more stoicism, as though they have a better handle on what is and isn’t important. And I like that in Europe, no matter what social class, people enjoy pleasantries and civilized customs in spite of very difficult histories—or maybe in order to be able to tolerate the unpleasantness of their pasts. When the ‘Lost Generation’ was in Europe, it was cheap to live there and the European people were poor in relation to Americans—it’s not necessarily wealth that has bred sophistication. Frankly, I think it might have been hardship. And I’m very lucky. I know that. And I’m grateful to have lived the life I have, and I know that not everyone has the opportunity to critique their environment from the outside.
Propeller: You’re saying you’re lucky, but you’re not just lucky. I know you a little bit, and it’s not like you’re just gallivanting around Europe, totally carefree. You work there, right? How have you supported yourself for the last four years while you’ve also been writing fiction and writing about art? And have these ways you’ve supported yourself opened up new thoughts for you as a writer?
Lopeman: When I got to Germany I started teaching business English and then I started taking care of children, which I came to really love. I worked with a couple families and became close to the children who contributed to my life story in a beautiful way. But, I think it should be said that the scenario in “Bimini Sun” is completely fictional. I was never in the Caribbean with a family, certainly never slept with a father, or bailed on a family etc., etc. But whether as a parent or a nanny, there are moments that become difficult and you just want to take a couple weeks by yourself. “Bimini Sun” was surely formulated in one of those moments and to give the story substance I pushed the scenario.
As a freelancer I’ve written about art for mags, and I’ve done some copywriting, and fiction editing and some editing in the health care industry, etc. And I have had a number of stints of carefree gallivanting around—it seems to be critical to my well being, and Europe is more conducive to that than the U.S. Travel is much more normal there. I’ve been pretty mobile for the last 4 or 5 years and it’s been fabulous. And, I believe I’m quite lucky to have had the opportunities I’ve had, to have had the rich experiences and to have made so many interesting friends from such diverse backgrounds. Those are the things that have contributed to my writing life more than anything. I’m not stuck in a comfort zone, I’m lucky to be someone who can allow myself to be open and vulnerable because I get this opportunity to experience a life that’s quite full, not necessarily easy, but full. That’s what I’m grateful for and why I feel lucky.
“I’m a glutton for the astonishing power of the sublime.” (Photo by Justus Tyrone Gooden)
Propeller: I can’t help but point out that though you feel lucky, your characters don’t particularly feel that way. Many of the stories are about women getting pulled into situations they can’t seem to extricate themselves from—there’s a sense in many of the stories of main characters who are physically or emotionally trapped. Do you have a sense that this situation of being trapped or blocked is a common fate for women? If so, why—and is there a way to avoid the traps, or at least a way to escape? Your characters seem to make attempts.
Elizabeth Lopeman: Yeah—well that’s really the human condition in a nutshell, isn’t it? We are all trapped. In our bodies and in our gender roles, and our roles in our families, communities, and nationalities. I’m a total escape artist. I think I have a little spiritual rat attendant, like Ganesha, who gnaws away what holds me back, including my own negativity. I’m working on this. At tempering my claustrophobia. And, when people, as they often will, try to peg me and put me in a box and categorize me in order to make themselves feel comfortable, I always think of that Eleanor Roosevelt quote: “Great minds discuss ideas; average minds discuss events; small minds discuss people.” It’s always the small minds who hold back the progress of the world.
Propeller: I want to ask more about the role of art in your fiction. When did you start writing about art, in fiction or outside of it, and what kind of material do you feel writing about artists offers a fiction writer access to?
Lopeman: I guess I first wrote about art in art class in high school. My mother worked in art galleries when I was a kid and my family traveled. I was exposed to the French impressionists in Paris at a young age and I think the door of art appreciation, which was ajar, was thrown open with seeing Monet’s Nymphéas, and certainly Degas’ La Petite Danseuse de Quatorze Ans has stuck with me. I loved the way the tulle and satin ribbon had decayed and been damaged through the years—talk about mood and atmosphere. And, in writing classes in college I was always trying to capture mood via descriptive language, still am, I guess. I try to curate salient details because it’s very much how I move through the world. I would say I’m a very aesthetic person and anything from a Francis Bacon painting to a putti in the Theatinerkirche, or a crumbling tile in the Cinque Terre can inspire wonder and awe in me, which in turn frequently inspires a story, maybe not a story about that place—but a story of fiction that replicates the spirit of the place or the painting, or the way an old Croatian bottle reflects the light in a bar—I’m fascinated by how that makes me feel and like to create characters who are sensitive to aesthetics and the mood of a place. Which brings us back to why I love Europe—it feels right. I love the bigness of the world—I’m a glutton for the astonishing power of the sublime. And my characters are usually caught up in a world that’s much bigger than they. Art delivers us.
Same goes for writing about art for articles and reviews, though the discipline demands a different format and voice, of course. The language is more academic, but the same in that the idea is to replicate the mood via a discussion of rigor, technique, and medium.
(Photo by Justus Tyrone Gooden)
Propeller: What do you think is most difficult about writing fiction that takes place in foreign settings?
Lopeman: I love fiction that incorporates foreign languages and I think it’s critical to creating the spirit of the people who populate a place, but writing dialogue is a delicate craft in English and so trying to do that in other languages is tricky. I would say that’s the most difficult part. I wouldn’t attempt a story if I weren’t tuned in to who the characters are, or how the place feels, or what it looks like, but I will regardless of how graceful I am in the local language.
Propeller: When you think about these stories and the years you spent working on them, which writers stand out as those whose work you looked to, or whom you found most influential—and what were you able to draw from those writers?
Lopeman: Marilynn Robinson for her grace. Sebald’s Austerlitz for reflecting the beauty in the unmoored state—I’ve read it seven or eight times. Bolaño for his teeth.
Propeller: Were there other things that kept you going? “Kept you going” is maybe awkward phrasing. I’m interested in a challenge that most writers without that magical object—a book with their name on it—feel, which is maybe just a sense of authenticity—that they are allowed to continue spending time on their writing, that this is a legitimate pursuit. You’ve been writing fiction for a number of years. How did you continue to make it a priority? Were there times when that challenge was particularly daunting? How did you sustain your creativity through the challenges?
Lopeman: Writing fiction is something I do reflexively. I used to paint, and I still would except that I don’t have the space at the moment, but I’m not a talented painter—it’s more therapy. My expression is writing fiction. Telling stories. And, I was a quiet child, not a big talker, and I think writing is another way of having my voice heard. If only by myself. I don’t know what “kept me going.” I don’t really think of it like that. A book with your name on it isn’t necessarily received in the world with great accolades and then you’ve arrived. Paul Collins once described to me the ephemeral nature of publishing a book. I guess what drives me is this deep desire to crystalize the beauty or poignancy or sublimity of our fragile experience in a perfect form—that’s what drives me. Of course I want my stories to be read and celebrated, but it’s the honing of the craft in order to produce a wonderful object, if you will, that makes me want to write fiction.
Propeller: This is your debut work of fiction. Propeller is a small, independent press. What has been most challenging for you about getting your debut book into the world?
Lopeman: Well, it’s just not reaching as many people coming from a small press. I’ve been in New York since September and there is a certain type of New Yorker who wants to know first thing who your publisher is, and if they aren’t familiar they immediately discount you because of the branding of the old publishing world. Which, by the way, is a slowly dying bastardization of what it represents to the old guard. And then there are the booksellers of course who also stick to the old formula. There are all of these vibrant small young publishing houses springing up these days—and it’s because they value literature and new voices instead of safely sticking to what they know sells. Or in other words, sticking to work that doesn’t require fresh thinking.
I read Francine Prose’s essay in the New York Review of Books about The Goldfinch, in which she argues that if Tartt’s book can win the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, then America’s taste in literature has dampened markedly. I haven’t read The Goldfinch, so I can’t speak to Prose’s argument, but I think small publishers are in the business in order to give good work a chance, though in the shadow of massive publishing houses—but it’s a bit like alternative energy. We all know it’s better, but it’s easier to stick with big business energy. Just like it’s easier for bookstores to stick with big publishers—it’s only one order form to fill out instead of four.
Propeller: All of that aside, though, what has been best about publishing your first book of fiction?
Lopeman: I believe in my work.
Elizabeth Lopeman's writing on art and design has appeared in Sculpture, American Craft, FiberArts, and Bitch, and her fiction has appeared in Propeller and Drain. Trans Europe Express is her first book of fiction.