LITERATURE

The “Excavation” of Wendy C. Ortiz

0 Comments 21 August 2014

wendy ortiz excavation

Interview with author Wendy Ortiz about her new memoir Excavation.

 

By Justin Maurer

 

Wendy C. Ortiz is a writer, teacher, mother, and therapist.  She was born and raised in Los Angeles and has hosted the writing series Rhapsodomancy for nearly ten years. Her new book Excavation is a memoir about an elicit teenage relationship she had with a private school teacher fifteen years her senior.  The man, referred to as “Jeff Ivers” in the book, is now a registered sex offender in the State of California.  Ortiz’ new book has been recently praised in the LA Times as well as on Madeline Brand’s Press Play radio show on KCRW.  Her writing has been widely published in journals like The New York Times, McSweeny’s, Vol. 1 Brooklyn and The Rumpus.  I caught up with Ortiz at the tail-end of another one of her busy days.

 

You’ve hosted the writing series Rhapsodomancy for nearly ten years now.  What is the weirdest occurrence at one of your events and who was the worst writer you’ve ever hosted?

In all honesty, there has never been a weird moment. We are all as socially awkward as one another, so nothing seems weird to me. I don’t name names, but let’s just say there are folks who I would not invite back again.

 

What is the difference between good writing and bad writing?

Good writing makes me stop and check myself before jumping headlong into it, because I know that drowning in good writing feels so wonderful. I have to pace myself when it’s so good. Bad writing doesn’t do that to me.

 

Who are two writers who have recently wet your whistle?

Melissa Broder’s poetry. Cynthia Cruz’s poetry and art criticism.

 

Your new book Excavation focuses on an adolescent relationship you had with a teacher fifteen years older than you.  The relationship lasted five years which is an eternity by teenage standards.  Was it difficult to return to your past?

It was difficult re-reading journals from those years. Enough time has passed for me that it’s not as difficult discussing it, but writing about it always presents its own challenge.

 

wendy ortiz excavation

 

What was the biggest challenge writing the book and completing it?

Knowing when it was not ready. Knowing in the early years of writing it that it would not be ready for a long time, and having to develop patience around it.

 

How did you know when it was ready?

I knew it was as close to ready as it would get without the benefit of a dedicated editor in 2012. In 2013 I was sharpening it, and it felt ready for an editor’s eyes.

 

You were recently interviewed on NPR, what was that experience like?

I was interviewed by Madeleine Brand for her show Press Play on KCRW. It was a great experience. I’ve been a fan of Madeleine Brand throughout her time at NPR, KPCC and KCET. I’d never seen KCRW before, had never been on the Santa Monica College campus before. Everyone there was friendly and warm. I think it contributed to how comfortable I felt during the interview.

 

You mention receiving Lolita as a Christmas present in the book.  If I’m not mistaken you were around thirteen or fourteen when you received the book.  Your mom says to you, “Don’t get any ideas.”   How would you compare Lolita’s fictional story to your true story?

Any comparison I would draw would be centered around the power a young girl learns to develop around men who show an interest in her. There are many more differences than similarities, but this is one undercurrent I’d say appears somewhere in both stories.

 

Do you think Nabokov romanticizes sexual abuse in Lolita?

I don’t. I think Humbert’s flaws keep the story from becoming a romanticization.

 

wendy ortiz

Photo by Meiko Takechi Arquillos.

 

I read that two books influenced the way you wrote yours, The Chronology of Water by Lidia Yuknavitch and Firebird by Mark Doty.  What role did those two books play in writing yours?

I was floored by the intensity of both books, and how they achieved their intensity and artfulness in different ways. Both books are touchstones to me as a writer and as a human.

 

A review recently said something to the effect of your book reversing perceptions of the typical victim/abductor relationship.  Why are the roles played in your book grey as opposed to black-and-white?

I don’t think it says “reversing perceptions” specifically. It’s not a reversal. I’m committed to exploring the grey areas as a writer and as a human because that’s where the truth I want to get to lives.

 

Before Excavation was published did you have a conversation with your parents about this specific relationship during your teenage years?

I haven’t had that conversation with my parents.

 

Wow. Do you plan to? Is your mother aware of the book? I’m assuming your father wasn’t aware of the book before his passing?

My mother and I don’t talk about my writing. My parents always saw writing as a hobby even as they were both avid readers. Since our views about what writing is are so wildly divergent, it’s not a topic we get into much, if ever.

 

What is the biggest difference between Wendy Ortiz of 1991 and Wendy Ortiz of 2014?

The biggest difference is I’m much smarter, definitely wiser now, I have grey hairs, I get to say that. I believed in 1991 that I would feel exactly the same way from that point on, forever, and thank god that couldn’t be further from the truth. There are a few things still true from 1991 me.

 

Like what?

Some vaguely socialist ideals mixed with a little bruja.

 

Che Guevara meets Santeria?

Ha! It’s a secret.

 

wendy ortiz

 

What do you think is the biggest difference in the Los Angeles of the 1980s and 90s compared with 2014?  What do you miss the most?

Los Angeles is an animal I will always love. It’s constantly mutating. My biggest difference would be completely different from someone else’s.  LA feels so much bigger to me than it did then. Of course it was the same in terms of its geographical size as now but “my” LA of the 80s and 90s felt so much smaller. My lens has widened for the better.

 

I do miss having a drive-in movie theater close by. I grew up by the one that used to be on Roscoe Boulevard in Van Nuys, right by where I went to preschool and kindergarten. My point of reference for landmarks that existed when I was a kid will always be in the San Fernando Valley. I can’t categorize a Los Angeleno, not then and not now. This is one of the things I love about living here. Also, at what point does one become “a Los Angeleno”? There’s such an enormous range of what that means and how that spirit gets manifested.

 

How do you balance being a mother and a writer?

Like a lot of people balance any two things that are all-encompassing and full of beauty and complexity and challenges and great joy. As carefully as I can muster at any given moment. This sometimes involves imbalance.

 

Who is Sarah Buller and how did she make you think differently about this particular chapter in your life?

Sarah Buller is one of my best friends going on twenty-six years and she has always been someone who offers perspectives it might take me more time to get to on my own.

 

How was working with Kevin Sampsell of Future Tense Books?

Working with Kevin has been and continues to be warm, friendly, and easy. I definitely feel like he’s treated my book with care, respect, and enthusiasm throughout.

 

Why do you hike in Griffith Park?

I started hiking there from my apartment in Hollywood twelve years ago. Some of the same people who hiked it then are still hiking it now! There’s a whole cast of characters I have unspoken relationships with. Hiking there is where I can think, cry, zone out, connect with dogs, trees, the views of downtown LA and the ocean.

 

Now that you have completed this deeply personal memoir, what are your next writing projects on the horizon?

Hollywood Notebook is the next book, and it’s a prose poem-ish memoir made up of micro-chapters composed of narratives, lists, dreams, conversations. I’m working on a collection of music-related essays, too.

 

What advice would you give to an adolescent girl who is in an inappropriate relationship with an older man?

Well, first of all, I’m a mandated reporter so I’m required to report this kind of relationship in specific circumstances. I’d hesitate to call anything I’d say “advice” because that’s not my nature. My questions, my curiosity, would be around what the adolescent feels she’s getting from the relationship, as well as what she’s not getting. Hopefully that would lead us into a bigger conversation about what her needs are, and where and how her safety (in all the ways “safety” can be interpreted) comes into the picture.

 

Where is “Jeff Ivers” now?  Would you say he was an encouragement for you to write despite his inappropriate behavior?

Where Jeff Ivers is presently is not something I concern myself with. It’s clear in the book and the way I describe the experience, that he was completely encouraging of my writing, despite everything.Just as long as it was not writing about him.

 

You studied psychology and as I understand it are preparing to become a therapist, correct?  Is that why you are a mandated reporter? Did this intense experience you had in your adolescent years play a role in your career path as writer and therapist?

Yes, I’m less than 500 hours away from being able to sit for state exams and turn in all my paperwork to become a psychotherapist. That’s where my mandated reporter status comes from. This experience most definitely plays a role in my career path as a writer and therapist. I existed as a writer before Jeff Ivers but the experience has had an impact on how I approach my own stories. Getting into therapy myself at twenty-three (and having an excellent therapist) pretty much laid the groundwork for deciding many years later to become a therapist myself.

 

When writing do you listen to music?  Does any particular food or drink stimulate your writing?

It depends on what I’m writing- some things require music, some require as much silence as is possible in a city. No particular food or drink stimulates my writing particularly.

 

Do you have any encouraging words for anyone attempting to write a book about a formative or traumatizing or empowering experience in their life?

Write it all out, let it sit, steep, take it out again, let other eyes you trust see it, take care of yourself in the ways that work for you, pause when you need to and take all the time you need to write it.

 

wendy ortiz

 

Read works by Wendy Ortiz on her website.

Follow Wendy Ortiz on Twitter.

Check out the Future Tense Books website.

 

 

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- who has written 7 posts on Yay! LA | Arts & Culture Magazine.

Justin Maurer was born in Los Angeles but came of age in the Pacific Northwest. American Sign Language was his first language. He has written 2 chapbooks and 3 novels. He plays in punk bands like Clorox Girls, LA Drugz and Maniac. He sells digital X-ray devices to dentists. See more of his music and writing here: www.justin-maurer.com

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