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Take 5: Poet, memoirist and novelist Virginia Slachman on her new book and returning home

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 30, 2013 - Virginia Slachman was born in Brentwood and grew up in Crestwood, but in moving away from home, she found places, and words, that solidified her as a writer. Slachman’s work includes “World of Mortal Light,” a collection of poetry, “Many Brave Hearts,” a memoir, and her newest novel, “The Lost Ode.”

Slachman, who moved back to St. Louis in 2007, also teaches English at Washington University. Her novel, a mystery, took her to a thoroughbred breeding farm, where she lived while researching.

“It was really motivated by my love of these beautiful, intelligent, fantastic animals,” she says of “The Lost Ode.” “They are just amazing creatures.”

Slachman will read from her new book at 7 p.m., Wednesday, Oct. 2, at Left Bank Book’s Central West End store. She spoke with the Beacon about her travels, how she writes, and what she’d like to work on next. Answers were edited for length. 

Beacon: You were born and raised here, and then left the Midwest for Los Angeles and then Aspen after college, according to your website, “ to discover life outside her staid Midwest roots.” What did you discover?

Slachman: When I was in Los Angeles, I spent a lot of time in Venice Beach. In the '70s, there was a wonderful experimental writing workshop there. I spent a lot of time working with other poets and just honing my craft.

When I moved to Aspen, I actually worked for a literary foundation there. We put out a bi-annual literary magazine. I was the senior poetry editor there. We had an annual writers conference, which is still going on. Essentially, I was just really able to immerse myself more fully in writing and the craft of writing and also just the community of writers. It really galvanized my forward progress as a writer.

Beacon: In addition to all your writing, you’re an adjunct professor of English at Washington University. You've now been back in St. Louis for several years. How does your hometown strike you now?

Slachman: After I lived in Aspen, I had moved back to St. Louis for a short time, it was about 1986, and I lived in Lafayette Square. I actually had my daughter in Lafayette Square.

Subsequent to that, we moved to Cincinnati where I did my PhD studies, and I taught in Cincinnati for many many years. And then I moved back here in 2007.

So when I moved back, because I had such wonderful memories of living in Lafayette Square, that’s where I came back to. It was sort of like, in a weird way, coming home, but coming home to a home that I had as an adult. The same wonderful community of people were here and the cohesiveness was still here. It was very familiar territory to me and just as wonderful as I remembered it.

Beacon: Looking at your body of work, it’s striking that you have several poetry collections, a memoir about PTSD from your father’s service in World War II and now this debut novel. Authors, or maybe readers and publishers, often place writers into one category, but you’re in three. How has your work in each informed the others?

Slachman: I think most authentically, I’m a poet. So everything for me kind of stems out of that process. Writing for me, as a poet, is almost a meditative process.

Some people know what they want to write and they sit down and write it. For me, it’s exactly the opposite. I never know what I’m going to write, and so I sit, quietly, and it’s really a process of just becoming still and listening and just trying to get to that more authentic, genuine language that comes forth. That’s where the vibrancy and the heart is for me.

The memoir, it’s a tough story. It’s a really difficult, challenging experience my family had. When I sat down to write it, it was as if I’d waited my whole life to write it. It was something I had to do, at some point, and when I ended up writing it, it was the perfect time. And that, too, was a process.

I had a very challenging childhood, I expected [writing the memoir] to be a torturous, horrible, painful experience, and it was that. But it was also an extremely healing process for me. What I came to understand -- that I didn’t realize before -- was the amount of love in my family that was there along with all of the hardship and more aggressive, abusive experiences.

That same being very quiet and still and allowing what wants to come forth to come forth I think allowed me to discover something about that experience that I wouldn’t have realized any other way. 

Beacon: Tell us about this new novel, “The Lost Ode.”

Slachman: I read huge amounts of mysteries, I love mysteries. I don’t like the boring ones or the psychologically crazy ones, but the intellectual puzzles. That’s kind of what I like about mysteries. It is a murder mystery but the murders occur off camera, so to speak. It’s not a bloody text.

There are two plots. One is what is going on on this thoroughbred breeding farm. Why are all these horses dying? And then it moves on to humans. There’s that puzzle. Interwoven with [the murder mystery] is another, historically based plot that has to do with George Keats. When he first came to Kentucky, he actually lived with John J. Audubon before Audubon was this celebrated painter.

It’s purported that George Keats died penniless but I kind of changed that. Did he actually secret away a huge lost fortune, as his journal indicates? So there is the search for his lost fortune and a literary artifact that’s worth a lot of money. Those two plots are interwoven with a romantic relationship as well.

Beacon: What do you plan to work on next?

Slachman: I’d love to write more poetry. Usually what I do when I write poetry is I don’t write it for a long time. It kind of just simmers in the unconscious.

And then when I get a block of time where I don’t have to do anything else, I just sit down and write. And literally, I don’t do anything else. Sometimes I don’t eat, sometimes I don’t sleep. I just write. That’s how my books come to fruition.

So the next time I get that large chunk of time, I’ll probably do that, but I also had so much fun writing this novel. I love doing research; and, of course, I adore the horses. So I’m hoping I’ll be able to do a second book or start a new series that has the same kind of world that is the thoroughbred world. 

Kristen Hare special to the Beacon

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