Laura Manardo on Chemistry, Fiction, and Beluga Whales
Laura Katherine Manardo was born and raised in Detroit, Michigan. She attended Kalamazoo College, where she was Pre-Med, and there discovered her love of writing toward the end of her freshman year. A current graduate student at Columbia College Chicago, her book of poetry, Lemon Water in Lake Michigan, was published in April of 2018.
I first met Laura through the English & Creative Writing department of Columbia College Chicago in September of 2017 when we were placed in the same MFA Fiction workshop. Laura’s fiction writing immediately grabbed my attention. She had an incredibly poetic way of writing prose that stood out to me, and her focus on the sea and whales served as a beautiful backdrop to the stories she was telling. When I heard she was a poet, I was not surprised, and eager to know more about her writing. Laura, a natural-born storyteller, did not disappoint as we sat down to eat cookies in Columbia College’s 33 East Congress graduate lounge.
So, have you settled on a title?
I haven’t run it by the editor yet, but I’m pretty sure that it’s going to be titled, “Lemon Water in Lake Michigan.” It’s the title of one of the poems in the collection and it is the one that kind of, as soon as I wrote it, realized … you know, this can actually be a whole thing, this can be a collection, because it kind of encompassed everything that I’ve been working on.
How did you get started with writing?
Okay, so, I managed to escape out of almost all my English classes in high school because I didn’t like reading, and I took all science classes. I was obsessed with chemistry. Essentially, I just really wanted to be a doctor, I wanted to be a pediatrician, so I went to Kalamazoo College, because of their science program. I did pretty well—I mean, I wasn’t totally A’s, but it’s pretty hard in pre-med. So, after my first year, at the very end of my winter term I was signing up for classes and I had taken all the required classes for my first year of pre-med, so I had these three free courses. I took an Anti-Apartheid course … and it was amazing, and that was the first class that I took that I was enjoying what I was reading and writing. I also took an Intro to Creative Writing class. I had never written creatively before, except in second grade, when I wrote a short story about a woman who lived in a barn with ghosts. And, essentially, I started writing in the creative writing course and my professor kind of made a comment like, “Wow, Laura, what’s your major?” “Pre-med.” “Oh, that’s so interesting, have you ever taken any English courses?” “No, I haven’t, I wasn’t really planning on it.” “Well, you should just take a ‘Reading the World’ course.” Which was like an Intro to English course at Kalamazoo College.
So, for the reading, he asked me if I would go first, and I got an A+ in the course and I enjoyed myself more doing that than I ever had doing anything with chemistry, so I was like, “This is kind of crazy.” So then, in the fall, I was still taking the pre-med courses, but I deferred one of the credits and took a ‘Reading the World’ course. It was about classical film and I got a B in the course, but I enjoyed myself and it was very rewarding. So, I think that freshman year of college was where I really started writing and enjoying it.
Where did the inspiration for this collection come from?
So, in my senior year of college, I took an Advanced Poetry course, with one of my favorite writers and professors of all time, Diane Suess. She was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for her most recent collection and I honestly feel like I’m like her daughter, based on what she writes, if that makes sense? I read what she writes, and I feel like I am her child of writing! So, my final collection for that course was about marine life and the ocean, and my relationship to myself, and my relationship to men, and my relationship to the world that I live in as a woman. And so, I took two years off before starting grad school and in those two years I continued with that collection, I continued with that final project, and it kind of morphed into just different bodies of water and my relationships with men. So, it kind of follows my relationship with my father, my relationship with my brother, and my relationship with men in sexual and nonsexual ways. That’s kind of what inspired the collection. In the very beginning of my Advanced Poetry course, I had to pick a topic, and of course I love the ocean so much and I’m obsessed with whales so that’s kind of where it started, and it just kind of leached on beyond that and I saw it kind of unfold in front of me.
What is the first book that made you cry? If a book ever has!
Yes, books have made me cry. I honestly think that the first—and it’s a short story, if that’s okay—the first short story that made me cry was “A Small Good Thing” by Raymond Carver. The reason that it made me cry is because I read “The Bath” by Carver as well, prior to reading “A Small Good Thing”, and felt not great about it, honestly. Like, okay, this is a good story, it was well crafted, but it wasn’t … it didn’t haunt me, it wasn’t something that left me feeling a certain way that I couldn’t describe, like so many short stories do. When I read “A Small Good Thing,” which is the revised version, essentially, it’s the same story, it made me realize what revision could do to a story.
I was actually working on my senior thesis at the time, and I was totally against revision, I couldn’t open up my stories again after I’d written one version. I was like, “This is crazy, it has a beginning, middle, and end, it feels complete, it feels whole, I don’t want to mess it up.” I would be afraid to mess it up, and so I wouldn’t revise. Finally, my thesis advisor, Dr. Bruce Mills, gave me both those stories and said, “Laura, take a look and tell me which story gets to you more and why?” And I just started crying after I read the second version of it. I was kind of like, “Okay, ‘A Small Good Thing’, I get it, you have to open up a story”. Because the bare bones were there in “The Bath” but once Carver finally took it away and added all those new elements and added a new role for the baker in the story it totally shifted my feelings of revision.
Does writing energize or exhaust you?
It energizes me, for the most part. So, I think that, in general, it energizes me because once I complete something that I feel is whole or beautiful or something that sparks something in me when I reread it or rewrite it, I’m elated, I feel finally like I’m doing something that I’m supposed to be doing. But it exhausts me sometimes if I have to write a certain amount of pages for a project or classes and I don’t get to what I need to get to in those pages.
What period of your life do you find you write about most often?
I would say fourteen to sixteen, because that’s the first time that I fell in love. I fell in love with a boy named Evan and it was deep and pretty chaotic and I find myself falling back into that moment, a lot, of falling in love and falling out of love. I write about now, and my relationship to men as it is now.
If you didn’t write, what would you do for work?
I would work with beluga whales! I would be a marine biologist. I would for sure go into marine biology and work with beluga whales because they’re my favorite animal in the whole world. They’re the canaries of the ocean and they deserve so much attention because there are not many of them left.
What is your favorite childhood book?
Are you there, God? It’s me, Margaret. When I was going through puberty, my mom was really worried about me because I wasn’t getting along with my father. He didn’t understand that I was growing into a woman and he wanted me to be this young girl forever. He didn’t understand that I needed to be treated like a woman. So, my mom gave me that book before I started my period and it helped me understand that not everything works out the way you expect it to, but it’s going to be okay.
Do you listen to music while you write? If so, what kind of music?
I don’t listen to music when I write. Like, at all. But, I love going to coffee shops and listening to other people speak and have conversations. It helps me, in fiction, because I’m able to think of realistic dialogue. It also helps me in poetry because of the white noise of it.
How are you feeling about this publication?
I’m really excited! You never forget your firsts, so I think that it’s going to be something that I look back on, hopefully. I think it’s going to be really rewarding.
Interview by Grace Smithwick