Author Interview: Erin E. Tocknell

Daylight had come in earnest, and we were downtown, below shining glass skyscrapers that were supported by steel and housed technology firms enjoying the dot-com boom. Fresh from the ruins, seeing the world as I did, I wondered what separated technology from industry besides a few decades and a stretch of river. The bridges were golden and flared pink in the morning sunlight. Everyone in Pittsburgh could see the skyscrapers, the bustle of commerce, the traffic streaming across the bridges. Only we rowers were treated daily to a view of what was holding everything up: steel bolts passing through steel plates, like massive knuckles gripping an arm, and long girders, where pigeons made their nests. The sunlight came through the railroad bridges and backlit a grid of triangles and rectangles. Form and function: Rowers dream of this at night, seek it in the morning. It was all around us, like water molecules. How long until this, too, would be abandoned?
My friend Erin has just published her first book, a creative nonfiction collection that handles such issues as race, class, home, family, and self.  It's called Confederate Streets after some of the street names in the suburban Nashville neighborhood of her childhood.  The passage at top is from the closing chapter, which was originally an award-winning essay entitled "Rowing Through the Ruins."  You can read it in its entirety here.  I'm thrilled to be able to provide a guest review of Erin's book on SavvyVerse&Wit next week, and I'll post a link to the full review at that time.  Until then, I thought I'd whet your appetites with an informal interview with the author.

A little background: Erin is a teacher and Assistant Director of the Writing Center at The McCallie School, a boys' boarding school in Chattanooga, TN.  She coaches crew, advises the literary magazine, and somehow finds time to write like the professional she is.  She earned her BA from Carnegie Mellon and her MFA from WVU.  Her book has been published by Benu Press.

SC: Why creative nonfiction?  What is it about this genre that especially speaks to you?

ET: I've always been obsessed with true stories - I remember librarians, teachers, and my parents used to ask me, "Don't you want to read this novel?" Nope, I wanted the Childhoods of Famous Americans series and those horrid "Drama in Real Life" stories in Reader's Digest and encyclopedias.
When it came time to choose a career path, I went with journalism, but after a couple years of being a newspaper reporter, I came to realize that, for me, truth wasn't enough unless I could ascribe some sort of meaning to it.   That's what I really like about creative nonfiction. The fact that you can find symbol, metaphor, and recurring motifs in real life somehow makes both life and literature feel more relevant and necessary and beautiful.

SC: You once called your MFA program "The Little MFA Program That Could" because of the recent success of the participants in your class.  What made the WVU MFA experience so important to you?

ET: I think the MFA program at West Virginia University reflects the general ethos of the state - work hard to reach your goals but don't get arrogant. The faculty is devoted, and my peers and I were collectively focused on taking our work very seriously without taking ourselves too seriously.  That created an environment where people really did help each other with their writing in direct, constructive ways. The first time I went to a writers' workshop after grad school, I encountered the arrogant, self-aggrandizing types I'd heard about but never witnessed first-hand. I would never have become a decent writer with those people around me. Ugh  

Oh, and "The Little MFA Program that Could?"  Seriously. I was just at a 10th Anniversary celebration for the WVU MFA during AWP, and it's ridiculous.  Just from the people in my workshops alone we have a Pushcart Prize winner, something like three notables in the Best American Essays, two guys who are running lit journals, a woman who just edited an anthology of essays about Mennonite martyrs, and three book publications.  Oh, I know I'm leaving some stuff out.  And we were all sitting around, drinking wine and quoting snatches of each others' work that we'd read and remembered from workshops that were 5 or 6 years ago.  That's some genuine support and interest there. Let's go, Mountaineers! 

SC: Your book focuses on Nashville, TN, where you grew up.  You live now in Chattanooga, TN, but you've lived in other parts of the country.  How important is landscape and region to your writing?

ET: This is hard to articulate, really. I can't imagine not being tuned into the landscape or a sense of the region around me. I've always lived around hills or mountains and I love the mystery of them - the way a mountain can both augment and obscure your view.  Landscape inspires me.  In most of my pieces, describing landscape is the foundation I begin with and I build it up from there, just as, I think, landscape is at the core of our identities, no matter how much we build over it or believe we've "overcome" it with modern conveniences.

SC: What can you tell us about your writing process?  Is there a special place?  A certain writing instrument?  Any quirky habits or tendencies?

ET: I have this thing about being up high and being able to watch movement when I write. My apartment in grad school was tiny, freezing, and dingy, but I miss it because it was an attic apartment in a house at the crest of a huge hill.  I never wrote at my desk, which was tucked into a corner. Instead, I always sat at the kitchen table and watched the traffic go by, people walking in and out of the Dairy Mart, etc. When I got stumped, I'd walk to another set of windows and look out at the mountains and the town. My first apartment here in Chattanooga was in a valley in a very quiet neighborhood. I had no view, my productivity went all to heck, so I would actually drive 45 minutes to Sewanee and sit in the top floor of the library.  Eventually, I moved to another house. 

I also find people-watching to be very inspiring, almost necessary, but if I can't have that, I'll just watch the wind in the trees.  My compulsions concern me a bit. :)

Oh, and my pen of choice? Pilot Precise V-5 Extra Fine. However, they recently changed the design, those philistines, so I've been converting over to the Uni-ball.  Very nice heft, good ink flow, yeah.  Those babies do some nice work in a journal, I tellyouwhat.  

SC:  Have you ever thought about writing about your dog?  He's pretty great. 

ET: See, the thing with writing about Winston is that it's hard to come up with any sort of conflict. "Once there was a terrier who loved chasing tennis balls and eating scrambled eggs.  He could also jump very high and continuously. The End."  Well, there is that time he detonated an entire can of bear spray in the house.  But I imagine that Winston is preparing a rigorous screening process for whomever he chooses to pen his memoirs. He is a noble and exacting fellow when he's not being a total goober.

SC: Thanks, Erin.  It's pretty cool knowing you.

ET:  Likewise.


  1. Thanks for stopping by and commenting, but I must admit that I'm not sure what to do with this comment, Anonymous. Yes, it is Erin's first interview on this blog. Yes, it is her first book. Yes, you are the first commenter - not often a difficult feat here. I often don't publish anonymous comments, but I decided to do so this time in the hopes you will identify yourself and your thoughts on being FIRST! :)

  2. Hi Sara,

    Thanks for publishing this great interview of Erin - I met her at the Hambidge Center a few years ago & am delighted by her success. I always knew there was *some reason* she loved Sewanee so much (I teach there) but your question uncovered the surprising high-place-to-write truth.

    I would love a signed copy of Erin's book & bow to your selection process.

    All the best,

  3. Fun interview! Looking forward to the book.