I’m so excited to introduce everyone to Rebecca Fish Ewan, author of By the Forces of Gravity. I met Rebecca last year at Hippocamp, Hippocampus Magazine’s annual Creative Nonfiction conference. She approached me after my breakout session on Experimental Writing and talked about her work, which combined drawings and free verse. It was exactly the type of thing I wanted to add to my presentation, so I was extremely grateful! She even gave me a tiny magazine she’d made that was small enough to fit in my hand.
I’ve loved watching her road to publication with By the Forces of Gravity and was honored to blurb it. An unflinching work of tender beauty, By the Forces of Gravityis an intimate memoir to be savored, re-read, and shared with your own “soul friends.”
About By the Forces of Gravity:
Rebecca Fish Ewan’s illustrated coming-of-age memoir is told through drawings and free verse. Set in 1970s Berkeley, California, Rebecca’s story reflects on a childhood friendship cut short by tragedy. In an era of laissez-faire parenting, Rebecca drops out of elementary school and takes up residence in a kids commune—no parents allowed!—and we follow her, bestie Luna, and their hippie cohorts as they search for love, acceptance, and cosmic truths. Full of adventure and heartache, By the Forces of Gravity promises to pull you in. (Books by Hippocampus)
We are giving away one signed copy of By The Forces of Gravity, a signed print, and a pencil! To enter, share our post on Facebook or retweet the following tweet:
— The Debutante Ball (@DebutanteBall) July 28, 2018
On to the interview!
Where do you love to be?
Beside or in the Pacific Ocean, especially along the California coast. I’m a Fish by name and by nature. I was born in Santa Barbara, as was my dad, and his dad and his dad’s dad. We Fishes belong in the ocean or at the very least breathing salt air. To be near the Pacific brings me such peace. I love the Sonoran Desert where I’ve lived for the last 27 years, but I miss the ocean every day.
I used to SCUBA dive regularly and have only gone diving once since moving to Arizona. I love being under water. It’s how I first learned to swim. It’s so quiet and magical, the way the light pierces the water column, my own weightlessness, like flying in a dream. And there’s so much of it to explore! Seventy one percent of Earth is submerged in water. Seventy one percent! And almost 97% of Earth’s water is salty.
On my left arm, the arm that lays on my desk like a paper weight while I draw, an artist tattooed an undersea scene. I love seeing the kelp and Garibaldi (California’s state fish) that swims out of my wrist. It’s actually a hybrid scene with the sea and desert life mixed together. I’m trying to be pan-landscape, to love both desert and coast at the same time. It’s getting close to the 50-50 mark in terms of years living in the desert compared to those I spent beside the ocean. It’s taken longer to fall in love with the desert, especially desert cities. Their beauty is cloaked by strip malls and wide roads, but there is beauty to be found.
For a recent art fund-raiser, I made a small hybrid painting, one with words in it, and the first line says “the desert is my ocean.” This is true for me now. The desert has a calming vastness to it like the sea. I rely on the open landscape and big sky to calm me. But it’s summer and over 100 degrees every day, so right now I’d love to be near the Pacific, wrapped up in some chilly Bay Area fog or shivering beneath the surf.
When you were a teenager, what did you think you’d be when you grew up?
Dead. An artist. Maybe both. In my teens, I believed thirty was as old as I’d ever get to be. Not sure why I picked thirty precisely, but it seemed so easy to die, living beyond this age felt unlikely. My best friend had just been killed. Other friends were dying of overdoses or accidents. Plus, thirty-year-olds looked super ancient and worn out. I wanted to be an artist in the time I had left.
When my friend Luna died, I dove deep into school. I started to imagine other kinds of futures, like going to college and having a career even though I didn’t really understand what a career was. On my college placement exam forms, I think I putUnderwater Mathematician in the space for listing career aspirations. I don’t know why I didn’t put Underwater Artist. Too impractical, I suppose. I loved being underwater and I loved math, so combining these activities made sense. Come to think of it, I became a math teacher and a SCUBA instructor in my twenties, so I almost got there.
My whole life has been one long debate between art and science. Like I have to choose. One lovely aspect of getting close to twice the age I thought I’d never reach is that I’m liberated from these kinds of Sophie’s choices. My life is my life, what’s left of it, and I’m not going to fret about what box to pack it in any longer.
If you’d asked instead what I want to put on my gravestone, well, water-coloring poet cartoonist mom/lover of truth & Earth would do, but I don’t plan on being buried in a grave. I want to return to the sea, so my kids can visit my spirit by going to the beach. Odds are my ash-scattering is a long way off. Despite my dreary teen outlook, longevity runs in my family, so I probably have another thirty or forty years to go. Huh, I’m suddenly both exhilarated and in urgent need of a nap.
What is your advice for aspiring writers?
Trust your gut and your obsessions. If there’s a story gnawing at you, write it down. If you can’t stop thinking about frogs, write about frogs. Even if you don’t have any idea why you can’t stop thinking about frogs. Your brain knows the reason. I don’t believe in wasted time, so it’s easier for me to explore my obsessions than it is for a practical productive person to do this. They’d keep stopping to consider how all this frog-writing can be usefully applied and I’d just be all “whoa, I had no idea frogs don’t need to drink water. How cool is that!”
Apply this gut-faith to story structure. If you feel your story needs to be told in rhymed couplets, write it that way. Other people might tell you it’ll never get published in that form. Show them my book, or any of the other quirky-formed books getting published these days. In landscape architecture there’s a concept called genius loci, the idea that the place knows how it needs to be designed and your job as a landscape architect is to figure out what the land is telling you. I believe every story has its genius loci. The story knows how it needs to be told. As a story teller, you need sit still and listen, and then follow the story’s lead even if it takes you to strange new ground.
I draw a lot, so I’m used to early sketches looking like random scribbles. I know a pineapple or a stack of pancakes is going to emerge from my scribble pile eventually. Another bit of advice, then, would be to cultivate the ability to sit with shit. Don’t run away from a crappy draft, or an ugly heap of notes. The ease in social media for sharing half-baked ideas can be enriching, but it can also encourage writers/artists to discard their work before it’s reached a place of recognizable value. Stay with your shit pile. Trust in its future.
Cultivate community. Seek out people doing work you love. Celebrate their awesomeness. Support local artists and writers by going to readings and art shows. I’m an introvert, so social media and face-to-face socializing challenges my intense instinct to stay home alone (writing advice to aspiring writers about getting out more). I need a lot of alone time to stay healthy, but ever since I made a conscious decision to become a more active participant in literary/art communities, my creative life has expanded. It’s scary and awkward, if you’re introverted by nature, but the world is so full of kind creative people that you can find places where you feel safe, acknowledged and inspired.
And never stop learning. Education saved my life, of this I’m sure, and I’ve been teaching since I was nineteen, so I’m committed to school as a mechanism for learning, but it isn’t the end-all. The human brain and body have the capacity to learn constantly, so long as we let it and don’t dull it with boredom, unchallenged dogma, distraction and fear of the unknown. Stay open to fresh ideas, ways to write, genres, forms that are strange to you. I’m not advocating innovation for innovation’s sake, more the opening of your heart and mind to unknown possibilities.
What three things would you want with you if stranded on a desert island?
A machete. I’ve watched enough episodes of Alone to know a good blade can be a life-saver. Other practical things will probably wash up on shore. Sadly, the ocean is full of garbage. It’s easier to craft a pen and ink than it is to make good paper, so I’d bring a water-tight box of sketchbooks. I’d forgo bringing pictures of my family, even my kids, because I can draw them and write descriptions of them instead. I once sent a refrigerator magnet photo of my daughter in a pink dress and a crooked-bang haircut. She was about four and had started the hairdo while hiding behind the couch with scissors. For years this was my family’s image of her. Without pictures, I could imagine my kids as they grow into awesome adults. I could write stories of their lives, draw them in my sketchbooks, so I wouldn’t want to squander my limited items on one moment frozen in time, no matter how delightful it was.
Instead, the third thing would be a book to read. It should be one of those survivor prepper guides to making water pumps with twigs or electricity from potatoes, but no, I’d bring something to spark my imagination, like a super long novel. I’m a slow reader, but I’ve been working through the classics and haven’t gotten to Mary Anne Evans (George Eliot) yet, so maybe Middlemarch. A fat volume of long-sentenced 19th-century prose could fill my reading belly for months. I’d want a woman’s words to keep me company, since I’ve already read an abundance of words by men. The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson would also make great reading all alone in nature.
Picture me, naked on the beach, machete in hand, reading “I heard a fly buzz—when I died…,” pausing from time to time to sketch or chat with the sculptures of loved ones I made out of coconuts, rocks and ocean debris.
Oh shit, I forgot coffee.
What’s your next big thing?
The big beyond. Ever since Books by Hippocampus signed my memoir, I’ve been prepping for the hereafter. I applied for a sabbatical, which was long overdue anyhow, and have been taking online workshops with Ariel Gore (literarykitchen.com) and Chelsey Clammer (wow-womenonwriting.com), as well as joining in-person writing retreats and workshops, like Off the Page at Wasted Ink Zine Distro in Phoenix. I’m stockpiling words and drawings. I carry a sketchbook with me at all times (not a new habit, I’ve been doing this since starting landscape architecture grad school in 1988) and note/draw next-book ideas and other thoughts as they come to me.
At this point I can say I’m fully committed to hybrid form that includes words and drawings. Most of the words I’ve collected focus on the body. My body. Women’s bodies. Bodies of water. With regard to form/media, I’m obsessed with squares and want to work in watercolor. I’ve used the same palette of colors for over thirty years and after taking an urban sketching workshop that the ASU landscape architecture students put on with Virginia Hein, I totally revamped my colors, adding more vibrancy. I’m moving away from trying to match colors I see and instead paint emotional colors into my sketches, meaning I choose colors based on how I feel about a place rather than on how it looks. Perception is so much more than what our eyeballs pick up.
I don’t know if the structure will be paired poetry and cartoons, like in By the Forces of Gravity, but it will definitely be words and drawings. Right now, it’s all a big unexplored ocean of story potential that I’m charting one watercolor square and essay fragment at a time. From a literary product standpoint, I may wind up on a deserted island all alone, but at least I’ll have that machete to hack my way back to the story.
Rebecca Fish Ewan is a poet/cartoonist/writer and founder of Plankton Press, where small is big enough. Her writing, cartoons and hybrid-form work has appeared in Brevity, Punctuate, Under the Gum Tree, Mutha and Hip Mama. She also creates zines and teaches landscape architecture in The Design School at Arizona State University (her creative writing MFA home). She has two books of creative nonfiction: A Land Between and By the Forces of Gravity(June 2018). Rebecca grew up in Berkeley, California, but now lives in Arizona with her family.
Find her on the web:
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