Thursday, May 25, 2017

Interview with Somerville writer Joelle Renstrom: “Closing the Book” on her late father

( Left--Doug Holder/Right--Joelle Renstom)

Interview with Somerville writer Joelle Renstrom: “Closing the Book” on her late father

Interview with Doug Holder

Even though I lost my own father over 14 years ago, I still sense his presence—and I am still engaged in an ongoing conversation with him. So I was particularly interested to meet and interview Joelle Renstrom, a Somerville writer and professor, who wrote a book about her physical journey and her mental one—with the presence of her deceased father always in the background. I loved the way Renstrom mingled literature, loss, grief and discovery in this fine memoir. 

 Joelle Renstrom is a writer living in Somerville, MA. Her collection of essays, Closing the Book: Travels in Life, Loss, and Literature, was published by Pelekinesis in August, 2015. Joelle's blog Could This Happen? explores the relationship between science and science fiction, and won a 2012 Somerville Arts Council fellowship and a 2013 Writers' Room of Boston Nonfiction fellowship. She's the robot columnist for The Daily Beast, a space news reporter for, and a contributing writer for Panorama: The Journal of Intelligent Travel. Her work has appeared in Slate, Aeon, The Guardian, Cognoscenti, and others. Joelle teaches writing and research with a focus on robots/AI, technology, space exploration, and science fiction at Boston University. Follow her on Twitter @couldthishappen.

DH: So how is it being a writer living in Somerville?

JR: Really awesome. It is quite an inspiring place to be. Especially for someone like me that is very interested in science and technology. There is this confluence of art and science. People are doing all kinds of artistic things with their science. I mean you can take a class to make a robot right down the block. When you have very artistic people who know how to make stuff happen—well, it is a place of endless inspiration.

DH: I have run poetry groups for psychiatric patients at McLean Hospital for many years. Poetry—the writing of it—can be therapeutic. Did you write this memoir about your journey in search of your deceased father as a form of therapy?

JR: I never intended to write the book. And when I was writing it I didn't really know why. But I was so consumed with grief and I didn't know what to do with it. It was a story I had to tell, and certainly the process was therapeutic. I read a quote once, “ A poet is someone for who no event is finished until he or she has written about it.” I think this is true of all writers. I don't think I would have processed what had happened to my dad if I hadn't written about it.

DH: You used quotes from a variety of literary figures, including: Walt Whitman, Don DeLillo, Ray Bradbury, etc...

JR: Yes. They all wrote works that inspired me. Those writers spoke to me then ( and now)--they spoke to my experience. They spoke about what I was going through.

DH: Why did you not include women writers in this group?

JR: You know I really despise classes that deal with only female writers. The choice was really clear for me because this was a book about my dad. All these male writers—in some way—played a paternal role. There are many women writers that write about grief and loss. One I admire is Joan Didion. But I just felt that I had a different attachment to the writers I chose.

DH: You quoted Walt Whitman. Whitman—like you—wandered all about, took it all in, and was not judgmental. Do you think you were Whitman-like.

JR: I think that is something that I would aspire to. I don't think I actually got there. I tried to channel him, though.

DH: In your memoir your father presence is felt through nature.

JR: After his death I sensed my late father's presence all the time—not only in nature. I taught at Western Michigan University for awhile, and the class was right down the hall from my dad's old office. I thought I could sense him there.. When I went to Scandinavia—I felt him around all the time. I can't explain it, but it was a great comfort.

DH: You basically write in the science fiction genre. Was this a stretch for you?

JR: This was my first foray into creative-non-fiction. It felt natural though. Since then I have gone back to science fiction.

DH: Does teaching distract you from your writing?

JR: I teach at Boston University. I do get inspired from students. And really—you don't ever know a book as well as when you are teaching it.

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