Behind the Words: Iris Graville

Posted by on Jul 18, 2014 in Uncategorized | 2 comments

IG2Iris Graville is about to graduate from the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts, though you’d never know it if you read her writing; you’d think she were teaching in the program instead of learning. Her words flow naturally on the page (or the screen such as the case of her essay, “Cycles” which we published in our second issue), and even with such a small word count, she leads the words with patience and an unwavering sense of self. We were so pleased when she agreed to interview with us, and think you’ll really enjoy what she has to say.


Erin: “Cycles,” an extremely short creative nonfiction essay, examines the life cycle (excuse the pun) of a woman by the wheels that have carried her through her life. I’m always so intrigued by how essayists begin writing on a specific subject. How did this one come to you?

Iris:  I wish I could remember how I began with “Cycles.” The personal essay is a form I’m most often drawn to, particularly when I write about relationships and questions I wrestle with. Although I didn’t set out to write in this essay about my relationship with my mother or the loss of my father and step-father, I revisit themes of loss and mother-daughter relationships frequently, so it wasn’t a surprise that they crept in to this piece.

Brenda Miller, a master of the lyric essay, is a writer I admire greatly. In her craft book (with Suzanne Paola) Tell It Slant, Miller describes the “hermit crab essay,” a form that deals with material that is tender, the “soft underbelly,” that seeks a protective shell like hermit crabs do. Miller explains that the “shells… may borrow from fiction and poetry… or more mundane structures.” At some point as I worked on this essay, I realized that the many bicycles I’d owned could serve as my armor to explore fragile emotions.


I’m amazed at how much is told in such a short essay. Do you always write with such brevity? Do you have any advice to our readers who are also trying to write concisely? 

Without thinking about a word count, my early drafts of essays tend to be in the 1500-2000 word range. “Cycles,” at 466 words, is one of the shortest essays I’ve ever written, and it easily required as much—if not more—time to revise as longer essays. So, that’s one piece of advice for writing concisely—take the time to keep trimming the fat to get to the essence. Reading and writing poetry also are good teachers for concision.  I took a course in the short form—fiction, nonfiction, and prose poetry—and found that invaluable for all of my writing. In particular, Judith Kitchen’s books In Brief and Short Takes and Dinty Moore’s The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction introduced me to this exciting genre.


When we last spoke, you mentioned you were working on a memoir titled Hiking Naked—A Quaker Woman’s Search for Balance. What a great title. I’d love to know more. How is the memoir coming along?

Iris:  Thanks for asking about my memoir! Hiking Naked is a personal narrative about the two years my family and I lived in a remote mountain village in Washington. For a decade, my husband and I had vacationed there, switchbacking the trails of the surrounding North Cascades and skinny-dipping in glacier-fed streams. One year, conceding to my disillusionment with my work in public health, I convinced my family to move there. Hiking Naked chronicles what I learned about work, community, and leadings of the Spirit—as well as dealing with six feet of snow in the winter, ordering groceries by mail, and living without a telephone.  I’ve completed a draft of the entire manuscript and am receiving feedback from several writers.


I’m captivated by your first book, Hands at Work. How did you get involved with the project? What made you decide how/why to tell the stories of your subjects?

Hands at Work was inspired by a 2004 exhibit of Summer Moon Scriver’s black-and-white photographs of hands. The images of strong, weathered, muscled hands engaged in knitting, kneading dough, digging potatoes, and spinning wool hinted at a passion for work that I believe has become rare for many Americans. The photos suggested that these people were not only willing to labor with their hands but were nourished by that labor. As a writer, I wanted to give voice to their stories. Fortunately, Summer agreed to embark on a collaboration, and four years and dozens of interviews later, we combined the images and stories for this exploration of work.


You’re currently a writing student at the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts. How has your schooling influenced or changed your writing?

My first career was nursing, and that work has been gratifying and inspiring. But, I’ve always been interested in writing, and after those two years in the mountains, I knew I wanted to devote more time to it. I soon realized that just as nursing requires learning certain skills and practicing them, writing does too. Workshops and short courses taught me much about the craft of writing, but after re-writing the first half of my memoir too many times to count, I realized I needed something more to take it, and all of my writing, to the next level. I was drawn to the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts (NILA) low-residency MFA because of the program’s emphasis on craft and the profession of writing, the requirement to complete a book-length manuscript, and the opportunity for cross-genre study.


Do you write only in creative nonfiction? What about your reading habits, can you share the authors or poets you most enjoy with us?

I’ve made a few feeble attempts to write fiction, and I took a poetry course in my MFA program that required writing a poem each week; in both genres, I feel as though I’m writing in a second language. For the past three years as an MFA student, most of my reading has been for course work; you should see the long list of novels I keep adding to; I plan to start on it after I graduate in August!

The poets I turn to for inspiration include Mary Oliver, Kevin Young (I adore his collection, The Hungry Ear – Poems of Food & Drink), and Washington State’s new Poet Laureate, Elizabeth Austen.

I also have a long list of essayists I admire and read regularly including my writing mentor/thesis advisor/friend Ana Maria Spagna, Scott Russell Sanders, Brenda Miller, Brian Doyle, Barbara Kingsolver, Terry Tempest Williams, Kathleen Dean Moore, and Timothy Egan.


Where do you see yourself in five years?

By then I hope my memoir will be published and that I’ll be immersed in a couple of other writing projects I’m exploring (ALL about other people’s stories; I’m ready for a break from mine). Another draw for me to the NILA program was their course in teaching creative writing; I’ve registered for that for the fall with the hope of someday offering short courses in writing essays, spiritual writing, and memoir.



Erin Ollila is an emotional archeologist who graduated from Fairfield University’s MFA program with a concentration in creative nonfiction. Her writing has been published in (em): A Review of Text and Image, Revolution House, Lunch Ticket, Paper Tape, Shoreline Literary Arts Magazine, The Fall River Spirit, and RedFez. She is the co-founder and editor of Spry Literary Journal. Her blog, Reinventing Erin, is her outlet for ruminating on the minutiae of everyday life.


  1. Good for you Iris! You sound like a kindred spirit. Looking forward to reading your work. I will be going to Spry’s 2 nd issue to read your essay as soon as I click on submit. keep on writing 🙂

  2. Thank you for the encouragement – it’s always a boost to find kindred spirits. And thanks to Spry for giving a home to my essay.

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