A Conversation with Jill TalbotKelsey Ahlmark
Where are you right now? What can you see out of your nearest window?
I’m sitting on my couch, and the open balcony door leads to the three stories of apartments across the parking lot. My favorite balcony across the way is adorned with potted plants, the pots purple and teal and orange, the plants reaching above the railing or huddled between the railing’s bars. Every once in a while, a large black and white dog wanders out to look out over the edge, and when the door to that balcony opens, I can see a road sign on the wall, a 30 miles an hour speed limit sign, which always slows me down inside.
Can you share with me what you were like when you were young? What were you like as a little girl? What did you spend your time thinking about and what did you enjoy?
I was very isolated as a child—and content to be so. I spent much time in my room playing Animal Hospital with all of my stuffed animals in various makeshift beds or reading or pretending to be Marie Osmond singing with her brother on my Donnie and Marie microphone. When I was outside, I was riding my bike with My Friend Mandy hanging on to the back of my bike or I wandered the sidewalks, thinking and eating honeysuckle from the vine next door. I had a dog, a tall (to me then) Peek-a-Poo named Skeeter, and she and I spent many afternoons lazing under the weeping willow across the street. I’d rest my head in the middle of her back and talk to her, watching the clouds sift through the moving branches. If I did have friends over, which was rare, I remember playing CHiPs’ Wives. There was a show in the seventies, ChiPS, about “the adventures of two California Highway Patrol motorcycle officers” named Ponch (Erik Estrada!) and John (Larry Wilcox!). My friend Brenda and I would pretend to be on the phone at our respective houses, talking about our husbands (Ponch and John—we switched each time we played to be fair because all the girls I knew had crushes, even posters, of Erik Estrada as Ponch). I remember myself as introspective, contemplative, often pretending.
Where did you grow up?
What were your parents like?
My father was a head football coach in Texas for thirty-five years before becoming an administrator. At eighty-two, he’s still the Purchasing Director for a very large school district in Texas. My mother was an art teacher and eventually a high school principal. She’s retired now, but she still adjuncts for a university observing and mentoring secondary student teachers. They are both very committed to education, and they both love sports (there’s a picture of them at a Rangers game on my refrigerator) and going out to eat in Dallas. When I visit, they’re watching the Rangers or the Cowboys or whatever college team they’re supporting (usually because my mother’s former students are on the team), and they’re planning the next trip to one of their favorite Mexican food restaurants.
What do you have on your desk?
On my writing desk, I have a toy model Black Jeep, because that was what I drove in my twenties. I miss that Jeep, and I miss the girl who drove it, wildly, with the top down. I have a “writing rock” that my daughter, Indie, gave me. My laptop rests on two hardcover Jack Kerouac books, Lonesome Traveler, and, On the Road, because Kerouac is one of my muses, and I need his support. One more: a bumper sticker that reads, Johnny Cash is a Friend of Mine, because he’s a muse for me, too.
Describe your favorite pair of shoes.
My running shoes, which I replace every three to four months. Right now I wear the Asics GT 2000-4. Yellow and gray and blue.
What are you currently reading?
I’m currently reading Hemingway’s Boat: Everything He Loved in Life and Lost.
What is the best place you ever camped for a night and what color was your tent?
Bottomless Lakes, New Mexico, circa 1997. My best friend, Tracy, and I rented the tent from the Texas Tech Outdoor Shop, and I think it was beige, though I can’t recall (we had lots of tequila and Tecates on that trip).
What’s something you've never told anyone before?
What would you most like your daughter to learn from you?
Empathy, empathy, empathy. But I can’t say she learns it from me—she’s had that beautiful quality since she was very young.
When did you first fall in love?
High school. Freshman year. Todd Simpson. I keep a shoebox with photos and notes and the breakup letter he gave me in C-hallway one day before sixth period. He wrote that one page letter in pencil, and I read it so many times the words faded and the creases are tender with unfolding. Interesting story: he’s the one who gave me the model Black Jeep. We reconnected several years ago (he grew up to be a veterinarian and a member of the Army). One afternoon I came home to find a small box between the screen and the front door and inside was the black Jeep. We’ve lost touch now, or, I fear, he did not return from his most recent deployment, but even though I haven’t heard from him in three years, I send him a birthday email every January 10th, and I will continue to do so every year of my life.
How would you describe your work to others?
For people who know nothing about writing, I keep it simple: “I write about my life.”
For people who know the essay, I say: “I write about the gaps—in my memory, in my past, in my life, and I write in the gap (the overlap) between story and essay.”
Favorite sentence from a book.
I’m not going to declare a favorite (there are so, so many I’ve underlined with my blue pen), but I kept a line from Sandra Cisneros’s Loose Woman on my refrigerator for years:
I guess life presents you
choices and you choose.
Favorite Stevie Nicks song?
Oh, wow. Can I do top four? “Rhiannon”; “Landslide” (for a few years in my thirties, I listened to it every year on my birthday, Well, I’ve been afraid of changing / ‘Cause I’ve built my life around you.); “Leather and Lace” (I always associate it with an afternoon I played it on a jukebox in a bar while playing pool); and “Go Your Own Way” (I blasted it in my Jeep on the way to my dissertation defense).