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Q&A with Nonfiction Contributor Chip Livingston

Chip Livingston is the author of the novel Owls Don’t Have to Mean Death; a collection of essays and short stories, Naming Ceremony; and two poetry collections. He teaches in the low-residency MFA programs at Institute of American Indian Arts and Regis University. He lives in Montevideo, Uruguay.

Chip’s piece "The Alphabet of the Republic" will appear in the Fall 2018 issue of Carve. Preorder or subscribe by Tuesday, October 2, for special savings and discounts.

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“The Alphabet of the Republic,” takes readers through a poetic journey of Uruguay. As an outsider that has come to call Uruguay home, you develop a kind of love affair with a place that has captured your senses. How did you go about the planning process of writing about an entire country, and has this piece been a long time in the making?

I suppose the piece has been a long time in the making in the sense that I’ve been answering that question—“What do you like about Uruguay?”—since I first visited nine years ago and, yes, fell in love with this place. But once I decided to address the question with a list of my many answers I wrote the essay pretty quickly, adding to it over a couple of days. I often think of things I’ve left out, like Dulce de Leche, but I hope it comprises the majority of ways the whole country captivates and suits me.

One of the things we love about this story is the passion with which you write. From the food to the language, the desire to imbibe all that Uruguay offers nearly jumps off the page. You’ve balanced your passion and syntax with such precision. Has your background with poetry influenced the way you approach nonfiction?

Thank you. I hadn’t considered the balancing of passion/precision exactly, but I appreciate the way you phrase that. I initially wrote it up to deliver at a reading at Institute of American Indian Arts, so I wanted it to be passionate and playful to the ear, primarily because the audience would be hearing it instead of reading it. I really wasn’t sure if the essay would work as well on the page, but it’s fun for me to read aloud, and I edited the sentences and lines with that oral delivery in mind. And maybe, hopefully, it does capture the passion of Latin America with the precision of concrete language.

Yes, studying poetry has definitely influenced my nonfiction, and my fiction—and I intentionally try to bring elements of poetry, especially pacing and sound, into my prose sentences and paragraphs.

A lot of young writers feel like they need to travel to tell stories, when often the best stories are close to home. In your case, the travel becomes the home from which you write. What advice would you give young writers as they pack their bags and head off for new adventures?

I think travel is great for everyone, especially young writers, because it gives us the opportunity to see, taste, and experience things that are brand new to us—and then try to describe them for someone “back home” who hasn’t seen, tasted, or experienced them. So on a very literal level, it’s great practice for conveying an experience to someone who hasn’t shared it.

Of course, the way travel and living among other cultures and languages expands our consciousness, our understanding of self and others, is beneficial in so many ways, as writers and as people sharing a planet.

But advice to a young writer on the road? To have post-it notes and a pen with them at all times, to take notes, to make lists of things they see, touch, hear. To listen. I think listening is one of the best ways to experience and understand a new place or person. But it’s also tricky to write about a place, especially its culture, if it isn’t one’s own, so in that sense, and especially for the nonfiction writer, I think it’s best to remember to filter the experience through the personal lens instead of a general, authoritative stance of representation.