Fantasy, Reality, and Grief: An Interview with Erin Langner

December 21, 2022 § Leave a comment

By Megan Griffin

Erin Langner

Erin Langner’s debut essay collection Souvenirs from Paradise intertwines her frequent visits to Las Vegas with an exploration of grief and childhood memory. As an art critic and museum staffer, Langner sees the sparkling city through the eyes of design, forming connections to the unique buildings she stays in and walks past. Megan Griffin talks with Langner below about craft, form, and how place can be a tool to uncover the past.

Megan Griffin: As humans we are obsessed with pleasure and pain, both of which occur in grief. Why did you see Las Vegas as the right backdrop for Souvenirs from Paradise to explore this simultaneous fascination?

Erin Langner: In the beginning, I thought I was writing about Las Vegas in a literal sense. I was traveling there multiple times a year and wanted to explore that obsession. The first time I workshopped one of the essays, someone aptly said, You sure know a lot about architecture, which wasn’t the affect I was hoping to achieve.

What had initially been a secondary story in that essay, about Vegas’s similarities to Disney World (a place my family visited repeatedly in the years following my mother’s death) turned out to be the one that readers connected with most. I soon realized that I could use my interest in Las Vegas to trick myself into writing about those more difficult and meaningful aspects of my life.

MG: In your essay “The Mirage” you write: “Maybe it’s a portal between fantasy and reality. Maybe it takes you somewhere you were afraid to go”. As experiences of grief and your first Vegas trip collide, I wondered what Vegas was more for you: a distraction from childhood memories or a place to connect with yourself?

EL: I love that you used the word “distraction” to consider this question, because it speaks so well to the dual relationship I have with the Vegas Strip. The casinos are built with an intent to distract—through whimsical themes, various vices, sensory overwhelm.

One of the greatest challenges was to write beneath the surface of that spectacle. A mentor of mine, Peter Mountford, gave me guidance in this vein using this example: Everyone knows the food at TGI Fridays is bad. It’s much more interesting to convince me it’s good.

MG: As an experienced art critic, you brought architecture and design in as a central part of this collection. How did pieces like the “Eye Benches and buildings like theMandalay Bayexpand your presentation of self in this story?

EL: I’m very close to objects of all kinds, through my job working in a museum, as well as through writing as a critic. I see objects and building structures as places to find evidence of the unsaid. I like to search for aspects of an artist’s biography or point of view that, through the artworks, give insight into questions I have about my own life. Buildings operate similarly in my work, though because they are used by humans, they take on more of a witness role to the experiences that happen within their walls—even when, in cases like the Mandalay Bay, those experiences aren’t marked or memorialized in a visible way.

MG: I enjoyed how your essays effortlessly bounce between time, from childhood, to college, to motherhood. What craft elements helped you navigate these transitions within the essays and create an authentic voice for yourself at each age?

EL: Writing in a range of forms throughout the collection was a device that helped me to conjure different versions of my present and past selves. The essays I struggled most to write began as chronological narratives that told the story of a trip to Vegas but didn’t probe very deeply. This was in part because I find it very difficult to move between past and present perspectives within a linear structure in a way that reads clearly and true to my experiences. More fragmented forms that relied on thematic connections allowed me to make leaps in time without losing the momentum of the narrative or confusing the reader.

For instance, I used a collage-ish form in one essay to consider my troubled relationship with my sister through the lens of Britney Spears, a figure who had meaning and relevance to our lives both as adults and as young people. Spears was a talisman that I could use to access my memories from childhood, leading me to some I would not have easily recalled. 

MG: Do you have any advice for writers looking to explore the themes of travel and grief in their work?

EL: I spent most of my time in Las Vegas documenting my experiences, then sat down to write weeks later, once I could step back from the spectacle and see what surfaced most potently. Writing about grief was in some ways similar, as it’s easy to become lost while trying to capture the biggest emotions of loss. Smaller, quieter moments that I had to spend a little more time excavating were what resonated most as I brought readers into my experiences.

MG: Now that Souvenirs from Paradise is out, what projects are you working on?

EL: Since finishing the book, I’ve become interested in better connecting my life in the art world to my personal writing. I have been traveling with my young daughter to where I grew up more frequently to visit family. I’m working on a collection that uses my favorite works of art as a lens to better “see” my experiences growing up in suburbia, a place I felt sometimes had a forced narrative which felt untrue. It’s the opposite of Souvenirs from Paradise; I’m now writing about experiences in a place I’d been avoiding for a long time. It’s been exciting to learn new things about a seemingly familiar landscape and think about some of my favorite works of art in this context, since the writing process is leading me to see them differently, too.

Erin Langner is an essayist and arts writer. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Fourth Genre, decemberThe OffingThe Normal School, and The Brooklyn Rail. She is the recipient of a Jack Straw Writers fellowship and the Good Hart Artist Residency. Langner lives in Seattle with her husband and daughter and works at the Frye Art Museum.

Megan Griffin is an emerging writer from Connecticut, currently living in Massachusetts. She has a BA in professional writing from Bay Path University and is pursuing her MA in English from Bridgewater State University. Her work has been published or is forthcoming in Barrelhouse, Months to Years, and Parhelion.

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