by Chloe Ackerman
Under the pen name, Max Howard, City Council member Dr. Emily Anderson wrote her novel Fifteen and Change. This book follows a boy named Zeke, who works at a pizzeria and chooses to join the fight to raise the minimum wage. I had the opportunity to sit down with Anderson and talk to her about her new book. Anderson described how the topic of having a living wage is significant to her life and experiences, how she wrote the book in several forms, including villanelles, and how it is difficult to identify genre while creating literature.
To celebrate her book, on December 19th, Emily Anderson will be having a book reading, with pizza, at The Plus on Barstow Street in Downtown Eau Claire.
CHLOE ACKERMAN: What made you want to write the book Fifteen and Change?
EMILY ANDERSON: It’s directly personal to me because I’m a writer and also an academic. Right now, I have a Ph.D., I can get a job, it just won’t be a living wage job. I was involved with a fight for living wages for graduate students and adjunct professors while I was in Buffalo, New York getting my Ph.D., so that was a personal fight. One of the advantages of that fight, or one of the things that I drew strength from, was that we were also coordinated with a Fight for 15 Movement. We were protesting in solidarity with fast food workers and others in the service industry, and that was really great to be a part of that broader labor struggle, so I was kind of carrying that in my mind. The second thing is the knowledge that 43% of kids in Eau Claire schools now are in the ALICE statistics, which stands for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed. Basically, low income affects 43% of Eau Claire residences, and that’s so many children in our schools. Many kids are in a position much like the character Zeke in my novel who are really struggling with all the problems that economic inequality can create. I wanted to write something that reflected what is a really common experience that gets treated as a very unusual or special experience. The overarching structure of the series that the book is a part of is on social issues, and that is the one I felt I had the most personal connection to.
In addition to other forms, This book makes use of the villanelle, which are 19-line poems. How did you go about writing this book within such confines?
For me, writing is easier when there are some limits or some constraints. Each little poem is about 50 words, and I had to do exactly 192. I kind of had a sense of what should happen every 20 poems or so to add a movement or pace to the narrative. I mapped that out and then went in and put those smaller pieces together, so it made structuring the narrative really easy, which was great. I write prose fiction as well, and I feel like I learned a lot about saving myself some time by knowing how many words something should be. I normally work more organically so having an imposed structure helped a lot.
Do you see any crossover between your work as a council member and your writing?
So much. I am motivated by the same concerns of wanting to make the world a fairer place and wanting to do my best to amplify the voices of people that are fighting for equality. So that’s definitely a motivation that I share, but I also think that the work of writing is actually really similar to politics. One thing I think of a lot is, the poet, Percy Shelley, who called poets, “the unacknowledged legislators of the world” because it’s creativity that breathes life into an idea and once an idea has life, or momentum, or energy, it captures people’s imaginations that’s what it takes to change the world. I think you see that a lot in politics, for good or ill, that people use language in imaginative ways, and it captures people’s hearts. This stuff happens whether it’s good or it’s bad. It’s a real power.
Is there a person or something that has influenced you a lot in your writing or in your work?
I think I wouldn’t have been able to continue being a writer if I didn’t have amazing teachers, friends, and family members that are always encouraging me and supporting me. I think I have been really lucky with the kinds of relationships I have in my life, and I don’t think that I would be able to persist in a rejection heavy career if I didn’t have people that have my back.
What do you hope your readers will take away from this book?
One of the things that I try to emphasize in the book is that when Zeke becomes more directly active politically, it’s because he loves the people around him. It’s something that he does with a spirit of both love and also playfulness, and it’s this idea that getting involved and making change happen can be something that is playful and happy. It has to do with love and good feelings and not just like some abstract principle, and it can be a baby step and not necessarily a big step to make a difference.
What question would you like to be asked that gets at the core of you as a writer and/or your writing?
One thing I’m thinking about a lot as a writer these days is the question of form or genre. I never know when I start a project what the form or genre is going to be. That’s something I learn as the ideas form and come together. I feel like people ask, “What do you write? Do you write fiction? Or do you write poetry?” And I always have a hard time answering that question, because I don’t know what something is until I am done making it, and even then sometimes I don’t really know exactly what it is. I think form communicates with content in a way that makes the genre a challenging thing to pin down.