Interviewed by John Haggerty
Read Karen Craigo’ fiction piece, Last Inspection of Mount Vernon by George Washington, Gentleman Farmer
John: This is a really beautiful meditation on death and loss—a powerful man lost on his own farm, dismantling his dentures to help find his way. What was the genesis of this? Did is start with George Washington, or was there a less-specific main character?
Karen: Since Trump took office, I’ve been very deliberately meditating about all of the presidents who came before him—good people, by and large, if flawed. I even wrote a daily feature on Facebook called “Presenting the Presidents”—little bios of all of them, with factoids about their foibles and their young lives and their pets. I paused at Eisenhower; I was just swirling too close to the murky depths of the Trump presidency, and I didn’t want to be sucked in.
And that’s when I took to fiction. This story is my first presidential short. I’m writing all 45 of them in order, and I expect to finish the set this year. In my story, I think you see Washington sacrificing, holding on, tending what is his to tend, and that’s a noble view of a president. He actually did take ill after inspecting his lands in bad weather, and I always thought that was a surprising way for a surveyor to die.
There is so much myth built up around Washington that it’s almost impossible to see him as a person anymore. You carefully dismantle all of these stories—the surveyor lost, the leader befuddled. Do you think it’s important to undercut our myths, and if so, why?
It’s certainly a good time in our collective history to cut through the bullshit. There’s no filter misty enough to show the Trump presidency in the light of decency. We don’t need wooden teeth and cherry trees for Washington to be legendary. He was a modest, quiet man whose life was service, and I don’t think we’d be here without him.
The writing in this piece is quite lovely, something that I attribute to your background in poetry. I have no real evidence to back this up, but I feel that there is a modern trend in prose to abandon style, that our sentences are becoming increasingly flat and utilitarian. This prospect makes me unhappy. Are there, aside from, say, Marilynne Robinson or Hilary Mantel, still great prose stylists at work today?
I am humbled by that compliment—thank you! It’s funny, but I tend to enjoy reading flat, straightforward prose which is quite the opposite of what I write. I am a poet, primarily, and I am completely baffled by questions of plot, so language is what I’m left with, and I enjoy digging in and having some fun. I love Matt Bell’s sentences, their progression like a complicated dance from a movie—a gavotte or mazurka, maybe, at delicious odds with his often dark subject matter. We’re blessed with a lot of variety these days, but the trend you mention strikes me as a very real thing.
On the subject of poetry and style, I could see this piece being a poem as well. How do you decide if something is going to be prose or poetry?
If I see a character changing or changed by time, I lean in the direction of story. If that character is me, I call it an essay. The navel-gazing stuff is poetry. I should admit, though, that I once won a rather nice grant by taking all of the line breaks out of my poems and calling them essays. A piece of writing kind of tells me what it is, and I run with it. I’m just in it to get messy and to learn what I can.