In her unflinching collection of essays, Ladies Night at the Dreamland, Sonja Livingston brings to life the stories of American women who dared to be louder than their contemporaries. Previously, Livingston’s work has focused on people whose stories she knew personally. However, the essays that make up Ladies Night focus on audacious spirits (sometimes literally) whose places in history have been somewhat overlooked despite their significance in our nation’s timeline. From working with as little as the miniscule knowledge we have about Virginia, the first child born in the colonies of the New World, to having access to a collection of newspaper reports on the victims of a serial killer, Livingston is able to paint a vivid portrait of each of her subjects. Conveying their strengths as well as their flaws, Dreamland highlights the individual lives of those who came before us. I spoke with Livingston recently as she was gearing up for the book’s publication.
How did the concept of Ladies Night come about?
I believe it started with the essay on Virginia Dare and that is probably the first one that I wrote. I’m an essayist primarily and the Virginia Dare one was the first case that the essay started to get a little more imaginative because I was interested in a person who is a mystery. More than in memoir or personal experience or even research, I had to rely on my imagination a little bit more and I thought, “Wow, that was really interesting.” But it was also a little scary because I was getting really close to fiction. Apart from that concern, I just let myself go. Then there were some other women whose lives I had heard about like Maria Spelterini who is the tightrope walker who crossed Niagara Falls in 1876. She is somebody who, because I grew up in that region, I had heard about. I thought, “Well I really liked what I did with Virginia Dare, I’ll try that with Maria.” So little by little, I started to write essays inspired by women or girls whose lives I didn’t know at all and it seemed like it was a separate thing, more imaginative.
Was that how a lot of the topics came about? It was stories or people you had heard about within the region where you grew up?
After a while writing them I would tell other writers about [the essays] and they would say, “Oh, you should write about Elizabeth Blackwell” (she was the first female doctor in America) or Maria Mitchell (the first American woman to work as a professional astronomer) and when I tried to write these other characters, because they were interesting and worthwhile, it sort of fell flat for me. What I found was best were these figures who naturally intersected with my life. Through all of these lives, I wanted to learn a little bit more about myself or what it means to be a woman. You know, we have beautiful women, or sacrificing women, but I wanted to know a little bit more about these women who lived differently or lived in a very large way.
The style of each essay is as distinctive as its narrator. Were style and tone influenced by narrator or vice-versa?
I think a little bit of both. I think that voice probably came first and even though they’re arranged differently, there are some with numbers and some with asterisks. I think in general a lot of them are what’s called segmented essays. They are broken into pieces and some of the decision about whether to use numbers or some other device was just about how to make the information easier on the readers. In that case, when they were collected together for the book, it was about maybe making sure I didn’t have two numbered lists in a row or something as simple as that. But in general I tried to find ways to give the information that was different so it wasn’t the same thing and style.
I’m really interested to hear about your research process...
The first thing I realized that I relied on was interest. So for example, the essay that was organized by names, Some Names and Their Meanings, the victims of the serial killer, that was something that I had written about even in my first book (Ghostbread) which was a straight memoir. As a little kid it had a big effect on me, those murders. And actually when this book was out for review one of the readers said, “I like all these essays but she seems to write a lot about women and being afraid and I’m wondering what it is that would make her afraid.” And I thought, “Well…don’t all little girls learn to be afraid or behave differently in the world?” Then I thought more about it and the answer I still think is “yes.” So I started to look at where that fear comes from. Even though I tried to let myself imagine a whole lot, I didn’t seize anything or leave anything out. It was really important to me that these stayed anchored in reality. I wanted people to know that these were real things that had happened. That reality is important.
Cassidy Kinnett is a writer living in Austin.