INTERVIEW | Angela Pelster

Pelster headshotWhy write a collection of literary essays centered on trees? In Angela Pelster’s debut collection of essays, Limber, she presents fascinating stories that are, in various ways, about trees. But more importantly, Limber is about how people from many different generations and time periods relate to one another through both nature and society. And along with that, Pelster’s prose is simply delicious. In this interview, Pelster discusses her process of researching and writing about trees, discovering just how strange the world is, where myth and truth bleed into one another and how the unpredictability of the world is both unnerving and gorgeous. Limber was released by Sarabande Books in April 2014.

And be sure to check out The Doctor TJ Eckleburg Review’s book club this week featuring Limber


Q: What attracted you to writing a collection of essays centered around trees? How did the idea come about?

Angela Pelster: Originally I had planned on writing a collection of essays about some founding saints of Eastern Canada, but as I was researching that, I stumbled onto a list of famous trees on Wikipedia. It was fascinating. There are so many strange, ugly, heartbreaking, inspiring and terrifying stories about trees that I started to wonder why. Trees, more than any other living thing, have been claimed for both sacred and common purposes, and that interests me.


Q: What sort of research did you do for these essays? And if there wasn’t much research, what were some of the main aspects of your life (family, pictures, past writing, etc) you drew upon in order to write the collection?

AP: There was a lot of research! Sometimes I thought my brain was going to drip out of my ears if I had to read one more thing about trees. Most of it was historical and scientific information from newspapers, environmental articles, websites, libraries – the regular kind of research. But I always started from a place of curiosity. I’d bump into a weird article about a guy with a tree growing in his lung, or my family would tell me the awful story about a boy stabbed in the eye with a branch while playing hockey, and then I would go from there. I went on a trip to see the Burmis tree in Alberta, and some other trips for essays that didn’t make the cut for the book. I’m sure I still got some things wrong, it’s inevitable, but I tried very hard to do the information justice. That’s the trick with writing essays sometimes – it takes a long time to figure out how much research is enough, when you can stop reading, when you need to start writing.


angela quoteQ: Some of the essays in Limber read as stories of other people. How do you approach nonfiction when the narrator is not a central “I.”

By not worrying if I should call it nonfiction! I think the terms fiction and nonfiction are sometimes helpful, but mostly problematic. The more you research any kind of “facts” you begin to see that pretty quickly. The essay called “Inheritance”about The Tree That Owned Itself in Georgia is an excellent example of this. Not only are the records incredibly contradictory, there is the possibility that the original story never existed at all, and the fact that the story is based around a tree that used to grow where the “son” of that tree now grows. It’s not even the original tree. What is important is the story itself, and what the story is saying about the people who tell it – what they want to be true and how they want to see the world. I’m interested in how people try to make sense of life.


Q: This collection brings up many issues about truth and myth. How do you think those two concepts engage with each other in your writing?

AP: The best thing about writing is that you don’t, or, you shouldn’t, understand how things are working together as you go, so as I thought through the ideas of myth and fact while writing Limber, I was trying to figure that out myself. There is a power in fact that can’t be denied. That a piece of tree was discovered in a young man’s lung in Russia is incredible, in large part, because it actually happened. The world is strange. It unnerves us with its unpredictability sometimes. But what I am most interested in is the meeting between myth and fact. What happens when you squish those two things together, or, what is that in-between world that exists where the terms fact and fiction are inadequate, places like faith and love? You don’t have to look very hard to see where absolute certainties about the unknowable lead people to do all sorts of horrible things to one another. That’s not to say I don’t want to know everything I possibly can, it’s just that sometimes it’s easier to talk about these things without worrying about false ideas of fact and fiction and the categorization of them.


LImber284Q: In her introduction to Trespasses, a memoir consisting of vignettes, Lacy Johnson writes that as she interviewed her family members, she saw how at certain points “the facts got in the way of the truth.” Did you experience anything similar to this as you were writing your collection?

AP: I understand what she means by that and I can see how it might happen, but that wasn’t my experience. There wasn’t a truth I needed to tell in Limber, so there was nothing to get in the way of anything. It was about discovering things as I went along, which is part of my writing process – if I think I know how an essay is going to develop and end before I get to that part, I get bored and don’t want to write anymore. I always have to force myself not to look too far ahead of where I am.


Q: What are a few recommendations you have for books that explore truth and myth, or books that you think are great examples of what a personal essay can be.


Ann Carson – Autobiography of Red

Lawrence Weschler – Mr. Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonders

Gertrude Stein – The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas

James Galvin – The Meadow

David Wojnarowicz – Close to the Knives


Q: What are you working on now?

AP: This year I got married, moved to a new city, started a new job at a new university and my first collection of essays came out, so I gave myself permission to go easy on any writing expectations and to follow my curiosity wherever it might go. It seems to have landed on a weird meditation on the city of Baltimore, its history, its poverty and beauty, its writers, artists and a twelfth century mystic named Hidegard of Bingen. We’ll see what comes of it!


Pelster quote


Angela Pelster-Wiebe received her B.Ed. from the University of Alberta and her M.F.A. from the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa. Her children’s novel The Curious Adventures of India Sophia (River Books, 2005) won the Golden Eagle Children’s Choice award, and Limber (Sarabande Books), her collection of essays about trees, is forthcoming in April, 2014. She has also published essays with Hotel Amerika, Granta, Seneca Review, Fourth Genre and The Gettysburg Review amongst others. She was an Iowa Arts fellow from 2009-2011, and now teaches Creative Nonfiction Writing at Towson University in Baltimore.


ECKLEBURG BOOK CLUB | Limber by Angela Pelster




Limber by Angela Pelster

Angela Pelster’s startling essay collection charts the world’s history through its trees: roots in the ground, rings across wood, topiaries, wind-sculpted pines, the skinny poplars of her youth in Canada, and a desert in Niger, where “The Loneliest Tree in the World” once grew. In her backyard, a squirrel’s decomposing body below a towering maple prompts a discussion of the science of rot, as well as a metaphor for the ways in which nature programs us to consume ourselves. Pelster is a writer who looks and listens closely: She watches tree frogs and questions how long we can love one another, she listens to the music of an artist who places paper-thin slices of sectioned tree trunks on his record player and hears the sounds’ mourning. Beautiful, deeply thoughtful, and wholly original, Limber valiantly asks what it means to sustain life on this planet we’ve inherited.
“What a strange and unexpected treasure chest is this, filled with all manner of quirky revelations, all about the mundane sublime and the ineffable extraordinary. Most extraordinary of all, perhaps, though, is the haunting perfection, sentence by sentence, paragraph by paragraph, of the writing itself. Who is this Angela Pelster and where has she been all our lives? Please, may she come in and make herself at home!”
–Lawrence Weschler
Publisher: Sarabande Books
Page Count: 154
Price: $15.95
Size: 5.25″ x 7.75″
Release Date: April 13, 2014
ISBN: 978-1-936747-75-7
Discussion Questions

First person to answer a question gets a free copy of Limber!

  1. In Guy Davenport’s introduction to The Logia of Yeshua he writes that myth “can coincide with truth and be a more vivid and symmetrical presentation of truth.” This was an idea that I kept in the forefront of my mind as I wrote. What role does myth-making and myth unmaking play in Limber?
  2. Related to the question above: there is a difficult to define space that lives between fiction and fact and it is my favorite place to write from. Strange things happen in these essays – limbs are glued back onto dead trees, fir tress are found in a man’s lung, radio stations change with the movement of the birds, a boy is paralyzed by a freak accident, tree seeds are sent to the moon. Does knowing that these facts are true change your reading experience of the essays? If I had made them up, would your readings of them been different?
  3. The art of Bartholomaus Traubeck that I mention in the essay “By Way of Beginning” can be found here. Listen to the track entitled “Years” in light of the essay and comment on how it informs your reading of the essay.
  4. In “Meditations on a Tree Frog” I discuss the evolution of language and the evolution of love. What do these two things have to do with one another?
  5. When I wrote “How Trees Came to Be in the World” I was trying to write an essay devoid of humans – one that acknowledged the existence and importance of life beyond a human-centric viewpoint. Was I successful? Is this possible?
  6. One of the questions that essayists who deal in the truth of other people’s lives have to ask themselves is: Should I share this personal information with the public at large? The essay “Saskatoons” is about a boy I worked with in a group home. His family failed him, the system failed him and ultimately, the group home failed him. Does this essay justify the revealing of these personal matters?
  7. I am a white woman and the boy in “Saskatoons” was a Native Canadian. As a member of the racial majority who has repressed Native peoples for centuries and continues to do so, do I have a right to tell his story? Are there stories that should only be told by those who have experienced them?
  8. In many ways, “Moon Trees” is the black sheep of this essay family. It embraces fiction more than any other essay, and I flat out lie in the very first sentence. Does it belong in this book? When you read it, did it make you wonder about the truth of the essays that came before it, or after it? What role does this essay play in the entirety of the collection?
  9. I recently saw one of Vermeer’s paintings for the first time in my life, and it immediately brought me to tears. His commitment to his art despite his poverty, his lack of recognition and the pressing needs of his family were incredible. “Mango” and “Ethan Lockwood” expressly ask the question of how to love the world, or how to find the bit of evidence that “will be made luminous in the beautiful light.” But at the heart of all my essays is Camus’ opening statement from the Myth of Sisyphus, which is, “There is only one really serious philosophical question, and that is suicide.” How do I explore this idea throughout the entirety of the book?
  10. The enormity of time that has come before this present day is staggering, and it is something I have a hard time wrapping my head around. Our simultaneous desire to collect artifacts from times and peoples past and our inability to live lives that reflect an awareness of our existence within time – environmental decimation, lack of planning for the future, failure to learn from history’s mistakes – is confusing. Why do we obsess with finding the oldest living trees, the oldest known artifacts, the oldest examples of “civilization” and yet are unable to see ourselves as part of history?


Angela Pelster’s Recommended Reading List

dillardAnnie Dillard: Teaching a Stone to Talk – this is one of the first “nature writing” books I ever read and so it will always be important to me for that. I didn’t know what I was reading exactly – I was new to the form – but it floored me, and I knew I wanted more of it and everything like it.

Kathleen Norris: The Cloister Walk – this is a strange collection of essays, meditations, schedules, prayers and hard to define essays that talk about faith and pain and uncertainty, which is to say it is the exact kind of thing I love.


CarsonAnne Carson: The Autobiography of Red – Carson is one of the most beautiful and strangest writers I know. She blends myth and contemporary culture in gorgeous narratives and poems that leave my head spinning in blissful, brilliant wonder.

Michael Ondaatje: The Collected Works of Billy the Kid – this is my all time favorite biography. Part fact, part fiction, and part newspaper and part poem, it is an outstanding example of letting content chose its form.



Elizabeth Smart: By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept – why so few people know of this book is astounding to me. Smart uses Biblical language and imagery to explore the love affair she is trapped in, bending the form to her own needs and making it her own in a passionate, tender and heart-breaking way.

Richard Rodriguez: Darling: A Spiritual Autobiography – this man knows how to “essay” like hardly anyone I’ve ever read. He talks fast, expects the reader to keep up, and weaves and bends and turns without apology and with complete control and mastery of style.



pelsterAngela Pelster grew up in rural Alberta where she spent her days catching frogs and making forts out of the old gas tanks and used tires that her mechanic father had stored in the backyard. She has an MFA from the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing program and her essays have appeared in, The Gettysburg Review, Seneca Review, The Globe and Mail, Relief Magazine, and others. Her children’s novel The Curious Adventures of India Sophia won the Golden Eagle Children’s Choice award in 2006. The award was especially good timing, as it sent her on a book tour a week after her house had burned down. She lives with her family in Baltimore and teaches at Towson University.