Sarah Adleman was born and raised between the bayous of Houston, the swamps of Louisiana, and the desert of El Paso.
She was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Bangladesh, studied yoga in India, and taught English in China. Sarah earned her MFA from the University of Texas at El Paso and works as a Yoga therapist specializing in traumatic brain injury survivors. Her first book “The Lampblack Blue of Memory: My Mother Echoes” was published by Tolsun Books in 2019. She considers it a blessing to have been born out of the bayous, molded by the desert, and now refined by the mountains, adding Colorado to her list of homes. She lives in Denver and plays on the Western Slope as often as possible.
The following is an interview with Sarah Adleman.
Each week, The Colorado Sun and Colorado Humanities & Center For The Book feature an excerpt from a Colorado book and an interview with the author. Explore the SunLit archives at coloradosun.com/sunlit.
What inspired you to write this book?
I did not set out to write this book. Or at least what the book became. It began as an exploration into human motivations and what propels the human experience towards a sense of joy as opposed to anger or fear or hate. I began with white boards and wrote different themes at the top like Cause & Effect. Joy. Forgiveness. It is impossible for me to try and understand forgiveness without looking to the last words my mother spoke: I forgive you and God does too. Those words went on the Forgiveness whiteboard. I couldn’t wholly write about the human experience without writing about forgiveness, and I couldn’t write about forgiveness without writing about the circumstances surrounding my mother’s murder and her loss—which became the loss of those left behind, which in turn is universal and binds us to one another. The gift of this book is that it quietly waited to be noticed and then stepped forth and allowed me to create a space for it to be heard.
Place this excerpt in context. How does it fit into the book as a whole and why did you select it?
There are several nonfiction threads that run through “Lampblack.” One of them is the history and current climate of capital punishment. I knew I had to examine how I felt about it, what I thought about it, because the man who killed my mother has been on Death Row in Texas for 20 years. This section underlies the conflicting emotion I have on the subject.
Another thread that runs through the book is the history of trains and how they built America. One of the formatting tools that holds the work together is the use of prose poems, which all take place on a train. The words that run around the poem (which for technical reasons couldn’t be included in this excerpt) are my mother’s. She began writing poetry when she was 11 and wrote until the last day of her life. Having her words, her art, to read when grieving is still one of the greatest gifts she gave. Her words run through the book, along the edges, echoing and guiding as the pages turn. It was one of the last additions made and it is, in my opinion, the most important element in the entire manuscript.
I lost my mother when I was sixteen and I’ll be 40 later this year. That’s a lot of years to grieve and ask the question: How does one move forward in life? Not in the material sense, or social standing, but within the experience of being human. How do we not become stuck in old thought patterns and habits? What allows us to move through the difficult times and be in a state of well-being, even Joy, during all the rest? Everybody, if we are blessed, will experience loss and grief. But how we choose to use those circumstances is what creates who we are in our core.
From the book:
“After the death of his son, Ralph Waldo Emerson refers to it as courting suffering. He writes, there are moods in which we court suffering, in the hope that here, at least, we shall find reality, sharp peaks and edges of truth. By feeling we find truth. By feeling we know in this moment we exist. To be alive and not feel is contradictory to the very essence of living. The preposition of a, as in alive, is a reduced form of the Old English preposition on, meaning in, into, or toward. In life. Into life. Toward life. To be alive doesn’t require constantly being on, but rather moving towards an existence. It’s messy. Feeling truth—feeling emotions we don’t want to feel. That’s vulnerability. Feeling unsafe inside ourselves, moving into what we don’t know, places we haven’t been. Guided only by the simple desire to be clean.”
Tell us about creating this book: any research and travel you might have done, any other influences on which you drew?
I began this book as an MFA candidate for my graduate thesis. It has since morphed and grown into another entity, but the train thread has always been a part of the story. I grew up in Houston with family in Louisiana, so when we took any sort of trip it was always by car. My father worked for Hughes Tools for 18 years and his plant shut down every year over the Fourth of July, which also happened to be my mother’s birthday.
My parents would pack the three kids into the car or into a rented RV and we’d take off for New Mexico or Colorado, camping along the way. I have vivid memories of watching the fireworks in Denver while camping at Golden Gate State Park when I was 13. My first introduction to travel by train was in France while studying abroad during college. It was, as many people discover, an instant love affair. After that, I always took the train for long distance travel if possible…in China, in India, across Europe.
Train travel isn’t necessarily built into the knowledge of a kid who grows up in Houston. So when it came to my knowledge that America has trains for travel, outside of the East Coast, I was flabbergasted. My husband and I took one from Albany to El Paso and I began to feel and sit with the idea of trains, slowly becoming obsessed with not only how they aided in creating America, but for the metaphor they embody. Train cars as life. Train tracks as our path. The surrounding land as the emotion we move through in life.
I applied for a research grant through the graduate studies department at UTEP and was the first non-STEM student to be awarded. I used the money to travel by Amtrak from Denver to Chicago to Seattle to Sacramento to Denver, during February when the landscape through the midwest and northern states is quintessentially grief come to form.
What were the biggest challenges you faced, or surprises you encountered in completing this book?
I didn’t expect to want to make contact with the man who murdered my mother. At one point I thought I might actually want to meet him. In the end, I wrote him a letter and that was an aside to the entire project of the book that was unfolding. My writing mentor, Liz Scheid, suggested I consider including the process of the letter within the text. The more I thought about it, the more it completed a certain cycle — the concept of speaking and being heard. Of listening and hearing. Of the power of words.
Walk us through your writing process: Where and when do you write? What time of day? Do you listen to music, need quiet?
My writing process has changed significantly since the birth of my son a year and a half ago. My preferred process was to wake around 5 a.m. and write till about 8:30 or 9 a.m. I’d go about my day, teaching and taking care of “life” and any revisions I was working on would happen mid-afternoon into the evening.
Then there was a break. A break in becoming a mother. A break in dealing with postpartum depression. I took a writing workshop when he was 3 months old just to be around other writers who were in the process, to try to soak up some of their juices. This past summer, just before my son turned 1, we spent a week together in a one room cabin without electricity or plumbing above Carbondale and I wrote a lot at night. Mostly poems about motherhood.
I write when he’s napping, and I’ve just begun to be able to wake before him and write in the mornings. The most difficult part of the process was tapping back into the current of words, the space where creation can happen. But it’s happening. I need quiet, but I love the energy a crowded coffeehouse or public space provides. If I’m out, then the earphones go in and Bon Iver or Ludovico Einaudi turn on.
What’s your next project?
I have two projects I’d like to tackle. For a long time I’ve wanted to write about pie. Apple pie, pecan pie, key lime pie. The word crust is a derivative of the word coffin. When pie first made an appearance in America it looked much different…all of the filling would be put inside the crust, more like a popover and then cooked to a crisp.
The burnt outside would be thrown away, thus the coffin. There is something romantic about diners and pie, harkening to a Tom Waits world of a time just past; but the pie persists. From Georgia to Texas to Colorado. From Maine to Massachusetts to New Mexico. Pie is American and nuanced. It’s irrational and transcendental.
It’s a constant equal to its circumference and really I just want to eat a bunch of pie. I joined the American Pie Council and I’m hoping to attend one of their annual meetings. The other project deals with traumatic brain injury and insurance companies and the entire medical system. Less fun, but necessary work.