Interview with Annie Lampman

Carter Johnson

LCSC alumna, Annie Lampman has a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing and is an Associate Professor of Honors Creative Writing at the Washington State University Honors College.

Her limited-edition letterpress-printed poetry chapbook BURNING TIME is available from Limberlost Press and her short fiction, poetry, and narrative essays have been published in sixty-some literary journals and anthologies such as The Normal School, Orion Magazine, and The Massachusetts Review.

She has been awarded the Dogwood Literary Award in Fiction, the Everybody Writes Award in Poetry, a Best American Essays “Notable,” a Pushcart Prize Special Mention, a 2020 Literature Fellowship from the Idaho Commission on the Arts, and a national Bureau of Land Management artist’s residency in the Owyhee Canyonlands Wilderness. She lives in Moscow, Idaho on the rolling hills of the Palouse Prairie where she has a pollinator garden full of native flowers, herbs, berries, honeybees, bumblebees, solitary bees, butterflies, and songbirds.

Annie Lampman’s Sins of the Bees blends mystery, the majesty of the natural world, and compelling characterizations to present the lives of two very different women and their tumultuous interactions with a dangerous doomsday cult. Sins of the Bees was just awarded the 2020 American Fiction Award.

LCSC student, Carter Johnson, had a chance to interview Annie Lampman over email about her recent novel and this is her response:

Carter Johnson: Where did you get your idea for Sins of the Bees, I have been told that you got the idea for this novel in a workshop with Claire Davis.

Annie Lampman: Yes, SINS OF THE BEES actually began in Claire Davis’s undergraduate fiction workshop class (circa 2003) as a twopage writing exercise where two characters had to have some kind of intense conversation/argument, but only one could speak. And so were born main characters Silva and Nick, straight into conflict. In commenting on my completed writing exercise, Claire Davis said something akin to “this is paced like a novel—you should make it into one,” to which I replied a blithe and enthusiastic “okay!” having no idea what kind of journey I was committing myself to. A few parts of that exercise are still present in the novel.

As a creative writing professor myself, I often assign similar writing exercises to my own undergraduate fiction students and I always tell them that you never know what might become of a little two-page writing exercise!

CJ: Is Sins of the Bees your first published novel and what was your thought process when you were told it would be published?

AL: I’ve been publishing short stories, poetry, and memoir essays for the last decade and a half (starting with my first publications in the 2004 Talking River Review, including a piece of flash fiction that is in the novel!) but SINS OF THE BEES is my first book.

I worked on the novel so long, my three sons essentially grew from young children into adults during the process of writing it, so when the novel was finally published, it felt like I was releasing an excruciatingly-long-held breath. Having all the years of work pay off was a huge relief; I had started to worry that I would be working on the same damn book my whole life!

But writing is indeed a journey, and notwithstanding the inherent doubts and discouragements and frustrations and lengthy timeframe of my own journey, the process of writing this novel has been lovely and surprising and has taught me more about myself than just about any other venture I’ve undertaken.

CJ: How much of yourself is included in this book, if any?

AL: Though SINS OF THE BEES is 100% a work of fiction, my life experience growing up in north-central Idaho (Headquarters, ID) very much inspired the novel, with a collage of details pulled from direct observance, family lore, and a lot of factual research.

Some of the most disturbing facets of the novel are unfortunately from very true happenings throughout the northwest, including components of the novel’s fictional cult, Almost Paradise, which was informed by real groups and organizations such as the 1990s antigovernment, separatist compound “Almost Heaven” settled in the Kamiah, Idaho area; the 2000s River Road Fellowship with its “Maidens Group” in Spokane, Washington; the 2016 Malheur Wildlife Refuge occupation in Oregon; and the proposed Citadel compound of northern Idaho, which thankfully fizzled out before it came to fruition.

I still distinctly remember one unsettling personal encounter I had in the 1990s with an extremist group visiting the North Fork of the Clearwater River: a cluster of women and girls swimming on a hot summer day, all clothed in long heavy skirts and layers of long-sleeved high-necked blouses, surrounded by armed and aggressive men standing guard over them. These kinds of regional experiences are what I drew on the most in creating the novel’s world.

CJ: What is your writing process for fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, is it the same/different for each genre?

AL: I don’t necessarily have a different writing process for the different genres, but I do have a different experience when I enter into the space of each. I have been in love with novels since I was able to read, sneaking “big kid” novels to read under my pillow with pilfered flashlights from 1st grade on. With its completely unlimited creative openness, sense of momentum, and deep character development possibilities, fiction—and particularly the novel— stimulates the most fun for me as a writer.

(As Claire Davis also once said to me: Why would you want to write nonfiction when you can make shit up?!) And I love how fiction often expresses the truth of the human condition better than even the best nonfiction does.

But I do also very much love writing (and reading) creative nonfiction. I find my CNF voice is quite different than my fiction voice, and although I often deal with heavy topics in both genres, my memoir writing is the hardest work for me because it encompasses real-life experiences in their full, unflinching truth, which is satisfying and therapeutic, but brutal, too.

Poetry comes very seldomly to me, but when a poem does arrive, it’s almost always fully formed at the moment of its conception. What I love most about poetry is the way it can capture a mood and moment so effectively and so beautifully in such a small space, reminding us how much each word matters, how each word builds upon itself in meaning and music and experience, how each component blends together with the others until they speak their ultimate truth.

And often bits of my poetry and essays find their way into my fiction, so one genre ends up informing the other in an endless cycle.

CJ: What year did you graduate and what major?

AL: 2006, Bachelor of Arts, English, magna cum laude

CJ: Do you have parting wisdom for the current students at LCSC?

AL: Your student experiences will impact your life years into the future, so try to make the most of every part of your learning. In our capitalistic society, college is often just seen as a pathway to a career, but a higher education is really how you learn critical things about yourself and the world at large, giving you entry into the most important conversations humans have been having for thousands of years.

Instead of getting caught up in just jumping through academic hoops on your way to your degree—which can be easy to slip into with the crush of class and life demands—really try to seize everything you can for yourself as far as knowledge acquisition and creative inspiration. Be your own fierce advocate! And remember that you are really learning how to think, how to reason, how to challenge your own presumptions, biases, and beliefs—which is the most valuable thing of all.

Annie Lampman will be conducting a reading of her work as part of LCSC Humanities Visiting Writers’ Series on Friday, October 16 at 7:00 p.m.

This is an open online forum that can be visited on YouTube here. Or for more work by Annie Lampman, check out her website.