Words Saved Me: 8 Questions With Stray Author Tanya Marquardt

Tanya Marquardt (Photo credit: David B. Smith)

Tanya Marquardt (Photo credit: David B. Smith)

By Lindsey Wojcik

“When I left, I took everything with me.”

For a 16-year-old Tanya Marquardt, everything meant anything she could fit into two large garbage bags, a backpack, and a cardboard box. She emptied her closet and dresser, filling the bags with her clothes, before stuffing notebooks and textbooks into a decaying blue backpack. Toiletries, sheets, and pillows found their way into the cardboard box, along with her coveted copies of Shakespeare’s sonnets, Hamlet, and Richard III. Two leather-bound journals were the last items Marquardt packed before she ran away from the home her mother brought her to in Port Alberni, British Columbia, Canada. It was 1995, and an angsty Marquardt wanted to punish her mother for divorcing her father, a traveling vacuum cleaner salesman who loved the bottle.

In her new memoir, Stray, author, playwright and performer Tanya Marquardt chronicles her turbulent teenage years and the events that led to and followed the moments after she left the house in Port Alberni.

Marquardt recalls living with friends in a dilapidated apartment building before being kicked out, moving in with friend before being kicked out by her parents, and moving back in with her mother. She poignantly details her experiences with sex, booze, depression, and BDSM clubs. And, she finds, there’s one passion lying in wait that will be her ticket to success.

Marquardt recently took some time to answer my questions about what she hoped to explore in writing about her teenage years, her relationship to Shakespeare, and how her relationship with her mother changed after she finished writing the book.

Lindsey Wojcik: In Stray: A Memoir of a Runaway, you write a lot about what writing meant to you as a teenager. Take us a back a little bit. Do you remember the first time you picked up a pen? What sparked in your interest in the craft?

Tanya Marquardt: I was interested in language young, way before I went to kindergarten or learned how to read, and my mother really encouraged that in me. I would find her little notes and grocery lists around the house and take my big crayons and copy out the letters like they were pictures. It was a strong desire right away, and I devoured any book that I could get my hands on when I was a kid—Dr. Seuss, L.M. Montgomery, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Louisa May Alcott. But I would also just read encyclopedias or looked words up in dictionaries for fun. I was and am a word nerd. But it wasn’t until later, around 12, when I got really interested in the craft. I was into poetry then, and though I also wrote in my diary at a fever pitch, I didn’t really know I would become a playwright and an author until later. So I became obsessed with poetic forms—sonnets especially, but also haikus, villanelles, and simple ABAB rhyming poems. I wrote a poem a day for years. For me craft became a touchstone, a way to delve into my creativity and to lose myself in the possibilities of language. I love being in that world; it’s a very private, very intimate place inside of me.

LW: You cite Shakespeare as an early influence. How did Shakespeare help inform your writing? Who else inspired you?

TM: Shakespeare, ahhh, Shakespeare. I currently have such a fraught relationship with his legacy and his work. I love the drama, and the forms that I learned, iambic pentameter and soliloquies and free verse. And when I was younger I latched onto his plays, especially Hamlet, because I could really identify with that angst and trying to live in the midst of a broken home and of missing one’s birth father. I didn’t know my biological father then, and so it felt like he was a ghost, and I longed to know him. And I loved that Shakespeare could write this highly formalized language while also carrying these big, sweeping emotions—not just rage, but murderous rage, not just love, but suicidal love. It was a container for all that I was feeling, a form that I could become obsessed with and lose myself in, a way to distract myself from the anxieties of living with an alcoholic father.

LW: What were you looking to express or explore in your memoir, Stray: A Memoir of a Runaway?

TM: My desires for the book have changed over time. I started out wanting to write about discovering that I had a birth father, but that quickly veered into writing about the experience of being a runaway. That feeling of being unloved, of feeling abandoned by someone or something I couldn’t really identify, and then slowly building oneself back up was an impetus for the book. As I wrote it started to be a kind of dedication to my younger self and kids like me; the Ally Sheedy-like goth girl who walks around smoking cigarettes in a winter jacket with a broken zipper. And now I think it’s also a book about straying from the norms— sexual experimentation, running away to find oneself, using art and words as survival tools. Words saved me. Maybe this book can give a little of that back.

LW: You had a vast collection of journals to sift through for the book’s material. What else helped you flesh out the details of your teenage years?

TM: My mother has boxes of photographs, which I sifted through a few times as I was writing and which helped to jog my memory. I interviewed my mother as well as my brothers and a few of my friends. And once I had a memory, I would meditate and free write on that memory, and that writing would act as a key to other memories, whether shallow or deep. And from there I would craft the material until I had something that felt like a piece of writing, a piece of literature.

LW: You write about the very complicated relationships you had with your parents and siblings. How did writing about that time help those relationships today?

TM: My mother and I became very close as I wrote this book. I asked her questions, and we were both able to talk about that time openly with one another, expressing frustration and anger, but also love and sadness. I made apologies; she made apologies. And with age I have come to understand many of her choices, even if I still don’t completely agree with them. My brothers and I bore witness to each other’s abuses, especially when my father was actively drinking, and interviewing them was very revealing for me. There was a lot that I knew and a lot that I didn’t. Children are so resilient. For me it was healing for our relationships. And I became estranged from my father as I wrote the book, which was necessary for me personally. So, some things are mending and some are still in process.

LW: In the book, you write about feeling out of control as you began to drink, chain smoke, and stay out late at clubs, yet you always maintained that finishing school was your ticket out of the chaos. You also became captivated with theater. How did theater help you during that time?

TM: One of my first theatre teachers, Mark Diamond, used to say that people come to the theatre because they are orphans, and they stay because they become interested in form. This was very true for me. I felt completely alone, as if I was unloved, and uncared for, and in the theatre I could play and laugh and find community. It was a safe space for me, a place of refuge. I needed that badly as a kid; a lot of kids do. That’s one of theatre’s functions—to offer empathy and humanity. And then later, the form of live performance became interesting to me [in terms of] how to offer stories and how to structure stories for an audience.

Delving into theatre and performance as a craft makes me a better writer, because I can explore my memories physically in a studio. Memoir also makes me a better theatre maker, helping me to clarify language and story for a reader without them seeing my body. It’s a lovely tension, and I enjoy flipping from one artistic practice to another, letting them inform each other.

LW: What’s next for you?

TM: Stray readings and the launch in Brooklyn is going to keep me busy for a while. I am also working on a new performance called “Some Must Watch While Some Must Sleep,” a show about my life as a sleeptalker, and discovering that I have a sleep-talking self. It was the subject of an episode of NPR’s Invisibilia. In June 2019, I will perform the punk version of Stray in Vancouver. And I have a couple of book ideas in my head. I love making art, I am always contemplating various ideas.

LW: What advice do you give to aspiring writers?

TM: Writers write. So write. Write about anything. Write grocery lists, write love letters, write about your first breakup, write about the sunset, write about anything and everything that will get you writing. Once you are writing, you’re on the train. Then, all you have to do is ride.

To learn more about Tanya Marquardt, visit her official website.