Margaret Renkl and Billy Renkl Talk Life, Collaboration, and Late Migrations

Parnassus Books is delighted to introduce two people who just might be Tennessee’s most creative pair of siblings — writer Margaret Renkl and artist Billy Renkl. You can meet the Renkls in person at an event to launch the new book Late Migrations on Tuesday, July 9, at 6:30pm. Our First Editions Club selection for July, Late Migrations, as Ann Patchett says, “has the makings of an American classic.” Here, brother and sister reflect on their creative partnership, which started long before this book.


Margaret Renkl credit Heidi Ross
Margaret Renkl (photo: Heidi Ross)

Margaret Renkl: I can hardly remember a time when we weren’t working together on something made with your pictures and my words. Do you remember the first one? Was it that little book we made for Mimi and Granddaddy’s 40th wedding anniversary? That was in 1970, so you would have been 7, and I would have been 8.

Billy Renkl: Honestly, how can you bear to remember those? I do remember that one, though — mostly because it was about 12 pages long and I ran out of things to draw on page 3. You’ve never run out of things to say, though. It’s like a well that constantly refills from below every time you take a bucket out. Where do you think that comes from?

Billy Renkl. (Photo: Susan Bryant)

MR: Language is the medium we’re born to; no one ever runs out of words. But I don’t recall that you’ve ever, ever run out of things to draw, either — or paint, or construct, or reconfigure. Remember when someone stole your tackle box full of oil paints in college, and you didn’t have any money to buy them all over again, so you switched your entire senior project from painting to drawing? The bookstore had sticks of Conté on sale 10 for a dollar, so you just switched media entirely.

But I know you’re going to dispute my argument that language is the medium we’re born to. Go on, tell me how art is really the medium we’re born to.

BR: Actually, both are pretty inadequate, or at least slippery. We are born to other things — like eating, and sleeping and making out. But language comes with all these promises of clarity: dictionaries and grammar books and thesauruses. At least art allows you to stand mute in front of it. Somebody might tell you, “No, the word ‘rabbit’ can’t mean that.” But the bunny in the Bellini St. Francis at the Frick? Well, I’m quite sure what he means to me is just for me.

MR: Will you tell the story of how you switched to collage?

BR: It happened just as quickly as the time I switched to drawing in college. I was doing a residency in Switzerland, and I wanted to explore the role of the Alps in Swiss identity. So I made a collage of a human heart out of a maps I’d cut out of an old middle-school atlas. And that collage was more specific, and conveyed more precisely what I wanted to say, than my drawings had ever been. So, that afternoon, I turned away from drawing. I’ve made mostly collages ever since.

Honeysuckle, by Billy Renkl.

Come to think of it, that was about the same time you stopped writing poems and committed to prose — and you didn’t have to leave North America to do it. How did that happen?

MR: It was almost that instantaneous for me, too, in a way: I was pregnant and had gone into preterm labor, so my doctor put me on medication and bed rest to stop the contractions. I’d already had two devastating miscarriages, one of them pretty late, and I was a complete wreck — far, far too distraught to write poems, which require a kind of intensity of energy and focus that I no longer had. But I needed to write something, and compared to poetry, writing essays really did feel like playing tennis with the net down, to crib from Robert Frost. With essays, I could keep writing even in a crazed mental state.

BR: “Crazed” is a word I’ve heard you use about grief, too. Mom’s death came so suddenly. She was completely herself one day, and then we were planning her funeral the next. I imagine being able to write was a help in the face of that heartbreak.

MR: I’m sure you’re right that language can obscure at least as often as it clarifies, but after Mom’s sudden death it was immensely comforting to find words for what was happening to me, which seemed so huge and overwhelming so much of the time. Or the effort to find words, at least, was a comfort. I couldn’t bring Mom back, but I could keep sorting and rearranging words into paragraphs that at least approximated how I felt and what I was thinking about.

But let’s talk about Mom and Dad for a minute, and grief. There are two threads in Late Migrations: essays about our childhood and family life, and essays about events in the natural world that echo the family events. But the art you made focuses exclusively on the natural world. Is that because it was too painful to dwell on the family essays?

BR: Oh, no. I don’t think about the past as much as you do, or as clearly, but I don’t find it particularly painful. I’m just not especially interested in illustration that offers a thin representation of a narrative moment. I wanted the collages to help create an atmosphere within which a reader would encounter your words.

MR: I love the way you used antique photo mounts to provide the borders for the nature collages. They mimic images from an old family photo album, which is a really subtle visual way to convey the human kinship with the natural world. That kinship is one of the most formative experiences of my childhood. Some of my favorite memories are set in the woods around whatever apartment we were living in at the time, or all over Mimi and Granddaddy’s farmland. Is there a story you particularly remember from all the time we spent in the woods as kids?

BR: That’s funny. I remember walking around Clopton with Lori and you — the cemetery, the road to the store, the pecan orchard where Mimi and Granddaddy’s house burned — but I only remember being in the woods alone. You and Lori are threaded through almost every memory I have, as if there was no point in remembering something that didn’t include the two of you, but not playing in the woods. Were we there together? Maybe we just went there together but for different reasons. What story do you remember?

Margaret and Billy Renkl, several years ago.

MR: I remember making little boats out of bark and sticks and leaves and racing them in the creek. And I remember making little houses out of moss and mud, and how yours were always a thousand times more elaborate than mine. And catching tadpoles and bringing them home to raise in a terrarium in your room. I can’t believe you don’t remember those days!

BR: I remember that you laughed and laughed when I tried to get you to name your Bantam chick “Pheasant” because it sounded nice. But I’m pretty sure you named the toads: Otoado and Dotoado. Even when the summer seemed endless, as it does when you’re a kid, I understood that the transformation from tadpole to toad happened at a blinding speed, right in the corner of my room. Unfortunately they didn’t stay in the corner of my room — I do remember mom’s shriek from the kitchen. Dotoado and Otoado should definitely be in the next book.

MR: I did not name those toads. No way did I name those toads.

BR: Did too.

Margaret Renkl presents Late Migrations
Tuesday, July 9, 2019
6:30 p.m. at Parnassus Books
Artwork by Billy Renkl will be on display and for sale.
This event is open to the public and free to attend!