“I wrote a weird, little guy essay”: Sophie Ezzell on Creative Nonfiction, Nostalgia, and Prioritizing Kindness in Art

May 26, 2024Contributor Updates, Digital Archive, Feature, Interviews, News, Nonfiction Print

Sophie Ezzell is a queer Urban Appalachian writer. Her nonfiction has been nominated for multiple Pushcarts and has appeared or is forthcoming in The Sun, River Teeth, Black Warrior Review, New Orleans Review, and others. Sophie received her MFA from Oklahoma State University and is currently pursuing a PhD in Creative Writing at the University of Mississippi. She lives in Oxford with her cat, Bartleby.

Sophie Ezzell, writer of “Big Dipper,” an experimental nonfiction essay published in issue 50.1, is interviewed by Alaina Kelley, one of our fabulous undergraduate interns, in April of 2024. To read “Big Dipper” in all of its glory, click here!

ALAINA: I noticed on your website that you have an MFA in creative nonfiction, which “Big Dipper” is categorized as. Would you like to share a bit about your journey with nonfiction? What led you to the genre? What do you enjoy about writing creative nonfiction?

SOPHIE: I’ve gotten this question a lot. People ask, “Why don’t you just write fiction?” I simply cannot do anything else. I took a high school creative writing class, and everything I was writing was autofiction. When I got to college, my undergraduate mentor, Rachel Peckham, truly just scooped me up and said, “Well, this is what you do now. You’re a nonfiction writer.” She gave me so much support and mentorship, and I truly had no interest in any other genre. Creative nonfiction and lyric essays made sense to me. There’s just something about the nonfiction lyric form; I love the queerness of prose and poetry coming together.

ALAINA: There is a prevalent debate surrounding creative nonfiction: Is it always ethical to write about others? Where do you stand on this debate?

SOPHIE: I prioritize kindness. I try to not be vengeful or cruel, and I also try to obscure details when I’m writing about something in a way that can be misconstrued or antagonizing. If I’m writing about people that I love, I always ask for permission because I will prioritize those relationships over a publication. I’m very grateful that I have supportive parents, and they understand creative nonfiction. In order to write about myself and other people, I do have to make characters out of them, and they’re sympathetic towards that. Ultimately, kindness is always the top thing, and when writing about other people, I think it’s important to ask, “Am I being kind here?”

ALAINA: Would you mind telling us about your writing process? What’s your ideal writing environment? Do you have any writing routines?

SOPHIE: My essays are messy and chaotic, so my writing process is equally messy and chaotic. It has to be one a.m., and I have to be snacking and drinking black coffee. I need to be in a warm room because I can’t write when it’s really cold. I also listen to one song on repeat. That’s a big part of it. My process for each essay starts with a vague idea or connection, and then I’ll start collecting research, quotes, and interviews on the topic. When that document gets messy, I open a new one and start writing some prose. I keep creating documents and whittling away the chaos with each draft.

ALAINA: How did “Big Dipper” come together? What was your experience writing the piece?

SOPHIE: “Big Dipper” definitely started with the form, and I worked backwards from there. I had read a piece in my creative nonfiction class. It was “How to Discuss Race as a White Person” by Samuel Stokely, which was published on Brevity several years ago. The format resembles “Big Dipper” where it’s a blank white page with a bunch of footnotes on it and the essay is in the footnotes. I remember looking at it and thinking you could do something really cool with all the little dots. When I was writing my collection, I had all these star essays, and it occurred to me that I could do a constellation piece with this form. I chose the Big Dipper and knew I wanted to talk about mythology and looking at the stars with my dad. I knew the general shape of it, but during my research, I discovered the idea about the three mourners, and the essay exploded from there. 

ALAINA: Is form something you experiment with a lot? Do you often set out to experiment, or do you just see how the pieces fall together?

SOPHIE: I really do like to experiment with form. I tend to write lyric essays, which can be overwhelming to start, and when you find a form like that, it can make it easier to start and understand what you’re intending to do. In my manuscript, I have a few constellation essays and other experimental form sequences. I have inventory essays, where I list things to create a biography of a person or relationship. There’s a sequence of hybrid poem pieces about artificial stars, like helicopters, origami stars, and glow-in-the-dark stars. I love the Oxford English Dictionary, so I have a piece where I look at different definitions for the word “aura.” There are some more fun experimental ones, but the constellation ones are definitely the most fun and experimental things I have done.

ALAINA: I noticed some anticipatory nostalgia in “Big Dipper.” Is this a theme you often write about? Further, how do you merge speculative writing with nonfiction?

SOPHIE: Yes, I would say that it’s a big theme in this piece. I tend to write about nostalgia often. It’s very strange because I’m in the present, but I’m almost always writing and mourning a past self. Even when writing the present, it’s still mourning, in a way, because I’m aware that it is becoming the past as I’m writing. 

ALAINA: What is the best writing advice you’ve ever received? What advice would you give a young writer?

SOPHIE: My MFA mentor, Sarah Beth Childers told me, “You know, you only get one first book.” At the time, I was really stressed out because my first book was not published, and she reminded me that it was okay to take my time. She told me that it was okay to wait and make sure you get it out in the way you want. This is a competitive field. There is pressure to get your name out and be published as soon as possible, and I think she’s right. You only get one debut book, so take your time with it. I would say that was valuable because it applies to so many other aspects of life as well.

ALAINA: What drew you to Black Warrior Review? What made you believe this publication could be the appropriate home for your piece?

SOPHIE: I wrote a weird, little guy essay, and Black Warrior Review is just a weird, little guy. I thought they’d be friends. Admittedly, I had submitted this essay several times and been rejected, but I was happy that it was in Black Warrior Review. There’s a visual aspect to this journal that does not exist in all other journals, and I love that so much.

ALAINA: On your website, you describe your current project, a lyric memoir. Would you like to speak a bit about that process?

Sophie: I wrote a lyric memoir. It’s called Winged. It has a few constellation pieces, like “Big Dipper” in it, but that’s not the main focus. It’s about identity, self discovery, queerness, and the stickiness of relationships. There’s also bunnies and swans, and I love it very much. It’s a wonky, lyrical, sad girl book. I’m now starting to work on a new book, and based on the essays I’ve written so far, I think it’s going to focus mostly on girlhood.

To learn more about Sophie & her writing, check out her website at the link above! To read her experimental nonfiction essay, “Big Dipper,” pick up a copy of 50.1 or order a subscription from our online store.