Rachel Wenrick is an associate teaching professor of English at Drexel who co-authored the memoir “Spirit Rising: My Life, My Music” with Grammy award-winning singer Angelique Kidjo.
The Triangle: What’s your story? What brought you to Drexel?
Rachel Wenrick: The real answer is love. My husband, Cyrille Taillandier, got a job here, and I was teaching at a college in upstate New York, and we had to figure out which job we were going to go with, basically.
TT: When did your interest in writing spark?
RW: I guess when I was a kid, really. My dad was such a big reader. I mean, he read all the time. He would walk around with his head in a book, and I was kind of like, ‘How do you do that? What’s in there? What’s so interesting?’ And so he kind of instilled in me a deep love of reading from a really young age, and that’s kind of how it started, like the appreciation of language and things like that.
TT: Were you starstruck working with a Grammy award-winning singer? Was it all fun or all serious when you were working together?
RW: It was a combination of all of those things, I would say, because the process was over three years. You’re getting to know someone really, really well because you’re helping to tell their story, so there are moments when I was really starstruck, even though I knew her a little bit. The stories that she’s telling me, I’m like, “Wow, what that must have been like to be hanging out with those people or to be performing in front of 500,000 people in Rome.” So I was sort of starstruck by that, what that life must be like, [and] also … what it’s like to do the UNICEF work, which is really, really hard, and that’s kind of using her star power but in this other way. … It was also very intimate at times but also really, really hard work. Really intimate because you’re talking about really personal things, but also really hard work because the person is trusting you with their story, so you really have to bust your butt. … There were times when I’d say, “I can do this all the time,” and then there would be times when I’d just be like, “Oh my god, it’s so hard.”
TT: Did the pressure of what you were doing, helping to write someone else’s story for the world to see, ever get to you?
RW: It was really hard in the beginning to kind of forget all that. Once you just forget it and you’re in the work of talking to [Kidjo] and working it out for them to work with Khushbu Patel, who was an awesome collaborator, a senior psychology major [at Drexel], … it was just thrilling. As soon as you could forget the other readers, like Alicia Keys, … I really thought about Khushbu as my reader, and our editor Julia as my reader, and Angelique herself. We were this tight little group, and as soon as I could just dip into the hard work of it and forget the rest, then it got so much easier.
TT: What did a typical day look like when you were going through the project?
RW: When we started the project it was in the summer, where the research was kind of coming in and it was really freeform and I was just trying to figure stuff out. The first year was really exploratory, finding a form and all of that stuff. And then it was the next summer where I worked full time on it trying to get a draft out. Then the academic year started again, … and I got pregnant in the process of writing this book. The deadline from the publisher was April 8, and my due date with my son was April 25. I worked with Khushbu in the summer of 2012, and we made huge progress together. … As the school year started, it sounds really crazy but I would get up at 4 in the morning and I would work until my daughter woke up, somewhere between 6 and 7, and then I would come to campus and I would do my campus day. And then I would have time with my family, put my daughter to bed, and then I would work again from the time she went to bed until as long as I could, like 10, 11, 12 — something like that. And this whole time I’m pregnant too. It was kind of a crazy time, but you knew there was this deadline. You weren’t going to live your whole life this way; it was only going to be for this time. It’s amazing how productive you can be at 6 in the morning.
TT: What feedback have you received since the memoir was published?
RW: I did talk to John Timpane, who writes for the Inquirer. I did a little interview with him that ran in February, and when we spoke he said reading this book was like being in the room with her for four or five hours. So that was awesome — really, really great.
TT: If any Drexel students are interested in publishing their own writing, what advice you would give them?
RW: My first advice to anybody who wants to write is always to read. Read widely, not just the books you think you’d like to read. And look at the journals you like that are publishing cool stuff and try there. But there are also some venues on campus, ways that they can get involved. In addition to Maya, Drexel Publishing Group and Painted Bride Quarterly, there’s a new minor in writing, which draws disciplines across the University. But really, my first advice is always to read. I know that sounds kind of boring, but reading is a fundamental thing; you just enlarge your world.
TT: Who are some of your favorite authors?
RW: It changes all the time. Right now I am reading for a class that I’m teaching in spring called Writing the Lyric Essay. … I am re-reading this book by Deborah Tall called “A Family of Strangers.” She’s one I admire a lot. In the class that I’m teaching right now, which is The Peer Reader in Context, we just read David Foster Wallace; I love him. We’re reading Susan Griffin; I love her. John Edgar Wideman — these are all writers that are amazing. I love George Saunders, all these people, because they are unique voices. Junot Diaz: He’s been instrumental in my writing and my teaching. All of these people are very, very different from each other, … but they all use language beautifully.
TT: What’s your favorite thing to do in Philly?
RW: This is not my favorite thing, but it’s one thing that I love to do: ride the bus or train and read, but also listen to other people’s conversations and take notes. Not take notes on what I’m hearing but for what to think about. Or sitting in a cafe and reading. Just being in the city, whether it’s the movement of the bus or being stationary, sitting and watching people walk by. Sort of just hanging out.
TT: If you could trade places with one person in the world for a day, who would it be and why?
RW: My first response, honestly, is that I would want to be President Fry so I could create spaces for writing on campus. I’d love to wave the magic presidential wand or the medallion and be like, “Here we will create a writer’s space! Here we will create a place with a view!”
Triangle Talks is a weekly column that highlights members of the Drexel community.