Small Town Dispatches: Laura Villareal

Welcome to Small Town Dispatches, a new feature on The Peak that recognizes the efforts of sustaining a writing practice in places with unconventional resources. Writing can be deeply isolating, especially when you live outside of cities that are seen as cultural epicenters. So here, Special Features Editor Nadeen Kharputly interviews Shenandoah contributors to gain insights about what it’s like to live in small towns (and towns that feel small): rural areas, college towns, islands, hamlets, and more.

Writer: Laura Villareal
Town: Lockhart, Texas, USA
Bio: Laura Villareal is a poet and book critic. Her debut poetry collection, Girl’s Guide to Leaving (University of Wisconsin Press 2022), was awarded the Texas Institute of Letters’ John A. Robert Johnson Award for a First Book of Poetry and the Writers’ League of Texas Book Award for Poetry. Her writing has appeared in Shenandoah, Guernica, AGNI, among others.

Tell us about your small town: how small is it?

I’ve been living in Lockhart, Texas for the last four years. It’s nicknamed the BBQ capital of Texas because it has so many notable BBQ places. In fact, the town square smells like BBQ smoke each morning. Lockhart has fantastic restaurants and cute little shops. There’s a wonderful book nook inside one of the stores–Golden Hour–with a vast array of poetry books, which feels like a gift. I had to look this up, but the population is 15,614 and growing.

Living in a small town is familiar and comforting to me since I grew up on the border of a tiny town (current population: 193) and a small town (current population: 1,253). My dad is an amateur astronomer and had wanted to live somewhere with dark skies.

Admittedly, the town I live in now feels large since it has a grocery store and all the conveniences of a city. Growing up, we would drive to the nearest big city to get everything.

What makes your town a unique place for your writing practice?

The cost of living is relatively low–for now–which means I have more time for writing. Writers need time, and time isn’t guaranteed unless we can afford it.

Do you have a favorite writing spot?

No, I tend to rove when it comes to writing. I often move around my apartment to various spots, depending on my mood. Sometimes, if the weather is nice, I’ll go to a coffee shop and sit outside, or hang out on one of the benches in the town square.

How do you build community with other writers or creatives in your town?

I haven’t figured that out yet, to be honest. I’m fairly shy, so it’s often easier for me to build connections with writers I’ve met through happenstance, or writers I know virtually.

What do you appreciate most about where you live?

Last year I would have said the quiet and my view of fields, but there’s been construction around my apartment for most of this year, so I’ve lost both of those things. Generally, I enjoy that the town is small enough that it feels uncrowded, and big enough that there are conveniences like a grocery store and library down the road. I really appreciate that there’s amazing food, a good bookstore, and a lack of rush here.

Can you share any writing advice that’s inspired by your living situation?

I was talking to a writer earlier this month who was hesitant to move back to Texas from a big city on the East Coast. I was faced with the same choice after grad school, so I can relate. Much of the publishing world lives on the East Coast. Sometimes we writers worry more about the business of writing and the perceived opportunities of location than we do about what makes a sustainable practice. I do have to say that Texas writers are doing excellent work to build spaces for one another, including creating a number of small presses: Mouthfeel Press, FlowerSong Press, Abode Press, Plancha Press (an imprint of Infrarrealista Review), Host Publications, Deep Vellum, and more. The folks behind these presses believe in Texas enough to make it a place for writers to thrive. I think we can learn from that ethos.

My advice is: live where you’ll be happy, writing will always find you there.

Laura Villareal is the author of Girl’s Guide to Leaving (University of Wisconsin Press, 2022). She has received fellowships from the Stadler Center for Poetry & Literary Arts and National Book Critics Circle. Her writing appears in Guernica, the American Poetry Review, Waxwing, AGNI, and elsewhere.