Q & A
- Writers you admire? Melanie Rae Thon, James Kelman, William Trevor, Flannery O'Connor, Joyce Carol Oates, Mark Twain, Chekhov
- Favorite book? Sweet Hearts by Melanie Rae Thon tied with How Late It Was, How Late by James Kelman
- What book made you decide you wanted to be a writer when you were young? Dalton Trumbo's Johnny Got His Gun
- How did you end up in Minnesota? I drove. A LONG way. For a job that was better than the job I had.
- Do you like it there? It grows on you. I like the elbow room. Isolation. But, yeah, I suffer bouts of homesickness for Virginia. For Ralph's Barbecue in Weldon, NC. For real butterbeans. For the rich tapestry of southern talk.
- Where did you get your PhD? The University of Southern Mississippi. One of the greatest creative writing programs in the country then. That was before they got stupid and canned Frederick Barthelme and Rie Fortenberry. Needless to say, I harbor no lingering sense of loyalty to the place.
- Do you consider yourself a southern writer? Weird, because if I still lived in Virginia or Mississippi, I'd say, without reservations, hell yeah. Southern influenced? Yes. A displaced southerner who writes--that's more accurate.
- What are some of the stories about? There
are thirteen stories—I’ll just give you a quick run down for each one.
“Slivers” is a story that explores the concept of punishment—the psychological damage done by heavy-handed disciplinarians—the divisions created within a home in response to such.
“Substitute” dramatizes a young girl’s reaction to the tragic death of the boy she loved, a death that leaves her grappling with the concept of afterlife—both her lost love’s “afterlife” and her own “life after” her lost love.
“Cicada” reveals the difficulty a mother has in forgiving her husband when she believes he is responsible for the death of her only son.
“Crossings” is the story of a peeping Tom and a peeping Sally who fall in love with one another after living for months going back and forth across a cornfield to spy on each other.
“Shrine” gives us a woman trying her hand at selling real estate after years of working construction, who sabotages her own “success.”
“Doubt” shows a woman trying to come to terms with the death of her mother. Lacking the Christian belief that everyone around her has, she struggles to make sense of the overtly spiritual experience of her mother’s moment of passing.
“Seventh Day” is the story of an abused woman who stays in a safe house with her children for a week, only to return to her abusive husband on the seventh day.
“Gone” is the story of a woman who decides to take a day off from the depressing nature of her work—she works at a nursing home—only to witness a tragic accident that leaves her unable to turn off the world’s traumas except by daydreaming.
“Portrait” is the story of a special relationship that develops between an eccentric old woman in a nursing home and a promiscuous young teenager.
“Silk” follows the mental landscape of a woman who must decide whether to talk to her father again—a man locked up for life for killing her mother and her little brother—a man that would have killed her if she hadn’t escaped.
“Adele X” reveals what can happen when a wife loses her moral compass.
“Trespass” follows a young wife and mother as she enters the dangerous territory of adultery.
- What do you tend to write? I write literary fiction—hopefully thought provoking and resonant pieces—about ordinary, working class characters caught up in extraordinary moments or thoughts or feelings. At base, I’m a realist. My work has been referred to as “dark” more than once, but I never intend to create something dark. I always intend to test my characters, to see what they’re made of, to see what’s possible, to see what would happen if something out of the ordinary happened. As a writer, I feel I’m constantly chasing the empathetic response of the reader. Second to that is my desire to inspire in a reader a compassionate response in light of a situation that makes it difficult to give one. True compassion.
- What inspires you to write? I’ve always said that what inspires many writers is something that bothers the mind. I equate it to that little grain of sand that gets inside the oyster, irritating the thing so much that it produces something in reaction to it. The end result, of course, is a pearl—a lovely little thing. So the real question for me is what bothers my mind. Social justice issues; existentialism; spiritual life outside of organized religion; imbalance of power wherever it exist—in the home, at work, in an extended family, in a country; the problematics of love; the dynamics of growing old; the fact that life-altering things do happen without explanation or forethought; and the way that you can’t make sense of the nonsensical. Warning: Tomorrow I might come up with a whole other list.
- What's the typical response to your stories? Honestly, the number one response I get is “Where do you get these stories? Do you know these people?” And I’m thrilled when I hear that because that’s the sign of a job well done—when you can make the reader believe completely in the realistic nature of the creation. They can’t imagine that someone as ordinary as me can come up with these stories—they must be real. I hate to disappoint, but I’m not writing nonfiction here. This is stuff I make up. It may have a seed of reality to it. Like in the story “Slivers”—I really did see a young girl standing outside of a Walmart in Mississippi with a placard hanging over her, identifying her as a shoplifter. That’s one of those things that bothers the mind that creates good stories. Combine this little bothersome thing with another little bothersome thing and pretty soon you’ve got yourself a story.