Cary Holladay grew up in Virginia. She is the author of five volumes of fiction, including A Fight in the Doctor’s Office (Miami UP 2008) and The Quick-Change Artist: Stories (Swallow Press / Ohio UP 2006). Her work has appeared in New Stories From the South: The Year’s Best. Her awards include an O. Henry Prize and fellowships from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, the Tennessee Arts Commission, and the NEA.
She teaches at the University of Memphis, where she is Director of the River City Writers Series and a First Tennessee Professor.
Interview with Cary Holladay
Superstition Review: In your story, “Land of Lightning,” why did you decide to use Tinsley’s voice for the narrator?
Cary Holladay: Because Tinsley has lost so much—his wife, his marriage, his daughter. All of that grief has tested his strength of character and has brought him to a state of wondering—about being a husband, being a father, and what it means to send your daughter off to war.
SR: Burton Laughinghouse is a name and a character that really sticks out in the story. Why did you decide that the name would be fitting for him? How does it embody his character?
CH: “Laughinghouse” is a name I heard or read somewhere and was captivated by. I have a weakness for unusual names, but using them in a story can be risky, like a joke. The name embodies Burton Laughinghouse’s character in an ironic way; he’s playful but selfish, a disruptive force, a con man. His love of birds is real, but he exploits the people who befriend and assist him.
SR: There is an element of religion in the story when the characters speak of God, praying, and the devil being present in Glenna’s life or when the devil was asked to leave. What do you believe it brought to the story and what importance does religion have for the characters?
CH: It’s such a part of them that they feel the pull of its compass no matter what they do. Glenna, especially, feels the burden of her sin for having injured Ned Page. She feels guilt for being attracted to Burton Laughinghouse. Religion is part of the personal mystery that these characters carry with them.
SR: The incident with Glenna Dancy and Ned Page with the arrow was briefly mentioned in the beginning of the story but is really brought to life at the end. Tell us why you decided that this story would make for a perfect ending. What way did it tie the whole story together?
CH: That incident grew out of the fear I felt in high school archery class. A bow and arrow is a powerful, primitive, effective weapon. To aim and let that arrow fly at a living target is to pronounce a death sentence, or at least pose severe danger. The scene tied the story together because it expressed the contradictions in Glenna’s tormented inner self—her sexuality, her anger, her ego. She’s combative. Like Tinsley’s daughter who died in a helicopter accident in Iraq, Glenna has a warrior’s heart.
SR: What are you writing now? What are you reading?
I’m finishing a collection of stories set in Virginia’s horse country and have begun writing a novel about the pirate Blackbeard. I’m reading buccaneer legends, lore, and history.
Julie Hensley grew up on a sheep farm in the Shenandoah Valley, but now she makes her home in Kentucky with her husband (the writer R. Dean Johnson) and their two children. Julie has won The Southern Women Writers Emerging Voice Award in both fiction (2005) and poetry (2009). Her work regularly appears in a variety of journals, most recently in Redivider, Ruminate, Superstition Review, PoemMemiorStory, The Pinch and Blackbird, and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Her novel-in-stories, Landfall, won the 2007 Everett Southwest Literature Award. Her chapbook of poems, The Language of Horses, is available from Finishing Line Press.
Superstition Review: What inspired you to write The Language of Horses?
Julie Hensley: My girlhood, like so many, was marked by a period of intense love of horses. When I was very young, my three sisters and I took riding lessons. Saturday mornings, we dawned jodphurs and leather boots, rode around and around a ring of sawdust, and then stopped at Seven Eleven for Slurpees on the way home. When I was nine, after much waiting and saving, my parents bought a farm. Finally, we had our own horses. We could ride them on the overgrown trails that snaked out through the woods behind the barn. We could lounge bareback with a book while the horses grazed.
For my mom, this move marked the fulfillment of her own childhood wishes. Every Christmas, she told us, she had begged her parents for a horse, but had to settle instead for a string of Breyer ponies. Her yearning for horses was a palpable part of my childhood, and as an adolescent, I began to recognize in the fulfillment of that yearning, its metaphoric power. It wasn’t surprising that our move to the farm heralded my mother’s return to college and her development of a career as a teacher. Horses were desire. They were imagination. They were autonomy. They were the things that, I was just then beginning to understand, women ultimately have to fashion for themselves.
SR: The poems have very vivid memories and stories. Are they connected to your own personal memories and what made you want to share these certain moments?
JH: The poems are highly autobiographical. My husband Bob (R. Dean Johnson), who himself writes nonfiction, loves to tease me when I give him a new poem to read. He says, “Huh. Why don’t you take the line breaks out of that and submit it to Brevity.” While there is usually a narrative moment to my poems, and these are no exception, it is not story as much as raw, highly sensory imagery which spawns a poem for me. For instance, while “Monsoon Season” recounts the memory of a hike Bob and I did in the San Francisco Peaks, the poem really began with the immediate smell of vanilla rising from wet pine bark.
Once I realized horses could work as an extended metaphor, I did begin actively siphoning imagery around that theme, which led to specific memories such as my sister teaching me to French braid on a horse’s tail.
SR: In your fiction piece, “Expecting,” your descriptions are still very poetic. Is writing fiction more of a challenge for you compared to poems?
JH: I would have to say that fiction is harder for me. Or perhaps it is more fitting to admit that I simply work harder at fiction. My MFA is actually in fiction. Poetry has always been my secondary genre. Because I teach, I dedicate summers to fiction–for several summers in a row, I have been trying to complete a novel. When I feel hung up on the fiction, rather than sitting and fuming with creative wheels spinning, I will open a new file and begin a poem. During the academic year when I teach four classes at a time, it is difficult to drop fully into the world of my fiction, so during the winter I revise fiction and write new poems. I’m grateful to have my poetry because moving back and forth between the two genres releases pressure.
SR: The Language of Horses brings the reader to many different beautiful settings like Virginia, Kansas, and Phoenix. What does traveling offer to the pieces you write?
JH: It’s funny. My dreams take a while to catch up with my actual life. For instance, I have a nine-month-old daughter, but she has yet to appear in my dream life. I moved to Kentucky three years ago, yet my home here has really only just begun to formulate the backdrop of my dreams. I think my writing life works the same way. When I was a student in Arizona I constantly wrote of Virginia and Kansas. When I moved to Oklahoma, I wrote about the desert. Now that I live in Kentucky, I have begun to write about the plains. For me, being away from a place breeds a yearning that is quite productive to the creative process. I like to cultivate that yearning, to play with the power of dislocation.
I think that’s part of the power of low and brief-residency MFA programs such as the one in which I teach at Eastern Kentucky University—they allow emerging writers to feel the beautiful strangeness of a new place and the warm yearning for home that accompanies it. Two years ago, I traveled with students to San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, and I actually crafted “Expecting” there, sipping espresso each morning in Café Montenegro. This summer, I’ll accompany students to Edinburgh, Scotland. Maybe that trip will help me make progress on my novel.
SR: What are you writing now? What are you reading?
JH: It’s winter, so I’m writing poems. I’m working simultaneously on two cycles. One, with the working title Viable, explores motherhood and fertility. The other, Breaking Ground, channels the voices of a fictional couple—Gracie and Nohl—whose marriage dissolves into physical abuse as they build a farmhouse together.
I just finished Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad, a book which absolutely blew my mind. In general, I’m a fan of novels-in-stories. (“Expecting” is actually the capstone piece in Landall, a novel-in-stories which I have just begun to circulate.) Egan’s novel is so imaginative. She inhabits the lives of an array of characters so fully, and she balances decades of branching relationships with such flawless, nuanced control. I just began and am thoroughly enjoying Nancy Jensen’s The Sisters, a sweeping novel that moves, through six different perspectives, from 1920s Kentucky to Vietnam era Indiana. I’m also reading collections of poems in preparation for a poetry workshop I’ll be teaching in the spring—this week it’s Beckian Fritz Goldberg’s Lie Awake Lake and Claudia Emerson’s Figure Studies.
Matthew Scott Healy lives in Scottsdale, Arizona with his wife and daughter. He teaches English and Creative Writing at Scottsdale Community College. His work has appeared in Blackbird and Cutbank. His is the recipient of the Finnely Award for Humorous Short Fiction, and his story “Always the Obvious Places” was nominated for storySouth as the most notable story of 2010.
Superstition Review: I’m drawn to the character Emmett in “Always the Obvious Places.” Can you please describe how you came up with a character that would “throw a cactus” just to get away from the police?
Matthew Healy: I like the idea of characters without shame, who hold nothing back. Here is Emmett, a guy with the thumb of law enforcement upon him, yet he maintains this defiant posture of bluster. So many characters are governed by the consequences of their actions, and I wanted to have a character who is the exact opposite. He’s a guy without any permanence in his life, so his refusal to change is his anchor point. He’s also the character the other characters want most to change, but Emmett is so obdurate that by necessity others must do the changing around him.
SR: How did you imagine the life situation for Emmett and family? Where did it come from?
MH: Emmett’s life is about resiliency in a place where nothing is permanent. His job, his living situation, his girlfriend, what kids are around—all of it fluctuates wildly. I’ve known people like Emmett, and what amazes me is their ability to survive in such flux. In the story, Emmett has a somewhat stable living situation, but I imagine him living somewhere else a month before the story begins and somewhere else a month after the story ends. I worked briefly as a probation officer, and so many defendants exist this way, living as nomads. One of my defendants moved from jail to a halfway house. Within a week, he was living with a new girlfriend and her kids (who were already calling him “Dad”). A week later, he moved in with his parents, and then into some apartment with a different girlfriend and her kids. This wasn’t uncommon. I watched people join a family for only a week or two before joining another. The men and women became temporary fathers and mothers—an entire migrating community of interchangeable family members. I think that’s why Emmett can be so lighthearted about Officer Jay and Sgt. Falco’s visit, because their presence is temporary. Eventually, they will go home to other, better parts of the city, away from this vortex of instability, and Emmett will keep moving inside of it.
SR: The location of “Always the Obvious Places” is very vivid. How does place inform your writing?
MH: I grew up next to families who were not far away from Emmett’s circumstances. Actually, they may have been worse. My two best friends living on either side have spent their lives in and out of prison. I still remember the sights and sounds and smells of their houses: dark hallways, navigating through heaps of clothes and trash, looking for a space to play. Blackish-brown carpet that was harder than tile from all the abandoned spills. As a little kid, I was too young to understand or be bothered by such conditions. It just seemed strange and different. Later, when I became a probation officer, my reaction was much different. One of pity and disgust and anger (especially when I found babies and toddlers living in conditions that were squalid, but not enough to warrant intervention by CPS). I felt very much like a tourist lost in a bad part of a foreign city, standing in the living rooms of people and making recommendations on how they should improve their lives.
In “Obvious Places,” the setting influences how the characters behave and what they value. I wanted Emmett’s home to seem tangible and constrictive, yet ephemeral—a place that could be razed to the ground without anyone paying it much mind.
SR: In almost each line of “Always the Obvious Places,” there is a trace of humor. What are some of the difficulties of writing humor? What are the joys? Who are some of your favorite authors who use humor?
MH: I think one of the dangers of humor is becoming seduced by it and sacrificing the story for a few laughs. I didn’t necessary begin “Obvious Places” intending for it to be funny. Instead, the humor was a necessary counterbalance to the very bleak reality of Emmett’s life, which in so many ways is simply tragic. I just realized that one of the worst things anyone can do is analyze humor, so I’ll resist the temptation to dissect it.
Instead, I’ll answer the last part of your question, and mention a few funny writers I admire. I favor wry and subdued humor that’s attached to something much larger and darker, something that’s lurking after the punch-line to shake things up. Along those lines, Sherman Alexie has a wonderfully deadpan humor, and so does Denis Johnson. One of my favorites, though, is Richard Russo. When writing “Obvious Places,” I was actually thinking about Russo’s very funny novel Straight Man. In a strange twist, Russo’s agent contacted me out of the blue after reading “Obvious Places” to tell me he had enjoyed it. I’m still trying to figure out if that means I unintentionally channeled Russo’s voice too much in the story. As I tell my intro creative writing students, after reading someone you love, wait at least an hour before starting to write. What works for eating and swimming might work for reading and writing.
SR: What are you writing now? What are you reading?
MH: I just finished revising two short stories as part of a collection, but I’m also about halfway through writing a novel, which has turned out to be the most difficult undertaking of my life. I’m used to writing short stories, which is primarily what I like to read. Right now I’m reading the sizeable collection edited by Joyce Carol Oates, and most of the stories so far are pretty engaging.
I’m not reading any novels right now, though not for lack of trying. Unless they’re really good, my attention in most novels tends to sputter out after a hundred pages or so—an awful admission for someone who is trying to write one, but it’s true. When I was in Ohio State’s MFA program, we got to meet Michael Chabon, and we discussed the differences in short and long forms. He believes most writers fall into one category or the other, so perhaps I’m just a short form type of guy. (By the way, he admitted to being a long form guy.) This is fine with me, even though there’s no money in writing short stories, but it’s a shame since short fiction is so pristine and every word is so deliberate. I love the necessary ambiguity of short stories—there simply isn’t time to render every detail, so much of the story that orbits the literal prose must happen in the reader’s imagination. Who knows, maybe the dwindling attention spans means a lucrative future for short story writers.