“I can’t fathom writers married to writers and musicians married to musicians. There’s your enemy in bed beside you.” —T.C. Boyle
There isn’t a good history of writer couples. Think of the Fitzgeralds. Think of Plath and Hughes. But here I am—knock on wood—married to the poet Katherine Riegel for the past 11 years. I can say, without doubt, that our relationship has shaped me as a writer. If we had never met in Carbondale, IL, those many years ago, I might be teaching high school somewhere, or back in Chicago working at a camera store. Katie is my creativity fuel, my muse, my motivation. I can also say, with certainty, that without me, Katie would still be a poet.
Recent email to Publisher/Friend
You may know by now that Katie has gotten her second book of poetry accepted for publication. But you don’t know how much we are in fierce competition with each other, and how I need to have my second book come out at the same time. That said, would you guys be interested in taking a look at my essay collection, Southside Buddhist?
By the way, I’m kidding. Only a little. But seriously, you interested?
Ira “Bad Husband” Sukrungruang
P.S. She can’t win!
We have learned how to be with each other. We know that I prefer the left side of the bed. We know that she hates June bugs. We know that I hate spiders. We know that she has to figure out tips on checks at restaurants. We know that I will have to cook most meals. We’ve also learned what to say about each other’s work. This took years. We are both stubborn in our own ways, and believe, most of the time, that we are right. Katie is more outwardly stubborn. I’m more inwardly stubborn. She voices her displeasure. “You’re wrong,” she’ll say. I keep it inside. “You’re wrong,” I’ll say on the inside.
Now we have a system. It’s really not a system. We tell each other our work is the best on this planet. No other writers rival our brilliance. And together, we are like those Japanese animes where we can join and become an ultimate power.
“Wonder Twin Powers! Activate!”
We’ve come to know other writing couples: Jon and Allison, Chad and Jennifer, Jeff and Margot, Stacy and Adrian, Aimee and Dustin, Michael and Catherine. Sometimes we go on writing couple dates where most of the time we talk about TV. Writers love TV. TV and food.
We are known as Katie and Ira, a two-headed writing beast. She is the phoenix, and I am the dragon. At readings or conferences, if we are not together, people will say, “Where is __________________?” This happens a lot to writing couples. One of our friends once said, “We’re taking a break,” and this caused such a stir that soon the writing world was abuzz. “Did you hear? So and so are breaking up!” It was the best joke ever, she said.
When we appear by ourselves, it is to others as if we are suddenly without a limb.
In “Enduring Discovery: Marriage, Parenthood, and Poetry,” Brenda Shaughnessy and Craig Morgan Teicher write: “We root for each other’s work, which is good because these books delve into our shared private lives.”
I write about Katie often because I write about what it means to belong to two cultures—Thai and American. Katie, however, very seldom writes about me. When we were first dating, I’d say, “Write a poem about me.” I’d say, “You must not love me because I’m never in your work. I love you because you’re always in my work.” She’d shake her head. “Listen, if I begin writing about you, that means our relationship is not doing well. I only write about bad relationships.” This is true.
Eleven years later, still nothing written about me.
I stood under the flicker of thefluorescent lights, transfixed, unable to move. In front of me, the display of fruit shimmered, otherworldly: oranges the size of softballs, lacquer-shiny apples. I picked up a kiwi, then put it down. I wandered, slightly stunned, through the aisles of bright jars and boxes. Finally I stepped out through the magic doors, empty-handed.
When I returned from two years serving in the Peace Corps in West Africa, I felt raw, hesitant, unmoored by the simplest things: the grocery store; a simple and impersonal transaction at the bank or the post office; turning on the tap and having water pour forth.
I peppered my conversation with words in Cape Verdean Creole, and listened to sappy Cape Verdean pop music, and felt nostalgic and vaguely tragic.
Soon (though perhaps not soon enough for my family and friends), this moony phase passed. But as I cast about for what to do next with my life, Cape Verde’s landscape and people and the intensity of my experiences there haunted me.
I didn’t quite understand why I had nearly stopped eating while I was there; why my marriage had been pushed almost to the breaking point; why after two years I still felt a simultaneous excitement and dread at the thought of facing a classroom of 40 ninth grade English students. I imagined these struggles in some way reflected in the geography and culture where they had arisen, but the connection was still unclear to me, blurred as bruma seca season, when dust had obscured the sky. I needed clarity, and the only way I knew to seek clarity was to write.
At the same time, when I mentioned Cape Verde to anyone, I was greeted with a blank stare. I was jealous of Peace Corps volunteers I knew who had served in Central America, or Russia, or on the African continent. The ideas people had of these places may have been distorted or false or based on stereotypes, but at least they had heard of them.
If I had often felt lonely or misunderstood during my stint abroad, when I returned, it seemed I was once more cast adrift.
I wanted others to feel the dry dust of the harmattan winds, to taste the earthy corn grit of djagacida, to understand the history and resonances behind the beautiful, mournful ballads.
In writing the book–a process which ended up taking almost 15 years–I want to say I found some of the clarity I had been looking for. But maybe it was simply that 15 years of living led me to cultivate more compassion for the 22-year-old girl with an eating disorder, or to see that the struggles my young marriage endured had both everything and nothing to do with our immersion in Cape Verdean culture.
Maybe it wasn’t clarity that I needed, though. Maybe it was simply to tell my story, dust-obscured, deep-throated wail that it was. What I’d wanted all along was to put the island where I’d lived for two years on a common map.
Living in Northern California, I’ve enjoyed a fair number of wine tastings at vineyards in Sonoma and Napa. For many years I preferred white wines to red. The white wines were crisper, sweeter, easier on the palate. The reds were more subtle, more complicated, altogether more work. I’d drink the reds with a sense of duty, the whites with an air of expectation.
Over time this changed. These days white wines seem childish, too easy. Bring on those sophisticated red grapes! I can handle them now. Life is complex and multi-layered, meant to be understood and appreciated gradually. Our alcohol should be similarly complex.
And our writing too. I often cringe when I read essays or blog posts that I wrote years ago. Those posts–such as when I excoriated the GOP in 2005 for exploiting the decline of Terry Schiavo–were fun to write. The blood boils, the pulse races. But after the adrenaline rush subsided, I’d ruefully realize that my latest missive had added more heat than light. Back then it was acceptable for my writing to be polemical more than polished. Sometimes this was even the point.
During this year my writing deepened. It went from white wine to red. I consciously examined the divorce from every angle, coming to terms with it however I could. No pulse racing writing came along that year; instead there was a series of lengthy, slow-to-develop essays.
It often seemed that friends were angry or wanted me to be angry, but I resisted this beckoning toward bitterness. These days I wonder if I exaggerated this “beckoning” in my own mind, as a way to give my writing something I could respond to. If so, it worked.
Life moves on, sometimes in the most wonderful ways. Four years later I am very happily remarried, whereas four years ago I was convinced I would die alone. I’m still proud of that year’s writing, but from this remove I can’t help but notice its solipsistic nature. My writing that “divorce year” was reportorial, insular, brooding. This interiority was a necessary transition away from the fiery blog posts of yore, but I’m glad those days are over.
These days my prose is outward looking, and the reports about my personal life I do draft are light. The beautiful thing about writing–this privilege of stringing words into meaning, and hopefully moving our readers–is that it is capacious enough to cover all stages of our lives. Now my words are more measured, more polished, but just as passionate and hopefully (a bit) more wise. Growing older has its rewards, on the page and in life.
New Madrid, journal of contemporary literature, will dedicate its Winter 2013 issue to the theme of winning and losing. Though not limited to basketball or to sports in general in its expression of the theme, this issue will serve as a tribute to the MSU Racer basketball team, which basked in unprecedented national attention in the 2011-12 season due to its status as the last undefeated Division I men’s team, at one point climbing as high as No. 7 in national rankings. The Racers also clinched the Ohio Valley Conference championship and secured their 15th invitation to the NCAA tournament—as a 6th seed, their highest ever. The editors are looking for work in all literary genres that gives evidence of what ABC’s Wide World of Sports used to call “the thrill of victory, the agony of defeat.” Through the theme, the issue will explore the implications of winning and losing, not just in sports but in many other arenas as well (for example, war, business, marriage, board games, real estate, the stock market). Submissions addressing success, failure, luck, chance, etc., in any aspect of the human condition are welcome. All submissions should be of interest to the general reader. Please do not submit scholarly articles. Submissions will be accepted between August 15 and October 15, 2012. Guidelines: www.newmadridjournal.org.
Superstition Review intern Crista Jackson conducted this telephone interview with Tina Packer, the founder and artistic director of Shakespeare & Company. Her play “WOMEN OF WILL” is running at the Colorado Shakespeare Festival July 5 through Aug. 12 at the University Theatre on the University of Colorado campus in Boulder. Directed by Eric Tucker. Created by Tina Packer. Featuring Packer and Nigel Gore. Part 1, July 5, 7, Aug. 10; Part 2, July 10, 14, Aug. 11; Part 3, July 17, 21, Aug 11. (7:30 p.m. curtain) Part 4, July 24, 28, Aug 12. Part 5, July 31, Aug 4, 12. Single tickets, $10-54. Special packages available. Info and Tkts: coloradoshakes.org or 303-492-0554
Superstition Review: When did you first begin acting? What was the first production that you were involved in?
Tina Packer: I first began acting in high school, although, not a lot. It was not like American high school where you do musicals all the time. I performed in three plays, or something like that, but I liked it enormously. Then I went off to Paris, and obviously, I could not act there, but I thought to myself ‘hmm…maybe I could stay here forever and become an actor.’ When I came back to England I applied to drama school. I went to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and studied there for two and a half years. After that, I did some television roles and went on to the Royal Shakespeare Academy. Essentially, I did my training and then went straight into professional acting. The first production that I was involved in was a television show called “No Hiding Place.” It was a thirty minute program that ran every week.
SR: When did you discover your interest in Shakespeare’s plays?
TP: I did eight plays in school and then I went to see the Royal Shakespeare Company, which I had always loved. I suppose my real interest began when I started to work at a theater company that had very weird ideas about how to perform Shakespeare. In any case, I started to work with the Royal Shakespeare Company almost immediately after drama school. I was getting deeper into it but I kept encountering the problem of wanting to work on Shakespeare’s plays a certain way while they wanted to work on it in a different way. That is where I felt like I could see the brilliance of Shakespeare’s plays and that brilliance just grew over the years. I was in the regular theater as an actor for about six years and doing television when I thought ‘I’ve got to switch to being a director because I have all the ideas of what Shakespeare is about. Unless I’m a director I’m never going to have the power to put them into practice.’ I switched to directing at that point. The kind of directing I was interested in was how actors could go further than they were with their acting and their bodies. So, it was an ongoing process. There was a eureka moment when I set up my own company but there was no eureka moment concerning why I was fascinated with Shakespeare; my fascination just grew and grew.
SR: You have authored several books, how has your experience as a writer differed from your experience as an actor and director?
TP: It is a completely different medium. When you are an actor you use your entire body and you are in a state of being. You are being as truthful as you can with the whole of your being. When you are directing you are directing other people to be as truthful as they can. You are absorbing all of their energy and their emotional state of being. So being a director is quite painful in a way because you are absorbing other people’s energy. When you are writing you are imagining what is going on and you are getting it on paper as fast as you can. It is just a different state. Of the three mediums, acting, writing, and directing, I find acting the most organic. I like directing because it really spins my brain and forces me to think through what every character thinks; what the overall shape and form is and how I can best represent it. Being a writer you only have yourself. You do not have an audience that is going to react to you and say “this is good. That is bad.” You do not have a load of actors trying to do what you are saying; all you are doing is imagining it and writing it down on the page. You have no idea whether it is any good or not.
SR: You were quoted in another interview as saying “the actor’s job is to speak that which cannot be spoken.” Can you explain the concept of the actor as a messenger?
TP: Yes. The function of theater, I think, is to articulate those things which are hidden. They are hidden because they live in the subconscious mind. All art, whether it is painting, music, dance, etc., functions to bring those things that are subconscious to consciousness so that you can see them. Well, with the actor you have to take it a bit further. Especially in Shakespeare, it is the language that makes the difference. There are things that are not being said, either because they are suppressed by the powers that be or the people have just absorbed those ideas as thinking ‘oh, that’s reality,’ but it is not reality it is the way reality is depicted. You know how in the ’50s movies they presented a kind of very innocent, un-embodied sexuality? The films would always present a certain kind of sexuality which was the form that society wanted to think about sex in, or was comfortable with. With the ’60s came a whole turnaround that showed the ’50s as a misrepresentation of what humans are, of what marriage is. So really, in a way it was theater’s job to point out that that was not how things were. That is an example of how theater articulates a further truth.
SR: What inspired you to explore the female characters in Shakespeare’s plays?
TP: I had done about two-thirds of the canon and I suddenly saw that there was a progression in the female characters. It came to me one day when I was watching one of my own productions. I had done different parts of the canon by then; the beginning, middle, and end. Suddenly, I realized a pattern in the female characters. Once I got the idea I wanted to explore it further, because obviously, I am a woman and Shakespeare’s relationship to women is very important to me.
SR: What do you mean when you say that Shakespeare’s writing embodies or explores feminine qualities?
TP: As a rough categorization we ask, what is masculine? Well, masculine is much more linear, based on glory and is going to have an aggressive streak to it. The cliché of what is masculine is going to be goal oriented rather than relationship oriented. It is going to be cerebral. That is what people usually consider as masculine. What are usually called feminine are relationships, feelings, allowing your intuition to take hold. If you have got a goal it is usually related to a relational goal. For instance, you want your family to be really happy or you want everybody to get along. It is similar to how I felt when I wanted a deep collaboration with everybody, not wanting some people to be stars and others not. Those characteristics are usually called feminine. So if you think about what an artist uses, whatever kind of artist, what they use are feminine qualities. They are very much to do with feelings, intuition, and relationships. Whether the relationship is paint on a canvas, of one color against another, or whether it is how your characters relate to each other on stage. The attributes are very much feminine. When you think of the embodiment of female sexuality and physical function it is very internal. Menstruating, being pregnant, etc. Whereas, masculine is much more exterior physicality—who runs the fastest, throws the ball the hardest— it has more to do with action than female physicality does. So if you are embodying a role like actors do it is a much more feminine attribute regardless of the actor’s gender.
SR: What do you think of the evolution of Shakespeare’s female characters? What caused the transformation of his early characters from the false dichotomy of modest virgins and harlots to more complex, multifaceted and realistic female characters?
TP: Well, this is what I got a Guggenheim for. I spent a whole year finding out what the answer was and the answer is in “Women of Will.” The best way to have this question answered is for you to come see “Women of Will,” because I can’t do it justice but I will have a go. Basically, what I believe happened to Shakespeare is that he started off as most young men do, being full of sexual hormones and feeling that women had the upper hand or did not have the upper hand. He didn’t really associate with women; he projected onto them. In part one, women were usually either shrews or virgins on a pedestal. During this phase of his writing he either over idealizes them or makes them into marauders. That is a very early Shakespeare. Suddenly, he seems to fall in love himself and becomes passionate and suddenly the women like Juliet have as much air time as the men. He begins to explore the female characters as deeply as he explores the men. They are allowed their full sexuality, their full voices, they are whole people. So suddenly, he is not seeing women as something he thought he had to control or deal with, instead, he is seeing women as human beings and that might be because he grew up, fell in love, and therefore saw women differently.
The only way men and women can have real, deep relationships is if you have power to give up. You cannot have a deep relationship, then or now, if you don’t have power to give the other person. So what you see out of this is that Shakespeare starts using women to tell the truth about what is going on because women are always outside of the power circle. They don’t particularly have power; they get power through the men they have associated with, the exception being Cleopatra, of course. So, by and large, women are looking at power much more deeply than men are. So we go into the third part of his writing life where women are really trying to tell the truth about what they see. Here if they disguise themselves as men, if they live underground, they can say what they like and everybody responds to them and that is just fine. Then at end of the play they can say “oh look, I’m really a woman,” but by that time they have organized the society; everyone gets married, procreates and it is all well and good. If they stay in their frocks and they start telling the truth about what they see they get killed or kill themselves so their voices are useless. So you really see what women are up against.
In the fourth section, the women take on power the same way as men, like Lady Macbeth, the eldest daughter in Lear, etc.,the women have power just like the men do. They want power just like the men, they start going after power in the same way that the men do and the country ends up in chaos. In the fifth part he finds a way out of the killing cycle which he has been telling for so long and it is by the daughters revealing the fathers and the art of acting. He shows that art has to come into life somehow, otherwise, we will never be able to stop the killing cycle. That is the sixth part, when Shakespeare has gone back to live in Stratford and he is with his daughters again who he has not seen for 20 years while he has been in London working. So it is all about how the daughters can redeem their fathers. That is the briefest of outlines.
SR: After four decades of studying The Bard of Avon are you still mesmerized by his writing? Do you still find yourself gleaning new epiphanies from the texts and plays you have become so familiar with?
TP: Yes, because texts which hold big truths, you tend to see differently at different points of your life. You might read something that you never thought anything of and then all of a sudden it holds some significant meaning because you have reached a new place in your life. So you can see things you had not seen before. For example, a hundred different books have been written on “to be, or not to be, that is the question,” and it is still the question. People still come out with a whole host of answers about what it means. It is the exploration which is important not the answer. That is true of all of Shakespeare’s plays or any great poetry; it doesn’t give you the answers to life, it breaks life open.
SR: What are the unique benefits of theater as compared to other forms of art? Is there something special about using the body as an instrument of communication?
TP: Yes, there is something special about theater but it depends because different people are awakened by different art forms. If you are the type of human where music awakens all of your sensory perceptions then maybe theater isn’t going to do it for you. So it really depends on the human being but why theater is very important is it is really trying to recreate life as a whole so it can include music, dance, poetry, and all of the other art forms. It is really trying to use life itself as the art form. So that means there is a huge demand on the body because you are putting your own body there. With your own body you are trying to recreate life. All art forms awake sensory perception, which means that you see the world more clearly; you have got more tools to look at the world. What happens to me when I am acting is that I get to feel more consciously what it is that I am feeling. It is not just the body; it is the body and the voice together that make theater so incredible. The body looks like it is solid and it feels solid, the voice is ephemeral and it is coming and going.
SR: What about the difference between live theater and broadcast theater? Is there something lost in the intimacy between the actor and the audience in broadcast theater?
TP: Acting in front of an audience gives you incredible energy and focus. When acting for television and film, you have a more internal focus; you don’t have that huge blast of energy from the audience. What happens to you when get the focus of all those people is that it starts transforming the energy and something starts happening, that you have no control over, because of the energy that you receive from the audience. In that respect, theater is an incredible medium. You feed off of the audience’s energy and it takes you places that you didn’t know you could go.
It isn’t that film and television can’t do some really good work, they can, but it is much more self-representing than when you have the audience. I think that a large part of it is the acknowledgement, ultimately, that you are all in the same space. You just pretended something and maybe everybody wept and laughed and you have done that together and there is a real sense of unity in that which you never get on television or in film. In film the camera is picking up your performance and then translating it and you are never in the same space with the audience. It is a different experience and I think that it lacks the sense of community that theater builds.
SR: The story behind the founding of Shakespeare and Company is incredibly inspiring. You began with 20 homeless actors and a couple thousand dollars. What was going through your mind? Was there ever a moment when you thought of giving up?
TP: What was going through my mind was the kind of theater that I wanted to do. I was just seizing the opportunity of having a house to live in and having a few thousand dollars so I could pay everyone. All I was thinking was ‘okay, so we can get a Shakespeare play up in this amount of time and we can do the kind of work that exemplifies what I am talking about. Then we can invite everybody to see it. They will get inspired and give us more money to work on more projects.’
SR: Do you think Shakespeare had a special message he was attempting to convey to fellow artists?
TP: No. I think that he was doing what all artists do; he was not sitting around trying to think up special messages. Artists try to find out what the truth is and try to figure out what life is about. To the best of their ability they try to see how power structures work, the way in which we deal with our families, etc., and how it affects everyone else. You know, all the big issues of life they were simply trying to tell the truth about. What he did in his later plays, when he got back to Stratford, he started trying to tell the truth about the impact that daughters have on their fathers.
SR: How important do you think it is for artists to teach and pass on their art?
TP: I think the desire to pass on what you have learned is natural. I think that if you are an artist it does not work until the audience is there. Whether it is theater or someone looking at your painting, reading your poem, it does not work until somebody else interacts with you. Then if you find it at all exciting your next reaction is to start telling people how you did it so they can do it too. I think all creativity has been a continuous stream from the very first time people were creating plays around the campfire or doing paintings on the cave walls.
SR: Do you have any advice for novice actors, playwrights, or directors? Were there any words of wisdom that helped you through the dark hours of your career?
TP: Keep on honing your vision. If things are not working just persist and keep on looking to see what is keeping the communication, from artist to audience, from happening. It is all about persistence.
SR: What are you currently working on? Do you see yourself writing anymore books?
TP: I will write some more books on methodology in Shakespeare and Company but the writing is really an expression of the acting and directing so I will write about those subjects. Right now, I am so immersed in the struggle to get “Women of Will” up and the book out that I cannot think further than getting it all done.
Michael Croley grew up in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. He holds graduate degrees in Creative Writing from Florida State and the University of Memphis. In 2011, Narrative Magazine named him to its list of “Best New Writers.” He has won awards and fellowships from the Kentucky Arts Council Sewanee Writers’ Conference and the Key West Literary Seminars. His first novel, After the Sun Fell, will be released as part of Narrative’s Library Series in 2012. He teaches at Denison University in Granville, Ohio. www.michaelcroley.com
SR: Your story “Two Lives,” published in Blackbird, contains two distinct stories: a metafictional narrative in which the narrator talks about his writing life (or lack thereof) and the actual text of the story this character wrote. When you began this story, did you set out with the intention of blending two narratives, or did the story evolve into its current form?
Michael Croley: I always remember how this story came to life because it was the first story I ever wrote that made me get out of bed to complete it. I started with the story’s first line, “You don’t know what it’s like to be in the bed as a child and feel the air of fall enter your room and hear the dishes in the cabinets of your home rattle, their doors slammed by some drunk looking for a fresh bottle of liquor.” I wanted the second person to implicate the reader, to say, “Dear Reader, you know nothing.” As I wrote the story and came to the end of the first space break, another voice entered my head with that line, “Years ago, I tried to write this.” Rather than fight the new voice, I went with it and suddenly I realized I was writing two stories inside of one. I’m not really into meta-fiction. I believe that a writer’s allegiance is to the reader, to guiding them through the story, and I don’t find this story to be of the smarty-pants variety, but even I knew this one had a weird structure as I was going through it but I didn’t let myself worry about it too much. I just knew both of these voices were speaking to me (and I hate putting that out there because it makes the writing process sound so new age-ish, but there is some truth to this concept) and I followed them through. As the story went on and I got near the end, I realized that both stories, both threads, had to have equal time on the page in order for the story as a whole to have maximum impact. So as I started revising, I actually cut and pasted all the second-person threads into a new document and made sure that both stories read like fully-formed, complete stories. Then it was just a matter of weaving the threads together at the right moments so that the reader would be doubly haunted by both the second-person story and the first-person narrative and how both of those ended.
I’d never written a story, structurally, like this before—and haven’t since—and one of things that I do pat myself on the back about in regard to this story is that the structure seems really unique to me. But I’m sure I ripped it off from somebody unconsciously because that’s what we do as writers. We steal. This is also the first story I ever had published and that was pretty damn cool.
SR: Your story “Insulation” in Blackbird is one of those rare short stories with a happy ending. The main character, Lynn, seems to get what she wants, and the marriage that seems on the verge of breaking up appears to actually be strengthened at the end. When you began writing the story, is this the ending you envisioned? Do you feel that there is a risk involved in writing so-called happy endings?
MC: Here’s an instance of when you give a story to the world, it is no longer yours to decide what it is to the reader or what it could be. I don’t know that I ever saw this couple on the verge of breaking up. I saw them as struggling, yes, but I never believed Lynn would leave him. In my mind, from the beginning, she was upset and frustrated and wanted her husband to stand up and take care of her but she loved him and wasn’t going to leave him. She loved him too much to do that. She wanted to push him to be more, to reach his potential and she takes that on as her task, as her role in this marriage. I wanted them to come to an understanding, for him to see her strength and resilience and for him to acknowledge that. Once Allen picked Lynn up from her job I knew they would go home and that the change, if we subscribe to the idea that all stories are about change, would have to come from him—and it does because he sees what the reader sees in her—and that’s what I had happen. But this is Lynn’s story, so we had to end with her and I lifted the image of her in the tub from a really bad poem I wrote (I still thought I could write poetry at the time), imagining a woman coming home at the end of a long day.
I don’t know if there is a risk involved with happy endings. I know my students often ask why all the stories I assign to read are sad, but I don’t think of an ending that doesn’t end with everyone getting what they want as sad. Not always. All I want is for a character to have some realization or knowledge he or she didn’t have when the story began. I often tell my students that the writer’s job is to make her characters hit that higher plane of knowledge then pull the ripcord on the story. Get out. You’ve done your work. Lynn realizes that Allen does love her. That he isn’t immune to her struggles and how she works herself like a mule for the both of them. When she sees that she is able to face her life in ways she couldn’t before and that’s more important than Allen’s change in behavior. And when that happened in the story, that’s how I knew it was complete.
As a side note, when I first workshopped this piece, it got really beat up by several women in the class who didn’t understand why Lynn remained with Allen to which the workshop leader (my mentor Richard Bausch) said, “Did you ever think she loves him?” I mention this because we are subject to overthinking this pursuit from time to time, to letting our own personal feelings about the way the world should be rather than it is invade our work and reading. But stories, at their heart, are about “news of the spirit” as the late George Garrett said, and what we do as writers is to imagine ourselves into that spirit without any judgments.
SR: Many of your stories take place in Fordyce, Kentucky. How does a sense of place impact the stories you choose to tell?
MC: Well, for me, it impacts everything. Fordyce is stand-in for my own hometown right down to topography and landmarks, but it has that fictional name so that I can blend different elements into the town from surrounding areas from time to time and because I didn’t want to be too constrained by the “facts” of Corbin, Kentucky, where I was raised. But place is something I’ve always been drawn to. Because my mother is Korean (my father grew up out in the country near Corbin) I think I always felt out of place there. I looked different from all my classmates. Corbin has a history of racism that’s pretty well-known throughout the state and I can only remember going to school with two other people of color growing up. So things weren’t always necessarily easy for my mother or my brother and me. I think that sense of identity that I received from that place has had a large effect on my work, especially in the two novels I’ve written. I never looked at things with strictly an insider’s viewpoint, though I like to think I have that viewpoint as well. I saw lots of good people in Corbin who were hardworking, blue-collar types and I admired their grit and what I saw as even-mindedness. Practical might be a good way to put it. And at the same time, a lot of my friends’ parents were bankers, lawyers, doctors, pharmacists. That’s one of the hidden truths about Appalachia, that not everyone is poor and backward. We’re not all the sons and daughters of miners and laborers.
I think that kind of place is ripe for storytelling because it’s relative smallness allows for the pecking order and machinations of the town to be clearly visible if you’re paying attention. Corbin isn’t so small that you know everyone but it is small enough that you probably know someone who knows the person you don’t. Because of that you’re never out of the reach of a story to be heard about So-and-so and what he’s doing. When I started writing as an undergraduate I was very conscious about honoring this place where I’d grown up and telling the stories that I thought were worth telling that I never saw in Esquire or The New Yorker. There’s a reason in the two stories you’ve mentioned that the characters are college educated. I was tired (and still am) of reading only about backward hillbillies in rural areas. My father was a man who worked his way through a good school and chose to come back to that part of the world. And at the same time, as I’ve gotten older, I see how the dual nature of ethnicity has played a large role in how I write my stories. My characters always seem in between worlds, pulled in different directions by different desires. So to answer your question briefly (and to stop going on), I think I’m trying to figure out in a lot of ways of how place shapes us. How does the place where we mature get into our bloodstream? I don’t think we ever escape our childhoods and a lot of what I see myself doing is exploring Fordyce as Corbin and asking the question, What has this place done to this character for good or ill?
SR: You published an “iStory” in Narrative – a new type of micro-fiction created by the magazine to coincide with their new digital App. These stories are all under 150 words. Do you find it more or less difficult to write micro-fiction like your story “One Such as This” than your longer pieces? Did writing with the digital App in mind change anything about the writing process?
MC: Well, first off I just want to say that Narrative has been a great venue to me. Very supportive of my work and I think the world of what Tom Jenks and Carol Edgarian are trying to do with literature in this electronic age. I think they’ve been very visionary and the idea of an iStory seemed gimmicky to me at first because I just didn’t think you could tell a story in such a small amount of space. That was/is the challenging part. It’s like “Name that Tune.” How many notes does it take to tell your story? Less notes, to me, is often better. So that’s what I tried to do and that was the challenge of it. A lot of times I have a great image but not a great story to tell. And because, as I mentioned earlier, I’m not a very good poet, I wanted to use this image I had of an alley in back of my favorite movie theater in Cleveland where I used to live. I just liked the idea of two people in this very dark alley making out and then moving them through the night and into the morning. So, in one sense, the piece was easier because there was less I had to do, but harder because the word limit magnifies your choice of diction, your details, and your sense of emotion in the piece.
I don’t often write micro-fiction because I’m interested in really playing the characters’ lives out as much as I can. As far as I want to go. For instance, neither character gets a name in that iStory, which gives me more observational distance and less attachment to seeing their lives come together or undone as you might in a longer piece. And the iStory seems to me to be less about narrative arc than a singular moment that lingers in the reader’s mind and imagination after what they’re done being a witness to the story.
SR: What are you working on at the moment?
MC: Well, I have an agreement with Narrative to release my first novel After the Sun Fell as part of their new Library Series. I’m really excited about that because everything they do is so good and I’m flattered that Tom Jenks wanted to first look at the novel then said he wanted to work with me on it. That book is based in small part on my mother’s move to southeastern Kentucky from Masan, South Korea after she married my father. An excerpt of it is up on Narrative as a contained story entitled, “Washed Away.” As long as Tom and I can find some time to work on this soon, I think that book will be released in 2012, but that’ll, ultimately, be up to Tom and I’ve learned to listen to him as much as possible.
And my agent is currently shopping my second novel around. It’s about a family that’s moved out of Fordyce to Memphis, Tennessee in 1968 right before the Sanitation Workers’ Strike, which indirectly led to the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. The book is narrated by Ben Hamlin who was 12 when his father moved the family to Memphis. A grown man now, Ben is looking back on that year when his family—and their hopes—began to unravel as their own personal tragedies get entangled with the Civil Rights Movement’s greatest tragedy.
My next novel is entirely in my head (though I think the opening scene is written) so I don’t want to say too much about it. But it will be, I hope, both an homage to and a retelling of All the King’s Men with the central figure being more of an LBJ type politician. This is mostly because I love All the King’s Men—I don’t think there’s a bad sentence in the book—and because I think LBJ was a fascinating politician and I think we live in a very politically fractious time, almost as fractious as the ’60s but we’re not quite there yet.
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.
Poetry Editor April Stolarz is a senior at ASU pursuing concurrent degrees in Print/Online Journalism and Creative Writing with a focus on Poetry. Along with her Superstition Review internship April also writes for ASU’s Media Relations Office and freelances for a variety of publications. She has studied poetry under Norman Dubie and Terry Hummer and is currently studying under Sally Ball. She maintains a blog about local music, Dose of Rock, and hopes to work for a music publication someday. This is April’s first experience with Superstition Review.
1. What is your position with Superstition Review and what are your responsibilities?
I am one of the poetry editors for Superstition Review’s Spring 2011 issue. I am responsible for reviewing poetry submissions and voting for certain poems to be published. Once those poems are given the go ahead I contact the authors and send them final proofs to be featured in the magazine.
2. Why did you decide to get involved with Superstition Review?
I’ve always loved words and any form of expression, especially written expression. In high school I was the editor of my literary magazine and absolutely loved being a part of that process. I wanted to expand my knowledge and be a part of the next step in order to gain more professional experience.
3. How do you like to spend your free time?
My life is a balancing act of 18 credits and multiple jobs. Most of my free time is swallowed up by writing; I freelance for various publications. My absolute favorite thing to do is see live music. I try to spend as much time as possible at concerts and music festivals. Other than that I love reading, being outside and doing anything outdoorsy.
4. What other position(s) for Superstition Review would you like to try out?
I’d like to be the non fiction editor, interview editor and web design editor. I think they’d all be a great learning experience and equally as interesting and fun.
5. Describe one of your favorite literary works.
A simple story about a girl with extremely large thumbs that manages to encompass wide-ranging and heart-aching themes such as religion, sexuality, marriage, freedom, traveling, magic and everything in between. This book, Even Cowgirls Get the Blues by Tom Robbins, is a journey through the human experience with rainbow colored sprinkles, whipped cream, hot fudge and a cherry on top. Tom Robbins is the master of metaphor, and he’s not afraid to show it.
6. What are you currently reading?
Every chance I get (which isn’t as often as I’d like) I reach for one of the books on my shelf. I’m currently thumbing through and trying to digest: Skinny Legs And All by Tom Robbins, Letters to a Young Poet by Rainer Maria Rilke, Book of Longing by Leonard Cohen and Transformations of Myth Through Time by Joseph Campbell.
7. Creatively, what are you currently working on?
As a poetry senior in the capstone writing class I’m working on a new poem every week and a new revision as much as possible. For one of my jobs I’m writing a feature story about a professor for ASU’s website. I blog about local music a few times a month and am working on updating my personal website.
8. What inspires you?
Inspiration is everywhere and nowhere at the same time. Discovering new things, reading a certain word, being outside, spontaneity, vibrancy, color, conversation, cities, people who aren’t afraid to say what they think and do what they want, trees, the sky, free spirits, people who take the different path, who aren’t afraid to travel and explore.
9. What are you most proud of?
This is a weird question for me. While I’ve always prided myself on doing very well in school while simultaneously being involved in other things, what’s given me the most internal pride and satisfaction has been helping my friends realize their dreams.
10. Where do you see yourself in 10 years?
I don’t think about the future; it comes soon enough. But I hope I’m living in a beautiful place, maybe an island somewhere, maybe another continent, surrounded by a strong community of friends, music and love. By then I hope I’ll be working in some form of music business whether it be for a music magazine such as Spin or for some other music company. I hope my life is filled with laughter.