What are you looking to explore with your writing? What’s a theme that you keep coming back to?
Sometimes I do feel like I write the same story again and again. And for me, I am always looking for a place with a kind of redemption. I often put characters in very difficult situations, all the while hoping they can swim to the other side, and wondering how they might get there. I guess I am always looking for a character to be given a second chance in life, a new vision in life. For me, a happy ending is not everything works out just right and there is a big bow, it’s more coming to a place where a person has a clear vision of his or her own life in a way that enables them to kind of throw down their crutches and walk. To deal with what’s there in a way that enables them to keep moving forward. I think a lot of the characters in my new short-story collection are very much in that kind of position. Learning to take what you’ve got and make the most of it, I guess.
“PS” is sort of a reflection on that journey, and coming out on the other side.
Coming out on the other side. Being able to shed all those things like anger or resentment or grudges that people often carry for way too long.
What would you do if you were not a writer?
That is such an interesting question, and actually it is connected to “PS,” because I have always thought that writers and therapists have very similar jobs. You meet people, hear their life stories, and then try to make sense of it. It’s just that I get to see, or make up, the ending. Certainly if I were to think in terms of a field that would have required a different mode of education, I think I would have leaned in the direction of being a therapist. And without the education, or a different kind of education, I think my first choice would be a landscape architect. I love to garden.
Do you think you’d work as a couples’ therapist, as in “PS”?
I think, as my narrator says, the unnerving part about being a therapist would be not seeing the end of it all. It certainly would be fascinating. I am fascinated by a kind of group therapy because—as in a novel, where you would have multiple points of view—you’ve got two or more people telling their version of the same story, and of course they end up being light years apart.
And that’s frequently very sad.
It is sad. It is. I think it is sad if you’re one of the members involved. I think if you were the observer, it would also be fascinating to see where you would find common variables that might make a difference.
Who would you cite as your biggest personal influences?
Well, I would say the answer is two-fold. First, having had Louis Rubin and Lee Smith as my teachers as an undergraduate, along with Max Steele, made all the difference. They encouraged me very much, and then Louis Rubin, who had been my professor at U.N.C. Chapel Hill, went on to found Algonquin Books. So he then became my publisher, and that’s where I have been all these years.
So it was the beginning of a lasting relationship.
Long relationship. And the same with Lee Smith. Beyond that, the writers on the page who have just really inspired me are some of your good old southern standards. Eudora Welty, Tennessee Williams, Flannery O’Connor, Carson McCullers. You start naming old southerners and you can go on for a long time. But I think for me, as young person who wanted to write, hearing the voices in, say, a Eudora Welty story—it was just like, “I know these people.”
Are there any rituals you fall back on when you’re writing?
I guess for me, ritual and superstition might go hand in hand. I do, I feel very protective in the first draft, when all the pieces are coming together. I work in a way that is not linear or chronological at all, even with the short story. I will just be writing bits and pieces, and then when I have all the pieces on the table, that for me is when it feels like the real work begins. I love office supplies! I like to print out, I like to rearrange the pages, cut them up, look at it. I am not big on editing on the computer. I still do a lot just with pen and paper.