Poised for Possibility

Poised for Possibility

Bobbie Ann Mason, the author of Zigzagging Down a Wild Trail, talks about Bruce Springsteen, James Joyce, and discovering her own writing voice

Zigzagging Down a Wild Trail

Zigzagging Down a Wild Trail
by Bobbie Ann Mason
Random House
209 pages, $22.95

For more than two decades, Bobbie Ann Mason has been writing stories about life in rural western Kentucky—a narrow swath of land where, as Mason observes in one story, "subdivisions are spreading ... like an oil slick" and "farmers have disappeared." Her characters are unlikely heroes—a retired trucker who longs to build his own log cabin, a Rexall drugstore clerk who's taken to bodybuilding, a grandmother who reads Harlequin novels. Though often constrained by narrow opportunity and experience, they all harbor sparks of hope, ambition, and piercing intelligence. Their families, like Mason's own ancestors, have lived in the westernmost part of Kentucky since the early nineteenth century, when the land was first purchased from the Chickasaw tribe. But unlike their parents and grandparents, these characters face a changing landscape, where industry replaces grassland, and modern culture and convenience seeps into the most remote corners of the region.

Mason explores such changes in her newest collection of stories, Zigzagging Down a Wild Trail. As modern socioeconomic influences enable her characters to travel, to study, and to connect with a wider world their parents only glimpsed on television, they find themselves facing choices and opportunities that threaten to pull them away from traditional family and religious values. Such dilemmas create the central conflicts of the stories. Mason's writing showcases women in new roles as Gulf War veterans, as undercover sleuths, and as single parents adopting children. Men adapt to new roles as well—in the family, the workplace, and society as a whole. In one of Mason's stories, a man who's never left his hometown tries to envision his daughter's description of the Northern Lights. In another, a teenage boy secretly tries to pilfer some Prozac from an acquaintance.

Mason herself was born and raised on a dairy farm in Mayfield, Kentucky, and her own desire for broader horizons led her to look beyond her local rural community and to seek out an education—first at the University of Kentucky, and then at graduate schools in the Northeast. This enterprising spirit reveals itself in many of her heroes, as they also seek experiences outside their small, insular communities. Though Mason spent several decades in the Northeast, in the 1980s she returned to rural Kentucky, where she now lives with her husband Roger Rawlings, a writer and editor.

Mason's stories have appeared in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper's, Redbook, and many other publications. Her debut collection, Shiloh and Other Stories, won the 1982 Pen/Hemingway award, and she has since written a number of award-winning short-story collections, two novels, and a Pulitzer Prize-nominated memoir. Her short story, "Three-Wheeler," appeared in the June Atlantic.

Mason recently spoke with me by phone from her home in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky.

—Cara Feinberg

Bobbie Ann Mason
Bobbie Ann Mason   

You've written several novels. What made you return to short stories in your most recent work, Zigzagging Down a Wild Trail?

It wasn't a case of writing novels and then returning to short stories. I was writing stories all along—not as many as I wrote in the eighties, but the works in my new collection accumulated through the nineties. Putting them together now renews my interest in the form and makes me want to get right to work writing more of them. I think it's an ebb and flow.

What is it about writing short stories that attracts you?

Well, I often say flippantly that the short story is ... shorter; you can be done with it more easily. It's much less of a commitment of time and energy than a big project like a novel or long nonfiction book. With stories, there's a special attraction to the creative process. I remember how exciting it was in the eighties when I was writing story after story after story and I'd have three going at once; it was very exciting just to feel great creative surges. You could get more immediate gratification, or if the story didn't work, you could leave it behind and do another one. When I started writing a novel, I felt very intimidated by it because it was such a huge project. I didn't know where it was going, where it would end, and whether I'd be capable of sustaining it. In the stories, however, I had confidence that I could just keep writing.

So you don't plan out your stories or novels beforehand?

Oh, not stories at all, no. At a certain point in a novel, you get the drift, but in stories the real energy and creativity comes from not knowing—just venturing into something and trying to find out what's going to happen. That occurs in a novel, too, but as I say, you start to figure things out and start to shape it. In a story, the shape is looser, and the process of it, well—it's like zigzagging down a wild trail! You're free to take that adventure and not be hemmed in by any notions about where you're going or what the story's going to be. Eventually, as you get into it, you can pick out the good pieces and see how they fit together. It starts to emerge from the developing fluid, so to speak.

The title of your new collection of stories, Zigzagging Down A Wild Trail, appears as a phrase within the anthology's first story, "With Jazz." It's said by the main character, Chrissy, a middle-aged woman whose life seems to do just that. For her, is this zigzagging more an expression of freedom or of rootless meandering?

In the story Chrissy says, "I felt strange, as though all my life had been zigzagging down a wild trail to this particular place." It's still open-ended. This is just a particular moment. It doesn't mean that this is the end or the culmination of it all. It's just one of those little self-aware moments when you're suddenly aware of your existence. It seemed a perfect name for the collection, and the phrase "With Jazz" didn't seem strong enough to be the title. None of the other story titles seemed to really work, either. But I found this phrase, and realized that it probably applies not only to every story, but to writing, and to life, and to self-aware moments.

Many of the characters from your stories—past and present—seem to be poised for possibility, as if they've just realized things about themselves, but are unsure whether to go forward or stay put.

That's a wonderful way of expressing it. That's the way I think of them too—that they are poised for possibility. Maybe some people find that to be scary, but I think of my characters as being released from the traps they've been in; they suddenly realize they can do something else. They can take a wrong turn and go to Texas in the middle of the night, as Charger does in the last story. They can behave on impulse, and it can be a liberating thing. Of course, for many of the characters, part of this freedom comes out of a new sense of economic possibility. They're not as enslaved to the past as their parents were. Charger, for example, is really trying to find his way out of a trap, because he's seen his mother slaving away at a dead-end job. He's also seen what happened to his father. His father escaped by taking off and was one of those people who took a wrong turn and just kept going. So Charger's trying this out for himself, and he's still a teenager. I find that all very exciting, however sinister it is.

You've been credited with creating a renaissance of "regional fiction," of writing about a specific place and the characters within it. What was it that led you to mine your Kentucky roots for material?

It took me years of going to school, moving away from the South, and settling for a while in the Northeast. Writing about where I was from and the people I knew was not something that would have occurred to me early on, because like so many southerners of that period—the sixties—I rejected those things when I went north. I thought that I had to aspire to some other type of writing—the kind I read in graduate school—that I should write like Fitzgerald, or Hemingway, or Nabokov; not like Eudora Welty or Flannery O'Connor. So it took a good while to seize upon the material.

I think I probably was not writing for many years, because I didn't really know where to begin. In the early seventies I started writing a little autobiographical novel about my childhood—I made it into a mystery story. So I did start discovering the material. But then I started writing something really modernistic&mdasha novel about The Beatles. This was more like my imagination being affected by graduate school.

I read Eudora Welty's Losing Battles at about the same time—the late seventies—and maybe I picked up some possibility there. And I also read a novel by Lee Smith—her first novel—and I thought, Well this is strange. She's writing about stuff I know, and she's making it funny. So all of those writers had some input. I guess by then I was old enough to have gotten a different perspective on the past, so I was able to reach in and get started.

When Eudora Welty died a few weeks ago I felt so empty, and I didn't know who to send condolences to. I thought the best tribute would be just to read her again, which I've been doing. Her stories are so wonderful, and I can tell how akin all southern writers are to her. Flannery O'Connor certainly learned from Eudora Welty.

Your work has often been compared to Welty and O'Connor, and, even more broadly, to James Joyce.

Oh really? Somebody compared me to James Joyce?

Absolutely. Both for your writing and for your use of place. In Joyce's The Dubliners the city itself became a common, uniting theme among his stories; Dublin became a silent character in his work. And many of his characters, like yours, faced a particular moment of paralysis, where they looked back on their lives and weren't sure how to proceed.

Yes, "should I stay or should I go?"—a fitting song lyric. Well, of course Joyce is one of my favorite writers. Nabokov is the other, and then Fitzgerald.

Would you say those comparisons are apt?

I'm certainly influenced by Joyce. He was so interested in language, and he was so knowledgeable. I like to play with words and the sounds of words—that's extremely important to me. Also, people in the eighties used to ask me why I had so much popular music in my stories, why I quoted so many songs—as if this practice were totally new. I guess people have forgotten that Joyce used popular music on practically every page of Ulysses. He knew every song in the world, it's claimed.

But I would not compare myself to Joyce or Nabokov—not in that league, anyway.

Popular culture—television, movies, music—crops up throughout your work. How would you describe its role in your writing and your writing process?

When I was writing the first stories, I was just flying free and throwing in anything that seemed appropriate. I didn't have any reason not to put in song lyrics. They were really important to the characters. Popular music expresses very deep emotions for them.

Your novel In Country opens with a quotation from Bruce Springsteen's Born in the U.S.A.: "I'm ten years burning down the road / Nowhere to run ain't got nowhere to go."

Yes, and Born in the U.S.A. is sort of a soundtrack to the whole book. The story takes place in the summer of 1984, and that was the album that was at the top of the charts; it just seemed to fall into place.

In In Country, as well as in most of your stories, it's the women who begin to take steps to realize their dreams, or to challenge ways they'd been thinking in the past. Is this an intentional trend?

Well, that's difficult to say. Maybe it's because they're more dissatisfied or frustrated. I shouldn't state that as an absolute—I'm sure that men get frustrated, too. It's the experience I imagine I might be having if I had not been able to escape the kinds of lives they're living. Not that they're completely trapped, but from my point of view, most of them haven't had the opportunities I've had.

Over the last three decades, your stories have reflected the evolution of the times in Western Kentucky. How would you characterize the changes in Zigzagging?

Well, it's really the changes that have happened in the culture that have promoted the changes in the characters. In the stories I was writing in the early eighties, my characters faced a depressed economy. And since then, the mainstream has opened up to this very isolated region. Now they can start to imagine themselves with greater possibilities.

How would you say your characters have changed as a result?

I think they feel more connected to the outside world than they might have before. In my story "Shiloh," Norma Jean was just starting to flex her wings, to get a sense that she could do something other than work at the drug store and be married to Leroy. There's a certain innocence about the kinds of characters I write about, so when opportunities come along, they tend to embrace them. Of course, many others would choose to stick to their own narrow, provincial worlds, but these aren't the people I'm interested in. Most people are determined to close their eyes and put blinders on—to protect themselves from outside influences and stick to their old ways. But the ones I'm interested in ... they'll go to the casino, or they'll take on new responsibilities. There's one character, Darlene, in "Thunder Snow," who goes to Saudi Arabia as a soldier—willingly. For many people, these thoughts and ambitions might pass as romantic notions, but in my characters, they are often revolutionary breakthroughs. That's what makes them interesting.