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.
In your opinion, what are the most over-rated books?
I had a terrible time with Moby Dick. I even love to fish! I say that because that’s one I always keep thinking that I need to go back and try again. Maybe I missed something.
What would you say are the most underrated books? Books that you love that you feel don’t get enough attention?
Just off the top of my head, the book that I send students to again and again and again is Winesburg, Ohio, by Sherwood Anderson. I love that book, and I just learned so much from it. I recommend that to my students because so often when students are working on stories they are looking for threads that might weave a collection together, and it’s just such a wonderful book.
What children’s book would you still pick up?
Purely off the top if my head, I was totally devoted to all the animal books, so I loved Where the Red Fern Grows. And Old Yeller. But Where the Red Fern Grows was one that not too long ago, I was moving and I saw it and I opened it and I might as well have been in seventh grade again—I just could not put it down. That is one that I always felt so close to that I am not even sure if it’s what’s on the page or what I give it. And I did the same thing again with Anne Frank’s The Diary of a Young Girl. And if we’re going younger, I have to say I am a big fan of Go, Dog. Go! And Green Eggs and Ham. I love all the Dr. Seuss books except The Cat in the Hat, which made me extremely nervous as a child. I am like, “Oh my god, your mother is coming home, you’re going to be in trouble!” I think anxious children should not read that book.
What book is most essential to you—the only book you would need if you were stranded?
That is very hard. I might say all of Tennessee Williams’s plays. The complete collection. I enjoy reading them. You could entertain yourself reading them aloud.
What is the first thing that you wrote that made you realize being a writer was something you could do, and something you wanted to do?
I always wrote from the time I was a kid, but I really did it for my own amusement. Never in a million years thinking it was something a grownup could grow up and do. So I would have to say it was as an undergraduate in college. Along with being encouraged by my teachers and classmates, one of my stories was accepted for the undergraduate literary magazine and mentioned in a review in the campus paper, and it really just made me feel like, well, maybe! Baby steps here.
What would you write when you were younger?
I tried to write poetry. My whole motivation as a kid was the emotional response, the discovery pretty early in life that I could make myself laugh or cry or scared. I think it was just an extension of make believe, just using paper, and I think from there on it was to see if I could affect other people as well. It felt good.
What book is waiting on your bedside table to be read?
This was sent to me after somebody read one of my stories: Monsters: Evil Beings, Mythical Beasts, and All Manner of Imaginary Terrors, by David Gilmore. It is all about why we have monsters in our society—why we are drawn to what terrifies us in the imagination.