Over the holidays, I did a lot of reading. I tend to skip around a lot, and grab whatever’s at the top of the book-alanche. A chapter here, a chapter there. But one morning I sat down on the couch with a book and a cup of coffee and did not get up again until I’d read Laura Maylene Walter’s short story collection from cover to cover. I was entranced by her writing style and the simple grace with which she presented the stories, and consumed by what I can only call a sense of proprietary pride that Laura is a friend. My friend.
Okayfine. She can be your friend too. But I get to sit next to her at the lunch table.
So here it is, my first blog interview.
Q: Congratulations on Living Arrangements, your debut story collection. Can you talk about where the collection began? What did you write first, and how did the book come together? When did you realize you were exploring a cohesive theme?
I’ll be honest with you. I didn’t think of my stories as a collection until late one night at the very end of 2009, when I was looking at the Poets & Writers contest database and noticed a short story collection contest. For the first time, I thought of all the stories I’d written over the years and whether they would work as a book. This idea felt a little crazy and daring to me – I’d been writing short fiction for years but never with the hope of one day publishing a collection, for various reasons. I knew that my writing explored some recurring themes, but it wasn’t until that night that I thought my stories could work as a collection. I got really excited and went on a story selection/revision spree to create Living Arrangements.
I believe the oldest story in the book is “The Wig Shop,” which in its earliest form goes back to 2005. “In the Backyard” and “A System Based on Counting” (which has gone through many revisions and has been retitled over and over again) are also some of the older stories. “Living Arrangements” is the most recent story in the collection; I wrote the first draft of that story in late 2009 (but still before I’d given any thought to a collection).
Q: Each of the stories seems to leave the reader with a sense of unfulfilled yearning, as of a journey to a longed-for but uncertain destination. How do you see the endings of the stories as part of the theme of the overall work?
Years ago, when “Festival of the Dove” was being critiqued during a fiction workshop, a man told me, “This reads just like a New Yorker story. Meaning it has no ending!” That comment still cracks me up, never mind that I do think the story has an ending, even if it’s subtle. Your description of “longed-for but uncertain destinations” is excellent, and I have to say I’ve always enjoyed slightly ambiguous endings in fiction. I don’t want the writer to do all the work for me. And my endings work with the larger theme that we will continue moving forward, even if it’s a struggle, and even if our efforts aren’t always successful.
Q: Your writing has a wonderfully childlike quality. Where does this come from? What did you read when you were a child?
I don’t think anyone has described my writing as having a childlike quality before, and I haven’t thought of this myself, but I quite like it and feel flattered that you think so.
One of my earliest memories is from before I could read. I was watching my brothers read what we called “the pickle book” and I so badly wanted to be able to read, too. When the time came, I read just about anything. I loved classics like The Secret Garden, Emily of New Moon, and Black Beauty, but I also happily devoured series like The Babysitter Club, Sweet Valley Twins and The Saddle Club (I read any and every book about horses, actually; I suppose I was a stereotypical young girl in that respect). But the book from my childhood that continues to stand out today is Behind the Attic Wall by Sylvia Cassedy. God, I loved that book. Its tone, its melancholy, its little bit of magic. I bought a copy only a few years ago, reread it and still love it. Thank you for the reminder, by the way – I need to buy a copy for a young relative.
Q: You lost your mother to cancer when you were twenty. How has this loss influenced your writing? How has your writing evolved from the natural grief-stricken longing for a mother, to the more universal but equally poignant longing for home and place?
After my mom died, a grief counselor introduced me to the Hope Edelman books, Motherless Daughters and Letters from Motherless Daughters. Those books featured the voices of women who recognized that losing their mothers at an early age was a major defining point in their lives. I felt that way when I was 20 and suddenly found myself without my mom, who had been the closest person in my life.
In the months after her death, my brothers and I worked on cleaning out and selling our childhood home. I spent the next few years hopping around to temporary homes: back to the college dorm, leasing a bedroom in a condo in my hometown for the summer, living with a brother for 6 weeks, staying with my boyfriend’s family, etc. I also studied abroad in London for a semester the year after my mom died. All that moving and change right after losing her was a big adjustment. I felt very alone and it all found its way into my writing at some point. But I like to think that I was able to look past my own circumstances to get to the universal feelings of searching for a place in the world, whether that place is a physical home or a larger kind of acceptance or security. What I was feeling about my mom specifically is what so many of us feel over broader issues, and I wanted to explore all of that in my writing.
Q: Most of the stories in the collection feature female protagonists. Is this simply because you naturally relate to that point of view, or do you imagine that women struggle more deeply with issues of identity and a sense of belonging?
If I’m not writing from a female POV, I seem to prefer writing in the voice of a creepy/disturbing male protagonist, like in “The Ballad Solemn of Lady Malena” or some of my newer work. I can’t really say that I think women struggle more deeply with these issues than men do, but I’m most drawn to the female perspective and the layers introduced by finding your place in the world not only as a person, but as a young woman and all the specific challenges that entails. Which brings me to the next question…
Q: In “A System Based on Counting,” you write about a character whose OCD and sexual identity prevent her from forming healthy relationships. In “Live Model,” the character seems healthy–and hilarious–in spite of her unusual appearance, but still finds acceptance elusive. And in “The Ballad Solemn of Lady Malena,” you write about an ice skater whose success isolates her from normal teenage experiences. What interests you about the way a woman’s emerging sexuality can become a barrier to her sense of place in the world?
A friend and I once shared our memories of when men first started to notice us. For both of us, it happened around age twelve. Twelve! It’s hard to think about girls that young not only being recognized for their sexuality but also that they are picking up on all these signals. They know when that shift happens, when they are in the world not just as a kid but as a young woman with a developing sexuality. I suppose I do view that as a distraction for a girl trying to figure out who she is on her own instead of who she is based on men’s perceptions of her.
I have to say that this question is the most difficult one for me to answer. I’ve been trying to address it in my fiction, and clearly I’m still working on it.
Q: What are you working on now? What do you hope to accomplish in 2012?
I went on a submission binge in 2010, which resulted in a spate of wonderful news, but then I needed a break from submitting. It’s time to end that break. I can’t continue growing as a writer if I don’t put myself out there. And because I’ve been consumed by publication details for Living Arrangements and various freelance writing assignments in recent months, I’m ready to start writing new things, including new short stories. I’ve also been working on a novel, OPAL, for a few years, and I’m still not sure if it’s ready. But no matter what happens with that manuscript, I plan to start a new novel this year – I have the germ of the idea and I’m so, so excited about it. I can’t wait to get started.