November 13, 2009
Why do you like to write about monsters so much?
I’ve been waiting for someone to ask me this question so I can better understand my monster fixation myself. With the new film adaptation, I’ve been thinking a lot about Where The Wild Things Are, which was one of my most beloved books as a child. I loved the feelings of magic and fear that it evoked in me and I was also enamored with the idea of these creatures spiriting Max away to a different kind of world—a desire that is often found in the characters that populate What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us.
What’s the strangest place you’ve ever been?
My home state of Florida is pretty strange. We have hurricanes, swamps, alligators, heat that will melt you, a religious theme park called Holy Land, and, it seems, more than our fair share of serial killers.
Have you ever actually seen an alligator?
Yes! I’ve seen them in the wild—or what used to be the wild, which is one of the reasons they’re living in such close proximity to humans in the first place—and at Gatorland, a theme park in Orlando, where I’m from, devoted to alligators. There you can see things like the gator jumparoo show and gator wrestling.
If Florida is so strange and interesting, why are none of the stories in your collection set there?
Because I grew up in Florida, it took me a long time to get the distance I needed; in fact, I just wrote my first Florida story this year. For a while, I felt like I knew too much about the place. Whenever I thought of my hometown, there was too much mental clutter and I didn’t feel that freedom of imagination that I need to write.
What was the hardest story in your collection to write?
They were all hard in their own ways, but “Inverness” probably took the longest to get right. Between its original publication in Third Coast and the publication of the collection, the story went through many transformations—adding characters, taking out characters, re-writing the ending. There was a time when I was convinced I would never render the last few lines to my satisfaction, that I would probably have to drop the story from the collection, and then, one day, it clicked.
Which character from your collection haunts you the most and why?
All the women who narrate the stories in What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us have stayed with me. I think of them from time to time, in the way one might periodically recall an old friend. But if I had to pick one, I would say Celia, the narrator of the title story. Maybe that’s because, out of all the characters, she’s the one I most closely identify with; also, because her future is more open and hopeful at the story’s end, I find myself thinking how things might have worked out for her.
Is it possible Celia could find her way into a novel?
I started a novel with an older version of Celia as a narrator, but the more I wrote, the more I realized I’d said all I had to say about her in “What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us,” so that project was shelved.
Your collection contains many exotic settings (Scotland, Madagascar, etc)—which one did you enjoy writing about the most?
I really fell in love with Madagascar, the setting of the title story—or, to put it more precisely, my fictional idea of Madagascar. The red dirt, the sea, the lemurs. It seemed like the perfect place to bring the tensions between the characters to a crescendo. Even the sound of the word “Madagascar” sounds a little un-real, a little magical. Say it five times slowly and you will be enchanted.
What would be your ideal day job?
I would like to have a job that involves caring for animals. I tried to get a job as a dog walker when I was a graduate student in Boston, but no one would hire me. It was sad. I would also like to be an explorer of some kind, like some of the characters in my book—that is, if I wasn’t so afraid of large insects, small planes, reptiles, and sleeping on the ground.
What is your favorite kind of omelet?
An omelet with really good swiss, arugula, and oyster mushrooms is, in my opinion, about as good as it gets.
What is your favorite kind of short story?
Stories that have the scope of a novel. Stories with big, fancy, pyrotechnic plots. Stories where nothing happens, but you feel as though everything has happened. Stories with unlikable narrators. Stories in the first person. Stories that are lyric. Stories that are spare. Stories that are lush and messy. Stories that do curious things with time. Stories that become lodged in my mind like a recurring dream. Stories with imagery and metaphor. Stories set in interesting landscapes. Stories that make my heart hurt.
What advice should aspiring writers never take?
Sometimes there’s talk about how you need to go out into the world and live and have adventures before you can write anything interesting. I’m all for living a full and exciting life, but Flannery O’Connor said that “anyone who has survived childhood has enough to write about” and I think this is usually true.
Also, don’t listen to people who say “write what you know.”