Absolutely. I feel compelled to be witty and interesting. I feel compelled to write quirky questions. I am buckling under the pressure and stress-eating potato chips instead.
Barbecue. Left over from a weekend barbecue, fittingly enough.
Fine, then pressure off: let’s talk about By Light We Knew Our Names. How would you describe this collection? How did the stories come about?
Most of the stories were written during my MFA program at Bowling Green State University with the support and feedback of a particularly amazing – and inspiring – group of fiction writers. After graduation, I taught full-time and continued to revise the stories, write new ones, and shape the collection. All of the stories were written within a three-year period of one another, and once I’d polished the collection as best as I could, I sent it out to contests. I only sent to presses I actively read, and Dzanc Books had been one of my absolute favorite presses for many years. I couldn’t believe it when I learned that Dzanc wanted to publish the collection. I still can’t believe it. It’s truly a dream realized to work with them.
As for the stories themselves, I’d describe the collection as a seeking out of the extraordinary among the everyday: the magic of being alive, and also the heartbreak of recognizing this impermanence. Within the stories, there are pink dolphins, giraffes, ghosts in jars, worlds inside flowers. It is a collection of borders, of the thin line that exists between beauty and terror, between real and not-real, between silence and noise, between nature and ourselves.
How would you categorize your work?
The term magical realism comes to mind, but I don’t know if that word entirely fits. I think of magical realism as a historical movement of literature, and one with a unique political aim as well. I do think I’m borrowing from that tradition: I’m interested in borders and third spaces, in ways of occupying the world anew and beyond the realm of a particular set of boundaries. I’m interested in fiction that defines its own space. Beyond the content of magic, I think this applies to form as well. I’m interested in fiction that pays attention to language and sound, that knows its own musicality and rhythm.
Do you mean lyricism?
I do. I’m heavily invested in fiction that is language-driven. I love the beautiful sentence. But that can come in so many different forms: short, staccato sentences, long stream-of-consciousness sentences, sentences flooded with their own pattern of sound. Fiction that takes risks, not only in content, but in the way its language appears on the page.
Where does your interest in magic come from?
My childhood. Maybe everyone feels this way, but most of the time I feel like a child pretending to be an adult. When I was little, I was nothing but curious. For birthdays, I got books of spells and my own deck of Tarot cards. I believed in ghosts, Bigfoot, the Loch Ness monster, the power of my own Ouija board. I still believe in these things. I guess my fiction tries to capture a perpetual sense of curiosity about the world, whether it’s actual magic or the wonder of the universe around us.
Where do you get your ideas?
From so many places. I’m inspired often by science – ocean biology, human biology, astronomy, planetary science, mathematics – and also by nature at large, odd histories, news stories, music and film. Right now I’m working on a new project that borrows heavily from nuclear fission and quantum theory, and also from the chemistry of fire. Who knew that sublime was actually a fire term for the transitive state of matter? My brain is on overdrive just doing the research for it.
What does your writing schedule look like?
I’ve kept a pretty strict writing schedule for myself over the past few years, and I’ve been especially diligent about it this year. I write every morning, at least 500 words during the academic year since I teach, and at least 1000 words a day during breaks. I write first thing in the morning, and usually for two hours or so. I keep a pad of paper on my desk full of notes, and diagrams and maps above my desk. I need to see the narrative visually.
What’s on your to-read stack?
There are so many good books out right now, all of which I’ve been devouring like candy: Kelly Luce’s Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail, Melinda Moustakis’s Bear Down Bear North: Alaska Stories, Jen Percy’s Demon Camp. All amazingly good. I plan to read Anthony Doerr’s All The Light We Cannot See, Roxane Gay’s An Untamed State, and Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams. I’ve also been rereading American literature from the first half of the 20th century: Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood, Nathanael West’s The Day of the Locust. I’m enjoying skipping around in time between American classics and contemporary tour de forces.
ANNE VALENTE‘s fiction appears in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Ninth Letter, The Journal and Redivider, among others, and her essays appear in The Washington Post and The Believer. She is also the author of the fiction chapbook, An Elegy for Mathematics (Origami Zoo Press, 2013). Winner of Copper Nickel’s 2012 Fiction Prize, her work was listed as notable in Best American Non-Required Reading 2011. Originally from St. Louis, she currently lives in the Midwest.