During my four residencies at the Rainier Writing Workshop, the MFA program at Pacific Lutheran University, I attended upwards of twenty-five excellent morning craft talks by our faculty. Only once did the audience simultaneously rise to give a standing ovation to the speaker – when Ann Pancake spoke about the importance of infusing art with activism.
I was extremely fortunate to have Ann as my mentor during my thesis year. I could not have imagined a better reader for my manuscripts, and when I had the opportunity to read an advance copy of her new short story collection, Me and My Daddy Listen to Bob Marley, in the same format – double-spaced 12 pt. Times New Roman – I jumped all over it. Ann’s fiction is mesmerizing, heartfelt and fierce, and we discussed it during an e-mail exchange this fall. –Tom Cantwell
A friend of mine in the publishing industry described you as “a writer’s writer.” I wonder if you could explain what that compliment means to you, and if you could identify some authors that you would place in that category.
Of course, I’m not sure what your friend meant, but “writer’s writer” to me suggests a writer with an aesthetic or sensibility that makes more demands on a reader than run-of-the-mill fiction does. With my work, the “more demanding” part is mostly in the way I use language. Because other writers are more interested in and attuned to fiction as a literary art, they are more apt to recognize and respond to the “writer’s writer,” but–and this is the back side of the compliment–a more general reader may not have the patience to meet the “writer’s writer” on his or her own terms. So one’s audience is smaller. My first book, Given Ground, was, I would say, exclusively a “writer’s writer” kind of book. In my novel, and also in this new collection, I intentionally created chapters and stories that, at least from my perspective, should be more accessible to a larger audience. I’ve tried to have a mix of “writer’s writer” pieces and pieces that are perhaps easier to enter.
Who are other “writer’s writers”? I’d say most of the Modernists who used inventive and lyric styles, like Faulkner, Woolf, Joyce, Stein. Also Jean Toomer, Jean Rhys, Djuna Barnes, Nabokov. Moving into the last couple decades, early Cormac McCarthy, probably Rushdie and Joan Didion (her fiction), John Edgar Wideman, Paul Harding, Jamie O’Neill, and Marilynne Robinson, although she crosses over really nicely. If you don’t cross over nicely these days, it’s pretty much impossible to get your work accepted by a big publisher–which means it’s not that easy to find the “writer’s writers” working today.
Let’s talk about a story from the new collection that I would identify as accessible, and from my point of view, the most entertaining thing you’ve written, “Sugar’s Up.” Just hilarious. It struck me as a kind of cross between A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole, and “Al Roosten,” by George Saunders. Can you talk about your approach to this story, and how you were able to inhabit the mind of such a quirky character?
Maybe I shouldn’t admit this, but it was very easy to inhabit the mind of this character because he’s based entirely on my father. The plot is invented, but the character is biography. Although my dad is an enigma to most people, including some of my siblings and my mother, I have always understood him, despite his eccentricities, which have amplified as he has aged. I’m not sure why I have such easy access to his brain; Calvin would probably say “good genes.” I think I wrote the earliest scenes of this story back in 2004 after eating mortifying meals with him at the restaurants in my hometown. With a piece like this, I tend to just climb into a character’s head and body, set up a situation, and follow the character through it. See what he does.
I’m relieved that you think the story worked. I’ve never had much confidence in it and I did not include it in the original manuscript when I submitted it to Counterpoint, only showed it to my editor later after the book was accepted. It’s of a different tone than the rest of the collection, and I don’t have a lot of experience writing humor, if that’s even what this is. I do think it has the flavor of how people back home tell stories. And I’ve never met better storytellers than West Virginians.
Well, your writing definitely lends credibility to that statement, and I know West Virginia has been your bread and butter as far as your fictional settings go. So I was intrigued by stories in this collection – the first of yours that I’m familiar with – that stray from your home ground, “The Following” in particular, which is set partly in the Pacific Northwest. That one seems like it might also be autobiographical, this character kind of balancing between two worlds, both literal and metaphorical.
I like your observation about the character balancing between metaphorical and literal worlds. I had not thought about that consciously, and you’re exactly right. I love when readers offer me these kinds of insights, help me see something about what I’ve made that I did not see. It even helps me understand myself better.
The story is somewhat autobiographical, and although my impulse to write it had several sources, one was indeed an attempt to write well about the Pacific Northwest, a region I love and have lived in for seventeen years. But for the life of me, I can’t hear stories here. I really can’t seem to hear them well anywhere outside of Appalachia even though I’ve been trying since I was 22 and left West Virginia to live in Asia and the South Pacific for four years. I have a number of “theories” about my inability to “hear.” My stories are deeply land-based–I’d say more land-based than place-based–and that land where I grew up and where my ancestors have been for seven generations, well, that’s what talks to me. Anyway, only hearing stories in Appalachia (and I don’t have to be physically there to hear them, I just need to put my mind and heart there) is obviously limiting, and I thought maybe a way to make a bridge into writing about the Pacific Northwest was to create a story that was set both here and in West Virginia, as “The Following” is. It’s an okay story. It falls shorter of my expectations for it than the other stories in the collection do even though I worked harder on it than most of the others. Of course, in this story, I’m not only trying to write about the “other world” of the Pacific Northwest, but an “other world” that is more metaphysical, so I had a double struggle. But other readers have liked it, so that’s reassuring.
The “land” that you speak of is literally under attack. In your novel, Strange as this Weather Has Been, and in stories from this collection like “Arsonists” and “Rockhounds,” your fiction fights back. I was wondering what comes first when creating these stories at the intersection of art and environmental activism, the characters or the cause? Or are they inseparable?
That’s a great question–THE question, in some ways, for the fiction writer who wants to address advocacy politics. In the case of both of those stories the cause actually came first. This is not how I usually work. I usually don’t think about the “idea” of a story until after I’ve felt my way through a couple of early drafts. That “feeling my way” is driven by sound, image, and character, not by anything in my intellect or by a desire to write a particular kind of story. But with “Arsonists” and “Rockhounds,” magazine editors asked me to write an “environmental” story. So I started with that trigger. However–and I did this with the novel, too, and this is critical, this is key–once I had the trigger, I buried the cause in the back of my mind, and concentrated entirely on listening for the characters who could dramatize something about that cause. And once I heard the characters, my allegiance was to where they wanted to go, how they wanted to feel, regardless of the “cause” and what I believed about the cause. “Rockhounds,” for example, enacts some fairly complex character reactions to hydrofracking. The grandfather, a sympathetic character, is all for it, even though he also loves his land–loves it more deeply than the activist grandson. If I had stayed loyal to my cause, I think the characters’ beliefs about fracking would have been more monolithically anti-fracking. And the story would have been more simplistic and less honest.
I could go on at great length about character vs. cause, but I’ll stop with this: art is expansive enough, generous enough, to hold any kind of politics, but politics is not necessarily expansive enough, flexible enough, to hold art. For this reason, I always prioritize the art when writing about politics. I believe if I get the art right, the right politics will naturally fall into place.
By my count, just under half of the stories in this collection feature dogs in some capacity. They play pivotal roles in “The Following” and “Rockhounds” and take center stage in “Dog Song.” I take it you’re a dog person?
Let’s ask Bodie, who sleeps six feet away from me as I type. Of course! Now get off that screen and take me to the park.
Dogs appear in my dreams at least weekly, and in a similar way, they usually show up in my stories without my calling them. “Dog Song” originated in a dream I had of climbing a snow-patched hill to free a dog short-chained to a tree. Dogs, for me, are in-between beings, kind of intermediaries between the human world and the animal world, and, at least in my unconscious apparently, creatures that move easily between the physical world and the dream world. When I’m writing well, I feel like I’m doing that, too, moving back and forth between those two worlds. I guess that’s where all those dogs sneak in.