Interview: Debra Monroe

by Richard Garn

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Author photo by Suzanne Reiss

 

Debra Monroe is the author of four books, including her first novel, The Source of Trouble, winner of the prestigious Flannery O’Connor Award for Fiction. Her books have appeared on “Best Ten” lists in Elle and Vanity Fair, and in Borders Bookstores’ “Original Voices” series. Her most recent book, Shambles, is currently available, and her forthcoming memoir On the Outskirts of Normal: Forging a Family Against the Grain will be be published this summer.

 

 

 

Q: Your debut collection, The Source of Trouble won the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction and saw publication as a result. This is a unique debut; publishers are avoiding short fiction collections more and more, and no one counts on winning awards. What were your reactions to winning? In what ways (if at all) did winning the award affect the way you approach you subsequent writing?

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A: The Flannery O’Connor is a publication award—you enter the contest with a manuscript, and the prize is cash and publication. As an award, it was designed to champion the short form which, as you say, mainstream publishers avoid as not very marketable. It’s a prize open to published and unpublished writers—though the manuscript itself must be unpublished, of course. The prize was named for Flannery O’Connor because most people feel she excelled at the short form. My reaction to winning was relief, incredulousness, and gratification that a panel of judges liked my work. I’d had a lot of trouble publishing the individual stories.

When we went to press, perhaps two stories had been accepted by literary journals. The rest had been rejected 20 times plus. So my impression of myself as a writer was that it didn’t seem likely I’d get a book published, or published soon, though I couldn’t imagine stopping writing. But for who? Who would read my work? And then my manuscript won out of a pile of 400-some manuscripts. The notice came by phone. (This was in the last century, before email and cell phones.) The call came while I was at work, and my then-roommate called me at work to tell me I’d won the Flannery O’Connor Award. I was like: “Are you sure? Who called and said that? Did they leave a number to call back?” My roommate gave me enough inconsequential, oddball details to make it obvious that the series editor had in fact called and said I’d won. And I spent the rest of the night hoisting heavy trays, trying to concentrate on getting orders out correctly. My immediate sensation was that it was a little like getting a “writer’s license.” To have a first book made me a writer, not an aspiring writer, and it gave me the confidence to begin another book. I also realized, as took orders, called them into the chef, delivered them to tables, that it meant I’d eventually be able to quit waitressing.

Getting a first book published changed my approach to writing in that it gave me permission to write another book. That’s how I’ve operated since. Write a book. Place it. Guide it into the world to the best of your ability. Then pay attention to the weird dissonance that means you’re fixating on the questions you will end up exploring in your next book. And write another book.

Q: In your sophomore collection, A Wild, Cold State, your stories, as the title implies, are about your home state of Wisconsin. Although the settings in your debut collection shifted a bit, would you say that your fiction comes mostly from the places you’ve always known, or do you sometimes find yourself drawing on your immediate surroundings?

A: I would definitely say my fiction came from places I’ve known. If the places shifted a bit in my first collection, I’ve lived a lot of places. And using a lot of locales in that book was an attempt to impose variety. The stories were so autobiographical and so voice-driven, I worried about sameness: of tone, of theme. In the first book, even though the stories take place in the South, the Midwest, and the North, they do have a similar feel because the settings are consistently rural. Rural vs. urban is a much bigger “place” distinction than Midwest vs. South, at least in my experience.

I’d aimed for range by placing stories in so many locales in my first book, and I didn’t see myself stretching further like that—outward. So for the second book, I decided to stop fighting the sameness and make the most of it, pick a smaller terrain and go deep. So it’s a story collection set in one county, with recurring characters. As far as it being set in Wisconsin, when I started writing it I’d been living away from Wisconsin for about 12 years, and by then certain features of its landscape—the Big Muskie Museum, the ubiquitous snow, the threat of death by hypothermia, the way men talked about courtship with the same words they’d use for hunting and fishing—had become defamiliar and striking. When I was living there, I thought that was the way the world was. When I’d lived other places, I realized that those features were a very local iconography, a specific emotional place, and that it was material no one else had.

The two books after that—both novels—were autobiographical too in terms of the emotional conflict. The settings weren’t my settings, and the characters’ professions weren’t my professions, but the emotional or psychological tensions were mine. There are some constants in all of my books, themes that were more or less “assigned” to me by experience. In my last three books, for example, there’s a missing mother. It’s an unavoidable topic for me. It seemed impossible to write about even an invented, imagined life without that absence at the center of it because it’s what I knew, and it affected so many of my decisions and choices.

I can’t imagine writing a book—years of excruciatingly difficult thinking and painstaking craft—if I weren’t personally invested in the subject matter. I am writing for an audience, yes, and the pressure of writing for an audience forces you to reach beyond yourself for insights and interpretations that transcend your experience. On the other hand, I could never work that hard at exploring questions I wasn’t seeking answers to myself. Robert Frost said that famous line about discovery for the writer is the only route to discovery for the reader. To find answers to looming questions about what it means to be human—to be human in changed circumstances, with new environments making new demands—means that you are on a quest for some knowledge or perspective you don’t have yet. Writing a book with autobiographical themes is not simply cathartic. It’s not just getting certain grueling experiences wrapped up and done with. It’s also searching for something true and useful.  There are experiences in life we do not choose but endure—for a reason, we hope. Yet the reason seems buried under stray facts. A story sorts and clarifies these facts into structure. If the structure grows naturally out of facts and isn’t forced onto them, it’s inseparable from meaning and purpose.

Q: Now to your forthcoming memoir, On the Outskirts of Normal: Forging a Family Against the Grain, available in June. First, the big question: What challenges do writing a memoir present that fiction does not? Would you say that it is easier or more difficult to write a story that has already been told through your experiences?

A: Writing fiction was easier for two reasons. 1) When you invent at least some of the details about a protagonist, it gives you more distance. In fiction you can see the character more dispassionately—maybe not entirely dispassionately, but a little more dispassionately. Just as we see a friend’s problems more clearly than our own—what went wrong and what’s a rational response—we can, if we have invented enough features about a protagonist, see a protagonist’s problems more clearly than our own. So the first thing that’s harder about memoir is getting enough perspective. 2) The other reason it’s hard is the lost privacy and the resultant sense of shame about mistakes and miscalculations you’re laying bare. Even if your fiction is pretty autobiographical, you can always skirt those “how autobiographical is it?” questions in interviews. You can point at the cover and say: “It says fiction.” You can’t do that with memoir. You’re inviting prurient and not-literary questions. I gave a reading from the memoir not too long ago and during the Q&A afterward, the questions were not about craft. They were personal. And of course I signed on to answer them when I decided to write a memoir.

You said in your question that I was “re-telling a story that has already been told through experience.” I would put it differently. Life is not a story. So writing the memoir wasn’t re-telling a story but searching for one. Telling a story is a huge process of selection, omission, rearrangement, emphasis. Life is a blitz of unsorted details. Some are relevant, symbolic, revelatory, and others are simply random. Writing a memoir was not very different from writing a novel—apart from stretching a bit harder to understand my protagonist (the self, always a mystery!), and getting over those flinch-worthy moments where I felt like why have I decided to tell the world about this without the disguises built into fiction. People always say in workshop: a situation is not a story. Because a situation is static, but a story is dynamic. A story has tension that rises to crescendo, and the ending casts a fresh light on the middle and beginning, so the reader re-sees the rest of the story with a changed perspective. Writing a story is searching through experiences for emergent structural features, and shaping these features, bringing them into bolder relief. Just as a fictional situation is not a story, a problematic stretch of life you have lived through is also not a story. You have to start with that stretch of life and find a story in it, its unique form, and craft that form as compellingly as you can. Storytelling (including storytelling as memoir) is not merely documentary. Storytelling is a search for meaning. The pattern created by a well-built story—a pattern that is only available in stories and not in life—is the means by which we satisfy our most profound reasons for reading and writing.

What was actually hardest about writing the memoir was that I never set out to write a book. I wrote an essay about how people talk about race in America. I published it. I wrote another essay about my mother’s life. I published it. I wrote another essay about building my house. I wrote essays that were ostensibly about dating with a child as witness, or having truly bizarre and recurring problems with fences and fence builders, but these dating and fence problems took place while I was ill, so the subject was really disease. In the end, I had a bunch of essays that were too interrelated to be published together, and yet too temporally disparate to form the chronological sequence upon which most memoirs are structured. That’s what was hard—finding its book-shaped form. It took three years to write a first draft, and another three years to revise it into a book.

Q: On the Outskirts of Normal centers on your adoption of a child and tackles the more broad topic of the American Family (in this case your own) and its disintegration. In the writing, did you draw from any existing memoirs, as in the work of other authors, or did the entire conception come from within?

A: I’d like to clarify that the disintegration of the American family isn’t exactly my subject. The changing shape of the family is. Our notions of what the family “should be” aren’t ancient. The prototypes of an ever-nurturing, patient mother and a wise, bread-winning father are rooted in the mid-20th century, and these prototypes are fantasies, not realities, and they emerged out of a very leisured era, for a fairly leisured class. People who talk about how the family has disintegrated, how working mothers and divorce are the source of our national malaise, are returning to these air-brushed ideals of family that were promulgated in the 1950s and 1960s, and acting as if they were centuries-old, as if Adam and Eve lived in the suburbs with a Frigidaire and a lawnmower. So it’s nostalgia for an ideal of family rooted in the era during which most people who are now in their fifties and sixties were just born. All old people—I include myself here—have a tendency to think that the way things were when they were children was better than today. Nostalgia for Donna Reed et al is nostalgia for a narrow window of time: the world we have lost since we were little. The shape of the family before that particular era wasn’t the shape of the family everyone feels we have to recover now. I know, for example, that my grandparents—raising families in the dustbowl—were too busy staving off starvation and bank foreclosure to think much about the emotional tenor of their parenting styles. And if you go beyond, to the generation before, we’re very far away from the Republican National Convention ideals of family as the bedrock of society—many children didn’t attend school then because they worked in fields and factories to keep the family afloat.

All of my books have been about the disintegration of that 1950s ideal of family, which is no longer relevant or possible. To be in the middle-class now requires double-incomes, or, failing that, a single-income that takes the sole breadwinner away for long, long work weeks. And there are countless single parents, doing double-duty, earning and nurturing simultaneously. The old economic model—father at the office, mother at the kitchen sink—is gone. And, if it’s perhaps a little too easy to get divorced today, few people want to go back to the days when people stayed married unhappily—matrimony-as-acrimony—because laws and social attitudes made it impossible to divorce. But when an old structure falls away, there’s a void. What will replace it?  What roles and ideals from the old model do we retain? What roles and ideals from the old model do we discard? My books are about the disintegration of one form of the family, yes, an anachronistic form, but they are also about discovering what it means to be a family now. My books are about making families, forging them, in a changed context.

I’ve read a lot of memoirs, and I’m certain I’ve been influenced by many. One book that really stayed with me is Jan Waldon’s memoir, Giving Away Simone, which is about serial abandonment—several generations of women in one family who gave up their children. But I didn’t do conscious “research” for this book. My circumstance was a little singular: I was a single white mother of a black daughter in a small town where just having an education and a career made me anomalous, not counting the fact that my daughter, most of the time, was the only black person in every setting.  So I was extemporizing like crazy, doing “research” to get through the day. Some of my daily tasks required conscious research—my daughter’s hair care, for example. I also did research when she began asking questions about slavery, or why Martin Luther King Jr. died. These questions came up very soon, even before first grade (i.e., “Black History Month” during which the teacher used my daughter as a visual aid). When I say I did research, I don’t mean I sought “how-to” books. I mean I was absorbing new information from every source I could, to see what others had to say so I could make informed decisions about how to proceed. I did a lot of research to answer questions about my life. And of course that research flowed into the memoir.

Q: In On the Outskirts of Normal you write candidly about your family. The description on your official website references a mother with whom you have been out of contact for some time, and an alcoholic father’s attempts to reach out. Do you have any concerns or apprehension about the reactions your family might have to your memoir?

A: Apart from my sister, who became a voracious reader because my career made her curious about books, my family doesn’t really read. As for upsetting family members by saying—on a website even, not just in the pages of a book—that my mother was out of contact for several years and my father is an alcoholic, neither of those facts is news to anyone. Everyone in my family has a different perspective because these facts affected us all differently. But I think we’re in agreement on the facts. If anyone in the family read the whole book, I don’t think they’d be disturbed … there’s complexity here, and truth, but no maligning and finger-pointing.

Q: Finally, now that your first memoir is finished, do you see yourself returning to the genre in the future?

A: I’m writing short things now, which are nonfiction. And I don’t know where it will all lead. I just never know after I’ve finished a book. It takes a while for the new themes—and the form they will take—to emerge.

Q: What are you reading right now?

A: Three of Henry Green’s novels: Loving, Living, and Party Going. Do you know his work? One of the great under-read writers. These are amazing books.

Q: I’ll have to check those out. Do you have any rituals you perform as you write?

A: I have this tic-like compulsion about how my paragraphs look on the computer screen, a purely visual preference, which is pointless because once they are published and the type is set, the paragraph shape will be different. I’d break this habit except I know that it forces me to ruthlessly clear-cut my excesses—redundancies, qualifiers that diffuse the reader’s attention, that extra descriptive word that adds a brushstroke more but makes for a “too too” level of detail. The tic itself is a tic. But it’s the means by which I revise so that my prose is lyrical but economical. (Lyrical writing that’s not economical is truly bothersome. To quote Longinus: “Evil are the swellings both in the body and in diction.”)

Q: What kind of child were you?

A: Daydreamy, distractible, a bad student. I once left a classroom through a window because I was feeling impossibly restless.

Q: What did you have for lunch today?

A: You don’t want to know. Fuel.