“A terrain that calls to me.” A conversation with Evan Morgan Williams
Evan Morgan Williams’ debut story collection, Thorn (BkMk Press), is the 2013 winner of the G.S. Sharat Chandra Prize for Short Fiction and a 2014 finalist for Foreword Reviews’ INDIEFAB Book of The Year. In this week’s Late Night Interview, Williams and fellow Chandra Prizewinning author (and Debut-litzer finalist) Valerie Fioravanti talk about his characters, the strong sense of place and landscape in Thorn, and the value of embracing risk when crafting a standout collection.
VALERIE FIORAVANTI: Congratulations on the recent publication of your story collection, Thorn. It seems to me a lot of attention has been paid to the, well, thorny circumstances depicted in these stories. However, what I’ve come to admire most is the sensual quality of your writing. You evoke both landscape and emotion so well and so broadly that I feel you may not be getting full credit for the richness and complexity of your characters’ lives, who are rendered so fully human.
EVAN MORGAN WILLIAMS: Thank you for noticing a sensual quality in the stories. I make that a priority, and, in terms of my compositional process, it comes early. Circumstance is plot, and choices are plot, and all things plot tend to emerge later for me, after the imagery gives me a map. As for landscape, I have always been driven by a strong sense of place; I almost feel that it’s an imperative for anyone writing in the West. But I am also driven by emotion in a raw form, to such extent that the plots of my stories often involve characters struggling to bridge ineffable gaps between themselves and what they desire. They can’t get to that thing, and if they fail, it’s because I started them on their doomed trajectory rather early in the writing process.
VF: One of my favorite quotes on place is from the Southern writer Wendell Berry, who wrote, “If you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who you are.” Is this part of the imperative you speak of?
EMW: I think that writers in the West have an imperative spurred by the landscape itself. Don’t ignore place. Beyond how the landscape informs the characters, it almost IS a character. It’s as if the landscape has agency, but simply chooses not to exercise it most of the time beyond the simple act of making life really hard for the rest of the characters and then enduring after they are gone. In that last sense, maybe it is like the chorus in a Greek play. But I wouldn’t pursue this as far as personification. What did William Pitt Root write? “I have heard the hearts of stones that beat once in a lifetime.”
I also want to say that with the imperative to write about place in one’s fiction, there comes a responsibility to get it right. This is especially true in the West. With so many interlopers, getting it wrong is a deal-breaker for readers. Here’s a writer who gets it right: Maile Meloy when she writes about Montana. I won’t mention the ones who get it wrong.
VF: Another aspect of Thorn that I admire is the attention to various Indian communities and working class characters living in or from the Pacific Northwest, something as an outsider at least, I’ve not seen portrayed in popular or literary culture. My work was influenced by how invisible working class lives seemed within the engine of New York culture. Did you feel something similar?
EMW: I think Raymond Carver has a lock on the working-class Pacific Northwest. Actually, that’s not fair to a lot of people who are writing terrific stories today (shout-out to Claire Davis). Besides, I think the writer who most directly influenced me is Barry Lopez. I’m talking about his early stories. I read his collections, Desert Notes and River Notes, when I was in college. He wrote about a Pacific Northwest that sounded so utterly familiar, yet so unarticulated anywhere else, that I felt a resonance that I have felt with no other stories. As to your question, I like the idea that invisible lives are being shown in my work, but I’m not driven by making that happen. Mostly, I’m covering a terrain that calls to me. Some of this is ur-imagery. For example, my parents owned a bunch of prints by a Washington printmaker named Elton Bennet–lots of scenes of docks and fishing boats and clearcuts; I’m still writing out those images.
Another example: my parents had a book of poetry by Robinson Jeffers, a poet who lived on the California coast. It was a Sierra Club coffee table book, and the poems were set with photographs from Big Sur. Jeffers’ poetry is very much about place, and about humans in the larger scale of place, and his work feels both compassionate and hard-hearted. He sees how the world is hard, yet still he exericises compassion. I can live with that. I picked up that sensibility. Now I can still recall those poems, those photographs, even the very smell of that book. I’m still writing stories to go back to that experience, and I think my stories are very hard-hearted, but never hopeless.
VF: Thorn also has a wide historical vantage, from contemporary stories to a story set in the early years of WWII. I thought this was used to particularly good effect when echoes of the opening story “The Great Black Shape in the Water” appeared in “Tumble Me Like A Shell in Shallow Waves.”
EMW: I feel those echoes too! I tried to use a mixture of voices in the stories. First-person, third-person limited, and even one in second-person. The ages of the protagonists are also pretty varied. And I also use a variety of tenses. But in terms of echoes, there are at least three stories in the collection that are told by an older person looking back, and I think that the reader can settle into the voices of those narrators with similar trust.
As for that WWII story, I took so long revising it, and even longer finding a venue (Natural Bridge Magazine, finally!), that the narrator was running the risk of becoming too old to even tell her story anymore.
There are also some echoes between “The Great Black Shape in the Water” and “The Limousine.” The structure of each story rests on a similar frame: older narrator looking back, and both stories involve a large shiny black object appearing into the characters’ lives. A whale. A limousine. They’re both whale stories, in a way.
VF: In my work as a writing coach, I field a lot of questions about how to move from publishing individual stories to shaping a collection that gets noticed. Do you have any advice to offer? How did you choose the stories and order that give Thorn form?
EMW: I’m so glad you asked this, because I have some huge advice here: the screeners of these contests and, eventually, the judges, are looking for collections that stand out. A well-written bunch of stories might be merely that: well-written. To be selected, your stories need to stand out. How does one achieve that? Well, I think your stories have to be driven by your gut, and that your aesthetic decisions need to be so compelling that you could not have ignored them if you tried. When that level of self-honesty happens, there’s a really good chance that your stories will stand out for the simple reason that they will be different from anyone else’s.
Several discussions with editors at AWP have confirmed my suspicions. One editor at a bigger nonprofit press (is that an oxymoron?) described the mark of death for a collection: he said that after reading so many well-written collections with virtually the same language, the same details, the same actions, he would toss them in the reject pile pretty quickly. “She sighed…” was his pet peeve.
But let’s not forget the need to be well-written. That has to happen too.
In my case, I chose the stories that seemed to be taking the most personal risks for me. It’s not important to anyone else what those risks are; the reader will make their own meaning from the stories. But I figured that my taking risks probably meant I was getting closer to a kind of truth, but also a kind of aesthetic distinction, and that a reader would feel these things as well. That’s where the title comes in, if somewhat obscurely. It’s supposed to feel raw and risky.
As for the order of the stories, I tried to put the strongest voices in the front and at the back. In retrospect, Lauren Maylene Walter’s blog post on her life as a screener [link below] confirmed for me that this was a good strategy.
Lastly, I tried to alternate between male and female protagonists, and between first- and third-person narration. Just to mix things up.
My collection made the short list of four contests before it won the Chandra Prize at BkMk. In the case of one contest, it came down to three manuscripts, and I got a personal letter from a dissenting judge who said my collection sparked more argument than any other collection in the contest. Kind of a compliment, I guess, but I still lost. My point is that I knew I was playing with fire. Not long after that, I won at BkMk!
VF: What’s next for you as a writer? What are you working on right now?
EMW: I’m working on a novel. Gulp. It’s new territory for me, and I’m using the only tools I know, which are the tools of the short story. I pay close attention to the language, and I try to see the entire arc of the story all of the time. I’m fifty years old, with kids and a job teaching in a middle school, so I’m often too distracted to see the entire arc as easily as I need to, but I try.
I’ve been mentoring another writer through the the AWP Writer to Writer program, and he’s working on a similar project. We are helping each other through the novel-writing process! A partnership more than a mentorship.
VF: What are you reading?
EMW: I’m reading Kent Nelson’s Spirit Bird. Read this book! Kent Nelson is the greatest short story writer working today. There, I said it.
[VF, interrupting: I’m unfamiliar with his work, so you have a chance to woo me. What makes Kent Nelson so great?]
For one, Kent Nelson is a master craftsman; to read his stories is to get a clinic in good writing. Two, his imagery is fresh, detailed, vivid and visceral enough for the reader to feel (and, speaking of the West, he certainly gets that right). But I think the most important thing about his stories is the sense of choice he offers to his characters. It is often said that a good story is about how a character changes, but we can find some use in thinking of a good story as being about how a character navigates a difficult choice. Kent Nelson’s stories are like that. He creates opportunites for characters to make extremely consequential choices about their lives. All of this is done with a subtle hand, of course. Nothing overly dramatic. As in a Raymond Carver story, global shifts can occur beneath the surface in a Kent Nelson story, and it’s just fine if they remain there, because you’re quite likely to get sucked into reading the stories for pure enjoyment alone.
I also have a small stack from the AWP conference: Unaccompanied Minors by Alden Jones, On the Island at the Center of the World, by Elizabeth Kadetsky, and some chapbooks from Tavern Press. Side note: you know, on the last day of AWP, how the tables are giving away their books and magazines? I never take them. I only keep the stuff I paid for. That’s the stuff I made a financial commitment to read, and, being a tightwad, I hope that I made such decisions carefully. I hope this means that my choices will reward me.
VF: Okay, you’ve persuaded me to give Kent Nelson a read, and I’ve been a fan of Alden Jones’ work for years, so I’m confident she’ll reward you. Thanks so much for talking with me. Are there any upcoming events or links to new work you’d like to mention?
EMW: I’m glad for the Alden Jones endorsement! Makes me even more excited to read the book. I attended her reading at AWP, and the story she read was great.
I have some stories coming out in a few journals: Phantom Drift, The Timberline Review, and Weber: the Contemporary West. And the first two will host release parties here in Portland, so watch for those.
Purchase a copy of Thorn here: http://latenightlibrary.org/thorn.
Link to Lauren Maylene Walter’s blog post on her life as a screener.
Evan Morgan Williams‘ collection of stories, Thorn, won the Chandra Prize at BkMk Press (University of Missouri- Kansas City). The judge was Al Young. Williams’ stories have appeared in Witness, Antioch Review, (The) Kenyon Review, and ZYZZYVA. He has an MFA from the University of Montana, and has taught in a public school for over twenty years. Most recently, he has held a Writers in the Schools residency, an AWP Writer to Writer mentorship, and he gave the inaugural reading in Eastern Oregon University’s revived Ars Poetica Visiting Writer Series.
Valerie Fioravanti is a former winner of the Chandra Prize for Short Fiction for her linked collection of Brooklyn stories Garbage Night at the Opera. Originally from NYC, she’s an interloper in the West. She recently wrote her first story set entirely in Sacramento, and fervently hopes she got it right. For more information about her work as a writer or editor, visit valeriefioravanti.com.