The Alan Heathcock Microinterview
This month two Portland writers join forces to take on a formidable group of short stories that Publishers Weekly notes “pursues modern American prairie characters through some serious Old Testament muck”: Alan Heathcock’s Volt, published last year by Graywolf Press . Robert Olmstead calls this debut collection “heart-filling and breath-stopping,” and praises its “achingly spare yet mysteriously generous” language.
Alan kindly paused to answer a few questions for our listeners and to get us psyched about the upcoming episode!
What is your favorite work of debut poetry or fiction published in 2011 or 2012?
American Masculine by Shann Ray. Ray is a Montana writer, and these stories are about men (and women) struggling to keep their humanity alive, trying to grow hope from failure and loss. The prose is beautiful, and the empathetic connection delivered through these characters hit me in a deep place. I believe the best of what fiction can do is to allow us to see ourselves, though in a way that’s bearable. Through this investigation, this introspection, I believe I became a better version of myself through reading American Masculine.
Please identify one or two writers who have influenced you, either in general or specifically in writing your debut collection.
I could name a hundred influences, but two stand above all others. First is Cormac McCarthy. I remember reading his novel The Crossing and feeling a deep connection with both the story and the way the story was written. It was brutal, but beautiful. It made sense to me on a molecular level. If I made a list of my Top 20 favorite books, all of his books would make the cut. I think his novels The Road and Blood Meridian are perfect books.
My other main influence would be the filmmaker Ingmar Bergman. A thread of deep spirituality runs through his work, though not of the evangelic kind. Bergman takes an unflinching look at the world of faith and war and jealousy and grief and all brands of violence that creep into our psyches. His films have bolstered my ambitions to write short stories that don’t ever feel small.
What are a few things you learned or discovered after your book was published that you wish you had known or anticipated beforehand?
I was 40 years old and had been writing for 16 years when my book came out, so there weren’t any big surprises. I understood exactly the way the book business worked. However, the aspect I found most challenging was just figuring out how to speak about my work, how to normalize my stories to readers. I wrote this book over more than a dozen years, and the stories take on subjects that are deeply personal to me. As I began being interviewed on radio, TV, in print, I had to figure out how to be honest (that the stories came from my own preoccupations and fears, many based on stories plucked from my family) while not repelling people. In short, how can I talk about grief and violence and faith and pain while making people comfortable in joining in the conversation? There’s an intimacy born from this conversation, and you have to make people trust you won’t exploit their vulnerabilities. I learned the only way to navigate this was to first become vulnerable in front of them. Once that trust was won, we could talk openly about the truth that grief and pain are as normal to the human experience as love and hope.
Click here for the VOLT episode of Late Night Debut.