You are an assistant professor at Loyola, and you have lived in states including Florida, Arizona, and Pennsylvania. It seems like the stories in your collection have settings that you are familiar with from where you have lived.
I’m an editor at the journal The Common, which is a journal that features writing with a strong sense of place, and place is something that’s really important to me. I usually write about places after I’ve lived there, and I feel like if you can focus on the setting, it gives you ideas for things that could realistically happen.
I moved around a lot growing up. My mom is from North Carolina and we moved away when I was 3 but then moved back when I was 16, and in between we lived in Pennsylvania and Ohio. So I think I grew up seeing places not really through the eyes of a local, but more so as an outsider. I think I was always conscious of what seems possible or important to you has in some ways to do with how you see yourself in relationship to your community. For instance, when I was living in Pennsylvania, it was a really beautiful small town that had some steel industry that had left. Some people went to college and some people didn’t and that was totally normal. You would maybe go to the technical school or do other things, and that was very much because that was what people were like in that particular place.
What would you say is the connecting thread in this collection?
The connecting thread for me is love relationships that are in some way compromised—different versions of people seeking connection and settling for something that’s less than what they hoped for. In most of them it’s romantic love.
Where do you find inspiration—does it start at a character or a theme level?
Occasionally, it’s a situation either that I see in real life or that I read about. But usually it’s a person in a situation, and it’s from people that I know. The other thing I think about is experimenting with form and technique, so sometimes if I’m stuck on what to write about, I give myself a technical challenge.
How long have you been writing?
I would say that I’ve been taking it pretty seriously for like 10 or 12 years. There was time when I was sort of writing, but not writing consistently. But for the past decade or so I’ve been feeling serious about it and maybe a little more confident. It’s helpful to have some external validation, so I think once my stories started landing in better places, I was able to figure things out better, then it became more fun to do it. But also, I’m not really sure why this changed, but I think it’s important that I was reading and writing really consistently, and the fact that I was doing it all the time, the work then got better.
Was there a moment when you felt like, I’m a writer?
[Laughs] Even now, when I’m on a plane, I tell people that I’m a writing teacher. Part of it is shyness or lack of confidence or something, but I think another part of it is that I want to be focused on the work and what I want to say and I want writing to be a result of that, instead of getting really fixated on this persona of the “writer.” I think that’s distracting.
What has kept you writing short stories instead of, say, poetry or novels?
I like reading poetry, but for me, it feels as intimidating as yoga, where you have to be calm and precise. So that’s never something that I had any illusions of being able to do, even though I enjoy reading it. I have been working on a novel, but with short stories, you can learn a lot quickly. You can try out a distant third person point of view and in a couple of months build certain techniques, whereas with a novel, you’re signing up for at least a few years. For me, it was just a way of teaching myself how to write. I could practice lots of different things.
How long have you been in Baltimore, and what’s been the most surprising thing about living here for you?
I moved here in 2014. There has been some class stuff that is subtle and unspoken that I can sense but I don’t entirely understand yet. Also, there’s an attachment to private school education that I wasn’t really familiar with. A lot of people, if they grew up in Baltimore and went to a private school, that’s a huge part of their identity. In the places where I lived, I didn’t know anybody who didn’t go to a public school. There’s a certain level of wealth in Maryland that I sometimes find shocking. I really like Baltimore. I’ve found people here to be friendly, and it’s a manageable sized city, and the literary scene here is terrific. People are really welcoming and it’s not at all competitive, but there’s also a ton of stuff going on. I love to go to readings at the Ivy, or there’s the Starts Here Reading Series, and all of that’s been really terrific.
I’m sure that’s been interesting for you looking at class in Maryland since a fair amount of your short story collection has themes related to class.
It’s something I’m always conscious of and there’s been various times of my life where I’ve felt like me and my family were on different sides of the privilege line. Like when I was in Pennsylvania, there were a lot of people who were struggling, and I didn’t feel like my family was struggling. It’s always something I’m thinking about.
Do you believe writers have to have first-hand knowledge of your subject matter for it to be successful?
I have such strong feelings about this. On one hand, of course you have to imagine things—you can’t literally just write about your own experiences. There has to be room for imagination. One of the great things about fiction is that it allows you to have empathy, and part of the point is to imagine someone else’s experience in a way that is respectful and authentic. But on the other hand, I think there’s something that happens in literary fiction where people fetishize pain and poverty when they themselves did not experience that.
One of the things that’s problematic about that is that the literary world is made up of largely privileged people, who don’t offer very good checks and balances about whether or not it’s an accurate representation. My thoughts are that, obviously, you have to research things and be able to put in the time and research, and the other thing is you have to seek out or be willing to hear form people who are coming from that group, who have had those experiences. And if they say that you aren’t getting it right, you have to be willing to listen.
You brought up research, which begs the question—what’s your research process like?
With all of the stories, there’s something that I researched—whether that’s going to the place, and seeing what’s actually in the parking lot. Sometimes, it’s interviewing people and talking to them. I did a fair amount of research for the title story—I talked to a police officer and an attorney and somebody who works on a construction site. Much of what they told me didn’t end up in the story, but it’s still helpful to have those conversations.
You recently had a baby. What was it like having your book come out at the same time?
It was kind of crazy because the due date was the publication date. But it’s been good. Maybe it’s a little helpful because I’m not obsessing about the book and its reception, I’m concentrating on other things, which has been kind of nice.
Now, you’re balancing writing and teaching and motherhood, so what’s your process like?
The biggest thing for me is to do whatever it is I’m doing at that moment. When I’m writing, I’m writing, so I turn my phone off, and I close out of the Internet. If I’m working on a project, then I’m at least opening the document every day, even if I’m not working on it so that I can be in that world. In the days that I’m not teaching, I try to have a block of time, and in the days that I am, I try to at least engage with the material somewhat. The summers have been really useful. For the past few summers, I’ve been doing writing residencies, which really help because you’re in a separate place and you can really focus. When I’m teaching, I try not to think, ‘Oh, I’m not writing now.’ I just focus on work, and having these separate selves.