This week, Dolen Perkins-Valdez, author of Wench: A Novel, asks Danielle Evans, author of Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self (Sept. 23, Riverhead), five questions about race, influence, personal heroes, and writing like a man.
1. You're only 26 years old and yet you write with such maturity and depth. Can you tell us a bit about your writing path and road to publication?
Thank you for the compliment. I don’t remember a point in time when I wasn’t writing in some capacity, and when I didn’t imagine that I’d always be doing some kind of writing. I think it took me a while though to realize that ‘writer’ was something a person could legitimately grow up to be. I started taking writing workshops in college with no idea what a workshop was, just because I knew I liked to write. I read a lot of contemporary literary fiction in those classes, and fell in love with some authors who I felt allowed me to give myself permission to do the kind of work I wanted to do. I hadn’t read at that point many books that were literary, contemporary, and about characters who reminded me of myself or my friends and family, so it was exciting to even know that kind of work existed. After college I went to the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where I worked mostly on short fiction for two years, and then I had a really lovely fellowship at the Wisconsin Institute of Creative Writing. By the time I finished, I’d had a lot of time to really think about the stories that became the collection, and I better trusted my own instincts about my work and had a much better sense of purpose, and a more solid understanding of structure. A few months after my fellowship ended, I sold the collection to Riverhead, and since then I’ve edited the stories, and been teaching, and working on my novel. When I write it all out like that it sounds really charmed, and in some sense it is. Just before I got the call from Wisconsin, I had lined up a job at a coffee shop, and in the months between the end of the fellowship and selling the book, I worked retail, and I had plenty of rejection, but never a period when I was getting nothing but rejection, or a period when my temporary plan by necessity became my whole life. I know that I’ve been lucky to have a lot of things fall into place, and I say that not to be self-deprecating—I believe in my work, or I wouldn’t do it—but because I know a lot of people, whose work I also believe in, who have had to wait a lot longer for things to come together.
2. I’ve heard you say in a previous interview that you hope race plays out in your fiction in nuanced ways. Can you say more about how race figures into your work?
A friend of mine who shall remain unnamed once described an acquaintance with whom she was upset by saying “her whiteness is the first and only thing about her.” The phrasing stuck with me because I think a lot of minority characters in fiction get that treatment – their “blackness” or “ethnicness” is the first and only thing about them. So, I wanted the characters I was writing to feel like fully rounded individuals, who were dealing with race in specific and human ways, and also dealing with issues in life that didn’t revolve around their racial identities. I think fiction has been beyond a singular narrative of blackness for a very long time, but sometimes it seems like the world at large isn’t, so it still seems important to me to writer characters who have varied experiences and varied relations to their racial identity. I’m also, as I’ve said before, really interested in the ways that integration and the post-civil rights experience have perhaps created tensions and divides and differential experiences that we more commonly associate with integration experiences, so that’s one theme the collection explores—how is my generation’s “blackness” different from our parents’ “blackness,” because of the way the world has changed, and how do people born post civil-rights movement confront the ways in which the world has not changed?
3. Your stories were chosen for Best American Short Stories twice. One story "Virgins" was chosen in 2008 by Salman Rushdie and a second "Someone Ought to Tell Her There's Nowhere to Go" was chosen by Richard Russo for 2010. That's a big deal! How did you find out and how did it feel?
Since I started reading short fiction, I’d eagerly awaited Best American Short Stories
every fall, not as a writer, but as a reader. There was always at least one story that completely blew me away and altered my perception of what fiction could do or, in the best cases, changed and expanded how I viewed the world. I became a writer for mostly sound and legitimate reasons (insofar as there are any sound and legitimate reasons to become a writer) —I cared about words and language, I cared about people and what drove them to behave the way they did, I wanted to write something that I believed in. But, when 19-year-old me decided I was going to try to do this for real, I allowed myself three vain and lofty writerly goals—the first was, I wanted to have a book published someday, and the second was, I wanted to have a story in Best American Short Stories
someday. So to have such a huge lifetime goal happen after the publication of my second story was unbelievably amazing. Literally, unbelievable, to the point that when I got an email from Heidi Pitlor, the series editor, saying that my story had been selected (by Salman Rushdie, no less), after I spent about an hour freaking out and calling everyone I loved, I became briefly and thoroughly convinced that someone was playing a horrible prank on me and had just made up an email address that they were using to impersonate Heidi Pitlor. I had to spend a few hours talking myself through how illogical and, in fact, impossible it would be for some fictitious enemy of mine to impersonate the editor of Best American Short Stories
and somehow fool not only me, but my agent, my editor, and the editors of The Paris Review. (In defense of my sanity, in her less mature years, one of best friends totally would have played a joke like that.)
Even believing it was real didn’t prepare me for how wonderful it would be to actually get to see my story in the anthology. It was just as much of an honor to be chosen the second time, especially because I’d spent a long time pulling that story together—Virgins sometimes feels to me like a present from the universe, a story that I was just the vehicle for getting on paper, but writing "Someone Ought to Tell her There’s Nowhere to Go" was much more of a process, and so it was nice to see that the story as it came together really connected with some readers.
4. Which authors have influenced you and what is the last book you read?
Among the contemporary writers I mentioned earlier as giving me permission to write are Junot Diaz, Danzy Senna, ZZ Packer, Victor Lavalle, and Amy Bloom. I’ve also talked at length about how John Irving, James Baldwin, and Ralph Ellison made me really appreciate narrative structure. For years I resisted citing Toni Morrison as an influence, not because I didn’t love her, but because I loved her work so much that saying it influenced mine felt sacrilegious. In college I used to joke sometimes with other black women on campus that in some workshops it seemed like Toni Morrison and Alice Walker were the only black female writers some people knew. We’d get these “You write like Toni Morrison! “ or “You write like Alice Walker!” workshop comments that instead of being incredibly flattering, just made us aware of how easy it was for race to subsume all other categories, because of course we weren’t writing like Toni Morrison. No one but Toni Morrison writes like Toni Morrison, and on the off chance that another writer did pull it off, it probably wouldn’t be an undergraduate creative writing student. After years of not citing her as an influence out of respect, I reread a lot of her work in preparation for teaching my African-American literature class, and it struck me how she’s one of the few writers who’s able to so consistently foreground women’s relationships to each other—friendships, family relationships, even relationships between nemeses— and show how absolutely serious and consuming and devastating these relationships or their unraveling can be. When I thought about my own work in that context—how often the work comes down to these central relationships to these strong female characters who need each other, but are also playing themselves off of each other, and at times destroying each other— I felt a lot more comfortable thinking of her as not just a personal hero, but an influence.
The last book I read was Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from The Goon Squad
, which was utterly gorgeous and devastating.
5. In your new short story collection Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, you write from both the female and male points-of-view, including a story told from the perspective of a male war veteran. Do you find it difficult as a female writer to inhabit a male voice?
Not especially, no. As I mentioned, I fought with that story some, but that’s because I was trying to figure how to juxtapose the war with the shopping mall without conflating them. It wasn’t Georgie’s masculinity that was giving me trouble. I had a very clear sense of what that meant to him, and how the life he was trying to somewhat forcibly construct with Lanae and Esther fit into his sense of what it meant to be a man, and what it meant to fall short of that. The story that’s actually told from the first person point of view of a male character was less difficult to navigate, because I had a really clear sense of Terrence. His main issues weren’t really gendered, and his voice was pretty familiar, because it reminded me of some men I know.