Q/A w/ Anne Valente

It is Sept. 22 and the Creative Writing students gather in O’Shaughnessy Performance Space to hear a reading by new Creative Writing faculty member Anne Valente. A prolific writer in her own right, Valente joined the staff of SFUAD’s Creative Writing Department this fall after the departure of longtime faculty member Dana Levin. Valente experiments in her writing with form, perspective and the boundaries of reality. She grew up in St. Louis, Missouri and obtained her Ph.D. at the University of Cincinnati. Valente is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Copper Nickel Prize in 2011. Her debut novel, Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down, will be released in 2016. Valente introduces “A Call to Memory,” the piece she will be reading from her short story collection, By Light We Knew Our Names noting that, like much of her work, it is set in her hometown. The seed for the story was planted and fertilized in her brain after a seven-hour, news-radio fueled drive to Asheville, NC. The story is set amidst the confusion of the disappearance of Malaysia Airlines Flight 370. There is Miles, an ornithologist and a park guide. There is a collection of rocks. Marmots are on the loose. Valente reads just the one story, holding our attention for more than 30 minutes. Her voice never drifts into overdramatic forays of forced importance, but delivers in calm pools the news of the anxious American. The story’s final sentences sentence us to uncertainty. We clap our hands together like so many cyclone-inducing butterfly wings, and Valente answers questions for the audience, and the following day, from Jackalope.

By Light We Knew Our Names by Anne Valente

By Light We Knew Our Names by Anne Valente

Jackalope Magazine: I really enjoyed your reading. You seem very comfortable and relaxed reading in front of an audience. You don’t read with a lot of bravado, the way some authors do. Do you pay any special attention to the way you perform your work?

Anne Valente: I’ve tried. I haven’t thought too hard about it. I want it to be interesting for listeners. My way of reading is designed around trying to make it engaging. I’m not a performer, so I don’t have any specific tips. I think my first reading was in 2009, and that was really nerve racking. I’ve tried to get better by practicing beforehand. Not practicing a voice, but making sure that I’ve re-read the text so that I don’t stumble over any lines or words. I still get nervous sometimes, too. I can’t tell whether reading is a dying art or not. It’s nice to be able to get together with other writers, because writing is so solitary.

JM: Matt Donovan stated in his introduction to your reading that your stories are ‘driven by character, rather than agenda.’ Do you think this is true?

AV: I hope that’s true. I think there’s nothing worse than picking up a story that is nothing more than thinly veiled propaganda. I do feel inspired to write about problems that could be interpreted as political or ecological, but I hope it doesn’t come across as thinly veiled preaching. Maybe ‘agenda’ isn’t the right word, rather than ‘world view.’ I think we all have them and they come across in our writing. For instance, halfway through writing this collection about St. Louis, the events in Ferguson happened. I was bothered by that, and especially that it happened in the city I grew up in. I’ve written about it, but I don’t know how to write about it in some ways. I think part of the process is figuring out how you think and feel about something and trying to capture it, but maybe not even having an agenda or something to say other than just, ‘This bothers me.’

JM: When you chose creative writing as your career, did you see yourself going on to write a novel?

AV: No. Just to complete a short story, at first, felt like a feat. I don’t think I ever thought I would write a novel. It was something I started to do and I thought, I’ll keep this to myself and keep working on it, and it may never see the light of day. I still don’t know that I know how to write a novel. There’s no great instruction on that, at least in MFA programs and possibly in undergrad too. It doesn’t suit the workshop model that well, so it’s not talked about very much. So I didn’t envision it, but now I’m really glad that I did it. I’m working on another one, too. I still like short stories. I’m writing both.

JM: You mentioned in your interview with Full Stop that the work on your novel was emotionally rigorous. What did you mean by that?

AV: The content was so dark for the novel. It’s about a mass shooting at a high school, so the research process was pretty grueling. That was something I wanted to make sure I got right. I had to look up crime-scene investigation techniques and FBI procedurals and all of those things. It was a hard headspace to be in for a year. I drafted it quicker than I thought I would, so I was glad that I was able to do that and move on. It’s not an easy thing to sit with for that long. I’ve certainly written dark short stories, but those can be done and you can set them aside.

JM: How was the process different from writing your short stories?

AV: It feels like a marathon. No one sees it. It’s more gratifying to write a short story and send it to your friends and have them offer you feedback, but for a novel, I’m not the kind of writer that will send it in sections and have someone read it. I think it needs to be done before anyone sees it. Not because I’m a perfectionist, but because it’s not ready yet. So that feels different. It’s a lot more alone time.

JM: You wrote a review, with author Matt Bell, of the cult-classic children’s series, Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz. In that article, you referenced Schwartz’s ambiguity in certain details, which leads the reader to fill in the blanks with their imaginations. How do you incorporate that into your own writing? 

AV: Mystery is a great piece to bring into fiction. Not in terms of genre, but in terms of leaving a lot of things unexplained. I think I write with more questions than answers, so those stories were seminal as a kid, in that they were brief sketches of stories. They left a lot of room for things that you could fill in as a reader. As children with imaginations, you surely do that. I hope that in my fiction, that’s the case.

JM: Much of your work exists in the realm of ‘magical realism.’ Could you explain what that phrase means to you?

AV: It took me a while to figure it out. I’ve done my reading on the history of magical realism, but for me, it’s fiction that occupies border spaces. That can mean a lot of things, but for me that means blending reality and non-reality. I’m not very interested in creating an entire fantasy story, so much as blending the two worlds and the conflicts and the tensions that can arise from their co-existence.

An Elegy for Mathematics by Anne Valente

An Elegy for Mathematics by Anne Valente

JM: You have published both a short story collection (By Light We Knew Our Names) and a fiction chapbook (An Elegy for Mathematics). What is the difference between a short story collection and a fiction chapbook?

AV: Before I published [An Elegy for Mathematics], I assumed that chapbooks were for poets. I guess fiction chapbooks are coming into vogue. For me, the distinction is that the fiction chapbook has flash pieces in it. They’re all no more than three pages, whereas the collection is full-length stories. I initially had a single manuscript with both and then just broke them out. I’ve seen collections that have shorter pieces too, but for me in my purposes, it helped to separate them.

JM: You spoke in your previous interview with Jackalope about writing from a place. What does it mean to write from a place, and is that what you have done with the city of St. Louis?

AV: Absolutely. It’s interesting, because I didn’t technically write from that place. I wrote about it from another place, which may have helped. St. Louis doesn’t appear at all in my first collection and I’m from there. I think it was just too close to write about. I was interested in exploring other places. But living away from a place that I know so well, I ended up writing about it a lot more. But now that I’m here, I’m writing a bit more about the west. I guess it changes, but it can occupy both spaces of writing landscape from afar and writing about it when you’re embedded in it. I find setting pretty important to my fiction, so I’m trying to do some immersive fiction writing here.

JM: You wrote a piece called “Home Inventory After a Tornado (Or, Everything We Lost)” that appeared in The Normal School. Was that something you dealt with a lot, growing up in Tornado Alley?

AV: Yeah, it was just part of living there. I never experienced a devastating tornado. There was nothing autobiographical in that piece, but it was just part of life from June through November, constantly going to the basement. A tornado came down our street once, but it was a small one, so it didn’t do too much damage. It’s a different feel out here. There are still thunderstorms, but no tornados.

JM: When writing a piece set outside of St. Louis (such as “Like the Light of Blue Water,” which is set in San Diego and “Everything that Was Ours,” set in New York), how do you go about grounding your characters in a location you’re less familiar with? Do you do a lot of research?

AV: I can’t think of any piece of fiction that I have written that hasn’t involved a lot of research. Sometimes it will require travel, but there are some places I’ve written about that I’ve never seen or visited. Google maps can be a good friend, doing street view to see what it looks like. I make use of those tools.

JM: What compels you to set so many of your stories in your hometown? Is it a matter of ‘write what you know’ or is there something in particular that fascinates you about St. Louis?

AV: It’s a weird city. It’s not necessarily ‘write what I know,’ but making use of some things that I’ve catalogued. I don’t feel like I’ve written any personal experience into any of those stories, but the setting feels very autobiographical. I’ve been writing things that I didn’t know about when I was growing up. It’s been a process of doing research into histories and stories that I had no idea happened in that city. It’s been kind of an archeology or excavation project to some extent. It’s complicated. It’s a faulted city. I’ve been trying to contend with that, and reconcile my nostalgia with a more accurate view of the city.

JM: What do you think of the ‘write what you know’ concept? Is that something writers should stick to?

AV: I don’t think that it is. I guess it could be a blend. I tend to write what I know in the sense that I write passions into stories. I love learning about birds, so that appeared in the story I read. But I don’t know anything about being an ornithologist or working in a park or anything that any of those characters experienced. You can write what you know in terms of what you’re really passionate about, but I think writing should be an exploration. As a writer, you have a lot of tools available to you. You can become a quick expert in anything, so it’s nice to stretch out a little bit and discover new things.

JM: You joked at the reading about all of your stories being centered on disasters. Have you given any thought to why you pick the subjects that you do?

AV: Writing is a way of appeasing anxiety. I clearly have anxiety about disasters or catastrophes, or maybe even at the core of that, of losing people. Recognizing that about myself, I’m trying to branch out a little bit. I think the entire first collection could easily circulate around that, so I’m trying to branch out a little. It will probably always be there, but I’m trying to be cognizant of that.

JM: You have used the word, ‘spiders,’ as a verb in more than one of your pieces. It’s just one of many unusual action words that come up in your work. Do you have a favorite verb?

AV: That is a great question. Without choosing a particular verb, but getting at what you are talking about, as my language develops in different stories or novels, images are very important to me. I like verbs that offer some kind of visual. I think that’s what I’ve been trying to do with verbs like that.

JM: In a question posed by Matt Donovan at your reading, he referred to ‘constellations’ in your journals. You also spoke of  ‘constellating,’ which I think is another great verb. What does that mean?

AV: It means looking at all of these disparate points of things that seem to have nothing to do with each other, and finding connections between them. I tend to notice things that may have a connection, but don’t seem like they do. I realize that there’s some flaw in that. I think I try, as a challenge in my writing, to pull many things together that don’t seem connected.

JM: You’ve written a few pieces in the first-person plural perspective. What challenges or advantages has it brought up in your writing?

AV: I continue to be drawn to it. I think the reason for that is similar to what the story was about last night, of these televised or broadcasted disasters and then the more personal traumas that are going on within your characters. I think the collective can sometimes be a way of bridging that. It’s an interesting tension of trying to determine what collective trauma means and what individual trauma means. What is the separation between the individual and the community? I think the collective point of view allows for some interesting permeating of borders between characters, what they all experience and what they each experience alone.

JM: My favorite story of yours is “The Vault of Gratiot Street Prison.” I had never heard the legends you refer to in that piece and it may be one of the advantages of writing about something that is based in fact. It makes the reader wonder if it’s true. I had to go look it up. I also wonder if it’s one of the advantages of writing about the place where you grew up, because other people might not know the story. Was the legend of Joseph McDowell something that you grew up knowing, and were you betting that people would be unfamiliar with it?

AV: I assumed people would be unfamiliar with it, because I wasn’t familiar with it. I didn’t grow up knowing that. What I grew up knowing was that there is a Purina dog food building in downtown St. Louis. I went to the Purina farm sometimes as a kid, to their petting zoo. Apparently that used to be the prison, which I didn’t know. It was in doing some research on some bizarre stories and mythology about St. Louis that I unearthed that. I’m glad to hear that that was your favorite, because I assume that is no one’s favorite. I think it’s a really weird story.

JM: That’s probably why I like it. It’s the perfect amount of creepiness. I felt a little bit of Shawshank Redemption going on, and the supernatural element was great. That was another story in which you use the first-person plural voice. The collective ‘we’ in this story refers to a group of Confederate prisoners. How do you feel the perspective benefits the piece?

AV: The decision for point of view can be contingent upon the type of story you’re trying to tell or who the characters are. But in that story, since they were all grouped in this place where they were confined, it felt right to use the collective point of view. In the revision process, I tried to pull out at least a few individual threads. I think the challenge to write and also the challenge as a reader is believability. ‘Have all these people really experienced this together?’ So trying to tease out a few individual threads, even though they’re all trapped in the same place, they each have their own storylines.

JM: Banango Street published a work of yours called “From the Journal of Common Human Viruses.” In this piece you describe several different fictional diseases, all of which cause bizarre symptoms in human beings, such as, “an ability to see the atomic structure of love.” How did this piece come about?

AV: The first year that I did my Ph.D. work, I was in Utah and my husband [Josh Finnell] was still in Ohio. He wasn’t able to find a job out there, so we were living six states apart for that year. That’s where the project came from. ‘We’re this far apart, let’s do a collective project together.’ So he made all the drawings first, and I wrote the pieces around the drawings. In terms of the actual inspiration for why I picked that in the first place, I don’t know. I think I just fear disease or what’s inside of us all the time. I’m carrying a heart and lungs around all the time and I don’t even know what they look like. It was an excavation project into the anatomy we carry, and [it asks if we can] think of more diffuse, emotional things as viruses.

JM: In the past, you have had a very regimented writing routine. Has that changed since you moved to Santa Fe?

AV: No, it hasn’t. I thought it would. I thought I would be busy and I could give myself a break and get accustomed to living in Santa Fe. I wrote a lot this summer, anticipating that I might take a break for a while, but the opposite has happened. I’ve been really inspired to be here. I’ve continued to write every day. Over the summer I was doing 1,000 words a day, five days a week, and now it’s 500 every morning. They’re not necessarily all good, but at least I’m getting some pages down. Having other things going on sometimes helps keep the schedule. Sometimes I found that if I had this whole stretch of hours, I wouldn’t get things done as quickly. I still got them done, but it might take all day to write 1,000 words. Now I have teaching, I have other things going on and I have to be on campus, so I have to get it done early in the morning. I think it’s nice to schedule other things to make sure you get it in. Or else give yourself a time limit, like an hour to get it done.

JM: What aspects of Santa Fe have you come to enjoy so far?

AV: What is there not to enjoy? I think the one thing I don’t like is driving on Cerrillos [Road], but that’s about it. It’s really wonderful to have mountains here and outdoor opportunities. We went rafting a couple weeks ago. I had never done that before. That was great. The food. The people are very nice. There’s a lot here that’s inspiring to me.

JM: You wrote a non-fiction essay called, “My Body, My Machine”, that appeared in The Rumpus. The article is an intimate exploration of the daily frustrations of living as a woman in a man’s world. As an author, how conscious are you of crafting your story in a way that does not enforce gender stereotypes? Is that something you think about?

AV: I think about that a lot, and on all sides, for men too. I’ve written several stories from the point of view of men and I don’t know that I’m getting it right. I don’t know if there’s a way to get a male perspective right or wrong, since I’m trying to occupy a specific character. As a white writer, I don’t want to just write about white characters and white worlds. If I include other cultures and other ethnicities, I try to think of how I can best do that without being stereotypical. I don’t know that I have any good answers in terms of how to navigate that, but I think it’s something that will continue to warrant continued discussion.

JM: How often do you work in non-fiction?

AV: It comes up every once in a while and it tends to stem out of fiction projects. For instance, writing about St. Louis, I ended up writing a couple of essays that were more factual about some of the things I discovered along the way. If I find a corner of research I find interesting, I’ll write more about it. I might draw some personal experience into that, but I tend to like the braided non-fiction form of bringing in information that doesn’t have a lot to do with me and possibly some things that do. It’s intermittent, but it’s ongoing.

JM: How do you approach your non-fiction work versus your fiction work? Is there a difference?

AV: In terms of the level of craft, no. I try to bring the same attention to language and lyricism to both. With non-fiction, there’s more of an issue of self-revelation. I don’t worry about that as much in my fiction. Every writer gets the question of whether or not something is autobiographical and I have learned not to worry too much about that question. Nothing in my fiction is, so I don’t care about that question. But in terms of non-fiction, I feel more vulnerable as a writer. That’s more an issue, not of bringing more care to the writing and the language, but what I do or don’t want to reveal in a piece of non-fiction.

JM: You mentioned at your reading that you didn’t pursue creative writing when you first went to college. At what point did you decide that was what you wanted to do and what prompted you to obtain your MFA?

AV: I think I knew in my undergrad, but I was too afraid to pursue it. So I went about it in a very analytical and logical route by going to journalism first. I still like non-fiction and it’s been helpful for creative non-fiction, but I’m not a journalist. During that time I decided that my route of writing was probably going to be more creative, but I had no portfolio. I didn’t have anything to submit, so I spent some of my time during that year starting to write stories. I took my first creative writing workshop and just kept writing on my own until I had a portfolio that was good enough to apply to an MFA program. When I was an undergrad I knew that this was something I might be interested in, but I just didn’t pursue it at that time. I did go talk to a creative writing professor in my undergrad and said, ‘I’m kind of interested in creative writing. I haven’t taken any classes, but what would you suggest?’ And she told me, ‘Don’t go anywhere but Columbia in New York. You have to do this.’ I was 22 and at the time, I thought that was the best advice, but I would not give that advice now. I know one or two people who did that, and it was a good decision for them, but there are ways to get an MFA without spending $200,000. And that’s what I did. I had to live in a small town in Ohio to do it, but I didn’t pay for it and I loved my program. I would absolutely recommend it and I would recommend looking at programs that fully fund.

JM: How do your classes at SFUAD differ from those you’ve taught in the past?

AV: I’ve taught a lot of first-year classes and different theme classes in composition. That’s already different in that I’m teaching almost exclusively creative writing here, which is wonderful. I was teaching a class that’s similar to Techniques of Fiction, so I’ve modified that to make it more challenging. So there are some similarities and there are some differences, but here I get to teach literature, which I haven’t taught since 2011. It’s nice to be able to design an entire course, and the books that go into that, and continue doing that in future semesters. I’ve had to vamp up some of my lesson plans. I think I made them too easy the first week of class, which speaks very highly of the students here. Everyone’s very sharp and ready to be challenged. I’m excited about that.

JM: What have you learned from your students so far?

AV: A wide range of ideas. It’s fascinating each week to see what they bring into the classroom, what kind of ideas they’ve gathered and what they’d done for writing exercises or stories. But also, in the literature class, they already know about the authors and even bring in information that I wouldn’t necessarily talk about. I’ve allowed room for group presentations for them to fill in the blanks about authors and they’ve done an awesome job so far.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.