Over the course of a few semesters, Nicole Louise Reid, author of In the Breeze of Passing Things (MacAdam/Cage, 2003), discussed her approach to writing, teaching, and life since she earned her MFA in fiction at George Mason in 2001. Her short fiction has appeared in more than two dozen journals, including The Southern Review and Indiana Review. Pisgah Review published an excerpt of her second novel, Hunger, in its winter 2008 issue.
An emailed interview can lack context—people tap at keys . . . somewhere. But Reid’s characters provide a distinct sense of place not only in what they say but how they say it. Evansville, then, where the toe-end of Indiana dangles into Kentucky by a bend in the Ohio River—a river port, a crossroads of Midwest and South, a city with rural on its mind—seems a fitting place for such work. Reid is an associate professor at the University of Southern Indiana, fiction editor at the Southern Indiana Review, and codirector of the RopeWalk Visiting Writers Reading Series at USI and on the board of the RopeWalk Writer’s Retreat in New Harmony. She lives with her husband and their two-and-a-half-year-old three streets from the Ohio, where swallows chase insects and coal barges float by; summer nights, she said, just outside town, fireflies hover above the corn, their winking green glow as big as cow’s eyes against the sky.
Q: You have said you moved around before your family settled in the D.C. area (from Philadelphia to Chicago, Dallas to Appalachia) and collected characters’ voices along the way. Most sound southern—they seem to have the loquacity and turn of phrase I often hear in the Deep South or southern Appalachia. Is that your tendency?
NLR: When I was a kid, I’d listen to my mother answer the phone and knew exactly who she was talking to by her inflection, diction, and appropriated accent. She was unaware of it until I repeatedly guessed at the caller and was always right. Then she became self-conscious and embarrassed. She worried that her friends and acquaintances would think she was making fun of them. I don’t think anyone ever did, but becoming self-aware on the telephone (or in the grocery checkout line) really clammed her up.
I share my mother’s ability to adopt the voice of someone around me. Whatever best friend I had growing up, I talked just like her or him. And once I began reading heavily and writing, I found it even easier to talk like someone else on paper. This isn’t to say my own voice is a blank slate, but any accent is minimal, and because my father grew up with southern idioms and my mother with northern, my speech has always drawn from both. Nonetheless, I was four and five years old in Dallas and five through nine in Blacksburg, Virginia. These are pretty formative years linguistically, and Southern—capital S—voices are what I find richest and most comfortable.
Q: When you start writing, do you hear the voice first, or do you imagine a situation or a character first, or does it depend?
NLR: The chicken or egg question is an interesting and frustrating one. Interesting to know how any writer operates usually or for particular works. Frustrating because the more I think I have the answer, the less it tends to happen that way. The observed subject is never truly the subject in its pure state, right?
Here is what I know about how I have worked in the past: there was always a voice. I always followed it down a sort of rabbit’s hole. In some stories it was ferocious (I’m thinking of a story called “So There” [in Clackamas Literary Review]), in others timid. My very first story attempts sometimes suffered from overindulging whatever first person character was talking, at the cost of plot. Action was difficult for me to figure out; it is so unknown compared to the very known voice of whatever character I am writing. The prospect of having to make something up—what in the world is going to happen!?!—was too big for me to face. Then I’d get into a story, halfway through it even, and halt. That actually happened in a couple.
At that point in “So There,” the first person girl narrating about the nights leading up to her father killing her mother’s brand new baby, says, “This was all a game. So there.” I was writing that to myself, saying the 23 pages of story so far were just a game; ha. I left the computer for the day and came back to the story the next day. I read everything up to that last point and realized my own frustrating search to make meaning of this girl and her fucked-up world was the same search she was on. She truly was saying this was all a game, so there. So I left those lines and kept going. Sometimes action and its mysterious meaning come like that.
More recently, I have been writing with ideas. I’m working on a triptych right now, a series of three linked stories. [“We Want It Back,” in Grain Magazine, and “Sparrow,” which is under submission, form the first two parts.] I began with the most recent in time, then went back 30 years, and am now struggling to write the first in the series set 30 years before that. I find writing with ideas much harder. Following a voice almost always has built-in momentum. When I have a sense that I want to write about a phenomenon or need to lay groundwork (while simultaneously writing a kick-ass stand alone story) as in this first of the triptych, I have to provide my own momentum. And that, that is work.
Because it’s what I’m doing right now, I like to think of this idea-writing as resulting in more complex fiction than voice-writing, but probably it is only different fiction.
Q: When you say you are writing with ideas, do you mean having a purpose or meaning, the way social commentary is ascribed to To Kill a Mockingbird—or is it less concrete than that?
NLR: Oh good question—no, I don’t write with a purpose. As a reader, I find purpose-driven work transparently didactic (even the better, literary pieces) and completely at odds with art, which I think is meaningful because of its detachment from ulterior motive.
This argument’s one I enjoy having even though it becomes incredibly messy at this point because one could say, “But doesn’t art’s detachment imply an argument
(say, that art CAN be detached from social criticism or direction)?”
Still, and as flimsy as this is as an answer, I feel that a writer working with critique at the root of her or his material will impose that critique on the story, on the characters, on the language and scenery, and on the narrative. A story or novel that explores characters and action within (that word “within” implies a kind of limitation here that I don’t intend) a literary aesthetic devoid of polemic will carry a sort of purity to it.
Do I, as a reader, sometimes respond to that kind of writing with a quiet (or hollering) social commentary of my own based on the characters and their contexts? Yes, how can I not? I think the difference for me lies in the sense that a writer wants me to arrive at her or his endorsed answer. I don’t want to be told what to think—I want to figure out my own head, my own world my own way.
As a writer, I abide by this sense that my job is to reveal humanity, not educate it. Ordinarily I have no trouble with this. The last story I wrote (“Once It’s Gone”), however, made me uncomfortable. In the story, a girl has an abortion. Her mother, concerned about saving an abandoned nestling from a pack of roving once-housecats, seems okay with this. The father, who narrates the story, is not the girl’s father; the mother had affairs early in the marriage and the girl is a product of one of those. So despite parenting the girl her 16 years, all of a sudden he feels unentitled to the grief he feels at mourning what could have been his first grandchild. Ach! I really worried that the story would be perceived as a polemic. And it isn’t. At all. Something happened and the reader gets to see how a particular person will react to it. That the something was an abortion, I was sure, however, was going to please some and aggravate others. I wasn’t interested in abortion in coming to write this story, but in the sense a person can develop that a particular grief and mourning does not belong to them. That was and is interesting to me and I wanted to explore that emotional phenomenon. I think if looked at in its entirety, a reader would see the story as simply an exploration. I sure hope so.
I didn’t realize that my second novel might be considered as social criticism until I wanted to use it to apply for a course-release award at my university. After having finished a full draft, I forced myself to do the glossy spin such an application calls for and in writing that, I found that the book can be seen as an indictment of American body image and body standards. I didn’t write the book thinking about it this way, or wanting to change anyone’s mind about what value Americans ascribe to thinness. The book is simply about people who have particularly extreme approaches to food and what it does to their bodies. I can certainly see someone reading the book and thinking differently about the subject, but I hope that will be because the characters have revealed themselves rather than any message I have imposed on the those characters.
Q: So when you say you are working with ideas, in the case of the triptych, you mean you aren’t only following the flow of one voice, you are working within a kind of continuity?
NLR: That’s a good way of putting it. Yeah, working with a certain continuity. In the case of the triptych, the continuity is a set of characters who are part of the universe of Leo (the uncle returning from the dead in “We Want It Back”). The first story in the series, (at present a very messy 22 first draft pages and building), will have Leo as a little kid. So the continuity of this series is a single life, though never is Leo a narrator. (The middle story, “Sparrow,” is narrated in third person from Jilly’s point of view.) I’m finding this writing from ideas or continuity much slower than following a voice—in the latter, the character who speaks is quickly fleshed out by the quality of her or his voice, and that fleshing out, if I’m lucky, can look a lot like or actually be plot. But in writing from ideas, well, I have to have ideas or create them, and I’ve never been very easily creative.
Q: The question of purpose or meaning has come up in workshops; a variation on “I don’t know what to take away from this story.” Do you think that’s coming from the same place—someone who wants stories to make a larger point—or do you think there’s a difference there?
NLR: I guess I’m not sure of an answer to your question. It’s so hard to talk about what a story does or should do, you know? I don’t know of a word for the emotional response of a reader to what she or he reads, and I desperately want a word for that. If that, that wordless effect is “the point,” then I certainly don’t object to wanting a story to have a point, though I don’t think the writer ought to presume to prescribe what that emotional response is (just that there is one). If what is meant by “the point” is actually something instructive (though of course if you show me love in a story, I may very well infer instruction on compassion), then I do think there’s a problem there. Teaching undergraduates, I count myself lucky not to have students ask what they should take away (beyond that emotional reaction) from a story. And, to be honest, I don’t recall my peers in graduate workshops saying that either. Perhaps my experience is an anomaly or the times, they are a-changin’.
Q: How is teaching?
NLR: Teaching is a mixed bag. I don’t think doing anything would make me happier, but it’s a frustrating thing for sure. I teach mixed-genre introductory creative writing classes to sophomores, juniors, and seniors and, because the class fulfills a core requirement for graduation, 80% of them have no desire to write, even less desire to read, and very little business doing either. So I pull out my hair over their inability to construct a sentence, let alone a concrete image or round character. But that other 20% is heaven. I generally try to teach to them, since the rest won’t get it and will move on unswayed by this brush with literary art.
I also teach a fiction workshop and advanced creative writing, and I taught a CW techniques class on the child narrator last fall. What I love about teaching the workshops is seeing a student whose work reaches and being able to guide her or his hand a bit toward something larger than both of us. It’s been in the last couple of years I really have felt capable of that, of instantly seeing what’s missing in a good short story, and being able to articulate that hole to a student along with advice for how to fill it. It’s these short stories that satisfy any doubt I have that I’m in the right profession.
Q: How did you get where you are, associate professor of English and helping to run the RopeWalk program? You seem to have balanced work with writing really well—two novels and a steady flow of stories in journals since you got the MFA.
NLR: Of course I haven’t mentioned the perks that make this job fit so well with being a writer. Summers free, winter and spring breaks off, are lovely and absolutely necessary—especially given that I teach a 4/4
load. Four classes each semester gives me no time for writing. It took a few years to figure that out, and I beat myself up about not writing much if anything during the school year. The solution is to protect those times when school is out and get to work fast!
After getting my MFA at Mason, I took an instructor’s job teaching composition at a school that takes its football so seriously, it wanted me to excuse athletes’ poor performance in my classes. I left after the first semester and returned to the D.C. area, where I adjuncted at five campuses and led workshops at the Bethesda Writer’s Center. Once MacAdam/Cage bought In the Breeze of Passing Things, I went back on the job market for creative writing positions. I took a one-year post at Penn State—The Behrend College in Erie, PA, then was back on the market and came to the University of Southern Indiana in a tenure-track job. I applied for tenure and promotion this past semester and was successful, so I plan to stay at USI if we can do something about the heavy teaching load and I can inherit more control over the Creative Writing programs we have here.
Q: You published some chapters of In the Breeze of Passing Things as short stories before the novel came out; how did that affect the effort to publish the book as a whole?
NLR: Almost all of the chapters from In the Breeze of Passing Things came out as stories in literary magazines before the novel was published. I was writing them with the short story as my form and mode, so each chapter ended with some sort of resolution, even if it was messy enough to suggest itself toward the way a true novel’s chapters often most successfully end mid-act. In other words, while many novels keep readers turning the page by interrupting a dramatic moment with a chapter break, I was ending mine fairly tidily. The reason, I believe, this worked was that the plot of my book had my characters physically moving from place to place, and in each place they’d find a new context of people and circumstances to confront and change or be changed by. So each story-chapter could deal with those new contexts and circumstances and how they alter the main characters while also making a suggestion as to what the main characters’ eventual evolution may be. So a story-chapter worked as a story and the chapter worked as a chapter because subsequent chapters picked up the implications left at chapter’s-end and developed those implications into live dramatic reality.
My second novel (a manuscript I’m often told is too sad for publication) doesn’t operate like this at all and I doubt I could ever write a novel in the story mode again, now that I’ve tackled the messier juggling that a traditional novel’s form requires. I like the simplicity—this word could suggest inferiority but I don’t mean that here at all, just that the task is more ordered—of writing in linked stories, but I also find them confining. Perhaps once I finish the last installment of the triptych novella I’m working on, I’ll transform the stories in to one solid book. I’m afraid I’ve done myself in with their points of view all being different—first, third limited, and third multiple. I really, really hope to find a way for them to meld as they are, or perhaps they will remain a novella-in-stories.
In answer to your question of how publication of my first novel’s stories affected the book’s publication, I’m really not sure. I do know that publication helped get me an agent; she saw one of the story-chapters in Indiana Review and contacted me to ask if I had a longer project. I had just finished my MFA thesis, which was Breeze, and was beginning to query agents. So the timing was good and she ended up placing the book with MacAdam/Cage as soon as the publishing industry returned from its summer break.
Q: I was thinking about the Indiana Review piece in particular; the language is near to poetry, and so much is implied—there’s a lot to unpack. Did you revise from story to chapter—or the other way around? (Or both?)
NLR: There were times in editing the book that I had to take some repetition of information out of the stories in order for them to hang as a cohesive book—repetition of undercurrents like when the dad left, where he went, etc.—and there were times in the editing process that I wrote more (such as implying more of a life outside the house for the Blacksburg cousins). The tone and diction didn’t really change from story to novel, though.
Q: On the second novel—people actually said the book is too sad?
NLR: Yes. A handful of agents and editors. It’s a reaction I don’t really understand. Most of the books, well-loved, classic books I have loved over the years are terribly sad. The end of mine is bleak, but the situation is bleak and to impose a cheerier implication would ring utterly false.
Q: Why the shift from the short story form to the, as you say, messier work of a traditional novel? Or—maybe a better question—why the shift from voice-driven to idea-driven work?
NLR: I think the shift came because I transitioned from graduate school—a time during which all I had to do was read, write, and teach a class or two—to working. At first, I adjuncted at sometimes six schools a semester. Still, that left me more able to write and read than either of the two full-time teaching jobs I’ve had. Certainly the 4/4 teaching load and extensive service I perform in my current position at USI make writing tough. But it’s not just the work. In the five years I’ve been here, I have bought two houses, moved three times, gotten married, and had a son. That’s a lot of flurry competing for my writer mind’s attention. I hope I’ll be able to un-overextend (in addition to being fiction editor of Southern Indiana Review, board member of the RopeWalk Writer’s Retreat, and director of the RopeWalk Visiting Writers Reading Series, I serve as faculty advisor to the Student Writers Union and faculty advisor and managing editor for USI’s student literary and art magazine) soon. So . . . the shift from short story form to a novel may be because instead of writing with focused, daily regularity, my writing time is in spurts spanning months, years even. I tend, now, to introduce far more ideas because a character’s voice, which used to sustain my fiction, modulates over time so I can’t depend on it to carry the work anymore.
Q: Annie Proulx said in an interview at Bookslut a few years ago, “If I get fifteen minutes a day it’s a small miracle.” And you said earlier you have to take advantage of it when you have it. Any other advice for young writers to carve it out?
NLR: I don’t know that I have advice for young writers; everyone’s circumstances are different of course, and everyone’s psyches, too. What I’ve been trying to do for myself is not beat myself up over the lost time to job and family and just plain life. As a friend said to me yesterday, I’m in the taking-things-in mode, filling up on big changes and experiences in my life. On the other hand, what if I could have done better? I probably could have. And what if that’s a book gone? Alan Cheuse used to tell our workshop: write just a page a day, every day, and by the end of one year you’ll have a book. He also would go around the workshop table asking each of us, “Are you a writer today? Did you write?” I love, love, love Alan—he’s a rigorous teacher and generous soul—but few days pass by now that I don’t think of his question and hate myself for the answer. In every area of my life I try to find what works best and after a period of disappointing the rigorous writer in my head, I’m trying to see myself as more than a writer, someone with a lot of roles in addition to being a writer: wife, mother, best friend, daughter, teacher, mentor, editor, reader, citizen, and so forth.
Once I finish the triptych, I may decide to work much smaller (short-shorts, even) something more suited in size to the focus I have at the moment.
Q: Not far down the road from you, Wendell Berry said last year in an interview in The Sun he became a better writer when he figured out he could be perfectly happy not being one—a bit of a Zen koan, maybe, but it seems sound?
NLR: I wish I could be so self-assured. That’s not me. I do wish for it, though. On the heels of a day spent submitting work to contests and journals—something I used to look forward to but now dread because of the quiet hours it entails in which I must constantly assess my writing, try to fit it to the particular markets, and gauge its chances there—life is grim. During the years of and just after graduate school, I wrote and published a few pieces a month.
Ah, a broken record but God, it’s a deep ache.
And when a workshop goes particularly well for a student and I see a revision that I shepherded to breakthrough or find myself editing a submission for SIR and think it’s going pretty swell, I wonder if I should simply hang a different shingle.
But no, it will come back. It does. When I go looking. Writing is the thing I’m most afraid of when I’m not at it. And the thing I take the greatest pride in when I’m good.