Q and A with Jaimee Wriston Colbert, WILD THINGS
Wild Things began in that post 9/11 decade where everything felt (and still feels!) like it was falling apart: wars, terrorism, the unconscionable disparity between the rich and the poor (and of course rural America has a large share of these poor, particularly post-manufacturing areas that have lost so many jobs), drug addiction and the scourge of crystal meth, climate destruction and the absolutely terrifying rate of species extinction in our world. Wild Things is a linked collection that explores these losses, personal, environmental, and economical. Set in twenty-first century, rural America, there are various thematic threads that unify the stories: drug addiction, job loss, the economic free-fall of the middle and working classes, along with accelerating environmental damage. The stories take place in (or are linked to) upstate New York, in a fictional, dying, post-manufacturing town on the Susquehanna River, where nature, both benign and devastating, becomes an emotional refuge for my characters. The abduction of a young girl that happens early into the story cycle is at the heart of the overarching “plot,” providing unifying moments in a community of otherwise disparate lives: lonely, yet not without grit, humor, and moments of grace.
The range of characters and situations in Wild Things, despite some of the stories being linked, is very impressive. Where did you begin, with setting, a character, a situation - all of the above?
I think it was with "Ghosts,” and the characters of Jones and Loulie. I had written a couple of the other stories before that one, but “Ghosts” focused on the abduction of Loulie by Jones, where he believes he is, in fact, rescuing her instead of abducting her. That started to make me realize I was in the bigger territory of where (and how) stories are connected, rather than in a collection where the stories are more independent of each other. In fact, for a little while, I wondered if I needed to write it as a novel.
But the growing relationships between the characters and where they lived made me start to see it as a "story community." That was how I was originally thinking about "Ghosts," because once it ended, with the girl still tied up in that trailer, I knew I had to revisit it. You don't leave someone tied up and feel done! Then, as a story community, I began thinking about others who would live there; how their lives would manifest, being affected by the economical and environmental challenges of this community, along with their own struggles, losses, and triumphs. Thus the range of stories with different characters, all united by the place itself.
This collection is being described as "rural noir" - the implication being that you're exploring some of the darker aspects of human character - but wouldn't you say that any realist fiction has to explore the dark with the light?
Definitely, realist fiction has that complexity, and I think all of my previous work explores the dark with the light, or maybe the darkness in the light. My sense of this label, “rural noir,” at least in this collection, has a lot to do with its particular setting. I focused on the river, the Susquehanna, one of the most polluted rivers in the country. But like all rivers that flow through multiple states, it's a lifeblood. It's vital to people, and to industry, as well. I visualized the book’s setting as an unnamed town in rural Southern Tier [of New York], with that river as this entity that threads through and affects peoples' lives in different ways. I have a character, for example, who has a lucid dream where she imagines diving into the river and coming across decades of waste from now shuttered industries that have gone into this river and polluted it. The river serves as both a site of pollution, as well as a means of freedom. It flows out of the area and ultimately ends up in the Chesapeake. It moves out in a way that the characters cannot, since many are poor and stuck in this community.
And then there's the woods. They play a huge part in these stories. One of the things I was always fascinated with in Flannery O'Connor's stories was how she uses a perimeter of woods, her “dark line of woods.” She uses the woods as an actual line of demarcation in her characters' lives, and then there’s the metaphorical line of woods and darkness, of trees and mystery. I envisioned that line of woods in Wild Things. I thought, Those who go into the woods do so at their peril. For example, Jones lives in a very private place in the woods. The little girl, Fortune, who escapes for a while from taking care of her grandmother—she goes into a deer blind in the woods and imagines various things happening, and she discovers Jones’ trailer and Loulie, the kidnapped girl, then does nothing about it, relishing her “secret.” Plus she’s spying on the trailer using the binoculars she stole off her neighbor’s deck. The woods is a place for characters to go into that is both refuge and danger, and I suspect, along with the crime elements in this book, from thievery to kidnapping, these aspects might make people think rural noir!
Much is made of the short story being a poor relation, when compared to the novel, in the world of fiction. You've also published novels, but continue to write stories - what draws you to them?
I do indeed write both, as do you! I’m not sure what draws me to one or the other, as I really like both forms, but the funny thing is when I’m working on one I can’t imagine writing the other. What, write a short story? The novelist in me goes. I’m definitely a one-project-at-a-time writer. When I’m writing stories I love their compression and tension, and when I’m writing a novel I love the expansiveness. Go figure! And yet when I’m working on a book of stories, something inside me is always looking for ways to connect them. My first book of this sort was Climbing the God Tree, which is categorized as a novel-in-stories. After I published that I was awarded a fellowship to the Wesleyan Writers’ Conference, where I was essentially Madison Smartt Bell’s T.A. I say “essentially,” because he really didn’t need any assistance—he is a great teacher and writer. Anyway, one of the students in a workshop where he was teaching narrative structure, asked about the novel-in-stories. Madison’s lips curled just a little, and he said: “the novel-in-stories is for the short story writer who would be a novelist.” I got a kick out of that; that’s probably me.
Who (or what) are some of your influences? You write with an enviably beautiful lyricism.
I mentioned Flannery O’Connor before, and she is definitely an influence. I read her stories and Wise Blood in college, along with Thomas Wolfe’s Look Homeward Angel, and James Agee’s A Death in the Family, and that’s what did it. I wanted to be a writer. I love O’Connor’s characters, her incomparable prose, her wit and her fierceness. And I love those Southern gothic settings. Wolfe is a poet on the page and a character-master, and that novel by Agee had about as much heart as anything I’ve ever encountered in a book. I wanted to be all those things as a writer, though I began my writing career as a poet. However, even writing poetry I knew there was a storyteller in me who just needed to find that form. Once I did, I never looked back, but I do think I brought the lyricism I used as a poet, to the page in my fiction. The individual sentence for me as a fiction writer is essential. I labor over the sound, tension and pace of every one of them. Which slows me down, I’m sure. I seem to be on the seven-year-plan, a new book every seventh year. Now that I’m a bit past my prime, shall we say, I should probably think about accelerating that output, the all new five-year-plan.
What are you working on now if you don't mind telling us?
Two novels. I’m yet again revising a novel I’ve worked on for ages, about four generations of dysfunction in a Hawaiian family, affected by the Vietnam War, featuring an amalgam of physics and magical realism—a dad who believes he discovered a formula using the space-time continuum, where he can surf himself into invisibility. A whole new way of becoming deadbeat! And a new project, a different sort of book for me as there is quite a large historical element—half of it takes place in 1800s Isle of Skye during The Clearances. Both novels have elements of magical realism, and this new one will explore Celtic mythology, which I won’t divulge quite yet!
Jaimee Wriston Colbert is the author of Shark Girls, a finalist for the ForeWord Magazine Book of the Year and USABookNews.com Best Book awards; the linked-story collection Dream Lives of Butterflies, a gold-medal winner of the Independent Publisher Award; a novel in stories, Climbing the God Tree, winner of the Willa Cather Fiction Prize; and the story collection Sex, Salvation, and the Automobile, winner of the Zephyr Prize. Her stories have appeared in numerous journals, including Gettysburg Review, TriQuarterly, Prairie Schooner, Tampa Review, Connecticut Review, and New Letters. Originally from Hawai`i, she is professor of English and creative writing at SUNY, Binghamton University.