MONSTERS IN APPALACHIA: a compelling contemporary take on Southern Gothic desire, temptation, and elusive salvation

Monsters in Appalachia: Stories

By Sheryl Monks

Vandalia Press/West Virginia University Press

$16.99, 168 pages

As someone who has lived in California for all but two years of his life and feels a powerful attachment to this place — its weather, light, ocean, mountains, valleys, flora, and fauna – I am fascinated by writing that conveys the power of other places. I feel as though I know some of these locales so intimately, it’s almost as if I’d lived there. As a result, stories and novels with a sense of place so palpable that it’s almost a character remain indelibly etched in my mind.

After reading Sheryl Monks’ impressive debut collection, Monsters in Appalachia, I feel as though I have walked the mountains and valleys of West Virginia and North Carolina with her characters. The fifteen stories here are distinguished by a range of narrative voices that are as undiluted as a bottle of moonshine from the most hidden of hollers. Monks examines the lives of these hard-living and hard-learning people with an unrelenting, knowing stare that sees through the lies they tell each other and themselves.

Monks is concerned with good and evil as it plays out in the lives of the invisible people of Appalachia and similar economically struggling communities. Her stories are rich with biblical allusions from Exodus to Revelation. Desire and temptation are ever present, and salvation is just out of reach. It’s hot, humid, and dusty during the day and dark as coal at night. There is an almost claustrophobic intensity to most of these stories, whether the monsters are real or imagined. This is Southern Gothic storytelling at its finest.

In the opening “Burning Slag,” we meet a mother whose children have been taken away after she kills her abusive husband. She is so infuriated by the loss of her kids to a foster family in the area that she is driven to desperation again. “Robbing Pillars” is less than six pages long, but it’s more than enough to convey the lives – and deaths — of miners doing the dangerous work of pulling out pillars to collapse a nearly empty mine so they can mine the roofs. “That’s money standing there, supporting the roof, and the company wants every square inch.”

“Rasputin’s Remarkable Sleight of Hand” makes us a spectator at the county fair performance of an illusionist running a con that even the audience senses. But they, and we, can’t quite nail down what he’s doing or how. Is it possible he’s the real deal or the devil incarnate? Everything changes when a “fat girl with yellow eyes,” spellbound by Rasputin’s charisma, volunteers to participate in his act, and his show takes an unexpected turn that leaves us flabbergasted.

“Run, Little Girl” finds Brother Harpy, an elderly snake-handler, visiting the home of the minister of Lick Branch, whose wife is a sexy woman who has backslid six times. His young daughter is “his charismatic little angel, reaching into the burlap sack and drawing out copperheads and diamondbacks. Her child’s faith convinced the sinners of Lick Branch that God would protect any who sought Him. She had saved many souls.” She is fascinated with Brother Harpy and soon decides that she has her own powers that only he can appreciate.

“Merope” probes the conflicting impulses surrounding adolescent love and lust, with devastating results. “Crazy Checks” concerns two textile factory workers trying to figure out a way to game the system to qualify for disability payments, the “crazy checks” of the title. As in many of these stories, the unexpected can be counted on to do damage in a dozen different ways.

In “Justice Boys,” a mining strike has forced the men to find other ways to make money. “That’s what started things with the Justice boys. Arjay and Jimbo had been driving up and down hollers looking for pieces of scrap to sell to Luther Linny over in Mile Branch.” They trespass on the boys’ property, setting off a small-time gang war that climaxes on a night when the guys are gone and only Rita and the kids are at home.

According to those who know better than I, Monks accurately depicts the Appalachian dialect, attitudes, and beliefs, and she has created more than a dozen small worlds full of mesmerizing characters and startling conflicts. This is a dark and darkly humorous collection that heralds the arrival of a gifted “new” writer (Monks has been publishing stories for more than a dozen years).

Ron Rash has been the troubadour of the Appalachians for the past decade, but with Monsters in Appalachia, Sheryl Monks has joined him as a teller of twisted stories about a uniquely American place and culture.

MOTHERS AND OTHER STRANGERS a suspenseful study of a fraught mother-daughter relationship

Mothers and Other Strangers

By Gina Sorell

Prospect Park Books: May 2, 2017

$16, 314 pages

It’s not unusual for adult children to become estranged from their parents. Sometimes it’s a psychological and emotional necessity, other times it’s simply the result of unfortunate events or misunderstandings. As the old saying goes, we don’t get to choose our family, and there’s no guarantee we will like each other, particularly as time goes on and we build separate lives.

Gina Sorell’s debut novel, Mothers and Other Strangers, explores this fraught territory with compelling results. It is a complex family drama, a dual (and dueling) character study, and a suspenseful mystery all in 300 pages.

Elsie is 39 and an ex-dancer living in Los Angeles when she learns that her mother, Rachel, has passed away at home in Toronto. More than just physical distance separates them; they have not spoken in two decades. Rachel, it turns out, is what we used to call “a real piece of work.” She is a mean-spirited narcissist concerned with how she appears to others and following her own spiritual muse around the world. She is not interested in being a mother, even though her husband passed away when Elsie was an infant. So, Elsie grows up seeking her mother’s attention and approval, but receiving little of either, and ultimately doing her best to raise herself.

When Elsie returns to Toronto to sort through her mother’s belongings and tie up the loose ends of her life, she finds that little has changed in her apartment in a luxury highrise building, and that her mother did not appear to be the wealthy woman her lifestyle had always suggested she was. What happened in the last 20 years? Did it involve her devoted membership in The Seekers, a “new-agey” spiritual group based in Paris, and her obsession with their charismatic founder, Philippe? When someone breaks into the apartment and turns it upside down looking for something – although it’s clear to Elsie there is nothing of value in the apartment of this elderly woman – she begins to suspect that her mother had led a different life than she’d thought.

Elsie’s return to Toronto forces her to examine a past she’d long quarantined, and the structure of Mothers and Other Strangers moves back and forth in time to reveal Elsie’s life, increasing the mystery and tension as the plot progresses. How did a child born in South Africa end up being raised in Canada? What really happened to her father? Why does she have nightmares involving a house fire and a black caretaker? Why did her mother view the Seekers as her family instead of Elsie? Why couldn’t her mother love her?

As Elsie peels back the layers of her mother’s life, she confronts her own traumas and the resulting demons that continue to follow her. Little is as it seemed to either the younger Elsie or the divorced adult Elsie. Mothers and Other Strangers could have been written as a straight suspense novel or as a close study of an exceptionally difficult mother-daughter relationship. Instead, Sorrel has combined the two to generally good effect, although it occasionally makes for odd pacing. For example, just as the enigma of Rachel’s life becomes particularly intriguing, we are taken back to Elsie’s teenage years as a gifted dancer who steadily establishes her independence from a mother who is absent physically and emotionally. Both aspects of the story are compelling, but one makes you turn the pages faster, and readers can become greedy about a complex, thought-provoking plot. Wait! What happens next?! Why? How? No!

Suffice to say (no spoilers here!), Elsie moves back through her mother’s life, to Paris and on to South Africa, to discover her many secrets, including the one that had proven the most impervious of all: Why was Rachel the person — and mother — she was? By the end, she has changed from a mystifying and heartbreaking stranger into a flawed young woman fleeing her own tragedies and attempting to build a life for her daughter and herself. Elsie learns, as do we all, that who we are is a direct result of our parents’ character and choices, and that they are, like us, deeply imperfect people.

Feminist Fiction: Turning the Tide

  

By Susan DeFreitas

***

December 28, 2016

It’s been nearly two months since my debut novel was published, and I’ve gotten some lovely reviews. Read It Forward noted the authenticity of my details, the economy of my storytelling (“as if Donna Tartt had been edited by Gordon Lish”). Rain Taxi wrote that my novel brings “contemporary environmental activism into the literary vernacular.” Powell’s Books—the largest independent book store in the world, which happens to be my local shop—made it a staff pick, going so far as to call it “a must-read.”

But it’s only today that a reviewer has finally said what has seemed obvious to me from the start, and that reviewer is Megan Burbank, the arts editor of the Portland Mercury.

“Complexity is exactly what’s missing from literary fiction’s current obsession with stories about activist circles. While an author like Jonathan Franzen might make bemusingly unexamined digs at his squatters and freegans . . . DeFreitas strikes a delicate balance, depicting social agitation as, really, what it is: a gradual, infuriating, complex effort performed by smart, dedicated, flawed humans to varying degrees of commitment and success.”

If you are a writer—someone who has labored long over words that no one else will ever read—this is the moment when your hand flies to your heart.

“DeFreitas carries this laidback realism through Hot Season, from seemingly minor details that build her rich universe…to the book’s complicated, relatable women characters. (The men of Hot Season are refreshingly peripheral.) From unhappily coupled Jenna’s fantasy of solo life on a ranch without men, to Rell’s levelheaded attempt to balance her political ideals with the practical demands of her life, to Katie’s dangerous attraction to self-mythologizing, Hot Season is really a book about women.”

Holy shit, I could not help but think, somebody actually got it.

It’s true, as Burbank goes on to note, that in many activist movements, women and other marginalized people are often drowned out by “swaggering white-guy hypocrisy.” True too that in activist narratives, as in activist circles, the voices of women have often been drowned out by those of men.

For me, the case in point is Edward Abbey’s classic, The Monkey Wrench Gang. Abbey is the grand old man of American eco-fiction, an author who has inspired generations of environmental activists, and a larger-than-life character in the Southwest.

He’s also misogynistic as hell.  

The heroes of The Monkey Wrench Gang are Doc Sarvis, George Heyduke, and Seldom Seen Smith—a retired doctor, ex-Green Beret, and Mormon wilderness guide, respectively. The sole female character is Bonnie Abzug, a New York liberal with an exceptional bust line. Throughout the whole thrilling adventure, which (spoiler alert!) involves blowing things up and running from the cops, she complains incessantly.

As a writer who cares deeply about the West, I could not help but admire Abbey’s style, his gleeful subversion of the status quo (“Dr. Sarvis, with his bald mottled pate, was out on a routine neighborhood beautification project, burning billboards along the highway…”). Abbey held that the moral duty of a writer was to be a “critic of his own country, his own government, his own culture”—a stance I, a child of the 1970s counterculture, embraced. I loved his humor too: “Everything in this book is true, it just hasn’t happened yet.”

And yet I knew that if I was going to tackle similar themes in my fiction, I’d have to flip the script on gender. Moreover, Abbey’s fantasy of ecological retaliation—setting fire to billboards, blowing up bridges, and destroying construction equipment—while fun, struck me as fundamentally flawed. Real change, in my experience (as my protagonist Rell notes) is “nothing but long, slow, pissy work.”

But therein lay a challenge that I believe goes to the heart of the way that the novel, a male-dominated art form for most of its history, has been defined. Because if you don’t have the “money shot” of a dam blowing up, the climax in which your renegade heroes have a showdown with the bad guys—well, where’s the story?

Long, slow, pissy work may be the true work of civilization, but it’s also damn hard to write about.

I also knew that if I was going to push back against Ed Abbey, I couldn’t just make my female characters smart and capable at every turn (the foil of annoying Ms. Abzug). That would be falling into the trap of the “strong female protagonist”—which, to my mind, is no more than the sort of male hero we’ve grown sick of, but with boobs.

My approach was to write a novel with a multiplicity of female points of view. A novel in which, as Burbank pointed out, the male characters were “refreshingly peripheral.”

All of the main characters in Hot Season are female, and all of them are involved in the fight to save a local river—but their stances, ideologically speaking, range from timid to militant, starry-eyed to pragmatic, representing a whole range of personality types and developmental stages.

This was a college novel, after all. It was important to me that the young women in it were free to be both serious and silly, engaged with philosophy and politics but also preoccupied by romantic dramas (not to mention whether or not they would be able to find a job after graduation).

My overall goal with the novel, in terms of both the characters and their politics, was complexity—and here, at last, someone got it.

It does not surprise me that the reviewer who did is a graduate of Smith College, whose alumnae include Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem. A place, Burbank has noted elsewhere, “where women don’t have to apologize for being smart, where feminist ideals move from theory into practice.”

In fiction, as far as I’m concerned, moving from theory into practice means more than replacing male heroes with female ones. It means rethinking the way such narratives are structured.

Ursula K. Le Guin, perhaps my favorite living author, noted in an interview with David Naimon that not only must a female author overcome a literary establishment that seeks to silence her at the time of publication, she must gain champions in order to cement her legacy, in order to keep it from being silenced in the years to come.

Though Hot Season is a work of realist fiction, I claim Le Guin’s fantasy novel Voices as a blueprint. Voices is marketed to YA readers, with a cover suggesting no more than fan fiction set in Middle-Earth. But what lies within those covers is one of the most subversive works of feminist fiction ever written—one in which the “money shot” of conventional confrontation, when a subjugated society rises up against its colonial masters, and its attendant bloodshed is, somehow…averted.

The tension between societies, between moral positions, between cultures, which drives the story like a steam engine, is never, in fact, consummated. The war, however righteous, never reaches a flash point, preserving the lives of all concerned. It is speech—both rhetoric and poetry—that turns the tide, at the moment of highest tension.

That, to me, is revolutionary.

The climax of both Voices and Hot Season is the opposite of a “money shot.” It reverberates, again and again, through the lives of many characters, through many perspectives (call it a series of multiple orgasms).

In Voices, as in Hot Season, there’s a nod toward the classical (male-defined) structure of the novel, which mandates direct confrontation at the point of climax, and yet the text subverts it, in favor of the truth: civilization, our greatest achievement as a species, is not defined by violent confrontations.

It is defined by the less showy stuff, which is ultimately more real—the long, slow, pissy work that, ultimately, turns the tide.

***

An author, editor, and educator, Susan DeFreitas’s fiction, nonfiction, and poetry has appeared in the Utne Reader, The Nervous Breakdown, Story Magazine, Southwestern American Literature, and Weber—The Contemporary West, along with more than twenty other journals and anthologies. She is the author of the novel Hot Season (Harvard Square Editions, 2016) and the chapbook Pyrophitic (ELJ Publications, 2014). In 2014, her work was nominated for a Best of the Net award.

A graduate of Prescott College, DeFreitas has a background in marketing and publicity for green businesses, and from 2009 to 2012, she covered green technology for Earthtechling. Her creative work reflects on and incorporates themes related to the environment, sustainability, and the natural world. She holds an MFA from Pacific University and lives in Portland, Oregon, with her husband.

Jung Yun’s long and unlikely path to publication, from Fargo to NYC and beyond

              

Seven acclaimed women authors shared personal stories of their writing life at the ninth annual Pasadena Festival of Women Authors, held at the Pasadena Hilton on April 8.

Yaa Gyasi (Homegoing), Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney (The Nest), Vendela Vida (The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty), and Amy Stewart (Lady Cop Makes Trouble) headlined the event, speaking to more than 500 attendees in the hotel’s main ballroom. Mid-morning breakout sessions featured Elizabeth McKenzie (The Portable Veblen), Rufi Thorpe (Dear Fang, With Love), and Jung Yun (Shelter).

I attended the session with Jung Yun, whose debut novel, Shelter, impressed me (and seemingly everyone else who has read it). Yun’s path to publication is a long and unlikely one. She immigrated to the U.S. from South Korea at age 4, following her father, who came a year earlier to scout out a place in Chicago. Finding it too expensive, he was considering alternatives when someone told him that Fargo, North Dakota was a nice place to live and quite affordable. Yun laughed as she told us, “He visited in the summer!” Her father liked it, despite the fact that there was no Korean-American community there. You can imagine the family’s culture shock when they arrived in November.

Yun was slow to learn English, so she spent a great deal of time watching people, particularly how they addressed each other, an important element of communication in Korean. She began writing early and developed other interests common to the smart, solitary person: reading, painting, and playing music. Her artistic sensibility did not fit her parents’ ideas of what constituted worthwhile activities and career goals. Yun explained, “My parents had left everyone and everything for their children, and my achievements were material evidence of the value of their sacrifice.” The more pragmatic and academically successful she became, the more she lost her artistic interests and activities.

She attended Vassar College and the University of Pennsylvania and before long was working as the assistant to the president at the New York Public Library. Even though her parents would have preferred Yun to study something other than English and to enter a profession, she said, “I knew that it meant the world to my parents to visit me there,” in the iconic building with the statues of lions at the entrance and the impressive Rose Reading Room. Yun was both frustrated and inspired by the sight of writers like Gore Vidal and Francine Prose working in the Reading Room.

Walter Mosley spoke to her one day and when she said she was a writer, too, he immediately asked, “What are you working on?” His interest and acceptance in her as a fellow writer validated her. But when she said she wasn’t writing much because of the demands of her job (including working 15 hours a day), he replied, “Something has to give.” She needed to write. Unhappy with work, she enrolled in a community writing workshop in Tribeca. It was the source the greatest happiness in her life. “I never missed class, no matter how crazy my day was. Sometimes I raced down there for class and then went back to the library to work into the night.”

After the events of 9/11, she decided to leave New York. Within nine months, she quit her job, sold her apartment, got a divorce, and moved to Amherst to earn an MFA in Creative Writing at the University of Massachusetts. It all seemed so drastic that her boss at the NYPL asked her, “Are you OK?” So, in 2002 she found herself living in Amherst with a cow for a neighbor. “That was the first thing I saw every morning.” She found the MFA program “a trying experience, I wanted to quit the entire time.” But she earned her MFA and continued to write while working as an administrator at UMass.

The inspiration for Shelter came in 2004. Her parents were getting older and talking about retirement, something she struggled to grasp, as they were such hard-working people. She knew they were going to need her and her sister more. This change of circumstances inspired scenes and conflicts that eventually led to the novel. But she shelved the idea until 2007, when she read about a violent home invasion in Connecticut, which only the father survived. She followed the case obsessively. In time, she connected one of the early scenes from the book – of the mother wandering around the backyard naked – with this crime. Yun became intrigued by the question of what would happen to a family with a history of violence in their lives.

Yun started writing Shelter in 2010 and finished in 2013. Having turned 40 during its writing and receiving no response from agents, she began to feel discouraged about the likelihood of being published. “But I knew I couldn’t return to life in New York, so I kept writing and revising, trying to turn the character of Kyung [the young husband and father at the center of the novel] into a person.”

Yun concluded the story of her long path to publication by telling the audience, “I was 42 when an agent took Shelter on, 43 when I got a publishing contract [with Picador], and 44 when it was published [last year].”

Jung Yun lives in Baltimore with her husband and serves as an assistant professor of English at the George Washington University. Shelter was a finalist for the 2016 Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Award and the Good Reads Best Fiction Book of the Year, and was long-listed for the Center for Fiction’s First Novel Prize. It was also an Indie Next selection, a Barnes & Noble Discover spring 2016 selection, an Amazon Best Books of March 2016 selection, an iBooks Best Books of March 2016 selection, and one of Google Play’s Best Books of Spring 2016.

***

The PFWA began in 2009 when Pasadena residents Elsie Sadler and Susan Long, inspired the Long Beach Festival of Authors sponsored by the city’s Literary Women group, collaborated with Peggy Buchanan, Executive Director of the Pasadena Senior Center, to host a small gathering of book lovers with six authors, including Gail Tsukuyama and Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey. With a rapidly growing membership, the board formed the Pasadena Literary Alliance, a 501(c)(3) non-profit, in 2015. Proceeds from the event are donated to the Senior Center’s Masters-in-Learning program and Pasadena City College’s Writer-in-Residence program.

Authors featured in previous festivals include Aimee Bender, Cynthia Bond, NoViolet Bulawayo, Heidi Durrow, Fannie Flagg, Reyna Grande, Kristin Hannah, Michelle Huneven, Attica Locke, Joyce Maynard, Nayomi Munaweera, Lisa See, Maggie Shipstead, Marisa Silver, Mona Simpson, Susan Straight, and Helene Wecker.

Photo of Jung Yun by Stephanie Craig

Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney shares the story of her late success at Pasadena Festival of Women Authors

   

Seven acclaimed women authors shared personal stories of their writing life at the ninth annual Pasadena Festival of Women Authors, held at the Pasadena Hilton on April 8.

Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney (The Nest), Yaa Gyasi (Homegoing), Vendela Vida (The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty), and Amy Stewart (Lady Cop Makes Trouble) headlined the event, speaking to more than 500 attendees in the hotel’s main ballroom. Mid-morning breakout sessions featured Elizabeth McKenzie (The Portable Veblen), Rufi Thorpe (Dear Fang, With Love), and Jung Yun (Shelter).

I’ll be posting articles about five of the authors’ presentations (the four main speakers and Jung Yun; I was unable to attend the McKenzie or Thorpe breakout sessions), starting with Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney.

D’Aprix Sweeney opened the festival with an engaging explanation of her decades-long path to “overnight success” with her debut novel, The Nest. After graduating college with a journalism degree in 1986, D’Aprix Sweeney moved to New York City to work in corporate communications. A few years later, she was in grad school but really “wanted to write fiction and sleep.” She sent a letter to friends and family announcing her intention “to be a serious writer in the style of Jay McInerny.” Even now, she can’t help but laugh and roll her eyes at her younger self’s naivete. She bought a Tandy 1000 computer (“which was really just a word processor”) and mostly played solitaire on it.

Working at the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel as a night operator, she tried to write during the day. She kept working and writing, but she remained disappointed in her writing. She “read like a maniac,” hoping it would “light something on fire in my brain or heart” and then she would sit down to write. She realized she “loved fiction as a reader, but not as a writer.” So she became a freelance magazine writer for the next ten years.

When, in her 40s, she moved to Park Slope in Brooklyn, she met writers and “got the itch again.” But she felt like there was a writers’ club with a sign that read “Keep Out, Middle-Aged Lady.” She was “a good literary citizen for [her] writer friends” but was not writing her own fiction. In 2005, she read an essay by Elizabeth Gilbert in the New York Times Magazine’s “True Life Tales” feature; inspired, she wrote one and submitted it. It was rejected, but the editor told her, “We all agree you are a very fine writer.”

She began to write again, mostly “essays about myself.” When a writer friend read one of her essays, she told D’Aprix Sweeney she should turn it into a short story, but she demurred, saying she didn’t know how to write fiction. Her friend’s advice: “Write the essay, put it in third person, and you get to add things you make up.” So, at age 48, she attempted fiction again. She applied to the Bennington MFA program and was accepted. She tossed her first manuscript, saying she liked only two paragraphs of it. Eventually, she realized, “You have to write the pages you hate to get to the pages you love.” Eventually, she wrote a story that would become “The Nest.” Her thesis adviser, Bret Anthony Johnston (Remember Me Like This) thought there was a novel in it, and in time that’s what it became.

D’Aprix Sweeney ultimately signed a seven-figure contract with Ecco Books. The Nest went on to become a massive New York Times bestseller and has been translated into two dozen languages. D’Aprix Sweeney described the experience of the past year as “like being hit by a rogue wave and trying to swim back to shore.”  The book is being made into a movie for Amazon Films by producer Jill Soloway, the creator of “Transparent.”

The recent passing of Nobel Prize-winning poet Derek Walcott reminded D’Aprix Sweeney of one of his best-known poems, “Love After Love,” which she feels captures her perspective at success age 55.

“The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.”

D’Aprix Sweeney explained that, after many years, she now has compassion for her younger self and is able to love the stranger she was. “She hung around for 30 years to share in my overnight success.”

During a brief Q&A session following her speech, she was asked how she liked living in Los Angeles after spending most of her life in New York. “I love L.A. and I love N.Y. They’re two totally different places, and my heart is big enough for both of them.”

***

The PFWA began in 2009 when Pasadena residents Elsie Sadler and Susan Long, inspired the Long Beach Festival of Authors sponsored by the city’s Literary Women group, collaborated with Peggy Buchanan, Executive Director of the Pasadena Senior Center, to host a small gathering of book lovers with six authors, including Gail Tsukuyama and Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey. With a rapidly growing membership, the board formed the Pasadena Literary Alliance, a 501(c)(3) non-profit, in 2015. Proceeds from the event are donated to the Senior Center’s Masters-in-Learning program and Pasadena City College’s Writer-in-Residence program.

Authors featured in previous festivals include Aimee Bender, Cynthia Bond, NoViolet Bulawayo, Heidi Durrow, Fannie Flagg, Reyna Grande, Kristin Hannah, Michelle Huneven, Attica Locke, Joyce Maynard, Nayomi Munaweera, Lisa See, Maggie Shipstead, Marisa Silver, Mona Simpson, Susan Straight, and Helene Wecker.

Randy Susan Meyers on Likable Characters, Betty Crocker, and Excusing Violence

  

A few years ago, when speaking about my then-just-released novel, Accidents of Marriage, a reporter mentioned how surprised she was by her negative reactions to one of the main characters—the wife—and how she “provoked” her husband. The reporter sympathized with the other main character, the husband, and understood his raging. The next day, participating on a book festival panel, the moderator spoke of the husband in the book as a virtual out-of-control monster and his wife as a frightened woman battling emotional abuse.

That they had opposite reactions pleased me. Making characters as nuanced on the page as we are in life is a priority—plus, just as an author’s belief system colors their work, readers bring their own experiences as they judge the characters we create. (Like how as teenagers, girls found their favorite Beatle; mine was George. I’ve always been drawn to the quiet ones.)

Nevertheless, I’ve noted a troubling undertone in reactions to novels about domestic violence—about whether a woman (or man) “deserves” to live without verbal, emotional, or any other sort of abuse. In Accidents of Marriage (where I used multiple points of view: a wife, a husband, and their 14-year-old daughter), Maddy is married to Ben, a man with a hair-trigger temper; she never knows what will set it off. When he’s charming, he’s terrific: funny, smart, and capable. Irate, he’s terrifying: raging, critical, and blaming the world for his troubles.

Relationship interactions aren’t static in life or in novels. Sometimes Maddy placates, working hard to keep her children unaware of the problems she and Ben face; other times she gives in to her frustration and edginess and answers back. Plus, she’s messy, a working mother with three children, who’s rarely (if ever) on top of the unending chores facing the family. When life becomes too much, she’ll carve off a slice of a Xanax. But is any of that equivalent with “deserving” to be screamed at, raged at, or to be driven at speeds that petrify her? Did she “deserve” to end up in an accident that changes her entire life?

For years, I worked with batterers, criminals, and men ordered to a violence intervention program, and the hardest nut to crack was convincing them of this: one’s violence, one’s temper, or one’s temperament doesn’t need to be contingent on another’s behavior. We must control ourselves. To wit, we scream at our spouses and children—rarely do we verbally attack our bosses no matter how much they enrage us. Why? Because our bosses have power over us, and we, in fact, do have control—it’s all about whether we choose to use that skill or not. And yes, it takes work.

Which brings me to the likable character. There’s been a debate in literature (especially when the author and/or main character is a woman) about whether a book should be judged on the likability of a character, which flies in the face of what I want in a book: to be fascinated by the men and women populating it, to root for them to change, and for them to get through their crucibles as unburned as possible.

And with the “bad guys”? I want them to own up to their deeds and pay for them.

In Accidents of Marriage, the only innocents are the children. (And they have their extremely unlikable moments. Is there a child who doesn’t?)

Which brings me to Betty Crocker.

When I worked in domestic violence, we spoke about working against the Betty Crocker Syndrome (Betty Crocker representing the impossible “perfect woman”) and the overwhelming importance of teaching the public, the men we worked with, and those in the field how we should never judge the behavior of a perpetrator by the personality of their victim. Nobody deserves to be abused. Nobody learns (not children, not adults) through terror.

Terror is the abuser’s tool. It’s how they offload their own defeat. It’s how they release their own negativity on those around them.

It’s never a tool for building family. Not in life, not on the pages of a novel. The very best way to comport oneself is to follow the moral code you’ve built for yourself and not allow it to be mutable based on another’s behavior.

It’s hard work to get there in life or on the page. But that’s what I want in the novels I read and write: stories of imperfect men and flawed women taking the long, hard journey.

So I think I’m speaking on behalf of many authors when I say judge us on our lousy writing, our bad grammar, our lack of plot, our sloppy syntax, and our purple prose. But please, don’t expect all of us to feature Betty Crocker. Sometimes we want to get inside the head of the Carmela Sopranos. The complicated women. The women we hide inside; the women we live with.

Bio

Randy Susan Meyers’ novels are informed by her work with families impacted by emotional and family violence — and a long journey from idolizing bad boys to loving a good man. After years working in social service and criminal justice, Meyers published her first novel, The Murderer’s Daughters, a story of the aftermath of domestic violence. Her fourth novel, The Widow of Wall Street, will be published on April 11. Meyers and her husband live in Boston, where she teaches writing at Grub Street Writer’s Center and Writer in Progress in Northampton. Her novels have twice been chosen by the Massachusetts Center for the Book as “Must Read Fiction.”

American Academy of Arts and Letters honors 19 writers, including Haigh, Spiotta, Sinclair

   

Jennifer Haigh                                  Safiya Sinclair               Dana Spiotta 

 

The American Academy of Arts and Letters announced today the names of 19 writers who will receive the 2017 awards in literature, which will be presented in New York City at the Academy’s annual Ceremonial in May.  The literature prizes, totaling $265,000, honor both established and emerging writers of fiction, nonfiction, drama, and poetry.  The Academy’s 250 members propose candidates, and a rotating committee of writers selects winners.  This year’s award committee members were John Guare (chairman), Thomas McGuane, Anne Tyler, Rosanna Warren, and Joy Williams.

Recipients include novelists Jennifer Haigh (Heat and Light, Baker Towers, News from Heaven) and Dana Spiotta (Innocents and Others, Stone Arabia) and poets Kathleen Graber (The Eternal City, Correspondence) and Safiya Sinclair (Cannibal).

Haigh and Graber received Arts and Letters Awards in Literature, which honor “exceptional accomplishment in any genre” and come with a $10,000 prize.

Spiotta received the John Updike Award ($20,000), which is “given biennially to a writer in mid-career whose work has demonstrated consistent excellence.” Spiotta’s Innocents and Others is a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Award in Fiction, which will be announced on April 21.

Sinclair was chosen for the Addison M. Metcalf Award ($10,000), which is “given to a young writer of fiction, nonfiction, drama, or poetry.” The Jamaican-born poet, currently a PhD candidate in literature and creative writing at the University of Southern California, is a 2016 Whiting Award winner, and her debut collection, Cannibal, won the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Poetry.

Work by the winners will be featured in the 2017 Exhibition of Work by Newly Elected Members and Recipients of Honors and Awards, which will be on view in the Academy’s galleries from May 18 to June 11.