The Form I Go To When I Have Questions: A Conversation with Danielle Evans about setting, the writing process, and perspective.
Danielle Evans is the author of the short-story collection Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, which was a co-winner of the 2011 PEN American Robert W. Bingham Prize for a first book, a National Book Foundation 5 under 35 selection for 2011, the winner of the 2011 Paterson Prize for Fiction and the 2011 Hurston-Wright award for fiction, and an honorable mention for the 2011 PEN/Hemingway award. It was named one of the best books of 2010 by Kirkus Reviews and O Magazine, and longlisted for The Story Prize. Evans’s work has appeared in magazines including The Paris Review, A Public Space, American Short Fiction, Callaloo, The Sewanee Review, and Phoebe, and has been anthologized in The Best American Short Stories 2008, 2010, 2017, and 2018, and in New Stories from the South. Evans received an MFA in fiction from the Iowa Writers Workshop, has taught creative writing at American University in Washington DC and the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and now teaches in The Writing Seminars at Johns Hopkins University.
On November 7, 2018, Danielle Evans joined Interlochen Arts Academy Creative Writing students for a master class and reading. Interlochen Review editors Ash Freeman, Miracle Thornton, and Sylvanna Vitali sat down with her for a conversation about her collection, Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, .
Ash Freeman: When did you know you had enough stories to fill your collection Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self?
Danielle Evans: For a long time I was just working with stories and I wasn’t working with an end goal. Theoretically, I wanted to write a book someday but I didn’t have a sense that I was working toward checking off boxes to write a book. I had gathered the oldest stories in the book, which were in edited form in my undergraduate thesis at college. I put together a collection but it wasn’t really the process of putting together a book because it was just a collection of everything you wrote that you don’t hate. I went to grad school with that, thinking “I should try to put this into a book” and I thought that was going to be a much faster process. I thought I’d just edit a few of them and put a cover on it. I realized, in graduate school, that things needed much more work and I needed to think in different directions so I just started writing stories without having the idea that they were necessarily all a part of the same collection.
When I left grad school I felt, again, that the book was done. Then I had a one year fellowship where I had a chance to just look at the project and there were some stories that I felt still needed work and some stories that I felt that early in my career I was trying to write myself into the writer I wanted to be. Even though they felt like different stories at the time, I looked at them in terms of topics and they were just better versions of what I was trying to do before. So I dropped some stories because of that, I dropped some stories that just felt like they weren’t up to par and I wasn’t interested in them enough to keep editing them.
I think of a collection like a series of overlapping circles like a Venn diagram, I wanted all of the stories in the collection to have something in common with some of the other stories with ideally a couple of other stories but you don’t want any of them to be overlapping circles entirely, you don’t want them to swallow each other up. The ideas of the stories should be in conversation with each other and not all saying the same thing.
I felt like it was a complete collection when my agent and I sent it out (and in conversation with my editor) then we pulled one story that hadn’t been originally in the book. It was very tonally different and different in setting than everything else. One way or the other it was going to take up too much space. Then I wrote, before I sent it out, what I thought was going to be the last story in the collection with the idea of the other stories in mind and the idea of what space I was writing into.
For a long time, that process was just about what I was doing from story to story until very close to the end that I thought about things in conversation. I had enough material pagewise for a book long before I had a book.
AF: Thinking about conversation and what you wanted your collection to communicate, when you began writing it, did you know what you wanted this collection to communicate? For example, current events at the time, socio-economic issues, larger themes?
DE: I think of a collection as a conversation between stories but it’s also a conversation between the reader [and writer]. I think part of fiction is leaving some of that space open for the reader to come into the story. That doesn’t mean all fiction has a point of view in terms of what the world is and how it should be because those ideas are always, to some degree, political. I think in the sense of what I was trying to say, there are forms for that and fiction feels like the form that I go to when I have questions.
Some of the things come from when you see something happen. Such as when you see a news story and you wonder, “how does that happen?” and I want to answer that question. Often when I have that question I want to know as little about the actual event as possible because what I’m interested in is the space of possibility. The more I know about something that’s interesting, the less interesting it becomes to me but I’m trying to write into that space.
I didn’t have an idea, story to story or with the whole book, that I wanted somebody to read the story and kind of come away with X, Y, Z thoughts or feelings via a space that people could come to from different spaces and find something in it that was revelatory and that they hadn’t thought about the world that way or hadn't noticed something or somebody’s life in that way. And also feel that at some point in the collection they felt recognized or there were words for something they had felt but not seen in writing before. But I didn’t have a more specific “believe this at the end of the book” ambition than that.
Sylvanna Vitali: What stories do you think, specifically, are doing the most work with that?
DE: I think that’s a question that varies by the reader. I do think that that’s the pleasure of a collection. I had a friend once –– this is stolen from somebody who I don’t even know who I stole it from because the person who told it to me a professor at the University of Minnesota but was at Michigan for a while –– she said she had a friend come visit her class and someone asked her why short stories? and that friend, a Sri Lankan writer, said “I thought if I wrote a novel with one voice, everybody would say ‘Oh that’s the voice that’s representative of the experience of your people’, and I get all these sociological interests. I wanted to write something that had enough voices that people couldn’t do that to me.”
I think that’s the pleasure of a short story collection, that people do get to experience it over and over again. You want all the stories to feel like they have a standard level of quality. I ask myself when I get to the end of a short story where what the small/operative/narrative question that the story promises to answer; what is the mystery of the story and when do you get to solve it? Then the larger thematic questions that you want to leave open ended, that you want the reader to sit with after they’ve put the book down. So if I feel like I can see what I was trying to do in the story and those questions feel like they were appropriately resolved or unresolved then I’m happy. But beyond that, which stories are going to do that work of making readers feel like they’ve seen something new or understand something is going to depend on the reader and I’m okay with that.
SV: We all came away with the impression that there’s this tension happening between actual events that happened to your characters and the way those stories are conveyed and how the perspectives filters those. We wanted to ask you if you have anything to say about how this specific tension moves throughout your stories and how you see that being created?
DE: Most of the book is in first person and first person is always the story of how we tell the story in addition to what happened. The kind of person who’s doing the most with first person is Alice Munro because there’s almost always a frame around the story; there’s some event then some reason somebody is looking back at it, then you have the territory of all that distance doing a lot of work of that’s retrospective even though sometimes not that much time has passed between what happened and what we’re looking back on.
For me, in a first person story, you want there to be some tension between the events of the story, what’s important and what’s happened and the way a person is able to talk about it. The way some characters will start with the most traumatic part of the story and then fill in the gaps later. Some characters will take a long time to get to what the story is all about. Some characters will use humor defensively, some will use it self-deprecatingly. All of that tells you something about the psychology of the story and where someone is in relation to that experience and how they did or didn’t survive it.
So I do think a lot in first person about not just the structure of the story in terms of chronology but when we’re telling a story we’re not always telling a story chronologically because we want to get to the important part first or because it takes a long time to say the thing we want to say. So figuring out how to build that into story structure so it feels like someone is telling the story and someone could plausibly have that understanding of the story. The stories that aren’t in first person in that collection–– like I can’t imagine Georgie narrating his own story, even though it primarily follows him and it’s in his head. It’s in third, and a very close third. There’s a big connection between a first and a close third and I ask myself, “Can I imagine this person saying these words out loud?” And you don’t have to have a particular occasion in mind.
I think a lot about how the characters would be able to talk about the things that happen, where they would place the important part of the story even if the framing is that we see around that to see what the actual meaningful thing is.
Miracle Thornton: Do you think that your characters are the driving force of your stories or do you find yourself fitting characters to a certain plot that you’ve already established?
DE: I rarely start with plot. Sometimes I start with voice, which I feel is slightly different than character because it takes me a while to write into who this person is and to know who is talking or why they’re saying the things that they’re saying. Sometimes I’ll start with a particularly clear sentence and just follow it until I get a voice, then back up and say okay, now I know this character, what will they do or not do”.
I often need character before I can get too deep into plot because I think what builds a story are those moments when you press a character into having to make a decision. What we want in fiction is at tension between the external self and the interior self. That’s what creates the energy of narrative and the capacity for characters to surprise us. We are one person in the world, we are saying one thing, we are doing one thing but what we’re feeling might push against that and might make it possible to believe that at any moment we might do the opposite of what we’re doing, or that there’s some tension if what we’re doing feels like the expected thing and something underneath that says I don’t want to be doing this, I don’t want to be saying this. I try to work a lot with that space of interior tension. One of the ways to figure out exactly what’s happening in that space is to push a character into having to make a choice or take an action to structure the plot. So that it reveals to me where that tension is and who they are and who they pretend to be; or who they are and who they want to be. Those for me are the interesting tensions that make stories kind of layered and possible.
Sometimes I’ll play with plot and see what I get action off of, in terms of creating actions which a character has to react to, and just keep the first one that seems interesting and go from there.
AF: When you’re moving between perspectives, for example Erica and Tara from “Virgins” and “Snakes”, how do the characters speak to each other? Does your willingness to let things happen (such as Tara letting her grandmother cut her hair) make your characters unreliable narrators?
DE: I think unreliable narration is different from unreliable action. It makes them unreliable people or just children who are dealing with things that are beyond their pay grade in what they have power to control. You can have an unreliable narrator who does everything right in the story and does everything we think is morally or responsibly the right thing to do but still do something that felt choppy and fragmented or concealed things. You can also have a perfectly reliable narrator who’s a terrible person. Sometimes those are fun narrators because you get into that interiority or sense of why this character doesn’t think they’re the villain of the story when they’re clearly the villain even in their own telling.
None of my characters reach that point of villain, they all mean to be good people. The kind of unreliability that comes into the narration is often the unreliability of trauma. Sometimes it’s the unreliability of asserting that they had more control over situations than they did. How much of that is unreliability and how much of it is the psychology of the character? It’s a reader question.
In “Snakes,” I was working deliberately with that unreliability and the layer of her telling a story and then telling a different story within the story felt really important to me––that this person, all these years later, hadn’t honestly dealt with these things that had happened. It also created an artificial narrative that gave her more control of the narrative even though she was able to make more choices in the actual story. That complication is what I was interested in. By the time she reacted to the world as a child she had no choices but very extreme ones and as an adult she had reshaped that story so she had less choice in it but choice about how to tell it and who to tell it to and in what ways to show that story. Her growing awareness of that was part of the interesting layering of her character for me.
AF: How do these stories, as a collection, echo or contrast each other?
DE: I think that one of the fun things about being a writer is that you get free therapy for life because people just come up to you and tell you what your recurring obsessions are, and you’re like “Oh, I didn’t know that?” because if you did you wouldn’t be able to write into them. So, I think there are lots of areas of overlap or intersection in the stories that I probably wasn’t aware of or intentionally writing toward.
Toward the end of the process, we talked about story order. I think that “Virgins” and “Robert E. Lee Is Dead” kind of bookend the collection because they are the stories that are most squarely about adolescence. It felt right to open with one that feels immediate although it is retrospective, that it feels there hasn’t been much processing of these events, whereas “Robert E. Lee Is Dead” has more of a looking-back distance. You can see the adult narrator pressing on the story and that tells a little bit about where she is in relationship to things. Some of the work in the middle [of the collection] [explores] earlier adulthood, stories where people are often wrestling with this idea of who they thought they were going to grow up to be and who they felt like they have grown up to be. They’re doing some work to get from the space of experiencing things to the space of looking back and trying to assemble it into a story that feels like the story of who you are, even though it may not be the most honest version of it.
MT: Jumping back to something you talked about a bit earlier, I was wondering what it was like to publish a collection so early on in your career? Did your studies or the places you were in have any influence?
DE: That was a combination of being very stubborn and very lucky. I mean lucky both in that things worked out things worked out very quickly. There’s only so much of the process you can control when you work in a field that is extremely subjective. I felt good about the collection but I’ve been surprised by how much attention and affection it’s received because that part is a little bit random. Not that you haven’t earned it, but there are dozens of other people that didn’t get it.
I think that a part of being able to put it together so early is that I was also fairly lucky in my workshop experiences. I went in as a young woman writer of color writing stories that were largely about young black women. I think there are classrooms where I would have felt I had to rewrite to fit the tone of the room—that those stories weren’t welcome or weren’t taken seriously. I didn’t have, for the most part, classes that felt like that. My classrooms were full of people that took my writing very seriously as it was and didn’t want me to be a different kind of writer. They took seriously that I was trying to write the best version of these stories and they would put pressure on them. I felt largely that I had support.
I found an agent early on that was a big advocate and was really excited about what I was doing. And so, the other end of that kind of worked out faster than I’d intended. With your first book you don’t really know you’ve created a book until you already almost have one. Getting back to that space where I think I can do anything took longer with later projects. I’ve been working on a couple of different things for a long time now and I did have to get back to that space of feeling like nobody cared what I was doing, to get back to a place where I could care about what I was doing.
I feel very lucky in terms of the reception of the first book. I feel like all I could do to control what I did was to do the best work that I could, that felt the most honest to what I wanted it to be.
SV: Were you thinking about stages of life in how you ordered these stories? And if so, how do you see them interacting with each other?
DE: I had originally intended “Wherever You Go, There You Are” to be the last story in the book. The order that I had put them in [originally] was similar to the one that they ended up as, except for the last two stories. It was my editor’s decision to start with “Virgins” and end with “Robert E. Lee Is Dead,” and I think it was a good decision in the way that I talked about earlier, bookingending the collection in the space of being young and looking back.
For a long time I resisted that there were lots of coming of age stories in that book, and I don’t anymore. In part, just because time has passed and I’ve been working with characters who are in a different space in their lives than the second story collection I’m writing, working differently with tense and point of view.
SV: Do you think that setting, in particular the way I see it gravitating to the Northeast (New York, New Jersey), contributes to that or was that sort of a choice that you made about keeping it within a context and locations are, in some part, arbitrary?
DE: I think they were less arbitrary as that was the part of the world I had lived in for most of my life. Until I went to grad school I had never lived off of the East Coast. I’d been in the Northeast and the Mid-Atlantic most of my life and spent a little bit of time in the South. I went to middle school in Ohio but I blocked that from my memory completely.
It wasn’t until I lived in the Midwest as an adult that I thought a lot about region and culture because I constantly felt really culturally different than where I grew up, and it took me years to really process and articulate. In retrospect they do seem like much more regional stories than they intentionally were, because I don’t think I knew how specific a place I was writing about until I lived in other places. I think I just thought, you know, there’s these conventions in fiction where things go unsaid for a long time and I always thought that was just a fiction thing people did because they needed to have a story, so the story would be resolved in five minutes and somebody would just say the thing and I was like, “Oh they just did that because otherwise it would ruin the story.”And then I lived in the Midwest and I was like, “people go years without saying things directly… Amazing!” There are patterns of communication that were not intentionally regional that in retrospect I can see they very much are.
MT: Has distance from these stories revealed anything to you about them?
DE: Yeah, and I find them in conversation often with wonderful people like you. I try not to read my own book unless people force me to. And I’m glad that people still force me to, it means a lot to me that people are still reading this book eight years after it came out and still having questions and conversations about it, but sometimes I feel like I do get far enough that I’m starting to just kind of make up the answers. Which I guess means it’s time for me to write a new book so people can ask me questions about that. But I think that it’s useful as a writer to feel done with your work even if you’re obviously not done.
Part of why writers hate reading their work is that they always want to go back and fix things, and that energy is usually better spent moving forward and figuring out what you’re interested in now. Sometimes if you feel like you didn’t do it well enough in the previous book, sometimes because you did it fine and now you want to try something else. I feel like there probably is, in some way, a reaction to this collection that is so much about exploring that idea of first person retrospection and psychology. I’m now almost done with a story collection that’s almost all third person present tense. That feels, not intentionally but in some way, a reactive challenge I gave myself to this book. I had a former colleague, a brilliant poet, who in the way of poets can be a little overdramatic. He came to my class once and said “the job of the writer is always to kill the self that wrote the last book.” I think about that a lot––I don’t want to be that dramatic about it but I do think we’re always trying to outgrow the person we were as a writer because you want to do the thing that feels like you’re not sure if you can do it. You want to do the thing you feels like there’s risk in. I don’t look back at my own work in that writerly way at this point; I feel like I look at other people’s work because there’s more for me to learn from reading other people and figuring out what they did that’s interesting and what they did that’s frustrating me than there is from my own work, which feels more like wallowing.
AF: Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self is a part of “The Bridge Poem” by Donna Kate Ruskin. Why did you choose this title and where did you see the title of your collection resonating in certain stories?
DE: I read that poem in college. The poem begins with this bit about translation and it spoke to me in terms of what I felt like my project was as a writer, that we are always trying to translate other people’s lives so that other people can see them or understand them and hear them. And that translation is always fraught, like various layers of questions losing meaning, or also politics and performance and all these things she sort of brilliantly explores in the poem. And so when I was looking for a title for the collection, I liked the titles of the individual stories but none of them seemed on their own to do the work I needed them to do in terms of gesturing toward the whole, and that line was the epigraph and I eventually made it also the title and the poet was very kind in allowing me to do that. I didn’t realize that when you write a book you’re responsible for your own permission so you have to find the people, and sometimes it’s a big deal. There were two lines of Jay-Z that I would’ve had to pay more than my entire advance to put in the book because you have to go through fancy people and any time you want to use music they don’t understand writer money so they’re like “What? No you have to pay us an astronomical amount if you want to use our lyrics if they’re not in the public domain.”
For writers often it’s a publisher, and sometimes like in this particular case, the book was out of print, the press was no longer existent so the rights had all reverted to the poet, who was lovely about letting me use the poem as the epigraph. But I do think a lot of the stories are about that first person space of trying to tell the story of who you think you are when you’re not understood that way or in navigating the kinds of things the poem talks about in terms of being out of place in the space that is in some ways supposed to belong to you. For a lot of those characters, that’s everywhere because the point is they’re sort of in this transitional generation in this transitional phase of their lives where everywhere is a little bit unwilling to see the whole of them.
MT: Did you say that you grew up mostly in the Northeast area?
DE: Mostly in the Mid-Atlantic. My father was in New York and my family was in Jersey so I went back and forth a lot up and down the Northeast.
MT: Kind of branching off of what Sylvanna said about locations, are there any parts of the landscape that you used to in some way familiarize the reader with each type of character, or parts of the voice that leaked into one another?
DE: Yeah, I mean I do think that region has a lot to do with in what way a story feels possible, in some ways that I don’t think I understood. I didn’t understand they were regionally specific, but in retrospect I can see them that way. And in some ways, just in terms of what setting makes possible, sometimes I would set a story in a place where I needed teenagers to be able to move around, so I needed them to be able to hop on a train and be able to get into the city and being able to have lived and visited a lot of places made me aware of where certain things could take place and the way that a plot could be built around them. And also one of the things I had to teach myself as a writer that I think I was still learning, and part of the revision for a lot of these stories was getting better at it, was to really physically ground the world. I’m a writer who starts with character, and sometimes on my first drafts the setting is super fuzzy, and I’ve gotten better at it but that’s the thing that I tend to edit for.
I think what helped me understand how to edit for it was understanding how much setting always comes from a character, or at least narrative perspective if there’s more narrative distance but, you know, that old cliché that nothing comes from nowhere, that we’re all seeing through our particular set of eyes, and so it wasn’t just “where is this place?” but “how does this person see or describe this place? What do they notice?” It wasn’t trying to fit the whole expansive landscape. I’m never going to be a particularly pastoral writer who can give you paragraphs of trees––no shade on people who write paragraphs of trees, they’re beautiful, I just can’t do it. Because I don’t know what the trees are called. But what I can do is tell you what a person sees and how they feel. For me, getting at landscape through interiority was a way into that kind of sharpness. Often you get one or two things, but you get them really clearly and you get them in a way that is hopefully emotionally revealing. I think that’s some of the emotional logic of the collection, because it’s not in that kind of muted, understated way. People have a lot of feelings and they say them all. That feels like story logic that is a little regional, cultural in ways that I didn’t know because I just thought that was how people behaved. Until I met people that had grown up really differently than I did, where there families didn’t just say everything to each other’s faces. And so the particular logic of that feels like it’s a little bit place and culturally specific in ways that I wouldn’t have known enough to know it was when I wrote it.
AF: In what ways do the stories in your collection create a tension between the actual events happening and the trauma suffered by the characters, versus the way the stories are told to the reader?
DE: I think that varies by story. What makes it possible to believe these as first person narrators is that they’re people who feel like they’re constantly being misunderstood, and so that desire to protect the traumatic thing is the intention of the desire to just have somebody understand. And often people who don’t feel like they have space in their actual life to tell the truth, and so the fictional space becomes the space where the true story can exist, and that’s often the space where I would go into the story from.
I do think probably the greatest amount of unreliability or intentional unreliability in the narration is around trauma. Even people who have a clear memories of things, sometimes their sense of what happened after or what choices were made in the wake of, or what choices were made that led to [trauma], assigns blame in interesting ways. Sometimes too much self-blame, sometimes not enough. Where people are in their level of understanding of trying to understand why this thing happened and what their own relationship to it is is often some of that space for the reader to kind of go into and figure out what’s happening in the narration. One of the interesting things, and I’ve been thinking about this a lot more now that I’ve been writing more in the present tense, is that trauma and talking about trauma often comes with contradiction, and you’ve got to let some of that contradiction ride. That people will say something and say something else that’s the opposite of that.
Part of your job as a writer is to manage the story enough that the reader will trust you and trust the voice enough to know that that’s an intentional contradiction and that you didn’t just forget what they said a page ago, but that negotiation is still something that’s happening for the character and it’s important for the reader to understand that. So I think that’s the space that I often wrestle with when trying to write about things that it’s hard for someone to talk about. Even when I think they’re telling the truth, the truth may be two or three different things, and how do I get them all on the page and still have the reader trust me.