“If I could choose just one piece of advice, it would be to read, read, and read widely.”
Hometown (V. Press, 2016)
My first impression of you, besides reading your work, was visiting your Twitter account. One thing that stood out to me was a strong stance for political and societal issues. In particular there was a post with the ending line, “…and a black man fell down, and a black man felled a white man and the news spread.” How should one reply to critics professionally and still proclaim their beliefs on their platform?
Ah, you’re quoting a prose poem I wrote and posted online a couple years ago (I do this rarely, as it means it’s hard to find print publication for such work). I believe we all have a responsibility to recognize our political beliefs (as opposed to some people who profess to be apolitical) and stand up for them with action. In replying to any critics, I’d do my best to be respectful, though when that critic seems particularly ignorant or prejudiced, that can be very difficult. I haven’t yet experienced much flack on social media for my political posts, probably because I am not a prominent public figure.
Also, on Twitter are several pictures of your cats. Do you identify as a cat mom and do Max and Susu ever distract you from working? Have you thought about adding any more animals to the family soon or in the future? Have you ever had any other pets as a child?
I rarely post pictures of my cats Max and Susu, but yes, they’re there! They can distract me from working—indeed, Susu once vomited on the open pages of a book I was reviewing. I felt rather awkward going back to the press to explain why I needed another copy….
Max and Susu are rather territorial rescue cats, so I don’t imagine we’ll add any more pets soon. Living near cornfields in Illinois, my family always had 4-6 cats, supposedly to contend with the field mice. I think my sisters and I most enjoyed the times there were kittens, and I vaguely recall two cats having kittens at overlapping times, so at one point there were a dozen or more cats in the house!
Susu, by the way, is named for susuwatari, the Japanese word for the soot sprites in several Studio Ghibli films (Spirited Away, My Neighbor Totoro), as he’s a skittish black cat with large eyes.
How has living in England for seventeen years affected the language and style of your writing today from the writing you did during college in Los Angeles? Has there been changes in vocabulary or setting as well? Has the UK been an inspiration to you as you continue to write? If so, what parts of your writings are examples of this inspiration?
For a long time I didn’t feel comfortable setting my fiction in England, as it wasn’t where I grew up and there are almost daily political and cultural references that are new to me as a result (yes, even after seventeen years, there are regular references I need to have explained). Hence all the stories in Hometown are set in central Illinois, and I may keep that focus for my first full collection of short stories. In the last year or two I’ve begun writing short fiction set in England, I think partly because of the increasing familiarity as well as the fiction I’m reading set here.
While Hometown doesn’t evidence explicitly my British inspirations, there are poems in each of my first three collections set in the UK (my just-published fourth collection, The Weather in Normal, focuses on central Illinois).
As a professor of the creative writing course at Bath Spa University, what advice would you offer to students interested in creative writing?
There’s so much I could say, but I suppose if I could choose just one piece of advice, it would be to read, read, and read widely. Read widely within genres and among them to be as aware as of the forms and techniques available to you as a writer as possible. When back in the States in September, I saw a magnet with one of those “inspirational” sayings: Life Begins at the End of Your Comfort Zone. I think that applies strongly for writing—reading regularly outside of your comfort zone will push your development as a writer.
Your chapbook Hometown features many stories like “Downs or Towanda Maybe,” “The Accident,” and “In That Kitchen” that tell the story from the point of view of a younger child. Do your characters parallel your own experiences growing up or are they completely fictional?
I think of the protagonists of the stories you mention as teenagers. As with all my fiction, I’m drawing on my own experience but also what I’ve learned of others’ to try to be as psychologically accurate as possible.
Did the title Hometown come out of the first story you wrote or was it the inspiration? Was the photo already decided on as well? The picture appears from first glance to have a more dated feel, which is surprising because it contrasts with the modern tones of each story. Additionally, including a section called Manslaughter into a chapbook titled Hometown is in interesting choice. What was the intended reaction? Do you think most people are shocked by the shift?
I saw the cover image on the magazine DoubleTake many years ago and immediately thought, That’s my childhood—the scrappy dresses, the straggly hair, the bare feet. I’m not sure the picture would look that dated to everyone who sees it—but maybe I’m giving away my age!
I think the inclusion of the Manslaughter section points up the pervasiveness of racial violence, so while it may be initially surprising, I hope it will ultimately seem an honest fit.
A line from “Mauve” says, “I saw in the apology’s mauve the iridescence of tears, which gave the object an opalescent sheen.” This is one of the most descriptive lines in the chapbook and it is truly powerful in how it makes a physical object represent spoken emotions. How did you construct this idea so vividly?
I think of “Mauve” as probably the most poetic story in the chapbook, with its conceit of this object as an apology. I imagined the work of making an apology as a kind of craft, which is what led me to think of papier-mâché. I’m glad to hear it’s so vivid.
A reference to Emily Dickinson appears in your flash fiction “The Find,” and I can’t help but wonder why you chose her instead of another classic writer. Is she a poet you admire, or is she simply something the main character shares with her high school friend?
I’ve long admired Dickinson’s work and think of her as one of my foremost poetic influences, so it made sense to bring her into this story that relates to my own struggle of finding so many people uninterested in what I love.
I found that each of your pieces in the chapbook revolve around family or some other kind of relationship. Are there any other underlying messages or themes throughout the stories in Hometown that you feel readers should take from them, or should it depend on a reader’s interpretation?
I trust readers to come to their own understandings regarding themes, interpretations, etc. At the same time, I know familial and romantic relationships underpin our lives, so we come to them again and again in fiction and poetry to understand them better.
If you were allowed to sit down with one of your characters from your Hometown chapbook, which one would you choose and why? What kind of conversations would you have with this character?
I’m torn here: I’m tempted to sit down with Nick, the man who committed manslaughter, even though I know he wouldn’t be interested in talking to some writer-academic (except, perhaps, to “big himself up”). Hometown came out before Trump’s election, but I think Nick would admire Trump to some extent, and I’d be both fascinated and repulsed to talk to him about that. I would learn something by listening.
I’ve looked through a list of your published books on your website. Poetry and flash fiction are your main focus areas for writing. Personally, I find myself transitioning from writing poetry to short stories to a novel in progress. How did you find a “happy medium,” so to speak, between writing poetry and flash fiction? On another note, would you ever consider dedicating yourself to writing a full-length novel or something bigger than poetry and flash fictions?
I’m not sure there’s anything bigger than poetry, really. I’ve been writing and publishing poetry and short fiction for over thirty years, and I don’t see a qualitative difference between shorter and longer forms. If someday I write a novel, I wouldn’t consider it a different level of dedication than that I’ve made to poems or short stories, just a different choice of genre.
In your interview on the WordPress page “I Don’t Call Myself A Poet,” you mention that if you notice you’ve written any clichés, you immediately take them out of your works. When it comes to reading books outside of your writing life, is there a certain point in which you stop reading due to the clichés you find? Is there a limit to the number of clichés you can stand while reading something? What kind of clichés turn you away from the most? Overall, do the clichés depend on the genres you read?
If I begin reading a work and find it overly clichéd, I become bored—there’s nothing new here, nothing to hold my interest. It’s not specific to genre. I’ll stop reading a novel or a poetry collection just as readily if I find cliché after cliché.
“The Find” seems very relatable to me because I had childhood friends who did not enjoy literature as much as I did. While reading it, I was curious as to the origin of this story. Is it based on one of your own life experiences? Or, have you ever had someone in your life who hated poetry, for example, but you still got along with them pretty well?
“The Find” is not based on direct/personal experience so much as an awareness like the one you speak of, other people who don’t appreciate poetry or literary fiction. My parents certainly didn’t read much poetry, and my four sisters don’t read books at all. The story came out of my sense of so many people I know who don’t value writing in the way that I do and how that disjunction feels.
Can you name at least one piece that inspired the rest of the chapbook or got it started? What do you remember about writing it?
I suppose one inspiration behind the chapbook is Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love in its treatment of everyday, working-class lives. I’m really interested in the slippage between middle- and working-class in America with their conflicting attitudes and values, and I think of that realm as part of what the stories in Hometown strove to explore.
In “Permanent Winter,” the main character recalls a certain memory from church, then there is this line after a negative experience at her church: “So much for Christian forgiveness.” Is there something in your past that allowed you to add this to the story—for example, an experience with a church similar to what the main character refers to?
This line does not come from direct personal experience with a particular church, but from what I’ve seen of a few Christians I’ve known—they speak of forgiveness as a general concept, but with individuals they’re judgmental. I know Christians who are more open, more compassionate, than the family in the story, but here I wanted to consider the difficulty faced by a single mother in a small town.
In a previous interview you stated in terms of the difference between flash fiction and prose poetry that “a successful flash fiction almost always has some semblance of a narrative arc, even if it’s simply the protagonist facing a conflict and responding to it (though sometimes that response is inaction), whereas in prose poems any narrative is in the service of an overall idea that the poem circles or inhabits.” Could you ever write a piece that has a mix of both prose poetry and flash fiction elements in equality or do you believe a work can only be one or the other?
Prose poetry and flash fiction are distinctly different generically: prose poems are focused on inhabiting a single lyric idea (even if the mode is narrative, the narrative develops that idea), while flash fictions have some narrative arc in which the protagonist responds to a conflict. They’re very different creatures, really.
Who in your life inspires you in your writing, whether they are family members, friends, coworkers, or authors, and how have you thanked them?
It’s all of life inspiring my writing more than specific individuals, but when I’ve written a piece inspired by or responding to a specific person, I always try to acknowledge it in some way, whether by dedicating the piece to them or including their name in the book’s acknowledgments.
American expatriate Carrie Etter is the author of four collections of poetry, most recently The Weather in Normal (UK: Seren; US: Station Hill, 2018) and Reader in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University, where she has taught since 2004.
Find more at http://www.carrieetter.com (or Twitter @Carrie_Etter).