“I thought about that poor man’s body, stuck under a rock in the river, and what his perspective might have been.”
The Sound of Holding Your Breath (West Virginia University Press, 2018)
All of the stories in The Sound of Holding Your Breath are interconnected, taking place in the town of Warm. Where did you find your inspiration for interconnected stories and for the small-town setting?
It seemed natural for me to write about the small town/rural because that’s the kind of space I’ve lived in my whole life. I never really saw these stories as interconnected—they were written over many years and with no real connected arc in mind—but the place always seemed the same, so it became Warm. West Virginia has a history of place names that are often connected to mining, and while my stories are not mining stories, it made sense to me to give the place a name that sounded familiar and possible.
How did you decide on the order of the stories? How did you decide on the stories that open and close the book?
I knew that I wanted “Stalking the White Deer” to be last because it ends with that line “We are our stain, the stain that we made” and that had a resonance to me for the rest of the book, where characters are often confronting and dealing with problems that they have—in many instances—had a hand in creating, and that will remain in some way even after the “story” ends. This story also involved the patriarchs of the Crystal family, and they are a primary focus of the current collection I’m finishing up.
As for the first story in the collection, that was not as easy and I had tried out several different pieces there, for various reasons. The wonderful and generous writer Laura Long offered to read an early draft of the collection, and she suggested starting with a story that involved a young person (and I had several in the collection) because people could easily relate to that. This was excellent advice, and you might notice that the stories at the first part of the book are those involving younger protagonists, and then the collection “grows up” as you progress through.
“Ghosts” is structured to show multiple perspectives on the death of a boy who drowned. Could you say more about this? Did you consider splitting up other stories into multiple parts?
I originally thought about this story a long time ago when I heard a news story about a kayaker who was lost in the Cheat River and whose body had still not been found several days later. I thought about that poor man’s body, stuck under a rock in the river, and what his perspective might have been. I originally had conceived of a story written entirely in that voice, but that just felt too heavy, too uninteresting in some ways. Years later, I was at the Troublesome Creek Writers’ Retreat in Hindman, Kentucky (one of my very favorite places) and I was having lunch in a little restaurant there. There had been flooding all around, and there was a story on the tv about a high school boy who’d been swept away. I then eavesdropped on some conversations, and thought about how nearly everyone in the little town where that boy lived probably knew him or the family in some way. I went back to my room and wrote the first part of the story, inspired by my eavesdropping, and then the other voices just came and seemed to make sense.
When I was an undergraduate, I remember hearing the writer Richard Curry talk about how he would sometimes write a scene that didn’t seem to fit anywhere in what he was currently working, so he’d put those pages away, and then years later, he would be writing something and those old pages would fit perfectly. I always thought that sounded magical, but the truth is, it really does happen. Our brains work in crazy and magical ways.
In “Love, Off to the Side,” Lissy comments that Mae will get her old job back at The Egg, a restaurant mentioned in “Ghosts.” Are these stories tied together in other ways?
The Golden Egg is my favorite place and it comes up again, often, in my next collection. I’m not crazy about coming up with place names—it’s hard to find ones that are interesting, but still feel like they fit—so I figure if you find a good one, use it as much as you can! (Maybe this is why Faulkner set most of his work in Yoknapatawpha County?) The stories are linked by place, as we talked about earlier, but in this collection the characters don’t really seem to know one another, though they might have been at the Golden Egg at the same time.
There is a line in “Handlers” that intrigues me: “They’d just jump in the car, grab Shep and Ellie, stop at Montgomery Ward to buy a cheap white dress off the clearance rack and head to Garrett County, Maryland, where blood tests weren’t required.” Is this characterizing Garrett County as different from Warm?
I live in Preston County, West Virginia, and Garrett County, Maryland borders us. My parents and a lot of aunts and uncles got married in Garrett County in the 70’s and 80’s because Maryland didn’t require blood tests, so they could get married quicker and cheaper.
You teach at Pierpont Community and Technical College. How does your writing inform your teaching? Do you ever talk about your writing and publishing experiences with your students?
I teach mostly composition courses and technical writing right now, so I don’t really talk much about my own work (though I did share with them when the book came out in November because I was so excited). I do come from a family of teachers—my mom recently retired after 40 years in elementary education and my aunt taught for almost as long as a high school English teachers–so certainly their experiences and just knowing them informs my writing. I have a number of characters, both in this collection and in the next, who are school teachers.
Are there any stories that you wanted to include in The Sound of Holding Your Breath, but did not make it into the final version of the book?
A couple. I originally had several more flash fiction pieces in the collection, but I had very good advice to remove them because they seemed to break the flow of the rest. I also had a story called “My Baby Thinks She’s a Train” which is set at the Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh. I love the story, but it just did not make sense with the rest of the collection, in setting, character, or theme.
You say in an interview for Shelf Life that you do a lot of revision in your head. How much do your stories change throughout revision and editing? Was there a specific story you drastically revised?
I think this varies from story to story. “My Brothers and Me” and “The Sound of Holding Your Breath,” for instance, are pretty much unchanged from when I wrote them (I hate admitting this, and not something I advise). “Diving” is probably the story that changed the most. I was asked to do a fair amount of changing to that story by the editor of Kenyon Review before it was published, and the changes did make it a better story. (In the originally draft, the narrator’s brother beat him up, instead of him throwing himself against a tree, as in the current draft).
Do you have any new stories that you are working on?
I’m finishing up my second collection, which is a linked collection of stories, most still set in Warm. I’m also working on a novel.
Why did choose “Get Up June” as a story title? I know June’s father grabs her ankle and tells her to get up while he is hallucinating, but what does this title suggests as the story continues and exposes the truth about him?
I like the idea of embedded titles—titles that come organically because they are a line taken from the story—so that was part of it. I also liked the idea of a girl telling herself to finally get up, stand up for herself, stop taking her father’s b.s.
“What Would Be Saved” stands out because it is short and does not seem to give much detail about the characters like your other stories do. Did you have any second thoughts about including it or other stories in the book?
No, not really. I think that story does still speak to the tragedy and the resiliency of human existence that the other stories in the collection do. I’m happy with how the book turned out for the most part, though a writer never stops writing and rewriting. Every time I do a reading, I want to edit the story I read. And sometimes I do.
What happened to Josiah in the story “Flaming Jesus” while he was on the run? We find out that he had been working on a fishing boat, but how did he get there? Did you ever consider writing “Flaming Jesus” from Josiah’s point of view?
No, I don’t think so, and I don’t really know what happened to him or how he got there, just like our young protagonist doesn’t. It wasn’t Josiah’s story; it was her story, and I wanted to explore this idea of how our stories are changed by those who come into and out of our lives when we’re young. Often that’s something we only really see or understand when we’re older and looking back.
Was there a certain person or group of people that inspired a character or characters in any of these stories?
Oh, my family definitely inspires a lot of my writing. “Handlers” is especially inspired by my parents and my dad’s love of the CB radio when I was a kid. Some of the stories, like “Diving” and “Ghosts,” are inspired by news stories. “Love, Off to the Side” was actually inspired by a song, and “Lettuce” was inspired by the CD Wright poem (“Everything Good Between Men and Women”) that serves as the epigraph for the collection.
Could you discuss the line, “Of what are you capable? My brothers and me” at the end of “My Brothers and Me”? The dialogue around the campfire between the siblings seems to suggest they will break Jeff out and go on the run with him in order to prevent him from committing suicide. How did you decide on this ending?
I never really thought about them breaking Jeff out. I think it would be more likely that they would try to help him take his life, which is what he asks of his oldest brother. I wrote this story after a summer of tragedy in my area. There had been several incidents where people had been killed in a domestic violence or murder/suicide situation (including one of a young mother who was shot in a Walmart parking lot by the father of her ex, while her child was in the car). In each case, I was interested in rhetoric that came out afterwards about how “evil” the murderer was on one side, and how surprised everyone was on the other side, because the killer had always been such a good person. No one is ever all one thing or all the other, and at the heart of it, I think we’re all capable of pretty much anything, given the right circumstances. The ending of this story is the narrator coming to that realization about her family, and about herself.
Natalie Sypolt lives and writes in Preston County, West Virginia. She is an Assistant Professor of English at Pierpont Community & Technical College. Her work has appeared in Kenyon Review Online, Willow Springs, Glimmer Train, Appalachian Heritage, and Superstition Review. Natalie is also the winner of the Glimmer Train New Writers award, the Betty Gabehart Prize, and the West Virginia Fiction Award. She is an editor for the Anthology of Appalachian Writers and works each summer as the High School Workshop Coordinator for the West Virginia Writers Workshop. Her first book, The Sound of Holding Your Breath, was published in 2018 by West Virginia University Press.