by Jon McConnell
In honor of the relaunch of our site, Fiction Editor Jon McConnell is taking some time to talk to some of our amazing writers about their work each week. This week’s chat is with Sheryl Monks, whose short story, Robbing Pillars, is our featured fiction this week.
First, congratulations on your soon to be published collection with WVU Press! This is the 2nd story, right? As your collection is called Monsters in Appalachia, is there a specific piece of Appalachian life that you feel “Robbing Pillars” illuminates? There’s a lot of coal mining fiction out there but your chosen premise here is very evocative and unique.
Thank you. The collection will be coming out this November, and I couldn’t be more grateful to the staff at WVUP. I can’t imagine a better fit for the book. And yes, this is the second story in the collection, and it falls into the group of stories I feel is at the heart of it, what I call the Appalachia stories, although all of them speak in some way to the region. But about half of the book is written in a style that I feel is my truest writing voice. It’s gritty and a bit dark often, and it’s the work I’m most satisfied with. It’s funny when you’re titling a collection how you begin to look for, or maybe only accidentally see, themes emerging across a body of work. And that’s what happened with Monsters. For a long time I felt I was writing more than one book. I had these, what I called, girl stories. And then I had these Appalachia stories. And then I also had some surreal stuff. The title story is, as you might imagine, a pretty strange tale. But that story, like “Robbing Pillars,” holds to the general style and voice of the grittier Appalachia stories. You start to see there are all these connections, all these little echoes back and forth between pieces of work, and place is the glue that binds them, although there are also recurring ideas of good and evil, with a variety of what might be called monsters. In the title story, the monsters are actual monsters, end-times Biblical monsters. But in other stories, the monsters are more likely us, or characters very much like us. When I set out to write “Robbing Pillars,” I had no notions of monsters, no intention of writing about anything remotely similar to monsters. I simply wanted to write about a story my father had told me about a young coal miner he witnessed being electrocuted in the mines. It was a haunting story but one I loved. I wanted to hear Dad tell it as often as he would. I wanted to try and imagine what that must’ve been like. Naturally, my father didn’t enjoy reliving such a painful experience, but I was only a kid and oblivious. Until I actually began to write the story. Then I began to understand I was writing about ghosts.
Your central rhetorical move here, splitting the climax into two versions for Maiden, is really well done. You nonchalantly step out of strict linearity and realtime detail and allow the story to bloom into this seamless blend of real and imagined imagery. Could you talk a bit about when/how you decided to do this, and why?
I was interested in writing a story where the reader is immediately alerted that something bad is going to happen. I was teaching my students the difference between tension and suspense in fiction, and I wanted to try it more intentionally myself. I knew where the story was going from the outset. I knew how it was going to go. What I found when I reached the end of the story I’d heard told to me all my life was that there was more to discover. What did it mean to the reader, and how would it have impacted the protagonist? I had to find out, so I wrote beyond the end of the story as I knew it from my father’s telling. At some point it must’ve dawned on me that the story was a kind of nightmare, a memory that can’t be wiped away. And then I thought of every coal miner who’s ever crawled down into what might very well become his own grave, and I wondered how they do it. How do they face their fears while carrying so many memories of their fellow miners who’ve been killed alongside them? I’ve had uncles who were injured badly in the mines. Some who’ve died. I needed a way of conjuring those ghosts, so I gave the protagonist room to ruminate on the first part of the story. Once he began to reflect on the incident, he came upon the notion that he was seeing things in two ways simultaneously. I knew then I could play with that. It became an axis point that allowed me to pivot to the left or to the right. I could write on both sides until I saw where the story would take me. And that’s when the aunt stepped in, and she became the key that finally unlocked the whole story, I think. Once I had her and the idea of the dowsing stick, I felt the story congealing. It’s impossible to predict at the outset how any story will unfold. You just find yourself casting out ahead of yourself and waiting for the next little tug on your fishing line.
Who were you reading while you wrote this and the other stories in your collection?
I wrote the stories over a span of about 10 years. It’s hard to say how long really. I don’t get up every day as many writers do and put in the time. I have to wait until stories untangle themselves. The title story, for example, sprang up all at once in a dream. I woke up with several lines in my head, and I immediately started writing the story. But then I came to an impasse that took another four years or so to wait out. Eventually, I had another dream, and improbably that one finished the narrative. It was a similar situation with “Robbing Pillars.” I knew I wanted to write my dad’s story, but I had no idea how to do it. I’d already learned that telling the literal truth in fiction is the surest way to kill a story. I waited for years before I finally decided it was time to wrestle it onto the page. Luckily, that one did come about all in a matter of weeks. So over the course of writing the collection, my reading roamed widely, from my time as a student and up through teaching fiction myself. As a student and also as a writing instructor, we’re required to read broadly, and I’ve enjoyed that. As an undergraduate I was required to read every one of Toni Morrison’s novels for one class, and I’ve always appreciated that professor for giving me that gift. I loved the brutal beauty of Morrison, loved the way she could terrify me and then turn around and break my heart. I loved the way she would not look away, nor would she let me. I was inspired way back then, I think, to summon that kind of courage on the page. So I began to look at my own history, began to look for writers writing about my corner of the world, Appalachia. I didn’t think I’d find many. But then I came upon Robert Morgan’s work, and I’ve read it over and over so many times now. Then I found others from North Carolina, Ron Rash, John Ehle. I began to wonder who there might be writing about West Virginia, where I’d lived when I was very young, and that’s when I found Breece d’j Pancake and then Ann Pancake, Pinckney Benedict, Denise Giardina. But there are so many others I’ve read over the past decade. I’ve really taken to Raymond Carver, Flannery O’Connor, Joyce Carol Oates, Stuart Dybek. I return to all of these again and again.
Did those authors affect how you approached your work at all?
There are definitely writers whose work called to me on many of the stories, as I was working them. Sometimes it’s a combination of things that brings a story about. I have one story called “Run, Little Girl” that is largely drawn from a personal experience that I didn’t want to write about in any sort of literal sense. My mentor at the time, Pinckney Benedict, was making a huge impact on my reading and writing. I’d basically signed up for the MFA program at Queens because he was there. That’s how much I loved the realist fiction he’d written up to then. But as we began to work together, I realized his own writing was undergoing major transformation. He was moving toward surrealism and away from the realist stuff I loved. I came around to his new style and quickly began to deeply appreciate it. He suggested I try to write the story using a technique he calls the impossible probable, which in a nutshell calls for treating a story in much the same manner that Flannery O’Connor did, by allowing the accumulation of details to so thoroughly ground the narrative in time and space that any improbabilities are never questioned by the reader. Pinckney suggested I write the story about an angel, a full-blown seraphim, and I wish I’d been able to pull that story off. I wasn’t able to do it at the time, and I’m not sure I ever will be. But the exercise was enough to show me ways to push the details as far away from my own experience as possible and still write with the same urgency of my own memory and emotion. I came upon the idea of writing a story about a girl who seduces a man who looks a lot like the devil. And I didn’t know if he was the devil or not, and I didn’t want my reader to know either. I remembered Joyce Carol Oates’ fabulous story, but I didn’t want to replicate anything about hers except for the kind of tension she creates in that story, “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” I wouldn’t let myself read her story again for fear of voice creep or being overly influenced. I don’t know if I’ve read it since, as a matter of fact. I just held to what I remembered of it, Arnold Friend standing at the door of a young girl, waiting for her to invite him inside. There’s also Nathanial Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown.” I wanted to develop a character like, someone who might or might not be more than what he appears. I love the way JCO manages conflict and tension in that story. It’s understated, as I remember. I wanted to do something similar, but I was equally compelled to push the conflict further, to summon that courage I’d admired in Morrison’s work. At the same time, I had this loop of Ron Rash’s voice, playing in my head. I’d heard him read a portion of One Foot in Eden in Burnsville, NC, at the Carolina Mountains Literary Festival. There was something about the cadence of his speech that got inside me. When I began to write “Run, Little Girl,” I had all these influences converging at once. Even today when I read that story, I hear Ron’s voice in my head. And maybe that’s why that story has always been my personal favorite in the collection. It makes me feel connected to those writers I most admire.
What are working on now? Did you learn anything from writing “Robbing Pillars” that affects how you work on your new stuff?
I’m working on a personal essay. And I’m also letting a novel steep. It’s been milling around in my head for almost as many years as the story collection did. Perhaps it’ll begin to untangle itself for me now that the stories are finished. Did I learn anything from writing “Robbing Pillars”? That’s a good question, one I haven’t thought about until now. Going back over my thought process for this interview has made me re-remember just how important it is to follow your intuition. I cannot force a story. I can’t hurry one along. My brain just doesn’t work that way. I wish it did. I’d write a lot faster and a lot more maybe. I guess what you’ve reminded me is how “Robbing Pillars” and all the stories in this collection were written by following my hunches. Maybe I’m learning to trust the process more. I still have students who contact me occasionally, seeking feedback on their work. They’re so impatient with themselves. They want to get it right, right now. We all do, of course. But it can often be a disservice to the work. Every story needs to sit with itself, figure out what it wants to be. Our job is just to watch it closely and step up when the story itself has done the untangling.