Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Getting a Grip: a Conversation Between Kathy Flann and Julianna Baggott

Authors Kathy Flann (Get a Grip) and Julianna Baggott (Harriet Wolf’s Seventh Book of Wonders) recently got together to talk about writing, Bill Clinton, Baltimore, and ducks that sabotage your homework. Here's their conversation, starting with Julianna...

When super-agent Nat Sobel tracked me down as a newbie short-story writer and asked me if I was writing a novel, I lied and said yes. Then I wrote it and was pretty sure it wasn’t very good. So I called up my MFA alma mater, UNC-Greensboro, and asked them who, of the current crop of MFA students, was the best reader. The answer was Kathy Flann. I asked Kathy—a stranger to me at the time—if I could hire her to critique the manuscript. She said she would. It turns out—lucky for me—that Flann is brilliant. The novel, Girl Talk, went to auction, and sold to Simon and Schuster who would go on to publish my next two novels. Kathy and I have stayed in touch and I’ve watched as her career has taken off. Her new collection Get a Grip has just hit bookstores and it’s my great pleasure to interview her here.

What kind of child were you, and how did it shape you as a writer?

One day in first grade, the teacher said, “Okay, time to turn in your homework.” Homework? What homework? I watched the other kids open their folders and produce these worksheets that had a big cartoon duck. Inside the duck were math problems, and the kids had completed them, lots and lots of large child handwriting on them. My heart raced. I had never seen that duck in my life. Had I been absent the day before? I opened my folder. There was the damn duck. Blank. Looking at me with its big, googly eyes. I understood that, at some point the day before, a day I barely remembered, I had received the duck and held it in my hands. I had always daydreamed a lot and forgotten things, but that moment with the duck was the first time I remember engaging in self-reflection about it. Oh, so this is what kind of person I am. I think becoming a writer was a decision to lean into that instead of fighting it.

A collection of stories isn’t just an assortment of parts. It becomes a whole organism in and of itself. What are some of the elements that make Get a Grip a whole, not just a sum?

In the most basic sense, what connects the stories is location. They all take place in the Baltimore area, though I should say that it is a Baltimore of the mind. Parts of the location are real and other parts are made up. My previous collection had taken place in an imaginary town, and so it was new to me to use a place that actually exists. My subconscious interpreted the idea loosely. When I inhabited the mind of a particular character, I’d find that the map of my neighborhood would rearrange itself to suit (or confront) that person’s story, that person’s outlook and problems. Baltimore tailored itself to each character, and I grew to understand that I actually think that’s how place functions in our lives. My Baltimore is not the same as my neighbor’s Baltimore or my mechanic’s Baltimore. The characters long for connection, and they struggle to achieve it or they achieve it when they didn’t expect to.

Research. We all have to do it. Sometimes it’s delicious, sometimes brutal. Tell us a tale from the research trenches.

I actually love to do research. My previous collection had a story from the perspective of Bill Clinton, so I spent a ton of time researching his life. One of the things I learned was that his mom used to encourage him to stuff down his problems. “Lock up your troubles in an airtight box, Billy,” she’d say, which seemed important in thinking about his excesses and his thirst for connection and notoriety. It became the story’s title: “An Airtight Box.” As a result of that process, I always have these warm feelings when I see him on TV, almost like he’s a character I created. In a sense, I did. The Bill Clinton in my story is fictional, my own version of him, even though I tried so hard to use real information.

In the new book, “Heaven’s Door” was the one that required the most research. I learned a great deal about the world of meteorites. They’re more valuable if they’re witnessed falling or the fall is caught on camera. The value goes down the longer they sit on the ground. So a meteorite that lands in someone’s attic is worth more. The main character, known as The Meteorite Man, spends his life racing the clock, barely touching down on earth himself. But people don’t win races against clocks.

What’s your reading life like? Do you have any current favorites or sleepers that may have flown under our radar?

You know, this is going to sound like shameless plugging, but it’s the honest answer. I’m lucky to have talented friends who write, and I have many of their books in the queue (yours is one of them!). Some that I’ve read recently have included Let Me See It, a collection of linked stories by James Magruder about two gay cousins growing up in the seventies and discovering their sexuality as they get older; Highs in the Low Fifties by Marion Winik, a hilarious essay collection about dating after fifty; Could You Be With Her Now, award-winning novellas by Jen Michalski; My Life as a Mermaid by Jen Grow, also a collection of stories and a Dzanc Award winner; One Child for Another by Nancy Murray, a memoir about giving up a child for adoption; Dear Everybody by Michael Kimball, a wrenching novel in unsent letters. Reading stuff by people I know is something that I find inspiring and reassuring. We’re all in this together. And see? This is the end result of all of this work and uncertainty—these incredible stories that are out there now.

Have you learned to strike a balance between your writing life and the other aspects of your life?

Absolutely not. Who are these balanced people? I am going to refuse to like their cat pictures on Facebook.

Why do you do you teach—other than cash?

When I first started out, I had hourly-paid jobs in restaurants and hair salons. I was a clock-watcher. The hours felt like forever. I developed some understanding of caged birds that pluck out their own feathers. I went into teaching partly because it’s hard and keeps my mind busy, and because it’s different each semester because the people are different. I enjoy sharing my love of writing with people who love writing. For writers, people who spend time imagining what it’s like to be someone else, teaching can be a great fit. We have to figure out what makes students tick, how they’ll perceive our efforts, what will motivate them. As an added bonus, teaching others is a way to teach one’s self. Every time that I explain how to heighten tension or manage a certain point of view, I learn that thing more deeply. And that’s what’s really important in the classroom, as I like to tell the students: It’s all about me and whether I’m enjoying myself (which is more likely if the light is flattering).

What’s your advice to a writer who’s looking for a lifelong partner? Any particularly useful traits to suggest in said partner? (Do you want to tell us a brief love story here?)

I recently got married for the first time at forty-five, so I do have a thought or two on this subject!

Tip #1: Leave your house. As writers, we tend to be introverted and stay home writing or reading or simply recharging. Find a community you enjoy. For me, it was Atomic Books, a few blocks from my house. I loved to go there and spend time with the owners. I hosted events sometimes. People would hang out afterward and drink in the back room. And isn’t that what you want? To meet your husband-to-be while drinking in a back room?

Tip #2: Have a plan and don’t stick to it. When I was thinking about a lifelong partner, I pictured someone who loved fiction and was a vegetarian. Basically, I was looking for myself. Who did I actually end up with? A guy who likes books, but is not drawn to fiction. And not only is a he a meat-eater, but when we met he was in meat club, which involved getting together to eat muskrat or rattlesnake. But we shared a sense of humor, pop culture interests, and had similar priorities about our relationships with people. I love the fact that he’s less anxious than I am and ruminates less, a good fit for his career in medicine and a nice foil for a writer. I often think of that Seinfeld episode when Jerry dumps a girl who’s too much like him. “I can’t date me!” he says. “I hate me.”

Kathy Flann’s fiction has appeared in Shenandoah, The North American Review, The Michigan Quarterly Review, New Stories from the South, and other publications. Her short-story collection Get a Grip won the George Garrett Award and was released by Texas Review Press in the fall of 2015. A previous collection, Smoky Ordinary, won the Serena McDonald Kennedy Award and was published by Snake Nation Press. For five years, she taught creative writing at the University of Cumbria in England, where she created mini-courses for the BBC’s Get Writing website and served on the board of the National Association of Writers in Education. She has been a fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, the Sozopol Fiction Seminars in Bulgaria, and Le Moulin à Nef in France. She is an associate professor at Goucher College in Baltimore, Maryland.

Julianna Baggott is the author of more than twenty books published under her own name as well as two pen names. Her novel Pure was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, and Harriet Wolf’s Seventh Book of Wonders was a New York Times Editor’s Choice. Her most recent release is All of Us and Everything, a comedic novel about an odd family, written under the pseudonym Bridget Asher. Baggott's essays have appeared in The New York Times Modern Love column, Washington Post, Real Simple, Best American Poetry series, and on NPR. She teaches in the film school at Florida State University and holds the Jenks Chair of Contemporary American Letters at Holy Cross.

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