An Interview with Myfanwy Collins

5 Dec
Myfanwy Collins work has been called "stark and stirring." Her forthcoming novel, The Book of Laney, will be released next year.

Myfanwy Collins work has been called “stark and stirring.” Her forthcoming novel, The Book of Laney, will be released next year.

Myfanwy Collins is the author of the novel Echolocation, the story collection I Am Holding Your Hand, and a very long list of stories, several of which have been nominated for the Pushcart Prize or Best of the Web awards. Next year, she will publish The Book of Laney, a Young Adult novel.

In this interview, Collins discusses the impetus behind first drafts, the difference between writing fiction for adults and for young adults, and palate cleansers for novelists.

(To read Collins’ story “Poinsettias” and an exercise on story endings, click here.)

Michael Noll

I’m curious about your process for writing this story. The story contains the term non sequitur, which seems to be the way the entire story operates. The jump from fresh breath to poinsettias isn’t logical. And while poinsettias and the rotting turkey are both Christmas-related, the introduction of the turkey still confounds our expectations (she goes to the store not to buy a turkey but to return a rotten one). The same thing happens with the jump from rotten turkey to dead mother. There’s clearly a connection, but it’s a sideways jump rather than a jump forward. I can’t imagine writing something like this with any sense of destination (of knowing how to get from peppermints to dead mother). How did this story take shape?

Myfanwy Collins

Great question. Your response to the story has really got me thinking. As with most short fiction I write, I wrote it as it came to me. The connections are as they came to me. The jumps, in my mind, have logic to them, but not everyone is in my mind and so I love that you have found this sense in them. I could not ask for more.

The impetus for the story were a couple of things on my mind the day I wrote the first draft.

The mundane things:

  • I have an altoids obsession and the tins are everywhere and I think this must really annoy my husband.
  • My husband insists on keeping poinsettias alive after the holiday. This drives me bananas.

The not so mundane things:

  • A few days before Christmas one year, there was a horrible smell in my fridge. We threw out everything we thought it might be. It still stank! Then I started googling the smell and realized it was the goddamned turkey that I was supposed to be cooking in a few days. I returned it to the store and they gave me a new one. They told me they would dispose of the old one for me. For some reason, this made me deeply sad. This bird had given its life for nothing.
  • The deep sadness I felt, made me think of my mother. Her last breath. The way we sent her off to the funeral home with her fuzzy blanket.

And now I’m crying.

Michael Noll

The ending reminded me of the ending to Alice Munro’s story “Friend of My Youth,” when she jumps, without any immediate logic, to a story about a Cameronian minister, who “in a mood of firm rejoicing at his own hanging, excommunicated all the other preachers in the world.” Even as I type those words, I get chills. There’s something thrilling about an ending that seems to come out of nowhere, as the ending to “Poinsettias” does. Was there a story that you had in mind as you wrote this? Or, if not, what’s your favorite non sequitur/out-of-nowhere ending?

Myfanwy Collins

Oh, this is so cool. I love it. Thank you.

No, there was no story I had in mind. I write from my own gut and experience. I write from the source of my pain or emotion. I write to release myself from something.

Michael Noll

Your forthcoming novel The Book of Laney is a young adult novel. On the surface, this is a bit startling given that your previous book, the story collection I Am Holding Your Hand, included a story that, according to the jacket description, is about “a woman has sex with her dead mother’s husband,” not exactly YA content. What made you want to write for a YA audience? What effect did this have on your approach to the novel?

Myfanwy Collins

Myfanwy Collins first YA novel, The Book of Laney, will be published by X in 2014.

Myfanwy Collins’ first YA novel, The Book of Laney, will be published by Lacewing Books in 2014.

The books of my youth (many of them written for young adults, but some were adult books) remain some of my favorite books. I think of authors like Judy Blume and Paul Zindel. They helped shape me. As did Salinger (I read the Catcher in the Rye when I was 12).

Then there are authors like Carson McCullers who write books that both young adults and adults are moved by. For example, The Member of the Wedding. In that book, McCullers was able to capture a sense of longing that is so pure and ferocious that one falls so easily into the longing with her.

When I was an undergraduate, I had a double major in Secondary Education/English and English Literature/Writing. For a very brief period of time before I started graduate school, I taught High School English. I did so because I enjoyed the age-group very much. Their insights, their emotions. I listened to them.

All this is to say, I have always felt a kinship to this age group. Often, I’ve written from the point-of-view of a young child or a young woman, so in terms of POV, it was not foreign to me.

As for my approach, I would say that the first drafts suffered the most from me trying to fit into some model I thought Young Adult books would be (even though I knew it wasn’t true). I was trying to reign myself in and not allow my character to be sexual or too adult or this or that. I thought I had to follow some rule about toning things down. Then after some time away, I realized that I was not being true to my writing self and the story was suffering as a result.

Then I had a wonderful editor (Andrew Scott at Lacewing Books) request to read the manuscript. I warned him that I wasn’t fully happy with it and that I wanted to make changes, but he bit the bullet and read it anyway.

Turns out he liked it and saw potential in it. He gave me some notes and I got back to work. But before I did, I ask him if there was anything I shouldn’t write in a YA book. He told me that pretty much everything was on the table except for bestiality and necrophilia.

I am extremely proud of the draft I turned in to him in October. I know there is still work to be done, but I feel the story is stronger for me unleashing myself a bit. I love my character Laney and I was honored to go on her journey with her. I hope the readers will feel the same way.

Michael Noll

Your list of publishing credits is astoundingly long, especially for someone who writes novels. Do you tend to work on multiple pieces at once? I’ve heard people say that novels are like black holes–they swallow up everything else that you’re working on. Everything gets incorporated into the novel. But that doesn’t seem to be the case with you. Do you take breaks from novel writing to work on shorter pieces?

Myfanwy Collins

In all things, there is nothing better than a good palate cleanser. So, yes, I do write lots of other stuff. I’ve even written some screenplays. They both suck but it was an incredibly good lesson in writing dialogue and action. I recommend it.

I love flash fiction and short stories, as a reader and a writer. I feel like short fiction takes up a different part of my brain than does a longer form, like a novel. With short fiction, I feel less attached to plot and more attached to an emotional response. Whereas with a novel, I absolutely insist that I give plot the respect it deserves.

I just (yesterday as a matter of fact) finished the first draft I’ve been working on for the past couple of years. I didn’t have time to focus on it until recently and it feels like such a relief to have the clay now that I can mold.

But now that I have that draft, I’m going to let it sit for a little while and write some shorter fiction. Most likely, I will go back to a project I’ve been posting on my web site. I call it vellum.

Basically, what I’ve been doing is writing these small pieces and posting them. If anyone reads them, great. If not, that’s okay, too. the reason I started doing it was to rediscover the joy of writing. Writing for no reason other than to hope a reader finds it and sees in it what I do.

December 2013

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Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write Stories.

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2 Responses to “An Interview with Myfanwy Collins”

  1. myfanwycollins December 5, 2013 at 8:02 p12 #

    Thank you so much for your wonderful, attentive questions, Michael. I very much appreciate the opportunity.

    • michaelnoll1 December 5, 2013 at 8:02 p12 #

      My pleasure, Myfanwy. They’re great answers. I especially love what you have to say about learning to write a YA novel–smart stuff.

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