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An Interview with Mary Helen Specht

29 Aug
Mary Helen Specht

Mary Helen Specht was recently the writer-in-residence at Necessary Fiction, where she posted excerpts of her novel-in-progress, Migratory Animalsas well as interviews with the writers Sarah Bird and Rotimi Babatunde.

Mary Helen Specht might have been born and raised in Abilene, Texas, but after graduating from high school, she’s barely stopped moving. She’s studied at Rice University and Emerson College; worked in Santiago, Chile and Quito, Ecuador, and lived in Nigeria on a Fulbright grant. Most recently, she was a Fellow at the Dobie Paisano Ranch outside of Austin, and she’s now an assistant professor at St. Edward’s University in Austin.  A two-time Pushcart Prize nominee, her work has been published in numerous journals and literary magazines. She is currently working on a novel.

In this interview, Specht discusses introducing characters, the challenges of writing global fiction from an American perspective, and why she chose to use her experiences in Nigeria as the basis for a novel rather than a memoir.

(To read an excerpt from Specht’s novel-in-progress Migratory Animals and an exercise based on how she adeptly introduces two characters, click here.)

Michael Noll

One of the hardest things for beginning writers to do–and even for me–is to introduce characters to each other. So, I admire how easily you introduce Flannery and Kunle. You manage to cover the basics: where, when, and how and how they were dressed. But you also move on quickly. The introduction sets up the story rather than delaying it. Was this introduction always so smooth? Or did it become that way through revision?

Mary Helen Specht

The prologue has been the most worked over part of my novel. Each time I changed anything major about the rest of the book during a revision, the prologue would suddenly seem off. I’d lost the right emphasis or tone for what came next—a reverse domino effect. The fact that the prologue is set in Nigeria while much of the rest of the novel is set in the United States was another challenge—I felt that I had to give both the big picture trajectory of Flannery’s time there while also rooting the readers in scene. I ended up looking for guidance in the short story form for this, particularly in Jhumpa Lahiri’s most recent collection Unaccustomed Earth, which inspired me to start on a large scale and then zoom in to the “meet cute” between Flannery and Kunle. I also tried to use concrete physical objects (like palm wine) to transition quickly through time while remaining in scene throughout. For me, introducing characters and places is all about allowing the physical environment to do double duty by standing in for (or at least echoing) the interior lives or relationships of the characters.

Michael Noll

The novel is set in Nigeria, and so, obviously, place plays an important role in the novel. And because you’re writing for an audience that likely hasn’t been to Nigeria, you’re writing about cities and a landscape that most of us don’t know. So I’m curious how you approached the descriptions of place. How did you balance the need to show enough details to locate the reader but also the need to keep the story moving?

Mary Helen Specht

Great question. This has been tremendously complicated, and like the prologue, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about and revising the Nigeria sections. In particular, I didn’t want to portray Nigeria one-dimensionally, when in reality it is a country with rural huts and modern houses, dirt roads and concrete flyovers. I had notebooks full of descriptions of Nigeria from my time living there after graduate school, and I combed through them, looking for details that would do the most work in terms of demonstrating the country’s complexity. Instead of spending a paragraph explicating the strange mix of modernity and degradation at the university, for example, I used an image of a woman wearing a traditional wrapper while carrying a computer monitor on her head across campus.

Michael Noll

As the writer-in-residence at Necessary Fiction, you wrote an essay, “The Challenges of Writing Global Fiction in the West.” In it, you talk about traveling to Nigeria for a Fulbright and knowing that you would write about the experience. And, yet, you wondered, “How could I use this setting, use my experiences with the people there, to write in a way that didn’t patronize, exoticize, or simplify the complex world of West Africa?” This is a significant problem with Western stories set outside of the West. Just recently, I saw the film The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, which is about a group of British retirees who settle in India. In it, the Indians really only serve the purpose of enlightening the Brits. Yet, the film seemed well-intentioned. Is it possible to step outside of your Western influences when writing about places like India and Africa? Is there a way to somehow embrace your alien status and also honestly represent the people who are from that place?

Mary Helen Specht

The Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi delivered this talk about the dangers of reducing a place to a single narrative at TED Global. The talk is 20 minutes and definitely worth checking out.

The Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi delivered this talk about the dangers of reducing a place to a single narrative at TED Global. The talk is 20 minutes and definitely worth checking out.

I’ve spent a lot of time studying and writing about this question and my answer is this: I don’t know; but I won’t let myself off that easily. I certainly think there is an opportunity for writers from the developed world to write about the developing world in a way that is productive, especially when these writers use the opportunity to explore their own privilege and maybe even culpability. That said, I think it is almost impossible to entirely escape being part of the “western gaze” when writing about other cultures. I think the most important action writers like myself can take to make this situation less uncomfortable is to support—by reading, reviewing, promoting, assigning to our students etc.—international fiction written by non-western writers. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie discusses in her TED talk (which you MUST watch if you haven’t—she’s amazing), the danger is perpetuating a “single story” about any given place. If there is a multiplicity of voices, native and non-native, all writing about a country or culture, then there isn’t the same pressure to provide some impossible “objective” viewpoint. The beauty of fiction, after all, is in the opposite, in its subjectivity and ability to refract the world through many prisms.

Michael Noll

You published an essay about falling in love with a Nigerian man in Nigeria for The New York Times. It’s a really great essay. It also shares some of the same details as Migratory Animals. What went into your decision to write the story as a novel rather than as a memoir? What did fictionalizing the story allow you to do that wasn’t possible in nonfiction?

Mary Helen Specht

People connected to the publishing industry convinced me to work on a memoir based on my time in Nigeria, and I tried. However, it ended up more of a collection of essays (and is where the NYT piece came from), than one story with a strong arc. So, I returned to what I’d always really wanted to do in the first place, which was write a novel using my time there as a loose inspiration. Fictionalizing allows me to imagine what might have been—if I’d been a different person with different desires and challenges, and if I’d made different choices or been born into a different situation. In the real world, we only get to live one life; writing fiction allows me, for a time, to embody other possibilities.

August 2013

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Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write.

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An Interview with Kelli Ford

8 Aug
Kelli Ford's story, "Walking Stick," was published in Drunken Boat.

Kelli Ford’s story, “Walking Stick,” was published in Drunken Boat, and you can read it here.

Kelli Ford was born in Tahlequah, the capital of the Cherokee Nation, and grew up in North Texas. She was the first in her family to graduate from college, and she went on to earn an M.F.A. at George Mason University. She was awarded a 2012-13 Dobie Paisano Fellowship through the University of Texas and the Texas Institute of Letters. While a fellow, she put the finishing touches on Crooked Hallelujah, a collection of linked stories that takes place in Eastern Oklahoma’s Indian Country and along the banks of the Red River.

In this interview, Ford discusses her process for describing characters, what it means to write about characters from low-income areas, and her solution to the tricky question of how to portray a character’s spoken language if the reader doesn’t understand it.

(To read Kelli’s story “Walking Stick” and an exercise based on her character descriptions, click here.)

Michael Noll

I admire your character descriptions. They’re quick and detailed, moving from the general (old lady) to the idiosyncratic (the fact that the sole of one of her shoes wears faster than the other) in just a few sentences. They’re also nestled within the story, so that the description leads directly into action or thought. How do you approach these descriptions? It can be difficult to fully visualize an invented character, but you make it look so easy.

Kelli Ford

Well, thank you, first of all. To answer this question, which is a nice, concise question about character descriptions, I think I need to take a step back. “Walking Stick” is one of my “origin obsession” stories. Some of us are blessed/cursed with the obsession of our origins and end up coming back again and again. I often think of this as a fault of mine, but try to both stretch myself to invent more and accept it as a gift with as much grace as I can muster.

So this is a roundabout way of answering your wonderful question with a terrible answer: I don’t know. These characters are inspired by my mom, her sisters, my grandmother, and great-grandmother. Of course—and as I always protest to my mom (too much?)—the people in the stories truly do become characters and take on a life of their own. They look ways, say things, and do things as they live on the page that their inspirational, real-life counterparts would never do.

I don’t know where the one worn shoe comes from. I don’t think my great-grandmother always wore out one shoe before the other, but the Anna Maria character does. Why or how? I think this is a character I know very well. It’s one that, perhaps, came easy. When I was writing the story, I didn’t find myself searching around for what she looks like or how she walks.

Other characters, and I’d imagine especially those who are wholly inventions, I have to search for, maybe, what he would wear or how he may respond to a fly crawling across his arm. (Does he wave it away distractedly, smash its guts on his arm, try but fail to Mr. Miyagi it in the air with chopsticks?) In the early pages of a story, descriptions can sometimes be a struggle with a character I am creating, or just beginning to know. I usually find myself more sure of these choices toward the end of the story. So much so, in fact, that maybe things once again begin to feel mysterious and not like choices at all. By the time I’m nearing the end of the story, I have a much better sense of that character, and it’s simply a matter of making sure I let go of early stuff, worked over as it may be, and truly start anew so this knowledge can be incorporated into the early stuff. On a purely nuts and bolts level, for me, that often means retyping each new draft each day so I’m not just tinkering and my subconscious is free to take off. Probably the invented characters require more cutting because I describe and describe trying to get it right, trying to know things for myself.

Michael Noll

This is a story about people who live without a lot of money. There’s a tendency in American fiction to portray these kinds of characters as either ennobled by poverty or as bloodthirsty and devolved. Your story does neither. Even though it’s about an old woman limping down to the tracks to carve up a cow hit by the train, the story never becomes cartoonish or cliched. Is this something you think about in your work?

Kelli Ford

I worry about sentimentality in my work, perhaps because so much comes back to the characters I write. For many of my characters, and especially Anna Maria and Lula, I feel so much for them. I really do. I feel the weight of their choices, the weight of the way the world acts upon them. Sometimes, you come across a character that can make you cry at your keyboard. So maybe the key, a key, is to be honest about them. Shit. We’re all saints and sinners, and poverty, or near-poverty, isn’t ennobling. Do you pay the light bill or buy the school clothes or do both and skip the car payment? Living with those kinds of choices doesn’t make you somehow more dignified than those around you. To write as if it does is dishonest, at best. Poor people are shitty all the time but, perhaps, have less agency to be shitty on a grander scale. If you work to create fully realized characters, and you aren’t setting out to ennoble or bloodthirst-ify a character, then characters are allowed to become either if that’s what the story demands, or rather what the character demands of the story.

Michael Noll

David Treuer essay collection, Native American Fiction: A User's Manual, challenges some of the popular notions about the influences behind and critical approaches to literature by Native American writers.

David Treuer essay collection, Native American Fiction: A User’s Manual, challenges some of the popular notions about the influences behind and critical approaches to literature by Native American writers. To read an excerpt about language and identity, click here.

I’m interested in the story’s use of the Cherokee language. In David Treuer’s essay “Smartberries” from his book Native American Fiction: A User’s Manual, he criticizes Louise Erdrich for misrepresenting and slighting the Ojibwe language in her novel The Antelope Wife. He claims that she slights the language in choosing mostly nouns when Ojibwe is a verb-based language and in almost always translating the Ojibwe into English. He says this:

“Erdrich adheres to the most popular conventions that govern the use of foreign words in English…the reader is left with sentiments about the Ojibwe language and instances in which Ojibwe functions as an ornament, not as a working part of the novel’s machinery…As with many other Native American novels, the use of lexical nuggets ends up feeling more like display, with language itself a museum piece.”

What are your thoughts about this problem: how to portray a character’s spoken language if the reader doesn’t understand it. In “Walking Stick,” the characters talk to one another in Cherokee, and their words are not translated. You seem to be honoring the integrity of the language. Is this an intentional move?

Kelli Ford

This is a great question! I’ve thought a lot about it, and to be honest, I don’t think I do a good job of “honoring the integrity of the language.” There’s nothing particularly Indian about the story aside from content, the characters and the tiny Oklahoma town they live in. Anna Maria is living in two worlds. She’s seeing her family become more white with each generation. Her daughter has moved in and has her own set of expectations and needs. Their religion is becoming the most important part of their identity. Anna Maria speaks her native language when she sees the Cheaters, and it’s a comfort, almost a sadness.

In “Smartberries,” Treuer says of the Ojibwe in Love Medicine (a book I’m more familiar with), “Strangely, the use of…words—though done seldom—highlights the longing for culture, not its presence” (64). He criticizes not just Erdrich’s mishandling of Ojibwe, but critics’ discussion of her work as particularly Native American in structure, in narrative approach, etc.

Having Anna Maria speak Cherokee is similar, I suppose, to writing her with a limp and one crappy shoe. I don’t think of these choices as “ornamental,” any more than I think having one of Erdrich’s characters speak Ojibwe is ornamental. These choices are integral to the characters as they are written.

That’s not to excuse mishandling the language. Erdrich didn’t grow up speaking the language. Neither did I, though like her I grew up hearing it. So should that preclude me from writing a character who speaks the language? Because Love Medicine is such a powerful and beautiful piece of literature, I say definitely not. (To be clear, I’m not comparing my work to hers—that would be nuts—I’m only comparing the use of language.) Should I work harder to do a better job and make the Cherokee I may happen to use better, more accurate, more complex? For sure. In “Walking Stick,” Anna Maria uses very basic greetings. It was a conscious choice not to translate the language for the most part, but she’s using simple greetings. It wasn’t really a difficult choice, though I suppose I could have taken it a bit further and used the actual Cherokee syllabary, which would have added another level of distance and work for readers who don’t speak the language. As it’s written, not much was a stake, but you know, she’s limited by my own limitations. That’s a real drag. You never want your character to be limited by your own ignorance, but when you are talking about a language, you can’t really sit down in the library for a couple weeks of research and be good.

This story is many years old. I am not sure I would try to use the language now, but you know, I hope I would. I hope I would simply work harder to get it right, to make it better, understanding that I’m going to get some things wrong. For this one, I used memory and books. I called the Cherokee Nation and talked to someone who was a cultural liaison of sorts to get a-do-la-nv-ss-di, but I don’t know if someone would really use this word as a nickname. I sent the story to a cousin to take a look at the language.

Erdrich is continually revising. In The Paris Review interview published a couple of years ago, she says that improving her use of Ojibwe is one reason she’s always revising, even Love Medicine, which is sort of a holy grail for me, as you can probably tell. It’s a great fear of mine that a native speaker will happen across one of my stories, or one of my cousins will follow a Facebook link, and see faults with the language. That simply means I have to work harder if I have another character that needs to speak the language. I don’t want to shy away from a story. I want my allegiance first to be to the character.

Michael Noll

This is an old story, but it was picked up recently by Drunken Boat. What is your process for sending work out? How did this story find its way to publication?

Kelli Ford

Well, I started out, like many of us do, with the Dick Cheney hunting birds process of submission. Send it out everywhere, hope you hit something, anything. But gradually, I think I’ve gotten a bit more focused. It’s hard, though. On a budget you can’t really subscribe to all the magazines and journals you’d like to, despite your best intentions. I find a few contemporary writers doing stuff I like and look at who is accepting their work, get subscriptions where I can, and send a story into the slush-ether with fingers crossed. If a writer I like edits a magazine, I send something there. I always have my dream magazines like The Southern Review or Oxford American.

This publication came about because Drunken Boat had a Native issue a while back. I submitted something that wasn’t quite right but got a nice note back that essentially said no really, send us something again and do it quickly! So I did. Even so, there was a new fiction editor in place by the time I sent “Walking Stick.” So that’s a small bit of advice to students and folks early in the process of submissions. When you get those nice rejections, act quickly. Send something else if you think you have something better suited for the magazine. Editors move on, and if one asks for more work, I think he or she generally really means it.

August 2013

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Michael Noll is the editor of Read to Write.

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