Thanks to Peggy Payne for inviting me to her blog hop! Peggy is one of my favorite fiction writers–for her love of character, her illuminating images, her deep and surprising encounters with the holy. Her new novel, released on Good Friday, is Cobalt Blue, and you can read about her book at http://www.peggypayne.com/blog/?p=2384
1. What is the title of your book or project? Accidental Birds of the Carolinas, a story collection.
2. Where did the idea come from for the book or project?
As a newcomer to the South, I have been writing about Yankee immigrants here, and the old-timers they encounter, for more than 20 years. I finally realized I had enough stories to make a collection on that theme. I’d been working on a completely different story collection, but it wasn’t coming together. So I took a closer look and saw these stories are also connected by place – the fictional Ambler County and its river, the Sissipahaw, and by history—personal history that connects, the history of a place. It all just jelled then. The characters are extremely various voices, and they include a burned-out city girl who escapes to a farmhouse, a retired colonel who loathes his retirement community, a runaway boy who joins a carnival, a runaway bride who hears the voice of God, an uneasy stepmother who is bonding with a young child, an Eno Indian who befriends an English explorer, a farmer who believes his dog may be a messenger from Outer Space, and a Mennonite girl who becomes a New Age farm wife. Each character undergoes a kind of deep encounter with the self, with the sense of being an outsider, and with the possibility of transformation. I placed the stories so that what happens before, happens later, if that makes sense. For example, the second story is the backstory or historic story of a character in the first story. If you read the collection thoughtfully, or go back and read it again, you may get a larger understanding of the surface and deeper connections between the people from story to story. It’s kind of a puzzle.
3. What genre does it fall under, if any?
Literary fiction–short story, novella
4. Who would you choose to play your characters in a movie?
For “The Clearing,” Jennifer Lawrence would play Liz Enfield, Jake Gyllenhaal would play Whiskey Collins. Chris Cooper would play Sarton Lee. For “The Outside World,” Anna Devere Smith would play Reba and Keira Knightly would play Jolene. That’s about as far as I’ve gotten in imaginary movie world.
5. What is the one-sentence synopsis of your manuscript or project?
“ A field guide to the human species in transition.” That’s from a comment by my mentor, Doris Betts, who was so pleased when I finally published it.
6. Is your book self-published or represented by an agency?
It is published by Press 53, a small literary press in Winston Salem—so, none of the above. I think small literary presses are a powerful moving force in publishing these days, and I was so fortunate to connect with this fiesty small press. I’ve met some wonderful writers who have become colleagues and friends.
7. How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
A long time! The first story, “Home,” was published in Story in 1993. “Accidental Birds of the Carolinas,” the title story, was published at The Literarian at the Center for Fiction in 2011, and I completed revisions on the story just before that. So, including first drafts of stories, probably 20 years.
8. What other book or stories would you compare this story to within the genre?
A friend compared it to Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (what a great friend!) because there’s a sense of overlapping characters in a small community in the stories. One reviewer compared it to writing by Isabelle Allende, which I love, because of the quasi-magical appearances of dogs and birds and voices. I think the collection has some similar roots to Clifford Garstang’s In an Uncharted Country and Belle Boggs’s Mattaponi Queen, both explore a variety of characters in small rural communities in Virginia. Val Nieman’s novel Blood Clay has similar themes of love, outsiders in the South, race, and religion. And I really love Stephanie Powell Watts’s story collection, We Are Taking Only What We Need, which, strangely, tells the stories of African-American Southerners just next door to where my stories about newcomers are set. We hope to read together and explore those two worlds and how they are related. It’s a wonderful collection.
9. Who or what inspired you to write this story collection?
The land and people of my adopted home, Chatham County, North Carolina. I fell head over heels with this place and its people when I moved here, and I’m so grateful that sometimes I just go lie in the yard and say THANKS.
10. What else about the collection might pique the reader’s interest?
There’s a strangely consistent element of spirituality and Christian theology in the stories that lives under the surface and is not apparent unless you’re looking for it. Some of that was by design—after all, story titles include “Providence” “Rapture,” and “New World Testament.” One of the stories is about betrayal and mentions Judas. As my friend Susan Ketchin might say, you can’t have stories about the South without religion in them! But some of it actually surprised me. It must have come from my background as a preacher’s daughter and an Episcopal lay reader who has been reading scripture for about a hundred years, though I’m no longer active in my church. I saw this more clearly after a Presbyterian church group asked me to come lead a series of discussions on the stories on four Sunday mornings. I looked at my stories in a different way, scanning for spiritual themes, then looked up those themes in my father’s old Harper’s Study Bible and found more than I expected. For example, the character Nina in “Providence” hears the voice of God telling her to wear red shoes or make meatballs or run away. For some reason, it made me think of the story of Samuel, who is called directly by God and who finally says “Here I am.” The church people loved thinking of scripture played out in contemporary lives, so the readings resulted in lively and moving discussion, even personal revelation.
One of the piles in my office is a project for the future: a Sunday school guide for reading Accidental Birds of the Carolinas. Dad would be proud. He wrote contemporary fiction stories that retold scripture in his book Prophets on Main Street (J. Elliott Corbett, John Knox Press). Can’t believe I did that too.
Check out interview answers for The Next Big Thing from
Clifford Garstang, author of What the Zhang Boys Knew
Val Nieman, author of Blood Clay, about her new novel in progress
Dale Neal, author of The Half-Life of Home
Peggy Payne, author of Cobalt Blue