"It’s About Trusting My Instincts." A Chat With Sheryl Monks, Author of Monsters in Appalachia
Sheryl Monks is a fiction writer, literary editor, and teacher. Her first collection of stories, Monsters in Appalachia, is forthcoming from West Virginia University Press in November 2016. She is a co-founder of Press 53, has served as a writer in residence at Salem College, and founded Change Seven, an online literary magazine, in January 2015.
Interview by Laura Moretz
First off, I loved reading Monsters in Appalachia, and I was captivated by the voices that told the stories, particularly in “Barry Gibb is Cutest Bee Gee” and “The Immortal Jesse James.” The voices of these stories feel united by something that transcends geography and time. How would you say they are related to each other? Put another way, how are these separate stories part of a singular book?
Wow. I love great questions like this that invite me to consider interesting aspects of my work, things I may not have thought about before. I do think voice is one of the unifying elements of the book, and maybe that’s because writing is a very audible experience for me. If I can’t “hear” stories, I seldom have luck finishing them, no matter how promising they feel. I’m a slow writer. It’s taken a decade to finish the 15 stories in this collection, and I have at least as many more that I’m still playing around with, stories I know in my bones have something interesting to say but just haven’t yet made their voices known to me. One of the gifts of growing up in Appalachia is being surrounded by the oral tradition. Sadly, I didn’t inherit the talent for actually “telling” stories. I’ve always been on the receiving end, and I’m grateful for that because it taught me how to hear, to listen on a level that’s quite honestly more deeply ingrained than I’m even cognizant of. It’s not the sort of listening we’re encouraged to do in creative writing classes, although those are certainly good and instructive for some people.
The problem for me, though, with that kind of mindset – that I’ll go out and document what I hear or see or whatever – is that it creates too much distance between me and the story. I tried that for a few years, approaching fiction like a historian, but that only made me “think.” And what I’ve learned from studying writers I admire like Flannery O’Connor, Robert Olen Butler, and others, is that writing fiction is more about tapping into our senses than it is about thinking. For me it’s about trusting my instincts, and somewhere deep down inside that oral tradition got etched in my brain. If I’m lucky enough to tap into that place, where the voices reside, then I can sometimes get swept into the flow and let the story itself order its way.
I see that “Little Miss Bobcat” was the first published story included in the collection. How did that publication come about? What are some of meaningful literary magazine publishing moments for these stories?
Yes, that was the first story I ever wrote, as a matter of fact. It actually took a while to find publication. I wrote LMB as a graduate student at Queens, and again, the voice seemed to resonate with my classmates, even though the story had plenty of other problems. I first submitted it to a contest judged by Algonquin Books editor Shannon Ravenel, and low and behold it won. But even though the win came with a nice cash prize, the award didn’t include publication, which was a little disappointing at the time. Later, though, I realized it only afforded me another opportunity to put the story back out into the world. And that happened when the good folks at Stephen F. Austen State University accepted the story for publication in RE:AL – Regarding Arts & Letters.
Concerning the second part of your question, publication is always meaningful to me. It’s always deeply personal when I know an editor sat completely alone with my work for a few minutes and felt moved by it in some way and was compelled to share it with others. That touches me profoundly. These are people who do what they do for essentially nothing. They’re not paid. They’re often not even widely known. But year after year they dig through the slush pile for the singular joy of finding a piece of work that resonates with them. When I imagine people like Rusty Barnes, Terry Kennedy, Jim Clark, John Branscom, Pinckney and Laura Benedict, Roxane Gay, Sheldon Compton, Supriya Bhatnagar, Robert James Russell, Jeff Pfaller, Jon McConnell, Shannon Ravenel, Abby Freeland, Laura Long, and all the others sitting there, holding my work and thinking to themselves--yeah, this is pretty good stuff… man, I just can’t imagine anything more rewarding than that. Some have been kind enough to publish my work in more than one publication. It’s incredible the support I’ve gotten from these people. And it continues long after a piece has appeared in their journals. They keep on, year after year, championing me. I’ll never be able to repay them.
Did any of the editors involved with the lit mag publication of these stories make suggestions for changes or has publication been pretty much an “as is” experience? Is there anything that surprised you about the path your story collection took toward publication?
Every journal is a little different, but yes, I’ve gotten excellent editorial oversight from places like The Greensboro Review and elsewhere. Seven single-spaced pages, to be exact, from TGR. It was an intensely close reading of my story “Barry Gibb Is the Cutest Bee Gee.” And what an unbelievable act of generosity it is when a team of editors, which is often the case, circles around your work and rolls up their sleeves with the single purpose of mind to make it better. So few people are willing to do that. It’s exceedingly rewarding when that’s been offered.
No surprises, really. It takes a while, and every step has been necessary. I used to be impatient. Maybe we all are in the beginning. But I’ve learned something with every story, and I hope that makes for a rich experience when readers immerse themselves in the collection.
It’s always deeply personal when I know an editor sat completely alone with my work for a few minutes and felt moved by it in some way and was compelled to share it with others. That touches me profoundly.
In what way would you say that publishing in the literary magazines led up to assembling a collection?
The two-fold process of first being published in reputable literary magazines and then advancing to book publication has been crucial to my development as a writer. I’m just a better writer now, and the fact that I can say that without a shred of arrogance is a testament to that literary writer’s journey. I’ve learned some things along the way that I wouldn’t have known otherwise. The book is better than it would’ve been a decade ago, no question.
About ten years ago, you and Kevin Morgan Watson founded Press 53. How did your experience as a book publisher affect your life as a writer?
Press 53 is where I really became aware of the work that lay ahead of me as a writer. We received so many phenomenal book manuscripts that we literally couldn’t publish them all. It was discouraging, and for a while, I actually felt like I had no business even trying to write when there were so many better writers out there getting turned down, day in day out. But then my father died, and I was faced, as we are during these painful times in our lives, with my own mortality. I didn’t think it would happen, really. I stopped worrying about publishing at all. I just focused as much as I could on the writing, and occasionally when something turned out alright, I tossed it out there to the literary community. Ever so slowly, but surely, I stumbled along.
Almost two years ago, you launched Change Seven, an online literary magazine that you release three times a year and update weekly. Beyond the obvious question about how you sustain this effort, please tell us how you see the aesthetic of Change Seven.
Sustaining an online magazine is more challenging than I realized, especially now that I’m working full-time and trying to promote Monsters. But creating that space where other writers can step into their own career paths is important to me and all of us at Change Seven. I can’t in good conscience take all that has been given to me by the literary community and not give back to it in some way. Like countless other magazines, Change Seven makes it possible for emerging authors to publish right alongside more established writers. We can’t cultivate writers without literary magazines and indie publishers. And I’m a big proponent of literary citizenship. The experience of working on both sides of the page is as enriching as studying craft. The writers who have been committed volunteers at Change Seven or anywhere else are becoming better writers than they would’ve been had they simply invested all their time on their own work. I know some will disagree, but they can be wrong if they want to be. Ha ha.
The aesthetic at Change Seven is maybe a bit too literal. We’re all about change. But what that means for one person is seldom the same for another. When Antonios Maltezos and I sat down to come up with a title for the magazine, we settled first on a quote we both liked from a Paris Review interview with Dorothy Parker who said, “I can’t write five words but that I change seven.” To me that spoke not only to the endeavor of writing but also to our roles as editors. We do offer edits to our writers, and we wanted that clear up front. But beyond that, change spoke to us as students and teachers of fiction. Something has to change in a story or else there’s no story there at all. And then change became even bigger when we considered the idea of asking contributors to blog about what it means to them. It’s a simple idea, but it offers unlimited possibilities to us thematically.
Change Seven reads like a dialogue within a community of writers because of the frequent updates and new additions on the site. Does it feel that way to you?
I’m glad to hear you say that, and yes, we’re always looking for ways to broaden the conversations. One of the advantages we have as an online magazine is that there’s no separation anymore between writers and readers and editors. We’re all online together, and we’re all reaching out to each other. The web has made community building much easier and a more enriching experience than it once was when we were all writing alone in our guest bedrooms and submitting our work with SASEs to what often felt like black holes.
What are some of the things you’ve learned from editing an online literary magazine? What’s your favorite part of the process?
It’s first coming across that piece of work that sends you headlong into your own experience of the world in some way. It’s indulging in something beautiful and truthful, relishing it just because such things exist in this maddening world and some people keep making them, and a few of us are fortunate enough to know them with an intimacy that’s hard to describe to those who just don’t get it. We pity those fools. And then it’s writing to those authors and failing miserably to express just how much their work means to us. The demands of putting it all together often leaves us little time or energy to adequately convey how that one piece of work makes the world just a little bit brighter, not in some cockeyed optimistic way, but in the sense that it’s brave in its rendering of truth. We take some consolation in knowing that we have a hand in putting it out there to speak to others.
What are you looking for in terms of submissions to Change Seven? Do you need more fiction, poetry, or essays? How about book reviews and interviews?
In general, we need more art in differing formats. I’d love to work with some illustrators, sculptors, mixed media artists, animators, conceptual artists. We need work from more writers of color. We need a broader array of content: videos, podcasts. I’d love to see some coverage of literary festivals and other events. Craft essays would be nice. We’re open to ideas for the blog. We need more humor. Reviews, interviews, yes, and with artists of other kinds, filmmakers, say, or visual artists, musicians, dancers, etc. We’ve been fortunate in assembling a talented group of regular columnists, but there’s room for more. I’d love to find writers who can respond to timely issues, the things that are changing so rapidly in the world around us. In terms of creative stuff, we’re simply interested in seeing your best work. Read previous issues, and send us something we haven’t done before.
Laura Moretz is the interviews editor for The Review Review. Her short stories have appeared in Stoneboat, r.kv.r.y. Quarterly Literary Journal and Cutthroat.