"Stories Shouldn't Be Easy to Tell."
A Chat With Author Kerry Neville
Kerry Neville’s just-released collection of short stories, Remember to Forget Me, is described as filled with “enormous compassion.” She lives in Georgia where she teaches at Georgia College and State University. Her first collection of stories, Necessary Lies, received the G.S. Sharat Chandra Prize in Fiction and was named a ForeWord Magazine Short Story Book of the Year. Her work has appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Epoch, and Triquarterly, and online in The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, and The Fix. She has twice been the recipient of the Dallas Museum of Art’s “Arts and Letters Prize for Fiction,” and has also been awarded the Texas Institute of Letters Kay Cattarulla Prize for the Short Story and the John Guyon Literary Nonfiction Prize from Crab Orchard Review.
Interview by Jennifer Stern
In your essay, “A Brief Map of My Redemption,” you write, “we are cartographers plotting our way through past routes and future wanderings, writing our own story into being.” Many of the characters in Remember to Forget Me battle illnesses such as anorexia or depression that have also touched your own life. What do you think are the challenges in translating personal experiences to fiction?
When I write out of my own experience, out of my own complicated relationship with Bipolar Disorder, for instance, I often navigate between the implicit bias I have that comes out of my own factual experience and the imperative to try to translate that into a more universal felt understanding. That is, I cannot simply fictionalize my own life as that would be a clinical recitation of my case history. Rather, I am interested in how such struggles with these types of illnesses might reveal something more about what it means for us to be in connection or disconnection with each other. When I am "inside" my own experience of this illness, it's isolating—insularity prevents insight. That is, I can't see past the dark, clot of trees in my way. But trying to understand how grief, loneliness, and depression, the tightrope many of us walk regardless of a mental health diagnosis, between wanting to continue on and wanting to give up due to exhaustion?
Mining the thematic implications of depression, of anorexia, helps me see between the leaves, into those spots of light that clarify and illuminate, allowing clinical diagnosis to lead to emotional revelation. That space between the leaves is where trees struggle to obtain sunlight, nutrients, growing space—a space of struggle that I inhabit as someone with Bipolar Disorder but, too, the same space I inhabit as a writer trying find the words to write stories that matter. And for me, stories that matter, whether fiction or nonfiction, take risks, ask both writer and reader to be vulnerable to the hard and soft feelings, to the pains and joys of the world. It is in taking these risks that we are changed in our relationship to each other and to the world.
You approach the subject of illness in your essays as well as your fiction. When writing about a particular subject, such as anorexia in “Mourning, in Miniature,” how do you decide whether you want to approach it through fiction or essay? Is one or the other approach more comfortable for you? More meaningful?
I don’t have an exact answer for this, except to say, when I write fiction, I begin inside a scene with characters under pressure. Often, the first line for a story arrives, like a gift from the universe, and the language it arrives in creates the voice used to narrate the story. Characters talk to me, tell me about what is important to them. In this imaginary conversation, the facts of their lives are revealed—it might be an illness or some former, now left behind life, like sex work. I don’t approach fiction as a landscape to explore factual subjects. My essays, though, while certainly anchored to themes (a recent essay I published was about touch, in all its varieties—human and animal, carnal and spiritual, in art, religion, and philosophy), tend to more explicitly explore subjects. How the facts of our lives and of the world might inform understanding and empathetic connection. Finally, I suppose I let voice guide my genre: I listen to what is most pressing. Sometimes what I want to explore needs to come from my direct experience, and other times, through an oblique perspective—an imaginary other who is not me, like The Lionman.
Can you talk a little bit about the process of collecting together the individual stories in Remember to Forget Me? Did you write any or all of the stories with the greater collection in mind? Or, if not, how did you select the individual pieces to include?
I wasn’t deliberate in writing “toward” a collection, that is, I didn’t have some larger plan for how the stories would interconnect. But I did write them all during a particular time of my life when I was feeling like an exile: I had just come out of long period of Bipolar instability, had been in and out of the hospital trying to find balance; I had to leave my teaching position and go on disability; and my marriage was in its death throes and soon to be over. However, in my movement toward recovery and stability and back into my writing self, I understood that while it might be desperately lonely out there, we have an obligation to reach out for each other, to pay attention, to live in truth and integrity. This understanding, once I emerged from that bleak, dark well, fueled the writing of these stories, and helped me find my way back through words that built sentences that created paragraphs that imagined stories—and writing is an act of hope, isn’t it?
These are characters who live on the margins, though trying to move past their isolation into community. The stories are yoked together by characters who, though suffering indignities as in “Indignity,” the opening story with the self-same title, manage to retain their dignity, their sense that they matter. I think of the quote by John Stuart Blackie: “The real dignity of a man lies not in what he has, but in what he is.” Has vs. Is. This is what the challenge for the characters in these stories: How to manage the vicissitudes of their lives vs. their soul’s unwavering centers. Yes, I used this word “soul.” I believe we have a centered integrity, a compass—sometimes we wander away from our true North, and what I am interested in is how my characters find their way back.
What advice would you give to beginning writers who are thinking of putting together their own collections?
The only real advice I might have is to think about the preoccupations of the mind, the way we narrow in on subjects of prey in a span of time—and how the stories might be similarly preoccupied by certain philosophical ideas. Another way to answer the question is to ask, of each story, what do these characters want? Not tangible things, like a home, a ring, a child, but what are the intangibles? To be less lonely, to be loved, to move out of despair, to remember how joy might seize hold and not let go for an unruly spot of time. Many times, I found that my characters across these stories “wanted” similar intangibles.
My first writing mentor, Frederick Busch, instilled in me the belief that words must have integrity and stories must matter. They can’t simply be ironic shrugs, a one-off that is clever but doesn’t leave lasting change in the writer or reader. He taught me that I need to always aim for truth—the difficult truth that rests in ambiguity and in contradiction. Stories shouldn’t be easy to tell nor should they always be easy to read, but they should always aim to matter.
Who are some of your literary influences?
I own thousands of books, and thousands of writers comprise my internal writing lexicon. It’s always difficult for me to answer this question because so many writers have shaped me in their alchemical use of language and approach to storytelling. I could say Hemingway, because I read through his work as a teenager and learned about restraint and accuracy in a sentence. Or I could say Alice Munro who helped me see how far and how much a short (or longish) story could traverse and contain. Or Jane Austen—every one of her sentences is a microscope that illuminates her intelligence and wit. Or Mary Gaitskill who taught me that women don’t have to write nice. Or the Penelopes: Fitzgerald and Lively, how they can circle around characters, as if in both appraisal and judgement. Or Joyce and that last gorgeous paragraph of “Dubliners,”—I cry over its beauty and quietude. Really, I could go down the line of books on my shelves and say how each writer and each book has helped to form my own aesthetic and thematic choices. I suffer no anxiety over these influences.
On your website, you offer a Recovery Writing Workshop, and you talk about how you used the practice of structured writing to help you heal from illness. Was it your illness that inspired you to write in the first place? Do you think you would have become a writer if you had never gone through your illness? Do you feel that being ill helped you see the world in a more nuanced way?
I have always been a writer, before I was ever diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder. I wrote my first self-published book when I was nine on a Smith Corona typewriter in my parents’ basement. I always knew I had to be a writer because I have always been a voracious reader. At certain moments of my life, a book a day. In college, I took every writing workshop possible with my first mentor, the novelist, short story writer, and essayist Frederick Busch. I remember he sat me down one afternoon in his office and said, “Kerry, I have good news and I have bad news. The good news is you’re a writer. The bad news is you’re a writer.” He told me that day that if I wanted to be the kind of writer like those I loved, it would be a difficult, arduous path. Talent wasn’t enough—energy was essential. Writing even when I didn’t want to write, writing as if my life depended on it. And he was right. Even when I fell into the deep, dark well of my illness, I kept writing—at that time, a public blog on living inside the decimation of Bipolar Disorder.
Words and stories anchored me to this world, kept me imagining the “and then what” that propels stories forward, a necessary momentum because there were many days that I didn’t believe I would have my own personal “and then what.” Illness, mental illness or other forms, is chaotic—we just don’t know what will happen next. Storytelling offers a way to make meaning out of the chaos, to find purpose beyond suffering, beyond despair because narrative always asks, “And then what happened…and then what happened next?”
In terms of making it through my illness, moving through what felt like the end of me back into a more expansive me—I think that experience has made me less sentimental but more empathetic, less judgmental but more engaged with the hard truths. I try to understand how my characters have arrived at their present moment and where they want to go and what obstacles are in front of them and how they might move past these obstacles. Might. Often, they can’t, though something else might be offered that is surprising, inevitable, and exactly what they need.
For our readers at The Review Review, could you talk a little bit about your experience with the process of publishing individual pieces in journals, whether short stories or essays? From a practical standpoint, do you think it is necessary for a writer with a collection of stories or essays to place pieces in individual journals prior to pursuing publication of the collection as a whole?
I am very fortunate to have an agent who is willing to send out stories and essays. Not every agent is willing to do that since the remuneration from journals is modest. However, I think having most stories that are part of a collection published is essential. There will always be the anomaly, of course, but most editors want to see that you have a publishing track record, that there is a kind of diffuse consensus around your work—which is, on a practical level, that editors at different journals are in professional agreement. Publishers need something on which to stake their claim: so “proof” often rests in the parts of the whole appearing in other journals. That said, this shouldn’t dissuade anyone from sending their collection out regardless of how many stories have been published.
Jennifer Stern’s short fiction has appeared in Colorado Review, Hobart, Blue Mesa Review, and Gulf Stream among other journals, has received honorable mention by Glimmer Train, and has been anthologized in The Masters Review. She holds an MFA from Warren Wilson College.