“Where something is found, there look again”
An interview with Cary Holladayby Robert L. Hall
Cary Holladay and her husband, John Bensko, both teach in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Memphis. Usually, when you get a pair of writers together, you hear twice as many interesting tales and discussions about writing. So, when I contacted Cary, who has penned many a short story – including prize-winning ones – and several books as well, I knew she would have a lot to share about her own work, as well as some reflections about her husband’s writing. As I am an alumni, myself, of the University of Memphis and a resident just outside of the city, what she had to say struck many a familiar chord with me also.
Tell us about yourself, Cary.
I grew up in Virginia, in Henrico County, which is near Richmond, and in Orange County, just east of the Blue Ridge Mountains. My family lived in Pennsylvania for a while, and I went to high school there. As a child, I wanted to be outdoors. I still do. My new hobby is bird watching. Since you usually see birds only for an instant, you have to identify them by their calls. I’m reading bird books from the early 1900's. The prose is so elegant and empathetic, and the colored drawings are beautiful. You can tell the writers and artists loved birds.
While I was a student at the College of William and Mary, I worked as a tour guide for Colonial Williamsburg. That job helped prepare me for teaching, because it required public speaking. I did my graduate work at Penn State, where I had the opportunity to work with Robert C. S. Downs and Paul West.
I love cats and thrift-shopping and train sounds.
Please tell us about Southern influences in your work.
Being Southern has a lot to do with finding out about past Southern culture as well as your characters’ own personal histories, especially the historical hardships, a source of great pride among Southerners. My characters often have an obsessive interest in the past, to a degree upsetting to others. “Sailor’s Valentine,” a short story which was in The Southern Review, centers on a woman whose alcoholic husband is a kind of local historian. One day, he throws out his scrapbooks and quits drinking. This vexes his wife because he seems like a stranger, even though she’d wanted him to be different. The story deals with her getting to know him as he is now.
Or there might be a character cherishing a forbidden love for some kind of outlaw, a figure common enough in American life and literature but particularly Southern, I think, because of the romance of rebellion. In “Merry-Go-Sorry,” the story that received an O. Henry Prize, a young girl is in love with a convicted murderer, though she knows her mother would disapprove. For example, there’s this, from the story:
“Propped up on pillows on her pretty bed, she expects her mother to barge in, knock the clipboard and the pink-mist stationery off her bed, and seize her by the ear, declaring, Don’t you fool with that killer, you hear me?”
Do you write plot extensively, use characterization, and how do you use sight and sound? Also, what conventions do you employ?
I enter into a scene and try to convey its physicality. Sensory images are essential. I’m in tune with the protagonist’s emotional state, which is usually heightened in some way, and with the sense of self that emerges over the course of the story, while a character is under pressure.
For example, in Mercury (Random House, 2002), middle-aged Louisa is the captain of a boat that sinks. Most of the passengers drown, but Louisa survives. In the aftermath of this horror, Louisa becomes much more reflective. Her memories are some of the most important parts of the book, because she decides what’s important to her now.
What subjects or themes do you like to write about?
Rural and suburban lives affected by nature, history, and the characters’ own passions. There’s something surreal in ordinary life. There’s room for that in a realistic story. I write about what’s glorious to a particular person, and about the consequences of what they love.
There has to be something funny in a story, funny to me at least. In “Nelle on the Grass,” which came out in The Idaho Review, a woman commandeers the running of a school for three days, to take her mind off a love affair that she doesn’t know how to resolve. The school scenes came alive for me because the children’s resistance and Nelle’s frenzied discipline are comical.
It’s useful to place characters on the brink of change. In another story I wrote, “The Bridge,” which was in The Hudson Review, the character, Henry Fenton, operates a mill. In the autumn of 1861, in the midst of meeting with customers, Henry realizes what will happen with war breaking out and his wife sick. I try to capture his thoughts in the following lines:
“His wife will die too. Then he’ll go to war. She’ll die and I’ll fight. The realizations slice through him while he bargains with two farmers. He speaks and smiles, but he is wood.”
All stories need suspense. Henry Fenton doesn’t know how the war will turn out, nor what will happen in his own life.
What are you working on now?
A series of connected stories that take place in central Virginia over a span of years. I’d like to go back to the settlements of the 1730's. The contemporary stories contain some reference to the past. In “The Days of the Peppers,” for example, which will appear in The Southern Review, a nurse is featured, whose grandfather played on a baseball team in 1910, a team known as the Peppers. The Dumpster in the hospital parking lot, where the nurse’s mother feeds stray cats, is where first base used to be. These landmarks are important to the nurse’s emotional life. They anchor her and also feed her fear that time is moving on. Her current problem is the fact that her mother has fallen in love with a much younger man, and she’s afraid her mother will be hurt by the relationship. That’s the crux of the story.
In “Jane’s Hat,” which will be in Five Points, the narrator is trying to maintain a friendship with a woman whose memories of their shared childhood—integration at school, a crush on an older man –are different from her own. The narrator is seeking her own understanding of the past.
Where would you like to be as a writer in the future?
An old proverb says, “Where something is found, there look again.” I’m writing about time. I’d like to continue writing stories in which the present, past, and future suddenly jar against each other. Central Virginia keeps giving me stories. Memphis and Arkansas, just across the river, give me lots of material.
Describe your teaching at the U of M and working with students there.
The use of memory in fiction comes up again and again, especially with older students. The University of Memphis has a diverse student body, which makes for good discussions. And it’s the students in their 30's and older who tend to have family stories they want to expand into fiction, legends passed down from grandparents that exist only in fragments. When I tell them, “Include something from right now, from your own life,” that seems to make the story theirs.
We work on point of view. If you have a character who is in some kind of trouble, and show from within how it is to be that person, you’ve got a story.
Tell us about your husband.
John Bensko is my favorite writer. His short story collection, Sea Dogs, was just published by Graywolf Press. He has three collections of poetry, The Iron City (U. of Illinois Press), The Waterman’s Children (U. of Massachusetts Press), and Green Soldiers, which won the Yale Series of Younger Poets Prize.
We both teach in the Creative Writing Program at the University of Memphis. John has helped me to develop my characters’ interior lives. That led me to a lot of new material and a more confident voice in my work.
He’s the most wonderful person I’ve ever known. Last night, I had a nightmare that a raccoon was prying open my window with a pizza cutter. The dream shook me up so much that John went to the kitchen, checked the drawers, and showed me that the pizza wheel was still there.
What advice can you give to our readers on how to be successful in this profession?
Writing requires a lot of time. Every aspect takes hours –writing, editing, preparing manuscripts for submission. Most people don’t want to revise very much. That’s the main problem I see that holds writers back, not revising and not spending the time necessary to really cultivate the stories.
As far as Southern writing goes, don’t try to write about the entire culture. Think locally. You might research a community that has experienced some unusual event, with repercussions into the modern age, and use that material in your fiction.
What trends do you like or dislike in contemporary writing these days?
Some writing reminds me of airplane travel – sophisticated, but it’s still a sealed container, a whoosh of sound, and a meal of pretzels. My favorite writers are those who show us the inside of a character’s heart and let us participate in that person’s extraordinary longing and experience.
© 2003, Robert L. Hall, All Rights Reserved