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Running Toward the Future

An Interview with Michelle Richmond

by Pam Kingsbury

 
 
 


Michelle Richmond may well epitomize the contemporary Southerner. She's traveled the world, yet returns to the South of her childhood in her fiction -- creating, expanding, and transcending what it means to be a Southern writer.  Her first collection of short stories, The Girl in the Fall-Away Dress, won the Associated Writing Program's 2000 Award for Short Fiction, and her first novel, Dream of the Blue Room, is being published this month (February, 2003) by MacAdam/Cage.  
Richmond's fictional women are running toward their futures rather than away from their pasts. After reading her work, it's hard to imagine she's not doing the same.


In what ways did your childhood influence your writing?

I grew up in Mobile, Alabama, the middle child among three daughters. Growing up with sisters had a profound impact on my writing, as did religion. My upbringing was of the fire-and-brimstone Southern Baptist sort, with Sunday school, "big church," and training union on Sundays, as well as Girls in Action and prayer meeting on Wednesday. From kindergarten through fifth grade, I went to an extremely strict parochial school where the girls were required to wear uniforms and the boys were not. During these years I think I formed a sense of humor, a morbid fascination with and appreciation for everyday absurdities, as well as some sense of the injustices that are so often perpetrated in the name of religion.

Even though I left
Alabama ten years ago, the South is always with me, and the landscape and climate of my childhood is always a presence in my fiction. With Dream of the Blue Room, for example, I set out to write a novel about China; as it turned out, large portions of the novel are set in a small river town in Alabama.

When I was growing up, I always wanted to get away, to see something new, to seek out adventure in some unfamiliar part of the country. I've spent the bulk of my post-college years in New York City
and San Francisco, but I am always acutely aware of an internal push-pull between the urban landscape I've chosen as an adult and the milder Gulf Coast/suburban landscape of my childhood.

What's your educational background?

I studied English and Journalism at the
University of Alabama, then worked for three years as a magazine writer and advertising copywriter in Knoxville and Atlanta before going on to begin my MFA at the University of Arkansas and complete it at the  University of Miami.

How has your M.F.A. and various prizes benefited your writing?

I did my MFA at the
University of Miami, one of many writing programs that was generously funded by James Michener. Being a Michener Fellow was beneficial in that it paid tuition and a good stipend, while requiring that I teach only one class per semester – a creative writing class --in addition to my graduate course load. This gave me ample time to write. It didn't hurt, of course, that I was living in a studio on the beach with an amazing view of the ocean. It was the ultimate "room of one's own," and I did more writing there than any time before or since.

I also spend a month each summer at a writers' colony.  The Millay Colony for the Arts, the Saltonstall Foundation, Hedgebrook, and the Julia and David White  Artists' Colony in Costa Rica have all been so generous as to offer me fully funded one-month residencies, including room and board. This is where I do the bulk of my writing. Since I teach full time (and for several  years I taught six or seven classes per semester, substantially more than a full time load), it has often been a struggle to find time to write. When I go to a colony, everything I've been wanting to write for the past year comes flooding out. I haven't been able to find that level of privacy, and that kind of freedom to write, anywhere else.

The prize that has had the most significant impact on my career would have to be the Associated Writing Programs Award for Short Fiction, which I received in 2000 for my story collection, The Girl in the Fall-Away Dress. The winning manuscript each year is published by
University of Massachusetts Press. This award allowed me to cross that elusive "first book" hurdle. It also allowed me to leave my job teaching heavily enrolled composition courses for a much more comfortable position teaching in an MFA program. I have to plug the AWP here, because it provides a much-needed venue, along with awards like the Bakeless Prize and the Sandstone Prize, for non-commercial literary fiction  by unknown writers.

Are there any particular writers who've influenced your work?

Walker Percy, whose novel The Moviegoer I read once a year; I think it's one of the most sad, beautiful books ever written. Jayne Anne Phillips, whose story collection Black Tickets was given to me in Arkansas by my professor, James Whitehead. Joy Williams, whose novel State of Grace I discovered in a sale bin in Knoxville when I was twenty-two. The Albanian writer Ismael Kadare, the British writer Ian McEwan, and the German writer Heinrich Boll, three authors whose work I was introduced to by my husband. Borges, Calvino, and Nabokov. Checkhov, who ends his short story "Lady with  a Pet Dog" with the shatteringly tragic and truthful line, "and it was clear to both of them that the end was still far off, and that what was to be most complicated and difficult for them was only just beginning."

Have all of these writers influenced me? I'm not sure. I just know that I pick up their books and think, "Wow, I wish I could do that." I read them again and again. And I can't discount the influence of the Bible, which I read and memorized passages of during my childhood and early adolescence; surely the language of the Bible, and those walloping passionate stories, imbedded themselves somewhere in my head.

What do you write besides fiction?

Because I travel whenever I get the chance, I do some travel writing. I've written essays on China, Hungary,  Iceland, Scotland, and a number of other places. I also write the occasional personal essay. But fiction is really my first love. To me, fiction presents less of a structural challenge, because you're building the story from the ground up, rather than trying to "remodel" the truth and give it an aesthetically pleasing and sensible shape, which is what nonfiction requires.

Between the short story and the novel, I don't really have a preference, although each offers a different sort of challenge and reward. It's like the difference between hiking four miles along the
Northern California Coast and climbing Mount Kilimanjaro: The hike on the beach is fun; it's not too strenuous and you're always in sight of your destination. When you get there, you feel pretty good, and you still have enough strength to call up some friends and go out for Chinese food in the evening.

And then there's Kilimanjaro. Halfway up the mountain you're out of breath and out of shape and wishing you'd never started; you're thinking you didn't pack the right equipment; you really want a martini; you want to climb back down, but you've made it this far, and you go on simply because you know you'll end up hating yourself if you don't. When you finally get to the top, you feel beaten up and worn out, but you also know you've accomplished something. You decide that you will never, ever climb Mount Kilimanjaro again; but inevitably there will be a moment of insanity, a moment when you think you're up to the task this time, and you'll start the whole process all over again.

How difficult was it for you to move from writing short stories into working on the novel? How long did it take to complete the novel?

When I was in graduate school, and for a year after grad school when I was living in
New York City, I wrote a novel. It was a truly terrible novel. The novel was pretty funny, but unintentionally so; it was the novel's overwhelming and unabashed badness that, in hindsight, is amusing. Fortunately, during that period I was also writing short stories and was able to put together what would become my first book, The Girl in the Fall-Away Dress.

After the prolonged misery of that first failed novel, I was a little wary of starting a new one, but my husband Kevin badgered me until I did, and then he held my hand every step of the way. I wrote the novel during one-month spurts during three consecutive summers, between academic semesters. During the school year, while I was teaching full-time, I grabbed a few hours whenever I could to rewrite and restructure. When I was away writing, I would email Kevin my new pages every day, and he would email back his suggestions. When I got stuck and didn't know where to go, he would say, "Okay, now it's time to write this scene," and he would tell me what the scene needed to do, why it mattered. There were many times during the writing of Dream of the Blue Room that I seriously considered trashing the whole thing and starting over with a new idea. Ultimately, what kept me going was the same thing that keeps so many flailing marriages going, the same thing that makes people stay in bad jobs --I'd invested too much time and energy, and I was determined not to  let that go to waste.

The World's Most Rotten Novel, which is how I affectionately refer to my first grad school effort at the long fiction form, was actually a good experience.

It taught me a lot about what I should NOT do in my second novel. Now, I'm working on another novel, and I  learned so much from Dream of the Blue Room that writing this one is much, much easier -- although it's never a sure formula. Each time you write a story or novel, you must, in some way, learn to crawl again.

How would you describe your publishing experiences?

Publishing? Well, that's hell. It's the most difficult thing, in my opinion, that a writer has to do. Just getting someone to care about what you've written, to believe in it, is as frustrating and discouraging as trying to tear the thin plastic backing off of contact paper.

After my story collection came out, an acquisitions editor for a large publishing house asked to see my novel. I got all excited and sent the manuscript, only to receive a letter a few weeks later in which she explained that, although she liked the writing and the story was engaging, my novel had two major problems – and I quote, "There's a sense that there's just too much Chinese-ness out there in the market today. Also, lesbian themes don't sell well. That's two big strikes against the novel." She went on to say that, if I would "consider changing these elements," she'd be happy to read the novel again. So there I was with a novel set
mainly in
China, fueled largely by the narrator's adolescent love affair with another girl, and this woman convinced me that no publisher would ever touch it.

Several months later, enter Frank Turner Hollon, author of The God File and Pains of April. I'd never met Frank, but in the summer of 2002 he happened to be doing a signing at a bookstore in
Alabama. It was a slow day in the store, so he picked up a book to read between customers; it was The Girl in the Fall-Away Dress. A couple of days later he called Sonny Brewer, who does a lot to promote Southern writers through his wonderful bookstore in Fairhope, Alabama, Over the Transom.

Sonny had brought Frank to the attention of the San Francisco publisher MacAdam/Cage a couple of years before, and had since developed a strong relationship with MacAdam/Cage. After reading The Girl in the Fall-Away Dress, Sonny contacted me and asked if I had a novel. I did.

I left for a residency in Costa Rica on July 1, and had the manuscript sent to Sonny later that week. Sonny read it, promptly sent it to Pat Walsh at MacAdam/Cage, and a few days later I got an email from Pat asking me to call him. I remember standing in the common room at the David and Julia White Artists' Colony on a hot, rainy afternoon. I called Pat and he said that they were in a meeting at that very minute talking about my book; could I call back later? I had a total of five minutes left on my calling card, and told him I wouldn't be able to call for a couple of days. He put me on hold. So I'm standing there with the seconds ticking away, dying with anticipation, and Pat comes back on the line. "I just stuck my head in David's door," he said, meaning David Poindexter, the publisher. "We'd like to do your novel." I distinctly remember my rather brainless and unprofessional response: "I can't wait to meet you all in person so I can kiss you!" I drank a lot of rum that night.

The novel was released seven months later. I can't sing MacAdam/Cage's praises loudly enough. Their list is determined by books they believe in, rather than by what they think will be a sure sell. And it helps that they're in San Francisco and I can drop by the office whenever I want. I've become very attached to them.

I've found that Alabama embraces its writers warmly, even those of us who have left home, so it felt very natural for me to come into the publication of this book by way of a cross-pollination between Alabama, where I spent the first twenty-two years of my life, and San Francisco, my adopted home.

Would you like to talk about your family?

I got married a couple of years ago to a wonderful guy named Kevin whom I met in grad school. He's also a writer, and he's very much in tune with my writing. Much of what I write I see as a collaboration. He helped me to formulate the plot for Dream of the Blue Room, and he read the manuscript in its various manifestations dozens of times, offering suggestions on how to strengthen characters, add depth to the story, etc.

Now I'm about two hundred pages into a new novel; he and I came up with the idea for the novel, the nugget of the story, together.

I have a sister in
Birmingham, and my mother lives in Mobile. My dad is in Memphis and my younger sister lives in Chicago. My extended family is in Mississippi.

I return to the South frequently. What I miss most about the South are warm summer nights—sitting on a screened-in porch or eating seafood out on a pier, with a very, very cold beer.

How did growing up in a female dominated household influence your work?

I was blessed to grow up with two sisters; one is a year and a half older than I, and the other is eight years younger. Thus I had the great advantage of being a little sister for eight years before taking on the role of protective big sister. In The Girl in the Fall-Away Dress, sisterhood is a recurring theme, and is structurally the link that holds all the stories together.

The major characters in almost all of my stories, as well as in my novel, are women -- flawed but hopefully resilient women who are ultimately responsible for their own downfall or deliverance. In many of my earlier stories, such as "The Last Bad Thing," the narrative is intentionally structured to reflect the fragmentary nature of modern life, particularly for women.. This is also true in the title story of "The Girl in the Fall-Away Dress," in which a woman from
Alabama finally finds her home and her independence in San Francisco, meanwhile discovering parallels with the life her mother lived thirty years before. Dream of the Blue Room is, in large part, about the intimate relationships among young girls that in so many ways shape our later years and adult relationships.

What is your next project?

I'm currently two hundred pages into a new novel. This one is set on the beach a couple of miles down from my house. However, the narrator is from Alabama and scenes from her Alabama childhood have a definite presence in the novel.

Where do you teach?

I teach in the MFA Program in Writing at the University of San Francisco, in addition to teaching undergraduate literature courses at CCAC in San Francisco. I love teaching, particularly the undergraduates. How many jobs allow one to foist one's own literary tastes upon a helpless and captive audience? You're sitting in a room with fifteen or so students crowded around a table, and you're doing your spiel about such and such novel, such and such writer, and you're asking questions, and the students are responding, and maybe a couple of them are doodling in the margins of their course readers, but at least a couple of them are
looking at you with this rapt expression, as if what you're telling them is something they want to know, as if they really get it. I've never gotten that kind of rush from an office job.

While your work has some deeply Southern components (the
Baptist Church,  the Pentecostals, etc.), it also transcends any regional labeling ......

I've moved around a lot, and I've done a great deal of traveling. Places stick in my mind --the natural and manmade architecture of a place, the character of its people, the climate.

These things find their way into my writing without any real intent on my part. The Girl in the Fall-Away Dress contains stories set in Mobile, Atlanta, Knoxville, New York City, San Francisco, and Arkansas -- all places where I have lived.

The emotional heart of Dream of the Blue Room is in a small river town in
Alabama. My identity was formed on the Gulf Coast, the bulk of my memory is grounded there, but as time passes these other places where I've made my bed have also taken root in my mind and have become fertile ground for fiction.

Do you label yourself in any way?

Well, I suppose I might be classified as a "Southern writer," in that I grew up in the South and much of my work is set in the South and very much defined by place. I do have a profound respect for the literature that has come our of the South; however, I shy away from this categorization simply because I think my literary development may owe more to Eastern European and non-Southern American writers than it does to Southern icons like Eudora Welty or Flannery O'Connor.


Where do you see yourself in ten years?  Twenty years?

Hopefully, both the work and I will be leaner, stronger, wiser, and more mature in ten to twenty years.


Visit Michelle Richmond's Author Site

Dream of the Blue Room
By Michelle Richmond
MacAdam/Cage Publishing, 2003
Cloth, $23.00 (297 pages)
ISBN: 1-931561-24-9

      Southern Scribe Review

 

 
The Girl in the Fall-Away Dress: Stories
By Michelle Richmond
University of Massachusetts Press, 2001
ISBN: 1-55849-315-8
     Southern Scribe Review

 

© 2003, Pam Kingsbury, All Rights Reserved