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
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
Even though I left
ten years ago, the South is always with me, and the landscape and climate of
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Alabama. It was
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
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
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
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
and my mother lives in Mobile. My dad is in Memphis and my younger sister
extended family is in
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
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
finally finds her home and her independence in
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
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
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
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
- Dream of the Blue
- By Michelle Richmond
- Cloth, $23.00 (297
Southern Scribe Review
Southern Scribe Review
- The Girl in the
Fall-Away Dress: Stories
- By Michelle Richmond
- University of
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