[This is the second part of a two-part interview. Check out the first part here!]
OZP: There are multiple stories in the collection that deal with sexual violence (“By Light We Knew Our Names,” “Minivan,” and, on a somewhat smaller scale, “A Taste of Tea”). Tell me a little bit about what role that plays in your work. Notably, the latter two stories are narrated by men, and I want to know what led you to these stories, in which the narrators come to realizations about certain violences they have either committed or been complicit in. “Minivan,” for instance, could’ve easily been narrated by Jane, but it’d be a completely different story, of course. And in a perhaps unrelated, perhaps not, question, why did you decide to name the collection after “By Light We Knew Our Names”? It’s one of the darker stories in the collection, if not the darkest, but it also, to me, feels like the most important. I’m just curious about how you see it representing/interacting with the collection as a whole.
AV: While writing these stories, I think I was coming to terms with some of my own realizations about gender violence – five years ago, when these stories were written, I don’t know if the same conversations were happening about microaggressions and rape culture. I don’t know that I had the language to properly identify what I was experiencing while walking down the street or sitting in classrooms or even socializing at supposedly civilized dinner parties. Exploring this violence in part through male narrators felt like an exercise in understanding another side of this, but also perhaps in broadening the exploration of gender violence beyond the experience of women. Other violences appear in this book too – violence against animals, against the planet – and I don’t think these things are disconnected from one another. Some of these stories explore violence as a means of simply identifying it and naming it, and I think the collection’s title comes from this sense of self-identification, of finding a voice.
OZP: I see place doing a lot of work very subtly in this collection—often it’s essential to the story (as in “By Light We Knew Our Names” or “Everything That Was Ours”), but a lot of times, while it doesn’t factor into the plot itself, it provides a lot of interesting and necessary texture, particularly in the natural landscapes that surround the characters. What role do you feel place plays in your stories?
AV: Place is essential to my fiction. I feel very tied to landscape as a human being, and by extension, I suppose my stories do too. Given the magic in some of these stories, I feel that there’s so much magic in nature – we have scientific explanations for why trees turn or why birds migrate, but I still feel like there’s some mystery in this. These things are nothing short of miraculous. Beyond the wondrous qualities of landscape and nature, I think rich description of place also connects to this line between the tangible and the intangible in fiction. In many cases, I believe that less description allows for the reader to fill in the details, and in the cases of horror or magic, to provide a far more imaginative reading or explanation than the author ever could. But in other cases, abundance of description can highlight and enhance the unknown. Setting and place work this way for me, as tangible markers of environment and landscape. We know exactly where we are – what kind of grass we’re sitting on, what kind of light streaks the sky – but we have no concrete explanation for why war occurs, why sexual violence exists, why a strange sound breaks through our windows every night. I appreciate the grounding presence of place in the face of the unknown.
OZP: I’m a big music collector—I think I’m one of the only five people left who still buys CDs—and I tend to think of collections of stories like albums in that I’m very interested in the sequencing of stories, what stories open and close the collection, what are the centerpieces (or “singles,” if you will). While they overlap somewhat in tone and ideas, your stories here are very different and follow very different people, and it seems like a different order could change how we read it entirely. How did you go about sequencing the stories in the collection? Was it easy to pick first and last stories? Were there stories you knew needed to be together (or, alternately, stories that needed to be spaced out)?
AV: I definitely thought hard about the order of these stories. Originally, the stories progressed from childhood to adulthood in terms of their narrators, settings and content. This order still prevails in the collection – we begin with the children in “Latchkey” and end with a middle-aged couple in “Mollusk, Membrane, Human Heart” – but I thought much harder in finalizing the order about the particulars of this progression. For instance, “Until Our Shadows Claim Us” was originally placed near the beginning because it’s about a group of children who believe they’ve summoned a neighborhood phantom. In revising the collection’s order, however, I realized that this story is far more elegiac and not childlike at all. The collective narrators are retrospectively remembering their childhood from the vantage point of adulthood, and with great grief for what they’ve lost. For this reason, this story felt like it should come near the end. I made similar choices with other stories. Beyond large-scale concerns of narration and content, I also looked at the final lines of stories as they transitioned into the opening lines of the next, watching out for matches in the patterns, voice and sound of the language.
OZP: What are you reading right now? Anything you recommend?
AV: I just finished Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped, which was haunting and devastating. I couldn’t put it down. I read it in one day, something I haven’t done in ages. I’m also reading John Darnielle’s Wolf in White Van and Jac Jemc’s A Different Bed Every Time.
OZP:And finally, what have you got in the works? What’s next for Anne Valente? Do you have any new stories in lit mags we should check out?
AV: I’m currently working on a series of short stories about the city of St. Louis – reimaginings of the city’s history and major events, as well as continued focus on place through research into Missouri trees, birds, wildlife, weather. One of these stories just appeared in The Normal School, and another is forthcoming in One Story within the next few months. I also recently completed a novel about a series of mysterious house fires that erupt in a community after a school shooting. A brief excerpt of this is out in the newest issue of Threadcount.