Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Deb: 49 Writers Interview with Melinda Moustakis

New Flannery O'Connor Short Fiction Award Melinda Moustakis lives in Kalamazoo, MI, but she writes about Alaska, where she lived as a child and where she retains strong ties.   Her collection Bear Down, Bear North, for which she won the Flannery O'Connor award, features stories set in Alaska.  Moustakis gave us a chance to preview a few of the stories; look forward to the release of the full collection in fall 2011, when the books is released by University of Georgia Press.  You'll also find stories by Moustakis in the 2009 Spring/Summer issue of Alaska Quarterly Review as well as in their Spring 2011 issue.

Imagery associated with rivers and fish runs through your stories. What makes these images important to you?

About six years ago, I started going up to Alaska in the summers to go fishing with my uncle and stay at his cabin on the Kenai River. He knows that river inside and out and I am extremely lucky that he takes me fishing and is an expert fisherman. I don’t know if there’s anything better than when you’re on a drift, dragging for rainbows, there’s no wind, the midnight sun is setting, and all you hear is the flick of a fly rod as you mend your line. I also don’t know anybody who tells a better hunting or fishing story than my uncle. I think this all explains my love of fishing and my love for fishing stories and fishing banter.

In many of your stories, sinister family relationships create tension that’s a lot like a fish running a line under the water – you never know when it will surface. In terms of crafting a story, how does this tension evolve?

I think my writing really came together when I started to marry the idea of fishing or hunting with family relationships. What I mean is, the structure of a fishing story became the vessel that allowed me to write about relationships. If you think about it, when you’re fishing, you have some idea that a fish could bite at any moment, you anticipate it, but, you have no idea exactly what will happen. The fish might bite. You might get skunked and never have a bite. You might hook into a little dolly and throw it back. You might be fishing for rainbows and hook into a monster king and have a story you’ll tell for the rest of your life. In my story, “The Weight of You,” there’s a similar tension built around what the character Gracie wants to tell her brother, Jack, while they are fishing for kings. You know she has something to tell him something. Will she tell him? Won’t she? Why doesn’t she want to tell him? How life-changing is this thing that she has to tell him? Is she making it out to be a bigger deal than it is? Fishing and fishing stories taught me how to structure tension and anticipation.

Alice McDermott advises writers to do what they can get away with. In your stories, you make effective use of second person (“The Weight of You”) and vignettes (“The Mannequin in Soldotna). To what extent do you advise emerging writers to push the conventions of story?

I taught myself how to think about and write different points of view and structures in this collection by pushing convention. You have to take risks in order to learn. My advice is to write the story in the way it has to be told, whatever that happens to be. Even if the story is a failure, you have learned something that will make you a better writer. I started many of these stories over again because the voice or the point of view or structure wasn’t working or clicking in. Then I would try a different point of view like second person or first person plural and suddenly, the story sailed. But there are definite reasons why these stories are in these varying points of view or structures. And all these things are working together to create compelling characters. For me, structure has to inform meaning and vice versa. When that happens, there’s magic. When that happens, a reader comes away from a story with their heart exploding and their brain buzzing. That’s what my aim is because that’s what I feel when I read something wonderful. I know I have fallen for a story when I have to shake it off and swim back to shore, so to speak. Or rather, I feel as if the universe has tilted. I don’t think you can achieve any of these things without taking risks in some way.

Clearly Alaska is important in your work. What keeps drawing you back?

I was born in Fairbanks and grew up in California, and both my parents grew up in Anchorage and my maternal grandparents homesteaded in Alaska. So all my family stories, the ones that were told over and over again, the ones that became part of the family mythology, were set in Alaska. It’s not that I keep getting drawn back, it’s more that I can’t escape it. And I am my best writer self when I write about Alaska. I have tried to write about other things, but they are never as good.

Part of what makes your work so compelling is an intimate tone that suggests you know what you write. To what extent is your fiction grounded in your own life experiences?

I have been fishing quite a bit so I can place the reader on the river. But more than that, my fishing expert uncle has shared his knowledge with me. I know the fishing jargon from listening to my uncle and his buddies and then from learning to tell my own fishing stories. The starting ideas for many of my stories are often inspired from my own life experiences or stories that I have heard or have been passed down to me. Then the process of writing turns that inspirational kernel into this whole new other thing. I write fiction because I like the freedom of changing what needs to be altered in order to make the story better -- like how every time you tell that story about that monster fish you caught, the fish gains a few pounds and inches. The story stretches. The fish stretches. I like to write in that slinky accordion of a space. Also, I know I often write to work through things I don’t quite understand and I think that gives my work a sense of intimacy as well.

With growing recognition of Alaskan-based fiction by writers like you and David Vann (Legend of a Suicide, Caribou Island), is there any sense that Alaskan fiction might one day be recognized as a regional force of its own, like Southern Ontario Gothic?

Absolutely. I think Alaskan fiction has been emerging with writers such as David Vann and also Seth Kantner, Nancy Lord, Lesley Thomas and others. There is a beautiful collection of diverse Alaskan writing and writers in a book I found called The Alaska Reader: Voices from the North. What’s strange is that although Alaska is part of the United States, Canadian literature seems to be more well-known in the lower 48. Some of my writer friends who are southerners have called my work “Northern Gothic.” I like the sound of that. I hope to be a part of the emergence of Alaskan literature – it would be an honor.

2 comments:

Eowyn Ivey said...

Fantastic interview! It led me to read the couple of stories available online. I really enjoyed them and look forward to reading the collection. It's refreshing to find hunting and fishing not used as propaganda in favor of one view or another but instead as an element of realism in a meaningful story. And I LOVE the idea of "northern Gothic."

Andromeda Romano-Lax said...

Great interview and I can't wait to read some of Melinda's stories. I also really like that term, "Northern Gothic." Thanks for helping me discover an author I might have overlooked.