“Tell your mother she has never had any idea
how easy it is for something to be destroyed.”
— from “Snakes” in Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self
I’ll admit, I was first attracted to Danielle Evans’ collection of short stories, Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, because of the title. But, it was the stories themselves, and the characters within, that held my attention.
Sana Krasikov (author of One More Year: Stories) calls Evans’ writing “quietly magnetic.” I love this description; it’s so true. Evans creates characters who are within my reach, even when their experiences differ from my own. I slid easily into their lives and found myself in the middle of deep loss, heartache, and threat. Yet, I didn’t want to look away. Instead, I was compelled to sit with the characters, even after the story ended, and then go back and read about them again.
After so many great reviews,from people like Lydia Peelle in the New York Times and Ron Charles at the Washington Post, I’m honored to host Ms. Evans here, where she answers a few questions about her collection and about writing.
For a chance to win a copy of her book, Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, drop your name in the comments section. I’ll choose the winner on Tuesday, February 1st.
CC: The opening story in your book, “Virgins,” first appeared in The Paris Review three years before this book was published. Did you discover an emerging theme in your writing early on that led you to publish a book of short stories? Or, did you consider a theme and then craft the stories?
DE: “Virgins” was actually one of the last stories in the book to be written. It was published in 2007, just about a month before I sold the collection to Riverhead. Typically there’s about a year between selling the book and publication, but various things can slow that process down—in this case, my editor’s maternity leave, and my first full time teaching job, which coincided with the start of the editing process and meant I had to learn to divide my writing and editing time from my teaching time. I didn’t write most of the stories with any end goal in mind. By the time that I wrote the first draft of Virgins, in 2006, I had a sense that most of the stories that I was happy with belonged together somehow. The only story I wrote with the collection in mind was “Wherever You Go, There You Are,” which I thought tied together the themes of various stories, but took them someplace new. In the editorial process, a lot of what I had to think about was how these stories, which I’d always thought of as somewhat separate, could become one thing. At points I’d find that, for example, a particular story could survive having an element cut and still work, but cutting that element would take something away from the collection as a whole. There was a story that went in after the collection was sold, because it seemed to add some balance after a few stories were cut from the original version of the manuscript, and another that almost went in, but that in the end I couldn’t make claim its own territory—it seemed too similar to work I’d already done. So, there was a lot of thought about the book as a book, and not just a series of stories, but mostly I was thinking about topic and form and organization. Questions of theme I think are generally best left to readers and reviewers—at least personally, I find they can crush my writing if I let them guide it.
CC: Each of your stories is written with such strength and emotion. I especially love, “Snakes,” where you tackle issues of race, family, and failed expectations head on through the lives of Tara, Allison, and their grandmother, crafting each character’s emotional depth or shallowness with great skill. How do you approach character development? Do you spend more time getting to know each one before you write? Or, do you write more organically, allowing the characters to reveal themselves throughout the first drafts?
DE: I generally try to write organically, at least at first pass. The good thing about working in shorter forms is that if it doesn’t work, you can just throw it out. There isn’t that sense of pressure that you have with a novel that you’ve been working on for two years, or that you realize will be a decade long commitment. So, if I have an idea for a story, or I feel drawn to a particular character, I just write it, and if it doesn’t come together, I can abandon it, or I can leave it alone indefinitely and return to it months or years later, because a story is short enough to easily drop back into if there’s anything redeemable in it. “Snakes” is an example of that. The first draft of the story was one of the earliest things I wrote—it was actually something I wrote in one of my first college creative writing courses. For years I’d revisit it and not quite know what was off. I knew Tara was withholding something—there was always a kind of secrecy and repression built into the story—but I had no idea what. Then my editor read it, and in her critique asked some smart questions about Tara, and suddenly I had an answer. Once I had that answer it was easy to go back into the story and tear out most of what was there so I could rewrite it with greater clarity.
CC: In the Acknowledgments, you say, “The Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing is one of the best places a writer could ever call home.” I’d love to hear more about your experiences there and how they shaped you as a writer.
DE: I think if most early writers were to make a list of ideal gifts, those gifts would include time, money, and faith—not necessarily in that order. There are many institutions that are good at providing one or two of those things, but The Wisconsin Institute of Creative Writing really provided all three. There was a teaching commitment that was enough to keep you grounded, but not so much pressure that it cut into your writing time, there was a stipend that was enough to live comfortably on in that part of the country, and there was a real sense of community, a sense that we were there to do our work because someone genuinely believed in it. There are a lot of writing spaces where people feel like admitting that they don’t know something or need help navigating something is akin to failure, and I think the creative writing faculty at UW-Madison really worked to create a space where that was not the case, where it was safe to ask questions and you could expect thoughtful answers. Once you are in a position where people think you know the answers to certain questions, procedural or existential, about writing, you realize how much time it takes to answers those questions, and exactly how generous the people who kept their doors open for you were. Madison is also, hands down, the prettiest place I have ever lived.
CC: What are you reading these days?
DE: Student journals, forever and ever. But, I am amassing a collection of books to read during the summer: Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story, Jane Brox’s Brilliant, a history of artificial light, Paul Murray’s Skippy Dies. I am looking forward to Tayari Jones’ forthcoming book, Silver Sparrow, which I had the pleasure of hearing her read from last Fall. Last year I read and loved many books, but especially Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad and Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns. And, I exaggerate a bit about the journals. In the context of teaching, I also get to reread some of my favorite books and poems and stories—among them Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, Colson Whitehead’s John Henry Days, and Edward P. Jones’ The Known World. I’m teaching an independent study this semester where some of the books are chosen by the students, so I’m reading Blood Meridian for the first time, which I’m looking forward to.
CC: Do you have any final thoughts or advice for writers on the rise?
DE: My main advice is to do the work that you believe in, because that’s the only part of the process you can predict or control.
You can find Danielle Evans on her website, Facebook, and on Goodreads. You can purchase her book at Indiebound.org and on Amazon. Don’t forget to leave a comment for a chance to win a copy, then check back here on February 1st.