Hagy Interview (OPENERS)
Alyson Hagy, a native of Franklin County, Virginia, will publish her third collection of short stories and her first novel during the coming year. She teaches writing at the University of Wyoming.
VL How did growing up on the edge of the mountains in Virginia affect your development as a storyteller? Isn't your father something of the old-time country doctor?
AH Growing up on the edge of the Blue Ridge mountains, just at the intersection of Appalachian and Piedmont cultures, had a great effect on me as a writer. I was raised on a farm just outside of Rocky Mount, Virginia, so the richness of the rural landscape -- the large vegetable garden, the ancient barns, the hay fields, the murky Blackwater river -- fed my imagination, though I wasn't consciously aware of that fact. Southerners are grand storytellers, so I think being raised in a tale-telling culture also influenced my imagination. My father, who was a general practitioner in Franklin County until I was 15 (he still practices as a family doctor in Roanoke) is a great talker, and he collected anecdotes and tales from his colleagues and patients, often bringing them home to share with us. I also think that traveling on house calls with my father (which we often did) deepened my appreciation for a wide range of people, black and white, poor and poorer, since I often saw families on the edge of grief. I was also welcomed onto the porches of those families and became familiar with the careful, hard-working rhythms of their lives. Even now, after years away from Virginia, I am still drawn to rural areas, to places that are often beautiful (as the Virginia mountains are) but difficult to live.
VL Why do you think you set so many of your stories in extreme landscapes? The Outer Banks and the Upper Peninsula are quite different from western Virginia.
AH I wasn't aware of my predilection for "extreme landscapes" until I was deep into my collection of stories about the Outer Banks of North Carolina. My guess is that I'm intrigued by survivors, by people who work on land or water where their livelihoods are affected by natural forces far beyond their control. Why would anyone want to live on a barrier island or in a mountain hollow? Because it's beautiful and challenging, and because independence and a high level of solitude are often desirable. I don't think that everyone should live in such places; I don't think most of us would want to do so. But people who live on our American margins--geographically, economically, culturally--deeply intrigue me, perhaps because they are always in "conflict" with weather or economic success as we usually define it.
I cannot tell which landscapes will trigger my imagination. I've recently completed a novel set on a racetrack in Kentucky, which is not a project I would have predicted for myself. I think I was drawn to the track because it harbored a rich microcosm of American dreamers, but I'm not absolutely sure.
VL You have a knack for capturing the language of different characters and narrators. Do you have a method for absorbing the idiom, or does it come naturally?
AH I suppose I've become a trained listener. I wasn't conscious of this tendency, either. The only conscious "training" I did as a young person was read, and I read because I loved it, not because I dreamed of being a writer. I dreamed of being a veterinarian. Or an archaeologist. Or an equestrienne.
My parents are both excellent singers, so maybe the ability to hear idiom comes from some half-buried musical ability. I wish I could sing. I wish I could make people's skin prickle at the sound of my voice the way the great singers do. Maybe I'm a writer...one with an interest in sound and rhythm...because I can't sing. Not well enough to go beyond the church choir, in any case.
VL You have said that you are "right in the middle of the realist tradition." Do academic critics accept this of you, or do you get the feeling they'd rather see you go in a different direction?
AH It's hard to say what the critics think of me. I haven't made much of an appearance on the critical scene though I am occasionally contacted by a graduate student interested in my Appalachian or Southern roots. I suppose some critics won't find me "Southern" enough, but I feel deeply Southern. It's simply been my path to take my rural roots out into wider America.
What I mean when I say I'm "in the middle of the realist tradition" is that I'm not a particularly post-modern writer. My stories (and my novel) are traditional in structure and focus; they have beginnings, middles, and ends. About half of the important American writers are still realists; it's an abiding strain in our literature. Yet I am interested in what the experimenters are doing with language and form. I try to keep up (to some degree) with avant garde fiction on the internet, for instance. I just haven't found a way to use my interest in the new to fuel my own work. Not yet. So for now critics are likely to connect me to the realistic tradition of Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, etc. Which is not a bad place to be.
VL You say that your sister Melchora is your ideal reader. Do you use the reactions of readers in writing and revising your stories, or do you keep them to yourself until they are in final form?
AH When I've done all I can with a story (after many, many drafts), I'll try it out on a tough reader or two. Even after 20 years of experience, I'm not always my own best editor. Skilled readers are very important to me. My sister is not a writer, but she is a devoted reader of all sorts of books. She's a great one to test fiction on.
VL Your story "Sharking" is narrated from the point of view of a character Who is almost the polar opposite of you. He is a disillusioned loner who Reveals human compassion almost begrudgingly. Why did you select such a character To inhabit?
AH Tough question. I remember seeing this heavy, tattooed, eccentric guy at the end of Frisco Pier on Hatteras Island once. I never forgot him -- the way he looked, the way his equipment was arrayed around him. Something began to hum when I saw him...and the hum didn't go away for years. Finally I was able to imagine a voice to go with his body and his obvious passion for shark fishing. Many of my stories begin like that -- with a tableau, or a couple of sentences of dialogue. I seem to store those fragments until I can use them.
I also feel more challenged when I write "away" from myself. I think other folks are much more interesting than I am. I'm a born chronicler, I guess.
VL After three short story collections and a new novel, what writing goals Do you have for yourself in the next few years?
AH I'd like to get to work on a new novel, perhaps something set in Wyoming where we have plenty of intriguing extremes. And I'm always writing stories...about lots of different places and characters. There is probably at least one more Virginia book in me, as well. I'm regularly haunted (in a good way) by some half-formed, Blue Ridge-type characters in my imagination.
VL Do you find that teaching creative writing at a university helps or hinders your own writing? Have you had students who are successful writers themselves?
AH I can still teach effectively and get my own writing done, but it seems to get harder and harder. Writing becomes more demanding the better you get at it, so it can become difficult to share your best wisdom with your students when that wisdom is so hard-earned and more difficult to define. Right now, I still love teaching. It's a thrill...and a chance for me to learn. There's also the desire to "give something back" to eager young writers. I've had some truly great teachers in my day -- George Garrett (now at UVa) is one of the most brilliant, generous artists I'll ever know. I also learned some vital lessons from Richard Ford, Janet Kauffman, and Charles Baxter.
I've had the privilege of working with many students who have gone on to publish and publish well. I don't take credit for their work, however. I may have helped them solve a short-term problem or two, but success in writing has more to do with what you learn than what you are taught. And, most of that learning occurs from reading (no surprise there) and putting pen to paper. Persistence and passion. Those are the keys.