How did this story come about?
I used to email regularly with a friend of mine from Clarion West. He showed me the cover of a book he was about to redesign and I said it looked like the cover for a weird romance story about a giant woman who lived in the forest and ate tiny men.
. . . I guess it just grew from there.
This story reminded me so strongly of running through the pine forest near my school in primary school. It’s a special kind of feeling where your legs do feel long (and occasionally, in my case, startle a mob of kangaroos!). What were your woods like?
I never really lived near the woods, but I had friends who did. We’d run around and skin our knees and climb boulders and jump into sand pits and it never occurred to us that anything we did was remotely dangerous because little girls are immortal, after all.
Sometimes the magic of the woods exists because of the primal need to be other than what girls are in school, which means if the boys had a woods it might be different because their limitations on complete self-hood are different. Sometimes I think the magic comes from the dynamic tension between Abbey chasing Samantha. How does the magic system work for you in this story?
I saw this story as a tension between acceptable/unacceptable violence. As adults, we would look at the woods as a place of danger, yet in some ways it’s far less destructive than the coded behavior the girls are being taught. My mother went to Sacred Heart, on which I based the school in the story, and Primes was a system of which she spoke highly for how it provided real consequences to conduct. But it’s also an institution designed to reinforce power structures and hierarchies. My grandmother, who also attended Sacred Heart, was the one who told me that there were rules for when and to whom you should curtsey, bow, or do nothing. Only she couldn’t keep the rules straight, so she ended up bowing to everyone, yet another detail I stole for the story. So I suppose I saw the magic system in the story as both a literalization and a bastardization of the school’s structures. The girls don’t question why it exists for the same reason they don’t question Primes or any of the other seemingly arbitrary rules for their lives. They simply react.
At the two extremes, we have Abbey and Samantha. Samantha has the more romantic outlook: She wants to explore and sees the woods as a way of building community bonds. Abbey sees it as just another tool that can be as easily manipulated as the rules within the school. In some ways Abbey has a better understanding of what the forest is and what it could mean, but she also immediately jumps to the question of how she can use it for her own ends.
There’s a way to look at the story and believe that as soon as the girls make their choice to stand with Abbey instead of Samantha, that the forest will cease to work because they broke some arbitrary rule they didn’t know about. But honestly I think the forest just is. Abbey will stop going in simply because she doesn’t need to: She has all the power she wants in the outside world, so going into a place where she might be challenged would be foolish. Most of the other girls will follow suit because they want to all fit in. The narrator will probably never go back out of some guilt she doesn’t really understand, and so the woods will simply fade from their memory until the next group of girls happens to discover it.
It’s interesting to me that structured exploration is a dynamic tension that splits the group, a sort of ending of the age of innocence. Why is this the leadership moment that brings divisions to the surface?
These are girls that thrive on familiarity and structured rules/expectations (even if they decide not to follow them). Both Abbey and Samantha are a bit ahead of them in the sense that they’re willing to take more risks, and the other girls will follow right along because as leaders, Abbey and Samantha are providing the structure they need . . . but since Abbey and Samantha are opposed, eventually the group has to split up. In some ways, the forest is actually something that delays the inevitable, rather than causes it.
How you decide when something should be a story and when it should be a poem?
Sometimes it’s just a matter of what have I written lately—if I’ve written more poetry (which hasn’t happened in a while), every idea tends to want to be a poem. If I’ve written more fiction, then every idea wants to be a story. It’s cyclical rather than dependent on the actual thing I want to write.
How are you so prolific?
. . . Am I? I think I finish maybe three or four stories a year—maybe more if I happen to be in the midst of an MFA (or Clarion West—that was a good year). I think that’s pretty low on average, but one advantage I think I have is that I don’t waste a lot of time on drafts that don’t go anywhere. Typically if I’m going to finish a story, I finish it within twenty-four hours. Revision and rewrites can take longer than that, of course, but it means that I don’t spend months and months putting off other projects because I’m trying to get the second half of something written.
How would you compare your MFA in poetry to Clarion Writers Workshop to your current MFA in Fiction? How are you brave enough to do two creative MFAs?
I wouldn’t call it bravery so much as a strong preference for getting people to pay me to write. The fully funded MFA program is one of the best things you can do for yourself as a writer: two to three years where people give you money to write, read, and discuss stories (and also to teach, but that’s not so bad). It’s definitely not for everyone—the stipends aren’t that high at most schools and it doesn’t have a terribly high return on investment in terms of employment after the MFA, but it’s a pretty great deal if you can manage it.
In terms of comparing the MFA experience to Clarion West . . . that’s tricky. I had the advantage that I did Clarion West right before starting at NC State, so Clarion West was almost like a pre-MFA bootcamp. It helped me generate a lot of stories, many of which ended up in my thesis, and then the MFA gave me the time and space to slowly process everything I’d learned at Clarion West. On the downside, when I got to NC State, I was so mad at the members of my cohort for not being my Clarion West class that I was vehemently anti-social the first semester.
Ultimately I think that Clarion West results in a better cohort experience—you bond so quickly and in such intense circumstances, and that really can’t be replicated. But the MFA gives you more time with your instructors, and more time to read books and collections while writing (and being immersed in that writing culture).
If someone were to ask me which one they should do, Clarion West/UCSD or an MFA, I would probably tell them to do a Clarion workshop for the simple reason that it’s a much shorter time commitment and with six instructors, they have a better chance of finding one they click with. But if they wanted my real opinion on what they should do: Clarion followed by an MFA (preferably at NC State).
Do you have any projects you’d like to tell us about?
My Masters of Accounting degree . . . but I assure you that you don’t want to hear about it.
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