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Oct/Nov 2011 Reviews & Interviews

An Interview with Myfanwy Collins

by Ellen Meister


Cheri rounded the final corner at the coffee shop and noted that the light cast on the brick apartment buildings recalled the light on the brick wall behind the bowling alley when she was a kid. Back where she and Geneva would hang to smoke a joint and drink some beers before going to the school gym for roller-skating on a Friday night. The sight of it made her want to wing around and around, weaving in and out of the lines on the basketball court. She and Geneva, cracking the whip, laughing so hard they thought they would pee.

Now it was the end of another day in a string of days, of days, of days. The only way she could measure time anymore was by what month Spin magazine she happened to be reading and even that was not a good indicator. It might have arrived early or it might be an old issue. Time was dusty. Time was irrelevant.

But the next day Cheri would head north, back home, to say goodbye to her Auntie Marie, who might have longer to live had she not refused treatment. Im waiting for a miracle, is how Auntie Marie put it on the phone. But there had been no miracle, and according to the doctor, her aunt would die within the week. —from Echolocation

Myfanwy Collins lives on the North Shore of Massachusetts with her husband, son, and geriatric dog. Her work has been published in The Kenyon Review, AGNI, Cream City Review, Potomac Review, PANK, Quick Fiction, SmokeLong Quarterly, FRiGG, mixer, and other venues. Her novel, Echolocation, will debut at AWP in Chicago, March, 2012. She has a collection of short fiction forthcoming with PANK Little Books in August, 2012.

 

EM     Hi, Myfanwy. Congratulations on the publication of Echolocation, your debut novel. As you know, I love this book, and I'm thrilled to see it published. Can you tell us a little bit about the story and what inspired it?

MC     Ellen, your endorsement of the book means so very much to me. Thank you! As for your questions, there are seven principle characters within Echolocation. And each of those characters is yearning for connectedness—to each other, to the world at large—and some of them actually find it, though it might not be obvious to them that they have. The two main characters, Cheri and Geneva, are unrelated and yet they have been raised as sisters (though they are estranged at the beginning of the novel). They come back together after the woman who raised them becomes ill.

As for inspiration, I was visiting one of my aunts years ago as she was dying, and I had already been living away from home for a long time at that point when she said to me, "You've got to get back to your roots." Obviously, I've never forgotten her words, as the idea of roots and rooted-ness is key to the story. As is sisterhood.

I was raised in a world of sisters, along with all of the complexity and beauty and pain that comes with all of those sisters. I have three of them. My father had four sisters, and my mother had six. My mother always said to my sisters and me when we were ready to slaughter each other, "Your friends may come and go, but your sisters are forever." I have never loved or loathed or been happy for or jealous of anyone the way I have my sisters. The relationship is intense, and as much as you are like each other, you are also unlike each other. I hope to have captured the complexity of sisterhood in the relationship between Cheri and Geneva, and between two of the other characters, Marie and Renee.

I also hope to have captured the intensity of friendships between women and girls. As I was writing, I thought a lot about the female friends I had as a younger person, and how when we would spend so much time together, we would often have the same dreams at night. And, of course, our menstrual cycles would all start to coincide. Really, there is a point where you almost know how the other person feels when you are friends like that. As you age as a woman, the female friendships can still be strong, but on a different level as they are replaced by your romantic interests and then your children (if you happen to have children). As for Cheri and Geneva, the relationship between them becomes something beyond sisterhood and friendship. It becomes a relationship in which one wants to absorb the other out of fear and out of a sense of loss, and that is where things break down. Along with these key relationships, the book also explores motherhood, codependency, and moral dilemmas. There is violence within. There is bloodshed. There is hope.

EM     Since it happens right at the beginning of the book, I don't think it will be too much of a spoiler for me to ask you about the accident in which Geneva loses her arm. It's such a vivid scene, and the message about loss and change is so powerful. Can you discuss your decision to put that in the book? What does it symbolize for you?

MC     I did worry, briefly, about including the incident with Geneva's arm because I thought people reading it would say, "That could never happen. She would die," etc. But I based the accident on a true story. The person who told me this story was a nurse who worked in a hospital that serviced a fairly rural community. She said that what had saved the boy who had a similar accident with a saw was his body's adrenaline. The boy's father was there at the time of the accident, and after he put a tourniquet on his son, he told him to run as fast as he could back to their truck.

So there's the germ of it. From that true story, I started thinking about the type of women I wanted to write about—those I grew up with. Tough, ingenious, surviving women. I thought of my mother—a beautiful woman who lost her breast to cancer. After her mastectomy she might have found herself disfigured or weak, but really it only made her stronger and more beautiful. I thought of the women and girls I grew up with in the North Country. Fierce, intelligent women who must keep their wits about them in order to survive in the rough, dangerous, beautiful terrain they inhabit. And in some cases, that terrain is both physical and metaphysical.

I wanted Geneva to be a survivor, and she is; yet she struggles with ideas of independence. She doesn't think she wants to be alone, and given the state of her body, she believes she needs help, and yet she doesn't really need help. Yes, there are certain physical things she can't do anymore, but her mind continues to expand. Indeed, the loss of her arm, gives her back her life. Mostly, what I want people to think about Geneva is that she is a warrior.

EM     I'm touched by how you describe the dual terrain as "rough, dangerous, beautiful," because the connection between your characters and the landscapes they inhabit—the stark north woods, the timeworn store, even the seedy bar that becomes Renee's cozy home—is so evocative. How did decide on the settings for Echolocation? Does the environment feel to you like part of the characters?

MC     The environment is, indeed, part of the characters. What a terrific way to put it, Ellen. In many ways, these are the places of my growing up. I spent most of my youth (either as a summer resident or a full-time resident) in the northern tip of the Adirondack Park. When people say "upstate" in terms of New York, they usually mean Albany, but where I lived was UPstate. Smack dab in the middle of nowhere, it is one of the most beautiful places I've ever been to. I grew up on a lake and I spent a lot of my alone time either reading or trekking through the woods by myself. I can honestly say that even during its coldest, harshest months, I found the place beautiful. There can be a beauty to that kind of cold. And a danger.

So while I understand Geneva's and Marie's connection to their roots, I also understand Cheri's and Renee's desire to flee. As much as I loved the people and the natural beauty of where I lived, I yearned for escape from it (though there were other matters at play I wanted to escape). I wanted away. I wanted to be understood and didn't feel like anyone would understand me until I was away. Of course, this is a typical feeling for many young people. I know that now, but at the time my desire to leave was almost painful.

Where I grew up was also a place in transition, much like the world of the story. Where I lived was sandwiched to the north by a world of dairy farms and the south by an iron ore boomtown gone bust. The dairy farms had been a staple of the economy but even they were in trouble in those years, as the independent farmer was squeezed out of business by the cost of farming. I would say the majority of the kids I grew up with were either living (and working) on a farm or had at one time lived or worked on a farm. I'm not sure that would be true of my hometown today. In many ways, I would have loved to have spent my whole life there but there were reasons why I had to leave.

As for the other places—the store, the barroom. Those two are also a personal connection to me. I grew up in a family business, a restaurant. I worked the bar at my mother's place and at another honky-tonk place on the side. I did this all through my undergraduate years, and by doing so, I learned a lot about human nature.

EM     Your characters' emotional stories feel so real. As a writer, is there some kind of internal yardstick that lets you know you've landed exactly where you need to be in terms of telling these emotional truths?

MC     I love to hear that, Ellen. Thank you. I was pregnant when I wrote the first draft of this novel and feeling extremely emotional myself. Part of that emotion was natural, hormone-driven emotion and another part of that emotion was excitement and fear, but the biggest part of it was in reliving different unresolved issues from my past. I plumbed those depths, so to speak. But most of all, I felt for my characters or I wanted to feel for them and I didn't want them to be caricatures.

I was especially concerned about the male characters. I wanted them to be believable and I wanted the reader to feel a connection to them. Without knowing that I wanted him to feel this way, my husband told me that he found the two main male characters sympathetic and how pleased he was that they were. This is not to say that they are examples of the best men in the world, rather that their emotional truth did come through for him.

EM     I know that you worked as an editor as some prestigious literary magazines, such as Narrative and LitPot. What impact, if any, did that have on your writing?

MC     Cannot say enough about the learning advantage a writer can receive from working as an editor at a literary journal and, especially, from reading the slush pile. I remember, very keenly, the first rejection I sent for LitPot. I felt horrible sending this writer a rejection. I was also extremely nervous. And then a light bulb went off. Oh! I'm saying no to this story; I'm not saying no to this writer. More light bulbs. Oh! So, you mean when editors reject my work, they're not rejecting me? Really? Hey, they aren't! They aren't rejecting me as a person. They are saying, "No," to my story because it doesn't work for them.

Sounds so simple but it was a huge revelation and provided an enormous step forward in terms of how I thought about my own writing. What I learned is that while my stories are an extension of me, they are not who I am. Still, it did not make sending rejections to writers (especially people I know) any easier. Really, I wanted to say yes to the stories I read. Most editors I know want to say yes. They really do. Our job as writers is to give them a reason to say yes and to not give them a reason to say no.

Okay, this is not to say that rejection doesn't hurt sometimes. At this point, I've received hundreds and hundreds of rejections. I stopped counting, honestly. The majority of those rejections I brushed off but every once in a while there are still one or two that eat me up.

I read somewhere once that human beings are hard wired to remember the negative longer than we remember the positive. It's something about how we learn. For example, by touching the burner on a hot stove—the memory of the action leading to the pain teaches us not to repeat the action. But as writers we are constantly reaching out and touching the burner again. We can't help it.

Still there are some writers who can't let themselves touch the burner again. The hurt is too much for them and so they give up. I wish they would not give up. You will learn from touching that burner. You will improve. Eventually, someone will say yes to your work and all of those burns will scar over. Sure, you'll sometimes remember the hurt when you touch that scar but it won't hurt as badly. Reach out, writer, and keep touching that burner. That is how you learn.

EM     Yes, well put! And as long as we're talking about your editorial experience, did it have any effect on how you responded to input from your agent and editor?

MC     I would say that in most ways working at a literary journal specifically has not had an effect on how I respond to editorial input. I actually like to be edited. I enjoy the give and take of it. I believe that once the piece is written and submitted, you agree to work as a team with whoever accepts it. The piece belongs to both of you. However, this is not to say that you have to agree on everything. It's like every relationship where you give and you take and you search for middle ground.

I'm fortunate, too, in that Penn Whaling, my agent, happens to be an incredibly astute reader who provides excellent editorial advice. I also have the extreme pleasure of working with Victoria Barrett, who is my publisher and editor for Echolocation.

When Victoria first responded to my manuscript she offered her editorial vision for it and I thought my head was going to explode because what she suggested was so right and it was not something I could have seen or even thought about a few years ago. Basically, she wanted me to remove one of the story lines and her rationale behind this idea resonated with me: that particular storyline was diluting the narrative and taking away from the real heart of the story.

I was so excited by this suggestion that I started working on it right away and finished that first edit before we'd even signed the contract, which is not really the wisest thing to do but I was too excited not to.

EM     So glad you went with that excitement—you deserve it! For someone as extraordinarily talented as you are, it's been a long road, with plenty of highs and lows. What advice can you give to other writers going through the same kind of journey?

MC     Thank you, Ellen. I still feel like I'm on that journey. Really, it feels like I'm beginning again with a whole new set of challenges and expectations. It's exciting and scary. But yes, it has been a long journey up to this point and there were definitely times I was ready to give up, but desire kept me coming back to the page. And that my friends and family believed in me, kept me coming back to the page. Here's where the advice part comes in: Surround yourself as best you can with supportive friends and family.

I happen to be extremely lucky in having a supportive family. My husband is absolutely the best, most selfless, supporter I have. My sisters, my in-laws, my aunts, my nieces and nephews, my cousins—all of them are supportive (and if they aren't, I've not heard about it). Even my four-year-old son is supportive (though he might not be once he learns how to read). Okay, I know you can't choose your family and I know there are a lot of writers (or people in general) who feel that their families aren't as supportive of them as they wish they would be. If that's the case, try not to include them in your writing life. You don't need their approval of your work in order to do your work.

As for friends, man, I have so many great ones. People like you, Ellen, who have pulled me up any number of times and shared your wisdom with me. They broke the mold when they made you. And I'm lucky to have other friends, writers and non-writers, who fully believe in me and have believed in me for years. When I've been down, those friends have been there for me and I love them for it.

Finally, do whatever you can to build up your reserves. Find a community of writers who give you feedback that pushes you to improve, but that does not beat you down. Read every single book you can get your hands on and then read some more after that. Be open to the advice people give you about your writing, even if you don't want to hear it or don't agree with it. Just listen to it and take it in. Don't ever get too comfortable. Mostly, though, just don't give up.

EM     What a generous response! Thank you, Myf. You're a wonderful friend and a powerful talent, and I was delighted to have the chance to interview you. I hope your answers here inspire people to pick up Echolocation!

MC     Ellen, thank you so much for your thoughtful questions and your time. It's been fun.

 

Get more info about Myfanwy Collins on her website.

 

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