Jul/Aug 2010  •   Reviews & Interviews

An Interview with Darlin' Neal

Interview by Jim Ruland

It was the kind of coincidence you read about in short stories, but so seldom encounter in "real life." Darlin' Neal, author of the debut short story collection Rattlesnakes and the Moon, which was released earlier this year by Press 53, lives in Orlando, Florida. I live in San Diego, California. But earlier this summer, we were able to meet for lunch at a restaurant called Nopalito's in Las Cruces, New Mexico, the state where many of Neal's stories take place.

I've been reading Darlin's work for years. In 2007, as guest editor for SmokeLong Quarterly, I selected Darlin's story "Red Brick," a spooky story of a young girl navigating a network of confusing signals, where everyone says one thing but means another. The story, which opens the collection, is set in Mississippi, where Darlin' was born, but is told from the point-of-view of someone who has already traveled far and wide, but hasn't quite figured out what she's seen.

When she was a baby they took her driving to calm her crying and to let the wheels over the road rock her to sleep. They told her this. They told her, you like to ride and now she was almost always riding, traveling to some new place.

Back in 2007 these lines struck me with the force of their truth, and they continue to resonate now. When we're young, our story is told for us, but it often runs counter to the truth we feel in our hearts. Thus, our individual stories collaborate with and antagonize the stories handed down to us. Darlin's collection, which has received glowing endorsements from Antonya Nelson, Frederick Barthelme and Kevin Canty, is full of moments when the differences between truth and fiction, love and fidelity, home and this place, become all but irreconcilable.

But, as I discovered that day in Las Cruces, over cold drinks and warm green chilies, the depth and breadth of Darlin's travels are much more extensive than I imagined...

JR     You've bounced around quite a bit during your childhood, and attended 13 different grade schools—13! Why did your family move so frequently?

DN     I moved around a lot because my father was a road construction foreman so we'd move to where the jobs were. The company was based in New Mexico. I often went to several schools a year. We had a trailer and an old Chevy pickup and my dad would just hook us up and move on to the next town.

JR     Where is your family from?

DN     Both of my parents grew up on Mississippi farms: my father in Brookhaven, my mother in McComb, though my mother also moved from time to time when she was very young because her father was also in road construction. I imagine that got hard to do with ten children in that family. My father couldn't make a living in Mississippi. Before New Mexico we tried California, where I hear things were great. He was working on a golf course and meeting lots of cool celebrities. There was a pool table in our house and it was the place to be. At one time, someone even tried to talk him into being a Country and Western singer with his looks and all. But he got homesick, not for the last time, and back we went to Mississippi.

JR     And that's where you were born?

DN     I was born in Mississippi and the moving started then. I would have been born in Brookhaven, but my mother had some health problems so that hospital turned her away, and off she rode for 60 miles with Daddy driving and my grandmothers in the backseat arguing. So I was born at the University of Mississippi Medical Center with a team of specialists at my birth. One of them was the doctor who had been my mother's neurosurgeon since she was seventeen. He was Iranian, I believe. He told her to go ahead and name me Darlin' like my father wanted. She worried about teasing. He suggested if I was bothered by it, to let people pronounce it Darlene, which I did for awhile and worked out well in New Mexico. But it is Darlin' for a Do Whop song my father loved.

JR     Wow, so you were very nearly born "on the road." How did moving so frequently affect your writing, your sense of place in the world?

DN     I think it made me long for places, and sometimes moving made places in books seem almost as real as the ones I was passing through. Writing gives me a sense of permanence. Often, when I feel homesick, I'll want to write a story and set it in the place I'm homesick for. The voices of a place, too, are to me as much the setting as the trees and the kinds of bars that might be there. There are some very beautiful voices here in New Mexico, the beautiful accents and languages of my youth, the smell of green chilies roasting in the air, of mesquite. I've missed them for a while, just like I missed all the voices of my aunts and uncles in Mississippi and the smell of turnips and peas cooking on the stove when I moved away from there, the place I was born and where I first heard voices.

JR     Have you ever in your life met a New Mexican Mississippian?

DN     Oddly enough, in the town where I went to high school, in Alamogordo, there was a man named James Floyd Sr. who was born and raised in Wesson which is right by Brookhaven where my father was born and raised. I met this man through my daughter's father who I divorced a long time ago and who died when my daughter was seven. James Floyd Sr. was my ex's father and a dear grandfather to my daughter and one of the kindest men I've known in my life. He was always there for me and my daughter. He came into my life when I was 16. I still miss him. He's the only other one I've known.

JR     Tell me about a place in New Mexico that everyone should visit.

DN     Jemez Springs is one of the places that hold my heart. I'm going there later this summer. It's so beautiful that it might bring tears to your eyes. Momaday lived there when he was a child. It's mountains and springs and a river runs along the road. A very tiny place and one of several where I attended a reservation school. It's near Los Alamos, and it always struck me as strange they built an atomic bomb right in one of the most beautiful places in the world. You see all those trucks coming down the mountain with the words Hazardous Waste blaring from their trailers. In Jemez, there is a very cool old saloon, Los Ojos.

JR     You hear so much about the landscape in connection with Georgia O'Keeffe, but nothing prepares you for it. The canyons of the Chama River are astonishing.

DN     Chama is another place with that mountain beauty and all the colorful cliffs. When I was a child they were filled with hippies trying to figure out the meaning of life. I still remember driving along by Taos and seeing the naked people by a waterfall at a commune up there, and how you'd see a couple making out in the sunflowers just all of a sudden. I remember all the happy people waving to my brother and me as we sat in back of a pick-up trudging along to the next town. I was very lucky I think to have the people around me I had growing up, the American Indians from so many tribes, the Mexican Americans, the old cowboys, and the hippies.

JR     What's your family's response to Rattlesnakes and the Moon been like?

DN     Oh dear, my immediate family sees too much of themselves in the stories. It's hard to explain the liberties taken with fiction and how of course you want things to seem real, etc, but you are writing fiction and taking off from what inspires you, and often that inspiration comes from deep love and/or disturbance. To explain that the truths we're trying to come to in a story don't really have to do with exposure of someone's private life but maybe started just by an simple image or occurrence in one of those lives, someone getting a hearing aid, someone having a puppy shot in a drive by for example, but the people in the stories aren't the same.

JR     "Deep love and disturbance." I really like that. You develop blind spots when dealing with family members. You have to, right? But fiction has a way of bringing out what others might not want to see.

DN     My family is not talking to me a lot about the stories. I'm already the black sheep of the family for going away to college—though my mother pushed me toward that goal always and fed my reading while we were roaming around, filled my life with books, really great books—the Brontes, Dickens, Hawthorne and on and on. Up until recently I was the only one who had done that, taken any college courses, the only one out of five of us, and one of two of us who even finished high school. I have a brother who went to prison for several years and got
his GED and Associate's and is continuing his studies now in the year
he's been out. I'm terribly proud of him

JR     Do you see your characters as restless, or are they searching for a home?

DN     Oh, they are both, but I think mostly they want to find their homes, they want to belong somewhere.

JR     Do you have a favorite story in the collection?

DN     This is a tough question. Someone else just recently asked me this. And you know the favorite story for me is always the one I'm working on at the moment, once it turns loose a bit and starts coming together. But there are three stories I wrote many years ago that I included in the collection and because they were breakthroughs for me, I have fondness for them: "Lafayette," "A Man Wrapped In Gold," and "Sister Shadow." But that's a tough question, almost like picking a favorite child. Luckily I only have one of those!

JR     Have you had many encounters with rattlesnakes?

DN     I have. A couple that stand out were in Dulce, New Mexico. In one, I'm a ten-year-old walking along holding my two-year-old brother's hand and my foot is about to come down on a snake crossing our path. I run away and turn and see my baby brother staring down. The snake has coiled and started to rattle her warning, so I have to go back and carefully snatch my brother away, careful enough not to trigger the snake. I actually felt not only fear, but sadness too when they killed that snake. While I lived in Dulce and many other northern New Mexico towns, I had a keen awareness that I was only one being among many who belonged there—mountain lions, bears, dragonflies—all had as much of a right as me. Another memory from that time. There was this child molester man who had this young girl, who was my friend, living with him in a little trailer and he was out showing off trying to grab a rattlesnake and poke it with a stick and sling it all over. He had rattlers in a jar on a shelf in his awful little trailer. A trophy. Too bad the snake didn't bite him.

JR     When you're teaching writing, what's the most important thing you want your students to take away from the experience?

DN     I want them to learn to inhabit story through point of view and details of place. I want them to discover and/or reaffirm that sacred act of empathy.

JR     Your students are MFA students?

DN     Yes, I love teaching in the MFA program at UCF. I have many great students and working with them on their books is incredibly rewarding. I'm also excited that I'll now be the faculty advisor for Writers in the Sun Reading Series and will be bringing in writers of national caliber to read and visit us. I'll be doing this in conjunction with coaching the students on the undergraduate literary magazine, The Cypress Dome. And I'm very happy to announce that I'll now be Fiction Editor of the Florida Review, a magazine I admire very much.

JR     What's it like to return to New Mexico?

DN     The first morning I woke in this house in Las Cruces where I'm staying this summer, I woke to the sound of birds, a combination of songs I haven't heard for a long time and that while I lived here took for granted. Now I noticed that sound and recognized it as being home in New Mexico, like I missed the birds in the magnolias of my grandmothers' farms in Mississippi. All the moving made my listening keener, perhaps.

JR     What are you working on?

DN     Right now I'm revising an old novel and I think I'm getting close to finishing up with that. I'm also working on putting together a second collection of stories. Mainly just need to do the arranging. It just happened that I was invited to stay in Las Cruces around the same time I decided to give that novel another go. It's set right around where I am at this minute, on the very blocks around me. And this was all an accidental coming together. In the later part of the summer, I'll be working on my memoir which has gotten complicated for me as my mother is very ill with stage four breast cancer. But she is so strong and so brave and I'm happy to be in New Mexico right now so I can just run over and visit her. I'll be heading to Taos as I work on that, then I'm hoping for brief stays in some of the places I lived as a child Jemez, Chama and Springer.

JR     Where will you go when you leave New Mexico?

DN     In a couple of weeks I'll be back at my new home in Florida with its own birds sounds, one for my city, and one for my place near the ocean and I'll be hoping those birds are faring all right. The pelicans and gulls and all. I guess the bottom line is that the missing makes me take less for granted, makes me hope I can define a place in a way that helps me hold on to it a little.


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