In her debut short story collection, which won the 2011 Dzanc Books Short Story Collection Competition, Anne Valente investigates the most unexplainable qualities of our planet - from the supernatural to the intimate emotions that we often keep to ourselves. She chatted with me about her fascination with mysteries, writer's craft, her own childhood, and the clever way she comes up with character names.
CF: Two overarching motifs of your story collection By Light We Knew Our Names are mothers and animals, trying to survive in a hard-knock life. What is the main message that you hope your audience gains by reading your heartfelt pieces about loss, love, and sacrifice? And how do mothers and animals especially allow you to dig deep into the real emotions of humanity?
AV: I’ve definitely been drawn to writing about animals for some time, and now that you mention it, realize that many of the stories in By Light involve mothers (or parents in general). I was lucky enough to grow up in an incredibly supportive and loving household, and I thought about that a lot as I was writing these stories: how familial love can’t protect against everything, but it’s a powerful foundation. It can be there when there’s nothing else left. So many of these stories explore pain – war, terminal illness, sexual violence, brutality –where sometimes love is the only softness. I think of familial love as a shelter from that kind of pain, and animals aren’t unrelated to this realm; they too can be a shelter, a way of thinking beyond human violence and loss.
CF: What is the origin of the tale of the flying ship, in your story “To a Place Where We Take Flight”? I pictured the flying ship from Peter Pan. You include many other allusions and references from pop culture and historical events in your stories, and make them your own. Could you explain one or two of these references and how you weave them into your stories to reflect uniquely on them?
AV: I’ve thought a lot in fiction about what stories characters tell themselves: how they create their own histories against an authoritative narrative, or how they imagine alternate worlds to manage the pain of the one we all share. In this case, the flying ship is most certainly a fable to cope with loss. I’m interested in historical events for the same reason – not so much a portrayal of what happened, but a way of reimagining an accepted history through a character’s eyes, or even questioning whether it happened the way standard narratives tell us it did. I’m interested in the periphery of those narratives, stories told at an angle, like how a group of girls-turned-bears viewed Amelia Earhart’s flights as their fathers went to war. As for pop culture: music, film and television are huge parts of my world. Maybe unfairly to my characters, these things have become part of their worlds too.
CF: Were any of the stories especially easy or difficult to write? Are there certain characters in the collection that have inherited traits or elements of yourself?
AV: None of the stories were necessarily easier or more difficult to write than others, but some did require more research. “Mollusk, Membrane, Human Heart” meant a significant amount of research into octopus biology; “Dear Amelia” required a lot of information about Amelia Earhart, lobster and black bear anatomy, and the coast of Maine. I don’t write fiction autobiographically – I feel like there’s way too much in the world to explore beyond my own history – but I hope the worlds of these stories share my sense of curiosity and some degree of compassion.
CF: Teal, Tee, Kestrel, Wren, Francie, Maple. How do you choose names for your characters? And how do you know when you’ve picked the right one?
AV: Names aren’t easy. In most stories, the names come to me as just feeling right. In “By Light We Knew Our Names,” however, I did choose the names of birds for each character. Flight seemed integral to the feel and pulse of this story, and to these girls’ desire to flee from their conditions.
CF: In “By Light We Knew Our Names,” Teal asks her mother, “When you were a little girl, what did you want to be?” How would you personally answer this question? How have your childhood dreams influenced the person you are today?
AV: My childhood was an amazing time of discovery: writing, drawing and reading, which is of course still important to me now, but also exploring my backyard, building bug boxes, going on hikes in the Missouri woods, and constructing models of the planets. I was also a big believer in ghost stories, urban legends, campfire tales and Alvin Schwartz’s Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark. I don’t think I’m much different now than I was at age eight. The same things still move me. When I was little I was very curious. I hope I’ll always be curious.
CF: A theme that appears in almost every story in the collection is the dichotomy of light and darkness/life and death. Through your journey as a writer, how have you found that light illuminates and/or shadows the many sides of humanity? What other potential metaphors of light do you see exist in the world? What does it mean to be alive, in your eyes?
AV: This is such an astute question. I don’t think I even realized until a few years ago, and especially while editing this manuscript, how often light and dark appear in my writing. For me, it’s less of a binary, especially in stories where dichotomies and realities tend to blur, and more related to the fact that light is essential to life on this planet. Photosynthesis. The phases of the moon. Seasons. All dependent on light or a lack of it. There are rhythms to these cycles in nature, which I don’t feel is dissimilar to the rhythm or sound of language on the page. I don’t know if I can fully answer what it means to be alive, but I feel most alive – on and off the page – when I pay attention to these rhythms in nature.
CF: You ruthlessly force your characters to endure grief, disaster, and abuse. But with the help of an indescribable and imaginative fantastical element, you create stories that suspend our disbelief and lighten even the heaviest topics. Do you believe that there is a connection between sorrow and creativity? Are hardships necessary in order to appreciate and understand the beauty in the world?
AV: I don’t know if sorrow is necessary so much as it’s unavoidable. Maybe it’s a morbid way to think, but I live with an awareness of loss. We can’t live forever. This breaks my heart in small ways every day. But a lot of things do: the ruby-throated hummingbirds that visit my porch, the rare luna moth I found on someone’s bike last week, a supermoon whose light filled the sky for one whole night this summer. The world teems with beauty like this but also with war, planes shot from the sky, sexual violence, genocide, racism, destruction of the environment. Sometimes it’s hard to believe that great beauty and great pain coexist, that they happen at the same time on the same planet. I don’t think hardship is necessary to creativity so much as it’s an inescapable part of being alive right now. This is the light and dark, and this can be the fantastic as well: to imagine another way of living, to subvert the violence of this world.
CF: Was it difficult to make your characters suffer?
AV: I’ve heard craft talks about attachment to characters and finding it hard to make them suffer, but I don’t know if I’ve ever thought of writing fiction in this way. It’s never been difficult to make certain choices. That doesn’t mean it’s not hard to write those choices: writing the live dissection of a sentient baby octopus, for instance, isn’t pleasant. But it’s unavoidable at times, in the same way that this kind of violence is an unfortunate part of our world.
CF: What would you like your readers to take away from your stories’ open endings (those that leave you hanging, or wondering about what will happen next)?
AV: I’ve had conversations with other writers about open and closed endings, and I prefer open endings: those that allow the reader to imagine and interpret, not only because it empowers the reader and offers them a chance to engage more openly with the narrative, but because I myself often don’t have definitive answers to give. I don’t know where my characters will go from here. I prefer fiction that raises questions more than it provides answers. Writing feels more like an exploration in this way rather than a route toward a set goal, outcome or interpretation.
CF: In your story, “A Very Compassionate Baby,” the baby may see a world on a flower (how Seussian of you!), a world that his parents are unable to perceive. Do you believe that some people can “see” more than others in the real world? Are there limits to what a person can see and not see?
AV: My hope is that most people are curious and receptive to letting the world astonish them. Sometimes this gets lost or buried. Hardship and pain, as we’ve discussed, can make it difficult to be amazed. In a perfect world, it would be easy to find everything wondrous. My hope is that despite the many reasons to be cynical and even broken by our world, of which there are many, there’s still enough magic on the planet for all of us to experience even just a moment of marvel.
CF: Ghosts and spirits and questions about the afterlife swirl throughout your stories. What about the concept of the supernatural life fascinates you, and how did you connect this interest to fit into your stories?
AV: What fascinates me about the supernatural – ghosts, monsters, cryptozoology, legends – is its mystery. There’s a lot of pressure in our culture to know everything, to stand atop the hierarchy of knowing. I’m not necessarily immune: I’m terrified of death. I don’t know what happens when we die. Something in me wants to know, to get closer to ghosts and the supernatural, to have some sense that we’re not alone and that we don’t lose everything and everyone we love. But there’s also beauty in the mystery, in not knowing everything. Who does know everything? Who wants to? I prefer to live in a world that is constantly and quietly astounding. Ghosts are a mystery but so are the inner workings of plant biology, the hum of bird migrations, how they know when and where to go. For me, the fantastic is a wonderful playground for exploring how thin the border between known and not-known is, and a means of preserving a curiosity about the world, the same sense of belief many of us held as children.
CF: What are you working on now?
AV: I just completed a novel manuscript about a mass school shooting and a rash of unexplained house fires that erupt in its aftermath. It’s been a hard novel to write due to its emotional weight, but my hope is to have treated such difficult material humanely and with compassion. I’m also working on a collection of short stories about the city of St. Louis, my hometown. These stories have required some fascinating research, and they most certainly incorporate magic and animals and ghosts.