Sunday, August 22, 2010

Darlin' Neal on Revisiting Her Wandering Past

In the 33rd in a series of posts on 2010 short story collections entered for The Story Prize, Darlin' Neal, author of Rattlesnakes & the Moon (Press 53), discusses the influence of her rootless childhood.

What book made you want to become a writer?
It’s hard to separate out one book because my mother flooded me with wonderful books when I was a child—Jane Eyre, The Scarlet Letter, so much Dickens, but I remember very clearly reading True Grit when I was eight and how much I loved that book, how it brought the world outside alive in new ways. I started imaging the characters outside roaming the New Mexico mountains near my home. I started imagining the guys my dad worked with, and told stories about, into the book. I remember leaping up onto the bed filled with purpose and joy because I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to write books when I grew up and I wanted to run tell everyone, but I couldn’t because it was 2 o’clock in the morning and I was supposed to be sleeping. I still remember very clearly the heat of the light bulb above, how bright the room was, and my utter happiness.

What kind of research, if any, do you do?
Some of the stories in Rattlesnakes & The Moon stemmed from wondering that occurred after research into family history—“Sister Shadow,” “A Man Wrapped In Gold.” I did so much moving when I was a child, I’ve had this need to know where I came from, to make something of the separation I felt from places and people I loved. These two stories are fiction, but seeds came from that research.

This summer I spent a lot of time traveling in New Mexico to gather information about the schools I went to. There were 13 of them by the time I was 13 and it’s hard sometimes to remember when I was where, where I went from where. I’ve been writing short memoir pieces and now I plan to write a memoir.

The tug toward fictionalizing the material is strong though. During the Taos Summer Writers Conference recently, I went traveling the enchanted circle with Dorothy Allison and talking about story. My dad once paved that highway I was on. He paved just about every road in New Mexico at one time or the other. I started imagining that young guy being out there, all the way from that farm in Mississippi, looking out over those mountains and all that beauty. Roads were not only my family’s livelihood when I was a child, but truly were mostly our home, winding us from one town to another in that little trailer we lived in and could pull along.

Have you ever written a story in one sitting and not revised it?
Some stories are like gifts from the start and not much needs to be done. That doesn’t happen often. Most take many, many drafts before they let you in and start falling together. I will say that I wrote “A Man Wrapped In Gold” in one long fevered weekend, pretty much stopping only to eat with my daughter and sleep. The only thing that really changed about it since then is the frame that Rust Hills helped me with. He loved that story. His belief in my writing kept me going for a long time when part of me felt like giving up. I miss that guy being on the planet.

Have you had a mentor and who was it?
The first two writers I studied with were Kevin McIlvoy and Antonya Nelson. They were wonderful mentors and got me going down this path. I’ve been lucky the writers I’ve met and studied with. Joy Williams at the University of Arizona. Frederick Barthelme and Mary Robison at the University of Southern Mississippi. What a great loss for USM that Frederick Barthelme will no longer be teaching there and heading that magazine.