Thursday, July 16, 2015

Kelly Cherry and the Hard Work of Imagination

In the eighth in a series of posts on 2015 books entered for The Story Prize, Kelly Cherry, author of Twelve Women in a Country Called America (Press 53talks about her characters.

When I published my first novel, a friend wrote to say she was surprised to learn that I had gone to med school. It was my character who had gone to med school, not I. When I published my second novel, my kid sister was sure I was mocking her: Why else would I have made the lead character a flautist, just like her? Of course, Augusta was not just like her; Augusta was made up. And so it seemed to go, book after book. The hard work of imagination was read as biography, usually autobiography.

There is no autobiography in my new collection of stories, Twelve Women in a Country Called America, which, by the way, is for male readers as well as for female readers. There are no stories based on anyone I've known or am related to or have been told about or whom I've read of. All of the women are grown up (even the ten-year-old), all are complex and interesting, all have comments to make about the states in which they live and about America in general. None of the women mention designer brand names, though a rich man named Clyde Beamer refers to "Armani and vintage Pucci." (But he admires Lorna Jo precisely because she cares about things more important than designer wear.) The characters' lives take twists and turns. There are men among them. Clyde, of course. Sloan, Hodder, Gerhardt. These are pretty terrific men, I think, but then there's Constantine, or Connie, from "The Starveling":
Connie had wooed her with poems—his own, yes, but also the poems of other poets—and by now she recognized the difference between his and theirs. The words of the old poets were like beautiful beads. But she respected Connie's passion for his craft, his art. If he was a jerk sometimes, if he never made the bed, never washed the dishes, she fully agreed with him that his art lent him privileges she did not deserve. In her view, he had earned an exemption from daily life. 
She also believed that a girl was supposed to encourage her boyfriend, but it wasn't always easy to see how. "I love that," Calista said, at last. "An old man who has forgotten how to spit. How in the world did you come up with that?
Certainly, the women have feelings. They also have thoughts and opinions and questions. The ten-year-old contemplates the nature of time. The schoolteacher nearing ninety remembers her mother, her siblings, her first-graders, and the man who would have been her husband had he not been killed in WWII. Gods and aliens turn up because sentences conjured them. These characters are real and various and their lives are not for mocking any more than my sister's. I wanted them to have dignity. To own their lives. Perhaps I approached the writing of these stories the way an actor may portray a character: I sought to inhabit each of them, to understand their needs, desires, and choices and to grant them the authenticity of their being.

Each woman is clearly different from the others. My perspective therefore shifted with each story. In fact, there is such a range of perspectives that this time I am certain no one will imagine that I am writing about myself or my family.

The joy of writing is creating, that is, making stuff up. The more realistic you can make the stuff you are making up, the more readers are inclined to think you are writing nonfiction, or almost-nonfiction. But surely, with twelve radically different women, it must be clear that this new collection is based on imagination, not life. And when I speak of joy, I mean joy: To write is to be entranced, to live outside of time, to concentrate so closely that the world disappears. The backache disappears, the anxiety about paying bills disappears, time disappears. The writer comes back to the world she lives in, of course, but she returns with pages, and they seem to be a mystery: Who wrote these words? Where did they come from? Could they be autobiographical? But no. They have come from somewhere utterly mysterious, an island, maybe, obscured by mist and fog, where owls dance by moonlight, and where all the cats read poems by T. S. Eliot.