Our fiction co-editor Natasha Mieszkowski recently had this exchange with Marie Curran, our Issue #17 featured fiction author. Here’s what she had to say about the inspiration and thought behind “Perigee,” the writers who have been important to her, and her MFA experience.
What inspired you to write this piece?
This story drew from a lot. One thing is that I’m obsessed with rural life, or more the discrepancy between what it can be and what it often is. I like the idea of living and working with growing plants, beautiful creatures. I like the freedom that the Instagram version of rural life suggests (and perhaps, for some people, is real): freedom to move about in meaningful ways. Freedom to be healthy. But often, rural life is marked by cold houses, lots of road kill, terrible isolation, substance abuse, sinister chicken houses, and hours of driving. And then anything else that comes along with economic poverty. I wanted to write a story about someone who “escapes” the rural life, but yearns for it too.
What do you hope readers take away from it?
You probably shouldn’t start a farm. Just kidding. I hope readers feel, even for a moment, any lines they’ve drawn up—maybe about what makes for an alcoholic, a happy couple, a good parent, a successful endeavor, etc.—get slippery. Which of course is the goal of lots of writing. So, more specifically, I also hope writerly readers get inspired to write sexy or tense scenes that involve vegetables.
There are many subtle conflicts in this story, which are blended together in a very graceful manner. There is the tension between Lara and Moira, the fraught scene between Asher and Lara, the difficulties between Lara and her husband Toby. Was there a central conflict that initially compelled you when envisioning this story? Were you more interested in Lara’s internal conflict concerning her past and present selves? All of this results in a deeply complex and rich story. I’m curious about what the seed of it all was for you.
The story started with wine and sunset, a vague idea of something woozy and pretty. Which is probably not a place a story should stay. But then as I continued to write I became obsessed with what happens when we commit our lives to people and places and projects, and then those original plans change, like when there is mental illness or addiction or a relational dysfunction. I thought a lot about the narrator of Jenny Offill’s Department of Speculation, her movement from adoration to rage to hope and so on. I wanted to channel some of this, too.
I love the way you use items such as the mug and the cake both to provide motivation and to tie different segments of this story together. Do you often use this kind of symbolism in your work?
I think I do. I keep finding rotting crocks of sauerkraut in my prose. I worry a lot about this, that the approach is too heavy handed. In revising, certain objects disappear and reappear constantly. But then real people find tangible objects extremely significant, so I suppose I shouldn’t shy away from it too much.
What are you working on now?
More farmers! I’m working on a novella that’s involves ex-anarchist farmers. The novella actually grew from some of the themes in “Perigee,” although the characters are very different from Lara, Toby, Moira or Asher. After this I’d like to get farmers out of my system, or I hope they at least become magical or something.
What is the best advice about writing you have ever received?
Ah! So many good words! But I’m in the last two months of a three-year MFA program and what keeps me going right now is the idea that a) most people aren’t going to care and b) do it anyway, all the time because c) writing is a kind of spiritual practice.
Could you describe your writing process, and how you approach revising?
I try to write several days a week, and to get in at least one or two very long days. Except for little surges here and there, I struggle putting the raw material on the page. It’s kind of ugly. I go as long as I can until I know the plot can’t develop any more until I revise. Then I start over. Days, weeks, or months later, hopefully I have something decent. I usually plan my reading around what I’m writing, although often my writing follows what I’m reading, if that makes sense.
What is the first story you remember writing?
In sixth grade, I won a city award for a long narrative poem about Ötzi the ice man (definitely Google Image search him). That was the first piece I really, truly thought through. Even though I was a kid, writing about Ötzi made me feel like a real writer (which, I think not uncommonly, is a sense I lost in high school, and am not sure I’ve ever regained). There was this frozen ancient man in Europe, and there was me, a jelly-sandaled kid in California watching Doug Funny on TV and there was a connection, and I knew then it was important that I write something that felt true. Also, my mom says when I was really little I wrote a horror story called “The Candy Apple Death House.”
What writers have been important to your development as a writer?
More recently, Lauren Groff, in both Arcadia and Fates and Furies, really wows and challenges me. I love how she gives very minor characters brief but important moments, and how she gives space for a sort of community consciousness to speak. And because most of my work involves minor or major characters who are young children, I often harken back to, and am haunted by, NoViolet Bulawayo’s wonderful young characters in We Need New Names. I would like to write surprise in very condensed plots the way Dorthe Nors does, and I have more than one failed Nors copycat story. I really admire the way Stuart Dybek deals with the kind of regret that can make a reader sick. I love how Daniel Alarcon writes about the political without naming countries and cities in Lost City Radio. It seems logistically impossible, but when done well it can be such a gift in fiction. And when I find myself writing about characters who hate the place they are from, even while acknowledging the ways they are tethered to it, I go to Hilary Mantel’s memoir, because she’s done this so expertly. I find a lot of intellectual help in essays, and have returned again and again to Eula Biss’ Notes from No Man’s Land.
Because we grew out of a workshop, we like to ask: what is your best or worst workshop experience?
I’ve been lucky to work with some really great people and writers in the workshops I’ve taken in my MFA at Northern Michigan University. I found out that I like writing longer works when I was a student in Matt Bell’s excellent novel-writing workshop my first two semesters at Northern (Bell has since moved on to teach elsewhere). I felt vulnerable, bringing to the table what, for me personally, often felt like immature chunks of an unwieldy project, which I have since (wisely) terminated. What a valuable experience! I learned a lot of technical stuff—we studied craft essays each week, and we delved into specific writing strategies, like ways to increase tension through dialogue, or how to craft a consequential first line, and so much more information that I use every single day I write—and also a ton about discourse in the workshop. We had conversations about whose stories a person can write. I learned, slowly, that I needed to think harder, clearer about a lot of things. I learned to read better as a writer. I learned the most by formulating questions for my peers. We skyped with the writers—like Groff and Bulawayo and Laird Hunt!—whose books we were reading. It was really great. My classmates, many of whom are now good friends, were also amazing. I learned so much. I’m still unpacking the whole workshop experience, in a good way.
What author gives you inspiration?
I just finished Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins and I’m all west-coast climate-fiction dreamy now.
What’s your favorite children’s book?
For sure Harriet the Spy. I have a daughter. She is only a toddler, and I’m already excited to read it to her someday. Right now most of the children’s books in my house have to be bite-proof.
What is your ideal creative weather?
Where I live it is usually cold and snowy. I have forgotten that there is other weather. I’m dreaming of sticky sweaty thundery humidity right now. Maybe after graduation next month…