Our fiction co-editor JD Fox recently had this exchange with Caitlin Hamilton Summie, our Issue #22 featured fiction author. Here’s what she had to say about her story “Sons,” writing male and female narrators, and how her work has affected her approach to writing.
What inspired you to write this piece?
I was inspired to write this short story by a deadline. I had no story at all and a piece due for workshop. If memory serves, I wrote this story in a 24-hour period. I had never had a story fall out of me that fast, and it hasn’t happened since. My most recent story took six years to write, in part due to the demands of work and motherhood, in part because that is what the story required.
You draw a parallel between Patrik leaving his family and culture and Harry leaving the farm. Because this seems to be set a generation ago—with the father in the waiting room during the birth—I wonder if this is based on family history. How much of this is drawn, whether directly or indirectly, from personal experience?
This story was written a long time ago—roughly twenty years ago. I have always counted it among my favorite pieces, so I pulled it out recently and decided to give it another chance at publication.
There are most certainly threads of my life in “Sons”: for instance, I’ve been told the story of my father waiting and waiting as my older brother was born. Also, my family heritage is partly Swedish and I know a few Swedish words, even knew a Swedish farmer. But the story itself —the father/son separation, the scary pregnancy, the desperate hope—are all fiction. It’s a mystery to me what ends up on the page sometimes.
You live in Tennessee, but the story takes place in Minnesota. Where are your own roots, and have you moved away from them?
Home for me is family, wherever they are. My childhood was divided between Massachusetts and Minnesota, and I later lived in Colorado for a long time. Now I live in Tennessee.
Minnesota was formative for me, where I came awake as a writer, so it plays a large part in my fiction. Lately, though, I have been writing a lot about Tennessee.
What do you hope readers take away from “Sons”?
I hope readers will think well of the story, and I hope they come away with a sense of hope—that there is always hope of love, of understanding, of reconciliation.
Gaining something, in this story, is often at the cost of losing something else. Is this a theme you’ve written about in other ways?
I’ve never thought about this before, but as I consider all my writing, I would say that loss is a consistent theme.
The landscape itself, the farm that Harry left behind, becomes a character of its own. Harry seems more comfortable expressing a loss for the farm than for his father, which is fascinating, as it allows him to show both affection toward and alienation from his past. Did you have to work to create this effect?
The honest answer is no. This was simply the way the story developed. For all I rewrite, some things in fiction simply come as gifts.
So many men have written about childbirth from the standpoint of men. I’m curious about why you’ve chosen to write this birth from the father’s perspective and had the mother appear only asleep, the baby through glass.
I write a lot from the male perspective and always have. In graduate school, all my stories were told from the male perspective until someone suggested I try writing from the female perspective. I didn’t think the stories were as effective then, though, perhaps because it wasn’t really how I “heard” characters, perhaps because female voices were too close to my personal experience. I believe my later stories written from a female perspective are stronger.
You own your own business as a publishing marketer. What do you like about your work? How does your work influence your writing?
I am in the privileged position of working with writers I choose, and so I get to work on books I love, with people I admire.
My work affects my writing in practical terms: I have less time for my own creative work, but I also have greater faith in my work despite rejections. I know this business well enough, and have worked with so many first novelists, that I understand how long it can take to have a book accepted, how subjective it all is, and how much excellent work never finds a home. It has made me more compassionate toward myself as a writer. It has made me braver, too. I am not afraid to try, to revise, to take a risk, or to submit a twenty-year-old short story that I recently decided to revisit.
Could you describe your writing process in general, and how you approach revising?
I write when I have time so there is no consistent process or habit save that I keep going, with whatever is engaging me at the time. And I’m never afraid to revise. The hardest part is trusting your own voice, learning when revision becomes workman-like and it’s time to step away so you can hear the piece afresh.
What are you working on now?
David Milofsky at Colorado State, where I earned my MFA, told me that whenever I felt myself cringing, to keep writing, to push on.
Other than that, the best advice I’ve heard was to simply sit down and write.
What is the first story you remember writing?
My mother tells me I would present stories to her before I could write, scribbles that she would ask me to “read” to her. I wrote a novella and a screenplay at 13, and that is my earliest memory of serious effort.
What writers have been important to your development as a writer? Who inspires you?
Ernest Hemingway, Louise Erdrich, Frederick Busch, James Salter, William Manchester, Barbara Pym, Jane Austen, Jhumpa Lahiri, Milan Kundera, Richard Adams, Edward P. Jones, and more.
Because we grew out of a workshop, we like to ask: what is your best or worst workshop experience?
I remember real collegiality at Colorado State. My happiest memory is the good reception of my first story there, which was later published (after a revision). I remember the immense relief at having a good start.
What’s your favorite children’s book?
It’s hard for me to choose one. I love John Updike’s book of poetry, A Child’s Calendar; The Quiet Book; Grandpa Green; Goodnight, Good Knight; Small, Medium, Large; What Do You Do with an Idea…so many. Much of my reading in the last decade has been children’s books.
What is your ideal creative weather?
Snow. I love snow.