The Flintstones, Coffee Table Décor, and Saying No to Outlines

An Interview with Carolyn Pledge-Amaral

by Creative Nonfiction Editor Suzanne Guess

I’m intrigued with the idea of getting to know my characters and allowing them to tell their own story.  

–Carolyn Pledge-Amaral

Some writers argue against using pop culture references because they can exclude readers who aren’t familiar with the references. On the flip side, other writers argue that these references provide a grounding into the culture at a certain point in time. How would you respond to those who argue against pop culture references?

I don’t have an issue with pop culture references. We read to learn, to experience new worlds and to see things through our characters’ eyes. As a reader I don’t mind googling something unfamiliar or stretching my understanding of what’s relevant at any particular point in time. I guess the flip side is that too many pop culture references can date your work, so I suppose there’s a balance. 

In your 2012 award-winning short story “The Root of the Matter,” what was the inspiration for Mrs. Grant’s peculiar coffee table decoration?

Ha! I admit it’s a bit bizarre. When I was studying at FIU someone in class mentioned that their grandmother had kept a fetus in a jar. I never got to ask more questions about how or why this happened, but the image stuck with me for years until it finally surfaced in the story and I got to create the answers I craved. When in doubt—make it up!

Tell MSR readers about your writing process. Fits and starts? A regular routine? Any rituals to complete before you begin writing – e.g., lighting a scented candle, pouring a particular beverage (adult or otherwise)? Longhand or computer or a combination?

I write in fits and starts and typically write my best in the morning when I’m sitting in bed with coffee. Admittedly, it’s not good for my back, but there’s something about the cocoon of a bed that helps me to switch into my writing brain. Once I put my feet on the ground, I get swept into the everyday and the ordinary and then it’s hard for me to return. Sometimes later in the day when I get bored of the ordinary, I find myself in the kitchen tapping away on my computer again. And the computer is the only way I write. With a pen in my hand my brain freezes. These days I can barely muster the words to sign a birthday card. 

What is the writing advice you received that you’re glad you didn’t follow? The best writing advice that you’ve followed?

Any advice about outlining. Nothing is more counterintuitive or unproductive for me. The very thought that I have to know where something is going puts me in a state of suspended animation. As for the best writing advice? Honestly, I live by John Dufresne’s writing guide, The Lie That Tells a Truth. I was lucky enough to have John as a professor and mentor at FIU as well as a member of my thesis committee. I owe him a lot, and all of the professors at FIU for that matter. I particularly like John’s advice that, “The writer is like the therapist. He (she) listens.” I’m intrigued with the idea of getting to know my characters and allowing them to tell their own story.  

What’s in your To Be Read stack?

I’ve just downloaded Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver, and then I want to read Margaret Atwood’s new collection of short stories, Old Babes in the Wood. In terms of non-fiction, there’s a copy of Run Towards the Danger by Sarah Polley on my bedside table that I’m looking forward to reading, too.

By Suzanne Guess

Suzanne Guess is editor-in-chief of Mud Season Review. She is a writer living in central Iowa, where her family has resided for six generations. She holds an MA in Literature from Iowa State University, and an MFA in Writing from the University of Nebraska. She has work upcoming or already published in The GirlfriendBrevityIntercom, and Concurrence. She is also the founder of the Raccoon River Reading Series. When she’s not writing, Suzanne plays flute respectably, but not expertly, in a wind ensemble.