An Interview with Anne Valente, Final Judge for the 2018 Psychopomp Magazine Short Fiction Contest
Anne Valente is the author of the recent novel, Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down, and the short story collection, By Light We Knew Our Names. Her second novel, Utah, is forthcoming in early 2019. Her short stories appear in One Story, The Southern Review, The Kenyon Review, and The Chicago Tribune, and her essays appear in The Believer and The Washington Post. She lives in upstate New York where she teaches creative writing and literature at Hamilton College.
Interviewed by Sabrina Easley
PP: What inspired you to write a novel that not only confronts the aftermath of school shootings, but also added a mystery aspect with the houses burning down?
AV: This novel began as a short story directly after the school shooting in Sandy Hook. The story was written pretty quickly and furiously within the few weeks following the shooting, perhaps as a way of processing that degree of violence and grief. When no gun legislation changed, however, and the shooting fell out of the news cycle within a month, the short story felt undone to me and I began building it into a novel. The houses burning down were not added, but instead conceived of from the beginning as inseparable from the shooting itself. I know it reads as a mystery, but I was playing with the convention of mysteries: we often treat mass shootings as mysteries and want to know everything about the shooter, so much so that we forget about the families. But I don’t know if there are answers, as much as we might want them. Answers can’t solve the inscrutability of grief.
PP: What type of endings do you tend to lean towards for wrapping up a novel or story? Why?
AV: I think each project determines its own ending, and the ending depends on the kind of project. However, I will say that I prefer open endings—that I’d rather leave space for the reader to do some work, or else to fill in the blank spaces with what they bring to the page. I find this more satisfying myself as a reader, but as a writer, I also tend to write toward questions instead of answers.
PP: You have incredibly vivid descriptions throughout Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down. Was there anything in particular that inspired or provided information for descriptions that were particularly colorful or described in a nonconventional way?
AE: Thank you. I did do a significant amount of research for this novel—research on fire science, on crime scene investigation, on how newspapers cover mass shootings—but that kind of research was very much separate from how I worked on description of setting. Landscape and setting are essential to my work, whether it’s the particulars of a specific room or else the cityscape of St. Louis, where the novel is set. I grew up in St. Louis, but haven’t lived there in over eleven years, so some of the inspiration for description actually involved just traveling home and sitting on benches outside and noticing the particular texture of the air, the wind, the color of the trees, everything I wanted to capture about this place I love.
PP: How has moving to upstate New York influenced your writing?
AE: I’ve still only been here a few months, but I always notice landscape and weather. Right now, it’s mid-October and the trees are ablaze with color, and the smell of damp leaves and outdoor fire pits will surely make their way into my writing. I also can’t help looking into local legends and history. I just visited the Adirondacks a couple of weekends ago and happened to stay in a town that had an Albert Einstein placard on one of the buildings. Looking this up, I learned that Einstein spent his summers there and once capsized a sailboat in the lake. I’m sure this will eventually make its way into my writing somewhere.
PP: How has your status as a creative writing professor influenced your writing?
AE: My students keep me on my toes with their work, and they give me the opportunity to keep talking through issues of craft on a daily basis. It’s a true gift and privilege, to learn as much as you teach. Not only does class discussion allow me the chance to continually work through elements of craft, but I also gain continued exposure to new work and new ideas.
PP: How does being a published author mold the classes you teach?
AE: I’ve taught a number of professional practice and literary publishing courses, and I try to work assignments into workshop courses that explore publishing. The world of literary journals and publishers is so daunting, and I had no idea how to navigate it when I was starting out as a writer. It is my hope that early exposure to publishing helps students feel confident when they begin to submit their work, and discussion of publication can also serve as a reminder that we write to communicate. The publishing credit itself is not necessarily the reward, but instead the fact that we are connecting with other human beings through our words.
PP: What type of writing draws you in? Do you have any written pieces that come to mind that really made you pause and think? Are there certain writing “turn offs” that turn you away from a certain story?
AE: Writing that does something interesting with language always pulls me in. I am drawn to writers who are deliberate with their words, whether in diction or sound or rhythm. If a writer is doing something new with form as well, I’m always on board, and I include unusual content and plots under this umbrella. Readers of poetry might expect this, but I think it’s still assumed sometimes that fiction writers will only write for story, and essayists for conveying narrative. I love beautiful sentences. I love unexpected sentences. I don’t know that I have any turn offs, except that it’s often clear on the page when writers aren’t writing work authentic to themselves. I’m drawn to work that only that particular writer could write.
PP: Are there aspects of the contest that writers who submit works should look out for?
AV: I’d say simply that writers submitting to contests should submit their very best work. Submit the work that makes you most proud. Submit the story, poem, or essay that you know is your very best, your most true, your most you.
PP: What are you reading right now? What are you excited about in the literary world?
AV: There is always something to be excited about in the literary world, and I read voraciously, often two to three books a week. I can’t fall asleep without reading, and I can’t read books for my classes at night, so I end up reading a lot of books just for me. I just finished Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing, which was stunning. The final chapter has remained with me. I also recently finished Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas, which was remarkable and which I finished breathlessly in one sitting. I’m currently reading Ta-Nehisi Coates’ new essay collection, We Were Eight Years in Power, which is excellent. I’m also reading Stephen King’s It since it’s October and I always read at least one horror novel before Halloween.