Recently, I read Becky Hagenston’s “Strange Weather,” published by Press 53 (a press from North Carolina that’s been enjoying much success lately) and was wowed by both the quality of the writing and by the emotional depth.
Clearly, Hagenston is that kind of large-hearted writer I admire. One who writes realistic fiction, but also one who isn’t afraid to depart from the expected. I so loved this collection, I immediately read her earlier collection “A Gram of Mars,”and found it equally as moving and strong. Both collections were award-winners: “A Gram of Mars” won the 1997 Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction (judged by A.M. Holmes) and “Strange Weather” won the 2009 Spokane Prize for Short Fiction before Press 53 published it.
I had a few questions for Becky and she generously agreed to answer them:
Q: The stories in each of your collections impressed me with their surprising details, honesty, and range of character. I was also impressed by your obvious love of character, even when these people have been very, very, bad. What amazed me as well was the consistency of quality. In a collection I’m fairly satisfied if I like most of the stories but I found in each of your collections there wasn’t one story I didn’t admire. They all seemed to pull their weight. Were there any stories you’d written you decided not to include?
Becky: Thanks so much for saying that. I always have a hard time deciding what to put in and what to take out. I have a huge backlog of stories—and each of my collections went through several variations in terms of their content. In fact, I almost included the story “Poison”, which appears in my latest collection, in A Gram of Mars. That’s how old that story is! I think I didn’t include it because there was already one depressed-father story, and one per collection is plenty. So when I leave things out, even if they’re publishable, it’s usually because there’s already a story that’s too similar in some way. Of course, I also have a huge backlog of failed stories. I’ll send them out again and again, revise and revise, but sometimes I just have to accept that a story isn’t working, and set it aside, or use it for parts.
Q: In your collection “A Gram of Mars” it struck me that the many of the characters within have a difficult time moving on, of letting go. The title story is particularly poignant. An older man, unhappily divorced, clings tightly to unrealistic fantasies of getting back together with his wife and this manifests itself in his impractical, impulsive need to have a piece of Mars. Where did the inspiration for this story originate?
Becky: This story is the most autobiographical story I’ve ever written (though much of it is entirely made up), and it came about when my family—like all families at some point—was going through a really crappy time. My father actually does have a very small piece of Mars rock, but he has a friend with a bigger, more expensive piece, the three thousand dollars an ounce kind, and that– mixed in with what my family was going through—was the catalyst for the story.
I wasn’t sure how my parents would react to me mining their troubles for fiction, but they were wonderfully supportive. When my father read the story he said it upset him a little, but he understood that this was what I had to do, and he was proud of me. My sister was the one who was kind of annoyed, but she got over it!
Q: In your collection, “Strange Weather,” though I admired all the stories, my absolute favorite was “Anthony.” I think, perhaps, because of the risks you took and the departure from complete realism which was executed so well. In the story, which begins: “The ghost had gotten inside her daughter like a tapeworm and refused to come out,” the ghost sort of takes over and as everyone around becomes more dependent on the ghost’s “wisdom” the girl gradually recedes into the background. She, essentially, becomes the ghost. Where did you find the inspiration for this highly imaginative story, and why a young black male for the voice of Anthony? Also, I admire your use of multiple povs in this piece. Was this a decision you made early on or was it one you arrived at after revision?
Becky: I love this story too, because it was such an utter surprise for me. I had been reading Aimee Bender and Robert Olen Butler and Kelly Link, and so I was ready for something kooky to happen—but when the first sentence came to me, I just wrote it down and thought: Now what? I had no idea. I knew I didn’t want a cliché ghost story, so I was casting about for something unexpected, but I really didn’t know who the ghost would be until he spoke: “It’s time to party!” and that’s when I knew what a joyful and full of life (though he’s dead) character Anthony was.
I don’t know why he’s black, but a friend of mine who grew up in the south pointed out that this was a way for this white southern family to deal with race without having to really deal with it—seeing as how Anthony has no physical presence–so I liked that. But really, that was just the voice that came to me, and I went with it.
I had intended for the story to be entirely in Cindy’s mother’s point of view, but as soon as Anthony appeared, I realized he was going to affect everyone, and that the story had to accommodate him by moving into other points of view. I had also originally figured that Anthony would bring the family together and then move on, (although I don’t know why, considering I don’t really go for happy endings!) but along the way I realized I didn’t want him to leave. And neither did anyone else, even though he’s a kind of parasite sapping poor Cindy’s strength. I really like what you said about her turning into a ghost—I hadn’t even thought of that, but that’s totally true!
Q: Speaking of revision…how often do you revise a story usually? Do you follow a set plan or is the revision organic to each story?
Becky: I never have a plan for anything, and I’ve revised stories as little as three times (though I also revise as I’m writing) and as many as . . . countless times. And as I’ve already mentioned, there’s that stack of stories that just aren’t ever going to work. It once took me fifteen years to go from a first draft to a publishable draft—not that I was working on it every day, or even every year. But I always have several stories going, in various stages: from the polish-it-up and give it to my husband to read stage (I can’t give him anything until it’s almost finished) to the scribbles-on-scraps-of-paper stage. And everywhere in between. Right now I’m revising a story I started two years ago but also finding ways to avoid it (because I’m still stuck) by writing a brand-new story. And I may finish the new story first, who knows?
Q: What does your writing day typically look like? How do you balance the demands of family, teaching, and your own writing?
Becky: When I was in grad school, I was a full-time secretary and part-time coffee shop worker, and I would get up early and write for a half hour before work and then write during my half hour lunch, so I’ve trained myself to work like that, and I still do. I couldn’t write for 6 hours, even if I had 6 hours. I ask for 8:00 classes so I have to get up early, and if I manage to write from 6-6:30 a.m., I’m pretty happy. I also take notes throughout the day, in between classes and grading and student conferences. I’m sure it would be much more difficult if I had kids, but I haven’t really had problems carving out small blocks of time to write.
On weekends, I do more time-consuming stuff, like revision or the ever-tedious submitting to journals and contests. And weekends are when I get most of my reading done—I never feel like I have enough time to read. Of course, there are plenty of days when I don’t get anything productive done at all, and I’ve learned that’s okay, too.
Q: Your stories have emotional depth and a great range of character. In one story you write from an upper-middle-class perspective (“Trafalgar”) and in another you write from a working-class point of view (“All the Happiness in the World”). You accomplish both with respect and veracity. Did you intend to broaden your range in this way or do the characters arrive to you already formed and you listen?
Becky: I think for the most part the characters are just there—or there’s a particular voice I have in mind. I wrote “Trafalgar” because I spent a lot of time in England, but could not manage to write an England story no matter how hard I tried. They all turned out like Notes About My Fun Study Abroad Trip. So I invented this mother-daughter team to see the sights instead, with a little naughty secret thrown in. I had also just read Gay Daly’s fantastic book, Pre-Raphaelites in Love, so that’s where the art stuff came from.
The character Gina in “All the Happiness in the World” is inspired by one of my best friends from college, who is one of the funniest people I know. I would take notes as we talked on the phone, because I wanted to get her voice just right. So most of the events of the story aren’t real, but a lot of her dialogue is. When I told her I was writing the story, she was tickled—and she put up with a lot of “Can you say that again so I can write it down?”
Q: I’d love to read more from you. What’s in your future? A Novel? Another collection?
Becky: I’m sending out a new collection to contests, and I have an almost-finished 4th collection that I’m going to finish this fall when I’m on sabbatical in the south of France. (I’m thinking there must be a lot to write about in the south of France!). I’m also always, always working on a novel. I think I’m currently working on number four, or maybe number five. They’ve all been pretty bad, and my attempt at chick lit (How hard could it be?) was a disaster (It’s hard!), but now I’m working on a mystery and I’m really just entertaining myself. Maybe I’ll never publish a novel, but I still enjoy writing them.
Thank you so much for taking the time to share your insights and for writing such beautiful books.
Becky: Thank you for wanting to interview me, and for your great questions!