The stories in The Truth About Me are superb. The writing is straightforward and fresh. The characters are sometimes beautiful, sometimes not so, but always relatable and real. Each of these stories surprises whether by its candid exploration of what it means to be human, or by a character going rogue and acting in unexpected ways. I first met Louise last summer at the University of the South where we both attended the Sewanee Writers Conference. We were roommates and hit it off immediately. Louise is an intelligent, talented writer and never are those qualities more evident than in these stories.
Q: I’d like you to talk about the theme of the book as a whole. The stories are full of people coming to terms with their humanity and shortcomings whether dealing with mental health issues, relationships, or inability to become who they wish to be. Why these people?
Louise: The characters in The Truth About Me are ones that I was able to inhabit most successfully out of the many I have written. I am indeed preoccupied with mental health because I’ve had a lot of experience with it, but really, human nature is what fascinates me, the innumerable ways in which we can be flawed, and the longing that I think we all have to feel whole and complete and perfect – a hopeless longing, I believe, and thank goodness for that because we’d be so boring without our flaws.
Q: Many of the characters in your collection employ “shrinks.” We know what role therapists serve in real life, but can you speak to how they serve your stories?
Louise: You can find out a lot about a character through their dialogue with a psychiatrist, things that the character might not otherwise admit.
Q: You have an excellent sense of story shape and pacing. As a reader, I got the sense these elements come naturally to you. Who were some of your influential teachers, whether in the MFA program or writers you particularly love to read?
Louise: When I’m asked by whom I’m influenced, I usually say “the last author I read,” which is true but smartass as well. Ninety percent of what I read is short fiction and has been for years. Alice Munro, William Trevor, Mavis Gallant, Updike, Cheever, as well as the more contemporary writers, such as Tessa Hadley, Maile Meloy, Antonia Nelson, George Saunders – I could really go on forever. My MFA program hardly made a dent, but various authors and fellow writers at excellent conferences I’ve attended such as Sewanee and the Kenyon Workshop have had a huge effect on my writing. I met the most awesome writer at Sewanee named Katrina Denza!
Q: Your endings do not suffer from that “one extra beat too many” syndrome. There are no drawn out purple epiphanies. What makes a story’s ending work in your mind? Do you begin with the end in mind, or do you work toward it?
Louise: My stories end themselves, and often I’m taken by surprise. I may think I’ve got pages to go and then suddenly I realize it’s over. I loathe poetic, wrapped-up endings. When a story has been fully told, it comes to a natural end.
Q: Another strength you have is dialogue. Your characters talk in ways that illuminate, surprise, and sometimes even shock with their frankness. What do you think makes for successful dialogue?
Louise: I listen carefully to people, what they say, how they say it, their inflections, accent, body language. You have to really know your character to know what kind of thing they’ll say. That gets back to successfully inhabiting your character. If I can’t do that, the story is a failure.
Q: One of my favorite stories is “Stick Shift.” It’s a gorgeous coming of age story and Lance turns out to be a surprise, an embodiment of grace. Which story is your favorite and why?
Louise: I really don’t have a favorite! The most recent story I’ve finished is always briefly my favorite before I start finding fault with it.
Q: I know you’re a focused writer. Once you begin a story, you work at it until it’s finished. Are there any stories in here that were particularly difficult to write? Any that you had to put away for a while before going back?
Louise: I may put something away, but I never do come back to it. I dump stories all the time. Usually I scrap a story if it’s contrived and going nowhere, and I don’t like being with it. Every story is incredibly difficult for me to write, so much so that once I finish one I think I can never write another.
Q: Many of your characters suffer from mental health issues. Meeting them all embedded in these stories together underscores how ordinary it is to have issues of varying degrees. What do most people not understand about mental health?
Louise: People who don’t have mental health issues or don’t work in mental health understand nothing about it, and I’ve found that they in fact don’t want to understand anything. They’re afraid. The stigma attached to mental illness is huge.
Q: What’s next? What are you working on now?
Louise: Another collection! Its working title is No Diving Allowed, and there is a swimming pool in every story.
Q: What part does desire play in story writing? Name one thing you desire.
Louise: I desire to write better stories, to tell you the truth! A brilliant story is what I long for every time I sit down to write.
Now tell me what you desire most, Ms. Kat! A very intriguing question.
You can purchase Louise’s book here: https://www.wtawpress.org/product-page/the-truth-about-me-stories-1
You can read a mini interview with Louise here: http://therumpus.net/2017/10/the-rumpus-mini-interview-106-louise-marburg/