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What Do we Need to Believe to Make Sense of the World?

An Interview with Becky Hagenston by James Madison Redd
Photo of Becky; Credit Troy DeRego
This conversation with Becky Hagenston is the eleventh in the Crooked Letter Interview Series hosted by Prairie Schooner’s Southern Correspondent, James Madison Redd. The following is a brief excerpt from their recent email conversation.

 

Becky Hagenston’s first collection of stories, A Gram of Mars, won the Mary McCarthy Prize. Her recent collection, Strange Weather, won the Spokane Prize for Short Fiction and was published in 2010. Her stories have appeared in the O. Henry Anthology, The Southern Review, Mid-American Review, The Gettysburg Review, Crazyhorse, and many other journals. She lives in Starkville, Mississippi, where she is an associate professor of English at Mississippi State University.

 

Redd: Antonya Nelson said, “[Hagenston’s] liars are among the most truthful characters I’ve encountered in a long while.” I can’t help but think of Barry Hannah’s great lies. Fiction is, of course, a lie. How does one lie truthfully?

Hagenston: I recently read an interview with Eudora Welty where she said, “When it comes out as fiction, it has been through a whole mill of interior life.” That explains it perfectly. Yes, fiction itself is a lie: as a writer, you're making things up and trying to be convincing. You're making something that should feel true on both literal and emotional levels.

I think my best stories are the ones that have very little to do with my actual life, even if they might have a lot do with my interior life. I wrote a story called “The Afterlife” (Bellingham Review, Summer 2012) that is about a woman who goes to St. Petersburg, Russia, to briefly escape from the fact that her husband has a serious brain injury. She's feeling lost. Now, I actually was lost in St. Petersburg, and I enjoyed that very much—but there's no story there. I did have a moment of wondering what it would be like to stay forever, to just move there—but only in the fleeting way we think such things. But, again, that's not a story. So I had to think of a reason for this character to desperately want to run away, to escape from her life.

And one way this character escapes is that she tells lies. She tells lies about her past because she wishes it were different. In some of my stories, the characters lie to other people, but in others they lie mostly to themselves.

Redd: You included some weather lore in your inscription to my copy of Strange Weather. What’s the value of folklore for short stories?

Hagenston: I love folklore, fairy tales, myths—all those stories that are supposed to make sense of the world and give it order. If this happens, then this will happen, etc. But it strikes me that if you really believe those things, you're actually going to end up feeling pretty out of control. Our lives can be ruled by irrational beliefs, and that interests me as a fiction writer—what does a certain character need to believe in order to make sense of his world? And what happens when that belief is tested?

In my Intro to Creative Writing class, my students are writing poems based on superstitions, using some poems by Catherine Pierce as a model. I asked them to find some weird superstitions, and they did: things like, “To dream of a lizard is a sign you have a secret enemy,” or “Being seen by a wolf before you see it renders you dumb.”

And then one girl pipes up with, “My grandma believes that if she sees a dog on its back, somebody's going to die. So she's always running outside and hitting the dog with a broom.” Another girl said, “My grandma does the same thing!” So apparently there are all these Southern grandmas whapping their dogs with brooms to keep their loved ones alive. It's funny, but it would be terrifying to actually believe that. I would think you'd avoid keeping dogs!

Redd: You say you use “dark humor…to keep [yourself] entertained—and to keep [yourself] writing.”** How do you find a place for humor in fiction that deals with characters who often face such despair and hopelessness?

Hagenston: I think it's the same for fiction as it is in life. If you don't have a sense of humor, things can get pretty bleak. You have to laugh about it. I love Amy Hempel's story “In the Cemetery Where Al Jolsen is Buried,” which is just about the best dark humor story I've ever read. The narrator's best friend is dying, and she helps her friend (and herself) get through it by keeping her friend entertained, telling jokes. It's a punch in the gut, that story, and the humor also keeps the reader going as well. It would be too wrenching if we didn't have the narrator helping us through this terrible ordeal with her jokes and her trivia.

Redd: I’m astonished that many of your characters—Cindy in “Anthony” for instance—are so young yet face such complex situations. What draws you to these types of characters?

Hagenston: I've never written from a small child's point of view because that would be very tricky, but children definitely do deal with a lot of complex things—they just don't know how to understand them. When I was probably too young, I was reading all kinds of inappropriate things. I did my sixth grade book report on Sybil, but I know I'd already read it once before. My teacher stared at me with great concern when I finished presenting my book report to the class. I'd done crayon drawings of the different personalities. He said, “Becky, did you understand this book?” and I happily assured him that I had. But I hadn't, of course, not really.

In Grimms’ Fairy Tales, small children are thrown into terrible situations—like Hansel and Gretel are—and have to figure their way out. In “Anthony,” Cindy has just the slightest idea of what's going on—yes, there's a ghost in her stomach, but all she knows is that he's nice, and they're friends. It's up to the adults to really try to figure things out and mess things up in a way Cindy can't.

Redd: The Prairie Schooner blog recently ran a series about how to win a book prize. Both of your story collections won book prizes: A Gram of Mars won the Mary McCarthy Prize and Strange Weather won the Spokane Prize. What’s the trick to winning a book prize?

Hagenston: I wish there was a trick, and that I knew it! Honestly, a lot of it has to do with luck. But there are certainly ways to improve your chances. You can't send a collection out unless it's absolutely polished, and arranged in a way that's narratively satisfying. So for me, part of putting together a collection involves making sure I include stories that aren't too similar but that still connect in some way and putting the shorter stories near the longer stories (pacing, in a way). And I really prefer that most of the collection is stories that have already been published. Of course, publication in journals is also a matter of luck, of the right story finding the right editor. But there can't be luck without perseverance and blind optimism, even when you're feeling kind of doomed. There's nothing to do but sit down and write, and just keep doing that. Learn from what works and what doesn’t work. Read like crazy. And keep sending stuff out. And don’t stop.

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A winner of the Mari Sandoz / Prairie Schooner Prize and finalist for the St. Lawrence Book Award, James Madison Redd is the editor of the Prairie Schooner blog. His fiction, poetry, and scholarship have appeared or will appear in Oxford American, Fifth Wednesday, Fiction Southeast, Deep South Magazine, and Briefly Noted.

**(Interview in Florida Review)