‘You just need one person to fall in love deeply’: An interview with fiction writer Nina McConigley

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The Sillerman First Book Prize is now open through December 1st. To celebrate, Book Prize Coordinator Katie Schmid Henson talks with emerging writers about the book publication process. This week, fiction writer Nina McConigley discusses her PEN Open Award-winning short story collection, Cowboys and East Indians; the sometimes fraught road to publication for a short story collection; and a certain special Coors Light t-shirt.

How many books have you published, and where?

I have published one book of short stories, Cowboys and East Indians. The first edition was published with FiveChapters Books.

Describe the process of constructing your first book of stories. How did you begin to conceive of it as a collection? 

For me, many of the stories were written while I was in my MFA at the University of Houston. At that time, I think I was more thinking about craft things I wanted to try out – I wanted to write a 3rd person point-of-view story, then a 1st person one, I wanted to experiment with different tenses and dialogue. It was really only in my last year of the program, when I was starting to put together my thesis that I picked out stories that I felt fit together. At that time, all the stories were set in Wyoming – but not all of them had Indians in them. Then after I graduated, I lived in India, and wrote the two stories in the book set there. It was a good three years post-MFA that I really sat down and looked at everything I had written – and then put the book together. It was then I figure out my themes.

Did you notice any writing tics or themes once you’d gotten through a first draft? (For instance, I spent the year 2007 trying to break myself of the verbs “bloom” and “ache,” once I realized everything I wrote was blooming or aching.) How did you decide which tics were fruitful (interesting in that they accrued throughout the stories in a meaningful way) and which were not?

I knew every story had to do with Wyoming and Indian-ness in one way or another. Being bi-racial, I am interested in race and identity – and I knew that was in every story. The great thing about short stories versus a novel is that I got 10 attempts to really work through the things I was thinking about through 10 different lenses, 10 different characters. But it was interesting once the book came out, to see what tics readers picked up on. Things I had no idea I was doing. I once watched a student presentation about my book in which they talked about how clothing was very important in every story. I was genuinely baffled, but then went through the book, and was like, they’re right! It was a significant part of nearly every story. I had no idea. But seeing that clothing is one of the first ways we establish identity, it made sense.

What was the editing process like? How did you get from draft to draft? Did you find yourself excising large portions? Adding?

I am a writer who thinks and thinks about a story for a long time before I sit down to write. I drive often between Laramie, where I live, to my parent’s house in Casper. It’s a 150-mile drive, and the whole time, I pretty much only think about what I am writing. So, when I finally sit down to write, the story comes out fairly cleanly. That said, a bulk of the stories in my book were workshopped. And I took readers' comments to heart. But I am a little bit precious about my work, as I am not a very prolific writer. I find it SO hard to cut. I was lucky later to work with a lot of great magazine editors who helped me shape the stories further.

               I also do a lot of composing in my head and think about myself as being a bit precious with my work. Maybe I'm flattering both of us when I say that I think sometimes writers who write like that do a lot of the refining
                and revising 
in their heads. I'm so interested in thinking about the space of a road trip as the physical space where writing happens! Why does that space feel so open for you?

I think mostly this is true as literally there is no cell coverage for the bulk of the drive. It’s the only place in my life that no one can get ahold of me. So I am free of distractions. In my normal life I am often looking at things very close to me – my phone screen, my computer, a book. When I drive, I am looking out towards the horizon. My eyes are focusing outward. And that makes me perhaps internally turn inwards. It’s very meditative.

               Can you talk about the difference between the kind of comments you got in the workshops and the kind of comments you got from your great editors?

I think with workshop comments I sometimes wanted to be clever – and that’s obvious sometimes when you get back comments. I know I have written comments for people that were maybe just scrambling a bit to have something to say. I would talk about craft things in very lofty terms – perhaps this is something that just happens in grad school. A lot of the editors I have worked with make the editing process simpler – we talk about things like say, time in a story in a more concrete way. That said, I loved workshop. It’s always such a gift to be in a room with, say, 12 very different readers that are all going to notice such different things. And to spend time really looking at something like narrative distance and what the implications of certain authorial choices mean. For me, they’ve both been critical to my writing – I’ve been lucky to get feedback from both places.

How did you decide where to submit the finished manuscript?

I was lucky, in that I met my agent at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference. I wasn’t finished with the book, but she heard me read there, and we kept in touch. A year later, I was ready with the book, and met her again at the same conference. She agreed to represent me sitting on a porch just before a barn dance. I trusted her with submitting the book. But with a story collection, selling it is a long road. When the book was first getting rejected, nearly every rejection ended with “We wish this wasn’t stories…or come back to us if she writes a novel.” It was kind of heartbreaking. But it was nice to have an agent to be my constant cheerleader and advocate.

What does current-you wish you could have tell past-you about the whole process?

That your work will find a home. My book took two years to sell, and in that time, I lost a lot of faith in myself as a writer. I started questioning if the book was good. But at some point, I started working on my novel, and it was a relief to know that no matter what, I felt compelled to write.

But I loved my stories. I knew my collection should be in the world. But selling a book is a lot like falling in love. You don’t need 10 people to be in love with you. You just need one person to fall in love deeply. And much like finding Mr. or Ms. Right, that can take some time. I wish I had trusted my own writing more in that time. I spent a lot of time fretting about things that were a bit out of my control. All I could do was to continue to write. I wish I had believed that good work will find an audience.

What did you do when you heard it was accepted? 

I burst into tears. So much so, my agent said she’d call me back. I remember the moment so clearly, as I was in the middle of moving, and actually thought the phone call was the movers. I was wearing, since most all my things were packed, a ratty Coors Light t-shirt. And I while I was crying I kept looking down at my shirt thinking, I am always going to remember this stupid t-shirt. I then calmed and actually held off calling people to tell the news. I think I was nervous something might fall through. It wasn’t till I signed the contract that I actually relaxed a bit!

What was the most surprising thing about the publication process?

I was with a small press, so I was surprised how much input I was allowed to have with things like the cover design – which I had strong feelings about. But the thing that surprised me the most was how much readers and writers rallied around the book. I had zero publicity budget, and yet it was magical to see how word of mouth and social media can be so powerful. My writer friends were amazing in helping me set up readings and in spreading the word. I was humbled, and am still humbled by this every day. If you are dogged about it, you can do a lot with very little to tell the world about your work.

               The cover is beautiful—featuring that sort of stark sky that I associate with Wyoming, and the colorful hotel sign. Was that image your idea? What about it spoke so strongly to you?

I feel like a lot of writers of color have terrible book covers that often have some horrific stereotypes on them. I wanted a book cover that really spoke to the West and Wyoming – and played on the misunderstanding about identity. I drive by that motel sign all the time in Cheyenne, and I’ve always loved it. To me, that sign represented my book – and it is also a bit stereotypical and kitschy. I wanted to embrace all the things that are happening on that sign. Since many East Indians are motel owners, I liked the idea of a motel sign, and again, the image of the Indian on the sign is so cartoon-like, it speaks to the ways in which racism is still terribly visual.

               A writer's hustle seems so important to publishing a successful book now, and I'm always amazed at the way literary citizenship plays such a role in that. Did that part of the process surprise you at all,
the publicity would be its own work, after the publication of the book?

Not really – as I knew I was with a small press. I saw it as my job that every day, starting maybe a month before the book came out, that I would sit down and do my own publicity. I asked people if I could blog for them, come visit their school, or Skype in with any classes or book clubs. I made my own business cards and postcards. And I had a graphic design friend make me a press release. I did everything.  I didn’t mind. That book was (and still is) everything to me. I saw it as part of the writing to try and launch it in the world. That said, I grew tired self-promotion on social media. Ugh.

What is your favorite part of your first book? 

The moment I first held my book in my hands. I was so teary. I kept thinking, “My book has a birthday!” When I saw it as a physical object, when I got to flip through it and feel its weight – it was like nothing I had experienced. I also love my blurbs. It’s silly, but when you get to read the words of writers you admire on your book, it’s overwhelming.

This question is just about how awesome winning the PEN Open Book award is. Is it incredibly awesome? Is there any way to prepare for the announcement after the short list goes out?

It was beyond awesome. Again, since the book hadn’t sold in two years, but had come close, I thought PEN would be similar. My book was the constant runner up or finalist for contests and publication, it seemed to be the perpetual bridesmaid. I went to NYC for the long list party, as I figured that was going to be it for the book. And I wanted the experience of a NY literary event. The next morning, the short list was announced in the NY Times. I was shocked I was on it. And when it won, I cried and cried. (Wow, it seems like I cried a lot during the whole publishing process!) I think it was only after the ceremony when I got home and actually looked at the award that I truly believed it had happened.

What are you working on now? How are your obsessions evolving?

I am just finishing a novel. My obsessions in many ways are the same – I am interested in Wyoming, race, identity, immigration, pioneers. But a novel is such a different way to tell a story. The scope and canvas are just so much larger. I am also obsessed with mystery novels. I read one or two a week. So this novel borrows from a lot of mystery writers I love. It has a murder in it, and I really enjoyed learning a lot about poison. I have an idea for my next book, and it has nothing to do with Wyoming – so perhaps I am changing as a writer! That said, I can’t imagine writing and not talking about being Indian in some way or another. 

NINA McCONIGLEY  is the author of the story collection Cowboys and East Indians, which won the 2014 PEN Open Book Award and a High Plains Book Award. She was born in Singapore and grew up in Wyoming. She holds an MFA from the University of Houston and an MA from the University of Wyoming. She has been a fellow at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference and held scholarships to the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, and been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and for Best New American Voices.  Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Orion, Salon, Virginia Quarterly Review, American Short Fiction, and The Asian American Literary Review among others. She lives in Laramie, Wyoming and teaches at the University of Wyoming and at the MFA program at the Warren Wilson Program for Writers.