The characters in Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, the debut collection from Danielle Evans, hope and yearn for connection, however doomed those connections may be. Her characters are smart and careful and in control of their stories until they aren’t—until Evans’s practiced hand reveals the space between what they want to tell the reader and what they’re actually saying. They teeter at the edge of decisions that will wreck them or save them, and this balance between inevitability and choice serves as the pulse of the collection.
Before You Suffocate your Own Fool Self co-won the 2011 PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize and earned Evans a spot on the 2011 National Book Foundation’s “5 under 35” selection. Her fiction has won the Paterson Prize and the Hurston-Wright Award. She was a fellow at the Wisconsin Institute for Creative Writing and taught at American University in Washington, D.C. before settling into her current post as an assistant professor at the University of Madison-Wisconsin.
On September 22nd, 2016, Evans visited Vanderbilt University in Nashville to give a reading from her new work. Earlier that day, she tolerated my nervous driving and horrid sense of direction in order to host a craft talk with the MFA students about cities and the collective narratives they inspire. Evans stuck around Nashville for a few days afterwards, and had time to soak up some of what Music City has to offer. We talked about her debut collection, interests she’s circling in her upcoming novel and story collection, and cats. Always cats.
Interviewer: Throughout Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self, there’s a sense of inevitability. I could feel the characters toeing the edge of a wrong decision before stepping off towards it anyway. Would you say that it’s impulsivity that drives some of your characters to choose the option that will hurt them? Can you feel that tension when you’re writing them?
Danielle Evans: I don’t think of most of the stories in the collection in terms of impulsivity, because of that moment of hesitation you describe. For a lot of the characters there’s that moment when they consider the decision, consider the possibility of a different course of action, and move forward anyway. It was important to me, especially in thinking about adolescence and particularly female adolescence, to write characters whose problematic behavior came from complexity and not from lack of comprehension. Sometimes that tendency to hurt themselves is a way of reconciling trauma. Sometimes it’s a conscious decision to choose between what seem like only bad options, so that at least they have the dignity of knowing in which way something will hurt. Sometimes it’s a drive to punish themselves for something else that seems like it should have hurt more.
In some of the newer work, I have been working with characters who I think of as more impulsive, in part because I have been working in the present tense, and so I need characters who will throw themselves into things very quickly, who will not always stop to anticipate what logically happens next. It’s been—I won’t say fun, because generally things don’t end well—but interesting as a writer to deal with characters who are genuinely surprised by consequences of their own behavior. I still love them, but some of them are harder to like.
You’ve talked a bit about the difference between how we process trauma internally and how we present that processing to the world and how that relates to fiction. That made me think of the female characters in “Virgins,” who recount a past instance of shared sexual assault only briefly. What have you found are the most effective ways to approach moments of trauma in your work?
I think it always comes back to character. As we talked about a little bit in the discussion after the reading, the space between our public selves and our private selves really is the space of fiction. When is a character performing being OK because it’s a way of reclaiming a thing that hurt, and when is that character fearing a context that will punish her for being vulnerable, and when is that character trying to please people who will be angry or inconvenienced by her failure to be silent, and when does a character really not know that something is allowed to hurt, or how to express it?
For Erica in “Virgins” it’s some of all of the above. So that trauma isn’t in the story, in that it’s not a thing she dwells on, but it also is in the story, in her confusion about sexual agency and her anxiety about what both strangers and people she knows might be capable of, and her resolution that the decisions she makes at the end of the story are the most control she can have. It’s there as a thing she believes to be a fact about what the world is.
Some characters will come right out and name their trauma and some will circle it through the end of the story, so for me it comes down to asking where is this person in relation to this moment, or this piece of information? If there is pressure to pretend that trauma isn’t there, where is it coming from? That will tell me a lot about the shape of the story.
In working on your second short story collection and a novel simultaneously, what are some of the things you’ve enjoyed about each mode of writing?
As someone who is not a great compartmentalizer, I like the focus a short story demands of me—the way it can be, for a day or a week, the main thing in my life, the way I can come back to it after being away for a long while. At the center of all fiction is the connection between things that may not seem obviously connected, and so the process of taking a short story and trying to strip it down to the threads that matter most and reveal the thing at the heart of those connections is really satisfying.
But a novel lets me follow more of the loose threads, and makes it easier to look at something from all directions. So, it’s both fun and overwhelming, having trained myself to work in the small space, to walk out and suddenly have a big open world to play around in.
It seems that for a writer of color, having your writing framed in terms of race is inevitable in a lot of ways. But you’ve talked in past interviews about how race almost superseded all the other themes at play in categorizing and reviewing Before You Suffocate You Own Fool Self. Has that reception affected the way you’re thinking about the new writing projects you’re working on?
It’s not ever that I don’t want to talk about race, which is of course central to my work and my experience of the world (and really to everyone’s work and experience of the world, perhaps all the more so when it’s less visible)—just that I also want to talk about craft and sentences. For some people, if a setting or a voice is unfamiliar, their primary takeaway from the work will be the experience of being exposed to something new. But that doesn’t mean the primary value, or only artistic value, of the work is exposure. And sometimes when people assign that value to their experience of a book they are more likely to conflate the author and the work, to assume that the author’s project is to convey an authentic experience and that the author is publishing his or her unedited diary, not doing a lot of work to make a fictional world feel real.
There were a lot of really thoughtful reviews that made astute observations about the overall project of my book. I think I got a more generous read in that regard than a lot of writers—especially female writers and writers of color—do. I think about this less in terms of the reception of my own work and more in terms of what I get asked to comment on—what I get asked to review or blurb, in what contexts people contact me when they want an author’s opinion on something. But in terms of thinking about future projects—none of that stuff about reception is within your control as a writer, and none of it is stuff you can let in your head when you’re feeling your way around a first draft. I don’t get to decide who reads me or how I’m read, but I do get to decide what I write.
As a follow-up to the craft talk, I’m left wondering about how one handles time in an urban narrative. It seems that cities might offer a particular challenge with time and change, especially in regard to contested spaces, that a more rural and stable setting might not.
I think one of the things that is true of cities is that in some very explicit ways they ask you to live in the past, present, and future at once. So much of what is built in cities is built to memorialize or document the past, and so much is built in anticipation of, or with a desire to shape the future. And that of course is just on the institutional level, not accounting for all of the ways in which for every person in a city a block may be, at any given moment, both what it is and what it used to be. Because my novel is very explicitly about history and memory, I get to get at some of that quite directly, so between that and having multiple point of view characters, it’s actually something that’s been fun to work with.
The harder thing about time is that novel writing is often a long process, and so to write about a city in the present is in many cases to instantly date it—a neighborhood in 2010 may feel very different than it does in 2016, even in a novel that otherwise feels contemporary because it’s set in the very recent past. So, thinking about which changes matter enough to pinpoint exactly when they happened and get them precisely right, without getting bogged down in revising every time a building goes up or is torn down is part of a general challenge of filtering the details that matter.
In focusing on cities in our discussion, I don’t mean to imply that rural spaces are static or uncontested, but it feels to me like those shifts may be less obviously constant and so more intense—things look similar for a decade and then one year “suddenly” there’s a Walmart or a golf course where a farm used to be, but of course the big disruption is still an accumulation of smaller changes.
So the novel that you’re working on is set in D.C., but you’re currently living and teaching in Wisconsin. How have you found the process of writing about a city that you’re physically removed from?
Well, because my novel is set in 2010-2012, in some ways having left before the new space can entirely creep into my memory of what the city was like then is probably useful. But I don’t think I could have written this book—or at least it wouldn’t have turned into a book so concretely engaged with the city and the idea of the city—if I hadn’t moved back at some point. It was a different city than the one I knew as a teenager, both because it is different to know a place as an adult and because a lot happened in the decade I was living elsewhere.
In some ways, this is a version of the problem realist fiction always has—how are you close enough to or knowledgeable enough about a thing to get at the truth of it on the page, but far enough away to make it yours, and bring it to live in a way that doesn’t feel like bland reproduction? So it’s good, in whatever way you can, to note the ways in which the places you write about feel familiar and also where they feel strange. Though I think I’m in the Midwest for a good while, it will probably take a bit for it to show up in my writing as often as the east coast does.
I know that you’ve taken some time to explore this city during your visit here. What’s been your favorite Nashville discovery thus far?
I took the Hatch Show Print Tour at the Country Music Hall of Fame Museum, kind of on a whim, and it was excellent. It was fascinating to see all of the music memorabilia, from the start of the press up to posters for shows that haven’t happened yet. It’s also interesting as a writer to think about the equipment and the lettering and the history of physical labor involved in getting words on the page and reproducing them. Plus they have an indignant orange cat onsite.
I also took a tour of the Corsair distillery, with poet Christina Stoddard. We got to drink whiskey, including one made from quinoa, and meet their resident cat, who is named Pizza Cat and *lives in a whiskey distillery*. So, you could do worse than raising a shot of good whiskey to Pizza Cat and Pizza Cat’s excellent life choices.
I guess my advice is if you are wondering about taking a tour in Nashville, it is probably a good sign if that space has a resident cat. After doing touristy things, I went to a house party where there was both a very excited corgi puppy and a dapper cat who wore a bowtie and spent most of the party judging or resolutely ignoring the guests. I loved them both.
As an aside, I wanted to applaud your restraint when it comes to writing cats into your stories. As soon as I owned a cat, they started creeping into my writing. I believe you have a cat, and by my count, your first collection has no cats. Amazing.
I know this not actually a question, but I felt compelled to answer it because I actually have (4!) cats and I couldn’t go home and face them without an explanation. There is one story that there’s half a draft of that opens with a woman trying to transport her cats on a move, but I suspect that if the story gets finished the cats won’t make the final draft, because the work they’re doing now—conveying that this woman is lonely, harried, doesn’t really have reliable people to call for help—is kind of in the scene without them.
And maybe that’s why I end up not writing about cats—at the moments when they are a problem, they are a problem in a way that feels tied to a lot of clichés we pin on lonely women, and when they are more interesting they are usually making life better and providing some relief from emptiness and aching—and well, who wants that in short fiction? So I save my cats for social media, where they are much more popular than I am. But “Understand that your cat is a whore and can’t help you,” (from Lorrie Moore’s “Amahl and the Night Visitors: A Guide to the Tenor of Love”) is one of my favorite lines in fiction, and maybe someday I’ll find the right cat sentence for my own work.
One of the characters in “Someone Ought to Tell Her There’s Nowhere to Go,” says, “you didn’t get to pick your own ghosts, your ghosts picked you.” It’s a pivotal concept for that story, but also seems like it might be true of the writing life. What are some of the ghosts you find haunting your own writing?
This is always a bit of a dangerous question to answer because as a writer you’re always trying to trick yourself into believing it’s safe to go to the page because your demons and obsessions have stopped following you, and it’s harder to do that when you name them. I would say history is an obsession, and liars, and water, and cars. If you’ve found others, don’t tell me about them!