By Katie Davis and Hilary Umbreit
Anne Panning's short story collection, Super America, won the 2006 Flannery O'Connor Award for Short Fiction, and was lauded by The New York Times, The Boston Globe, Publisher's Weekly, and other publications. She has a previous book of short stories, The Price of Eggs, as well as short fiction and nonfiction in places such as The Kenyon Review, Prairie Schooner, Passages North, Alaska Quarterly Review, Kalliope, Quarterly West, and other magazines. Originally from Minnesota, Anne has lived in the Philippines (where she was a Peace Corps volunteer), Vietnam, Hawaii, northern Idaho and Ohio; she now lives in upstate New York with her husband and two children, and teaches creative writing at SUNY-Brockport. Anne loves to travel with her family and has plans to visit Montserrat and Turkey in the coming year. When not traveling or working, Anne can be found trolling local thrift stores for secret treasures. Panning's work appeared in West Branch 64, Spring/Summer 2009.
West Branch — The first work we read of yours was your recent essay "Untranslatable" in a previous issue of West Branch. The lyricism of your prose, the structure of the work, and the specificity of your experiences and emotion were what made it stand out for us. Could you talk about how you came up with the idea for the essay?
Anne Panning — I was giving my kids a bath one night – not my favorite parenting job because it can be long and boring – and came across this book in our bookshelf, In Other Words: A Language Lover's Guide to the Most Intriguing Words Around the World, by Christopher J. Moore.
I started browsing through it and came across an Indonesian word, "talkin," which had to do with whispering instructions into the ear of the dying. My mother had recently died and I didn't realize how hungry I was to write about the experience until I came across this word. Somehow, using an "untranslatable" word like that allowed me to write about the grief by providing layers of distance and slant. At the same time, staying focused on one single word allowed me to create an intimacy with the reader.
As I began reading through more of the words, I realized many of them expressed mood in a way our English words cannot. Their meanings were often fuzzy, blurred by nostalgia and longing. I found a Russian word, "razlubit," which encapsulates the bittersweet feeling of falling out of love with someone. I'd recently been "friended" on Facebook by an ex-boyfriend who'd just had his first child, and the moodiness of the word helped capture those strange, complicated feelings we carry around for people once loved.
Using foreign words that were "untranslatable" gave me a clear way to structure the essay. I ended up segmenting the piece by word, and then tried to do my own "translation" of each word. I still have the book. I look through it often and have been considering doing a "sequel."
WB — You mentioned that these foreign words helped you to structure "Untranslatable." While reading one of your earlier nonfiction essays, "Secondhand," we noticed that you used a similar technique of using objects as a springboard into your prose. Would you say that this is something that you do very often? How did you originally develop this technique?
AP — It's funny. I tend to use segmentation as a formal device in creative nonfiction quite often, though I rarely use it when I write fiction. There's something about segmentation that allows me to "mimic" the shape and movement of memory. That is to say, we remember in flashes or moments or objects, but very rarely do we remember in linear, chronological order. So I often use objects as a way for me to organize topically. I would also call this a version of a "wheel plot": inside the wheel is the topic (thrift store purchases, untranslatable words, eyeglasses) and then all the spokes of the piece always point back toward that topic. In a way, it's stealing from Poe's "unified effect," where everything in a short story must lead to a single, unified effect or moment. If this all sounds very technical, it isn't. It's very organic seeming to me, very instinctual.
I think the other reason I use objects so often to organize a creative nonfiction piece is because I'm a big proponent of what I call "thingy-ness" in writing. I like things; I collect stuff; I feel the best writing is peppered with things and objects that speak about life or the narrator in a way straight narrative cannot. When I teach creative writing, I also use a lot of objects – giant flyswatters, a deck of cards, paint chip samples. "Thingy-ness" is a way to create setting and character simultaneously (and concretely).
WB — "Thingy-ness" – that's an interesting concept. If you use objects to inform your creative nonfiction, then how do you come up with ideas for your fiction? Do you start with a specific character, a scene, or a setting?
AP — My process for writing fiction is much different than with creative nonfiction. I almost always start a short story with setting. Setting for me is primary; in my first short story collection, The Price of Eggs, every story was initially fueled by its setting: a trailer court, a barber shop, a pig farm, a horse ranch. At the time I wrote that book, I hadn't traveled much and many of the stories were semi-autobiographical and grounded in settings I knew well. In my new collection, Super America, setting is still as primary, but it reflects the great amount of travel and wandering I've done in all the years in between. For me, setting ultimately provides character for me, and a reflection of our culture.
There's such a different architecture to writing a short story as opposed to an essay. I find writing short fiction much more difficult as it has to create that elusive verisimilitude and yet be incredibly, elaborately crafted and organized and imagined. But I must say that many of my short stories do arise from a strange situation, as well. One of my stories, "Cravings," about a pregnant woman who eats chalk, came after an experience I had. I was trying to take a calcium pill, but it was so chunky and dry I ended up choking on it. Thus, a story about a woman who eats chalk.
Another story that was inspired by situation and setting is "Tidal Wave Wedding." When I lived in Hawaii for three years, I would occasionally see honeymooning couples at the beach, searching in vain through the sand for a lost wedding ring. It broke my heart, and it also inspired me to want to create a Hawaii setting in my fiction that was definitely not paradise.
I love setting so much in contemporary short fiction because it seems to be the "poor cousin" of the sexier craft elements. If you look at a Henry James short story or a Flannery O'Connor short story, they're loaded with setting; readers had more patience for it then. People didn't travel as extensively or manically as they do now. Fiction was a great window into the larger world. Not so much anymore. I think there's a greater concern now with "flash" and "effect" and irony in short fiction.
WB — In reading your last response, we notice that you mentioned Flannery O'Connor and Henry James. Since writers are so often inspired by the kinds of stories they read, we were wondering if you have any favorite authors? Are there any new writers you're excited about?
AP — Yes, I'm constantly reading contemporary American fiction. I'd have to say my "idol" is Lorrie Moore. I love the dark humor and verbal wit of her stories, as well as the way she's able to portray the Midwest in such a tragic and funny way. Her book, Birds of America, is my go-to.
John Updike has always appealed to me as the master of the cumulative, multi-layered sentence. The way he uses colons and semicolons floors me. My favorite is one of his early book of short stories, Pigeon Feathers.
Peter Cameron excels at both the novel and short story form. There's something about his brevity and succinct, clear prose that evokes a lot of emotion. His newest novel, Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You, is almost like a present day Catcher in the Rye, only better – funny, sad, wry.
I love Amy Bloom for her complex and messy family dynamics.
Lately, I've been plunging into the world of graphic novels and memoirs, and really loving what they can accomplish with words and text. Lynda Barry has also been a long time idol of mine in this regard. She can mine the depths of some truly horrific family dysfunction, but she does it in a warm and loving way, so that even the most monstrous of characters comes off with complexity and depth. I love her book 100 Demons.
Some favorites: Julia Glass, Jancee Dunn, Jayne Anne Phillips, and, when in doubt, I'm a huge fan of medical mysteries and missing person novels (Miriam Gershow's The Local News is excellent). I want to write a "literary" missing person novel as my next project, so I'm always scouting out books to help me learn.
WB — A literary missing person novel – could that possibly be Carrot Lake, which is mentioned on your website? Could you tell us a little more about Carrot Lake, and also the memoir-in-progress, Viet*Mom?
AP — No, Carrot Lake isn't the missing person novel – I am only in the planning stage on that one. Carrot Lake is a big, sprawling family drama in which the elderly ex-beauty-queen matriarch wishes to end her life after a stroke and tries to get someone in the family to help her. It's set in Minnesota, has four narrators, and seeks – in my humble opinion – to infuse important "social issues" without having them seem like important "social issues." I also tried to make it darkly funny.
I recently finished a memoir, Viet*Mom, and sent it to my agent for her feedback. That book chronicles the six months I spent with my husband Mark, who was on a Fulbright, and our two children, Hudson and Lily, ages five and two at the time, living in Vietnam. What I set out to do in that book was record what it was like to leave my professional roles of professor, writer, and academic and simply occupy the roles of wife and mother – and to do so in a very difficult, complex place like Vietnam. So there is a bricolage of sorts – travel writing, "momoir" writing, and also a feminist study of gender.
I wrote most of the rough draft while we were in Vietnam, and had planned to finish when we returned to New York. Unfortunately, my mother died very unexpectedly just after I got back to the United States, so I put the book on hold. Finally, after some time passed, I got back to it, and actually ended up writing about my mother and her death as the final chapter to the book. It felt entirely relevant and important to include it, even though it was very difficult to write. I must have written the final chapter ten to twelve times.
So what's next is a missing person novel, tentatively titled Hunter's Bluff. My initial impetus was a visit to Minnesota to my sister's house for Christmas last year. I went for a walk all by myself on Christmas night. The subdivision where they live is nearly empty, and it was so cold I could hardly stand it, but the loneliness and iciness were somehow beautiful, too. Then, a big diesel truck drove by me very, very slowly, and I thought: what if I didn't come back? How long would it take for my family, my husband, to come looking for me? And so on. I love books that have that "aftermath" quality, where it's not so much about a person who has gone missing as it is about how those left behind cope with the loss and uncertainty.
As I plan and plot this novel, I am working on several short creative nonfiction pieces – most recently a piece about mailboxes and another about my father's mental health struggles.
WB — That sounds really interesting, and we're looking forward to reading these works soon. Unfortunately, we're on to our last question. It's been great talking to you. We wonder if you have any advice about writing, publishing, and so on, for aspiring authors?
AP — I guess my main advice is to write often and write messy and write hard, even when it doesn't seem like you're producing anything decent. Also, it's best to try to be an apprentice at first, to try and learn the basics of craft and get them right before worrying about publication. Too often novice writers want to fast-forward to the end product: seeing their work in print. But the result of that often means rushing through the often difficult process of trying to learn how to write in first, second and third person, how to meld setting and character in active instead of static ways, how to keep forward story motion at work in your piece. As Rilke says, "Strive always to be a beginner." Even if you're lucky enough to have tons of raw talent, writing well takes a lot of practice, patience, and time. But the process, if you're patient, is deeply pleasurable and worth every minute.
Another thing: hang around with other creative people. It truly does rub off.
Also, I've sometimes heard novice writers say things like, "I'm a fantasy writer," or "I write stories with no dialogue – that's my thing," which worries me. I think it's dangerous to lock yourself into a type of writing, especially early on. The most important thing, of course, is to tell a good story, plain and simple. If you don't have a good story, all the bells and whistles in the world will not save you. Keep it simple; keep it small. A "tiny" plot in which two characters, say, search for a lost dog, will yield richly dramatic character-driven story results more so than a plot that's reliant on murder, mayhem, or post-apocalyptic terror. I think we read to figure out how people cope in this sad, crazy, complicated world. We read to reassure ourselves that everyone, ultimately, is as lonely as we are. We read to keep ourselves company.
Make sure to protect little pockets of time for writing and guard them with your life. Make sure you have time to be alone. Make sure there are hours spent curled up in a chair with a good book. Even the busiest people can find time for these things – if writing is important enough to them.