A Brief Interview With Emily Pease
Last month we were thrilled announce the winner of our inaugural C. Michael Curtis Short Story Book Prize. Emily Pease of Williamsburg, Virginia was selected by judge Lee K. Abbott as the winner and will be awarded $10,000 and publication. Hub City Press will publish the collection, now titled Let Me Out Here in March of 2019. We sat down with Emily to ask her a few questions about her writing and the collection, as well as how the South has influenced her work.
Hub City: Tell us a little about your manuscript.
Emily Pease: Let Me Out Here includes eight full-length stories (one is almost a novella) and nine short-short stories, a few of which might aptly be called “flash.” There’s humor here, and there’s strangeness. God appears in one way or another, and there’s a good deal of submission of one kind or another. Years ago, when I first began writing stories, I wondered what it would be like to write for a group of church-goers, a wise, inquiring adult Sunday School class, maybe, but as I began writing, each story challenged that idea. I could see how my imaginary church-goers could find themselves bewildered, if not a bit stunned, by what I’d put out there. Even I, as the inventor of stories, feel stunned sometimes to see what a character has just done. When that happens, I’m grateful. We’re all creatures of paradox, just struggling to find clarity, aren’t we? That sums it up. (Read a sample chapter from the book at Narrative Magazine
Hub City: What/who are you reading right now? What inspires you?
EW: I’m beginning a novel about logging the primeval forests of West Virginia. This event in history is tragic, environmentally, but it is also rich with lore. So I’m reading about West Virginia and logging, but I’m also reading novelists who deftly handle long spans of time and whose landscapes and characters are bold and muscular: E. Annie Proulx, David Mitchell, Francisco Goldman, John Steinbeck. I’ll be reading some magical realism, because the uncut West Virginia forests were so dense as to be impenetrable and mysterious, and I plan to go back to Moby Dick. Still, I’m a lover of short fiction, and I read stories all the time. I love Adam Johnson, Denis Johnson, and Bret Anthony Johnston (all those Johnson-Johnstons!), and I’m in awe of Joy Williams, Flannery O’Connor, and George Saunders. So many story writers. I could go on for pages.
Hub City: The C. Michael Curtis Short Story Book Prize features emerging Southern writers. Can you talk a little about how the South and place in general inform your writing?
EW: I grew up in Charlotte, NC, when there were still a few small farms within the city limits. One of those farms, now the site of a major shopping mall, lay on the other side of a street behind my house. There was a lonely pony there, and I used to climb the fence to go visit. It was possible to catch crawfish in the creek nearby. Possible, even, to ride rented ponies on the sidewalks or drive out to the country and swim in a quarry. These are such beautiful memories. One set of grandparents lived in Abbeville, SC, with a chicken yard out back, and the other set of grandparents lived in Beaufort, NC, where fishing boats sailed on the cut. Beautiful. But also creepy. One old aunt lived next door to a funeral home. It seemed we were always visiting relatives in the cemeteries. That’s the South for me: beautiful and memory-rich, with a layer of dark.
In writing fiction, I think place and character are inseparable. In one of her essays, Flannery O’Connor wrote, “For the writer of fiction, everything has its testing point in the eye, and the eye is the organ that eventually involves the whole personality, and as much of the world as can be got into it.” From the time I first read it, this quote has spoken to me. Wherever we go, and wherever we are, whether it be on a train or in a bedroom, we are “in place.” If I can see this place with my inner eye and locate my characters there, then I’m in. In the story, I mean. The oily surface of the train window. The little lamp on the bedstand. Of course place is also regional, like the South (mosquitoes, long stretches of road, picnic family reunions) or like New England (rocky coasts, quaint old towns), but for me, as a writer, I’m most interested in the immediacy of a specific, see-able place where a character lives and breathes.
Hub City: What do you do when you aren’t writing?
EW: I used to teach, which meant that I spent a good portion of each weekday with 18-22 year-olds, a challenge and delight. I stay in touch with a number of those students, still, and I’ve been to a few great weddings. Now I begin each day by running on a wildlife trail. I see the same people, and we wave. Sometimes they stop to tell me about something they’ve just seen, like a newborn fawn or a snake. I also go horseback riding once a week with a handful of women whom I still know only by their first names. I feed the hens in the back yard, cook something great almost every night, read the New York Times (delivered every day to our driveway) and listen to podcasts in my car. I’m honored to be a storyteller in my Episcopal church, and sometimes I teach little children there. I work with the Armed Services Arts Partnership, teaching writing workshops to veterans, and I dream of reading for Audible. I have three grown children who’re funny and artistic and musical, and I have two equally funny and talented little grandchildren. This, I still can’t believe.