A Conversation With Anne Panning By KR fiction editor Nancy Zafris
Anne Panning’s short story collection, Super America, won the 2006 Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction and will be published in October 2007. She has also published a book of short stories, The Price of Eggs (Coffeehouse Press, 1992), as well as short fiction and nonfiction in places such as Beloit Fiction Journal, Bellingham Review, Prairie Schooner, New Letters, South Dakota Review, Florida Review, Passages North, Black Warrior Review, Greensboro Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Kalliope, Quarterly West, and forthcoming in The Kenyon Review, Five Points, Laurel Review, Cimarron Review, and Under the Sun. Her essay “Specs: My Life in Eyeglasses” was listed as a notable essay in Best American Essays 2006. She lives in upstate New York with her husband and two children, and teaches creative writing at SUNY-Brockport.
NANCY ZAFRIS: Anne, you are one of the winners of this year’s Flannery O’Connor Award for short fiction. Your book, titled Super America, is coming out soon, right?
ANNE PANNING: Yes, in October. I’m very excited.
NZ: You should be. The Publisher’s Weekly review just came out, an unqualified rave:
“Ordinary people find their efforts to heal their wounds complicated by relationships, emotional conflicts and unusual twists of fate in this affecting collection by Panning … The warmth and originality of these pieces demonstrate Panning to be an astute and empathetic observer.” Pretty nice praise. It must have been a thrill to see that kind of pre-pub review after all these years of struggling to get published.
AP: It definitely was. And you want to know what’s funny? I’ve submitted to the Flannery O’Connor contest for probably eight years in a row, maybe ten, maybe more, and I’ve even been a finalist for it twice. This year my husband and I were just leaving for a trip to New York City when I realized the deadline was that very day. I almost said, “Nah, it’s not worth it,” but then found I had an extra copy of my story collection already photocopied, so we swung by the post office on the way out of town and I literally threw it in the mail. Thank God I did. It just goes to show…you never know. My thinking is that you have to be sort of a dumb blind optimist to be a writer. You have to have this persistent little faith no matter how many times you’re knocked down.
NZ: Full disclosure: I was one of the judges for the year you won. I’ve been a
big admirer of your work for several years. I think you’re one of the most
under-recognized American writers, so I was absolutely delighted when they
revealed the author’s name to me. And surprised as well because I’ve read some of your work in manuscript form and didn’t recognize any of these stories. Good thing or I would have had to recuse myself.
AP: I know. I remember reading who the judges were for that year and seeing your name, but then I realized you had only read my novel manuscript, so I knew I was off the hook. Lucky for me.
NZ: Why hadn’t you sent these stories out? Had you become that discouraged?
AP: Oh, I had sent them out! I had actually sent many of these stories out several times. In the collection, I think maybe three or four of them were previously published. But many of my stories tend to be on the long side, and that’s tough for most literary magazines to accommodate. Still, I would always have about four or five of them out there in circulation. I’m pretty determined about that sort of thing, and figure it into my writing schedule—all the sending out and keeping track and that sort of thing. Over the years I’ve become pretty thick-skinned about rejection. It never seems to stop me. Again, it’s that blind dumb optimism that keeps me going. I guess I’m a very determined person. And just when I’d have about a million rejections built up, I’d get a story accepted, which was just enough to keep me going until the next round.
NZ: Yes, your stories are a little long – if you go by word count. But they read short. Your novella, for example. I sank into that story and when it ended it seemed as if only ten minutes had passed because it was so compelling and I was so immersed in it. But yes, you’re right, on a practical level length can be a problem. The Kenyon Review wasn’t able to accommodate your novella, for example, especially given the lead time. But we immediately grabbed “All-U-Can Eat” for our pages. Publisher’s Weekly summarizes it as a story about “a postal worker, recently disabled after a pit bull attacked her, who attempts to reclaim the affections of her husband by using her lawsuit winnings to finance his and her sister’s idea to open a frog leg restaurant.” So, uh, frog legs, Anne? Any particular reason for that?
AP: There’s actually a story attached to that. I was really sick one day and a friend came by with some soup and magazines, one of which was the National Enquirer (my favorite). Anyway, there was an advice column in it in which a woman wondered if it would be a good idea to sink her inheritance into a frog leg restaurant with her sister. I was instantly smitten with the idea and, because I tend to obsess on things, immediately began researching everything I could find about frog legs. I literally became an expert! I sent away for a frog leg farming instructional video. I went out to eat frog legs—both broiled and deep-fried. Meanwhile, I was teaching a writer’s craft course and one of my older students was a postal carrier and started to tell me about the dangers of pit bulls on her postal route. The rest kind of gelled together with those two pieces. But to be honest I have this sort of revulsion/fascination with animals. Most of them terrify me, but the weirder the animal, the more intrigued I am and the more I want to know about it. That’s why my stories also feature miniature horses, lemurs, sugar gliders, etc.
NZ: I’m getting a picture of John Belushi doing his “cheeseburger” routine on Saturday Night Live except it’s “Frog leg, broiled or fried. No hotdog, frog leg.” “All-U-Can Eat” is an exceptionally funny story but it’s also tender and real. I love how you so very subtly reveal the sister’s loneliness.
AP: Yes, I wanted Stella’s character to be both rowdy and obnoxious but also sad and lonely because in the end, she doesn’t have a husband, doesn’t have much of anything in her life except her constant get-rich-quick schemes, which of course never work. She’s a bully, which of course means she’s insecure and sad underneath her tough veneer. She ends up envying her sister, and envy to me is a very lonely place to be.
NZ: “Envy is a very lonely place to be.” What a lovely way to put such a perspicacious insight. Your collection is full of such little jewels. You have a wonderful knack for combining the serious and the hilarious, as well as for hiding the serious in the funny. I remember coming across your collection while reading for the Flannery O’Connor award. It was one of the few collections that made me laugh out loud.
AP: In a way, Lorrie Moore is my model for that—not that my stories are anything like hers, but I’ve always admired the way she sneaks humor into the darkest subjects imaginable, like having a terminally ill child or a dying mother. When my first book of stories came out, everyone kept saying how depressing and sad the stories were. As I got older and sort of “grew up” as a writer, I began to learn that I could tackle the same emotional terrain, but that I could do it with humor—mostly via exaggeration or understatement or absurdity. It’s of course more fun to write that way, and I try to develop characters with strong, distinctive voices who can portray that kind of darkness but still be likable and fun.
NZ: The other thing I noted when reading your collection was that your collection was the only one that left me clueless about whether a male or female author had written it. Not that I consciously wonder, but I guess I make an assumption about the sex of the author. With your collection, I’d think, oh a woman wrote this. The next story would make me think a man wrote it. The incredible novella at the end marks yet another example of your range and empathy. All the way through I kept thinking, who is this author and how can he/she be so good without my not having read these stories before?
AP: It’s interesting that you say that because I just realized both the first and last story in the book are written with first-person male narrators. There’s also the gay male hairdresser in “Tidal Wave Wedding.” I love to tackle the male POV because it’s so different, so much more restrained in a way (at least for me it is) and I think that helps me keep the story moving more quickly. The two male teenage narrators I use are both very restrained, sensitive and subdued, which helps me to control the plot better.
NZ: How about the novella? That’s from a male teenager’s point of view.
AP: Yes. It’s about a teenage boy who watches his parents’ marriage fall apart after his father is permanently injured in a bicycle accident. The boy uses his camera as a way of documenting all the changes he sees, while his older brother spins ever further away from the family. A writer friend of mine challenged us both one summer to write novellas, and being an obedient little student, I dove right in. The idea for the novella was taken from many versions of failed marriages I had seen, plus my own life’s sadness and disappointment, which I then blended into what I thought of as a family tragedy. I think teenagers are actually more emotionally sophisticated and complex than we give them credit for, and I wanted to fully explore the narrator’s reaction to his family’s tragedy by stretching it out deeply and fully in the form of a novella.
NZ: It’s a beautiful novella, Anne. Have you always been so naturally empathetic and curious about other people? How do you go about choosing a POV character? Is it a technical decision?
AP: For me, point of view is not usually something I consciously decide. I often start with a setting (gas station, suburban subdivision, Hawaii beach) and a situation (lost wedding ring, irritating neighbors, exotic animal business), then try to pick the character who isn’t always the most obvious choice because I think that way you get more of the story around the margins. I’m much more interested in what’s on the margins. In fact, sometimes when my husband is telling me something, he’ll get frustrated because I’ll end up asking for details about something he barely touched on instead of the main thing he’s trying to tell me. But that’s really my guiding philosophy with fiction: search out the margins. Try to uncover the details that at first glance don’t seem that important. Plus, to be honest, I’ve always been incredibly nosy and curious and ask way too many questions (so I’m told). How can you not want to know every little thing about people? That’s my question.
NZ: I want to return to something else you said and ask a technical question. I think a lot of readers would be interested in this. You mentioned that a sensitive and subdued narrator helps you to control plot better. How does that work?
AP: Sometimes I think if my narrator is too chatty or conversational or glib or rowdy (and especially if that narrator is first- person), I can get carried away with the voice and almost lose sight of the story. Forward story motion is the biggest challenge of writing a short story to me. There are so many possible detours you can take, and it’s important for me to (a) remember my reader, and (b) to maintain some kind of pressure/problem/tension in the story, a reason to turn pages, if you will. So sometimes, depending on the story, it helps to have a somewhat detached narrator who can then allow me as a writer to move the plot forward somehow. I actually may be sounding like I’m more “plot-driven” than I really am. In fact, character is where it’s at, of course, but it certainly doesn’t hurt to keep the reader wondering, “What’s going to happen?” Does that make sense?
NZ: Absolutely. Moving the story forward is so important. When the reader asks “what’s happening next” in the story, the literary delights rain down all the more delightfully. I never knew what was going to happen in your stories because I could never see the writer writing… and because your creativity is always carving out untraveled paths. What else sparks your endless imagination?
AP: My family is quirky, which always helps. My dad was a barber, used to dye his beard green with Maybelline mascara on Saint Patrick’s Day, and used to play a cassette of continuous Bette Midler’s “The Rose” over and over. My mom, who recently died, collected and hoarded all kinds of cool stuff like teapots shaped like cats’ heads and old paper dolls and retro tin lunch buckets. My two brothers are construction workers, ride unicycles and dye their hair blond. My sister fears she’s going blind, for no real reason. So right away I was given a lot to work with while growing up—and I still get a lot from them. Plus, being from a really small town provides you with a lifetime of material. I love going back there and soaking it all in.
NZ: What a great family. So are you a small town girl who stays put?
AP: Oh, God no! As soon as I was able to save up enough waitressing tips, I began to travel as much as I could. I’ve actually lived all over the place: Hawaii, Vietnam, Minnesota, Idaho, Ohio, New York, the Philippines. Being an outsider is one of the best things for a writer. I like to watch. I like to not belong. I like to—in a sick way—feel lonely and displaced.
NZ: I imagine your personal reading list is just as quirky.
AP: I read a lot of “high” and “low” literature, and I think that’s helpful. My dirty little secret is my subscription to Redbook, Ladies Home Journal, Country Living, and People—I cannot get enough of People magazine. I am obsessed with Katie Holmes and Suri and Tom Cruise. I like to read the local want ads. I pore over catalogs for hours. Of course I read a lot of “good” stuff too, which keeps me on my toes and helps me learn how to write better. I’m currently rereading Chekhov’s short stories. Talk about restraint. I also love Amy Bloom, Truman Capote, Anne Lamott, Rilke, Joan Didion, Proust, and anything medical—I love to read about medical conditions.
NZ: You mentioned Vietnam as one of the places you’ve lived. You’ve just returned from there, correct? Will Vietnam be figuring into the locales of some of your stories?
AP: Maybe. My guess is that it will, later. I was actually at work on a nonfiction book while I was there called, Viet*Mom: An American Mother of Two Moves to the Mekong. In short, it’s about leaving my life as a busy working mother/professor and moving with my family (which includes a 3- and a 6-year-old) to the Mekong Delta in Vietnam and being mainly identified as a “housewife/mom.” I think of it as part travelogue, part “mom-oir.” My goal was to hit two hundred pages, and once I did that I just let myself relax and enjoy all the noise and chaos and craziness of the place. My plan is to finish the draft this fall and begin sending it around.
NZ: That’s a new take on Vietnam. I think almost everything has centered around the war or the flesh industry.
AP: There’s so much more to say about Vietnam in the twenty-first century. Tim O’Brien and Robert Olen Butler, move over! Just kidding. I do hope to also write fictionally about my experiences living there (I was robbed in broad daylight; a university student stabbed three professors; I swam laps every day with communist soldiers). It was very difficult and intense, but I would do it again, except for the unbearable heat and humidity. Maybe next time–Russia, Greenland, Turkey? Is Turkey hot?
NZ: Go find out. “Is Turkey Hot?” Sounds like a good title for your next short story. Thanks so much, Anne. And congratulations on such a fine collection.
AP: Thank you, Nancy.