Heather Monley has an MFA from Columbia University and a BA from Dartmouth College. Her fiction has previously appeared on McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. Originally from San Jose, California, she now lives in Brooklyn, New York. Her story “Town of Birds” received first place in the 2013 Kenyon Review Short Fiction Contest and appears in the Winter 2014 issue of The Kenyon Review.
Can you identify the seed of inspiration of your story “Town of Birds”? What was the hardest part about writing it?
The first sentence came to me while riding the subway in New York, but I don’t remember the particular seed that started the idea. The opening words tumbled together, then the first paragraph, and then it got a lot harder.
I sensed early on that the story should be very short: a longer story might require more answers and explain away the mystery. But there was a lot to fit in a short space. The plot spanned years and included the story of the narrator’s immediate family as well as that of the town at large. Meanwhile, the voice had a tendency to meander. After I had a scrappy first draft, I made an outline and forced the story to fit it, and then wrote another draft loosening things up again, and so on. There was a lot of puzzling over what to include and what to leave out, and moving pieces around to form it into something coherent.
Your story has an allegorical feel to it. Do you see the transformation of the story’s children as standing in for a tide of real-world change, or do you hope instead for the story to be read literally?
I hope it works both ways. I hope that readers will imagine and picture the story literally, but that real-world associations may also bubble up as they read. That would mirror my experience writing fiction: I tend to start on the literal level, and then at some point I begin to wonder what else a story might be saying. For me personally, writing this story made me think about the destructive side of teenage rebellion. Change brought by new generations is often positive, but it can have negative repercussions as well: the pain felt within families, the loss of former communities (like the town in the story), and even large-scale, violent change like war, in which young people are often used and made to suffer greatly. Not that anything like a war occurs in the story, but the way the town loses a whole generation of young people and never recovers—that feels very dark to me, even if other elements of the story are somewhat whimsical. But I’m sure that many readers have a different reaction, and I find that exciting. I wouldn’t want it to be a one-to-one allegory. For me, the wonder of fiction is being able to grasp at something that can’t be said directly. A story can mean multiple things and nothing at the same time. It can be itself and also something else.
What have you learned about the writing process in the last five years?
Five years ago, I was in an MFA program where I able to focus on writing all the time, and then two-and-a-half years ago I was out in the real world and having to re-learn how to fit fiction into my life. I’m still figuring things out, and I’ve learned a lot, including: 1) It’s always hard work, but it really is rewarding; and 2) My process is always changing. I’m not much good at keeping to a consistent writing schedule: for a while, I was writing in big chunks on weekends, then mornings before my day job, and now evenings right when I get home. For some stories, I dash out a messy first draft to be revised later, while others need to grow carefully, sentence-by-sentence. Every time I think I’ve learned how I work best, it changes and I have to learn something new, but maybe that’s what keeps it interesting.
Which non-writing-related aspect of your life most influences your writing?
I’m inspired by the natural world—even just walking in a neighborhood park. I’m an occasional birdwatcher—certainly an influence on “Town of Birds”—and I think that’s taught me an attention to detail that has been a great help as a writer. On the street where I live in Brooklyn, we see house sparrows, starlings, and pigeons, but step into a nearby park and suddenly there are blue jays, robins, song sparrows, warblers, and red-tailed hawks. These little variations make the world wonderful. It’s those kinds of details—what suddenly appears when you look closer—that are most exciting to me as a writer.
Of all the things you could be doing, why do you write?
I’ve gotten so much joy out of reading that I feel compelled to give something back, to contribute something of my own. I don’t think I can repay the world of literature for what it’s given me, but at least I can put in a lot of effort trying.
In the 1950′s, John Crowe Ransom invited a coterie of critics (William Empson, Northrop Frye, etc.) to write a “credo” for The Kenyon Review. The results became an essay series by 10 leading critics on their core beliefs regarding literature and the critical practice, entitled “My Credo.” What would you include in your own credo? What core beliefs do you have about literature and books?
Here’s one: when reading, think beyond the question of whether it’s “good” or not. A few years ago, I was teaching a writing class and I assigned some of my favorite short stories for the class to read. Every discussion started with some of the students arguing about why they didn’t like the story assigned. I admired them for speaking their minds, and it was good for me to question and defend my choice of the assignment. But after a few weeks, I started to feel like we were wasting our time. I knew there were things they could learn from those stories, if they would just open their minds to them.
We’re encouraged to judge media as soon as we’ve consumed it—especially with the rating systems on websites like Goodreads and Netflix. I think there’s value to knowing your own opinion, and of course it’s the job of book reviewers and editors to read with a critical eye. But in my personal reading practice, I try to quiet that voice that wants to make a judgment call before I’ve finished the first chapter. I’ve found there’s more to learn—as a writer and a person—by appreciating rather than by criticizing.
Could you tell us a little about one of your current or upcoming writing projects?
I’ve been writing a collection of short stories about human wildness and metamorphosis—fantastic transformations like that in “Town of Birds,” and the more muted, everyday variety. Many of the stories deal in some way with the line between humans and animals—how we define ourselves against the rest of the animal kingdom, and how that line can be blurred.