Anne Valente is the author of the novel Our Heart Will Burn Us Down (William Morrow / HarperCollins, 2016) and the short story collection By Light We Knew Our Names (Dzanc Books, 2014). Her fiction has appeared in One Story, Southern Review, Ninth Letter, and the Chicago Tribune, and her essays have appeared in the Believer and the Washington Post. Originally from Saint Louis, she teaches creative writing at Santa Fe University of Art and Design. An excerpt from her story “Good-bye, Saint Louis” can be found here. It appears in the Sept/Oct 2016 issue of the Kenyon Review.
What was your original impetus for writing “Good-bye, Saint Louis”?
I’d been working on a collection of short stories about Saint Louis, where I grew up, and was about halfway through when Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson. His death changed my entire view of the city, which I’d already known was flawed and extremely segregated, but I felt simultaneously devastated for and by my hometown. I had already written two other stories about racial division in Saint Louis, and I couldn’t turn away from what was happening in Ferguson. I was angered first and foremost by the police’s brutality but also by the way the media chose to cover the ensuing protests. I didn’t know if addressing racial violence in fiction was mine to address, and I still don’t know. But I wanted to examine whiteness and privilege through Quinn, the story’s main character, which to me felt inseparable from scrutinizing police brutality.
The news plays a major role in this story. Did you find it difficult to broach the subjects of police violence or race in your work? Are there other writers out there who you think handle these issues especially well?
I found and continue to find it extremely difficult to write about race in my work. As a white-identified writer, I don’t want to take up additional space in a field already dominated by white writers. But racism is a white problem, and writing about race shouldn’t be the responsibility solely of writers of color; we should all be alarmed, and we should all be engaged in the work of examining racism. At the same time, my voice shouldn’t subsume anyone else’s voice or speak for anyone else, which is a difficult line to walk since fiction so often explores other experiences and voices. I don’t know if I’ve achieved the right balance, and I’m vulnerable to making mistakes. But the world is burning, and though some writers are good at separating their worldviews from their fiction, I’ve found it hard to do that. Sometimes the news devastates me more than I can convey in conversation or on social media, and fiction is where I’ve turned. My first novel is about a school shooting, not because I thought it was a topic that would draw readers, but because news of gun violence eventually wore me down so hard that my fiction couldn’t look away anymore.
I’ve looked to other writers as examples of how to write what is so difficult to write. Kiese Laymon writes beautifully about racism and police violence, and How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America is an essential book I’ve recommended to everyone I know. I also loved Mychal Denzel Smith’s Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching: A Young Black Man’s Education. I know both of these texts are nonfiction, and Laymon’s novel is on my to-read list, but these two books have informed my understanding of racism in America, as has the work of Gloria Anzaldua. I also recently read Tell the Truth & Shame the Devil by Lezley McSpadden, Michael Brown’s mother, which was at once beautiful and devastating. In terms of fiction writers, I’ve long admired Toni Morrison, Jacqueline Woodson, Louise Erdrich, and Sandra Cisneros in examining both racism and sexism in their work, and I also appreciated Karen Tei Yamashita’s Tropic of Orange in scrutinizing a city’s segregation and division through multiple points of view.
There’s a moment the main character tries to tell the cashier she too is feeling grief in the wake of a police shooting, and all she can think to say is, “There’s a supermoon tonight.” I’ve heard that Midwesterners can address just about everything when they talk about the weather. Could you talk a little bit about writing this scene, and how you bring together the events in the natural world with the people in your stories? Or how you’re playing with the space between what a character is trying to say, and the words she settles on?
Midwesterners certainly struggle with articulating emotion in verbalized words, which I’m sure is how I became a writer instead. And now that you mention it, talking about the weather is often about so much more than the weather. In this scene, I think Quinn is struggling with communicating grief and sorrow, and also ashamed that she’s made assumptions about what another person might or might not care about based exclusively on their race. The natural world felt like a stand-in for conveying sorrow and shame, and in an awkward and fumbling way for Quinn.
I think the natural world is also a means of exploring how destructive human beings can be. I’ve been writing about climate change and the environment lately in my fiction, which I don’t view as wholly separate from writing about gun violence or police brutality. For me, the connective tissue is that we are killing each other and ourselves, and that dominance seems to come more easily than empathy and grace. The natural world seems inseparable to me from human love, and also from human error and violence. We are part of the natural world, as easy as it is to forget sometimes. Science and nature are often my main prisms as a fiction writer for examining human behavior.
Which non-writing-related aspect of your life most influences your writing?
Because science and nature often figure so prominently in my creative work, my hobbies related to the outdoors most influence my writing. I’ve taken astronomy classes, birding seminars, and guided hikes, all to learn more about everything beyond myself. I’m a runner, not just for the physical activity, but so I can try to identity wildflowers and birds along the path. I’ve also recently moved to Santa Fe from Cincinnati, and hiking has become a prime non-writing-related activity that inspires my work. I can’t believe the diversity of plants, the range of birds, the strangeness of seeing a lizard cross the trail instead of the Midwest’s squirrels. The West also bares geologic time in the rocks and mountains in a way that the Midwest better conceals, all of which has wound its way into my writing since moving here.
What project(s) are you working on now, or next?
I’ve just completed a new novel manuscript about a road trip that takes a meandering path from Illinois to Utah. Because nature is so important to my work, landscape is inevitably an essential part of every project I’ve worked on. Having just released a novel about Saint Louis, as well as having written short stories about Saint Louis since 2012, I wanted to explore a new landscape in my fiction, which has coincided with moving out west. This new novel has stretched me in completely different ways—I’ve researched not only western climates and biodiversity, but also NASCAR, falconry, and paleontology, none of which I knew anything about. Beyond this project, I plan to return to short stories this year, and possibly an essay here or there as well.