Melinda Moustakis was born in Fairbanks, Alaska and raised in Bakersfield, California. She received her MA from UC Davis and her PhD in English and Creative Writing from Western Michigan University. Bear Down, Bear North: Alaska Stories, her first book, won the 2010 Flannery O’Connor Award in Short Fiction. Her stories have appeared in Alaska Quarterly Review, Kenyon Review, Conjunctions, and elsewhere. She is currently a visiting professor at Pacific Lutheran University.
Well, let’s start with the most recent press: the National Book Award’s 5 Under 35! Congratulations. How does it feel?
I am so excited as now I have to go to New York and give a reading at the 5 Under 35 event and then I am going to attend the National Book Awards where there is the opportunity to meet all of these amazing writers. I feel incredibly fortunate because my book was just released on September 15 and the announcement of this national recognition couldn’t have come at a better time. The fact that Jaimy Gordon would think my work was worth nominating is very humbling.
So, as some folks in the Stories on Stage audience will know, you and I have been writers together for a long time now. Like, ten years. I am trying to remember what class it was we first shared as undergraduates at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo.
We’ve known each around ten years now, which is mind boggling. We had an English class together Sophomore year at Cal Poly and one day, after class, you came up to me and said you liked the black hat I was wearing. “Reminds me of Audrey Hepburn,” you said. I said, “I love Audrey Hepburn.” And so we became friends. After that we had poetry writing classes with Kevin Clark and then lugged our Riverside Chaucers around campus to another class. You then became the queen of salsa dancing and invited me along.
Something the folks in the Stories on Stage audience most likely will not know is that you started as a poet. When did you first think that maybe poetry wasn’t it for you, that maybe you were a fiction writer?
I started writing poems about homesteaders and an Alaskan family and I remember the class said they could read a whole book about these people. Then our poetry teacher pointed out that all my poems were narrative and that I might want to take a fiction class and see the possibilities in another genre of writing. I took fiction with Paula Huston and Susann Cokal and my writing started to coalesce, especially after I wrote a story in Cokal’s class about the Kenai River. In this story, I can see the beginnings of the combination of setting and metaphor and character and lyricism that continues in my work today. Poetry taught me how to think about the structure of the line and to think about form. It’s as if I had all of this water, this material to work with, and I needed to find the proper vessel to hold it all. To me, poetry was a tea cup. Fiction was a big chili pot. I tried both, learned from both. In the end, I’d say my work has ended up being a fusion of both worlds–perhaps moose chili in a tea cup.
I remember how, in Kevin Clark’s poetry workshops, we’d always start with “what is the plot of this poem” and then move to sound, image, metaphor. Do you think that plot question could have been part of your discovering of your inner fiction writer?
Yes, that question could have inspired me to think about the situation or the narrative. But even more so, poetry taught me how to work towards an image, to wrap lines and around in image, to spin the metaphor outward, which is crucial to how I developed as fiction writer. The attention to sound in poetry, the ear for it, set me up to fall in love with dialogue and the sound of a place. When I go fishing with my uncle, Sonny, I delight in listening to him and his buddies tell stories–I learned how to write dialogue from listening to fishing stories and banter.
I remember spring 2006 and a long night at your apartment in Davis, during which we cut up and arranged and re-arranged (and re-re-arranged) your M.A. thesis project (a novel composed of many episodes of varying length, all titled) on the wall of your room. What is plot, or arc, to you these days? In other words, how have your ideas about character, conflict and consequence evolved over time?
One question I have been pondering for many years is how to make a mosaic or collage or words have the same overall effect as a visual mosaic and collage, how to have the payoff, the coming together, the appreciation that is often so immediate in the visual medium. I still want the reader to connect with the characters, to come away from a story emotionally charged, not thinking, “That was an interesting structure for a story.” To start a story, to really dive into it, I have to have a voice or point of view that takes over or an image that arrests me. Then I have to find the structure for the overall narrative. As if I have to find the characters (or the perspective that captures them) and then build a house for them to live in and then bury the house.
Lots of attention has been paid to the voices of your characters in your first book, Bear Down, Bear North, as well as to the “hard poetry” (as Ben Percy calls it) of your sentences. Place, as well, is so prominent in your writing. Dorothy Allison has written, “Place is emotion. […] Place is people with desire.” I feel like you might have something to say about that idea.
Recently, I read the preface to The Anchor Book of New American Short Stories which was written by Ben Marcus, who edited the anthology. In the preface, he breaks down the definition of plot and one definition is the literal: a “small piece of ground,” and the setting or “the space in which a story occurs,” a plot of land where characters live and events happen. Plot is a piece of land, a place. Plot is place. Place is people with desire. In some ways, it is difficult to distinguish a literal landscape from a figurative landscape, from an emotional and psychological landscape. A character looks out onto an ocean, but it is the way she describes the ocean and what the ocean means to her that creates a particular ocean in the particular world of the story. The external is internalized, and vice versa.
Alaska is the place where all my best writing and dreaming takes place. A place can have a voice–can be heard in the structure of the line, or in the cadence of a character’s voice. One of my goals in writing this book was to include a variety of perspectives which is why there are men and women and children’s voices, and points of view such as second person and third person omniscient and first person plural.
In our years writing and talking together, we both have loved this bit from “Reunion” by Charles Wright: “I write poems to untie myself, to do penance and disappear/ Through the upper right-hand corner of things, to say grace.” The stories/chapters in Bear Down, Bear North seem to deeply consider conceptions of grace, in all its complexity. For this reason, it seems apt that you have won an award bearing Flannery O’Connor’s name. Would you like to speak this topic?
You introduced me to this particular passage when you shared some poetry teaching materials years ago. These lines, to me, speak to the writing process. First, the untying, the unraveling, the knots that have to become undone, when you sit down to a blank page. Then, through writing, through penance, penance with a pen, you can be absolved and dissolve, find that other place beyond the physical page. We’ve talked about the similarities between the writing process and prayer–the attempt of communion, the focus and intent, the frustration of not being able to find stillness.
I wanted to write complex characters, characters that were not just harsh people living in a harsh wilderness and so the book includes grace and brutality, lightness and darkness, hope and despair. It is an incredible honor to have an award bearing Flannery O’Connor’s name because of her ability to capture the sacred and the profane, the sacred through the profane, sometimes the profane nature of what is thought to be or thinks of itself as sacred. Her work operates on the understanding that redemption is possible through all things, including violence. Grace can come in the form of a soft whisper or a sharp nail. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t admire Flannery O’Connor, and I think part of that reason is that her work is fearless, is not afraid to be, in equal measure, cynical and hopeful. I hope to write work that has the same sense of fearlessness.
What in your book are you most proud of, or still most engaged with, that lies perhaps below, or inside of, all this lushness and expansiveness that so enthralls your readers? What is most special to you about this work? What still surprises you?
I am proud of the inclusion of a variety of perspectives and points of view in the book. One thing that has surprised me is how many people have said they loved the more structurally experimental stories, the modular fiction or stories that include more than one point of view. Which tells me that I finally found a way to write a fragmented story that came together as a whole, that hit an emotional high note.
One of the most special things to me about this work has been the warm reception from my family and river friends and other Alaskans. They are the true test of the book and they have enjoyed it more than I dreamed they would.
I am still engaged with this world and these characters–I may be for the rest of my life. For many of the characters in this book, I feel this is only the beginning and their lives are sprawled out in front of me and I have to write to catch up to them.
Kate Asche, M.A., is a poet/essayist and creative writing teacher. A graduate of the UC Davis Creative Writing Program, she was a finalist for the 2011 Audio Contest at The Missouri Review and has poetry forthcoming in Confrontation. She received two Elliot Gilbert Prizes in Poetry, an Academy of American Poets Award and was a finalist for University of California Poet Laureate. A trained facilitator in the Amherst Writers and Artists (AWA) Method, she is associate director of the Arts, Humanities and Writing program at UC Davis Extension. Follow her and get the scoop on local writing events at www.katesmiscellany.blogspot.com.