May 2008

Kelly Spitzer

features

An Interview with Amy Knox Brown

The characters in Amy Knox Brown's debut short story collection, Three Versions of the Truth, know a thing or two about Nebraska. Like Brown herself, the people that populate these seventeen stories spring from this horizontal mid-western landscape. Unlike many of her characters, however, Brown didn't find her hometown of Lincoln too provincial. “I loved being there,” Amy says, “and I still love going home to visit.” She never thought she'd leave, in fact, and only moved to North Carolina in 2002 because her husband took a job at Wake Forest University in Winton-Salem.

As a fourth generation Nebraskan, and a third generation Lincolnite, Amy knows a lot about the history of this region, which is evident in her writing. Her stories are interspersed with short bursts of fictionalized accounts of mid-western history – Sitting Bull, Custer, James Butler Hickok, and Comanche all make appearances. From a storyteller's standpoint, Lincoln is fertile ground, Amy says, but the appeal of her work transcends Nebraska and the midwest. Brown captures perfectly why it isn't so easy to escape your hometown.

Among her many influences, Amy counts Willa Cather, another native Nebraskan, and Dan Chaon, who also writes stories set in the area. In fact, Dan Chaon said this about Amy's work: “The stories in Three Versions of the Truth have a sweep and range that is remarkable for a first collection… Amy Knox Brown imbues her world with a devilish sense of humor and a deep, intelligent compassion; hers is a unique and memorable new voice that readers will treasure.”

How did you determine the structure Three Versions of the Truth would take? The longer, character-driven work, coupled with the flashes of fictionalized history, is brilliant.

The short-short/longer story structure occurred to me fairly late in the book's construction. My “first” story collection was the dissertation for my Ph.D., and that collection consisted of linked stories told from the points-of-view of three female characters, who eventually meet up in one story. Over the years, I gradually replaced the weaker stories in the dissertation with pieces I thought were better. The only story from the dissertation remaining in Three Versions is “Ray Sips a Low Quitter.”

“The Usual Punishment” was written several years ago; I began writing short-shorts in earnest while working on my MFA at North Carolina State University (from 2005-2006), primarily in response to class assignments. “Sitting Bull” came first, then “Aeneas Leaves Kansas.” When I workshopped “Custer's Last One-Night Stand,” a fellow student told me about Comanche, the horse that survived the Battle of the Little Bighorn, so I then wrote “Comanche's Story.” During this time, I was also writing many of the longer stories; “Dr. Faustus in Lincoln,” “Three Versions of the Truth,” “Transubstantiation,” “Strange and Dangerous Things” and “Why We Are the Way We Are” were all written during the MFA years. With all the new work, I ended up overhauling the story collection, and that's when I noticed how the historical short-shorts reverberated in interesting ways against the longer contemporary pieces. So that there would be a short-short sandwiched between all of the longer pieces, I put together “Who Watches Over Us” and “Where Everything Begins.” (I must confess: “Where Everything Begins” was partially inspired by Deadwood, which my husband and I watched endlessly).

This is a very long-winded way to say that the structure didn't occur to me until almost all the stories were already written. But I think adding the historical material made for a much richer book. I'm thinking that for the next collection, I might try writing longer historical pieces and sandwiching in contemporary short-shorts, a sort of reversal of Three Versions

You should! Do you have any additional details worked out?

Well, the next collection is really on the back burner while I try to complete my novel. The longer story ideas that have occurred to me are all set in the past -- one concerns Crazy Horse at Camp Robinson in 1877; one will be based on an incident my father told me about that happened in the 1940s. There's part of a failed novel I wrote, centered around the Starkweather murders in the late 1950s, that might work as a novella or very long story. Then I would use contemporary short-shorts in between the regular-sized stories.

I've done some work on the Crazy Horse story, and an extended historical story is proving pretty difficult (for me) to write.

My main fear is that this plan might end up seeming contrived, since I've come up with the plan prior to writing most of the stories. On the other hand, I'm hoping that having a unifying idea will help the second collection come together faster than the first collection, which took ten years to get right. 

What is your novel about? Do you think your work on Three Versions has helped you in writing it, either in terms of the actual process or in learning about what makes fiction publishable?

The novel is about a woman from North Carolina who leaves her husband, changes her name, and relocates to Red Cloud, Nebraska. Part of the novel is told from her point of view, and part is told from the point of view of the husband, a Southern man and Christian hypocrite. At first I was trepidatious about taking on his perspective. What if I messed it up? What if I got it wrong? All the Southern male Christian hypocrites would write book reviews criticizing my lack of insight.

But writing from Buddy's perspective has made me way more sympathetic to his character, and so now I'm actually a little sorry about what's going to become of him at the end of the book.

On the topic of marketability … Wow. I'm not quite sure where to start. This novel is the fourth one I've written, and I'm hoping that I've learned the lessons that the other three novels were trying to teach me. (Novel #1's lesson: There is a difference between connected short stories and novels. Novel #2's lesson: Passive characters and episodic events make for a dull story. Novel #3's lesson: Try the point-of-view you think you can't do). I think this novel has aspects of a commercial novel -- there's some crime, for instance – but it's still very literary and literary novels aren't exactly in demand. So, I hope to finish it this summer, and I hope to find an agent and get a deal with a NY publisher, but I would also be perfectly happy if I placed the novel with a small press.

Ultimately I think I learned more about novel writing from the failed novels than from writing short stories. It's actually pretty difficult for me to work on stories and novels simultaneously -- I can do a novel and some poetry or nonfiction, but there's something about the different types of fiction that collide in my brain or something. 

Three Versions of the Truth was published by Press 53, a small press out of North Carolina. What made you decide to go with a small press for this collection, and what was it like working with the staff? Did they help you refine your collection in any way?

The editors of Press 53 are alumni of Salem College, where I teach, so I was acquainted with them, and they asked to see the collection. The press allows authors' input into the layout and cover of the books, which I appreciated. As far as editing goes, the editors made some small comments but pretty much took a hands-off approach as far as the manuscript itself.

A small press doesn't have the kind of budget for advertising and promotion that a commercial press does, but I've known people who've fallen through the cracks at commercial publishers and have had to take on most of the promotion duties themselves, so I don't think that working with a small press is necessarily a disadvantage in this area.

One thing that's been kind of odd for me arises out of the fact of being an extremely regional writer living in an entirely different region of the country. Geographically, someone living in North Carolina would be a “Southern writer,” but, of course, I'm a Plains writer. While I was fortunate to get reviews in two of the local papers (Winston-Salem and Greensboro), the readers who've seemed most interested in the book are people in Nebraska. I try to do something to promote the book whenever I go back to Nebraska, but promotion might have been easier if I actually lived in Nebraska, where the potential readers are.

So you do consider place to be the theme of Three Versions of the Truth? Don't the characters and situations transcend place, too, though?

I think place is what links the stories in the collection -- the history and sensibilities of Midwesterners, and how they embrace or ignore these aspects of the area. I expect that this reaction to place -- to conform or rebel -- is fairly universal; that said, I do believe readers find especially appealing those stories and novels that are set in places with which they're familiar. As a reader, you get that visceral twinge of recognition: oh, I've been to that store, or that bar, or I've walked along that street. Personally, I'd rather read Willa Cather than William Faulkner for the very reason of setting.

I like to think that the stories in Three Versions do transcend place (the review in the Winston-Salem paper -- written by a Southerner -- talked about this very issue) but at the same time I recognize why they might be most appealing to Midwesterners.

The novel I'm working on now, part of which is set in Winston-Salem, has been a bit of a challenge. Though we've lived here for six years, I still feel like an outsider; I worry that the novel might sound like it was written by someone who doesn't know what she was talking about. (I've stuck my foot in my mouth quite a few times here. I'd hate to do it in print…)

Many of the characters in your collection do, in fact, rebel against their hometown. In “Dr. Faustus in Lincoln,” for example, the main character returns to Lincoln ashamed that he must do so. At one point, he says to himself: “Lincoln is all I need.” And then he goes on to think that Lincoln was all he deserved. Was it difficult to write this point of view, considering it's the opposite of your personal feelings? Do you relate in any way to this character, and the others in this collection who feel similarly?

Back in high school, I was very conscious of those people who thought Lincoln was way too pedestrian for them -- of course they were going elsewhere for college, and they liked to say, “There's nothing to do here.” At the time I thought -- and I still think -- people who say that are simply incapable of entertaining themselves.

At the same time, there are other people in Lincoln who really like the town. They maintain a sense of pride. Not individual pride, or smugness, really, but a kind of group pleasure in what the city has to offer. Lincoln isn't one of the great progressive college towns like Madison or Ann Arbor, but it's a pretty good place. My husband says Lincolnites are the most self-referential people he's met. For instance, a traveler might mention to a Lincolnite that he's been to Washington, D.C., and the cherry trees are spectacular. A Lincolnite will respond, “Oh, but have you seen the Sunken Gardens?” (The Sunken Gardens -- which was mentioned in “Dr. Faustus” -- is built in the location of the city's original garbage dump. It's now a large, beautiful terraced area of flowers and plants, with ponds of giant goldfish). The Lincolnite doesn't mean that the Sunken Gardens is better than the D.C. cherry trees. It's just that the traveler needs to be aware that we have some good stuff here, possibly better stuff than the traveler might imagine.

Ultimately, moving away from Nebraska has been very useful for my writing. I was able to get a more objective view on the group-pride thing (which is very present, I think, in “Dr. Faustus”; one character tells Dan that she's glad he's “come to his senses” and returned to Lincoln). The people Dan left behind are decent people; they welcome him back, and he ultimately achieves a level of success and happiness that his life out East lacked. He's not quite able to appreciate it, though, because he believes east coast standards are more valid than the ones his friends hold.

On the topic of group pride, here's a crazy story: When I was a teenager, someone (very likely my own father, who loves Nebraska) told me that the Nebraska State Capitol was one of the Seven Wonders of the World. It's possible he was pulling my leg; it's also possible I hallucinated this fact. Anyway, I bought it: the Capitol is way cool, a giant limestone building with beautiful tile murals set into the floors, chandeliers in the law library decorated with the shapes of ears of corn, tiny elevators with inlaid-oak walls. Every time I saw a list of the Seven Wonders of the World and the Nebraska State Capitol wasn't on it, I figured: Oh, that's just a wrong version of the list.

My husband and I lived in D.C. during 2001-2002. That city, of course, is full of really great buildings -- larger and more spectacular than the Nebraska State Capitol, I will grant you that -- and it finally occurred to me: the Capitol is not actually one of the Seven Wonders of the World. I was forty years old. (Nebraskans find this story hilarious. Other people think it suggests a troublesome level of delusion on my part.) 

Will you ever return to Nebraska? Do you think your writing would change if you did?

Well, I'd love to move back to Nebraska, of course, but I don't know if that will actually happen. My husband and I have jobs here in Winston-Salem; we're academics in the exact same field (fiction writing), so both of us being gainfully employed in the same town is no mean feat. I'm an assistant professor of English and creative writing at Salem College, which is a great place -- I really like my colleagues and the students there.

And though I feel like something of an outsider in Winston-Salem, I have to say that North Carolina has been good to us. The Three Versions publisher is here, and the publisher of my forthcoming poetry chapbook as well. I studied with wonderful teachers -- Angela Davis-Gardner, Jill McCorkle, John Balaban -- when I got my MFA at North Carolina State University. The housing prices are quite reasonable; we have a nice place to live, with a big yard. Because of our limited social life, we get a lot of writing done.

You asked if my writing would be different if I lived in Nebraska. You know, I think it might -- I wonder if a feeling of longing for a place is necessary to imagine it completely.