Review/Q&A: Alethea Black on ‘Lovely,’ faith & fiction, essays & cutting to bone

Clouds over Melbourne Beach, Florida

I can only speak for myself, but there’s something about writing at night that feels . . . sneaky. There’s an outlaw quality to it, combined, oddly enough, with a sense of being safe. It has an anaerobic, subterranean feel; it’s as if I’m working beneath the soil, toiling in secret, trying to cultivate something hidden and occult.—Alethea Black, “Essay to be Read at 3 a.m

 I Knew You’d Be Lovely by Alethea Black. Broadway Books, 238 pp.

I read Alethea Black’s short story collection I Knew You’d Be Lovely last January, at my sister’s beach condo in Florida, and again recently here in Ohio, parceling out a story a day to savor. These are funny, sexy, wise stories; some are sad, yet somehow they’re always hopeful.

Maybe my favorite story, perhaps partly because I read it first, on line at Narrative magazine, and imprinted on its tough beauty, is “The Only Way Out is Through.”  The story is about a man trying to help his angry, disturbed son by taking him on a camping trip. The boy is suicidal, too, it turns out, and their trip is one long crisis. The narrative features an unusual flash-forward, deftly handled, that’s as thrilling as it is surprising.

The story’s title comes from a poem by Robert Frost, “A Servant to Servants,” in North of Boston. The poem is narrated by a weary, depressed rural wife—terrified by the specter of madness in her family—who’s tending to upscale vacationers, lodged in cabins her husband built, and also feeding and cleaning after his coarse four-man road crew who board in their house.

Here’s the passage from Frost’s poem:

By good rights I ought not to have so much

Put on me, but there seems no other way.

Len says one steady pull more ought to do it.

He says the best way out is always through.

And I agree to that, or in so far

As that I can see no way out but through—

Leastways for me and then they’ll be convinced.

A neat feature of I Knew You’d Be Lovely is that Black included Author’s Notes in the back on twelve of the thirteen stories, and says about “The Only Way Out is Through” that she had to put her head down and cry a couple times while writing it.

The story not so illuminated by commentary is “Someday is Today,” and it’s explained by the collection’s dedication, in memory of Black’s brother in law and to her widowed sister and their four daughters. Black might have written the story as an essay (see her essay about being a night-owl on the Narrative site), but her bent seems to turn to fiction, and this lyrical story, unbound by strict allegiance to whatever the literal facts, sustains a remarkable depth of feeling.

In “Someday is Today” an unnamed woman arrives to help in the wake of the death of her unnamed sister’s husband, and she struggles to comfort her sister and to care for the couple’s three young girls. Sorrow, the visiting woman-narrator says, has made the widow “a little girl again,” the girl she knew when they were growing up. But there’s new tension between them, partly because the single woman doesn’t know how to care for children and partly because she can’t share the depth of her sister’s grief. And also because she’s religious and her sister isn’t.

The sister’s overwhelming loss, her husband killed suddenly in his prime by a staph infection, comes during the couple’s massive house deconstruction:

     My sister has found some comfort in the widow boards on the Internet. One of them has a list of Ten Helpful Hints for Getting Through This Most Difficult Time in Your Life. Hint Number 7: Learn to Expect the Unexpected. “Expect to cry at odd times: At the sight of a couple holding hands, at the sound of the doorbell ringing.” The bit about the doorbell got to me. As if, somewhere in your psyche, some part of you thinks he’s come home—and then remembers. My sister doesn’t wait for the doorbell. After the girls are asleep, she walks the stone path to the empty house, lies down on the floor of what used to be her master bedroom, and wails. I hear her. I don’t join her; I don’t know how to join her. When the doctor delivered the final news, I put my hand against her back. “Don’t touch me,” she said quietly.

As the children’s mother keens, their wacky aunt teaches them words far beyond their abilities—orientation and omniscient; she buys them whatever they want at House of Pancakes, bounces with them on a trampoline, and endlessly re-watches with them The Sound of Music. Auntie tells them an age-inappropriate but very funny joke.

Despite her rapport and love for the girls, this sensitive woman balks when asked to agree to take them if her sister dies young like her husband. And though she’s allowed to talk to the children about God, when she reveals that she anointed her dying brother in law with blessed oil and said to him words by Annie Dillard (from Holy the Firm)—“Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord? Or who shall stand in his holy place? There is no one but us . . . There never has been”—her sister is furious.

I realize I’ve picked the collection’s two heaviest stories to highlight. But the scenes here between the well-meaning aunt and her young nieces are tender and funny (which only makes the situation more heartbreaking), and the story is so perfect and suffused with such profound emotion that it is life-affirming and inspiring.

Alethea Black

Alethea Black, hard at work—maybe not: the sun is shining.

I Knew You’d Be Lovely, only nine months old, is already in its fourth edition. Black worked on the collection for many years, having committed only after college to writing, and the stories reflect this time investment in evidence of what Dillard once called the “richness of the years.” Yet they don’t feel overworked—quite the opposite. There are moments and snatches of conversation that are so real and apt that you just know Black pounced on them in real time.

Which isn’t to say they aren’t deeply imagined. Even when the outcome of a story is improbable, as when a beautiful young doctor leaves a party with a man she’s just met, possibly bound for bed, it is believable in part because you want to believe. Another of those stories is “Good in a Crisis,” about a young high school English teacher, who, questioning her calling, tracks down the cool high school teacher she’d had a crush on. “He sometimes had a little BO, she remembered, which Ginny’s adolescent self had found oddly sexy. Mainly, though, he had the peculiar beauty of a person in love with what he does.”

I say improbable, but it’s not that—unlikely?—no, not that either: some events are just unusual, while falling within the range of human possibility. As in the collection’s title story, in which a lovely woman wangles a ménage a trois for her boyfriend, as his birthday present, with herself and the lovely woman he may already be having an emotional affair with.

These stories are all really about love, I guess, and anyone who has been there knows that love is transcendent: earthbound rules don’t fully apply. Many of Black’s characters are young, college-age to about ten years out, and they’re lucky people, the type who were enrolled in gifted and talented classes in grade school, who were slotted into AP classes in high school, and then shuttled off to the Ivy League. Take the top three percent of that group, for wit and overall brilliance, and you have the general demographic.

I don’t mean this as a criticism—quite the opposite. There are so many tales of mere sorrow, ordinary angst, and the seedy underbelly.  I Knew You’d Be Lovely offers wit, humor, and artistry that cast a hopeful morning light on life’s turning points and its tragedies.

Alethea Black answered some questions for Narrative:

I’ve read that you decided you wanted to be a writer two years after you graduated from Harvard College. What was your major? Do you wish you’d majored in something different now that you are a writer?

I was a literature major, but I opted out of writing a thesis in the end, and received my degree in General Studies. I was not at all on my game in college, and spent a lot of time sleeping. I thought the desire to write was completely dormant in those days, but one of my suitemates recently said that I told her I wanted to be a writer, so I guess it was there even then. I don’t wish I’d chosen a different major; I don’t think I could be anything other than a writer.

I Knew You’d Be Lovely took you a decade and a half from start to publication. What was the most important thing you learned about writing during that time?

It’s true, this book was a 15-year pregnancy. I think the most important thing I’ve learned is the power of economy—never say with twenty words what you can say with two. When I look at early drafts of my work, the thing I notice most is how unnecessary some sentences are.

To ask a dumb question: why does writing a book commonly take so long? Or, more precisely, why do some of your stories take so long—what happens in that time, those years, that makes them at last complete?

No such thing as a dumb question! I think writing often takes a long time because you’re learning how to do it as you go. (And of course you’re living your life and working your day job as you go, too.) As to how you know when a story is complete, that’s one of the great unanswerables. When I give readings from LOVELY, I still find words to cut. But I do think it’s fully itself. When the sculptor Alexander Calder was asked, “When do you know a sculpture of yours is finished?” he said, “When it’s time for dinner.”

You’ve published poetry and essays but fiction has been your focus. Do you think the habits of art that fiction cultivates are different than for nonfiction? For instance, your story “Someday is Today,” based on your brother in law’s death, could have been a lovely, resonant essay instead of a lovely, resonant story.

I’ve come to think that fiction and nonfiction are more alike than I ever used to realize. When I wrote “Essay to be read at 3 a.m.” for Narrative magazine, I kept being surprised by how much fun it was. I had no idea that nonfiction could be every bit as inventive and lyrical and mysterious as fiction. You’re bound by facts, but you’re still free; in fact sometimes it’s the limitations that liberate you.

What are you reading these days and how does your reading affect your writing?

I’m a very slow reader and I’m always reading about ten different things at once. I love the New Yorker cartoon where the man is pointing at his bookshelves and saying: “On the left are the ones I haven’t finished, and on the right are the ones I haven’t started.” On my nightstand right now are A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson; The Human Line by Ellen Bass; Corpus Christi by Bret Anthony Johnston; The Stormchasers by Jenna Blum; Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov; and a guidebook called Just Enough Italian. I sometimes give myself a moratorium on buying any new books until I finish the ones I own, but I never stick to it.

You mention your religious faith on your website. Do people react differently to you or to your stories if they know you are religious? Faith in any kind of God isn’t very popular these days.

Faith isn’t fashionable, no. But what a small thing life would be if my goal were to fit in. I don’t know if my religious beliefs (I’m a progressive Catholic) influence the way people respond to my stories, but they do seem interested in that side of things when I give readings. I’m always happy to answer their questions because it’s as strange to me as it is to anyone; if you’d told me fifteen years ago that I’d now be someone who talks openly about Jesus, I would have fallen off my chair laughing. Before my book came out, a friend advised me to take the “God” tab off my website because it would hurt my career. But I have to say, whenever I’m on an airplane in turbulence and I feel like the end is near, I’m always glad I spoke openly about what I believe. Faith has brought me so much joy; it would feel selfish to keep quiet about it.

You’ve said you put your “own MFA” equivalent program together. Could you elaborate on what you did and what you learned?

My home-school MFA? I read a lot of books about writing, such as Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer; Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird; Brenda Ueland’s If You Want to Write; Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way; and Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. I learned so much from Natalie Goldberg that I thank her in my Acknowledgments.

Through many hours of revising, I learned that if there’s a section of your story that depresses you to look at, you should cut it. If there’s a word that feels fancy or a character’s action that feels forced, cut. If there’s a paragraph where you can feel how hard you’re trying, cut. Cut anything that feels writerly or show-offy or self-conscious. Cut anything that doesn’t keep the ball moving. That really great metaphor that does nothing to advance your story? Cut.

If you have doubts about something, more often than not it should go. If it was really meant to be there, it will suggest itself anew when you look at your story with fresh eyes, perhaps after you’ve let it rest for a month. I always assume that my reader is smarter, wittier, and a better dresser than I am, and I don’t want to bore him. My cardinal rule is to keep things interesting or call it a day.

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9 Comments

Filed under Author Interview, Dillard—Saint Annie, fiction, MFA, poetry, religion & spirituality, REVIEW, revision, teaching, education

9 responses to “Review/Q&A: Alethea Black on ‘Lovely,’ faith & fiction, essays & cutting to bone

  1. Nice Q&A. I really like that Calder quote. And also this line about nonfiction: “You’re bound by facts, but you’re still free; in fact sometimes it’s the limitations that liberate you.”

  2. Thanks, Cheri. I liked her insight about nonfiction too.

  3. Thanks, guys. But PS, regarding the pic: The sun is shining, but that’s a laptop in my lap! That’s called working! Although, it’s true, I think that silver band around my wrist was some kind of free pass for piña coladas …

  4. Lovely, lovely. My job this morning (in bright sunshine) is to draft the baggy Chapter Nine of my memoir so that I can cut, cut, cut.

    Alethea Black, your book will go on the “to read” list when I am in the revision stage.

    Some of us have only begun to write at age 60 and don’t have time for a 15-year pregnancy. So we have to learn from those who have done the hard labor. Thank you, both of you.

  5. A pleasure to read, Richard, and to be reminded to cut, cut, cut. And happy to meet up with another rebel against anti-God literary scholasticism.

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  7. I can’t wait to read these short stories. But honestly, Richard, you’ve got to slow down! You’re piling way too many books on my “to read” list way too fast. I liked her thing about the power of economy and how you’re learning how to write as you go. The stories sound wonderful. And she comes across as most appealing! Thanks.

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