Anne Valente’s novel Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down was recently published with William Morrow/ HarperCollins. She teaches creative writing at Santa Fe University of Art and Design. Assistant blog editor, Madeleine Wattenberg, speaks with her in this interview about her new novel, magic, and the role of literature in responding to trauma.
Madeleine Wattenberg: The whimsical is an often-dismissed literary tone, and, I think, unfortunately associated with an overly feminine aesthetic. Your work (thinking in particular of your short story “Latchkey” here, but also others) does a wonderful job illustrating the literary resonance of whimsy. What do you see as the power of the whimsical in a narrative? Do you see yourself as claiming or reclaiming this tone in any way?
Anne Valente: Thanks for these kind words. I agree that whimsy is often feminized, which is to say that it’s viewed as too light or not the stuff of serious literature. I don’t know if I feel that I’ve claimed or reclaimed it, but I think I’ve always consciously rejected the notion that literary work must take on a certain tone or subject matter in order to be respected. We have so many experiences and emotions as human beings, and I hope that there’s room in literature to explore the whimsical in a serious way because it is part of life, just as we explore sorrow, rage, politics and so many other subjects in literature. I think the power of whimsy is that it provides space for wonder, which has been important to me in my own inspirations for creative work but also in constructing narratives centered on questions rather than answers.
Whimsy and wonder can keep the narrative open and looking outward.
MW: You’ve also been interviewed quite a bit about what draws you to include elements of magical realism in your work. How do you hope these fabulist depictions change a reader’s perspective on the world after they’ve set down your work? What work can magic do for the (for lack of a better word) “real”?
AV: I hope that magic widens the reader’s perspective of the world, in opening up new realms of possibility within our “real” world. This is what magical elements have done for me as a reader, and I appreciate being surprised and inspired to consider so many possibilities through a writer’s imagination and sense of magic.
Beyond imagination, I also firmly believe in magic as a tool for subversion, of imagining not only other worlds but other possibilities for our own world. Magic questions and destabilizes our sense of the real, and tells a different story from the one we’ve been told.
It questions our assumptions and allows for retellings, rewritings and reclamations.
MW: You write from multiple perspectives, including the collective, and, sometimes, such as in your new novel, shifting perspectives mid-narrative. At what point in the writing process do you discover whose voice you’re speaking through? Does narrative or character decide? Do you write into these perspectives or does the decision come earlier?
AV: I’ve tried to think about this decision-making process in depth, because I’m a writer deeply invested in point of view and the implications and consequences of who is telling the story. Despite giving it extensive thought, I still don’t know that I have a good answer for how I come to point of view. I rarely decide ahead of time, and instead usually just start writing in a particular point of view that “feels right.” This is so indistinct and nebulous, but I do find that after the fact, I’m able to determine why that particular viewpoint best served the narrative (though with that said, I do rewrite passages sometimes from different points of view, either to try new perspectives or else to help justify why I’ve chosen the one I have). Often the choice comes down to who owns the story, if anyone does, and I’ve become more and more invested in shifting points of view around – and playing with a collective we – because I’m uncomfortable with a singular, authoritative narrative or viewpoint. There are so many ways to tell a story, and so many views on what we think is a single story.
MW: I’ve been reading a new translation of Ovid recently, so I’m particularly interested in the physical transformations that occur in your short stories. What draws you in your writing to these metaphors of physical transformation? Do you have favorite stories of transformation you’re inspired by?
AV: I find physical transformation to be a fascinating metaphor for so many other transitions we go through as human beings – transitions between landscapes, between relationships, between stages of life. I’m drawn to adolescence for this reason, as it’s such a distinct time of physical and emotional transformation, including the expectation that wonder will somehow give way to loss of innocence and initiation into responsibility – as if we can’t retain wonder into adulthood, or that it’s childlike and unserious.
As a woman, I’m also drawn to narratives of physical transformation because I often feel trapped by my body within a society that very much views me as a body – whether that’s being catcalled from a car window, or being told and explained to instead of asked.
A narrative like The Metamorphosis, in which Gregor Samsa knows who he is but everyone judges and treats him a certain way because of his appearance, inspires me because it uses physical transformation to explore and expose the dichotomies between internal and external, and how easily we judge one another based upon the latter.
MW: Your new book Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down unfolds following a mass school shooting. In an interview with The Southern Review, you mention that “[t]hough gun violence occurs every day in America, something about mass shootings—maybe because they are almost always carried out by men—suggested to me a fixation on power and a perceived threat to that power.” Although the book is set in the early 2000’s and you finished writing in 2014, this statement is as relevant today as ever. As you suggest, not only do mass shootings continue to occur, but this comment resonates equally with shootings of black people by police and police brutality. Big question—but what do you see as the role of literature in engaging in this conversation about constructed masculinity, systems of power, and fear? You are also a teacher as well as a writer. Do you have suggestions about how to bring these conversations, through reading and writing, into the classroom?
AV: This is great question, and one I’m still grappling with. Though I was looking explicitly at mass shootings while working on this novel, and focused specifically on the early 2000s when George W. Bush responded to post-9/11 uncertainty by bulldozing forward with a damaging and fruitless search for weapons of mass destruction, I’d just finished the manuscript when Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson. Though I know there are so many differences between the search for weapons of mass destruction and racism in America, I saw connections between Bush’s policies and police brutality. We live in a culture that responds to fear with violence instead of compassion, and this feels very “masculine” to me – that it is better to push forward with bravado and brutality than to admit uncertainty or wrongdoing. Any perceived threat must be addressed swiftly and immediately, and cannot be questioned. We are doubling down on power and this seems inherently connected to every form of gun violence, and also to racism – to immediately kill any perceived threat because we cannot control our fear or uncertainty in any other way. I hope that literature can continue to question this false sense of power, whether that’s through the content itself – scrutinizing brutality in every form it takes – or through form and structure. Right now, this is why point of view is so essential for me in interrogating and breaking down who tells the story and why, and dismantling the stories our televisions and newspapers tell us about one another.
In the classroom, I am very suspect of my own authoritative voice for this reason, and try instead to bring in as many voices, perspectives and narratives as possible to further break down the notion that there is only one way of understanding the world, and that those with power are the ones who tell the story.
I try to solicit the students’ voices as much as possible, because the curriculum is theirs – it belongs to them and should reflect them, as much as it should challenge them. I am still working on it, and I’m still checking and testing my own assumptions and faults every day. I’m not immune to the bravado and fear within my culture, and as a writer and mentor, I try to keep engaging and rethinking and dismantling as best as I can. This requires vulnerability, which means that I need to be comfortable with admitting to my students when I’m wrong, or when I simply don’t know. This isn’t what you’re “supposed” to do as a teacher – we’re supposed to know everything and never admit fault. But to me, this feels very much like perpetuating a system of power – a very George W. Bush mode of moving through the world. Fiction requires empathy, and also vulnerability and being comfortable with the unknown. We live in a culture that disavows vulnerability and uncertainty and forces bravado and violence in the face of not knowing. I don’t know everything, and I want my students to know that. I want them to be comfortable with their own not knowing as well, because it’s what their craft and their world desperately needs.
MW: As a poet, I have to ask a poet question. Many lines in your work I find absolutely poetic—sonic pleasure, rhythm, a sense of line. How much do you think about these formal elements as you’re writing? Do you think about the poetry of your language? And, if you don’t mind making a case for it, why should fiction pay attention to poetry? (And visa-versa!)
AV: This is the kindest thing you could say! Truly, I’m touched because the sound and rhythm of my sentences is such a vital part of my writing process. I need to hear the cadence, pulse, and wave of sound from one line to the next. Before I ever began writing, I played piano through elementary school and high school and first learned to play by ear.
In this way, I don’t necessarily think explicitly about sound and syntax as a write, but the shape of each sentence is a constant, visceral hum.
I think it’s essential for fiction to pay attention to poetry, as well as vice versa, and I don’t necessarily view these genres as completely distinct. In both, the content conveys a narrative of sorts – whether that’s linear or experiential – but the form and sound do too. As a fiction writer, I hope I’m not just telling a story. The way that story is conveyed matters. The form matters. The sound matters. The syntax matters. All of these things work in tandem with content to build a narrative experience.
MW: What reading recommendations do you have for our readers? What should we be reading?
AV: I feel like it’s been an especially great year in books, and though I still have plenty on my to-read list for fall, I’ve read a number of fantastic books recently that I’d highly recommend. In terms of fiction, I really loved Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing, a novel that spans generations and is built chapter by chapter with a structure that amazed me as a reader and writer. I loved Matt Bell’s short story collection, A Tree or a Person or a Wall, and the stories are wonderfully creepy, especially for this time of year. I’d also recommend Dustin M. Hoffman’s One-Hundred-Knuckled Fist, an excellent collection of stories centered on work and how jobs shape our lives. In terms of non-fiction, I adored Terry Tempest Williams’s The Hour of Land, a collection of essays meditating on our country’s national parks. I also loved Mychal Denzel Smith’s Invisible Man, Got the Whole World Watching, an incredible book on race and intersectionality that I’ve been recommending to everyone I know. For fall books, I’m really looking forward to Kelly Luce’s Pull Me Under, Brit Bennett’s The Mothers, and Sarah Domet’s The Guineveres.
Anne Valente is the author of the novel, Our Hearts Will Burn Us Down (William Morrow/HarperCollins), and the short story collection, By Light We Knew Our Names (Dzanc Books). Her stories appear in One Story, The Kenyon Review, The Southern Review and The Chicago Tribune, and her essays appear in The Believer and The Washington Post. Originally from St. Louis, she teaches creative writing at Santa Fe University of Art and Design.