Darlin Neal’s first collection, Rattlesnakes and the Moon, has recently been published by Press 53 in North Carolina. From its title alone, one can imagine (and correctly guess) that Neal’s collection inhibits a certain landscape and peeks into families, individuals, and even societies on the fringes. I caught up with the ever-travelin’ Neal and we talked about where stories come from, where they go, and how long they take to get there, among other things.
Jen Michalski: I like your quote from Smokelong.com about your flash piece “Brick” (the first story in Rattlesnakes and the Moon): “Anywhere you enter might change your whole life, or not.” Do you feel this exemplifies your approach to writing as well?
Darlin’ Neal: I do think we enter places and situations that change our lives all the time and as a writer I look for those points of entry, those moments of change, sometimes full of violent force and so, so often subtle quiet moments change us.
JM: “Brick” is one of my favorite stories in the book. However, I don’t associate you as a flash fiction writer. Do you have a different approach to shorter pieces, or does the story just end where it ends?
DN: I don’t know that my approach is that much different to flash rather than longer work. It all starts for me with focusing in on that place and that character. And then everything I write is different. I do think I feel a sort of crystallizing in the moment that brings the story round much faster, a sort of end right there almost at the beginning. I also know flash has allowed me to experiment in ways that continually grow and change and feed into my larger work. Flash is the moment in the reading experience, but sometimes it can encompass a world that feels nearly as rich as a novel. The novel is the long ride, spending time and committing. They are different pleasures. The effects and the affecting, well, you never know until you go on the journey.
JM: It’s such a slippery term(s)—flash fiction (short shorts, micro, sudden fiction, etc). What do you say when people ask you what it is?
DN: The line between flash fiction and prose poetry, really what is it? For me, fiction must be story, must move in that way, be more than a glimpse. I think too it’s so popular to write and read right now, but even the stories on the longer end of flash, well, people have been doing that for awhile. Like Mary Robison, lots of her stories could be considered flash. “Yours” falls into the word length. Which makes me think of subtraction, how trimming and leaving things out can make a story say so much more. But this attention to language and looking for those sentences that work in so many ways at once is just as important to a novel. I think of Joy Williams saying a line had to work in seven ways at once, and then every class I had with her she seemed to be upping that number. For three years.
JM: You also said in the Smokelong interview that “Right now I’m always in a new place and though I know the changes affect me, it’s hard to articulate how.” Yet, the characters in so many of your stories are shaped, defined by places—the West, the South, the mountains. Do you search for a home through your stories?
DN: I hadn’t thought of this but I think you’ve hit something there. I surely see often that my characters are searching for home. I think writing is a constant in my life, and even on the treacherous journey the writing of stories can be, finding shape and voice and meaning is much like finding home. The space where something becomes a whole, where our joys and sorrows are embraced and comforted.
JM: The stories in Rattlesnakes and the Moon cover so much of your career as a writer, almost ten years. Are there stories you identify more with at this point in your life, or less?
DN: The stories I identify with most are always the ones I’m working on at the current moment. I’ve found that just about always characters stay with me, keep meaning something to me as time passes, so that’s always a part of where I am too.
JM: Where do stories begin for you?
DN: They often begin with an image, maybe just a look someone gives someone else, a caught gesture, with something that I wonder about that I see a person do or hear about that keeps troubling me. Sometimes they come from a longing for a place. Often from wondering about the relationships people find themselves in with others that define them in one way or another, with children, with parents, with friends, with strangers.
JM: I like that your stories are so slice of life, a peek in the window. Often they don’t begin where I expect them or end where I expect them, either, but there’s an organic, unobstrusiveness about them, that we’re witnessing the ordinary “getting on” and not some seismal event destined to be literary fiction. Am I taking away the right thing from your stories?
DN: I do believe in following my characters and letting them surprise me, in listening and staring hard as I write those first drafts. Later the pov character and I can walk hand and hand and make sure what we mean is all there in the final revision. I also believe in the wonder that is story that comes even in the smallest of events.
JM: Why do you write?
DN: It gives meaning to my life. It allows me to treasure so much that could be just lost. Sometimes I feel like I’m striving to make as beautiful as possible an otherwise lost and terrible thing. Even if someone suffers violence, a story can take it and finally the violence or violation is not the winner. The story is. The voice. These are some of the things I strive for at least.
JM: What was the first story you ever wrote?
DN: Well, I remember writing a story when I was probably in fifth grade that got me in trouble with my family. Something about the horse races. But later when I was studying fiction the first story I wrote was in a beginning fiction class with Kevin McIlvoy and it was about a girl who finds herself in a homeless shelter. That story later became my first novel, which I am searching for a home for right now.
JM: I know you’re also working on a memoir, right?
DN: The memoir is still in progress though complicated for me now by my mother’s serious illness, my brave, brave, brilliant, and delightful mother.
JM: How has your experience with Press 53 and Rattlesnakes?
DN: It’s been great. I think Kevin Morgan Watson has a vision of where writing is going. I love the way he treasures the work from that first phone call, and the wonderful job he does finding the cover image, onward. Somebody finally gives your baby a home. That means quite a lot.
JM: So you also teach: Is there anything you find yourself telling students over and over again, whether out of exasperation or just because you feel it’s important?
DN: I talk so much about point of view. I find myself often reminding them that writing, like reading, is an act of empathy, that it can take us new places, teach us new things about others, but we really have to stare and listen and feel from some central, cohesive vantage point we give ourselves over to. That’s what I believe is important. And to continually be open and watching for the wonder and mystery in the smallest of moments.
JM: Who do you admire, writer or not?
DN: Joy Williams, Mary Robison, Antonya Nelson, Frederick Barthelme, Kevin McIlvoy, Robert Boswell. I’m a lucky woman the teachers I’ve had, the writers I’ve known. Dorothy Allison, Larry Brown, Barrah Hannah have all been wonderful to meet and spend time around. This is a dangerous list because there are so many. I admire the whole presence of Joy Harjo.
There are people I admire who are not writers, but I’m thinking writing right now. Some of whom I’ve mentioned are gone now. A great one left the planet yesterday, Steve Orlen, who was the director of the program when I was at the University of Arizona and the person who called me to let me know I was in and then that I had an assistantship. He was a calm and steady and kind man and teacher. Also a wonderful poet and people should read his poems.