The Heart of Darkness: An Interview with Sheryl Monks (by Curtis Smith)


authorSherylMonksSheryl Monks is the author of Monsters in Appalachia, coming soon from Vandalia Press, the creative imprint of West Virginia University Press. She holds an MFA in creative writing from Queens University of Charlotte. Her stories have appeared or are forthcoming in a number of literary journals, including The Butter, The Greensboro Review, storySouth, Regarding Arts and Letters, Night Train, and others, and in the anthologies Surreal South and Eyes Burning at the Edge of the Woods: Contemporary West Virginia Fiction and Poetry, among others. She is a past winner of the Reynolds Price Short Fiction Award, recipient of a North Carolina Regional Artist’s Project Grant, and a previous finalist for the Hudson Prize, sponsored by Black Lawrence Press. She lives in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, where she works for a peer-reviewed medical journal and edits the online literary magazine Change Seven.

Curtis Smith: Congratulations on Monsters in Appalachia. It’s a handsome book—and I really enjoyed the stories. I’m always interested in hearing about a book’s journey—especially an author’s first book. Can you fill us in?

Sheryl Monks: Thanks, Curtis. It’s been a long journey. A decade or more just to write the stories, to learn how to write them or let them write themselves is how I’ve finally come to see it. To get out of their way. I grew up listening to stories my family and neighbors told, so there was something rooted in me to pick up the mantle. But there were so many stronger voices around me. Everyone told these marvelous stories, and they each had distinctive voices. It was magical. I felt like the luckiest kid in the world just to be able to sit up under all these wise elders, quietly. You had to be quiet. That’s what was expected of children. Respect was very important. It was instilled in me early on to be obedient, to listen to what adults had to say. And it was obvious to me on some intuitive level that they’d earned the right, to speak and be heard, that they’d lived these large lives, complicated lives that weren’t readily apparent. But then, too, I saw oral storytelling as a bit of a blood sport. Unlike others in my family, I was not blessed with the ability to tell a good story. You’ve got to be engaging at all times. If you bore people, you’ll be drowned out by someone telling a better story. I’ve always been too easily quieted. I’m a hesitant speaker. I stumble for my words. I don’t like my voice. I’m too self-conscious. Sometimes an older cousin would chime in. You could see them trying it on, getting a feel for it. You had be bold, loud sometimes. You had to stand your ground, push back. No one made way for you. If you didn’t have a story worth listening to, we all turned to whoever did. And I was especially indifferent to kids’ stories because I knew them as lies. They didn’t convince. There was no possibility of experience behind them, of truth. My city cousins held more sway with me because their lives were foreign to what I knew. But many of my cousins, from both Appalachia and Chicago and elsewhere, have become great storytellers in their own right because they just wouldn’t shut the hell up. Haha. So anyway, I’ve always been keenly aware that I’m a boring orator. The upshot is I became a keen listener. Early on in my writing, I had this ear, and I knew it was reliable because people liked it. Readers told me they could hear the people I was writing about, and that encouraged me, but it also frightened me because then I felt a responsibility to get it right or risk misrepresenting the people I wanted to write about.

So it’s taken me a number of years of studying the craft and practicing and ultimately coming back around to trusting my instincts. Now I’m fully convinced I don’t do anything except wait and listen.

CS: I felt so immersed in the territory you claimed. There was a real connection to your sense of place. Did you know this shared geography was going to be one of the book’s structural elements? How do you see a story’s geography in terms of its impact on your characters? Your characters aren’t the kind who grow up in this locale and then leave—in a way, they become a part of the backdrop just as much as the backdrop becomes part of them.

MonstersSM: It’s home, and where I come from you don’t ever leave it. It’s profane to even think there’s someplace greater, on this earth anyway. The people I know aren’t particularly religious, but there is this deeply rooted conviction about those mountains. Back home, we say, even the ones who never lived a day in Appalachia, even the Chicagoans, the Alabamians, the Californians. All the stories go back there, so I knew it was the source. I’ve tried occasionally to write about other places, but those stories bore me as I’m writing them, not because the places themselves are uninteresting – I love reading about and visiting other places – but because they fail to convince me of any truth. There’s no conviction to them. I don’t have any real dirt under my fingernails from anywhere else. It isn’t mine.

CS: Staying with the idea of setting, I admired the way you handled the element of coal mining, both in the background and in the foreground of a few stories. What do you think this aspect brought to these pieces?

SM: Appalachians have always been marginalized, but there’s this profound sense of pride in almost everyone I’ve ever known from here. Outsiders don’t understand it. The rest of the country and indeed the whole world often looks down on Appalachia. It’s baffling to people looking in where this conceit comes from. I hear a lot of talk about “lazy people” who “have a sense of entitlement.” I’m not suggesting there isn’t some truth to the sentiment, but it runs through every layer of our larger culture. It really hits a nerve when people want to dump everything on the doorstep of the poor, and Appalachia has always been an easy mark because there’s been a lack of industry in the mountains, with the exception of coal mining, and a high rate of poverty. I have a love-hate regard for the coal industry, but that’s for another book. What I was acutely aware of while I was writing this one is just how easy it is to stereotype this region, and I didn’t want to do that. But I also didn’t want to whitewash it. I wanted to show it as I know it to be true. And mine is an often bleak perspective. I grew up on the periphery of some pretty grim realities. My parents were reared in Maryland and Chicago, but they’d returned to Appalachia when my maternal grandmother died. I didn’t piece that information together until just a few years ago, but I’d always sensed a feeling of otherness, that we were caught up in this starkly beautiful, isolated and sometimes dark part of the world. We were spared a lot of the hardships I heard about around us, but there was always worry that calamity was only a hair’s breadth away. I didn’t want to paint the whole culture with one brush though. I wanted to tap into that deep sense of pride to show some of the nuances of the area, and for better or worse, coal mining is emblematic of Appalachia’s most heartfelt virtues.

CS: If there’s one element of writing I labor over, it’s dialogue. When it’s not right, it really sticks out. I thought your dialogue was wonderful. I heard the voices of these people—but I didn’t hear the sort of gimmicky constructions an outsider might bring to characters from these locales. Was this a struggle as you wrote—or did your ear go back to your family and childhood and hear these words and tones?

SM: Thank you. Yes, it’s in the ear. I can’t write anything until I can hear it. Then, as I said before, I just listen. It really does feel sometimes as if I’m hearing one of my relatives or neighbors tell a story. If it ever sounds like me, I know it’s not right. I scrap it and go back. And it is a struggle. That’s partly why it’s taken me so long to finish this book. I was hoping to capture as many voices as I could. I know there are many I didn’t get. I tried earnestly to write about some of the other ethnic and racial groups that make up Appalachia, and there’s more diversity than people may realize. It’s not from a lack of appreciation on my part. I did try in a couple of places to show varying perspectives. But I was careful not to assume more than I legitimately know because I realized that if I did so, I wouldn’t be able to write about it in any way that feels truthful. I want to dig deeper, learn more about the immigrant workforce in Appalachia, for my next book. Maybe then I’ll be able to attune my ear to more of those voices.

CS: In a piece like “Burning Slag,” you give us a full and realized glimpse into a troubled life, but you don’t make judgments—that’s left for your reader. This sense of restraint, of trusting your reader, is seen throughout the book. Is this a conscious effort on your part, the result of paring back information and shadings as you go through your revisions?

SM: It is a balancing act. There’s a lot of conflict in that story, in many of my stories, actually. I like seeing how far I can push the action in short fiction because a story has to take risks. It’s about keeping readers engaged. I’ve never been confident enough to tell a good story, but on the page I can be much bolder. Push too far though and you create spectacle, melodrama, which disengages an audience. I cue in on what I’ve come to know as pity and fear. Flannery O’Connor talks about it in slightly different terms, but I think it originates with Aristotle who was explaining how tragedy elicits empathy by creating a feeling of catharsis when these two opposing emotions are tapped into. Pity draws us near, fear pushes us away, and we’re left feeling as if we’ve witnessed something we shouldn’t have. None of us wants someone telling us how to think or feel. That’s the surest way to lose a sensitive reader. We simply want to feel and think in whatever way comes naturally from the experiences we have, when we’re reading or otherwise.

 CS: In “Barry Gibb Is the Cutest Bee Gee,” we are introduced to a theme that arises elsewhere in the book—the confusion and danger of a girl’s dawning sexuality. Let’s stick with this story for a moment—and let me ask what came to you first—was it the set up of this young girl and her situation on the cusp of sexuality—or was it an image or two (the story has a number of great images and scenes)?

SM: It’s hard to remember exactly how this story came about, but I want to say it had something to do with Crest toothpaste. I don’t think that’s actually where the impulse to write the story came from, but at some point I did become aware that I was writing about the ways we learn who we are from our parents and other adults in our lives. I won’t purchase any other brand of toothpaste, for instance. I’m a faithful Crest user like my mother. It wasn’t until I was at a writing workshop that it dawned on me that this is what the story is all about. One of my peers referred to it as the “tanning and manning” story, and a light went on. Coming-of-age stories often deal with sexuality because it can be such a fraught experience. But more than that, what I was really hoping to look at is our traditions and our ideas of free will, good and bad, right and wrong. We think we’re making our own choices, but we often fail to recognize the small but important ways our decisions are formed by our environments.

CS: This same kind of theme is revisited in “Run, Little Girl,” only with an even darker twist—and it got me thinking about all the characters in the book—how many are folks on the margins of society, yet you bestow upon them a sense of dignity. True, many are dealing with temptations and many make poor decisions, but you still make them completely human. Can you talk a bit about your approach to creating characters?

SM: This is what I love most about fiction. It allows us to see that we all deal with temptations and make poor decisions and that those things don’t necessarily strip us of our self-worth. A good writer, like any good human, should be able to empathize with just about any other person, even the most heinous character imaginable. I think often of Humbert Humbert in Nabokov’s brilliant novel Lolita. For a long time, I wouldn’t read that book. I had to make myself do it, and then of course, I was sorry I hadn’t done it sooner. I was astonished he could make me feel even a shred of humanity for a character like that. But that’s part of the writer’s job, to alter our perspectives, to bring us in touch with our own shortcomings. Sin terrifies me as a human being. The idea that I can never escape it, that I was born with it. That it’s part of my nature, even though I had no choice in the matter. I wanted to explore some of the dichotomies in life, some of the ironies, in my own way. The duality of religion and violence, sex and religion, sex and violence, gender, place, everything all at once. I’m inspired by people of resolute faith. I consider myself a seeker. I want to believe in the unseeable, the unknowable. I was exploring, in this story and others in the collection, with the idea of how far some of us will go to find something we can actually believe in, and why, for some us, believing in darkness is less terrifying than believing in nothing at all.

CS: What’s next?

SM: I’ve been working on a novel set in 1960s West Virginia for a number of years. I’d like to put my attention there again.

CS: You’re the founder and editor of Change Seven Magazine. Can you tell us about the magazine–its origin and mission? What kind of work are you looking for?

SM: Listening to stories as a child had a profound impact on me. When I became a student, they took on even greater importance. I didn’t know how I could possibly make a career from reading fiction, outside of teaching, which I’ve been fortunate enough to do a little over the years. When I was in graduate school, I did an internship with a local publisher and the idea of someday starting my own literary magazine began to sew itself in my brain. I still haven’t figured out how to make a living reading fiction, but a few years ago, I decided I would try at least to make a life out of it. I solicited the help of one of my favorite writers, Antonios Maltezos, who graciously agreed to join me. I had no idea then what a remarkable editor he is, although that soon became apparent. I only knew that I loved his fiction and that I wanted to collaborate with him. We share a similar sensibility as writers and readers, and I was hoping that would be enough to get us up and running. So far, with the help of a few other generous and talented souls, it has been. In November, we’ll celebrate our second anniversary as a literary magazine. Submissions are open now, so I hope your readers will give us a look.

Curtis Smith has published over 100 stories and essays. His work has been cited by The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Mystery Stories, and The Best American Spiritual Writing. He’s worked with literary presses to publish a pair of flash-fiction chapbooks, three story collections, three novels, and an essay collection. In 2016, Ig Publishing published Kurt Vonnegut: Bookmarker, a collection of his essays about Slaughterhouse Five.

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