What’s Dangerous and Safe: An Interview with Marian Crotty by KateLin Carsrud

Marian Crotty’s short story collection, What Counts as Love, won the John Simmons Short Fiction Award and the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize and was a semi-finalist for the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Fiction. Her short stories have appeared in literary journals such as the Southern Review, the Kenyon Review, and the Alaska Quarterly Review. Her personal essays have appeared in journals such as the Gettysburg Review, the New England Review, and Guernica. She has received fellowships from the Yaddo Corporation and the Sewanee Writer’s Conference as well as a Fulbright research grant to the United Arab Emirates. She is an assistant professor of writing at Loyola University Maryland and an assistant editor at The Common. She lives in Baltimore and is at work on a novel.

KateLin Carsrud: Can you tell us about the theme of addiction and the way it manifests itself in the What Counts as Love?

Marian Crotty: There are a couple stories that explicitly deal with substance abuse, but there are many more characters who just, for whatever reason—a lack of power or confidence or opportunities—don’t feel fully in control of their own lives. As a writer, I’m always interested in characters who both feel like they’re out of options and also desperately want to change their circumstances.

KC: The stories in What Counts as Love predominately narrated by women. Did you have a particular set of ideas in mind by writing mainly from a woman’s point of view?

MC: Many people have pointed out how many female characters are in this collection, and I sometimes wonder if the gender of the protagonists would be so conspicuous if I were a male writer who’d written mostly about men. I think there’s still a lot of pressure to view men as our default narrators—to think that their stories are more valuable or interesting than the stories of women and to praise female writers when they write about men. I didn’t have an agenda in writing mostly about women other than to resist this pressure.

KC: Many of your stories approach very serious topics; how did you form the personalities of you characters based around these topics—such as your protagonist in “Common Application with Supplement,” who speaks casually of her mother’s attempted suicide?

MC: For almost all of the stories, the character and the situation came to me at the same time. I like combining tragedy and humor or even irreverence—both because I think it’s easier on the reader and because I think it’s much more realistic. Other people’s tragedies often look uniformly grim and depressing, but the stories of our own tragedies usually look much more complicated—truly terrible events juxtaposed with absurdity and sometimes even joy.

KC: What was the inspiration for your form in “Common Application with Supplement”?

MC: I was doing some research about college admissions for another fiction project I was working on and noticed that many of the essay questions felt like great prompts for a short story. I was also struck by how many of the essay questions seemed insensitive to wealth and social class—particularly a question about how students had spent the past two summers. I thought it would be fun to see what honest answers might look like coming from a smart student with an ordinary life and summers of minimum wage jobs.

KC: Your story “The Fourth Fattest Girl at Cutting Horse Ranch” delves deeply into the topic of eating disorders. What was your motivation behind that story?

MC: I feel like I’ve seen a lot of portrayals of eating disorders that feed into stereotypes and almost glorify the image of a young girl wasting away. I wanted to write a story that approached the subject with both humor and sensitivity. I also liked the idea of exploring the tensions between patients whose eating disorders express themselves differently.

KC: What is it about the short story form that you find interesting or enjoyable?

MC: As a writer, short stories let you try out new techniques efficiently. I love experimenting with voice and form without having to devote years of my life to the project. As a reader, I’m always fascinated by the ways in which other writers manage to create an authentic world and a satisfying story in such a short space.

KC: Writers are often interested in how story writers settle on the final order of their story collection. Could you tell us what your process was like?

MC: I wanted the first three stories to give readers a sense of what the collection was going to offer—both in terms of tone, subject matter, and geography. After that, I tried to offer variation as well as a sense of progression. For me, the last story in the collection is one of the saddest and also, since it alternates between three points of view, maybe one of the more challenging for readers.

KC: Your stories “The Next Thing That Happens” and “Crazy For You” both deal with underage girls and forms of sexual abuse; however, the majority of your stories deal with adults and their lives. What motivated you to write about the lives of younger girls in these two stories?

MC: “The Next Thing That Happens” is the oldest story in the collection by far and was written in my early twenties when being in middle school didn’t seem like a terribly long time ago. “Crazy for You” started as a story I wanted to tell about a very, hot dry summer in Arizona and the voice describing this summer turned out to be younger than I’d originally planned. In both stories, the girls are just at the end of childhood and aren’t yet sure what’s dangerous and what’s safe. This made them interesting, but challenging, to write about.

KC: What’s next?

MC: I’m working on a couple shorter pieces and also a novel. It’s been fun to try out a new form, and I’m looking forward to seeing what happens with it.

KateLin Carsrud studies creative writing at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

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